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
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Just a thought on those earlier comment threads regarding whether or not Challies implied that the Pope was not a Christian. Many people use Christian as a euphemism for someone who has been “saved” (destined for eternal life rather than condemnation and hell), whereas others apply it to people who have consciously trusted the gospel message and are following Christ in visible ways. Depending on your understanding of salvation and God’s mercy (narrow versus wide) you may think that the two terms are interchangeable, or you may think that there are some who have been/will be saved who are not Christians in this life. Challies made strong statements about the Pope and Roman Catholic church regarding the gospel message that they believe and proclaim, but as far as I could tell, Challies never suggested that the Pope was destined for condemnation and hell.
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We tend to move too quickly to ultimate judgments. God is the only one who has the right to make those. Theology needs to have some space for maybe so, maybe not thinking
Good Morning, Joseph L Schafer. I don’t think Jesus made such a distinction. “You are my friends if you do what I command.”
Joseph L Schafer, I agree with the fact that some make this distinction but only because they think the lost can still repent and be saved. Theoretically, I suppose Challies’ would say this but he is saying the pope is not currently a true Christian. That seems clear from his own words, at least to me.
Thanks. My comment wasn’t to advocate for one side or the other, but merely to point out a possible source for the earlier confusion. I agree that John 15:14 helps clarify who a follower of Christ is. But it doesn’t give a definitive answer on whether “Christian” is synonymous with “saved.” I don’t think that’s what Jesus was talking about on that occasion.
John H. Armstrong, I totally agree that Challies went way too far, and saying that the Pope is the head of a false church is in effect saying that he is not a Christian. I wouldn’t have split hairs over this. I was just musing about why some in your earlier comment thread did. And I was trying to be generous to Challies because, even though I disagreed with almost every statement that he made, it seems that he tried (at least a little bit) to refrain from saying that Pope Francis is bound for hell. In his mind, he was probably trying to be “nonjudgmental” with regard to the eternal desitiny of Roman Catholics.
Saved ultimately refers to what God does and we can never be sure who HE saves. It would be better, and you agree with me, to refer to those who are Christians and those who reject the faith as non-Christians if we use any terms at all but the “baptized” is really the verity best term. But then we all know how that solves the problems of speech.
The whole enterprise of people trying to classify other people as in versus out stands in opposition to much of what Jesus taught, especially in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. A great deal of his teaching seems designed to overturn the prevailing notions of his day about who was in or out.
John H. Armstrong’s last comment reminds me of one of my own favorite teachable moments: I had asked you; what about friends who say they’re Christians and don’t act like they are? To which you replied, “If they say they’re a Christian, treat’em like they are.”
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John, we are selling books at the Mercersburg Theology conference with UCC folk and Catholics, older school Calvinists, Lutherans, even Orthodox and a young Pentecostal scholar. You should be here in Lancaster. Your name has come up. 🙂
I almost came Byron but chose to go to Baltimore to the Pro Ecclesia conference Monday-through Wednesday next week. 🙂
Just now, in reading your conclusion it really struck me that a chief factor in the growing secularism that we see in Europe is grounded in the bloody conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. I mean, I have long known that such wars were a horrible wound in the body of Christ in the history of the Church, and that it had negative effects on European culture, but what really struck me is that this phenomena generated a spirit of suspicion, and agnosticism that continues to shape European culture to this day. Of course, this whole issue is a bit complicated because prior to the Reformation, through a long period of development throughout the Middle Ages, the Church became too embedded in the political structures of Christendom, and thus when certain issues of faith came to the foreground in the Reformation how these issues were understood were deeply shaped by this deep entanglement, and the Church’s ability to respond to these issues was likewise deeply shaped by this entanglement. Hopefully the present practically global disenfranchisement of the Church will have freed it to address these issues with resources of grace not previously available, and there will be a way forward toward unity in the larger body of Christ. That said, I read stuff by people like Challies, and I realize that the fears and suspicions born in that era will not easily die.
Just now, in reading your conclusion of your blog post it really struck me that a chief factor in the growing secularism that we see in Europe is grounded in the bloody conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. I mean, I have long known that such wars were a horrible wound in the body of Christ in the history of the Church, and that it had negative effects on European culture, but what really struck me is that this phenomena generated a spirit of suspicion, and agnosticism that continues to shape European culture to this day. Of course, this whole issue is a bit complicated because prior to the Reformation, through a long period of development throughout the Middle Ages, the Church became too embedded in the political structures of Christendom, and thus when certain issues of faith came to the foreground in the Reformation how these issues were understood were deeply shaped by this deep entanglement, and the Church’s ability to respond to these issues was likewise deeply shaped by this entanglement. Hopefully the present practically global disenfranchisement of the Church will have freed it to address these issues with resources of grace not previously available, and there will be a way forward toward unity in the larger body of Christ. That said, I read stuff by people like Challies, and I realize that the fears and suspicions born in that era will not easily die.
Anthony Velez, your comment is so thoughtful and insightful. I could not agree more. The secularism of Europe is generations in the making and owes as much to Christendom’s breakup and failure as anything. The Reformation did not bring peace to Europe, but bloody war and this included Protestant killing Protestant and the end finally came through means that were secular in origin. This tragic church schism is rarely seen clearly so thanks for your keen insights.
Must they? No! Will they? Probably not!
John I am very enthusiastic about being able to embrace other Christians who I was raised to believe were not in fact Christians.I would much rather love than fight.
But I am still a bit confused as to
where the Catholic church does not still stand by the council of
Trent in it’s maintenance of the anathamas
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Hi David, John, and all,
Trent still stands but it stands for those who are schismatics and divide the church. It stands for those who believe in faith without works. Where Jesus is Savior but not Lord. Trent does not necessarily apply to children of the Protestant Reformation or but does apply to people who promote a cheap grace as Bonehoeffer spoke of.
So my understanding, and John probably knows more about this than me, is Trent still stands but it probably does not apply to you (just like you may not see the Catholics Church as a cult and the Pope as the Antichrist as some Protestants profess).
I totally agree with Chris here. Trent stands as a condemnation on “cheap grace” and non-Lordship ideas among evangelicals.
I realize I’m coming in late, but I’m curious. If, as you say, Trent was not a denial of the biblical gospel, but merely a condemnation of “cheap grace”, how do you avoid the charge that you are a schismatic? If the Reformation was largely a misunderstanding, and the gospel is not really at issue, then it would seem to me that any who contend that the Roman church is a true church, and always has been, ought to go to her. I’d be interested in hearing how you justify remaining separated from her, if the reasons for division were not really valid to begin with.
Your question is fair and straightforward Jim. I do not think Trent’s theological problems are entirely resolved nor do I think the Roman Catholic Church has grasped the full measure of the Christian faith. I cannot affirm several of her core doctrines regarding issues like the papacy, additional Marian dogmas, her particular views of purgatory, the full definition she develops regarding sacraments, etc. There are substantial reasons to remain outside of her that prevent my conversion yet I believe we are being led down a new way that allows us to receive each other as Christians without simply repeating the condemnations of the past. This is what the Decree on Ecumenism was all about and though Rome does not commune me she now sees my church as a Christian Church with real baptism, the gospel, real believers, etc. I see her in the same way.