Claptrap!

Often, Catholic practices are analyzed with the “where does it say to do THAT in the Bible” lens. Sometimes, this is on legitimate practices: knowing where sacramental confession or the ministerial priesthood comes from in the Bible is fundamental to understanding their import. But other times, it’s to things which are almost irrelevant. For example, you don’t find people in the Bible praying the rosary, because that collection of prayers isn’t assembled until much later (similarly, you don’t find people reading a Bible, since that collection of Scriptures wasn’t assembled until much later, as well). In both cases, they’ve got Biblical components: the Lord’s Prayer is from Matthew 6; the first half of the Hail Mary comes from Luke 1; and the idea behind the second half, asking saints for intercession, is found in 1 Timothy 5:1. But even if they weren’t, so what? Where does the Bible ban praying in any way other than the Bible mentions? It certainly doesn’t.

You can raise your voice and proclaim, “Glory be to God the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen!” All you’re doing is proclaiming the grandeur of God: you don’t need a precise Biblical blueprint. That prayer is nonbiblical, in the sense that you don’t find it prayed in the Bible, but it’s not antibiblical, in the sense of being contrary to the Bible. So if that’s ok, then the Catholic Glory Be prayer is just fine, as well – the third major prayer of the Rosary. After all, it’s just that exclaimatory prayer repeated on later occassions (and since it’s a concise and beautiful prayer, why not?).

This principle, that “Nonbiblical ≠ Antibiblical” is lost on some people. They’ll do things like pray in a very particularized way every week, they’ll have Wednesday night services (you don’t see that in the Bible), they’ll pray the Sinner’s Prayer, and so on, and so on. These are all nonbiblical practices which are perfectly wholesome. Not only are they not antibiblical,* they’re edifying and uplifting for the Christian spirit. But when a Catholic does a similarly edifying nonbiblical thing, alarm bells go off, and suddenly, said Catholic doesn’t seem to care what the Bible instructs.

It’s an unintentional hypocricy. Most people who believe they’re following the Bible alone have little or no idea how many acquried norms and traditions they accept without much further thought. Anyone attempting to prove Wednesday night religious services is required by Scripture is facing a heck of an uphill battle, but given enough thought, most of us realize that there are lots of practices which the Bible doesn’t micromanage — different cultures and different centuries may have somewhat different liturgical styles or spiritual practices… and that’s ok.

But what if someone didn’t ever come to this conclusion? What if someone stubbornly insisted upon the antibiblical notion that “unless it’s in the Bible, it’s forbidden”? Well, we might end up with weird arguments, like that poems denouncing Sunday night worship, or apologists claiming that clapping in church is forbidden by God:

Singing is an acceptable form of worship to God in the church. Clapping is not singing any more than sprinkling is baptizing. The person clapping might be sincere and honestly trying to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, but clapping is not singing. The clapper might be adding a nice sound to the song, but clapping is not singing. If clapping is acceptable, then why don’t we have a song of “only clapping” without singing? Because the New Testament authorizes singing, not clapping, and clapping is not singing!

Note the argument: the Bible says to do x (in this case, sing). Anything in addition to x (not just anything opposed to x) suddenly becomes forbidden. But the Bible doesn’t just omit any mention of clapping or instrumental music (both of which the author is against). It also doesn’t mention anything about sheet music or hymnals, etc. Should we take the argumentation to its logical extreme, “the Bible doesn’t tell us that we have to breathe, so breathing is a sin”?

This position isn’t a joke or a hypothetical. The above link is from a man’s letter to his elders telling him that he was leaving his church over the presence of clapping. Elsewhere, he defines who is an is not in the church of Christ:

By “church of Christ” I refer to the individual, autonomous congregations throughout the world that generally believe in baptism for salvation, the Bible as the sole source of authority, and do not believe in the use of mechanical instruments in worship of God. The “church of Christ” is the representation on earth of Christ’s true Church in heaven.

Granted, he’s careful to delineate between the Church on Earth and the Church in Heaven (he doesn’t go so far as to say that clappers or instrument-users are damned), but the idea that the earthly Church consists only of those who don’t use instruments during worship services is still pretty extreme.

I found the arguments he raised thought-provoking, not only because they showcase the “Not Mentioned = Forbidden” argument run completely amok, but paradoxically, because I sympathize with his tastes. If I were to catalog my favourite songs, I’d likely find that many of them were either non-instrumental (like the Pange Lingua), or instrument-optional (like the Ave Maria or Holy God, We Praise Thy Name). And indeed, this hardcore sola Scripturist winds up on strangely Catholic territory in his distaste for instrumental music:

The Church has never encouraged, and at most only tolerated, the use of instruments. She enjoins in the “Cæremoniale Episcoporum” that permission for their use should first be obtained from the ordinary. She holds up as her ideal the unaccompanied chant and polyphonic, a capella, style. The Sistine Chapel has not even an organ.

The major difference, of course, is that although the Church prefers to do things the tried and true way, She doesn’t say “anyone who uses an instrument is violating the Bible,” because the Bible simply doesn’t speak on the topic. The decision to include or forbid instruments is properly the decision of the Church; it’s not indispensable to salvation, but Church unity may demand a decision one way or the other.

I think there comes a time, and it usually comes up on liturgical matters, where we have to acknowledge: “This is a matter of personal taste; what you find edifying, I find distracting (or vice versa), but neither of us can claim God is on our side.” The Christian thing to do, it seems to me, is learn to worship together in a way which edifies us both. Sometimes, this means being in less-than-ideal worship spaces, but it’s certainly better than creating further schism over the issue of clapping. That’s a load of claptrap.

*I think I just used a triple-negative.

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