Archive for the 'Church' Category

The Biblical Canon, Church Tradition, and Messianics

 

new-testament-orientationA basic problem in the domain of biblical studies is the question of (how to establish) the Canon of Scripture. This problem is particularly important for Messianics when it comes to the Canon of the Apostolic Writings (commonly, but erroneously, called the New Testament). This importance is related to the fact that Messianics reject many of the traditional teachings of the Christian Church and yet accept the Canon of the New Testament as it is recognized by the tradition of this Church.

From the assumption that the Messianic theological position as to the remaining relevance of the Torah is correct it necessarily follows that the Church already began to deviate from the teachings of our Lord and the Apostles during the second century, and thus at a time when the formal recognition of the New Testament was still in its initial stages. For it is in the second century that we see the emergence of Replacement Theology, together with the development of christological doctrines that finally would lead to the dogmas of the Deity of Yeshua and the Trinity. [1]

The historical time-frame of the recognition of the New Testament Canon roughly coincides with the historical time-frame of the development of Replacement Theology and the great christological conflicts. However, there is evidence for the proposition that the history of the formation of the Canon is more complicated than often admitted, and that it extended to the times of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent. One of the factors that led to its ultimate fixation were Luther’s and Erasmus’ reopening of the debate. This evoked a Catholic reaction at the Council of Trent. The position of this Council seems to have been helpful in ending the debate, even among the followers of the Reformers.

Regardless the exact reconstruction of this history, it is problematic to simply accept the NT Canon without granting any authority to the tradition of the Church, since it is clearly impossible for anyone of us today to determine which collection of books or letters of the times of the Apostles we should recognize as being part of Holy Scripture — had this collection not been handed down to us through the generations by the authority, the constant teaching, and the liturgical tradition of the Church.

This problem can be stated as follows: If the position of the Church on the relevance of the Torah and the nature of G’d led the believers completely astray by the developments that culminated in the doctrines of the Deity of Yeshua and the Trinity, how can we be sure that the Church did not lead us astray by adopting and using in her liturgy the collection of Scriptures that we call the New Testament?

From the Catholic point of view it is considered a basic theological error to isolate the genesis and reception of the NT Canon from the developing early Christian tradition. According to this viewpoint it is a fundamental metho-dological problem of all non-Catholic NT studies that they first isolate the NT from its functional context in Christian tradition and the living community of the Church, and subsequently find things in it which conflict with this tradition and the authority of the Church.

The Catholic response to these findings is to ascribe these conflicts with Church teaching to this initial error of isolating the Scriptures from the tradition and authority of the Church. If divine revelation is only partly contained in Scripture and if Scripture is an organic part of the developing Jewish nation and the later Christian Church, how can one separate Scripture from the tradition and teaching of the Church and subject the Holy Books to the insights of individual scholars, while ignoring the primal fact that these scholars themselves have received the Scriptures from the Church? Defenders of Catholicism always stress that the sola Scriptura teaching of the Protestant Reformers is not found in the Bible itself.

The Messianic position seems even more difficult to defend than the position of the Reformers. For the Reformers accepted the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils until about the fifth century, when the question of the Canon of the NT was practically settled or at least no longer debated. The Messianic position, however, is that the Church during the first centuries of her existence got throughly corrupted in such basic teachings as the nature of G’d and the relevance of the Torah, while at the same time developing a correct intuition in solving the problem of the NT Canon.

The question is thus: How it can be made reasonably credible that the Church stumbled into error after error in her teachings about the ontological status of Yeshua, the nature of G’d, and the normative status of the Torah, and yet preserved a right intuition on the issue which books of the Apostolic times should be recognized as inspired and canonical in addition to the Hebrew Bible?
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[1] Regrettably, many Messianics accept the Church doctrines of the Deity of Yeshua and the Trinity. But the basic problem pointed out here remains the same for them, since they don’t accept Replacement Theology.

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Pope Francis and the Apostasy of the Christian Church

 

anti-pope-francisThe Roman Catholic Church throughout her history has always vehemently opposed to give the Sacrament of Holy Communion to those living in irregular sexual relationships. The position of the Church was that those living in cohabitation, adultery, or any other sexual relation outside traditional marriage were unfit to receive Communion, because they were in a state of mortal sin and in danger of losing their eternal salvation, according to the warning of the Apostle Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

I Corinthians 6:9-10
Know ye not that unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of G’d? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the Kingdom of G’d.

Holy Communion was considered to be only for those in the ‘state of grace’ according to Catholic theological terminology — or, in evangelical terminology, in the ‘state of being saved’. To be in the state of grace requires that one has confessed and sincerely repented the mortal sins one has committed, and has acted upon this repentance by leaving all situations of continuously ‘living in sin’.

This sacramental discipline was based on the notion that, ultimately, the Church is only composed of those are saved, i.e. the truly faithful. Only the saved, ultimately, are part of the mystical Body of Christ. This community of the saved is liturgically expressed in Holy Communion, because in receiving the Eucharist the Body of Christ is actualized in this temporal life and in and through it the faithful are bodily and spiritually united with the Lord Jesus Christ.

After the Second Vatican Council there has been a growing minority in the Church of liberals and modernists abandoning this traditional moral position. For some decades, this minority has grown vocal and demanding, and important Church leaders, including Cardinals have joined it. And in our days of the pontificate of Francis even the Pope seeks to support it. Sacramental discipline, which was already considerably weakened after Vatican II, is now in danger of being completely thrown out of the window.

Under the guise of proclaiming “mercy” and “compassion” — reiterating the general Christian invitation that the Lord is welcoming everyone — Pope Francis’ pontificate has become a concerted effort of theological liberals to change the moral basics of Catholicism and to bring it in line with the demands of the modern world. For this is really what theological liberalism or modernism is all about: adapting the Church to the modern secular sensibilities of liberty and equality.

What is happening in Catholicism since Vatican II, and now seems to culminate in the effort to abandon traditional sexual ethics, is nothing less than the introduction of the principles of the French Revolution in the Church.

As Torah minded believers we should be attentive of this phenomenon as a new manifestation of the spirit of lawlessness (i.e. Torahlessness), as a radicalization of Replacement Theology.

The Replacement Theology that was introduced in the early days of the Church can be viewed as an effort to synthesize the biblical and Jewish heritage of the Church with the surrounding culture of Greco-Roman Antiquity. Such a synthesis was only possible by giving up the culture and rites of the Torah. The Catholic Church was the result of this synthesis. For this reason Catholicism can be viewed as a secularization of the Jewish religion. In order to have universal impact, and to be acceptable to all people, it was deemed necessary for the message of the Gospel to shake off its Jewish particularisms. Thus the Church supposedly would be enabled to gain cultural influence and to effectively evangelize the masses of the Roman Empire without the obstacles of Jewish cultural forms.

What is happening nowadays is a radicalization of this Replacement Theology by an effort to synthesize the historical Catholic heritage of the Church with the surrounding culture of Naturalism and Secular Humanism. Such a synthesis is only possible by giving up traditional Christian sexual morality.

What will be the result of this proposed new synthesis? In any case not Catholicism or Christianity as we know it. If the agenda of the modernists is accepted by the Church, the result will be a rupture in the continuity of Church’s teaching and practice as big as when the Church rejected Torah observance and introduced Replacement Theology.

By adopting the umbrella of Secular Humanism and an attitude of inclusiveness the Church will become more thoroughly de-judaized then ever before. Not only Jewish rites and ritual laws but also Jewish ethics will be declared obsolete. This amounts to a nearly complete rejection of the Hebrew Bible, the so-called ‘Old Testament’. But this also implies the rejection of many and fundamental parts of New Testament teaching.

This modernist revolution is so fundamental that it could never succeed under the existing premises of Catholic doctrine. That’s why it is introduced by the Pope and his circle of liberal theologians as just a matter of pastoral care and compassion. It is presented to the faithful as if the practice of the Church could change without changing the doctrine. Once the practice is changed, however, in the name of mercy, traditional moral doctrine, while being preserved in name, will become completely obsolete and fossilized.

It will be clear to Messianics and to traditional Christians that what is happening here is nothing less than open apostasy from the faith. The pastoral terminology is just a smokescreen. What is called ‘mercy’ by Pope Francis and other Catholic modernists is just what traditional theology rejects as ‘cheap grace’. It is a ‘mercy’ that doesn’t require repentance in the sense of turning away from the state of sin. It is a lawless mercy which permits the sinner to continue in sin and yet be in ‘full communion’ with the Church and presumably with Christ.

The principle of lawlessness, that was introduced in the early history of the Church, nowadays seems to be on its way to a complete victory. If this analysis is correct, then we are witnessing an important preparatory phase for the coming of him who is called by St. Paul the “man of sin” and the “lawless (Torahless) one” (II Thess. 2:3, 8), the Anti-Christ or Anti-Messiah.

The coming of this Torahless person is connected to the “falling away” — the massive apostasy from the Christian faith — and other events that will precede the Second Coming of Christ:

II Thessalonians 2:3
Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day [i.e. the day of the Second Coming of Christ] shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition […].

Why are these developments within the Roman Catholic Church important for us as Torah observant Messianics who deny many Catholic doctrines and precriptions? Because the Catholic Church is the historical heart and centre of Western culture, its unifying factor and its traditional moral compass. The apostasy and possible collapse of this Church is an alarming sign of the moral collapse and desintegration of our entire culture.

While it is true that the Catholic Church has been an important factor in the persecution of the Jews and a fierce opponent of Torah observance by Christians, this doesn’t mean that we should simply rejoice in her downfall. For we can be sure that when the Church is removed from the scene, or should choose to side with the forces of secularism, we’ll have to face a future of persecution. The Church will not be replaced by a more friendly power but to all probabilty by the naked aggression of an openly Anti-Christian Secularism.

The Catholic Church has known many Popes and other high prelates who were examples of wicknedness and lawlessness instead of examples of Christ and shepherds of his flock. But whatever these persons said and did, they never questioned or attacked the dogmatic and moral fundamentals of the Church.

After Vatican II all this has changed. The present crisis is mainly a consequence of the tidal waves of modernist theology that entered the Church during and after this Council. Pope Paul VI complained that the smoke of Satan had entered the Church. John Paul II tried to consolidate the situation and to limit the damage. This line of consolidation was continued under Benedict XVI. Under Francis, however, we face again the full seducing force of modernism at work. His pontificate might well initiate the final apostasy of the Christian Church.

The Yahrzeit of John Nelson Darby

 

John Nelson DarbyUpcoming Shabbat, the 10th of Iyyar, is the (131st) Yahrzeit of John Nelson Darby, the founder of the movement of the Plymouth Brethren, who died on April 29th, 1882. Darby was an Irish clergyman who became the intellectual father of what is known as theological Dispensationalism.

Although as Torah submissive Messianics we cannot accept all aspects of dispensationalist theology — at least not in its “classical” form, which demands the seperation of “Law” and “Grace” and of “Israel” and the “Church” — yet we have to consider that Dispensationalism was in many ways an important preparatory step for the development of Messianic Jewish theology, and that some dispensational distinctions are theologically expedient, and even necessary. [1]

Darby was born on the 18th of November, 1800 (1st of Kislev 5561). He was educated to become a lawyer, but after a conscious conversion to Christianity during his studies, he chose ordination and became a deacon in 1825, and a priest in 1826, of the Established Church of Ireland. Already soon after entering the priesthood his views began to depart from the accepted cadres of traditional Christianity. Darby particularly rejected any interweaving of Church and State, and he started questioning the hierarchical and political structure of the Established Church.

Darby was to become very disappointed in the Established Church. He had been successful in preaching the Gospel to Roman Catholics, and converted many of them to the Church of Ireland. But he ran into a conflict with his superior, Archbisshop William Magee, who demanded that converts to the Established Church had to take an additional oath of allegiance to the king, George IV, to be accepted. Darby protested by a letter to the Archbishop, and eventually resigned. [2] He became convinced that the Christianity of the Established Church was a serious deviation from the teachings of the Apostles. [2] His own view of the Church gradually moved into the direction of a wholly spiritual community, governed by the Holy Spirit, and detached from all earthly power structures. He taught that established Christianity was worldly, entrenched in politics and potentially apostate, and that true believers were called to separate themselves from it and simply gather as brothers and sisters in the Lord. [3] He soon discovered that there were others with a similar vision and he joined them. One of the first of their communities was formed in Plymouth (1832). Hence the name “Plymouth Brethren”. [4]

If this had been all, Darby would probably have been no more than a typical spiritual preacher who, as so many, tried to return to a pure and undiluted form of Christianity, based exclusively on the instructions of the NT. But his spiritual concerns about the Church led him to deeper theological reflections on the biblical differences between the Christian Church and the nation of Israel.

Darby sharply distinguished the Church as the mystical Body of Christ from the nation of Israel. He saw the principles of unity of the Assembly of Israel and the Assembly of Messiah as being hugely different, and indeed incompatible. The principle of Israel’s unity was its national election, the defining characteristics and limits whereof were given and explained in the Law. The Church’s principle of unity was personal saving faith in Jesus Christ.

According to Darby there is thus a distinction always to be upheld between Israel as a nation on the one hand, and the Body or Assembly of Messiah on the other. The two are never formally the same collection. From its inception, in the second chapter of Acts, the Assembly of Messiah was a distinct body within Israel (cf. Acts 2:13). It was the body of the believers, and the outward ritual sign by which they were distinguished was water immersion (Baptism) in Jesus’ name.

This essential distinction between the Church and Israel is the hermeneutical key for understanding Darby’s theology of Dispensationalism. From this distinction Darby draw the conclusion that traditional Replacement Theology was a serious failure. For Replacement Theology not only claims that the Christian Church is the legitimate successor of Israel, it also claims that the Church is the inheritor of Israel’s election and of the blessings connected to it. It says that the Christian Church is now the chosen people of G-d, the “true Israel” and that the unfulfilled biblical prophecies concerning Israel are to be fulfilled in the history and eschatological future of the Church.

Darby rejected this usurpation of Israel’s position by the Christian Church because his understanding of the essential differences between the two elections. In his view the one is a national election to a special place and function in the temporal life in this world; the other is a supranational election of individuals to the eternal life of the World to Come.

Messianics shouldn’t deduce from this that Darby denied that the Body of Messiah comprizes the believing remnant of Israel. Darby didn’t deny this obvious truth. The important point which he emphasized, however, is that once the Jewish believers were organized by the spiritual principles flowing from the resurrected Messiah, they had entered a framework which differed vastly from the framework of the Jewish nation and its Law.

Darby’s point was that in biblical history before Yeshua there existed no distinct body of believers. There was no distinct Assembly of which one could become a member and that was (supposed to be) composed exclusively of believers and thus was based on faith principles. No such thing existed before. In the situation before Messiah those in Israel who had a true saving faith and those who had not were not separated from each other or relegated to different communities. They lived together in one national community, within the context of the Sinai Covenant.

The Sinai Covenant doesn’t separate believers from unbelievers but only Israelites from non-Israelites. It is characterized by legal distinctions and demands, dealing with people groups on the basis of their natural descent and with respect to obedience and transgression. Although the Torah certainly encourages and demands faith and love (cf. Dt. 6:4), it doesn’t effectuate faith and love, nor does it deal with spiritual distinctions. It cannot make a distinction between the true faithful and the others as long as both comply with its legal demands.

Before Messiah believers from the Gentiles had not a community context at all, but were scattered individuals in a sea of apostate and idolatrous nations.

To Darby, the new thing introduced by the First Coming of Messiah is the formation of a congregation of those belonging to him, which congregation one enters by an explicit (confession of) faith accompanied by water immersion in Messiah’s name. That’s why this congregation is called Messiah’s Assembly or Body. This Body is always entered by a decision of faith and thus by free will. Nobody enters this Body by natural birth (as natural Israelites), by a legal conversion procedure (as proselytes), or by the use of force (as in the case of the forced conversion of Idumea under Jochanan Hyrcanus).

This Body or Assembly of Messiah, or the congregation of the faithful, is in Darby’s eyes not simply the collection of all true believers from all times. Only between the great events of the Resurrection and Second Coming this Assembly takes on public and outward existence and has an institutional life of its own, signified and manifested by a profession of faith, by water immersion (Baptism) in the name of Messiah, and by the celebration of the Sacrifice of Messiah in what is called the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. The Supper expresses the unity of the Assembly in the most excellent way, namely as being the Body of Messiah (Christ) (cf. I Cor. 10:16-17). The unity of the Assembly is both signified and effectuated by the sharing of the bread and cup of the Supper. For that reason according to Darby the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the very heartbeat of the life of the Assembly. This celebration gives it its own and proper mode of communal worship. The Lord’s Supper is also of central importance for maintaining the internal discipline of the Assembly. Blatant sinners are to be excommunicated.

It is not difficult to see how Darby’s idea of a fundamental distinction between Israel and the Christian Church led him to reject the traditional interpretations of much biblical prophecy. He concluded that the prophecies which had the nation of Israel as their subject-matter had still to be applied to that nation. To apply them to the Christian Church was simply out of the question if the Church weren’t Israel. [5]

The consequences of this train of thought were revolutionary. The sharp distinction made by Darby between national Israel and the Christian Church made it possible to return to a literal interpretation of the prophecies. This led him to accept a literal restoration of Israel in a future Kingdom Age under the rule of the returned Messiah. The Plymouth Brethren, following Darby’s teachings, thus became the first Christian community which, as a community, fully believed in the future national restoration of the Jewish people. To them this was not something additional to the Christian faith, it was intimately connected to its very core. Darby’s theology of the spiritual nature of the Christian election and of the Church as strictly a faith-based community facilitated their appreciation of the different nature of the national election of the Jews.

If the Jewish nation were to be restored and a literal millennial Kingdom Age under the rule of Jesus Christ had to be accepted, then, Darby taught, the nature of this Kingdom had to be in accordance with the national nature of the election of Israel. The future Kingdom of Messiah and his present mystical Body had thus to be accepted as distinct and separate realities.

According to Darby, when the Kingdom will be set up, the dispensing of the household rules of G-d (i.e. the dispensation) will change, just as these rules changed — in the opposite direction — when the Jewish dispensation temporarily ceased after the national rejection of Messiah and gave way to the Christian Church.

The Kingdom cannot be called the Body of Messiah, since those who will be living in the Kingdom Age don’t formally enter it by an act of faith, followed by a public confession and by Baptism in Messiah’s name. In most cases those living in the Kingdom will enter the Kingdom by natural birth, by being born during the Millennium, wthin the realm of Messiah. Therefore they’ll have no choice but to obey the Reign of Messiah. So they don’t belong to this Kingdom by an act of faith.

For that reason there will no longer exist a distinct body which can be called the congregation of the faithful in the Kingdom Age. The ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper will cease. That the Supper will cease is clear from what is said in I Cor. 11:26. If Baptism were continued during the Kingdom, this would imply a forced Baptism, without spiritual value. For who would have any real choice of rejecting it? Such a rejection would equalize a blatant and public rejection of the reigning King, an offense of laesio majestatis against Messiah, which would result in the death penalty. Those living in the Kingdom Age will collectively be presumed to be faithful and loyal subjects of Messiah — until of course the goods prove to be unequal to sample. In that case punishment will follow.

Since Darby felt unable to reconcile the different divine elections of Israel and the Christian Church in one dispensation, i.e. in one set of divine household rules, he had to make sure that these dispensations only accidently ran simultaneously. The apparent problem he faced here was how the principle of grace which in his theory ruled the Christian dispensation was to be combined with the principle of Law which he viewed as the ruling principle of the Jewish dispensation.

This problem could be overcome with relative ease for the historical period of the emergent Christian Church. The continuation of the Jewish dispensation and the coming of the Kingdom were dependent on the national acceptance of the mission of Messiah. When Messiah and his Apostles were rejected, the coming of the Kingdom was post-poned to a later time (the Second Coming). The Jewish dispensation and the fulfilment of the prophecies connected to it were interrupted. Now the specific nature of the Body of Messiah, which was already formed on the Pentecost day mentioned in the second chapter of Acts, could be fully displayed, freed from the limits of the legal framework that in Darby’s eyes were foreign to it.

It was more difficult to cope with a similar problem at the other end of the history of the Christian Church. The Kingdom Age is preceded by the final ‘week’ or final seven years of Daniel’s prophecy, in the second half of which the Great Tribulation occurs. These seven years are a time of crisis leading up to the Second Coming and the establishment of the Kingdom. Darby says this time will be characterized by the complete apostasy of the Christian Church and her destruction through the hand of the infidel nations. While the Church has already gone through long periods of decline after the apostolic era and has corrupted herself by her aligning with the worldly powers and by allowing her to be infiltrated by unbelievers, yet her final definitive apostasy from the truth of the Gospel is to take place in the future, in the time leading up to the appearance of the Antichrist and the Great Tribulation.

At that time a Jewish remnant will emerge and become the official bearer of the witness of Jesus Christ. Darby affirmed that these Jewish believers in Messiah will be in covenant with G-d and will live according to the commandments of the Law. He denied, however, their membership of the Body of Messiah. He saw this group as forerunners of the Kingdom Age, leading Israel to its public recognition of Jesus Christ, at the Second Coming.

To assign to this role to a future Jewish remnant, Darby had to admit that at that time the Jewish dispensation, which stopped when Israel rejected its Messiah and his Apostles, would be running again. The Church-dispensation was to be viewed as a parenthesis, which filled the gap between the rejection and restoration of Israel.

In order to ensure that this Jewish remnant remained part of the Jewish nation which would inherit the Kingdom, and did not by their faith in Jesus Christ face the obligation to join the Christian Church, Darby had the Church — or better the born again believers in it — removed from the scene before the Great Tribulation by what he called the Rapture of the Saints. He taught that the Second Coming was to happen in two phases: a secret appearance of Jesus Christ, before the Tribulation, by which the faithful of the Christian Church would receive immortality and be translated to heaven, and a public appearance of Jesus Christ on earth, after the Tribulation, in glory and majesty, to judge Israel and the nations.

Darby’s thought must have been that the fulfilment of the biblical prophecies was impossible during the Church dispensation. As I said, in his perspective the Body of Messiah emerged only after the rejection of Israel. The re-election of Israel thus demanded its disappearance. If the Christian Church were to remain on earth until the Second Coming, its unity would be gone, since it would be split up into two disparate groups: A group of Law-free Gentiles and a Jewish remnant living under the Law. And there would be no sufficient reason why the timeline of biblical prophecy, more specifically the continuity of the year-weeks of Daniel’s prophecy, would be broken if it were not for Israel’s rejection.

An additional argument in favour of the Rapture was that the continuing existence of the Church until the Second Coming would create theological difficulties for the position that the Jewish remnant would enter the Kingdom in their mortal bodies. It goes without saying that this position was essential for any theological theory favouring a national restoration of Israel. If all believers belonged to the Body, and all members of the Body were to receive resurrection life at the Second Coming, then there would be no-one left to fill the earthly Kingdom in a mortal body, because the only ones still in their mortal bodies would all be unbelievers.

Although this doctrine of a secret Rapture of the Saints was a serious mistake — in the Scriptures the Second Coming is a single and undivided event — it followed naturally from Darby’s combined premises of the necessities of a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church, and the literal reading of the biblical prophecies.

Darby’s Dispensationalism and his doctrine of the Rapture can be interpreted as a first attempt to deal with the nagging questions of the relevance of the Torah and the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah, from a perspective not bound to Replacement Theology. In nuce, we already see here the unfolding of the whole field of our present discussions on “One Law” and “Bilateral Ecclesiology”. Despite the fact that his solutions to these questions were not altogether tenable, Darby’s efforts have led to a greater Christian awareness of the literal fulfilment of the biblical prophecies and the literal future restoration of the nation of Israel.

Darby travelled a lot in Britain, the European continent, and the United States, to found Brethren communities and to spread his vision that the faithful should separate themselves from the traditional churches, which he considered to be ripening to apostasy, and gather simply as Christians on the basis of the unity of the mystical Body. His successes were limited, and oftentimes the Plymouth Brethren were considered oddballs and extremists.

Darby’s influence in the United States was historically enormous, however. He visited the US more than once on his missionary travels, but considered himself quite unsuccessfull. Ironically, ultimately he got vastly influential because the Americans didn’t in big numbers accept his admonition that true Christians should separate themselves from the traditional churches and join the Brethren community. His American followers to a large degree preferred the option of being a faithful minority within the traditional framework as a better way in witnessing for the truth. And although Darby deplored this attachment of American Christians to their churches, his Dispensationalism and his interpretation of the biblical prophecies gained wider acceptance exactly because the Americans who absorbed his teachings remained in their churches. Dispensationalism thus developed into an interdenominational theology, and Darby’s teachings on the future restoration of Israel were gradually accepted in more mainstream evangelical churches because they were no longer connected to “Darbyism” or the “sect” of the Plymouth Brethren. Their acceptance contributed to the Jewish- and Israel-friendly atmosphere of large sections of American Christianity.

Darby and the Dispensationalism of the Plymouth Brethren represent an important transitional historical stage between traditional Replacement Theology and the development of a messianic Jewish theological perspective. Darby was a great and creative theologian, in many respects unknowingly a precursor of Messianic Judaism, whose explorations remain largely relevant up to this day. In some matters he erred greatly, as in his Secret Rapture doctrine. In other matters he grasped the truth with stumbling, as in his ecclesiology and Dispensationalism. In yet other things he was simply right, as in his uncompromising affirmation that the nation of Israel will gloriously be restored and is destined to become the head of all the nations in the Kingdom of Messiah.

Since we are recommended to remember them “who have spoken unto you the word of G-d” and to follow their faith, “considering the end of their conversation” (Hebr. 13:7), I think it proper for Messianics, especially those of a Plymouth Brethren background, to honour the Yahrzeit of John Nelson Darby.

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[1] Especially the distinctions involved in the Kingdom Offer to Israel, by the ministries of the forerunner, John the Baptist, Messiah and his Apostles. There are various dispensational hypothesis as to when the Kingdom Offer expired. In our opinion the Kingdom is offered to Israel until the end of the Acts of the Apostles. It expired in Acts 28:28.

[2] The letter is included in Darby’s Collected Writings and entitled: Considerations Addressed to the Archbishop of Dublin and the Clergy who Signed the Petition to the House of Commons for Protection (Dublin 1827)

[3] View for example his articles: “Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ” (Dublin 1828), and: “Separation from Evil God’s Principle of Unity”.

[4] In a letter of April 13th, 1832, Darby wrote: “Plymouth, I assure you, has altered the face of Christianity to me, from finding brethren, and they acting together.” [Cf. Darby, Letters Vol. III, Appendix, p. 230 — Heijkoop Edition 1971.] For the early history of the Plymouth Brethren, view: Peter L. Embley, The Origins and Early Development of the Plymouth Brethren, St. Paul’s College — Cheltenham 1966.

[5] This view is expressed in Darby’s article: “The Hopes of the Church of God in Connection with the Destiny of the Jews and the Nations as Revealed in Prophecy” (Eleven Lectures delivered in Geneva, 1840)

The 7th of Tammuz: The Yahrzeit of Manuel Lacunza (5561)

 

There are not many Roman Catholic theologians who could make a legitimate claim of being worthy of having their Yahrzeit remembered by Messianic Jews and their co-religionists. And one would certainly not expect a priest of the Jesuit order to be an exception to this. However, if there is a Roman clergyman deserving to be an exception it is Manuel Lacunza (1731-1801), who can be regarded as the founder of modern Christian Zionism and Millenarianism. [1]

Manuel Lacunza Y Diaz was born in Santiago (Chile) as the son of Charles and Josefa Diaz. His father was a wealthy merchant in colonial trade between Lima and Chile. Manuel entered the religious life and joined the Jesuit order in 1747. He was ordained a priest in 1766. His daily profession was being a teacher in grammar at a school in Santiago. He seems to have enjoyed some fame as a pulpit preacher.

In 1767 Lacunza had to face the misfortune of the expulsion of the Jesuit order from the Spanish Americas by king Charles III. The specific reasons for this expulsion are still shrouded in an air of mystery. All we know with certainty is that the European monarchs felt threatened by Jesuit political power and were under the influence of Enlightenment secularism. The expulsion from Latin America was not an isolated phenomenon. In 1759 the Jesuits had been expelled from Portugal, and in 1762 from France.

The expulsion forced Lacunza and his fellow Jesuits into exile in Europe, first to Cadiz in Andalusia, and later to Imola, within the surroundings of Bologna. When in 1799 the Spanish Crown lifted the restrictions against the Jesuits, Lacunza did not return to Chile. He lived in Imola until his death in 1801. [2]

In 1773 Pope Clement XIV for political reasons dissolved the Jesuit order altogether. Against his will, and without any possibility of appeal, Lacunza thus found himself secularized by papal decree.

These events seem to have caused severe spiritual blows to Lacunza, who, to regain his peace of mind and to find consolation in the midst of the troubles of life, devoted himself to religious studies, especially of holy Scripture. He became gradually fascinated by the subject of prophecy. The main result of his studies was a book in three volumes, entitled La Venida del Mesías en Gloria y Majestad — which later (in 1826 or 27) was published in a two volume English translation by the Rev. Edward Irving (1792-1834) as: The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty. [3]

Lacunza’s work was completed in 1790 but the first Spanish edition was not printed until 1810 or 1811, about ten years after his death. The remarkable thing about the book is that it defends the idea of a future glorious restoration of the Jewish nation in a millennial Kingdom Age to be inaugurated by the return of Messiah Yeshua. It contains a fundamental criticism of the traditional doctrine of the Church on the Jewish people.

One of the famous passages deserving our attention is the following (Vol I, p. 326 of Irving’s edition):

The Jews may be considered in three states infinitely different: the first, is that which they were in before Messiah; the second, is that which they have held, and still hold, since the death of Messiah, in consequence of having  rejected him, and much more, of having obstinately persisted in their unbelief; the third is yet future, nor is it known when it shall be. In these three states are they frequently regarded and spoken of in scripture; and in each it regards them under four principal aspects.

In the first state, before Messiah, the scriptures regard them; First, as the owners and legitimate masters of all that portion of the earth which God himself gave to their fathers in solemn and perpetual gift: “All the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever,” Gen. xv. 18. and xiii. 15. Secondly; it considers them as the only people of God, or which is the same as his church. Thirdly; as a true and lawful spouse of God himself, whose espousals were solemnly celebrated in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, Exod. xix. and Ezek. xxiii. Fourthly; it considers them as endued with another kind of life infinitely more valuable than natural life.

In the second state, after Messiah, it considers them; First, as disinherited of their native land, scattered to every wind, and abandoned to the contempt and derision, and hatred, and barbarity of all nations. Secondly; as deprived of the honour and dignity of the people of God, as if God himself were no longer their God. Thirdly; as a faithless and most ungrateful spouse, ignominiously cast forth from the house  of her husband, despoiled of all her attire and precious jewels, which had been heaped upon her with such profusion, and enduring the greatest hardships and miseries in her solitude, in her dishonour, in her total abandonment of heaven and earth. Fourthly; it regards them as deprived of that life which so highly distinguished them from all the living.

In the third state still future, but infallibly believed and expected, Divine Scripture regards them; First, as gathered again, by  the omnipotent arm of the living God, from among all the peoples and nations of the world, as restored to their own land, and reestablished in it, not to be removed for ever. “And I will plant them and not pluck them up,” Jer. xxiv. 6. “And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be pulled up out of their land which I have given them,” Amos ix. 15. Secondly; it regards them as restored with the highest honour, and with the greatest advantages, to the dignity of the people of God, yea, even under another and an everlasting covenant. “And I will bring them again unto this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God…And I will make an everlasting covenant with them,” Jer. xxxii. 37,38,40. Thirdly; it considers them as a spouse  of God, so much beloved in other times, whose desolation, trouble, affliction, and lamentation, do at length move the heart of her husband; who, forgetting his wrongs and reconciled, recalls her to  her ancient dignity, receives her with the warmest welcome, forgets all the past, restores her to all her honours, and, opening his treasures, heaps upon her new and greater gifts; clothes her with new attire, adorns her with new and inestimable jewels, incomparably more precious than those which she had lost; Isa. xl. 49. Hos. ii. 18. Micah vii. Fourthly and finally; the scriptures consider them as resuscitated and reanimated with that spirit of life, of which, for so many ages, they have been deprived. These three estates of the Jews perfectly correspond to the three states of the life of holy Job, which we may regard as a figure, or as a history written in cypher of the three mighty revolutions of the people of God.

Lacunza adopted the Jewish pen-name Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra, and posed himself in the work as a Jew converted to Christianity.  This was a tactical move to raise the curiosity of the Jews and to get the book accepted and read by them. [4]

In the Dedication of the work — which is “To the Messiah Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Son of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, Son of David, and Son of Abraham” (ibid., p. 135) — Lacunza mentions three motives for its composition. First, he says that he wanted the Roman priesthood “to shake off the dust from their Bibles, inviting them to a new study and examination, a new and more attentive consideration of that Divine Book” (ibid.). Second, he wanted to prevent as many people as he could reach from slipping “towards the horrible gulf of infidelity” (ibid, p. 136). His third motive is that he wanted give the Jews “knowledge of their true Messiah whom they love, and for whom they sigh night and day without knowing Him” (ibid.).

I understand the first motive to mean that in the midst of the perils and revolutionary upheavels of his times Lacunza wanted improve the level of knowledge of the holy Scriptures of the priesthood in general and more specifically about the subject of biblical prophecy, with the purpose of strengthening the Church. This at least seems to be implied by the following passage: “What advantages might we not expect from this new study, were it possible to re-establish it among the priests, in themselves qualified, and by the church set apart for masters and teachers of the christian community!” (ibid., p. 136).

The second motive is tightly connected to the first. It seems that Lacunza thought that a genuine knowledge of biblical prophecy would give Catholic Christians a perspective that would be able to strenghten their faith and give them the consolation that the tumultuous course of world history was not something outside the scope of the divine purpose — or irrelevant to it — but was part of the very process by which the destination of all things in Messiah’s Kingdom was to realized. By knowing the outline of biblical prophecy, Lacunza hoped, Catholics would be withheld from adopting secular views and from the dangers of apostasy. Essentially, Lacunza thus held his work to be an answer to the devastating influences of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

The third motive is again tightly connected to the first and the second, and is essentially to give the Jewish people an opportunity to proper and scriptural knowledge of their Messiah, in preparation for the Second Coming.

Although these motives were in Lacunza’s mind related to efforts to maintain the Roman Church system, it is not difficult to discover in them a latent criticism of Catholicism. In fact his interpretation of biblical prophecy can be called the remote starting point of a dispensational type of eschatology. With some caution Lacunza can be considered as the father of modern dispensationalist millennialism. He offered an explanation for the recently diminished authority of the Church to traditional Christians and equipped them for the apocalyptic events which were to happen sooner or later and would lead to the return of Jesus Christ. The messianic kingdom couldn’t come without a temporary rise of evil, culminating in an anti-Christian regime, which in its turn would be destroyed by Christ at his Second Advent.

Despite its latent — and at times not so latent — criticism of Catholicism, Lacunza’s work was received by the Church’s authorities with a certain benevolency. Although it didn’t reflect the traditional Catholic teachings about the Second Coming and the end of the world, Rome found nothing wrong or heretical with Lacunza’s approach, as Ovid E. Need remarks in his Death of the Church Victorious (p. 48). [5] And it must be admitted that in a manner Lacunza continued and expanded an existing Catholic and Jesuit tradition of interpretation. When the Reformers accused the Papacy to be the Antichrist, and began to interpret the Book of the Apocalypse accordingly, the theologians of the Counter Reformation, particularly the Jesuits, tried to answer the Protestant charges by adopting futurist interpretations. It was a Jesuit, Francisco Ribiera (1537-1591), who took the position that the events described in John’s Revelation had nothing to do with the course of Church history but belonged to the distant future and were to happen immediately before the end of the world.

The new element in Lacunza’s interpretations was that he combined a futurist prophetic model with a literal interpretation of the texts of Scripture, and in this way he was led to the idea of a future restoration of the Jewish nation. He not only expanded the dynamics of the futurist interpretation model, but he also shattered the limits imposed upon it by the inherent constraints of Roman Catholicism.

The person who was asked to inspect Lacunza’s book and give advice to the ecclesiastical censor was a certain Fr. Paul, who gave his judgment not until after a long period of study and meditation. He confessed his great admiration for the author and his work:

[…] every time that I have read it over, my admiration has been redoubled in witnessing the profound study which the author had made of the Holy Scriptures; the method, order, and exactness which adorn his work; and, above all, the light which it casts upon the most deep mysteries and obscure passages of the sacred books.

The truth, the abundance, and  natural application of the  passages which he adduces from the sacred Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testaments, incline me in such a way to the understanding and reception of his system, that I dare take upon me to affirm, that, if what he says be false, never has falsehood  presented itself so attired in the simple and beautiful garb of truth, as this author hath set it forth in:  for the tone of ingenuousness and candour, the very simplicity of the style, the invitation which he always gives to read the whole of the chapter, or chapters he quotes from, as well as those which precede and follow the quotation, the exact correspondence, not only with the quotations, but with that sense of the sacred text which first strikes the mind; all this, I say, gives such strong presumption of truth, that it seems impossible to refuse one’s assent, unless through obstinate prepossession in favour of the contrary system. (Vol I, p.131)

Fr. Paul added that Lacunza’s system of interpreting prophecy was not new, but had firm roots in the ancient Church. He uttered only a single reservation:

Nevertheless, when I take into consideration the number of ages which have elapsed in the church, without even the mention of this system, otherwise than as a fabulous opinion; and advert to certain fathers and doctors, as Jerome, Augustine, Gregory, and to all the theologians since their day, who treat it with aversion, and some of them as positive error; I cannot help quaking and trembling, under the impression that there is less risk in erring with so many learned and very holy masters, than in venturing to aim at the mark by one’s own inclination and judgment. (ibid.)

His final conclusion was favourable, and he recommended the work should receive a permission to be printed:

[…] my judgement is; That in this work there is not contained any thing repugnant to our holy faith, but that it may be of good service in making known, and publishing abroad, many truths, whereof the knowledge, though not absolutely necessary in the first ages of the church, is become indispensable in the times in which we now live.

And with respect to customs, not only does it contain nothing contrary thereto, but on the other hand tends much to reform them by the motives which it brings forward; as will appear from what I shall slightly point out, First; by the magnificent idea which he gives of our Lord Jesus Christ, clothed with glory and majesty, and of his immense empire and power, he stimulates the soul to that fear and love of him, which is the fountain of all righteousness. He infuses, moreover, into the mind a profound feeling of the truth of the holy scriptures, and draws to the perusal of them all believers, and especially the priests, to whom above others belong the exact understanding and explanation of them. The hearts of true christians he fills with fear and trembling, by showing them how they themselves through the looseness of discipline, are threatened with that most fearful calamity which the Jews endure at present, of being cast out from the marriage chamber, which is the holy church, into the outer darkness of infidelity in which they shall perish, for ever lost to Christ Jesus the Saviour. Before the unbelievers and ungodly, who have renounced the profession of their faith, he sets forth with energy and truth, the horrible  lot to which they are reserved, if they renounce not with detestation their blasphemies and errors, and cease not to fight against the Lord, and his Christ. To all classes of men it may be profitable; because it turns their eyes inwards upon themselves, and leads them to consider their eternal destiny, and so to shun their own ruin, and the desolation of the whole earth, when, as God hath told us by the mouth of his prophet, “desolations, &c”. (ibid., pp. 133-134)

This verdict did not prevent the later prohibition of Lacunza’s book by the Roman Holy Office in 1824. The prohibition was repeated in a condemnation of Lacunza’s type of Millennialism in 1941. [6]

Meanwhile Lacunza’s work had drawn wider attention, and already in 1816 it appeared in London. Irving was so impressed by it that he translated it into English. His translation was published in 1827, with a critical introduction of more than a hundred pages, since Irving’s opinions differed in important respects from Lacunza’s. Although Irving believed in a future Millennium, he took a historicist position in many issues of prophetic hermeneutics. However, Irving was a preacher who was famous for his rhetorical skills and he enjoyed great popularity among the higher classes. The fact that his name was attached to Lacunza’s book did its work and within no time The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty obtained the status of a Christian cult book. [7] Prophetic conferences were organized to study and discuss its implications.[8]

The founder of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) developed Lacunza’s thought definitely into the direction of a systematic dispensationalist theology. Darby separated the Church and Israel through the introduction of the (unbiblical) doctrine of a Secret, pre-tribulational Rapture of the Church. [9]

Notwithstanding Darby’s additions — or even perhaps because of them — it was through the enormous influence of the Brethren movement that large parts of orthodox Christianity, in particular in the US, were converted to Millennialism and accepted the idea of a restoration of the Jewish nation in a future messianic Kingdom.

We cannot agree to the theoretical framework and the presuppositions of Darby’s dispensationalist theology with its opposition between Law and Grace and its separation between Israel and the Assembly of Messiah, and certainly not to his introduction of a Secret Rapture. Yet we must acknowledge that it was through Darby and his followers that the idea of a future restoration of Israel, which is fundamental for all branches of Messianic Judaism, has spread over all the earth.

One of the implications of this idea, once it is detached from its dispensationalist limitations and errors and brought back to the framework of a covenantal theology, is nothing less than the necessity of a return to a Torah observant lifestyle for the whole Body of Messiah. There are thus enough reasons to honour the memory of an important initiator of it, Manuel Lacunza.

Lacunza was a great and creative theological thinker and a person of great spirituality, as is confirmed by his admirers and his opponents. He did not fall into despair because of the humiliations of his exile and his undeserved secularization. He led a life of prayer and study and served his Lord day and night. He saw his suffering as a means of sharing in the suffering of Messiah.

We may perhaps add that Lacunza’s sufferings have contributed to return to a biblical perspective on that time when Yeshua shall arrive “in glory and majesty” to accept his reign as the King-Messiah of all Israel.

During his exile in Italy Lacunza used to undertake solitary walks during which he thought and meditated. It is assumed that he died of natural causes during one of these. On June 18, 1801, he was found dead in a pit beside a road not far from Imola. On the Jewish calendar this was the 7th of Tammuz of the year 5561. Upcoming Shabbat is his 210th Yahrzeit. May his memory continue to be a blessing.

I think it is proper for messianic congregations and individuals to keep in remembrance Manuel Lacunza and to pay attention to his Yahrzeit, especially those with historical roots in Catholicism, the Plymouth Brethren, or the Irvingites.

Yahrzeit Prayer:

O G-d, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy Holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed virgin Miryam; for the holy patriarchs, apostles and martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants known to us and unknown; and also for our teacher — in thee and for thee — Manuel Lacunza Y Diaz; and we beseech thee that, encouraged and inspired by their examples, and strengthened by their fellowship, we may with them be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light, in that great Day of the Appearing of our Lord and Saviour Yeshua the Messiah, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.

Remark:

In case one wants to burn a Yahrzeit light during Shabbat care should be taken to kindle the Yahrzeit light before the Shabbat candles are lit. After Shabbat the Yahrzeit light can be used to kindle the Havdalah candle.

______________

[1] For an historical study of XIXth century Millennarianism, Christian Zionism, and Prophetic Futurism view: Sandeen, Ernest R., The Roots of Fundamentalism. British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930, The University of Chicago Press — Chicago & London 1970.

[2] For some biographical facts on Lacunza, view the Wikipedia article about him, at: Wikipedia: Manuel Lacunza. There is also a good article on Lacunza on an Adventist website, which gives a basic summary of his book, by Sergio Olivares, “Manuel Lacunza: The Adventist Connection”, at: College and University Dialogue.

[3] Ben-Ezra, Juan Josafat, The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty, translated from the Spanish, with a preliminary discourse by the Rev. Edward Irving, A.M. Published by L.B. Seeley & Son, Fleet Street — London 1827 (J.G. Tillin, England 2000). This edition is in two volumes and is currently available as a web publication at the Birthpangs website: Volume I & Volume II.

[4] Others say that Lacunza adopted this pseudonym to hide himself before the authorities. Both possibilities are not mutually exclusive.  Sandeen remarks (p. 17-18): “His treatise, completed about 1791, was not published during his lifetime for fear of condemnation by the authorities, but manuscript copies circulated and some printed editions appeared in Spain and Latin America beginning about 1812. Shortly before Irving’s translation appeared, the work was placed on the Index, which was not surprising since Lacunza had concluded that the Catholic hierarchy and priesthood were the Antichrist”. Sandeen is not entirely correct here. Lacunza’s position was that the Catholic hierarchy would in the prophetic future develop into an anti-Christian power. Notwithstanding this nuance, there was obviously enough reason to fear the Inquisition.

[5] Need, Ovid E., Death of the Church Victorious. Tracing the Roots and Implications of Modern Dispensationalism, Sovereign Grace Publishers — Lafayette, Indiana 2002.

[6] For some details and for references to official Church documents on this condemnation, view Denzigers Enchiridion: The Lacunza case can be found under Denz. no. 3839 (ed. XXXVI).

[7] According to Sandeen (p. 17) “Irving spent the whole of the summer of 1826 on leave from his parish duties, translating a millenarian treatise by a Chilean Jesuit, Manuel Lacunza. The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty was a ponderous two-volume work, seldom cited by later British millenarians; in fact, many of Lacunza’s positions were rejected by the British school and by Irving himself. Yet the aura of mystery and providential intervention surrounding the book drew Irving into the labor of translation and seems to have stimulated a short period of popularity for its name if not for its substance”. The “providential intervention” mentioned by Sandeen refers to the coincidence that Irving had just learned Spanish when he received the work (ibid., p. 18): “Irving had not known any Spanish until a few months before he was sent a copy of Lacunza’s book. That he had begun learning Spanish (while trying to assist some Spanish refugees) just at the moment this startling work from the Catholic “underground” appeared at his door convinced him that he was being providentially prepared to present the work to the British public. Even though Lacunza’s prophetic interpretations often varied from the customary British views, he did make a strong case for the premillennial advent of Christ, and this was the aspect of his work that Irving and the British millenarians emphasized. Lacunza might have been confused on some points (so the defense ran), but notice the manner in which testimony from this Roman Catholic scholar reinforces our heralding of the imminent return of Christ”. Sandeen’s account suggests that Irving already held millenarian views before he got acquainted with Lacunza’s work. This is controversial. There are many voices insisting that Lacunza was influenced by Ribiera, Irving by Lacunza, and Darby by Irving. It is difficult, however, to find reliable sources about the actual historic development of movements like Millenarianism and Dispensationalism. According to Mark Patterson and Andrew Walker (p. 107) “the influence of Lacunza (and fellow Jesuits Alcazar and Reberia) upon nineteenth century millennianism may prove profound” [Mark Patterson & Andrew Walker, “‘Our Unspeakable Comfort’ Irving, Albury, and the Origins of the Pre-tribulation Rapture” In: Stephen Hunt (ed.), Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco, Indiana University Press — Bloomington and Indianapolis 2001.]

[8] For example the Albury and Powerscourt conferences. Cf. Sandeen, pp. 18-22 & 34-38.

[9] It is disputed whether Darby can be called the originator of the concept of the Secret Rapture, or that others had preceded him. In any case, Darby systematized it by adopting a consequent dispensationalist hermeneutics, and in this form the concept became a part of the highly influential theology of the Plymouth Brethren.

Roman Catholicism and the Jerusalem Council

The Church and the Apostolic Decree of Acts XV

 

For Christians today the principle of abstaining “from pollutions of idols”, the first precept of the Apostolic Council of Acts XV (15:20, 29) often sounds antiquated, because in our secular society institutionalized idolatry no longer seems to exist. But in important respects this situation is one of superficial appearance. On second thoughts, large sections of Christianity itself are contaminated by idolatry and superstitition, based on swerving from biblical truth. It may be hard to digest for us that idolatry is found in the people of G-d. There is nothing new in this, however, and it is a problem of all times. As Messianics we should acknowledge this sad state of affairs, and do our best to rectify it by our own walk of life and by thoughtfully and lovingly drawing our fellow believers’ attention to it.

Modern Messianic Judaism to a large extent finds its historical roots in diverse sections of evangelical Christianity. Naturally, therefore, Messianics have inherited many characterics of the mindset of evangelical Christians. Even if Torah observance has brought many changes to their ideas as well as in their practical walk of life, Messianics are often maintaining two typical features of evangelical Christians. These are: 1) An emphasis on the necessity of personal faith in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus Christ) for eternal salvation; and 2) A certain disregard for typical traditional denominational distinctions.

These two features are part of a biblical mindset which should be cherised as the right mean between the two dangers of, on the one hand, a denominational small-mindedness excluding true believers, and, on the other hand, an ecumenical latitudinarianism or liberalism compromising the core of the Gospel message.

The introduction of a positive orientation towards the Torah, however, has added some new biblical sensibilities to the messianic mindset. One of the more conspicuous of these is the heightened awareness of the evil nature of idolatry and sins associated with it. Although this awareness is part and parcel of Christianity in general — and of Protestantism in particular — in a messianic context it acquires new practical meaning. This is due, mainly, to the fact that the Apostolic Decree of the Jerusalem Council is given far greater weight and attention in messianic circles than in average Christianity. For non-trinitarian Messianics there is the important additional point that the doctrine of the Deity of Messiah is exposed as false in the light of Scripture.

In our days, when many Church traditions are crumbling and old denominational differences no longer paid attention to, evangelicals often face the question how to approach Catholics, especially Roman Catholics: Are they to be considered Christians? And what practical implications do we face in our intercourse with Catholics? Can we work and worship together with them? These questions are even more topical for Messianics than for evangelical Christians in general, given the vague taint of idolatry that surrounds Catholicism. For Messianics indications of idolatry are especially alarming, as I have said above, and for them the just mentioned questions amount to this critical and very fundamental issue: Are Roman Catholics Christians or are they idolaters? From a messianic viewpoint our answer to this question and its practical ramifications should to a great extent be based on the precepts of the Jerusalem Council in Acts ch. XV.

The first thing one should take into account when dealing with the world-wide phenomenon of the Roman Catholic Church is that the overwhelming majority of its members are only nominal Catholics. They don’t actively subscribe to their Church’s doctrinal teachings and far less do follow its practical religious and moral precepts. They are baptized members that in many cases want to have a Church wedding and a Church burial, but that apart from some attraction to these life-cycle rituals show no particular Christian religious interest. This state of affairs leads to low expectations about the number of Roman Catholics that can be considered Christians from a biblical point of view. Evangelical Christians — and there are good reasons to reckon Messianics as Evangelicals in this question — are often misled here by the impressive liturgical traditions of Catholicism, by its staunch hierarchical and authoritarian structure, and by its official orthodoxy regarding the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

The two biblical verses that are the shortest and simplest expressions of the Gospel message found in the Bible are perhaps John 3:16 and Romans 10:9. John 3:16 says: “G-d so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life”. Romans 10:9 says: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Yeshua, and shalt believe in thine heart that G-d hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved”.

If, with these verses in mind, one asks Roman Catholics about their personal faith and trust in Yeshua one almost always gets evasive and non-committal answers, sometimes even clear denials of faith. Only very seldom one gets a positive affirmation of belief “in Christ”. One of the most often given positive answers is that they believe “in the Church”, without being able to specify what that means or implies. Cardinal John Henry Newman, the famous XIXth century Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism, elaborated on this faith “in the Church” in his Grammar of Assent. He defended the position that for the average Catholic it is enough to have “implicit faith”. By this he meant to say that the explicit affirmation of belief “in the Catholic Church” — which is a distinct article of faith in the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds — includes implicit assent to all the Church’s teachings and precepts. He says:

The difficulty is removed by the dogma of the Church’s infallibility, and of the consequent duty of “implicit faith” in her word. The “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic’s mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church. [1]

It can hardly be admitted, however, that such “implicit faith” qualifies as saving faith in the biblical sense. Biblical faith is trusting faithfulness in the G-d of Israel and his Anointed one, Yeshua. The implicit faith of Cardinal Newman isn’t the personal trust in G-d as found in Abraham, the father of all the faithful, and described by the words: “And he believed in HaShem; and He counted it unto him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The biblical faith is an explicit faith in G-d and in the message that comes from G-d. An implicit faith based on reliance on the teachings of a religious body without the requirement of any explicit personal commitment to the person of the Saviour and the contents of the message is certainly not enough for salvation. In his epistle to the Romans the Apostle Paul says (10:13) that “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”. And he continues (10:14-15): “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!”.

This construction of “implicit faith” finds its theological motivation in the impossibility of the average Christian to have an adequate theological knowledge of the mysteries of faith which he affirms in the Church’s Creed. How, for instance, is it said, could a simple Catholic ever have a true faith if this faith were dependent on his own personal theological knowledge? To correctly believe what is called the “mystery of the Holy Trinity” he would have to understand that in the One G-d there are two processions, three persons, four subsistent relations and five notions.

The problem with this motivation is, however, that it offers a solution for a difficulty that doesn’t exist from a biblical and evangelical viewpoint. The Bible doesn’t teach us the “mysteries” of Catholicism and doesn’t demand our “faith” in them. It demands returning to G-d in true repentance and amendment of life, trusting in Him and in the redemption He made available for us in the person and work of Messiah Yeshua, and walking a life of continual trusting faithfulness. As to doctrinal truth, part of this walk of faithfulness is of course to become acquainted with Holy Scripture and to accept its teachings.

By comparing the basic biblical attitude of faith, which is trusting faithfulness, and “faith” as understood by Catholicism, which is the affirmation of dogmatic Church doctrine, one becomes aware of a fundamental distortion of the nature of faith caused by Roman Church doctrine. Although this Church theoretically holds that faith without love is dead and that to be saved a person has to be in what is called “the state or condition of grace”, all this only points to the fact that the Catholic expects his salvation from the Church institution rather than from Jesus Christ personally. For, one may ask, what is this Catholic “state of grace”? It is being baptized in a valid manner and having subjected oneself to the authority of the Roman Church, especially in the domains of doctrine and morals, and practically in the manner of confessing and doing repentance. This practice consists in regular auricular confession of one’s sins to a Roman priest and doing the “acts of penance” imposed or recommended by him.

Essentially, thus, subjection to the Roman Church is what is presented here as the way of salvation. In fact this is not salvation in a biblical sense at all. One can state without exaggeration that — because of the enormous doctrinal errors found in Roman Catholic teaching — there is hardly any officially proclaimed dogma of the Church that has the mark of truth according to biblical standards. Many of the Church’s teachings are outrightly superstitious or idolatrous in nature from a biblical perspective. It is well-known that idolatry and superstition are among the worst sins mentioned in the Torah, and that idolatry was one of the main concerns of the Jerusalem Council of Acts XV. Idolatry and superstition are very grave sins, because they directly impair the relationship with the only true G-d. The endorsement of idolatry and superstition throughout history by the Roman Church is therefore one of  the most worrisome and troubling characteristics of this religious body. This Church has teachings and practices which cause its members to sin gravely by adhering to them and which actually endanger the salvific relationship of the true believer with his heavenly Father.

The idolatry committed by the Roman Church is nowhere clearer than in its main act of worship, the “Mass”. The Roman Catholic Mass pretends to be a representative repetition of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ under the species of bread and wine used for its version of “Holy Communion”. The Church teaches that the bread and wine used in the celebration are transsubstantiated by the “consecration formula” (“This is my body, …&c”; “This is the blood of the New Covenant…&c”). These elements are taught to become the very body and blood of Jesus Christ. While the outward appearance of the bread and wine remains intact, the real being or substance of it is changed in Christ’s body and blood. Since the body and blood of Christ do not exist apart from his soul the Church teaches that “the whole Christ” is contained in the Sacrament. The Roman Catholic dogma that Jesus Christ is G-d implies here that the transsubstantiated substances of bread and wine of the Roman Eucharist contain G-d Himself and thus are worthy of divine worship and adoration. A piece of bread is thus honored as if it were G-d Himself. [2]

One the abominable consequences of this doctrine of Transsubstantiation is the teaching that a person drinking the wine of the Eucharist doesn’t actually drink wine at all, but the literal substance of the blood of Christ. It may smell and taste like wine, but its essence is the human blood of Christ. Likewise, the person eating the bread of the Eucharist is literally eating the substance of Christ’s body.

From this it is evident that what happens in the Roman Mass is nothing less than an outright perversion of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as depicted in the Gospels and in Paul’s first Corinthian letter. On the one side what we have here is earthly products made by humans being elevated to the sphere of the divine and superstitiously and idolatrously worshipped as G-d. And on the other side we have those partaking of the “sacramental species” according to their own profession of faith literally eating human flesh and blood.

No long argument is needed to demonstrate that any consumption of human flesh and blood is totally contrary to biblical teaching. The Roman doctrine doesn’t only violate the kashrut laws of Judaism. It violates basic concepts of the Torah that are obligatory for all mankind. Human flesh and blood are prohibited food for all, even if one holds the position that Gentile Christians are only bound by the laws given to Noach. The meat permitted to Noachides in Gen. 9:3 is clearly the meat from animals, not from humans. From this it follows that the consumption of human blood is already excluded even apart from the explicit prohibition against blood in Gen. 9:4.

The Apostolic Council by its four prohibitions ordained that Gentiles could not be admitted to the fold of believers in Yeshua unless they separated themselves from paganism and idolatry. Therefore the new Gentile believers were summoned to abstain from “meats offered to idols” (Acts 15:29). Roman Catholicism publicly sins against this apostolic injunction by insisting that the bread of the Eucharist is the literal flesh of Jesus and by honouring it with divine worship. One of the characteristics of paganism in the days of the Apostles was the consumption of (sacrificial) blood. Therefore Gentiles had to abstain from it before they could be admitted as genuine believers. Roman Catholicism, however, publicly sins against this verdict of the Apostles by its teaching that the wine of the Eucharist is turned into the literal blood of Jesus by the consecration of the Roman priest. By biblical criteria the Roman Mass is thus exposed as a public act of idolatry.

This leads to the devastating conclusion that the Apostles wouldn’t have admitted Roman Catholics — had they existed in their days — to the Assembly of believers. I’m well aware of the fact that this conclusion is anachronistic, but yet it reveals the enormous deviations from apostolic teaching that have taken place in the later history of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, which adorns itself with the gift of infallibilty in its dogmatic and moral teachings, would never have been acknowledged by the same Apostles it so vehemently claims to follow as a legitimate community of believers.

It does not simply follow from this that in Catholicism there are no true believers in Yeshua at all. They are difficult to find, however, and without doubt they are a tiny minority in a sea of unbelief and superstition. But what does actually follow from this is that the average Catholic cannot be accepted as a true believer, and that Catholics who want to stay in the Roman Church cannot without relunctance be acknowledged by messianic congregations as fellow believers. It would be very problematic to admit Catholics in Messianic congregations without requiring them to sever their ties with a Church which by its own official act of worship commits a sin of idolatry. It would violate the prohibitions of the Apostolic Decree to have Catholics admitted to messianic congregations while remaining in practical communion with the Church of Rome.

How should Torah observant Messianics relate to Roman Catholics? While it is clear that Catholics are not outright pagans, in most cases they are only nominal Christians. Therefore I think we should follow the general guidelines of the Apostles for relating to unbelievers and approach Catholics as non-believers. We may eat with them, according to the permission of the Apostle (1 Cor. 11:27), but we should not participate in or attend their religious ceremonies, since these are tainted with idolatry and superstitition. Above all, we should bring them the true Gospel of Yeshua and try to open their hearts and minds for the Jewishness of the Messiah. We should try to use the elementary knowledge Catholics have of the biblical story to remind them that the true capital of the faith is Jerusalem, not Rome. It is a matter of life and death for them to get out of the paganized and anti-Jewish Christianity of the Roman Church, and be led to the King of the Jews. For when Messiah will return he’ll destroy the Roman Church and set up the Kingdom of Israel.

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[1] Newman, p. 150, at: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/grammar/chapter5-2.html  [J.H. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Longmans, Green & Co. — London · New York · Bombay 1903]

[2] Many Protestant denominations agree with the Roman dogma of the Deity of Christ. The dangers of public idolatry is less great, however, in the Protestant liturgy, because in their official worship these Churches often follow the biblical pattern of praying to the Father “through Jesus Christ our Lord”. In practice they honour Jesus Christ more as the human mediator with G-d than as member of the “Holy Trinity”. They don’t subscribe to the doctrine of Transsubstantiation and thus don’t worship any visible material substance.