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Volume 7, Issue 4: Non Est

Dispensational Catholicism

Douglas Jones

Roman and Eastern Catholicism are notoriously Greek rather than Jewish in their outlooks, their liturgies notwithstanding. They give lipservice to being the Israel of God, but quickly remove all such force by exiling the Old Testament into the land of mere types and shadows. This allows them to start the church anew, in the first century A.D., decidedly severed from any serious Abrahamic roots. With this division in place, they go off in their respective directions to embrace sacerdotal Aristotle and Plato, ignoring the covenants of the promise. Wandering, rootless evangelicals are readily impressed by appeals from these rather late-blooming "ancients."

Such dispensational tendencies in Rome andthe East show up pointedly in their opposition to the rather Jewish and Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. These critics will often suggest that one reason that sola scriptura can't be correct is that the early Church was virtually Scriptureless, having no formally recognized Scripture for several centuries after the Apostles. One critic explains, "The Bible itself is a product of the fourth- century Church. . . . [T]he early Church did not have a Bible in the sense that we do today; yet their faith was fully protected and sustained through tradition."[1] Similarly, another critic explains that "for written tradition they at first had only fragments--one local church had an epistle, another perhaps a Gospel. . . . [T]he early church depended on Oral Tradition almost entirely for its knowledge of the Christian faith."[2] Peter Kreeft follows in line, suggesting with revealing wording that "sola scriptura is unhistorical, for the first generation of Christians did not have the New Testament, only the Church to guide them."[3] Notice the options: either the New Testament or the Church. Period. No other Scripture.
Only an outlook completely devoid of Jewish roots could suggest such a criticism. It assumes that the Old Covenant Scriptures had no binding authority over the early Church. Much in the way anabaptists believe that the Church fell off the face of the earth for 1500 years, Rome and the East think that the Old Covenant Scriptures either were rescinded or became a mere footnote.
The truth is that the early Church was never without Scripture from Pentecost to present, even prior to the formal recognition of the New Testament. Christ Himself explained the Christian Gospel from the Scriptures, "beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself" (Lk. 24:27). Likewise, He chided the Pharisees for failing to see the Gospel in the Old Covenant Scriptures: "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me" (Jn. 5:39). Moreover, Christ directed His disciples to the Scriptures for ethical instruction: "whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19). If God's commands will stand for all eternity, then surely they stood during the first four centuries.
But what of the New Testament message? Wasn't the Church without that in Scriptural form? Yes and no. The Apostle Paul tells us that God preached the Christian Gospel to Abraham: "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, `In you all the nations shall be blessed'" (Gal. 3:8). And the writer of Hebrews declared that the Christian gospel was preached to the Israelites in Moses' time (Heb. 4:2). Paul could summarize the Gospel from the Old Covenant Scriptures, namely, "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3,4).
Equally as interesting, the Apostle Paul doesn't suggest to Timothy that all they have is oral tradition, though indeed that was important. Instead Paul points him to the sufficiency of the Scripture, Old Covenant Scripture, which "is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (1 Tim. 3:16). As genuinely central as the authority of the Church is, Paul doesn't suggest that the New Covenant Church lacks Scripture. The Old still stands, and it is sufficient even for New Covenant doctrine and ethics. The Church could live on the Old Covenant documents alone. Quite a twist on modern practice.
Rome and the East extend the above criticism to suggest that after the early period of mere oral tradition, the Church authorities finally established the New Testament. The Church created the Scripture. But this too is so unJewish. If we think in terms of continuity between Old and New Covenants, we can ask whether the Church authorities in the Old Covenant created or recognized the Scripture. Clearly there, the Lord inscribed a covenant which prescribed His Church and its authority. Scripture created the Church. Given that Christianity is a glorious culmination of the Old Covenant pattern, it too would submit to God's covenant and later recognize His written word under the providence of the Holy Spirit.
Now anabaptists certainly have a problem with Church creeds and councils, since they deny the Church any such legitimacy from early on, but classical Protestants never did. So Rome and the East can't properly force their favorite dilemma on us of having to choose between the authority of the Church in recognizing the Canon or denying the New Covenant Scriptures. That sort of dichotomy can undermine anabaptist notions of the Church, but it should also remind us once again of the Greekness, dispensationalism, and basic unJewishness of Rome and the East.

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