Quodvultdeus of Carthage on the Woman of the Apocalypse

It is sometimes claimed by Protestants that the identification of the Woman of the Apocalypse as Mary is a Medieval invention (I’ve heard the 12th century mentioned). But this just isn’t true.

Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse

In the Apocalypse of the apostle John it is written that the dragon stood in full view of the woman about to give birth, in order that when she gave birth, he would eat the child born [of her]. Let none of you ignore [the fact] that the dragon is the devil; know that the virgin signifies Mary, the chaste one, who gave birth to our chaste head. She also embodied in herself a figure of the holy church: namely, how, while bearing a son, she remained a virgin, so that the church throughout time bears her members, yet she does not lose her virginity.

Quodvultdeus of Carthage, Third Homily On the Creed, circa 440 AD

Who is this guy? He was a disciple and correspondent of St. Augustine’s who became bishop of nearby Carthage four years after Augustine’s death. This interpretation of the Woman of the Apocalypse is present in the very earliest days of the Augustinian tradition.

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Most Highly Favoured Lady, Gloria!

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
“All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden, Mary,
most highly favoured lady,”

“For know a blessed Mother thou shalt be,
all generations laud and honor thee,
thy Son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,
most highly favoured lady,”

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“my soul shall laud and magnify His holy Name.”
Most highly favoured lady,

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born
in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say
“Most highly favoured lady,”

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The Difference Between Infallibility & Inspiration

The Council of Nicea

As I’ve been thinking more about the issue of Church infallibility, I realized that a lot of apparent disagreements probably come down to confusion over the meaning of the term infallibility as opposed to inspiration. But in Catholic theology these terms have very distinct meanings.

Inspiration is the principle of positive guidance given to the scriptural authors to set down certain ideas, such that the result of their writing can be called the word of God.

Infallibility, though, is the principle of negative guidance given to the leadership of the Church, such that no matter how hard they try, they will never be able to definitively commit the Church to doctrinal error.

It is, of course, easy to confuse these. After all, inspiration implies that the inspired work will be protected from doctrinal error. And more than that, when catholics try to explain the idea of infallibility to protestants, we almost inevitably end up using scripture as our point of reference because it is the only example of infallibility in most Protestant theology.

Nonetheless, the two ideas are distinct. The biblical Canon, the Nicene Creed, and all the dogmatic teaching of the Church are human responses to divine revelation. But they are human responses that the Spirit prevents from going fundamentally awry.

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What is Modesty?

Quick, cover them up before the churchgoers see them!

For whatever reason, modesty has become something of an “issue” for conservative Christians (and Catholics in particular) lately. But there’s a problem with the way that it is often discussed. Modesty isn’t about “covering up” or other sorts of clothing rules.

Rather, modesty is the virtue of not drawing undue attention to oneself. You may have noticed that this definition doesn’t say anything about clothing at all. That’s because the virtue of modesty is both less restrictive and more demanding than the arbitrary standards people like to impose.

The virtue of modesty should radiate from one’s entire life, not just one’s dress. And it isn’t just for women. Honestly, I think that in our culture men need a bigger dose of it in order to avoid becoming self-aggrandizing jerks. Our speech should be modest. Our conduct should be modest. And yes, our clothing should be modest. But modesty and “covering up” are quite distinct.

Modesty in speech. When we talk to others are we always playing up our intelligence or accomplishments? Are we emphasizing the things we excel in, but turning a blind eye to our failures and foibles? That is immodesty.

Modesty in conduct. Do we always have to be the life of the party or the center of attention? Are we ostentatious with our possessions, using them to indicate that we are part of the hip crowd? That is immodesty.

Modesty in dress. Do we always have to be the best dressed person in the room? Do we dress to show off our best “assets” in order to make sure every eye is on us? Or do we make sure that no one ever sees a wrist or ankle of ours, even at a beach party? That is immodesty.

Modesty isn’t about fending off the temptations of others. It is about defeating our own temptation to focus on ourselves and seek the praise and approval of others, whether for our bodies or our apparent holiness.

What is more appropriate to modesty than the avoidance of praise or ostentation? It is clear that the Son, our teacher, has enjoined us to seek privacy when we pray, in order to promote modesty.

– Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon on the Song of Songs #86

I said earlier that modesty is both less restrictive and more demanding than mere “covering up.” Perhaps now you can see why. It regards rules for dress as guidelines that may or may not be helpful in a given context, but it regards seeking the praise and approval of others as a very dangerous thing.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus directs us from outward actions like adultery to the inward attitudes of the heart, because that is the root of sin. And our immodesty needs to be cut out at the root, not just papered over by praying on street corners.

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Ave Maris Stella

Coptic icon of Mary as "Star of the Sea"

Hail, bright star of ocean,
God’s own Mother blest,
Ever sinless Virgin,
Gate of heavenly rest,

Taking that sweet Ave,
Which from Gabriel came,
Peace confirm within us,
Changing Eva’s name,

Break the captive’s fetters,
Light on blindness pour,
All our ills expelling,
Every bliss implore,

Show thyself a Mother,
May the Word divine
Born for us thy Infant,
Hear our prayers through thine.

Virgin all excelling,
Mildest of the mild,
Freed from guilt preserve us,
Pure and undefiled.

Keep our life all spotless,
Make our way secure,
Till we find in Jesus,
Joy forevermore.

Through the highest heaven
To the almighty Three,
Father, son, and Spirit,
One same glory be.

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Sola Scriptura: Part 2

This is Part 2 in a series. Part 1 is located here.

Advocates of sola scriptura often speak as if the Apostles* wrote the New Testament and, having achieved their purpose, promptly keeled over so that the Church could get on with the business of figuring out what it meant.

The Inspiration of St. Matthew - Caravaggio

But in fact, the Apostles were pastors and teachers, founders of Churches. And after their deaths, their followers still remembered the things that they had been taught by “word of mouth” (2 Thess. 2:15); they didn’t develop a sudden case of amnesia. Because of this, the Scriptures are meant to be read within the context of the Apostles’ whole teaching, not just those things which were explicitly written down.

Let’s take a specific example. Baptism is clearly important to the Apostles. Yet Scripture doesn’t clearly address whether it should be administered to infants or only those capable of choosing it. There are principles that can be adduced in favor of either side, but without a shared interpretive key, there isn’t a way to resolve this question.

Suppose, though, you were part of the Apostolic Church. All you have to do is look at what the Apostles do. Apostolic practice interprets the ambiguity of Scripture.

Now, suppose that you live a generation later and the Apostles are no longer around, but your bishop knew the Apostle John. You ask the bishop, who tells you how John baptized and how he continues the Apostolic Tradition.

And a generation later, you would be told how Polycarp practiced baptism in the same way as John, and that your church still maintains the Apostolic Tradition regarding baptism. And if you have doubts, you can verify it by looking at the other churches founded by the Apostles, because they follow the same practice. in this way Apostolic Tradition reveals the true meaning of Scripture when it is obscure or difficult to understand.

Is this tradition’s content less binding than Scripture? To be consistent, it seems the Protestant must answer, “Yes.”

But this is remarkably counterintuitive, for not only does that position devalue Apostolic Tradition, but also ends up devaluing the very interpretive key which allows us to understand Scripture in the first place.

To put the problem more sharply: The Apostles, by their teaching and practice gave their followers a specific framework by which to interpret both Old and New Testaments. Other frameworks are rationally possible (consider Marcionism). Are we at liberty to discard this Apostolic framework as sola scriptura would suggest? Or is it only in union with this Apostolic framework that we authentically encounter the Word in Scripture?

* Yes, I know that it’s not just the Apostles, but “authors of the books of the New Testament” is rather long.

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Who Speaks for God?

In the recent discussion of sola scriptura, Preston objected to the idea of Church infallibility as follows:

Jesus says the Comforter will come and reveal to all. Therefore, the weight of interpretation can not be given alone to a small group in the Church, which is often the case, but is the responsibility of the Church as a whole. Not to say every interpretation is right, but it does not suggest that because a group agrees on an interpretation that it is infallible. To claim that kind of infallibility is to claim to speak for God Himself. Or, moreover, to suggest only some people are enabled to do so.

Let’s start at the beginning. Did Jesus say that the Holy Spirit would “reveal to all?” In fact, he didn’t. There isn’t a verse which says exactly that. The one which it is closest to quoting is John 14:26 “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

The interesting thing is that in this verse, Jesus is speaking specifically to the inner circle of his disciples at the last supper. John does not tell us exactly who was there, but Matthew and Mark identify this group as only the 12 apostles. So though this may in some sense apply to the wider Church community, in its most direct sense it applies only to the 12.

What about the “weight of interpretation?” Can it be given to a “small group in the Church?” Or is it the “responsibility of the Church as a whole?” Perhaps we should look at biblical precedent.

St. James the Just

The Council of Jerusalem depicted in Acts 15 is a clear case of a “small group in the Church,” namely the Apostles and Presbyters present in Jerusalem, deciding what the whole Church must believe by excluding the Judaistic heresy.

A straightforward reading of the text suggests that “because the group agreed on an interpretation” they saw it as infallible. In writing to those who had been disturbed by the Judaizers’ doctrine, the council said that “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…”

Clearly they saw no problem in claiming “to speak for God Himself.” And again, they saw no problem with saying that the Judaizers were not enabled to do so because, “We did not send them!”

To claim that all Christians are enabled to speak for God is either a truism or a falsehood. It is a truism if we mean that all Christians are authorized to proclaim the Gospel. It is a falsehood if we mean that the Church is an egalitarian society with no clear leadership capable of making binding decisions in the name of the Church as a whole.

This latter position reverses the Pauline teaching by saying, “Yes, all are apostles! Yes, all are prophets! Yes, all are teachers!”

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