Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dialogue with a Calvinist on Whether it is Possible to Fall Away from Grace or Salvation

By Dave Armstrong (7-28-09)

Calvinist "Michael" commented (three typos corrected):
If it is God who saves sinners, then who might arise and declare unjust what the Lord of Glory has made anew? If it is God who regenerates (1Pet 1:3), if it is God who justifies (Rom 5:1), and if it is the Lord Jesus Christ who keeps His people and decrees that no one (not even one's self) can snatch them out of His hand (John 10:28) then who dares usurp the CLEAR teaching of scripture regarding the perseverance of God's people? This doctrine of Rome that supposes one might loose their salvation by some grievous sin or other action is ad hock and divorced from the text of scripture. In fact, the concept of the loss of one's salvation after regeneration undermines the effectiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ's atonement. Any and all who profess The Name should immediately repent of such nonsense and rest in the assurance of what has been done on Calvary alone.

(23 July 2009)
I then provided passages that suggest "the possibility of falling away from faith and justification and salvation" (from the first RSV draft my book, Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths). I also noted (at no extra charge):
And of course, what we know from Scripture about how God judges us in the end is completely in accord with justification and sanctification being intertwined and organically related, and opposed to the strictness and separationism of sola fide:

"Final Judgment in Scripture is Always Associated With Works And Never With Faith Alone (50 Passages)"

Also, Paul's constant teaching shows how they cannot be separated:

"St. Paul's Teaching on the Organic Relationship of Grace / Faith and Works / Obedience (Collection of 50 Passages)"

You reformed folks will be in big trouble if we delve into Scripture too deeply. All kinds of difficulties for your position arise. :-)
Pilgrimsarbour, a Reformed Presbyterian (OPC) who is (quite refreshingly) willing to intelligently interact with Catholics sans the insults and misrepresentations at every turn, then replied. His words will be in blue:

Don't you ever post anything, you know, short? You're killing me here! ;-) I'd love to post responses but I'm a bit overwhelmed by the volume of material presented and under time constraints, of course. I think what I'll do is take one thing at a time, make a few brief comments on it, then move on to the next point. In any case, I doubt I'll be able to respond to everything, and certainly not all at once.

Understood; same here. We have time to develop and pursue the conversation if we want to. No rush.

Quoting Scripture you said...
1 Samuel 11:6; 18:12 And the spirit of God came mightily upon Saul when he heard these words, . . . Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was with him but had departed from Saul.
I gather from what you are saying the following premise: anytime we see the Spirit of God coming upon someone we should understand this to mean that that person is among the elect, or "saved."

Not necessarily; I agree with you. I do think, however, that it indicates that God is involved with the person to some extent, as opposed to them being totally depraved and capable of no good whatever. If the Spirit is there, there is something good going on, no?

And if the Spirit should remove Himself, this indicates that a saved or elect person can lose his salvation.

I think it is certainly consistent with that proposition, but not an absolute proof in and of itself, unless the question of their being saved or elect is specifically dealt with as well. There are proofs in Scripture and there are possible or likely indications that are harmonious with a particular theology. Likewise, there are passages that appear to be inconsistent with other belief-systems, such as the many Hebrew passages about "falling away" in relation to Calvinism.

I would argue that not every intervention in the lives of individuals (or whole peoples) by the Spirit of God means that they were regenerated by Him, that is, chosen, elect or saved, even those whom He has appointed to positions of authority within the Church (see my previous comments on Judas). 

A good example of this in the Old Testament is to be found in Genesis 20. Abraham tells Abimelech that Sarah is his sister instead of his wife, so Abimelech takes Sarah as his wife. When Abimelech finds out about Abraham's treachery, he has a discussion with the Lord Himself:

5 Did he not himself say to me, 'She is my sister'? And she herself said, 'He is my brother.' In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this." 6 Then God said to him in the dream, "Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours" (Genesis 20: 5-7 ESV, emphasis mine).
This is a good OT example of the Holy Spirit of God intervening in a non-elect gentile's heart and life to spare both His people and His non-people from His judgement. The Spirit essentially overrode Abimelech's will in order that God's purposes would be obtained.

But as far as I can tell, Scripture doesn't inform us that Abimelech is not of the elect. You have assumed that without proof. So your example proves little. We're both assuming things that we bring to the text (which is okay; everyone does it): you assume (far as I can tell) that a Gentile in Old Testament times isn't in the elect and I assume it is possible to fall away from grace.

Of course, the Spirit can remove His restraint on the sinner for God's purposes as he did with Pharoah in Exodus 9:12. This verse says that God actively hardened Pharoah's heart. I think that no one would make the case that either Abimelech or Pharoah were among those who would be saved.

Pharaoh was likely unsaved because of how he acted (everything we know is pretty much negative). But the record in Abimelech's case is a lot brighter. How do we know for sure he wasn't saved in the end? The "hardening of Pharaoh's heart" issue is somewhat complex. I've dealt with it in the past:
"Did God Harden Pharaoh's Heart? (Does God Positively Ordain Evil?)" (vs. [atheist] "DagoodS")

"Reply to a Calvinist Critique Concerning the 'Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart'"  (vs. Colin Smith)

For one thing they were outside the covenant, and for another, their fruits or lack thereof do not give us confidence to view them as saved persons.

Romans 2:9-16 refers to those outside the law who could still be justified by doing good works and following their conscience. I think there is enough indication that non-Jews in the Old Covenant could possibly be saved. This is particularly the case in New Testament teaching, which could then be applied back to the Old Testament situation, as a fuller revelation of the place of Gentiles in the plan of salvation. People weren't automatically damned simply because they lived before Christ and weren't Jewish.

Interestingly, this is also a good verse to illustrate to some who would object to the idea of original sin. Adam is seen as the federal head of the human race. God does treat kings as a federal head of his people, and holds those people responsible for their king's behaviour. In this verse not only Abimelech was in danger but all his subjects as well. Thankfully, everyone was spared.

Original sin is not being questioned, so I'll pass on that for now . . . There is a sense of corporate judgment in Scripture (that I've also dealt with).

* * *

I agree with you whole-heartedly that we can't know Abimelech's final disposition regarding salvation. I did not mean to say that no Old Testament gentile could possibly be saved. I do believe that there are Old Testament gentiles that will be found among the elect in eternity. I think you would agree, though, that that is much more rare than what was to happen under the New Covenant. God expands His covenantal blessings in the New Testament to include the gentiles.

Yes, He makes it explicit at that time that Gentiles are included. But God doesn't change (and I'm sure you agree with that!). Whoever is saved at any time, whether it is 3000 BC or yesterday, is saved because of Jesus Christ and His work for us. I don't see that it makes any difference. If they haven't heard the gospel and accepted or rejected it, then they are judged by what they know (Romans 2). That would apply to Abimelech as much as it would to a person today or any time since the crucifixion.

But further, it seems clear to me that there was nothing which inhered in Abimelech which brought him into God's favour. It was, in fact, God Himself who placed integrity in Abimelech's heart:

Of course; that is true for all of us. But we have to cooperate with God's grace. That's the key. You guys make grace irresistible, so there is no sense of cooperation in the fundamental, causal sense. But I think that understanding distorts the biblical "both/and" outlook and makes it an "either/or" thing that is rather unbiblical.

"Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her."

There is always a sense of God's providence, that He ultimately causes every good thing to happen; thus He will say "I did [so-and-so]." It doesn't follow that the person didn't also freely do whatever it was. That was my argument in the case of Pharaoh. We see this clearly in the book of Job, where we know that Satan was doing the evil things to Job, yet 42:11 refers to "all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him". But God had said to Satan in 2:6: "Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life." Satan brought the evil, not God. God allowed it, but He didn't cause it.

Abimelech is pleading his case before God in this dream, based on his own understanding of his heart. He thinks he's a mighty good fellow, or at least he wants to persuade God that he is. But God is saying, "I know you have integrity; it is I who put it there."

That's not the whole picture of what occurred. Abraham had lied, that Sarah was his sister. How was Abimmy to be blamed for that (20:3-5)? He didn't know. God simply caused him not to approach her (sexually). God acknowledges the purity of his motives: "Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart" (20:6a). Then God said (20:6b): "it was I who kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her."

So the issue of his integrity and whether he engaged in sex with Sarah are separated. God prevented the thing that Abimmy didn't know about because Abraham lied. None of this suggests to me that Abimmy was an unutterably wicked fellow who couldn't possibly be saved. Yet you originally stated, in describing this scene, that it was "God intervening in a non-elect gentile's heart and life."

Now you admit that we can't know for sure if he was elect or not, so your argument falters, then, because it was based on that unknowable premise, that you now concede is unknowable.

If Abimelech's integrity was inherent, that is, his own,

It was not "his own" insofar as none of our integrity is ultimately our own (in origin). It comes from God's grace. The question here is whether God gave him grace or not. I am saying there is no compelling reason to think that He didn't, or that Abimmy is damned. He's not presented as that bad of a guy, in his outward actions. He gave Abraham stuff, even though it was Abraham who had wronged him (20:14-16) and God blessed his house with [implied] many children (20:17-18).

why should God punish him at all for taking Sarah?

I don't know. The text is unclear as to why that is, but it does show God agreeing that Abimmy hadn't wronged Sarah, because he didn't know she was married. It could have been as an outward display for those who didn't know all the details. This was, after all, a pretty primitive time in salvation history.

An argument could be made that A.D. 70 was the end of the Jewish age, and that with the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem God has abandoned His people in favour of the gentiles. The Reformed position is that there is a future work or other kind of inclusion for the nation of Israel based upon certain statements in the book of Revelation, but I have not studied that completely.

That wouldn't have any bearing on the question at hand, one way or the other. And even if God had abandoned the Jews entirely (which is another big question we don't need to pursue now), that is in a corporate sense, as in instances of the judgment of nations, and would still allow exceptions for righteous individuals who chose to follow Him, as is seen in the OT as well.

Now here is where the question of whether God abandons His elect or not comes up; that is, can the elect lose their salvation?

No, of course the elect cannot. Individuals can lose their salvation. If they lose it, they obviously are not of the elect, because that refers to eschatological salvation. Where Calvinists go awry is in going to extremes and denying that anyone (elect or no) could be "saved" (Protestant definition) or in God's graces (more how we Catholics put it) or regenerate or once filled with the Holy Spirit, and then fall away from that salvation and grace. You guys simply say (as you must, by the internal demands of your system) that they never possessed it in the first place. But you can't prove that, and denying the very possibility (because of false premises) seems to go against much biblical indication (hence my collection of passages to the contrary earlier on in this discussion).

I would answer this way.

The Jews were God's elect people in the sense that they as a nation were to be the bearers of the oracles of God. The covenant was made with Abraham, the father-to-be of a whole people, chosen by God for a very specific purpose. It was from this chosen or elect group that the Messiah, first referred to in Genesis 3, was to come. This is different than saying that every single Jew is destined for eternal life merely because he was a part of the covenant.

Yes, I agree. It is in the covenantal sense of "chosen."

We clearly see in our reading of the New Testament where Jesus has interactions with the Pharisees and Saducees, as well as others, that individuals are not guaranteed eternal life merely by being a part of the Abrahamic covenant.

Correct. Rightly understood, even the Jews (some of them, anyway: the more spiritually advanced) had a notion of salvation by faith and grace, not works alone, as Christians have typically portrayed them as "officially" believing.

So it could be said, if I may say it this way, that God has His elect among His elect; that is, among His chosen people are a remnant people He has chosen for eternal life. This is the Reformed position that so it is with His Church today.

No problem. None of this resolves the dilemma with Abimmy that you have gotten yourself into, with incoherent reasoning. I think you're now forced by logic to ditch his alleged "counter-example".

By this understanding, those who fall away were never elected to eternal life from the beginning, although they partook of the covenant:

But that is a truism and not under dispute (i.e., that the elect are those who actually make it to heaven: yes, of course!). We aren't saying that the elect fell away, but that persons can possess good graces and the spirit, etc., and fall away (which Calvinists deny).
21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’" (Matthew 7:21).
Some people seem to be in the fold but never actually were, as this passage affirms. Others, however (based on many other passages) actually were in the fold. God did "know" them, and they fell away. Calvinists and Catholics agree on the first proposition, but greatly disagree on the second. I contend that it is because Calvinists have put their flawed system above the biblical data in this regard. They can't accept the plain teaching of the passages that refute their view on perseverance because that would knock out a plank of TULIP, and then the other ones would be in peril, too, because they all work together. I say, let it come down, because it is unbiblical in most respects.

Perhaps they grew up in the church. Perhaps they attended the worship service and Sunday school religiously. Perhaps they did all kinds of "mighty works" in His Name. But their hearts were never regenerated. They had never become "born again."

This is your Calvinist assumption, that cannot be absolutely proven in every case. Sometimes (part from our human interpretations of sad individual cases) this is true (without question), but not always, and the Bible seems to back up what I am maintaining here.

There was always some other agenda driving them quite aside from a desire to serve Jesus Christ.

We can't see into other people's hearts as God can.

To these people, identified as "tares" in Matthew 13, He says, "I never knew you." What the Reformed acknowledge is that we cannot know with absolute certainty who they are. Likewise, to reiterate what I said in another place, we do not require a standard of absolute certain knowledge when ordaining those to the ministry.

But also, in denying that anyone could fall away, the position goes too far, and stretches the biblical data beyond the breaking point. Something's gotta give: the Bible or Calvinism. I say (big surprise!) that the Bible teaches Catholic soteriology, not Calvinist.

I would add briefly these two things.

Non-Reformed folks tend to use the term "faith alone" to mean something other than the way we Reformed folks use it. They tend to use it to mean namely "belief alone," or "mental assent alone." This is not how we see it.

Faith alone is shorthand for "By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, but a faith which is not alone." And what is meant by that is that simple belief or mental assent is not what the Bible has in view.

I agree, which is why I defended y'all from that charge in my last post along those lines, where this discussion got started. I commended your post that rightly pointed this out.

Now it's true that American Evangelical Protestantism of the 19th through 20th century Arminian variety often promulgates that anything other than a mere mental assent to some truths constitutes a "work" on our part and is to be disallowed doctrinally. This is not the Reformed view. We concur with James when he says:
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
Good. So do we. But we tie together sanctification and justification in a way that you do not, since they were formally separated by Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin. It is that separation that (I would argue, and have argued) that has led (at least partially) to the state of affairs that Lutherans and Calvinists themselves decry, as you describe above. When one wrong move is made, then the devil has a field day bringing in other errors that either flow or falsely seem to the adherents to flow, from the prior false premise.

Paul uses faith to mean "belief in action," whereas James seems to make a distinction between the two. The result is the same, however, as we see works as integral to belief and indeed, inseparable.

I have also often noted in the past, that Catholic and Calvinist stress on the importance of good works come out the same way in practice, rightly understood. Now if your party would cease falsely accusing us of being Pelagians (let alone non-Christians, from many of your comrades), perhaps we could garner more unity than is usually present between us, and rejoice in practical common ground.

So when a comment is made about "faith alone," we must be sure that we're on the same page before the discussion can move forward. If one means "belief alone" without any actual change of attitude toward God and change in lifestyle, then any Reformed person would disavow that as a biblical doctrine.

I understand and agree with that point, but (on the other hand) by formally separating sanctification from justification and salvation, you leave yourself open to an easy misunderstanding and the internal logic creates further problems as time goes on. These have been fulfilled in the development of Protestantism.

A person who said a prayer, signed a paper or raised his hand but never grew in grace the rest of his life would likely be considered unregenerate in Reformed thinking (as much as could be discerned, and we are called to be discerning).

That's why I have written papers documenting how Luther and Calvin both taught that.

Secondly, the Reformed don't make as sharp a distinction between justification and sanctification as has been suggested. We view them as distinct, but not separable. They are, in fact, organically connected in the process of salvation.

You do connect them in some fashion, even significantly so, but not with regard to salvation itself. I agree that there is a closeness in Reformed thought that is often distorted by non-Reformed and poorly understood even by many within your camp (as is the case in all camps: ignorance and nominalism being unfortunately widespread). But Francois Wendel, in his Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1963; translated by Philip Mairet) confirms my observation that a formal separation was made between the two:
Sanctification is not the purpose of justification. It proceeds from the same source but remains independent, or, more correctly, is logically distinct from justification . . .

. . . it is important not to confuse them together, 'in order that the variety of the graces of God may so much the better appear to us . . . [St Paul] shows clearly enough that it is one thing to be justified and another to be made new creatures.' [Inst., III, 11, 6] . . .

The notion of justification does therefore include (as with Luther and Melanchthon) the idea of a righteousness which is extrinsic and is only imputed to us, without any prejudgment of the real state in which we happen to be. Since 1536 Calvin had affirmed that 'the righteousness of faith is Christ's righteousness, not our own, that it is in him and not in us, but that it becomes ours by imputation' . . . Thus we are not really righteous, except by imputation; and we are unrighteous but held to be righteous by imputation, in so far as we possess the righteousness of Christ by faith.' [Opp, 1, 60; O.S., vol. 1, p. 73] . . .

The logical consequence of that doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is that never, not even after the remission of our sins, are we really righteous. . . .

Even after we have received the faith, our works are still contaminated with sin: nevertheless God does not impute them to us as sins but holds them acceptable. Calvin is thus led to formulate the doctrine of double justification; first, the justification of the sinner, and then the justification of the justified, or more correctly of their works.

(pp. 256-260; ellipses and brackets in the middle of the second paragraph and ellipses in the middle of the third paragraph were in the original)
This is where the fundamental error lies: in the extreme emphasis on imputation and formal separation of justification and sanctification (and resultant denial of merit and infused justification and cooperation with God, etc.). That helps (even though Calvin would protest) produce the error of separating good works and charity and sanctity in general from justification and salvation itself, as in the evangelicalism that you decry (and that I also severely criticize).

From our point of view, Calvin is still wrong; just less wrong in degree or along the spectrum, than antinomian-types of evangelicals are. But I agree that aspects of his teaching, and of Reformed thought, are quite close to our own conception of faith and works in the practical sense and in terms of how a Christian ought to live his life day by day: things we can abundantly verify from the Bible itself.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

St. Mary Magdalene: Former Prostitute and/or the Repentant "Sinner" Woman of Luke 7?

By Dave Armstrong (7-22-09)

As I understand it, the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute comes from conflating the woman who anointed Jesus' feet (Luke 7) with Mary Magdalene. Luke 7:39 seems to imply that the woman described was a harlot ("what sort of woman this is" in RSV). The Bible itself doesn't make this equation (at least not explicitly or directly). The Bible does plainly assert that she was cured of possession by seven demons (Lk 8:2; cf. Mk 16:9).

The Protestant New Bible Dictionary (edited by J.D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1962) states ("Mary", p. 792):

    There is really no justification for identifying Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene, and certainly none for associating either with the sinful woman of Luke 7. . . .

    If Luke had known that the Mary of chapter 8 was the same person as the sinner of chapter 7 is it not probable that he would have made the connection explicit?

The Catholic Encyclopedia, however ("St. Mary Magdalen"), makes a different argument:

    The Greek Fathers, as a whole, distinguish the three persons:

    * the "sinner" of Luke 7:36-50;
    * the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Luke 10:38-42 and John 11; and
    * Mary Magdalen.

    On the other hand most of the Latins hold that these three were one and the same. Protestant critics, however, believe there were two, if not three, distinct persons. It is impossible to demonstrate the identity of the three; but those commentators undoubtedly go too far who assert, as does Westcott (on John 11:1), "that the identity of Mary with Mary Magdalene is a mere conjecture supported by no direct evidence, and opposed to the general tenour of the gospels." It is the identification of Mary of Bethany with the "sinner" of Luke 7:37, which is most combatted by Protestants. It almost seems as if this reluctance to identify the "sinner" with the sister of Martha were due to a failure to grasp the full significance of the forgiveness of sin.

The article does concede that if we had only Luke's Gospel to go by, this theory would be unsubstantiated:

    . . . here again we note that there is no suggestion of an identification of the three persons (the "sinner", Mary Magdalen, and Mary of Bethany), and if we had only St. Luke to guide us we should certainly have no grounds for so identifying them.


But it goes on to make various deductive arguments from the book of John (none, I think, compelling) and concludes triumphantly:

    If the foregoing argument holds good, Mary of Bethany and the "sinner" are one and the same. But an examination of St. John's Gospel makes it almost impossible to deny the identity of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen.

So there was a tradition in western, Latin Catholicism, of one person (Mary Magdalene = Mary of Bethany = the sinner woman of Lk 7:36-50, who anointed Jesus' feet). This article in The Catholic Encyclopedia was written by Hugh Pope in 1910. Not all traditions, however, carry equal weight, and not all are binding. Personally, I think the Greek fathers were right about this.

Nor do all Catholic sources agree with this older tradition. A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Dom Bernard Orchard (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953) is a completely orthodox work, and it takes a different position. Commenting on Luke 7:36-50, it states:

    The similarities between this story and those recorded in Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Jn 12:1-8, have led to the opinion that the four evangelists narrate the same incident. Latin tradition since the time of St Gregory the Great has been in favour of identity; the general tradition among the Greeks (except for Origen) is that Lk's incident is altogether different and most modern Catholic commentators adopt this view. It must be admitted that the divergences seem irreconcilable . . . There is nothing in Lk which justifies identifying her with Mary of Magdala, 8:2, or Mary of Bethany, 10:38 ff. Greek tradition generally distinguishes them all.

Note also that the Catholic Church in its first thousand years was composed of both Latin and Greek traditions. They were both Catholic. So it is not disallowed to believe that a Greek, or eastern exegetical tradition was more correct than a Latin (western) one. I think this is one such instance.

In the article, posted at Catholic News Service, "Scholars seek to correct Christian tradition on Mary Magdalene,", written by Jerry Filteau, it is stated:

    In A.D. 591 Pope St. Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he identified as one person the New Testament figures of Mary Magdalene, the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet and washed them with her tears, and the Mary who was the sister of Lazarus and Martha of Bethany.

    Although he was only reflecting a tradition that had gained some ground in the West (and was resisted by many of the church's early theologians), the sermon became a reference point for later scholarship, teaching and preaching in the West, Father Raymond F. Collins, a New Testament scholar at The Catholic University of America, said in an interview. . . .

    The identification of Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinful woman was solidified in the Latin Church for centuries by the use of that story, reported in the seventh chapter of Luke, as the Gospel reading for Mary Magdalene's feast, July 22. In fact, in the Roman Calendar before the Second Vatican Council, the day was called the feast of "Mary Magdalene, penitent."

    Father Collins noted that this changed in 1969 with the reform of the Roman Missal and the Roman Calendar. Since then the Gospel reading for Mary Magdalene's feast has been Chapter 20, verses 1-2 and 11-18, of the Gospel of John.

This seems to have been a rather late tradition, in terms of the fathers, with Gregory Great living into the 7th century. Thus, it is not particularly compelling as proof that this exegetical tradition was apostolic, and preserved in the first five centuries (when most of the well-known Church fathers lived). Further research along those lines would yield fascinating results, I'm sure.

Fr. William Saunders, on the other hand, in his article, "Who Really Was Mary Magdalene?," (Catholic Culture website), takes the traditional view expressed in The Catholic Encyclopedia.

The Catholics United for the Faith website put out a lengthy, informative article about Mary Magdalene, "St. Mary Magdalene: A Model Penitent," taking the traditional western view also, but noted (importantly for our purposes):

    Either way, although ancient, this tradition is not to be confused with an essential aspect of the Catholic faith. There are many reasons to accept this tradition, but it is not a doctrine of the Church.

Catholics (as seen in the above conflicting understandings) are at liberty to differ on this question. In any event, whatever her sins were, St. Mary repented of them and became a great saint and early witness of the resurrected Jesus, and that is far more important than these other "identity" disputes.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Judas as One of the "Elect" and "Elect Angels": Biblical Conundrum for Calvinists?

By Dave Armstrong (7-20-09)

To some extent this is a problem for everyone. Catholics agree with Calvinists that those who are elect are the ones who are eschatologically saved: who will go to heaven in the afterlife (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church: #1045: "The beatific vision, in which God opens himself in an inexhaustible way to the elect, will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace, and mutual communion."). We, too, believe in the election of the righteous, or those saved in the end (both Thomists and Molinists accept this), or predestination (though we hold it in a paradoxical "both/and" tension with free will). So in that sense, the Catholic, too, has to explain these references that include Judas, as somehow an exception to the rule. It's "weird" any way we look at it.

The relevant difference between the two systems in this regard is that Calvinists (unlike Catholics) believe in double predestination, or the predestination of the damned / reprobate as well as the saved. So the particular Calvinist difficulty is to explain how Judas could be described in a class of those who are "elect" if in fact he was predestined from eternity to be damned. It seems that (granting these presuppositions) he would never have been described that way at all.

But the Catholic can more easily say that there might perhaps be some conditionality to the term "elect" -- at least in some cases, since we (along with Protestant Arminians, Wesleyans, etc.) believe that a person can lose justification and salvation, should they decide to consciously turn away from and reject the God they once served. Perhaps then (I'm not asserting this but simply thinking aloud), "elect" in Judas' case is analogous to a person who is justified and then loses his justification and right standing with God (and ultimately, salvation) due to sin and rebellion. Before we examine this matter further, let's take a look at the relevant biblical passages (RSV):


(Strong's word #1588)

Matthew 22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.

Matthew 24:22,24,31 And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. . . . [24] For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. . . . [31] and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (cf. Mark 13:20,22,27)

Luke 18:7 And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?

Romans 8:33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies;

Romans 16:13 Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine.

Colossians 3:12 Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience,

2 Timothy 2:10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory.

Titus 1:1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth which accords with godliness,

1 Peter 1:1-2 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, . . . [2] chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit . . .

1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

2 John 1:1 The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth,

2 John 1:13 The children of your elect sister greet you.

Revelation 17:14 they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.


(Strong's word #1589)

Acts 9:15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;

Romans 9:11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call,

Romans 11:5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. . . . [7] What then? Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,

Romans 11:28-29 As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. [29] For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.

1 Thessalonians 1:4 For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you;

2 Peter 1:10 Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall;

(Strong's word #4899)

1 Peter 5:13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.

(Strong's word #1586)

Mark 13:20 And if the Lord had not shortened the days, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.

Luke 6:13 And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles;

John 6:70-71 Jesus answered them, "Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?" [71] He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray him. (cf. 6:64: ". . . Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.")

John 13:18 I am not speaking of you all; I know whom I have chosen; it is that the scripture may be fulfilled, `He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.'

John 15:16,19 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you . . . [19] . . . I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

Acts 1:2 . . . the apostles whom he had chosen.

Acts 1:24 And they prayed and said, "Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen

Ephesians 1:4
even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.
It's fairly obvious that all these words are synonymous. Scripture usually brings out its own intended meanings via cross-referencing of this sort. Eklektos and eklegomai both appear in a single passage:

Mark 13:20 And if the Lord had not shortened the days, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect [eklektos], whom he chose [eklegomai], he shortened the days.
The "elect" are, simply, the ones whom Jesus has "chosen." Other Scriptures show that this election is from eternity (1 Peter 1:2; Eph 1:4; cf. Rom 8:29-30: "foreknew"; "predestined"; "called"). The immediate difficulty stems from those passages under eklegomai above that include Judas as one of the twelve elected / chosen disciples (Lk 6:13; Jn 6:70 -- it mentions Judas in particular --; Jn 15:16,19). John 13:18 implies (?) that Judas was not chosen, using the same Greek word, which means that there are either multiple applications of the word (as is usually the case in Scripture) or that Jesus contradicted Himself (which most observant Christians would reject), or that there was a later interpolation not attributable to Jesus Himself (rejected also by most biblical exegetes who accept, as I do, the text of the Bible at face value). John Calvin recognizes that it is at least potentially a problem for his own system of double predestination and provides his own answer for this:
In elsewhere numbering Judas among the elect, though he was a devil (John 6:70), he refers only to the apostolical office, which though a bright manifestation of divine favor (as Paul so often acknowledges it to be in his own person), does not, however, contain within itself the hope of eternal salvation. Judas, therefore, when he discharged the office of Apostle perfidiously, might have been worse than a devil; but not one of those whom Christ has once ingrafted into his body will he ever permit to perish, for in securing their salvation, he will perform what he has promised; that is, exert a divine power greater than all (John 10:28). For when he says, “Those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition,” (John 17:12), the expression, though there is a catachresis in it, is not at all ambiguous. The sum is, that God by gratuitous adoption forms those whom he wishes to have for sons; but that the intrinsic cause is in himself, because he is contented with his secret pleasure.

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 22, Chapter 7)
This is interesting, since Calvin states that even an apostle may eventually be lost. That means that (in his system) he was predestined to be lost (it can't be otherwise for Calvin and Calvinists), in which case he was never elected at all (yet Scripture says he was), and therefore could not possibly do any good thing of his own volition (according to total depravity). I respond to this: "if an apostle -- chosen by God Himself -- is not necessarily elect, then how can we know that anyone who is (ostensibly) justified or regenerated will persevere to the end?" And that has implications for the entire Calvinist theological edifice of TULIP, imputed justification, etc. (though in fairness, I note that Calvin taught that we cannot know for sure who is and is not of the elect).

The fact remains that one whom God "elected" fell away. Scripture doesn't say that Judas was predestined for reprobation from eternity. It simply says that Jesus "chose" (eklegomai) him. He was chosen in the same sense as the other disciples, so this couldn't have been in the sense of predestined reprobation (since the others appear to have been of the elect in the standard sense of "saved"). As I said above, these difficulties are not just Calvinist ones. Catholics also have to consistently incorporate this data. But I think Calvinists have relatively more difficulty because of how they construe double predestination and reject the notion that anyone could be truly chosen and in the fold, and then fall away (perseverance of the saints). Calvin raises another interesting question as well, by mentioning John 17:12:

John 17:11-12 And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. [12] While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled.
So now we have God the Father in on the election process (which would follow anyway, as His will and the Son's are unified at all times). If one of the very disciples can be "elected" and "given" by God the Father and called, yet fall away and be lost, then is this not troublesome for the Calvinist system, which holds that God predestines from eternity wholly apart from men's free will decisions, and that no man can overcome that; he cannot fall away, once having been so called and predestined? We don't have that difficulty because we accept both free will and the possibility of apostasy (while we reject Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism: the notions that men can save themselves, as opposed to salvation being totally from God's grace: sola gratia).

Perhaps Calvin or Calvinists (following Jesus Himself in Jn 13:18 and 17:12) would point out that this was so that Scripture and prophecy would be fulfilled (Jesus was to be betrayed), but that (while true) doesn't alleviate the difficulty because we can then retort that if this is the case here, why could it not be in any number of situations, in God's providence, where He incorporates men's free will decisions of good or ill into His plan? What is to stop anyone from concluding that if this includes Judas' defection, "that the scripture might be fulfilled", why could not many other conceivable situations of apostasy, "that the scripture might be fulfilled"? It's true that exceptions don't usually disprove the rules they contradict, but too many exceptions can cast doubt at least upon the universality or sole application of a supposed rule in one fashion. Again, I am mostly speculating; not taking any ironclad position. Mostly I find this interesting to ponder.

Another fascinating line of inquiry has to do with the angels. St. Paul states:

1 Timothy 5:21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect [eklektos] angels I charge you to keep these rules without favor, doing nothing from partiality.
If God elected angels, then He must have not elected the fallen angels. But if even the fall of Satan and his demons was predestined by God, so that it couldn't have been otherwise (just as Calvinists say God does with the reprobate), then they had no free will either. And this has momentous implications. The Westminster Confession, adhered to by many Calvinists (especially Presbyterians) seems to assert this (to Catholic ears, rather extreme, bizarre, and troubling) state of affairs:
I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; . . .

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.

(Chapter III: Of God's Eternal Decree)
If God predestined the very existence of evil, entailing that Satan didn't freely rebel, but did so because God predestined it, and it couldn't have been otherwise, then it seems that God would be the author of evil. Using the Calvinist understanding of election, all of this, I think, would follow. But under the different Catholic / Arminian / Wesleyan / post-Luther Lutheran systems of (non-Pelagian) free will, this might be construed as another "exceptional" usage of "elect" and not the norm. If it is an exception to the rule, as with the Judas example, then we now have two, leading one to suspect that additional such applications might be possible, and that the rule is much weakened, by virtue of two obvious and major exceptions.

A possible solution, I submit, is the position that I myself hold. In the Molinist understanding of predestination, God takes into account future free will actions of creatures, in His Middle Knowledge (scientia media) and this is a factor in His election or predestination. This doesn't account for the Judas anomaly, but it could account for the phrase "elect angels" in a way that doesn't require God predestining the fall of Satan and his demons from eternity, rather than their free choice being the cause.

I welcome discussion on this, as always. As in all issues related to the deep mystery of predestination, I don't claim to have all the answers (not even close), but I think this is a fascinating biblical motif to ponder.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Biblical Evidence for a Conscience Formed in Harmony with Church Doctrine and Authority

By Dave Armstrong (7-19-09)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church


Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.

1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters."


1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.

1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

1785 In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.


1786 Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.
1787 Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law.


1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

1794 A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time "from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith." . . .
In short, Catholics hold that a properly formed conscience is necessarily brought about by the input of the Bible and the Church. It can't be separated from that. It's not purely an interior phenomenon. Protestantism, by rejecting the infallibility of the Church, in effect detached the conscience from being (in the final analysis) in accord and in harmony with Church teaching. That was the wrong turn. The notion of "conscience formed by the guidance of the Church" is entirely a scriptural one, as I shall now attempt to prove.


Our consciences are clearly formed by many outside influences: upbringing, culture, friends, moral teachings inculcated in the normal course of life, and the Bible itself and whatever ecclesiastical authority we attempt to abide by. The Catholic argues that the Church is fundamental in forming an individual conscience, and that the two should not and will not conflict. If it falls back completely on the individual, on the other hand (as Protestant premises require), we have the same unsolvable problems we always run into: what to do when opinions contradict; both claim to be biblical, etc.?

The Apostle Paul doesn't relegate doctrine to conscience alone (theoretically tied to the Bible alone). To the contrary, Paul is quite clear that there is one doctrine, one truth, one "faith" ("the faith") and that this is in line with the Church (not -- ultimately -- logically or epistemologically separate from the Church, as in Protestantism). Obviously, whatever the individual arrives at through conscience, St. Paul would say has to be in line with "the faith," "the truth," "tradition," "the gospel," etc. And thus we are right back to unavoidable, binding Church authority:

Acts 16:4 (RSV) As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

Romans 2:8 but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

Romans 16:17 . . . take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them.

Galatians 5:7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?

Ephesians 3:10 . . . through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.

Colossians 1:23 provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, . . .

Colossians 2:7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.

2 Thessalonians 3:6 . . . the tradition that you received from us.

1 Timothy 1:2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith: . . .

1 Timothy 2:4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 3:15 if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

1 Timothy 4:3 . . . those who believe and know the truth. (cf. 4:1; 4:6; 5:8; 6:10, 12, 21)

2 Timothy 1:13-14 Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me . . . guard the truth which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. (cf. 2:18, 25; 3:7-8; 4:4)

2 Timothy 2:2 And what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Titus 3:15 . . . Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all. (cf. 1:1)
When St. Peter refers to "conscience" it is in the context of a non-optional Christian doctrine: baptismal regeneration:
1 Peter 3:20-21 who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. [21] Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
The same Peter presupposes "the truth": an objective thing that can be known and accepted:

1 Peter 1:22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart.

2 Peter 1:12 Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.

2 Peter 2:1-2 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled.
And he makes other casual dogmatic statements, suggesting a strong Church authority and a binding tradition in addition to conscience and the Bible:
2 Peter 2:21 . . . the holy commandment delivered to them.

2 Peter 3:1-2 This is now the second letter that I have written to you, beloved, and in both of them I have aroused your sincere mind by way of reminder; that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.
The author of Hebrews, like Peter and Paul, maintains the "three-legged stool" view of the Catholic Church through the ages, not the private judgment / absolute supremacy of individual conscience / sola Scriptura position of Protestantism:
Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,

Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.
St. Paul and other writers, again, do not disconnect an informed Christian conscience from the guidance of the Church:
Acts 23:1, 6-8 And Paul, looking intently at the council, said, "Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day." . . . [6] But when Paul perceived that one part were Sad'ducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am on trial." [7] And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sad'ducees; and the assembly was divided. [8] For the Sad'ducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.
Paul here shows exactly what he means by having a "good conscience." It was formed in the context of tradition. He appeals to a doctrinal school (Pharisaism) and identifies himself with it (over against the Sad'ducees, who denied the resurrection, and angels). That was what it meant to live "before God in all good conscience." It can't be divorced from binding doctrines. Yet Protestantism stresses the radically autonomous individual conscience and the corresponding notion that there are no binding decrees of the Church that can be considered infallible and unquestionable. It's exactly the same (over against Protestantism) in the next chapter of Acts:

Acts 24:14-16 But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the law or written in the prophets, [15] having a hope in God which these themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. [16] So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward God and toward men.
Having a "clear conscience toward God" is directly tied, in Paul's mind, to observance of the Law (a binding thing), and doctrines like the general resurrection. Not just the Church, but even secular rulers are to be obeyed "for the sake of conscience":
Romans 13:1-7 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. [2] Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. [3] For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, [4] for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. [5] Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. [6] For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. [7] Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
St. Paul ties in conscience with "the truth" and "doctrine" and "divine training" and "the faith":

2 Corinthians 4:2 We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.
1 Timothy 1:3-7 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, [4] nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith; [5] whereas the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith. [6] Certain persons by swerving from these have wandered away into vain discussion, [7] desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.

1 Timothy 3:9 they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.

1 Timothy 4:1-2 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, [2] through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared,

Titus 1:13-15 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, [14] instead of giving heed to Jewish myths or to commands of men who reject the truth. [15] To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted.
The writer of Hebrews also follows suit:

Hebrews 10:22-23 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. [23] Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful;

Hebrews 13:17-18 Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you. [18] Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.
We see again and again, therefore, that the Catholic approach, as stated in the Catechism, is also the biblical one, and that this biblical / Catholic perspective is contrary to the ultimately autonomous conscience of Protestantism.

* * *

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thoughts on the Devil's Antics in Opposing Christians, and Suffering in the Christian Life

By Dave Armstrong (7-18-09)

This is my contribution to a great thread on the CHNI forum, about "demonic oppression" and related issues in the spiritual life.

* * * * *

What a wonderful thread! Somehow I missed it in the last few days. It musta been "underneath" another one.

I think great wisdom has been expressed by many in this thread. I have a few "random thoughts" -- as I do not have a whole lot of direct experience of demonic oppression, myself: not being sufficiently advanced in the spiritual life, no doubt.

1) In my own journey with God these past 30 years or so, my wife Judy and I have often noted how bad things started happening when we were setting out to do something that is in God's will. It's almost a running joke with us: "oh, that old devil is after us now, huh?, because we decided to [do so-and-so]." We pretty much laugh it off, mock the devil, and proceed on our path, exactly as we had intended. We've come to recognize the silliness and utter predictability of his attacks. In that sense, there is wisdom, I think, in a sort of mocking of the devil and a ho-hum attitude about it (the exact opposite of what the devil desires). It is completely to be expected and therefore a big yawn. The fact that his opposition antics have no effect whatever on our plans, and that we are not daunted and reduced to abject fear by his attacks, no doubt drives the devil nuts. And that is reason enough to approach him in that way.

2) I get personally attacked all the time (and in public) by anti-Catholics, because of my apologetics. It happened again recently, big-time. Hundreds; maybe thousands of people out there think ill of me because they buy the characterizations set forth by those who feel led to oppose me (not just what I believe and teach, but myself, personally). It's the sin of slander and detraction. I never let this upset me (it truly doesn't), because I know from whence it originates, and what is said is usually completely ludicrous. These critics want nothing more than to get a rise out of me, but it never happens. I just laugh it off. Let them say what they will. Sometimes I will make statements to the effect of:

    Go ahead and lie and distort and tear me down personally and insult me all you like. It has never had any effect on what I do and it never will. So if you oppose what I do, then I suggest you cease your attempts at personal attack and ridicule because it only makes me more determined to do what I do, so that you are achieving the exact opposite of what you desire to: to make me "shut up" and write less and defend Holy Mother Church less, so that I help fewer people as they ponder becoming Catholic. So keep on doing what you are doing if that is what you want to see. If you think I'll ever stop doing what God called me to do simply because you are lying about me, you have another thing coming.

I think a similar approach to the devil himself (the father of all lies) is a good thing. The devil is a big joke and a cosmic fool and failure. We don't need to go along on his ridiculous ride to hell. We already have the victory against him, and we need to be aware of that and confident that it is already in effect.

3) I don't write much about these sorts of subjects (it's too huge of an area and I have more than enough topics to cover already, as an apologist), but I did do one paper along these lines, in which I cited C. S. Lewis, who knew quite a bit about the devil's designs, as shown by his masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters. In the same year as that work (1942) he also wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost (on Milton's 17th century epic poem on the devil and angels). Here is an excerpt:

    It is a mistake to demand that Satan . . . should be able to rant and posture through the whole universe without, sooner or later, awaking the comic spirit . . . At that precise point where Satan . . . meets something real, laughter must arise, just as steam must when water meets fire . . . and mere Christianity commits every Christian to believing that 'the Devil is (in the long run) an ass' . . . "What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything. This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all . . . He says 'Evil be thou my good' (which includes 'Nonsense be thou my sense') and his prayer is granted.

    (London: Oxford University Press, ch.13: "Satan", 95, 99)


4) When undergoing suffering in general (not necessarily demonic oppression), my wife and I have always obtained great comfort by reading scriptural passages about suffering. It "works" every time. No exceptions. I compiled these many years ago, and they have been helpful to us ever since:
"Reasons for Suffering and Encouragement and Hope in the Midst of It: A Biblical Compendium"

By understanding that suffering and pain are completely to be expected in the Christian life, we can defeat the devil's purpose of trying to take away our joy and peace.

5) Moreover, Catholics understand the notion of redemptive suffering: a very beautiful thing, so that all suffering (including dealing with demonic oppression and all the devil's tricks and schemes, generally speaking) can be put to good spiritual purpose, and actually bring about joy. I have recently compiled Scripture along those lines as well:

"Biblical Evidence for Penitential and Redemptive Suffering"

"Lenten Meditation: The New Testament on Suffering With Christ"

"Colossians 1:24 and One Interesting Protestant Interpretation (Rev. Michael Pahls)"

"Biblical Evidence For Purgatory and Analogous Processes (50 Passages)"

6) Judy and I have often had an experience where one or the other of us was greatly upset about something (perhaps instances of demonic oppression in some cases). At such times (more so in the past for some reason) we would pray that the Holy Spirit would come upon the other and bring peace. Then both of us experienced (again and again) an extraordinary calm and peace, literally beyond description: a sort of extreme, absolutely anxiety-free relaxation. We've both experienced this many times. It's almost like a "divine tranquilizer." But the key is to not get so hung up on seemingly supernatural experiences like this, so that we are routinely invoking them. Then we have put the experience (a sort of spiritual high) above the goal (eliminating anxiety). So we do this very rarely. But it is authentic and extraordinary when it occurs.

7) I went through a great deal of personal torment during the period of my initial evangelical Protestant campus ministry (1985-1989) because of misunderstandings, economic hardships, and in some cases, even semi-betrayal. So naturally at times I was afflicted with doubt about whether I should continue (never about the value of the thing itself). That was my cross in those days (now I have others). Judy's cross was a deep hurt over things that were said by people we cared about. But she never for a second wanted to give up, and when I did, it was her 100%, doubt-free support that was the only thing that kept me from not throwing in the towel. Where I was frustrated and angry at the "unfairness" of it, she was simply hurt and cut to the quick (being the fragile, sensitive, gentle, and compassionate creature that she is). That is an example where the devil will get in and have a field day. "Kick a man when he is down," etc. If someone is being wronged in the first place, then the first thing that the devil does is start insinuating: "see, all those critics are right! Why are there so many of 'em? Hmmm? It's because what you are doing is worthless in the first place. Even your friends know that! Why don't you listen to them? They know what's best for you. You're just in this for yourself. You're a failure. You're wasting your time." Etc., etc. blah blah blah.

But when one is acquainted with Scripture and also the experience of the saints, one understands that very often, those who are trying to devote themselves to some particular ministry or work of the Lord, and faithfully following and persevering in the vocation that God gave them, are greatly misunderstood and opposed, and have to suffer a great deal. We have to be sure that what we are doing is in God's will, so that we won't be swayed by fallible and erroneous human criticism that comes for many different reasons, and which is used mightily by the devil to cause self-doubt and self-condemnation. Of course, there are times when the critics are right, and we are indeed doing something wrong or imprudent or downright foolish. That's why it has to come down to knowledge of the Bible and spiritual discernment and prayer (and proper guidance from spiritual authorities), to know we are doing the right thing, and not a foolish thing out of God's will. If we're in God's will, by all indications, then we have to carry on, no matter what opposition we get, or who it comes from. None of this is unexpected at all. It is how the devil works. There are always more than enough people willing to enter into the devil's condemnations and accusations concerning things that they poorly understand.

8) Most Catholics are aware of the great suffering that the saints go through, often including even the "dark night of the soul." The more holy we desire to be, the more we will be attacked (with suffering in general and demonic oppression and opposition). The Lord uses mightily those who understand this and who are willing to voluntarily undergo more suffering in order to grow spiritually. When we understand that our suffering can be a cause in helping other souls (#5 above), then we have gotten to an extraordinary place in our walk with God. May we all attain to that, by His grace! I'd love to get there one day! I understand it in my head, but doing it and living it and (most amazing of all) truly having joy while going through it are entirely different ballgames from mere head knowledge.

9) I think we also need to factor in temperamental and personality / psychological factors, too. Everyone is different. Some of us are very insecure for various reasons. Some have a lot harder time accepting themselves and their failures than others. We have differing levels of self-confidence or self-image. Some have had very troubled childhoods (or marriages, or personal losses, etc.) and have experienced suffering the rest of us can only dimly imagine. According to the hurts we have experienced, we are that much more weak, on a human level. And so condemning thoughts may simply be (at least at first) our own ambivalent or hurt feelings. The devil can exploit that, for sure, and use it to his nefarious ends, but it may not literally be the devil initiating this. There is scrupulosity and perfectionism. Moods can come and go. Some of us are very moody and don't know what to expect even the next day. Even the weather can be a huge factor for some. For others (my own type), feelings and days are pretty much the same, barring some huge cataclysmic event. But I did experience a six-month clinical depression when I was 18-19, so I have first-hand knowledge of that, too (which is a good thing in order to better understand what serious depression is like).

In short, some (not denying anyone's self-report!) of what we might think is "demonic oppression" may simply be a mood swing or a purely biochemical phenomenon (such as the bipolar condition, etc.). Life has its highs and lows, and illness affects this as well. We can be on an adrenalin (or, "new exciting thing") high, but this is almost always followed by a low to sort of even things out. I see it in my kids: they'll go off to some tremendous retreat or campout and then a day or two after they get back, they are in the dumps. We see this even in great biblical figures like Elijah. So we need to take into account whether something is purely a natural phenomenon rather than a supernatural, involving a direct attack from Satan himself. In either case, we need to seek God's help in overcoming: through prayer, counsel, Bible-reading, fellowship, solace and support from friends and loved ones, medication (as the case may be), the sacraments, the Mass, adoration and other devotional practices, etc.

Depression or anxiety or similar things could be brought on by biochemical imbalance, stress, lack of sleep, lousy food, fatigue, other illnesses, etc., and then possibly confused with being "demonic"? What may be our own internal psychological problems could sometimes get interpreted as a "demonic attack". I'm not dismissing the reality of those attacks at all; I'm just pointing out that some may be misinterpreted or misdefined (just as one can say, e.g., -- as the Church herself does -- that not all alleged Marian apparitions are authentic, without in the slightest denying the authentic ones). This is only one point of eight that I am making (and I purposely put it last).

I think it is an error to conclude that every bad thing that happens to us is a demonic attack, just as it is to ignore the devil entirely, not to be vigilant against him, or to deny his existence. The devil can easily (and will!) exploit both extremes. The Catholic life is always one of balance between the extremes we so often see in the secular society and in non-Catholic communions.