A Response to Michael Knowles
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