Sunday, October 27, 2013

The "Perspicuity" of Scripture ... Is It Scriptural?

Revisited some of my roots this morning at a local non-denominational church.  Praise and worship was a blast.  Even though I hadn't sung these particular songs before, they were very easy to learn; and I felt a great peace praising God along with everyone.  What made it especially good was being able to pray alongside a good friend and his family - first time, after years of talking about our faith, that I had the chance to join him in prayer. had seen podcasts from the lead pastor and was looking forward to hearing him talk about how to read Scripture this morning.  I was curious - would he share elements of lectio divina?  Maybe talk about the four "senses" of Scripture?  Well, he didn't really get into much of the how; but he did a tremendous job of stressing our need for God's word in Scripture.  He made a great analogy, complete with the visual image of his hand in a crockpot, of how when a Christian who owns a Bible complains that God won't speak to them, it is as humorous as a guy walking around with his hand stuck in a crockpot whining, "I'm starving!  Does anybody know where I can get some food?!" We were just chuggin' along for a good half an hour when ... the train suddenly veered  off the tracks - at least for me.  That was a couple of hours ago, and I'm still in a bit of a funk.  So what happened?

Ninety percent of what he shared was fantastic - Scripture is God-breathed (inspired), it is utterly trustworthy (inerrant), it dispels the darkness in our lives, speaks directly to the deepest needs of our hearts, and we shouldn't stay away from it because we think it's too difficult to understand.  But then he got to that final 10% where he said that what he was sharing went right back to the Reformation: the Catholic Church inserted itself between believers and the Bible, claiming that it couldn't be understood unless she taught it to them.  Martin Luther put Scripture back where it belonged - in the hands of the people. (Quite a mis-characterization.)  He then expounded the "perspicuity" of Scripture, meaning that Scripture is clear in its meaning and a person does not need anything outside of Scripture - like a church - to understand it.

Now, this pastor was quick to offer qualifications:  Yes, there are very difficult passages, passages that made his "head hurt."  He explained how we often need to consider this verse in relation to that verse in another book, etc.   And yes, there are denominational differences as to what various passages mean.  But, Scripture was perspicuous in the sense that "all orthodox Christians agree on the essentials."  (With those qualifications, I would think that "perspicuity" has lost its meaning.)  Things aren't exactly as smooth as he made it out to be in that last point either: yes we all believe in Jesus, but most denominations began precisely over disagreements as to what is, or is not, essential!  For instance:  What is Baptism?  Is it just a symbol, or does it actually wash away our sins and make us Christians?

It also seems to me that the work this gentleman engages in Sunday after Sunday argues against his claim:  What need would there be for him to lead people through different books of the Bible, drawing their attention to certain passages and explaining what it means? Not to put too fine of a point on it, but if Scripture really is perspicuous, then he should be out of a job.

There are other problems with the "perspicuity of Scripture" (like the fact that everyone I know reads the Bible not in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in which God inspired it, but in English - making us dependent upon other human beings [the Church?] to interpret it for us), but what is probably most disastrous for the pastor's claim is how the Bible actually denies its perspicuity!  Where, you ask?  Lets start in the Book of Acts. 

The Holy Spirit had Philip run up alongside the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch who had just been in Jerusalem worshiping:

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. 
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”  Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.  (Acts 8:30-35)

It obviously wasn't clear to this visitor to Jerusalem that Isaiah was referring to the recently executed rabbi, Jesus.  It was the Holy Spirit's intention that Philip, ordained by the Apostles (Acts 6:5-7), explain it to him!

A person who holds to the perspicuity of Scripture would surely object, "But Shane, that Ethiopian eunuch had not yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We have, and so when we read Scripture, the Holy Spirit gives us understanding."  If that is true, then explain this passage written by St. Peter regarding other Christians' misunderstanding of Scripture:

Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.” (2 Peter 3:15-17)
Peter is talking about things in Paul's "letters" - our New Testament - that Christians, people who have received the Holy Spirit, find hard to understand and can distort to their own destruction!  The "perspicuity" of Scripture doesn't sound scriptural to me.  And to circle back around to this morning's pastor and his mention of Luther and the Reformation:  Luther launched his "theological revolution" on his interpretation of Paul's Epistle to the Romans - the very part of the New Testament that Peter warned us can be "hard to understand" and open to distortion!  Eerie, no?

What this morning's pastor also failed to mention was how the Reformers removed seven books from the Old Testament and how Luther considered the New Testament's Hebrews, James, Jude, and The Book of Revelation inferior to the other books of the NT, and placed them in an appendix.  In Luther's 1522 German translation he described The Epistle of James as “an epistle of straw.” “It is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works [2:24]…this epistle is not the work of any apostle.”[1] Of The Book of Revelation he wrote, “I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it…let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book…I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.”[2] Thanks be to God that the thought of the other Reformers prevailed and these books were retained on an equal footing with the rest of the New Testament.

Claims about the perspicuity of Scripture and the claim that the Holy Spirit has promised to guide each person's private readings of the Bible do not stand up - not even in the day-to-day practice of those who make them.  Later in life, Luther lamented those who believed themselves to "understand the [Gospel] better than I or St. Paul; they are now wise and think themselves more learned than all the ministers ... there is no smearer but whenever he has heard a sermon or can read a chapter in German, makes a doctor of himself ... and convinces himself that he knows everything better than all who teach him."[3]  

How do we know if our interpretation is wrong?  If it contradicts the teaching of the Church, who the Bible calls the "pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim 3:15), then our interpretation is off the mark. There is no tension between the Bible and the Church.  
  • Her popes and bishops were the ones who proclaimed which 27 books had to be recognized as forming the New Testament.  
  • Up until Luther's day, and far beyond, when the vast majority of the world was illiterate, people's only way to learn God's written word was through the Church's preaching. 
  • When the Reformers removed books from the Bible, the Church reaffirmed her faith in them. 
  • The Catholic Church has four Scripture readings at every Mass.
  • Through her popes and councils, she has begged her children to read it privately. 
But what the Church also proclaims is exactly what the Bible itself says (much more here): that it was written by members of the Church, is in complete agreement with the teachings of the Church, and will only be fully understood when read in full communion with the Church.  (Jesus set it up this way; He wants His word read within the Family.)  The perspicuity of Scripture? It is, ironically, unscriptural, and was not believed for the first 1500 years of Christianity.

It excites me when I hear a young, dynamic preacher, full of love for God's written word; but saddens me to hear him mix truth with potentially damaging error.  (It's like listening to a personal trainer psych people up to become runners, yet slip in a plug for smoking.  It will keep them from being the best runners they can be ... and possibly seriously harm them.)

I am thrilled that God is making use of this gentleman to get people started in reading His word.  I know he is sincere.  Please join me in praying that God allows him and his church's members to see all that He has placed in the pages of the Bible:  
  • the Church's role in explaining Scripture and safe-guarding against misunderstanding
  • the Sacraments - especially the Eucharist
  • Our Mother Mary and the Communion of Saints
  • the interior life   
These are treasures that God wants to give all His children.  Pray that the Holy Spirit sows questions in their hearts:  
  • How did God get this Book to me?  
  • Who did He use to write its "Table of Contents" (the canon of Scripture)?  
  • He wouldn't have given us this Book without providing a way to guarantee that we understand it correctly - so what is that way?
Going back to my non-denominational days was good, and praying with my friend beyond excellent.  And, as sad as I may have been at the end of the pastor's sermon, he reminded me of all the scriptural and historical truths and spiritual treasures the Lord allowed me to discover ... and how those convinced me to hop the train back home to the Catholic Church.

[1] Luther, Martin, Luther’s Works, Volume 35 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1965), p.396.

[2] Ibid, p. 398-399.

[3] Vost, Kevin, Memorize the Reasons: Defending the Faith with the Catholic Art of Memory (San Deigo: Catholic Answers, 2013), p. 195

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Baptism - Missing What the Bible Says About It

I was recently doing a little research on a popular, non-denominational church in my area.  I know that they have dynamic preaching and, from the snippets that have been shared with me from the lead pastor's messages, he appears very knowledgeable about Israel in both Old and New Testament times.  I like the fact that they have a Statement of Faith on their website, as well as short position papers on Baptism and Communion.  As I read their paper on Baptism though, I was immediately struck by how incomplete it was from a biblical perspective.  I don't think this is rare, so on the chance that you the reader might come across something similar, I wanted to quote the meaty portion of the paper and offer commentary.  Here we go:
There is not one single Biblical example of baptism before conversion. The New Testament order was always "believe and be baptized" (Acts 2:38-41). Christian baptism then, is not what causes you to become a Christian—it is response action taken after becoming a Christian. It is not something you do to earn God's acceptance—it is something you do because you have received the free gift of God's acceptance through faith in Christ. We become Christians when we admit our sin and trust Christ as our Forgiver. Baptism is a symbolic act—the water cannot wash away sin. Baptism is merely an "object lesson" of how our sins were washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19).
The statement that Baptism "is not what causes you to become a Christian" is simply false.  The authors of the paper assert that someone becomes a Christian the moment they interiorly decide to accept God's offer of grace in Christ.  But Scripture does not say that.  Rather, the Bible says, "to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (Jn 1:12).  "Conversion," as defined by this church is the interior acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  And that is true, but it only gets us half the way there.  What makes us children of God is reception of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is given to us in Baptism!  The ironic thing is how the verse they cited in affirming their position actually teaches the opposite of what they claim:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:38-41)
Let me address their second claim: "Baptism is a symbolic act—the water cannot wash away sin."  In one sense they are correct - the waters of Baptism have the symbolic value of showing us that are sins are washed away.  But they stop short of the full truth; they deny that Baptism actually does what the water symbolizes - wash away sin. And that is incredibly problematic because it directly contradicts the Apostles Paul and Peter.  It's not an "either/or" situation, but a "both/and." the outward baptismal cleansing makes present to the senses the forgiveness and regeneration poured into the soul. Look at what Paul wrote to Titus:
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-6)
And Peter was even more blunt - "baptism now saves you"! (1 Pet 3:21).  It is a shame the authors of this paper on Baptism stopped their quotation of 1 Peter at chapter 1, verses 18-19.  Those verses remind us that we are redeemed by the "precious blood," the sacrifice of Christ our Savior.  But had they kept on, to the verse I just quoted from chapter 3, they may have made the connection between Christ's sacrifice and Baptism that Paul made in his Epistle to the Romans:

We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6:3-5)
Baptism unites us to the very death and resurrection of Jesus!  It is our birth into the Family of God.  As Jesus taught in John's Gospel, "I solemnly assure you, no one can enter into God's kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit" (Jn 3:5). It doesn't get any plainer than that.  Baptism is no mere "object lesson" of how our sins are washed away; it is a supernatural act, administered by Christ Jesus Himself through the members of His Church!  And that is why it was at the heart of Jesus' final commission to His Apostles:

Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore and make disciples of all the nations.  Baptize them in the name "of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you.  And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world! (Mt 28:18-20)
I guess what makes me most sad is that a church that, in its Statement of Faith, calls the Bible "the unique, full and final authority on all matters of faith and practice," would overlook such important passages for reaching a correct understanding of Baptism.  I guess it is an illustration of an important truth - that God never intended for the Bible to stand alone.  And when we try and make it, we miss out on  much of what it has to say.  What we get is good, and it will benefit us; but it won't be the huge feast for our souls that God intends!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Paul's Conversion - My Favorite Part

Had a conversation with a really good friend this morning about the conversion of Paul.  He had just come from an early morning Bible study where they had read the account and his enthusiasm was totally contagious - we were swapping thoughts fast and furious.  I was still thinking about it an hour later when I realized that I completely forgot to share my favorite part of Paul's conversion - Jesus' first words, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" (Acts 9:5) 

Paul had to be confused; a heavenly voice was accusing him of persecution.  "Who are you, Lord?"  And the voice answered, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."  During His earthly ministry Jesus had told the Apostles, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to Me" "(Mt 25:40); and He manifested that truth to Paul in the first moment of his conversion, "Why do you persecute Me?" It was a truth that cut Paul to the heart and shaped his whole theology - the Church is the Body of Christ, a mystical extension of His very Person!

Look at what Paul wrote later in life:
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many … If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Cor 12: -14,26).

"The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
... speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love." (Eph 4:11-16) 
That first truth that Jesus impressed upon Paul moved him to write things that, were it anyone but the great Apostle Paul saying them, many a Christian would say bordered on the heretical!
“[God] has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him, thus exalted, head of the church, which is his body: the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts” (Eph 1:22)
"If we are unfaithful, [Christ] will still remain faithful, for he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim 2:13)
That is how incredible the union is between Jesus and His Church - you cannot have One without the other!  Mind. Blown.

Hey, so long as I'm at it, I'll throw out one more (one I did a whole post on last week): Paul even identified the Church as "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim 3:15)!  That's a mighty big claim ... but if she is the very Body of Christ, the One Who is "the truth" (Jn 14:6), then it makes perfect sense.