Note: Because I will compare Catholicism and Mormonism in much more detail, this post is concerned only with the validity and truth claims those Christian faiths that claim to have unbroken apostolic succession back to the original twelve disciples.
Even having determined that Christianity is true, and that apostolic Christianity is the most reliable and reasonable of Christian models, it remains to be seen which of the bodies claiming to have valid apostolic succession is the most true, all parts considered.
I have found that when approaching such an important and complex question it is very important to employ the various methods by which truth claims may be assessed (for example, history and philosophy), and to consider only the best arguments each side has to offer, since to do otherwise would be intellectually dishonest. As an example of why it is important to employ more than one method for determining truth, let us consider a crime scene:
In a third story Cleveland penthouse a man has been found dead with a large bruise on his head and a heavy metal pipe a few meters away from his corpse. Aside from this head wound, he appears to have been in good health. The detectives assigned to the scene, having only external data to speculate about how this man died, think it obvious that it was the impact from the metal pipe to the head that killed him. Following standard procedure, the corpse is eventually taken to the forensics experts where the body is not just examined externally, but through medical tests as well. These medical tests reveal that the bruise on the man's head was a week old at the time of his death, and that the actual cause of death was poisoning.As in this story, if one utilizes only one method of investigation they may not see the whole picture, and what they believe to be true, even with reason, may be erroneous.
The four major branches of self-identifying as apostolic today are the Catholic Communion, Eastern Orthodox Communion, Oriental Orthodox Communion, and the Anglican Communion. I have spent time worshiping with, and have seriously considered all but the Oriental Orthodox tradition, which I have studied briefly, and while I believe it is important to learn about these traditions I do not think it is necessary to do an exhaustive study of each body to discern which has the best claim to truth. Instead I propose that this determination can be made by addressing two questions: 1) Which of these traditions best fits the Biblical narrative, evidence, and other early Christian records (history)? 2) Which of these traditions offers the best explanatory power of the human condition, and the best philosophical and moral tradition (philosophy and theology)?
1. The question of whether evidence for the apostolic structure could be found in the Bible was addressed in my previous post (see here). Evidence from the Bible alone doesn't seem to support any of these traditions above the other. All believe in the church structure, method of priestly ordination, and method by which this ordination takes place in the New Testament. There is one exception to this apparent equality of support. In Matthew 16:18-19, a verse that has been heavily debated among Christians and biblical scholars, Christ singles out Simon Peter:
18 And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.19 And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.
Members of the Roman Catholic Church typically points to these verses above all others as evidence of their claim that the Bishop of Rome, who is the successor of St. Peter, holds primacy above all other bishops, and additionally an infallibility for the purpose of clarifying and preserving doctrine. The objections to this argument have been various. Some Orthodox Christians acknowledge, for instance, that Peter is indeed the rock upon which Christ establishes his church, and he does indeed hold a primacy among bishops, but he is not infallible. Others deny that Peter is the rock at all. However, considering the linguistic background of this passage, and further, what it clearly seems to be saying, it seems that Peter is indeed the rock to which Christ is referring. Martin Luther himself states:
Why are you searching heavenward in search of my keys? Do you not understand, Jesus said, 'I gave them to Peter. They are indeed the keys of heaven, but they are not found in heaven for I left them on earth. Peter's mouth is my mouth, his tongue is my key case, his keys are my keys. They are an office. They are a power, a command given by God through Christ to all of Christendom for the retaining and remitting of the sins of men. (Martin Luther 1530 - after he left the Church)And further, the Protestant biblical scholar W.F. Albright states the following: "Peter as the Rock will be the foundation of the future community, the church....To deny the pre-eminent position of Peter among the disciples or in the early Christian community is a denial of the evidence."
While the Greek translation of Matthew 16:18-19 does indeed use two different forms of the word rock (the masculine Petros for Simon Peter and the feminine petra for "rock"), it is important to remember that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and there is no such masculine-feminine distinction for the word "rock", which in Aramaic is "Keepa." (see Aramaic translation here)
There are also various instances in which the Early Church Fathers identify Peter as the rock and foundation of the Church. Here are just three early examples:
"Was anything hid from Peter, who was called the Rock, whereon the Church was built; who obtained the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the power of loosing and of binding in heaven and on earth?" (Tertullian, De Praescript Haeret. 220 AD).
"There is one God and one Christ and but one episcopal chair, originally founded on Peter, by the Lord's authority. There cannot, therefore, be set up another altar or another priesthood. Whatever any man in his rage or rashness shall appoint, in defiance of the divine institution, must be a spurious, profane and sacrilegious ordinance" (St. Cyprian, The Unity of the Catholic Church. 246 AD)
"Peter, also to whom the Lord commends His sheep to be fed and guarded, on whom He laid the foundation of the Church ...." (Cyprian, De Habitu Virg. 246 AD).
The evidence demonstrates that Peter held at least a primacy among the original twelve apostles. For further reading on this topic, see the following links:
Was Peter the Rock? The "little rock, big rock" theory.
"Is St. Peter the Rock on which Jesus built his Church?" by Jimmy Akin
While the above evidence does seem to give support to the claims of the church of Rome, it must be acknowledged, as many non-Catholic Christians claim, that this primacy may have been different than what the Roman Catholic Church claims it to be. Thus more historical evidence is needed to assess the claims of Rome. Here is an interesting article called "How the Robber Council Establishes the Papacy" written by Joe Heschmeyer that provides such evidence.
2. Lets suppose that the biblical and historical evidence is inconclusive and we are left still unsure of which apostolic tradition is true. What signposts could we then look for? This is where I believe we should consider how each tradition has preserved its doctrines and the philosophical and moral foundations the church is founded upon.
Of all the faiths here being considered, I believe the Roman Catholic faith has been more unwavering and constant in its doctrines. It is important to keep in mind that there may be times when such a change is necessary.Going forward, then, I will briefly consider a few changes and preservation that have taken place in Christendom to determine whether such changes to or preservation of doctrine give credibility to one of the bodies we are considering over the others.
Until the Lambeth Conference of 1930 there existed agreement among the apostolic churches on three major issues: 1) the use of contraception is immoral 2) Priests are to be men, and 3) The Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Christ. However, the Anglican communion at this conference reversed 1900 years of Christian tradition by declaring that birth control could be used in limited circumstances. Since this time the Eastern Orthodox Church has taken a somewhat ambiguous stance. Rather than explicitly condoning or forbidding the faithful to use contraception, they instead hold that it is between a married couple and their priest as to whether the use of artificial contraception is permissible. Thus in one parish contraception may be forbidden, while in the parish in the next town over it is permitted. The Roman Catholic Church and Oriental Orthodox Communion maintain their opposition to contraception. Let us look at what earlier Christian figures have had to say about contraception:
Clement of Alexandria
"Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted" (The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 [A.D. 191]).
Epiphanius of Salamis
"They [certain Egyptian heretics] exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption" (Medicine Chest Against Heresies 26:5:2 [A.D. 375]).
"This proves that you [Manicheans] approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore, whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage and makes the woman not a wife but a mistress, who for some gifts presented to her is joined to the man to gratify his passion" (The Morals of the Manichees 18:65 [A.D. 388]).John Calvin
It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is double horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born. This wickedness is now as severely as is possible condemned by the Spirit, through Moses, that Onan, as it were, through a violent and untimely birth, tore away the seed of his brother out the womb, and as cruel as shamefully has thrown on the earth. Moreover he thus has, as much as was in his power, tried to destroy a part of the human race. When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime. Onan was guilty of a similar crime. (Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis, vol. 2, part 16)
“[T]he exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches . . . is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her—that is, he lies with her and copulates—and, when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime. . . . Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore, God punished him” (Luther’s Commentary on Genesis)While there is clear evidence that, for the large part of Christian history, contraceptive sex has been seen as immoral, one may argue (and many do) that such perspectives are archaic and do not apply to the modern world in which we live. To assess the strength of this modern objection we should consider the foundations upon which such arguments are built. Because the contraception debate is an entire series of posts in and of itself I will, for the time being, let minds better than mine make the case against contraception:
Why Contraception Is a Bad Idea #1 — Natural Law
"Contraception and Chastity" by Elizabeth Anscombe
For the purpose of this post here it is only necessary to note that for most of the Christian tradition, contraception was seen as immoral, and there are still persuasive arguments to be made against it.
An issue just as controversial (perhaps more so) in modern Christendom is that of female ordination. Like contraception, it true that only until the last century, priests in the apostolic traditions had only been men, and this tradition continues in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Thus the Anglican communion has tradition working against it. However, as has been previously stated, it is theoretically possible that tradition can be wrong on such matters, and to determine whether a male only priesthood is justified it is important to consider the underlying arguments.
Proponents of female ordination seem to believe the only relevant question is whether or not women can perform equally as well the duties of the priesthood. Even Catholics and Orthodox Christians will acknowledge that from a certain perspective the answer is clearly yes. For instance, women can love Christ, parishioners, recite prayers and verses just as well as men. If factors such as these were the only requirements for the priesthood, then Catholic, Orthodox, and any other religious body restricting the priesthood to males alone would be in the wrong. However, there is a way and which women are not qualified to be priests. Simply put, they are not men. Just as only men have the necessary properties to be fathers, so to do only men have the necessary properties to be priestly fathers. This claim acknowledges the important metaphysical distinction between the masculine and feminine, which holds that there are more differences between men and women than just their physical characteristics. Peter Kreeft touches on this point in this article, stating:
Advocates of women's ordination usually misunderstand sexual symbolism because they misunderstand symbolism itself as radically as they misunderstand authority. They think of symbols as man-made and artificial. They do not see that there are profound and unchangeable natural symbols, that things can be signs. Saint Thomas Aquinas based his multiple method of scriptural exegesis on this eminently sound but tragically forgotten principle. He writes: "The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do) but also by things themselves. So whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science [sacred science] has the property that the things signified by the words [of Scripture] have themselves a signification. Therefore that first signification, whereby words signify things, belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal and presupposes it."The notable C.S. Lewis continues on a similar note, stating:
Why should a woman not in this [priestly] sense represent God?... Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to 'Our Mother which art in Heaven' as to 'Our Father'. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.... ...Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say... that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin... And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but against Christianity.... It is also surely based on a shallow view of imagery.... ...One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church.
For more on why only men ought to be priests, see the following:
Why The Catholic Priesthood Is Composed of Dudes
"WHY WOMEN CAN'T BE PRIESTS" by Mary DeTurris
I believe that the Roman Catholic Church has the best claim to truth because I believe it has best maintained the Christian tradition. I believe that the office held by the Bishop of Rome provides the best answer to the question of how true doctrine is to be known and preserved. Further, I believe along with the Roman Catholic Church that the Church should not get with the times, but that the times should conform to the Church. It is an unwavering pillar of truth in a world of relativism.
Orthodoxy has thus far maintained much good in it. It retains valid ordination, valid sacraments, and promotes virtuous behavior. However, beyond separating itself from Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy has partially succumbed to modernity by holding that, in some instances, contraception is permissible. Further, I enjoy that as a Roman Catholic Christian one has available the theological traditions of both East and West available, whereas Eastern Orthodox Christians are restricted only to the Eastern tradition.
For further reading on this subject, I recommend the following:
"Russia and the Universal Church" by Vladimir Solovyev
"An Eastern Orthodox Christian Looks West" by Timothy Flanders
"Why I left the Eastern Orthodox Church"
I have kept this series of posts brief and have obviously left some things unsaid and unexplored. The reason for this brevity is that 1) I will explore in detail many of the points I have made in more detail as I turn to the main purpose of this blog, which is comparing the truth claims of Mormonism and Catholicism, and 2) Much of what I have said has been said before by men with much more wisdom than I. This is why I included links along with my posts, and I recommend that anyone with further questions consult these links. Further, if you have questions or objections to things I have said, please raise these concerns in the comments section.