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!