Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Postcard From Spamalot

Catholic e-journalist Mark Shea recently wrote an amusing piece for his site,, titled “Behold the Spam of God!” In the article, Shea, a former Evangelical (there’s a lot of them now blogging for the Church!), issues a tongue-in-cheek jeremiad against Evangelicals who send him e-mails pointing him to the Bible as if he’d never cracked it open in his life as a Protestant. He also details the response he got from other former Evangelicals who have received similar “Godspam”, spoofing the most common anti-Catholic assumptions.

Lo and behold, not too long after his faithful readers began posting, an ex-Catholic named Lauren sent in her response:

This post seriously concerns me. You mock people who are trying to reach out to you. My entire family is Catholic and I was born and raised in the Catholic Church and I’m telling you ... there is more to it! The Catholic Church doesn’t teach that Jesus died for all our sins, where the Bible does. It’s a very small but very, very important difference! God is the one who saves, it’s really true what these Christians are telling you. I never, ever knew Jesus Christ before as a Catholic but I do now ... I know him personally and talk to Him every day. Sound nuts? It is! It’s totally crazy and totally unbelievable … yet I am living it. There’s much much more to God than just theology, it’s experiential! I can’t tell you the joy of knowing Him finally, and I can’t tell you how much my heart breaks to hear you mocking others who’ve found Him also.

There is so much more to be found ... and it’s so amazing. I love Catholics, and I loved the Church but God just can’t honor it because it exalts itself over God. Jesus is the head of the church, and it’s all based on faith alone! You get grafted into an invisible, glorious church.

Needless to say, the tone of the postings went downhill from there. Lauren, God bless her well-meaning heart, is simply one of goodness-knows-how-many former Catholics who never learned much about the faith and is now caught up in an “experience” which validates her understanding of Scripture beyond the demands of pettifogging logic. She also chose the wrong place to reveal her fundamental (*ahem!*) ignorance of Catholicism, and was quickly outclassed and out-argued by Shea and others.

In fairness, I can’t blame Lauren for her misunderstanding. When I left high school, my knowledge of what Catholics believe was pretty much limited to the Nicene Creed and fish on Fridays during Lent. (In fact, my Methodist friend Larry knows more about Catholicism now than I did then.) Since then, especially in the last six years, I’ve learned a lot that I should have known by the time I was confirmed in the faith.

Error 1: “The [Catholic] Church doesn’t teach that Jesus died for all our sins.…”

The argument got bogged down pretty quickly in a factitious distinction Lauren made on the effects of Baptism. According to her, Catholicism teaches that Jesus takes away only those sins committed prior to Baptism; since most Catholics are baptized as infants, that pretty much amounts to Jesus taking away very little.

Time for a pop Bible quiz: In John 20:22-23, Jesus breathes on the Eleven and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Please note that this occurred after the Resurrection, not before. Now, if Jesus’ death has freed us from all sin, then why would the apostles need such a power? (Jeopardy music, please.)

The author of Hebrews reminds us, “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins [because Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all], but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the Law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace” (Hb 10:26-29)?

The problem with the common Protestant understanding of redemption, from Martin Luther to the present, is that it begs the assumption, “Since Jesus’ death has relieved me of all my sins, any sins I commit in the future won’t count against me.” And that is simply un-Biblical, as the passage from Hebrews makes clear. (There are other passages which bear this out; e.g. Mt 7:21, Rom 11:22, 1 Cor 10:11-12 and Gal 5:4.) James tells us, “Confess your sins to one another” (Jam 5:16), because repentance allows Jesus to take our sins upon Himself; refusing to repent denies that there’s any sin to forgive, and therefore withholds the sin from His forgiveness.

Which gives us the answer to our Bible pop quiz: Jesus gave the apostles the power to forgive sins to enable Christian repentance, so that no one who had been baptized in Christ should be lost by sinning after Baptism. It follows that, if the apostolate died out at the end of the first century as is commonly asserted by Protestants, then so has the power to forgive sins in Christ’s name … which is not a pleasant thought.

Error 2: “God just can’t honor [the Catholic Church] because it exalts itself over God.”

I’m still waiting for any kind of evidence for this rather absurd charge. Jesus promised that the “gates of Hell” would never prevail over the Church he would found on Peter (Mt 16:18). He further promised “the Spirit of truth” which would guide his Church to all truth (Jn 16:13), and that he would be with his Church “until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). To suggest that God has abandoned the Church because of its (unsubstantiated) hubris is to suggest that He welshes on His promises. “[If] we are faithless,” Paul tells Timothy, “God remains faithful — for he cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim 2:13); he also tells the Romans, “What if some [Jews] were unfaithful? Does their unfaithfulness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every man be false …” (Rom 3:3-4). There may be other defensible charges that can be laid at the door of the Church; the accusation that the Church puts itself over God is pure baloney.

Error 3: “Jesus is the head of the church.…”
This isn’t an error — so far as it goes. However, when Jesus told Peter, “Feed my lambs.… Tend my sheep…. Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15-17), the Church Fathers understood that he was appointing Peter as his earthly representative, his vicarius. This understanding wasn’t even challenged by the Eastern Churches until well into the Middle Ages. Nor did anyone question apostolic succession until the Reformation. Although the argument for the authority and role of the Pope requires more space than I can give it here, I bring this up merely to point out that Jesus’ headship of the Church doesn’t rule out human authority or representation by that mere fact alone.

Error 4: “… And it’s all based on faith alone!”
Says who? Not the Bible, in which the phrase “faith alone” occurs in only one spot: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jam 2:24). Martin Luther based his doctrine of sola fide on an ambiguity in the way St. Paul uses the word “works” in his letters. Often, it crops up in the expression “works of the law”, and specifically refers to circumcision, which we should rightfully call a ritual. However, he never meant to imply that doing good and avoiding evil were irrelevant to our hopes of heaven: “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality” (Col 3:23-25). And again: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10).

Faith is necessary; no one, Catholic or Protestant denies that. But faith that doesn’t lead to works, as James tells us, is worthless: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith…. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (Jam 2:18, 26).

Last but not least: “You get grafted into an invisible, glorious church.”

An invisible church is not a substantial, effective church, nor is it the kind of Church Jesus intended: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:14-16). Nor is it how the early Christians saw their role. As one Protestant Church historian, J. N. D. Kelly noted, “What [the] early Fathers [envisaged] was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction … between a visible and an invisible Church” (Early Christian Doctrines, 190–1).

* * *

The nice thing about having your own blog is that you have no arbitrary word limit imposed upon you by space considerations or parsimonious editors. But I’ve gassed on a little longer than I normally do, and I don’t want to miss a good opportunity to shut up. Nevertheless, I need to sum up my little essay:

The difference between Mark Shea, a former Evangelical who studied the Bible in his formative years, and Lauren, a former Catholic who barely knows the faith she left, is striking. Moreover, Evangelicals like Shea, Tim Staples, Steve Ray, Alex Jones and David Currie are having a dramatic impact on Catholic apologetics. Eventually, the would-be saver of Catholic souls will no longer be able to safely presume Catholic ignorance of Scripture.

And the light from Christ’s visible Church will grow even brighter.