How do we explain a self-sufficient, eternal, Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who began a process of creation millions of years ago and then about 4000 years ago, beginning with one man (Abraham) called to be the father of a people, began a process of redemptive self-revelation that culminated, two thousand years ago, in God taking on flesh and walking around among the people in a small part of the world, performing miracles, healing, feeding, serving, and eating with them, teaching His way, His commandments, and establishing His Church, His Body, charged with continuing His work, and the Sacraments, and finally, for all of us, was crucified, and was resurrected and returned to His Heavenly Home.
Forget it. We cannot fully explain it. All we can do is give thanks for the gift of faith and try to live it, worshiping reverently, serving sacrificially, loving unconditionally, trusting and obeying joyfully, doing better each day than in the day before.
That is not to say that there are not simple explanations, often rooted in carefully selected portions of Sacred Scripture, but just that they must and always will fall short of the full Divine Mystery.
Many of those simple explanations were and are heresies. At this link is a simple summary of most of the heresies about Jesus including deism, adoptionism, Monarchianism, patripassinism, modalism, Arianism, polytheism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, Monophysitism, Docetism, Gnosticism, monothelitism, bogomilism, Catharism, albigensianism, patarenism, pelagianism, and universalism. I didn’t capitalize any of those. Word spell check did it automatically which illustrates that some are still viewed as religions rather than just categories of error.
One of the simplest explanations of the Gospel is The Four Spiritual Laws composed by Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright probably fifty years ago. Another is The Roman Road, a simple explanation of how to be “saved” based only on a few verses from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. You can read about these and others at this evangelistic website. If we expect to be able to bear reasonable and credible witness to our Catholic Faith, we need to be aware of these explanations and know how to respond to them.
I think there is little doubt that many have been “saved” through these simple explanations of Christian theology and have then enjoyed a life of spiritual growth and Christian service, sometimes even ending up in the Catholic Church. But the problem with them is that they say nothing about The Triune God, creation of the universe, original sin, the Jewish people, the Ten Commandments, the promises of a savior through the ages, the miracle of the Incarnation, the life and ministry and teachings of Jesus, the founding and importance and function of The Church, or the Sacraments, These simple explanations are mostly about me getting saved and not much at all about The Triune God, Creator of the Universe. They are good invitations to a well-designed and taught RCIA class.
Well, maybe we shouldn’t forget it. Maybe we really do need to figure out a simple way to explain our faith in a way that makes people want to join that RCIA class. Here is one proposal by Eric Stoutz of Catholics United for the Faith for Five Spiritual Laws, a Catholic version of the Four Spiritual Laws. I quote:
1) Belief in an existing transcendent God who is Creator of the Universe and holds all persons and things in being.
2) Man in the person of our first parents fell from grace to become spiritually dead, and needed Redemption to reach heaven.
3) The Only-begotten Son of God, the 2nd Person of the Blessed Trinity, had mercy upon His sinful creatures and became man in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This was the fulfillment of God’s Plan of salvation as revealed in the Old and New Testaments and culminating in the Divine Person of Our Savior dying on the Cross in expiation of the sins of mankind. By His death, heaven was again opened to mankind.
4) We are saved by faith in Christ Our Savior and His doctrines (basically outlined in the ancient Apostles’ Creed) and by the good works performed with the help of Christ’s grace flowing from devout prayer and the sacraments He instituted in His Catholic Church. One becomes a Christian by being incorporated into the Church by the sacrament of Baptism and will be saved by continuing to live with His divine life.
5) The whole Christian life is summarized by the goal of becoming a saint, to reach Christian perfection and to give God glory by becoming holy. The chief occupation of the Christian now and in eternity is to give glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. He does this by observing God’s Ten Commandments, the precepts of the Church, participation in the sacraments and worship of the Church, which are all grounded in the love of Christ who sacrificed Himself for our salvation. Those who love Christ to the end, dying in the state of grace, will be saved and resurrected to forever join the angels and Saints in heaven. Those who do not die in the state of grace and the love of Christ will be damned body and soul in hell forever.
Well, maybe that is still a bit over-simplified, and can certainly be improved, but it is an approach that might make people want to join that RCIA class. And, if somebody approaches us with The Four Spiritual Laws, we can listen politely, declare them wonderful, and invite them to our Church, a Full Gospel Church, to hear The Rest of the Story.
During the meeting we discussed John 3:16 and the source and meaning of the phrase “only begotten.” There is some really neat stuff at this website (screen shot below) about the Greek used in the New Testament original manuscripts : It tells us, for example,
- that the Greek word translated as “only begotten” can be transliterated to English as “monogenés” and
- that it is word number 3439 in Strong’s Concordance.
- that it is found nine times in the Greek NT
- and that it means “one of a kind” – literally, “one (monos) of a class, genos” (the only of its kind).”
Below is John 3:16 in 24 English translations. “Begotten” shows up in 13 of the translations. The problem with the word is that it can be understood to imply that The Son is/was a creation of the Father and did not always exist. Well, that is the heresy of Arianism that was condemned and denied in the Nicene Creed, the Church’s answer to the best way to explain the meaning of the Greek :
“…one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, Consubstantial with the Father. Through Him all things were made…”
NRS “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
NAB For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
ASV For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.
BBE For God had such love for the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever has faith in him may not come to destruction but have eternal life.
DBY For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal.
DRA For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.
ESV For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
GNV For God so loued the worlde, that hee hath giuen his onely begotten Sonne, that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life.
KJG For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
KJV For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
MRD For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him, should not perish, but should have life eternal.
NAS For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
NAU For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
NIB For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
NIV For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
NJB For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
NKJ For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
NLT For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
PNT For God so loued the worlde, that he gaue his only begotten sonne, that whosoeuer beleueth in hym, shoulde not perishe, but haue euerlastyng lyfe.
RSV For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
RWB For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
TNT For God so loveth the worlde that he hath geven his only sonne that none that beleve in him shuld perisshe: but shuld have everlastinge lyfe.
WEB For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.
YLT For God did so love the world, that His Son — the only begotten — He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during.
So, it is not necessary to study Greek to get some understanding of the original languages. And it is easy to see why “one and only” is a better English translation than “only begotten,” a phrase probably first appearing in the King James Version. There is a very concise history of English translations of the Bible, sources used for the translations, and uses of them by Catholics and various denominations here.
Pulling Bible verses out of context often leads to trouble. Here is John 3:16 (bold print) in context:
John 3:1-21 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to him, “How can this happen?” Jesus answered and said to him, “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this? Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
That raises an important question. What is the meaning of “believes in?”
Maybe it has something to do with John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
Or maybe 1 John 2:1-6 My children, I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world. The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to live (just) as he lived.
And that too raises important questions. Speaking of commandments, what does it mean to love with all our soul, all our heart, and all our mind?
Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
It probably means we have work to do. Divine mystery is complicated.
And, finally, if we choke on the challenging fifth of the proposed Five Catholic Spiritual Laws, there is this: Matthew 5:48 So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.