Monday, June 27, 2011

When you borrow (bad) Protestant hermeneutics

Often Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox will attempt to assert the equality of church authority with scripture by using the argument that in the early church not everyone had all of what we know today as the Bible. That is, when Paul wrote to the Romans, the Romans did not have a leather-bound Bible like most Christians attending church today do. While this is somewhat true, the inferred rationale here is that scripture cannot be the final authority since not everyone within the early church had all of scripture yet, and therefore had to have another authority. I recognize this is only one such argument made, but nonetheless many make it.

And yet, often in my dialogue with both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, whenever a scriptural topic comes up, one of the most common tactics is to commit scriptural acrobatics and jump to another verse, disregarding the original passage entirely (one example: jumping to James 2:24 in response to Romans 4:1-5 when talking about justification). When I ask them why they are doing so, the most common answer is something along the lines of: "The Bible has to be understood in its entirety."

Wait a minute - isn't that precisely how some Protestants argue?

I might ask, for the sake of consistency, which is it? For if you argue that the Bible must be understood in its entirety, then you inadvertently argue that the original readers of scripture would have been able to read scripture in its entirety. To refer back to the previous example, you argue, by jumping from Romans to James, that the original readers of Romans would have been able to jump to James and do a cross-reference study. And yet, your apologetics regarding scripture and church authority is also based on the assumption that they would not have been able to do so.

The simple reason as to why many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox commit such scriptural acrobatics is the same reason many Protestants commit scriptural acrobatics: they can't deal with the text given them. They have to jump from the text put before them, jump to something else that they believe will help their case, disregarding how irrelevant the other passage might be. It's no different than synergist Protestants who jump from John 6:44 to John 12:32 (as I touched on here).

The problem is, of course, while a Protestant can commit this error and at least pretend consistency under the guise of scriptural authority, a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox committing this error is simply falling into an inconsistency. It is also a double standard. When scriptural authority undermines the authority of an individual church, we must demand that scripture was, at one point, incomplete, and logically scriptural acrobatics would be impossible. However, if scripture can be twisted to suit an individual church's theology, then scriptural acrobatics may be employed.

Of course, neither Protestants nor non-Protestants should be using scriptural acrobatics. When a text of scripture is reviewed, it should be reviewed within its immediate context and with regards to its author, audience and purpose. While it's true that the original readers of Romans would not have been able to jump to many other books of the New Testament, we stay in Romans for the same reason we stay in John 6 when explaining what Jesus meant rather than jumping nearly a year in the narrative to John 12, leaping out of the immediate context. If you have to jump context and try to grab onto something else, completely abandoning what you were given, then you are not being honest with the text, the other person, nor yourself.

I might ask any Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox reader who comes across this post not to immediately give a knee-jerk reaction and simply accuse me of being wrong. Rather, review your own method of responding to verses of scripture - are you guilty of this? If so, why is this? Or perhaps you yourself are not, but you know others - maybe even those whom you respect - of doing this. If so, are they truly being honest? If they are not, why is that? Again, this is all simply a call both for honesty in discussion and a call for discernment.