It has become quickly apparent that this conference exists not merely to equip pastors, but also to serve and honor them (and perhaps even spoil them a little). At the close of the earlier session one of the organizers announced that there was an area for “shoe-shining and everything else a pastor needs.” I don’t know too many pastors that need to have their shoes shined (or who need to travel to Los Angeles to have them shined, at any rate), but there are obviously plenty of them who will take up the offer if presented with it. So it seems that this is an opportunity for Grace church to honor pastors who give so much of themselves for the sake of the gospel.
We are about to begin the first round of seminars. I have chosen to listen to Phil Johnson expose the “damning doctrines of Roman Catholicism” in a seminar entitled “Rome is Burning.” From what I know of Phil, he won’t pull any punches, but will continually turn back to Scripture to show where Catholicism has abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Phil decided to retitle this seminar, “Is the Reformation Over?” It has now been more than a decade since the release of the Evangelicals and Catholics together statement of unity. This began a long campaign of trying to bring unity to Protestants and Catholics and has been signed by multitudes of prominent Evangelicals and Catholics.
The ecumenical juggernaut has continued to roll on. John Armstrong, for example, was first against this statement but has since become one of the most outspoken activists for ETC. Timothy George, at first withheld his signature, but since became an activist for ecumenicism. Ecumenicism continues to gain ground. Those who object are seen as being uncharitable reactionists.
Mark Noll has written a book which asks, “Is The Reformation Over?” and the title of that book is what Phil borrowed for this seminar. Interestingly, Noll is now leaving Wheaton College and moving to Notre Dame. One of the reasons for leaving is to prove his commitment to Protestant-Catholic dialogue. He feels that Protestants need to embrace the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has changed, especially since Vatican II. The Reformation has succeeded and thus, is over. But, Phil believes, what has really changed is not Catholicism but Protestantism. Protestants have largely abandoned their own doctrinal heritage. They have replaced it with a brand of quasi-Evangelicalism that is no longer opposed to or offensive to Rome.
This seminar will examine various arguments for Catholic-Evangelical ecumenism.
What is so appealing about ecumenical relationships with Rome? They come in five categories: practical, political, historical, biblical, theological.
- Practical: there is no longer any substantive difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants. It is easy to find Catholics who now act in ways identical to Protestants, whether seeking the gifts of the Holy Spirit, leading Alpha classes, and so on. And this is, in many ways, true. Post Vatican II Catholicism has a greater emphasis on the role of the layperson. This looks like a Catholic understanding of the Protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers. In short, if Roman Catholics and Protestants look alike, worship alike and have similar emphases, they ought to be together. This is a very pragmatic argument, but one that is effective because so many Protestants have long since sold out to pragmatism.
- Historical: the dispute over justification by faith has not been settled in five hundred years and will probably never be. No person, group or council has been able to resolve this dispute. If Protestant scholars keep entering this debate, perhaps it proves that this is a false argument and one that will never be solved. Another historical argument is based around the traditional Protestant understanding that the Catholic church is not a true church. The question then is, where was the true church before the Protestant churches? This question has led many Protestants to cross the Tiber. Catholics can point to an apostolic pedigree whereas Protestants cannot. Noll’s book is heavily slanted towards a Catholic bias and understanding of church history.
- Political: abortion has long been an important issue on both the Protestant and Catholic radar. We share many political and social and moral concerns. While Protestants and Catholics argue about theology, society is falling apart. Should we not lay aside our disagreements, people say, and focus on issues that are of greater importance to our lives? This was one of the original purposes of ETC. Another major political argument is based on a heightened awareness of the threat of Islamic terrorism. Catholics and Protestants should stop trying to evangelize each other when the threat of Islamic facism is hanging over the world? Should we not evangelize others?
- Doctrinal: in the big scheme of things there seems to be much on which Catholics and Protestants can agree. We both affirm many of the same creeds and confessions. We admire and are indebted to many of the same Church Fathers. We reject many of the same heresies and heretics.
- Biblical: most of these are based on the Bible’s continual injunctions to seek peace among all men and to seek Christian unity. And unity is important, even to the point of being the very measure of the strength and growth of our faith. But on what basis?
This is an imposing array of arguments. Within the spirit of the age in which we live, we can see why the desire for unity has found such strong support.
So, what then, is the problem with seeking a tie between Evangelicalism and Catholicism?
There is one argument that trumps all of these and puts them down in one fell swoop: the doctrinal disagreement between Rome and Evangelicalism is not small and profound: first, we disagree on the very heart of the gospel and how to answer the question, “what must I do to be saved?”. Second, we disagree on who has the authority to settle that argument. Two things must be affirmed among Evangelicals: The gospel and the authority of God’s Word.
A thumbnail sketch of Evangelicalism and what makes it what it is:
Evangelicalism used to be defined by a clear, specific theological stance. It used to mean that a person had a faith built on two pillars: the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. The Five Solas were a guide to the major doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. Two of them in particular stand out as the key issues over which the bulk of the debate took place: sola scriptura, the formal principle of the Reformation, and sola fide, the material principle of the Reformation. Note that these are the distinctive doctrines of Evangelicalism. All Evangelicals, until recently, affirmed these doctrines. Only in recent years has the expression Evangelical been broadened to include people who deny these pillars.
Sola scriptura affirms the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. No higher court of appeal exists or is needed beyond Scripture. Neither is anything to be added to Scripture. All differences between Protestantism and Catholicism stem from the difference in this point of doctrine.
Sola fide (faith alone) summarized the main doctrinal point that was at stake between Protestantism and Catholicism. It is a dispute about the most basic issue of the gospel. It summarizes the Protestant understanding that it is by faith alone that we are saved. It is an alien righteousness (not our own, but Christ’s) that is reckoned to our account. Those who have this righteousness need no other to stand before God here and now. It is not a process but is an instant decree. It grants us a perfect standing with God the moment we believe. Scripture affirms this repeatedly. Sola fide points us only and entirely to Christ for our salvation.
Roman Catholicism and Protestantism preach different gospels. This is the heart of the disagreement between Evangelicals and Rome. That Rome preaches a false gospel has been the position of every major Reformer since the Reformation. A defective view of justification is what drives much of the Catholic practice and theology that is foreign to Protestantism: from the veneration of Mary to the mass and from prayer to saints to auricular confession. Catholicism insists that justification is a process requiring not just faith but also obedience. The bottom line is that we are saved by faith plus nothing! These are two different gospels.
Our difference is so profound that both sides have traditionally agreed that only one can be right and one of us must be anathema – damnably wrong. Until we can agree on the substance of the gospel, this breach cannot be healed and should not be glossed over.
All of this has changed in recent years. An Evangelical is no longer a person defined by theology but by experience or church membership. “Evangelical” has been stripped of doctrinal content. Mainstream Evangelicals have been assaulted by movements that seem to be motivated by removing the doctrinal distinctives: The lack of theology in the Church Growth Movement, the anti-intellectualism of the Charismatic movement; the neo-ecumenism in Promise Keepers and other movements, the new understanding of justification in the New Perspective on Paul, the denial of propositional truth in the Emerging Church, and so on. These have all worked to the detriment of Evangelicalism. So now, Evangelicalism which was once a movement defined by doctrine, understands doctrine to be divisive and of secondary importance. The obvious casualty in all of this is the gospel. Catholics and Protestants have long agreed that the heart of the debate is the gospel, but now people would have us believe otherwise.
If we agree with ecumenism, we have set aside the gospel. It is positively sinful and grossly disobedient to seek the type of unity that many have sought between Catholicism and Protestantism. The only real hope for our lost and dying culture is the very gospel message they seek to relegate to secondary importance.
None of the leading Reformers discounted the importance of Christian unity. Because the Catholic Church abandoned the gospel of faith alone, the Reformers were driven to the conclusion that the Church was apostate and the Gospel was the issue.
While many changes have taken place within the Catholic Church since Vatican II, these changes are merely cosmetic. The Church has not made any significant changes in doctrine for the very reason that Catholic doctrine is unchangeable, irreformable. The new Catholic Catechism affirms all of the doctrines of the Council of Trent. Rome has not changed or Reformed doctrinally. She still rejects the gospel of justification by faith alone through Christ alone.
Scripture is clear on the obligation of those within the church who offer a different gospel. We are to reject them and the message they teach. This teaches us what type of unity we are to seek: a unity built on sound doctrine! Scripture’s exhortation for unity is a unity built only upon the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Is the Reformation over? Perhaps it is, but this points not to changes in doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church, but to a weakening of doctrine within Evangelicalism.
Phil concluded in prayer that pastors would continue to stand for the truth.