With this post I officially begin my blog’s companion podcast, The Nicene Nerdcast. I don’t have much in the way of introduction to give you, so here’s the first installment. This is the result of some of my ponderings on race and the Church in recent days.
[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]
I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.
All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:
- Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
- Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
- Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
- Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.
As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.
So reading this about conversion got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them in a radically gracious and genuinely invested way, this display of the Spirit through love really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with God’s power unto salvation. Nothing can make people want to follow Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.
Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.
So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance? I think the proper answer to this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.
Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.
As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Communion in recent weeks, and there are three things which have stuck in my mind:
- Communion is first and foremost about Christ and His Body, not Christ and me. Now, I see people give lip service to this notion every once in a while. But I’ve rarely seen it put into practice. Most Communion services encourage people to reflect on Christ’s death for me, deal with my own sins, consider my personal walk with Jesus, and eat individually (or at widest, by family). None of this aligns with what Scripture teaches about Communion. Paul declared, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). He speaks as though coming together as a church is the same as coming together to take the Supper (1 Cor. 11:18-21). They cannot be divided. Communion is designed to unite us as one Body of one Lord, so why do we take it like we’re each only dealing with Christ personally? I would love to see churches take a hard look at how they do Communion. There are surely ways to drive home the corporate, fellowship side of the Christian table.
In Protestant circles, we should speak more freely about Christ’s presence in the Supper. I don’t think we need to accept the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the Lutheran view (often called “consubstantiation,” which most Lutherans disavow, or “sacramental union,” which most accept), or anything along those lines. But we need to be able to call the bread and wine—without any qualifications—Christ’s body and blood. We don’t need 10 minutes (or even 10 seconds) before each Communion saying, “Remember, this is just a symbol.” After all, right after John died the early Christians would write stuff like this:
Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us…They abstain from the Eucharist…because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.
Ignatius, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans”
Whatever we think about the details of how the Supper works, we should at least get this: Jesus is there, and we are nourished by His atoning sacrifice. And that should give us great joy.
The one loaf is far more appropriate than crackers. This ties in a lot with my first point, but it’s still different. Originally, it seems quite clear that Communion was observed with loaves of bread divided among the believers. This was definitely true when Jesus started the Supper during His last Passover meal. Now most of us use wafers, crackers, or stuff that is probably just edible styrofoam. Practically speaking, it makes sense that this would happen over time. But practicality isn’t the point of the sacraments. I think this development betrays the original purpose. If we break whole loaves together, it reinforces the united body element mentioned above (we all share the same loaves of bread) and the significance of Jesus’ body being broken for us. It picks up on the Biblical theme of meal-sharing in celebration before God. But again, I just have to go back to the point of the united body. The Didache, basically an introduction to Christianity for new converts written in the second century, makes the point in its Communion prayer. I’ll wrap up by quoting it:
We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.
I just don’t think the Bible is important to Christianity and we don’t need to rely on it as Christians.
Okay, that’s not me. Actually, that’s what people have been getting for some reason from Andy Stanley’s recent controversial sermon, “The Bible Told Me So.” I would have thought this controversy would have settled down a bit since I first ran across it a couple weeks ago, but it really hasn’t. So I’m just going to offer my thoughts.
First, if you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, you should probably just go hear the whole sermon for yourself before forming an opinion. It would be inappropriate to make a judgment on this matter before hearing everything he says in its proper context. But here’s a summary. Basically, Stanley argued that we should stop hanging the core of our faith on the total perfection of the Bible and instead put it on the Resurrection. It is not the Bible that gives us Christianity, but rather Christianity was created by the Resurrection and the Bible came to be because of that. Sometimes people will find all kinds of objections to believing everything in the Bible (stuff like “What about evolution?” “I heard the Exodus never happened,” or “Archaeology says walls of Jericho didn’t come tumbling down”), but ultimately if their faith is grounded in the historical fact of the Resurrection rather than in the totality of a perfect Bible, they will find themselves reasonably led to stick to the faith and simply wrestle through the other issues. If the ultimate focus is, “The Bible told me so,” then as soon as they find a problem in the Bible that they can’t find a decent answer for, their faith will be in jeopardy. If the ultimate focus is, “Jesus rose from the dead,” then no random archaeological discovery about the Ancient Near East will endanger this sure bit of history on which everything else hangs.
To be honest, it still doesn’t make sense to me how people could truly object to this line of reasoning except by (usually willful) misunderstanding. It is simply true that the Resurrection is the one historical point on which everything hangs, and that even if we had a fallible Bible or no Bible at all this would still be real history deserving of faith in Christ. But of course there has been a great deal of misunderstanding, so I will quickly address two common misconceptions about this argument.
- This is not saying the Bible has errors. Part of the point of this argument is to make it irrelevant to Christian faith whether the Bible has errors or not, but even so the argument does not ask us to say there are errors in the Bible, and Stanley has explicitly stated that he believes in inerrancy: “I believe the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. I believe what the Bible says is true, is true.”
- This is not saying that we know about the Resurrection without the Gospels. Some people have imagined that if Stanley is moving the focus from the “Bible” to the Resurrection, then without the Bible he has no way of knowing about the Resurrection. But Stanley isn’t removing the Gospels from our method of knowing about Jesus. He is changing the focus from the “Bible” as a single, bound, book of 66 books complete with a theology of inspiration—a sacred text—to the fact that it contains Gospels and epistles written in the first century by eyewitnesses whose lives were changed by the event of the Resurrection. The Gospels are being presented as simple historical evidence first. If we can show that the New Testament demonstrates the historical reality of the Resurrection as simply testimony for an event from eyewitnesses, then we can build from the fact of the risen Christ to give someone a full Bibliology.
So, given all of this, I think that what Stanley has said is good apologetics and accurately expresses the historical rationale for why we can believe. Our faith in ultimately grounded in the fact that Jesus did really rise from the dead in space and time 2000 years ago and we have historical witness to that in the New Testament. Everything else in the Bible is true, but even if it were not or if we had reason to doubt, the Resurrection would be enough to hold everything together.
But, I am not willing to let Stanley off easily just because I agree with his basic apologetic point. There is still a problem here, and that is with his overall approach. The problem with “The Bible Told Me So” isn’t so much what Stanley says so much as to whom he addressed it. My problem is with Stanley’s approach to preaching and church. What Stanley said would belong in an apologetics conference or in a conversation with unbelieving friends or doubting Christians, but not in church. His recent interview with Russell Moore highlights what I’m saying. Moore asked him what he would do if we had the power of an evangelical pope. The first part of his response was that he would have all the small, dying churches sell their buildings and stuff and give them to church planters. Then he added a part related to this sermon saying that he would ask pastors to get the spotlight off the Bible and back on Christ’s resurrection, which of course sent people into reactionary spasms of “Heresy! Apostate man!” But the two together, along with everything else about Stanley’s ministry, make my point. He is treating church and its services as the place and time for evangelism, outreach, and apologetics. It’s a seeker-driven model all about getting people in. Thus he uses a primarily apologetic mode for Scripture, one which can’t take Scripture as a presupposition but instead must use it as a tool of historical reasoning. This is a fine way to evangelize, but it’s a terrible way to do church. As I argued before, church is for the Church. Church is a time for edifying believers, uniting us in the Gospel in worship of God in Christ, discipleship, and proclaiming God’s word in Scripture. In church, we can and must treat Scripture as a presupposition. When preaching and teaching to believers we are to take its final, infallible authority for granted. There are other contexts and times, especially one-on-one conversations, for handling Scripture in the merely historical, apologetically strategic way that Stanley is doing, but it is not the way to feed the sheep, which is the true purpose of church gatherings. I criticize Stanley here not for what he says, but to whom he says it. He should be saying these things to unbelievers outside of church, or to struggling believers in personal or training environment, not to a gathered church body. His ecclesiology is the real problem. His Bibliology is actually fine. But this ecclesiological problem is a problem, and it’s why I’m not thrilled with him and his ministry. Get church right, and use the power which comes from healthy church to evangelize in the world. That’s the issue.
Continuing from my last post, here are my responses to the other 4 reasons why Catholics and Protestants supposedly cannot at all reunite. I think type A unity, explained in the last post, is a minimum requirement to fulfill the commands of Scripture for a Church of one mind and one love, so I want to deal with as many of these obstacles as possible.
Reason #3: The Sufficiency of Christ’s Mediation
The next charge leveled against Rome is that they deny that Christ is the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5):
By setting up Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix with Christ, Rome explicitly denies the sufficiency of Christ’s mediation on His people’s behalf. As the Scripture says in 1 Tim. 2:5, there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. Thus neither Mary nor any other besides Jesus Christ can be a mediator between God and men. Rome also sets up saints as mediators, hence they pray to saints, that the saints might make appeals to God for them…Rome’s doctrine of the mediation of saints is nothing but a dressing up of pagan superstition with pseudo-Christian terminology.
The largest problem with this accusation is that Catholics quite explicitly deny that anyone else can be considered a mediator in the sense that Christ is called “Mediator.” But in truth, we all accept at least one thing that might loosely be called “mediation” from people besides Christ: prayer requests.
We Protestants all ask for other people to pray for us, and this is perfectly Biblical. Yet it is also possible to label prayer for others under the word “mediation.” This doesn’t endanger us, though, because we know that our prayers for each other are radically different from and inferior to Christ’s unique mediation. No problem here.
This is, however, more or less what Catholics are attempting to do in invoking the saints. Like other things I’ve mentioned, this is an oversimplification and not perfectly accurate, but shows the gist. In Catholic theology, what’s basically going on is asking people who are in heaven with Christ to pray for you, and since the prayer of a righteous man is very effective, the prayers of saints who are done with sin must be especially so. If we are going to have a problem with this Biblically, we can argue that it’s not possible to talk to dead Christians, but that’s a far less serious matter than challenging Christ’s sole role as Mediator.
Of course, the application of titles like Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix to Mary bring their own host of problems, and these matters are actually a source of debate within Catholicism. Catholic theologians tend to be quite careful in elaborating what each of these do and do not mean, making sure that they do not impinge on Christ’s sufficent, once-for-all person and work. Are these terms problematic? Probably. Should they be abandoned? I tend to think so. But when they are specifically articulated so as to preserve the centrality of Christ, I don’t think they have to constitute heresy.
Reason #4: The Glory of God vs. Images
Another serious criticism:
The Second Commandment states, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thingthat is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments (Ex. 20:4-6). Thus, worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word, is forbidden and is equated with hating God…However, against the precepts of Scripture and the reason of a sane mind, Rome multiplies images of God and saints to be worshipped…To simply observe the gross idolatry and worship of images in Roman worship ought to make any biblically informed conscience cringe. All the justifications of images and the evasions futile; they are simply nullifying the precepts of God so that their traditions can be maintained (Mk. 7:9).
Basically, this criticism comes down to the Reformed view that any and all pictures of Jesus Christ, but especially, those which might be used in any worship context, are necessarily idolatrous. This view even includes, say, the painting of Jesus on your grandmother’s wall or the artwork in a children’s Bible.
The problem is, I don’t think the first part of this, that making images of Jesus is always idolatry, has a solid Biblical foundation. While it is true that the divine nature itself, the Godhead, cannot be imaged in any way, and that the person of the Father must never be imaged, the Son has taken a human body into His person and made it Himself. An image of the human body of Jesus Christ is not an image of the divine essence, even if it is an image of the Second Person of the Trinity. If Jesus had a body, then the body could be seen by men, and if it could be seen by men, it could imaged by them. Even a mental image in memory, say by the aging John while writing his Gospel, should be idolatry according the logic of this criticism.
It is not only Catholics who disagree with the Reformed on pictures of Jesus, but Lutherans, the Orthodox, and (de facto) most Baptists. The precise details vary between them, and it must be admitted that such images are given a possibly uncomfortable prominence in Catholicism, but the point remains that Christ alone is worshipped, and that the 2nd Commandment isn’t necessarily transgressed. This issue I definitely think precludes type C unity, and possibly B, but not A at all, in my opinion.
Reasons #5 and #6: The Pope and Catholic Church as Antichrist and Whore of Babylon
So they charge:
The Scripture prophesies of a time of great apostasy from within the Christian Church, led by the Man of Sin (2 Thes. 2). This Man of Sin can be none other than the Pope of Rome.3 “Question: Who is the Antichrist? Answer: With all Protestants we reply: the Pope of Rome. The papists deny this strongly.” (Wilhelmus à Brakel,The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 2, p. 44).
In the book of Revelation, the Church of Rome is called the Whore of Babylon, as the Jewish Church was often called a whore when she veered off into idolatry. The Church of Rome is the second of Beast of Revelation 13. Whereas the first Beast was the pagan Roman empire, the second is the Papal Roman empire. And I beheld, another beast coming out of the earth, which had two horns like the Lamb, but he spake like the dragon. (Rev. 13:11, 1599 GNV)
To be blunt, this is just ridiculous fantasy. The Reformers fell prey to the great temptation in every age to identify the Antichrist and his kingdom with our own enemies, and the enemy of the Reformers was the Catholic Church under the Pope. There are no legitimate grounds for this entirely nonsensical assertion.
Honestly, I don’t feel the need to go into much depth on these two points. Let it suffice to say that the enemies of Revelation are mostly likely intended to be understood either as Rome (the empire) or Jerusalem. Both of those are possible, though Rome seems more so, and the position that the Roman Catholic Church is in view is obviously anachronistic eisegesis. Whatever happened to the sola Scriptura defended in the first point of the article?
Obviously, if this charge were true, all forms of unity with Catholicism would be unacceptable. But it’s not.
These six reasons for why Catholics and Protestants can never are mostly off-base. While many of them can be granted as reasons for ruling out type C unity, none of them are good reasons for preventing type A unity. With enough work in the future, with revisions and compromises in unswerving commitment to Scripture truth on both sides, improvements can be made, and certaintly greater unity within the whole Body of Christ is possible. Will Protestants and Catholics ever be one Church again? It’s impossible for now, and probably for a very long time to come, though in the distant future we should recall that with God all things are possible. But in the mean time, there room to work together and embrace each other as truly following our one Lord, Jesus Christ.
From time to time, calls arise for cooperation between Protestants and Catholics. Some of those times the call is actually stronger. Some people argue that Catholics and Protestants should or must reunite and become one Church again. If nothing else, many would like to see some kind of full communion between Catholic and Protestant churches. Basically, there are three main possible courses of unity:
- Cooperation and deanathemization. The easiest level of unity would be simply for Catholic and Protestant churches and institutions to freely cooperate in ministry and to drop any charges of heresy against one another. Each would recognize the other as fully Christian and work together for the Gospel. Nonetheless, Protestant churches would remain Protestant in their own denominations and associations, and Catholic churches would remain a single Roman Catholic Church.
- Intercommunion. There exists between the Catholic and Orthodox churches something which is often called “intercommunion,” in which under the right circumstances a Catholic can participate in Orthodox sacraments and vice versa. This would be a major step for Protestants, and one which is incredibly unlikely for the majority of Protestant churches in the near future. In particular, denominations like Baptists which tend to strongly deny any form of Christ’s real presence in Communion would never be allowed without substantial revisions on both sides.
- Institutional unity. In this last possibility, certain Protestant churches and the Catholic Church would become one, unified Church, one single “denominational” body. This, of course, sounds like pure fantasy to most on both sides, and if it were ever to happen it would be in the very, very distant future.
So what I’d like to consider are the obstacles to these different kinds of unity. I am personally strongly in support of type A (though I have a slight for that someday before Christ returns type C may happen). There are obstacles to it, but they are not too many, and I believe they can be overcome. But some people would oppose all of these types. As an example, my attention was recently brought to this article on Purely Presbyterian: 6 Reasons Protestants and Roman Catholics Can Never Unite. The reasons given in this post would be accepted by many Protestants as a reason to not only reject any form of unity with the Catholic Church, even type A, but to condemn the majority of Catholicism as damnably heretical. My purpose in this post is to evaluate these 6 reasons and offer responses to each in relation to the types of unity I mentioned above.
Reason #1: The Sufficiency of Scripture
The article states this:
Rome denies the sufficiency of Scripture and supplants it with human tradition. The Scriptures are wholly sufficient for all things pertaining to life and godliness…The human innovations in Roman worship are more than can be listed here. From the use of images of God and saints, to the multitude of manmade ceremonies, rites, and holy days, to the most despicable and blasphemous Mass, in all these, the imaginations of men’s hearts and man’s traditions are observed, while God’s commandments are rejected. We are reminded of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Mark 7:9, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.
This is, to be sure, a strong criticism. It is also, I believe, one that entirely precludes type C of unity. Catholics believe in an infallible, authoritative Holy Tradition which is not necessarily identical in content to the Scripture but contains other doctrines and practices which cannot be derived from Scripture (though some of them might find a verse or two of hint, perhaps). Moreover, they understand as authoritative 7 apocryphal books which Protestants do not regard as inspired. These differences make for a difference in the final authorities over doctrine and practice, and as such make strong forms of Catholic/Protestant unity impossible.
That said, I do not believe this ought to preclude type A of unity. That Scripture is holy, inspired, and authoritative is accepted by all churches and is taught by Scripture itself, but that there is no other, originally unwritten revelation from God through the Apostles is not stated in Scripture. Thus, ironically, adopting the principle of sola Scriptura seems to make it at best difficult to find grounds for condemning as heresy the belief in certain inspired traditions, since Scripture does not explicitly rule out that possibility. This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that many or all of the Catholic traditions are true, only that they are not automatically signs of a heretical, apostate church.
The problem is, to oversimplify and use a loose analogy, in Catholicism it is almost like Holy Tradition is just another book of Scripture, just not one originally written down in the first century. Just as it is invalid to us for someone to say, “Well doctrine X isn’t in Mark, so it isn’t true!” if doctrine X is found in Ephesians, it would appear to Catholics invalid for us to say, “Doctrine Y isn’t in any of the books of the Bible, so it isn’t true!” if doctrine Y is found in Holy Tradition. Thus we deal with questions of canon and inspiration, complications which are enough to divide the churches as institutions to be sure (preventing type C unity), but are they enough to divide them as brothers? It’s hard for me to say “yes” to that without sufficient Biblical grounding, and so I am willing to support type A of unity even with this issue between Protestants and Catholics.
Reason #2: Salvation through Faith Alone
Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, glory be to God alone. The Scriptures everywhere so plainly attest to this, and yet Rome so arrogantly denies it…By placing its anathema on on the Biblical Gospel, Rome has placed itself under the anathema of God Almighty (Galatians 1:8, 9). Let all those who affirm this doctrine be blessed, but let Rome’s curse fall on her own head.
This is also a serious charge, but not one which I think holds up to scrutiny in the modern theological world. It is true that Catholics deny the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, but a large part of the difference is due to different semantics and conceptual models. To Catholics, James 2:24 is essential to articulating properly a doctrine of justification, for it says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Now, it is not hard to argue that Catholics misinterpret this verse, but it is also hard to see why a doctrine of justification so directly compatible with this verse at face value must be anathema.
Part of the key here involves realizing that Catholicism does not actually teach salvation by works rather than by grace. While they believe works are required for justification, what they mean by “justification” and “salvation” is not identical to Protestant usage. Both agree that salvation is all because of Jesus, that we can’t earn it, and that our own works are nothing but sin apart from the grace of God. Depending on which Catholic you ask, you may hear them say that salvation can be said to be by faith alone if we mean a faith which necessarily produces works, a position which is frequently said to be the true meaning of sola fide by many Protestants!
There are actually many possible routes to reconciliation between the two parties on justification. Promising leads include the theology of Thomas F. Torrance, a Scottish Reformed theologian whose works Incarnation and Atonementare loved and appreciated by both Protestants and Catholics, the works of N. T. Wright, an Anglican bishop who has made major efforts in reclaiming the original Jewish context of Paul’s doctrine of justification, and the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It is not hard to imagine, if you’re sufficiently familiar with these leads and their details, a future where Reformed, Catholic, Lutheran, and even Eastern Orthodox theologians can all mostly agree with one articulation of Paul’s major Gospel doctrine. If this is true, then many charges of heresy could be dropped, and the way could be opened for greater unity in type A.
To Be Continued
At this point this post is already too long, so I will address the final four objections to Catholic-Protestant unity in a second post. Even so, I think these two objections are the most important, and I hope what I have said in response to them can be useful in bringing further unity to the Body of Christ.
One theological question which has been a fairly ambiguous realm for much of Church history is that of the actual relationship between Christ’s Church and the people or nation of Israel which came before it. The Biblical data on this is complex and apparently varied, and the historical issue of the Church as becoming predominantly Gentile doesn’t help. This has led to many different views which we might categorize under four basic approaches:
- Two peoples of God: In dispensationalism, the Church and Israel are two entirely distinct peoples of God. God chose for Himself a nation and race, Israel, in temporal and physical ways, and He also created a chosen people for salvation, the Church. If there is a connection between the two, it is either exclusively or primarily a spiritual analogy or a historical accident.
- Replacement theology: Various forms of what we might call “replacement theology” have also been generated, in which basically God rejects Israel after their rejection of Jesus, and He chooses the Church as a new people. A lot changes between the kind of people He chose the first time (ethnic, nationalistic) and the second time (spiritual, decentralized). In this case the Church essentially takes the place and role of Israel in a new way, and “steps into their shoes,” but is still a fundamentally distinct body.
- One people of God but two Israels: In a third approach, Israel is viewed as having always been internally divided between “true Israel” and “false Israel,” those who were faithful to Yahweh and most truly His people, and those who were unfaithful. In views like this, the Church is to be seen primarily as a continuation of “true Israel,” but now expanded to include the Gentiles. The true Israel and the Church are essentially the same body but existing under different covenants (Old vs. New).
- One people, period: Finally, there is the approach of direct continuity, in which the Church literally is the same people of God as Israel, only now expanded freely to the Gentiles and without all of the trappings of a nation-state or a ceremonial law. Membership is by faith or (depending who you ask) even also by birth. There exists even in this one body some true and some false Christians, but only one covenant people of God.
None of these approaches in their most basic and pure forms quite strike me as fully Biblical. If seems to me that if we are going to appreciate the full scope of what Scripture says about the Church’s place after Israel, we will need to combine some insights from more than one of these approaches, and they will need to be integrated around some kind of key concept. What key concept do we need? What is Biblical?
My own hypothesis is that the key is resurrection and regeneration. The relationship between Israel and the Church should be conceived in terms of the new birth, of the natural man and the man alive in the Spirit, even at a corporate level. It seems most Biblical to me to say that the Church is Israel born again.
The give a full Biblical defense of this position is beyond the scope of this post, which will be long enough. All I seek to do here is to give a narrative description of the hypothesis in the history of Israel, the covenant, Jesus, and the Church. Before I get into that, though, the first principle I should point out in my hypothesis is that regeneration, the new birth, did not ever take place until Christ’s resurrection.1 With this in mind, we follow the story of Israel.
Israel was began as a people created by God from His election of and covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham descendants which would make up a great nation, which nation would bless the whole world. This was a unilateral promise. God would see to it that this would indeed be fulfilled, not just for the benefit of Abraham and his family but for the redemption of the world.2
In the process of fulfilling this promise God called the Israelites out of Egypt and established another covenant with them, one which established Israel as a theocratic nation with a divinely provided system of law and worship. Part of the point of this endeavor was to make Israel into a light to the nations, an example of human life rightly ordered by communion with God and with each other. But Israel proved incapable of this task. Even with a God-given Torah they could not become what they needed to be, a true example of redeemed human existence. The deep and radical effects of sin made righteousness under the Torah impossible. And without a righteous Israel, God’s promise to Abraham also seemed in danger. Particularly, the terms of the Torah meant that God would have to undo Israel’s blessings in light of their disobedience, and the public corruption of Israel meant that the nations could not be blessed through them.
It is in the midst of this precarious situation that the prophets, enlightened by the Spirit, began to perceive the only possible solution. Humanity, in particular Israel, was too corrupt to go on in its natural form. The roots of sin were so deep that if purposes of creation and election were ever going to be realized, humanity would essentially have to be created anew. If Israel was going to live up to its calling, it would need a new heart and new spirit, indeed a radical new outpouring of the Holy Spirit who had been working in their midst since their birth as a nation out of Egypt. They needed nothing short of a new covenant and a new creation.
Alas, before this need could be fulfilled there was also the need to deal with the consequences of Israel’s sin. By the terms of the Torah, Israel was condemned. Abraham’s descendants were at risk of being cut off from the promise because of their status under the Law. Thus God appeared to be under two conflicting covenant obligations. The terms of the Mosaic covenant required Him to desolate the same people whom the Abrahamic covenant required Him to bless, and through whom He planned to bless the world. So how was God to be faithful to both covenants, restore Israel, and bring about a new creation capable of redeeming the world?
The answer to this dilemma left hanging at the end of the Old Testament is found in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, marking the emergence of a new creation out of the midst of the old one. He sanctified His life by sinless communion with God. By His baptism He identified Himself with sinful Israel as their Messiah and in that role took upon Himself the job of their repentance. He brought about signs and instruments of the new creation: healing, forgiveness, and other miracles of the Holy Spirit.
In the middle of this work Jesus also performed a major symbolic act. He appointed 12 disciples to participate in and carry on His work. They were to be apostles, authorized representatives of Himself and His ministry. Yet for Israel, the number 12 was of great significance. This was not just any number, but the number of Jacob’s sons, the number of the tribes of Israel. The Messiah who took upon Himself the identity of the people of Israel expanded that identity into 12 others. He was reforming, reconstituting, recreating Israel around Himself. With His baptism into Israel’s identity and His appointing of 12 new heads, a fresh life for Israel was in labor.
Yet if there was to be a recreation of Israel, there also needed to be a new covenant. The old had failed, and Israel was under existential threat because of it. So on one fateful Passover, Jesus broke bread and served wine as signs of a new covenant with Israel based on Himself, His life and, crucially, death. This covenant was, of course, for Israel and had been prophesied by Israel’s prophets years in advance. This covenant would establish forgiveness of sins and give Israel the Holy Spirit to finally destroy their sin problem even at the root. But how would it work? And how would God deal with the destruction coming from the old covenant?
For this, Christ was crucified. This was God’s solution to the covenant problem. The same judgment He had prophesied for Israel due to their unfaithfulness, His wrath poured out through Rome3, Jesus Himself experienced as their representative. One man gave His life in place of the nation, and in His dying flesh God condemned sin as was fit to His covenantal obligations. As Paul would later explain it, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”4 Jesus expiated Israel’s sin in His death and so freed God to proceed with His promise to bless Israel and the nations.
With Israel’s sin dealt with, and with a new covenant established by a sacrifice before God, it was finally time for God to bring about the new creation, the regeneration of human life. Three days after Jesus’ death, He raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Him and making Him the “firstborn from the dead.”5 People are often hesitant (or call it heretical) to speak of Jesus as “born again,” but this means no more or less than to say that He was resurrected to incorruptible, imperishable, new creation life. In this Jesus still retains His identity as Israel’s substitute and representative Messiah. In Him Israel itself is born again into the new creation. His resurrection life becomes the ground for a new life for Israel. This new resurrection life empowered by the Spirit is the solution to the biggest problem of the old covenant: Israel’s ongoing sinfulness. Israel formerly consisted only of natural men, unregenerate and without the Holy Spirit. The Torah, God-given as it was, could not penetrate to the depths of human existence to purge sin. But Christ’s sanctified and resurrected life imparted by union with Him through the Spirit is enough. It will finally overcome human sinfulness and turn Israel’s sinners into saints, turning apostasy into faith working through love.
Yet Christ’s victory for Israel was not automatic for those who were already members, and the new covenant of the new creation brought with it new terms of membership, a new stage in election. In this new covenant a relationship to Abraham alone would not be sufficient. The new covenant fulfilled the promise to Abraham exclusively through Christ, the elect Messiah. As God had once restricted the promise from Abraham’s descendants to Isaac’s descendants, excluding Ishmael’s, and then restricted it further from Isaac’s descendants to Jacob’s, so now God further restricted the covenant to those who are in Israel’s Messiah.
This next stage, then, at which people of the old, fleshly Israel are incorporated into Christ and thus Israel in a reborn form, occurs at Pentecost. At this point all is fulfilled as the Father and the Son send the Spirit to Christ’s apostles. These apostles, filled with the Spirit, are the first fulfillment to Israel of the promise. In this the new age and the new creation came to life in the midst of the present by the Spirit. Israel, actual Israelites descended from Abraham, received the forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and the Spirit in them. The were incorporated into the resurrected Messiah and so became part of a reborn Israel.
The renewing of election around Christ with a new covenant in place of the old, Torah-based covenant also brings with it an expansion in election. Now it is no longer necessary to be physically descended from Abraham to be a son of the promise. Through the Spirit and faith, even the Gentiles can share in the promise, and thus God’s promise to bless even the Gentiles through Abraham is fulfilled as well. The new terms of the new covenant, reducible essentially to loyalty to Jesus, simultaneously cut off many natural-born Israelites and enable the inclusion of many Gentiles. Thus Israel in its new form, reborn in Christ, becomes also the Church, the assembly of believers.
So what happens to the old, fleshly Israel, Jews who do not recognize their Messiah? They remain in essential exile, having been judged at AD 70 for the last time. Their future lies in the new covenant, the promise of the Spirit. There is no future for them apart from their Messiah. This does not mean that God has abandoned them, for He has fulfilled His promise by instituting a new covenant in which they can have forgiveness and moral renewal. He has taken the next step to rescue them, but those who will not repent and recognize their Messiah cannot benefit from this saving action. The word of God in election and promise has not failed, as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, and in the end we see hints that, perhaps out of continued faithfulness to Abraham and His physical descendants, God will see to it that all Israel will one day find salvation in its Messiah and His new covenant. One day perhaps there will be no more old, fleshly Israel, but all will enter the life of Israel reborn in Christ.
Of course, I am sure that many questions about details and implications of this view may remain. I cannot answer them here, as this post is long enough. But if you have any, drop a comment and I’ll look into making a good reply. I believe the narrative I have articulated here is faithful to Scripture and what is portrays about Israel and the Church. Perhaps one of these days I will get around to developing this further and adding more specific Scriptural support instead of relying so much on allusions and themes I just kind of hope people will recognize.