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Sharing the Gospel with Quasi-Catholics

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This sponsored post was provided by Chris Castaldo and Gregg Allison, authors of the new book The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics after 500 years. As it happens, I reviewed it on September 13.

The Reformation is not finished.

The Unfinished ReformationFundamental differences of doctrine continue to separate Catholics and Protestants. These include views on Scripture and Tradition, justification, the nature and role of the church/Church, the sacraments, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Mary and the saints, merits, indulgences, and purgatory. If theological truth is of any importance, we must take these doctrinal differences seriously. Moreover, there is the ongoing problem of multitudes of Catholics who don’t appear to have the foggiest idea of what Scripture means by the word “gospel.” In the words of Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft:

There are still many who do not know the data, the gospel. Most of my Catholic students at Boston College have never heard it. They do not even know how to get to heaven. When I ask them what they would say to God if they died tonight and God asked them why he should take them into heaven, nine out of ten do not even mention Jesus Christ. Most of them say they have been good or kind or sincere or did their best. So I seriously doubt God will undo the Reformation until he sees to it that Luther’s reminder of Paul’s gospel has been heard throughout the church.1

In view of the obscurity surrounding the gospel in the Catholic tradition, it is of great importance for evangelicals to elucidate the message of salvation. We realize, of course, that Catholics come in all shapes and sizes. Some are the traditional pre-Vatican II variety. Others are more nominal, claiming to be Catholic as a function of their cultural/ethnic background. And there are some who may be described as charismatic or progressive, identifying as Catholic while holding ideas that are in fact closer to the values of Protestantism. It is our relationship to this last group that we would like to consider.

A Historical Precedent

When people living in Catholic nations during the sixteenth century (e.g., Italy, France, Spain) supported the Reformation, they often faced a life-and-death choice. Depending upon their response to Catholic authorities during the Inquisition (a Catholic Church tribunal aimed at combating Protestantism), they may have been tortured, executed, or forced to flee into exile.2 “Nicodemism” was applied to yet another option, the decision to keep one’s Reformation convictions contained quietly and safely in the privacy of one’s own heart without public expression.

John Calvin is commonly recognized as the one who popularized the term, using “Nicodemism” to describe external conformity on the part of reformed-minded Christians living in Catholic territories. Faced with the threat of oppression at the hands of Catholic authorities, such individuals chose silence over persecution. The covert nature of this approach is responsible for its clever name, as one historian explains: “The name is suggested by the biblical character of Nicodemus, who came to visit Jesus by night, under the cover of darkness, thus suggesting a piety of simulation based on the fear of persecution.”3

According to most Protestant Reformers, Nicodemism was an unacceptable option. It was regarded as infidelity to Christ and a compromise of one’s integrity. For example, Peter Martyr Vermigli explained to his congregation in Lucca, Italy, the reason why he fled north of the Alps instead of becoming a Nicodemite: “[You] are hardly unaware of the tortures which tormented my conscience because of the way of life which I was following. I had to live with countless superstitions every day [such as pilgrimages and the veneration of relics, that is, the remains of a saint]; not only did I have to perform [these] superstitious rites, but also I had to demand harshly that others do many things which were contrary to what I was thinking and teaching.”4

Serving Quasi-Catholics

How can Nicodemism possibly have relevance today when religious inquisitions are a thing of the past? The “new Nicodemism” is found among Catholics who study the Bible for themselves and whose beliefs are in fact more Protestant than Catholic. Even though such people read Scripture apart from the Magisterium (the official teaching office of the Catholic Church), no longer believe in such doctrines as purgatory, and are increasingly bothered by the Catholic emphasis on Mary, they nevertheless remain in the Catholic fold.

Why is this so? There are all sorts of reasons, but it commonly comes down to one’s commitment to his ethnic or cultural background, a Catholic family member, or relationship to a local parish. Whatever the reason, we have the privilege of serving such friends with the gospel. How? We share the good news—what the Reformers expressed in the phrase solo Christo—that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Learn more about The Unfinished Reformation here.

Gregg Allison (PhD) is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky where he teaches systematic theology. Previously he served on Cru staff at the University of Notre Dame and overseas in Italy and the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. He is a pastor of Sojourn Community Church, and is the theological strategist for Sojourn Network, a church planting network of about thirty churches. He is the author of Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine and several other titles.

Chris Castaldo (PhD) was raised on Long Island, New York, as a Roman Catholic and worked full-time in the Catholic Church for several years. After eight years as pastor of outreach and church planting at College Church (Wheaton, Ill.), followed by three years as Director of the Ministry of Gospel Renewal at Wheaton College, Chris currently serves as Lead Pastor of New Covenant Church in Naperville, IL. He is the author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic and Talking with Catholics about the Gospel: A Guide for Evangelicals. Chris blogs at www.chriscastaldo.com.

1. Peter Kreeft, “Ecumenical Jihad,” in Reclaiming The Great Tradition, ed. James S. Cutsinger (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1997), 27.
2. Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1971), 167.
3. Timothy George, “Nicodemism,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, ed. Hans Hillerbrand, 4 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3:144. His biblical reference is John 3:2.
4. Joseph C. McLelland, “Valdés and Vermigli: Spirituality and the Degrees of Reform,” in Peter Martyr Vermigli and the European Reformations: Semper Reformanda, ed. Frank A. James, III (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 238–250 (248).


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