Sola Fide and the Eucharist

Introduction

The popular understanding of “sola fide” among both Catholics and Evangelicals is that it is the dogmatic and definitive Protestant answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” According to Catholics, this question has quite a complicated answer, involving faith, love, works of charity, the sacramental life and final perseverance (ie, dying in the state of grace). In comparison, Evangelicals boil down the entire Catholic list of requirements for salvation to one: Faith alone.

“Just believe in Jesus and your place in heaven will be secured” exhorts the Evangelical minister. Ironically, this is a complete and utter misreading of the original Lutheran doctrine of sola fide, and both Catholics and Evangelicals together have failed to understand both the doctrine itself and its driving motivation. The original doctrine was not intended to be an answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” rather, it was intended to be an answer to the question “How should we proclaim the Gospel?” The original sola fide was intended to be a guiding principle for preaching homilies and understanding the sacraments and it was never intended to be an alternative ordo salutis in rivalry with the traditional Catholic ordo. In this paper I will first properly articulate and explain the sola fide doctrine and suggest that – when correctly understood – it need not pose any threat to traditional Catholic doctrine. I will then show how the original sola fide is an incredibly sacramental doctrine, and thus has particular relevance for teasing out a robust and profound interpretation of the Eucharistic liturgy.

The Grammar of Homiletics

Understanding the distinction between “preaching law” and “preaching gospel” is crucial to come to a correct understanding of the original sola fide doctrine, and the distinction is as close to a dogma as you will find in the Lutheran denominations. In short, the distinction is between any form of preaching which generates works, efforts or striving in the listeners – which is preaching law – and any form of preaching which generates either faith or outrage in the listeners – and this is preaching gospel. It is important here to comprehensively explain the distinction.

Preaching Law

Consider the following statements:1

If you get straight HDs this semester, I’ll buy you the latest iPhone.

If you avoid missing your rent for three years straight, your credit rating will improve.

If you make five sales this week, I will promote you.

These statements reflect the standard, everyday, contractual language of secular life. A condition is stated, and something is promised as a reward for fulfilling the conditions. Someone hearing these statements will either disregard the promises because they don’t particularly care about the reward, or they will work and strive to fulfil the conditions because they want to obtain the reward. Notice that all of the statements are framed in terms of condition and reward. It is common to find contractual promises posed in the negative mode of transgression and punishment:

If you get caught speeding, you will be fined $200.

If you do not manage to make a sale this week, you will be fired.

If you do not take this pill and kill yourself, I will murder your daughter.

In these cases, it is fear of the negative consequence which drives the listener to work and strive to avoid the conditions. Notice that just as in the previous set of statements, the language is conditional and contractual, and tends to generate either effort or apathy.

This contractual and conditional style of preaching occurs in Christian contexts all the time. Lets look at some examples:

If you repent and believe in Jesus, you will be saved and go to heaven after you die.

Notice that the reward promised for fulfilling the conditions is highly desirable; under most definitions of the word “heaven,” the reward here is something that anyone should definitely be willing to chase after. But a question is raised: will it be easy or hard for me to repent and believe in Jesus? Most confessing evangelicals today would probably claim to find it fairly easy, because they have already been convinced by the various apologetics they have heard in favour of Christianity. Furthermore, someone might hear this promise and think to themselves “I’m not such a bad person; I don’t steal, murder or take drugs. I just need to watch my language and change the music I listen to.” However what might seem simple and straightforward to one might be completely soul crushing and impossible for another. What about the struggling Christian who really wants to believe but is racked with doubts? Suddenly “Just believing in Jesus” doesn’t seem so easy. What about an addict who is utterly enslaved to her vice? Telling her to “repent” will come across as an impossible demand, and generate despair. After looking at the issue closer, it turns out that when “faith” is understood with its full theological and scriptural weight, this statement presents us with a contractual reward which seems more and more impossible to attain the more you chase after it.

If you donate all of your wealth to the poor, sell all of your possessions, renounce marriage and become a missionary in China, you will be blessed with eternal life.

Someone hearing such a statement might respond like so: “Things are getting more serious. Do I really have to do all of that in order to please God and go to heaven? I want to get married and have kids, and my IT career is currently on fire; does God really need me to give all of that up ‘for the sake of the kingdom?’ I suppose it is possible to fulfil these conditions, but it sounds incredibly difficult.”

If you do not obey the moral law perfectly, Almighty God will condemn you to everlasting perdition.

Someone hearing this promise might respond like so: “Oh no. This is the most terrible thing anyone has ever told me. I complain about Pope Francis regularly. I can’t stand praying the rosary. I spend too much money on whiskey and don’t give enough to the homeless people at the bus stop (what is enough?). I smoke too much. I am a slave to vice. I’m definitely going to Hell.

Variations of these statements are regularly preached from the pulpit in both Catholic and Protestant circles. Catholics tend towards moral exhortations to works of charity, while Protestants tend towards exhortations to “believe harder!” The key thing uniting all these statements is that they have an “If … then …” conditional grammatical structure, and all of them – when spoken – generate either apathy, despair, or works in the listeners. This is the essence of what it means to preach law.

Preaching Gospel

Now consider the following statements:

Because you have scored straight HDs at Uni this year, I’m giving you a month-long holiday to Europe!

Because I love you, I am going to wine and dine you at Opera Bar tonight.

Because you are struggling with your Latin so much, I’m going to spend an hour with you every night for the next month to help you pass your tests.

Notice how differently these statements hit home: In these cases, the burden for fulfilling the condition falls on the speaker rather than the listener. The person to whom these promises are spoken has only two possible responses: Trust the promise or not give a damn. But the crucial point is that the burden for fulfilling the promise falls on the speaker; the listener has no real say in the matter: “I love you and I’m going to spoil you” depends on the person saying it for fulfilment, rather than the person hearing it. Such language thus generates either faith alone, or apathy. This contrasts with the law-flavoured examples from earlier all of which generate effort and works.

Now consider the following “Christian” flavoured unconditional promises:2

Because God is unconditional love, therefore all of your sins are completely and forever forgiven. You may therefore let go all of your guilt and self-condemnation.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you can stop trying to earn your way into God’s good graces. You are already accepted by him.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you are assured a place in the kingdom. His love will triumph over your disbelief and sin.

This style of Christian proclamation is kerygmatic, in that when proclaimed from the pulpit, it will infallibly generate either faith or apathy in the people in the pews. No other alternative responses are open to a listener; either they will simply trust the promise (have faith), or their curiosity will be aroused towards such trust with relevant questions, or they will become angry, outraged and disbelieving: “How dare you contradict my freedom like that” a Catholic might object: “Who are you to say whether or not I’m elect” a Calvinist might fume.

The Sola Fide doctrine is simply a claim that all kerygmatic preaching must follow the “Because … therefore … ” grammatical structure in order to be effective. Any conditional preaching will always generate works and striving as a response, while unconditional preaching of this sort simply cannot generate striving/works/efforts, but rather must always generate either faith alone, or a living damnation of disbelief and outrage. Such preaching is thus understood to be an unleashing of the final judgement into the present moment: will you trust God in this moment as he declares his unconditional love for you and your certainly assured salvation? Or will you instead find some reason to object and disbelieve in anger and outrage?

There is much that could be written on this theme, but hopefully these examples are sufficient to demonstrate the law/gospel dichotomy when it comes to proclaiming the gospel and preaching homilies. The Lutheran conviction is that Christ is the kerygmatic word incarnate, and whenever one believer unconditionally promises salvation to someone in the name of Christ, Christ himself is there in the words that are spoken and the moment becomes a final judgement unleashed into the here and now for that person: If they trust the spoken word of unconditionally promised salvation, they experience the joy of the kingdom right here and right now. If they object to the promise and find reasons to deny it, they plunge into a experience of Hell and damnation right here and now.

A final note on this theme: The unconditional gospel promise must always be personalised to individual situations in order to be effective. Here are some more specific and practical examples of such kerygmatic “faith alone” preaching:3

Because Jesus has promised that your life is and will be fulfilled in his coming kingdom, you may give generously toward the feeding and sheltering of the poor.

Because Jesus was faithful to you unto death and beyond death, you may be faithful to your marital vows.

Because the cross of Jesus is the way of peace and life, you may stop abusing your spouse.

Because Jesus will provide for both you and your baby, no matter what hardship you may have to endure, you may unequivocally renounce the killing of your unborn child.

Because Christ is your food unto everlasting life, you may fast and embrace the ascetical disciplines

To conclude this section, I would like to draw attention to the fact that nothing said here is meant as an ordo salutis. The question sola fide answers is not “How do I get saved?” but rather “How do I preach the Gospel?” and therefore all of this is compatible with the Catholic sacramental economy. Luther himself understood this, which is why he strongly insisted on the importance of confession, baptism and the Eucharist. I will discuss how it is relevant to the Eucharist next.

Exegesis and analysis of the Roman Canon

Sola fide is not only a rule for preaching, but also a way of understanding what happens during the sacraments. In the seven sacraments, the unconditional kerygmatic promise is being spoken in shorthand via the sacramental words and at various other moments in the relevant sacramental liturgies. It is possible to analyse all of the sacraments – and even minor sacramentals and indulgences – under a sola fide lens to great result; Luther himself had wonderful things to say on this theme with respect to the sacraments of Confession, Baptism and Eucharist. Here I will restrict my analysis to the Eucharist. I have chosen to analyse the mass according to the 1962 missal, as this is more representative of deeper Catholic tradition and more closely reflects the liturgy as it would have been around the time of the reformation.

During the Confiteor, the priest and the servers alternate in a short liturgy of confession and absolution which runs like so:

Priest: Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et tibi Pater: quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michaelem Archangelum, beatum Joannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et te Pater, orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.

Server: Misereatur vestri omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis vestris, perducat vos ad vitam aeternam.

Priest: I confess to almighty God, to the blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.

Server: May almighty God be merciful unto you, and forgiving you your sins, bring you to everlasting life.

This section of the liturgy is interesting and relevant for an analysis according to the grammar of sola fide. Here we have the priest and the server each confessing their sinfulness, and each absolving each other of sin. This hints at the “Gospel of unconditional forgiveness” as mentioned in the previous section. It could be argued however that it doesn’t quite hold up because the absolution is done with a subjunctive verb, rather than an indicative/declarative one. Rather than proclaiming forgiveness to each other as a given fact, the priest and server absolve each other by means of a petition to God. I propose that this early exchange sets the scene for what is about to take place during the course of the liturgy. The priest and the server confess their sins and together pray for forgiveness, and then together they embark on the work of the liturgy, by the end of which their prayers will be answered.

One other curious thing to note before moving on is the following concluding prayer for absolution that the priest offers:

Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum, tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.

May the almighty and merciful Lord grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.

The interesting thing here is that the priest is “speaking the gospel to himself.” Although again, the fact that it is a subjunctive clause rather than an indicative one weakens the point.

The next point in the liturgy to stop and dwell is the prayers at the consecration, particularly the oblation of the Victim to God (the Hanc Igitur):

Hanc igitur oblationem servitutis nostrae, sed et cunctae familiae tuae, quaesumus Domine, ut placatus accipias: diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari: Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

We therefore, beseech Thee, O Lord, to be appeased and accept this oblation of our service, as also of Thy whole family; and to dispose our days in Thy peace, preserve us from eternal damnation, and rank us in the number of Thine Elect. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is a presumption that these prayers are efficacious in the context of the mass, and that they therefore state the agenda for what the priest and congregation are aiming to achieve by their liturgy. With this in mind, it’s important to take note of the fact that the priest prays that all who are present would be “ranked in the number of the elect.” This is highly relevant to the gospel promise of unconditional predestination, election and final perseverance. All of the prayers being racked up during the buildup to the consummation at the climax of the mass are a description of what Christs sacrifice efficaciously achieves, and therefore the entire mass could be understood simply a long and elaborate description of what Christ’s sacrifice has achieved. Here, we see that it has achieved the election of the congregation; the faithful attending mass are being promised by means of the mass that they are elect.4 As we will see shortly, this long list of prayers and petitions are transformed into promises at the climax of the liturgy, when all that the alter-christus has prayed for is secured and guaranteed by the consummation.

We arrive at the words of institution:

Hoc est enim Corpus meum. Hic est enim Calix Sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni Testamenti: Mysterium fidei: qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.

For this is My Body. For this is the Chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal Testament, the Mystery of Faith; which shall be shed for you and for the many unto the remission of sins.

Luther located the core of the gospel as “promise” in these words, and saw them as the basis and guarantee of the real, substantial presence of Christ in the host. Specifically, when the priest says “This is my body,” these are Christs own words being repeated again in his name and person. The same promise of sacramental presence spoken by Christ himself on Holy Thursday is repeated by him again at this moment of the mass. To have faith in these words is to have faith in the unconditional gospel. Crucially, the words are unconditional. They are – for example – not “If you believe, then this is my body” or “If you are in the state of grace, then this is my body.” Rather, the words are plain, simple and unconditional. Christ is claiming identity with what appears to us as bread and wine, and this is simply the fact and reality of the matter regardless of how we think or feel about it. The correct response is to trust the words and believe in the real presence. Incorrect responses include over-theologizing about it or flatly denying it. One last thing to note about these words is the latin pro vobis et pro multis. Many people twist this part of the sacramental words in order to argue against universalism, claiming that “many” is a different word to “all” and therefore universalism is false. A whole paper could be written showing how stupid and short-sighted this argument is, however I’ll just quickly note two points of refutation. Firstly, Latin is a language which lacks articles, and in Greek – the original language of the mass – the words would be rendered with a definite article and would therefore translate as “the many” which is in actual fact an idiom for “everyone.” Secondly, the context of the mass should be enough to understand the statement. Christ is saying “this is the cup of my blood which is shed for your (ie, everyone present during this particularly liturgy, the saved, the elect) salvation, and also for their salvation (ie, those who are not present during this particular liturgy, aka the damned, the reprobates).” The vobis is a promise addressed to those believers present in the pews, and the multis is that same promise addressed to the souls wandering in the darkness outside the portal of the church where this mass is taking place. These words therefore have a missionary connotation: Christ speaks his promise of salvation to all who are present at his sacrifice (who as we have established, are the elect), but he also desires to speak that same promise to those who remain wandering in the darkness of the κοσμος (ie, the multis; the damned, the lost). In the Novus Ordo, this point is driven home by the dismissal “[You have been saved just now, so] Go and announce the Gospel of the lord [to the damned outside the church who need to hear it (Aka, invite all your friends to mass next Sunday)]” The work of Christ isn’t complete until the final eschatological liturgy where all of the multis have been brought in and become addressed as vobis. At this point, when literally everyone is gathered before the altar and addressed as vobis, universal salvation will finally be a reality, rather than a mere heresy. Until then, masses and missionary activity to the damned must continue.

Moving on to the final part of the mass. The promise has been spoken, but when will the promise be fulfilled? In one sense, only at the end of an eternity. But in the context of the mass, the promises are fulfilled shortly after being spoken, when the priest and the faithful consume the host. At this point, the priest makes what is perhaps the most explicit proclamation of the promise so far:

Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy soul unto life everlasting. Amen.

Here, the verb is neither subjunctive nor indicative, it is imperative. The theological linguistics here are incredibly dense and profound. This statement is simultaneously a prayer, a promise and a command. Salvation becomes personal and efficacious at this point, and immediately after the “amen” the communicant receives their salvation – the divine Christ himself – onto their tongue. To someone without the eyes of faith, it is just a moment where you have to chew on a tasteless wafer. But for those with the eyes of faith, this moment is loaded with eschatological significance, as it is the moment when all of the many prayers and petitions and promises that have been rumbled thus far during the liturgy are sealed, achieved, guaranteed and brought to final fulfilment. At the point where the teeth and tongue consume Christ, the communicant is receiving the fullness of their heavenly inheritance and knows (or at least, should know!) that they are elect and predestined to heaven. All fear and doubt melts away and all that remains is love, joy and blissful blessedness.

Conclusion

It might seem anticlimactic that we don’t just find ourselves whisked away to heaven, the beatific vision and the resurrection at the moment we receive our host.5 But Christ clearly has other plans for us. Just as he descends to Hell to save the damned on Holy Saturday, the end of the mass is also a new beginning for us, and arguably this is the significance of the fact that the final prayer is the prologue of John’s gospel, which is a description of the very beginning of the entire story. As the mass ends we are sent back into the darkness outside the church doors to announce the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it, and entice them to “come and see” Christ for themselves, and hear his promise for themselves. The mass ends and we leave the church to return to the darkness of the κοσμος because there are still a multitude of lost souls out there who need to hear the unconditional kerygma, and we are the ones who have to tell them. The vobis have already heard the kerygmatic gospel promise, but the multis are yet to hear and trust it. But as Saint Origen always knew, the ending is in the beginning, and so we finish the mass with the following words of victorious and salvific promise:

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso facum est nihil quod factum est: in ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was made nothing that was made: in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men; and the Light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness can never conquer it.

1These and the other statements I will use were heavily inspired by Fr. Al. Kimel’s writings on similar themes. However I believe I have refashioned and repurposed them sufficiently that fine-grained citations are not essential.

2These examples have been taken verbatim from Fr Al. Kimel.

3These examples also have been taken from Fr Al. Kimel.

4One might want to dispute this analysis, but to do so would be tantamount to claiming that the sacrament of the Eucharist and the prayers of the mass are not efficacious, as if the things which Jesus tells us to pray for during mass will ultimately not be granted by the Father. It seems more reasonable to me to have faith that everything we pray for during the liturgy will be (indeed, has been) granted, including election and the grace of final perseverance.

5But then again, perhaps we do?

Recapitulation as Theosis

Defining Terms Carefully

At an initial glance, the statement “Jesus is God” would appear to convey the same message as the sentence “Jesus is Divine,” however whether or not this is the case depends entirely on how one understands the words “God” and “Divine.” In this paper I want to argue for a distinction in definition between these words which turns the two statements into radically different claims, and then reflect on the history of Christology in light of this distinction. The distinction to be proposed is not a new or novel distinction, but one that often goes unnoticed and is not often talked about. The distinction will be shown to be a fundamental and non-trivial distinction with immediate and profound impact and implications for us.

Let’s start with the first statement, “Jesus is God”. There are two possible ways that a listener will understand this sentence when it is spoken to them: On the one hand, they may define “Jesus” according to a pre-conceived understanding of what “God” refers to. On the other hand, they may define “God” according to what they know about the life story of this person “Jesus”.

To elaborate on the first possibility: the one put in a position where they must make sense of the statement “Jesus is God” may already have some pre-suppositional understanding of what the word “God” refers to. They may for example believe that God is invisible, unembodied, immaterial, spiritual, eternal, non-composite, timeless, all powerful, pure actuality, infinite and all-encompassing consciousness, omniscient and so on. In this case, the statement “Jesus is God” will cause such a person quite some cognitive dissonance, as they struggle to make sense of how it could possibly be the case that a first century Jewish man could be God according to their pre-existing definition of what something identified as “God” must refer to.

The second way that one might understand the sentence is to come to it with a tabula rasa understanding of the word “God”, and then construct a definition of “God” on the basis of what is known about the story of Jesus of Nazareth. In this second way, there is not some other definition of God which Jesus must conform to; instead, Jesus himself is the definition of God.

The first approach is a basic summary of how Christology tended to operate as the Gospel encountered Jewish, Greek and Latin culture. The evangelists and missionaries would proclaim “Jesus is God”, and their listeners would attempt to understand this statement with reference to their traditional philosophical and religious ideas of what the word “God” refers to. This, as is well known, led to much heated controversy from day one of the church. Sophisticated thinkers and religious experts in the ancient world encountered the proclamation of Jesus as God and in many cases dismissed it as nonsensical and entirely incompatible with their existing understanding of God. As Paul says:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.1

The simple early believers tended to understand “Jesus is God” more in the second way: They simply took Jesus himself to be the definition of God, rather than requiring him to conform to some other, external theological, religious or philosophical definition. The early believers were content with the second approach, however no one who converted to Christianity in the ancient world was coming to faith without a prior cultural and religious context; Jews, Greeks, Arabs, Latins were all becoming Christian, but they never ceased to occupy the cultural and religious context which they started in. To become Christian did not mean abandoning one religion so as to join another: A Jewish Christian was still a Jew, with all that being a Jew implied, and a Greek Christian was still a Greek, with all that being Greek implied.

Given such a situation, an account was needed to explain the relationship of the simple proclamation that “Jesus is God” with the philosophical and religious frameworks that were current. As time went on, the converts to the Gospel started to include rigorous thinkers with fantastic intellects who were able to do just this. Rather than understanding “Jesus is God” in the second way where “Jesus” defines “God”, they took the definitions of the word “God” from the surrounding philosophies and showed how “Jesus is God” was compatible with those definitions.

The two most important instances of this phenomenon are with respect to Judaism and Hellenism. From day one of the church, “Jesus is God” was preached to the Jews. The Jewish definition of God at the time was based on the narratives and prophecies of the Jewish scriptures. “God” according to this definition was “The one who created the world; the one who created mankind and placed them in the garden of Eden; the one who rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.” and so on. The God of the Jews was the God who identifies himself as “Lord” and “Yahweh”, and was defined primarily by the narrative of scripture. As such, to preach “Jesus is God” to the Jews was understood to be a claim that the man Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and crucified at Calvary, is the very same “Yahweh” who created the universe, gave the law to Moses, and sent the prophets to Israel. Some Jews signed up, but many found the claim shocking and incomprehensible.

In comparison, when “Jesus is God” was preached to those immersed in Greek culture, it was understood to mean “Jesus is timeless, immutable, disembodied, pure actuality.” The proclamation was therefore received as no less shocking and incomprehensible to the Greeks than it was received by the Jews.

The subsequent history of Christology has generally been a shift from understanding “Jesus is God” in the sense that “God is defined by Jesus” to understanding it as “Jesus conforms to the Greek/Hebrew/Latin definition of God”. Christology has thus been approached as the discipline which explains the relationship between the historical narrative of Jesus life and various pre-formed notions of Divinity which have been inherited and imported from the surrounding cultural and religious landscape.

Stephen John Wright, referring to the first way as “metaphysical theology” and referring to the second way as “non-metaphysical theology” summarised the difference thus:

Metaphysical theology thinks that we must discover God; non-metaphysical theology believes that this method will only result in the construction of idols. Any deity that lies at the end of the metaphysical path will be nothing more than our own projection of the god we set out to find.2

And so now, to return to the two sentences that started this paper, I would like to propose a way of understanding the two statements “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is Divine.” “Jesus is God” should always be taken in the second sense identified. That is to say, God is strictly and simply defined by the life story and person of Jesus, and nothing more. Whereas “Jesus is Divine” should be understood as a statement that Jesus conforms to external definitions of what it means to be divine, such as that of Catholic theology, Islamic theology, Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy and so on.

This has direct implications on what can and cannot be said. Firstly, the statement “Jesus is God” is a statement of unchanging fact. Jesus always was, always is, and always will be God. There is no other God than Jesus. Whereas the statement “Jesus is divine” does not necessarily always hold. If someone says “Jesus is divine”, the first question to be asked is “Which Jesus?” Because there are clearly real distinctions between Jesus as he was at Christmas, the Jesus of Good Friday, and Jesus when he emerged from the grave at Easter. Perhaps the Jesus of Easter may rightly be spoken of as “Divine” while it may be inappropriate to apply the adjective to the Jesus of Christmas. Which leads us to the second question that should be raised: “Jesus is Divine according to which definition of Divinity?”

To take just one historical example, according to classical Greek thought the crucial feature of divinity was impassibility. Therefore to say “Jesus is Divine” is to say “Jesus is impassible”. This immediately leads to theological conundrum: if Jesus was impassible, then what are we to make of his suffering on the cross? Paradoxes such as this multiply dramatically as we move further from the Jesus-event in time, and the different positions theologians have taken to understand and explain the issues have led to ever-deepening schism.

Static and Dynamic Christology

In almost every case, any given Christian tradition one might encounter today can be located under one of the following ecclesial and theological categories: Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Nestorianism, Arianism, mainline Protestantism and Restorationism. In every one of these theological camps Christology is generally understood to be the study of and reflection on something which is fundamentally static. Which is to say that rather than being a study of the significance of the actual dynamic life that Jesus lived, Christology instead tends to be the study of how philosophical categories such as nature, essence, being and person are to be applied and related to Jesus. However, what tends to happen is that Jesus is treated as a static object for philosophical analysis under these categories, rather than as a living, breathing subject possessing a dynamic history and revealing a life story with many surprising twists and turns. As such, the official Christologies which have been received in the various traditions are themselves static and immutable, whereas a more accurate Christology should be dynamic; twisting and turning, growing and deepening just as the living Christ which it describes does.

The result of the proliferation of these static Christologies among the various traditions has been scandalous and constantly deepening schism. Those who affirm the council of Chalcedon insist that Jesus always and at all times is “one person with two natures”, both during his life and after his resurrection. Whereas those who follow Nestorianism are adamant that Jesus always and at all times was “two persons”, both before his resurrection and after. And those who follow Miaphysite theology insist that Jesus is a single person with a single nature and a single essence, and this is the case now, and always has been the case.

Adherents to each of these Christologies regularly find that their position often appears to run up against paradox and contradiction in areas where an alternate Christology simply has no issue. For example, if Jesus was the same person (ὑποστασις) as God (the λογος), then the temptation in the wilderness seems somewhat farcical because Jesus couldn’t have given in to the temptation even if he wanted to, and if he had, this would have meant that God would have sinned, which is nonsensical. Whereas none of this is a problem in a Nestorian Christology: under Nestorianism the human person of Jesus really could have sinned and if he did, it would have only been the man Jesus sinning, and not the divine person of God.

As another example, if Jesus has only a single nature which is both human and divine (the position of the miaphysite churches), then doesn’t that mean he is some sort of tertia quid which is neither human in the same way that we are human nor fully divine in the same way that God is divine? If that is the case, then how can he stand in the place of mankind and represent us to God as our great high priest? But none of this is a problem for a Chalcedonean, or even an Arian Christology: Under Arianism, Jesus is fully human and not divine in any sense which would make him a fundamentally different thing to other humans.

So each Christology has greater explanatory power at some points of the Gospel narrative while running into problems at other points; where one Christology might do a better job of making sense of Christmas but stumble when it comes to Good Friday, another Christology might perfectly explain Good Friday while struggling to understand the Ascension. These many and various Christological positions appear fundamentally irreconcilable, and so the various Christian traditions stand in a relationship of schism with each other on the basis of their Chistological commitments.

This paper proposes that actually all of these Chistologies can be reconciled. The fundamental problem is that all of these Christologies are static and unchanging, just as they treat Jesus as being something entirely static; they do not allow for Christology to flow and develop dynamically just as the Jesus they aim to understand grew and developed in the course of living out his life, ministry, passion and resurrection.

The solution in this paper is to proposes a dynamic Christology; one that fluidly integrates the different Christologies such that each holds at different points of the Gospel narrative, and in such a way that each Christology naturally flows from one to the next just as each episode in the developing life of Christ dynamically flows from one to another. Such a Christological synthesis would have greater explanatory power than any of the Christologies taken in isolation.

Atonement, Theosis and Recapitulation

Insofar as Jesus Christ is the one who “makes atonement,” accounts of Christology and theories of atonement are intimately related. All theories of atonement cover the same ground, but give different emphasis to different aspects of the story. For example in the early church, “Ransom” theory was quite popular. Whereas in the second millennium the focus shifted to a more “Substitutionary” account. There has also always been a thread in the tradition called “Recapitulation”, which is the idea that Jesus made atonement by living a perfect and sinless life. This last emphasis is one which I would like to focus on.

When the word “atonement” is spoken, it often conjures up thoughts and images of blood being spilt and sacrifice being performed. This is in large part due to how the word is used in the old testament to describe the sacrifice performed by the High Priest on the festival of “Yom Kippur.” When thought of this way, the idea that “Jesus atones for us” tends to be primarily associated with his bloody passion and death on the cross. However the English word “Atonement” etymologically just means “to be at one,” and I would like to propose that this is a better angle from which to approach the issue. What is being made “at one” with what? The answer: Humanity is being made at-one with divinity, in the person of Jesus. Furthermore this is not something which happens at any particular point of the story of Jesus, but rather something which happens progressively and deepens as the story moves to its conclusion. At the beginning of the story, Jesus is a man in every way that I am a man; By the end of the story, after he has lived his perfect and obedient life, Jesus is still a man in every way that I am a man, but he is also fully divinised.

Just as Irenaeus illustrated his theory of recapitulation using the analogy of tying and untying a knot, I would like to illustrate my Christology and theory of Atonement by the analogy of a zipper. The slider of the zipper represents Jesus, while the two rows of teeth represent divinity and humanity. Each tooth corresponds to a metaphysical or ontological category such as “nature”, “essence”, “person”, “will”, “body” and so on. As the slider moves along the zip, it progressively “makes one” the two rows of teeth. This corresponds to Jesus living out his life story, and progressively “making one” humanity and divinity, one category at a time. By the time the slider has reached the end of the zip, all the human teeth have been joined to their corresponding divine teeth. Similarly, by the time that Jesus has been resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the father, all dimensions of his humanity have been united to the corresponding aspects of divinity.

What this would mean is that at the annunciation, Christology looks incredibly Nestorian/Antiochian. Jesus would have only a human nature, human essence, human prosopon, human will: He would not be divine in any sense which other men are not also divine. Perhaps it would be accurate to say that at this stage of the story, Jesus is “homoiousion” with the father3, rather than “homoousion” as per the Nicene creed. But then perhaps by the time we arrive at Christmas, the slider has moved a couple of teeth along the zipper, and it has become appropriate to speak of Jesus as having a divine essence, rather than merely a human one.4 Similarly, by the time we arrive at his baptism, perhaps we should understand the event as somehow the moment when Jesus’ “human” personality became one with the “divine” personality of the logos. This would do justice to the historical (and heretical) convictions surrounding Jesus being “adopted” as the son of God at his baptism in some sense. And one more hypothetical example: maybe the garden of Gethsemene was the episode where his human will “became one” with the divine will: before the garden he had two wills, as per Chalcedeon and Constantinople III, but after the garden he had a single divine/human will, as per Miaphysitism.

I put forward these ideas loosely, as I haven’t had enough time to rigorously assign philosophical categories to different episodes in the story of Christ. However my guiding conviction is that each episode in the story corresponds to the “atonement” and “divinisation” of some aspect of humanity. So to just list off a couple of theories about how this potentially could work: Christmas may perhaps be the divinisation of the human essence, whilst his baptism may correspond to the atonement and divinisation of human personhood; The transfiguration may have been the moment of atonement and divinisation of the human soul and form; Good Friday might have been the divinisation of his nature while Gethsemene was the divinisation and atonement of mind and will.

A few implications of this progressive and theosis-based understanding of atonement are worth pointing out. Firstly, there are certain points of the story where the Islamic conviction that “Jesus was just a prophet” actually holds true, while there are other points of the story where the Christian conviction that “Jesus was divine” are also true. At no point does Jesus cease to be human in this understanding, which reflects an understanding of “divinity” which inherently includes everything that falls under “humanity.” In other words, a divine nature just is a miaphysis of what are traditionally understood to be divine and human attributes. Time and space prevent me, but this is an idea worth exploring further, as it has implications for the reconciliation of Chalcedonean, Nestorian, Coptic Miaphysite and Eutychian Monophysite Christologies.

Liturgical and Eucharistic Christology

I include this section as a suggestion for further thought and development of the previously outlined ideas. Our theories of what happen during the mass are actually intimately related to our understanding of the person of Jesus. There is therefore an intimate link between Christological understandings and Eucharistic theology. Different moments in the liturgy correspond to different moments in the Jesus narrative. For this reason, it is possible to learn about Christology by studying what happens during the liturgy, and looking at how the bread and the wine are understood to be the body and blood of Christ. The liturgy progressively makes the bread and the wine become the body of blood of Christ, with certain key moments in the liturgy corresponding to certain key moments in this change. But so too, Christs entire life was a liturgy in which he as a simple man (just as the bread of the mass begins as simple bread) progressively becomes divinised (just as the bread becomes divinised). There are certain moments of the mass which are understood to be decisive for this change to occur, just as there are certain episodes in the life of Christ which are understood to be decisive in his journey of theosis and recapitulation.

Furthermore, the way in which the Eucharist is said to be truly the body and blood of Jesus corresponds to various Christological convictions about the way that Jesus was fully man and fully God.

Luther’s theology of real presence has to do with the Chalcedonian doctrine of the two natures of Christ. That is, just as Christ is completely human and completely divine in his personal (hypostatic) union, so is the Eucharist completely the body and blood of Christ and completely bread and wine at the same time.5

As a preliminary example, the Catholic insistence that the bread and wine only appear to be bread and wine but are actually/substantially purely divine would correspond to the heretical christology of Docetism. Similarly, the eastern understanding of when the relevant change takes place is that it takes place at the Epiclesis, whereas the western understanding is that the change takes place at the words of institution. Perhaps both positions are correct but with respect to different categories, for example the Epiclesis may perhaps change the bread into Christ with respect to essence while the words of institution may change the bread into Christ with respect to nature. This would accord well with the progressive, theosis-based recapitulation account of the atonement I have proposed.

Here to propose a loose and unrefined interpretation: The Gloria is the moment when the bread essentially becomes God, as it corresponds to Christmas, when Jesus becomes homoousion with the father. The Epiclesis corresponds to Christs baptism in the Jordan when he becomes one in person with the divine Logos, and therefore is the moment when the bread and wine become identifiable as Christ himself. And then the words of institution perhaps correspond to the death on the cross, and are thus the moment where the bread and the wine take on a divine nature, just as this is the moment when Jesus nature becomes divine. Finally the last Gospel corresponds to Jesus’ teaching ministry after his resurrection, which perhaps corresponds to the work of the spirit to divinise us. Again, I fire all of this haphazardly from the waist merely as a suggestion which most certainly requires further refinement.6

Conclusion

Jesus Christ is understood to be simultaneously fully man and fully God, therefore Christology is simply an account of how it is that theology and anthropology are in actual fact exactly the same discipline approached on the one hand “from above” and on the other hand “from below”; Theology is nothing but perfected, purified and glorified anthropology, and conversely anthropology is nothing but theology filtered through the kenosis of divine emptying and self-limitation. They are both the study of exactly the same subject, namely, the perichoretic simplicity that is the ground and essence of all realities and which unifies all being, as it has coalesced into the singular pantheistic unity of the creator and his creation. In turn this perfect oneness of cosmos and God which just is the ontology of all things both created and divine, has been progressively revealed, manifested, and realised in the historical narrative of Jesus Christ, and continues to be revealed, manifested and realised today via the many and various Eucharistic liturgies celebrated throughout the Christian world. It is by means of the movements of both the Jesus narrative and the liturgical reenactments of this narrative that Christology is able to construct its account of how God has become man and how that same man has become God.

Therefore Christology is a comprehensive summary of the story of Jesus as well as the dynamic atonement between creation and creator which is revealed in this story. The story begins with a protology that is entirely anthropological, and then progressively ascends towards a climactic eschatology which is purely theological. It is the story of how Jesus, who at the beginning of his worldly existence was just like every other man in all respects but imperfection, made atonement for all mankind, by means of a synergistic theosis which progressively enveloped him more and more completely, and gradually encompassed him more and more totally, to the point where come the conclusion of the story, Jesus was truly and fully at-one with divinity in all possible respects; by the conclusion of the tale there was no longer any distinction or separation remaining between Jesus and God; they are at-one in person, in essence, in substance, in nature, in will, in body, in spirit, in mind, in intellect, in being, and in any other ontological category which theologians and philosophers may care to deploy in their analysis. So Jesus begins the narrative being one with man in every possible way but sin; and by the end of the narrative, he has achieved at-one-ment with God in every possible way.

Appendix

Christological Position

Corresponding Eucharistic Position

Nestorianism and Chalcedon

(Christ as two distinct substances or natures)

Lutheran Consubstantiation

(The Eucharist is two distinct substances or natures)

Docetism and Monophysitism

(Christ only “appeared” to be man)

Catholic Transubstantiation

(The Eucharist only “appears” to be bread)

Miaphysitism

(Christ is fully God and fully Man)

Eastern Orthodox Consubstantiation

(The bread is fully Christ)

Adoptionism (at Baptism)

0

Adoptionism (at the Crucifixion)

0

Adoptionism (at Incarnation)

Eucharistic change at the presentation of the gifts

Islamic

(Christ was “Just a man/Prophet”)

Zwinglism

(The Eucharist is “just a symbol”)

Relativism

(Christ is only God for those who believe)

Calvinism

(Christ is only really present to those who have faith)

Bibliography

Bradshaw, Paul F., and Johnson, Maxwell E.. The Eucharistic Liturgies : Their Evolution and Interpretation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012. Accessed June 12, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Jenson, Robert W.. Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics : Essays on God and Creation. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014. Accessed June 14, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Murphy, Francesca Aran and Troy A. Stefano. The Oxford Handbook of Christology. First ed. Oxford, United Kingdom;New York, NY;: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Pugh, Ben. Atonement Theories: A Way through the Maze. Eugene, Oregon: CASCADE Books, 2014;2015;.

Spence, Alan. Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed. London;New York;: T & T Clark, 2008;2009;2015;.

11 Cor 1:22-25 (RSVCE)

2Jenson, Robert W.. Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics : Essays on God and Creation, edited by Stephen John Wright, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unda/detail.action?docID=4534559.
Created from unda on 2020-06-14 11:09:55.

3As per Arianism

4In other words, to say that Jesus is homoousion with the father.

5Bradshaw, Paul F., and Maxwell E. Johnson. The Eucharistic Liturgies : Their Evolution and Interpretation, Liturgical Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unda/detail.action?docID=4659051.
Created from unda on 2020-06-12 04:58:44.

6See Appendix for a proposed table of correspondences between different Christological positions and Eucharistic theologies

Baptism at an Ancient Eastern Roman Catholic Orthodox Easter Vigil – A Rite Of Passage

xir244981_1024x1024[1].jpegby Aidan Kavanagh, OSB

I have always rather liked the gruff robustness of the first rubric for baptism found in a late fourth-century church order which directs that the bishop enter the vestibule of the baptistery and say to the catechumens without commentary or apology only four words: “Take off your clothes.” There is no evidence that the assistants fainted or the catechumens asked what he meant.

Catechesis and much prayer and fasting had led them to understand that the language of their passage this night in Christ from death to life would be the language of the bathhouse and the tomb — not that of the forum and the drawing room.

So they stripped and stood there, probably, faint from fasting, shivering from the cold of early Easter morning and with awe at what was about to transpire. Years of formation were about to be consummated; years of having their motives and lives scrutinised;  years of hearing the word of God read and expounded at worship; years of being dismissed with prayer before the Faithful went on to celebrate the Eucharist; years of  having the doors to the assembly hall closed to them; years of seeing the tomb-like baptistery building only from without; years of hearing the old folks of the community tell hair-raising tales of what being a Christian had cost their own grandparents when the emperors were still pagan; years of running into a reticent and reverent vagueness concerning what was actually done by the Faithful at the breaking of bread and in that closed baptistery …

Tonight all this was about to end as they stood here naked on a cold floor in the gloom
of this eerie room.

Abruptly the bishop demands that they face westward, toward where the sun dies swallowed up in darkness, and denounce the King of shadows and death and things that go bump in the night. Each one of them comes forward to do this loudly under the hooded gaze of the bishop (who is tired from presiding all night at the vigil continuing next door in the church), as deacons shield the nudity of the male catechumens from the women, and deaconesses screen the women in the same manner. This is when each of them finally lets go of the world and of life as they have known it: the umbilical cord is cut, but they have not yet begun to breathe.

Then they must each turn eastwards toward where the sun surges up bathed in a light which just now can be seen stealing into the alabaster windows of the room. They must voice their acceptance of the King of light and life who has trampled down death by his own death. As each one finishes this he or she is fallen upon by a deacon or a deaconess who vigorously rubs olive oil into his or her body, as the bishop perhaps dozes off briefly, leaning on his cane. (He is like an old surgeon waiting for the operation to begin.)

When all the catechumens have been thoroughly oiled, they and the bishop are suddenly startled by the crash of the baptistery doors being thrown open. Brilliant golden light spills out into the shadowy vestibule, and following the bishop (who has now regained his composure) the catechumens and the assistant presbyters, deacons, deaconesses, and sponsors move into the most glorious room most of them have ever seen. It is a high, arbor-like pavilion of green, gold, purple, and white mosaic from marble floor to domed ceiling sparkling like jewels in the light of innumerable oil lamps that fill the room with a heady warmth. The windows are beginning to blaze with the light of Easter dawn. The walls curl with vines and tendrils that thrust up from the floor, and at their tops apostles gaze down robed in snow-white togas, holding crowns. They stand around a golden chair draped with purple upon which rests only an open book. And above all these, in the highest point of the ballooning dome, a naked Jesus (very much in the flesh) stands up to his waist in the Jordan as an unkempt John pours water on him and God’s disembodied hand points the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ head in the form of a white bird.

Suddenly the catechumens realise that they have unconsciously formed themselves into a mirror-image of this lofty icon on the floor directly beneath it. They are standing around a pool let into the middle of the floor, into which gushes water pouring noisily from the mouth of a stone lion crouching atop a pillar at poolside. The bishop stands beside this, his presbyters on each side: a deacon has entered the pool, and the other assistants are trying to maintain a modicum of decorum among the catechumens who forget their nakedness as they crowd close to see. The room is warm, humid, and it glows. It is a golden paradise in a bathhouse in a mausoleum: an oasis, Eden restored: the navel of the world, where death and life meet, copulate, and become undistinguishable from each other. Jonah peers out from a niche, Noah from another, Moses from a third, and the paralytic carrying his stretcher from a fourth. The windows begin to sweat.

The bishop rumbles a massive prayer — something about the Spirit and the waters of life and death — and then pokes the water a few times with his cane. The catechumens recall Moses doing something like that to a rock from which water flowed, and they are mightily impressed. Then a young male catechumen of about ten, the son of pious parents, is led down into the pool by the deacon. The water is warm (it has been heated in a furnace), and the oil on his body spreads out on the surface in iridescent swirls. The deacon positions the child near the cascade from the lion’s mouth. The bishop leans over on his cane, and in a voice that sounds like something out of the Apocalypse, says:

“Euphemius! Do you believe in God the Father, who created all of heaven and earth?”

After a nudge from the deacon beside him, the boy murmurs that he does. And just in time, for the deacon, who has been doing this for fifty years and is the boy’s grandfather, wraps him in his arms, lifts him backwards into the rushing water and forces him under the surface. The old deacon smiles through his beard at the wide brown eyes that look up at him is shock and fear from beneath the water (the boy has purposely not been told what to expect).

Then he raises him up coughing and sputtering. The bishop waits until he can speak again, and leaning over a second time, tapping the boy on the shoulder with his cane, says:

“Euphemius! Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who was conceived of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was crucified, died, and was buried? Who rose on the third day and ascended into heaven, from whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead?”

This time he replies like a shot, “I do,” and then holds his nose…

“Euphemius! Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the master and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who is to be honoured and glorified equally with the Father and the Son, who spoke by the Prophets? And in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church which is the communion of God’s holy ones? And in the life that is coming?”

“I do.”

When he comes up the third time, his vast grandfather gathers him in his arms and carries him up the steps leading out of the pool. There another deacon roughly dries Euphemius with a warm towel, and a senior presbyter, who is almost ninety and is regarded by all as a “confessor” because he was imprisoned for the faith as a young man, tremulously pours perfumed oil from a glass pitcher over the boy’s damp head until it soaks his hair and runs down over his upper body. The fragrance of this enormously expensive oil fills the room as the old man mutters: “God’s servant, Euphemius, is anointed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Euphemius is then wrapped in a new linen tunic; the fragrant chrism seeps into it, and he is given a burning terracotta oil lamp and gold to go stand by the door and keep quiet. Meanwhile, the other baptisms have continued.

When all have been done in this same manner (an old deaconess, a widow, replaced Euphemius’s grandfather when it came the women’s time), the clergy strike up the Easter hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, he has crushed death by his death and bestowed life on those who lay in the tomb.”

To this constantly repeated melody interspersed with the Psalm verse, “Let God arise and smite his enemies,” the whole baptismal party — tired, damp, thrilled, and oily — walk out into the blaze of Easter morning and go next door to the church led by the bishop. There he bangs on the closed doors with his cane: they are flung open, the endless vigil is halted, and the baptismal party enters as all take up the hymn, “Christ is risen…,” which is all but drowned out by the ovations that greet Christ truly risen in his newly-born ones. As they enter, the fragrance of chrism fills the church: it is the Easter-smell, God’s grace olfactorally incarnate. The pious struggle to get near the newly baptised to touch their chrismed hair and rub its fragrance on their own faces. All is chaos until the baptismal party manages to reach the towering ambo that stands in the middle of the pewless hall. The bishop ascends its lower front steps, turns to face the white-clad neophytes grouped at the bottom with their burning lamps and the boisterous faithful now held back by a phalanx of well -built acolytes and doorkeepers. Euphemius’s mother has fainted and been carried outside for some air.

The bishop opens his arms to the neophytes and once again all burst into “Christ is risen,” Christos aneste …. He then affirms and seals their baptism after prayer, for all the Faithful to see, with an authoritative gesture of paternity — laying his hand on each head, signing each oily forehead once again in the form of a cross, while booming out: “The servant of God is sealed with the Holy Spirit.” To which all reply in a thunderous “Amen.” and for the first time the former catechumens receive and give the kiss of peace. Everyone is in tears. While this continues, bread and wine are laid out on the holy table; the bishop then prays at great length over them after things quiet down, and the neophytes lead all to communion with Euphemius out in front.

While his grandfather holds his lamp, Euphemius dines on the precious Body whose true and undoubted member he has become; drinks the precious Blood of him in whom he himself has now died; and just this once drinks from two other special cups — one containing baptismal water, the other containing milk and honey mixed as a gustatory icon of the promised land into which he and his colleagues have finally entered out of the desert through Jordan’s waters. Then his mother (now recovered and somewhat pale, still insisting she had only stumbled) took him home and put him, fragrantly, to bed.

Euphemius had come a long way. He had passed from death unto a life he lives still.

    • +

Delivered at Holy Cross Abbey, Canon City, Colorado,
Theology Institute, August, 1977
Copyright © 2003 St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. All rights reserved.

Aiden Kavanagh, one of the great liturgical scholars and sacramental theologians of
the twentieth century, delivered this lecture at Holy Cross Abbey, Canon City,
Colorado, Theology Institute, August, 1977. He departed this life in June, 2006.

Catholic Sacrament Validity Under the Lutheran Sola Fide and According to the Gospel Promise

The Singular Divine Sacrament

promise[1].jpgIn this post I will examine what makes a Catholic sacrament “valid”, under the assumptions of the Lutheran Sola Fide.

Firstly, according to the Lutheran Sola Fide, there is in actual fact only one single sacrament: The preaching of the Gospel promise. This sacramental promise is effective ex opere operato in the sense that the promise is unconditional, and therefore God himself guarantees the fulfilment of the promise, and our response to that promise in the meantime cannot thwart his sovereign will in doing so. However in order for the promise to take effect at the present time and be successfully applied, it needs to be fully trusted by the person to whom the promise is spoken.

But what is the promise? The promise is God himself, the final glorious moment of history, the eschaton. From a Christian perspective, the promise is the resurrected Jesus Christ himself, revealed to the world as a pledge of things to come, and as the gateway through which we may access those good things right now in this present moment. When someone speaks the promise to another, they are bestowing God himself through their speaking, and it depends on the freedom of the listener as to whether or not the divine promise (God himself) will penetrate into their mind, heart and soul.

The Islamic principle of Tahwid and it’s manifestation as the classical theistic principle of divine simplicity apply to the promise just as much as they apply to God, due to this equivalence between the promise and God himself. So in a certain mystical sense, God is the promiser, God is the one to whom the promise is spoken, and God is the promise itself, and these three are all equivalent. Whenever one person proclaims the promise to another person, God is promising God to God. This is in fact a way of framing the Trinitarian relationship: The Father is the one who promises, The son is the promise itself, and the Spirit is the sacramental act of proclaiming the promise. (Notice the similarities to the classical/Nicaean “Father, Word/λογος, divine generation” Trinitarian construal). According to divine simplicity, God speaks his promise corporately to the entire creation, however he personalises this promise for individuals through the preaching and proclamation of the Gospel promise by those individuals.

But what IS the Gospel promise?

54c1321e40688_150124PreachingCAB.jpgThis is all very mystical however. So what does this singular sacrament look like in day to day preaching and evangelism? Well, it is different every time, but essentially always looks something like this:

“I am really with you, I love you, I will never leave you, I will always forgive you, I will save you, I will help you to forever escape the darkness and enter into the light, I will not be saved without you.”

A believer has the power to speak this fundamental sacramental promise with authority and conviction, on behalf of God, to someone who remains wandering in the outer darkness. As already mentioned, the promise is unconditional, guaranteed, and ex opere operato. However in order for the promise to actually bear fruit in the life of the person who hears it, that person must respond in faith. And so we come to the “Requirements for validity” with respect to the sacrament.

In order for the sacrament to be administered with validity, all that is required is

  1. The minister must actively intend to proclaim the divine promise to a sinner.
  2. The sinner must understand the promise and it’s full implications with their mind and intellect.
  3. The recipient must freely trust the promise with their heart and will.

These three points together are the absolute minimum that is required for the sacrament to be valid and efficacious.

Relevant questions may be raised at this point: Who is a valid minister of the sacrament? The minimum answer is “Anyone”. Literally anyone can proclaim the promise to anyone else. However it is “more perfect” (Or sunnah, as Muslims would say) firstly for the minister himself to be a believer in the promise (although this is not strictly necessary), and also for the sacrament to be administered by whoever possesses the highest degree of ordination in any given situation. So for example, in an emergency where a Hindu and Muslim are stuck in a desert and by some miracle both of them come to believe the promise, they have permission and power to speak the promise to each other with divine authority. In another situation, where there are many bishops available, the bishops should perform the sacrament. If there are no bishops, priests will suffice, and so on.

Roughly speaking, the preferential hierarchy which should be followed in the administration of the sacrament is

  1. Pope
  2. Archbishop
  3. Bishop
  4. Priest
  5. Deacon
  6. Subdeacon
  7. One who is confirmed
  8. One who is baptised
  9. One who himself believes the promise
  10. Anyone else

A Gospel Fiqr

keep-calm-and-follow-the-sunnah-2[1].pngIn Islamic terminology, what has been described so far falls under the category of Fard (ie. Obligatory). However there is also the category of Sunnah (ie. Preferred but not essential), which represents conditions which make the sacrament “more perfect”. Sunnah requirements should always be followed if possible. They are not optional, in the sense that you cannot just dispense with them at your whim and pleasure, however they are not strictly necessary, in the sense that during an emergency they may be dispensed with.

This is the point where the traditional seven sacraments come into play, as well as other unique sacramental economies such as the Later Day Saint system of ordinances. Each of these “traditional” sacraments and ordinances are in actual fact merely concrete manifestations of the one single sacrament already described. I will elaborate on how this is the case shortly.

The Sunnah requirements for all of these sacraments and ordinances are described in the various apostolic Christian traditions that are to be found throughout the world: Coptic, Byzantine, Latin, West Syrian, East Syrian, Armenian, Mormon, Lutheran, Anglican etc. And even within these apostolic traditions there are variations in the rulings and laws that are followed, for example in the Byzantine churches there are many major and minor variations in how the sacraments are performed. A broad example would be how Western Christians consider it Sunnah to use unleavened bread during the Eucharist, whereas Eastern Christians consider it Sunnah to use leavened bread. Another example would be how Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Christians consider it to be Sunnah to baptise by merely sprinkling water on the head of the catechumen or baby in the shape of a cross, whereas many other Christians consider it to be Sunnah and essential to baptise by full immersion. The Latter Day Saints, in their interpretation of Christian law, take this particular requirement so seriously that they actually consider a baptism to be invalid if even a single hair remains above the water.

Let’s examine how the singular sacramental promise manifests under the form of the traditional seven sacraments

The Catholic Sacraments

The Catholic Sacrament of Baptism

502016177_univ_lsr_xl[1].jpgBaptism manifests the promise and intends to convey “Spiritual cleanliness”, “Justification”, “Forgiveness”, “Entry into the New Creation (Eschaton)”. The symbolism is that of dying as one goes under the water, and resurrecting as they come out of the water. (Clearly the symbolism gets a bit muddied in the Christian traditions which don’t practice baptism by immersion)

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

As long as the minister intends to convey the promise (ie, to forgive, clean and justify), it doesn’t actually matter whether you use water or the Trinitarian formula (“I baptise you in the name of the father and the son and the Holy Spirit”). So baptisms which don’t involve water and don’t use the correct formula are in actual fact still valid. However remember the Sunnah requirements. If you want to perform the sacrament in accord with the rules of sacramental perfection, you should follow an apostolic tradition, and use water and the Trinitarian formula. However in a pinch, any liquid or substance that can be sprinkled will do; the exact words used don’t matter, and the only requirements for validity are those that were spelt out earlier in this article for the singular sacrament of promise.

The Catholic Sacrament of Confession

Confession3-258x258[1].jpgConfession is a sacramental reminder of the promise that was spoken during baptism. It is referred to as the promise of absolution, because in this sacrament the promise is applied specifically to wash away guilt. When we confess our sins and receive the promise of absolution, it is a reminder of the one, single promise that we are loved by God, and he will never abandon us, and generally speaking trusting in this promise leads to an absolution of guilt. After confession, you simply don’t feel guilty any more, you feel free, because you trust the promise that was spoken. Unfortunately many scrupulous Catholics don’t realise that this promise is eternal, and they end up sinning the moment they leave the confessional, forgetting the promise, and thus returning to the state of feeling horrible, soul crushing guilt.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

Traditionally, Catholics and Orthodox have understood this sacrament to require a validly ordained priest. However according to the generic rules of validity outlined earlier, this is not strictly necessary, and anyone can validly absolve anyone else in an emergency. However, when striving to follow the Christian tradition perfectly and observe the Sunnah, it is important to leave the administration of this sacrament up to the highest ranked ordained ministers who are present. So if there are priests available, leave this sacrament to them.

As long as the minister intends to speak the promise of absolution and forgiveness, it doesn’t actually matter what formula is used. But if striving to follow Sunnah, it is appropriate to use the Trinitarian formula (“I absolve you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”)

The Catholic Sacrament of Confirmation

index.jpegConfirmation is the sacrament where election and predestination are promised, via the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Someone who is confirmed has received the promise that God will never abandon them until they successfully arrive in the eschaton.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

As with Confession, as long as the minister intends to promise election and predestination, the sacrament is valid; and so long as the one being confirmed trusts the promise, the sacrament is efficacious. There is no specified minimum form and matter. So it doesn’t matter what substance is used (traditionally holy chrism) and it doesn’t matter what sacramental words are spoken, so long as the promise is conveyed and understood correctly. However again, it is more appropriate to use an apostolic verbal formula and holy oil during the administration of this sacrament. In accordance with the apostolic Christian Sunnah.

Again, it does not ultimately matter who performs this sacrament. A Hindu can confirm a Muslim. However it is more appropriate for the highest ranking cleric present to do it. So in the absence of a bishop, leave it to a priest. In the absence of a priest, leave it to a deacon, and so on.

The Catholic Sacrament of Last Rites and Extreme Unction

index (1).jpegLast rites serves as a reminder of the promise at the most crucial moment of a persons life: right before they are about to die. The process of dying is a final battle, where Satan and all his demons swoop in and do battle with Michael and all his angels. The Devil accuses the person who is dying of all of their sins, and so it is helpful for a person to have the gospel promise fresh in their memory as armour and a weapon against this onslaught of evil and temptation.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

So long as the minister intends to remind the dying sinner of the gospel promise, the general rules of validity outlined earlier are all that matter: There must be intent, understanding, and faith. And anyone is a valid minister. But to perform the sacrament perfectly it should be done according to the rubrics of a valid apostolic tradition.

The Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass

eucharist[1].jpgThe Eucharist manifests the promise for the purpose of giving us a tangible direction of worship, and symbolising our unity with the divine via eating. The particular aspect of the promise that is emphasised is “I am truly with you. And I am uniting myself to you”.

Whenever a consecrated host is eaten by a believer, the heavenly sacrifice and heavenly liturgy are made present. However this sacrifice and liturgy is made more perfectly present by the observation of a rich and symbolic liturgical rite. Such liturgical rites can indeed be invented out of thin air (As Vatican II demonstrated), but respect for tradition is key, and it is preferable to observe a traditional liturgy.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

As long as the minister intends to really, truly, tangibly make God present under a manifest/mundane form, this sacrament is valid. Importantly, there is no necessary prescription for form and matter: so it is possible to consecrate literally any object. Rice, wine, bread, whiskey, icecream. Even a rock or a painting could be validly consecrated. However if the consecration is occurring in the context of the mass, the matter should be something edible. Of course there are prudential considerations, such as choosing a substance that doesn’t crumble and won’t be abused. So even though it is possible to consecrate icecream, this is a bad idea as it will lead to Eucharistic desecration as the icecream melts. As before, the exact minister of the sacrament does not matter: it could be a priest or a lay person. Ordination is not necessary. And the words of institution are not necessary either, just so long as the promise and message is accurately conveyed. (There is actually already an apostolic precedent for this view in the Assyrian Church of the East. They do not include the words of institution in their liturgy, and yet it is still recognised as valid by the Catholic magisterium)

These flexible requirements allow a more permanent object to be consecrated for the purpose of extended adoration, such as a crystal or golden statue. At the same time they allow for a wide variety of edible substances to be consecrated, to cater to different allergies and dietary restrictions that recipients of the sacrament may be subject to.

Of course, to follow the requirements of Sunnah, the classical sacramental words of institution should be employed (“This is my body, this is my blood”), and bread and wine should be chosen for the elements. And as per usual, the highest ranking ordained minister should perform the rite. Furthermore, the rubrics of the liturgical rite should be followed as closely as possible, with the correct vestments, hymns, readings and so on chosen. But none of this is necessary, merely preferred.

The Catholic Sacrament of Marriage

married-by-mom-and-dad-arranged-marriage.jpegMarriage is when two spouses speak the promise to each other as individuals. Firstly the groom acts as God in promising salvation and fidelity to his wife, and then the bride acts as God in doing the same back to her new husband. Mystically speaking, this sacrament is the most perfect manifestation of the fact that “God promises salvation to God”.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

The husband must intend to promise “I love you and will never leave you until you are saved” to his wife, and vice versa. Gay marriage becomes possible, as well as polygamy and polyamory. No special words are mandated, just so long as the promise is accurately conveyed and trusted by both partners.

Of course to perform the sacrament according to the Sunnah of apostolic Christianity, the groom and bride should both use the “I marry you” sacramental formula and follow whatever other rules are specified by the Christian tradition in question. For example, according to most traditional strands of Christianity, marriage is Sunnah when it is between a man and a woman, but not when it is between two people of the same sex.

Note that under these flexible requirements, it is technically possible for children to validly get married. But obviously there are Sunnah restrictions on this practice, as there are lots of ethical concerns and issues.

The Catholic Sacrament of Holy orders

ordination[1].jpgHoly Orders is actually very similar to the Eucharist, however instead of an inanimate object being consecrated and transubstantiated, a human person becomes consecrated and transubstantiated, in such a way that they manifest God and divine authority for the benefit of some community.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

The minister performing the ordination must intend to promise to some third party that they possess the divine authority, and the community must trust that promise. This bestowal of authority more perfectly makes present God to a community. The promise in this case is similar to the Eucharistic promise: “This is (or represents) God; trust him!”

Again, it doesn’t matter who ordains who for validity. So an isolated community can validly raise up an ordained leader from amongst themselves in an emergency. However to follow the Sunnah of the apostolic traditions, the person performing the ordination should be in the line of apostolic succession and higher in authority than the person being ordained.

Interestingly, the validity of the ordination depends on the recognition of that authority by a community. If a priest were to travel to a foreign country and try to exercise his priestly authority in a community other than the one in which he was ordained, he may very well be laughed at. Authority demands recognition, or it is no authority at all.

Interestingly, it becomes possible for someone to be ordained directly by God, apart from apostolic succession. Allegedly this happened in the case of Saint Paul and Joseph Smith. And it becomes possible for an isolated community to raise up a bishop (or perhaps even a pope) ex nihilo.

This principle lends validity to religious hierarchies that naturally develop all around the world. Muslims tend to raise up imams and sheiks from amongst their own ranks, and this is a form of sacramental ordination apart from the Christian traditions. It is the same with Hinduism and Buddhism. Wherever strong, religious leadership emerges, there is usually a valid expression of sacramental ordination in play. Mormon Apostles and Prophets are therefore just as validly ordained as Catholic bishops and priests, and there can technically be more than one Pope, as the authority of the Pope depends on the recognition of the people. However at the top of every hierarchy, whether religious or secular, there is only one God. So above the Pope, and above the Ayatollah, and above the Queen, and above the American President, there is God. Democracy is a form of secular ordination that may or may not have a certain sacramental character, as leaders are chosen by the people and raised up from the people.

Roman Catholic Novus Ordo Latin Rite Sunday Mass at Saint Fiacre’s Leichhardt – “Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice”

As a Roman Catholic, I have the obligation to attend mass on Sundays, and the privilege of attending mass every day of the week if I so choose. Every day all around the world, Latin Catholic parishes offer the sacrifice of the mass. My local parish of St Fiacre’s Leichhardt is no exception.

The sacrifice of the mass is as mysterious to outsiders today as it was 2000 years ago. Rumours of Catholics engaging in cannibalism have proliferated down through history to the present day, as tales of the faithful “eating flesh” and “drinking blood” on Sundays are whispered among those who are not on the inside of this the worlds biggest cult.

But what actually happens behind the doors of a Catholic church during mass?

The Divine Liturgy

Catholics have a very high view of liturgy. Liturgy is basically whatever a group of people does when they come together. Buddhists have liturgy, Muslims have liturgy, Christians have liturgy. However unlike their evangelical brethren – whose liturgy might simply consist of singing a couple of songs, passing around the collection plate and listening to a painfully long sermon – Catholics consider their liturgy to be inspired and literally the Word of God. Catholics believe that God the Holy Spirit is active during the liturgy and divinely reveals himself through the prayers and movements.

IMG_1074.JPGWhen asked why we should believe that the bible is inspired and that God speaks through it, evangelical Christians never have a good response. They are generally brought up to believe in the inspiration of scripture as axiomatic, something not to be questioned or doubted. When pushed on this point, some evangelicals end up apostatising as they realise that “their house is built on sand”, which is to say that their faith has absolutely no rational, reasonable, logical grounding, instead resting entirely on blind faith.

Not so with the Catholic! When a Catholic is asked why the bible is inspired, he can confidently respond with “Because we read it during the liturgy, and if the liturgy is inspired then the bible is too.” Why is the liturgy inspired? That’s a question for another time, but let it be said that the answer is closely related to the holy tradition of the apostolic succession of bishops that stretches back in time all the way to the apostles and the Godman, Jesus Christ himself.

So what is the liturgy, often referred to as “the mass” all about? What actually happens?

The first thing to be grappled with when entering into a mass is the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar determines which prayers are to be said on any given day, which portions of scripture are to be read, which psalms are to be recited, as well as the liturgical colours that the priest must wear and the church must be decorated with. Every little detail of the mass is scripted out according to the particular day and liturgical season.

Today just so happens to be the first Sunday of the season of Advent, according to the Novus Ordo Latin Liturgical Calendar. As such the priest wore purple vestments, and certain parts of the church were decorated in purple.

Leichhardt parish is run by the Capuchin Friars. The Capuchins are a group of monks in the Franciscan “mendicant friar” tradition. Mendicant friars are essentially monks who live in the towns and cities, ministering to the average citizens and the poor. In comparison to this there are the “Cloistered monks”, who are monks that isolate themselves from the world, living either in solitude as hermits or in community with each other in monasteries, where they pray all day long.

IMG_1076St Fiacre’s Leichhardt does not have a choir or organ, and musical accompaniment to the mass is provided by members of the Neo-Catechumenal way with guitars and singing (The Neo-cats are another recently formed subgroup within Catholicism who have adopted a somewhat more Charismatic approach to the faith).

Catholics who adhere to “traditionalist” strands of Catholicism often object to the presence of guitars during the liturgy, claiming that it detracts from the reverence and sacredness appropriate to such an important event. There is a cultural battle being waged within the church between the Charismatic and Traditionalist parties for control of the mass, with many Catholic publications labelling the situation as a “crisis”. The traditionalists want to see more Latin, more Gregorian chant, a return of the organ. The Charismatics want to see more English, more modern music, drums and guitars, less scripted movements and more spontaneous prayers.

Aside from the presence of guitars, and a distinct lack of Latin during the liturgy, St Fiacre’s strikes me as a more conservative, traditional parish.

The Liturgy Begins

The Introduction

As the clock strikes 9:30am, some small hand held bells are shaken as a signal that the mass has begun. Everyone stands up as the priest walks up to the altar, and the entire church recites what is called the “Entrance Antiphon”; a short extract from the psalms. Today this was from Psalm 24:1-5:

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.

In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.

Nor let my enemies exult over me;

and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

After this, once the priest has taken his position before the altar, he recites the Trinitarian formula “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and makes the sign of the cross with his hand. The congregation follows his motions and at the conclusion of the gesture respond with “Amen”.

The priest continues:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

To which the people simultaneously and cheerfully respond:

And with your spirit!

The priest goes on:

Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.

This is followed by 15 seconds of silence, during which it is expected that everyone attempts to bring to mind their failings and imperfections over the past week, so as to bring them to God and ask for forgiveness.

Eventually the silence is broken as the priest intones the first words of an ancient prayer, the confiteor. The congregation joins in and together everyone recites:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

at this point everyone strikes their chest three times in coordination with the words that follow:

through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

After this, the priest delivers what is called a “general absolution” as he says

May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

And the congregation responds with “Amen”.

IMG_1072After this, the most ancient part of the liturgy is recited, the Kyrie. The priest chants “Lord, have mercy” and the congregation mirrors his words. He then chants “Christ have mercy” and once again the congregation repeats the invocation. Finally he again chants “Lord, have mercy” and once again the congregation returns the same phrase back to him.

The introduction of the liturgy is concluded with what is called a “collect”. The priest says “Let us pray.” and then follows this with a prayer which is unique to that day of the liturgical year. On this particular day, the first Sunday of Advent, the prayer read as follows:

Grant your faithful, we pray; almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Immediately the congregation says “Amen” and everyone returns to a sitting posture.

The Liturgy of the Word

At this point what is known as the Liturgy of the Word begins. This is the part of the mass where sections of scripture are read, psalms are prayed and the homily is delivered. This is the part of the mass which imparts inspiration to scripture. If not for this part of the mass, the bible would just be another book. But instead, by virtue of the fact that scripture is read during this section of the liturgy, all of scripture is considered to be inspired.

On a Sunday, there is one Old Testament reading, one New Testament reading, a psalm, and a section from one of the four Gospels. The readings today were Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 24:4-14,  1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 and finally some sections from Luke 21.

After each reading, the reader (sometimes called a “lector”) pronounces “The word of the Lord” to which the congregation responds “Thanks be to God”. After the Gospel reading, the congregation instead responds with “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ”

The congregation sits during the readings, but stands for the Gospel reading, and prior to commencing the reading everyone makes what is known as the “Solemn sign of the cross”. This is a threefold cross motion where you first cross your forehead with your thumb, then cross your lips, then cross your heart. It is a more intense version of the usual sign of the cross.

For the Psalm today, the guitarist set the psalm to music by strumming a Spanish tune and singing the words. The congregation entered into the “Call and response”, reciting the response line at the appropriate intervals.

IMG_1077After all of these readings and liturgical songs, everyone takes their seat as the priest mounts the pulpit to deliver a short homily.

Catholic Sunday homilies typically only last for 15 minutes, which is a stark contrast to the 40-60 minute sermons that are heard in evangelical communities. Today’s homily was about the true meaning of Christmas, and how the modern secular world has completely distorted the ancient holiday into an excuse to engage in an orgy of materialistic spending.

Once the homily had concluded, the priest resumed his throne behind the altar and silently sat, allowing the congregation to spend some time praying and processing what had been said.

After a short time, the priest rose from his seat and launched into the Apostles creed, with the congregation following along:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

After this, a member of the congregation ascended the pulpit and started reciting prayerful petitions, asking God’s favour for the parish, the church, the poor and suffering and the world. As she concluded, the liturgy of the word was brought to an end.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist

At this point we arrived at the heart of the liturgy. It has attracted many names throughout history, including “The Lord’s supper” and “The heavenly banquet”. This is the core of the mass. It is supposedly exactly equivalent to the moment where Christ offers himself to the father for the sins of the world, thus securing the salvation of the entire cosmos. If you go to church and witness the Liturgy of the Eucharist, it is helpful to understand the significance of what you are looking at: you are beholding the salvation of the cosmos, before your very eyes you are seeing it happen and the drama is unfolding in front of you on the altar.

The priest whispers some quiet prayers (which are otherwise spoken audibly if you attend a weekday mass) and then addresses the congregation:

Pray; brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

To which the congregation in perfect unison responds:

May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.

The priest continues:

Accept, we pray; O Lord, these offerings we make, gathered from among your gifts to us, and may what you grant us to celebrate devoutly here below gain for us the prize of eternal redemption. Through Christ our Lord.

And the people all say “Amen”.

At this point the mass enters into the Eucharistic prayer; the most ancient part of the liturgy, stretching all the way back to St Peter himself.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right and just.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.

And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

At this point the entire congregation kneels, as the priest enters into the Canon of the mass, the most important prayer of the entire proceedings, which is believed to have the power to change the essence of the bread and wine on the altar into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord: that you accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices, which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church. Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant Francis our Pope and Anthony our Bishop, and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.

Remember, Lord, your servants and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them: for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true.

In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph, her Spouse, your blessed Apostles and Martyrs, Peter and Paul, Andrew, and all your Saints; we ask that through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by your protecting help.

Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND EAT OF IT, FOR THIS IS MY BODY, WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.

IMG_1073After invoking these words, the priest picks up the wafer and holds it above his head for the congregation to worship and adore, because it is believed that with these words, the bread is no longer bread: it has become the very body of Jesus himself. God in the flesh, dwelling among us.

The priest then drops the Eucharist back onto the altar and falls down in worship. The congregation follows suit.

When the priest rises, he continues the long and lofty prayer:

In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands, and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT, FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT, WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.

Once again the priest holds up the chalice that earlier contained wine, now believed to have literally become the blood of Jesus. The entire congregation silently adores and worships for a short time, before the priest returns the chalice to the altar and prostrates, with the congregation following in the motion.

When the priest rises, he intones the words “The mystery of faith” and the congregation responds with

Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free.

The priest returns to the long canon prayer:

Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension in o heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.

Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim. In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, and all your Saints; admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord. Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.

IMG_1075The priest then picks up both the chalice and the Eucharist and holds one above the other as he recites:

Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.

This is followed by what is called the great amen. The entire congregation does a long, loud, triumphant, drawn out “Amen”.

The priest returns the Eucharist and the chalice to the altar and invites the congregation to recite the lords prayer.

Once this is completed, the priest commands the congregation to give each other the sign of peace. At this point everyone turns to their neighbour and shakes their hand or performs some other friendly gesture, while saying “Peace be with you”.

Soon after this, the priest launches into the agnus dei, another ancient prayer, and the congregation joins in:

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Everyone kneels once again, as the priest breaks the large Eucharistic host in half and holds it up for all to see, saying:

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

To which the congregation responds by beating their chests and reciting the prayer of the centurion:

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

At this point the priest consumes the Eucharist, confirming that the sacrifice has been accomplished.

Music is performed as everyone lines up to receive their own portion of the Eucharist. It is a very serious and reverent moment, as the devout congregation believes that they are truly and legitimately eating God.

Once everyone has returned to their seats, the priest enters into the concluding rites:

Let us pray:

May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures. Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

Go forth, the Mass is ended.

Thanks be to God.

And with these words, the Divine liturgy comes to a close and the parishioners slowly pack up and filter out, ready to get on with the rest of their Sunday.

Conclusion

IMG_1079So what actually happened? In essence, the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was offered up to God the Father by God the Son, and the entire congregation was drawn into this movement by the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Priest served as Christ’s physical hands during the liturgy, and returned to being just another bloke once the liturgy had concluded. Blood was drunk, flesh was eaten, under the form of Bread and Wine. Salvation was sought, salvation was given. The entire cosmos was redeemed and saved.

All things come together during the mass. It is the pinnacle and turning point of history, where before we were falling head first into Hell, now we are flying at full speed towards Heaven. How great it is to witness the securing of salvation before you eyes. What a beautiful blessing. It’s a wonderful experience if you appreciate it, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

The Divine Liturgy in the Book of Hebrews – The Sacrifice of the Mass and the Cross

Hebrews 10:1-18 RSV-CE

10 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
but a body hast thou prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’
as it is written of me in the roll of the book.”

When he said above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”

17 then he adds,

“I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”

18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

When attacking Catholicism, Protestants will often rush to this passage of Hebrews to assert that Christ’s sacrifice occurred exactly once, and that the repeated sacrifice of the mass is therefore redundant and blasphemous. I personally have found it hard to respond to this attack. For the longest time I have had an intuitive understanding of the Catholic doctrine surrounding the sacrifice of the mass, but I have always struggled to articulate it in an apologetic context. When I try to explain how the mass is equivalent to the sacrifice of the cross, and yet not a repetition of that sacrifice I simply get tongue tied. I will set down some reflections in this post that may help shed some light on the issue.

The Heavenly Liturgy

A relevant question to ask: what exactly is Jesus doing up there in heaven? What does it mean that he is our great high priest? Hebrews 8 is informative:

Hebrews 8:1-7 RSV-CE

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second.

Sacrifice of the MassSo Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, he is a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent. What is he doing? He is perpetually, eternally and timelessly offering to the father his “once for all” sacrifice of Calvary. Basically, Jesus is currently up in heaven, eternally saying the sacrifice of the mass. But it is not a sacrifice of the mass like anything you’ve ever seen before: our masses and divine liturgies here on earth take many different forms and expressions, and none of them perfectly reflect the divine liturgy that is currently taking place up in heaven. The liturgy up in heaven is performed in a liturgical language that we do not understand, the movements and rituals involved are beyond our comprehension. Angels are serving and ministering at the heavenly altar. The entire church is the congregation, surrounding the altar and perfectly united to the sacrifice being eternally offered upon it.

Our sacrifices of the mass and divine liturgies here on earth manifest this one, single heavenly liturgy such that we here on earth are able to spiritually unite ourself to the hidden, heavenly reality.

The book of Hebrews is pretty insistent that there is now no longer any need for priests and sacrifices, because Christ performs all the necessary duties as our great high priest up in heaven. So how are we to understand the existence of Catholic and Orthodox priests? The answer: Catholic and Orthodox priests have the honour of sharing or “participating” in Christ’s Melchizedek priesthood. The Catholic priest is an “Alter Christus” – another Christ.

So when a priest says the sacrifice of the mass here on earth, what is actually happening is that he is manifesting the one, divine, heavenly liturgy in a certain way here on earth. This manifestation may take many different forms: the Byzantine liturgy, the Coptic liturgy, the Latin mass, etc. All these manifestations are different and unique, and yet they are intimately connected by the fact that all of them are manifesting the one, eternal, heavenly liturgy that is currently taking place up in heaven. Within this earthly manifestation of the heavenly liturgy, the priest represents Christ – he is an “Alter Christus”. In reality the only priest is Christ, but our ordained ministers have the honour of being his earthly hands in the offering of the Eucharist.

Sacrifice of the MassWhen the heavenly liturgy manifests on earth, the priest takes the place of Christ. A sacrifice of the mass or Divine Liturgy is like a sacramental, liturgical window into the heavenly liturgy: we are able to perceive hidden, heavenly realities with our senses. The liturgical language used during the sacrifice of the mass represents the divine, ineffable, incomprehensible liturgical language employed by Christ up in heaven (Which is one reason why it is appropriate to use Latin, or some other language which not many people understand during the liturgy – this more faithfully reflects the ineffable essence of the heavenly liturgy). The incense, bells, chant, movements, bread and wine engage all the senses and draw us into the hidden realities of the heavenly liturgy where Christ presides as our one high priest.

The Once For All Sacrifice

The earthly liturgy manifests the heavenly liturgy in such a perfect way, that the earthly liturgy can truly be said to be a sacrifice. It is important to keep in mind that the sacrifice itself happens only once: it was performed around 2000 years ago by Christ on the cross. However a Catholic sacrifice of the mass manifests this single sacrifice such that we are able to be liturgically drawn into it and unite ourselves to it more closely. Similarly, the earthly liturgy manifests the offering of the sacrifice which is eternally happening up in heaven, with Christ as both victim and high priest. This offering happens only once, as per the book of Hebrews, however it is manifested many times throughout history.

So how should we deal with the Protestant objection that the sacrifice of the mass is “re-sacrificing Christ”? This is a misunderstanding. Christ is sacrificed only once, and he is offered up only once; however this sacrifice and offering is manifested here on earth many times. The sacrifice occurred on the cross, and the offering up of that sacrifice occurs up in heaven during the heavenly liturgy, with Christ as the priest. However during the sacrifice of the mass, this heavenly liturgy is made manifest in a sacramental, liturgical, tangible way, so that we who are still alive here on earth are able to be drawn into the action. During the sacrifice of the mass, we truly witness both the sacrifice, and the offering of the sacrifice, however in reality it is an eternal event and it is inaccurate to say that it is happening “again”.

1458917927[1].jpgAn imperfect analogy is prudent: If you record a soccer game, and then replay it later, the game is manifested for you in a much more real and tangible way than if you had depended merely on your memory to recall the events of the game. When you record a soccer game, you can “replay” the game and witness the exact events all over again with perfect accuracy. However you would have to be out of your mind to say that the game is literally “happening again” when you press play on your recording. Similarly with the sacrifice of the mass: the sacrifice of the mass is like the ultimate “recording” of the heavenly liturgy: it manifests the original event so perfectly that it is as if we are actually present. However it is inaccurate to say that the sacrifice is “happening again”. It is instead a “memorial”, but it is a memorial which is so completely perfect that it is as if we are literally present at the original event. In the sacrifice of the mass we are liturgically remembering Christ’s sacrifice, and the offering of that sacrifice, however this memorial is so perfect that we may as well be witnessing the sacrifice itself.

Summary

Sacrifice of the MassChrist is not sacrificed many times – he was sacrificed only once. And this sacrifice is not offered many times – it is offered only once. This offering of the sacrifice occurs eternally up in heaven in the form of the heavenly liturgy, with Christ as the high priest and the entire church as the congregation. However our earthly liturgies manifest this heavenly liturgy. Our earthly liturgies serve as a perfect memorial of the single act of sacrifice and offering, and they so perfectly manifest the sacrifice and the offering that it is as if we are truly present and witnessing the event first hand.

So the sacrifice of Christ happened once and the offering happens once in the heavenly liturgy, and the manifestation of this heavenly liturgy occurs many times in the form of our many and varied divine liturgies.

Orthodoxy 101 – Magisterium, Scripture, Liturgy and Tradition: “What is Catholic Tradition?”

Mark 7:1-13 RSV-CE

Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”

Catholic TraditionThere is not much that Protestants, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals agree on, but if ever there was an ecumenical dogma which they could rally behind, it would be this condemnation of tradition by our Lord. Everything else is disputable, but this much is clear: Any tradition whatsoever is automatically suspect and heretical; all traditions must be renounced and discarded. The “word of God” must be the sole focus of our Christian reflection and piety.

So of course, when the faithful and thoughtful Catholic points out that tradition is unavoidable and it would therefore be a wise move to seek out the one, true, divine tradition that Jesus imparted to the apostles before his ascension; the venomous evangelicals spit and froth at the mouth, screaming “heresy” and obnoxiously accusing the polite and reserved Catholic of following “traditions of men”. Nowhere is Protestant ignorance and bigotry more manifest.

What these Protestants utterly fail to realise is that the traditions Jesus condemned were of an entirely different nature to the Apostolic, Catholic Tradition that Catholics proclaim. Unfortunately when Catholics are confronted by bloodthirsty Protestants on this point, and are put on the spot with a demand that they explain how the Catholic tradition is different; the Catholic often is unable to articulate clearly what exactly “Catholic Tradition” actually is. Catholics have an intuitive understanding of “Catholic Tradition”, however we seem to find it hard to articulate and convey in clear terms how it is that it should be understood.

The Apophatic Definition of Catholic Tradition

The basic definition of what Catholics mean by “Catholic Tradition”, is that it is the continuing life of Christ in the church. Apostolic, Catholic Tradition is what you encounter when you immerse yourself in the Spirit. It is a direct encounter with Christ. The Catholic Tradition is invisible and ineffable, it cannot be directly perceived, it must be experienced.

What Catholics tend to do when confronted about “Apostolic Tradition”, is to offer this “apophatic” definition. This definition is not actually wrong, but it is incredibly vague and intangible. The Protestant listens to this definition – and not fully understanding it – they reject it and hold up their bible, waving it around for emphasis while saying “I can touch and hold this. I can read it. Why do I need your mystical, invisible, immaterial, ill-defined catholic traditions?”

Catholic Tradition

At this point, the Catholic might introduce a touch of psychology: Everyone has bias, bias is inescapable. Baptists have bias; Presbyterians have bias; Anglicans have bias; Lutherans have bias; Catholics have bias etc. When these people approach scripture, they bring their bias and preconceived notions with them, and this shapes how they read the bible. “Catholic Tradition” in this context is merely the correct bias – By hanging out with Catholics, you naturally soak up the biases of the group and bring these biases to scripture, reading it in a certain way. The Catholic claim is that we are biased, but our bias is inspired by the Holy Spirit. In this way a Catholic who reads the bible is better off, because they are immersed in an inspired apostolic tradition which guides them to a correct reading of scripture.

Again, this is not completely wrong, but in my experience it tends to fly directly over the Evangelicals heads. They will start rambling on about the “clarity” of scripture in a pathetic attempt to deny the fact that bias has anything to do with scriptural interpretation. Supposedly the bible is so “clear” that it can cut through our bias and present the unadulterated truth directly to us. This is obviously utter nonsense, and this is easily demonstrable by observing the violent doctrinal disagreements that Sola Scriptura Fundamentalists get tangled up in while trying to decide with each other what the bible oh so clearly says.

The Catechism’s Definition of Apostolic Tradition

It is helpful to examine what the Church officially teaches concerning apostolic tradition. The current official stance of the church has been distilled into the paragraphs of the Catechism. While these definitions and reflections are not infallible, they are a helpful starting point for someone investigating these issues surrounding Catholic tradition.

II. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TRADITION AND SACRED SCRIPTURE

One common source. . .

80 “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age”.

. . . two distinct modes of transmission

81 “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

“And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”

82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”

 

The Magisterium of the Church

85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”

87 Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”, the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.

The dogmas of the faith

88 The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.

89 There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.

90 The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ. “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.”

The full page of the Catechism containing these extracts can be found here.

Apostolic TraditionThese extracts offer a decent, though incomplete picture of the relationship between Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium. Often the situation is presented as a metaphorical “three legged stool”. Scripture, Catholic Tradition and Magisterium are described as the three legs of a stool which the church sits on. Take any of them away and the whole thing topples over.

I personally think this usual explanation is a little misleading. It seems to set up scripture against Apostolic tradition as if they are two rival sources of revelation and Catholics just so happen to embrace them both, whereas Protestants only receive one of them as authoritative. This only gives ammunition to the Protestants who then quote these official church documents and go “See! These Catholics believe in scripture plus tradition. They are just like the Pharisees who Jesus condemned!” The same problem arises with the definition of Magisterium: The magisterium seems to be being presented as some sort of alternative authority over and above scripture and the apostolic tradition, and of course the cheeky Protestants cry fowl and accuse us of usurping the authority of God in favour of the authority of men. In reality Catholics believe no such thing. The most accurate way to describe the situation is that Catholics believe in a single authoritative deposit of faith, the entirety of which is referred to as Apostolic Tradition. However this is a deposit of faith which grows as history marches on, and scripture is only one component of this Catholic Tradition.

Visible Manifestations of the Invisible Catholic Tradition

Recall the Apophatic definition of catholic tradition. Catholic Tradition is inspired, ineffable, invisible, intangible. This is a good starting point. We spiritually live within this invisible apostolic tradition. However the ineffable catholic tradition manifests in three concrete ways, which roughly correspond to the three legs of the aforementioned “three legged stool”. The three manifestations are thus: The scriptural apostolic tradition, the liturgical apostolic tradition, and the dogmatic apostolic tradition. These three apostolic traditions reflect the intangible and invisible Catholic tradition in a way that people can directly perceive and interact with.

Scriptural Apostolic Tradition

The Scriptural Apostolic Tradition is larger and more multifaceted than most people would realise, Catholics and Protestants alike. It consists of all translations and editions of scripture that have been implicitly received by all the apostolic communities around the world, as well as any translations or editions which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. As such, the Scriptural Apostolic Tradition contains the Vulgate, the Septuagint, the Peshitta, the Greek New Testament, the Douay-Rheims, the RSV-CE and so on. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to respect all of these translations and editions. Priority is not given to any particular edition or translation, not even the original languages. All of the translations within the scriptural apostolic tradition are considered equally inspired and authoritative.

Liturgical Apostolic Tradition

Similar to the Scriptural Apostolic Tradition, the Liturgical Apostolic Tradition consists of all liturgies which have been implicitly received by apostolic communities around the world, as well as all liturgies which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. Liturgies which have been implicitly received would include the Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian liturgies, whereas liturgies which have been explicitly approved would include those of the Anglican Ordinariate, the Novus Ordo, the Neo-Catechumenal Use and the Tridentine Liturgy. A Catholic theologian must draw on the prayers, movements and symbolisms of all these different liturgies whilst formulating his theology. The maxim “lex orandi lex credendi” applies here: the Church believes as she prays. As such it is important to pay close attention to the many and varied liturgical rituals of the Church.

Dogmatic Apostolic Tradition

This is the “Divine Clarification” aspect of the Catholic tradition. When the bishops of the church meet together in an ecumenical council approved by the Pope and come up with a list of canons or anathemas, these statements are considered divinely inspired and a crucial component of the Holy Apostolic Tradition. The Pope can also define canons and anathemas outside of council. This list of infallible, inspired dogmatic statements grows as time marches on. New Dogmas can be established, but old ones can never be repealed. Once a dogma is defined it is set in stone for all time. Old dogmas can be “annulled” only if there is conclusive proof that they were never actually officially promulgated.

Dogmas are intended to clarify the Catholic tradition, making it’s boundaries more clear and defined. For example the biblical canon is a dogma which establishes the boundaries and limits of scripture.

All three of these components of the Catholic tradition may grow with time. New translations may be introduced to the Scriptural Apostolic Tradition. New Liturgies may be approved, or existing liturgies may evolve, thus adding to the Liturgical Apostolic Tradition. The list of dogmas grows as time goes by, thus expanding the Dogmatic Apostolic tradition. Catholic Tradition is dynamic, not static. As language evolves, so does the scripture. As heresies rise and fall, the dogmas grow. As the spirit moves the church, new liturgies are introduced and old liturgies are altered.

Apostolic TraditionRemember, Catholic tradition is fundamentally invisible, and ineffable. It is something which you experience, something which you must live and breath, something that you must pray through. It is not primarily something which you “study”. It is only by praying your way into the Catholic tradition that you will truly encounter Christ. As such, merely studying the bible will not draw you into this sacred apostolic tradition or introduce you to Jesus: you must pray your way through the sacred words of holy writ. Incidentally this is why Catholics do not have “bible studies”, we instead have lectio divina – prayerful reading. Similarly, merely being present during a liturgy is not enough, you must unite yourself to the divine drama unfolding before you through deep, fervent and meditative prayer. Similarly with the dogmas, it is not enough to know them as some sort of check list of propositions to be believed, instead they are to be prayerfully received and trusted as lights along the path that leads to the fullness of the truth – Christ himself. They should be prayerfully wrestled with just as you would wrestle with scripture.

The magisterium has the task of defining the boundaries of these three things. The magisterium sets the canon of scripture, and approves new editions/translations. It also recognises certain liturgies as inspired, and has the authority to make additions and alterations to existing liturgies or introduce entirely new ones. And of course it is the task of the magisterium to receive divine clarification in the form of dogmas via Pope or council.

An important final note: it is not the task of the magisterium to provide an infallible interpretation of scripture, or the deposit of faith more broadly. The magisterium does indeed provide an interpretation for the sake of the common man who wants to be a faithful catholic and does not have the time to formulate his own unique position, but this interpretation is entirely fallible and disputable, merely representing the distilled sensus fidelium at the current point in history. Theologians are free to dispute almost anything the magisterium says. Theologians are only forced to respect the infallibility and inspiration of the three components of the Apostolic Tradition defined in the post. Beyond that they are free to speculate until the cows come home.

Conclusion

Next time you’re in a discussion with a Protestant about Catholic Tradition, try to keep in mind the three-fold definition presented in this post. Catholic Tradition is indeed invisible, ineffable and intangible, however it manifests in exactly three ways: Liturgy, Scripture and Dogma. These three ways are visible, effable and tangible manifestations of the Apostolic Tradition, similarly to how Christ visibly manifests the invisible, ineffable, intangible God. All three of these manifestations are inspired and authoritative, and Protestants are doing themselves a disservice by only receiving the scriptural apostolic tradition while rejecting the liturgical and dogmatic catholic traditions. Scripture is not separate to apostolic tradition, scripture IS apostolic tradition.

Hermeneutics 101 – Sola Scriptura Protestantism: Private Interpretation and the Scope of Catholic Theology

One of the complaints that Catholics commonly throw at Protestants is that their doctrine of “Private Interpretation” leads to doctrinal anarchy: When you’re doing theology with a mindset of “The Bible, the Holy Spirit and Me” it’s inevitably going to lead to massively inflated egos, widespread doctrinal disagreements and an intensely burning pride.

What I recently realised is that Catholics are almost in the same boat as Protestants. The fact that Catholics have a magisterium doesn’t necessarily change anything: in the end Catholic theology boils down to “private interpretation”. The question needs to be asked however; private interpretation of what? I will answer this question shortly.

Sheep and Shepherds

Private InterpretationIt seems apparent to me that there are basically two ways to “do religion”. The first involves just accepting and familiarising yourself with whatever the church officially teaches, without questioning or disagreeing with anything. If you are being a Catholic in this way, you don’t necessarily “switch off your brain”, as you may very well try to wrestle with the doctrines presented to you and try to make sense of them, but you do go with the flow and just subscribe to official teaching without question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is particularly important to someone doing Catholicism in this way, as it clearly spells out exactly what the church teaches on pretty much every issue. Often when arguing with someone who “does Catholicism” in this way, they will throw quotes from the Catechism at you as if doing so definitively settles the issue and totally closes the argument: “no more discussion necessary, the church has spoken, case closed”.

People who follow this first path are actually are to be commended. This way of approaching Catholicism is actually entirely appropriate for the majority of Christians. It is simply a brute fact of life that not everyone has the time, inclination and calling to wrestle with 2000 years of church tradition, scripture, biblical languages, theology and philosophy. Not everyone is called to be a theologian or an exegete. Not everyone is called to study the bible. However everyone is called to submit to Christ, and to the church which he founded. We are the sheep and they are the shepherds. The sheep’s duty is simple: follow the shepherd wherever the shepherd may lead. In this way, it is entirely appropriate to fall back on the official interpretations of the church, which have been distilled and refined over 2000 years and represent the sensus fidelium at the current point in time. It is a brute fact of life that most people don’t have the time to engage in theology; their time is largely occupied by the hard work and more pressing issue of being a good programmer, plumber, carpenter, student, doctor etc. For such people, it is a blessing to have an official interpretation which they can depend on for their faith, whilst being active and occupied in the “real world”. Such people don’t have time for private interpretation.

Private Interpretation as Discerning the Light

Private InterpretationThere is however a second way of “doing Catholicism”, this way is the path of the theologian. The theologian recognises that the official interpretation of the church is not infallible. The theologian understands that the sensus fidelium is not infallible. The theologian knows that the Pope is not infallible. The theologian always keeps in mind that the Catechism is just one fallible voice among many.

Rather than simply following whatever the church says, the theologian has decided to embark on a much more difficult journey: the journey of private interpretation. This is a journey which involves the theologian familiarising himself with 2000 years of church documents, writings of the church fathers, scripture translations and editions, biblical and liturgical languages, philosophy, theology and so on.

When doing private interpretation, the theologian is entirely justified in disagreeing with the official teaching of the church. The theologian is more acutely aware of the limits and bounds of infallibility. If there is something suspect in the official teaching of the church, he will call it out.

If you are following this second path, you have already entered into the realm of “private interpretation”: what you end up believing will probably be completely different to what everyone else believes. And yet despite this the problem of “doctrinal anarchy” which plagues Protestantism will not be a problem for you. The reason why is that Catholicism is a dogmatic system which has something akin to continuing revelation which I refer to as Divine Clarification. Despite the fact that the deposit of faith was “once for all delivered to the saints”, it is not a static thing: it is something which grows and develops with time.

Private Interpretation of The Deposit of Faith

Private InterpretationIt is helpful to first establish what a historical-critical Protestant believes to be the Deposit of Faith. Such a Protestant believes that the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the 66 books of the reformation bible are the entire deposit of faith. Case closed. If you are a protestant theologian this is all you need to work with. Learn Hebrew, Learn Greek and get down to the hard work of exegeting and privately interpreting scripture. Translations are helpful but they hold a lesser authority to the original languages and can therefore be safely discarded when doing private interpretation and serious theology.

I would like to register a reservation with this perspective before moving on. Firstly, we no longer have access to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. We only have critical editions and copies of copies, all of which differ with each other. Protestants often respond to this by saying that the differences are “insignificant”. I personally am unimpressed with this line of argument, as it would imply that parts of sacred scripture can be safely discarded, which is surely a blasphemous conclusion. While we can have confidence that our critical editions are close to the originals, we have no actual infallible guarantee that this is the case, and there is therefore a cloud of uncertainty constantly hovering over such versions of scripture.

In any case, this is the protestant version of the deposit of faith: the 66 book canon, read in the original languages.

Private InterpretationCompare this with the Catholic deposit of faith. The Catholic deposit of faith is a massive behemoth to behold. A Catholic does not merely have to concern himself with the scriptures in their original languages; he also has to take into account all translations of the scripture which have been implicitly received by an apostolic tradition or explicitly approved by the magisterium of the church. In this way, a Catholic does not have to work with a single bible or a single translation; he instead has to take into account a massive plethora of translations and editions. The Vulgate has authority, but the Septuagint with Greek New Testament holds equal authority. The Peshitta has authority, but the RSV-CE holds equal authority. Approved Spanish editions of Scripture are just as inspired and authoritative as approved French editions. The more languages a Catholic theologian knows, the more of the deposit of faith he is able to familiarise himself with and therefore the more effectively he is able to do theology.

But the Catholic deposit of faith doesn’t end there. The only reason that scripture is inspired, is that it is read in the context of the Divine Liturgy. The received apostolic liturgies of the church are inspired by the Holy Spirit: God speaks through the liturgy well before he speaks through scripture. But this only makes the Catholic theologian’s job even harder: not only does he have to concern himself with all the approved editions of scripture, he also has to be familiar with all the different apostolic and approved liturgies that are to be found throughout the world and within the church! And of course, a liturgy is not something that can be experienced by reading a book; it is not something which you can understand just by watching it on Youtube or reading about it on Wikipedia; a liturgy has to be lived and breathed. You must participate in the liturgy and pray through it. You must be physically present. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city like Sydney, many of these liturgies can be found within a 50km radius. However if you’re living out in the country side, you’ll be lucky to get a single Latin Mass.

But wait, there’s more! The Catholic deposit of faith has another component: the dogmatic tradition. The dogmatic tradition is the Divine Clarification which I mentioned earlier. This dogmatic tradition consists of all the infallible statements produced by ecumenical councils and all ex cathedra statements pronounced by Popes. A Catholic theologian has to take this entire tradition into account and do justice to it during his private interpretation.

To review: Both the Catholic and the Protestant theologian are engaging in private interpretation. The only difference is the scope of the “raw data” that the respective theologians have to deal with. A Protestant theologian only has to deal with 66 Greek and Hebrew books, whereas a Catholic theologian has to deal with a multitude of scriptural translations, a plethora of divine liturgies and 2000 years of dogmatic pronouncements during his attempts at private interpretation.

The Strength of Catholicism

After reading the previous section, you might think that the Protestant is better off: he doesn’t have to deal with so much raw material during his theological inquiries. However there’s one important difference between these two conceptions of the deposit of faith: The Protestant version is entirely static, whereas the Catholic version is dynamic.

As the collective Catholic understanding of the deposit of faith grows, this understanding is codified and added back in to the deposit of faith itself in the form of a fresh dogma. After this happens, future theologians are forced to take the new dogma into account during their theological adventures. The dogma is set in stone, it can never be revoked (although perhaps it may be “annulled” if there is doubt surrounding whether or not it was ever officially promulgated). This keeps the Catholic church moving forward in it’s understanding: as the church encounters controversies and issues, it deliberates and investigates and comes to a conclusion; this conclusion is then codified in a dogma and inserted into the dogmatic tradition, where it will remain forever. This is how doctrinal development occurs.

Consider for a moment what would happen if everyone were following the “first way” of doing Catholicism described above. There would never be any development! Everyone would just accept the churches current interpretation of the deposit of faith and not try to push the envelope to any degree. This is why – ironically – private interpretation is actually a crucial component of Catholic theological development. Individual people who are following the “theologian” path all come together, raise issues, argue with each other, start up passionate debates. This sometimes leads to massive controversies in the church, at which point the magisterium steps in and declares a dogma, definitively deciding between the two parties.

Private InterpretationThis process of dogmatic Divine Clarification also forces theologians to stay largely on the same page and avoid the doctrinal anarchy which so plagues Protestantism. Even though theologians may disagree on important issues, they are forced to work within the same dynamic deposit of faith, and this keeps them in agreement on issues that the magisterium has already dogmatically pronounced on. They may disagree on the interpretation of the deposit of faith, however they cannot deny the deposit of faith itself.

Compare all of this with the static Protestant system: The Protestant system is entirely unable to respond to change and is prevented from developing. The protestants have a battle cry – “Semper Reformanda” – which is supposed to be taken as a call for the church to be “always reforming”. In theory this is supposed to imply a rejection of all dogma, however in practice most if not all Protestants have their own “pet doctrines” which they cling to dogmatically and will not budge from even when shown contradictory evidence.

In any case, the Protestant deposit of faith is entirely static: it cannot respond to fresh questions that are posed of it. They have no magisterium which can introduce new and authoritative clarifying dogmas into the religion. They are stuck in the past. They are forced to depend entirely upon the fallible historical-critical method for all of their exegetical attempts. They deny the inspired voice of the church in the present age. All of this results in a church community which is constantly going around in circles and reinventing the wheel. Where Catholics have dogmatically defined the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the Protestants are constantly having to rediscover these ideas afresh in the pages of scripture. Unfortunately, due to their over-reliance on the entirely fallible historical-critical method, many Protestants have begun to jettison many of these crucial Christian ideas. Many Christians have become Unitarians, or modern day Arians, denying the divinity of Christ. Unlike Catholicism, there is no “dogmatic spine” holding up the Protestant theological body. Protestants agree on the same deposit of faith, but beyond that they are free to disagree with each other at the level of private interpretation and they are doomed to disagree with each other until Jesus comes back. Again, compare to the Catholic system: Catholic theologians may disagree with each other over their respective private interpretations for a time, but as the ages march on and the magisterium declares more and more dogmas, the theologian’s many and varied opinions will coalesce into a single infallible interpretation.

Conclusion: Private Interpretation is Necessary for Catholicism to Function

To summarise: The Catholic deposit of faith is large and multifaceted, encompassing all received and approved bible translations, all apostolic liturgies and all infallible statements within the dogmatic tradition. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to take this entire deposit of faith into account. The end result is a form of Private Interpretation that is restricted and guided by the dogmatic tradition. However rather than being destructive and dangerous for the church, this limited private interpretation is a crucial component of doctrinal development and serves to drive the church forward towards theological perfection.