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Isolated Verses Misused Against the Church

A frequent tactic used by critics of Catholicism is to use verses orphaned from their proper context to impugn or undermine the teaching authority of the Church. They both misunderstand and misapply these passages so as to give their personal interpretation credence against the Magisterium. It is symptomatic of the Protestant individualism that often privatizes faith over the corporate understanding of a Church established and sustained by our Lord.

I write you these things about those who would deceive you. As for you, the anointing that you received from him remains in you, so that you do not need anyone to teach you. But his anointing teaches you about everything and is true and not false; just as it taught you, remain in him. (1 John 2:26-27).

The initial difficulty in attacks of this sort is the very origin of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. The Catholic Church gathered and reproduced the canon of the Bible for the believers. As the Mother of the Bible, the Church and her bishops saw no challenge between biblical truth and her authority. The fundamentalist tends to be short-sighted in his historical assessments. This leads to another problem, in that the text he would use as a weapon against Catholicism becomes his own trap. The effort backfires.

His own role as a teacher of faith contradicts a literal reading of these verses. John speaks here with the authority of an apostle, a role which shall find its succession in the bishops. The warning here is not against the Magisterium of the Church, but against those who would lead God’s people astray. There is no Gospel that saves other than that of Jesus Christ. No community possesses any secret knowledge that surpasses that of the public proclamation of the true Church. Keeping faith in Christ Jesus, the believer is baptized and anointed (confirmation), receiving the Spirit of wisdom, the Holy Spirit. We have a responsibility to know the true faith and to spread it. This is the mission of the Church. The Christian has no need to seek another religious truth and we are to remain in solidarity with the chosen community of faith and in union with God. True wisdom and faith comes as a gift from God.

Further, the Holy Spirit leads the humble person to God. Against the Gnostic heretics, John is defending the Catholic truth that Jesus is the anointed Holy One, the Christ. Jesus Christ is indeed the revelation of the Father. In a certain sense, the “sola scriptura” critic of Catholicism is akin to these ancient Gnostics. While they believe that Jesus is both Christ and Savior; like the Gnostics, they minimize the importance of the material in regards to the spiritual. Thus, the Mystical Body and pre-eminence of the Church is denied, the sacramental signs are ridiculed, and the significance of the body in our personhood is often maligned for its wickedness.

Another interesting element about the verses given is their context. At the end of chapter two, something is said about our justification that is sure to make the anti-Catholic reviewer uncomfortable:

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right is born of him. (1 John 2:29).

A real sign of our being “born again” is our just behavior; dare I say our good works?
The anti-Catholic critic will sometimes resort to trying to scare Catholics. He argues that time is running out and that Catholics, no matter how well-meaning, are in the wrong camp and facing the prospect of damnation.

So then each of us shall give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:12).

The detractor of Catholicism would do well to read a few verses earlier,

Why then do you judge your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. (Romans 14:10).

Dissimilar from most other institutions, the inherent unity of Church members in Christ means that an attack against one is an assault on all. Similarly, if one targets the Catholic Church, then every Catholic believer is between the cross-hairs. The Church is a family. It is not really possible to hate the Church but to love individual Catholics. Hate the family, and you hate all of us. We are the Church.

While certain critical voices would employ such verses in their apologetics, the citation from Romans points to how one’s faith is actualized by the life of charity and following the commandments. We will each have to give an accounting for what we did in the body, either good or evil. While there is a particular judgment for each of us, there will also be a general judgment at the end of the world. Individual souls as members of God’s holy people or those for whom the Church has interceded will be accorded the reward of the just. The communion of saints is a celebration of the unity of the Church among those glorified by grace and thus worthy of heaven. Having repented, they place their faith in Jesus. They are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb and given the wedding garment of heaven as their vestiture. Those who reject the gift of salvation remain lost in their sins. They are separated from God and breached from their brothers and sisters by their own selfishness and iniquity.

But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. (John 16:13).

These words are not written for various individuals apart from the believing community; these words regarding the Holy Spirit are directed to the Church as a whole. This promise of Christ is fulfilled when the Holy Spirit descended upon the infant Church at Pentecost. Imaged as tongues of flame over the heads of the apostles, the leadership of the Church would always be enlightened and protected in the truth. Individual members can and should invoke the Holy Spirit for wisdom. But, the gift of infallibility and steadfastness in the truth is conferred upon the Church, particularly the Magisterium, and not to every individual believer. The assurance of Christ’s teachings require that members of the faith take seriously the guidance of their lawful shepherds and that they seek to conform their hearts and minds to that of Christ realized in the teaching Church. Our Lord speaks to us through his Church.

As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:9).

Apart from Christ’s true Church, ministers and the people who follow them fall ever further from the truth. Fundamentalists might love this verse, but it also places them under divine judgment. Originally it applied to those missionaries who insisted that pagans had to become Jews before becoming Christians. Thus, circumcision and other Jewish rituals would be placed on par with the saving Cross of Christ. Paul denounces this activity and insists that his is the correct Gospel proclamation. Catholics place faith in Jesus and consider baptism as the manner in which we join the new People of God and are touched by Christ’s saving activity. The verse can in no way be applied against the Catholic Church. Ours is a faith in continuity with history: to the early Fathers, to the apostles and to Christ.

Now I am reminding you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you also stand. Through it you are also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; … (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Paul recalls the living TRADITION which he himself received and transmitted to the Corinthians. Paul stresses their faith in Christ and in his saving actions against the views of those who would deny the bodily resurrection of the Lord. Catholics believe in this very same Gospel and retain the ancient traditions repudiated by many non-Catholics.

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus….” (Acts 16:30-31).

Here the anti-Catholic critic is purposely deceptive. As the verse reads, it appears that salvation is an entirely personal matter. Nothing could be further from the case. The complete verse reads as follows,

“And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” (verse 31)

We read further:

So they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to everyone in his house. He took them in at that hour of the night and bathed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized at once. He brought them up into his house and provided a meal and with his household rejoiced at having come to faith in God. (Acts 16:32-34).

Can we presume that even the babies of the household were baptized? Most probably it is so. The household or family becomes the setting for the “little church.” The gift of faith brings people to Christ, not simply as isolated individuals, but corporately– as a family in faith.

Whoever possesses the Son has life; whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God. (1 John 5:12-13).

Pope John Paul II stressed this crucial element of the Good News in his encyclical on the Gospel of Life. Christ is the author of life and makes possible our share in eternal life.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. (John 3:16).

Again, this is a central teaching of the Catholic faith. Those who would use it to stress belief or faith profession over the merits of the Christian life would do well to read verses 20-21:

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

We believe as Catholics that God will show his face to those who search for him with humility and with sincere hearts.

When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart… (Jeremiah 29:13).

God is the source of our being. He gives our lives meaning. As St. Augustine would say, “Our hearts are restless O Lord, until they rest in you.”

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