The Case for Catholicism – Dare to Follow the Evidence

Simple Catholic Snapshots
  • “The Case for Christ” was a 1998 non-fiction novel by Atheist-turned-Christian investigative journalist Lee Strobel. A movie adaptation of this best-selling book was released in theaters April 7th, 2017.
  • The Atheist Lee Strobel undertakes to disprove the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (and thus debunk Christianity entirely) by honestly, systematically and rigorously examining the physical evidence for the Resurrection.
  • Using his highly refined research and analysis skills, Lee examines the Resurrection story from many perspectives including the authenticity of the Bible, methods and effectiveness of a Roman crucifixion, the psychology of mass hallucinations, archaeology and theology.
  • SPOILER ALERT: In the end, Lee is overwhelmed by the consistency and irrefutable nature of the evidence and concludes that, as a matter of fact, the Resurrection of Christ did occur. Shortly thereafter he converts to Christianity.
  • I saw this movie a couple of days ago and shared a positive reaction to the presentation and Christian message with many in the audience.
  • That said, as the credits rolled past, I wondered how many of my Protestant brothers and sisters in the audience would accept an investigative challenge to their particular faith as Lee Strobel did? How many would ever examine their beliefs and practices in light of the complete 2000 year history of Christianity and let the evidence lead them where it may?

Simple Catholic Truth

Lee Strobel is to be applauded for his dedication in seeking the truth. He used his own personal skills of investigative journalism to build a casebook of evidence in favor of Christianity. His story has a happy ending. His research and commitment to the objective evidence took a disbelieving Atheist back into the embrace of our Father. But did he stop too soon?

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a famous Anglican convert to Catholicism in the 19th century, once made a rather bold claim about Protestants who ignore the evidence of history of the Christian Church. He said,

” To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

Cardinal Newman held the opinion that those who honestly looked deeply into Church history – the development of the Canon of Scriptures, the development of doctrine, the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and the catalysts of the Reformation – they would cease to be Protestant. This endeavor of study can be very technical and arduous. Most will ignore the challenge either from an honest lack of time or talent, or simply a desire to avoid any possible movement from a personal status quo. But as difficult or uncomfortable as it may be, examining our Christian faith in its historical completeness is both prudent and essential.

In this post I’m going to offer some suggestions for such a journey. I aim not to necessarily convince or persuade, rather, I wish to simply plant the seeds of curiosity. In this post I will examine just three examples of current Catholic doctrines and practices, (rejected by many Protestants), that can be traced back 2000 years to the teachings of Christ and those that walked with Him and taught with Him. The challenge out there for anyone that holds a counter position is simply this: take up the mantle of a Lee Strobel, examine the facts, dig into history with an honest desire for the truth. Then armed with all the evidence, reach the most truthful, not just the most convenient, conclusion.

1: Baptism

In the movie, a Case for Christ, there is a scene where Lee’s wife is baptized. The point is clearly and repeatedly made that this Baptism is merely a public sign of her faith in Jesus. Knowing that Lee Strobel and his wife converted to a Baptist denomination, it is understandable how this position made its way into the movie. To them, Baptism is understood as merely a symbol, a sign, a public profession of the believer’s faith in Jesus. But does the history of Christianity support this position?

The symbolic view of Baptism appears to originate with the Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli in the early 16th century. As with much of the beliefs of Reformation movement, the rejection of Baptism’s regenerative effectiveness seems to have been in part a reaction against the priestly authority of the Catholic Church. Prior to the 16th century, the idea that Baptism as only symbolic, is conspicuously absent.

If we turn to the Bible itself, we see that Christ Himself clearly states that there is so much more to Baptism than just a symbol. To the puzzled Pharisee Nicodemus, Christ tells us of the need for Baptism as the need to be born from the Spirit:

5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (Jn 3: 5-6)

Notice the word “unless” in the above passage – this indicates that entering into the kingdom requires Baptism. Some might argue that Jesus is referring to a spiritual Baptism and not a physical Baptism, but the inclusion of references to being born of physical water here and in many other passages make that conclusion unreasonable. No – Jesus said that Baptism in its physical form and action is the method by which the Holy Spirit enters our soul and we become initially justified.
Also consider the writings of the Apostle Paul to his disciple Titus.

5 [H]e 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 (Ti 3:5)

Here, Paul is speaking of Baptism as having a regenerative effect. These are hardly words of mere symbolism.

And finally, we can look at the writings of St. Augustine in the fourth century A.D. In Chapter IX of The Confessions we read a story of the future St. Augustine gravely ill with a stomach illness. He was to be baptized in order that his soul be cleansed and his eternal life preserved. However, as his recovery become apparent, that Baptism was deferred so that any future sins committed would be later forgiven.
It seems to me that this delaying tactic is a rather misplaced application of the Sacrament and an unacceptable risk, but it nevertheless indicates how early Christians understood Baptism and its cleansing effects of the soul.
Keep in mind that these early Christians were those that had direct contact with the Apostles and were taught by men that walked with Jesus Himself.

So, for the case of Baptism, the historical evidence seems to fall on the side of its intrinsic efficacy to forgive sin and make us children of God.

2: The Bible

In many places in the movie, Lee Stobel’s wife turns to the Bible as a source of comfort and inspiration during her journey of faith. Absolutely, the inspired word of God provides all of that and much much more. However, I wondered if she gave any thought as to where that book came from and why she gave it so much credibility.

History shows us a few critically important facts that seem lost to many modern believers.

First, after Christ died the “Bible” did not yet exist! The teaching of His Gospel message was left to the Apostles and other disciples.

Second, Jesus left behind a visible, hierarchical Church empowered to protect His teaching from error.

Third, as the Church grew throughout the world, only then ( ~ approx. 400 A.D.) were the teachings of Christ written down and eventually compiled into a set of books that we now call the “Bible” (including the New Testament).

Fourth, it was the Church that selected which books would be included in the Bible. In other words, the Church came first and then the Bible, not the other way around. The writings selected to be included into a single bound book called the “Bible” were chosen because of their fidelity to the teachings of Christ, as handed down from the Apostles and their successors, and taught in the Church for the previous 400 years.

Fifth, from about 400 A.D. to 1600 A.D. the written word use in Christian liturgy and teaching, (the “Bible” if you will), contained 73 books. Those 73 books remain in the Catholic Bible today.

In the 16th century, the Protestant reformers called for a return to what they felt to be the original form of Christianity, one they claimed as purified from the corruption and man-made false teaching of the Catholic Church. The rallying cry for this idea was “sola scriptura”, that is, by the Bible alone. Rather than a new theological revelation, sola scriptura was simply a rejection of the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and a replacement of that authority with a new authority of personal interpretation. In the process of pledging allegiance to the “Bible alone”, the reformers removed 7 books from the Old Testament that did not fit with their personal interpretation and theology.

So what’s the point here? By rejecting Apostolic tradition, and inventing a new authority, the reformers actually departed from historical Christianity in major ways. So back to the movie. How did Lee’s wife know what books were in her Bible? How did she know that the books included were the inspired word of God? Beyond even that, how did she know that she was interpreting those words correctly?

If the Bible (alone) is so important to your faith life, then I suggest you examine the history of its formation. Investigate the teachings of Christ (oral and written) after His death and resurrection and see if they align with your interpretation of Scripture. Don’t rely on a handful of proof-texts that support your position. Don’t ignore those Bible verses that support a position different than yours. Scripture does not contradict itself, so openly investigate those troubling passages as well. The truth of interpretation must be consistent with the complete story.

3: The Real Presence of the Eucharist

My final comment on the movie The Case for Christ stems from the scenes in the Strobel’s church during worship services. There is genuine holiness and dedication to God shown by all the people. The modern music captures the audience and adds significantly to the moments of prayer. The sermon by what I assumed was the pastor was also genuine and sincere. But I wondered, “Is this the way the early Christians worshipped?”…”Was something added, or is something missing, or is this the way Jesus intended us to come together as members of the Body of Christ?”

Again, an examination of history might shed some light on the matter. The Protestant reformers of the 16th century, in addition to rejecting the essential nature of Apostolic tradition,  reduced the issue of salvation to that of “faith alone.” The debate of what faith means is beyond this short post, but suffice it to say that the reformers were very much afraid of implying that any action of mankind contributed in any way to his salvation. In other words, to the reformers, salvation was by faith alone. Consistent with this new theology of the 16th century was the understanding that receiving the bread and wine (i.e. communion or Eucharist) was nothing more than a symbol of faith. Very similar to the position of Baptism, and for the same reasons I might add.

In any event we turn first to the Bible for help in understanding. If we turn to the Bread of Life Discourse from the Gospel of John:

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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 you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

Read carefully verse 53 above. In the words of our Lord, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man… you have no life in you.” It’s critical to note here the conditional imperative “unless.”  This language is unambiguous in saying that to receive eternal life you must eat His flesh.

If communion is a symbol with no spiritual benefit, how can someone explain these inspired words? How can communion have no spiritual benefit when Jesus Himself says that if you don’t eat His flesh and drink His blood you will die? Conversely, how can communion have no spiritual benefit when Jesus himself guarantees that if you eat His flesh you will have eternal life? The existence of the conditional imperative in verse 53 seems irrefutable. I realize that “faith alone” Christians have difficulty with these words. They fear it requires man doing something to be saved. I understand the dilemma, but the dilemma exists, not in the collective inspired words of the Bible, but rather in the overly restrictive human interpretation of salvation by “faith” (alone).

Finally, we turn to early century Christians to see what they were taught and how they worshiped. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch wrote (~110 A.D.) to the Diocletian heretics in his letter to Smyrna 6:

“…they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ…”.

And Justin Marytr in his Apology I -66 [emphasis mine]:

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. 

So we see here that Justine Marytr, a great Early Church Father indicates the efficacy of the Eucharist. This miracle is not simply a symbol of faith, No!, by receiving His true body and blood in a worthy manner, our own blood and flesh are nourished.

The fact of this spiritual nourishment afforded by the Eucharist was not lost to the early Christians. The earliest recording of Christian liturgy, the Didache, describes the worship service that includes prayer and the reception of the real body and blood of Christ.

So once again, back to the movie. If the early Christians were taught that the bread and wine were truly the body and blood of Jesus Christ, then why do modern Christians believe it to be merely symbolic? If Christ himself said that you needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood, then why to modern Christians not believe? If historical evidence indicates that the earliest Christians worshiped with song and prayer AND receiving the true body and blood of Christ, why don’t modern Christians worship in the same way. If we desire an personal intimate relationship with Christ, why wouldn’t we desire to receive Christ physically into our bodies as our Lord instructed?

Well, this post has gotten a bit long so we’ll end it here. I offered just three examples of the beliefs and practices of historical and Biblical Christianity. Give it some thought and ask yourself if your particular Christian faith resembles these beliefs and practices. Can you trace the elements of your faith back 2000 years to Christ? Or does your history begin in the 16th Century?

I commend Lee Stobel for his dedication to the evidence of history and to his eventual recognition of the truth of the Gospels. I only wish he had taken the challenge and not stopped in the 16th century.

I wish he would have extended the journey back to Christ, back to the early Christians, back all the way home.

2 thoughts on “The Case for Catholicism – Dare to Follow the Evidence”

  1. Martha,
    I’m glad you liked it! Try to go out and see the movie, I think you’ll like that as well.
    Have a blessed Holy Week!
    Tom

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