Agur Didn’t Believe in Purgatory

We finished our Saturday compelled to thank the Father for the day He’d provided. We spent the morning with friends who live on the top floor of our apartment building. Having consumed the obligatory espresso (me) and cappuccino (Johanna) we took a passegiata (a stroll); a very Italian activity. As we meandered along, making our way to the park, Alessandro kept steering the conversation back to the Catholic Church and true faith.

Now, first impressions aren’t everything. People can feign interest in the things of God, the same way that saving faith can be feigned (Jn. 2:24; Acts 8:13). But, the few times we have been together he has shown a real curiosity about the truth. Over dinner at our place he commented that he found it absurd that priests tried to tell people how to conduct themselves in marriage or as parents since they have no experience in either area. When I told him that the Bible knows nothing of a priest in the Roman Catholic sense, and read him some of the elder qualifications from 1 Timothy 3, he was floored. I emphasized the fact that an elder must be, “the husband of one wife,” and “one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity” (1 Tim. 3:2, 4).

In light of previous conversations like that one, I was hopeful I’d have another opportunity to contrast the religious world he’s always known with the Scriptures. At some point, in a conversation that traversed the emptiness of externalism and the need for a God-provided new heart, purgatory came up. I mentioned, almost in passing, that purgatory isn’t taught anywhere in the Bible. He was startled to say the least. In fact he said that he was really sconvolto, which means, “Gravely distraught, profoundly shaken/affected.” He turned and called out to his wife, who was walking with Johanna and the girls a ways back, and said, “You won’t believe this, but there’s no purgatory in the Bible!”

Adding to the Bible is somewhat of the Catholic Church’s specialty. It isn’t as if Roman Catholic doctrine came into existence all together at one moment in history. Although some Catholics strain to show that their doctrines are ancient, the fact remains that doctrines like Papal Infallibility and the Assumption of Mary were only made official in 1870 and 1950 respectively. Further, there is nothing that would keep the Catholic Church from continuing to create new doctrine today.

Purgatory itself is an important piece of the Roman Catholic doctrinal system. As long as you believe in an unbiblical view of justification: that a person can be justified but not totally cleansed, and an unbiblical view of sin: that there is a distinction between mortal and venial sins and that there are temporal punishments which we must do something about ourselves, purgatory makes sense.[1] To believe in purgatory (and all the connected doctrines) is to reject the Bible as absolute authority, because the only way to reach these conclusions is to believe something that isn’t in the Bible and that is contrary to its teaching.

I think Agur can help us here. This often underappreciated sage is quoted as saying, “Do not add to His words Lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar” (Prov. 30:6). The statement, significant on its own, is all the more powerful in context. Agur is reflecting on the two most essential elements of theology: who we are (30:2-4), and who God is (30:5-6). A real submission to the authority of the Word of God is the truest expression of a high and glorious view of God. However, there is nothing more arrogant and God belittling than adding to God’s Word. The way we handle God’s Word tells us what we really think about God, and what we really think about ourselves.

With language no one would accuse as beating around the bush, Argur provides this self-assessment: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, And I do not have the understanding of a man. Neither have I learned wisdom, Nor do I have the knowledge of the Holy One.” (30:2-3). Agur is a brute on his best day. This isn’t feigned humility or self-pity, but rather a refreshingly honest articulation of biblical anthropology. What’s he getting at? We are utterly inadequate to account for life on our own or to understand our existence in a meaningful way by ourselves. It’s no coincidence that a life lived in attempted autonomy ultimately yields only confusion, frustration, pain, sadness and never clarity.

How does Agur arrive at vv. 2-3? Don’t miss verse 4. Our ability to answer the questions in verse 4, determines our viability as autonomous creatures in God’s universe. A high view of ourselves is only legitimate or realistic if we can answer ‘me’ to these questions: “Who has ascended into heaven and descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has wrapped the waters in His garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name or His son’s name? Surely you know!” (30:4). Our self-conception is appropriately dwarfed any time we cross-examine out hearts with the questions from verse 4.

Only by owning verses 2-4 do we come to point where we can understand that God and His Word are what we aren’t. The dead end of our attempts at independence leaves us needy for God’s help. “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him” (v. 5). God’s Word is free from even the slightest imperfection (cf. Psalm 12:6). Flaws are the only things that can be added to a word that is flawless. Acknowledging the surety of His Word leads to a trust in the security only His character can provide.

To summarize: Our willingness to embrace additions to the Word of God is connected to our view of ourselves and of God. Belief in Purgatory necessitates belief in a distorted view of God and of man, and so a distorted Gospel. Sadly people like my neighbor Alessandro are told by religious authorities, who supposedly speak for God, that Purgatory is a real place. This results in someone who thinks they believe what God teaches, but in reality guarantees a distorted view of mankind, God and the only true connection between God and man: the Gospel.

Agur didn’t believe in Purgatory. I think next time I see Alessandro I’ll tell him about Agur. I want to keep pushing Him back to God’s Word as the only acceptable absolute authority. This in turn will give me opportunity to press him to rethink the way he conceives himself and God. As long as his view of himself and God are distorted (the two always go together) he won’t be able to see his need for a Savior. A bit later in chapter 30 Agur goes on to give us a taste of what happens when someone rejects his theology. Perhaps the scariest is in verse 12: “There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, Yet is not washed from his filthiness.”

[1] James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, 182.

A week with Matteo

I felt a bit like a kid back from summer vacation as I hopped on the metro to head back to school this past week. I returned to school encouraged by the progress I thought we’d made towards fluency over the break and ready to dive back into the grammar. The week was good, and this was really the first full week of school where I didn’t have a “my-Italian-won’t-work-today” day (it came on Wednesday week two).

With new classes came new teachers. The Lord continued His pattern of giving us teachers who seem interested in the Gospel and/or who give us a platform to share about it. Although I didn’t have a ton of time to talk with my teacher for the group lessons, the teacher I spent the week with for my individual lessons was a different story. The teacher I’d requested wasn’t available for this week, and so the administrator told me I’d be working with Matteo.

Matteo is 28 (two years younger than me), studied literature and philosophy at university, and has been teaching Italian for the past 4 years. With individual lessons you really get to set the pace for your course, and I explained to the administrator that I wanted to work on my writing ability and maybe on some pronunciation. Essentially I figured I’d be writing a few paragraphs on somewhat generic themes, reading them aloud, and talking about grammar. All that happened, but much differently than I’d expected.

Matteo showed up on Tuesday (we met for about an hour Tuesday – Friday) and told me he was exited to work with me because he studied philosophy and was intrigued by the idea of a protestant pastor. Within about 10 minutes we were already discussing our differing worldviews. He was explaining to me that he’s convinced that there must be something out there, but that he’s pretty sure he can’t be sure, and he certainly can’t know what it is. We talked all about his inconsistent relativism and why God must exist.

Not one to pass up an opportunity like this, I wrote a brief one-page defense for the existence of God. Essentially I explained an argument called, “The Impossibility of the Contrary.” This argument explains that, “only Christianity provides the preconditions of intelligibility for man’s experience and reasoning. If Christianity were not true, the unbeliever could not prove or understand anything.”[1] The God of the Bible is (Heb. 11:6), that is, He must exist, because the world as it is would be impossible without Him. To reject Christ, says Van Til is “intellectual suicide.”

This “paper,” a generous way to talk about it, certainly wasn’t tight philosophical argumentation, but it spurred all sorts of conversation. We talked about the way that Matteo knows that there must be something ‘other’ because God put that knowledge in his heart (Rom. 1:19). But that God was gracious because He put this longing for something more in his heart in such a way that it couldn’t be satisfied in this earth (Eccl. 3:11). I told him about my testimony. He asked me about how I would raise my girls in the faith. He talked about what it was like to grow up in a strict Roman Catholic family. He talked about his philosophical heroes. We talked about interpreting the Bible. We talked about Jesus as offering something different from every other religion.

In case you’re wondering I did get my corrections, and we did talk grammar. It was a great exercise for my Italian. Especially at the more advanced levels, doing things you enjoy in the language is a great way to stay motivated to progress. But more than that, my heart sang with thanks to God for the opportunity. It was certainly a, “this is why I’m supposed to be here” moment.

[1] Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready, 152.

Alice Anne’s Approach to Language Learning

Speak Confidently. No matter what. Even if you are only using a real Italian word every tenth word, keeping talking! When the other person tries to end the conversation, don’t let that discourage you from getting a few more phrases in.

Watch as Alice applies her language learning philosophy on a friend who was at our place for dinner last night. Oh, and if you make it to the end, Noelle makes a brief appearance.

 

A Cultural Note: Ferragosto

All the things people said about summers in Rome weren’t just talk. It’s hot. Although everyone continues to stress the fact that we are getting off easy because it is usually much hotter (90 will be the high this week). But no matter how hot people think it is, most of them have still fled the city to find a cooler refuge. Traffic is less chaotic; still chaotic, but noticeably less so. Tourists are everywhere. We went to Piazza Navona to grab a gelato for Johanna’s birthday, and we heard significantly more German than Italian. And, while the larger supermarkets stay open, lots of stores are closed, with signs hanging in the window that read, “chiuso per ferie” (closed for the holidays).

The little shopping center by our house, mid-morning on a week day.

The little shopping center by our house, mid-morning on a week day.

August is sort of the finale of summertime holiday activity. It may not be as obvious now, but a friend told me growing up in Rome his neighborhood would be a ghost town come August. Ferragosto, the official holiday, lands on the 15th of August. Like with a lot that happens here, although there are some sort of official Roman Catholic connections, it seems as if most people are just excited to have some time off work. In this case it basically means going to the beach and eating special food. But the background is fascinating. An article on Focus.it explains the pagan roots of the holiday that later became a Roman Catholic celebration:

The name of the anniversary is derived from the Latin, feriae Augusti, “rest/holiday of August,” in honor of Octavian Augustus, first Roman Emperor, from whom the name of the month of August is taken. It was a period of rest and of celebration instituted by the Emperor himself in 18 B.C., that drew from the tradition of other holidays that celebrated the end of agricultural work, dedicated to…the god of the land and fertility…The anniversary was assimilated by the Catholic church about the 7th century when the celebration the Assumption of Mary began being commemorated August 15th. The dogma of the Assumption (recognized as such only in 1950) establishes that the Virgin Mary was assumed, that is accepted, into heaven body and soul.

But I didn’t read all that until yesterday. Instead we, along with what seemed like the rest of the country, went to the beach with some friends from church. We showed up at a free beach around 9 in the morning, near a small city called Latina about an hour outside of Rome. Our spot in the sand was about 6 rows back from the water. That is to say, at least 6 other groups had set up shop between us and the water. All of which is standard fare here. The beach scene in Italy involves guys wandering around peddling their wares; from bathing suits to bracelets to beach balls and other inflatable stuff. If you hear a whistle it is not the lifeguard warning of impending danger but the drink guy letting you know he has arrived. Most venders push some sort of make shift cart, but I noticed one guy who had blown up about a dozen inflatable animals, set them in the water, and walked behind as the waves washed them along the beach. Pretty tempting for a three year old.

Matt's turn to be assistant in the kitchen.

Matt’s turn to be assistant in the kitchen.

Around 12:30 we headed to our friends’ beach house. Johanna and I took turns being the assistant in the kitchen, as our friend is convinced we have no idea how pasta should be cooked. Johanna did well; I just basically struggled to cut tomatoes. Every region eats something different on Ferragosto. For our second course, we had the traditional Roman dish: stewed chicken and peppers (Wikipedia even confirms it). Our first course was an incredible spaghetti with various shellfish. Both our girls loved slurping the mussels right out of the shells in true Roman fashion. We are unsure if it is an odd side-effect of her starting to speak Italian, but over lunch we discovered that Alice has also developed a thick Southern twang for certain words. When she got her pasta she announced “there are sheeylls in this pasta.”

Coffee after the meal gave us the opportunity to have some extended conversations about what it looks like for God to get the glory even in the seemingly mundane. Spiritual conversations that require more nuance were difficult to navigate at the beginning. This happens to be the same couple we spent Christmas Eve with two weeks after we first arrived in Italy. And a lot has changed. The drive home was a chance to reflect with thanksgiving on what the Lord had accomplished in some very tangible ways.

Charles Bridges on Proverbs 13:24

I’ve found a friend in the study of Proverbs in Charles Bridges. His, “An Exposition of the Book of Proverbs,” first published in 1847, is freely available on Google Books. In thinking through Proverbs 13:24, “He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently,” Johanna and I found his reflections challenging:

Among the many modern theories of education, how often is God’s system overlooked! Yet shoulnd not this be our pattern and standard? The rod of discipline is its main character; not harsh severity, but a wise, considerate, faithful exercise; always aiming at the subjugation of the will, and the humbling and purifying of the heart. Here how- ever God and man are at issue. Man often spares the rod, because he loves the child. This at least he calls love. But is not our Father’s love to his children inconceivably more yearning than that of an earthly parent? Yet does he not spare the rod—”What son is he, whom the Father chasteneth not?” (Heb. xii. 7.) Is the rod the proof of his hatred? “Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth.” (Ib. verse 6. Deut. viii. 5. Rev. iii. 19.) Nay—he gives us his Divine judgment— He that spareth the rod, hateth the child. Does he not act at least as if he hated him; omitting a duty so necessary for his welfare; winking at the indulgence of vicious habits and a wayward will, so surely issuing in bitter sorrow? Is not this delivering him up to his worst enemy? Better that the child had been trained in tile house of strangers, than that he should thus be the unhappy victim of the cruelty of parental love. The discipline of our children must therefore commence with self- discipline. Nature teaches to love them much. But we want a controlling principle, to teach us to love them wisely. The indulgence of our children has its root in self-indulgence. We do not like putting ourselves to pain. The difficulties indeed can only be known by experience. And even in this school one parent cannot measure the trials of another. But all our children are children of Adam. “Foolishness is bound up in their hearts.” (Chap. xxii. 15. Gen. viii. 21.) All choose from the first dawn of reason, the broad road of destruction. (Isa. liii. 6.) And can we bear the thought, that they should walk in that road? We pray for their conversion. But prayer without teaching is mockery, and Scripture teaching implies chastening. Discipline therefore must be. All need the rod, some again and again. Yet it must be the father’s rod, yearning over his chastened child. (Ps. ciii. 13), even while he dares “not spare him for his crying.” (Chap. xix. 18.) The rod without affection is revolting tyranny. But often do we hear mourning over failure. And is not this the grand reason? We do not chastise betimes. (Ib.), Satan begins with the infant in arms! (Ps. lviii. 3. Isa. xiviii. 8.) The cry of passion is his first stir of the native corruption. Do we begin as early? Every vice commences in the nursery. The great secret is, to establish authority in the dawn of life; to bend the tender twig, before the knotty oak is beyond our power. A child, early trained by parental discipline, will probably preserve the wholesome influence to the end of life. But fearful indeed is the difficulty, when the child has been the early master; to begin chastening, when the habit of disobedience has been formed and hardened; to have the first work to do, when the child is growing out of childhood, and when the unreserved confidence needs to be established. Rarely indeed does this late experiment succeed: while the severity necessary to enforce it is not less dangerous than painful. “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.” (Lam. iii. 27.)

The Local Church

June 2nd Italians celebrate La Festa della Repubblica, which celebrates the founding of the Republic in Italy (1946). Like any good holiday it means a day off. Our church took advantage of this Monday off and had a two day “weekend” (Sunday & Monday) at a local Augritorismo, a beautiful piece of land with a villa just outside the city (only 20 minutes from our house).

Augritorismo

Sunday mornings in Italy are just like they are in the States. There are several people you want to talk to, and often feel a bit rushed in conversations, trying to greet other passersby. Weekends like this are a great chance to relax a bit as a group and have some extended discussions. These opportunities to catch up came between sessions of study, discussion and prayer. The focus fell on the church’s desire to see other local churches raised up in the city and the need to pray and evangelize in that light.

The saints at Berea are a close knit group of folks. They love to be together, are hungry to hear the Word and are glad to talk of the things of Christ. We were grateful to be a part of the weekend, helping where we could. We are learning once again that it takes time to really become a part of a local body, and weekends like this are certainly a step in the right direction.

The girls on the way home. They spent the two days playing with their friends outside in the dirt (check out Noelle's hands).

The girls on the way home. They spent the two days playing with their friends outside in the dirt (check out Noelle’s hands).

These two days left me reflecting on the importance of the local church, specifically its importance in our lives as new missionaries to Italy. The following reflections are specific to the opportunities we have in Italy, and therefore wouldn’t necessarily apply to every context in exactly the same way. Read these thoughts as reasons we are grateful for Berea, and some thoughts on why our time with Berea is so important in this season of preparation…

  • Let’s start with the super practical. We are in Italy on religious visas. To obtain this type of visa you have to be invited to be here by a preexisting ministry. Normally this preexisting “ministry” is the Catholic Church. There are very few protestant churches that are recognized by the government. In the Lord’s perfect providence, Berea happens to be one of these churches. The elders kindly provided me with a letter, which played a large role in helping me obtain my visa.
  • Our desire to plant a church in the future doesn’t exempt us from the need to continue to learn how to observe all that Jesus commanded now (Mt. 28:20). During this season of preparation, our conviction about the centrality of the local church expresses itself in commitment to a real local assembly with qualified leaders who preach the Word of God and administer the ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). The church is how God shows his “manifold wisdom” in the heavens (Eph. 3:10).
  • We need the church. Our use of subjunctive verbs in the Italian language isn’t the only thing that needs work. We need other believers around us encouraging us, and pointing us to Christ. Our hearts long for the ministry of faithful leaders that Christ has given to His church (Eph. 4:11), Christ intended it to be that way. The faithfulness with which we practice the “one anothers” needs to continue to grow. Though each new season of the Christian life carries with it new challenges, our need for the Word of God and the people of God remains constant.
  • Some places have no church. Italy isn’t one of them. Should Christ use us as some of His Servants to build His church in Italy, it will be a continuation of the work He is already doing (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5; Matt. 16:18). We are benefited and better equipped by getting an up close and personal look at what Christ has been doing here. We aren’t the only ones who have the Holy Spirit on Italian soil, therefore we want to learn from those who have the same Spirit and have been here far longer. We honor Christ by honoring those who have come before us, and being a part of a church gives us opportunity to do that. Surely this is an extension of what Paul says in 1 Thess. 5:12-13: “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.”
  • I turned 30 this year. As old as that sounds :), I’m still young with a ton to learn. Attending Berea gives me the opportunity to grow as a shepherd, learning from men who have been doing it much long than I have.

The view from our window…

Last night, while our team was meeting for Bible study, we saw this outside our window. The quality isn’t great, but the two short clips should give you an idea of what we saw.

 

***Update: I posted these clips with little explanation because I wasn’t exactly sure who the group was and what feast day was being celebrated. However, a bit more explanation surely would have been helpful. It is a statue of Mary, and there is a catholic priest leading the charge.