Sunday, June 27, 2010

Response to Tobe Witmer, Lighthouse Baptist Church June 20, 2010 Service - On the Catholic Mass, Romans 6

This post is one of an ongoing series of Catholic responses to Pastor Tobe Witmer's (Lighthouse Baptist Church, Newark, DE) series on Romans.  The original sermons can be listened to at Lighthouse Baptist's website.


Pastor Witmer begins by asking: "Would it be okay with you if Jesus returned to the cross, was recrucified, and rose again?"  He proposes this question a few times in a row.  I have heard non-Catholic preachers use this question so many times to critique the Catholic Mass that I figured Pastor Witmer might take this opportunity to do the same.

In this case, I was right.

Before answering his own rhetorical question and getting into his exposition of Romans 6, we get this bit of anti-Catholicism:

Clip 1 On the Catholic Mass  You can also watch the clip in context on YouTube (it begins at 7'47" and ends around 8'30").

Let's take a look at Pastor Witmer's claims:

"This is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church does in the Mass."

This is a false statement.  The Roman Catholic Church does NOT put Jesus back on the cross and recrucify him.  Jesus was crucified once for all, as Hebrews says.  However, Jesus's sacrifice did not end on the cross, because his sacrifice was a fulfillment of the Passover.  Thus, while Jesus finished the bloody part of the sacrifice on the cross, he completed that sacrifice by offering it to the father on the altar of heaven.  Heaven is the New Jerusalem, and its temple is Jesus himself.  John witnesses this very altar when he enters the temple of heaven on the Lord's Day in the book of Revelation.  In Revelation, we see John taken up into the heavenly liturgy taking place in the New Jerusalem.  In this liturgy, this banquet feast of the Lamb, Jesus offers his sacrifice once and for all ETERNITY, in a single eternal moment--a single "now"--before the Father. 

As Catholics, we enter into the New Jerusalem when we worship on Sunday mornings, and thus we participate in the offering of the once for all sacrifice of Jesus to the Father.  After all, the Passover not only demanded that the Lamb be killed, and it not only demanded that the Lamb be offered by the Father/Priest in the temple.  The family had to eat the Lamb (see John 6, which specifically takes place at Passover a year before the last supper when Jesus said "take...this is my body.")  Jesus invites us to commune with his glorified Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity by taking us up mystically during the Mass into the New Jerusalem.  He offers us His Body and Blood hidden under the appearance of bread and wine.  In doing so, Jesus perfectly fulfills the prophecy that he is a "priest forever in the order of Melchizedek" (see Genesis, the Psalms, and Hebrews).  He is a PRIEST (priests offer sacrifice) FOREVER (we see him offering himself as the "Lamb standing as if slain" in heaven) in the ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK.  When we go back to Genesis and see this first and only unblemished Old Testament priesthood, what did Melchizedek offer?  Bread and wine!  Through the Mass, then, Jesus communes with us, and in communion with him, Jesus offers his sacrifice before the Father.

I hope the reader can see that Pastor Witmer's claim is a far cry from the Catholic Church actually teaches.  Which leads me to ask, where(!) did Pastor Witmer get this idea?  Did he consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church?  Did he consult a credible, official source such as a church council or papal encyclical?

"I took time to study this through again, because I knew this was true, and it is true that they, in the Mass, are saying that they are recrucifying Jesus Christ, that the atonement is being made again, that they are reenacting bloodlessly exactly what Jesus did THE FIRST TIME [Pastor Witmer's emphasis]."

This is such a vivid, strong, straight-forward point Pastor Witmer is making.  While I trust that Pastor Witmer did take time to study the issue, I'm confused about how he could claim that Catholic are saying that we recrucify Christ in the Mass.  The only place I have heard this claim made about the Mass is from anti-Catholic apologists.  Having read many books on Catholicism written by Catholics, I have never heard one Catholic even imply that we are recrucifying our Lord.

I am requesting (here on this blog and by email) that Pastor Witmer, having publicly, strongly, and harshly attacked the Roman Catholic Church (and by extension, the Orthodox churches as well), that he actually tell us the sources he studied before making this attack.  If he can show me an official source (Catechism, papal encyclical, church council, and the like) that says we "recrucify" Christ during the Mass, I will grant his point.  But in all of my studies, and in all of my reading of anti-Catholic materials, I've never actually seen someone produce a quote where the Catholic Church teaches what she is being accused of.

UPDATE:  Pastor Witmer informed me that he began by studying a Wikipedia entry on the Mass and Eucharist, and that this entry led him to the following quote from the Council of Trent:

 "The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different. And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner... this sacrifice is truly propitiatory" (Doctrina de ss. Missae sacrificio, c. 2, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1367). 

Notice, however, that the above quote does not speak of recrucifying Jesus.  In fact, it specifically identifies the offering that takes place during the Mass with the offering of Christ upon the Cross.  The offering is the exact same offering.  Only the manner is different.  There is only one offering, but as I explain below, this offering has an eternal dimension to it, not only a temporal one.  Through the Mass, we enter into the eternal offering of Jesus before the Father.  More below....

[end update]

Rather, as I explained above, we do speak of the sacrifice as being presented anew during the Mass, because from a human perspective (living in time as we do), we do enter into Christ's offering of the sacrifice at periodic intervals, either once a week, or as many faithful Catholics do, once a day.  But when we say the sacrifice is re-presented on the altar, we do so with the understanding that it is really WE who are being re-presented around the altar on heaven on which Jesus continually offers his one sacrifice, his one act of atonement, for our sins.

Because Pastor Witmer doesn't hold the mystical understanding of time and space that Catholics (and Orthodox Christians as well) bring to the Mass, he is virtually incapable of correctly explaining what Catholics actually believe occurs during the Sacred Liturgy.  (The reader may be interested to know that the early church actually patterned their liturgy on that cosmic liturgy found in the book of Revelation.  For the early church, as for the Catholic/Orthodox Church today, the liturgy always culminates in the wedding banquet of the Lamb, which we celebrate in anticipation of the final coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.)

Still, it is one thing to misunderstand what another Christian believes.  It is another thing to forcefully misrepresent the beliefs of another Christian with the claim that you have studied the issue.  I will share with the reader the books Pastor Witmer studied if he shares them with me.

Ironically, Pastor Witmer currently has in his possession two books by former Baptist preachers and converts to Catholicism that specifically discuss the Eucharist!  Both of these former Baptists recount how they had been taught errors about the Catholic Church's understanding of the Mass, and that when they learned what the Catholic Church actually taught, they found it to be MORE in accord both with the Bible and also with the students of the apostles, those early martyrs who learned the faith at the feet of those who wrote the Bible.

Sadly, there are many non-Catholic Christians who hate what they believe to be the Catholic Church.  In reality, the church they so vehemently oppose is only a figment of their imaginations.  Again, to show that Pastor Witmer's claims are anything more than a figment, I invite him to charitably back up his assertions with citations.  (Teachers--would you let your students make wild claims in written essays without providing a single footnote?)

Next, Pastor Witmer uses the word "reenacting."  This word does get used by Catholic theologians (though not with great frequency) because the liturgy is something that humans do--it is an act we accomplish over and over again.  We "do" the liturgy because Jesus commanded us to.  And the liturgy that we offer is the sacrificial liturgy that we enter into by "[doing] this in memory of [him]."  (The word "memory" here should not be read with the connotations provided it by our 20th-century English dictionaries.  Was this word written in the Bible with these dictionaries in mind, or with the centuries of Jewish experiences of Passover memorials in mind?  Turns out, the Hebrew word for memorial was rich with Passover connotations (connotations that very few Christians in the 20th century even know a thing about).  As any faithful, orthodox Jew could tell you, when you celebrate a memorial, you MAKE PRESENT (Catholics now say re-present, or "present again") the thing memorialized.  This is how God taught the Jews to understand the memorial of the Passover, and God's divine pedagogy was ultimately completed so that you and I today would know how to read the words "do this in memory of me."  To many people consult Merriam-Webster to understand "memory" rather than consult the Jewish undderstanding of the Passover.  Since the Lord's Supper, death on the cross, and offering of the sacrifice in heaven together fulfill the Jewish Passover, we have very good reason to ask how the Biblical authors who recorded the phrase "do this in memory of me" would have understood Jesus.  During the Mass, we enter into the one continual offering of Jesus before the Father, which constitutes the last part of the once for all sacrifice that began in the upper room.  Jesus wants to celebrate the Last Supper personally with every single Christian, and he loves us so much that he instituted a ministerial priesthood so that through these "priests in the priest [Jesus]," Jesus could sit at table with us--you and me--and say "take this and eat - this is my body given for you."  In Jesus's sermon in John 6, given at Passover time exactly one year before the Last Supper, Jesus told Christians that unless we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life.  The apostles had to wait a year before they would fully understand how Jesus planned to make his body and blood available for Christians.  As we know from reading the early fathers of Christianity who learned the faith from the apostles, the early church unanimously understood Jesus to be speaking literally in John 6.

Yes, there is only one sacrifice for sins: Jesus's sacrifice on the cross.  But that sacrifice began in the upper room and isn't complete until every Christian enters into the sacrifice both through the Mass (where we enter into the offering of the sacrifice in heaven) and through our suffering.  That is why St. Paul can say that "I rejoice in my sufferings because they make up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ."(Col. 1:24)  Our suffering gains meaning and spiritual efficacy when it is united through the mystical bride with Christ's own sacrifice.  Yes, Christ's sacrifice is complete, but the groom is not complete without his bride.  As the bride of Christ, Christians must "take up" their crosses.  We are made ultimately for the divine life, so the bride of Christ participates in the offering of the groom.

Finally, Pastor Witmer emphasizes three simple words that actually reveal the reason he fails to properly convey the Catholic position.  "...the first time."  Because Pastor Witmer only sees the Mass through the eyes of the flesh, it appears to him that we have a new sacrifice at every single Mass after "the first time" that Jesus went to the cross.  Since these Masses appear to be separated in time from the cross (as humans experience time), it seems that there are many sacrifices rather than one sacrifice.  Please know that I greatly appreciate and share Pastor Witmer's desire to defend (as he does later in the sermon) the absolute necessity and sufficiency of Christ's one sacrifice.  As we proclaim at every single Mass, "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again."  That's it.  It is over, finished.  From here on out, all that occurs is the offering of the sacrifice on the altar in heaven, which Catholics mystically enter into during the Mass.

Ironically, even non-Catholics use the idea of offering God a "sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving" and offering themselves as "living sacrifices before the Lord."  In doing so, they are actually simply repeating the language used by the Bible without once fearing that these sacrifices are "another" sacrifice than Jesus's on the cross.  Jesus commands us to make these sacrifices because we make them in union with Jesus's sacrifice on the cross.  Yet, we as living sacrifices are ultimately imperfect.  Our praise is ultimately imperfect.  Only Jesus is perfect, and so, ironically, it is the Mass ultimately that allows us to offer to the Father, in union with Christ's own eternal offering, the only perfect sacrifice for sins that has ever existed.  It is also interesting to note that the Greek word for "thanksgiving" is "eucharistia."  The Mass is ultimately a sacrifice of Thanksgiving.  Before Christ came, there existed a saying among the Jewish rabbis that "in the coming Messianic age, every sacrifice will cease except the Todah."  The Todah was the the Jewish sacrifice of Thanksgiving, what Catholics call the Eucharist.  This is the perfect sacrifice--the only perfect sacrifice possible--prophesied in Malachi 1:11.  But this sacrifice, according to Malachi, will be offered in ALL TIMES and in ALL PLACES.  Only in the framework of the ancient universal ("catholic") faith does this prophecy not only make sense but also find its fulfillment.

Seeing the Mass with eyes of faith, it becomes possible to understand how thousands of Masses each day do not constitute thousands of new sacrifices.  It becomes possible to see how only through the Mass does Malachi's prophecy make sense--that after the coming of the Messiah, "a perfect offering will be made from east to west."  In other words, all day, every day, from sunrise to sundown, a perfect sacrificial offering will be made.  Catholics enter into that one sacrifice through the Mass.  There is only one perfect sacrifice, which is that of Jesus Christ.  In the Mass, time itself is "caught up in the clouds" with Jesus, our savior, in his sacrificial offering.  Oh, how I pray that Pastor Witmer's heart be opened to this amazing and wonderful truth!

If what Pastor Witmer says about the Mass actually was true, then the stream of invectives he utters would be entirely appropriate.  As Catholics, it is important to recognize when people make harsh attacks that these statements come from an honest desire to protect the truth from heresy.  We should be sure to commend the zeal of our non-Catholic brethren while at the same time, correcting their misunderstandings.  Some of the most effective defenders of the Catholic faith today are former Protestants who finally learned what the Catholic Church actually believed.

As a follow-up, readers may also be interested to check-out Pastor Witmer's own take on why Jesus is seen by John in heaven as the "lamb standing as if slain."

(Also, my apologies to all.  I wrote this completely off the cuff, so please excuse the absence of chapter and verse references.  I'll get them in sooner or later!  Feel free to email me if you can't find a reference.)

Stay tuned for more comments on this (and earlier) sermons in the Romans series.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Welcome home, David Meyer!

Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society and convert to the Catholic Church, brought to his readers' attention David Meyer's announcement that he is becoming a Roman Catholic.

I find this paragraph at the end very compelling, though it is best to put it in context by reading David's rather succinct explanation of why he felt compelled to swim the Tiber:
The Catholic Church is the only option left. In many ways it is a bitter pill to swallow for me. I have been very critical of Catholic doctrine as a Protestant. Much that they believe I am not inclined to believe. But I will have to submit to the mind of what I must believe is the church Christ founded.
Faith, as David has discovered, is not about believing whatever we as individuals are inclined to believe.  That is not true faith in God; it is merely faith in oneself.  Humans, left to their own devices, are inclined to believe any number of things.  Faith, as St. Paul points out at the beginning and ending of Romans, is inseparably tied to obedience.  And faithful obedience means "to submit to the mind of...the church Christ founded."  Jesus himself once told this Church, "he who hears you, hears me."

Welcome home, David!


As a follow-up, I have since found another link to David's conversion at Principium Unitatis, where a link is given to Christopher Lake's reversion back to the Catholic faith.

David Meyer's original announcement can be read here.

Christopher Lake's announcement is found embedded in the combox at Called to Communion.  (The article and comments are worth reading!)

Cadillac vs. Chevy

Yesterday, I was able to speak with my Baptist father-in-law about the Catholic Church.  During the conversation, he used an analogy to explain how we might conceive of the difference between the Catholic Church and the Baptist denomination and why we shouldn't try to argue that one is better than the other.  The analogy was that trying to evangelize is something akin to trying to sell cars.  One car salesman tries to convince you that Cadillacs are better while on the other side of the street, another salesman tries to convince you that Chevy's are better.  They can argue positively, saying what good features their own cars have, or they can argue negatively, pointing out the flaws in the features of the other brand's vehicle.  Also (and this is the quality my father-in-law seemed more focused on), they can argue subjectively by appealing not to the objective features of the car itself but by showing how this car is perfect for your personality type and suits your subjective preferences better than the alternative.  (In this conversation, my father-in-law was using the analogy to express dislike of the negative type of apologetics, but did so based on the subjective mode of personal preference.  While I agree that positive apologetics are greatly superior to negative ones, I disagree that choosing a church should be based on personal preference.  This decision needs to be placed entirely under the authority of Christ, such that we would be willing to attend a church even if it does not suit our personal preferences.  Further, our personal preferences are so often conditioned by our experiences, so in most cases, changing churches for the right reason will not suit our personal preferences.  I would also state that framing any discussion with a non-Catholic in terms of "our church is better" is never productive.)

This analogy, while used to make a rather straight-forward point, actually reveals a deeply rooted vision or mental structure that deserves some discussion.  What I would like to do here is respond to my father-in-law's analogy and then offer a revised version of this analogy that gets a bit closer to the reality of the situation involving Catholics and Baptists.

First, to compare Cadillacs and Chevy's is to make an assumption that there exists at least two churches.  Cadillacs and Chevy's, according to the way the analogy is being used, are different in kind.  They share similarities, but the strength and purpose of the analogy is based on assuming their difference.  Cadillacs are one type of car.  Chevy's are another.  Cadillacs are "better" for someone who prefers driving a Cadillac.  Chevy's are "better" for someone who prefers driving Chevy's.  This analogy basically assumes that the evaluation of differences between different religious bodies rests entirely on subjective preference.  Thus, to try to "sell" a car as being "better" means persuading a person to change their tastes in cars, not so much to convince them that there exists something objectively better about the car itself.  Also, since the decision is based on personal preference, the "my Chevy is better" mode of argumentation seems to imply that the person who chose the "better" car is somehow a "better" person.  Thus, thinking in terms of something being "better" tends not only to put both parties on the defensive, but the entire argument can backfire.  After all, there are some non-Catholics who are actually "better" than some Catholics at living for Jesus and following his Word.

Still, the car analogy is a good one, and I think it can be revised to more accurately communicate the reality of the Catholic Church and its relationship to non-Catholic denominations.

First, we must begin by reminding ourselves that there exists only ONE CHURCH.  Thus, there are not really two (or more) different types of cars in existence.  There is only one type of car: a Cadillac.   The Cadillac that Jesus designed and built is designed to help its passengers drive safely and directly home to heaven.  This Cadillac comes installed with maps, a GPS, a map expert to interpret the maps (the expert actually works for the same company that wrote the maps!), a cooler stocked with plenty of food and drinks to last the entire journey, a fuel tank full of the most high-powered gasoline that money can buy, window shades and armored protection to protect the riders from harmful attacks and roadblocks along the way, and an on-board mechanic/doctor who can fix any and all injuries to the car and/or riders along the way.  The car is stocked with and abundance of treasures and accessories that Jesus knew the riders would need to face every possible obstacle on their way to heaven.  Leaving nothing to chance, Jesus lined the roadway to heaven with people who had successfully made the journey before.  These people constantly hold up their arms, pointing you in the right direction: toward the finish line, the goal, who is Jesus Christ himself.  This car that Jesus designed is a powerful indicator of his Love for us.  He wants us to come home to Him so badly that he put every possible feature into it that he could.  Further, he knows us (and the route) better than we know ourselves, so he put some features in that we don't even know that we need.  The car that Jesus built is perfect in every respect.

The problem with the car, of course, is that the inhabitants are not perfect.  At times, they abuse the features.  Some of the passengers frankly do not want to drive in the direction the car is traveling.  Though the car itself never swerves off track, some members of the car occasionally doubt that the car is heading in the right direction.  Other riders get so fed up with riding with the more unruly passengers that they decide to build their own Cadillac to get to heaven.

These passengers decide that they do not need the food and drink, the mechanic, the GPS, the people along the roadway who have gone before, or the high-powered fuel.  They rely completely on the maps, though they decide that they could do without the interpreters, especially given how one or two of these interpreters had been know to spend more time enjoying the plush leather upholstery than interpreting the maps.  As they rely on the maps, they ask for Jesus to give them a sense of how to interpret the maps, though the people in the car immediately begin disagreeing on what sense Jesus is giving them.  So, very quickly, the second Cadillac pulls over, some of the members get out, and they make yet another Cadillac, not the same as the original one built by Jesus, but still sharing some of its features.  This same process repeats until you have 30,000 man-made Cadillacs going every which way, since the drivers think they have the right interpretation of the maps.  Every driver of every Cadillac thinks they have the right directions to get to heaven, though they don't realize that they are heading in the wrong direction and don't have the supplies they need to make the journey.  Along the way, some drivers even re-write the maps, tossing out particular sections, just so the route they are taking can be shown to be the right one.

Granted, some Cadillacs will make it to heaven, but only those who retained enough of the features of the original Cadillac built by Jesus.  Only those Cadillacs that stick close to Jesus's Cadillac make it home to Jesus.  Those that veer far away from Jesus's Cadillac have less of a chance of ever finding their way home.

The fact of the matter is, those Cadillacs that retain some of the items in Jesus's Cadillac have much good in them to offer.  Every single feature in Jesus's Cadillac makes it extraordinarily easier to make it home to heaven.  The maps, in and of themselves, are the same no matter which car is using them.  The difference between Jesus's Cadillac and the others is not one that we might necessarily call "better," since the good features in the other Cadillacs are shared with, and even taken from, Jesus's Cadillac.  However, Jesus's Cadillac has the FULLNESS of everything Jesus intended to give the passengers to get to heaven.  The comparison is not one of better vs. worse, but rather fullness/complete vs. incomplete.  Further, all the good and helpful features found in the other cars are good precisely because they were taken from the Cadillac that Jesus himself built; these features, in their intrinsic goodness, point as it were, to the source of that goodness: the original Cadillac.

We are at a time in history where the drivers of the original Cadillac have found a successful way to let the other drivers know about the fullness their car possesses.  As a result, passengers, and even many drivers, from the man-made Cadillacs have decided to return to the original Cadillac, which remains heading in a straight line for Jesus.  When they return, they exclaim with great joy how wonderful it is to have all the food for the journey, all the people standing along the road pointing the way, and an interpreter sent by Jesus himself to understand the maps.

Of course, as time went by, many people occupying the man-made Cadillacs forgot the original reason for the split, although some of the prejudice toward the original Cadillac remained.  ("I don't really know much about this Cadillac that claims to be fully stocked, and I've heard some downright confusing and scary things about the car, so it is probably better just to stay in my Cadillac, which I've grown used to over the years.")  In fact, some of the people in these cars desire to get Jesus and heaven even more than some of the riders in Jesus's Cadillac.  With a fraction of the supplies and amenities Jesus put in his Cadillac, these other riders make it to heaven while the riders of the original Cadillac do not.  On the other hand, there are also riders in the man-made Cadillacs that really do not want to go to heaven and would rather make up a heaven of their own and drive toward that.  Sadly, because there exists only one real heaven, these cars never make it to the right destination.  Of course, it is equally disconcerting when riders of Jesus's Cadillac never realize what all the goods were for and, treating them with neglect and disdain, eventually just fall out of the car to wander off.

Still, if a person entered the scene and saw the man-made Cadillacs going in 100 different directions and Jesus's fully-stocked Cadillac heading straight for heaven, which one would you suggest they choose?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Response to Lighthouse Baptist Church January 3, 2010 Service - On Romans: Christ the Beginning of Righteousness

[Welcome readers.  Don't forget to check out the comments box!]

This blog entry is one of an ongoing set of responses to Pastor Tobe Witmer's series of sermons on St. Paul's letter to the Romans.  Witmer is the pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church located in Newark, DE.  Witmer and I have shared a few letters back and forth recently, and in one of them, he invited me to listen to this series on Romans.  The entire series can be heard by going to this site.

These blog entries are in no way meant to be read as an attack on Pastor Witmer, his church, or Baptists in general.  I consider Baptists my brothers and sisters in the Lord, and I reach out to them in dialogue with the mighty expectation that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we may be able to reach a deeper level of understanding of one another and overcome some of the differences and barriers that seem to stand between us.  I listen to Pastor Witmer in part to be encouraged in my own faith, which I am certain I will be, considering many of the glorious truths that we share.  (Some of these truths we share, even though Pastor Witmer doesn't think that we do.)  I also listen because I take seriously the divisions that stand between us, divisions that neither of us created and both of us inherited.  I do not take these divisions for granted, but rather want to test them, question them, understand them, and ultimately peer beneath them to uncover some of the deeper areas of resistance that separate Baptists and Catholics.  Even though Pastor Witmer has shared with me his deep concerns about the Catholic Church (to put it mildly), I consider him to be a man of faith and a man whose heart is trained on the Lord.  I pray to this same Lord that he will send us His Holy Spirit so that our dialogue may be one of love, humility, honesty, and understanding.   Pastor Witmer and I are on the same side: we are both fighting a battle against Satan, the author of division, and we both are running the race toward truth, and He who once said (and continues to say) "I AM the Truth."

If I test and challenge Pastor Witmer's interpretation of the Scriptures, it is done out of love for him, that he may grow in his understanding of the Lord and his word.  At the same time, St. Paul calls us to "test everything, holding on to what is good."  To test Pastor Witmer's interpretations of the Bible is actually a Biblical thing to do.  Very rarely do Christians (Protestant or Catholic) test the perspectives given on the Bible by their pastors or priests.  I think part of the reason is that to test a thing, one must have a solid reference point against which to measure it.  But what is the reference point against which we can measure a person's interpretation of the Bible?  (See here for more on the preceding question, including a reliable answer to it.)  It is difficult to measure Pastor X's interpretation of the Bible against the Bible itself, because what is really being done is measuring Pastor X's interpretation against our own (our own interpretation, that is).  The Bible--being a collection of words, sentences, and books--needs interpretation.

Words are really only symbols on a page signifying objects, actions, and ideas, and ideas are always born in the mind of a reader in specific contexts.  Those contexts include our understanding of the English language (not to mention Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic), all of our Sunday school classes when we were children, the faith and beliefs of our parents, the pastors we have heard, the Bible commentaries we have studied, the friends and experiences that have influenced our lives, the devotional books we have read, the church services we have experienced, and even the religious novels that we lounge with on lazy Saturday afternoons.  Billboards, bumper stickers, statues, movies, radio shows, and newspapers all influence the way we read the words off the pages of the Bible.

It should be fairly obvious, then, that no one reads the Bible alone.  It is impossible to read the Bible in a cultural vacuum.  Even though we are not aware of it, the influences outlined above shade the way the words on the pages of Scripture come to life in our imaginations.  If these influences are the only influences that people bring to the Bible, then it is no wonder that people interpret the Bible in such an amazing variety of ways.  These varieties of interpretations have given birth to over 30,000 different denominations outside the Catholic Church, with more being added every week.

Pastor Witmer reads the Bible wearing a set of Baptist glasses that make the Bible seem like a very Baptist book.  I read the Bible with a set of Catholic glasses that make the Bible seem quite Catholic indeed.  We each read the Bible wearing the glasses of our interpretive tradition. The point of my responses will be to give my reader a chance to see the Scriptures being discussed through both sets of glasses.  I invite the reader to imagine that Pastor Witmer's sermon presents one half of a dialogue for which I provide the other.  Hopefully, this dialogue will be peppered with many moments of levity, surprise, humor, seriousness, and challenges to rethink tired prejudices and false assumptions that keep the Bride of Jesus Christ, his Holy Church in a state of division.  Let us as Baptist and Catholics bravely, patiently, prayerfully, honestly, and deeply engage with and listen to one another so that God can be glorified and the radiant splendor and oneness of his Bride may be visibly manifest so that "the world may know" that Jesus was sent by the Father (see John 17).

And so we begin in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Tobe Witmer [TW]: Turn with me to the book of Romans.  This is one of my favorite books.

ReadyReason [RR]: It is a favorite of mine as well.

TW: Raise your hand if it is your favorite book of the bible.

RR: John, Matthew, Luke, Romans, Hebrews, Ephesians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Revelation are my favorite NT books.   If I had to choose one, it would be John.  In the gospels, we find Jesus himself speaking to us, which is pretty hard to beat!  :)

TW:  We're going to preach all the way through.  Only rapture is going to stop us...or death.

RR:  Let's get going then!

[part 1 of 4, 1'25" - I'll include these markers every now and then in case you would like to follow TW's sermon.]

TW: How does a man become righteous before God?

RR: An excellent question indeed.  Though I realize this is a rhetorical question to get things started, let me lay a little groundwork so that readers will realize what a complex question this is.

There are two basic approaches to justification, which is the process or act through which we become righteous before God:  infusion or imputation.  "Infusion" means that God infuses his divine grace into our souls, thus regenerating them and making them holy and righteous.  In this case, it would be appropriate to say that "man becomes righteous" and God recognizes man as righteous after his justification.  "Imputation" means that God declares a man to be righteous by covering the unrighteousness of man with the righteousness of Christ.  In this case, the emphases is that man appear righteous "before God," though the man himself has not truly and intrinsically become righteous (albeit through God's grace).  It should be clear now that TW's opening question is a bit ambiguous.  Are we to understand him to be inflecting "man become righteous" or "before God"?

Just to plant a seed: from a Catholic perspective, the infusion of grace is a greater gift than the imputation of grace.  Further, while it is not an error to say that God declares us through faith to be righteous by his Holy Word, Catholics believe that God's word speaks realities into being.  God's word is powerful and efficacious.  He keeps the whole world in being by the power of His word.  Thus, when God declares us to be righteous, this reality comes into being - we become righteous. 

TW:  Righteousness means standing "straight up."  When God looks at you, he doesn't see you lean one way or the other.  How can a man born in sin ever be upright before God?  How can we ever be viewed as righteous before God?

RR: It is already beginning to appear that the inflection is "when God looks at you."  Though TW hasn't explicitly stated it yet, he is already planting his own seed: that righteousness is achieved through imputation.  The strategy: paint man us utterly sinful and paint righteousness as perfectly upright, 90 degrees to the ground.  89.5 degrees won't do in God's eyes.

I'd like to step back a moment here to point out something important: TW, in a matter of a few sentences, has already brought you miles deep into his particular interpretive tradition without many people even realizing it! Already, he has offered a particular set of glasses--the imputation glasses--to his listeners before he has actually read to them a single word from Romans.  Far from putting the Bible alone to the fore, he is beginning by putting his interpretive tradition to the fore.  Note well: I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with this approach, although the listener has to be cognizant that he is being offered a tradition that needs to be tested.  In his response to my commentary on his Bread of Life sermon, TW claimed his normal preaching is expository, or verse-by-verse.  Thus, my ears are particularly anxious to hear examples of this expository preaching.  Even though we are only 2 minutes in, and TW is a passionate and charismatic preacher, my Catholic ears are already yearning to hear some of the Scriptures being read.  (In the Catholic Mass, much more emphasis is put on reading Scripture than I usually experience at the Baptist services that I attend.  We go through four substantial readings without interruption before the priest or deacon provide a commentary and application.) 

[Part 1 of 4, 2'00"]

TW: How did man become unrighteous?  The fall.  The fall was the beginning of the incredible slope of the fall of humanity sinking in the demise of sin.  How was that progression seen?  How did this happen in early history?  How unrighteous is an individual man...or woman?

DS: It's always good to cover your bases in case there are any die-hard feminists in the congregation!

TW: Did God make provisions for Righteousness to be restored? How does a man made Righteous handle his flesh if...he is still...if it is still unrighteous and he is made righteous do you look at that thing practically?  How do I live righteous practically? Does righteousness depend on my heritage as a Jew or Gentile (that's everything else)? (For instance, does my German descent effect God in the way he views righteousness?  You might be shocked for me to say "yes!"  You'll have to stay with me in Romans a long time until we get to that point. How do we serve God and treat other’s righteously? These are the questions that lead to the very theme and content of the book of Romans.

RR: While these are all good questions that definitely get us into the book of Romans, it is critical that one has an understanding of the other questions that could also get one into the book.  Questions, of course, always bias the mind of the listener toward particular answers, and so these questions can not be considered innocent.  They, in their own way, also represent a foregrounding of TW's particular interpretive tradition.  They can't be thought of as arising from the Bible (in the context of this expository sermon) because the Bible hasn't been read yet!

Other questions that are equally (or perhaps more or less) relevant would be questions regarding the historical context of Romans.  Who were the Romans and how did they think?  What were the particular issues occurring in the Church in Rome that necessitated the particular doctrinal exposition that we find in Paul's letter?  Who were the Judaizers and what was there central erroneous claim?  What did they have to say about the works of the Torah (also called "works of the law") in relation to justification, and how does this contextualize Paul's discussion in Romans?

I believe these questions are at least equally legitimate to the ones that TW proposes.  Yet, I would also contend that a sermon that an exposition of Romans that took these questions as its starting point might unfold quite differently than the one TW offers.  My point?  TW is framing Romans, and thus influencing his listeners reading of it, before he actually exposes a single verse of the letters.  Again, I don't think he is wrong for doing it.  However, it would be wrong for him to claim that he is simply "going by the Bible alone."  We are now almost 1/10th of the way through the sermon, and all we have heard is TWs interpretive tradition.  Whether this tradition is one of man or of God is yet to be seen.

Okay, back to the issue of imputation and infusion.  Remember: in "imputation," man remains unrighteous, and only appears righteous in God's eyes.  In "infusion," man actually becomes righteous.  Tied up with the question of justification is one of anthropology.  Who is this man and what changes in him after justification?

This is a rather difficult and confusing topic, one that TW even struggles to articulate: "How does a man made Righteous handle his flesh if...he is still...if it is still unrighteous and he is made righteous do you look at that thing practically?"  Here, we have a number of distinctions--man vs. flesh; made vs. declared; righteous vs. unrighteous; [theoretically?] vs. practically--that are all significant and all piled on top of one another.  Even more complicated are the relationships between each binary: man vs. flesh is a whole:part relationship (flesh is part of the whole, man), whereas made vs. declared is a whole:whole relationship (either imputation or infusion), and so on.  If your head is starting to hurt, you can see why people of faith actually come to wildly different conclusions about the nature of justification.  I look forward to hearing more about what TW has to say on this complicated subject.

[Part 1 of 4, 3'12"]

[TW was kind enough to send me his notes for this sermon along with his permission to reprint them.  The next three minutes of his sermon follow more or less closely his notes which I paste below.  I have underlined the one sentence in his notes that he skipped in his sermon.]

TW: The Apostle Paul wrote this book with evidence from Corinth during his third Missionary Journey. Rome was somewhere between a million and 4 million people then with a heavy Jewish population. It is not possible to know who started the True Evangelical Church in Rome. The Catholics of course attribute it to Peter, though there is question of whether Peter ever went to Rome – most likely, migrating Jewish believers started the church.

The believers seem to be quite a few, and it was a famous church for its strong Faith. Paul had wanted to visit them for some time. There was no apostle gone to them and they needed some Doctrinal Teaching and clarity on the Doctrines of Righteousness. So, Romans was written. Paul eventually did reach him on a 4th Journey where he was under trial, was under house arrest for 2 years, and beheaded.

[From the sermon itself:] If you are from...I'll say this...if you are from another faith, this Book is the STANDARD for understanding the Gospel. Understanding Romans is understanding your salvation and understanding your sanctification as far as the gospel.  It is a solid bulwark.  It is a solid pillar of understanding Jesus Christ's gospel and how to become righteous before God.

RR: Here TW provides even more of a frame within which to understand Romans.  Notice: he is preaching, but not something directly from the Bible.  After all, can you cite me a chapter and verse in the NT that says "Romans is the pillar and bulwark of the truth about salvation"?  Actually 1 Tim. 3:15 calls the Church the "pillar and bulwark of the truth."  What TW is preaching is an interpretive tradition.  The Bible doesn't say that Romans is the "standard."  For a Catholic, Jesus Christ himself and his teaching are the standard.  The epistles apply that standard to specific and unique situations faced by the early church, but it is dangerous to think of them as the doctrinal standard.  On the other hand, Catholics also take every book of the NT as equally inspired, equally inerrant, equally authoritative.  All this makes me wonder: why is TW inserting his interpretive tradition to make a claim about Romans no where found in the Bible itself?  How does he know that Romans is the standard?  What if I said that James was the standard for understanding justification?  Are James and Paul in conflict when James says that we "are not justified by faith alone"?

As a side note, we do know that Peter was in Rome.  No serious historian familiar with ancient church history disputes this fact.  Please see this pamphlet for more information on this subject.

Why is this significant?  It is significant because TW does try to make the connection between Romans (which he is trying to co-opt as the "standard" text for salvation, i.e. the primary starting point for preaching his denominations particular understanding of salvation) and the early fundamentalist church in Rome.  In other words, TW seems to imagine that in the early church in Rome, there existed groups of Christians that believed and worshiped exactly like he does today.  Unfortunately, this claim has no historical or archaeological evidence to back it up.  Not only did Peter come to be considered the first bishop of Rome sometime before he was martyred there (he was first the bishop of Antioch), but he was succeeded by Linus, Cletus, and then Clement I, who wrote that famous letter to the church in Corinth around 70 A.D. (before the last of the NT books had been written).  The historical record points to the existence not of a congregation-based set of Baptist churches but rather a hierarchical church in union with bishops in which the bishop of Rome held a primacy.  Further, we see that these bishops passed on their authority in succession, such that the first pope, Peter, was succeeded by bishops with authority to govern and guide the church.  (For an excellent series on the papacy as found in Scripture and the early church, please see these essays by Stephen Greydanus.)  As early as 110 A.D., St. Ignatius, an early bishop of Antioch after Peter and a student of St. John, called the early church the "Catholic Church."  He also described bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, which he then and Catholics today call the Eucharist, as the Body and Blood of Christ.  The historical record clearly shows that the early church was Catholic not only in name but also in its distinctive beliefs and practices.  Even Acts 2 shows that the first Christians celebrated the "breaking of the bread" (the Eucharist) every time they met for worship.  Yet how many churches follow this clear Biblical model for worship established by the early church, presumably practiced under apostolic authority and recorded under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Bible?

We are now over six minutes into the sermon as we encounter the first reading of Scripture:  Romans 1:

[Part 1 of 4, 6'18"]

TW: Stand with me as we read Romans 1:1–10.

Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ;

To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers, making request if, by some means, now at last I may find a way in the will of God to come to you.

[Up through the 4'30" mark in part 2 of 4, I'll simply copy and paste, again with TW's permission, his notes, which he stuck pretty closely to during this part of the sermon.  That being said, not only does he make many true and valuable points worth pondering, but he amplifies these points in his sermon in a way that can only be appreciated by listening to.  On all of these points, TW is in agreement with the Catholic Church.  He is preaching truths that the Catholic Church has also been preaching for 2,000 years since her beginning.  Below is a copy of the sermon notes corresponding to these times.]

1. Notice First, the Master that we are called to believe and serve
v. 1 says “a servant of Jesus Christ” ---- Paul says he is a bound slave to Jesus

--- This is a title of love, of worship – Christ has done so much for us, and it is our pleasure to serve such a Sacrificial Master the rest of our days. --- We are all called to be bound to Christ – we owe Him our allegiance, our service ---- v. 6 says “are ye also called of Jesus Christ” -- a call to be saved is a call to serve joyfully Jesus Christ.

** 12 chapters later, Paul will argue for us to lay down our lives as a sacrifice to God, because what he has done for us by Jesus Christ makes serving Him simply “Reasonable”

@@ Christian – your perspective is skewed and broken if you feel that Christ ever asks too much of you – if you feel that Christianity is taking advantage of you, or that it overshadows your will too much ---- no, we see here how a believer must think --- we are Jesus’ property now, we joyfully serve the Sacrificial Master – it is our life --- v. 3 and 728 times in the N.T., God and Jesus are called our “Lord” – that is the title of an Owner, a Master – someone owns you, live like that, let it set well with you. You are not your own, you have been bought with a price.

RR:  Thank you for making those wonderful points.  I hope many Christians everywhere heed this important part of your message!  Without disagreeing with anything you have said, I would mention, perhaps from a more pastoral perspective, that there is a danger in overemphasizing the "master-slave" relationship if the "Father-child" relationship isn't put in place.  This is the fundamental mistake of Islam, which considers it blasphemous to call God "father."  As TW mentions, we indeed are sons of the most high God.  The irony (especially for Muslims), is that we should ultimately be more obedient, more humbly submissive as children than we would ever be as slaves.  As Christians, we know that God is a family, the most Holy Trinity, and it is being drawn into life in the Divine Family, the Trinity, through Jesus Christ that constitutes the essence of Christian life.  Our slavery, as TW so excellently points out, is one born of familial love.  It is the slavery that comes from a dynamic self-donation to God and to neighbor.  I think it is important to note how radically Paul redefines slavery here!

Something else important remains to be said.  Here TW is (rightly) emphasizing how present Christ's Lordship is throughout the NT.  Jesus is proclaimed Lord 728 times, as TW points out!

When we speak about Lordship, we find ourselves at the issue of authority.  To accept Jesus as Lord means that we accept the authority of the Lord Jesus in our lives.  

Before going any further, let me say that I have always been flat-out inspired by the sincerity with which my Baptist brothers and sisters claim Jesus as their Lord and honestly work to shape their wills to His.  I think of many of the Baptists whom I have met as model Christians in this respect. 

Still, if we press this issue of authority, we begin to run into problems.  Baptists, like most Protestants, claim that the Bible Alone is the final, ultimate authority in the life of the believer.

Given how important the authoritative Lordship of Jesus Christ, we must find ourselves asking:  how successful has the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords actually been at leading Christians through the Bible alone?

Just think of all the Christians out there who, going by the Bible alone, end up with contradictory understandings of how Jesus wants them to believe and act.

In my mind, this raises a serious question for each individual Christian to answer:  How do I know that the authority of Jesus reaching me through the Bible isn't being skewed by false, man-made, fallible interpretations of the Scriptures?  As I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, the very act of reading the Bible sends it through layer upon layer of fallible human experiences, (mis-)understandings of Biblical languages and cultures, etc.  How does God overcome all of these things for some people so that they still end up with the correct Biblical interpretations?

I'm not asking any single reader to doubt their own beliefs, but I am asking you to step back to ask how a person who comes to different interpretations than you might be brought to doubt theirs (so that these doubts can be filled with real certainties as error is replaced by truth).

In other words: how does this "Lordship of Jesus" thing really work?  How am I to know whether I am really being obedient to Jesus rather than being obedient to someone's fallible, erroneous interpretation of the Bible?  (Just think: Baptists make up only a tiny percentage of all the Christians that have ever lived.  If you truly believe that Baptist fundamentalism is the one and only true Christian faith, then why has God been so unsuccessful leading Christians who honestly want to follow God to know that faith?)

The issue of authority is sure to come up all through this dialogue.  It all boils down to a simple question:  why should I believe TW's interpretive tradition over the Catholic Church's interpretive tradition?

[I'll come back to provide more commentary on this sermon later.  Please feel free to provide comments to keep the conversation alive!  God bless you.]

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Is Christianity Biased Toward Book Lovers?

John Piper takes up this question at his blog.

I post the link here because yours truly posted a few comments, some of them in dialogue with another reader.

I reproduce one of my comments below:


Hi Simon, grace and peace to you!
I'm drowning right next to you my brother, and the Bible indeed is a necessary lifeline for each of us. I'd ask you to think critically about this common idea of a "simple faith." The true faith has simple layers, but these layers are always connected with much more complex layers, the way simple addition is connected with calculus. Simple addition is fine, but a mistake at this level is going to mean a mistake at the more complex level as well, even if you are not consciously aware of the presence of this mistake.

My questions were meant to challenge the idea that God put it all in the Bible. I think God put it all in His Church, and over the centuries, the entire deposit of faith has been passed down to us by this Church both in written (Sacred Scripture) and oral (Sacred Tradition) forms. Both of these forms have been protected by a teaching magisterium that is protected by the Holy Spirit in its doctrinal and moral teachings.

The Bible depends on both Tradition and the Magisterium. Tradition tells us what books are supposed to be in the Bible and the MEANING of the Bible. The Magisterium is like the divinely appointed mailman who simply delivers the message without changing it. (With thousands of competing denominations, some people must be changing the message rather than simply delivering it. How do you know that Piper's interpretations are the correct ones?)

I would not deny that if you take the Bible out of its natural (interpretive) Tradition, you can get thousands of possible alternative interpretations, such as some of the newer interpretations that John Piper promotes.

From my perspective, your original statement implicitly speculates on the questions I presented. My questions made explicit that which was implicit in your comment.

I would like to share with you from my own experience that the Bible without Catholic Church makes an incomplete lifeline. The Bible needs to be interpreted, and so when weak Christians like you, me, and everyone else interpret the Bible apart from its interpretive context (Sacred Tradition) and make ourselves the magisterium, we end up holding on to the lifeline of our own weak, fallible interpretations. A lifeline is only as strong as the rock into which it is anchored. St. Augustine himself said that "I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me." (Contra epistolam Manichaei 5, 6: PL 42, 176.)