The ACT 3 Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialog, Part 5

John ArmstrongRoman Catholicism

The central points of divergence that surfaced in our recent Roman Catholic and Evangelical dialog were made very clear as our discussion proceeded. The most obvious one, put in the simplest manner, was our ecclesiology. I am not downplaying how serious this difference really is by putting it in one word. The doctrine of the church is at the very heart of our major theological differences.

Matthew 16:18-20 was discussed and we all four agreed that the best exegesis of this text leads us to conclude that Jesus is telling Peter the Church is rooted in the revelation of God to Peter and thus in his human person as well. Various Protestant attempts to explain away the text fail and thereby show that they are rooted in over-reaction to Roman Catholicism. But what we did not agree upon, very obviously, was whether or not Peter was the first pope, at least in the sense that he became the head of Christ’s Church on the earth and that this office, the papacy, continues down to the present day through the successors to the apostles, namely the cardinals of the Catholic Church. Put very simply, if I agreed with this position I would be required to seriously consider becoming a Roman Catholic. I do not agree with it, for several reasons, and this was discussed in a charitable and open manner.

To add to this point evangelicals do not believe in the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. But evangelicals can, and in fact should, show far more regard for holy tradition, especially for the earliest creeds of the Church. This does not, however, obligate us to embrace the idea of an infallible interpretative order within the Church that guarantees correct interpretation and final doctrinal certainty. As evangelicals our faith is in Christ alone, not in the visible church, even in our own church. Christ’s leadership of his people is mediated through human authority, by Holy Scripture and through the proper use of tradition, but human authority is never infallible. This idea clearly separates us and likely will do so for a long time. It separates the Orthodox Church from Rome as well, even though there are some similarities between these two ancient communions. (We are planning a forum titled: “Christianity: East and West.” This will be another evening, hopefully in 2008.) 

One of the questions we pursued in the September 16 dialog was: “Does the visible church put us into vital connection with the gospel or does the gospel bring us into the visible church?” Our Roman Catholic brothers argued the first and we the second. Catholics see the Church as an extension of Christ’s incarnation. Evangelicals, like me, have a very high sacramental theology but not one which thinks in terms of the incarnation being extended into the world through the Church as if this was Christ with us. I believe this places way too much weight upon the single image of “the body of Christ” and fails to do proper justice to the numerous other metaphors that describe the Church in the New Testament.

We agreed that sacramental theology was important and thus baptism and the Lord’s Supper were more than memorials. We disagreed about the number of sacraments and their role in our salvation. I believe grace is actually conveyed through the sacraments but it is not conveyed without faith. Catholics believe this too but they have a very different way of understanding it. Sacraments are important but we are saved by Christ through faith in the gospel, not through the sacraments.

It was admitted that sola fide is a concept that can be variously understood and misunderstood. While Andrew and I were prepared to defend the concept on one level we freely admitted that on a different level it is a phrase that is very problematic (cf. James 2:24, the only text where the phrase “faith alone” occurs in the Bible and one that does not treat the idea favorably at all).

More on divergences and differences to come in Part 6. I will also get to some convergences and areas of profound agreement.