Obscure (“Mother Teresa” Part 4)

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“Interpret unclear passages with clear passages.”

That’s one of the rules of Bible interpretation. I have already cautioned in a previous blog article that, “We should be careful not to base our beliefs on obscure or figurative statements.” As Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul put it, “The implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit.” [1]
Closely related to the rule of interpreting the implicit by the explicit is the correlate rule to interpret the obscure in the light of the clear. If we interpret the clear in the light of the obscure, we drift into a kind of esoteric interpretation that is inevitably cultic. The basic rule is that of care: careful reading of what the text is actually saying will save us from much confusion and distortion. No great knowledge of logic is necessary, just the simple application of common sense. [2]
Without that safeguard, the sky is the limit as far as rogue interpretation is concerned. Sproul warned of interpreting the clear passages with the unclear passages instead of the other way around.
It is at the point of confusing the implicit and the explicit that it is easy to be careless. … Not only do we have problems when we draw too many implications from the Scripture, but we also face the problem of squaring implications with what is explicitly taught. When an implication is drawn that is contradictory to what is explicitly stated, the implication must be rejected. [3]

That rule is one of the reasons why I don’t believe the Bible teaches that we can pray to departed believers in heaven so that they could pray for us believers here on earth. 

What is clear is that we are to “pray for one another” (James 5:16).[4] What is unclear is if we can use passages from Revelation to justify the prayers of departed saints for us.

In his response to my blog about “Mother Teresa,” Catholic apologist and priest, Father Abraham Arganiosa, quoted those passages in defense of the Catholic practice of “praying to the saints.” (You may download his reply here.)

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For example, he quoted Revelation 5:8 (“When he took it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones.”) and wrote, “They are believed to be the 12 patriarchs of the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the New Testament.” [5] The footnote of the New American Bible agrees with Father Arganiosa’s explanation. [6]

However, it seems this is not always the way “the twenty-four elders” was interpreted. Saint Victorinus “was bishop of the City of Pettau… in Styria (Austria).” [7] He was “an ecclesiastical writer who flourished about 270, and who suffered martyrdom probably in 303, under Diocletian.” [8] His feast day is celebrated every November 2. According to his “Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John,” 
The four and twenty elders are the twenty-four books of the prophets and of the law, which give testimonies of the judgment. Moreover, also, they are the twenty-four fathers— twelve apostles and twelve patriarchs. [9]
In fairness, according to The New Advent catholic website, “Like many of his contemporaries he shared the errors of the Millenarians, and for this reason his works were ranked with the apocrypha by Pope Gelasius.” [10] But it’s interesting to note that he is still considered a saint in the Church even though his writings were not considered free from error. (The issue of infallibility of the pope would be outside the scope of this article and should be relegated to another topic, though.) The point remains that “the twenty-four elders” apparently has been interpreted in various ways in church history.

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According to Evangelical scholar Thomas Constable, 
The identity of the 24 elders (Gr. presbyteros) is difficult to determine. There have been two basic views: either they are men or they are angels. If they are human beings, they may be representatives of Israel, the church, or both groups. If angels, they could be angelic representatives of either of the Old Testament priestly orders (cf. 1 Chron. 24:4-5; 25:9-13), or angelic representatives of the faithful of all ages, or a special group or class of angels. [11]
The fact that there’s such diverse explanations of “the twenty-four elders” ought to give us caution in being dogmatic about its interpretation.That’s why it appears it’s not wise to use it as a proof-text for a doctrine. 

Father Arganiosa made much of the fact that the term “elders” refers to apostles and church leaders in other passages in the New Testament. That’s the basis for his interpretation that “the twenty-four elders” or, at least half of it, refer to the 12 apostles. But, even if that’s the way the term was used in 1 Peter 5:1 for example, still it’s not clear whether that term refers to the 12 apostles in Revelation 4:4. Simply put, the way the apostles Paul and Peter used the term might be different from the way the apostle John used it. If we insist that the way a word is used in one place would always mean the same in another, that’s a fallacy. A word has meaning depending on its context.

There’s no question also that the heavenly censer in Revelation 8 contains the prayer of the saints. Of course it could be metaphorical or not literal. It does not actually say that those were prayers by saints there in heaven for the saints here on earth. It is safe to assume that those prayers were uttered on earth and addressed to God.

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But, notice also who offered “the prayer of the saints” to God. It was not the twenty-four elders. It was an angel. And the angel was not fulfilling the role of a mediator or a priest in this passage.

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel. (vv. 3-4)

So, to use this passage that believers here on earth could pray to believers there in heaven is imposing an interpretation that it did not state.

Another proof-text that Father Arganiosa quoted in defense of this Catholic doctrine was Revelation 6:9-11.
When he broke open the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God. They cried out in a loud voice, “How long will it be, holy and true master, before you sit in judgment and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to be patient a little while longer until the number was filled of their fellow servants and brothers who were going to be killed as they had been.
After quoting that passage, Father Arganiosa asked, “There, don’t tell me that you will still twist that passage to deny life after death of the souls of those martyred for the faith.” I’m surprised that he would even put it that way since nowhere in my “Mother Teresa” article did I deny life after death. It appears that Father Arganiosa has once again misunderstood (misrepresented?) what I wrote. 

However, looking at the passage at face value, admittedly it shows that these departed martyrs were praying to God. But they were not praying in behalf of people here on earth. It was not about the intercession of the saints in heaven. The passage is talking about their cry for justice for what has been done to them here on earth.  

Let me just reiterate what I stated at the start: Do not interpret the clear passages with unclear passages. It should be the other way around. What is clear is that we are to pray for one another. Plainly, it refers to believers here on earth praying for one another and not earthly believer praying to a heavenly believer. What is unclear is if we can use passages from Revelation to justify the prayers of departed saints for us. And I hope that I have also pointed out why those passages do not in any way teach that departed saints in heaven could intercede for us saints here on earth or that we could pray to them.

I did not intend my response to Father Arganiosa to become a three-part series. However, I felt I need to reply in detail. I don’t want this to end up as a protracted debate. Thus, this is the third and final part of my response.

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In 2 Peter 3:15-16, we read this,
And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.

Admittedly, there are “some things” in the Bible (not just in the letters of Paul) that are “hard to understand”. It’s a good thing Peter wrote “some” and not “many” or “all.” Note that the apostle pointed out that these are the very things “that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction”. These false teachers capitalize on obscure passages. I’m not in any way implying that Father Arganiosa is “ignorant and unstable.” But we would do well if we (me, Father Arganiosa and the rest of those who teach God’s Word) avoid committing the same mistakes.

For your reference:

The Mother Teresa articleThe reply of a Catholic priest.

My response: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

[1] R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: 1977), 75.

[2] Ibid, 79. Emphasis added.

[3] Ibid, 75, 77. Emphasis added.

[4] All Bible verses are from theNew American Bible (Revised Edition), unless otherwise noted.

[5] The reply of Father Arganiosa was in all capital letters. I had to retype it to be easy on the eyes.

[7] “St. Victorinus,” The New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15414a.htm, accessed October 18, 2016.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John,” The New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0712.htm, accessed October 18, 2016.

[10] “St. Victorinus,” The New Advent.

[11] Thomas L. Constable, “Dr. Constable’s Notes on Revelation 2016 Edition,” Sonic Light, http://soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/revelation.pdf (accessed October 18, 2016). Italics his. Emphasis added. 


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