Friday, October 16, 2009

Response to Fairwinds Baptist Church: On (Not) Knowing God's Word

[Welcome new readers.  Before you go, please don't forget to check out the links to thirteen other Fairwinds responses listed on the right side of this page.  May the Holy Spirit be with you all!]

Pastor Carlo often makes statements that go something like this: "Anyone who believes [X, Y, or Z] clearly does not know God's word."

These types of statements are a red herring!  (A red herring is a term that refers to a point in an argument that is meant to distract from the true crux of the argument.)  These statements are a red herring since we all know that people who believe differently from Pastor Carlo do, in fact, know God's word, insofar as we accept Pastor Carlo's own reduction of God's word down to the words of Sacred Scripture.  (Catholics do not make this reduction.)

As a Catholic, I would openly acknowledge that Baptists know God's word (for present purposes, the Bible).  Methodists know God's word.  Presbyterians know God's word.  For that matter, Mormons know God's word.  And so do JW's, Calvinists, and every other Christian or quasi-Christian group you can think of.

The problem is really that these groups interpret God's word differently, and perhaps incorrectly at times.

Thus, Pastor's statement really ought to be:

"Anyone who believes [X, Y, or Z] clearly does not interpret God's word the same way that I do."

Besides for the fact that this statement lacks the rhetorical punch of the original version, the revised statement also reveals something significant about what is missing from the first statement.

The first statement conceals the fact that Pastor Carlo makes his interpretation of God's word the standard, rule, and final authority for the faith of his congregants, at least so far as the various doctrines about which he is preaching are concerned.

After all, if the measure of truth when it comes to baptism (for instance) is how Pastor Carlo thinks about, then Pastor Carlo's congregants have two choices.  First, they can put their faith in Pastor Carlo's interpretation of the Bible and simply accept his interpretation as correct.  Or, they can ask themselves, on what basis do I trust that Pastor Carlo is the final authority on the interpretation of baptism in the Bible?

If Pastor Carlo is 100% correct 100% of the time, then no worries.

But does Pastor Carlo claim to be perfect in his interpretations?  I doubt it.  What standards, then, can Pastor Carlo's congregants use to judge when and if Pastor Carlo's interpretations are correct, and thus worthy of the trust that he presumes in making the original statement?

Ironically, the only standard that many congregants use to judge Pastor Carlo's interpretation of God's word is their own interpretations of God's word!

Do you see the problem here?  Not only are their interpretations of God's word conditioned by Pastor Carlo's preaching week after week, but even if they weren't, this standard simply displaces the problem.  Now, it is the congregants' interpretations that are the final, absolute rule and authority.

But by what standards can these congregants judge whether or not their own interpretations are correct?

The common answer is: by God's word.  But we are talking about the interpretation of God's word.  The next answer is usually: faith.  But we are not talking about faith in God; what this hermeneutic boils down to is faith in oneself!  While I have every reason to have faith in God, I have every reason not to be faithful in myself.  I make countless errors every day!  Yet somehow I am supposed to trust that I can pick up this gigantic book written in a languages that I do not know for a culture that I hardly know and somehow come to the correct interpretation all on my own?  And I am supposed to have faith in this interpretation?  On what grounds?

I think for most Protestants, the only answer to this final question is that they have no other option.

But there is!

There is another option.

Let's go back to Pastor Carlo's statement, and let's reword it into a statement that a Catholic apologist might make.  Ask yourself: what authorities are invoked in the following statements?

"Anyone who believes [X, Y, or Z] interprets God's word differently than the historical successors of the the apostles."

"Anyone who believes [X, Y, or Z] interprets God's word according to a tradition that arose 1,600 years after Christianity began."

"Anyone who believes [X, Y, or Z] seems to privilege these verses in their interpretation of Scripture while failing to account for these verses."

"Anyone who believes [X, Y, or Z] does not hold the interpretation of Scripture that has been safeguarded by the authorities Jesus chose and protects by the power of the Holy Spirit to transmit the correct interpretation of God's word to you and to all generations."

These statements are a bit more candid than Pastor Carlo's original statement in that they actually point to some objective standard that the listener can go to and study.  Rather than be faced with the choice of accepting or rejecting the authority of Pastor Carlo's interpretations, the reader can go an study the early fathers of the Church.  The reader can study the historical context of Protestant doctrines.  The reader can study various interpretations of Scripture to see which one makes the most sense of the Bible.  (Protestant converts seem to all agree that Catholic theology and the Mass make the Bible come alive.)  The reader can study the explicit claim to authority that the Catholic Church makes, so at least they can be clear about their rejection of it, if they so choose.

But if Protestants absolutely reject the authority of the Catholic Church, then they ultimately reject the Bible as well, because the Bible was written by Catholics, compiled by Catholics, and was ultimately canonized by a council of Catholic bishops.  The contents of the Bible itself--its table of contents, so to speak--is itself an authoritative Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church.  It was the authority of the bishops that was employed to determine which books should and should not be in the New Testament.

Authority is the key issue, the ultimate issue that separates Catholics from non-Catholics.  Catholics are satisfied to openly and obediently follow the teachings of other men, and we do so trusting in Christ's promise that "the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church" and that he continues to send the Holy Spirit to guide and protect the apostles and their successors in the truth.  Apart from this faith in Christ's promises, Christians would have no reason to trust these Catholic bishops either.

Non-Catholics find themselves in a difficult position.  Since few of them are highly-trained Biblical scholars, most of them end up following the men that preach at their local church.  What irony!  These Christians are part of a movement that ultimately protest an authority protected by the Holy Spirit only to become obedient to an authority not protected by Him.

And this, I think, explains Pastor Carlo's red herring.  The red herring tries to distract you from the reality:

"Anyone who believes [X, Y, or Z] clearly does not interpret God's word the same way I do."

Nor should we, Pastor Carlos, unless you claim the charism of infallibility, the authority of a bishop who has succeeded the apostles, and fidelity to the orthodox teachings of Christianity left once for all with the saints (Jude 3) and the early fathers of the Church.

The truth is out there, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ.  Seek and you will find!

I invite you to consider coming home to the Church, the family of God, which is the "pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).  There is only one world-wide Church that makes the claim to be the pillar and foundation of truth, and it is the same Church that has existed since she was founded by Christ in Matt. 16: the Catholic Church.

(We call her the Roman Catholic Church since our first pope, St. Peter, was martyred in Rome, and his bishopric was then based in the city.  If St. Peter had been martyred elsewhere, then I suppose the Catholic Church would have eventually come to be identified by a different city.  Of course, it is fitting that Christ's kingdom on earth should be centered in the historic center of humanity and pagan culture in the ancient world.  For centuries, dating back to St. John's student Ignatius in 110 A.D., we have simply called ourselves the Catholic Church.)

May the peace and guidance of the Holy Spirit be with you, now and forever.

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