Roman Catholics

The Trinity and Us

Now that I have written five thousand words about why I think the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a true and biblical description of the One God, someone might wish to ask me, “What difference does it make?”  Sure, traditional Christian orthodoxy (held today by evangelical and conservative Protestants of all denominations, traditional Roman Catholics, and most Eastern and Oriental Orthodox) believes in the Trinity, while Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, liberals (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), and Muslims do not.  But is that just an interesting and incidental detail, along the lines of different traditions of church decoration?  Or is it relevant to how Christians live out their faith in practice?  Does this Trinitarian theology matter?

I think it does matter, and it matters a lot.  Now, I will readily grant up front that it does not seem to matter to many Christians, who live out their lives with scarcely a thought regarding Trinitarian vs. Unitarian doctrine.  But I think it does matter, and ought to matter a great deal to Christian life and faith. (more…)

Biblical Authority: Yes! Sola Scriptura? Maybe.

The Bible is amazing.  The God who created all the universe and each tiny flower in a mountain meadow decided to communicate with people in their own language, and to inspire people to write it down for future generations to read!  Even the Bible talks about about invaluable and awe-inspiring the Scripture is.  God gave the law through Moses, and after he re-hashed it all to the Israelites in the plain of Moab (Deuteronomy means “second [statement of the] law”), Moses said, “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut 32:47).  God spoke through Isaiah, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).  When Jesus quoted a difficult passage of the psalms, he parenthetically remarked, “And the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).  The Bible is fully authoritative, life-giving, and amazingly clear (indeed, often far too clear for our comfortable self-deceptions).  I do not think we can speak highly enough of God’s gracious gift of Scripture.  But it is possible to speak inaccurately of it.

“Sola Scriptura” is one of the five Reformation “solas” (the plural ought to be solae, or rather soli, since one of them is masculine).  It is called the “formal principle” of the Reformation, meaning what distinguishes Protestant theology’s method from the theology of Roman Catholics.  But “sola Scriptura” has come to mean many different things to different people.  It seems to me that some of these meanings are true, but some of them are false.  We must evaluate these meanings in turn. (more…)

Sins Big and Small?

One of the issues on which Protestants and Roman Catholics have often chosen to disagree is whether there are gradations in sin.  As Holy Saturday comes to a close, and as we prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection tomorrow, I thought this subject might be worth a few words.  In short, I think both are right, as long as not overstated. (more…)

“Same God” for Muslims and Christians? False Starts

Recent events at Wheaton College have once again raised the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  This is a question which I have faced with some regularity, given that I have a small amount of theological training and that I study the mixed society (including Muslims and Christians) of the medieval Middle East.  With due regard to Biblical authority and the many learned people who have weighed in on the question, I find the issue to be rather more ambiguous than anyone likes to admit, and dependent upon certain non-obvious answers to tricky questions regarding the nature of worship and the relationship between sense and referent when speaking about spiritual beings, including God.  In other words, contrary to what everyone would like to be the case, the answer is not obvious either way.
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A Tale of Two Priesthoods

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.

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“The God of All Comfort”

This post is not actually about 2 Corinthians 1, from which the title phrase is taken, but rather about 1 Peter, which I was reading recently.

Peter is writing to Christians scattered throughout what is today Turkey to encourage them because “is necessary for a little while now that you be grieved by various afflictions” (1:6), whose faith was being tested (1:7).  He praises their faith and counsels reverence for God and holiness in life.  He describes their relationship to God with some amazing language which bears repeating: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, so that you may declare the excellent qualities of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light, you who once were ‘not a people’ but now are God’s people, who had ‘not received mercy’ but now have received mercy” (2:9-10).

And he simply assumes that Christians will be hated and will suffer because they are Christian: (more…)

Religious parking lot layouts

Peddling stereotypes is intellectually irresponsible, usually offensive, and occasionally funny.  Along those lines, here is a list of parking lot layouts for various religious groups, in no particular order:  (N.B. outside of America, “parking lot” is usually pronounced “car park.”) (more…)

A Starting Point for Practical Ecumenism

In response to my long essay about the similarity, or lack thereof, between the earliest Christians and various denominations today, one commentator, Anna, offered insights which can jump-start practical ecumenical discussion among Christians.  In her first comment, she opened the door to a principled ecumenism with a rejection of the extremes, both of judgmental conservatism and of mindless liberalism:

But I would like to suggest that there is a middle ground in between “you’re going to hell” and “all paths are equal”. The middle route says, “Yes, it does matter; but you’re not screwed if you get it wrong.”

She then established the value of ecumenical contact among Christians by pointing out how great it would be if we all took upon ourselves what each denomination does well: (more…)

The Argument from (Dis-)Similarity

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…)

Church Shopping

Tomorrow I should have regular wireless again, but I found a way to wish you all a happy Pentecost!  Among the “joys” of moving, I strongly dislike “church shopping,” the process of bouncing from one church to another looking for “the church for me.”  It always feels too self-centered.  I don’t want a church to be “for me”; I want it to be “for Jesus”!

But the reality is that when one moves a long distance, one must find a new congregation to worship with.  In the US, at least, this typically involves a fair amount of individual choice, as there are several churches which may be acceptable.  (This is not just a Protestant thing; I’ve watched traditional as well as liberal Roman Catholics pick their parish based on the theology of the local priest, and the competing jurisdictions of Chalcedonian Orthodox churches has given various American Orthodox friends of mine the freedom to prefer one congregation over another.)  How does one exercise this individual choice without elevating one’s personal preferences over Christ’s purposes for his Church, thus setting oneself in judgment over the people of God?  (“And who are you to judge the servant of another?” wrote Paul in Romans 14.)  If individual choice on this matter is inevitable, can it avoid being evil?

It can, I think, when exercised with the right goal.  The goal of finding a new church is not picking a congregation who is like me, or who will like me, or whose theology/worship style/dress code/architecture I find appealing or comfortable.  Those matters are not irrelevant, but they are also not the goal.  The goal is to serve our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Head of his body, the Church.  The other body parts go where the head tells them to.  If I move from one region to another, I am moving from one part of Christ’s body to another, and my job is to figure out where my Lord would have me serve, as part of his body in this new location.  Choosing a church as part of a move is not the same as picking a new phone company or a new internet service.  Instead, it is a matter of discerning my Master’s wishes and fulfilling them.  There are big questions about how to discern God’s will, but prayer is a necessary starting place, and looking for where one is called to serve Christ will raise different questions than judging whether this congregation is comfortable or appealing.

This doesn’t make it easy to find a congregation in a new location.  (Or at least, not usually.)  But it can make it less prideful and self-serving, and therefore not necessarily evil.