He looked like death warmed over. “I’ve done all I can do. I just don’t know what to say any longer.” He looked defeated, and tired.
I sighed and said nothing at first. I had been through this too many times to count, but it never got any easier, never got enjoyable. I settled a little more deeply into the chair in his office and took a deep breath.
“Roger,” I began, “I truly do not believe it is a matter of what you have, or have not, said. People who make this decision do it for many, many reasons, and only rarely do they do so for strictly theological ones. I am sure, if we could dig a little deeper, we would find many personal reasons that have nothing to do with formal theological issues.”
He nodded in response. “Of course, I know. But it is so tremendously difficult to see someone simply abandon the gospel and walk into the arms of heresy. You want to do something.”
“Believe me, I know” I replied. “But I learned a long time ago that you cannot force someone to hear you. You cannot force someone to think rationally, to obey truth, or to recognize error, if they have chosen not to do so. It is beyond your capacity. Nor can you judge your ministry of the Word on the basis of such an action by someone in your congregation. The Apostles faced this same situation, so surely it was not a matter of failure for them, nor for you.”
“I know all these things” he said with a heavy sigh. He paused, then said, “But it really doesn’t make me feel any better right now.”
I smiled, “I know. So, your suggestion that she talk to me was ignored? Let me guess….I’m too, let’s see, harsh? Unloving?”
“You guessed it” he chuckled. “Seems the double standard doesn’t bother her. Her new found mentors can write or say anything, but if anyone responds to their arguments, and in fact refutes them, well, they are unloving and unkind and unChristian. You name the excuse.”
“Been there, done that.” I leaned forward a bit. “Well, your next move is not enjoyable, but necessary.”
“I know. I can’t believe we have to discipline someone who grew up in our midst.”
“She has embraced deadly heresy, Roger. God’s people must be warned. And we can only hope the seriousness of the response will communicate to her the gravity of what she has done. Besides, I think you will want to spend some time going over the foundations of the faith from the pulpit once again, just to make sure everyone is clear on the basics.”
“Indeed.” He rose from his chair and stood in front of a large shelf filled with books. He pulled down a hefty volume and opened it. “I have always sought to be faithful in preaching the whole counsel of God. She heard it preached over and over again. I thought she loved the truth….” His voice trailed off.
I stood. “Elders are not given a supernatural ability to see into the hearts of their congregations. Nor are you expected to. You exhort, you warn, you encourage, you teach. And you trust in Christ’s promise to build His church, but in His way, in His time. You hope the best, especially for those who are under your ministry for years, but you know that longevity is not a sure sign of calling. And, of course, we don’t know how long this fascination with Rome will last. Sacramentalism cannot long satisfy the heart of the truly redeemed, and if she is, well, the honeymoon can’t last forever.”
“Yes, of course. Well, thank you for coming. I will keep you appraised of any developments in the situation.”
“Please do” I replied, and walked out of his office into the gathering dusk. As I fought through rush hour traffic I pondered yet another example of why it is so utterly vital to not only understand biblical sufficiency, but to be passionate about it, both in one’s own personal faith, and for those called to the eldership, in one’s proclamation and teaching. A fine Christian pastor and church would now face the difficult questions that always follow an act of theological apostasy: why? What are the real reasons? Did the church fail in some fashion? How do we now respond to this person? And for those who are former Roman Catholics themselves, the questions would be even more difficult to answer. Literally millions of people have left Rome, seeking something beyond the dead formalism of sacramentalism based upon man’s acts, man’s merits. So how could someone go the other direction, especially when they had known, or seemed to know, the truth?
I pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine. One portion of the pastor’s comments rang in my ears. It wasn’t because it was anything I had not heard before. In fact, that was exactly why I could not get it out of my mind: I have heard it over, and over, and over again, with such regularity that it must represent a common delusion coming down upon those who refuse to love the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10). His words were clear….
“The constant refrain was, ‘sola scriptura is not biblical, nor is it historical. I just can’t believe it anymore.’ I could not get her past that one issue. She refused to hear any counter-argument; she refused to apply the same standards to Rome she was applying to the Bible and Protestant churches. It was like it was a mantra–not really a cohesive thought, but a feeling, a chant, something that must be true. I had seen the same kind of look and experienced the same kind of responses when talking to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses when we would touch on one of their “pet” doctrines. They just have to be right about that, for if they are not, the entire system crumbles. That is how it was with sola scriptura–it just had to be wrong. It was obviously the lynch-pin of her entire new set of ‘insights.’ I simply couldn’t get her to listen to the first bit of response to it, but despite that, she remained fully convinced that she had, in fact, seen the ‘error of her ways’ and was now following the ‘truth’ in her utter acceptance of Rome’s claim to final and infallible authority.” He sat for a moment, shaking his head. “I tell you, I tried every possible approach to get her to see the circularity of her thinking….” His voice trailed off again as he stared out his window. A moment passed and he concluded, “From day one I have taught the Holy Scriptures are God-breathed, the very speaking of God, sufficient for all we need to know to live a life of godliness. It never crossed my mind that one of my own flock could be tricked into believing the opposite.”
I fully understood the pain he was feeling, and the confusion as well. But I also knew that the deep and abiding commitment to the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures could be modeled but not forced upon anyone, as it truly came from the testimony of the Spirit to the spirit of the redeemed believer. A person may say they believe such a divinely imparted truth, but since we cannot look upon the heart, we cannot know until that belief is tested.
I kept in contact with Roger over the next few months, through the process of excommunication, and even had the opportunity of speaking to his congregation on the divine truths of sola scriptura and sola fide. There was a positive, God-honoring response from the people, one that showed a sober recognition of the importance of divine truth, and the necessity of a passionate belief in those doctrines that define the Christian faith. Then, as always happens, time, and new trials and tribulations, put the incident in the background, and life went on.
Unbeknownst to Roger or anyone else, however, a few people in the congregation did not take seriously the warnings of the elders regarding the seriousness of the error into which one of their members had fallen, resulting in her removal. Some felt that “staying in touch” was just fine, and even though this woman now “fellowshipped elsewhere,” it was just a matter of doctrinal difference, not anything so serious as to preclude getting together just like in the “old days.” And so quietly the situation simmered.
Modern-day converts to Rome, especially those who fall into the EWTN/Scott Hahn/”The Journey Home” style of conversion experience, are zealous for their newfound cause. And they are armed with a legion of heart-tugging audio and video tapes, along with full color magazines and friendly sounding books to add to the force of the appeal. There seems to be something about getting others to “come along” that helps them to be comforted in their own decision to embrace Rome’s authority claims. And the questions that come out over coffee eventually get quite pointed. “So have you ever really thought about why you believe the Bible alone is enough?” Then comes the personal story, “See, I was just like you, and had heard that all my life, but I had just accepted it. But then I started to read the early church fathers, and found out that sola scriptura is really just a human tradition, and we really need an infallible church to guide us into the fullness of the truth, and that the one true church has been around for two thousand years!”
And so it goes. At first there is great hesitation, as most who have been raised in solid Protestant churches automatically start thinking of all the things they have heard about the Papacy, the Mass, purgatory, indulgences, crusades and Inquisitions. But there are answers, albeit surface level ones, for each of these, and since most evangelicals have never truly engaged in any meaningful study of the subject, the bare existence of any answer is considered to be a good answer.
Former Catholics respond differently, depending on why they left the Roman communion. If they left for good reasons, or even for bad ones, but later came to understand the real reasons why a Christian who loves God’s truth cannot remain under Rome’s authority, they are much less likely to be taken in by the “new apologetics” of Rome. But if they left for the wrong reasons and, as a result, are not properly founded in the truths of the gospel, they are very susceptible to the wooing call of Rome, “Come home, come to what is familiar.”
And so the cancer grows, quietly, often out of view of the leaders of the congregation. Tapes are listened to, and eventually a day comes when the prospective convert realizes that the issues have reached the point where there is a moral necessity of speaking to the elders of the church, and yet, very rarely does this happen. Possibly there is a fear of being rebuked for being so “silly” as to even consider Rome’s claims. Or maybe there is just a subtle fascination of something that is “other.” In any case, most often, by the time the conversations do take place, Rome’s attacks upon the Bible and the gospel of grace have already been implicitly accepted. This phase is normally accompanied by the first visit to a Mass, which, for those who are not former Catholics, is always a fascinating experience.
And so the phone rang late one afternoon, during that time when the thought of a nap is strong in the mind, and Roger’s voice acted like a shot of caffeine, banishing all thoughts of sleep. All the emotions of the afternoon meeting months before came back, but with the sickening addition, “It’s happening again.” But this time there was a ray of hope: there was a willingness to dialogue on the part of the new family that had been influenced into considering leaving the truth and embracing error.
“They have been in contact with an apologist from upstate who is willing to meet with me. Would you be willing to engage this man in a direct meeting?” Roger asked.
“It would be my pleasure” I replied.
“I doubt you will be overly surprised to learn they want to discuss sola scriptura” he said with a bit of a sigh.
“No, doesn’t surprise me a bit. Standard MO of the Catholic apologist. But I will not allow the conversation to be one-sided. Rome’s claims must be examined by the exact same standard, and that rarely happens in such situations.”
We arranged the meeting for a Tuesday evening. I accompanied Roger and another elder to the church. The couple arrived along with the apologist and the former member of the church who had been excommunicated. The meeting was held in a Bible Study room, with the group seated around one of the long tables. The family introduced Paul, the Catholic apologist. After some small talk, Roger got things going.
“We are here this evening because one of the precious families in our fellowship has begun having questions concerning the very foundations of the faith, questions that could impact not only their fellowship here with us, but, we believe, their very relationship to God. Out of concern for God’s truth, and love for those who name His name, we are taking the time this evening to offer aid and assistance in answering these questions and reaffirming the gospel message itself.”
There was a moment of awkward silence, then Paul spoke up. “I, too, once believed as you believe. I remember well the fight I put up when I first began studying the Church’s teachings.”
“You mean the Roman Church’s teachings?” I inserted.
“Well, yes, the Catholic Church. I had been very anti-Catholic when I was an evangelical, so it took a tremendously long and difficult time of study before I came to see the truth of what the Church teaches. I…”
I interrupted, “I’m sorry, but you say you were an anti-Catholic? I’m not sure how you define that, but does that mean you wrote books against the claims of Rome, engaged in debates, that kind of thing?”
“No, I didn’t write any books or do any debates, but I was very opposed to Catholicism in general.”
“Did you write any tracts, then, maybe some articles?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“So, what you mean is you, like most convinced Protestants, rejected Rome’s claims to absolute authority over you in doctrinal matters. Doesn’t that mean that all convinced Protestants are, in your definition, anti-Catholics?”
“Perhaps I should have used a different term” Paul said somewhat uncomfortably. “My point is that I know where you are coming from, and I would like to share some of the highlights of my journey, a journey others” he said, glancing toward the former member, “have likewise taken.”
“It was my understanding,” Roger asserted, “that we came here this evening to answer some basic questions regarding the authority claims of Rome over against the authority claims of Scripture itself, specifically, about the doctrine of sola scriptura.”
“Yes, and that is a big part of my story” Paul said, leaning forward. “See, it was my inability to define and defend, biblically, the doctrine of sola scriptura that truly caused me to make the decision that I needed to follow Christ’s Church.”
“I would very much like to pursue that assertion” I picked up, “but we can do so without personal testimonies. Some in this room once embraced Roman Catholicism, as well, but we are not seeking to explore those personal stories this evening. I would like to begin by asking you to define what you think sola scriptura is.”
“Yes, well, sola scriptura is the belief that the Bible alone is to be our guide. That we are not to hold to any traditions.”
“I’m sorry you think that is what the doctrine states” I replied matter-of-factly.
Paul was definitely not used to being on the defensive. “Well,” he smiled, “given that there are 28,000 different denominations out there, I’m sure there are about as many definitions of sola scriptura as there are denominations.”
“Oh, I thought the new number Roman Catholic apologists were using was 33,000. I’ve heard so many grossly inflated numbers it is hard to keep track. If there are 250 meaningful denominations with any substantial historical or numerical presence I’d be surprised, not counting non-Christian religions and the like that are often lumped into such a survey number, like the Mormons, but even then, those who actually hold to sola scriptura and who seek to consistently practice it would be an even smaller number. But the fact remains that no meaningful historical Protestant denomination has ever put forward the definition of sola scriptura that you just did.”
“I have talked to many who accepted that very definition” Paul insisted.
“No doubt you have, which may explain your success in confusing folks on the topic, actually. But sola scriptura does not teach what you are saying it teaches. Let me get the definition clear before we discuss its truthfulness. Sola scriptura teaches that the Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church. The doctrine does not say that there are not other, fallible, rules of faith, or even traditions, that we can refer to and even embrace. It does say, however, that the only infallible rule of faith is Scripture. This means that all other rules, whether we call them traditions, confessions of faith, creeds, or anything else, are by nature inferior to and subject to correction by, the Scriptures. The Bible is an ultimate authority, allowing no equal, nor superior, in tradition or church. It is so because it is theopneustos, God-breathed, and hence embodies the very speaking of God, and must, of necessity therefore be of the highest authority. So as you can see, your definition does not correspond well to the actual doctrine.”
“Well, OK” Paul said as he attempted to recover the initiative. “We can use that more specific definition, if you wish. The fact remains that it is a human tradition, not a biblical teaching, and it was unknown before Martin Luther…or at least Jan Hus.”
“Which of those two erroneous statements would you like to deal with first?” I asked.
Paul seemed taken aback by my direct question.
“I mean, shall we demonstrate that the doctrine is biblical first, or demonstrate that it was taught and preached long before Jan Hus met his death at the hands of the Roman Church at the Council of Constance?”
“You are prepared to mount a historical defense of sola scriptura?” Paul asked, almost incredulously.
“I see you have not read Goode or Whitaker or Salmon or Webster and King” I said, smiling. “Yes, I surely am. But I think it better if we begin with the biblical issue first. You said the doctrine is unbiblical, correct?”
Paul again looked a little dazed at the turn of events, but pressed bravely on. “Yes, I said it is unbiblical. The Scriptures teach us to hold to the traditions we were taught, whether by word of mouth or letter from the apostles, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, and Jesus bound men under extra-biblical authority in Matthew 23:1-3, as well, referring to a non-biblical tradition, the “seat of Moses.”
“So are you admitting that your proof against sola scriptura is found primarily in your positive assertion of sola ecclesia?”
“I’m sorry, sola ecclesia?” he replied quizzically.
“Yes, the other position being presented here this evening, Rome’s position. The idea that the church, specifically, the Magisterium, headed by the Pope, is the final and infallible authority in all things.”
“Gracious” Paul laughed, “we don’t believe that!”
“Oh?” I replied. “I thought I just heard you defending that idea, or at least getting ready to. But I think you do, indeed, believe that, and in fact, I think you will confirm that when I ask a few simple questions. First, do you believe the Roman Church infallibly defines the extent of Scripture, i.e., the canon?”
“Yes, of course, I was going to be getting to that eventually.”
“I’m sure you were, and I look forward to that. And does not the Roman Church have the ability to infallibly interpret the meaning of the text of Scripture?”
“Well, I’d prefer we refer to the Catholic Church, not the ‘Roman Church,’ and yes, Christ gave that authority to His Church.”
“I’m sure you would prefer that, but I refer to the church that is centered in Rome, headed by the bishop of a single city, Rome, and hence, that is the Roman, not the Catholic, Church. Be that as it may, you have now affirmed that Rome can infallibly define the extent of Scripture and the meaning of Scripture, and is it not likewise true that Rome claims the infallible ability to define both the extent of ‘tradition’ as well as the meaning of ‘tradition’?”
“Yes, that is true as well, since in reality, Scripture is just tradition written. It is the written portion of the Word of God.”
“OK, so please tell me: if Rome determines the extent of both Scripture and ‘tradition,’ and the meaning of both Scripture and ‘tradition,’ how can she logically be subservient to two things that she in fact defines and interprets?”
Paul seemed taken aback. “Well, that’s an interesting way to put it, but surely you realize we do not put it that way.”
“Of course, but that is what sola ecclesia is all about: the Church as the final authority in all things. That is the position you hold, if you are a faithful defender of the orthodox Roman Catholic claims to infallible teaching authority. And that is what I meant when I said your citations from Scripture were showing me that you attack sola scriptura so as to establish sola ecclesia. It is vital that everyone see that there are two positions being presented, and that the standard of proof demanded for one side be demanded of the other as well.”
“I’m sorry, but how did my noting 2 Thessalonians 2 and Matthew 23 lead you to that conclusion?”
“Two things: this isn’t the first time I’ve spoken to a Roman Catholic apologist on this topic, and I know where you are going” I said with a smile. “Second, the only meaningful interpretations of either of those two passages you could possibly offer that is relevant to your reason for being here this evening both require us to embrace an infallible teaching authority in a church–the Roman Church, of course–so you seem to be teaching that the Bible, rather than teaching sola scriptura, teaches sola ecclesia. That means you’ll need to meet the same level of proof that I must meet, as you are presenting a positive position, just as I am.”
Paul chuckled uneasily. “No, no, I’m not presenting anything like that, really….”
“Oh? Let me see if that’s true: you cite Matthew 23 to imply that the ‘seat of Moses’ mentioned there is not only an extra-biblical tradition, passed down outside of Scripture, as it is never mentioned in the Old Testament, but you also will tell us that Jesus binds men to this non-biblical authority, hence establishing, or so it is assumed, a precedent for your own extra-biblical traditions having divine authority. Correct?”
“Basically, yes; it shows that Jesus did not function on the basis of sola scriptura.”
“Which begs the question, of course, since sola scriptura refers to a period of time when the scriptura exists and when revelation is not being given, i.e., the normative state of the church as she exists after the apostles of the Lord have passed from the scene. But your problem is this: even if we were to assume, against the best evidence, that the idea of ‘Moses’ seat’ came from, say, Moses, you now have to explain how it is that the Jewish ‘magisterium’ could infallibly pass on that tradition, but fallibly pass on the Corban rule Jesus attacked in Mark 7:1-13? They claimed divine authority for that tradition as well–a tradition the Lord Jesus subjected to Scriptural correction. But even beyond this problem (all of which assumes many erroneous things about ‘Moses’ seat’ in the first place), the implicit assertion being made on your part is that if there existed an external authority that could pass on such a binding tradition then, there must be one today as well, and almost magically, that authority is assumed to be held by the modern Roman Catholic hierarchy. That’s a bit of a tortured path, but that is the argument, is it not?”
“You have read something more than Jack Chick, obviously.”
“Indeed I have. And the only way you can sustain your assumed understanding of Matthew 23 is to implicitly assume sola ecclesia. The same is true of 2 Thessalonians 2:15, at least, if you are using it with any level of consistency.”
“That is the most troubling passage to me” said the husband. Paul almost looked embarrassed at the comment.
“I can see why, if the passage is presented without any meaningful context” I said, turning to the couple. “But in reality, this passage is in no way supportive of Rome’s use of it. Let me explain.”
“Well, I would like to point out…” Paul began.
“No, let’s let the Scripture speak first, Paul” Roger insisted.
“Let me guess what you have heard,” I said to the couple. “This passage is normally cited in the context of insisting that there is more to God’s revelation than ‘just’ Scripture. In fact, it is normally used to prove that this is a command that we Protestants are refusing to obey.”
“Yes, that’s exactly how it has been presented to us.”
Paul looked nervously at his open Bible.
“Indeed, and it is a command. The errant assumption, however, is that this passage is talking about written ‘tradition,’ that being Scripture, and then some kind of ‘oral tradition,’ that being…well, we normally are not told exactly what that is, but it sounds vague enough to cover whatever Rome has in mind.” A general chuckle went around the room. “But just a few observations show us just how far off base this use of the passage is. First, the implicit assumption in the Roman use of this verse is that the substance of this ‘oral tradition’ differs from that in the written tradition. However, upon what basis are we to make this assumption? What is more, Roman Catholic apologists who hold to the ‘material sufficiency view’…” I turned to Paul quickly and asked, “Do you hold to the partim-partim view or to ‘material sufficiency’?”
“Material sufficiency” he replied in a rather less than excited voice.
“OK, those who hold to material sufficiency, the idea that all of God’s revelation is at least implicitly contained in Scripture, really have no reason to cite this, as they are hesitant to affirm that Paul actually passed on orally any kind of specific non-biblical tradition. That is, no apologist worth his salt will try to defend the idea that Paul actually taught the Thessalonians such things as the Immaculate Conception or Papal Infallibility, both dogmas based quite fully on ‘tradition.’ So there really is no reason to cite the passage unless you hold to the older partim-partim view that said that part of God’s revelation is found in Scripture and part in ‘oral tradition.’
“What do you mean, ‘older’?” one asked.
“Rome is hardly united on its view of tradition, of course. Even among conservative apologists, opinions vary widely as to just what ‘tradition’ is. You can’t get an infallible definition, actually, which I find ultimately ironic, when you think about it. What’s more, the older view, championed by Rome especially after the Reformation, requires far too much of Rome’s proponents on a historical level, especially in the modern period, where Rome has elevated to the position of dogma beliefs simply unheard of amongst the early Christians. Anyway, back to 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Obviously, Paul was not saying, ‘Hold to Scripture and some oral component.’ In context, his meaning is much simpler. When you read the preceding verses, and take into account the context, Paul’s meaning is simple. Paul had preached the gospel to the Thessalonians in person. He was now writing to them. He has just noted the gospel, and he is saying, ‘Hold to the body of teaching, i.e., the gospel, that I have delivered to you, both in person and by letter.’ The letter, of course, was what we call 1 Thessalonians. The content is the gospel. We are to hold to the faith, the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the Thessalonian believers were privileged to learn, at that unique time of apostolic ministry, both from an apostle (Paul), and from a letter directly from him. Note even how Paul uses the same term, which we translate, ‘hold fast,’ in 1 Corinthians 16:13, ‘Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.’ Were you aware of these facts concerning the passage under consideration?”
“Honestly, no. None of this was mentioned in the literature we read, the tapes that were given to us, or in the conversations we have had.”
I turned suddenly to Paul and said, “Paul, has Rome infallibly defined the meaning of 2 Thessalonians 2:15, or given to you an infallible definition of what ‘tradition’ is?”
Paul seemed surprised at the sudden spotlight. “Well, that’s a very large and complex subject…..”
“Surely it is, but did you inform these dear folks of that when you used that verse to get them to begin to question the sufficiency of God’s holy Word?”
There was a deathly silence. “I didn’t feel it necessary to go into such detail, no.”
“Even when you knew admitting the confusion that exists in Rome about the topic would surely undercut the very attempt you were making to convince them of the necessity of abandoning their belief in the sufficiency of Scripture and embracing the alleged sufficiency of Rome? I find that disingenuous at the very best, don’t you?”
“You don’t have to get offensive” Paul said.
“Deceiving God’s people is offensive to me, sir, and dishonestly undercutting the confidence of the saints in the inspired Word of God is too. So you are admitting you knew of these issues, and yet allowed these fine people to remain in ignorance of them?”
“Well, I can see this was not a very good idea” Paul said as he closed his Bible with a thump.
“Did you ever see Rocky V, Paul” I asked with a smile. He just looked at me, so I continued, “Remember that line, ‘I didn’t hear the bell?’ I’m not quite finished yet. I haven’t gotten to the positive evidence drawn from the nature of Scripture as Paul presents it in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. I haven’t addressed Jesus’ teaching on the relationship of any and all traditions–even allegedly divine and inspired traditions–to Scripture. And remember, I haven’t even started on the historical material yet.”
“Yes, well, you may wish to continue with those topics” Paul said as he slipped his Bible into his bookbag, “but I really don’t think this is the best forum for continuing this. I sense a strong spirit of anger in you, and I just don’t think it is wise to continue this here.”
“A strong spirit of anger? I see! Do forgive my zeal for the truth as well as the honor of God’s Word! I believe my questions are quite direct and to the point. If you were aware of the fact that you were only offering your own personal, and fallible, opinion of the meaning of the verse, and that the system to which you were seeking to win these folks does not, in fact, even give you an infallible definition of what this alleged ‘tradition’ as you interpret it contained or even still contains, how could you, in good conscience, not make that clear? Surely you realize that your appeal to the alleged ‘certainty’ of Rome would evaporate in the light of such a revelation, would it not?”
“But you have nothing but your own fallible interpretation of the passage yourself, sir!” Paul shot back. “At least I have the consistent teaching of Christ’s Church for two thousand years behind me!”
“Two thousand years? You have a two thousand year old basis for interpreting 2 Thessalonians 2:15 outside of its own context, and reading into it a meaning that is simply anachronistic, to the point where you can use it to teach that such dogmas as Papal Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception were actually taught by Paul to the Thessalonians?”
“No, no, you need to understand the development of doctrine….”
“Indeed! So if those dogmas only ‘developed’ long after Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians, then it follows that you would not defend that Paul actually taught those as a matter of doctrine or tradition to the people in Thessalonica, correct?”
“The analogy of an acorn and the mature tree has been used, of course.”
“It surely has, but I am correct that you are admitting Paul did not teach such developed dogmas and doctrines to the Thessalonians, did he?”
“I don’t believe Paul specifically taught those developed dogmas to the Thessalonians, no.”
“In fact, can you give me a single word Paul taught the Thessalonians in this ‘oral tradition’ you attempt to identify in this passage?”
“A single word? Well, I’m sure he taught about the structure of the church and apostolic authority and….”
“Has Rome infallibly defined a single word Paul taught to the Thessalonians, or to anyone for that matter, that is not found in Scripture?”
Paul paused for a moment. “Not to my knowledge.”
I turned to the family again. “In your listening to all the tapes that were given to you, and reading the books, and in having discussions–were you ever told that Rome cannot tell you a single word Paul allegedly taught in this ‘oral tradition’ in 2 Thessalonians 2:15?”
The man spoke up, “No, certainly not. I understood them to be claiming that this oral tradition continues to exist in the church today, and is in possession of the Magisterium. But I was troubled by the fact that I never heard any specific discussion of what this tradition actually said, nor was I given any way of really finding out, outside of simply being told to believe something on the basis of the teaching of the Church.”
“Indeed” I replied, “the appeal to alleged certainty by simply signing your allegiance over to Rome is very attractive to many, until you start examining the reality of the claim, anyway. Paul, let me ask: did you challenge these fine folks with the standard line, ‘How do you know Matthew wrote Matthew?’ Did you use the ‘canon argument’ with them?”
“Of course, as such is one of the great unanswerable questions for Protestants.”
“Indeed! Let me ask, how do you know Matthew wrote Matthew, Paul?”
He smiled and said, “Surely you know. Christ gave us the Church to answer such questions. I know Matthew wrote Matthew because the Church tells me so.”
I sat forward and pulled out a piece of paper. “Is that why, in 1955, the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission granted complete freedom to Roman Catholics to believe Matthew did, or did not, write Matthew?” I slid the paper containing the quotation from Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown in his book, The Birth of the Messiah (1993, pp. 45-46) across to Paul, who scanned the text. “So, Paul, do you now know that Matthew wrote Matthew, and if so, how?”
Paul sat silently. Finally he spoke, “I had never heard anyone address this before. I don’t know what to say.”
“OK, well let’s pick up a few other elements of that ‘certainty’ argument. You are a convert to Rome, correct?”
“And when you chose to embrace Rome’s authority, you had other choices you could make, did you not?”
“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘other choices.’ My studies did not lead me to believe that there was any other church that claims the authority of Rome with the historical basis of Rome.”
“You studied the claims of Mormonism, for example?”
“No, no I did not. Mormonism is not even a Christian religion.”
“I agree, but Mormons say otherwise, and once a person accepts the ultimate authority of the LDS prophet, they have no choice but to believe themselves correct as well. My point is that there are plenty of groups out there that will offer you an ultimate authority, are there not? And when you chose Rome, was not your choice a fallible choice?”
“Well, I am surely not in and of myself infallible” Paul replied.
“Neither am I. Such is the human condition after the fall. So you admit, that first choice was a fallible one, right?”
“So, all the decisions that are made for you after that initial choice cannot be any more certain, can they? I mean, if you were wrong to choose Rome–if her claims are shown to be unbiblical and a-historical, her exegesis errant–all the claims of infallible certainty she might provide you are in fact worthless, are they not? You would agree with me that the allegedly divine authority claimed by the LDS prophet is, in fact, anything but divine, and yet a Mormon who accepts his teaching as his ultimate authority might well claim absolute certainty that what he teaches is correct. If the basis of such claims of absolute authority cannot be examined, we have no basis for knowing truth at all, just competing leaders or groups saying, ‘No, I am right, because I say so.’ So, your claimed certainty regarding the canon is no more certain than the authority claims of Rome itself, which are, obviously, subject to all sorts of counter argumentation.”
“That hardly serves you very well to point that out, as you claim no infallible authority to define for you the canon in the first place.”
“But you see, Paul, all Rome has done is move the real question back one step. Then she innocently wipes away the evidence of the trick left in the sand, and hums a nice Ave Maria as if nothing has happened. When I deal with canon issues, I wrestle directly with the nature of the canon, which flows from the nature of inspiration, as well as the historical realities through which God led His people to recognize the extent of His work of inspiration. You cannot honestly deal with the historical matters, since your ultimate authority has already told you what to believe on the topic. That is why debating the canon with Roman Catholics always boils down to an authority claim on Rome’s part. I know, as I have done it many times. I will present evidence from Jewish sources, from the New Testament, and then from all those leading early Fathers, like Melito of Sardis, Athanasius, and Jerome, through even Pope Gregory the Great, all the way up to the time of the Reformation–who rejected the Apocryphal books that were dogmatically canonized in April of 1546 at the Council of Trent….”
“They were accepted by the councils of Carthage and Hippo long before.”
“Of course, but those were provincial councils, were they not, and hence not dogmatically binding, right?”
“OK, then, I will present all this historical material, and when we dig through all the rest of the verbiage, the final argument offered by Rome will be, ‘Our canon is correct because we say so.’ At least when I deal with canon issues, I can do so by going directly to the source documents themselves. I do not have to believe that a group of men in a little town in Italy a millennium and a half after the birth of Christ were somehow divinely inspired to work through all the issues and come to a final and infallible decision. In fact, I honestly doubt anyone of the members of the Council of Trent were in any position to discuss the matter with near the ability we can do so today, given the state of research into the topic at the time. Your acceptance of their decision is not based upon the facts of history but upon your acceptance of Rome’s authority, period.”
By this time the couple who had been looking into Catholicism could clearly see where they had been led off the straight and narrow. The husband spoke, “Paul, we would like to talk some more with Pastor Roger. You know we struggled to articulate what we believed about sola scriptura, and what we have heard tonight has surely impacted much of what we have discussed over the past few weeks. In fact, to be honest, Paul, the constant refrain of the converts we listened to in those tapes has been fully answered already this evening. Not once did I hear any serious interaction on the part of the converts–even the high-powered ones who are always on EWTN–with this kind of information. Surely at least some of them know about this stuff. Why don’t they talk about it?”
Paul picked up his book bag and nodded toward the woman who had already left the fellowship. “I will surely allow you to speak privately with your elders. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to continue our discussions. Good evening gentlemen.”
The woman who had been actively proselytizing the couple left with Paul, but she looked shaken, even embarrassed. Roger and I spent the rest of the evening expanding upon the conversation, opening the Scriptures and their testimony to their own sufficiency. I gave them a copy of the newly published work, Holy Scripture, the Ground and Pillar of Our Faith, all three volumes, and invited them to read it carefully and prayerfully. They seemed genuinely thankful for the effort that had been expended in their behalf, and expressed a feeling of having been “rescued” before making a very major mistake.
No, this article does not exploit a real situation just to make a point. The story is fictitious: but only slightly. It is based upon far, far too many real life experiences to be real fiction. It bears far too much resemblance to real life. And far too many godly pastors know exactly what I’m talking about.
How many such situations end up in the happy restoration of such a couple? It is hard to say. Surely the door still swings very one-sidedly away from Rome as far as conversions go. Some estimate that amongst Hispanics alone more than a million people have left Rome for some kind of Protestant or evangelical church. No matter how certain Roman apologists inflate the numbers, a million is far beyond their capacity. But by highlighting those who do convert, they create an appearance of a tidal wave. And for some reason, when those converts speak out, people listen
There is no gospel preaching when sola scriptura is compromised. The sufficiency of Scripture is always the target of every false teacher. The elders in the churches must be prepared to define and defend this fundamental truth. And more than this, they must be able to do so with God-borne passion. Let us pray that God will bless His people with a deep and abiding love for His truth, and the desire to press this truth boldly in the face of those who oppose it.