Bad Water

Like a fish, spawned in water, hatched in water, swimming in water, dying in water – a fish that never in its entire existence will be aware of that element called “water,” as an Evangelical there were certain “givens” that I never contemplated. They formed the basis of my belief system, without them the system would crumble – and they were never investigated, never questioned. They simply “were.”

Prominent among these was the concept of “individual guidance,” based upon the promise of Christ to his Apostles in John 16: “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth….” We had never heard the Catholic interpretation of this verse, that God the Holy Spirit would lead the Apostles (to whom Christ was speaking) into all truth, and each Christian, then, must go to the Church which has for 2,000 years been teaching the truth taught to her by the Apostles and faithfully preserved in the Church’s Magisterium with the help of the Holy Spirit. No, being the big proponents of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” that we were, it seemed obvious to us that this verse meant that if I personally opened up the Scriptures, prayed and sincerely sought the truth, it would be given directly to me – a plausible reading of John 16:13, you’ve got to admit. It could mean that – but if that were the correct understanding of Jesus’ words, then a certain effect would be expected to follow:

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

Put simply, if John 16:13 means that the Holy Spirit will lead me individually into all truth, and you individually into all truth, then you and I will understand and believe the same thing when the Holy Spirit has guided us into all truth. This is pretty basic – conservative Christians will be the first to tell you that there are not multiple versions of “the truth.” Christians believe that Truth is a Person, so when we say that the Holy Spirit guides believers into all truth, that’s pretty serious stuff. God the Holy Spirit cannot teach error. So, if Protestants understand this verse rightly, then every sincere, God-loving believer who studies and prays over the word of God will come away with the same understanding of Scripture. But is that in fact the case?

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

The existence of (HOW MANY??) competing denominations disproves this notion in a big way.

As we all know, Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli relied on individual guidance by the Holy Spirit in their attempts to recreate the Church that Jesus established but apparently allowed to fail. Calvin made individual guidance the cornerstone of his theory on the discernment of the canon of Scripture:

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit.

Sounds good, but way back in the 80’s when I discussed the reliability of the Book of Mormon with LDS missionaries who came to my door, they assured me of exactly the same thing that Calvin was advocating: that they felt a “burning in the breast” when they read the book of Mormon, and thus knew that it was God-breathed. Following Calvin’s directions, Mormons “authenticate” a 19th-century book of fiction as Holy Scripture.

Yes, but what does that prove? – they aren’t Christians! All right then, let’s stick with Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, all definitely Christians, all relying on the individual guidance of the Holy Spirit as they discerned the canon of Scripture. Luther, as is well known, declared that certain New Testament books did not “preach the Gospel” as he understood it, and so he felt led to shunt the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to an appendix in his Bible. John Calvin could not have disagreed more; concerning the epistle of James he wrote that it was “without doubt among the Apostolic Epistles; nor do I doubt but that it was through a device of Satan that some have questioned its authority(!)” Calvin, while endorsing the books of James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation, however, apparently only accepted the inspiration of the first epistle of John, since he referred to it as THE epistle of John, and wrote no commentary on 2 or 3 John. And Zwingli decided (after a debate in which his opponent used a quote from Revelation to prove a point) that Revelation was “not a Biblical book.”

Three sincere, “Spirit-led” men of God – three different New Testament canons (as well as three different views on a number of other Biblical issues as well). How can that be, if the Holy Spirit leads each believer individually into all truth?

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

A practical example of this: Let’s say a Church of the Nazarene pastor retires, and a committee is formed to hire a new pastor. When a candidate is being interviewed for the position, and the committee asks him, “Pastor, tell us what you believe,” if he answers “I believe the Bible, every word of it!” – will the church committee answer back, “Hot-diggity! That’s good enough for us!!!”? If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit is a reality, that’s exactly what they should say.

Or would they rather ask the candidate for his interpretation of the Bible? And when they find out that his interpretation includes snake-handling and getting “slain in the Spirit,” might he be considered less than ideal and shown the door? And why is he being shown the door? Because he doesn’t rely on the word of God to form his doctrine? Since when are the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (which contain the passages upon which the candidate bases his theology) not the word of God? That church committee simply does not interpret the infallible word of God the same way this candidate interprets it. Why not? Because they don’t believe that his way of understanding the Bible is the right way. Yet if he is a sincere Christian believer praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, won’t his understanding of Scripture be the same as their understanding of Scripture??

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

But we agree on the Essentials! Protestants tell us. Indeed? And what are the Essentials? Since the Essentials are… well.. ESSENTIAL, where is the official list of Essentials that all Protestants agree upon? Do all Christians really agree on this list of so-called Essentials? Or are there not rather Protestants who insist that certain issues (such as baptism) are Essential, while other Protestants insist that they are inconsequential and therefore off the list? And if all Protestants cannot agree even upon the contents of this List of Supposed Essentials, does this not give the lie to this foundational presupposition of Protestantism, that God the Holy Spirit will lead each individual believer into all truth?

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

Enough said.

On the memorial of St. Nicholas

Deo omnis gloria!

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