My Response to Catholic Apologist Tom Nash of Catholic Answers Part 1

Brian Culliton

An article recently appeared on the Catholic.com website that responds to my article, “Early Church Evidence Refutes Real Presence.” The article was written by Catholic apologist, Tom Nash, who posted it in the website’s online magazine section. Here is a link to the article: The Early Church Believed in the Eucharist

My article, “Early Church Evidence Refutes Real Presence” is a contextual approach to the early church writings. The article was written in 2009. I am currently working on a new revision to the article that will provide more background on the writers, an even more comprehensive look at what they believed about the eucharist, and a couple additional works that lend well to the topic, but carry with them a level uncertainty as to their dates, which of course will be fully disclosed.

It is my opinion that Mr. Nash did an inadequate job of refuting the conclusions of my article since he failed on every point to incorporate any context. Essentially, Mr. Nash relied on isolated quotes to suggest to his readers that what these quotes say sounds very Catholic. On that point I agree. It’s the reason why Catholic Answers lists strings of them without contextual support. But to me context is everything, and I am certain that every other fair-minded individual out there would agree.

There are four things that are vitally important about early church study. The first thing is to read the works. Sounds kind of obvious, but a lot folks think they understand these writings simply because they have seen quotes. The second thing is to learn all you can about the authors. Get to know their style, passions, and influences. Much of this can be ascertained from reading their works. Third, learn about the period in which they lived and wrote, and most importantly, learn about the heresies they were addressing. This goes a long way in understanding what they are trying to convey. Finally, develop a strong biblical foundation and keep an open mind. The early ecclesiastical writers wrote for various reasons, but none wrote Scripture and none were infallible.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Nash to completely mischaracterize my view of the early church works. He stated that I argue Ignatius and other church fathers held a “merely symbolic view of the eucharist and that their words should be understood figuratively.” What I actually said was, “Within these writings are clear references to the flesh and blood of Christ in the eucharist being symbolical, and the words, ‘Eat My flesh and drink My blood’ spoken by Jesus in the bread of life discourse as being metaphorical.

I simply told my readers what they should expect to find in my article. I never imposed a symbolical view onto any of the authors, much less all of them. The idea of the article was to let the evidence speak for itself. I don’t offer a great deal of commentary and I only used the word symbolical or symbolically three times. Every time I used it was to simply reiterate what the evidence itself was revealing.

My article is broken into sections, one for each of the ecclesiastical writers. Mr. Nash chose to respond to the three closest to the time of the apostles: Ignatius, Justin, and Irenaeus. This response will address his commentary on Ignatius of Antioch. I will follow with responses on Justin Martyr and Irenaeus in the weeks to come.

Regarding Ignatius, Mr. Nash provides the all-important crème de la crème of early church quotes as far as most Catholics are concerned.

They [the Docetists, early Christological heretics] 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 that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).

Mr. Nash remarks that my opinion is at odds with the plain meaning of Ignatius’ words. I don’t know what opinion he is referring to since I never offered one. What I offered was context and facts. However Mr. Nash seems to think that Ignatius accused the Docetists of abstaining from the Eucharist because they denied that the flesh of Christ was truly present in the “elements” of the Eucharist.

Eucharist is a word that means thanksgiving. The bread and cup are the food of the eucharist and often referred to as the Eucharist, much like the our November feast is referred to as Thanksgiving.

The Ignatius quote I provide above is from Mr. Nash’s article and it includes a bracketed comment that identifies who Ignatius is referring to and it says, “the Docetists, early Christological heretics.” I wonder how many of his readers understand the significance of that insertion and how it being there actually invalidates his opinion of the quote. Put simply, people who did not believe that Jesus suffered and died in the flesh would not abstain from the Eucharist because they objected to the idea He was truly present, they abstained because the whole idea of it was ridiculous to them. They didn’t believe the bread was the body of Christ and the cup His blood, because they objected to the idea that Jesus possessed a body; that’s what Ignatius meant when he said they do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of Christ.

Ignatius went on to say that the flesh they deny is “our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again.” The next thing he says is crucial to understanding what he meant, “They who deny this gift of God are perishing in their disputes.”

Ignatius’ criticism of the Docetists culminates in these words, “They who deny this gift of God.” We agree on who they are, the Docetists, what we disagree on is what they denied. We know from the quote that they denied the flesh of Christ in the Eucharist. What we do not get from the quote is whether Ignatius was referring to a denial of real presence or a denial of Christ’s physical existence. But if we read the whole letter we will discover that Ignatius himself provides the clear answer.

In chapter two of the letter, Ignatius said this:

He [Jesus] suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be Christians.

And in chapter five he said this:

For what does anyone profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death.

Then, finally, in the sixth chapter:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.

There are no references to Ignatius criticizing the Docetists for not believing in real presence because such criticism would not make sense. The misunderstanding of Ignatius by many Catholics stems from an improper notion of the Eucharist. Any reference to the bread and cup as the body and blood of Christ triggers a conditioned response to interpret it as a literal true presence. It’s unfortunate that some are so limited and narrow-minded in their thinking. Mr. Nash gives a prime example in a second Ignatius quote. Here is how he presented it:

I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110], emphasis his).

Mr. Nash emphasized certain phrases that seem to tell him everything he needs to know. All he hears is that Ignatius desired the flesh of Christ and to drink His blood. Damn the context I guess. What did Ignatius mean? Here is how the quote is presented in my article:

For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that lives and speaks, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life. (To the Romans, Chapter 7)

Expanding the quote just a little gives us a better picture of the circumstance. From this quote we can see that Ignatius had something much more profound in mind than the eucharist. The larger context is that Ignatius was a prisoner of the Romans and was being transported to Rome to be placed in the arena, which meant that he would suffer death by being exposed to wild beasts. The purpose of his letter to the church in Rome was to ensure that they did not intercede in his martyrdom. He praised them for their love, but did not want that love to prevent his end goal.

If we go to chapter (paragraph) six, the one just prior to the quote above, we see a key statement. Ignatius said, “Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God.” Add to this a quote of his found in the writings of Irenaeus, “I am the wheat of Christ, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” The context make abundantly clear the motivation and desire of Ignatius. It was not the eucharist he was after, rather it was to be an imitator of our Lord and to go to Him in the most profound way.

Taking words from quotes and drawing ideological conclusions not only dishonors the works, it dishonors the author of the works.

Next time I will address Mr. Nash’s response to my article’s section on Justin Martyr.

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97 Responses to My Response to Catholic Apologist Tom Nash of Catholic Answers Part 1

  1. Mike says:

    Sorry this is so long:

    Rex you say

    So, Sacred Tradition is clearly seen in Scripture.

    However, the passages you give do not illustrate any specific sacred tradition, rather they speak of sacred tradition generally. I’ve already stated I don’t speak against all tradition, just tradition that nullifies the Word of God, or that creates another gospel other than that preached by Paul and the apostles. None of the passages you quote give us an example of what traditions they’re speaking about specifically, but we do see how Paul viewed them. They were:

    1: The teachings were to be maintained as Paul and the other apostles delivered them. No new teachings.
    2: They were to “hold” to them, implying they were not to be added to, changed, or subtracted from.
    3: They were to live in accord with the traditions that they received from the apostles already and not deviate.

    We see the exact opposite happen in the Roman Catholic church as it has added new teaching over the centuries.

    I think it’s safe to say those Scriptures are speaking of the teachings Paul and the apostles already gave, but not of any new teachings that would come later. Why do I say this? Because Paul said it. He also warned of a false gospel and any teachings that present any other gospel which Paul said would be “no gospel at all” Gal. 1:7. Further Paul stated that “You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.” That statement is key. It indicates that even then, such a short time after Christ, some people (the Judaizers in this case) were attempting to change the Word of God and confuse believers. Who were they? Christians who decided to change what Paul and the apostles had given and integrate Jewish customs and practices into the Church, primarily the practices of the Law. Sound familiar? It should.

    The problem with traditions that change the Gospel and God’s Word and deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ is that there’s no way to tell what those are if you don’t measure them against the Scriptures. Your church could conceivably come out tomorrow and say that it is now permissible for the laity to believe that we are to no longer call homosexuality a sin and we’re to embrace it in all ways based on its (the church’s) new revelation as your magisterial head that we’re to love everyone, and that means to not call out homosexuals on their behavior. Even though the Scriptures tell us that homosexual behavior is an abomination to God, the Scriptural teaching could be changed with new teaching that would then later be called “tradition.” What would be your warrant to say no? On what grounds would you deny the teaching since it’s your church that is giving it to you under the cover of infallibility, authority, and tradition?

    Some believe we are close to that point. Such a teaching would effectively undermined God’s stated position on homosexuality, but since you believe Scripture is not the final authority, and if enough people came to sympathize with the movement, it could become doctrine in your church by way of new tradition. Think that’s not going to happen? It already did! This is exactly what took place with the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, which was never taught in Scripture on in the early Church, but is today solid doctrine in the RCC. Its roots are not in the Holy Word of God, but instead are found in a feast day that was started on a whim to honor Mary centuries after she died by people, not by God, and not by the Church. The teaching was adopted by the Roman Catholic church after years of the people wanting it, even though the idea militates against the Scriptures themselves. It illustrates the danger of tradition and how it can be used to weaken and dilute the true Word of God. It also takes us back to Jesus’ warnings on what tradition can and will do to the Word of God if left unchecked.

    The question then becomes: How can you differentiate between traditions that would offend God, and those that would not? Answer? As a Roman Catholic that doesn’t believe in the supremacy of Scripture, you would most likely turn to your church to tell you what to believe.The Scriptures are pure, but man’s traditions are not.

    You say:

    I just want to understand you correctly. Are you saying, when Paul says, “maintain the traditions…” and “hold to the traditions…” and “keep away from any brother who is living…not in accord with the tradition,” he is actually saying those traditions may not have any truthfulness or accuracy?

    No of course not. What I’m saying is that what Paul and the apostles taught, known as the Christian “tradition” if you will, was recorded in the Bible. There were no secrets. It’s all there, which is why Scripture says of itself that it’s “sufficient.” Paul would not expect us to live by traditions that were not communicated to us in Scripture. What would be the point? We know that the traditions Paul and the apostles taught were in line with the Gospel they had already handed over. All of their teachings that we need God protected and has communicated them to us in what we know today as the Bible. So when your church adopts a new tradition that says Mary is sinless as your church did in 1854, almost two-thousand years after Paul spoke on traditions, we can be reasonably sure it’s part of that false gospel Paul warned about. It’s different than what he preached.

    You say:

    Did Paul speak about traditions and the handing or maintaining of those traditions? And did he speak about handing those traditions on orally?

    Yes, but more importantly Jesus did. Religious tradition was in full force during Jesus’ earthly ministry. He often scolded the religious leaders, saying, “You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:13). The scribes and the Pharisees had added so many of their own ideas to God’s Law that the common people were confused and felt helpless to obey it all. Religious traditions that supersede or displace God’s law have been around since the earliest days. They are still in full force within every religion as well as many Christian denominations.

    You say:

    The point is this: you made a claim that Scripture alone is the “sole infallible rule of faith and practice.” You don’t find it ironic that that teaching can not be found in the Scriptures?

    As I said in my other post, it is taught in Scripture. Jesus taught the superiority of Scripture and I gave you examples of those teachings before. Are you going to say that only explicit teaching is valid, and that teaching by example isn’t? If so, your own church would take issue with you, as much of its teaching comes not explicitly, but by inference and example. Take the doctrine of the Trinity for instance. Can you show me where in the Bible it teaches explicitly on the concept of the Trinity? No? I didn’t think so, because it’s not there. But I’m sure you don’t deny the teaching. Also, your church teaches that infants are to be baptized, but where is that teaching in the Bible? It teaches that you are to pray to the Saints – but where is that teaching?

    You say:

    The second point is you asked for Scripture supporting the teaching of Tradition. I gave you three above.

    As I said, you gave Scriptures where Paul was speaking about specific traditions that He and the apostles taught. No mention of any more traditions or teachings of the church later on were included in Paul’s statements, and in fact he was careful to narrow down his comments to his and the apostle’s teachings only. Read them again.

    One thing you should keep in mind Rex: Scripture has layers of meaning. The more we delve into God’s Word, the more we learn about God, and it often upsets our own ideas. Just when we think we have things figured out and we are certain that we are theologically, morally, and socially right about it all, we uncover another layer that shatters those confidences. When we cling to tradition—whether denominational, theological, or structural—as if it were God’s Word, we keep the door closed on God’s revelation of truth to us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike says:

    Steven – I think your suggestion to clarify is a good one, as we can run all over the place when having different meanings. I offer this breakdown of how I see tradition as it relates to the citations given by Paul that I listed and that Rex referred to as well. This is from the Bible.org site and it seems to break it down nicely. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Tradition seems to have three different meanings in the Scriptures, none of which are related to the development of new doctrine post Pauline teaching, post apostolic teaching, or after the teachings of Jesus.

    1. Meaning in Jewish Theology:

    The term in the New Testament has apparently three meanings. It means, in Jewish theology, the oral teachings of the elders (distinguished ancestors from Moses on) which were reverenced by the late Jews equally with the written teachings of the Old Testament, and were regarded by them as equally authoritative on matters of belief and conduct. There seem to be three classes of these oral teachings:

    (a) some oral laws of Moses (as they supposed) given by the great lawgiver in addition to the written laws;

    (b) decisions of various judges which became precedents in judicial matters;

    (c) interpretations of great teachers (rabbis) which came to be prized with the same reverence as were the Old Testament Scriptures.

    It was against the tradition of the elders in this first sense that Jesus spoke so pointedly to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3). The Pharisees charged Jesus with transgressing “the tradition of the elders.” Jesus turned on them with the question, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” He then shows how their hollow traditionalism has fruited into mere ceremonialism and externalism (washing of hands, vessels, saying “Corban” to a suffering parent, i.e. “My property is devoted to God, and therefore I cannot use it to help you,” etc.), but He taught that this view of uncleanness was essentially false, since the heart, the seat of the soul, is the source of thought, character and conduct (Mark 7:14).

    2. As Used in 1 Corinthians and 2 Thessalonians:

    The word is used by Paul when referring to his personal Christian teachings to the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). In this sense the word in the singular is better translated “instruction,” signifying the body of teaching delivered by the apostle to the church at Thessalonica (2 Thessalonians 3:6). But Paul in the other two passages uses it in the plural, meaning the separate instructions which he delivered to the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica.

    3. As Used in Colossians:

    The word is used by Paul in Colossians 2:8 in a sense apparently different from the two senses above. He warns his readers against the teachings of the false teachers in Colosse, which are “after the tradition of men.” Olshausen, Lightfoot, Dargan, in their commentaries in the place cited., maintain that the reference is to the Judaistic character of the false teachers. This may be true, and yet we must see that the word “tradition” has a much broader meaning here than in 1 above. Besides, it is not certain that the false teachings at Colosse are essentially Jewish in character. The phrase “tradition of men” seems to emphasize merely the human, not necessarily Jewish, origin of these false teachings.

    The verb paradidomi, “to give over,” is also used 5 times to express the impartation of Christian instruction:

    Luke 1:2, where eyewitnesses are said to have handed down the things concerning Jesus; 1 Corinthians 11:2,23 and 15:3 referring to the apostle’s personal teaching; 2 Peter 2:21, to instruction by some Christian teacher (compare 1 Peter 1:18).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Mike says:

    Thank you Jesse!

    Like

  4. Jesse says:

    Let us also put an end to this Catholic’s objections to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 as a Sola Scriptura proof-text. Following a series debunking Rex:

    http://answeringcatholicclaims.blogspot.com/2013/03/

    Of course, I could do a lengthy discourse like Mike does, but I would rather keep my replies short (due to me having perfectionist tendencies and a slower processing speed).

    Like

  5. You say,

    “…the passages you give do not illustrate any specific sacred tradition, rather they speak of sacred tradition generally.”

    That’s my point right now. Namely, to establish that tradition is, in the general sense, supported by Scripture. You and I seem to agree with that assessment. So, is that fair to say?

    Secondly, the teaching of sola Scriptura is not, ironically, in Scripture. You admit that much. Most Protestants will admit that.

    Once we establish that tradition, in the general sense, is supported by Scripture, I will be more than happy to move to those traditions that you say. “nullify God’s Word.”

    It’s important to understand that the Church does not, indeed cannot, change the doctrines God has given it, nor can it “invent” new ones and add them to the deposit of faith that has been “once for all delivered to the saints.”

    My apologies for taking so long to respond. I’m sure you understand. I’m a disciple, husband, father, and employee. So with work, time with my family, spiritual disciplines, house work, etc. I have to prioritize my time. I know it’s short, but all of the verbal wrangling we were doing this is what I was trying to get to. And I think we’re there.

    Like

  6. Steven, I appreciate your advice. A few pages back I did attempt this.

    Like

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