Often in theological debates, Christians start throwing Scripture verses around from all parts of the Bible. While all Scripture is the Word of God and thus must be consistent in such a way that a coherent, non-contradictory message is present, I think this haphazard cafeteria/smorgasbord style of using Scripture can be very unhelpful, even dangerous at times. This practice also makes it easier for Christians to cherry-pick the verses that they like and that support their denominational beliefs and to avoid verses that they don’t like and that contradict their denominational beliefs.
We Christians cannot forget or deny that human beings, with their own human stylistic traits, emphases, and paradigms, did indeed write the Bible. Thus it seems certain that Christians can more fully understand the written Word by digesting it book by book, carefully examining and taking into account the unique context, tradition, and perspective contained within and historically surrounding each book and author. This method also seems to me an eminently, though perhaps not distinctly, Catholic approach to Scripture and its interpretation.
Thus I’d like to present how a traditional, conservative Catholic reads and interprets Scripture on a book by book basis. In this way, a Protestant may come to know what exactly a Catholic sees, thinks, and feels when he reads the Bible. Perhaps in this way and on this basis of what is our common ground, our common tradition, namely certain books of Scripture, the Body may be made one and whole again as Jesus prayed it would be and intended it to be…. Plus I’m tired of Protestants telling me that I’ve never read the Bible (when I have) and that they are the “champions” of Scripture (when they aren’t).
St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Romans is probably the book of the Bible that is most “Protestant-friendly.” And so I’ve decided to take this book on next after my last post on the gospel of Matthew, which I consider to be plainly and overwhelmingly anti-Protestant. If I can successfully explain Romans from the Catholic perspective, then every other book will likely be a piece of cake. Moreover, as a point of pride, the Roman Catholic Church should be able to own this letter exegetically, haha.
Now I’ve never said that Protestant interpretations have no plausibility. They do; all heresies have plausibility to some extent. The fact that Protestantism hasn’t gone the way of past heresies (extinction) is a testament to the plausibility of its interpretations, though still erroneous. (Protestantism heavily resembles many past heresies in both its method and beliefs though.) Perhaps no other book gives more plausibility to Protestantism than Romans. But as I will show, it too is a Catholic book, ultimately, and repudiates man-made Protestant traditions (i.e. traditional Protestant interpretations of Scripture).
This letter of St. Paul’s is the longest and most systematic exposition of his salvation theology. However, like all his letters, this one arose out of a specific situation and historical context. Thus it was not intended to be a comprehensive and exclusive explanation of salvation. At this point, Paul has never been to Rome. The church there was not established by him; its origin is unknown but likely grew out of the Jewish community there. Thus Paul is eager to distinguish between Judaism and Christianity by emphasizing the principle of faith. That is the crucial context one has to keep in mind. He is not writing to people who are ignorant of the moral precepts of the Law. He also is writing to introduce himself to this church and to enlist support for future missionary work in Spain (which he never gets to do).
Protestants like chapters 3-5 but ignore or dismiss 1-2 and 6. Chapters 6 in particular seems to be very anti-Protestant.
The heart of the letter is St. Paul’s explanation about how Christians are forgiven and justified by faith alone, but not, as we’ll see, saved by faith alone as Luther conceived of it. Here is an ordered outline of the basic points of the letter on this topic:
- The law gives knowledge of sin, which is disobedience to the law (moral law). (2:20; 4:15; 5:13, 20; 7:7-9, 13)
- Sin condemns everyone because everyone sins. (2:1-3, 21-23; 3:7, 9-12, 23; 5:12, 18)
- The just sentence for sin is death. Thus everyone is under a death sentence because everyone sins. (1:32; 3:23; 4:15; 5:12; 7:10-11)
- The law itself and obedience to the law cannot forgive sins. Only one who has no original sin, has never sinned, and observes the law perfectly can be justified by the law alone (which is no one; the law condemns all to death). No human will or exertion can achieve the mercy of forgiveness. (2:12-13; 3:19-20; 4:2-8; 8:3; 9:16, 30-32)
- Faith alone in Jesus Christ forgives sins. This faith/forgiveness for disobedience is a free gift of God’s grace and (combined with obedience to the law) justifies, saves, and gives eternal life. (2:13; 3:24-28; 4:2-8, 13-14, 20-25; 5:1-2, 17, 21; 7:4-6)
- Works of the law, i.e. Mosaic/Jewish rituals with regard to cleanness, animal sacrifices, and circumcision, do not forgive and thus do not save. (2:25-29; 3:28)
- Forgiveness through faith comes through the sacraments of baptism and reconcilation, through the ministry of the Church. (2:4-5; 3:25; 5:5; 6:3-4)
- But faith, a free gift of God, requires, as one is able to, the willful response of action, of the fruit of good works and obedience to the moral law (e.g. the Decalogue) as given by Jesus, of participation in the life and love of Christ and the Spirit. Faith and obedience/works are inseparable. (1:5, 8-12, 17-18; 2:2-10, 13, 16, 25-29; 3:31; 4:16; 5:10; 6:1-23; 7:1, 4-6, 12; 8:5-13, 15-17; 10:4-6; 11:30-32; 12:1-2; 13:2, 8-14; 15:18-19)
- Salvation is not instantaneous, guaranteed, or unlosable the moment one first believes. It requires perseverance in faithful obedience. Grave sins after baptism void/destroy one’s justification gained through faith and baptism. (1:6-7, 18; 2:8, 25-26; 3:25; 5:3-5; 6:2-6, 16, 21-23; 8:9-25, 35-39; 11:21-22; 13:2, 11-14; 15:4)
- Every such sin requires repentance and reconciliation to renew one’s faith and justification before God. (2:4-5)
- Faith cannot be used as an excuse to sin. Faith is not a spiritual contraceptive that allows one to sin without consequences for one’s fate after death. It ceases to be faith then. That is a diabolical mockery of faith, one that Protestantism promotes on principle if not in practice (“sin boldly“). (3:8; 6:1-2, 15)
God will judge us according to our works and justify/forgive us according to our faith (2:6). Good works/obedience do not obtain forgiveness, but they, along with forgiveness through faith, obtain salvation. Salvation comes through 1) obedience and 2) forgiveness of disobedience.
The Church and its authority is also evidenced in several passages. (1:2, 5; 3:2-4; 9:1-2; 10:8; 11:16-18; 12:3-8; 15:15-16)
I’m not going to comment on every single verse but rather on the ones relevant to the Protestant-Catholic divide or general conservative Christian doctrine. Very often, I will supplement my commentary with that of St. John Chrysostom (347-407). His was the earliest publicly available complete commentary on Romans that I could find. All emphases are mine. All verses are taken from the Revised Standard Version.
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