Justification as Declaration

The protestant concept of forensic justification is laughable. Are we really expected to believe that God simply ignores our sin and pretends to see Jesus when he looks at us? Are we truly supposed to believe that God simply “credits our sins to Christ’s account” and “credits Christ’s righteousness to our account”? It is all completely incoherent. And yet… perhaps if we look a bit closer at the Lutheran tradition and bring some eschatological theories to the discussion; things might start to make more sense from the protestant angle.

Eschatological Righteousness

In the previous post, justification was discussed in terms of “extrinsic righteousness” versus “intrinsic righteousness”. Perhaps there is a better way of conceptualising the issue.

maxresdefault[1].jpgProtestants understand Justification to be defined as “to be declared righteous”. Lets roll with that for a moment. In what sense are we “declared” righteous? Obviously God can’t be declaring me righteous if I am still a totally depraved sinner at core, this would be a legal fiction and a total lie – God is incapable of behaving in such an illogical and contradictory way. But what if he was declaring me righteous in an eschatological sense? So rather than declaring “You are righteous”, God is saying “You will be righteous”. The declaration does not pertain to the current time, it instead pertains to the end times, the eschaton. Through his declaration of justification, God is guaranteeing that we will be righteous at the final day, the day of judgement. In no way are we righteous right now, but we here have a promise from God that on the final day we will be righteous! In this way, the declaration is more of a promise and a guarantee, than a statement of present reality.

Any talk of being “clothed in Jesus righteousness” or “double imputation” remains a load of incoherent, heretical horse crap. However the protestant understanding of justification is still salvageable if we understand it in these terms: Justification is indeed a declaration of righteousness, however it is not an empty declaration. When God declares something, it is guaranteed to come about, similar to how when he speaks creation comes into being. God does not make empty pronouncements: If he declares that I am righteous, then that is damn well what is going to happen! So it is appropriate to understand Justification as both being declared righteous as per the protestant understanding, but also as being made righteous as per the Catholic understanding.

The Lutheran doctrine of Sola Fide also comes into play here, because placing your trust in the eschatological promise of justification unleashes that justification into the present time. By trusting that you will be justified, you experience justification right now.

Revisiting Extrinsic and Intrinsic Righteousness

9002-unread-compt_wizard-Yahoo-Mail[1].pngGod sees as as we are, but he is omniscient and can therefore also see us as we will be. Now, if he speaks an eschatalogical promise of justification to us, this implies that he can already see us as righteous and glorified, just as we will be on the last day. So on what terms does he deal with us? Does he consider us primarily as the sinner that we are today, or does he see us as the glorified saint that we are predestined to become? I suspect that the latter is the case. So we are intrinsically sinful, but by appropriating God’s promise of justification, we become extrinsically righteous. This righteousness floods our soul and propels us towards the eschaton, wherein we will finally have the promised intrinsic righteousness.

God does not declare us righteous on the basis of some laughable exchange between us and Jesus wherein Jesus becomes a sinner and we get clothed in his righteousness. Such a doctrine is sickening. However the protestant understanding of justification as “being declared righteous” can be salvaged so long as the declaration is understood as being accompanied by a reality. God declares us righteous, because we will be righteous.

(Return to first article)

Mariology and the Implications of Theosis

God Became Man so that Man Might Become God

250px-StJohnClimacus[1].jpgSalvation in the east is conceptualised in terms of theosis. In the west this concept is often referred to by the term “divinization”, but it is eastern Christendom which has most fully developed the idea. Theosis is neatly summed up by a couplet attributed to many of the church fathers: “God became man so that man might become God”. To protestant ears this sounds blasphemous, but it is a quote with a lot of truth to it. Salvation consists of becoming God. However theologians are careful to emphasise that we become God by participation in the life of the Trinity, we do not become God by alteration of our nature. Similarly to how Christ had a totally divine nature and a totally human nature, we too will have both divine and human natures.

There are different levels of theosis, just as there are different levels of participation in the life of the Trinity. In Catholic theological lingo, your level of theosis is directly proportional to your level of justification. What does it mean to share in the life of the Trinity? It means that you share in the attributes of God! You share in God’s power, knowledge, presence, benevolence and so on. This is why we do not merely ask saints in heaven to intercede for us, we actually actively pray to them and petition them directly. This is appropriate, because the saints have a significant participation in the power of God. The saints are “little gods” by virtue of their participation in the one true God and we can petition them as such. Their wills are in perfect alignment with the will of God.

When you pray to Saint Anthony to help you find something you have lost, you are literally praying to Saint Anthony; you are not merely asking him to intercede for you (although that is happening too). Furthermore Saint Anthony takes an active role in the fulfilment of the prayer by virtue of the heavenly power and knowledge which he possesses via theosis.

A Fourth Member of the Trinity?

How does all of this apply to Mary? Well, Mary was the perfect creature; she never sinned; she had maximum Justification; she experienced a complete and total theosis. Mary does not merely participate in divinity, she participates in divinity perfectly. She does not merely share in God’s power, knowledge, presence and benevolence; she actually participates in these things so completely that she could be said to be omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent!

Mary participates in the life of the Trinity so closely that it is hard to distinguish between her and the other members. It is almost as if she is a fourth member of the Trinity by participation, without actually being a fourth member by nature. Mary’s will is so completely and perfectly aligned with the divine will and in submission to it that it is as if she does not possess a unique will of her own.

1200px-Immaculate_Heart_of_Mary[1].jpgAll of this can help to explain the doctrine of Mary as “Mediatrix of all graces”. Mary is a perfect mediator, because she perfectly shares in the mediation of Christ by virtue of her perfect theosis. What does this look like? It has two aspects: perfect intercession and distribution of grace.

In terms of intercession, because Mary’s will is perfectly in accordance with the will of God, she also prays in perfect accordance with the will of God. This implies that every grace that we receive has a prayer from Mary attached to it. Even something as simple as the sun rising day after day is associated with a prayer from Mary. Her prayer life is profound, exhaustive and ineffable. Mary prays for literally everything. The saints are similar: By virtue of the fact that their wills are aligned with God’s will and they share in his omniscience, they are able to intercede much more perfectly than us here on earth, although none as perfectly and exhaustively as Mary. This is why it is appropriate to ask for Mary and the Saints intercessions

The other aspect of Mary as Mediatrix is that she is a distributor of all grace by virtue of her participation in omnipotence. Mary shares perfectly in the power of God, and so wields his omnipotence simultaneously to God’s wielding of his own omnipotence. They are both agents who work together to send forth grace to us. The saints also have this honour, however their participation in theosis is less perfect, and so they are only mediators of some graces, whereas Mary participates in Christ’s mediation so perfectly that she is to be referred to as the mediatrix of all graces. Incidentally this is why we have patron saints for certain requests and issues: The church has identified certain saints as being mediators with respect to certain problems. Those saints share in God’s power in a real way, but they share most perfectly with respect to the issues that they are patrons for. Mary is the patron saint of everything, because she has been so perfectly divinized.

Theotokos_Immaculate_2__44041.1398787294.1000.1200_grande[1]Pope Leo XIII referred to Mary as the “neck” which connects Christ the head to the rest of the body. While I can see value in this description insofar as it pictures all Grace flowing through both Christ and Mary, I think it is a dangerous image, as it seems to imply that Mary stands as “another mediator” between us and Christ. This is not the case. Mary is not “another mediator” between us and Christ, she is a “co-mediator” standing alongside Christ, and only mediates by virtue of her participation in Christ’s mediation. Mary mediates “in Christ”. She does not mediate “between us and Christ”. I prefer the idea of Mary standing alongside or within Christ and sharing in his mediation and dispensing of graces, by virtue of her perfect theosis and perichoresis. And it is the same situation with all the saints: all of the saints are indeed co-mediators, and co-dispensers of grace by virtue of their theosis – however they do not participate in mediation and dispensing as perfectly as Mary does.

If Mary participates in divinity so perfectly, is it appropriate to worship her? The answer is no. Mary is divine by participation, not by nature. When push comes to shove, she is still just a creature and it would be inappropriate to worship her. But she is the most perfect creature and so deserves a most perfect and complete veneration.

Praise the most venerable Theotokos!

 

 

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 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.

5788271[1].pngSo 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 mass. But it is not a 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 masses 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 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.

page42_blog_entry246_summary_1[1].gifWhen the heavenly liturgy manifests on earth, the priest takes the place of Christ. A 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 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 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 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 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 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 mass: 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 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

2gh7miatc7vft53mmsm2dld82yl[1]Christ 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 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.

Eternal Punishments and Timeless Tortures

Aἰώνιον Punishment

Matthew 25:31-46RSV-CE

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – These terrifying words of our lord are one of many scriptural passages commonly invoked to prove that the mainstream understanding of everlasting torments is clearly and explicitly taught by scripture.

Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the punishment or the life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.

time-7[1].jpgIt is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.

So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.

Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?

Experience and Reality

So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the punishment of Hell is objectively everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel of universal salvation and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.

is-hell-real[1].pngI would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel of universalism: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.

This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.

So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel of universal salvation. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.

So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen

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.”

angrybible-shutterstock-300x168[1].jpgThere 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 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 “Tradition” actually is. Catholics have an intuitive understanding of “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

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

What Catholics tend to do when confronted about “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 traditions?”

confirmation-bias[1].jpgAt 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. “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 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

It is helpful to examine what the Church officially teaches concerning 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 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.

3-legged-stool[1]These extracts offer a decent, though incomplete picture of the relationship between Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Often the situation is presented as a metaphorical “three legged stool”. Scripture, 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 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 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 Tradition. However this is a deposit of faith which grows as history marches on, and scripture is only one component of this Tradition.

Visible Manifestations of the Invisible Tradition

Recall the Apophatic definition of tradition. Tradition is inspired, ineffable, invisible, intangible. This is a good starting point. We spiritually live within this invisible tradition. However the ineffable 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 tradition, the liturgical tradition, and the dogmatic tradition. These three traditions reflect the intangible and invisible tradition in a way that people can directly perceive and interact with.

Scriptural Tradition

The Scriptural 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 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 tradition are considered equally inspired and authoritative.

Liturgical Tradition

Similar to the Scriptural Tradition, the Liturgical 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 Tradition

This is the “Divine Clarification” aspect of the 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 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 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 tradition may grow with time. New translations may be introduced to the Scriptural Tradition. New Liturgies may be approved, or existing liturgies may evolve, thus adding to the Liturgical Tradition. The list of dogmas grows as time goes by, thus expanding the Dogmatic tradition. 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.

prayer-and-meditation[1].jpgRemember, 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 tradition that you will truly encounter Christ. As such, merely studying the bible will not draw you into this sacred 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 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 Tradition, try to keep in mind the three-fold definition presented in this post. 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 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 tradition while rejecting the liturgical and dogmatic traditions. Scripture is not separate to tradition, scripture IS tradition.