Conservative Colloquium

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Archive for October, 2010

Don’t “Be Yourself”

Posted by Tony Listi on October 17, 2010

I hate the cliche “be yourself.” It’s terrible advice. Instead, be your true self, which is the self that God wants you to be. There can be no true self apart from the Being who created us. We can never be happy if we create a self in opposition to our Creator.

How can we achieve this true self? Practically speaking, by pretending, as C. S. Lewis advises us: “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.”

We tell children to act a certain way in order to form good habits in them. When we tell ourselves to act in a certain way, we exercise self-discipline in order to form ourselves in good habits, in virtue. We become what we pretend to be. The intention is not to deceive others but to change ourselves into our true selves.

Perhaps some saints aside, I don’t think we ever become our true self perfectly until we are in total communion with God after death. Life is a process of more closely discovering and putting on our true selves in Jesus Christ.

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Commentary on Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians

Posted by Tony Listi on October 17, 2010

St. Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna and a very early Church father and martyr who lived from 69 to 155 AD. From the writings of St. Irenaeus (b. ca. 115-142), we know that Polycarp was taught by the original Apostles (John in particular), had talked with those who had seen Jesus, and received his episcopate from the Apostles.

In his letter to the Philippians, he rejects sola fide, upholds the necessity of obedience for salvation/heaven, undermines the rationale behind sola Scriptura, affirms the divine authority of Church officials (deacons and presbyters), confirms the presence of virgins in the early Church, commands fear of God, says to avoid heretics who bear the name “Christian” in falsehood and hypocrisy, upholds apostolic tradition, exhorts perseverance in the faith in order to be saved, and quotes from the so-called “apocrypha.”
He also fills the letter with verses from the New Testament.

I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ…because the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days (Philippians 1:5) long gone by, endures even until now, and brings forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ…. knowing that “by grace you are saved, not of works,” (Ephesians 2:8-9) but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.

The “strong root” Polycarp refers to is St. Paul. Yes, we are saved by grace because we are forgiven through grace. Grace is at work in the beginning, during, and at the end of the process of salvation. We cannot earn our salvation because we cannot earn forgiveness. But we do have to bear fruit in proportion to our ability and talents, even if the fruit is not the cause of forgiveness. Polycarp has more to say on the issue of salvation:

But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness; “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing,” (1 Peter 3:9) or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching….

Notice that obedience to God’s law and avoidance of sin are conditions for being raised up to heaven.

 For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom (2 Peter 3:15) of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter….

Polycarp explains how the early churches were taught: primarily in person by Paul and only by letter when he was absent from them. Why on earth then should Christian doctrine be limited to letters that were driven by random circumstances? Why do Protestants reject the Word of God taught by the apostles in person to the early churches and passed down in the writings of the leaders of these early churches?

… let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord. Next, [teach] your wives [to walk] in the faith given to them, and in love and purity tenderly loving their own husbands in all truth, and loving all [others] equally in all chastity; and to train up their children in the knowledge and fear of God.

Polycarp implicitly affirms the authority of husband over wife. He also implies that mothers have a responsibility to train their children to be holy (not that fathers don’t too).

Knowing, then, that “God is not mocked,” (Galatians 6:7) we ought to walk worthy of His commandment and glory. In like manner should the deacons be blameless before the face of His righteousness, as being the servants of God and Christ, and not of men.

Again, we mock God if we say we have faith and yet transgress his commandments. The Christian (especially a leader of the Church) must be obedient. Also, he mentions a specific office in the Church: the diaconate. He will go on to mention the other office of presbyter.

If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, “we shall also reign together with Him,” (2 Timothy 2:12) provided only we believe…. they should be cut off from the lusts that are in the world, since “every lust wars against the spirit” (1 Peter 2:11); and “neither fornicators, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, shall inherit the kingdom of God,”  (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) nor those who do things inconsistent and unbecoming.

Again, he emphasizes the necessity of both belief andliving worthily if we wish to reign in heaven with Jesus. He then emphasizes the necessity of avoiding sin and of behavior consistent with belief in order to inherit the kingdom of God.

Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ. The virgins also must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.

Notice what great authority these Church officials have: they are to be obeyed as one would obey God and Jesus. And notice that virginity is not at all foreign to Christianity and the early Church.

Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord [have alike taught us].

We are to fear God always. He is our Lord. There is no contradiction between fear and love. Those we love we fear; those we fear we love. How is this? Because it is a fear of falling short of the love the other deserves.

Let us be zealous in the pursuit of that which is good, keeping ourselves from causes of offense, from false brethren, and from those who in hypocrisy bear the name of the Lord, and draw away vain men into error.

If you do not have a zeal for the good and the true, then you are not living the Christian life. The Christian is to avoid heretics who fancy themselves to be Christians but who are not.

…whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning (Jude 3); “watching unto prayer” (1 Peter 4:7), and persevering in fasting; beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God “not to lead us into temptation” (Matthew 6:13; Matthew 26:41), as the Lord has said: “The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak”  (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38).

Heresy is typically the result of lusts of some kind. How do we know for certain what is true doctrine? By embracing the Word that has been handed down from the beginning to the saints by the apostles.

Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ….

The Christian must be “earnest” about the faith. We must “continually persevere in our hope” if we wish to enter the kingdom of God.

I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run in vain (Philippians 2:16; Galatians 2:2), but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered.

Polycarp urges the Philippians to be obedient to the Word that they received from the apostles and their successors and ministers. Christians can be assured that the apostles are in heaven and did not run in vain. But Christians should not be overly confident to the point of certainty about their own eternal fate. If the apostles, especially Paul, did not express such certainty about his own fate, neither should we.

Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith, loving the brotherhood (1 Peter 2:17), and being attached to one another, joined together in the truth….

Therefore, because we have no certainty of our faith, we must willfully “stand fast” and be “firm and unchangeable in the faith.” Only in this way will we be worthy of entering heaven. Also, Christian are to be one, “joined together in the truth,” not separated by schisms.

When you can do good, defer it not, because “alms delivers from death” (Tobit 4:10, Tobit 12:9).

Polycarp quotes from the misnamed “apocrypha.” Moreover, he quotes verses that would surely make the Protestant very uncomfortable. Though faith has primacy, alms-giving, which is a good work, can contribute to salvation as well. In fact, the false Protestant dichotomy between faith and good works is what this entire letter rejects. It is impossible to separate the two theologically when it comes to salvation.

For if a man cannot govern himself in such matters, how shall he enjoin them on others? If a man does not keep himself from covetousness, he shall be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as one of the heathen. But who of us are ignorant of the judgment of the Lord?

The “Christian” who does not obey God’s commandments will be judged among those who have no faith, among the heathens, those who have rejected the faith.

I am greatly grieved for Valens, who was once a presbyter among you, because he so little understands the place that was given him [in the Church]…. to whom may the Lord grant true repentance! And be then moderate in regard to this matter, and “do not count such as enemies” (2 Thessalonians 3:15), but call them back as suffering and straying members, that you may save your whole body. For by so acting you shall edify yourselves (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Even priests can fall into heresy and sin. All Christians who fall into sin must be truly repentant to gain forgiveness and regain the state of grace. Catholics should call upon all who stray from the Body of Christ to return.

…and may He bestow on you a lot and portion among His saints….

Again, heaven is not assured with certainty.

Posted in Catholicism vs. Protestantism, Church Fathers, Religion and Theology, Written by Me | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A Catholic Reading of the Letter to the Romans

Posted by Tony Listi on October 12, 2010

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.

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:

  1. 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)
  2. Sin condemns everyone because everyone sins. (2:1-3, 21-23; 3:7, 9-12, 23; 5:12, 18)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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)
  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)
  7. 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)
  8. 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)
  9. 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)
  10. Every such sin requires repentance and reconciliation to renew one’s faith and justification before God. (2:4-5)
  11. 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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Posted in Biblical Exegesis, Catholicism vs. Protestantism, Religion and Theology, Written by Me | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »