Monthly Archives: October 2012

A boy and his dogs

I have a dog. His name is Lucky, and he is. He and his brother, Grateful, were abandoned in the woods as pups. They were found by my husband’s co-worker and adopted by our family based on the suspicion that two entirely average, half-wild mongrel puppies might not survive the winnowing process at the shelter. Grateful has since gone on to his canine reward, and to be honest he’s probably more comfortable there. Lucky had an unfortunate habit of using his brother’s head to make himself look taller. Whenever we would pay attention to the dogs, Lucky would stand on top of Grateful, pushing him down and elevating himself, so that he would get all the attention, praise, and hopefully culinary compensation.

What goes up, Lucky reasoned, must needs push something else into the ground….

If Catholics are none too keen on the phenomenon known as Reformation Sunday, Protestants get all creeped out around this time of year, too – by All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day (October 31, November 1 and 2, respectively). The basic concept of the communion of saints is not the problem; after all, no Christian can quibble with Hebrews 11 and Hebrews 12:1 –

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 11:32-40, 12:1-3)

Both Protestants and Catholics are encouraged by the truth that we have “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Often, though, in a Protestant context, that word “witnesses” transmogrifies into something more along the lines of “predecessors.” The saints mentioned in the Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11 become merely “those gone before,” and Protestants understand their importance the way we understand the importance of our ancestors or of the founders and original settlers of our country. They’re not “witnesses” in the sense that they’re actively watching us contend for the faith. They were certainly important in their lifetimes, and their lives serve as great examples for us – but they’re dead and they’re gone.

So, while Protestants accept the notion of the communion of saints, it really isn’t something that plays a decisive role in their theology. For all intents and purposes, the body of Christ, to them, is here on earth. When you go to be with the Lord, you cash in your chips and leave the survivors to play on, so to speak.

And Catholics have a problem with this. In Catholic theology, the communion of saints isn’t just an abstract theological concept – the communion of saints helps form the basis of our definition of who we are as believers. The body of Christ – the Church Universal – is made up of three subsets: the Church Militant (us), the Church Suffering (those who have died and are undergoing purgation), and the Church Triumphant (our brothers and sisters who now see God face-to-face). The Catechism elaborates on this:

When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’

All Saints Day and All Souls Day are the commemoration of the members of the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering, as well as a reminder to us of our goal in Christ to one day become a member of these groups ourselves. We are admonished to aim for Heaven, so that should we fall short, we will at least land among those destined for Heaven when their purgation is complete. And this is Heaven as described in the Catechism:

By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has “opened” heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.

This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.

In the glory of heaven the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation. Already they reign with Christ; with him “they shall reign for ever and ever.”

This is good news indeed! “He makes partners in His heavenly glorification those who have believed in Him and remained faithful to His will.” “…the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation.” This is in accord with what we know from St. Paul about life here on earth: “We are God’s co-workers.” But many assume that Heaven is where we go to get some rest from all this “co-working.” Not a chance! As Jesus told us, “I am working, as my Father in Heaven works.” There’s no such thing in the Christian life as resting on your laurels. Which instrument can God more readily use: an indolent, half-hearted, doubt-plagued, balking mule (like me), or a completely purified saint in Heaven who beholds His face and exists only to do His will (like St. Paul of the Cross, who devotes a considerable amount of his heavenly ministry to praying for this balking mule)? The saints have by definition been perfected in holiness and in love, and the Catholic understanding of this is that they are taking an even more active role in God’s work now that they are with Him and can see Him face-to-face than they ever did when they could only perceive Him “through a glass, darkly.”

Fine, so the saints in Heaven are praying for us. Some Protestants will give us that much, but would definitely like to leave it at that. All this talk about “venerating the saints” rubs them the wrong way. They feel that veneration (the respect, honor, and devotion paid to a saint) distracts the Christian from what he should be doing – worshipping God! Catholics, from this Protestant perspective, need to get a better grasp on the sharp distinction between the creature and the Creator!

According to the Catechism:

All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures — their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator”.

God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” — with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.

Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude”; and that “concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.”

To summarize, if we want to think about God Whom no man has ever seen, we need to take His creation as our starting point, because in His creation we see Him reflected. As previously quoted, “This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise…” – in other words, we can’t discuss or even form an understanding of God’s presence without comparing it to something on earth. If we have an impoverished concept of the value of created things, our estimation of God will necessarily be that much the poorer. With that said, we must always remember that God transcends His creation, and when we say that “God is like _____,” we must keep in mind that He is actually far more different than similar to whatever created thing we’ve filled into that blank. In saying, “God is like a father,” for example, what actually needs to be said is that in some limited sense, earthly fathers reflect the image of the One True Father, whose eternal Fatherhood will forever be for the most part a mystery to His creatures. Hardly satisfying, and yet, if we spurn the use of creation as the starting point for our thoughts about God, we end up with no scaffold for our thoughts about God at all.

But that’s no excuse for venerating saints! the quibble goes. Look, if you’re sitting around thinking about how great St. Paul of the Cross is, you can’t be thinking about how great Jesus Crucified on the Cross is!

This is a weighty objection to the veneration of saints – that praise given to them is obviously praise taken from its rightful object, which is God. To answer that objection, let’s read part of a prayer in honor of St. Paul of the Cross:

By your preaching and holy example Jesus converted thousands of sinners through you by bringing them to the foot of the Cross to repent of their sins, thereby obtaining for them His infinite forgiveness and mercy! May Jesus be blessed for His extraordinary grace that was so often made present in your life, and for the many miracles He worked through you for the conversion of souls!

Are you catching the drift? When we go on and on about St. Paul of the Cross, it’s not St. Paul of the Cross that we’re going on and on about – it’s the One Who made St. Paul of the Cross the big deal that he was! Contemplation of the saints, therefore, is an extraordinary help towards better understanding the God who, in crowning the saints’ merits, has merely crowned His own gifts.

“…Our communion with these in heaven, provided that it is understood in the full light of faith, in no way diminishes the worship of adoration given to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit; on the contrary, it greatly enriches it. Lumen Gentium

Protestants often take the attitude that in order to glorify the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the saints must be cut down to size. In order for Him to be exalted, all creatures must be devalued, as if tall poppy syndrome were the engine driving the heavenly economy. Jesus is Top Dog! But this misses the point – Jesus specifically isn’t the King of nobodies or the Lord of underachievers. The fact that He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords makes Him all the greater than if He were the King of indolent, half-hearted, doubt-plagued, balking mules alone. In praising the holy lives of His saints, we are praising something spectacular about Him, praise that will never be offered Him if we insist on devaluing the saints to the supposed glory of God. With all Heaven, therefore, the Christian rightfully declares with his whole heart:

Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints!


On All Hallows Eve, the vigil of the Solemnity of All Saints

Deo omnis gloria!

Now that we have Reformation Sunday behind us, Halloween comes into view (actually, Halloween has been sidling up to us since Labor Day – stores now have their Christmas wares in the aisles). This time of year I always break out our CD of the “Focus on the Family Radio Theatre” dramatization of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Voiced by the superlative Andy Serkis, Screwtape delivers what amounts to a 4-hour monologue. We do meet Screwtape’s nephew, the “junior tempter,” and hear from this nephew’s “patient” (the human he is charged with leading to hell), the patient’s girlfriend, and assorted other minor characters, but basically for 4 hours the show belongs to Screwtape. The production remained quite faithful to the original, with one small-yet-significant deviation (more on that below), so the listener is treated to almost pure, unadulterated C.S. Lewis.

Which struck me as kind of odd when I loaned this CD several years ago to my Moody Bible Institute friend. She listened to it, loved it, and returned it bubbling with praise. Knowing that I am Catholic, she managed to get in a sly “You should really listen to this CD – it touches on a lot of important points!” I already had listened to it, having read the book 15 years earlier when I was a Protestant, which I had told her previously, but she doesn’t listen. Lewis, an Anglican, does make some very important points in The Screwtape Letters. He addresses the notion of Heaven and hell, the importance of our day-to-day choices, and the battle that is being waged for each person’s immortal soul – all staples of Catholic teaching for 2,000 years, of course. My Moody Bible Institute friend likes Lewis because he was a “Christian” (not a Catholic). Lewis, however, while not Catholic, was also not an Evangelical; he was an Anglican, and as an Anglican he made a few other very important points in The Screwtape Letters, points which should make Evangelicals uncomfortable to the point of squirming….

Lewis’ demonic protagonist takes aim, for example, at the congregational system of worship, the gathering together of likeminded folk to worship God. Screwtape points out how efficiently this system works to further the cause of Hell:

…if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches….

Screwtape is praising what Bryan Cross at the blog Principium Unitatis has termed “ecclesial consumerism,” the approach to worship fueled by our 21st-century American shopping instinct. Many Christians appraise a church based on how the worship service makes them feel. If it “leaves them cold,” if the congregation is not perceived as friendly, if the makeup of the congregation is too old, too young, too white-Anglo-Saxon, too “ethnic,” if the sermon is too long, too short, too serious, too funny, too erudite, too simplistic, if the children’s program isn’t dynamic, then they shop around till they find a church that feels “just right.” This Goldilocks approach to one of the most serious decisions a person can make delights Screwtape. What he loathes is the “parochial system,” because it brings together all types of folks who wouldn’t chose to rub shoulders if it were up to them. He explains the difference:

In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.

Churches in the Evangelical scheme of things are congregational, groups of likeminded people who “call” their own pastor, a pastor who fits their pre-existing religious beliefs and preferences. To have a pastor assigned to your church is unheard of. Imagine what a pastor like that might teach – maybe a Biblical doctrine with which the congregation did not agree! The congregational system works for Evangelicals because in every way the individual believer calls the shots, and if you believe that that’s what Christianity is all about – just me and Jesus! – then the congregational system is the only system you’ll be comfortable with.

Screwtape mentions, too, what a good thing it is if a pastor does not feel bound by any “cycle of readings” such as exists in the Anglican church and the Catholic. Since all Anglicans and Catholics (as well as Lutherans and Methodists) read the same prescribed Scripture passages on a given Sunday no matter which town or country they are in, the pastor is forced to preach on subjects that might not suit his fancy. Screwtape points out how lovely it is when a pastor can be encouraged to choose out his own texts and then induced to preach his own little cycle of “the same fifteen sermons” over and over, thereby ensuring that his congregation never hears anything that might startle them. Anyone who has sat under the teaching of the same pastor for 10 years recognizes that little cycle. Each human being has his comfort zone, and each human being must be forced to venture outside his comfort zone; hence the cycle of readings. Yet only the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit” is allowed to influence a pastor’s choice of sermon topics under the congregational system. Oddly, the Spirit seldom inspires anyone to depart from their 15-sermon cycle.

Lewis not only disagreed with Evangelicals on church government, but on doctrine as well. He believed in Purgatory, as the postmortem experience of the junior tempter’s “patient” confirms. Screwtape describes the scene as the dead man enters the presence of God: “Pains he may still have to encounter, but they embrace those pains. They would not barter them for any earthly pleasure.” Those “pains” are purgatorial, and Lewis elaborated on this idea in his best-known apologetic work, Mere Christianity:

“That is why He warned people to ‘count the cost’ before becoming Christians. ‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect–until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with Me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.'”

Lewis took Hebrews 12:14 seriously, as do Catholics – hence the belief in Purgatory.

These are but mere details when compared to the very premise of The Screwtape Letters. The entire basis of the story is that a person can lose his salvation. The junior tempter’s “patient” becomes a Christian – no matter, Screwtape opines, we can still win him for “our Father below,” and when in hell he will just be that much more amusing for having espoused Christian beliefs! When the Catholic Church teaches the same thing – that Christians must die in a state of grace in order to be saved, Evangelicals throw up their hands in horror. When they read The Screwtape Letters…, well, this is C.S. Lewis and he was a Great Christian, so he simply isn’t saying what he appears to be saying. My Moody Bible Institute friend recognized none of this when listening to the radio dramatization – all she heard was solid Evangelical teaching. As I said, though, the production was very faithful to the original – except for something the producers felt compelled to add….

One of Lewis’ biographers, A. N. Wilson, has asserted: “If the mark of a reborn Evangelical is a devotion to the Epistles of Paul and, in particular, to the doctrine of justification by faith, then there can have been few Christian converts less Evangelical than Lewis.” I believe that the Focus on the Family producers may have felt a little of this when they wrote the script for their radio theater. From an Evangelical point of view, this story needs a little help. The Screwtape Letters contains no overt “altar call,” that staple of Evangelical presentations according to which every public assembly must be concluded by offering those present the opportunity to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Lewis preferred the more subtle approach of allowing God to work through the story he had written. The Screwtape Letters, as a work of Christian fiction, was written to make people think. Since the point of the radio production was less to make people think and more to get people to make a decision for Christ, a small scene has been added in which the human characters (engaged in what Screwtape terms “intelligent Christian” conversation), smack the listeners over the head with the Gospel message, lest they miss it. This addition was necessary from an Evangelical point of view, since Lewis in his carelessness left this out:

“Surely the only way to God is through faith, faith in Jesus Christ!”

This addition, to anyone not of the Evangelical persuasion, really clangs, and it aptly demonstrates the Evangelical appropriation of Lewis for their own ends. While he would never have argued against the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ, Lewis did not succumb to the typically Evangelical predilection for turning everything into a sermon ending in an altar call. I believe this is the spirit in which the remark “there can have been few Christian converts less Evangelical than Lewis” was made. Lewis was a Christian, yes – there is no doubt about that – but, an Evangelical? Not by a long shot. He was an Anglican who believed in purgatory and praying for the dead (he prayed for his beloved wife after she passed away), he went to confession, he insisted on the necessity of perseverance as opposed to a once-saved/always-saved theology, and on the possibility that someone who did not have the opportunity to learn about the One True God might still possibly be saved (as evidenced in the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia).

What I think is at work here is the Evangelical tendency to try to cram the theological views of any highly regarded individual into an Evangelical nutshell. Evangelicals would be very uncomfortable with the real C.S. Lewis, but here again they have fictionalized “Jack” just as they have accepted a fictionalized version of Martin Luther. They are pleased and proud to have these men solidly in the Evangelical camp and love talking about these great Christians – who between them held a number of doctrines diametrically opposed to the ones preached by Evangelicals, doctrines such as baptismal regeneration, the sinlessness of Mary, Purgatory, prayers for the dead, confession, and the necessity of final perseverance. These doctrines, when espoused by Catholics, are anathema, and to some are a sign that Catholics cannot be Christians. When espoused by Luther or Lewis, these doctrines are … overlooked. If, as the saying goes, courage is what it takes to sit down and listen, then Evangelicals have been pretty cowardly with regard to the theology of their heroes. If these men are Christians, then so are we Catholics. If Catholics are not Christians because of these doctrines we embrace, then neither are Luther or Lewis.

Evangelicals just love talking about Martin Luther and about C.S. Lewis. Listening, though, really listening to Luther and Lewis, and hearing what they are actually saying, is not something Evangelicals are ready to do. Listening is just not an Evangelical forte.

On the memorial of Sts. Simon and Jude Thaddeus

Deo omnis gloria!

As Reformation Sunday approaches, most of us will be dwelling on the issues that divide Catholics and Protestants. “Catholics believe one thing, and Protestants believe something completely different!” – this is where the emphasis will be. I think it is beneficial to try to be fully aware of the many, many areas in which Protestants and Catholics are in agreement, and then go from there in explaining our differences. The following is a partial list of some of those areas:

WE AGREE that we as Christians have been saved! (Rom. 8:24, Eph. 2:5–8)

We also believe, in accordance with 1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15, Phil. 2:12, Rom. 5:9–10, 1 Cor. 3:12–15, Mt 10:22, Mt 24:13, Mk 13:13, Lk 21:19, Rev 2:26, and Phil 2:12 , that we who are working out our salvation with fear and trembling are being saved and will be saved if we persevere to the end.

WE AGREE that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works, that none should boast! (Eph 2:8-9)

We also believe, in accordance with James 2:17 and 2:24, that we are justified by our works, and not by faith alone, because faith without works is dead.

WE AGREE that there is one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus! (1 Tim 2:5)

We also believe, in accordance with 1 Tim 2:1, James 5:16 and Heb 12:1, that the saints in Heaven and on earth can intercede for us.

WE AGREE that only God can forgive our sins! (Mt 9:2-3, Mk 2:7)

We also believe, in accordance with John 20:22 and 2 Cor 5:18, that God forgives sins through His priests.

WE AGREE that the Holy Scriptures are inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness! (2 Tim 3:16)

We also believe, in accordance with 1 Timothy 3:15, that the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth.

WE AGREE that Jesus Christ is the Foundation of the Church! (1 Cor 3:11)

We also believe, in accordance with Eph 2:20, Acts 1:15-26, and 2 Tim 2:2, that the Apostles are also the foundation, and that they passed on the authority of their office to their successors.

WE AGREE that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth! (Gen 1:1)

We also believe, in accordance with 2 Peter 3:8, that one need not embrace 6-Day Creationism to be a real Christian.

WE AGREE that relics possess no magical powers!

We also believe, in accordance with 2 Kings 13:21, Acts 19:11-12 and Acts 5:15-16, that God can and does use relics to effect miracles.

WE AGREE that marriage is a very, very good thing! (1 Cor 7)

We also believe, in accordance with Mt 19:12 and 1 Cor 7, that celibacy is even better.

WE AGREE that it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment! (Heb 9:27)

We also believe, in accordance with Heb 12:14, that after death comes purification (Purgatory) so that we can see God.

WE AGREE that the writings of the Church Fathers were not divinely inspired nor were they infallible!

We also believe that they are the best witness to the earliest Christians’ understanding of the teachings of the Apostles.

WE AGREE that the Church of the 16th century was in need of reform!

We also believe that the Reformers introduced novel doctrines that have led many Christians into serious error.

WE AGREE that Jesus Christ suffered, died and was buried, rose again on the third day, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father, from whence He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end.


Deo omnis gloria!

This coming Sunday will be marked in many Evangelical churches by sermons on the topic of the Reformation, sermons in praise of Martin Luther. Certainly the celebration of Martin Luther’s stand against the authority of the Catholic Church makes sense in a Lutheran context; after all, if Lutherans won’t get excited about the founder of their belief system, why should anyone else? But Evangelicals too wax eloquent on the greatness of the man, praising his life and works, his faith, and his refusal to bend his knee to the authority of the Catholic Church. If they could, many an Evangelical congregation would gladly issue an invite to the Great Reformer, asking him to do them the honor of gracing their pulpit on Reformation Sunday morning. Of course, that might not turn out exactly the way they envision it….

As most people know, Luther was a man of strong opinions. He insisted that HIS interpretation of the Bible and HIS teachings were not only correct, but “God’s teaching,” and went so far as to say that “whoever does not accept my teaching may not be saved,” so certain was he that he was preaching the pure Gospel.

This bodes ill for the Evangelical congregation that invites Luther to preach on Reformation Sunday. Luther was an unwavering proponent of infant baptism and baptismal regeneration. His views on Holy Communion were also pretty inflexible. He insisted that Jesus was actually present alongside the bread and the wine. Other Reformers thought differently. The Reformer Ulrich Zwingli famously set forth his opinion on communion: that the bread and the wine are mere symbols of the body and blood of Christ. Luther minced no words – the beliefs of the Zwinglians were a “pestiferous teaching.” Zwingli was promulgating the doctrines of baptism as a symbol and Holy Communion as a symbol and, of course, so do Evangelicals….

Evangelicals subscribe to Luther’s doctrine of sola Scriptura, “the Bible alone,” so that should be a point of agreement. Luther championed this belief, which allowed him to simultaneously reject Church authority over him and set himself up as a theological authority. So set was he on the principle of “the Bible, and nothing but the Bible” that he came to the conclusion that bigamy could not be prevented. “My faithful warning and advice is that no man, Christians in particular, should have more than one wife” he wrote, but he was careful to spell out that this was his personal preference and opinion, not the teaching of Scripture. “If a man wishes to marry more than one wife, he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God.” Luther felt that there were certain cases which necessitated taking a second wife: “if the wife develops leprosy or becomes otherwise unfit to live with her husband… But this permission is always to be restricted to such cases as severe necessity.” This would probably be hard to explain to the poor wife afflicted with leprosy that this was a case of “severe necessity,” that not only was she forced to suffer from a dread disease, but that her husband, who vowed to care for her “in sickness and in health” felt that in this “necessity” he just had to take unto himself a second wife. Were Luther to preach in an Evangelical pulpit this Sunday, perhaps he could encourage sola-Scriptura Evangelicals to have the courage of their convictions, as he did: “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture.” Evangelicals, of course, not taking sola Scriptura to its natural conclusion, believe that the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, leprosy or no leprosy….

While he was in the pulpit, Reverend Luther might explain to Evangelicals the deal about the word he ADDED to his translation of Holy Scripture to make it read the way he thought it should read. Since St. Paul hadn’t expressed himself quite clearly enough in Romans 3:28, Luther succumbed to temptation and helped the apostle state his case a little more cogently, translating this verse to read:

We hold that a man is justified without the works of the law, by faith ALONE.

The Reformer could pass out copies of his first Bible translation to eager Evangelicals, although when they noticed that he had taken James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation out of their rightful places and shunted them to an appendix in the back, he would have some more ‘splaining to do, probably something along the lines of “Let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to these books….” Evangelicals, of course, take quite seriously the curses pronounced in the books of Deuteronomy and Revelation on anyone who fiddles with Holy Scripture….

One verse that Luther seems to have missed in his Bible reading is the admonition in Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” The Reformer was known for his potty mouth. “Everyone talked that way back then,” his defenders will claim, as if poor Luther were a victim of his times. Yet Luther’s fellow reformer, Heinrich Bullinger, begged to differ:

It is as clear as daylight and undeniable that no one has ever written more vulgarly, more coarsely, more unbecomingly in matters of faith and Christian chastity and modesty and all serious matters than Luther. There are writings of Luther which would not be excused if they were written by a shepherd of swine and not by a distinguished shepherd of souls.

An odd thing to say if such profanity as Luther’s was commonplace. Even one of Luther’s Protestant biographers admits that Luther had a “special talent for obscenity.” Undoubtably, Evangelicals would learn a few new words from the man in the pulpit, for Evangelicals pride themselves on their adherence to Ephesians 5:4: Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place….

Very often Evangelicals will make the excuse that Luther “got saved” as an adult, and therefore a few “rough edges” are to be expected. Hey, nobody’s perfect! Luther lived for 29 long years after he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, dying at age 63. According to his Protestant biographers (see below), his behavior became more objectionable the longer he lived. In his last sermon, preached three days before he died, Luther was spewing hatred against the Jewish people. Hopefully he would not choose to broach this topic from an Evangelical pulpit, as Evangelicals consider themselves staunch friends of God’s chosen people….

This coming Sunday all kinds of wackiness will be preached in honor of Herr Doktor Luther; it’s just strange that some of it will be preached by Evangelicals. The only hope for Evangelicals inviting the great Reformer to their pulpit this Sunday would be the “Luther” of Protestant hagiography and partisan fiction – a Luther of their own creation….

On the memorial of St. John Roberts

Deo omnis gloria!


The following books, all written by Protestant authors, give further information on the subjects mentioned above. Martin Marty, one of the sources cited, is a Lutheran minister of over 50 years.

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Luther, Martin. Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called, July 1522.

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Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 256. Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. Viking Penguin, 2004, pp. 134-136.

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Cowie, Leonard W., Martin Luther, Leader of the Reformation. Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1969, pg. 110. Oberman, Heiko A. Luther, Man Between God and the Devil, Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 284-289. Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. Viking Penguin, 2004, pp. 108, 159-160. Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 260, 391, 440.

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Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 353-359. O’Connor, Henry. Letter to Wenceslaus Link in Luther’s Own Statements. 3rd edition; New York, Benziger Bros. 1884.

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Oberman, Heiko A. Luther, Man Between God and the Devil, Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 106-109. Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 86-87. Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. Viking Penguin, 2004, pg. 172.

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Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. Viking Penguin, 2004, pg. 173. Oberman, Heiko A. Luther, Man Between God and the Devil, Yale University Press, 1989, pg. 290-295. Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 378-380.

Most likely available at your local library! This Reformation Sunday, why not do a little reading?

A few years back I devoted a great deal of time to meeting with some very nice Jehovah’s Witness ladies to discuss doctrine. These women kindly spent an hour every week sitting in my living room explaining the Jehovah’s Witness belief system to me. I, of course, did my best to present Evangelical Protestant beliefs to them (this was before I was reconciled to the Church). Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the doctrine of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is to them an impersonal force. Jesus Christ is to them, not God Incarnate, but rather “god.” He is the most perfect of all Jehovah God’s creation, and in that capacity was able to die for our sins (although he was not bodily resurrected). This Jesus is not to be worshipped, the Witnesses will tell you, since he is not God.

This, of course, is simply bad old-fashioned Arianism, a heresy condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Folks who deny the Trinity draw on a passel of verses such as John 17:3, John 8:17, John 20:17, 1 Timothy 5:21, 1 Timothy 2:5, Mark 10:18, John 14:28, 1 Corinthians 8:6, 1 Corinthians 11:3, and Philippians 2: 5-11 to make their case. Using these passages, the case they make against the deity of Christ seems plausible, until they run up against the words of John 1:1 –

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Oops! The Jehovah’s Witness version of events is that this “Word” was, in his pre-human existence, Michael the Archangel – but John 1:1 states quite unequivocally that “the Word” was GOD. So what’s a frustrated Arian theologian to do in a case like this?

Publish the New World Bible!

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.

The New World Bible is the Jehovah’s Witness translation of the Scriptures into English. It can be, of course, quite profitable to a group which teaches something other than the faith once revealed and faithfully preserved down through the ages to produce their own translation of Holy Scripture. Witnesses who go door-to-door can produce a Bible that provides what appears to be solid backing for their theological aberrations; all they have to do is to convince you that those words in John 1:1 are better translated as “a god.”

Taking liberties with Scripture is habit-forming, so when the New World translators got to the great creation passage in Colossians 1:15-20, they decided to embellish that as well. This passage traditionally reads:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

To bolster their “Jesus-is-a-created-being” theme, the New World translators added a little word to Colossians 1:16 -17.

…because by means of him all [other] things were created in the heavens and upon the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, no matter whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All [other] things have been created through him and for him. Also, he is before all [other] things and by means of him all [other] things were made to exist,…

These liberties put the New World Translation on cult-buster radar. Protestant pastor and author of The Kingdom of the Cults, the late Dr. Walter Martin, fired off this blistering salvo:

“In this particular rendering, Jehovah’s Witnesses attempt one of the most clever perversions of the New Testament texts that the author has ever seen. Knowing full well that the word “other” does not occur in this text, or for that matter in any of the three verses (16, 17, 19) where it has been added, albeit in brackets, the Witnesses deliberately insert it into the translation in a vain attempt to make Christ a creature and one of the “things” He is spoken of as having created.

Attempting to justify this unheard-of travesty upon the Greek language and also upon simple honesty, the New World Bible translation committee enclosed each added “other” in brackets, which are said by them to ‘enclose words inserted to complete or clarify the sense in the English text.'”


Footnotes are one thing, but when you add words to the actual text of Scripture, even words in brackets, you have crossed the line! No matter what your interpretation of a passage may lead you to believe, you can’t add in words that are simply not there in the original language and then claim that they have been inserted “to complete or clarify the sense in the English text”!

Unheard-of travesty, indeed!

Hang on, there – maybe not exactly unheard of….

Back in the 16th century, an Augustinian monk had a revelation. He believed that justification was not by faith (which was the teaching of the Church up until that time), but by faith ALONE. He could see this principle soooo clearly in Scripture. The only problem was, other people were having trouble buying into this, always wanting to bring up that pesky James 2:24:

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

After people read that verse, they had qualms about the “faith ALONE” direction that Luther was headed in. There were no other verses in the Bible that contained the phrase “faith alone.” Luther found his new doctrine to be a hard sell….

So what’s a frustrated Reformer to do in a case like this?

Publish Luther’s translation of Holy Scripture into German!

Romans 3:28 as Luther translated it read:

Wir halten, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werk ALLEIN durch den Glauben.

For the German-impaired, Luther’s version said:

We hold that a man is justified without the works of the law, by faith ALONE.

Predictably, there was something of a stir….

Luther wrote a letter called “Ein Sendbrief D. M. Luthers. Vom Dolmetzschen und Fürbitte der Heiligen” (Open Letter on Translating), explaining why he had taking it upon himself to add a word to Holy Scripture:

In the first place, you ask why in translating the words of Paul in the 3rd chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, Arbitramur hominem iustificari ex fide absque operibus, I rendered them, “We hold that a man is justified without the works of the law, by faith alone,” and you also tell me that the papists are causing a great fuss because Paul’s text does not contain the word sola (alone), and that my addition to the words of God is not to be tolerated….

(rails about how all the Papists put together couldn’t accurately translate one chapter of Scripture, then insists that no one is being forced to read his translation, then repeats his first complaint. Goes off into a rant about how another man’s translation of Scripture was preferred to his by a German ruler – claims that the other translator plagiarized his work…)

(898 English words later…)

But I will return to the subject at hand. If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola (alone), say this to him: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing.” Sic volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. For we are not going to be students and disciples of the papists. Rather, we will become their teachers and judges. For once, we also are going to be proud and brag, with these blockheads; and just as Paul brags against his mad raving saints, I will brag against these donkeys of mine! Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I.

I will go even further with my boasting: I can expound the psalms and the prophets, and they cannot. I can translate, and they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures, and they cannot. I can pray, they cannot. Coming down to their level, I can use their rhetoric and philosophy better than all of them put together. Plus I know that not one of them understands his Aristotle. If any one of them can correctly understand one preface or chapter of Aristotle, I will eat my hat!

(I sense hostility)

Let this be the answer to your first question. Please do not give these donkeys any other answer to their useless braying about that word sola than simply this: “Luther will have it so, and he says that he is a doctor above all the doctors of the pope.” Let it rest there. I will from now on hold them in contempt, and have already held them in contempt, as long as they are the kind of people (or rather donkeys) that they are. And there are brazen idiots among them who have never even learned their own art of sophistry, like Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Snot-Nose, and such like them, who set themselves against me in this matter, which not only transcends sophistry, but as Paul writes, all the wisdom and understanding in the world as well. Truly a donkey does not have to sing much, because he is already known by his ears.

For you and our people, however, I shall show why I used the [German equivalent of the] word sola — even though in Romans 3 it was not [the equivalent of] sola I used but solum or tantum. That is how closely those donkeys have looked at my text! Nevertheless I have used sola fides elsewhere; I want to use both solum and sola. I have always tried to translate in a pure and clear German.

(digresses into the subject of how hard it is to translate well and how much effort he has taken to make the text really flow in German, so as not to give the people a clunky translation that would offend their ears. Starts moaning about how nobody really appreciates all his hard work…)

There is no such thing as earning the world’s thanks. Even God himself cannot earn thanks, not with the sun, nor with heaven and earth, nor even the death of his Son. The world simply is and remains as it is, in the devil’s name, because it will not be anything else.


I know very well that in Romans 3 the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text — the papists did not have to teach me that. It is a fact that the letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text — if the translation is to be clear and vigorous, it belongs there. I wanted to speak German, not Latin or Greek, since it was German I had set about to speak in the translation. But it is the nature of our language that in speaking about two things, one which is affirmed, the other denied, we use the word allein [only] along with the word nicht [not] or kein [no]. For example, we say “the farmer brings allein grain and kein money”; or “No, I really have nicht money, but allein grain”; I have allein eaten and nicht yet drunk”; “Did you write it allein and nicht read it over?” There are countless cases like this in daily usage.

In all these phrases, this is a German usage, even though it is not the Latin or Greek usage. It is the nature of the German language to add allein in order that nicht or kein may be clearer and more complete. To be sure, I can also say, “The farmer brings grain and kein money,” but the words “kein money” do not sound as full and clear as if I were to say, “the farmer brings allein grain and kein money.” Here the word allein helps the word kein so much that it becomes a completely clear German expression. We do not have to ask the literal Latin how we are to speak German, as these donkeys do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them.

This last is a great big load of horse waste. It is NOT necessary to insert the word “alone” into the text in German. The modern-day Protestant versions of the German Bible DO NOT insert the word “allein” into the text. Despite Luther’s vehement protestations to the contrary, it is not only possible but actually preferable to translate this passage without the addition of the word “alone,” because in so doing, modern-day German Bible translators avoid the Biblical condemnation of adding to the inspired word of God!

(Luther finally explains the REAL reason why he felt compelled to alter the words of Holy Scripture)

However, I was not depending upon or following the nature of the languages alone when I inserted the word solum in Romans 3. The text itself, and Saint Paul’s meaning, urgently require and demand it. For in that passage he is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine, namely, that we are justified by faith in Christ without any works of the Law. Paul excludes all works so completely as to say that the works of the Law, though it is God’s law and word, do not aid us in justification. Using Abraham as an example, he argues that Abraham was so justified without works that even the highest work, which had been commanded by God, over and above all others, namely circumcision, did not aid him in justification. Rather, Abraham was justified without circumcision and without any works, but by faith, as he says in Chapter 4: “If Abraham were justified by works, he may boast, but not before God.” So, when all works are so completely rejected — which must mean faith alone justifies — whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this rejection of works will have to say “Faith alone justifies and not works.” The matter itself and the nature of language requires it.

To paraphrase the words of Dr. Walter Martin on a very, very similar subject:

In this particular rendering, Martin Luther attempts one of the most clever perversions of the New Testament texts that the author has ever seen. Knowing full well that the word “alone” does not occur in this text where it has been added, the great Reformer deliberately inserted it into the translation in a vain attempt to make Germans believe that there was unequivocal Scriptural backing for his novel doctrine.

Attempting to justify this unheard-of travesty upon the Greek language and also upon simple honesty, Dr. Luther insists that “the text itself, and St. Paul’s meaning, urgently require and demand it – the matter itself and the nature of language requires it.”

What’s sauce for the Jehovah’s Witness goose is sauce for the great Reformer’s gander.

On the memorial of St. John of Capistrano

Deo omnis gloria!

Warning: The following contains graphic and disturbing descriptions of surgical procedures performed on Holy Scripture – not for the squeamish or the easily disquieted.

One of the reasons I became Catholic was because of the incredibly wonderful way the Holy Scriptures fit together when read in a Catholic context. As a Protestant, I was used to choppy doctrines – things that sounded good but didn’t quite fit together, verses that had to be ignored because they contradicted our doctrines, doctrines that couldn’t be taken to their logical conclusion because then they would teach something other than what we believed….

I was so impressed by the fact that Catholic doctrine was truly organic; Catholic doctrine fits together and works together the same way living human body is expected to fit together and work together. I started asking myself why Protestant doctrine seemed “chopped up” in places.

One of the things I hadn’t realized as a Protestant was that I was constantly performing outpatient surgery on the Scriptures in an effort to make my doctrinal presuppositions more plausible. In this I was not alone; my spiritual forebears, the Reformers, had at different times and in different places performed major surgery on the Bible in an effort to improve their doctrinal circulation. These surgical experiments did not end well….

Protestants are of course very aware of the dangers of taking Biblical passages out of context. “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext” is a favorite saying, invariably quoted when a Christian of a different denominational persuasion is presenting a doctrinal view contrary to that held by the speaker. So much of Protestant apologetics, though, is an unconscious surgical procedure in which passages that one is using to build a case for a given doctrine are removed from their context.

The most common form of Biblical outpatient surgery goes by the technical term “versectomy,” and is generally performed using a surgical instrument called a “tract.” Tracts are used to carefully align chosen verses to make Scripture say something appropriate to the point the surgeon is trying to make. Take, for example, tracts addressing the subject of salvation. Based upon the Evangelical premise that salvation is entirely contingent upon “believing” and “confessing,” tracts of this sort lead the unsuspecting through verses which emphasize the need for these two things to occur, verses such as Romans 5:8, 3:23, 6:23,10:9-10, and 10:13 and very often parts of John 3. The tract will assure you that these verses sum up “what you need to know about salvation.”

Of course, this versectomy provides a very skewed version of salvation. Verses such as John 3:3 (…unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God) and John 3:16 (For God so loved the world…) are used to present some very beautiful truths – that God sent His only Son, that one must believe on Him in order to have everlasting life, and that one must be born again. These three truths are certainly better than none, but the context in which they were uttered, the context of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John 3, gets left behind. Jesus explains that we must be born “of water and the Spirit” and lest anyone misunderstand this, St. John the Evangelist ends the passage by telling us that “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing.” No connection, Evangelicals will tell you – baptism is something you do AFTER you get saved, not something you do to start the process of salvation.

Surgically removed from their setting, the verses in John 3:7-21 are used to persuade potential Christians that being born again is a mere matter of “believing and confessing.” Note that not only are these verses lifted out of the context of John 3:1-36, but also out of the context of the four Gospels, each of which tells us the story of the baptism of Christ, how the Holy Spirit descended upon Him, and how He was proclaimed God’s beloved Son. Our baptismal experience mirrors Christ’s – as the Spirit descends upon us, we are adopted as God’s own children:

–    For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:13)

–    For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Gal. 3: 26-27)

–    For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. (Rom 8: 15-17)

The verses in John 3:7-21 are taken out of the context of the book of Acts as well, and therefore out of the context of the experience of the early Christians:

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and
each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:37-38

A certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing near said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very time I looked up at him. “And he said, ‘The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth. ‘For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard.’ Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’ Acts 22: 12-16

The verses in John 3:7-21 are taken out of the context of the entire New Testament, which teaches us:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. Eph 5:25-27

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Col 2: 9-14

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Titus 3: 4-7

God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 1 Pet 3:20-21

The verses in John 3:7-21 are taken out of the context of the Bible as a whole. In the Old Testament we read these promises:

I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. Ezek 36:23-27

On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. Zech 13:1

The verses in John 3:7-21 are taken out of the context of Christian history (the medical term for this being a “historectomy”). The first-century Christians wrote:

And let none eat or drink of your Eucharist but such as have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for of a truth the Lord hath said concerning this, Give not that which is holy unto dogs. (Didache: The Teachings of the Apostles)

And the second-century Christians wrote:

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (St. Justin Martyr)

And the third-century Christians wrote:

Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal… This work is variously called grace, and illumination, and perfection, and washing. Washing, by which we cleanse away our sins; grace, by which the penalties accruing to transgressions are remitted; and illumination, by which that holy light of salvation is beheld, that is, by which we see God clearly. (St. Clement of Alexandria)

And the fourth-century Christians wrote:

For prisoners, baptism is ransom, forgiveness of debts, the death of sin, regeneration of the soul, a resplendent garment, an unbreakable seal, a chariot to heaven, a royal protector, a gift of adoption. (St Basil the Great)

Thus a simple versectomy can remove a passage very far indeed from its original context, resecting verses not merely from their Scriptural surroundings, but from their traditional cultural and historical understanding as well. As a “Bible-believing Christian” I was strangely unperturbed by this, more interested in the operation than in the body of truth that I was operating upon.

Of course, versectomies are elective outpatient procedures performed by clergy and laity alike. Old hands at minor operations, most Reformers were up for a challenge. Their Surgeon-in-Chief experimented with epistlectomies, removing entire books from the New Testament because those books did not “preach Christ” (meaning that they preached strange doctrines like “Faith without works is dead.”) The “ecclesiectomy” (also known as a “Church bypass procedure”) was a standard operation in the Reformed operating theater, surgery in which the notion of an authoritative, Spirit-empowered, Tradition-preserving, apostolic Church was excised from Scripture. This operation was followed invariably by concomitant “solafidepexy” and “solascripturapexy” – suturing the doctrines of faith ALONE and Scripture ALONE into the gaping cavity formed by the resection of the Church (necessary to prevent the chest of Protestant doctrine from collapsing altogether). Santificotomies were also performed, in which the delicate doctrinal tissue of sanctification was carefully separated from the organ of justification, lest anyone take literally the words “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father….” Doctrinorrhaphies became commonplace, the surgical suturing of weak evidence for novel doctrines with the catgut of questionable exegesis, appeals to the Greek, and when all else failed, vituperative ranting.

Compared with such major surgical undertakings, modern-day procedures seem tame. Beliefoplasties are all the rage these days among aging mainline denominations trying to stir up interest. The Church that Jesus established views her natural beauty as a gift from her Beloved, and forgoes these “faithlifts.” The faith once delivered to her two millennia ago by her Divine Spouse is something with which she is not free to tamper. She cherishes her body of doctrine and faithfully preserves it as it was entrusted to her. A wise bride, she understands the dangers inherent in every procedure in which a surgical scalpel is substituted for the sword of the Spirit. Scripture is divided, all right – but not rightly.

Yet the popularity of strange Bible surgeries persists. They say that after you’ve had a few versectomies, they don’t even hurt that much. Of course, after you’ve had a few too many, a good old-fashioned lobotomy wouldn’t hurt, either.

On the memorial of St. Paul of the Cross

Deo omnis gloria!

With age is supposed to come wisdom. By this point in my life, I really should be getting pretty darn wise. I have at least learned to keep my mouth shut (most of the time), following the old maxim “When in doubt, DON’T SAY IT!” Foot-in-mouth disease is part and parcel of the human condition – rare indeed is the person who can claim never to have given utterance to an unfortunate assumption along the lines of:

–    “When are you due?”

–    “You’re expecting? I didn’t even know you were married!”

–    “And this must be your mother!”

We do this because as human beings we are constantly assuming. I assume when I get up in the morning that there will be hot water for my shower. I assume when I head off for work that I am still employed. I assume when I have put in my 40 hours at work that I am going to get paid.

Fortunately, these are generally speaking well-founded assumptions. I have paid the water bill; I have paid the electric bill – I have good reason to assume that there will be hot water. I have fulfilled my job requirements; I have refrained from succumbing to pugilistic tantrums at work – I have good reason to assume that I still have a job. I signed a contract when I was hired; that contract stipulates that I will be paid a certain amount upon completion of my duties – I have good reason to assume that I will receive remuneration come pay day.

It is when we stray into the territory of unfounded assumptions that we encounter all sorts of unexpected and uncomfortable situations. My employer is reputable – but what if I had signed up with some fly-by-night organization, here today and gone tomorrow? Would my assumption that I will get paid for my efforts necessarily pan out? My job duties have been clearly laid out, and my supervisor will certainly speak up if I am not fulfilling them adequately – but what if I were left unsupervised to decide for myself what exactly my job entailed and how best to achieve the goals of the position? That worked back when I was self-employed, but I now work for an organization – I need to impress, not myself, but my employer with my efforts. What if after all my hard work my employer felt that I hadn’t fulfilled the requirements of my job?

So, assumptions are a part of life – without making any assumptions a human being could scarcely function. However, it is in our own best interest to avoid unfounded assumptions. Unfounded assumptions can lead to some very sticky situations. Assuming that you have a million dollars in the bank, and basing your budget on that assumption can have some really awkward financial consequences. Best to know exactly where you stand financially BEFORE you start spending the money….

As an Evangelical I was operating on the foundational assumption that the Reformation led by Martin Luther was a good thing. I had heard all my life that God in His goodness sent Luther to scrape the barnacles off the foundering ship S.S. Christianity, returning her to her original seaworthy condition. I never questioned that version of events. Our conservative Protestant understanding of Scripture was, I believed, the same as that of the Christians of the New Testament. Every church I had ever attended had assured me that there was a “golden chain of believers” down through the centuries, all professing the same faith taught by whatever Protestant denomination I happened to be affiliated with at the moment. When Luther broke from the Catholic Church, he officially restored the true Christianity that true Christian believers had been preserving in the privacy of their own hearts down through the centuries. I never questioned this. Then one day it occurred to me to try to find out something about the early Christians – surely there must be some writings extant from the Christians who lived in the centuries after the death of the apostles. I googled the term “golden chain of believers,” and came up with … n-o-t-h-i-n-g.

I tried similar terms such as “the scarlet thread of believers” (thinking maybe we had confused it with the “scarlet thread of redemption” that runs through Scripture). I began searching doggedly for some kind of true believer chain or thread akin to the one we always talked about. I finally googled a generic “early Christian beliefs” and got some results, but none of them looked even remotely Protestant. Most of them looked distinctly un-Protestant, as in “Catholic.” Galled, I began reading the writings of those early Christians on the subjects of eternal security, faith and works, baptism, communion, church government, etc., and came to the glum realization that our “golden chain of believers” had been nothing but a great big myth.

The existence of this nonexistent “golden chain,” of course, was never subjected to investigation – it was assumed. It was assumed that the first Christians adhered to the doctrines of sola Scriptura and sola fide, because we Evangelicals read those doctrines into our King James and our NIV, and we could not conceive of “real Christians” who did not see the same things in Scripture that we saw there. It was assumed that the first Christians believed that baptism and communion were symbols rather than sacraments, because that was our “truth” and we knew that those first Christians had the “truth” as well. It was assumed that there was no hierarchical structure in the early Christian churches, no bishops and priests, certainly no pope, because we knew that “real Christians” worshipped God in spirit and in truth, and that necessarily precluded a Spirit-smothering hierarchy.

Finally forced to face my ignorance of Christian history, I set about examining the other unexamined assumptions that formed the basis of my Protestant belief system:

Assumption #2: The Bible says nothing about an authoritative, united Church which guards the doctrine handed down from the apostles with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Following Luther’s lead, my ultimate authority as an Evangelical was the written word of God alone. If Jesus had established a Church which had faithfully guarded the deposit of faith down through the centuries, then no matter how much I disliked that Church, I could not separate myself from it – but I “knew” that Jesus had just left Holy Scripture in charge over His body. Of course, I took it for granted that there was no biblical evidence of a Church with real authority, a Church aided by the Holy Spirit in her efforts to safeguard the Tradition handed down from the apostles:

I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Mt 16:18-19

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church; and if he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Mt 18:17

If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. I Tim 3:15

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. I Cor 11:2

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 Thess 2:15

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you, guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. II Tim 1:13-14

Assumption #3: There is no such thing as apostolic succession.

I once attended a Bible study where the speaker made the offhand remark that “OF COURSE, we KNOW that there is no such thing as apostolic succession.” Heads nodded. All heads nodded. It began to look like a bobblehead convention. If the apostles had instituted bishops, and had told those bishops to chose other men to succeed them, providing for an unbroken chain of authority and for the faithful transmission of the deposit of faith, then our pastors lacked that authority and were out of the loop on the transmission of faith. So WE KNEW that there was no such thing as apostolic succession. Of course, WE KNEW no such thing – it was all assumed. The Bible that we were studying says:

At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. “For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” …Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us— beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” So they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. Acts 1:15-26

…and the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men
who will also be qualified to teach others. II Tim 2:2

And the early Christians wrote:

Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry (St. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, written late 1st century)

It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times…. (St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, written late 2nd century)

Believing as I did that the Reformation had done Christianity a service by doing away with the false notions of apostolic succession and an authoritative Church, I was buying into some seriously unfounded assumptions, assumptions that led me astray spiritually as I determined for myself how best to interpret Scripture. Of course, if there is no Church which teaches doctrine guarded by the Holy Spirit, no Church against whom the gates of hell cannot prevail, no Church with whom Jesus will be always, no Church with leaders who are successors to the apostles themselves, then of course the 1517 reboot of the franchise did no harm. I was betting on that. I bet wrong.

Jesus tells the story of a dishonest steward who, when faced with impending unemployment, made friends with his master’s debtors by falsifying the records in their favor. Jesus then remarks that “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” The people who buy into the idea of the Reformation-as-a-great-thing are not stupid, but they are not acting wisely, either. The children of this world don’t believe everything they hear. They don’t take things at face value. They don’t buy the Brooklyn Bridge or swampland in Florida. But people who will assure you that they weren’t born yesterday start acting as if they indeed were when they get born again. People who would fact-check the heck out of a sales pitch for vinyl siding will swallow a televangelist’s spiel hook, line and sinker. Protestants who double-check every bank statement and inspect every square inch of every prospective purchase buy into some awful foolishness when it comes to doctrine, because they believe that having faith obviates the need to investigate the system into which they are placing their faith. Falling for a set of unfounded assumptions, folks who would never sign a contract without reading it commit their spiritual fate to a seriously flawed belief system, without ever bothering to read the Biblical fine print.

The children of this world have the right idea – Jesus commends them for their shrewdness – but their values are warped. There are worse things than foolishly buying swampland in Florida, far worse – like buying a timeshare in a belief system that was built on shifting sand.

On the memorial of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

Deo omnis gloria!