On the Impossibility of Non-Traditional Christianity

14 May

When I was a kid I lived in the great American north, just a mile from one of the Great Lakes.  Like every other part of the country, it had its unique cultural quirks and character.  The opening of deer hunting season was practically the biggest holiday of the year and people were very friendly and very Scandinavian.  Northern accents abounded, much like the accent of our Canadian neighbors to the north, but way cooler and non-Canadian.  When, as a kid, my family moved to Kansas, a lot of people would comment on my parents’ “northern accent”.  “Northern accent?” we thought, “What are they talking abowt?” After living in Kansas for some time, our speech was assimilated to the Kansan culture.  When we would travel back up north to visit friends and relatives, the northern accent was instantly recognizable.  We were suddenly able to hear the accent that we had previously just assumed was normal.

This experience illustrates an undeniable reality about how we all perceive the world around us.  Everyone seems to think that everyone else has an accent.  In America, we talk about British accents while in Britain they speak of the American accent.  We respond, “American accent? We don’t have an accent, we just talk normally.” This insight holds true well beyond just the subject of accents.  We as humans have a natural tendency of perceiving the way we’ve always done things as the “normal” way, while everyone else is different, everyone else has a unique cultural perspective or unique tradition, everyone else has a bias, everyone else has an accent.

This reminds me of some of the implicit ways in which I thought about my faith as a young person.  Like much of certain strands of Christianity (especially Protestant Evangelicalism), I thought that the best way to get to the truth was by reading the Bible and doing so without any sort of tradition or “religious” baggage to get in the way.  By doing so, one could surely gain access to the pure, “objective” truth.  When I finally started to ask the question why so many well-meaning Christians, all reading the same Bible, came to such radically different positions and beliefs on nearly every topic (from peripheral to centrally important issues), the answer was that it was because “they” were reading the Bible through the perspective of their tradition and doctrine, which made them biased; they weren’t being objective enough.  We, of course, read the Bible just as it is, with no biases, or at least few biases, because we don’t let “doctrine” get in the way of the truth of the Bible.

Once I got a little ways into my studies in college, where I studied biblical interpretation, this line of reasoning began to fall apart.  I began to see that the claim that everyone who disagrees with me is biased, while I alone am objective is not just ridiculous, but a bit arrogant.  I also began to see that the idea that one can just try hard to be objective and then be able to see the world without any biases is both naive and a poor philosophy (it’s called Scottish Common-Sense Realism*); we all interpret everything we learn and experience through our previously held presuppositions and paradigms of thought, both conscious and unconscious.  We can and should strive to be as objective as we can be when searching for truth, but pure, completely objective, “dispassionate knowledge” is simply not possible for us as human beings as we are not omniscient; we should leave that naive notion back in the “Enlightenment” where it came from. Our reading of the Bible is always shaped by our traditions, doctrines and beliefs.

But beyond just the impossibility of pure objectivity, I began to see that this search for a pure Christian faith, without any of the trappings and baggage of “religion” and tradition was also a chasing after the wind.  For many years my Christian faith consisted of trying to draw a direct line from the Bible to myself, as if the 2000 years of intervening history were irrelevant and had little to no influence on me.  But the more I learned about the Bible and history and theology, the more I began to see how truly impossible this is.  One simply cannot draw a line from the Bible to the present and not be influenced by the history and tradition of which on is a part.  Whether we realize it or not, we have all absorbed the result of centuries of Christian theological reflection that shape both the content and the foundational categories through which we understand and articulate the Christian faith.  Trying to avoid tradition is not only impossible, but it is counter productive; avoiding tradition is like trying to achieve an “objective” scientific result by ignoring all previous scientific discoveries and the scientific method itself, just taking an “objective” look at nothing but the data.  Even when some Christians proclaim to have no tradition, they absolutely have a tradition, they are just blind to it.  Whether it’s what we believe or how we practice our faith, we are always influenced by what we’ve seen, absorbed and been taught, by our tradition.  As author Chris Haw wrote on this very subject, “No denomination is exempt from building a tradition, even if it is the tradition of attempting to escape tradition.”*  Haw goes on to write that certain anti-tradition groups, “attempt to escape slavery to traditions and hierarchies only to construct mini-hierarchies with comparatively little accountability, to repeat the traditions of early-America revival pastors, and think they have freshly reconstructed the early Church.”* We cannot speak the Christian language without an accent.

One other thing that I have noticed when it comes to anti-traditionalism is that often times the Bible is set up in opposition to tradition as if these were necessarily competing forces.  I think it is important to note that the Bible itself is tradition.  The Bible is in our hands today because Christians copied and passed on the writings contained within it along with the belief that these writings were inspired by the Divine Creator.  We have the New Testament of the Bible because a few centuries after the books of the NT were written, the leaders of the Christian religion (the Church) decided that it was important to settle some ongoing disputes and discern exactly which books were and were not of divine origin. (Before this point there was a broad consensus on most, but not all of the NT books.  Some believed that extra books were Scripture while others questioned books that are now a part of the Bible.) What they ended up discerning is what we now call the canon of the New Testament, that is, the list of books that are in the NT.  This was passed on through the centuries as a core part of the Christian tradition.  It is important to see that one cannot appeal to the Bible without also appealing to the tradition of what books are a part of the Bible; to speak of the Bible in opposition to tradition simply becomes nonsense when you realize that the Bible is tradition.

With all that being said, the question then becomes, not whether you are a traditional Christian, but what kind of traditional Christian are you? How deep are the roots of your tradition and what causes you to remain a part of that tradition?


*Christ Haw, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart. p. 131 (http://www.amazon.com/From-Willow-Creek-Sacred-Heart/dp/1594712921)
* Haw, p. 136-7

What is Freedom?

26 Feb

In this (hopefully brief) post I want to explore the concept of freedom, specifically two conflicting understandings of the concept of freedom.

The first understanding of freedom I will call the modern understanding of freedom.  Influenced by Western modernity’s strong emphasis on individualism, this understanding of freedom is simply unrestrained choice.  Freedom means doing whatever the heck I feel like, without anyone or anything coercing me to do otherwise.

The second understanding I will call created freedom.  This understanding of freedom holds that true freedom cannot be enjoyed without discipline or healthy constraints.  For example, I am not truly free to play the piano until I take the time and discipline myself to learn the piano.  Simply being able to push any key I want does not make me free to play anything I want.  The analogy of speaking a language is apt as well.  I am not free to converse in French until I have disciplined myself to learn the language.  Just because I am able to make any sound come out of my mouth that I want (modern freedom), does not make me free to speech French, only through discipline am I truly free to speech French (created freedom).

Modern Western society largely understands freedom only by the first definition.

The problem is that this understanding is simply a parody of real freedom, it is anarchy.  Take for example the drug addict.  He may be free to use heroin, but does anyone think that man who is enslaved to addiction is truly free?  It is only by limiting his choices to exclude the use of that harmful drug is he free to enjoy his life in freedom.  Being able to live a life of true freedom necessitates excluding certain courses of action that are harmful, otherwise we become slaves to our own vices.  This second definition of freedom holds that true freedom is not a matter of unrestricted choice, but of being free to choose the good, the beautiful and the true, being free to live as we were created to live (which is the only path to true happiness).

So if we really want to enjoy full lives of genuine freedom, to live as we were created to live in freedom, the first step (paradoxically) is to choose to discipline ourselves to develop positive virtue and reject our vices so that we may become ever more free to live as we were created to live in genuine, lasting happiness and goodness.


Q: What do you see as the implications of these different notions of freedom? (comment below)

Enns’ Incarnational Analogy, the Condescension of Scripture and Catholic Theology

9 Oct

Biblical scholar Peter Enns has been one of the more influential figures in the progressive wing of American Evangelical Protestantism in the last decade or so.  In 2005, he poked the proverbial hornets nest of Evangelicalism by publishing the book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (1).  Enns is an Old Testament scholar who studied for his doctorate at Harvard in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (2).

While for some time now Evangelical biblical scholars (especially OT scholars) have interacted with the wider world of academia in the field of biblical studies, few if any had sought to give theological answers for the questions raised by this biblical scholarship.  Enns sought to remedy this void with his book by exploring the questions raised by such issues as the parallels between OT literature and other Ancient Near Eastern religious and mythological literature, the theological diversity of the OT (meaning differing perspectives within the Bible), and the New Testament authors’ use of the OT (seeming to take it out of its original context). His unifying theory in the book is applying the analogy of Christ’s incarnation (fully divine and fully human) to the Scriptures.  Rather than being completely or nearly completely divine (the “conservative” position) or being completely or nearly completely human (the “liberal” position), the Bible is also fully divine and fully human.  What this means is that the Bible is completely “divine,” in that it is God’s self-revelation to His people, not just a religious group’s self-reflection on their own experiences with God.  This also means that is is fully “human,” in that the authors were acting fully within their own limitations of their own cultural trappings and assumptions and worked within their own available literary categories and conventions. (1)

An example of how this analogy might work is that one could understand Genesis chapter one as fully communicating truth about Israel’s God who is the creator of the world while at the same time understanding that the author communicated using the available literary categories (i.e. mythology) and worked with his own cultural understanding about the nature and structure of the cosmos (i.e. an understanding not reconcilable with current scientific knowledge).

Enns ended up paying for this poking of the hornets nest by losing his job at his his alma mater, Westminster Theological Seminary, which determined that the positions in Inspiration and Incarnation were not in accord with their own views on Scripture (3). He since has worked with BioLogos, a group that seeks to contribute to the dialogue between science and faith (promoting something of a theistic evolution view) (4). He is currently teaching at Eastern University(5).

Enns was particularly influential in my own theological journey as I made my way out of Evangelicalism, and eventually ended up joining the Catholic church (a decision that I am still tremendously happy about).  He is particularly influential in the segment of Evangelicalism that has come to question aspects of their Evangelical heritage and is willing to explore new options theologically.  Sometimes these new options are on the border of what can realistically be called Evangelicalism, but the task of defining that movement is known for being an especially difficult one as there is no authority to define it’s boundaries.  If you’re not sure who these “post-Evangelical” people are, just check their bookshelves to see how many N.T. Wright books they own, and ask them how they feel about Mark Driscoll (6).

While not discussed as explicitly in the book, one key concept behind Enns understanding of Scripture is that of God’s condescension.  The word condescension here is not used to mean “looking down at someone judgmentally,” as it often is used to mean. Rather, it means that when God revealed Himself in the Scripture, he stepped down onto our level.  He took His infinite wisdom and communicated it to us in human words in ways that we would understand.  To go back to the example of Genesis chapter one, God used ways of communicating and paradigms that made sense to people at that time in order to communicate truth about Himself to the ancient Israelites.  He lowered himself to their level. When we miss this point and approach Genesis chapter one as if it were a piece of timeless truth that will fit seamlessly into our current scientific understanding of the universe, we run into problems.

While Enns stresses in his book that the incarnational analogy he employs is not new and unique, having grown up within Evangelicalism, it was the first time I had ever heard it. Evangelicalism tends to stress the “divine” aspect of Scripture without any emphasis on its historical and cultural context.  However, since joining the Catholic church and becoming more familiar with Catholic theology, I have realized that this incarnational understanding of Scripture and the idea of the condescension of Scripture are in no way unique to Enns, but a part of the Catholic tradition as well.

The second Vatican council’s document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum (The Word of God) (1965) says this:

In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature.” For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men. (7) (Chapter 3, paragraph 13)

In 1942, Pope Pius XII wrote these words, quoting the “Angelic Doctor” (St. Thomas Aquinas) in his papal encyclical (teaching letter) Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Divine Spirit)

… no one, who has a correct idea of biblical inspiration, will be surprised to find, even in the Sacred Writers, as in other ancient authors, certain fixed ways of expounding and narrating, certain definite idioms, especially of a kind peculiar to the Semitic tongues, so-called approximations, and certain hyperbolical modes of expression, nay, at times, even paradoxical, which even help to impress the ideas more deeply on the mind. For of the modes of expression which, among ancient peoples, and especially those of the East, human language used to express its thought, none is excluded from the Sacred Books, provided the way of speaking adopted in no wise contradicts the holiness and truth of God, as, with his customary wisdom, the Angelic Doctor already observed in these words: “In Scripture divine things are presented to us in the manner which is in common use amongst men.” For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, “except sin,” so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error. In this consists that “condescension” of the God of providence, which St. John Chrysostom extolled with the highest praise and repeatedly declared to be found in the Sacred Books. (8) (paragraph 37)

Even the Church Father Origen (184-253) wrote that God…

condescends and accommodates himself to our weaknesses, like a schoolmaster talking a “little language” to his children, like a father caring for his own children and adopting their ways. (9) (quoted in the Introduction to the 2010 edition of the journal Letter and Spirit, by the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology)

While acknowledgement of the “humanity” of Scripture tends to be viewed suspiciously within Evangelicalism, it seems to me that God sending His self-revelation in a form that is fully human, fully participating in the culture it comes from with all its limitations and unique forms of communication, rather than sending it in the form of a systematic book of timeless truths, is an expression of just how far He is willing to go to “condescend” to our level and reach us where we are, just as He was willing to come in person and take on flesh to meet us where we are, in order to bring us where He is.

(1) http://www.amazon.com/Inspiration-Incarnation-Evangelicals-Problem-Testament/dp/0801027306/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349808836&sr=8-1&keywords=inspiration+and+incarnation
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Enns
(3) http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/aprilweb-only/114-24.0.html
(4) http://biologos.org/blog/author/pete-enns
(5) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/about/
9) http://www.salvationhistory.com/letter_and_spirit_archive/letter_and_spirit_volume_6_2010

Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism and Sola Scriptura

17 Jul

“Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent,” was a favorite dictum of the tradition that I was educated in and was a part of for many years.  While this saying may be a bit simplistic, it aptly expresses the massive importance that the Bible has in the life and thought of so many Christians, and rightly so.  It is the Word of God, it is God-breathed, it is inspired, it is so many things.  I myself have spent literally years studying the Christian Scriptures (ending up with a degree in Biblical Interpretation, which is about as employable as a philosophy degree unless you work in a church).  And it is precisely because the Bible is so important that we as Christians must not just study and think about the Bible, but think about how we approach and assumptions we make about the Bible.

In this post I’d like to talk about one subject that played a large role in my journey toward joining the Catholic church (for those of you who don’t know, I joined the Catholic church this Easter). That subject is twofold: first, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the idea that the Bible is the only authority for Christian belief and practice, and second, “pervasive interpretive pluralism”, or the fact that there are multitudes of different, conflicting (even on some central issues) beliefs, all held by Christians who use this “bible only” (Sola Scriptura) approach, even when they all seem to genuinely seek to objectively read the bible.

I never gave much thought to the idea of Sola Scriptura growing up.  And while this was an assumption upon which any of my thought about Christian belief relied, I couldn’t have told you what that term meant until college, where I began to study theology.  Even in college, while I understood what Sola Scriptura was, we didn’t talk about it much since the tradition that I was a part of didn’t stress its Reformation heritage as much as other Protestant groups do (this was because my tradition had more of a “back to the bible”/”back to the early Church” focus). Nevertheless, Sola Scriptura was a foundational, if often unspoken, philosophy upon which we all relied.

I would like to point out two problems with this assumption.  First, the bible itself never makes the claim that it is the only authority for Christians or that it contains everything that Christians need to know for faith and practice.  The bible never sets itself against the teaching authority of the Church, or against the traditions that have been handed down from the apostles.  While some here would bring up 2 Timothy 4:15-17, in which St. Paul writes to Timothy:

“…from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God[a] may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (ESV)

However, this doesn’t come anywhere near Sola Scriptura.  All Christians would agree that Scripture is “God-breathed” and that it is profitable for many things, but this does not mean that it is the sole and exhaustive authority for Christians.  The doctrine of Sola Scriptura instead is accepted (though most don’t think about this) on the authority of the Reformation tradition (this idea that the bible is the sole authority for Christians comes from the Protestant Reformation, when the Reformers were breaking from the Catholic church and its authority).  Once I realized this, I was overcome with just how ironic it is to argue that Scripture alone, not tradition, is authoritative for Christians, when that position is accepted on the authority of tradition, not Scripture.

The second problem with this is that some doctrines, such as the Trinity, or the “two-natures-one-person” understanding of Christ (and how his divinity and humanity relate) would be held to be essential orthodox beliefs by most Christians, and yet they cannot be upheld purely on the basis of Scripture alone.  One certainly sees the trajectory towards the idea of the Trinity in the New Testament, but it is nowhere near being fully articulated. One person could interpret the Bible as saying that Jesus is a created being, who is the highest created being, but not fully God (as the early Arians did, similarly to modern Jehovah’s Witnesses), while the rest of Christians would interpret the Bible as teaching that Jesus is fully God and a part of the Trinity.  The problem is that if you say that the Bible is the only authority (Sola Scriptura), it’s simply my interpretation versus yours, even if one interpretation is in line with what the Church has taught for centuries while another is new, because there is no other authority to appeal to.

One more thing to add is that the canon of the New Testament (the list of which books are considered to be Scripture) was not completed until centuries after the books were written, and this canon was decided by the authority of the Church.  This doesn’t mean that the Church arbitrarily decided this canon, yet it was still a human process. If we can trust that the Holy Spirit guided the Church to “get it right” in this process, surely it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that the Spirit could guide and protect the teaching of the Church for more than just this one time (like guiding and protecting the teaching and development of doctrine over the years). We can’t say that we trust the Bible, but don’t trust the authority and teaching of the Church which determined which books were a part of the Bible.

As to the second, related topic, “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” I would first like to give credit where credit is due.  The term “pervasive interpretive pluralism” comes from the book The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith (which is a fantastic book). While I have noticed this phenomenon/problem (depending on how you look at it) before, Smith’s book made the problem acutely clear.  Since writing the book, Smith has joined the Catholic church. But the question that he poses is this: how can there be so many, radically different, even conflicting, beliefs on all sorts of Christian beliefs, from peripheral to critically central issues and topics?  How can Christians, all reading the same Bible, not be able to agree on even some central issues?  And especially: what authority is there to determine whether one interpretation is better than another interpretation?  The problem, Smith says, is that when there are so many interpretations to choose from, and no authority higher than the individual Christian to determine which interpretation is right, we are left free to pick whatever interpretation we like the best.  And when we get to pick whatever interpretation and belief we like best, the Bible is no longer functionally an authority in our lives, rather we are the highest authority in our lives, because we can pick whatever belief and interpretation we like best.

It was these kinds of problems I found with Sola Scriptura and the resulting interpretive and doctrinal anarchy that led me to believe that there must be an ongoing teaching authority in the Church throughout history.  Once I realized this, it was pretty clear that the Catholic church had the best historical claim to that authority.  It was this along with many other issues that helped to push me along in the journey towards the Catholic church.  On a personal note, I would like to say that while at first the idea of joining the Catholic church scared me, now that I have joined, I feel completely at home.  I have never really felt completely at home in any church tradition until now, and joining the Catholic church is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

As always, I love getting comments, feedback and questions.  Did I portray Sola Scriptura fairly?  What options are there for one who sees the problems with Sola Scriptura (does it automatically lead to Catholicism)? Are there other explanations for “pervasive interpretive pluralism”?


Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture


What is a Sacrament? (for my Stone-Campbell Movement friends)

24 Jun

When I was in high school, the only thing I knew about my friends who went to the Norton Christian Church in my hometown of Norton, Kansas, was that they seemed to have an unusual view of baptism, that it was the moment of salvation, and also that they loved to argue about it.  As it turns out, I would later find out that the movement this church congregation found its ancestry in was founded as an attempt to restore the unity of the Church (universal) by shunning denominational allegiances and adhering to Scripture alone (as they interpreted it).  It also turned out that I joined that same church late in high school and attended a college in that same tradition (the Stone-Campbell movement, or “Restoration Movement”, named after its founders Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoration_Movement). It was this same desire to see the people of God, the universal Church, united that later led me to join the Catholic church.  But because I was a part of this ecclesial tradition for so many years, especially in my formative years in bible college, many of my friends are also a part of or somewhat associated with this tradition, and it is for you that I write this post.

If you are unfamiliar with Catholic theology, like I was before I began exploring Catholicism, the word “sacrament” may be generally associated with Catholicism, but it is usually not clear exactly what a sacrament is.  A common definition of sacrament is that given centuries ago by St. Augustine, defining it as an outward sign of an invisible grace.  But the best way to describe it is to go back to one of the main theological issues that distinguishes the Stone-Campbell movement from the mainstream of Evangelicalism.  That issue is baptism.  One often hears passages like Romans 6:4-6 quoted by Restorationists (rather than something like John 3:16), which explicitly links the joining of a believer to Christ’s death, resurrection and life by the means of baptism.  That is to say that this movement sees in baptism not just an empty, ineffectual symbol in the act of baptism, a nice reminder, if you will, of what really happens only in the heart.  Based on the New Testament, baptism is seen as the actual time and place in which one is united to Christ, and thus “saved”.  It is not seen as something that is only a physical act, as if the act of getting wet did something for a person, but neither is it seen as just a purely external symbol that has no real effect.  This causes considerable conflict with the broader Evangelical tradition, especially the strains of the Evangelical tradition that see a strong conflict between faith and works, with works being defined as anything someone “does”, anything physical. The reason why I go into this detail of explaining what this movement tends to believe about baptism, is because in this specific area, this Protestant, Evangelical movement has a very “sacramental” view of baptism, but without the larger theological framework in which the sacraments of the Church fit in Catholic theology.

As I said before, the Catholic church sees the sacraments as visible signs of invisible grace, or as I heard recently in a homily (sermon), a sacrament, “is a sign that does what it means”.  Baptism doesn’t just signify the uniting of the believer to Christ’s death and resurrection, it makes that a reality, it does what it symbolizes. A sacrament is a moment and a place wherein God and his divine grace bursts through into our physical world, mediated by the very elements of creation such as water, oil, bread and wine.  The sacramental view sees that God gives His graces to His people through physical things.  This is rooted in the belief that God has created us as embodied creatures; we are both physical and spiritual, not just purely spiritual beings temporarily trapped in our physicality; thus, God does not give us His graces apart from, but precisely through the physical elements of creation.  This sacramental view is also rooted in the belief in Christ’s incarnation. God did not rescue His creation from afar, but came in Person in Jesus of Nazareth, meeting humanity in His own creation; similarly, God gives His people His grace through the sacraments, through the physical elements of creation like water, bread, wine, oil, etc.  These not only symbolize the reality of God’s grace, but effect their reality. (The Catholic church sees seven official sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation (by anointing), Penance, Last Rites (with oil), Holy Orders (like ordination and religious orders), and Marriage.) If you study Catholic theology more, you will learn the difference between the sacraments and sacramentals, with the latter being something that gives grace by lifting the mind to God, such as icons, statues, gestures, crucifixes (an Evangelical equivalent to a sacramental would be something like a WWJD bracelet.)

The main difference however, concerning the view of baptism between Restorationists and Catholics is that the former tend to see baptism as a stand-alone issue that concerns an individual and his/her relationship with God, while Catholics see baptism, and all of the sacraments, in the context of the Church and the authority given to the Church (see for example Matthew 18:15-19).  While the ecclesiology of the Stone-Campbell movement is certainly much closer to the rest of Protestantism than Catholicism, especially Evangelicalism, its view of baptism is surprisingly sacramental for a movement within Protestant Evangelicalism.  This is why I thought it would be helpful to use this example to help explain what exactly a sacrament is to my friends in the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement.  Understanding this sacramental mentality can be helpful for explain something like transubstantiation, the idea that the communion meal is a real experience of Jesus and His body, not just a symbol or remembrance alone; Catholics believe that as a sacrament, the eucharist really is Christs’s body and blood; it is/does what it symbolizes.  While differences will inevitably remain, understanding what Catholics mean when they speak about the sacraments will help to better understanding between those in the Stone-Campbell movement and Catholics. And better understanding will bring us one tiny step towards what we both desire and pray for, unity among Christ’s followers.

Why I’m Joining the Catholic Church

22 Feb

It will likely come as a surprise to many of you (though not to some others) that I am planning to join the Catholic church (by this Easter I will be a real-life Catholic).  Many of you are probably wondering why, so I want to take this blog post to explain some of my primary reasons why.  Obviously, however, one blog post is not going to answer every question about Catholicism or my many reasons for becoming Catholic, so I would love to talk to (not argue with) anyone individually if you would like to discuss it further.  Also, please utilize the comment option on the blog (nicely).

I began actively looking into the Catholic church many months ago (somewhere around mid-2011).  To give a bit of background, a few months before this, I had read a book entitled Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism by James K.A. Smith, in which he seeks to take insights from postmodern philosophers (Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault) and incorporate their contributions into a Christian framework of thought (if philosophy bores you, please bear with me for a bit or skip ahead).  I really enjoyed this book because, while I definitely do not buy into many of the solutions offered by postmodern philosophy (such as a radical moral and epistemological relativism), I think the one thing it does an excellent job of, is to critique modernist philosophy.  Speaking in broad generalizations, modern Enlightenment philosophy has an incredibly high view of humanity and human reason, and seeks to establish truth and knowledge (which it believes can be known objectively) through universal reason, as opposed to knowledge that is dependent on tradition and culture, a more particular knowledge.  As Smith wrote on his chapter concerning philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard,

“Christian thinkers should find in Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives and autonomous reason an ally that opens up the space for a radically Christian witness in the postmodern world-both in thought and in practice. By calling into question the very ideal of a universal, autonomous reason (which was, in the Enlightenment, the basis for rejecting religious thought) and further demonstrating that all knowledge is grounded in narrative or myth, Lyotard relativizes (secular) philosophy’s claim to autonomy and so grants the legitimacy of a philosophy that grounds itself in Christian faith.” (p. 73)

So by understanding that all knowledge and systems of knowledge have some starting point that one must begin with on the basis of tradition or faith, the Christian thinker is free to start from a foundation of Christian belief, rather than beginning on the terms of secular philosophy.  Smith then goes on to flesh out the implications of this and other appropriations from postmodern philosophy for the Christian faith.  He calls this “radical orthodoxy”.  He says:

“If there is one thing that postmodernism is opposed to, it is the traditional. The very notion of the postmodern has become synonymous with the new, the novel, the avant-garde, and at the very least, the contemporary. But is it possible to be faithful to tradition in the contemporary world? Is that even something we should want? Don’t the advances of modernity–instantaneous global communication, the virtual connection of the four corners of the world, the steady march of technological mastery, the fluidity of trends and self-invention–don’t these represent the overcoming of tradition and an escape from its static past? Who would want to go back to crawling when we’ve learned to fly? Or could it be that the price of flying is not worth the so-called freedom? Might the progressive, ahistorical detachment of our modern life be a denial of something that is part of the fabric of being human? Could it be that we are traditioned creatures, in which case unhooking ourselves from tradition would end only in self-alienation, even self-destruction?” (pp. 109-110, emphasis added)

That one idea stuck out to me, and continued to stick with me, “Could it be that we are traditioned creatures?”  Could it be that that is how God made us as humans?  I had for some years moved far beyond the attitude of anti-traditionalism that is rampant, almost inherent in Evangelicalism, realizing that tradition is inescapable.  We are always, always within a tradition of some sort, and we always develop routines and ways of doing things and pass down knowledge and frameworks of thought and belief.  This is just how God made us.  It seems to me that there are flaws in the implicit attitude of some Christians that, “we don’t have tradition, we just have the bible.”  In reality, this is just a different tradition, and a different way of doing things, a tradition of anti-traditionalism.  However, when I read Smith’s book, I began to re-think how many of my attitudes toward things like not just tradition, but also authority, institutions, and rituals, had been shaped by modernist philosophy rather than anything Christian, biblical, or even healthy, and I immediately felt the pull toward the Catholic church.  Did I tend to resist being a part of a church that was institutional and have an aversion towards a Christianity that is “hierarchical” because these are inherently bad things, or because of the influence of our Western, individualistic, do-it-yourself, modernist mentality?  Did I avoid ritualistic and symbolic practices of Christian worship in favor of more cognitive and emotional ones because the latter are better or because our previously mentioned culture favors these and has shaped my worldview(s)?  These are the questions I began asking.  What were my cultural blinders and how have they shaped and limited my understanding of the Christian faith?  In view of this uncertainty and the (I think healthy to some extent) uncertainty of all knowledge, I began to wonder if rather than relying on my own ability to transcend my cultural myopia and judge the validity of the vast sea of differing Christian beliefs and theologies and Scriptural interpretations, if it were safer to seek safe harbor by embracing my Christian history and the great Christian tradition (thus producing the aforementioned pull towards Catholicism, which oozes tradition and history, and has by far the best claim to be the successors and guardians of the Church’s tradition from the beginning).

As I felt this pull, I began to wonder if there was room in the Catholic church for me, because while there was much that appealed, I certainly wasn’t on board with everything Catholics believed.  And would I have to buy into every single doctrine?  Would I essentially have to stop thinking for myself?  Would I have to write off most of my non-Catholic Christian friends as some sort of inferior believers?  I had some definite reservations, but I still felt the appeal.  However, I assured myself that that was crazy.  There’s no way, that’s just too big of a leap.  I’ll just appreciate Catholicism from a distance, as I already have for years (I’ve never been anti-Catholic, and my appreciation for Catholicism has grown over time).

Then one day, my friend Jeff told me about this book study group that was going over a book that was interestingly titled How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps by Christian Smith, a professor at Notre Dame.  And while I hadn’t really followed up on the appeal of Catholicism from reading the book on postmodern philosophy, when I heard of this book, I thought, ‘that sounds fascinating.’  I certainly at that point had moved past the point where I would self-identify as an Evangelical, because I just found core Evangelical beliefs and attitudes on most things to not be sustainable or believable, but I knew I was still committed to being a Christian, I just didn’t know what kind of a Christian.  But nonetheless, Evangelicalism was my background and the theological framework I was most familiar with, so a book on going from Evangelicalism to Catholicism would probably be the best at explaining Catholicism to me, I thought (and I think I was right).  I bought the book on Kindle for my computer, had it instantly, and read about half of it that night.  Within two or three days, I had it finished.  While it had answered some questions for me, and cleared up a lot of misconceptions about Catholic belief, the main thing it did was to take me from dipping my toe in the metaphorical water and yank me in over my head into the question of Catholicism.

So I purchased more books on Catholicism, some from the current Pope, some from other Catholics, and also began reading the early Church fathers.  I realized that in many ways, I was already much closer to Catholic thought than I thought because for one, I have never been a Calvinist or been enamored by Reformed theology, and two, I have been heavily influenced by the writings of N.T. Wright, an Anglican New Testament scholar whose interpretation of Paul is both incredibly true to Paul’s 1st century context, and at the same time breaks away from some pretty foundational ways of reading Paul for Protestants, and moves closer (though not all the way) to a Catholic reading of Paul.  So as I studied, and studied, and studied, here are some things that I gathered that were helpful for me, and may help you understand where I’m coming from a bit more.

  • The difference between veneration and worship.  Worship, for Catholics and for Protestants, is due to God alone.  Veneration means something like honoring.  Mary and the saints are venerated, honored, but never worshiped.  
  • Being Catholic does not mean turning your mind off.  While, yes, the Church structure (magisterium) is responsible for Catholic doctrine and there are certain doctrines that must be accepted, there is certainly a fair amount of diversity within the Catholic tradition.  Also, I grew to feel a bit convicted for my strongly independent and anti-authority attitudes in this area.  I’m learning the healthy balance of using the critical and inquiring mind that God gave me, but within the limits of the living tradition of the Catholic church, rather than free of all constraints, as is the case in Protestantism (look at some of the beliefs there, along with how many differing, contradictory ones there are).  Sometimes structure and limits are good things, I’m learning, but this does not mean turning one’s mind off and blindly following the leader.
  • The key Protestant tenants of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide do not make sense.  While I never really used these terms much, they were certainly implicit within most or all of the theology I was exposed to over the years.  Sola Scriptura is the idea that only Scripture, not tradition, is authoritative, even though Scripture never actually says this, and thus is an idea that must be accepted on the authority of tradition.  That’s a bit self-defeating to say the least.  I think it is much better to understand the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church as going hand in hand, and not as independent, competing sources of authority.  Tradition helps us to know how to interpret Scripture.  Sola Fide is the idea that salvation is by faith alone, and taken to it’s fullest extent, as within Calvinism, makes it a completely passive event (salvation happens to you, in spite of you).  The Catholic position is caricatured as being that you do good works to earn your salvation (which is not true).  It was helpful to learn that Catholics believe that salvation is by grace, and that it is received through faith that shows itself in good works.  That is to say, salvation is not a hypothetical legal fiction, but that salvation really does work itself out in reality throughout one’s life.  Salvation is neither something that happens in spite of you or something that happens because of you.  It is God’s work that you participate in and cooperate with.  The Catholic idea of your salvation being a process, working itself out in your life, progressive justification, is something similar to the way Protestants talk about sanctification.  I am reminded of when St. Paul writes to the Philippians (2:12-13) “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” 
  • The idea of a purely “invisible Church” doesn’t make much sense.  In Protestant theology, you learn that there is both the local church, specific faith communities that meet together, and there is the universal Church, which is the sum of all believers all over the world, and that cannot be associated with any organization, denomination or institution, and is thus “invisible”.  It is clear in Scripture that the unity of the people of God is hugely important; even Paul’s theology of justification is developed in the context of concerns over the unity of the people of God, specifically the Jewish-Gentile issue.  But saying that the universal, global church is “invisible” as opposed to concrete expressions of local church just feels more like an excuse the more you think about it.  It’s an excuse for the failures of Protestantism to value the oneness of the Church, an excuse for Protestantism’s modus operandi being one of schism.  You can say that the Bible is the thing around which unity must happen, but without any sort of authority to determine whose interpretation of the Bible will be followed, there will be no unity; history painfully illustrates that point.  The universal (catholic) church must be concrete too.  The second Vatican council describes the visible and invisible elements of the Church as forming, “…one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word…” (Ch.1 p.8, Lumen Gentium), meaning that the Church is both a divine and human endeavor, one that includes, but is never reducible to, structures and institutions.
  • Christian unity is a non-negotiable.  I said this in the previous point, but I think it deserves its own point.  The Church is called the body of Christ in the Bible, and just as the Spirit is one and Christ is one, so Christ’s one body, His one Church that is guided by His one Spirit must be one (see 1 Cor.10:16-17, 12:12-31).  As I said above, this is not a hypothetical unity, but a unity that means no individual, local church should exist autonomously or outside of a real communion with the universal Church.  It would seem to me that the Catholic church has the best claim to being the structural entity or authority that the Church of Christ subsists in (based off historical continuity, and the fact that this universality or catholicity is central to Catholicism).
  • Being Catholic does not entail a hostile or arrogant attitude toward non-Catholic Christians. It was interesting to learn that the reason Catholics do not practice open communion is because of their high value on the unity of the Church. The Eucharist (communion) is a sign of the oneness and unity of the Church, and to open communion to anyone is to ignore and brush over the real divisions that exist in the Church.  Concerning schisms that have happened throughout the centuries (i.e. the Reformation) the second Vatican council says, “…serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame” (Ch.1 p.3, Unitatis Redintegratio)  Concerning non-Catholic Christians and churches, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “‘many elements of sanctification and of truth’ are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: ‘the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.’ Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation…” (p.819, CCC, bold added) Also check out this document on ecumenism from Vatican II: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html.  
  • Catholicism (largely) does not struggle with the dualism that plagues Evangelicalism (and much of Protestantism).  Implicit in most of Evangelical theology is the subtle idea that the Christian hope is to escape from this world into another one, which goes hand in hand with the idea that “spiritual” things are inherently more valuable than practical, every-day, physical/material things that we deal with in the here-and-now.  This dualism of spirit-vs-matter can be traced all the way back to at least Plato’s philosophy, but the problem with this philosophy is that it denies the inherent goodness of God’s creation (this world) and creates an escapist mentality that produces a religion that doesn’t have much to say about life here-and-now.  The Christian, biblical idea is that this world is in a broken condition, but that this is still God’s good creation, and that God will make all things right in His creation (if that last sentence made no sense, read N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, it’ll change your life).  The ultimate answer to a dualist approach is the incarnation.  When God became material in Jesus of Nazareth, He embraced, rather than rejected, the physical world.  He came to rescue it, not to destroy it.  Catholic thought holds the theological idea of the incarnation (God becoming man, the Word becoming flesh) in an especially high position.  Catholic thought holds together the hope for a future that God brings (heaven/the full realization of the Kingdom of God/the redemption of the creation) with the importance of life in the here-and-now (current, partial realization of the Kingdom of God, social teaching/social justice, morality, etc.).  Catholic anthropology is one that holds together body and soul as a unity that makes up the whole human person, not antithetical opponents with the subtle idea that the body is simply a temporary housing for the soul.  While these ideas are not exclusive to Catholicism, it seems to me that it does do a much better job of taking a wholistic, integrated view of reality and the human person than does the dualist approach, which is far more common in Protestantism and especially Evangelicalism.
  • Catholicism is an ecclesiocentric (Church-centered) approach to the Christian faith, as is the Bible (especially St. Paul’s writings).  While this isn’t something that I’ve just realized since exploring Catholicism, I have increasingly realized over the past several years how central the Church or the “People of God” is to the Christian faith.  The God of the Bible has never been one who primarily engaged in private relationships with individual people (the just-me-and-Jesus approach), but has always been about embracing a people (the Israelites in the OT, and the Church universal in the NT).  The individualistic approach to Christianity is a product of our Western imagination.  Much of recent scholarship on Pauline writings have underscored the centrality of the Church in St. Paul’s thought (look up “the New Perspective on Paul”).  Even such important topics as justification by faith are not discussed on just an individual level, but within the context of how God has through Christ expanded the scope of his covenant from just Abraham’s physical descendants (Israelites) to all people (Gentiles as well), ecclesiological concerns.  To come into right relationship with God is at the same time to become a part of the people of God.  These aren’t the same things, but they go hand in hand and cannot and should not be separated.  
  • Catholicism does a particularly good job of holding together “cross” and “kingdom”. Many (generally conservative) Protestant churches do a good job of holding to a hope in an afterlife and to historical, orthodox Christian beliefs and morality (we’ll call these “cross” churches), and many (generally liberal) Protestant churches do a good job of seeing the importance of social issues like caring for those in need and prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable of society (we’ll call these “kingdom” churches), but rarely are these two seen together.  Catholicism does a particularly good job of teaching the importance of both sides.  It teaches that the most vulnerable in society are to be given priority (see the “preferential option” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preferential_option_for_the_poor), while also insisting that these most vulnerable include the unborn (the Catholic church has been consistently pro-life, which is typically seen as a “conservative” issue).  This balance of the importance of right belief, right morality and right action (on a societal level too, especially concerning social justice issues), embraces the wholistic message of the transformative power of the gospel, without sliding to one extreme or another and without being forced to choose a side on the American “conservative-vs-liberal” spectrum.
  • Catholicism has an incredibly rich and deep spiritual tradition.  I don’t want to give the impression that joining the Catholic church was a purely cognitive, intellectual decision, with no prayer involved at all.  But if I am honest, I am much more gifted in abstract thought than in prayer or action, and I am learning to see that God made me this way.  But this does not reduce the importance of prayer, and if I am honest, I really suck at praying.  I have a very short attention span, and any prayer that is not structured or guided in some way usually ends in me spacing off and then minutes later coming to, thinking, “oh, I was supposed to be praying, wasn’t I?”  But the Catholic church has a tradition of spiritual teachers and practices that have been a practical help to people for  a couple thousand years.  These traditions, often derided in Evangelicalism as being dry, lifeless repetitions that are inauthentic and not “from the heart”, are actually incredibly beautiful and immensely practical.  Since discovering the Catholic tradition, my prayer life (while still not easy, and still not always very great) has been strengthened.
  • The Catholic Church has a long history of both faithfulness and failure, which is precisely why it’s perfect for me. One of the most depressing moments in college for me was taking a class on Church history.  How on earth, I wondered, could such a wonderful thing as the Church which God established, have such moments of blatant corruption and sunk to the level of a tool of the state and a battle field for power struggles?  Even in our day we hear of instances of abuse and (even-worse, it seems) cover-ups of those abuses.  Why would I want anything to do with such a checkered history as this?  It is because this is precisely what you would expect of an institution that is both guided by the Holy Spirit and led by imperfect men.  And this strange mix of successes and failures is in many ways like my own faith.  There are times when I see myself growing in following my Lord and living a good life, and times when I feel like a miserable failure for doing things I know are clearly wrong.  While the Church may be a disappointment at times, it is also the home to the examples and fellowship of masses of saints and examples of holy living.  The Church can be so amazing and so disappointing, which is why it is precisely where I belong.  Rather than trying to distance myself from our Christian history, I have learned to embrace it (though not uncritically), realizing that the Church is Christ’s body and the home to both sinners and saints.

The list could go on and on, as I continue to discover more and more reasons for loving Catholicism as I go, but I will stop as this is far too long already.  Thank you for reading.  May God bless you and keep you and give you peace (Num.6:22-27)

-Dan Cummings

Ash Wednesday, 2012


Books I’ve read (or partially read) as a part of this journey/study:

Ante-Nicene Church Fathers (some of them)

Aquinas, St. Thomas: Summa of the Summa (edited by Peter Kreeft)

Beckwith, Francis: Return to Rome

Chesterton, G.K.: Orthodoxy

Currie, David: Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic

Hahn, Scott: Rome Sweet Home

Howard, Thomas: Evangelical is Not Enough

*Martin, James, S.J.: My Life With the Saints

*McBrian, Richard: The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism

Merton, Thomas: Contemplative Prayer, The Nonviolent Alternative

*Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI): The Spirit of the Liturgy, Jesus of Nazareth v.1 and v.2Called to Communion, Principles of Catholic TheologyPilgrim Fellowship of Faith, God is Near Us, St. Paul

*Smith, Christian: How to go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps, The Bible Made Impossible

*St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (multiple authors, Scott Hahn, editor): Letter and Spirit journal, vol. 2

*US Conference of Catholic Bishops: United States Catholic Catechism for Adults

Weigel, George: Letter to a Young Catholic

Wills, Gary: Why I am Catholic

Yet to read:

Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, more from St. Ignatius,
James K.A. Smith. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture). Kindle Edition. http://www.amazon.com/Whos-Afraid-Postmodernism-Foucault-Postmodern/dp/080102918X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329342750&sr=1-1

Catechism of the Catholic Church.  See http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/ccc_toc2.htm and http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p123a9p3.htm

Christian Smith.  How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Stepshttp://www.amazon.com/Evangelical-Committed-Catholic-Ninety-Five-Difficult/dp/1610970330/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1317173933&sr=1-1

The Senses of Scripture Pt. 2

29 Jan

Here comes part 2.  This will make no sense if you haven’t read part 1 (https://the3150.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/the-senses-of-scripture-pt-1/).  This isn’t a second blog post, it is the second half of a really long blog that I cut in half to make it of a more readable length.  So once you’ve finished the 1st part, enjoy (or not) the following.


While this approach certainly kept me away from less responsible readings of Scripture, it also created a distance between the contemporary Christian life and the Bible for me.  I studied the Bible the way one would study any other historical text.  I sought after the intended meaning of the author in his own context thousands of years ago.  This was helpful in deconstructing certain elements of Evangelical belief, but didn’t always bring the Bible closer to my own life.  But then I recall reading an book that discussed the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament.  When you read the NT in cases where it quotes the OT, and then go back and read the OT in its original context, it’s clear that the NT authors are using the OT Scriptures in ways that are certainly not what the OT authors were originally talking about, especially when the NT authors use OT passages to apply to Jesus.  So what gives?  Are the NT authors twisting the OT to serve their purposes?  How can this be if the ultimate test of a legitimate reading of Scripture is adherence to authorial intent?  The book talked about how the NT authors used a Christological or Christotelic hermaneutic to read the OT (a hermaneutic is the guiding principals one uses to read and interpret a text).  This means that the NT authors began with the belief that Jesus was the Messiah who God raised from the dead, and then went back to read the OT in light of this to see how it foreshadowed this and how the OT story of Israel was headed for this moment all along.  Jesus is the interpretive starting point for the NT authors, not the OT authors’ original intended meaning.  The OT texts take on new meaning when applied to Jesus, meaning not intended by their human authors.  However, this only works if one believes that there is a secondary author at work within the Scriptures who is also the Author of history.  Only God could guide the course of history and of His people in such a way that it would in some ways foreshadow the moment when His Son became man, and did so in ways that were completely beyond what the people at that time would ever comprehend, even the biblical authors.

Around and after this time I discovered that from early in the Church, developing into the middle ages, there was the idea that the Bible had multiple senses of meaning, or ways it could be read, with only one of them bound strictly to authorial intent.  Along with the literal or plain sense of Scripture (what the human author intended, authorial intent), developed the idea of spiritual senses, or interpretations guided by God’s Spirit that were not necessarily what the author intended, but were nonetheless legitimate readings of Scripture.

Here are some of the senses of Scripture:

Allegorical:  This is a way of reading Scripture that treats the objects of the story as symbols for other things.  The text is read as a code, so to speak.  St. Paul himself uses allegory in his letter to the Galatians when using the story about Abraham’s sons as a way of speaking about the covenant.  Clearly Paul’s usage is not what the story of Abraham or the book of Genesis “meant” in its original context, but St. Paul still uses the story to explain a truth not originally intended by Genesis’ author.  He gives the story new meaning and uses the story as a way of explaining a previously unrelated truth or teaching.  This is how allegory works, and allegory is a legitimate way of reading Scripture when the “meaning” it discloses is within the confines of orthodox Christian belief.

Typological:  This is in many ways similar to the allegorical approach, but respects authorial intent a bit more.  Typology is basically seeing how the OT foreshadows the NT.  Just as Israel was saved and reborn as a new people by passing through the waters of the Red Sea, so the Christian is saved by passing through the waters of baptism.  Just as Jonah was in the belly of the “whale” (lit. great fish) for  three days before being spewed onto dry land, so Jesus was in the grave for three days before rising from the dead.  An example of this from Scripture is in Jesus’ (/John’s) words in the Gospel of John, chapter 3, vv. 13-15, which says:

“If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus/John (Jesus is recorded as saying this in the Gospel written by John) here refers to a story in Numbers chapter 21 where the Hebrew people become impatient with God and with Moses and complain, which God responds to by sending “fiery serpents” among their camp, resulting in many deaths.  This results in the people asking Moses to pray to God on their behalf.  So Moses does, and God tells him to make a bronze serpent on a pole.  When the people who have been bitten look at the serpent, they will live.  Thus in the Gospel of John, this is set as a type of Jesus Himself being lifted up, and all who look to Him/believe in Him will have eternal life.  Typology (especially) allows for the acknowledgement that Moses, nor the author of Numbers (if they are different people) had no intention of saying anything about the person of Jesus or Messiah figure to come centuries later, but that it in a way foreshadows Jesus’ redemptive death.  This sense emphasizes the way in which God is also the “author” of Scripture and the author of history, who can create foreshadowings throughout history and his Scriptures, but emphasizes it without imputing meaning to the human authors completely foreign to their contexts and intended meanings.

Tropological/moral:  This sense is a way of reading that sees moral lessons and examples within the stories of Scripture, even if these lessons may not have explicitly been the “point” or intended meaning of the story.  Much of OT history may have been written to tell the story of Israel’s history, and contain the good, the bad, and the ugly, not always intending to set the characters up as figures to emulate or not, but they can be read as examples of good, bad, or (more often) mixed moral examples when one employs this sense of Scripture.

Anagogical:  Anagogical, meaning “looking up,” has to do with looking forward, or looking up to the future hope of heaven for the Christian.  One example that I can think of is how the story of the Hebrew’s crossing of the Jordan river found in Joshua 3 is used in much gospel and folk music as a way of talking about crossing through death into heaven.  Just as the Hebrew people were in danger of death and crossed over into the great life of “the land of milk and honey,”  so the Christian crosses through death into the life that lies beyond, life with Christ.  The anagogical also clearly goes beyond authorial intent, but can be a healthy reading of Scripture at times.

What all of these “Spiritual” readings of Scripture have in common is that they go beyond what the human authors intended to mean in their original context.  They begin (as we always, inevitably do) with certain presuppositions and presupposed beliefs.  The OT is read presupposing the NT, it is read presupposing the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.  The Bible is read with certain moral and ethical beliefs presupposed, such as belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.  These Spiritual readings can be healthy ways of reading the Scripture that enable the production of new meaning in a way that strengthens the faith of the reader.  Because God (as well as humans) is also the author of the Scriptures in some sense, it is legitimate and healthy to find meanings that go beyond what the human author intended, but seem to be intended by the divine author, as one is guided by that author (the Holy Spirit, hence the term “Spiritual” senses of Scripture).  As a word of caution, however, these methods could be dangerous if one operates without any limits on the doctrinal and ethical ideas one finds in Scripture, and could theoretically lead to doctrinal and moral anarchy (although this is already the case in much of Protestantism even where people try to stick to the literal/plain sense).  One must begin with the right presuppositions, such as the divinity and divine/human nature of Christ, the Incarnation, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and sound moral principles, principles and beliefs handed down in the Church for centuries.

So this seems to bring me to my present in my long, evolving journey of how I understand our Sacred Scriptures.  I wanted to tell a bit about my journey to discovering these ways of reading Scripture that engage the Christian’s imagination and respect, but are not confined to, authorial intent while keeping the Scriptures from being relegated to mere historical documents, remaining alive within the community of faith, the Church.  Hopefully this has been helpful, or at least interesting, and please leave thoughts and feedback in the comments section.


The book I mention in the article is Peter Enns Inspiration and Incarnation (http://www.amazon.com/Inspiration-Incarnation-Evangelicals-Problem-Testament/dp/0801027306).  Also check out Enns’ article on biblical interpretation in Second-temple Judaism (http://peterennsonline.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/0310227283_enns.pdf).

Here’s an article that discusses the senses of Scripture and how they are understood in the Catholic tradition

Also check out (Anglican) N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God, which mentions (but not in depth) the idea of the multiple senses of Scripture, and is an all around decent book. http://www.amazon.com/Scripture-Authority-God-Bible-Today/dp/0062011952/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1327806939&sr=8-7