Monday, March 9, 2009

Examining Catholicism: The Word of God and the Catholic Church

Last time we briefly explored the relationship between faith and reason. In this article, we shall examine the role that reason can play in having logical certainty about the Word of God and the Church.

As we have already said, reason opens one up to accepting the truths of faith. These truths of faith, however, never contradict what can be known by reason but are nevertheless beyond what reason can fully understand. They are mysteries. “Mysteries,” as one Catholic apologist once said, “are not something we can’t know anything about; they’re something we can’t know everything about” (Frank Sheed, emphasis mine). The two questions for us today, however, are: (1) where do we find a the truths of faith, and (2) how do we know these and their sources are true?

The first question is easy to answer: the truths of faith are found in divine revelation. This fact is acknowledged by both the ancient and the modern philosopher. If there is a God who is wholly beyond our complete understanding, it would be up to Him to reveal Himself (i.e. through divine revelation). Thus, aside from knowing through reason that there is an infinite, all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God, anything more is a matter of God’s word about Himself. More still, the proper relationship we should have with Him is also a matter of His word.

And speaking of God’s word, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Word of God. Perhaps when I say this, the image that springs to your mind is a leather-bound book with a cross on the cover. Well, true enough, Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God; the divinely inspired self-revelation of God in writing.

What makes Christianity distinct from other religions, however, is not the idea of a written divine revelation – Jews and Muslims, for example, believe in the Torah and the Koran. What makes Christianity distinct are two key beliefs (called dogmas): the Incarnation and the Trinity – and both are bound intimately to the Word of God. The dogma of the Trinity is the belief that God, by being so personal and one, He is actually three. While that sounds like a contradiction, it is nevertheless a mystery beyond reason’s ability to fully understand.

We shall nevertheless examine the Trinity more closely, if only briefly.

God is Himself a unity of three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One way to conceive of these persons is to understand that the personal God, as being such, must have a self-thought or conception of himself. Every person has some kind of self-image or idea of himself. For God, however, being infinite, His begotten self-image contains all that He is. This self-image or thought is itself so real that it is a Person – a divine Son! The two are one as a Thinker is one with His Thought, yet distinct as a Father is from a Son. The Thought of God, that is the Son, turns back towards the Father instead of turning inwards on Himself and producing another self-thought. From this turning and union in love proceeds the Holy Spirit – the Personal life and love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father.

Or put another way: Christians believe God is love. If this is true, then God must be three for there are three ingredients to love: a lover, a beloved, and a relationship between them. In God, these three ingredients are divine Persons. It’s also important to remember that God’s triune existence does not imply a causal relationship between the Persons. This would mean that the Father in some way created the Son and then the two brought about the existence of the Holy Spirit. Rather, insofar as God is, God must eternally be three.

Okay, that was some heady theology and philosophy to be sure. One could spend his whole life contemplating that mystery – and thank goodness we have all eternity for that!

Looking at the other distinct belief of Christianity, the Incarnation, we understand that God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, assumed a human nature in the person of Jesus Christ so that the human race might find salvation through, with, and in Him. The Incarnation does not mean that Jesus Christ is half God or part God or not God at all, but rather that Jesus Christ is both truly God and truly human; one hundred percent both. Again a great mystery of faith but nevertheless not opposed to human reason.

By now you might be wondering what the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation have to do with the Word of God. Well, put simply, Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Remember we said earlier that God the Son is the thought or self-image of God? As it turns out, the Greek term for thought or idea is logos. Logos is also translated into English as “word” – which is why St. John opened his Gospel with the following reference to the Trinity and the Incarnation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14)

But more to the point, it is in Jesus Christ that “the fullness of God dwells” (Colossians 2:19) and in whom the fullness of God’s revelation comes. As the author of Hebrews said: “In many and various ways, God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus Christ is the fullness of divine revelation and is communicated uniquely through the Bible which is the written word of God. This brings us to our second question.

How do we know that Scripture truly is authentic?

Some have argued that the Bible is self-authenticating. They use the Second Letter to Timothy in which St. Paul says: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Notice here that St. Paul says scripture is useful and not the sole source of truth, refutation, correction, and training in righteousness. Nevertheless, no infallible source can prove itself. It would be like someone saying: “I’m infallible” and then when asked for proof of their infallibility, they simple say: “Because I said so.”

We simply need more rational evidence of scriptures inspirited inerrancy.

For this we have to look back a bit at history. As you probably already knew, the Bible was written by many people and some didn’t even speak the same language. At first, the words of the Bible were passed down by oral tradition and then put into writing. This is even true of much of the New Testament. Saints Mark and Luke were the disciples of Saints Peter and Paul and their Gospels were simply the words of Peter and Paul as remembered by these disciples.

The big issue that most people forget is the question of which books should go in the Bible. There was no divine canon (list of books) dropped down from heaven in regards to which books made the cut and which didn’t. At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther thought the Epistle of James and the Book of Revelation should both be taken out of the Bible. In more recent times, Mormons have sought to include their Book of Mormon into the list of inspired books.

The big year to remember, however, is the year 386. It was in this year that Pope St. Damasus I convened a synod (a gathering of priests and bishops) which decided the list of books in the Bible. It was also from this synod that St. Jerome was commissioned to translate the Bible from Greek into Latin, the language of the people in Western Europe. In any case, it was the Catholic Church, led by the pope and the Holy Spirit, that decided which books were inspired and which were not. It was only when some Christians rejected the authority of the Catholic Church that other books could be thrown out while others brought in. It’s certainly one reason why the Da Vinci Code, which implicitly argues for certain heretical books condemned by the Catholic Church, was itself such a popular book.

Okay, so we’ve seen that the Catholic Church has some pivotal involvement with the Bible, but to what extent? Let’s go back a bit and work through the logical steps of belief in the Bible.

The first thing to do is to simply look at the Bible as a good historical reference. Add into this the other historical documents of the period – like letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letter of St. Clement, and the Didache. Not only are all these texts written by first century authors, but they were contemplated as candidates for scripture. Ignatius, for example, is said to be the child who sat on the lap of Christ in the Gospels – he later became the Bishop of Antioch, was arrested, and one day fed to lions in the Coliseum.

With this in mind, we look to God and we can know by reason alone that he exists. From this point we look to history and find a man named Jesus who worked miracles, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven. If we read the first century texts about him, we find that he claimed not only to teach us about God but that he in fact was God. At this point, faith must play a role. Shall we believe in this Jesus or not? Whether or not scripture is inspired plays no role – and when it comes down to it, the person needs the grace of the Holy Spirit to move any further.

When one has accepted Christ, the next step is not simply to read the Bible as the word of God but to try to understand what it means to be a Christian. If one looks at history, he will see that Jesus worked very closely with twelve men and it was to these men that he entrusted his own ministry. At the Ascension, Jesus instructed the Apostles to: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

This task of teaching, governing, and sanctifying was given specially to the Apostles. Again, if one reads the history of the Church, he would see that the Apostles passed their authority to the bishops. When a crisis confronted the Church in the first century, the Apostles gathered and, guided by the Holy Spirit, made a decision that affected all Christians (see Acts 15). Towards the end of the first century and into the second, the heresy of Gnosticism began to spread and many Christians didn’t know who to believe. The bishops at the time then spoke out and let the Christians know that they were the successors of the Apostles and that to be united with them was to be in union with the truth and the true Church.

Next time we shall take a look at what the key characteristics of the Church are, but let us quickly conclude our step-by-step logic of Christianity. Once one has accepted the Apostolic role of the Christianity (that Jesus structured his Church on the leadership of the Apostles) then one can accept the Church in its apostolic and authoritative dimension. It is only from this point that one would have the logical grounds to accept the Bible as the word of God.

So let’s recap: first one believes in and accepts God as infallible because he is God. From here, based on history, one accepts Christ as God the Son incarnate who suffered for our salvation and is also infallible because he too is God. From this point, the Church as the body and bride of Christ is accepted based on the historical claims made by the infallible Christ. This Church, which is guided by the apostles and their successors, the bishops, is infallible based again on Christ who said he would send the apostles the Holy Spirit – which would lead them “into all truth” (John 15: ). The Church would in turn, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, compose and compile the Bible. Thus, the inerrancy of the Bible can be known by the infallibility of the Church that created it.

In other words, the Church is a crucial link in Christianity’s chain of logic.

But before we conclude, we must ask: is there anything wrong with someone believing the Bible is the word of God without having first reasoned his way into the Church? Well, no because the Bible is in fact the word of God. It is, logically speaking however, jaywalking. The person who does this has cut corners and, unfortunately, left others who are more reason-based behind.

Of course, there’s much more to be said about divine revelation and the Church – but in the next article we’ll take a look at how the first Christians identified the Church.

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