Growing up as a Protestant, I remember being frustrated when I encountered theological arguments that would look at two “diametrically opposed” positions in Scripture, and would essentially seek to pit one side of the issue against the other. A perfect example of this is the argument over divine election and predestination versus human free will and choice. I remember returning to these arguments again and again with Calvinist friends and thinking to myself, “If Scripture clearly teaches both sides of the issue, there must be some way to synthesize the two positions without compromising or subjugating the truth of one position in order to affirm the truth of the other.” Unfortunately, at that time I was unable to find anyone who could help me to arrive at that balance. It seemed as if on that issue, and many others, there were always two camps – with each side vehemently arguing against the other position from their own interpretation of Scripture.
When I was received into the Catholic Church, I was again confronted with a plethora of these one-sided arguments; but this time they were all directed against the teachings of the Catholic Church. I would like to begin by pointing out that the vast majority of the arguments against Catholicism, (as well as many of the one-sided arguments which I had encountered within Protestantism) are actually arguments against a false dichotomy. Virtually all heresies in the life of the Church have sprung from individuals who seek to emphasis one point of doctrine to the diminishment or exclusion of the other. Often this is presented in the form of a false dichotomy – i.e., “Was Jesus fully God or was He fully man?” But the Catholic response to these false dichotomies and heresies has always been a resounding, “Both – And.” Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
The modern heresies are no different. Over and over people will seek to argue the symbolic versus the literal, the mystical versus the visible, the Apostolic writings versus the Apostolic words. To all of these and more, the Catholic Church patiently answers again and again, “No…it is Both – And.” The Eucharist is both deeply symbolic and literally the flesh and blood of Christ. The Church is both the mystical Body of Christ, and a visible hierarchical institution. It is both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The Sacraments are both symbolic and actually convey divine grace. It is both faith and works – as it is both faith and reason. It is both divine predestination and man’s free will. Christ’s priesthood is the basis of both the priesthood of all believers and the ministerial priesthood. Sex is to be both procreative and unitive. And we could literally go on and on.
In contrast to what Protestant theologian Karl Barth referred to as, “That damned Catholic ‘And’” is the Protestant “Only” or Sola.
Only Scripture. Only Faith. Only Grace. Christ Alone. The Cross Alone. But, the fullness of the Christian faith is lost in this proclamation of “Only.” Every major Christological heresy of the early Church can be ascribed to an “Only.” Christ is Only God (Docetist heresy). Only Man (Ebionite heresy). Has Only one Nature (Nestorian heresy). Only one will (Monothelite heresy).
In the Protestant proclamation of “Only” we see the Christian faith stripped to its barest essentials. What is the least that I can profess and still call myself Christian? What are the “Only’s” which the faith can be reduced to? I dealt with this question somewhat in my post A Devolving Faith ~ The Bare Essentials of Christianity, when I looked at the effects that this reductionist mentality has had on the Creeds of Christendom. Here I would like to look at several other areas where it has impacted the faith.
I believe that the “solae” or the “Only’s” of Protestantism have produced some very unfortunate mentalities within Christianity. In the solae of “faith alone” and “grace alone” there is the danger of a mentality which questions, “What are the bare minimum requirements for salvation? Do I really have to get baptized? Must I go to Church? Do I really have to change anything in my life? Why should I pray? Or fast? Or give? Must I really serve others in love?” In other words, if works have no value, and faith and grace alone are what saves us, why must I do anything? Notice here that we are not concerned with a process of discipleship but rather a “golden ticket” which will merely assure us of access into heaven.
We see the reductionist mentality of sola Scriptura (the bible alone) and solo Christo (Christ alone) in the expression, ” Just me, and Jesus, and my bible.” But, pause for a moment to contrast the poverty of that expression with the richness that Hebrews 12:22-24 presents us with! “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Ours is not just Christ and the Scriptures! Ours is the city of the living God, and the angels, and the assembly of the firstborn in heaven, and God Himself, and the saints, and, and… Christianity is so much more than just me, and Jesus, and my bible.
Even within Protestant circles there is an awareness of the dangers of this kind of reductionist thinking within the Christian faith. In the book, Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders, the author makes the following statements.
“We have a lot to say about God’s revelation, but we emphasize the business end of it, where God’s voice is heard normatively: the Bible.
We know that everything Jesus did has power for salvation in it, but we emphasize the one event that is literally crucial: the cross.
We know that God is at work on his people through the full journey of their lives, from the earliest glimmers of awareness to the ups and downs of the spiritual life, but we emphasize the hinge of all spiritual experience: conversion.
We know there are countless benefits that flow from being joined to Christ, but we emphasize the big one: heaven.”
He goes on to say that, “Instead of teaching the full counsel of God (incarnation, ministry of healing and teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and second coming), anemic evangelicalism simply shouts its one point of emphasis louder and louder (the cross! the cross! the cross!). But in isolation from the total matrix of Christian truth, the cross doesn’t make the right kind of sense. A message about nothing but the cross is not emphatic. It is reductionist. The rest of the matrix matters: the death of Jesus is salvation partly because of the life he lived before it, and certainly because of the new life he lived after it, and above all because of the eternal background in which he is the eternal Son of the eternal Father. You do not need to say all of those things at all times, but you need to have a felt sense of their force behind the things you do say. When that felt sense is not present, or is not somehow communicated to the next generation, emphatic evangelicalism becomes reductionist evangelicalism.”
I would add, that in may cases not only do we end up with a reductionist evangelicalism, and therefore a reductionist Christianity, but that we also end up with a faith that is less than fully true. With beliefs that the Church has historically labeled heresies. Andrew M. Greenwell expresses this truth in the following way, “Often, we find that truth in its fullness is a conjunction or combination of two truths. To stress one over the other or to the exclusion of the other is the definition of heresy. Truth is often conjunctive and not disjunctive. This reality is what is at the heart of the “Catholic ‘Ands’.” We find that if we have a conjunctive or both/and notion of truth we end up with more Christianity, rather than less.” This becomes a major point of distinction from the very outset, for often Catholicism doesn’t argue against a particular doctrine as expressed by other bible believing Christians. Often, it is not that their doctrines go too far, but rather that they don’t go far enough. Catholicism doesn’t argue for something less, but rather for something more. For both, and… We need to return to the fullness of the Christian faith, a faith which acknowledges the complexities of the “both-and” truths while calling us to more in our Christian lives – not less!
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