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Archive for November, 2010

A Catholic Reading of 1 Corinthians

Posted by Tony Listi on November 21, 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 (often out of context) 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  First Letter to the Corinthians

Paul wrote this letter because he had heard disturbing reports about what was happening in the Church at Corinth and because the church had written a letter to him. These are the specific, chance circumstances that drove him to write this letter. He in no way intended this letter alone or together with his other letters and the writings of others to be the comprehensive and sole source of correct doctrine.

He addresses several specific issues:

  • divisions and factions within the Church at Corinth
  • the questions of the Corinthians regarding marriage, virginity, and food offered to idols
  • liturgical problems and disgraces regarding women’s headcoverings, the Eucharist, and various spiritual gifts like tongues
  • the theology of the Resurrection

Paul’s letter does the following things with regard to the Protestant-Catholic divide:

  • Contradicts the heresy of sola Scriptura and upholds the authority of oral apostolic preaching and tradition (1:5-7, 17, 19-21; 2:1, 4-5; 3:1-4; 5:1, 9-11; 7:1; 10:4; 11:2, 34; 15:3, 11; 16:5-7)
  • Affirms apostolic/Church authority over lay believers (1:1; 3:1-4; 4:14-15, 17-21; 5:2-5; 9:1-18; 11:16; 12:28-31; 16:1, 15-16)
  • Contradicts the fallibilism of Protestantism (2:4-5, 10-13)
  • Affirms the necessity of the institutional and doctrinal unity of the Church (1:1, 10-13; 4:17; 7:17; 10:17; 11:17-19; 12:12-14, 20, 24-25)
  • Contradicts sola fide (3:5-9, 12-15; 6:8-11; 7:19; 9:23-27; 10:5-14; 15:1-2, 58)
  • Contradicts certainty of knowledge of others’ or one’s own salvation (4:1-5; 9:23-27; 10:5-14; 15:1-2; 16:13)
  • Affirms the necessity of perseverance for salvation/to obtain heaven (1:8-9, 18; 9:23-27; 10:12-13; 15:2, 58; 16:13)
  • Affirms Catholics doctrines about the Eucharist (10:1-3, 16-21; 11:20-30)
  • Affirms the Catholic practice of excommunication by apostolic authority (5:2-5)
  • Affirms the Catholic belief that God uses human beings for salvific purposes (7:12-16)
  • Affirms the Catholic discipline of priestly celibacy (7:5, 25-40)
  • Affirms Catholic teaching on husband’s headship of the family (11:3; 14:33-37)
  • Affirms the absolute Catholic prohibition of divorce (7:10-11, 39)
  • Supports the primacy of Peter (9:5; 15:5)
  • Supports the authority of apostolic succession (3:10-11; 4:17-21)
  • Supports the doctrine of Purgatory and perhaps praying for the dead (3:12-15; 15:28-29)
  • Supports the Catholic belief that the saints in heaven are not mere spectators (6:1-3)
  • Supports the practice of infant baptism (1:16; 7:14)
  • Supports Catholic doctrine on the purpose of baptism (12:13)
  • Supports the Catholic practice of indulgences (5:2-5)

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 this letter 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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

1 Cor 7, Being Single, and Discerning One’s Vocation

Posted by Tony Listi on November 7, 2010

I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another…. Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife? Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches…. Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry — it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better. A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. (1 Cor 7:7, 16-17, 25-40)

Chapter 7 of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has a consoling and refocusing effect for those who take Paul’s words seriously and are single (not dating) in today’s perverse society, which seems to look down upon people who are single as inferior.

Many people often assume there is something wrong with themselves or others if they are not dating someone or haven’t dated in awhile. Sure, maybe they just haven’t found the right person. But who knows, maybe there is something “wrong.” It is just a fact that some are not as attractive as others to the opposite sex according to various criteria. But when the modern American asks, “What quality could possibly be superior to attractiveness to the opposite sex?” St. Paul answers, “Undivided devotion to the Lord” (7:35). We should not judge people based on how attractive we or others do or do not find them but rather on their devotion to the Lord.

But what about when one finds “undivided devotion to the Lord” itself to be attractive?

A nice saying that reflects this wise disposition and that I’ve seen on various Facebook profiles of young Christians (always women, I think) is something along the lines of “My beloved should be so deeply immersed in God that I have to draw closer to Him to find him/her” or rather “I want to be so immersed in God that he/she will have to draw closer to Him to find me.” But the Catholic/St. Paul commentary on this half-baked insight would be this: “Sometimes it’s best for the beloved to remain apart from you (and you from the beloved) so that one or both of you can remain so immersed or become more immersed in God and His holiness.”

There is no point in dating or marrying away from God; in fact, it’s positively harmful and sinful. I don’t think people realize how often that happens or how easily it can happen, even to the most devout men and women. This serious danger should inform the discernment of our vocations, of God’s will, of His gift and assignment to us. 

But supposing one is in fact called to marriage, one should make choices about dating and marriage primarily by how they will affect one’s spiritual life, for nothing else is more important. We should carefully and seriously discern how certain relationships with others will affect us and our relationship with God (and how it will affect the other person and their relationship with God), keeping in mind St. Paul’s warnings of the dangers inherent in erotic love and married life.

Yes, even St. Paul acknowledges that spouses can be God’s means and instruments for each other’s sanctification and salvation (7:16). But we should not think that marriage is necessarily the ideal context for such ministry. We certainly shouldn’t date or marry merely for the purpose of such ministry. Moreover, supposing the man and woman are spiritual equals, even at a very high level of holiness, we should not presume greater love and holiness will result from their combination in marriage rather than from them being single. The example of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi comes to mind.

With all this in mind, one might even say that celibacy should be the default assumption for the Christian rather than marriage. The burden of proof rests upon marriage, not celibacy. The only danger with such an assumption, as St. Paul recognizes, is that the temptation to lust is generally very strong, and so many might perish reaching for a standard that they are too weak to achieve. Still, all things are possible through the Lord who gives us strength and forgives us of all our sins each time we confess them and truly repent.

Judging by the current state of American culture, St. Paul’s words are not taken seriously enough, even in Christian circles that are supposedly fond of the Bible. There has never been a better time for us to reflect on his words and how they apply to our own lives.

Click HERE to learn more about the Historical and Scriptural evidence for celibacy, esp. for clergy.

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Origen: More 2nd/3rd Century Confirmation of Catholicism

Posted by Tony Listi on November 6, 2010

Origen (185-254) was a very early catechetical teacher. In his work De Principiis, he demonstrates that the truths of Catholicism have deep and early roots, whereas Protestantism does not. He upholds Church tradition and authority as the fundamental rule of faith for the teaching of correct doctrine and confirms the necessity of obedience for salvation.

All emphases are mine.

Before Origen proceeds to state the content of the Christian faith, he notes that their are differences of belief among people who call themselves Christians and thus sees it necessary to lay out an overarching rule for how to distinguish true from false doctrines:

Since many, however, of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, as, e.g., regarding God, or the Lord Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit; and not only regarding these, but also regarding others which are created existences, viz., the powers and the holy virtues; it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points…. [S]eeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and tradition.

Origen then, in Catholic creed-like fashion, says what the Christian faith holds to be true, careful to claim apostolic/Church authority for these doctrines:

Now it ought to be known that the holy apostles, in preaching the faith of Christ, delivered themselves with the utmost clearness on certain points which they believed to be necessary to every one…. The particular points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles are as follow…. Then, Thirdly, the apostles related that the Holy Spirit was associated in honour and dignity with the Father and the Son…. And that this Spirit inspired each one of the saints, whether prophets or apostles; and that there was not one Spirit in the men of the old dispensation, and another in those who were inspired at the advent of Christ, is most clearly taught throughout the Churches…. After these points, also, the apostolic teaching is that the soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall, after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts…. This also is clearly defined in the teaching of the Church, that every rational soul is possessed of free-will and volition…. [T]his beginning, itself, whether it be by birth or not, or whether bestowed upon the body from without or no, is not distinguished with sufficient clearness in the teaching of the Church…. Regarding the devil and his angels, and the opposing influences, the teaching of the Church has laid down that these beings exist indeed…. This also is a part of the Church’s teaching, that the world was made and took its beginning at a certain time, and is to be destroyed on account of its wickedness. But what existed before this world, or what will exist after it, has not become certainly known to the many, for there is no clear statement regarding it in the teaching of the Church…. Respecting which there is one opinion throughout the whole Church, that the whole law is indeed spiritual…. This also is a part of the teaching of the Church, that there are certain angels of God, and certain good influences, which are His servants in accomplishing the salvation of men…. Every one, therefore, must make use of elements and foundations of this sort…if he would desire to form a connected series and body of truths agreeably to the reason of all these things, that by clear and necessary statements he may ascertain the truth regarding each individual topic, and form, as we have said, one body of doctrine, by means of illustrations and arguments….

Notice at the end how Origen assumes the necessity of unity of true doctrine.

In talking of the end of the world, Origen also assumes the unity and authority of Church:

…if his mind be full of preconceptions and prejudices on other points, he may judge these to be heretical and opposed to the faith of the Church, yielding in so doing not so much to the convictions of reason as to the dogmatism of prejudice…. And in keeping with this is the declaration of the same apostle, when he exhorts us, who even in the present life are placed in the Church, in which is the form of that kingdom which is to come, to this same similitude of unity: “That you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

He again upholds the authority of the Church when discussing corporeal and incorporeal beings:

We have now to ascertain what those matters are which it is proper to treat in the following pages according to our dogmatic belief, i.e., in agreement with the creed of the Church.

He again upholds the authority of the Church when discussing judgment and hell:

But since the discourse has reminded us of the subjects of a future judgment and of retribution, and of the punishments of sinners, according to the threatenings of holy Scripture and the contents of the Church’s teaching…. But now, also, for the sake of logical order in our treatise, there will be no absurdity in restating a few points from such works, especially since some take offense at the creed of the Church, as if our belief in the resurrection were foolish, and altogether devoid of sense; and these are principally heretics, who, I think, are to be answered in the following manner.

He again upholds the authority of the Church when discussing free will:

But as the preaching of the Church includes a belief in a future and just judgment of God, which belief incites and persuades men to a good and virtuous life, and to an avoidance of sin by all possible means; and as by this it is undoubtedly indicated that it is within our own power to devote ourselves either to a life that is worthy of praise, or to one that is worthy of censure…. Since in the preaching of the Church there is included the doctrine respecting a just judgment of God, which, when believed to be true, incites those who hear it to live virtuously, and to shun sin by all means, inasmuch as they manifestly acknowledge that things worthy of praise and blame are within our own power, come and let us discuss by themselves a few points regarding the freedom of the will

Origen also says that God demands fruit and labor from us, though He alone gives salvation:

So also in the race of our life we ourselves must expend labour, and bring diligence and zeal to bear; but it is from God that salvation is to be hoped for as the fruit of our labour. Otherwise, if God demand none of our labour, His commandments will appear to be superfluous. In vain, also, does Paul blame some for having fallen from the truth, and praise others for abiding in the faith; and to no purpose does he deliver certain precepts and institutions to the Churches: in vain, also, do we ourselves either desire or run after what is good. But it is certain that these things are not done in vain; and it is certain that neither do the apostles give instructions in vain, nor the Lord enact laws without a reason. It follows, therefore, that we declare it to be in vain, rather, for the heretics to speak evil of these good declarations.

He again upholds the authority of the Church and its complementarity with Scripture when discussing the human body:

For the faith of the Church does not admit the view of certain Grecian philosophers, that there is besides the body, composed of four elements, another fifth body, which is different in all its parts, and diverse from this our present body; since neither out of sacred Scripture can any produce the slightest suspicion of evidence for such an opinion, nor can any rational inference from things allow the reception of it, especially when the holy apostle manifestly declares, that it is not new bodies which are given to those who rise from the dead, but that they receive those identical ones which they had possessed when living, transformed from an inferior into a better condition.

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