The Great Mosaic

Many Evangelicals are fans of the great Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor, A.W. Tozer, author of The Pursuit of God and The Knowledge of the Holy. Despite a lack of formal theological training, Tozer gained a wide audience, and his influence has been felt throughout Evangelicalism. Importantly, Tozer was an honest man who made an honest attempt to preach what he believed to be the true meaning of the Scriptures. He himself expressed it best:

“I suppose more people would like me to declare that I preach the Bible and nothing but the Bible. I attempt to do that, but honesty compels me to say that the best I can do is to preach the Bible as I understand it.” A.W. Tozer, I Call It Heresy.

That statement demonstrates a lot of insight. Pastor Tozer knew that he was preaching HIS UNDERSTANDING of the Holy Scriptures, something that many Protestant preachers would not be so ready to admit. After all, no instruction booklet came with the Bible. No one can produce a divinely inspired pamphlet instructing us that Dispensationalism is the key to understanding Scripture, or that there is a “canon within the canon,” or that the book of Romans should be the basis for our understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Every Protestant preacher preaches HIS UNDERSTANDING of the Bible, and the influences on each pastor’s understanding will obviously vary. A minister trained at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary will have a very different theological take on the Scriptures than a self-ordained charismatic. A Kenyan pastor will have a different cultural perspective on the Scriptures than an Icelandic minister. A female pastor will bring a different social outlook to her study of the Bible than a male pastor. These differences are in some instances trifling, and in some instances monumental. The Bible, as we all know, is not a theological treatise penned by one human author. It is a collection of books, prose and poetry, all divinely inspired, but written at different times and in different places by some very different people. For that reason, the Protestant Bible is like a mosaic with sixty-six boxes full of mosaic tiles, and each pastor has to decide for himself how to assemble that mosaic in a way that best coincides with the intent of the Artist. The Catholic problem with this is that we believe that the Artist has committed to His bishops the directions for the correct assembly of the mosaic. We aren’t supposed to interpret it according to our own lights; the correct interpretation was committed by the Apostles to their successors. Every attempt to assemble the mosaic according to one’s own understanding isn’t simply creative license; it is what St. Peter warned against: private interpretation.

The second-century Church Father Irenaeus of Lyons thought of the mosaic tiles as jewels, and explained the problem with “creative” assembly of the mosaic this way:

“Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.”

Protestants don’t have all the pieces of the mosaic – the Reformers removed 7 whole books from the Old Testament. But even having all the pieces isn’t enough. You have to know how the Artist meant for those pieces to be arranged. As St. Irenaeus warns, it is possible to make other pictures out of the mosaic tiles. You can make a picture of a dog or a fox, and then claim that this was the beautiful image of the King which the Artist originally designed. And so, in the Protestant system the tiles of the beautiful teaching of justification by faith are rearranged, and justification by faith ALONE is presented to the unsuspecting believer, with the claim that this is the way the Artist intended for this doctrine to look all along. And of course it all seems to be on the up-and-up. Plenty of Bible verses go into this arrangement, so a lot of people feel that this must be what the Artist had in mind. But one begins to wonder when one realizes that the tiles of the doctrine of baptism, for example, are arranged very differently in a Baptist setting than they are in a Lutheran setting, which is different again from a Church of Christ setting, and so on. How to know, then, how these tiles of Scripture are to be PROPERLY arranged? Many different pictures are possible, a fox, a dog, a King….

Clearly, looking to the tiles themselves may give some direction, and this is a common Protestant theme: Let Scripture interpret Scripture. But you know you’ve got a problem when “letting Scripture interpret Scripture” leads to multiple interpretations of Scripture. They simply can’t all be right. There is one correct way to assemble those tiles, and one way only. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture can’t give us an authoritative answer.

Some claim to be able to correctly assemble the tiles through the direct inspiration of God the Holy Spirit. Again, this sounds great, until we run into the same problem: a multiplicity of views on the correct way to assemble the mosaic, even more views than with the “let Scripture interpret Scripture” proposition. St. Irenaeus had something to say on this multiplicity of views as well:

“Let us now look at the inconsistent opinions of those heretics (for there are some two or three of them), how they do not agree in treating the same points, but alike, in things and names, set forth opinions mutually discordant.”

A mark of heresy, Irenaeus is saying, is that heretics cannot agree among themselves, but have “opinions mutually discordant.” In other words, the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17 cannot be found among the heretics. Heresy is by nature divisive.

If a reliance on the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit does not produce unanimity in the assembly of the tiles (and it does not), then perhaps recourse to someone who was taught directly by the Artist would work. Interestingly, the apostles, who WERE taught directly by the Artist, did not advocate attempting to recreate that direct teaching experience for ourselves, but instead insisted that their successors guard the teachings which the apostles passed down, both written and oral:

“Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

The contents of that “good deposit” are the directions to the assembly of the Great Mosaic. The proof corresponds with St. Irenaeus’ test for orthodoxy, unanimity of teaching.

“As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.”

Another early Christian writer, Tertullian, put it more pithily:

“Now is it likely that so many and such great churches should have gone astray into a unity of faith?

Precisely. Heresy divides. Since a heretic makes things up as he goes along, it is hard to find two heretics who agree on doctrinal issues. Tertullian rightly points out how hard it is to believe that the Catholic dioceses of the second century supposedly deviated from the truth taught by the Apostles and strayed into unity. As he explained it:

“No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. Can any one, then, be reckless enough to say that they were in error who handed on the tradition?”

St. Paul has the last word:

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (II Thessalonians 2:15)

The beautiful image of the King has been so distorted over the past 500 years that many have no inkling how magnificent the mosaic actually is, when properly assembled. But if you refuse to follow the instructions (Holy Tradition) committed to the successors of the Apostles (the Catholic Bishops), you’ll never quite be able to see the Great Picture.

On the memorial of St. John Chrysostom

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credits:

Mosaico romano de las Cuatro Estaciones de la Casa de Baco en Complutum (Alcalá de Henares, Comunidad Autónoma de Madrid, España).

Cave canem mosaic from Pompeii

Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

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