December 11, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, December 11, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Vatican discourages evangelism of Jews, contravening clear teaching of Scripture
The biggest headline going into the weekend actually comes from the Vatican. Catholic News Service reports,
“Catholics are called to witness to their faith in Jesus before all people, including Jews, but the Catholic Church “neither conducts nor supports” any institutional missionary initiative directed toward Jews, says a new document from a Vatican commission.”Show Full Transcript
And yes, it really is important. Catholic News Service goes on to report,
“How God will save the Jews if they do not explicitly believe in Christ is “an unfathomable divine mystery,” but one which must be affirmed since Catholics believe that God is faithful to his promises and therefore never revoked his covenant with the Jewish people.”
That again according to this new report from an official commission at the Vatican, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Now anyone following Catholic theology knows that this story goes back hundreds of years. It goes back in the Catholic Church most urgently about 50 years. It goes back to the mid-1960s in what was known as the second Vatican Council or more popularly Vatican II. It was a major theological transformation within the Roman Catholic Church and one of the official doctrinal documents that was released by Vatican II was entitled,
That was a document that revolutionized the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings concerning the gospel and the Jews. It is actually an even far more wide-ranging document that describes the so-called Abrahamic faiths, that is Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and it describes them as having a common root. Back in the 1960s when “Nostra Aetate” of Vatican II was first released. The big story was that the Roman Catholic Church was softening its position on the Jews and in particular the question as to whether or not Christians should seek to convert Jews by the gospel of Jesus Christ. But even as evangelicals are paying at least some attention to the Catholic Church and Vatican II, the bigger story is that this reflected the Catholic Church adjusting itself to a new intellectual and cultural climate.
One that suggested it was out of bounds to suggest that anyone should be converted on theological grounds and that anyone was in any danger of not going to heaven because one had not heard of Jesus Christ and believed on him. Now that’s a more popular way of expressing it, but this is the question of the exclusivity of the gospel, a question that we should note that is answered decisively not only within the Scripture, but by Jesus himself who, in John chapter 14:6 said,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
This is where we have to think very carefully because the Roman Catholic Church, even in the document released just this week, we claim that it is also affirming John 14:6. This document very explicitly affirmed that there are not two covenants, a covenant with the Jews and then a covenant with Christians in Christ, but rather there is one covenant that has taken several successive forms. This is really important because we pay closer attention to this, it reveals several of the most crucial issues related to missions, evangelism and the gospel of Christ today. Back in the early 20th century liberal Protestants began to argue a so-called two covenant theology. That was that God had made two covenants in particular, one with the Jewish people and one with Christians. The suggestion was made by leading theologians of the time of a more liberal bent such as Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, that it was a form of anti-Semitism to suggest or to argue that Jews needed to come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Niebuhr and others argue that God had made a covenant with the Jews and that the covenant made in Christ was a separate covenant.
Now we need to note that is an explicit rejection of the clear teachings of Scripture, but it was at least a logical argument. The Roman Catholic Church in this document released yesterday is actually not saying what the liberal Protestants have said though they end up in the same place. The commission’s report released this week says that Catholics have no responsibility to seek to convert Jews to Christianity, but in its context, the document is actually more radical than that because it suggests that it would be wrong to argue that Jews need to come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church’s argument, however, differs from the two covenant theology of liberal Protestantism in arguing that it is one covenant and the Roman Catholic Church insists that salvation comes only through the covenant that is represented by Jesus Christ and thus, the Catholic News Service, not an evangelical news service, not a secular news service, seems to understand exactly what is at stake when they cite the question, how God will save the Jews if they do not explicitly believe in Christ is, according to this new document,
“An unfathomable divine mystery.”
Well, here’s where evangelicals need to understand why so many things are at stake with the release of this document and what we need to learn from not only the document and what it represents, but also the cultural conversation that is springing up around it. First of all, let’s face the question just on biblical terms; this document released by this Vatican commission argues that God has made an irrevocable covenant with Israel. Is that right or is that wrong? Well, of course it’s right and yet the entire flow of biblical history and biblical theology says that that covenant has been fulfilled in Christ. It is not negated in Christ. It is not succeeded by Christ, it is fulfilled in Christ. It was Christ himself who made very clear that he is the fulfillment of prophecy and the fulfillment of the law and he is the fulfillment of every covenant that came before that was given by the father. He is in particular the fulfillment of the covenant given to Abraham in which God made the covenant that in Abraham and in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. In the New Testament we have the explicit affirmation. For example, in the book of Hebrews in which it is explained that we now have a new and better covenant enacted on better promises, that is the promises of Christ and the book of Hebrews in the New Testament tells us explicitly that salvation itself was not found under the law, but rather it is found only in the internal washing that comes by the new covenant, which is made in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Going back to that Vatican II document, “Nostra Aetate”, the big issue here is that the Roman Catholic Church is trying to say effectively two things at once. There is salvation found only through Jesus Christ our Lord, and they are saying that Jews need not come to a conscious faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved. How in the world can they seek to say both things?
Well, in the first place, they attempt to say both things because they claim a doctrinal authority that basically claims that they and they alone as the official teaching magisterium of the church have the right to interpret Scripture and, this is what’s important, to develop doctrine. But secondly, we have to observe that the logic of Vatican II pointed to the development that was made clear by Catholic theologian Karl Rahner in the 1970s and 80s when he argued for what he called anonymous Christians. These were God fearers or believers in some sense in deity who would be discovered after their death to actually have been Christians because even though they did not know Christ, the God they were worshiping was actually Christ all along. Thus, there is anonymous Christianity and they were anonymous Christians. The big problem with that of course is that it flies directly in the face of the clear teachings of Scripture. It is Paul in Romans chapter 10; by the way, right in the midst of his argument as to why the Jewish people need the gospel, and must hear the gospel to be saved. It is the apostle Paul who makes very clear that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. It is Paul makes the argument that the Old Testament promise that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He says that salvation comes to those who confess with the lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in their hearts that God has raised him from the dead.
Again, it was Jesus himself who makes the classic statement of the fact that he is the only Savior when he says,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
Actually, in order to understand the clear authority of Scripture on this, all you have to do is to remember John 14:6 and Romans 10:9-10. There you have the comprehensive New Testament answer. Now it’s given in even fuller and more comprehensive form in the entirety of the New Testament. And furthermore, it is made clear, even as we think about the celebration of the birth of Christ when we read the opening chapters of the gospel of Matthew in which it is made abundantly clear in terms of biblical theology that Christ is the fulfillment of all of the prophecies and of all the prophets foretold. The reason this issue deserves so much attention on The Briefing today is because of the cultural and political importance of the Roman Catholic Church. Headlines all across the world are going to be broadcasting with congratulations coming from many interfaith and secular circles that the Roman Catholic Church is simply declared that it is no longer a matter of responsibility to evangelize the Jews and again, as this document makes clear implicitly, it is actually wrong to argue that the Jews are in need of hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ or that they must come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved.
Let’s remember, however, how the apostle Paul begins his letter to the Romans. When he says that he is,
“Not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God under salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.”
This is also where evangelicals have to understand that we stand upon the sole ultimate authority of Scripture and Scripture alone. This is where it is so important to remember that major theme known as the formal principle of the Reformation itself, Sola Scriptura. In the end, it is Scripture alone that is the ultimate authority. If any other authority can be higher than Scripture, including in particular, an official magisterium or teaching body of the church than the Scripture actually can be not only reinterpreted, but can be made to mean something different now than it did in times past.
Finally, we need to recognize perhaps most importantly as we are celebrating the birth of Christ, that Christ is the Savior of all who come to faith in him who repent of their sins, who believe and follow him in faith. Nowhere in any sense in the New Testament is there any loophole that says we are to go into all the world and preach the gospel, except to the Jews. The Bible is actually explicit and clear about this. There is no hope offered for salvation in any form to any person who does not come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, who does not confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and who does not believe in his or her heart that God has raised him from the dead.
University of Tennessee excludes Christmas festivity for the sake of cultural inclusivity
Next, speaking of headlines across the United States, datelined Knoxville, Tennessee, the University of Tennessee is back in the news. And once again, it’s a pretty revealing story and in this case, one that continues to perplex many people not only in Tennessee but far beyond. As the Nashville Tennessean, that’s Nashville, Tennessee’s major newspaper reported this week,
“Two state lawmakers are calling for the resignation of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s leader, and others are promising action after a post on the school’s website that encouraged employees to “ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.”
Now this time of year the media seems to feed on some so-called war on Christmas stories and that’s a series of stories, we have to watch pretty carefully, and we need to watch how we respond to it. The so-called war on Christmas is something that seems to fuel the media, but it’s also something that reveals the inevitable collision between an increasingly secularized society and any public affirmation of Christianity or even just symbolism that is associated with Christianity. The big issue here is not whether Christians are offended or should be offended, the big question here is what is this telling us about the society around us? In recent months, we talked about this very same University in a headline news story that went on across the nation, having to do with that University’s office of diversity and inclusion when the office put out a list of suggested pronouns including most especially gender nonspecific pronouns including the pronoun ze, replacing she or he. Now the very same office in the very same University is putting out a list of 10 different guidelines for holiday parties. We should note the University’s office has since taken the document down and revised it to be less problematic and to make fewer headlines. What’s really important however is that the document was released in the official website of this official office of the University of Tennessee, and this is the very same University, where the very same office put out a very similarly controversial set of pronoun guidelines only to have those taken down as well. There’s a pattern here.
Once again, the issue in raising this is not to find grounds for Christians to be offended, but rather for us to learn about how the culture around us is being transformed. 10 guidelines were offered by this University office and they bear close attention. For example, the guidelines included,
“Holiday parties and celebration should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture. Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.”
Well, hold on just a minute. How in the world do you build upon workplace relationships or how do you enhance team morale if indeed you but no emphasis on religion, on the one hand or culture in the other? This reflects a massive misunderstanding of what culture is. If you are there and you are talking to one another, there is culture in the midst of you, this is nonsensical. Secondly, consider having a New Year’s party and include decor and food from multiple religions and cultures, oh just a minute, they said there was to be no emphasis of religion and culture in guideline one, but we’ve moved on to guideline two.
“Use it as an opportunity to reinvigorate individuals for the New Year’s goals and priorities.”
That is why the airwaves are filled with so much moving and wonderful and motivational New Year’s music, as has been true going back throughout the centuries. Three,
“Supervisors and managers should not endorse or be perceived as endorsing religion generally or a specific religion.”
“If an individual chooses not to participate in a holiday party or celebration, do not pressure the person to participate. Participation should be voluntary.”
“If a potluck-style party or celebration is planned, encourage employees to bring food items that reflect their personal religions, cultures and celebrations.”
Wait just a minute. Again, guideline number one said, leave religion and culture out of it. Now it’s back, but it’s in the form of a casserole.
Said the guideline,
“As an opportunity for individuals to share what they brought and why it is meaningful to them.”
Six, this is the most problematic of all the guidelines published at the website for the University,
“If sending holiday cards to campus and community partners, send a nondenominational card or token of your gratitude.”
Now here’s where we note that the logic of a secularizing society moves to the point in which there is offense at the fact that you would share even a Christmas card, let’s be explicit, that’s what’s at stake here. If one were to share a Christmas card because one is a Christian, that is evidently now too much for a secular society, because there is now grounds for offense at the fact that you might celebrate Christmas and might seek to send anyone including fellow Christians within the university a Christmas card. Seven,
“Holiday parties and celebration should not play games with religious and cultural themes. For example,”
By the way, remember, religion, culture was out of it in guideline one, back in later guidelines, it’s out again.
“For example, the kind of games that are outside the bounds would include a dreidel or so-called Secret Santa. If you’re going to exchange gifts,” says the guideline, “then refer to it in a general way, such as a practical joke gift exchange or a secret gift exchange.”
“Décor selection should be general not specific to any religion or culture, identify specific dates when décor can be put up and when it must come down.”
“Refreshment selection should be general not specific to any religion or culture.”
And those are the words of the guideline,
“Most importantly, celebrate your religious and cultural holidays in ways that are respectful and inclusive of our students, your colleagues and our University.”
Which means don’t celebrate them. As I pointed out in the previous controversy, there at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, we’re talking about Knoxville, Tennessee. That’s what makes this story so urgently revealing. We’re not talking about Seattle or Manhattan or Berkeley, California, we’re talking about Knoxville, Tennessee, and the very same University with the very same office has had to basically be on the defensive twice, and for very good reason. And twice now the University has backed off of the advice given by the guidelines. But the guideline offering office is still very much at work and the university’s president is saying that the whole thing has been misconstrued. Pres. Cheek said in a statement,
“We are in no way trying to dismiss this very important Christian holiday. As a diverse campus, we do promote ways to be inclusive of all cultures and religions. I am disappointed that our efforts to be inclusive have been totally misconstrued.”
Mr. Chancellor, your university is not getting this reputation because these kinds of guidelines are being misconstrued. The university is getting this reputation because the guidelines are simply being read. As news reports have made very clear these guidelines did not go over well even on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and we can understand why. But it simply has to tell us something that the University of Tennessee located right there in Knoxville is evidently under such pressure from outside academic and political sources that it feels like it has to have an office that puts out this kind of guideline only to have the administration embarrassed, yet again, and have to either take down the document or revise it.
What this demonstrates is that the culture around us, especially in terms of the major academic centers, that culture is becoming so secularized that offense is becoming second nature. Offense at even hearing the name of Christ or offense at even a secret Santa party, but we also see here the internal contradictions when someone tries to come up with a policy that will somehow say we are respecting culture and religion. Just don’t ever talk about it. One of the things that marked the Bolshevik revolution in the Soviet Union was that the Bolsheviks tried to expunge Christmas, because after all, you really can’t talk about Christmas without talking about Christ. And the Bolshevik regime that is the new government of the USSR, the Soviet Union claimed ultimate power, ultimate sovereignty and the ultimate allegiance of its citizens. In that sense, Christmas was deeply subversive of a communist revolution and it remains so all the way to the fall of the Soviet Union. The secularizing of the culture and the establishment of a new moral regime means that the powers that be will try to conform holidays to the new revolutionary moral vision. This, once again, coming from Knoxville, Tennessee, shows us pretty much what that will look like.