One of the theological controversies that has existed for awhile between Catholics and Protestants is the notion of God’s authority being handed down to the Church in a concrete manner, both through sacrament and through spiritual authority in the activity of evangelization. As the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, the Gospel (John 20: 17) gives us a chance to reexamine this controversy by what might confound or confuse many people. The Catholic Church’s position claims that Christ and the Church are one, and that the Church has been given such authority which hinges upon a teaching sometimes coined as “Ipsum Esse.” We will examine this doctrine, whereby we can understand how Christ and His Church forgives sins.
Scriptural Analysis of the Church’s Authority:
John 20: 17
“Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Why might this passage confuse people? The common assumption is that when Jesus ascends into heaven He becomes more remote or distant from those in the world. Therefore, how could a person “hold onto” Christ if it was impossible to hold onto Him as he becomes separated from our earthly, tangible, experience?
Let’s reexamine John 14:18-19
“‘I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also.'”
Jesus reveals to us that the “world” will be incapable of seeing Christ, but that those who have faith will be able to perceive and experience Christ.
Here is a note from Scott Hahn on the previous passage:
“When Jesus withdraws his visible presence from the world, he does not withdraw his spiritual presence. Christ is always present in His Church, especially in the liturgy, where he ministers through his priests, speaks through the Scriptures, and sanctifies us through the sacraments (CCC 788, 1380).”
Faith, a supernatural gift infused in the soul enables us to be able to encounter the Divine Substance (God) communicated through sign and sacrament. This involves all of creation, as well as the sacraments Christ Himself instituted through the Catholic Church. Consider the following passage:
“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?'”
Scott Hahn says in regard to this passage:
“…Here the disciples encounter Christ in a spiritual way, discerning his presence in the meal….The Structure of the Emmaus episode reflects the structure of the Eucharistic Liturgy, where Jesus gives himself to the Church in word and sacrament, in the proclamation of scripture and in the Eucharistic Bread of life.”
In other words, Jesus enables the soul to encounter Him in a different way than when He was localized by flesh-and-bone, and now becomes more accessible in His presence by the Power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to encounter Christ in such a manner, and this again is why Jesus states that He must ascend to His Father: John 16:7
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.”
Scott Hahn remarks on this passage by saying:
“Greater Blessings will come when the Spirit dwells within them at Pentecost (14:17; Acts 2:1-4). Chief among these benefits will be the power (1) to proclaim the gospel with boldness (Acts 1:8, 4:31), (2) to preserve and understand the truth in its fullness (16:13), (3) to give witness to Jesus in times of persecution (Lk 12:11-12), and (4) to fulfill the just requirements of God’s Law (Rom 8:4).”
What we can also take away from this passage is that Christ necessarily needs to Ascend into Heaven in order for the Holy Spirit to take on a greater activity within the Church. This is why in the Acts of the Apostles it becomes difficult in some cases to distinguish between the words, behaviour and miracles performed by the Apostles and Christ’s own ministry prior to His Ascension. It becomes apparent that Christ now is present in His Church through those who “follow” Him. Therefore, Christ manifests His presence in a much more Universal (catholic) manner, not locked into the disadvantage of one temporal body, but locked into the Church which has become the “hands and feet” of Christ, His Mystical Body, that extends itself to the four corners of the earth – to every nation. And with that organized body and its various charisms, comes also the Sacramental power of the Priesthood to “forgive sins.”
This is often argued against by various protestants who reject the ecclesial authority to forgive sins, re-echoing what was stated earlier in scripture, who can forgive sins but God alone? (Mark 2:7). It might be argued by them that we are to merely proclaim the forgiveness of sins(Luke 24: 46-47), however this does not represent the fullest biblical truth, whereby Christ commissions the Apostles: “but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), “and He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'” (John 20: 22-23), “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21), “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18), “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” [i.e. the power of the Apostles did not die with them] (Matt. 28:19–20). Yet it if Christ’s Spirit is truly within the Church, is it not the Divine Life that mankind now shares with God that forgives sins? There is no doubt that the proper context to the commission is united to the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives power and authority to operate as the very body of Christ. It is that unity whereby Christ can forgive through the Apostles who share in his ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). Therefore, it is both the Apostle (Priesthood) in his humanity who has been infused with the “person of Christ” that forgives sins – there is no need to create a dichotomy – that certainly wasn’t the case with St. Paul.
“Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.” (2 Cor 2:10)
St. Paul understood well, from Christ’s own words that the Church and Christ were one in regard to the Authority the Church wielded. It was Christ who taught St. Paul this lesson when Christ asked Him the question: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). In Saul’s mind, he wasn’t persecuting God, he was persecuting the Church, but in the mind of God, both had become One, and this is why St. Paul often refers to the Church as the Body of Christ. Would it make sense to suggest that the Body of Christ, infused with the Spirit of Christ had no authority, and God was somehow separate from it? Would we not be contradicting both scripture and reason in such a process? Perhaps the same uncomfortable theological problem that existed within the minds of the Pharisees still exists within the Christian community today: that God and Man can actually be reconciled both in nature (the Incarnation) and through Grace (the Church). Therefore, to reject the notion that the Church actually has the same authority of Christ in its faithful living out of the Gospel is to spiritually recapitulate both the persecution of God Himself (Acts 9:4), and to deny the possibility of the Incarnation of God (Mark 2:7). And although this argument is full proof, it still nonetheless requires the gift of faith to see. Jesus who spoke in a number of parables was often not understood well, and as a result his teachings revealed vividly those who were not open in Spirit to what He had to teach.
You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts and be converted
and I heal them.
(Matt 13: 14b-15; c.f. Is 6:9-10)
Philosophical + Theological Analysis:
While we cannot broadly brand each protestant with the same theology because of the massive splintering of sects that exist today, we can look to some trends within the theological discourses of the reformers that have affected how we perceive this matter. During the so-called “Enlightenment” when scholasticism was put at odds with the scientific method (not in reality, but in the minds of many) a common-dichotomy arose that was actually embraced by some of the protestant sects. These categories may be expressed as “fideism and rationalism” whereby faith and reason were no longer considered to be unified by a reasoned-coherent “fittingness” between the anthropology of man on an ontological level and the revelation of Christ as the solution to all of man’s problems. Fundamentalism was born in Christianity. Faith and Reason were now in some cases two totally different arenas of thought that needed to be divorced or separated from each other in order to purify both of each other. Fundamentalists began to read scripture out of context (which naturally happens when you exclude reason), by suggesting that human philosophies (critiquing Aquinas, Augustine, the Councils) were contrary to the importance of faith “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Col 2:8) Of course the failure in appealing to this passage was in being reluctant to admit that the particular type of philosophy that was arising at this time amongst the Early Christians was Gnosticism, a particular type of philosophy that ran contrary to what had already been revealed to the early Christians by Christ Himself.
Here is what Scott Hahn says about this passage:
“Although this term can refer to speculative theories about God, man, and the universe, it was also used by Hellenistic Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo to refer to the Jewish way of life. This is probably Paul’s meaning here. It is true, nevertheless, that every philosophy is vain that disregards or denounces what God has revealed as good, true, and beautiful through Jesus Christ.” The “elements or rudiments…is used seven times in the New Testament and is common in Greek literature. It can refer to the material elements of the cosmos, like earth, air, water, and fire or to heavenly bodies, like the sun, moon, and stars (Wis 7:17). It can also refer to angels or demons that regulate the course and movement of these elements. These ideas are closely connected with ancient forms of worship. For idolatrous Gentiles, the elements were deified and worshiped as gods’ (Wis 12:1-2; Gal 4:8). For ancient Israel, the liturgical calendar was determined by the rhythm of the elements, especially by the cycles of the sun and moon (Gen 1:14; Sir 43:1-8). Paul groups the worship of Israel and the nations together, since both are subservient to these visible and invisible elements of the natural order (Gal 4:9). In contrast to this old order, Paul stresses that Christ is seated far above all things seen and unseen (Col 3:1-3). United with him, believers no longer worship within the confines of the created world, but through the sacraments they enter a new order of worship that is supernatural and heavenly, where Christ lifts them far above the created elements of the cosmos (John 4:21-24; Gal 4:3; Heb 12:22-24; Rev 4-5).”
It seems readily apparent that St. Paul is not condemning the usage of philosophy in a broad manner, but the type of philosophy that deceives us away from God and points us towards the worldly. In fact, scripture itself teaches us that simple human reasoning should actually lead us to a belief in God.
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds, or animals or reptiles.” (Romans 1: 19-23)
From this passage it becomes remarkably evident that reasoning (good-philosophy) is implied to have been available to the people leading them to a knowledge of God. This type of knowledge was given to them in the context of creation which was “made.” This implies that just by their own experience of creation there is a reasonable connection between observing the world and coming to know God through what He has created. This is probably one of the simplest summaries of St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy when he baptized Aristotle’s natural law.
One author by the name of Brad S. Gregory suggests (here) that the protestant reformation is actually linked (albeit unintentionally) to the secularization of the west. By the mere fact, he argues, that faith and reasoning have been divorced in our universities and schools we see very clearly how the state and the Church have been not only distinguished in their vocation, but divorced. It was the case that the relationship between both were meant to be complimentary, but the human law which is founded upon human reason was now polluted by the idolatry that St. Paul warned against, and thus reasoning is no longer purified by the grace of faith. Likewise we also see a great rise in superstitious belief systems which appeal to “magic” and place a hyperbolic focus on man’s capacity to change and bend reality existentially (New-Age-Gnosticism). All of these problems arise simply because there is a failure to see how faith and reason can be integrated into one another.
St. John Paul II wisely stated in his document “Fides et Ratio” (Faith and Reason):
“Saint Paul has in mind when he puts the Colossians on their guard: “See to it that no-one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ” (2:8). The Apostle’s words seem all too pertinent now if we apply them to the various kinds of esoteric superstition widespread today, even among some believers who lack a proper critical sense. Following Saint Paul, other writers of the early centuries, especially Saint Irenaeus and Tertullian, sound the alarm when confronted with a cultural perspective which sought to subordinate the truth of Revelation to the interpretation of the philosophers.
Christianity’s engagement with philosophy was therefore neither straight-forward nor immediate. The practice of philosophy and attendance at philosophical schools seemed to the first Christians more of a disturbance than an opportunity. For them, the first and most urgent task was the proclamation of the Risen Christ by way of a personal encounter which would bring the listener to conversion of heart and the request for Baptism. But that does not mean that they ignored the task of deepening the understanding of faith and its motivations. Quite the contrary. That is why the criticism of Celsus—that Christians were “illiterate and uncouth”31—is unfounded and untrue. Their initial disinterest is to be explained on other grounds. The encounter with the Gospel offered such a satisfying answer to the hitherto unresolved question of life’s meaning that delving into the philosophers seemed to them something remote and in some ways outmoded….
It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition. By the same token, reason which is unrelated to an adult faith is not prompted to turn its gaze to the newness and radicality of being….
If the Magisterium has spoken out more frequently since the middle of the last century, it is because in that period not a few Catholics felt it their duty to counter various streams of modern thought with a philosophy of their own. At this point, the Magisterium of the Church was obliged to be vigilant lest these philosophies developed in ways which were themselves erroneous and negative. The censures were delivered even-handedly: on the one hand, fideism 59 and radical traditionalism,60 for their distrust of reason’s natural capacities, and, on the other, rationalism 61 and ontologism 62 because they attributed to natural reason a knowledge which only the light of faith could confer. The positive elements of this debate were assembled in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, in which for the first time an Ecumenical Council—in this case, the First Vatican Council—pronounced solemnly on the relationship between reason and faith. The teaching contained in this document strongly and positively marked the philosophical research of many believers and remains today a standard reference-point for correct and coherent Christian thinking in this regard.” (Fides et Ratio, 37-38, 48 ,52)
If we are to summarize one main point within St. John Paul II’s reflection here, it is that faith without reason leads to superstition, and reason without faith leads to idolatry. But let us take it a step further – to suggest that faith and reason cannot be united in both the classroom and university, and parliament and our world is to ultimately deny the possibility of the Incarnation of Christ.
For many this is a hard connection to make, but allow me to illustrate why it is necessarily the case. If faith and reason cannot be reconciled to each other in a dialogue and unity of harmony, than it must be synonymously stated that God – to whom faith speaks about – cannot be reconciled to man – who is a rational creature. Yet we know it was in Christ taking on our rational, intellectual and yet limited nature that he “reconciled all things in Himself” (Col 1:20). To suggest that there is still an infinite gap between God and Man is to suggest that the incarnation never took place. None of this turns philosophy into some sort of infinite potential to come to the conclusion all by itself of a Triune God – that is what God had to reveal. But the relationship nonetheless understands after it has been revealed what the implications of such a God have on our own life in the context that it is meant to be understood.
Let’s examine therefore why it is possible for faith and reason, nay, God and Man to be united as we see both in Christ’s through Nature, and in the Church through His grace. If it was the case that God could not be reconciled to human-reasoning, than it would be the case that sacraments along with God’s incarnation would be impossible. This is why it is relevant to examine critically.
One of the best illustrations of the strange type of unity between God and His Creation was demonstrated in Exodus in the burning bush.
“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed, ‘I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt….God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” (Exodus 3:2-3, 14)
In this scene, Moses encounters something revealing about the nature of God in relationship to creation. Normally when a fire (which represents the presence of God) is blazing it contradicts the nature of what it burns. In that contrariety or competition the bush does not survive the lick of the flames and is burned up, but here God’s presence is not a contrary force to the Bush, and is therefore not in competition with it. From this we can deduce that God does not occupy a space or a time like other objects within the universe, and yet can still be united to creation, but in a mode we are not familiar with. This leads us to understand that if God were similar in nature to created things he would be in competition like fire consuming a bush, but because He is so vastly different than creation he is able to find a compatibility with it; to be united to it on a deep and mystical level. This is why God then continues by revealing His own name by saying, “I am who I am.” In that invocation God reveals that He is not like the pagan gods who were often associated with elemental forces like a river or sun. Rather God has no “category” or concept that He fits into. In logical terminology this would mean that God doesn’t have a definition or a “genus.” It might help to understand the etymology of the term “definition” which literally means to “put limits” on something. When we define something in reality we are saying what it is, and what it is not. A dog is not the moon, and a nacho is not an ocean. Definitions are only given to created things because they are limited, but God is without limits. Therefore, Moses has no grasp or control over God intellectually or by way of a name, because He cannot put Him into a box, he cannot limit God’s out-reach over creation, God arises (transcends) above it all.
Later development in theology led to St. Thomas Aquinas examining more carefully the implications of God’s own words by saying, “I am who I am.” In that statement, Aquinas began to analyze the difference between an essence and that which exists. An essence of a thing is generally what makes it what it is – its defining principle that exists within itself – its nature. Existence is different than an essence because a thing cannot have an essence without also existing, but not all things that exist share the same essence. This might be where I am losing you – all this philosophical language, Fr. Chris is too much! But bare with me, because its important. If you don’t get it at first, be assured that is quite normal. It takes some wrestling.
Lets examine something like a river – it has a definition that makes it different than a lake or an ocean. But both a lake and a river exist. What we cannot say about both the river and the lake is that their essence is to exist, but rather their essence is to be a river or a lake. Rather we would say that their essence is to be a lake or a river, and that they happen to exist here or there.
But because God is not like anything else, the distinction between essence and existence becomes somewhat lost. While it applies to all things that are definite, and limited, in God when He says, “I am who I am” God is actually saying, “My essence is my existence.” This is sometimes referred to as “Ipsum Esse.” All of a sudden we are not treating God as if He is another object with a particular type of essence. This is what makes the “New Atheist’s” arguments entirely irrelevant to the Catholic – we cannot even begin to take them seriously when they cleverly suggest that faith in God is as rational as a faith in a “flying spaghetti monster.” Such a dreamt up “monster” already has a definition according to the language using to describe it as such, and therefore fails to be an adequate parallel. As a result of treating God as if He has an essence like other things that exist and have essences we again place God into a box by implying He has a definition. It would be a contradiction to defend this theory by suggesting that God doesn’t have a definition but does have an essence alike other things, because anything that is infinite is to synonymously say it is non-finite – or non-definitive.
So what is God? What a great question, and that is exactly what Moses was asking. Unfortunately the mind of Moses along with every human being is far too small to comprehend it – for our brain is only capable of comprehending concepts that are finite. To ask God to somehow reveal himself absolutely to us would be an impossible task, given our own limitations which prevent our mind from comprehending that which is unlimited. But what we can grasp to some extent is the idea that God’s essence is existence. While all of creation has existence, we cannot say that all of creation “is” existence. Thereby we conclude that to say something “is” existence is not to suggest that whatever that “is” is the total sum of creation. Sometimes this statement, that God’s essence is His existence is thought to be pantheism. But if that were the case, it would be more accurate to say that God is not existence per se (itself), but that God is the sum total collection of things that are not existence but have existence. And honestly, who can make rational sense out of that?
Rather, God’s essence is the very reality of existence which means, consequently, that all of creation “participates” in God’s divine-substance by the mere fact that we have existence. This therefore means that every single thing that exists is sustained by God’s will, including every hair on our head (Luke 12:7). Or as Acts 17:28 suggests: “For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.”
This confronts the very problematic doctrine of Deism which is the typical genre of Christianity or theism criticized by contemporary atheists. Catholicism and Scholasticism does not attribute a belief to a God who operates as a “watchmaker,” winding up the universe and letting it go as He stands outside of it, watching in His own “remote” or distant manner. Rather to exist is to be immersed in the very substance of God.
What does the burning bush than reveal to us? If we exist, God’s flame (presence, essence) is already united to us. If God is existence, and we have existence, we therefore “have” God.
With this doctrine we can therefore understand why God choose to be incarnate in the human body and soul of Jesus. All that existed already was united to God in its nature, but in terms of our relationship through sin, death, a type of destruction of our being (though not of our soul, which was created to be eternal) was the result of departing from God. That is to say, in a loose sense, to reject God was to reject our own existence, and that is why death was the punishment, naturally following from our decision to hide from God, who is existence. Therefore the one aspect of our being that is corruptible by nature, ceased-to-be; our body became separated from our soul.
It might also be helpful to realize, especially for the protestant to reflect on Christ’s statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). Truth is defined as, “that which is.” So there really is no difference between God saying He is existence per se (itself) and saying He is the Truth (per se). Likewise, can a “way” be accessible if it doesn’t somehow exist? Likewise, what about life? What we begin to realize is that to have life, to know the way, all means we are participating in God’s own Trinitarian inner-being. We are not participating in it by our own nature, but by the gift of grace, particularly adoption, in being called sons and daughter of God.
It is not so much that our existence is somehow disjointed from God’s, as we see in the deistic model formulated during the enlightenment, but rather we begin to encounter the realization that to exist and to be fulfilled is to merely participate in God’s own life and being.
If however there was a dichotomy between faith and reason, God and man, it would be the case that such a unity would be impossible. In the minds of many Christians, we encounter this deistic model – which has rabid spiritual implications that are deadly to the soul. First it places God into a remote relationship with us, whereby He is merely another defined being who exists external to our senses. That external God becomes aloof and incapable of being united to us in a meaningful way.
Secondly, it makes a mockery out of Christ’s own words in scripture already alluded to in regard to Him sending His Holy Spirit. Therefore, we can say with great confidence that when God was incarnate, both God and Man, fully both, we begin to understand why such a union was not a violent or contradictory action that debases reason and sensibility; but rather it was an incredibly fitting way for God who is always united to us on such a profoundly intimate level to become united to us by way of the Second Person in His own human flesh.
Likewise, if it is the pattern of our God to make Himself present through physical interactions in the created universe, one cannot thereby accuse Sacramentality of being somehow superstitious as we often hear from some of the anti-catholic rhetoric of our fundamentalist brothers and sister in regard to the Eucharist. To make such a suggestion not only blasphemes Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and re-echoes God’s question to such persons: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? “(Acts 9:4), but by extension also accuses the very doctrine of the Incarnation of being superstitious, since both are possible by the same logic. And finally it brings to life the abandonment of Christ we see in John 6, with those who found this teaching difficult.
Faith, a gift from God is safeguarded, therefore by the Church’s preserving good-philosophy, but that reasoning is preserved by the gift of grace whereby our mind is healed of pride which places logs into our eyes preventing us from seeing beyond our prejudice. It therefore becomes apparent that faith and reason are like two wings on a bird that allow us to depart from our double ignorance. This thereby enables us to see how our God is both incredibly transcendent yet intimately involved in our lives.