Your Own Private Interpretation

A common criticism of Protestants from Roman Catholics is that any interpretation of Scripture we put forward that differs from Rome’s interpretation is “your own private interpretation.” The picture that comes to mind in most of these cases is, on the one hand, the weight of the entirety of church history on the side of the RC apologist, whereas the Protestant has only himself. This is really not that accurate of a picture. In my own case, for instance, I have only come up with one interpretation of a single verse that I have never seen before in the history of interpretation. I am not an original thinker when it comes to exegesis. I depend greatly on what other, smarter people have said on the passage before I came along. Calvin, as another example, was able to quote vast swaths of the early church fathers from memory. Calvin never claimed to be re-inventing the wheel. So, the real state of affairs here is not that the Protestant is all by himself, and the Tradition of the RCC is opposed. Many Protestants have written extensively on how the early church fathers had many different interpretations of doctrines, some of which are what Protestants believe today.

Now, a Roman Catholic would probably claim that, during the time of the ECF’s, very few doctrines had been established, and the multiplicity of views was therefore not a problem. Views that were not culpably blameworthy for holding in the time of the ECF would be blameworthy later on. I actually agree with that, to a certain extent, and other Protestants would, too. But the point I am making here is that many Protestants are not operating, in fact, on “their own private interpretation.” In fact, their views have antecedents all throughout church history. The question of whether the Roman Catholic Tradition is correct is a subject for another post.

I do want to ask formally this question: if the RCC has a monopoly on the interpretation of the Bible, how come they have not come out with an inerrant commentary on the Bible? They keep telling us that “our own private interpretations” are wrong when they run foul of the RCC. However, they don’t tell us what every verse in fact means. I would think this would be a rather high priority, seeing as how we are dealing with direct revelation from God. I want to know what God said to me in His Word. How can the Roman Catholic find that out? Would it not be vitally important that we have God’s Word all figured out by the church as to its meaning? If a RC apologist responds by saying that it is all interpreted in the Tradition, I would say that they are operating with a definition of Tradition that doesn’t really work. Tradition is basically what the current RCC teaches. Besides, very few verses have ever been definitely interpreted by the RCC as to their meaning. Where is the definitive interpretation of the Bible? In the Protestant tradition, we really don’t have to worry about that. We have and can learn from all the writers of the past, while not having to agree with any one or group of them, unless, say, we take a vow upholding a particular confessional standard.

One last point: to those RC apologists who have asked me about my authority, I would ask the question back: how can they speak for their Tradition? What gives them the authority to speak about what the RCC teaches? Every RC apologist seems to give off this air that the entirety of the RCC is behind them every single time they speak. I question that. According to the official RC teaching, only the Pope can do that. So, the authority of the RC apologist is quite a bit less than he usually (unconsciously!) arrogates to himself.

One Problem of Tradition

Protestants are often at a loss to know what is tradition in Roman Catholicism, and where to find it. Is it what is always and everywhere believed? Or is it what the current RC teaches?

Let’s take one example concerning the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. Now the Eucharist is absolutely central to the RC spirituality. For instance, Eucharisticum Mysterium (May 25, 1967), says this: “The mystery of the Eucharist is the true center of the sacred liturgy and indeed of the whole Christian life.” When one considers the vital importance of the RC self-understanding of the RCC as the extension of the Incarnation of Christ, this becomes a natural conclusion. It would appear, then, that the actual practice of the Eucharist is a vitally important aspect of the RCC.

The problem is this: when it comes to the laity, and whether they can participate in the cup, the RCC has changed its position twice, and in the opposite direction both times. The early church gave the cup to the laity. When the doctrine of concomitance arose in the Middle Ages (concomitance is the doctrine that the entire Christ is present in both the bread and the wine, so that receiving either one receives the whole Christ), the cup was withheld from the laity, mostly because of fear of spilling. Vatican II restored the cup to the laity once again. Was it tradition that developed the doctrine of withholding the cup from the laity? Was it tradition that restored the cup to the laity? If tradition is infallible, then how can it reverse itself? According to the first edition of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, tradition is basically what the current church says: “Tradition is the communication by the living Church of the Christian reality and the expression, either oral or written, of that reality.” St. Vincent of Lerins’s definition, however, is quite different: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” In context, it must be noted, he was talking about tradition, particularly in terms of interpretation of Scripture. These definitions of tradition cannot both be correct. Whose is correct, and how does the RCC determine this? Roman Catholics cannot agree on what tradition even is. The result is that private interpretation of what that tradition is and what is included winds up carrying the day. The only way that the RCC can be consistent, in my opinion, on the definition of tradition, is to go with the New Catholic Encyclopedia’s definition, in which case, tradition has contradicted itself in the matter of who gets the cup: tradition, defined as what the current church teaches, taught in the early church that everyone gets the cup. After concomitance, it taught that the laity cannot receive the cup. Now it teaches that the laity should receive the cup. These decisions were all reached through official Roman Catholic documentation.

The truth of what tradition is, then, is able to change over time. The New Catholic Encyclopedia explicitly says this: “Tradition that is living and dynamic must, by the law of life itself, undergo change.” If that is so, how can it have a divine element, which would (presumably, at least) be unchanging?


De Chirico’s introduction does an excellent job of laying out the issues that he raises. The first question is the ecumenical one: what is the future of Evangelicals and Roman Catholics? He does not presume to answer the question, as too many things are still up in the air. The main thing that De Chirico raises in this regard is the Evangelical approach to Rome, which, in his view, has not typically resulted in understanding RC as a unified system.

A case in point is the Evangelical perplexity on how to interpret RC in the light of Vatican II. Does Vatican II signal a break with the past, or continuity? Of course, this question has been asked with vigor among Roman Catholics as well. De Chirico has the best analysis of this question of any that I’ve seen. He goes back to the principle of “et-et” (Latin for “both-and”). Robert Barron noted in his book on RC that they don’t throw anything away (meaning that anything that can be assimilated to the system is retained). De Chirico agrees and will eventually say that a new idea, which might at first seem antithetical to the system, is drawn into the system, with the “rough edges” taken off, so that it will fit. The RCC has been doing this for centuries. This means that Vatican II is ultimately in continuity with the church of the past, if one considers its results in the light of the “and…and” principle.

One can see this in his definition of what was perhaps the key-word of Vatican II: aggiornamento. Probably the best translation of this word is “renewal.” De Chirico says:

The word does not denote reformation in the Evangelical sense but neither is it a merely political and linguistic device aimed at concealing an unchanging reality. It is instead the Roman Catholic way of responding to the need for some kind of renewal without altering the fundamental structure inherited from the past and its non-negotiable thrust (p. 15).

The result of this insight is that the Evangelical viewpoint can be resolved on the ultimate relationship of Vatican II to the rest of the history of the RCC. It is continuous. However, it is not a static continuity. There were changes. The fundamental system did not change, but it was renewed. Vatican II must, therefore, be taken into account just as much as Trent and Vatican I must be taken into account.

Evangelicals, however, do not think in “et-et” categories, and so Vatican II completely perplexes them. Even David Wells was a bit perplexed at what Vatican II meant for our interpretation of RC. He asked the continuity question, but did not really answer it, instead opting for the “wait-and-see-what-happens” approach. This would certainly be wiser than imposing Evangelical exclusivism on what is usually regarded as an assimilative system. The problem comes when Evangelicals try to critique RC on a static understanding of RC. They wind up interpreting the “semper eadem” (“always the same”) without the assimilative element. This result in confusion and misinterpretation.

As was mentioned in the last post, De Chirico argues that there is a core to RC. He describes it in these words:

This core is a composite one and entails the ways in which the relationship between nature and grace are worked out and the Roman Catholic self-understanding of the Church which is the main subject of the system itself. The Roman Catholic system can be seen as emerging from the range of the nature-grace motifs which are allowed to coexist within it and serve to enrich it, and expressing itself in the paramount role of the church which is basically understood in Christological terms as the prolongation of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (p. 24).

Given this understanding of a systemic awareness based on this core, De Chirico argues that “Evangelical theology needs to reshape its own perspectives on Roman Catholicism according to a systemic view taking into account its historical trajectory, dogmatic structure, theological dynamics, institutional outlook, and cultural project” (p. 24). I would put it a slightly different way: the systemic awareness based on the core of the nature-grace dynamic and the Christological prolongation of the Incarnation of Christ in the church (this latter point especially will be carefully nuanced by De Chirico in future chapters) needs to be evaluated from a generalist perspective. That is, RC as a system needs to be evaluated from the perspective of a united theological encyclopedia (church history, exegesis, biblical theology, systematic theology, apologetics, and practical theology working not in competition, but in mutual inter-dependence). This is certainly a mountainous task, and it is the one I have set for myself. Please pray for me.

The Best Book On Roman Catholicism I Have Read

Is undoubtedly Leonardo De Chirico’s book entitled Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. The basic point of his book is that Roman Catholicism can only be rightly interpreted when seen as a system. This point has been made by some Roman Catholics, but very few Protestants have seen this. In Chirico’s research, only G.C. Berkouwer and Cornelius Van Til have really critiqued the RC faith as a system. Chirico does an especially good job at explaining how Vatican II fits in with the history of the RCC. For Chirico, the two basic categories for understanding RC are the understanding of the relationship of nature and grace; and the self-understanding of the church that the RC faith possesses. These are rebar, if you will, that penetrate and support the entire system of RC. I am going to blog all the way through this book in some detail, as I think it is such a tremendously important book (in fact, I intend to make it something of a baseline in my own research).

I have only two critiques of the book. The first is the rather unbelievable number of typos it contains. The second is that Chirico’s case for the nature/grace center is not quite as strong as the case he makes for the self-understanding of the church as an extension of the Incarnation of Christ. That being said, he has many penetrating insights into Catholicism, not to mention trenchant critiques of many Evangelical atomistic approaches to RC. That being said, I do not think that anyone researching RC can possibly afford to ignore this book. I wish it were more widely available (not to mention less expensive!).

The Newest Hot Topic

Seems to be this post from Sam DeSocio. Darryl Hart weighed in here, followed by Scott Clark, and then John Bugay. There is a discussion on it over at the Puritanboard as well.

There seems to me a very good reason why this topic is so hot right now: many people have been thinking about the PCA as being in need of a split purification. Sam merely brought out the elephant in the room. This is the topic that no one wanted to be the first to talk about. However, now that Sam has done so, the floodgates are open now.

What is the issue? How do we go about defining the problem? Sam’s categories are a tad vague (how exactly would he describe the groups within the PCA?). And this, in my view, is the biggest difficulty I see, a difficulty that Ken Pierce pointed out rather cogently in the comments on Sam’s post: there are many people in the PCA who don’t necessarily like to be pigeon-holed. Ken himself described his own view as confessional, but wanting to be in the same denomination as, say, Tim Keller. Incidentally, this is proof positive that not all confessionalists are out for other people’s blood. Can the overly paranoid, guilt-manipulating, unity-mongering, can’t-we-all-get-along folks please take notice? (Now why, oh why, can’t you laugh at this perfectly accurate description of yourself coming from a witch-hunting, Pharisaic, camel-swallowing/needle-straining bigot?) Maybe we all be taking ourselves a wee bit too seriously? Check. Oh wait, I just pigeon-holed myself, didn’t I? Well, of all the…

Not that there aren’t serious issues going on in the PCA. There are. However, many people, including myself, are just a little bit too fond of grand-standing, and listening to our own way-too-clever bunk. (Mental note to self: do more shutting up, and do more listening!). Personally, I agree with Scott Clark. The issue surrounds the confessional standards of our church. When does the PCA become a non-confessional denomination? Many would argue that it already has. Probably everyone draws their own line in the sand. Of course, there’s always the danger of the movable line in the sand, as the Trinity Foundation folks rightly point out. Are we headed for a split? I don’t know. I think it is more profitable for me to concentrate on promoting the peace and purity of the PCA (and especially promoting them as inseparable: no peace without purity, and no purity without peace). If that becomes impossible, then I’ll cross that bridge when it comes to it. It hasn’t come yet.

How would I describe the PCA? I think, instead of sharply-defined groups, it would be more accurate to say that there exists a continuum with foci at four points on that continuum. On the far right, the confessionalists (here am I, and I can do no other). On the far left, the progressives who at least appear to despise the confession as an antiquated irrelevancy. One focus point in on the continuum (from the progressive side) is the general evangelical crowd, who want unity, are soteriologically Reformed, but are willing to compromise on just about anything other than the Gospel. One focus point in from the confessionalists are the “mostly confessionalist” crowd. This focus point can be hard to distinguish sometimes from the confessionalists, but they are more willing to allow exceptions to the Confession than the confessionalists are. The thing is that none of these focus points are rigid, not even the confessionalist point. None of the focus points are monolithic. To use a term from statistics, there is a lot of scatter data, it seems to me, that refuses to be pigeon-holed.

The Devil in his Redemptive-Historical Context

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a pair of theological questions related to the “fear of death” topic and deriving from the same pair of verses, Heb. 2:14-15. One of my curious laypeople asked about it in our Hebrews study:

In what sense did the devil ever hold “the power of death”?

How was this power altered by Christ’s defeat of the devil?

We are looking for a way to speak accurately about the “Before” and “After” of the devil in redemptive history. Any insights?

The Hebrews verses again are:

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Two Contrasting Books on Roman Catholicism

I am approximately 150 pages into Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. In the interests of being able to report on my reading more often than every three months (which is about how long it will take me to get through one volume of the Summa), I am reading other words on Roman Catholicism. Two books I have read recently are Thomas Howard’s On Being Catholic, and Devin Rose’s If Protestantism Is True. My basic evaluation is that the Howard book is very interesting reading, is more constructive, and seeks to focus on the heart of Roman Catholicism. As such, I found the book quite interesting and informative (he writes quite a lot like G.K. Chesterton).

What is especially helpful about Howard’s book is the class of statements that begin “To be Catholic is…” If one were to put all these statements together in a row, one would get a fairly complete picture of what it means to be a Roman Catholic. His viewpoint on Roman Catholicism certainly seems to jibe with Robert Barron’s view of the church as an extension of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The book I am reading by de Chirico is also leaning in this direction, though he would include the Roman Catholic understanding of the relationship of nature and grace to be equally central to Roman Catholicism (though I don’t think Howard would necessarily disagree with that assessment). Howard’s book will be extremely useful in formulating what Roman Catholicism is.

The Rose book I found rather disappointing. Rose tends to take a Baptist, general evangelical, low-church approach as constitutive of all Protestants. Even though he quotes Lutherans and Reformed (though he quotes Calvin as if the Reformed world were entirely indebted to Calvin in the same way that Lutherans are indebted to Luther, which is not the case), when he argues, it is as though the Reformed have dropped off the map. Many, if not most, of his arguments don’t work against the Reformed world. There are false dichotomies everywhere (the two options usually being Roman Catholicism and low-church, generally evangelical Baptist theology). He does not understand Reformed Protestantism, that much is quite certain. A few examples will suffice. On page 36, he says: “The Protestant teaching on grace is that it is divine aid but not divine life. Holiness comes from Christ imputing His righteousness to the Christian and so the Father legally declares him to be holy, but in reality he is not transformed into holiness” (emphasis original). Apparently Rose has never heard of the idea of sanctification. This is a recurring problem in Roman Catholic writings. I found the same problem in Ott’s Fundamentals. The correct Reformed Protestant teaching is that we get two benefits from being united to Christ. The first is justification, which is the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience to the believer, received by faith alone. The second is sanctification, which is God changing the person on the inside by infusing the Holy Spirit within the believer, such that the person becomes positionally holy, and progressively holy. The doctrine of sanctification says precisely what Rose thinks Protestants never say. The difference is that Protestants do not confuse the outward declaration with the inward change, but rather distinguish them as distinct (though inseparable) acts of God’s grace. The believer is not transformed on the inside in justification, but most certainly is transformed on the inside in sanctification. I have yet to see a Roman Catholic who understands this about Protestantism.

Another example is the description of Mary as Mother of God (and this issue was hashed out in excruciating detail on this blog a while ago). Yes, fundamental Baptists probably aren’t very comfortable saying this. But the Reformed have said that this is an appropriate way to refer to Mary, as long as it is understood by this that Mary is the mother of Jesus, a person who is God and man. We can refer to the person of Jesus by reference to either nature. And in this way, we can say that Mary was the Theotokos, the God-bearer. No one believes that Mary was the origin of Jesus’ divinity (although I would still argue that Roman Catholics go way too far with their doctrine of Mary). Still, one must not throw out the proper way of speaking about Mary, just because some people go too far. The abuse does not prohibit the use.

Rose, like other Roman Catholics I have read, misunderstands the Protestant doctrine of the perspecuity of Scripture rather badly. His definition of the Protestant doctrine is that “Protestantism teaches that the Scriptures are clear-despite any person’s experience to the contrary” (p. 153). The examples that Rose brings up involve things that are not central to being a Christian. Protestants do not, and have never taught, that all Scripture is perfectly clear. Protestants have taught that what is necessary for salvation is clear. The clearest example of how this works is the work of the Gideons. They place Bibles everywhere they can. The stories and testimonies told by the people who are affected by the Gideons’ work proves the Protestant thesis: many people who have either never been in a church, or didn’t understand and therefore went very seldom, are at the verge of committing suicide, or are seriously down and out. They go to a hotel, and are about to do something drastic, when they find a Gideon Bible there. Without a single person explaining to them what the text means, they come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit worked through the Word to convert that person. Now, it is true that saving faith comes far more often through hearing the Word preached. However, the Scriptures are clear enough on matters related to salvation that a person can come to a saving faith simply by reading the Bible. That is what the Protestants mean by perspecuity.

On authority, Rose again presents a false dichotomy. He seems to think that if a Christian does not have a Roman Catholic heirarchical authority telling him what to believe, then the Christian has no authority at all instructing him. Related to this is the idea of individualism: Rose thinks that the only alternative to Roman Catholicism is radical individualism. Reformed Protestants beg to differ. The church is most definitely an authority. The pastor is an authority figure. It is not just “me and my Bible and Jesus.” The difference is that we do not posit infallible authorities other than Scripture and the Holy Spirit. We posit fallible authority over (yes, OVER!) a Christian’s life.

In short, Rose’s book is entirely too simplistic in its analysis of Protestantism, which leads me to believe that Rose did not thoroughly explore Protestantism before he left it. He did not scour the multitudinous writings of Evangelicals on Roman Catholicism before he left. Apparently, he asked his pastor and friends questions which they were not able to answer. And because they were not able to answer them, he left Protestantism. Folks, let me stress this: if you are considering such a life-changing move as going from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, shouldn’t you leave absolutely no stone unturned? Shouldn’t you read as widely as you can on the subject before you give up? So far, I have not found a single objection to Protestantism from Roman Catholicism that has not been answered somewhere or other in Protestant works. This is not to say that Roman Catholic objections have no substance. Many of their objections are weighty questions indeed. However, there are answers, as there have been answers for centuries.