Saturday, July 14, 2012

Of Judaizers and the Gospel, the beat goes on...

Solomon's words, "That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun" in Ecclesiastes 1 are no truer than when applied to the history of the Church and her battles against various false teachings and heresies. At the center of many, if not most, errant paths is the idea that fallen man, in order to be saved, must supply something of himself to supplement the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The first such challenge occurred almost right out of the gate with the Judaizers. These men taught that Jesus was the Savior.  Many had standing with the church in Jerusalem. They preached that Jesus died on the cross and that to be justified before God one must have faith and rely on grace. Yet there was more to their "gospel." And it is essentially that "more" which elevated man's own works to the level of co-worker with Christ in the sinner's justification before God.  Paul's verdict on that approach to salvation was unequivocal - I do not make void the grace of God: for if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died for nought (Gal. 2:21).
The Old Testament prophets warned Israel against this idea that salvation could come by any other means than the gratuitous mercy of God. Jesus confronted the Pharisees again and again on their presumed acceptance before God based, in part, on their own righteousness. And this issue was what the Reformation in the 16th century was all about. Rome preached the grace of God and faith in Christ. Yet over a number of centuries she had added to the pure gospel other requirements to be met and burdens to carry in order for one to merit justification.

And today, we see all too often God's people weighted down by this same subtle, yet toxic teaching: the seemingly irresistible tendency in the Church (whether Rome, Orthodox, or Protestant) to add man's works to Christ's as part of the merit of one's standing before God. It was this very doctrine of justification by faith apart from works that John Calvin called the hinge on which all true religion hangs.  And it is the continuing challenge to that gospel that J. Gresham Machen concisely addressed in his book, Christianity and Liberalism.  Regarding the Judaizers, he comments on their false teaching which the apostle Paul confronted in his letter to the church in Galatia.
They, believed, moreover, that faith in Christ was necessary to salvation.  But the trouble was, they also believed that something else was also necessary; they believed that what Christ had done needed to be pieced out by the believer's own effort to keep the Law...
Paul saw very clearly that the difference between the Judaizers and himself was the difference between a religion of merit and a religion of grace...
The difference which divided him from the Judaizers was no mere theological subtlety, but concerned the very heart and core of the religion of Christ.  "Just as I am without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me" - that is what Paul was contending for in Galatia; That hymn would never have been written if the Judaizers had won.  And without the thing which that hymn expresses there is no Christianity at all.  (Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 20-21)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Rome vs. Reformed, a debate re: justification...

The current debate between Rome and Reformed that I've been blogging about, of course, isn't a new thing.  And, that bit of news isn't new.  With that in mind, it can be helpful, though, and educational, to go back to earlier chapters in that argument in order to get a clearer picture of the issues that separate these two church traditions.  And looking back to the 16th century, at the center of the Reformation debate there was no greater dispute than the one over the doctrine of justification by faith alone, a subject that continues to roil the waters today.  Martin Luther called it the article upon which the Church stands and falls.  So what did Luther mean by "faith alone?"  One could look to him as well as others for that answer.  It was not only Luther, but other reformers:  Calvin, Cranmer, Ursinus, Bullinger, to name a few, who adopted the same basic phrase and exact same doctrine.

By 1563 the doctrine "justification by faith alone"  had been roundly rejected as heresy by Rome in the Council of Trent, its official response to the Protestant reforms.  Yet several years earlier a forerunner of this split (for the book click here) took place in an exchange of letters between Roman Catholic Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto and reformer John Calvin.  Sadoleto wrote to the Genevan Christians in order to convince them to return to Rome.  The Genevans called on John Calvin, then in Strasbourg, to respond.  Both letters dealt with many doctrinal areas.  This debate is a good starting point for anyone considering the claims of Rome visa-vis the confessional doctrines of the Reformed tradition.  As a teaser, read the following excerpt of Sadoleto's and Calvin's correspondence concerning the path of justification.  Take note of the difference of how faith is defined by both men, how righteousness is obtained, and where the ultimate ground of a sinner's salvation lies:  Rome' paradigm of faith in Christ plus the grace-fortified works done by the sinner - contrasted with that of the Reformers - faith alone resting in Christ and His finished work alone, by God's grace alone.

If then, Christ was sent that we, by well-doing, may through Him, be accepted of God, and that we may be built up in Him unto good works; surely the faith which we have in God through Jesus Christ not only enjoins and commands us to confide in Christ but to confide, working or resolved to work well in Him.  For faith is a term of full and ample signification, and not only includes in it credulity and confidence, but also the hope and desire of obeying God, together with love, the head and mistress of all the virtues, as has been most clearly manifested to us in Christ, in which love the Holy spirit properly and peculiarly resides, or rather Himself is love, since God is love.  Wherefore, as without the Holy Spirit, so also without love, nought of ours is pleasing and acceptable to God.  When we say, the, that we can be saved by faith alone in God and Jesus Christ, we hold that in this very faith love is essentially comprehended as the chief and primary cause of our salvation...
... And if, at any time, overcome by frailty and inconstancy, we lapse into sin (would that this happened to us rarely at least, and not too often), we, however, rise again in the same faith of the Church; and by whatever expiations, penances, and satisfactions, she tells us that our sin is washed away, and we (always by the grace and mercy of God) restored to our former integrity, these methods of expiation and satisfaction we have recourse to and employ - trusting, when we do so, to find a place of mercy and pardon with God.
Calvin's response:
 You, in the first place, touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.  Is this a knotty and useless question?  Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion is abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown... you very maliciously stir up prejudice against us, alleging that by attributing everything to faith, we leave no room for works.
... I will briefly explain to you how we speak on this subject.
First, we bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to cite his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners.  Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition.  Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete.  As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by His obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by His blood, washed away our sins; by His cross, borne our cure; and by His death, make satisfaction for us.  We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy.  When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with Him, this we term, after the manner of Scripture, the righteousness of faith.
 ... But what notion, you ask, does the very term righteousness suggest to us if respect is not paid to good works?  I answer, if you would attend to the true meaning of the term justifying in Scripture,you would have no difficulty.  For it does not refer to a man's own righteousness, but to the mercy of God, which contrary to the sinner's deserts, accepts of a righteousness for him, and that by not imputing his unrighteousness.  Our righteousness, I say, is that which is described by Paul (2 Cor. 5:19) that God hath reconciled us to Himself in Jesus Christ.  The mode is afterwards subjoined - by not imputing sin.  He demonstrates that it is by faith only we become partakers of that blessing, when he says that the ministry of reconciliation is contained in the gospel.  But faith, you say, is a general term, and has a larger signification.  I answer that Paul, whenever he attributes to it the power of justifying, at the same time restricts it to a gratuitous promise of the divine favor, and keeps it far removed from all respect to works.  Hence his familiar inference - if by faith, then not by works.  On the other hand - if by works, then not by faith.
... We deny that good works have any share in justification, but we claim full authority for them in the lives of the righteous.  For if he who has obtained justification possesses Christ, and at the same time, Christ never is where His Spirit is not, it is obvious that gratuitous righteousness is necessarily connected with regeneration.  Therefore, if you would duly understand how inseparable faith and works are, look to Christ, who, as the Apostle teaches (1 Cor. 1:30) has been given to us for justification and for sanctification.  Wherever, therefore, that righteousness of faith, which we maintain to be gratuitous, is, there too Christ is, and where Christ is, there too is the Spirit of holiness, who regenerates the soul to newness of life.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Church and the Mark of the Gospel...

Rembrandt's Two old men disputing, 1628. Peter and Paul
What is the appeal that draws someone from a Protestant church to join the Roman Catholic Church?  That question has been a hot topic in the blogosphere these past couple of months.  Of course, in attempting to answer that question one may fall into the role of armchair psychoanalyst. Nonetheless, let me plunge ahead, where all too many have already gone.

At a web site that majors in Roman Catholic Church conversion stories, former Protestant "A," now Roman Catholic, explains his decision to convert in a comment to current Protestant "B" and makes an appeal for "B" to consider making the move.
I know something else, in this case, because it is my experience but it seems a rather common experience for those of us leaving Protestantism in its various forms to become Catholic...
In my case, I found that the Catholic Church was true.  It was true in the areas where my old denomination was true, and it was true in the areas where my old denomination was false.  It was true in the areas of my life where I was false.  That is an indictment.  I was wrong and needed to be straightened out and neither my old denomination or myself were capable of providing that straightening.  It was beyond either of us to do that.
"Pick up your cross and follow Me" is what Jesus said.  Peter, speaking to Jesus, said, "You have the words of eternal life."
In my case, had I failed to act, I would have been condemned.  I was required to walk with our Lord, and not He with me.  I was required to act on the gift [the RCC?] He had given me.  I could not shirk that gift.  I had to count the cost, which I did, and then cost not withstanding, I made the move.  I haven't looked back.  I found the company that I had desired from the first.  I found the Authority and Leadership I was searching for (and it was not me).  In accepting this cross, I found my burden lightened.
If Jesus is standing at the door of your heart knocking, what will you do?  [emphasis added]
Another commented regarding his need to have one definitive answer from the Church regarding any number of doctrines:
Huh!? Isn't the Church supposed to tell me what to believe? Is the issue essential or not? Turns out I was wrong, and the Catholic Church does not see Paedo-communion as a big issue. They have both Paedo-communion and 'age of reason' communion. But I feel so relieved to finally at least have an answer! Being wrong doesn't bother me, I will conform my mind to the mind of the Church, but not knowing does bother me. Because if they leave it up to me to decide things, I will mess it up every time! Thank God for giving us a living Church to guide us!

Vivat Papa!
A bit disconcerting, but the above mindset can creep into the calculation of any believer.  It's a tendency to conflate the person and work of Jesus Christ with the visible expression of His body, the church, which eventually leads to elevating the church above Christ.  And this pitfall is not exclusive to any one church tradition.  How does this happen?  It's hard to say, but in a nutshell, it happens when the church and its traditions increase as the central focus and the centrality of Jesus Christ as revealed in the gospel recedes into the background.  As fallen human beings, we all-too-naturally direct our faith and trust towards that which is tangible and visible.  And an outward association with polished credentials can offer the promise of that elusive yet hard-to-beat satisfaction of certainty and predictability that we long for; at that point, a church becomes the answer.  We may find ourselves trying to vindicate and validate of our Christianity in ways which allow us to exclaim, "This is It!  I've arrived!  This is Home."  Being dependent creatures we must depend on something and we're more comfortable leaning on a visible kingdom than an invisible King (1 Sam. 8: 5-7).

Shouldn't the Church guide and teach true doctrine?  Indeed it should.  But the question (it keeps popping up throughout church history) to be answered is:  what is to be the distinguishing mark of the Church's teaching and truth?  What is it that the Church lifts up and proclaims?  The apostle Paul confronted this question again and again in the churches he planted.  To the Corinthians he wrote:
Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumbling block, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:22-24)
To the Galatians:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned. For before that certain came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation. (Gal. 2: 11-13)
And in his Colossian letter:
As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and established in your faith, even as ye were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ... (Col. 2:6-8)
These excerpts describe challenges common to Christians in all ages.  In Corinth there was a drift toward "needing" a sign (visible witness) to confirm God's Word and/or a wisdom that provided rationally appealing answers to philosopical questions raised. There's nothing inherently wrong with a sign or wisdom.   But many times Christians look to the visible church to be the sign ("see, here it is... here is the real deal!") of true Christianity; and as an institution to be, if not flawless, unified around one authoritative and wise teacher.  This led many of the Corinthians to gravitate to their best camp:  I am of Paul... I am of Cephas... I am of Apollos... and even, I am of Christ!  And very likely this factional attitude grew out their perceived need to identify with and be seen as belonging to the right outward expression of the church.

In Paul's confrontation with Peter, we see that same carnal pull to belong to the right group in the eyes of men.  Paul speaks of those being carried away with hypocrisy, to the extent that even Peter and Barnabas dissembled and segregated together with the Jews in order to be identified with James of Jerusalem (one could say - the lead bishop of the Christianity's Mother Church).  Likewise in Paul's letter to the Colossians, he warns against philosophies (religious duties, observances, etc.) and vain deceits that, being added to the gospel and thus changing it, would rise in importance and lead the believers away from Christ.

These warnings were and are needed, not just because there exist these accessories and alternatives to the gospel of Christ.  He warns because within believers, themselves, is the pull to possess something outward in order to find that security of certainty that only heaven can supply.  Too often we want Christ plus something visible and tangible to mediate Him and validate us!  And those additions to the gospel are what end up diminishing it and ultimately supplanting Christ.  In each of these three examples, that which was being adopted by believers, practically and philosophically, stood in opposition to the centrality and supremacy of the gospel of Christ in the Church.
For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake (2 Cor. 4:5) 
But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel... (Galatians2: 14a).
As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and established in your faith, even as ye were taught, abounding in thanksgiving (Col.2: 6-7).
Paul counters the factional divisions and the supplemental philosophies not with an appeal to his authority, or a sign of his apostleship, or to his church.  But rather he appeals and points to the gospel of Christ.
I marvel that ye are so quickly removing from him that called you in the grace of Christ unto a different gospel; which is not another gospel only there are some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema (Gal. 1: 6-8). 
So what is the Church's distinguishing mark?  A philosophy?  An apostolic office?  A polity?  A teaching?  All questions of doctrine settled?  Rather than elevating any of these in order to prove that "This is the true church," what should be held above all is that pure testimony of the Church which proclaims clearly and unambiguously the gospel of Christ consistent with  the words found in Luke 9: 35-36a -
Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “ This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Of Popes, maps, and the Gospel...

From a Roman Catholic commenter at a web site that promotes the merits of Roman Catholicism as the one and only true church.  He wrote:
Thanks for the conversation. In recap, we were discussing... whether or not the Catholic, because they use their fallible judgment to find an infallible Church, are in the same boat as a Protestant. I said:

A. The Catholic Church is what she says she is [i.e. infallible], or

B. The Catholic Church is fallible, and therefore NOT what she says she is

If A, then I have an epistemic advantage listening to the Catholic Church. If B, then you and I are equals (epistemically) because the Catholic Church is just like a Protestant church: fallible.

So, either way, I’m better off being Catholic — it is epistemically preferable to choose to be Catholic — maybe not morally if she is not what she claims to be — but epistemically, it would. Analogy: If I could hire a tour guide and have a map, or just have a map, it would be epistemically preferable to have the tour guide also, if only as a possibility the tour guide new what the heck they were doing. In other words, all I need you to do is grant “A” is possible to make following the Catholic Church epistemically preferable. Given your inquiry into the Catholic Church, do you find A to be impossible?

Me:  There are a few problems, as I see it, with this line of reasoning. Both camps, Rome and Protestant, agree that Scripture, as given in the original tongues, is the infallible word of God. Rome, though, claims the Pope is the sole infallible interpreter of all doctrine in Scripture and teaching of the Church. In other words, by definition, whatever Rome teaches is correct and without error whether implicitly or explicitly taught in Scripture or not.

Addressing the the line of reasoning in the above scenario, let me change the "I" to "the Church."  Stick with me here...  If the Church accepts the Papal office as the infallible tour guide following the Pope's directions regardless of what the infallible map (Scripture) indicates, and if the Papal tour guide is in fact actually fallible, then the Church is worse off.  Off-hand, there are a couple reasons for this.  First, if there is a contradiction between the fallible tour guide (the Pope) and the infallible map (Scripture), then the Church, relying on this tour guide as the final authority, is destined at some point to go off course.  By definition he will make errors.  Yet there will never be a course correction by repudiating those Papal errors because the fallible guide is regarded as one who is infallible.  Course corrections don't compute.  Even if doctrinal error is taught it won't be caught because the tour guide can't make mistakes!  The infallible map is no longer part of the equation. 

On the other hand, even if the map isn't clear in certain places, the Church, if relying humbly on the infallible map, can move with caution and even readjust its course if necessary.  Through the study of the map, the Church can recheck its navigational calculations and acknowledge when it veers off into a wrong direction.  The map as the Church's ultimate and final authority is its guide.  This approach is summed up in the Reformed Churches' refrain "reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God."  There are no guarantees in either approach. Yet once errors have occurred in the Roman system, there are no course corrections or acknowledgement of error.  Why not?  By definition they don't need adjustments.  Their bedrock tenet of truth holds that their final authority, the tour guide, is infallible.  I suppose there can be certain changes and modifications, but never repudiation of error followed by a subsequent course change. Once an erroneous course is taken, the map is no longer referred to as far as changing course.  If they did do that, it would undermine the ground upon which Rome stands:  the Papal office.  "We're going in the right direction, led by our infallible tour guide!"

Lastly, since Scripture is not a road map, the above analogy is somewhat flawed or at least incomplete.  The Bible is not a manual or map to direct every step the Church takes.  Scripture's purpose is to communicate the Gospel of Christ by which sinful humans are saved.  That glorious good news is presented clearly in the words of Scripture and received by all whom are given eyes to see and ears to hear.  Is everything in Scripture equally clear?  No, but what is necessary for salvation is clear.  Can the Church, as a whole or in its various branches, confuse and obscure that salvation message?  Yes, she can and has.  This was at the heart of the reason why reforms were offered, vis-a-vis Rome, by the likes of Luther and Calvin; reforms which Rome emphatically rejected and still does (She's infallible).  The Reformers called for course adjustments in order remove errors which for centuries clouded the path by which sinful man could be reconciled to a holy God according to God's Word.  They wanted to make known and declare in the Church, clearly once again, the Good News of God's salvation of sinners which comes by His grace alone, as sinners trust alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection.  This is the purpose of the so-called map and it is the calling of the Church. to stand upon this gospel and proclaim.  And the Church, by standing upon the ground of this clear Gospel - that this Man Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God - ensures that the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.