Are Roman Catholics the Real Protestant Cavilers?

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Photo used under Creative Commons, Copyright Flikr user Karen Roe.

I always get a small kick out of reading the inter-denominational commentary that abounds online. It’s great to be able to read what other folks think. It’s almost like you get the “inside baseball” view of some group by how they speak their perceptions of other groups, including one’s own group. It’s probably as close to one gets to seeing a tabloid of one group’s interpretation of recent events or writings.

Someone recently sent me a well-written (unlike anything you’ll find on this site) article from a Roman Catholic Christian. I have some mixed feelings on this article. It does give some great insight into how Roman Catholics of a traditional persuasion (at least by the author’s tenor) view the latest folly of American Evangelicalism, described here. This folly, “A Reforming Catholic Confession,” attempts to describe what American Evangelicals would like to describe as a remarkable level of unity among protestant Christians. Who doesn’t like unity?

Yet, I repeat. This effort is folly. Why?

Consider the great confessions of Protestantism. If you combined the intersection of all positive affirmations in Augsburg, Westminster, Scotland, London, etc. into one document, what usefulness would belong to such a document? If you wrote a document that could read compatible with several very different beliefs on Baptism, The Supper, predestination, and a host of other topics, how do you know what the church really believes if you attended? How would you know that even between churches of this common confession that you’d find similar beliefs between the churches? If one were to read such a document and say “Yes! This is the church of God’s truth! I must belong!,” what will the outcome be when such a person attends the church? I see no good coming from this. Why?

  • The more scripture that is taught and expounded in a church, the more distinctions are drawn.
  • The more distinctions are drawn, the more disagreement there is in the local body.
  • If there still appears to be great levels of unity, then the local parishioners are suppressing their conflict of conscience to maintain unity (I know. I’ve done this.), or are maintaining a willful suspense of disbelief.

So the end result is either that divisions arise, or else church-goers actually refuse to heed the promptings of the scriptures as they understand them. Is one of these situations better than the other?

Yes.

Yes.

A thousand times yes.

Division is, by far, the best option. Division will not lead a person to hell. Instead, it preserves the pearls (Christians, especially the downtrodden ones) from the swine (false teachers, and those who would lead believers astray.). It is best to be open and honest up front about these divisions.

“But didn’t Jesus pray for unity?” Yes, he did. and St. Paul also wrote that divisions are required so that you know who you should believe:

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.

This isn’t a matter of choosing division or choosing unity. We are to unite around the truth; it is as simple as that. This will, by necessity in a fallen world, cause division. Any attempt at a “highest common denominator,” as Jerry Walls (the main force behind this new confession) calls it, is folly and against the explicit commands of scripture.

So there’s a lot of reason to celebrate the Roman Catholic’s response to this folly. Yet, there are are some things amiss. In an effort to save time, I’ll just quote the article in different spots and give a response.

It’s easy to hit your mark when you define whatever you hit as “the mark.” Likewise, the Reformed Catholic Confession proves only that Protestants are united in the essentials of their faith because they’ve defined the “essentials” as those things about which they agree.

He’s right.

Protestants disagree about these issues, and the confession only says that baptism “strengthen[s] the faithful by visibly recalling, proclaiming, and sealing the gracious promise of forgiveness of sins.” This stands in contrast to Martin Luther’s declaration that baptism “delivers us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God’s own . . .

Why does the author call out Martin Luther’s writing in this article? The majority of folks in this group are not Lutheran. Even the ones that are Lutheran, one would need to ask what kind of Lutheran they are. There are a few in my own LCMS that I’d like to have a brief discussion with, describing why this confession is neither necessary nor helpful. Indeed, it’s the opposite of helpful. It is synergistic at best. Nonetheless, there should be no doubt that the man who steadfastly refused to concede “this is my body” at Marburg, despite the unity promised in doing so, would do the same for this document if he were alive to debate it. It’s simply silly to use Luther to make your point, because Luther would also argue against this new confession. The folks who confess Concordia and who also signed this document aren’t merely entering this folly; they’re being inconsistent with their own confessions. This isn’t the same situation as “American Baptist Bob” speaking at public service alongside a charismatic or a Reformed Calvinist.

Is man so fallen that he cannot freely choose to accept God’s offer of salvation so that God must give him irresistible grace that guarantees he will never lose his salvation? Many Protestants say man is not that fallen and has free will, but Calvinists disagree and claim that man contributes nothing to his own salvation.

This is simply sloppy. He’s got so much truth mixed with so much error that it’s impossible to say “he’s right” or “he’s wrong.”

Firstly, there are other opinions than Calvinistic or Arminian. In fact, the Arminian camp can be divided between Classical Arminians and other. Let me further make the author’s point while correcting his over-simplification: Classical Arminians look very similar to Calvinists if you’re comparing them against Wesleyan and later Arminians and not Calvinists. Classical Arminians are very self-aware, as well as aware of the errors of Pelagius and will not allow themselves to fall into these errors. Whether or not one finds their presentation correct or persuasive is a different matter. Let’s also not neglect the Lutherans. Lutherans are entirely monergistic, and yet reject irresistible grace.

Why make such a big deal about proving that the author is even more correct than he writes? It is because it demonstrates that this author isn’t writing with the Reformation in mind, but rather the people who latch on to the Reformation like parasites, and he fails to distinguish the two. These folks should not be counted with the Reformation. They are not the Reformation. They do not confess the theology of the Reformation, regardless of the fact that they use the “faith alone” language. As such, they should not be given the term “protestant.”

I know. That’s a lost battle. But nonetheless, do not conflate these people with those in the Reformation.

The signatories might object that confessions of faith generally don’t mention specific moral issues, but there’s no denying that Protestants are sharply divided over issues like abortion and homosexual behavior. The Reformation Project even tries to use arguments from the Bible alone to promote homosexual behavior. Isn’t it essential for Christians to know—and agree on—whether these behaviors are sinful, just as they do on adultery and murder, for example?

Yes. And if you’re opposing the fundamental teachings of the scriptures, you are not espousing a Christian theology. If you’re not espousing a Christian theology, then you’re not espousing a Protestant theology either. We protestants are not “sharply divided.” Folks who reject ancient interpretations of scripture in favor of modern, culturally-influenced ones are adding division. As I said earlier, this division is a good thing compared with unifying to a common teaching mingled with error so as to make truth indistinguishable from error.

I’d also add though, that Roman Catholics are also remarkably inconsistent (as a group) on these topics. I don’t need to cite specific examples. Pay attention around election time, or to people’s daily Facebook posts. I agree that it isn’t fair for me to say this. The author would almost certainly disagree with these folks, and would distance himself from them. However, that’s my point. True protestants are in a similar position. I lament it for the both of us.

Some Protestants will probably respond to this critique by saying that the Catholic Church fares no better. After all, you can find theologians and priests who reject fundamental dogmas of the Faith like the perpetual virginity of Mary or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That’s true, but unlike “mere Protestantism,” the Catholic Church is an enduring hierarchical body that speaks through the Magisterium to the question of what Catholics are obliged to believe. Those who call themselves “Catholic” but openly reject these dogmas have put themselves outside of communion with the Church.

But for Protestants, there is no such authoritative body, no one to say which dogmas are essential to believe.

This is a blissful picture, but it’s just simply not true. There are plenty of history lessons to learn, but one needs to read them. There have been contested popes. Official teaching of the RCC sometimes changes so dramatically and in such a short period that lifelong Roman Catholics become disillusioned with the  change, and feel the RCC is more political than spiritual. It wasn’t uncommon even less than 20 years ago to have good Roman Catholics espousing the viewpoints of their catechesis, yet ones that were out of date with the current teaching (out of date since Vatican II!!). I remember hearing these conversations at holiday parties in my relatives’ houses. The church teachings had stuck with these people their entire lives, and now they were confused and disillusioned with the newer teachings. One could argue that the fundamental and core teachings of the RCC haven’t changed (and I find this a little bit comical), but others had new clarification that gave the appearance of new teaching. I’d reply: “maybe so, but that isn’t how the parishioners saw it.” I guess one could say that these folks had remained Roman Catholics by disagreeing with the RCC on what they considered “non-essential teachings.” Sound familiar?

That point aside, I think it’s important to remind folks of the famous quote from Luther at Worms,

Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.

The author then makes the argument that the RCC is correct and the Protestant churches incorrect regarding excommunication. The claim is that

But for Protestants, there is no such authoritative body, no one to say which dogmas are essential to believe.

and later

Without this organizational union, an excommunicated sinner or heretic could simply walk down the street to the next church that welcomes him.

To which I ask: what does the author think happens when a person is excommunicated from the RCC? They aren’t being burned at the stake anymore! Do they all quit their churchly activities immediately upon excommunication? Or, I suppose that’s when they officially become “Protestants” and then they’re no longer his problem?

No, this analysis just isn’t fair. Excommunication is simply drawing a bounding box in front of someone and saying: “You’re not in the box. When you repent and cross the line, you are in the box. The box will not be re-drawn to fit your error.” Protestant churches do this all of the time, even if not by explicit ecclesiastic action. And guess what? The excommunicated might start a new church. “Excommunication” only makes sense from the perspective of an ecclesiastical body. Each body performing this excommunication believes they have the authority of God to perform this. The only difference then is the size of the body, the network of churches. There isn’t a scriptural reason to defend this.

The author has come to some accurate conclusions, many of which I do find myself in agreement. But this should not be a reason to perpetuate the error of “protestant” bodies attaching themselves to the Reformation, and then using this to knock down a straw man, claiming that the Reformation has caused so many of the errors we see today.

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