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.

James 5:16
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Recently on Catholic Answers, John Martignoni attempted “Scriptural Apologetics.” In the MP3 clip below, he offers Biblical proof why Catholics should confess sins to priests.

John Martignoni Interprets James 5:16

For Mr. Martignoni, James 5:16 is a clear passage demonstrating confession to a priest. He tells us “elders” in James 5:14 means “priests,” because the Greek word “presbyter” is the “root word” of the English word “priest.” For a brief response to such an argument, take a listen to this short MP3 clip from Dr. White’s debate on the Roman Catholic Priesthood. The word “priest” is certainly used in the Bible, but not in any way relevant to Martignoni’s interpretation.

For instance, if “elder” means “priest,” it should follow for Mr. Martignoni that all the functions of the presbyter found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 should apply to priests. Recall, Paul tells us they are “the husband of but one wife,” they manage their families well, and their children obey them. Martignoni’s current priests though aren’t following these scriptural guidelines.

A very interesting omission from Martignoni’s answer is his lack of insight into the phrase “confess your sins to one another.” He has no problem mentioning one is supposed to confess sins to a priest. Doesn’t the “to one another” part suggests a mutual confession? James goes on to mention that believers should pray for each other. Does James only mean confessors are to pray for priests? Calvin’s comment on this text likewise scrutinizes Martignoni’s interpretation:

“Wonderful, indeed, is the folly or the insincerity of the Papists, who strive to build their whispering confession on this passage. For it would be easy to infer from the words of James, that the priests alone ought to confess. For since a mutual, or to speak more plainly, a reciprocal confession is demanded here, no others are bidden to confess their own sins, but those who in their turn are fit to hear the confession of others; but this the priests claim for themselves alone. Then confession is required of them alone. But since their puerilities do not deserve a refutation, let the true and genuine explanation already given be deemed sufficient by us” [Source: Calvin’s Commentary on James, verse 5:16].

There are other voices within the confines of Romanism letting us know what this verse means. Cardinal Cajetan in the sixteenth century said, “Nor does he here speak of sacramental confession, as appears from what he says, confess one to another; for sacramental confession is not to one another, but to the priests” [source]. Bede interprets this verse by saying everyday sins should be confessed to one another, while serious sins should be confessed to an elder:

Bede (672/673-735), commenting on 1 John 5:16: “Let anyone who knows that his brother is committing a sin-not-to-death ask, and life will be given to him who is sinning not to death. These and things of this sort which have to do with the duty of love of our brothers are requested according to the Lord’s will. For he is speaking about daily and trivial sins, which, as they are difficult to avoid, so also are they easily cured. But James implies more openly in what order this request for one another’s sins is to be carried out when he says, Confess your sins to one another and pray for each other, that you may be saved. If perhaps you have transgressed by speech or thought or forgetfulness or ignorance, therefore, go to your brother, confess to him, beg for his intercession. If he by confessing simply makes you aware of your own weakness, you by interceding devoutly also wipe away his wrongdoing. But what has been said applies to trivial sins. But if you have committed something more serious bring in the elders of the Church and be chastened at their investigation” [Source: David Hurst, O.S.B., trans., Bede the Venerable (673-735) on the catholic Epistles (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1985), p. 222-223].

Latin text: Qui scit fratrem suum peccare peccatum non ad mortem, etc. Haec et hujusmodi secundum voluntatem Domini petuntur, quae ad fraternae dilectionis officium exspectant. Loquitur autem de quotidianis [Col. 0117C] levibusque peccatis, quae sicut difficile vitantur, sic etiam facile curantur. Sed quo ordine haec alterutrum petitio sit celebranda pro peccatis, Jacobus insinuat apertius, dicens: Confitemini alterutrum peccata vestra, et orate pro invicem ut salvemini (Jac. V). Si ergo dictu, vel cogitatu, vel oblivione, vel ignorantia forte deliquisti, vade ad fratrem, confitere illi, postula interventionem. Si ipse te fragilitatis suae conscium pure confitendo fecerit, et tu ejus errata pie intercedendo dilue. Sed haec de levioribus dicta sint peccatis. Porro si gravius quid admisisti, induc presbyteros Ecclesiae, et ad illorum examen castiga te [Source: Migne PL 93].

The Navarre Bible says “It’s impossible to say exactly what type of confession is being referred to” [source]. They also mention Augustine interpreted the verse “as referring to a pious custom of confessing sins to others in a public act of contrition at which people prayed for one another.” They also point out Trent refers to the verse “without intending to define the meaning of the text.”

In his Introduction to the New Testament, Raymond Brown notes the relation of James 5:13-15 with verse 16 “is very disputed.” After citing Didache 4:14 (“In the congregation thou shalt confess thy transgressions”), Brown states the interpretation that verses 13-16 describes community confession, prayer, and healing has “the greatest following and does justice to an early attitude where the emergence of designated authorities had not yet rendered otiose community-shared sacred actions” [pp.738-739].

A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture doubts the connection of the elders and prayers for the sick mentioned in 5:13-15 with verse 16, it also doubts the verses are an exhortation to sacramental confession:

“There is considerable difference of opinion about the meaning of 16. ‘Therefore’ which is found in the oldest MSS seems to join this admonition to the preceding one; yet it is hard to see what connexion a mutual confession of sins has with the anointing of the sick. Perhaps ‘therefore’ has another reference to the next clause, ‘pray for one another’ as Camerlynck, 72, suggests. Then the sense would be: If the prayer of faith over the sick, together with the anointing, is able to save the sick man; and ‘if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him’, then it is expedient to ‘pray one for another that you may be saved’, i.e. eternally. For the purpose of convincing one another of the need of mutual prayer, a mutual confession of sin is recommended. Older interpreters, like St Thomas, S. T. Suppl. Q. 6, a. 6, and St Robert Bellarmine, De Poenit. Lib. 3, c. 4; regard this passage as an exhortation to sacramental confession, thereby assigning a very restricted meaning to the phrase, ‘confess your sins to one another’, namely, a confession of sins to a delegated priest. Interpreters, who defend this restricted meaning cite as examples, Rom 15:7; 1 Thes 5:11; Eph 5:21. In these passages, they claim, the restricted meaning of ‘one another’ is borne out by the context. But only the last instance allows such a meaning, and it is doubtful whether it may be applied in the present context” [Source: Dom Bernard Orchard, M.A., ed., A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, p. 1176, second column].

Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary (1859) says sacramental confession in James 5:16 is not certain, though it may mean one must confess to a priest:

Ver. 16. Confess, therefore, your sins, &c. Divers interpreters expound this of sacramental confession, though, as the authors of the annotations on the Rheims Testament observe, this is not certain. The words one to another, may signify that it is not enough to confess to God, but that we must also confess to men, and not to every man, but to those whom God appointed, and to whom he hath given the power of remitting sins in his name.

Where is Martignoni’s “authentic interpreter” to clean up this mess? A while back he stated to me, “I do not claim to be an authentic interpreter of Scripture. I do not try to persuade people to believe Scripture based upon my private interpretations.” Once again, we find Romanism replete with differing interpretations, as well as Martignoni’s less than responsible exegesis.

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