The Church, Part III

I had a plan for something much less sloppy in covering teachings that must not be lost. Apparently God did not share the same plans. Maybe by looking at Jesus’ church circumspectly, from several possible angles, we can paint a picture that will bring light to those who read.

If you haven’t, you might want to read part one and part two.

Okay, so this post is a response to a post on Frontier Ruminations blog. I’m trusting that Ben is not going to be offended by straightforward and robust but polite disagreement. The post is titled “The Great Question,” but I want to argue that it should be titled “The Wrong Question.”

The actual video is called “Protestantism and Authority,” and it is found on Youtube.

The video is a Roman Catholic apologetic. I disagree with its premise, but I completely agree with its charges against Protestantism. How can I not? They’re obviously correct.

Hopefully, my response will direct Protestants and Catholics both to the right question.

The Great Question

“Who finally has the authority to interpret the Word of God?”

Father Robert Barron states this as the central issue of this short video at 0:52 in. On the surface this is an excellent question. I blame no one for asking it.

I just think it’s already been answered.

Martin Luther’s Wrong Answer

At about 1:15 of the video Fr. Barron tells us that Martin Luther’s answer was that because of the priesthood of all believers, we are all capable of reading the Bible and interpreting it.

Do you need Fr. Barron to tell you what his argument against this Protestant teaching is? You probably don’t. You know the problem with Martin Luther’s assertion. These “capable” Bible interpreters have come up with at least 30,000 different answers to what the church ought to be.

Oops! That didn’t work very well.

Alister McGrath’s Wrong Answer

At around 1:53, Fr. Barron then tells us that Alister McGrath’s answer (Barron is critiquing a book by McGrath) is to reject any absolute authority and rely on a consensus that gradually builds up.

Fr. Barron is apparently pretty smart because he tears that argument apart several ways. Really, though, the objection to Martin Luther’s answer is just as valid when applied to McGrath’s. There are at least 30,000 consensuses that have gradually built up. Which one should we rely on?

Father Barron’s Answer

At 2:40, Fr. Barron gets to his own answer.

We do need a voice, finally, that can determine for us the truth of things when there is this tremendous disagreement.

He adds Cardinal John Henry Newman’s answer, basically the same.

There has to be a living voice that can determine the truth of things when the church is divided about central matters.

Fr. Barron compares this to the role of a referee in a sporting event. A referee doesn’t tell everyone what to do, but when there is a dispute, everyone agrees there needs to be a referee.

This is the role of the church, he says, in Cardinal Newman’s eyes.

Cardinal Newman’s Answer Before He Was Catholic

Fr. Barron tells us that Cardinal Newman’s opinion, while he was Anglican, was that the referee, the final interpreter of the Word of God, would be the consensus of the fathers. Newman realized, however, that their voice was not a “living” voice. They had to be interpreted as well. They can no longer speak for themselves.

My Objection to Cardinal Newman

Fr. Barron foresees my objection. At 5:35 he tells us that the umpire analogy breaks down. Umpires and referees can be wrong. In fact, referees are sometimes fired because they are incompetent or biased.

Bob’s Defense of Cardinal Newman

I figured a few Protestants might be offended because I’m referring to Mr. Barron as Fr. Barron, so I threw in a “Bob” here. Now that I’ve pretended to obey the letter (as opposed to the spirit) of Matthew 23:8, I’m going to go back to being polite.

By the way, Protestants who object to the Catholic use of “father”, while referring to men as Pastor Hagee or Dr. Stanley are hypocrites anyway. Our reference should be to Matt. 23:5-12, not just v. 8.

Sorry. pet peeve of mine.

Anyway, Fr. Barron’s defense to the charge that I would make, that the Roman Catholic “magisterium” is not a competent referee and should be fired, is that the Holy Spirit shares his and Cardinal Newman’s opinion that we must have a living voice to be the final interpreter of God’s Word. Thus, the Holy Spirit would ensure that the truth given to the apostolic churches was preserved by some organization that descended from those churches, in this case the Roman Catholic Church.

My Answer to Fr. Barron’s Defense

My answer to Fr. Barron is the same answer he gave to the Protestant idea that an ongoing consensus could be the final authority on the truth. That Protestant answer clearly did not work. Thirty thousand denominations is his evidence.

The answer Fr. Barron gives, that the Holy Spirit would ensure that the truth would be preserved in the Roman Catholic Church, clearly did not happen. Numerous significant false doctrines are my evidence. Prayer to saints, the assumption of Mary, her immaculate conception, a philosophy of leadership bolstered by an invented history, a priesthood class in the church, and so many more.

It is a nice theory that the Holy Spirit would preserve truth in the Roman Catholic Church, but the proof is in the pudding. Bad fruit does not come from a good tree. If the fruit is bad, make the tree bad.

I think the right question makes it clear that the wrong question leads us to the wrong tree.

The Right Question

Jesus said that a true prophet would be known by his fruit. A good tree produces good fruit.

The right question is not who is the final authority on the interpretation of God’s Word. The right question is:

Who is producing the fruit that Jesus and the apostles produced?

The fruit of properly interpreting the Scriptures—and thus the rest of God’s Word—is Christians who are thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Every good work includes the prayer that Fr. Barron mentioned. Jesus prayed that his disciples would be as united with one another as he is with the Father (Jn. 17:20-23). Every good work also includes love between the disciples (Jn. 13:34-35), obviously meaning a love that exceeeds typical love in the world, or else that love would be no proof of anything.

Part III: The Authoritative Interpreter of the Word of God

The authoritative interpreter of the Word of God is any church that is producing a unity between disciples that is so like the unity between God and his Son that the world believes God sent him (Jn. 17:20-23).

The authoritative interpreter of the Word of God is any church that produces disciples that love one another so much that the world knows they are Jesus’ disciples by their love for one another (Jn. 13:34-35), not by an organization they hold in common.

The authoritative interpreter of the Word of God is any church that consistently raises up disciples who are thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

What Do You Want?

If you want to be able to argue that you are joined to the right church, join yourself to people that effectively argue that they are the true church.

If you want to feel like you are correctly interpreting the Scriptures, join yourself to people that win all the doctrinal arguments in which they engage.

If you want to be a part of the family of God, united in love, sharing and being shared with, growing in godliness and experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, join yourself to people living that way.

Each one of these illustrate the truth that trees produce fruit in accordance with their nature.

I would argue that the goal of Scripture interpretation is to produce people who keep God’s commandments (1 Jn. 2:4), walk in the light (1 Jn. 1:7; 2:6), practice righteous (1 Jn. 3:7), and love one another (1 Jn. 4:7-8; Jn. 15:12).

If you find a tree producing that fruit, you can be sure it is a good tree, a true and trustworthy interpreter of the Word of God.

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10 Responses to The Church, Part III

  1. paulfpavao says:

    Oh, great. I’m supposed to be eliminating the word “clear” from my writing. I’m failing miserably. I am going to have to redouble my efforts. There are better ways to say that I think I’m right, lol.

    In fact, I remembered to take “clear” out of my response to you. I’m obviously not very consistent with it.

    I think both you and I said enough for our exchange to be fairly judged by others. Trying to convince each other is probably not a good use of my time or yours.

  2. paulfpavao says:

    Well, here’s my concise answer.

    1. I made it clear what fruit I was looking for.
    2. I gave the things that make me reject the RCC as an authority

    So, I don’t really have an answer to that comment. I only give this to say I think my post is already on answer to this comment.

    That’s my concise answer. The following is a new take based on something you said in your comment.

    Call me a heretic or whatever you want. I absolutely reject the assertion that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [my church]” means that the organization that developed from the apostolic churches cannot fall. I think it obviously fell. I think that anyone who reads Eusebius _Ecclesiastical History_, written in AD 323, and who also reads the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates, Sozomen, & Theodotus in the 5th century–I think that anyone who reads Eusebius and the other set of histories has to see the remarkable difference in them. The church, as it was known before Constantine, was lost. It fell.

    That’s reality. You can interpret the Scriptures to say it could not be so, but all anyone could accomplish by that is to prove the Scriptures wrong. The church, as it was known before Constantine, is lost … competely, totally lost.

    The only kind of reasoning that could deny that is the kind that would compare the RCC of today (or the Protestants) to the fellowship of the church described in Acts. It may exist somewhere, just as it exists here and there in the Protestants. It’s worth everything to be a part of that for me. I can’t see how joining the organization that lost the life of the church in the 4th century is going to help me get back to it in the 21st century.

    Further, I did find a route that led me back to the life of the early church. I live it. I experience it. That’s my argument that there are people who can be a final authority without being connected to an ancient organization.

    • Ben says:

      Hi Paul,
      I don’t want to come across as pushy, but
      1. I thought I made it clear that the fruit you’re looking for does not follow a reliable criteria without first answering the “great question” of authority.
      2. I know you gave some doctrines that you disagree with or don’t understand, but as I thought I explained, to make a judgment on the Church by those doctrines rather than directly addressing the “great question” of authority is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.
      I won’t call you a heretic 🙂
      It sounds like you’re still thinking of the Catholic Church as just another denomination. That’s why I spent so much time addressing that in my comment, because it must be challenged. “It fell.” What fell? An effective living voice and authority?

      I hate to ask you to wade through my crazy long comment again, but if we need an authoritative “living voice” (think councils), who do you propose to compete against the Catholic Church? And by what authority do you declare the Catholic Church’s pre-eminent authority to have expired? By what authority do you claim to be part of a Church that is effectively producing proper fruit and emulating Acts? The great question.
      -Ben

      • paulfpavao says:

        Hi Ben,

        I’m sure you couldn’t have meant your “I thought I made it clear” and “as I thought I explained” the way it sounded to me. Don’t worry, I didn’t even wonder about it. I know you’re not the type of person to talk condescending. My response was going to be, “I know you haven’t been in the Catholic Church long enough to be a priest, so don’t talk to me like you’re my father.”

        So …

        Yes, you did make it clear, and you did explain. Once again I have two answers.

        1. I think I explained what I felt to be the great question of authority. It’s fruit, and the judge of that fruit is me or anyone else. I know you disagree with that, so once you did, I figured I’d just let your comment stand against my original post. No sense repeating our arguments.

        2. In justification of that position, let me say I can’t do the religious thing that says, “We can’t really know.” I (and almost everyone else) can look at Acts 2:42-47, Justin’s First Apology 14, and Tertullian’s Apology 39, along with the commands in The Didache and in the apostles’ writings and see that hardly any churches of any persuasion live like that. I (and almost everyone else) can look at where it is being produced, and recognize that people are living like that or not.

        We can even recognize when community is forced by rules or inheritance.

        We can judge whether there is any apostolic or historical accuracy to the assumption of Mary and to the way Mary is spoken about in the Roman Catholic parishes. I can look at Scripture and see that Scripture’s treatment of Mary is different than the RCC’s, and not by a little. I can read the writings of Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Justin, Irenaeus, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Polycarp, etc., and I can tell that the things they talk about are nothing like what I experienced in the RCC.

        I’ve listened to their explanations for the huge differences. I reject them, and I most certainly reject the charge that I’m not qualified to reject their doctrines and explanations for them.

        When I quote the early church fathers, I can quote them freely because I’m trying to understand what they taught. When the RCC quotes the early church fathers, they have to hide things–lots of things. They quote Cyprian as an authority, but they never tell you about the 7th Council of Carthage, which he led, rejecting Stephen of Rome’s authority to rule other bishops. Then, when I point out the 7th Council of Carthage, then suddenly Cyprian has no authority, and worse, he might be a heretic!

        I quote Irenaeus, and when I do, I don’t dodge the famous passage in Bk. III, ch. 3, par. 2 which says that Rome has “more powerful preeminence,” but you’ll be hard pressed to find a Roman Catholic who quotes anything surrounding that quote.

        It’s just what I experience with the creationists. I find them picking and choosing, purposely leaving things out in an attempt to deceive me and others, and I am distressed to find that the much more honest side of that debate is the mostly secular, 40% atheist scientific community.

        Sorry, I am not even close to being willing to say that I am unqualified to pass judgment on such obvious errors.

        Finally, my authority, I suppose, includes an appeal to reason. A lot of Christians have rejected reason. I haven’t found the fruit of that choice to be very impressive, either. Quite the contrary.

        • Ben says:

          Paul,
          I appreciate you offering further clarification of your position, and since it’s your blog, I’d like to let you have the last word on the matter.
          I only want to make sure you know that I was mirroring your statement of “I made it clear” from your numbered points, and did not mean to sound rude, although I did wonder if perhaps you had disregarded my points too quickly.
          Your knowledge of history is indeed inspiring, and I know I have a lot to continue learning from you, and from others on the subject.
          I’m going to re-read and ponder your last comment for future discussion. I have enjoyed our “straightforward and robust but polite disagreement.” 🙂
          God bless!
          -Ben

  3. Ben says:

    Hi Paul,
    I was pleasantly surprised to see this post and your thoughtful consideration and treatment of Fr. Barron’s video. I could not possibly be offended by your honest differences with the Catholic Church, although I believe your differences are largely based upon misunderstandings. I’ll be curious to see if others wish to add their thoughts to the discussion, but I’d like to come back later and address some specifics if I can.
    By the way, would you mind double checking your links?
    God bless!
    -Ben

    • paulfpavao says:

      I fixed the link. I look forward to hearing from you.

      • Ben says:

        Hi Paul,

        First of all, Fr. Robert Barron’s video speaks for itself, and if anyone has not yet watched it, they should. It really needs no further clarification from me, and my thoughts will be directed primarily toward your post.

        Being an ex-Protestant (theologically speaking), and new Catholic, I must admit that the issue of authority is indeed a large part of what brought me home to the (Roman) Catholic Church. I’ll briefly explain my reasoning process, as I think it ties directly into the discussion:

        1. “Scripture Alone” as the authority in the Church is an idea that breaks down very quickly when put to the test. Many people never get past this step, but it is crucial to understand if someone wishes to proceed.

        2. The “invisible church” concept is sketchy at best. I see it as illegitimate as an authority, and 30,000 denominations demonstrate this. Can it even be accurately defined?

        3. Therefore, the Church must be in some way visible, and this visible Church must ultimately possess some kind of authority, or “living voice”, to settle doctrinal disputes and interpret the Scriptures. Someone must be able to declare a council to combat heresy. What Church can do this?

        So, to me, the question of “who finally has the authority to interpret the Word of God” is not only the right question, it is indeed the Great Question. It is at least not unreasonable to ponder, especially for anyone who has ever disagreed with anyone over what a passage of Scripture means.

        So, WHO has this authority? We’ve basically agreed that Martin Luther’s ideas have led to doctrinal anarchy, and Alister McGrath’s “consensus” idea is unworkable. This is where the options narrow down to a small handful of contenders. However, something you can note about the (Roman) Catholic Church, is that much like Jesus could not have simply been a great teacher, the Catholic Church cannot simply be another denomination. Those who look into its teachings at any deep level know that it must be either diabolical, or the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Teachings regarding the Eucharist, Mary, papal authority, etc. set it apart from all of the other options. It is not simply an organization, or “that church”. It claims to be THE Church, in possession of THE Truth, and THE spiritual authority. Who would even dare to make such claims with the sort of boldness that Jesus had with His claims? Could it be possible that the Catholic Church has God-given authority? Let’s not be too quick to rule out the possibility.

        So it becomes a question of legitimacy, because legitimacy=authority in this case. There are many things that took me awhile to come to terms with in regard to Catholic doctrines (I had been trained well by Protestants in how to think), but because I was able to deduce that the Catholic Church’s authority is legitimate, it could therefore legitimately declare an issue (like prayers to saints, the assumption of Mary, her immaculate conception, etc.) to be true. If these issues are used as distractions from the issue of authority, then we’ve missed the question of authority itself, which would allow the Church to legitimately declare these things to be true. Now, there is evidence to support these things way beyond “the Church says so”, but the answer CAN be “because the Church says so” if its authority is legitimate to say so. What if I refused to believe in God because I refused to believe in the miracle of the resurrection? I’d be missing out on the ability to understand that the resurrection is possible precisely because of God’s involvement. Do you get what I’m driving at? By the way, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t believe the Church can create Truth, or work miracles apart from God or anything like that, but if the Church declares something to be true, and God really is working through the Church, then we can trust the proclamations of the leadership far more than we trust our own assumptions.

        By the way, as we’ve seen, the question “where is that in the Bible?!” is not the final and ultimate test to see if something can be true.

        People often say something like, “so how do you know that the leaders of the Church didn’t turn into the Pharisees?” Two reasons:

        1. If logic leads us to the conclusion that there must be a visible Church possessing spiritual authority in matters of doctrine (and many people don’t get this far, I know), then how many contenders are there, really? God promised that the gates of hell would not prevail over His Church. Christ is protecting His bride to this day.

        2. The Pharisees did not have the Holy Spirit like the Church does, and this ties back into Fr. Barron’s point. The Holy Spirit offers the guidance. Who has the Holy Spirit as a doctrinal guide? Well, we can see that many individual people do not. However, it is reasonable to consider that people do have guidance from the Church that is guided by the Holy Spirit.

        We can obviously see that there is a need on this earth for someone to have the power to bind and loose, and interpret the Scriptures. Again, who are even contenders for the position? What Church is the Church that God guides through His Holy Spirit to guide the people and interpret the Scriptures?

        I must say, I disagree with your conclusion that the Catholic Church’s fruit is bad, but if that’s the qualifier, then who’s fruit is good? Who fits the role of the authoritative “living voice”?

        The apparent crux of your argument, that there are “numerous significant false doctrines” within the Catholic Church, is debatable at best… or by what authority do you declare the “evidence” to be conclusive? The Protestant Reformers had some ideas that didn’t work out very well at all. How are you different? I contend that you can test any Catholic doctrine biblically, and it will pass the test, although something does not need to be specifically located in a specific verse in order to be true, as we know.

        I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about John 17:20-23, and I do not agree that it is fulfilled by “any church that is producing a unity between disciples”. I could sit in my backyard with my wife and kids and the occasional visitor, believing and teaching whatever pseudo-Christian doctrines I want, completely separated from the rest of the Body of Christ, and technically fulfill your criteria in that regard. Dare I suggest that Jesus was referring to a unity of all believers around the entire world? What Church has a significant global presence? Again, if the Catholic Church is anything, it is NOT just another denomination or organization. It helps Protestant arguments sound more legitimate to refer to it that way, but it’s either the Church, or it’s an ingenious evil lie. Some choose the latter, and their arguments from that standpoint in my opinion are all-too-often embarrassingly lame.

        Regarding the “right question” as you see it… how do we know that someone is producing fruit as part of the Body of Christ? Are the Mormons producing fruit? Are the Swedenborgians producing fruit that is just as good as the Lutherans? How do you know that your Church’s fruit won’t eventually become Gnostic fruit, or that it isn’t already? Or is Gnosticism fine if the question of doctrinal authority (and therefore orthodoxy) is not as important? If you wish to clarify what proper fruit looks like, by what authority do you declare someone else’s clarification to be less accurate, and who do you go to in order to get the final answer in the dispute? What do you do if a Jehovah’s Witness tells you that he keeps God’s commandments, walks in the light, practices righteousness, and loves other people according to the verses you reference? Proof texting is all-too-often insufficient.

        You said that “the authoritative interpreter of the Word of God is any church that consistently raises up disciples who are thoroughly equipped for every good work”. ANY church? Paul was referring to the usefulness of Old Testament Scripture for equipping believers in 2 Timothy 3:16 (“profitable” was the word he used), and it seems to me that it would be a stretch to contend that this passage qualifies “any church” to be authoritative.

        “What do you want?” I want the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. I want to be joined to the right Church, and also correctly interpret the Scriptures. I also “want to be part of the family of God, united in love, sharing and being shared with, growing in godliness and experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit in [my] life…”

        And EVERYONE is welcome to join me and the 1.2 billion other Catholic Christians united around the world with common doctrine as part of the authoritative Church 🙂

        -Ben

        P.S. Sorry about the long comment. I normally try to be more concise.

  4. Ruth says:

    I was taught that christ added us to the church. That we were members of His body. That our fellowship and union with other believers was enabled by the spirit that we were to maintain the bond also by recognizing and honoring the presence of God s spirit within other believers who could and do confess or testify that Jesus is lord. That a tree is known by it s fruit. That the fruit that identifies individual members is love that wheat and tares grow together and I should not try to weed. that the spirit Would lead me to all truth that the truth would set me free. So I am alReady a member of Christ s church which is his body and have fellowship with a wide spectrum of believers who differ at times theologically but follow Christ and bear the fruit of love and show that in obedience by walking in the spirit not the flesh. I have yet to find any one physical group where all members includiNg myself do this flawlessly but I am still a member of Christ s body which is the church. Right?

    • paulfpavao says:

      Well, in theory that’s true. There is a universal church, the heavenly Zion, of which all disciples are a part (Heb. 12:22-24). However, if you’re a single mom who just got evicted from your home because you couldn’t pay rent, that true theory isn’t going to do you much good. If you feel overwhelmed by the world and can’t figure out how you’re going to get free from your obsessive sins, then that true theory won’t do you any good.

      What is true in theory needs to become true in practice. Practically, there is an experience of the church that is powerful and transforming and the majority of Christians do not experience it because they are attending meetings not joining a family.

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