Monthly Archives: November 2013

Do Catholics Worship Statues?

The first commandment says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Ex. 20:2–5).

Well-meaning Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, armed with the above text, often try to use it against Catholics: “How can God make it any clearer than this? We are not to have ‘graven images,’ or statues, yet what do you see in almost every Catholic Church around the world? Statues! This is the definition of idolatry. And please, do not give me any of this nonsense about equating the statues in your churches to carrying a photograph of a loved one in your wallet. In Exodus 20, as well as in Deuteronomy 5:7–8, God specifically says we are not to make statues in the shape of anything in the sky above, the earth below or the waters beneath the earth.”

How are we to respond?

Clarifications

The Catholic Church does not believe any statue or image has any power in and of itself. The beauty of statues and icons move us to the contemplation of the Word of God as he is himself or as he works in his saints. And, according to Scripture, as well as the testimony of the centuries, God even uses them at times to impart blessings (e.g., healings) according to his providential plan.

While it can certainly be understood how a superficial reading of the first commandment could lead one to believe we Catholics are in grave error with regard to our use of statues and icons, the key to a proper understanding of the first commandment is found at the very end of that same commandment, in verse 5 of Exodus 20: “You shall not bow down to them or serve [adore] them.”

The Lord did not prohibit statues; he prohibited the adoration of them. If God truly meant that we were not to possess any statues at all, then he would later contradict himself. Just five chapters after this commandment in Exodus 20, God commanded Moses to build the ark of the Covenant, which would contain the presence of God and was to be venerated as the holiest place in all of Israel. Here is what God commanded Moses concerning the statues on it:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends (Ex. 25:18–19).

In Numbers 21:8–9, not only did our Lord order Moses to make another statue in the form of a bronze serpent, he commanded the children of Israel to look to it in order to be healed. The context of the passage is one where Israel had rebelled against God, and a plague of deadly snakes was sent as a just punishment. This statue of a snake had no power of itself—we know from John 3:14 it was merely a type of Christ—but God used this image of a snake as an instrument to effect healing in his people.

Further, in 1 Kings 6, Solomon built a temple for the glory of God, described as follows:

In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. . . . He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house. . . . He carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees, and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms. . . . For the entrance to the inner sanctuary he made doors of olivewood. . . . He covered the two doors of olivewood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers; he overlaid them with gold (1 Kgs. 6:23, 27, 29, 31, 32).

King Solomon ordered the construction of multiple images of things both “in heaven above” (angels) and “in the earth beneath” (palm trees and open flowers). After the completion of the temple, God declared he was pleased with its construction (1 Kgs. 9:3).

It becomes apparent, given the above evidence, that a strictly literal interpretation of Exodus 20:2–5 is erroneous. Otherwise, we would have to conclude that God prohibits something in Exodus 20 that he commands elsewhere.

Guiding Us Home

Why would God use these images of serpents, angels, palm trees, and open flowers? Why didn’t he heal the people directly rather than use a “graven image”? Why didn’t he command Moses and Solomon to build an ark and a temple void of any images at all?

First, God knows what his own commandments mean. He never condemned the use of statues absolutely. Second, God created man as a being who is essentially spiritual and physical. In order to draw us to himself, God uses both spiritual and physical means. He will use statues, the temple, or even creation itself to guide us to our heavenly home.

Psalm 19:1 tells us: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Romans 1:20 says: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” Gazing at a sunset—or a great painting of a sunset—and contemplating the greatness of God through the beauty of his creation is not idolatry. Nor is it idolatrous to look at statues of great saints of old and honor them for the great things God has done through them. It is no more idolatrous for us to desire to imitate their holy lives and honor them than it was for Paul to exhort the Corinthians to imitate his own holy life (1 Cor. 4:16) and to “esteem very highly” those who were “over [the Thessalonians] in the Lord and admonish [them]” (1 Thess. 5:12–13).

Jesus Is the Reason

It is Jesus Christ himself who gives us the ultimate example of the value of statues and icons. Indeed, Christ, in his humanity, has opened up an entirely new economy of iconography and statuary. Christ becomes for us the ultimate reason for all representations of the angels and saints. Why do we say this? Colossians 1:15 tells us Christ is, “The image (Gr.-icon) of the invisible God.” Christ is the ultimate icon! And what does this icon reveal to us? He reveals God the Father. When Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” in John 14:9, he does not mean that he is the Father. He isn’t. He’s the Son. Hebrews 1:3 tells us Christ “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature.” That is the essence of what statues and icons are. Just as “the word became flesh” (John 1:14) and revealed the Father to us in a manner beyond the imaginings of men before the advent of Christ, representations of God’s holy angels and saints are also icons of Christ who by their heroic virtue “reflect the glory of God” as well. Just as St. Paul told the Corinthians to hold up his own life as a paradigm when he said, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me,” the Church continues to hold up great men and women of faith as “icons” of the life of Christ lived in fallen human nature aided by grace.

Adoration is as Adoration Does

Many Protestants will claim that, while the Catholic may say he does not adore statues, his actions prove otherwise. Catholics kiss statues, bow down before them, and pray in front of them. According to these same Protestants, that represents the adoration that is due God alone. Peter, when Cornelius bowed down to adore him, ordered him to “stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10:26). When John bowed down before an angel, the angel told him, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you” (Rev. 19:10). But Catholics have no problem bowing down before what is less—a statue of Peter or John!

Is kissing or kneeling down before a statue the same as adoring it? Not necessarily. Both Peter in Acts 10 and the angel in Revelation 19 rebuked Cornelius and John, respectively, specifically for adoring them as if each was adoring the Lord. The problem was not with the bowing; it was with the adoration. Bowing does not necessarily entail adoration. For example, Jacob bowed to the ground on his knees seven times to his elder brother Esau (Gen. 33:3), Bathsheba bowed to her husband David (1 Kgs. 1:16), and Solomon bowed to his mother Bathsheba (1 Kgs. 2:19). In fact, in Revelation 3:9, John records the words of Jesus:

Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and learn that I have loved you.

Here, John uses the same verb for “bow down” (proskuneo) that he used in Revelation 19:10 for “adoration” when he acknowledged his own error in adoring the angel. Would anyone dare say that Jesus would make someone commit idolatry?

St. Paul encourages Christians to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). The clergy in Ephesus embraced and kissed Paul after his final discourse to them in Acts 20:37. As the context of these passages make clear, these are acts of affection, not adoration.

Catholics take very seriously the biblical injunctions to praise and honor great members of God’s family (see, for example, Ps. 45:17; Luke 1:48; 1 Thess. 5:12–13; 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Pet. 5:5–6). We also believe, as Scripture makes very clear, that death does not separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:38) and from his body, which is the Church (Col. 1:24). Our “elders in heaven” (cf. Rev. 5:8) should be honored as much or even more than our greatest members on earth. So having statues honoring God or great saints brings to mind the God we adore and the saints we love and respect. For Catholics, having statues is just as natural as—you guessed it—having pictures in our wallets to remind us of the ones we love here on earth. But reminding ourselves of loved ones is a far cry from idolatry.

The Jehovah’s Witness New Testament

An ex-Jehovah’s Witness, now Catholic, who we at Catholic Answers helped to come to Christ in his Church, gave me some wonderful gifts by way of old books, many of them first edition, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the publishing arm of the Jehovah’s Witnesses run by the leaders of their sect. Of note among these great gifts is a first edition copy of The New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, the official Jehovah’s Witness translation of the New Testament, first published by the Watchtower in 1950.

It is not the translation so much that makes it so valuable, though the translation is certainly important. The New World Translation is, at times, not so much a translation as it is an attempt to force Jehovah’s Witness theology into biblical texts that actually oppose it. But you can get newer editions of the translation that aren’t that much different than the old. The footnotes explicating the texts are where the real value lies in this 1950 edition.

In future blog posts, I will comment on some other examples of these footnotes, but in this post I want to focus on the footnote to John 8:58, one of many New Testament texts that contribute significantly to our understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ as fully God (of course, Christ is also fully man). And keep in mind, Jehovah’s Witnesses deny Christ’s divinity.

The Text at Hand

Let us first lay out a proper rendering of John 8:58 from the RSVCE, including verses 57 and 59 for a bit of context:

[57] The Jews then said to [Jesus], “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” [58] Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” [59] So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.

When Jesus responded to “the Jews” saying, “Before Abraham was, I am,” St. John was, no doubt, hearkening back to God’s revelation of the divine name as “I AM WHO AM,” and the shorter “I AM” in Exodus 3:13-15.

[13] Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the sons of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them? [14] God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” [15] God also said to Moses, “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘[YAHWEH], the God of… Abraham… Isaac… and… Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

In Hebrew, when God first answers Moses’s question as to what his name is, in verse 14, he says, ehyeh asher ehyeh is his name, which translates as “I am that I am.” God then tells Moses, in that same verse, to tell “the sons of Israel I AM has sent me to you.” There, God says his name is more simply ehyeh, or “I AM.” Then, in verse fifteen, he tells them that his name forever will be YHWH, commonly read and spoken as Yahweh, which translates as “I AM THAT I AM,” or “I AM WHO AM,” as St. Jerome translated it. Yahweh, it would seem, would be God’s formal name while the essence of his name is revealed simply as I AM. Metaphysically, this name reveals God to simply be. He has no beginning, no end, no lack of being; He is all perfection. He is existence itself.

It is difficult for us in the 21st century to fathom how utterly blasphemous it would have sounded for Jesus of Nazareth to dare utter the words we cited above from John 8: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” It is no wonder that in verse 59 the Jews picked up stones to kill him. He is essentially claiming the divine name for himself plainly revealing that he was and is God.

The JW Problem

Obviously, Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot leave this text as is and maintain their denial of Christ’s divinity. So what do they do? Let me now cite the New World Translation’s rendering of verse 58:

Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to you, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”

In the footnote below, the translators claim because “I am” (Greek, ego eimi) comes after an aorist infinitive clause, it is “properly rendered in the perfect indefinite tense.” Moreover, it declares, “It is not the same as [ho ohn] (ho ohn, meaning “The Being” or “The I Am”) at Exodus 3:14, LXX.”

We should note here that in the Septuagint (LXX, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament translated ca. 250-100 BC), the name God first reveals to Moses in Exodus 3:14 is “ego eimi ho ohn,” which translates as “I am the being.” With this in mind, this latter point in the NWT footnote is truly stunning. A first or second year Greek student knows that ho ohn does not mean “The I AM.” Ho ohn means “the being.” Ego eimi means “I am.” Thus, again, ego eimi ho ohn, translates literally as “I am the being.” Most likely, because the second time God tells Moses to repeat his name to the people of God, the Septuagint has God saying to Moses, “Say this to the sons of Israel, the being (Gr.—ho ohn) has sent you,” instead of what we find in the Hebrew text—I AM—in verse 14, the translator wrongly thought ho ohn could be translated as “the I am.” In fact, the translators of the Septuagint were either using bad manuscripts or just got it wrong here for whatever reason. The Hebrew text reads, “… I AM sent me to you” as we said above. But again, to think ho ohn could be translated as “the I am” reveals a truly remarkable lack of knowledge of Greek by the “translators” of the New World Translation.

Strike Two

The second error in the footnote is a bit more complicated. In short, there is no “perfect indefinite tense” in Greek. So it is odd to claim “I have been” is an example of the “perfect indefinite tense.” Apologists among Jehovah’s Witnesses will claim it is being “rendered” into English in the perfect indefinite tense, which is odd, but it could be legitimate using rules of grammar in a strict sense. We don’t use a perfect indefinite tense in modern English, but one can find older English grammars that will include it. In days past, English speakers would say things like, “I am come to the farm…” which uses “I am come” in the present tense, while carrying a perfect sense of “I have come…”

I would add here that Herbert W. Smyth says, in his classic Greek Grammar, published by Harvard University Press, there are certain Greek verbs that express “an enduring result, and may be translated by the perfect.” Heiko (I have arrived) is a good example as we find it in I John 5:20, “And we know the Son of God has come…” Has come (Gr.—heikei) is in the present tense, but denotes a perfect sense.

In John 14:9, we find Jesus responding to Philip’s insistence that he “show us the Father,” by saying, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me?” St. John used eimi for “I” here. The literal translation would be “Am I with you so long…” This is a case of the verb to be in the present tense, but used in a perfect sense.

So, even though we would argue that at best the translators should have known that there is no “perfect indefinite tense in Greek” and that, at best, they could argue for a present for perfect usage here, do the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a point here? Could John 8:58 be another case of a present for perfect? Should we translate it as “before Abraham came into existence, I have been?” The answer is no.

What the Watchtower does not take into account is the particular category of usage into which John 8:58 falls as a result of the context in which it is found. As D.A. Carson points out in his book, Exegetical Fallacies, context and usage are much more important than technical, grammatical rules. He calls these kinds of fallacies “grammatical fallacies.” While there are many possibilities when it comes to the use of words that would fall within the parameters of Greek grammar, the proper understanding of terms comes most often through discovering its actual usage in the sacred text.

Bruce Vauter, C.M., points out in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, “The ‘I am’ formula without the predicate,” as he calls it, or the “I am” without anything following it (Gr.—ego eimi) , is used frequently in John’s Gospel and elsewhere in the New Testament, with crucial antecedents in the Old Testament as well. In Mt. 14:27; Mk. 13:6; 14:62; John 4:26, 6:20, 8:24, 8:28, 18:6 and, of course, John 8:58, as we’ve seen, we find this formula used, but each time it is in the context of either some sort of miraculous intervention where Christ is revealing his divine authority, or in the context of an overt statement declaring his divinity in no uncertain terms as we saw in John 8:58. This does not mean this “formula” cannot have other meanings, but it does establish a context in which we find it often relating to Christ’s identity as more than just a man in the New Testament.

If we couple these examples with the fact that God uses this same “I am” formula in the Old Testament in texts like Exodus 3:14; Dt. 32:39; Is. 43:10; 46:4; 51:12 and more, revealing himself to be the infinite God—the I AM—without beginning and end, all perfection, being itself, etc., Jesus’ usage becomes all the more profound. Again, he is declaring himself to be God.

It is only with this understanding that so many of these above-cited New Testament texts make sense. Jesus uses the divine name just before he miraculously calms a storm, revealing his divinity in Matt. 14:27. He responds to the High Priest using the divine name resulting in the High Priest declaring him to have committed blasphemy in Mark 14:62. We saw the reaction of the Jews wanting to stone him in John 8:58. It was not punishable by death to believe wrongly that human beings could have had a pre-human existence, which is all the “I have been” translation would indicate. In fact, the pre-existence of the human soul was believed by many Jews in the first century. It would make no sense for the Jews to “[take] up stones” if this was all Jesus was saying.

Strike Three

The multiple “I am” passages–Mt. 14:27; Mk. 13:6; 14:62; John 4:26, 6:20, 8:24, 8:28, 18:6–of the New Testament are used to reveal Christ’s divinity just as their antecedent “I am” passages in the Old Testament reveal something of God’s essence as absolute being. The texts themselves, their context, and the reaction of the Jews hearing our Lord’s words make it undeniable that Jesus was here revealing that he was not only true man, but true God as well.

John 6 and the Eucharist

 

In my 2011 debate with Dr. Peter Barnes, a Presbyterian minister and apologist in Australia, the topic was the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and it centered on Jesus’ famous words in John 6:53: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” After about three hours of debate, I could sum up Barnes’s central objection in one sentence—a sentence which just happens to be found in the New Testament:

How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (John 6:52)

Dr. Barnes could not, and would not, deny the Lord said what he said in Scripture. His only recourse (as is the case with all who deny the real presence), ultimately, was to claim Jesus was speaking “metaphorically.” And after all, he had to be… right? I mean, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In other words, his ultimate objection to the Catholic and biblical position is not so much rooted in the text as it is in a fundamental incredulity when it comes to the words of the text.

I argued in that debate, and I will again in this post, that if we examine the text carefully, not only is there nothing in it that indicates Jesus was speaking purely metaphorically, but the text itself actually points in the opposite direction.

Here are the Facts

First, everyone listening to Jesus’ actual discourse 2,000 years ago believed him to have meant what he said. That is significant. This is in stark contrast to other places in the gospel where Jesus did, in fact, speak purely metaphorically. For example, when Jesus spoke of himself as a “door” in John 10, or a “vine” in John 15, we find no one to have asked, “How can this man be a door made out of wood?” Or, “How can this man claim to be a plant?”

Compare these to John 6. Jesus plainly says, in verse 51, “I am the bread come down from heaven and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (vs. 51). The Jews immediately respond, as I said above, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” They certainly understood him to mean what he said.

Moreover, when people misunderstand Jesus, he normally clears up the misunderstanding as we see in John 4:31-34 when the disciples urge our Lord to eat and our Lord responds, “I have food to eat which you do not know.” The disciples ask each other if anyone had brought any food because they thought our Lord was saying he had to bring his own food because they had forgotten to do so. They misunderstand him. But our Lord immediately clears things up saying, in verse 34, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.”

A Real Barnes Burner

In our debate, Dr. Barnes had a very interesting rejoinder to this point. He claimed, in essence, that in at least some cases when his listeners misunderstood our Lord, he purposely made no attempt to clear up the misunderstandings. And Dr. Barnes then cited three more examples claiming this to be a pattern in the gospels.

1. In John 3:3-4, Dr. Barnes claimed, Jesus left Nicodemus in the dark when after he declared to him, “… unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Response: Even a brief perusal of John 3 and John 6 shows a substantial difference between the two. In John 6:52-53, the Jews were “disputing among themselves and saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” That is the context in which Jesus then appears to confirm them in their thoughts and reiterates, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

No matter how one interprets Jesus’ response to Nicodemus beginning in John 3:5, he doesn’t come close to saying anything like, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless you climb back into your mother’s womb a second time and be born anew, you cannot have eternal life.” He says you must be “born of water and spirit… the wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (vs. 5-8).” This seems to me to be clarification that he is not speaking about climbing back into a mother’s womb. Being “born anew” is a spiritual experience that transcends literal birth from a womb.

2. In John 4:7-15, Dr. Barnes claimed, Jesus left the famous “Samaritan woman at the well” in her misunderstanding when she thought Jesus was offering her literal, physical water. But is that really what we find in the text?

Response: When Jesus asked this Samaritan woman for a drink in verse seven, she was most likely not only shocked that a Rabbi would speak to a Samaritan woman in public, but that any Jew would ask an “unclean” Samaritan to draw water for him. But in verse 10, Jesus answered her,

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.

The woman then responds, in verse 11, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” To which, Jesus responds, in verse 13-14,

Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

In verse 15, the woman then begs our Lord, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”

There is no doubt the Samaritan woman has it wrong here. But far from leaving her in her error, our Lord responds most profoundly, beginning in verse 16, “Go, call your husband…” And when the woman responds, “I have no husband,” in verse 17, Jesus reads her soul and tells her, “You are right… for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband.”

He now has her attention, to say the least. And he then turns the conversation to what he was really speaking about in terms of the “living water” he came to give that would “well up to eternal life.” In verse 23, he declares,

But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. [24] God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

When the woman then responds, in verse 25, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things,” Jesus then tells her plainly, in verse 26, “I who speak to you am he.”

It seems clear that the woman then understood that Jesus’ words were metaphorical concerning the “living water,” because she immediately “left her water jar,” went back to her fellow countrymen and urged them to, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ” (verses 28-29)? And according to verse 39, “Many Samaritans… believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Notice, she did not go and say, “You’ve got to meet this man that will give us a limitless supply of water!” She came to realize Jesus was about much more than filling war jars.

3. Dr. Barnes also claimed that when Christ said “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” in Matthew 16:6, the apostles thought he was speaking literal, which is true. But Matthew 16:11-12 could hardly be plainer that Jesus did not leave them in their ignorance:

How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread… Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Spirit vs. Flesh

There is much more about the text of John 6 and the greater context of the New Testament in general that make a “Catholic” understanding of John 6:53 unavoidable. In our debate, Dr. Barnes and I grapple with many of those texts.

But John 6:63 is probably the most important of all to deal with as a Catholic apologist. This is a verse that is set within a context where not only “the Jews” who were listening, but specifically “the disciples” themselves were struggling with what Jesus said about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.” “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it” (verse 60)? It is in this context that our Lord says to the disciples: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

The Protestant apologist will almost invariably say of this text, “See? Christ is not giving us his flesh to eat because he says ‘the flesh is of no avail.’”

There are at least four points to consider in response:

1. If Jesus was clearing up the point here, he’s a lousy teacher because he didn’t get his point across. According to verse 66, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” immediately after this statement. They obviously still believed his earlier words about “eating [his] flesh” to be literal because these “disciples” had already believed in and followed him for some time. If Jesus was here saying, “I only meant that you have to believe in me and follow me,” why would they be walking away?

2. Jesus did not say, “My flesh is of no avail.” He said, “The flesh is of no avail.” There is a big difference! He obviously would not have said my flesh avails nothing because he just spent a good portion of this same discourse telling us that his flesh would be “given for the life of the world” (John 6:51, cf. 50-58).

“The flesh” is a New Testament term often used to describe human nature apart from God’s grace (see Romans 8:1-14; I Cor. 2:14; 3:1; Mark 14:38).

3. That which is “spiritual,” or “spirit” used as an adjective as we see in John 6:63, does not necessarily refer to that which has no material substance. It often means that which is dominated or controlled by the Spirit. For example, when speaking of the resurrection of the body, St. Paul writes: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44). Does this mean we will not have a physical body in the resurrection? Of course not! Jesus made that clear after his own resurrection in Luke 24:39:

See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.

The resurrected body is spiritual and indeed we can be called spiritual as Christians inasmuch as we are controlled by the Spirit of God. Spiritual in no way means void of the material. That would be a Gnostic understanding of things, not Christian.

4. In verses 61-62, Jesus had just said, “Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?”

Jesus wants to ensure the apostles do not fall into a sort of crass literalism that would see the truth of the Eucharist in terms of gnawing bones and sinew. It is the Holy Spirit that will accomplish the miracle of Christ being able to ascend into heaven bodily while also being able to distribute his body and blood in the Eucharist for the life of the world. A human body—even a perfect one—apart from the power of the Spirit could not accomplish this.

Thus, Jesus words, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” refers to the truth that it is only the Spirit that can accomplish the miracle of the Eucharist and it is only the Holy Spirit that can empower us to believe the miracle.

Does Praying to Saints Equal Worshipping the Saints?

For many of our Protestant friends, the idea of ”praying to saints” is tantamount to adoring them as God. In his book, Answers to Catholic Claims – A Discussion of Biblical Authority, James White writes:

Prayer, it is asserted [in Scripture], is an act of worship, and we are to worship God alone.”

If this is true then Catholics are committing the sin of idolatry every time they pray to a saint. But is this true?

The Catholic Response

When Catholics say they are “praying” to God and “praying” to saints they are talking about qualitatively different things as different as a monkey is from a man. The Protestant generally only has one species in mind when he thinks of prayer—prayer to God that necessarily includes adoration. But one need only pick up a dictionary to discover there are in truth different definitions and therefore different usages of the same word, “prayer,” in English.

Prayer:

The act or practice of praying.
1.An earnest request; entreaty; supplication
2.(a) humble entreaty addressed to God, to a god, etc.: (b) a request made to God, etc.; as, her prayer for his safe return; (c) any set formula for praying, as to God.

Prayer is not, by definition, necessarily equal to the adoration that is due God alone. Prayer can certainly involve an act of adoration when it is directed to God, but the term does not necessarily denote adoration. It can simply mean “a request.”

In Old English we did not have so much of a difficulty here. One could say to another, “Pray tell…” or, “I pray thee my lord…” without raising an eyebrow. In fact, the King James Bible gives us many examples of the term “prayer” being used analogous to the way Catholics use it when we “pray” to saints. With a touch of Old English, when Bathsheba makes a request of King Solomon in I Kings 2:20, the KJV has her say: “I pray thee, say me not nay.” There was never a question here of whether the King James Bible was presenting Bathsheba as adoring her son as God, or praying to him in a way that is forbidden. It was not. Nor are Catholics when they pray to saints. Catholics certainly honor the saints when they pray to them. In other words, they do not talk to them like they would talk to the boys at the local bar and grill. They show great respect and reverence for them. But they do not adore them as they adore God alone. And they also petition them for their prayers because Scripture makes very clear that Christians need each other as members of the body of Christ (see I Cor. 12:12-27).

Defining the Difference

The Catholic Church has gone to great lengths to define the essential difference between prayer to God and prayer to saints. You may have noticed that I have been using the English word “adoration” to refer to that honor Catholics give to God alone. I do so because in Catholic tradition when using the English language, “worship” has often been used of honor given to the saints. “Adoration” is the term that has come to be used for God alone. “Worship” and “adoration” are English translations of terms the Church uses in her definitive teaching to define the difference between the honor that is given God and the honor proffered to the saints.

The Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, in AD 787, referred to this “adoration” given to God alone as latreia (Greek) or latria (Latin). This comes from a Greek root that we find in Scripture in multiple places and in different words. In Gal. 5:20, for example, we find St. Paul condemning “idolatry”— Gr.-idolatreia. This term literally means “idol-adoration” (or, popularly, “idol-worship”). Another example is found in Hebrews 9:6 where the inspired author refers to the ministry of priests in the Old Testament as offering their “ritual duties” to God (Gr.—latreias).

The Council Fathers used latria in this sense of “adoration” that ought only to be given to God. When the Council considered praying to saints, they taught that this prayer should include the honor that is owed them in justice, but never adoration. They chose to use douleia (Greek) or dulia (Latin) in order to make this distinction clear. Hence, we have an entirely different kind of prayer offered to the saints than to God. In the Council’s Doctrinal Definition, the fathers declared:

The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration {latria} in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honor these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honor paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.

Biblical Examples

The Bible teaches us we should honor great members of the Body of Christ for three essential reasons. First, out of respect for their office or position. One example of such honor is found in I Thess. 5:12-13:

But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.

Secondly, Christians are called to honor other members of the Body of Christ for what God has done through them, or more precisely, for their cooperation with God’s grace in allowing him to work through them. St. Paul tells us as much in I Tim. 5:17. Notice, he exhorts us to give “double honor” to those elders in the Church who “rule well” the household of faith:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

And we should note at this point that there is no reason to believe this honor somehow ceases at death. Revelation 5:8 reveals that we have “elders” in heaven who continue their ministry to other members of the body of Christ who would be owed honor as well.

The third reason Christians honor men and women of faith is perhaps the most important—for their holiness. True greatness in the body of Christ comes through obedience to the word of God. In Matt. 5:19-20, Jesus himself speaks of “greater” and “lesser” members of the kingdom rooted in their level of obedience to God’s commandments:

Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is a foundational principle as to why we honor the saints in heaven more so than we honor members of the body of Christ on earth. The saints in heaven are free from all sin and are truly the greatest in the kingdom; therefore, they deserve the greatest of honor.

Catholic belief that those who are truly great in the kingdom of God should be honored as such fits very well with the famous and prophetic words from our Lady herself, who prophesied in Luke 1:46-49:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

According to Revelation 21:10-14, we see God himself honors the twelve apostles by inscribing their names in the foundation of the eternal city in heaven:

And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

These texts and others we could examine are profound examples of the old axiom: grace builds upon nature. Indeed, it is deep within the race to want to honor great men and women of courage and accomplishment. One cannot visit a single city in the world that does not proudly exhibit statues and plaques honoring heroes of old. Not only is there nothing in Scripture to suggest Christians should somehow suppress this good and natural impulse, but the texts we have seen above suggest this ought to be done in a Christian context as well.

The Example Among Examples

In Gen. 33:3, Jacob “bows himself to the ground seven times” before his elder brother Esau as a sign of respect toward his elder brother. In I Kings 1:16, Bathsheba “bowed and did obeisance” before her King and husband, David, venerating the office of the king of Israel. In I Kings 2:19, King Solomon “bows to” his mother, Bathsheba, venerating the office of Queen Mother, the second highest authority in the Kingdom of David.

In the New Testament, Jesus is so insistent upon the proper honor being given among his people that he has some stern words for those who fail to get it right in this life:

Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie–behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and learn that I have loved you.

But perhaps the greatest biblical example of the veneration of the saints comes from Psalm 45 where the first 9 verses are well-known as Messianic in nature, prophesying in some detail concerning Christ the King:

My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king… In your majesty ride forth victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right… Your divine throne endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows; your robes are all fragrant… From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor.

There is no question concerning the prophetic nature and value of this passage when we consider the inspired author of Hebrews, in Hebrews 1:8-9, quoted verses 6-7 as referring to Christ, his divinity, and his kingship. Yet, there is more to this ancient Psalm about which not as many people are aware. When we examine the rest of Psalm 45:9-17, immediately following the above text, there is another prophecy that speaks of Mary:

At your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir. Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house; and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him; the people of Tyre will sue your favor with gifts, the richest of the people with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king. Instead of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.

Set in the context of a royal wedding, on the literal level, this Psalm referred to the King of Israel, probably Solomon, receiving a new bride. But on the spiritual level it refers to Christ the King in relation to the Church and Mary as spouse of the Holy Spirit. Verses 16-17 in particular speak in terms that can quite easily be seen as fulfilled in the life of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ the King, and spouse of the Holy Spirit:

Instead of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.

Not one of Solomon’s wives fits the description of being remembered in every generation. And while his mother, Bathsheba, may be remembered by many, she is hardly praised in every generation nor would she be able to fulfill a prophecy that appears to go beyond being a Queen of a small state in the Middle East. This Queen and Mother is depicted as “making… princes in all the earth.” Old Covenant Israel never covered the globe. The New Israel, the Church, certainly does. Who better fits the fulfillment of this prophecy than Mary? Every Christian—indeed most of the world beyond Christendom—knows the name of the Mother of God, Mary.

We should also consider that Psalm 45:17 may well be the text of Scripture we hear echoed in the words of Mary herself in Luke 1:48-49. The parallel is worth noting:

Psalm 45:17: “I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.”

Luke 1:48: “For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

At any rate, this great prophecy of our Lady says that all generations would “praise her?” When was the last time you heard of a Baptist singing praises to Mary and celebrating the fact that she, as Queen Mother, should be honored for giving birth to all of the brothers of Jesus (that’s us Christians) who truly are “princes throughout the earth?”

Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.

That is both Catholic and biblical stuff! If you are interested in this topic, you can get a whole lot more by clicking here.