In a blog that I published here last week, on May 7, I linked to an article by pastor and blogger Tim Challies. His blog argued that Pope Francis was not a Christian. I debated for days with myself about responding to this sadly uninformed post. To be completely honest I do not like to engage with this kind of Internet “yellow” journalism. I honestly believe that the claim of Tim Challies is so preposterous that it is virtually unworthy of a response, yet after a few days I changed my mind. Why? Simply put, I feel that someone who has a personal history with a mindset like that of Tim Challies should attempt to help non-theologically trained readers grasp a very different evangelical perspective on Catholicism, one that does not promote the “Reformation Wars” of the last five hundred years. My perspective is that Challies’ arguments are so profoundly flawed that any careful reader of the sources, and of the stories that come from real Christians who live in the present, will readily alter genuinely open minds. The kinds of arguments Challies used are the sad result of a faulty set of assumptions and an extremely rigid series of propositions. In the end Tim Challies neither understands Catholic theology very well nor does he grasp the core of what makes for a truly healthy evangelical theology. I believe such a theology promotes the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17, not further misunderstanding and warfare. If Luther said he would kiss the pope’s feet if he proclaimed the gospel what would he do with Pope Francis? I think you get my drift.
Since unity is my particular passion I decided to tackle this recurring debate head on in order to show why Challies fails to honor Christ or the grace of God in the gospel. In this regard I do not judge Tim Challies’ motives or his personal faith. I can only believe he wrote what he did in good faith, according to what he understands. The results of what he wrote are my sole concern. Challies has written a divisive and harmful polemical article that pretends to know the state of a man’s soul before God. This type of judgment serves only to feed the prejudice of some evangelicals and promotes a false view of Pope Francis and the post-Vatican II Catholic Church.
I confess that I do not know a great deal about Tim Challies. I gave a brief introduction about his writing, and personal biography, in my May 7 post. I had previously not spent time reading his blogs until this one came to my attention. I only knew his name because several readers had told me that he was a wonderful blogger. My response on May 7 was linked with the blog of Chaplain Michael Mercer, an evangelical Lutheran minister. Michael is also a prolific blogger who posts his blogs at the iMonk site. I openly agree with Michael’s well-written response to Challies. I had no idea, in advance, that he was going to use my ideas in his blog.
What I propose to do, for several forthcoming posts, is to offer a personal response to some who commented about Challies blog on Chaplain Mike’s post. The comments that were posted there numbered in the multiplied hundreds. Many of these were playing off of my own work since Chaplain Mike used my story to show how one evangelical changed his mind about the “Reformation Wars.” Michael is completely right in how he makes use of my views. I thus want to use these comments on his blog to show why I further believe this to be true.
One commenter on the iMonk site wrote: “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who is Tim Challies?” This is a great starting point. Another person who commented called Tim Challies an “evangelical celebrity.” Another said, “[He is] hardly [a celebrity]. Outside of the blogging world, few even know his name. As a blogger though, he has been blogging longer and more consistently that just about anyone. His background is as a web designer who only recently has taken on a full time ministry position.” Wow, if that is true then it says a lot. Challies has parlayed his Internet experience into a site that many like to read. He knows how to draw traffic to his site. (He got me there and now he gets more hits because I am responding, right?) Still another person wrote, “Tim Challies is just the latest in a long line of guys whom God has on speed-dial.” That one brought a smile to my face!
These comments are not as snarky as they might appear. (They are quite common in the world of the social media.) I have a saying that goes like this: “If you live by the poison pen (keyboard) of Internet controversy then you will also die by it.” The problem is that controversy makes the medium work for many wannabe celebrities. And many of these celebrities are not really that important to the global mission of the church. (I fully realize that I am not that important myself so do not read my words in the wrong way!) Challies’ inflammatory words do not foster peace or spiritual prosperity. He seems to have learned that a great fight in the social media is what blogging is all about, or so it appears. My brief survey of Tim Challies’ most recent blog posts assures me that he understands how to write with a sharp edge, an edge that makes him look like a serious authority for people who don’t understand some really important truths. (After all, he routinely tells you how to get the cheapest prices on Calvinist and Puritans book deals daily!) Decide for yourself, since the democracy of the Internet will allow you this joy, but believe me when I say that Tim Challies is neither a serious theologian nor a deeply critical thinker. He is a rigid popular Calvinist who believes that Catholics are not Christians if they believe what their church believes.
It is sometimes said that an honest confession is good for the soul. I once believed something like the stuff that Challies is promoting but I tried to never publicly admit it. In my mid-twenties if I was asked whether or not a Catholic priest was a “real” Christian I tried not to answer. (I had already met several priests who I was quite sure were real Christians!) In my mind I reasoned something like Challies does thus I thought: “I suppose it is possible for a priest to be a real Christian but only if he does not really and truly believe what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about the gospel since the Catholic Church teaches a false gospel, one clearly condemned as works righteousness by Paul in Galatians 1.” This is the proverbial bottom line for this type of thinking. In fairness to Challies I have heard some pretty respectable theologians argue in this same way. One such theologian suggested that since I once understood the gospel, but now I obviously rejected it, I had proven that I was never a real Christian myself. I dare not make this up friends. It happened and when it did I was floored and deeply saddened.
For starters, Tim Challies profoundly misunderstands the Council of Trent. This is very common. He also misunderstands subsequent Catholic teaching since Trent as well as how the Catholic Church does reform itself. It is as if the Catholic Church is actually saying that we are saved by our own love and good works with merit tipping the scale in our favor before God. Grace may give us a good start, a kind of divine push, but in the end we contribute the most important part to our salvation; i.e., our good works. Thus only through our good works does God finally save us. The problem with this idea is quite simple – this is NOT what the Catholic Church actually teaches. I’ll say more about why this is true tomorrow. I hope you’ll come back and keep reading.