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Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and the Biblical Gospel

Charles Grandison Finney, second president of Oberlin College, Presbyterian minister, revivalist and author. image: Christian History vol. VII, n. 4, issue 20

Charles Grandison Finney, second president of Oberlin College, Presbyterian minister, revivalist and author. image: Christian History vol. VII, n. 4, issue 20

Finney, an American Presbyterian minister who was a leader of the Second Great Awakening, had gained prominence as an evangelical preacher in upstate New York by the time Joseph Smith Jr., living in the same region, had begun his personal quest for religious truth. According to history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith’s family had visited several sects of Christianity in the area of Palmyra, New York, by the time he was 15, and several members of Smith’s family had joined the Presbyterian church (Joseph Smith — History 1:5-6).

According to his own Memoirs, Charles Finney started studies in 1821 at age 29 to become a licensed minister in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Despite being a Presbyterian minister, Finney expressed many misgivings with the fundamental doctrines taught in that denomination, in his major works such as Religious Revivals. For instance, in his Systematic Theology, he once mentioned, “I have felt greater hesitancy in forming and expressing my views upon this Perseverance of the saints, than upon almost any other question in theology.”

Map showing the counties, including the one where the Smith family resided, considered part of the "burned-over district." image: AndrewRT

Map showing the counties, including the one where the Smith family resided, considered part of the “burned-over district.” image: AndrewRT

Finney also deviated from Christian orthodoxy in many other ways. He was most active as a “revivalist” in 1825 through 1835 — again, the exact time period of Joseph Smith’s alleged experiences involving the Book of Mormon — in Jefferson County, New York, and for a few years in Manhattan. The “burned-over district” denotes the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and the formation of new religions movements of the Second Great Awakening took place.The term was coined by Finney, who in Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, 1876, referred to a “burnt district.” He believed the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no “fuel” — unconverted population — left over to “burn” — that is, to convert.

Joseph Smith’s own testimony recounts the atmosphere of intense religious energy and division that informed his thinking. As Finney was an active religious leader in the vicinity where Joseph Smith lived, he likely had an influence on Joseph Smith’s reasons to reject Presbyterianism and found Mormonism, however deluded that might have been.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, which largely defines Presbyterianism, in its earliest version in 1646 identified the Roman pontiff as “the Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.” When the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was formed in 1788, it adopted the Westminster Standards, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.

"Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by the Independents of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, 1644" by John Rogers Herbert, the Royal Academy of Arts, 1844.

“Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by the Independents of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, 1644” by John Rogers Herbert, the Royal Academy of Arts, 1844.

Presbyterians uphold the Westminster Standards as a faithful reproduction and helpful ordered summary of what the Bible teaches — but we don’t claim that the Standards are God-breathed and infallible. That is reserved for Holy Scripture alone. Though Protestantism had many things correct, admittedly, anyone who undertakes the task of reforming an entire belief system is prone to overcorrection. The need to tone down some of Protestantism’s language apparently was recognized at least by the early 20th century. In 1936, the First General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church met to constitute a new denomination, and as part of its process, the Assembly adopted a recommendation to remove the reference of the Pope as the Antichrist in chapter 25.6.

However, the damage was already done. We would be remiss not to mention in this discussion that the hands of Protestantism were not completely clean in the instigation of 19th-century American cultism. Protestants, while theologically precise, until rather recently unfortunately were more often inimical toward Roman Catholics, rather than irenic. The antipathy between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism had, by the 1830s, been woven into the fabric of American culture — and had fomented into the new monstrosity of Mormonism, which introduced “new” errors to American society.

It’s been said that there are no new truths of God being revealed — just the rediscovery of old truth. Likewise, as we are about to learn, new errors are really nothing more than “repackaged” old errors.

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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