Must the Reformation Wars Continue? (Twelve)

51S-KPa1fRL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_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

25 Comments on “Must the Reformation Wars Continue? (Twelve)”

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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).

    1. I totally agree with Chris here. Trent stands as a condemnation on “cheap grace” and non-Lordship ideas among evangelicals.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

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