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 and...how 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 and...how 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!