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Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and the Biblical Gospel

2. The Second Great Awakening and the Burned-Over District

As we trace the evolution of Roman Catholic theology concerning Scripture since the 16th century, we see that Rome maintained a very strong view of the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible. This was particularly evident in the 19th century, when the question of the integrity of Scripture was a central issue in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism during the so-called “modernist controversy.” This controversy pitted conservative Christians against liberal theologians, who focused much of their effort on attaching the reliability and integrity of the biblical witnesses. The modernist controversy is often seen as a dispute between so-called “American fundamentalism” and European and American liberalism. However, this embroilment was not limited to Protestant circles; it fueled so-called “Restorationist” movements, such as early Mormonism’s claim of a corrupted Bible and a need for Scriptural “restoration.”

A Fundamentalist cartoon portraying Modernism as the descent from Christianity to atheism, first published in 1922 and then used in "Seven Questions in Dispute" by William Jennings Bryan.

A Fundamentalist cartoon portraying Modernism as the descent from Christianity to atheism, first published in 1922 and then used in “Seven Questions in Dispute” by William Jennings Bryan.

The modernist controversy also had a great impact on the Roman Catholic Church. Rome spoke very sharply against the modernist movement in various decrees and papal encyclicals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, at Vatican Council I, which convened in 1869-70, the Roman Catholic Church decreed, “These books … being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author” (Vatican Ecumenical Council I Decrees, Session 3: 21 April 1870 — Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, chapter 2). Furthermore, the council said, “they contain revelation without error,” a clear affirmation of the notion of biblical inerrancy.

This was reaffirmed by Pope Pius in 1907, which was a pivotal year in modernist controversy. That year, the pontiff issued two encyclicals, both affirming the inerrancy and divine inspiration of Scripture over against modernism, and gave a scathing criticism of the modernist position with respect to Scripture. Also around that time, in order to stem the tide of liberalism, the Roman Catholic Church required each parish priest to give a loyalty oath to the church and to its decrees. That meant that those who were of a modernist persuasion were forced to go underground or to leave the church (Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism, pg. 16).

Roman Catholicism did not have much influence on American religion until the 19th century with the influx of immigrants from Europe. In American Catholics, his magisterial history of Roman Catholicism in the United States, James Hennesey recounted the hostility of Protestants toward Roman Catholics which began in the mid-1820s — the exact time the Book of Mormon was produced. Roman Catholics during the colonial and early national periods were relatively few in number and generally accommodated themselves to the prevailing Protestant culture. In the Federalist Papers: Federalist No. 2, John Jay asserted that the citizens of the new nation were “descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, profession the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in manners and customs.” Hennesey observed that when “that homogeneity was shattered” with the massive immigration of Irish, German, and other non-English-Scottish to America, “the process was painful.”

The anti-Roman-Catholic sentiment that punctuates this movement, periodically erupted in violence and played a powerful role in antebellum politics, was an especially ugly expression of a more general defensive reaction of American Protestants in the face of the official disestablishment of churches and the rise of religious diversity. But at the same time, there were efforts, especially from the Presbyterian court, to reconsolidate cultural influence. Protestantism was the dominant religious presence until the Second Great Awakening, which, with the help of one Charles Grandison Finney, inadvertently produced a number of outgrowths of Christianity that have survived as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses), Seventh-day Adventism, Christian Science, and of course, Mormonism.

5 thoughts on “Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and the Biblical Gospel

  1. Richard Morin

    If you don’t mind, I would like to ask a couple of questions.

    1) Where in Scripture does it say that “Scripture alone” is required? There is a passage in Timothy that says all Scripture is “profitable”, but profitable does not equal “solely”. The Scriptures Paul was referring to was also the writings from Timothy’s youth, the New Testament was not even written yet.

    2) You said “Revelation is entrusted to Christians and every Christian, aided by the Holy Spirit, has the ability, the right and the responsibility to interpret Scripture” – isn’t this what Joseph Smith himself did? And why exactly should we entrust this method when there’s so many denominations claiming to be correct?

    3) How’d we’d get the canon of Scripture? Who put it together in the 300’s? Who was given that authority? And why do you think that the authority would eb taken away when Matthew 16:18 clearly says otherwise?

    4) Have you done studies of the Patristic period? You’ll find that the teachings of the Catholic Church have remained consistent of you look throughout the last 2000 plus years. Have you read the writings of those folks?

    1. Richard Morin

      Specifically, please read the writings of the early Church Fathers regarding Baptism. Also, I really encourage you to read John Henry Newman.

    2. Peter Benyola Post author

      Hello Richard. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and questions. I certainly don’t mind, and I always welcome discussion. I am drawing from your comments that you are probably Roman Catholic. We love you.

      Responding to your questions:

      1) When you ask, “Where in Scripture does it say that “Scripture alone” is required?”, I assume you meant to ask where in Scripture it says Scripture alone is required to communicate a message sufficient for eternal life — which is what we are chiefly concerned with in this discussion. The answer is that even the Gospel of John alone, a single New Testament book, contains a message sufficient for salvation (John 20:30-31). I’m definitely not saying that fact renders everything else in Scripture irrelevant; but from my examination of Roman Catholic claims of Magisterial authority (Catechism of the Catholic Church 82, 95), its teaching is that the Bible is not sufficient for faith and practice of Christians. That means that if we are going to square on the authority of Scripture, then its claims of self-sufficiency are the place we should start.

      2) No, this is not what Joseph Smith did. People who are Spiritually regenerated and indwelt with the Holy Spirit do not take it upon themselves to write their own volumes of scripture contradicting and attempting to denigrate the authority of the Bible in order to elevate their own, and even presume to edit and revise the Scripture itself.

      The other part of your question concerns the existence of different Christian traditions because of divergent interpretations. Please see the Scripture references above to support the point that Christians are equipped and called to interpret the Scriptures. God allows us to interpret His Word ourselves, but He does not give us permission to interpret it incorrectly. Yet, each one of us does this to some degree. It’s part of our fallen condition. But sola Scriptura is not the reason this happens — it’s actually a safeguard against it happening more often than it does.

      3) This is a complex question that I can’t possibly give proper treatment in a blog comment. A very rudimentary answer is that Orthodox Protestants believe the canon of Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books. In other words, Protestantism does not hold that the church necessarily was infallible in the formation of the biblical canon. We admit the possibility that in its review and deliberations of which books belong in the canon, that the church could have made mistakes in what it included or excluded. However, the books that were chosen are regarded as individually infallible. The council’s decisions, of course, did not change the nature of the books. Scripture is authoritative within itself — it never has and never will depend on a church council to invest it with divine authority.

      By contrast, the Roman Catholic Church believes that the Bible is an infallible collection of infallible books. That is, not only are the writings of the writings themselves infallible, but in the process of assembling the canon, the church exercised an infallible ability to recognize and sanction those infallible books. Protestants stop short of making such a claim, even in the selection of the biblical canon.

      The central issue of division with respect to the authority of Scripture is the relationship of Scripture and the tradition of the church. For specific information on this issue, please refer to Chapter I, no. 2, and Chapter III, no. 1, of this study.

      4) Yes, I have read some of the Patristic writings. I’m sure I have not read all of them. In fact, in this very study, I referred to Cyril of Jerusalem on a comment that is highly pertinent to the principle of sola Scriptura.

  2. Nick

    Hi Peter, I have a couple questions regarding the canon of scripture that some what touch on your and Richard’s conversation as well as past conversations we have had. 1) Under the view of scripture as a fallible collection of infallible books, does this mean that it is the responsibility or every protestant to decide which books they believe to be infallible? If not, why not? If so, by what means should they go about doing this? Where could they even begin?

    2) Are there other books, either ancient or modern, that one should also look to in an effort to determine whether or not those works are infallible? On what grounds can one be confident on the decision that a particular book is infallible? If the collection is itself fallible, what confidence is there that any individual book in the collection is actually rather than only theoretically infallible?

    3) How would you respond to a Christian that rejected, say, Paul’s letters, or James, or John’s Gospel, or Leviticus on the grounds that he thought them fallible? Or who accepted additional books, such as the Didache, The Apostle’s Creed, I Clement, Judith, the Gospel of Thomas, or A Purpose Driven Life based on the fact that, having read them, he thought they had a rightful claim to infallibility (infallibility via inspiration by the Holy Spirit, just to be clear.) I doubt anyone would consider the Purpose Driven Life infallible, but I hope my point is evidence despite my hyperbole.

    1. Peter Benyola Post author

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for your questions. I will attempt to answer thoroughly but succinctly.

      1) I would say it is not the responsibility of every Protestant to decide which books we believe to be infallible. Synods such as the Council of Hippo and the Council of Carthage are useful and relevant in church history. I’m simply saying that since those things lie outside the Scriptures themselves, that they might not have been subject to the same superintendence of the Holy Spirit that brought forth the Scriptures in the first place. Though, they very well could have been. It’s acknowledgement of the possibility of human error in the process of canonization, which the Roman Catholic Church does not acknowledge. Protestants recognize that no fiat of the church had the power to invest the Scriptures with authority they already had.

      The Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura is not some kind of free-for-all license for people to arbitrarily choose what from Scripture to believe and what not to believe, or interpret Holy Writ however one wants to. On the contrary, it was and still is intended as a call to the Christian’s accountability, to consistent, sound biblical hermeneutics, and a safeguard against unwieldy personal interpretation.

      Your last question here I believe is the most important one: Where could they even begin? I believe a good place to start is John 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

      2) Not to oversimplify this issue, but Christians should examine the evidence within the Bible itself to verify what books are canonical before looking elsewhere. For instance, the canon of the Old Testament as recognized by Protestants is actually very easy to provide a basis from Jesus’ own words — He canonized the Old Testament in just a few statements, using the order of the books that appeared in the Tanakh (Luke 11:49-51, 24:27, 44-88). All the books in the New Testament accepted by Protestants are books that are written by the Apostles, and they sometimes canonized each other’s writings (Luke 1:1-4, II Peter 3:15-16). Aside from that, yes, there certainly are Patristic and modern writings that deepen our understanding of why we have the Bible we have today. We don’t have room to get into that here.

      A Christian’s confidence in what is Scripture cannot be finally instilled by evidence and commentaries, but only by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit that what the apostles said and wrote is indeed God-breathed (I Corinthians 14:37, II Corinthians 3:4-6). I realize that sounds incredibly subjective because anyone can claim to believe what they believe because of the Holy Spirit — but ultimately, our belief of what is Scripture must be based on sound reason, not all of us can be correct, and even if someone has all the books of the Bible correct, he will never have a perfect and error-free understanding of the content of Scripture this side of heaven.

      3) Well, I believe God inspired those books, consequently, I would respond that unbelief in those books is sin. I would pray for that Christian and ask him to diligently study the Bible, so he will be persuaded by the Holy Spirit of what he is reading. As I mentioned earlier, it is not for every individual to come up with his own canon, but Christians are called to study for themselves to see if what presents itself as the Word of God truly is (Acts 17:11).

      I could address the Protestant view on the Apocryphal books one-by-one, but that would take forever. I would recommend reading some of the resources in the Further Study links in my original post.

      Let’s say for the sake of argument, that the Roman Catholic canon is the correct one and the Protestant canon is the wrong one. Let’s stick with your Roman Catholic Bible, Nick — Apocrypha and all. I’m on your terms now, using your Bible. Please turn with me to John 20:30, 31 (NABRE).

      “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”

      Nick, is there enough information in the Gospel of John, within the Roman Catholic version of the Bible, for a person to understand how to be eternally saved?

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