Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Theological Story (or, What Is The Church?)


The second part of why I'm becoming Catholic, the theological story, is long overdue.

The difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is huge, but really everything, that entire difference, hinges on one question:

What is the Church?

The question seems simple.  It seems bizarre that the huge, obvious differences between Catholics and Protestants boil down to that one question.  The reason the differences are so big is that this question is essential and fundamental; so many other beliefs are built on the answer to this question.

I think of it like one of those cool optical illusions you encounter from time to time.  I'll explain what I mean.

The picture is like the collection of Christian beliefs, Scriptures, and doctrines. When you first encounter it, you form an idea of what it is and exactly what it says and means, much like how you first saw some animal in the picture above.

Whether you see a duck or a rabbit in the picture, another person will look at the same picture and see the other animal first.

If you've seen one animal, that is, you've believed one idea about the Christian faith your entire life, it can be difficult to comprehend why anyone else could see anything else.
But once that moment happens when suddenly the picture seems to blink and suddenly you see the other animal, you will always be able to see the new animal, too.
In the same way, once you experience the paradigm shift and really understand the other (Protestant or Catholic) perspective, you will always understand why they believe what they believe.
The point is, the picture isn't a duck or a rabbit.  It's both.  It may be one more clearly than the other. Perhaps the artist liked one animal better and really intended it to be that way, but accepted the other, also. Or maybe both were intended from the beginning.

I'm here to explain why I see a rabbit now, when I believed in the duck my entire life before this.

So the fundamental question: what is the Church?

Some things are obvious: the Church is the body of Christ.  The Church is the bride of Christ. The Church is the fellowship of believers in Christ.
But to understand Catholicism, we must understand the history of the early Church.

When the Church began, the year was around 33 A.D. The Church was a group of mostly (or all) Jews. They were Jesus' disciples:  his followers, the women, and his twelve apostles. The Gospels had not yet been written, nor had any of the Epistles. (Paul wasn't even a Christian yet.)

Between 50 and 80 A.D., the Gospels appeared one by one, with Mark as the earliest, and Matthew and Luke arriving somewhat later. (The exact date of authorship depends on what scholarly opinion you accept.)
The Epistles were written around 50 - 130 A.D.
These documents were probably widely circulated, as in 2 Timothy, Paul refers to them and expects Timothy to know what he's talking about.

The Bible as we know it today was collected and approved by the Synod of Hippo in 393.  However, the books canonized there had been accepted for at least a century or two at that time. One writer likens it to a major music school publishing a declaration that the works of Bach and Mozart are wonderful.
Yes, we know.

The pertinent question here is, what happened in the interim?

The belief that Christian faith emanates from the Scriptures has difficulty with this question.  What did Christians believe before there was the New Testament?

Common sense suggests that they learned the beliefs from the apostles and disciples, probably mostly by spoken word. As the apostles spread out, they taught those they encountered, setting up churches everywhere they went.

History can also shed some light on this question.  The Apostolic Fathers are the first generation of church leaders, those who actually knew the Twelve Apostles.
They include Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp.  Their writings date to the same era as the Epistles, and in some cases, possibly even earlier.
From their writings, we can learn a huge amount about what the first-century church actually did and believed.
  • Clement of Rome was the bishop of Rome, either the first, second, or third successor of Peter. He wrote Clement I to the Corinthian church in about A.D. 96. He was martyred at the end of the first century by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the ocean.
  • Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch. En route to Rome, he wrote seven letters that are considered authentic today. He was martyred in Rome between 98 A.D. and 117 A.D.
  • Polycarp was the second bishop of Smyrna.  He was taught by the apostle John.  He was burned at the stake and stabbed in 155 A.D. in Smyrna.  He wrote a letter to the Philippians, which is the only surviving work attributed to him.
Their writings, and other documents from that time, show a number of striking themes:
The overall picture is striking. Historically, the early Church believed the same doctrines we do. (And in many cases, they faced the same problems. Some things never change...)

One of the most important Scriptures in Catholic doctrine is Matthew 16:13-20.  This is the confession of Peter, and Jesus' assertion that the Church would be built on Peter.  Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom, and the power of binding and loosing. Additionally, after his resurrection, Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive or retain sins in John 20, the same way that the Father gave him the authority to forgive sins (vs. 21). (Notice how this compares with Acts 5:3-6.)

The first few chapters of Acts are full of instances where someone, or a group, approaches the Church with a question or a request.  In a striking fashion, the person questions the Church or the group of apostles present, but Peter replies. (This happens in Acts 1:15, 2:14, 2:38, 3:6, 3:12, 4:8, 5:3, 5:15, 5:29, and others).

Peter is listed first in every listing of the apostles found in Scripture (Mt. 10:2-4, Mk. 3:16-19, Luke 6:13-16, Acts 1:13). (Order of names was quite significant in Greek, and signified importance or primacy.)

History tells us Peter was bishop of the church in Antioch, then bishop of the church in Rome until his death under Nero. 
The especially important historical fact is that Peter had a successor.  There was a second bishop of Rome, then a third, and so on.  The order of the first few successors varies depending on the ancient historian writing, but most agree that Linus followed Peter, Anacletus (who had several names) followed him, and Clement followed him. Tertullian reported that Peter himself ordained Clement.

By the end of the first century, Clement of Rome apparently had the authority to intervene in disputes in other churches.  In fact, a particular dispute about clergy in Corinth caused Clement to write a correction to them in about 96 A.D., with an apology for not intervening sooner (Clement 1:1). This does not mean or require that Clements' letters were inspired.  However, it does demonstrate the historical practice of the Church.

Within the next one hundred years, the bishop in Rome was recognized as an authoritative figure responsible for maintaining the Apostolic teaching, according to Irenaeus in 189 A.D.

This recognition extended to the other church leaders. The writings of Ignatius in the early 100's admonish the Christians to submit to the authority of their bishops and to be of one mind with them, as in his letter to the Ephesians. (Interestingly, his letter strongly suggests that Onesimus, from the book of Philemon, became the bishop of Ephesus.)
It should be noted that much of the New Testament was not even written at this time, much less widely circulated, and definitely not canonized or collected into a Bible. Canonization of the Scriptures did not come until the fourth century, and high literacy rates wouldn't occur for another ten centuries after that. Widespread availability of bound Bibles was still over 1500 years away.

The same theme of authority is present in the canonical Epistles, as well. Hebrews 13:17 instructs the Christians to submit to authorities who watch over their souls and will give an account of their work (which does not sound like secular authority to me). 1 Corinthians 16:15-16 tells the Corinthians to be subject to certain leaders, and to others who work for the faith.
This runs counter to our modern democratic sensibilities.  But does that matter if this was, in fact, how the early church was organized, in the days when the apostles and those who walked with Christ were still alive?

Some have even noted that the organization of the Church resembles what we know about the organization of the angels in heaven: many serve under a hierarchy of geographically-based leaders.

In summary, as I learned more about the real historical practice and beliefs of the early Church, I found that sola scriptura made less and less sense.  I realized that the belief in the supremacy of the Bible was, itself, not found in the Bible.  Themes of good Bible scholarship certainly are.  But the belief that the Bible was intended to be the only and complete source of truth is difficult to defend.

About this time, I read 1 Timothy 3:14-15, in which Paul considers his written instructions a substitute for his presence, implying that his oral teaching and example would have been better. In verse 15, he calls the Church (not the Scriptures) the "pillar and foundation of the truth".

Thus, I began to seriously consider the Catholic notion of the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church.

Am I so surprised?  In John 14:22-27, Jesus promises his apostles the Holy Spirit, who would remind them of what he had said. In John 16:12-15, Jesus promises that he has more to say to them, and that the Spirit would guide the apostles into all truth. This is a promise of God.

Simultaneously, I discovered that virtually all of the Catholic doctrines I had considered un-Scriptural did not counter the Bible at all. This supported well the Catholic notion of the Scriptures and the Church working together, in harmony, to protect and teach the truth.
(If you guys are interested in talking about anything specific, let me know in the comments.  I'm happy to elaborate on this more if you want.)

In addition, I have discovered Catholic teachings that are purely Scriptural, making sense of verses that had always caused me trouble, such as Matthew 19:4-6, James 5:16, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, 1 John 5:16-17, James 5:14-15.

All together, these ideas whirled through my life like a thunder storm this summer.  I probably prayed more fervently and consistently for insight about this than about anything else in years before.

If you do not accept this, then you are a Protestant.  Love God, and live it fully in all you do.  May our God be with you and give you his peace.

However, my perspective has been forever changed. This, therefore, is my conclusion.  It is with a full and joyous heart that I continue my journey into the Catholic Church. 

Easter Vigil cannot come fast enough.

1 comment:

  1. This is absolutely beautiful, Sarah. I regret that I found this during my lunch break and not a time when I could immediately devote hours to it.

    I will be contacting you at some point though. This semester has been a spiritual and doctrinal whirlwind for me, and I would love to share it with you and hear about you, too.