What does it mean to judge a tree by its fruits?

This is in response to Bruce Charlton’s post, “The problem of Mormonism (for mainstream Christians)” at Junior Ganymede, and is adapted from my comment thereto. The “problem” Bruce discusses is how non-Mormon Christians can account for Mormons as a group bearing “good fruit”, while adhering to what they consider to be false doctrine. Bruce’s opinion apparently is that Mormons bear good fruit because of their doctrine; whereas non-Mormon Christians believe the good fruits come in spite of their doctrine, or have no relation to it.

But my focus is on the scriptural passages underlying the discussion, mainly Mt. 7:15ff.

The post and some of the comments seem to be proceeding on the assumption that Jesus intends “fruits” as a criterion for judging the truth or falsity of a religion. If so, then obviously it can’t mean that there will be entirely good fruits and no bad fruits whatsoever; under that criterion, no religion on earth could qualify. It’s also doubtful whether it’s a relative standard, as in, that religion with more good fruits than any other must be the true[est] one.

However, Jesus doesn’t say that you should judge a prophet by the fruits of the doctrine he preaches. Rather, he says that “you will recognize them” – false prophets – “by their fruits”. He continues, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” Now, prophesying and casting out demons and doing mighty works are good fruits, are they not? At least the casting out of demons, surely. And yet Jesus may still say to such people, “I never knew you.” Why? Beause they worked lawlessness: “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

So, being a “worker of lawlessness” seems to be what he means by bearing bad fruit. Other translations are “you evildoers”, “ye that work iniquity” and “you lawbreakers”. The word for “lawlessness” is anomia, defined by Strong’s as “illegality, i.e. violation of law or (genitive case) wickedness:—iniquity, × transgress(-ion of) the law, unrighteousness”.

Another place where a tree failing to bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire, is in Mt. 3:

“But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Here again it doesn’t appear that doctrine is the issue, because it’s individual Pharisees and Sadducees who are being condemned, based on their failing to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. So it seems to me that what is being said is, “Don’t follow people whose lives don’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance”, or, “Don’t follow people who transgress the laws of righteousness”.

In Mt. 12:33-37, Jesus seems to be equating good and bad fruits with the words that people speak, as when he says “How can you speak good, when you are evil?” — a clear parallel with the statement, “a bad tree can’t bear good fruit”. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” And we will be judged by this “fruit”:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

And in many other places the New Testament scriptures speak of bearing the fruits of righteousness unto salvation. This is always in the context of individual exhortations to forsake sin and do good. For example, Romans 6:19ff:

“[J]ust as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

So it seems to me that Jesus is saying that a prophet should be judged by his personal righteousness: Is he living a sinful life? If so then he is a false prophet, for he is a worker of lawlessness.

As far as I can see, the New Testament doesn’t discuss testing the truth or falsity of doctrine in terms of whether it bears good or bad fruit. Probably because doctrine is simply true or false, and not all doctrine bears directly on behavior. Also because people are perfectly capable of receiving good doctrine and yet still bearing bad fruit or no fruit, as in the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13:3-23).

Laudato Si’

“At this moment, we have the paradoxical situation in which an animated, and even frenzied, secular chorus hails papal teaching as infallible, … provided it does NOT involve faith or morals.”

Fr. George W. Rutler, “Mixing Up the Sciences of Heaven and Earth,” Crisis Magazine (crisismagazine.com), June 18, 2015.

Government: Servant or Master?

“A government system of education in Prussia is not inconsistent with the theory of Prussian society, for there all wisdom is supposed to be lodged in the government. But the thing is wholly inadmissible here [in the U.S.]; not because the government may be in the hands of Whigs or Democrats, but because, according to our theory, the people are supposed to be wiser than the government. Here the people do not look to the government for light, for instruction, but the government looks to the people. The people give the law to the government. To entrust, then, the government with the power of determining the education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power to be our master. … In a free government, there can be no teaching by authority, and all attempts to teach by authority are so many blows struck at its freedom. We may as well have a religion established by law, as a system of education, and the government educate and appoint the pastors of our churches, as well as the instructors of our children.”

Orestes Augustus Brownson, Boston Quarterly Review, Vol. 2, 1839, p. 408.

[H/T to Yard Sale of the Mind.]

What determines God’s nature?

The blog Facts About Religion asks, “[W]hy is Gods nature like A, and not like B? What determines Gods nature? (And if the pat answer is ‘well God determined his own nature to be Nature-A, not like Nature-B’ why did he determine Nature-A instead of Nature-B?'”

Undoubtedly there are better answers, but here is mine:

God must be as he is because if he were to change in any way, he would no longer be perfect, and therefore no longer God.

Suppose you had drawn a perfect circle and someone asked, “Why does the perfect circle have to be perfectly round? If it’s because that’s its nature, then why is it the nature of a perfect circle to be perfectly round instead of imperfectly round? or perfectly triangular?” Quite simply that’s just what a perfect circle is:  It’s the nature of a perfect circle to be perfectly round instead of imperfectly round, because if it were imperfectly round, or if it were triangular, it would not be a perfect circle.

Similarly, if God were not e.g. perfectly powerful (not limited by anything outside himself) or perfectly actual (not dependent on anything outside himself), he wouldn’t be God.

In what way could you change God such that he would still be perfect? This is like asking, in what way could you change a perfect circle such that it would still be a perfect circle? You can’t. Any change in the circle (that is, the circle in its essence as a circle, disregarding what color ink it’s drawn in, or how large it is, etc., which are accidental, not essential properties of a circle) could only detract from its perfection and therefore make it no longer a perfect circle but an imperfect one.

By the same token, any change in God could only detract from his perfection and would therefore make him no longer God.

Is taking the Pill the same as NFP? part 2

“Two interesting analogies help to illustrate the moral difference between a contra-life will which simply wants ‘no baby’ through abstention and a contra-life will that wants to prevent a baby.

“The first analogy concerns truth-telling. Perhaps Smith knows an important truth which honesty requires him to divulge, but he is loathe to reveal it. He wants to bury it. Smith has a contra-truth will, but perhaps it only goes so far. He is willing to keep silent (abstain from speaking) but not willing to lie (add a counter-measure to speaking). Smith may be doing wrong in keeping silent; but as long as he keeps his mouth shut, he is at least not lying (contracepting).

“The second analogy concerns poker. Jones likes to play with a group of friends, but he fears that his long winning-streak is over. He doesn’t want to give his friends a chance to win their money back. Unfairly, he refuses to play. He has a contra-fairness will. But perhaps it only goes so far. Jones is willing to deprive them of their chance, but he is not willing to cheat. He is not willing to put an ace up his sleeve or bring out a marked deck, though these counter-measures would prevent the losses he fears. He may be wrong not to play (abstain); but so long as he doesn’t play, he doesn’t cheat (contracept).

“Of course Smith should be told that his silence is dishonest; he should come to understand that lying is not the only form of dishonesty. And Jones should be told that his refusal to play is taking unfair advantage and so is more like cheating than he’d care to admit. But a moralist only compromises his own ability to persuade these men, if he says that their actions are a lie and a cheat, respectively.

“I conclude that couples choosing to abstain periodically are never contracepting.”

William H. Marshner, “Can a Couple Practicing NFP Be Practicing Contraception?“, Gregorianum 77 (4):677-704 (1996).

[See part 1 HERE.]

Prove It

[Reposted from Scriptural Postscript.]

Many learned Christians offer rational proofs of God’s existence and attributes to the incredulous who seek such proof. St. Thomas Aquinas offered five superbly logical proofs in his Summa Theologica (I, 2, 3). Even Aristotle, centuries before, offered similar proofs.

But knowledge obviates faith inasmuch as one cannot know a thing with certainty and believe in it in the same respect. Belief necessarily involves some degree of objective uncertainty. The believer believes in divine truths as if he possesses scientific certainty of them, though he actually does not possess such certainty. His faith affords him subjective certainty where objective certainty is lacking.

Christ would have us value faith above certainty. He said: “Blessed are they who believe without seeing” (Jn 20:29). And St. Paul taught that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8).

The sort of faith that enables one to attain everlasting life is supernatural faith, a gift from God enabling a person to assent to divine truths with his will. It is not a human faith, the kind we use daily when we accept the word of others and build upon the scientific knowledge of those who have gone before us.

Should an unbeliever’s doubt be replaced by nothing more than rationally demonstrable certainty, his new-found confidence would not enable him to reach Heaven. But should his doubt be replaced by a willful assent to all that God’s duly-appointed teachers have proposed to him as necessary to believe concerning matters of faith and morals, even though he does not adequately understand these things by human reasoning alone, then he would be well on his way to his proper end in God. Rational proofs may signal the start of a journey, but faith carries one through to a clear knowledge of God and everlasting life in Him.

God bless!

The religion of anti-religion

“[Jesuit theologian] Bernard Coughlin … warned that the American principle separating church and state, when joined with our religious pluralism, becomes ‘a principle separating church and society.’ It confines Christian faith to the private sphere, as if it were an inward and invisible thing. Christianity is an outward and public thing, as Chesterton called it, an unabashedly communal and thus an irreducibly political reality. The Church’s mission, therefore, is to worship the triune God and to practice its ethical life in full accord with its historic convictions. The Church is thus called to make prophetic witness against all pretensions to secular autonomy. When the nation-state pretends to such sovereignty, it is in fact no longer secular. It transforms itself into what Fr. Coughlin named as ‘an antireligious religion.’ ‘To the Christian,’ he cautioned in June of 1963, ‘secularism is a form of idolatry—the deification of man-made things.’”

Ralph C. Wood, “Flannery O’Connor: Stamped But Not Cancelled“, FirstThings.com, June 16, 2015.