Sunday, January 07, 2007

Guest Blog: Response To a Catholic Critique Of The Reformed Protestant Doctrine of Inscripturation (Part One)

Recently a Roman Catholic stopped over here and took part in a lively discussion responding to my entry on Pope Damasus and the Canon of Scripture. He went by the nickname “Pope St. Peter”. His name is Frank G. Ramirez, and hosts a blog entitled, Sancta Mater Ecclesia. He mentioned that he had posted a paper critiquing The Reformed Protestant Doctrine of Inscripturation and The Fullness of Time. Also involved in the discussion was a person with the nickname “Iohannes”. Iohannes offered to take a look at Frank’s paper, and provide a critique. His response will be posted here in parts. To really appreciate this interaction, it is essential that one actually first reads the paper posted by Frank Ramirez, and then read the blog entries which will be found here in the next few days.

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Greetings,

With apologies for the long delay, I offer now my response to “Pope St. Peter’s” paper on the Reformed understanding of Scripture. It was not immediately obvious to me what the best way would be in which to structure the following remarks, but in the end it seemed prudent to divide them into three parts: first, an answer to the general line of argument; second, an examination of the Scripture witness adduced for the Roman Church’s position; and third, a brief defense of the Protestant position, as over against that of Rome. I acknowledge that this will not be an exhaustive treatment of the paper and its contents, but I hope that it will serve in some way to advance our discussion toward the end of mutual edification. If there is anything that I pass by in the paper, on which comment is desired, I would gladly respond to it, once the deficiency is pointed out.

The basic drift of the paper appears to be reflected in this passage:

Jesus chastised the Pharisees for not realizing that He recapitulated the Old Testament: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they who bear witness to me” (Jn 5:39). In other words, the Word made Text points toward the Word made Flesh. And what happens next? Not Word made Text again! The Word made Flesh points toward His Bride with whom He has become one Flesh. Indeed, the Word became flesh, so that the Two could become one Flesh (cf. Jn 1:14; Eph 5:32)!

Before approaching the real issue, I would observe, as something which will be relevant later on, that the verse quoted from John’s Gospel can be read with the verb ‘to search’ in the indicative mood (as here translated) or in the imperative (as a command to ‘search the scriptures’). The former is the reading commonly given in modern versions, probably because it is thought to flow better with the next verse. Nevertheless, the imperative reading is well supported historically, with both Chrysostom and Augustine following it, as well as the translators of the Authorized Version and the Rheims New Testament. But in any case, it is not with this that we are presently concerned.

All Christians will agree that the written word in the scripture points to Christ the incarnate Word. In the passage above, the particular stress appears to be that the written word in the Old Testament anticipates a new fullness of revelation in Christ. With the coming of Christ, the manner of revelation is changed. For Christ founds his Church, and although he in the flesh is ascended into heaven, he remains present on earth in the body of his beloved, in whom he dwells by the Spirit, and with whom he is most intimately united. This is summarized in the chain depicted in the paper: Logos — Spoken Word — Inscripturated Word — Incarnated Word — Extension of Incarnate Word. (Son) (Patriarchs) (Old Testament writers) (Jesus) (Church) The problem with the Reformed doctrine is therefore that, not recognizing the whole of what is entailed in the culmination of all things in the incarnation of Christ, it does not terminate in Christ and his bride. Instead, mirroring the old covenant paradigm, it returns again to the inscripturated word.

In response, it is readily acknowledged that the coming of Christ constitutes a radical development in the history of revelation. This is the grand truth with which the Epistle to the Hebrews opens: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.” All revelation prior to Christ’s coming, in whatever form it was given, looked forward to him—“to him give all the prophets witness”—and the focus gradually sharpened as his incarnation drew nearer. Then, “when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son,” whose advent marked the beginning of the age in which God’s revelation would at last arrive in its true fullness. In contrast to what went before, this revelation would not be given ‘at sundry times’ or portion by portion; for through the ministry of Christ and his apostles, the faith was indeed “once for all delivered to the saints.” Nor would the diversity of ways in which God spoke to his people in the old covenant continue in the new; “those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people,” as the Westminster Confession says, “being now ceased.”

The coming of Christ is therefore of momentous import in the history of revelation. But the question remains, what is final form of this revelation? It has been contended that the Protestant teaching wrongly terminates in the scriptures, not in Christ and his bride. This, however, is a misunderstanding of the nature of scripture. Scripture is not an end in itself; it is a means, or a vehicle, by and through which God vouchsafed to give his revelation to his people. Just as the scriptures of the Old Testament constantly point men to the coming savior, the scriptures of the New Testament constantly direct men to the incarnate, dead and risen, ascended savior, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Moreover, in pointing men to Christ who in his flesh now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, the scriptures also lead men to the body of Christ on earth, the church, which as the ekklesia is the assembly of all those who have been called out of the darkness into the light of life in Christ.

The Protestant teaching is not that the Scriptures are the whole of Christianity; they have a specific office, which is that of being the only infallible rule of faith and life. They contain without error the whole doctrine taught and proclaimed by the apostles and prophets and Christ himself, which is the foundation of the church (see Eph. 2:20). That the written word is the rule of faith and life does not, however, in any way derogate from Christ, or from his incarnation, from any particular part of Christianity. In fact, there is no reason necessarily to disagree with the assertion made in the paper that “The Word made Flesh points toward His Bride with whom He has become one Flesh.” But it must be borne in mind that Christ, in pointing to the church, points to her as having her own proper office. This office is actively to be the extension of himself in carrying the message he gave the world (which is contained perfectly in the Scriptures) out into the world, teaching all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. Is the Church removed from Christianity because its function differs from that of the Scripture? To borrow Paul’s analogy, “If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?” The Scriptures and the Church each have their place in Christianity, and while they are united closely together, their respective functions must not be confounded.

1 comment:

FM483 said...

Well said. The Lutheran(catholic) understanding, as alluded to in your writing, is that the Scriptures are the infallible Word of God and that God has given certain MEANS by which He delivers all the blessings of Christ's atonement topeople: Word and Sacrament. Hearing the Gospel(Romans 10:17) and the right administration of the Sacraments instituted by our Lord(Baptism, Lord's Supper) are the appointed means of delivering salvation to all men. As you point out, the Church has a specific purpose of preaching this Word of Grace and rightly administering Christ's Sacraments.This is the role of the Church - to be themouthpiece of Christ on earth. The Church(ecclesia) has authority to teach and administer the Sacraments(Matthew 28),not to sit idly by admiring itself in a mirror.

Frank Marron