Digging below the surface of Torah, Midrash and Vulgate: When very good includes evil.

(See the follow-on post The Slaughter of Isaac: An Axegesis of Laughter in Genesis).

Language consists of two main levels: 1. the level of words and sentences (what words mean) and 2. the level of language use, or discourse (what we mean by the words we use).  In other words, there are two questions  “What does X mean?” (words in a dictionary and grammar book) and “What do YOU mean by X?” (What is your intention).

Here is an example of the distinction. I find my 10-year-old son, fiddling under the bonnet of my car. I say: “What are you doing?”  Without any context, the sentence  means that I’m requesting information. With a context, however, the sentence means “You brat!” and many other unmentionables. I have given an example of a “speakerly” text. In a” readerly” text, the writer cannot rely on body language such as a gruff voice, flaying hands or red face to provide what his characters mean by the words they use. The writer has to provide words to clarify other words, to develop related ideas. This principle applies to all written texts, and, therefore, also to biblical texts.

I now consider some of the problems in biblical exegesis where I provide examples  – one from the Torah, one from the New Testament – of where misinterpretations lie not in the opacity of the text itself but in the theological/philosophical/psychological presuppostions that interpreters bring to the text.

In “Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning, I mentioned Rabbi Glazerson’s book “Philistine and Palestinian” (1995), in which he says:

The deeper significance of the (Hebrew) letters… is a subject as wide as all Creation. Every single letter points to a separate path by which the effluence of the divine creative force reaches the various sefirot (”spheres”) through which the Creator, Blessed be he, created His world.” In a word, we are talking about the Gematria, which is a system that assigns numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values are closely related to one another.

Most of Glazerson’s book deals with the connection between the “deeper significance of the letters,” (the Gematria) and the surface text. In this post, I shall not discuss the numerical values of words in the Torah (Gematria) but rather their normal linguistic and communicative properties; in other words, the text itself.

In his “Approbation” of “Philistine and Palestinian” (1995) by Matityahu Glazerson, Rabbi J. Zalzer states:

Rabbi Glazerson disproves the tale that it makes no difference in which translation language you happen to read the ‘Bible.’ He demonstrates that the Hebrew language possesses certain values which you hardly find elsewhere: a simple word expresses, in fact, deep ideas which the real meaning (my bolding) of the word includes. The Torah is not reading material for leisure, but needs much effort in order to be able to penetrate its real meaning and discover its real beauty beneath the surface.”

Rabbi Zalzer is using “real” to refer to both “surface” and “deep.” He distinguishes between the “surface” “real meaning” that needs to be penetrated to get at the “deep ideas” and “real beauty” lying underneath (the “real meaning”). Let’s get rid of the confusion by calling all levels of meaning “real” meaning, and then distinguishing between the real surface meaning and the real deeper meaning/s. Other terms for “surface” meaning are “grammatical,” “linguistic,” or “first” meaning.

I believe the scriptures usually contain only one meaning, the surface meaning. “Surface” is not synonymous with superficial. If they were synonymous, then every time I were to read “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good (Genesis 1:31), I could justifiably exclaim, “how superficial! And ask, “surely there’s more to “very good” than “very good,” surely there’s something deeper than “very good” – “very very good,” for example.

If, though, one wished to penetrate the deepest secret of all, one would discover – according to the Midrash – something so deep that it would defy the laws of contradiction. I would find that when God says “very good,” he means “very good” only for the hoi poloi. But if you’re Jewish and have also devoted decades to Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah, then, and only then, will you understand that when God says “very good,” he really means “very bad”; indeed, worse than “very bad”; He means the evil inclination itself, the yetser harah. Let the Midrash speak for itself:

“And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)—Midrash: Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: “Behold, it was good” refers to the Good Desire; “And behold, it was very good” refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says “very good” after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says “and God saw that it was good”) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: “Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet [Eclesiastes] IV, 4) (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications)

Here are two more examples of “deeper” meaning. The first example is from the Hebrew Bible – the Song of Songs; the other, from the New Testament – Luke’s Gospel.

Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim).

On the linguistic (first) level, the Song of Songs is about physical love. For most scholars (Jewish and Christian), the deeper meaning of the Song of Songs is the love relationship between God and man (for the Jew, the relationship between God and his bride, Israel). Some modern Christian scholars see only the celebration of human love, and accuse the “allegorisers” of contorting a physical celebration into a mystical “cerebration.1” But, why can’t the Song of Songs be about both physical love as well as mystical love, which would mean that there would be not clash between the “first” (physical) level and the deeper (mystical) level. (By mystical I mean “imbued with mystery”).

The previous example was a legitimate example of how one level of meaning (the basic meaning) may allude to a deeper meaning. The next example – from Luke’s Gospel – is an example of illegitimate exegesis, which shows how one can arrive at (by steering towards) a higher meaning NOT by teasing it out of the basic meaning but by tearing the basic meaning out of context and replacing it with a “higher” meaning.

In Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says:

Luke 1:28 The angel went to her (Mary) and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Jerome translated the Greek charitoō (highly favoured) as “full of grace.” This Vulgate mistranslation of the Greek is one of the pillars of the Roman Catholic doctrines about Mary such as she was conceived without sin, and thus redeemed from conception, and she was taken up bodily into Heaven, and several more.

The question is why would Jerome make such an obvious translation error? The problem was almost certainly not an ignorance of Greek. Was it his compunction – encouraged by other sympathisers –  to fill the mother of Jesus with grace, because he confused Jesus the “Son of Man (humanity)” with Jesus the Son of a man (masculine gender). A man knows about courage, truth, strength, wrath. But what does a man understand about gentleness, lovingness, virgin purity and affection? That’s the woman’s domain, isn’t it? Mary, the meek, loving, obedient highly favoured woman, pierced by sorrow becomes the Mother of God, “Can we not feel that it must have been so right…a living object of devotion, faith and hope” (F.W. Robertson, 1924. “The Glory of the Virgin Mother” in Sermons on Bible Subjects, p. 224. Everyman’s Library). When I was a devout Catholic, I used to feel that it was so.  I never cared about biblical exegesis. Like most Catholics, I didn’t read the Bible much.There was no need to; the Pope said it was so, and that was that. Besides, the mother of Jesus  had that feminine touch that no man – not even Jesus – could match. This, of course, is not true. The Son of Man was a perfect embodiment of both the masculine and the feminine of humanness. (You can find F.W. Robertson’s excellent psychological analysis of the Marian doctrine here).

In sum, while the Midrash digs deep below the surface of “very good” and  finds something better; something (very?) evil,  the Vulgate violates translation in order to idolize the pure blessed mother of the Mediator between man and God. Is not this also an example of the very good becoming very evil?

1From “cerebral” (brain, mental).

(See the follow-on post “the-slaughter-of-isaac-rabbi-glazersons-axegesis-of-laughter-in-genesis-17-18).

Buddhism, Judaism and Catholic Nostra Aetate

(See related post “John 17 and Catholic Universalism: That they may be One – (Reformed) Protestants need not apply”).

There is a growing number of contemporary Catholic monasteries and parishes that hold Buddhist retreats and workshops. A Jesuit priest come Zen master, Robert E. Kennedy, holds Zen retreats at his “Morning Star Zendo”. Kennedy asks “students to trust themselves and to develop their own self-reliance through the practice of Zen.” ( I’m not recommending Kennedy’s Zendo, but merely citing my sources, which  I like to do not just now and zen, but often).

It’s difficult to understand how one can be both a good Zen Buddhist and a good Catholic. It seems he was more interested in converting Catholics to Buddhism than in Catholicism itself. “The future of Zen is in the West,” he says. And the future of Catholicism? That was too limited in scope, too Roman; not universal enough, not catholic enough. The future lay in the emergent union to be born out of the merger between East and West. Merton had the backing of his illustrious and saintly predecessor, St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who proclaimed: “All that is true, by whomever it has been said, is from the Holy Spirit.” Could we also say “all that is deep, by whomever it has been said, is from the Holy Spirit.”

Merton was influenced by Gandhi who advocated that the way to finding the deeper roots of one’s own religious tradition is by  immersing oneself in other religions, and then returning “home” to see one’s own traditions and beliefs in a clearer light. The Catholic Church, since Vatican II (1962), has radically changed its attitude towards inter-religious dialogue. Merton and other Catholic devotees of Eastern thought had a significant influence on changing Rome’s attitude to non-Christian religions. The papal encyclical Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) states:

(Nostra Aetate is the Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, October, 1965)

“The Church therefore has this exhortation for her sons: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture” (Nostra Aetate 2).

Wayne Teasdale comments that the (Catholic) church has yet to realize the full implications of the above statement.

The encyclical Nostra Aetate started out (in 1961, the year of Vatican II) as a “Decree on the Jews.” The final text of Nostra Aetate consisted of five sections:

  1. Introduction.
  2. Hindus, Buddhists, and other religions.
  3. Muslims.
  4. Jews.
  5. Conclusion.

The Vatican starts out with the best of intentions towards the Jews. Let’s try and sort out this Jewish millstone hanging round our necks of Pope Pius and the Holocaust. (Pope Pius XII was on the papal throne during the Holocaust). The Jewish view is that he could have done more to save the Jews.  We’ll stop telling the Jews that they killed their Messiah. We’ll write an encyclical and say, “it is wrong to call them an accursed people,…or a deicidal people,…”.  Hang on. Why waste a whole encyclical on the Jews.  While we’re about it, let’s go the whole hog and bring in the Muslims and the East as well. Let’s be truly catholic.” The monotheistic Jews end up as the last item behind the monotheistic Muslims. But who gets first prize? The new darlings on the Catholic block – Buddha and Krishna.

In October 2010, “Why Israel” reports, a Catholic synod called at the Vatican to discuss increasing persecution of Christians in the Middle East.  Much of its final statement was related to the Vatican’s demand to Israel to end its “occupation” of Arab lands. In his final statement at the synod, Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros of Boston said that Biblical  promises made by God to Israel “were nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people.”   The Editor of “Why Israel” concludes, “the Vatican’s commitment to its earlier declaration regarding the Jews and God’s promises to them remains at least partially in question.” What commitment? It’s all tripe.

I’ve been scathing, which most would consider inimical to interfaith dialogue. My view is that much interfatih dialogue  is mostly, and often  sentimental; but not spiritual.  In interfaith dialogue, there are religions that have contradictory revelations from the same God. Only one can be true. Each of these religions, if they want to remain faithful and true to their own, should not budge on their major doctrines (which they believe comes from God). What, therefore, is there to dialogue about except “let’s respect the UN Charter on Human Rights, and not violate our right to free speech and free assembly, and so forth”? In a nutshell “Let’s not harass or persecute one another, and let’s also try to find a way to  make the world a better place for all;” which is the clarion call of all (secular) humanists.

Let me consider further the problem of interfaith relations. Here is the attitude of a Rabbi and a Priest (Catholic?) to each other. Rabbi Blech sincerely wants his fellow Jews to have more respect for the goyim. He mentioned a “priest” he met at an airport who asked him for a blessing.

Priest: “May I ask you a very important favour?”

Rabbi Blech: Sure

Priest: All my life, I’ve been waiting to meet a rabbi because I know that you are God’s chosen people, and all my life, I’ve been waiting to ask a rabbi for a blessing. I would love a blessing from a rabbi, could you do that for me.”

Rabbi Blech: (To his audience) By the way. How would you respond. Some people would say, “Ah, a goy,” – and I gave him a blessing. I said a posik (portion) for him and translated for him and this man walked away as if he had been given the greatest gift in the world, a brocha (blessing) from a Jew. Do you understand where the Bible belt in America is today? Do you understand how much respect there is in America today for Jews? There’s a whole world out there that thinks that knows that acknowledges that recognises that we are God’s chosen people, that puts us on a higher level. I said to myself I was a Rabbi in young Israel for 40 years, nobody came to me and said, Rabbi, you know you are the ultimate, give me a brocha..

Blech believes we are living in the pre-messianic soon return of Messiah. “One of the signs is that the goyim will start to do tchuva (Repentance). What I have written above is part of a much longer piece. I go on to speak of Pope John Paul’s desire to do tshuva (repentance). I wonder how much influence Thomas Merton and his sympathizers had in the drafting of “In Our Time” (Nostra Aetate). Earlier I quoted from the Nostra Aetate:

“The Church therefore has this exhortation for her sons: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture” (Nostra Aetate ).

I quoted Wayne Teasdale earlier: “the (Catholic) church has yet to realize the full implications of the above statement.”  The Vatican was cautious of Thomas Merton. It had reason to be so.

Merton doesn’t worry about the radical differences between the two faiths. But then “differences” imply dualism. Religions shouldn’t duel because dualism is an illusion. Merton’s universalistic monism defies logic. Some may argue that logic is a Greek fabrication. Aristotle says that A cannot be not-A. Aristotle cannot be and not be (Aristotle). Who says? Aristotle. But listen to “The science of sciences and the mysteries of mysteries” of the Bhagavad-Gita: I am Being and Not-Being (Chapter 5). The Jews, and ergo the Catholics are unscientific.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am . This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”  (Exodus 3:13-14).

Here is the Buddhist adaptation:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am NOT . This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM-NOT-AM has sent me to you.’ ” (Exodus 3:13-14)

A Buddhist ditches the law of contradiction into the ocean of life and death, but no Catholic can do so. Catholic theology without logic is like Socrates without his dialectic: a diuretic. But we don’t have to appeal to theology. We can go right to its source: the Christian scriptures. But the Buddha first.

Buddha’s final words to his disciples were:

“Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not rely upon anyone else. Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them; do not depend upon any other teaching.”

Contrast that with the words of John the Baptist: “He was not himself the light, but was to bear witness to the light” (John, 1:8). John the Baptist continued to proclaim that Christ “is the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world” (John, 1:9). Christ says “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). Christ is the light. No human being has any light IN himself waiting to shine forth.

To return to the Jews, the original inspiration for Nostra Aetate. The Pontifical Biblical Commission statement (2002), entitled “The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” states: “The Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain. It can become for us Christians a powerful stimulant to keep alive the eschatological dimension of our faith. Like them, we too live in expectation. The difference is that for us the One who is to come will have the traits of the Jesus who has already come and is already present and active among us.”

How could such an expectation be not vain, given that they refuse Christ, the only Messiah, who has already come? This means, if taken to its logical conclusion, that the refusal of the mystery of the Incarnation, of the birth of our Divine Savior in the flesh, is no longer a sin of infidelity, is no longer a grave sin against the Faith. If this were the case, how could it still be true for Our Lord to say to the Jewish false believers:


So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

(John 8:24-45)

These were  “Jews who had believed him.” This belief was obviously not in who Jesus said he was but in what these Jews wanted to believe about Jesus. In sum, according to Jesus, they were sons of  the father of lies.

(See related post “John 17 and Catholic Universalism: That they may be One – (Reformed) Protestants need not apply”).


John 17 and Universalism: That they may be One – (Reformed)

John 17 and Catholic Universalism: That they may be One – (Reformed) Protestants need not apply

In 1960, my second year at the University of Cape Town, I joined the Catholic Church. Like many Catholics, I laughed at Protestants and all their denominations. As for “Are you saved, brother?” For a Catholic, the idea that salvation could involve nothing but faith in Christ, seemed rudderless. Not only is the Protestant rudderless, he’s missing a whole boatload of stuff, only to be found in the Bark of Peter, which the powers of darkness can never capsize. The Protestant is worse than a dog without his bark; he’s a dog without a leash. Without the Catholic Leash, the mad dogs rush headlong down the slopes, dragging the sheep down with them to perdition.

What inspired the Council Trent? To codify Catholic beliefs, yes. But why at that specific time in  Catholic Church history? Why, that stubborn heretic, Martin Luther and his ilk, of course. In 1520, the Catholic Church issued a Bull of excommunication against Luther. At the Diet of Worms, Luther was given the opportunity (no, not to lose weight) to recant some of his anti-Catholic writings. Here is Luther’s (in)famous reply:

“Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

Luther prised open the sluice gates of private interpretation; with an unsurprising result – to Catholics: chaque pas, trois merdes (the French expression about the pavements of France) “Each step, three doggy doos. Each heretic, three interpretations. And nine denominations. See, Luther what your sola scriptura and plain reason have produced! An ecclesiastical maelstrom.“I personally believe, says John Martignoni, based on my experiences, that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Protestant denominations, and the main reason for this is sola scriptura.” And – John, you forgot another very important reason – the grammar and context of plain reason.

Before Vatican II (1962), “[t]here is but one universal Catholic Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all is saved.” (Pope Innocent III, Fourth Lateran Council, 1215 A.D.

” We declare,say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” (Pope Boniface VIII, the Papal Bull ” Unam Sanctum”, 1302 A.D.)

” The most Holy Roman Catholic Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her. ( Pope Eugene IV, the Papal Bull ” Cantate Domino”, 1441 A.D.).

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, outside the (Catholic) Church there is no salvation.

” The Catholic Church is the Vine , you the branches: he who abides in the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church in him, the same bears much fruit, for

without the Catholic Church you can do nothing. If anyone is not in the Catholic Church , he shall be cast forth like a branch and wither, and they shall gather him up and cast him him into the fire, and he burneth” ( John 15:5-6).

” He who is not with the Catholic Church is against the Catholic Church; he who gathers not with the Catholic Church scatters” ( Matt: 12:30).

“Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name – than the Catholic Church – under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved ( Acts. 4:12).

In recent times, these papal Bulls are, it seems, the reserve of a traditional clutch of Catholics who, “if we know our neighbors are not Catholic and therefore cannot receive the sacraments, as Catholics we are to help them understand they need to come home to the one true Catholic Church outside of which no one can be saved.”

This traditional web site appears to focus on Protestants, because the phrase “coming home” is a catch phrase that refers to Protestants who swim (back?) across the Tiber pulled by – Protestants can be so funny – the bells and smells of Rome.

In October, 1986, Pope John Paul II convened and led a multi-faith service at Assisi, Italy. Leaders of non-Christian religions participated and publicly prayed to their gods. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, and Zoroastrians participated in this service. So did an Orthodox patriach and some Protestant leaders.

The video “Catholicism: Crisis of Faith” has film footage of this service. You can see and hear the Dalai Lama chanting, African shamans calling on their gods, and Muslims chanting from the Koran. The altar that was used for the service had a statue of Buddha on top of the Tabernacle (an ornate container for consecrated bread). Catholics believe that consecrated bread is literally the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Putting a statue of Buddha on top of the Tabernacle is, in effect, elevating Buddha above Jesus Christ.

The above interfaith convention of 1985 has its roots in the papal encyclical Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), which is the Declaraton on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, October, 1965. Nostra Aetate states:

“The Church therefore has this exhortation for her sons: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture” (Nostra Aetate).

It’s not only the Catholic Church that is taking the universalist route. So is the Episcopal and mainline Protestant Churches:

“Jesus saves, the Episcopal Catholic Church teaches, but a growing number of its clergy and leaders believe other faiths may lead to salvation as well. Long divided and distracted by questions of sexual ethics, the Episcopal Catholic Church (along with most mainline Protestant communities) are facing a cultural and theological shift towards religious pluralism—the belief that there are diverse paths to God.”

But there still exists a good number of Protestants who believe that faith in Jesus Christ is a prerequisite to salvation. I won’t call these Protestants “evangelical” because that word has become so bloated in meaning that it now means anything.

“Are you trying to tell me, asks the universalist (and the agnostic/atheist), that all those that don’t know the secret password Jesus Christ are going to end up in hell!”

Such a question gives a distorted impression of evangelism (Evangelium “Gospel”). The Gospel teaches that God the Father, has appointed Christ, His Son, as Lord. The Father’s glory is reflected in the Son, who is the exact representation of the Father’s being, of His glory:

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. 9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority (Colossians 2:8-10).

With regard to Verse 8, the Protestant believes that it is the Catholic Church that has taken people captive by their “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition….” The Catholic church counters that the verse is pointing a finger at Protestants. Verse 9 states that Christ is the head over every power and authority. Protestants reject the Catholic Church’s claim to be Christ’s head on earth.

Why is there no other name but Jesus that matters? Because Jesus Christ is what salvation means (Jesus means salvation”). This is the central doctrine of the Gospel, and used to be the central doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church until Vatican 2 (1962), which introduced the idea of universal salvation (Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and others – EXCEPT Protestants). Am I being divisive or, worse, perverse?I don’t think so. Here is an anecdote that expresses an opinion  I (a former Catholic) – and Catholics I knew – held.

Roy Schoeman, a Jew, relates his interesting journey to the Catholic Church. Here is the part of his story when he spent a week at a Carthusian monastery:

“One day when I was working alone in the fields, an elderly monk came out to speak with me. He approached and shyly asked, “Tell us, if you don’t mind ­ We couldn’t help noticing that you do not receive communion, so you must not be Catholic. What then are you?” When I replied “Jewish”, he grinned and with a deep sigh said “That’s a relief! We were afraid you were Protestant!”. At the time I had no understanding at all of the difference between Protestants and Catholics ­ they were just meaningless words to me describing Christians ­ yet I was deeply struck by the fact that in some mysterious way this monk identified with Jews as opposed to Protestants. I later realized that in his eyes Jews were “elder brothers in the Faith” who had not yet received the grace to recognize the Messiahship of Jesus, whereas Protestants had once had, but then rejected, the fullness of the truth.”

My “Rabbis, “evangelicals” and Messianic Jews of Maozisrael”, showed a photo of Pope John Paul II kissing a Koran, which denies “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11. And “I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if you believe not that I am he, you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24.)

Many traditional Catholics were outraged by the Pope’s ecumenical gesture. Imagine the Pope kissing a Protestant Bible. It would be like the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem kissing the New Testament. To illustrate, here is a (Jewish) Anonymous comment on my “Mel Gibson’s “How” in the Passion of the Christ: And the Why?”

“…the “new testament” was written by Paul, not G-d… Paul wrote a viciously anti-Semitic and preposterous fiction in which the Jews murdered G-d, and then issued a statement essentially inviting good and decent lovers of G-d to hold future generations of Israel perpetually guilty. And, Christians have gotten that message loud and clear from Paul’s Christian bible. If you’ll notice, the devout Christian persecutors of Israel never, by and large, declared that their blood lust was motivated by events in the Jewish Bible. No pogrom was ever stirred up by a local bishop reminding the illiterate hoards that the Jews had complained to Moses about a lack of poultry in their Sinaitic diet. The anti-Semitic violence has always traced from a direct line out of the “new testament” deicide narrative. The imaginary passion of Jesus is what has led to so much real suffering of innocent Jewish people at the hands of religious Christians.”

One common example of this  “genocidal antisemitism” (as Rabbi Tovia singer describes it) is Martin Luther, a major flaw in his character.  But Jesus’ passion was not imaginary. Nor were the Jewish people innocent; if the Prophets – and the NT – are to be believed. According to Charles Soper, “every Protestant should read ‘on the Jews and their lies’ or even worse the utterly vile ‘Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi ‘ before ever praising him for breaking the yoke of Rome. He had most serious flaws which literally set out the manifesto for the Holocaust. He’s a prime example of Rom.11.20.” Soper is right about the serious flaws but not about the “manifesto for the Holocaust.” Here is Romans 11:20 in context:

Romans 11

17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. 21For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”

Hitler saw a manifesto, while the Lutheran Pastor, Boenhoffer, saw – from his concentration camp gibbet – nothing of the kind. Hitler’s “manifesto” was the Lutheran’s death warrant.

“The ultimate question, Bonhoeffer said,  for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” The second question is indeed more important than the first. For a Lutheran – and for any Christian  – what ultimately counts on this earth is that one should not lose heart; for though the outer man is decaying, yet the inner man is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).

Catholic-Jewish relations are much better since Nostra Aetate. Protestant-Catholic relations are also better. But the label “Protestant” today is like the word “Evangelical;” it’s the sound of flapping labials signifying nothing. The real divide is between Catholicism and Reformed Christianity (Reformation theology) of whom J.C. Sproul, James White and Wayne Grudem are some of the more well-known exponents.

Why are so many Catholics universalists? They’re following the teachings of the Catholic Church:

“For the whole of mankind was freed from the slavery of sin by the shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ as their ransom, and there is no one who is excluded from the benefit of this Redemption …” Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, #1, 1914.

Surely, you can only begin to know what true freedom is once you’ve entered into the life of Christ. So, how can mankind be set free if they ignore Christ: “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).

Here’s the Catholic rub, according to Benedict XV: if you’re a good Buddhist, Jew, Hindu, atheist (?) you receive – in Catholic terms – the ultimate gift of redemption, which is salvation.It’s also ok to be a Jewish Hindu or a Catholic Buddhist. I said in “Buddhism, Judaism and Catholic Nostra Aetate,”that I found it difficult to understand how Thomas Merton could fulfill one of his greatest ambitions: to be both a good Zen Buddhist and a good Catholic. The answer, as Elvis could easily have said? Tommy be good.

But beware you (Reformed) Protestants, because you should have known better. Consider the faiths-works doctrine that splits Catholics and many Protestants: CANON 24 states: if any one says “…works are merely fruits and signs of justification obtained, not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.” The Protestant argument is that works are merely fruits and signs of justification obtained, and NOT the cause of its increase. In contrast, Jews, Muslims and all the other religions are at one with Catholicism that works are not merely the fruits of justification but a (large) part of its cause.

I agree with DH Williams that

“justification by faith was not at heart a matter of soteriology [salvation], but of Christology [who Christ is], especially when it came to interpreting the divine intent and benefits of the Incarnation. . . . The reality of one’s salvation was only as good as the divine being who secures it….”

“[I]n the patristic era  [before Augustine].  The totality of God’s salvific plan and accomplishment was linked to the divinity of the God-Man who made it possible (Italics added]. We may say, therefore, faith is a divine work of salvation ‘in us,’ of inner transformation so that the believer may behold God.  This is the fruit of our justification: the goal of participating in the divine life.”

But, for many modern Catholics justification, as Wiiliams describes it, or as the Catholic Magisterium defines it, doesn’t matter. For example:

“If a person, says Cardinal Arenze, were to push what you said a little further and say that if you’re not a Christian you’re not going to heaven, we’d regard that person as a fundamentalist…and theologically wrong. I met in Pakistan a Muslim. He had a wonderful concept of the Koran. We were like two twins that had known one another from birth. And I was in admiration of this man’s wisdom. I think that man will go to heaven. There was a Buddhist in Kyoto, in Japan. This man, a good man, open, listening, humble–I was amazed. I listened to his works of wisdom and said to myself, “The grace of God is working in this man.” The interviewer then repeated the question, “So you can still get to heaven without accepting Jesus?” “Expressly, yes he laughs with the audience.” Dallas Morning News, 3/20/99).

(See also my “Buddhism, Judaism and Catholic Nostra Aetate”).

You can get to heaven, says the modern Catholic Church, without accepting Jesus. But if I’m a (Reformed) Protestant, which I am (no mea culpas), I doubt whether the Catholic Church holds the same opinion. The reason is that in its eyes I have actively rejected Jesus, because the Catholic Church and Jesus are one. “If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, let him be anathema” (Canon 12, Council of Trent). “If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out that no debt of temporal punishment remains…let him be anathema (Canon 30, Council of Trent). Those  Canons were designed  to counter the Reformers, to blow apart the Lutheran “cant.” But as Luther said so famously, “I won’t, I can’t recant.” Luther, that’s done it! Start singing Catate Domino. To recall:

” The most Holy Roman Catholic Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her. ( Pope Eugene IV, the Papal Bull ” Cantate Domino”, 1441 A.D.).

Traditional Catholics, however, are also no respecter of non-Christian religions.

“The Gospels are quite clear, say the traditional Catholics, that we need our Lord and His sacraments for salvation. We have a duty under universal charity to tell all those separated from the One True Catholic Church that they must enter the Catholic Church before they die, if not their souls will be lost forever. In the spirit of true Catholic ecumenism let it be your mission to make known the love of Christ and His Catholic Church. Do not rob your friends, co-workers and neighbors of the chance to find their way home.”

Muslims, Buddhists and Jews don’t give a toss about all that. But that – in the Catholic Church’s eyes – is fine because Muslims, Buddhists and Jews – mostly – don’t have a clue what they are not giving a toss about. Of course, they need to be morally upright Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. Protestants are different. They do give a toss – a big toss – about Catholicism. Their unpardonable sin is to toss much of it out.

I keep contact with my Catholic friends and relatives. Whenever I talk with them about faith and knowing God, they invariably quote “I was hungry, and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me.” Now, the Protestant will agree that if you do not do good works, you cannot have genuine belief. Catholics, however, insist – Jews are very similar in this regard – that the most important thing is not “faith” but “faithfulness” (living a moral life). That does seem the right human way to go, but it’s not the biblical way. The biblical way is trusting that God has done for you what you never could do for yourself. And what’s that? Become reconciled to a Holy, Loving and Just God, silly.

The Silence of the Gaps: Dom John Main’s Mystical Mutilations in Romans

If someone were to say that the Holy Spirit plays a central role in the Christian life, no Christian would argue, if what the person means by central is  “very important,” and “crucial.” We would say the same about the Father and about the Son. However, if we compare the roles of the Son and the Holy Spirit, I think it would be correct to say that Christ is at the centre of  Salvation, and the Holy Spirit, graciously, plays a supporting role. In the light of this supposition, consider the following excerpt from “Words in Silence.” The author is Dom John Main, a Benedictine monk. On p. 3, he quotes (New English Bible – C.H. Dodd) St Paul’s letter to the Romans 1:1-5:

I have underlined pertinent sections. Notice the gap between “ours” (end of verse 2) and “because,” (second half of verse 5). shortly.

Romans 1:1-5

Verse 1

    . Therefore, now that we have been justified through faith, let us continue at peace with God through the Lord, Jesus Christ, V

erse 2

    . through whom we have been allowed to enter the sphere of God’s grace, where we now stand. Let us exult in the


    of the divine splendour that is to be



Verse 5bbecauseGod’s love has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he has given us.”

Dom Main comments: “His (St Paul) great conviction is that the 1. central reality of our Christian faith is the sending of the Spirit of Jesus; 2. indeed our faith is a living faith precisely because the living Spirit of God dwells within us, giving new life to our mortal bodies.”

Dom Main’s point 2 is right; his point 1 is wrong: the sending of the Spirit of Jesus (the Holy Spirit) is not, according to the Bible, the “central reality of our faith”.

Dom Main is right when he says that it is the Holy Spirit living in Christians that breathes life into their faith. But he is wrong to say that Paul thinks – or any Christian should think – that the sending of the Holy Spirit is the “central reality of our Christian faith”. It seems that Dom Main’s view is a common “mystical” (my term) interpretation. The Bible, in many places, clearly states what the centrality of faith is. Here is one passage. Jesus is speaking, after the resurrection, to his disciples (a short while before His ascension into heaven).

Luke 24:44-48 (I’ve marked two relevant sections, A and B):

“He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. And he said to them, “Thus it is written that:

A. the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

B. You are witnesses of these things. And (behold) I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Dom Main says that B is the “central reality”. I would say the central reality is A: the suffering (death), the rising from the dead, and the repentance of sinners and forgiveness of sins for those who have faith that Christ has died, Christ has risen (and Christ will come again):

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1Cor 15:3,4).

What is the Holy Spirit’s role in the “economy” of salvation? He is the “sealer” of the Faith, the Counsellor, the Comforter, the Revealer of truth, the Power from on high that equips us – to learn, to understand, to love, to witness. And to suffer for the Gospel. Nothing the Holy Spirit does can be divorced from the Word of God. Whenever, we read the Word the God, we should truistically read it in context. What is the context of the references to the Holy Spirit in Romans 5:1-5?

I return to Dom Main’s quote of Romans 5:1-5, and the dots between “our” and “because”, which indicates that Dom Main had left something out. Well, he left out half of Romans 5:1-5.  (He said he was quoting verses 1-5). Dots within a quote indicate that the quoter thinks the part he omits  is not central to his purpose. Dom Main is correct. They are not central to his purpose;. What is his purpose? His purpose is to show that the Bible considers the “central reality of our Christian faith” to be “the sending of the Spirit of Jesus” (Dom Main above).

Let’s see what Dom Main skipped in Romans 5:1-5. Here is the restored passage verses 1–5. The part in bold is what Dom Main left out. Pay special attention to the word “hope” in different parts of the passage.

1 Therefore now that we have been justified through faith, let us continue at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have been allowed to enter the sphere of God’s grace, where we now stand. Let us exult in the hope of the divine Splendour that is to be ours. 3 More than this: let us even exult in our present sufferings, because we know that suffering trains us to endure, 4 and endurance brings proof that we have stood the test, and this proof is the ground of hope. 5 Such a hope is no mockery, because God’s love has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he has given us.

In Dom Main’s mutilation of Romans 5:1-5 (slicing off verses 3,4 and a part of 5) , “hope” refers only to “the hope of divine splendour”. But what does the unmutilated text say. The “ground” of “hope” is not divine splendour, but  being proved through “present sufferings”, “endurance”, and standing the “test”; in one word – through the cross; where the hope of divine splendour/glory shines through. Through Christ Jesus.

“Did you know then”, to quote Paul again, a chapter later, that “all of us  who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” (Romans 6:3). “Baptised” here is not so much the physical act of immersing your body in water, but immersing yourself in Christ’s suffering and death – and, consequently, in your own death as well.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” (Mark 10:38).

In “The Passion of Bach: The Heart of Tragedy”, I described a well-known conductor who told of the deep effect Bach’s tragic “Passion of Christ” had on him. Not that he believed that the person being crucified was anything but a man. “You don’t, he said, have to be a Christian to feel the pain and the tragedy of such suffering.” From the Christian point of view, he didn’t understand that this Death meant much more than a human tragedy; it was a Death that brings life. I concluded that failure to grasp the meaning of this Death is what lies at the heart of tragedy.

With regard to Dom Main’s mutilation – with its “spirit-filled” intentions, there could also be a tragedy there. While the music conductor was ignorant of the Bible (for reasons known to God), Dom Main displaced the centrality of Christ by giving us a Holy Spirit-centred Gospel. As I mentioned above, the work of the Holy Spirit is to reveal  Christ, and to strengthen us in Christ. Of course, it is absolutely valid, and very good, to learn as much as we can about the Holy Spirit, who is the third person of the Trinity. What I think was not so good was the manner in which Dom Main went about excluding from Romans 5:1-5, “3 More than this: let us even exult in our present sufferings, because we know that suffering trains us to endure, 4 and endurance brings proof that we have stood the test, and this proof is the ground of hope.” In Romans 5:1-5, Christian faith is grounded in sufferings that trains a Christian to endure to the end, and ultimately he will be taken up to the divine splendor of Christ, his Saviour. The Holy Spirit is the One who helps the Christian on the Way.

The conductor of Bach’s “Passion” sobbed over the death of a man called Jesus. Or was it the music itself that brought on the sorrow? Music does that. The Conductor doesn’t know (and/or care) about scripture. Dom Main, on the other hand, has studied much, and also, no doubt, cares much about scripture. All the more reason that he should  “divide” the word with more diligence, without cutting it up so.

“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that need not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

The greatest danger of mysticism for the Christian is to displace Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, a more universal term, which appeals to mystics across the religious smorgasbrod.

P.S. Dom John Main can’t respond to my criticisms, because he died in 1982. But someone else may wish to do so.

Journey of a soul: Pope John XXIII

Two weeks ago, Cathy, my wife and I went to a car boot sale in our home city, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where we met the librarian of the Catholic Diocesan library, who was selling unwanted books from the library.  I bought a few. He invited us to come to the library and take books that the library no longer wanted. Yesterday we visited the library situated in the grounds of the Catholic Archdiocese of Port Elizabeth. We filled a whole box of about 40 books. Cathy found five P.G Wodehouse paperbacks. I got some Catholic books among which were the Vatican II Council reports, a Code of Canon Law, John Henry Newman’s “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (Defence/Justification of His life), and Pope John XXIII’s diary “Journal of a Soul.”

During Vatican II, I attended an audience of about 200 people (mostly clergy) with Pope John.  At the time, I was travelling with a Dominican Retreat Master through Europe, where we stayed at different monasteries,  where he gave retreats. I can never forget Pope John’s big eyes flashing with joy. This afternoon I was reading his diary. Here is an excerpt from an entry when he was 20 years old  (Pope JohnXXIII. Journal of aSoul. London:GeoffreyChapman, 1965, p. 64).

“Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? I am nothing. Everything I possess, my being, life, understanding, will and memory – all were given me by God, so all belong to him. Twenty short years ago all that I see around me was already here; the same sun, moon and stars…..Everything was being done without me, nobody was thinking of me….because I did not exist. And you, O God….drew me forth from the nothingness, you gave me being, life, a soul, in fact all the faculties of my body and spirit…you created me.”

John then quotes 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”

The main emphasis in 1 Corinthians is on salvation, and it is entirely of the Lord.

Pope John says later on (p. 69) “I am alas! The prodigal son who wasted your substance, your natural and supernatural gifts, and reduced myself to the most miserable state because I had fled from you…And you are the most loving Father who welcomed me with a great feast when, repenting of my transgressions, I came back to your house and found shelter under your roof.


The Father not only welcomes me back and forgives my transgressions; He also gives me the power to repent by raising me from spiritual death. But if He raises me from spiritual death, this can only mean that only after He regenerates me (after I am born again) will I be able to repent. This description of salvation is anathema to RC theology – and to popes who pronounce them.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”  (Ephesians 2:4-8).

I haven’t praised Pope John and then shot him down. I haven’t praised him. But I do love him.  

More from Pope John’s diary – on purgatory.