Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Catholic Answer to James Swan’s Criticism of Catholic Answers.

Over at the Alpha & Omega Ministries’s website, James Swan wrote an article titled We Have Apostolic Tradition"- The Unofficial Catholic Apologist Commentary #12. I would have much rather commented on the article directly, but being the benevolent censor that it is, Alpha & Omega Ministries does not permit commentary on its website. Thus, I modestly offer this rebuttal in my own website.

Please note: I do not work for Catholic Answers although I would not necessarily be opposed to doing so. Furthermore, while I am sure that those folks are more than capable of responding to Mr. Swan’s claims directly, I see no reason why this lay apologist can not put in his two cents. Additionally, I want the reader to clearly understand this as well: while I do not always agree with Mr. Swan’s conclusions, I do respect his opinions. This time, however, it is he and not Catholic Answers, that has erred.

Mr. Swan’s opening salvo:

“Catholic apologists often let us know how crucial it is to have an infallible magisterium and church Tradition in order to interpret the Bible correctly. With so many Catholic apologists now commenting on sacred scripture, I thought it would be interesting to provide their commentary on the Bible. Let's see how they've been able to rightly divide the word of truth.”

My return volley:

To my knowledge, I am not aware of Catholic Answers ever claiming that it was a part of the “infallible magisterium” of the Catholic Church. Be that as it may, let’s see if Mr. Swan able “rightly divide truth the word of truth” from error, fact from fancy, or right doctrine from heresy.

Returning to Mr. Swan’s commentary:

In this installment, let's take a look at John 6 according to Catholic Answers and contrast it with St. Augustine on the same text. "

[Extraneous jibber-jabber redacted]

John 6:53: 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 yourselves."

My interjection: “Truly, truly” is another way of saying “Amen, amen.” When someone doubled the “amen” up like this, the speaker was placing special emphasis on what was going to be said. In other words, Jesus was telling the hearers they had better ‘listen up’ because what He was going to say next was really important.

Let us continue with Mr. Swan’s analysis:

I recently read an article from Catholic Answers about John 6 and the Eucharist. Of this text, they state,

"His listeners were stupefied because now they understood Jesus literally and correctly. He again repeated his words, but with even greater emphasis, and introduced the statement about drinking his blood: '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' (John 6:53-56)."

"Notice that Jesus made no attempt to soften what he said, no attempt to correct 'misunderstandings,' for there were none. Our Lord's listeners understood him perfectly well. They no longer thought he was speaking metaphorically."

"As Fr. John A. O'Brien explains, 'The phrase to eat the flesh and drink the blood, when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense' (O'Brien, The Faith of Millions, 215)."

"Whatever else might be said, the early Church took John 6 literally. In fact, there is no record from the early centuries that implies Christians doubted the constant Catholic interpretation. There exists no document in which the literal interpretation is opposed and only the metaphorical accepted."

Me again: Based on my knowledge of the early Church Fathers, I would have to agree with the last paragraph. Mr. Swan does not.

“The last comment was substantiated by quotes from Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Interestingly, this quote from St. Augustine on interpreting John 6 didn't make the collective team:

If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man," says Christ, "and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us. Scripture says: "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink;" and this is beyond doubt a command to do a kindness. But in what follows, "for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head," one would think a deed of malevolence was enjoined. Do not doubt, then, that the expression is figurative; and, while it is possible to interpret it in two ways, one pointing to the doing of an injury, the other to a display of superiority, let charity on the contrary call you back to benevolence, and interpret the coals of fire as the burning groans of penitence by which a man's pride is cured who bewails that he has been the enemy of one who came to his assistance in distress. In the same way, when our Lord says, "He who loveth his life shall lose it," we are not to think that He forbids the prudence with which it is a man's duty to care for his life, but that He says in a figurative sense, "Let him lose his life" that is, let him destroy and lose that perverted and unnatural use which he now makes of his life, and through which his desires are fixed on temporal things so that he gives no heed to eternal. It is written: "Give to the godly man, and help not a sinner." The latter clause of this sentence seems to forbid benevolence; for it says, "help not a sinner." Understand, therefore, that "sinner" is put figuratively for sin, so that it is his sin you are not to help. [Source]”

My rejoinder: I do not find it interesting that Catholic Answers did not cite this quotation in support of their commentary. However, I do find Mr. Swan’s quoting of this particular passage from the saintly Catholic Bishop of Hippo interesting as innumerable Protestant apologists before him have quoted this passage (as well as texts from Enarrationes in Psalmos 98:9 and In Joannis Evangelium tractatus XXVI and XXVII) in their attacks on the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist and the related doctrine of transubstantiation and Catholic theologians have supplied a ready answer–St. Augustine was not saying that we are to understand that Jesus Christ is only figuratively present in the Eucharist; rather we are not to understand the eating of the Eucharist as a carnal eating.

Before I endeavor to put my explanation of the passage before the reader, let us allow Mr. Swan to sing his last song here:

“Let's not miss the point. I'm not discussing Augustine's view of the Eucharist or whether or not he believed in some form of transubstantiation. I'm pointing out that Augustine says John 6 is not literal, and Catholic Answers says it is. They also are in error when they state "there is no record from the early centuries that implies Christians doubted the constant Catholic interpretation" of this passage. Who decides who's right, the man whose ideas dominated Western theological and philosophical thought for a thousand years or the nation's largest lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics and evangelization.... or neither? Unless the magisterium decides, I guess it's up to the personal preferences of each individual Roman Catholic to understand John 6 as desired, the very thing they criticize non-Catholics of doing.”

My turn:

Catholic and Protestant theologians, scholars and apologists all unanimously recognize that St. Augustine of Hippo taught that the Holy Eucharist was a sacrament. Further, Mr. Swan, himself, acknowledges that it is open question as to whether the venerable Bishop adhered to some form of transubstantiation (N.B.: I happen to believe that he did) . Even though Mr. Swan acknowledges the possibility that St. Augustine adhered to the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, his bias against Catholicism unfortunately prevents him from truly understanding the point St. Augustine, the Catholic bishop of Hippo, was actually making in the above-referenced passage from De doctrina christiania, III, 16:24 written in 397 AD for if one reads the passage objectively one would readily see that Augustine was not talking about Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, but how we are to ‘eat’ Him.

In John 6, we see from the Capharnaites’ reaction to Jesus’ words that they thought that Jesus was going to cut Himself into pieces and serve Himself to them. In the passage that Mr. Swan takes from De doctrina christiana, a treatise the Augustine wrote to explain how the Scriptures should be interpreted, Augustine explained that when Our Lord and Savior spoke of eating his Flesh and drinking his Blood, He was not encouraging cannibalism, which is the crime being enjoined. Rather for Augustine, it is the eating being referred to as the “figure” and not the Body and Blood of Christ as contained in the Eucharist.

This is a theme one sees repeated throughout Augustine’s writings:

“ Why do you make ready your teeth and stomach? Believe, and you have eaten “ (In Joann., Tract 25, n. 12).

“This is the bread coming down from heaven, so that if anyone eat of it, he may not die. Yes, he who eats what belongs to the virtue of the Sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he who eats within, not without; he who eats in the heart, not he who presses (the Sacrament) with his teeth” (Ibid. Tract 26, n. 12,).

“Do you think that I [Christ] am about to divide into parts this body which you see, that I am about to cut up My body and give it to you?” (Sermo. 131, 1:1)

Since Mr. Swan thought it proper to quote Augustine to confute Catholic Answers, let’s return the favor and cite the Doctor of Grace to confute Mr. Swan:

“Yet here it says, fall down before His footstool: and, explaining to us what His footstool is, it says, The earth is My footstool. I am in doubt; I fear to worship the earth, lest He who made the heaven and the earth condemn me; again, I fear not to worship the footstool of my Lord, because the Psalm bids me, fall down before His footstool. I ask, what is His footstool? And the Scripture tells me, the earth is My footstool. In hesitation I turn unto Christ, since I am herein seeking Himself: and I discover how the earth may be worshiped without impiety, how His footstool may be worshiped without impiety. For He took upon Him earth from earth; because flesh is from earth, and He received flesh from the flesh of Mary. And because He walked here in very flesh, and gave that very flesh to us to eat for our salvation; and no one eats that flesh, unless he has first worshiped: we have found out in what sense such a footstool of our Lord's may be worshiped, and not only that we sin not in worshiping it, but that we sin in not worshiping. But does the flesh give life? Our Lord Himself, when He was speaking in praise of this same earth, said, It is the Spirit that quickens, the flesh profits nothing ... . But when our Lord praised it, He was speaking of His own flesh, and He had said, Except a man eat My flesh, he shall have no life in him. [John 6:54] Some disciples of His, about seventy, were offended, and said, This is an hard saying, who can hear it? And they went back, and walked no more with Him. It seemed unto them hard that He said, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, you have no life in you: they received it foolishly, they thought of it carnally, and imagined that the Lord would cut off parts from His body, and give unto them; and they said, This is a hard saying. It was they who were hard, not the saying; for unless they had been hard, and not meek, they would have said unto themselves, He says not this without reason, but there must be some latent mystery (another word for sacrament) herein. They would have remained with Him, softened, not hard: and would have learned that from Him which they who remained, when the others departed, learned. For when twelve disciples had remained with Him, on their departure, these remaining followers suggested to Him, as if in grief for the death of the former, that they were offended by His words, and turned back. But He instructed them, and says unto them, It is the Spirit that quickens, but the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. [John 6:63] Understand spiritually what I have said; you are not to eat this body which you see; nor to drink that blood which they who will crucify Me shall pour forth. I have commended unto you a certain mystery; spiritually understood, it will quicken. Although it is needful that this be visibly celebrated, yet it must be spiritually understood.” Enarrationes in Psalmos 99:8. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In conclusion, contrary to Mr. Swan’s claim, there is nothing in the passage that he quoted which suggests that St. Augustine was opining that Chapter 6 of John should be understood only in a figurative sense, only that one should not think that the reception of Our Lord is through a carnal eating of Him. The Eucharist is not to be treated like one is eating ‘Jesus burgers.’ In fact, given that Augustine wrote in his Enarration of Psalm 99, “But when our Lord praised it, He was speaking of His own flesh, and He had said, Except a man eat My flesh, he shall have no life in him [John 6:54], ” I would humbly submit that Augustine’s views on John 6 are a mite bit more realistic than what Mr. Swan suggests they are.

Simply put, the reason that Catholic Answers probably did not cite the passage from Augustine’s writings that Mr. Swan has brought to our attention is because the point that Augustine was making in the above-referenced passage from De doctrina christiania did not have anything to do with confirming or denying the doctrine of the Real Presence.

God bless!


Jamie Donald said...

Excellent article, Paul. I find it odd that Mr Swan stresses proper context when quoting another author, but seems to gloss over it here.

David Waltz said...

Hi Paul,

I agree with Jamie—excellent post! Jamie is also on the right track concerning James’ non-Luther research; though I would go a bit further and add that much his commentary on the Church Fathers goes beyond glossing and should probably be termed distortion.

Grace and peace,


Alex said...

Paul, I wish you had time to write more. That's all I can say.

Anonymous said...

Hi I'm teaching St. Augustine at a seminary and found your post. I found that the Latin of the passage in question settles it pretty clearly that Augustine was very much in the Catholic Camp on what we mean by John 6 (Holy communion).

Latin = Figura ergo est, praecipiens passioni dominicae esse communicandum et suaviter atque utiliter recondendum in memoria, quod pro nobis caro eius crucifixa et vulnerata sit.

Literal Translation =

Therefore it is a figure, commanding communion in the passion of the Lord , and sweetly and usefully concealing in the memory that for us his flesh must be crucified and wounded.

The Mass is the memorial of his passion and death--and our participation in that saving event.


Dr. Nathan Schmiedicke