Though there are significant differences between Catholic and Protestant theology I am personally convinced that the gospel is officially believed by the Catholic Church and this gospel is compatible with a solid biblical and evangelical understanding of the good news. This is the real elephant in the room in the debate advanced by blogger Tim Challies in his post about Pope Francis not being a true Christian. I fully realize that there are some modern neo-Calvinists, and more than a few old-school fundamentalists, who disagree with my analysis. I am going to try to show you why I believe they are wrong.
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), one of the most prominent Christian leaders of his era, gave the famous Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898. These lectures were edited to become one of the most famous modern books ever published on the subject of Calvinism. It bears the simple title: Lectures on Calvinism. In this highly regarded, and genuinely original, book Abraham Kuyper wrote: “I am not ashamed to confess that on many points my views have been clarified through my study of the Romish theologians” (Lectures on Calvinism, Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2000 reprint, 184). Well, at least I am in pretty good company since I agree with Kuyper on the issue of Roman Catholic theology and its true value. I am persuaded that the problem here can be seen in an all-too-common perspective that is distorted by two things: (1) We have only read what anti-Catholic polemicists wrote in another era, an era that was very different from our own, and; (2) We are not truly open to reading the actual sources of a particular tradition that we do not understand and that we quite often wish to prove wrong. The plot line goes like this – stir up a big flap about who does, and does not, preach the true gospel. It makes for a sensational debate. It also draws readers and raises money too. Then throw in a dash of Trent here and a misunderstanding of some other doctrinal point there and you can quickly get a “false gospel” that condemns multitudes of earnest Christians who possess simple, but very real, faith.
Fr. Dimitri Sala, a good friend and Catholic priest, has written what I believe to be a wonderful book: The Stained Glass Curtain: Crossing the Evangelical-Catholic Divide to Find Our Common Heritage (Lake Mary, Florida: Creation House, 2010). I would challenge any open-minded Catholic or evangelical reader to buy and read his book if they doubt that a priest can explain the gospel in a way that is entirely faithful to Catholic teaching and evangelical belief. Fr. Sala writes about what has happened to so many of us over the last few decades:
I begin with a true account as a telling parable about a dynamic I’ve seen active between Catholics and Evangelicals over the last twenty-five years or so. Many people, including me, can tell the story of how we were caught on the bait of the gospel of Jesus by “fishers of men.” From them we individually heard God’s plan of salvation, took whatever time we need to understand its implications for our particular lives, ultimately fell under its divine conviction about our sin problem, admitted that we were thereby in a desperately, hopelessly, helplessly lost state, repented of that sin problem one and for all, trusted Jesus alone as our Savior, and surrendered to Him as Lord. This, we learned, is the way a person internally accepts God’s grace or salvation, and enters a new life through Jesus Christ. [Sounds a lot like St. Augustine to me!]
So in yielding to God’s plan, one can say that we were caught in Christ’s net and immersed in the water of baptism. But what happened next was something many us weren’t necessarily planning on, something that caught a lot of us off guard, something that became the greatest challenges yet to face: we were placed in the same fishbowl (The Stained Glass Curtain, 2)!
By this Fr. Sala is really saying that he found himself believing in Christ alone for salvation and, at the same time, still a Catholic priest. He also found himself swimming in a fishbowl with non-Catholics who were his true brothers and sisters. Fr. Sala goes on in his remarkable story to show how Catholics and evangelicals really do share the same gospel message. I will quote from him further tomorrow but for now please read his book. If you truly want to see how one priest processed a deep personal faith in Christ and found the doctrine of his own church to be consistent with this active, living, personal faith then read his fine book. His story is powerful and (even) surprising, at least to many Catholics and evangelicals. This is why, along with respected Catholic and evangelical scholars (e.g., Mark Noll, Francis Beckwith, Joseph Bottum, etc), I endorsed Sala’s fine book. We all believe that Sala offers a way forward that is faithful to both the grace of God in the gospel of Christ that evangelicals proclaim and with the best, and clearest, teaching of the Catholic Church. Do not prejudge this matter until you have read him. I hope that you will. It just might change your life and the way you treat others Christians.