VI. Confusing the Covenants
He taketh away the first, that he may establish that which followeth (Hebrews 10:9).
In previous installments of this series, I have accused Soriano of being incompetent to properly interpret Sacred Scripture. I will now go further, and accuse him of being incompetent to even read it. In his sermon on “The Real Church of God,” he quotes Acts 15:16-17:
“After this, I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down, and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.”
He concludes: “Therefore, whenever the Bible uses ‘will build’, it suggests that something has fallen down.”60 Essentially, Soriano is saying that “build” in the Bible always means “rebuild,” restoring something that previously existed, but had been destroyed. He sets this in opposition to the word “establish” which he believes is the biblical way of saying that someone is building something new. He sets up this dichotomy in order to support his notion that the New Testament Church is merely the restored Israel, and not a new institution founded by Christ. But his argumentation here is erroneous on so many levels that one hardly knows were to begin.
First, Soriano ought to realize that just because he can find one instance where a word is used in a secondary sense, that does not mean he can interpret it in the secondary sense everywhere he finds it. “Build,” whether in English, Tagalog, Greek, or Hebrew, usually just means build, and if context determines that we must interpret it as “rebuild” in one instance or another, that one instance does not therefore become an overriding principle which determines our exegesis everywhere. Indeed, if we make it one we render a great many biblical passages unintelligible. Anyone with access to a program that searches the Bible for passages containing a given word (incidentally, Soriano’s website provides its patrons with one) can see this quite clearly: search for passages using the word build and you will find that it usually just means build. To cite just a few examples: Num 32:16; 1 Sam 2:35; 2 Sam 7:27; 1 Kngs 5:5.
But what is most astounding, Soriano seems to have missed the word “again” in his King James translation. “I will build again the ruins, etc.” It is amazing that one who claims to read the text of Scripture so closely and pay attention its minutest details could have overlooked something so conspicuous. Not only would Soriano’s argument prove nothing, if he could find an instance where “build” meant “rebuild” in the Bible, but this is not even such an instance! The Greek is anoikodomeo, the regular word for “rebuild,” the word for build being oikodomeo.
This, then, is the shaky ground, the shifting sands, upon which Soriano bases his entirely unique exegesis of Matthew 16:18. He uses a false example, to prove a non-existant principle, in order to overturn the plain meaning of the text that Jesus Christ established a Church upon the rock of St. Peter, and argue instead that He merely rebuilt Israel.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has the explicit teaching of the Bible to reinforce the plain meaning of Matthew 16:18. The reader has already seen Hebrews 10:9 quoted above: God did not “rebuild” the Old Covenant, but took it away in order to “establish” (there’s the word Soriano was looking for in Matt 16:18) the New. See also 2 Cor 3:6-14; Eph 2:15; Heb 7:18; 8:7, 13. Ephesians 2:15 calls the Church of Christ a “new man,” which Jesus made from both Jews and Gentiles after He had abolished the Old Testament Law. Jesus did indeed establish a Church on St. Peter; He both established and built (cf. Psalm 89:4) and Soriano is clearly opposed to the teaching of the Bible when he denies this.
Soriano adduces additional facile arguments in support of his contention that Jesus did not establish a Church. One of them is his misunderstanding about “name” being used as a metaphor for reputation, or person, which I have documented above. Another argument runs along the lines that we need to find the very first church in the Bible, because “Nothing could be better than the original.”61 Curiously, he attempts to justify his principle that the original is always the best by citing 1 Corinthians 15:45, which refers to Adam as the “first man” and Genesis 3:20 which calls Eve “the mother of all the living.” He then concludes, “If, in matters like this, there are ‘originals’, when it comes to the church, there is also an original, or the first church.”62 One wonders if Soriano maintains that the first Adam is better than the second Adam, Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 5:14-15). He must not, as he has proclaimed on his television network that he believes that Adam was damned.63 If, then, this is the case, his appeal to Adam and Eve proves only the inherently obvious proposition that there can be a first, or original, of something; it in no way follows from this that the original is best. His argument here is a blatantly fallacious leap of logic, which is actually hard to miss if one simply refuses to be enraptured with Soriano’s passionate style and fiery denunciation of false, heretical teachers.
Soriano continues to argue that Jesus did not establish a Church by attempting to identify “the church of the firstborn” mentioned in Hebrews 12:23 with Israel. Unfortunately for him, the context of this passage is a direct contrast between the Christian Church and the covenant God established with Israel. St. Paul sets up the contrast as follows:
“For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. For they could not bear the command, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.’ And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, ‘I am full of fear and trembling‘” (Heb 12:18-21).
Clearly, St. Paul is emphasising the great fear involved in the establishment of the covenant of Moses at Mount Sinai. He then opposes to this fear the tremendous spiritual blessings which Chrisitans are priveleged to receive in Christ:
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24).
Thus, Christians have been received into the spiritual Mount Zion, and the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. Rev 3:12; 21:2), where we have fellowship with God Himself and all the hosts of heaven because of the redemption and mercy wrought for us by Jesus Christ. The great Catholic exegete Dr. Witham draws out the meaning of the text quite well:
[But you are come to Mount Sion, where not a law of fear, like that of Moses, but a new law of love and mercy hath been given you, preached by our Saviour himself, and by his apostles, testified by the coming of the Holy Ghost, and by the effusion of God’s spirit upon the believers. Here you are called to the city of the living God, (to the Christian Church on earth) and even to the celestial Jerusalem, there to be for ever happy in the company of many millions of Angels; to the church of the first-born, who are written in heaven, (ver. 23.) to be happy with those who have been chosen by a special mercy of God, and blessed with an endless happiness; to be there in the presence of God, the judge of all men, with all the celestial spirits and souls of the just and perfect in the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ is the mediator of this new testament, the redeemer of mankind by his death on the cross, by the sprinkling and effusion of his blood, which speaketh better than that of Abel: the blood of Abel cried to heaven for vengeance, and the blood of Christ for mercy and pardon.64]
Now, regarding the specific question of what St. Paul means by “the church of the firstborn” we have a few options. Clearly, it refers to some group of the inhabitants of heaven, with whom Christians have entered into fellowship in Christ. If we grant to Mr. Soriano that it refers to the Jews, then it refers to the saints of the old covenant, whom Christ took with Him to heaven when He Himself ascended (cf. Eph 4:8). But it does not follow therefore that Jesus Christ did not establish a Church, as He said He would do (Matt 16:18). Rather, the righteous Jews would have joined His Church when Jesus came to their resting place to preach to them (cf. 1 Pet 3:19).
Or, “the church of the firstborn” may refer to the very first Christians who died in Christ, those who had already passed to their reward at the time St. Paul penned this epistle. Or, it may refer to the occupants of heaven who are most eminent in sanctity, such as the patriarchs and prophets. Or, it may refer to the holy angels. In any case, St. Paul’s intent has little to due with the superficial exegesis of Mr. Soriano, who thinks that because he can find a verse talking about the “church of the firstborn” and another verse that calls Israel “firstborn” and another verse that calls Israel “the church in the wilderness,” he has therefore proven that Jesus did not establish a Church, but that the New Testament Church is Israel.
Soriano also makes a non sequitur appeal to James 1:18. Of course, the Jews were the first hear the gospel and join the Christian Church, but it simply does not follow that Jesus did not establish a Church.
It seems the best that Soriano can do is to quote the prophetic imagery of Amos 9:11 about rebuilding the tabernacle of David, in attempts to establish that Jesus merely restored a fallen Israel. He contends that “the tabernacle of David” refers to the Jewish Church, which is one and the same with the Christian Church which we are allegedly supposed to join by imbibing the doctrines of Ang Dating Daan. However, it might just as easily apply to the Jewish people, a remnant of whom God spiritually restored by integrating them into the new covenant through Baptism in the Church of Christ.
This is the Church which Christ established on the rock of St. Peter. It is the Catholic Church. If one wishes to be restored from the ruin of sin and built up into a new creation in Christ, he must forsake his errors and join.