Roman Catholicism and the Jerusalem Council

The Church and the Apostolic Decree of Acts XV

by Geert ter Horst

 

For Christians today the principle of abstaining “from pollutions of idols”, the first precept of the Apostolic Council of Acts XV (15:20, 29) often sounds antiquated, because in our secular society institutionalized idolatry no longer seems to exist. But in important respects this situation is one of superficial appearance. On second thoughts, large sections of Christianity itself are contaminated by idolatry and superstitition, based on swerving from biblical truth. It may be hard to digest for us that idolatry is found in the people of G-d. There is nothing new in this, however, and it is a problem of all times. As Messianics we should acknowledge this sad state of affairs, and do our best to rectify it by our own walk of life and by thoughtfully and lovingly drawing our fellow believers’ attention to it.

Modern Messianic Judaism to a large extent finds its historical roots in diverse sections of evangelical Christianity. Naturally, therefore, Messianics have inherited many characterics of the mindset of evangelical Christians. Even if Torah observance has brought many changes to their ideas as well as in their practical walk of life, Messianics are often maintaining two typical features of evangelical Christians. These are: 1) An emphasis on the necessity of personal faith in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus Christ) for eternal salvation; and 2) A certain disregard for typical traditional denominational distinctions.

These two features are part of a biblical mindset which should be cherised as the right mean between the two dangers of, on the one hand, a denominational small-mindedness excluding true believers, and, on the other hand, an ecumenical latitudinarianism or liberalism compromising the core of the Gospel message.

The introduction of a positive orientation towards the Torah, however, has added some new biblical sensibilities to the messianic mindset. One of the more conspicuous of these is the heightened awareness of the evil nature of idolatry and sins associated with it. Although this awareness is part and parcel of Christianity in general — and of Protestantism in particular — in a messianic context it acquires new practical meaning. This is due, mainly, to the fact that the Apostolic Decree of the Jerusalem Council is given far greater weight and attention in messianic circles than in average Christianity. For non-trinitarian Messianics there is the important additional point that the doctrine of the Deity of Messiah is exposed as false in the light of Scripture.

In our days, when many Church traditions are crumbling and old denominational differences no longer paid attention to, evangelicals often face the question how to approach Catholics, especially Roman Catholics: Are they to be considered Christians? And what practical implications do we face in our intercourse with Catholics? Can we work and worship together with them? These questions are even more topical for Messianics than for evangelical Christians in general, given the vague taint of idolatry that surrounds Catholicism. For Messianics indications of idolatry are especially alarming, as I have said above, and for them the just mentioned questions amount to this critical and very fundamental issue: Are Roman Catholics Christians or are they idolaters? From a messianic viewpoint our answer to this question and its practical ramifications should to a great extent be based on the precepts of the Jerusalem Council in Acts ch. XV.

The first thing one should take into account when dealing with the world-wide phenomenon of the Roman Catholic Church is that the overwhelming majority of its members are only nominal Catholics. They don’t actively subscribe to their Church’s doctrinal teachings and far less do follow its practical religious and moral precepts. They are baptized members that in many cases want to have a Church wedding and a Church burial, but that apart from some attraction to these life-cycle rituals show no particular Christian religious interest. This state of affairs leads to low expectations about the number of Roman Catholics that can be considered Christians from a biblical point of view. Evangelical Christians — and there are good reasons to reckon Messianics as Evangelicals in this question — are often misled here by the impressive liturgical traditions of Catholicism, by its staunch hierarchical and authoritarian structure, and by its official orthodoxy regarding the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

The two biblical verses that are the shortest and simplest expressions of the Gospel message found in the Bible are perhaps John 3:16 and Romans 10:9. John 3:16 says: “G-d so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life”. Romans 10:9 says: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Yeshua, and shalt believe in thine heart that G-d hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved”.

If, with these verses in mind, one asks Roman Catholics about their personal faith and trust in Yeshua one almost always gets evasive and non-committal answers, sometimes even clear denials of faith. Only very seldom one gets a positive affirmation of belief “in Christ”. One of the most often given positive answers is that they believe “in the Church”, without being able to specify what that means or implies. Cardinal John Henry Newman, the famous XIXth century Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism, elaborated on this faith “in the Church” in his Grammar of Assent. He defended the position that for the average Catholic it is enough to have “implicit faith”. By this he meant to say that the explicit affirmation of belief “in the Catholic Church” — which is a distinct article of faith in the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds — includes implicit assent to all the Church’s teachings and precepts. He says:

The difficulty is removed by the dogma of the Church’s infallibility, and of the consequent duty of “implicit faith” in her word. The “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic’s mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church. [1]

It can hardly be admitted, however, that such “implicit faith” qualifies as saving faith in the biblical sense. Biblical faith is trusting faithfulness in the G-d of Israel and his Anointed one, Yeshua. The implicit faith of Cardinal Newman isn’t the personal trust in G-d as found in Abraham, the father of all the faithful, and described by the words: “And he believed in HaShem; and He counted it unto him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The biblical faith is an explicit faith in G-d and in the message that comes from G-d. An implicit faith based on reliance on the teachings of a religious body without the requirement of any explicit personal commitment to the person of the Saviour and the contents of the message is certainly not enough for salvation. In his epistle to the Romans the Apostle Paul says (10:13) that “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”. And he continues (10:14-15): “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!”.

This construction of “implicit faith” finds its theological motivation in the impossibility of the average Christian to have an adequate theological knowledge of the mysteries of faith which he affirms in the Church’s Creed. How, for instance, is it said, could a simple Catholic ever have a true faith if this faith were dependent on his own personal theological knowledge? To correctly believe what is called the “mystery of the Holy Trinity” he would have to understand that in the One G-d there are two processions, three persons, four subsistent relations and five notions.

The problem with this motivation is, however, that it offers a solution for a difficulty that doesn’t exist from a biblical and evangelical viewpoint. The Bible doesn’t teach us the “mysteries” of Catholicism and doesn’t demand our “faith” in them. It demands returning to G-d in true repentance and amendment of life, trusting in Him and in the redemption He made available for us in the person and work of Messiah Yeshua, and walking a life of continual trusting faithfulness. As to doctrinal truth, part of this walk of faithfulness is of course to become acquainted with Holy Scripture and to accept its teachings.

By comparing the basic biblical attitude of faith, which is trusting faithfulness, and “faith” as understood by Catholicism, which is the affirmation of dogmatic Church doctrine, one becomes aware of a fundamental distortion of the nature of faith caused by Roman Church doctrine. Although this Church theoretically holds that faith without love is dead and that to be saved a person has to be in what is called “the state or condition of grace”, all this only points to the fact that the Catholic expects his salvation from the Church institution rather than from Jesus Christ personally. For, one may ask, what is this Catholic “state of grace”? It is being baptized in a valid manner and having subjected oneself to the authority of the Roman Church, especially in the domains of doctrine and morals, and practically in the manner of confessing and doing repentance. This practice consists in regular auricular confession of one’s sins to a Roman priest and doing the “acts of penance” imposed or recommended by him.

Essentially, thus, subjection to the Roman Church is what is presented here as the way of salvation. In fact this is not salvation in a biblical sense at all. One can state without exaggeration that — because of the enormous doctrinal errors found in Roman Catholic teaching — there is hardly any officially proclaimed dogma of the Church that has the mark of truth according to biblical standards. Many of the Church’s teachings are outrightly superstitious or idolatrous in nature from a biblical perspective. It is well-known that idolatry and superstition are among the worst sins mentioned in the Torah, and that idolatry was one of the main concerns of the Jerusalem Council of Acts XV. Idolatry and superstition are very grave sins, because they directly impair the relationship with the only true G-d. The endorsement of idolatry and superstition throughout history by the Roman Church is therefore one of  the most worrisome and troubling characteristics of this religious body. This Church has teachings and practices which cause its members to sin gravely by adhering to them and which actually endanger the salvific relationship of the true believer with his heavenly Father.

The idolatry committed by the Roman Church is nowhere clearer than in its main act of worship, the “Mass”. The Roman Catholic Mass pretends to be a representative repetition of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ under the species of bread and wine used for its version of “Holy Communion”. The Church teaches that the bread and wine used in the celebration are transsubstantiated by the “consecration formula” (“This is my body, …&c”; “This is the blood of the New Covenant…&c”). These elements are taught to become the very body and blood of Jesus Christ. While the outward appearance of the bread and wine remains intact, the real being or substance of it is changed in Christ’s body and blood. Since the body and blood of Christ do not exist apart from his soul the Church teaches that “the whole Christ” is contained in the Sacrament. The Roman Catholic dogma that Jesus Christ is G-d implies here that the transsubstantiated substances of bread and wine of the Roman Eucharist contain G-d Himself and thus are worthy of divine worship and adoration. A piece of bread is thus honored as if it were G-d Himself. [2]

One the abominable consequences of this doctrine of Transsubstantiation is the teaching that a person drinking the wine of the Eucharist doesn’t actually drink wine at all, but the literal substance of the blood of Christ. It may smell and taste like wine, but its essence is the human blood of Christ. Likewise, the person eating the bread of the Eucharist is literally eating the substance of Christ’s body.

From this it is evident that what happens in the Roman Mass is nothing less than an outright perversion of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as depicted in the Gospels and in Paul’s first Corinthian letter. On the one side what we have here is earthly products made by humans being elevated to the sphere of the divine and superstitiously and idolatrously worshipped as G-d. And on the other side we have those partaking of the “sacramental species” according to their own profession of faith literally eating human flesh and blood.

No long argument is needed to demonstrate that any consumption of human flesh and blood is totally contrary to biblical teaching. The Roman doctrine doesn’t only violate the kashrut laws of Judaism. It violates basic concepts of the Torah that are obligatory for all mankind. Human flesh and blood are prohibited food for all, even if one holds the position that Gentile Christians are only bound by the laws given to Noach. The meat permitted to Noachides in Gen. 9:3 is clearly the meat from animals, not from humans. From this it follows that the consumption of human blood is already excluded even apart from the explicit prohibition against blood in Gen. 9:4.

The Apostolic Council by its four prohibitions ordained that Gentiles could not be admitted to the fold of believers in Yeshua unless they separated themselves from paganism and idolatry. Therefore the new Gentile believers were summoned to abstain from “meats offered to idols” (Acts 15:29). Roman Catholicism publicly sins against this apostolic injunction by insisting that the bread of the Eucharist is the literal flesh of Jesus and by honouring it with divine worship. One of the characteristics of paganism in the days of the Apostles was the consumption of (sacrificial) blood. Therefore Gentiles had to abstain from it before they could be admitted as genuine believers. Roman Catholicism, however, publicly sins against this verdict of the Apostles by its teaching that the wine of the Eucharist is turned into the literal blood of Jesus by the consecration of the Roman priest. By biblical criteria the Roman Mass is thus exposed as a public act of idolatry.

This leads to the devastating conclusion that the Apostles wouldn’t have admitted Roman Catholics — had they existed in their days — to the Assembly of believers. I’m well aware of the fact that this conclusion is anachronistic, but yet it reveals the enormous deviations from apostolic teaching that have taken place in the later history of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, which adorns itself with the gift of infallibilty in its dogmatic and moral teachings, would never have been acknowledged by the same Apostles it so vehemently claims to follow as a legitimate community of believers.

It does not simply follow from this that in Catholicism there are no true believers in Yeshua at all. They are difficult to find, however, and without doubt they are a tiny minority in a sea of unbelief and superstition. But what does actually follow from this is that the average Catholic cannot be accepted as a true believer, and that Catholics who want to stay in the Roman Church cannot without relunctance be acknowledged by messianic congregations as fellow believers. It would be very problematic to admit Catholics in Messianic congregations without requiring them to sever their ties with a Church which by its own official act of worship commits a sin of idolatry. It would violate the prohibitions of the Apostolic Decree to have Catholics admitted to messianic congregations while remaining in practical communion with the Church of Rome.

How should Torah observant Messianics relate to Roman Catholics? While it is clear that Catholics are not outright pagans, in most cases they are only nominal Christians. Therefore I think we should follow the general guidelines of the Apostles for relating to unbelievers and approach Catholics as non-believers. We may eat with them, according to the permission of the Apostle (1 Cor. 11:27), but we should not participate in or attend their religious ceremonies, since these are tainted with idolatry and superstitition. Above all, we should bring them the true Gospel of Yeshua and try to open their hearts and minds for the Jewishness of the Messiah. We should try to use the elementary knowledge Catholics have of the biblical story to remind them that the true capital of the faith is Jerusalem, not Rome. It is a matter of life and death for them to get out of the paganized and anti-Jewish Christianity of the Roman Church, and be led to the King of the Jews. For when Messiah will return he’ll destroy the Roman Church and set up the Kingdom of Israel.

__________________

[1] Newman, p. 150, at: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/grammar/chapter5-2.html  [J.H. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Longmans, Green & Co. — London · New York · Bombay 1903]

[2] Many Protestant denominations agree with the Roman dogma of the Deity of Christ. The dangers of public idolatry is less great, however, in the Protestant liturgy, because in their official worship these Churches often follow the biblical pattern of praying to the Father “through Jesus Christ our Lord”. In practice they honour Jesus Christ more as the human mediator with G-d than as member of the “Holy Trinity”. They don’t subscribe to the doctrine of Transsubstantiation and thus don’t worship any visible material substance.

Advertisements

1 Response to “Roman Catholicism and the Jerusalem Council”


  1. 1 Leslie April 3, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    You, again, have written a truthful, clear, article. Many people, unless they have been in the Catholic church as members for several years, do not understand just what their teachings are. My husband and I were those nominal Catholic christians. I have been told by one Messianic teacher that if we are not Jewish, we should go back to the “church”. We cannot do that, as we were never in a church to begin with. We were only Catholics, then came to Torah-observance. As a Catholic, I remember wearing a scapula (a necklace with two square pieces of cloth at either end), which said, (paraphrasing), “Anyone who dies with this on, goes immediately to heaven.” I used to ask myself, so if someone is wearing this while they are murdering someone, they go right to heaven? I also was around during the change in the church from Vatican I to Vatican II. Some of what happened is they re-defined what was sin. I must have been around 7. It was a very confusing time for me and even then I knew God never changes (where I got that from I have no idea. So many of the practices of the Catholic church made no sense to us, which is why we started looking elsewhere. And, we NEVER read the Bible while we were Catholics. What a tragedy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s





%d bloggers like this: