Monday, January 17, 2011

Response to First Baptist Church of New Castle, Delaware Ron Sears December 19, 2010 Service on the Virgin Mary

Thanks to the wonderful world of podcasts, I've continued to branch out and learn about more Baptist churches in the Northern Delaware area.  First Baptist Church of New Castle, Delaware has a podcast that can be subscribed to through the iTunes store.  Ron Sears, the pastor of this church, has a background in Christian counseling, an area in which he has published at least one book.  Having listened to various sermons from his recent "Spiritual Adulthood" and "Faith and Doubt" series, I can attest that this is a man who seems to be in love with God and to have a genuine concern for the well-being and growth of his congregation.  In reaching out to Pastor Sears and his congregation through this blog post, I hope the words below are not taken as an attack but rather as a loving correction offered out of a spirit of Christian charity.  The purpose and goal of my comments is not division but unity, the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17.  For us as Baptists and Catholics to open the door for the Holy Spirit to reunite us in perfect faith (including but not limited to perfect doctrine), then it is important that we lay our objections on the table, discuss them openly and honestly, and as St. Paul instructs: "test everything, holding onto what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21).


As a Catholic, I was very interested when I got to Pastor Sears comments made on Dec. 19, 2010 (this is the release date of the podcast, which I assume is the date of the sermon) about the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Mary is a person in salvation history who is very near to the hearts and spirituality of Catholics across space and time; she continues to be honored as the spiritual mother of Christians in every part of the world, as she has been since the birth of Christianity (John 19:27).  Sadly, Mary, who is really a model for Evangelicals in how her entire being points to and magnifies Christ, has been used by these same Evangelicals to strike a note of division with Catholics (and the Orthodox, and any other Christian group that venerates Mary beyond the point Evangelicals feel is appropriate).  Sadly, Mary, who really is the spiritual mother of all Christians who claim to be brothers and sisters with Christ and members of his mystical body the Church, should be a source of unity within the family, much like the grandparents of a large family provide a cohesion to the all the children, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.

So, in this blog entry, I'd like to seriously consider what Pastor Sears has to say about Mary, and especially the way he understands Catholics' devotion to Mary, so that the sad divisions that separate us Christians can be overcome.  In launching into this subject, we must remember that Mary is not a battleground where Catholics and Protestants go to war.  Let us remember that Catholics and Protestants (at least those Catholics and Protestants who put Jesus first in their lives), are on the same side of the only real battle: the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil, which includes all the untruths, misunderstandings, and lies that Satan has tried to sow between Christians.  Satan has been successful at this for so long that it will occasionally be important, as we consider the teachings of the Catholic Church, to place these teaching into a larger historical perspective, so that a teaching made 500 years ago in one historical context is not interpreted in a different historical context to draw even more false, divisive conclusions.  In other words, as I dialogue with Ron Sears's sermon about Mary, let us first submit all of our thoughts to Christ, that we may think as charitably as possible, so that the natural fleshly, human instincts to defensiveness and suspicion can be melted away by the Christian virtues of charity and forgiveness and a deep, abiding desire for unity with one another on this issue, at least wherever Christ will allow it for now.  Every unity is to be rejoiced over; every continuing division a call to continue the discussion with even more prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance.

To make it easy for the reader/listener to follow this dialogue, I have provided a link to an mp3 recording of the sermon (see below).  Then, in my comments, I will provide minute markings to the places that my comments address.

Before we begin, I'd like to point out a few things to keep in mind:
  • The sermon is 37 minutes.  This may give the impression that there is not much to say about Mary from the Bible and Sacred Tradition (authoritative teachings of Jesus and the apostles passed down from the beginning of the Church).  Many books have been written unpacking the depth of what the Bible alone has to say about Mary, and Biblical scholars and theologians have not yet plumbed the depths of the Biblical passages on our Blessed Mother.  I say this only because Evangelical sermons on topics like Mary tend to be reductionistic; whereas pastors will expand upon many other verses of Scripture, they tend to put verses about Mary into a straitjacket, such that they are not taken to offer the same depth of meaning.  To the Catholic listener, this tendency of some pastors makes it seem like the pastor has put limits on what these verse could possibly say before he has even read the verses themselves.  We must be careful as Christians not to let our prejudices against other Christians (in this case, against Catholics' devotion to Mary) to create a blinder to all the Bible has to teach us about Mary.
  • Also, I'd like to clarify from the get-go the following points: Catholics do not worship Mary.  Worship is due to God alone.  Catholics do not "pray to" Mary in the more modern sense of the expression.  We do ask Mary to pray for us.  (NB: "Pray" has an older connotation meaning a something like a "kind request," as in the English expression "Pray tell..."  So, if an elderly Catholic or older Catholic text speaks of praying to Mary, it is ALWAYS using this expression in the older sense of requesting Mary's intercession.)
  • Finally, it is important for the reader to know that everything Catholic's believe about Mary is found either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture, and nothing contradicts Scripture when properly interpreted.  Remember: Protestants in theory don't claim to be infallible interpreters of Scripture.  Thus, it is important for Protestants in practice to consider when considering certain teachings of the Catholic Church that maybe their interpretation of Scripture is incorrect at certain places.
  • At the same time, the Bible was never intended to be read in a vacuum, where Christians must lock themselves in a room away from every non-Biblical influence to try to decipher the meaning of this complicated text.  No - rather, the Bible was always meant to be read in context of the living, breathing, 2,000 year old Sacred Tradition of the Christian, Catholic Church.  The fullness of God's Word comes down to us today not only in written form but is also communicated (though not in an inspired, God-breathed manner) through the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church, teachings that have protected and delivered the Good News (much like a mailman protects and delivers the mail without opening it and changing its message) twenty centuries.  The Catholic Church was there from the beginning, and never has the Church changed one of her doctrinal or moral teachings (the same cannot be said about any other Christian group).  For 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has passed on truths about Mary, and these truths are all found in the Bible, but they are also found in the Church's ancient liturgies, her prayers, her artwork, the names of her ancient churches, ancient (yet ever new) doctrines formulated in councils such as the one held in Ephesus in 431 A.D.  The Bible's rich meanings--when correctly understood and interpreted--resonate with the rich historical evidence that the Church holds dearly in her memory.  While Catholics and Protestants agree that the Bible is divinely inspired, God-breathed, and carries a unique kind of authority within Christianity, the idea of going by the Bible-alone--besides for being an unBiblical concept--is itself a reductionistic doctrine, in that it severs the Bible from the rich historical tradition, and most importantly, from the living Sacred Tradition protected by the Holy Spirit through the Church.  It is this Sacred Tradition that helps guide our reading of Scripture.
  • Even though most Protestants would disagree with much found in the above bullet point, I'd finish these points by reiterating that everyone has a tradition they use to read and interpret the Bible.  Catholic Sacred Tradition hasn't been done away with for the "Bible Alone."  Rather, Catholic Traditions have been replaced by Baptist tradition, Methodist tradition, Adventist tradition, etc.  Read through the lens of these traditions, the Bible will read as a very Baptist, Methodist, or Adventist book.  The question is not, then, what does the Bible say.  Rather, the real question should be, whose tradition is the one that was passed down from the apostles?  Which tradition is the Tradition of God, and which are mere traditions of men.  (Granted, many aspects of Baptist, Methodist, and Adventist traditions are Traditions of God, but we can only measure this against the objective standard of the full Tradition of God, which is found only in the Catholic Church that Christ founded on Peter and the apostles almost 2,000 years ago.)
Okay, let's begin.

Here is a link to the sermon.   Please download the sermon, begin listening to the first 4-5 minutes, and then press pause and begin reading my comments. As a reminder, I'll give some minute markings so that you can keep my comments aligned with the sermon.  I will also put comments that summarize or quote Pastor Sears in blue font.

(0:00-1:00) Introduction and first part of the sermon (Isaiah 7).

:45  Point of sermon: "to take a look at doctrine that surrounds her" by seeing what the Bible has to say about "who she is and what she is."

Many Protestant sermons start off with a similar line: "let's see what the Bible has to say about that."  It is important for the reader to note that the pastor can never really provide just "what the Bible says" about something.  The pastor will provide some of what the Bible says about Mary as interpreted by the Pastor in the context of the interpretive tradition of Baptist beliefs and practices.  In other words, almost every Baptist who hasn't been in a coma their entire life knows that--unless Pastor Sears has lost his marbles--he is going to preach that Mary was a sinner (and not immaculately conceived), that Mary had children after Jesus, and that Mary should not be worshiped.  These are things that float in the Baptist air, and they will definitely influence the verses Pastor Sears chooses, the way he reads those verses to apply to Mary, and these preconceived notions will also cause Pastor Sears to not focus on other verses or even to share with the congregation what verses Catholics use to support the doctrines they believe in.

What I am saying here is that the idea that this sermon is going to present "what the Bible says about Mary" is a bit far-reaching.  Again, what you will hear is some of what the Bible says as interpreted by Pastor Sears.  This point is SO critical, yet many listeners miss this interpretive sleight of hand because it is couched in such innocent sounding language.  "I just want to...take a look at what the Bible says...."  Yet, as innocent as this sounds, the Bible is a book that needs to be interpreted for its meanings to be acquired.  Thus, it is Pastor Sear's very act of "just taking a look at it" which is going to be conditioned by the ways Pastor Sears has been trained to "look" at Scripture.  So, we can never get pure, unadulterated access to the Scriptures.  We always read the Bible through an interpretive lens that highlights certain verses and hides others.  This will be particularly true of Pastor Sears's treatment of the Virgin Mary.

Pastor Sears starts by talking about the Virgin Birth, which he has many beautiful and true things to say about over the course of the sermon.  He begins by citing Isaiah 7, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive..."

(1:00-2:30   ) Gives short introduction to OT prophecy, noting that many OT prophecies have already been fulfilled in history.  Prophecies have 100% accuracy, or they are not speaking for the Lord.

All of this is excellent, though it is not directly focused on Mary.

(2:30-5:40)  Talks about different translations of this verse from Isaiah 7 (v. 14-15). Then, unpacks what these verses mean as a composite of the different translations.  Points out that young, unmarried Jewish women would have wondered in hope if they were the virgin that would conceive....

5:45-7:15  We know from the NT that Mary was engaged to Joseph.  Being betrothed, they had the responsibility of marriage but not the privilege of the Marriage bed. In choosing to get married, Mary had evidently decided (or given up on?) the idea that she would be the virgin by deciding to get married, knowing that she would eventually consummate her marriage.

Earlier, Pastor Sears mentioned a "young Mary and young Joseph."  It seems here that Pastor Sears is unaware of the ancient idea that Mary and Joseph had entered into what is called a "Josephite marriage," one in which two people would marry but would live celibately.  This arrangement, though rare, was not uncommon in Biblical times.  Further, ancient writers believed that Mary had consecrated her virginity to the Lord at a young age, and thus would not have chosen to enter into a regular marriage.  Further still, early Christian writers note that Joseph was actually much older than Mary when they were betrothed, and that he was himself a widower.  That Joseph was significantly older than Mary means that he likely died before Jesus began his public ministry, which explains why he does not appear in any of the scenes during the last three years of Jesus's life.  Because we are 2,000 years removed from these events, and because the Bible says so little about Mary before the annunciation, the only evidence we have to go on to draw any conclusions about Mary's virginity in relation to her engagement to Joseph are the ancient traditions passed down to us from writers who lived within a few centuries of the events in question.  Whether or not Pastor Sears believes these or not is an open question; they are not matters of faith, so we as Christians have a certain amount of freedom in whether we accept the historical evidence as accurate.  Still, it is important to note that the picture Pastor Sears paints is apparently based on no evidence, since the Bible doesn't tell us anything about Joseph's age.  In fact, as we shall see, Mary's response to the angel Gabriel at the annunciation actually supports the ancient Catholic understanding that Mary was a consecrated Virgin, and hence would remain a virgin perpetually, even after she gave birth to the Messiah.

more to come...