Penpoint Vol. V:5 (June, 1994) © Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
the Reformation While Pondering a Supposed Protestant-Romanist "Truce"
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen
Is it time to relax the strained relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants? Should we move ahead today, leaving to past history the fierce ideological conflict which characterized the Reformation? Can't previous opposition be discounted for the sake of peace in our day, agreeing to disagree, but cooperating wherever possible and showing mutual respect?
Certain Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders seem to think so -- including Richard John Neuhaus (former Lutheran, now a Roman Catholic priest), John O'Connor (Roman archbishop of New York), Francis Stafford (archbishop of Denver), Michael Novak (American Enterprise Institute), John H. White (Geneva College president), Richard Mouw (Fuller Seminary president), Pat Robertson (C.B.N.), Bill Bright (Campus Crusuade), Charles Colson (Prison Fellowship), and startlingly even J. I. Packer (Regent College).
Two months ago these men, along with some 40 signers, announced with acclaim a document which resolves to put aside any "needless, loveless conflict" between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, doing whatever they can to eliminate the discords which exist. The pledge to reduce theological infighting and aggressive proselytizing of one another surely breathes the spirit of our times -- a spirit of detente rather than antithesis, a spirit which accentuates commonality and cooperation, a spirit which seeks compromise rather than confrontation.
Representative of the response given by many Protestant laymen, a member of the First Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, was quoted in the Associated Press as saying: "I'm not so narrow that I cannot accept the fact that there are other very good Christian people in other denominations. I think we're all working toward the same goal; we're just taking different routes to get there."
Similarly, the Christian Research Institute recently assessed Romanism to be a Christian denomination, not a body which -- to use the words of the Westminster Confession -- has "so degenerated as to become no church of Christ." Within the past decade we have even seen a few Presbyterian ministers willing to go over to the Roman Catholic communion. Are we really just taking different routes to the same goal after all?
The signers of the recently unveiled peace treaty confessed "our sins against the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples" and called for trust of one another, rather than continuing suspicion. Indeed, in attempting to evangelize members of the other group, explained Charles Colson, it would actually be wrong for an Evangelical to criticize the Roman Catholic church (and vice verse). But are we truly one?
Whatever Happened to the Reformation?
The kind of talk and assessments rehearsed above would have been inconceivable at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Not because the Reformers were an obstinate and prickly bunch of contrary fellows who loved factions. They longed for peace and unity within the body of Christ (cf. chapter 26 of the Westminster Confession: "Of Communion of Saints"). They were keenly aware of what Christian character would require: "as much as it lies in you, be at peace with all men" (Rom. 12:18) -- thus calling for them within the church all the more to "give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3) and thereby heed Christ's prayer that all believers "may be one" (John 17:11, 21; cf. Eph. 4:13-16).
The Reformers also realized that, in their devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ who had saved them by His grace as declared in the gospel, they had to beware of grievous wolves among the flock of Christ who, speaking perverse things, would draw away the disciples (Acts 20:29). Out of love for the Lord and for the Lord's people, they were compelled to "mark those who cause divisions... contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and turn aside from them" (Rom. 16:17). Those who preach "another gospel," a message which perverts the good news declared by the Apostles, must be deemed "accursed," not as brothers in the true faith (Gal. 1:7-9). Their love for Christ caused them to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).
Accordingly the Reformers warned God's people against the soul-destroying errors of Rome. To take but one crucial illustration (of many which could be mentioned): consider the Romanist error of taking justification to be God's making a person just by inner spiritual renewal, infusing him with righteousness -- thus confounding justification and sanctification. The Council of Trent (1547) declared that "in new birth there is bestowed upon them... the grace whereby they are made just."
Thus Trent condemned to everlasting damnation those who do not look partly to their own inherent merit to be right with God. It promulgated: "If any one saith that the good works of one that is justified are... not also the good merits of him..." or "if any one saith that men are justified by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ... to the exclusion of ...[anything] inherent in them..., let him be anathema." The Council of Trent absolutely insisted that "life eternal is... faithfully rendered to their good works and merits."
The Reformers likewise renounced the Roman Catholic idea that man's will can "cooperate toward disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of justification" (to use the words of Trent) -- which implies synergism, rather than salvation by grace alone.
Again, the Council of Trent consigned Protestants to hell on this point: "If anyone saith that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sin for Christ's sake alone... let him be anathema." "If any one saith that by faith alone the impious is justified... [so] that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining of the grace of justification... let him be anathema."
Has Romanism Reformed?
Some readers might be tempted to dismiss the above evidence that Romanism perverts the gospel and condemns Protestants to hell, thinking "Well, that was way back then; this is now." But that would be simplistic and fallacious reasoning, resting as it does on the all-too-common scuttlebutt that the Roman Catholic communion has changed on this (and other) important points. It has not. Indeed, it cannot.
The Council of Trent (which ended in 1563) affirmed the sole right of the Roman church (through its leaders) to interpret the Bible, declared that as a council it could not be in error, placed the tradition of the church on the same level as Scriptural authority, and concluded that what the Council taught was in itself "irreformable" -- thus precluding any possibility of its "reformation."
The First Vatican Council (1870) as well as the Second Vatican Council (ended 1965) both affirmed that the doctrinal content of the church remains unchanged and unchangeable, being "irreformable." Protestants who ignore the anathemas of Trent against evangelical faith have lapsed into counter-historical wishful thinking.
We would rejoice (of course!) if Roman Catholicism would change. But as John Calvin said long ago, this would require it to repent of its previous, arrogant, and heretical decrees. It hasn't.