Roman Catholic Novus Ordo Latin Rite Sunday Mass at Saint Fiacre’s Leichhardt – “Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice”

As a Roman Catholic, I have the obligation to attend mass on Sundays, and the privilege of attending mass every day of the week if I so choose. Every day all around the world, Latin Catholic parishes offer the sacrifice of the mass. My local parish of St Fiacre’s Leichhardt is no exception.

The sacrifice of the mass is as mysterious to outsiders today as it was 2000 years ago. Rumours of Catholics engaging in cannibalism have proliferated down through history to the present day, as tales of the faithful “eating flesh” and “drinking blood” on Sundays are whispered among those who are not on the inside of this the worlds biggest cult.

But what actually happens behind the doors of a Catholic church during mass?

The Divine Liturgy

Catholics have a very high view of liturgy. Liturgy is basically whatever a group of people does when they come together. Buddhists have liturgy, Muslims have liturgy, Christians have liturgy. However unlike their evangelical brethren – whose liturgy might simply consist of singing a couple of songs, passing around the collection plate and listening to a painfully long sermon – Catholics consider their liturgy to be inspired and literally the Word of God. Catholics believe that God the Holy Spirit is active during the liturgy and divinely reveals himself through the prayers and movements.

IMG_1074.JPGWhen asked why we should believe that the bible is inspired and that God speaks through it, evangelical Christians never have a good response. They are generally brought up to believe in the inspiration of scripture as axiomatic, something not to be questioned or doubted. When pushed on this point, some evangelicals end up apostatising as they realise that “their house is built on sand”, which is to say that their faith has absolutely no rational, reasonable, logical grounding, instead resting entirely on blind faith.

Not so with the Catholic! When a Catholic is asked why the bible is inspired, he can confidently respond with “Because we read it during the liturgy, and if the liturgy is inspired then the bible is too.” Why is the liturgy inspired? That’s a question for another time, but let it be said that the answer is closely related to the holy tradition of the apostolic succession of bishops that stretches back in time all the way to the apostles and the Godman, Jesus Christ himself.

So what is the liturgy, often referred to as “the mass” all about? What actually happens?

The first thing to be grappled with when entering into a mass is the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar determines which prayers are to be said on any given day, which portions of scripture are to be read, which psalms are to be recited, as well as the liturgical colours that the priest must wear and the church must be decorated with. Every little detail of the mass is scripted out according to the particular day and liturgical season.

Today just so happens to be the first Sunday of the season of Advent, according to the Novus Ordo Latin Liturgical Calendar. As such the priest wore purple vestments, and certain parts of the church were decorated in purple.

Leichhardt parish is run by the Capuchin Friars. The Capuchins are a group of monks in the Franciscan “mendicant friar” tradition. Mendicant friars are essentially monks who live in the towns and cities, ministering to the average citizens and the poor. In comparison to this there are the “Cloistered monks”, who are monks that isolate themselves from the world, living either in solitude as hermits or in community with each other in monasteries, where they pray all day long.

IMG_1076St Fiacre’s Leichhardt does not have a choir or organ, and musical accompaniment to the mass is provided by members of the Neo-Catechumenal way with guitars and singing (The Neo-cats are another recently formed subgroup within Catholicism who have adopted a somewhat more Charismatic approach to the faith).

Catholics who adhere to “traditionalist” strands of Catholicism often object to the presence of guitars during the liturgy, claiming that it detracts from the reverence and sacredness appropriate to such an important event. There is a cultural battle being waged within the church between the Charismatic and Traditionalist parties for control of the mass, with many Catholic publications labelling the situation as a “crisis”. The traditionalists want to see more Latin, more Gregorian chant, a return of the organ. The Charismatics want to see more English, more modern music, drums and guitars, less scripted movements and more spontaneous prayers.

Aside from the presence of guitars, and a distinct lack of Latin during the liturgy, St Fiacre’s strikes me as a more conservative, traditional parish.

The Liturgy Begins

The Introduction

As the clock strikes 9:30am, some small hand held bells are shaken as a signal that the mass has begun. Everyone stands up as the priest walks up to the altar, and the entire church recites what is called the “Entrance Antiphon”; a short extract from the psalms. Today this was from Psalm 24:1-5:

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.

In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.

Nor let my enemies exult over me;

and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

After this, once the priest has taken his position before the altar, he recites the Trinitarian formula “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and makes the sign of the cross with his hand. The congregation follows his motions and at the conclusion of the gesture respond with “Amen”.

The priest continues:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

To which the people simultaneously and cheerfully respond:

And with your spirit!

The priest goes on:

Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.

This is followed by 15 seconds of silence, during which it is expected that everyone attempts to bring to mind their failings and imperfections over the past week, so as to bring them to God and ask for forgiveness.

Eventually the silence is broken as the priest intones the first words of an ancient prayer, the confiteor. The congregation joins in and together everyone recites:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

at this point everyone strikes their chest three times in coordination with the words that follow:

through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

After this, the priest delivers what is called a “general absolution” as he says

May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

And the congregation responds with “Amen”.

IMG_1072After this, the most ancient part of the liturgy is recited, the Kyrie. The priest chants “Lord, have mercy” and the congregation mirrors his words. He then chants “Christ have mercy” and once again the congregation repeats the invocation. Finally he again chants “Lord, have mercy” and once again the congregation returns the same phrase back to him.

The introduction of the liturgy is concluded with what is called a “collect”. The priest says “Let us pray.” and then follows this with a prayer which is unique to that day of the liturgical year. On this particular day, the first Sunday of Advent, the prayer read as follows:

Grant your faithful, we pray; almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Immediately the congregation says “Amen” and everyone returns to a sitting posture.

The Liturgy of the Word

At this point what is known as the Liturgy of the Word begins. This is the part of the mass where sections of scripture are read, psalms are prayed and the homily is delivered. This is the part of the mass which imparts inspiration to scripture. If not for this part of the mass, the bible would just be another book. But instead, by virtue of the fact that scripture is read during this section of the liturgy, all of scripture is considered to be inspired.

On a Sunday, there is one Old Testament reading, one New Testament reading, a psalm, and a section from one of the four Gospels. The readings today were Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 24:4-14,  1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 and finally some sections from Luke 21.

After each reading, the reader (sometimes called a “lector”) pronounces “The word of the Lord” to which the congregation responds “Thanks be to God”. After the Gospel reading, the congregation instead responds with “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ”

The congregation sits during the readings, but stands for the Gospel reading, and prior to commencing the reading everyone makes what is known as the “Solemn sign of the cross”. This is a threefold cross motion where you first cross your forehead with your thumb, then cross your lips, then cross your heart. It is a more intense version of the usual sign of the cross.

For the Psalm today, the guitarist set the psalm to music by strumming a Spanish tune and singing the words. The congregation entered into the “Call and response”, reciting the response line at the appropriate intervals.

IMG_1077After all of these readings and liturgical songs, everyone takes their seat as the priest mounts the pulpit to deliver a short homily.

Catholic Sunday homilies typically only last for 15 minutes, which is a stark contrast to the 40-60 minute sermons that are heard in evangelical communities. Today’s homily was about the true meaning of Christmas, and how the modern secular world has completely distorted the ancient holiday into an excuse to engage in an orgy of materialistic spending.

Once the homily had concluded, the priest resumed his throne behind the altar and silently sat, allowing the congregation to spend some time praying and processing what had been said.

After a short time, the priest rose from his seat and launched into the Apostles creed, with the congregation following along:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

After this, a member of the congregation ascended the pulpit and started reciting prayerful petitions, asking God’s favour for the parish, the church, the poor and suffering and the world. As she concluded, the liturgy of the word was brought to an end.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist

At this point we arrived at the heart of the liturgy. It has attracted many names throughout history, including “The Lord’s supper” and “The heavenly banquet”. This is the core of the mass. It is supposedly exactly equivalent to the moment where Christ offers himself to the father for the sins of the world, thus securing the salvation of the entire cosmos. If you go to church and witness the Liturgy of the Eucharist, it is helpful to understand the significance of what you are looking at: you are beholding the salvation of the cosmos, before your very eyes you are seeing it happen and the drama is unfolding in front of you on the altar.

The priest whispers some quiet prayers (which are otherwise spoken audibly if you attend a weekday mass) and then addresses the congregation:

Pray; brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

To which the congregation in perfect unison responds:

May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.

The priest continues:

Accept, we pray; O Lord, these offerings we make, gathered from among your gifts to us, and may what you grant us to celebrate devoutly here below gain for us the prize of eternal redemption. Through Christ our Lord.

And the people all say “Amen”.

At this point the mass enters into the Eucharistic prayer; the most ancient part of the liturgy, stretching all the way back to St Peter himself.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right and just.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.

And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

At this point the entire congregation kneels, as the priest enters into the Canon of the mass, the most important prayer of the entire proceedings, which is believed to have the power to change the essence of the bread and wine on the altar into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord: that you accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices, which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church. Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant Francis our Pope and Anthony our Bishop, and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.

Remember, Lord, your servants and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them: for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true.

In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph, her Spouse, your blessed Apostles and Martyrs, Peter and Paul, Andrew, and all your Saints; we ask that through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by your protecting help.

Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND EAT OF IT, FOR THIS IS MY BODY, WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.

IMG_1073After invoking these words, the priest picks up the wafer and holds it above his head for the congregation to worship and adore, because it is believed that with these words, the bread is no longer bread: it has become the very body of Jesus himself. God in the flesh, dwelling among us.

The priest then drops the Eucharist back onto the altar and falls down in worship. The congregation follows suit.

When the priest rises, he continues the long and lofty prayer:

In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands, and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT, FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT, WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.

Once again the priest holds up the chalice that earlier contained wine, now believed to have literally become the blood of Jesus. The entire congregation silently adores and worships for a short time, before the priest returns the chalice to the altar and prostrates, with the congregation following in the motion.

When the priest rises, he intones the words “The mystery of faith” and the congregation responds with

Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free.

The priest returns to the long canon prayer:

Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension in o heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.

Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim. In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, and all your Saints; admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord. Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.

IMG_1075The priest then picks up both the chalice and the Eucharist and holds one above the other as he recites:

Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.

This is followed by what is called the great amen. The entire congregation does a long, loud, triumphant, drawn out “Amen”.

The priest returns the Eucharist and the chalice to the altar and invites the congregation to recite the lords prayer.

Once this is completed, the priest commands the congregation to give each other the sign of peace. At this point everyone turns to their neighbour and shakes their hand or performs some other friendly gesture, while saying “Peace be with you”.

Soon after this, the priest launches into the agnus dei, another ancient prayer, and the congregation joins in:

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Everyone kneels once again, as the priest breaks the large Eucharistic host in half and holds it up for all to see, saying:

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

To which the congregation responds by beating their chests and reciting the prayer of the centurion:

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

At this point the priest consumes the Eucharist, confirming that the sacrifice has been accomplished.

Music is performed as everyone lines up to receive their own portion of the Eucharist. It is a very serious and reverent moment, as the devout congregation believes that they are truly and legitimately eating God.

Once everyone has returned to their seats, the priest enters into the concluding rites:

Let us pray:

May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures. Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

Go forth, the Mass is ended.

Thanks be to God.

And with these words, the Divine liturgy comes to a close and the parishioners slowly pack up and filter out, ready to get on with the rest of their Sunday.

Conclusion

IMG_1079So what actually happened? In essence, the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was offered up to God the Father by God the Son, and the entire congregation was drawn into this movement by the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Priest served as Christ’s physical hands during the liturgy, and returned to being just another bloke once the liturgy had concluded. Blood was drunk, flesh was eaten, under the form of Bread and Wine. Salvation was sought, salvation was given. The entire cosmos was redeemed and saved.

All things come together during the mass. It is the pinnacle and turning point of history, where before we were falling head first into Hell, now we are flying at full speed towards Heaven. How great it is to witness the securing of salvation before you eyes. What a beautiful blessing. It’s a wonderful experience if you appreciate it, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: “On the Interchangeability Between Different Models of the Trinitarian formula”

b57780a431bd921dc7b5f12113c4b482[1].jpgThe Trinity is a fascinating doctrine. It is important to always keep divine simplicity squarely in view when pondering the Trinity, in order to avoid slipping into idolatry.

I recently realised that the classic “Father, Son, Spirit” presentation of the Trinity is not the only possible way to speak of this divine mystery. In fact, this divine drama of the three and the one impresses itself upon our intellects in a wide variety of modes. In this post I will attempt to list as many of them as I can think of.

  1. The Scriptural presentation: The Father, the Son and the Spirit.
  2. The Relational model: The Lover, the Loved, and the Love.
  3. The Creational model: The uncreated creator, the one who is begotten, and the act of begetting/creating itself.
  4. The Salvific understanding: The saviour, the one who is saved, and the act of salvation itself.
  5. The Incarnational approach: The hidden and transcendent incarnator, the manifest and immanent incarnation, and the act by which this incarnation comes about.
  6. The Eternal Progressions view: the Static, simple immutable past; the dynamic, mutable future; and the lively freedom of the present moment.
  7. The Abstract/Concrete dichotomy: Being itself; an actual, specific being; and the divine movement by which Being itself gives rise to individual being.
  8. The Essence-Energies distinction: The concealed Essence, the revealed Energies, and the act of emanation by which Essence gives rise to Energy.
  9. The Eastern Wisdom formulation: Infinite Consciousness, Infinite Being, and the Infinite Bliss that is the act of Infinite Consciousness beholding Infinite Being.
  10. The Divine Vocalisation approach: The one who speaks, the eternal word who is spoken, and the act of speaking.

The fascinating thing about all of these is that due to divine simplicity the terms of the formulas are interchangeable: The Father is the lover is the saviour is the hidden incarnator is Being itself is Infinite Consciousness is the concealed Essence is the one who speaks. etc

In fact, you need only take the following generic Trinitarian dogmatic formula, and substitute in the words provided in the above list and in every case you will arrive at a statement of profound, deep truth about God.

  1. Hypostasis 1 is God.
  2. Hypostasis 2 is God.
  3. Hypostasis 3 is God.
  4. Hypostasis 1 is not Hypostasis 2.
  5. Hypostasis 2 is not Hypostasis 3.
  6. Hypostasis 3 is not Hypostasis 1.
  7. There is only one God.

To take but a single example:

  1. Consciousness is God.
  2. Being is God.
  3. Bliss is God.
  4. Consciousness is not Being.
  5. Being is not Bliss.
  6. Bliss is not Consciousness.
  7. There is only one God.

The father is infinite consciousness, the son is infinite being, the spirit is the infinite bliss of the infinite consciousness as it contemplates the infinite being.

I do not claim to have exhaustively enumerated all the different ways of conceiving of the Trinitarian dogma, and it is fascinating to attempt to take in all of these conceptions all at once. I find that I arrive at a place where words simply fail me and all I can do is worship in profound silence. The Trinity is a perfect object of meditation in which there bubbles up a fountain of ineffable Truth.

To pick another of the conceptions arbitrarily and elaborate upon it: The father is the hidden, simple, transcendent essence of divinity, while the son is the manifest, manifold, immanent energies, and the spirit is the act of the energies emanating from the essence. We participate in the energies (that is to say, Christ), and by participating in the energies we truly participate in the fullness of Divinity. The essence-energies distinction is therefore simply another way of framing the Trinitarian relationship of plurality in unity within God. Due to divine simplicity, the emanation is God, the energy is God, and the essence is God. We participate in the emanation and the essence, but only through participating in the energy.

10134_2[1].jpgTo take another example: The father is the static, immutable, eternal past, the son is the dynamic, lively, unknown, temporal future with all of its possibilities, the spirit is the free movement of creating and giving birth of past to future, that is to say, the present. In the present moment we behold the Trinitarian relationship directly: by reflecting on our freedom and the creation that surrounds us, we are witnessing the hidden, immutable father freely creating the lively and dynamic son in whom we live and move and have our being, and this living and moving and having our being just is the Spirit. In this way the present moment represents a window into the dramatic, divine life of God: Just as it is only through Christ that we come to know the father, so too it is only through the present that we are able to know the past and anticipate the future.

7 Myths About Universalism

Robin Parry holding a teacup

Below is Parry’s article—originally published as Bell’s Hells: seven myths about universalism in the Baptist Times.


You can be a good evangelical without believing in eternal punishment, writes Robin Parry

On Tuesday February 22 2011, Rob Bell – the influential pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan – posted the promotional video for his new book, Love Wins.

Rumours started spreading almost immediately that Bell’s forthcoming book advocated universalism and, unsurprisingly, the Internet went white-hot. On Saturday February 26 Justin Taylor, a well-known neo-Calvinist, posted his provisional reflections about Bell as a universalist on The Gospel Coalition blog and, reportedly, by that evening about 12,000 people had recommended his post on Facebook.

That same day Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. And from there the number of blog posts exploded. Overnight, universalism went from being a marginal issue that most evangelicals felt that they could ignore to being the next big debate.

Feelings are running high at the moment and a lot of strong language is being used. I think that if the church is to have a fruitful discussion on this matter (rather than a bad tempered battle-to-the-death) then it is essential that we have a clear understanding of what Christian universalists actually believe. A lot of myths about universalism are informing the current debate and I want to explore seven of them very briefly below.

To begin it will be helpful to have a quick definition of Christian universalism. Christian universalists are (mostly) orthodox, Trinitarian, Christ-centred, gospel-focused, Bible-affirming, missional Christians. What makes them universalists is that they believe that God loves all people, wants to save all people, sent Christ to redeem all people, and will achieve that goal.

In a nutshell, it is the view that, in the end, God will redeem all people through Christ. Christian universalists believe that the destiny of humanity is ‘written’ in the body of the risen Jesus and, as such, the story of humanity will not end with a tomb.

Myth: Universalists don’t believe in hell

Many an online critic of Bell has complained that he, along with his universalist allies, does not believe in hell. Here, for instance, is Todd Pruitt: ‘Rob Bell . . . denies the reality of hell.’ Mr BH adds, ‘To Hell with No Hell. To Hell with what’s being sold by Rob Bell.’

Nice rhyming but, alas, this is too simplistic.

Historically all Christian universalists have had a doctrine of hell and that remains the case for most Christian universalists today, including Bell. The Christian debate does not concern whether hell will be a reality (all agree that it will) but, rather, what the nature of that reality will be. Will it be eternal conscious torment? Will it be annihilation? Or will it be a state from which people can be redeemed? Most universalists believe that hell is not simply retributive punishment but a painful yet corrective/educative state from which people will eventually exit (some, myself included, think it has a retributive dimension, while others do not).

So it is not hell that universalists deny so much as certain views about hell. (To complicate matters a little there have even been a few universalists that believed that hell is an eternal, conscious torment! An unusual view for a universalist but possible – honest.)

Myth: Universalists don’t believe the Bible

One does not have to read Bell’s detractors for long before coming across the following sentiments: Universalists are theological ‘liberals’ that reject the ‘clear teaching of the Bible’. Surely all good Bible-believing Christians will believe that some/many/most people are damned forever? ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this is a betrayal of biblical truth,’ says R Albert Mohler. David Cloud, concerned about Bell’s questioning classical conceptions of hell, writes, ‘It is evil to entertain questions that deny Bible truth.’

So, are universalists really Bible-denying? No.

Historically, Christian universalists have been Bible-affirming believers and that remains the case for many, perhaps the majority, today. The question is not ‘Which group believes the Bible?’ but, ‘How do we interpret the Bible?’

The root issue is this: there are some biblical texts that seem to affirm universalism (eg Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Colossians 1:20; Philippians 2:11) but there are others that seem to deny it (eg Matthew 25:45; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9; Revelations 14:11; 20:10-15).

At the heart of the biblical debate is how we hold these two threads together. Do we start with the hell passages and reread the universalist texts in the light of them? That is the traditional route. Or, do we start with universalist passages and reinterpret the hell texts in the light of them? That is what many universalists do.

Or do we try to hold both sets of biblical teachings in some kind of tension (and there are various proposals for how we might do that – some leaning towards traditionalism, others leaning towards universalism)?

There is also the question of wider biblical-theological themes and their relevance. For instance, biblical teaching on God’s love, justice, punishment, the cross-resurrection, covenant, etc. How might reflection on those matters influence our theology of hell?

This is not just about finding ‘proof texts’ to whip your opponent with (both sides are capable of that) but about making best sense of the Bible as a whole. And when we follow the big plotline of the scriptures, which ending to the story has the best ‘fit’? Universalists believe that the ending in which God redeems his whole creation makes the most sense of the biblical metanarrative. Traditionalists disagree.

My point is that this debate is not a debate between Bible-believing Christians (traditionalists) and ‘liberals’ (universalists). It is, to a large extent, a debate between two sets of Bible-believing Christians on how best to understand scripture.

Myth: Universalists don’t think sin is very bad

Blogger Denny Burke thinks that Bell’s ‘weak’ view of hell if based on a ‘weak’ view of sin which, in turn, is based on a ‘weak’ view of God: ‘Sin will always appears as a trifle to those whose view of God is small.’

Universalists ‘obviously’ think that sin isn’t something to get too worked up about – after all they believe that God’s job is to forgive people, right?

Once again we are in the realm of mythology. Propose a view on the seriousness of sin as strong as you wish and you’ll find universalists who would affirm it. Does sin affect every aspect of human life? Is it an utter horror that degrades our humanity and warrants divine wrath? Does it deserve eternal punishment?

Universalists could affirm all of these things so long as they believed that God’s love, power, grace, and mercy are bigger and stronger than sin. Universalists do not have a low view of sin, they have a high view of grace: ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.’

Myth: Universalists believe in God’s love but forget his justice and wrath

Here is Britten Taylor’s response to Rob Bell: ‘God is love. But, He is also just. God pours out His mercy, but He also pours out His wrath.’ The implication is that universalists overplay divine love and forget that God is also holy and just. Right? Wrong.

Christian universalists have a lot to say about God’s holiness, justice, and even his wrath. Typically they think that God’s divine nature cannot be divided up into conflicting parts in such a way that some of God’s actions are loving (eg, saving sinners) while others are just and full of anger (eg, hell).

They see all of God’s actions as motivated by ‘holy love’. Everything God does is holy, completely just, and completely loving.

So whatever hell is about it must be compatible not simply with divine justice but also with divine love. Which means that it must, in some way, have the good of those in hell as part of its rationale.

Universalists feel that one potential danger in traditional theologies of hell is that while they make much of God justice and anger they appear to be incompatible with his love and, as a result, they divide up the unity of God’s nature.

Myth: Universalists think that all roads lead to God

Here is Kevin Mullins’ definition of universalism in his discussion of Bell: ‘Universalism – the belief that everyone, regardless of faith or behavior, will be counted as God’s people in the end. All roads lead to Him. All religions are just different expressions of the same Truth.’

That idea is what underlies crparke’s comment that, ‘If Rob Bell denies hell then he denies the need for a “savior” and makes the sacrifice of Jesus irrelevant.’

Here our Internet conversation partners have confused universalism (the view that God will one day save all people through Christ) with pluralism (the view that there are many paths to God and that Jesus is simply one of them). But Christian universalists deny pluralism. They insist that salvation is found only through the atoning work of Christ. Without Jesus nobody would be redeemed!

Now there is a disagreement between Christians about whether one needs to have explicit faith in Jesus to share in the salvation he has bought. Some Christians, called exclusivists, think that only those who put their trust in the gospel can be saved.

Others, called inclusivists, think that it is possible to be saved through Christ even without explicit faith in him.

Thus, for inclusivists it is possible to be saved even if, for instance, you have never heard the gospel. Inclusivists would maintain that if someone responds in humility, love, and faith to the truncated divine revelation that they have received then God can unite them to Christ and they may be considered as, perhaps, ‘anonymous Christians’.

But we need to be careful not to confuse the discussion between exclusivists and inclusivists with the issue of universalism. Many people make that mistake. The former debate concerns how people can experience the salvation won by Christ while the latter concerns how many people will be saved. Two different questions.

Thus, some universalists are inclusivists (eg, Rob Bell) but others are exclusivists, maintaining that only people who trust in the gospel can be saved. (Obviously exclusivist universalists have to believe that salvation is possible after death.)

But whether one is speaking of exclusivist or inclusivist universalists, neither relegate Jesus to the sidelines.

Myth: Universalism undermines evangelism

Here is Matt: ‘I do think the Scripture is clear that salvation at least has some limits. If it doesn’t, then preaching and evangelism are ultimately wasted activities.’ And R Albert Mohler worries that, ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this . . . has severe . . . evangelistic consequences.’ Why, after all, would anyone bother to go through all the effort and struggle of evangelism if God is going to save everyone in the end anyway?

So must universalism undermine evangelism? Not at all. There are many reasons to engage in mission and evangelism, not least that Christ commands it. And it is a huge privilege to join with God in his mission of reconciling the world to himself. The gospel message in God’s ‘foolish’ way of setting the world right so, of course, universalists will want to proclaim it.

Fear of hell is not the only motivation for mission. And, what is more, the majority of universalists do fear hell. Whilst they may not view it as ‘the end of the road’, they still consider it to be a dreadful state to be avoided.

And historically universalists have not run from mission. Here are the words of an eighteenth century Baptist universalist, Elhanan Winchester, who was himself an evangelist: ‘There is no business or labour to which men are called, so important, so arduous, so difficult, and that requires such wisdom to perform it [as that of the soul-winner]. The amazing worth of winning souls, makes the labour so exceeding important, and of such infinite concern’ (sermon on the death of John Wesley, 1791).

Myth: Universalism undermines holy living

Here is Frank: ‘Oh thank goodness Rob Bell is here to explain that we can do whatever we want because (drum roll please) . . . there’s no consequence, there’s no hell!’ And Frank is not alone. During 17th, 18th and 19th centuries many Christians were especially worried that if the fear of hell was reduced people would have little to constrain their sinful behaviour. Thus universalism, they feared, would fuel sin.

But the fear of punishment is not the only motive for avoiding sin and, even if it were, universalism does, as has already been mentioned, have space for some such fear. But far more important for holy living – indeed the only motive for heartfelt holy living – is the positive motivation inspired by love for God.

Who, after all, would reason, ‘I know that God created me, seeks to do me good, sent his Son to die for me, and that he will always love me…so I must hate him!’? On the contrary, the revelation of divine love solicits our loving response (1 John 4:19).

Clearly there is an important debate to be had but if we desire more light and less heat we need to start by getting a clearer understanding of the view under discussion.

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Revisiting Sola Scriptura: “Scripture Alone”

sola scripturaLast night I had dinner with Jaison Jacob – a Calvinist friend living and studying at Moore Theological College. The discussion turned to matters surrounding the bible – something that I was hoping to avoid because we always go in circles on this issue and never get anywhere. However to my surprise, Jaison was able to prove the inspiration of scripture and a doctrine of sola scriptura with a short, concise sequence of logical steps and without any reference to the Catholic Magisterium. I was amazed and wondered why he had never been able to do this in the many previous theological discussions and debates that we had had together over the past few years.

I will here attempt to reproduce and analyse his argument (Although as should become immediately apparent from reading the first sentence, I do not claim to do so in a way which he himself would agree with). If it manages to hold up, this would be extremely significant because it would deal with some of the most burning questions that drove me to Catholicism back in 2014.

A Common Foundation

sola scripturaBoth the Catholic chain of reasoning and the Protestant chain of reasoning that Jaison outlined to me last night share a common logical foundation, so I will start by outlining that:

  1. Reason and Experience have primacy and supreme authority. God gave me a brain before he gave me a bible.
  2. On the basis of Reason and Experience, it is possible to conclude that Jesus is God. (In my personal case, it is direct mystical experience which confirms this fact, rather than reading the gospels, however for other people, their faith in this proposition might derive more from their study of scripture)
  3. On the basis of Reason and experience (In the form of Historical enquiry and method), it is possible to verify that the text of the New Testament has been accurately transmitted from the days when it was first written all the way up to the present.
  4. On the basis of Reason and Experience (Historical method again), we conclude that the accounts of Christ’s words and life given in the Gospels are accurate enough to trust, without necessarily being inerrant.
  5. From 2, 3 and 4, we conclude that the “red letters” of the gospel (Words spoken by Jesus) are literally words coming from the mouth of God verbatim, and are therefore inspired.

So we have primary authority vested in Reason and Experience, along with all the manifestations they may take such as science, history, philosophy, theology etc. We also have established that Jesus is God and that his recorded words are inspired, without necessarily being 100% inerrant.

The Protestant Argument: Sola Scriptura

sola scriptura

The protestant argument continues:

  1. Some of the inspired red-letters state that Jesus promises his apostles that they will be able to recall the gospel message, and that it will be preserved in their memories and accurately conveyed in their teaching in such a way that they too speak with inspiration. (eg, Luke 10:16 “Whoever hears you hears me” and John 14:25-26 These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”)
  2. From 1, we conclude that any document which is written by apostles or contains apostolic teaching is inspired, and this definition is broad enough to encompass the entire New Testament.
  3. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the law, the prophets and the psalms as if they are inspired, which covers a sizable chunk of the OT. Furthermore In 2 Timothy, Paul makes a vague reference to “the scriptures” and directly claims that whatever they are, they are inspired
  4. Conclusion: We can be fully confident that the entire New Testament is inspired, we can be fully confident that the Torah, the prophets and the psalms are inspired, and we can be fully confident that whatever Paul meant by “the scriptures” in 2 Timothy, they too are inspired. Therefore sola scriptura is true and valid.

Analysis

sola scripturaThis chain of reasoning is powerful enough to conclusively prove the inspiration of the New Testament, but it depends on tradition at several key points. For one thing, we are unable to work out who actually authored many of the epistles and gospels. We draw our confidence as to the authorship of these documents from tradition. I have no problem with drawing on tradition, but this is problematic for an adherent of Sola Scriptura because the bible is supposed to have supreme authority in opposition to tradition. Having the case for the bible rest on tradition undermines the whole philosophy.

This chain of reasoning also does not fully prove Sola Scriptura (here defined as “Scripture alone has the highest authority”), because reason and experience remain as the foundational authorities upon which everything else rests. In this chain of reasoning we start with reason, not with the bible, and use reason to conclude that Jesus is God and that scripture is inspired. It is only after depending on reason that you end up with a collection of inspired scriptures, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that these scriptures should be interpreted in light of reason and experience rather than having reason and experience interpreted in light of scripture, as the Sola Scripturist would have it. Scripture may very well have authority, but this authority is not higher than reason and experience.

This chain of reasoning also remains problematic for this idea that we are supposed to base our entire lives on the scriptures, because the scriptural canon is loosely defined and potentially mutable: New apostolic writings could be discovered and old apostolic writings could be revealed to be fraudulent. If this were to happen it would be a very confusing situation: many Christians throughout the centuries would have based their lives on books that were later revealed to be forgeries, and many Christians who were reading the bible under the impression that it included everything they need to know were in reality missing some books that they were supposed to acknowledge but didn’t. (Incidentally, this was a reality for the first 700 years of Christianity. In the far east, the Syriac Peshitta omitted many New Testament Books. And around the wider Christian world, there were many books that were once considered inspired but were later discovered not to be, for example the Shepherd of Hermes)

This chain of reasoning also ends on a cliff-hanger, because it does not clearly define a canon of scripture. Something more is required to work out what Paul means when he says “the scriptures”. As it stands, the wisdom literature, historical books and deuterocanon are up in the air: are they inspired? We simply don’t know.

There is also still the problem of false teaching and the project of identifying the true church. There are important contradictions between denominations, who are all reading the same set of scriptures but teaching mutually contradictory things. The attitude, common to many protestants that “I am right because I have the holy spirit and they are wrong because they don’t” is just arrogant and foolish. The problem of interpretation is inescapable. You may argue that the bible is “clear”, but it is obviously not clear enough to cut through our sin and effectively convey the truth, in which case it may as well not be clear at all.

The Catholic Argument: Tradition and Magisterium

sola scriptura

For comparison, I will outline the Catholic argument for the inspiration of an entire, well-defined canon.

  1. Some of the inspired red-letters reveal that Jesus established an authoritative, institutional church by duplicating his divine authority into the apostles (eg, Luke 10:16 “Whoever hears you hears me, whoever rejects you rejects me” and Matthew 18:18 “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”)
  2. Other of the inspired red-letters reveal that Jesus singled out and appointed Peter as a supreme leader of this church. (Matthew 16:18-19 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”)
  3. Reason and Experience (In the form of Historical enquiry) reveal that prior to dying, the apostles appointed successors. By drawing on the divine authority vested in them by Christ, the apostles were able to similarly transmit their divine authority into these successors, making them essentially equal in authority to the apostles.
  4. Reason and Experience (In the form of Historical enquiry) reveal that this process of appointing successors and vesting them with divine authority has continued uninterrupted to the present day.
  5. From 4, it becomes possible to identify a one, true church, existing in the present day. Simply look for bishops who can trace their authority back through history to the Apostles and Christ. This church also should have a single supreme leader who can trace himself back to Peter.
  6. The only church that fits the description in 5 is the Catholic church.
  7. The Catholic church has the power to teach with inspiration/divine authority, as its’ leadership are all in the apostolic succession.
  8. The Catholic church has authoritatively, infallibly and dogmatically identified a canon of scripture, the books of which are all inspired.
  9. Conclusion: The bible according to the canon of Trent is inspired and infallible.

Analysis

sola scriptura

The Catholic argument is superior because it solves almost all of the problems I outlined in the analysis of the protestant argument.

Catholics have no problem with tradition and fully embrace it, believing that Jesus established a church with an inspired tradition, identified by apostolic succession. He did not write a book.

Catholics also have no problem with according reason and experience their rightful pride of place. Reason and experience hold supreme authority, and it is on the basis of these that we conclude that the church can sometimes teach infallibly and that the bible is inspired. Because reason is the supreme authority, the church teaching needs to be understood and interpreted in light of reason and so too the scriptures.

The idea that we are supposed to base our entire lives on scripture simply does not arise, because Catholics instead have a broad and multifaceted tradition (of which the bible is one small part) in which they are supposed to live out their lives.

The canon of scripture is also well-defined and reasoned out in the Catholic account. There is no ambiguity. Further evidence could not cast doubt on the canonicity of an existing book or introduce new books. The deuterocanon is included, along with the entire Hebrew Old Testament and New Testament. The canon is clearly established.

Finally, identifying the true church and the true teachers is easy: just look for people who are in communion with the bishops.

Conclusion? Sola Scriptura is Still Bunk.

sola scripturaThe Protestant chain of reasoning is powerful, but the Catholic one remains more reasonable and less problematic. Protestants are able to prove the inspiration of the New Testament and large portions of the Old Testament, however the exact canonical boundaries are very fuzzy. They are unable to fully prove the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Whereas Catholics are able to provide an authoritative church and clearly defined canon of inspired scripture.

Despite mounting an intriguing and compelling argument, Jaison has failed to convince me of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the Catholic account remains superior.

 

Orthodoxy 101 – Scripture Clearly Says that All will be Saved: The One True God and his One True Gospel

If even a single soul fell through Gods fingers into Hell – regardless of the reason – this would demonstrate that he is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. It would prove him to be a weak and pathetic failure and completely nullify the Gospel.

Join the winning team: become a universalist. Come and worship the God who desires to save everyone, is able to save everyone, and will save everyone. Come and worship the God who is loving, powerful and sovereign. Come and worship the God who is more true to the tradition and more consistent with the scriptures.

“By one man’s act of disobedience all men without exception were made sinners, but by one man’s act of righteousness all men without exception were justified and made alive” (Romans 5 – the scope of salvation is equal to the scope of sin: both are universal)

“God consigned everyone to disobedience, so that he might have mercy upon everyone.” (Romans 11 – we are all simultaneously vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy)

“Every knee shall lovingly bow, and every tongue will freely confess that Christ is Lord” (Phillipians – all men will come to freely and lovingly accept Christ in the eschaton)

“The full totality of the gentiles will be saved, and then the full totality of Israel will be saved too” (Romans 11 – need I say more? Everyone is going to be saved, even though some may be saved “through fire”)

Hermeneutics 101 – What is Everlasting Hell?: Eternal Punishments and Timeless Tortures

Aἰώνιον Punishment

Matthew 25:31-46RSV-CE

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – These terrifying words of our lord are one of many scriptural passages commonly invoked to prove that the mainstream understanding of everlasting punishment and perpetual torments is clearly and explicitly taught by scripture.

Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the eternal punishment or the eternal life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the everlasting punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.

everlasting hellIt is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.

So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.

Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?

Experience and Reality of Everlasting Punishment

So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the everlasting punishment of Hell is “objectively” everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.

Everlasting PunishmentI would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the eternal punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that everlasting punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.

This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.

So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The eternal punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.

So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen

Orthodoxy 101 – Magisterium, Scripture, Liturgy and Tradition: “What is Catholic Tradition?”

Mark 7:1-13 RSV-CE

Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”

Catholic TraditionThere is not much that Protestants, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals agree on, but if ever there was an ecumenical dogma which they could rally behind, it would be this condemnation of tradition by our Lord. Everything else is disputable, but this much is clear: Any tradition whatsoever is automatically suspect and heretical; all traditions must be renounced and discarded. The “word of God” must be the sole focus of our Christian reflection and piety.

So of course, when the faithful and thoughtful Catholic points out that tradition is unavoidable and it would therefore be a wise move to seek out the one, true, divine tradition that Jesus imparted to the apostles before his ascension; the venomous evangelicals spit and froth at the mouth, screaming “heresy” and obnoxiously accusing the polite and reserved Catholic of following “traditions of men”. Nowhere is Protestant ignorance and bigotry more manifest.

What these Protestants utterly fail to realise is that the traditions Jesus condemned were of an entirely different nature to the Apostolic, Catholic Tradition that Catholics proclaim. Unfortunately when Catholics are confronted by bloodthirsty Protestants on this point, and are put on the spot with a demand that they explain how the Catholic tradition is different; the Catholic often is unable to articulate clearly what exactly “Catholic Tradition” actually is. Catholics have an intuitive understanding of “Catholic Tradition”, however we seem to find it hard to articulate and convey in clear terms how it is that it should be understood.

The Apophatic Definition of Catholic Tradition

The basic definition of what Catholics mean by “Catholic Tradition”, is that it is the continuing life of Christ in the church. Apostolic, Catholic Tradition is what you encounter when you immerse yourself in the Spirit. It is a direct encounter with Christ. The Catholic Tradition is invisible and ineffable, it cannot be directly perceived, it must be experienced.

What Catholics tend to do when confronted about “Apostolic Tradition”, is to offer this “apophatic” definition. This definition is not actually wrong, but it is incredibly vague and intangible. The Protestant listens to this definition – and not fully understanding it – they reject it and hold up their bible, waving it around for emphasis while saying “I can touch and hold this. I can read it. Why do I need your mystical, invisible, immaterial, ill-defined catholic traditions?”

Catholic Tradition

At this point, the Catholic might introduce a touch of psychology: Everyone has bias, bias is inescapable. Baptists have bias; Presbyterians have bias; Anglicans have bias; Lutherans have bias; Catholics have bias etc. When these people approach scripture, they bring their bias and preconceived notions with them, and this shapes how they read the bible. “Catholic Tradition” in this context is merely the correct bias – By hanging out with Catholics, you naturally soak up the biases of the group and bring these biases to scripture, reading it in a certain way. The Catholic claim is that we are biased, but our bias is inspired by the Holy Spirit. In this way a Catholic who reads the bible is better off, because they are immersed in an inspired apostolic tradition which guides them to a correct reading of scripture.

Again, this is not completely wrong, but in my experience it tends to fly directly over the Evangelicals heads. They will start rambling on about the “clarity” of scripture in a pathetic attempt to deny the fact that bias has anything to do with scriptural interpretation. Supposedly the bible is so “clear” that it can cut through our bias and present the unadulterated truth directly to us. This is obviously utter nonsense, and this is easily demonstrable by observing the violent doctrinal disagreements that Sola Scriptura Fundamentalists get tangled up in while trying to decide with each other what the bible oh so clearly says.

The Catechism’s Definition of Apostolic Tradition

It is helpful to examine what the Church officially teaches concerning apostolic tradition. The current official stance of the church has been distilled into the paragraphs of the Catechism. While these definitions and reflections are not infallible, they are a helpful starting point for someone investigating these issues surrounding Catholic tradition.

II. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TRADITION AND SACRED SCRIPTURE

One common source. . .

80 “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age”.

. . . two distinct modes of transmission

81 “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

“And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”

82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”

 

The Magisterium of the Church

85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”

87 Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”, the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.

The dogmas of the faith

88 The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.

89 There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.

90 The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ. “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.”

The full page of the Catechism containing these extracts can be found here.

Apostolic TraditionThese extracts offer a decent, though incomplete picture of the relationship between Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium. Often the situation is presented as a metaphorical “three legged stool”. Scripture, Catholic Tradition and Magisterium are described as the three legs of a stool which the church sits on. Take any of them away and the whole thing topples over.

I personally think this usual explanation is a little misleading. It seems to set up scripture against Apostolic tradition as if they are two rival sources of revelation and Catholics just so happen to embrace them both, whereas Protestants only receive one of them as authoritative. This only gives ammunition to the Protestants who then quote these official church documents and go “See! These Catholics believe in scripture plus tradition. They are just like the Pharisees who Jesus condemned!” The same problem arises with the definition of Magisterium: The magisterium seems to be being presented as some sort of alternative authority over and above scripture and the apostolic tradition, and of course the cheeky Protestants cry fowl and accuse us of usurping the authority of God in favour of the authority of men. In reality Catholics believe no such thing. The most accurate way to describe the situation is that Catholics believe in a single authoritative deposit of faith, the entirety of which is referred to as Apostolic Tradition. However this is a deposit of faith which grows as history marches on, and scripture is only one component of this Catholic Tradition.

Visible Manifestations of the Invisible Catholic Tradition

Recall the Apophatic definition of catholic tradition. Catholic Tradition is inspired, ineffable, invisible, intangible. This is a good starting point. We spiritually live within this invisible apostolic tradition. However the ineffable catholic tradition manifests in three concrete ways, which roughly correspond to the three legs of the aforementioned “three legged stool”. The three manifestations are thus: The scriptural apostolic tradition, the liturgical apostolic tradition, and the dogmatic apostolic tradition. These three apostolic traditions reflect the intangible and invisible Catholic tradition in a way that people can directly perceive and interact with.

Scriptural Apostolic Tradition

The Scriptural Apostolic Tradition is larger and more multifaceted than most people would realise, Catholics and Protestants alike. It consists of all translations and editions of scripture that have been implicitly received by all the apostolic communities around the world, as well as any translations or editions which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. As such, the Scriptural Apostolic Tradition contains the Vulgate, the Septuagint, the Peshitta, the Greek New Testament, the Douay-Rheims, the RSV-CE and so on. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to respect all of these translations and editions. Priority is not given to any particular edition or translation, not even the original languages. All of the translations within the scriptural apostolic tradition are considered equally inspired and authoritative.

Liturgical Apostolic Tradition

Similar to the Scriptural Apostolic Tradition, the Liturgical Apostolic Tradition consists of all liturgies which have been implicitly received by apostolic communities around the world, as well as all liturgies which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. Liturgies which have been implicitly received would include the Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian liturgies, whereas liturgies which have been explicitly approved would include those of the Anglican Ordinariate, the Novus Ordo, the Neo-Catechumenal Use and the Tridentine Liturgy. A Catholic theologian must draw on the prayers, movements and symbolisms of all these different liturgies whilst formulating his theology. The maxim “lex orandi lex credendi” applies here: the Church believes as she prays. As such it is important to pay close attention to the many and varied liturgical rituals of the Church.

Dogmatic Apostolic Tradition

This is the “Divine Clarification” aspect of the Catholic tradition. When the bishops of the church meet together in an ecumenical council approved by the Pope and come up with a list of canons or anathemas, these statements are considered divinely inspired and a crucial component of the Holy Apostolic Tradition. The Pope can also define canons and anathemas outside of council. This list of infallible, inspired dogmatic statements grows as time marches on. New Dogmas can be established, but old ones can never be repealed. Once a dogma is defined it is set in stone for all time. Old dogmas can be “annulled” only if there is conclusive proof that they were never actually officially promulgated.

Dogmas are intended to clarify the Catholic tradition, making it’s boundaries more clear and defined. For example the biblical canon is a dogma which establishes the boundaries and limits of scripture.

All three of these components of the Catholic tradition may grow with time. New translations may be introduced to the Scriptural Apostolic Tradition. New Liturgies may be approved, or existing liturgies may evolve, thus adding to the Liturgical Apostolic Tradition. The list of dogmas grows as time goes by, thus expanding the Dogmatic Apostolic tradition. Catholic Tradition is dynamic, not static. As language evolves, so does the scripture. As heresies rise and fall, the dogmas grow. As the spirit moves the church, new liturgies are introduced and old liturgies are altered.

Apostolic TraditionRemember, Catholic tradition is fundamentally invisible, and ineffable. It is something which you experience, something which you must live and breath, something that you must pray through. It is not primarily something which you “study”. It is only by praying your way into the Catholic tradition that you will truly encounter Christ. As such, merely studying the bible will not draw you into this sacred apostolic tradition or introduce you to Jesus: you must pray your way through the sacred words of holy writ. Incidentally this is why Catholics do not have “bible studies”, we instead have lectio divina – prayerful reading. Similarly, merely being present during a liturgy is not enough, you must unite yourself to the divine drama unfolding before you through deep, fervent and meditative prayer. Similarly with the dogmas, it is not enough to know them as some sort of check list of propositions to be believed, instead they are to be prayerfully received and trusted as lights along the path that leads to the fullness of the truth – Christ himself. They should be prayerfully wrestled with just as you would wrestle with scripture.

The magisterium has the task of defining the boundaries of these three things. The magisterium sets the canon of scripture, and approves new editions/translations. It also recognises certain liturgies as inspired, and has the authority to make additions and alterations to existing liturgies or introduce entirely new ones. And of course it is the task of the magisterium to receive divine clarification in the form of dogmas via Pope or council.

An important final note: it is not the task of the magisterium to provide an infallible interpretation of scripture, or the deposit of faith more broadly. The magisterium does indeed provide an interpretation for the sake of the common man who wants to be a faithful catholic and does not have the time to formulate his own unique position, but this interpretation is entirely fallible and disputable, merely representing the distilled sensus fidelium at the current point in history. Theologians are free to dispute almost anything the magisterium says. Theologians are only forced to respect the infallibility and inspiration of the three components of the Apostolic Tradition defined in the post. Beyond that they are free to speculate until the cows come home.

Conclusion

Next time you’re in a discussion with a Protestant about Catholic Tradition, try to keep in mind the three-fold definition presented in this post. Catholic Tradition is indeed invisible, ineffable and intangible, however it manifests in exactly three ways: Liturgy, Scripture and Dogma. These three ways are visible, effable and tangible manifestations of the Apostolic Tradition, similarly to how Christ visibly manifests the invisible, ineffable, intangible God. All three of these manifestations are inspired and authoritative, and Protestants are doing themselves a disservice by only receiving the scriptural apostolic tradition while rejecting the liturgical and dogmatic catholic traditions. Scripture is not separate to apostolic tradition, scripture IS apostolic tradition.

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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.

The Scriptures of Mormonism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Questions of Canon and Ecumenism

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I remember being surprised, baffled and deeply intrigued when I discovered that there were different canons of scripture out in the world. As time went on, I began to wonder what the implications were for ecumenism. I began to wonder what the implications were for faith: If a community of confirmed, faithful Christians firmly believe that God is speaking to them through a book which has not been approved by the infallible magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, what does it mean?

I would like to propose a brief solution. The idea is that there are inspired scriptures which are catholic, which is to say “universal”. Such scriptures are addressed by God to every individual who has ever lived. These scriptures must be received and respected by anyone who is attempting to engage in theology. They cannot be discarded or dismissed. The canon of the universal scriptures was dogmatically promulgated by the council of Trent, and canonically promulgated many times prior to that at local councils.

220px-Ethiopian_Madonna[1].jpgHowever, there are also inspired scriptures which are not catholic. That is to say, they are local, private, or specific to a specific time, place or group of people. A classic example would be the Ethiopian Orthodox canon of scripture. The Ethiopian tradition includes many books which are not to be found outside of that specific church. Are we to simply dismiss this as a theological error by the Ethiopians? How can we do this, when their bishops are all validly ordained, and therefore their received liturgies are just as inspired as the approved Catholic liturgies? In this situation, whatever scripture they have read and received in their liturgy would logically also be inspired. The solution to this problem is to say that these texts are indeed inspired, however they are only addressed to the Ethiopian church: people who are outside of this church need not pay any attention to these texts. It is similar to the doctrine of “private revelation” in the Catholic church. These revelations are private, addressed to discrete groups of people rather than the whole of humanity.

Another example concerns the Eastern Orthodox canon. The Eastern Orthodox include three extra books and one extra psalm in their canon. These additions could be ecumenically received as local inspired texts, rather than catholic inspired texts. As such, they are relevant to churches in the eastern tradition, because they have been received within that tradition, however people who are not immersed in that tradition and do not have any connection to it do not need to heed these books.

downloadThe principle could be applied and extended out wide in order to encompass other religions and cults. For example the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have their own tradition within which certain scriptures have been received (for example, the Book of Mormon). If they were to one day come back into communion with the Holy Catholic Church, they could be permitted to retain their unique scriptures provided that they are understood to be local revelation rather than catholic revelation. Of course, it is to be assumed that their received scriptures are interpreted in a way that is consistent with the rest of the deposit of faith. In this particular case it would probably call for a purely allegorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

Potentially we could re-approach the Jews with this principle in mind. We could allow them to take the Hebrew old testament and apply it as they wish. Even though we know that the law is not binding on Christians, Jewish Christians may choose to follow the law regardless, as it is part of their tradition and heritage.

The Islamic traditions are also fair game. Potentially one day there will be an “Islamic Ordinariate” or a Sui Iuris church which traces it’s heritage to the Islamic world. Such a church would have a heavily Islamised liturgy, wherein the faithful pray the Salat towards the Eucharist set in a monstrance during adoration (for example). It would 220px-Mosque[1]potentially by acceptable for them to retain the Qu’ran as a local inspired text within this tradition, provided that the Qu’ran is understood and interpreted in a way that is consistent with the deposit of faith. Potentially an edited, “Christian” edition of the Qu’ran could be produced which edits and deals with troublesome passages, however this would not be optimal.

The same principle could be used to inculturate all cultures and religious traditions: Let the people retain as much of what they already have as is possible, including their scriptures. Just be careful to make it clear that any scripture they bring to the table is local revelation rather than catholic revelation: It’s authoritative for people within that specific community, but not binding on anyone else.

This principle is helpful in evangelism, as it accords well with Paul’s admonition to “be all things to all people”. Paul wants us to be a Jew to Jews, a Muslim to Muslims, a Buddhist to Buddhists and a Hindu to Hindus. As missionaries we should strive to be as thorough in this task as we can, adopting as much of the local religion as we can in good conscience and without compromising our principles, so as to win the people over to Christ.