Is Jesus the head of the Church, or is the pope? What does it mean to be “born again?” Trent Horn answers a Protestant caller’s objections to the Faith on Catholic Answers Live.
Host: Julie in Chateau Montana, in Billings, beautiful Billings, Montana, hello Julie.
Host: Hey, thanks for waiting. So why are you Protestant, Julie?
Caller: Um, well I guess I was raised, like, fifth or sixth generation Norwegian Protestant Lutheran, and I have, throughout–I am 52 years old, and throughout my Christian experience I have studied a lot of religions, because if there was more to what I was taught, I wanted to know it, and…yeah, I just found some errors in Catholicism contrary to the written word of God.
Host: Okay, great starting point. Can you name one?
Caller: Sure. Okay, I…sorry I’m driving through the mountains I gotta pull over here.
Host: Yeah, please do.
Trent: Might be a wise policy.
Caller: Jesus said that he was the way, the truth, and the life, and no one would come to the Father but through him; and I believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, not Joseph Smith, not L.M.G. White, and not the Pope.
Host: Great, that’s a good starting point. May be equivocation there on what “head” means.
Trent: Right. So obviously, Christ is the ultimate foundation for our faith, and he is the only way through which people are saved. As Acts 4:12 says, “There’s no other name under under heaven or on earth by which we are saved except for Christ’s.” So when Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through him, he, and his death on the cross, and resurrection from the dead, that is the source of our salvation. No one else is. And Catholics wholeheartedly believe that.
But at the same time Julie, when we read the New Testament, there’s also many passages that speak about Christ founding a Church, and what the Church’s foundation would be; and that metaphor is used in different ways. In some places Christ is the foundation, but in the letter to the Ephesians it says the Church is built on the Apostles, and in Matthew 16:18, Jesus says explicitly he’s going to build the Church on the Apostle Peter, and that he would give Peter authority in the Church. And so what Catholics believe is that we take Jesus on what he said: that he built his Church on Peter, the head of the Apostles, chief among them, and that Peter was able to delegate this authority, just as we see in the book of Acts, the selecting of new Apostles and others like that.
So I don’t see how Christ creating a Church with a hierarchy–you know, with with presbyters, with bishops, and ultimately with a Pope–how that contradicts what the Catholic Church teaches, which is that Jesus is the way that we we’re saved, having faith in Him and receiving the sacraments. I don’t see the contradiction there.
Caller: When Jesus said to Nicodemus “You must be born again to even understand spiritual things,” John 3:3-8, Nicodemus is challenging this guy, “How can you do all these things,” and he says “I gotta tell you first of all, unless you’re born again of the water and of the spirit, you’re not going to understand these things.”
Host: Is that what it says?
Caller: “If a man is born again, he will see–he will enter and understand kingdom things.”
Trent: Well, here’s what Jesus says. “And so Nicodemus said, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?'” And he’s misunderstood Jesus; Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” And Catholics firmly believe that, Julie, that you have to be born again; and how we interpret that is the same as how the early Church unanimously interpreted this verse, is that to be born of water and the Spirit is to be baptized. And that makes sense because after this interaction with Nicodemus, Jesus and His disciples went off and baptized people. Otherwise I’d ask you, what does it mean to be born of water and the spirit? What does that mean?
Caller: Jesus said–okay, do you have a Bible in front of you? Look at John 3:8, he says, in other words: “Unless you’re born of the flesh and then of the Spirit you cannot understand kingdom things.”
Trent: No, what what it says in John 3:6, it says, “That which is born–”
Caller: No, 3:8.
Trent: Right–well, 3:8 doesn’t say that. It says, “The wind blows where it wills, you hear the sound of it–”
Caller: Oh, I’m sorry.
Trent: “–but you don’t know whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of spirit.” What that means is, those of us who are born of spirit, we didn’t choose it. We didn’t say, “You know what, I’m dead in my sins, I’m picking God.” What that means is that God has given us his Spirit, the gift of faith, and we haven’t chosen it. In fact that actually corresponds to the Catholic teaching that this verse, John 3:5, is about baptism, because obviously most Catholics were–
Host: Julie, hold on a sec here.
Trent: Obviously when babies are baptized, they don’t choose in any way either. Neither do adults; God prompts them, and then they choose. But that makes sense to me if we’re saying “born of water and the spirit,” otherwise Jesus could have just said, “Unless one is born of spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” So what he says is, in verse 6, as you say: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” Totally agree. But where does the water part factor in here? What does the water refer to?
Caller: Every baby I’ve ever known that’s born came forth from the birthing waters. We were born of the flesh. Jesus said “because that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.”
Host: Julie, what’s the water indicate?
Trent: She just said that, she said the water refers to the amniotic fluid, and that’s a popular alternative explanation, but for me–
Caller: Well Jesus said, it’s “born of the flesh and then of the Spirit.”
Trent: No, he didn’t say “and then,” he says, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh…”
Caller: “…and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.”
Trent: Absolutely, so what that’s saying is, when we are born, we have the human nature of our parents and we inherit original sin and so we inherit the fleshy–and remember, in Scripture, flesh isn’t just the material substance of the world. Flesh refers to an orientation, usually away from God. When St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians and speaks about, you know, fleshy thinking or “men of flesh” instead of the “man of spirit,” he’s not talking about people having physical bodies, he’s saying “You’re thinking in earthly ways, not heavenly ways.”
So for me, this alternative interpretation really doesn’t make sense. It’d be like Jesus saying, “I say to you, unless one is is born the way we’re all born and then is born again in spirit,” whatever that means, “he can’t enter the kingdom of God.” But that would be to mean that Jesus is saying that there could be some people who were not born of water and spirit. But how could there be people who aren’t born from the amniotic fluid, either c-section or the regular way? He seemed to be implying that there are people who, if you were not–you couldn’t be born of water and spirit. He’s saying to those who are listening, “You need to be born of water and spirit.” Because everyone listening would be born of water, the point would be giving them the spirit part.
And it just makes the most sense to me, when we look in the context of the whole passage, that after this whole discussion about what it means to be born of water and spirit and becoming a child of God, in verse 22 after this, “Jesus and the disciples went into the land of Judea and he remained with them and baptized.” Though John later clarifies, Jesus wasn’t doing the baptizing, and that this baptism is not the same as sacramental baptism. But it’s pointing towards that.
And that is how it was interpreted by the early Church fathers. It’s unanimous. Go to Jimmy Akin’s book, “The Fathers Know Best,” you’ll see that.
Host: One thing it doesn’t do, it doesn’t teach that you’ll understand kingdom things, i.e., see the world through Lutheran lenses. That’s a innovation that’s only 500 years old.
Trent: Right, and for me, even if we we disputed the the meaning of this verse, that wouldn’t disprove Catholic sacramental theology by any means. One could say even if you didn’t believe this supported baptism, that doesn’t disprove what Catholics have put forward as to why Baptism is necessary, or the other verses that support baptismal regeneration.
Host: Right. Julie, thanks for the call.