Thursday, March 31, 2011

Response to Tobe Witmer of Lighthouse Baptist Church - October 17, 2010 - on Eternal Security

I've been following with great interest the development of Pastor Witmer's study of the book of Romans, and while there will be more to say about various other sermons, I thought I'd first comment on this sermon on the second part of Romans 11.  Even though this commentary will be critical in nature, please understand that I think there are many good things in this and other sermons that Pastor Witmer says.  I think Pastor Witmer does a good job unpacking the meaning of these complicated verses, which involve God's plan for opening salvation to the Gentiles.

What is very interesting about these verses to me as a Catholic Christian is that they make a statement about the possibility of losing one's salvation.  Since a tiny percentage of Christians (including Pastor Witmer) believe that it is impossible to lose one's salvation, I was curious to see how Pastor Witmer would interpret Romans 11:17-24, which explains (emphases mine):
17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
 22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
Before looking at Pastor Witmer's interpretation, let me lay some groundwork.

First, the question that we need to focus on is this: is it possible for a born-again Christian to lose their salvation?

Pastor Witmer agrees with the Catholic Church that the following two categories exist: 1) some people get saved and finally enter heaven, and 2) some people never get saved and do not enter heaven.

The question about eternal security is essentially this:  is there a third category of people who get saved but do NOT make it to heaven?  Again, is it possible to lose one's salvation?

Since this is my blog, I'm going to take the liberty of answering this question:  Yes, it is possible for a person to be saved and then later lose their salvation.  This is exactly what the verses above from Romans tell us!  After all, the very point of the olive tree analogy is that one group of people who was part of the tree has been cut off.  After all, how can you be cut off from something that you are not already part of?  Likewise, God's kindness is shown by his grafting the gentiles into the tree (just like Pastor Witmer explains), but God's severity is due to the fact that he will also cut people out of the tree.  Why will he do this?  Because of their unbelief, the same reason some Jews were cut off from the tree.  Further still, God even claims the ability to graft people back into the tree even after he has cut them off.

All of this is straight out of Romans 11:17-24.  I'm not so much interpreting the verses as simply restating what they are saying.  These verses don't just argue that the third category of people (saved but lose their salvation) exist; it assumes it!

However, the Protestant doctrine of Eternal Security denies that this third category exists.  So, let's follow St. Paul's command to "test everything, holding onto what is good" and see if Pastor Witmer's interpretation of these verses holds water.

Before doing so, please note well: Catholics have a moral assurance of salvation.  Catholics believe, as do good Baptist fundamentalists, that God will never take back his gift of salvation.  Catholics believe that no power or principality can rob us of our salvation.  Our salvation is a free gift of grace given to us by God through Jesus Christ, and God is not an Indian giver.  He will not throw us or allow anyone to take us out of his hand.

HOWEVER, the Bible teaches that we may choose to reject the gift.  WE may choose to send the gift back.  WE may choose to reject God and take ourselves out of his hand.  We choose to do this when we embrace serious sins, those whose partakers, according to St. Paul, will not enter heaven.  This is important to note, because there is a difference between knowing that God will not renege on us (our moral assurance of salvation) and knowing that we will never renege on God (which some saved people do by rejecting their salvation and turning to a life of sin).  Sometimes, people try to claim that we are eternally secure because God won't withdraw his gift of salvation, but his argument doesn't address the possibility that we can reject the gift of salvation.  Just like Romans teaches, if we have been grafted into the tree, but then later lead a life of unbelief, we will be cut off.

Okay, on to Pastor Witmer's interpretation of Romans 11.   The video clips below are all set up to start at the time point designated, though you will want to stop the video at the end of the notated time span (which is where the following video will begin).

Clip No. 1 (7:32-9:45)

Pastor Witmer first reads the Scriptures and then prays.  Next, Pastor Witmer returns to Romans to begin explaining how it can not mean that saved people can lose their salvation.

Notice that Pastor Witmer admits that these are difficult verses.  He claims to read the Bible literally, but in this case, it is the literal meaning of the words that Pastor Witmer somehow needs to explain away.  In other words, this would be a passage that Pastor Witmer does not want to read literally.

To create an interpretive framework that will allow Pastor Witmer to escape the literally meaning of this passage, he invokes rapture theology.  He does this, even though this passage has nothing to do with the end of time.  Rather, this passage is directly addressed to first-century Gentiles living in Rome.  He is explaining to them how God has incorporated them into his plan of salvation history while simultaneously warning them not to fall into unbelief themselves, lest they be cut off.

We'll see shortly the application Pastor Witmer wants to make of the rapture context.

Clip No. 2 (9:45-10:11)

Here, Pastor Witmer makes an important and correct interpretive point: that what is true for a group is also true for an individual.  (Note well: the Bible tends to speak of salvation much more in corporeal terms than individual terms.  God wants to save entire families, and in the book of Acts at Peter's first sermon, he proclaims that "the promise is to you and your children," invoking the language that God used when making the covenant with Abraham.)  But indeed, anything that applies to the family does apply to individuals as well.

Clip No. 3 (10:11-12:55)

So, if these verses apply to the individual, what does God's severity mean?  Here is where Pastor Witmer's interpretation starts to break down, and even contradict itself.  In this clip, Pastor begin developing the idea that God is severe and harsh in how he deals with sin and unbelief.  But then notice...

Clip No. 4 (12:55-13:24)

...Pastor Witmer first applies the idea of the severity of God to "backslidden Christians."  And how does Pastor Witmer frame God's severity to those who have not lived their faith for fifteen years?  He will "discipline them."

Notice, whereas Romans says that those who live in unbelief will be "cut off," Pastor Witmer says that they will simply be disciplined.  This is ambiguous, because it is possible to be disciplined but not cut off from the olive tree, which is salvation.  So, here Pastor Witmer starts to depart from the true harshness depicted in Romans 11.

Why does Pastor soften what Romans 11 is actually saying?  Because he is working under the two-category system.  If a person is saved, then they can't lose their salvation or be cut off.  Thus, a saved person who persists in unbelief will not lose their salvation, but simply be "disciplined."  Unfortunately, Pastor Witmer doesn't give any clear indication about how far one can backslide and still be considered a saved Christian who has not lost their salvation.  (Keep this point in mind when Pastor Witmer returns to the unfortunate case of Dan Silverman.)

So, here, Pastor Witmer interprets "severity" as "discipline," not as "cut off."

Clip No. 5 (13:24-14:00)

Here, we get a second interpretation of God's severity.  Pastor Witmer reinvokes the rapture to make this claim: once the rapture occurs, it will be too late for everyone who hasn't yet been saved.

So, here we get a second, different understanding of God's severity.  It is the harsh reality of having missed the boat.  And this is not even a pun!  Pastor Witmer then illustrates his point by citing Noah's ark.  When the flood came, God's severity came with a door slammed closed.  The people who were not able to get on the ark were not saved.  (1 Pet. 3:21 relates the story of the Ark to Christian salvation.)

Here, Pastor Witmer is interpreting God's severity according to the second category, those who were never saved to begin with, and thus are lost.  For this category, God's severity is seen as the harshness of a sudden end, be it the flood (for the OT people) or the Rapture (for NT people).

Pastor Witmer's next illustration is brought close to home in the next clip.

Clip No. 6 (14:00-14:25)

Here, Pastor Witmer claims that there are congregants present who, though "members" of LBC, are still saying "no" to salvation.  He is concerned for these people, since God's severity could mean that they ultimately lose the chance to be saved.

And finally, Pastor Witmer summarizes what he means by this second definition of God's severity:

Clip No. 7 (14:25-end of part 1 of 3)

Here, Pastor Witmer defines God's severity as being "cut off from the opportunity" to be saved, either by flood or death or rapture.  The door is shut; you have been cut off!

Now let's pause for a minute.  "Cut off" is the exact same language Paul used in Romans.  But is this what Paul meant by "cut off"?

Notice, Paul is talking about people who have first been grafted into salvation!  It is these people who, according to Paul, risk being cut off by turning back to a life of unbelief.  They only way people can be grafted into salvation is through faith, so Romans isn't talking about people who never believed at all.  No - Romans is talking about those Gentiles who have been grafted in.

Pastor Witmer's interpretation is in real trouble already, because he wants to see God's severity in two different ways: either as a discipline that does not really cut people off, or as losing the opportunity to be grafted into salvation in the first place, in which case it is impossible to be cut off.

Remember, being cut off from an "opportunity" is not what Romans 11 is talking about!!  The Jews didn't lose their opportunity to be saved.  No, the Jews were God's chosen people, his covenant family, and they were "cut off" from really being saved!!

So, Pastor Witmer's first two interpretations don't somehow apply the clear Scriptural meaning of Romans 11.  They, in fact, deny clear Scriptural meaning of Romans 11.

To Pastor Witmer's credit, he seems to acknowledge that he hasn't really adequately addressed Romans 11 because he returns to the very question he just answered: what could Romans 11:22 possibly mean?

Clip No. 8 (0:22-2:55)

Pastor Witmer returns to apply the language of Romans 11 to the situation of the saved Christians at LBC by stating how severe it is for God to have cut off the Jews but how great and loving it is to have been saved.  Again, the problem for Pastor Witmer is that Romans says that God will be severe with those that he has loved.  God will be severe with saved Christians by cutting them off.

(Remember: God doesn't take back the gift, but God does allow us to reject Him.  When we reject God and the gift of salvation, God's severity kicks in.  This is critical to understand: God's severity is actually letting us have our way!  God's severity is letting his children go when they want to.  Like the prodigal son, we choose to be cut off, and we become "dead" to God.  Even though God is perfectly merciful and loving, he is also perfectly just; it is the justice of God that cuts us off when we reject Him through sin and unbelief.  The good news, of course, is that God will forgive our sins if we repent and graft us back in!)

Clip No. 9 (2:55-3:09)

This is an important point:  Pastor Witmer explicitly claims that he is "glad to be grafted in."  In other words, Pastor Witmer is clearly aware that being "grafted in" means being "saved."

So, the question, then, is this:  if Pastor Witmer is grafted in/saved, is it possible for him to be cut off from salvation?  Romans 11 clearly says yes, since the Gentiles who were grafted in to salvation could be cut off, and remember: what ever applies to the group also applies to the individuals!

Clip No. 10 (3:09-4:37)

Here is where the uncomfortable interpretive dance begins.  For the doctrine of Eternal Security to be true, Pastor Witmer has to deny that people could be cut off from salvation (the third category, where saved people lose their salvation).

Notice what Pastor Witmer says:
1.  "Uh oh, I don't like that..."  With these words, Pastor Witmer is clearly acknowledging at least an apparent tension between what these words literally say and his theology.

2.  So, the very first thing he does is to turn away from the passage and turn to his theology of Eternal Security:  "We know the goodness of salvation can not be taken back from us.  If you skip to v. 29, we read that "the gifts and the callings of God are without repentance" (I think he meant to say "are irrevocable.")

Here is where it is important to recall the point made above: that God will never revoke the gift, but we may reject it through our sin and unbelief.

Pastor Witmer tries to deny the clear meaning of v. 22 (that Christians could be cut off from salvation) by saying that God would not revoke his gifts and callings.  But this is not what causes people to lose their salvation!  God didn't stop calling the Jews - they stopped following him!  God doesn't take back the gifts from Gentile Christians, but that doesn't mean that they can reject the gifts that they once accepted, and hence be cut off!

The error Pastor Witmer is making is what logicians call a "red herring."  A red herring is an argument that distracts you from the issue at hand.  Neither St. Paul nor I am claiming that God will withdraw the gift of salvation when we sin.  Never!  What St. Paul and I are saying is that when we sin, we reject the gift of God's salvation!  Thus, we are cut off from salvation through our unbelief (each sin is a miniature act of atheism, though "not all sin leads to death" as John tells us).

St. Paul repeatedly warns Christians that adulterers, fornicators, sorcerers, etc. will not inherit the kingdom of God.  He never once says that "saved adulterers," "saved fornicators," etc. don't risk losing salvation and will merely be "disciplined." 

Anyway, to get back on track, the central question is: is it possible to be saved an lose our salvation?

Pastor Witmer just claimed that these verses couldn't mean that because we just know that eternal security exists.

Then, he goes on to list other verses (Heb. 12:15, 6:6, 3:12; 1 Tim. 1:19) which also show that Christians can lose their salvation.  He speaks of these verses as "places that talk like this."  (Ask yourself, is Pastor Witmer treating these God-breathed verses with the same respect and awe that he treats verses that support his theology?  I don't think so...  He almost seems to wish that these verses didn't exist...)  After reading these verses, he quips, "well, that doesn't look so good."  "I don't like that, that "departing" thing."  "I don't like that all, I don't like verses like that.  I'd rather just turn the page."  (!!!)

Clip No. 11 (4:34-5:34)

Pastor Witmer here admits that he doesn't even like looking at those verses.  He'd rather just turn the page.

You know what is amazing to me as a Catholic?  If Pastor Witmer were to hear a Catholic sermon where the priest read, say, Eph. 2:8 ("For by grace you have been saved through faith...") and then said, "I don't like verses like that; I'd rather just turn the page," can you even imagine the field day he would have with that priest??

Yet, whereas I have never once in my life heard a priest disparage any single verse of Scripture, here we have Pastor Witmer claiming that these verses make him very uncomfortable, that he doesn't like what they literally say, and that he would rather just turn the page.

Now, in all fairness, Pastor Witmer is most likely using figures of speech to communicate a deeper point.  (I am graciously assuming that Pastor Witmer does in fact love and embrace these passages as much as he does any other in the Bible.)

But whatever point he might hope to make, Pastor Witmer is acknowledging that these passages, taken in their plain literal sense, contradict his two-category system that undergirds the doctrine of eternal security.  They contradict eternal security by claiming that Christians can be cut off and that their faith can be shipwrecked.

I hope your warning flags are flying high...

Pastor Witmer then asks, "what do these verses mean if they don't mean losing your salvation?"

This is a critical, interpretive question.  Notice how Pastor Witmer frames the question.  He doesn't simply approach these verses with an open mind ("What do these verses mean?").  Rather, he puts them (and thus God) in the box of his pre-conceived theology of Eternal Security.  He presumes the doctrine of Eternal Security and then asks "what do these verses mean if they don't mean losing your salvation?"  The only problem is, Pastor Witmer really hasn't grappled with the verse itself yet, so how could he already know what they don't mean?  This is a clear example of Biblical "eisegesis," the act of misreading a text by reading a preconceived interpretation onto it.  In other words, Pastor Witmer is first stating his theology, then stating what the text couldn't mean, and only then dealing with the text. 

As the interpretation begins, notice that Pastor Witmer suddenly introduces a new idea, that he calls the "flip side of eternal security."  He explains, "Eternal Security is God's side where he keeps us."

NB: this is extremely close to the Catholic position!!!  Remember, Catholics have a moral assurance of salvation, which is that God will always keep us in his hands.  We add on to the point to add: "...unless we choose to reject him and jump out of his hands by our own act of will."  (You see why so many Baptists actually have to deny free will, even though they don't talk about this much.)

So, I would actually agree (with that one clarification) with Pastor Witmer here.  We are Eternally Secure in this sense.

But remember the key question:  are we able to lose our salvation (by rejecting God, despite his desire to keep us)?

Pastor Witmer continues: "On our side of this thing, if a man is truly saved, he will continue, or persevere, in following Jesus Christ or the ways of Jesus Christ until the day he dies."

Notice that Pastor Witmer is here, once again, reasserting the two-category system.  If a man is saved, he will persevere to the end.  Pastor Witmer is not actually interpreting Scripture.  He hasn't really addressed Romans 11 yet.  He has simply read Romans 11, acknowledged that it seems to contradict Eternal Security, and is now simply reasserting Eternal Security.  If a person is saved, God will keep them and they will persevere.

Again, this is a red herring.  No one denies that there are people out there who become saved and persevere to the end.  The question is: what about those people the Bible talks about who are grafted in and later cut off?  In reasserting Eternal Security, Pastor Witmer is effectively ignoring and denying--not addressing--the clear literal meaning of Romans 11.

He continues:  "and if they do depart from the Lord, they did not have Christ. They are these verses.  They are failing of the grace of God, they are cut off from what they apparently had." (emphasis mine.)

Let's listen carefully as he continues.

Clip No. 12 (5:34-6:10)

Pastor Witmer's entire interpretation hinges on the word "apparently."

He is claiming that if a Christian falls away from the grace of God and shipwrecks his faith, then he was never saved to begin with.  He was only "apparently" saved.

The problem with this interpretation is that it directly contradicts Romans 11.  In Romans 11, the Jews were not "apparently" grafted onto the olive tree and then cut off.  No!!  The whole purpose of the passage is to say the Jews were the cultivated Olive tree, but they were later cut off.  Then, Paul uses this to say what has happened to the Gentiles, who were really (not "apparently") grafted in as a wild shoot into salvation, but could also really be cut off from salvation if they fell back into unbelief.

Because Pastor Witmer's theology doesn't allow him the third category of people who are saved but then lose their salvation, he is forced to fit Romans 11 into a box that it doesn't fit.

Can you see this?

Do you see how Pastor Witmer is denying the clear meaning of Romans 11 (and the other verses he cited) with the novel doctrine (not believed by Christians until relatively recently) of Eternal Security?

Romans 11 is illustrating people who were really saved be really cut off.  Pastor Witmer is saying they must have only be apparently saved, but were really unbelievers all along (even though God constantly calls the nation of Israel his covenant family).  Thus, Pastor Witmer's theology verges on calling God a liar.  (NB: his theology, not him, is doing this.)  In other words, what God proclaims is true, and all through the Old Testament, God proclaimed the nation of Israel to be his covenant family.  Yet, Pastor Witmer's theology would insist that since the Jews were "cut off," they could not actually have been part of the covenant family to begin with.  Thus, God was proclaiming something to be true that he would have known was not true.  Applying Eternal Security to Romans 11 effectively makes God a liar.

Pastor Witmer goes on to say that if we are saved "we are under Christ's goodness," and if we were never saved, we are "surely cut off...whatever they professed in their life."  But again, Romans 11 is talking about people who were saved and then cut off, not people who were not saved to begin with.  Romans 11 applies "cut off" not to people who weren't ever grafted in to begin with, but to people who have been grafted in, just like the Jews were grafted in.  It doesn't take advanced degrees in theology to get this!

When Pastor Witmer finished by saying "whatever they professed in their life," he seems to be in deep contradiction with the very message of eternal security, which is that if we profess Christ as our Lord and Savior, we will be saved.  Here, he makes the broad statement that "whatever we profess" will not save us if later in our lives we fall into sin.  Which is it?  If we profess Christ, will we be eternally secure or won't we?  What Pastor Witmer is failing to acknowledge is that Christ could save someone who accepts him as savior (grafting him into the tree) and later cut him off (if he falls into unbelief).

Remember: no one is denying categories no. 1 (people who are saved and make it to heaven) and no. 2 (unsaved and lost).  There are people that fall into these two categories.  The question is: is it possible for someone to be saved (grafted in) and then cut off (losing salvation).  Romans 11 says YES!  Romans 11 can not be dodged by just putting on blinders and focusing on categories 1 and 2.  Category 3, according to Romans 11, also exists!  (There is no argument that says, "Categories 1 and 2 exist; therefore, category 3 does not.  This would be like arguing, "Dogs and cats exist; therefore, rabbits do not.")

Clip No. 13 (6:10 and following)

It should be pretty clear to the reader by now that Pastor Witmer is contradicting Romans 11, since Romans 11 makes it clear that the people cut off were previously part of the olive tree of God's saved covenant family.

Pastor Witmer keeps saying that a Christian who falls away was never saved, thereby denying the very meaning of "cut off" found in Romans 11.


To close, please prayerfully consider the following:

1.  If Pastor Witmer is correct about Dan Silverman, then there is also no way to know if Pastor Witmer himself is even saved, since none of us know if Pastor Witmer won't one day fall into sin and unbelief.  And if Pastor Witmer is possibly not saved, then the congregants should be even more vigilant as they listen to his interpretations of Scripture, which might not be inspired by a Holy Spirit that is not dwelling in him.

2.  Even if you believe in Eternal Security (and believe that one day you will go to heaven), you actually have no way of knowing if you yourself really are saved at this very moment, since you do not yet know if you will persevere to the end.  Eternal Security, turns out, provides no sense of security at all, because it is based more on our persevering than on God's promises.

3.  I hope you can begin to see that Eternal Security tends toward either despair or presumption--despair if you begin to think that you can not know whether you will make it to heaven, or presumption if you believe that no matter how much you turn from God, you will still spend eternity in heaven.  Mark Shea beautifully makes these points in this short essay.  Note: both despair and presumption are sins against the theological virtue of hope.  For two thousand years, the family of God has believed that we can hope for heaven, and we place our trust in Christ and his promises to save us, so long as we remain faithful.

4.  Pastor Witmer claims in this sermon that there are hundreds of verses that support Eternal Security.  This, in fact, is not true; there are only a handful of verses that proponents of this doctrine routinely cite to support their position.  Actually, there are almost a hundred verses that show that Christians can lose their salvation. 

5.  The verses in the Bible that seem to indicate eternal security are often misinterpreted due to a failure to understand or account for the Greek verb tense.  In the vast majority of these verses, the "present linear" tense is used, meaning that if we "continue to profess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, we will be saved."  Present linear tenses describe an ongoing action, not a one-time event.  You have to continue professing Jesus; you have to continue believing in him (John 3:16).  That is why so many verses treat salvation as conditional; we must persevere to the end to be saved.  So, don't be duped by a proof-text that seems to imply eternal security.  Check out the verb tense, and you will see that the verse says something in Greek that is quite different from what it appears to say in English. (This is easy to do.  Just Google "John 6:37 greek verb tense," or something similar for another verse.)

I provide the verses against eternal security and a rebuttal of the verses used for it in this tract.

May the peace of Christ be with you, and may your mind and heart be renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Lord, make us one as you and the Father are one! (John 17)

Yet another Evangelical Speaker is joining the Catholic Church!

Welcome home, Bryan Kemper (of Stand True)!

Here is part of his story:

I know that many of you will be confused, even concerned for me. I know that you will have many questions and even be tempted to try and dissuade me from this decision. While I will most certainly talk to you about what God is doing here, I will not be entering into any debates about this right now.

I want to let you know this is not made lightly; I fought against this for years. There are several things that led me to search and finally choose to go back to the Church. I will share a few things in brief here and would love to sit down in person some time with you if you want to peacefully discuss them in more detail.

Church authority: There are simply thousands and thousands of denominations and every time someone disagrees with another teaching of their church they simply start a new one. The Catholic Church has had it’s teaching since the beginning of the Church in the scriptures. There is no way God can be happy with thousands of denominations or so-called non-denominational churches. It seems that when people disagree on doctrine it often results in another break off church. The fact is that current Christian teaching can differ so much between two churches that it really constitutes different religions and different Gods. There must be one established truth that God gave us, one that has remained from the time of Christ.

Pro-life and Contraception: There is only one church that has been consistent from the time of Christ to today on the teaching of pro—life and contraception. Before 1930 there was never a single Christian church in history to accept any form of contraception and today there is only one that absolutely has kept this Christian teaching and truth.

Communion or the Eucharist: I have always believed that communion was more that just a symbol and in looking back at early church teaching it is crystal clear that this was taught from day one. St Ignatius of Antioch a student of John the Apostle taught on this and clarified it well.
 Read the rest here!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I'm NOT a Jesuit!! Response to Pastor Tobe Witmer of Lighthouse Baptist Church (Newark, DE) March 13, 2011

In his March 13, 2011 sermon, Pastor Tobe Witmer of Lighthouse Baptist Church asked for prayer for deliverance from "unbelievers," among which he grouped the Catholic Jesuit that emails and blogs against him trying to convert him to Catholicism. See for yourself (I've started the video a few seconds before to provide some context, though the full quote begins at 33:31 and ends around 33:50):

Now, perhaps, just perhaps, there is another Catholic out there who is a Jesuit who is emailing and blogging about Pastor Witmer.  A cursory search of the internet doesn't turn up any blogs that address Pastor Witmer other than my own, and Pastor Witmer has not mentioned any other Catholic contacts during our dialogues.

So, I have to assume he had me in mind.

There are a few things that I find both amusing and troubling in Pastor Witmer's statement.

First, the amusing point:  I am NOT a Jesuit.  I never have been.  If I were to join an religious order, it would not be the Jesuits! I am married.  I have a family.  I have no formal religious education apart from the Sunday school classes that I attended as a kid and the books and talks I have consumed.  I dare say that most of my religious training comes from simply being a Catholic, going to Mass faithfully (and really listening and participating when I am there), and reading the Catholic Catechism.

The troubling part is this: I have met personally with Pastor Witmer, and during our first meeting, Pastor Witmer asked me point blank who I had been trained by and who I worked for.  I told him the truth, just as I shared above.  He didn't believe me and pressed me again: "Are you telling me that you haven't taken any courses or formal training?"  He even asked me if I was a Jesuit!

And I answered him truthfully:  I am not a Jesuit, and I have not received formal training.  I'm not hired by the Catholic Church to attack Protestant pastors.

The even more troubling thing is that Pastor Witmer would label me an unbeliever.  Anyone who knows me knows that I love Jesus.  I have dedicated my life to Him.  Jesus is indeed my Lord and my Savior, and I trust Him for my salvation.  I have spent years of my life soaking in the Bible, which I believe is the only inspired, written Word of God that we have.

And yet, because I disagree with Pastor Witmer on what the Bible means, he has publicaly called me an unbeliever.  Because I have defended my beliefs from his attacks, I am an unbeliever.  Because I have questioned elements of his interpretations of Scripture, I am an unbeliever.  For him to claim that about me is indeed troubling.

Sorry Pastor Witmer, but not only am I a believer, but I'm also am not paid by the Catholic Church to go out and convert you.  My story in a nutshell is this:  My wife is a former Baptist, and through our many difficult conversations, I came to know a lot about Baptist beliefs.  My in-laws (her parents) are Baptists, and as they visited various Newark, DE churches looking for a home, I (as the spiritual leader of my household) decided to listen to the sermons of the pastors at the churches they were attending, if only so that I could be informed about the churches in case we should get into a discussion.

One day I was listening to Pastor Witmer's sermons, I heard Pastor Witmer attack the most sacred thing for Catholics, the Mass and the Eucharist.

Pastor Witmer claimed that Catholics re-crucify Christ in the Mass, which is simply incorrect.  I wrote a blog post defending my Catholic faith, in which I asked Pastor Witmer to justify his statement by presenting one Catholic document saying that we crucify Christ again in the Mass.  Of course, he couldn't do it, because the Catholic Church doesn't teach that.

So, on this occasion, and others before and after where Pastor Witmer wasn't sharing the truth of the Holy Scriptures with his congregation, I decided to stand up for the truth.

Because I stood up for the truth and defended my faith against Pastor Witmer's attacks, it is just a bit ironic that he is praying for deliverance from me.

Now, Pastor Witmer might wish that I would stop questioning him, but this desire would be hypocritical since he questions me just as much.  He has questioned me about the Eucharist, Mary, Tradition, and other aspects of my Catholic faith.  I have answered every one of his questions.  (Apparently, my ability to do so makes me a Jesuit.  Fallen away Catholics out there: did you know how to explain your faith from the Bible when it came under attack?)

Sorry, Pastor Witmer.  I'm not a Jesuit.  I'm a Catholic, a real Catholic (not just one in name only or a cultural Catholic), a faithful Catholic (not a cafeteria Catholic who picks and chooses the teachings I want to believe and follow), an informed Catholic (one who knows how to show where the Bible supports my faith), and, by God's grace, I long to be a holy Catholic.  (Here is where I depend on God's grace and the prayers of my fellow brothers and sisters.  It is one thing to know the truth, and another thing to live up to it day in and day out.)

I'm indeed honored that Pastor Witmer would think that I understood the Bible and the Catholic faith well enough to be counted among what is considered one of the most intellectually astute religious orders.  Indeed, there are many Jesuits who represent some of the foremost Biblical scholars in the world.  Fr. Joseph Fessio (student of Pope Benedict XVI and founder of Ignatius Press) and Fr. Mitch Pacwa are two of my favorites.  (Listen to archives of Fr. Pacwa and crew's radio Q&A programs here.)  Dear reader, please understand that I don't even come close to the towering knowledge of Scripture that these two Jesuits have.  So, I humbly accept Pastor Witmer's honor of being grouped with these fine gentlemen and priests.

At the same time, I have to scratch my head.  If this is the second time where Pastor Witmer has made false and unsubstantiated claims from the pulpit, what else is he saying that is simply not true?  I told Pastor explicitly and truthfully that I am not a Jesuit a long time ago, yet he claimed that I was.

In 1 Thess. 5:21, St. Paul instructs us to "test everything, holding on to what is good."

Whether or not Pastor Witmer feels he is being attacked, I can not stop "testing everything."  I'm quite certain that Pastor Witmer doesn't give it a moments thought when he asks Catholics to test their faith so as to get them to deny it and become Baptist.  Yet, when I, a faithful Catholic, tests Pastor Witmer's faith (which I actually haven't done that much, since I've spent most of the time defending mine), Pastor Witmer asks for deliverance.  Hmm!

I would like to ask here that Pastor Witmer either back up his claim that I am a Jesuit with one single bit of evidence, or admit (to me in writing, so that I can post the update here) that he mis-spoke and that I am just a regular Catholic.  Why is this important?  Well, for starters, labels like "Jesuit" carry a seed of suspicion in the minds of people who don't know what Jesuits are.  Also, the term seems to set me apart from regular, run of the mill Catholics, which is actually what I really am.  In other words, it is easier to write me off as a member of an elite, intellectual fringe group (as he hopes you will imagine the Jesuits to be) than to admit that a regular Joe-six-pack Catholic like myself is able to defend his faith so well that Pastor Witmer seems stumped (at least that is my impression).  My point isn't to stump Pastor Witmer, and I'll be the first to say that I've learned and been inspired by many things in his sermons, which, incidentally, contain much truth.  The point is to love.  The point is to come together into unity and communion as brothers in the Lord.  The point is to lovingly work together toward reconciliation.  To do this, Pastor Witmer is going to have to first reconcile within himself that I'm not a Catholic doctrinal hit-man sent from Rome.  No, I'm just an average Catholic who knows his faith well, and who likes sharing it with others.  (I know it is not as exciting to say from the pulpit that you are praying for deliverance from a normal, average Catholic, though :)

UPDATE (April 4, 2011):

Pastor Witmer answered my request in a series of two emails.  In the first email he began (without address):
[jezh-oo-it, jez-oo-, jez-yoo-] Show IPA
1. a member of a Roman Catholic religious order (Society of Jesus) founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534.
2. ( often lowercase ) a crafty, intriguing, or equivocating person: so called in allusion to the methods ascribed to the order by its opponents.

I didn't use Jesuit in the sense of #1, but more in the sense of the idiom of #2. You are fanatical and crafty in your desire to somehow sway me and I assume others from the faith in Solo Christo that is salvation. The fact that you are Catholic only adds to the Jesuit characterization. Without going back to email for support - my memory serves that I asked you this and you never replied directly. I may be wrong, but I simply have always assumed you are a Jesuit "wanna be". No disrespect intended.
I replied to him that I didn't quite know what to report, since I hadn't considered that he was using the term "Jesuit" in a derogatory fashion.  (He had written the word into his sermon notes, which can be read by going to the Lighthouse Baptist Church website.) And for the record, I have never once tried to sway Pastor Carlo from the doctrine of Christ Alone.  Salvation is indeed through Christ alone.  The difference between Baptists and Catholics, as Pastor Witmer seems to misunderstand, is in how Christ does the saving!  We agree that we are saved by Christ alone.  Unfortunately, Pastor Witmer sees the sacraments as human works, when in fact they each flow from and extend to each and every one of us the work Christ accomplished on Calvary.  Thus, there is no opposition between the cross and the sacraments.  They are, in fact, one and the same work, applied throughout time. 

Pastor Witmer replied in a second email:
Not derogatory - "Jesuit = Zealot"  In that sense I speak of you.  You could actually take it as a complement.
So, I guess that's the end of that.  In the end, it really is a small mistake, and one for which I've forgiven Pastor Witmer.  My intention of dwelling on the mistake at all is not to seem petty.  (Indeed, there are far more important things that ought to keep our attention.)  The reason to focus on this for a bit is simply so that 1) the air of suspicion is cleared and 2) the truth may be made known.  It is important for the reader to understand that Pastor Witmer has been lied to about what the Catholic Church teaches, and who Catholics are.  While I am not accusing Pastor Witmer of intentionally being deceitful, I do hope to hold Pastor Witmer to a higher, more truthful, more well-documented standard when he speaks about Catholics and what we believe.  Only when Christians can speak honestly with each other in a spirit of love can we continue to move together, as Baptists and Catholics, toward the unity that Christ desires for us.

[end UPDATE]


I do pray for Pastor Witmer that he will one day see the Catholic Church for who she is: the Church Jesus Christ established 2,000 years ago to deliver the fullness of Christian truth and worship to every generation.

In the meantime, I invite all members of Lighthouse Baptist Church to follow St. Paul's advice and "test everything" (INCLUDING me!).  But as you test, think critically, and test your underlying assumptions.  You might begin by reading some of the blog posts from other Baptists and my resonses to them.  Or, you might begin asking yourself these questions...
  • For instance, are you sure that 1 Peter 3:21 means the exact opposite of what the words say?
  • Are you sure that Jesus didn't mean "baptism" when he told Nicodemus that we had to be "born [again] of water and spirit," especially when the entire context of this passage in John 3 is baptism?
  • Are you really taking Jesus at his word in the latter half of John 6?
  • Acts 2 shows us that the early Christians celebrated the "Lord's Supper" every time they met, and certainly every Sunday.  Why don't Baptist church's follow the Holy Spirit-inspired example laid out in the Bible and celebrate the Lord's Supper every week?
  • Read Matthew 16 in context of Isaiah 22.  What was Jesus telling Peter about the structure and succession of authority in the Church he was building?
  • Finally, where does the Bible say that the Bible alone is the final authority?  (The Bible says in Matt. 18 that the CHURCH is the final authority....but which church?  The Bible says the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth...but which church?  All the denominations disagree about many truths!)
  • Where does the Bible say that we are justified by faith alone?  (The only time "faith" and "alone" are put side by side in the Bible is where the Scriptures say that we "are NOT justified by faith alone."  It is no wonder Martin Luther wanted to remove the book of James from the New Testament!)
  • Where does the Bible say that Christians can't choose to reject and lose their salvation?  (I can give you 97 verses that deny the doctrine of Eternal Security.  Please see my tract on the subject as well.)
Finally, pause for a moment and ask God in prayer:  Is it really your desire, God, for Christians to be so separated and disunified?  We all seem to love you and search for the truth of the Bible, but we all come to so many different conclusions, and every new theology seems to mean more divisions within the Church.  (We Baptists even have a famous quip that we "multiply by dividing," such that we have independent Baptist, Southern Baptist, Freewill Baptists, Reformed Baptists, and on and on.)  How, oh Lord, did you intend for Christians to be able to stay perfectly united in truth and worship, like Jesus prayed for in John 17 and like St. Paul commanded?  What can I do to learn to interpret the Scriptures in the way they were meant to be read?

Lord, grant me the strength and resolve to follow your will wherever it might lead me, even if this is to a Church that I might not have dreamed of joining!  Don't let me change unless you want me to change, but if it is your will, Lord, open my mind and heart to the truth of the Bible so that I may come to know you more deeply and worship you in Spirit and Truth.  At the same time, help me to read the Bible in the context in which it was supposed to be written, which is the context of your covenant family of God.  Help me to read the Bible in the context of the Church that has been around from the beginning. 

Lord, I know that for Christians to be unified, much dialogue, frank conversations and forgiveness will have to take place so that we can learn what each other believes.  Grant me the grace to listen deeply and carefully to what others have to say, and let me rejoice when I find areas of unity.  Clear away any prejudices and false impressions that I have of any other Christian, be they Catholic or a member of any other denomination.  Rather, let me reach out to them in love and humility.  Let me not see them as an opponent but a brother in the Lord with whom I can journey with toward the truth.  Let me speak the truth when it needs to be spoken, but let me also listen, and let me speak and listen in love.

And in closing, to any fallen-away Catholics, I pray that you will reconcile yourselves to the Church.  Some of you might have left because you did not know the faith well enough to defend it against the attacks of those who don't consider the Catholic Church to be Christian.  (If you left because you were failing to live up to one of the Church's moral teachings, perhaps about divorce and remarriage or artificial contraception, then I strongly urge you to repent!)  Please know that the Catholic faith does have the answer!  The Catholic faith is the true faith in which the fullness of Christ's truth subsists; the gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church that Jesus founded, just like He promised!  And that Church that Jesus promised to protect was built on the foundation of Peter and the apostles, who were given authority by Christ to proclaim the gospel to all nations throughout the remainder of human history.  These apostles appointed successors, and these successors appointed more successors, all the way down to the bishops that govern the Church today.  Every person who reads article has a bishop, if only you would submit yourselves to his authority, which is ultimately rooted in the authority of Christ himself.  "He who hears you, hears me," Christ told the first bishops of the church, a promise that follows the office right down to the bishops of today.  If you aren't sure whether this is true, ask yourself: were the early Christians supposed to be obedient to the bishop that was elected in the book of Acts to fill the "bishopric" (KJV) that Judas vacated?  If yes, then you believe in apostolic succession!  And you should!  The entire early church all around the globe, wherever churches were established, accepted the authority of the successors of the apostles without question.  This is a historical fact that is easily proven just by reading the writings of the early church.

My dear friend, I could write all day about the truth and holiness and beauty of the Catholic Church, all of which flows from Her being the Bride of Christ and sharing in his saving plan, but alas I must get back to the grind of my job.  Please don't take any of the above as an attack on my Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ.  Rather, I'm offering my hand and my ideas in hope that we might together work to fulfill Jesus's prayer for you and me: that we may be one (John 17).

This is going to take work and dialogue, but anyone who is committed to God's Holy Word should see this as a great opportunity to honor Christ, especially since He offered His passion and death to achieve this goal.

If a Pastor is not committed to working together to reach the truth (which begins by honestly trying to learn what each other believes and why), then I must question if he is really as submissive to the Word of God as he claims to be.  I trust that Pastor Witmer is submissive to God's Word in the Bible, and so I pray that he be as willing to discuss the Bible with a Catholic who knows his faith well (even if I'm not a Jesuit!) as he would be to discuss the Bible with a Catholic who is "easy pickings."

Please know that in my last communication with Pastor Witmer, I freely offered him six months to digest the materials and arguments that I gave to him.  In no way would it be fair to say that I am stalking him every day with emails and blog messages!  If Pastor Witmer will give me his permission, I'd be happy to post my emails to him (and even his responses) to this blog, so that everyone in his congregation can understand more precisely the nature of our exchange.

Also, here are the books that I have currently loaned to Pastor Witmer for him to wrestle with.  I would encourage each of my readers to pick up copies of these books as well (if you would like me to buy you a copy, just let me know).  I'll list them in the order in which I would recommend them:
  1. Steve Ray, Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church (Google Books sample)
  2. Mark Shea, By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Sacred Tradition
    (Google Books sample...other books can be found by searching for the titles on Google books.)
  3. David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic
  4. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians" 
  5. I intend to loan him this book as well, which is written by a former Baptist pastor who concluded that the early Church of the apostles was Catholic:  Rod Bennett, Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words
If Pastor Witmer is willing, I'll be sharing more details of our conversations shortly...

Until then, may the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with you!

    Another Evangelical finds his way Home.

    Check out this beautiful blog entry by an Evangelical who will soon (God willing) join the Catholic Church.

    Mark Shea on Sacred Tradition

    As a follow-up to my last post, I thought I'd link to a new article by Mark Shea on Sacred Tradition.  Shea's book on the subject is one of the best treatments and explanations of Sacred Tradition that I know.  (Of course, John Henry Neuman's treatise on the development of doctrine is a must-read as well.)

    Shea's article begins:


    A reader writes:

    I am almost finished reading your book By What Authority, and wanted to express my extreme gratitude to you for writing this book. I was raised as an evangelical and, like you and so many others, have been mulling over questions that seem to have no satisfactory answers inside the evangelical world. I recently picked up the aforementioned book and have not been able to put it down. I have been on an exploratory mission the last couple of years, researching and praying about the Catholic Church, and if there were a lynch pin in my story, reading this book might just be it. I have a question though that was not addressed in the book, or maybe I just didn’t pick up on it.

    My question is this ... If the Church relies on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture as you explain, both written and unwritten, what exactly does that Sacred Tradition look like? What is it right now, two thousand years later?

    I assume that it is all written down, perhaps comprised of the writings of the early Church Fathers ... Right? Or does it reside in the living successors to the apostles? And if it is written down, what is the difference between that and the Scriptures if both are equal and necessary?

    Or is some written in history, such as veneration of Mary and the saints, and some of it unwritten as of yet, such as prohibition of doctor assisted suicide?

    Gawrsh! Thanks for your kind words!

    In answer to your question: Sacred Tradition is the common life, worship and teaching of the Catholic faith. You can read about the basics of what it is and how it relates to Scripture (which is the written aspect of the Tradition) by starting here and going down to paragraph 100 of the Catechism.

    Beyond this, though, asking “exactly” what Tradition looks like and where it can be found is rather like asking “exactly” what Western Civilization is and where it can be found. Is it in Beethoven? Or the Beatles? Dante or Mark Twain? The architecture of St. Peter’s or the Empire State Building? The monarchy of Louis IX or the presidency of Thomas Jefferson? The Simpsons or the Mona Lisa? Well, all of these things are expressions of Western Civilization. And the thought of Fathers of the Church who sometimes quarreled or disagreed with each other on certain points still falls within the Catholic tradition, too.

    Or, to vary the metaphor, it’s like asking just where the exact location of Jazz is and what the precise boundaries and borders there are between it and, say, Rock and Pop. That sort of mathematical precision won’t get you anywhere. In short, I suspect you need to rethink your paradigm.

    Strictly speaking, the Tradition is Jesus. It is he who is being handed down by the Church in her life, worship, and teaching. The Church hands him down in the sacraments, for instance. She hands him down in her doctrines, which teach us to think with the mind of Christ. She hands him down in her moral and devotional life, wherein we learn to worship the Father as he does. She hands him down in her people, both lay and ordained as they gather to worship and express him through our various gifts and offices. She hands him down in Scripture, which is his living word in writing. She hands him down in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. She hands him down in the ordained office. In all this, the Tradition is much more like a living organism than a mathematically precise body of doctrines.


    Read more here!

    Sunday, March 27, 2011

    On an Island with the Bible? A Response to Pastor Tobe Witmer of Lighthouse Baptist Church (Newark, DE)

    Pastor Tobe Witmer, with whom I've been in dialogue for quite a few months, has mentioned on multiple occasions that he is sure that if he sat alone with the Bible on an island, that he would come to his fundamentalist Baptist interpretation of Scripture.  In other words, Pastor Witmer believes that his understanding of the Bible is purely Biblical and not influenced by any interpretive tradition.  He believes his understanding is simply the Biblical message.

    I contend that the very use of this imaginary scenario not only demonstrates Pastor Witmer's blindness to what it means to interpret Scripture (and thus renders him incapable of seeing/knowing/admitting that his present theology does result from an interpretive tradition that he uses to understand Scripture), but also that it falsely presupposes the very manner and context in which the Bible was meant to be read to begin with.  Finally, empirical evidence shows that the point that underlies Pastor Witmer's imagined island scenario is demonstrably false.  I'll address these three claims in turn.

    Point 1:

    One purpose of thinking critically is to uncover hidden assumptions, and to this end, I invite all of my readers to put their critical thinking caps on.  Why?  Pastor Witmer's imaginary scenario seems powerful precisely because it contains a hidden assumption that most people will not spot.

    In fact, this hidden assumption makes it completely impossible for Pastor Witmer's scenario to ever even take place to begin with, even if he wanted it to.

    Ask yourself:  What is inconceivable about the idea of Pastor Witmer sitting alone on an island reading the Bible and coming to understand it apart from any influence?


    The key is that Pastor Witmer is reading.  When you read, you carry with you all the thousands of influences, values, worldviews, etc. of the books, magazines, articles, billboards, etc. which you used to learn to read.  Even if you are alone, you are accompanied in your mind by each of your teachers, tutors, parents, and anyone else who taught you how to understand language.

    Thus, it is flat impossible to read alone.  When we read, we always necessarily read in community, even if not a single person is physically present.  It follows that any biases and weaknesses inherited from one's teachers will potentially influence the way a particular text is read.

    Realistically speaking, Pastor Witmer could not read the Bible and come to any interpretation if it was written in Russian, and all he knew was English.  Without knowing the language of the Bible, one can not draw any interpretation, much less the fundamentalist Baptist one. 

    In fact, the Bible was not written in English, but primarily in Greek and Hebrew.  So, if Pastor Witmer sat on an island reading the Bible in English, he would also be sitting, figuratively speaking, with all the decisions made by all the translators, including the translators from Greek/Hebrew into Latin, and the translations from Latin into the vernacular English.  And, if Pastor Witmer did decide to study the Bible in its original Greek and Hebrew, then we also introduce the quality of his instruction in these languages, as well as the theology and biases of the authors and teachers that taught him.

    There is another major problem.  Let's say that Pastor Witmer and a Bible both fell out of the sky onto a deserted island.  How is Pastor Witmer supposed to know that the Bible is actually inspired?  Does one of the books of the Bible tells us what all the other books are supposed to be?  In other words, how do we know that the table of contents of the Bible is correct?  How does Pastor Witmer know to form a theology on a set of texts written over the course of over a thousand years when there is no way to tell if every book is actually supposed to be considered part of the Bible?

    Turns out, Pastor Witmer can not only read the Bible apart from outside influences.  He can't even know, sitting there all alone, that the Bible is the book on which he should be building his theology, and not other competing books like the Book of Mormon (which also claims inspiration), the Koran (which also claims inspiration), or the writing of countless theological nut jobs whose writings also claim to be inspired.

    Now, I agree (with many of my readers, perhaps) that the Bible (and none of those other books) is indeed the only God-breathed, inspired, inerrant writing that we have.  But the only way *I* know this is because of a decision that a council of Catholic bishops made in the fourth century.  So, for Pastor Witmer to simply assume that the books these bishops assembled are in fact the correct ones, he also brings their decision (and the theology and traditions they used to make it) to the act of reading...

    ...Except for the fact that his trust is only partial.  You see, these bishops chose to include a number of books that one Protestant, Martin Luther, wanted to ignore.  Martin Luther's theology didn't rub well with some OT and NT books (he called James an "epistle of straw" and wanted to remove it along with Hebrews and Revelation from the New Testament), and so Luther removed these books from his version of the Bible.  Publishers later came to include the NT books but continued publishing the OT without the books that Luther removed.

    So, if Pastor Witmer was using the "Protestant" Bible on the island, then he also brings into the act of reading the decisions of Luther and publishers of Luther's Bible.

    The point is, it is flat impossible to conceive of sitting on an island reading a Bible apart from any and all outside influences.  The very act of reading is involves entering into a community, a conversation with layers upon layers of voices, ideas, values, biases, etc....even if not a single person is with you on the island.

    Somehow, Pastor Witmer seems blind to this.  I think this is because he would like me to believe that his interpretation of Scripture is the right one, that it is pure and unadulterated by any tradition.  After all, it is hypocritical to attack my Catholic interpretation as being influenced by Catholic interpretive traditions if Pastor Witmer is fully aware that his own interpretation is influenced by his Baptist traditions.

    There is one more irony behind Pastor Witmer's claim: Pastor Witmer could have done his very best to read the Bible "on an island."  But instead, as anyone who has visited his office at Lighthouse Baptist Church knows, Pastor Witmer has immersed himself in thousands upon thousands of dollars of books that help him understand what the Bible means.  Rather than shut off any potential influence, Pastor has surrounded himself with commentary after commentary and with Greek and Hebrew lexicons.  He spent almost a decade learning from Bible teachers from Bob Jones University.  If all Pastor Witmer had to do was read the Bible on his own to come to a perfect complete and full understanding of Scripture, then why did he spend all that money and time on books and education?  Pastor Witmer knows full well that his reading of Scripture is influenced by an interpretive tradition just as much as mine is, and yet how many Catholics has he convinced to leave the Catholic Sacred Traditions (authoritative Traditions handed down from the apostles) for his Baptist traditions (most of which are around 1,500 years late to be considered apostolic) by claiming that he follows the Bible alone?

    The fact is, it is impossible to read on an island, and who would want to anyway?  What parent says to their children, "I'm not going to teach you what the Bible means because God wants you to learn the truth apart from any influence or tradition"?  No, the Bible was meant to be read in the context of the family traditions of the family of God.  These traditions were passed along by all the apostles, even those that didn't write a single book or letter, yet we as Christians are bound by the Bible and the apostles teachings to "maintain the traditions passed on by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15).  The doctrine of the Bible alone essentially says "no!" to St. Paul's Biblical teaching by saying that "Christians today are only bound by the traditions passed on by letter."  Yet, this teaching contradicts the Bible, the very "letter" to which these Christians claim to be bound.  Further, by reading the Bible outside the traditions of the family of God, the Bible itself is misunderstood, its meaning twisted into countless variations followed by thousands of thousands of competing denominations.  The doctrine of the Bible alone is merely a license to justify and believe whatever you want to believe.  "Sola Scriptura" is unBiblical, unhistorical, and as I have shown, unworkable and inconceivable.

    To suggest that anyone would believe the fundamentalist Baptist interpretation of Scripture just by reading the Bible on an island is disingenuous.

    Point 2:

    Pastor Witmer's imagined scenario contains a second hidden assumption, one with incredible influence on the interpretation that Pastor Witmer imagines he would come to on this island.

    The assumption is that the Bible is meant to be submitted to and read under the authority of reason alone (even though, as I showed above, our reason will be influenced by the way we read, which is an act that is never "alone").  In other words, the primary context within which humans come to read and understand the Bible is in the context of our own minds and hearts.  Just like we have a personal relationship with Jesus, we read the Bible in a personal manner.  We connect the dots, all, we presume, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

    The problem here, of course, is that the Bible was not meant to be understood apart from the living tradition and worship of the People of God, the Household of God, the Church, the "pillar and foundation of truth" (2 Tim. 3:16).  When the Bible is taken out of this context and read only in the confines of one's own mind, then one is likely to come to any number of possible interpretations, none of which are connected with the living, breathing Church, whose interpretive tradition allows us to understand the Bible as it was meant to be understood when it was written.

    Thus, Pastor Witmer's island scenario is already an act of interpretation, since it is already presuming a context for reading the Bible that, in fact, is unBiblical!  Pastor Witmer's island scenario seems to assume that his intellect is the "pillar and bulwark of the truth" that protects the Bible, but the Bible itself makes that claim for the Church.  St. Paul tells Timothy that the Church (not the Bible, and not any one individual reading the Bible) is the pillar and foundation/bulwark of the truth.  The Bible must be read in the context of the covenant family of God.  Taken out of this context, the Bible could be twisted to mean any number of things.

    Pastor Witmer's island scenario is clear example of "taking the Bible out of context."  Because he reads the Bible using his own fundamentalist Baptist interpretive tradition, he comes to fundamentalist Baptist interpretations.  (No surprise there!)

    The question:  is the Baptist tradition the lens that brings the Bible into greatest focus?  In other words, is the fundamentalist Baptist tradition a tradition of God, or a tradition of men?

    (Answer: the Baptist interpretive tradition contains some traditions of God and some of men.  For instance, the eternality of heaven and hell, the trinity, the virgin birth, the doctrines of Christ alone and Grace alone, etc., are all part of the interpretive tradition of God.  The rejection of the sacraments, Sacred Tradition, and the magisterium all result from traditions of men.)

    Every time Christians pick up the Bible, they have a choice to make.  Are they going to read this book in the interpretive context for which it was intended (the ancient Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church), or are they going to pretend to read it apart from any tradition, in which case their own interpretive traditions (the ones instilled by their parents, pastor, tapes, songs, and books) will kick in and direct their interpretation?

    NB: this discussion is limited to those acts in which Christians are trying to reach doctrinal and moral conclusions from the Scriptures, conclusions that would pertain to every single Christian.  At another level, God also speaks to individuals through the Bible in ways that are highly personal and are not meant to be taken as universally binding truths.

    Point 3:

    People come to Christ all the time through reading the Bible, and they do so without the oppressive, dark influence of the Catholic Magisterium and Sacred Traditions.

    Pastor Witmer's scenario (in which he reads the Bible, presumably, apart from Catholic or Baptist influences) would seem to suggest that each of these people would most likely become a fundamentalist Baptist.  It is barely conceivable to Pastor Witmer that any of them would become Catholic.

    Yet - in reality, people do come to Catholicism from atheism all the time, reading the Bible apart from Catholic Tradition and concluding that the Catholic Church is the true Church.

    The fact that this occurs, and does so quite often, wipes away any chance that Pastor Witmer's argument based on his island scenario is at all tenable.

    Yet, Pastor Witmer continues to invite me to read the Bible apart from the ancient community, worship, and Sacred Traditions of the Family of God, the Church, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

    What is disturbing is that he does so seemingly unaware that in its place he is asking me to blindly accept his authority, his community, and his fundamentalist Baptist interpretive traditions even though he doesn't even seem aware that these things exist.

    The Catholic interpretive tradition is 2,000 years old, and can be connected through documents and teachings, and apostolic succession going back to the early church.

    Pastor Witmer's tradition is between one and five hundred years old, and some parts of this tradition have almost no historical evidence to their name until the 19th century.

    I pray that Pastor Witmer and every partially-separated brother and sister in Christ begin looking more closely at the lenses they wear when they read Scripture.  Where did these lenses come from?  From parents?  From books?  From the radio?  From a preacher?

    Do any of these sources make the tradition within which you read Scripture true?

    The answer is, in a word: no.  The only Traditions of God that we have are those that have been passed down to us from the apostles (not our preacher, parents, etc.).  These Traditions were deposited in the authoritative hands of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church for safeguarding so they could be faithfully delivered to every generation.

    The authority of the Catholic Church is the authority of a mailman.  The Pope's job is like that of the postmaster general; he is supposed to ensure that everyone is delivering the mail without opening the envelope and changing the message.

    Although non-Catholic theologians and pastors claim to reject the authority of the Catholic Church, they ironically claim much more authority for themselves than the Pope does, since they routinely open the envelope of Sacred Tradition and rewrite the message according to their own traditions of men.  These traditions of men then get passed on from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.

    Praise the Lord that the authority that Jesus appointed to deliver the Gospel is still faithfully doing rain, snow, sleet, sun, day in and day out.  Anyone who wants access to the Sacred Traditions of God need only turn (or, for some readers, return) to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the Catholic Church.

    Friday, March 25, 2011

    Response to a Newark-area Baptist Pastor regarding the Priest Scandal

    About a week ago, one of the Baptist pastors with whom I've had some correspondence decided he'd had enough dialogue for a while.  He wrapped up his comments to me with one follow-up email attacking the Catholic Church on the grounds of the sex abuse scandal involving a small percentage of Catholic priests as well as the poor decisions made by a number of Bishops in dealing with these priests.  When I have a chance, I'll ask this pastor if he would allow me to share his email, which basically made the "we'll know the tree by its fruits" argument to claim that the Catholic Church is an evil institution.  (Bunk.)  For now, I simply post my response:


    Dear Pastor,

    Indeed, the scourge and scandal of sin within the Catholic hierarchy is shameful. I'll be the first to tell you. (For that matter, every one of my own personal sins is scandalous and shameful, and if not for the grace of God, there is no telling what evil I myself could accomplish.)

    I myself met a homosexual priest during my time in San Francisco, and one encounter that I had with him at the end of my first semester (he simply said "we'll miss you" in a look that made me extraordinarily uncomfortable) convinced me to stay miles away from that Church.

    There is probably a lot about this situation that you do not fully understand, and so it is going to be difficult help you distinguish between how you imagine the situation and what the situation actually is. Remember that the media absolutely hates the Catholic Church, and so the media will take details and twist them in the way they get reported to make the situation seem worse than it is.

    Now...the situation is frighteningly terrible, and it shows the work of Satan in our midst. But, Satan's work is further accomplished when Christians believe the twisted details given by the media. So, beware. I'd hate to see you falling into any of the evil one's traps.

    Secondly, the new policies within the archdiocese involve the removal of priests who have been accused of wrong doing. This does not mean they are guilty of wrongdoing. Are you not aware that one of the consequences of some priests' shameful actions is that some people have seen dollar signs and lodged false accusations against innocent priests? The new policies in the Catholic Church say that someone (priest, nun, teacher, music minister, etc.) is removed just by being accused, a policy that is far stricter than any organization I know of.  (If I walked into your church and falsely accused you of something, would you immediately resign? Of course not! In fact, in your case, there isn't anyone with authority above you to remove you just to be on the safe side. And if you were guilty, you wouldn't need a bishop to move you to another church. You'd just do it yourself, if in fact you were actually that malignant a character. I strongly assume that you are not.)

    Also, it is important that you are aware of the dreadful situation in many seminaries about 40-60 years ago, where orthodoxy was shunned and liberal theologies promulgated. Because unorthodox seminary directors were allowed to occupy positions of authority, good priestly candidates (perhaps even like your friend) were shunned and weak candidates (perhaps even demonstrating sinful proclivities) were accepted. This was a disastrous situation for the Church, and one that resulted in priests that went on to commit acts that were often not pedophilia (involving pre-pubescent children) but were actually acts of homosexuality.

    So, because the Church went through a period of being too lenient with homosexual men becoming priests, the rotten fruits of those decisions indeed came to pass, as they likely had to. Yes, that tree has born bad fruit.

    The good news in this situation is that the Catholic Church is owning up to her mistakes. We now have a new generation of priests, inspired by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who are committed to orthodoxy and the Church's teaching on sexuality. Thus, these new priests are rooting out the modernist views of sexuality that for a time invaded too many of our seminaries. These priests are on fire for Jesus and are helping usher in the new evangelization of the Catholic Church. The priestly scandal is one last ditch effort by Satan himself to spoil the new evangelization, but I can tell you, my friend, that the situation for Catholicism is getting better. Young Catholics like myself are growing in number, and we are fighting back against Satan and the forces of secularism.

    Satan is our enemy in this battle.

    Yet, because Satan won the battle in seminaries and some of the priests they produced, and in some very foolish decisions on the part of bishops, let me get this right...

    Are you saying I should be suspicious of EVERY Catholic priest that stands at the alter on Sunday morning?


    Do I need to remind you that the rates of abuse in the Catholic Church are on par with those in Protestant circles? In public schools? etc. etc.?

    Do you apply this same suspicion to every school teacher, every doctor, every mailman, Protestant pastor, just because a few percent of them have committed evil?

    The Catholic Church is getting flogged (rightly) because they hold the highest moral standards of any Christian organization. The Catholic scandal is so large precisely because of the high moral ground occupied by the Church. No one is scandalized when Planned Parenthood aborts a baby. But when a Catholic hospital aborts a baby, it hits the evening news! Thus, the size of the scandal is magnified because these acts violate church teaching.

    Despite the fact that a small percentage of priests committed evil atrocities against the very flock they were supposed to protect, this still is a far cry away from a church actually saying that those atrocities are morally permissible.

    Outside of Catholicism, the following moral atrocities are deemed morally acceptable: abortion, contraception, divorce and remarriage, and homosexual acts.

    Beware, my dear friend. Satan has the churches that teaches these things right where he wants them. No change needed.  Woe to them that call evil good.  (NB: I'm not saying that these denominations are morally and doctrinally bankrupt or completely in Satan's grip.  Rather, it is those teachings that come Satan, not from God.  Satan is very pleased to see Christian denominations teaching that some serious sins are morally permissible.)

    The Catholic Church is the only church that hasn't caved on a single one of these teachings, and Satan knows it, and he is mad as you know what about it. If you think for one second that I am spiritually safer outside the Catholic Church than in it, then you'll need to try to convince me that each of those moral atrocities are in fact morally acceptable. Otherwise, I'd rather stay in a church that teaches rightly, even though a small number of her members act wrongly, than a church that teaches wrongly, leading most of her members to act wrongly.

    And yes, we have a lot of cafeteria Catholics in our midst that pick and choose which moral teachings they will follow. They, like you and I, will have to answer to God one day.

    If you feel like joining Satan on the Catholic attack, go ahead, but you do so at your own spiritual risk.

    I wouldn't recommend it, though.

    I would recommend praying for us. I would recommend joining us in spiritual solidarity (since you know full well that Baptist pastors have committed similar sins...though just without the national media spotlight). I would recommend joining us Catholics at the abortion mills to pray. I would recommend studying the Scriptures on divorce and remarriage and on artificial contraception, the latter of which was deemed morally abominable by all Christians until 1930, when the Anglican Church (go figure) first caved in at their Lambeth Conference. Since 1930, every single Christian denomination (at least that I know of) has changed their teaching on contraception except one.

    Finally, I would recommend listening to podcasts of Catholic priests. Try Christ the King Catholic Church's (Ann Arbor, MI) or Fr. John Riccardo's podcasts. These are not men who will cause you to think that they participate in some mysterious, evil subculture. I have met countless priests over the years, and I can tell you that the vast majority of them are like these priests, in love with Jesus and obedient to His teachings.

    Remember: human beings fail. I fail every day. This doesn't mean that I am devoid of truth. I know that I fail precisely because in those moments I choose not to live according to the truth.

    The Catholic Church is full of new creations, whether you choose to acknowledge them or not. Mixed in with the wheat, just like Jesus said there would be, are tares. You pointing out tares does little to change my mind about the Church. Jesus beat you to it. In fact, Jesus himself chose a tare for his original gang of 12. Sometimes I wonder if you would have rejected the apostles since 8% (1/12) of them were clearly "devoid of the truth."

    How sad it is that many people will succumb to Satan's plan and never consider the truth of Catholicism! How sad it is that many people will focus only on the victories of Satan within the Church yet willingly ignore the much more splendorous victories of God's grace at work within the Church. These people never spend as much timing pondering in their hearts Catholic saints as they do Catholic scandals. How sad. The scandals are all too human, almost boringly so. (The devil is quite a bore, in fact, compared with anything God does through those who love him.)

    I pray for these people to gain a sense of balance in their perspective.

    Thanks for sharing your concern about this issue with me! Don't let Satan have the final victory here.

    In Christ,