Between the Skeptic and the Fundamentalist

Reading Scripture as a modern Catholic is a perpetual balance between extremes; among them, the extremes of farfetched skepticism and equally farfetched supernaturalism. For, unlike these extremes, the Faith takes both the unseen realities of the Spirit and the ordinary life of human beings seriously. It believes in both accountants and angels. But many people, seeing only one of these truths clearly, then proceed to use that pet truth as a cudgel against the truth they don’t see.

This came through to me loud and clear recently when a skeptical acquaintance (whom we shall call “Clarence”) wrote on the Internet with news he seemed to think would devastate Christians into becoming atheists like him.

“Have you ever considered,” he said, “that Paul, the major author of the New Testament and of Christian doctrine, had no more direct line to Jesus than you do? They never met! That is why I am convinced that whatever actually occurred and whatever the historical Jesus thought and said, it is most unlikely to be described by any extant doctrine of the Christian churches. The historical Jesus is lost in the pagan myths of history with its many dying and rising gods, like Osiris.”

Now, in fact, I had considered this. And in doing so, I was forced to ask a question of Clarence: namely, is the early Christian community (and in particular, Paul) as utterly incapable as all that of understanding and transmitting the thing that matters to them most? Are they really such dunderheads as to simultaneously insist we hang on every word and deed of Christ’s while writing reams of bogus bilge about Him with no other source than their own fevered brains? Are we really to believe the Apostles simply didn’t care if Paul cooked up fabulous and false notions about the Jesus they had known personally? Are we honestly expected to believe the proposition that Paul the Pharisee didn’t give a fig about who Christ was and what He did so long as he could ignore the Scriptural warnings against worshipping any God but the God of Israel and have leave to clothe Jesus of Nazareth in whatever pagan myth caught his fancy that day?

I think this is silly. Yet this is at the heart of Clarence’s silly assertion. For his assumption is that reason “proves” the miraculous is false. Therefore, if Paul speaks of Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God the only explanation must be that it is absolutely impossible for someone like Paul, living 10 years after the death of a highly public figure like Jesus, to have any sure knowledge or devotion to Him at all, even if he is a member of a tight-knit community immersed in His life and teaching and has spoken at length with those who were closest to Him. (Similarly, I suppose I can have no certain knowledge of JFK, even though his family and cabinet members give largely congruent accounts of his life.)

Thus, Clarence (in his skeptical zeal to deny the historicity of the gospel story) is saying, in effect, “Never mind that Paul was a fanatic about the purity of the gospel. Never mind that he was gravely suspicious of pagan myth, writing of pagans that ‘They certainly had knowledge of God, yet they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks; they stultified themselves through speculating to no purpose, and their senseless hearts were darkened’ (Romans 1:21). Never mind that Paul knew the 12 Apostles personally and thus had ample opportunity to hear the gospel story from firsthand witnesses. Never mind that he cited over 500 witnesses to the Resurrection as corroborators of his own experience of the Risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:6). Never mind the fact that Paul’s allusions to events in the life of Christ utilize not only the same ideas but sometimes practically the same words as the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Never mind that, without ever reading a gospel, we would know from Paul the basic outline of the Christ’s life: that He was a Jew of David’s line (Romans 1:3); that His chief disciples were Peter, James and John (Galatians 2:9); that He had predicted His return “like a thief” (1 Thessalonians 5:4); that He had instituted the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23-25); that He had been rejected by the Jewish leaders (1Thessalonians 2:15), tried under Pontius Pilate (1 Timothy 6:13) and crucified for us (Galatians 3:1); that he had been raised from the dead and seen by many witnesses (1 Cor. 15:3-8); and that he had ascended (Eph. 4:9-10).

Why does Clarence ignore all this? Because to acknowledge it would be to acknowledge that Paul obviously had lots of perfectly good, mutually supportive, independent sources of information about the events of Jesus’ life (besides his own experience of the Risen Christ) and that he was devoted, even unto death, to preserving that information. Indeed, for Clarence to take Paul seriously as a witness would mean confronting the uncomfortable reality that Paul’s corroboration of the gospels means the preaching and practice of the Twelve Apostles who knew Jesus “after the flesh” were very quickly set in liturgical and creedal concrete soon after the events they describe, precisely so that the thing Clarence asserts happened would not happen.

Consider, for example, the Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. Paul is usually concerned to write about the meaning of the events rather than the events themselves, so it is no surprise that, usually, the gospels and he read very differently. The former are telling a story while Paul is telling us why it matters. But when Paul does takes a brief moment to retell a snatch of that story, his language is very similar to the Last Supper account in the gospels.

Now remember, 1 Corinthians is written about 25 years after the Last Supper events it relates and the gospels are written possibly as much as 10-30 years after that. Moreover they were written in places distant, not only from Corinth but from each other. Why then are they so similar in their accounts of the first eucharist? Because both Paul and the gospel writers have, as their sources, eucharistic liturgies which have been repeated over and over and over throughout the Mediterranean world by the time these writers set pen to paper (liturgies which were, by the way, repeated for centuries afterward and remain in mildly modified forms to this day).

So how was Paul exposed to such a liturgy? Not on the Damascus Road when Christ appeared to him but in the Church at Damascus, the Church at Tarsus, and the Church at Antioch where, just as at Jerusalem, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ instruction and the communal life, to the breaking of the bread [eucharist] and the prayers [liturgy]” (Acts 2:42). In short, the embryonic liturgies, hymns and short creedal summaries of the Faith (like one Paul repeats in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7) are the heritage of the 12 Apostles and their communities who instituted them. Thus, not only are the Apostles good witnesses but they, by their liturgical method of preserving the teaching (which was the typically Jewish way of handing on Tradition), created an arch-conservative early Church which also tended to preserve that teaching and take a very dim view of anyone who varied from it.

That is why Paul says (in his account of the Last Supper) that he is “handing on” what he also “received.” For he is using rabbinic jargon which means “passing on a tradition in its entirety.” In short, so far from being innovators assiduously working to add new and bizarre legends to some unhistorical “Jesus Myth,” (as Clarence asserts) the early Church (including, especially, Paul) was a collection of die-hard stick-in-the-muds who were intensely suspicious of new fads and deeply concerned to preserve the truth of the gospel, both historical and theological. (“If,” writes Paul, “even we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned” [Galatians 1:8-9]. Strong words from a man Clarence insists was given to baptizing pagan myths as “Christian” whenever the fit took him!)

Now I said as much to Clarence in my reply to him. And I assumed that my defense of the reliability of Paul’s historical witness would have drawn applause from the Christians on my Internet list. But to my surprise I received a complaint the following day from “Greg,” a member of a fundamentalist “Bible-only” church which regards the Catholic faith as “humanistic” and teaches that the Church fell away from “pure bible-based teaching” and became pagan shortly after the Scriptures were written. For Greg, the Scripture alone is the one and only source of revelation. “Tradition,” on the other hand, is a deeply suspicious word for him since it is synonymous with “legends of mere men.”

So what was Greg’s beef with me? “I have,” he wrote, “been led to believe that Paul knew about the details of the Last Supper by revelation from Jesus Christ, and not from the instructions of men. For Galatians 1:11 reads, ‘I assure you, brothers, the gospel I proclaimed to you is no mere human invention. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I schooled in it. It came by revelation from Jesus Christ.’ Moreover, Paul himself says he received the story of the Last Supper from ‘the Lord'” (1 Cor. 11:23).

In short, where Clarence perceived Christians as pie-in-the-sky supernaturalists, trusting Paul’s “imaginary” claims about the supernatural revelation of Christ and the miracles of the Spirit, Greg thought my argument against Clarence too naturalistic for daring to suggest that Paul might have gotten any information about Jesus via the Church. This talk about tradition, creeds and liturgy smacked of being far too Catholic, far too “humanistic.” It seemed to him that to associate revelation in any way with human beings and religious ritual or rote memorization was to remove every last hint of the supernatural from it. Thus, he asserted that the reason Paul’s and the gospel writer’s words agree so closely was because the Holy Spirit supernaturally endowed them with knowledge of the events of the Last Supper so that they wrote the same things even though they were separated by great time and distance.

Now I admit it is possible the Risen Christ dictated the story of the Last Supper to Paul and the gospel writers so that they repeated it in a formulaic and liturgical manner. I acknowledge that the Catholic tradition has plenty of leeway for such a thing as miracle and direct revelation. Scripture (with its acknowledgement of the possibility of supernaturally revealed knowledge) leaves room for the possibility that Greg is right. Similarly, as a neighbor child once told me (when I suggested he might not find any trout in the five foot wide mudhole he was fishing in), “God could put fish in there!”

This is true. He could do this just as He could dictate the Last Supper account to both Paul and the gospel writers (with variations in language reflective of local theological emphases and pastoral needs which look exactly like minor liturgical differences). But did He?

We need not think so to do justice to the verses Greg quoted. For there is, in fact, no necessary opposition between supernatural revelation and the teaching of the apostolic Church. Indeed, we know from Scripture itself that the early Church saw revelation through the apostolic community as the normative means of supernatural revelation (while also acknowledging the reality of the occasional spectacular display of miraculous power and direct inspiration as when the prophet Agabus foresaw a coming famine [Acts 11:28].) For Jesus says to His Apostles, “He who listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16) and Paul commends the Corinthians for “holding fast to the traditions just I handed them on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). So just as there is no reason to deny the supernatural (as Clarence does), neither is there good reason to deny (as Greg does) that the supernatural Christ revealed Himself to Paul through the plain ol’ teaching of the Church. Thus, Paul’s statement that the gospel (that is, Christ) was revealed to him supernaturally (on the Damascus Road and in other visions and supernatural ways) does not necessitate assuming that he therefore received no subsequent teaching in the Faith from those who were his elder brothers in Christ.

But what of the verse Greg quoted? Simply this: it is a matter of context. Who is Paul talking to in that verse? The Galatians. Why? Because his apostolic authority is in question by some in that community. Why? Because a bunch of first century Clarences are saying that Paul isn’t a real apostle since he didn’t know Jesus during his time on earth.

In response to this, Paul does not deny the need for or reality of his own catechesis by the Church; he simply restates that his apostolic commission is from Christ Himself and is not some imaginary pipe dream or human concoction. But lest there be any doubt that he was indeed catechized, note that just a few verses later, Paul makes clear that he had teaching from men. That is why he had his preaching vetted by the Apostles, “for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain” (Galatians 2:2). For Paul, apostolic tradition is from the Lord.

Thus, Paul’s language makes perfect sense from a Jewish, Catholic, or Orthodox perspective as the words of a man handing on the teaching of a liturgical, tradition-based community he regards as the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Likewise, the gospels (which were, C.S. Lewis reminds us, “not written to make converts but to edify converts already made”) speak to an audience which has been celebrating the baptismal and eucharistic liturgies of the Church (with their repetitious recitals of the words of Christ) for decades before the written gospels achieved their final form. In short then, Paul and the evangelists agree when they discuss the gospel events because they are all simply regurgitating the liturgical tradition they have been steeped in to communities equally steeped in that same tradition. They are writing to remind, not to innovate.

So what is at the root of Greg’s complaint against this common sense understanding of Scripture? Essentially, it is another extreme: gnosticism. For gnosticism (a supernaturalism at the extreme opposite of Clarence’s skepticism) always assumes that only the spiritual is important and thus strongly tends to assume that, for the spiritual to remain “pure,” it must have nothing to do with the natural and the “merely human.” Therefore, if, as Paul says, he received the story of the Last Supper “from the Lord,” it had to have come verbatim solely via some mystical ecstasy or prophetic insight. It could not have come through the ordinary preaching, creeds and liturgy of the early Church, for this would be to render the gospel “humanistic.” In short, Greg assumes the Lord cannot reveal himself through his creatures (including–especially–the liturgical Catholic Church since liturgy is “dead rituals of men” for him).

Which lands us in an irony since, of course, Greg the Supernaturalist fancies that he is the exact opposite of Clarence the Humanist Skeptic. But, in fact, they are remarkably similar. For look at how the logic of each proceeds.

Greg asserts that the Catholic Church invented Catholic teaching out of thin air and added it to the “pure biblical truth” of Jesus right after the Apostles died. That is why, according to Greg, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing about 30 years after the death of the Apostle John, speaks of the Eucharist as the actual Body and Blood of Christ. Since “the Bible proves” it can’t really be what Ignatius says it is, Greg explains that the Catholic understanding of Eucharist (and of many other things) come from pagan mythology that got jumbled into Christian worship practically the moment the apostle John drew his last breath. This is similar to many such fundamentalist “explanations” of “How Catholic Myths Corrupted True Christianity.”

But there is a problem with this line of reasoning. For having thus severed the branch of Scripture from the Tree of the Church it grew on, it does not require an enormous leap of logic to see that, after the supernatural authority of the Church is rejected, it’s just a matter of time before someone like Clarence begins to assert that the Bible, too, is just a fabrication of human beings (since it is, after all, the written testimony of the Church). All it requires is the spleen to accuse Paul and Peter of all the things “the humanistic, superstitious Catholic Church” was once accused of by Greg. Thus the Branch of Scripture goes into the fire as surely as the Tree of the Church.

So how do we avoid this nonsense? Exercise common sense again and recognize that the question I asked of Clarence does not go away in Greg’s case either. If it is foolish to say that Paul paganized Jesus into a big myth practically the instant our Lord died, then it is equally foolish to assert that the Church paganized Christianity the instant the Apostles died. If believing Clarence requires the absurdity of believing the Apostles fabricated and then died for a lie, then believing Greg requires we embrace the same absurdity about the Church immediately after the Apostles. It requires we imagine the Apostles choosing, without fail, disciples who all misunderstood Eucharist like Ignatius of Antioch did, all misunderstood Mary (and venerated her just as Catholics do today in supposed “direct defiance” of God), all directly disobeyed the Apostles by “inventing” a priesthood and hierarchy of bishops the Apostles never intended, and all began, simultaneously and in supposed “betrayal” of apostolic teaching, to call the Lord’s Supper a “sacrifice.” All of them! Really!

Moreover, we are required by Greg to believe that while these early Christians were running around “adding” all this “paganism” that the Apostles had expressly forbidden, they were also, schizophrenically enough, busy fighting with heretics to preserve the Apostolic preaching and to canonize the very Scripture which (we are to suppose) conclusively proves they were pagans! For it was, of course, the very same Church which guarded all these “pagan” Catholic beliefs about Eucharist, Mary and the priesthood which also jealously guarded the Holy Scriptures.

In short, to believe either Greg’s or Clarence’s picture of things requires more faith than to believe the Catholic Faith. Yet thousands of people do believe just these sorts of wild things. For they do not realize that the Scripture and the Tradition of the Church are a unity. Those, like Clarence, who love “reason” and reject the supernatural tale of Christ as “superstition” do not see that to reject the Scripture and Tradition of the Church is to erect something far more unreasonable and preposterous in their place. Those, like Greg, who love the Scripture and embrace the supernatural but repudiate the human community that created it under inspiration do not see that to accept the one is to accept the other. So they live in mental division.

But (and here, gentle reader, I shall end) it is the great blessing of God that a Catholic need not find himself in either Clarence’s nor Greg’s muddle. For the Catholic knows that the Scripture is neither a lying legend, nor a magical book that fell from the sky. Rather it is, simply put, the trustworthy written Tradition of the Church, created under the inspiration of God. It is both 100% God’s work and 100% the work of the Church. Thus, it is ultimately intelligible only on the lips of the Church which is the chosen author of the story. It does not compete with or disprove the teachings of the Church any more than the head competes with the heart. It holds together as a unity; first as a convincing and beautiful human story and then, when we realize its true meaning, as a convincing and beautiful divine story. Through sacrament, creed and through the very life of the Church, that story is brought to life and made to breathe while the Church, in turn, grows more and more into the image of her Lord by beholding His face in the Scriptures. And as Catholics we are part of that Church and we are called to enter the story: the miraculous and human story of the Scripture and the Christ they so faithfully reveal. That, in a nutshell, is what Bible study is all about and what the Church, with her divine gift of balance, can help us do.


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