Mormonism and Orthodoxy – Holy Saturday and the Unquenchable Love of the Latter Day Saints

Hans-Memling-The-Last-Judgment-The-First-Stolen-Painting[1].jpgThought experiment: You go to heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  • Option 1, The “traditional” option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, so you experience a sadistic pleasure as you watch your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you witness your family brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity.
  • Option 2, The “heroin addiction” option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply don’t care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer give a fuck about anything.
  • Option 3, The “loving and charitable” option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to the most popular views on the issue in Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism (Latter Day Saints) respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. As such it has enjoyed significant support among lay Catholics, clerics and theologians. I’m not sure who first formulated option 2, but it seems to be the prevalent view among Calvinists and Evangelicals. Oddly enough this is one of the few situations where the Calvinists come across as less Satanic than the Catholics. Option 3 has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, but it has received it’s most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

php_hell_01[1].jpgAs I have spoken about previously on this blog, I do not necessarily disagree with Aquinas’ assessment of the situation outlined in my thought experiment. If I go to heaven and my family go to Hell, I will indeed rejoice. However the reason behind my rejoicing is entirely different to that proposed by Aquinas. Aquinas asks us to believe that we will take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of the damned; We cry tears of joy as we contemplate God’s justice in action and witness our families suffering in the flames. Whereas the only reason I can agree that I will rejoice at the sufferings of the damned is that I am an advocate for universal salvation, therefore it seems clear to me that the saints will share in God’s omniscience and so come to a perfect understanding of exactly how all this excruciatingly horrible suffering fits into the divine plan of salvation.

Personally, I think that the Orthodox and Catholic traditions surrounding Holy Saturday give sufficient motivation to cast doubt on the standard view, and actually lend support to the Mormon view. For those who are unfamiliar with Holy Saturday, this is the elaboration of the clause in the apostles creed which says “He (Jesus) descended into Hell”. Basically the story goes, that during the 3 days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, our lord and saviour Jesus Christ descended to the darkest depths of Hell in order to preach the gospel and minister to the spirits who were trapped in this prison. Many of these people believed the gospel and were busted out of Hell, triumphantly following the lamb of God out of the jaws of death and into the light and bliss of heavenly paradise.

Cotton+MS+Nero+C+IV+f.24[1].pngNow, most people seem to take this as a “one-off”; a “once in a lifetime” event. However it seems clear to me that this is not the case. For one thing, there is no time in the afterlife; it is not a temporal existence. The afterlife is either aeviternal or eternal depending on who you ask. Either way, there is no time. As such, Holy Saturday was an eternal event. It seems reasonable to me that we should all expect to meet a ministering Christ when we die. Holy Saturday was not just a historical curiosity wherein Jesus busted out the righteous Old Testament Jews from the Limbo of the Fathers; I suspect that instead, Holy Saturday was an eternal, universal event; encompassing all souls who pass over to the unknown realms of Hades and death.

Interestingly, it doesn’t require much more development from this point to arrive at the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) view. It is generally accepted by Catholics and Orthodox that salvation involves theosis. Theosis involves a full and robust participation in divinity, including the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, as well as a sharing in Christ’s kingship, priesthood, mediation, intercession and ministry. It is this last point which is important: All of us share in Christ’s ministry. Does this not include his ministry to the dead? Is it really so unreasonable to expect that perfected saints will join Christ in his harrowing of Hell, descending into the darkness of Hades and the flames of Gehenna to charitably minister to the poor souls who are trapped there; preaching the good news of the gospel to them, exhorting them to believe and repent, experiencing compassion and love for these wayward, lost spirits?

Latter Day SaintsHonestly this alternative is the most plausible account of afterlife relations I have heard. It always excites me to no end when I meet Mormons (Latter Day Saints), because I know that this theology of afterlife ministry is dear to their hearts as well. Admittedly, Mormon (Latter Day Saints) eschatology and cosmology are incredibly wacky, and their doctrine of God is laughable. However on this particular point, I think the Latter Day Saints church has struck theological gold. Many of these cults and new religious movements are trying to recover a more consistent, more loving view of God. On this particular issue, I think the Mormons (Latter Day Saints) get it right.

Thank God for Mormons; they really are a lovely bunch.

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The Law of Christ – Contextual Absolute Morality

A Science of Moral Judgements

The law of Christ written on our hearts judges any given course of action according to the following categories:

  1. Must
  2. Should
  3. Omittable
  4. May
  5. Permissible
  6. Should not
  7. Must not

Failure to perform an action in the “Must” category, and the performance of an action in the “Must not” category are both mortal sins. Failure to perform an action in the “Should” category, and the performance of an action in the “Should not” category are both venial sins.

An action in the “Omittable” category is good to do but not obligatory, similarly an action in the “Permissible” category is good to avoid but not forbidden. As such, neither performing “Permissible” actions nor refraining from “Omittable” actions are sinful. Performing “Omittable” actions and avoiding “Permissible” actions is referred to as “Doing penance”. An action in the “May” category is morally neutral.

Performing actions in the “Must” and “Should” categories merits an increase in eschatological rewards, while failing to perform such actions merits a decrease. Similarly avoiding actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories merits a decrease in eschatological punishment, while indulging in such actions merits an increase.

Performing an “Omittable” action merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment, while failure to perform the action is neutral. Similarly, performing a “Permissible” action is neutral, but avoiding such actions merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment.

Fundamental Principles

  1. It is never permissible to do evil, even though good will come as a result. Which is to say, one must never perform an action in the “Must not” category, and one must never fail to perform an action in the “Must” category. This also implies that it is good to avoid actions in the “Should not” category, and good to perform actions in the “Should” category, however failure to do these things is not necessarily evil.
  2. The absolute moral categories of “Must” and “Must not” only arise in actual, concrete, present tense and real-life situations, and only from the first-person perspective. It is not possible to determine with certainty what an agent’s moral responsibilities are if the situation being examined is hypothetical, is distant in space and time, or if it is being analysed from the second or third person perspective; in this case it is only possible to make a probabilistic judgement and assign an action a value between “Should” and “Should not”, while the absolute categories of “Must” and “Must not” are excluded.
  3. No action is 100% good or evil when considered in the abstract. Actions only become totally good or totally evil in an actual, concrete, first person, present tense, real-life context. Apart from such a context, we can only make probabilistic judgements about the rightness or wrongness of an action.

Example

Killing is in the “should not” category. But if it is in self-defence then killing moves to the “should” category. However, if you also have other means of defending yourself available then it swings back to the “should not” category. But if those other means of defending yourself would lead to the death of multiple innocent bystanders then the killing returns once again to the “should” category. But if you somehow can see into the future and know that those innocent bystanders are going to be the catalyst for a future nuclear Armageddon in which all humanity is exterminated, then the straightforward act of killing becomes “should not” again. However, if, all of this considered, it would turn out that allowing the person to live would somehow lead to metaphysical oblivion for the entire universe, then the killing swings right back to “should” once more, etc etc etc

You can see in this example how it is always possible to add more information to a hypothetical situation, thus swinging the action in question back and forth between “should” and “should not”. Therefore, it is imperative to avoid being entrapped in schemas of rigid law and abstract absolute morality. When one is required to follow an abstract absolutist commandment such as “You must never kill”, then, despite the fact that it is “lawful”, the observance of such a commandment will be wrong and immoral in very many situations.

Absolute morality is important, but only in concrete, real situations, not in abstract hypothetical ones. Furthermore, the true absolute moral code cannot be captured within the schemas and broad strokes of religious or secular laws, or the sacred frameworks produced by the many and varied schools of religious and secular jurisprudence that exist in the world. In the end, it is up to the individual to always be prayerfully aware of the Holy Spirit speaking to their conscience, and in thus doing so, intimately come to know the law of Christ that is written on their heart, and so always do the right thing in every situation.

The Mystery of Sin: Who is Culpable?

So why do we sin? Why is it that we often perform actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories, whilst failing to live up to our obligations in the “Must” and “Should” categories?

There are questions of culpability in play here: If a woman’s conscience informs her that seeking an abortion is in the “Should not” category, but out of fear and terror she goes ahead and does it anyway, is it really her fault? She did indeed sin, by disobeying her conscience, but the fear and terror mitigates her culpability. But why did this fear and terror arise in the first place? Who is responsible for the fear and terror? In this case, the culpability for the fear and terror falls entirely on the community surrounding the woman, and by extension the culpability for the sin itself also falls onto the community. The community failed to offer and to provide the necessary support and care and love that would enable the woman to do the right thing. If we consider the community as a single moral agent, then providing such care, love and support would fall into the “Should” category. As such, the failure of the community to live up to its obligations is the direct cause of the woman failing to live up to hers.

In this way responsibility for sin and good works is a communal affair, not a personal one. The fear and terror of this woman proceed from a lack of trust that God would provide and take care of her and her child, but the way God does this providing is through the wider community, so if the wider community is not forthcoming with this divine love, then the woman is unlikely to be overflowing with the faith necessary to obey her conscience. The general moral principle here is that when one person either sins or does a good work, the entire community is ultimately responsible and culpable for the act.

While one is damned, all are damned

But this applies to soteriology. Universalist leaning philosophers and theologians love to speculate about how it is impossible to “freely” choose Hell and the eternal, everlasting damnation of the age, because such a choice is utterly irrational and insane, and therefore hardly qualifies as “free”. But this is a similar situation to the abortion hypothetical proposed above. Someone’s conscience may clearly reveal to them that “Choosing God” is in the “Must” category, which implies that they have full knowledge of what is right and wrong in this case, and failure to follow their conscience here would indeed be a mortal sin which leads to Hell and damnation. But due to terror, fear, scepticism, insanity, or whatever else, they may decide to disobey this clear, unambiguous command written on their heart. In this way, they truly did “choose” Hell, with the full consent of their will and a fully informed knowledge in their conscience. However, the factors motivating this choice were terror, fear, scepticism, misinformation, wrong impressions and so on. So, what caused those factors? If we dig a little bit deeper into the story of this person’s life, we discover that they had been taught lies about God, had been indoctrinated into a faulty theology, had been abused and betrayed by all their Christian friends etc. In this way, we discover that it’s ultimately not the individual who is at fault for choosing Hell, it’s instead the wider community’s fault.

This all has important implications for evangelism. If the people you are evangelising are not responding favourably then you shouldn’t judge and condemn them as if it is their fault, because if anything it is YOUR fault for not proclaiming the gospel correctly. Furthermore, when someone dies in unbelief and rebellion against God, it simply will not do to wash your hands of their blood and claim that it’s their own fault and they are merely getting what they deserve. Because if they really did reject God and end up in Hell, then it’s not their fault, it’s YOUR fault, and if you don’t do something about it fast you will be heading for the same fate.

The blood of the unevangelised stains all of our hands, especially if we aren’t praying regularly for them or actively trying to announce the gospel to them and assist them in coming to faith and repentance. Do not expect to escape punishment yourself, while the vast majority of the world languishes in Hell. Salvation doesn’t work like that. Some like to say, “Once saved, always saved”, but I prefer to say “One saved, all saved”: or, we’re all in this together. The promise of Christ to the world is “I will not be saved without you”, and we should be sincerely speaking this same promise to each other every single day, because so long as we don’t, the entire creation remains chained in darkness, unrepentance, unbelief and ignorance, and it remains devoid of love.

Most Christians these days seem to think “As long as I’m saved, it doesn’t ultimately make a difference to me whether or not you go to Hell”: this is the essence of false assurance and ignorance. So long as Christians maintain this attitude, the damned will remain in Hell. But as soon as we realise that our eschatological happiness depends on the salvation of the damned, we will all storm the gates of Hell with our prayers and armies of angels, liberating the captives and loving them all up into salvation. For a person doesn’t end up in Hell due to lacking love in their own soul; a person ends up in Hell due to everyone else lacking love towards that person.

When people die in unbelief, we should be asking forgiveness for both our souls and their soul: our souls because we are ultimately responsible for that person’s damnation, and their soul because no one is ever completely beyond redemption.

All of this is felt clearly whenever we are confronted with a suicide victim. The sense is always that we failed to help the person who died, not that they themselves are at fault. This intuition is correct, and if it applies to the sin of suicide, how much more does it apply to the mortal sin of totally rejecting God! But in reality, it applies to every sin. Every sin without exception committed by an individual is in fact the collective fault of the entire community.

The Final Word

But God is in the process of liberating us all from the chains that prevent us from fulfilling the requirements of the law written on our hearts. By slowly pouring out his love – which is to say, himself – upon us all, he is wiping away the darkness and filling us all up with light. As we love each other more and more, we lift each other up out of Hell and we all collectively rise up to Heaven. And in the end, not one person will remain separate from God, and all will always do good, and never do evil, and the requirements of the law will be fulfilled in us all, and God will be all in all, and there will be no more Hell, no more damnation, only joy, bliss, faith, hope and love.

Hermeneutics 101 – Catholicism and the Council of Trent: An Anathema Against Assurance

“If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.”

Thus reads the sixteenth canon of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. To my knowledge, this is the only anathema in the entire Catholic tradition which touches on the issue of assurance. If any readers are aware of another dogma which concerns assurance, I would be most indebted and grateful if you could inform me and direct me to the statement.

AnathemaIt is my conviction that misinterpretation of this anathema has solidified much misery and despair among the Catholic sensus fidelium for the past 500 years. Catholics simply are not happy; nearly every single Catholic that I meet is either apathetic towards salvation, or utterly terrified that they are going to slip up, commit a mortal sin, get run over by a bus on the way to confession, and then get dragged down to the deepest circle of Hell, reserved for those totally depraved sinners who masturbate, smoke weed and lie on their tax return. Catholics simply do not have assurance. Meanwhile – during that same 500 years – Evangelicals have been moving forward in leaps and bounds, overflowing with assurance and gospel joy at the promise that there is a place in heaven and the new creation reserved especially for them.

Catholics have been taught that they can have no assurance that they are “saved”; they can have no assurance that they will persevere to the end; they can have no assurance that they will go to heaven; if they have gone to confession, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they are in a state of grace; if they have commit a mortal sin and privately confessed it to God, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they have done so in a state of perfect contrition. Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty. To believe that you are surely saved is regarded as the mortal sin of presumption.

It is my conviction that all of this uncertainty is a toxic parasite on Catholicism which has been sapping the joy from our congregations for over a thousand years. It has been around for far too long and needs to be done away with once and for all. It is my conviction that things really needn’t be this way: Catholics are well within their dogmatic and ecclesiastical rights to have the same assurance of salvation that the Protestants are currently enjoying. Lets pull apart this anathema from Trent to see why.

An Exploration of Certainty

189289836[1].pngWhat exactly does “certainty” mean? Is it actually possible to be certain of anything? It seems to be valid to doubt anything and everything. It is possible even to doubt your own existence! Even from a young age, I understood that it is impossible to have an epistemological certainty of anything. There is always the possibility that whatever you are believing is false. There is always the possibility that reality is not how it seems.

The film “The Matrix” is a wonderful cinematic exploration of this principle: In the film, the computer hacker Thomas Anderson (who adopts the hacker moniker of “Neo”) goes about daily life; he goes to work, has breakfast, sleeps, browses the internet late at night. But he feels like something is “off”. He suspects that reality is not quite what it seems to be. Eventually he is contacted by a mysterious group of people who claim to be able to show him the truth. Thomas meets with these people and they make him an offer: take the blue pill and leave the mystery unsolved, returning to real life and going about the daily grind, or take the red pill and have his eyes opened to true reality for the first time ever.

Thomas takes the red pill, and his whole world shatters. It turns out that almost everything that he took for granted was a lie. He was living in a computer simulation the entire time. Stuff that he thought he could depend on with certainty was pulled right out from underneath him.

We are all in exactly the same position as Neo: There may very well be an objective Truth out there (this is in fact an article of faith in Catholicism), however we can never be certain that we have really grasped it: it is always possible for someone to swoop in, offer us the red pill, and shatter our entire view of reality, showing us that everything we believe is wrong.

Assurance: Are You Saved?

AssuranceThis principle of uncertainty applies to literally everything: You cannot be certain of the colour of your own eyes, you cannot be certain of your own age, and most importantly, you cannot be certain of your salvation.

It is a classic tactic of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to walk up to Catholics and ask “Are you saved?” Anything less than a devout “Amen brother!” from the Catholic will result in a free and unrequested sermon on assurance and knowing that because of what Jesus did on the cross, you’re going to make it to Heaven (and of course they will typically water down this wonderful message by attaching conditions to it, such as “faith” or “accepting Christ”). Most Catholics when asked this question will say “I don’t know if I’m saved. I’ll find out when I die”, causing the Evangelical asking the question to shake his head in pity and disapproval.

In an epistemological sense, this typically Catholic, non-committal response is completely correct. The Catholic simply cannot know whether they are saved or not. The Catholic has no sure idea what’s going to happen to them after they die. Furthermore, the Evangelical is completely fooling himself if he honestly thinks that he can be certain of his salvation. This is what I would like to call epistemological presumption. To be certain of anything constitutes epistemological presumption.

Assurance: Two Kinds of Certainty

And yet… perhaps there are things which we can be certain of. This is best illustrated by example:

Right now I am typing up this blog post. Now, do I know with objective certainty that I am currently typing up this blog post? No, of course not: this could be entirely illusory: I’m not certain that my computer exists; I’m not certain that my fingers and keyboard exist; I’m not certain that this blog even exists. All of it could be a lie.

ordinateur-de-bureau-pc-1456070535WEH[1].jpgBut here’s the twist: there is in actual fact exactly one thing that I can be certain of in this situation. I can doubt that I exist; I can doubt that this post exists; I can doubt that my computer exists; however I cannot doubt that I am currently experiencing the act of typing up a blog post on my computer. While I can doubt the content of my experience, I cannot doubt the experience in and of itself. This experience is real, even though the content of this experience may all be a lie.

I call this subjective certainty: it is the only form of certainty that it is valid to possess. The certainty of the fact that experience itself is true, even if the content of that experience is false. In this way there is a certain objectivity to our subjectivity. Arguably this is because subjective experience is in actual fact a form of objective divine revelation direct from God.

To review: I am not certain that I exist, but I am certain that I experience existence. I am not certain that I am hungry, but I am certain that I experience hunger. I am not certain that I love my family, but I am certain that I experience love for my family. And finally, I am not certain that I am saved, but I am certain that I experience salvation.

When Protestants talk about being “certain” that they are saved, this is what they are talking about (although many of them don’t realise it). Protestants examine their experience of life, and they are able to detect something within their experience of life which corresponds to the idea of “Salvation”, namely, an invincible joy which proceeds from the fact that they trust the unconditional grace of God to get them to heaven.

This is why, if you ask a Protestant if they are saved, many of them will respond with “Of course!” – It just seems so obvious to them: they are living and breathing salvation; they are walking in the light; Jesus is their best friend and they regularly converse with each other; they are overflowing with gospel joy at the prospect that God has them in his hands and will never let go. Protestants have a subjective certainty that they are saved: they simply know it because they daily experience it.

Anathema: What is actually being condemned?

The question is, does such a subjective certainty fall under the condemnation of the anathema of Trent quoted at the beginning of this post? Are protestants to be held as heretics on this point? Has such an overwhelming experience of gospel joy been dogmatically ruled out?

It seems fairly obvious to me that no, such an experience of joy has not been condemned by this anathema. Consider: The anathema talks about future salvation or perseverance. It claims that it is impossible to be certain that you will persevere all the way to the end and arrive safely at heaven. However the evangelical joy comes from experiencing and believing in present salvation. The evangelical joy proceeds from living a life of salvation right now. The evangelical joy does not necessarily have anything to say about perseverance to the end: it is instead all about living in the present moment and finding salvation in your day to day experience.

AssuranceFurthermore, you have to ask what kind of certainty is actually being condemned by this anathema. Is it condemning subjective certainty, or objective, epistemological certainty? Subjective certainty is more of a “confidence”, whereas objective certainty – as discussed previously – is simply an impossibility. Admittedly the anathema is ambiguous on this point; it simply is not clear what kind of certainty it is condemning. However if I had to take a guess, I would estimate that when the anathema says “absolute and infallible certainty” it is referring to epistemological, objective certainty, rather than subjective certainty. In other words, I suspect that according to this dogma it is entirely valid to have a full and robust, 100% confident faith and hope that you will persevere unto heaven and the fullness of salvation.

In short, if I had to interpret exactly what this anathema is actually condemning, I think it is fair to say that it is not condemning a subjective experience of certainty that you are saved. Next time the cheeky Protestant asks if you are saved, you really should feel comfortable saying “absolutely! Praise God!” What it is actually condemning, is an objective, epistemological certainty that you are and will be saved.

Anathema: Two Kinds of Presumption

An objection is raised: What about presumption? Isn’t it standard Catholic doctrine that being certain of your salvation is the mortal sin of presumption?

Firstly, as far as I am aware this doctrine is not infallible dogma and it is therefore safe for a theologian to disregard. Secondly, I think it depends how you want to define “Presumption”. My understanding of presumption is not so much “being certain that you’re saved” as it is “living your life as if sin has no consequences” or in other words “taking God’s mercy for granted while simultaneously ignoring his justice”.

This is exactly why Catholics have a doctrine of purgatory: You may indeed be guaranteed your salvation, however your sins still have consequences: if you are not repentant you will burn in the hellfire until you repent.

AnathemaThis is why a Catholic who has the gospel joy is generally better off than a protestant. Protestants are very firm on their rejection of purgatory, which means that their assurance of salvation is mixed up with an unhealthy antinomianism: Protestants are convinced that no matter how much they sin, they have been covered over by Jesus’ blood and therefore they will go straight to heaven when they die. This is vile and evil doctrine of the most presumptuous kind, and thankfully Catholics do not suffer from it.

I would like to call this form of presumption soteriological presumption. Contrast this with epistemological presumption. I am convinced that both of these are mortal sins, but they are quite different in character: Soteriological presumption is the conviction that your sins will not be punished, whereas epistemological presumption is where you claim to know things that you simply do not know.

Assurance: We Should be Certain of Our Salvation

So is it ok to have faith that you will persevere? Yes! Without such a faith you cannot enter into salvation here and now! There is no dogma which condemns such a faith. We should believe that we are predestined to heaven, even if we cannot objectively know that this is the case.

Is it ok to have faith that you are saved right now? Yes! This is the essence of the Christian life! Without having this firm assurance that you are walking in the light right now, you will be constantly in doubt about your salvation and have an active fear of Hell. God did not want us to live in fear; as he says in 1 John:

1 John 4:18 RSV-CE

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.

In the same letter through the pen of John, God exhorts us to have certainty!

1 John 5:13 RSV-CE

I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

If you believe in the name of the Son of God, you can know that you are saved!

One of the most radical promises that God makes to us is that in the eschaton, we will finally have objective certainty:

1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV-CE

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

assuranceNow we see God in a dark mirror, however in the end times we will be able to see him face to face. Looking God in the eyes is akin to staring at Objective Truth directly and beholding it in all of it’s glory. In other words, while we are pilgrims here on earth we cannot have objective certainty; we can only have faith and hope. However when we finally arrive in heaven and are staring at God face to face, we will finally have the objective, epistemological certainty which we crave. Direct knowledge and perception of God and Truth is something reserved for heaven: we eagerly await it and rejoice at the prospect of its advent.

So rejoice, dear Christian; God loves you and wants to save you. He is God; you are but a man. Do not be so presumptuous as to think you can outsmart the lord of the universe: he wants you to be saved, and he will have the victory. When we pray “Thy will be done” it is a prophecy, not a request. God gets what God wants, and he wants you. Now have faith, step into the light, and sing doxologies to our glorious saviour Jesus Christ, until he comes again, amen.

Jesus Prays For the Salvation of the Damned

(Click here for printable word doc version: Parable of the Gracious king)

I found the following lying around at my local bus stop. It touched me so I’ve decided to type it up and put it online for all to see. Does anyone know who the author is? Or where it comes from? I’m unaware of any Gospel which contains this story.

Study 15: The Parable of the Gracious King

21 At that time on the sabbath Jesus was teaching the multitudes outside the entrance to the synagogue, and a tax collector approached him and said, 22 “Teacher, my father[a] entered death as an unrepentant sinner with blasphemies on his lips – According to the law and the prophets he is doomed to everlasting punishment forever, and I will not meet him ever again. What hope is there for me in this kingdom[b] that you preach?”

23 Jesus immediately took pity on the man, cast his eyes to heaven, and prayed: 24 “My good father, witness the misery of your children who remain wandering in the darkness. 25 Give them hope. Bring all people into your kingdom, especially those in most need of thy mercy; those who did not believe, who did not repent, who died without the law and the scriptures, and who rejected you unto the eternal destruction of the age.”

26 The pharisees began to murmur amongst themselves, saying to each other 27 “It is clearly written that not all will share in the glory of the resurrection[c]. By what authority does he dare contradict the scriptures and our traditions by praying in this way?” 28 And Jesus immediately perceived the idolatry[d] reigning in their hearts, and he begun to speak unto them a parable:

29 There once was a king who sent out a decree into all the towns and villages of his kingdom and of the neighboring kingdoms saying, 30 “In order that I might demonstrate my graciousness, I decree that on the 40th day of the year, all must come to my palace, and assemble before me and make their petitions, 31 and they may ask me for anything, and I promise that I will give it to them, whatever it is that they may ask.”

32 And so on the 40th day of the year, all the people of the world assembled in the court of the king, and one by one they began to bring their petitions before him. 33 A fisherman approached the throne and said, “My good lord, my fishing net is broken, and I do not have enough money to afford a new one”. 34 The king said, “I will pay for you to have a new fishing net, the finest fishing net in the kingdom.” and the man departed from his presence rejoicing. 35 A baker approached the throne and said, “My good lord, we fell short in the wheat harvest this year, and do not have enough wheat to bake bread”. 36 The king responded, “Be not afraid, I myself will provide you all the wheat you require from the stocks of my own royal storehouses”. 37 After this, a town fool from a neighboring kingdom approached the throne and said 38 “My sweet and gracious lord, I want to have a palace, and a castle, and fields, and livestock, and a kingdom of my own, and more servants and wives and slaves than Solomon possessed at the height of his glory.” 39 The advisors of the king rose from their seats and angrily shouted 40 “Cease this outrageous insolence! By what heights of arrogance do you dare to insult our king like this? 41 Depart from the presence of the Lord and never return!” 42 But the king rose and rebuked his advisors, saying: 43 “Do not condemn this man, for he has done no wrong. Behold: This is the first man who has truly made me feel like a king. 44 I tell you this day, I will give him all that he has asked out of my own infinite abundance, wealth and possessions.”

45 And Jesus asked the crowd: “Who do you think glorified the king more? The fisherman, the baker, or the fool? 46 I tell you, the kingdom of heaven has no limits, 47 and if you desire to worship your gracious father in heaven, you should ask him for all things, fully convinced that he is able and willing to give them to you, 48 even things that seem impossible and outrageous[e], and even the good things that he has clearly told you that he will not do. 49 There is no limit to the generosity[f] of God.” 50 The crowd’s eyes were opened, and they marveled at these good words, but the pharisees continued to murmur, and continued plotting as to how they might entrap Jesus and kill him.

Footnotes

[a] Some authorities “my son” [b] Some add “of God” [c] Some add “and of heaven”, others “and of the life of the age” [d] Some add “of scripture”, others “of Tradition and the Church”, others “of the fathers and the teachers” [e] Some add “and the salvation of those in Gehenna” [f] Some add “and mercy”

Study 15: Discussion questions

  1. Who can you relate to most in this passage of scripture?
    1. Are you like the pharisees and the king’s advisors? Are you convinced that you know the truth of scripture and that the people you disagree with do not? Do you abuse the scary parts of the bible by ripping them out of their context in the light of the supreme and total victory of the cross and resurrection? Do you employ the scary Hell passages of scripture to argue against and crush the pure hope and simple faith of the people around you?
    2. Are you like the tax collector? Are you someone who is searching for hope and assurance on behalf of those whom you love (and other people who most definitely died in unbelief and unrepentance)? Do you only find condemnation and despair in the pages of scripture, the preaching of your ministers, and the counsel of your church family?
    3. Are you like the baker and the fisherman? Are you weak in faith and too nervous to ask God for what you really want? Is your vision of heaven smaller than the vision of heaven God has proclaimed in the scriptures (related question: what exactly IS that vision? Cf. Romans 11:32)? Do you only ask God for little things, and not have the confidence to ask him for the big things (such as the salvation of the entire world?)
    4. Are you like the fool? Do you pray to God asking him for everything, regardless of how outlandish it may seem?
    5. Are you like the king? Do you overflow with mercy and grace to all those around you?
    6. Are you like Jesus? Do you offer confident assurance of hope for the damned to those around you who have lost loved ones to unbelief and an unrepentant death? Do you pray for the salvation of all people – including those who are in Hell, being fully convinced that God is able and willing to save such people?
  2. What is the most outlandish thing that you would like to pray for? Are you praying for it? If not, why not? How does your answer reflect the strength of your faith in God’s promises, especially considering that God both commands us to pray and promises us that he will answer our prayer by giving us whatever it is that we ask for or something even better?
  3. Have you ever prayed for the salvation of Judas? Have you ever prayed for the salvation of those in Hell? Have you ever prayed for the salvation of Satan and his demons? Do you believe that God is able and willing to bring about such an astonishing and amazing salvation of his entire creation and everything in it?
  4. Have you been idolizing the bible, like the pharisees in this scripture? Have you forgotten that the entire creation is good, and that God therefore speaks through everything? Including sermons, songs, music, liturgy, other believers, and even unbelievers and the scriptures of other religions? Have you ever asked yourself why you only respect the authority of the bible, and never humble yourself to listen openly to other voices?

Study 15: Next steps

  1. Pray for the salvation of the damned and those in Hell, and anyone who you think might be rejected by God, definitively excluded from his kingdom and beyond redemption.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the wisdom, theology and doctrine of other denominations and variations of Christianity, recognizing that the spirit moves in them as well.
  3. Consider sincerely investigating other religions, worldviews and philosophies. Remember that humble one-to-one interfaith discussion is the most effective way to evangelize!
  4. If this passage has touched you or made you grow in faith in any way whatsoever, consider holding on to this study and sharing it with people around you, rather than throwing it out.

(Click here for printable word doc version: Parable of the Gracious king)

Hermeneutics 101 – Sola Scriptura Protestantism: Private Interpretation and the Scope of Catholic Theology

One of the complaints that Catholics commonly throw at Protestants is that their doctrine of “Private Interpretation” leads to doctrinal anarchy: When you’re doing theology with a mindset of “The Bible, the Holy Spirit and Me” it’s inevitably going to lead to massively inflated egos, widespread doctrinal disagreements and an intensely burning pride.

What I recently realised is that Catholics are almost in the same boat as Protestants. The fact that Catholics have a magisterium doesn’t necessarily change anything: in the end Catholic theology boils down to “private interpretation”. The question needs to be asked however; private interpretation of what? I will answer this question shortly.

Sheep and Shepherds

Private InterpretationIt seems apparent to me that there are basically two ways to “do religion”. The first involves just accepting and familiarising yourself with whatever the church officially teaches, without questioning or disagreeing with anything. If you are being a Catholic in this way, you don’t necessarily “switch off your brain”, as you may very well try to wrestle with the doctrines presented to you and try to make sense of them, but you do go with the flow and just subscribe to official teaching without question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is particularly important to someone doing Catholicism in this way, as it clearly spells out exactly what the church teaches on pretty much every issue. Often when arguing with someone who “does Catholicism” in this way, they will throw quotes from the Catechism at you as if doing so definitively settles the issue and totally closes the argument: “no more discussion necessary, the church has spoken, case closed”.

People who follow this first path are actually are to be commended. This way of approaching Catholicism is actually entirely appropriate for the majority of Christians. It is simply a brute fact of life that not everyone has the time, inclination and calling to wrestle with 2000 years of church tradition, scripture, biblical languages, theology and philosophy. Not everyone is called to be a theologian or an exegete. Not everyone is called to study the bible. However everyone is called to submit to Christ, and to the church which he founded. We are the sheep and they are the shepherds. The sheep’s duty is simple: follow the shepherd wherever the shepherd may lead. In this way, it is entirely appropriate to fall back on the official interpretations of the church, which have been distilled and refined over 2000 years and represent the sensus fidelium at the current point in time. It is a brute fact of life that most people don’t have the time to engage in theology; their time is largely occupied by the hard work and more pressing issue of being a good programmer, plumber, carpenter, student, doctor etc. For such people, it is a blessing to have an official interpretation which they can depend on for their faith, whilst being active and occupied in the “real world”. Such people don’t have time for private interpretation.

Private Interpretation as Discerning the Light

Private InterpretationThere is however a second way of “doing Catholicism”, this way is the path of the theologian. The theologian recognises that the official interpretation of the church is not infallible. The theologian understands that the sensus fidelium is not infallible. The theologian knows that the Pope is not infallible. The theologian always keeps in mind that the Catechism is just one fallible voice among many.

Rather than simply following whatever the church says, the theologian has decided to embark on a much more difficult journey: the journey of private interpretation. This is a journey which involves the theologian familiarising himself with 2000 years of church documents, writings of the church fathers, scripture translations and editions, biblical and liturgical languages, philosophy, theology and so on.

When doing private interpretation, the theologian is entirely justified in disagreeing with the official teaching of the church. The theologian is more acutely aware of the limits and bounds of infallibility. If there is something suspect in the official teaching of the church, he will call it out.

If you are following this second path, you have already entered into the realm of “private interpretation”: what you end up believing will probably be completely different to what everyone else believes. And yet despite this the problem of “doctrinal anarchy” which plagues Protestantism will not be a problem for you. The reason why is that Catholicism is a dogmatic system which has something akin to continuing revelation which I refer to as Divine Clarification. Despite the fact that the deposit of faith was “once for all delivered to the saints”, it is not a static thing: it is something which grows and develops with time.

Private Interpretation of The Deposit of Faith

Private InterpretationIt is helpful to first establish what a historical-critical Protestant believes to be the Deposit of Faith. Such a Protestant believes that the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the 66 books of the reformation bible are the entire deposit of faith. Case closed. If you are a protestant theologian this is all you need to work with. Learn Hebrew, Learn Greek and get down to the hard work of exegeting and privately interpreting scripture. Translations are helpful but they hold a lesser authority to the original languages and can therefore be safely discarded when doing private interpretation and serious theology.

I would like to register a reservation with this perspective before moving on. Firstly, we no longer have access to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. We only have critical editions and copies of copies, all of which differ with each other. Protestants often respond to this by saying that the differences are “insignificant”. I personally am unimpressed with this line of argument, as it would imply that parts of sacred scripture can be safely discarded, which is surely a blasphemous conclusion. While we can have confidence that our critical editions are close to the originals, we have no actual infallible guarantee that this is the case, and there is therefore a cloud of uncertainty constantly hovering over such versions of scripture.

In any case, this is the protestant version of the deposit of faith: the 66 book canon, read in the original languages.

Private InterpretationCompare this with the Catholic deposit of faith. The Catholic deposit of faith is a massive behemoth to behold. A Catholic does not merely have to concern himself with the scriptures in their original languages; he also has to take into account all translations of the scripture which have been implicitly received by an apostolic tradition or explicitly approved by the magisterium of the church. In this way, a Catholic does not have to work with a single bible or a single translation; he instead has to take into account a massive plethora of translations and editions. The Vulgate has authority, but the Septuagint with Greek New Testament holds equal authority. The Peshitta has authority, but the RSV-CE holds equal authority. Approved Spanish editions of Scripture are just as inspired and authoritative as approved French editions. The more languages a Catholic theologian knows, the more of the deposit of faith he is able to familiarise himself with and therefore the more effectively he is able to do theology.

But the Catholic deposit of faith doesn’t end there. The only reason that scripture is inspired, is that it is read in the context of the Divine Liturgy. The received apostolic liturgies of the church are inspired by the Holy Spirit: God speaks through the liturgy well before he speaks through scripture. But this only makes the Catholic theologian’s job even harder: not only does he have to concern himself with all the approved editions of scripture, he also has to be familiar with all the different apostolic and approved liturgies that are to be found throughout the world and within the church! And of course, a liturgy is not something that can be experienced by reading a book; it is not something which you can understand just by watching it on Youtube or reading about it on Wikipedia; a liturgy has to be lived and breathed. You must participate in the liturgy and pray through it. You must be physically present. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city like Sydney, many of these liturgies can be found within a 50km radius. However if you’re living out in the country side, you’ll be lucky to get a single Latin Mass.

But wait, there’s more! The Catholic deposit of faith has another component: the dogmatic tradition. The dogmatic tradition is the Divine Clarification which I mentioned earlier. This dogmatic tradition consists of all the infallible statements produced by ecumenical councils and all ex cathedra statements pronounced by Popes. A Catholic theologian has to take this entire tradition into account and do justice to it during his private interpretation.

To review: Both the Catholic and the Protestant theologian are engaging in private interpretation. The only difference is the scope of the “raw data” that the respective theologians have to deal with. A Protestant theologian only has to deal with 66 Greek and Hebrew books, whereas a Catholic theologian has to deal with a multitude of scriptural translations, a plethora of divine liturgies and 2000 years of dogmatic pronouncements during his attempts at private interpretation.

The Strength of Catholicism

After reading the previous section, you might think that the Protestant is better off: he doesn’t have to deal with so much raw material during his theological inquiries. However there’s one important difference between these two conceptions of the deposit of faith: The Protestant version is entirely static, whereas the Catholic version is dynamic.

As the collective Catholic understanding of the deposit of faith grows, this understanding is codified and added back in to the deposit of faith itself in the form of a fresh dogma. After this happens, future theologians are forced to take the new dogma into account during their theological adventures. The dogma is set in stone, it can never be revoked (although perhaps it may be “annulled” if there is doubt surrounding whether or not it was ever officially promulgated). This keeps the Catholic church moving forward in it’s understanding: as the church encounters controversies and issues, it deliberates and investigates and comes to a conclusion; this conclusion is then codified in a dogma and inserted into the dogmatic tradition, where it will remain forever. This is how doctrinal development occurs.

Consider for a moment what would happen if everyone were following the “first way” of doing Catholicism described above. There would never be any development! Everyone would just accept the churches current interpretation of the deposit of faith and not try to push the envelope to any degree. This is why – ironically – private interpretation is actually a crucial component of Catholic theological development. Individual people who are following the “theologian” path all come together, raise issues, argue with each other, start up passionate debates. This sometimes leads to massive controversies in the church, at which point the magisterium steps in and declares a dogma, definitively deciding between the two parties.

Private InterpretationThis process of dogmatic Divine Clarification also forces theologians to stay largely on the same page and avoid the doctrinal anarchy which so plagues Protestantism. Even though theologians may disagree on important issues, they are forced to work within the same dynamic deposit of faith, and this keeps them in agreement on issues that the magisterium has already dogmatically pronounced on. They may disagree on the interpretation of the deposit of faith, however they cannot deny the deposit of faith itself.

Compare all of this with the static Protestant system: The Protestant system is entirely unable to respond to change and is prevented from developing. The protestants have a battle cry – “Semper Reformanda” – which is supposed to be taken as a call for the church to be “always reforming”. In theory this is supposed to imply a rejection of all dogma, however in practice most if not all Protestants have their own “pet doctrines” which they cling to dogmatically and will not budge from even when shown contradictory evidence.

In any case, the Protestant deposit of faith is entirely static: it cannot respond to fresh questions that are posed of it. They have no magisterium which can introduce new and authoritative clarifying dogmas into the religion. They are stuck in the past. They are forced to depend entirely upon the fallible historical-critical method for all of their exegetical attempts. They deny the inspired voice of the church in the present age. All of this results in a church community which is constantly going around in circles and reinventing the wheel. Where Catholics have dogmatically defined the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the Protestants are constantly having to rediscover these ideas afresh in the pages of scripture. Unfortunately, due to their over-reliance on the entirely fallible historical-critical method, many Protestants have begun to jettison many of these crucial Christian ideas. Many Christians have become Unitarians, or modern day Arians, denying the divinity of Christ. Unlike Catholicism, there is no “dogmatic spine” holding up the Protestant theological body. Protestants agree on the same deposit of faith, but beyond that they are free to disagree with each other at the level of private interpretation and they are doomed to disagree with each other until Jesus comes back. Again, compare to the Catholic system: Catholic theologians may disagree with each other over their respective private interpretations for a time, but as the ages march on and the magisterium declares more and more dogmas, the theologian’s many and varied opinions will coalesce into a single infallible interpretation.

Conclusion: Private Interpretation is Necessary for Catholicism to Function

To summarise: The Catholic deposit of faith is large and multifaceted, encompassing all received and approved bible translations, all apostolic liturgies and all infallible statements within the dogmatic tradition. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to take this entire deposit of faith into account. The end result is a form of Private Interpretation that is restricted and guided by the dogmatic tradition. However rather than being destructive and dangerous for the church, this limited private interpretation is a crucial component of doctrinal development and serves to drive the church forward towards theological perfection.

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