Tuesday, July 31, 2012

gearing up for Christmas . . . in July?


Do you remember the series of posts I wrote on Advent in 2011? Perhaps you liked the idea of making an Advent Tree for your family, but lacked the time to make one during a busy holiday season. Don't let Christmas sneak up on you this year! Here's a friendly nudge to start getting ready now. I originally made ours in July . . . maybe you can make yours in August!


Click HERE to see all of my Advent Tree posts (including pictures, Scriptures, and devotions). If you decide to try it I'd love to hear how it goes!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

giants in disguise

One of our favorite parts of being missionaries is meeting godly men and women with deep faith and big hearts for what God is doing around the world. Remarkably, some of them have begun praying for us and supporting us without having met us! That’s true of three women from different time zones who (I’m convinced) are giants in the kingdom of God. They may prefer to be anonymous, so I've used pseudonyms here, but God knows who they are and their rewards are waiting in heaven!

Laverne heard about us from her son, our dear friend and mentor. She had a big heart for missions and a thriving business, left to her by her late husband. When she heard about our ministry she began supporting us right away. She was our biggest giver for several years before we finally had a chance to meet her. Her community service and hospitality matches her generosity. What a blessing to know her!

Charlene heard about us from a mutual friend in SIM. She began praying for us regularly when we lived in the Philippines, and has answered every one of our prayer letters with a hand-written letter. Recently her husband passed away and she moved to a retirement home. She took the time to tell us her new address, and it just happened to be right on my way home from Notre Dame. What a blessing to finally meet her and thank her for her faithful prayer support!

Anna Mae took her niece’s word for it that she should support us. When we first met we were struck by her gracious and cheerful spirit. Like Laverne and Charlene, Anna Mae had aged with grace and looked for ways to share joy with those around her. We’ve seen her several times, and always her selfless joy shines through.

Just after my visit with Charlene several weeks ago, I was in a minor car accident. Though I wasn’t hurt at all, our van was totaled. Our neighbors generously offered us the use of one of their cars until we found a replacement. Saturday we finally found it: the exact same van in excellent condition, one year newer and with 32,000 fewer miles. The price was much lower than we expected. Already confident that God had provided this van for us, we had no idea that he had another surprise up his sleeve. While we were out looking, he was silently arranging to help us pay for the van behind our backs. Imagine our shock when we found a check in our mailbox on Monday morning from Anna Mae. We can now pay for our van, taxes, fees, new tires and trailer hitch, with money left over!  Anna Mae simply saw a need and decided to meet it.

The giants in God’s kingdom are not who we might expect. They don’t necessarily live in major cities, hold positions of power, have a large following, or command attention. Some of them live quiet lives of faithfulness in small town America, praying fervently, giving generously, and letting the joy of the Lord splash on everyone they meet. Their noiseless acts of service are changing the world, one radiant smile at a time.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review of BibleWorks 9 (part 3): not your grandma’s textual criticism


For all you scholars out there, here is the third installment of my BibleWorks 9 review.

I’m listening to an old Michael Card CD (The Word) at the moment (yes, I know that dates me). He’s singing, “so many books, so little time,” and I couldn’t think of a better excuse for this very belated third installment of my BibleWorks review. The folks over at BibleWorks were so generous to provide me with an upgrade to version 9 free of charge in exchange for a series of reviews. In addition to being generous, they have proved very patient with a busy doctoral student. You can find my first two installments here and here.
Are you sitting down? On the floor? Ok, good.
If you’re wondering whether the upgrade is worth it, prepare to be blown away by what BibleWorks 9 can do. But first, think back to your first Greek exegesis course, the one where your professor showed you how to do textual criticism. If your experience was like mine, you felt like you had entered a foreign land. Greek seemed easy compared to the steep learning curve as you tried to make sense of the apparatus. Every little symbol referred to something else that also seemed obscure, with its own date, provenance, and stylistic tendencies. And your task was to take all these numbers, letters, symbols, and dates and produce a chart showing which reading had the strongest support. Think of how long it took to flip through your Greek New Testament trying to find the key to all those symbols.
Now imagine that your professor offered to follow you around for the rest of your career, reading the apparatus for you and loaning you all the charts he or she had painstakingly made of textual variants. Imagine that you could spend your time thinking about which reading was the best reading and what theological difference it made rather than trying to decipher codes.
You can stop imagining, because it’s true. BibleWorks 9 includes two complete textual apparatuses for the entire Greek New Testament (CNNTS and Tischendorf). Each and every symbol is hyperlinked to its description, and each and every variant in the CNNTS  includes a chart of all the manuscript evidence for that variant. It’s a Bible scholar’s dream.
But that’s not all. Say that you’re working on a particular problem and you notice that one prominent manuscript has a surprising reading. You want to investigate more closely, because the reading seems suspicious to you. Now, from the comfort of your own study, you can look at high resolution images of some of the major NT manuscripts right in BibleWorks (including Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus and others). You can zoom in and out, change the lighting or the contrast, despeckle the image or adjust the sharpness. You can even view a photographic negative of the image to look for erasures, a change in handwriting, or help in deciphering ambiguous letters. The manuscripts are overlaid with hyperlinked verse references to the passages in any translation you choose, making navigation much easier. Learning how to use these new features is simple; detailed video tutorials are included.
I admit that part of me is tempted to tuck away what I now know in a dark corner somewhere, so that my students have to struggle as much as I did. But I’ve decided to be a hero and show them how to use these power tools. I’ll be sure to pepper my demonstration with stories of how rough the rest of us had it (“back in my day . . . “). Students will, of course, still need to learn how to decide between the strength of various witnesses. They will need to be aware of how geographical distribution of manuscripts affects textual decisions. And they will need to understand the principles of textual criticism and get practice applying them to particular cases. But all the ingredients for the text-critical cake have been assembled for them (and you!) in one easy-to-use location so they can focus on baking, not shopping for ingredients.
I have only one disappointment, but it is significant. Neither the text critical apparatuses nor the digital manuscript images are available for the OldTestament, and I’m told that it will be a good, long time (20 years?) before the gap is filled. (Perhaps I should have chosen a degree in New Testament!) But really these features are just the icing on the cake. BibleWorks is indispensable for rigorous study of the entire Bible, with or without these new power tools.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Review of BibleWorks 9 (part 2): spotlight on searching



BibleWorks 9
Last semester I learned how to do a search that is proving incredibly powerful (I wish I had taken the time to figure out how to do this a long time ago). I can now search in Hebrew or Greek for a key word in a certain tense or person (or whatever morphological tag I choose), occurring in a specified proximity to another word of my choosing. For example, in class Dr. Block was curious if the Hebrew Bible ever used the expression “walk after Yahweh” the way it talks about walking after other gods in Deut 8:19. He suspected it did, but didn’t remember where.
Since “walk” occurs 1349 times, “after” occurs 812 times, and “Yahweh” occurs 5195 times in the Hebrew Bible, it would be enormously time-consuming to scan through each reference to find where they occur together. Thanks to BibleWorks, within a minute I had the answer. I simply typed the Hebrew root letters for “walk” + “after” + “Yahweh”, with the symbol *3 to indicate that I only wanted to see those passages where these words occurred within the space of  3 words. Immediately BibleWorks gave us the answer we were looking for. The Bible does indeed use this expression to refer to Yahweh. It is found in only 2 places: 2 Kings 23:3 and 2 Chr 34:31 (parallel passages!). There, Josiah is renewing Israel’s covenant with Yahweh (after reading Deuteronomy!) and affirming that he will not follow other gods, but Yahweh alone — a very interesting correlation.
For the sake of being thorough, I should add that this search did not bring up passages where Yahweh is talked about in the first person or as “he” (without using his personal name). Thanks to Moshe Weinfeld’s ‘Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School’ (332) I have discovered there are several more passages where this idiom is used referring to Yahweh: 1 Kgs 14:8; 18:21; Hos 11:10; and Jer 2:2. It would have taken a bit more time for me to come up with these using a BibleWorks search. I could have first narrowed by search to “walk” + “after” and then manually checked the results, or I could have tried a number of more specific searches such as “walk” + “after” + “me” and then checked the context of each. In most cases my initial search would suffice to help me find examples. 
I’ve said it before, but I simply can’t imagine attempting an MA or PhD in Biblical Studies without BibleWorks!

For Part One of my review, go here.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review of Bibleworks 9 (part 1): a few of my favorite things

BibleWorks 9
is Now Available!

At Gordon-Conwell my professors recommended that I purchase BibleWorks software to help me study the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. I've been using BibleWorks now since 2007, and honestly, I can't imagine trying to study the Bible without it. I've used versions 7, 8, and now 9, and it just keeps getting better. I was glad to discover that my doctoral supervisor, Daniel Block, uses it as well for his own research. Here are the principal ways I use it:
  • I have BibleWorks open on my laptop in all of my Bible classes. In a matter of seconds I can look up any passage the professor mentions and see it for myself in dozens of translations. I can do a quick search to find related passages and know that I’m looking at every passage that matches my search criteria.
  • I have not opened the NIV Exhaustive Concordance in the past 5 years. It’s much faster to check BibleWorks. I can search in English, Greek, Hebrew, or any of the major modern languages such as Spanish, French, or German (not Tagalog, unfortunately). I can search by exact word or phrase in any language, or by root word in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic.
  • I rarely use a Hebrew or Greek lexicon (is it ok to admit that?), unless I’m performing an exhaustive word study for which I need to consult both Bible Dictionaries and Lexicons. Just by rolling my mouse over any word in the Bible, I have immediate access to lexical entries from Holladay (for Hebrew) or Gingrich (for Greek). BibleWorks speeds my translation process without using an English translation as a crutch. I can work directly from Hebrew to see the definitions of any word I don’t already know. If I come across a strange grammatical construction, I can instantly compare all my favorite translations to see how they handle the passage.
  • I have used BibleWorks to learn both Hebrew and Greek vocabulary, and I plan to use it for Aramaic. The BibleWorks flashcards are the best I’ve seen anywhere. I can sort words alphabetically or by occurrence, work on words that occur in a particular passage, time myself, hear them pronounced, and print review lists to have in front of me in class. Best of all, BibleWorks keeps track of the words I know and don’t know, so that my review time focuses only on the words I have yet to learn.
The folks over at BibleWorks were kind enough to provide me with a free upgrade to their latest version in exchange for a detailed 3-part review in both of my blogging venues (both here and at the Wheaton blog: www.wheatonblog.wordpress.com). Like any new program, it takes some time to learn how to use, but BibleWorks 9 provides plenty of training videos and helpful instructions, as well as occasional seminars on site at schools around the country. I do not consider myself technologically gifted (blogging is about as savvy as I get), yet I couldn’t get along without BibleWorks.

Friday, July 13, 2012

penance, indulgences, and the treasury of merit: modes of restoration in the Catholic Church


"The Confession" by Pietro Longhi

In my final post on Catholic teaching, I’d like to focus on a collection of related issues that have puzzled Protestants since the Reformation: Penance, Indulgences, and the Treasury of Merit. These are foreign concepts to those outside Catholicism, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church helped me understand them more fully.

The first thing to know about Penance is that it is considered a sacrament of healing for those who are already members of the Church. Catholics count seven sacraments, all of them instituted by Jesus in some way. Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist are sacraments of initiation into the faith; Penance and Anointing the Sick are sacraments of healing for believers; and Holy Orders and Matrimony relate to communion and mission (§1211). The place of Penance in this list is very important to note. Penance is not a means of salvation, but plays a restorative role for believers who have committed sin. It can be called many things: conversion, confession, forgiveness, and Reconciliation (§1423–1424). While Baptism ushers us into new life in Christ, it does not erase our propensity to sin. The sacrament of Penance recognizes that ongoing struggle against sin and provides a means by which a sinner can be restored (§1426).

The CCC takes sin seriously, and calls for heartfelt repentance in response to God’s great mercy (§1428). But Catholics don’t stop there. Penance addresses both the internal and external aspects of sin: “interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance” (§1430). Internally, we renounce our sin and turn back towards God, cultivating once again our love for him. Love for him is the purest defense against sin (§1431–1432). Externally, Penance can take any number of forms: “fasting, prayer, and almsgiving” (§1434), “gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, . . . acceptance of suffering” (§1435), Eucharist (§1436), or reading Scripture (§1437), among other things. Each of these actions orients the heart of the sinner to God’s mercy and prepares them for his forgiveness.

A modern-day confession
Protestants often think of sin in personal terms, and view repentance as a private thing. This is not, however, a biblical notion. In keeping with Scripture, Catholics recognize a two-fold dimension to sin. Not only is our relationship with God disrupted, but so is our relationship to the Church. For that reason, restoration involves a renewed submission to the Church via confession to a priest (§1440). Ultimately, the forgiveness comes from God, but priests serve as his authorized representatives. Priests absolve sinners, or declare them “not guilty” based on the clear delegation of this authority to Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 16:19 and John 20:21–23 (§1441–1445; 1462–1467). The CCC insists “Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (§1445). Penance is usually “performed in secret between penitent and priest” (§1447), who promises confidentiality (§1467), and involves three steps: contrition (sorrow over the sin), confession (full acknowledgment of wrongdoing), and satisfaction (making restitution for wrongs committed) [§1450–1460]. I love what the CCC says about confession: “Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible” (§1455).

Why does restitution need to be made? The CCC explains, “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin” (§1459). Our kids have a favorite radio program that illustrates the need for restitution. It’s part of the series produced by Focus on the Family called Adventures in Odyssey. In one episode, Rodney Rathbone (a consummate troublemaker), climbs a neighbor’s fence and steals some apples. In the process he breaks the fence. When he is caught, he thinks that saying “sorry” will be enough. But time shows that Rodney has failed to learn his lesson from the experience (he beats up another kid who owes him a dollar, forgetting the mercy that he had just been shown). The local police pick him up and bring him back to his neighbor’s house, where he learns what the word “restitution” means. He is asked to either pay the homeowner the cost of repairing his fence or repair it himself. In the Catholic Church, the ‘action step’ required is assigned by the priest, who carefully considers what act of penance will bring about spiritual fruit in the confessor (§1460).

Penance, then, is not trying to earn God’s grace or forgiveness, but is seeking to restore/repair the broken relationship with God and with the Church (§1468–1469). It is an act that “anticipates in a certain way the judgment to which he will be subjected at the end of his earthly life” when God judges the works of all people (§1470, emphasis original). You might think of it like a therapy undertaken to infuse spiritual strength. A broken shoulder doesn’t just need a cast. One the bone has been healed (=forgiveness), the person goes through therapy to build up the muscles and tissues that will allow for full movement again (=penance).

Included within the sacrament of Penance is the concept of Indulgences. The abuse of Indulgences was one thing that sparked the Protestant Reformation. Dr. Cavadini explained to me, "Indulgences are easily prone to abuse. The Church doesn't talk about them all that much nowadays, although they are still available for pious practices that are designed to help us put into practice the grace of repentance (e.g. practices of prayer and, sometimes, almsgiving to the poor)." The CCC explains what the Church today believes about Indulgences. First, a definition:

"An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints" (§1471).

A few things about this definition should be noted. Indulgences do not offer forgiveness. Forgiveness has already been given by God. Instead, Indulgences cover the punishment or natural consequence that remains (the same punishment that Penance is designed to address). This remaining punishment (mediated through Penance) purifies sinners from the “unhealthy attachment to creatures” (§1472–1473). But this is not a lonely, individual purification. Believers share in the “communion of saints,” about which the CCC says, “In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin” (§1475).

We must remember that these sins are not those committed by unbelievers, but by those who have already been baptized into the Church and have since fallen. And though the doctrine can include minor, everyday sins, it is designed to address major sins such as adultery and murder. For these sinners, the Catholic Church identifies the rich storehouse of merits laid up by Christ, Mary, and other saints (§1476–1477). Just as believers share their possessions and so meet one another’s needs, so the Catholic Church believes that these spiritual treasures can be shared with those in need. Based on the authority that God granted to the apostles (noted above), the Church dispenses Indulgences, not to simply excuse sin, but “to spur [fallen Christians] to works of devotion, penance, and charity” (§1478). This undeserved grace evokes gratitude and service. Indulgences may also be applied to those who have already died and are in the process of purification in Purgatory (§1479, 1498).

This is all very unfamiliar territory for Protestants, so perhaps it will help to get a picture of how the process of Penance actually works. The CCC describes it this way:

The elements of the celebration [of Penance] are ordinarily these: a greeting and blessing from the priest, reading the word of God to illuminate the conscience and elicit contrition, and an exhortation to repentance; the confession, which acknowledges sins and makes them known to the priest; the imposition and acceptance of a penance; the priest’s absolution; a prayer of thanksgiving and praise and dismissal with the blessing of the priest. (§1480)

Though even Catholics resist the idea of Confession,
the Church encourages the practice at least yearly
The confession of sins is a very biblical concept, one that Protestants could practice more often (James 5:16). And, strange as it may sound to our ears, Jesus clearly does grant authority to his disciples to proclaim forgiveness of sins (John 20:19–23). Based on the Catholic idea of apostolic succession (the passing down of authority for church leadership from the apostles to present-day priests), it makes sense that priests would be the ones granting absolution from sin. Second Corinthians 5:21 describes how Jesus’ merits benefit us: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NRSV). Protestants believe, too, that we are recipients of God’s great grace in Jesus Christ. While our understanding of the mode of its application to us may differ, we can stand side-by-side with Catholics in praising God for the work of redemption in Christ. And from Catholics we can be reminded of the need to repent of our sins and work for the restoration of relationships broken by our sin.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

of Popes and Bishops: Catholic Ecclesiology


Dr. John Cavadini offers a reading at Mass with Pope Benedict XVI
and the other members of the International Theological Commission
on the occasion of his appointment to the Commission in 2009.
Click here for the full story.

One of the most obvious differences between Protestants and Catholics is church structure. Hierarchy of any kind is not at all in vogue in our culture. In American Protestant churches, especially among Evangelicals, the democratic ideal has won the day. Congregational meetings include voting, elder and deacon boards reign in the authority of the Pastor, and if people don’t like how things are going, they find another place to worship. For Evangelicals the hierarchy of the Catholic Church seems foreign. But before we talk about the structure of the Church, we need to say a few words about what the Church actually is.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes the Church as a mystery, created by Christ, into which he brings people by setting them free from sin and death. The Church is not a club or voluntary organization. It is ordained by God to carry out his mission in the world by preserving and teaching the true faith. The Catholic Church recognizes the diversity of gifts that make up the body of Christ. In no way are those with organizational and leadership gifts exalted over those with “charismatic” gifts. Both are needed for a healthy Church to function. The Church is not perfect, but in the process of becoming what God has designed it to be.

The CCC teaches that the Church is the people of God, made up of those who have been baptized and therefore have taken on Christ’s mission (§871). Believers enjoy “a true equality with regard to dignity” and all participate in the work of the Church by exercising their spiritual gifts (§872). However, the offices of “teaching, sanctifying, and governing” the Church have been entrusted “to the apostles and their successors” (§873). This authority for bishops, priests, and deacons is derived from Christ himself (§874–875), who modeled servant leadership (§876). Bishops do not wield authority on their own, but as members of the collective group of bishops (called the “episcopal college”) under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, who is thought to be St. Peter’s successor (§877). Each bishop personally bears witness to the gospel as they serve the Church (§878–879).

The idea of the episcopal college is modeled after the 12 disciples of Jesus, and Peter’s headship over the 12 is based on his profession of faith, to which Jesus responded “on this rock I will build my Church” (§880–881; Matt 16:18–19). The Bishop of Rome, who succeeds Peter in authority, is called the “Pope” (§882; cf. 869, 936). He unifies the Church, and “as pastor of the entire church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (§882; cf. 937). Whenever the episcopal college agrees with the Pope, they, too, exercise this authority through universal and ecumenical councils (§883–884).

However, lest we think of this “power” exercised by the Pope and Bishops from a worldly point of view, it’s important to understand that their “power” is a responsibility to serve the Church and to protect her from error. Their service is one of great personal sacrifice. Each is committed to lifelong celibacy, modeling, in a sense, Christ’s marriage to the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI greets Dr. John Cavadini
of Notre Dame, congratulating him on his appointment
to the International Theological Commission
Like the Pope, bishops are the symbol of unity for their own diocese. They care for their members and meet with larger groups of bishops (“ecclesiastical provinces,” “patriarchates,” or “regions”; §887; cf. 938). A bishop’s primary responsibility is preaching, ensuring that the congregation clings to the faith “under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium” (§888–889).* The other responsibilities of a bishop include “sanctifying” the Church through providing Holy Communion, praying, and serving (§893). Priests or deacons may be involved in service, but ultimately the bishops are responsible for what takes place (§1369; 939). Bishops also exercise governing authority to the degree that they are “in communion with the whole Church under the guidance of the Pope” (§894–895). In other words, the authority of the bishops is a communal authority. A bishop cannot strike out on his own and expect to be obeyed. His compassionate (and submissive) leadership guides his congregation in the way of truth (§896).

One controversial teaching of the Catholic Church is the “infallibility” of the Pope and the bishops when they agree together on doctrine. It may be helpful to know that only twice in church history has the Pope pronounced a doctrine as infallible (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary). This “infallibility” cannot extend beyond the teaching of Scripture (§891–892), though it may be related typologically to it (as it is in both of the above cases). The Pope’s infallibility is derived from the infallibility of Scripture. Like a plumb line for the Church at large, the Church in Rome sets the standard to which all Catholic Churches must adhere (§834; again based on Matt 16:18–19).

For Catholics this hierarchy is very biblical. Based on Jesus’ choice of 12 apostles and his exaltation of Peter, Catholics recognize an unbroken succession of authority that has been passed down to the present day and now resides in the Pope (bishop of Rome) and the episcopal college (bishops around the world). The appointment of bishops, priests and deacons corresponds to New Testament guidelines for bishops, elders (or presbyters), and deacons. Catholics take seriously the unity of the Church and the accountability required to preserve true teaching. All authority is derived from Christ and used in service of the Church, not for personal gain. To the extent that this ideal is realized, one can say that the structure is biblically-derived.

Pope Benedict XVI
Even the most egalitarian and congregational Protestant Church has some authority structure. We may use different titles for those invested with authority in the Church, but we share the concern for unity, sound teaching, compassionate ministry, and purity of example. Authority and submission are biblical concepts, when exercised properly. No system is perfect, of course, but the diversity of models for Church governance should make us hesitant to condemn any one model as inadequate. Whether particular doctrines thought to be pure by the Magisterium truly are biblical is another question, but the structure itself need not be rejected out of hand.

* Dr. Cavadini explained it to me this way: “The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church. It first and foremost belongs to the whole Church, but it is exercised on behalf of the Church by the successors of the apostles (i.e. the bishops) in communion with and in union with the successor of Peter (i.e. the pope). The Magisterium makes decisions about what is authentic Christian teaching when necessary.” The CCC says that the bishops responsible for teaching must “preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” (§890).

Saturday, July 7, 2012

do Catholics worship Mary?


One of the most obvious practical differences between Catholics and Protestants is our respective postures towards Mary. Protestants don’t dislike her, but she simply takes her place alongside all of the other heroes of the faith, no better than the rest. For Catholics, on the other hand, Mary is unequaled among humans. Sculptures and paintings feature Mary almost as often as Christ; Churches, schools, and holy societies are devoted to her memory. Even Notre Dame (“Our Lady”) is named after her, and the main administration building is crowned with her golden statue. The Rosary, prayed daily by devout Catholics, is punctuated with “Hail, Mary” and directed toward to the “Most Blessed Mother.” Mary is celebrated, revered, and held up as the highest example of faith. In fact, Dr. Cavadini says, “Without devotion to Mary there is something lacking in Christian worship.”

So . . . why all the fuss about Mary?

The first thing to make clear is that Catholics do not worship or adore Mary. She is instead venerated, or shown respect and devotion for her faith. Because Mary’s faith in Jesus and submission to God’s will are what make her special, contemplation of Mary fosters deeper faith in Christ. She serves as the prime example of saving faith. In class, Dr. Cavadini explained that “Devotion to Mary is devotion to the incarnation. . . . The repetition of the 'Hail Mary' calls to mind the mystery of the incarnation.” Pope John Paul II saw that in the Rosary, "Mary leads us to discover the secret of Christian joy" (On the Most Holy Rosary, 28). The Rosary is one way that Mary invites Catholics to think about Christ.

Conservative Protestants agree with Catholics that Mary was a virgin when she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (§484–486, 496–498). She was chosen by God for this purpose because of her “free cooperation” with the Holy Spirit, enabled by God’s grace (§488, 490). She can be thought of as the “exalted daughter of Sion,” the culmination of a long line of women who hoped in God (§489). Responding to an ancient debate, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says it is proper to call Mary theotokos, or “Mother of God” (§495; 509). Protestants agree.

However, the Catholic Church goes on to teach two further doctrines related to Mary’s virginity that are generally not held by Protestants: her Immaculate Conception and Perpetual Virginity. The former was declared ex cathedra by the Pope, so it is considered an infallible doctrine by Catholics.

Immaculate Conception 

Catholics believe that Mary was not only a virgin when she conceived, but she was free from original sin. The CCC admits that this doctrine grew up gradually:

"Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

'The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.'" (§491)

Our Lady of Vladimir icon
Dr. Cavadini clarifies that Mary was, from the moment she was conceived, redeemed in anticipation of Christ’s saving work. So her freedom from original sin was on the basis of that redemption in Christ (i.e. the same way you or I are saved later in life). But not only was Mary free from original sin, the CCC teaches that “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long” (§493; cf. 508). She “gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son” (§494). Dr. Cavadini explains, “Her immaculate conception is her complete conformity to the incarnation from the moment of her conception. She was preserved from original sin on the basis of that conformity.”

No direct appeal is made to Scripture in the CCC to support this doctrine other than Luke 1:48, where Mary says, “all generations will call me blessed.” For Protestants it seems a stretch to go from “blessed” (presumably by God) to “blameless”! How do Catholics get there? Protestant readers may be relieved to see that for Catholics Mary’s holiness is derivative of Christ’s own holiness and her election is predicated on God’s grace.

More troublesome to Protestants, however, is the idea that Mary was free from original sin and never sinned during her life, because Scripture never says this explicitly. For Catholics the doctrine has a theological and typological basis. Catholics’ typological views of Mary might be compared to the baptism of infants by many Reformed Protestants. We find no explicit example of or command for infant baptism in Scripture, yet many churches practice it because they see a typological relationship between circumcision and baptism. Just as circumcision of male babies signified their inclusion in the Covenant, so baptism of children stands as a symbol of their inclusion in the New Covenant, based on the promise of God. Not all Protestants believe in infant baptism, but those who practice it have allowed a typological reading of Scripture to shape their Christian practice. This is analogous to the Catholic Church’s teachings on Mary. We might say her sinlessness flows naturally from her portrayal in Scripture as one fully submitted to the will of God. A life completely surrendered is one without sin. If we admit of even the possibility of entire sanctification (something debated among Protestants), then the Catholic vision of Mary stands as the showcase example.

But Mary is more than a role model, or example of faith. For Catholics, the doctrine of her Immaculate Conception is intrinsically connected to Christology, and it arises out of contemplation of the circular nature of the incarnation. How is the incarnation circular? Simply the idea that Mary is the “Mother of God” defies logic — how can God have a mother? Mary then, through Christ’s offering of himself, becomes the daughter of her Son — another conundrum. Edward Oakes explains,

"The implications of the denial of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception should become clear. For such a denial would then make our very salvation dependent on Mary’s free will operating independent of grace. Her Yes to God would have had to have been made, even if ever so slightly, under her own power, which would have the intolerable implication of making the entire drama of salvation hinge on a human work ..." (“Sola Gratia and Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” 3).

In other words, if Mary was not sinless, how could she have given her full consent to the incarnation? And if she was able to give full consent, would not her sinless response have been a work of God’s grace? Therefore, the grace of God must have been in operation from the very moment of her conception, preparing her for this moment of full consent. And that grace is only available on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work. Therefore, Mary is redeemed in anticipation of that saving work of Christ, and her willingness to bear the incarnate Lord makes that redemption possible. (Do you see the circle?)

Perpetual Virginity

For Protestants, another unfamiliar Catholic doctrine is the perpetual virginity of Mary. According to the CCC, Mary continued to be a virgin for the rest of her life (§499; 510). Her virginity is a sign of her faith, the “undivided gift of herself” to God (§506). She then becomes the mother of all who believe (§501; 511; 963). To the objection of Protestants that Jesus had siblings, the Catechism claims that “James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary.’ They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression” (§500). Mary’s ongoing virginity is the outward expression of her openness to God’s special work in her. She continues to embody the mystery of the incarnation.

Statue of the Holy Family on Notre Dame's Campus
If this seems to downgrade human sexuality, we should note that Catholics do not see married sex as unholy. The holy family is fulfilling a unique vocation, not one to be emulated by married couples. Marital celibacy is not praised by the apostles. On the contrary, Paul tells the married not to deprive each other of sexual fulfillment (1 Cor 7:3,5).

Protestants may still want to object to the Catholic interpretation of Jesus “brothers” as his “cousins” (Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3). We may also see Matt 1:25 as pointing away from the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity—Joseph kept Mary a virgin “until she gave birth” to Jesus. I for one have understood this to mean that after Jesus was born Mary and Joseph consummated their marriage. However, there is room for disagreement over this issue. Seen typologically, the Catholic doctrine on Mary can be squared with Scripture (though it goes beyond what the Bible explicitly says).

More on Mary


The CCC also teaches that Mary intercedes for the Church (§965; 969). Her mediation, a “maternal role,” is not meant to equal or diminish the uniqueness of Christ’s mediation, but is derivative of it and based on the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (§969; 975; 1014). She has simply gone before us and represents the end goal of the journey of faith (§972). In fact, Catholics teach that Mary was taken up into heaven directly, where she awaits us. This doctrine is called the “Assumption of Mary” (§966, 974; cf. 1024), and it is also considered infallible. It is not found in the Bible and has no parallel in the Protestant church. It is based on a very ancient liturgical Tradition which can obviously not be proven or disproven. You could think of Enoch, who “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen 5:24 NRSV) or Elijah, who was taken to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).

Beliefs about Mary can be a real sticking point between Catholics and Protestants. I hope that this post has helped you to understand what Catholics believe about Mary and (to some extent) why. I am coming to a place where these doctrines are at least beginning to make sense, though I am not ready to embrace all of them. Ultimate agreement may be unlikely, but respect, dialogue, and understanding are the goal.

Dr. Cavadini put it to me this way, in an e-mail exchange over this issue:

"So it seems to me that all Christians who believe in the Incarnation can share Mary as 'Mother of God,' and can begin to understand that they are truly linked in this way, and Christians less inclined to cultivate a devotion to Mary can still on the basis of this link, if they are willing to seriously consider it, have an understanding of the devotion that flourishes more explicitly in other communions, and, without participating in it, still feel a link to it, and understanding of it, and an appreciation that someone is in fact holding up that end of the spectrum." (emphasis mine)

He later reminded me that the beauty of Catholic teaching on Mary can get lost in the arguments over particular aspects, adding,

"The Mother of the Incarnate Word is not His mother just by accident—her kid happened to turn out great—but she is consulted and is aware. That maternal love is there for all of us because Christ wills it. Her maternal compassion is there for us and leads us to contemplate the divine mercy of her Son. There is nothing to be afraid of, only beauty, only the special role of a women in our redemption. . . . Remember, there is no jealousy in Heaven. No one is jealous of the Blessed Mother as though her status is competitive—only love."


Thursday, July 5, 2012

picturing Christ: icons in the Catholic Church

Today’s post invites you to consider Catholic teaching about icons. An icon is a work of art with religious significance, usually a painting. Icons are used extensively in the Eastern Churches (both Orthodox and Catholic), but also by Roman Catholics. A major point of contention during the Protestant Reformation, icons continue to separate Protestants and Catholics on a practical level. Some Protestants afford a place for art in worship, but many do not, and some reject any depiction of God, even of Christ.

Among Protestants, perhaps the most widely appreciated (recent) reflection on a religious painting is Henri Nouwen’s extended treatment of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Meditation on each aspect of the painting afforded Nouwen with a new depth of insight into God’s love for him, which became the subject of an entire book. The picture focused Nouwen’s reflections in a profound way on the truths of Scripture. In a similar way, Catholics use icons as objects of spiritual reflection. For some, this Christian use of images is controversial.

Unlike some Protestants who reject any depictions of God in art, even in his incarnation, Catholics see the incarnation as the authorization of iconography. With Protestants, Catholics agree that God the Father cannot be captured in any form, because his form has never been revealed (CCC §1159, 2129). Christ, however, took on a human form and became the very image of God, so his portrayal as a human is fitting (§476–477, 2131). Even in the Old Testament, God used images to anticipate his saving work in Christ (§2130). Icons illustrate the truths of Scripture and help to illumine it. In this way, icons are gospel-centered (§1160, 1161). All icons, no matter what their subject matter, ultimately represent Christ, because as images they recall the incarnation (§1159). Even an icon of Mary ultimately directs attention to Jesus’ incarnation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes icons this way:

The contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful. (§1162)

Andrei Rublev's The Trinity evokes multiple levels
of reflection, beginning with the story of Abraham's
three visitors and culminating in the unseen Trinity 
This evocation of memory lived out in faithfulness is the goal of sacred art. God himself spoke in the art of creation before he revealed himself to humankind in words (§2500). The CCC calls art “a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing” (§2501). When it is done well, “genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God” (§2502; cf. 2513). It focuses our meditation on biblical truth (§2705). Icons that are not made with excellence are to be removed by bishops, while good art—that which reflects the truth of Scripture while respecting the Tradition— is to be encouraged (§2503).

Protestants will be glad to know that Catholics are not to worship these images: “the honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone” (§2132). Dr. Cavadini has given us copies of several of his favorite icons to illustrate Catholic teaching. In each case, the symbolism of the artwork invites contemplation. (A book that has helped us to interpret the icons is Paul Evdokimov’s The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty). Protestants are perhaps confused by icons because we take them too literally. The Trinity? You can’t depict the Trinity! Of course, the artist knows that the Trinity is ineffable, and cannot be captured in full, but what they paint is meant to inspire our reflections on the Trinity. Dr. Cavadini calls an icon a “mediating device” or a “theological summary in pictures.”

We could learn from Catholics in this area. Rather than fear the imperfect analogy portrayed by a picture, we could let it direct us to contemplate the perfect reality: Christ himself. Remembering the purpose for icons will guard against their misuse. As the CCC says so beautifully, “Sacred images in our churches and homes are intended to awaken and nourish our faith in the mystery of Christ. Through the icon of Christ and his works of salvation, it is he whom we adore” (§1192). One of the best known Protestant religious painters is Ron DiCianni. A copy of “Simeon’s Moment” hangs on our living room wall (and a smaller version in my office), a reminder that the incarnation was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and Israel’s hopes. As Simeon cradles the baby Jesus, his eyes sparkle and his face is radiant with the knowledge that the savior of the world has come! Ancient icons, like this modern-day depiction of the incarnation, are intended cultivate and inspire our faith in Jesus.


Monday, July 2, 2012

On the "communion of saints" ... or ... why do Catholics pray for the dead?


…I believe in the holy catholic Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.
-Apostles Creed

In my most recent post I explored Catholic teaching about the “life everlasting,” including the doctrines of heaven, Purgatory, hell, and the final judgment. The doctrine of Purgatory, so foreign to Protestants, is wedded with another unfamiliar doctrine: the communion of saints. I grew up saying the Apostles Creed every Sunday, and I always thought “communion of saints” referred to fellowship among believers. And so it does, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) specifies a wider frame of reference.

At the most basic level, “the communion of saints is the Church” (CCC §946). The Church shares a number of things in common, both physically and spiritually. First, “the riches of Christ are communicated to all the members, through the sacraments” (§947). Second, all that belongs to the Church belongs to the whole church (§947). As the Eastern Orthodox Church says before partaking in communion, “sancta santis,” or “God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people” (§948; cf. 950, 960). This is a beautiful expression of the biblical truth that Christ’s holy gift of himself is intended to make us holy.

Protestants agree that “Faith is a treasure of life which is enriched by being shared” (§949; cf. 961). This is part of what is meant by the “communion of saints.” We also join with Catholics in affirming that the gifts of the Spirit are given for mutual edification (§951). True communion involves sharing our possessions with the needy (§952) in love (§953).

"Communion of Saints"
from www.catfoundations.org
However, when Catholics talk about the “communion of saints,” their view of the Church is much wider than the “church universal” (spread geographically) or the “church through the ages” (spread chronologically). They have in mind the church in three dimensions, or states. The CCC explains, “at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory” (§954, emphasis mine; cf. 962). We, then, are unified with these believers who are already in heaven, or who live in Purgatory awaiting entrance to heaven because we are all incorporated into Christ (§955). According to the CCC, we should not merely learn from their examples, but commune through prayer, and in that way draw closer to Christ (§957). Those already in heaven “intercede with the Father for us” (§956). “We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world” (§2683) because their prayers benefit us (§1475). We, in turn, pray for those in Purgatory “that they may be loosed from their sins,” and may go on to heaven and pray for us (§958). Together with saints dead and alive, we praise God (§959).

As I explained yesterday, the doctrine of Purgatory is connected with the practice of praying for the dead (which in turn is based on a passage in the Apocryphal book of Maccabees). The doctrine of the “communion of saints” in Catholic thinking in turn prompts prayer for fellow believers who are on their way to heaven (cf. §1032; see 2 Macc 12:44–45).  Baruch 3:4 also hints at this, mentioning “the prayer of the dead of Israel.” The CCC explains, “By virtue of the ‘communion of saints,’ the Church commends the dead to God’s mercy and offers her prayers, especially the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, on their behalf” (§1055; cf. 1371, 1689).

Though these teachings are most clear in the Apocrypha, we can find hints of in the Scriptures accepted by Protestants. First Peter 3:18–20 speaks of Jesus preaching to the disobedient dead before his resurrection. This implies that there is a place other than heaven or hell where dead people await their final destiny. Hebrews 12:1 pictures the saints who have died as “so great a cloud of witnesses” who are watching us live out our faith. From this passage we get a glimpse of some type of communion with them, a mutual edification.

Protestants, I suspect, are nervous about the Catholic understanding of the “communion of saints” for three reasons (1) the Bible clearly condemns communication with the dead (e.g. King Saul and the witch of Endor – 1 Sam 28:6–21), and (2) Protestants are reluctant to exalt any human being in such a way that the perfect work of Christ is eclipsed. He is our only good, and the one source of our righteousness. Since “all have sinned,” even those who have done great things for the kingdom of God are unworthy of our veneration. All glory belongs to Christ alone. (3) A third reason is that Jesus Christ is the only mediator we need: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1Tim 2:5 RSV).

In fairness to Catholics, they are not seeking knowledge from dead saints the way Saul was with the deceased Samuel. While Saul was engaged in necromancy (magic) outside of God's revealed will, prayers for the saints are "in Christ." The reality of the resurrection changes what is possible. Catholics exalt no one above Christ. Their honoring of the saints is precisely because of God's work in and through them. And they do not view the saints as mediating for us outside of Christ, but instead as sharing in his work of mediation as part of the royal priesthood. Still, the practice of praying to saints comes uncomfortably close to these aberrations and runs the risk of misunderstanding at a popular level. It’s no wonder Protestants want to leave a wide margin.

In short: At the core of Catholic teaching on the Church is the idea that we commune with all believers, those in heaven, waiting to enter heaven, or alive on earth (none of them are really "dead" the way the condemned are dead). The idea of prayer for the "dead" is most clearly seen in the Apocrypha, which Protestants do not accept as Scripture. The uncertainness of the idea of prayer for the "dead," combined with the thin witness of Scripture about life between death and final judgment, make communion with the "dead" a matter about which Protestants will continue to feel uneasy. Some of this uneasiness may be unfounded, as I hope this post has shown. Orthodox Catholic teaching preserves the absolute uniqueness of Christ and his saving work on our behalf.