Hermeneutics 101 – Sola Scriptura Protestantism: Private Interpretation and the Scope of Catholic Theology

One of the complaints that Catholics commonly throw at Protestants is that their doctrine of “Private Interpretation” leads to doctrinal anarchy: When you’re doing theology with a mindset of “The Bible, the Holy Spirit and Me” it’s inevitably going to lead to massively inflated egos, widespread doctrinal disagreements and an intensely burning pride.

What I recently realised is that Catholics are almost in the same boat as Protestants. The fact that Catholics have a magisterium doesn’t necessarily change anything: in the end Catholic theology boils down to “private interpretation”. The question needs to be asked however; private interpretation of what? I will answer this question shortly.

Sheep and Shepherds

Private InterpretationIt seems apparent to me that there are basically two ways to “do religion”. The first involves just accepting and familiarising yourself with whatever the church officially teaches, without questioning or disagreeing with anything. If you are being a Catholic in this way, you don’t necessarily “switch off your brain”, as you may very well try to wrestle with the doctrines presented to you and try to make sense of them, but you do go with the flow and just subscribe to official teaching without question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is particularly important to someone doing Catholicism in this way, as it clearly spells out exactly what the church teaches on pretty much every issue. Often when arguing with someone who “does Catholicism” in this way, they will throw quotes from the Catechism at you as if doing so definitively settles the issue and totally closes the argument: “no more discussion necessary, the church has spoken, case closed”.

People who follow this first path are actually are to be commended. This way of approaching Catholicism is actually entirely appropriate for the majority of Christians. It is simply a brute fact of life that not everyone has the time, inclination and calling to wrestle with 2000 years of church tradition, scripture, biblical languages, theology and philosophy. Not everyone is called to be a theologian or an exegete. Not everyone is called to study the bible. However everyone is called to submit to Christ, and to the church which he founded. We are the sheep and they are the shepherds. The sheep’s duty is simple: follow the shepherd wherever the shepherd may lead. In this way, it is entirely appropriate to fall back on the official interpretations of the church, which have been distilled and refined over 2000 years and represent the sensus fidelium at the current point in time. It is a brute fact of life that most people don’t have the time to engage in theology; their time is largely occupied by the hard work and more pressing issue of being a good programmer, plumber, carpenter, student, doctor etc. For such people, it is a blessing to have an official interpretation which they can depend on for their faith, whilst being active and occupied in the “real world”. Such people don’t have time for private interpretation.

Private Interpretation as Discerning the Light

Private InterpretationThere is however a second way of “doing Catholicism”, this way is the path of the theologian. The theologian recognises that the official interpretation of the church is not infallible. The theologian understands that the sensus fidelium is not infallible. The theologian knows that the Pope is not infallible. The theologian always keeps in mind that the Catechism is just one fallible voice among many.

Rather than simply following whatever the church says, the theologian has decided to embark on a much more difficult journey: the journey of private interpretation. This is a journey which involves the theologian familiarising himself with 2000 years of church documents, writings of the church fathers, scripture translations and editions, biblical and liturgical languages, philosophy, theology and so on.

When doing private interpretation, the theologian is entirely justified in disagreeing with the official teaching of the church. The theologian is more acutely aware of the limits and bounds of infallibility. If there is something suspect in the official teaching of the church, he will call it out.

If you are following this second path, you have already entered into the realm of “private interpretation”: what you end up believing will probably be completely different to what everyone else believes. And yet despite this the problem of “doctrinal anarchy” which plagues Protestantism will not be a problem for you. The reason why is that Catholicism is a dogmatic system which has something akin to continuing revelation which I refer to as Divine Clarification. Despite the fact that the deposit of faith was “once for all delivered to the saints”, it is not a static thing: it is something which grows and develops with time.

Private Interpretation of The Deposit of Faith

Private InterpretationIt is helpful to first establish what a historical-critical Protestant believes to be the Deposit of Faith. Such a Protestant believes that the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the 66 books of the reformation bible are the entire deposit of faith. Case closed. If you are a protestant theologian this is all you need to work with. Learn Hebrew, Learn Greek and get down to the hard work of exegeting and privately interpreting scripture. Translations are helpful but they hold a lesser authority to the original languages and can therefore be safely discarded when doing private interpretation and serious theology.

I would like to register a reservation with this perspective before moving on. Firstly, we no longer have access to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. We only have critical editions and copies of copies, all of which differ with each other. Protestants often respond to this by saying that the differences are “insignificant”. I personally am unimpressed with this line of argument, as it would imply that parts of sacred scripture can be safely discarded, which is surely a blasphemous conclusion. While we can have confidence that our critical editions are close to the originals, we have no actual infallible guarantee that this is the case, and there is therefore a cloud of uncertainty constantly hovering over such versions of scripture.

In any case, this is the protestant version of the deposit of faith: the 66 book canon, read in the original languages.

Private InterpretationCompare this with the Catholic deposit of faith. The Catholic deposit of faith is a massive behemoth to behold. A Catholic does not merely have to concern himself with the scriptures in their original languages; he also has to take into account all translations of the scripture which have been implicitly received by an apostolic tradition or explicitly approved by the magisterium of the church. In this way, a Catholic does not have to work with a single bible or a single translation; he instead has to take into account a massive plethora of translations and editions. The Vulgate has authority, but the Septuagint with Greek New Testament holds equal authority. The Peshitta has authority, but the RSV-CE holds equal authority. Approved Spanish editions of Scripture are just as inspired and authoritative as approved French editions. The more languages a Catholic theologian knows, the more of the deposit of faith he is able to familiarise himself with and therefore the more effectively he is able to do theology.

But the Catholic deposit of faith doesn’t end there. The only reason that scripture is inspired, is that it is read in the context of the Divine Liturgy. The received apostolic liturgies of the church are inspired by the Holy Spirit: God speaks through the liturgy well before he speaks through scripture. But this only makes the Catholic theologian’s job even harder: not only does he have to concern himself with all the approved editions of scripture, he also has to be familiar with all the different apostolic and approved liturgies that are to be found throughout the world and within the church! And of course, a liturgy is not something that can be experienced by reading a book; it is not something which you can understand just by watching it on Youtube or reading about it on Wikipedia; a liturgy has to be lived and breathed. You must participate in the liturgy and pray through it. You must be physically present. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city like Sydney, many of these liturgies can be found within a 50km radius. However if you’re living out in the country side, you’ll be lucky to get a single Latin Mass.

But wait, there’s more! The Catholic deposit of faith has another component: the dogmatic tradition. The dogmatic tradition is the Divine Clarification which I mentioned earlier. This dogmatic tradition consists of all the infallible statements produced by ecumenical councils and all ex cathedra statements pronounced by Popes. A Catholic theologian has to take this entire tradition into account and do justice to it during his private interpretation.

To review: Both the Catholic and the Protestant theologian are engaging in private interpretation. The only difference is the scope of the “raw data” that the respective theologians have to deal with. A Protestant theologian only has to deal with 66 Greek and Hebrew books, whereas a Catholic theologian has to deal with a multitude of scriptural translations, a plethora of divine liturgies and 2000 years of dogmatic pronouncements during his attempts at private interpretation.

The Strength of Catholicism

After reading the previous section, you might think that the Protestant is better off: he doesn’t have to deal with so much raw material during his theological inquiries. However there’s one important difference between these two conceptions of the deposit of faith: The Protestant version is entirely static, whereas the Catholic version is dynamic.

As the collective Catholic understanding of the deposit of faith grows, this understanding is codified and added back in to the deposit of faith itself in the form of a fresh dogma. After this happens, future theologians are forced to take the new dogma into account during their theological adventures. The dogma is set in stone, it can never be revoked (although perhaps it may be “annulled” if there is doubt surrounding whether or not it was ever officially promulgated). This keeps the Catholic church moving forward in it’s understanding: as the church encounters controversies and issues, it deliberates and investigates and comes to a conclusion; this conclusion is then codified in a dogma and inserted into the dogmatic tradition, where it will remain forever. This is how doctrinal development occurs.

Consider for a moment what would happen if everyone were following the “first way” of doing Catholicism described above. There would never be any development! Everyone would just accept the churches current interpretation of the deposit of faith and not try to push the envelope to any degree. This is why – ironically – private interpretation is actually a crucial component of Catholic theological development. Individual people who are following the “theologian” path all come together, raise issues, argue with each other, start up passionate debates. This sometimes leads to massive controversies in the church, at which point the magisterium steps in and declares a dogma, definitively deciding between the two parties.

Private InterpretationThis process of dogmatic Divine Clarification also forces theologians to stay largely on the same page and avoid the doctrinal anarchy which so plagues Protestantism. Even though theologians may disagree on important issues, they are forced to work within the same dynamic deposit of faith, and this keeps them in agreement on issues that the magisterium has already dogmatically pronounced on. They may disagree on the interpretation of the deposit of faith, however they cannot deny the deposit of faith itself.

Compare all of this with the static Protestant system: The Protestant system is entirely unable to respond to change and is prevented from developing. The protestants have a battle cry – “Semper Reformanda” – which is supposed to be taken as a call for the church to be “always reforming”. In theory this is supposed to imply a rejection of all dogma, however in practice most if not all Protestants have their own “pet doctrines” which they cling to dogmatically and will not budge from even when shown contradictory evidence.

In any case, the Protestant deposit of faith is entirely static: it cannot respond to fresh questions that are posed of it. They have no magisterium which can introduce new and authoritative clarifying dogmas into the religion. They are stuck in the past. They are forced to depend entirely upon the fallible historical-critical method for all of their exegetical attempts. They deny the inspired voice of the church in the present age. All of this results in a church community which is constantly going around in circles and reinventing the wheel. Where Catholics have dogmatically defined the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the Protestants are constantly having to rediscover these ideas afresh in the pages of scripture. Unfortunately, due to their over-reliance on the entirely fallible historical-critical method, many Protestants have begun to jettison many of these crucial Christian ideas. Many Christians have become Unitarians, or modern day Arians, denying the divinity of Christ. Unlike Catholicism, there is no “dogmatic spine” holding up the Protestant theological body. Protestants agree on the same deposit of faith, but beyond that they are free to disagree with each other at the level of private interpretation and they are doomed to disagree with each other until Jesus comes back. Again, compare to the Catholic system: Catholic theologians may disagree with each other over their respective private interpretations for a time, but as the ages march on and the magisterium declares more and more dogmas, the theologian’s many and varied opinions will coalesce into a single infallible interpretation.

Conclusion: Private Interpretation is Necessary for Catholicism to Function

To summarise: The Catholic deposit of faith is large and multifaceted, encompassing all received and approved bible translations, all apostolic liturgies and all infallible statements within the dogmatic tradition. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to take this entire deposit of faith into account. The end result is a form of Private Interpretation that is restricted and guided by the dogmatic tradition. However rather than being destructive and dangerous for the church, this limited private interpretation is a crucial component of doctrinal development and serves to drive the church forward towards theological perfection.

The Scriptures of Mormonism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Questions of Canon and Ecumenism

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I remember being surprised, baffled and deeply intrigued when I discovered that there were different canons of scripture out in the world. As time went on, I began to wonder what the implications were for ecumenism. I began to wonder what the implications were for faith: If a community of confirmed, faithful Christians firmly believe that God is speaking to them through a book which has not been approved by the infallible magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, what does it mean?

I would like to propose a brief solution. The idea is that there are inspired scriptures which are catholic, which is to say “universal”. Such scriptures are addressed by God to every individual who has ever lived. These scriptures must be received and respected by anyone who is attempting to engage in theology. They cannot be discarded or dismissed. The canon of the universal scriptures was dogmatically promulgated by the council of Trent, and canonically promulgated many times prior to that at local councils.

220px-Ethiopian_Madonna[1].jpgHowever, there are also inspired scriptures which are not catholic. That is to say, they are local, private, or specific to a specific time, place or group of people. A classic example would be the Ethiopian Orthodox canon of scripture. The Ethiopian tradition includes many books which are not to be found outside of that specific church. Are we to simply dismiss this as a theological error by the Ethiopians? How can we do this, when their bishops are all validly ordained, and therefore their received liturgies are just as inspired as the approved Catholic liturgies? In this situation, whatever scripture they have read and received in their liturgy would logically also be inspired. The solution to this problem is to say that these texts are indeed inspired, however they are only addressed to the Ethiopian church: people who are outside of this church need not pay any attention to these texts. It is similar to the doctrine of “private revelation” in the Catholic church. These revelations are private, addressed to discrete groups of people rather than the whole of humanity.

Another example concerns the Eastern Orthodox canon. The Eastern Orthodox include three extra books and one extra psalm in their canon. These additions could be ecumenically received as local inspired texts, rather than catholic inspired texts. As such, they are relevant to churches in the eastern tradition, because they have been received within that tradition, however people who are not immersed in that tradition and do not have any connection to it do not need to heed these books.

downloadThe principle could be applied and extended out wide in order to encompass other religions and cults. For example the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have their own tradition within which certain scriptures have been received (for example, the Book of Mormon). If they were to one day come back into communion with the Holy Catholic Church, they could be permitted to retain their unique scriptures provided that they are understood to be local revelation rather than catholic revelation. Of course, it is to be assumed that their received scriptures are interpreted in a way that is consistent with the rest of the deposit of faith. In this particular case it would probably call for a purely allegorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

Potentially we could re-approach the Jews with this principle in mind. We could allow them to take the Hebrew old testament and apply it as they wish. Even though we know that the law is not binding on Christians, Jewish Christians may choose to follow the law regardless, as it is part of their tradition and heritage.

The Islamic traditions are also fair game. Potentially one day there will be an “Islamic Ordinariate” or a Sui Iuris church which traces it’s heritage to the Islamic world. Such a church would have a heavily Islamised liturgy, wherein the faithful pray the Salat towards the Eucharist set in a monstrance during adoration (for example). It would 220px-Mosque[1]potentially by acceptable for them to retain the Qu’ran as a local inspired text within this tradition, provided that the Qu’ran is understood and interpreted in a way that is consistent with the deposit of faith. Potentially an edited, “Christian” edition of the Qu’ran could be produced which edits and deals with troublesome passages, however this would not be optimal.

The same principle could be used to inculturate all cultures and religious traditions: Let the people retain as much of what they already have as is possible, including their scriptures. Just be careful to make it clear that any scripture they bring to the table is local revelation rather than catholic revelation: It’s authoritative for people within that specific community, but not binding on anyone else.

This principle is helpful in evangelism, as it accords well with Paul’s admonition to “be all things to all people”. Paul wants us to be a Jew to Jews, a Muslim to Muslims, a Buddhist to Buddhists and a Hindu to Hindus. As missionaries we should strive to be as thorough in this task as we can, adopting as much of the local religion as we can in good conscience and without compromising our principles, so as to win the people over to Christ.

The Song of the Eschaton Incarnate

RSV-CE John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the λογος, and the λογος was with God, and the λογος was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the λογος became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

A Christian Speaks In Defence of Hinduism

I was googling for a definition of “Kenotic theology” when I stumbled across this blog maintained by a Southern Baptist Pastor called James Attebury. As I browsed his articles, I landed on this one titled “Why I am not a Hindu”. It was interesting, and I can’t resist posting a response. I should be straight up and say that while I identify as both Christian and Hindu and regularly attend my local temple, I am a neophyte and not an expert in Hindu theology. However I know enough about Advaita Vedanta and other schools of Indian thought that I feel equipped to make a response.

Response to the Objections

1. Hinduism is scientifically impossible because it teaches that the universe never had a beginning because it is divine.

The Upanishads teach that God is the whole world (pantheism):

“Brahman, indeed, is this immortal. Brahman before, Brahman behind, to right and left. Stretched forth below and above, Brahman, indeed, is this whole world” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.11).

“Thou art the dark-blue bird and the green parrot with red eyes, Thou hast the lightning as thy child. Thou art the seasons and the seas. Having no beginning, thou dost abide with all-pervadingness, wherefrom all beings are born” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.2.4).

Since “Brahman, indeed, is this whole world” and he has “no beginning,” therefore, the world must have no beginning.

But this goes against everything that we know about the universe from science. While many atheists try to defend an eternal universe because they don’t want to believe in God, their arguments have insurmountable problems.

A couple of things come to mind. Firstly, citing “science” as an authority comes across as incredibly simple-minded and vague. Whenever someone says “Science says xyz” it comes across to me in exactly the same way as when fundamentalist evangelicals say “The bible says xyz” or fundamentalist Catholics claim “The Church teaches xyz”. Usually in these cases, science does not say xyz, and neither does the bible or the church.

Secondly, if we take “Science” to mean “empirical investigation of reality” and “theories grounded in consistent results derived from repeated experiments”, then science suffers from the problem of induction. For those who are unfamiliar with this problem, here is an illustration: We tend to observe, day after day, the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. This consistent pattern gives us the confidence to be sure that the sun will continue to behave in this way. We try to predict the future behaviour of things by examining how they have behaved in the past. However there’s one catch: we do not have absolute certainty that just because something behaved a certain way in the past, it will continue to behave that way in the future. It is entirely conceivable that one day the sun will simply stop rising and setting.

Hopefully this sheds light on why James’ objection is unfounded. Just because today “science” teaches that all things begun at the big bang, does not mean that it will continue to teach this tomorrow. In any case, there is nothing in the quotes he provides from the Upanishads that actually contradicts the current scientific consensus. He is just insisting on interpreting it with a hermeneutic of disagreement, rather than a hermeneutic of charity and openness. He seems to be seizing on certain words in the translation and using these to justify his rejection of something which he doesn’t truly understand.

2. Hinduism teaches that the universe is an illusion or maya:

“This whole world the illusion maker projects out of this [Brahman]. And in it by illusion the other is confined. Now, one should know that Nature is illusion, and that the Mighty Lord is the illusion maker” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.9-10).

But if this world is an illusion, then that would make scientific inquiry impossible. We would be unable to trust our own senses or believe anything at all. Yet Hindus use science all the time and act as if their senses are trustworthy. In this sense, Hinduism suffers from many of the same problems as Christian Science which teaches that death is just an illusion.

The notion that maya makes scientific enquiry impossible is a false implication. As James himself states, “Hindus use science all the time and act as if their senses are trustworthy”; surely this would clue him in to the fact that he’s missing something and doesn’t properly understand that which he is criticising.

Furthermore, he’s got the maya doctrine all wrong. Maya claims that the descriptions of events in the Hindu Scriptures are “more real” than the mundane reality we perceive day to day. The colour and beauty described in the Indian Scriptures is not often seen and manifested in day to day life. The doctrine of Maya claims that these poetic descriptions are “more real” than the reality we currently inhabit. The doctrine of Maya does not claim that everything is just an illusion. Our reality is still real, just less so than the “true” reality which is hiding behind all things.

3. Hinduism offers no means for atonement in this life or assurance of salvation.

There is no forgiveness in Hinduism, only reincarnation into a lower caste of people to pay off the sins from our previous life. The caste system is inherently racist and forbids marriage between the castes. It condemns people to a life of poverty and is cruel to the poor. It justifies the attitude that poor people are getting what they deserve so there is no incentive to help those who are poor and suffering.

This criticism of Hinduism is inaccurate, and flows from a culturally imperialistic attitude towards other faiths and cultures. Unlike Christianity, Hinduism does not see the world primarily in terms of sin, guilt, forgiveness and retribution. These categories are relevant to Hinduism, but Hindus and Buddhists see the world through the lens of samsara: the cycle of birth and rebirth that carries on for all eternity. The primary problem to be solved according to Hinduism is not guilt and sin, but instead eternal suffering. Salvation is called moksha and is conceived of as an escape from this eternal cycle of suffering into a state of permanent and everlasting bliss. According to certain schools of Hinduism, there is indeed an assurance of achieving Moksha. According to other schools there is no such assurance. This is similar to the divide between Catholic and Protestant Christianity on the issue of assurance. (Perhaps James is the sort of person who would not acknowledge that Catholics are also fellow believers worthy of the title “Christian”. He’ll have to let us know in the comments)

I am however happy for now to agree with his criticism of the caste system. But my agreement is provisional, as I don’t actually know enough about it to accurately pass judgement.

4. Hinduism is filled with pagan religious practices which demonstrate its human origin.

I remember a great illustration from my Biblical Counseling class with Paul David Tripp where he told a story about how he visited India once and entered into a Hindu temple where the people were bowing down before statues of male and female private parts. He was so revolted by what he saw that he ran out of the temple as quickly as he could. Then he realized the disgust he felt is how God sees his sin.

Hindus still do this today as you can see from this sad video. Some Hindus even worship rats and other animals as Paul warned against in Romans 1:22-23. Historically, Hindus practiced sati where widows were burned alive with the bodies of their husbands. It was only because of the work of Christians in India who raised awareness about this evil practice that resulted in it being banned.

The attitude that “Pagan = bad. Bible = good” really irks me. Non-Christian philosophies, theologians, religions and traditions have so much to offer us; so much beauty and richness of thought. Rather than having a knee jerk reaction to practices such as those performed by the Hindus, we should seek to understand why they do what they do, and then try and replicate that in our own traditions. We should strive for unity and ecumenism with those who are different from us, rather than further division, schism and disunity. It is important to acknowledge our differences, but rather than allowing those differences to serve as a wall that divides us, we should treat them as the beautiful manifestations of God that they are, and then come together in love, charity, dialogue and understanding.

I think James’ analysis of what the Hindus are actually up to is not 100% accurate. Hindus don’t worship rats, they worship Brahman; the supreme godhead. However just as Christians worship God through Christ, (and Catholics through the Eucharist), so too Hindus worship God through many and various mundane intermediary objects. It might look like idolatry, but it’s not.

5. Hinduism is not a faith grounded in real historical events.

There is no corroborating evidence for Hinduism outside of its sacred texts. In contrast, Christianity is rooted in the historical events of the Bible, a book grounded in history. And there are good answers for those who object to the historical reliability of the Bible.

I personally know many Hindus who would dispute this point. I have no dog in the fight either way, but I would tend towards agreeing with my Hindu mates rather than James here. The bible is a beautiful mixture of mythology and history, and sometimes it’s hard to separate the factual core of the stories from the surrounding poetic embellishment (The Genesis creation stories are notorious for this. I’d be curious to see if James holds to a strictly literal interpretation). It is exactly the same with Hinduism. There is definitely a historical core to many of the Hindu tales, but it’s tricky to work out what is fact and what is embellishment.

6. The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus from the Bible, fulfilled prophecy, and history is overwhelming.

I have already written about the evidence for the resurrection of Christ in this article.

7. The Bible is filled with incredible prophecies which confirm its truthfulness.

While there are many prophecies in the Bible about the kingdoms of this world and the coming of Jesus, the most incredible one is the messianic prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 which gives us the exact date when the Messiah would die.

I don’t actually disagree with these two points at all. The evidence for the resurrection is vast and astonishing. However it is somewhat odd that James includes this in a blog post aimed at criticising Hinduism. Isn’t it completely irrelevant to the argument? I imagine his thought process is something along the lines of “If Christianity is true, then everything else must be wrong”, but of course, that simply does not follow in any way. Both Christianity and Hinduism can be 100% true and compatible, but the only way we are going to see that is if we approach each of them in a spirit of charity and ecumenism, with a willingness to listen and entertain foreign ideas and world-views.

I will register one small reservation about point 7. Just because a book accurately predicts future events, does not automatically prove that every single other thing that it reports is correct and truthful. I don’t mean this as an attack on the bible, as I myself am happy to affirm that it is 100% true (with qualifications). I simply mean to point out that it is fallacious to claim that a couple of prophecies that were fulfilled in a book prove the entire book 100% inerrant and infallible. The biblical prophecies also tend to be incredibly vague and open to interpretation; it is rather telling that James is willing to entertain these non-specific prophecies whilst nonchalantly rejecting anything that the Hindu scriptures have to say without giving them any further thought.

Conclusion

I don’t mean this post as an attack on James. I’m sure he’s a lovely guy and his congregation is blessed to have him as a pastor. But I think his rejection of Hinduism is incredibly rash and ill-informed, if the reasons he reports in his post are to be believed. Hinduism is a beautiful and colourful family of traditions, and Christians would do well to seek out and meet Hindus, and perform interfaith exchanges with them. We have so much to share with each other and teach each other, so let us come together and edify each other, rather than bashing each other over the head with holy books and demanding that we renounce one faith for another. As the classic meme goes: “Why can’t we have both?”

 

 

The Swedenborg Heresy – Notes on the Canon

I was reading the blog of the lovely Lee Woofenden, where he describes the incredibly offensive and extremely heretical beliefs of Emanuel Swedenborg; an ex-Lutheran apostate who is currently roasting in Hell at this very moment. Lee is destined for the very same hellfire on account of his prideful rejection of the Gospel promise. I look forward to watching them both roast. Jokes aside, I took some notes while reading his latest post and figured I’d neaten them up and wack them on the blog.

Response

Lee opens with the following:

Most Christians don’t think too much about where the Bible came from. They just hold a book in their hands, maybe read it, and believe that this book was given by God.

It’s very interesting that he raises this question of where the bible came from. This was one of the key things that drove me back to Catholicism in 2014. The Catholic church had an actual answer as to why the bible has authority and inspiration, whereas the protestants did not.

Lee goes on to claim that the Orthodox biblical canon includes 79 books. This is news to me. I was under the impression that the Orthodox bible had 76 books. I wonder what books Lee is referring to here, and where he got this statistic.

Lee says the following:

You see, there was no pronouncement from God as to which books should be in the Bible.

This point is absolutely key. Under Protestant schemas, it is completely true. This is why Protestants sometimes talk about “A fallible collection of infallible books”, which I personally find to be epistemologically laughable, but I am open to hearing more; the fact that I disagree with it probably just means that I don’t understand it.

In any case, under the Catholic understanding, God actually did tell us which books belong in the bible. He did this through the dogmas and canons of the Catholic church (in this particular case, the divine and infallible magisterial pronouncements of the Council of Trent).

And the church councils of the different branches of Christianity didn’t agree with one another about which books should be included in the Bible.

This is also true. There has never been a single universally agreed upon scriptural canon. This scandalised me during my early days as a Christian. As an evangelical my community was telling me to base my entire life and all of my beliefs on what “the bible” says. But what even is “the bible”? There were a thousand different translations and canons to chose from. For such an important question, evangelicals don’t tend to be forthcoming with robust answers and apologetics. They often say things like “It’s the message that matters, not the actual words”, but then they staunchly deny that the books of the deuterocanon have any authority or inspiration, even when they are saying the same thing as the other canonical books. The irrationality of it all bugged me to no end.

Lee continues to discuss Swedenborg’s interesting and fanciful canon of scripture (Which reduces the New Testament to simply the four gospels and the book of the apocalypse). He then makes the following interesting statement:

Protestants commonly believe that Paul’s writings are all about establishing faith alone as the key doctrine of Christianity. But the simple fact of the matter is Paul never even used the term “faith alone,” let alone taught it.

I find this amusing. Lee is himself a staunch protestant, even though he firmly denies this obvious fact. But considering that he does not identify as a protestant, it is amusing for him to make such a sweeping statement as “Protestants commonly believe …”. What would he know? He’s supposedly not a protestant, so he doesn’t have the authority to speak on their behalf.

In any case, while it is true that Paul never said “Faith alone”, the original Lutheran “Sola Fide” doctrine is nevertheless definitely embedded in all of his letters. I don’t think Lee actually understands what “Faith alone” implies. Then again this is entirely forgivable as most evangelicals don’t understand it either. Most evangelicals take “Faith alone” to mean “All I have to do to be saved is believe and I don’t have to do any good works”, which is a Satanic perversion of the original doctrine. Lee has unquestioningly adopted this understanding of the doctrine. The original Sola Fide is Gospel, good news. It says that we don’t need to do anything in order to be saved; we don’t even need to believe! Yet despite that, when you are living your life under faith, you can’t help but overflow with love and good works. Hear these beautiful words from Luther:

Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1). It kills the old Adam and makes altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.

Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools.

Therefore, pray to God to work faith in you. Else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do. (Preface to Commentary on Romans; cf. “On the Freedom of the Christian“)

Whereas Lee seems to be saying on his blog that we earn our salvation by good works. I don’t mean to put words in his mouth, but this is honestly the vibe that I get when I read his writings.

Now we can finally begin to rehabilitate the letters of Paul. Now we can rescue them from the hands of those “Christian” theologians who have twisted and distorted them for so long. Now we can begin to understand that Paul’s main argument when he was asserting that we are saved or justified by faith without the works of the Law was that Christians no longer need to be observant Jews in order to be saved by their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

In my reading, Paul’s thrust doesn’t seem to be merely that gentile believers don’t have to convert to Judaism (although this is definitely true). The key point of Paul seems to be that we don’t have to “do” anything in order to be saved. Paul is powerfully preaching a message of Sola Gratia, grace alone. He is preaching a message of antinomianism. As Luther mentioned in the earlier quote, this doesn’t make good works unnecessary or superfluous, but instead is the way in which we receive the strength and power to perform the works.

Conclusion

It’s interesting to read through Lee’s blog and learn more about Swedenborgian Christianity. I look forward to reading some of Swedenborg’s writings in the future. It still seems clear to me that Lee has entirely missed the point of the Gospel, however I look forward to reading more of his “spiritual insights” in future.

Pluralism is the Gospel – Saint Paul and Evangelism

RSV-CE 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Father Roberts (OP, SJ) Homily for Wednesday of the 6th week of Eastertide

Wednesday of the 6th week of Eastertide – Feast of Saint Paul VI, Pope

Daily Readings

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Entrance Antiphon – Psalm 17: 50; 21: 23

I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will tell of your name to my kin, alleluia.

Collect

Grant, we pray, O Lord, that, as we celebrate in mystery the solemnities of your Son’s Resurrection, so, too, we may be worthy to rejoice at his coming with all the Saints. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

First reading – Acts 17:15,22-18:1

Paul’s escort took him as far as Athens, and went back with instructions for Silas and Timothy to rejoin Paul as soon as they could.

So Paul stood before the whole Council of the Areopagus and made this speech:

‘Men of Athens, I have seen for myself how extremely scrupulous you are in all religious matters, because I noticed, as I strolled round admiring your sacred monuments, that you had an altar inscribed: To An Unknown God. Well, the God whom I proclaim is in fact the one whom you already worship without knowing it.

‘Since the God who made the world and everything in it is himself Lord of heaven and earth, he does not make his home in shrines made by human hands. Nor is he dependent on anything that human hands can do for him, since he can never be in need of anything; on the contrary, it is he who gives everything – including life and breath – to everyone. From one single stock he not only created the whole human race so that they could occupy the entire earth, but he decreed how long each nation should flourish and what the boundaries of its territory should be. And he did this so that all nations might seek the deity and, by feeling their way towards him, succeed in finding him. Yet in fact he is not far from any of us, since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist, as indeed some of your own writers have said:

“We are all his children.”

‘Since we are the children of God, we have no excuse for thinking that the deity looks like anything in gold, silver or stone that has been carved and designed by a man.

‘God overlooked that sort of thing when men were ignorant, but now he is telling everyone everywhere that they must repent, because he has fixed a day when the whole world will be judged, and judged in righteousness, and he has appointed a man to be the judge. And God has publicly proved this by raising this man from the dead.’

At this mention of rising from the dead, some of them burst out laughing; others said, ‘We would like to hear you talk about this again.’ After that Paul left them, but there were some who attached themselves to him and became believers, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman called Damaris, and others besides.

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.

Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 148:1-2,11-14

Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.

Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights. Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host.

All earth’s kings and peoples, earth’s princes and rulers, young men and maidens, old men together with children.

Let them praise the name of the Lord for he alone is exalted. The splendour of his name reaches beyond heaven and earth.

He exalts the strength of his people. He is the praise of all his saints, of the sons of Israel, of the people to whom he comes close.

Alleluia.

Gospel Acclamation – John 14:16

Alleluia, alleluia!

The Father will send you the Holy Spirit, says the Lord, to be with you for ever.

Alleluia!

Gospel – John 16:12-15

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth, since he will not be speaking as from himself but will say only what he has learnt; and he will tell you of the things to come. He will glorify me, since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine. Everything the Father has is mine; that is why I said: All he tells you will be taken from what is mine.’

Prayer over the Offerings

O God, who by the wonderful exchange effected in this sacrifice have made us partakers of the one supreme Godhead, grant, we pray, that, as we have come to know your truth, we may make it ours by a worthy way of life. Through Christ our Lord.

Communion Antiphon – John 15: 16, 19

I have chosen you from the world, says the Lord, and have appointed you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last, alleluia.

Prayer after Communion

Graciously be present to your people, we pray, O Lord, and lead those you have imbued with heavenly mysteries to pass from former ways to newness of life. Through Christ our Lord.

Homily

We have in our first reading today a classic example of evangelism, interfaith dialogue, ecumenism and inculturation. See how Paul even praises the idols, temples and monuments of the Greeks to whom he speaks! Many Christians would find such behaviour shocking. See how he does this, immediately before he goes on to describe the one true God, who is formless, and who therefore cannot be captured by any image.

Paul points to the Gospel, as it is found in the local paganism of the Greeks when he points out the following: “as indeed some of your own writers have said: ‘We are all his children.'”

Note that Paul does not quote the bible at his audience. He does not try to convert these people to some other culture or religion. Instead he endeavours to show them how their local religion actually points to something bigger. Paul is not attempting to convert them away from their local faith and culture, instead, he is giving them a wonderful gift: the gift of God’s grace. And that Grace will refine, and perfect the culture that it encounters. As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, he “became all things to all people”. I have in fact adopted this phrase as my personal motto: “Fi omnia omnibus”. Paul is not trying to rob the Athenians of their culture, instead he is trying to show how their primitive religion contains within itself the truth of the Gospel.

“We are all God’s children” is a very very important aspect of that Gospel. Salvation is inclusive. Salvation does not fall upon tribal lines. It is not as if the Catholics are saved while the Muslims are damned, or the believers are saved while the unbelievers are damned, or those who do good works are saved while those who do evil are damned. No, instead, we are all God’s children! No one will be abandoned by God, just as no good and loving father would ever abandon his children. And God is the most good and loving father possible, so how much more will we all be saved by him. Jew and Gentile; Catholic and Orthodox; Sunni and Shia; Hindu and Buddhist; Believer and Unbeliever; Righteous and Wicked; there is no distinction. All without exception and distinction are lavished with God’s inflamed and jealous love, for we are all God’s children, and so he loves all of us and will not abandon a single one of us to the hellfire.

Witness the confidence with which Paul proclaims that his listeners are children of God. He does not seek to determine which of the people in the crowd are elect and which are reprobate. He does not withhold the glorious Gospel promise out of fear that they will respond in outrage rather than faith. No, he proclaims the promise from the mountain top indiscriminately to the entire congregation. Today’s preachers could learn an important lesson from this. In the history of Christianity the promise has been forgotten. The homily should be a sacramental event where salvation is bestowed upon the congregation ex opere operato. Just like Paul, we should be fearless and stand before our flocks and confidently proclaim: “You are saved; You are loved by God; You will eventually arrive in heaven. I promise you this, and I stake my own salvation on that promise.”

There is no need for agnosticism about who will and won’t be saved. For the Gospel message is that all men without exception are reprobate in Christ, and all men without exception are elect in Christ, for as Paul says in today’s readings: “In him we live and move and have our being”. In reality there is only a single man – the resurrected Christ – and we are all made in his image. But we are mere shadowy images, whereas he is the fullness and perfection of a dyophysis encompassing both humanity and divinity, united in a divine simplicity and miaphysis. That one man, Christ, was reprobate; he descended into Hell and suffered the fullness of it’s infinite torments. And we are members of his mystical body, so we too descend into Hell and suffer the tortures that lie in wait there. But that one man also ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father, and all of us ascended with him. Christ was reprobate and Christ was elect, therefore all of us are also reprobate and elect on account of our spiritually dwelling within him.

But something too much of this theology. The key point is that it is utterly crucial to the Gospel promise that all men without exception are children of God . Salvation is meant for everyone without exception, and it will infallibly occur for all.

Notice that Paul also proclaims the final judgement to his listeners. This is to ensure that no one be deceived: just because Heaven is guaranteed for all does not mean that there is no Hell and no consequences for sin. But it is important to note that Heaven and Hell and the final judgement are present realities. They are not some place “over there” or something that happens to us “some time after we die”. They are here, with us, right now. Experienced as intense pain, guilt, depression, self-hatred, striving and failing. We are already being judged by Christ, but I will tell you a secret that is not often proclaimed: some people are already on the other side of the judgement and resting in paradise at this very moment.

As Paul says, one man has been appointed as the judge. The twist that I now reveal to you is that this one man is you. To say that we will be judged by the resurrected Christ is to say that we will be judged by our innermost self, for Christ lies within us, as the core identity of our souls. When we encounter ourselves in Christ, we cannot fail to love and adore. But that love is itself the judgement, and we are doomed to fail this judgement, because we see all the ways that we have failed to love; failed to live up to our own true standard; the standard of perfection; the standard of Christ. As we behold all of our failings and compare them to the glorious perfection of the Christ, the judgement occurs. The verdict? Guilty.

But there is good news. God promises you that he accepts you. He promises you that when he looks at you, he sees Christ. He promises you that you are not guilty. I exhort you this day: trust that promise! Now, regardless of whether you trust it or not, it is completely true and will infallibly come to pass, but o how wonderful life is when you trust the promise. Because you are encountering the final judgement right now and by faith alone you pass the test! But he who has no faith remains in the darkness of Hell, and God’s condemnation rests on him.

When you become all things to all people, you manifest Christ to those who you encounter. And that manifestation is itself the judgement; as they see themselves in you, they realise their own failures and guilt. It is at that exact moment that you may proclaim the Gospel, and it is at that exact moment that God’s love will finally conquer their heart and drive them to blind, desperate, heroic faith and repentance. To Love is to judge, just as in God love is judgement.

But back to Paul. Luke reports that the harvest of souls that day was slight. Even though Paul proclaimed the Gospel promise to the entire council, only a few of the Athenians believed, and only a few of these believing souls are identified by name in today’s scripture. Most curious is the mention of Dionysius the Aeropagite: this biblical figure was the namesake of an anonymous theologian in later centuries. Just as Paul did not reap massive success, we who believe in the Gospel should expect the same. But as the scripture says, when even a single soul comes to faith, all the angels in heaven sing and rejoice.

Speaking of singing and rejoicing, today’s Psalm fits the season particularly well. Easter is a time of joy and victory, a time to praise, thank and worship the good God on high for all that he has given us and all that he promises to give us. The imperative voice is employed, as the psalmist commands all of us; kings, queens, princes, rulers, children, adults, maidens, men, elders – even the angels – to Praise the lord.

The psalmist elaborates on Saint Paul’s discourse concerning the uniqueness of the one true God: God alone is exalted. This is not to say that other things cannot also be exalted, but it is to emphasise the primacy and supreme reality of God. If God is exalted; then we are not. If we are exalted; then God is not. The utterly unbridgeable difference between us and God is infinite. His transcendence is so supreme that it does not even make sense to speak of a difference. The glory of God is, as the psalmist sings, beyond heaven and earth.

Today’s Psalm finishes on a note of both synergism and monergism. God gives us strength, and all the saints praise him and love him. Those to whom he draws close, infallibly move towards him, not away from him.

The Gospel reading continues the discourse from yesterday and Monday. The resurrected Christ tells us about the Holy Spirit that resides within us all. Jesus calls the spirit, “The spirit of truth”. The spirit is also the spirit of unity, for truth and unity go hand in hand: wherever there is disagreement and dissent, the truth is not fully manifest. In this way, every anathema is a schism, every condemnation a split in the body of Christ. But the spirit is not like this; the spirit is the spirit of ecumenism and respect, the spirit of listening before speaking, the spirit of affirmation. Satan is the spirit of dissent, denial, and disagreement. But the spirit of God is the loving force that drives all people, all theologies and all religions to the zenith of Divine truth and simplicity. All men have this spirit, and all religions are guided by this spirit. Our differences are something to celebrate, and as we meet each other and learn to speak each other’s language, the spirit of love will gather us all together into a single flock: a single human family where love reigns supreme.

Finally, witness the communion antiphon. To whom does the Lord speak this beautiful promise? I tell you solemnly and with utter conviction, assurance, and certainty; he has chosen you. And when you fully appreciate this fact, and make the ineffable leap of faith from the devastation of hell into the peace and joy of heaven; only then will you go out into the world and bear fruit for Christ, just as he has promised.

Have faith, repent, and take hold of the salvation that is freely offered to you. I promise you that you are saved. But it is not I who make this promise; it is the very same spirit of truth that the resurrected Christ claimed he would send us speaking through me. So do you trust me? Do you trust God? Do you trust the Spirit? He is promising you salvation, and there is nothing you need do to grasp it. But do you grasp it? Examine yourself. Discern God within your soul. Let us love with the divine love, and ascend to the eschaton, the perfect rest that God prepared for us all from the beginning of time.

Father Alex Roberts (OP, SJ)

Roman Catholic Novus Ordo Latin Rite Sunday Mass at Saint Fiacre’s Leichhardt – “Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice”

As a Roman Catholic, I have the obligation to attend mass on Sundays, and the privilege of attending mass every day of the week if I so choose. Every day all around the world, Latin Catholic parishes offer the sacrifice of the mass. My local parish of St Fiacre’s Leichhardt is no exception.

The sacrifice of the mass is as mysterious to outsiders today as it was 2000 years ago. Rumours of Catholics engaging in cannibalism have proliferated down through history to the present day, as tales of the faithful “eating flesh” and “drinking blood” on Sundays are whispered among those who are not on the inside of this the worlds biggest cult.

But what actually happens behind the doors of a Catholic church during mass?

The Divine Liturgy

Catholics have a very high view of liturgy. Liturgy is basically whatever a group of people does when they come together. Buddhists have liturgy, Muslims have liturgy, Christians have liturgy. However unlike their evangelical brethren – whose liturgy might simply consist of singing a couple of songs, passing around the collection plate and listening to a painfully long sermon – Catholics consider their liturgy to be inspired and literally the Word of God. Catholics believe that God the Holy Spirit is active during the liturgy and divinely reveals himself through the prayers and movements.

IMG_1074.JPGWhen asked why we should believe that the bible is inspired and that God speaks through it, evangelical Christians never have a good response. They are generally brought up to believe in the inspiration of scripture as axiomatic, something not to be questioned or doubted. When pushed on this point, some evangelicals end up apostatising as they realise that “their house is built on sand”, which is to say that their faith has absolutely no rational, reasonable, logical grounding, instead resting entirely on blind faith.

Not so with the Catholic! When a Catholic is asked why the bible is inspired, he can confidently respond with “Because we read it during the liturgy, and if the liturgy is inspired then the bible is too.” Why is the liturgy inspired? That’s a question for another time, but let it be said that the answer is closely related to the holy tradition of the apostolic succession of bishops that stretches back in time all the way to the apostles and the Godman, Jesus Christ himself.

So what is the liturgy, often referred to as “the mass” all about? What actually happens?

The first thing to be grappled with when entering into a mass is the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar determines which prayers are to be said on any given day, which portions of scripture are to be read, which psalms are to be recited, as well as the liturgical colours that the priest must wear and the church must be decorated with. Every little detail of the mass is scripted out according to the particular day and liturgical season.

Today just so happens to be the first Sunday of the season of Advent, according to the Novus Ordo Latin Liturgical Calendar. As such the priest wore purple vestments, and certain parts of the church were decorated in purple.

Leichhardt parish is run by the Capuchin Friars. The Capuchins are a group of monks in the Franciscan “mendicant friar” tradition. Mendicant friars are essentially monks who live in the towns and cities, ministering to the average citizens and the poor. In comparison to this there are the “Cloistered monks”, who are monks that isolate themselves from the world, living either in solitude as hermits or in community with each other in monasteries, where they pray all day long.

IMG_1076St Fiacre’s Leichhardt does not have a choir or organ, and musical accompaniment to the mass is provided by members of the Neo-Catechumenal way with guitars and singing (The Neo-cats are another recently formed subgroup within Catholicism who have adopted a somewhat more Charismatic approach to the faith).

Catholics who adhere to “traditionalist” strands of Catholicism often object to the presence of guitars during the liturgy, claiming that it detracts from the reverence and sacredness appropriate to such an important event. There is a cultural battle being waged within the church between the Charismatic and Traditionalist parties for control of the mass, with many Catholic publications labelling the situation as a “crisis”. The traditionalists want to see more Latin, more Gregorian chant, a return of the organ. The Charismatics want to see more English, more modern music, drums and guitars, less scripted movements and more spontaneous prayers.

Aside from the presence of guitars, and a distinct lack of Latin during the liturgy, St Fiacre’s strikes me as a more conservative, traditional parish.

The Liturgy Begins

The Introduction

As the clock strikes 9:30am, some small hand held bells are shaken as a signal that the mass has begun. Everyone stands up as the priest walks up to the altar, and the entire church recites what is called the “Entrance Antiphon”; a short extract from the psalms. Today this was from Psalm 24:1-5:

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.

In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.

Nor let my enemies exult over me;

and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

After this, once the priest has taken his position before the altar, he recites the Trinitarian formula “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and makes the sign of the cross with his hand. The congregation follows his motions and at the conclusion of the gesture respond with “Amen”.

The priest continues:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

To which the people simultaneously and cheerfully respond:

And with your spirit!

The priest goes on:

Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.

This is followed by 15 seconds of silence, during which it is expected that everyone attempts to bring to mind their failings and imperfections over the past week, so as to bring them to God and ask for forgiveness.

Eventually the silence is broken as the priest intones the first words of an ancient prayer, the confiteor. The congregation joins in and together everyone recites:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

at this point everyone strikes their chest three times in coordination with the words that follow:

through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

After this, the priest delivers what is called a “general absolution” as he says

May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.

And the congregation responds with “Amen”.

IMG_1072After this, the most ancient part of the liturgy is recited, the Kyrie. The priest chants “Lord, have mercy” and the congregation mirrors his words. He then chants “Christ have mercy” and once again the congregation repeats the invocation. Finally he again chants “Lord, have mercy” and once again the congregation returns the same phrase back to him.

The introduction of the liturgy is concluded with what is called a “collect”. The priest says “Let us pray.” and then follows this with a prayer which is unique to that day of the liturgical year. On this particular day, the first Sunday of Advent, the prayer read as follows:

Grant your faithful, we pray; almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Immediately the congregation says “Amen” and everyone returns to a sitting posture.

The Liturgy of the Word

At this point what is known as the Liturgy of the Word begins. This is the part of the mass where sections of scripture are read, psalms are prayed and the homily is delivered. This is the part of the mass which imparts inspiration to scripture. If not for this part of the mass, the bible would just be another book. But instead, by virtue of the fact that scripture is read during this section of the liturgy, all of scripture is considered to be inspired.

On a Sunday, there is one Old Testament reading, one New Testament reading, a psalm, and a section from one of the four Gospels. The readings today were Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 24:4-14,  1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 and finally some sections from Luke 21.

After each reading, the reader (sometimes called a “lector”) pronounces “The word of the Lord” to which the congregation responds “Thanks be to God”. After the Gospel reading, the congregation instead responds with “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ”

The congregation sits during the readings, but stands for the Gospel reading, and prior to commencing the reading everyone makes what is known as the “Solemn sign of the cross”. This is a threefold cross motion where you first cross your forehead with your thumb, then cross your lips, then cross your heart. It is a more intense version of the usual sign of the cross.

For the Psalm today, the guitarist set the psalm to music by strumming a Spanish tune and singing the words. The congregation entered into the “Call and response”, reciting the response line at the appropriate intervals.

IMG_1077After all of these readings and liturgical songs, everyone takes their seat as the priest mounts the pulpit to deliver a short homily.

Catholic Sunday homilies typically only last for 15 minutes, which is a stark contrast to the 40-60 minute sermons that are heard in evangelical communities. Today’s homily was about the true meaning of Christmas, and how the modern secular world has completely distorted the ancient holiday into an excuse to engage in an orgy of materialistic spending.

Once the homily had concluded, the priest resumed his throne behind the altar and silently sat, allowing the congregation to spend some time praying and processing what had been said.

After a short time, the priest rose from his seat and launched into the Apostles creed, with the congregation following along:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

After this, a member of the congregation ascended the pulpit and started reciting prayerful petitions, asking God’s favour for the parish, the church, the poor and suffering and the world. As she concluded, the liturgy of the word was brought to an end.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist

At this point we arrived at the heart of the liturgy. It has attracted many names throughout history, including “The Lord’s supper” and “The heavenly banquet”. This is the core of the mass. It is supposedly exactly equivalent to the moment where Christ offers himself to the father for the sins of the world, thus securing the salvation of the entire cosmos. If you go to church and witness the Liturgy of the Eucharist, it is helpful to understand the significance of what you are looking at: you are beholding the salvation of the cosmos, before your very eyes you are seeing it happen and the drama is unfolding in front of you on the altar.

The priest whispers some quiet prayers (which are otherwise spoken audibly if you attend a weekday mass) and then addresses the congregation:

Pray; brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

To which the congregation in perfect unison responds:

May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church.

The priest continues:

Accept, we pray; O Lord, these offerings we make, gathered from among your gifts to us, and may what you grant us to celebrate devoutly here below gain for us the prize of eternal redemption. Through Christ our Lord.

And the people all say “Amen”.

At this point the mass enters into the Eucharistic prayer; the most ancient part of the liturgy, stretching all the way back to St Peter himself.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right and just.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope.

And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

At this point the entire congregation kneels, as the priest enters into the Canon of the mass, the most important prayer of the entire proceedings, which is believed to have the power to change the essence of the bread and wine on the altar into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord: that you accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices, which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church. Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant Francis our Pope and Anthony our Bishop, and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.

Remember, Lord, your servants and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them: for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true.

In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph, her Spouse, your blessed Apostles and Martyrs, Peter and Paul, Andrew, and all your Saints; we ask that through their merits and prayers, in all things we may be defended by your protecting help.

Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND EAT OF IT, FOR THIS IS MY BODY, WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.

IMG_1073After invoking these words, the priest picks up the wafer and holds it above his head for the congregation to worship and adore, because it is believed that with these words, the bread is no longer bread: it has become the very body of Jesus himself. God in the flesh, dwelling among us.

The priest then drops the Eucharist back onto the altar and falls down in worship. The congregation follows suit.

When the priest rises, he continues the long and lofty prayer:

In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands, and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT, FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD, THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT, WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.

Once again the priest holds up the chalice that earlier contained wine, now believed to have literally become the blood of Jesus. The entire congregation silently adores and worships for a short time, before the priest returns the chalice to the altar and prostrates, with the congregation following in the motion.

When the priest rises, he intones the words “The mystery of faith” and the congregation responds with

Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free.

The priest returns to the long canon prayer:

Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension in o heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.

Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim. In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, and all your Saints; admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord. Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.

IMG_1075The priest then picks up both the chalice and the Eucharist and holds one above the other as he recites:

Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.

This is followed by what is called the great amen. The entire congregation does a long, loud, triumphant, drawn out “Amen”.

The priest returns the Eucharist and the chalice to the altar and invites the congregation to recite the lords prayer.

Once this is completed, the priest commands the congregation to give each other the sign of peace. At this point everyone turns to their neighbour and shakes their hand or performs some other friendly gesture, while saying “Peace be with you”.

Soon after this, the priest launches into the agnus dei, another ancient prayer, and the congregation joins in:

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Everyone kneels once again, as the priest breaks the large Eucharistic host in half and holds it up for all to see, saying:

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

To which the congregation responds by beating their chests and reciting the prayer of the centurion:

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

At this point the priest consumes the Eucharist, confirming that the sacrifice has been accomplished.

Music is performed as everyone lines up to receive their own portion of the Eucharist. It is a very serious and reverent moment, as the devout congregation believes that they are truly and legitimately eating God.

Once everyone has returned to their seats, the priest enters into the concluding rites:

Let us pray:

May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures. Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

Go forth, the Mass is ended.

Thanks be to God.

And with these words, the Divine liturgy comes to a close and the parishioners slowly pack up and filter out, ready to get on with the rest of their Sunday.

Conclusion

IMG_1079So what actually happened? In essence, the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was offered up to God the Father by God the Son, and the entire congregation was drawn into this movement by the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Priest served as Christ’s physical hands during the liturgy, and returned to being just another bloke once the liturgy had concluded. Blood was drunk, flesh was eaten, under the form of Bread and Wine. Salvation was sought, salvation was given. The entire cosmos was redeemed and saved.

All things come together during the mass. It is the pinnacle and turning point of history, where before we were falling head first into Hell, now we are flying at full speed towards Heaven. How great it is to witness the securing of salvation before you eyes. What a beautiful blessing. It’s a wonderful experience if you appreciate it, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: “On the Interchangeability Between Different Models of the Trinitarian formula”

b57780a431bd921dc7b5f12113c4b482[1].jpgThe Trinity is a fascinating doctrine. It is important to always keep divine simplicity squarely in view when pondering the Trinity, in order to avoid slipping into idolatry.

I recently realised that the classic “Father, Son, Spirit” presentation of the Trinity is not the only possible way to speak of this divine mystery. In fact, this divine drama of the three and the one impresses itself upon our intellects in a wide variety of modes. In this post I will attempt to list as many of them as I can think of.

  1. The Scriptural presentation: The Father, the Son and the Spirit.
  2. The Relational model: The Lover, the Loved, and the Love.
  3. The Creational model: The uncreated creator, the one who is begotten, and the act of begetting/creating itself.
  4. The Salvific understanding: The saviour, the one who is saved, and the act of salvation itself.
  5. The Incarnational approach: The hidden and transcendent incarnator, the manifest and immanent incarnation, and the act by which this incarnation comes about.
  6. The Eternal Progressions view: the Static, simple immutable past; the dynamic, mutable future; and the lively freedom of the present moment.
  7. The Abstract/Concrete dichotomy: Being itself; an actual, specific being; and the divine movement by which Being itself gives rise to individual being.
  8. The Essence-Energies distinction: The concealed Essence, the revealed Energies, and the act of emanation by which Essence gives rise to Energy.
  9. The Eastern Wisdom formulation: Infinite Consciousness, Infinite Being, and the Infinite Bliss that is the act of Infinite Consciousness beholding Infinite Being.
  10. The Divine Vocalisation approach: The one who speaks, the eternal word who is spoken, and the act of speaking.

The fascinating thing about all of these is that due to divine simplicity the terms of the formulas are interchangeable: The Father is the lover is the saviour is the hidden incarnator is Being itself is Infinite Consciousness is the concealed Essence is the one who speaks. etc

In fact, you need only take the following generic Trinitarian dogmatic formula, and substitute in the words provided in the above list and in every case you will arrive at a statement of profound, deep truth about God.

  1. Hypostasis 1 is God.
  2. Hypostasis 2 is God.
  3. Hypostasis 3 is God.
  4. Hypostasis 1 is not Hypostasis 2.
  5. Hypostasis 2 is not Hypostasis 3.
  6. Hypostasis 3 is not Hypostasis 1.
  7. There is only one God.

To take but a single example:

  1. Consciousness is God.
  2. Being is God.
  3. Bliss is God.
  4. Consciousness is not Being.
  5. Being is not Bliss.
  6. Bliss is not Consciousness.
  7. There is only one God.

The father is infinite consciousness, the son is infinite being, the spirit is the infinite bliss of the infinite consciousness as it contemplates the infinite being.

I do not claim to have exhaustively enumerated all the different ways of conceiving of the Trinitarian dogma, and it is fascinating to attempt to take in all of these conceptions all at once. I find that I arrive at a place where words simply fail me and all I can do is worship in profound silence. The Trinity is a perfect object of meditation in which there bubbles up a fountain of ineffable Truth.

To pick another of the conceptions arbitrarily and elaborate upon it: The father is the hidden, simple, transcendent essence of divinity, while the son is the manifest, manifold, immanent energies, and the spirit is the act of the energies emanating from the essence. We participate in the energies (that is to say, Christ), and by participating in the energies we truly participate in the fullness of Divinity. The essence-energies distinction is therefore simply another way of framing the Trinitarian relationship of plurality in unity within God. Due to divine simplicity, the emanation is God, the energy is God, and the essence is God. We participate in the emanation and the essence, but only through participating in the energy.

10134_2[1].jpgTo take another example: The father is the static, immutable, eternal past, the son is the dynamic, lively, unknown, temporal future with all of its possibilities, the spirit is the free movement of creating and giving birth of past to future, that is to say, the present. In the present moment we behold the Trinitarian relationship directly: by reflecting on our freedom and the creation that surrounds us, we are witnessing the hidden, immutable father freely creating the lively and dynamic son in whom we live and move and have our being, and this living and moving and having our being just is the Spirit. In this way the present moment represents a window into the dramatic, divine life of God: Just as it is only through Christ that we come to know the father, so too it is only through the present that we are able to know the past and anticipate the future.

7 Myths About Universalism

Robin Parry holding a teacup

Below is Parry’s article—originally published as Bell’s Hells: seven myths about universalism in the Baptist Times.


You can be a good evangelical without believing in eternal punishment, writes Robin Parry

On Tuesday February 22 2011, Rob Bell – the influential pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan – posted the promotional video for his new book, Love Wins.

Rumours started spreading almost immediately that Bell’s forthcoming book advocated universalism and, unsurprisingly, the Internet went white-hot. On Saturday February 26 Justin Taylor, a well-known neo-Calvinist, posted his provisional reflections about Bell as a universalist on The Gospel Coalition blog and, reportedly, by that evening about 12,000 people had recommended his post on Facebook.

That same day Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. And from there the number of blog posts exploded. Overnight, universalism went from being a marginal issue that most evangelicals felt that they could ignore to being the next big debate.

Feelings are running high at the moment and a lot of strong language is being used. I think that if the church is to have a fruitful discussion on this matter (rather than a bad tempered battle-to-the-death) then it is essential that we have a clear understanding of what Christian universalists actually believe. A lot of myths about universalism are informing the current debate and I want to explore seven of them very briefly below.

To begin it will be helpful to have a quick definition of Christian universalism. Christian universalists are (mostly) orthodox, Trinitarian, Christ-centred, gospel-focused, Bible-affirming, missional Christians. What makes them universalists is that they believe that God loves all people, wants to save all people, sent Christ to redeem all people, and will achieve that goal.

In a nutshell, it is the view that, in the end, God will redeem all people through Christ. Christian universalists believe that the destiny of humanity is ‘written’ in the body of the risen Jesus and, as such, the story of humanity will not end with a tomb.

Myth: Universalists don’t believe in hell

Many an online critic of Bell has complained that he, along with his universalist allies, does not believe in hell. Here, for instance, is Todd Pruitt: ‘Rob Bell . . . denies the reality of hell.’ Mr BH adds, ‘To Hell with No Hell. To Hell with what’s being sold by Rob Bell.’

Nice rhyming but, alas, this is too simplistic.

Historically all Christian universalists have had a doctrine of hell and that remains the case for most Christian universalists today, including Bell. The Christian debate does not concern whether hell will be a reality (all agree that it will) but, rather, what the nature of that reality will be. Will it be eternal conscious torment? Will it be annihilation? Or will it be a state from which people can be redeemed? Most universalists believe that hell is not simply retributive punishment but a painful yet corrective/educative state from which people will eventually exit (some, myself included, think it has a retributive dimension, while others do not).

So it is not hell that universalists deny so much as certain views about hell. (To complicate matters a little there have even been a few universalists that believed that hell is an eternal, conscious torment! An unusual view for a universalist but possible – honest.)

Myth: Universalists don’t believe the Bible

One does not have to read Bell’s detractors for long before coming across the following sentiments: Universalists are theological ‘liberals’ that reject the ‘clear teaching of the Bible’. Surely all good Bible-believing Christians will believe that some/many/most people are damned forever? ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this is a betrayal of biblical truth,’ says R Albert Mohler. David Cloud, concerned about Bell’s questioning classical conceptions of hell, writes, ‘It is evil to entertain questions that deny Bible truth.’

So, are universalists really Bible-denying? No.

Historically, Christian universalists have been Bible-affirming believers and that remains the case for many, perhaps the majority, today. The question is not ‘Which group believes the Bible?’ but, ‘How do we interpret the Bible?’

The root issue is this: there are some biblical texts that seem to affirm universalism (eg Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Colossians 1:20; Philippians 2:11) but there are others that seem to deny it (eg Matthew 25:45; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9; Revelations 14:11; 20:10-15).

At the heart of the biblical debate is how we hold these two threads together. Do we start with the hell passages and reread the universalist texts in the light of them? That is the traditional route. Or, do we start with universalist passages and reinterpret the hell texts in the light of them? That is what many universalists do.

Or do we try to hold both sets of biblical teachings in some kind of tension (and there are various proposals for how we might do that – some leaning towards traditionalism, others leaning towards universalism)?

There is also the question of wider biblical-theological themes and their relevance. For instance, biblical teaching on God’s love, justice, punishment, the cross-resurrection, covenant, etc. How might reflection on those matters influence our theology of hell?

This is not just about finding ‘proof texts’ to whip your opponent with (both sides are capable of that) but about making best sense of the Bible as a whole. And when we follow the big plotline of the scriptures, which ending to the story has the best ‘fit’? Universalists believe that the ending in which God redeems his whole creation makes the most sense of the biblical metanarrative. Traditionalists disagree.

My point is that this debate is not a debate between Bible-believing Christians (traditionalists) and ‘liberals’ (universalists). It is, to a large extent, a debate between two sets of Bible-believing Christians on how best to understand scripture.

Myth: Universalists don’t think sin is very bad

Blogger Denny Burke thinks that Bell’s ‘weak’ view of hell if based on a ‘weak’ view of sin which, in turn, is based on a ‘weak’ view of God: ‘Sin will always appears as a trifle to those whose view of God is small.’

Universalists ‘obviously’ think that sin isn’t something to get too worked up about – after all they believe that God’s job is to forgive people, right?

Once again we are in the realm of mythology. Propose a view on the seriousness of sin as strong as you wish and you’ll find universalists who would affirm it. Does sin affect every aspect of human life? Is it an utter horror that degrades our humanity and warrants divine wrath? Does it deserve eternal punishment?

Universalists could affirm all of these things so long as they believed that God’s love, power, grace, and mercy are bigger and stronger than sin. Universalists do not have a low view of sin, they have a high view of grace: ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.’

Myth: Universalists believe in God’s love but forget his justice and wrath

Here is Britten Taylor’s response to Rob Bell: ‘God is love. But, He is also just. God pours out His mercy, but He also pours out His wrath.’ The implication is that universalists overplay divine love and forget that God is also holy and just. Right? Wrong.

Christian universalists have a lot to say about God’s holiness, justice, and even his wrath. Typically they think that God’s divine nature cannot be divided up into conflicting parts in such a way that some of God’s actions are loving (eg, saving sinners) while others are just and full of anger (eg, hell).

They see all of God’s actions as motivated by ‘holy love’. Everything God does is holy, completely just, and completely loving.

So whatever hell is about it must be compatible not simply with divine justice but also with divine love. Which means that it must, in some way, have the good of those in hell as part of its rationale.

Universalists feel that one potential danger in traditional theologies of hell is that while they make much of God justice and anger they appear to be incompatible with his love and, as a result, they divide up the unity of God’s nature.

Myth: Universalists think that all roads lead to God

Here is Kevin Mullins’ definition of universalism in his discussion of Bell: ‘Universalism – the belief that everyone, regardless of faith or behavior, will be counted as God’s people in the end. All roads lead to Him. All religions are just different expressions of the same Truth.’

That idea is what underlies crparke’s comment that, ‘If Rob Bell denies hell then he denies the need for a “savior” and makes the sacrifice of Jesus irrelevant.’

Here our Internet conversation partners have confused universalism (the view that God will one day save all people through Christ) with pluralism (the view that there are many paths to God and that Jesus is simply one of them). But Christian universalists deny pluralism. They insist that salvation is found only through the atoning work of Christ. Without Jesus nobody would be redeemed!

Now there is a disagreement between Christians about whether one needs to have explicit faith in Jesus to share in the salvation he has bought. Some Christians, called exclusivists, think that only those who put their trust in the gospel can be saved.

Others, called inclusivists, think that it is possible to be saved through Christ even without explicit faith in him.

Thus, for inclusivists it is possible to be saved even if, for instance, you have never heard the gospel. Inclusivists would maintain that if someone responds in humility, love, and faith to the truncated divine revelation that they have received then God can unite them to Christ and they may be considered as, perhaps, ‘anonymous Christians’.

But we need to be careful not to confuse the discussion between exclusivists and inclusivists with the issue of universalism. Many people make that mistake. The former debate concerns how people can experience the salvation won by Christ while the latter concerns how many people will be saved. Two different questions.

Thus, some universalists are inclusivists (eg, Rob Bell) but others are exclusivists, maintaining that only people who trust in the gospel can be saved. (Obviously exclusivist universalists have to believe that salvation is possible after death.)

But whether one is speaking of exclusivist or inclusivist universalists, neither relegate Jesus to the sidelines.

Myth: Universalism undermines evangelism

Here is Matt: ‘I do think the Scripture is clear that salvation at least has some limits. If it doesn’t, then preaching and evangelism are ultimately wasted activities.’ And R Albert Mohler worries that, ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this . . . has severe . . . evangelistic consequences.’ Why, after all, would anyone bother to go through all the effort and struggle of evangelism if God is going to save everyone in the end anyway?

So must universalism undermine evangelism? Not at all. There are many reasons to engage in mission and evangelism, not least that Christ commands it. And it is a huge privilege to join with God in his mission of reconciling the world to himself. The gospel message in God’s ‘foolish’ way of setting the world right so, of course, universalists will want to proclaim it.

Fear of hell is not the only motivation for mission. And, what is more, the majority of universalists do fear hell. Whilst they may not view it as ‘the end of the road’, they still consider it to be a dreadful state to be avoided.

And historically universalists have not run from mission. Here are the words of an eighteenth century Baptist universalist, Elhanan Winchester, who was himself an evangelist: ‘There is no business or labour to which men are called, so important, so arduous, so difficult, and that requires such wisdom to perform it [as that of the soul-winner]. The amazing worth of winning souls, makes the labour so exceeding important, and of such infinite concern’ (sermon on the death of John Wesley, 1791).

Myth: Universalism undermines holy living

Here is Frank: ‘Oh thank goodness Rob Bell is here to explain that we can do whatever we want because (drum roll please) . . . there’s no consequence, there’s no hell!’ And Frank is not alone. During 17th, 18th and 19th centuries many Christians were especially worried that if the fear of hell was reduced people would have little to constrain their sinful behaviour. Thus universalism, they feared, would fuel sin.

But the fear of punishment is not the only motive for avoiding sin and, even if it were, universalism does, as has already been mentioned, have space for some such fear. But far more important for holy living – indeed the only motive for heartfelt holy living – is the positive motivation inspired by love for God.

Who, after all, would reason, ‘I know that God created me, seeks to do me good, sent his Son to die for me, and that he will always love me…so I must hate him!’? On the contrary, the revelation of divine love solicits our loving response (1 John 4:19).

Clearly there is an important debate to be had but if we desire more light and less heat we need to start by getting a clearer understanding of the view under discussion.