Papacy in Scripture III: Give Us a King Like the Nations

SolomonIn this third post on the roots of the papacy in Scripture, I want to highlight that Joseph’s high position in Egypt is actually significant for understanding the administrative structure of the Kingdom of David, and therefore of the Church which is the fulfilled Davidic Kingdom.

After the people of Israel have entered the Promised Land, they eventually ask Samuel for a king to rule over them: “appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5, NIV). And this is exactly what happened. First under King Saul, and then under King David, the people of Israel became a kingdom. The Kingdom of David became an everlasting kingdom, and in the New Testament, was transformed into the Church.

Moreover, the Davidic Kingdom was called the Kingdom of YHWH, e.g. in 1 Chronicles 28:5 and in 2 Chronicles 13:8. Thus, in a very real way, the Kingdom of David was the Kingdom of God, what is meant by the New Testament phrase, Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew’s Gospel) or Kingdom of God (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Moreover, in the Davidic Kingdom, the worshipping community of Israel was often called (in 1 and 2 Chronicles) the qahal (in Hebrew), which was translated in the Greek Septuagint as ekklesia (the word for Church in the New Testament).

And it should not surprise us that the Kingdom of Israel patterned itself on other ancient Near Eastern kingdoms—“as all the other nations.” Indeed, it was common in the ancient Near East, as we have already seen with Egypt, for rulers to have various administrators (royal officials) to assist them in carrying out their rule, and often a single royal steward in a Joseph-like position. We will reflect more on the royal steward aspect in a forthcoming post, but for now, I want to take a quick look at the royal officials in the Davidic Kingdom under Solomon, who like Jesus was a true “Son of David.”

In 1 Kings 4:7 we read, “Solomon had twelve officers over all Israel, who provided food for the king and his household” (ESV). Although it is unclear the relation between these officials and the eleven high officials already mentioned (including the one “over the house,” al-habayit, 4:6), the number 12 here is probably significant (as it was in Exodus 24) and relates to the 12 tribes of Israel (just as later Jesus’ 12 apostles would represent the 12 tribes). Notice too that these officers, like Joseph in Egypt, were responsible for feeding Solomon’s “household,” that is, his kingdom. This theme of feeding will take on an added importance in the New Testament, particularly with the Eucharist, as we shall see. Jesus’ apostles will form the new, transformed royal ministers of the kingdom, with Peter standing as royal steward and high priest on earth, representing Jesus the heavenly king and high priest.

Select Bibliography:

de Vaux, Roland. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997 (1958 & 1960).

Hahn, Scott W. “Christ, Kingdom, and Creation: Davidic Christology and Ecclesiology in Luke-Acts.” Letter & Spirit 3 (2007): 113-138. Available online at: http://www.salvationhistory.com/documents/scripture/LSJ3%20Hahn.pdf

Hahn, Scott W. “Kingdom and Church in Luke-Acts: From Davidic Christology to Kingdom Ecclesiology.” In Reading Luke: Interpretation, Reflection, Formation, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew, Joel B. Green, and Anthony C. Thiselton, 294-326. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005. Available online at: http://www.salvationhistory.com/documents/scripture/KingdomChurchInLukeActs.pdf

Ishida, Tomoo. The Royal Dynasties in Ancient Israel: A Study on the Formation and Development of Royal Dynastic Ideology. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977.

67 thoughts on “Papacy in Scripture III: Give Us a King Like the Nations”

  1. (This comment is part of the conversation we have been having on the “Orthodox Catholic” article, but I thought that I would post it here as well as there. I thought that the extreme length of the other thread might keep some of our comments from ever seeing the light of day among the other readers.)

    Thanks again guys for all of the engaging comments. A couple points of clarification. Jeff I agree that my declaration that scripture is self-attesting and self-authenticating is somewhat confusing and over-simplistic. I don’t mean to say that it is necessarily always obvious that inspired scripture is what it claims to be. However, I think that we will all agree that there is a sense in which those who belong to Christ can recognize the voice of the true Shepherd, as he himself indicates in John. But you are right, my formulation of that concept needs work. I think that there is truth there, but I need to mull over how to best articulate what I’m trying to convey.

    On another note, I find the way you read 2 Thessalonians 2:15 fascinating. The implication you seem to be making is that they were given some kind of oral teaching that contains data not recorded in scripture. But, in fact, the preceding verse tells us what he was talking about – the gospel of Christ. They had the unique privilege of sitting under an apostle and he is saying “Hold on to what you have heard from me, both in writing and in person.” Do you really want to say that the Thessalonians had delivered to them the doctrines that you say I must believe to be in harmony with Rome? I cannot wrap my mind around what you mean by tradition. I agree that it is a useful idea if you want to have the freedom to introduce any manner of teaching at any time in history. It is just vague enough to fill with any kind of meaning. But, are you saying that everything that is currently taught by the Roman Church was passed on orally as ‘tradition’ by the apostles themselves to the early church? Do you believe that at some point the apostles taught the first believers about indulgences and the veneration of relics?

    And, to be clear, when I say ‘go back to the apostles’ I mean just that. I’m not asking if someone in the year 600 was talking about it. I am certain a lot of really dubious ideas cropped up right after the apostles left town, much less centuries later. The early church fathers believed all kinds of things that were mutually contradictory and are currently rejected by all sides. You can find a saying in the early fathers to support almost any kind of aberant view, if only in seed form. I think this is really just another example of anachronism skewing our view. We are making ‘tradition’ a technical term and taking a modern notion and reading it back into the text so that we can say, “See, here is where he is teaching them about Mary being the mediator of all graces and papal infallibility.”

    And Jeff, I agree with Jaroslav Pelikan that the Scriptura has never, in a certain sense, been Sola. No responsible theologian will claim that the ideal is scripture in isolation. They have a word for people who read the Bible in utter isolation and come up with private interpretations – heretics. Whenever I read the scriptures I want to do so in conversation with the community of believers throughout history. God, by the Spirit, certainly works in the Church, both in individuals and as a body. Nevertheless, what I am saying is that the scripture is the only infallible norm. All else, whether creed, confession, tradition or ecclesiastic authority is inferior and subject to correction by scriptural revelation.

    Is our understanding of scripture free of error? No. Very often individuals and entire communities lose their way. Sometimes even the great majority do so (As with O.T. Israel, as during the Arian controversy, as when Luther had to emerge and, compelled by the scriptures, say “Here I stand, I can do no other.” (Not that he or Calvin or anyone else got it all right. But then that is just the point I am trying to make!) However, what I think should be maintained is that the scripture (which is God-breathed and which Paul says is able to thoroughly equip the man of God for his work), is the only infallible and utterly trustworthy rule for faith and life.

    To be sure, the only alternative to sola scriptura, rightly defined, is sola ecclesia. If the church, on your view, determines the content, meaning and interpretation of scripture as well as the nature and content of “apostolic” tradition, we have simply traded one ultimate authority for another. We are simply transferring the prerogatives of the speech of God to men. This is not unlike the way in which your position seems to want to take all of the explicitly stated scriptural offices of Christ (Highly Priest, Steward over the House of God, Foundation, Great Shepherd, one mediator between God and man) and give them to men.

    But I think that it is altogether demonstrably true that no church, including the Roman church is infallible or utterly trustworthy. Even if we avoid the doctrines of the church that you embrace and I reject as contrary to scripture, this is the case. Let me ask you this|; I have mentioned the Arian controversy a couple of times. But upon what grounds could the great Athanasius possibly fight for the truth if not scripture? If your claim about Rome is correct, how could he possibly contend for the truth while Pope Liberius was signing the Arian Sirmium confession and the vast majority of Christendom was following suit? The answer is that he recognized that scripture is the true final authority and that when a church departs from the truth it enshrines, that church is in error.

    There is no way around this. Sometimes when people try and critique Christianity on the basis of things like the Crusades and the Inquisition etc, I say “Never judge a philosophy by its abuses.” But if your view of Rome is correct, the philosophy and its abuses are inseparable. Indeed, they are one and the same. Either Rome is an infallible authority or it is not. It is, I say, manifestly not. I am not just talking about bad Popes. That I can understand. You could have many, many naughty Popes and say that the truth of the gospel has been preserved. But what I am talking about is bad doctrine. That is the Achilles heel of your position. If you will agree that even once Rome has mislead in matters of doctrine, your position self-destructs. I say look at the full record of history and it dies a thousand deaths.

    But even if we leave the realm of history and simply look at this as a purely philosophical proposition, it is untenable. All of this talk about an authoritative interpretation of theological truth and scripture is highly problematic and (not to sound too stuffy and academic) epistemologically naive. It is another magnificent example of the way in which the Catholic view doesn’t really solve any of the problems it claims to solve, but merely pushes the problem one step down the line and tries to hide it in the basement of the Vatican.

    Think about this: You say “In order to understand scripture (which is terribly difficult and confusing), I need to have an infallible bishop tell me what it means. Alright. Well, suppose said bishop does tell you what it means and then, for safe-keeping, we write it down and call it, I don’t know, Canon Law or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Now, I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is your understanding of what the bishop has told you and put in writing fallible and subject to error or not? Of course, the answer is yes. You have not therefore magically manufactured infallible knowledge by having a man or a group explain it to you and tell you what to believe.

    Yes, we need the Church and each other to understand the truth of God, but there no magic silver-bullet that gives you certainty. We are fallible men dealing by the grace of God with infallible and eternal truths. If you think that the mass (no pun intended) of catholic casuistry that has been churned out clarifies the gospel better than, say, Paul or John, then you need to go back and read the final portion of my last lengthy post.

    I am an outsider to be sure, but for all the world, this is what the Romanist position seems like to me: “You can’t know for sure what the Bible means, so come to me and I will tell you and then you will be able to sleep at night.” (Unless you have bad dreams because I infallibly told you that faith in the person and work of Christ was not enough to justify you and give you peace with God, but that when you die you will be roasted for millenia on end over preternatural fire to burn out the impurities.)

    Okay, if I am starting to sound shrill, blame it on zeal for the truth. If I have caricatured your position I apologize. My intention is not to offend, but to challenge in love. It is no doubt true that I don’t fully understand what you believe. May God bless us as we seek to discern the truth.

  2. Good morning Josh. I knew Jeff in college through a mutual friend and that same mutual friend pointed me to this blog as he knows that I – as a Catholic – have struggled with the idea of Church authority from time to time. Having come to accept it fully, I wanted to stick my nose in because I love the way that you are challenging the writers. I admit I don’t have the background that everyone else here has, but I wanted to offer some thoughts on your re-post (and yes, I did manage to get the whole way through all of the posts in the other thread). =)

    I will start at the bottom of your post as your caricature summarizes (I feel) the crux of the matter. To answer the caricature of the Roman Catholic position, I would offer the following as my understanding of how the Church teaches about its authority: “The authority of the Bible is entirely dependent upon the authority of the Church. And the authority of the church is entirely dependent upon the authority of Christ (e.g. Matthew 28:18-19; John 20:21).

    The problem with using Scripture as the final authority is that it can be historically shown that the composition of the Bible is the work of many men over the course of hundreds of years. So when you put your faith in Scripture alone, it seems contradictory. To me, it seems that you are putting your faith in the men who compiled Scripture into the Bible, but that these men were only divinely inspired to compile the Bible and left bereft of the Holy Spirit in everything else that they believed in (e.g. Church authority, the Eucharist, and even such doctrines as priestly chastity). To me, the non-Catholic view that these men were inspired to correctly compile the Bible but left ignorant in all of their other beliefs is harder to believe than the idea that God in Christ gave us a shepherd on earth that could steward His Church down through the ages.

    With regards to St. Athanasius and the Arian heresy, you ask what else besides Scripture could he use to counter the heresy, and that in so doing, he acknowledges the final authority of Scripture over the Church. I would offer the counter-position that it is the bane of apologists (for any faith tradition) to have to limit ourselves to sources that the other position will accept. When talking to atheists and humanists about religion, I rely entirely upon the laws of nature and logic (and a bit of existentialism) to create a dialogue with them. If I say to an atheist, “Scripture says…” they respond with, “that’s your opinion, and I disagree with the authority of Scripture.” If speaking to my fundamentalist uncle-in-law, I should say, “the Pope says…” he’ll respond, “I deny the authority of the Pope.” All of the dialogues are then reduced to “I say I’m right, you say you’re right”. There can be no progress in those standoffs, no relating to one another or furthering of understanding. So apologists stick to what both sides can agree on (and I believe that this would be what St. Athanasisus was doing). When discussing purgatory with a non-Catholic, I don’t use the Deuterocanonical books and stick wholly to the Protestant OT and to the NT and to logic. Now I fully admit my knowledge of this portion of Church history is lacking, but I would submit that the conclusion you draw that St. Athanasius was denying Church authority and acknowledging the finality of Scriptural authority is one possible conclusion but that you are making a ungrounded (or at least unproven/unshown) logical jump in deciding that it is the only and the correct conclusion (I am bookmarking several sites and sources for the topic of St. Athanasisus and Pope Liberius for further reading).

    Since I do need to get back to work, and also because I don’t want to open another whole can of worms, I will close with one quick comment on your caricature of the Roman Catholic position. I have never had bad dreams because I was told my faith alone can’t save me. I know that God’s Grace alone saves me and that the only response I can offer to His Grace is a faith that works in charity (Gal 5:6), and that without love for God, all the faith in the world can’t save me (1 Cor 13:2). My God-given faith enables my works, and my works of charity (as opposed to works of the OT law) grow and complete my faith (James 2:17-26). If we were given a perfect faith by God from the beginning of our relationship with God, then there would never be any turning away from God for our perfect faith would prevent that; but which Jesus, Paul and the other figures and writers of the NT constantly warn true Christians about (e.g. John 15:1-16). And now I will plead with Jeff and the others to write a blog post on salvation and justification so we can share with one another our differing views in that thread before we completely de-rail this thread.

    God bless you all and I hope that what I have written was relatively coherent, fairly accurate, and that it reveals the love and respect I have for you all. Peace.

    1. Michael,
      Thanks for your comments and for taking the trouble to read through all of our posts. I really appreciate your thoughts. And don’t worry if you feel like you don’t have the background of some in this conversation. I am sure I speak for the rest when I say we are all learners here. I know I have a great deal to learn in so many things.
      By way of response, I did want to affirm that I do very much believe that the Holy Spirit has been active in the church since the producing of the scriptures. I guess our interpretation of how that might have played itself out in history may be somewhat different. One issue is that I think our expectations may not be the same. The Bible never promises us an infallible interpreter outside of scripture. I do think that the Spirit preserves truth, orders history and guides individuals, but the letters of the New Testament repeatedly warn us that men teaching error and distorting the truth will come up through the very ranks of the church (Acts 20 etc.). This is why Paul warned the believers to carefully weigh what was said when people addressed them in the churches. And this is why Paul told Timothy in one of his last letters to guard his doctrine and turn to scripture (which he said was to be used to teach, train and rebuke and correct). The scripture, he told Timothy, had its origin in God and is able to “thoroughly equip” the man of God for his work. (2 Timothy 3:15-16)
      As I have said in other posts, we need each other to understand scripture. God has certainly appointed teachers in the church and we should always consider the way the Spirit has worked in the church over the centuries. However, what I affirm is that the scriptures are the only infallible rule for faith and life. God does use men and institutions and guides individual believers who pursue truth, but the scripture must be our norm, our North Star. When men and institutions depart from this, they depart from truth.
      Think for a moment about how Christ himself used the scripture to challenge all of the traditions of the religious elites of his day. The priests (an order established by God himself) and teachers of the law claimed to be the authoritative interpreters of scripture, and yet it is clear that they had radically departed from what God intended. When Jesus critiqued and rebuked them he would say “Have you not read….?” “Have you not heard what God has said to you…?” “You are in error because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God….” “You break the commands of God for the sake of your traditions…” and so forth.
      The first thing to note in this connection is that Jesus expected them to understand what had been written. I would dispute the idea that we need to have an infallible authority to understand the Bible, and I think the Bible does too. In fact the background assumption everywhere is that it will be understood and should be heeded as the authoritative speech of God. How did any Old Testament believer understand the scriptures apart from the infallible Magisterium of the Church? How did they know what the canon of scripture was before the council of Trent told them in AD 1546? Look at Acts 17. The people in Berea are commended for searching the scriptures to see if the things Paul was saying were in fact true. But how could they understand without infallible interpretation?
      To go back to the example of Christ and his interactions with the priests of his day, consider this: He fully expected them to understand what the Bible had said and hold to it as the supreme arbiter of truth, all of their traditions and accretions notwithstanding. Honestly sometimes when I look at the religious establishment of Jesus’ time and the Rome of today, I feel like I am watching a bad movie over again. We’ve seen this story before. And if it seems like they are just rehashing the same script, that’s because they are. It’s a script called fallen human nature. There is more of flesh than of spirit about this, I say.
      You know that I am an outsider, but from my perspective the claims that are made about Rome and the reality are very, very different. Roman Catholics will very often say, “We have an infallible interpreter of scripture and you are left to private interpretation.” But, though this is the party line, it is simply untrue. Roman Catholics are themselves forced to do a great deal of “private interpretation.” You see Rome, despite the popular talking points, almost never infallibly interprets actual verses of scripture. Yes, they make the occasional dogmatic pronouncement, but the scriptures themselves are rarely if ever “infallibly” defined. Look into it. Rome claims that their dogmas are infallible, but (get this) states that the reasoning that leads up to the dogmas is not to be regarded as infallible. Mull that over for a while.
      My own eyes were opened to this fascinating state of affairs when some time ago I came across some statements from a number of Roman Catholic apologists (with a group called Catholic Answers, as I remember). They were discussing the number of scriptures that they knew of that had been infallibly defined. The numbers ranged from like 8 to 12 verses. Now think about what this means. As you know, the Bible has more than a mere 8 or 12 verses.
      You see, the de facto truth is that even the Roman Catholic is forced to do a great deal of interpretation. If not, then how do you explain the work of anyone, from the early fathers down to the writers of this blog, who seeks to discern the meaning of certain passages and make arguments from scripture? Do they just turn to some bank of infallible interpretations held in a vault in the Vatican? No indeed. (By the way, if they did have such a collection of infallible interpretations, who would infallibly interpret those for us? You get the point.)
      In fact, I wish sometimes that all this were true. I am actually very sympathetic to the desire for an infallible Magisterium. I have a lot of questions about what particular scriptures mean. And, believe you me, if the Vatican is in the business of infallibly defining and interpreting scripture, then they would do well to get started after all these years.
      But the fact is, they don’t do that. As far as I can tell they have failed to produce any kind of meaningful body of infallible interpretation of scripture. I agree with you that the claim is there. Sure. But when you show up for the goods, you will be disappointed. And to make matters even more complex and mystifying, many of the dogmas (which seem to be the only “infallible” teaching we are given) do not seem to flow from scripture in any obvious way. Indeed, I would argue that not a few actually contravene clear teachings of scripture.
      I came across a quote the other day that I though put it well “According to the Roman Catholic paradigm, The Holy Spirit hasn’t really illuminated the meaning of Scripture at all. Apparently God gave us the Scriptures just so that He could tell us that they don’t mean what Protestants think they do.”
      Anyway, I hope you continue to follow the conversations closely. I am sure that we will deal with these issues in great depth as we continue to probe the question of ultimate authority. And I , like you, am eager to discuss the whole matter of how a man is justified before God. This is, after all, the most important of all questions. Everything else is peanuts compared to this.

      1. Dear Josh,

        I only have time for a few responses to your comments concerning infallible authority for now, since we’ll be discussing this more in a number of upcoming posts I hope this is ok.

        All I’ll say on this point for now, is that we agree that the Scriptures are authoritative, that they are from God, they are God-breathed, they teach without error, they are divinely inspired, etc. We agree they must be read and studied…they must be searched.

        Catholicism adheres to the authority of Scripture and Tradition, since both participate in the one single unified deposit of divine revelation. Thus, no passage affirming the authority or importance or centrality or inspiration of Scripture could pose a problem for Catholicism. Such passages would only pose a problem for a tradition that denied the inspiration and authority of Scripture, which Catholicism never has done. On the other hand, passages which affirm tradition, authoritative teaching offices, etc., would seem to pose a problem, at least prima facia, for those traditions which deny the authority of such things. Someone adhering to sola Scriptura would have to wrestle with passages like Matthew 23:2-3:

        The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.

        Moreover, what do we do with the authority of the NT itself? You and I both agree that the NT is the inspired word of God. But where does the NT teach this? 2 Timothy 3:16? Sure, 2 Timothy 3:16 refers to Scripture, but it’s very unlikely that the “Scripture” referred to was understood as all of the books we have in the NT. I think St. Paul’s understanding of Scripture here might be a little more narrow than what you think it means.

        For St. Paul, the OT was Scripture. He may not have known that, for example, his letter to Philemon was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He wrote other texts that do not appear in Scripture (e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:9). The Bible, the Scripture of the NT was the OT. Now you could argue that St. Paul knew a NT canon would be formed and included in the Bible, but that’s not entirely certain from his texts.

        Keep in mind, I agree with you that the NT is Scripture and is the Word of God (or a part of it, the OT too is the Word of God, as is Jesus Himself), I just don’t think we could so easily know this apart from the long development that occurred during the first 3 plus centuries of Christianity. Of course we can come to correct conclusions and interpretations without infallible authority (as you correctly mention, there are very few specific verses that the Magisterium has provided a solemn interpretation on, and even then, they have only done so at one level of exegesis—-and Catholics rely on more than one level). I’m not so sure Jesus expected His audience to know the interpretations of the texts He used. In fact, I’m fairly certain He expected them to not share the same interpretations. Rather, He invokes the common authority of OT texts which they share in common to make His points. He uses other things too to drive home His points (e.g., in Matthew 19 in the discussion about divorce, Jesus not only uses the text of Genesis, but He utilizes the very geography itself, which St. Matthew has so carefully recorded, to make allusions to Deuteronomy to help emphasize His case).

        Space and time do not permit me now to argue fully, but if I had the time, I would argue that the bulk of Jesus’ problems with the religious leaders of His time, come down to the fact that, more than misunderstanding the Law of Moses, they misunderstood the significance of David. The exclusive Mosaic covenant was intended to be pedagogical, and was added to help train Israel, to prepare them for the mission envisioned in the promises to Abram/Abraham in Genesis 12 and 22. The Davidic covenant pointed toward the universalistic (catholic) trajectory implied in the Abrahamic covenant which included the Gentiles; a goal only fully achieved in Christ. On this, see especially Dr. Scott Hahn’s recent book (a completely re-written version of his doctoral dissertation), Kinship By Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). Anyway, we’ll be talking much more about these issues in future articles, so stay tuned.

        On to the weightier matters, regarding justification, we do hope to have a series dealing with salvation, so stay tuned. We will first have series devoted to the Sacraments in Scripture, and that will provide a nice entry way into a discussion about justification, which indeed we affirm is by faith, and that none of us can earn it, it is completely a free gift of God because of the work of Jesus Christ. So stay tuned, safe travels, and have a merry Christmas!

        Jeff

        1. Jeff, now that I’m back and have very nearly recovered from jet lag, I wanted to respond briefly to your statement concerning Matthew 23:2-3, the “seat of Moses” passage. If I understand you, you are saying that Jesus is here affirming both the validity of the extra-scriptural tradition (which had presumably been entrusted the to the Pharisees) and that they had a kind of authoritative teaching office. This office is, if I follow, the equivalent of or at least parallel to the modern Roman Magisterium. If this is what you are saying, I can only say that, to my mind, this is another text-book example of taking some idea that is essentially foreign to scripture and trying to shoehorn it into the text.

          Now before assessing the finer points of this, let me just say that the attempt of Roman apologists to squeeze out of this statement support for their position has got to be one of the oddest and most counterintuitive modes of argumentation in the lengthy history of argumentation. That is to say, if your position hinges on drawing some kind of parallel between the Pharisees and Rome, this should hardly be seen as a confirmation of the soundness of your view. Given the New Testament’s scathing assessment of the Pharisees, this looks to me like the rhetorical equivalent of falling on your own sword.

          So what did Jesus mean when he made this statement at the head of a long and impassioned rebuke of the Pharisees? Was it, in fact, an affirmation of their authority and their tradition? Or was this just the first volley in his condemnation of their ways? Was it a positive affirmation of their right to teach authoritatively and the content of their oral tradition, or was it Jesus’ way of underscoring what they claimed for themselves, a fact that only compounded their guilt? Was he actually commending them to his hearers, or merely providing a context for his rebuke? Yes, they had seated themselves in Moses’ seat and taken upon themselves the mantle of authority, presuming to teach others the scriptures. And this is precisely why they were so worthy of condemnation.

          There seem to be two basic ways to consistently interpret what Jesus is saying in context. A number of scholars I have encountered are persuaded that Jesus is speaking tongue-in-cheek here. That is, he is engaging in biting irony as he opens his critique. That sounds very plausible to me, given what follows.

          The second possiblity is that he is indeed speaking sincerely, but with a very narrow application, as if to say, “Follow them this far and no farther.” The scribes and Pharisees had assumed a role of leadership in synagogue worship, literally sitting in “Moses seat,” reading the scriptures in the hearing of the assembly. And Jesus was not calling his followers revolt against the synagogue authorities. Rather they should submit to them insofar it is lawful so to do. This is in keeping with the tenor of the entire New Testament.

          Nevertheless, there is a caveat, and it’s a big one. They must not follow them in their practices. For, as he demonstrates forcefully again and again, their hearts are far from God and much of their tradition is not of God but finds its origin in men. As such, it is a kind of cancer on true spirituality. In point of fact, one of the most poisonous things that the Pharisees did was to use their status and position to attempt to bind men’s consciences and force them to embrace unscriptural traditions, heavy loads that no one could bear. But Jesus came to liberate the people from this illusion. They are blind guides he said. Listen to them when they read the scriptures as the leader of the assembly, but do not follow them in their errors.

          So there are, I believe, two viable options: Either he is laying it on thick with the irony in his opening salvo, or he is speaking sincerely, and drawing a line in the sand. Either way, what is not tenable, if we care about context at all, is that he is endorsing an extra-scriptural stream of tradition or an authority to interpret or apply that can bind men’s consciences as a kind of final authority alongside or in addition to scripture. These are manifestly false conclusions. Any fair consideration of the bigger picture bars us from embracing this view. Put differently, examining this passage in light of the total context demonstrates the utter impossibility of the Roman Catholic reading of this text.

          Think about this: The reason the crowds so marveled at the teaching of Christ is the fact that he taught “with authority NOT AS THE SCRIBES AND PHAIRISEES.” Authority. Not as the scribes and pharisees. It was precisely the fact that he did not turn to the traditions of the elders that had accrued over the years that set him apart and left his hearers dumbstruck with awe. He did not rely upon the confused mass of conflicting statements that is the Mishna, statements made by endless Rabbis putting in their two cents. Indeed his righteous indignation always flamed forth when he saw how their tradition contravened the clear revelation of God recorded in the sacred texts. His constant refrain was “Have you not read…..Have you not heard….It is written……The scriptures must be fulfilled……You are in error because you do not know the scriptures……”

          Jeff, embracing sola scriptura does not mean that we should not submit to ecclesiastical authority or embrace tradition (properly defined). What it does mean is that the revealed words of God are singular in as much as they alone possess final and infallible authority. I do not deny other species of authority. What I do deny is that there are any others that possess these qualities.

          To observe the final nail in the coffin of the Romanist view we have only to look at the occasions when Jesus actually engages the Pharisees on the matter of the “traditions of the elders.” A great example of this is in Matthew 15:1-6. Here we see how Jesus assessed the self-proclaimed authoritative magisterium of his day. He doesn’t pull any punches:

          “Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” 3 And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 “For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.’ 5 “But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” 6 he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”

          Please tell me how you can possibly reconcile this and other similar statements with anything like the Roman Catholic reading of the “seat of Moses” statement. The Pharisees had embraced and were seeking to bind upon others false teachings that did not accord with divine revelation. Nothing could be plainer. Wait just a minute. Actually, now that I think about it, if you want to tell me that this role is what was passed on to the Roman Bishop, I might be inclined to believe you. Never mind what I said in the above. Maybe this is a tenable view after all.

          1. “The Pharisees had embraced and were seeking to bind upon others false teachings that did not accord with divine revelation. Nothing could be plainer. Wait just a minute. Actually, now that I think about it, if you want to tell me that this role is what was passed on to the Roman Bishop…”

            I realize you’re speaking ironically, but I would like to point out the irony that Jessus did five the Apostles the power to bind and loose (cf Mt 16:19; 18:18). While John 20:23 clearly does refer to sins, the citations in Matthew are not clear as to what is bound or loosed.

            Now, we look to John 20: 19-23 and Acts 1-2 for a clearer understanding of this power in that one main difference (if not THE main difference) is the Holy Spirit as a guarantor of this authority, something the Pharisees certainly lacked.

          2. Dear Josh,

            Welcome back! It’s great to hear from you. As always, I appreciate your comments here.

            Regarding the “seat of Moses,” I do think Jesus is serious in his acknowledging a certain level of authority to said “seat of Moses.” The point is not that everything they say is infallible—I readily acknowledge that Jesus is critical of some of (but certainly not all of) the traditions of the elders—but he nonetheless acknowledges that they do possess a certain level of authority. The point I was trying to make was a simple one which you yourself acknowledge when you write, “Jeff, embracing sola scriptura does not mean that we should not submit to ecclesiastical authority or embrace tradition (properly defined).” I’m glad you hold this position, but not everyone I encounter who adheres to sola Scriptura agrees with you here. Differing biblical interpretations are difficult enough, but with non-biblical (at the very least extra-biblical) concepts like sola Scriptura can become even more difficult since there exist so many rival versions of sola (or now “solo”) Scriptura. I even know one evangelical Bible scholar who includes (as infallible!!!) the first 7 ecumenical councils within his framework of sola Scriptura (Scripture ALONE!!!!).

            I likewise agree with you that when those in authority (even legitimate authority) act immorally or corruptly, etc., they should not be followed in said actions, and I’d be the first to admit that popes sin and have sinned and should not be followed in such sins. St. Peter himself is guilty of this, as St. Paul testifies in his Letter to the Galatians (which I’ll discuss in more detail in a forthcoming post).

            I likewise agree with you that Jesus taught with divine authority over and above any of the teachers of His day. Nor do I think the Catholic Church has simply inherited the authority structure of the Sanhedrin or Pharisees or Sadducees of Jesus’ day, although I do think there are parallels, especially inasmuch as the Sanhedrin was modeled on the Israelite community structure at Sinai (with parallels already discussed in a previous post about the organization of Jesus’ disciples).

            I do take issue with what appears to be an almost wholesale rejection of the traditions to which the Pharisees adhered in your comments. Many of Jesus’ comments, as the scholarship of Jacob Neusner, Bruce Chilton, N.T. Wright, and hosts of others have shown, fits His Jewish context superbly. Jesus shares much in common with the Pharisees, even as He differs immensely from them. In part this is because Jesus and the other Jewish teachers of the time share a common religious and intellectual heritage. The overall framework which accounts for Jesus’ differences and criticisms of the Pharisees, I would argue, has to do with the differences between the Mosaic covenant and the Davidic covenant. The Mosaic covenant was a covenant which involved numerous regulations (including ceremonial) which separated the Israelites from the nations (gentiles) in order to teach them holiness, train them in holiness, and perfect them in holiness, so they could teach the nations (gentiles) how to follow God. The Mosaic covenant thus separated them from the nations (gentiles) in order to purify the people. The teleology pointed to the later Davidic covenant which was meant to include the nations (gentiles), especially by the time of Solomon. This can be seen, among many places, in the fact that the largest portion of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem (the outer court) was built with Gentiles in mind. The Pharisees reverted to a focus on the earlier Mosaic covenant, guarding the Mosaic regulations by putting large fences around them, helping them separate themselves even further from the nations (gentiles). Jesus, however, was pointing them to the more inclusive Davidic covenant, messianic as it was (and Messiah Who He [Jesus] is). This often constitutes the difference in biblical interpretation between Jesus and his theological adversaries, and their opposition. With the Pharisees, Jesus often points forward to David, with the Sadducees who focus on Torah alone, Jesus often points before Moses to Adam (which itself points forward to Abraham and David).

            Not sure if this clears up any of our own differences or not.

            Jeff

  3. Hi Josh, thanks for contributing. Rest assured that articles about sola scriptura are in the works. In the meantime I’d like to point you to our friends over at Called to Communion. A recent article by Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch wrestles through some of these challenges, and the discussion that follows flushes them our further.

    I hope you find it helpful…

    Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority, by Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch

    1. Hey, thanks Ryan. I will definitely read the article you linked. The question of ultimate authority is, of course, central to these discussions. I am looking forward to examining the issues together. I’ve enjoyed seeing pictures of your family on Facebook. Great looking group. Hope you are doing well.

  4. Notice too that these officers, like Joseph in Egypt, were responsible for feeding Solomon’s “household,” that is, his kingdom. This theme of feeding will take on an added importance in the New Testament, particularly with the Eucharist, as we shall see.

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