[Part I: The Argument from “Particulars”]
If you have never listened to The Michael Knowles Show on the Daily Wire, I am afraid you are missing out on one of the most entertaining and informative conservative podcasts out there. Different than his colleague Ben Shapiro’s podcast, which is more rapid-fire commentary on the political issues of the day, and different than his mentor Andrew Klavan’s, which is political to a degree, but gets deeper into cultural and philosophical issues, Michael’s show, while touching on politics, culture, and philosophy, is unique among the three in that it delves more deeply into matters of history and even religious theology.
Throughout the month of December, Michael’s “mailbag” episodes contained a number of questions that required him to make a defense for his Roman Catholic faith. In his answers, Michael was able to put forward, in easily understood layman’s terms, articulate and succinct defenses for Catholicism. I found his responses to be thorough, yet concise. In fact I believe that many of his listeners, perhaps some who have a Christian background but no present commitment to any religious organization, may find them persuasive enough to entice them toward the Roman Catholic faith. Because of this, I have felt the need to offer a response to Michael’s arguments, from the perspective of a Christian who is outside of the Catholic tradition. Though of course Michael was not claiming to provide an exhaustive treatise on religious dogma, I believe his statements were a thorough enough summary of what is believed by many lay Catholics, especially American Catholics, that they merit a thorough response.
The most direct question on this topic came from the “mailbag” in episode 75, which aired on December 14, 2017. In that mailbag there was a general request for Michael to explain why he is a Roman Catholic rather than a Protestant. In his answer to that question he restated many of the arguments that he had made in the previous week’s mailbag (episode 71, from December 7) which contained two questions more specific to certain aspects of Catholic doctrine. In Part I of this piece, I want to focus my response on the question from episode 75. In Part II, to be released next week, I intend to expand my response to address the more specific issues addressed in the previous week’s mailbag.
Israel, the Church, and Michael’s “Particulars”
Answering a question about why he is Catholic rather than Protestant, Michael mentioned the matter of particularity. Michael found it convincing that “the incarnate Son of God…entering into his creation in a particular place, at a particular time, in a particular body, through a particular woman, with particular apostles, dying on a particular cross, condemned to death by a particular man, would have a particular church.” He went on to say that he would expect this particular church to be “real, and tangible.” This argument is a common one in defense of the Catholic religion; in my experience it has been the most common one:
“There must be a true church somewhere. Why wouldn’t it be the institution that has historically been the catholic (meaning “universal”) church? Why would you join yourself to some splinter sect rather than the mother-church from which all others divided?”
The Roman Church asserts that it is “Catholic,” thus making the claim that it is the historical, universal, mother-church. As most Christians outside of the Roman Catholic tradition do, I find much to dispute about this historical claim. In this space, however, rather than debating the history, I only want to address Michael’s line of thinking itself, which I believe includes a grave error.
All of these “particulars” that Michael mentioned are, of course, true, from the perspective of any who call themselves Christians. Jesus was indeed a particular man, born of a particular woman, who died on a particular cross, etc. The particulars mentioned are themselves all earthly things. This is significant because the Church is not presented in the New Testament as an earthly entity. According to the Bible, Jesus, the particular man, who appeared at a particular time, born of a particular woman, fulfills seemingly countless purposes for God toward mankind, but it is important to see that these purposes relate to a “particular” nation; the nation of Israel. Moses, like Jesus, was a particular man. Moses descended down a particular mountain, with a particular Law, to govern a particular nation. That nation was called to worship in a particular temple, on a particular mountain, and were to be ruled by a particular line of kings. It would be expected that this line of kings would lead up to a particular Messiah. Jesus, the particular man presented in the Gospels (especially Matthew’s Gospel), is indeed presented as this particular Messiah. But all of that regards Israel, God’s earthly, particular people.
None of the particulars just mentioned relate specifically to the Church. They have much more to do with God’s chosen nation of Israel. Jesus, in the Gospels, unambiguously affirmed his position as the particular Messiah of Israel. Remember his answer to the woman at the well when she inquired as to whether the Samaritans’ mountain or the Jews’ temple was the appropriate place for the worship of God. Jesus said to her, “You [the Samaritans] worship what you do not know; we [the Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). He affirmed, without equivocation, that the Jews, with their temple, were the particular people of God.
However, it is what Jesus said immediately before and immediately after this statement which is pertinent to our discussion regarding the nature of his Church. Jesus said, “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…but the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). The Church, those who “worship…in spirit and truth,” are not, in the first place, an earthly people. They are not, like the Jews, a people of the flesh, rather they are people of the spirit. They are not an earthly people, but a heavenly people. Thus it should not be expected that they would require, as the Jews did, a particular headquarters (like Rome), nor require, as Michael says, “a particular clergy.”
Not the “Particular Man”
There are different aspects of Jesus’ person and work which are, as Michael pointed out, particular. Regarding the salvation of the world from sin and death, Jesus’ death and resurrection are the most important elements of the story. His death was, as Michael explained, “on a particular cross, condemned by a particular man.” Likewise, regarding the messianic promises to the nation of Israel, perhaps the most important elements of Jesus’ story are his particular birth in Bethlehem and his presentation to the particular city of Jerusalem while riding on a donkey. Both of these were done in fulfillment of specific Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah.
However, when we are discussing the creation and building up of the Church, we find that the most important element of Jesus’ story does not follow this pattern of “particulars.” In John 16:7, Jesus said that he (as that particular man) would need to go away in order for the Holy Spirit to come, and it is by the Spirit that he takes his position as head of the Church. The apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:16, “We once regarded Christ according to the flesh; we regard him thus no longer.” The building up of God’s Church has less to do with Jesus, the particular man from Galilee, and more with Jesus in heaven having come to abide with his people by the Holy Spirit.
The Church, according to the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:6, is a heavenly body, not an earthly body like the nation of Israel was. When we look at the giving of the Holy Spirit, the most important event with regard to the creation of the Church, we notice that Jesus’ relationship with his heavenly people is a spiritual one, and his interactions with them are more diverse and varying.
Some might say that the coming of the Holy Spirit was just as “particular” as was Jesus’ physical birth from Mary, pointing to the particular event of the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem as described in Acts chapter 2. But in Acts 10, the Spirit fell upon the Gentiles at the household of Cornelius. In John 20:22, Jesus breathed on the disciples, saying “Receive, ye, the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 8:1 and 19:6 various apostles laid hands on different groups of people in order for them to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it obvious that the Spirit’s coming and operation is much more varied than one particular event at Pentecost?
Not a “Particular Church”
Israel was given the Law, etched in stone, through Moses at Sinai. The Law gave specific instructions regarding how the nation was to eat, dress, farm, handle disease, try criminals, and even when to take the day off. The details and specifics of the Law created the unique identity of Israel, and set them apart as the particular people of God.
The Church, however, was formed organically. Friends, having just witnessed the miracle of Jesus’ ascension, were praying together in the upper room of their apartment, when suddenly they were spiritually empowered to proclaim the truths about Jesus in other languages (see Acts 2:1-4). When they preached, people believed, and all together began to live as a family, loving and caring for one another’s needs (see Acts 2:37-47). Often crowds seemed to spontaneously assemble as the Holy Spirit was directing the movement of his people. As the believers spread out, these communities soon separated themselves from the Jewish synagogues and the people began to be called “Christians” meaning “little Christs,” and the communities were called “churches” meaning “assemblies of called ones.”
The story of the Church is beautiful in its simplicity. It was never chaotic, because there was One who was directing it, but it was no “particular man,” it was Christ in heaven, by the operation of the Holy Spirit. There was no clerical system, as there was among the Jews, because each of the believers was a priest (1 Peter 2:9), having personal, direct communion with God by the Spirit. Nor was there any human high priest (nor pope), as Christ was able to serve as high priest, being the single mediator between God and his people. The Church was a spiritual, organic body. Her members were heavenly people, thus when she manifested herself on the earth she was diverse and varied.
Michael, though, argued that Jesus instituted a particular church when he spoke to Peter in Matthew 16:18,19. It seems Michael is saying that since Peter was particularly singled out by Jesus as being given these “keys,” and since he was singularly addressed in that passage as having the power to “bind and loose,” then an institution with Peter as the head, perhaps with a line of successors, must be the true, particular church. He said:
“When (Jesus) says to Peter…on this rock, which is a pun, I will build my church, and here are the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, he’s giving that to a man. That isn’t meaningless. We can’t etherialize that or try to universalize that. He’s talking to a person.”
But Jesus didn’t say this only to that person! Peter is a man, yes, but he was not the only man who was told that he had the “binding and loosing” power. In Matthew 18:18-20 Jesus said the same power was with any two or three who were gathered in his name. Jesus himself would, by the Spirit, be in their midst (Matthew 18:20), and so Jesus says, “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” This power was given to Peter because he had been given divine revelation about who Jesus was (Matthew 16:17). This kind of spiritual fellowship with the triune God is given to any who gather in his name.
What, then about Peter’s being singularly given “the keys to the kingdom of heaven”? And did not Jesus refer to Peter as “the rock” on which Jesus will build his church?
Peter himself was indeed given “the keys,” but could this simply mean that Peter himself was entrusted with being the first to “open the door” to the kingdom of heaven, once the Holy Spirit would fall upon God’s people? It was Peter who first preached Christ to the nation of Israel in Acts 2, and then also to the Gentiles in Acts 10. He opened the door to the kingdom of heaven by preaching the truth regarding Jesus, the truth which his hearers then believed, and were subsequently “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Peter had the keys, which is to say he was empowered by the Spirit to first open the door.
What, then, is “the rock” that Jesus mentioned? Michael pointed out that the Greek word for “rock” sounds similar to the Greek word for Peter, so Jesus was making a bit of a pun. But was Peter himself the rock? Do we see the remainder of the New Testament describing a Church built on and around Peter himself?
Considering the fact that Jesus said any who “gather in his name” have the same power that Peter does, it makes far more sense that the confession that Peter just made is the Church’s foundational “rock.” This truth had just been revealed to Peter in Matthew 16 and upon Peter’s confession Jesus said that Peter had the power to bind and loose, and that this was the rock on which the Church would be built. All who have the relationship with God that Peter had, having had the truth about Jesus revealed to them by the Father, constitute the Church, and they collectively have the authority to bind and loose on earth and in heaven.
In Acts 2 we read of Peter using the keys that had been given him to open up the door of salvation to the Jews. In so doing, he was also building on the Church’s foundational rock, because he was testifying to all who would hear about Jesus being the Christ. Notice the similarity between Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and his declaration to Jesus at Caesarea Philippi:
Peter to the nation of Israel:
“God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified!” (Acts 2:36)
Peter to Jesus himself:
“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:16)
The rest of the New Testament’s testimony about Peter’s life proves that he was but a messenger of Jesus as the Christ, and his message, that truth about who Jesus is, is the foundation rock of the Church.
Peter was indeed a faithful minister of this truth, as were many others. But never was Peter nor any other servant of Christ presented as being the clerical head of any other. James in Jerusalem, Paul in Ephesus and Corinth, Barnabas going to Cypress; each of these men were faithful to the various ministries to which the Holy Spirit called them, but none are ever described as having the unique access to God that would qualify them as a “particular clergy.” Rather, in the New Testament we find that there was a fraternal kinship among all of the various ministers. When they recognized that others were working according to the same Spirit that they were, they extended to one another the “right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9). When they recognized something that was contrary to that Spirit, they would at times rebuke and admonish one another (see Galatians 2:11). Spiritual fellowship was everywhere, but institutional hierarchy was nowhere. This is exactly what should be expected considering the spiritual, heavenly nature of the Church.
The beauty of the New Testament, something that distinguishes it from the Old, is that when God’s people gather in the name of Jesus his Son, the Holy Spirit is among them. As they learn to hear God’s voice, by the Spirit, Jesus is able to take his rightful position as head of the Church. This is how God desires his church to operate, and this is how his church operated in the days of its infancy. Do not, child of God, be deceived into thinking that any earthly, human institution, even one as old as the Roman Catholic Church, has replaced the simple, heavenly, and spiritual reality of the Church of the living God.
Please check back here for Part II of my response to Michael Knowles, where I will address the question of what Jesus meant when he said, “Eat my flesh” and “drink my blood.”