Of course today is a day of reflection on the death of Christ for our sins, but I think we can take a second to smile.
Thursday, April 13, 2017
Recently, I had an extended online conversation with a non-Christian (specifically a baha’i) on the nature of Christ, centered around his questions on whether Christ is God and what the implications of a Divine Christ would be in light of the Crucifixion.
Below follows, not a transcript of the conversation, but a “Platonic dialogue” inspired by it (and other such conversations I’ve had). Enjoy!
BERNIE THE BAHA’I: You believe that God became man and died, as a sacrifice for our sins, correct?
CHARLES THE CATHOLIC: Yes, that’s the essential claim Christianity makes. In fact, it’s the one thing that all Christians agree with and that all non-Christians dispute. You could almost define “Christianity” as the affirmation of that one statement.
BERNIE: So, Christians believe that humanity killed God?
CHARLES: “Humanity” is an abstraction. As such, “humanity” can’t do anything, including killing God.
BERNIE: If humanity didn’t kill God? How was God’s death a sacrifice?
CHARLES: “Humanity” didn’t kill God; individual men did, specifically the Roman authorities under Pontius Pilate at the insistence of the Sanhedrin.
BERNIE: These men killed Jesus?
BERNIE: And you believe Jesus was God?
BERNIE: And Christians believe that Jesus is not only God, but also entirely human?
BERNIE: So the Romans killed the human Jesus not the Divine Jesus?
CHARLES: No. Jesus was “entirely human,” but He is also entirely God. Killing Jesus (because Jesus = God) is killing God.
BERNIE: But Divinity can’t be killed, so the human body of Jesus died on the Cross, not Jesus’ divinity…
CHARLES: It wasn’t merely the “human body” of Jesus that died on the Cross, but the person Jesus Christ who died. That person is a Divine person, hence God died on the Cross.
There aren’t two Jesuses, one Divine and another human, but one Person, Jesus Christ - who is both fully human and fully Divine.
BERNIE: So Christians believe that men killed God?
BERNIE: Then creation was Creator-less for three days?
CHARLES: No, that doesn’t follow.
BERNIE: But you just said God was dead…
CHARLES: God the Son died on the Cross, but God the Father and God the Holy Spirit did not.
BERNIE: I thought you Christians were monotheists.
CHARLES: We are. God is supra-personal, He exists in three persons who are all one God. This isn’t a case of Christians not being able to do math, for we don’t claim that God is one person who is three persons or three gods who are one God. Rather, we recognize that God transcends our ordinary experience. In the created order, one being equals one person, but on the Divine level one being (God himself) is three persons. Whether or not you believe that, you must recognize that there’s no contradiction inherent in our position, it certainly is possible.
BERNIE: I don’t want to digress too deeply into the Trinity, that might be best left for another conversation.
CHARLES: If you’d like to read more I highly recommend Frank Sheed’s classic work Theology and Sanity, which contains one of the simplest, clearest explanations of the Trinity that I know of. You can get if on Amazon (and support this blog at no additional cost) by purchasing it HERE .
BERNIE: I’ll check that out. But I think you have another problem that the Trinity can’t get you around.
CHARLES: And that is?
BERNIE: If Jesus is Divine (and thus eternal) how can his death be a sacrifice? An eternal being knows no sacrifice, that would be a contradiction.
CHARLES: Jesus is eternal in His divine nature, but He is mortal in His human nature (though Resurrected His human nature is now immortal). He suffered and died through His human nature, but it was still God (in the Divine Person of the Son) who suffered and died. In fact, being the perfect man, Jesus would have suffered immeasurably more than you or I if we underwent the same torture.
BERNIE: Wait a minute. You just said “there aren’t two Jesuses, one Divine and another human, but one Person, Jesus Christ - who is both fully human and fully Divine” now you are dividing Jesus in two, when it suits your argument.
CHARLES: This might require looking a little more at the Trinity…
BERNIE: Dodging the question?
CHARLES: Not at all, just giving you fair warning.
In God there are three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person is fully God (not just a part of God), each fully posses the Godhead. Each has the full Divine nature.
In God there are three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person is fully God (not just a part of God), each fully posses the Godhead. Each has the full Divine nature.
BERNIE: So the Father has the Divine nature, as does the Son, and the Holy Spirit? That’s what you are saying, they are each divine? So God has three faces He shows us…
CHARLES: No. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but the Father isn’t the Son or the Holy Spirit, etc. Each person is distinct, although each has the full Divine nature.
BERNIE: How can that be?
CHARLES: Do you have a complete human nature?
CHARLES: Do I?
CHARLES: Am I you?
BERNIE: No, but that gives us three gods, like we are two people.
CHARLES: In the finite created order you’d be right, but God transcends that. Would you agree that God is perfect?
CHARLES: In every way? He has every possible perfection?
CHARLES: And God is immaterial, He isn’t bound by time or space?
BERNIE: Yes, of course.
CHARLES: Then there can’t be three Gods, for there is nothing to separate one perfect immaterial God from another one. You and I are not one because, while we both have human nature, we occupy different space, are made of different matter and have different imperfections. None of this can distinguish one God from another, thus all three possessors of the Divine Nature must be one God.
BERNIE: And you claim one of these persons became a man?
CHARLES: Exactly. At the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity (God the Son) took on a human nature.
BERNIE: So one of the members of the Trinity became human instead of being divine and was killed…
CHARLES: No, God the Son didn’t replace His divine nature with a human nature. Christianity isn’t a Brother’s Grimm fairy story where a man loses his human nature, takes on a frog nature, then later gets back his human nature. God the Son added a human nature without losing His Divine nature. If He completely abandoned His first nature to become a man, it wouldn’t be God who became man as God the Son would have ceased to exist entirely.
BERNIE: So you’re saying that God the Son, Jesus, has two natures? One human, another Divine?
BERNIE: Why would God want a human nature?
CHARLES: Through His Divine Nature Jesus can do all the things that are possible for God to do (create, control the weather, rise again, heal people, etc.) Through His human nature Jesus can do all the things that a man can do (suffer, die, get hungry, get tired, etc.) But it is one person, a Divine Person, who is doing all these things. Thus God, in the Person of God the Son, died on the Cross through His human nature.
BERNIE: God, in His Divine nature, is all powerful, right?
CHARLES: Of course.
BERNIE: Then why would taking on a human nature allow Him to do things He couldn’t do in his all powerful Divine nature?
CHARLES: Dying, being hungry, getting tired, etc are not “things to do” in the full sense. They are results of our imperfections, they are the result of things we can’t do - live forever, expend energy without consuming calories or stay awake permanently. God, in His Divine nature, is perfect and thus doesn’t wrestle with the consequences of imperfection as we, with our imperfect human natures, do.
BERNIE: Was it Jesus who died or just his human nature?
CHARLES: This brings us back to where we started. Natures are abstractions, they can’t do anything. Natures are what things are, not who they are. They provide the ability to do things, but can’t actually do anything themselves.
BERNIE: I’m not sure I follow…
CHARLES: Think of unicorn nature.
BERNIE: But there are no such things as unicorns…
CHARLES: Yes, but even imaginary things have natures. What something is and whether something is are two different questions.
Would this be a description of a unicorn: a woman whose lower half is a fish’s tail?
Would this be a description of a unicorn: a woman whose lower half is a fish’s tail?
BERNIE: No, that’s a mermaid.
CHARLES: Exactly. I’ve described “mermaid-nature” even though the category “mermaids” is existentially empty. The fact that you can distinguish between non-existent things shows that even they can have natures. A nature merely answers the question, “what is it,” not “is it.”
CHARLES: Now can our mermaid swim underwater?
BERNIE: Yes, if she existed.
CHARLES: Right, but as there is no who in which mermaid nature actually subsists then there is no mermaid to actually swim.
BERNIE: Because a nature can’t do anything, it is only the persons with that nature that do things.
CHARLES: Including dying.
BERNIE: Okay, but wasn’t the human nature of Jesus also fully Divine? Doesn’t that follow from your belief that Jesus was both Divine and human?
CHARLES: No, Jesus’ human nature isn’t Divine. That would be impossible (if Jesus’ human nature were Divine it wouldn’t be a human nature, it would be a Divine nature). A nature can’t be human and Divine, but a person can have both a Divine and a human nature.
BERNIE: Jesus has a human nature and a Divine nature; the first makes him a man, the second God. That’s what you are saying?
BERNIE: So when Jesus’ human nature was killed, the Divine nature was also killed, which brings us right back to our contradiction - an eternal nature dying.
CHARLES: Remember our principle, natures can’t do anything, only persons can. Natures don’t die, persons do. Jesus the Divine person died. This death was possible because Jesus has a human nature, and persons with a human nature can die. Persons can be killed, natures can't. When Jesus was killed, because Jesus = God, God was killed.
I know this can be a bit confusing, as the great Dante Alighieri once wrote,
madness it is to hope that human minds
can ever understand the Infinite
that comprehends Three Persons in One Being. (Purgatory, 3:34-46)
BERNIE: Basically, you’re saying “this is a mystery, just believe it?” Why should I believe what makes no sense?
CHARLES: I didn’t say it makes no sense, just that it can be confusing and that we can never fully understand God (in fact, St. Augustine used that as a proof of the truth of Christianity, if you can fully understand your god, it isn’t the real God, but a creation of your mind).
BERNIE: What can we make sense of in this then? It seems all a muddle to me.
CHARLES: We can understand the basic distinctions which make this doctrine intelligible. I’ve gone over some of that ground before here on the blog (see: How Can God be Three and One? Can’t Christians do Math?). The secret here is to keep the distinction between nature (what something is) and person (who someone is) clear in your mind. Jesus is one person, one somebody, but is both God and man, two somethings. The one person (God the Son) died, which was possible because of one of the things He is (a man).
BERNIE: This still makes no sense to me.
CHARLES: Maybe an analogy, albeit imperfect, might help?
CHARLES: Consider an author like William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the creator of the Verona of Romeo and Juliet. As an author he can't directly interact with the characters he creates, however, could he take on a “fictional nature” by entering the plot as Shakespeare-the-character?
BERNIE: Yes, I suppose he could write a Shakespeare character.
CHARLES: And could that character do what the author couldn’t? He could, for example, leap between Mercurio and Tybalt during the duel, saving Romeo’s best friend, but dying on Tybalt’s blade?
BERNIE: Yes, certainly.
CHARLES: Thus, Shakespeare could, by taking on “a second nature,” enter the world of his creation and thereby do what, in his "authorial nature", was impossible - be killed by his own character?
BERNIE: It would seem so.
CHARLES: Christianity merely posits an undeniable claim in addition to our analogy.
BERNIE: What is that?
CHARLES: That God is at least as powerful as Bill Shakespeare.
BERNIE: But Shakespeare isn't really hurt when "Shakespeare-the-character" dies. It's all pretend. Are you saying God just pretends to die, like Shakespeare the author pretends to be killed by Tybalt?
BERNIE: But Shakespeare isn't really hurt when "Shakespeare-the-character" dies. It's all pretend. Are you saying God just pretends to die, like Shakespeare the author pretends to be killed by Tybalt?
CHARLES: I said the analogy was imperfect. Shakespeare can only pretend to enter his play; the real Shakespeare sits unharmed at his desk regardless of what happens to Shakespeare-the-character. God, however, can really enter into a real world and thus really suffer and really die. All of this is made possible by His assumption of a real human nature.
BERNIE: Shakespeare’s world is a fiction, but God’s Creation is real.
BERNIE: So Jesus didn’t sit unharmed in Heaven as His “human body” was killed like Shakespeare in our analogy? You’re saying God really died? It wasn’t just the body that Jesus took on that was killed? Men actually killed God? Why would God allow that to happen? It makes no sense.
CHARLES: God became a character in his own drama to set the plot straight - the plot we had entirely messed up. It would be as if you saw your children playing a game wrong and decided to get down on the floor and make sure they had a happy ending. God cares that much for us. He loves us that much. So much in fact that St. Paul can say,
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)
And St. John can sum up Christian theology by writing, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).
BERNIE: I’ll have to check out that book you recommended. What was the title again?
CHARLES: Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed. You might also grab a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis while your at it.
BOOKS RECOMMENDED IN THIS POST:
Monday, April 10, 2017
John: God is said to be "impassible," I think I understand what that means, but can you give a brief definition? I think I disagree with the teaching, but I want to be certain I understand it correctly.
Pius: Defining terms is always the best place to start. Divine impassibility is the doctrine that God does not suffer, indeed, cannot suffer.
John: That's what I thought. I'm not sure I can agree with it.
Pius: Doubt is always a good place to start when journeying towards the truth.
John: I'm a Christian. I find truth in the Scriptures. Is this doctrine taught by the Bible?
Pius: It isn't specifically mentioned in the Bible, but the conceptual framework that requires the doctrine is present. God is immutable, i.e. He doesn't change. If God doesn't change, then He doesn't change emotional states, and therefore God can't suffer - He is impassible.
John: How do we know God can't change? Isn't God able to do anything? If so, why wouldn't He be able to change? Doesn't saying "God is immutable" conflict with God's omnipotence?
Pius: How would you describe the omnipotence of God?
John: That's easy. God is all-powerful. There are no limits on what He can do.
Pius: Would it be fair to summarize and qualify you're position as "God can do all possible things" or are you uncomfortable with that? I want to make sure I'm understanding you before going on.
John: I'd simply say God can do all things. Why do we need the word "possible" added in?
Pius: Can God do impossible things?
John: There are no impossible things to God. That's what being "all-powerful" means.
Pius: All things, we'd agree, that are possible to do, God can do.
John: Yes, but to God that means all things, full stop.
Pius: Would you say God can "zing-ding a wall and blah-blah a bag?"
John: I'm not sure I understand what that would mean?
Pius: I'm asking, does the sentence "God can zing-ding a wall and blah-blah a bag" make sense?
John: No, it's gibberish.
Pius: And God can't do "gibberish?"
John: Gibberish isn't a thing to do. It's not a lack of power in God, it is a lack of sense in the sentence that makes it something that can't be done.
Pius: God can do all things, but what I said isn't a thing to done?
Pius: Is it also gibberish to speak of logical contradictions?
John: I'm not sure. Can you provide an example?
Pius: Certainly. Would it make sense to say "God can make a circle with four sides?"
John: Clearly not. If it has four sides it isn't what we call a circle, it's what we call a square.
Pius: And that doesn't limit God's power?
John: Of course not. It's a confusion of words. God can turn a circle into a square, but it doesn't make sense for us to call a four sided object a circle. That's a problem of our language, not of God's power.
Pius: Precisely. It is like the gibberish we explored before.
Pius: What about the statement "God can make it bring as day and dark as night at the same moment in the same place at the same time"? Does that make sense or is it gibberish too?
John: God can make day night and night day.
Pius: Yes, but can He make it both at the same time in the same place?
Pius: Is that a confusion of terms, a confusion in our words?
John: Yes. It is like with the square and circle. God can make it night or day, but to say it is both bright and not bright is a failure in language. But what does any of this have to do with whether God can change? Surely, asking that isn't like confusing words.
Pius: Maybe, but I'm not so sure. Let's dig deeper and see if we can be sure of that. For now, I'm only asking whether adding "God can..." in front of nonsense - in front of a series of confused words - suddenly makes those words mean something.
John: Not at all. But that has to do with our ways of speaking and thinking not with God's power.
Pius: So logical contradictions, things that end up being nothing more than a confusion of words, are failures in our understanding and speech, not in God?
John: I don't see how anyone can conclude otherwise.
Pius: Going back to my clarification of your statement, "God can do all things" would you agree now that it is a better definition to say "God can do all possible things." Or better, "God can do all things that are doable things."
John: Yes, I see why you've added that in. Some "things" really aren't "things to do" but are just a series of confused ideas or words.
Pius: Right. Now we are discussing whether God can be happy now and suffer later.
John: Yes, let's get back on track.
Pius: I'm not sure we have been off-track. Would you agree that God being happy now and then suffering later is a change?
John: Clearly it is.
Pius: And the doctrine of Divine Immutability says God cannot change?
John: That is what it says, but I'm not sure how we can agree with that. It is a limit to God's power to say He can't change. That isn't a confusion of words. Changing is a doable thing. You can't disagree with that?
Pius: Change it certainly a "doable thing" for us. Is it for God?
John: I don't see how it can't be. If we can do it, surely God can too. Otherwise, He is less powerful than we are! If He's less powerful than you or me, then He isn't God at all.
Pius: Agreed. If God is less powerful than you or me, He isn't God.
John: Then God can change and if He can change why shouldn't He be able to have emotions?
Pius: I think we might be moving too fast here. Let's explore whether God can change a little more before moving on. Is God perfect?
John: Of course, He is. If He isn't it's not God we're talking about.
Pius: If God is perfect would a change make Him more perfect?
John: No. God is perfect, there is no such thing as "more perfect." If you can be "more perfect" then you aren't perfect, just really good. You're back to spewing gibberish. I'm afraid we aren't getting anywhere.
Pius: So saying God can be "more perfect" is gibberish?
Pius: Can God, then, become less perfect?
John: No. If God became less than perfect, He wouldn't be God anymore and that's absurd. More gibberish!
Pius: So God can neither become more perfect nor can He become less perfect. Can He become something else that is equally perfect?
John: No. Nothing can be "equally perfect." If you are perfect, you are perfect. There are no other perfections to add or you aren't perfect in the first place.
Pius: So God can't become more perfect, less perfect, nor add some new perfection to what He has already.
Pius: Then how can God change? Isn't all change either moving from two things of equal value, or moving from a better thing to a worse, or moving from something worse to something better?
John: Yes, I can't disagree with you there.
Pius: Then God, being perfect, can't change.
Pius: That establishes God's immutability, then.
Pius: And if God can't change, He also can't change emotional states.
John: That would seem to follow.
Pius: Is suffering now and not suffering later a change in an emotional state?
John: And so God can't suffer. Okay I get that. Doesn't it also mean that God is indifferent to us? If a baby is starving to death, He simply doesn't care? Isn't that the God of the Deists, the "Divine Clockmaker" instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
Pius: The apostle who you are named from, how does he define God?
John: He says, "God is Love" (1 John 4:8).
Pius: Is love indifferent?
John: No, not at all. That's precisely my objection to what we've said about God. It seems to refute the Biblical God.
Pius: Can God love us, without changing? Does love necessitate change?
John: Not at all. God loves us without change. He always loves us, loves us unconditionally.
Pius: Then God can both love us and be unchanging, the two aren't contradictions, we aren't speaking in gibberish?
Pius: Then it doesn't follow that God is indifferent, that God is a "clockmaker" who leaves His creation on its own without a care.
John: I see that.
Pius: God loves us, but we can't blackmail Him. We can't make Him suffer. He is always joyful. Is that fair to say?
John: Yes, but He loves us and thus can love us to the point of sending His Son to die for us. Surely, the death of Jesus (who is God) suggests that God can suffer after all. How does this square with what we've been saying? It seems we've proved that God doesn't suffer, but in the process have disproved Christianity, the religion that specifically teaches that God did suffer!
Pius: Well, that's certainly possible.
John: So we should leave off Christianity?
Pius: Not necessarily, we've not proven that yet, but it is possible.
John: Well, let us go on then. I'm a firm Christian, but I won't continue to be if we find it false.
Pius: You're a true philosopher, John. I'm with you, if we can't square what we know to be true - that God can't suffer - with what as Christians we believe - that Jesus is God and did suffer - we ought to seriously reconsider our Christianity. Let's review our premises. Christians believe Jesus is...
Pius: And Jesus suffered?
John: Clearly. In fact, according to Christianity, He suffered more than anyone else ever has or ever could. That is the contradiction. Is Christianity gibberish?
Pius: Perhaps. Why would Jesus suffer?
John: He descended from Heaven to become a man to save men from sin.
Pius: Jesus is both man and God.
John: That belief pretty much defines who is and who isn't a Christian.
Pius: Jesus had two natures, one Divine and another human. One person, two natures. That is the teaching of Christianity, correct?
John: It is.
Pius: Can men suffer?
John: I can attest to that from personal experience, as I'm sure you can!
Pius: And Jesus was a man?
John: Man and God.
Pius: But still a man? He has a complete human nature. He became fully human. He became a man. Correct?
Pius: Then Jesus can suffer as a man, in His human nature, while, in His divine nature, He remained impassible, that is logically possible? That isn't gibberish?
John: That is logically a possibility.
Pius: Then there is no logical contraception in saying that Jesus suffered and yet Jesus is God (and man).
John: That makes sense.
Pius: Did God the Father and God the Holy Spirit also become men?
John: Not according to Christian teaching, no.
Pius: Do Christians believe they suffered?
John: No, only Jesus suffered and only Jesus died on the Cross.
Pius: Then Christianity doesn't contradict Divine Impassability after all.
John: It doesn't. Unfortunately, I've got to get on to work. Thanks for an interesting conversation!
Monday, February 6, 2017
The Eucharist. A Dialogue.
The scene: A busy street downtown in a major American city. A Corpus Christi procession passes by. Two friends, one Catholic, the other Protestant, inspired by the sight, begin a conversation.
Protestant: Why were you kneeling down? You got your pants all dirty.
Catholic: The Eucharist is Jesus Christ Himself, in the flesh. “It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me’” (Romans 14:11). I’m just doing what Jesus commanded.
Protestant: You think that piece of bread is Jesus? It doesn’t look like Jesus to me.
Catholic: Do you believe Jesus is God?
Protestant: You know I do.
Catholic: Did Jesus “look like God” when He walked the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago?
Protestant: No. He came hidden under the appearance of a regular man.
Catholic: People who saw Jesus during His earthly ministry thought He wasn’t God because of the way He chose to appear?
Catholic: Then coming “hidden under the appearance of” a “piece of bread” would seem to follow His modus operandi.
Catholic: And, just as there were people who refused to believe without seeing then, there are still people who refuse to believe without seeing now. I seem to be in the same position as Jesus’ first followers.
Protestant: And I’m the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees?
Catholic: Only on this one point, perhaps.
Protestant: Okay, I admit coming as a surprise, in a hidden manner, is Jesus’ style, but that doesn’t prove He actually does come in the Eucharist, does it? It seems like you’re making quite a leap from “this is possible” to “this is actual,” brother.
Catholic: Fair enough, but might it not suggest that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility because “it doesn’t look like Jesus”?
Protestant: I can agree with that. But you have another, bigger, problem, I think.
Catholic: And what is that?
Protestant: Science tells us that what you are bowing to is just bread. You like Biblical comparisons, maybe a better one would be comparing my position to the righteous tribe of Levi at Mount Sinai and yours to the other tribes that danced about worshipping the Golden Calf.
Catholic: If I’m wrong, I’m much worse than they were. They fashioned an idol of gold, creating a God from the best they had. If we Catholics are wrong, we worship an idol which is crafted of the commonest of things. They were filled with wonder at a piece of art, we worship a hunk of bread. If we’re wrong, we’re the worst idolaters in history.
Protestant: “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15), brother!
Catholic: If I’m wrong. We’ve yet to prove that.
Protestant: I did. Science proves it. You’re worshipping bread. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to put your consecrated Host under a microscope and tell me if you see any signs of flesh, even on the molecular level. Bet you won’t.
Catholic: I’m sure I won’t.
Protestant: I bet you couldn’t even tell the difference between a consecrated Host and a plain piece of bread under that microscope.
Catholic: I’m sure I couldn’t.
Protestant: Then you’re ready to leave off your Medieval superstition?
Catholic: I didn’t say you were right…
Protestant: You just admitted that science proves the Eucharist is still bread after consecration.
Catholic: Not exactly. Are you familiar with the doctrine of transubstantiation as taught by the Catholic Church?
Protestant: Yeah, you believe the bread and wine turn into Christ’s Body and Blood. That’s exactly what science disproves!
Catholic: Does the Catholic Church teach that the bread also looks like Christ’s Body after it changes?
Protestant: Obviously not. If I understand your church’s teaching, you think the bread looks like bread, but is really Christ’s Body. That is what I keep saying science disproves.
Catholic: Right. The Catholic Church teaches the bread appears to be bread while actually being Jesus. We say the accidents of bread (and wine) remain while the substance has been utterly transformed. Thus, the bread has been transformed in substance or trans-substan-tiated.
Protestant: What’s the difference between the accidents and the substance? You’re getting all scholastic on me…
Catholic: Simply? Just think of the accidents as the appearances, as what the bread (or wine) looks like to our senses. Think of the substance as what the bread (and wine) really are.
Protestant: Ok. I think I follow. You’re saying basically what I said above. Your church says the bread looks like bread, but really is Jesus, that’s why I challenged you to put your consecrated Host under a microscope…
Catholic: But looking at the Eucharist, even under a microscope or studying it under any other scientific means can only ever get at the appearances. The microscope just gives you a microscopic look at the accidents of the Eucharist which…
Protestant: …still looks like bread. Okay, I see what you’re saying. Science is like enhancing your senses, but your church teaches the senses can only perceive bread or wine, so science can’t be expected to see anything else.
Protestant: Alright, so science can’t disprove your church’s theology of the Eucharist, but can’t it suggest that you’re wrong? You’re basically appealing to a miracle, but aren’t miracles supposed to be big outward signs that demonstrate clearly God’s presence and power? Clearly the Eucharist doesn’t meet that definition and if it can’t be miraculous then we can’t avoid the science.
Catholic: Couldn't the same be said of Jesus Himself? Scientifically, to all appearances, He appeared to be a man, nothing more. He has human DNA and no science experiment could ever reveal that He is Divine. We might appeal to the miraculous, but your objection would apply - aren't miracles supposed to be big displays of God's power? A baby born in a stable who grows up in obscurity then dies on a Cross hardly qualifies. Your argument, then, would seem to prove too much, as it doesn't simply attack the Eucharist but also the Incarnation.
Protestant: God had good reasons for coming in disguise. He wanted men to have Faith in Him and an overly powerful display of His Godhead would have forced everyone to immediately love or hate Him, to be saved or damned, just as will happen at the Last Judgement.
Catholic: And “God has good reasons for coming in disguise” in the Eucharist. In fact, He has the exact same reasons. He wants men to have Faith in Him and too obvious a display wouldn’t allow for that.
Protestant: Alright, I’ll concede that the Eucharist could be a miracle, but that doesn’t mean it is a miracle. Mind you, I love holy communion in my church. I take it very seriously. It’s only a symbol, but one which ought to be treated as if it were Jesus, even though it isn’t.
Catholic: Now you seem more like the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf.
Catholic: How can you justify treating a symbol as if it were God? That seems to be the very definition of idolatry.
Protestant: Well… I don’t worship the bread…
Catholic: Do you worship Jesus?
Protestant: You know I do.
Catholic: Then you don’t treat communion like Jesus after all.
Protestant: Maybe not, but I still think we should take it seriously as Jesus intended it to be a reminder of Him and He should be remembered with respect. It is a beautiful symbol…
Catholic: “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
Protestant: What? No need for profanity, brother.
Catholic: Sorry, I was quoting Flannery O’Connor (The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor). She was once confronted with the idea that the Eucharist is merely a “pretty good” symbol and responded thus.
Protestant: What’s wrong with seeing it as a beautiful symbol?
Catholic: O’Connor went on saying the Host “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” If it is just a memento, it isn’t essential and, well, “to hell with it.”
Protestant: The only thing that should be described as “the center of existence” is Jesus.
Catholic: Which is exactly what we Catholics claim the Eucharist is.
Protestant: Claim. But I think you’re demonstrably wrong. Look to Scripture! Don’t you Catholics claim John 6 as the theological seedbed for your theory of transubstantiation? I have my NIV Bible right here (I always carry one).
Catholic: Yes. that’s one place we find it. Jesus says there that He is “the bread that came down from heaven” (v. 41) and says “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (v. 55).
Protestant: If you’d read more carefully, right there in John 6, you’ll see that “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (v. 63). See? I’ve even highlighted it. With this line Jesus is explicitly condemning the carnal interpretation you are trying to bestow on his words. Don’t you see? Jesus says that it isn’t flesh that’s important, but the Spirit! John 6 is a metaphor for Faith, which alone saves!
Catholic: You’re saying that when Jesus refers to flesh in verse 63, He is speaking about the same flesh He called “real food” in verse 41?
Catholic: Whose flesh is He referring to in verse 41? Whose flesh is “real food?”
Protestant: His own, of course.
Catholic: Jesus’ flesh?
Catholic: So, in your interpretation of John 6:63, it is Jesus’ flesh that “counts for nothing?”
Catholic: I suppose the Incarnation (the in-flesh-ment of God) counted “for nothing” then?
Catholic: As did His death on the Cross? He did die in the flesh after all?
Protestant: He did.
Catholic: And the Resurrection. That was the Resurrection of Jesus in His flesh, wasn’t it? You’re not a gnostic are you?
Protestant: No, of course you know I’m not.
Catholic: Is your position that Jesus’ Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection - His life in the flesh - counted “for nothing?”
Protestant: Of course not.
Catholic: Then Jesus’ flesh doesn’t “count for nothing?” In fact, it is though His flesh alone that we are saved, isn’t it?
Protestant: Then how do you account for John 6:63?
Catholic: Jesus isn’t speaking about His Flesh. He just spent most of the chapter demonstrating the importance of His Flesh, it wouldn’t make any sense for Him to throw in one line negating everything He just taught. Jesus is saying that “the flesh” of his listeners (i.e. their attempts to use merely natural reason to understand what He is speaking about) are worthless. Any other interpretation leads to a rejection of Christ’s Flesh as salvific, which we both agree is absurd. Jesus here is saying the kind of “scientific argument” you were advancing earlier is bound to fail for our natural knowledge, our flesh, “counts for nothing.”
Protestant: Why would Jesus even want us to “eat His flesh” in the first place? As a Christian, I believe that by confessing Jesus as my Lord and Savior He dwells within me spiritually. Why would I need to add eating His flesh to the mix?
Catholic: For one Jesus says you have to. John 6:53-54 - “Jesus said to them, Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
Protestant: The Good Thief was saved without eating Jesus’ Flesh.
Catholic: God doesn’t require us to do the impossible. The Good Thief wasn’t physically able to receive the Lord in the Eucharist and thus, in justice, wasn’t required to. But even finding an exception certainly wouldn’t be cause to just dismiss the commands of your professed Lord, would it?
Protestant: No, but you’ve avoided my question. Why would Jesus want us to eat His Flesh. It doesn’t make any sense in context of the Old Testament at all. In the Old Testament eating flesh and blood together was prohibited (cf. Gen 9:4).
Catholic: What does John the Baptist say when he sees Jesus?
Protestant: “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).
Catholic: That’s an odd way to announce the Savior’s presence, no?
Protestant: Not if you know your Old Testament! You need to read the Word more, brother. In the Old Testament the lamb of God was the Passover Sacrifice. It was the perfect, spotless victim ready to die so that the people of God might live. Sound familiar?
Catholic: The Old Testament Passover lamb prefigures Jesus’ own death?
Protestant: The death of Jesus is the ultimate Passover sacrifice. Just as the Passover lambs were slaughtered in sacrifice, so too Jesus died sacrificially on the Cross.
Catholic: During the first Passover, the lamb wasn’t only slaughtered was it?
Protestant: The blood of the lamb had to be sprinkled on the wooden door frames as a sign for the angel of death to pass over the house.
Catholic: Was Jesus’ blood sprinkled on wood too?
Protestant: Of course, on the Wood of the Cross. In fact, Jesus was offered vinegar on a branch of hyssop, the same plant that God required His people to use to sprinkle the blood on the door frames.
Catholic: What else did the Israelites have to do with the lamb to make sure their house was skipped by the angel of death?
Protestant: They had to eat it.
Catholic: They had to eat the flesh of the lamb of God?
Catholic: And if they didn’t, if they were vegans or preferred beef to lamb, and they slaughtered the lamb and smeared the blood but didn’t consume the sacrifice, they would wake to find…
Protestant: Their first born son would be dead.
Catholic: Jesus is the Lamb of God?
Catholic: And He has been sacrificed and His Blood had been smeared?
Protestant: And now we have to eat His flesh?
Catholic: That would seem to follow.
Protestant: But isn’t He with us spiritually? Why shouldn’t that be enough?
Catholic: Was His Incarnation only a spiritual presence? Did He die on the Cross only spiritually? Did He rise again only in spirit?
Catholic: Perhaps a better question would be why you’d expect Him to do anything less physically. Is God appearing as bread that much crazier than God becoming man?
Protestant: I guess not.
Catholic: The Old Testament has another parallel to the Eucharist. What is Jesus doing at the beginning of John 6?
Protestant: He is miraculously feeding a multitude of people with a few loaves of bread and some fish.
Catholic: The people related that back to what Old Testament precedent?
Protestant: The manna. According to the Old Testament the Messiah would provide a new manna, which would surpass the manna given to the Israelites though Moses. When Jesus multiplied the loaves the people knew He was giving them the new manna and thus that He was the longed for Messiah.
Catholic: Moses fed the Israelites with manna for how long?
Protestant: Exodus 16:35 tells us that “the children of Israel did eat manna forty years.”
Catholic: Any how many Israelites did the manna feed?
Protestant: Probably over a million. Numbers 26 says there were over 600,000 armed men plus women and children.
Catholic: And how many people did Jesus feed in John 6?
Protestant: “A great crowd.” (v. 5).
Catholic: Which is more impressive, feeding over a million men, women, and children as they wander the desert for forty years or feeing “a great crowd” one meal.
Protestant: The manna would seem more impressive.
Catholic: But the prefigurement of the manna was supposed to be surpassed by the fulfillment in Christ.
Catholic: Then you’re saying Jesus failed to surpass the miracle of Moses, but wouldn’t that suggest He wasn’t the Messiah after all?
Protestant: We both believe the same thing about the loaves, so that puts us both in the same tough spot, doesn’t it?
Catholic: Not so fast. I’d say the Eucharist, in the Catholic view, is superior to the manna. Unlike the miracle of Moses, which only lasted forty years, the Eucharist has been ongoing for two thousand years. And while Moses only fed the children of Israel “food that spoils” (Jn 6:27), Jesus gives us Himself for He is “the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). Receiving God is infinitely superior to receiving bread, even miraculous bread. If the Catholic interpretation of John 6 is correct, would you agree Jesus surpassed the miracle of the manna?
Protestant: If it holds true, yes obviously Jesus feeding the people of God His very flesh for two thousand years is a greater miracle than Moses feeding the children of Israel bread for forty.
Catholic: Let’s go back further still in the Old Testament to Adam himself. The early Christians loved to call the Cross the “tree of life.” Just as sin and death entered the world through eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, eternal life and justification come into the world through eating of the fruit of the “tree of life” - the Cross.
Protestant: Which would be Jesus’ Flesh and Blood.
Catholic: And is why Jesus says, “the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” (Jn 6:57).
Protestant: Don’t you know Jesus refers to Himself as all sorts of things figuratively? He says He is the gate (10:9), the good shepherd (10:11), and the light of the world (8:12). Are you saying all these statements are to be taken literally? Is Jesus a literal gate? Does He literally tend sheep? Is He a light bulb?
Catholic: Did Jesus go on at length about how He is the “gate come down from Heaven” or insist that His Body is “gate indeed?”
Catholic: When the crowds baulk at His teaching on the Bread of Life, does Jesus strength His teaching or back away from it?
Protestant: He doubles down, using the Greek trogein a verb better translated as “chew” or “gnaw” in verse 55.
Catholic: Did He do anything similar in any of the other examples you are referring to?
Protestant: He didn’t.
Catholic: Did anyone in His original audience take Him as speaking literally in any other case than this one?
Catholic: Were the other examples you’ve given prefigured by the Old Testament and mentioned throughout the New Testament like the Eucharist is?
Catholic: Seems like John 6 is quite different then, doesn’t it?
Protestant: I suppose so.
Catholic: It’s different in another important way too. What’s happening at the beginning of John 6?
Protestant: Jesus is being followed by “a great crowd of people” (v. 2).
Catholic: And after Jesus lays out His teaching on the Eucharist, on being the Bread come down from Heaven, how many of that “great crowd” are left? Skip down to verse 66 there in your Bible.
Protestant: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him”
Catholic: What happens next?
Protestant: Jesus asks the Twelve if they want to leave Him too.
Catholic: Does Jesus want people to follow Him?
Protestant: Of course He does. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6)
Catholic: But here He is willing to go from a “great crowd” to losing even His most trusted followers over His Bread of Life teaching. He is that serious about this. Don’t you think He’d have said “hey guys chill out, I’m only speaking figuratively” instead of watching everyone walk away if He hadn’t been speaking literally?
Catholic: In fact, wouldn’t letting all those potential Christians walk away be sinful if they merely misunderstood Jesus’ figure of speech?
Protestant: Jesus is without sin (cf. Heb 4:15).
Catholic: And thus wouldn’t have let all those people leave simply because they misunderstood Him. Let me better understand what you believe here. I say that the Eucharist is, literally, Jesus’ body. And you say…
Protestant: That it isn’t. It is only a symbol of Jesus.
Catholic: Jesus disagrees with you.
Protestant: Show me that and I’ll change my mind! You know I only seek to serve the Lord.
Catholic: It’s right there in your Bible. At the Last Supper Jesus takes the Eucharist and says, “this is my body.” (Matt 26:26).
Protestant: But He meant this is a symbol of my body.
Catholic: When He said “this is my body” He meant “this isn’t my body?”
Protestant: When you put it that way…
Catholic: Should I believe Jesus who said “this is my body” or you who say “this isn’t His body?” Are you more trustworthy than Jesus? Do you know something He doesn’t?
Protestant: Of course not. But I’m talking about understanding what He meant…
Catholic: I think you’re a bit confused.
Protestant: No, I know exactly what I believe.
Catholic: You’re confusing understanding and belief. Understanding has to do with what a person or text is saying. Belief is whether or not you agree with the person or text. Understanding is about the other person. Belief is about you. It isn’t that you don’t understand His words, they are simple enough, rather you seem to not believe Jesus, to disagree with Him as to whether He was correct when He said “this is my Body” or “My flesh is true food.”
Protestant: Not at all. I believe Jesus, I just don’t believe the Catholic Church!
Catholic: Or the earliest Christians?
Protestant: You mean those Christians who worshipped in small Proto-Protestant communities before Constantine founded the Catholic Church?
Catholic: Well, let’s see what these “Proto-Protestants” have to say about the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch (circa AD 110) decried those who
“abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again.” (6:2, 7:1).
And Justin Martyr (circa AD 140) wrote,
“Not as common bread or common drink do we receive these… the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer… is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology, 66:1-20).
Clement of Rome (c. AD 80), Irenaeus of Lyons (c. AD 180), Origen (c. AD 244), Hilary of Poitiers (c. AD 340), Cyril of Jerusalem (c. AD 350), Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan (c. AD 390), and Augustine of Hippo (c. AD 400) are just a few of the early Christians, from all over the Christian world - many of whom lived before Constantine, who wrote about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, of the Eucharist being the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus and not “just a symbol.”
Protestant: Wait a minute, Augustine speaks about the Eucharist being a symbol! In his De Doctrina Christiana he writes about the Eucharist,
“it is symbolic commanding us to communicate in the Passion of the Lord and to remember pleasantly and usefully that his flesh was crucified and wounded for us.”
Catholic: Catholics admit that the Sacraments are symbols, we just hold that they aren’t only symbols. Augustine is talking about the symbolic power of the Eucharist there, but he also believed in, and wrote about, the real transformation that the bread and wine underwent. It isn’t an either / or, it is both symbolic and real. For example, he also wrote,
“That bread that you see on the altar and that has been sanctified by the word of God is the Body of Christ.” (Sermon 227)
“Christ was carried in his own hands when, entrusting to us his own Body he said: “This is my Body.” Indeed he was carrying that Body in his own hands.” (Commentary on Psalm 33).
Obviously, Augustine believed the Eucharist is both symbolically powerful and literally Christ’s Body.
Protestant: Fine, but Augustine isn’t the Bible! He could’ve been wrong.
Catholic: Can you think of even one Christian who wasn’t wrong, one who believed the Eucharist was merely a symbol, from the first centuries of Christianity?
Catholic: I didn’t think so. Were all these Christians wrong? Was the whole Church wrong until Martin Luther came about 15 centuries after the death of Christ? If so it seems the Reformers were a much better teachers the Jesus.
Protestant: That’s absurd.
Catholic: Well, the Reformers managed to successfully teach people that the Eucharist isn’t really Jesus’ Body. Jesus failed to pass that same teaching along, confusing everyone for 15 centuries, having them worship a piece of bread as if it was Him.
Protestant: Maybe the early Christians just didn’t want to argue with each other.
Catholic: The early Church battled over all kinds of things: what books should be in the Bible, is Mary the Mother of God, is Jesus divine, but no one doubted that Jesus was telling the Truth when He said “this is my Body” at the Last Supper. But it wasn’t even just the early Christians. Even the pagan Romans who persecuted the early Christians thought they were cannibals because they literally ate the Flesh of Christ. If your worship isn’t something that can be mistaken for cannibalism, you’re not worshipping the same way the first Christians did. Do you really think the first Christians, people who learned the faith from the Apostles, men and women who were willing to endure brutal deaths for their beliefs, who were willing to battle over doctrine to make sure the faith was expressed just right, were all absolutely wrong when it came to what they regarded as the central act of their worship, but 15 hundred years later, a bunch of people finally figured it all out?
Protestant: I don’t put my faith in people, I put my faith in the Word.
Catholic: In the Word, when God said “let there be light” (Gen 1:3) what happens?
Protestant: There’s light.
Catholic: And when God says to Lazarus come out of the tomb (cf. Jn 11:43) what happens?
Protestant: He comes out.
Catholic: And when God says your sins are forgiven (cf. Luke 7:48), what happens?
Protestant: They are forgiven.
Catholic: And when God says “this is my body” (Matt 26:26) to a piece of bread, what happens?
At this moment, the procession returns, making its way down the opposite side of the street. Our Catholic friend falls silently to his knees once more. Our Protestant friend bows his head slightly, closes his eyes, and begins to pray, “Lord Jesus, you know I love you, lead me into your truth…”