Friday, August 3, 2007

How does the Holy Spirit Teach, and Through Whom?

By Aimee Milburn

After making my post about Papal Infallibility, I had a dialogue of sorts with a Protestant who was trying to refute the doctrine from scripture. He used the Protestant practice of “proof-texting,” in which individual verses of scriptures are quoted to prove certain Protestant doctrines, or disprove certain Catholic doctrines.

Although individual scriptures can be used in support of doctrines, the approach can be problematic, as they can be misused and misinterpreted if taken out of context. The dialogue gave me an opportunity to demonstrate this, and I decided to put it out here for the benefit of other readers, as my original comment is buried pretty deep in the (long and convoluted) thread.

In trying to defend the Protestant idea that the Holy Spirit teaches and interprets scripture directly for everyone, so we don’t need an infallible teaching authority outside of scripture itself, my reader quoted the following verses:

This is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him. (1 John 2:25-27)

The crux of his argument is “you have no need for anyone to teach you,” because we have the anointing of the Holy Spirit to teach us. This is a good illustration of how problematic it can be to quote individual verses of scripture out of context. It’s like quoting a comment from a politician out of context, and making it seem like he was saying the opposite of what he meant – which happens all the time in the media.

To understand what John is saying, we must look at both the whole letter itself and the context in which it was written, and what the rest of scripture says on the subject. Following is my explanation and exegesis of the context and content of 1 John, in which the verse in question appears.

The immediate context of the letter was divisive people spreading false teaching (John calls them “antichrists”), threatening the unity of the Body. The letter was written to believers who apparently were being harassed by the deceivers, and their unity threatened.

Divisiveness and disbelief have always been a problem in the Church. From the beginning of its existence there were people who believed and people who disbelieved, and even among believers were some who came up with different ideas, false doctrines, and tried to usurp authority from the Apostles and promote their own ideas, causing division (this occasioned, for example, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and his letter to the Galatians; Peter warned about them in his second epistle). It still happens today. These false and divisive teachers also are the cause of John first epistle.

It is typical of epistles in the New Testament to include in the salutation some indication of the theme or cause of the letter. John does so in the very first sentence of this letter, in which he says, “… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1:3)

The theme of the letter is fellowship, unity, in Christ, the Son of God. John is writing in order to preserve unity. Throughout the letter John emphasizes fellowship and love, and later in the letter, after he addresses the source of the divisiveness, he says, “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”

Where did we hear this? From Jesus, on his last night on earth, which John recorded in his gospel. Jesus’ commandment that we should love one another (Jn 13:34) and become perfectly one (Jn 17:23) are in the background of this letter - indeed, His whole discourse at the last supper, spanning five chapters (Jn 13-17) and bookended with Jesus' words about love and oneness are in the background.

After the introductory section in the first epistle, John begins to move into the meat of the letter: “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin,” (2:1), which he expands on through verse 2:15. What is the sin? “He who says ‘I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him … he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (2:4, 6) In other words, people who claim to be Christians, but don’t obey his commandments or follow his example.

He comes to the crux of the matter in 2:18: “Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.”

What is the antichrist? “This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also.” (2:22b) So there were people who were not only sinning by breaking the commandments, but also denying Christ in some way, perhaps by denying that he was the Messiah (the Jews did this), or accepting that he was the Messiah, but denying that he was truly the Son of God and so not really God himself (an early heresy).

Whatever the case, John is clearly warning against these false teachers, in order to keep true believers united and strong in their faith. He follows his condemnation of the antichrists, the false teachers, with, “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father” (2:24).
What did they hear, and from whom? They heard the gospel, heard it proclaimed and explained by the Apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. When we hear and receive the gospel, we also receive the Holy Spirit, because it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to hear in the first place: God who draws us, through His grace, which is the power of the Holy Spirit. "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him." (Jn 6:44)

Verse 2:24 is followed by the verses my commenter quoted, “These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him."

It is the anointing of the Holy Spirit that inspires the Apostle to preach, and inspires the listeners to open up and receive the preaching - which the faithful believers that John is writing to have done. They have listened, and received, which means they have already been taught by the Apostles, which is the teaching of the Holy Spirit. And in the early Church, when they accepted the gospel, they were baptized and anointed by the Apostles, through which they received the Holy Spirit that ingrafted them into the Body.

Later he says, “We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” Who is the “us?” John was one of the Apostles, and a bishop of seven churches. He is talking about Church authority, Apostles chosen and given authority by Christ, and those chosen by them, the bishops, anointed by the Holy Spirit, teaching and writing with authority, the authoritative teachers of the faith through whom people received the faith, long before they had bibles to consult.

So, in other words, what John is saying in his letter is: you have no need to listen to these false teachers, because you have already heard and received the truth from us, the true teachers of the faith, because it is the Holy Spirit teaching you through us, which you also have received through us.

It can be seen, then, from the larger content and context of the letter, that John’s phrase “you have no need for anyone to teach you” is not a reference to any and all teachers of the faith, but to false teachers, those who teach differently from what they had heard from the Apostles, and so threaten the faith and unity of believers.

Yes, all believers receive the Holy Spirit. But there are also deceiving spirits, who lead people astray. How do we know which is which? By listening to the Apostles and their designated successors, who are the real authorities of the Church, whom we are to obey. If we obey them, then we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. But if we don’t obey, and believe something different, we don’t have the Holy Spirit, but believe a deceiving spirit.

John concludes the section, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” In other words, abide in your faith in Christ and in the sound teaching which you have received from the Apostles – and so receive eternal life. Which is the essence of Catholic teaching, and the whole reason for the existence of the Church: eternal life with God.

The larger context of scripture supports this. For example, Paul emphasizes the necessity of sound, authoritative teaching in his epistles to Timothy, whom he appointed a bishop. He warns against “deceiving spirits” (1 Tim 4:1), and exhorts Timothy,

Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me … guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. … What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2)

This is also one of the indications in scripture of the beginning of the Apostolic Succession. Paul appointed Timothy a bishop, and instructed him to appoint others, handing on to them what he had learned from Paul. That’s how the faith was handed on in the beginning, and still is in the Catholic Church: by authoritative teachers in the Apostolic Succession, who had been chosen and taught the true faith by their predecessors in the succession.

In another example, Peter warns, regarding the interpretation of scripture,

There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Pet 3:17-18)

Note that he does not say, nor does anyone anywhere in scripture say, that when the going gets rough we should leave and found our own churches someplace else. That is completely against everything the bible says about the church, obedience, the unity of believers, and responses to division and controversy.

Paul also warns against division in 2 Tim, and warns, regarding eternal life, “If we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us.” (2 Tim 12) In other words, endure, don’t lose your faith and deny him, or he will deny you.

He later affirms of himself, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:7) In other words, Paul, writing from prison and awaiting death, knew that he had kept, not lost, the faith, and so would receive the crown of righteousness when he died.

In other words, you can lose your salvation if you lose your faith, and disobey or deny Christ. And Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to infallibly guide His Church, promised to the Apostles on His last night on earth (Jn 16:13). So to obey the Church is to obey the Holy Spirit, which is to obey Christ. This is what the Catholic Church and the bible both teach – but what many Protestants deny.

In Closing: Scripture itself led me to the Catholic Church

When I was a new Christian in the Evangelical church, I was taught that individual verses of scripture must always be interpreted in light of the whole of scripture, or you can get it wrong. So I taught myself to read the bible “holistically,” constantly using my concordance to compare verses and passages of scripture that dealt with the same subjects, for a fuller understanding.

Over time, I began to see contradictions between what I was reading in the bible and what I was hearing preached from the pulpit. It appeared to me that my pastors were taking individual verses of scripture out of context, and interpreting them in light of a pre-existing theology that contradicted other verses of scripture, on issues like Peter, authority, Mary, the nature of salvation, the nature of the bread and wine, etc. The key passages dealing with these issues either were never addressed, or addressed so poorly that it seemed to me the pastors were convoluting and contradicting scripture in order to justify their theology.

My observations contributed to my conversion to Catholicism, as when later I began studying Catholicism, I found, to my utter surprise, that the Catholic Church was teaching the very things that I had been observing for myself from scripture, and always had. And it also became clear, as I studied history, that Protestantism itself is based on a new theology, propounding new and false doctrines, a “different gospel” (2 Cor 11:4, Gal 1:6) based on misunderstanding of scripture that came along 1500 years after the fact, that early Christians had never heard of and would have been scandalized by, of the kind that the bible itself warns against because of its threat to the faith and the unity of the Body, and which we are not to pay attention to.

It’s not the fault of Protestants today, and many are sincere and believing Christians. But I believe they are also sincerely misled, which is one reason why I write: to share the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith with my brothers and sisters in Christ, which I believe both scripture and history demonstrate is the authentic and original Christian faith, the original gospel, and the original and true Church.
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Papal Infallibility: God's, not Man's

By Aimee Milburn

A reader has written, a Protestant grappling with the relationship between authority and Papal infallibility in the Church, and we've had quite a correspondence about it. He can accept the necessity of authority, but has difficulty accepting infallibility. It's not an issue I was concerned about entering the Church, as it was was clear to me from the beginning that if I really trust Christ, then I also trust that He is in control of the Church He founded, and so I can trust the Church. But it's not that easy for everyone, and my reader's questions have led me to grapple more deeply with the issue. Here is my latest reflection, which I thought other readers might enjoy. It's a bit long, so bear with me.

The relationship between authority and infallibility is the meat of the issue. It is good that you see the importance of authority. It is important to understand, however, that when it comes to the real Church founded by Christ, authority and infallibility are inseparable, because Church authority cannot work without infallibility. It would become meaningless – it would simply, and rapidly, devolve into merely the opinions of men, with one asserting one thing and another asserting another, causing the rapid breakup of the church over disagreements, with different groups forming different camps.

This is what has happened in the Protestant world, because Protestants rejected the Pope and the Magisterium, the sole source of infallibility for the Church. Protestants take scripture as the sole rule of authority and consider it infallible – which it is – but scripture does not interpret itself, and in the absence of an authoritative, infallible interpreter, how can anyone know which interpretation is correct? Who has the power to decide?

No one does, so people disagree and divide, because there is no final, infallible interpreter in the Protestant world to interpret scripture and explain doctrine. In practice, Protestant “authority” and interpretation really is just private judgment, and people group together with those they agree with – and change and go to a different church if they disagree – which is anti-scriptural on so many levels.

So, you ask, what makes the Catholic Church different? Isn’t it just another man, or group of men, issuing their own private judgments, their own faulty opinions?

No, it’s not. Authority in the Catholic Church is not and never has been the same as authority in the Protestant world. It is important to understand that we are not talking about the authority of a man, the Pope, to assert his opinions as true above the opinions of other men. The Pope is not really the one who decides matters of doctrine. It is God who decides, through the office of the Pope; God, not man, who is guiding the Church in unfolding and explaining the meaning of the deposit of faith. God is the interpreter of scripture and the One who settles matters of doctrine, and He does so infallibly through the Pope and the Magisterium of the Church.

People can make the mistake of thinking of the Pope as the “boss” of the Church, but he’s not. He and the Apostles, Bishops today, are not bosses; they are servants of God and stewards of His Church. God inspired Peter and the Apostles to write the New Testament, and He continues to guide and inspire them in correctly interpreting scripture in the Church through the Holy Spirit. It is God’s infallibility at work in the Church, not man's. The Church belongs to God, and He is the One running it, through the men He has chosen to serve Him as stewards – keeping it on track despite all the ways that men can stray in history.

When I was a Protestant, I was taught that the Holy Spirit is the interpreter of scripture, which is correct. However, it confused me, because I could not see how He could interpret one way through one person, and another way through another person, and both be right, because God is not a God of confusion.

As a Catholic, I now understand that the Protestant world has a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Holy Spirit works, and how God orders the Church. He does not work to interpret scripture or doctrine through just anyone, and certainly not through everyone. He works in many ways with many people, but when it comes to interpretation, either of scripture or of doctrine, He works only through the designated authorities of the Church, whom scripture tells us to obey. Who are the designated authorities? Peter and the Apostles, and their successors the Pope and the Bishops, in the valid Apostolic Succession through the laying on of the hands.

There is only one passage in the New Testament where Jesus clearly gives authority to another: Matt 16:13-19. In this passage, Jesus asks who the disciples think he is, and they all give different answers. He then asks Peter, who says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus replies, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

God revealed to Peter alone a truth of the faith, the true identity of Christ, when the others were confused and divided. That is the seed of Papal infallibility in scripture.

The passage is strikingly similar to Is 22:20-24:
In that day I will call my servant Eli'akim the son of Hilki'ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father's house. And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father's house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons.

And to Rev. 3:7:

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 'The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.

Keys in scripture are symbolic of authority; the key of David symbolizes the authority of God. The passage in Isaiah is in the context of usurping a former authority that wasn’t true to God, and establishing a new authority while the old is cut down (Isaiah was prophesying to Judah and Jerusalem, just prior to the Babylonian exile). The passage in Revelation is clearly a reference to Christ, who is God Incarnate.

So, in Matt 16:13-19, Jesus Himself, recognizing that God the Father has chosen Peter, gives him the keys to His own authority, the authority of God, and the power of binding and loosing that goes with it, in a clear allusion to Is 22. The Isaiah background is the judgment of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple, which Jesus also prophesied. Jesus was founding a new church in place of the Judaic Temple, and proclaiming a new leader, revealed by God the Father, in Peter.

Peter alone, and no other, was given a direct revelation by our Father in heaven of Christ’s identity, and so given the biblical keys of authority, the authority of God to bind and loose, make final decisions. And it is not an arbitrary authority, but the authority of God to steer the Church to the truth in moments of man’s confusion, given to Peter alone. That is why the Church defines the Magisterium as “The Pope and the Bishops in union with the Pope.”

It was our Father in heaven who chose Peter, Jesus who confirmed him, before the Holy Spirit later descended on him, turning him into the powerful leader and witness he became. None of the other Apostles received this much special treatment. Are you really willing to argue with the Trinity over their choice of a leader for the Church, and pooh-pooh their decision?

That is why today the symbol for the Pope includes two keys, but the Apostles have only one. It symbolizes that their authority is complete only when in union with the Pope, because of the Pope’s union with God in the special charism given by God to recognize and protect the true faith. And it hardly would work to protect the Church over the ages, if the gift had died with Peter. Why would God have gone to the trouble, if He didn’t intend it to last? Why would He write it into scripture, if He didn’t intend it to be a lasting thing?

The gift given to Peter, as with all charisms, continues to be given, to the appropriate member of the Body: Peter’s successor.

What were the Apostles given?

At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples, “This is my body …, this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” This is the charism of consecrating the bread and wine, given only to the Apostles.

At another point in the evening he tells them, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth … He will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (Jn 16:12-15) This is the promise of the Holy Spirit, who will guide them in correctly interpreting scripture and doctrine, so they can correctly preach and teach everyone else – also given only to the Apostles.

Later, after His death and resurrection, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (Jn 20:22-23) This, too, is a sacramental charism given only to the Apostles.
Consecrating, interpreting the faith correctly, forgiving sins. These are unique charisms given by Christ to the Apostles, which from the beginning they handed on, and have always handed on, to their successors through the laying on of the hands.

In the book of Acts, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell not only on the Apostles, but on everyone gathered there with them. What power was given? The power of witnessing, (Acts 1:8), which is shared by all believers. And Paul later explains how the Holy Spirit also gives different gifts – but not all gifts are given to everyone. The Body is ordered. Only some are given certain gifts, not all. And authority, God’s authority to interpret scripture and doctrine, matters of the faith, are given only to Peter and the Apostles, with Peter given final authority on matters of doctrine.

It is God’s authority, God’s infallibility at work in the Church, God acting and making His will clear, not men deciding according to their opinions. In the Protestant mindset, God wrote the bible through men, and men follow the bible. That is not how the early church worked, and is not how the Church works today. Never has.

The doctrine Sola Scriptura would have confounded the early Christians. Authority is not confined to the written word, nor does it actually come from the written word. It comes from God, who guides the Church through the Pope and the Apostles, wrote and interprets the bible through them, develops and protects the understanding of doctrine through them, and guides the Church through them. That’s how it’s always been.

Also please understand: doctrine develops, but it does not evolve, does not change from one thing to another. Revelation is finished. It is our understanding that is incomplete, which is why Jesus said “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:12-13); our understanding that is developing and growing, as an acorn into an oak tree.

The Faith of the Catholic Church today is the faith of the early Church, is the faith of Jesus, is the faith of the bible - explained and interpreted correctly. The mass, too, is the mass of the early Church: remarkably the same, which I can attest to, having studied the development of liturgy in the early Church. Nothing, actually, has changed, except for our understanding of it and a few externals of practice; and our understanding has grown and will continue to grow and unfold, guided by the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth, as Jesus said He would, the infinite truth of God, speaking and explaining His Revelation through the voice of the Magisterium.

God did not only act in distant history, and leave us only a book to follow, with only fallible men to try to figure out what the book really means – and so fail at what the book asks us to do, because we can’t agree on the meaning. Infallibility is the lynchpin of authority and interpretation, and of unity, without which the former would be meaningless and the latter would fall apart. All are a work of the Holy Spirit, all are God working directly in His Church to infallibly teach us, guide us, and keep us united as one. He’s been doing it all along in the Catholic Church.

Which brings me to another related point: the nature of the Church. The Protestant world has a very truncated view of the Church, as only a “mystical body” united in faith, though visibly fragmented. But this is not the Church founded by Christ, and it is not the Church spoken of by scripture.

The real Church in its fullness truly is a single, living organism, united in faith and practice. It is the Body of Christ, united as one through the Eucharist, His Body and Blood. It has a single head on earth, the Pope, stewarded and guided by Christ in heaven, the real Head of the Body. The Holy Spirit lives in the Church as His Temple, guiding her leaders and sanctifying her members. It is a single organism, and God really is living and speaking and teaching in her midst and is really her Real Leader – without whom it would all fall apart. In a very real way, the Church is God Incarnate on the earth.

This is why I say that, when it comes to matters of the faith, to trust the Church is to trust God, and not to trust the Church is to fail to trust God. The Protestant Reformation was a massive failure of trust in God, trust that He is in control of His Church and knows what He is doing, and a massive usurpation of the authority of God Himself. But it is a usurpation that failed. Though God continues to save souls in the Protestant world, the Protestant world only becomes ever-more divided over time, and theology ever more debased, while the Catholic Church has recovered, grown stronger, gone on, and continued to grow and develop in ever more beautiful ways.

This is not to say that the members of the Church, including her leaders, are without sin. There are saints and sinners in the Church, wheat and weeds, as promised by scripture, and it shows in her colorful history. But it doesn’t mean the Church is not God's Church. She belongs to God, and always recovers, due to God’s grace, and continues on.

I’ve been around both the Protestant world and the Catholic Church long enough now to notice a very curious thing: when there is controversy in the Protestant world, congregations tend to split up and go their separate ways. I could tell stories about it. It happened to my old church, when a scandal engulfed the pastor and huge numbers of the congregation left. When controversy comes to the Catholic Church, however, she gets stronger. A few may leave, but more stay, and more come in. She always recovers and grows.

In the wake of the priest scandal, conversions to Catholicism in the US have increased: 100,000 entered the Church this year, an all-time high. I think it’s because the Church really is the Body Christ, and her suffering is His suffering – which is redemptive: When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself (Jn 12:32). People are drawn through the power of the cross – and perhaps this is the pruning of Christ in action. Pruning always results in new growth, and makes a tree healthier. And the Church is the great Tree of Christ, growing from all over the earth into heaven.

Do we limit God to only acting in heaven, and we just have to figure things out as best we can on earth, or do we grant that He really is infinite and all-powerful, and can act on the earth as well as in heaven, through the men He chooses? Do I trust what Jesus said, that He would found his church upon the rock, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, regardless of how things sometimes look? Or am I a doubter, who runs away from the foot of the cross when Jesus appears defeated – when the Church His Body appears defeated – and so miss the joy of the resurrection, when He comes alive again?

I trust Him; that is why I became a Catholic. That is why now, rather than trying to decide whether a doctrine is true or not, I instead accept it, and try to understand how it is true, trusting that it is coming from God, and not from men. I no longer have the hubris to think that I can judge the deep things of God, when God has given me no authority to do so. If there is a problem, the problem is with me, my ability to understand, not with the Church.

I close this reflection with this quote from an article on Papal Infallibility:

Often those who object to the doctrine of infallibility confuse it with impeccability or personal inerrancy. It is neither. Impeccability means that a person is incapable of sinning. Popes, like other Christians, are sinners. Personal inerrancy means that Popes cannot make mistakes. Infallibility, on the other hand, refers to that guidance of the Holy Spirit that guards Popes from officially teaching error in matters of faith and morals. [italics mine]

It is a gift that I, for one, am extremely grateful.