The various comments that were made on the iMonk site (April 24) – the post where Michael Mercer responded to Tim Challies’ negative post on Pope Francis – the most substantive concern expressed was about the Council of Trent (1545-1563). It is widely believed by evangelicals that the Council of Trent closed the door to the gospel of grace, leaving the Catholic Church in denial of the good news of God’s grace in Christ. It is always widely believed that this door has never reopened after nearly 450 years.
Here is the way Tim Challies expressed his point in he original blog where he said that Pope Francis is “the head of a false church.”
For all we can commend about Pope Francis, the fact remains that he, as a son of the Roman Catholic Church and as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, remains committed to a false gospel that insists upon good works as a necessary condition for justification. He is the head of a false church that is opposed to the true gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The core doctrinal issues that divided Protestantism from Catholicism at the time of the Reformation remain today. The core doctrinal issues that compelled Rome to issue her anathemas against Protestantism are unchanged. Rome remains fully committed to a gospel that cannot and will not save a single soul, and officially damns those who believe anything else. . . (italics are entirely my own).
In passing I’d like to note that some commented earlier on this site saying that Tim Challies never specifically said that Pope Francis was “not a Christian.” I cannot understand how anyone could read these words of Challies and not draw the conclusion that he doesn’t believe the pope is a genuine follower of Christ and the gospel. When a man is “committed to a false gospel that insists upon good works as a necessary condition for justification” what other reading makes any sense out of Challies’ words?
To be perfectly clear about this Trent did anathematize a message that is preached by some modern evangelicals – a message of salvation by grace that results in no internal change or interior transformation rooted in divine love. I’ll come back to this several times but hang on to this single point for now.
The Council of Trent was a major conciliar forum which, to one degree or another, was a strong reaction against the Protestant Reformation. In theological areas the Council of Trent clarified Catholic teaching where there was significant debate. This clarification included doctrinal areas that touched upon the Protestant Reformers’ views of Scripture, predestination, justification and the sacraments. When I visited the Vatican as an ecumenical observer in 2011 I had the privilege of meeting Fr. Frederick M. Bliss. Fr. Bliss has been an ecumenical professor of theology at the Angelicum (Rome) since 1992. Fr. Bliss acknowledges that the Council rejected much that the Reformers taught in these areas. He has written:
There was a certain acknowledgment of the avidity of the reformers’ protests about clergy conduct, ecclesiastical discipline, seminary education, and missionary work. Monasteries and older religious orders were reformed, for example, and new ones came to exist, including the Jesuits. Strict laws were put into place governing the granting of indulgences, the administration of the sacraments, and church life in general, including diocesan and parochial life (Catholic and Ecumenical: History and Hope, Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 1999, 138-39).
The essential concern of the Council of Trent was to address the purification of the church. This is generally conceded to have been accomplished in a marvelous way. What was not accomplished was the provision of a clear understanding of the “true nature of the church” (Bliss, 139). This has plagued the divided Western church for 500 years. Only since Vatican II has the subject been undertaken by theologians from both sides with an honest and growing desire to resolve as many of these issues as possible. Bliss believes the ecumenical movement has made great strides in addressing a variety of the ideas that different groups have held about the church since the 16th century. Like me Fr. Bliss also believes that the greatest tragedy was that this work could have been successfully done much sooner. This failure literally led to bloody wars and needless conflicts. It has harmed the witness of Christ in Europe, in the Middle East and in other places where Christian divisions have weakened the collective work and witness of believers.
The Central Concern of Protestants About the Council of Trent: Justification