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.


Jim said...

What convolution!

What circumlocution!

Ready said...

Thanks for your comment, Jim. Would you be willing to flesh out your criticism a bit more, perhaps by pointing out an example of a convolution or circumlocution?

Also, I know this is hard to see, but do you realize that your comment actually reinforces the very point that I am making in the essay?

You obviously expect me to understand the meaning of the words "convolution" and "circumlocution." But if I was sitting alone on an island and received your comment and *didn't* know what those words meant, I'd have no basis for interpreting your comment to me. On the other hand, if I *do* understand your comment, it is because I carry the knowledge of what these words mean that I received off the island. Hence, I'm not really alone.

What am I missing? I'd be pleased if you could help me.

Many thanks for taking the time to read, and I invite you to come back and read more articles as you are able.

In Christ,