November 18, 2021

Including Biblical Evidence of Analogous Miracles of a Supernatural Change of a Substance Minus Outward Physical Evidence 

Jason Engwer is a Protestant and anti-Catholic apologist, who runs the Tribalblogue site. I am responding to his article, You Ought To Believe In A Real Absence (7-29-19). His words will be in blue.


Roman Catholics (and others) often criticize those who don’t believe in a physical presence of Christ in the eucharist by referring to that view as “the real absence”, in contrast to the real presence. They often act as though the phrase “real absence” does so much heavy lifting that they don’t need to do much beyond applying that label to their opponents’ view. But there’s nothing wrong with absence in this context, and it actually makes a lot more sense than the alternative.

For one thing, the original backdrop to the eucharist involved the absence of a physical presence in the Passover elements:

That the bread ‘is’ his body means that it ‘represents’ it; we should interpret his words here no more literally than the disciples would have taken the normal words of the Passover liturgy, related to Deuteronomy 16:3 (cf. Stauffer 1960:117): ‘This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate when they came from the land of Egypt.’ (By no stretch of the imagination did anyone suppose that they were re-eating the very bread the Israelites had eaten in the wilderness.) Those who ate of this bread participated by commemoration in Jesus’ affliction in the same manner that those who ate the Passover commemorated in the deliverance of their ancestors….M. Pesah. 10:6 uses the Passover wine as a metaphor for the blood of the covenant in Ex. 24:8″. (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 631, n. 27 on 631)

The problem with this commentary is what I pointed out in my previous reply to Jason, which was devoted to the great eucharistic discourse: John 6. Was Jesus teaching only that “bread of life” was simply metaphor for belief in Him and that there is no physical and sacramental substantial bodily presence in the Eucharist?

No; as I demonstrated in that article, both things are true: He used a metaphor for belief and faith in Him (“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst”: Jn 6:35, RSV), but also made it clear that He was talking about His literal Body and Blood (in a supernatural sacramental sense; not the “cannibalistic” sense):

John 6:51 . . . the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.

John 6:54 . . . he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, . . .

John 6:56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

Secondly, Biblical precedent gives us reason to conclude that no physical transformation has occurred if there’s an absence of physical evidence of such a transformation. For example, in John 2, Jesus didn’t change the water into wine under the appearance of remaining water. He didn’t heal lepers and blind men under the appearance of their remaining leprous and blind. Physical miracles produced the sort of corresponding physical evidence you’d expect. The absence of such evidence in the context of the eucharist is most reasonably taken as implying the absence of such a physical transformation.

This is untrue as well. Jesus had a body after His resurrection (and He encouraged His disciples to touch Him, including His wounds, to establish this fact), but it was a glorified body. He could, for example, pass through walls in a way that we normally deem to be physically impossible (yet which modern quantum physics actually claims is entirely possible). See John 20:19 . . .

Now, one could say that the “physical evidence” (I suppose) was His passing through the wall of the house, but how is that “physical” in an empirical sense? As far as the disciples were concerned, Jesus still had a normal physical body. He even ate with them. For that matter, how would someone “physically” prove that Jesus was God, even before He was resurrected? By looking at His cells in a microscope? There was no way to do that. The incarnation has to be received with faith as a supernatural miracle. So why does Jason demand so much more of the Eucharist?

Therefore, “Biblical precedent” indeed “gives us reason to conclude” that a “physical transformation has occurred” in the “absence of physical evidence of such a transformation.” The truth is the opposite of what Jason claims. And it is an analogy to transubstantiation. Moreover, this is not the only biblical example:

Exodus 13:21 And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night; (cf. 14:24; Num 14:14; Neh 9:12, 19)

Note what is happening here. We’re talking about actual clouds (a form of water) and fire, which “consist[s] primarily of carbon dioxide, water vapor, oxygen and nitrogen” (Wikipedia, “fire”). Yet God is somehow “in” both of them (so much so that the ancient Hebrews would worship God facing this cloud: Ex 33:10). How? How could one tell the difference between a regular old cloud or a fire and the ones that God was “in”?

They couldn’t. And no one could today, either, if God did that again. The only difference is that God said He was in both, in particular circumstances when both formed a “pillar.” But that’s not physical proof. It’s revelation. And it is exactly the same, analogously, as what we have in the Eucharist (substance hanging without the accidents or appearances changing).

With regard to fire with God specially “in” it, we also have the burning bush (Ex 3:2-6), which is not only fire, but also called an “angel of the Lord” (Ex 3:2), yet also “God” (3:4, 6, 11, 13-16, 18; 4:5, 7-8) and “the LORD” (3:7, 16, 18; 4:2, 4-6, 10-11, 14) interchangeably. Also, the Bible states: “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire” (Ex 19:18).

Next question? Jason and Protestants generally want to “argue Bible”? As usual, I’m running circles around him giving relevant Bible passages, whereas he mostly sits there and cynically speculates out of his own head about all kinds of things. He doesn’t ground his arguments in the Bible as I do. He claims he is doing so but doesn’t demonstrate it. He talks about supposed lack of “biblical precedent” while I prove that precedent exists that demolishes his contentions (mere traditions of men).

Lastly, scripture teaches us that Jesus is to be absent for a while (Matthew 24:23-27, Mark 14:7, John 14:2-3, 14:28, Acts 1:11, 3:21). He’s still spiritually present, and you have to allow for exceptions to the generalities in the passages I just cited (e.g., Jesus’ appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, which seems to have been a physical appearance, like the other resurrection appearances). But a belief in Jesus’ physical presence in the eucharist would have him physically present frequently, if not all of the time or the large majority of the time.

When discussing the eucharist, Paul refers to how it proclaims Jesus’ death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). That sort of language makes more sense if Jesus is physically absent, but will return physically in the future. It makes less sense if he’s continually physically present, but will also come physically in some other sense in the future. Much the same can be said about Paul’s comments on being “absent from the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 5:6 (see, also, Philippians 1:23, 1 Thessalonians 4:17).

This is category confusion on Jason’s part. There are five senses in which we can refer to Jesus being “present” with us on earth:

1) His time spent on earth as a physical man, for about 33 years, from His birth to His crucifixion, resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, and ascension. [physical]

2) The indwelling: an attribute He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the same Last Supper Discourse (John 14-17) Jesus referred to He Himself (and God the Father) being “in” us [non-material / as a spirit]:

John 14:18 . . . I will come to you. (cf.  14:16-17)
John 14:20 . . . I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
John 14:23 . . . my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
John 15:5 . . . He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit . . .
John 17:23 I in them, and thou in me, . . .
3) In the sense that He is (as God) omnipresent [non-material / as a spirit]:
Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Matthew 28:20 . . .  I am with you always, to the close of the age.
Ephesians 1:22-23 …the church, [23] which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.
Colossians 3:11 …Christ is all, and in all.
4) Supernatural eucharistic presence: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity [spiritual and sacramentally / miraculously physical and substantial]
5) After His return to earth as a physical man[-God] with a glorified body at the Second Coming [physical].
Now let’s look at Jason’s specific argument:
1 Corinthians 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This is clearly referring to the Second Coming, or #5 above. So we can speak in terms of that being in the future, and His time living and teaching on the earth being in the past, while the senses of presence #2-4 are ongoing in the interim period. No contradiction! It’s just Jason’s characteristic lack of making crucial distinctions.
Paul’s being “absent from the Lord” or “away from the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6, RSV) is a sixth kind of presence of Jesus: not on earth but in heaven. It’s clearly what Paul is referring to here and in 5:8: “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” We also know this from context. 5:10 refers to appearing before “the judgment seat of Christ.” This simply has nothing to do with eucharistic presence at all. It’s a non sequitur.
Philippians 1:23 is in the same sense: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” He’s talking about being in heaven with God, like he did in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” 1 Thessalonians refers to the time of the Second Coming and being with Jesus thereafter. It’s all irrelevant to the matter of eucharistic presence.
An especially significant passage in this context is Mark 14:7. The surrounding context involves the Passover and the Last Supper. Jesus is anointed by a woman and makes the comment in verse 7 about how they won’t always have him around to do good to him as that woman did, whereas they’ll always have the poor around to do good to them. The passage refers to how the woman has anointed his body, and he refers to how she’s prepared him for burial. The focus is on the physical, especially Jesus’ body. What comes between Mark 14:7 and the burial? The events commemorated in communion. So, those events are included in how the woman has done good to Jesus. In fact, as I’ve documented elsewhere, Jesus’ burial was a prominent theme in early Christianity, often referred to in gospel summaries, baptism, etc. The implication of Jesus’ comment in Mark 14:7 is that doing good to him bodily in that context isn’t something they’ll always be able to do. Yet, that’s what Catholics claim to do frequently in communion. They honor Jesus’ body in communion in various ways, with altars, monstrances, church services, etc., worship him in that context, and so on.
This is a silly, frivolous argument. Jesus is here obviously referring to His presence in the sense of #1 above. Jason is foolishly mixing up categories.
If the physical presence of Christ in the eucharist is as significant as Catholics make it out to be, and they experience it as often as they claim to, then it’s harder to make sense of these New Testament references to the absence of Jesus.
Not in the slightest. One simply has to be aware of the different kinds of presence involved. Jason isn’t, and so he is out to sea, and makes  irrelevant, desperate arguments as a result.
And keep in mind that the issue isn’t whether it’s possible to reconcile these passages with the Catholic view. Rather, the issue is which view makes the most sense of the evidence.
Exactly! The Catholic view does, and the low church Protestant view does not, as repeatedly shown.
There’s no shame in believing in a real absence.
There’s a ton of shame, because it’s blasphemous (rejecting Jesus’ teaching) and an adoption of what the heretical sects throughout history have believed, rather than the unbroken history of what the apostles, early Church, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and high church Protestantism (Anglicans, Lutherans — starting with Martin Luther himself –, some Methodists and others) have believed. Falsehood comes from the devil, and it prevents Christian believers from receiving all the grace and blessing that God has for them.
In fact, that view is more consistent with the original context of the eucharist, the physical evidence we have pertaining to the eucharist and how that evidence relates to the history of Biblical miracles, and the Biblical affirmation of the absence of Jesus.
Not at all, as shown. Jason, in all likelihood (judging from longstanding history) will not respond to any of this, and I say that he cannot sensibly do so even if he were willing to. Any other Protestant is welcome to take a shot at it. Be my guest!


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Summary: Anti-Catholic Jason Engwer takes one of his groundless potshots against Catholicism: this time against transubstantiation, with a “real absence” argument.

November 9, 2021

Jason Engwer is a Protestant and anti-Catholic apologist, who runs the Tribalblogue site. I will be responding to several of his “anti-Mary” comments, as noted. His words will be in blue.


Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:35 involves a negative assessment of Mary, not a positive one. It’s about a sword of division and judgment that will adversely affect Mary. See, especially, the use of sword imagery in Ezekiel. (combox comment, 12-14-16)

Luke 2:34-35 (RSV) and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against  [35] (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.

Many Protestant Bible commentaries express not a hint of the irrational hostility to Mary that Jason blasphemously asserts here (a prophecy originating from God that contains a supposed “negative assessment of Mary”). Here is a sampling of those with a quite different take on this passage:

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers The announcement of the special sorrow that was to be the Virgin Mother’s portion, comes as the sequel to “the sign that is spoken against,” the antagonism which her Son would meet with. We may find fulfilments of it when the men of Nazareth sought to throw Him from the brow of their hill (Luke 4:29); . . . when she stood by the cross, and heard the blasphemies and revilings of the priests and people (John 19:26).

Expositor’s Greek Testament καὶ σοῦ, singles out the mother for a special share in the sorrow connected with the tragic career of one destined to be much spoken against (ἀντιλεγόμενον); this inevitable because of a mother’s intense love. Mary’s sorrow is compared vividly to a sword (ῥομφαία here and in Revelation 1:16, and in Sept[30], Zechariah 13:7) passing through her soul. It is a figure strong enough to cover the bitterest experiences of the Mater Dolorosa, . . .

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible  The sufferings and death of thy Son shall deeply afflict thy soul. And if Mary had not been thus forewarned and sustained by strong faith, she could not have borne the trials which came upon her Son; but God prepared her for it, and the holy mother of the dying Saviour was sustained.

That the thoughts … – This is connected with the preceding verse: “He shall be a sign, a conspicuous object to be spoken against, that the thoughts of many hearts may be made manifest – that is, that they “might show” how much they hated holiness. Nothing so “brings out” the feelings of sinners as to tell them of Jesus Christ.

Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges Almost from the very birth of Christ the sword began to pierce the soul of the ‘Mater Dolorosa;’ and what tongue can describe the weight of mysterious anguish which she felt as she watched the hatred and persecution which followed Jesus and saw Him die in anguish on the cross amid the execrations of all classes of those whom He came to save!

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible  the sorrows she met with on account of her son: as he was a man of sorrows, so was she a woman of sorrows, from his cradle to his cross; and his sorrows, like so many darts, or javelins, rebounded from him to her, and pierced her soul through;

Vincent’s Word Studies A sword (ῥομφαία). Strictly, a large Thracian broadsword. Used in Septuagint of the sword of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:51). A figure of Mary’s pang when her son should be nailed to the cross.

John Calvin’s Commentaries This warning must have contributed greatly to fortify the mind of the holy virgin, and to prevent her from being overwhelmed with grief, when she came to those distressing struggles, which she had to undergo. . . . She was not overwhelmed with grief; but it would have required a heart of stone not to be deeply wounded: . . .

Adam Clarke’s Commentary [A]s this is a metaphor used by the most respectable Greek writers to express the most pungent sorrow, it may here refer to the anguish Mary must have felt when standing beside the cross of her tortured son: John 19:25.

John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible A sword shall pierce through thy own soul – So it did, when he suffered: particularly at his crucifixion.

Dom Bernard Orchard’s Catholic Commentary of 1953 offers particularly insightful commentary:

So far all has been on a note of joy and welcome; now there is a promise of tragedy, strife and the sword. Simeon thus gives a more complete picture of OT predictions. Note ‘is set’ (κεῖται) is pre-ordained; perhaps he has in mind such texts as Is 8:14.; 28:16; Ps 117:22; cf. Mt 21:44. Some have put 35in parenthesis for fear of attributing anything derogatory to Mary; Origen and some of the ancient commentators, thinking of Mk 3:21, interpreted the words as foretelling that she would be tempted to doubt her Son. But it seems more probable that 35applies to all the preceding; as Jesus will later say, contact with him reveals all hearts, i.e. the dispositions of soul in each one. There can be no neutrality; everyone must come to a decision. The same idea is in the Magnificat. But it is only natural that the heart of Mary will be pierced with sorrow by the opposition shown to her Son. Tongues of enemies are like a sharp sword, Ps 56:5; 63:4.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the incident of 2:48-50 and its surrounding context follow so soon after the account involving Simeon’s prophecy. 2:48-50 opens with a quotation of Mary’s inappropriate comments in verse 48, followed by Jesus’ rebuke of her in verse 49, and concludes with Luke’s comments about her ignorance in verse 50. . . . And that passage is likely intended by Luke to be an illustration of how the sword of division and judgment affected Mary. (combox comment, 12-14-16)

Luke 2:45-50 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. [46] After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; [47] and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. [48] And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” [49] And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [50] And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.

Jason seeks to attach blame to the Blessed Virgin Mary based on this text. I addressed the topic in my paper, Jason Engwer and a Supposedly Sinful Mary (11-16-20):

I don’t think “why have you treated us so?” is necessarily (wholly apart from theology and viewed logically and grammatically) an accusation of sinfulness on Jesus’ part at all. Mary and Joseph were simply (undeniably) perplexed, but it doesn’t follow that they were therefore accusing Jesus of sin. After all, all Christians believe that God is sinless, yet we are often perplexed by His words or actions or lack of answers to prayers, etc. None of that automatically means that we accuse God of sin.

We’re simply confused and lacking answers and full knowledge, while we accept certain mysteries in faith and the fact that God’s ways are much higher than ours. So they asked, “why have you treated us so?” They didn’t understand. And I’m sure they would have been the first to admit that they wouldn’t always fully understand God the Son.

The 1953 Catholic Commentary, edited by Dom Bernard Orchard, noted:

Mary and Joseph are also amazed. . . but Lk gives the reason in 48b: Jesus has never behaved so to Mary before. It is to be remembered that with her, as with others, Jesus had conducted himself as a normal child; his divinity was to her, as to us, an object of faith and not vision. . . . 51also throws light on the point. ‘They learnt only gradually what his Messiahship involved (cf. 2:34–35) and this is one stage in the process. From the point of view of her subsequent knowledge, Mary recognized that she and Joseph had not understood’ (Plummer ICC on 2:51).

Pope St. John Paul II offers further explanation:

Several early Fathers of the Church, who were not yet convinced of her perfect holiness, attributed imperfections or moral defects to Mary. Some recent authors have taken the same position. However, the Gospel texts cited to justify these opinions provide no basis at all for attributing a sin or even a moral imperfection to the Mother of the Redeemer.

Jesus’s reply to his mother at the age of 12: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49), has sometimes been interpreted as a veiled rebuke. A careful reading of the episode, however, shows that Jesus did not rebuke his mother and Joseph for seeking him, since they were responsible for looking after him.

Coming upon Jesus after an anxious search, Mary asked him only the “why” of his behaviour: “Son, why have you treated us so?” (Lk 2:48). And Jesus answers with another “why”, refraining from any rebuke and referring to the mystery of his divine sonship. (“Mary Was Free from All Personal Sin,” 6-26-96)

Regarding Mary’s alleged knowledge of what Jesus would do, Tertullian referred to “a want of evidence of His mother’s adherence to Him…their [Mary and Jesus’ brothers] unbelief is evident…they set small store on that which [Jesus] was doing within [the house in Matthew 12:46-50]…they prefer to interrupt Him, and wish to call Him away from His great work” (On The Flesh Of Christ, 7). He goes on to criticize Mary and Jesus’ brothers for “the importunity of those who would call Him away from His work”, and he goes on to remark, “When denying one’s parents in indignation [as Jesus did in Matthew 12], one does not deny their existence, but censures their faults….in the abjured mother there is a figure of the synagogue, as well as of the Jews in the unbelieving brethren. In their person Israel remained outside, whilst the new disciples who kept close to Christ within, hearing and believing, represented the Church, which He called mother in a preferable sense and a worthier brotherhood, with the repudiation of the carnal relationship” (ibid.). (combox comment, 12-14-16)

Matthew 12:46-50 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. [48] But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” [49] And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! [50] For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

I dealt with this in my paper, “Who is My Mother?”: Beginning of “Familial Church”. Here is the gist of my argument:

James Spencer Northcote comments on these passages:

We are quite at liberty to imagine, if we like, that Our Lord, after uttering the words which the Evangelists have recorded, rose up and proceeded to grant His Mother the interview she had asked for; there would be nothing at all strange in such a supposition; on the contrary, it is more possible than not; but it is not certain. All that we are told is that He answered the interruption in these words, “Who is My mother and My brethren? And then looking round about on them who sat about Him, He saith, Behold My mother and My brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of God, he is My brother, and My sister, and mother.”

I need not say that these words were not really an answer sent to His mother and brethren, but rather a lesson of instruction addressed to those “who sat about Him;” nor can it be necessary to point out to anyone who is familiar with the Gospels, how common a thing it was with our Blessed Lord to direct His answers not so much to the questions that had been put forward, as to the inward thoughts and motives of those who put them; how sometimes He set aside the question altogether as though he had not heard it, yet proceeded to make it the occasion of imparting some general lesson which it suggested. This is precisely what He does now.

Jesus took this opportunity to show that He regarded all of His followers (in what would become the Christian Church) as family. Similarly, He told His disciples, “I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15). It doesn’t follow that this is “a rebuff of this kin” (i.e., his immediate family). He simply moved from literal talk of families to a larger conception and vision of families as those who do “the will of God.” Thus, Jesus habitually used “brethren” to describe those who were not His immediate family [I cite Matthew 5:47; 23:8; 25:40; 28:10; Luke 22:32; John 20:17] . . .

It’s not a rebuff of His mother and father and half-brothers and/or cousins . . .; it’s simply the beginning of the Body of Christ, and the Christian Church being regarded as one large, extended family.

There is nothing in this passage to suggest unbelief of the “brothers”; let alone His mother (though there is data about the cousins’ / half-brothers’ unbelief in other passages). All it says is that they wanted to see Him. How is that unbelief? Nor is it a rebuke, as explained. So Tertullian starts with unwarranted false premises and goes on to even worse false conclusions based on them.

John Chrysostom repeatedly accuses Mary of a variety of sins, and he doesn’t seem to think she was as knowledgeable as John Mark Reynolds claims:

“For in fact that which she [Mary] had essayed to do [in Matthew 12:46-50], was of superfluous vanity; in that she wanted to show the people that she hath power and authority over her Son, imagining not as yet anything great concerning Him; whence also her unseasonable approach. See at all events both her self-confidence and theirs.” (Homilies On Matthew, 44)

“For where parents cause no impediment or hindrance in things belonging to God, it is our bounden duty to give way to them, and there is great danger in not doing so; but when they require anything unseasonably, and cause hindrance in any spiritual matter, it is unsafe to obey. And therefore He answered thus in this place, and again elsewhere, ‘Who is My mother, and who are My brethren?’ [Matthew 12:48], because they did not yet think rightly of Him; and she, because she had borne Him, claimed, according to the custom of other mothers, to direct Him in all things, when she ought to have reverenced and worshiped Him. This then was the reason why He answered as He did on that occasion….And so this was a reason why He rebuked her on that occasion, saying, ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ [John 2:4] instructing her for the future not to do the like; because, though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much for the salvation of her soul” (Homilies On John, 21). (combox comment, 12-14-16)

Once again, there appears to be nothing in the text to suggest all of these nefarious supposed intentions or motivations of Mary. Once Jesus’ reply is properly exegeted in light of His similar behavior and utterances elsewhere, it is readily seen to not be a rebuke at all. If it’s not a rebuke, then there is no implied sin on Mary’s part, since her alleged “sin” — in the minds of these critics — seems to be predicated upon Jesus’ reply being a censure or rebuke.

As for John 2:4, this was not a rebuke, either, as Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin has ably explained.

I note also that no Church father, in the Catholic system of belief, is believed to be infallible. That’s reserved for Scripture and what is authoritatively taught by the Church at the highest levels (by popes and ecumenical councils in union with him). A Church father being incorrect, even on a matter as important as this, is no disproof whatsoever of Catholicism. It’s not even an inconsistency.

Even Jason concedes — at least in part — concerning these negative comments of some Church fathers towards Mary: “they’re more critical of Mary than I am. I agree with them that she’s a sinner, that passages like Matthew 12:46-50 and Luke 2:35 reflect negatively on her, etc., but I think some of the fathers sometimes were overly critical of her”. (combox comment, 12-14-16)

Athanasius refers to how sinfulness dominated mankind before the coming of Christ. He mentions Mary in passing, but not as somebody who was sinless. Rather, he cites Jeremiah and John the Baptist as examples of individuals who were delivered from sin in the womb. He doesn’t seem to think that Mary was sinless before Jesus’ incarnation: . . . [cites Four Discourses Against The Arians, 3:33] (More Early Sources On Whether Mary Was Sinless, 6-13-16)

This is similar to Martin Luther’s position later in his life on Mary’s immaculate conception (what I have described as “immaculate purification”). But note that since this sinlessness would begin at the moment Jesus was conceived (taking Jason’s description at face value), then Mary would have been sinless from that moment (which would include all of the biblical accounts describing her, including the Annunciation: by which time she was sinless, having conceived the Incarnate Son of God.

John Chrysostom:

“And moreover, none of these, not even His mother nor His brethren, knew Him as they ought; for after His many miracles, the Evangelist says of His brethren, ‘For neither did His brethren believe in Him.’ [John 7:5]” (Homilies On John, 22:1). (More Early Sources On Whether Mary Was Sinless, 6-13-16)

Mary was not one of Jesus’ “brethren” but rather, His mother. The Bible never states that she in particular did not believe in Him or His mission. To the contrary, from the beginning, she knew exactly Who He was (see my paper, Mary’s Knowledge About Jesus’ Divinity), and the Bible never gives the slightest hint that she wavered from this revealed knowledge. If she had, surely that would have been made clear, as the Bible never shrinks from revealing faults of even the most eminent people (Moses, Paul, Peter, David, Noah, etc.).

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman made several penetrating comments on the question of the Church fathers, tradition, and development of the doctrine of a sinless and immaculate Mary:

You will ask perhaps, ’Why then was there so much controversy about the doctrine or about its definition?’ . . . I do not see any difficulty in the matter. From the beginning of the Church even good and holy men have got involved in controversies of words. . . . The devotion to her has gradually and slowly extended through the Church; the doctrine about her being always the same from the first. But the gradual growth of the devotion was a cause why that doctrine, in spite of its having been from the first, should have been but slowly recognised, slowly defined. . . . ’The new devotion was first heard of in the ninth century.’ Suppose I say, ’The new doctrine of our Lord’s immensity, contradicted by all the Ante-nicene Fathers, was first heard of in the creed of St Athanasius?’ or ’The Filioque, protested against by the Orthodox Church to this day, was first heard of in the 7th Century?’ Whatever principle is adduced to explain the latter statement will avail for the first. . . . The Holy Ghost’s eternity is involved in His divinity; the Blessed Virgin’s immaculateness in her conception is involved in the general declarations of the Fathers about her sinlessness. If all Catholics have not seen this at once, we must recollect that there were at first mistakes among pious and holy men about the attributes of the Holy Spirit. . . . I fully grant that there is not that formal documentary evidence for the doctrine in question which there is for some other doctrines, but I maintain also that, from its character, it does not require it. (Letters & Diaries xix; To Arthur Osborne Alleyne, 15 June 1860)

[A]s to the antiquity of the doctrine. In the first ages original sin was not. formally spoken of in contrast to actual. In the fourth century, Pelagius denied it, and was refuted and denounced by St Augustine. Not till the time of St Augustine could the question be mooted precisely whether our Lady was without original sin or not. Up to his time, and after his time, it was usual to say or to imply that Mary had nothing to do with sin, in vague terms. The earliest Fathers, St Justin, St Irenaeus etc. contrast her with Eve, while they contrast our Lord with Adam. In doing this – 1. they, sometimes imply, sometimes insist upon, the point that Eve sinned when tried, and Mary did not sin when tried; and 2. they say that, by not sinning, Mary had a real part in the work of redemption, in a way in which no other creature had a share. This does not go so far as actually to pronounce that she had the grace of God from the first moment of her existence, and never was under the power of original sin, but by comparing her with Eve, who was created of course without original sin, and by giving her so high an office, it implies it. Next, shortly after St Augustine, the 3rd General Council was held against Nestorius, and declared Mary to be the Mother of God. From this time the language of the Fathers is very strong, though vague, about her immaculateness. In the time of Mahomet the precise doctrine seems to have been taught in the East, for I think he mentions it in the Koran. In the middle ages, when everything was subjected to rigid examination of a reasoning character, the question was raised whether the doctrine was consistent with the Blessed Virgin’s having a human father and mother – and serious objections were felt to it on this score. Men defined the words ’Immaculate Conception’ differently from what I have done above, and in consequence denied it. St Bernard and St Thomas, in this way, were opposed to it, and the Dominicans. A long controversy ensued and a hot one – it lasted many centuries. At length, in our time, it has been defined in that sense in which I have explained the words above – a sense, which St Bernard, St Thomas, and the Dominicans did not deny. The same controversy about the sense of a word had occurred in the instance of the first General Council at Nicaea. The Nicene Creed uses the word ’Consubstantial’ to protect the doctrine of our Lord’s divinity against Arius, which the great Council of Antioch some 70 years before had repudiated as a symbol of heresy. In like manner great Saints have repudiated the words ’Immaculate Conception,’ from taking them in a different sense from that which the Church has accepted and sanctioned. (Letters & Diaries xxii; To Lady Chatterton, 2 Oct. 1865)

This is what is often called development of doctrine. It is no where said e.g., by the early Fathers, that Mary was without sin – but they do say that she is the second Eve, and that also she is the contrary to Eve in not having fallen; from which the Church, under the gift of infallibility, deduces her sinlessness. And this deduction nevertheless might not seem necessary to Catholic believers on the first blush of the matter . . . (Letters & Diaries xxvii, 84; Letter to J. H. Willis Nevins, 25 June 1874)

Related Reading

“All Have Sinned” vs. a Sinless, Immaculate Mary? [1996; revised and posted at National Catholic Register on 12-11-17]
Why Would a Sinless Mary Offer Sacrifices? (vs. Matt Slick) [10-29-20]
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Summary: I examine several biblical passages used by Jason Engwer & Church fathers Tertullian, Chrysostom, & Athanasius to opine on the question of “was Mary sinless?”
October 4, 2021

Jason is a Protestant and anti-Catholic apologist, who runs the Tribalblogue site. I will be responding to his article, What To Make Of 1 Timothy 3:15 And Catholic Claims About It (10-6-20). His words will be in blue.


1 Timothy 3:15b (RSV) . . . the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

Roman Catholics often cite 1 Timothy 3:15 in support of their view of their denomination. 

Yes we do, because it is a rock-solid argument, and (best of all) explicitly biblical. And it is in support of the one true Catholic Church, established by Jesus Christ with St. Peter as its first pope. We don’t believe in denominations, which are not a biblical concept and which essentially began as a scandalous novelty (even Luther and Calvin — very unlike modern Protestants — utterly detested them) 15 centuries after Christ.


– The context makes it more likely that Paul is referring to the local church than that he’s referring to a worldwide denomination, like the Roman Catholic Church. He’s writing to Timothy about the latter’s work in Ephesus (1:3).

Paul was writing about how Christians ought to behave. Behave where? Well, in “the church“: an essential attribute of which he then describes (which seems to me to stand alone as a proposition). If Paul had written all this, ending with “behave in the marketplace” or “behave in the academies” and then proceeded to describe marketplaces or academies, in the same way, his description of those would not have directly to do with the previous section about “behave in such-and-such a manner.”
It’s two distinct propositions.  The behavior he refers to would apply in pretty much all situations (“temperate, faithful in all things . . . let them manage their children and their households well”: 1 Tim 3:11-12). Paul simply threw in a description of the Church for no extra charge.
St. Paul does precisely the same thing with the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians was written to one local Church in Corinth. And so there is much in it pertaining exclusively to that church at that particular time in history. But at the end of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, Paul abruptly switches to talk about the overall Church, the Body of Christ:
1 Corinthians 12:26-30 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. [27] Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. [28] And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. [29] Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? [30] Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
Now, according to Jason’s desperate eisegesis of 1 Timothy 3:15, applied to this passage also, we would have to hold that 12:26-30 was still referring only to the church at Corinth. That would mean that Corinth was the entire “Body of Christ” and that only it has prophets, apostles, teachers, administrators, etc. This is clearly a ridiculous reductio ad absurdum. Therefore, he is speaking of the institutional Church here, and also in 1 Timothy 3:15.
It’s just as silly to think that 1 Timothy 3:15 is any different: as if the local church at Ephesus (referred to one time, in passing, in the entire letter, at the beginning of the chapter, two chapters previously) alone was “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” That’s clearly ludicrous, but this is the desperation that Protestant apologists are reduced to, in trying to “refute” our best prooftexts for  Catholic positions. I understand that the stakes are high. They must discredit this passage because it alone destroys sola Scriptura and strongly backs up the Catholic rule of faith.
– What we read about the Ephesian church elsewhere, such as in Acts 20:17-38 and Revelation 2:1-7, suggests that there was no assurance that the Ephesian church would remain faithful, have an unbroken succession from the apostles in perpetuity, or any other such thing.
No doubt, but none of this proves that 1 Timothy 3:15 was only referring to Ephesus. It’s absurd. I know a weak argument when I see one, after doing apologetics these past forty years.
In Acts 20, Paul expects wolves to come in among the Ephesian leadership and calls on them to remember the teaching they’d received from Jesus and Paul. He says nothing of an assurance that they’ll maintain the faith or how they can look to the infallible church teachings of their day, in addition to remembering the teaching of the past. Even an apostolic church as prominent as Ephesus, one that had the principles of 1 Timothy 3:15 applied so directly to it, could also be addressed in the terms of Acts 20 and Revelation 2.
All of this is perfectly irrelevant (in logic, what we call a non sequitur) to the text in question. But this is what the sophist does. He throws up a bunch of extraneous stuff that is mere obfuscation and obscurantism. Lawyers with a bad case and few facts on their side do the same thing. It’s an unenviable task. It’s much easier to defend the truth. You don’t have to play all these games.
– 1 Timothy 3:15 is addressing a function the church has.
Precisely! And we will unpack the implications of this below.
There’s no reason within the text or nearby context to think that the church will infallibly carry out that function. 
Oh but yes there is, as we shall shortly prove.
Similarly, the people of Israel are referred to as God’s witnesses (Isaiah 43:10-12), Christians are called salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14), etc., but it doesn’t follow that they’ll infallibly fulfill that role or that they’ll have the other relevant characteristics Catholics associate with the 1 Timothy 3 passage.
That’s irrelevant, too. Jason has to explain what it means for the Church to be “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” He’s trying mightily to explain it away, but he’s miserably failing.
– Even if the church were sure to always fulfill the function described in the passage, the church wouldn’t have to be infallible in the particular way Roman Catholicism claims to be.

Obviously a biblical text would not be as developed as Catholic ecclesiology over 2,000 years. Yet the basic concept is here, very strongly expressed.

For example, if there were always a church holding a set of beliefs with some degree of overlap with Roman Catholicism, but not identical to it (Trinitarianism, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, etc.), that wouldn’t be equivalent to the church always fulfilling 1 Timothy 3:15 in the form of Roman Catholicism. You could believe that the function of the 1 Timothy passage has been fulfilled in every generation since the time of the apostles without believing that Catholicism has fulfilled it. Catholicism isn’t the only candidate available, and there are other candidates that are superior.
Well, this gets into the vexed, controversial question of which institutional, historical Christian communion is most plausibly viewed as the one true Church. I’d be absolutely delighted to have that discussion with Jason or anyone else. But he ignores all of my refutations . . .
– We normally think of multiple pillars, not just one, supporting a structure (e.g., Judges 16:29, Galatians 2:9). But the passage uses the singular, “pillar”. The implication is that at least one other entity has the same role the church is described as having.
Nonsense. So Jason notes that the text refers to one pillar, and to him this implies that there are other ones in the sense that the passage expresses. Quite obviously, if that were the case, then the passage would say (duh!) that the Church was “one of many pillars and bulwarks of the truth.” But it says no such thing, and Jason is desperately special pleading.
– The theme of the last part of 1 Timothy 3:15 (upholding the truth) is so broadly applicable that you can’t limit it to the local church, some worldwide denomination like Roman Catholicism, or any other concept of the church.
This is remarkable! Once again, Jason simply ignores what the text says and goes sailing off into fantasy-land, pretending that it is something other than the Church being “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
There are many individuals and groups throughout history who have been called on to be a pillar and support of the truth in some sense. Many individuals and groups outside of any church hierarchy are referred to as having some sort of supporting role, comparable to a pillar, a support, a foundation, or whatever term you want to use (e.g., Luke 8:3, Romans 11:18, 2 Corinthians 8:4, Revelation 3:12). In the Romans 11 passage just cited, Paul is addressing the Roman Christians in particular, warning them not to be arrogant in light of their dependence on the Jewish people. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul refers to wealthy Christians building a foundation for their future through good works (6:17-19). The concept of some entity serving as a support of some other entity, communicated by using architectural terms (a pillar, a foundation, a rock, a bulwark, etc.) or communicated in some other way, is commonplace.
Yes, and what does any of that have to do with the passage under consideration? How is it to be sensibly understood? I will eventually give my view. But right now let’s take note of Jason’s pathetic view: some of the worst argumentation I have ever seen him make in 21 years of debates with him.
The idea that an individual, group, or object has to have attributes like the relevant ones Roman Catholicism claims to have in order to serve as something like a pillar or support of the truth doesn’t make sense, and it would lead to absurd conclusions if applied to other passages. The language Paul uses in 1 Timothy 3:15 is too vague, making it open to a variety of applications, to justify the Catholic use of the passage. We see the same sort of variability with the metaphors used in other contexts. God is referred to as a light (Isaiah 60:19, Micah 7:8, John 8:12), and so are other entities (Isaiah 62:1, Matthew 5:14, Philippians 2:15). But they’re lights in a variety of ways. When metaphors like these are used, involving architecture, light, or whatever else, there isn’t much you can derive from them. That kind of metaphor typically isn’t meant to convey as much as Catholics want it to in the context of 1 Timothy 3:15. You have to bring in other evidence if you want to justify the sort of conclusions Catholics often claim to be deriving from 1 Timothy 3. But, then, it’s no longer just a matter of what that 1 Timothy 3 passage tells us. And if Catholics are going to bring in other considerations, so can their opponents.

Jason: the master of the non sequitur and obfuscation. Just throw any type of manure against the “wall” [of a rational, logical, exegetical position] and hope some of it will stick . . . Well, it ain’t stickin’, but it’s sure stinkin’ up the place.

– The wide applicability of the language is illustrated in some second-century sources. Eusebius quotes a document providing an account of some martyrs in Irenaeus’ day, and that document refers to a man named Attalus as “a native of Pergamos where he had always been a pillar and foundation” (Church History 5:1:17). Irenaeus wrote, “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” (Against Heresies, 3:1:1) He refers to how “the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life” (3:11:8).
– In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (recall what I said above about the relationship between 1 Timothy and Ephesus), he refers to how Christians in general, not just a church hierarchy, a Pope, or ecumenical councils, for example, are to uphold the truth in various ways. They’re to “speak the truth” (4:15), for example. In fact, relative to how short the letter is, there are a lot of references to truth in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (1:13, 4:15, 4:21, 4:24, 4:25, 5:9, 6:14). All of those references to truth are applicable to Christians in general, not just a church hierarchy or an allegedly infallible portion of the hierarchy.

Again, none of this exegetes the passage at hand. It just doesn’t.

– The language Paul uses to describe the church in 1 Timothy 3:15 (“the household of God”, “the church of the living God”) and his reference to “how one ought to conduct himself in” that church make more sense if his focus is on the congregation in general. See the similar concepts in Ephesians 2:19-22, for example. The language is less likely to be referring only to the hierarchy, to some portion of the hierarchy that allegedly is infallible, or some such thing. And just as laymen aren’t infallible in their role of upholding the truth, neither are those serving in the hierarchy. Furthermore, Paul’s references to the Ephesians in general upholding the truth in his letter to the Ephesians (as discussed above) offer another line of evidence that he had the church in general in mind. Even if we assumed that Paul was using the language of the church in general as shorthand for a particular portion of the church, there would be no way to justify the conclusion that the portion of the church Paul was thinking of is the portion Catholicism has in mind. But, again, the most sensible way to take the passage is that the church in general is being referred to, and Catholics don’t want to assign attributes like an unbroken succession and infallibility to the church in general.
He gets a little closer to the actual text here, but is still very far away. Now let me give you an example of how Catholics interpret it. You be the judge as to which interpretation is more plausible. Here is the related portion of my book, 100 Biblical Arguments Against Sola Scriptura (2012, pp. 104-107, #82; with one “footnote-type” bracketed interjection added):

Pillars and foundations support things and prevent them from collapsing. To be a “bulwark” of the truth, means to be a “safety net” against truth turning into falsity. If the Church could err, it could not be what Scripture says it is. God’s truth would be the house built on a foundation of sand in Jesus’ parable. For this passage of Scripture to be true, the Church could not err — it must be infallible. A similar passage may cast further light on 1 Timothy 3:15:

Ephesians 2:19-21 . . . you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, [20] built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, [21] in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;

1 Timothy 3:15 defines “household of God” as “the church of the living God.” Therefore, we know that Ephesians 2:19-21 is also referring to the Church, even though that word is not present. Here the Church’s own “foundation” is “the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” The foundation of the Church itself is Jesus and apostles and prophets.

Prophets spoke “in the name of the Lord” (1 Chron 21:19; 2 Chron 33:18; Jer 26:9), and commonly introduced their utterances with “thus says the Lord” (Is 10:24; Jer 4:3; 26:4; Ezek 13:8; Amos 3:11-12; and many more). They spoke the “word of the Lord” (Is 1:10; 38:4; Jer 1:2; 13:3, 8; 14:1; Ezek 13:1-2; Hos 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jon 1:1; Mic 1:1, et cetera). These communications cannot contain any untruths insofar as they truly originate from God, with the prophet serving as a spokesman or intermediary of God (Jer 2:2; 26:8; Ezek 11:5; Zech 1:6; and many more). Likewise, apostles proclaimed truth unmixed with error (1 Cor 2:7-13; 1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11-14; 2 Pet 1:12-21).

Does this foundation have any faults or cracks? Since Jesus is the cornerstone, he can hardly be a faulty foundation. Neither can the apostles or prophets err when teaching the inspired gospel message or proclaiming God’s word. In the way that apostles and prophets are infallible, so is the Church set up by our Lord Jesus Christ. We ourselves (all Christians) are incorporated into the Church (following the metaphor), on top of the foundation.

1 Peter 2:4-9 Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; [5] and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. [6] For it stands in scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.” [7] To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,” [8] and “A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall”; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. [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. (cf. Isa 28:16)

Jesus is without fault or untruth, and he is the cornerstone of the Church. The Church is also more than once even identified with Jesus himself, by being called his “Body” (Acts 9:5 cf. with 22:4 and 26:11; 1 Cor 12:27; Eph 1:22-23; 4:12; 5:23, 30; Col 1:24). That the Church is so intimately connected with Jesus, who is infallible, is itself a strong argument that the Church is also infallible and without error.

Therefore, the Church is built on the foundation of Jesus (perfect in all knowledge), and the prophets and apostles (who spoke infallible truth, often recorded in inspired, infallible Scripture). Moreover, it is the very “Body of Christ.” It stands to reason that the Church herself is infallible, by the same token. In the Bible, nowhere is truth presented as anything less than pure truth, unmixed with error. That was certainly how Paul conceived his own “tradition” that he received and passed down.

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

2 Corinthians 13:8 For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.
Colossians 1:5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel
2 Thessalonians 2:10 . . . they refused to love the truth and so be saved. (cf. 2:12-13)
1 Timothy 2:4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 4:3 . . . those who believe and know the truth.
2 Timothy 1:14 guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. (cf. Jude 3)
2 Timothy 4:4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. (cf. 2:18, 25; 3:7-8; Titus 1:14) ]


Knowing what truth is, how can its own foundation or pillar be something less than total truth (since truth itself contains no falsehoods, untruths, lies, or errors)? It cannot. It is impossible. It is a straightforward matter of logic and plain observation. A stream cannot rise above its source. What is built upon a foundation cannot be greater than the foundation. If it were, the whole structure would collapse.

If an elephant stood on the shoulders of a man as its foundation, that foundation would collapse. The base of a skyscraper has to hold the weight above it. The foundations of a suspension bridge over a river have to be strong enough to support that bridge.

Therefore, we must conclude that if the Church is the foundation of truth, the Church must be infallible, since truth is infallible, and the foundation cannot be lesser than that which is built upon it. And since there is another infallible authority apart from Scripture, sola scriptura must be false.


Photo credit: sferrario1968  (11-8-16) [Pixabay / Pixabay License]

Summary: Protestant anti-Catholic polemicist Jason Engwer engages in extraordinary efforts to try to explain away 1 Timothy 3:15. It’s a lost cause and has no foundation.
September 23, 2021

The Actual Biblical Data Brought to Bear, Rather Than Late (Post-Luther and Post-Calvin) Protestant Traditions of Men

Protestant anti-Catholic apologist and polemicist Jason Engwer follows the standard theologically liberal take that Jesus had literal blood brothers / siblings. This was not Martin Luther’s or John Calvin’s view. It didn’t come from classic, original Protestantism, but from skeptical theological liberalism hundreds of years later.

Jason wrote an article entitled, “Some Undesigned Coincidences Related To Peter’s Names” (9-19-21) that presupposed the existence of siblings of Jesus. His words will be in blue:

[T]wo of the gospels report that Jesus had a brother named Simon (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3), . . . the two gospels that name Jesus’ brothers. Even in Matthew and Mark, the reference to a brother named Simon is brief and occurs in passing, and that brother didn’t have the sort of later prominence that James and Jude had. 

. . . both Jesus and James were drawing a connection to the name of one of their brothers, . . . Simon was their youngest brother. . . . Youngest children often get treated differently because of their status as the youngest. Jesus may have had more affection for his brother Simon accordingly. . . . The angel didn’t have a brother named Simon, as Jesus and James did.

Okay. Why don’t we take a look at the two passages he cites, and cross-reference them to other related ones, to see if it makes any sense to believe that all four persons mentioned were Jesus’ literal siblings. Protestants always want the Bible first and foremost. I’m happy to bring up much more of it (relevant to the topic) than Jason does.

Matthew 13:55-56 (RSV)  Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? [56] And are not all his sisters with us? . . .

Mark 6:3 “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” . . .


Matthew 27:55-56 There were also many women there [at the crucifixion], looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him;  [56]among whom were Mary Mag’dalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, . . .

Mark 15:40-41 There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Mag’dalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salo’me, [41] who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; . . .

John 19:25 . . . standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag’dalene.

Therefore, “brothers” James and Joseph are the sons of Mary, wife of Clopas. This other Mary (Mt 27:61; 28:1) is called Our Lady’s adelphe [Greek for brother or sister or more distant relative, kin, friend, etc.] in John 19:25.  Assuming that there are not two women named “Mary” in one family (which seems reasonable!), they cold then be Jesus’ “cousins” (beyond first cousin) or more distant relatives. Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3 mention Simon, Jude and “sisters” along with James and Joseph, calling all adelphoi.

The most plausible interpretation of all this related data is a use of adelphos as “cousins” rather than “siblings.” We know for sure, from the above information, that James and Joseph were not Jesus’ siblings.

But there is another option, too. Eusebius, in his History of the Church (III, 2), documents Hegesippus (c. 110 – c. 180) stating that Clopas (husband of Mary’s sister) was the brother of Joseph, her husband. That would make this “other Mary” the Blessed Virgin Mary’s sister-in-law, and her sons (James and Joseph named), Jesus’ first cousins.

Neither Hebrew nor Aramaic have words for “cousin.” The New Testament was written in Greek, which does have such a word (sungenis), but Jesus and His disciples spoke Aramaic (a late version of Hebrew), and the Hebrew word ach is literally translated as adelphos, the literal equivalent of the English “brother.” In the Bible, it has a very wide range of meanings beyond “sibling”: just as “brother” does in English. Thus, it is routinely used in the New Testament to describe cousins or kinsmen, etc.

It’s true that sungenis and its cognate sungenia appear in the New Testament fifteen times (sungenia: Lk 1:61; Acts 7:3, 14; sungenis: Mk 6:4; Lk 1:36, 58; 2:44; 14:12; 21:16; Jn 18:26; Acts 10:24; Rom 9:3; 16:7, 11, 21).  But they are usually translated kinsmenkinsfolk, or kindred in KJV: that is, in a sense wider than cousin: often referring to the entire nation of Hebrews. Thus, the eminent Protestant linguist W. E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, lists sungenis not only under “Cousin” but also under “Kin, Kinsfolk, Kinsman, Kinswoman.”

Jesus Himself uses “brethren” (adelphos) in the non-sibling sense. In Matthew 23:8 (cf. 12:49-50), He calls, for example, the “crowds” and His “disciples” (23:1) “brethren.” In other words, they are each other’s “brothers”: the brotherhood of Christians.

Luke was a Greek Gentile. Paul, though Jewish, was raised in the very cosmopolitan, culturally Greek town of Tarsus. But even so, both still clearly used adelphos many times with the meaning of non-sibling:

  • Luke 10:29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
  • Acts 3:17 “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.”
  • Acts 7:23, 25-26 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel.. . . [25] He supposed that his brethren understood that God was giving them deliverance by his hand, but they did not understand. [26] And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and would have reconciled them, saying, `Men, you are brethren, why do you wrong each other?’”
  • Romans 1:13 I want you to know, brethren,  . . .
  • Romans 9:3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:4 For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you;

Strikingly, it looks like every time St. Paul uses adelphos (unless I missed one or two), he means it as something other than blood brother or sibling. He uses the word or related cognates no less than 138 times in this way. Yet we often hear about Galatians 1:19: “James the Lord’s brother.” 137 other times, Paul means non-sibling, yet amazingly enough, here he must mean sibling, because (so we are told) he uses the word adelphos? That doesn’t make any sense.

Some folks think it is a compelling argument that sungenis isn’t used to describe the brothers of Jesus. But they need to examine the following passage, where sungenis appears:

Mark 6:4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” (cf. Jn 7:5: “For even his brothers did not believe in him”)

What is the context? Let’s look at the preceding verse, where the people in “his own country” (6:1) exclaimed:

Mark 6:3 “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

It can plausibly be argued, then, that Jesus’ reference to kin (sungenis) refers (at least in part) back to this mention of His “brothers” and “sisters”: His relatives. Since we know that sungenis means cousins or more distant relatives, that would be an indication of the status of those called Jesus’ “brothers”.

If Jude (Mt 13:55 and Mk 6:3 above) is the same Jude who wrote the epistle bearing that name (as many think), he calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1). Now, suppose for a moment that he was Jesus’ blood brother. In that case, he refrains from referring to himself as the Lord’s own sibling (we are told that such a phraseology occurs several times in the New Testament, referring to a sibling relationship) and chooses instead to identify himself as James‘ brother.

This is far too strange and implausible to believe. Now that we have seen that James is Jesus’ cousin (either first or more distant), then if Jude is his sibling (assuming that is the meaning of Jude 1:1), then he is also Jesus’ cousin (the same sort of cousin as James).

Moreover, James also refrains from calling himself Jesus’ brother, in his epistle (James 1:1: “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”): even though St. Paul calls him “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19).

This is serious and [what we used to call as evangelicals] “meaty” Bible study, not the highly selective, “milky” and surfacey fluff of Jason Engwer. He wouldn’t know in-depth Bible study if it hit him on the head. And he (knowing better, from past experience, including leaving right in the middle of a widely advertised written debate) won’t interact with this, because he ignores every reply I make to his arguments, and (can’t be too safe!) I am banned on his Tribalblogue site (not one of the “tribe”!).

We have, then, either compelling or very good, plausible biblical arguments showing that neither James, Joseph, nor Jude are Jesus’ siblings. The only named “brother” left to explain is the fourth one named Simon: the one Jason Engwer blithely assumes is Jesus’ sibling in his remarks above. In his case, we only have indirect deduction from the biblical data, as to his exact relation to Jesus (analogy to James and Joseph). But we have strong early Christian tradition, from the best historian in the early Church: Eusebius, who, in the same passage cited above, wrote:

After the martyrdom of James and the capture of Jerusalem which instantly followed, there is a firm tradition that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord who were still alive assembled from all parts together with those who, humanly speaking, were kinsmen of the Lord – for most of them were still living. Then they all discussed together whom they should choose as a fit person to succeed James, and voted unanimously that Symeon, son of the Clopas mentioned in the gospel narrative [note: Jn 19:25; perhaps Lk 24:18], was a fit person to occupy the throne of the Jerusalem see. He was, so it is said, a cousin of the Saviour, for Hegesippus tells us that Clopas was Joseph’s brother. (The History of the Church, translated by G.A. Williamson, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965, 123-124)

It turns out, then, that early tradition, from the second-century historian Hegesippus (whom we have no reason to doubt in his non-theological reporting of relationships) tells us that “Symeon” is also a son of Clopas. Thus, he is another first cousin, not a blood brother. That would identify three of these four named “brothers” as cousins, based on clear biblical evidence (James and Joseph) and a combination of sound early historical tradition and the Bible (Simon or Symeon). Jude, by other biblical evidence (see above) and plausible extrapolation is very likely no different.


Related Reading

Jesus’ “Brothers” Always “Hangin’ Around” Mary … (Doesn’t This Prove That They Are Actually His Siblings?) [8-31-09]

Photo credit: Head of Christ, by Palma il Vecchio (c. 1480-1528) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: Ever wonder about Jesus’ “brothers” or “brethren” in the New Testament? Prima facie, it looks like they are siblings. But in-depth biblical, exegetical, & linguistic analysis proves otherwise.

November 16, 2020

Doubting Jesus’ Sanity? / Inconsiderate (?) Young Jesus in the Temple / “Woman” and the Wedding at Cana

Jason Engwer is a Protestant apologist who is also an anti-Catholic polemicist (as presently). This is a response to his article, “Some Early Sources On The Sinlessness Of Mary” (9-7-06). His words will be in blue.


The Biblical view of Mary seems to be that she was a believer who sometimes sinned. Like John the Baptist, Peter, and other New Testament figures, she’s sometimes an example of faithfulness to God and sometimes an example of how “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). The belief that Mary was a sinner apparently goes back to scripture itself, . . . 

It’s not the biblical view — I would contend — once the full implication of Luke 1:28 (Hail Mary, full of grace”) is understood. I have made an entirely biblical argument for Mary’s sinlessness based on that passage and other ones related to grace and its antithetical relation to sin in the New Testament:

Luke 1:28 (“Full of Grace”) & Immaculate Conception [2004]

Dialogue: Luke 1:28 & Immaculate Conception [7-11-06]

The Bible: Mary Was Without Sin [4-1-09]

Mary’s Immaculate Conception: A Biblical Argument [2010]

Annunciation: Was Mary Already Sublimely Graced? [10-8-11]

Sinless Mary: Dialogue w OT Professor (Dr. Jonathan Huddleston) [12-8-14]

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #6: Sinless Mary [3-1-17]

Scripture, Through an Angel, Reveals That Mary Was Sinless [National Catholic Register, 4-30-17]

Biblical Support for Mary’s Immaculate Conception [National Catholic Register, 10-29-18]

I should also note that the passages discussed below are representative examples. Other relevant passages from the New Testament and the ante-Nicene sources could be cited.

In the gospels, Mary is often associated with Jesus’ unbelieving brothers, not just in terms of being with them, but also in terms of joining them in their opposition to Jesus:

“Not only the religious leaders ([Matthew] 12:24, 38), but Jesus’ own family doubted him (Mk 3:21-31, bracketing the Pharisees’ attack; cf. Jn 7:5)….Relatives normally sought to conceal other relatives’ behavior that would shame the whole family, hence their concern in Mark 3:20-21 (cf. Malina 1993: 80). Their opposition to or disbelief in Jesus is less clear in Matthew than in Mark, perhaps because of the shame of the family’s unbelief, especially after Mary’s experiences in Matthew’s infancy narratives” (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], pp. 369-370)

I have dealt with this false claim many times:

“Who is My Mother?”: Beginning of “Familial Church” [8-26-19]

“Who is My Mother?” — Jesus and the “Familial Church” [National Catholic Register, 1-21-20]

Jesus’ “Brothers” Were “Unbelievers”? (Jason also claims that “Mary believed in Jesus,” but wavered, and had a “sort of inconsistent faith”) (vs. Jason Engwer) [5-27-20]

Dialogue on Whether Jesus’ Kinfolk Were “Unbelievers” (vs. Dr. Lydia McGrew) [5-28-20]

On Whether Jesus’ “Brothers” Were “Unbelievers” [National Catholic Register, 6-11-20]

Did the Blessed Virgin Mary Think Jesus Was Nuts? [7-2-20]

Seidensticker Folly #50: Mary Thought Jesus Was Crazy? (And Does the Gospel of Mark Radically Differ from the Other Gospels in the “Family vs. Following Jesus” Aspect?) [9-8-20]

Here is the heart of my argument in my article dated 7-2-20 above:


Mark 3:21-22 (RSV) And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, “He is beside himself.” [22] And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Be-el’zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (cf. Jn 10:20-21)

Note the italicized and bolded word. Other translations (including, unfortunately, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB) make it sound like Jesus’ family were agreeing and/or saying that Jesus’ was mad, but in fact the text is saying that “people” in general were doing so (just as the Pharisees did).

But if the text doesn’t refer to them, it can simply be construed as His family coming out to remove Him from the crowds, who were massively misunderstanding Him, accusing, and perhaps becoming violent (as at Nazareth, when they tried to throw Him over a cliff). Hence, there would be no necessary implication of His family’s (let alone Mary’s) disbelief in Him. They were concerned for His safety. Other translations convey the true sense of the passage (which is interpreted by 3:22 indicating that the “scribes” were saying Jesus was crazy):

NRSV When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

Good News / (TEV) When his family heard about it, they set out to take charge of him, because people were saying, “He’s gone mad!”

Moffatt . . . . . . for men were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

Phillips . . . for people were saying, “He must be mad!”

NEB . . . for people were saying that he was out of his mind.

Even in the translation that has “they were saying.” etc., it’s a question of who “they” refers to. It can still be read as others besides the family. The 1953 Catholic Commentary, edited by Dom Bernard Orchard, has some very good commentary on the passage:

The usual interpretation is that relatives (or followers) of Christ, disturbed by reports, came out to take charge of him. The following points are to be noted. (1) The phrase οἱ παραὐτοῦ does not necessarily mean relatives (friends). It has a wider usage which would include disciples, followers, members of a household. It is not certain that the persons designated by this phrase are the same as ‘his mother and brethren’, 31. Even if they are, there is no reason for thinking that our Lady shared in the sentiments of the others, though she would naturally wish to be present when the welfare of her divine Son was in question. (2) ‘For they said’, rather, ‘For people were saying’. If this be correct, then 21refers to reports which reached Christ’s friends, not to an expression of opinion by them.


Suffice it to say that there is no direct evidence that Mary thought her son was out of his mind. It appears to be applied to the passage because of a bias or predisposition (which is eisegesis), as opposed to the idea actually being present in the passage.

A group of some of the leading Catholic and Lutheran scholars in the world, while addressing Luke 2:48-50, commented that “Mary’s complaining question in v. 48 seems to be a reproach to Jesus” (Raymond Brown, et al., editors, Mary In The New Testament [Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978], p. 160). Darrell Bock writes:

“Mary, speaking for both parents, wants to know why he [Jesus] has done such a seemingly insensitive thing. Jesus’ reply in the next verse addresses both of them as well. The form of Mary’s question may have OT roots (Gen. 20:9; 12:18; 26:10; Exod. 14:11; Num. 23:11; Judg. 15:11). This is the language of complaint….Bovon 1989: 159 notes that the idiom suggests the questioner’s [Mary’s] belief that an error has been made.” (Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994], p. 268 and n. 18 on p. 268)

Luke 2:42-50 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; [43] and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, [44] but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; [45] and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. [46] After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; [47] and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. [48] And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” [49] And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [50] And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.

I don’t think “why have you treated us so?” is necessarily (wholly apart from theology and viewed logically and grammatically) an accusation of sinfulness on Jesus’ part at all. Mary and Joseph were simply (undeniably) perplexed, but it doesn’t follow that they were therefore accusing Jesus of sin. After all, all Christians believe that God is sinless, yet we are often perplexed by His words or actions or lack of answers to prayers, etc. None of that automatically means that we accuse God of sin.

We’re simply confused and lacking answers and full knowledge, while we accept certain mysteries in faith and the fact that God’s ways are much higher than ours. So they asked, “why have you treated us so?” They didn’t understand. And I’m sure they would have been the first to admit that they wouldn’t always fully understand God the Son.

The 1953 Catholic Commentary, edited by Dom Bernard Orchard, noted:

Mary and Joseph are also amazed. . . but Lk gives the reason in 48b: Jesus has never behaved so to Mary before. It is to be remembered that with her, as with others, Jesus had conducted himself as a normal child; his divinity was to her, as to us, an object of faith and not vision. . . . 51also throws light on the point. ‘They learnt only gradually what his Messiahship involved (cf. 2:34–35) and this is one stage in the process. From the point of view of her subsequent knowledge, Mary recognized that she and Joseph had not understood’ (Plummer ICC on 2:51).

Pope St. John Paul II offers further explanation:

Several early Fathers of the Church, who were not yet convinced of her perfect holiness, attributed imperfections or moral defects to Mary. Some recent authors have taken the same position. However, the Gospel texts cited to justify these opinions provide no basis at all for attributing a sin or even a moral imperfection to the Mother of the Redeemer.

Jesus’s reply to his mother at the age of 12: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49), has sometimes been interpreted as a veiled rebuke. A careful reading of the episode, however, shows that Jesus did not rebuke his mother and Joseph for seeking him, since they were responsible for looking after him.

Coming upon Jesus after an anxious search, Mary asked him only the “why” of his behaviour: “Son, why have you treated us so?” (Lk 2:48). And Jesus answers with another “why”, refraining from any rebuke and referring to the mystery of his divine sonship. (“Mary Was Free from All Personal Sin,” 6-26-96)

Regarding John 2:4, Craig Keener writes:

“Jesus’ answer in v. 4 is a rebuff, but like the rebuff of 4:48, is more a complaint than an assertion that he will not act….Jesus is establishing a degree of distance between himself and his mother, as did the Jesus of the Synoptic tradition….The rebuff element is increased in Jesus’ next words [‘What is there between us?’], however. In both OT and Gospel tradition (e.g., Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34), as well as Greco-Roman idiom, a phrase like ‘What is there between us?’ would imply distancing or hostility….But the primary reason for the rebuff must be that his mother does not understand what this sign will cost Jesus: it starts him on the road to his hour, the cross.” (The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 504-506)

John 2:3-4 When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” [4] And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

I dealt with this false claim that Jesus was rebuking His mother, who supposedly sinned, in my article dated 7-2-20:


The next misguided criticism is directed towards the wedding of Cana: the old, tired, fundamentally silly argument that Jesus was supposedly disrespectful of His mother. This silly trifle was disposed of by Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, citing three Protestant commentators:

The Protestant commentator William Barclay writes:

“The word Woman (gynai) is also misleading. It sounds to us very rough and abrupt. But it is the same word as Jesus used on the Cross to address Mary as he left her to the care of John (John 19:26). In Homer it is the title by which Odysseus addresses Penelope, his well-loved wife. It is the title by which Augustus, the Roman Emperor, addressed Cleopatra, the famous Egyptian queen. So far from being a rough and discourteous way of address, it was a title of respect. We have no way of speaking in English which exactly renders it; but it is better to translate it Lady which gives at least the courtesy in it” (The Gospel of John, revised edition, vol. 1, p. 98).

Similarly, the Protestant Expositor’s Bible Commentary, published by Zondervan, states:

Jesus’ reply to Mary was not so abrupt as it seems. ‘Woman’ (gynai) was a polite form of address. Jesus used it when he spoke to his mother from the cross (19:26) and also when he spoke to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection (20:15)” (vol. 9, p. 42).

Even the Fundamentalist Wycliff Bible Commentary put out by Moody Press acknowledges in its comment on this verse, “In his reply, the use of ‘Woman’ does not involve disrespect (cf. 19:26)” (p. 1076).

Did Jesus “rebuke” His mother at this wedding? No: . . . The Navarre Bible explains the passage:

[The sentence rendered “What have you to do with me?” (RSV) is the subject of a note in RSVCE which says “while this expression always implies a divergence of view, the precise meaning is to be determined by the context, which here shows that it is not an unqualified rebuttal, still less a rebuke.” The Navarre Spanish is the equivalent of “What has it to do with you and me?”] The sentence “What has it to do with you and me?” is an oriental way of speaking which can have different nuances. Jesus’ reply seems to indicate that although in principle it was not part of God’s plan for him to use his power to solve the problem the wedding-feast had run into, our Lady’s request moves him to do precisely that. Also, one could surmise that God’s plan envisaged that Jesus should work the miracle at his Mother’s request. In any event, God willed that the Revelation of the New Testament should include this important teaching: so influential is our Lady’s intercession that God will listen to all petitions made through her; which is why Christian piety, with theological accuracy, has called our Lady “supplicant omnipotence.”

Dom Bernard Orchard’s 1953 Catholic Commentary adds more insightful interpretation:

Concerning the second: the Master’s question which literally reads: ‘What to me and to thee?’ has to be understood from biblical and not modern usage. Therefore it does not mean: ‘What concern is it of ours?’ or ‘There is no need for you to tell me’. In all the biblical passages where it occurs, Jg 11:12; 2 Kg 16:10, 19:22; 4 Kg 3:13; 2 Par 35:21; Mt 8:29; Mk 1:24, the phrase signifies, according to circumstances, a great or lesser divergence of viewpoint between the two parties concerned. In 2 Kg 16:10 it means total dissent; in Jg 11:12 it voices a complaint against an invader. In our passage, also, divergence must be admitted. In a sense our Lord’s answer is a refusal, but not an absolute refusal, rather, a refusal ad mentem, as a Roman Congregation would say, and the Blessed Virgin understood her Son’s mind from the tone of his voice. His first public miracle belonged to the divine programme of his Messianic mission into which flesh and blood could not enter. His answer is therefore an assertion of independence of his Mother, similar to the word he spoke in the temple about his Father’s business. The Blessed Virgin’s subsequent action shows that the tone of our Lord’s protest on this occasion was neither a curt nor an unqualified refusal.

It all comes down to language, culture, idiom, context . . . theological liberals / heterodox and many other people (including way too many orthodox Catholics) so often don’t get that. But doesn’t Jesus’ fulfillment of His mother’s request for more wine (by performing a miracle — His first recorded one — to provide more) suggest that He didn’t intend to rebuke her in the first place? He did what she requested. One would think so, it seems to me. Much ado about nothing . . .


Photo credit: Saint Raphael Catholic Church (Springfield, Ohio) – stained glass, Wedding at Cana – detail (Nheyob: 11-22-14) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]


October 17, 2020

Protestant apologist Jason Engwer wrote:

Tertullian and Helvidius are often named as early opponents of Mary’s perpetual virginity, but other opponents of the concept seem to be mentioned less often. . . . What I want to do in this post is cite some other examples.

In the West before Hilary – that is, up to the middle of the fourth century – there is no witness at all for the ‘semper virgo’ [perpetual virginity]; and that can hardly be a mere chance: see pp. 72 f. below. Hippolytus, too, regards the ‘brothers of Jesus’ as the children of Joseph and Mary… [apparently quoting Hippolytus:] ‘He [Jesus] did [not] acknowledge as brothers those who were regarded as his brothers according to the body; the Redeemer did not acknowledge them, because in truth those [were] not his brothers who were born from Joseph through seed, but he from the Virgin and the Holy Spirit; and they regarded them as his brothers, but he did not acknowledge them.’ (Hans von Campenhausen, The Virgin Birth In The Theology Of The Ancient Church [Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2011], n. 4 on 48-9)

. . . what should we conclude from the English translation he provides of that one passage?

If the brothers were “born from Joseph through seed”, then Hippolytus at least believed they were children of Joseph from a former marriage, thus differing from the more popular view that they were cousins of Jesus or some other more distant type of relatives. But was he denying Mary’s perpetual virginity?

Probably. To reconcile the passage with perpetual virginity, I think we’d have to take a few problematic steps. We’d have to assume a prior marriage of Joseph, which would be an unusual scenario and one not implied by the text. Second, if the relatives of Jesus in question were regarded as “brothers” without further qualification, the most natural way to take that term is as a reference to individuals with a biological relationship with both Joseph and Mary. If the individuals were all older than Jesus and older than Joseph’s marriage to Mary, having been born during a former marriage, it’s highly doubtful that they’d all be mistaken for biological offspring of Joseph and Mary. Third, we’d have to assume that Hippolytus failed to mention the first wife of Joseph (by description or name), even though mentioning her would have strengthened his point (by putting even more distance between Jesus and the brothers).

Why, then, does Hippolytus say that the individuals in question were “regarded” as brothers of Jesus? He can’t be denying that they were brothers in any sense. Even in a perpetual virginity scenario involving children from a former marriage of Joseph, the individuals in question would be brothers in a legal context. So, all that Hippolytus seems to be getting at by using the “regarded” qualifier is that the men weren’t brothers in the fullest sense, even though they were thought of that way. That would be true regardless of whether Mary was a perpetual virgin, so it’s an irrelevant issue. (“More Early Opponents Of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity”: Tribalblogue, 11-27-14)

This is classic Engwer polemics: take a dubious proposed “proof” of an assertion he already holds and obfuscate, engage in obscurantism and sophism, special plead, create as much doubt and confusion as possible, as to the traditional Catholic interpretation, and hope that readers (most of whom already agree with him) will be persuaded by such nefarious methods. In this instance, he seems to be aware of how weak and speculative a “proof” he is working with: leading to an excessive amount of special pleading (even by his low standards of research).

Yet, rather than admit as much, he digs in and gives it all he has to try to make his long shot position work. It’s all in vain, because St. Hippolytus (c. 170 – 235) elsewhere calls Mary ever-virgin, which is a definitive indication that she had no other children. Case closed. Thus, much ado about nothing, trying to make this “square peg” passage fit into the “square hole” of Mary’s perpetual virginity. If Jason had spent another ten minutes searching “Hippolytus, perpetual virginity” he could have save himself the embarrassment of trying to make a hopeless argument. But he didn’t, and so I had to write this paper and set the record straight.

Hippolytus wrote, c. 210:

But the pious confession of the believer is that, with a view to our salvation, and in order to connect the universe with unchangeableness, the Creator of all things incorporated with Himself a rational soul and a sensible body from the all-holy Mary, ever-virgin, by an undefiled conception, without conversion, and was made man in nature, but separate from wickedness: the same was perfect God, and the same was perfect man; the same was in nature at once perfect God and man.  (Against Beron and Helix, Frag VIII; my bolding)

Likewise, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Volume 12 (“Virgin Birth”), reinforces this view with regard to St. Hippolytus and also St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215), and Origen (c. 184 – c. 253):

Clement of Alexandria taught unequivocally the virgin birth—the only virgin mother (Pædagogus, i. 6)—and appears inclined to the notion of a miraculous birth as well as a miraculous conception (Strom., vii, 16; Eng. transl. in ANF, vol. ii.). . . .

This doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary was advanced a further stage by Origen, whose principal discussion of the virgin birth appears in reply to Celsus, who had assailed this doctrine. . . .

Hippolytus maintained the perfect purity and perpetual virginity of Mary (Adv. Veronem), . . .

The great Protestant scholar J. B. Lightfoot explained what the early Church believed about the perpetual virginity of Mary, in his work, Dissertations on the Apostolic Age (1892; section: “The Brethren of the Lord”):

In the early ages of the Church two conflicting opinions were held regarding the relationship of those who in the Gospels and Apostolic Epistles are termed ‘the brethren of the Lord.’ On the one hand it was maintained that no blood relationship existed; that these brethren were in fact sons of Joseph by a former wife, before he espoused the Virgin; and that they are therefore called the Lord’s brethren only in the same way in which Joseph is called His father, having really no claim to this title but being so designated by an exceptional use of the term adapted to the exceptional fact of the miraculous incarnation. On the other hand certain persons argued that the obvious meaning of the term was the correct meaning, and that these brethren were the Lord’s brethren as truly as Mary was the Lord’s mother, being her sons by her husband Joseph. The former of these views was held by the vast majority of orthodox believers and by not a few heretics; the latter was the opinion of a father of the Church here and there to whom it occurred as the natural inference from the language of Scripture, as Tertullian for instance, and of certain sects and individuals who set themselves against the incipient worship of the Virgin or the one-sided asceticism of the day, and to whom therefore it was a very serviceable weapon of controversy. . . .

Thus it would appear that, taking the scriptural notices alone, the Hieronymian account [that the “brethren” were cousins of Jesus] must be abandoned; while of the remaining two the balance of the argument is against the Helvidian [the “brethren” were literal siblings or blood brothers] and in favour of the Epiphanian [they were sons of a former marriage of Joseph]. To what extent the last-mentioned theory can plead the prestige of tradition, will be seen from the following catena of references to the fathers and other early Christian writings. . . .

[T]he testimony of Hegesippus [c. 110 – c. 180] . . . favours the Epiphanian rather than the Helvidian [view]. . . .

Origen [c. 184 – c. 253]. . . declares himself very distinctly in favour of the Epiphanian view, stating that the brethren were sons of Joseph by a deceased wife. . . .

In one passage he [Origen] writes at some length on the subject; ‘Some persons, on the ground of a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or the Book of James (i.e. the Protevangelium), say that the brothers of Jesus were Joseph’s sons by a former wife to whom he was married before Mary. Those who hold this view wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity throughout… And I think it reasonable that as Jesus was the first-fruit of purity and chastity among men, so Mary was among women: for it is not seemly to ascribe the first-fruit of virginity to any other woman but her’ (in Matt. xiii. 55, III. p. 462)’. This passage shows not only that Origen himself favoured the Epiphanian view which elsewhere he has directly maintained, but that he was wholly unaware of the Hieronymian, . . . (pp. 3-4, 25, 31, 34-35)

Jason will have to go back and revise his research, if he wishes to claim Hippolytus (or any of the other fathers above, save the eventual heretic Tertullian) for his heretical and unbiblical (and also anti-Protestant “Reformers”) view of the “brothers of Jesus” allegedly being His blood brothers and sons (younger brothers and/or sisters) of the Blessed Virgin Mary also.


Photo credit: The Madonna in Sorrow, by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1609 – 1685) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


October 16, 2020

Protestant apologist Jason Engwer (words in blue henceforth) stated on 5-28-15:

[T]he evidence suggests that prayer to the dead wasn’t practiced by believers in the Biblical era, is sometimes contradicted by the Biblical authors, and was rejected in the earliest generations of patristic Christianity.

And earlier on 6-9-08:

The evidence from the earliest patristic sources is against the practice as well. Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian wrote treatises on the subject of prayer without encouraging prayers to the dead. Instead, they either state or imply that prayer is to be offered only to God. Origen in particular is emphatic on the point (Against Celsus, 5:4-5, 5:11, 8:26; On Prayer, 10).

I’d like to take a look at Origen (c. 184 – c. 253) — his words will be in green –, what he stated, and whether it is consistent with Jason’s take or the Catholic one (i.e., such things were widely taught by the fathers).

For we indeed acknowledge that angels are ministering spirits, and we say that they are sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation; and that they ascend, bearing the supplications of men, to the purest of the heavenly places in the universe, or even to supercelestial regions purer still; and that they come down from these, conveying to each one, according to his deserts, something enjoined by God to be conferred by them upon those who are to be the recipients of His benefits. . . . For every prayer, and supplication, and intercession, and thanksgiving, is to be sent up to the Supreme God through the High Priest, who is above all the angels, the living Word and God. And to the Word Himself shall we also pray and make intercessions, and offer thanksgivings and supplications to Him, if we have the capacity of distinguishing between the proper use and abuse of prayer.

For to invoke angels without having obtained a knowledge of their nature greater than is possessed by men, would be contrary to reason. But, conformably to our hypothesis, let this knowledge of them, which is something wonderful and mysterious, be obtained. Then this knowledge, making known to us their nature, and the offices to which they are severally appointed, will not permit us to pray with confidence to any other than to the Supreme God, who is sufficient for all things, and that through our Saviour the Son of God, who is the Word, and Wisdom, and Truth, and everything else which the writings of God’s prophets and the apostles of Jesus entitle Him. And it is enough to secure that the holy angels of God be propitious to us, and that they do all things on our behalf, that our disposition of mind towards God should imitate as far as it is within the power of human nature the example of these holy angels, who again follow the example of their God; . . . (Contra Celsum, V, 4-5; my bolding and italics)

Two things are going on here, that are complementary, not contradictory; “both/and” and not “either/or”:

1) Prayers ultimately go to God Who decides how He wants to address them: by granting or refusing the request.

2) Angels, saints, and fellow human beings (whether alive on the earth or inhabiting the next world) may intercede and present our requests, prayers, supplications, petitions to God on our behalf.

Origen (unlike many if not most Protestants) sees no contradiction or disharmony or discord at all between #1 and #2, and so he expresses both, casually assuming that both things are simultaneously true. Remember, this is one of the passages that Jason sent his readers to, to establish that Origen supposedly takes a “Protestant” view of the intercession of saints and angels. It turns out (what a shock!) that he is thoroughly Catholic.

The bolded parts of the above citation show that Origen believes that angels intercede for us to God. The italicized parts show that God is the ultimate recipient and granter or denier of the wishes expressed in prayers. Both things are true and in harmony. The key phrase relating to angelic intercession here is “bearing the supplications of men.” Supplications are prayers. The English word appears six times in the RSV in the New Testament, and its meaning is apparent:

Ephesians 6:18 (RSV) Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,

Philippians 4:6 Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

1 Timothy 2:1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men,

1 Timothy 5:5 She who is a real widow, and is left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day;

Hebrews 5:7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.

So what are these angels doing when they are described by Origen as “bearing the supplications of men”? They are obviously interceding for them to God, ascending to thesupercelestial regions” where God dwells, and “conveying” to human beings “something enjoined by God to be conferred.” They are not only involved in the prayer to God but also in its fulfillment from God.

I think the angels described here are doing precisely what we see in the following passage:

Revelation 8:3-4 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; [4] and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.

In another post from Jason (6-9-08), he notes that such prayers “go to God.” Indeed they do (no one denies it):

Revelation 8:4 . . . refers to the prayers going to God. . . . 

It seems that the best explanation of the prayers in Revelation 5 and Revelation 8 is that they’re prayers to God, asking for justice on earth. They aren’t prayers to the dead.

But of course he misses the entire point. These angels and dead saints (as in Revelation 5) are somehow involved in the process of these prayers “getting to God.” That’s precisely the intercession of the saints and angels. Why is that? How is that? If prayer is supposed to be solely between a Christian believer and his or her God, with no intermediary, why dothe prayers of the saints” rise to God “from the hand of the angel”? Likewise, what are the “elders” (usually taken to be dead men) doing with “the prayers of the saints” (Rev 5:8)? Why are they involved at all?

We don’t know what Jason would say about that because he ignores it (as he habitually does when he has no plausible alternative to traditional Catholic and biblical claims). But it’s pretty clear that this is what Origen taught in the above passage; therefore, he does not serve as a witness to Jason’s anti-traditional Protestant agenda as to the intercession of saints and angels. Nice try, but no cigar; e for effort . . .

So let’s see what his other alleged “prooftexts” from Origen teach us:

[W]e judge it improper to pray to those beings who themselves offer up prayers (to God), seeing even they themselves would prefer that we should send up our requests to the God to whom they pray, rather than send them downwards to themselves, or apportion our power of prayer between God and them. (Contra Celsum, V, 11)

[O]ur duty is to pray to the Most High God alone, and to the Only-begotten, the First-born of the whole creation, and to ask Him as our High Priest to present the prayers which ascend to Him from us, to His God and our God, to His Father and the Father of those who direct their lives according to His word. (Contra Celsum, VIII, 26)

In other words, we don’t pray to angels and saints as if they were the ones who granted or denied our prayers, and had the power to do so (the ultimate recipients). No one disagrees with that. The very terms Catholics use presuppose this: intercession of the saints (not, “saints granting prayers”): just as we intercede for each other on the earth. That’s our usual term.

It’s Protestants who always want to call it “prayer to the saints” or “prayer to the dead.” “Prayer for the dead” is proper. We do do that. But in any event, it is praying to God when we ask a holy person or an angel to pray for us. We ask them to pray, and they intercede to God on our behalf. Therefore, Origen saying the above things, and Jason citing them, does not refute Catholic practice. Origen’s thoughts in Contra Celsum V, 4-5 show that the two are compatible, in his thought, and logically.

Origen’s On Prayer (section X) offers much of the same thoughts expressed in the previous two excerpt. It can be read online. Again, the Catholic responds by saying that we ask saints to intercede and pray for us: not to answer our prayers themselves. It’s sort of like asking a friend who is in the right spot to “intercede” and speak on our behalf with regard to obtaining some job. Then if we get it we may thank them by saying, “you got me the job!” In a sense they did, but of course, ultimately, it was the employer who decided.

Catholics invoke saints and ask them to intercede for us for two reasons:

1) They are more alive than we are and certainly more spiritually powerful.

2) James 5:14-18 Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; [15] and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. [16] Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. [17] Eli’jah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. [18] Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.

Origen, in his most well-known work, Contra Celsum, explicitly endorses the notion of saints and angels praying for and with us (strongly implying also our invocation of them), in Book VIII, 64:

There is therefore One whose favour we should seek, and to whom we ought to pray that He would be gracious to us — the Most High God, whose favour is gained by piety and the practice of every virtue. And if he would have us to seek the favour of others after the Most High God, let him consider that, as the motion of the shadow follows that of the body which casts it, so in like manner it follows, that when we have the favour of God, we have also the good-will of all angels and spirits who are friends of God. For they know who are worthy of the divine approval, and they are not only well disposed to them, but they co-operate with them in their endeavours to please God: they seek His favour on their behalf; with their prayers they join their own prayers and intercessions for them. We may indeed boldly say, that men who aspire after better things have, when they pray to God, tens of thousands of sacred powers upon their side. These, even when not asked, pray with them, they bring succour to our mortal race, and if I may so say, take up arms alongside of it: for they see demons warring and fighting most keenly against the salvation of those who devote themselves to God, . . . (my bolding)

Note, especially, how Origen casually states: “These [departed saints and angels], even when not asked, pray with them . . .” The use of “even” shows that Origen assumes that it is also the case that they pray for us when asked; i.e., invoked. So there we have it. Origen is no Protestant, and teaches just as the Catholic Church does in this matter.



Photo credit: Baptistry – Padua (Portugal). © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro (9-15-16) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]


October 15, 2020

Protestant apologist Jason Engwer (words in blue below) recently wrote:

It’s common to allege that the twenty-seven-book New Testament canon we have today doesn’t first appear in the historical record until around the middle of the fourth century, in Athanasius. But it probably was advocated in multiple locations prior to that time, including in Origen more than a century earlier. (10-14-20)

He links to an 11-year-old paper of his where he fleshes this out:

The earliest extant source I’m aware of who advocates that twenty-seven-book canon is Origen, more than a century before Athanasius. . . . Near the end of his life, Origen commented:

our Lord, whose advent was typified by the son of Nun [Joshua], when He came, sent His Apostles as priests bearing well-wrought trumpets. Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel. Mark also, Luke and John, each gave forth a strain on their priestly trumpets. Peter moreover sounds loudly on the twofold trumpet of his Epistles; and also James and Jude. Still the number is incomplete, and John gives forth the trumpet-sound in his Epistles and Apocalypse; and Luke while describing the Acts of the Apostles. Lastly however came he who said: ‘I think that God has set forth us Apostles last of all,’ and thundering on the fourteen trumpets of his Epistles, threw down even to the ground the walls of Jericho, that is to say all the instruments of idolatry and the doctrines of philosophers. (Homilies On Joshua, 7:1 . . .)

This passage is controversial. The scholarly reactions to it are diverse. Bruce Metzger argues that the passage is genuine and seems to refer to our twenty-seven-book canon . . ., which is the position I hold. . . . 

I conclude, then, that Origen is the earliest extant source to advocate the twenty-seven-book New Testament canon. But even if it would be argued that he held a twenty-five-book or twenty-six-book canon instead, the similarity to our canon would be highly significant. (5-4-09)

What Jason curiously neglects to note is that a deficient canon is not only a list with less books than the 27 New Testament books all Christians now accept; it also includes lists with more books than the 27. This was the beauty of St. Athanasius in 367 (the very thing Jason is trying to dispute). He not only listed the present 27 books, but did not hold that any other books were also scriptural.

Jason argues that Origen (c. 184 – c. 253) was the first to present all 27 and no other additional ones (114 years before Athanasius undoubtedly did so), since Jason says he wasthe earliest extant source to advocate the twenty-seven-book New Testament canon.”

But Jason did what so many Protestants who argue from the Church fathers unfortunately do: he selectively presented patristic evidence that backs him up and ignored other evidence that does not. This won’t do (needless to say). Jason neglected to tell his readers which non-canonical books Origen also thought were Scripture:  the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and Shepherd of Hermas. So he could hardly have accepted a 27-book canon if he accepted these, now, could he?

Origen often referred to the Shepherd of Hermas, and late in his life (around 244-246), he referred to it as “a work which seems to me very useful, and, as I believe, divinely inspired”  (Comm. in Rom. 10.31). He appeared to accept the canonicity of the Epistle of Barnabas in his Contra Celsus: one of the three times he cited it:

[H]e seems, in order to bring an accusation against Christianity, to believe the Gospel accounts only where he pleases, and to express his disbelief of them, in order that he may not be forced to admit the manifestations of Divinity related in these same books; whereas one who sees the spirit of truth by which the writers are influenced, ought, from their narration of things of inferior importance, to believe also the account of divine things. Now in the general Epistle of Barnabas, from which perhaps Celsus took the statement that the apostles were notoriously wicked men, it is recorded that Jesus selected His own apostles, as persons who were more guilty of sin than all other evildoers. And in the Gospel according to Luke, Peter says to Jesus, Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man. (I, 63; also written late in his life, in 248)

Many scholars also think that Origen regarded the Didache as inspired and canonical. Lee Martin McDonald, in his book, The Formation of the Biblical Canon: Volume 2The New Testament: Its Authority and Canonicity (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), stated:

Origen also refers to the Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, and Didache, possibly or apparently acknowledging them as Scripture. . . . If one claims that Origen acknowledged James and Jude as canon because he made use of them, then the same could also be said for Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache. (p. 83)

In a related article written on 30 May 2009, Jason shows that he is aware of two of these three books: “The Shepherd Of Hermas and The Epistle Of Barnabas weren’t as popular as is often suggested.” Nor does he mention Origen at all in the article. “Out of sight, out of mind” is, I guess, Jason’s philosophy, when he runs across anomalies that don’t fit into his preconceived notions. He discusses all three of these books in another paper on the New Testament canon (dated 5-7-09), but again never informs his readers that Origen thought they were canonical Scripture, even though he is mentioned three times. Instead, he reiterates:  

Athanasius’ twenty-seven-book New Testament was held by some of his contemporaries and by some before his time. Origen is the earliest source I’m aware of who advocates the twenty-seven-book canon in the records extant to us. Though Athanasius’ Festal Letter 39 from the middle of the fourth century is often cited as the first reference to the twenty-seven-book canon, the evidence suggests that it was advocated at least more than a century earlier. 

It’s not at all certain that Origen even accepted all 27 New Testament books (later decreed as such in the late 4th and early 5th centuries by the Catholic Church, along with the Old Testament, including the Deuterocanon). He never cited 2 Peter, and Eusebius records him as stating:

And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, ‘against which the gates of hell shall not prevail’ (Matt. 16:18), has left one acknowledged Epistle; possibly also a second, but this is doubtful. (Church History, 6.25.8)

He also never cited 2 or 3 John, and wrote:

He has left also an epistle of very few lines; perhaps also a second and third; but not all consider them genuine, . . . (Ibid., 6.25.10)

On the other hand Origen did cite the Gospel of Peter (Comm. in Matt. 10.17) and the Gospel of the Hebrews (e.g., Comm. in John 2.12; Comm. in Matt. 16.12), sometimes adding a phrase like “if any one receives it” (Hom. in Jeremiah 15.4; Comm. in Matt. 15.14). He cited the Preaching of Peter twice (Comm. in John 13.17; De Princ. praef. 8), the Acts of Paul twice (De Principiis, 12.3; Comm. in John 20.12), and 1 Clement four times.

It’s far worse, from the minority anti-Catholic position within Protestantism, for one to hold that a non-biblical book is inspired, than for Catholics to hold to authoritative tradition, which is not inspired.

For much of the above data, I drew from Glenn Davis’ superb overview, “The Development of the Canon of the New Testament”: Origen.

I think Jason’s readers are entitled to know these relevant facts, in light of his claims that Origen got the 27 New Testament books right.

As we would expect, while there was a broad consensus as to which books belonged in the New Testament in the first four centuries, still there was enough disagreement, and the inclusion of non-canonical books, to make a Church proclamation necessary. The books were not self-attesting or “perspicuous” enough for the Bible itself to accomplish the task of determining the canon.


Related Reading

The New Testament Canon & Historical Processes [1996]

Dialogue on Doctrinal Development (Papacy & NT Canon) (vs. Jason Engwer) [2-26-02]

Development of the Biblical Canon: Protestant Difficulties [2-26-02 and 3-19-02, abridged with slight revisions and additions on 7-19-18]

Are All Bible Books Self-Evidently Inspired? [6-19-06]

Are All the Biblical Books Self-Evidently Canonical? [6-22-06]

25 Brief Arguments on the Biblical Canon & Protestantism [2009]

Catholic Development of Doctrine: A Defense (vs. Jason Engwer; Emphasis on the Canon of the Bible & Church Infallibility) (+ Pt. II / Pt. III / Pt. IV) [1-15-10]

Biblical Canon vs. Protestant Sola Scriptura [6-5-10]

Bible: Completely Self-Authenticating, So that Anyone Could Come up with the Complete Canon without Formal Church Proclamations? (vs. Wm. Whitaker) [July 2012]

Church Authority & the Canon (vs. Calvin #59) [2012]

Conundrum! Scripture Alone Cannot Establish the Biblical Canon [National Catholic Register, 5-16-17]

The New Testament Canon is a “Late” Doctrine [National Catholic Register, 1-22-18]

Is Inspiration Immediately Evident in Every Biblical Book? [National Catholic Register, 7-28-18]

Vs. James White #10: Arbitrary Tradition Re the Canon [11-14-19]


Photo credit: Imaginative portrayal of Origen from Les Vrais Portraits Et Vies Des Hommes Illustres by André Thévet (1516-1590) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


June 5, 2020

[originally posted on 1-18-10]


This is a follow-up discussion (Round Two) to my previous four-part critique of a post by Jason Engwer. Jason is now starting to counter-reply, with preliminary remarks and the beginning of more substantive response, in his latest post, Papias, Apostolic Succession, Oral Tradition, And “Relativism”. Near the end I also reply to his article, “Where Are ‘Apostolic Succession’ And ‘Authoritative Tradition’ In Papias?”. His words will be in blue. Past comments of mine that he cites will be in green.


Yesterday, I posted some introductory remarks [linkabout a series of posts by Dave Armstrong that was written in response to an article I posted in 2008. What I want to do today is address some comments Dave made about one church father in particular, Papias. I do so for a few reasons. For one thing, it was in response to something I said about Papias that Dave issued some of his harshest criticism.


And some of his other comments about Papias are relevant to his claims to “copiously document everything” and his objection that I’m not offering enough documentation for my own views. His comments on Papias also illustrate just how misleading it can be to use terms like “apostolic succession” and “oral tradition” to describe the views of a father.

Well, we’ll see about that as we go along.

In the course of his series of posts responding to me, Dave repeatedly accuses me of “relativism”.

That’s because his position on this business of the rule of faith in the fathers entails it, as I will be happy to elaborate upon and clarify. I don’t make any serious charge lightly, and readers may rest assured that when I do, that I have very good reason to do so: a rationale that I can surely defend against scrutiny and/or protest (as indeed I am doing presently).

I said that if I were in the position of somebody like Papias, I wouldn’t adhere to sola scriptura. I went on to comment that “If sola scriptura had been widely or universally rejected early on, it wouldn’t follow that it couldn’t be appropriate later, under different circumstances.” Dave responded:

And he is employing the typical Protestant theological relativism or doctrinal minimalism….After having expended tons of energy and hours sophistically defending Protestantism and revising history to make it appear that it is not fatal to Protestant claims (which is a heroic feat: to engage at length in such a profoundly desperate cause), now, alas, Jason comes to his senses and jumps on the bandwagon of fashionable Protestant minimalism, relativism, and the fetish for uncertainty. He resides, after all, in the ‘much different position’ of the 21st century. He knows better than those old fuddy-duds 1500 years ago. What do they know, anyway?…Why are we having this discussion at all, then, if it doesn’t matter a hill of beans what the fathers en masse thought?

What Dave claims I “now” believe is what I had been saying for years, long before I wrote my article in 2008.

That comes as no surprise. But my “now” was primarily intended in a rhetorical / logical sense, not a chronological one, anyway. But in a larger sense it is part of Jason’s overall approach (which is not without self-contradiction, which I was partially alluding to there): what I call the “slippery fish” or “floating ducks at the carnival sideshow” approach. Protestants of a certain type (nebulous evangelicals, primarily: I still have no idea even what denomination Jason attends; perhaps he will be so kind as to inform me) reserve the right to criticize Catholicism endlessly; yet if we dare to dispute their arguments and ask if they have anything superior to offer, it’s often the moving or unknown target runaround. Or there is the retreat into obfuscation: Jason’s own specialty.

First, we hear from these circles that the fathers believe in sola Scriptura, period (I will have more on this below). Then we are blessed with a more clever, subtle argument: that they didn’t believe in sola Scriptura per se, but that, nevertheless, what they did believe (whatever it was, in many variations), is definitely closer to Protestantism than to Catholicism. This has been Jason’s general approach through the years, as I understand it. Now we enter into a third phase, so to speak: the fathers didn’t always believe in sola Scriptura, but it doesn’t matter, because times were different, then, and different times demand a changing rule of faith. The moving target . . .

And I didn’t say or suggest that “it doesn’t matter a hill of beans what the fathers en masse thought”.

Mostly what matters to Jason is how he can poke holes in what he (sometimes falsely) believes to be Catholic belief.

Anybody who has read much of what I’ve written regarding the church fathers and other sources of the patristic era ought to know that I don’t suggest that they’re “old fuddy-duds” whose beliefs “don’t matter a hill of beans”.

He picks and chooses what he thinks will hurt the Catholic historical case. Jason’s method is nothing if it is not that. But he’s highly selective and the “grid” that he tries to fit all of this data into is incoherent and changes to suit his polemical needs at any given moment.

My point with regard to Papias, which I’ve explained often, is that God provides His people with different modes of revelation at different times in history, and there are transitional phases between such periods. For example, Adam and Eve had a form of direct communication with God that most people in human history haven’t had. When Jesus walked the earth, people would receive ongoing revelation from Him, and could ask Him questions, for example, in a manner not available to people who lived in earlier or later generations. When Joseph and Mary could speak with Jesus during His childhood and early adulthood, but the authority structure of the New Testament church didn’t yet exist, a Catholic wouldn’t expect Joseph and Mary to follow the same rule of faith they had followed prior to Jesus’ incarnation or would be expected to follow after the establishment of the Catholic hierarchy.

Catholics agree with many, if not all of these points. But how Jason goes on to apply this in his analysis will eventually involve a self-contradiction that isn’t present in the Catholic view of history and development of doctrine.

Catholicism doesn’t claim to have preserved every word Jesus spoke or everything said by every apostle. A person living in the early second century, for example, could remember what he had heard the apostle John teach about eschatology and follow that teaching, even if it wasn’t recorded in scripture or taught by means of papal infallibility, an ecumenical council, or some other such entity the average modern Catholic would look to.

Of course. Both sides agree on that.

Because of the nature of historical revelation in Christianity (and in Judaism), there isn’t any one rule of faith that’s followed throughout history. And different individuals and groups will transition from one rule of faith to another at different times and in different ways.

This is where the differences emerge. Catholics believe there was one rule of faith that consistently developed. It is what we call the “three-legged stool”: Scripture-Church-Tradition (as passed down by apostolic succession). There is a great deal of development that takes place over time: especially when we are looking at the earliest fathers (Papias lived from c. 60 to 130, so he was actually in the apostolic period for a good half of his life). But the rule of faith did not change into anything substantially or essentially different.

Papias had the Scripture of the Old Testament and he even had much of the New Testament even at that early stage, as the Gospels and Paul’s letters were widely accepted as canonical, very early on. Therefore, Papias could indeed have lived by sola Scriptura as the rule of faith. There is no compelling reason to think that he could not have done so, simply due to his living in a very early period of Christian history.

The position that Jason is staking out: that Papias wouldn’t have lived by sola Scriptura, and indeed, that he didn’t have to, for the Protestant historical position to make sense, entails not a consistent development, but an essential break: there was one rule of faith in the earliest periods, and then suddenly, with the fully developed canon of Scripture, another one henceforth.

Needless to say, this is merely yet another arbitrary Protestant tradition: a tradition of men: just as sola Scriptura itself is. There is nothing in the Bible itself about such a supposed sea change. The Bible teaches neither sola Scriptura, nor this view of tradition at first, and then sola Scriptura after the Bible. But these are cherished Protestant myths, despite being absent altogether in Holy Scripture.

These complexities can be made to seem less significant by making vague references to “oral tradition” or “the word of God”, for example, but the fact remains that what such terms are describing changes to a large extent over time and from one individual or group to another.

There are complexities in individuals and exceptions to the rule (of faith), but there is also a broad consensus to be observed and traced through history, as we see with all true doctrines. Jason wants to assert both a radical change and the absence of a consensus. At the same time he denies the interconnectedness of all these related concepts having to do with authority, as I have noted in my previous critique.

In any event, he dissents from some of the allegedly best lights in Protestant research about the rule of faith in the fathers; for example, the trilogy of books about sola Scriptura by David T. King and William Webster (Vol. I (King) / Vol. II (Webster) / Vol. III (King and Webster), where it is stated:

The patristic evidence for sola Scriptura is, we believe, an overwhelming indictment against the claims of the Roman communion.
(Vol. I, 266)

Such statements manifest an ignorance of the patristic and medieval perspective on the authority of Scripture. Scripture alone as the infallible rule for the ongoing life and faith of the Church was the universal belief and practice of the Church of the patristic and medieval ages. (Vol. II, 84-85)

When they [the Church Fathers] are allowed to speak for themselves it becomes clear that they universally taught sola Scriptura in the fullest sense of the term embracing both the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture. (Vol. III, 9)

Sales pitches for the trilogy on a major Reformed booksite (Monergism Books) echo these historically absurd assertions:

It reveals that the leading Church fathers’ view of the authority and finality of the written Word of God was as lofty as that of any Protestant Reformer. In effect, Webster and King have demonstrated that sola Scriptura was the rule of faith in the early church.

–Dr. John MacArthur, Pastor/Teacher of Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA

William Webster and David King have hit the bull’s eye repeatedly and with great force in their treatment of sola Scriptura. The exegetical material sets forth a formidable biblical foundation for this claim of exclusivity and the historical argument illustrates how the early church believed it and traces the circuitous path by which Roman Catholicism came to place tradition alongside Scripture as a source, or deposit, of authoritative revelation.

–Dr. Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY

(on the book page for Vol. I)

[Description]: In this Volume, William Webster addresses the common historical arguments against sola Scriptura, demonstrating that the principle is, in fact, eminently historical, finding support in ‘the unanimous consent of the fathers.’

The authors show, with painstaking thoroughness, that sola Scriptura is the teaching of the Bible itself and was central in the belief and practice of the early church, as exemplified in history and the writings of the Fathers.

–Edward Donnelly, Minister of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church, Newtownabbey, and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological College, Belfast, Northern Ireland

King and Webster have utterly destroyed that position by showing that the consent of the fathers teaches the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

–Jay Adams, co-pastor of The Harrison Bridge Road A.R.P. Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina, founder of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation of Laverock, Pennsylvania

In painstaking detail, Webster and King systematically dismantle the unbiblical and ahistorical assertions made by modern Roman Catholic apologists who all too often rely on eisegetical interpretations of the Bible and ‘cut and paste’ patrology.

–Eric Svendsen, Professor of Biblical Studies at Columbia Evangelical Seminary

[The Forewords of this volume (II) and Vol. I were written by James White]

(on the book page for Vol. II)

[Description]: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the principle is illegitimate because, she claims, it is unhistorical. By this she means that sola Scriptura is a theological novelty in that it supposedly has no support in the teaching of the early Church. Roman apologists charge that the teaching on Scripture promoted by the Reformers introduced a false dichotomy between the Church and Scripture which elevated Scripture to a place of authority unheard of in the early Church. The Church of Rome insists that the early Church fathers, while fully endorsing the full inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, did not believe in sola Scriptura. . . .

The documentation provided reveals in the clearest possible terms the Church fathers’ belief in the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture. By material sufficiency we mean that all that is necessary to be believed for faith and morals is revealed in Scripture. Formal sufficiency means that all that is necessary for faith and morals is clearly revealed in Scripture, so that an individual, by the enablement of the Holy Spirit alone, can understand the essentials of salvation and the Christian life. Page after page gives eloquent testimony to the supreme authority that Scripture held in the life of the early Church and serves as a much needed corrective to Rome’s misrepresentation of the Church fathers and her denigration of the sufficiency and final authority of Scripture.

(for the book page of Vol. III)

This is the standard anti-Catholic-type boilerplate rhetoric about sola Scriptura and the fathers. At least it is consistent (consistently wrong). But Jason dissents from his colleagues and wants to play the game of having a relativistic rule of faith: not in play from the beginning of Christianity, but only set in motion later. This allows him to play the further game of denying that Papias’ views are consistent with Catholic dogma and our rule of faith, while not having any responsibility of showing that it is consistent with a Protestant view.

He always has that “out” (which is rather standard Protestant anti-Catholic apologetics): “but that ain’t me / us.” It’s like a wax nose that can be molded to any whim or desire. Papias ain’t Protestant but (and here is the important part) he certainly ain’t Catholic (!!!) — so sez Jason Engwer. Yet I have shown (and will continue to demonstrate) that his views are perfectly consistent with the Catholic rule of faith, taking into account that he is very early in history, so that we don’t see full-fledged Catholicism. We see a primitive Catholic rule of faith: precisely as we would and should suspect.

Jason thinks he contradicts our view because (as I discussed in my Introduction to the previous four-part series) he expects to see the Catholic rule of faith explicitly in place in the first and second century: whereas our view of development, by definition, does not entail, let alone require this. Thus, he imposes a Protestant conception of “fully-formed from the outset” that he doesn’t even accept himself, onto the Catholic claim.

I could agree with the vague assertion that we’re to always follow “the word of God” as our rule of faith, for instance, but that meant significantly different things for Adam than it did for David, for Mary than it did for Ignatius of Antioch, for Papias than it does for Dave Armstrong, etc.

It depends on what one means by different: different in particulars; different in time-frames (David had no NT or revelation of Jesus); difference in amount of development, etc. What was in common was that all accepted “the word of God” (both written and oral) as normative for the Christian faith, but not in the sense of sola Scriptura.

To accuse me of “relativism”, “minimalism”, and such, because I’ve made distinctions like the ones outlined above, is unreasonable and highly misleading. The average reader of Dave’s blog probably doesn’t know much about me, and using terms like “relativism”, “minimalism”, and “fetish for uncertainty” doesn’t leave people with an accurate impression of what a conservative Evangelical like me believes.

Jason can hem and haw all he likes. The fact remains that he has expressly denied that Papias would have believed in sola Scriptura. But the standard anti-Catholic historical argumentation is what I have documented: “Scripture alone as the infallible rule for the ongoing life and faith of the Church was the universal belief and practice of the Church of the patristic and medieval ages” (William Webster); they universally taught sola Scriptura . . . embracing . . . formal sufficiency of Scripture” (David T. King and William Webster)So which will it be? There are three positions to choose from:

1) Papias was one of the fathers who “universally” held to sola Scriptura.

2) Papias didn’t hold to sola Scriptura, but also didn’t espouse a rule of faith consistent with Catholicism.

3) Papias didn’t embrace sola Scriptura, and his rule of faith was consistent with Catholicism.

#1 is the standard boilerplate anti-Catholic Protestant position, as I have shown above. #2 is Jason’s pick-and-choose “cafeteria patristic” view, that contradicts #1. #3 is my view and the Catholic view.

In some other comments about Papias, Dave writes:

Jason will have to make his argument from Papias, whatever it is. J. N. D. Kelly says little about him, but what he does mention is no indication of sola Scriptura…When we go to Eusebius (III, 39) to see what exactly Papias stated, we find an explicit espousal of apostolic succession and authoritative tradition. He even contrasts oral tradition to written (as superior): ‘I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice’ (III, 39, 4).

I didn’t cite Papias as an advocate of sola scriptura.

Exactly. From what we can tell, James White wouldn’t say that. Webster and King and Svendsen and John MacArthur wouldn’t. Why is it, then, that they aren’t out there correcting Jason? He disagrees with them (Papias doesn’t teach sola Scriptura) just as much as he does with me (Papias doesn’t hold to a primitive version of the historic Catholic rule of faith; he contradicts that). He’s betwixt and between. He needs to go back to King’s and White’s and Webster’s books to get up to speed and get his evangelical anti-Catholic act together.

I didn’t cite Papias as an advocate of sola scriptura. And we have much more information on Papias than what Eusebius provides. See here.

Thanks for the great link.

I referred to Richard Bauckham’s treatment of Papias in Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006). See, particularly, pp. 21-38. Bauckham goes into far more depth than J.N.D. Kelly did in the work Dave is citing.

Cool. And what position did he take, choosing from #1, #2, and #3 above? I was able to read pp. 21-38 on Amazon, and discovered that Bauckham tries to make a big deal of the distinction between oral history and oral tradition, with the former directly relying on eyewitness accounts (of the sort that Papias tried to collect). Bauckham’s stance, then, is a subtler version of #2. He seems to be trying (by repeated, almost mantra-like emphasis) to undermine a Catholic notion of oral tradition without saying so in so many words.

But he doesn’t prove at all that Papias’ approach is inconsistent with the Catholic three-legged stool rule of faith. Of course we would expect Papias to seek eyewitness accounts, since he lived so early. How in the world that is construed as somehow contrary to Catholic tradition is, I confess, beyond me. The following distinctions must be made and understood:

View of Tradition I:

I. 1) Legitimate tradition relies on eyewitness testimony only.

I. 2) Once the eyewitnesses die, then there is no longer true [binding] tradition to speak of.

View of Tradition II:

II. 1) Legitimate tradition relies primarily on eyewitness testimony where it is available.

II. 2) Legitimate tradition after eyewitness testimony is no longer available continues to be valid by means of [Holy Spirit-guided] unbroken [apostolic] succession, so that the truths originated by eyewitnesses continue on through history.

Jason and Bauckham appear to be asserting I. 1. But I. 2 does not necessarily follow from what we know of Papias’ views. We know that he collected eyewitness testimony. We don’t know that he would say that was the only tradition that was legitimate. In other words, it is the claim of exclusivity that involves the prior assumption brought to the facts. The Catholic view is Tradition II, which is perfectly consistent with what we know of Papias, or at the very least not ruled out by what we know of him.

The biggest problem with Tradition I is that it is not biblical. It contradicts what the Bible teaches. St. Paul, after all, was not an eyewitness of the life of Jesus (though he did have a post-Resurrection encounter with him that remains possible to this day). Yet he feels that he can authoritatively pass on Christian apostolic traditions (1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6, 14). Thus, whoever learned Christian truths from St. Paul did not receive them from an eyewitness. Paul had to talk to someone like Peter to get firsthand accounts (or Bauckham’s “oral history”).

He was passing on what he himself had “received” from yet another source (1 Cor 11:23; 15:3; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 2:13). He even specifically instructs Timothy to pass on his (oral) traditions to “faithful men,” who in turn can pass them on to others (2 Tim 2:2). So just from this verse we see four generations of a passed-on tradition (Paul: the second generation, Timothy, and those whom Timothy teaches). This tradition is not even necessarily written by Paul or anyone else (Rom 10:8; Eph 1:13; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 1:13-14; cf. Heb 13:7; 1 Pet 1:25). There is no indication that the chain is supposed to end somewhere down the line.

Secondly, even Papias, according to Eusebius, didn’t claim to talk to the apostles, but only to their friends:

2. But Papias himself in the preface to his discourses by no means declares that he was himself a hearer and eye-witness of the holy apostles, but he shows by the words which he uses that he received the doctrines of the faith from those who were their friends.

7. And Papias, of whom we are now speaking, confesses that he received the words of the apostles from those that followed them, . . . (Ecclesiastical History, III, 39, 4)

That makes Papias a third-hand witness; not even second-hand (someone who talked to apostles).

Contrary to what Dave claims, there is no “explicit espousal of apostolic succession” in Papias. And the “living and abiding voice” Papias refers to is a reference to proximate and early testimony that was soon going to die out.

This doesn’t rule out apostolic succession; to the contrary, it is a perfect example of it. He talked to people who knew the apostles. His testimony was third-hand. He “received the doctrines of the faith from those who were their [the apostles’] friends.” What is that if not succession? It is more or less independent of Scripture. Papias’ rule of faith was:

Apostles and apostolic doctrine —> friends of the apostles —> Papias

But the Protestant methodology and rule of faith is:

Apostles and apostolic doctrine —> Scripture —> Papias and everyone else

The theme Papias is referring to is taken from, among other sources, the historiography of his day. As Bauckham notes, Jerome’s rendering of the passage in Papias indicates that he understood Papias as Bauckham does (pp. 27-28).

He says that Jerome understood Papias as referring to access to living witnesses as his preferred mode of collecting information. But as I have already shown, I think, this in no way is inconsistent with Catholic tradition. It’s plain common sense. What Jason doesn’t mention, however, is Bauckham’s observation right after citing Jerome, translating Papias:

Jerome here seems to take Papias to mean that he preferred the oral communication of eyewitnesses to the written records of their testimony in the Gospels. (p. 28)

And that sounds distinctly unProtestant and contrary to sola Scriptura, doesn’t it? If we’re gonna mention one aspect of St. Jerome’s thought (even if it is falsely thought to bolster some anti-Catholic line of reasoning), why not the other also, even if it doesn’t fit in with the game plan? Get the whole picture, in other words.

Here are some of Bauckham’s comments on the subject:

Against a historiographic background, what Papias thinks preferable to books is not oral tradition as such but access, while they are still alive, to those who were direct participants in the historical events – in this case ‘the disciples of the Lord.’ He is portraying his inquiries on the model of those made by historians, appealing to historiographic ‘best practice’ (even if many historians actually made much more use of written sources than their theory professed)….What is most important for our purposes is that, when Papias speaks of ‘a living and abiding voice,’ he is not speaking metaphorically of the ‘voice’ of oral tradition, as many scholars have supposed. He speaks quite literally of the voice of an informant – someone who has personal memories of the words and deeds of Jesus and is still alive….Papias was clearly not interested in tapping the collective memory as such. He did not think, apparently, of recording the Gospel traditions as they were recited regularly in his own church community. Even in Hierapolis it was on his personal contact with the daughters of Philip that he set store. What mattered to Papias, as a collector and would-be recorder of Gospel traditions, was that there were eyewitnesses, some still around, and access to them through brief and verifiable channels of named informants. (pp. 24, 27, 34)

Again, the trouble with this is that Eusebius specifically says (twice) that Papias only knew friends of the apostles: not they themselves. So one of is key premises is unfactual. And then we have Paul espousing authoritative fourth-hand tradition in Scripture. In any event, Bauckham appears to contradict himself:

Bauckham I: “what Papias thinks preferable to books is not oral tradition as such but access, while they are still alive, to those who were direct participants in the historical events – in this case ‘the disciples of the Lord.’ . . . when Papias speaks of ‘a living and abiding voice,’ he . . . speaks quite literally of the voice of an informant – someone who has personal memories of the words and deeds of Jesus and is still alive . . . ”

Bauckham II: “Even in Hierapolis it was on his personal contact with the daughters of Philip that he set store. What mattered to Papias, as a collector and would-be recorder of Gospel traditions, was that there were eyewitnesses, some still around, and access to them through brief and verifiable channels of named informants.”

Which is it?: Eyewitnesses or those who knew eyewitnesses? Once one starts going down the chain to third-hand, fourth-hand or later generations of witnesses, one is squarely within oral tradition. It’s something other than eyewitness testimony. Protestants have been rejecting, for example, St. Ignatius, as too “Catholic” (therefore corrupt), for centuries. They thought the books with his name weren’t even authentic for a long time, till they were indisputably proved to be so. Now they are authentic, but still disliked by Protestants because they are already thoroughly Catholic.

In other words, the traditions that he teaches are rejected, no matter how proximate they are to the apostles. St. Ignatius (c. 35 – c. 110) was born a generation earlier than Papias. He may possibly have known St. John, or known of him through St. Polycarp (c. 69 – c. 155). But does that impress Protestants? No; not if they are intent on rejecting any doctrine that has the slightest “Catholic” flavor in it. Anti-Catholicism is the driving force: not some great goal of getting close to apostles via those who talked to them or to those who knew them.

Bauckham goes into much more detail than what I’ve quoted above. He gives examples of Polybius, Josephus, Galen, and other sources using terminology and arguments similar to those of Papias. He emphasizes that Papias is appealing to something more evidentially valuable than, and distinct from, “cross-generational” tradition (p. 37).

It is more valuable, in evidential or strictly historiographical terms. But this is no argument against Catholic tradition. It simply notes one special, early form of apostolic tradition.

As he notes, the sources Papias was referring to were dying out and only available for a “brief” time. The historiography of Papias’ day, from which he was drawing, was interested in early oral tradition, the sort we would call the testimony of eyewitnesses and contemporaries, not an oral tradition three hundred, a thousand, or two thousand years later. He got it from individuals and his own interpretation of their testimony, not mediated through an infallible church hierarchy centered in Rome. It wasn’t the sort of oral tradition Roman Catholicism appeals to.

Sure it was. This is apostolic tradition. Much ado about nothing . . . Jason will try to kill it off by his “death by a thousand qualifications” methodology, but it won’t fly. Nothing here (in the case of Papias) causes our view any problems whatsoever. The only problems are whether (in the Protestant paradigms) one wants to claim Papias as one of the fathers who supposedly “universally” believed in sola Scriptura, or to deny that he did so, as Jason does. The contradiction arises in Protestant ranks, not between Papias and Catholic tradition.

Modern Catholics aren’t hearing or interviewing the apostle John, Aristion, or the daughters of Philip and expecting such testimony to soon die out.

Thanks for that valuable information.

That’s not their notion of oral tradition.

It’s perfectly consistent with our notion, and we continue to think oral tradition is authoritative, whereas Protestants have ditched it: in direct contrast to what the fathers thought about such things.

And it won’t be sufficient for Dave to say that he doesn’t object to that other type of oral tradition that we find in Papias.

It will do just fine!

He’s accused me of “relativism” for making such distinctions.

No. Jason was accused of that because he arbitrarily decides that sola Scriptura kicks in later on and not from the first (itself a wacky Protestant tradition, and not biblical at all). He has a “jerky,” inconsistent view of Church history. But the Catholic view is a smooth line of development.

(It’s not as though Papias would disregard what he learned about a teaching of Jesus or the apostle John, for example, until it was promulgated in the form of something like papal infallibility or an ecumenical council.

Exactly. More truisms . . .

Rather, the oral tradition Papias appeals to makes him the sort of transitional figure I referred to above. He didn’t follow sola scriptura, but he didn’t follow the Catholic rule of faith either.)

He followed the latter in a primitive form. What he believed is no different in essence from what Catholics have believed all along, and from what I believe myself, as an orthodox Catholic. But it’s sure different from what Protestants and Jason believe. Even he concedes that, and is half-right, at least.

And Dave’s appeal to “oral tradition” in a dispute with an Evangelical is most naturally taken to refer to the common Catholic concept of oral tradition, not the form of it described by Bauckham.

Which is a species of ours . . .


If Dave agreed all along that Papias’ oral tradition was of the sort Bauckham describes, then why did he even bring up the subject?

My goal was to show that Papias is not a counter-example to Catholic tradition. I think I have succeeded in showing that, if I do say so.

It’s at least misleading to refer to Papias’ view as “oral tradition” in such an unqualified way in a dispute with an Evangelical.

One doesn’t have to go through every fine point and distinction at any given time. There is an oral element here that is different from sola Scriptura. The Jason method won’t work (i.e., note any distinction or exception whatever to be found, and then thrown that in the Catholic’s face as a supposed disproof). It hasn’t worked in the past, and it is failing again now.

How many of Papias’ oral traditions, such as his premillennialism, does Dave agree with?

I don’t believe in that (used to), but the Catholic Church has not proclaimed many eschatological beliefs as dogma. Our position is not to uncritically accept any given father’s view on anything, but to look at the consensus.

In response to my citation of Bauckham in my article in 2008, Dave wrote:

I’m not gonna go read all that. I’ve spent enough time on this as it is. Whatever Jason’s argument is involving Papias, can be presented anew, if he thinks it is worthwhile to consider.

The point being that if Jason wants to drop scholars’ names, then he can at least cite some of it rather than making his readers go look up everything. He didn’t even link to the Amazon book, where, fortunately, I could read the section he referenced. He cites it now; but that bolsters my point. He could have done that before, rather than just dropping names.

Yet, in his articles responding to me he frequently links us to other articles he’s written, without “presenting anew” what he said previously.

I didn’t know it was too hard for Jason to click on a mouse (take all of a third of a second to do that “work”) or to do a simple word search within articles. I am providing instant access to support for some point I am making if I cite past articles and link to them.

[Part II]

Catholics believe there was one rule of faith that consistently developed. It is what we call the ‘three-legged stool’: Scripture-Church-Tradition (as passed down by apostolic succession).

When Papias spoke with the daughters of Philip (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39), for example, were they giving him information by means of “apostolic succession”?

I would think that was a manifestation of it, yes: transmission of firsthand apostolic information through another party (in this case, daughters of an apostle).

Dave hasn’t given us any reason to think that Papias attained his oral tradition by that means.

What means? If he was talking to Philip’s daughters, that was part of the tradition. What else would it be? Homer’s Odyssey? Betting on chariot races? It’s primitive Christian apostolic tradition being passed down: “delivered” and “received,” just as St. Paul uses those terms. Jason can’t get out of the obvious fact by nitpicking and doing the “death by a thousand qualifications” game that he has honed to a fine art.

To the contrary, as Richard Bauckham documents in his book I cited earlier, Papias refers to the sort of investigation of early sources that was common in the historiography of his day, and we don’t assume the involvement of apostolic succession when other ancient sources appeal to that concept.

The two are not mutually exclusive at all. Now, routine historiographical investigation (because of historical proximity to the apostles), is pit against tradition, as if one rules out the other. The NT is good history; it is also good tradition. The twain shall meet: believe it or not.

Why should we even think that what Papias was addressing was a rule of faith?

He demonstrated the rule of faith in how he approached all these matters. This is how he lived his Christianity: his standard of authority. That’s the rule of faith. Nothing about Scripture Alone here: even Jason admits that, because he accepts a “herky-jerky” notion of the rule of faith being one thing early on and then magically transforming into something else later on. That’s not development; it is reversal: the very opposite of development.

When he attained information about a resurrection or some other miracle that occurred, for example, why should we conclude that such oral tradition became part of Papias’ rule of faith once he attained it?

Why should any Christian believe anything that he hears (from the Bible or whatever)? Why should Papias believe Philip’s daughters or other close associates of the apostles? Why should Jason question everything to death? Why can’t he simply accept these things in faith? Why does he have to play around with every father he can find, to somehow make them out to be hostile to Catholicism (if not quite amenable to Protestantism)? Why can’t he see the forest for the trees?

Why does he keep arguing about Papias, when even he admits that he didn’t abide by sola Scriptura? Why doesn’t he then explain why the rule of faith supposedly changed? Why doesn’t he show us from Scripture that it was to change later on? If he can’t do that, then why does he believe it? Would it not, then, be a mere tradition of men? If Protestants can arbitrarily believe in extrabiblical traditions of men, then why do they give Catholics a hard time for believing traditions that are documented in the Bible itself?

See, I can play Jason’s “ask 1000 questions routine: to muddy the whole thing up beyond all hope of resolution” game. I came up with twelve rapid-fire questions. I’m proud of myself! It’s kind o’ fun, actually, but you do have to type quite a bit and strain your brain to come up with a new hundred questions for any given topic at hand, so that nothing can ever be concluded, as to any given Church father believing anything. Of course I rhetorically exaggerate, but I trust that those who have been following this, get my drift.

Cardinal Newman himself describes Jason’s overly skeptical methodology, hitting the nail on the head:

It seems to me to take the true and the normal way of meeting the infidelity of the age, by referring to Our Lord’s Person and Character as exhibited in the Gospels. Philip said to Nathanael “Come and see”—that is just what the present free thinkers will not allow men to do. They perplex and bewilder them with previous questions, to hinder them falling under the legitimate rhetoric of His Divine Life, of His sacred words and acts. They say: “There is no truth because there are so many opinions,” or “How do you know that the Gospels are authentic?” “How do you account for Papias not mentioning the fourth Gospel?” or “How can you believe that punishment is eternal?” or, “Why is there no stronger proof of the Resurrection?” With this multitude of questions in detail, they block the way between the soul and its Saviour, and will not let it “Come and see.” (Letter of 11 January 1873, in Wilfred Ward’s The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, Vol. II, chapter 31, p. 393)

I’m not saying Jason is skeptical of Jesus. It’s an analogical point. He applies the same method that the skeptics Newman describes, use: only applied to patristic questions.

Some of his oral traditions would be part of his rule of faith, but not all of them.

Probably so (but this is self-evident). I didn’t see anyone (let alone myself) making a literal list of what is and what isn’t.

Dave is appealing to what Papias said about oral tradition in general, but Catholicism doesn’t teach that all oral tradition within Papias’ historiographic framework is part of the rule of faith.

Correct. All we’re saying is that his methodology does not fit into the Protestant rule of faith. Why is this still being discussed when Jason has already conceded that, and has moved on to another tack in trying to account for that fact?

When Papias uses the historiographic language of his day to refer to oral tradition, including traditions that wouldn’t be part of a Christian rule of faith and premillennial traditions, for example, it’s misleading for Dave to cite Papias’ comments as a reference to his rule of faith and claim that he agreed with Catholicism.

At this early stage, there will be anomalies and vague things. Newman’s theory incorporates those elements within itself. Hence he writes in his Essay on Development of the “Fifth Note of a True Development—Anticipation of Its Future”:

It has been set down above as a fifth argument in favour of the fidelity of developments, ethical or political, if the doctrine from which they have proceeded has, in any early stage of its history, given indications of those opinions and practices in which it has ended. Supposing then the so-called Catholic doctrines and practices are true and legitimate developments, and not corruptions, we may expect from the force of logic to find instances of them in the first centuries. And this I conceive to be the case: the records indeed of those times are scanty, and we have little means of determining what daily Christian life then was: we know little of the thoughts, and the prayers, and the meditations, and the discourses of the early disciples of Christ, at a time when these professed developments were not recognized and duly located in the theological system; yet it appears, even from what remains, that the atmosphere of the Church was, as it were, charged with them from the first, and delivered itself of them from time to time, in this way or that, in various places and persons, as occasion elicited them, testifying the presence of a vast body of thought within it, which one day would take shape and position.

We find exactly this sort of thing in Papias. His view is consistent with a Catholic one, that would be far more developed as time proceeded; but not consistent with the Protestant sola Scriptura.

Therefore, Papias could indeed have lived by sola Scriptura as the rule of faith. There is no compelling reason to think that he could not have done so, simply due to his living in a very early period of Christian history.

The question is whether he should have, and I’m not aware of any reason why an adherent of sola scriptura ought to think so.

How about the existence of the Old Testament? Or is that no longer considered Scripture by Protestants these days, or adherents of sola Scriptura. We’ll have to start calling it sola NT, huh? How about the Gospels and most of Paul’s letters, which were accepted as canonical very early: well within Papias’ lifetime?

Papias was at least a contemporary of the apostles, and, as I’ll discuss in more depth below, most likely was a disciple of one of the apostles as well.

That’s not what Eusebius stated. But even if he was, no problem whatever, because I showed (following Eusebius’ account) how he also accepted tradition from secondhand witnesses, and that St. Paul refers to fourth-hand reception of apostolic tradition. But of course, that is a part of my paper that Jason conveniently overlooked, per his standard modus operandi of high (and very careful) selectivity in response. We mustn’t get too biblical in our analyses, after all. You, the reader, don’t have to ignore the Bible, and can incorporate actual relevant biblical data into your informed opinion.

But Jason dissents from his colleagues and wants to play the game of having a relativistic rule of faith: not in play from the beginning of Christianity, but only set in motion later. This allows him to play the further game of denying that Papias’ views are consistent with Catholic dogma and our rule of faith, while not having any responsibility of showing that it is consistent with a Protestant view.

Dave keeps accusing me of “playing games”, being “relativistic”, etc. without justifying those charges.

Right. I gave an elaborate argument, point-by-point, just as I am doing now.

The fact that my view allows me to point to inconsistencies between Papias and Catholicism without having to argue that Papias adhered to sola scriptura doesn’t prove that my view is wrong.

That’s right, but Jason has failed in his attempt to prove that anything in Papias is fundamentally at odds with the Catholic view on the rule of faith. Where has he done this? It just isn’t there. I haven’t seen it. Maybe Jason will travel to Israel and find a new stone tablet that seals his case: primary evidence. Anything is possible. I’d urge him to keep optimistic and not to despair: something, somewhere may prove his anti-Catholic case vis-a-vis Papias once and for all. I won’t hold my breath waiting for it, though . . .

I’ve given examples of other transitional phases in history, during which the rule of faith changed for individuals or groups. Dave said that he agreed with “many, if not all of these points”, but then accused me of “relativism” and such when I applied the same sort of reasoning to Papias. Why?

I don’t know. I’d have to go back and see what I said, in context. I’m too lazy to do that (doin’ enough work as it is). But I know that I already adequately explained it, so I recommend that he go read it again (so that he doesn’t need to ask me what I meant).

What was in common was that all accepted ‘the word of God’ (both written and oral) as normative for the Christian faith, but not in the sense of sola Scriptura.

To say that everybody from Adam to Mary to Papias to Dave Armstrong followed the same rule of faith, defined vaguely as “the word of God”, is to appeal to something different than the “Scripture-Church-Tradition (as passed down by apostolic succession)” that Dave referenced earlier.

Here we go with the word games . . . As Ronald Reagan famously said to Jimmy Carter, “there you go again . . .” I was referring, of course, to the Christian era, not Adam and Eve, etc.

Adam and Eve didn’t have scripture or a magisterium.

Very good observation, Jason! But who needs apostles or Scripture, anyway, when you’re able to talk directly to God?

Even under Dave’s view, a change eventually occurred in which the word of God was communicated by a means not previously used. The sort of direct communication God had with Adam isn’t part of the average Catholic’s rule of faith today.

Exactly. What this has to do with anything is beyond me, I confess.

A Protestant could say that the rule of faith has always been “the word of God”, and thus claim consistency in the same sort of vague manner in which Dave is claiming it.

No, because Protestants tend to collapse “word of God” to Scripture alone, when in fact, in Scripture, it refers, many more times, to oral proclamation. This is the whole point: Scripture all over the place refers to an authoritative tradition and an authoritative Church. Scripture doesn’t teach that it alone is the infallible authority. Sola Scriptura ain’t biblical.

He seems to be trying (by repeated, almost mantra-like emphasis) to undermine a Catholic notion of oral tradition without saying so in so many words.

I don’t know how familiar Dave is with Richard Bauckham and his work. Bauckham isn’t interacting with Catholicism in the passage of his book that I cited. As far as I recall, he never even mentions Catholicism anywhere in the book, at least not in any significant way. Bauckham is a New Testament scholar interacting primarily with other New Testament scholars and scholars of other relevant fields.

Great. I interacted with his arguments, and saw some inconsistencies in them. Implicitly he is opposing, in a way, those Christian traditions that stress tradition, in his pitting of oral history against oral tradition, as I already noted. I say it is “both/and” — not “either/or.”

How in the world that is construed as somehow contrary to Catholic tradition is, I confess, beyond me.

Papias’ position wouldn’t have to be contrary to the Catholic position in order to be different than it. If Papias can take a transitional role under the Catholic view, in which he attains his rule of faith partly by means of the historical investigation he describes, then why can’t he take a transitional role under a Protestant view?

His position shows no semblance of a Protestant view in the first place, but it is not at all contrary, or even different from the Catholic view. It’s simply a primitive Catholic rule of faith: exhibiting exactly what we would expect to see under the assumption of Newmanian, Vincentian development.

We know that he collected eyewitness testimony. We don’t know that he would say that was the only tradition that was legitimate.

I didn’t claim that we know the latter. Remember, Dave is the one who claims that Papias was a Catholic, cited him in support of “oral tradition” (in a dispute with an Evangelical and without further qualification), etc.

Until we see anything that suggests otherwise, which we haven’t, that is a perfectly solid position to take.

His testimony was third-hand. He ‘he received the doctrines of the faith from those who were their [the apostles’] friends.’ What is that if not succession?

Why should we define apostolic succession so vaguely as to include “the apostles’ friends”? In the same passage of Eusebius Dave is citing, Papias is quoted referring to these people as “followers” of the apostles. Many people, including individuals outside of a church hierarchy, can be considered friends or followers of the apostles. And, as I said above, the historiographic concept Papias is appealing to doesn’t limit itself to apostolic successors or an equivalent category in its normal usage. Why think, then, that the concept has such a meaning when Papias uses it?

How is what he did contrary to apostolic succession? It isn’t at all. Papias was a bishop, who received Christian tradition from friends or relatives of the apostles. This ain’t rocket science. There is nothing complicated about it: much as Jason wants to obfuscate.

Dave originally claimed that “we find an explicit espousal of apostolic succession” in Papias. He still hasn’t documented that assertion.

Of course I have. This is another annoying constant in debates with anti-Catholics: one is forced to simply repeat things three, four, five times or more, because the anti-Catholic seems unable to process them, even after five times. It’s as if one is writing to the wind. Three strikes and you’re out.

Again, the trouble with this is that Eusebius specifically says (twice) that Papias only knew friends of the apostles: not they themselves. So one of [Bauckham’s] key premises is unfactual.

Dave makes that point repeatedly in his article. But Richard Bauckham argues against Eusebius’ position elsewhere in the book I’ve cited. I’ve argued against Eusebius’ conclusion as well. See, for example, here.

Earlier, I cited an online collection of fragments by and about Papias. Eusebius’ dubious argument that Papias wasn’t a disciple of any of the apostles is contradicted by multiple other sources, including Irenaeus more than a century earlier (a man who had met Polycarp, another disciple of John). Some of the sources who commented on Papias when his writings were still extant said that he was even a (or the) secretary who wrote the fourth gospel at John’s dictation. Eusebius wasn’t even consistent with himself on the issue of whether Papias had been taught by John. See the citation from Eusebius’ Chronicon on the web page linked above. The only source I’m aware of who denied Papias’ status as a disciple of the apostles, Eusebius, wasn’t even consistent on the issue. The evidence suggests that Papias was a disciple of the apostle John.

Fair enough. But if we grant this, of course it has no effect on my position: that his views are consistent with the Catholic rule of faith. Either way, it works the same: if he knew the apostles, it was apostolic succession (just more directly). If he didn’t, it was still apostolic succession, since that is an ongoing phenomenon. Moreover, as I reiterated again above, Paul refers to apostolic succession from fourth-hand sources. So it is valid apart from necessarily knowing an apostle personally. And knowing one does not, therefore, rule out apostolic succession. It is completely harmonious with it.

Bauckham appears to contradict himself…Which is it?: Eyewitnesses or those who knew eyewitnesses? Once one starts going down the chain to third-hand, fourth-hand or later generations of witnesses, one is squarely within oral tradition. It’s something other than eyewitness testimony.

No, Bauckham explains, in the section of his book I cited, that though eyewitnesses were the primary source of interest, other early sources were involved as well. Even if you disagree with the historiographic standard in question, the fact remains that Papias was appealing to that standard. It involved witnesses who would quickly die out rather than going into the “fourth-hand or later generations” Dave refers to. Even apart from that ancient historiographic standard, it makes sense to differentiate between a source who’s one step removed and other sources who are five, twenty, or a thousand steps removed.

St. Paul didn’t think so, as I have shown: not in terms of accurate transmission of apostolic tradition.

We don’t place all non-eyewitnesses in the same category without making any distinctions. Why are we today so focused on the writings of men like Tertullian and John Chrysostom rather than modern oral traditions about them?

We go back as far as we can, and we do make judgments as to relative trustworthiness of sources.

In other words, the traditions that he [Ignatius] teaches are rejected, no matter how proximate they are to the apostles.

Like Dave’s rejection of Papias’ premillennial tradition, the soteriological tradition of Hermas (his belief in limited repentance), etc.?

What St. Ignatius taught (real presence, episcopacy, etc.) was universal in the early Church, unlike the two things above. Huge, essential difference, but nice try, Jason. The arguments get increasingly desperate. My friend, Jonathan Prejean, made a great comment today on another blog, that has relevance here:

What I would find far more troubling, were I a Protestant, is the new patristics scholarship of the last 40 years, which convincingly demonstrates that, while giving nominal adherence to the ecumencial creeds, Protestants have done so according to the same defective interpretation as the heretics. The modest claims of papal authority, which in any case are not refuted by what you cited (and I’ve read them), are trivial compared to the fact that the Protestant account of salvation and grace is fundamentally opposed to the Christian account of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. The physical presence (i.e., real presence according to nature) of God in the Church and its necessity for salvation is unanimously agreed by all Catholic and Orthodox Christians, echoing St. Cyril of Alexandria, the great “Seal of the Fathers.” Yet Protestants deny it, making the spiritual resemblance to God merely moral (hence, imputed justification) and not physical.

That’s a Nestorian account of salvation, plain and simple. And the historical evidence about the heterodoxy of Nestorianism has been piling up over the last couple of decades (see, e.g., J.A. McGuckin, Paul Clayton) after some scholarship suggesting that Nestorius might have been orthodox (mostly based on Nestorius’s own erroneous claims; see, e.g., F. Loofs), and therefore, that Calvin’s identical beliefs might have been as well. But that has been crushed even more convincingly than the admittedly excessive claims of some Catholics about papal infallibility, and it is a much more serious error in any case. This is why I stopped even bothering with these debates, at least until I saw David [Waltz] wavering, because Newman’s prophetic words about being “deep in history” were absolutely vindicated by the neo-patristic scholarship. Protestants today have no hope of being orthodox in the historical sense; they have to redefine orthodoxy to be broad enough to include what they believe (see, e.g., D.H. Williams).

St. Ignatius (c. 35 – c. 110) was born a generation earlier than Papias. He may possibly have known St. John, or known of him through St. Polycarp (c. 69 – c. 155). But does that impress Protestants? No; not if they are intent on rejecting any doctrine that has the slightest ‘Catholic’ flavor in it.

Ignatius’ earliness is significant to me. I often cite him and often refer to the significance of his earliness. But I prefer the more accurate interpretation of Ignatius offered by an Ignatian scholar like Allen Brent to the interpretation of somebody like Dave Armstrong.

Great. J. N. D. Kelly (also an Anglican patristics scholar) thought that St. Ignatius “seems to suggest that the Roman church occupies a special position” (Early Christian Doctrines, 1978, 191). Brent writes (cited by Jason in his linked previous paper):

Ignatius doesn’t make any reference to apostolic succession as later defined by men like Irenaeus and Cyprian and by groups like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

This is exactly what we would expect under a thesis of development. Obviously he wouldn’t write as explicitly about apostolic succession as it was “later defined.” This poses no difficulty for us whatever. It is only a difficulty if one (as Jason habitually does) constructs a straw man of what Catholic development in the late first and early second century supposedly was (far more developed than we should reasonably expect).

The primitive state of development that we expect to find in St. Ignatius is reflected in a Brent remark such as “The low Trinitarianism in Ignatius’ letters supports an early date.” He also had a “low ecclesiology” because he was so early. But even Jason agrees (in the same former post) that St. Ignatius already in his time had a rather robust Catholic ecclesiology:

I agree with Brent that Ignatius seems to have been trying to convince other churches to adopt or retain his preferred form of church order, involving a monarchical episcopate, thus explaining why he mentions the subject so much in his letters. However, I suspect that the monarchical episcopate was already more widespread than Brent suggests. The truth probably is somewhere between Brent’s concept of Ignatius as an innovator and the view that all of the early churches had a monarchical episcopate all along. (Brent prefers not to use the term “monarchical episcopate” when discussing Ignatius’ view, but I’m using it in a broad sense, which I think is more common, to refer to having a single bishop who leads the remainder of the church hierarchy.)

It’s perfectly consistent with our notion, and we continue to think oral tradition is authoritative, whereas Protestants have ditched it: in direct contrast to what the fathers thought about such things.

Catholics “ditched” the approach of Papias long ago. They don’t appeal to an oral tradition attained by means of historical investigation,

It’s tough to meet associates of the apostles these days; sorry, Jason. If he builds me a time machine, I’d be more than happy to go talk to them. Probably couldn’t afford a ticket, though . . .

without the mediation of the Catholic hierarchy acting in its infallible capacity, and they don’t think that their oral tradition is soon going to die out, as Papias’ “living and abiding voice” was about to.

The tradition continues being accurately transmitted after the eyewitnesses die out, as St. Paul believed. That’s sufficient for me. Jason prefers Brent to me; I prefer St. Paul’s opinion on tradition and succession to his.

My goal was to show that Papias is not a counter-example to Catholic tradition.

No, Dave went further than that. He said that we find in Papias “an explicit espousal of apostolic succession and authoritative tradition”. He also refers to the fathers in general as Catholic, which presumably would include Papias.

Yes on both counts, as explained. But the word “explicit” was relative insofar as someone that early can only be so explicit. “Direct” would have been a better term to use in retrospect, because of the meaning of “explicit” in discussions having to do with development of doctrine. I trusted that readers acquainted with the broad parameters of the discussion would understand that, but sure enough, Jason didn’t, and so keeps trying to make hay over this non-issue. No doubt he will classify this very paragraph as special pleading or sophistry, but most readers will understand that it is simply clarification of a phrase used.

I don’t believe in that [premillennialism] (used to), but the Catholic Church has not proclaimed many eschatological beliefs as dogma. Our position is not to uncritically accept any given father’s view on anything, but to look at the consensus.

If Dave doesn’t accept Papias’ premillennial oral traditions, and he’s identifying Papias’ oral traditions as part of the rule of faith followed by Papias, then it follows that Papias’ rule of faith involved a doctrine that Dave rejects.

But since that particular belief isn’t a dogmatic one in the first place, it is quite irrelevant. No Catholic is obliged to believe it, or much of anything else in eschatology, as I understand. No one is saying that any given father is infallible, so if he is wrong on that one item, this causes no problem to our view.

Was premillennialism part of the rule of faith in Papias’ generation, but not today? Did Papias follow a different rule of faith than others in his generation? Would that qualify as “relativism”?

He got some things wrong. So what? One could collect a huge bucket of seaweed and other marine items from the sea and discover that a pearl was also part of the collection. The pearl is “transmitted” along with the rest. Not everything in the bucket is equally valuable. Again, this is no problem for us whatever. The real problem is Protestant rejection of beliefs virtually universally held by the fathers, such as, for example, the real presence or baptismal regeneration.

If Dave wants to argue that he wasn’t referring to Papias’ rule of faith when he made comments about “authoritative tradition” and “oral tradition” in Papias, then what’s the relevance of such fallible tradition that’s outside of a rule of faith? As I said before, that sort of “authoritative tradition” and “oral tradition” isn’t what people normally have in mind when Catholics and Evangelicals are having a discussion like the current one, so Dave’s comments were at least misleading.

Since we don’t hold individual fathers to be infallible, this is much ado about nothing.

And Papias thought he got his premillennialism from the apostles. It was apostolic tradition to him. It’s not to Dave.

The Church in due course makes all sorts of judgments as to what is authentic tradition and what isn’t. Jason knows this, but he mistakenly thinks he has scored some sort of point here, so he runs with that ball.

How does one see a Catholic concept of apostolic succession in a phrase like “the apostles’ friends” or a Catholic concept of oral tradition in a historiographic phrase like “living and abiding voice”? In much the same way one sees everything from papal infallibility to a bodily assumption of Mary in scripture and an acorn of Catholicism in the writings of the church fathers.

I have done my best to explain. I trust that open-minded readers can be persuaded of some things, and that my efforts are not in vain, in that sense.

Jason Engwer has made a third response dealing with Papias: about whom we know very little. He basically rehashes the same old arguments again, thinking that this somehow makes them less weak and ineffectual than they were before.


Photo credit: Mosaic, c. 1000, in St. Sophia of Kyiv. From the left: Epiphanius of Salamis, Clement of Rome, Gregory the Theologian, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker and Archdeacon Stephen. [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


June 4, 2020

This is my reply to Jason Engwer’s article, “Baptismal Justification” (12-20-09), which was a portion of a larger discussion he was having with Catholic apologist Bryan Cross. His words will be in blue.


As an introductory statement, I would emphasize that the Bible and Catholicism teach both justification by grace through faith and baptismal regeneration (including normative infant baptism). The two notions and events are harmonious. But they can be discussed by themselves.  Often (if not most times), the Bible will mention one without the other. But it doesn’t follow that every mention of one without the other implies some sort of contradiction. It does not, because both are asserted in inspired Scripture. I agree that many mentions of something constitute good biblical evidence for it (I presuppose this in many of my own articles, in citing a lot of Bible passages); however, there are things that are mentioned a lot less in the Bible that remain just as true as the frequently mentioned doctrines.

The examples of this that I usually point out are the virgin birth and original sin. Both are firmly believed by virtually all Christian believers: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox: yet they are mentioned (especially in the case of original sin) fairly few times. Moreover, there is an example of a firmly and universally held doctrine (apart from seven disputed books pout of 73) that is absolutely absent from Holy Scripture: the canon of the Bible: which was ultimately determined and decreed by Church authority and apostolic tradition.

Bottom line: assertion of either aspects of baptism or justification, without mentioning the other doctrine, does not imply a negation of the other. and if and when Jason argues in such a fashion, he will be engaging in logical fallacy and inadequate biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. The task of the fair and open biblical exegete is to incorporate all of the data regarding justification and baptism into a harmonious whole. As one would expect, I think the Catholic view does that. And there are two passages in Paul that explicitly link baptism and justification.

Below is a portion of my latest response, relevant to the subject of attaining justification through baptism. . . . 

Paul, James, and other New Testament authors suggest continuity between justification through faith in the Old Testament era and justification through faith in the New Testament era.

Indeed they do. But baptism was prefigured by circumcision. I summarized the biblical data on that analogy in my paper, Infant Baptism: A Fictional Dialogue

Paul in Colossians 2:11-13 makes a connection between baptism and circumcision. Israel was the church before Christ (Acts 7:38; Romans 9:4). Circumcision, given to 8-day-old boys, was the seal of the covenant God made with Abraham, which applies to us also (Galatians 3:14, 29). It was a sign of repentance and future faith (Romans 4:11). Infants were just as much a part of the covenant as adults (Genesis 17:7; Deuteronomy 29:10-12, cf. Matthew 19:14). Likewise, baptism is the seal of the New Covenant in Christ. It signifies cleansing from sin, just as circumcision did (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25; Romans 2:28-29; Philippians 3:3).

I also have an article about John Calvin commenting at length about Paul’s circumcision-baptism analogy.

But works of faith come later than faith. Genesis 15:6 is about a faith that would result in works, but the works come after the faith.

We fully agree, which is why we speak of initial justification, by faith. I’ve even written a post entitled, Monergism in Initial Justification is Catholic Doctrine. So this notion doesn’t contradict Catholic soteriology or theology in general.

When somebody trusts God in response to a promise God makes, as in Genesis 15, that’s faith in the heart (as in Acts 15:7-11 and Romans 10:10), not faith accompanied by an outer manifestation like baptism.

Now here is where Jason attempts to illogically separate such justification from an equally necessary and regenerative baptism. Acts 15:7-11 is the account St. Peter at the Jerusalem Council talking about how he had observed Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit (15:8) and have their hearts “cleansed . . . by faith” (15:9). But there is no reason to believe that he would separate baptism from that, simply because he doesn’t mention it here. How do we know that? Well, we know from looking at actual instances of reception of the Holy Spirit in which Peter was present.

In Acts 2, it is the Day of Pentecost and the disciples receive the Holy Spirit and are indwelt by Him (2:1-4). As a result, St. Peter gives the first Christian sermon, explaining what had happened, and presents the gospel (2:14-36). When he is done, the Bible says that “they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?”‘ (2:37; RSV, as throughout). And here is how Peter responds:

Acts 2:38-41 . . . “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [39] For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” [40] And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” [41] So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Thus, the very first act or “work” that those who have accepted the gospel by grace through faith is to get baptized. And this baptism is “for the forgiveness of your sins” and its result will be receiving “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And it is intended for all believers, and for their “children” (infant baptism). Lastly,  getting baptized is, according to Peter and inspired Scripture, “Sav[ing] yourselves from this crooked generation.” I don’t know how the Bible could be more explicit in describing baptismal regeneration and its actual necessity, either at the beginning of an adult convert’s Christian life or for an infant who is the child of Christians. Everything is here: repentance, forgiveness of sins, the indwelling Holy Spirit, salvation, and the idea that baptism formally adds one to the Church.

When Peter observes the Holy Spirit falling upon Gentiles, too, he acts in exactly the same fashion:

Acts 10:44-48 While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. [45] And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. [46] For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, [47] “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” [48] And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

When St. Paul converted, it was precisely the same state of affairs again:

Acts 9:17-18 So Anani’as departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” [18] And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized,

Acts 22:11-16 And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. [12] “And one Anani’as, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, [13] came to me, and standing by me said to me, `Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. [14] And he said, `The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; [15] for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. [16] And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

Note that his sins were not yet “washed away” when he first converted and saw Jesus. That only came with baptism, just as was the case in Acts 2:38, 40.

Obviously, then, for Peter and Paul, baptism (i.e., for adult converts accepting Christianity for the first time) goes along with — at the same time — repentance, belief in the gospel and justification by faith. How is it, then, that Jason can claim the exact opposite: that it’s not faith accompanied by an outer manifestation like baptism”? Well, he does so by highlighting certain passages while ignoring other relevant ones, and playing the usual Protestant unbiblical and illogical “either / or” game. The Bible teaches both things; he contends in futility that it teaches only one of them.

It isn’t the case that the chronological order is always the same (baptism —> reception of the Holy Spirit or reception of the Holy Spirit —> baptism), but rather, that they are, broadly speaking, together in time. That is the constant. The ancient Hebrews didn’t view chronology like we do. One being accompanied by the other (whether technically before or after) is the essence of the thing, rather than one being slightly before the other. That’s what Scripture teaches, whether Jason and other Protestants care for it or not. 

There isn’t a single individual who’s described as coming to faith, but having to wait until baptism to be justified. Nor is there any individual who’s described as only having a lesser, unjustifying faith prior to baptism or not having faith at all until baptism. Rather, we repeatedly see people justified as soon as they believe, prior to or without baptism.

I just provided several counter-examples. In Acts 2, the sequence was repentance, then baptism, which brings forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and entrance into the kingdom (i.e., the Church). One can hardly be “justified” without all those things or have a greater faith before baptism (given this description). Therefore, baptism is what immediately caused it. When Paul was baptized, according to his own interpretation, his sins were washed away as a result.

So how could he be justified (before baptism), seeing that his sins weren’t even forgiven and washed away and he wasn’t “saved” yet? He could not, since forgiveness of sins and salvation / regeneration are essential to the notion of justification. And an infant can have no conscious, “personal” faith at all prior to baptism or even after. Yet the Bible teaches infant baptism. Other passages on baptismal regeneration reinforce this point:

Mark 16:16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

John 3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (cf. 3:3: “unless a man is born again …”)

Romans 6:3-5 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? [4] We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. [5] For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Titus 3:5 he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit,

1 Peter 3:20-21 . . . 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, . . . 

We see from this additional relevant biblical data that a person is “saved” by baptism; it’s how he can “enter the kingdom of God” and be “born again”; it allows the baptized person to “walk in newness of life” and be united with Jesus in His Resurrection. It brings about “regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” I fail to see what else is required to prove the point! Is this not overwhelming evidence for the Catholic view (and Orthodox and Anglican and Lutheran and the view of other Protestant groups that believe in baptismal regeneration)? Yet Jason wants to argue that justification is before baptism. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s exactly the opposite of the biblical presentation on these matters.

I just discovered some very exciting arguments for baptismal regeneration tonight (I don’t know how I’ve missed this, all this time, but I’m always learning), from my friend David Palm, who wrote on my Facebook page:

I remember when I was not-yet-converted and was scratching my head about this whole baptism and justification connection that the Council of Trent made. Trent references Romans 6:7, so I went and read it in the Greek and was absolutely gobsmacked. Romans 6:7 in English is often translated along the lines of, “For he who has died is freed from sin” (RSVCE). But in Greek it says, “ὁ γὰρ ἀποθανὼν δεδικαίωται ἀπὸ τῆς ἁμαρτίας.” That word “δεδικαίωται”, is a form of the verb “to justify”, the very same verb used in the more prominent passages in Rom 3 and 4. So more literally it would be (in the context), “For he who has died [in Christ, in baptism] has been justified from sin….”

I was curious to see if there were translations that reflected this. There aren’t many, but I found a few (including several quite old ones):

ASV for he that hath died is justified from sin.

Darby For he that has died is justified from sin.

Douay-Rheims For he that is dead is justified from sin.

Tyndale For he that is dead is justified from sin. [Old English spelling modified]

Wycliffe For he that is dead [to sin], is justified from sin.

Wuest for the one who died once for all stands in the position of a permanent relationship of freedom from the sinful nature.

ASV is the most surprising, since it was the American revision of the King James Version: produced in 1901. Strong’s Concordance lists the word here as dikaioo (#1344).  Knowing that, we can trace its use in other passages, as David suggests above. It occurs 14 more times in Romans alone and 12 times in other Pauline epistles. Here are the most notable instances:

Romans 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

Romans 3:23-25 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [24] they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, [25] whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. . . . 

Romans 3:26 . . . he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:28 For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.

Romans 3:30 . . . he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.

Romans 4:5 And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.

Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:9 Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

Galatians 2:16 . . . in order to be justified by faith in Christ . . . 

Galatians 3:24 So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith.

Titus 3:7 so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

Apologists, theologians, and avid Bible readers are well familiar with Paul’s theme of being justified by grace (Rom 3:24; Titus 3:7) and by faith (most of the other passages above). But in Romans 2:13, Paul applies the term not to either grace or faith, but to “doers of the law.” James uses the word (in a way that gave Luther fits) in relation to Abraham and Rahab being “justified by works” (Jas 2:21, 24-25). 

But now we also see that St. Paul teaches that the baptized person is “justified from sin” (Rom 6:7). This pretty much dramatically shoots down Jason’s entire attempt to separate baptism from justification / regeneration. The entire chapter of Romans 6 is now seen in an exciting light in reference to baptism and its profound spiritual power. Paul creates an analogy between our baptism and Jesus’ death (6:3-6). Then we have the bombshell verse of 6:7, which directly applies justification to baptism.

The rest of the chapter, in light of the stage that Paul has set, is filled with proof texts for baptismal regeneration. Because of our baptism / “death” we are now “dead to sin and alive to God” (6:11). Thus, sanctification seems intimately tied in with the justification and regeneration that baptism has brought about (a very Catholic and unProtestant view indeed).

Perhaps this is some of what St. Paul means by saying, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27; cf. Rom 13:14), and also his terminology of “put on the new nature” (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10), and “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17), and “the new life of the Spirit” (Rom 7:6): not to mention several other verses about the indwelling Holy Spirit.

As a result of this baptism, sin is no longer to “reign” over us or have “dominion” (Rom 6:12-15), leading to “righteousness for sanctification” (6:19). We’re no longer “slaves to sin” (6:16-18, 20). Now as a result of baptismal regeneration, we’ve been “set free from sin” with “the return” being “sanctification and its end, eternal life” (6:18, 22).

Wow! Hard to argue against all that! It’s baptismal regeneration, justification, sanctification, and salvation all in one fell swoop: in one chapter of Paul: supposedly the great “Protestant” apostle and alleged herald of justification by faith alone.

It’s not as though people like Cornelius and the Galatians didn’t have access to baptism,

In the passage about Cornelius, Peter preaches, and then Cornelius, along with other Gentiles who receive the Spirit are baptized (Acts 10:44-48). So this is more evidence of the Catholic position, not Jason’s. We know what Paul and Peter thought baptism did: not from this particular passage, but others, that have to be considered along with Acts 10.

It would make no sense to dismiss a passage like Luke 18:10-14, Acts 19:2, or Romans 10:10 as an exception to the rule. Justification upon believing response to the gospel, prior to baptism, is the rule, not the exception.

In Luke 18:10-14, we hear of the righteous man who was “justified”because he exhibited genuine repentance and humility. This doesn’t prove that he would not also have to be baptized (see my logical point in the introduction). The same Jesus Who taught this in a story, also said: 

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 

After we preach and make disciples and bring about new converts and believers by the power of the Holy Spirit, we baptize them. The disciples were already baptizing others, early in Jesus’ ministry: thus we can assume that they must have themselves been baptized, in order to baptize others, but it wasn’t by Jesus (John 4:2).

Acts 19:1-6 While Apol’los was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. [2] And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” [3] And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” [4] And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” [5] On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. [6] And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.

It’s the same again here: some disciples were found who had been baptized by John the Baptist. But then they were baptized in the name of Jesus and after that, they received the Holy Spirit. Apparently, then, Jason manages to believe (I know not how) in a justification without the Holy Spirit. 

Romans 10:10 For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.

This refers to justification, but the same Paul makes it clear that baptism is also an essential part of the overall equation, in Romans 6:3-5 and Titus 3:5 (seen above). So it’s not “either/or” but “both/and.” I have repeatedly shown how the two can go hand-in-hand and be perfectly harmonious. This is what the Bible teaches. So why does Jason keep trying to separate them? Well, because he is engaged in systematic eisegesis: reading into the Bible and apostolic Christianity what isn’t there. And he is engaging in the typical and distressingly common Protestant false dichotomy. 


Mark 16:16 is an extra-Biblical source. It has some significance as an early text, but the readers should keep in mind that it’s an extra-Biblical text. The authentic gospel of Mark says nothing of baptismal justification. (Similarly, the authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch say nothing of it. The inauthentic longer versions of his letters, on the other hand, include reference to the concept.)

There are many excellent and compelling arguments for Mark 16:9-20 being part of Scripture. But even if it isn’t, there are plenty more passages teaching baptismal regeneration that Jason can’t dismiss.

You’ve made no attempt to explain the large number of Biblical examples of justification apart from baptism that I cited earlier. As I said, such passages have moved many advocates of baptismal justification to argue that baptism didn’t become a requirement (in normative cases) until after Jesus’ public ministry. . . . John refers to justification through faith many times (1:12, 3:15-16, 3:18, 3:36, 5:24, 6:35, 6:40, 6:47, 7:38-39, 11:25-26, etc.), and baptismal justification is alleged to be referred to only once, in 3:5.

As explained in the introduction, mentions of justification that do not also mention baptism, don’t wipe out all the passages that teach required baptism as an essential component of Christian discipleship and justification itself (which Paul literally asserts in Romans 6:7). It’s simply not a disproof. The Bible has to be interpreted as a harmonious whole, since it is inspired revelation, and Jason cannot ignore this massive biblical evidence regarding baptism. How very odd, if Jason is correct, that the very first thing Jesus did when He commenced His public ministry, was to be baptized as an example.

And the immediate precursor and proclaimer of the arrival of Jesus the Messiah: John the Baptist, was primarily one who baptized (as we see in his very title): which prophets had never done before. Then we see Jesus’ disciples baptizing (Jn 4:2), and His command. shortly before ascending, that mentioned baptism in conjunction with making disciples (Mt 28:19). After the Day of Pentecost and the first Christian sermon of the new covenant, Peter immediately calls for a mass baptism: precisely as Jesus said His disciples should do: preach and baptize. Jason’s inability to grasp the significance of all this is like a person looking all over the sky at high noon on a clear summer day and not being able to find the sun.

Most likely, Acts 2:38 has a meaning similar to Matthew 3:11. The people in Matthew 3 weren’t being baptized to attain repentance. Rather, they were repenting, then being baptized on the basis of that repentance. Not only would it be irrational to think that unrepentant people would be baptized in order to attain repentance, but Josephus specifically tells us that John’s baptism was for people who had already repented (Antiquities Of The Jews, 18:5:2).

Of course, this was the order (repentance, then baptism, which “seals” it), as indicated in Mark 1:5: “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (cf. Mt 3:6). John’s words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2), imply — it seems to me — a repentance, followed by baptism: rather like a Protestant altar call, where the person repents, then goes up to the altar in a ritual gesture of public proclamation of newfound faith. In Catholicism, the equivalent would be reception into the Church at Easter, followed by baptism, for those who had never been baptized. When I was received, I was conditionally baptized, just in case my previous one (as a Methodist infant in 1958) was invalid for some reason.

Acts 2:38 is the same order: “Repent, and be baptized.” And it was the same for St. Paul. He repented and stopped warring against Jesus Christ and His Body, and then he was baptized.

Given the availability of such a reasonable understanding of Acts 2:38 (one similar to how we all read Matthew 3:11), it wouldn’t make sense to adopt some other view of the passage that would be so inconsistent with what Luke says elsewhere and what other Biblical authors say (documented above).

Jason seems to think that repentance is the same thing as justification, but it’s not. It’s only the first step towards justification and regeneration. Hence we see a verse like this:

Mark 1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (cf. Lk 3:3)

The people in John’s baptisms would repent and confess, then get baptized, which would bring the forgiveness (which is the justification: at least by analogy to later Christian baptism). The Apostle Paul taught that the two are not identical:

2 Corinthians 7:10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation . . . 

1 Peter 3:21 is a passage addressed to Christians in the context of discussing sanctification. Baptism saves in that sense, not in the sense of justification. Like the baptism of John the Baptist, Christian baptism doesn’t remove the filth of sin (1 Peter 3:21). Instead, it’s a public pledge made to God that commits Christians, like those to whom Peter is writing, to faithfulness to God in their present experience of persecution.

The preceding context shows that Peter is talking about unbelievers being saved by baptism:

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit;

Peter goes on to make a parable-like comparison: during the Flood, “eight persons, were saved through water” (3:20). Then he says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (3:21). “Salvation” in the Old Testament generally meant “saved from death” or from “enemies” (who often would bring death). In the New Testament it means being rescued from eternal death or spiritual death. So it’s a clear-cut analogy: eight people were saved from physical death “through water” on Noah’s ark. Now, by analogy, we are saved through the waters of baptism, which “correspond” to the waters of the Flood.

If baptism were intended as some sort of “pledge of faithfulness,” Scripture would say so. Instead, it is repeatedly referred to (including in key passages by Peter himself) as bringing salvation, regeneration, the Holy Spirit, and justification itself (Rom 6:7). Jason is simply doing more desperate eisegesis. It doesn’t fly. His view is neither biblically plausible nor self-consistent. 

Acts 19:2 only mentions faith. 

That’s right, but it’s just one verse. The original New Testament did not even have verses. When we consider context, the discussion immediately turns to baptism (19:3-4), then the people get baptized (19:5), which results in the reception of the Holy Spirit (19:6). Jason simply repeating that Acts 19:2 only mentions faith over and over proves or resolves absolutely nothing, as to the present dispute. 

If you want us to believe that Galatians 3:2, Ephesians 1:13-14, and other passages are including baptism when they refer to faith, you need to argue for that position rather than just asserting it. . . . We don’t begin with a default assumption that references to belief include baptism. If you want baptism included, you carry the burden of proof.

As explained, they don’t have to mention baptism because it’s mentioned (and very prominently in the whole scheme of salvation) in many other places. Not everything has to be noted in any one particular passage. But St. Paul does put both things (and sanctification) in one verse:

Corinthians 6:11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

If Paul can put them together in that passage, then it follows that he could very well be presupposing this in other passages, and he also connects them in Romans 6:4-5, where he directly connects baptism with waling “in newness of life” and being “united” to Christ: both of which — I submit — are essentially synonyms of justification; and above all in Romans 6:7, where st. Paul leaves no room for doubt.

It’s not just a matter of faith coming before baptism. Rather, justification does as well. Cornelius’ example and Paul’s assumed soteriology in Acts 19:2 involve the reception of the Spirit, the seal of adoption and justification, at the time of faith and prior to baptism.

I don’t know why Jason can’t see the sequence of events around Acts 19:2. It’s not rocket science. These people did not have the Spirit prior to baptism. It says that they were “disciples” (19:1) and “believed (19:2). But so were the original twelve disciples, and they did not have the Holy Spirit till a post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus (John 20:22). The text says that they were baptized, Paul laid his hands on them,  and then “the Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 19:4-5). What is so hard to grasp about the chronology there? How is it that Jason gets it dead wrong? I find it perplexing, even given the usual, expected Protestant bias.

That’s why the Christians in Jerusalem, after hearing Peter mention Cornelius’ reception of the Spirit without any mention of his baptism, respond by saying that Cornelius had been given eternal life (Acts 11:18).

He doesn’t have to mention that they were baptized. In terms of Bible readers, that was already in the text at 10:47-48: just ten verses before. So Peter didn’t happen to mention Cornelius’ and the others’ baptism; so what? Paul certainly mentioned his own when he recounted his conversion story, and said that the effect of it was to “wash away [his] sins” (Acts 22:16). So one apostle (by far the favorite of Protestants) mentioned it and the other didn’t (but talks explicitly about it elsewhere). It’s a wash, and of no particular significance for determining the correct theology of baptism and justification.  

Moreover, if we want to talk about what gives eternal life, Jesus explicitly said also that it was receiving His Body and Blood in Holy Communion:

John 6:48-51 I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

John 6:53-58 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.

This is extremely plain and clear, yet I don’t see Jason going around teaching that “the Bible says very plainly that the Eucharist gives eternal life.” He doesn’t even believe it. Nor does he believe the many passages clearly proclaiming that baptism regenerates and gives salvation. All he seems to care about are the ones that talk only about justification. He thinks — for some unknown reason — that he can avoid and ignore all of this additional relevant biblical revelation about salvation because it doesn’t harmonize with his man-made theology: devised in the 16th century after Jesus. But if he wants baptism and justification directly tied together, then we have Romans 6:7 and 1 Corinthians 6:11.

Peter goes on to use Cornelius as an example of a person whose heart had been cleansed through faith, demonstrated by his reception of the Spirit (Acts 15:7-11). Peter says nothing of baptism in that context, and the reception of the Spirit that confirmed Cornelius’ justification occurred prior to his baptism. Besides, reception of the Spirit is normally associated with the beginning of the Christian life, so the description of what happened in Acts 10:44-46 would be sufficient to support my conclusion even if we didn’t have the further confirmation in Acts 11 and Acts 15.

Sometimes this is the case, and it is an “anomaly” from the usual sequence: which we see in Acts 2 and Acts 19:1-6 and among the original twelve disciples, who were first baptized and later filled with the Spirit, and St. Paul, whose sins were forgiven by baptism. Yet, baptism was still associated with it in the same passage. It wasn’t absent, let alone irrelevant. Whatever spiritual benefit accrued from having the Holy Spirit still needed to be supplemented by baptism, which the same Peter said was instrumental for forgiveness, salvation, and inclusion in the Church, the Body of Christ.

But the Holy Spirit could not have been the end-all and be-all of justification and salvation, since the disciples were healing and raising the dead and casting out demons even before they received Him (Mt 10:8; Lk 10:17). Even in the Old Testament, the prophet Micah said that he was “filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD” (Mic 3:8) and King David, the “man after” God’s “own heart” (1 Sam 13:14)  cried out to God after he had sinned, “Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51:11). God said about the prophet Jeremiah: “before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet” (Jer 1:5).

Noah clearly had an extra measure of grace and “was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9). Enoch also “walked with God” (Gen 5:24) and the New Testament says that he “pleased God” (Heb 11:5), as one of the heroes of faith. Job was described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). The extraordinary faith and obedience of Abraham and Joseph and the prophets is well known. God also expressed such an internal divine presence, I believe, in talking about transforming people’s hearts:

Deuteronomy 30:6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

Jeremiah 24:7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.

Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Jeremiah 32:40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.

Ezekiel 11:19 And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, (cf. 18:31: ” get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”)

In this sense, selective, anomalous instances of people receiving the Holy Spirit before baptism are not much greater than (perhaps even lesser than) these instances of old covenant “heart renewal” so to speak.


Related Reading

Born Again: Baptism in the Early Fathers (Evangelical Catholic Apologetics)
Church Fathers on Baptism (Armchair Theologian; Lutheran site)
The Church Fathers on Baptismal Regeneration (Bryan Cross, Called to Communion)


Photo credit: Vision of Cornelius the Centurion (1664), by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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