What is most important:
Food, Water or Shelter?
None of us would argue that all of these are essential. But one of the ways we determine what is most important to us is to only be allowed to choose 2. Which would you lose? Next, of the two, now you have to choose only 1. Which would it be?
The story of the divide between Protestant and Catholic is a story about this very thing. 3 essential elements (reason, scripture, tradition) and the order of priority we place on them.
Reason - is our logic and knowledge center. Through our reason we examine scripture, church history, the gospel and core doctrines. But reason is relative. We often hear the expression that common sense isn't common. We also see that our knowledge base varies from person to person. Reason is vital but is not a constant among believers.
Scripture - scripture is scripture... Paul writes that all scripture is inspired by God. Peter writes that the New Testament writings of Paul are scripture.
Tradition - tradition is the way we in which historically we: interpret scripture, worship, hold meetings, deal with conflicts, etc. Both Protestant denominations and Catholicism are heavily influenced by tradition.
None of these are the enemy. And none of these is in anyway unimportant. But one must rise to the top. So which of these is primary?
The word Gnosticism comes from the word gnosis which means knowledge. The gnostics were an early group in Christianity that taught that knowledge (reason) was primary. It taught that with knowledge came gradual levels of heightened enlightenment, the end goal being to achieve salvation through enlightenment.
This idea was taken from eastern religious influences and blended with Christianity to Christianize them. But we don't see these teaching contained in scripture, nor do we see them embodied by tradition in early church history.
Gnostics would have the order of primacy be:
Lest we think Gnosticism is dead, we have to consider some of the biblical and doctrinal arguments we make. When we say, "God wouldn't do it that way..." in direct opposition to scripture, we are saying that our reason takes priority over scripture. In essence we are embracing certain gnostic principles in our doctrine. This is dangerous.
My reason and intellect is a gift from God, and by it I exercise wisdom in examining and applying His words to my life. But the moment we see it as superior to scripture, it takes the lead, and now I am no longer led by scripture but knowledge. More specifically, my knowledge and my own capacity to achieve it.
Can we support this biblically? Well, Solomon taught that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). This means that knowledge and wisdom comes from knowing the Lord. It’s not a path to knowing Him.
This also creates a real problem with salvation and our relationship with Christ because now it's based on my ability to understand and rationalize an infinite God through my finite mind. This in turn leads to me creating a God after my own understanding, my own image. "God wouldn't do it that way, because I wouldn't do it that way..." that's called idolatry.
The word Catholic was first used in a letter by Ignatius of Antioch in 110 AD. The word itself means “universal” and the context in which Ignatius used it was referring to the holy (set apart) catholic (universal) church (body of Christ). Ignatius was referring to the universality of salvation and how now a relationship with God was no longer based on bloodline through Abraham and the Jews, but was now open to all peoples of all nationalities through adoption into Christ.
Oftentimes the word Catholic in its historical context gets confused with Roman Catholic as it’s used today. The truth is the term “Roman Catholic” is actually an oxymoron because it refers to the exclusivity of Rome and the universality of all peoples. But to understand Catholicism today we have to understand a little church history.
The church during the time of the apostles ,and for the next several hundred years after, was marked with those seeking to co-opt and undermine the Christian faith. Gnosticism was one of the first heresies the church had to face. As a result the church began to hold counsels and meetings to get together and discuss these doctrinal deviations. The first counsel they had is recorded by Luke in Acts 15 where the church is discussing the issue of whether gentiles need to adhere to Jewish dietary laws and circumcision in order to become Christians. This was known as the counsel of Jerusalem.
From this model the early church met to discuss all matters pertaining to doctrine, scripture, interpretation, etc. some notable counsels or meetings you might have heard of is the council of Nicaea and the council of Trent. In these meetings they would discuss issues and write down their decisions. These decisions became the basis for doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholics see the order of primacy as:
Catholics believe that tradition supersedes scripture because in their mind it was tradition that gave us scripture. In 382 AD the council of Rome met to combat the issue of forged documents. Specifically, the gnostics had taken to forging gospels from notable apostles like Peter. The church had combated Gnosticism for 3 centuries by repeating the doctrines contained in the letters written by Peter, Jude, James and Paul as well the writings of the gospels. As such they forged writings under the name of Peter and others and made slight changes to Jesus’s words to support their doctrine.
For 300 years the church had passed around the letters of the apostles as they were admonished to do. But now new documents were starting to surface and the council of Rome was convened to formally make a list of the books of the Bible, in particular the New Testament, so no one could insert erroneous material into the churches.
We need to clarify here. The council of Rome did not create scripture. It merely made a list of scripture that they all had been using for the last 300 years. As a result of this Catholics today (not then), see tradition as recorded in their councils as superior to scripture.
This poses some serious problems though. Because it places man’s decisions above that of God’s. One of the earliest instances in which we see that this idea was agreed upon was in the “Quartodeciman controversy”.
The Quartodeciman controversy was a dispute between the churches as to when to celebrate Easter. The churches in Asia-minor, Jerusalem and Syria believed that Easter should be celebrated on the 14th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar (regardless of the day of the week). The churches in the west, Rome and surrounding areas, believed it should be celebrated on Sunday during that same timeframe.
Rome tried to assert its will and decide universally for all churches when this should be done. But a pastor from Smyrna known as Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, stood up and said that Rome had no authority scripturally to decide this and as such each should celebrate according to their own conscience and tradition.
What this demonstrates is that as early as 155 AD the church did not recognize any specific church (whether Rome or Smyrna) as having authority over the others. It also demonstrates that tradition was not the ultimate authority as each agreed to celebrate according to differing traditions.
The councils held by the early church were held for good reasons. But they were never intended to be considered on par with scripture. Over the last 2000 years the Roman Catholic Church has held councils and issued papal bulls (infallible executive orders from the pope) only to rescind and contradict them later on. If these traditions supersede scripture then they must be constant, as scripture is constant.
The word Protestant refers to the protest of the Catholic priest Martin Luther in 1517. Luther had seen the gradual slide of Christianity away from scripture. As such he nailed what was known as his 95 thesis to the door of Wittenberg manor. In it were 95 points that he illustrated that the church had departed from scripture in. Among them was the issue of “indulgences” wherein a person could pay money to the church for a deceased family member to decrease their time in purgatory (a temporary holding place where Catholics believe you go to work off remaining sins). Other doctrines he debated were that of salvation by faith alone. Luther held that works were an evidence of salvation not a requirement for it.
Luther debated other cardinals and bishops of the Catholic Church under the eyes of Pope Leo the 10th on these matters. He held to the fact that he would repent on any position he held if he could be convinced by scripture alone. This become known as the doctrine of “sola scriptura”, meaning scripture alone. He was ultimately ruled a heretic by the Catholic Church and excommunicated.
Protestants believe that the order of primacy is:
I want to reiterate that none of these; scripture, reason or tradition, are unimportant. All these discussed would adamantly argue that all three are essential to their faith. But at the end of the day, when pressure is applied, when one seems to contradict the other, the one rises to the top is what reveals what we actually believe.
Some arguments I want you to consider:
“Salvation is a free gift, but a gift can be returned.”
Is this a statement based on scripture, reason or tradition? Well, ultimately we have to see whether such a case exists in scripture. First, is salvation a gift?
Romans 6:23 (ESV) For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So here we can scripturally verify that the first statement is biblically correct. Salvation is a gift. But is the second statement then true? Can a gift be returned? Remember we have to look at this biblically, not through our own church tradition or reason.
Romans 11:29 (ESV) For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
Paul makes it clear here that Gifts of God and the calling of God cannot be returned. They are irrevocable.
So where does this idea come from? It comes from a human attempt to explain why some people seem to start the Christian journey but ultimately fall away. Can a person fall away? The Bible seems to indicate that some do.
Jesus described there would four different heart conditions that receive hear the word of the kingdom. He described one as:
Luke 8:13 (ESV) And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.
Notice: they believed (at least intellectually) for a while. But during testing fell away. So on some level Jesus is indicating that there are those who would call themselves believers but in the end fall away.
Are there any biblical examples of this?
The most notable one would be Judas who betrayed Christ. But another is a guy named Demas, who Paul talked about 3 times in his letters. Two of the times he indicated that Demas was right there beside him serving. But the third time he says:
2 Timothy 4:10 (ESV)
For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica...
Paul wrote of Demas in Colossians and Philemon which were written in approximately 60 AD. The third time he mentions Demas was in 2 Timothy, which was written in 67 AD. This indicates that Demas was a follower for at least 7 years, before ultimately falling away.
So the Bible does indicate that one can fall away, but also indicates that a gift is irrevocable. So how do we reconcile these two? Were Judas and Demas faking it. The Bible never indicates that. At very least, at the last supper, when all the apostles were gathered to eat with Jesus before going to the cross, we see Jesus tell them that one of them will betray Him. No one stands up and says, “yep, it’s Judas, I had a feeling about that guy”. Instead we see the apostles asking, “is it me?”
The apostles kept a healthy skepticism over their own heart. And there is no indication from the text that anyone saw Judas as anything other than a fellow brother. Jesus has to tell John that, “it’s the one I hand this morsel of bread to” before he would understand who it was. In the same way, Paul had nothing but praises to say of Demas for 7 years, indicating that he too never saw Demas as anything other than a brother in Christ. But when pressure was applied through trials and temptations, the sincerity of what was first place in their hearts would arise.
Trials and temptations reveal what we love most. These are not in an of themselves pass/fail tests. When confronted with the revelation of something taking first place in our hearts other than Christ we have idol revealed. It’s not the fact that the idol exists that’s the problem. It’s what we do with it once it’s been revealed.
Demas and Judas both fell away, because of idolatry. Both valued something here more than Christ. The fact they fell away revealed a heart that was not truly surrendered, in which Christ was not first. John says it this way:
1 John 2:19 (ESV) They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
I want you to catch two things:
John says, if they would have truly been of us, in fellowship with Christ, born again, with a new heart, they would have continued
The reason why they left was so that IT MIGHT BE MADE PLAIN, that they weren’t actually one of us.
John explains that all those who are “of us” will continue in the faith. But that all those who are NOT of us, WILL fall away.
So the answer to the statement:
“Salvation is a gift but a gift can be returned” is partially correct. It is a gift. But that gift cannot be returned. However from an earthly perspective it might appear as though a person has returned that gift as evidenced by a person believing for a while, only to fall away. But from an eternal perspective, the fact that they fell away indicated that they were not truly in the faith. On some level they were still unsurrendered. On some level they still saw their will as superior to God’s and as such demonstrated that their faith was not actually in Him, His will, based on His character. But rather was willing to follow for a time until His will conflicted with their own.
Matthew 7:21 (ESV) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Surrender is not a work. It’s literally the opposite of it. Surrender is trusting God and His will because we trust His character based on how far He was willing to go to redeem us. The death of His Son.
In the same way, trusting scripture is to surrender to Gods word. I may not be able to explain it. I may not be able to understand all of it. But I hold to it as my primary source of truth, holding fast to the doctrines contained therein until such time as I can be convinced, through scripture alone, otherwise.