Pope Francis made headlines recently for mandating a different translation of the Lord’s Prayer into modern languages. He is urging Roman Catholics to switch from the traditional phrasing “Lead us not into temptation” to a new version “Let us not enter into temptation.” Note that he was not suggesting changing the text of Scripture or what Jesus said; he was merely arguing that this prayer has been mistranslated into the languages with which we today are familiar. Yet casting this as a translation issue is to misrepresent the theological basis for the objection and how it functions. (more…)
There are a number of places in the Gospels where the words of Jesus or someone else are reported in Hebrew or Aramaic, followed by a gloss in Greek (which is usually translated into English for English-reading audiences). Thus “Immanuel” is glossed “God with us” in Matthew 1:23, and “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Matthew 27:46. But in one case the supplied translation adds a few words: in Mark 5:41, Jesus says to the dead girl, “Talitha koum!” which is translated as “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” A rudimentary knowledge of Aramaic quickly indicates that talitha is “little girl” and koum (qum) is “get up!” but where did “I say to you” come from? This has long made me scratch my head, but now I have a theory. (Nerd alert!) (more…)
It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God. Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy. Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders. As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says. There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.
As I have argued that ecclesiology matters, we might then ask what we ought to believe about the Church. So I thought I might lay out a few basic ecclesiological ideas in a series of short(er) posts. Of course, our ideas about the Church tend first to be informed by our experience of actual churches, and what we like or dislike about them, and only secondarily (or tertiarily) consult the Bible or any reputable theological source. But God’s revelation is always there to challenge us, just as Apollos was challenged by Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:26, to think better about the subject.
The first point is that there are multiple churches, and yet there is one Church. The Church is simultaneously singular and plural. (more…)
Biblical scholars like something to argue about, because they are academics, and academics make their living by making arguments. (I know; I am one.) And since what is at stake in biblical scholars’ arguments is almost always the question whether the Bible can be trusted, for skeptics who wish not to believe as much as for believers who wish to do so, biblical scholars’ arguments often degenerate into battle lines. Often, I feel, a little more careful attention to the text may shed some useful light on the subject.
One debate which has intrigued me in the past is the question of the (non-)relation between the Hebrew word “Hebrew” (ʿibri) and the word “Habiru” and its variants in Akkadian and Egyptian. It seems that some conservatives have argued that Habiru = Hebrews = Israelites, and thus the Ancient Near Eastern texts which mention the Habiru corroborate the biblical accounts of the Israelites. Against this, some skeptics have argued that the term Habiru is used in contexts where the biblical Hebrews cannot possibly be intended, and sometimes carry non-Semitic names, which these scholars take to indicate that the Habiru were a mixture of Semitic and non-Semitic.
Now, I am not an expert in the Ancient Near East, nor do I read Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or any of the other languages, so I can only approach this question from the Hebrew side. But it seems to me that what the Bible says about Hebrews is not what most people have presumed, and may open the door to a different solution to the relationship between the Hebrews and the Habiru. (more…)
Will the real Church please stand up? Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering. Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed! How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?
One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors. This is the argument from similarity. I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning. It was not the first time. I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity. I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present. I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)
Most people assume that they know what the word “Catholic” means, but in fact, it means several different things. Some of the more common meanings are:
1. “Not Protestant.” The Anglophone world has been dominated by Protestant varieties of Christianity for almost half a millennium, and for much of that time “Catholic” has been used as a denominational label, on a par with “Lutheran” and “Baptist.” Of course, there are many Christians who are neither Protestant nor Catholic (I’m not thinking of Anglican proponents of a via media here, but rather thinking of Greek and Russian Orthodox, as well as Arab, Syrian, Coptic, and Assyrian branches of Christianity).
2. “Christians who like sacraments, candles, high liturgy with colorful vestments, incense, praying to saints, ecclesiastical hierarchy, and medieval theologians.” The advantage of this definition is that it is at least positive instead of simply a rejection of Protestantism. This is the meaning of “Catholic” in the phrase “Anglo-Catholic,” which refers to Anglicans with a fondness for “smells & bells.” But again, many of these elements (with a different selection of medieval theologians) would characterize varieties of Eastern Christianity.
3. “Part of the Christian denomination presided over by the Roman Pope.” This excludes both Anglo-Catholics and sede vacantists, the latter being traditionalist Roman Catholics who feel that the recent popes have deviated from traditional Catholic teaching and therefore are not valid popes. (The name comes from the Latin sede vacante, meaning “while the [papal] throne is vacant.”) Although a narrower definition than the preceding two, it is not necessarily that much more precise, as there are a variety of ways to define membership in the Roman Catholic Church. The church hierarchy itself reports membership numbers which include all those baptized into the denomination, regardless of whether they still attend mass or profess to believe any aspect of doctrine, although some rigorists would exclude such nominal Catholics from their definition.
4. “The true Christian Church founded by Christ, present wherever true Christians are.” This sense of “Catholic” opposes it to “schismatic,” people in a particular locale or region who break away from all Christians elsewhere. This is the sense in which Augustine used the term in his writings in the 4th and 5th centuries (he certainly didn’t use the term to mean “non-Protestant”!), and is the sense in which Protestants and Orthodox as well as Catholics recite the Nicene Creed’s confession of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” It would be strange indeed for non-Roman Catholics to recite a creed saying, “I believe there is one true Church over there, and I am not part of it.”
5. In the phrases “Catholic truth” or “Catholic teaching,” it refers to teaching that is universally held among Christians, as opposed to distinctive beliefs of Christians in one area or one group. Vincent of Lérins offered what has become the most widely accepted definition of “Catholic” in this sense: “What is believed everywhere, always, and by all.” Of course, universals always require a scope, which Vincent does not make explicit, but “everywhere” and “always” should of course be taken to mean wherever and whenever there were Christians. “By all” is trickier, because Vincent would presumably not have included heretics such as gnostics or schismatics such as Novatianists in his category of “all,” but if one narrows the category too much then “by all” becomes tautological: any belief is believed by all who believe it.
The contentious question, then, is what these different senses of the term “Catholic” refer to. Basically everyone agrees that senses #1 and #2 are larger than #3 (this is empirically verifiable). Between the Council of Trent (the Roman papacy’s answer to the Protestant Reformation) and the First Vatican Council (1868-1870), the Roman Catholic party line was that senses #3-5 simply refer to the same group of people. They interpreted the patristic doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus (“outside of the Church no one is saved”) as referring to the Roman Catholic Church specifically, in keeping with the teaching of Pope Boniface VIII (d. 1303) in his bull Unam Sanctam that submission to the Pope was absolutely necessary for salvation. On this view, all true Christians were within the Roman Catholic Church (although the converse did not hold: those within the Roman Catholic Church were not necessarily true Christians), and “Catholic truth” was that body of doctrine taught by “all” the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, i.e. the magisterium. Protestants were ipso facto condemned.
Meanwhile Protestants took a few different lines. Protestant theologians all (or almost all) asserted that they were part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” which required explaining “catholic” differently than loyalty to the pope. Since the papacy rejected almost all of the reforms proposed by Protestants, many Protestants viewed senses #3 and #4 above as mutually exclusive, although some followed Luther in allowing for a little overlap. The lack of a unified anti-papal organization distinguished the notion of a “Catholic Church” in this sense from an institutional unity, so that shared doctrine as indicated in sense #5 became more important as a definition of Christian unity and the key to recognizing good Christians who belong to other denominations.
Eastern Orthodox (and Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East) had long earlier concluded that submission to the Roman pope was not the defining character of the Church of Christ, and they too continue to confess into their creed that they are part of the Catholic Church. There are different self-governing ecclesiastical hierarchies among both the Eastern Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Rum Orthodox, Georgian, etc.) and Oriental Orthodox (Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopic), so they too concluded that one or another hierarchy was not as important as orthodox doctrine and sacramental unity (shared communion), although they do emphasize the visible unity of the church and the apostolic succession of the bishops to a greater degree than Protestants. It is obvious to anyone who knows Greek that the term “catholic” comes from καθ’ ὅλην ἐκκλήσιαν (“according to the whole church”) or ἡ καθ’ ὅλην γῆν ἐκκλήσια (“the church in all the land”), and makes no mention of the pope or hierarchy; “catholic doctrine” in sense #5 was understood to refer to “ecumenical councils,” that is, councils which (at least notionally) involved the entirety of the Church and whose decisions were accepted by the Church.
With the modern ecumenical movement, many Protestants dropped the requirement of shared doctrine from their definition of the Catholic (i.e. universal) Church, and have recognized other Christians with whom they have larger theological disagreements. On this model, sense #3 of “Catholic” describes a part of the group indicated by sense #4. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II adopted as dogma the negation of Pope Boniface VIII’s requirement: it is not absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pontiff. (This has caused conservative Catholic sources I have looked at to resolve the tension by arguing one of the following: (1) Unam Sanctam does not in fact fulfill the requirements of the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility, (2) Unam Sanctam does not mean that it is absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pope, or (3) Vatican II and subsequent popes are apostates and not true Catholics). Instead, Christians and even non-Christians of good will can be saved. The doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus has been reinterpreted to mean that all who are saved are in some sense (without knowing it) spiritually connected to and dependent upon the Roman Catholic Church, even if they reject and repudiate the Roman Catholic Church they know (although perhaps they can’t be virtuous enough for salvation if they reject it too vociferously). On this view, the Roman Catholic Church (sense #3 of “Catholic”) is still the one and only universal Church (sense #4 of “Catholic”), but now both definitions have significant footnotes: the Roman Catholic Church is held to have this non-visible wing of people who are evidently outside of it but mystically inside of it, and some of them are probably Christians of other denominations (which are not therefore, as denominations, other churches or other parts of the sense #4 “Catholic” Church). Sense #5 is still understood to be the teaching of the Roman Magisterium, although it is progressively more difficult to interpret all the various teachings throughout the ages consistently, and so some, such as Pope Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam, get quietly neglected.
“Ecumenical” is still a dirty word among many Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians, although their participation in the World Council of Churches has helped them see commonalities across Christological divisions.
Is the Roman Catholic Church the Catholic Church? Is the Pope Catholic? Depending upon whom you ask, the answers will vary. But in light of varying meanings of the term “Catholic,” it is important in our ecumenical discussions not to equivocate, but to distinguish the different senses of the term, even for those of us who believe there is a common referent.
This afternoon, over lunch, I was asked by a friend who is neither Christian nor Jewish how I might respond to the contention that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he did not usher in an era of world peace. (For an online Jewish website presenting this objection, see here.) Honestly, it’s not a topic which exercises me greatly, but I thought I’d present my answer here for future correction.
Basically, I have two answers. The first looks at what Jesus taught about the Messiah, and the second at what the Hebrew scriptures themselves say about the Messiah.
(Prolegomena: the words “Christ” and “Messiah” are distinct in English, but refer back to the same thing. Hebrew haMoshiah was Aramaicized as meshiha, which was occasionally (e.g. John 1:41 and 4:25) transcribed into Greek as messias, thence to Latin messia, thence to English messiah. On the other hand, already in the Septuagint Greek translation of Leviticus (date debated, but before 100 BCE likely), the Greek adjective khristos was used to translate the Hebrew haMoshiah, and it was similarly used in the two passages of the Gospel of John cited above. It was used as a substantive adjective, i.e. an adjective-turned-noun, in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 2:2, and thus became the common way of referring to the Messiah in Greek. Greek khristos was transcribed into Latin usually as christus, and thence to English as Christ. I will not distinguish between the nuances in English between Messiah and Christ, because they have a shared pedigree.)
The Messiah According to Jesus
1. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. He asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and when Peter said, “The Christ,” which Jesus approved (Matt 16:13-20), and when asked under oath by the High Priest if he was the Christ, Jesus answered in the affirmative (Mark 14:61). When a Samaritan woman expresses hope that the coming Messiah will sort out religious questions for them, Jesus claims to be the answer (John 4:25-26). Thus it is not surprising that the earliest Christian texts use the title for Jesus unreservedly.
2. Jesus disclaimed inaugurating an age of peace. For example, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). The sword that he speaks of is not the sword of conquest, but division within a family in the first instance (Matt 10:35), and the promise that his followers would be killed for following him (Matt 10:38-39, remembering that a cross at that time was a mode of execution, not a bothersome difficulty).
3. Jesus spoke of God’s Reign (more often translated “Kingdom of God,” but a phenomenon rather than a place) as something both present and to come. Thus he taught his disciples to pray, “may your kingdom come” (Matt 6:10), even while he was announcing, “God’s reign has come” (Matt 4:17; the verb sometimes translated “at hand” is more literally “has come close”). He even said, “God’s kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:21).
4. The immediate Kingdom of God will include Christians suffering a lot of violence (e.g. Matt 10:23; John 16:2), but also a kind of peace given by Christ (Mark 5:34; more generally, John 14:27 and 16:33). Jesus does not say much of anything about the notion of future world peace, although he likens it in a parable to “entering into the joy of [one’s] master” (Matt 25:21,23), and elsewhere he likens it to a feast (Matt 8:11). He also uses the traditional language of Daniel 7:13-14 to describe a future coming of the Messiah (Matt 24:30-31). At that time, the “Son of Man” (i.e. the Messiah) will condemn all injustice and wickedness (the chief obstacles to peace) and bring the righteous to “the kingdom prepared for you” (Matt 25:34).
Thus, it appears from the teaching of Jesus that there is a distinction between the first coming of the Messiah, to “bring the kingdom near” despite ongoing violence and suffering, and a second coming of the same, to bring an end to all evil and inaugurate the fullness of the kingdom. This is called “inaugurated eschatology,” “partially realized eschatology,” or “the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.'”
But critics may say that the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures do not support such a bifurcated Messianic mission. So that is the second piece of my response to the question.
The Messiah According to Isaiah
(Yes, I know there were other prophets than Isaiah, and the arguments I make for Isaiah could be generalized to other prophets. But in the interest of writing a blog post rather than a book on the subject, I’ll limit my discussion to Isaiah.)
Isaiah certainly foretold world peace. Most obviously, “And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. / Nation will not lift up sword against nation, / And never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4) When will this come about? Isaiah tells us: “In the last days” (Isaiah 2:2), when the Lord “will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).
But what does Isaiah say of the Messiah? This is where things get a little more tricky. Isaiah refers to Cyrus of Persia as the Lord’s “anointed” (45:1), but leaving that aside for now, more to the point are various prophecies which do not necessary use the term “Messiah” but were understood by an ancient Jewish audience to refer to the prophesied Davidic ruler. The only one to use the term “anointed” is Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord
And the day of vengeance of our God.
(This passage was quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, and pronounced fulfilled.) This passage does not say anything about world peace, as it turns out, but presumes that people have been afflicted, brokenhearted, taken captive, and made prisoner.
Other prophecies from Isaiah are debated as to whether they pertain to the Messiah or not. Most notable are the “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12), which speak of the Lord’s Servant. The most common Jewish interpretation is probably that these songs refer to the Jewish people collectively, while Christians have traditionally interpreted them with respect to the Messiah. What do they tell us?
In Isaiah 42:1-4, the Lord speaks of choosing his servant and putting his Spirit upon him, in similar language to Isaiah 61:1 though without the word to anoint, and that this servant will bring justice to the world. In Isaiah 49:1-6, the servant speaks, claiming to be hidden in God’s hand and quiver (49:2). While he is addressed by God, “You are my servant, Israel” in 49:3, he is also given the mission “To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him” (49:5). This implies some identification between the servant and Israel, but also a distinction: the servant is to bring Israel back to God. And not only Israel: the Lord says to his servant,
It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6)
So the Lord’s servant is chosen by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and given a mission of restoration of God’s people and salvation to all the peoples. If the servant is simply the people of Israel, as some suggest, I do not see how the people of Israel can restore themselves. One might propose that the righteous people of Israel would bring back those who have strayed, but even “the preserved ones of Israel” need restoration. And this passage’s double reference to God choosing the servant from the womb (49:1,5) sounds more like the Lord’s call of Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), referring to an individual. The reference to the servant’s law in 42:4 may then imply that the Lord’s servant is a king, and these passages are likely among the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah. And they do foretell a Messianic restoration of all things.
In Isaiah 50:4-9, the servant speaks again, indicating his obedience to the Lord, and yet his suffering of beating, beard-plucking, and being spat upon (50:6). Although he protests that the Lord will help him and he will outlast his opponents (50:9), there is nothing in this passage about world peace or even victory, just confidence in a courtroom. Instead, it mentions his suffering and endurance.
The final Servant Song is even more direct, and it is small wonder that it is so frequently quoted in the New Testament. This is the passage in which the servant is described as “a man of sorrows” and “surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried.” It describes how the servant is killed unjustly (53:7-8) among criminals (53:9,12), though in fact buried by a rich man (53:9), and yet his suffering was to take away the sins of the people (53:5-6). Nevertheless, “If he gives himself as a sacrifice for guilt, he will see offspring, he will prolong his days, and the Lord’s pleasure will prosper through him” (53:10). How someone who gives himself as a sacrifice can live longer is a puzzle in this passage, simply unanswered here.
But the prophecies of Isaiah speak on the one hand of world peace, and on the other of the suffering servant of the Lord. Both are speaking of the Messiah. This Messiah is Jesus, who as the Lord’s suffering servant has indeed dealt with our sins, “and by his wounds, we are healed.” The fact that the Messiah’s sufferings would not immediately usher in a period of world peace was understood and clearly articulated by Jesus, and implicit in Isaiah’s various prophecies regarding the suffering servant.
The question how can the Messiah suffer rather than ushering in an age of prosperity is not new. Jesus faced the question himself (John 12:34). But the fact of the matter is that the current brokenness of the world, which is very broken indeed, and the incomprehension of the crowds are no surprise to him and no ultimate obstacle to his redemptive plan.
After the divergence of Christian denominations, important spiritual writers were located in different branches. I think of Brother Lawrence among the Roman Catholics, John Bunyan among the English non-conformists, Fyodor Dostoevsky among the Russian Orthodox, more recently C. S. Lewis among the Anglicans, and Billy Graham among American Evangelicals. But when people of another denomination read and cite with approval such a writer, members of that writer’s own denomination sometimes object to what feels like poaching. Surely, the sentiment may be expressed, that writer is “ours”; what write have “you” to appropriate him? Indeed, some Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox feel that way even about writers from before the schism. I have heard Eastern Orthodox Christians object to any “Western Christian” (Roman Catholic or Protestant) claiming Athanasius or the Cappadocians, and I have heard Roman Catholics object to members of other churches citing Aquinas or Gregory the Great. Is there any legitimacy to this objection?
The short answer is “no.”
The present is not the first time that Christians have fought over names. Already in Corinth in the middle of the first century, Christians were claiming to belong to different denominations, whether Peter’s, Paul’s, Apollos’s, or Christ’s (1 Cor 1:11-12). (It is unclear whether this last group were claiming to be mere Christians, including the others, or holier-than-thou, excluding all the others.) Among Paul’s many responses to this sorry state of affairs is the following gem:
“So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Cor 3:21-23, NASB)
All those, then, who belong to Christ may rightly claim and profit from all those who have gone before. I am a late-comer to Christ, I know, but even so my heritage includes Moses and all the prophets, all the apostles, the early Christian writers, the medieval Christian writers of East and West (and of whatever language, whether Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, or any other), the early modern reformers (such as Erasmus and Luther) and mystics (such as Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross), and modern thinkers and activists (such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.). We have this great shared heritage, because it is Christ’s “inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) and we are “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Let us all, then, profit from the riches of that heritage and be prompted by it to fulfill the New Command of our Lord: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, NASB)