October 22, 2017

Two Questions on Jesus and Scripture

Two questions that are crucial to anyone studying and teaching scripture in a Jesus-shaped, Jesus centered way:

What would I have thought if I were there when Jesus taught, did miracles, engaged in conversations, meals, etc.?

What do the same events and words mean now that I have the entire Bible to bring all of scripture to bear on the same words and events?

I believe that what Jesus said and did is illuminated by scripture, but I don’t believe the events and words themselves were incomprehensible without all of scripture.

This is a subtle question. Christians today are dealing with scripture, not events. But the events occurred, and the interpretative context of the actual event can’t be discarded in favor of later scripture.

The Bible tells us that many of the things Jesus said were only understood later on, after the resurrection and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But the audiences/individuals who heard and participated in these events were not looking or listening to events/words empty of meaning and inspiration.

In a Jesus-shaped spirituality, we are dealing with the Christ of scripture, but we are also dealing with the Jesus who actually said and did things in real time history. The context of those words and events- all of them, especially the historical, cultural background and influences have a bearing on rightly understanding all of the meaning of scripture.

Saying that, for example, the Book of Revelation or the theology of the Reformers is necessary to understand something Jesus said or did in his ministry is a perilous approach. Revelation may shed light, but it can’t hold the interpretative key to the meaning that was there at the time. All those levels of understanding Jesus’ words and deeds are important.

NOTE: Comments will be closely moderated to stay on topic.

Comments

  1. Hello Michael,

    I’ve asked myself already when reading your last post and I’m asking myself again now: whether the path you have chosen to acquire a “Jesus-shaped spirituality” is one that will really lead you there.

    As far as I understand, you are trying to come to a point where you are reading the Gospel accounts, the sayings and doings of Our Lord, without any preconceptions, any “theology”, but from the perspective of the people who were there.

    I ask myself however if this is the best way to get closer to Christ, to understand Him better, to become more Christ-like.

    You are much more spiritually experienced and better versed in both Scripture and theology than I am (I’m an agnosticism-to-Catholicism convert of three years). Still, in my own experience getting closer to Christ comes primarily from a combination of prayer/meditation on Scripture on the one hand, and “walking the walk”, especially bearing the Cross, uniting one’s sufferings to Christ’s, on the other.

    Trying to understand what 1st century Jews understood about Jesus might be of course a worthwile and inspiring endeavor in this respect. But I doubt if it will really help you live a more Christ-like life – especially as the Scriptures attest that probably all people Jesus met during His earthly ministry didn’t really get what He was all about.

    Just my 2 cents. Please tell me if I have misunderstood anything.

  2. >As far as I understand, you are trying to come to a point where you are reading the Gospel accounts, the sayings and doings of Our Lord, without any preconceptions, any “theology”, but from the perspective of the people who were there.

    I am not trying to isolate the Gospels, but to give them a healthy and proper place, not overrun by being demoted in the canon or submerged in tradition.

    It would be impossible to read the Gospels without preconceptions. It would be possible to work a lot harder at hearing Jesus in the Gospels more clearly and less through other people’s preconceptions, like those about denominations for example.

    The perspective of people who were there absolutely exists. If someone is going to say John 6 is about the eucharist, then I’d like to hear a cogent case for how first century Galilean Jews would have drawn that from the original words as they heard them.

    (I’m not denying that case can be made btw, I’m just saying you can’t expect first century hearers to have a theology other than what they possessed at the time.)

  3. Michael,

    I think I agree with you on this. The Gospel is not some way to get to heaven, but is Christ Himself. We shouldn’t understand Christ in light of theology, or of any description of the means of getting to heaven, rather we should understand theology and means of getting to heaven in the light of the Gosepel–Christ Jesus Himself. He is the light that enlightens the nations, not the darkness that needs illuminated. His light illumines St. Paul, not St. Paul’s, Christ. Were we baptized into St. Paul? Was St. Paul crucified? Is St. Paul the light of men?

    Yes, St. Paul’s epistles are important. But only because they tell us of Christ, and preach Christ’s yoke to us.

    But the Gospel is not this or that, but Christ. And all of Him. Even his law is gospel, for it is Christ.

    Matt

  4. I’m glad that you brought this point up.

    In one of the last posts–I forget which one–it almost seemed as if some comments implied that the Sermon on the Mount served no purpose for the people who were there, but was simply a theological bookmarker holding Jesus’ teaching in place until Paul came along…and even further…until the canon of scripture was assembled.

    That seems like a very ego-centric view of the whole thing. In other words, Jesus was only thinking of the many who would come to faith decades and centuries later, as opposed to caring about the living, breathing humans right before him in his own time.

    On the other hand, I think it’s interesting that Peter, of all people, gives credence to the things Paul has to say and encourages the church to listen to him….even if he is hard to understand.

  5. There’s an assumption here that I think needs to be questioned. The assumption is common in liberal circles, but conservative evangelicals have their own version of it. While the liberals will do a “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” conservatives imagine that they can take the Gospel incidents as “raw facts” from which they can inductively construct a perspective on Jesus. I don’t think this is always a consciously chosen position. To some degree it is just a natural approach given the times we live in. But I think it is a wrong-headed approach.

    Jesus doesn’t come to us “unclothed” by the Gospels. Each teller of the story did what he or she could to make this story come alive. And I think we can see how the pondering over the material in John led to a different presentation than Mark’s very action-centered Gospel, or Luke’s chronologically arranged portrait. But I don’t think we can ever get behind the presentation. Nor, from the perspective of the Gospels, would we do better if we could.

    So the question “What would I have thought if I were there when Jesus taught, did miracles, engaged in conversations, meals, etc.?” is good insofar as it means, “When I hear these things, I should put myself in the story.” But I think that the psychological question of what this meant to the original audience is the wrong one. In many cases it is clear that they did not understand Him (e.g. Matthew 16:7). Or that many were even meant to misunderstand (Matthew 13:13). Further, the writer in those cases will reveal what was not revealed to the original hearers. What does it mean to, as a reader, be given the interpretation that was only given to the Twelve? The interesting thing here is that any hearer of the Gospel is given a privilege that was only shared by a handful in the original setting. We are not the crowd. We are the disciples. The “crowd” of Bible hearers is given a position very unlike the original “crowd” that heard Jesus. And the irony is, we are more privileged, not less. They actually saw Him, but they did not understand him. We do not see him, but we do hear and understand.

    “What do the same events and words mean now that I have the entire Bible to bring all of scripture to bear on the same words and events?”

    Before you ask that, you need to ask what do the same words and events mean now that I have been let into the inner circle and told what they meant. For had I been in the crowd who heard Jesus teach, I, like the crowd, would not have understood. I think this in itself topples the idea that the words, taken without interpretation, should make sense on their own. They make sense, but only in the context of the other words around them. While I believe in Sola Scriptura, I don’t think it applies to individual verses in isolation. Scripture as a whole might be self-interpreting. This does not mean that each individual verse in isolation is self-interpreting.

  6. dumb ox says:

    I agree that the gospels can stand on their own; again, the scene with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet needs no outside commentary.

    I agree that scripture is self-interpreting. If someone teaches that Jesus meant for us to literally pluck out eyes or chop of hands, I need to judge that interpretation in light of the four-fold witness that the gospels provide. If that is not enough, that gospel passage needs to be interpreted in light of the rest of scripture.

    I don’t think tradition (pre- or post-reformation) is necessary to interpret scripture, but if the church did not historically and universally teach that we are supposed to literally pluck out eyes or chop off hands, that fact could be used to prevent someone from doing something foolish. If a cult leader shows up tomorrow teaching the contrary, then scripture, church history, reason, and experience should tell us that the guy is a fraud. That in a nutshell is John Wesley’s quadrilateral.

    But what if that fraud leads a mega-church and/or dominates Christian media outlets with his/her dubious teachings? Scripture, church history, reason, and experience seem to be no match. The mass-media, go-with-the-crowd nature of today’s evangelicalism prevents any fresh, personal experience with the Jesus of the gospels.

    “Growing up it all seems so one-sided
    Opinions all provided
    The future pre-decided
    Detached and subdivided
    In the mass production zone
    Nowhere is the dreamer
    Or the misfit so alone”
    – from “Subdivisions”, by Neil Peart

  7. Hey, if there are any non-Catholics left commenting here anymore . . . 😉

    One element of this challenge is how Jesus Christ is, um, really present to us beyond the person described and illuminated by the Gospels (and some appearances in Acts and the letters, and Revelation, which does give us quite a bit of Jesus whether you use Red Letter Versions or not). How is “the mind of Christ” present to us in our choices and decisions and living?

    Yeah, we’ve heard quite a bit recently hyar’bouts on how Catholic Christians unpack that. From an irredeemably Protestant Christian sensibility, i’ve spent much of my Christian walk working on discernment of how Christ is living and active through tradition and practice without recourse to the Magisterium.

    Jesus is among us in the use of water to mark disciples as he asked at the end of Matthew; Jesus is present at the Lord’s Table (no debates on details right now); Jesus is among us wherever two or three are gathered in His Name (Capitalization TM); Jesus is alive through the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42), which i read as the modern experience of reading scripture in worship and sharing interpretation, most frequently done as a sermon.

    And how else is Jesus present? If we leave the question up to individual believers, you get Joseph Smith (apologies to any LDS lurkers, but the quick Mormon analogy makes my point the quickest to the mostest). If it is up to the individual leader alone, you get Jim Jones (apologies to Disciples of Christ, but hey, i am one, and served on Commissions of Ministry that he indirectly helped us finally get organized).

    Somehow, the gathered community discerns alongside the gifted believers when and where Jesus is doing an Emmaus here and now. We are still working out the details of this — Cane Ridge, Azusa, Toronto, Lakeland all come to mind — but some balance of corporate discernment and personal revelation still feels vital and real, even if that formula gets abused by every Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer that comes down the pike.

    The Jesus we discern in Christian community today can’t contradict scripture, but i want to be cautious about assuming he’s limited to that outline — i come from the conservative edge of the liberal stream of the Restoration Movement, and saying Jesus can’t exceed his New Testament warrant keeps getting us culturally bound Saviors who don’t save as much as Jesus was reaching out for from the cross.

    Hey, i may just preach that tomorrow morning. Thanks, Michael. Oh, wait, i have to preach on motherhood . . . 😉

  8. For me it has to do with reading the Gospels as I would read a novel, that is I try to feel for the characters and relate my humanity to it, to put myself into the story. I know it sound cheesy but I try to read from the heart. In my fundamentalist past, I used to read the Bible like a text book or a technical manual.

  9. Mr. IMonk,

    If you spent three years with Jesus, how would you read the Scriptures?

    Did Jesus teach His disciples to be concerned with the “historical context” (as you’ve articulated it here)? If not, then don’t you have to give a justification for such a principle?

  10. You really don’t want to get me started on what Jesus DIDN’T teach his disciples to do.

  11. That’s not necessary. What I’m looking for is your answer to how I would read the Scriptures if I spent three years with Jesus. So, what DID Jesus teach His disciples?

    And, of course, we can look at how they read the Scriptures also (i.e. the rest of the NT). Presumably they weren’t so dense as to totally screw it up within the context of the New Testament itself.

  12. Perhaps I am too simple but it appears to me that Jesus’ audiences reacted in one of two ways.
    He was declared Lord or he was vilified as a consortor with the devil and demons.
    If we/you have had a life-changing, soul reviving and resurrection from spiritual death encounter with Him we know the answer.
    Galatians 2:19-20.
    The Christ demanded in his words and actions a decision.
    That same decision is still valid.
    The question that is rejected by all of us is, “Who is this Man?”.
    Only the Holy Spirit can answer in the affirmative for us.
    But we can, by free will, reject that answer.

  13. Sorry, I’m only coming back now (I live in Europe :-)).

    “The perspective of people who were there absolutely exists. If someone is going to say John 6 is about the eucharist, then I’d like to hear a cogent case for how first century Galilean Jews would have drawn that from the original words as they heard them.”

    Yes, that’s exactly the point I’m making, and John 6 is the case in point. Because 1st century Jews didn’t understand more than we do about Jesus. They understood less. Or they understood some things better (e. g. that He was putting Himself into God’s place – that’s the point Rabbi Neusner makes in his book A Rabbi Talks With Jesus), while they didn’t understand others, like the discourse in John 6.

    I mean, John 6 is such a good example because it is about the fact that people didn’t understand Jesus! They only understood that He was talking about eating His flesh and His blood, and thought that extremely weird… A sacramental Christian of today (and of course the Christians of John’s time) immediately understood that the discourse was about the Eucharist, but of course the listeners at the time did not.

    (N. B.: I quite frankly do not know what non-sacramental Protestants understand of John 6. I’ve always been flabbergasted by those “sanitized”, “spiritualized” interpretations of John 6 that say that it’s not about eating flesh and drinking blood. Maybe it’s good after all to listen to Jesus with 1st century ears? You would at least be shocked by what He is telling you… ;-))

  14. rootsman says:

    “Saying that, for example, the Book of Revelation or the theology of the Reformers is necessary to understand something Jesus said or did in his ministry is a perilous approach.”

    IMO, you are right on spot.

  15. “Did Jesus teach His disciples to be concerned with the ‘historical context’?”

    He didn’t need to, that is embedded deep within the history of the people of Israel and to be born and raised within that community is to drink a historical understanding in one’s mother’s milk, so to speak.

  16. Speaking of the understanding of history, there’s a useful article by NT Wright on Jesus’ Self Understanding.

  17. Ruben,
    I agree somewhat but think there is a very fine line that we are forced to tread. There is not a single passage of Scripture that should be read as a text book or technical manual. With that said, I think there has to be something more in how we read than a simple reading of the story. Personally, backgrounds enable me to read the narrative in a more proper context and understand it more fully.

    I personally try to continually build my background on a few topics to help clarify the meaning of the text.

    One topic is backgrounds of the New Testament world. One fine book on this topic is C.K. Barrett’s “New Testament Background.” Backgrounds research gives you fresh insights into what the Jewish, Roman, et. al. followers were thinking when Jesus would say and do things in the gospels. Sometimes his teachings would mean something very different to a Jew than to a Roman, and furthermore something completely different when we hear the passages preached today.

    Another topic is the historical Jesus. I completely support the authority of the Gospels, so I don’t read this types of books to “demythologize” Jesus, but instead to further get into his world. A great, great work in this field is “Jesus Remembered” by James D.G. Dunn.

    Finally, I try to get into the mindset of the earliest church as they interpreted what they had seen and experienced. This can closely work alongside the works on the historical Jesus since the majority of our sources for Jesus come from the earliest church. One book that has blessed me in this field is “Lord Jesus Christ” by Larry Hurtado.

    For me personally, it is only in the context of studying the history of Jesus that I can understand how I am to follow Him. It’s amazing how things He said and did end up being so different from what I always heard growing up once I get (as far as I am able) into the mindset of a first century individual.

    As I’ve said though, this is for me personally. As someone who believes very strongly in the authenticity and authority of Scripture and as someone who believes in the work of the Living Word of God among us, I can confidently say that in reading the gospels the words on the page become the Word of God in Christ so that even without a deep understanding of backgrounds Christ will still speak to the modern reader. Still, for me, I feel as though the study of backgrounds leads to a fuller understanding and if one has time I highly suggest it.

  18. Scott Miller says:

    >>What would I have thought if I were there when Jesus taught, did miracles, engaged in conversations, meals, etc.?

    Upon introspection I am afraid that I would act somewhat similar to the Pharisees. That is an inflammatory statement, but, unfortunately, could be true. I wonder if Jesus would make me uncomfortable. Just think – Jesus hung out with sinners, preached to the poor people, and did things that seemed wrong to the religious establishment. Now I’m not rich, but I’m not poor either. I belong to a missional home church, mainly because I like the community and the in-depth Bible study. But reaching out to some people still makes me nervous – will I be responsible to help them out, give them money, etc, if they have a need? Everyone thinks “I don’t have a problem with that”, but I really wonder if I do.
    Scott

  19. Hmm… what would I do? I can’t say what I would do if I had lived then.. but if the me I am right now was there, I would drop everything and sit as His feet and follow him.

    I have adjusted my Bible reading this year to double up on – really spend more time in – the Gospels. Not to get into the heads of the people – to get to know Him more. What did He do? How did He do it? I am more interested, right now, in hoe Jesus did things, not how His disciples did things. I am not trying to be disrespectful of the disciples, but I am more interested in Jesus.

  20. I like any approach that attempts to see a separation of Jesus from “Christianity.” The pressure to stay within the bounds that men have made can (ironically) keep one from seeing and understanding what Jesus lived and died to teach us. A Christian, follower of the Christ, could be one who follows the way of the Christ, which entails certain ways of seeing and being. But often it can describe one who is more attached to being a member or a student than an actual follower, which involves the heart level.

    What we have with the bible is a collection of writings that came before Jesus and after Jesus. It would have been great if Jesus had written a book, but he didn’t. And respectfully, Divinity, the Source of all Life, God did not “write” a book either. God is not an actual author. This evokes resistance and defensiveness in many because we’ve been programmed to defend scripture to the end, but it may be that in order to truly understand Jesus and the understanding of God that Jesus taught and knew we will need to loosen our hold on the special onion skin pages and leather binding.

    Are we seeking to become more like Christ or more like a bible student who will get good grades in class?

    What if, in order to understand God, we need to let go of some of what we think we know about God?

    Whoever grew to have a heart more like the Christ because they believed Mary was a virgin or that the revelation of John should be taken literally? Is that illuminates the ways of being and seeing that Christ lived and taught?

    Blessings,

  21. Guy Barnhart says:

    Anyone read Hans Kung’s “On Being a Christian”? That’s where this conversation’s at. Life changing book.

  22. John O'Leary says:

    I’m a little late to the party here, but…

    Michael Spencer wrote: “If someone is going to say John 6 is about the eucharist, then I’d like to hear a cogent case for how first century Galilean Jews would have drawn that from the original words as they heard them.”

    Are saying that if such a case can’t be made, then interpreting John 6 as being about the Eucharist is wrong?

    Because NO ONE understood what Jesus meant — not the disciples who left, nor the ones who stayed. Peter, speaking for those who stayed, obviously had no idea what Jesus was talking about — and yet remained on the basis of pure faith.

    After the Resurrection, their minds were opened. By the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, we see the Eucharist explained fully, as it is understood by sacramental Christians today.

    That 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 indeed reflect a sacramental understanding of the Eucharist is, in turn, confirmed by the teaching of the early church Fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, etc.

    (Thumbnail reference to these teachings here: http://www.catholic.com/library/Real_Presence.asp )

    Finally, in light of these later teachings (both of Paul and the early church Fathers), we can see clearly the Eucharistic meaning Jesus intended in John 6 — although NONE of his original listeners understood his meaning on that day.

    “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have not life in you. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

    A hermeneutic of interpretation that turns on what “first century Galilean Jews would have drawn… from the original words as they heard them” may be interesting as a purely speculative matter, but I don’t see how it’s going to be of much use to Christians struggling to interpret the Scriptures TODAY, after the Resurrection, and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

    It is a Reformed instinct to attempt to scrape away what is perceived to be centuries of misinterpretation in order to get back to the original, true meaning. And although that instinct is in many respects very sound, the hermeneutic you seem to be proposing is, I think, misguided.

    If you are trying to get at the original, true meaning of John 6, consider a study of the Fathers – the earliest interpreters of Scripture. Where they agree about the meaning of Scripture – across widely varying cultures and languages, across continents and centuries – it is indeed difficult to gainsay that interpretation. Which is not to say there are not many who will gainsay it, regardless (e.g., “The Fathers were wrong about the Eucharist in the same way Bob Jones U was wrong about inter-racial dating”). But there, in the Fathers, I would suggest, lies true north.

    In particular, I would refer you to Newman’s “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” a detailed and profound study of this matter, which is available for free in many places on the internet (including Google Books), but which might be better approached in an actual book form, given its level of depth and detail.

  23. Thanks for the directions to Newman. I’ve never had that before. You know, if you go deep in history you cease to be Protestant, but you never cease to believe everything the Roman Catholic church teaches. Isn’t it amazing? (Jn)

    Little humor there.

    You could just go ahead and say there is no Biblical interpretation apart from the dogmas asserted by Catholic tradition. Or you could say “What is one thing a Christian can believe based on scripture alone?” (If you come up with one, you’re a Protestant. Congratulations.)

    Or you could continue to explain how the reformation types can’t get over their need to get back to Jesus without the Roman Catholic Church’s entire doctrinal history in tow.

    You could just say the study of Jesus is basically not needed, as the catechism is right there on the table.

    Sorry for the snark, John. But this isn’t a Roman Catholic blog and it isn’t going to be. Assuming infallibility is a price I am unwilling to pay. I understand it, I simply reject it.

  24. John O'Leary says:

    Are *you* saying that if such a case can’t be made…

  25. John O'Leary says:

    Dagnabit. Let me add one thing to my initial comment. I said your approach seemed “misguided”. For the reasons stated, I think it is, at least for purposes of interpreting John 6.

    But when it comes to other sorts of inquiries – such as the meaning of key phrases like “kingdom of God” or “Son of Man” – I think the approach you’re suggesting could be very helpful, and even necessary, for making sense of scripture.

    Re Newman – sorry if I seemed condescending there; I have no such attitude, quite the contrary, in fact. But have you actually read his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine? It really cannot be dismissed with a bon mot.

    Your comment seems to suggest that his historical research essentially confirmed what he already believed. But as you may know, that’s not the case. His study of the early church Fathers was the tipping point in what was for him a long and very difficult conversion process.

    >You could just go ahead and say there is no Biblical interpretation apart from the dogmas asserted by Catholic tradition.Or you could say “What is one thing a Christian can believe based on scripture alone?” (If you come up with one, you’re a Protestant. Congratulations.)Or you could continue to explain how the reformation types can’t get over their need to get back to Jesus without the Roman Catholic Church’s entire doctrinal history in tow.You could just say the study of Jesus is basically not needed, as the catechism is right there on the table.Sorry for the snark, John. But this isn’t a Roman Catholic blog and it isn’t going to be. Assuming infallibility is a price I am unwilling to pay. I understand it, I simply reject it.<

    Okay. But are you saying your judgment is infallible here?

    😉

  26. John,

    You may be a new reader and unaware that Protestant-Catholic debates don’t bring out the best in me, so I really try to avoid them.

    But to deal with two issues:

    1. I don’t believe in infallibility anywhere on planet earth except in the case of Jesus. I realize there is a logical case and a case from apostolic authority and so on, but if there is one thing I believe no matter what my worldview, it is that there is no such thing as infallibility where any human being is concerned, including me and everything I write.

    My parents were great parents, and they loved me and raised me, but they weren’t infallible. If my mom isn’t infallible, there are no other condidates. 🙂

    2. The case for ancient Roman Catholic authority does not carry the water for the inventions of the RCC throughout its history. I know that we can talk all day about Marian dogmas and priestly celibacy and indulgences, etc. but the fact is these things depend on a continuing authority that claims an ancient authority. I’m never going to buy the idea that the Lord’s Supper wasn’t meant to be received in both kinds or that ministers were to be called priests or a dozen other things that are developments of tradition, and I’m not going to abandon a Jesus-shaped view of Christianity to include these things.

    I prefer to be left in my invincibly ignorant Protestantism.

    Now….we can have a reasonable last word, but we don’t debate this “true franchise” question on this blog.

    Thanks.

  27. John O'Leary says:

    “You may be a new reader and unaware that Protestant-Catholic debates don’t bring out the best in me, so I really try to avoid them.”

    Okay, fair enough. I’m an occasional reader, and didn’t mean to breach the etiquette of your forum. I will just say in closing that there are answers, and good ones, to the several objections you raise, if you ever felt moved to inquire further.

  28. Let’s try one question for a couple of volleys.

    Why should I be required to believe in the immaculate conception of Mary in order to come to the Eucharist?

  29. John O'Leary says:

    Michael, let me preface this by saying I am not a skilled apologist for Catholicism, like a Dave Armstrong or a Jimmy Akin. I enjoy kicking around these questions on the internet, but I am not an expert.

    But in a nutshell, in John’s last supper discourse, Christ prays earnestly and repeatedly that all believers may be one – and He says that this will be a sign to the world that He was sent by the Father. Moreover, this unity is not a natural thing, but rather supernatural.

    And Paul speaks of “one Lord, one faith”.

    The importance of unity of belief is also, I think, seen very clearly in the early history of the church, with its intense struggles over right doctrine. The Nicene Creed specifically asserts that the Church must be “one”. (Indeed, the formation of creeds in general suggests that the question of unity of belief has always been important for Christians.)

    Anyway, for all these reasons Catholics see unity in belief as extremely important, indeed fundamental.

    Now, can fellow Christians truly be “one” when they disagree about what they believe?

    The Catholic would say “no”.

    (This raises the subsidiary question of essential beliefs vs. those that are not essential. But for all intents and purposes, at this point in the history of the church, belief in the Immaculate Conception *is* essential — it is now a defined doctrine. (Which in turn raises the further question of a true development of doctrine vs. a so-called Catholic “invention” — and this is indeed a complicated question, regarding which I would refer you to J.H. Newman.))

    Turning now to the Eucharist, the reception of Communion is a profound thing, that can be understood on multiple levels. But one important aspect of Communion, in the Catholic view, is that it is a sign of unity of belief.

    It is a sign of unity through the body as it were, in the same way that the recitation of the creed is a sign of unity, through speech. (In this regard, Communion could perhaps be compared to the marital act.)

    But if there is no *actual* unity of belief, then the sign of unity that is the reception of Communion speaks falsely — it avers unity where there is no unity. But in this most important and sacred of sacraments – which Catholics view as “the source and summit of the Christian life” – no such compromise can be permitted.

    A more detailed take on the subject of closed communion from Dave Armstrong can be found here:
    http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2006/03/why-are-non-catholic-christians.html

  30. John,

    Thanks for your kind reply.

    I’m obviously not surprised that “unity,” and tradition trump everything else, and that if I accept that as the foundation of my approach, I’ll be able to swallow any doctrine defined by the church without real recourse to personal conviction. For the Catholic, personal conviction is thatg Christ founded an institution that can’t be wrong in its dogmatic declarations or explanations.

    It’s really an apologists dream. Christ’s words are believed by all Christians. But not all Christians believe the pronouncements of the bishop of Rome fulfill the commandment of unity.

    The assertion of the Immaculate conception as dogma that MUST be believed to commune is, in fact, just an assertion that the RCC is infallible. And that is where all discussions will stop.

    It’s why I respect and love your church, but can never acccept it’s claim that infallibility allowed me to commune in 300 a.d., but in 2008 a.d. it does not, because of all that’s been defined since.

    Peace, John. And Dave Armstrong and I are friends.

    MS

  31. John O'Leary says:

    Michael, I hear where you’re coming from.

    Just a couple of observations. While I think it can fairly be said that legalism is a risk in every Christian tradition, the convinced and serious Catholic sees unity and indeed the Church itself as flowing from Christ — as gifts of Christ to His people. Good gifts, which have resulted in good fruit in many persons and historical periods. Now of course any good gift can also be misused, and abused, and alas that is part of the history of the church also — a church that is, after all, made up of sinners.

    Too, depending on where you stand, the “scandal of particularity” can be seen as accruing to the Catholic Church, or Christians in general, or indeed the revelation to Moses (as Hitchens has complained).

    If you were ever moved to inquire further, you could probably have some interesting discussions with Dave Armstrong.

    Peace,

    J

  32. Man, I remember reading this debate almost a year ago, and I have changed a lot myself. How I found this page again you may be asking, I googled my name and this popped up. Funny. By the way, I actually enjoy the *civil* RCC and Protestant debates that occur on your blog, the only time I don’t is when they descend into something entirely unproductive (basically “evagelism”, I disagree with that type of evangelism in all ways, and have lately come to a more incarnational understanding of being Christ’s witness).

    Anyway, this time last year I was in the Orthodox Church(converted about 3 years ago). The Orthodox Church, in my opinion, has much more credibility when it comes to being the *historic* church. Nevertheless, I don’t think this implies one needs to convert to this Church or even that it is the *true* church. In fact, the Oriental Orthodox Church has an even more legitimate claim than either the RCC or the EO. You see? It doesn’t get one anywhere. I have now found a home in the Anglican communion (ECUSA). It still carries elements of the historic church (liturgy, sacraments) and it is also more *catholic* than any other denomination I know of. One can be liberal or conservative, Catholic or Reformed (and with Rowan Williams engagement with the EO, Orthodox even) and still be part of the communion. This reflects more clearly the early church (pre-Constantine) than any other *historic* Christian church can claim. But then again, it only offers a connection to the past and a feeling of continuity, I don’t think it makes one part of that *original* church. Peace and Love.