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The Fundamentalist Challenge

by Raymond E. Brown, S.S.

A questioner once asked me: Is it so bad that a Catholic becomes a biblical fundamentalist? Wouldn't a fundamentalist still believe in many basic doctrines of the Christian faith and have a solid moral code? The answer is yes, but biblical fundamentalism, despite what it can preserve, really distorts the challenge of Jesus Christ. It provides an absolute certainty based on a belief that every word in the Bible really has been dictated by God and one needs only hold to the literal meaning. It does not recognize that every word in the Bible, even though inspired by God, has been written by human beings who had limitations.

The message of the Incarnation is that there is no way to avoid the interplay of the divine and the human in approaching God. Biblical literalism, since it makes all divine, supplies a false certitude that often unconsciously confuses the human limitation with the divine message. A literalist interpretation destroys the very nature of the Bible as a human expression of divine revelation.

One must understand that only human beings speak words. Therefore the very valid description of the Bible as "God's word" has both the divine element ("God's") and the human ("word").

Some 'don'ts' and 'do's'

Those familiar with what works and what doesn't work in responding to fundamentalist challenges have come up with the following bits of wisdom.

Don't waste time arguing over individual biblical texts with fundamentalists. The question is a much larger one of an overall view of religion, of Christianity and of the nature of the Bible.

Don't attack fundamentalists as if they were fools. Often biblical literalism is an attitude of self-defense even on the part of extremely intelligent people. They want to preserve their faith in God, and this seems to them the only way. They will understand your attacks on them as an attack on their faith. Indeed, were you to be successful in convincing an intelligent biblical fundamentalist that the position is wrong, you might be surprised to find that the former fundamentalist does not become a more moderate Christian but an atheist.

Some fundamentalists are very well informed about biblical technicalities, such as languages. There are occasionally evangelists who know a lot more about the Bible than the average Catholic priest or mainline Protestant minister.

Don't be sure that your standard arguments against fundamentalism will work. Biblical fundamentalists have developed careful defenses against the contrary arguments that they have encountered. For instance, if you triumphantly point to the fossil argument supporting evolution, you may be surprised to find a fundamentalist who maintains that God created the world with fossils already in it and that therefore such fossils tell us nothing about the antiquity of the world.

An important "do" is to present the Bible in an intelligent, nonliteralist way. There is no use moaning about the number of fundamentalist media preachers if we have no one in the media presenting the Bible in a sensible, nonliteral manner based on modern biblical approaches, and not simply using the text as a jumping-off point for a pietistic homily. When fundamentalists are the only ones to offer people knowledge about the Bible, people will go to fundamentalists. A very solid, scholarly approach to the Bible can be spiritually nourishing and mentally satisfying. Catholics must encourage that in the media.

One might object that on the Catholic scene there is a shortage of priests and that some priests are not good expositors of the Bible. Then one must capitalize on the real interest among the laity who should be tapped and professionally prepared for this service. If as a Church we recognize this as a major problem, then we should mobilize our forces in order to supply intelligent biblical leadership among Catholics.

Effective teaching of the Bible is not a challenge that affects Roman Catholics alone, and so there is no reason why the mainline Protestant Churches and Roman Catholics cannot join in a common effort to present the Bible intelligently in the media. Some of the Protestant Churches have developed excellent textbooks for reading the Bible.

The fear of loss of Roman Catholic doctrine if we cooperate with Protestants in such biblical exposition is largely exaggerated. Indeed, if such cooperation were sponsored by various Church leaders, I think they would all recognize that the essential issue is to communicate a basic, intelligent approach to the Bible. It would respect Christian doctrine on which we all agree.

Ten challenges and responses

Often Roman Catholics become a bit tongue-tied when the teachings of their faith are challenged by biblical fundamentalists. Many Catholics are very articulate in explaining the doctrines of their faith—the Mass, the sacraments, the papacy, Mary and the saints—in the words and phrases remembered from their catechism. But nothing in their training equips them to handle the objections that such beliefs are nonbiblical. Their first reaction to a fundamentalist probing may be to respond in terms of Church teaching—a response that confirms the fundamentalist in the opinion that Catholic beliefs are totally foreign to the Bible. It might help if Catholics were able to speak about these issues in biblical language that fundamentalists might understand.

Consequently, I have written out 10 responses to 10 challenges often raised by fundamentalists against Catholic positions. I have tried to formulate these responses so that they present the Catholic positions in terms of biblical faith.

Obviously, there may be more than one way to phrase the Catholic responses from a biblical perspective. I think my wordings, which I have tested on friends, are accurate: but I don't pretend that they exhaust the full meaning of Catholic faith on the subjects discussed. I am treating only aspects of those subjects that are of most concern to biblical fundamentalists.

I have tried to put the 10 challenges in everyday language—just the way you might hear them in a conversation with a Christian fundamentalist at your front door or during a lunch break at work. The challenges are in the form of questions reflecting how fundamentalists understand Catholic positions that bother them.

1. Why don't Catholics see the Scriptures as containing the fullness of God's revelation instead of always running to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church for God's truth?

The Roman Catholic Church considers itself a biblical Church in the sense that it acknowledges and proclaims the Bible to be God's word. In the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and in the teachings of Jesus proclaimed by the apostles, to which the Scriptures bear witness, the Catholic Church confesses that God has revealed himself to humankind in a unique way. It acknowledges the sufficiency of the revelation witnessed by the Bible in the sense that no new revealer or no new special revelations are necessary for men and women to find the will of God and the grace of salvation.

If great attention has been given to the teaching of the ongoing Church in Roman Catholicism, that teaching is not presented in terms of a new revelation but as the result of the Church's continuing task to proclaim the biblical revelation in light of new problems in new generations. In carrying on that task, the Church regards itself as the instrument of the Paraclete-Spirit promised by Christ which would take what he had given and guide Christians along the way of truth in subsequent times (John 16:13).

2. The Bible teaches us that we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, our sole mediator. Why do Catholics contradict this by teaching that people can be saved through good works or by praying to the saints?

The Catholic Church proclaims to its people that, just as the Bible indicates, justification and redemption come through the grace given by God because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Human beings cannot earn redemption or salvation. Neither is it won through good works. Good works are done through God's grace in response to God's redemptive work in Christ. Accordingly, Christ is the unique mediator between God and human beings.

Roman Catholicism has recognized the intercession of the saints. That is part of its understanding of the biblical injunction that we must pray for one another. The "we" includes not only believers on earth, but those who have gone before us as saints in God's presence in heaven. Such intercession is useful and salutary but in no way necessary in the sense in which the mediation of Jesus Christ is necessary. Any intercession on the part of the saints must be accepted by God and joined to the supreme intercession of the one high priest Jesus Christ. There is no other name by which we may be saved, as Acts 4:12 affirms.

3. Why don't Catholics recognize we are saved through a personal relationship to Jesus Christ, not through membership in a Church?

While the Catholic Church proclaims the all-sufficiency of the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it acknowledges that Christians must respond in faith and commitment to Christ so that God's redemptive grace may transform them as children of God. Therefore, encountering Christ and believing in him in a personal way is very much a part of Roman Catholic thought.

Jesus Christ redeemed a people—that is why we belong to a Church—and one becomes part of that people by adhesion to Christ.

Baptism of infants, which makes them part of the Christian family of God, in no way is meant to substitute for the later personal decision that is intrinsically a Christian demand. In the wholeness of Christian faith, Baptism and personal commitment must accompany each other.

4. Why do Catholic priests repeat what you call "the Sacrifice of the Mass" instead of recognizing that Christ died once and for all and that his death can be the only Christian sacrifice?

Following the New Testament injunction of Jesus, "Do this in memory of me," the Catholic Church in its liturgy regularly breaks the bread which is the Body of Christ and offers the cup which is the communion in his Blood. It accepts fully the teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross is once and for all. There is no need for other sacrifices.

The liturgy of the Last Supper, which we call the Mass, is a sacrifice in the sense that it makes present again for Christians of different times and places the possibility of participating in the Body and Blood of Christ in commemoration of him, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes. The Mass is in no way a separate sacrifice from the sacrifice of the cross. It is not a new sacrifice replacing the sacrifice of the cross or adding to it as if the sacrifice were insufficient. Jesus, the Catholic Church holds, is the one high priest of the new covenant.

Catholics refer to our clergy as priests. That terminology recognizes that when a Christian, designated by ordination, presides at the Eucharist, which recalls the death of the Lord until he comes, that person represents Jesus the high priest and not merely the community. Our doctrine of the Mass as representing the one priestly sacrifice of Jesus is, in our judgment, fully biblical.

5. Why do Catholics go to the Church and its sacraments as the source of grace rather than to the Savior himself?

Christ saves Christians in and through the Church. The Church, which is the Body of Christ for which he gave himself (Ephesians 5:23, 25), has great dignity and importance; but the Church itself does not save people. We believe that Christ is operative in the sacraments of the Church and that it is Christ who gives the grace that touches lives. The Catholic teaching that the sacraments work ex opere operato (that is, through the sacramental action grace is conferred) never should be understood to mean that the sacrament of itself, independently of Christ, is effective. That formula is meant to say that the efficacy of the sacraments is not dependent on the clergyperson or administrator of the sacrament. Rather, for those who are disposed to receive his grace, Christ is operative in the sacrament.

6. Why do Catholics say that the pope is the head of the Church when Scripture says that Christ is the head?

Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the body which is the Church. No human can take his place, dispensing with his headship. The pope has no authority independent of Christ or in rivalry with him. Even as the New Testament speaks of overseers or bishops guiding individual churches, the pope is an overseer through whom Christ supplies guidance to the whole Church, keeping it in the truth of the gospel.

7. Why do Catholics look on Mary as divine or more-than-human instead of recognizing that she needed salvation?

In Catholic faith Mary, like all other descendants of Adam, had to be redeemed through Christ. We honor her especially for two biblical reasons: (a) She is the mother of Jesus who is Lord and God. (b) According to Luke 1:26-38 she is the first one to hear the good news of Jesus' identity and to say, "Be it done to me according to your word"—thus becoming the first disciple to meet Jesus' standard of hearing the word of God and doing it (see Luke 8:21).

We believe that God gave her special privileges, but these are related to the graces of discipleship given through Christ and in no way divinize her. All believers in Christ are delivered by his grace from the sin of Adam: All believers in Christ will be raised bodily from the dead. Catholics believe that Mary, the first one to profess belief in Christ as revealed by an angel, was through Christ's grace the first to be totally freed from Adam's sin (conceived without sin) and the first to be raised bodily (assumed into heaven).

While we acknowledge that these doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary are not found in the New Testament, we hold them as consonant with the picture in Luke of Mary as the first one to believe, and with the picture in John where she is especially honored as Jesus hangs on the cross.

8. Why do Catholics neglect the biblical teaching that Christ is coming back again?

We Catholics believe in the second coming of Christ. For us that means that God has yet to establish fully his Kingdom and to judge the world. All this will be accomplished through Christ and is not attainable by human endeavor. As for when, through the coming of Christ, God will establish his Kingdom, we believe in the teaching of Jesus recorded in Acts 1:7: "It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority." All human guesses as to the time of the second coming must yield to that biblical teaching.

9. Why does the Catholic Church discourage private interpretation of Scripture and make its members submit to official teaching?

We Catholics do not exaggerate the principle that the Church is the interpreter of Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church has rarely, if ever, defined what a text meant to the person who wrote it. The Church encourages interpreters of Scripture to discover with all the means available to them what individual passages meant when they were written and encourages all of its members to read the Bible for spiritual nourishment.

Church interpretation for Catholics deals primarily, not with what the biblical text meant when it was written, but with what it means for the life of the Christian community in subsequent eras. On essential issues it maintains that the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures will not allow the whole community of believers to be misled about faith and moral behavior.

Individuals from their Bible reading may come to radical conclusions. This has indeed happened in the course of history. Some have even denied the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, Creation and the Ten Commandments. The Catholic Church will take its guidance on such biblical matters from the long tradition of Christian teaching stemming from reflecting on the Bible.

10. Why don't Catholics defend God's word in the Bible against all possibility of error, scientific matters included?

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Bible communicates without error that truth which God intended for the sake of our salvation. Affirming biblical inerrancy (freedom from error) in that sense, it also resists modern attempts to make the Bible answer problems that the biblical authors never thought of. It resists attempts to take biblical texts that envisioned other situations and apply them without qualification to situations of our times. Some of the conflicts between Roman Catholic practices and "literal" interpretations of the Bible rest precisely on this point.

The Roman Catholic Church believes that none of its positions are in conflict with the literal interpretation of the Scriptures, when "literal" means what the author intended in his times as a communication of the truth that God wanted for the sake of our salvation. It resists the use of biblical interpretation to support scientific or historical statements that lay beyond the competency of the biblical authors in their times.

Raymond E. Brown, S.S., is an internationally acclaimed Scripture scholar, writer and lecturer, as well as professor of biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York (since 1971). The author of many books on the Bible, Father Brown has most recently written Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible (to be published by Paulist Press, 997 Macarthur Blvd.. Mahwah, New Jersey 07430, summer 1990). in which among many other issues he treats the background and setting of the fundamentalist challenge at greater length.

 

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