Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
"We Have Apostolic Tradition"- The Unofficial Catholic Apologist Commentary #5
03/15/2009 - James Swan
Catholic apologists often let us know how crucial it is to have an infallible magisterium and church Tradition in order to interpret the Bible correctly. With so many Catholic apologists now commenting on sacred scripture, I thought it would be interesting to provide their commentary on the Bible. Let's see how they've been able to rightly divide the word of truth. I'll post their interpretations as I come across them.
1 John 5:16-17 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.
Let's look at a section of Biblical exegesis from Patrick Madrid's Where Is That In The Bible? [Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001]. On page 108, Madrid explains what 1 John 5:16-17 means:
23. Mortal And Venial Sins
In the following passage, St. John mentions that there are two categories of sin. Venial sins weaken the life of grace in the soul and weaken the soul's ability to avoid sin. Mortal sins, by their very nature, literally kill the soul by purposefully eradicating sanctifying grace. The church teaches that all grave (i.e., mortal, deadly) sins must be confessed in the sacrament of penance in which formal absolution is received from the priest. 1 John 5 16-17: "If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is a sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal."
According to Madrid, these verses are clear biblical proof for the distinction between mortal and venial sins. The back of Madrid's book explains it's purpose is to "interpret the Bible correctly" and to "steer clear of common mistakes many people make when reading Scripture." The book explains Madrid's credentials include being the founder and publisher of Envoy magazine, a published author of some apologetics books, and the host of an EWTN television series.
To contrast Madrid's interpretation with another Catholic source, let's see what Raymond Brown's The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary says. Brown doesn't appear to have the same caliber of credentials Mr. Madrid has in order to interpret scripture. Brown was only the Auburn Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary, the first person to have been president of all three major biblical societies: The Catholic Biblical Association, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the International Society for New Testament Studies. From 1972 to 1978 he was the only American on the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission, an appointment that Pope Paul VI said is only given to outstanding scholars.
Brown's take on this text is much different than Mr. Madrid's. On page 121, Brown states,
First John is cautious. For most sins, the prayers will be heard; but there is a sin so serious that John does not encourage prayer for it. Evidently the readers of the letter knew all about this sin. We are not so well informed (except that we should avoid identifying "sin unto death" with mortal sin, and "a sin not unto death" with venial sin). Probably the sin for First John was joining the secession, which was a form of apostasy, a sin elsewhere judged harshly.
Brown makes a similar statement in An Introduction to the New Testament (Anchor Bible Reference Library) on page 388. Commenting on these verses he states, "He is not making the later theological distinction between mortal and venial sin." Who's right, Madrid or Brown? Without the Roman Catholic magisterium telling us, each is entitled to his own interpretation.