Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
the Nanty Glo in My Mind'

'Mere Christianity' and anabaptism

I wanted to title today's entry 'catholicism and anabaptism,' but with catholicism in that first position it would have to be capitalized and then even more likely to be mistaken. Without the capital, I'm using "catholicism" to mean roughly the same as C. S. Lewis called "mere Christianity," which is to say the corpus of faith that most all Christians in all times and places have confessed, professed, and tried to follow. So please follow carefully; if I capitalize Catholic or one of its variations in this entry I'm referring to Roman Catholicism, but when it's not capitalized it means that more amorphous cross-section of Christendom including many doctrinally conservative Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox. I think this kind of catholicism is the most encouraging phenomenon in the church of our time.

But there have been several instances in the past week or two when we've had to confront "exceptions" to the catholic/mere Christian expression of Christianity. One was when we were discussing whether God, in allowing Hurricane Katrina to do so much havoc in our Southeast, was judging America for "smiting" Israel by supporting the Israelis' evacuation of the Gaza region. I said on that question that in the catholic faith, modern Israel is not the spiritual Israel of biblical prophecies. The church catholic was united in this interpretation (saying it's the church, not the Jewish people, who are the spiritual Israel under the New Covenant) up to the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when dispensationalism was introduced. Many evangelical Protestants accept some (though usually not all) facets of dispensationalism. Phenomena like the '70's best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth imbues it, as does today's much-discussed Left-Behind series of novels. I went through a dispensationalist phase, but like evolutionism, once I learned not all educated Christians accept it, I began to doubt it and eventually to disbelieve its "distinctives."

The other incident was more subtle but I think even more serious. Last Thursday's page had the "Bible Trivia" question, "How many siblings, the natural children of Mary and Joseph, did Jesus have?" The Bible doesn't say that Mary and Joseph had any "natural children," but the passage listed on Thursday's page as its "proof text," Mark 6:3, says, "Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” And Saturday's page had the "answer": "Jesus had six or more siblings." The author of the Bible Trivia book has a serious argument with the catholic church. Not only have the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches always held that Mary never had children with Joseph, they profess, as did Martin Luther and John Calvin (generally considered the founders of Protestantism), that Mary was a virgin all her life. The most common interpretation of references to James as Jesus' brother is that Joseph, an older man when he was betrothed to Mary, had a previous wife, James' mother, who had died. The others mentioned by Mark may have been members of his close family as cousins or could have been Joseph's offspring by his previous marriage. To refer to close relatives this way is not unusual, as in when Jesus, on the cross, referred to John the Apostle, whom he clearly was not related to, as Mary's new son, meaning he was being charged with her care.

The ancient church was not, as I used to think in my Protestant salad days, ignorant of the New Testament references to "siblings" of Jesus, and even refers to them to this day in the ancient liturgies still used throughout the year. But the church knew—because it was there from the beginning and never was stupid or forgetful—that Mary and Joseph never consummated their marriage and that her "perpetual virginity" was prophesied in the Old Testament and was symbolized by a gate in the wall of Jerusalem which had been dedicated for the King's entrance and then closed as a Jewish religious symbol, never to be used again. That Joseph was much older than Mary is evidenced by the fact that he was apparently dead at the time of the crucifixion, and that James was an older brother of Jesus, not a younger one, by the fact that he came to belief in Jesus late in the Gospels' time line. A younger sibling—including all the other five mentioned as such—would have attached themselves to an elder brother of such charisma as Jesus from their childhood on, as younger siblings always do. But although much is said about James in church tradition and history and he has an epistle in the New Testament, none of the others are specifically kept in the church's tradition. Imagine the implications of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, having half brothers and sisters! It harkens to the wild imaginings of The DaVinci Code! And moreover that the church has "forgotten" those half-siblings or that they had no role in the early church. Only if they were "only" step-siblings, and already adults by the time Jesus was born, does this compute. Finally, the Jewish Tradition (capital T) was such that no woman whose womb had brought the very God into the world would have been used for any lesser purpose later.

It wasn't the dispensationalsits, however, who introduced this most un-catholic and anti-catholic interpretation of the brothers and sisters of Jesus. It was the anabaptists. Never heard of them? It's the generic name for the Amish, Mennonites, and German Brethren whose roots are in what they proudly call "the radical reformation." Whereas Luther and Calvin were jealous to preserve as much of the catholic faith as they could in conscience keep, the radicals wanted to distance themselves with Catholicism as far as they could, and in doing so distanced themselves with catholicism, the faith of the Apostles and the church. The Anabaptists' zeal for the faith, and their piety (which even Hollywood admires at least grudgingly to this day), appealed to all Protestants who freely took from any teacher, back in the first couple centuries after the Reformation (mid-1500s to 1800), who seemed to have any "insight" backed by Scripture. Confessing Lutherans and "orthodox" Calvinists still hold to the lifelong virginity of the Virgin Mary, but most Protestants embrace the take that made its way into these pages last week.

Evidence for the proposition that no Scripture should ever be of "private interpretation," but must be the interpretation of the church catholic, which itself, according to the New Testament, is the pillar and ground of the truth. But that's another topic.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

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