An Elephant-Free Zone

Back when my children were very little, I spent about a year discussing Jehovah’s Witness theology with two ladies who came to visit me once a week. They presented their Jehovah’s Witness theology to me with the aim of converting me. I presented my Evangelical Protestant theology to them with the aim of converting them. They did succeed in helping me to convert, although not to Jehovah’s Witness theology. As I have discussed elsewhere, in presenting and attempting to defend Evangelical theology I became seriously skeptical of the foundation of my belief system, the doctrine of sola Scriptura. You see, the doctrine of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, which Jehovah’s Witnesses reject, simply cannot be proven from Scripture alone. This is not to say that it is a false doctrine – I believe it with all my heart and soul, and the Bible does give evidence in its favor, but does not indisputably prove it – not by a long shot. For me as an Evangelical, the problem was that if a doctrine could not be proven from Scripture, it was not to be trusted! In short, in learning to defend my Christian beliefs against the claims of Jehovah’s Witness theology, I became convinced that the Catholic Church’s explanation of the divinity of Christ (Jesus is known to be God not only by the witness of Holy Scripture, but by the witness of Holy Tradition as well) was the only approach that held theological water. In other words, the Jehovah’s Witnesses helped to convert me to Catholicism.

Jehovah’s Witness theology is a work in progress, since with every failed prophecy the leadership is forced to come up with new explanations of why believers should still buy what they’re selling. Back when I was having these chats in my living room, the ladies were introducing me to Jehovah’s Witness theology via Daniel 4. If you haven’t read the book of Daniel recently, here’s a quick refresher: In Daniel chapter 4, King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream of a large tree, and hears an angel command that the tree be chopped down, and the stump and roots bound with iron and bronze, and the mind of the stump be changed into the mind of an animal “till seven times pass by for him.” Understandably upset by all this, the king asks Daniel to interpret his dream. Daniel tells the king that the dream is a prophecy of the loss of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom due to imminent madness. The king is to remain insane until “seven times pass,” at which point he will humble himself before God, and regain his sanity and his kingdom. This, Daniel tells him, is the interpretation of the dream.

The Jehovah’s Witness ladies assured me, however, that there was far more to the dream than meets the Protestant eye. It is also a prophecy, they told me, of the beginning of the invisible rule of Jesus Christ in 1914, because, they assured me, the cutting down of the tree prophesies the fall of Jerusalem in 607 B.C., and the ambiguous “seven times” refers to 7 years of 360 days each, and converting those 2,520 days into 2,520 years we can clearly see, they insisted, that the “Gentile times” ended in 1914 – exactly when Jesus set up His invisible rule!!

Whadda coinky-dink!

My problem with that, first and foremost, was that Daniel himself told the king, “THIS is the interpretation, O king – you’re going to live in the fields and eat grass till you recognize that you are not God.” And just as Daniel had said, a year later Nebuchadnezzar was congratulating himself on his divine attributes when he was stricken with madness. He regained his sanity and his kingdom after the “seven times” had passed – we are not told how long a period that was. Nowhere does anyone hint that there might be a second fulfillment of that dream. But, setting that quibble aside, the wishful math involved in the Jehovah’s Witness understanding of the dream still left too much to be desired. Jerusalem didn’t fall in 607 B.C.; that event is dated between 587 and 586 B.C. I could understand the “day-year” equivalency; Evangelicals use similar tactics when discussing their favorite subject, the End Times, but how anyone could claim to know that the “seven times” refers to 7 years of 360 days each was totally beyond me. I have since heard that the Witnesses have dropped Daniel 4 as the gateway into their belief system, but the reason I’ve brought it up is because, while it was incredibly implausible, if you could just close your eyes and take that flying leap, you entered into a belief system that is almost frighteningly well thought out. Jehovah’s Witnesses have God in a box. They have an answer for EVERYTHING, and every single answer comes straight from Scripture. I had to admit that the security offered by such a belief system was deeply compelling. All I had to do was swallow the elephant of Daniel 4, and theological comfort would be mine. Compared to the open-ended questions of the Christian belief system, Jehovah’s Witness theology looked very well organized indeed.

I have often thought how similar the elephant of atheism is, in that respect, to the elephant Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving up. Atheism asks the potential convert to swallow the idea that the universe with all its complexity just somehow came to be, with no Creator, no Uncaused Cause. Given enough time, nothing can indeed turn itself into something. Open your brain really, really wide and swallow that, and all the tempting sweetness of life without a deity is yours to enjoy.

It came as a shock to me, however, when I realized that Protestantism suffers from its own elephant at the gate. The gateway into Protestantism is the belief that the Bible is the pillar and foundation of truth. Now, that sounds really, really plausible. Many people can believe that the God Who created the heavens and the earth desires to communicate with His creation, and that He did so by means of inspired writings; thus, many of the world’s religions have writings which claim to be of divine origin. All Protestantism asks is that the believer accept the fact that God caused a Book to be written which is the Supreme Earthly Authority on the subject of Christian faith and practice, and that that Book consists of 66 books.

And there’s the hulking elephant: How can anyone know for sure which books make up the Supreme Earthly Authority? The Bible did not fall from Heaven; it was compiled. How do Protestants KNOW that their 66-book Bible consists of the right books? How can they BE SURE beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the books in their Bible are God-breathed, and how can they say FOR CERTAIN that no inspired books were inadvertently thrown out by the Reformers when they went on their 16th-century Bible-reconstruction spree?

After all, the Catholic canon, the one everyone in the world used for 1,110 years, contains 73 books.

The Protestant sees no elephant here. Most will have some kind of answer ready for this question, generally something along the lines of “the people who compiled the Old Testament and the New Testament subjected each book to certain criteria which ruled out uninspired books, and God in His providence would never have allowed an inspired book to be left out of the Bible.”  Therefore, no infallible Church was required in the discernment of the canon! Sounds reasonable, and most people buy into this, but these arguments will not bear scrutiny for several reasons. First, there is no historical evidence that the men who compiled the Scriptures used any of the “criteria” put forward by Protestants. The proposed “criteria,” if applied fairly, would actually rule out many books whose canonicity has never been questioned by anyone. A respected conservative Protestant scholar has written that “It is rather clear that we here have to do with more or less successful attempts to cover with arguments what had already been fixed for a long time and for the fixation of which such reasoning or such a criterion had never been employed” – in English: these criteria have been invented to explain a discernment process that the Protestant belief system can’t explain. The “providence” argument fairs no better, since it is common knowledge that 66-book Bibles were never used by anyone anywhere before the Reformation, which means that either the Catholic 73-book canon, the one used for 1,100 years, was right and the Protestant canon of the past 500 years is wrong, or the canon that included the “Apocrypha” for 1500 years was wrong, and the Protestant canon of the past 500 years is right. God either abandoned His people to the errors of the “Apocrypha” for a millennium and a half, or Protestants have been limping along with amputated Bibles since the Reformation. Pick one – because you can’t have it both ways.

And the “criteria plus providence” formula misses the real point of the “sola Scriptura” assertion: If you believe that all your beliefs must come straight from Scripture, then as far as the canon is concerned you’ve got a royal case of elephant-induced indigestion ahead of you, because the belief that there are 66 and only 66 books in the Bible is nowhere to be found in the Bible – the canon is based upon a decision made by fallible men! Nowhere does Holy Scripture tell us which books are to be included in the canon, or how many there should be. If you adhere to sola Scriptura and to the idea that your theological beliefs can only be based upon what the Bible tells you, you have no objective way of knowing what the “Bible” actually is….

Ironic, to say the least. If the Bible is the “pillar and foundation of the truth,” then there is simply no way to know which books should be in that Bible. Yet, choke down the canon elephant, and the system works pretty well! Certainly, many verses of Scripture have to be ignored or reinterpreted, but not to the point where the average believer would become unduly suspicious. Converts are simply handed a 66-book Bible and told that it is the inspired word of God, and it is simply assumed without question that it includes and excludes exactly the right material.

So what’s the gateway into Catholicism? Surely it must involve a large pachyderm or two! Actually, the gateway into the Catholic belief system involves several elements that Protestants would feel comfortable with; Catholics begin with the Scriptures, and history, and the famous trilemma of C.S. Lewis. Karl Keating explained it like this:

1.    The Bible is approached as any other ancient work. We assure ourselves that we have an accurate text (thousands of manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and other languages).

2.    Consider the Bible as a historical document, paying special attention to the Gospel account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, together with what is written in extrabiblical writings from those times, and what we know of human nature. The Gospel accounts are eminently reliable, leading us to believe that Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar or God Himself.

3.    We conclude that Jesus was God Himself, and therefore reason that everything He said was true, and that everything He promised must come to pass.

4.    We examine His promise that He would found a Church (noting at the same time that He nowhere promised to leave behind inspired writings by which individual believers are to guide themselves). We note from extrabiblical writings from those times as well as from the Bible itself that Jesus did establish a Church. We also notice from the Bible as well as from the extrabiblical witness of first-, second-, third- and fourth-century Christian writers that that Church bears a startling resemblance to what we know as the Catholic Church, with a belief in the Real Presence, baptism for regeneration, apostolic succession, the authority of the bishop of Rome, etc.

5.    Therefore, because this Church is the Church which Jesus founded, and because He promised that He would be with this Church to the end of the age and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, it follows that this Church must be endowed with the gift of infallibility; otherwise, the promises of Christ could not be fulfilled. And this infallible Church discerned and canonized the books of the Holy Bible.

It boils down to this: if you believe that the Bible is the “pillar and foundation of truth,” you have no objective way to prove that Protestants even have the right Bible. If you believe that the Church that Jesus established is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), then you can say for certain which books are Holy Scripture, and you need not “lean unto thine own understanding” when interpreting them. The 66-book canon is a very big elephant; for Protestantism to work it must be assumed with a humongous gulp, and never questioned. All the Catholic Church is asking you to swallow is the witness of Scripture and of history, and of God’s faithful presence in both of them.

Welcome to the EFZ – the Elephant-Free Zone of the Holy Catholic Church.


On the memorial of Bl. Tommaso Reggio

Deo omnis gloria!

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