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.
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.
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please clarify your position on this – you are saying that the entire Roman Catholic Church stands on Christ alone? So you are stating a no purgatory position and works based faith….?
John, have you seen: “The Future of Protestantism: A Conversation with Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, …. David Coleman Steve Coleman” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKekHEco87U
Thank you John. I will definitely get that book. Just ordered it via your link.
I have been reading Kuyper’s Stone Lectures this year. As an evangelical, I was unaware of A. Kuyper, and Lesslie Newbigin for a long time. They are both excellent sources of blessing, and speak very contemporarily to our modern times. If people flame up over this issue, it will underscore their lack of careful thought before they react. We can learn a great deal from each other, even when we share very different points of view.
If modern evangelicals, and especially the most conservative ones, want to be truly missional in their efforts to reach the marginal ones outside the church, then they will need to study the world views of those they hope to communicate with. For example, if you have a growing population of faithful Muslims in your community, then to establish a relationship, you will need to know the cardinal premises of their faith, not as you perceive them, but as they share them with you. Certainly the Catholic community is not difficult to understand, from a Protestant position, as long as you are very respectful in asking questions, and are patient to listen carefully to their answers. Wouldn’t we want them, and Muslims, to listen carefully to our positions? I am frankly tired of the inflamed polemics of our extreme voices within Protestantism. We should be ashamed of ourselves. That is no way to represent the Lord we claim to follow.
I don’t mean to imply from the above posts that I see Catholics estranged from the faith. I just wanted to emphasize the point that we must be able to fully understand someone else’s views before we ask someone to understand ours. That is love in action. That is humility. That is the way of any Christian. They will know we are Christians by our love.
Good work Tim Terhune. For those reading here Tim is a friend and a generous, loving pastor. I knew that when I wrote back to him so maybe this helps others see when this medium works well. 🙂
Dante, are you sure you understand the Catholic teachings on purgatory and the relationship between faith and works?
Honest question: I sometimes hear my Protestant friends and acquaintances employ the phrase “the gospel”, and the phrase often comes up in Protestant-Catholic critiques – would readers here offer their one sentence summaries of what that means according to their beliefs?
Here’s mine: God became man in Christ Jesus, redeemed us by His great victory over the devil, sin and death, and made us to become sons and daughters of God with a sure hope of eternal life in the world to come.
Michael Bradley, your sentence is right on and thus Fr. Barron agreed with me at Moody when I answered similarly but I stressed the kingdom of God in my definition because of the Gospels. Having said this we evangelicals want to stress repentance and faith as necessary responses to the good news. I believe you would agree.
Dr. Armstrong, sure; after all, one sentence is a tough goal, unless you use a lot of semicolons. 😉
I do think the “responses” part could be unpacked from the “sons and daughters” part in the process of answering how that works (who is “us” and how does one become part of that community?), but you make a very good point.
Regarding the Kingdom of God… sorry if this is a bit random, but when I was in the mission in Haiti, the Lord put a prayer on my heart which I have considered and offered every day since:
Jesus Christ, King of Mercy and Justice, teach us how to love the cross and the poor, and to humbly build your Father’s kingdom with faith, hope and charity.
John H. Armstrong said, ” Having said this we evangelicals want to stress repentance and faith as necessary responses to the good news.” In my experience, evangelicals can emphasize the desired response so much that it becomes a distraction from the good news itself. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard preachers become passionate about our need to repent and make a decision of faith. “We must believe the gospel!” they say. But when it comes time to actually explain *what* the message is that must be believed, the explanation is a tepid and formulaic reduction that barely resembles the message that Jesus or the apostles preached. With a rich, deep understanding of the content of good news — the message of the kingdom being ushered in by Jesus — the response part (repentance and faith) follows quite naturally, without needing to be pressed or forced.
Friends, do you see what can happen when Catholic and Protestant respect and talk? Read Michael Bradley above! Bravo. 🙂
Take two, combing some of the ideas above with the prayer of absolution used in the Roman Rite of the Sacrament of Penance:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins through the ministry of the Church for all who will believe and repent, giving us the promise of eternal life as adopted sons and daughters of God, teaching us to love the cross and the poor, and calling us to humbly build the Father’s Kingdom with faith, hope and charity until Jesus Christ comes again.
Forgive the run-on. 😀
A great statement. I like the implication that the materials used to build the kingdom are faith, hope and charity. Those are the only things that are guaranteed to endure in the world to come, according to 1 Corinthians 13.
Thank you, John. You are very kind. I appreciate you and your ministry, even (especially?) when you make me uncomfortable.
Good post John. I read Challies’ blog and the many responses to it. It was the same tired-old worn out challenges against the Roman Catholic Church based on misunderstanding and caricatures of what the Church actually believes and teaches. Why won’t people in his camp engage more seriously with good Catholic theology and scholarship and put down their weapons? Anyone who would read Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn, Pope Benedict XVI, Henri DeLubac, Fr. Robert Barron, Van Balthasar, etc along with our Catechism couldn’t honestly keep making these serious errors in presenting what we supposedly believe. A little effort and integrity from the Evangelical/Calvinist Right would be much appreciated. OK, that’s my soapbox for the day. 🙂
I’m going to order that book too John, thanks for the link!
@michael – yes I am familiar. http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=9745
I. CATHOLIC DOCTRINE
Purgatory (Lat., “purgare”, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace , are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.
The faith of the Church concerning purgatory is clearly expressed in the Decree of Union drawn up by the Council of Florence ( Mansi, t. XXXI, col. 1031), and in the decree of the Council of Trent which (Sess. XXV) defined:
“Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of theFathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap.ii, iii) that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptableSacrifice of the Altar ; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held andbelieved by the faithful” (Denzinger, “Enchiridon”, 983).
Further than this the definitions of the Church do not go, but the tradition of the Fathers and the Schoolmen must be consulted to explain the teachings of the councils, and to make clear the belief and the practices of the faithful.
Romans 10:9-10 NKJV – that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation
@Michael – there is nothing we can do on our own…no works can earn our way into Heaven. Jesus Christ, not to replace the law of Moses but to fulfill it. From the Old Testament to the New Testament we read a love story about a God who is Holy, Just and Righteous. We read about men like us who are faulted through their sin and brokenness…We understand through the Scriptures that if you are guilty of one of the laws then you are guilty of all of them. Thereby, we are in need of a perfect sacrifice. Enter Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, lived on this earth…perfect (without sin) for 30 years and began His Father’s mission. Upon his crucifixion, death and resurrection – those that believe in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Not by works can we be saved. Only by faith and by confession that we are a sinner, and that we need a Savior (the Messiah who is Jesus Christ). Jesus’s brother James stated that faith without works is dead, but that does not mean that we can earn salvation through works – we simply cannot. Once saved (through the blood, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) we are called to be Holy and to be disciples of Jesus Christ. The works that are required of us are to share the Good news. To love our neighbors and to provide for the widows and orphans and to avoid the ways of this world.
Some (including those who suspected they would not) have found this helpful:
Thank you Brett. Your fine book is a model of missional-aecumenism to me. I am grateful to have you post about it here brother. You have done the church a great service.
.@JohnA1949 Must the Reformation Wars Continue? http://t.co/5bihoXEcPQ http://t.co/cl0RDHhLn6 http://t.co/90H5tMGJrL http://t.co/Y9z5Yd9kQ6
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