Saturday, January 28, 2012

Different Approaches to Scripture between Protestants and Roman Catholics

Regarding Jesus’s conversation with the rich young man (Matt 19:16:22), Philip writes:

Here we have what may superficially be deemed “works salvation.” However, the Lord goes on to say, upon the laments of the disciples that such perfection is exceedingly difficult, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Without the grace of God, the kingdom of heaven is inaccessible.

You have to step back here and look at what’s really going on. Here’s an approach, which shows the fundamental difference in approach to the Scriptures. It is what Roman Catholics do not do. And what the Protestant Reformers did.

You have to start with God. Ask, “What is God doing in the world?”

Rome, through the centuries, was fascinated by, enamored with, its own history. It’s as if they’re saying, “God has made us great … He has given us authority, and by golly, we deserve it. We are the See of Peter, we go back into the 300’s with this authority”, etc. It has a pile of doctrines and dogmas that it accreted. And it has to account for and justify these. This is how Rome primarily uses the Scriptures.

On the other hand, if you are to be able to really understand who God is, what He’s doing in the world, you have to start with the beginning of God’s revelation to us: His written Word. The Old Testament is very explicit about who God is, and what he’s doing in the world.

The Reformers were among the first who were able to do this – they were able to take the broad sweep of the Hebrew OT and the Greek New Testament, to look at the broad sweep of what is called “salvation history” – think of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7; think of Irenaeus “The Preaching of the Apostles”.

You need the Old Testament as an anchor for the New. And in this regard, the Reformers were able to go back and look at this, and build their theologies upon an understanding of the Character of God, and not on Rome’s infatuation with its own authority.

Quoting from George Eldon Ladd, “A Theology of the New Testament”:

Although Matthew contains some texts that seem to suggest a rigorous advocacy of law-keeping on the part of Christians, other texts give a different impression, notably 11:28-30 and 17:24-27. In the first of these texts Jesus invites people to take on his easy and light yoke. In the second, the curious story of the temple tax, Jesus speaks of the “sons of the kingdom” being “free”; the language used here is quite Pauline with its references to “freedom” and “not causing offense.” Given such Matthean texts, it is not at all obvious that Matthew is a legal rigorist….”

Ladd notes here, “Paul and Matthew have much in common”.

Here is the difference: Rome looks at a verse of Scripture and says, “how can we use this as a proof-text for our system of doctrine?” And they say, “Oh, well, we are all of grace up to Baptism, then the Catholic must be on the “sacramental treadmill” all his life. The Catholic has gotta get the sacraments, gotta get to confession” and all the “gotta-do’s” fit nicely with a “works-righteousness” interpretation of a verse like this. The Protestant looks at the Scripture and says, “how does this fit into God’s overall Revelation?”

In a way, this passage about this wealthy young man is an extension of the Sermon on the Mount material – it is not at all a kind of “works righteousness”. It is saying, “you can’t be righteous enough. You need your righteousness from another source.”

R.T. France notes the concept of “perfect” in Matthew (5:48): it s “a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). But perfection is, according to that verse, the characteristic of God, who has just been declared in v. 17 to be the only one who is truly “good.” The young man’s request for some “good thing” to do has brought him face to face with goodness at a level which will prove too high for him. The “goodness” of keeping commandments is, as v. 17 has reminded us, always relative; Jesus now replaces it with a demand which is absolute, the demand of the kingdom of heaven” (The Gospel of Matthew”, pg 734).

Here we are back at Paul and Romans 3:9: “There is no one righteous, not even one.”  


  1. Thank you for addressing this post so thoughtfully. Let me think on your response for a little while.

    For now, let me say that my point was that works and grace need not be pitted against each other, but that they are complementary ("faith working through love," as Paul writes to the Galatians). Christ is clearly insistent that His disciples emulate His radical self-giving, that they adopt His mind, as Paul would later go on to express so poetically.

    One thing that has struck me in my study of Reformed theology is that there is surprisingly little attention paid to this dimension of Christian life.

    What is the role of love in discipleship? How do you understand I Cor 13, which places love above all else? What is Christian charity in the Reformed perspective? Etc.

  2. I should also point out that, over the last half year or so, I have been moving toward a more Augustinian view of grace, so parts of this post even I would now quibble with.

  3. Philip: the point should not be what any particular group of Protestants should or should not do. The point should be, "is Rome correct in its understanding of what Paul is saying?" And my contention is, no, it is not.

    In that case, the question is to ask, "how much harm is it doing?"

    Dr. Joe Mizzi has a good summary of this:

    Faith working through love
    Once more it must pointed out that the question is not about the propriety and necessity of good works in the life of believers. On this point, Paul, Luther and the Pope are in agreement. The question, though, has to do with the purpose of such works.

    In Catholicism, the faithful are urged to do works in the hope that they will eventually become ‘really’ just in the eyes of God on account of their ‘love to God and neighbour’. In Paul’s teaching, we are not justified on account of any personal works, but by faith; good works follow after faith and justification. In Catholicism faith is insufficient; it must be supplemented by works to really justify. In biblical Christianity, faith is sufficient, faith truly justifies the beliver on account of Christ’s blood and righteousness, and having justified the sinner, faith then works by love (Galatians 5:6) to the glory of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. In Catholicism justification is by faith and works – therefore it cannot be of grace (Romans 11:6); in biblical Christianity justification is by faith, that it might be of grace (Romans 4:16).

    Here then is the dividing line between Luther and Trent, Protestantism and Catholicism, the true gospel and its counterfeit. May God give us the grace to believe in Jesus his Son, and being justified by faith alone, to give ourselves to love God and our neighbour from our hearts.

  4. "In Catholicism faith is insufficient; it must be supplemented by works to really justify."

    What about the Good Thief? No Catholic denies the salvation of the Good Thief, which was purely a matter of faith, given that he had but hours to live and was bound to a cross.

    We are talking about what is normative, however.

    Matthew 25:31-46 seems to concern two groups of believers: those who perform good works (the saved) and those who do not perform good works (the damned). Christ's basis for judgment is not mental affirmation, but tangible labors of love.

    Now, you will rightly say that those who did not perform good works were not truly believers, for true believers heed their Master's words.

    But that's exactly my point: faith and works are, with rare exceptions (the Good Thief), inextricably linked. Faith works always through love, and love is always the product of faith.

  5. What about the Good Thief? No Catholic denies the salvation of the Good Thief,...

    Big whoop. One good belief doesn't negate the whole range of Roman teaching on justification.

    Matthew 25:31-46 seems...

    I'm not interested in what you think of this particular selection. Reformed understanding of this pericope is based on solid exegesis. And Roman dogma on this is something completely different.

    faith and works are, ..., inextricably linked.

    Yes, but it is precisely how they get linked that is at question. And it's not a question you ought to just sweep under the rug.

  6. John, you know that I have no training in exegesis, but I think it is awfully bold to claim that only Reformed theologians have carefully examined this pericope. So many Reformed rever to that line: "Oh, yes, it might SEEM that way, but WE know better..." Almost gnostic in its appeal to special, hidden knowledge.

    Is Scripture so obtuse as to require a seminary education to be grasped? Was Christ, the very Word, not capable of speaking plainly, so as to be plainly understood?

    Your last point is well taken.

  7. Philip, I bring up the Reformed because you say you are familiar with them. There are probably a number of understandings of this passage.

    We used to sing a song at Mass bases on this ... "Whatsoever you do .. That you do unto me ... Now enter into the home of my Father" as if it were a cause and effect thing. As if Rome's emphasis on merit and increased justification and intrinsic righteousness could be deduced from this. And it can't be.

    The rule is, you can't know what a verse means if you don't know what it says. Too often, Rome hasn't even gotten the text right, and yet out of a sense of it's own authority, it asserts it has the meaning right. We cannot let that stand.

  8. Philip Jude said:

    "Is Scripture so obtuse as to require a seminary education to be grasped?"

    1. As others have said: the Bible is like a body of water in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim. So it depends in part on which passages of Scripture we're talking about.

    But on the gospel the Bible is quite clear.

    2. Protestants have historically believed in the perspicuity of scripture.

    But I think this needs to be qualified. For example, personal intellectual aptitude varies between people. Moreover some people have more opportunities than others. Knowledge can vary with time and place. Sin can harden people to the truth. And so forth.

    3. You could compare various commentaries with one another to see which one(s) has the better argument(s). Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Pentecostal, etc.

    4. Others might be interested in the fact that you were defending panentheism in a previous thread, a thread in which you repeatedly refused to interact with Scripture on more than a superficial level despite more than one person asking you to support your argumentation for panentheism exegetically.

  9. Hi Rocking. I saw this: Others might be interested in the fact that you were defending panentheism in a previous thread, a thread in which you repeatedly refused to interact with Scripture on more than a superficial level despite more than one person asking you to support your argumentation for panentheism exegetically.

    Roman Catholics profess to have a very high view of Scripture. Officially, CCC 86 says “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it.”Not only does the concept of “living Tradition” provide a very fuzzy foundation for this statement – meaning it has to really stretch things to discern things have been “handed on”, but in reality, whatever else it means, being the “servant” of Scripture doesn’t involve trying to understand what it really says.

  10. Rockingwithhawking,

    What -- are you following me around or something? ;-)

    Thanks for the tips, though. Really, I appreciate them. I am interested in finding the Truth, not proving my points, wrong or right.

    Also, I want to make clear that I am not an avowed panentheist. I do believe that God is somehow within everything, insomuch as nothing exists apart from God. How He is "within" things -- or even if that is the correct preposition to use -- I will continue to consider. It's something I've toyed with and thought about for a while. Your points have given me more to chew on.

    Now then: I am not a scholar. I have no training in Scriptural exegesis. My knowledge of the Bible comes from private reading and whatever books I can get my hands on. (Typically Catholic or Orthodox, though I am reading Calvin at the moment.)

    I am sorry if I didn't interact with the Scripture in a manner that satisfied you. I tried to do my best. I can't offer anything more than that.

    Thank you for engaging me so vigorously. God bless!

  11. "being the “servant” of Scripture doesn’t involve trying to understand what it really says."

    That's unfair. Just because you don't agree with their conclusions doesn't mean they haven't engaged in earnest, rigorous scholarship. If you ever have the time, consider reading Benedict's two part volume on our Lord, "Jesus of Nazareth." It is extremely erudite and interacts deeply with Scripture.

  12. It is fair. Witherington reviewed the two volumes. You keep moving the goal line. Benedict's work on "Jesus" interacts with leading NT scholarship on Jesus -- but he's not in any way "official Catholic dogma" -- (with dogma being defined both very broadly or very narrowly, depending on the point that the Magisterium du jour wants to make).

    Just because you don't agree with their conclusions doesn't mean they haven't engaged in earnest, rigorous scholarship.

    You are a fan of Augustine. Check this out:

    Roman Catholics may indeed "engage in earnest, rigorous scholarship". But dogmatically, "the Church" is bound to errors of the type that Augustine introduced. (And not just in the area of justification -- there are a number of places this has happened as well).

    And yet Rome keeps on asserting its own infallible authority.

    Given the global growth of the Internet and our ability to spread information like this -- at a time when the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is likely to pique peoples' interest, this is a very pertinent point to be making and exploring.

  13. Hmm. I wonder if you've ever read "River of Fire," a lengthy issue that touches on issues related to that post, yet from a different angle.

    A pertinent bit:

    " Perhaps the beginning of the mistaken interpretation of the word justice in the Holy Scriptures was its translation by the Greek word DIKAIWSUNH. Not that it is a mistaken translation, but because this word, being a word of the pagan, humanistic, Greek civilization, was charged with human notions which could easily lead to misunderstandings.

    First of all, the wordDIKAIWSUNHbrings to mind an equal distribution. This is why it is represented by a balance. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished by human society in a fair way. This is human justice, the one which takes place in court.

    Is this the meaning of God's justice, however?

    The word DIKAIWSUNH,"justice", is a translation of the Hebraic word tsedaka. This word means "the divine energy which accomplishes man's salvation". It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebraic word, hesed which means "mercy", "compassion", "love", and to the word, emeth which means "fidelity", "truth". This, as you see, gives a completely other dimension to what we usually conceive as justice.5 This is how the Church understood God's justice. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught of it. "How can you call God just", writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, "when you read the passage on the wage given to the workers? 'Friend, I do thee no wrong; I will give unto this last even as unto thee who worked for me from the first hour. Is thine eye evil, because I am good?'" "How can a man call God just", continues Saint Isaac, "when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son, who wasted his wealth in riotous living, and yet only for the contrition which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him lest we doubt it, and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God's justice, for whilst we were sinners, Christ died for us!""

  14. There're some pretty sophisticated ideas in that post. Thanks for the link. When I figure it out, I may have a question or two. Thanks.

  15. ‘righteousness’: sedaqa --> dikaiosyne --> iustitia
    ‘to justify’: hasdiq --> dikaioun --> iustificare

    So, basically, this mistranslation led to the Catholic idea of infused righteousness, rather than Reformed idea of imputed righteousness, the latter of the two being the proper understanding given the Hebrew provenance?

  16. That is one small part of the problem -- that Augustine did bring the in the Greek-language, cultural-infused meaning of 4th century term, as opposed to understanding the OT concept that Paul had in mind when he used the term. And after that, Rome dogmatized that erroneous meaning.

    But Rome will tell you "The Church" is infallible in its dogmatic pronouncements.

  17. There must have been many Christians who spoke both Greek and Hebrew (say, Jewish converts, or even learned pagans like Origen) in the first century or two of the Church's life. Have any of them left writings on this issue? Did Origen make anything of it?

  18. McGrath was of the opinion that prior to Augustine, the discussion of Justification, while it occurred, was sporadic and unfocused. We've mentioned that here once or twice in the past (Jason Engwer has talked about it), but I don't recall right now. Nick Needham has a pretty good article on justification in the early church, but I haven't looked at that for a while.

  19. What Jesus proposes to the rich young man is not a hypothetical way of salvation which no one can actually achieve. Following the conversation, St. Peter asks (v. 27), "Behold, we have left everything and followed you. [I.e., we have done precisely what You just told the rich young man he must do in order to have eternal life.] What then shall we have?" Jesus tells him they will have eternal life. If the Apostles took this road to salvation, it is possible for men.

  20. Hey Philip Jude (which brings to mind the Beatles song "Hey Jude"). Cool, gotcha, that makes sense. Sorry I didn't mean to come off as "following [you] around." And I hope you don't take any of my remarks as attacking you personally. (Not that I necessarily always find ad hominem fallacious, but I certainly wasn't attacking you here.) Rather like you I am interested in vigorous debate and, of course, the truth as well. Anyway I'm sure we'll see each other around here. Talk to you later!

  21. Ben: what he doesn’t posit is a causal relationship. Perhaps you could show that (somehow) from the text: “You left all, therefore you have earned the right to sit on the 12 thrones”. Or perhaps, do they come upon these 12 thrones by some other means?

    27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

    28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

  22. Jesus tells the rich young man, do X, and you will have eternal life. St. Peter says, we have done X, what will there be for us? Jesus answers, eternal life. It's not impossible. St. Anthony of Egypt did it, St. Francis of Assisi did it. Young men and women are still doing it today.

  23. Jesus tells the rich young man, do X, and you will have eternal life. St. Peter says, we have done X, what will there be for us? Jesus answers, eternal life. It’s not impossible. St. Anthony of Egypt did it, St. Francis of Assisi did it. Young men and women are still doing it today.

    You’re making a big mistake. First of all, the Gospel accounts are about Jesus, who he is with respect to God, and who he is with respect to “the Kingdom”, [not to mention, what the The Kingdom] is, and only secondarily about how we or anyone “obtain eternal life”. So you are failing to take into account first of all that this Gospel was written to demonstrate that it is Jesus who will be making the judgments, i.e., Jesus is God.

    Second, Jesus’s answer in Matthew to Peter, “you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones” -- is not the result of their having left. This was an eternal decision of God and nothing else (Rev 4:4).

    Third, there is no question that God is a God of rewards. God rewards those who honor him. But “eternal life” is not a consequence of “doing X”. But George Eldon Ladd (“Theology of the New Testament”, 132) rightly points out, “While Jesus appeals to reward, he never uses the ethic of merit. Faithfulness must never be exercised with a view to reward; the reward itself is utterly of grace. Precisely those parables which speak of reward make it clear that all reward is after all a matter of grace. When one has exercised the largest measure of faithfulness, one still deserves nothing, having done no more than his or her duty (Lk 17:7-10)” More than that, though, God gives rewards that are totally out of proportion with what anyone has done. “This is God’s way: to bestow upon those who do not deserve it, on the basis of grace, the gift of the blessings of the Kingdom of God. Human reckoning is: a day’s work, a day’s pay; God’s reckoning is: an hour’s work, a day’s pay. The former is merit and reward; the latter is grace”. And even the Apostles, presumably, whom you are saying are rewarded for having “done X” will “lay their crowns before the throne” and attribute all glory and honor and power to Christ. In the end, there is “Christ alone”.

    A.A. Hodge put this into perspective: And the sphere of a creature’s knowledge, be it that of an infant, or of a man, or of a philosopher, or of a prophet, or of saint or archangel in heaven, will float as a point of light athwart the bosom of that God who is the infinite Abyss for ever; From A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology, God-His Nature And Relation to the Universe, pg 16. We are unimportant. If we do leave all, if we do somehow, attain to that “perfection” that is required [and note France’s comment here, such perfection proves too high for any human except for Christ], it is only “duty”.

    Neither Antony nor Francis nor anyone else who “inherits eternal life” will have done so because of anything that they have “done”. Rome’s emphasis on the fact that you can somehow “increase your justification” or enhance the reward you receive from Christ in any way is one of the most harmful things it has done to Christians and Christianity.

    Rome claims to offer “the fullness of the faith”, but what it offers are goods and glory stolen from Christ, to bolster its own glory in the eyes of those whom it would have to be its followers.

    Rome, in fact, while “invited to the wedding feast”, has done precisely what Christ cautioned against. “do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited”. It shows its own bankruptcy by claiming “primacy” on the very weakest of reasons. Before long, we will see “the host who invited both of you saying “‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place” “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”