Monday, February 26, 2007

From Fallible Intermediaries to Infallible Truth

There seems to be a thread on Pontifications, Parasitic Catholicism, which never ends. Partly due to the fact I find the discussion fascinating and challenging at the same time.

Time and again, It was stated in various posts that the Church must be infallible, because if an interpretation in infallible, there must be an infallible interpretor.

Nathan, a Lutheran, brought up an idea that I think is worth pursuing though. The point is, if an infallible interpreter is required for an infallible interpretation, how was God's promise of a Savior transmitted from his promise made to to Eve (Genesis 3:13), or the other promises of a Messiah up to Jesus' day? Where is the infallible interpreter? It cannot be those who sit in Moses' seat, because they condemned Jesus, in other words, they rejected truth in the flesh--hardly something an infallible institution would do. So, if the promise was fallibly passed down, how can we have any confidence in it if an infallible interpreter is required to interpret infallible truth? How can we trust the Gospel,?

Now, it is true that the Prophets were infallible, but Prophets had to be tested, and there were false prophets as well as true prophets. This means the Israelites had to "test the spirits" like we do. Not only that, we read that in King Josiah's time, the people apparently had forgotten he covanent and had to rededicate themselves to the covanent God made through Moses (2 Chronicles 34). So it seems to be unremarkable that there were times when there were no infallible interpreters of the traditions handed down. Yet, somehow the promise was handed down, because the Israelites were able to recognize the Law of Moses when it was rediscovered; and in Jesus' day there were those who recognized him as the promised Messiah. There were also those who recognized the proclamation of his Apostles, for instance the Bereans. The Bereans even tested St. Paul's proclamation of the Gospel against the Scriptures; a thing which would be impossible if an infallible interpreter is required to transmit infallible truth, because there was no infallible interpreter in OT days, and the Bereans were not infallible.

So, where does this lead us? It leads us away from the idea that we need an infallible interpreter to believe in the infallible truth of Jesus Christ, because an infallible interpreter is not necessary, nor does one exist here on earth. What is infallible though are God's promises to us, his creatures, throughout history. That promise, first made to Eve, that God would, through her descendant, crush the serpent, and redeem mankind from bondage to sin, death and the devil. In OT days, the promise was infallible even though the ones preserving it were obviously fallible. Today the promise is infallible even though some groups obscure the Gospel by pointing to the body instead of the head, and claim that outside their authority there is no true faith, only subjective opinion. (The body is necessary, i.e. we come to faith through the Church, but we have faith in the Church because we have faith in Christ, not the other way around). It is the promise, the invitation by the Lord to repent and return to him, so he might heal us and renew us, which is infallibly revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus is the very embodiment of this promise, so it is right and good to say that the Scriptures testify of him, and do so infallibly--even if the ones passing the message down are fallible.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Reflections on Lenten season

A lenten message from Martin Luther:

The Scriptures present to us two kinds of true fasting: one, by which we try to bring the flesh into subjection to the spirit, of which St. Paul speaks in 2 Cor 6,5: "In labors, in watchings, in fastings." The other is that which we must bear patiently, and yet receive willingly because of our need and poverty, of which St. Paul speaks in 1 Cor 4, 11: "Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst," and Christ in Mt 9,15: "When the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, then will they fast." This kind of fasting Christ teaches us here while in the wilderness alone without anything to eat, and while he suffers his penury without murmuring. The first kind of fasting, one can end whenever he wills, and can satisfy it by food; but the other kind we must observe and bear until God himself changes it and satisfies us. Hence it is much more precious than the first, because it moves in greater faith.

This is also the reason that the Evangelist with great care places it first: Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness, that be might there fast and be tempted, so that no one might imitate his example of their own choice and make of it a selfish, arbitrary, and pleasant fasting; but instead wait for the Spirit, who will send him enough fastings and temptations. For whoever, without being led by the Spirit, wantonly resorts to the danger of hunger or to any temptation, when it is truly a blessing of God that he can eat and drink and have other comforts, tempts God. We should not seek want and temptation, they will surely come of themselves; we ought then do our best and act honestly. The text reads: Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness; and not: Jesus himself chose to go into the wilderness. "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." Rom 8, 14. God gives his blessings for the purpose that we may use them with thanksgiving, and not that we may let them lie idle, and thus tempt him; for he wishes it, and forces us to fast by the Spirit or by a need which we cannot avoid.

This narrative, however, is written both for our instruction and admonition. First, for instruction, that we should know how Christ has served and helped us by his fasting, hunger, temptation and victory; also that whoever believes on Christ shall never suffer need, and that temptation shall never harm him; but we shall have enough in the midst of want and be safe in the midst of temptation; because his Lord and Head triumphed over these all in his behalf, and of this he is assured, as Christ says in John 16,33: "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." God, who was able to nourish Christ forty days without any food, can nourish also his Christians.

Secondly, this is written for our admonition, that we may in the light of this example also cheerfully suffer want and temptation for the service of God and the good of our neighbor, like Christ did for us, as often as necessity requires it; which is surely accomplished if we learn and confess God's Word. Therefore this Gospel is sweet consolation and power against the unbelief and infamy of the stomach, to awaken and strengthen the conscience, that we may not be anxious about the nourishment of our bodies, but be assured that he can and will give us our daily bread.

And let us not forget the requisite blunt, funny, Luther quote:

"If thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread," as if he should say: Yes, trust thou in God and bake and cook nothing; only wait patiently until a roasted fowl flies into your mouth....

Let us remember, that what ever our fast this Lenten season is, we do it not out of compulsion, but out of our desire to subordinate our flesh to the Spirit of Christ. I am often reminded of how flabby my walk can be. Jesus Christ fasted for forty days, endured the temptations of Satan, suffered persecution, died and rose again. I, however, can complain about problems a fair portion of the world would kill to have.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Lord have mercy on me, the sinner.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Where is Christ in all this?

Recently, I have been posting on Pontifications in the "Parasitic Catholicism" thread. As is usually the case, things come down to authority. Thanks to this discussion, I have a better understanding of what the RC at least mean when they speak of "private jugement". They start with authority, and only then can they be sure of orthodoxy. Their critique of "protestantism" is that we start with orthodoxy and then establish authority. Now, I think this a distinction without a difference--how would one know the authority is really orthodox without evaluating its teachings, for example.

That is not my main point though. I was wondering, where is Christ in all this? St. Paul said he resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians but Christ and him crucified. It seems to me some Apologists resolve to know nothing but epistemology. (I do not say they are not Christians, or that philosophy is wrong or useless) As often happens in these discussions, I thank God I am Lutheran, where I can start with faith in Jesus Christ through the objective means of the Sacraments, and then trust the Bible because I trust in Christ. My faith is not grounded in philosophy, but in objective tools God uses to save me. When my pastor says "In the stead and by the command of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you all you sins, in the Name of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen!" I do not have to get all my philosophy in order first, and only then justify my faith in Jesus Christ. I have to faithfully receive what Christ himself offers me in Absolution, Holy Communion and in the preaching of the Gospel. It is a wonderful comfort to know that with simple words, some written down thousands of years ago, my Savior snaches me from the jaws of death and lets me partake in his life, unto life everlasting. And he does this to infants, who I think we can agree don't have a very intellectualized faith. He does this do adults, with hos word which breaks harts of stone into pieces, replacing them with hearts of flesh.

That is a much more potent thing than philosophical arguments divorced from any sense of God's omnipotent Word.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Your opinion is private while mine is not!

Fr. Alvin Kimel, an ex-Anglican priest who became Roman Catholic, wrote a critique of “Protestantism” I have seen several times before.

First, his response was to an Anglican priest, so not everything there is applicable to Lutheran doctrines. What I write here is from a Lutheran perspective, so it does not respond to all of Fr. Kimel’s points.

One of the most common critiques of “protestantism” is that protestants are, by definition, guilty of “private judgment” while Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox (if one is Roman Catholic), or the Eastern Orthodox alone (if one is Eastern Orthodox) are not guilty of private judgment, because they are under the authority of the pope, or the Church. Protestants are guilty of private judgment because they do not have an ecclesiastical structure to resolve doctrinal disputes.

Fr. “WB” at the Whitehall Blog basically repeats the common “protestant” response to this—that any prot who moves to a non-prot denomination has done so through logical reasoning and “private judgment”, so why is that OK but another’s decision not?

Now, when I discuss this with EO/RCC apologists, I cannot seem to get a clear answer as to why one person’s choice is private, while another’s is not. And Fr. Kimel, in my opinion, does not give a clear answer either. The answer always seems to boil down to “because we are right”.

Fr. Kimel wrote “All parties agree that private judgment must be exercised in the decision to become Catholic or Orthodox. As Cardinal Newman wrote to Mrs. Helbert in 1869, “Private judgment must be your guide, till you are in the Church. You do not begin with faith, but with reason, and you end with faith.” But what does Newman mean by ending with faith? Helbert was already a believing Christian. She was struggling not whether to believe in Christ but whether to become Catholic. The solution is to be found in the difference between the Church as a magisterial community that authorizes binding doctrines in the name of God and the Church as denomination that projects theological opinions.”

It seems that one’s decisions are private until one decides to join the RCC (or EO) church. When one joins the Church, one is under authority and hence one’s beliefs are no longer private. This belief is not a rational belief, but a product of the faith of the RC convert, as Fr. Kimel states “the Catholic gives his assent because he believes that the Catholic Church has the authority to propose irreformable doctrine.” What this boils down to, in my opinion, is that the RC simply believes his choice is right, based on faith, and so he is no longer “guilty” of private judgment. Since the “protestant” makes a different choice, he is guilty of private judgment, because he does not conform to the choice of the RC convert.

This way of reasoning seems a little convenient for the RC convert to me. I do not see how there is any difference between the “protestant” and the RC convert—except of course their choices individually determined! Another issue is that the individual RC believer must still interpret what the RCC teaches—and he does this individually and conforms his views either to a greater or lesser extent to the actual teachings of the RCC.

Finally, all these questions about epistemology—how can we know what to believe?—miss the point, in my opinion. I believe they are ultimately futile. In a sense, Fr. Kimel is right, we perceive these things through faith, not reason alone. The problem comes when we try to dress up our faith in intellectual garb to make it sound as if another should follow one’s own private decision because of logical necessity.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

When is a Roman Catholic a "papist"?

Sometimes, I like to observe the RC and EO polemicists go back and forth, each asserting that the Fathers certainly back either RC or EO claims to be "the" one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. What I fond so interesting is the fact that RC and EO apologists like to claim that if we only followed Tradition, there would be no divisions in the Church--unlike the prots, who's different interpretations of Scriptures are proof positive that the Scriptures are not clear without an infallible interpreter. Somehow, different interpretations of Holy Tradition don't really prov anything.

So, that is the background. Recently, I was involved in a discussion where an EO believer kept calling the RC believers "papists" instead of Roman Catholic--because it is "accurate" to cal them papists, which the RC believers found offensive. Now, I understand the need to stop someone from merely asserting the correctness of his position by attempting to control vocabulary. But it seems to me that we should not be needlessly offensive. For instance, if someone said "I saw the pope on TV today", it might not be a good idea to say "Do you mean the very Antichrist?" here is enough offense to be given by the Gospel, I don't think we need to add to it.

Now, having said that, there is a place for using "strong" language. I believe we should avoid needlessly offending others though. There is plenty of offense in the Gospel itself.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The faith of a Child

When we were first married three years ago, my wife was interested in my religious beliefs because she had little or no knowledge about Christianity. Like most Russians, my wife was baptized, and so she was Russian Orthodox. Her mother and father brought her to the church to be grafted into Christ as is the custom in that country--my wife was baptized when the yoke of Communism was the ruling orthodoxy in Russia. After her Baptism, however, she barely ever darkened the steps of a church, which is another custom in Russia.

So, when she came to America she was very intrigued with my religious beliefs and practices; even in the North East, we are much more "churchly" than in Russia. She would ask questions and I would answer them as best I could. One day she asked "Why don't we pray before our meals?" I didn't have an answer, because the only reason I didn't pray was because I cared more about stuffing my face than with giving thanks to God for his gifts, with which I could sustain my body.

I felt embarrassed and we immediately started praying at every meal. How could I be so callous? I had a pretty good understanding of doctrine, of what was the "right teaching" or orthodoxy. I could answer questions, describe why the Lutheran teaching is actually what the Scriptures teach etc. But I had to be thought by my wife, who had little or no understanding of doctrine or right teaching at the time. All she had was a simple understanding that when someone gives you a gift, you should thank him for it. In this matter, she had the faith of a child and I had the faith of an intellectual, or, (gasp!) a scholastic theologian.

So now, we pray before and after every meal. And by doing so we teach our two year old son by our actions, and thus pass down what we received. So I want to thank God for my wife, who with a simple question helped me be a better disciple. But I also want to thank God for her parents, who presented her to the Lord for Baptism, which set in motion a train of events by which I could learn from my wife what it means to have the faith of a child.