Friday, Aug 3, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, August 3, 2018, I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Vatican changes church teaching, says the death penalty is unacceptable in all circumstances
Huge news out of the Vatican yesterday, the Roman Catholic Church, under the authority of Pope Francis has changed its position–its doctrine–on the question of the death penalty. The headlines that ricocheted around the world declared that the Vatican has now said that the death penalty is unacceptable in all circumstances. It was an unconditional statement. It's big news and we need to look at this news in two different dimensions. First, in the question of the death penalty, and then secondly in the huge question of the development of doctrine.
But first to the news itself. The Vatican announced yesterday that the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church at Canon 2267 had been changed. What had been an allowance for the death penalty under certain circumstances has been replaced with a categorical rejection of the death penalty in all circumstances. As the Vatican announced today, "There is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.” Lastly said the Vatican, "More effective systems of detention have been developed which ensure the due protection of citizens but at the same time do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently,” said the Vatican, "the church teaches in the light of the gospel that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she,” meaning the church, “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
Now that's big news. It's big news just at the level of Catholicism and the death penalty. But of course, it's bigger news than just that. It puts the Vatican, one of the most influential authorities on the planet, opposed to the death penalty. That pleases beyond words those who've been working for decades for the abolition of capital punishment. First, let's look at the issue of the death penalty in a larger context. Over the course of the last two centuries, but especially in the last 100 years, there has been a general restriction in Western societies about the use of capital punishment. Going back through the centuries, capital punishment, the death penalty, was applied to many different crimes. But by the time you come to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, many European nations and others have abandoned the death penalty all together. Whereas in the United States and several other nations, the crimes to which the death penalty would apply have been severely restricted.
In the United States, for example, the death penalty is generally applied only for cases of murder. But even when it comes to the crime of murder in most jurisdictions it requires pre-mediated murder and, in many, it requires what are defined as special circumstances–particularly heinous crimes. There's been a great shift in the Western world view. Secularization is part of it but also a general liberalization of the understanding of individual rights. There's also been a huge transformation in the Western mind in the idea of personal responsibility and the objective responsibility and guilt that comes with specific crimes. In the United States, there have been efforts for decades to eliminate the death penalty nationwide. At least one justice of the United States Supreme Count, Stephen Breyer, has indicated that he believes that the penalty should be ruled as unconstitutional. Now that's interesting as a matter of constitutional interpretation because if the original intention of the framers of the Constitution is to rule, then there would be no question that the death penalty is constitutional because those who wrote the Constitution believed in and practiced capital punishment. What Justice Breyer is actually referring to is not a change in the Constitution at all but rather a change in contemporary sentiment. There's no question about that.
But even when you're looking at many of the European counties that have abolished the death penalty, one of the interesting things is that even rather current surveys indicate that a majority of the citizens of those countries still believe in the rightness of capital punishment. The death penalty was abolished in those nations either by judicial action or by international pressure, such as pressure in joining the European Union. Christians will want to turn first to the Scripture. What does the Scripture say about the death penalty? Here, we look to the most important biblical text about capital punishment. That is in Genesis 9, the so-called Noahic covenant. This is where God makes the covenant with Noah after the flood. In that covenant God speaks specifically about the value of human life and the particular evil of murder because it is the intentional destruction of a divine image-bearer. Beginning in verse five of Genesis 9, we read, “And for your life blood, I will require a reckoning. For every beast I will require it and for man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.” Then God says, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. For God made man in his own image.”
It's interesting and important to note that that same argument is cited affirmatively in the New Testament, in Hebrews 10:28. The logic is very clear. God made human beings and human beings alone in his image. Thus, the willful destruction of a human life is an intentional destruction of the image of God, thus God himself as Creator and Judge says that those who commit premeditated murder should pay with their own lives. Thus, this is not a human invention. It is a divine command, and it is pattern that is given to us in the Old Testament and affirmed in the New. Now, here we need to make a distinction between two different issues. One would be the application of the penalty, and the second would be the inherent morality of the penalty. In the biblical worldview, there is really no question about the inherent morality of the penalty. There is nothing in the Scriptures that would indicate that Christians are to abandon the death penalty or that what God had established in Genesis 9 has in any way been revised or repealed.
But the application of the penalty is a human responsibility, and at this responsibility, human beings sometimes fail. Christians in the United States would rightly be concerned about the justice in the application of the death penalty in three different ways. One would be the delay in the death penalty between the crime and the eventual punishment. That certainly mitigates both the deterrence effect and the understanding of justice between the crime and the punishment. The second of the two problems areas have to do with racial and economic disparity. There's absolutely no question that a rich white person is at very little risk of being executed for capital murder even when the circumstances of the murder are very much like that which would apply to a poor person or to a racial or ethnic minority. The reason for that is actually more subtle than people might understand, but it comes down to the fact that those who have money can buy legal defenses that can make it almost impossible for any state to accomplish reaching the death penalty as a verdict. The big problem there, of course, is that that violates what Scripture condemns as the rich buying justice.
But, if the first issue in this headline news is the death penalty itself, the second is the development of doctrine. This is one of the most important questions that thinking Christians can think about. Why? It is because we have to look at the history of the Christian Church, look at over twenty centuries of believing Christians and ask: Where is the continuity? Where is the discontinuity? We have to ask the questions. Does doctrine change? Should doctrine change? How would doctrine change? The big issue here is that there is a fundamental basic disagreement between the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestants on this question. The Vatican recognized this yesterday. After all the Vatican has a lot of explaining to do. How could the Roman Catholic Church affirm the death penalty at many points, even rather recently, and now say that it is categorically wrong today? Was the Roman Catholic Church wrong then or is it wrong now? Or is it never wrong according to the Roman Catholic doctrine?
Well, let's look at it more closely. The Vatican yesterday understood that it had to explain how there could be a change in doctrine. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who was the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, spoke on behalf of the Vatican claiming that the change yesterday is in continuity with the preceding magisterium, which means the teaching authority of the church. But he also said that it brings forth “a coherent development of Catholic doctrine.” A development? Again, it's actually a reversal. How much of a reversal? Well just consider the fact that for centuries the Pope was the monarch of the Vatican states. Not only did the Vatican states exercise capital punishment, but popes sometimes presided at executions. As a matter of fact, in the Vatican city-state, over which the Pope is still a monarch, until 1969 capital punishment remained on the books.
One other issue related to the Pope, the Vatican stated yesterday that there are alternatives to capital punishment even for murder. But here we have to remember that back in 2014 this very Pope, Pope Francis, defined life in prison as “a hidden death penalty,” indicating that it also falls short of the church's expectation of morality and justice. Thus far, I have not seen any major figure or anyone in the major media point to the fact that over against what the Vatican said today this Pope doesn't believe in life in prison any more than he believes in the death penalty. It's a bit disingenuous to talk about alternatives to the death penalty as justification for this change when, as we remember, this Pope doesn't believe in the main alternative either.
Does doctrine change? Understanding the fundamental divide between Catholics and Protestants when it comes to the development of doctrine
The most important words for us to observe in this Catholic statement is where the Cardinals spoke of the development of Catholic doctrine–a coherent development he claimed. Well, this is where we look at the massive claim made by the Roman Catholic Church that it– that is the church through it's magisterium, it's official teaching authority headed by the Pope–has a divine mandate for the stewardship and development of doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church would point back to Matthew 16 and claim that Jesus gave the keys to Peter and thus this authority. That's central to the claim of Catholicism. But what's most important for Evangelicals to recognize is that this actually means that the Roman Catholic Church claims that its magisterium has an authority, even a responsibility and stewardship to develop doctrine beyond the Scripture.
At this point we need to recognize the unusual candor of this Pope, Pope Francis in speaking of that authority that is claimed. Back in 2017, just last year, speaking to the 25th anniversary of the very catechism he just changed, speaking to capital punishment and indicating his opposition to capital punishment, the Pope said and I quote, "Here we are not in the presence of any contradiction with past teaching because the dignity of human life from the first instant of conception to natural death has always found in the church its coherent and authoritative voice.” He went on to speak, as did the Cardinal yesterday, of the "harmonious development of doctrine which he says requires putting aside positions and defensive arguments that already appear decidedly against the new understanding of Christian truth.”
Notice the absence of Scripture here. Notice the absence of an understanding that doctrine either is true or false, and if it's true was always true and if false was always false. Just in case we might be at risk of misunderstanding him, we should understand that the Pope went further. Again this is in 2017, "Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision can think of the deposit of faith as something static.” The Pope then said these stunning words, "The Word of God cannot be conserved in moth balls as if it were an old blanket to be preserved from parasites. No,” he said, "the Word of God is a dynamic reality, always alive that progresses and grows because it tends toward a fulfillment that men cannot stop.” The Pope also spoke doctrinally of what he called a law of progress. That's a stunning claim. In the issue of the death penalty, here we confront just about the totality of the distinction between Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestants on the understanding of biblical authority, doctrinal authority, the very nature of doctrine, and how doctrine is to be ascertained and defended and preached by the true church.
It's also interesting to know that even many conservative Catholics who are not happy with the announcement of the Vatican yesterday are thrown back on making defenses such as what you find in some conservative Catholic circles that the Pope has violated the principal established at Vatican I that the church cannot reverse itself. But that's why the Pope and his associates, such as Cardinal Ladaria, are using the language of a coherent or a consistent development of doctrine. The argument here is not new to the Catholic Church but the argument comes down to this: Yes, doctrine changes. Yes, the church has the authority to change doctrine. Yes, it can go beyond the Scripture with new revelation or new understanding of Scripture it might be claimed, but it must be in a consistent direction.
That's why you see the word consistent used over and over again in the current argument. But using the word consistent doesn't, of course, make it consistent. Rod Dreher points back to an article, an extensive article written in April of 2001 by one of the leading and most authoritative Catholic theologians of the 20th century that was Cardinal Avery Dullas. In “Catholicism and Capital Punishment,” again 2001, he documents the fact that throughout the history of the Catholic Church there has been an affirmation of capital punishment. Now there is an absolute, unconditional condemnation. To state the matter bluntly, that is not consistent. It is profoundly inconsistent. But even beyond the importance of the death penalty, what's more important is the understanding of what's claimed here as the doctrinal authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium and, most particularly, of the Pope. But there is where we have to go back to the Reformation of the 16th century and understand this very claim is exactly what brought about the reformers’ break with Roman Catholicism.
Remember at the Diet of Worms it was Martin Luther who said that he would only be convinced of doctrinal authority and of doctrinal truth by Scripture and plain reason. Not by the claimed teaching authority of the Catholic Church. This is where we understand why sola scriptura is the formal principal of the Reformation. That is it was the very point at which the question of authority was determined. This is where the Reformers, as Luther said at the Diet of Worms, must stand on the authority, the final authority, of Scripture alone. Scripture, he says, does not err. Popes and councils, he declared, will and do err. That's the issue. The reformers came to understand that they must define the development of doctrine in terms and in terms alone of fidelity to Scripture. The issue is what do the Scripture teach and the reformers came with an understanding that right doctrine would always be right doctrine and false doctrine would always be false doctrine. It is not the right or the stewardship of the church or of any authority in the church to change what was right to wrong or wrong to right. Even over an enormously long period of time and even with the argument that there is some kind of perceived consistency.
But this is where we should understand, as we bring this consideration to a close, that in the modern world today there are really four different understandings of the development of doctrine. One of them is the understanding of Liberal Protestantism, which simply abandons doctrine and has denied the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture and simply makes the argument that people don't believe these things any more. Thus the church needs to move on and abandon whatever doctrines it must abandon in order to be relevant in the modern age. The argument there is a candid admission that, yes, doctrine changes, and we have the right and authority to change doctrine to whatever we think best now, period.
A second understanding of the development of doctrine that still very much exists right now is the Mormon example. In the Mormon mode of doctrinal development, the claim is that there is revelation on par with Scripture after the Scripture. Now that includes not only the Book of Mormon and other Mormon documents. We can see this exemplified very much in the year 1978. Particularly on the date September the 30th of 1978. Central to Mormonism is the claim that the church has a living prophet and that living prophet, along with his associates in what is known as the first presidency, receive divine revelation on par with Scripture. The issue is this: before September the 30th, 1978, African American men could not serve in the Aaronic priesthood, but after September the 30th, 1978, African American men could serve in the priesthood. So, that was an absolute change in doctrine.
But who brought it about? Well, the argument was that God brought it about. But did the Mormon church change its position and apologize for the position it held before September the 30th, 1978? No. The claim is God believed that then, but God changed his mind and revealed a change in mind to the first presidency of the Mormon church. That's another model of doctrinal development. Yes, doctrine changes, but it's not changing from true to false. It's just always true even though the second doctrine may be a reversal of the first. That's the issue at stake with the claim that there is some kind of revelation after Scripture, some kind of living prophet who receives revelation on par with Scripture. But even as the Liberal Protestant model and the Mormon model still exist today, so also does the Roman Catholic model of the development of doctrine, the claimed authority of the church as the steward of that doctrine, and the development of doctrine even after Scripture, which also exemplified yesterday on the question of the death penalty.
But that leaves the Evangelical Protestant Reformational model, and that's a model that understands that Scripture is to be determined upon biblical revelation, biblical authority, and the text of Scripture alone. The church’s responsibility is to teach biblical truth. If the church is to be convinced of doctrine not to mention any change in doctrine, it is not because God has changed his mind. It is not because the church has the authority to develop doctrine beyond Scripture. But as Luther said, we must be convinced that Scripture itself demands a change in our teaching. This is why for Evangelical Christians, the words sola scriptura are not just a motto, they are a theological method. They are furthermore a way of life.
After cave rescue, theology is in the headlines as Thai boys become temporary monks, apologize to parents
But next, looking back to the summer, some of the best news that we have heard in a very long time was the news that came that twelve boys and their coach, a Thai soccer team, who had been trapped 2000 feet inside a cave in Thailand, a cave that had been largely flooded with water from which rescue appeared to be almost impossible, all thirteen of these human beings (twelve boys and their coach) were rescued successfully. They were lost in the cave on June the 23rd. There was no word from them until two British divers discovered them on July the 10th. Now just consider again how many days that is, from June 23rd to July the 10th. But on July the 10th, even as the boys and their coach had long been feared to be dead, a British diver spotted them perched precariously on a ledge. Again, 2000 feet inside the submerged cave. The British diver asked how many were alive, the answer was thirteen, that means all them. To which the diver responded, “Brilliant!” The question then was how in the world to get the twelve boys and their coach out of the cave.
It turned out to be a massive rescue operation and by human standards it was almost miraculous that the thirteen were rescued, the last of them brought out on the 13th of July. The entire episode was a demonstration of human courage and tenacity on the part of the coach and the boys in the dark and submerged cave, not giving up hope on the part of the Navy seals and others, first of all in Thailand but then internationally who offered assistance–the courage demonstrated in the divers going in to rescue the boys and the ingenuity required to remove them one by one out of the cave. Of course, this led to a radical celebration worldwide, as well it should. But there are some interesting issues that have emerged after the rescue of the boys and their coach from the cave. In worldview significance. the most interesting of these news headlines was the fact that eleven of the twelve rescued boys had decided to become modest Buddhist monks. They had decided to be ordained, in the word used in the Western press, as monks. It turned out that this is a temporary ordination. There were pictures of the eleven boys, kneeling, dressed in white for their heads to be shaved as Buddhist novices, as novice monks.
In Theravada Buddhism, as is practiced by the majority in Thailand, young men can become monks, full monks at age 20. These boys, between the ages of 11 and 17 are too young. But boys in these ages can become temporary monks. They can go through a temporary ordination. The most important issue of theological significance here is to understand why. It is because, according to this Buddhist belief, these boys in becoming temporary monks would achieve merit. Merit that could be applied to the afterlife and furthermore merit that could be transferred in the afterlife to others. The other to whom the 11 boys are dedicating their merit is one Navy seal who died in the process of the rescue. Ben Solomon and Austin Ramsey, reporting for the New York Times explained it by citing Mattia Salvini, a scholar of Buddhism at a university outside of Bangkok. He said that many religious activities in countries that practice Theravada Buddhism are understood primarily in terms of this making merit or creating good karma. "In addition to making merit, another purpose of temporary ordination can be to better the karma of other people including the deceased by transferring merit to them.” That according to Eduardo Sinai, an anthropologist at Kyoto University, another specialist in Buddhism in contemporary Thailand.
Professor Sinai said this, "On one side, ordination for them is a ritual of passage which purifies them after having spent a long period in an underworld that is populated by dangerous spirits and after having caused trouble to others.” Andrew Allan Johnson reporting for Religious News Service went on to explain also, "For Buddhists, life is but one in a cycle in of deaths and rebirths where the good deeds one does in the past determine where and in what form human, animal, divine being one is re-born. Eventually,” he said, "over many lifetimes, enough knowledge and merit will allow for escape from this cycle and transcendence.”
Well, here we are reminded powerfully, once again, that theology is always there in the headlines. It's always there in the story, if we will only look for it and see it. In this case, it's readily apparent even though many in the mainstream media have given it little attention. The distinction between the Eastern worldview of a cyclical view of history and the biblical worldview of a linear view of history is here very clear. The Christian biblical worldview is of history moving in a direction like an arrow. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end–a past and a present and a future. History does not repeat itself. It is the unfolding plan of God under his divine sovereignty. In the Eastern worldviews there is another understanding of time like a great wheel, a great cycle. And this involves the understanding of karma, which is directly in contradistinction to the Christian understanding of grace. But karma is apparent in these headlines as these eleven boys and their coach intend to achieve karma by means of their entering into this monkhood for the boys temporarily, and they intend to transfer it to honor their parents and to transfer the merit directly so that in afterlives the Navy seal who lost his life could transcend or at least advance throughout various forms of life by means of the transference of their earned karma.
But before bringing The Briefing to a close, looking again at those twelve Thai boys, think of the press conference after their rescue and think of the humility of those boys as demonstrated in that public event. They were not pointing to themselves as heroes rather they were deferential and extremely deferential to those who had given so much, one his life in order to rescue them. They were embarrassed that they had caused the trouble and furthermore there was a public statement of apology to their parents and asking for forgiveness for disobedience. It turned out that almost to a boy, all twelve of them had intentionally disobeyed their parents in going into the cave. This brought shame on them and they publicly wanted to ask the forgiveness of their parents. That too is rooted in their understanding of Buddhist karma, and thus that too is theological. Something we should ponder as we remember the fact that theology is always there if we will just see it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.