THE PARABLE OF THE MESSENGERS
I am recounting my reasons for accepting the claims of the Catholic Church above those of other denominations. My faith in the Church rests on several points.
The first one was brought to my attention back when I was an atheist, and had no concern one way or the other as to which side should prevail in an argument I dismissed as being on a completely imaginary topic.
Namely, one cannot argue that the books of the Bible are canonical and argue at the same time that neither the Church nor any one has the authority to canonize them.
Every baptized Christian is in the position of the servant of a king on the forefront of a battlefield. Two thousand leagues away stands the King, who issues both general and specific orders and also appoints his Supreme Allied Commander and eleven General officers, and establishes his chain of command. He leaves no written orders himself, but the Commander and the Generals hears his words and write some of them down. To prove that they work in his name and under his authority, the King grants them certain signs they can show to the doubtful.
The message contains a great commission for a general levy, that is, every man hearing the message is commanded to join the army in the name of the king, and become a messenger in turn, spreading the good news it contains as far and wide as possible.
At His Majesty’s command, these messengers set out toward you. Enemy spies continually attempt to change and corrupt the message, but the message itself contained repeated warnings of this.
For roughly the first 50 to 75 leagues or so, the message is verbal, and the messengers are repeating it the new messengers they recruit as they go. Even from the first step, there is dispute and debate as to how to interpret and enforce the message, or even what it means. Some of them write part of it down, or write down commentary about it, or write exhortations to each other to keep the message faithfully.
By the time the 100 league mark is run, the Supreme Allied Commander and ten of the eleven General officers have been killed after torture by the Enemy, and the final General officer recalled by the king. At the 200 league mark there are clearly generals (who are also messengers) of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, of which the arch-messenger of Rome is preeminent in honor, and perhaps (this claim is open to dispute) in authority. All these claim to have received their authority from previous messengers who received it from the King. They base their claim of authenticity on this succession, which can be called a ‘chain of custody’ or ‘chain of evidence’ or ‘apostolic succession’.
Between the 300 and 400 league mark, finding that some of the abovementioned writings are fake, and some are real, the chief messengers gathers at what is called an Ecumenical Council, and, with the advice and consent of the Supreme Commander in Rome, decree certain of the writings together to be final and definitive. This is called scripture. But many the messengers before this point wrote down their thoughts about the message and its ramifications, and left a paper trail behind them older than the First Ecumenical Council. These are the Patristic writings.
Disputes are continuous, but all the messengers agree (or seem to) that a general council or a vote between them will settle disputes as they arise. That satisfies some but not others. From time to time other messengers break away, or spies for the enemies arise claiming to be messengers who are not, Arians and Donatists and Montanists and Gnostics, but these are pulled back into the ranks, either gently or roughly.
Before the 500 league mark, two the messengers break ranks and peal off, and go their own way, claiming their interpretation of the message alone is authoritative: these are the Monophysites and the Nestorians.
At the 700 league mark, one messenger throws away all previous written versions of the message, and discards most of the verbal version, and writes a new one which he says is based on secret communication with the King’s superior, the Emperor, whom the messenger saw in a dream. This new message he calls ‘The Recital’. He savagely and continually attacks the other messengers throughout the rest of the trip, pausing only momentary when he is beaten into semi-consciousness and cannot physically continue. He claims the king is not a king, but merely a messenger like himself, but that all the other messengers botched up the message maliciously, and are in the pay of the enemy. The king’s messengers all say he is in the pay of the enemy. Unlike the messengers during the first hundred leagues of the journey, this one produces none of the signs and wonders the king promises will accompany special prophetic messengers acting in His name. This one is called Mohammed.
At the 1000 league mark, the next major break happens, although this time there is no disagreement over the message, only over who has the final authority in case of any garbled messages to establish the authoritative version. These are the Orthodox, who later split into Greek and Russian.
At the 1500 league mark, one of the messengers is unhappy with that part of the message which says he cannot get a divorce, so he peals off. He makes not even a token attempt to pretend to be guarding the original version of the message. These are the Anglicans.
At about the same time, two others, Luther and Calvin break away, on the grounds that only the written version of the message can be trusted, only the written version is necessary. They say the later interpretations and arguments only confused matters. However, oddly enough, these two discard several parts out of the writing, particularly those that happen not to agree with their interpretation of the writing. There is another general council, just the same the ones which determined the contents of the messages and settled all previous disputes, but the new messengers will not accept this as the proper mechanism to settle the dispute. The dispute is so vehement, that they form a new army with new banners and a different chain of command, but they claim to be still loyal to the king, nay, they claim to be the only messengers loyal to the king. Unlike the messengers during the first hundred leagues of the journey, they produce none of the signs and wonders the king promises will accompany special prophetic messengers acting in His name.
When they break away, there is an explosion of many breakoffs from their group in turn, since their group holds, as part of the preamble of the oral message, that it is each man’s duty to break away when he suspects the chief messenger of adulterating the message.
All these messengers, the ones who ran straight as well as the ones who swerved, all reach you at once. They all have orders they say are based on the authority of the King and come from him, but the orders have either minor differences, or major.
On what is the claim based?
The Roman messenger says his authority is paramount and always has been, that he was appointed by the king to settle any disputes and correct any corruptions of the message. The two Orthodox messengers says not so, that the chief messengers of Antioch and Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria were equal, and Rome not greater than they; but the Orthodox accept everything Rome also accepts, at least up to whatever the first seven General Councils agreed.
Luther and Calvin say that the King never granted any messenger authority to interpret the message, only to carry it. The fact that the message was not written down until around the 75 league mark and not finalized into an authoritative version until the 500 league mark is one they do not address. Based on some (rather technical) reasoning about the intentions of the king which is not reflected anywhere in the written message, they both discarded certain parts of their message, including Tobit and Maccabeus and Wisdom. At the same time both claim the other messengers were never granted by the king any authority to carry any oral message. Indeed, Luther and Calvin and Rome all claim each other to be spies in the pay of the enemy, and fall into the most grotesque and deadly combat before your eyes, tearing with tooth and nail, biting ears, gouging eyes, crushing gonads. It is appalling.
At the same time, more messengers appear as if from nowhere. Joseph Smith claims that the king spoke to him personally and gave him a pair of gold tablets written in Reformed Egyptian, a language no one else has ever heard of. He does not have them ready to hand, but he is willing to tell you what is on them. Mary Baker Eddy claims each and every messenger of the king misunderstood the kings message entirely, for he was not the king at all, merely a physician, but she has at her command the same signs and wonders used by the early messengers to confirm that they acted in the king’s authority. Again there is the reverend Sun Myung Moon, whose interpretation of the message is irreconcilable with anything of the previous versions or dispute about the message, and seems to be mingled with elements of Taoism or syncretism, and not even pretending to be part of the original message.
And then there is Mohammed, who shoots your five-year-old daughter in the head, and dances when she dies, and then whines that you are oppressing him, and calls you a racist.
All messengers claim the authority to give the message and the interpretation of the message.
Again, these are not groups of Madison Avenue advertisers attempted to sell you a product. Their message is not an advertisement, which you have the right to ignore, but a command, which you have not. All claim to represent the king whom you are bound and avowed to obey. So disregarding all the messages is not an option, nor is accepting them all an option, since they disagree either in minor or major points, nor is it an option to grant all of them equal credence, since you were warned repeatedly that some messages would indeed be lies from the enemy.
Logically, the only option is to examine their warrant, whatever it may be, on which they rest their claim of authority. If each one claims to be orthodox, the only option is to examine on what grounds each claims the others to be heterodox. It is a partly an historical and partly a legal claim.
The first warrant examined is that of the Protestants. The claim that they make is that the orally transmitted parts of the message were corrupted by the malignancy of the Roman messenger, and cannot be trusted; and moreover that only the written parts of the message are needed to carry out the king’s will. However, even a cursory glance at their practices, since they are Trinitarians and monogamists, shows that they themselves both heed and follow as if by the king’s own command certain things delivered only in the oral parts of the message.
The claim they make that only the written part of the message is to be trusted in not in the written part of the message. Instead, the written part of the message contains quite clear warnings against false messengers, and curses against anyone who alters or contaminates the message.
And the written part of the message is lacking several books. The Protestants claim that they rejected parts of the message which they thought were added by the Romans.
A cursory inquiry as to where and from whom and when each man got the message he carried will reveal the following:
|WHICH MESSENGER||WHERE||FROM WHOM||WHEN|
|Catholic Church||Jerusalem||Jesus Christ||33|
|Presbyterian (Old School)||Scotland||General Assembly||1560|
|Baptists||Rhode Island||Roger Williams||1639|
|Methodist Episcopal||England||John Wesley||1739|
|Free-Will Baptists||New Hampshire||Benj. Randall||1780|
|Free Communion Baptists||New York||Benijah Corp||~1790|
|Campbellites, or Christians||Virginia||Alex. Campbell||1813|
|Reformed Methodist||Vermont||Branch of the Meth. Episcopal Church||1814|
|Methodist Society||New York||Branch of the Meth. Episcopal Church||1820|
|Methodist Protestant||Baltimore||Branch of the Meth. Episcopal Church||1830|
|Seventh-Day Baptists||United States||General Conference||1833|
|Presbyterian (New School)||Philadelphia||General Assembly||1840|
|True Wesleyan Methodist||New York||Delegates from Methodist denominations||1843|
However, at this point, the Protestant messengers say that a strict line of succession of messengers is not necessary to establish to show the authority of the message. There are two witnesses which provide confirmation of the authenticity.
The first witness is a Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit whom the king has sent to guard the authority and continuity of the message. Each messenger makes a claim of inerrancy or infallibility, either express or implied, for to claim otherwise is to claim that the king has no power to send the message.
The second is the written message itself, which can be examined such that it proves itself by its own authority to be authentic and authoritative.
However, it is soon clear that the Roman messenger holds as part of the oral message that the Chief messenger has final authority to rule on what is part of the message and what is not. The Roman makes a clear and formal statement claiming infallibility.
The Protestants make a similar claim for the body of the congregation, or for the written message, or for each individual reading it. No matter how unbelievable the claim is that the king sent an invisible spirit to protect the messengers from error, while it is logically possible that one messenger has this authority, is not logically possible, from the simple fact that all the messengers disagree, that they all possess it.
Also, the redacted sections of the written message provide a logically insurmountable paradox for the Protestant messengers. If their sole authority for the authenticity of their message is the written part of the message, then they have no authority to redact or remove parts of the message on any grounds. The cannot throw away the Book of the Maccabeus or Tobit or the Letters of James or anything else because they claim that neither they nor anyone has the authority to define the cannon.
Finally, when you ask the Protestant messengers, since not one of them saw with his own eyes the king himself give the original copy of the message, written or oral, how they know the king exists at all, their only answer is to say that they take the word for it of the early Roman messenger.
You ask them how they know they written part of the message is the only valid part? Their only answer again is to say they take the word for it of the early Roman messenger.
The Protestants respond that there was a time before the message become corrupted, and the Roman messenger from that time could be trusted, but the later messengers could not. You ask them how they know the early message existed at all? Their only answer yet again is to say they take the word for it of the early Roman messenger.
As far as I am concerned, the argument is definitively over at that point: if the one has no authority and no source of information aside from the other, then the one cannot logically be in a position to overrule the other, or claim his information is better, or his authority higher. It is logically impossible.
But there are a few other questions whose answer lends additional weight to the Roman side of the question.
If you have a legalistic mind, you ask Luther and Calvin to point to the part of the message, or the general standing orders, or the specific field order, which tells them they have the right to disobey their superior officers and create a new chain of command based on different forms than the old chain of command. The Roman messenger claims the chain of command was established from the outset by the King; the Protestants say their authority to rebel comes from the natural reasoning that if the chain of command is disloyal to the king, loyalty to the king demands disobedience to the officers the king placed over you. And the Protestants say that at the time when the messengers all set out, there was no official chain of command. But this is not reflected in the written part of the message, so by the Protestant logic, they cannot rely on any tradition as to what conditions obtained in the early days.
Turning to the other messengers, you discover another astonishing thing. The Greek and Russian and Syriac and Coptic and Malabar messengers, while severed from the authority of the Roman messenger, all reject the specific interpretation of the message maintained by Luther and Calvin. All have priestly hierarchy. All claim apostolic succession. All believe in the Real Presence. None affirm sola scriptura.
The only other breakaway group agreeing with the Protestants on these points is Mohammed. He also believes that the written message was corrupt, so he throws out not one or two, but all the books of the Bible, while keeping the gist of the stories of Genesis, Exodus, and the Virgin Birth. He also denies the sacraments. He also abolishes the priesthood and preaches a simplified version of the message.
Logically, if apostolic succession and so on are corruptions in the message, then the corruption happened independently to all branches, or happened at a point before the rather early point when they split. And if they split for reasons other than the reasons given by the Protestants, then the authority of the Protestants to split is fallacious: if the Protestants accept the authority of the first seven or so Ecumenical Councils, and take the council decisions to be authorized, then they cannot reject the decision of the Council of Trent.
As a purely legal or constitutional matter, if the Church for thousands of years in both eastern and western branches has accepted the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils and Synods as authoritative, and if there is no scriptural authority or traditional practice of disobeying or overruling them, Luther, an Augustinian monk, does not have the authority to declare himself superior to the Council of Trent, and able to overrule its findings.
Americans hold it as self-evident that governments are instituted among men to protect their rights, and when the government is harmful to those rights, the people have the authority and duty to overthrow the government and erect a new one. This is because Americans hold our rights to come from God Almighty, and the government is merely a human institution derived from human wisdom to attempt to safeguard these mighty gifts. But until the time of Luther, no Christian held that the Church was instituted of men by the wisdom of men, but was rather a divine and mystical body, instituted by Christ.
Whatever the other denominations may say must be decided on its own merit. The claims of the Mormons or Moonies or the Christians of Syria or Malabar has to be decided based on the content of those claims to authenticity. But just the nature of the message we call Christian teaching logically requires that the Protestant claim to be the sole and rightful messengers, based on books whose authenticity is attested to by a Church whose authority they reject, is illogical and impossible.
I have spoken only of Luther, but to my knowledge, all Protestant denominations accept sola scriptura and Luther’s redaction of the books of Tobit and Maccabeus and so on from the canon. All accept the claims that Christian tradition must and should be rejected as unchristian and unauthoritative if not supported by the Bible. However, the Bible itself does not anywhere authoritatively list which books are canonical, which are deutero-canonical, which are apocryphal, and which are heretical, nor does any book in the Bible give any measure or standard by which this determination is to be made.
But more oddly, the Protestants all agree with each other about which books to exclude. No version of the Bible among the Protestants accepts the Shepherd of Hermas, for example, or the Gospel of Thomas or the Apocalypse of Peter, albeit they all accept the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Esther.
The argument, if it were ever made, that Luther and Calvin and Wesley and Henry VIII and Ebion and Marcion (and whoever else) each one independently had the authority to determine which books were in the Bible, and each one went through a separate and independent procedure of determination, and each one came to the same conclusions and included the same books and epistles is simply ridiculous.
Historically speaking, what happened is that there were two canons of the Old Testament proposed by Jewish scholars and authorities. One was the Alexandrian canon, which predates the Incarnation, and is the one quoted by Christ. The other was compiled by the Pharisees a century or two after the Crucifixion. The Pharisees were scrupulous to exclude any books of the canon which they could not find in Hebraic (or Aramaic). So if there were only versions of, say, the Book of Maccabeus in Koinic, the Pharisees excluded it. This was the state of the best Jewish scholarship both when Jerome translated the scriptures into Latin, and, later, when Luther inquired of the Jews as to the authenticity of disputed book of the Old Testament. However, in the 1950′s the Dead Sea Scrolls reveals copies of at least some of the disputed books in their original Aramaic. And the Catholic and Orthodox churches have always accepted the Alexandrian canon.
The Lutherans were not being completely arbitrary, but neither was the argument being made in good faith, since one of the points of dispute between Luther and the Catholic Church was the legitimacy of prayers for the dead, which logically implies a purgatory or other intermediate condition aside from heaven or hell. The Book of Maccabeus contains references to Jews praying for the dead. The theologian who argues that scripture is the sole and sufficient source of all learning needed for salvation conveniently leaves out the scriptures that disagree with his pet theories.
Historically again, the final canon of the Bible was not established shortly after the messengers set out, but somewhere around the 500 A.D., after those first few Ecumenical Councils whose decision the Protestants accept, but whose authority they do not accept. And yet everything which the Protestants reject as corruptions, from the anointment of bishops to the consecration of the host to the adoration of Mary to prayers for the dead, are between one to four centuries older than that date, and there is no surviving record of any Christian ever doing things any other way.