TCA Faith for September/October 2008

Luther's "Faith Alone"?

Q. I have heard from several sources that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther added the word "alone" to his German translation of the Bible (see Rom 3:28).

Is this true? If so, how does one verify that, or I should say, where does that information come from? What is the source I can refer to?

Mary Ann Zabinski, St. Anthony, Minn.

A. You can read all about it in Luther's "Open Letter on Translating" (1530).

There he attempts to defend his having added the word "alone" to Romans 3:28. His defense is primarily his claim that "faith alone" was clearly what St. Paul intended to say. So, Luther (he says) was simply clarifying St. Paul's thought. (Note Luther's assumption that he knew exactly what St. Paul's intention was.)

In this, as in all other matters of doctrine, Luther would accept no authority except his own. In his letter on translating, he told his followers how to respond to Catholics who criticized him for adding the word "alone."

"Tell them," he said, "Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing."

Again, later, he instructed his fellow believers to say to his critics, "Luther will have it so, and he says that he is a doctor [that is, theologian] above all the doctors of the pope." He was very adept at vilifying his Catholic critics.

In attempting to justify Luther's editorial handiwork, Lutheran apologists list several writers before Luther's time who also inserted the word "alone" as he did. But, of course, in no sense does the error of others justify Luther's error.

You may recall that Luther denied that the Epistle of James is inspired Scripture. His reason: James 2:17 declares that "faith without works is dead."

Read his own remarks about this biblical book in his "Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude," where he rejects the book's apostolic authority and declares: "I will not have [this epistle] in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books."

Apparently, Luther would have liked to remove this "epistle of straw," as he termed it, from the canon altogether, but did not quite dare.

He did dare, however, to reject the canon of the Old Testament that the Church had held since the beginning. One of the books in particular (The Second Book of Maccabees) contained teaching he despised. It tells how the ancient Jews "made atonement for the dead" through prayer and sacrifices, "that they might be freed from this sin" (2 Mc 12:46).

This passage, of course, supports the Catholic belief in purgatory and the practice of offering prayers and Masses for the dead, which Luther rejected.

The Reformer got rid of this book by replacing the Church's canon with a non-Christian canon that excludes it, the shorter Jewish canon. Ever since, Protestants have been stuck with this particular Jewish canon of the Old Testament -- a canon that, interestingly enough, not all Jews themselves accept.

Predestination?

Q. When I was a youngster my theology teachers reacted with horror when the word "predestination" came up. My catechism and apologetics literature do not address this subject.

Yet St. Paul is translated as using "predestined" in his letters on more than one occasion, seemingly at odds with the consent of free will. Is there more than one meaning to predestined? Can you shed some light on this (apparently taboo) subject?

Anthony Norton, via e-mail

A. The word "predestination" is for many people an ominous term. It seems to deny free will, implying that we are all only moral and spiritual automatons. But this is, of course, a total misunderstanding of predestination as taught by the Church in her Scripture and Tradition.

The key to the doctrine of predestination is given in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

"To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore He establishes His eternal plan of 'predestination,' He includes in it each person's free response to His grace" (No. 600).

In other words, what God foresees and wills takes into account how we use our freedom in responding to Him or in rejecting Him. God's foreknowledge in no way detracts from our freedom.

Sacred Scripture assures us that "God our Savior … wills all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Tm 2:3-4). Moreover, Christ Jesus "gave himself as ransom for all" (1 Tm 2:5).

The Church teaches that God "predestines" us both to good works and to eternal happiness in heaven. That is His plan for our lives. We are free to reject Him, but even our rejection itself is somehow a part of God's overall plan.

God always holds out the grace of conversion to sinners, even as He foresees who will reject that grace and be forever lost. The Church also teaches that apart from special revelation no one can know with absolute certainty whether he or she belongs among the elect in heaven.

You should ponder Romans 8:28-30. It is Scripture's fullest statement of the working of predestination in the lives of the elect. "Elect" refers to those persons who will respond to God's infinite grace.

And remember: The freedom of the elect will always be unimpaired.

How Many Witnesses?

Q. How many people witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, and how many saw Him after He had risen, according to biblical historians and theologians? This would exclude His disciples -- only independent individuals. My apologies for being a "doubting Thomas."

Charles, via e-mail

A. First, the witnesses of the Crucifixion. Certainly, Simon of Cyrene, who was made to carry Jesus' cross (see Mt 27:32), and the two robbers crucified with Jesus (Mt 27:38) were present.

In addition, St. Luke reports that there were "multitudes who assembled to see the sight [of Jesus crucified]" (23:48, RSV). Furthermore, "all his [Jesus'] acquaintances stood at a distance, including the women who had followed him from Galilee and saw these events" (23:49).

St. Mark specifies certain women who were at the crucifixion: "Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome," in addition to "many other women who had come up with him [Jesus] to Jerusalem" (15:40-41).

St. John also (see 19:25) lists himself, the mother of Our Lord and her sister, and Mary the wife of Clopas. (Or was the wife of Clopas the sister of our Blessed Mother? The text here is ambiguous.)

Finally, recall that the Roman soldiers who executed Jesus, including the centurion, watched as He died (see Lk 23). Some of the Jewish chief priests and scribes were also present, mocking Him as they watched (see Mk 15:31-32).

Now, the witnesses of Jesus' resurrection. Why would you exclude the testimony of Jesus' disciples who insisted that Jesus rose from the dead? Because their having seen Jesus after His resurrection might be wishful thinking? Or because they might have been hallucinating?

Think about the condition of the disciples after the Crucifixion. They were in despair, totally hopeless. They were in hiding when Jesus appeared to them (see Jn 20:19).

The doors were shut "for fear of the Jews." The Greek verb here suggests that the doors were perhaps even locked. The risen Lord came through closed doors (without the doors being opened for Him) as a total surprise to them.

Indeed, on several occasions when the risen Lord appeared to one or more of the disciples, they mistook Him for someone else. Mary Magdalene thought He was the gardener until He identified himself to her (see Jn 20:14-15).

After His resurrection Jesus traveled by foot with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and even sat at table with them. Yet they failed to recognize Him until He broke the bread (see Lk 24:13-35).

Peter and four other apostles, plus two more disciples, at first failed to recognize the risen Lord when He stood on the beach of the Sea of Tiberias and called to them (see Jn 21:1-4).

Skeptics have argued that the disciples were hallucinating when they thought they saw Jesus. But these instances just listed destroy that argument.

When people hallucinate, as C.S. Lewis once said, they get the faces right -- for example, if I should hallucinate in believing I am seeing Tom, I certainly would not think I am seeing Bill.

Or consider what St. Paul reports in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. In addition to Jesus' resurrection appearances to those most closely associated with Him, He also appeared to "more than five hundred" at one time. Could this have been mere wishful thinking?

Most important of all, think of the consequences of Jesus' resurrection. Jesus' closest friends and His successors, the apostles, were totally defeated and devastated by His crucifixion.

Yet after His resurrection their lives were totally changed. They became persons who were described by their enemies as "men who have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6, RSV).

Think of the billions of lives transformed by the risen Lord over the past two millennia. That assuredly is not the result of wishful thinking or hallucination.

Rogation Days?

Q. I recently read a reference to rogation days in the traditional calendar of the Church. What exactly were these days?

George Hasbruck, New York, N.Y.

A. In earlier times the Church repeatedly took over -- in effect, "baptized" -- pagan traditions and practices that contained elements of truth. The custom of rogation days is one of those instances.

From early pre-Christian times the Romans celebrated a festival to conciliate Robigus, the god of mildew, blight and rust. A procession went out from Rome to a sacred grove where a pagan priest sacrificed to Robigus a rust-     colored dog and a sheep, with wine and incense.
The word "rogation" comes from the Latin rogare, meaning "to ask." In the sixth century, Pope St. Gregory the Great regulated a customary celebration held on April 25. (It has no connection with the feast of St. Mark, which was set on this date much later.) Called the "Major Rogation," it was a day of fasting and prayer, in reparation for sin and in petition for good harvests.

"Minor Rogations" were introduced by a French bishop in the sixth century. This celebration embraced the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension.

In the 1960s the Church dropped rogation days from the liturgical calendar. The current Sacramentary, however, provides propers (prayers designated for particular celebrations) for Masses for productive land and for thanksgiving after the harvest. Various national hierarchies, including our own, have also issued books of blessings that contain prayers for the rogation intentions.

What Was Wrong With Judaism?

Q. My question is about the purpose of God in starting the Christian religion. There must have been something wrong about the Jewish practices that He did not like. What do you think God felt was wrong with the Jewish religion?

Jerry Conley, Hudson, Wis.

A. Evidently you think God created Christianity as a preferred alternative to the Jewish religion. This reflects a misunderstanding of both traditions and of their intimate relationship.

The Old Testament is the seedbed of the New Testament. Everything in the Old Testament prepares for, anticipates, cries out for, the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus came, as He said (and here I paraphrase), not to negate the Jewish religion but to fulfill it. "Salvation," He said, "is from the Jews" (Jn 4:22). So the only thing "wrong" with the Jewish religion was that it had not yet been brought to its fulfillment in Christ in God's plan.

As Romans chapters 9 through 11 assure us, the Jews are still God's chosen people. Yet for those who have not been incorporated in Christ's mystical body, their fulfillment as individuals, their fulfillment as a people, still await them.

Read again the Book of Acts and note that the apostles, especially St. Paul, in their evangelizing outreach always went first to the Jews. The Church (including you and me) must continue to carry out that mission in loving witness to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

A Brutal God?

Q. I am reading the Old Testament for the first time and am having a problem with the impression I am getting. The Lord does not seem to be the loving Father Jesus says He is.

Rather, He seems to be brutal and vengeful. I thought God loved all His creation. The needless murder of all the people (in warfare), including innocent children and animals, is scary.

Frances Kirschner, via e-mail

A. Countless persons, including myself, have puzzled over the question you raise. One seriously erroneous answer was given by a second-century heretic named Marcion. He claimed that the god of the Old Testament is not the God and Father of Jesus Christ, but an entirely different god. That's a proposed solution to the problem that we must firmly reject.

God chose the Hebrew people to be bearers of His revelation to the world. It was essential that they avoid all contact with, all traces of, the immoral religions that surrounded them.

Devotees of those religions regularly sacrificed children to their pagan gods. They practiced prostitution as part of their worship. We know from the Old Testament record that on occasion some of the Hebrew people lapsed into these diabolical practices.

God chose to unfold His revelation gradually, by starting with His chosen people where they were, in their understanding. The unfolding of their knowledge of God's revelation was a gradual process.

The ancient Hebrew people apparently considered that they had only one way to avoid being corrupted spiritually and morally by the peoples surrounding them. That was to destroy those peoples. So in their warfare they were striving for a good end -- to be faithful witnesses to God's revelation -- but by tragically erroneous means. Only gradually did God bring them to realize that they should seek to convert, and not destroy, their spiritual enemies.

Another example of the Hebrew people's gradual embrace of God's truth is in marriage practice. We know that from the beginning of the human race God intended a monogamous, lifelong union of those called to marriage. Yet for a long time the ancient Hebrews practiced polygamy. It was not until about the eighth century before Christ that monogamous marriage finally became the norm for the Hebrew people.

The Old Testament consistently ascribes directly to God everything that happens -- even at times human sin, as in the hardening of Pharaoh's heart (see Ex 7:3-5). I believe that in the process of unfolding revelation, this was the sacred writers' best understanding of God's providence at that time.

Only later did God's people come to make a distinction between what He allows (as part of His overall plan) and what He directly wills. Only through subsequent revelation did they begin to understand God's imperative that they convert, rather than destroy, those people whose religion was a threat to the divine revelation given them.

This is the extent of my understanding of those fierce, bloodthirsty passages in the Old Testament.

Seeing God?

Q. I have begun reading one section per day of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I am now on No. 151, and I have a question about what it says: "No one has ever seen God…. Because He 'has seen the Father,' Jesus Christ is the only one who knows Him and can reveal Him (Jn 6:46; cf. Mt 11:27)."

Are we to believe that we will see God only through Jesus Christ? I always believed that when we enter heaven we will possibly see both God and Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father. I will be very joyous to know God is revealed only through Jesus; however, I was not aware of this.

Carol Villareal, via e-mail

A. The section you quote from the Catechism concerns our knowledge of God in this life. Wherever among any people, in any religion, there is any true knowledge of God, it is due to the revealing activity of God's Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Read on in the Catechism. There you will find the assurance that in heaven, in the "beatific vision" in which all the redeemed will share, we will contemplate God "in His heavenly glory" (No. 1028). In the beatific vision "God opens himself in an inexhaustible way to the elect" (No. 1045).

Pope Benedict XII, in 1336, formally defined the Church's faith that in heaven we shall directly behold, face-to-face, the divine essence: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. TCA