|C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)|
C.S. Lewis famously argued that given what Jesus claimed about Himself, He was either Lord, liar, or lunatic — that if He wasn’t God, He couldn’t be considered merely a good man or a moral teacher. Lewis explained in Mere Christianity why this argument is important:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claims to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit on Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
While Lewis’ trillema (as this argument has come to be called) has come in for a fair amount of criticism, it strikes me that a very similar argument may be used within Christianity by Catholics. Specifically, the Catholic Church is either the Divinely Instituted Bride of Christ, or an utterly delusional Church, or something of satanic origin.
|St. Peter’s Basilica|
Like Her Lord, the the Catholic Church makes some incredibly bold claims. For example, She claims to be of Divine origin: to be that Church Christ spoke of establishing in Matthew 16:17-19, and that St. Paul called the pillar and foundation of Truth in 1 Timothy 3:15. She claims to be the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit (CCC 807-809). She even claims to be absolutely necessary for salvation, and says things like this (CCC 869):
The Church is apostolic. She is built on a lasting foundation: “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14). She is indestructible (cf. Mt 16:18). She is upheld infallibly in the truth: Christ governs her through Peter and the other apostles, who are present in their successors, the Pope and the college of bishops.
Repeatedly throughout Her history, the Church has claimed to speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit in settling a particular dispute or defining a specific dogma.
So the Catholic Church emphatically denies being just another denomination — in fact, She denies being a denomination or sect at all. She claims to be the sole Bride of Christ. And as I noted above, She believes that “Christ governs her through Peter and the other apostles, who are present in their successors, the Pope and the college of bishops.” Thus, She is led either by the Lord (acting through the visible leaders of the Church), or by a bunch of liars or lunatics. Because if the Catholic Church’s claims about Herself are false, Her leaders are either dangerously delusional, or manipulative to a breath-taking degree. And She’s not a good-but-imperfect denomination, as something like Methodism might be; She’s either the one true Church, or a danger to the souls of Christians.
So to paraphrase Lewis, let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about Her being a great human institution. She has not left that open to us. She did not intend to.
Given what I just said, the question then becomes: well, which is She? And how can we know? And I think that this is one of those instances in which the evidence is right there for any thoughtful Protestant to recognize. Let’s consider just two major ways that we can know this: first, by the fact that the Catholic Church has saved Christianity repeatedly; and second, that She has proclaimed the same Gospel consistently. To see this, I want to look at three different areas: the Trinity, Christology, and the Bible. All three of these are complex issues on which it’s easy to get things wrong. And yet on all three of them, even Protestants have to concede their utter dependency upon the Catholic Church.
Almost every Protestant denomination today believes in the Trinity: that there is One God who is Three Persons; that each of these Three Persons are fully God, and yet not separate gods; that Each of these Three Persons have existed for all eternity; and that Each are of equal glory and majesty. There were countless heresies that arose, often quite popular or supported by powerful factions or by the State, yet each time the Catholic Church won out. And each time, the Catholic Church won out by defending (without compromise) the curious notion of the Trinity.
From a Protestant perspective, the shocking thing ought to be that the Catholic Church was right every time. When the Assyrian Church of the East broke off from the Catholic Church, the mainstream Protestant sides with the Catholic Church. Same with the Oriental Orthodox Church, or a myriad more heresies or schisms. In fact, when some element of Trinitarian doctrine was denied, no matter how small, it always was the visible, institutional Church that finally laid the heresy to rest.
Had the Catholic Church budged, and given any to any of the shifting winds of non-Trinitarian heresies, the doctrine of the Trinity would almost certainly have been lost forever. What Christian, after all, has ever deduced the full doctrine of the Trinity from private reading of Scripture?
|Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, Transfiguration (c. 1530)|
Almost every Protestant denomination professes faith in the Dual Natures of Christ: that Jesus is fully God and fully man; that He has two Natures, one Divine and one Human; yet that He is only One Person. This is the hypostatic union, which I’ve discussed recently. Once again, there were countless heresies (including Docetism, Adoptionism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism), and many of them seemed quite convincing. Yet the Catholic Church stuck to Her guns, defending the curious notion of the hypostatic union, and consistently won at. Once again, it was the visible, institutional Church that laid heresy after heresy to rest, and each time, the Catholic Church was right.
Again, it’s astonishing enough that the Catholic Church was right every time, but recognize also that had the Catholic Church not been around, it’s exceedingly unlikely that an ordinary layman reading the Bible would ever have figured out the hypostatic union (feel free to mention any exceptions to this in the comments below).
|Caravaggio, St. Jerome (1606)|
Finally, every Protestant denomination (that I know of) believes in at least 66 of the Books of the Catholic Bible. What’s striking isn’t that they reject the Deuterocanon. What’s striking is that from their own viewpoint, the Catholic Church didn’t lose a single Divinely-inspired Book over the course of well over a millennium. All Sixty-Six Books of the Protestant Bible were preserved whole and inviolate for countless centuries by the Catholic Church.
This is more incredible when you consider that some of the earliest heresies that the Church faced (including Gnosticism and Marcionism, and later, Manichaeism) taught the same thing: that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God of the New Testament, and that the Old Testament God was evil. They, obviously, wanted the Old Testament destroyed, or at the least, not included in the canon of Scripture.
If Catholicism had lost, and something like Marcionism had won out, imagine the resultant Bible. That’s easy to do, actually, since Marcion was clear that he thought only Eleven Books belonged in the Christian canon: a version of the Gospel of Luke that he edited, and ten of Paul’s Epistles. Had he had his way, the rest of the Bible would have been immediately lost to history. That is, you can’t get Luther’s Bible, or the modern Protestant Bible, without inheriting the Bible from the Church first.
Add to this that the Catholic Church remained incredibly consistent, and incredibly evangelical: She has proclaimed the same Gospel for centuries, and to the ends of the Earth.
So on the most critical issues facing Christianity, the Catholic Church was (a) consistent, and (b) correct. I don’t know of any Church or denomination that comes close to this kind of track record. There are a few possibilities for why this could be:
|Velasco, Pentecost (1535)|
- God worked through the Catholic Church, in spite of Her being a false Church: this option doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would He repeatedly vindicate the Catholic Church’s claim to be the Bride of Christ if She wasn’t? If Catholicism isn’t the true Church, why wouldn’t He preserve the Gospel through some other institution? At the least, why not permit the Catholic Church to fall at least once so obviously that any fair-minded Christian could see that the Church was full of contradictions and heresies? The idea that God would repeatedly present the true Gospel through a false Church seems incomprehensible, and even deceptive.
- The Devil propped up the Catholic Church by permitting Her to get core doctrines right: this option basically supposes that a good lie contains a little truth. But it’s even less convincing than the first idea, since it would involve the devil preserving the very Gospel that defeats him. All he would have had to have done to triumph over Christianity would be to let Her go astray on any of these core doctrines. So it doesn’t make sense to claim that the Catholic Church is demonic in origin, since She’s been responsible for both preserving the Gospel, and spreading it to the ends of the Earth.
- Mere men just got lucky, repeatedly: this is the idea that the theologians of the Catholic Church were just consistently that good, and that consistent (for centuries!), without Divine aid. But the odds of this are staggering. If the Church wasn’t being led by God or the devil, but was a merely human institution, we should see the sort of abrupt reversals in statements of belief that we see elsewhere. For example, the Anglican Communion affirmed one set of beliefs under Henry VIII, another under Edward and Cranmer (which quite intentionally contradicted the first), and has no clear cohesive set of beliefs today: their primate has denied the orthodox Christian understanding of both the Incarnation and the hypostatic union, affirming something like Nestorianism instead. To say that Cranmer’s Anglicanism was true, you’d have to say Henry’s Anglicanism was wrong, and vice versa: to affirm the Anglicanism proclaimed by Williams, you’d have to deny teachings Henry and Cranmer affirmed. Nothing of the sort is required within Catholicism: right or wrong, She proclaims the same Gospel consistently. This doesn’t appear to be merely human in origin.
- The Church is Who She says She is: Ultimately, this strikes me as the only really credible theory of Christian history. The visible institutional Church has always claimed to be led by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), and has consistently acted in such a way that this claim appears to be true. And it’s nonsensical to think that God would work through Her if She wasn’t the truth Church, since He would be leading His people into heresy.