Archive for the ‘St. Joan of Arc’ Category

One Bible, Many Interpretations

October 20, 2017

Not everyone understands God in the same way Catholic Christians do. Consider the Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses:

Mormons teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods, and that we too can become Gods in our own right someday.

You may reply to them, for instance, with James 2:19, “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble,” but Mormons will have some explanation for that New Testament passage which fits their theology.

Oneness Pentecostals teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three persons but three manifestations of one divine person, God.

You may ask them who Jesus is praying to in Matthew 26:39 when he says in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will,” yet Oneness Pentecostals will offer some answer for why Jesus is not actually praying to another person.

Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus is not divine, not God, but God’s first and greatest angel, and that the Holy Spirit is not a person but the active force of God the Father in the world.

You may point to John’s prologue, where we see “the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh,” or to John 20:28, where “Thomas answered and said to [Jesus,] ‘My Lord and my God!‘” However, Jehovah’s Witnesses will surely have some answer for these verses.

A diagram of the true, ancient, catholic, and orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity:
One God in Three Divine Persons

In my personal encounters, advocates of Mormon polytheism, Oneness Pentecostal modalism, or Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Arianism-like theology have all been sincere, friendly, and not unintelligent people. They studied the Bible, regarded it as God’s infallible Word, and used it to support their beliefs. All of them proudly claimed the name of “Christian.” And yet, the undeniable fact that their theologies contradict each other proves that these praiseworthy personal traits are not enough to guarantee a true understanding of the Christian Faith. Indeed, Bible-alone Christians find a multitude of conflicting interpretations amongst themselves. Texts out of context can yield several defensible, though incorrect, interpretations. Likewise, interpreting biblical texts outside the context of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church results in many errors.

At my previous assignment, a few years ago, two very nice Jehovah’s Witnesses visited my rectory and we conversed for a couple of hours. At one point we debated whether Jesus’ numerous “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John were professions of his divinity (echoing the “I Am Who Am” spoken from the burning bush in Exodus.) One of my guests remarked, “We can’t really be certain what he meant.” I replied to the effect, “You’re right! — If your opinion and my opinion are all we have to go on, if there’s no visible authority on earth with power from Christ to infallibly answer essential questions, then we can never be certain our biblical interpretations are true. Many sincere, reasonable, and scholarly Christians strenuously disagree about the Scriptures. Without a clear and reliable teaching authority within the Church we would be left as sheep without a shepherd and inevitably scatter!”

2nd Timothy 3:16 states that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching,” but ‘useful’ is not the same thing as ‘sufficient,’ or saying that the Bible is ‘all you need‘ to know the truth. While inspired words do come from God (as is taught in 2nd Peter 1:21) the problem remains of knowing which texts belong to Scripture. There was much debate among early Christians over which New Testament writings were inspired and should be included in the canon. The early Church Fathers’ lists of the Bible books varied. The Letter to the Hebrews? The Shepherd of Hermas? The Book of Revelation? The Didache? The Letter of James? The First and Second Letters of Clement? How could this question of canon be definitively resolved, particularly when some inspired books seem to have pseudonymous authors?

Recall that Jesus is not known to have written anything in the Gospels (besides perhaps something in the dust near the woman caught in adultery.) He did, however, establish a Church. Through this Church, the New Testament was composed, collected, canonized, and celebrated. This process was certainly not complete within the first century AD. It was the Catholic Church, her pope and bishops, who ultimately canonized the twenty-seven New Testament books which all Christians acknowledge today. Most Christians revere the Holy Scriptures as God’s infallible Word, and this is good and right, but for some reason many of them reject the Catholic Church through which the Scriptures come.

One belief shared by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses is the idea that a “Great Apostasy” devastated the early Church. These religions say a great deception occurred soon after the death of the apostles causing the vast majority of self-professed Christians ever since to hold core doctrines widely different from the truth. The New Testament does contain passages warning Christians not to be mislead (as by “wolves in sheep’s clothing”) and false prophets and heresies arise in every age, but was there a “Great Apostasy” soon after the apostles that so corrupted Christianity that foundational teachings (like the true nature of God) were thoroughly abandoned and forgotten?

All Christians will agree that Jesus is a wise man. Jesus was indeed a wise man who built his house on rock. Jesus declared to Simon, “‘I say to you, you are Peter [that is, you are “Rock” in Greek] and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.’” (Matthew 16:18) If Jesus is a wise man who built his house on rock then we can be assured that even though “the rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house–it did not collapse; [his Church] had been set solidly on rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)

Jesus entrusts the keys of his Kingdom to St. Peter
A Sistine Chapel fresco by Pietro Perugino, c. 1482.

After building his Church upon Peter for some forty years did Jesus let it go to shambles and neglect to repair it for about eighteen centuries until Joseph Smith or The Watchtower came along? If so, Jesus really dropped the ball. If the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are right, then God managed to get all of the New Testament books infallibly written, correctly canonized, and faithfully passed-on through millennia, but failed to preserve the truth about himself in that same Church much beyond the apostles croaking.

In truth, our Lord Jesus Christ succeeded in preserving both his teachings and the hierarchical authority he gave to his Church, from St. Peter (the first pope) and the apostles to Pope Francis and the bishops in communion with him today – a clear and necessary line of teaching authority spanning the centuries through Apostolic Succession and the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Holy Catholic Church perfectly canonized the New Testament books and safeguarded Christ’s teachings long after the death of the apostles because she is “the pillar and foundation of truth.” (1st Timothy 3:15)

As a Catholic, you will encounter people who present very different interpretations of the Bible. Do not let your hearts be troubled. There are good reasons for everything we believe as Catholics. They may claim to know the Bible but we are blessed to know Christ’s Church from which the Bible comes. St. Joan of Arc, who personally experienced the sometimes messy mystery of the Church as a divine and human institution, said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are just one thing and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” If you love Jesus Christ, then love his Body and Bride, his Holy Catholic Church.

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God Raises Up the Lowly

June 1, 2017

She was a teenage virgin when she received a word from Heaven — she was to be God’s instrument in an incredible way. She asked how this could be, since she was merely an uneducated peasant girl. The messenger answered that God would deliver his people through her and she consented to her part in God’s plan. Despite her utter lack of military training, St. Joan of Arc (1412—1431 AD) would go on to lead French troops to swift victories against the English armies occupying her  homeland, paving the way for her people’s liberation.

Every year, St. Joan’s of Arc’s feast (May 30th) comes the day before the Feast of the Visitation, which celebrates the meeting of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth when they were pregnant with St. John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ. I think it is fitting and providential that these two celebrations are paired together on the liturgical calendar. These three, wondrous women display God’s preferred means of intervening and triumphing throughout human history: by manifesting his mighty power through the weak and the lowly.

Of course, God can work through the high-ranking and the powerful to accomplish his purposes as well. For example, in 312 AD the pagan emperor Constantine, on the eve of a great battle in a civil war for control of the Western Roman Empire, reportedly had a vision of the Chi-Rho (☧), a Greek symbol for “Christ.” He then heard these words:  “In this sign you will conquer.” Constantine had this symbol painted on his soldiers’ shields and  prevailed in that decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine became the first Christian emperor and promptly legalized the previously persecuted Christian religion throughout the empire in 313 AD.

And yet, the Virgin Mother Mary rejoices that God prefers to show the strength of his arm by lifting up the lowly and casting down the mighty from their thrones. St. Paul once redirected the attention of self-inflated Christians in Corinth, Greece to this truth:

Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. … “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”

In the Old Testament, God chose sheepherders, like Moses the Prophet and later King David, to lead and deliver his oppressed people. He chose working-class fishermen as some of the Church’s first bishops. At the Visitation, the four most important people in the entire world met together in one place: two women and their unborn babies. And through one condemned man, whose three-year rabbinical career seemed to end in failure and death, God redeemed the world. Such is the divine approach, lest we look to merely our own human plans and efforts as the source for our salvation.