Ben Taylor

The root of faith is action

Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined. (Matthew 7:24-28)

In a sermon on this passage that I heard last year, the pastor quoted a Biblical scholar who explained that, in ancient semitic house construction, it was necessary to dig down into the soil and lay a deeper foundation, or else the erosion of the sandy soil would make your house unstable. So the contrast here is not so much about where you build (although he did not exclude that as a possible element) as it is about whether you build deep or shallow.  Whoever hears but doesn’t do is he who doesn’t lay a deep foundation. Building on sand is not laying a foundation. Doing is the foundation on rock.

So it’s not about two alternative things (building here or building over there) but about the presence or absence of one thing: the work of digging down to the rock before you start laying brick.

Many preachers of this passage make it out to be a question of whether you are building your life on Jesus (valuing him, obeying him, investing time and energy in him), or on superficial things. Ironically, this was the conclusion point of the pastor who delivered that sermon–he did not realize the implications of his own source!

In fact Jesus is not drawing a line between people who make him the basis of their life and those who make something else their basis, but between people who have Jesus as the superficial or supposed basis of their life (supposed, because they do not obey) and those who have Jesus as the real basis of their life because they obey. It is not about choosing and valuing God above all else, but about being sincere in your choice of God by acting on it. That is the climax of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a poignant image of the harmony between faith and works that challenges you and me to act on what we hear. May God give us grace and rouse our wills to such courage.

The bodiliness of Christ’s body

(This is a harmonization on my previous post on the Real Presence.)

When we eat the Communion meal, what does Christ offer to us? Is it his spirit, or his body? It is his body that he offers us.

But how shall we say he is present with us in this offering? On this Christians differ. Some say that he is bodily present, and others that he is only spiritually present.

But it is nonsense to say that his presence is merely spiritual, for a body is not present when it is present only in spirit. The nature of the spirit is incorporeal, and the nature of the body is corporeal. Therefore, The Spirit of Christ is present in us through that which is incorporeal, but the Body of Christ is present in us through that which is corporeal. A spirit can no more be present as body than multiplication can be covered with mud, and a body can no more be present as spirit than I can throw a baseball and hit bilingualism. We do not say, “Here is the Spirit of Christ in my hand,” nor “Here is the Body of Christ in my mind,” for his body cannot exist in our mind, but only the idea of his body. For “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

When Christ offers us his body, then, we must realize what it is we hold: no mere thought of him, but Himself, Immanuel Incarnate, with us in body.

Some thoughts on purpose and evangelicalism

Most evangelical churches communicate their purpose in terms of a cycle: usually a salvation component, a discipleship component, and an envangelization component, like grow, serve, reach… win, equip, share… glorify God by making fully devoted disciples… etc. Other churches communicate it through their ethos in oft-repeated statements like, “We are blessed so that we can bless.”

There is one sort of organism which seems to possess this kind of cyclical process: a virus. They seem to exist only in order to spread. Biologists question whether to regard viruses as fully living organisms or not.

I do not deny that the purpose of God for man always includes a desire that he would go out, that he would bless others by his blessing. There is indeed something utterly outpouring, something outwardly oriented and abundant, in the nature of God’s love within the trinity. The most natural thing, the inevitable thing, when filled with this love is to move outward, to want to tell it and give it and dance in the streets with it.

But I wish this kind of love were articulated more often in terms of sonship and family, of abundant life rather than replicating machine. What I mean is: as a father I certainly and deeply want my daughter to bless others, and I want her to become the bearer of the truth and love that I am bestowing on her, in a world that will be hers after I am gone. I want her life shine for the glory of God. But I hesitate to frame this great desire as “her purpose” or the reason that I brought her into being. There is something much deeper, more ontological about her purpose–I want her to be simply because I love her and want her to be, because being is good (after all, God is pure being). She is a living being who, to the extent that she comes alive, will radiate life; but her purpose is not to spread life, so much as to be alive. She is an end in herself, because she is, in her very being, the expression of my joy and love. And that is the way I think that it is our purpose to evangelize: to use (hopefully correctly) Thomist language: it is an accidental, rather than substantial purpose, and thus not the most fundamentally descriptive of what our purpose is.

Keeping this distinction makes all the difference, because it is the difference between our approaching the modus operandi of our Christian life as fundamentally doers for God, or receivers of God. The Incarnation of Christ compels us to rejoice that we are indeed the means of God on the earth, but that is only because we are first and forever his ends.

The Church must have authority

The One True Church is anointed by God and speaks with authority. It is the solemn duty of The Church to overrule false teachers and scholars who twist the scriptures, and to preserve the deposit of faith entrusted to her once for all. However, false teachers cannot be overruled except by a higher authority. This authority cannot be man’s opinion or scholarship, which is of merely equal authority to that of the liars. There is no final authority in mere scholarship, for books cannot speak for themselves, and the minds of scholars are the minds of men. Mere men, I say, unless they are anointed by the Spirit of Christ. For the Church asserts, and must assert, an ultimate authority to interpret the Scripture and Tradition given to her by God. The Church must be able to answer a false teacher wearing the robes of her apostolic anointing, to pronounce a judgment that bears weight, so that the faithful will not be led astray.

Who is this Church? Protestants say it is all the true Christians in all the denominations of the world. But the voice of the ethereal “global church” is silent; the voice of “all baptized Christians” cannot speak, for they have no body. There is no courtroom in Protestantism, for no man submits to the judgment of another. There is no judge who can do more than ridicule the Joel Osteens and the Rob Bells, so they shout at one another like an unruly parliament, each with his piece of the truth.

The voice of the Church comes from a body incarnate, for it is the voice of the Incarnate Christ. She speaks as one with authority, saying, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” She asserts the exclusive authority to proclaim doctrine, not because her exegesis is based on good reasons, but because the Spirit of the Lord is upon her. She speaks “not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that her faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”

Where is the Church who speaks with such a voice? Where is she who proclaims with the prophetic zeal, “I will not share my glory”? She stands in tattered robes of bloody history, but it is a history that leads all the way back to the Cross, and the Fire of Jesus is still in her eyes.


The perpetual virginity of Mary

Growing up as a Baptist, I always assumed that Mary the mother of Jesus ceased to be a virgin after she gave birth to Jesus. This was because there were several references in the Bible to “Jesus’ brothers,” most notably James, the early church leader and author of the book of James. There’s also that passage where it says that Joseph “knew her not until she gave birth to a son,” which I always assumed to imply that, afterwards, he did “know” her. But to be honest, all of this was just assumption because, to my recollection, the idea that Mary could have or should have been perpetually a virgin never entered my mind as a distinct thought, nor was it ever brought up as a topic for direct discussion. Nevertheless, I always found it somehow weird to think about Jesus having half-brothers. Imagine my surprise to discover that the early church commonly held the view that Mary remained a virgin, and even refuted suggestions to the contrary (Jerome v. Helvidius, for example). Indeed, even the Protestant Reformers, including Calvin and Luther, believed that Mary remained a virgin!

Thanks to Matt Fradd at Pints with Aquinas for bringing this topic up, and presenting most of the points I summarize in this post. He shares in particular St. Thomas Aquinas’ statement on the matter, which, he points out, is quite strong given Aquinas’ precise and non-emotional style.

Without any hesitation we must abhor the error of Helvidius, who dared to assert that Christ’s Mother, after His Birth, was carnally known by Joseph, and bore other children. For, in the first place, this is derogatory to Christ’s perfection: for as He is in His Godhead the Only-Begotten of the Father, being thus His Son in every respect perfect, so it was becoming that He should be the Only-begotten son of His Mother, as being her perfect offspring.

Secondly, this error is an insult to the Holy Ghost, whose “shrine” was the virginal womb [“Sacrarium Spiritus Sancti” (Office of B. M. V., Ant. ad Benedictus, T. P.), wherein He had formed the flesh of Christ: wherefore it was unbecoming that it should be desecrated by intercourse with man.

Thirdly, this is derogatory to the dignity and holiness of God’s Mother: for thus she would seem to be most ungrateful, were she not content with such a Son; and were she, of her own accord, by carnal intercourse to forfeit that virginity which had been miraculously preserved in her.

Fourthly, it would be tantamount to an imputation of extreme presumption in Joseph, to assume that he attempted to violate her whom by the angel’s revelation he knew to have conceived by the Holy Ghost.

We must therefore simply assert that the Mother of God, as she was a virgin in conceiving Him and a virgin in giving Him birth, did she remain a virgin ever afterwards.

ST III Q. 28, A. 3.

Very well, then, it seems that the historical church opinion on the matter is clear, and it simply never made it into the partitioned historical context of my Evangelical world. But what of the references to Jesus’ brothers?

It is important to point out first that the term “brother” was used at that time in a more general sense, and could easily have included cousins or other relations, a fact that makes sense to me after witnessing the strong extended-family bonds of Arab culture while living in Saudi Arabia.

A commonly held view is that those brothers were not Jesus’s half-brothers, but his step-brothers, the sons of Joseph and his late wife (it is known even in evangelical scholarship that Joseph was probably much older than Mary). This is born out by the observation that, at the Cross, Jesus bequeaths care of Mary to John, something that would have been both unnecessary and inappropriate if Mary had other sons. Another connection from Arab culture: the protective duty of sons for their mother is so strong that it was not uncommon for me to hear about a youngest son being discouraged or delayed from leaving home so that the mother will not be without a caretaker and comforter. (I don’t know why the husband is insufficient, but nevertheless it underscores the cultural sentiment.)

An apocryphal but nevertheless important book from the early 2nd century, the Protoevangelium of James, narrates in detail that Mary was a consecrated virgin at the temple, and Joseph was an old widower who agreed to marry her in order to be her guardian, to house her during her monthly uncleanness. Even without digging into the validity of the book in the early church, (which I have not), it presents an interesting, scholastically viable, and Biblically compatible alternative.

As for the assumption that, because Mary was a virgin until she gave birth to Jesus, she must not have remained so afterwards, even Calvin decries the assumption as unsubstantiated, and indeed, it does not bear out from the use of the word “until” in the Greek.

So it is not obvious from the Bible that Jesus had uterine brothers, nor that Joseph knew her; and the church has long resisted and abhorred the idea. Why then would we try to argue the contrary?

The word of God and the Bible

In my post from last year, I claimed that the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, which forms the epistemological basis for all of Protestant thought, does not have a scriptural basis. I concluded that it is contradictory to its own standard, and therefore must be false. The claim that the Bible does not support sola scriptura will seem a foreign, if not hostile, thought to many who like me were raised in Evangelical Christianity, and so I would like to elaborate and substantiate my claim here.

If we look for the doctrine of sola scriptura in the Bible, it is quickly apparent that nothing close to an explicit declaration of such an idea exists anywhere within it. Rather most attempts to establish biblical precedent for the doctrine do so by equating it with the word of God; indeed, in my own Protestant mind the Bible and the word of God were pure synonyms. This works to justify sola scriptura because the Bible establishes the word of God in various places and in various ways as the authoritative impetus that brought the Church into being, which also continually defines and sustains it; thus, a strong case can be made that it is appropriate to attribute to the word of God alone the position of prime authority in matters of doctrine. Therefore, if the word of God could be understood to refer specifically and exclusively to the Bible, then sola scriptura could be established. However, despite the widespread assumption among Protestants that the scriptural references to “the word of God” refer precisely to the Bible, it is impossible to draw the equivalency.

1) The Bible never calls any book of the New Testament “the word of God.”

It is true that there are many places in the Old Testament where the phrase “the word of God” refers to the Old Testament scriptures, and two places in the New Testament as well: Jesus refers to the Ten Commandments as “the word of God” in Matthew 15:6 (with its parallel in Mark) and uses the phrase again in John 10:35 in reference to a Psalm. However, it is not enough to establish the Old Testament as the word of God: the Christian claims the New Testament as well, and it cannot be argued that the New Testament asserts itself to be the word of God simply because it accepts the Old Testament as the word of God. So, does the Bible establish the books of the New Testament as the word of God? According to my research of the Bible, there is no place therein where the phrase “the word of God” is used to refer to any written document that would later become canonized in the New Testament.

2) The Bible never even implies that most of the New Testament, including the Gospels, are “the word of God.”

Despite the fact above, we can call the New Testament scriptures “the word of God” if we can only establish them as scripture, because 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all scripture is breathed out by God. Very well, but in only one case does the New Testament confer scriptural status to any part of itself (2 Peter 3:16), and then only the writings of Paul are affirmed, leaving the Four Gospels (the core of the Bible!), Acts, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, and Revelation without any Biblical affirmation of their status as scripture, and therefore, without even being able to be inferred as the “word of God.” It cannot be argued that, simply because Peter acknowledged Paul’s writings as scripture, he must have also meant those of James, Jude, and the rest.

3) New Testament references to the “word of God” are almost always to things apart from its own contents.

Instead, what we find throughout the New Testament is that the phrase “the word of God” almost exclusively refers to the Gospel, without any indication of its medium, and that where clues are given as to whether the phrase refers to something spoken or written, they point exclusively to something spoken. The phrase is used to refer to the prophecies of John the Baptist, to the oral teachings of Christ (at Gennesaret, for example), to the message of the apostles at Pentecost, to the message carried by Paul’s evangelistic journeys and delivered to Timothy, etc. In all of these passages, the words that constituted “the word” are not recorded. (For example, we don’t know exactly what words Timothy learned as a child.) It is important to realize that when the authors of the New Testament writings refer to “the word of God” in these passages, they are not referring to their own writings, nor the writings of any contemporary New Testament authors, nor explicitly including in their writings the word of God to which they refer. Rather, they are referring to something outside the texts, something that they expected their audience to know.

Thus, even having accepted that the word of God is the supreme authority in the life of the church, we see that the Bible does not include all of itself in the phrase, and includes other things apart from itself. Therefore, we cannot draw the equivalence from the supreme authority of the word of God to the supreme authority of the Bible. The only legitimate hermeneutical path to biblically justify the concept of sola scriptura fails. It is ironic that the Protestant, in embracing sola scriptura, must doubt whether the Bible is the word of God, while the Catholic, embracing the Bible as the word of God on the testimony of the Magisterium and Tradition of the Church, can justify the belief, and rightly say when the Scriptures are read, “The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.”