Speaking of faith...

Some days ago, I was at dinner with a friend who was on exchange in France, and had returned to visit Cambridge for a few days. Said friend – whom I'll call Ben (not his real name) – was quite passionately Catholic, but we had never had a deep discussion about faith before. During the evening, however, the conversation turned towards the topic of religion. This really animated Ben. He began to explain different aspects of Catholic teaching and faith, and so another friend and I obliged him with questions we had, being curious to learn more ourselves.

Ben laid out a more elaborate scheme of spiritual authority than I – and perhaps many of us members of CCCF – was familiar with. Catholic teaching, he told me, originates not merely from the Bible, but from the tripartite sources of Scripture, the Magisterium (that is, to simplify, Papal teaching), and apostolic tradition. Each source is like the leg of a three-legged stool. Without any one, the whole structure collapses. To someone brought up in a Protestant church like myself, this was novel. The Reformed tradition hews closely to the idea of sola scriptura (scripture alone). Why look to other sources that may confound or contradict Biblical teaching?

Perhaps it would clarify, Ben explained, if we took as an example the doctrine of the trinity. Both Catholics and Protestants would agree that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that these are three distinct persons. Is this expressly said in the Bible? It would be difficult to point to any explicit reference to the doctrine as fully stated. One might refer to some verses in support, such as John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". But one might also look at the writings of the ancient authors, such as this hard-hitting quote from the 4th-century St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his Oratio: "Above all guard for me this great deposit of faith for which I live and fight, which I want to take with me as a companion, and which makes me bear all evils and despise all pleasures: I mean the profession of faith in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." Our conversation, and my subsequently Googling, certainly added a dimension to my faith. If nothing else, I find it a pity to not have had much awareness of the history of Christian ideas when growing up.

I do not mean to advocate the finer points of either Protestant or Catholic theology, being after all neither a pastor nor a priest. But the discussion impressed on me how crucial it can be to think deeply about the nuances of what we believe. It is with a greater familiarity with our faith that we can explain and defend it to others as passionately as Ben. More than that, it is with a solid understanding of the fundamentals that we can remain clear-headed, knowing what is core to our faith (such as the idea of the triune God), and where some legitimate differences may lie (such as how much we care about what St Gregory had to say about the triune God). And where those differences lie, it is perhaps with an open mind and a prayer to God for wisdom that we can navigate the devils in the details.

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