"Catholics don't believe in Jesus," old Mr. Cecil
said with disgust. "They worship Mary."
I got a lot of that sort of thing -- though not as much as I expected -- once people heard I was looking into the Catholic Church. Catholic beliefs were recounted to me in tones of awe and amusement and with a pale fascination normally reserved for traffic accidents.
Many Bible-only Christians find the Catholic perspective on Mary, the mother of our Lord, particularly troublesome. Frankly, before I even cracked a Catholic book, it made perfect sense to me. The phrase "Mother of God" described just the sort of paradox God seems to enjoy. If we affirm that a little baby was Almighty God, then we must also affirm, paradoxically, that a poor Hebrew woman actually gave birth to diety. Strange, but true.
Similarly, the role of Mary in salvation history -- which Catholics call "co-redemptive" -- seemed entirely reasonable. To Bible-only ears, honoring Mary to such a high degree seems to infringe upon the absolute uniqueness of Christ. But, let's face it, when Gabriel came to visit with such astounding news, Mary could have said "No." Whether out of fear, or unbelief, or a selfish grasping after her own plans for the future, she could have disobeyed God. It is, in part, Mary's obedience that made so great a salvation possible.
The question, however, was not whether I "liked" Catholic doctrine. That would be private interpretation all over again. The question was whether this, indeed, was the faith handed down to us, intact, from the apostles. How could I know? Bible-only Christians would simply ask, "Is it in the Bible?" as though everyone agreed on what the Bible says. I needed a test for whether the Catholic Church had kept the faith via apostolic authority.
Meanwhile, friends like Gus found Catholic doctrine difficult to swallow. One day, during a discussion of my wandering ways, I remarked that Catholics believe the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper actually become the body and blood of the Lord.
"Well, if that's true," Gus replied. "Could you burp up blood?"
Gus felt he was pointing out a logical inconsistency. "It's obviously symbolic," he said of John's gospel, chapter 6. My reading simply showed Christ's admonitions, "My blood is real drink and my body is real food" and "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" and "I am the bread that comes down from heaven," repeated over and over again, with no qualifiers attached, until as many as seventy of his disciples simply got up and left. They were unable to accept such a strange teaching. The Twelve remained, not because they had the slightest idea what Jesus was talking about, but because, as Peter put it, "Where else can we go? We are convinced you have the words of eternal life."
A little research in actual Catholic theology revealed that the Eucharist doesn't become dripping flesh and blood about halfway down one's esophagus. So much for "burping up blood." At the words of consecration (which repeat Christ's words at the Lord's Supper), the appearance remains the same, but the substance actually becomes the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ. In a sense, even though this ruled out "burping up blood," it actually upped the ante even further. Christ's own divine presence? In the Eucharist? It seemed outrageous. Yet the Catholic might well point to the Incarnation -- was that any easier to swallow? Or how about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit -- placing the presence of the entire Trinity somehow in the Christian?
Some would look at all this and, given the feeling of incredulity welling up in their heart, shake their head in amused disbelief. As a convert to Christian belief as a whole, I could do no such thing. I had already come to believe in strange, outrageous things.
Moving from agnosticism to Christian belief, I had said, "Yes, I believe that a carpenter from Nazareth was God in the flesh, that he died for our sins, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father." Had I been held back by questions like "Oh please, how could I believe such an outrageous idea?", I might never have become a Christian at all.
Again, "Has apostolic authority kept the faith?" was the question, and the answer was not some variety of personal preference or highly individual interpretation of Scripture. Again, how could one test such a thing? In the end, I found a good litmus test within my own Bible-only heritage.
Bible-only Christians have recovered, they believe, the simple gospel of the early church. This phrase implies many things. Among them is the assumption that, because Bible-only beliefs and practices appear simple and "less cluttered" when compared to Catholicism, Bible-only Christianity must, therefore, consist of the simple gospel of the early church -- before Catholic errors started piling up and making things too complicated.
It occurred to me, however, that simplicity is relative. Would the debates carried on at a recent Southern Baptist Convention seem uncluttered and simple? Besides, what Bible-only Christians really care about is truth -- they don't hand out tracts on the aesthetics of simplicity. If some Catholic belief turned out to be true, no Bible-only Christian would say, "Sorry. Not simple enough." Bible-only folks merely assumed all peculiarly Catholic doctrine was "manmade complexity" stapled to the simple, original gospel around, say, 1973.
And yet, using the early church as a litmus test of orthodoxy -- given their proximity to the original apostles -- wasn't such a bad idea. It might be a good test for Catholic claims.
What, then, did the early church actually believe? None of the Bible-only Christians I knew or read had ever researched the beliefs of the early church -- even though we claimed them as our own. What did they proclaim regarding the strange teachings of John 6, for example?
From Justin, a defender of the faith writing approximately 50 years after John's death: "For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these, but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God... so too, as we have been taught, the food has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus... The Apostles, in the Memoirs which they produced, which are called Gospels, have thus passed on that which was enjoined upon them..."
Justin was clarifying basic Christian beliefs to the Roman authorities, in the hope of eliminating persecution based on rumors.
Other early church authors not only back up Justin's statement, they take it to be obvious. As Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church in Smyrna around the year 110, "They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again."
If it were merely symbolic, I don't think "they" would have had a problem.
One had to wonder -- what did the early church have to say about other plainly Catholic teachings? If Justin or Ignatius were to make a tour of modern Christianity, where would they feel at home? Would they regard the teachings of the average Bible-only church as the simple gospel of early Christianity, unencumbered by Catholic falsehoods, or as a partial gospel, all that remained after one teaching after another was jettisoned out of unbelief?