Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, November 20, 2009

Email to a Protestant Inquirer 

Below I am copying some correspondence between myself and a dear Protestant friend. He is currently in a Protestant Evangelical seminary and is grappling with the difficult problems raised by modern, historical-critical exegesis. Just in the case that some casual reader may benefit from this correspondence, it follows. Elipses below indicate that personal, identifying material has been removed:

His email:

I've been here . . . going to seminary , hoping to find some of the answers to all of the questions that had been bombarding me at liberal universities . . .. Most arguments I believed were invalid because they relied on the assumption that God does not exist and that prophecy is impossible. But a lot of arguments sounded extremely logical and difficult to refute. Those types of questions multiplied when I went to [a graduate school in theology], but I always assumed that just because something looked suspect and hard to account for didn't mean that there was not an answer.

So when I got here, I couldn't wait to hear how conservative scholars handle these types of issues, but surprisingly there were not many explanations I had not encountered before. When I took a class on the history of doctrine, it just left me wondering why it took so long to formulate the canon, and why so many people, believing themselves to be Christians, believed so many different things about Jesus early on.

I've taken a special interest in Christian origins and NT textual criticism, looking closely at theological development and textual variants. When I started to read each book of the Bible independently, as they no doubt originated, I began to notice how much of my "orthodox" theology I have to import into each one on order to make it also sound "orthodox." For 11 years I've had the same view of the scriptures, and so I went kicking and screaming into a realization that something might be wrong with that view. Just reading the two birth narratives again (Mt and Lk), I could see that there were problems in thinking that both of them could be historical. I started considering the evidence for identifying the pastoral epistles as pseudonymous, and it was very convincing.

And after taking all of the problematic issues into account, it was impossible to still think of the Bible as the inspired, infallible, word of God. So I was tempted to do what my theology had taught me to do, which was just junk it all. If you can't trust one part, you can't trust any of it. But that seems extreme. So now I'm trying to reconstruct a theology around a view that sees scripture as a witness to revelation, rather than absolute, undiluted revelation straight from the mouth of God.

I just wondered if you had come to terms with any of the findings of historical criticism in this respect, but I have a sense that you might have the same views I had up until about 2 months ago. I agree that there is everything wrong with reconstructing historical events, but what if the events that were recorded were not historical? For 11 years I refused to consider the possibility that the Bible could be wrong about anything, but why? Is there a scripture that says that all Christians must believe that every book that would eventually come to be placed in the NT canon must be believed in its entirety? Or is that something that has been developed later? It's comforting to think that God superintended the formation of the canon, and inspired all of scripture contained therein, but there seems to be too many problems with that view for me to continue with it honestly.

My response follows:

First off, as I’m sure you recall, my response to this question will be different from yours simply because I’m a Roman Catholic. (Although, I’ll add, part of the reason I became Catholic is because of the problems you raise. I found that Evangelical Protestantism proved to be a dead-end in answering the questions posed by modern secularism, whereas only Catholicism (in my experience – if there’s another church that does, I’m not aware of it) provided answers). In sum, I have (historical, biblical) reason to believe that Christ, while on earth, founded an authoritative Church, built on the foundation of the apostles, to teach in His name, and that the Pope and bishops of the Catholic Church are the legitimate successors to these apostles, and hence hold their authority. Thus, I do believe that the Scriptures are ‘inspired’ and ‘inerrant’ (without error), and I believe this on the authority of the Church, since the Pope and bishops have always proclaimed these doctrines. To quote St. Augustine, the 4th century African Father of the Church, ‘I would not have believed the Gospels themselves, unless the authority of the Church moved me to do so’. Naturally, you haven’t been convinced by the Catholic arguments, so your approach would be different, but I wanted to state right out (without getting into an argument over this, since I’m not terribly interested) that I’m in a very different position than yourself when it comes to this. My position is, as it were, easier than yours. I don’t have to bother with refuting each and every argument posed by the historical-critics, because I have it on a higher authority that they are simply wrong. (Naturally, the truth is much more complicated than this, but I’m simplifying.)

For the Protestant, who is reluctant to allow for the authority of an institutional church, as I see it, you have two routes to securing biblical inspiration and inerrancy:

1. The easy way: accept by way of an ‘inner testimony’ of the Holy Spirit that the Scriptures are true; God speaks in my heart that they are true and I will not doubt God – just as God testifies to my eternal salvation (as most Evangelicals believe), He testifies to the authority of Scripture. And not only the authority, but the contents of the canon. As my roommate . . . (you’ll remember him) told me, ‘I cannot accept that God would allow me to be deceived as to the contents of the Scripture’. This sounds good as far as it goes, but there are obvious problems. How do you distinguish between the ‘inner testimony’ of God and a mere psychological confidence? I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of things I thought God was telling me that later proved out to be ‘mis-readings’ on my part of His will. And as I told my roommate, as far as the canon goes, the Protestant has to believe that God allowed every Christian from the 5th century to the 16th, including all Catholics to the present day, including Mother Theresa herself, to be deceived about the contents of Scripture, since all these Christians accepted a different canon than you. (The Catholic canon, of course, is different than the Protestant’s.) So, if God would deceive these gazillion Christians, why would He treat you any differently? (Unless, of course, you take the route that none of these people were ‘true’ Christians, and Mother Theresa is burning in hell. Fine then, that’s a way out. But also, to rest the inspiration of Scripture on an inner psychological sentiment (which sounds Mormon to me) proves remarkably weak when you begin to confront the hard challenges posed by historical critical scholars. As in your case – you have to set the self-evident proof of errors on the page against your inner certainty that they are not really errors. You’re not going to win that fight.

2. The hard way: Do the historical critical work better than the scholars do, and disprove them. Every ball they toss at you, bat it back at them. Every error they point out, prove that it’s not an error. This has been the ‘labor of love’ performed by countless Evangelical scholars over the years, and has typically been the route they’ve gone. Admittedly, they’ve been pretty good at it, and most of the errors proposed to be in the Bible have been pretty handily resolved by Evangelicals. Most. Not all. The problem is that, again, this is harder than it seems, and requires a great amount of faith. Some problems in Scripture, like the discrepancy between John and the Synoptics as to which day Jesus died on (John has it on Saturday, the Synoptics on Friday, as I recall) can be resolved in historical critical ways, such as pointing out that John and the Synoptic authors used different calendars. Fine. Others are not so easy. I needn’t point out examples to you, but there are some problems (in the genealogies, e.g., or in the Genesis stories) which appear intractable, and for which I have yet to read a satisfactory response. And who knows, other problems could be pointed out in the future, or others may be out there I haven’t heard yet. So I have to have faith, that these seemingly intractable problems do indeed have a solution, and that every problem posed in the future will have a solution, but again, that’s not resting on empirical evidence, but on faith (back to the ‘inner testimony’), and the longer you stay in the game, the harder the fastballs keep coming. This seems to be what you hoped to find in Dallas – better batters who could return the fastballs – but the hard truth is that most of the batters have long since given up.

Those are the only suggestions I’ve been given by Protestants. As you can tell, I’m not terribly sanguine about them in retrospect, and they didn’t convince me at the time. The other possibility:

3. As the liberal Protestant concludes, we can just abandon the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. Admit that the Bible does have errors in it, or find a compromise, that the Bible is inerrant on ‘matters of faith and morals’, but not on historical/scientific matters. (Many liberal Catholics take this route.) Or deny inspiration, and claim that the Scriptures are simply the historical testimony to the faith of specific historical people, and is ‘inspired’ only in the loose sense, that it ‘inspires’ faith in the reader. That is, not ‘inspired’ but rather ‘inspirational’. The trouble is, as you know, this is simply the first domino in a long stack. For the Protestant, whose faith rests on ‘sola Scriptura’, the authority of Scripture alone, once you abandon the notion that Scripture has any authority, what else do you have? Or once this authority is admitted to be full of errors, then its authority has to be qualified – it is authoritative, but only when it has been ‘vetted’ by historical critical scholars to remove the erroneous parts. And this gives biblical scholars a kind of ‘Magisterium’ or authority over Scripture, and they get to pick and choose what parts are authoritative. Don’t you know what parts they will remove? I teach a class on Paul’s letters, and can you take a guess at what parts of Paul’s letters most scholars think are illegitimate, i.e. not by Paul? 1 Corinthians 11, which says women ought to submit to their husbands, Romans 1, which condemns homosexuality, etc. . . . . In the Catholic Church we complain about ‘cafeteria Catholicism’, where people pick and choose what doctrines they like and don’t like, as though they were in a cafeteria. Once Protestants accept that Scripture includes errors, prepare yourselves for ‘cafeteria Protestantism’. Should it be any surprise to you that the liberal Protestant denominations, which abandoned biblical inerrancy in the late 19th century (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans) are now ordaining homosexuals and approving divorce, abortion, and all the rest? You ask if there is a scripture that suggests that everything in the canon must be believed in its entirety – well, no, of course not. There is, of course, 2 Tim. 3:16, but this hardly says that. But, naturally, once you suggest that parts of the canon need not be accepted, you can hardly call yourself a self-respecting Protestant. (I think the absence of any such passage speaks more of the weakness of the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura than of errors in the canon, but that’s another matter.)

There is another path, of course. You speak of Scripture being a ‘witness to revelation’, rather than revelation itself. Well, yes, fine – this is, of course, the Catholic position, more or less. But I’d ask you – what exactly is this revelation you speak of? What, exactly, does Scripture testify to? Here’s the problem. If Scripture is not revelation but a witness to revelation, then Scripture itself has no direct authority – revelation does, and Scripture only has authority INASMUCH as it testifies to revelation, and if (as the scholars tell us) Scripture does a rather poor job of testifying to revelation (since it is, supposedly, full of errors), then Scripture only has a very limited, qualified and mitigated authority. In other words, one can play off Scripture AGAINST revelation – I have heard these arguments used to justify gay marriage. God’s Revelation is of absolute, unconditional love for all, and Scripture is only meant to testify to this; if parts of Scripture do a very poor job of this, since they are written by bigoted, hatemongering sycophants (such as whoever wrote Romans 1), they we ought to defy or ignore such passages, and in the name of our holy obedience to God’s Revelation, we should accept the holy sanctity of gay sodomy. In other words, in the name of our obedience to Revelation, we ought to defy Scripture. There’s a sick kind of logic there, but that’s the slippery slope you get on. So, I’m find in following you in saying that Scripture is a testimony to revelation rather than the sum total of revelation itself. (I happen to believe Scripture is an inspired, inerrant, authoritative testimony, but we’ll save that discussion for later.) But if you don’t specify exactly what you mean by revelation, but leave it up to the vain speculations of individual Christians to define for themselves, you see where the slope slides. Is this revelation some vague idea, or is it concrete, historical, flesh & blood revelation? If you can’t actually point to what this revelation is, then your only solution is to abandon any notion of Scriptural authority and part ways with the Reformers. This is, of course, exactly the service which the Catholic provides, which is to:

4. Identify God’s revelation with ‘Tradition’. ‘Tradition’, in the Catholic meaning, does not refer to a collection of ‘secret doctrines’ which are not found in Scripture (I strongly suggest this article by a convert to Catholicism). Rather, Catholics speak of God’s full revelation as consisting in the Incarnation of His Son and the sending of His Spirit. Thus, while on earth, Jesus showed us not only a fragmentary revelation of God (Hebrews 1), but the Full Revelation of God Himself, i.e. the very face of God. He left all of this revelation to His apostles, subsisting in the giving of the Spirit as the ‘guarantee’ or ‘deposit’ of truth, which would bring to their minds what He taught them. This truth, then, was ‘handed on’ from Christ to the apostles, which they ‘handed on’ to the Christians after them. (‘Tradition’ – Latin ‘traditio’, Gk. paradosis- literally means ‘to hand over’). Some of these teachings are enshrined in Scripture, but not all (Jn. 21:25 – the world count not contain the books which would include everything He taught), and thus St. Paul (2 Thess. 2:15) urges his churches to obey all the traditions (paradosis = ‘what is handed on’) which he taught them, whether by word of mouth or by letter (e.g., not only the Scriptures he wrote, but also his preaching). ‘Tradition’ is not a set of secret doctrines but rather the whole life of the Church, which is the teaching of Christ – doctrine, creeds, worship, prayer, songs, virtues, stories, practices, the whole kit & caboodle. As the Catholic teaching puts it: Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes...So, this ‘revelation’ which Christ brought is simply the life and teachings of the community of the Church. Scripture is simply a witness to this revelation. Scripture itself, after all, is a work of tradition, a part of that which is ‘handed’ on, but hardly the whole thing. (Even if it is, of course, the central thing.) Catholics, for their part, are happy to agree that all doctrines are found in Scripture, as long as we maintain that Scripture is never to be read ‘in a vacuum’, but only within the community of the Church, taking into account the larger ‘tradition’, including the creeds of the early Church. This, of course, also allows for some authority of church leaders (bishops or what not) to preside over this tradition and distinguish true from false traditions. Does it bother me that the canon was not formalized until the 5th century? No, of course not. It bothered me as a Protestant, since I had to wonder what it was that the early Christians used as their authority in the first 400 years – naturally, it was ‘tradition’. And how did Church authorities know which books to include in the canon? They tell us themselves (read Jerome) that they chose those books which best embodied the ‘tradition’ which came from the apostles. Does it bother me that Christians very early on came to different interpretations of the Bible? No, of course not. Because I believe that God has provided a means, outside the canon, as a guarantee of a right interpretation of the canon – that is, the tradition, as interpreted by Church authority. Arius, who denied Christ’s divinity, misinterpreted the canon because he denied the tradition of the Church and was condemned by a church council. But if one believes in NO authority outside the canon, one is sort of up a creek, for the history of doctrine will be bewildering. Find me any thinker in the early Church, before Luther, who believed that the Bible alone was an exclusive source of authority, and that tradition had no authority.

I don’t mean to get detained with Catholic arguments. That wasn’t, as I said, my point, and I’m not much of a debater on these things. But, when you deny that the Bible alone is an adequate and exclusive source for authoritative revelation, and suspect that there must be some source of authority outside the canon, of which Scripture is a partial but not exclusive witness, you should be aware that this is exactly the position of the Catholic Church, and I am unaware of any other Christian denomination (save perhaps the Orthodox, and maybe the Anglicans) who will tolerate such conclusions. And, again, it was exactly this logic which led me to consider the Catholic Church in the first place. I did not find #1, #2, or #3 above to be viable options, and simply couldn’t find a fifth. Obviously, again, you have (so far, at least) found a different route than mine, so more power to you.

As a final comment, a word on the Catholic view of Scripture, which may prove helpful. You might peruse, just as a supplement to your own studies, the Catholic document on divine revelation, Vatican II’s Dei verbum. Chapter 3, in particular, speaks of Scripture. You’ll note that Catholics believe in ‘inspiration’, defined as the notion that the human authors of Scripture wrote only those things which God wanted them to write, so that the text can be considered ‘divinely willed’, with God as its primary author. Also, Catholics believe in ‘inerrancy’, since the texts are held to teach ‘solidly, faithfully and without error’ divine truth. Note, however, that in the Scriptures God speaks to us ‘in a human fashion’, and that the human authors spoke of things using their own free wills and minds, and from their own points of view (so, e.g., they speak of the sun ‘rising and setting’, which is ‘true’ as it goes, from a human point of view) – so we don’t expect the Bible to be a ‘ready-made encyclopedia’ of scientific knowledge. In particular, ‘anything asserted by the human authors’ is asserted by the Holy Spirit, who cannot deceive or be deceived, and so exactly this is inerrant. Thus, the importance of historical-critical study, to determine exactly what the human authors ‘asserted’. We should allow that in cases of metaphor (‘God is a rock’) or ‘hyperbole’ (‘the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds’), or poetry (Job’s reference to sea monsters, or leviathans; perhaps the six days of creation?) we should understand that what the human author is ‘asserting’ should not always be taken literally. This alone accounts for a good number of so-called ‘problems’ of Scripture, and is a healthy ‘balance’, I think, between the need for historical-critical study and the authority of the text. But, in the end, whatever the human author can be identified as asserting is believed by the Catholic church to be inerrant and trustworthy. On that I tow the line.

# posted by Jamie : 2:02 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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