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How Do We Know Our Faith?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 02, 2011

This is hard for us. Every day we come across people who make the wildest assertions about what is true and not true with respect to faith in God, Jesus Christ, Mary, the Saints, Christian morality, hell, heaven and so much more. Many people sound absolutely certain about these things, one way or another. And yet in reality most of them are not in the slightest position to know.

Let me take a quick case in point. I had message through our contact form yesterday, right after the beatification of John Paul II, asking how Catholics could call people holy, other than God. The subject of the message was “beautification”, which suggested a writer who knew very little about the Catholic Church, and probably had little formal education in theology. Toward the end of her message, it became clear that she mainly wanted to argue. Still, this is an instructive case in the classic Protestant mold. Here is what she wrote:

I would like to know why Catholics look at the pope as someone who is Holy. Only God is holy. Jesus is the only person who ever lived who was perfect and did not sin. He is the only one who should be looked upon as being holy, not a human person. Something is wrong here. Mary was not holy either. She needed to be saved just like we do. She was blessed among women but she was still a sinner. The Catholic religion is in trouble because you put the pope and other religious leaders above God.

There are a great many misunderstandings in this brief paragraph, yet the writer is absolutely certain she knows the truth of these matters. Despite the argumentative tone, I decided to answer. I explained that she was certainly correct that the only One who is absolutely holy, absolutely perfect, is God, but that she appeared to be confused about Catholic teaching on several other points. I tried to explain Catholic teaching with some Scriptural references, because I thought that might make things easier to accept.

Specific Issues

For example, I explained that Mary was given special gifts by God (she was “highly favored” or “full of grace” (Lk 1:28)) so that she would be a fitting mother for His Son. She cooperated completely with God’s will for her (“Let it be done unto me according to Your word” (Lk 1:38)), and so she avoided actual personal sin. She is, as Wordsworth so nicely put it, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” So Mary was not a sinner. In fact, she was immaculately conceived, preserved from all sin by an advance application of the merits of Jesus Christ. I noted that theologians called this a “preservative” redemption.

I also explained that those who are declared saints by the Catholic Church are simply declared to have achieved a high level of union with God and conformity to His will, such that they are certainly with Him in heaven. This does not mean they were perfect, and many saints were, earlier in their lives, guilty of significant sins. But they repented and gradually achieved the holiness God desired of them (“Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48)).

Finally, I explained that popes may be holy or not. Some have been significant sinners. Some have been great saints. Most have been good Christians, though not necessarily especially holy. But what Popes do have is authority. They carry on in the Church the authority given by Christ to St. Peter (“Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). “I have prayed for you that you might not defect in Faith, and you, when you have turned back [i.e., after Peter repented of his denials of Christ and was strengthened by the Holy Spirit], must confirm your brethren” (Lk 22:32). “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep” (Jn 21:15-17). “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).)

For this reason, I concluded, it is ultimately the successors of Peter, the popes, who are the sure guide for the Church, preserving it from teaching any error, ensuring the sacredness and power of its sacraments, stimulating its members to holiness, despite their many sins—for the Church is at once a group of sinners in desperate need of Christ and the bride of Christ “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph 5:27).

You can probably guess from the tone of the original “inquiry” that this response did not result in immediate agreement. Instead, today I received the following:

Yes she did get pregnant the first time supernaturally by the Holy Spirit. Nowhere in the Bible does it say she was not a sinner. Show me where it says that. Read Luke 1:46-47. And Mary said “My soul glorifies in the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She says “in God my Savior” meaning she also needed a Savior; she was not perfect, she was a sinner too. You do know that once she got married she did have sex and have other children.
Jesus is the only person who ever lived without sin. Read Hebrews 4:15. The Bible also says it is a sin to worship idols and other gods. When people pray to Mary that is exactly what they are doing—idol worship. Mary is to be respected and she is blessed among women, but that is it.

The Root of the Problem

Now this response brings us to a critical point. The primary issue here is not differing assertions about Mary. The primary issue is this: How do we know? My correspondent makes two enormous epistemological assumptions: First, that everything we can know about these matters is in Scripture (“Nowhere in the Bible does it say she was not a sinner”). Second, whatever Scripture says it says plainly and obviously (“Show me where it says that…. Read Luke 1:46-47… Read Hebrews 4:15”). Yet when we follow her references, we see that they are insufficient to prove her case. And we might well ask, how can mere flesh and blood assert a definitive meaning for a passage of Scripture anyway?

I tried to get at these problems in a follow-up reply:

Yes, Mary needed a savior. I had already said that she was redeemed preservatively. In God’s plan, she was apparently conceived without original sin by virtue of the merits of Christ’s redemption (for God, of course, is outside time). But the angel addressed her as “full of grace”, and during her life on earth she conformed her will perfectly to God’s, and did not commit any actual sins. This is the unbroken Christian tradition from the first century, not significantly questioned until after the Protestant revolt in the 16th century.

As you can see, this second response attempts to address both epistemological concerns: (1) It is not as easy to interpret Scripture as we may think; and (2) There is something other than Scripture necessary here. I also addressed her classic Protestant misunderstanding of Catholic devotion to Mary and the saints, a devotion which is fundamentally intercessory in character, and I explained why this has nothing to do with idolatry. But it is the “something other than Scripture necessary” which is the crux of the entire discussion.

Therefore, I explained that there is also an unbroken Christian tradition concerning the fact that Mary did not have children other than Jesus. It is certainly not fitting—and, indeed, probably ridiculous on its face—to assume that a woman who was in effect the spouse of the Holy Spirit in conceiving the Christ would ever have had relations with a man, or that she had children by Joseph or anyone else right along with Jesus. And of course we know that she did not do this. First, she had a vow of virginity, which is why she asked the angel, “How can this be since I do not know man?” (Lk 1:34). More important, we have once again the unanimous and unbroken (until very late) Christian tradition that Jesus was her only son.

The value of this tradition is twofold. It tells us what the earliest Christians understood Scripture to mean, and it provides an additional source of revealed truth in its own right, in fact one that is prior to Scripture itself.

A Question for All of Us

It is at this point that I must direct the discussion away from this one correspondent, so that we might all take seriously the need to consider very carefully the means by which we know what God has really revealed. This particular lady, like millions of other people, is absolutely certain that she knows, yet she is really simply repeating what she has been taught by others. On examination, her arguments are completely circular; they reveal no basis for secure knowledge whatsoever. They reveal instead assumptions about Scripture and about her own reading of Scripture, assumptions so baseless that they can never result in a secure grasp of Truth. She believes it is self-evident that Scripture contains all of these truths, when it is not self-evident at all; and she believes the truths themselves are self-evident as expressed therein, even when her citations could be (and have been) read a hundred different ways.

So now we have to ask ourselves how it is that we know our Faith. We cannot know everything from Scripture, both because people disagree in their interpretations and because even Scripture itself says that not everything is in in Scripture (to take but one example, John says this specifically in his Gospel, chapter 21, verse 25). But the even deeper question is how we know what alleged Scriptural books are truly inspired. Why accept Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but not the early alleged gospels of Peter or of Judas?

It is only by the authority of the Church, as manifested in her judgments and approved traditions, that we even know what constitutes the inspired Word of God. No Protestant would know this apart from the tradition and usage of the early Christian community as passed on and affirmed by that community’s authoritative leaders, the early bishops, councils and popes. And it is from these same traditions and this same authority that we learn definitively that Revelation comes to us from two sources, Scripture and Tradition; that Christ established a Church with authority to hand on this Revelation free from error; and that He gave a special power to secure that authority to Peter and his successors, and to the apostles and their successors in union with him. Apart from this, everything is mere assumption and mere assertion, which gets us nowhere at all.

The problem of how we know our Faith is not, of course, limited to Christians. Those who adhere to other religious faiths, or even faith in nothing supernatural at all, have no way of knowing the truth of their respective convictions apart from discovering some revelation. The reason is simple: Supernatural truths cannot be learned independently by human persons, who are capable of learning only natural things through their own powers. Moreover, to claim legitimacy as a true revelation, the body of knowledge in question must be delivered with attendant signs and wonders such as can make its divine origin unmistakable. (When, I wonder, will the world see that this immediately eliminates the claims of every religion but Judaism and Christianity?)

And once we have found that Revelation, we have a further problem, the problem I have been discussing here. Are truths that go beyond nature likely to be self-evident and simple to understand for those who are purely natural, with all their attendant weaknesses? Will there not be, inevitably, countless misunderstandings, arguments and conflicts over what the Revelation means, how it is to be understood? I submit that Revelation is totally unworkable unless an obvious authority is established by God Himself to guarantee and interpret that Revelation over time, for succeeding generations. The great Blessed John Henry Newman, as I have said so many times, had it right when he argued this point. There simply cannot be so great a difference in dispensation between the first Christians and ourselves, Newman said, such that they had a living and infallible guide and we have not. Such a dramatic shift is unworkable. It is, in truth, unthinkable.

Getting Serious

I am in danger of writing these things, I suppose, for the thousandth time. But we absolutely must carefully consider how we know our faith, whatever our faith may be. Taking it for granted and thus insisting on its obvious truth is not nearly enough. There must be a Revelation which we can reasonably certify as a Revelation, and which further includes within it provision for a living, protective and interpretive authority. This is, in fact, what we mean when we refer to the “authority principle” which is ultimately unique to Catholicism. Anything else is sheer presumption; under any other kind of system, we cannot escape talking through our hats. It follows that if we cannot identify such a system, we have no warrant to assert what we cannot possibly know.

As human persons, of course, we have a terrible propensity to take things for granted. Once we take them for granted, we find it difficult to see how anyone else could question our convictions, for they appear to us to be obvious and certain. What I said at the outset is true: This is very, very hard for us. But in matters which concern God, do we not owe a little more effort? We ought to begin that effort by asking how we know the things we claim to believe, whether they arise from traditional sources or modern nihilism. The question can be frightening; it can disrupt our relationships and destroy our sense of security. Even among Catholics it can challenge our commitments and incur the wrath of the lukewarm. But to fail to ask is to accept mediocrity. To fail to ask is to deny what it means to be fully human. And to fail to ask is to turn our backs on God.

We are not, I hope, mere parrots. When it comes to God questions, I ask my correspondent and I ask every reader exactly what I ask myself: How, then, do we know what we claim to know?

Note: This line of thought is continued in The Exegesis of the Reformers: Authority Redux.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jun. 27, 2011 11:09 AM ET USA

    This is great, Jeff, and I thank you. I would like to know from the protestant lady, however, where does it say in Scripture that Mary was a sinner? If she could point that out, we could all go home. A protestant acquaintance years ago told me that once she understood that Catholics do not idolize Mary but venerate her instead, she began to look at the Faith in whole new light. Too bad she moved away! Also, many thanks for your clarification of Mary's virginity.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 08, 2011 1:57 PM ET USA

    Great Stuff!! Trust, authority, decision, choice - yes. I have a relative whom I spent a great deal of time with discussing the same. The question that kept coming back essentially is 'but how do we know?'. I have a Francisican Priest friend now in Heaven with God. He used to tell me he worked with students and many were protestant. A few protestants told him they agree with everything Catholic but just could not believe. I remember him telling me we must never forget our Faith is a gift

  • Posted by: - May. 08, 2011 8:02 AM ET USA

    After attending a Bar Mitzvah, my 6th grade daughter asked “How do we know our religion is true?” I answered, “That’s a great question. We all trust someone—parents, friends, teachers. They teach us about our religion. Someday, we begin to question it. Then, we need to make a decision, a choice. The choice we make will change the world.” Hopefully, my real-time answer caught the essence of it. I think we are called to answer this question for ourselves every day.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 07, 2011 6:11 PM ET USA

    Yes, all very true - indeed. But faith - real, personal, awareness, relationship, belief in the unseen is something else entirely. Certainly, the reality of the RCC (with all of her Tradition and traditions, monasteries, art, cathedrals, Mass & Sacraments...) is a testament to the Faith and our faith: Of course without the Sacramants and Mass we have no strength ...but faith in Jesus - that ability to say 'Yes' continuing with the struggle - is what makes all of this possible.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 07, 2011 5:26 PM ET USA

    Sometimes the editing to fit a comment into the alotted space results in lack of clarity. The comment that Our Lord was (IS) truly human was meant to express that during his life on Earth, he truly experienced human emotions. The Bible records that he wept and that he suffered great distress during his agony in the Garden. He knows that we need more than a book to sustain us in life. Thus, we have the gift of the Church and the great help and consolation she is to us in this veil of tears.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 06, 2011 9:18 PM ET USA

    Thanks for the apologetic on Faith. Our Lord was truly human, and the Roman Catholic Church was founded to benefit humans. We have living Tradition, living sacraments, living confessors etc. which serve to elevate our minds, hearts and souls to God. Check out the barrenness of a typical Protestant sanctuary. Our Lord has provided us with a Church which tends to the whole human person. In her teachings, her sacraments and her liturgy, the Church bridges the gap between human and divine.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 04, 2011 10:51 PM ET USA

    I struggle with the question on a daily basis - in a good way. Yes, how do we know? There really is not enough room here to do justice to an answer. We've briefly talked about Faith & Belief before and I think this starts to get into that difference. Trust, assent, reason, logic, induction / deduction but let's not forget the gift through the Grace of the Holy Spirit. To me, knowledge of and about God comes via God's Grace primarily through lived relatiohships than any other way.

  • Posted by: 1russellclan9303 - May. 04, 2011 12:30 AM ET USA

    AMEN! I too am a convert, and would like to applaud this explanation. I have tried to reason with several people on these same topics, to no avail. This gives me a succinct backup source. Thanks a bunch for posting it.

  • Posted by: jjen009 - May. 02, 2011 7:05 PM ET USA

    Some things we can only know by reason and history - the existence of God, the divine mission of Jesus, the authority of the Church. But it was a liberating experience for me, when I became a Catholic, from having been a Protestant, to know that in cases where I could not understand the revelation of God - whether in the Bible or in tradition - there was someone trustworthy I could ask. Matthew 18:17 - if he will not listen to the Church...