Friday, January 28, 2011

Seven Miles to Emmaus

I just finished my second week of spring classes here at Notre Dame. Before classes started I went on a five day silent retreat—something I had never done before. While there, one of the things I meditated on was a Scripture passage that’s already proven quite meaningful to me: the Emmaus road passage in Luke 24.

It’s an amazing passage. Two disciples encounter Jesus just while walking down the road, and they don’t even recognize Him. One has to wonder how amazing it would have been to hear, for the first time, the true meaning of the Scriptures opened up before you. It was a seven-mile journey, and I’d love to know what material Jesus covered in the limited time they had. We possess pieces of that same teaching in the New Testament, though. Whether Jesus covered it then or not, the epistle to the Romans, to the Hebrews, the whole New Testament agrees with what Jesus laid out then. There is, after all, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

They come to their exit (Exit 7: Emmaus) and Jesus (aka the stranger) is going further on. Why do they invite Him in? Why do they insist? And what would they have lost if they hadn’t?

It may seem kind of simple, but I wrestled with this (in silence) for quite a while. Later on in the passage, they let on that their hearts “burned within them” while He was with them opening up the Scriptures. Many of us know what that feels like, to feel something of God’s presence in our heart as we encounter Him in Scripture. It’s hard to describe—like I suddenly discover an intense thirst only when I drink water, and the thirst lingers with me afterwards. But to them, this guy is theoretically still just a good preacher, right? They got their quality sermon that they can chew on over the next week, why do they need anything else?

I can’t really articulate what it is that I think compelled them at that crossroads beyond repeating what they said—that their hearts were burning, were on fire.

And from a Catholic perspective, that hunger, that longing, was so necessary. They had truly encountered Jesus—not a fake Jesus, but they didn’t know it. At altar calls we quote the Gospel of John and imagine Jesus knocking on our door, but here it seems we have to insist on inviting Jesus in without even knowing who He is! They didn’t recognize Jesus in their own midst. Despite the fact that they could no longer see His face, Jesus was only truly recognized in the breaking of bread. (after Jesus took it, blessed it, and broke it. Gold star for anyone who can guess when the last time Luke tells us Jesus had done that and what he said then)

And what would they have missed? What would I miss if I knew the Scriptures, even if I understood them correctly, but didn’t recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread?

On the one hand, I just don’t know. Maybe they could have gone on and spread the truths they had learned (the gospel?) and done great things for God. Maybe. That’s the never-be-hasty cerebral part of me that says that. The burning heart part of me says that they missed everything. They were so close to Jesus and felt touched in their heart by Him, but just let Him go away?? What is the gospel if not the very presence of Jesus in our lives? What good is it to know about Jesus, but never have him enter our home, our heart, or our body?

I don’t need to know the answer to the questions to know what I want.

The mystery of this passage for me lies in the fact that they made their decision before knowing in their head what exactly it was that they were doing. I would dare to say that Jesus probably hadn’t used the Aramaic equivalent of “transubstantiation” at all at that point. But their hearts recognized Jesus in the breaking of bread even when their eyes did not. It was a mystery. At that point they had no terminology to describe what had happened. Instead, they had a story, and that’s what the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to hand on to us.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but I feel like I’ve been on the road to Emmaus for a long time. The footsteps of my journey towards the Catholic Church are littered with books and google searches, but in true evangelical fashion (meant in the best way possible), my journey is also marked by something internal difficult to describe. As ordinary and predictably sinful as I am, I want to be with Jesus, and I still feel a burning in my heart that calls me to invite Him into my life in a deeper way, and to recognize Him in the breaking of bread. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Scripture Alone

In my fourth grade Sunday School class we were given the same memory verse all year instead of a new one every week. I think it was a smart move. Our teacher knew that most of our weekly memory verses led transient lives in our short-term memories, which is good enough for forcing us to at least think about short passages of Scripture, but for this passage, he wanted us to always always remember the verse in question, and I still do.

It was 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and I memorized it in the New King James Version: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” I was informed then, and have been many times since then that the word for inspired in this verse literally means “God breathed”.

I didn’t consciously think about the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, until, for other reasons I had begun to explore Catholicism. I quickly began to understand that the Catholic Church affirms Scripture’s inspiration, but does not believe Scripture to be the sole source for faith, morals, and fashion. I had never really clung (nor been taught to cling) to the doctrine of Scripture alone like some Protestants are, but I had breathed it in from a young age. It was an unexamined assumption.

An enormous amount is at stake, though. The issue of Scripture alone can account for a significant amount of the distance between Catholics and evangelicals.

At one point I was listening to Scott Hahn’s conversion story (kind of an unofficial requirement for Protestants becoming Catholic I think) and was particularly struck by his relation of being challenged to support the doctrine of Scripture alone from Scripture alone. In the end, he acknowledged that it simply couldn’t be done. I should note that some Protestants do think it can be done. I think you can make a decent attempt, but in the end I just don’t think it’s in there.

As you would expect, the first verse to pop into my head was 2 Timothy 3:16-17. I quickly noted that it doesn’t work. This verse does not explicitly say that all Christians should rely on Scripture alone. As it turns out, though, this is the go to verse for trying to support sola scriptura. In my limited understanding, such a doctrine could be derived from this verse in the following ways:

1)   We should follow God. The Bible claims to be God breathed and thus constitutes a reliable method of following God. We have no other reliable means of access to God given authority or truth.
2)   The phrase, “that the man of God may be complete” implies that nothing else is needed in order to please God. Everything essential for that outcome lies in Scripture.

Response to #1

This argument strikes me as fairly honest in that it doesn’t attempt to claim that the verse is claiming something it’s not. The issue, again, is whether other or not other authoritative sources of truth exist. The heart of this argument actually lies outside of this verse, then. The “alone” part of Scripture alone would thus be inferred simply because nothing else is described in Scripture as having an authority equal to Scripture. It never explicitly says that anyone or anything else is inspired so we rely on nothing else. Is there any other authority in matters of faith and morals pointed to in Scripture, though?

Yes, Scripture also points to the Church’s authority. The Church is described as the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Tim. 3:15) Through the Church, we are brought to faith and have the faith presented to us. Our experience with Christians may not lead us to believe that the Church serves as much of a pillar, but if we really believe in the inspiration of Scripture we have to seek out the meaning of this passage without simply dismissing it as not reflective of our own reality. I think this will also lead us to ask the big question: What is the Church? That’s another blog post, though.

Scripture itself records the precedent for the authority of Church councils with the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 when they sent out word that “it is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…”. How do they know what the Holy Spirit says? Scripture very clearly says you can’t eat pork, but the council says you can. Why such a confusing precedent if we were meant to go by Scripture alone for our faith? And why didn’t Jesus make sure we had an intact and whole Bible before He ascended into heaven? In the book of Acts we see God working in the first church council to allow them to provide an authoritative interpretation of Scripture. They never claimed the Torah was wrong, but instead of declaring to the world that a plain reading of the Scriptures was sufficient to see the truth of Christianity, the Church meeting in a sort of institutional way, pointed the world to the Scriptures whose meaning had been fulfilled in Jesus.

Authority to bind and loose and forgive and retain sins was given first to Peter and also to the 12 disciples. (Matt. 16:19, John 20:23) Does this have anything to do with the authority of the Church? At the least, we do see a divine transmission of authority to individual people recorded in Scripture.

Response to #2

I understand that this isn’t a very academic response, but I simply don’t find this reading convincing at all. If the word “alone” existed in the verse at any point, this might make sense, but it isn’t.

Linguistically, I think “so that” does not necessarily imply that the first portion of the clause alone contributes to the second.  For example take, “I bought some new notebooks so that I could have everything I need for school.” I’ll grant that this could mean that I only need notebooks for school, but given no outside information, it could also mean that while I needed other supplies in order to be equipped for school (pens and overpriced textbooks for example), I already had them and thus needed notebooks to complete my preparation.

And if we were to go with option #2 that sure is shaky ground to justify separating from centuries and centuries of Christian practice.

Other Considerations

Additionally, there’s the question of canon and the original context of the verse. The author of 2 Timothy was most likely referring to the Septuagint, what most early Christians regarded as Scripture. He’s probably thus including deuterocanonical books that Protestants don’t even consider Scripture at all. The New Testament had not been entirely written at the time, and the exact extent of the New Testament canon took even longer to discover. Scripture speaks of its own authority, but not of its own extent.

I can understand arguing that the (human) author intended to say that all Scripture (Septuagint) is inspired, but that through him, the Holy Spirit as the primary author meant to tell us that the full canon is inspired. But on what authority can I believe this? And how can I know what the full canon is if I reject Church councils as authoritative? (because they’re an authority other than Scripture)

I could go on for a long time relaying all the internal (in my head) and external discussion that can arise from this verse and justification for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. In the end, I have this to say. Once I examined it, I stopped assuming scripture alone was authoritative pretty quickly.

I just wanted to share this to show one more piece of what led me to where I am. I understand that others very sincerely see Scriptural support for Scripture alone in other portions of the Bible. The truth is that I simply found them even less convincing than 2 Timothy and thus didn’t address them here.

Most of the thoughts expressed here aren’t original at all. Catholics and Protestants have been in conversation for a long time. For a start to further reading I would suggest reading this blog article as well: Scripture Alone