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The Sins of Sodom

1 Jun

I suspect that were I to ask you what the sin of Sodom was, most of you would reply homosexuality.  However, that answer would be biblically incorrect.  Let me try to explain why.

Like most of you, I have heard sermons about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) – but oddly, I cannot recall ever hearing one about the parallel story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) – in which the preacher gives homosexuality as the reason for the cities’ destruction.  Yet such an interpretation ignores the context of the narrative and multiple other references in scripture, which we will examine later.  

But let us start with context.  There is a reason why the destruction of Sodom is in chapter 19, other than Abraham’s pleading for the city (so as to save his nephew Lot?), and that reason is to contrast the behaviour expected from the righteous with the evil of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is a technique commonly used in the Bible.

In Genesis 18 we read about how Abraham welcomed three strangers:

2Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.”  (Genesis 18:2-8).

But when we look at how the two angels, who had been entertained by Abraham, were received in Sodom, it was left to a foreigner (Lot) to show them the hospitality that was expected.  The men of Sodom were clearly less than happy that this outsider had given shelter to strangers and, thus, we read:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’ Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”  (Genesis 19:4-8)

Even though the offer by Lot of his virgin daughters suggests a sexual motive, the earliest Jewish commentators make no mention of homosexuality. According to the Talmud, the sin of the Sodomites was inhospitality.  But, as we shall see later, that was not their only sin.

The Talmud teaches that where there are two similar verses or parallel stories each should be used to interpret the other.  And in the case of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have a remarkably similar story, that of the Levite’s Concubine, in Judges Chapter 19.  For those of you unfamiliar with the story, let me give a brief summary. 

A stranger – a Levite – who has deliberately avoided staying in a Gentile town for fear of abuse, is given lodging by an elderly man who, though not a Benjaminite, is living in the town of Gibeah of Benjamin.  The men of the town come and demand that the visitor is turned over to them for sexual abuse and are offered the host’s virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine, the latter whom they abuse all night causing her death.  

Despite the similarities, I have been unable to find any commentary suggesting that the reason for the outrage perpetuated at Gibeah was due to homosexuality.  According to the Talmud, their sins were twofold: the first, as in Sodom, was inhospitality; the second was defiling the marriage bed, which made them adulterers. 

Of course, there are some fundamental differences between the stories. 

First, in the case of Sodom (which was not of the Covenant people anyway), the Law had not yet been given, so appealing to passages such as Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13 would be anachronistic, whereas, they most certainly applied to the men of Gibeah of Benjamin, as did Leviticus 20:10 which sets out the penalty for adultery.  However, Gibeah was not destroyed as Sodom was, although surely they, as part of God’s chosen people under the Law, were more culpable.

Second, God had already decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, long before the men of Sodom had their encounter with the visiting angels (Genesis 18:17), whereas it was an outraged Israel which demanded that the men from Gibeah be “put to death, and purge the evil from Israel” (Judges 20:13) in fulfilment of the Law of Moses.  The Benjaminites refusal to comply with the request that the malfeasants be handed over led to their near annihilation by the other tribes who had only decided to seek God’s will just before going into battle (Judges 20:18).  

But did these two crimes really arise from homosexual desire and practice? 

In the first case, it is usually assumed that the answer is ‘yes’, even though the intended gang rape did not actually take place and it is unknown whether the men of Sodom would have been satisfied with Lot’s daughters, in the way the men of Gibeah were with the Levite’s concubine, as the angels made them blind.  Furthermore, it does seem implausible that true homosexuals would be satisfied by the offer of a woman (in Gibeah) or women (in Sodom).
What is clear is that interpreting the sin of Sodom to be homosexual lust relies on reading more into the text than is actually there.

So what was going on? 

For many modern readers, sexual sins are deemed much more important in our culture than a lack of hospitality, something which, to the modern mind doesn’t warrant total destruction, not the way that homosexuality does.  But such a stance ignores the historical-cultural context of the passages.  While inhospitality is pretty unimportant in 21st century Western culture, it was immensely important in the time of Abraham and the Judges, and well beyond.  God specifically commands the Israelites not to “wrong or oppress a resident alien” (Exodus 22:21) and to “love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Let me, if I may, draw a parallel to these two Bible stories from recent history. 

During the Bosnian Conflict of the 1990s, many imprisoned Bosnian Muslim men (and women) were raped by their Serbian captors.  Was this erotic behaviour because the Serbian army was full of homosexuals?  Or maybe because the soldiers had been deprived of sex for many months?  Or was it quite simply gang rape?  If it was the last, rape, whether of men or women, is less about sexual gratification than about dominating and humiliating the victim.  And that, I suggest, was intention of the evil men in both Sodom and Gibeah.  The more usual interpretation requires that the percentage of homosexuals in the population of Sodom (and Gibeah) was far greater than it is in our own day, which is, to say the least, improbable.

So, now let us turn to the rest of Scripture to see how the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is portrayed. 

Though Sodom and Gomorrah are frequently mentioned by the prophets, nowhere do they associate the cities with homosexuality. 

Isaiah uses Sodom as a metaphor for Israel and their shameless sinning (Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:9) and as a warning of destruction for Babylon (Isaiah 13: 19-22).  Amos, echoing Isaiah, tells Israel that, despite overthrowing some of them like Sodom, they had not repented (Amos 4:11).

Jeremiah associates Sodom with adultery and lies (Jeremiah 23:14) and the destruction of Edom and Babylon (Jeremiah 49:17-18; 50:39-40).  Zephaniah uses similar comparisons for the destruction of Moab and the Ammonites (Zephaniah 2:9).

Ezekiel compares Jerusalem to Sodom saying,

48 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.

49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:48-50). 

If verse 49 details the true sin of Sodom, it should surely strike fear in the hearts of many of our politicians and wealth creators, who, all too often, are arrogantly indifferent to the poor and needy.  How much more comfortable it is to reduce the sin of Sodom to the minority of the population who are homosexual rather than confront our own failings!

Now, some have argued that the “detestable things” in verse 50 must refer to homosexuality because the Hebrew word used, ‘עשׂה (toebah), is the same as is used to describe homosexual sex in Leviticus 18:22 and, therefore, that must be the sin of Sodom.  However, their case would be much more convincing if the word ‘toebah’ (which usually has a ritual connotation) had been used in Genesis 18-19 or Judges 19-20, which, of course, it is not.   This begs the question, “How common is the word ‘toebah’ in the Bible?” 

If one looks at where and when the word ‘toebah’ is used in the Old Testament (it isn’t used in the New Testament), one finds that it occurs 112 times, of which 42 are in the book of Ezekiel, who used it 8 times alone in chapter 16 (verses 2, 22 , 36, 43, 47, 50, 51 and 58). Thus, by lifting verse 50 from the wider context of the rest of the chapter, so as to link it to homosexual sin on the basis of a single word (toebah), they ignore that which does not suit their agenda, namely that all the other references to ‘toebah’ in the chapter are to do with Jerusalem’s ritual idolatry and spiritual adultery.  In verse 50, it is clear that it refers back to “they did not help the poor and needy” in the previous verse, which was contrary to God’s clear command (eg Exodus 22:21-23; Exodus 23:6; Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 15:11) and a recurrent theme in the psalms and the prophets (eg Psalm 72:12-13; Psalm 82:3-4; Isaiah 58:6-7; Jeremiah 22:16; Ezekiel 22:29; Amos 8:4).

Turning to the New Testament, we see that, with the possible exception of one verse, it is not homosexuality that Sodom is condemned for.

Jesus is only recorded as referring to Sodom three times.  First, for those who are inhospitable to the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:14-15) or the 72 (Luke 10:10-12) whom Jesus has sent out ahead of him; second for Jewish cities that are impenitent (Matthew 11:20-24); and, third, in describing the end times (Luke 17:28-30).

When Peter describes the fate of false prophets, rather than focusing on the sin of Sodom, he emphasises the rescue of Lot – whom he calls a righteous man (2Peter 2:7-8) – which he sees as evidence of God’s protection and justice for the godly (2 Peter 2:9).

That leaves just one verse, Jude 7, which could possibly be interpreted as referring to homosexual lust.  However, such an interpretation, which relies on a superficial reading, becomes far from obvious when subjected to serious scrutiny.

First, interpreting the verse as a reference to homosexual lust relies on a circular argument.  The reason given for interpreting it this way is that homosexuality was the sin of Sodom and the sin of Sodom was homosexuality because that is what Jude says in verse 7 (often with the supposed support of Ezekiel 16:50, which, as we have seen, says nothing of the sort).  Such circularity in the argument obviously renders it deeply flawed.

Second, when we turn to the original Greek, we find that Jude did not use the common word for homosexual, ἀρσενοκοῖται  (arsenokoitai) which was used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:10 and 1 Timothy 1:10.  Surely, had Jude meant homosexual, he would have clearly said so.  Instead the phrase used in verse 7 is ἀπελθοῦσαι ὀπίσω σαρκὸς ἑτέρας (apelthousai opisō sarkos heteras) – literally “having gone beyond the different flesh” – which is not nearly as clear as the translation “pursued unnatural lust” suggests.  In fact, the Greek word heteras, which comes from the same root as the “hetero” in heterosexual, only appears twice in the New Testament; here in Jude 7 and in Hebrews 7:13 and has the meaning of different or strange – the exact opposite of  the Greek word “homo” (same).

Third, interpreting the verse as referring to homosexual lust requires isolating it from the rest of the letter.  The fact that the verse begins with the words ὅμοιον  τρόπον (homoion tropon) “in like manner”, indicates a link to the preceding verse, which refers to the fate of fallen angels.  Similarly, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is linked to the following verse which begins with Ὁμοίως  (Homoiōs ) “Likewise” and returns us to the theme of the errors of false teachers and God’s judgement on them which began in verse 5.

Given Jude’s use of the Jewish apocrypha (verse 9), the juxtaposition of fallen angels with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a logical progression (and is similar to the verses in 2 Peter 2).  According to Genesis 6:1-4, “the sons of God”, a phrase which is only used in the Old Testament to describe angels, married human women and it was the evil committed by their offspring which led to the Flood (Genesis 7-8).   It is easy to see how Jude might understand Sodom as a reverse of Genesis 6, in which evil men lusted after good angels, even though their intentions were ultimately thwarted.

Thus, the most logical interpretation of Jude 7, when read in context and in parallel with 2 Peter 2, is his stress on the destruction of Sodom for its sexual immorality rather than homosexuality. 

Of course, none of what I have said rules out the possibility that homosexual lust was one, among many, of the sins committed by the Sodomites.   However, once the whole of the Bible is taken into account, it does discount homosexual lust being the principal sin for which the cities of the plain were destroyed.

So, to conclude, what are we to learn from these two passages of scripture?

Irrespective of what their sins were, the price paid by Sodom and Gomorrah was complete destruction, while the tribe of Benjamin suffered near annihilation rendering them the “smallest of the tribes of Israel” (1 Samuel 9:21).  For me, the most important lesson of both these stories is that God takes sin very seriously and so should we.

Jonestown Revisited

18 Nov

Some of you will, no doubt, remember with horror the shocking event which occurred 40 years ago today. On 18th November, 1978, over 900 people, a third of them minors (including babies), died in what has come to be known as the Jonestown massacre.  But how could a progressive church famed for its humanitarian work and led by a widely respected pastor, who had dined with the First Lady (Rosalyn Carter) and flown with the Vice-President (Walter Mondale) in his private jet[1], come to such a tragic end?   For readers of 2 Peter 2, the writing had always been on the wall.

James (Jim) Warren Jones was born in the town of Lynn (Indiana) on 13th May, 1931, and preached his first sermon to a group of children when he was just 12 years old.[2]  He married Marceline Baldwin, a local nurse, when he was 18, and they remained together until their deaths in 1978.  He dropped out of Indiana University after just one year so as to concentrate on preaching, but obtained a degree in secondary education through studying at night school.

Despite not having any theological training, Jim Jones became a pastor in a Methodist Church, but left following a dispute over doctrine (v 15).  He then founded his own Church, which was racially integrated (long before such a thing was acceptable), and emphasised “practical Christianity” in the form of a soup kitchen and two nursing homes.  Furthermore, he and his wife (both white) adopted a Korean orphan and two black children.  He legitimated his ministry by affiliating his Church, by now known as the People’s Temple, with the Disciples of Christ, which “allowed him to say that he was an officially ordained member of a 1.4-million-member denomination[3].

However, things started to go badly wrong after he attended a spiritualist meeting and began to believe in reincarnation. He also began to outline supposed errors and contradictions in the Bible, which would not deceive a mature Christian but which could easily disturb those new to the faith, and used them to denounce the Bible as an “idol” (v 1).

Jones, who insisted that his followers call him “Dad” (contrary to the teaching of Jesus – Matthew 23:9), eventually came to believe that he was God’s “heir on earth” (v3).  “Central to Jones’s appeal were his displays of mind reading and faith healing[4] – all of which were fake (v 18) – which he used to attract new members and larger donations.  At the time of his death, Jones was estimated to be worth 26 million dollars, most of which was in overseas bank accounts (1 Timothy 6:10).

In 1964, Jones prophesied that there would be a nuclear war on 15th July, 1967 and “Many gave up everything to follow him from Indiana to Northern California where he assured them that they would be safe”.[5]  In 1970, he opened a new Temple in San Francisco and another “Temple” in Los Angeles two years later.  In 1974, his first failed prophecy having been forgotten, Jones prophesied that a great persecution was about to begin.  A couple years later, many fled with him to land in the Amazon jungle, which the movement had purchased for $1 million, to escape the impending persecution.

Jones, who was by now becoming drug dependent and increasingly paranoid (v 19), offered his followers freedom from non-existent threats while keeping his followers oppressed.  “While the Peoples Temple was active in humanitarian causes in its communities, Jones’s treatment of his followers was often less than humane.”[6]

Jones maintained control through family separation, interrogation sessions, regular humiliation, ritualistic beatings of children and blackmail.  “Many were coerced or brainwashed into signing over their possessions—including their homes—to the church.”[7]  Not surprisingly, members feared Jones, who sought to keep them in sexual bondage by breaking-up partnerships and not only encouraging, but expecting, “sexual preference for himself from both men and women”.[8]

False prophets like Jones despise authority (v 10) while demanding obedience even to death from their followers.  Jones devised a ritual, which he called “White Night”, in which he would “order his followers to drink an unknown liquid and syringe some into their children’s mouths, telling them that death would follow in 45 minutes.[9]  When the 45 minutes had elapsed, Jones would tell them that it was to test their loyalty to the cause.

Members, who were encouraged to inform on one another, were kept in a state of exhaustion, psychological isolation and poverty, which made defection difficult enough in the USA but nigh impossible in the Guyanese jungle[10], where the camp was patrolled by an armed security team.

The few who did manage to leave told of their experiences and claimed they had been threatened with reprisals; some were reported to have “died mysteriously” [11] soon after their escape. Though there were a few stories in the press, nobody took the rumours very seriously, except for one politician, Democrat Congressman Leo Ryan, who decided to investigate them himself and was given an invitation to visit Jonestown.

Ryan, accompanied by journalists, lawyers and relatives of members of the cult, flew to Georgetown (the capitol of Guyana) on 14th November and visited Jonestown on the 17th, where they were fêted by smiling and dancing cult members,[12] though tapes later recovered showed that Jones had carefully rehearsed the whole display.  All seemed to be going well until Ryan and his entourage came to leave the next morning, when a grandmother “begged Ryan to get her out[13] and 20 others made a similar plea.  They all left on Ryan’s truck, despite one of Jones’s aides trying to stab Ryan, and headed for the airfield, where they were caught by some of the Temple’s security team who shot and killed Ryan, 3 journalists and 3 defectors and wounded 11 others.[14]

Jones then gathered his followers around him and told them that Ryan’s plane was going to be shot down and that “they” (which his followers would have understood to mean the CIA or mercenaries) would parachute in seeking revenge.[15]  As in previous “White Night” ceremonies, a vat of fruit drink was brought in, but this time it was laced with cyanide and barbiturates.  Parents dutifully syringed the liquid into the mouths of their babies and children before drinking it themselves. Death occurred within 5 minutes.  Jones died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  “Fewer than 100 of the Temple members in Guyana survived the massacre; the majority of survivors either had defected that day or were in Georgetown.”[16]

Behind Jones’ chair was a sign that said: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.[17] But how can we avoid repeating such a tragedy?

For the wider church, it highlights the importance of oversight of pastors, both within the church and independently from without, which would have identified that the church was becoming a dangerous cult.

It also points to the necessity of pastors having sufficient theological training, the lack of which allowed Jones to interpret the Bible to suit his own purposes and ambitions, before ditching it entirely.

Furthermore, churches (mainly within the charismatic and evangelical traditons), in which respect for the pastor (a right and fitting thing which should be met with humility) becomes twisted into an authoritarian demand for blind obedience, are at greater risk of being led astray.

As individuals, the only way to avoid falling victim to such false prophets is to humbly ground ourselves in the Word of God through daily reading and study (2 Timothy 3:16-17), testing every spirit (1 John 4:1) and “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2), who alone is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).


[1] Butterworth, John (1981), The People’s Temple, “Cults and New Faiths”, Tring, Herts: Lion Publishing, p37

[2] Ibid. p36

[3] Ibid. p36

[4] The Jonestown Massacre, Encyclopaedia Britannica,  accessed 28/10/2018

[5] Butterworth, John (1981), p36

[6] The Jonestown Massacre, Encyclopaedia Britannica

[7] Ibid.

[8] Butterworth, John (1981), p37

[9] Ibid. p36

[10] Ibid. p37

[11] Ibid. p37

[12] Ibid. p37

[13] Ibid. p37

[14] The Jonestown Massacre, Encyclopaedia Britannica

[15] Butterworth, John (1981), p37

[16] The Jonestown Massacre, Encyclopaedia Britannica

[17] Butterworth, John (1981), p37


Additional Sources:

Wikipedia, Jonestown  and both accessed 28/10/2018

Bible Gateway: New Revised Standard Version (Anglicised)  accessed 28/10/2018

Black Friday: the Weeklong Day

23 Nov

How many people in Spain had heard of Black Friday a decade ago?  I had through my American relations and then through its stealthy creeping into England, but when I came to Spain some 9 years ago it was not a part of the run up to Christmas.  Though other aspects of US cultural imperialism like “Trick or Treat” and Santa Claus (both purveyors of manipulation and greed) had made their presence felt, the Christmas lights did not go up until early December and sales were safely consigned to January.

Yet over the last 4 or 5 years Black Friday has steadily been gaining traction in Spain, where it has become a weeklong festival of buying, even though the discounts are often not that great.  But a bargain is a bargain, even if we don’t need it, right?

Advertisers, in pursuit of mythical ever-rising profits, constantly bombard us with the message that in order to be happy we have to accumulate more and more possessions; must always upgrade to the latest model; buy the products endorsed by our favourite celebs; and rubbing our neighbours faces in it when they can’t keep up:  Black Friday is our chance to steal a march on them.

Yet, for the majority of folk in the developed world, “Working long hours to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t care about.” (Dave Ramsey) has become the norm.  This strikes me to be a perspicacious evaluation of life in the 21st century.

Black Friday – like its on-line counterpart, Cyber Monday – is symptomatic of our age, the Material Age, in which people are judged more by what they have than by who they are; more by vain words than by actual deeds; where the financial rewards of the “money men” far exceed that of surgeons, teachers or scientists; and where greed for material things has been recast as a virtue.

While it may be that “Money makes the world go round”, Mammon is a heartless god who can never be satisfied and the supposed gains of our greed, as with all such delusions, are but transitory: none shall pass through the grave.

Yet there is a small band of people who counterculturally eschew this American lifestyle export by boycotting vendors who have “Black Friday” sales or by foregoing shopping entirely on that particular Friday.

Jesus warned, “…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21).  Where is your heart going to be on Black Friday?

Sigue y sirve

1 May

Si la meta de la vida cristiana es estar con Dios en el cielo, el propósito es sigue y sirve.

Siga y sirva antes de entender, sólo porque Jesús, que tiene las “palabras de vida eterna” (Juan 6:68b), nos llamó.

Siga y sirva sin miedo del infierno ni el incentivo del cielo, sino porque hemos sido llamado.

Siga y sirva “con todo tu corazón, con toda tu alma, con toda tu mente y con todas tus fuerzas” (Marcos 12: 30), “puestos los ojos en Jesús, el autor y consumador de la fe” (Hebreos 12:2a), presentando tu cuerpo “en sacrificio vivo, santo, agradable a Dios” (Romanos 12:1b).

Siga y sirva con confianza en Jesús en que “todas las promesas de Dios son en él Sí” (2 Corintios 1:20a)

Mientras el propósito puede ser sencillo, no es fácil de hacer. 

Si sigues y sirves el Señor, tienes que perdonar “De la manera que Cristo os perdonó.” (Colosenses 3:13b), no sólo una vez “sino aun hasta setenta veces siete” (Mateo 18:22).

Además, tienes que amar “su prójimo como si mismo” Marcos 12:31a) “no por vanagloria; antes bien con humildad, estimando cada uno a los demás como superiores a él mismo; no mirando cada uno por lo suyo propio, sino cada cual también por lo de otros.” (Filipenses 2:3-4); y no sólo su prójimo, pero también sus enemigos y los hace bien (Lucas 6:27-28; Romanos 12:20-21).

No estamos llamados a juzgar otra gente (Lucas 6:37), pero para “hacer justicia, y amar misericordia, y humillarte ante tu Dios” (Miqueas 6:8b).

Aunque esto es difícil, no es imposible, porque Dios no nos ha dejado solos, nos ha dado el Espíritu Santo (Juan 14:25) para guiarnos y llevarnos a una relación más profunda con Él.

Dios os bendiga

The Myth of Santa Claus

23 Dec

Let’s start by stating a simple fact: Santa Claus is an entirely American invention and cultural export which has been popularised through American Literature, Hollywood film and advertising (eg Coca-Cola™).

The modern Santa Claus has nothing to do with the Dutch Sinterklass (Santa Claus coming from low German) and little to do with the much older Father Christmas tradition. Most of Santa Claus’ attributes were contrived from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” (a hotchpotch of largely unrelated anthropological data).

Yet, the popularity of Santa Claus owes as much to politics (the desire to reduce English cultural influences following Independence) and the national spirit of consumerism as it does to the schmaltz of Hollywood Christmas films and Moore’s poem.

If we contrast Sinterklass (St Nicolas) with Santa Claus, though both are said to bring gifts to children (as do the Three Kings in Mediterranean countries), they are completely different.

Sinterklass is a bishop (with a basis in real history), who supposedly lives in Spain whence he arrives on a steamship; he rides through the streets on a white horse during the day, and is aided by a black servant Zwarte Piet; he distributes his gifts on the eve of 6th December (the feast day of St Nicolas).

Santa Claus is a magical being with no historical basis, who supposedly lives at the North Pole, where he is aided by an army of elves; Santa rides a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer during the night of Christmas Eve and, mimicking Father Christmas, he distributes his gifts on 24th December.

Likewise, despite the much more ancient Father Christmas having been assimilated into the modern Santa Claus as though they were one and the same, contrasting Father Christmas’  original form with that of Santa Claus highlights significant differences between them.

Father Christmas was a personification of Christmas who was traditionally associated with adult revelry and drinking (showing his older pagan origins); with beneficence of feudal landlords to their tenants; and, later, with charitable giving to the poor. He had absolutely nothing to do with children or gift giving.

Santa Claus, who is seen as being not so much the personification of Christmas as of the “magic of Christmas”, is entirely associated with gift giving, and especially gift giving to children through the filling of their Christmas stockings. Some organisations (eg the Salvation Army, Rotary Club) dress their street collectors in Santa outfits in the run up to Christmas in an attempt to increase giving.

So what we have, in our time, is a Santa Claus who is a corrupted amalgamation of much older traditions, moulded by materialism and forged by infantile fantasy.

Santa – an anagram of Satan – only encourages selfish greed and (ever more elaborate) lying. His purpose, guised as a generous, harmless old man, is to divert attention away from the Christ Child and the mystery of the Incarnation.  Yet, without Christ there can be no Christ´s mass, just a celebration of the Winter Solstice, in which the rebirth of the sun is substituted for the birth of God’s only Son, with overindulgence and the accumulation of often wholly unnecessary possessions being the order of the day.

Why I Could Never Become a Catholic – Part 6: The Papacy

26 Oct

Roman Catholics claim that the Pope is, through an unbroken line of apostolic succession, the heir to the first “Bishop of Rome”. They further assert that that first Bishop was none other than St Peter the Apostle, to whom, they maintain, Jesus entrusted his church, thus making him the chief apostle.

This supposed supremacy gained an apparent legal status from forged documents that the Roman Catholic Church knowingly used for centuries despite their being known to be false. Out of these claims arose the dogma that the church is protected from “sliding into the error of heresy” through papal infallibility.

But such claims, as we shall see, are not substantiated in either the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Early Church or Ecclesiastical history.

So let us start by examining what the Roman Catholic Church says on the subject.

1.Consequently, we declare state, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Papal Bull, Unam Sanctam, (18th November, 1302)

2.We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord.” The First Vatican Council, chapter 1

3.and so, supported by the clear witness of holy Scripture, and adhering to the manifest and explicit decrees both of our predecessors the Roman Pontiff’s and of general councils, we promulgate anew the definition of the ecumenical Council of Florence, which must be believed by all faithful Christians, namely that the apostolic see and the Roman Pontiff hold a worldwide primacy, and that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the Prince of the apostles, true Vicar of Christ, head of the whole church and father and teacher of all Christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our Lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal Church. All this is to be found in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons.” The First Vatican Council, chapter 3.

The catechism of the Catholic Church states the following:

4.Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Our Lord then declared to him: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Christ, the “living Stone”, thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death. Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it.” (CCC 552)

5.The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are ‘authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice.’ The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for.” (CCC 2034)

Thus, the whole edifice stands or falls on a) whether Matthew 16 – the only place that Jesus made the declaration to Peter – is interpreted correctly or not; and b) whether Peter was ever Bishop of Rome.

But before we examine the scriptural claim we must first dispose of the Papal Bull, Unam Sanctam.

In Unam Sanctam the Roman Catholic Church yet again imposes conditions on salvation that are not biblical. The condition that “every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” is heretical and distracts the Catholic faithful from true salvation, which is dependent on faith in Christ alone, by making them subject to whatever the papacy decides is necessary for salvation, irrespective of the Word of God. In addition, through this requirement, the papacy has usurped God’s place as the ultimate judge of all humankind, condemning all non-Catholics to perdition on the basis of a man-made doctrine.

These are the actions, not of holy men, but of despots who fear losing temporal power (as we shall see later).

A. The Primacy of Peter as Supreme Apostle

The catechism justifies Peter’s holding first place by citing the listing of the 12 disciples in Mark 3: 16, in which (like the other synoptic listings[1]) Peter is the first named. This in itself is weak evidence, given that all the synoptic gospels state that Jesus first called Peter and Andrew and then James and John, thus it is natural that he heads the list and that he, with James and John (who may have been cousins of Jesus) form Jesus’ inner circle[2] (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14.33) . St John’s Gospel, however, tells us that the first disciple was Andrew, who brought his brother Simon to Jesus, who, on seeing him, named him Cephas, which is translated as Peter (John 1:42). Thus, if John is correct, Simon bore the name Peter from the outset and not just after his divinely inspired revelation of the true identity of Jesus as suggested by Matthew.

They also justify their claim of primacy in that Jesus appeared to Peter before the rest of the 12:

34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)

5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (I Corinthians 15:5)

Given the corroboration of St Paul in I Corinthians 15, we can assume that the Simon mentioned is Peter (and not Simon the Zealot), but given that it is inserted at the end of the account of the appearance of Jesus to two men on the road to Emmaus, it is not clear whether the appearance preceded their meeting or not. Thus, the evidence for primacy here is weak at best.

Moreover, according to St John, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18); and that is corroborated by St Matthew who reports that the first appearance was to “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matthew 28:9-10)) before any of the 12. Thus if we were to follow the Catholic argument to its logical conclusion, Mary Magdalene had primacy over the 12 disciples.

While it may be that during Christ’s ministry, Peter had a precedence (albeit with James and John) through his impetuousness, this did not last long into the post Ascension period as the early church moved from being entirely Jewish to largely gentile.

St Paul refers to the “acknowledged pillars” of the early church, as “James and Cephas and John” (Galatians 2: 9). Here we see a triumvirate – James the Brother of Jesus; Peter, Apostle to the Jews; and St John the Evangelist  – offering the “right hand of fellowship” to Paul and Barnabas for their work with the Gentiles. Later in the same chapter (Galatians 2:11-14) St Paul rebukes St Peter, suggesting that he had risen in the eyes of the church to a similar status: Apostle to the Gentiles.

Surely, if Peter were supreme among the Apostles he would have been mentioned first by Paul instead of James; and surely Peter would have made the final decision and not James, the brother of Jesus, at the Council of Jerusalem had he been the supreme apostle (Acts 15:19).

Surprisingly, the Catholic Church did not make use of Matthew 16:18 until the mid-third century.  The first pope to have appealed to the classic “you are Peter” text as the basis for Roman primacy was Pope Stephen I (254-257). But does his claim have any validity?

Let us do a little exegesis on the key verses in Matthew 16 – the context for which is that Jesus had been asking his disciples who people thought he was – in which Peter made his declaration that Jesus is the Messiah.

17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’” (Matthew 16:17-19)

First, the promise contained in verse 18, on which the Catholic claim for the papacy is predicated, is not found in the earlier synoptic Gospels of Mark (8:27-39) or Luke (9:18-27). Catholics claim this is because Peter was too humble to allow Mark to include it (though this is not a plausible pretext given that the Gospel did not appear until after the martyrdom of Peter (and Paul)) and that Luke suppressed it for fear of persecution (equally unlikely given the early Christian view of martyrdom). These claims are even more improbable if Matthew wrote his Gospel first as many Catholics still claim (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary).

Second, when we look at the Greek text of Matthew 16, we notice something odd in verse 18 that is not obvious in our English translations.

κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.

Notice the two underlined words Πέτρος (Petros) and πέτρα (petra) are of a different gender and, thus, have a related but different meaning. The first, Petros (masculine), which was the name given to Peter by Christ, refers to a large, moveable stone, whereas the second, petra (feminine) refers to bedrock; ie the former can be shaken loose (like the rocks in a landslide), while the second is fixed and immovable (like the Rock of Gibraltar). In the New Testament, apart from in John 1:42 to which we’ll come in a moment, Petros is only used as the name for Peter.

As in English, there is no distinction in Aramaic which has just a single word, Kipha, for rock. This is the root of the word used by Jesus on first meeting Peter:

42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’” (which is translated Peter). John 1:42

In the Greek text of John 1:42, the word Κηφᾶς (Kephas) is translated as Πέτρος (Petros) to elucidate its meaning. However, appealing to the Aramaic, as Catholics are wont to do, is pointless in the case of Matthew 16:18 as the text is entirely in Greek and there is no Hebrew version extant (if ever one existed, which itself is moot).

So why would Matthew – and remember this verse is only to be found in Matthew – record this distinction if Jesus had not made it? Could it be that Jesus used the masculine form, not just because Peter was a man, but because he knew Peter’s impetuous and unstable character (Mark 8:32-34; Matthew 14:29-30; Luke 22:57-58; Galatians 2:11-14)? This is more plausible to my mind that the Catholic explanation.

But if Jesus was not referring to Peter when he used petra, to whom was he alluding? To answer this question one has to examine how the word rock is used elsewhere in the Bible.

In the Old Testament the word rock is often used to describe God (eg Deuteronomy 32:4; II Samuel 22:2-3; Psalm 18:2,31, 46; Psalm 78:35; Isaiah 17:10; Isaiah 44:8; Habakkuk 1:12) but never used to describe any human.

In the New Testament, apart from Matthew 16, petra (or one of its declensions) only occurs 5 other times, two of which (Mark 15:46, Matthew 27:60) refer to Jesus’ tomb as being hewn from solid rock (petra); and three of which are used to refer to Christ:

4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock (petras) that followed them, and the rock (petra) was Christ. (I Corinthians 10:4)

33 as it is written, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock (petran) that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’” (Romans 9:33)

8 and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock (petra) that makes them fall.’”
(I Peter 2:8a).

Thus, it would be entirely inconsistent with the rest of scripture for petra to refer to Peter and the most logical conclusion is that Jesus was referring to himself using a well known Old Testament title for God that signified absolute protection and salvation, against which “gates of Hades will not prevail”.

Augustine of Hippo, having initially taken the traditional Catholic view seems to have realised his error as he writes:

For it was not said to him, ‘Thou art the rock.’(petra), but ‘Thou art Peter.’ (Petros). For Christ was the rock whom Simon confessing, as the whole Church confesses Him.” (Retractions 1:21)[3]

Moving on to Matthew 16:19:

19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind (δήσῃς – dēsēs) on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose (λύσῃς – lysēs) on earth will be loosed in heaven.’”

The Catholic Church sees this as being further confirmation that Peter was the supreme disciple as the words “you bind” and “you loose” are rendered in the singular in Greek. Yet this promise is not exclusive to Peter, which is what one would expect were he to be the supreme apostle.

Origen (an early 3rd century Church Father) in his exegesis of these verses says:

“But if you suppose that upon that on Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, ‘The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’, hold in regard to all and in the case of each of them? And also the saying, ‘Upon this rock I will build My church’? Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them?” [Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Book XII, 11]

His contemporary, Cyprian of Carthage, seems to agree as he writes in his First Treatise, On the Unity of the Church:

Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity[4].” (Chapter 4)

St John Chrysostom (a fourth century theologian, whose authority is widely accepted by both the Eastern and Western churches) concurs as he describes St John in the following manner:

For the son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master’s bosom with much confidence…” [Homily on the Gospel of St John 1:2].

Clearly, as late as the 4th century, it was believed that all the apostles, and not just Peter alone, were granted the “keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And indeed, just two chapters later, in Matthew 18, where we find Jesus talking to all twelve disciples, we have scriptural backing for their teaching as we read in verse 18:

18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind (δήσητε – dēsēte) on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose (λύσητε – lysēte) on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Notice the change of the form of the verbs for bind and loose from the singular in Matthew 16:19 to the plural in Matthew 18:18. This binding and loosing – just as was the forgiveness or retention of sins (John 20:23) – clearly was granted to all the Disciples equally, and by extension, through his calling to be Apostle to the Gentiles, to St Paul also.

But what exactly did Jesus mean by binding and loosing, which The Jewish New Testament renders as “prohibit” and “permit”?

In rabbinic teaching, questions of Law were decided by whether Jews had to be bound by the letter of the Law or could be loosed from their strictures because of a special circumstance. Jesus used this rabbinic style in his teaching. For example, He bound his disciples not to judge others (Matthew 7:1-5) but loosed His followers from the strict observance of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). Thus, there is responsibility to decide any ethical issues that may arise through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in the light of the Gospel of Christ so that God is glorified. Quite a challenge for an entire church, let alone one man! Hence, in the early church at Jerusalem, we find the three “acknowledged pillars” supported by a Council (Acts 15).

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find any evidence that Peter ruled over any of the other apostles, nor anywhere in Scripture do any of the other apostles or Gospel writers refer to him that way.

Moreover, if Jesus had truly appointed Peter the head of the apostles, he surely would have said so when the disciples were arguing who was the greatest among them (Mark 9:33-34; Luke 22:24-30; Matthew 18:1[5]). Yet Jesus makes no mention of Peter (or any other disciple), but instead tells them how greatness is measured in the Kingdom of Heaven:

“‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” (Mark 9:35b-37)[6]

This was a lesson that Jesus reinforced in a most memorable fashion during the last supper when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). The Son of God took on the role of a humble slave – how different from the pomp and splendour of the papacy!

The Catholic Encyclopaedia in its article on “Infallibility” cites Luke 22:31-32 in defence of Peter’s supposed supremacy, and thus the infallibility of “his successors”,claiming:

This special prayer of Christ was for Peter alone in his capacity as head of the Church, as is clear from the text and context; and since we cannot doubt the efficacy of Christ’s prayer, it followed that to St. Peter and his successors the office was personally committed of authoritatively confirming the brethren — other bishops, and believers generally — in the faith; and this implies infallibility.”

Despite their assertions to the contrary, it is they who have lifted the verses from their context.  The preceding verses treat all the apostles equally (verse 30 ending “and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.“) with no special mention of Peter having any greater status than the other 11; the succeeding verses (35 – 38) give instructions for the future to all twelve apostles.

The assumption that Christ prayed for Peter as “in his capacity as Head of the Church” is highly debatable.  Though Christ is indeed head of the church, at the point Christ prayed for Peter, there was no “church” to head.  It is much more probable that Jesus was praying for his impetuous and unstable friend, who He knew would, despite his bluster to the contrary, deny Him not once but thrice.

The next phrase, on which the Encyclopaedia so relies, “when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32), need not suppose any special leadership over his fellow apostles, but rather, through his greater fall and restoration, being better able to help them to be stronger in their following of the Risen Christ than they had been when they fled.

Furthermore, part of the fulfilment of that prayer was Jesus’ threefold restoration of Peter (John 21:15-19), which, though the Catholic Encyclopaedia claims it as another marker of Peter’s special status as the supreme authority, does not imply (let alone state) that Peter alone would feed the sheep (as noted elsewhere, the Apostle John outlived Peter by many years and the Apostle Paul left more of our New Testament than either of them).

Thus, all the evidence from the Gospels is that Peter had no special commission from Christ to lead the Church and must beg the question as to whether Peter saw himself as supreme apostle or head of the church.

When we look at the writings of Peter, nowhere does he refer to himself in that way – indeed, the opposite is true as in 1 Peter 5:1 he writes:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a co-elder…”

Surely if Peter were the supreme apostle he would have declared it here, if not at the start of his two letters, in which he describes himself as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” (1 Peter 1:1) and “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,” (2 Peter 1:1), which is similar to the way St Paul opens most of his letters (cf Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1: 1; Galatians 1: 1; Ephesians 1: 1; Colossians 1: 1; 1 Timothy 1: 1; Titus 1: 1).

Thus, it appears that these claims of supremacy do not have their warrant in Scripture but come from a tradition that post dates the time of Peter and Paul, who were, according to Catholic tradition, both martyred in Rome.

So let us now see whether there is any warrant in the claim that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome.

B. Peter as the first Bishop of Rome

First it should be noted that the role of apostle, by its very nature, was itinerant and missiological and thus wholly incompatible with the office of bishop, which was (and is) territorial and gubernatorial.

Second, there was no agreement in the terms used to describe church leaders in the time of the Apostles or even immediately after, ie during the period of the Early Church Fathers. While the terms bishops (overseers) and deacons (I Timothy 3:1-13) increasingly came to be used, the terms presbyters (elders), pastors and presidents were also common (see Justin Apology 1 65-66; 1 Clement).

Neither Clement of Rome (who is claimed by the Catholic Church as an episcopal successor to St Peter) in his letter to the Corinthians (c 96 ad), nor Ignatius of Antioch in his Epistle to Rome (c 108 ad), give any evidence of there being a monarchical bishop in Rome.

Clement opens his letter in the following manner:

The Church of God which sojourneth in Rome to the Church of God which sojourneth in Corinth, to them which are called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace from Almighty God through Jesus Christ be multiplied.” (1 Clement, Prologue:1).

Surely had he been Bishop of Rome he would have said so in his greeting, but he does not. He merely writes from one church to another, without any claim of superiority of supremacy. Nor is there any mention of a single ruling bishop, either in Rome or in Corinth, in the remainder of the Epistle.

Likewise, Ignatius of Antioch, who was a monarchical bishop, names other monarchical bishops (most frequently Polycarp of Smyrna) in the eight epistles he wrote shortly before his martyrdom, addressing the letters to them by name or office. Yet his Epistle to the Romans has no mention of any bishop by name or office.

Thus, while there is evidence of monarchical bishops in Jerusalem in the 1st century ad (“James, the first that had obtained the episcopal seat in Jerusalem after the ascension of our Saviour..”,[ Eusebius Church History] – which explains his supremacy at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and why he alone of the “acknowledged pillars” remained in Jerusalem) and in Asia Minor in the early 2nd century (eg Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch), the evidence from the Apostolic Fathers very strongly suggests that there was no office of bishop in Rome at this time.

The reason for this difference between Rome and Asia Minor lies in the different organisational structures of the Jewish synagogues that would have sheltered the fledgling churches. In Antioch the synagogues and early churches were centrally organised, whereas in Rome the synagogues were independent, appointed their own leaders and conducted their own worship. It is natural that the first churches would have adopted familiar rather than novel organisational structures.

Despite there being little biblical evidence of Peter’s apostolic ministry, the Catholic writer SK Ray in his book “Upon this Rock” (published 1999) describes Peter’s supposed apostolic ministry in the following manner:

42-49 First sojourn in Rome…
54-57 Second sojourn in Rome; Gospel of Mark written under Peter’s direction…
62-67 Third sojourn in Rome; canonical Epistles of Peter…
67 Martyrdom in Rome and burial near the Necropolis at the Vatican

But is there any shred of evidence to support Ray’s assertions?

The earliest mention of Peter and Paul as joint founders of the Roman Church first appears in the late 2nd century in a list of bishops compiled by Iraeneus of Lyons; and Peter and Paul’s being martyred on opposite sides of the Tiber first occurs in the writings of Origen of Alexandria (early 3rd century).

While Paul’s presence in Rome is attested (Acts 28:14-31), there is no such scriptural evidence of Peter’s having been in Rome[7], let alone his being martyred there. While Clement refers to Peter’s martyrdom he gives no indication that it was in Rome (1 Clement 5:4). Indeed the only sources that make this claim prior to the late 2nd century are apocryphal and of dubious validity. Neither is it supported archaeologically, as the man who found the alleged tomb of St Peter in Rome doubts its veracity. Further contrary archaeological evidence is contained in the book “Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit” written by P. B. Bagatti and J. T. Milik (both Roman Catholic priests) and published in 1958, which describes the discovery of the grave of Simon Bar-Jona in Jerusalem, close by those of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Pope Pius XII was cognizant of the fact but he, and his six successors, have not seen fit to either deny or acknowledge it.

Again, had Peter been the founder of the Roman church and Bishop of Rome, Paul would surely have mentioned him in his Epistle to the Romans or in his second letter to Timothy, which was written from Rome during his second incarceration. Yet, he does not (though he mentions 27 others in Romans 16!). Even more to the point, it is implausible that Luke, careful historian that he was, would not have reported the fact in the closing chapter of Acts. Yet Luke’s account makes no mention of Peter but instead writes that when Paul called the Leaders of the Jews together they informed him:

21…We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you. 22 But we desire to hear from you what you think; for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere.” 23 So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening” (Acts 28:21-23)

It is utterly inconceivable that Peter, the Apostle to the Jews, would not have preached to the synagogues of Rome and so the most logical conclusion is that Peter had never visited Rome prior to Paul’s arrival. Hence, he could not have possibly founded the Church of Rome.

Neither could Paul have been the founder of the Church in Rome as he writes:

20 Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written,

‘Those who have never been told of him shall see,
and those who have never heard of him shall understand.’

22 This is the reason that I have so often been hindered from coming to you. 23 But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24 when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.” (Romans 15:20-24)

Thus, there must have been churches there prior to his arrival or he could not have written to them; a fact which is corroborated by Luke :

“15 The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.” (Acts 28:15)

Interestingly, Clement of Rome (who would have known Paul) throws doubt on Paul’s martyrdom being in Rome as he writes:

…and come to the extreme limit of the West, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.” (1 Clement 5:6).

In no wise could Rome have been described as “the extreme limits of the West”, and surely had the martyrdom been in Rome, Clement would have written under the Senate or the Emperor and not “under the prefects”.

Therefore, given that neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church of Rome and its being unclear that either of them was actually martyred there, it is hard to see why Rome should have precedence over the more ancient churches of Jerusalem, Antioch or Samaria.

Moreover, if Rome had held such a special position in the early church, surely the Apostle John (the longest lived of all the apostles), whose writings encouraged true Christians to faithfulness, would have written of its importance to the faithful under his care.

Yet, the scriptural evidence from St John is the polar opposite. In his Revelation he refers to Rome as “Babylon the great” describing her as a wanton fornicator, out of which the people of God should flee (Revelation 18:2-5); and as “the great whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication”, who will fall under divine judgement to avenge “the blood of his servants” (Revelation 19:2).

This description of Rome is in stark contrast to the description of Jerusalem two chapters further on:

…the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” and as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:2,9b)

Clearly, for the Apostle John, it is Jerusalem and not Rome, which is the holy city and, as the Orthodox Churches claim, “The Mother of all Churches”.

Thus, as we have seen there is no primacy for Peter or for Rome in either scripture or early Church History; rather both scripture and the first Christians point us in the opposite direction, leading us to conclude that it is just another man-made tradition – based on the kind “profane myths and old wives’ tales” that Paul warned Timothy about (I Timothy 4:7) – to promote power for the Roman pontificate.

That being the case, how did the Church in Rome manage to propagate and maintain such folklore?

C. Fake Foundations and Forgeries

It should be remembered that history and biography in the first centuries after Christ incorporated legend as well as fact and so must be treated differently from modern biography and history. Though their accuracy is in doubt, it does not mean that the writers necessarily set out to deceive but merely acted in accordance with the practices of their age. That said, however, there were also deliberate forgeries on which the Papacy relied long after they had been exposed as fraudulent.

With competing claims from other churches, it became important to trace the Roman See back to Peter[8] so as to justify Rome’s supposed supremacy. But whence came the list of “popes” – though the title “Pope” was not used until over two centuries later when it was adopted by Siricius (384-399 ad) and the title only became restricted to the “Bishop of Rome” by an edict of Pope Gregory VI in 1073 – between Peter and the first clearly identifiable Bishop of Rome, Anicetus (c 157 ad)?

The earliest verifiable list of popes dates from the writings of Iraeneus of Lyons in his “Against Heresies” (III 3:3) at the end of the 2nd century. The list contains names but no dates. His source is unknown but possibly was Hegesippus[9] , who had lived a half century earlier. Moreover, Iraeneus is the first to claim the joint founding of “the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul” [Against Heresies III 3:2], which, as we have clearly demonstrated above, is clearly false.

Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the early part of the following century, appears uncritically to follow Iraeneus’ list in his Ecclesiastical History (Book V:6). However, the list in his Chronicle is slightly different (though admittedly these could be due to scribal errors).

However, Volume 4 of The Catholic Encyclopaedia (1908) lists 4 “varieties of order” for the earliest “popes” (sic). While some may be down to copying errors and variants of the name Anencletus, others are more fundamental in that they change the position of Clement from 3rd or 4th place to 2nd:

“1) Linus, Cletus, Clemens (Hegesippus, ap. Epiphanium, Canon of Mass).
  Linus, Anencletus, Clemens (Irenaeus, Africanus ap. Eusebium).
  Linus, Anacletus, Clemens (Jerome).
  2) Linus, Cletus, Anacletus, Clemens (Poem against Marcion),
  3) Linus, Clemens, Cletus, Anacletus [Hippolytus (?), “Liberian Catal.”- “Liber. Pont.”].
  4) Linus, Clemens, Anacletus (Optatus, Augustine).”

The late third century document, Apostolic Constitutions (which was considered to be of “apostolic origin” until the mid-seventh century) makes the same assumption as Iraeneus that Peter and Paul were co-founders of the church in Rome, but diverges from his order of succession and counters the claim that all Bishops of Rome were ordained by Peter, as it states:

Of the church of Rome, Linus the son of Claudia was the first, ordained by Paul; and Clemens, after Linus’ death, the second, ordained by me Peter” (Book VII, Section IV/Chapter XLVI)

Thus, the only consensus (with the exception of Tertullian, who places Clement first) is that Linus was the first “Bishop of Rome”.

Nothing definite is actually known about “Pope” Linus, though it is claimed that he was not martyred (why not if he was the “Bishop of Rome”?). It appears that his name has been randomly plucked from II Timothy 4:21, on the grounds that his greetings (along with others) are sent by Paul to Timothy. This does not necessarily imply that he was a permanent resident of Rome or even a church leader there (none of those listed in II Timothy 4 are in the list in Romans 16); rather, it suggests that it is someone that Timothy knows from one of the churches in Asia Minor (just as it is unlikely that Clement of Rome is the same Clement in Philippians 4). Thus, we have in Scripture two names, mentioned just once each, linked to Paul rather than Peter, who supposedly “ordained” them as his successor.

None of the early “Bishops of Rome” – Linus, Cletus, Clement – are mentioned by Polycarp, Papias or Ignatius (the Apostolic Fathers) in any of their writings; nor do they appear in the Didache or the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas. In short, the earliest post-apostolic literature is entirely devoid of evidence of them or their being “Bishops of Rome”.

There is another fundamental problem for the Catholic mythology of unbroken apostolic succession through Rome. These early “Popes” (sic), who supposedly through Peter have primacy over all the rest of the Church worldwide, held office during the latter years of St John, the last surviving Apostle. But it is hard to see how that could be as the Bible tells us that there was no higher status than that of apostle (I Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). The only authority any bishop would have had was derived from the apostle that appointed them (eg Polycarp of Smyrna, who had been a disciple of St John). It is absolutely absurd, given that Peter had no primacy other than, at best, “first among equals”, to claim that the first few “Popes” (who were no more than presbyters) would have had authority over a living Apostle, who had not just been an eye witness to Christ’s ministry and resurrection, but who had been in Jesus’ inner circle of disciples and described as “the disciple Jesus loved”.

As is so often the case when looking at Roman Catholic propaganda, the early book of Popes, “Liber Pontificalis”, which appears to have been based on an earlier document (Catalogus Liberianus), was falsely attributed to St Jerome[10]. This kind of attribution is not an isolated instance. As we will see, the Catholic Church knowingly used fake documentation to promote and protect its political agenda throughout the Middle Ages (and beyond). The mythology of Jerome being the author is maintained in the entry of The Catholic Encyclopedia and in the order attributed to him (Peter first, Linus next, then Anacletus and Clement in fourth place) in the extended version Annuario Pontificio, which is published annually by the Vatican. However, modern scholarship has subjected it to rigorous scrutiny and Philippe Levillain has exposed it as an “unofficial instrument of pontifical propaganda.”

This Liber Pontificalis also formed the “historical” framework for the forged documents known as the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals , which were inserted into a genuine collection of material during the mid-9th century. The forgeries include approximately 100 forged papal letters apparently written by Bishops of Rome during the first three centuries, partially falsified council texts and papal letters from the 4th to 8th centuries and the earlier (non-Isidorian) forgery “The Donation of Constantine”. Where the False Decretals appear to have been written to preserve Episcopal independence from Rome (which benefited the Holy Roman Emperors), the Vatican used them to bring the episcopacy under more direct control, despite the blatant anachronisms, of which the clerical scholars who used them must have been all too aware (they were exposed in the 14th century after they were no longer of any use to the Vatican, though there are very few published versions since that time).

The Donation of Constantine” (Constitutum Domini Constantini) was a forged document that purported to be a Roman Imperial decree written in gold letters by the Emperor Constantine I himself. The Donation ceded vast regions of the Western Empire to the Catholic Church and established the Bishops of Rome (ie Popes), from Sylvester I forward, as being above all other Bishops, supposedly in gratitude for Sylvester having healed Constantine from leprosy. It was invoked in 1054 by Pope Leo IX (the first to do so), who quoted a large portion of it in a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople, and in the investiture conflicts between the Papacy and Western secular powers throughout the 11th and 12th centuries. Parts of it were included in canon law, further legitimising the Papal claims and ensuring that the document’s validity would be asserted well into the 15th century.

However, by the 15th century the Renaissance had started and there was a new scepticism, from which the Catholic Church was not immune. A number of people, all from within the Catholic Church, separately declared the document a fraud.

The first to declare The Donation (along with the False Decretals) fraudulent and apocryphal was the German theologian, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, in 1433; the same conclusion was independently reached by Reginald Peacocke, Bishop of Chichester (1450-57); and in the 1453, Enea Piccolomini, Bishop of Sienna (later Pope Pius II), wrote a tract (which was never published) admitting it to be fake. Though the Vatican would not officially acknowledge the veracity of these claims until the mid 16th century, references to The Donation, from the time of Pius II onwards, are conspicuously lacking in church documents!

Though not the first, but by far the most influential was the Catholic Priest and scholar of classical Latin, Lorenzo Valla, whose critique was widely circulated from 1440 (though not published officially until 1517 – the same year as Luther’s 95 Theses). He demonstrated the falsity of the document through textual criticism which illuminated stylistic errors and exposed numerous anachronisms (eg sloppily calling Byzantium “Constantinople” and referring to it as a patriarchy long before the Empire ever divided) [Valla 95].

Not content with proving beyond doubt that it was a forgery, Valla also berated the papacy for its continued use of the document:

“…either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion. For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false, dishonouring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonouring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonouring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes.” [Valla 25, 27]

As Valla notes, another feature of the Papacy that undermines its claims is the personal and political behaviour of so many of its incumbents throughout the centuries.

D. Seduced by Secular Power

In their “Epistle to Pope Francis” the Orthodox Metropolitans have a section covering some three and a half pages on the secularisation of the Vatican. [11]

The Papal States, which were created by political manoeuvring and falsified documents, covered most of central Italy (including the city of Rome) from 756 ad until they were absorbed into the newly united Italy in 1870 by the Piedmont led forces. So used to secular rule were the Popes that, on losing Rome, Pope Pius IX ordered that the Vatican doors be shut and claimed that he was a “prisoner in the Vatican”.

While the “Holy See” is – and always has been – distinct from the Vatican City State, which came into being through the Lateran Treaty of 1929 (signed by the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini), it is listed in the Almanach de Gotha under “Reigning Sovereign Houses”, where it is stated:

Since medieval times the episcopal see of Rome has been recognized as a sovereign entity. The Holy See (not the State of Vatican City) maintains formal diplomatic relations with 179 sovereign states…

Of the Vatican it states:

Vatican City is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state, ruled by the Bishop of Rome-the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergymen of various national origins. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See (Sancta Sedes) and the location of the Pope’s residence, referred to as the Apostolic Palace.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that from the time of Sixtus IV (who augmented the Vatican’s coffers by taxing the Roman brothels and their 6,800 prostitutes[12]) to The Reformation “the secular interests of the papacy were of paramount importance.”

As the Canadian freelance writer Mark Owen has pointed out, internationally the Pope “is not subject to any authority on earth.” and as Lord Acton notably stated “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”.  Though the Papacy is supposed to reflect the spiritual leadership of St Peter and the Holy Apostles, the behaviour of numerous popes rather than being “spiritual”  endorses Lord Acton’s adage to such an extent that one might wonder whether they were subject to God either.

Popes traditionally expected to be (and were) treated as royalty, to such an extent that supplicants were to kiss the bared foot of the pope, though now bowing (or courtesying) and kissing his papal ring, to show allegiance is all that is required.  This is a far cry from their alleged founder, St Peter who, when Cornelius fell at his feet, acted humbly:

 25 …Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal.’” (Acts 10:25) .[13]

The history of the papacy is riddled with nepotism and internecine strife, reflecting the struggles of leading families to take and maintain power, not just over the Papal States but over the kingdoms of the Western World. Little wonder that in Protestant states Catholic clergy were often seen as agents of a hostile, foreign power.

In his book “Vicars of Christ” the Catholic historian Peter de Rosa observes that

Popes had mistresses as young as fifteen years of age, were guilty of incest and sexual perversions of every sort, had innumerable children, were murdered in the very act of adultery…”

I do not intend to give an extensive list of Popes whose actions were, in the words of Valla “dishonouring [to] the Christian religion”, but to briefly look at a few of the most notorious so as to highlight the papal licentiousness and corruption which, in part, fuelled the Reformation.

John XII (955 – 964)

As with all Popes of his time, he involved himself in political intrigues. Yet, what marks him out is his sexual depravity. He reputedly held orgies in the Vatican and on holy sites, thus defiling them; raped anyone who spurned his advances (including his two sisters); and had sex with his niece. He was believed to have had a Cardinal, who opposed him, castrated and then murdered.

Benedict IX (1032 – 1044; 1045; 1047 – 1048)

Benedict was the youngest ever Pope and the only man to have held the papacy on three separate occasions. He was the nephew of his two predecessors and had the Papacy obtained for him as “an heirloom” by his father.

He was the first openly homosexual pope and had a reputation for rape and murder, which Pope Victor III roundly denounced in his third book of Dialogues, writing:

his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”

He was driven from Rome twice but with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor was restored. He was paid a large sum by his godfather to give up the Papacy but shortly afterwards had a change of heart and returned to take Rome by force. He was eventually driven out by German troops and excommunicated.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in a rare condemnation of a pope, understatedly describes him as “…a disgrace to the Chair of Peter.”

Alexander VI (1492 – 1503)

Possibly the most political and worldly, Rodrigo Borgia was the nephew of Pope Callista III. He gained the Cathedra through family ties and simony, only securing the 2/3 majority through his own vote.

Despite the prohibition on married clergy, he not only was married but had numerous mistresses and as many as ten illegitimate children who he gave church and political positions. His son Cesare (a Cardinal) is suspected of several murders of opponents of his father; his daughter, Lucrezia, who was married three times for large dowries (with the marriages rapidly receiving papal annulments, had an illegitimate son who was claimed by 2 separate Papal Bulls as either her father’s or brother’s (both of which would have involved incest) – she also sat in as substitute for her father at an official father Vatican meeting.

He also involved himself in political machinations, interfering in the politics of France, Italy and Naples. When his scheming backfired and caused him financial loss, he “proceeded to strengthen his position by repleting his treasury in ways that were more than dubious.” [The Catholic Encyclopedia].

Julius II (1503 – 1513)

This incumbent of the throne of Peter bought his election (having twice before failed in his attempt). He, like Alexander VI, was notorious womaniser who had numerous bastards and was rumoured to be so syphilitic that he dared not bare his foot for the ritual kissing. However, it is not his promiscuity that The Catholic Encyclopedia focuses on but his worldliness, saying of his pontificate – without criticism – that he saw his chief task as

“…the firm establishment and the extension of the temporal power. For the accomplishment of this task no pope was ever better suited than Julius, whom nature and circumstances had hewn out for a soldier.”

Julius III (1550 – 1555)

Surprisingly for the time, he was duly elected – without bribery, simony or nepotism – after a 10 week convocation. He involved himself in political intrigues and raided the Vatican’s coffers to build himself a luxury palace, Villa Giula. He decorated it to reveal his sexual perversion – sodomizing young boys, which was celebrated and defended in a poem by Giovanni Della Casa. He notoriously bestowed red hats on them and created his favourite a cardinal-nephew, a position which bestowed considerable power.

Little wonder that the reformer Martin Luther was to write of Rome

If there is a Hell, Rome is built over it. It is an abyss from whence issues every kind of sin.”

E. Infallibility

There are a number of assumptions that are essential to support the Catholic Doctrine of Infallibility.  If one cannot accept these underlying assumptions, which often have no clear Biblical basis, the doctrine is left tottering on the sole authority of Peter being the first Bishop of Rome and the Pope’s being his direct heir through an “unbroken apostolic succession”, for which, as we have seen above, there is no credible evidence.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia lists the following assumed ecclesiological truths:

that Christ founded His Church as a visible and perfect society;
• that He intended it to be absolutely universal and imposed upon all men a solemn obligation actually to belong to it, unless inculpable ignorance should excuse them;
• that He wished this Church to be one, with a visible corporate unity of faith, government, and worship; 
• in order to secure this threefold unity, He bestowed on the Apostles and their legitimate successors in the hierarchy — and on them exclusively — the plenitude of teaching, governing, and liturgical powers with which He wished this Church to be endowed.

The first two assumptions are patent nonsense.  There is no evidence in the Gospels that Christ intended the Church on earth to be “a visible and perfect society” but rather a group of people, sinners all, who strive to follow the way of the cross as His disciples, and who, through having accepted Jesus’ Lordship and forgiveness of their sins, finally arrive at the place He has prepared for them (John 14:2).

Nor is there any evidence that Jesus ever imposed his Gospel on anyone (to do so would be contrary to the Doctrine of Freewill).  He did not even place any obligation on those who he forgave and/or healed (eg the Woman caught in Adultery or the paralytic)  or on the Rich Young Ruler who walked away when he found Jesus command too difficult to follow.  In fact, Jesus actually turned people away through difficult teaching (eg Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14: 25-27; John 6:66).  True, salvation is in Jesus name, but His kingdom is not of this world and such forced obligation, which has more than a whiff of the infamous Inquisition, smacks of the kind of despotism displayed by those that so often sat upon the papal throne in earlier ages.

The problem with the third and fourth assumptions is not that they lack Scriptural warrant – in the way the first two do – but in that they try to make Holy Writ fit their premise rather than their premise fit the revealed Word of God.

Christ clearly intended the Church to be one (John 17:11, 21), but the assumption, once again, goes beyond what is written so as to insist on uniformity over unity.[14] Christ does not meet the needs of his followers uniformly with “off the peg” solutions but with the most personal “bespoke” remedies that treat each and every person as an individual (cf Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42); the Penitent Thief (Luke 23:39-43); Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18); Thomas (John 20:24-29); Paul (Acts 9)) .

The fourth assumption, while at first sight appearing valid, is so narrowly interpreted as to restrict “legitimacy” to St Peter and his successors alone. This interpretation neither recognises the obviously equal right to “Apostolic Succession” (assuming one accepts such a doctrine) of the verifiably more ancient churches of the East, nor the addition (without the aid or oversight of Peter) of St Paul to the group of Apostles. The ecumenical movement, on the other hand, promotes the whole Church coming together as one in Christ, but recognises that the Holy Spirit leads in different ways that bring more people to Christ than any one “Church” could without resorting to the enforced “religion” of the second assumption (which is so fundamental to radical Islam).

Finally, the greatest danger arising from such a Doctrine of Infallibility, especially when combined with the view that all other Churches are in “error”, is that it instils a false sense of security that it is impossible for the Roman Catholic Church to ever fall into heresy.  This is compounded by the fact that Papal Infallibility is non-falsifiable (ie it cannot be proved to be false). When a Pope speaks ex-cathedra on matters of doctrine and faith he is deemed infallible, but if the teaching is later proved to be wrong, he is deemed to have spoken only in a personal capacity as a theologian.  Such an argument, however, quickly becomes circular and self-serving.  While effectively thwarting any debate or serious cross-examination  of dubious doctrine or papal malpractice, it requires a blind acceptance of the supposed divine and unchallengeable authority of the Magesterium;  Yet, as we have  seen in earlier sections, the Magesterium has already unwittingly succumbed to heresy – heresies to which they stubbornly cling.


As we have seen, there is no scriptural basis for the claims of the Roman Catholic Church that the Pope is the apostolic successor to St Peter; in fact Scripture counters such a view.  Neither is there any evidence in the Apostolic Fathers and Early Church History that there was ever a monarchical bishop in Rome prior to the middle of 2nd century; nor that Rome had any supremacy over any of the other churches – without which any claim to papal infallibility is void.  Instead, to maintain both its Spiritual and Temporal power, the Papacy relied on Mediaeval documents which have long been debunked and their fraudulence proved beyond doubt.  Moreover, the behaviour of many of the occupants of the “Cathedra” of Peter (sic) demonstrate that the Papacy was not so much a spiritual authority as a temporal power that permitted all manner of excesses that are utterly incompatible with the Christian faith; and, while such manifest unrestrained behaviour appears to be a thing of the past, even today, from behind the shield of “Infallibility” blatant heresies are not just tolerated but actively promoted as doctrines of the Church.

As Christ taught “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44)


[1]  St John never actually lists the names of all 12 disciples but refers to them as “the Twelve” in chapter 6. He identifies 9 by name in various chapters.

[2]  It has been suggested that the reason that Andrew did not accompany the other three was that he was a more stable character and good administrator and so was left in charge of the other disciples.   If Andrew was the younger of the brothers, his name would always (by the tradition of the time) be given after that of Peter, despite his honour of having been the first disciple.

[3]  Augustine does, however, hedge his bets by saying that readers should make up their own minds as to which explanation is more plausible.

[4]  It is clear from his citing Ephesians 4:4-6 that the unity he speaks of is of Christ.

[5]  Matthew tends to sanitise Mark’s account – here by having the disciples ask a question rather than argue and by having the mother of James and John ask to sit at Jesus right and left hand, rather than James and John themselves.

[6]  Verses 36 and 37 were taken up by both Luke (9:48) and Matthew (18:4-5) in their renditions of the incident.

[7]  Catholics claim that because Peter closes his first epistle “13 Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.” (1 Peter 5: 13) that Peter must have been in Rome (as John in his Revelation refers to Rome as “Babylon”). Setting aside whether Peter actually wrote this letter (the boundaries of the province mentioned in 1:1 were not established until 72ad), there were at least 2 Babylons in the 1st century – one in Mesopotamia and another in Egypt, both of which had strong Jewish communities. In Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy, which it is agreed was written from Rome c 65ad, he asks him to bring Mark with him – if Peter and Mark were already in Rome this would not be necessary.

[8]  The Orthodox Church, following the Church Fathers, claim that the apostolic succession was through the churches of Asia Minor and, in particular, the Church at Smyrna, where Polycarp had been appointed by the Apostle John. They also claim that the Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch were older than Rome. Interestingly, after the Great Schism, though there is no evidence to support it, they claim that the Church at Byzantium was founded by St Andrew, one suspects to counter Peter’s supposed founding of Rome.

[9]  Eusebius, who quotes him extensively, is the only known source for the writings of Hegesippus, which are no longer extant. Thus, whether Hegesippus was listing a college of Presbyters that led the church in Rome rather than a succession of Bishops must remain moot.

[10]  An apocryphal letter, supposedly from Jerome to Pope Damasus I, was included in the preface of all mediaeval copies to authenticate it.

[11] The Epistle to Pope Francis by Andrew, Metropolitan of Dryinoupolis, Pogoniani & Konitsa and Seraphim, Metropolitan of Piraeus & Faliro, Section II “The Secularization and Spiritual Decline of The Vatican” (pp 6 -10),  10th April, 2014

[12]  Leading Pope Pius II to declare that Rome was the only city run by bastards (the sons of Popes and Cardinals).

[13]  See also Acts 14:12-15 in which Paul and Barnabas tear their clothes when mistaken for the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes saying “15 ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you..” (v15a)

[14]  The Roman Catholic Church has not always been able to maintain its own unity, let alone unify the worldwide church, as witnessed by the era of the Avignon Popes.

Why I Could Never Become a Roman Catholic – Part 5: The Sacrament of Penance

25 Jul

I first have to be honest and declare that I no longer attend the Catholic parish.  This is in part due to the crystallisation of my theology through these writings and was given impetus by a change of time of the weekly Mass, which meant I had to attend other churches in the group where I felt less comfortable and more challenged by the differences.  However, I still visit and am still as welcome as ever when I do.

This section on penance turned out to be a lot more complex than I had first thought and,as a result, has taken much longer to put together than the previous sections.  From my reading, it seems to me that the Sacrament of Penance is little more than a jumble of man-made traditions – confession, penances, indulgences and purgatory – which are given precedence over the revealed Word of God set out in the Holy Scriptures.

The Catechism describes the Sacrament of Penance as “The forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament called the sacrament of conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation.” [CCC1486].

It is claimed that this sacrament was instituted by Christ [CCC1446] and Catholic theologians usually cite three biblical examples in support of this claim:

1. The healing of the paralytic ( Mtt 9:1-7; Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26);

2. The sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Lk 7:36-50);

3. The woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:2-11).

Let’s examine each one to see if the claim can be substantiated.

1. The Paralytic

The healing of the paralytic occurs in all three synoptic gospels.  Mark, the earliest gospel and the source for both Luke and Matthew, has the longest account, while Matthew has the briefest.  In none of them do we encounter any “conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation” on the part of the paralytic, who is entirely passive until the point he takes up his bed and walks. There is no mention of his faith or of his even thanking Jesus.  The healing – a sign of forgiveness of sin – was prompted by the faith of his friends (Mk 2:5; Lk 5:20; Mtt 9:2).  Hence, there is no scriptural support for the claim from this healing.

2. The Woman in the House of Simon the Pharisee

Here, at least, there does superficially seem to be a semblance of support if one believes that the woman’s actions are a form of confession (of unspecified sins – which is not permitted within the sacrament)  or some form of penance (self-imposed as there is no indication that Christ or anyone else initiated it).  While the woman is clearly penitent, at no point does Jesus ask her to confess her sins.  Nor does he set her any penance for “satisfaction” (CCC1459).  Jesus simply, following the telling of a parable, forgives her many sins. He gives two reasons for this action of grace: her love (v47) and her faith (v50).  Clearly some kind of conversion took place, but none of it after baptism (CCC1486).  Thus, on closer examination, it becomes clear that the support from this text is as lacking as that of the healing of the paralytic.

3. The Woman Caught in Adultery

There is even less evidence of penance in this case than in the previous two.  The woman doesn’t even show penitence!  Far from seeking confession of her adultery, let alone setting any penance of reconciliation, Jesus refuses to condemn her but simply instructs her to “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (v11).  As we know nothing more of her, it is impossible to know whether any conversion or reconciliation took place and to base any claim on such a lack would be spurious.

It is clear, therefore, that the sacrament was instituted by Christ has no foundation in the Scriptures cited.  But if it didn’t originate with Jesus, could it have been instituted by the Early Church?

When we examine the earliest church writings (Didache – 1st Century ad), we find that there is no evidence that verbal confession was required by the Early Church.  However, by the time of Irenaeus (2nd Century ad) public confession appears to have been widely practised (as it is today in many Protestant churches), though there is no indication that it was (or had to be) to a priest.

Thus, we see there is no evidence that the Sacrament (sic) was instituted by Christ or that it was the practice of the very Early Church.  Given that the earliest evidence of confession to a priest occurs in the writings of Origen in the mid-3rd Century ad, more than enough time had elapsed for it to be a tradition of human rather than divine origin.

To return to the catechism, CCC1446 also further amplifies the description of the sacrament given in CCC1486 by stating that it is

for all sinful members of his church: above all for those who, since baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion.  It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.  The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the 2nd plank of (salvation) after the shipwreck of faith’ Tertullian (Trent 1547)“.

It appears from this and (CCC980) that, for Catholics, despite a convert’s sins having been washed in the Blood of Christ (Rev 1:5-6), which imparts redemption and the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7; I Jn 1:7), and his/her being “justified by faith” (Rom 5:1-2), s/he is not in a state of grace until s/he has been baptised with water; whereas, any babe in arms, despite his/her being incapable of faith, is through baptism deemed to be in a state of grace.However, this state of grace is, due to sin, precarious and may be lost at any time and so must be restored through human actions that are additional to faith in Christ.  This suggests that, contrary to Scripture, (eg Rom 3: 25-26), the work of Christ on the Cross is insufficient for salvation.

The catechism having listed all “the usual elements” of the sacrament of Penance in CCC1480, continues that, as with all the sacraments, “…Penance is always, by its very nature, a liturgical action, and therefore an ecclesial and public action.” [CCC1482]   This is further borne out by CCC1437 which asserts that “Reading Sacred Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Our Father – every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sin.”  Once again this suggests that it is our actions rather than Christ’s sacrifice on the cross which lead to salvation.

This sense that penance, for Catholics, is a work of salvation extra to the Cross of Christ is confirmed by a statement in The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism (1969, Vol 2, p 199): “The priest gives us a penance after confession that we may make some atonement to God for our sins, receive help to avoid them in the future, and make some satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to them.”

Yet the theological stance of these catechismal statements is at variance with Holy Scripture, in which we encounter the following texts:

21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”  (Romans 3:21-26)

“4 But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6)

But let us once again return to the catechism.

As “Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance” [CCC1456], “every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal’, because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.” [CCC1467].

While this “sacramental seal” may seem a worthy intention, given that no person is likely to confess anything of importance to their priest without the protection it offers, the very fact that it “admits no exceptions” means it also prevents the priest from protecting victims (potential or actual) from physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Thus, by his sacramental seal the priest is thwarted from preventing a paedophile from working with young children, a wife beater from continuing his abuse, or a murderer’s victims receiving justice, for example.

Furthermore, unless the priest hearing the confession does not know his flock well, the identification of the penitent is highly likely despite grills and other attempts at anonymity. It is utterly naïve to believe that the way a priest views a penitent, whose voice he has recognised, will not be coloured by what he has heard in the confessional despite both the sacramental seal and the priest’s best intentions to the contrary; unless, of course, the sins confessed are utterly mundane (which, given that most common penance seems to be saying a number of prayers over and over, would seem to be the case).

CCC1460 sets out a variety of forms of penance, which “must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good.” and “It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed.”

As noted above, the most common penance is the repetition of prayers from the rosary multiple times, which reduces prayer to a chore to be endured rather than a communication with the living God; and, additionally, risks contravening Christ’s warning in Matthew 6:7 not to emulate the Gentiles who “think that they will be heard because of their many words.”

Similarly, CCC1434 ends with the phrase “and the practice of charity ‘which covers a multitude of sins.’”(partially quoting I Peter 4:8 out of context, as is usual in the Roman Church). Given that the section begins with the themes of Prayer, Fasting and Alms-giving, it is clear that the writers are conflating the archaic use of charity with its modern sense. While older versions of the Bible translated ἀγάπη (agape – selfless love) as “charity”(i), they did not do so consistently, but alternated it with the word love (eg in I Cor 13 and I Pet 4:8 it is ‘charity’ but in Jn 3:16, Gal 5:22 and I John 4 it is ‘love’). The context of the word in 1 Peter, however, makes it clear that it is not charity in the modern sense of alms-giving or good works but in the sense of that self-less love, which is the first of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22), which is intended.

CC1477, which is based on Indulgentiarum doctrina 5, talks about the “Church’s treasury” which, “includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God.” As we have seen before, the Catholic Church ascribes attributes that rightly belong to Christ to the Virgin Mary, interposing her, in place of Christ, between the believer and God. And when we examine the public confession (when it is used, which is usually only in the penitential seasons of Advent & Lent), we find the same appeal to authorities other than Christ to intercede with God on the sinners’ behalf:

…and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God”.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that section CC1477 continues, “In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission in the unity of the Mystical Body.”  Again an unnecessary barrier is being placed between the believer and the direct access to God through Christ by his death on the cross contrary to the teaching of the Bible (Hebrews 4:147:25 & 9:24-25).

Not surprisingly, both the benefits of this “treasury” and the effects of the Sacrament of Penance are closely linked to the “doctrine and practice of indulgences” which the faithful can gain “for themselves or apply them to the dead” [CCC1471]. This doctrine finds Papal (Pius IV) approval in the Trentine Creed (1564), article 9 of which states, “I also affirm that the power of indulgences was left by Christ in the Church, and that the use of them is most wholesome to Christian people.” but without offering any shred of Biblical support for the assertion.

In response to the question “What is an Indulgence?”, CCC1471 gives the following definition:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” So here again, we have the Church replacing Christ as “the minister of redemption” and relying on an imagined treasury to bring remission of sin. However, depending on whether part or all of the temporal punishment is supposedly removed, such indulgences may only be partial or plenary (total) in effect [CCC1471].

So what constitutes an indulgence? Turning again to The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, one finds on the inside cover a prayer, below which are written the following words: “An indulgence of five years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, provided this prayer has been recited daily for a month.”

On the same page is written, “The faithful who devote 20 minutes to a half hour to teaching or studying Christian doctrine, may gain: an indulgence of three years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, if the above practice is carried out at least twice a month.”

Thus, we are back to the same old bugbear of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice on the cross being insufficient for the remission of sin and the penitent having to work for his own salvation, which is, as we have seen time and again, contrary to the revealed Word of God.

As we saw earlier, it was claimed that indulgences could be “applied to the dead” [CCC1471] and is confirmed by article 6 of the Trentine Creed, “I constantly hold that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful.” This claim is explained in CC1498 which states, “Through indulgences the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory.” These practices, it is claimed, have their scriptural basis in Job 1:5 and II Maccabees 12:46 [CCC1032]. Apart from not being accepted as part of the Canon of Scripture by Protestants (such as myself), the text in Maccabees (like that in Job) cannot be used to justify indulgences as, like the animal sacrifices laid down in the Pentateuch, it pre-dates the saving work of Christ on the Cross, which rendered them no longer necessary [Heb 10:11-12].

CCC1030 declares, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” The place (ii) of this purification and its supposed Scriptural foundation are given in CCC1031: “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned…The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.”

This once again reinforces the view that, for Catholics, the saving work of Christ is deficient and that justification is not by faith alone, which is contrary to the revealed Word of God in the Bible. So on what biblical foundation do they make the claim?

The two passages cited in the Catechism are I Corinthians 3:15 and I Peter 1:7. Note, first of all that neither are the direct words of Christ; second both use literary devices (simile in the former and metaphor in the latter); third both texts are taken out of context, which permits the misinterpretation (“a text out of context is just a pretext“, as Kim Tan used to say).

In I Cor 3:10-15, the context is that St Paul is talking about his (and others’) missionary work, the quality of which will be tested with fire. In verse 15, which is supposed to refer to Purgatory, St Paul is clearly using a simile as indicated by highlighted the word: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved–even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

Likewise, when we examine I Pet 1:7, we see that St Peter is describing the trials suffered by his readers, mentioned in the preceding verse, metaphorically: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”[I Pet 1:6].

Thus, we can see that Roman Catholic belief moves seamlessly from the dodgy doctrine of the “Church’s Treasury”, through the dubious doctrine of “Indulgences”, to the indefensible doctrine of “Purgatory” without any bona fide scriptural support.

Some Catholics have suggested that, as there is no Sacrament of Penance in Protestant churches, Christians of other denominations cannot be sure which sins have been forgiven and which have not. However, in my experience, it is more usual to encounter such angst over sin among Catholics than among Protestants (with the exception of the unforgivable sin of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” [Mk 3:9; Lk 12:10; Mtt 12:31-32] . Others have claimed, perhaps because of this lack of angst, that Protestants do not take sin seriously. This is not so. The Protestant Churches believe that the Bible, as the Word of God, takes precedence over any tradition. So let’s examine what the Bible actually says about confession.

St John tells us that we must confess our sins:

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (I John 1:8-10)

Note there is nothing to suppose that the penitent should confess her/his sins to a priest or even to any fellow believer. This is confirmed in the next chapter where St John says:

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (I John 2:1-2)

It should be noted that the words “atoning sacrifice” – ἱλασμός (hilasmos) in the original Greek – were often, in older versions of the Bible, rendered as “expiation” or “propitiation”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines expiation as “The act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing; atonement” and propitiate as “Win or regain the favour of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them.” As the verses above make clear, it is not the believer who “makes amends or reparation” or “wins or regains favour” but Christ alone.

In his book “Knowing God”, J I Packer, a well-known and widely esteemed 20th century evangelical theologian, contrasts propitiation in Christianity and other religions in the following manner, “In paganism, man propitiates his gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and, indeed, of bribery. In Christianity, however, God propitiates his wrath by his own action. He set forth Jesus Christ… to be the propitiation of our sins.” (p 207). We might detect a corrupted aspect of this “commercialism” in the much reviled Sale of Indulgences, which was a contributing factor to the Reformation in the XVI century.

It was at that time that John Calvin wrote his Institutes. In Institutes II:16:4, he quotes from an opus on the Gospel of St John by the Catholic scholar – and Teacher of the Church – St Augustine, who wrote:

Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us, in order that the Father, then hating, might begin to love us but that we were reconciled to him already, loving, though at enmity with us because of sin. To the truth of both propositions we have the attestation of the Apostle, ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,’ (Rom. 5: 8.) Therefore he had this love towards us even when, exercising enmity towards him, we were the workers of iniquity.” (John’s Gospel cx:6).

The noted and internationally respected Evangelical leader, John Stott, wrote that propitiation “does not make God gracious… God does not love us because Christ died for us, Christ died for us because God loves us” (The Cross of Christ, p 174), succinctly bridging the theological stance of both Packer and Augustine.

As none of the Scriptures cited in support of the so called Sacrament of Penance stand up to close scrutiny, we must conclude that it is of no true spiritual value, as it adds nothing to the saving work of Christ on the Cross, which, according to Scripture (eg Eph2:8; Rom 11:6; Heb 10:12), is wholly sufficient. Therefore, we must also conclude that its allied doctrines of indulgences and purgatory, which no other Church accepts (iii) , are no more than tenets of self-expiation that bind the faithful to the liturgical, priestly authority of the Roman Catholic Church in place of the propitiatory actions and divine authority of Christ our Redeemer.



(i)  The Greek word ἀγάπη has no direct translation to Latin or English so Thomas Aquinas, who appears to have had a dread of “love”, tried to equate it with the Latin word caritas, which has a somewhat different meaning (closer to the English word “grace”).

(ii) Contrary to popular belief, the Roman Catholic Church has not revoked this doctrine but merely reworked it to now claim that Purgatory is a “state” rather than a physical place (just as some theologians have argued that Hell is not a place but a state of being).

(iii) The Greek Orthodox Church, under influence from the Church of Rome, introduced indulgences in the form of Certificates of Absolution which were sold during the 17th century, a practice which was officially recognised at the 1727 Constantinople Council but which was condemned as a “horrid and unheard-of evil usage, originating in arrogance” [Encyclical 9th Clause] at the 1838 Council of Constantinople. The Orthodox Churches have always opposed the Doctrine (sic) of Purgatory.

A Straw Man Emerges From An Igloo

15 Jul

There is an image which has become popular on the internet. It shows the picture of an indigenous person from the Arctic region with the following text reconstructed from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek:

Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?
Priest: “No, not if you didn’t know.
Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?

Setting aside the fact that most of the indigenous people of the Arctic find the term “Eskimo” offensive, the argument is a straw man used by atheists to justify their non-belief, claiming that “it brings into question the existence of a benevolent god.”

The imaginary Inuk’s question is perfectly valid, but the priest’s reply shows a poor grasp of Christian theology. The correct answer is “perhaps”. The priest has not been appointed to judge the enquirer (I Corinthians 4:5; 5:12-13) but to instruct him/her as to a better way. The initial question implies that one only is punished when one knows about sin and that the speaker was at one time ignorant. This is a false premise, as we shall see.

If we were to change the initial question to “If I did not know about the speed limit, would I receive a penalty?”, no police officer, or lawyer, would give the supposed priest’s answer, as ignorance of a law is neither an excuse nor a defence in law. The action, whether you knew it to be wrong or not, has a legal consequence. All actions, both good and bad, have consequences.  Most societies (including those of the Arctic Peoples) have this as a tenet in some form or another.

Christian theology starts with the premise that, just as in physics, there are natural laws that are self-evident. Even if I do not know about gravity I am subject to its effects whether I want to be or not. If I jump off a high building, I will suffer the consequence of my ignorance (or wilful disregard) of the laws of gravity. If I commit a sin, it will have a consequence whether it was committed in ignorance or wilfully – the judgement handed down may be different (just as premeditated murder is judged differently from accidental killing).

Christians (following Jewish theology) see God’s nature as being dual; the merciful and loving “Chesed” is matched by the justice “mishpat” which arises from His holiness (“qodesh”) – two sides of the same coin. Without justice there can be no love. Notice the word is justice, not divine retribution – God is not acting out of character in allowing people to suffer consequences for their actions.

Parents usually will punish their children for breaking family codes and rules – therefore, to take the argument to logical absurdity, there is no such thing as a loving (benevolent) parent or they would never punish their children no matter what they did. Would that be a loving response? Of course not. And should a child reach out to touch a hot object (like an iron), a loving parent surely warns the child rather than letting him/her find out through experience. Yet the vignette suggests the opposite to be appropriate.

So let’s return to our imaginary enquirer. Was he really unaware of sin (or of a deity?) before the priest came? Did the people not have laws and social regulation before the missionary priest brought the gospel? Of course they did. This was in fact argued by St Paul in two passages in his letter to the Romans. In the first, he argues that God is revealed in his creation:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. [Romans 1:18-23]

And in the second passage, Paul claims that even people who don’t know God have consciences to guide them:

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. [Romans 2:12-16].

According to St Paul, our Inuk, will, like Christians, Jews and all other people be judged, but also that through Jesus Christ a way out from punishment has been provided (see his many epistles for examples). This is reaffirmed in the first epistle of St John:

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (I John 2:1-2)

It should be noted that the words “atoning sacrifice” – ἱλασμός (hilasmos) in the original Greek – were often, in older versions of the Bible, rendered as “expiation” or “propitiation”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines expiation as “The act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing; atonement” and propitiate as “Win or regain the favour of (a god, spirit, or person) by doing something that pleases them.” As the verses above make clear, it is not the believer who “makes amends or reparation” or “wins or regains favour” but Christ alone.

This brings me to the problem of the apparent claim by Jesus that he is the only way [John 14:6]). This is simply a problem of hermeneutics. Many Christians are guilty of lifting this verse out of both its time and context and presenting it as though it were a universal statement.

So let’s apply hermeneutics to it.

To whom was Jesus speaking? To our representative of the Arctic Peoples? To professor Richard Dawkins? To the Jews? To the Church? No – he was answering a question asked by St Thomas (v 5); in its wider context, he was giving words of comfort to his disciples (vv 1-4) and preparing them for what is ahead leading to the promise of the Holy Spirit (vv 15-17). By extension, this promise applies to all who would be his disciples. But there is no indication that Jesus meant it to apply universally – if he had, surely he would have proclaimed it to the crowds and it would have been found, not just in St John, but in all 4 gospels and the teaching of St Paul as well.

The problem is not one of “judgement” per se, but one of our wanting others to be punished while we are let off. We love to try and grade sin (just as we do crime) so as to claim that we are not so bad; but a crime is a crime and anyone breaking the law (even speeding) is a criminal in the eyes of the law.  Likewise, anyone who breaks the divine laws is a sinner (remember these laws are not arbitrarily set by God but arise naturally out of his holiness). Because this holiness is perfect “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [Romans 3:23]. So to just punish some and not others is neither loving nor just.  However, paying the price due on behalf of another satisfies both God’s loving kindness and justice.  This God accomplished through Christ’s death on the cross.

The Bible tells us that sin breaks the relationship with a caring God. This is a God that loves the world enough, first, to not make us slavish robots who have no choice but to obey but to have the freewill to make our own choices and face the consequences of those choices (you don’t have to speed just because everyone else is – you choose to do it); and second, that the relationship is important enough for Him to pay the price that is the just consequence of sins which are rightfully ours. This is the benevolence.

Why did the missionary priests (often at great personal risk and cost) carry the gospel to the ends of the earth? Two reasons: one, we Christians have a message of hope and forgiveness that can (and does) transform lives; two, we are instructed to do so as that is the only way people like the Inuk in the story will hear about Christ’s propitiation of his sin on the cross and the salvation it offers on the day when, “2 Everything that is secret will be brought out into the open. Everything that is hidden will be uncovered. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops.“[Luke 12:2-3].

However, there is no compunction on anyone to accept the salvation offered by Christ, but equally there is no excuse by which anyone can evade judgement that is a consequence of their sins if they do not.

Why I could never become a Roman Catholic – Part 4: The Bible

9 Jun

As suggested in the previous post, this section is more important as a barrier to my becoming a Roman Catholic than the previous section.  Let’s start by examining what the Roman Catholic Church says about the Bible.

CCC 85The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

CCC 95It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

Article 2 of the Trentine Creed (1564) states, “I also admit the Holy Scripture according to that sense which our holy mother the Church has held, and does hold, to which it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretations of the Scriptures.  Neither will I ever take and interpret them otherwise than according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.

Despite paying lip-service to illumination by the Holy Spirit, it is clear from the catechism and this tenet of faith that

a) the Word of God is no more important than their “tradition” (which as we have seen in the veneration of Mary is both unscriptural and of dubious provenance) to which it may be subjected in a manner similar to that used by the Pharisees – a thing which Jesus condemned (Mark 7:8-13); and

b) that they would restrict the illumination by the Holy Spirit (contrary to Scripture) to themselves, hence, limiting Almighty God. This supposed “infallibility” is entirely dependent on the claims made about the Papacy, which we will examine in depth in a later article.

St Paul tells us,

16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

but he says nothing about determining who may interpret God’s Word (there being no formal Church of Rome at the time Paul was writing) or of limiting it to the clergy or of restricting its use in private devotion by the laity (as was Catholic policy for some centuries before Vatican II made it acceptable again).  Limiting the Bible to public worship gave the Catholic hierarchy greater control over non-scriptural doctrines such as indulgences by which they profited financially.

Though I applaud there being three readings in the Mass, it is a shame that two of them are, as often as not, just a handful of verses taken out of context.  They are, in short, a pretext to support the theme of that day, and are rarely mentioned in the sermon.  All the focus is on the Gospel, which is apparently reserved to the clergy (this is by no means exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church, but I am equally against it in those Anglican and other churches where it is practised).  Yet even in the Gospel, verses are omitted for no obvious reason.  For me the whole Bible is important as it is the revelatory word of God against which orthodoxy has to be measured.  One of the reasons why I go to church is to hear the Word of God, and the way it is used in Catholic worship is cavalier.

While, “16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16), that does not include the Apocrypha (which means “Hidden Books”) which is not part of the canon of Holy Scripture.  I see no reason to change the canon established by the Jewish faith in their Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).  These were the Scriptures that Jesus knew, loved and quoted; these were the Scriptures to which St Paul was referring in the verses cited above; and this was the Old Testament canon of the Roman Catholic Church up until the Council of Trent in 1546.  Thus, it seems to me that their inclusion is owed more to the theology of the Counter-Reformation, in that the books of the Apocrypha included, appear to support certain Roman Catholic doctrines (eg Purgatory, which we will deal with later) rejected by the Protestants.

While in the New Testament there are more than 260 quotations from the Old Testament (and even more allusions), not one of them is from the Apocrypha.  The obvious counter-argument to this is that there are books in the Old Testament that were never quoted either.  However, in Jewish thinking, to quote from any particular collection (eg the ‘Books of Truth’) was to accept the validity of the whole group.  Furthermore, all of the books in the Jewish canon were written in Hebrew, yet only three (and a part of a fourth) in the Apocrypha are, the rest all being in Greek.

The Jewish canon has its scriptures grouped into three categories: Torah (the Law) being the Five Books of Moses; Nevi’im (Prophets) both major and minor (with the exception of Daniel) and including Joshua, Samuel and Kings; and the Ketuvim (Writings) divided into three groups: the Books of Truth (Psalms, Proverbs & Job); the Five Scrolls, containing Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther; and the rest comprising Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles (the last book in the Tanakh).

This Jewish order of the Old Testament, which is still used today, is why Jesus used the allusion “From the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the House of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation” (Luke 11:51) when he wanted to show the gamut of Old Testament Scripture from the first martyr, Abel, in Genesis to the martyrdom of Zechariah in II Chronicles.  Though there were many martyrs in the inter-testament period (just look at the four books of Maccabees!), Jesus did not mention a single one of them; the simplest explanation for this is that they were not accepted by Him as Holy Writ, despite their having been included in the Greek Septuagint version.  The Jewish historian Josephus likewise rejected their being scripture, “It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers” (Against Apion Book 1, Section 8).

The Church Fathers, from whom Roman Catholics claim support for the Apocrypha, are far from unanimous on the matter.   Melito and Origen, for example, were opposed to it.  Great teachers of the church such as Cyril of Jerusalem, Hiliary of Poitier and Epiphanius of Salamis all rejected it.  Jerome vigorously resisted its inclusion in his Latin Vulgate Bible.  Despite his best efforts, it was included and the Council of Carthage (418) declared it “the infallible and authentic Bible.”  Thus, though not given the status of canon they were regularly read by Roman Catholics throughout the mediaeval period.  This no doubt led to their wide acceptance by the parish clergy and to their inclusion in the first edition of the Authorised Version (or KJV) of 1611, perhaps as a compromise to the High Church wing of the Church of England.

However, the Church of England in its Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563), following St Jerome,  states that the books of the Apocrypha are to be read by the Church “for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine” (Article VI) and the Church of Scotland more forcefully states that “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” (Westminster Confession, Chap 1 s3).  Indeed, none of the books of the Apocrypha claim to be inspired and this to my mind makes the Kirk’s judgement the correct one.

I find it incredible that the Catholic Church still argues for the primacy (and thus supremacy of the Gospel of St Matthew).  This theory was long ago abandoned by serious scholars given that Matthew’s Gospel contains 91% of St Mark’s Gospel, even to the point of preserving the language used by Mark.  Many Catholics still argue that Mark copied Matthew.  Yet, that long debunked theory raises three serious questions that they fail to answer satisfactorily:

a)      Why didn’t Mark use any of Matthew’s birth or resurrection narratives?

b)      Why didn’t Mark use more of the teachings attributed to the shared source ‘Q’ and the source unique to                  Matthew, ‘M’?

c)       Where did Mark get his extra 9% from?

Furthermore, Mark’s authorship and the reliability of his Gospel are validated by the Apostolic Father, Papias (c 140 ad), who makes an assertion based on an even earlier authority, which states

And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took special care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. ”  (Fragment 6) [1]

That John Mark was a close associate of St Peter is backed up by his being mentioned as sending greetings along with Peter (I Peter 5: 13),  who had preserved his preaching.  Some believe that John Mark was even an eye witness to some of the events of Holy Week hinting at his presence in his own Gospel on the basis of Mark 14:51.

Thus, the view that  Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a framework for their Gospels is (and has been for some considerable time) widely accepted by the majority of reputable scholars.

The only reason for clinging to this outdated theory is that the claim of Papal Supremacy as the successor to Peter is relies on a particular interpretation of a passage found only in Matthew (Matthew 16:18).  This will be discussed very thoroughly in the section on the Papacy later.

As we have seen in the sections on the Mass and the Virgin Mary above, Papal diktat and human tradition clearly outweigh Holy Writ and, when the latter is lacking, supplement it with equal authority.  This I cannot accept.  Tradition, no matter how noble in sentiment or holiness, is always subject to Holy Scripture.  Anything else can – and to my mind already has – only lead to theological error and diversion of attention from Christ and his saving work on the Cross.

[1]  Though in the same fragment Papias claims that “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.“, it is unclear as to what he was referring to as the Gospel of Matthew shows no linguistic traces of Hebrew and the Koine Greek used from Mark’s Gospel is not altered, merely corrected.

Why I could never become a Roman Catholic – Part 3: The Crucifix and Statues of Saints

2 Jun

You’ll be glad to know that this section is a lot briefer than the last.  I have chosen to put it here, not because it is the next most important to me, but because it logically follows on from the last one.

The ubiquitous use of the crucifix, for me, shows a lack of understanding of the true nature of the Cross – that it is empty because, Christ did not remain there, but rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and will come again in glory.  The crucifix, glories not in the risen and ascended Lord, but in his sufferings.  While it is important to remember those sufferings (Protestants are, perhaps, as is claimed by Catholics,  in danger of undervaluing them and their potential comfort to people who are suffering), Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is no more than a simple tragedy without the Risen Christ; a suffering that without the certainty  of  resurrection can only lead to interminable despair .  Good Friday only acquires significance in light of Easter and Ascension, which are far better manifested by an empty cross.

Furthermore, it is known that the Romans first stripped their victims naked before hanging them on the cross;  yet the crucifixes generally preserve a modesty that was denied Christ and, which was for a devout Jew, an additional humiliation.  Additionally, the veneration (eg kissing the feet of an image on a crucifix or kissing a dolly at Christmas) smacks of idolatry.    In John’s Gospel we are told:

18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” John 1:18 (See also John 6:46)

30 I and the Father are one.”  John 10:30

Just as no one has seen God, all those who saw Our Lord in the flesh, are dead and left not the slightest description of His physiognomy.


23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”  John 4:23-24

Such worship neither needs nor benefits from idolatry.

The same applies to statues of “Our Lady” be she Madonna or Queen of Heaven.  This is by far the worst example of this idolatry.  Mary dominates many churches, not just in one of her myriad guises in one or more side chapels, but in numerous churches in place of Christ over the altar (with the Saviour moved to the side!).  Little wonder that non-Catholics believe that she has been embedded into the Trinity as part of the godhead – a view that is given greater credence by calls for her to be recognised as “co-redemptrix” in addition to the existing Marian heresies.

Added to this is the use of the statues of saints, before which prayers are offered and candles lit, and which are paraded through the streets at Easter and on the relevant Saints’ Days.  These, while supposedly being aids to faith, direct the believer away from Christ to some worthy Christian of the past, who supposedly has more access to the ear of God.  They become a stumbling block to the truth of the Gospel, that through Christ every believer has direct access to God through Christ.  Once again denying the revealed word of God for man-made tradition.

The lack of necessity for these idols is put clearly by the writer to the Hebrews

19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”  Hebrews 10:19 – 22