Does studying church history lead a person to support Roman Catholic doctrine?

Q. I appreciated your writing on pre- and post-millenialism. I thought it was very interesting. Thank you. You have a Ph.D. in Church History. What do you think of this video? Thank you for your time.

In the video in question, a Presbyterian minister who has converted to Catholicism is interviewing a Baptist minister who has also converted to Catholicism. The Baptist actually grew up Methodist, but he changed denominations when he got married. Divisions arose in his family over the doctrinal differences between the two denominations. He realized that the differences were due to the way people were interpreting the Bible, and he wondered who had the authority to say how the Bible should be interpreted.

He also started studying church history and through these studies, he says, he first began to be persuaded of Roman Catholic doctrine. He quotes John Henry Newman, an Anglican who became Catholic, to the effect that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” In other words, the claim is that if you really understand what followers of Jesus have believed from the start and for most of their history, you see that Catholics have it right and Protestants don’t.

As someone who, as you noted, has earned a Ph.D. in church history, I do not find this claim convincing. (Full disclosure: I am a Protestant.) What I have seen instead is that throughout history, different understandings of various doctrines have continually been arising within the community of Jesus’ followers. And it is not always the earliest understandings that have been carried forward into Catholic teaching today. To give just one example, the split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches was occasioned by the addition, by Western popes, of a phrase to the Nicene Creed, so that it then stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded “from the Father and the Son.”

The Orthodox churches objected more to the Pope adding this phrase to the creed unilaterally than they did to the phrase itself. The creed had been adopted by a council of all the bishops of the church, and they felt that if it were going to be changed, this could only be done by a similar council. But this illustrates the essential issue here: the question is not so much who has the authority to interpret Scripture (though Catholics grant this authority to the Magisterium or official teaching of the church), but who has the authority or power to enforce various interpretations. The Pope, it turned out, did not have the power to keep the Orthodox churches in line, and this caused a split that lasted nearly a thousand years and was only reconciled relatively recently.

We might say that the Pope at the time of the Reformation similarly did not have the power or authority to bring the new Protestant groups back under Rome’s doctrinal control, and another split occurred that has persisted to this day. One difference is that while the Orthodox churches remained essentially unified in their understandings, the Protestant groups have continued to split and bicker. So I can certainly understand how someone would want an authority to step in and say, “This is how we’re going to understand things,” and be comfortable finding that authority in the Catholic Magisterium.

But that’s different from saying that this authority is reflecting what followers of Jesus have basically believed from the start and in almost all places and times. Actually, the Catholic Church as we know it today dates essentially from the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, when the variety of practices then in use were standardized. Before that, the Catholic Church itself exhibited great diversity, as frankly it still does in many respects today.

In conclusion, I have no problem with people being on a spiritual pilgrimage as followers of Jesus that leads them to find a new home in a different denomination. I have no problem with Protestants, even Protestant clergy, converting to Catholicism if they come to find their heart’s home there. But I am a bit uncomfortable with the way this video speaks of the Roman Catholic communion as the “true church,” as if Protestant expressions of Christianity were somehow “false,” and of converts “coming home,” as if those of us who remain Protestant are still wandering off somewhere. Let’s recognize all sincere followers of Jesus as “true” Christians, honor one another’s convictions, and make sure that we explore and discuss our differences peacefully and respectfully.


“No offense, but are Pentecostals and Catholics genuine followers of Christ?”

Q. The following question might be a little offensive to some, but I truly, truly mean no offense. I would like to know your thoughts on Pentecostalism and Catholicism. I know some people frown upon Pentecostalism, which I do not understand why. Are they considered as orthodox and genuine followers of Christ? As for Catholicism, I cannot come to terms with how they can be considered as Christians when they worship Mary, saints and erect statues of their saints. Isn’t that specifically forbidden by God in the Bible?

The simple answer to your question is yes, Pentecostals and Catholics are orthodox and genuine followers of Christ. That is to say, we shouldn’t think that people aren’t true Christians just because they are Pentecostal or Catholic. I’m not talking here about simple church attendance or church membership. I’m talking about people whose faith and trust is in Jesus. If that’s true of people who are Pentecostal or Catholic, then they are fellow believers and “joint heirs of the grace of life.”

You should know that the official teaching of the Catholic church is that followers of Jesus should not worship Mary or pray to the saints. However, Catholics do believe (as I do myself, even though I’m Protestant) that one of the most important ministries of those who have gone on ahead of us into the presence of God is to pray for us who remain here on earth. And so as followers of Jesus, we may reasonably ask any of the saints in heaven (including our departed loved ones) to pray for us, just as we would ask a brother or sister in Christ to pray for us here on earth.

Moreover, the Bible does not actually forbid making statues and other representational works of art, including those that depict human forms. When God gave Moses instructions to build the tabernacle, for example, He told him to include images of almond blossoms, pomegranates, and cherubim (angelic figures in human form). Some of these images were embroidered, but others were carved. Solomon’s temple similarly had images of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers.

What the Bible does forbid is making images of God and bowing down to those images—in other words, idolatry. But artistic depictions are acceptable if they celebrate the lives of faithful people who came before us and remind us that with them, we form a community that embraces believers both in heaven and on earth. (These images create a visual arts version of the “hall of fame of faith” whose literary version is found in the book of Hebrews.)

I’m grateful, for instance, that Mary, our sister in Christ, obeyed God by agreeing to become the mother of Jesus and by supporting him in his ministry right to the end. Though all the disciples fled, she stood by him at the cross. Her life is an inspiration and example to us, and it’s good to be reminded of it. A statue or painting can do that.

Unfortunately, in actual practice, popular piety sometimes does turn these acceptable activities into praying to the saints instead of asking the saints to pray for us. (For example: “Lost something? Pray to St. Anthony to help you find it.”) In the same way, popular piety can consist of worshiping statues instead of letting the statues lead us into worship. It’s been well said that an icon is something that you see through into the spiritual realm, whereas an idol stops your gaze and makes you see only it. Statues are supposed to be icons, but unfortunately they can become idols.

But as I said, this is not the official teaching or practice of the Catholic church. Catholic leaders and teachers would be just as dismayed as you if they discovered that any of their people were actually praying to the saints or treating statues as idols rather than icons. Their response would be to “explain the way of God more adequately,” as the Bible puts it.

As for Pentecostals, some people have a problem with their belief that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit remain available today, such as prophesy, healing, miracles, and “speaking in tongues” (that is, praying or bringing a message in a language one has not formally acquired). It’s specifically people who don’t believe these gifts are still available today who object to Pentecostals’ pursuit and use of them. (But I have no problem with this!)

Some people also disagree with the Pentecostal teachings that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is an experience separate from and subsequent to receiving salvation by trusting Jesus, and that the sign of this experience is speaking in tongues. These are classic Pentecostal teachings that have not been continued, by and large, in the charismatic groups that have emerged from the Pentecostal movement. (I discuss the baptism of the Holy Spirit somewhat in this post and speaking in tongues in this post. You’ll see that I respectfully disagree with the way these beliefs have classically been articulated within Pentecostalism, though I encourage both the experience of being filled with the Spirit and, for those who are given that gift, speaking in tongues.)

Let me say in conclusion that my Christian faith has been deeply enriched by my interactions with both Catholic and Pentecostal sisters and brothers, and that I’m honored and grateful to be part of one household of faith with them.

What’s the biblical basis for Roman Catholic priests not marrying?

Q. What passages in the Bible does the Roman Catholic church use to support its teaching that priests cannot marry?

I have to admit that I didn’t know the answer to this question when it was posed to my blog. But I did a bit of research online and came across what I thought was a very well articulated reply from Catholic Answers, “one of the nation’s largest lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics.” I’ll quote the part of the reply that speaks directly to this question and then offer some comments afterwards.

Theologically, it may be pointed out that priests serve in the place of Christ and therefore, their ministry specially configures them to Christ. As is clear from Scripture, Christ was not married (except in a mystical sense, to the Church). By remaining celibate and devoting themselves to the service of the Church, priests more closely model, configure themselves to, and consecrate themselves to Christ.

As Christ himself makes clear, none of us will be married in heaven. By remaining unmarried in this life, priests are more closely configured to the final, eschatological state that will be all of ours.

Paul makes it very clear that remaining single allows one’s attention to be undivided in serving the Lord. He recommends celibacy to all and especially to ministers, who, as soldiers of Christ, he urges to abstain from “civilian affairs.”

I think this appeal to the Scriptures actually makes the case very well that all of us, Catholic or Protestant, ordained or lay, should reflect seriously on whether God wants us to serve Him with the advantages that singleness provides, and in the process to proclaim the “eschatological state” that is even now breaking into our world. This is one side of the Bible’s teaching about marriage, and it’s one that I don’t think we consider often enough for ourselves.

However, there is another side to the Bible’s teaching as well. With no disrespect intended at all for the Catholic position on celibacy for priests, I’d like to describe what I believe were the benefits of marriage for me as a married Protestant minister for some 20 years.

The Bible also says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” When God created the world, He proclaimed one created thing after another “good,” and in the end declared it all “very good.” But there was one thing that God then said was “not good.” It was not good for the man to be alone, so He made Eve as a “helper” for Adam. The Hebrew term actually refers to a strong ally who is at your side in time of need. (Most often in the Bible the term refers to God, as in, “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”)

While, if I had been single as a minister, I would have had the advantages described by Catholic Answers above, I feel that because I was married, I had other advantages. My wife truly was my “ally” (“helper”), not only jumping in wherever needed to use her gifts to advance our shared ministry, but, I think even more importantly, always being by my side to encourage and advise me.

Many people told us that our strong, happy marriage, which was clearly life-giving for both of us, causing us each to flourish, gave great credibility to the Christian message I was preaching. Accodring to Paul, this models the love between Christ and the church.

At the same time, Martin Luther described marriage itself as “a little church,” meaning a place where husband and wife live a life of worship together under God. I’ve also often spoken of marriage as “the great school of character.” The lessons you learn by making one life out of two, if you really want to make that work, truly build the character of Christ in you, and that gets transferred into your ministry.

I hope this post helps my Protestant readers to understand the practice of their Catholic brothers and sisters a bit better, and for that matter, that it helps Catholics understand and appreciate why Protestants support marriage for their clergy.


Why do Catholics believe that Christ is really present in the bread and wine of communion?

Q. I want to know the reasons why Catholics believe in the true presence in regards to communion, and why Protestants believe that communion is symbolic. I’m thinking it might be because Catholics take statements like “I am the bread” more literally, but I’m wondering what the theological reasons are as well.

The meaning of communion (or the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist) is so important for groups of believers to discuss and understand that several of the study guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series provide opportunities for groups to engage this issue together.  In the John study guide, for example, at the place where Jesus feeds five thousand people by the Sea of Galilee and then talks about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood,” group members are invited to share how their community of Jesus’ followers (if they belong to one) observes the Lord’s Supper: What is believed about the elements? How are they served? Who may participate? And so forth. People are also invited to talk about the most meaningful experiences they’ve had sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  (The question comes at this point in the study guide because John doesn’t actually depict Jesus instituting communion at the Last Supper.) A similar opportunity is given in the guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, in the session that discusses Paul’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians.  In the Psalms guide, to give another example, communion is discussed in the context of psalms of thanksgiving, which were sung at community meals celebrating God’s deliverance.  These meals were the historical forerunners of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the covenant people.

But to answer your question specifically, the theological term for the Catholic belief about communion is transubstantiation.  This refers to the classical belief that objects have an inward part, an “essence” or “substance” (meaning that which “stands under”: sub-stantia), in which their deepest being consists.  They also have surface characteristics, or “accidents.”  Thus, in this frame of reference, a person’s “substance” or “essence” would be their humanity, while things like blue eyes, blond hair, height, etc. would be incidental or “accidental” characteristics.

The Catholic belief is that the communion elements (the bread and the wine) “become” the body and blood of Christ as their substance is transformed into those things (thus trans-substan-tiation).  The bread and wine retain their accidental characteristics, however, and thus still look and taste like bread and wine.  This belief is based not only a a literal interpretation of statements such as “this is my body, this is my blood” but on this whole philosophical framework that makes it possible to believe that the bread and wine really are the body and the blood, even if they don’t look like it.  Christ is understood to be really present in his body and blood, which now constitute the essence of the elements, thus the reference to the “Real Presence” of Christ at the communion table.

During and after the Reformation, some Protestants continued to believe in transubstantiation, or something similar to it.  Anglicans (Episcopalians) believe in transubstantiation and Lutherans believe in consubstantiation, in which the body and blood become mingled with the essence of the bread and wine.  But other Protestants, particularly those coming in the historic stream leading from the Geneva reformers (such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists), moved to a symbolic view, in which the bread and wine represent the body and blood.

In a famous debate with Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli championed the “memorial” or symbolic view by appealing to the Scripture that says, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  Zwingli was especially concerned with combating what had become a superstition in which the “body and blood of Christ” were some kind of super food that protected people from spiritual harm.  From this point of view, even though Christ is not “really present” in the elements, they point to him, and sharing at the table is still obedience to his command to “remember me.”  The believers who gathered to share the supper together are understood to be the “body of Christ” themselves.

The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli presaged the later move within modernity and the Enlightenment to the “phenomenal” (seen) and away from the “noumenal” (unseen).  If all you could see and taste were bread and wine, then maybe that’s all there was on the table.  In other words, the modern reliance on the senses alone might have been starting to come through in Zwingli’s position.  This modern world view makes it more difficult for many people to appreciate and understand the Catholic understanding, which is based on a more classic view of matter and being.  But ultimately what we believe about the bread and wine of communion is a matter of faith, and followers of Jesus should respect and honor one another’s beliefs.