Saturday, February 03, 2007

Pious fraud

Since I recently crossed swords with Michael Pahls over Jn 6, I might as well take the occasion to comment on some of the other things he’s posted over at the pseudo-Reformed/deutero-Catholic website (which I found beginning here):


It is impossible to reclaim those who have lapsed in Hebrews 6 and 10, because they have explicitly renounced their salvation as sacramentally mediated. They have turned their back on baptism (enlightenment), the Holy Supper (heavenly gift), the proclaimed word, and the variegated Spirit-wrought charisms of the community. In turning their back on the people of God they have turned their back on God in Christ and vice versa. They have “spurned the Son of God,” “profaned the blood of the covenant” and “outraged the Spirit of grace.” This is why “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” is part and parcel of the exhortations to perseverance in Hebrews.


This is exhibit A of acontextual exegesis. Michael makes no effort to show that “enlightenment” (6:4) and “the heavenly gift” have reference to baptism and communion respectively.

It is true that “enlightened” came to be a synonym for baptism in patristic usage. Read Hughes’ commentary.

But it would be anachronistic to read that back into Hebrews without further argument. Pahls has done nothing to exegete that significance from the actual usage of the author of Hebrews, or his general theology, or his literary allusions.

By contrast (according to Hughes), the identification of “the heavenly gift” with communion doesn’t even have the benefit of patristic attestation.

For an interpretation which is more sensitive to the author’s own usage, read Ellingworth.

A more contextual explanation of the passage would be as follows:

The author is addressing a congregation of Messianic Jews, probably in Rome. Christianity is coming under persecution from the Roman authorities.

Since Judaism was a licit religion under Roman law, and since Judaism had also been a saving faith, the members of this congregation are tempted to revert to Judaism. For the historical reconstruction, read Lane.

They cannot be reclaimed if (or as long as) they turn their backs on the New Covenant and look to an obsolete covenant (the Old Covenant) as the object of saving faith.

As yet, they haven’t made that fateful choice.

Pahls’ sacramental interpretation is also problematic on its own grounds, for his view of postbaptismal apostasy would commit him to the rigorist position of the “schismatic” Donatists and Novatianists.



I must begin by telling you that I do not like to preach on Reformation Sunday. Actually I have to put it more strongly than that. I do not like Reformation Sunday, period. I do no understand why it is part of the church year. Reformation Sunday does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.

Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.


Several issues:

1.Since Reformation Sunday is only a man-made tradition, it wouldn’t say that we are under any obligation to mark it on our calendars. This is a point of liberty.

But as long as the observance is voluntary rather than mandatory, I have no more problem with Reformation Sunday that other holidays like Christmas or Advent.

2. We can celebrate Reformation Sunday in the same spirit that the Jews celebrated the Passover.

Just as the Exodus marked a liberation from Egyptian bondage, we can thank God that the Reformation liberated Christians from bondage to a decadent religious system.

3.It’s rather simple-minded to define the *concept* of Protestantism from a dictionary definition of the *word* “Protestant”.

The nature of Protestant identity isn’t derivable from a popular label. Why does Michael indulge in semantic fallacies to prove his point?

4.Who says that Protestantism is an end in itself?



Unfortunately, the Catholics are right. Christian salvation consists in works. To be saved is to be made holy. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of–or perhaps better, because of–the world’s fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ’s death and resurrection. For in that death and resurrection we have been made part of God’s salvation for the world so that the world may know it has been freed from the powers that would compel us to kill one another in the name of false loyalties. All that is about the works necessary to save us.


This is a caricature of Evangelical theology. It deliberately rides roughshod over fundamental distinctions regarding the source and role of good works in salvation.



For example, I often point out that at least Catholics have the magisterial office of the Bishop of Rome to remind them that disunity is a sin. You should not overlook the significance that in several important documents of late, John Paul II has confessed the Catholic sin for the Reformation. Where are the Protestants capable of doing likewise? We Protestants feel no sin for the disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to confess our sin for the continuing disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to do that because we have no experience of unity.


A couple of points:

1.Is the magisterial office of the papacy a good thing? Where is his supporting argument?

Why is Michael drawing invidious comparisons without bothering to establish the standard of comparison in the first place? Is that too much to ask?

2.He’s very free with the word “sin.” By what authority does he accuse Evangelicals of sin for the “sin of disunity” or the “sin of the Reformation.”?

The question at issue is not whether Evangelicals can be divisive to a fault. This is not a question of individual sins.

No, the question is whether the very idea of the Reformation is inherently sinful.

What he needs to do is to first exegete what he takes to be the relevant passages of Scripture, and then show that the Reformation in toto is analogous to what Scripture classifies as sin.

Thus far, all we get from Michael are personal assertions dressed up as oracular anathemas for whatever he happens to disapprove of.



The magisterial office–we Protestants often forget–is not a matter of constraining or limiting diversity in the name of unity. The office of the Bishop of Rome is to ensure that when Christians move from Durham, North Carolina to Syracuse, New York, they have some confidence when they go to church that they will be worshipping the same God. Because Catholics have an office of unity, they do not need to restrain the gifts of the Spirit. As I oftentimes point out, it is extraordinary that Catholicism is able to keep the Irish and the Italians in the same church. What an achievement! Perhaps equally amazing is their ability to keep within the same church Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans.


Other issues aside, they could only be sure of this if, on the basis of Herculean historical research, they could be sure of unbroken apostolic succession contingent on the valid administration of holy orders for each and every link in the chain.

How does Michael propose that we achieve this level of certainty? Michael keeps giving us his conclusions without the elementary spadework to support his conclusions.


I think Catholics are able to do that because they know that their unity does not depend opon everyone agreeing. Indeed, they can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.

This creates a quite different attitude among Catholics about their relation to Christian tradition and the wider world. Protestants look over to Christian tradition and say, ‘How much of this do we have to believe in order to remain identifiably Christian?’ That’s the reason why Protestants are always tempted to rationalism: we think that Christianity is to be identified with sets of beliefs more than with the unity of the Spirit occasioned through sacrament.

Moreover, once Christianity becomes reduced to a matter of belief, as it clearly has for Protestants, we cannot resist questions of whether those beliefs are as true or useful as other beliefs we also entertain. Once such questions are raised, it does not matter what the answer turns out in a given case. As James Edwards observes, “Once religious beliefs start to compete with other beliefs, then religious believers are - and will know themselves to be –mongerers of values. They too are denizens of the mall, selling and shopping and buying along with the rest of us.”


1.This is a fascinating admission. Having castigated the Protestant cause for the sin of disunity, he then proceeds to redefine Christian unity by eliminating a common faith.

Does he really think that a common faith is irrelevant to religious identity in either the OT covenant community or the NT covenant community?

2.At the same time, he is making his own faith-claims about church and sacrament.


In contrast, Catholics do not begin with the question of “How much do we need to believe?” but with the attitude “Look at all the wonderful stuff we get to believe!” Isn’t it wonderful to know that Mary was immaculately conceived in order to be the faithful servant of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ! She therefore becomes the firstborn of God’s new creation, our mother, the first member of God’s new community we call church. Isn’t it wonderful that God continued to act in the world through the appearances of Mary at Guadalupe! Mary must know something because she seems to always appear to peasants and, in particular, to peasant women who have the ability to see her. Most of us would not have the ability to see Mary because we’d be far too embarrassed by our vision.


1.And does he believe in the Immaculate Conception? Does he believe that God continues to act in the world through Marian apparitions?

2.What about the visions of Muhammad or Swedenborg or Joseph Smith or Oral Roberts?

Does Michael have any criterion for distinguishing between divine visions and occultic visions, or does he even care?


Therefore Catholics understand the church’s unity as grounded in reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The office of Rome matters. For at least that office is a judgement on the church for our disunity. Surely it is the clear indication of the sin of the Reformation that we Protestants have not been able to resist nationalistic identifications. So we become German Lutherans, American Lutherans, Norwegian Lutherans. You are Dutch Calvinist, American Presbyterians, Church of Scotland. I am an American Methodist, which has precious little to do with my sisters and brothers in English Methodism. And so we Protestant Christians go to war killing one another in the name of being American, German, Japanese, and so on.


1.Having, by his own lights, reduced Evangelical identity to bare belief, notice how he now substitutes feeling for belief. Does he really think these are equivalent?

2.Isn’t it a caricature of Evangelical theology to say it’s reducible “our good feelings for one another”? Is Michael even attempting to be accurate at this point? Or is he reading his opponents in the light of all the straw man he’s burning?

3.Why assume that nationalistic identifications are sinful?

God chooses when and where we will be born. That inevitably affects our live options and general outlook. Social conditioning is an aspect of God’s ordinary providence.

Nationality is not a criterion of truth, but to treat nationality as inherently sinful is quite unnatural given the way in which, to take one example, OT covenant theology builds on patriarchy and tribalism as fundamental units of socio-religious identity.

4.If he’s alluding to WWII, does he really think that America went to war against Japan or Germany simply because American Protestants like to kill German Protestants or Japanese Protestants?

Does Michael think that this amounts to a serious analysis of the historical provocations and personal motivations?

Nothing about the Nazis or the Japanese imperial cult or Japanese stratocracy.

If he’s not alluding to WWII, what’s the connection between Germans, Japanese, Americans, and killing?

5.Notice his flagrant disregard for the degree to which American Evangelicals freely associate with one another.


You can tell the destructive character of that narrative by what it has done to the Jews. The way we Protestants read history, and in particular our Bible, has been nothing but disastrous for the Jews. For we turned the Jews into Catholics by suggesting that the Jews had sunk into legalistic and sacramental religion after the prophets and had therefore become moribund and dead. In order to make Jesus explicable (in order to make Jesus look like Luther - at least the Luther of our democratic projections), we had to make Judaism look like our characterization of Catholicism. Yet Jesus did not free us from Israel; rather, he engrafted us into the promise of Israel so that we might be a people called to the same holiness of the law.


There are a couple of basic problems with this indictment:

1. On the one hand, it disregards philosemitic Evangelical traditions like Calvinism and Fundamentalism.

2. On the other hand, it disregards the role of Russian Orthodoxy in the pogroms, as well as the role of Medieval Catholicism in the slaughter of the Jews during the Crusades, as well as the role of Catholic countries like Austria and Poland in the Holocaust.

So one would like to see Michael to make a minimal effort at moral, historical, and theological consistency. Or is that too much to ask?



Revelation is a book of “thick” as opposed to “thin” symbolism. What I mean by “thick” is that they are capable of double references. The “Antichrist,” for example can refer to a single person (the Roman Emperor of John’s day, a future tyrant, etc.) or it can refer to a general spirit of human idolatry in any day (last week, for example, we spoke of self-justifying human egoism as the “spirit of antichrist”). With the “woman” in this passage we have the same phenomenon.

A simple reading of verses 2 and 5 make the connection with the Blessed Virgin Mother of Jesus obvious. Mary is the woman who gives birth to the, “male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” It is Mary’s son, who was, “caught up to God and to God’s throne.” in the Ascension. Simply put, Mary is the woman in Revelation. This does not exhaust the symbol, however. To say that the woman is merely Mary is to miss John’s point.

John also says in verse one that the woman is, “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” These descriptions associate the woman with the Old Testament’s prophetic hopes for the glory of the whole people of God who experience his salvation. The twelve stars here, represent the twelve tribes of Israel. From this perspective we might say that the woman represents the people of God from whom Jesus traces his human lineage.

To put it very simply, John is speaking of Mary as the ideal representative of the people of God. In doing so, John is simply expanding on the picture of Mary already present in the Gospels themselves.


This identification would be more impressive if Pahls could lift a finger to interact with objections to his identification by the major commentators (e.g. Aune, Beale, Keener, Smalley), as well as contemporary Catholic/ecumenical scholarship, viz. R. Brown, K. Donfried, J. Fitzmyer, & J. Reumann, eds. Mary in the New Testament (Fortress 1978).



The canon of Holy Scripture being closed, there is no new revelation or addition to the one, completed revelation of God in Christ (Heb. 1:1-4), but the Church is graced by God with the illumination of the Holy Spirit, who faithfully guides her into all truth (Jn. 16:13). The Church’s witness may therefore be spoken of as normative, but because the witness of the Church is always subject to the Scripture, her witness is always a “normed norm” (norma normata). On this basis, the Church retains the right, with the consent of the faithful, to dogmatically define and present the teachings of Scriptures, to settle controversies, and to close its communion to dissension.


He assumes, without benefit of argument, that Jn 16:13 refers to the church. He then erects an edifice over a nonexistent foundation.



An acceptible doctrine of Purgatory can start from quite ordinary principles faced in the confession and repentance from personal sin. A confessor or a pastor would be acting irresponsibly if he were to offer the assurance of forgiveness to one that has confessed to stealing while refusing to restore the stolen object to its rightful owner. Suborning that kind of cognitive dissonance would be inimical to the kind of personal reformation intended by the word “repentance” (metanoia) and would amount to what Bonhoeffer called the offer of a “cheap grace.” [Bonhoeffer writes, “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.” The Cost of Discipleship (trans. R.H. Fuller; London: SCM, 1959; repr., New York: Touchstone, 1995) 44.]
Human beings, even redeemed human beings, have an incredible aptitude for self-deception and the evasion of truth. [Calvin describes the human heart as a “factory of idols” (fabricum idolorum). Institutes (1559) 1.5.11-12.] In its most Gospel-shaped expressions, Purgatory ceases to be expressed in terms of time and space and merely expresses a postmortem, personal encounter with Christ in which the remaining structures of self-deception and self-evasion are finally crumbled and we see ourselves as we truly are before God. In full light of God’s truth and holiness, the false self is burned away and we are graced with the gift of a full and complete repentance.

Of course, one must readily say that this represents but one potential (and historically novel) configuration of the doctrine. As such, assent to the dogma could not be imposed as binding on the conscience or be regarded as necessary to salvation (Cf. Article 20). In fact, one may venture that this represents such a thoroughgoing mitigation of the Medieval doctrine that it ceases to be recognizable as the dogma of Purgatory altogether. My only concern is to name the space in which the affirmation of such a doctrine could be acceptable to communing Anglicans.


Note the complete absence of appeal to divine revelation in his attempt create “space” for an acceptable version of Purgatory.

By what criterion, if any, does Michael attempt to distinguish between the truth and make-believe or pious fraud?


  1. Man, Steve, you are correct. Christians believe some wacky stuff. "Holy men" and churches twist the words to mean whatever they want. its CRAZY!

  2. The intellectual achievement evident in the above comment is breathtaking.

  3. Its cute to one Christian call out another Christian on their wacky beliefs and silly stories. what's the outsider to do, except laugh, laugh, laugh....

  4. Pretty much the same thing Christians do when unbelievers call out other unbelievers on their wacky beliefs, like Plato & Aristotle, Hawking & Penrose, Dawkins & Gould, the Vienna Circle, etc.

  5. Yeah, its funny how Christians claim to have access to ABSOLUTE TRUTH and DIVINE REVELATION, but can't agree on what these are, and how non-believers don't claim to have ABSOLUTE TRUTH and MAGIC SPIRITS speaking to them, and they don't agree.


  6. If you make no claim to absolute truth, then you're in no position to verify truth claims.

    Like the ones in the Bible, for example.

    Is it absolutely true that anonymous is an intelligent, rational being?

  7. Anonymous said:
    "Yeah, its funny how Christians claim to have access to ABSOLUTE TRUTH and DIVINE REVELATION, but can't agree on what these are."

    Is that what Christians claim? A more accurate version of the claim would be this:

    i) Both believers and unbelievers have access to the truth via divine revelation.

    ii) One difference is that believers acknowledge divine revelation, but unbelievers don't.

    iii) Another difference is that unbelievers are hostile to divine revelation while believers are receptive to divine revelation.

    iv) However, believers are not omniscient, infallible, or impeccable. So mere access to revelation doesn't guarantee that they always agree.

  8. Also, Pahl's comment that the Reformers were committing the sin of disunity was amusing. I suppose the Apostles were committing the sin of disunity with the Pharisees also. Perhaps Moses was committing the sin of disunity with Pharaoh. Scandalous!

  9. The Reformed Catholicism crowd's bloated sacramentology would have us empty out the content of faith, making the sacraments into hollow quasi-mystical ceremonies as a means of Christian identity and union. Would a Hebrew under Moses believe that the Schema was negotiable as long as you were all eating Passover together?

  10. Steve,

    You summed up Reformed Catholicism quite well with the two words "acontextual exegesis"...

    Well done.

  11. About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You