Saturday, May 31, 2008


A Protestant pastor quotes a "Rabbi" (another Protestant pastor of Jewish upbringing) for the proposition that Catholics have incorporated Mary into the Trinity (now a "Quadrinity"), here. This view is based on the latter's experience while attending a mass celebrating Mary's crowning as Queen of Heaven.

No doubt, some of what he saw would have made me uncomfortable in my pew, e.g., "The priest spoke of Jesus as “Mary’s only begotten Son." The word "begotten" seems like an unnecessary qualification under the Catholic scheme.

But the thrust of his criticism seemed to be that the Biblical support for the priest's (and the Catholic Church's) views on Mary were lacking.

I am sympathetic. Unfortunately, I am plagued by the view that Biblical support for the view that everything must be supported solely from the Bible is lacking too.

Good Pope, Bad Pope

After Pope Benedict XVI's recent Papal Visit to the United States, Protestant voices have been surprisingly affable in speaking about the man. I don't doubt that his visit left a positive impression for many Protestants. One fellow blogger spoke of the effect that the Pope's visit had on his decision to return to Catholicism. For Protestants willing to consider that a man can be both Pope and a Christian, I imagine most see "B16" as a good Pope. And the same would be said, I imagine, of his predecessor.

But I wonder whether there would be so much discussion of Protestant conversions to Catholicism if we had a really bad pope - a horrible, wicked pope? It seems that when one accepts Catholicism as the proper constitution of Christ's Church, one should not have their faith in the Church swayed at all if a future pope turned out to be a wicked person.

Separate to my discernment on the faith, I've been reading about how the principle of freedom of the seas flows from the political guile of Pope Alexander VI (d. 1503). In a story of political intrigue, he issued a papal bull granting sovereignty to certain states over parts of the sea (thereby excluding others from those areas of the sea). For example, he divided the Atlantic Ocean, giving half to Spain and half to Portugal. Because of this, the Dutch and British were excluded from the lucrative East Indies trade. (Aside: this later led to the Dutch hiring the famous Hugo Grotius (d. 1645) (Protestant) to find a way around the pesky Bull, and the principle of freedom of the seas (embodied in Mare Liberum) was born.)

At any rate, strife-filled international politicking, and the practices of simony and nepotism (for the children born of the Papal Mistress) in Alexander's life are enough to tell me that he was not what even open-minded modern evangelicals would call a good pope. It reminded me that times have not always been so good for the Catholic Magisterium.

I do not mean to dismiss the truth that wicked people and brokenness drive lost souls away from Christ and His Church. That certainly will always be the case, and seems rooted in many points of Scripture (not least of which is John 17). But I still have to ask (of myself) the hypothetical: if the next pope were an Alexander VI, would I still find the arguments for Catholicism and Apostolic succession convincing? Am I merely persuaded by pleasant conditions? One buying Apostolic succession must be accept this possibility and place it in its proper context.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Post-denom, uh, What?

I know the term "post-denominationalism" has been out there for a while, but I've ignored it until some recent time when it began to pique my curiosity. It sounds so catchy, it must be true. What does it mean?

My guess is that "denominationalism" would be the concoction of 1) Christians feeling at liberty to start their own church branch without 2) conceding that they and other denominations are (invisibly) separated from each other as the Christian Church.

Then I would guess that "pre-denominationalism", if I can use the term, would be the period before denominationalism came into being. That is, it was the time in the Christian Church when people believed either that they were not possessed of the liberty to start their own church, or if they thought they were, that their new church would not be even invisibly united with other 'branches' of Christianity (hence, that the others were not proper 'branches' of Christianity).

Before I look further, let me simply guess what "post-denominationalism" is. Assuming that it is not a period where Christians have stopped feeling free to start their own church or be in a 'branch', it seems that it would be the period in the Church where Christians have abandoned branch affiliations entirely; where each Christian is his own denomination in the old-speak sense (a few billion points of light in lieu of "a thousand points of light" -- what could be better?). Were this to be possible, if I'm not off-track already, there could be no affiliation, no confession, no doctrinal requirements left in Christianity. "This above all: to thine own self be true" (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3) on every point of theology that one chooses to ponder. Taken to its conclusion, as I've guessed post-denominationalism to mean, it would then be up to each individual who self-identifies as Christian to decide what that means, and how to be "saved" (if he chooses to believe in salvation). Belief in the Bible alone as infallible, the Bible alone, or the Bible at all would be a formulated doctrine larger than the individual, so could not be a required belief on anyone (or else those expecting conformity to this doctrine would be members of an invisible denomination, hence, not post-denominational).

Now, let me see if I can validate or refute my guess at the meaning of this term.

One helpful article from one David Parker (which I note has -coincidentally- a very similar title to that of this post) describes post-denominationalism. He tells us, "This word was defined by the Queensland Baptist General Superintendent, Dr David Loder, at the 2001 Convention as a "mindset" that focuses on "exploration, extending the barriers, and experimentation"[.] This results in people changing church allegiance regularly, or even going to various "churches on rotation rather than sticking with one". In short, he said, it seems that "the 'old rules' are out the window and 'new rules' are being formulated.""

Others describe post-denominationalism similarly as a period of free spirituality over conformity to religious institutions, as a time of freedom to pick and choose between church styles and forms, as the absence of loyalty to the denomination of one's youth, etc. I was humored by the Wiki entry on postdenominationalism, which gives us ten "common doctrinal point" of the post-denominational. That sounds, uh, a bit like an invisible denomination to me (otherwise known as "non-denominational"). If I don't believe that "The true Church is the Body of Christ on Earth", am I out of the post-denominational movement? Where does that leave me? I think the only 'post' left would be post-Christian.

Very well, then, people don't seem pumped up to parade post-denominationalism in my semi-nihilistic terms. I still think it's where we're headed: a few billion points of light.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Trinity Words An "Addition"

[Pictured: Erasmus] I recently stumbled upon an interesting spat between the KJV-only crowd and (nearly) 'everyone else'. 1 John 5:7-8 contains a major Trinitarian proof text, the "comma Johanneum (or Johanninum)", but this clause is excluded from most modern English translations' primary text.

E.g., NIV: "For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement." (Footnote: "Late manuscripts of the Vulgate testify in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. 8 And there are three that testify on earth: the (not found in any Greek manuscript before the sixteenth century" (emphasis added))

One defense of the NIV translation notes: "The extra words in the KJV rendering of this passage are among the most poorly attested of all the disputed verses in the KJV and Textus Receptus. The addition is not found in any Greek manuscript or English translation until the sixteenth century, and most scholars agree that it is a forgery."

The Wiki article on the clause (and laugh all you want at my Wiki citation, but it's quite an excellent summary) notes that it was only the third edition of Erasmus' work, the "Received Text" (upon which the KJV is based), that put this clause into wide-spread usage. And Erasmus (fallible) made this change only begrudgingly. Catholicism later reversed its (fallible) decree that theologians could not "with safety" question the clause's authenticity (citing C.E. article on the Epistles of St. John, reversed by Pope Pius XI in 1927).

I set out writing this post thinking that whenever the NIV excludes or adds text to Scripture, it does so from questionable motives (based on previous observations made here, here, here, and here). But here I encountered a translation that is not easily reproached.

My point then?

1) That a passage of Holy Writ was in common usage for centuries, but may indeed be aberrant (i.e., fallible), adds to my skepticism that God would decree for (Holy) text to be our court of final appeal (as is understood in the Reformed circle, e.g., here). Did God give us an infallible text to be our court of final appeal, but then allow it to become corrupt over time? Does he preserve it only in relevant parts (in which case a Trinitarian proof-text would have to be described as irrelevant)?

2) The KJV-only crowd can be excessively passionate for their Biblicist position. This seems to flow out of necessity of the critiques I made just above in point 1. For the Word of God, the logos, to entirely subsist in the Bible's text, and therein to act as our court of final appeal, it must of course be perfect in every part, and continue preserved in this form. (For some thoughts on whether the Logos is equal to, or greater than the Bible, see my post here.)

E.g., Jack Chick's website defends the comma (this clause) as a Divinely-included part of the Bible. It notes that 1 John itself is absent from many extent Greek manuscripts. Tertullian, it tells us, quoted the verse in 200 AD when writing against Praxeas. Further, Eastern Greeks found it easier to deal with the troubling Sabellian heresy by simply removing this text from their own Bibles, because it refers to the persons of the Trinity as "one".

I was almost persuaded, until I looked up this text of Tertullian on CCEL. After much poking around, I found other sources who noted that Tertullian did not use this clause where one would expect to see him do so against Praxeas. Instead he used the less-direct John 10:30 ("I and the Father are one."). Further, the argument that the Greeks obliterated a proof-text of Trinitarian dogma to ease their dispute with the Sabellian's seems specious at best.

Jack Chick is a tall example, but not alone in defending Erasmus' Received Text as infallible (so necessarily defending the comma Johanneum). This crowd sees that there would be a need for Church as arbiter were our textual court of final appeal not self-authenticating.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why I Am Protestant

Why am I still a Protestant?, a recent commenter implicitly asked.

I imagine that when a man is in the process of deep conversion, he is unable to grasp exactly what is happening, or where he is along the way (until it is over). Therefore, I can only speculate about what has been happening to your faithful Thos.

I risk being boring if I give too extensive a recap of my own exposure to Catholic doctrines, so to be as brief as possible, I diagram (and necessarily exclude my efforts spent looking for a third way):

Proudly Reformed → puzzled at my inability to defend sola Scriptura against a Catholic critique → puzzled that Reformed writings don’t refute the critique → puzzled that my Reformed pastors can’t refute the critique → becoming increasingly skeptical of the Protestant authority scheme → my present state. (I discussed my thoughts through this process in more detail in a series of posts ending with this one.)

The days of being proudly Reformed, and confident that its teachers could address any supposed deficiencies, are about four years behind me. But it has been some time indeed since I’ve felt that I’ve been able to progress one way or another (back to my roots, or further from them).

So why have I stalled in this “no-man’s-land”? Why am I still Protestant?

I don’t know. I told Kim recently while discussing the idea of being reasoned into Catholicism (or any other conversion, I suppose), “I'm not sure you can be *purely* reasoned into [conversion]. I mean, reason may be persuaded, and one still can't get over some anxieties." Let me try to clarify.

The best I can figure at this point is that conversion, as a process, involves at least two major changes. My working theory holds that it involves both intellectual conversion and emotional (i.e., sentimental) conversion. Further, I believe the intellect and emotions need to be persuaded much further beyond 50% of certainty before they are actually converted (a sort of 'principle of inertia'). My intellect was persuaded beyond 50% that the authority claims of Catholicism are stronger than those of Protestantism relatively long ago. And I think that within the last six months I approximately reached my inertial tipping point. When I perceived that this was happening, I got excited that I might have enough conviction to end this long and tiring journey…

But then the neon lights just weren’t flashing quite like I had hoped. I have continued to harbor a kind of skepticism that is particularly provoked by certain Catholic images, prayers and practices. My present theory is that while my intellect has converted, my emotions (or Protestant sentiments) have not. If this is true, it’s an unpleasant spot to be in. When I read, write, discuss, or debate, I hold a higher respect for Catholic theology. When I pray, meditate, and talk to myself in the quiet of the night, I remain a skeptic, deeply worried that I could be standing in the path of making a fatal error. Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.

In sum, I am still a Protestant because I would not like to be a skeptical Catholic, and I would not like to convert only to re-convert later in life (I was quite fickle as a younger man, and do not wish to return to that reputation). I am still a Protestant because, at present, I would not be able to take the Eucharist into my mouth without a small voice in my head whispering “heresy!” That voice has to expend so little energy to counter a loud voice of reason and intellect.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cross on Denominational Renewal

Bryan Cross and Todd Gwennap have engaged in a fantastic discussion here. I recommend that anyone considering conversion between a Protestant denomination and Roman Catholicism give it a read, especially those from (or inclined toward) a Reformed background.

Bryan, now a Roman Catholic, graduated from my denomination’s seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary. Todd is currently a student at that institution. I have relatives with strong ties, seminal even, to Covenant, so I have taken particular interest in Bryan’s story, and now this discussion between these two.

I will not spoil the plot, but Todd takes up some arguments on the nature of “church” with vigor. Bryan responds with aptitude. I hope to see the conversation continue. [Omitted.]

From what I've seen, I have developed a deep admiration of him. It is an exceedingly rare thing to see someone take Bryan up in learned dialogue. Bryan is logical and methodical in his approach, in a way that I surmise may intimidate the typical antagonists and Johnny-come-latelies of blogosphere spats. Todd is above that, and brave to boot. He enters the discussion graciously and thoughtfully. I continue to *hope* that these brothers (or brethren) will run the conversation to ground, as I stand to benefit. Besides being more theologically educated than I am, Todd has fuel to critique Catholicism that I depleted long ago.

A last substantive thought: Todd brings up an argument that has been central in my thoughts about how Christ has constituted His Church, and I believe its resolution would be meaningful to a great many seekers. To what extent is the parallel between the Old and New Testaments (Covenants) valid? Put another way, is the Church Era a recapitulation of the Jewish Era, or is it a whole novus ordo? Should we expect to see a division amongst Christ’s Covenant People as the Jewish people divided into a Northern and Southern Kingdom (see my post touching on this parallelism here)?

If the Church Era is a whole new order, such that the Holy Spirit would prevent such division, obviously the Reformation fails. If it is not so new (as human sinful nature may not have changed), and a recapitulation is possible then the Reformation could be proper (indeed, the Old Testament experience would serve as a “preview” warning to those of us in the New).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Works and Deathbed Conversions

I've used My Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, as a devotional for some time. It is striking for its call to Christian self-denial and (what I understand to be) asceticism.

There was a time when, early in my learning about the Catholic claims to Truth, I thought I could convince a Catholic brother that his beliefs were contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. If I say nothing else about those days, I have to say that it was an excellent time of learning about our Faith. What a treasure to engage with a brother when both are deeply committed to searching out the truth, and living it too! I felt exposed, somewhat disconcerted, and very alive and aware of Christ's Lordship. I perceived how small I was, and how big the Church and Christianity are.

At some point in this series of exchanges the gears shifted. Instead of feeling that I could victoriously pour the truth of Scripture over my brother's head, I wound up on my heels, on the defensive. To date, I have not been able to recover. I've forgotten many of the things that led me to that point, but I can still isolate a few. One was an awareness that if contraception was indeed immoral, the Protestant faith had much explaining to do. Another was this devotional by Thomas à Kempis.

With that long-winded narrative out of the way, let me come to my (somewhat non sequitur) point. In Ch. 23, Thomas says speaking of death, "How sad that you do not spend the time in which you might purchase everlasting life in a better way. The time will come when you will want just one day, just one hour in which to make amends, and do you know whether you will obtain it? See, then, dearly beloved, the great danger from which you can free yourself and the great fear from which you can be saved, if only you will always be wary and mindful of death." How fascinating, this familiar idea that with just one hour one could make amends for their sins.

The well-known Catholic priest, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. wrote in his book Life Everlasting, "Deathbed conversion, however difficult, is still possible. Even when we see no sign of contrition, we can still not affirm that, at the last moment, just before the separation of soul from body, the soul is definitively obstinate. A sinner may be converted at that last minute in such fashion that God alone can know it."

And to my simple point. The Catholic Church maintains the validity of deathbed conversions. Does not this belief, all on its own, defeat the oft-rendered critique that Catholics believe in salvation by works? I think it does. If some measure of works was necessary to merit salvation, then the infirm sinner lying in a sickly state in his final hours has irreparably lost the chance to perform those works and cannot be saved. So while the Catholic view on salvation is distinct from the Protestant formulation of sola Fide, it requires no more than letting go of obstinacy (presumably in faith). Sola non Petina. No works required.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Faith Hall of Fame

I've heard Hebrews 11 described as the "Hall of Fame" of faith. In it we are reminded of the great saints of the Old Testament, and how pleasing their great faith was to the Lord. You know the passage, "By faith Abraham, even though he was past age..." (a tongue-in-cheek reference; see my critique of the translation of verse 11 here).

I wonder what the reference to Abel means when it says "And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead... (NIV, v.4)" Certainly it's not a reference to séances with the dearly departed. The NAB here, to me, seems a little clearer: "Through [Abel's faithful sacrifice] he was attested to be righteous, God bearing witness to his gifts, and through this, though dead, he still speaks."

Able speaks to me today, even though he is dead, by the witness I have received of his faithfulness. Two little thoughts from an old post help me draw meaning from this passage.

First, I would not know of Abel's (or any of the other Hall of Fame inductee's) faithfulness had it not been recorded for me in Scripture. In this way, Scripture bears witness to, or gives testimony about, what occurred. Without this testimony, Abel would be merely dead to me, not continuing to speak about how to live faithfully. And Scripture itself, as I noted in that old post, is only a sound witness where it is itself attested to me by reliable witnesses as the Word of God. I rely on a chain of testimony through the ages of the Church, because Scripture is not typically self-authenticating. It does not purport itself (in most parts) to be Holy Writ. So I believe that Abel's offering of firstfruits made "by faith" is a righteous act before God because a chain of witnesses through the ages attest to the validity of the Scripture attesting to this meaning of Abel's deeds.

Second, Abel (and the rest of the inductees) speak to me today as the great cloud of witnesses (Ch. 12, v. 1, which wraps up the Hall of Fame pericope). I have read the cloud of witnesses passage used in Catholic apologetics before, as a defense for the positions that those Saint-Christians who have gone before us are in this 'cloud'. As I said in that old post, I had previously thought of these saints in the Cloud as witnessing (i.e., observing) my life, watching me plod through this life, cheering me on. I believe though that, whether or not we add the Catholic Saints to those faithful in Hebrews 11, I previously had the meaning wrong. Those in this great cloud bear witness by the faithful lives they lived. They are not witnessing-seeing, they are witnessing-testifying. At least, that's how I see it when I read v.4 about Abel through to the cloud of witnesses text.

The question is, do I accept the testimony of these witnesses as I deliberate on how to conduct my own life?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Violating Plain Text

This past week's program on The Journey Home was about one Stephen Budd's conversion from the Baptist church to Roman Catholicism. He had been a bold Baptist, and believed then that it was his duty to convert Catholics from their ways. He went through a litany of bumper-sticker sized condemnations of Catholicism he had made as a Baptist.

One critique from his bygone does stood tall, and resonates with my emotions, even though my intellect sees it to be vacuous.

He described an anti-Catholic tract that he would give to Catholics he found in his home town (in Ireland, I believe). On it was a depiction of Pope John Paul II praying before a statue of Mary, and beside this image were the words "thou shall have no other gods before me..." These tracts have power in their simplicity. This one sets up a contrast, and draws you immediately into it.

The plain text of Sacred Scripture warns against creating likenesses and bowing down before idols. Its whole timbre is one that merits great caution and prudence. The plain text of scripture, what could be more plain?

Then I read an article/book review in the May, 2008 edition of First Things (with finals, I've been a month behind) which made me consider a different angle. Robert Louis Wilken wrote Jews as the Romans Saw Them (subscription required), discussing Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient ­Civilizations by Martin Goodman. In it, he says "Romans were puzzled as to why Jews refused to eat pork (which the Romans loved) and why they circumcised infant boys. They could not understand that there was no image of their God in the Temple..."

Maybe you can follow where my mind went at this point.

"Thou shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)"

"You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. (Genesis 17:11)"

[I can't depict an uncircumcised Christian here, but if I could, my intent would be to juxtapose that image with this verse to the Catholic image and the Bible verse given above it. I hope you can accept this picture of a Jewish briss in its place, though it's the opposite of what I mean to depict, in that it is in strict conformity with the commandment of the Sacred Scriptures.]

"And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. (Leviticus 11:7)"

Now I know full well that New Testament passages address circumcision in the New Church and consuming unclean and ceremonial meats too. We have, then, either a contradiction within Scripture, or a new authority able to override the old. If the old can be overridden in its ceremonial aspects, surely it can be given more precision (vis-a-vis idols, images, and the like). At any rate, my point is simply that plain text is often a poor guide. The meaning beneath the text is a harder thing to depict in tracts...