Catholicism verses Protestantism: What’s the main difference?

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I have been studying Catholic theology lately, examining the major disagreements it has with my Protestant theology.

While there are major differences, things like the sinlessness of Mary, or the veneration of saints and icons, or papal authority, this was not the largest difference I saw. And to be honest, there are explanations for these practices that aren’t altogether outlandish (though I would still disagree).

Another difference that some might point out is how the Catholics view the sacraments. According to the Catholic Catechism, Catholics understand the sacraments to be “‘powers that comes forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving”. In other words, Jesus himself gives life to his church in the sacraments. So in baptism, Jesus himself effects regeneration. In confirmation, Jesus gives the fulness of the Spirit. In the Eucharist, Christians quite literally are nourished by Jesus’ body. And this is because, according to Catholic theology, the church is a continuation of the incarnation of Christ. And through his body, in the sacraments, he saves his people. Nevertheless, Protestants, healthy ones at least, understand the importance of the sacraments, and that Jesus really does impart grace through them (although we would understand them differently of course).

I wouldn’t even see grace as the primary difference. All too often, Catholic theology is seen as works-based, religious, dry. However, every Catholic I know would deny that. In fact, grace is central to Catholic theology. The Catechism states that salvation “has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men”. Who could disagree with that? Grace really is present in Catholic theology.

So then, what is the big difference? 

To me, the thing that makes Protestants and Catholics diverge; the rub, as it were, is what “justification” means. Justification means two different things in Protestant and Catholic theology — did you know that?

For Protestants, justification is the declaration that sinners, though they be sinners, are righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. Because Christ was obedient in our place, on our behalf, we are given, or imputed Christ’s righteousness. We are saved by the righteousness of another, not our own. As Luther says, justification is the gift of an “alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith”. We are saved not because we are actually righteous (though we will be righteous in glory), but because Jesus is. So that is Protestant “justification”.

But Catholics do not see justification this way. Though they would still hold to justification, they would define it as the transference from being a child of wrath to being a child of God. And in this transference, rather than Christ’s righteousness being imputed, his righteousness is imparted, or infused within us. What they mean is that the merits of Christ are literally infused into our nature, thereby making us not legally righteous, but actually righteous. Andrew Preslar writes,

[J]ustification is an act of God by which the merits of Jesus Christ, sanctifying grace, and charity are communicated to sinners, who are thereby made just. This infused charity fulfills the righteous demands of the law, being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) in baptism, by which we are united with Christ, who has made complete satisfaction to the Father for our sins (Romans 6:3-4). In concise, theological terms, the Catholic Church teaches that regeneration, sanctification, and incorporation into the Body of Christ are essential aspects of justification, such that the latter cannot be defined in legal, extrinsic, and individualistic terms alone (source)

The Catholic Catechism writes, “justification conforms us to the righteousness of God”. This is very important here. Catholic theology rejects “legal… terms alone”, and says that justification is the act by which by God infuses the life of Christ in us, thereby allowing us to be righteous in the real sense of the word now.

Now here’s the important part: for the Catholic church, because the merits and righteousness of Christ are literally infused, it is now the role of God’s justified church to cooperate with God’s grace and live out a righteous life, thereby meriting eternal life. Final salvation, for the Catholic church, depends on us living out the righteousness of Christ infused within. This is why the sacraments are so important. The Eucharist is Christ giving us more grace to live out a righteous life. Confession is given to absolve any mortal sin which extinguishes the righteousness of Christ infused in us. Impartation or infusion of Jesus’ righteousness, means that we can now live out the law and merit eternal life.

Now let me be fair: this isn’t salvation by self-merit. In Catholicism, final salvation is not dependent on us living out our own righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ infused within. In this way, it is still grace-given righteousness.

However, as a Protestant, I can’t help but notice how the burden is truly on you. As the Catholic Catechism states,

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life

The Catechism clarifies, however, saying,

The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace

While Protestants do have a robust doctrine of sanctification and perseverance, we will not say that growth is tied to our final justification. Justification and sanctification are not bound together in Protestant theology. But for Catholics, justification is a work that God begins freely in us by baptism, but is then merited through sanctification, or cooperation in Christ’s righteousness infused.

As Catholics would say, justification is by faith, but not by faith alone. It is by faith working through love, living out “the divine life” as sons of God.

So, Protestants say justification is imputation. Catholics say that justification is infusion. Small wording change, but to me, this creates the biggest difference in the end.

Want a Catholic’s perspective on the difference? Here is Robert Barron on the Council of Trent, which was created in response to the Protestant Reformation. To get the gist of it, skip to minute 8:45:

Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism – My Thoughts

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So recently, there was a debate between two Calvinists and two Arminians about the subject of predestination and God’s role in salvation.

The Calvinist debaters were Daniel Montgomery, pastor a Sojourn Church in KY, and Timothy Paul Jones, a professor at Southern Seminary. They recently published a book together called PROOF, which was a rehashing of the TULIP acronym. I read the book, and would encourage anyone to read it.

The Arminian debaters were Austin Fischer, recent author of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed. His partner was an odd fellow I had never heard of named Brian Zahnd. I have followed Fischer for quite some time, and have been fascinated by his very quick transition from Calvinism into a liberal type of Arminianism, following the likes of Roger Olson et al.

You can watch the debate here:

I will give a commentary about the debates below the video links

Strengths on each side?

I want to start by commenting on the strengths of each side, then the weaknesses. First, the Calvinist side clearly used much more biblical texts to back up their claims than their opponents. I mean, it was ridiculous how much scripture Daniel Montgomery brought into his arguments. Timothy Paul Jones did entire expositions of texts. This encouraged me, being a Calvinist myself. It was encouraging to see each of them not only mentioning texts, but also explaining and interpreting them for us.

However, the Arminian side had some strengths too; though they had less scripture, the Arminians had better rhetoric and responses. What I mean is that both Fischer and Zahnd were able to respond to and critique the Calvinist side in a very persuasive manner (of course, persuasion doesn’t make you right — but it helps!). Contrastly, the Calvinist side didn’t really respond much. Instead, they mainly posited their positions. And for a debate, you have to be able to critique, pick apart, and see the arguments behind the arguments.

Weaknesses on each side?

As I said above, I thought the Calvinist side should have responded and critiqued the Arminian side much more than they did. There were several times when Fischer would contradict himself, or say something wrong, which the Calvinists never picked up on. For instance, Fischer asserted that none of the early church fathers were Calvinistic. This is a sore overstatement. The theological nuance of the early church fathers is still debated today. However, neither Montgomery nor Jones critiqued Fischer for that. Also, Fischer asserted that the only way Calvinists can believe that God is both good and completely sovereign is to ascribe mystery to the doctrines instead of explaining how they work. However, when Fischer described his doctrine of synergism, he repeatedly said it was a mystery, and never completely explained it! This, to me, was a sore misstep for Fischer. But, the Calvinist side never picked up on that either. I think Montgomery and Jones should have been much more critical of both Zahnd and Fischer.

The biggest weakness I saw on the Arminian side was the lack of scripture used in their arguments. What I mean is that they never really explained any biblical texts in depth. They may have spouted out a few texts here and there, but they never really considered the meaning or the context. For instance, Fischer started the first video by denying pretty harshly that God decreed or predestined anything. But for all the time he argued against predestination, he rarely brought in scripture. Also, when Zahnd began critiquing the idea of predestination, he insisted that the doctrine was inconsistent with “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. To him, Jesus’ teaching, life and death, (all those red letters … getting it?) was a more sure word then the Bible (in fact, he pitted the Bible against Jesus, which Jesus himself never did). Soon into the debate, it became obvious that Zahnd either questioned or denied the infallibility of the scriptures. Of course, I do want to recognize, Fischer did quote some texts here and there, especially during his synergism explanation. But he never really got deep into the texts. It’s easy enough to spout out a few verses that sound like they support your position. It’s altogether different to do an exposition of those verses, which the Calvinist side did a few times.

The bottom line: who won?

Here’s the issue with a debate like this. At the end of the day, the Calvinists (with whom I agree) held to the biblical inerrancy of scripture. And because of this, they argued not only from the red letters, but also in the rest of the Bible. And so they brought in a myriad of texts which supported the idea that predestination was in fact true. They brought in texts from the Old Testament, New Testament, epistles, and so on. They brought the whole gambit. And for that, they had a doctrine that really was supported by all of scripture. In the end, the Bible was their primary source.

However, from the Arminian side, it became more and more apparent that the Bible was a secondary source for them. For them, the true and trustworthy source was “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. Over and over, you would hear, “The God of Calvinism is incongruent with God as revealed in Jesus Christ”. However, and here’s my rub with the Arminians, they never really dug into the texts to support this idea. They never in-depth scriptural support, especially from the Old Testament, that the God as revealed in Jesus Christ was Arminian. Instead, they imported their own understanding of Christ into the Bible. They never considered texts like John 6, 8, 10, 17, and others, in which Jesus himself teaches predestination. They never considered the fact that Jesus came to do the will of his Father in heaven (Jn 6:38), which presupposes that Jesus came to accomplish a predestined redemption. The Arminians never brought these texts up. They couldn’t. Instead, they continued to repeat, “the God as revealed in Jesus Christ is incongruent with Calvinism”. To me, that really weakened their arguments. And it’s because their understanding of Jesus came first, and the Bible second.

Brian Zahnd says this much in a very eye-opening post, in which he says outright,

“The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ”.

Do you see what he’s saying? It’s subtle, but here’s what he’s saying: If the Old Testament disagrees with your understanding of Jesus, reject it; it’s not reliable. Because after all, Israel made some bad “assumptions” along the way that we now know are wrong. Zahnd rejects the infallibility of the scriptures, and that affects his theology, including his theology of Christ and salvation. He imports an understanding of Jesus into the scriptures, picks and chooses what he likes from the Bible, and forms a theology from that. This is not healthy exegesis. Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s another post by Zahnd where he allows his understanding of Christ to lead to an utter denial of substitutionary atonement.

It’s pretty obvious to me that the Calvinist side won, no problem. If you don’t use the Bible to form your doctrine, your doctrine will always inform the way you read your Bible. What’s at stake in this entire debate is the Bible, not simply Calvinism or Arminianism. And I’ll side with the Bible all day long.

Why Christians Need the Old Testament

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I mentioned in my preceding post that Christians need the scriptures for encouragement, growth, and spiritual fruit, because of the very fact that the scriptures reveal God’s saving purposes for mankind. Martin Luther went so far to say that the Word of God is itself a lengthened telling of the gospel.

In this post, I want to consider just exactly how the Old Testament tells this gospel-story.

And what I want to propose is that the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. And because of this, the entire biblical narrative is concerned and centered on Jesus — and, as I said in my last post, this is why we need the scriptures, Old Testament too!

So then, how does the Old Testament bear witness to the gospel?

If read carefully, and in context, it should become clear that the Old Testament is concerned with the gospel as much as the New; it just communicates it in different ways. Vaughan Roberts says (source),

[Many] have debated for years whether or not it is possible to point to a unifying theme that binds the whole Bible together…Any unifying theme that is used to help us to see how the Bible fits together must arise from scripture itself…and it must be broad enough to allow each part to make its own distinct contribution. The theme of the kingdom of God satisfies both requirements…

[God’s kingdom can be defined as] “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule” …[Scripture throughout presents] God longing  for human beings to enjoy an intimate relationship with him in his presence. As he is a perfect, holy God, that is possible only as we submit to his loving rule and do not sin.

What Roberts wants to communicate here is that the Old Testament may not mention the word “gospel”, but the concepts of the gospel are there. Roberts proposes that it’s easier to present “kingdom” as a unifying principle that presents the same gospel-truths, both across the Old and New Testament. I agree with him. I think that the beginning chapters of Genesis present God’s people under his rule and blessing, submitting in humility to him — they present God’s kingdom in perfect form. And Revelation 21, at the very end of the Bible, presents it that way too: God’s people under God’s rule and blessing. This is God’s goal a presented throughout the entire Bible, from beginning to end. However, we find that Adam’s sin (and ours too) corrupted and ruined this kingdom relationship. And for that, all have fallen short and deserve God’s condemnation (Rom 3:23).

God’s response, however, was not to destroy us, but to provide a means for humanity to be in blessed fellowship with him once more. Roberts says well, “[God] is certainly not defeated by the fall”; because in Genesis 3:15, we are told that God promises to restore his kingdom relationship through a Seed (a child) who would come from Eve and undue the effects of our sin, ultimately restoring creation to its original state. How will this happen? Through Jesus. This Seed is Christ, and God will use him to restore his fallen creation. Even in the first few chapters of the Bible, Jesus comes into the picture.

And this is the theme of the Old Testament, which finds fulfillment in the New: God will provide someone who will rescue humanity from their sin. The Old Testament presents God’s preparation for this great rescue.

God begins this rescue-plan by calling Abraham from his land, and giving him a promise. God promises to Abraham that through his Seed (recall Genesis 3:15?) he will bless the world. Roberts rightly says, “the covenant with Abraham is a promise of the kingdom of God…It is a promise to reverse the effects of the fall”. Paul would eventually explain that although Isaac was Abraham’s immediate “seed”, Christ is the final Seed who would bless the nations (Gal 3:16).

Then, after God established this promise, he created a nation called Israel whereby he would reveal this Seed, and set a context for redemption. Many may ask exactly why God dealt with this nation Israel before Christ’s coming? John Piper aptly answers this (source):

Israel’s history is not just about Israel. It’s about “every mouth” and “the whole world.” This was not a 2,000-year detour. God was writing a lesson book for the nations. It’s not an accident that our Bible has the Old Testament in it…Because in God’s wisdom he knew that the nations of the world would grasp the nature of Christ and his work better against the backdrop of Israel’s 2,000 year history of law and grace, faith and failure, sacrifice and atonement, wisdom and prophecy, mercy and judgment.

What Piper here is explaining is that God established Israel’s kingdom in order to teach both Israel, and the observing nations about their need for redemption. God wanted to communicate to all peoples that they could not save themselves. And God needed years of history in order to accomplish this. Paul tells us that the sacrifices, the Law, the priesthood, the temple, everything, was given in order to be a tutor to explain our state in sin, and our need forgiveness and holiness. Paul says that the Mosaic Law “was added because of transgressions…until the Seed would come to whom the promise had been made…The [Law] has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:19-22). So, God used Israel and the Mosaic Law as a training station to teach the nations how one is to be saved; namely through an atoning Savior who would die for the sins of others.

In this way, the Old Testament presented the promise of a Savior, and also presented our need for him. And in the New Testament, Christ became the embodiment and fulfillment of that promised. As Paul says, the Old Testament was “a mere shadow of what was to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17). God is a great strategist, and this is how he accomplished this great redemption.

So when we read the Old Testament, we are reading God’s promises. God is “getting ready” to present Christ. And he is doing it by revealing through Israel what he will look like, and accomplish.

In this way, the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. For this reason, we should read, treasure, enjoy, and consume God’s Word on every page.

Why Christians Need the Scriptures

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In his insightful, Freedom of the Christian, Martin Luther writes:

Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and ever incalculable blessing. This is why the prophet in the entire Psalm 119 and in many other place yearns and sighs for the Word of God and uses so many names to describe it…

Luther goes on to describe the Bible as one of the main pillars in the Christian faith. It is a necessary source of nourishment for the Christian. Even the Bible itself attests to this fact. Paul tells us that the scriptures give us encouragement and hope (Rom 15:4). The Psalmists tell us that God’s Word heals (Ps 107:20), and is a constant source of growth and life (Ps 1). Christ himself tells us that we are to live on the very words of God (Mt 4:11). Peter tells us to long and yearn for the scriptures as infants need milk (1 Pet 2:2). Jeremiah says of the scriptures, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your words because to me a joy and the delight of my heart. Overwhelmingly, we need the Bible, because it is God’s tool to nourish, sustain, and grow us. It is one of God’s main means to growing his people into the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13).

But how does the Bible produce this sort of spiritual fruit within us? How does it help us and sustain us in this way?

Luther explains that the Bible does this by revealing to us the saving promises of God in the gospel, and producing faith within us. Luther even goes so far to say that “the Word [itself] is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies. [The Bible is meant to] feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes…Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God”.

Luther makes a remarkable point here, that the scriptures are centered around and concerned entirely with the gospel of Christ. I think he’s right; any cursory reading of the Bible will reveal that it doesn’t actually cover everything we need to know. The Bible is concerned with one thing: salvation. And so, the scriptures primarily revolve around the gospel. They center around God’s gracious plan to save sinners, atone for their sins, clothe them in righteousness, adopt them, and make them forever his. Paul tells us this is 2 Corinthians 1:20, that all of God’s saving promises and actions find their fulfillment in Jesus suffering for sinners. In fact, the overwhelming theme of the Old and New Testament is this: “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer 30:22). This what the scriptures anticipate, long for, and find their fulfillment in. That God will have a redeemed people for himself in Jesus. And this is why Luther can say that the Bible is, in a very real way, the telling of the gospel itself.

But also, this is why the Bible is a delight, encouragement, nourishment, and a necessary source of growth: because the gospel is the only thing that justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies a sinner (1 Cor 1:30, Rom 16:25). As Luther says, “therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith“. The gospel and the Bible are inextricably bound together. Because as Luther says, the only reason we need the scriptures is because we need the gospel. And because we need the gospel, God gave us the scriptures. Anyone who enjoys the grace of God found in the gospel, will treasure, grow in, be founded upon, and desire fully to read and know the Bible.

God gave us a book to read over and over again, that we might remember again and again who God is, what he does for sinners, and how we are saved through Jesus. It is a book “concerning all things necessary for…man’s salvation, faith and life” (WCF). 

What does it mean that Jesus is the head of the church?

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What does it mean that Jesus is the head of the church? This concept of Jesus being over the church is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament, both implicitly and explicitly. In Colossians 1, Paul calls Jesus the head of the body, the beginning, and the first born from the dead, with the end result of him being preeminent in all things (Col 1:18). Jesus is the head, becoming the center of all things concerning God and his church. Paul mentions Christ’s headship in Ephesians 5 as well; and he compares Christ’s headship over the church to a husbands relationship to his wife, telling us that Christ’s headship is one of nourishment and sanctification toward his church; similarly, husbands should care for and nourish their own wives (Eph 5:23-29). But what is Paul trying to convey here?

When Paul speaks of headship, he is talking primarily about representation.

Biblically, what we must understand is that God deals with people by way of representatives. Whatever happens to that representative happens to those under him. This principle goes throughout the entire history of the scriptures.

For instance, when God created Adam, he gave him certain responsibilities. Adam was to cultivate the garden that God had given him, and to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). To Adam alone was given this responsibility — and Eve was given as a helper to assist him in accomplishing his God-given tasks. Also, God prohibited Adam from certain things. He was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). If he were to eat of it, he would surely die. Of course, we find that Adam and his wife did eat of the tree. But it’s interesting just how God punishes Adam and Eve for their disobedience. First, God holds Adam alone responsible, not Eve (Gen 3:9-10). Second, because of Adam’s failure, God punishes all of humanity, not just the pair. Paul later picks up on this concept, and tells us that we are sinful because of one man’s sin (Rom 5:12). What this indicates is that Adam was a God-ordained representative for all humanity. If he would have been obedient, we would have all benefitted. But because he chose to disobey, we all fell into sin.

From Adam and on, the principle of headship as representation can be traced from Old Testament to New. God chose Noah as the head of a new humanity (Gen 6-9), Abraham as the head of a new nation Israel (Gen 12-22), Moses as the head of the Mosaic Economy (Exod 19-20), and David as God’s eternal kingly dynasty (2 Sam 7). What is especially interesting when reading about the institution of the Mosaic Law, we find that the people of Israel waited at the bottom of Mount Sinai as Moses went and spoke before God on their behalf (Exod 19:1-3). And God interacted with the people of Israel through Moses alone. In that sense, Israel went in Moses into God’s presence. Paul picks up on this in 1 Corinthians 10, telling us that Israel was baptized into Moses in the Red Sea (1 Cor 10:2). What an interesting way to articulate the concept!

And when we arrive at the New Testament, we find out that all of these representative heads were merely pointing to the true cosmic representative, Christ. Matthew describes Christ becoming the true Moses who teaches God’s people from the mountain (Mt 5-7). Matthew also presents Christ as the true Israel, God’s true righteous servant (Mt 2:13-4). Paul calls Christ the last Adam, making him the head of a new humanity (1 Cor 15:22). He also calls Christ the true seed of Abraham who blesses the nations through his life and death (Gal 3:16). And, Luke presents Jesus as the true Davidic king whose kingdom will last forever (Lk 1:32-33). In this way, Jesus is the ultimate head who realizes all of God’s redemptive purposes. He realizes Adam’s mission, Israel’s purpose, and David’s kingship. In this way, Jesus is the fountain of all things.

So when we call Christ our head, what we mean is that he represents us before God. This is why Paul can say of himself: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). If we are in Christ, this means that the death that Jesus died to sin, we also died. It means that the life he now has is our life (Col 3:1). It means that his reign is our reign (1 Cor 3:21). If Christ is your head, you are hidden in him, seated at the right hand of God, clothed in his righteousness, dead to sin, and alive to God (Rom 6, Col 3:1-4).

Christ is our representative. This is what headship means. In Christ, what happens to Jesus happens to you! This is why Paul tells us that Christ’s headship means that he is preeminent in all things (Col 1:18). It is what Paul means when he tells us that our chosenness is in Jesus (Eph 1:3-10). We have been chosen in Christ before the ages began. And the result is that Christ is our representative, and all things are be summed up in Him alone (Eph 1:10).

**For further discussion on this, you can read a post on how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament here

Why are there so many Protestant Denominations Part 2: Interdenominational Ministry?

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In my last post, I considered exactly why there were so many denominations within the Protestant faith. I concluded first that while there is much diversity, there is also a lot of unity. We agree on essentials of the faith, and we gather around the Bible as the Word of God. Because of the reality that we are fallible (and sinful) humans with lenses that cloud our interpretations of unclear texts and doctrines, we will by nature differ on doctrines that are not essential for salvation (and to be evangelical). This is why we have a number of different doctrinal differences and ecclesiological differences — and at the same time, we have much in common that unites us as Protestant Evangelicals.

I want to ask another question concerning this issue though. Is it possible for Protestants who differ doctrinally and ecclessiologically to work together in the same congregation? Could a charismatic and a cessationist work together as pastors over a congregation? Could a Calvinist and an Arminian preach the Bible as a team? I want to give a qualified “yes”.

Here’s my qualification:

There are two main ways I see pastors who differ either theologically or ecclessiologically working together. The first would be that one pastor concedes his theological preferences to the leadership of the other. What I mean is this: Most churches want to be clear on where they “camp” on theological issues (and for good reason). For instance, is speaking in tongues biblical? Should it be practiced in the congregational worship meeting? Cessationists give a resounding “no”, while Charismatics affirm the biblical practice of tongues (and of course, interpretation). Well, if those two were to work together, one pastor would have to concede to the other in terms of how they worship in congregational meetings. Another issue is women in the ministry. One camp may hold to an egalitarian mode of pastoral ministry, while another may be against it. What if two pastors work together, and they differ on this issue? Well, one will have to confer to the leadership of another. I personally would not be able to work in a church that ordains women as pastors, not because I don’t want women using spiritual gifts, but simply because I believe that biblical eldership is a position given to men. But, I would have less of a problem differing to the preference of a charismatic pastor on the issue of tongues. The reason is that I’m simply not dogmatic on that issue. I personally don’t speak in tongues, but I have known many who say they do! I prefer to be non-dogmatic on the issue because of it.

Another option that I see is if a church is open to theological variety. Let’s say for instance that a calvinist baptist and an arminian baptist pastor the same congregation together. How should they teach the Bible? Well, one option would be that either the arminian or the calvinist confer to the leadership of the other. But the church could also leave the issue open to their congregation. For instance, when teaching on the subject of election or the issue of sovereignty / providence, the pastors could simply list off the viable theological interpretations on the subject, and just leave it open to interpretation. This would of course require a lot of purposeful open communication on each stance, and a certain non-dogmatism that would allow the congregation to make their own decision on the issue. This could work if each pastor were open to it. They remain open on dogmatic theology, and precise on the essentials. Having come from reformed backgrounds, I find it easier to work within theological similarity. However, I have friends with different theological backgrounds, and one thing we do agree on the centrality of the gospel, and the supremacy of Christ — and so in that light, we can work together.

Even within my own marriage, my wife and I disagree on a certain theological principles — we don’t disagree on large issues, but there are still certain small nuances that differentiate us. And we are still very apt and ready to minister the gospel to and with one another. So I can see this happening on the vocational level as well, though many think it is easier to stay within a certain denomination. What do you think?

Why are there so many Protestant denominations?

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I’ve thought over this question for quite some time. Within Evangelical Protestantism, there are myriads of denominations. There are so many, that the Catholic Church has given many spurious critiques of modern Protestantism. They argue that there is such disunity among the church that we can hardly call ourselves the true church. In fact, Catholics really do consider themselves to be the only true church!

But are numerous denominations within the evangelical church necessarily a bad thing? I really don’t think so. In fact, as opposed to the Catholic church, I think that denominations enable unity within the larger body of Christ. And I want to consider a few reasons why.

First, Protestantism, even with all of its differing denominations, agrees on the essentials (if you can’t agree on certain essentials, you would be considered unorthodox or heterodox as opposed to “evangelical”). All Protestants agree that men are saved by Christ alone through faith alone. They all agree on the Trinity. They all agree that the Bible is the Word of God. They uphold the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Christ. These (and more) are essentials that all evangelicals must hold to in order to be considered orthodox. And because of this, there is much more unity than diversity. Even with John Wesley and George Whitfield’s massive differences (and although they parted ways eventually) concerning the order of salvation, they both heartily agreed with one another on the condition for salvation — faith alone in Christ alone. This is what binds all of Protestantism together!

Second, the reason there are so many denominations is not because we simply can’t get along. Rather, the reason there are different denominations is because we all treasure the Word of God. We all agree that God has revealed himself to us by his Word (I recognize that within Protestantism, the doctrine of inerrancy, which I hold to, is debated — however, that God inspired the Bible is not argued). We have unity on the source of the scriptures — however, we do not have unity on the interpretation of certain scriptures. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, will all have differing views on controversial passages. For instance, while we all agree that Paul is speaking of election in Ephesians 1, we cannot all agree on the meaning and nature of election. Calvinists argue for unconditional election, Arminians argue for condition election, and others (some Arminians and Methodists) argue for corporate election. What none of us disagree on is that Ephesians 1 reveals to us God’s saving intentions for mankind — instead, what we disagree on is exactly what Paul is saying. Because of this, while there is much difference concerning specific doctrines, we have agreement on the Word of God: that the Bible is inherently divine revelation.

Third, while differing denominations can agree and have unity on essentials, we also must affirm that because we disagree on some things, it is not inherently wrong to serve in a church with which you agree. While a Methodist Church and a Baptist Church can work together to reach a community with the gospel, it could also be a challenge to work together within the same congregation (I’m not saying it’s impossible, but there are challenges — some churches are interdenominational and work together well!). Many Methodists, for example, ordain woman pastors, while many Baptist congregations see it as biblical to only ordain men pastors. It would be quite a challenge for complementarian Baptist pastors to work alongside some egalitarian Methodist pastors. The same is true when it comes to doctrinal issues. If a Prestbyterian and an Arminian Episcopal work together, how will they teach Romans 9? While they can agree that it is part of the canon, they disagree on the interpretation. For this reason, operating within a certain denomination isn’t wrongand in fact it is practically helpful to the progress of the gospel. Denominations don’t affirm disunity within Evangelicalism; actually, denominations exist because we agree on essentials, and uphold the Bible as the Word of God! 

For this reason, I am pleased when I see a fellow brother in the Lord standing on biblical convictions —  as long as they affirm essential biblical doctrines. I may disagree on certain other doctrines, and this may cause us to desire to work within differing denominations — but we can both agree on the essentials of the gospel, and that God’s Word is true.

One day we will all find out who was right. The Lord will clarify our misunderstandings, and we will worship him forever. Until then, we must stand on his Word, and wait for his coming.

How do you Interpret the Bible? The Two-fold Process (part 2)

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I my last post I described a two-part process by which to arrive at an interpretation that applies to our everyday lives. I compared interpretation to a two-story house, in which the first story is the historical context of the biblical book. In order to arrive at the second story of universal interpretation, you must first understand what the author intended to write to his original audience. This is by and large a contextual venture. We must understand contextual meaning before we can arrive at a meaning that applies to us today.

But how do we understand the first story of the house? What contextual clues do we look for when venturing toward the second story?

Within any given book there is going to be 5 layers of context. Some of these layers may require a commentary or two, but a few will just require that you read a bit more and dig further.

The 5 layers of context are…

1) Verse

2) Chapter

3) Book

4) Bible

5) Author / audience

1) Verse context is fairly simple. How do the verses before and after help give meaning to the verses at which you’re presently looking? For example, Paul says that “there is…no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” in Romans 8:1. While this statement seems pretty straightforward, we can find greater meaning if we look a few verses back into Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”. Paul had been frustrated over his inherent inability to obey God — he found only sin within himself. Who can deliver him from this sinful body? Christ can! By simply looking to one or two verses ahead or behind the passage you’re studying, you can find a wealth of helpful information. 

2) What about chapter context? This simply means to look at the chapters before and after the verses you are studying to give a better understanding of the author’s argument. We have already looked at Colossians 2:16-17, in which Paul tells his audience to reject any teacher telling them to add works to their salvation. How does Colossians 1 and 3 help us understand his argument? Colossians 1 explains Christ’s supreme rule over the church (Col 1:15-20), while Colossians 3 explains our position in Christ (Col 3:1-3). Consequently, we should trust in Christ alone for righteousness! Studying interlocking arguments within chapters is so helpful. How does chapter 1 connect with 2? How does 1 relate to chapter 4? etc…Tracking arguments and thoughts across chapters can be surprisingly enlightening.

3) Book context takes into account the themes found throughout the book, and how this helps us understand a given text. For instance, Paul says in Galatians 5:1: “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”. What has Christ set us free from? What yoke were the Galatians falling prey to? From the context of the entire book, we find that Paul was writing the Galatians because they had given into another gospel (Gal 1:6-10), and thought that by conforming to certain Jewish laws and accepting circumcision, that they could be righteous. For this reason, the focus of the entire book of Galatians will be that they had submitted to a hard yoke of slavery by which they could never be saved. This level of context requires that you read an entire book, possibly several times, paying attention to repeated themes. The theme we found in Galatians was freedom from the Law. But other books have differing themes. Ephesians focuses on the body of Christ, Romans focuses on justification by faith, and Colossians focuses on the supremacy of Christ.

4) Bible asks the question, “how does my passage fit within the context of the entire story of the Bible?” Tracking back to Galatians, Paul finds himself writing to an audience that thought they still had to observe the Mosaic Law. Obviously, because Christ came and fulfilled the requirements of the law, and died for our sins, this means that we no longer have to follow the law. By simply understanding that Leviticus was given to a people before Christ came, and that Galatians was given after, this can help us with interpreting scripture. For help with this, I would encourage you to read God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts for greater insight into this.

5) Finally, by understanding who the author and the audience was, you can really get to understand your passage. For instance, the book of Hebrews was given to a Jewish audience who had struggled with lapsing back into Judaism. This really helps us when reading the book as a whole. The book of Hebrews covers the insufficiency of the Mosaic Law in comparison to Christ in salvation. Jesus is better eternally sufficient in saving, and the Law cannot save! If we understand the temptation of the original audience, it really gives deeper meaning and application. This step may require a commentary. But you can often find out much about the audience and the author just from observing steps 1-4.

All 5 of these layers of context helps us when moving to an interpretation that applies to us today. To really understand a passage, and get to the second story (so to speak), we must first understand all of these layers found on the first floor of our interpretive house.

 

 

How do you Interpret the Bible? The Two-fold Process

A Bible study

Biblical interpretation is not an easy process. The reason it is not easy is because every book of the Bible was written in a certain historical context that absolutely needs to be understood in order to find an interpretation that can be applied today. Another reason interpretation is hard is because, in a very real and tangible way, the Bible has two intended authors and audiences.

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all of the scriptures are God-breathed. What this means generally is that while there are human authors of each book, there is also a Divine Author behind the entire Bible. For this reason, there needs to be a layered approach to interpretation.

What I mean by this is that in order to really understand what the Bible means to us, we must first understand what the Bible meant to the author when he wrote it, and what he wanted to convey to his original audience.

I like to explain biblical interpretation like walking through a two-story home. Let’s just say that the interpretation that applies to us today is found on the second floor. In order to get to that level of universal application, you have to walk through the first floor. The first floor in this illustration would be the historical context and interpretation of each text.

If we are to rightly interpret any given text, we must first understand authorial intent. It cannot go any other way. While the Spirit breathed out the scriptures, he did it through men who lived in their own time, with their own customs, with their own purposes. And while their purposes were Spirit-driven and inspired, in order to see how the scriptures apply to us today, we must understand authorial/audience context. In order to get to the second story of a house, you must start at the first story.

For example, Paul writes in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ”.

At first glance, it would seem that this passage really only had meaning for his original audience — no one has ever told me to observe a “new moon” (what does even mean?). However, if we realize what is exactly going on with Paul’s audience, we can find massive implications for our lives today. Paul began the letter of Colossians speaking of the supremacy of Christ over all things. The world was created by and through him (Col 1:15-17), making him Lord over the creation. And by his death and resurrection, he also becomes the supreme Lord over the new creation (Col 1:18-20). Because of this, Christians should trust that Christ is victorious and King over all beings, and over all things, sovereign Lord (Col 2:15).

Paul was saying all of this because, as we see in chapter 2, some were trying to persuade his audience that in order to be righteous before God (a “good” Christian), they needed to follow certain “rules”. They were told they had to eat certain things, or celebrate certain festivals, or even pay homage to angelic beings (Col 2:18).

But in fact, as we learn from Colossians 1, Christ’s supreme rule over all things was enough to make them more than righteous! From discovering this context, we can gather that in Colossians 2:16-17, Paul is calling his audience to trust in Christ alone for salvation, not being pressured to add other religious necessities to their faith. Some clever false teachers had almost convinced them that they had to add something else to faith in order to be saved. 

Consequently, the Holy Spirit (through Paul), is also exhorting us to trust in Christ alone! If we are trying to find confidence in anything we do (or anything we don’t do), than we are by definition letting go of Christ’s righteousness (Col 2:19). In this passage, the Spirit is calling us to recklessly trust in Jesus’ righteousness alone

Hopefully you can see how we traveled from the first floor to the second. First, we find what Paul was trying to tell his audience in Colossians 2. He was calling his audience to disregard the false teaching that salvation must be associated with some sort of good work — in fact, salvation is in Christ alone. But also, as we arrive at the second floor of interpretation, we find that we too must let go of “works” we may be trusting in, and fall on Christ alone.

This is biblical interpretation: walking from the first floor up to the second.

I plan on writing a follow-up post on exactly how to examine the “first floor”, and the differing types of contexts within any given passage.