Tag Archives: Scripture

Why Don’t Catholics Carry Bibles To Church?

If you watched the History Channel’s The Bible series, you might not have noticed that there was something missing in the last episode.  The Apostles were spreading the Gospel far and wide even as they encountered much persecution and opposition.  The number of Christians was growing substantially.  Paul of Tarsus was shown disrupting Christians as they participated in The Lord’s Supper (Mass), and inciting the crowds to murder Saint Steven.  After his conversion, Paul was shown visiting various parts of the world and preaching to them.  What was not shown were Christians carrying Bibles around.  That’s because the Bible did not yet exist (only Old Testament scrolls existed).  Nevertheless, the Gospel was being preached and people were being converted.

It is ironic that, when people start new churches and make attempts to recreate the environment of the first Christians, they bring their Bibles with them.  The first Christians had no Bibles and most could not even read.  “Faith came by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).  The Word of God was preached by the Apostles and the men they appointed.  One did not need a Bible.  All that was needed were ears to hear.

Eventually, some things were written down and letters were sent to various Christians.  Over time the Church gathered up quite a bit of written material.  But even then, people did not generally know how to read.  And the written materials were not handed out for everyone to bring to the service with them.  People still had to be read to and come to faith by hearing, not by reading.

The Church carried on in this manner for about 400 years until it was decided that the inspired writings needed to be compiled into one collection of books.  The Bible is a collection of writings, a library (from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία, tà biblía, “the books”).  The Catholic Church had to decide which writings were inspired by God, and which ones were not.  They did this through the authority given by Christ 400 years earlier and under the direction of the Holy Spirit.  Hence, we were given the Bible.

However, Christians still were not carrying Bibles to services with them.  They still could not read.  There were only a limited number of copies of the Bible.  The Bible was copied by hand over centuries.  Were it not for Catholic monks bending over tables in monasteries and protecting the copies we might not have Bibles today.  A congregation was blessed to have even one copy of the Bible.  It was so valuable it had to be protected from theft and damage.  Still, the people came to faith by hearing, not by reading.

The invention of the printing press made it possible for more folks to have Bibles.  Even then, it took years before Bibles were household possessions.  It was a mixed blessing.  More people had Bibles, but there was more confusion about what was in the Bible.  Suddenly, everyone that could read became a Bible interpreter.  Rather than being good for the Church, this phenomenon fragmented the Church.  People began to think they knew better than the Church that had written, compiled and preserved the writings for hundreds of years.  Today we have a Bible in every hand, but we also have 30,000+ ways of interpreting the Bible.  The Church is weakened in her mission to the world by such division.  People took the Bible away from the Church and started thousands of other “churches.”  This is not the Christian unity that Jesus and His Apostles had in mind.  People hijacked the Bible from the Church and coopted the name “Christian.”

Today Catholics are still listening to the Word of God being read to them (although they can certainly read along from their Bibles or the Catholic Missal if they want to).  If a Catholic goes to daily Mass, he/she will hear nearly the entire Bible over a three year period.  Literate Catholics are also encouraged, even exhorted, to read and learn the Bible outside of the Mass.  We are offered Bible studies and have access to all sorts of educational materials about the Bible.  We can even interpret the Bible as we read it, as long as we don’t come up with ideas that contradict the apostolic teaching of the Church.

The Catholic Mass is divided into sections.  One section is the Liturgy of The Word.  This is where we hold up the Bible (literally hold it up to honor and reverence it), read from it, and preach about it.  However, The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the high point of the Mass.  This is where we do what Jesus told us to do in remembrance of Him.  Even throughout the entire Mass there are words from Scripture integrated into the service.  For most Bible-Christian churches, the high point of the service is typically singing, the reading of the Bible and preaching.  Catholics also do these things, but we have preserved Christ’s emphasis on the Eucharist, His life-giving flesh and blood.

Most Bible churches have communion, but it tends to be a lesser emphasis and is only symbolic in nature.  Some churches only have communion once a quarter.  Mostly they focus on the Bible and preaching.  The Apostles would not recognize such services.  They would be looking for the Eucharist, not the Bible.  Churches that emphasize the “Bible alone” are a relatively new phenomenon, but most people are not aware of the history.  They just assume that Christianity has always been based on the Bible.  But, the reverse is true.  It is more accurate to say that the Bible is based on the Church.  The Church did not always have the Bible.  The Church came first.

So, Catholics don’t usually carry Bibles to church with them, even though the Bible is actually a Catholic book.  It’s not that we don’t believe or teach from the Bible.  For 2000 years our Faith has come by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God whether written down or not.  Catholicism is original, authentic Christianity in its fullness.  We love the Bible.  We teach and preach from the Bible.  We read and listen to the Bible.  It is a Catholic book.  It is part of us.  We carry it in our hearts wherever we go.

The Bible Is Not A Pastor

The election of Pope Francis has triggered some discussion with my non-Catholic friends.  Such conversations often reveal misconceptions about Christianity, Catholicism and the Papacy in particular.  I’ll try to make a few things more clear in “layman’s terms.”

There is a slogan that is used by many non-Catholic Christians, especially those from Fundamentalist backgrounds.  The slogan is, “No hope in the Pope!”  The meaning being that Christians should place their eternal hope in Jesus Christ, not in an imperfect man.  As a devout Roman Catholic, I agree with their premise.

The misconception is that Catholics follow the Pope instead of Christ, or that the Pope trumps the Word of God in some way.  Many non-Catholics believe that the Pope can make up whatever rules he wants, even if they contradict biblical principles.  They often think that “infallible” means “impeccable.”  Infallible is not the same as impeccable.  In other words, Catholics do not believe that the Pope is totally free from error or that he is free from mistakes.  Even Peter, the first Pope, made mistakes.  He also made some infallible statements and decisions when God gave them to him.  For example, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” it was Peter who gave the infallible answer, “You are the Christ.”

Most of my non-Catholic, Christian friends go to church somewhere.  Those churches have pastors.  The people in those churches generally trust God to speak to them through the preaching/teaching of their pastors.  If they have questions about the Bible and its meaning, they typically ask their pastors for an interpretation.  Or, they read the Bible and make their own interpretations, or they ask a friend for an opinion.  If the preaching or teaching of the pastor is deemed incorrect, there are other pastors in other churches to choose from.  The trick is to determine whether or not the preaching and teaching of the pastor is properly aligned with the “final authority” of the Bible.  There are many pastors teaching many opposing things about the Bible while all claiming to be “led by the Holy Spirit.”  So, how can they know who is right?  Checking the Bible does not solve differences of opinion about the Bible.

The Bible is not a pastor.  The Bible cannot lead the people in the way that a shepherd leads a flock.  Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.”  Jesus gave Peter (and his fellow apostles) a specific office of authority that included “binding and loosing” of things here on earth and in Heaven.  He also gave Peter the “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”  By giving Peter this unique office, Jesus mirrored the Old Testament tradition of a king appointing his prime minister.  Peter’s office also needed to be filled upon his death, just as the empty office of Judas had been filled.  This is why we have a 2000 year succession of Popes and apostolic authority in the Church.

The Catholic bishops are the successors of the apostles.  There are more than twelve of them now because the Church is so large and global.  Yet, there still is only one head of the apostles.  There needs to be a “go to guy,” a pastor that all the Church is accountable to.  The Bible alone cannot fill this role.  There are too many varying opinions about how to discern and interpret the Bible.  Incidentally, no one even knew what books and letters to officially include in the Bible before the Catholic Church made that decision nearly 400 years after Christ.  The Bible is actually part of the Sacred Tradition handed down to us from the leadership of the Catholic Church.  Part of the Pope’s role (along with his fellow bishops) is to protect this Sacred Tradition (aka “The Deposit of Faith”) which includes the Bible.

Jesus, of course, is The Good Shepherd.  He is the Head of the Church.  Catholics worship Jesus and strive to follow Jesus.  Part of following Jesus includes following the earthly pastor appointed by The Holy Spirit.  Jesus promised that The Holy Spirit would guide His Church.  The Pope is simply an instrument of The Holy Spirit.  I have a pastor in my local Church, but he also is answerable to the highest, earthly pastor.  In this way, we heed the words of the apostle Paul “that there be no divisions among you.”  (1Cor 1:10)  When disagreements arise, as is often the case with human beings, the Church authority is there for direction and discipline (Matt 18:17).  Without that 2000 year old Church authority, Christians have no rudder to steer them on the drifting waves of conflicting opinions and divided denominations.

Infallibility means that God protects the office of the Pope from teaching error in faith and morals.  It does not mean that everything the Pope says is infallible.  Nor does it mean that the Pope is sinless or free from mistakes.  Infallibility is given to the Christ-established office of the Pope.  The man himself, like Peter, is just a man.  The Pope cannot contradict Sacred Tradition, including Scripture.  The Pope cannot add to or subtract from Scripture.  Catholics believe that God is powerful enough to protect the office of the Pope, just as God is powerful enough to protect the inerrant, inspired Bible that the Catholic Church compiled.  He gives us His Word and a pastor to guide us all.  Jesus is The King, and the Pope is His earthly Prime Minister.  What an awesome God we serve!

Is The Bread Of Life’s Flesh Of No Avail?

Today’s Gospel reading is from John chapter 6:51-58.  It was great to hear our priest give a homily that affirmed the physical reality of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Many claim that Jesus was being metaphorical in saying that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life.  They use verse 64 to support the idea that Jesus was talking symbolically since he says, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is of no avail.  My words are spirit and life.”

Yet, Jesus did not say, “MY flesh is of no avail” but he said “THE flesh is of no avail.”  This was to contrast Spiritual truth with human inability to understand intellectually.  Certainly, the flesh of Jesus avails much because it is his flesh that he gives on the cross for the life of the world.  However, the flesh is our human frailty and lack of understanding, as in “The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” or “You judge according to the flesh and not after God.”  The flesh indeed profits nothing!  Our human weakness cannot match the power of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, the word “Spirit” never means “symbolic” anywhere in Scripture.  The Spirit is very real and does not “symbolize” anything.  The Spirit is the power by which God makes calm weather out of storms, water into wine, life out of dust, creation out of nothingness, blind people see, deaf people hear and bread and wine into Christ’s own body and blood.  As God said, “Let there be light” and there was light (God’s words being Spirit and life), Jesus said, “Take and eat.  This is my body, this is my blood.”  That is Spirit and life in Jesus’ words, not metaphor!

If you are a Christian, when have you actually eaten Jesus’ flesh and drank his blood, thereby receiving the power and life of the Spirit the way Jesus prescribes?  Have you been partaking of a mere symbol?  We are called to believe the Spirit of Truth, by faith, not to understand with our fleshy brains.

(For even more on this topic, read this and this)

The Spirit Is Willing But The Flesh Is Weak: The Flesh Is Of No Avail

If you’re a Christian, you know you’re supposed to walk by faith, not by sight (2Cor 5:7).  Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1).  Blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe (Jn 20:29).  What we see is bread and wine.  What is there (the actual substance) is Christ’s body and blood.  This is so because Jesus, The Eternal Word, said it is so.  And what faithful Christian doesn’t believe the Word of God?  The following is an article by Catholic apologist Tim Staples.  It is an excellent, concise explanation of why the Eucharist is not just a symbol, and why Christians were called by Jesus to believe so by faith, not by sight.

What Catholics Believe About John 6

by Tim Staples

For millions of non-Catholic Christians, Jesus was using pure symbolism in John 6:53 when he declared to his followers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The reasons non-Catholics give can usually be boiled down to these: First, a literal interpretation would make Christians into cannibals. Second, Jesus claims to be a “door” in John 10:9 and a “vine” in John 15:5. Do Catholics believe they must pluck a leaf from Jesus the vine or oil the hinges on Jesus the door to get into heaven? So the non-Catholic claims Jesus is using metaphor in John 6, just as he does elsewhere in the Gospels.

Catholic Cannibals?

The charge of cannibalism does not hold water for at least three reasons. First, Catholics do not receive our Lord in a cannibalistic form. Catholics receive him in the form of bread and wine. The cannibal kills his victim; Jesus does not die when he is consumed in Communion. Indeed, he is not changed in the slightest; the communicant is the only person who is changed. The cannibal eats part of his victim, whereas in Communion the entire Christ is consumed—body, blood, soul, and divinity. The cannibal sheds the blood of his victim; in Communion our Lord gives himself to us in a non-bloody way.

Second, if it were truly immoral in any sense for Christ to give us his flesh and blood to eat, it would be contrary to his holiness to command anyone to eat his body and blood—even symbolically. Symbolically performing an immoral act would be of its nature immoral.

Moreover, the expressions to eat flesh and to drink blood already carried symbolic meaning both in the Hebrew Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament, which was heavily influenced by Hebrew. In Psalm 27:1-2, Isaiah 9:18-20, Isaiah 49:26, Micah 3:3, and Revelation 17:6-16, we find these words (eating flesh and drinking blood) understood as symbolic for persecuting or assaulting someone. Jesus’ Jewish audience would never have thought he was saying, “Unless you persecute and assault me, you shall not have life in you.” Jesus never encouraged sin. This may well be another reason why the Jews took Christ at his word.

Not Metaphorically Speaking

If Jesus was speaking in purely symbolic terms, his competence as a teacher would have to be called into question. No one listening to him understood him to be speaking metaphorically. Contrast his listeners’ reaction when Jesus said he was a “door” or a “vine.” Nowhere do we find anyone asking, “How can this man be a door made out of wood?” Or, “How can this man claim to be a plant?” When Jesus spoke in metaphor, his audience seems to have been fully aware of it.

When we examine the surrounding context of John 6:53, Jesus’ words could hardly have been clearer. In verse 51, he plainly claims to be “the living bread” that his followers must eat. And he says in no uncertain terms that “the bread which I shall give . . . is my flesh.” Then, when the Jews were found “disput[ing] among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” in verse 52, he reiterates even more emphatically, “Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

Compare this with other examples in Scripture when followers of the Lord are confused about his teaching. In John 4:32, Jesus says: “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” The disciples thought Jesus was speaking about physical food. Our Lord quickly clears up the point using concise, unmistakable language in verse 34: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (see also Matthew 16:5-12).

Moreover, when we consider the language used by John, a literal interpretation—however disturbing—becomes even more obvious. In John 6:50-53 we encounter various forms of the Greek verb phago, “eating.” However, after the Jews begin to express incredulity at the idea of eating Christ’s flesh, the language begins to intensify. In verse 54, John begins to use trogo instead of phago. Trogo is a decidedly more graphic term, meaning “to chew on” or to “gnaw on”—as when an animal is ripping apart its prey.

Then, in verse 61, it is no longer the Jewish multitudes, but the disciples themselves who are having difficulty with these radical statements of our Lord. Surely, if he were speaking symbolically, he would clear up the difficulty now among his disciples. Instead, what does Jesus do? He reiterates the fact that he meant just what he said: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” (61-62). Would anyone think him to have meant, “What if you were to see me symbolically ascend?” Hardly! The apostles, in fact, did see Jesus literally ascend to where he was before (see Acts 1:9-10).

Finally, our Lord turns to the twelve. What he does not say to them is perhaps more important than what he does say. He doesn’t say, “Hey guys, I was misleading the Jewish multitudes, the disciples, and everyone else, but now I am going to tell you alone the simple truth: I was speaking symbolically.” Rather, he says to them, “Will you also go away?” (v. 67). This most profound question from our Lord echoes down through the centuries, calling all followers of Christ in a similar fashion. With St. Peter, those who hear the voice of the Shepherd respond: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68).

Spirit vs. Flesh

John 6:63 is the one verse singled out by Protestant apologists to counter much of what we have asserted thus far. After seeing the Jews and the disciples struggling with the radical nature of his words, our Lord says to the disciples and to us all: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Protestants claim Jesus here lets us know he was speaking symbolically or “spiritually” when he said “the spirit gives life, the flesh is of no avail.” See? He is not giving us his flesh to eat because he says “the flesh is of no avail.” How do we respond? We can in several ways.

1) If Jesus was clearing up the point, he would have to be considered a poor teacher: Many of the disciples left him immediately thereafter because they still believed the words of our Lord to mean what they said.

2) Most importantly, Jesus did not say, “My flesh is of no avail.” He said, “The flesh is of no avail.” There is a rather large difference between the two. No one, it is safe to say, would have believed he meant my flesh avails nothing because he just spent a good portion of this same discourse telling us that his flesh would be “given for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51, cf. 50-58). So to what was he referring? The flesh is a New Testament term often used to describe human nature apart from God’s grace.

For example, Christ said to the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mk 14:38). According to Paul, if we are in “the flesh,” we are “hostile to God” and “cannot please God” (cf. Rom 8:1-14). In First Corinthians 2:14, he tells us, “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” In First Corinthians 3:1, Paul goes on, “But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ.” It requires supernatural grace in the life of the believer to believe the radical declaration of Christ concerning the Eucharist. As Jesus himself said both before and after this “hard saying”: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44, cf. 6:65). Belief in the Eucharist is a gift of grace. The natural mind—or the one who is in “the flesh”—will never be able to understand this great Christian truth.

3) On another level very closely related to our last point, Christ said, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail,” because he wills to eliminate any possibility of a sort of crass literalism that would reduce his words to a cannibalistic understanding. It is the Holy Spirit that will accomplish the miracle of Christ being able to ascend into heaven bodily while being able simultaneously to distribute his body and blood in the Eucharist for the life of the world. A human body, even a perfect one, apart from the power of the Spirit could not accomplish this.

4) That which is spiritual does not necessarily equate to that which has no material substance. It often means that which is dominated or controlled by the Spirit.

One thing we do not want to do as Christians is to fall into the trap of believing that because Christ says his words are “spirit and life,” or “spiritual,” they cannot involve the material. When speaking of the resurrection of the body, Paul wrote: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44). Does this mean we will not have a physical body in the resurrection? Of course not. In Luke 24:39, Jesus made that clear after his own Resurrection: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

The resurrected body is spiritual, and indeed we can be called spiritual as Christians inasmuch as we are controlled by the Spirit of God. Spiritual in no way means void of the material. That interpretation is more gnostic than Christian. The confusion here is most often based upon confusion between spirit—a noun—and the adjective spiritual. When spirit is used, e.g., “God is spirit” in John 4:24, it is then referring to that which is not material. However, the adjective spiritual is not necessarily referring to the absence of the material; rather, it is referring to the material controlled by the Spirit.

Thus, we could conclude that Jesus’ words, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” have essentially a twofold meaning. Only the Spirit can accomplish the miracle of the Eucharist, and only the Spirit can empower us to believe the miracle.

Some Things Are Hard To Understand

When I was studying for the ministry I came across things in the Bible that were hard to understand.  No surprise there.  Undaunted, I soldiered on trusting that my education and the guidance of the Holy Spirit would clear things up well enough.  Gradually, I became more unsettled by the realization that different people were teaching different things about the Bible.  “All of them claim to be led by the Holy Spirit,” I thought.  “All of them are highly educated.  Which one is correct?  Am I being taught the right things?  Will I teach the right things when I’m a minister?”  These questions lingered in the back of my mind as I did my best to follow Christ and his calling.

When I read passages like 2Peter 3:16 and Acts 8:30-31 my concerns grew.  Scripture is hard to understand.  Who would be my Phillip?  Who were the ignorant and unstable ones that twist the Scriptures to their own destruction and teach error?  There were so many choices, they could not all be right.  If the Bible is the authority for the Christian, who has the final say on matters of interpretation?  There is much disagreement, even on basic questions like, “How does one become saved?”  For example, is baptism necessary for salvation?  Nowhere in the Bible does it say “Accept Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior.”  Is salvation something a person can lose once they have it?  Are good works necessary for salvation?  Was the Holy Spirit giving people different answers to these important questions?  Why so many denominations with different answers?

I would hear people say, “I don’t believe it unless the Bible says it!”  But, where is that teaching found in the Bible?  Where does the Bible say that only those things found explicitly in the Bible are true?  It’s not in there.

One day I was introduced to some Scripture verses I had never noticed before.  1Tim 3:15 says that the Church of the living God is the pillar and bulwark of truth.  Matt 18:15-17 says to take disagreements to the Church.  Here we see the final authority.  The Bible says that the final authority is the Church, not the Bible.  Nowhere does the Bible claim itself to be the final authority.  It points us to the Church.  But, which church?  What if a Baptist and a Presbyterian and a Methodist have a disagreement?  Which “church” do they take it to?  There are literally thousands of denominations or “churches.”

The only Church that can historically document its existence back to Christ is the Catholic Church.  266 Popes can be counted all the way back to Peter.  Jesus said, “All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  He told his apostles, “He who hears you hears me.”  He gave his authority to his Church before the New Testament was even written.  The authority of the Bible comes from Jesus through the Church that assembled it.  The Catholic Church has the final say.  Do other churches teach things that are true about Jesus?  Yes.  But the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth.  It is the whole package Christ wants us to have.  It is the Church established by Christ.  The Bible is one part of the treasure and authority given to the Catholic Church, the “pillar and bulwark of truth.”

I no longer worry if I’m in the “right denomination.”  Catholicism isn’t really a “denomination” anyway.  That’s a bit like calling the trunk of a tree a “branch.”  Whatever life is in the branches (denominations) comes from the trunk.  Catholicism is simply the Church.  Always has been, always will be.  I am humbled to be part of the Catholic Church and its 2000 years of experience and wisdom.  The Church has outlived every empire.  It has survived every attack from within and from without.  If it was just a human organization it would have imploded long ago.  It is an organism with Jesus Christ as the head and king, and the Pope as his prime minister.  Scandals have not destroyed it, wars have not demolished it, rebellions have not diffused it and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.  It’s Christ’s Church.  He builds it.  The Holy Spirit guides it.  To love Jesus is to love his Church.  It is, after all, his Body.  It’s good to be home.