What do Christians believe? Lesson III: The Problem of Evil

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At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The third lesson is titled “The Problem of Evil.” In it, I address one of the most commonly raised questions about the existence of God, namely: If God exists, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

Here is the video of the lecture:

The audio is also available on the Christ is for everyone! podcast.

Did Christ establish an infallible magisterium in the Church?

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I recently participated in an online discussion on the Pints with Aquinas YouTube show with my friend, Suan Sonna. We addressed the question: Did Christ establish an infallible magisterium in the Church?

Although I am sympathetic to and appreciative of Roman Catholicism in various ways, in my studies I have come to conclusions that lead me away from the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, there are very many people (at least in the online circles I frequent) who feel the pull in the direction of the Church of Rome. There are a few different reasons for that. One of the most prominent is certainly the attraction of the idea or prospect of an infallible teaching office in the Church, which can declare irreformable statements about what is and is not to be believed or done.

I think that there is no such infallible teaching office in the Church. In my recent discussion with Suan, I offered three reasons for thinking so. Because I think people may be interested in reading it, I have decided to post my opening statement for all to read.


My conviction is that Christ did not establish an infallible magisterium in the Church. I will present three arguments in favor of this opinion.

First, I will argue that our knowledge of theological things is only ever fallible and in principle revisable. This is because it is obtained by means of a fallible process of interpretation. Therefore, nothing in our experience justifies us in claiming to possess infallible knowledge of some theological subject matter.

Second, I will show there is no compelling biblical case in support of an infallible magisterium in the Church. The Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore fallibility of human beings. Because they are free and fallible, even the loftiest promises God makes about them may nevertheless not come true or at least not stay true for long. For the same reason, also, every social and ecclesial arrangement is in principle contingent and tentative.

Third, I will clarify how there is no theological necessity in the notion of an infallible magisterium of the Church. Some Roman Catholic apologists, theologians, and churchmen argue that if God were to make a saving revelation in history, He would need to establish a reliable and even infallible organ of transmission to preserve it in purity for all generations. But this argument is not only logically invalid; it also presupposes two quintessentially Catholic ideas about salvation and Christian faith that can be rejected.

Let’s go over these arguments in order.

The fallibility of theological knowledge

My first point is that our knowledge of theological subject matters is only ever fallible and revisable in principle. This is all that our experience allows us to say. Careful attention to the hermeneutic nature of the process of reasoning will help us to see how this is true.

Whenever we reason or discourse, we are reasoning or discoursing about something or other. But it is possible to take ourselves to be reasoning about one thing, when in fact all we’ve done is to follow a trail of ideas in a certain direction. This is because, in order for us to engage in reasoning, we first have to target some object available to our consciousness and to endow it with some kind of meaning or content. We pick something and interpret it as being an X. On the basis of that foundational hermeneutical decision, we then begin to reason as our concepts and understanding allow us. But however compelling or persuasive our reasoning may seem to us, it does not prove anything at all about the thing we had in mind unless it really is an X, such as we supposed. If it is not in fact an X, then we have not gained any knowledge about it.

Thus, suppose Suan reasons like this: The cat has just eaten, so it must not be hungry. In order for him to do this, he first had to target some object in the world of his experience and interpret it as a cat. Furthermore, he had to interpret what this thing has done as eating. These interpretive decisions are then paired with his prior understanding of what eating is and how it relates to hunger, which understanding he takes for granted. Thus, on the basis of a number of implicit decisions about how to interpret things, Suan is able to engage in a simple form of reasoning: This thing here, which I take to be a cat, has just done something I take to be eating, so that, in light of how I understand the relation between eating and hunger, it must not be hungry anymore.

But this process of reasoning does not confer knowledge of the object in the world unless the hermeneutical or interpretive decisions on which it is founded are actually adequate to their object. Thus, Suan can only know his reasoning is actually correct if he tries to validate these hermeneutical decisions by turning to the thing itself and confirming them in an experience. But it is also obvious that Suan’s experiences are always going to underdetermine his confidence in his hermeneutical decisions. It may be that the thing is not a cat but only looks like one; or that it only appears to have eaten when in fact it did something else; or that eating and hunger are not in fact always related in the way Suan supposed; or it may be that the thing is no longer available and Suan is stuck with just his memories of how things looked to him to have happened; and so on. Suan’s experiences are never going to provide an infallible confirmation of any of the assumptions of his reasoning. Thus, he will never be certain about the propriety of his reasoning. At best, he will have only a tentative and revisable knowledge, not an infallible one.

The fallibility of Suan’s reasoning is grounded in the fact that his reasoning is based on certain hermeneutical choices about how to interpret things. We have to make choices about how to interpret things because they are not perfectly clear by themselves. But where one choice is possible, so also is another one. Such is the nature of human freedom. And we cannot be sure ahead of time – nor even after the fact – that we have chosen correctly.

The same thing happens in reasoning about theological things. We choose to interpret certain realities in a certain way. For example, we choose to interpret the biblical text as saying X. Our experiences underdetermine those choices, and so it is always possible that we are wrong. Indeed, nothing in our experience guarantees that we have interpreted things the right way, since there are going to be people comparable to us in various ways who nevertheless interpret things differently. For this reason, our experience does not permit us to say anything other than that our theological knowledge, if we have any at all, is fallible and – so far as we can tell – subject to revision.

Now, someone will say: The Roman Catholic Church does not teach that its infallibly taught statements are known with absolute certainty, but only that they are true. That is what Christ promised in the Scriptures. This objection itself admits that the Roman Catholic Church’s idea about the infallibility of the magisterium is not an experientially grounded doctrine. Rather, it is the logical outcome of a certain interpretation of the biblical text. In other words, it is the place the Church has reached as a result of following a certain train of thought. Therefore, it will be necessary to show that this train of thought, this preferred interpretation of the biblical text, is not the only one possible. This brings me to my second argument.

The contingency of divine promises

Many times, Roman Catholic apologists and theologians will argue for the infallibility of the Church’s magisterium on the basis of the promises that God or Christ make in the Scriptures. For example, there is the promise that Christ makes to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will found my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19).

The problem with an argument like this is that the Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore fallibility of human beings relative to God. This means that even the loftiest promises that God makes to a person or group of persons need not come true, or at least not in the way they would have expected, if they do not freely cooperate with Him.

For example, Joshua tells the Hebrews, just as they are preparing to enter into the promised land, that the living God “without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites” (Josh 3:10). But the Gibeonites, who are described variously as Hivites and Amorites, are not driven out because of a deception (Josh 9). Neither did they drive out the Geshurites or the Maacathites (Josh 13:13).

Similarly, God tells the prophet Ezekiel: “Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die” (Ezek 33:13). God can tell you: You shall surely live. And yet if you sin, you will die, despite the unconditional nature of God’s earlier words. Once more, the fulfillment of a divine promise is contingent and not infallible whenever it involves the free cooperation of human beings.

In the same way, God tells the prophet Isaiah that He will take the robe, sash, authority, and key of the house of David from Shebna and give it to Eliakim (Isa 22:15-25). But what Eliakim inherits is what Shebna earlier possessed. It was taken from the one and given to the other because the former had sinned. Thus, its possession is contingent and fallible, not certain. If it could be taken from one of them because of sin, it could also be taken from the other, even though God makes such lofty promises about Eliakim. Eliakim is described as “a peg fastened in a secure place” (v. 23). And yet Shebna also was a “peg fastened in a secure place,” and nevertheless He was about to be cut down and fall (v. 25). Thus, the promises God makes are contingent and tentative, insofar as their fulfillment depends on the free cooperation of the human being.

So also in the case of the promise in Matthew 16. Suppose we grant – though we don’t have to – that Peter was given a position of headship over the college of the apostles. It does not follow that he or one of his successors could not have erred in such a way as to disqualify himself or the very position he occupies. Neither does it follow that such an arrangement is permanent. Human beings are free, possessing a measure of independence from God. This means that things can go wrong, and the promises that God makes to them can go unfulfilled.

And yet God is flexible. He does not let the mistakes of some people ruin His providential purposes. To the contrary, He is free to make use of whatever means He has available at any point in time. Thus, He leads Israel first by Moses, but Moses does not make it into the promised land. Then He leads by Joshua, then by the judges, then by the kings, and then, when the kings become corrupt, by the prophets, and so on. The fact that God establishes an arrangement does not entail that it will remain forever. And God is free to make use of whatever means are available to Him at any point in time in order to accomplish His purposes.

The perspicuity of the Gospel

This leads me to my third and final argument. I’ve suggested that our very experience teaches us that our knowledge of theological subject matters is only ever fallible and subject to revision. Moreover, the biblical case in support of an infallible magisterium is fatally undermined by the fact that the Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore essential fallibility of human beings and their arrangements. But sometimes Roman Catholic apologists and theologians give something like an a priori argument for an infallible magisterium. They say that if God were to reveal some saving truth, then He would make provisions for its reliable transmission over time. And in order to prevent its corruption as history marches on, it’s to be expected that He would establish an infallible teacher or body of teachers who can interpret it in such a way that the truth is not lost.

The first point to make about this argument is that it is logically invalid. God certainly would make provisions to ensure the reliable transmission of the saving truth from generation to generation. But it doesn’t follow that He needs to make use of any one particular means for doing so. His own infallibility as the preserver of the truth over time need not translate into the permanent infallibility of any particular medium He works through. He led the people of Israel at times through Moses, at times through the judges, at times through the kings, at times through the prophets. No one office is infallible. God alone is infallible, and He makes use of whomever He wills. So also, in the history of the Church, God can make use of whatever means are available to Him at any point in time in order to preserve the saving truth for His people.

There is something else to note about the a priori argument for the magisterium. First, it would appear to assume that the saving truth that God reveals must necessarily be something obscure and easy to lose track of. That must be why the risk of error is apparently so great. Second, it assumes that salvation is fundamentally or at least in part a matter of assenting to certain well-defined doctrinal statements and dogmatic formulas. But both of these assumptions must be called into question and can even be rejected.

In the first place, God can have made provision for the reliable transmission of the saving truth throughout the generations precisely by making this saving truth something clear enough for the average person to understand and appreciate. In other words, God can have made provisions for the reliable transmission of salvation by revealing something perspicuous and easily accessible.

Consider the example of water. Everyone knows that water is good, that it hydrates, that it is healthful, that it benefits human life in various ways. There is no need for there to be an infallible water-master in order for the human tradition of appreciating water to be reliably transmitted throughout the generations. Indeed, it would be ridiculous for anyone to claim that he is an infallible guide on water. Our knowledge of water is the same as our knowledge of anything else outside ourselves: fallible and revisable. But it is still true that the most important things about water – for example, that it is necessary for us and that it improves our lives in various ways – are so clear and obvious that we have no need of an infallible teacher in the matter.

In the same way, the saving truth that God has revealed is perspicuous like this. What is this truth? It is the truth that fellowship with the one true creator God in the Holy Spirit has been made possible for all people through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, on the basis of His mediatorial work. This is the truth that saves us, and it is easy enough for anyone to appreciate it. This is the message that Irenaeus says can be “clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all” in the Scriptures, prophets, and gospels (Against Heresies II, 27, 2). This is the message that Origen says was delivered by the apostles “with utmost clarity to all believers” (On First Principles Preface, 3). This is the message that all the Christian churches everywhere plainly and obviously teach, according to both Church Fathers. Thus, it is not only possible but also traditional to say that God has made provision for the reliable transmission of salvation by revealing something that is clear enough on its own. This undermines the necessity of an infallible magisterium.

Someone will object: But what about all the heresies that have afflicted the Church throughout the ages? The truth can easily be mixed with damnable error. As I mentioned before, this line of argument presupposes that salvation is at least in part if not fundamentally a matter of assenting to certain well-defined doctrinal statements and dogmatic formulae. Moreover, it clearly is looking at Church history through the lens of contemporary Roman Catholic dogma. This argument for the necessity of an infallible magisterium seems sooner to express a fundamentally Roman Catholic conception of salvation and its conditions. And it is open to us to reject both the one and the other.

Salvation is not first and foremost a matter of believing certain well-defined doctrinal statements. It is friendship with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 John 1:3). In other words, it is about a relation between persons and not necessarily an appreciation of some theoretical truth. It is obviously possible to enjoy friendship without the theoretical aspect. I can enjoy a conversation with my friend JT even if I do not have a well-defined opinion about JT’s ontological constitution from the point of view of philosophical anthropology. I might be a substance dualist, or a physicalist, or a hylemorphist, or have no opinion whatsoever about what he is. That does not stop me from joking or debating with him. In the same way, a person can enjoy fellowship with God and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit even if he is unsure how to understand God from the perspective of the christological and triadological controversies of Church history, indeed even if he has never thought about those problems at all.

This personal friendship or communion between God and the human being is realized by the preaching of the Gospel. It is the preaching of the Gospel that produces faith in people, and faith is what makes it possible to enjoy this friendship or communion. Furthermore, the preaching of the Gospel can accomplish this effect even if it is not theologically sophisticated or even particularly precise. Someone might say: But if heresy is preached, then it does not produce saving faith. But this assumes that saving faith is assent to certain well-defined doctrinal statements rather than an orientation toward God through Jesus Christ. It is enough to be told about Jesus Christ as the way of access to friendship with God on the basis of His life and death. When that happens, people turn toward Christ in faith and hope and love. They cling to Him and praise God through Him in the Holy Spirit, even apart from a very theoretical understanding of the finer details. There is thus no need for an infallible magisterium in any of this.   

These, then, are my arguments. Christ did not establish an infallible magisterium in the Church. Our experience teaches us that our knowledge of theological things is only ever fallible and subject to revision. The Bible itself everywhere recognizes the essential freedom and essential fallibility of human beings. And yet God saves us by revealing something which we do not need to be infallible in order to enjoy. He invites us to friendship with Him and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. And we can enjoy this friendship even if we are mistaken about various things or even if we do not attend to various problems and nuances of speculative theology at all.

“The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” A 10-part lecture series

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At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The first lesson is titled “Why the Creed?”. In it, I ask the question: Why do we have the Creed and why do we recite it every week? Why don’t we simply limit ourselves to the Bible? The answer: Because Christ is the principle of unity of the Church, and the Church tells us in a succinct form who Christ is and what He taught.

Here is the video of the lecture:

The audio from the lectures will be distributed on the Christ is for everyone! podcast. You can access the podcast episode here. It is also available on Spotify. If you find it beneficial, be sure to distribute it to others!

Why are there so many different churches?

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Christianity teaches that “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6). There is one God, and there is one Lord. And yet Christians are many! How many different churches and denominations are there, all of whom claim to believe in the one God and to serve and worship the one Lord?

There are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. Among the Roman Catholics, there are your run-of-the-mill Catholics who go to church every Sunday and on holy days of obligation; there are some who go to English-language services and others who only attend the Latin mass; there are very liberal types who believe that the Church is falling behind the times, and there are hyper-traditionalists who believe that things went off the rails after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Among the Eastern Orthodox, there are those who side with the Church of Russia and those who side with the Church of Constantinople; there are those called the “Old Believers” who keep the liturgical habits of yesteryear, refusing to follow along with modern reforms; there are those who insist on re-baptizing converts from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and those who do not; and so on. Among Protestants, there are Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Nazarenes, Adventists, and Pentecostals. There are even non-denominational churches. But even this isn’t the whole story. There are also various Christian churches in Africa, the Middle East, and in Asia that are themselves quite diverse, such as the Coptic Church in Egypt or the so-called “Nestorian” Church of the East. And then there are various groups whose connection to the more popular Christian denominations are a bit more difficult to determine, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and unitarians of various kinds.

There is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. And yet there is such a dizzying plurality of churches and theologies! How can we understand this situation? If there is only one God, why are His followers on Earth seemingly incapable of agreeing with each other on so many important things? Why do they disagree with each other about so much and in many cases even declare curses on each other, threatening each other with hell fire and damnation because of differences of opinion and practice? How to understand this situation?

This is a very controversial matter, and it is hard to say something that will not upset at least some people. Nevertheless, I think that the Bible actually anticipates this situation and has some important things to say about it.

Some people look at the plurality of churches and theologies as a serious problem. Moreover, the debates and disputations between Christians are seemingly unending. They want an easy way to establish one point of view as correct. For such people, the Roman Catholic church is very attractive. It offers an easy, logical system for understanding what is and is not necessary to believe. For example, in Roman Catholicism it is necessary to believe anything that has always and everywhere been taught by all the bishops of the Church, or that was declared by an ecumenical council of the Church, or that was officially declared as a part of the faith by the Pope in a formal statement. The authority of the Church’s teachers and especially that of the Pope functions to end all debates and to provide a solid ground for one’s theological convictions. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church claims for itself a long tradition that it claims traces back to the Apostles of Jesus Himself. Thus, many people are attracted to Catholicism for the reason that they become in this way a part of a greater group or community with a rich history.

Other people seem not to be concerned with having a grand system and an easy way to resolve every possible theological dispute ahead of time. Rather, they simply are convinced that a certain point of view is right and commit themselves to it. A lot of Protestants are like this. Whether or not they can convincingly justify to themselves or to others any particular theological matter, nevertheless they are firm in their convictions and maintain them in the face of contrary arguments. The system and the possibility of proving others wrong is not as important to them as the things they are convinced are true.

Thus, there are at least two kinds of approaches people can take toward this issue. Some of them are concerned to have some kind of logical system. They want “mechanisms” in place that can, in principle at least, resolve any issues or disputes that might arise between people. They want an authority in place which can determine what is to be accepted or rejected without court of appeal. On the other hand, others don’t care so much about all that. They simply maintain what they think is true, whether or not they have a great system in place for resolving disputes or for proving the matter to others. They know what they know and that’s that.

Both of these approaches can lead to a sectarian mindset. In other words, they can lead a person to reject others who do not believe the same as they do. They come to the conviction that all outsiders are lost, that they do not have the truth and that there is no hope for them. As a result, the churches break up into factions, with little hope of reconciliation. Each person sticks to his or her own point of view and is unwilling to go along with others who don’t share it.

At the same time, what goes unnoticed in many of these debates is just how much people of differing opinions have in common. For example, it is true that Roman Catholics and Protestants differ on a number of issues, for example on how to understand the Virgin Mary and her relation to Christ. But they also have very many things in common, most notably that there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. It is true that Roman Catholics and Protestants differ on things that both sides consider to be of grave importance. But they can also be mistaken about how important the points of disagreement really are, or at least with respect to how devastating the fact of disagreement might be.

As I said, it is difficult to say anything about this issue which might not upset at least one party. But nevertheless, I think the Bible has something to say about this matter. And if we attend closely to what it says, then perhaps we can find a different way of thinking about the problem of the plurality of churches.

Much like the Christian churches in the modern day, the church at Corinth during the time of the Apostle Paul was afflicted by many divisions and factions. Paul describes the situation as follows:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

1 Corinthians 1:10-12 New Revised Standard Version

Notice what happened! Just as in the present day we have Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and all kinds of Christians, also in the ancient church at Corinth: some people associated themselves with Paul, whereas others with Apollos or Cephas (that is, the Apostle Peter), or with Christ directly. There were a plurality of factions within the church, each corresponding to some important or significant teacher within the early Christian community.

Paul does not appreciate this situation at all. As he writes: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1:13). In other words, the Apostle considers it inappropriate that a community of Christians identify themselves in any other way except with Jesus Christ. Thus, Paul says that when he first went to preach to the Corinthians, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2). In other words, whereas the Corinthians were dividing themselves according to whether they followed Paul, who first preached to them, or else Apollos, who came along later on, the Apostle means to draw their attention back to the most important person of all: Christ Himself, about whom both Paul and Apollos were concerned to preach to others. On the other hand, Paul considers that it is very worldly to be concerned with the messenger rather than the message. He writes:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:5-9 New Revised Standard Version

Here as elsewhere, Paul’s concern is once more to redirect the Corinthians’ attention and concerns away from human teachers and to God and His Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, Paul goes on to say something very fascinating after this. And I think that what he says will be relevant for the discussion about the plurality of churches that exist today. He writes:

According to grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire…

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or even by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

1 Corinthians 3:10-15, 4:1-5 New Revised Standard Version

Much of what Paul says in these passages is surprisingly relevant for the present discussion of the plurality of churches and theologies. In the first place, Paul claims that Apollos built upon the foundation he laid in the Corinthian church, which foundation is the teaching about Jesus Christ. And this is in fact what all the churches of the present day try to do! Whether you go to a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox or a Protestant church, you will hear a sermon about Jesus Christ which draws in some way or other on the teachings of the Apostles, in whose number Paul also was included. Just as Apollos came after Paul and tried to expand on what he had taught in various ways, so also all the churches that exist in the present day are concerned to take the teaching about Christ of Paul and the other apostles and share it with others, building upon it and commenting on it in order to make it intelligible for present-day believers. Thus, Paul not only expected but even experienced first-hand the diversity and plurality of teachers and the possible factions and divisions which might come about as a result.

What does Paul say about this situation of diversity and plurality? First, he says that he laid a foundation, namely that of Jesus Christ. The foundation was not himself but rather “Christ and Him crucified,” as he says elsewhere. Thus, everyone else who is to build up the Church of God must build on this foundation. But Paul also says that not everyone builds equally well or equally valuably. Some people build with gold, silver, and precious stones. Others build with wood. Still others build with hay and straw. Not all of these building materials are equally resistant! And Paul teaches that there will be “a Day” in which the Lord will come and judge the work of each person. This judgment is compared to a “fire” that will burn up the work of some while the work of others will remain and even receive a reward. But even those whose work is burned up will nevertheless be saved, so long as they sought to build on the foundation of Christ Himself.

Thus, Paul recognizes that there is only one foundation of the Church, Jesus Himself, whom Paul preached, and people build upon this foundation in better or worse ways. But he also has something very interesting and perhaps provocative to say about the matter of judging the work of others. Even though Paul himself says that some build well and others poorly, he nevertheless emphasizes: “I do not even judge myself… It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3-4). He enjoins his audience to take up the same attitude: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes” (v. 5). Indeed, they are not to make distinctions between Paul and Apollos and Peter, but rather to think of each as a “servant of Christ” and a “steward of God’s mysteries” (v. 1). They should leave the judgment to God and – to quote from what Paul says in another place – test everything, holding fast to what is good (cf. 1 Thess 5:21).

I think what Paul teaches here can be useful for understanding the plurality of churches and theologies that we have in the present day. Just as then there were Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, so also today there are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants of various kinds. But the foundation laid by the Apostles remains Christ. Each of these churches try to build on that foundation in some way or another. If they didn’t, they would cease to be a church altogether, according to what Paul says; but it is obvious that Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants are all concerned to build on the foundation of Christ in the way they see fit. Now, they may not all build equally well. Some may build with gold, silver, and precious stones, others with wood, and still others with hay and straw. But this will be disclosed on that Day when the Lord comes to judge all things. The building of each will be passed through the fire. But Paul also teaches that even those who built poorly will be saved, even if as through fire. As for the present time, he calls us to leave the judgment to the Lord.

Of course, Paul’s words should also be a warning to all of us. They should motivate us to ask certain questions. Do we build with gold, silver, and precious stones? or with wood? or with straw and hay? Will our building survive and we receive a reward? or will it be burned up? This is a question that each person must ask him- or herself. But at the same time, Paul shares with us once more, toward the end of his epistle, the foundation on which everything is built:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4 New Revised Standard Version

This is the message that saves us, according to the Apostle Paul. This is the foundation on which everyone builds: that Christ died for our sins and that He was raised again on the third day. It may seem too little, too simple, to function as a proper foundation. But this is in fact what Paul says. Everything else that a church might teach or propose for others to believe must in some way be built on this. And if we hold fast to this above all, then we will be saved.

Someone might say: “But doesn’t every Christian church teach this? What about all the points of disagreement between them? What about all the debates and the disputes and the divisions between them?” Yes, every Christian church teaches this. The differences between them may be quite significant, and it may be that some churches simply cannot get along so long as those disputes remain. But I consider that if we take Paul at his word, then many of these differences will turn out to be differences between gold and silver and precious stones, or wood, or hay and straw. They are not differences in foundation, but only in the building materials.

Someone might ask again: “But how can we be sure who is building correctly?” Paul answered this question, too. He never gives easy answers. He is not naïve about the nature of things. He specifies the foundation on which each person must build, but he does not tell us the difference between a person who builds well and one who does not. He says that he does not judge this matter, that it is a small thing in his mind that he should be judged by anyone, indeed even that he does not judge himself. The Apostle leaves it to the Lord to judge, while he tries to live with a clean conscience (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27). As for us, he tells us: “Do not despite the words of prophets, but test everything” (1 Thess 5:20-21). Perhaps we can give an analogy here. Scientists do not have all the answers given to them from the start, but rather have to start with what they’ve received from their teachers while trying to improve upon it, testing everything and holding fast to what is proven. So also with us. Each of us received the foundation from the Apostles, as well as from whomever came before us. We have to test these things, holding fast to what is good and rebuilding where we consider there should be some improvements. But the difference between gold, silver, precious stones, and wood, and straw and hay will be revealed on that Day when the Lord comes again. That is perhaps the best we can hope for.