Inquiry on Roman Catholicism

3:42 pm | Roman Catholicism

Earlier this week, I received the following inquiry regarding Roman Catholicism:

I was reading your evangelical resources on Roman Catholicism page…somehow I stumbled upon it in the midst of my desperate search for an answer. I’m 21, and i’ve been a catholic all my life, however, I am strongly exposed to the protestant/non-denominaional world as well due mostly to relationships with people.

I plan on being a Theologian eventually as a career, and in my studies, there is no end to this constant subjectivity between the two denominations. NO matter what pastor, preist, apologist, or friend I talk to- I keep getting the same answers, with the same scriptural references, and the same historaical reasonings (although each side of the story will say something completely different. (e.g. The real story of Luther or the early church)) Anyhow, i’m caught in the middle of all this debate about what Christ intended his church to REALLY be like. Authority of the church, sola scriptura, the Eucharist, and many other points; the whole bit is spinning me in circles that I don’t even know what i believe anymore. I’ve searched a lot, maybe not enough. And i’ve prayed. But i’m not about to leave the catholic church that easy…. nor the protestant one either(!)

Any insight would be graciously appreciated.

My response:

Thanks for writing, but wow, you give me a can of worms to work through :)

First of all, I’m not going to tell you whether you should finally decide to be Catholic or Protestant. Since I am an Evangelical, though, I’m sure you know where I stand on the matter ;) But I’m not anti-Catholic either, as I think you understand, and I have tried very hard to be both fair and charitable to both sides even where I may disagree.

Second, struggling with religious conversion is often an extremely emotional matter. For me, it was emotional leaving my parent’s Fundamentalist church behind, breaking with their beliefs and joining an Evangelical church, and these are only a hair’s breadth apart! :) It is important, however, not to make a decision solely on the basis of emotions. Emotions are fickle things that can change and be deceptive. Be careful not to allow your intellect be a slave to your emotions, but instead be sure that your emotions are governed by your intellect. It is always easy to be rash in the heat of passion, but wisdom is patient and waits for the right time to think through a matter.

Another thing to keep in mind is that regardless of what happens, you should keep an ear open to what the other side is saying, even if ultimately you disagree with it. There is plenty of good that can come of bringing Catholicism and Evangelicalism into dialogue - honest dialogue that is fair, and challenges both sides of the discussion.

One of the problems that you pointed out is the difficulty of subjectivity. God created us as limited beings with limited perceptions of reality. So, that every human being is subjective isn’t really a surprise to Him :) But for us it can be very frustrating, because we would like to have access to an all-encompassing and objective basis for knowing everything, and God just didn’t give that to us. As human beings, we cannot be completely objective, but this is apparently a good thing as it is what God intended.

When Peter talks about no part of scripture being of private interpretation, I think it is worth considering that what he had in mind was early Gnostics sneaking into the church. They claimed to have a secret revelation of Christ that had been hidden from the other apostles, and that only they had the true knowledge that would unlock the spiritual realm. I think Peter was tackling those claims head on by warning people that the private interpretations by these false teachers were lies created to lead people astray.

As far as the question of tradition, where it says hold fast to the tradition we have given you… just to give you my thoughts on the matter (take them or leave them)… the apostles were direct witnesses of the glory and splendor of Christ and received direct revelation of God. As direct witnesses of Christ, they were in a privileged position when it came to knowing the doctrine of Christ and therefore were authoritative in matters in the early church. It is the apostles that wrote the books of the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude. These things were written to communicate essential truths of Christianity from the gospel to the unfolding of the doctrine of the church and even the unveiling of prophecy. They are the oldest existing writings, the oldest recorded and unchanging tradition of the church. They were immediately recognized as having apostolic authority, and even Peter called Paul’s writings sacred scripture. Some time later, however, certain Gnostic heretics were calling these earliest writings and their apostolic authority into question. Marcion eliminated the entire Old Testament and huge parts of the New Testament, leaving only snippets of Luke, and the parts of the Pauline corpus that he found agreeable. On the other extreme there were the Montanists, who claimed that their prophets and their allegedly prophetic utterances carried higher authority than any tradition or scripture. The Christians responded to all this by recognizing all the apostolic writings as scripture - which had been assumed but not yet formalized. The canon was recognized by the Christians as authoritative in response to heretics that were calling its authority into question - the oldest surviving recorded tradition of the church.

So, I see this dichotomy between tradition and the Bible as being a little misleading. The Bible is the church tradition; the oldest tradition by which all new things must be compared. For instance, I might read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and I might think it’s great stuff, but if there is a conflict between it and the ancient tradition as recorded in scripture, then Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology must bow to scripture. Same for Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The new and innovative should give way to surest and most ancient tradition of Christianity, namely the New Testament written by the apostles.

Obviously, though, the question comes up about interpretation. I think it is worth noting that most of the New Testament letters were addressed not to individual elders in the church, but to churches. In fact many letters contain explicit instructions to be read before the entire congregation. The contents of the letters were also explicitly directed toward individual churches and their situations. No apostle had visited the church in Rome when Romans was written, and the book’s style seems to assume that both Jewish believers and Gentile believers are reading it, each with their own background presuppositions that Paul goes out of his way to address. Based on the writing style and intentions of the authors, it seems that the expectation was that the interpretation was not outside the reach of believers.

Within a couple of centuries, there arose two major schools of interpretation within the Church. One school was based out of Alexandria, which emphasized a heavily allegorical method of interpretation. The other school was from Antioch, which placed emphasis on understanding the author’s intention and saw the allegorical as subjective and artificial impositions of meaning on scripture. But the Antioch school became associated with a particular heretical teaching on the Trinity, which historians of the church often argue was an incorrect conclusion and that the perception of heresy was born out of a misunderstanding of terminology - in other words the folks in Antioch were being misinterpreted by other Christians! The damage was done, however. The Antioch school fell out of favor as Augustine favored a modified interpretive method that in practice gave a high latitude to allegory.

Issues of interpretation and hermeneutics cut across many disciplines. It is not a surprise that interpretation is one of the biggest problems that are faced in the field of Law as well as in the study of literature. Schools of Law, Literature, and Biblical studies each developed their own hermeneutical standards independently of each other, but it is stunning to see how the same divisions and problems persisted across disciplines. Postmodern developments in literature in the mid-twentieth century emphasized that the locus of meaning can only be found in the reader’s response to the text, causing a revolution in academia through the 1970s. Today, postmodernism in academia is old history, but its influence still haunts higher learning to this day. People debate on whether the Constitution of the United States is a “living” document that should be reinterpreted by the whim of the individual, or whether its founders had a specific intent in mind. The question remains whether the reader determines the meaning of the text (which is to say, imposes his own meaning from that is alien) or if he discovers the meaning of the text (coming to it with humility, giving the text the benefit of the doubt, trying to understand what was intended).

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that many Protestants see themselves as humble servants of the canon, and see Catholics as self-proclaimed lords of the canon who determine its meaning arbitrarily. Likewise, the Catholic position is typically that the Magisterium has the awesome responsibility of rightly interpreting the canon and maintaining tradition, but that the Protestant upstarts have arrogantly lifted themselves up over the canon and read into it what they wanted to see. While there may be some truth in both these views, they are still caricatures and should be understood as such. Ultimately, we are all sinners, subject to our whims and passions, we are all created as subjective beings (even the Magisterial authorities have to exercise subjective judgment), and we are all finite time/space bound people limited by time and culture from direct access to the past. Even the best human being, with the best intentions cannot escape this situation. But apparently God didn’t think this was too much. We do not engage in Biblical interpretation within a vacuum totally separate from all who have come before us or from our contemporaries. We consult other writings, commentaries, lexicons, and all manner of tools. This is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But at the end of the day, fallible humans still make mistakes in interpretation. There is no such thing as an infallible human interpretation.

Given the fact that interpretation of all sorts - not just Biblical interpretation - is under so much tension, I think it is important for all Christians, regardless of whether they are Catholic or Protestant, to develop a grounding in hermeneutics. We live in a postmodern age where the culture tells all Christians “that’s just your interpretation” as if that settles the matter. They have abandoned truth and make a lot of noise about accepting all positions (except, of course, positions that believe that there is an objective Truth revealed by God). But reality is very unforgiving of interpretative relativism. If you interpret the sign “Danger: Trucks on Road” against its clear meaning and play in the street anyway, you’ll be run over. Our culture hates the clear commands in scripture to flee sexual immorality, and human wreckage is left in the wake. The things that God wants us to know and live our lives by are precisely where the Bible is the most clear, even though there are plenty of snakes that hiss “Hath not God said…?”

Regarding the debate about what Christ intended His church to be like, honestly I don’t think that will be resolved soon :) In some ways this is a good thing, because the Christian church needs to be constantly challenged and reminded of its calling or it lapses into slumber. In the past couple of decades, people have been doing a lot of rethinking in the area of ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), but just in the past two years these discussions have super-heated with the rise and mainstreaming of the emerging church movement. Even I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about this and will probably chime in my two cents here very shortly. Debate and discussion should be understood to be either heated or illuminating. Heated debates and discussion that fuel passion should be avoided. However, debates and discussion can also bring light and understanding. One of the timeless issues is the need for spiritual awakening in the body of Christ - whether it is the German Pietists or a young Italian named Francis in the town of Assisi, there have always arisen voices within the church to challenge the church to awaken from its slumbers. There is always a need for visionaries in the church to goad it into action. The church of Christ is bigger than the Catholic or Protestant divide, and He uses all manner of imperfect incompetent sinners to accomplish His will, much to our astonishment.

Gosh, I’ve rambled a lot. So you are planning on studying Theology? That’s good, we definately could use more Theologians with keen insight and a passion for Truth. I know a lot of people with Bible.Org - if you get a chance, be sure to check out the NET Bible on the website, and look at The Theology Program. It is an extensive theological training program that is available free to registered users of Bible.Org, and you can stream the video sessions. It isn’t about teaching one particular theological viewpoint, but stepping through how to think about Theology and where it has been. They do a very good job of being fair (for the most part) to the variety of Christian traditions - Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestantism, and of course the diverse history of American Evangelicalism. There’s a lot to benefit from by going through it.

Anyways… sorry for going on so long :) Let me know if anything I said helps at all.



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