11 September 2007

Being wary of legalism and man-made traditions

So, getting back to my background in legalistic Christianity...

All of this stuff from my past makes me highly suspicious of anything that smacks of man-made tradition. I spent so long trying to earn God's favor, trying to live up to standards that humans, not God, imposed on me and the thought of ever getting bogged down in something like that again gives me a sinking, hopeless feeling if I allow myself to go there in my mind. And this is my dilemma as I consider the claims of the Catholic Church.

As I study the teachings of the Catholic Church, I run into this problem time and again because of the Catholic teaching on the authority of Sacred Tradition. There are dozens of things that a person must do or assent to if they are to be considered a truly Catholic Christian that have little to no support in Scripture. Some of these beliefs include:

The Assumption of Mary

The Immaculate Conception

Missing mass or any Holy Day of Obligation being a possible mortal sin

Not fasting an hour before communion making one unable to receive the Eucharist. (see this thread for an example of what I mean.)

Issues surrounding the use of contraception such as a wife using the pill for medical reasons unrelated to pregnancy and this meaning the couple cannot have sex or a spouse with a communicable disease (AIDS, hepatits) and not being able to use condom to allow them to have sex without infecting the other.

In general, it's the Catholic Church's pattern of binding the believer's conscience on matters that Scripture either doesn't talk about or doesn't give enough detail to warrant such definitive rulings. I realize there are orthodox Christian doctrines that Scripture doesn’t go into a ton of detail about such as the Trinity, but there is enough in Scripture to toss aside the Oneness theology fairly easily if you use some basic logic. But the Catholic Church has elevated some pretty obscure beliefs to the level of official dogma that just doesn’t make sense to me. Where is the Assumption of Mary mentioned? And how do you build a case for the Immaculate Conception out of a vague “full of grace” reference? And while I do understand that Scripture teaches us not to “forsake the assembling of (our)selves together”, how does that translate into missing Mass or a Holy Day of Obligation being a mortal sin unless you were too sick or some other serious reason?

It just smacks of the same sort of building of doctrine on oblique Scripture references and man-made taboos and no-nos that I dealt with in the Assemblies of God. It seems to run completely counter to admonitions in the New Testament such as this from the Apostle Paul:

Colossians 2:8, 16-21

8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ… 16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (emphasis mine)

If you bind someone’s conscience regarding Sunday Mass or various non-Sabbath Holy Days for instance, how is that not passing judgment on someone with regard to festivals and Sabbaths? And while fasting an hour before receiving the Eucharist might be a good practice, should we be making it a requirement to the point of telling someone not to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord if they forgot and ate something within that time frame?

If I’m being honest, this sort of thing scares me. I’ve been in the rut of adding to God’s requirements and it only ends with frustration. The commands He does give are hard enough to live up to without piling on a few extras just because I think they are good things. On the one hand, Catholics don’t seem to be all hung up on certain externals like drinking alcohol in the way that so many conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists seem to be. But then there’s this whole host of other things that you never hear a peep about in Protestant churches that they do get hung up on. It just seems like a journey to Rome just trades one set of man-made legalisms for another. And that worries me as I weigh the merits and claims of the Catholic Church.

17 comments:

Josh S said...

If you bind someone’s conscience regarding Sunday Mass or various non-Sabbath Holy Days for instance, how is that not passing judgment on someone with regard to festivals and Sabbaths?

The traditional Catholic interpretation was that Paul was only talking about binding someone's consciences to Jewish traditions, but he was quite in favor of binding people's consciences to Church traditions.

I find that explanation about as satisfying as you do.

Qatfish said...

There are dozens of things that a person must do or assent to if they are to be considered a truly Catholic Christian that have little to no support in Scripture.

Those Catholics who believe in the material sufficiency of Scripture (including quite a number of internationally respected theologians, e.g. Newman, Lubac, Congar) do not believe any Catholic doctrines have "no support in Scripture."

Personally, I tend to lean this way myself. And I see far more support in Scripture for doctrines like the Assumption and Immaculate Conception, to name two of your examples, than I do for certain doctrines few Protestants would dispute, like the belief that the canon of Scripture is now closed. There's probably even more support for the Assumption in Scripture than for Christian monogamy, and I'm certainly not giving up the latter. :)

But whether Scripture is materially sufficient or not, it is definitely not formally sufficient.

Missing mass or any Holy Day of Obligation being a possible mortal sin

Not fasting an hour before communion making one unable to receive the Eucharist.


The primary sins here are not missing Mass or failure to fast, though I imagine those can be sinful in circumstances, but disobedience to lawful authorities providing reasonable and just disciplines for your benefit.



I think you might do well to consider those books I offered before. They might help with some of these questions.

Ragamuffin said...

I can't see any evidence for The Assumption of Mary in Scripture. I couldn't even find such a thing here.

As far as missing Mass being a grave matter (and thus eligible to be considered a mortal sin), this thread is just one example of how this is explained and no one is making any reference to it simply being a matter of discipline.

But even if it was merely that (which is what the stipulation about fasting prior to receiving the Eucharist appears to be), that doesn't address my concern with it, which is adding man-made traditions and notions to God's requirements for us. As if some of the things He expects of us aren't hard enough to follow! Now I need someone giving me more hoops to jump through? That bothers me and it's not because I want to skip church and watch football or eat a Snickers on the way through the church doors when I attend.

It's about the bigger principle of burdening down people with extra "stuff" that's not necessary. I could understand a discipline like that being suggested as a good and profitable exercise. There are lots of profitable methods or devotions or what have you that while not outlined in Scripture, certainly don't contradict anything in it. That's why I don't get particularly wound up over things like asking Mary and other saints to intercede for you or employing certain rituals to help one focus on Christ like some of my Protestant brethren do.

It seems from my, admittedly limited perspective, to be awfully close to repeating the errors of the Pharisees in weighing down the people with so many of their little explicit extras to the Law that they lost sight of what the Law itself really was about and disillusioned the people.

Qatfish said...

I can't see any evidence for The Assumption of Mary in Scripture.

And I see lots. I think this may have a good bit to do with how Protestants and Catholics read Scripture.

no one is making any reference to it simply being a matter of discipline

Gathering for communal worship probably is more than a matter of discipline, as I already suggested. Scripture certainly suggests this. But it is also a matter of discipline.

(As for what other people say or fail to say, I have no control over that.)

But even if it was merely [discipline], that doesn't address my concern with it, which is adding man-made traditions and notions to God's requirements for us.

But my post does, or at least begins to.

Scripture doesn't condemn traditions. It doesn't even condemn all "man-made" traditions.

It is a man-made tradition, not of the Church but of our nation, for example, that we stop our vehicles at stop signs and red lights. Lawful authorities have provided these reasonable and just regulations for our benefit. Scripture doesn't condemn this sort of traditional regulation. Indeed, Scripture suggests that disobeying those regulations is not only illegal, it may even be sinful (c.f. Romans, Titus, 1Peter).

How much more ought we be concerned with this when the tradition isn't simply man-made (Heb 10:25 being only one of many verses on the topic of communal worship)?

As if some of the things He expects of us aren't hard enough to follow!

Is gathering to worship our Lord really an extraneous and unreasonable burden inconsistent with the Gospel ethos? You're going to have a really hard time convincing me on this point, friend. :)

Gathering for weekly worship is hardly an expectation that's "lost sight of what the Law itself really was about."

Ragamuffin said...

And I see lots (of Scriptural support for the Assumption of Mary). I think this may have a good bit to do with how Protestants and Catholics read Scripture.

Then please share some of them as even one of the best sources online for this kind of thing, Catholic.com, isn't coming through for me.

(As for what other people say or fail to say, I have no control over that.)

Are you disputing that the official position of the Catholic Church is that willfully missing Mass without a good reason (such as being sick, having to travel for work, etc.) and knowing that it's a serious matter to do so is a mortal sin?

Is gathering to worship our Lord really an extraneous and unreasonable burden inconsistent with the Gospel ethos? You're going to have a really hard time convincing me on this point, friend.

Well, as I said, it really isn't about me wanting to skip church services. And it's not any one thing...it's more the cumulative effect of numerous things of this type and the principle that undergirds it that I'm having trouble with.

Qatfish said...

Then please share some of them as even one of the best sources online for this kind of thing, Catholic.com, isn't coming through for me.

Gladly. The lengthiest is Revelation 11:19ff, which is often a reading on the Feast of the Assumption. Here we are presented with a vision of the Ark of the Covenant (11:19), the mother of the Messiah (12:5) and of all Christians (12:17), in heavenly splendor (12:1). There are many levels of reference here, as is so often the case in Johanine writings, and Mary is one of them.

Many of the relevant scripture passages are typological prefigurments found in the Old Covenant (cf. the 2007 vigil readings for the Assumption). David's bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, for example, prefigures Christ's bringing his mother into heaven. The Psalmic refrain regarding David's act, "Arise, O LORD, to Your resting place, You and the Ark of Your strength!," has long been held to prefigure both the Resurrection (arise, O Lord) and Ascension (to your resting place) of our Lord and the Assumption of the Virgin (and the Ark).

(Cf. also the parallels between Luke's account of the Visitation and 2Samuel 6. Again Mary is seen as Ark of the New Covenant.)

Of course, the support of all the other historical evidence doesn't hurt.

Now, when I said "I think this [difference] may have a good bit to do with how Protestants and Catholics read Scripture," you may more easily see what I was referring to. The ancient Christian practice of allowing for multiple senses in Scripture (literal, typological/allegorical, moral, and anagogical) hasn't been much observed in the traditions of Protestantism. In Protestant circles, the meaning of scripture is often reduced to the literal and perhaps moral senses, despite the fact that Scripture authors themselves employ other kinds of reading, most notably the typological.

So where I see a prefiguring, many Protestants will see nothing, precisely because they often don't look beyond the first sense of scripture.

Are you disputing that the official position of the Catholic Church is that willfully missing Mass without a good reason (such as being sick, having to travel for work, etc.) and knowing that it's a serious matter to do so is a mortal sin?

No. I said "As for what other people say or fail to say, I have no control over that" with regard to your complaint that "no one is making any reference to it simply being a matter of discipline." :)

whose_body said...

Briefly going back to the name "Congar"... I am currently reading The Meaning of Tradition, and I think it is a wonderful book on this kind of thing. :)

Qatfish said...

I totally concur about Congar's Meaning of Tradition, which I think Ragamuffin might enjoy very much. If you would like a copy, Ragamuffin, I'd be happy to send you one. :)

Ragamuffin said...

I'm never above accepting free books, especially since the library in my area utterly sucks.

I'll shoot you a PM on the forums.

Red Cardigan said...

Ragamuffin, I'm glad you're posting again!

On the question of missing Mass/mortal sin, consider the Old Testament commandments, particularly the one Catholics consider to be the third (our numbering differs): Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.

To me, this isn't just an optional reminder God gives His people. It's not, "Hey, if you happen to think about Me on the Sabbath, in between football and shopping, that would be good." It was a specific command, which led to specific duties on the part of the Jewish people, particularly the priests.

The Commandments were not abolished by Christ, after all. We still can't murder, disobey or dishonor our parents, steal, lie, commit adultery etc. If anything, Jesus made the Commandments even *stricter* than they were before (looking at a woman lustfully = adultery, anger toward a brother = murder, etc.) by pointing out that the sin attaches not only to the act, but to the freely accepted thoughts that lead up to the act.

So we're commanded to keep the Lord's day holy, and it's up to the Church to determine *how* we are to do that. And the Church has made certain laws, among them that ordinarily one must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, and that ordinarily one may not do more than two hours worth of unnecessary servile work.

But the Church is very, very pastoral about this. Illness, the care of infants, certain kinds of travel (as you pointed out), the physical impossibility of getting to Mass on a particular Sunday (as happened to us here in Texas last winter when we had an "ice storm"--not much at all to a Midwesterner like me, but since there's not enough equipment here to sand the roads in good time and since the D.O.T. kept issuing bulletins that said to stay off the roads unless it was an emergency--we stayed home, and incurred no sin in doing so) and similar things are reasons to miss Mass; further, a pastor can dispense you on some occasions. The point is that the Church isn't trying to bind people with *more* than they can handle, but instead is trying to *prevent* people from laying greater burdens on themselves (and others) than are necessary!

Think, for instance, of the Puritans, who went to church all morning on Sunday--and then returned after a meal for the entire afternoon, as well! Without the rules, it would easily be possible for someone to claim that you should attend two Masses, or three, or a Mass and a public rosary, or a Mass followed by a four hour homily, or...well, you see.

The Church sets the standard for minimal participation in the sacramental life of Christ: about one hour a week, unless excused for some serious reason. The incurring of sin for missing Mass is not about enforcement or punishment so much as it is about what we owe to God, expressed in His Commandments, and specified by the Church for our benefit, not our harm--because even if the Church decided you could miss Sunday Mass without sinning, you would *still* be bound by the Commandment to keep the Lord's day holy, and how would you know whether you'd done that or not?

Anna said...

Ragamuffin,

Red Cardigan has given some of the justification-reasoning for why the Church has decided to make that particular rule. Now let me go at this problem from a different perspective.

In 1 Cor 10:23-33, and arguably also in the Colossians 2 passage that you cited, Paul makes it clear that there is no absolute moral law that we must abstain from meat sacrificed to idols.

Keeping this in mind, go read Acts 15:1-29.

There is a dispute in the Church. A disagreement over a doctrinal issue: must one be circumcised to be saved? How does they resolve it?

They hold a council. They don't argue from a text, they gather the highest authorities and discuss the thing until they come to a resolution: circumcision is not necessary for salvation.

They don't question their own authority to decide the truth of doctrinal issues for the entire Church.

And they don't limit themselves to doctrine, either. They say, "You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality." In the very midst of striving to not put an unecessary burden on the converted Gentiles, they do put this burden on them, to refrain from these four things.

Do they insist on them because they are moral absolutes? Paul elsewhere makes it clear that abstaining from the first thing is not a moral absolute. Jehovah's Witnesses reject blood transfusions on the grounds that it's a sin to eat or drink blood, based mostly on this passage. Do you think it's a sin to eat a rare steak? None of the first three things would we today consider to be actually sinful.

So why did the council require it? Because it was necessary to keep a reasonable amount of peace between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians. Because it was for the good of everyone. Did the council have the authority to make that the law for the whole Church? They certainly seemed to think so. Was it a sin for a Christian of the time to disobey them? I would say, generally, yes.

This is the Catholic view of the authority of the Church. A council, in particular, has the authority to decide on doctrinal issues (like the Assumption or Immaculate Conception) and also on disciplines for the church, even as it is morally bound to make those disciplines for the well-being of all.

Incidentally, the precepts that the Church sets only bind Catholics. So it's not a sin for a Protestant to not go to Mass on Sunday.

Right now, the Church has only 5 precepts, which can be found here.

1. Go to Mass on Sunday and H.D. of Obligation.
2. Go to Confession at least once a year.
3. Receive Eucharist at least once during the Easter season.
4. Observe the fasting days of the Church.
5. Help provide for the needs of the Church.

All in all, I consider these fairly light, as burdens go, especially once all the exceptions for sickness and whatnot are taken into account. In general, anyone who has a reasonable reason why it would be a real burden to follow the precept (as opposed to it simply being mildly inconvenient) is given an exception.

And the precepts definitely are disciplinary. They haven't necessarily stayed the same throughout all of history, and they might change in the future. And because they are disciplinary and not doctrinal, Catholics are free to disagree with them, to think that the Church shouldn't set those disciplines, if that is what the Catholic honestly believes. (But they're still obligated to obey them).

As for the pre-Mass fast, I don't think it's actually required to not take Eucharist if you accidentally forget, but many will recommend that you do so. People are free to recommend whatever they believe, I suppose.

The Church has explicitly taught that it is ok for women to use the pill for medical reasons unrelated to pregnancy. The Church has NOT explicitly taught that the couple must then abstain from sex. Many Catholics (especially those on the blogosphere) might tell you that the couple must abstain; this is based on the idea of the pill as being an abortifacient. It amounts to their opinion, no more or less. You must examine their logic for yourself.

The Church has NOT explicitly taught whether a person with AIDS may use a condom when they have sex, to prevent transmission. I know of at least one bishop, and I think there are several more, who have said that it is ok to do so, for reason of double effect. I'm pretty confident there are bishops who think it is not ok to do so. This is a doctrinal issue on which the Church has yet to resolve itself.

Qatfish said...

Right now, the Church has only 5 precepts.... All in all, I consider these fairly light, as burdens go, especially once all the exceptions for sickness and whatnot are taken into account. In general, anyone who has a reasonable reason why it would be a real burden to follow the precept (as opposed to it simply being mildly inconvenient) is given an exception.

While I agree that there are only five precepts right now and that the "burdens" placed on us by the Church really are light when all the exceptions and whatnot taken into account, I think it's only fair to acknowledge that there are other rules we're expected to follow beyond those five precepts that Ragamuffin might feel the same way about.

Just to name one example, we might mention the responsibility of Catholics (not other Christians, as mentioned before) to marry according to the ecclesiastical form (cf. Catechism 1630-1631). As a Catholic, I can't just run off to Vegas to get married by Elvis.

Of course, reasonable dispensations may be made by appropriate authorites. Imagine that I am engaged to a Presbyterian man. If I wanted to marry him in a Presbyterian church, in a service officiated by a Presbyterian pastor, I could request a dispensation from my bishop to do so.

So there are other Catholic laws and rules that Ragamuffin might feel the same way about. But it's still true, as you pointed out, that the Church is not unreasonable about such things.

Ragamuffin said...

I appreciate the responses and anna in particular makes a good case biblically (always sure to ring a good Protestant's bell) about certain restrictions or matters of discipline being imposed. I do wonder though if this ruling by the apostles you refer to wasn't superseded by Paul's later writings in Romans and Corinthians regarding these things. "Development of doctrine" perhaps?

I'm beginning to read The Meaning Of Tradition by Yves Congar that should help me understand the Catholic perspective on tradition more (thanks very much to Qat) so I'm sure this discussion isn't over.

Qatfish said...

anna in particular makes a good case biblically... about certain restrictions or matters of discipline being imposed. I do wonder though if this ruling by the apostles you refer to wasn't superseded by Paul's later writings in Romans and Corinthians regarding these things. "Development of doctrine" perhaps?

But that's just the thing. Disciplines are not doctrines. We're required to follow them only when and where they're promulgated.

So if you were a Gentile Christian living in the time of the Jerusalem council, you'd be bound to follow the Church's discipline regarding meat. If you lived at a different time in Corinth, perhaps not.

So too with other disciplines. As things stand in the Latin Church right now, married men will only be ordained in extraordinary circumstances with the approval of appropriate authorities. That's the current law for Western Catholics. But it was not always so, it is not so everywhere in the Catholic Church now, nor need it always be so. The Church has good reasons for that discipline, but the discipline is not doctrine, and it is changeable.

That doesn't mean a discipline is likely to change, of course. Current Church discipline would require me to request a dispensation to marry a non-Christian (cf. Catechism 1633-1637). In theory, the Church could dispense with this law altogether, leaving me free to marry a Hindu man without special permission. But it's not very probable the discipline will be changed, because marriages between people of different religions are always very difficult.

And, as already noted, there are reasonable exceptions and allowances made in many cases. I'm not absolutely forbidden to marry non-Christians. Married men can be ordained even in the Latin Church. There is some reasonable flexibility. :)

Anna said...

I'd answer pretty much what qatfish said about discipline. Development of doctrine only applies to doctrine. If someone thought that the council's forbidding of eating meat sacrificed to idols was a doctrinal matter, then Paul's writings may be considered a "development" in as much as they make it clear that the council's decision was disciplinary instead of doctrinal.

Depending on whether you think that Paul had the authority to change the discipline set by the council, you could also say that his writing did that for Corinth.

Since Acts was written, what, maybe 7 years after 1 Corinthians, and I don't know exactly when the council in Acts 15 happened, it's possible that Paul wrote that letter first and the council later imposed a requirement that he had not been imposing earlier.

Jennifer F. said...

I just discovered your site -- very interesting stuff. I really like your writing and your reasonable approach to all these questions!

I'm a pretty new Christian so I apologize if this is a question that is old hat and has been discussed ad nauseum, but it's something I've often wondered about and am not sure what the answer is: if scripture must be the ultimate, final reference in terms of knowing what is correct or true (e.g. the common assumption that the Catholic Church must prove that its claims can be found in Scripture), what did the first Christians do in the few hundred years before the church chose which books would constitute the Bible as we know it today? For a really long time Christians didn't have Bibles to refer to, how did they know what was true and not true?

I know what the Catholic answer is but I hadn't heard what the other point of view is on that one. Thanks, and keep up the good work!

Ragamuffin said...

I'm a pretty new Christian so I apologize if this is a question that is old hat and has been discussed ad nauseum, but it's something I've often wondered about and am not sure what the answer is: if scripture must be the ultimate, final reference in terms of knowing what is correct or true (e.g. the common assumption that the Catholic Church must prove that its claims can be found in Scripture), what did the first Christians do in the few hundred years before the church chose which books would constitute the Bible as we know it today? For a really long time Christians didn't have Bibles to refer to, how did they know what was true and not true?
The short answer is that in the early years, they learned straight from the Apostles and accepted their letters as Scripture (and copies of those letters were circulated among the churches). For instance, Peter, writing around 68 AD refers to Paul's letters as Scripture already. Polycarp and Clement quote books like Ephesians and The Gospel Of Matthew as if it's taken for granted that they are Scripture. It wasn't something that had to wait for a council hundreds of years later to decide.

For lengthier treatments on this, a couple of articles from B.B. Warfield may be helpful:

The Formation of the Canon of the New Testament


Inspiration and Criticism