Sola Fide Hide and Seek in Psalm 62

Today we have yet another entry in our increasingly long list of Bible passages that just plain do not fit the Protestant idea of sola fide:

Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: Strength belongs to God, to you, Lord, faithful love; and you repay everyone as their deeds deserve. (Ps. 62:11-12, NJB)

It is worth conceding that this may not present a problem for Protestants who deny that Old Testament believers were saved in the same way that we are: by faith in the (coming) Messiah. But for the Reformed, who do say that OT salvation worked the same as for us, this passage presents a problem. Once again it speaks of how our deeds will be the measuring stick by which our heavenly reward is measured. On the Reformed Protestant view this is impossible, really: if Israel was saved by faith alone in the coming Messiah, then this Psalm completely misrepresents things. It speaks of repayment and getting what our deeds deserve, not of a paradise attained by faith alone. I know of no way to make the two fit together. The Reformed view is mistaken.

Big Circumstance(s)

I like this snip from St. Francis de Sales:

But would you know, Philothea, which are the best abjections, I tell you plainly, that those are the most profitable to our souls, and most acceptable to God, which befall us by accident, or by our condition of life, because we have not chosen them ourselves, but receive them as sent from God, whose choice is always better than our own. (Introduction to the Devout Life, III.6)

It is easy to go easy on ourselves when we have to suffer some difficulty or trouble of our own choosing. But when they come upon us out of the blue or because of who and what we are, it is much less fun. Our saint says that nevertheless the patient endurance of the latter is more pleasing to God when we receive them as sent by Him. Why? Because He knows best what we need. He is in the business of making saints of us, if we will let Him, and He knows exactly what we need in order to achieve that end.


I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. (John 15:1-2)

Whatever else one wants to say about these verses, I think we may reliably insist that they make hash of the Protestant view of sola fide. First we have branches which are in Jesus. There is no distinction here between branches that bear fruit and those that don’t. Both are clearly assumed to be in Jesus, and really if any doubt about this fact existed it would have far more to do with the branches that do bear fruit (because they are not explicitly declared to be “in Jesus”). What does it mean to be in Jesus? I would say that it obviously means that the person in question is a genuine believer. Does it make any sense on the Protestant’s terms to say that a person of any stripe could be in Jesus and yet go to hell? To ask the question is to answer it, isn’t it? So we really must say that all the branches in this passage are genuine Spirit-filled Christians.

Once that point is conceded (and I do not see how it can be reasonably avoided) the trouble begins for the Protestant, and especially for the Reformed Protestant. In the first place, a judgment is made about them based upon their fruitfulness. Those that are unfruitful get taken away. The implication seems pretty obvious from here: we are judged based on what we do. If we bear no fruit, God removes us from the True Vine. The consequences seem equally obvious for the Protestant’s sola fide: if we are judged based upon the fruit we produce then we are certainly not getting to heaven based solely on Luther and Calvin’s justification by faith alone. It isn’t possible.

Secondly, this passage drives a Mack truck through the Calvinist notion of “perseverance of the saints” (according to which “the Elect” are assured of going to heaven). There is no rational way, so far as I can tell or imagine, to say that the fruitless branches are in Christ in a way that differs from the fruitful ones in this passage. The only distinction made between the two has to do with their fruitfulness. Consequently it seems quite obvious here that any Christian could be pruned away for fruitlessness; any Christian could lose his salvation. But if this is so, then the Reformed doctrine of perseverance of the saints is just plain false.

Lastly, I think it is worth observing that even the fruitful branches get pruned. Even when we are doing good, and seeking to love God and neighbor just as we should, God trims us back in order to make us even more fruitful for Him and for His kingdom. In other words, we should expect to suffer in this life. This is just what Scripture teaches us in a variety of places; we will content ourselves with one or two examples:

Jesus said, ‘In truth I tell you, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land—and persecutions too—now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.’ (Mark 10:29-30; emphasis added)

My dear friends, do not be taken aback at the testing by fire which is taking place among you, as though something strange were happening to you; but in so far as you share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, so that you may enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for bearing Christ’s name, blessed are you, for on you rests the Spirit of God, the Spirit of glory. None of you should ever deserve to suffer for being a murderer, a thief, a criminal or an informer; but if any one of you should suffer for being a Christian, then there must be no shame but thanksgiving to God for bearing this name. (1 Peter 4:12-16; emphasis added)

Suffering is something that we should expect as Christians, as St. Peter hints in 1 Peter 4:18: “If it is hard for the upright to be saved, what will happen to the wicked and to sinners?” (emphasis added) And Hebrews 12:5b-6: “My son, do not scorn correction from the Lord, do not resent his training, for the Lord trains those he loves, and chastises every son he accepts.” This is the pruning of which Jesus speaks in John 15. When we are fruitful for God, we should not be surprised to experience suffering or pruning, permitted by our Lord so that we may be still more fruitful for Him.

Does this sound like fun? Well, not to me. It sounds downright intimidating, to be honest. But this is the nature of the Christian life. We are Christ’s Body, and He suffered horribly in His Body; we should not expect to be exempt. We can expect that God will reward our pains suffered in Christ, though (see Mark 10 above, for starters). May God grant us grace to suffer patiently as our Lord suffered patiently for us.

No begging at the table

Aristotle has this to say about question-begging with respect to the allegedly self-evident:

[W]henever a man tries to prove what is not self-evident by means of itself, then he begs the original question. (Prior Analytics, II.16)

For a theological example, we could point at the Protestant perspective on the canon. Some of them (I read this in a seminary textbook; sorry, I do not remember the name) are so blunt as to say that Scripture and the canon are “self-authenticating.” I am not making this up. They are not bothered, evidently, by the fact that the claim to be God’s Word does not entail the truthfulness of the claim. Others are less bold, recognizing that self-authentication is a dead-end road. RC Sproul instead makes the much less grandiose claim to “a fallible collection of infallible books.” I am thinking, though, that this is not a sword he would want to fall on.

A fallible collection of infallible books is a contradiction in terms. The actual substance of Sproul’s claim is that the Bible is infallible, but the canon might not be. But if the canon of Scripture is fallible, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that any particular book or books in the canon are infallible. Fallibility necessarily implies the possibility of being 100% wrong, and so Sproul’s claim demolishes any possibility of confidence in the notion that the Bible is God’s Word. In short, he is either hoping that no one thinks very carefully about his claim, or he is begging the question by assuming that the fallible collection managed somehow to include all and only the divinely-inspired Word of God. In any case, he most certainly has not resolved Protestantism’s problems with respect to the canon of Scripture.

The Woman of Revelation 12

A contentious subject betwixt Protestants and Catholics focuses on the identity of the Woman of Revelation 12:

1 Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman, robed with the sun, standing on the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant, and in labour, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth. 3 Then a second sign appeared in the sky: there was a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and each of the seven heads crowned with a coronet. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars from the sky and hurled them to the ground, and the dragon stopped in front of the woman as she was at the point of giving birth, so that it could eat the child as soon as it was born. 5 The woman was delivered of a boy, the son who was to rule all the nations with an iron sceptre, and the child was taken straight up to God and to his throne, 6 while the woman escaped into the desert, where God had prepared a place for her to be looked after for twelve hundred and sixty days. … As soon as the dragon found himself hurled down to the earth, he sprang in pursuit of the woman, the mother of the male child, 14 but she was given a pair of the great eagle’s wings to fly away from the serpent into the desert, to the place where she was to be looked after for a time, two times and half a time. 15 So the serpent vomited water from his mouth, like a river, after the woman, to sweep her away in the current, 16 but the earth came to her rescue; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river spewed from the dragon’s mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged with the woman and went away to make war on the rest of her children, who obey God’s commandments and have in themselves the witness of Jesus. [NJB]

I have heard at least three different explanations of this difficult passage, but I do not think that any of them is just obviously better than the others beyond any doubt whatsoever. I have heard her described as the nation of Israel and her son as the Messiah. The thing that does not work for this view is that the son quite obviously is the Messiah (verse 5 with Psalm 2), but He was not taken up directly to heaven upon birth and Israel did not escape into the desert either at the time of His birth nor even later at his resurrection or ascension. Furthermore, it seems a bit much to say that Israel as a nation gave birth to the Christ Child when it was clearly the Virgin Mary.

A second possibility is that the Woman is Christ’s Church. This has the benefit of making sense of verse 17, but beyond that makes very little sense to me: how can the Church give birth to her Lord? Is that not completely backwards? So this has never convinced me, so far as I can recall.

A third possibility is one that I never considered until after I became Catholic, and then it seemed blindingly obvious: the Woman is Mary, the Blessed Virgin, Mother of the Messiah and according to Catholic tradition the mother of the Church as well.

Pope Francis has this to say (I think that this book is from his days as archbishop in Buenos Aires):

JESUS ESTABLISHES THE CHURCH, and he establishes us within the Church. The mystery of the Church is closely united to the mystery of Mary, mother of God and mother of the Church. Mary brings us forth and cares for us, and the Church does also. Mary helps us grow, and the Church does also. And at the hour of death, the priest bids us farewell in the name of the Church and leaves us in the arms of Mary. She is “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Apoc 12: 1). That is the Church and that is the modest Virgin that our faithful people venerate. That is why in speaking of the Church we need to feel the same devotion as we feel for the Virgin Mary.

[Pope Francis; Open Mind, Faithful Heart (p. 44). Kindle Edition]

Why do we say that she is the mother of the Church? There are two main reasons. First, the Church is repeatedly described in the Bible as the Body of Christ. If that is the case (and it must be so, in some mystical sense), then together with Jesus her Head she forms the totus Christus, and may be said to have been “born” of Mary in that Mary gave birth to Jesus.

A second reason is found in John 19:26-27:

Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.

The Church has long understood this as not merely the Lord ensuring that His mother is cared for, but also as associating the Church (in the apostle John) with Mary as the Church’s mother. This makes the most sense, I think, when we consider again that the Church is in fact the Body of Christ, but it is still in some sense a mystery (and not one that I can explain).

But I digress. Getting back to Revelation 12, the notion that the Woman is Mary has some strong things to be said in its favor. First of course is the fact that her Son is Jesus, who really is the one who will rule the nations with a scepter of iron. That practically settles the issue all by itself, it seems to me. But there is more to be said. We may see the Dragon as Herod, looking to kill the Child Jesus immediately (though admittedly it actually happened after the fact and not beforehand as the passage says; so there are problems with this view as well).

I do not know of any particularly good way to understand verse 5, because Jesus was not taken directly to heaven. The Woman’s son can’t realistically be anyone other than He, given the iron scepter, so perhaps some sort of telescopic compression of time occurs in what John sees here.

At any rate, it is a difficult passage. I think a strong case can be made for the identification of the Woman as the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it is not without problems that I am equipped to surmount. Revelation is a book that defies explanation at times, it seems. :-)

Another Aristotle QOTD

Love for others comes of love for oneself. — Aristotle

Yes, I know that I wrote about this not too long ago. But I just found this in my notes and I decided to repeat myself.

At first blush this idea just feels wrong to me: how can loving myself be the basis for loving others? It seems like narcissistic self-centeredness. Take a second look, though, and the good sense creeps up on you and swats you on the nose.

Jesus said that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Well, how can you love your neighbor as yourself if you hate yourself? There is a contradiction here that is insurmountable unless we love ourselves. That contradiction reverses what Jesus said, effectively saying (as I observed in the previous article) “Hate your neighbor as yourself.” Now obviously that is ethically perverse, and you do not have to be a Christian to know it. Aristotle knew it.

If I do not know how to love myself, how on earth can I possibly know how to love anyone else the right way? If I manage it at all, it will be a giant stroke of luck. We need to love ourselves. As someone recently said on Twitter, to love ourselves is to love what God has made; to hate ourselves is to hate what God has made. And that is just plain senseless. Love yourself, and then you can love others too.

Romans 2 and sola fide

It is a tad ironic that Luther built essentially the entire edifice of his idea of sola fide on a short bit of Romans 4, but inexplicably seems to have ignored the impact of Romans 2 on any conversation about justification. Let us take a quick look. Here is 2:5-16:

Your stubborn refusal to repent is only storing up retribution for yourself on that Day of retribution when God’s just verdicts will be made known. He will repay everyone as their deeds deserve. For those who aimed for glory and honour and immortality by persevering in doing good, there will be eternal life; but for those who out of jealousy have taken for their guide not truth but injustice, there will be the fury of retribution. Trouble and distress will come to every human being who does evil—Jews first, but Greeks as well; glory and honour and peace will come to everyone who does good—Jews first, but Greeks as well. There is no favouritism with God.

All those who have sinned without the Law will perish without the Law; and those under the Law who have sinned will be judged by the Law. For the ones that God will justify are not those who have heard the Law but those who have kept the Law. So, when gentiles, not having the Law, still through their own innate sense behave as the Law commands, then, even though they have no Law, they are a law for themselves. They can demonstrate the effect of the Law engraved on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness; since they are aware of various considerations, some of which accuse them, while others provide them with a defence … on the day when, according to the gospel that I preach, God, through Jesus Christ, judges all human secrets. (NJB; emphasis added)

God is going to administer justice. “He will repay everyone as their deeds deserve.” He does not say a single thing here about being justified by faith alone. He says God will judge us according to our deeds. All of us. There is just no way to make this “fit” with the Protestant idea of sola fide, according to which God will specifically not repay Christians as their deeds deserve. What’s more, St. Paul strongly implies that there are Gentiles who do such good before God as to receive glory and honor and peace from God. We must be careful here: it is not the case that their own works as such can justify them before God, but rather God pours His grace into their hearts in such a way that they may be saved even apart from visible attachment to the Church. See my recent post about merit for more.

Not convinced? How then does an angel appear to Cornelius (Acts 10) who, according to any definition of “Christian” I have ever heard from Protestant lips, does not make the cut before St. Peter visits him? And what does the angel say to him? “Your prayers and charitable gifts have been accepted by God” (verse 4). The angel does not even mention faith to the man as a reason why God had accepted him; rather, he said that the man’s prayers and almsgiving had been accepted by God.

As I always say, the absence of any mention of faith in Romans 2 and the first part of Acts 10 does not mean that faith is not required. But there is flatly no way to read these passages in such a way as to say that one’s deeds have no effect on his standing before God. There is a certain form of sola fide taught by the Council of Trent that coheres with these portions of the New Testament, but the Protestant version just will not make the cut.

Oh, one last thing before I go: Did you ever notice how these two passages wreak holy havoc on the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity”? I’m just sayin’…

Murky Waters

This is just so confusing.

These guys say Romans is perspicuous:

This allows Barnhouse to faithfully adhere to the Reformation maxim that Scripture interprets Scripture, and that it is perspicuous (clear) in its teaching, infallible, and authoritative. Thus, his focus on Romans becomes an exposition on the doctrines of the entire Bible.

But then these other guys say this:

Paul’s letter to the Romans is as important as it is dense. In precise, nuanced Greek, Paul articulates Christianity’s theological foundations.

So how do we decipher the meaning of this ancient, foreign text? Here we have arguably the key to understanding the faith—and it’s packed with references to Jewish covenantal law, natural law, and the cultural background shared by Paul’s Greco-Roman audience, all in a language marked by countless dialects.

How can anyone hope to really understand this essential treatise?

[emphasis added]

So which is it, my Protestant friends? Is Romans perspicuous, or is it so difficult that the only folks with any hope of understanding it have doctorates? And how exactly is it that you can possibly disagree about something like this? I mean, if you can’t even agree as to what parts of the Bible are supposed to be perspicuous (or not), how are you ever going to agree on what Scripture (supposedly) teaches so clearly??

Literal interpretation, Genesis, and Job

When I was a Protestant I took the view (like many or most of my theologically conservative coreligionists) that Genesis 1 must be interpreted literally in this sense: the seven days of creation must be understood as literal, consecutive 24-hour days. I often said that before moderns got the idea that the earth was really old, everybody held this same view. You can imagine my chagrin, perhaps, when I learned that neither Aquinas nor St. Augustine agreed with me (neither did Aristotle, but that is a completely different story). By the time I learned this I was pretty much past the initial humbling realization that much of what I believed for 20+ years as a Protestant was wrong, so it was more amusing than anything to learn that I was wrong again.

But this post is not supposed to be autobiographical. Instead, I want to consider a particular problem associated with the claim that Genesis 1 must be interpreted as speaking of literal 24-hour days. There are other difficulties than the one I shall be discussing, but I think this one is fairly severe. Here is the relevant portion from Genesis 1 (verses 6-8):

God said, ‘Let there be a vault through the middle of the waters to divide the waters in two.’ And so it was. God made the vault, and it divided the waters under the vault from the waters above the vault. God called the vault ‘heaven’. Evening came and morning came: the second day. [NJB]

The key word in this passage is vault, sometimes translated as “firmament,” “expanse,” “canopy,” or something like that (I think I may have seen dome used once, too). The Hebrew word thus variously translated is described thusly in Brown-Driver-Briggs (the canonical Hebrew-English lexicon):

1) extended surface (solid), expanse, firmament
1a) expanse (flat as base, support)
1b) firmament (of vault of heaven supporting waters above)
1b1) considered by Hebrews as solid and supporting ‘waters’ above

[emphasis added]

It seems to me that if one is going to have his literalist cake by insisting upon seven 24-hour days in Genesis 1, he is also going to have to eat that literalist solid dome in the sky. Why? Because picking and choosing which parts of the chapter you will take literally is special pleading and ad hoc. If you think you have good reason to say there were seven literal 24 hour days, you are going to have to explain why there is not also a solid dome in the sky.

I suppose the average literalist will respond to my challenge by saying that we can make a principled distinction between the two because we know there is no solid dome: ergo the passages in the Bible that suggest otherwise must be taken figuratively. Unfortunately, this response is pure eisegesis. Responsible exegesis will ask what the original author meant to communicate to the original recipients, and in this case using a word that (for the ancient Hebrews) meant a solid dome is exactly what will be communicated to them: a solid dome in the sky. There is just no other way an ancient Hebrew would understand this passage if the chapter is to be taken literally.

I suppose that some literalists, feeling the vise begin to pinch, might try to claim that only portions of Genesis 1 are to be taken literally, while others are figurative; he might also try to say that the original audience could distinguish the two. My reply to this is that it is a mess of pure ad hockery. In the desperate attempt to save the 24 hour days, such a proposal is like pushing the entire Bible under a modernist bus.

No. The literalist does not get to have his cake and eat it too. He must make a choice: either Genesis 1 is entirely literal or it isn’t. Given that there are other problems with a strictly literal reading of Genesis (see here, for example), and given that Genesis 1 is not the only place in the Bible where a solid dome is judged to be in the sky (see Job 37:18, for example), and given that non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 go back as far as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, there is no reason to be stuck in this Catch-22. All that is necessary is to abandon a hermeneutic approach to Genesis 1 that is problematic at the very least.

Total Depravity?

Recall that at least some of our Reformed Protestant friends believe in “total depravity” in such a way that they deny that anyone ever does anything genuinely good. Presumably this would perplex them: real prisoners who set aside personal interest for the sake of cooperation. Now that is definitely not cribbed from a page in the Presbyterian book of game theory!