Friday, August 14, 2020

Is Church Discipline Incompatible with Sola Scriptura?

Church Discipline Is, in Theory, Compatible with Sola Scriptura

In their arguments against Sola Scriptura, I have frequently heard Catholics argue that Protestant churches are acting hypocritically when they discipline members for disagreeing with or opposing the teaching of the church, given the teaching of Sola Scriptura.  The argument often goes something like this:  "Sola Scriptura teaches that there is no Magisterium, no Supreme Court in the Church that determines what the true interpretation of Scripture is.  Rather, everyone has a right to interpret Scripture for themselves.  This is called the 'right of private judgment'.  Each Protestant church can maintain its own existence only by maintaining this right, because their independent position is based on their own unique biblical interpretations.  But Protestant churches, particularly confessional churches that have courts that try people for false teaching, are being hypocritical, because the leaders maintain their own positions by means of the right of private judgment, while they deny that right to their members and discipline them for disagreeing with the biblical interpretations of the leaders.  They tell everyone to practice Sola Scriptura--which includes the right of private judgment--but then they discipline them when they do so."

I think this argument--or at least this form of it--is fundamentally flawed.  Here's why:  Protestants who affirm Sola Scriptura do not affirm a "right of private judgment" understood as described above.  No such right is inherent in the idea of Sola Scriptura.  Protestants (at least historical, theologically-conservative, confessional Protestants) do not teach that people have a right to interpret Scripture any way they like.  Protestants affirm rather that the Bible is the supreme authority in matters of doctrine, and that everyone has a duty to agree with the Bible.  Confessional Protestant churches affirm the Bible as the supreme authority, so they do indeed recognize a right and a duty belonging to each Christian to check the views of their leaders against the teachings of Scripture and to reject those views if they go against Scripture.  But if, instead, it is the leaders' position that is in accord with Scripture, the church member has no right to oppose it but rather a duty to submit to it.  So if a church member opposes the teaching of Scripture which is enshrined in the church's official confession, the church has every right to discipline that member.  Such discipline is perfectly consistent with the idea of Sola Scriptura.

In short, confessional Protestants do not teach that everyone's individual interpretation of Scripture is the ultimate authority, or that everyone's personal views are the ultimate authority; rather, they teach that Scripture, rightly interpreted is the ultimate authority, and everyone has a duty to conform their views to Scripture.  So it is perfectly appropriate, then, for churches to discipline members for rejecting or opposing the proper interpretation of Scripture on the basis of their own false interpretations of Scripture.

Church Discipline Is, in Practice, Often Incompatible to Some Degree with Sola Scriptura

However, while this common Catholic argument is fundamentally flawed in the way it is often formulated, there is some truth to it.  Sola Scriptura does say that every individual has the right and the duty to conduct his own investigation into the meaning of Scripture and, after he has done so, to stick with that interpretation even in opposition to church leadership.  That investigation must be conducted with care, diligence, humility, and prayer, with deference to the Church's tradition, to the great doctors of the Church, to the work of scholars, etc.  It cannot be a sloppy, haphazard, biased investigation.  But, once a properly-executed investigation of Scripture is carried out, every individual has a right and a duty to follow the interpretation that emerges from such a study--not because every individual has a right to believe whatever he wants, but because every individual has a duty to follow Scripture as the supreme standard.

However, under the Sola Scriptura view, unlike in Catholicism, there is no human Supreme Court on earth in doctrinal matters that can be looked to with implicit trust to provide the objectively-correct interpretation of Scripture.  This causes some serious problems in Protestant practice that Catholics (and others) have often justly pointed out.

1. For one thing, even if Scripture is perfectly plain and clear in its teachings, the lack of a human supreme doctrinal court tends to contribute to a significant amount of anarchy and division among Protestants.  It is evident why that would be the case, when we understand human nature.  A church may have come to the correct understanding of Scripture, and enshrined that understanding in their confession of faith.  A church member comes along and opposes that teaching.  The church attempts to discipline that member, but the member says, "I have the right and duty to conduct my own investigation into the meaning of Scripture.  I have done so, and I find your interpretation incorrect.  So, since Scripture is a higher standard, a higher court of appeal, than you are, and since you disagree with Scripture, I have a right and a duty to refuse to submit to your discipline and to continue to promote what I see Scripture as teaching.  We must obey God rather than men."  There is no human court to which both sides in this dispute can turn to adjudicate this difference over the proper interpretation of Scripture, so this controversy must end at an impasse, practically speaking, unless one side changes their view.  The two sides will go their separate ways, both insisting that they are right because they are in accord with the true supreme standard--the Scriptures.

Here is a statement of this problem coming, not from a Catholic, but from an Atheist Libertarian author:

The likelihood of conflicting interpretations of special revelation did not pose as much of a theoretical problem for Catholics as it did for Protestants. In the Catholic Church the pope was the ultimate arbiter of doctrinal controversies. His function was rather like that of the Supreme Court in American law; what the pope said was final, and that was the end of the matter (at least in theory). But Protestants, in rejecting papal authority and in maintaining that each person should use his or her own conscience to understand Scripture, generated a serious problem for themselves. Hundreds of Protestant sects arose, and their conflicting interpretations of the Bible frequently spilled over into politics. Thus Catholic critics of Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers were basically correct when they predicted that the Protestant approach to the Bible would result in a type of religious anarchy, as each individual viewed himself as the supreme authority in religious matters. Reverting to my previous analogy, the result was similar to what would happen if America had no Supreme Court, or judicial system of any kind, and each American was free to interpret and implement law according to his own judgment.

2. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, in reality, Scripture is not always completely plain and clear.  Certainly, there are some things on which Scripture is so explicit and clear that hardly anyone will be able to find themselves in honest disagreement with what almost everyone can see that it says.  For example, if someone wants to argue that Jesus was just an ordinary human being, it is pretty easy to see that Scripture is clearly against such a view.

However, on many issues which often constitute the basis of theological controversy, Scripture is not so explicitly clear.  Take infant baptism, for example.  This is one of the issues over which Protestants and Protestant churches have often been divided.  Scripture never explicitly addresses the subject.  And yet this is an issue that cannot be avoided.  A church must take some stand on this subject.  It must embrace and practice infant baptism, oppose infant baptism, allow infant baptism as optional, etc.  Any church cannot but take some position on this issue that others disagree with.  Since Scripture never explicitly addresses this subject, nor even clearly and plainly hints at it, if one is practicing Sola Scripture one must come to one's convictions on this subject by looking at what Scripture does say and trying to infer, based on all available evidence, what the most likely correct answer is.  But here we are into complex literary and doctrinal interpretation, and at this level of interpretation it is going to be very difficult to come to any clear, objective conclusion.  We simply do not know what the apostles would say if we were able to ask them what the proper answer is.  We can find clues in Scripture that we can try to use to help us lean more one way or another, but we have to admit that the evidence is sparse enough that we would not think it terribly surprising or absurd if, were we able to ask, say, the Apostle Paul what the correct answer is, he gave an answer different from ours.

This is exacerbated by the fact that we can't even know if this method of trying to figure out the truth is the proper one until we first show that Sola Scriptura is the correct presupposition for interpreting Scripture.  If Sola Scriptura is correct, then the proper way to figure out the answers to doctrinal disputes is to do one's best to interpret Scripture for oneself, making use of all the clues available, trying to infer the correct answer as best one can even in areas where Scripture is not plain or explicit.  But if Catholicism should turn out to be true, this would be the wrong way to interpret Scripture.  According to Catholicism, Scripture comes as part of a package deal which includes also an infallible Tradition and an infallible Church teaching authority (Magisterium).  Scripture is meant to be interpreted within the context of the infallible Tradition of the Church and under the guidance of the Church's God-guided interpreters.  The Magisterium of the Church constitutes a divinely-appointed human, visible Supreme Court to adjudicate doctrinal disputes.  So if Catholicism is true, the Sola Scriptura method of interpreting Scripture is almost certainly going to lead to false conclusions, at least sometimes, because we will not be using the proper, God-ordained method for its interpretation.

So when we try to come to a conclusion about something like infant baptism on the basis of our own personal investigation into Scripture, trying to sort out the most likely answer based on whatever clues and hints we can find, without any reliance on an infallible Tradition or Magisterium, we are in deep waters, and the results of our investigation are going to be very subjective.  If we know for a fact that Sola Scriptura is the right method for interpreting Scripture, then we can trust that God will overrule the obvious tendency towards subjectivity here and ensure that, if we do our best, we will end up with the right answer.  And, when we find ourselves in dispute with lots of other readers of Scripture who come to different conclusions, we will assume that they are objectively wrong, even though it is hard to prove on a human level that one's own conclusion was arrived at in a clearly, objectively-better way than the alternative conclusions.  (After all, in disputes over the meaning of complex and subtle literary documents, it is notoriously difficult to separate objectively-better interpretations from differences rooted in personality, background, bias, etc., and the Bible is certainly an extremely complex literary document, written in ancient times in ancient languages by many different people in ancient cultures, very alien from our own in many ways, over thousands of years, containing a variety of literary forms, etc.)  But when we throw in the fact that we first have to prove that Sola Scriptura is even the proper way of proceeding to begin with, I think it must be concluded that there is simply insufficient data in Scripture available to do what Protestants try to do with it.  To a large extent, Protestants are trying to squeeze the milk of a complete and detailed doctrinal system out of the stone of a Scripture that simply cannot yield what they want from it.

Conclusion

I think that Catholics should be more careful in their criticism of Sola Scriptura not to caricature the viewpoint.  To conflate the idea of Scripture as the supreme doctrinal standard with the idea that people have a right to interpret Scripture in their own way is inaccurate and misrepresents what Protestants believe.  However, I think that this caricature is based on some true observations and legitimate criticisms that, if stated more carefully and clearly, can constitute some significant and legitimate concerns and objections regarding Sola Scriptura without mischaracterizing the position.  While Sola Scriptura does not imply that individuals have an intrinsic right to interpret Scripture contrary to the teachings of the leaders of their particular church, and so church discipline is not, per se, contrary to Sola Scriptura, yet, in practice, the lack of a supreme human doctrinal court combined with Scripture's lack of explicitness and clarity on many important doctrinal subjects does indeed lead to the conclusion that there is a degree of inconsistency between the practice of Sola Scriptura and the practice of church discipline.  For a church to be able reasonably to discipline one of its members for rejecting or opposing the doctrinal positions of the church and its leaders, the church has to be able to show with objective conclusiveness that its own doctrinal positions are indeed the positions of Scripture.  Since the Sola Scriptura method of interpreting Scripture cannot supply that kind of objective conclusiveness, there is often an unreasonable inequality involved when the church regards its own interpretations of Scripture as objectively superior to the interpretations of its allegedly erring members.

For more, see herehere, and here.

Published on the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.

Friday, August 7, 2020

A Catholic Response to Some of the Arguments of Jonathan Edwards Regarding Justification by Faith Alone

For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified,-as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches,-and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God,-we must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified, to prevent their being accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its (due) time, if so be, however, that they depart in grace: . . . Thus, neither is our own justice established as our own as from ourselves; nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated: for that justice which is called ours, because that we are justified from its being inherent in us, that same is (the justice) of God, because that it is infused into us of God, through the merit of Christ. Neither is this to be omitted,-that although, in the sacred writings, so much is attributed to good works, that Christ promises, that even he that shall give a drink of cold water to one of his least ones, shall not lose his reward; and the Apostle testifies that, That which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; nevertheless God forbid that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself, and not in the Lord, whose bounty towards all men is so great, that He will have the things which are His own gifts be their merits.

~ Council of Trent, Session Six, Chapter 16

The classic Reformed Protestant doctrine of justification (at least interpreted in an anti-Augustinian way) holds that we are righteous, or morally pleasing and acceptable before God and his moral law, only by means of Christ's personal satisfaction and righteousness being imputed to us (legally credited to our account), and not at all by means of Christ's satisfaction and righteousness being infused into us and worked out in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Reformed Protestants believe that such infusion and working out occurs, but they say that this sanctification is no part of the grounds of our justification--our becoming morally acceptable to God.  Sanctification always accompanies justification, but it is completely distinct from it.  Catholics, on the other hand, hold that we are justified by Christ's righteousness not only being imputed to us but also by its being infused into us and worked out in our lives by the Holy Spirit.  For Catholics, sanctification is part of the grounds of justification.

Reformed Protestants often support their view by arguing that while sin is infinitely heinous because of the infinite greatness of the value of God whom sin is against, any virtue we could have would be completely worthless because of the infinite inferiority of ourselves in comparison with God.  So once we sin, we have committed an infinite crime deserving of infinite punishment.  After that, it doesn't matter how much sanctification we have from the Holy Spirit, we can never satisfy God's justice for our previous sins, nor can we merit God's favor or acceptance, because of the worthlessness of any goodness we can offer as mere creatures.  We cannot possibly have anything to offer God that would counterbalance or make up for our sin, or warrant God's favor.  What we need, therefore, is someone else's righteousness, the righteousness of a person whose value is infinitely greater than ours, and that person is Christ, because he is God as well as man.  When Christ suffers for our sins, this satisfies the justice of God and brings forgiveness.  And when Christ obeys God, God is so pleased with this that he considers it to infinitely outweigh the debt of our sin and to merit his good favor.  Christ's satisfaction and righteousness are given to us by means of a legal imputation, so that what we do not have and cannot have in ourselves (whether from our own power or from the power of the Holy Spirit) we can have through imputation, and thus become justified before God.

One of the greatest Reformed theologians and philosophers of all time, in my opinion, was Jonathan Edwards.  (He is also one of my own personal favorite theologians and philosophers, and a personal hero of mine.)  Here is how Edwards makes some of the arguments I just articulated above in his discourse on Justification by Faith Alone:

That the evil and demerit of sin is infinitely great, is most demonstrably evident, because what the evil or iniquity of sin consists in, is the violating of an obligation, or doing what we should not do; and therefore by how much the greater the obligation is that is violated, by so much the greater is the iniquity of the violation. But certainly our obligation to love or honour any being is great in proportion to the greatness or excellency of that being, or his worthiness to be loved and honoured. We are under greater obligations to love a more lovely being than a less lovely; and if a being be infinitely excellent or lovely, our obligations to love him are therein infinitely great. The matter is so plain, it seems needless to say much about it.

Some have argued exceeding strangely against the infinite evil of sin, from its being committed against an infinite object, that then it may as well be argued, that there is also an infinite value or worthiness in holiness and love to God, because that also has an infinite object; whereas the argument, from parity of reason, will carry it in the reverse. The sin of the creature against God is ill deserving in proportion to the distance there is between God and the creature; the greatness of the object, and the meanness of the subject, aggravates it. But it is the reverse with regard to the worthiness of the respect of the creature to God; it is worthless (and not worthy) in proportion to the meanness of the subject. So much the greater the distance between God and the creature, so much the less is the creature's respect worthy of God's notice or regard. The unworthiness of sin or opposition to God rises and is great in proportion to the dignity of the object and inferiority of the subject; but on the contrary, the value of respect rises in proportion to the value of the subject; and that for this plain reason, viz. that the evil of disrespect is in proportion to the obligation that lies upon the subject to the object; which obligation is most evidently increased by the excellency and superiority of the object. But on the contrary, the worthiness of respect to a being is in proportion to the obligation that lies on him who is the object, (or rather the reason he has,) to regard the subject, which certainly is in proportion to the subject's value or excellency. Sin or disrespect is evil or heinous in proportion to the degree of what it denies in the object, and as it were takes from it, viz. its excellency and worthiness of respect; on the contrary, respect is valuable in proportion to the value of what is given to the object in that respect, which undoubtedly (other things being equal) is great in proportion to the subject's value, or worthiness of regard; because the subject in giving his respect, can give no more than himself: so far as he gives his respect, he gives himself to the object; and therefore his gift is of greater or lesser value in proportion to the value of himself.

Hence, (by the way,) the love, honour, and obedience of Christ towards God, has infinite value, from the excellency and dignity of the person in whom these qualifications were inherent; and the reason why we needed a person of infinite dignity to obey for us, was because of our infinite comparative meanness, who had disobeyed, whereby our disobedience was infinitely aggravated. We needed one, the worthiness of whose obedience might be answerable to the unworthiness of our disobedience; and therefore needed one who was as great and worthy as we were unworthy. . . .

Having thus, as I imagine, made it clear, that all sin is infinitely heinous, and consequently that the sinner, before he is justified, is under infinite guilt in God's sight; it now remains that I show the consequences, or how it follows from hence, that it is not suitable that God should give the sinner an interest in Christ's merits, and so a title to his benefits, from regard to any qualifications, or act, or course of acts in him, on the account of any excellency or goodness whatsoever therein, but only as uniting to Christ; or (which fully implies it) that it is not suitable that God, by any act, should, in any manner or degree, testify any acceptance of, or pleasedness with, any thing, as any virtue, or excellency, or any part of loveliness, or valuableness in his person, until he is actually already interested in Christ's merits. From the premises it follows, that before the sinner is already interested in Christ, and justified, it is impossible God should have any acceptance of or pleasedness with the person of the sinner, as in any degree lovely in his sight, or indeed less the object of his displeasure and wrath. For, by the supposition, the sinner still remains infinitely guilty in the sight of God; for guilt is not removed but by pardon: but to suppose the sinner already pardoned, is to suppose him already justified; which is contrary to the supposition. But if the sinner still remains infinitely guilty in God's sight, that is the same thing as still to be beheld of God as infinitely the object of his displeasure and wrath, or infinitely hateful in his eyes; and if so, where is any room for any thing in him, to be accepted as some valuableness or acceptableness of him in God's sight, or for any act of favour of any kind towards him, or any gift whatsoever to him, in testimony of God's respect to an acceptance of something of him lovely and pleasing? If we should suppose that a sinner could have faith, or some other grace in his heart, and yet remain separate from Christ; and that he is not looked upon as being in Christ, or having any relation to him, it would not be meet that such true grace should be accepted of God as any loveliness of his person in the sight of God. If it should be accepted as the loveliness of the person as in some degree lovely to God; but this cannot be consistent with his still remaining under infinite guilt, or infinite unworthiness in God's sight, which that goodness has no worthiness to balance. While God beholds the man as separate from Christ, he must behold him as he is in himself; and so his goodness cannot be beheld by God, but as taken with his guilt and hatefulness, and as put in the scales with it; and so his goodness is nothing; because there is a finite on the balance against an infinite whose proportion to it is nothing. In such a case, if the man be looked on as he is in himself, the excess of the weight in one scale above another, must be looked upon as the quality of the man. These contraries being beheld together, one takes from another, as one number is subtracted from another; and the man must be looked upon in God's sight according to the remainder. For here, by the supposition, all acts of grace or favour, in not imputing the guilt as it is, are excluded, because that supposes a degree of pardon, and that supposes justification, which is contrary to what is supposed, viz. that the sinner is not already justified; and therefore things must be taken strictly as they are; and so the man is still infinitely unworthy and hateful in God's sight, as he was before, without diminution, because his goodness bears no proportion to his unworthiness, and therefore when taken together is nothing.  (Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone, text taken from the plain text version at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, but also found here or here)

I would like to spend the remainder of this article analyzing this overall argument.  I think there is both truth and error in the argument, and the error leads to the support of a false doctrine of justification (the Anti-Augustinian Reformed doctrine) and the rejection of the true doctrine of justification (that taught by the Catholic Church).

There are two parts to the argument, as Edwards lays it out.  The argument argues that 1. our sin is infinitely heinous before God and thus deserving of infinite punishment, on account of the greatness of God and our own littleness, and 2. that we can only be made right with God by virtue of the imputed righteousness of Christ because any internal righteousness we could ever have, even if worked in us by the Holy Spirit, would be worthless before God in terms of being able to counterbalance our sin or to make us morally pleasing to God and thus worthy of his favor, on account of the greatness of God and our own littleness.

1. It is true that our sin is infinitely heinous before God and thus deserving of infinite punishment on account of our infinite inferiority to God.  (See, for one example of a Catholic statement of this principle, the Catechism of Pope St. Pius X, Fourth Article of the Creed, questions 9-11.)  I have little to add here, as Edwards has spelled out the reasons for this quite clearly and accurately.  God is infinitely great.  He is the fullness of Being, the Supreme Good.  To reject him, then, is to reject the Supreme Good, and obviously this is going to be supremely bad.  The rejection of the Supreme Good cannot but be seen by an accurate view as anything other than infinitely hateful and wicked, and it is evident that the natural consequence of such rejection must be supreme calamity and misery.  God is the fullness of goodness, while we have no goodness of ourselves.  All positive being that we have comes from God.  So without God, we have nothing.  We ought, then, to honor God infinitely above ourselves and look to him and value him as the fount and source of all goodness.

2. Edwards is also right to say that we, as mere creatures, could not possibly have anything to offer God that could make up for the infinite hatefulness of our sins.  For that hatefulness is rooted in the fact that we have rejected the Supreme Good.  The only way we could make up for this is to offer God some good that is equal in value to himself.  But, of course, we are infinitely far away from being able to do any such thing.  Imagine breaking someone's priceless antique vase, and then attempting to make up for this by giving them a stick of chewing gum.  But our trying to make up for our sins by giving God some kind of creaturely satisfaction or righteousness is infinitely more absurd, for God is infinitely more valuable than an antique vase and what we have to offer God is inferior even to a stick of chewing gum (even chewing gum is a gift from God, after all, like every other good, and not something we possess of ourselves).  So we cannot make up for our sins or merit God's positive favor by anything we can offer as mere creatures.

3. Where Edwards goes wrong is in failing to notice the enormous--indeed, infinite--difference between a mere creaturely offering to God and an offering to God that comes about by means of the sanctification of the Holy Spirit.  When the Spirit sanctifies us, he infuses Christ's righteousness into us.  He applies Christ to our hearts, so that the virtue of Christ's righteousness comes to live within us and to manifest itself in our actions (both internal and external).  The righteousness of sanctification is thus a divine righteousness and not merely a creaturely righteousness.  The Holy Spirit elevates us to a level that is infinitely beyond our creaturely capacity.  Thus, the righteousness offered to God by those who are sanctified by the Holy Spirit is indeed a righteousness worthy of God's pleasure and acceptance.  It is so worthy not at all because it comes from us, for we are mere creatures, but because it is "Christ in us, the hope of glory."  Our Spirit-wrought righteousness, being the righteousness of Christ in us, is infinitely worthy of God's acceptance.

Edwards grants that, even though Christ took upon himself our sins, he was able to overcome them because he was able to offer to God a satisfaction and a righteousness that could make up for those sins and merit God's positive favor.  He was able to offer God something in return for our sins that God's justice was fully satisfied to accept as a basis for pardon and acceptance.  What Edwards, along with Reformed Protestants in general, failed to recognize is that sanctification amounts to the Spirit applying Christ and his satisfaction and righteousness within us, so that their virtue lives through us.  So Christ's satisfaction works itself out in our lives by our own repentance and turning from sin to God, putting sin to death and being reborn to new righteousness.  Christ's righteousness is applied to and works itself out in our lives in our inward righteousness and our good works, our love to God and neighbor (the heart of the moral law) and the actions that flow from that love.  When we, as reborn children of God, offer to God our repentance and our love and obedience, this is eminently satisfying to God and his moral law, so that he justly pardons our sins and accounts us righteous in his sight.  Christ's satisfaction and righteousness, infused within us and worked out in our lives through our repentance and obedience, reconciles us to God.  There is no boasting here for us, for all of this is entirely a gift of grace.  It is not our own righteousness that reconciles us to God, but Christ's.  The difference between the Reformed Protestant and the Catholic view is not that the Protestant view puts all our hope in Christ's righteousness while the Catholic trusts in his own righteousness.  The difference is that what the Protestant sees as happening only externally (by legal imputation) the Catholic sees as happening internally as well (in our sanctification).  But in both cases, we offer up to God what Christ has given us, and what Christ has given us is infinitely acceptable to him and sufficient to reconcile us to himself.

So there is no need to make justification and sanctification two completely distinct things.  There is no need for God to give to us another righteousness purely by imputation distinct from the righteousness he has given us in sanctification, on account that the righteousness of sanctification is insufficient to reconcile us to God and to warrant God's moral favor.  The righteousness of sanctification is fully sufficient, because it is not a mere creaturely righteousness but a divine righteousness, and so is not worthless but eminently worthy of God's regard, able to wash out our sins and make us right before God.  When we stand before the judgment seat of Christ after this life and at the end of history, and God looks at all that he has accomplished in our lives from beginning to end, he will be fully satisfied with his completed work (for we must remember that sanctification is a process that is not brought to full completion before this life is over).  He will render to us according to our works, and we will forever thank and praise him for his grace and mercy to us in Christ.

I'll close with the words of St. Paul:

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  (Romans 8:1-18)

For more, see here and here.  (Text at the top of this article from the Council of Trent was taken from the Hanover Historical Texts Project at Hanover College, page number removed.)

Published on the feast of Pope St. Sixtus II and Companions, martyrs, and St. Cajetan.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Is Ordinary Magisterial Teaching Infallible?

I've already discussed this substantially and at some length here, so I will refer you there for a full treatment of this subject with evidence, sources cited, etc.

In this brief post I simply want to focus in on the term "infallible", and whether that word accurately describes the ordinary, non-definitive teaching of the Church.

I want to write briefly on this because it seems to be an unending source of confusion in some circles.  The reason for this is that the word "infallible" is subject to more than one meaning.  In general, the word infallible means "unable to fail", and applied to Church teaching it means "unable to teach error".  However, the two fundamental categories of Church teaching--definitive and non-definitive--are protected from error in different ways, relative to the nature of the teachings as definitive or non-definitive.

The definitive teaching of the Church refers to teachings that are given in order to provide a final, universal word on some subject.  For example, God is a Trinity.  This is an absolute truth, not contingent on any particular situation.  It is true to affirm this now.  It was true to affirm this two thousand years ago.  It will be true to affirm this two thousand years from now.  Etc.  It is a truth that is not connected to some limited set of circumstances or a limited level of knowledge.  We will never learn anything that will make it no longer appropriate to affirm that God is a Trinity.  No circumstances will ever change that will make this any less true.

Non-definitive teaching, on the other hand, refers to teachings that are, or at least may be, provisional or conditional in some way.  As an example, consider Pope Francis's recent teachings on the death penalty.  Pope Francis has affirmed that, given the state of our knowledge today and the various circumstances that hold in the world today, we ought to consider the death penalty "inadmissible" and work for its abolition.  The Magisterium has made clear that this does not mean that the underlying principle behind the death penalty--that the state has an obligation even sometimes to use lethal force to protect the common good--is invalid.  The Church has always affirmed, and continues to affirm, this principle.  But the Magisterium teaches that, given the state of things at this time, we ought to consider it inappropriate to resort to the death penalty because it is not necessary to protect or promote the common good.  We ought instead to work for the abolition of the death penalty.  Now this teaching is clearly contingent in a number of ways.  Its truth is linked to the peculiarities of our own time, and no claim is made that it has always been true or would be true in any possible set of circumstances.  The teaching is linked to the current state of our knowledge, in that no claim is made that growth in knowledge or awareness in the future, based on further thought or research, will not alter the conclusion.  All the teaching says is that, right now, given what we know and are aware of now, given the current circumstances obtaining in the world today, the death penalty is morally inadmissible and we should work for its abolition.

It is typically granted that the Church's definitive teaching is infallible--it cannot include error.  (Or at least it is granted that this is what the Church teaches about her own teaching.)  But some Catholics--particularly some among the Catholic traditionalists and some liberal-leaning Catholics--think that the Church's non-definitive teaching is not protected from error, that it can err and lead the people of God astray, and that the faithful sometimes have a right and a duty to resist and reject it if, upon personal investigation, they judge it to be wrong (it contradicts their interpretation of Scripture, of Church history, of the previous teaching of the Church, etc.)  As evidence for their position, they will often point out that the Church typically reserves the word "infallible" for the definitive teachings of the Church, not her non-definitive teachings.  They reason that if only definitive teachings are infallible, then non-definitive teachings must be fallible.  And since "fallible" means "can be wrong", they conclude that non-definitive teachings are not guaranteed to be reliable and so may sometimes require resistance.  They maintain this even though the Church has said again and again that all official magisterial teaching, including non-definitive teaching, is guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, comes with the authority of Christ, and demands submission of will and intellect from all Catholics, and in spite of the fact that the Church has never endorsed their ideas about the need to check non-definitive teaching for error using one's private judgment and then to reject it if it fails that test.

The problem here is equivocation over the word "infallible".  It is true that the Church most often uses the word "infallible" to refer to definitive in contrast to non-definitive teachings.  But it is equally clear, as I said above, that the Church guarantees the unfailing reliability as well as the binding authoritativeness of non-definitive teaching.  But how can non-infallible teaching be unfailingly reliable?  Isn't "unfailingly reliable" just another way of saying "infallible"?  The answer is that the Church tends to use the term "infallible" in a strict sense which includes the idea of "irreformability" and "definitiveness".  And we can see why she might do that.  Non-definitive teaching, even though it is unfailingly reliable as far as it goes, doesn't go as far as definitive teaching.  It is not intended to.  Non-definitive teaching tells us what we need to know for the moment, but it doesn't necessarily give us the absolute, final answer and guarantee that that answer will not change in the future.  The teaching leads us to the right answer in the present, but that's all it does  (Of course, some non-definitive teachings may be closer to universal and absolute than others, but, by definition, non-definitive teaching is . . . well, non-definitive.)  Since non-definitive teachings are potentially subject to alteration and even, in a sense, correction due to changing circumstances, they could be said to be less "infallible" than definitive teachings.  That is, if we are using the term "infallible" in a strong sense that suggests absoluteness and unchangeability, then non-definitive teachings are not infallible.

The mistake, however, comes in thinking that, because a teaching is not infallible in this strong sense, it is not unfailingly reliable as far as it is intended to go.  The dissenters create a false dichotomy:  Either a teaching is infallible in the strong sense of irreformable and absolute, or the teaching must be fallible in the sense of not inherently trustworthy or reliable.  This false dichotomy ignores a third category, which is the correct category for understanding the Church's non-definitive teachings:  Non-definitive teachings are not absolute and irreformable, but they are unfailingly reliable as far as the magisterial teacher's intention goes.  As such, they demand assent.  They don't demand the same kind of assent as definitive teachings, but they demand assent.  We are to assent to them according to their own nature--as non-definitive teachings--just as we are to assent to definitive teachings according to their own nature--as definitive teachings.  We are to assent to all official magisterial teaching according to the expressed magisterial intention in teaching it.  We are not to attribute more to the teaching than the magisterial teacher intends, but we are also not to attribute less to it than the magisterial teacher intends.

So there is no great mystery in the Church's position regarding the unfailing reliability and therefore the authoritativeness and binding quality of her non-infallible, non-definitive teachings.  The key is that all magisterial teachings are guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, come with the authority of Christ, and thus require submission of will and intellect.  All magisterial teachings are protected from error, but not all in the same way.  Definitive and non-definitive teachings are completely equal in terms of their reliability, but they are not equal in terms of the reach of the magisterial intention, and so, while both require assent, this assent must be matched to the nature of the teaching.  I'll end with the words of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as they defined the nature of and assent owed to non-definitive teachings in their well-known and very helpful Doctrinal Commentary on the Profession of Faith written back in 1998:

10. The third proposition of the Professio fidei states: "Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act". 
To this paragraph belong all those teachings – on faith and morals – presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgement or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Such teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect. They are set forth in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, or to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or lastly to warn against ideas incompatible with those truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error.
A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore 'tuto doceri non potest' ['not possible to be taught safely']. . . . 
As examples of doctrines belonging to the third paragraph, one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei, #10, 11, found here on the Vatican website, footnotes removed)

 For more, see here (the shorter version) or here (the longer version).

Published on the Feast of the Transfiguration

The Heart of Reality

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”

~ C. S. Lewis

The heart of the Christian worldview exhibits the light of its own truth.  Whether we apprehend it on a more intuitive level or in the form of explicitly-articulated arguments, the Christian worldview testifies to us of its truth by providing us with the key that unlocks the door of reality.  It tells us the truth about ourselves and our world, cutting through the confusion, the errors, and the incompleteness of alternative viewpoints.  To describe it is thus to exhibit both its beauty and its truthfulness.

The heart of Christianity is that God exists.  Matter and energy, time and space, are not the ultimate reality.  The story of history is not, a Macbeth put it, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."  There is a Person at the back of all things.  Consciousness, and everything that goes along with that--awareness, wisdom, love, relationship, values, purpose--is the stuff of ultimate reality. It is not simply a by-product of mindless processes of matter and energy.

God is also a Trinity.  There is one God, and that one God exists in three Persons.  Each Person is a distinct, but full, manifestation of the single Divine Essence.  For an analogy, I like to think of a website.  There is an original version of each website that exists on a server computer somewhere.  Then that server “serves” the website to different computers, so that the same website exists on multiple computers.  It's one website, but multiple manifestations of that same website.  Each manifestation is distinct from the others, but they are all manifestations of the same site.  Similarly, there is one Divine Being, but that Divine Being manifests himself in three distinct Persons.  God the Father begets the Son, sharing with him his very Being, and the Holy Spirit is a third instantiation of the single Divine Essence who proceeds from the Father and from the Son and from their relationship.  (In my website analogy, the Holy Spirit might be analogous to the website as it exists flowing through the air or through the wires between computers, going from one computer to another.)  This is important because one of the essential characteristics of personhood is relationship.  Relationship, love, community--these are not mere accidental by-products of the universe; they are at the very heart of what reality is all about.  God is not just a Person; he is a Community.

Everything that exists that is not God was made by God, and the entire story of the universe is meant to reflect and exhibit God's glorious perfections, his supreme beauty.  We humans are made in God's image.  On a lesser scale, we reflect God's nature--his life, his consciousness, his reason, his love, his relationality.  Because we exist by sharing in the Supreme Good, we too have value.  Human life, and indeed all life, has value and dignity which we ought to respect.  Morality, too, is not simply a by-product of an amoral universe.  It is part of the fundamental essence of reality.  God's values constitute an objective standard of morality.  Moral goodness is not something we pursue simply because we are programmed to do so by our genes, while it has no meaning in any more ultimate sense.  Treating people with respect and love, treating all things with respect and love, and loving God above all else, really matters objectively and ultimately.

We were created to share in, to reflect, and to enjoy God's beauty, the beauty of the Supreme Good.  That's the purpose of life.  At the very heart of reality is the loving, joy-filled Community of the Trinity where the three Persons bask in the full enjoyment of all Good.  The goodness of this world--all the beauty, all the things we enjoy and that delight us--are derived from God and point back to him.  Our destiny, if we follow it and don't reject it, is to enjoy what God has made and to "follow the bread crumbs," as it were, of joy as they lead us back to the fount of all good, God himself.  We all know from experience that this world is but a foretaste of joy.  It is full of appetizing delight, but it never satisfies.  This is not because the universe is ultimately meaningless and we've simply evolved a taste for joy that can never be satisfied.  It is because this world comes from a Higher Realm and we are meant to follow its sign-posts to finally arrive there in the end.

The Christian faith teaches us that evil and suffering are a very real part of our world--something else we know only too well from personal experience.  The very idea of evil is meaningless unless there is true goodness.  Because God exists and we sense that intuitively, we are also aware of how far short our world falls when it comes to goodness.  The world is full of horrible acts of wickedness and terrible suffering.  Christianity does not sidestep this or trivialize it.  In the Christian worldview, God dives down fully into the world of our experience, thus validating it while at the same time linking it to something more.  Our world, while reflecting God, also contrasts with him.  Our weakness, ignorance, foolishness, ugliness, wickedness, and suffering contrast with God's strength, knowledge, wisdom, beauty, goodness, and joy.  Only God possesses Life and Joy in himself.  Our world can only get these things from God.  And the Christian faith teaches us that our world has rebelled against God, declaring independence from him and trying to strike out on its own, with the result that we have brought infinite calamity down upon ourselves.  We do not have the resources to save ourselves.  But God has come down into our world.  The Second Person of the Trinty, God the Son, has taken upon himself a human nature, so that his Divine Person is expressed now not only through a divine nature but through a human nature as well.  He has embraced our weakness, ignorance, foolishness, ugliness, wickedness, and suffering.  Rather than remaining aloof from us and our condition, he has come right down into it fully, but because he is God he has also brought with him the only thing that can save us--the power of the Divine Life.  He has bridged the gap between God and the world.  He has absorbed our evil while not being destroyed by it, and he has overcome our evil with his own infinite goodness.

This is why the cross is the central image of Christianity.  Notice the depth of profundity in this.  Some views of the world recognize the Supreme Good, but they fail to take seriously the reality of evil.  I sometimes call these "playground religions", because they sidestep the horrors of the world and try to make out that everything is really OK.  They do not speak to the darkness we all know so well.  Other views embrace the horrors of evil, but they become mired in despair and nihilism, abandoning hope of a Supreme Good that can provide the ultimate context for evil and promise its eventual overthrow and the redemption of the world.  Christianity embraces both sides and maintains the proper balance.  The cross exhibits this fully.  There we have a man whose feet and hands are nailed to wooden beams.  He hangs there, suffering and dying in agony, a victim of the wickedness and cruelty of the world.  He cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  God himself suffers and dies an agonizing death at the hands of the evil of this world.  The cross is thus a sign and validation of the reality of evil and the full horror of it.  And yet the Scriptures tells us that this scene, with Jesus dying on the cross, was planned by the Sovereign and Good God from all eternity as the lynchpin to the fulfillment of his good plan for all history.  On the cross, by absorbing all our evil, he brings that evil in contact with the Supreme Good, and the end result is that Goodness overcomes and obliterates the evil.  Jesus does not give way to despair.  He does not fall into sin and reject God.  He dies, but in dying he destroys death.  In embracing evil, by facing it and not sidestepping it, he defeats it, and three days later he rises from the dead, conqueror of sin and death and hell.  He ascends into heaven, competing the circle.  He who came down from heaven into our world goes back up into heaven.  But he brings back up more than he brought down.  He has bound us to himself.  He remains fully God and fully human forever.  In his ascension, he brings our nature up with him, filling us with his Divine Life.  The Holy Spirit, who flows between the Father and the Son eternally, flows down to us and brings us up into the Divine Life and Love, and we are adopted as children of God.  Our evil overcome, we become heirs of God, destined, unless we refuse it, to share in the eternal celebration that is God's own inner life.  Only in Christianity are both sides of the equation affirmed and properly balanced--evil is acknowledged and accepted for all that it is, and yet it is put in its place as subservient to the Ultimate Good, giving way to that Good in the end.  The cross is a symbol of the power and reality of evil, but also a symbol of its defeat and the ultimate triumph of Goodness.  Whenever we see a cross on the outside of a church, in a church building, in the homes of the faithful, or anywhere, we see the sign of a faith that tells us the full truth about ourselves, leaving out nothing.  The whole story of all we are is there.  As the Church, we are the official witnesses of God in this world, bringing the message that unlocks the door of reality to all people, calling them to take up their crosses and follow Christ to eternal life.

Deep within all of us, whether we recognize it or not explicitly, we know that consciousness, love, relationship, and joy are a deeper part of reality than mere mindless matter and energy and physical laws.  We know that there is a point to all of this, that reality is a story with a purpose that is unfolding.  We know that life and happiness matter, and that we ought to seek the good of ourselves and others and hate and oppose cruelty and wickedness and suffering, and that we ought to love the Supreme Good above all else, because goodness is not merely a by-product of a mindless and amoral universe but is at the heart of what reality is all about.  We know that there is great evil in this world, and that that evil is not merely out there but runs through our own hearts as well.  We know that we need to get back to the source of life and goodness, and that that source is outside of us, outside of our world, and we don't have the resources within ourselves to fulfill our longings for goodness or to fix the brokenness of our world.  We have to go back to the Source of all Being, the Supreme source of Goodness, to fill and replenish what we lack.  We know that if we are to be saved, and if any meaning is to come out of all of this, it must come from goodness overcoming evil--not sidestepping it, or ignoring it, or trivializing it, or succumbing to it, but facing it head-on, embracing it, and overcoming it.  There must be a bridge that can link us to the Supreme Good, and only the Supreme Good himself can build that bridge.  We can see in the cross the fulfillment of all that we know deep down, at the most fundamental level of our being.  And that is why we know, or can know, that Christianity really is God's message to us, God's coming to us, and that therefore it is true.

For more on our intuitions about morality and why they require God, see here.  For a short case for Christianity that makes use of explicit philosophical arguments, see here.  For a fuller case for Christianity, see here.  For a short case for Catholicism more specifically, see here.

Published, appropriately, on the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Why Christianity? - A Brief, Philosophical Case

Below is a very basic philosophical case for the Christian worldview.  It tracks the main line of reasoning I use (though developed in much more detail) in my book, Why Christianity is True.

God Exists: The First Cause

There must be an Ultimate Reality, a Supreme Being that is the ground of all being.  This Being must be self-existent – that is, it must not have derived its existence from any other source.  This must be so because an unending chain of causality is absurd.  There are two sorts of being one might have – contingent being and self-existent being.  Contingent being is being that has characteristics that require us to say it is derived from a logically prior source.  Self-existent being is being that is not derived from any logically prior source, but is itself an ultimate foundation of being.  All contingent beings must be traced ultimately to self-existent being.  Every contingent being must be traced back to a logically prior source, so if all being is contingent, then all being must be derived from a logically prior source, which means that we will have an infinite chain of causes with no beginning, and this is logically absurd because it would mean that we have no ultimate explanation for anything.  To use a picturesque analogy, imagine a stack of books.  We want to say that the book on the top of the stack is held up by the book underneath it.  But what is holding up that book?  The book underneath it.  But what is holding up that book?  What if we imagine that the book stack is infinite, and that every book in the stack is being held up by a book underneath it?  The problem with this is that none of the books are able to explain how the whole stack is held up, because none of the books have the power to hold up anything themselves.  So we end up with no explanation, no accounting for why the stack of books is held up.  Here's another picture:  Imagine a group of people standing in a line.  Bob, one of the persons in the line, borrows a marker from Steve, the person in front of him in line.  He thanks Steve for the marker, but Steve replies that, actually, he borrowed the marker from a person in front of him in the line, Dave.  Dave says that he, too, has borrowed the marker from another person in front of him, Sarah.  Sarah tells Bob that, in fact, the line of people is infinite, and that all the people in the line are marker-borrowers, none of them are marker owners.  They've all, down to the last person, borrowed the marker from the person in front of them.  The problem with this, of course, is that if they are all marker-borrowers, there is no explanation, no accounting, for how anyone has a marker at all.  Similarly, if we say that all reality is contingent – derived from a logically prior source – we end up with no explanation, no accounting, for reality at all.  We end up with everything coming ultimately from nothing, which is logically absurd, for nothing can come from nothing.  Therefore, there must be a First Cause, a self-existent being at the back of all reality, the ultimate ground and cause of all being, which is a being-owner and not a being-borrower.

But why can't we get something from nothing?  Because nothing, being nothing, does nothing and can produce nothing, by definition.

But isn't the very idea of a First Cause, a self-existent being, itself an example of something coming from nothing?  No, because the First Cause doesn't get its being from nothing.  It doesn't get its being from something, either.  It doesn't get its being at all; it simply has its being.  That's the very idea of a self-existent First Cause.  It is to say that the very foundation of all things is a foundational being from which all else is derived.  There is nothing illogical about this idea in the way that there is something illogical about the idea of an infinite regress of being or of being coming from nothing.  In fact, as we’ve seen, not only is the idea of a self-existent First Cause not illogical, it is required by logic because all alternatives are illogical.

(“But how do we know that reality is logical?”, someone might ask.  We know this because logic is essential to the definition of beingLogic is ultimately nothing other than the “law of non-contradiction” - that is, the idea that “A is not non-A,” or “Whatever is, it is what it is and isn't what it isn't.”  But this is clearly a part of the very idea of being, for, by definition, being excludes non-being, and any positive characteristic of being – like “redness” – excludes its opposite – like “non-redness”.  To talk about being that doesn't exclude non-being, or to talk about some positive characteristic as if it doesn't exclude its opposite, is just meaningless gibberish.  “But how do you know your concepts and definitions apply to reality as it really is?”, someone might then ask.  Well, we must remember that when we are using words, we cannot forget the meanings of the words we are using.  Our words have definitions, and these definitions express particular concepts.  Reality itself is a concept.  You cannot get beyond concepts while you are still using words with definitions.  Our words reflect our concepts, and our concepts are nothing other than our formulations of our observations of reality.  Therefore, to analyze a concept and to find that something is incompatible with it is to find out something about reality itself.  If you want to talk about a reality beyond the concept of reality, a being beyond the concept of being, you will quickly find, if you pay attention, that you are speaking meaningless gibberish.  To talk about a reality beyond the concept of reality is simply to try to talk about a part of reality that doesn't fit within the very definition of “reality.”  But to say that something doesn't fit into the definition of “reality” is just to say that it is not real – that it is not a part of reality.  So to talk about the way things really are beyond all definitions is just to use words without meaning, to speak nonsense.  So when we observe our words and our concepts to imply something or to exclude something – like being excludes non-being or red excludes non-red – we are learning something about reality itself.  From this we know that knowledge of reality can be gained not only from the direct observation of objects by our senses, but also by logical reflection on the concepts that we derive from reality.)

The space-time world we live in cannot be Ultimate Reality, because it has the marks of contingency – that is, again, the marks of being derived from a logically prior source as opposed to being self-existent.  One of those marks is time.  Our universe comes to us in a temporal sequence, moment by moment.  It consists of a past flowing into a present flowing into a future.  Time is essential to our universe, because it is evident that all the characteristics of the world around us necessarily imply a past narrative; we cannot make sense of them without such a narrative.  Time is a contingent property because every moment in time begins, and since it begins, it must derive its existence from that which came before it.  It cannot be a First Cause, because it has come into being and thus has received being which it previously didn't have.  Therefore, the space-time universe cannot be the First Cause, the Ultimate Reality.  To imagine the space-time universe as the Ultimate Reality, we would have to imagine that its time-series is infinite – that is, we would have to imagine that every moment in history has been brought into being and is therefore explained by a previous moment in history, for otherwise we would have a first moment coming from nothing (which we know is absurd).  To say that the time-series of our universe is infinite would be to say that the past is infinite, that it's always been going on and had no beginning, no first moment.  But this is absurd.  It is absurd because it provides no ultimate explanation for being, as we saw earlier.  It is also absurd because if the past was infinite, it would have taken, literally, an infinite amount of time for the universe to reach this present moment.  But this is absurd, for, by definition, one cannot traverse (get through) an infinite amount of time.  If I began to count to infinity right now, when would I finish?  Never, because you cannot ever complete an infinite series by the addition of one piece at a time.  So if the past was infinite, we could never have arrived at this present moment.  And yet here we are.

If the space-time universe cannot be the Ultimate Reality, the First Cause, because time is a part of its nature (among other reasons, such as those discussed below), then we know that the true First Cause must be outside of time.  That is, temporal experience must not be a part of its nature.  It must be timeless.

God Exists: Single and Simple

The First Cause—the ultimate, self-existent reality—must be single and simple.  That is, there must be only one First Cause, and it must be without parts or pieces.  Why?  There are a number of ways of showing why this must be the case.

If there were multiple First Causes, each of them would be completely independent from each other, since none of them could be derived from any of the others (being First Causes).  Nor could any of them be derived from anything else (again, being First Causes).  But if they were completely independent, there would be no explanation for how they all fit together as parts of a larger whole.  If there were multiple First Causes, they would exist in a larger context, a larger fabric, which would include all of them.  But none of them, and indeed none of the pieces of that fabric, could explain the fabric as a whole and the mutual inter-dependence of the parts as they make up the larger whole.  We can illustrate the problem here partly by an analogy:  Imagine you walked throughout the world picking up random puzzle pieces and putting them in a bag.  When you got home, you put all the pieces together and were surprised to find they all fit together to make a coherent picture.  This is, of course, absurd, for, since all the pieces were independent of each other, there is no explanation for the larger pattern they are all a part of.  Similarly, if Ultimate Reality consisted of multiple beings or multiple parts, there would be no explanation for the coherence and inter-dependence of the whole.  In fact, it would be even worse than the situation with the puzzle pieces, because at least the puzzle pieces, by being parts of the same world, are similar to each other in that they are all made of matter, all share the same laws of logic and physics, all are made by humans to fit into some puzzle, etc.  But the multiple beings or parts of Ultimate Reality would literally have nothing in common, for they would be completely independent.

Anytime you have pieces making up a larger whole, those pieces are essentially defined at least in part by their relationship to the rest of the whole.  Their part-of-a-larger-whole-ness is an aspect of their essential definition.  But beings who are supposed to be completely independent of each other, all being First Causes, could not at the same time be defined essentially by their relationship to each other, as inter-connected parts of a larger whole, for this would make them dependent on each other and the larger whole for their very essence and definition.  So, Ultimate Reality must be single and simple.

To put this another way:  When we have an entity made up of multiple parts, what we really have are multiple entities connected to each other – in fact, an infinite number of them, as divisible objects are infinitely divisible (see below).  None of the entities present can explain or account for the other entities present or for the fabric that connects them together and makes them parts of a coherent whole.  Since a divisible entity is nothing other than a collection of parts, the only way to explain the fabric, the whole, in which these parts exist is to trace the parts back to a more ultimate reality from which the parts are all derived.  (Think of individual pages in an animator's book.  The pages altogether, flipped through quickly, create an animated story, but none of the individual pages themselves explain or account for the overall story.  To explain this, we must trace all the individual pages back to a single source – in this case, the mind of the narrator who has the story in mind and creates the pages based on this idea.)  But if we say that a divisible object with multiple parts is the ultimate reality, the First Cause, we cannot explain its parts by tracing them back to a more ultimate reality, and so we are left with no way to account for the whole in which the parts exist.  Nothing in the divisible entity itself explains that whole, and since it is not derived from any more ultimate unifying source, nothing explains the whole.

Another argument:  When you have a reality made up of multiple parts, those parts exist in different places from each other, and so you have a fabric of reality that is extended and has dimension – in other words, it has length, height, width, etc.  Such a reality is also divisible – that is, it is made up of parts that can be distinguished from each other.  But it turns out that an extended, divisible reality can only exist within a limited viewpoint.  Picture a tree.  It is an extended reality with parts.  It has a top, a bottom, a left side, a right side.  It has multiple leaves in different places, etc.  In order to have an object like that, the parts must be in different places relative to a grid, an X-Y axis.  (Draw a picture of a tree, and then draw an X-Y axis on the picture to have a visual version of what I am talking about.)  But, if you consider it, you will see that the central point on such an X-Y axis is actually the center-point in the perspective of the one viewing the tree.  If you try to remove the perspective of the one viewing, you lose the grid; and when you lose the grid, you lose the tree, for the tree as an extended, divisible object with parts can exist only on such a grid.  Its very nature implies such a grid.  So the very essence of an extended, divisible object like a tree is necessarily bound up with the viewpoint of a perceiver.  Remove the perceiver, and you remove the thing perceived.  And the viewpoint must be that of a limited perceiver – that is, a perceiver whose viewpoint is limited to one particular vantage point in the midst of a potentially infinite number of other vantage points.  The perceiver has to be looking from one particular location among other possible locations, so that the different parts of the tree are in different places relative to the specific location of the perceiver.  If we imagine an unlimited perceiver – one whose viewpoint is not limited to a particular location, but whose view would include the whole of reality from all vantage points, such a viewpoint would have no grid, for there would be no specific location relative to which different parts of the perceived objects could be in different places on the grid.  In such an unlimited viewpoint, all of reality would appear as a single, undivided whole.  A limited viewpoint can only be derived (by adding limitation) from an unlimited viewpoint (just as a part can only be derived from a whole—without a whole, the concept of a part has no meaning), and so our conclusion, then, must be that extended, divisible reality must be derived from a more ultimate state of reality that is single and simple. 

Related to the previous argument, we can also observe that there are certain paradoxes – certain logical anomalies – in reality which can only be solved if we recognize that space-time, extended, divisible reality is derived from a more ultimate, single, simple reality.  These paradoxes have to do with places where we run into the idea of infinity.  For example, consider a table.  How divisible is the table?  I'm not asking how practically divisible the table is – that is, how much one could use tools to actually physically divide it – but I am asking how theoretically divisible it is – that is, if we distinguish all its parts, how many parts does it ultimately have?  I can divide the table in half and get two parts.  I can divide both of those parts again and get four parts.  I can divide those parts again and get eight parts.  And so on.  There is no theoretical stopping point.  Every time I divide the parts, I end up with parts that can be further divided.  So we have to say that the table is infinitely divisible, which would imply that it is made up ultimately of an infinite number of parts or pieces that are infinitely small.  But there is a problem here, because an infinitely small piece of matter would have no size, would take up no space, and thus, no matter how many of such parts we have, we will not be able to make a table that has a particular size and which takes up space.  So it would seem that the table must be infinitely divisible, and it would seem at the same time that the table cannot be infinitely divisible.  We have a logical problem to solve.  The only way to solve it is to recognize that the table, as an extended object, only exists relative to a limited perceiver (as discussed in the previous paragraph).  If we recognize that, we can say that the table is potentially infinitely divisible because there is no theoretical stopping point for division, but at the same time we can say that the table is only actually finitely divided, because no limited (finite) perceiver actually ever perceives an infinite number of divisions.  The infinite potential divisibility is thus never infinitely actualized.  There is no logical problem with a potential infinite, but only with an actual infinite, and so our logical paradox is solved.  Apart from recognizing that the extended, divisible table is derived from a more ultimate, single, simple reality, we are stuck with unsolvable logical absurdity.

God Exists: Consciousness

The single, simple First Cause must be a conscious being, because consciousness is irreducible – that is, it cannot be derived from non-consciousness.  The irreducibility of consciousness is evident upon observation.  If we imagine ourselves to start out with material that is something other than consciousness, we cannot produce consciousness from such material.  To do so, we would have to get something from nothing.  The law of causality (“You cannot get something from nothing”) implies that everything that comes from something else must be explainable in terms of the ingredients it came from and the interactions between those ingredients.  But if we have nothing but bits of non-conscious matter, able to engage in non-conscious activity by means of non-conscious energy, we will never be able to produce consciousness from such ingredients no matter what we do with them.  We can put them together in ever-so-complicated patterns.  We can add more and more pieces.  We can move them about and bump them into each other.  But all we will ever have, logically, is simply larger or more complicated constructions of non-conscious matter.  (To make an analogy, if all we have are red legos, no matter how we arrange them, put them together, no matter how many we add or how complicated the structures or formations we make from them, whatever we end up with will only be red.  It will not be green, because the color green cannot be derived from or explained by our available ingredients.)  Therefore, consciousness cannot be derived from non-consciousness.  If consciousness ever arises (as it obviously has, since all we ever actually directly perceive are the impressions upon our own consciousnesses), it must be traced back to a conscious source.  Therefore, the First Cause, the ultimate origin and source of all things, must be a conscious being.

We have now proved that all of reality must be derived from a single, simple, conscious First Cause.  As St. Thomas Aquinas would say at this point, “and this all men call God.”  Therefore, God exists.

God Exists: Some Logical Consequences

If God exists, certain things logically follow.  If God exists, there will be a Trinity.  This is because God, being conscious and perceiving everything, will have a perfect image (that is, a perfect idea, for God is beyond space and time and so has no physical, dimensional image) of himself.  By having a perfect image of himself, he will become both subject and object, viewer and viewed, perceiver and perceived, lover and beloved (for God, being the fullness of all being, must be the fullness of all goodness, and so must be infinitely beautiful and beloved of himself).  God's self-reflexive act of producing an image of himself causes the Divine Essence to exist in two distinct subsistences – that is, there will be two distinct manifestations of the one, single, simple Divine Being.  There will be one Supreme Being, and that Supreme Being will exist in two subsistences that have a relationship with each other.  And their relationship will produce yet a third subsistence of the same Divine Being, for between the perceiver and the perceived there is the act of perception; between the lover and the beloved there is the act of loving.  There is the communication of the Divine Essence from the image-producer to the image.  And this Divine Being in act who connects the other two subsistences, being himself yet another manifestation of the Divine Being, will possess that Divine Essence just as fully as the other two.  So we have one Divine Being existing in three subsistences.  Each subsistence is distinct from the others in terms of his relation to the others, but there is no division in the one Divine Being.  The subsistences are distinct by their relationship to each other in virtue of God's self-reflexive act of viewing and loving himself, not by virtue of being pieces or percentages of the Divine Being (which, being single and simple, can have no pieces).  Each subsistence is a full manifestation of the entire single Divine Being, so each subsistence is fully God.  God is a Tri-Unity.

If God exists, then there is an objective moral law.  Morality is about goodness and badness.  It is about values and the priorities of values.  If God exists, then there is a supreme viewpoint that defines what reality is really, ultimately like.  Whatever that viewpoint finds pleasant or desirable will be objectively good.  Whatever that viewpoint finds unpleasant or undesirable will be objectively evil.

The Divine Being must love himself supremely, for he is the fullness of Being.  He cannot be dissatisfied with himself, because then he would have to have an image of how he would like things to be distinct from (and not derived from or an aspect of) how they actually are, and this would imply duality and divisibility in the Divine viewpoint, which is impossible.  Since God loves himself fully, he must hate that which is the opposite or absence of himself, which would be non-being.  (Non-being is the implied notional opposite of Being, and thus an aspect of the awareness the Supreme Being has of himself involves the awareness of the idea of this notional opposite.)  The space-time universe is derived from, created by, the Divine Being.  It differs from the Divine Being in that it is limited.  God possesses in himself the fullness of reality, but the space-time universe is nothing in comparison, for each being in it is only a point in a potentially infinite (but actually finite – see earlier discussion) grid.  Thus, finite, limited reality is a manifestation of Being that is infinitely inferior in being (and thus in value) to God.  Inasmuch as Being is manifested in the space-time universe, it is lovely to God, for he loves the image of himself.  But insofar as our finite reality is a manifestation of lack and limitation, it is different from the Divine Being and manifests characteristics that are hateful to God.  While God is infinitely (completely, fully) satisfying, the space-time universe is ultimately unsatisfying.  While God is infinitely (completely, fully) powerful, the space-time universe is weak.  While God is infinitely good, the space-time universe has fallen into evil.  Misery is both a natural and a moral consequence of evil.  The natural consequence of the loss of God is the loss of happiness, and the very idea of that which is hateful being rewarded with happiness is itself hateful to a Being who loves goodness and therefore could never be willed by that Being.  There is no hope for the space-time universe and the beings in it to ultimately avoid evil and misery and to attain ultimately to goodness and happiness unless they derive these things from God, the only one who ultimately owns them.

So the space-time universe and the beings within it, without God's help, will end up in total evil and misery in a condition hateful to God.  But God does not only contrast in his fullness with space-time reality in its emptiness; he is also the filler of all.  He fills non-being with being.  If God is to save space-time creatures and fill them with himself, he must take upon himself their emptiness – their limitations, their evil, their misery.  He must absorb all of this into himself, face it, and endure it.  And then he must overcome it all, destroying the emptiness by enduring it and filling it up with his own fullness.  To use an analogy, imagine a pitcher full of water filling an empty cup.  The pitcher must take on the emptiness of the cup in order to fill the cup up with water.  After it does this, the pitcher has less water in it than it had before, corresponding to the lack of water the cup had previously.  And this is where the analogy breaks down, for when God takes upon himself our emptiness and fills us with his fullness, he loses nothing ultimately.  His fullness is so full, and our emptiness so small in comparison, that he can absorb it without ultimate harm or loss, while we gain his fullness.  While he must endure our emptiness, absorb it into himself, and overcome it, his victory, unlike the pitcher's, is complete. 

Christianity is the True Religion

The reason Christianity is the true religion is because, of all the philosophies and religions existing in the world, it is the only one which gets reality fundamentally right.  All others fail by fundamental error or at least by fundamental incompleteness.

Christianity teaches that there is one God, absolute, single, and simple.  It teaches that this God exists in a Trinity of three subsistences (Persons), each of whom bear the whole of the Divine Being and who are distinct only in terms of their relationships to each other.  The Father begets the Son, who is the fullness of his Being and his perfect Image.  The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity who proceeds from the Father and the Son, the manifestation of the love and the relationship between the Father and the Son.  Christianity teaches that God created the space-time universe, which has being but which is not divine and is infinitely inferior to God.  The creation has fallen into decay and emptiness.  Humankind has fallen into a state of moral evil (sin) by rebellion against God, and God's objective moral law decrees destruction and misery for humans due to sin.  But God has provided salvation for humanity by doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  The Second Person of the Trinity – God the Son – has taken upon himself our limitations by acquiring a human nature.  God has become man while remaining fully God.  That human is Jesus Christ.  Christ took upon himself the sins and miseries of the world.  He suffered, died, and was buried, thus absorbing into himself all our weaknesses, lacks, sinfulness, and misery.  On the third day he rose again from the dead, the conqueror of sin, death, and hell, and has ascended to the Father.  Through his death and his resurrection, he has attained eternal salvation for the human race, and all those who trust in him to the end are redeemed and filled with the fullness of God.  God sends to them his Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, who fills them with the Divine Life and makes them adopted children of God, sharing by grace in the Sonship of the Son, purified and made holy and beautiful to God, and destined to enjoy the fullness of the life of God forever in the Beatific Vision.

If all this sounds familiar, it should, for it is the very nature of reality we proved in our previous arguments.  Christianity gets all this right.  All other religions fail to do so (although they often have a good deal of truth mixed in).  Some worldviews, like Atheism, deny the existence of God and thus fall into absurdity from the very beginning.  Others, like Agnosticism, fail by failing to realize all that can indeed be known, as we have shown by our arguments above.  Other religions, like paganism, Jainism, and Shinto, deny or fail to teach an ultimate, single, simple reality, and so fail in the same way Atheism does.  Other religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism, teach an Ultimate, single Reality, but they fail to clarify whether that Supreme Being is fully conscious.  They fail to point out his Trinitarian nature.  They treat the world as an illusion, as almost a day-dream of the Divine Being rather than a conscious creation.  They hold that what goes on down here is ultimately unimportant, and that our salvation lies in simply learning to ignore and forget about this world and focus instead on union with the Ultimate Reality.  They fail to recognize that our salvation can only come from God's help and grace, as he actively takes upon himself our emptiness and our sin and fills us with his fullness and goodness.  The way to salvation is not by ignoring this fallen, empty reality but by God's dealing with that reality and confronting it with his fullness.  The pitcher does not fill the cup simply by trying to convince the cup to forget that it is a cup and to focus on the importance of the pitcher, but by taking on the emptiness of the cup and filling the cup with its fullness.  Religions like Judaism and Islam believe in a fully conscious, single, simple Creator God, and in this they do well.  But they fail to recognize his Trinitarian nature.  And they fail to recognize the full implications of our emptiness and sin.  They tell us to save ourselves by obedience to God, but they fail to recognize that we cannot be saved unless God unites himself with us, takes upon himself our limitations and failures, conquers these, and thus breaks the barrier and fills us with his Divine life and righteousness.

In the world, there are many philosophies and many religions.  Some claim to have been invented or discovered by humans, others to have been revealed by God or the gods or some form of Ultimate Reality.  But among all of these, Christianity stands unique as the only one to provide the key that unlocks for us the true nature of reality, to reveal reality to us in all its crucial aspects.  Thus, Christianity's claim to be the true divine revelation stands vindicated, as it is clear that God has associated the revelation of himself inseparably with the Christian religion.  In Christ, God has reached out to the human race and brought to us the knowledge of himself, the knowledge of ourselves, and the way of salvation.

For why Catholicism more specifically is true, see here.

Published on the feast of St. Camillus de Lellis.

ADDENDUM 8/6/20:  See here for a more intuitive case for Christianity.