Saturday, March 27, 2010

Oral Word of God? Response to Bellisario

Matthew Bellisario (Roman Catholic) has been trying to argue with my friend Steve Hays (Reformed) over in the comment box of Beggars All Reformation (link to comment box).

Bellisario's argument, which seems to be a common "street" argument these days, boils down to this:

1) The Word of God was proclaimed orally at some past point;

2) You can't prove from Scripture that this has stopped;

3) Therefore, it continues,

with at least the implied addendum:

4) And it consists of the "Sacred Tradition" of the Roman Catholic Church.

From a logical standpoint, this argument is bankrupt. Even if the first three points were fine, the fourth point would not follow. That is to say, even if the first two points proved that God's Word continues to be proclaimed orally, it does not therefore follow that the way in which that happens is via the "Sacred Tradition" of the Roman Catholic Church. If the Roman Catholic wants to assert that the "Sacred Tradition" of the Roman Catholic Church is the continuing oral proclamation of the Word of God, the onus is on him to establish that. But Roman Catholic apologists can't establish that. That's why some of them feel compelled this kind of logically invalid argument.

To make matters worse, the first three points are not fine. One cannot establish that something continues from the absence of proof that it ceased. Instead, if one wants to insist that the oral proclamation of the Word of God continues, one has to demonstrate that. But Roman Catholic apologists can't demonstrate that. That's why some of them feel compelled this kind of logically invalid argument.

But that's not the only problem. The statement that God's Word was proclaimed orally is itself ambiguous and potentially equivocal. For example, whenever a Reformed minister preaches from the pulpit he is (or ought to be) proclaiming the Word of God orally. That aspect of the oral proclamation of the Word of God obviously does continue, as it should.

But there is another sense in which the Word of God was proclaimed orally. The Word of God was given to prophets. The proclaimed God's word orally.

Hebrews 2:1-4
Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?

Notice how those who received the Word of God to proclaim it in a prophetic way were given the witness of God, "both with signs and wonders, and with [a variety of] miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost." This is the consistent Biblical pattern. Moses provides the first example:

Exodus 4:1-9
And Moses answered and said, "But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice: for they will say, 'The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.'"
And the LORD said unto him, "What is that in thine hand?"
And he said, "A rod."
And he said, "Cast it on the ground."
And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.
And the LORD said unto Moses, "Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail," and he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand: "that they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee." And the LORD said furthermore unto him, "Put now thine hand into thy bosom."
And he put his hand into his bosom: and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous as snow.
And he said, "Put thine hand into thy bosom again."
And he put his hand into his bosom again; and plucked it out of his bosom, and, behold, it was turned again as his other flesh.
"And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe thee, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign. And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe also these two signs, neither hearken unto thy voice, that thou shalt take of the water of the river, and pour it upon the dry land: and the water which thou takest out of the river shall become blood upon the dry land."
Thus, like Moses, the apostles performed a variety of miracles that testified to the fact that they were prophets of God:

Paul raised the dead (Acts 20:9-12) and was not harmed by the bite a poisonous snake (Acts 28:3-6). Likewise Peter raised the dead (Acts 9:36-43) and his shadow cured the sick (Acts 5:15).

Popes like Benedict XVI cannot raise the dead, their shadows cure no one, and if they get bitten by a poisonous snake, they will die. They do not possess the witness of God testifying to any prophetic gift. The same has been true of the popes that preceded them.

So, this alternative sense of the "Oral Word" is also not something possessed by the Roman Pontiff, whether or not anyone else possesses it.

But there is one further weakness to Mr. Bellisario's argument (and before he complains that the exact form of the argument is not his, I simply point out that the reader can peruse the comment box linked above to see whether or not the paraphrase of his argument is accurate). The further weakness is that Scripture itself testifies in at least three ways to the end of this extraordinary Oral Word.

1) Use of a Past Tense in Hebrews 2

In the passage from Hebrews 2, which we saw above, the author expresses the confirmation of the witnesses in the past tense (in English it past, in Greek it is aorist tense: "ἐβεβαιώθη" - confirmed). The author of Hebrews speaks of that discussion as though it were essentially a thing of the past, suggesting that the extraordinary gifts were already passing away at the time the book of Hebrews was written, during the lifetime of some of the apostles.

Notice that I say, "suggesting," not "proving."

2) Lack of Iterative Succession of the Gifts

Philip the Evangelist was able to perform miracles in view of the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, as we will see in the following passage, he was unable to transfer that gift.

Acts 8:5-17
Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. And there was great joy in that city.
But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.
But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.
Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
As we see from the preceding passage, the gift of being able to lay hands on the people and have them perform miracles was something the apostles could do but that Philip could not. Thus, we can see that these extraordinary testifying gifts were passed directly from the apostles, but not iteratively by those who had received the gifts from the apostles.

Now that the apostles are all dead, and all those people whom the apostles laid hands on are dead, there are no more of these testifying gifts. While the passage doesn't explicitly say this will happen, we may reasonably deduce it from the passage in view of the universal mortality of man.

3) Prophecy of the Cessation of the Gifts

1 Corinthians 13:8-10
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

This, of course, is the answer the question that Bellisario asks when he states, "Where did Jesus tell you that the New Testament replaced, and did away with His Oral Word?" That which is in part, the extraordinary gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge have been done away. The Bible is now complete.

The usual response from those of the Roman persuasion is that the Bible is not explicitly mentioned in the context of this prophecy. Instead, if the Bible is to be understood as the completion, it is merely implied. Nevertheless, even though it is only implied, it is implied by such expressions in the context as Paul's expression: "Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?" (1 Corinthians 14:6)

Notice that the context of this prophesying and "knowledge" is revelation and doctrine. We are informed explicitly in 2 Timothy 3:16 that Scripture has as one of its purposes the revelation of doctrine (see also Proverbs 4:2). So, we may rightly conclude that God's revelation of himself in Scripture is the completion of the revelation of doctrine that God promised, and that this explains the cessation of extraordinary gifts that we now see and that Paul had prophesied.

Of course, what makes Bellisario's point especially absurd is that his own church acknowledges that public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle. (see, for example, CCC 66)

In short, Bellisario's informal argument is logically fallacious, it employs equivocation, and its premises are flawed. While Bellisario points to the fact that the Apostles preached the Word of God orally, he fails to see how little this proves. We readily grant that they did. Yet that does not suggest that the extraordinary gifts of prophecy granted to the Apostles and those upon whom they laid hands continued beyond the deaths of the Apostles. Moreover, it certainly doesn't support the "Sacred Tradition" of the Roman Catholic church as being "Oral Word of God." Support for such a position would require something more than alleged Biblical silence.

- TurretinFan

2 comments:

Constantine said...

Very nicely put.

Thank you for your effort.

Peace.

Nick said...

Your argument is a bit inaccurate and confusing some issues. One must separate three things here:

(1) Whether or not the Word of God, meaning Apostolic Teaching on faith and morals, was confined entirely to writing. The Bible never says the Word of God would be reduced to writing, thus indicating inspired (non-enscripturated) Oral Tradition exists and still exists (else Truth was lost).

(2) Whether or not Divine Revelation has ceased. The Bible doesn't say when/if it has ceased, therefore the Protestant is in a bind.

(3) Whether the Catholic Church is the true Body of Christ or if it is a false church. If true, then the Tradition (from item #1) is the same as that which the Catholic Church claims to possess.

You're mixing these three issues. Thus your initial claim ("From a logical standpoint, this argument is bankrupt. Even if the first three points were fine, the fourth point would not follow."), and its follow-up reasoning, is false.

Your comments overall contain serious fallacious arguments, which in turn actually back-fire. For example:

-Scripture frequently uses the phrase "Word of God" in references to things other than Scripture.

-St Luke, St Jude, etc, aren't said in Scripture to perform miracles or raise the dead, thus if this is some sort of criteria one must meet (ad hoc, no doubt), you've excluded them from your argument.

-Hebrews 2 doesn't speak of the extent of Divine Revelation that was confined to Scripture, nor when it would end (the Advent of Christ is only a general timeframe), thus it's more a red-herring than anything.

-When, where, and to who, divine gifts are given is not said to have stopped. In fact places like 1 Cor 12 (and such) would be nonsense if it were confined to Apostles.

-I'm not sure what your Acts 8 argument is saying, are you suggesting Philip wasn't an Apostle? ("something the apostles could do but that Philip could not") That cannot be! The reason why Peter and John came is because they were in the highest authority of Church structure (hence why Jesus frequently singled them out).

-Your 1 Cor 13 quote is in reference to the eschaton, thus wholly incorrect to quote here.


In general, I respect your work and arguments, but this post had some pretty serious errors.