Is it really that obvious? A case for Tradition

That without which Christianity could never do…or could it??

If I asked you this question, “What’s the most basic Christian doctrine?” What would your answer be? Take a moment to think about it.

You might say, for example, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, or, the virgin birth. Undoubtedly, these two are distinctive beliefs that Christians hold. But I’m confident that most of you would say almost instinctively: “Well, the Trinity, of course!” Seems pretty obvious, right? After all, what could be more foundational? what else could so decisively set Christianity apart from all other world religions? “Without the Trinity, you lose Christianity!” Some may even claim.

As a Catholic, I can wholeheartedly agree that the Trinity is the sine qua non belief of Christianity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this in rather forceful language: The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith.” (CCC 234, emphasis added)

My goal in this post is to reflect on the following question: “On what basis, or principle, is the Trinity considered a foundational doctrine of Christianity?”

The Reformed and Catholic answers

For Reformed Protestants the answer lies in one of the corollaries of Sola Scriptura, namely perspicuity.

The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned , in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. “(WCF 1.7) Since the Bible clearly and plainly proposes the Trinity, therefore it is essential to believe it for salvation. Hence its status as a foundational Christian doctrine.

For Catholics the answer lies in Tradition, which includes Scripture, and the authoritative doctrinal judgments of the Church’s Magisterium. As Catholics we firmly believe that Scripture is the word of God and that everything in it has been written for the sake of our salvation. However, we deny that Scripture alone is sufficient for proposing a belief both as binding on the conscience of Christians and as an article of faith in the absence of a divinely appointed interpretive authority.

But isn’t this what Christians have always believed?!

To which I give my most resounding “Absolutely!” We Catholics believe that the witness of Sacred Tradition is authoritative and normative for theology. We don’t derive the certainty of everything revealed from Scripture alone. If there were a Catholic who denied the Trinity, we could present him with the testimony of the Fathers and the authoritative pronouncements of Popes and Councils and correct his erroneous view.

But what about Protestants? What would they do in case someone in their community arrived at the conclusion that the Trinity is an unbiblical doctrine, indeed, a tradition of men ?

Appealing to church tradition won’t work. As Trent Horn put it in his book “The Case for Catholicism“, no Protestant “believes that tradition has any ability to overrule an individual Christian who believes his interpretation of Scripture is correct, no matter what long-standing doctrine of the faith it may reject.” (emphasis added)

A conundrum

Case in point, what would they say to someone like Patrick Navas?

Several years ago Navas published a lengthy tome called “Divine Truth or Human Tradition?: A Reconsideration of the Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

He writes in the introduction of his book: “Although the doctrine has long been regarded as an established hallmark of orthodox Christian belief , I was always aware of ( and yet seriously perplexed by ) what most Trinitarian scholars themselves normally recognize ; namely , that the actual doctrine itself — as defined by the historic ecumenical creeds — is not one that is directly or formally taught to us by Jesus or by Scripture . But how could a doctrine as important as this — the very nature and identity of God — not have been directly taught in the very revelation of himself that God gave to humanity ? This is , of course , what ultimately led me into a deeper investigation into the matter , in order that I might “ examine everything carefully ” and “ test the spirits ” so to speak , in accordance with the apostles ’ instructions to the Christians that lived in their own day” (emphasis in original)

And also this:

My own conviction is that the authoritative pronouncements of the Scriptures themselves actually—and adequately—fulfill the role of defining Christian “orthodoxy,” and that the historic (4th and 5th century) creeds and their dogmatic formulations are ultimately irrelevant and unnecessary, especially so in terms of determining true or original Christian doctrine.

This is why the reader should know that the views expressed and points made in this book were sincerely and, I believe, reasonably made on the basis (and with deep reverence for the sanctity) of the inspired Scriptures, with the ultimate goal of inciting others to the worship of the one God “in spirit and in truth.” (emphasis added)

The Protestant’s dilemma

Could those Protestants who disagree with Navas say that he is simply engaging in dishonest and careless exegesis? Possibly, but that seems unreasonable given that Navas clearly indicates to have interacted with the views and scholarship of some of the most well-known and respected theological heavyweights in the Protestant community (check link to his book’s product page).

Could they say that Navas is simply too blind, evil or stupid to understand what the Bible clearly and plainly teaches? Could they say that he’s wickedly suppressing the witness of the Holy Spirit in his exegetical endeavors? Possibly, but then again, that seems unreasonable given the foregoing quotations from the introduction of his book.

If the Protestant belief and understanding in the perspicuity of Scripture is true, then they must either admit that all those who fail to see the Trinity leap off the pages of Scripture are intellectually dishonest, morally obtuse or just plain evil, or, recognize that it is possible for sincere and God-fearing Christians to arrive at conclusions that overturn centuries, even millennia, of historic theological reflection, indicating in the process that the individual Protestant remains his/her own ultimate interpretive authority and that beliefs held to be foundational for Christian orthodoxy aren’t rationally necessitated by the available Scriptural data.

As Navas so eloquently put it: ”

Even if one were to accept, in theory, that the creeds serve as a protection against false teaching, we would still have to keep in mind the existence of the various and conflicting creeds that have come down to us, all of course claiming to reflect true Christian “orthodoxy.” But who has the authority to say which creed or confession is the one Christians should look to and why? (emphasis added)

That is indeed the crux of the matter at hand.

(Originally published on 3-26-18. Revised on 4-2-18 following feedback from Casey Chalk, administrator at Called to Communion)

When God Spoke Greek: A Catholic Reflection

law1Several months ago I read Timothy Michael Law’s book When God Spoke Greek. I wanted to review it immediately but realized I needed time to ruminate on his findings, which have intrigued me greatly.

His hypothesis is that the Septuagint–the Greek translations of the Old Testament–provides an ancient witness to an older textual stream of the Hebrew Scriptures.

To be honest I was astonished by several of his claims, which appear to me to be undisputed. First and foremost, Law claims that the Apostles and Christ used the Septuagint almost exclusively in their quotations from the Old Testament, and that the early Church likewise used the Septuagint exclusively until around AD 400 when St. Jerome changed the course of ecclesial history.

That is something of an earth-shattering revelation, and brings several threads together that I had often wondered about in my study of the Church’s use of the Old Testament. It means that the Old Testament you hold in your hands is the Masoretic text, a particular text of the Hebrew Scriptures that was not the one used by the Apostles and Christ, much less the Church Fathers for the first four hundred years of Christianity.

Astute readers of the Bible will have discovered discrepancies that reveal this fact. Often Christ or the Apostles will quote or allude to an Old Testament passage. We look at the footnote in our Bibles to see what the reference was, then turn to that chapter and verse in the particular Old Testament book, only to find that it doesn’t match. It may sound similar or be way off, but it definitely isn’t the same thing. The simple reason is that the New Testament writer was using the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament books. And that translation has now been shown to be a witness to an older Hebrew textual variant, one that differs in some ways from the Masoretic text, which became the definitive variant used by the Jewish people only long after Christ’s death and resurrection.

Law seeks to highlight these textual differences and spends a good deal of the book showing side-by-side passages where the Septuagint translation differs from the Masoretic, then shows how the Apostles and Christ were clearly referencing the Septuagint. At times the difference is stark; at other times it is substantial, at others relatively minor. Law’s thesis is that the New Testament authors, like St. Paul, found the Septuagint’s translation to be more favorable to their Gospel message: that Christ came for all people, both Jews and Gentiles.

One tension that Law has revealed for Catholics, Orthodox, and traditional Protestants, is that the Septuagint shows that the text within the books of the Old Testament was subject to rearrangement, modification, and divergence all the way up to the time of Christ. In other words, Law claims that each author of the Old Testament books did not just sit down one week and write the completed book, but instead the original authors’ words were amended, removed, and otherwise changed in varying ways across multiple textual streams. I am not a scholar in this area and so cannot counter this claim, but it presents a potential problem, since I as a Catholic believe that God inspired every book of Scripture. Did God also inspire the Jewish scribes and scholars who made changes in various parts? And which textual stream is the inspired one? Perhaps they all are? Law shows one example where St. Augustine harmonized two streams where two different numbers were used in the same location (e.g. three sheep versus seven sheep).

The book provides ammunition for Catholic apologists arguing for the Catholic canon of Scripture. Recall that the Protestant Bible has seven fewer books than the Catholic one. One reason for that is the Protestant Reformers were trying to go ad fontes–back to the sources. Ironically, they thought by using the books that the Jews had ultimately canonized in the second century AD, they were going to the original set. But in fact the Septuagint shows that there were older Hebrew versions that predated the Masoretic text. Ad fontes should have meant using the Septuagint, but the Septuagint included all seven Catholic deuterocanonical books!

More ammunition: note that I claimed that the Jews did not close their canon until the second century AD. Law demonstrates this convincingly in his book, a fact that undermines ones of the strongest Protestant arguments for the shorter Old Testament canon. Many Protestant apologists claim that the Jews had closed their canon long before Christ’s incarnation. (I demonstrated one problem with that theory here.) But Law shows that they had not closed it, not even close. Multiple textual streams still existed during the time of Christ, and the final variant, which became the Masoretic text, was not settled upon until the Church had already been established by Christ. And the fact is that the early Church used the Septuagint, seeing in it God’s providence as a special translation made for the founding of the Church itself! So the Protestant appeal to a closed Old Testament canon that predated the Christian Church is fatally flawed.

Law’s book needs to be read by Catholic scholars as well as by Protestant scholars. I would look forward to a detailed response by both groups. Unfortunately I think that many Protestant readers would have a knee-jerk reaction against certain claims Law makes when he tries to play up the differences in the variations of the text. It sometimes has a modernist textual critic air that faithful Catholics and traditional Protestants have rightly come to be wary of. That said, I found it easy to leave the somewhat hyperbolic speculation aside while pondering the indisputable facts that he lays out.

Law’s book is fascinating and I hope that it will get a wide reading by all within the Church.