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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Did you really mean that?

Christian Graphic: Words Scripture Papel de Parede Imagem
Gloria Estefan song, ‘Words Get in the Way,’ I think expresses what many of us feel at time when trying to express ourselves; but first the stanza I have in mind—
Won't even start to cry
And before we say goodbye
I tried to say "I love you"
But the words got in the way

This, of course, highlights a common experience that we all have, and that is: We just cannot seem to find the right words to express ourselves. 
Being the amateur philosopher that I am, however, I cannot help but observe that love and other emotions are not something that you can just abstract, refine and pour in a bottle from which you can just take a sip from time to time to get the feeling across. Words in and of themselves are elusive and multifaceted; and as such, of course, mean different things to different folks. 
As Pentecostals (a term I prefer to avoid being lumped in with all the kooks who claim to have the spiritual gifts and, in my opinion don’t—or at the very least fall into the category of those of whom Christ said, "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you.’” Matthew 7:21-23) … well, in any event, I do prefer to say, as Pentecostals we of all people struggle with trying to pin down an all-inclusive definition of what we sense when under the influence these gifts.  
At times, for instance, as in the gift of knowledge, we find it relatively easy to describe what God has shown us when compared to, say, the gift of tongues. With tongues we may feel good about it, but totally ignorant when it comes to understanding what has been said.  
Thus, we can readily see that words although necessary in understand may not, however, always be available when trying to communicate one’s feelings.
Words, however, are only part of the equation.  Words must be given flesh or if you prefer form, they must be in reference to a common experience or all we hear is “babble, babble, babble.”
So, words at their best are only as good as common experience allows them to be. You may not, for instance, have a notion of what a horse is, if you have never seen a horse, or better yet ridden one. Listen to words about a horse all day long if you wish, but only firsthand knowledge of a horse will bring you closer to what a horse actually is; and even then, certain aspects of the definition will still be lacking.
Therefore, we can reasonably say that words are never any more than approximates.
Let us, now, attempt to take one step beyond approximates. Can we do that? Well, yes and no. Yes, we can experience an iridescent semblance of the reality to which a word may point; however, the ever elusive reality it seems is in an ever elusive retreat mode. We cannot seemingly ever capture the moment, the object of consideration.
That being said, we as Christians are never left abandoned to the mercies of the ersatz. No, there is really something there, it is just beyond expression.
This observation is not without significance, however. I say that because Christ as the living word makes God possible not just as a word, but as an experience. Words are static, lifeless; whereas, the Word is active and full of life.
This to me is the most wonderful part of being Christian. We get to take part in not just understanding at best just a shadow of what The Word means, but we get to participate in the fullest extent of what The Word is and means. It’s not just head knowledge, words. It is actual and meaningful participation in a spiritual reality—that is, Christ the living word.
Is it any wonder then that Paul mused —
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13)”?
Why do I say that? Because God is love, and to understand God, there is no better way than to embrace that love.
Take care,

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Bruce Jenner Saga: Psychiatrist Or Plastic Surgeon, What Should It Be?

What is a “runner”?Am I insane or is that whole Jenner-Kardashian family scenario more in need of a good psychiatrist than a plastic surgeon? Really! Enquiring minds want to know . . . especially mine. Pray tell me, what is it with all this reality television stuff? Naked and afraid? My suggestion is that these two put on some clothes and reenter the real world. That should take care of a lot of their whimpering. I don’t watch the stuff so maybe I’m missing something here, but I’ll take the chance. The news and commercial snips of these shows is enough to turn me off.

What I do see, however, is that a large segment of our society has gone off their rocker. And, understandably so, I might add. I say this because sanity has to have fixed reference points or it loses its bearings, and in my opinion, moral relativity just ain’t working. What else should we expect than communal insanity when large segments of citizens are fixated on the morally bizarre? I’m thinking here, mainly, of the politically correct crowd.

Forgive me if you disagree, but I guess I am just a little old fashioned. Well, as a matter of fact, so was Jesus. On one occasion he said—

“To what can I compare this generation? It is like children playing a game in the public square.

They complain to their friends,

‘We played wedding songs,
and you didn’t dance,
so we played funeral songs,
and you didn’t mourn.’

For John didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.”
I reference this because I think it speaks in a very special way to our generation also. Primarily, it seems, that generation was fascinated—perhaps, fixated on the imagination. At least it seems so to me based on Jesus’ assessment. In that generation for them it appears that reality was too cumbersome, and perhaps even frightening, so they attempted to reconstruct their world. No better way than playing games. Of course this didn’t bring any lasting satisfaction so they complained when the games didn’t work. Human nature has an ingrained desire for something better, more permanent than the imagination, entertainment and game playing. Yet, they continued in their cynical folly, thinking that will bring satisfaction as do the bulk of Americans today. They were a cynical bunch, too. John was criticized because of his austere life-style and was said to be demon possessed; whereas, Jesus was living it up, reveling with the low life. Confused, they just couldn’t seem to make up their mind on how one should behave. Jesus, however, nipped that indecision in the bud when in essence he said, “Do you want to really know how to live? Then follow the result trail, because ‘wisdom is shown to be right by its results.’” In other words, since it is quite obvious that you are dissatisfied with the results your philosophy of life is producing, no doubt it would be best for you to stop the make-believe and soberly take on a different set of standards by which to live.  
Amazing, isn’t it? People just don’t seem to learn.
So, back to the Jenners and Kardashians, do you really expect Bruce, at age 65, to find himself—or as they now say, herself? I doubt it.
Now, this is not to say that Bruce does not really want to be a woman or at least have the appearance of one, since as I understand it, he has decided against a sex-change—which, in my opinion, would not really be a change at all—more of a camouflage, I would say. Anyway, my question is: What ever possessed him to think that he was really a female captured in a male body? I do not know, that’s for sure. It baffles me. However, psychologists say that gender identity is usually fixed at between the ages of 3 to 5, and my guess is that perhaps at that early age he gave in to the female fantasy. It is not abnormal for a young boy or girl to switch gender roles. I know that I did. When I played house with the little girl and her brother next door, we constantly fought over who would be the mother. Mothers just seemed to have a more interesting life than 9 to 5 fathers back in those days. No child wanted to mimic a tired daddy, slumped in a chair, responding with an occasional nod in agreement with something mother said. Playing the kid was totally unacceptable for me, too. My little girl friend next door was too hard on kids for that to be any fun, either. Of course, I said all of that to say this: Not once, do I ever recall that I wanted to change my gender except in role playing, but fortunately I had the good sense to realize that role playing is never reality—it’s a game.
So, back once again to Miss/Mr.  Jenner. Do I condemn him? No, but I do pity him. What a sad reality. He is trapped in his own imagination, and for me that is sad, very sad, indeed. Apparently he is sad, too, if the number of times he tears up in interviews is any indication. There’s no happiness there. However, I will leave final judgment up to God, that’s his work not mine. Maybe God can find some redemptive quality there. I can’t, however.
What then is the solution? At this point, I am not even sure there is any solution. His fantasy is too ingrained for him to escape at this late date. Unfortunately, sometime in his early life he allowed his mind to trick him into believing that life is really an imaginary game. And, in all truth, the Scripture is right when it says, “As a man thinks, so is he.” Thinking and imagination do affect behavior, who we are—but, as Jesus once said, No matter how hard we thinking we cannot add one centimeter to our height. Nor, can we, just magically change gender by the sheer force of imagination or the knife of a skilled surgeon.
So, I suppose the lesson we can learn from all of this is that it terribly unsettling in the long run when we allow our fantasies to control our conduct.
The mind is a wonderfully creative mechanism; yet, it must be programmed. The outcome depends on the income. Garbage in, garbage out. Foolishness in, foolishness out. As a man or woman thinks, so is he or she. That is not to say that the will is completely disengaged—it most certainly is not. However, for the sane there must be a pliable option, something that works that squares with reality. Fantasy is fun, but in the long run is a poor substitute for reality.
While studying abnormal psychology at university we were shown a film of a young girl that was literally raised by dogs; and if I am not mistaken it was a control study done by some god-awful university in the former Soviet Union. Anything for science, I suppose. Yet, in my opinion it is not lesser of an evil that of Dr. Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. That, however, is a subject and topic of its own. So, now back to the subject at hand.
The young girl really thought she was a dog. She barked like a dog. Slept in a dog house. Ate out of a bowl and even chewed on grass. Why grass?  I don’t know. Perhaps to get some nutrients not provided for in the dog food. Fantasy controlled her. Was she a dog? Absolutely not. What really mattered, as far as research was concerned, however, was she thought she was.
Make sense? If not, it should, because morally she was reduced to the level of a dog. She selfishly fought over and hoarded food. She clawed and bit the other dogs to get her way. She was a dog. However, not really. She just thought she was a dog.
Well, enough of that analogy. I am sure you get the point, whether you agree with my conclusions or not. However, in the wise words of Solomon, may I encourage you, indeed all of us, to—

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you.
Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. (Proverbs 4:23–26 (NIV)
For out of the heart flows the issues of life!
In any event, this is one man’s opinion.
Be blessed—


Monday, May 18, 2015

The Cost of Discipleship 2015

“Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.”Robert Frost

Steadfast Discipleship

Most seminarians are familiar with the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his book The Cost of Discipleship and that, of course, he was executed for his alleged involvement in a plot to kill Adolph Hitler just 2 weeks before the Nazi Concentration Camp he was held in was liberated by the Allies.

What many are not aware of, however, is that he reportedly lost his faith during the time he was a prisoner—although, he did retain his strong sense of justice right up to the end. Some historians have therefore because of this labelled him a Christian atheist. In other words, he had the morals of a Christian, but the theology of an atheist. Nonetheless, his influence on religion and political scientists has been enormous, particularly through his writing.

For Bonhoeffer discipleship cost his life; but more tragically, if the reports are true, his faith. Although, I am not altogether too sure that by losing his faith that he lost the faith. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to substantiate my assessment, so I will simply have to with my assumption.

My assumption is this. It is my belief—rather, I should say, my observation that it is a good thing for some to lose their faith, especially when “their faith” does not square with “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).” My feeling is that given enough time Bonhoeffer would have adjusted his theology to fit the facts. The facts are that sometimes evil triumphs, and God is prepared for that because he has a backup plan. Well, so what, some would say. Is it fair? That’s God’s call, not mine, I would say. Be that as it may, however, I can assure you on the strength of God’s word that none of the evil that we experience in the world today, including the atrocities of the so-called Caliphate Nation of Islam, shocks God in the least. He is well aware of the proclivity of man towards evil because as far back as Genesis 6:5—
“God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

So, none of this has caught God off guard.

This I contend because I do not have the choice of making God into something He is not. Theology for me, therefore, has always been a given, not a choice.

Is God then cruel? Yes, he is certainly cruel if we assume that this is it, that he has no backup plan, or that he condones evil.

However, justice is promised, and justice will prevail. Furthermore, he will never violate our freedom to choose. So, the choice is ours, either we struggle with questions that we insist on answering for ourselves or we trust in his everlasting mercies. For as Robert Frost so rightly observed—“Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.” And, how true that is.

Quibble all you want to about the justice of God, and what is right and what is wrong, but none of this will, however, change the given—that is, evil is, and evil is never fair. 
“But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:13)

This is all part of the journey, and we do well to accept that which we cannot change, and change what we can, and during the meantime ask God to give us the wisdom to know the difference.






Friday, May 15, 2015

The Therapeutic Value of Suffering


The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths. — Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D.


Dear Friends, prayer and financial partners,  
I met a monk once who wore a drab, prickly old gunny sack robe. When I asked why, I was told that he wanted to offer his suffering up on behalf of the Body of Christ, and that he was simply taking his cue from Paul who wrote—
“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
Obviously, he was miserable. Yet, somehow he had convinced himself that his self-inflicted misery for the sake of Church, the Body of Christ was to fill up what was lacking in regards Christ’s afflictions.
He and others of like cloth insisted that a sure path to personal holiness was to “offer up their suffering to God for the sake of others in the Body of Christ.”
Now, does this make sense to you that a self-inflicted wound would somehow benefit the Body of Christ—that is, the Church? I surely hope not; but sad to say, there are millions of poor innocent, well-meaning religious devotees who feel otherwise. Paul, they say, “buffeted or beat up his body (1 Corinthians 9:27)” in order to stay fit for the Kingdom, and so must we. What an amazing theology, I thought. The Bible, however, says that Christ—
“… was wounded for our transgressions, [further] he was bruised for our iniquities and the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5).”
Surely, that is enough, I believe.
Let me, however, be quick to offer the caveat that one man’s weirdness is, however, no excuse to reject all suffering as meaningless.
There is much that we can and should learn from suffering. More about this later, so let us first look at suffering—all types of suffering, to see if we can form some helpful insights. For, I too, have found as did Dr. Kübler-Ross that some of the most beautiful people that I have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.  After considerable experience and research on the subject of death and dying, Dr. Kübler-Ross has identified five emotional stages through which the average person processes painful and life changing events such as facing death, but also including divorce and/or other unpleasant traumas that are common to all. These five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. None of which, however—with the exception of the acceptance stage, in my opinion, offers any lasting solution to the problem of suffering. As a matter of fact, the other four—that is, denial, anger, bargaining or depression will only acerbate the misery, as far as I can see.
Yet, the choice is ours. We can deny the problem, as many people do, only to discover later that it has only grown worse. Some people may also choose to blame others, or often God for their predicament. I believe in putting blame where blame is due, but believe me, if you are one of those that blames God or even the Devil for all of your ills, you are simply on the wrong track for any solution at all. It’s not God’s fault that your husband left you, or your child has leukemia. It is not as if God or even the Devil is standing around with a big bag of hurts just looking for an opportunity to con them off on you. Listen, we are in the trouble we are in because of a fallen world.  Disease, misery and hurt are part of the warp and fabric of life. God, according to the Bible I read, never promised immunity from the discomforts of life; as a matter of fact, Jesus once said—
"Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
Thus, I believe that Christ wants us to embrace all that life has to throw at us—and, as it were, bear our cross. Through it all, however, we are assured that—
God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
In this regard, I believe that Paul’s assurance in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that we will not be tempted beyond that which we can bear is directly related Christ’s  prayer on the night just before he was to make his long arduous journey to Calvary, bearing his own cross until his physical strength gave way. That prayer was not that we would be protected from evil and suffering, but rather that the pervasive power of the Evil One would not overcome us.
Therefore, we must understand that through it all, Christ fully intends for us to experience the journey—the good as well as the bad time. So, make no mistake, the Godly will suffer. For all of us suffering is a given. None escapes it; nor should we try to read something sinister into our experiences when things don’t go as wished.
Suffering is all part of God’s bigger plan for all of us. Otherwise, why would Christ say that we cannot even be his disciple unless we are willing to embrace our cross? However, I don’t believe that whipping ourselves with a cat of nine tails like those poor misguided flagellates Christians in the Philippines and elsewhere do, or wearing a prickly old gunny sack robe is not what Christ has in mind.
On the contrary, I believe that the reason he insisted that we bear our own cross is that he knew that suffering is inevitable—part of life’s journey. He also knew that suffering is a very good teacher, and that we can learn a lot through suffering. One of those lessons, Paul addresses when he writes that when we suffer—
“We are comforted, so that we may comfort others.” (2 Corinthians 1:4) 
Furthermore, we know that suffering builds character. Paul went so far as to say that— 
“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5 NIV) 
Pete strikes a similar chord when he writes—
“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7 NIV) 
So, we can quickly see from these few verses that suffering serves a purpose. That purpose is also found in found in Romans 8:28, for —
 “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” 
One of the hardest lessons to learn about suffering, however, is found when Paul declares—
“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24)
Now, in order to learn this lesson, we must keep in mind that first of all we are the Body of Christ, and that suffering has the strength to purify us—individually and collectively. As mentioned, Peter says, that as gold is purified by fire, we, too, are made pure in and through the fires of suffering. Although, this is counterintuitive to much of what we have been taught as Pentecostals, we cannot, however, escape God’s word. 
What then is lacking in regards to Christ’s suffering? Certainly not our salvation. That he accomplished through his life and death on the Cross. However, what is lacking in the Body of Christ is our imperfection, individually and collective. As individuals we welcome suffering if and when it builds Christian character, and collectively we embrace these hard and difficult time in our lives so that we may comfort our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As I said previously, we must embrace all that God allows—the good and/or the bad, to work in us as a holy catalyst to change us into His image of perfection.
What about divine healing, some will ask? Doesn’t God want to heal us? What about the other trials in life, aren’t these just a hindrance to spiritual progress. Well, I wish I had the answer to each and every question like these; however, I don’t. I simply know this, the purpose of God in our lives is not so much to do something for us, as it is to do something in us.
All that I know in that regard is that—
“We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV) 
How he does that is up to him, and if that includes suffering, then I must embrace it. Paul did. He prayed, he said, three times that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh” as he described it; but God’s answer was—
“No, my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” “Therefore,” said Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
We serve God's purpose best when we take Paul's example to heart, too, I believe.

Now, may God give us all the wisdom to embrace everything that God allows to cross our path as another opportunity for improvement—
For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:5)
Therefore, we embrace suffering in the confidence of knowing that our God is bigger than our circumstances, and that He cares and understands; and further that embrace life in general builds character.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

My God Thinks Outside the Box . . .

Thinking Outside the Box
A.W. Tozer once wrote that—

The answer to the question, “Where did I come from?” can never be better answered than by the Christian mother who tells her child, “God made you.” The great store of knowledge in today’s world cannot improve on that simple answer. The scientist can tell us the secrets of how matter operates, but the origin of matter lies in deep silence, refusing to give an answer to man’s question. It is important for Christian believers to be able to stand firmly and positively in this declaration: “Thus saith the Lord!” Our chief business is not to argue or to persuade our generation. With our positive declaration of God’s Word and revelation, we make God responsible for the outcome. No one can know enough to go beyond this. 

I must say that in all my years as a professor of Apologetics, I have never found a better answer, either. Reason can take us to a logical antecedent but beyond that it is mute. We all know, or at least should know that reason operates inside a box—in our case a box of time and space and reasonable imagination; however, that imagination can never take us beyond that box and remain reasonable, as it were. Reasoning outside the box is only possible with revelation. Inside the box a virgin birth remains illogical, a fantasy beyond imagination; outside the box, however, through the gift of faith we understand that God thinks outside the box.

Now, since He created the box and decides what and when something will be placed in the box, it is his privilege to do just that. Virgin birth? No, problem, if and when it serves His purpose. All supernatural miracles fall in that category—that is, the category of His purposeful intentions; and there is nothing illogical about that.

 What are those purposeful intentions? Well, God is very clear about that, Scripture says that we are all “predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).” In other words, it is His “purposeful intention” that we be conformed to the image of Christ. That’s our destiny in a summary. 

Now, the beautiful thing about this intention is that God will literally move Heaven and Hell to accomplish His purposes. John the Revelator tells us that He does just that, too. Read it for yourself, it’s there, Revelation 20:14 tells us Hell will be thrown into the Lake of Everlasting Fire (which is the second death), and in chapter 21, verse 2, John informs us that he saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God and brought down to earth, so that God himself could dwell with us. Pretty awesome thoughts!

So, in essence we know that nothing, absolutely nothing—not even Hell can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).”

Does that make me a Universalists? No, it just makes me a stickler for God’s word. And, God’s word assures me that the fear of Hell is no longer an option for me because God has greater plans for me. God can and will handle Hell and all the rascals that go there. So, I will simply leave the problem of Hell and what that verse means up to them—that’s their problem, not mine.  

Thus we can walk with the assurance, not of worldly wisdom, but with a reasonable faith that is made possible by a God who thinks outside the box.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Miscellaneous notes on Catholic doctrines . . .

The Catholic position on the Rapture

The Catholic position on the Rapture has not been dogmatically defined. Yet, you maintain that “In the 1940s the Holy Office judged that premillennialism "cannot safely be taught." Which, of course is true—the Holy Office did also say that; however, to say that the Church has not dogmatically defined this issue is, nevertheless, a far cry from outright denying it.

Baptism vis-à-vis Circumcision


Colossians 2:11-12 refers to this type of spiritual circumcision: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” This is the Scripture on which much of what those who practice infant baptism base their doctrine.

Those believe that only believing adults should be baptized say  that this circumcision (i.e., water baptism) does not involve the cutting of the body; it is a cutting away of our old nature. It is a spiritual act and refers to nothing less than salvation, effected by the Holy Spirit. Baptism, mentioned in verse 12, does not replace circumcision; it follows circumcision—and it is clearly a spiritual circumcision that is meant. Baptism, therefore, is a sign of inward, spiritual “circumcision.”
This passage also specifies that the new life, represented by baptism, comes “through your faith.” This implies that the one being baptized has the ability to exercise faith. Since infants are not capable of exercising faith, they should not be candidates for baptism.
Someone born (physically) under the Old Covenant received the sign of that covenant (circumcision); likewise, someone born (spiritually) under the New Covenant (“born again,” John 3:3) receives the sign of that covenant (baptism).
Alan Howe
There is in Protestant evangelical circles a commonly held misconception concerning the Roman Catholic Church today: namely, that we are dealing with broadly the same institution and theology with which our forebears dealt. So, for example, one recently published and generally helpful pamphlet speaks of the current pope, Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), as an ‘arch-conservative’ and mentions his ‘pre-Vatican II doctrinal rigidity’, thus giving the unmistakable impression that little, if anything has changed in the official stance of the church over the past fifty years or more. In order, therefore, to come to a more accurate representation of Rome’s official stance theologically today, we need first to understand what has happened in the past century or so, i.e. not only in the period leading up to the convening of the Second Vatican Council (‘Vatican II’: October 1962-December 1965), but also in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Roman Catholic Theology before Vatican II
Prior to Vatican II the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church was ‘Neo-Thomism’, or more broadly ‘Neo-Scholasticism’, which began to be established from about 1840 in order to rescue the church from an increasing pluralism of ideas and theologies in the early nineteenth century. Neo-Thomism in particular was the movement designed to recover the theology of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) as central to the church; it was given official sanction in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris of 1879. Thus when Protestants think of Roman Catholicism, they may have in mind the overall picture given by an author such as Loraine Boettner in his classic volume Roman Catholicism (P & R, 1962), published during the Second Vatican Council, but describing the theology which had prevailed up to that point. This was a theology which was officially Neo-Thomist and Tridentine (i.e. also upholding the declarations of the Council of Trent [1545-63] which condemned the Protestant Reformation).
Not that liberal ideas in various forms did not circulate within the church between 1879 and 1962. Pope Pius X, in his decree Lamentabili and encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis (both issued in 1907), condemned modernism, describing it (in Pascendi) as the ‘synthesis of all heresies’. Modernist Roman Catholic thinkers such as Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925), Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), George Tyrrell (1861-1909) and Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) thus became the object of official scorn and rejection.
However, modernist seeds had been sown; and in the background stood the figure of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), an Anglican convert to Rome (1845) who wrote what was to become for many later, liberalising theologians at the time of Vatican II a key text: An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. This work was written by Newman as a vehicle to justify the theological developments found in the traditional Roman Catholicism of his day but rejected by Protestantism (e.g. Mariology).
However, as Nick Needham has argued, ‘it is to be feared that the ultimate thrust of Newman’s philosophy of development may have been to bolster the Hegelian evolutionary idea of God and the world which increasingly seems to underlie much modern Roman Catholic thinking’ (essay: The Tragic Enigma of John Henry Newman - CRN Journal, Spring 2001). In other words, Newman’s ideas were eventually to give succor to those who sought to reject the rigidity of Neo-Thomism and instead promote modernist thinking.
Even the papal condemnations of 1907 and the entrenchment of Neo-Thomism as central to official theological training by the 1920s did not, however, entirely halt the spread of modernist ideas. Theologians such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), Karl Rahner (1904-1984), Yves Congar (1904-95) and Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) began to grapple with the same sorts of ideas which had been condemned in the early twentieth century. This gave rise, for example, to the broad school of thought known as ‘Nouvelle Théologie’ (‘New Theology’) which rejected the official theology of the church.
This move to free the church from what was seen as the straitjacket of Neo-Thomist orthodoxy was also met with official criticism in the encyclical Humani generis of Pope Pius XII, issued in 1950. However, as Reformed theologian David F. Wells narrates, this encyclical ‘was so mild in its wording it can hardly even be seen as a rebuke. The work of the new theologians was not imperiled and still less consigned to the graveyard of heresy. After a further decade of study, their conclusions seemed sufficiently safe and fruitful to be given papal approval’ (essay: Recent Roman Catholic Theology in Tensions in Contemporary Theology - Moody Press, 1976).
So how could this be? What was the event that precipitated the sea-change in Roman Catholicism which would finally admit the New Theology (i.e. modernism)?
Vatican II and aggiornamento
On October 28th 1958 one Angelo Giuseppe Rocalli was elected pope, taking the name John XXIII. Unlike his predecessor Pius XII, the new pope - although already an old man - was open to the modernizing agenda of the New Theology. Thus John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council with the specific intention not of merely repeating what had been taught in the past, but rather of achieving a doctrinal breakthrough. As he made clear in his address which inaugurated the Council, his justification was that the 'substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of the faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another'. For a church in second half of the twentieth century it wasn't sufficient to stand still: it was necessary to embark upon a radical process of aggiornamento (bringing things up to date).
The result at Vatican II was a clash of theologies and their representatives, with the Neo-Thomist traditionalists being battled by the newly emboldened modernizers of the New Theology. As David Wells narrates, when the two parties came into conflict with each other, three outcomes were possible: on rare occasions one side prevailed; sometimes, when neither side backed down, a reconciling statement was drawn up which was ambiguous enough to mean different things to the two parties; and sometimes no such reconciling statement could be devised, in which case the two opposing positions were simply recorded alongside each other.
The problem, then, that was bequeathed to the Roman Catholic Church was a set of Council documents which could often be interpreted in varying ways. Rather than resulting in clarity, what Vatican II often did was to produce uncertainty. So what is the situation today, nearly half a century later?
Rome today: three camps, not two!
Today Roman Catholics themselves are clear that in the wake of Vatican II three broad doctrinal camps have evolved. Philip Trower, in Turmoil and Truth (Family Publications/Ignatius Press, 2003), writes:
'Among those calling themselves Catholics today there are in fact not two but three recognizable bodies of belief or opinion. First, there are Catholics in the hitherto universally recognized sense; they accept all the Church's teachings. Then come the modernists or semi-modernists dedicated to altering some aspect of faith or morals. We can also call them innovators or dissenters. It seems the politest name consistent with accuracy. Finally, there are the followers of the French Archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre.' (p.37)
Re-stating and re-ordering Trower's analysis for the sake of clarity, we can characterize the three camps as follows:
1. The Traditionalists: As Trower says, the Neo-Thomist followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-91) make up this camp. They are basically those who have rejected Vatican II as heretical and wish to maintain the doctrines and practices of Rome prior to the Council. Lefebvre founded the Society of St Pius XII in 1970 and in 1988, after himself consecrating four bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II, was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. This group is small, although vocal.
There are also a number of (mainly) American Roman Catholic apologists who, although working within the church, are concerned to promote traditional Tridentine teaching. Typical examples here would be ex-Presbyterian (PCA) Scott Hahn, or Karl Keating.
2. The Radical Liberals (i.e. Trower's modernists or semi-modernists): These are the thinkers and theologians who wish to carry forward the most radical interpretation of Vatican II. They too often act in defiance of the reigning orthodoxy. A representative figure would be theologian Hans Küng (b.1928) who was appointed a peritus, or official theological advisor at Vatican II. Although still a priest in good standing today, he was deprived of his mandate to teach Roman Catholic theology in 1979, mainly as a result of his explicit rejection of papal infallibility. The representative journal of this camp is Concilium which puts forward a more radical version of the New Theology.
3. The Conservative Liberals (i.e. those in Trower's analysis who accept Rome's teachings): These are the representatives today of a more conservative interpretation of the New Theology, e.g. Joseph Ratzinger (b.1927), the current pope. The theology of the more conservative liberals is now the prevailing orthodoxy within Roman Catholicism. Their textbook is the officially-sanctioned Catechism of the Catholic Church (first published in English in 1994) and their representative journal is Communio.
The outworking of Vatican II in the doctrine of soteriology
Roman Catholicism is therefore no more monolithic in its doctrine and practice than wider Protestantism. Of course, there is an official line as represented by the Catechism and various papal pronouncements; however, there is usually also visible dissent at both ends of the theological spectrum, i.e. from the traditionalists and from the radical liberals. One thing is clear, though: if there is an official line, it is not going to be that of the church pre-Vatican II. The official line must therefore characterized as liberal in some measure. We can see this in the doctrine of soteriology:
The traditionalists, like orthodox evangelicals, are exclusivists, i.e. they teach that there is no salvation outside the Christian faith, in particular as represented by the Roman Catholic Church. This is summarized in the Latin phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation outside the church). Pope Pius X in his encyclical Jucunda sane of 1904 explained this teaching as follows:
'It is our duty to recall to everyone great and small, as the Holy Pontiff Gregory did in ages past, the absolute necessity which is ours, to have recourse to this Church to effect our eternal salvation.'
Evangelicals have also traditionally been exclusivists, arguing, however, that Rome is a false church. Biblical texts such as John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 provide the main arguments for Christian exclusivism.
The radical liberals, like many liberal Protestants, are often pluralists, i.e. they teach that all religions can lead to God and salvation. This is the position of Roman Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, editor (with Protestant theologian of soteriological pluralism, John Hick) of The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (Orbis, 1987). In this teaching Jesus Christ is no longer held to be the only savior, thus contradicting the biblical texts mentioned above.
The conservative liberals, like many other liberal Protestants and some liberal-leaning evangelicals such as Clark Pinnock, are inclusivists, i.e. they teach that people of other religions can be saved by Jesus Christ even if they do not explicitly believe in him. Karl Rahner coined the term ‘anonymous Christians’ to describe people who are saved in this way.
Inclusivism is in fact the official position of Rome today. This shift away from the traditionally-held exclusivism began with the declarations of Vatican II (e.g. Lumen Gentium) and is now enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
  • ‘Those who have not yet received the gospel are related to the People of God in various ways’ (para.839)
  • ‘The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant.’ (para.839)
  • ‘The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.’ (para.841)
  • ‘The Church’s bond with non-Christian religions is in the first place the common origin and end of the human race...all share a common destiny, namely God...’ (para.842)
  • ‘The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things, and wants all men to be saved.’ (para.843)
  • '...all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his body.' (para.846)
  • ‘Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by his grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.' (para.847)
It is evident, therefore, the Roman Catholic Church has dramatically shifted her position on the doctrine of salvation. In reality she teaches today that people of any faith (or, perhaps, none) can be saved by means of religious sincerity, because this is in effect anonymous Christianity. Inclusivism has therefore replaced exclusivism. Ian Ker, Roman Catholic priest and biographer of John Henry Newman, explains the current orthodoxy as follows:
'...the Council (i.e. Vatican II) reasserted the Catholic Church's rejection of both the narrowness and exclusivity of the Evangelical Protestantism which restricts salvation to Christian believers, as well as any kind of Liberal protestant approach which undermines the uniqueness of Christ as the sole mediator.' (Catholic Herald, 15th September 2000)
Of course, while describing Rome's official position today perfectly accurately, Ker is actually re-writing the history of his own church whose position prior to Vatican II was patently exclusivist (with the exception of the doctrine of Baptism of Desire, which taught that the unbaptized could be saved if they desired baptism but died before receiving it).
Knowing our opponents
This writer is convinced that one of the reasons why evangelicals often continue to engage purely with the doctrinal controversies of the past (giving the impression that Rome has not changed) may well be that this is within their theological comfort-zone. However, while such engagement is still necessary in those theological loci which divide orthodox evangelicals from Roman Catholic traditionalists just as they did in the sixteenth century, it is important to understand that the debate has actually been relocated and now takes place in a quite different overall theological context. As Reformed theologian Robert Strimple says with regard to the traditionalist Roman Catholic apologists in the USA:
'Evangelical Protestants must recognize, however, what such conservative Roman Catholics themselves recognize: that they form the ''orthodox minority'' (Keating) in the Catholic Church. And when orthodox Protestants enter into debate with those who now form the majority of professional Catholic theologians, the issues addressed must be the even more radically fundamental ones relating to the meaning of every affirmation of the historic faith of the Christian church...' (essay: Roman Catholic Theology Today in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze what Divides and Unites us - ed. John H. Armstrong, Moody Press, 1994)
Let us, therefore, know our opponents, so to speak. The Roman Catholic Church has changed fundamentally in the past half-century, from a Tridentine exclusivist body (“no salvation outside the church”) to one that embraces religious inclusivism (“all can be saved by their own sincere religious quest”). In our engagement with Rome’s teachings, let us therefore not merely re-fight the battles of the past, but so understand what Rome in fact teaches that we may be equipped to fight the battles of today.
© Alan Howe. Permission is given to duplicate and distribute this article in any format provided that the wording is not altered and no fee is charged. Please include the following statement on copies: © Alan Howe. Used by permission.