Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Defending Merit, Penance (and Ultimately Prayer) Against Lutheran Josh Strodtbeck's Ludicrous Attacks


Polemicist Josh Strodtbeck has blessed and edified his longsuffering readers with yet another (involuntary?) attack of verbal diarrhea, spouting off all sorts of ignorant things and equating biblical doctrines with Mormon myths and unicorns, without seemingly stopping to think how it can be (rather easily) refuted:
Can common sense or rationality even be categories in theology? For example, I find the idea that Jesus and the saints earned some kind of quantifiable stuff that's stored in a vast heavenly treasury out of which the pope grants indulgences to be patently absurd, a fiction whose silliness is on the order of the belief that some fellow used magical glasses to read golden tablets that were then whisked away by an angel. It's an idea whose absurdity to my mind cannot be rescued by any amount of reinterpretation of philosophizing. I feel like I shouldn't have to debate whether or not such a thing exists and such a power is wielded any more than I should have to debate whether or not clouds are made by the farts of invisible unicorns. I feel the exact same way about the belief that there's a mystical Virgin floating around in the sky with all kinds of magical powers, such as hearing millions of people simultaneously, appearing in tortillas and grilled cheese sandwiches, snatching scapular-bearers out of hell, and so on . . . There is literally nothing that people won't believe, regardless of education. Even the leader of the Heaven's Gate UFO cult got his BA in philosophy.

. . . When you believe in Jesus, you lose your right to call people's religious beliefs foolish, no matter how absurd they may be...which may be a good thing, because if you call someone's beliefs absurd, you might as well call the person an idiot, and calling people idiots isn't much a prelude to conversion. I'll be[t] some of you were quite offended at what I called absurd in my opening paragraphs and even put on an extra scapular just to spite me. So anyway, losing your right to call out absurdity doesn't justify those beliefs, make them equal with the truth, or even make them less absurd.
Now let's unpack these charges one by one and see whether they are, in fact, as "absurd" as Josh makes out, and whether there is any biblical or rational justification for them (i.e., objective warrant and evidence, not subjective).

As for the explicit biblical evidence for all the essential notions behind indulgences, I wrote about that long ago (1996), and recently presented it on my blog (an excerpt from my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism). No critic dealt with that intelligently or rationally. Some of my anti-Catholic critics simply mocked it as patently ridiculous, without making the slightest effort to interact with the reasoning. Josh often does the same. Prejudice and preconceived biases rule the day. Heaven forbid (in this mentality) someone make an actual counter-argument, when the person on the other end is a Catholic.

No problem with indulgences then (rightly understood, which is the rub). Were there abuses that occurred in the Middle Ages? Absolutely. No informed Catholic denies that. The abuses were dealt with by the Church (as I noted in my book and paper derived from it). That doesn't mean that the underlying ideas are false. They are not, because they are thoroughly grounded in the Bible. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But Martin Luther and his radical movement habitually did the latter. Luther himself departed in at least fifty ways from previous precedent by 1520, as I have documented. He was no "reformer"; he was a revolutionary. Blaming Catholicism as a whole for abuses of individuals is as silly as blaming Lutheranism for Carlstadt and others who were iconoclasts, against Luther's will. Every belief-system spawns individuals who incorrectly apply the principles of the system and take them in a wrong direction.

Josh frowns upon "quantifiable stuff that's stored in a vast heavenly treasury out of which the pope grants indulgences." To hear him present it, it is indeed ridiculous and worthy only for scorn and laughter. This is how propaganda works. This is -- again -- what Martin Luther did. He was a master at it. He commissioned asinine caricatures to be made of popes, so that people would learn to laugh at Catholicism, like they would at a clown or a court jester, rather than seriously engage its arguments and its Tradition. One Steve P, in comments on Josh's blog, hit the nail on the head:
Of course it's absurd. It's your idea. Rather than actually define indulgences, you've taken words that theologians and catechists use to explain indulgences ("treasury," "merit," etc.) and strung them together in a way that does sound absurd. You've demonstrated recently that you do have an understanding of logic, which is why it is strange that much of the "logic" you use in your articles is often nothing better than the logic of vague mental association.

The Catholic Church doesn't say that grace is "stuff." On the contrary, it says that grace is the Holy Spirit. That may be an absurdity, but it is not the absurdity you invented in your satirical treatment of indulgences. The Church also doesn't quantify the merits of Christ, but says they are totally sufficient. That also may be an absurdity, but it is not the particular absurdity you made up in your head when you spoofed indulgences.

There is nothing absurd in saying that the subsidiary merits of the faithful are in principle quantifiable (though not in practice or in fact quantifiable by us), since it is obvious that grace produces quantifiably different fruits in one believer vs. another; but as for quantifiability in indulgences, what you are talking about is medieval canonical penances, which were quantified in terms of days. A penitent had x numbers of days of penance, and that is what the time in indulgences is referring to. There is nothing absurd in thinking that time is quantifiable.
Josh has no more intention of seriously interacting with Catholicism and her doctrines than he does of dialoguing with flat-earthers or white supremacists or inhabitants of rubber rooms in insane asylums. He appears to place our beliefs on about the same level. That becomes viciously self-defeating, however, when closely examined (another very involved topic), given the history of the Church and Lutheranism's claims to be a return to the early Church, over against supposed "corruptions" of medieval and subsequent Catholicism.

But getting back to the notion of a treasury of merits; it strikes me that there is no essential difference between merits of the saints applied to others, and the very idea of intercessory prayers offered, and benefits received therefrom, by others. Each thing is an example of a mercy given by God as a result of the grace-inspired and -enabled works or efforts of others. The fact is, that we Christians are in this spiritual battle together, and the Church includes those who have passed on as well. They are still participating.

So how is an indulgence or a treasury of merit different from prayer? I don't see any difference. A Protestant might argue that God simply controls the answers to prayer, and benefits received (without human participation), and this is true. But the fact that the Church has a hand in dispensing indulgences (and penances) is equally biblical and permissible, on the basis of the prerogative to "bind and loose", given to the disciples. The Church can represent God in granting forgiveness. That is based on the explicit biblical teachings of Matthew 16:19, 18:18, and John 20:23. Through the sacrament of baptism the Church grants the gift of regeneration (and Lutherans agree with us on that). God doesn't simply declare it; He uses physical matter and human participation in order to grant the interior supernatural grace and gift.

Lutherans themselves acknowledge the "power of the keys" and the prerogative of the Church to represent God in granting forgiveness:
Article XXV: Of Confession

1] Confession in the churches is not abolished among us; for it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved. And 2] the people are most carefully taught concerning faith in the absolution, about which formerly there 3] was profound silence. Our people are taught that they should highly prize the absolution, as being the voice of God, 4] and pronounced by God's command. The power of the Keys is set forth in its beauty and they are reminded what great consolation it brings to anxious consciences, also, that God requires faith to believe such absolution as a voice sounding from heaven, and that such faith in Christ truly obtains and receives the forgiveness of sins.

(Augsburg Confession: 1530)

5] But this is their opinion, that the power of the Keys, or the power of the bishops, according to the Gospel, is a power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to remit and retain sins, and to administer Sacraments. 6] For with this commandment Christ sends forth His Apostles, John 20, 21 sqq.: As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you. Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained. 7] Mark 16, 15: Go preach the Gospel to every creature.

(Ibid., Article XXVIII. Ecclesiastical Power)

[unfortunately, most Lutherans have not retained bishops, and Luther and Melanchthon, early on, chose to grant powers to secular princes rather than to bishops; Melanchthon later on came to bitterly regret and bemoan this: "If only I could revive the jurisdiction of the bishops! For I see what sort of Church we shall have if the ecclesiastical constitution is destroyed." -- letter to Camerarius]
How, then, is a treasury of merit unbiblical at all? It is not. Prayer works the same way. James 5:16 is clear: "The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects". James (5:17-18) gives the historical example of the righteous man Elijah, who prayed and stopped the rain for three years and a half, then prayed that it would rain again and it did. Elijah had more "merit" insofar as he was a holier man and closer to God. Therefore, his prayers had more power. In the same context, we see the power of sacramentalism and the community of the Church: elders pray and anoint with oil and prayers of faith can heal the sick and bring them forgiveness (5:14-15). So Church authorities and things like oil (physical) and prayer (non-physical) work together to bring blessing and forgiveness and healing. Confession to one another and prayer are linked in 5:16a.

Prayer, then, is no different in essence from works of penance that can be applied on behalf of others. Again, this is a strong biblical motif, going all the way back to Abraham, Moses, and the priestly sacrifice of the tabernacle and temple. Moses makes atonement for other people's sins (Ex 32:30-32). God pardons the Jews because Moses prayed for them (Num 14:19-23). But penance remained (14:23). Aaron atoned for the people with incense, and a plague was stopped (Num 16:46-48; cf. 25:6-13).

Moving on to the New Testament, we see many examples of the Apostle Paul suffering for the sake of others, and this having a concrete effect, to their good. How is that different from "treasury of merits"? It is not at all. It is the exact same concept or idea or dynamic. Something Paul does, in his holiness and righteousness, is extended towards other people, to bless them and give them more grace. God is behind all of it. It isn't Paul's intrinsic meritoriousness (he has none, as a human being subject to the effects of original sin); it is God's grace working through him:
Romans 8:13,17 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live . . . and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. [RSV, as throughout]
(see also 1 Corinthians 15:31, 2 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Peter 4:1,13)
2 Corinthians 4:10 Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

(see also 2 Corinthians 1:5-7)

Philippians 2:17 Even if I am to be poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.

(see also 2 Corinthians 6:4-10)

Philippians 3:10 That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.

(see also Galatians 2:20)

2 Timothy 4:6 For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come.

(see also Romans 12:1)

Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

(see also 2 Corinthians 11:23-30, Galatians 6:17)

To come at Josh's "argument" (I exaggerate; it is far more a mere gaseous Scripture-free explosion of free association rhetoric and polemics) from another angle; he objects to "quantifiable stuff that's stored in a vast heavenly treasury." Grace, however, is also referred to in Scripture as in some sense "quantifiable". Lutherans and Protestants in general try to deny this; they usually view grace as simply "God's favor"; that which saves one, in a non-quantifiable sense (as in, e.g., Rom 6:14; Eph 2:8-10). The biblical usage is more complex and nuanced than that, however, as I noted in my book, The Catholic Verses, page 187:
Apart from the different meanings of the specific word used, as shown, grace is possessed in different measure by different believers, as seen elsewhere in Scripture:
2 Peter 3:18: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”
Ephesians 4:7: “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ's gift.” (cf. Acts 4:33, Rom 5:20, 6:1, James 4:6, 1 Pet 5:5, 2 Peter 1:2)
[emphases added presently; not in my book]
Let's look at the other verses cross-referenced, too:

Acts 4:33 And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

Romans 5:20
Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.

Romans 6:1
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?

James 4:6
But he gives more grace; therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

1 Peter 1:2
chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

1 Peter 5:5
Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

2 Peter 1:2
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
In fact, it can be plausibly argued, that when Paul and others use the common greeting of "grace to you" (e.g., Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2; Phlm 1:3; Rev 1:4) it is in the same quantifiable sense: i.e., "may God give you more grace." It doesn't make sense if it is intended only in the broad Protestant meaning (that we agree with as far as it goes) of "you are saved by grace alone".

Why wish, after all, that someone should have or receive what they already clearly possess? If "grace" only means "the free favor by which we are saved" then the Christians to whom Paul is writing his epistles already have this grace (since Protestants believe in a past salvation that is already accomplished). So why would Paul say "grace to you"? It would be like telling a man who has a daughter "I wish you the blessing of a daughter from God" or a man with a nice mansion: "best wishes to you for a nice mansion." That makes no sense. Rather, it seems fairly clear, I think, that st. Paul is stating that he hopes and prays that his readers will receive more grace from God, as in the sense of 2 Peter 3:18, Ephesians 4:7, James 4:6, 1 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:2, etc.

As for "
hearing millions of people simultaneously" this is rather easily disposed of as well. I replied to anti-Catholic Steve Hays in a paper, thusly:

How can Mary, as a human being, hear millions of daily prayers simultaneously, much less process millions of daily prayers?

Very simple: the saints, being with God in heaven, are outside of time. That being the case, they simply have no problem of number and sequence as we do, since we are temporal creatures, and hence, severely limited in that sense.
Elsewhere I wrote:

They are not required to be omniscient to be aware of our requests for intercession, only out of time; and we have reason to believe that all who are with God in eternity in heaven are outside of time.
And again:
[W]e have reason to believe that they are out of time, by God's power, because to be in eternity is to be outside of the realm of time. That allows them to answer many requests for prayer because they have an infinite amount of "time" to do it.
The reasons for thinking that heaven is outside of time would require another lengthy discussion, but I suspect that if one dug deep enough, one could find plenty of Protestant agreement with that notion. It's not just a "Catholic thing." And if this is the case, the garden-variety objection of "how can Mary answer trillions of prayers at once?" vanishes into thin air. The very notion of "simultaneously" wouldn't even apply and is meaningless and irrelevant because when one is outside of time and temporality there is no "simultaneous." In that sense, then, a glorified human being in heaven would have capabilities similar to God, Who is also outside of time. They can "hear" and act upon prayers just as He does, without the necessity of being omnipotent or omniscient, to do so. They need only be outside of time as we know it. Even modern physics has proved that this is not at all an impossible state of affairs.

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