Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Catholic and Reformed views of God and Scripture: a correspondence

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6 minutes to read A response to an email from a Roman Catholic correspondent, critiquing his presentation of the doctrine of Scripture and the purposes of God.

I recently received an email from a Roman Catholic with whom I have occasional correspondence. In it, he lays out some of the elements of his understanding of the doctrine of Scripture, and of God’s purposes in creation. I’ve quoted him fairly extensively to ensure his position is properly presented; my responses are then made below.

I believe that God is the primary author of Scripture who used human authors as his instruments. They wrote freely everything that God wanted written.

I agree that God is the primary author of Scripture; but I don’t think your statement makes sense. You hold to libertarian freedom, which entails that for any given choice we have the real possibility of doing otherwise. Thus, in order to freely write what someone else wants you to write, you would have to first evaluate it. You would need to be able to review God’s thoughts and then write them down of your own free will. Otherwise, if you were writing your own thoughts, and you were genuinely free, there could be no guarantee that you would write what God wanted. Or, if you were writing God’s thoughts but you believed you were writing your own, you would not be writing genuinely freely. Am I to take it, then, that you hold to a dictation theory of inspiration?

I don’t have a problem with the rest of your statements on inerrancy; traditionally, Rome has held a basically identical doctrine of Scripture to that affirmed in the Reformed confessions.

I believe that God wants to make himself known to, and to enter into a relationship with, everyone in order to save us.

In a sense this is true; but is it an unqualified statement? Because the devil, as they say, is in the details. I agree that God wants to make himself known to, and enter into a saving relationship with everyone. This is a straightforward intention contingent upon the existence of sinners. Some Calvinists would disagree, and I think they can consistently do that, but there are (in my opinion) very strong arguments in favor of God’s universal benevolence. But, having affirmed universal benevolence, it must equally be said that whatever God desires toward that end, he nonetheless does not cause. Even you, despite your very high view of human sovereignty impinging God’s sovereignty, must acknowledge this. God creates many people in situations where they not only will not receive the gospel, but cannot receive it. Throughout history, a vast number of people have been lost because they were born in places where the gospel had not yet reached. Or, under the old covenant, a vast number of people were lost because, quite simply, God chose Israel as his people, and excluded the other nations. This is very incongruent with your unqualified statement about God’s desires toward all people; but is not only highly congruent, but in fact prefigures the Calvinistic view of God’s relationship with the elect and the reprobate. There is nothing mysterious or contradictory about God’s intentions in this regard. Consider:

  1. God purposes to glorify himself through (a) the redemption of an elect people (glorifying his love and mercy), and (b) the reprobation of sinners (glorifying his justice and wrath).
  2. God brings about the created order through which he will achieve this purpose, thus creating sinners made in his image, using the fall as the mechanism for this.
  3. Through (2), the conditions are established in which God, because he is love, has a straightforward moral intention of benevolence towards all sinners without exception—even those whom he has purposed in (1b) to be lost.

Notice that (3) is contingent upon (2) which is contingent upon (1). In other words, God’s universal benevolence toward all sinners is actually predicated upon his prior intention to reprobate some sinners to hell. In the Catholic scheme, you have a totally different state of affairs which is at best sublapsarian, and leads to a number of inconsistencies between God’s actions and his intentions. It would look something like this, though you’re most welcome to adjust it to better fit Catholic theology; I don’t mean to misrepresent your position:

  1. God purposes to create mankind to live in a perfect relationship with him.
  2. Mankind falls, contra (4).
  3. God desires and purposes to reconcile all of mankind to himself.
  4. But he then continues to create people he knows will not be reconciled to himself, contra (6).
  5. And in addition, even those who can be reconciled to himself will not necessarily be, contra (6).

This view of God, frankly, is insulting to a being who is unqualifiedly wise and powerful. Better put, this is a view of God in which he is not unqualifiedly wise and powerful. Rather than declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” the exact opposite is true. Isaiah 46:10 describes the Calvinist superlapsarian view of God perfectly; and it contradicts the Catholic view just as aptly. Now, you may say I have misrepresented the Catholic view; and again, you’re welcome to correct it as you see fit. But I cannot see that it would take less than turning it on its head to fit it into the biblical teaching about God’s actions in creation.

I believe that the Bible must be read according to its literal sense, as we read other forms of human literature, in the context of all of the original writing.

Good, then you agree with the grammatico-historical method of exegesis. We therefore have a basis for interpreting Scripture together without having to defer to the alleged authority of the Roman Magisterium.

But because the principal author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, we must also read Scripture in the spiritual sense: what the Holy Spirit is telling us, beyond what the human authors have consciously stated. Often they did not know exactly what their own writings meant, as in the prophecies, or were unaware of deeper underlying meanings. The literal sense describes a historical reality and the spiritual discloses deeper mysteries revealed through the historical realities. I believe that we can distinguish between the literal and spiritual senses but that we cannot separate them. I accept the ancient Christian tradition that there are three spiritual senses that stand on the literal foundation: allegorical (unveils the spiritual and prophetic meaning of Biblical history); moral (how the life of Jesus prompts us to form virtuous habits); anagogical (shows how events in the Bible prefigure our final union with God). Together, all these senses draw out the fullness of what God wants to give us through his Word. This spiritual reading of Scripture goes back to the Bible itself: Paul, Peter and Jesus used this method of reading Scripture. Examples available if required.

I agree, though with reservations. Determining the literal meaning of a passage is generally relatively trivial, using grammatico-historical exegesis. Determining the sensus plenior is not always as easy, and is more open to disagreement. Jesus and the apostles were divinely inspired to know the sensus plenior of a given passage definitively; we are not. There are cases where the fuller meaning is clear (Psalm 22, for instance); but there are also places where it is not so clear, or where it is open to multiple interpretations, or where it is hard to see at all.

Having given this brief outline, I think that the key to understanding the Bible systematically is to remember that we divide it into the Old and the New Testaments, or Covenants. This must therefore be a vital theme that runs right through the Bible and our understanding of it and what God is saying to us through it; that is, our interpretation of the Bible must always bear this fact in mind. The Bible is the history of salvation […]

Again, I agree; however one’s covenant theology will strongly influence one’s exegesis. You need to be sure your view of the covenants is accurate if you are going to interpret Scripture within a covenantal framework. Catholic covenant theology errs in a number of ways—

[…] of God’s attempts to reconcile us with himself and to make us part of his Family of the Trinity, as we were before the Fall.

—and that’s one of them. God does not “attempt” to reconcile us to himself. God will accomplish all his purposes. If he purposes to reconcile someone to himself, then that person will be reconciled. Thus:

  1. Everyone God purposes to reconcile to himself will be so reconciled.
  2. Not everyone is reconciled to God.
  3. Therefore, God does not purpose to reconcile everyone to himself.

The offer of membership in this Kingdom is extended to all, even if not all accept it.

Agreed; but the offer of membership is extended on the basis of God’s contingent universal benevolence. It doesn’t imply that God has purposed to save all, or that he non-contingently desires to save all.

The Kingdom is to be found, on earth, in the Church that Jesus built on Peter and the Apostles: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church which you profess in the Creed.

Agreed. And that is not the Roman Catholic Church.

 1 comment


Hey Bnonn, this looks like a good thread to bring up Matthew 23:37:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

I take it that Christ honestly expressed His will on this matter. So why wasn’t it accomplsihed? A high degree of God given human freedom seems the most likely answer.