"WHAT STILL KEEPS US APART?"
Michael S. Horton
Finally, there it was in all its grandeur. I had patiently waited for this moment ever since arriving with college friends, and now here it stood before me: St. Peter's, in Rome. Center of Latin Christendom's historical consciousness, it seemed as if this mythic Renaissance edifice was part of a dream. But it wasn't. And I was overtaken with a sense of Rome's magnificence
It is at moments such as these that one wishes this could be part of a shared history: our St. Peter's, our Rome. It is the same feeling one has (and a surely justified sense of shared history) when reading Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas—or Bonaventure, Bernard, or Gregory the Great. Against the dull, colorless, ragged backdrop of the twentieth century, these rich golden threads capture the eye, the imagination, mind, and heart, and God rewards those who diligently seek Him through their work. It was to the bishop of Rome that many brother-bishops turned in the earliest days of the church, when heresy and schism threatened the faithful. It was Rome that stood up to the Montanists, Manicheans, Donatists, Pelagians, Cathari, Albigensians, Arians, and Monophysites, and that still stands up to so many other spurious movements plaguing a modern Protestantism that cannot seem to remember anything that happened in the church before last Tuesday.
The Roman church speaks out so unanimously and clearly (comparatively speaking) on matters such as abortion and concern for the poor that evangelicals feel a sense of camaraderie in contrast to the limits of their own public witness, driven it seems more by charismatic political personalities, coalitions, and political action committees than by a well-conceived theology of social ethics. And who can deny the commitment of the Roman Catholic Church to the arts? While Protestants closer to the Reformation have much for which to be grateful to God in this area, modern evangelicals do not seem to foster an appreciation for the aesthetic and cultural life; all too often the assumption seems to be that ugliness is next to godliness.
Fundamentalists and evangelicals, I think, find Rome attractive when the pressures of modernity weigh heavily on their shoulders. The search for certainty, ballast, and hope in the midst of relativism, weightlessness, and cynicism is more than "antimodern" sentiment; it is the very real experience of millions of conservative Protestants and Catholics. Against the backdrop of the cold, urban skyscrapers and the sprawling shopping malls, the memory of St. Peter's on a misty summer morning lingers and, one could even say, haunts the joyless modern soul.
Furthermore, the renewal movement seems to have attracted many Roman Catholics to the Scriptures, and it is not uncommon for a Roman Catholic neighbor to invite an unchurched Protestant to a Bible study. For all these reasons, and more, many (this writer included) have felt drawn to the Roman Catholic Church on more than one occasion. At least when we talk about the Incarnation, we both know what?and who?we're talking about.
So what keeps us apart after four and a half centuries? The plea for greater spiritual unity has not been limited to the ecumenical movement within mainline denominations; it has been the recent and growing cry of many traditional Protestant evangelicals as well. In his warm-hearted and thoughtful appeal, Keith A. Fournier, formerly dean of evangelism at the Franciscan College of Steubenville, Ohio, asks, "Evangelical Catholic: contradiction in terms?" — to which he answers in the negative.1 It will be my task in this chapter to interact with this question in an effort to discern whether there is sufficient reason to warrant continued separation of Protestantism and Rome.
ARE EVANGELICALS CATHOLIC?
Before we address the question, "Can Catholics be evangelicals?" we ought to ask, "Can evangelicals be Catholics?"
The same Protestant confessions of faith that fingered the pope as the verum antichristum (the very Antichrist) also affirm that Protestants are indeed members of the catholic church. Catholic means "universal," but it means much more than that. In its historical context, it refers to those who side with orthodoxy against the sects and heresies that have challenged the clear biblical teaching concerning God (the Trinity, divine omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, eternity, simplicity, etc.), Christ (His eternal Sonship, virgin birth and incarnation, two natures in one person, bodily resurrection and ascension), salvation (original sin, substitutionary atonement, the necessity and priority of prevenient grace), and eschatology (the return of Christ in judgment and salvation at the end of history). These are not merely evangelical essentials; they are the sum and substance of our common catholic witness. Furthermore, the Protestant Reformers and Puritans agreed with catholic Christians of all ages that the church is Christ's ordained institution, "out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation," as the Westminster Confession (chapter 25) puts it. To stray from these cardinal claims is to forfeit the title "catholic."
As has been argued in previous chapters, the Protestant doctrine of the church distinguishes between the visible and the invisible church, the former including any congregation or collection of congregations where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. As Augustine put it, "There are many sheep without and many wolves within" this visible church. It consists of all baptized Christians and their children who profess the name of Christ, but it is assumed by Protestants that there are many in this visible church who are like the seed that fell on rocky ground or that were choked by weeds. In other words, not everyone who professes the name of Christ has exercised true saving faith. By contrast, the invisible church consists of the full number of the elect of all ages, none of whom may be lost.
The Roman church, however, has at least historically regarded "the Church universal" as synonymous with itself. In other words, to be a full member of the "Catholic Church" is to be in full communion with the Church of Rome, with the pope as the head. It must be noted, however, that ever since the Second Vatican Council (l963-65), the Roman church has regarded Protestants, like Eastern Orthodox believers, as "separated brethren." In other words, the Protestant distinction between a universal, invisible church and a visible church is admitted. The difference is that, whereas Protestants would regard Rome as one denomination within Christendom (many indeed denying its status even as a visible church), Rome still regards herself as the true church and other communions as more or less part of that true communion of saints to the degree that they conform to the sacramental and ecclesiastical character of the Roman church. As the warmth of the sun is felt in varying degrees, so the full radiance of communion with Christ is experienced only in full communion with the Church of Rome, and yet it is possible to be warmed and enlightened apart from that full communion. "But even in spite of" the obstacles to full visible union, declares the Decree on Ecumenism, "it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church."2 Therefore, a distinction is made between the visible and invisible church, and, even in cases where a particular congregation or denomination does not possess the full marks of the Roman church, it is necessary to regard all who confess faith in Christ and have some fellowship with the catholic (i.e., historic) church as members of the communion of saints.
In the documents of Vatican II, one definitely senses an ambiguity about how to deal with Protestants (indeed, even atheists are now admitted into eternal life); nevertheless, there is an attempt to square with modern realities the historic Roman doctrine of the church, which admits no separation from the Roman See and regards such as an act of apostasy.
Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the later Reformers, including the Puritans, insisted that they were not merely "catholic" in the sense that they had some historic link to Rome—"the Catholic Church"—but that they were in fact truly catholic in the sense that they were simply purging the church of its accumulated errors. Seeing themselves in continuity with the historic catholic church, the Reformers did not regard themselves as revolutionaries or sectarians wanting to overthrow the church and disregard the historic reflections of the great Christian thinkers but employed that very tradition in defense of their rediscoveries. By expelling the Protestants, the Church of Rome was believed to be excommunicating itself from the catholic church, falling under the apostolic anathema for embracing another gospel (Galatians 1:8,9). One need only scan the tracts, catechisms, confessions, and letters of the Reformation to be impressed with the volume of appeals to the church Fathers.
ARE CATHOLICS EVANGELICALS?
Having concluded that evangelicals are catholics—eschewing the heresies of the past two thousand years, which have challenged the biblical doctrine of God, rent Christ's humanity from His deity, denied one or the other, and denied human sinfulness and the need for saving grace, the question arises whether Roman Catholics can be described as "evangelicals."
In all fairness, Fournier argues that "evangelical" is an adjective, not a noun and that it can therefore be used in its most etymological sense. Taken from the Greek word from which we get "gospel," an evangelical is simply one who is concerned with the gospel: its content and its dissemination throughout the world. However, what Fournier evidences is all too typical of evangelicals themselves when he claims title to "evangelical" namely, a heavy emphasis on "evangelical" as a style or mission. Doctrine seems these days to take a back seat to zeal; the "Evangel" is often left undefined in the pursuit of evangelism. As the pressures of secularism become increasingly burdensome and religious conviction is increasingly marginalized in society, great are the temptations to overcome four and a half centuries of separation and embrace each other in a common struggle to win the world for Christ. And I, for one, would be all too happy if just that sort of outcome were achieved.
There is only one thing standing in the way: The gospel itself.
I do not say this in a cavalier or cynical fashion. It is the serious conclusion after much reflection on the biblical message—and not only my reflection in this time and place but the considered reflection of classical Protestantism. If we do not get the Evangel right, how much excitement can there be over combining resources and energies in promoting it? That was Paul's point, indirectly, in Romans 10, where he applauds his fellow Israelites for their zeal for God but laments that it is a zeal "not based on knowledge." The specific knowledge he has in mind is the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone—the gospel: "Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Romans 10:2-4). If Paul concluded that his own brothers by flesh and blood, whom he dearly loved and commended for their zeal, were excluded from the kingdom of God by denying the righteousness that is a gift in an attempt to establish their own works-righteousness, surely we can be no more generous in the seriousness with which God takes His gospel.
To that end, we have to be perfectly clear about our terms. In his foreword to Fournier's book, the respected evangelical leader Charles Colson writes, "If you are an orthodox Catholic, you may find you are truly part of the evangelical camp."3 My heart wants to agree with Colson on this point, but we cannot accept this conclusion without radically redefining the very foundations of evangelical commitment. If you are an orthodox Catholic, you are not part of the evangelical camp. You may indeed feel at home in an evangelicalism that no longer takes evangelical doctrine seriously when compared to Christian activities and social, moral, cultural, and political pursuits. But the contemporary condition of evangelicalism is to be distinguished from evangelical theology. To do this, we must first of all define evangelical.
WHAT IS AN EVANGELICAL?
Fournier turns to The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality for his definition of evangelical, especially since the article describes the piety of William Wilberforce:
Thus, Fournier can conclude, understandably, "I am that kind of Christian, and I hope to become even more so in the years I have left."5 Indeed, we could all hope for such a high commitment to daily prayer and Bible reading. Nevertheless, I think Fournier is quite right to see no discrepancy between this description and traditional Catholic piety, but as a description of evangelical beliefs it is quite unhelpful. Fournier should probably have turned instead to The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, where one reads, "Derived from euangelion (evangel, gospel, good news), the term came into use at the Reformation to identify Protestants, especially as they held to the belief in justification by grace through faith and the supreme authority of scripture (often considered the material and formal principles of Reformation teaching)."6 But Fournier rejects this doctrinal definition of evangelical (p.19), and many evangelicals, it seems, are all too happy to surrender to the same compromise. Even though well-informed evangelicals like Colson affirm their commitment to evangelical doctrine, whenever it is no longer essential to the very label itself, we begin to define our faith by spirituality instead of by the gospel, and this is tantamount to saying that the issues of the Reformation were really not significant to that soul-saving message. In 1975, a plea similar to Fournier's came from a Roman Catholic "evangelical," Paul W. Witte, who also argued that evangelical referred to a spiritual and missionary identity rather than to a particular doctrinal system.7 But it is theology, not spirituality, that best defines a church and marks its distinctives. But again, we must remind ourselves that Paul's commendation of Jewish zeal (that is, spirituality) did not mean that his zealous friends and relatives were included in the camp of Christ, since they had denied that which was essential to that gospel message. Furthermore, if this shift in defining evangelical in terms of spirituality rather than doctrine is legitimate, it is surely of recent origin, since every encyclopedic reference or theological dictionary defines the word in terms of its association with the Reformation message.
If, then, evangelical carries a specific historical reference and well-defined dogmatic core, what is it, and can a Roman Catholic embrace it without repudiating his or her own church's teachings?
First, it is essential for us to realize that the Reformers did not believe that they were doing anything new. Rather, they were part of a general cultural trend to look backward to the classical world. For many Renaissance humanists, the "Golden Age" of Greece and Rome became the focal point; for Protestants, it was the apostles and church Fathers who needed to be recovered from the hair-splitting academics who had turned the Bible and Christian theology into a species of secret magic that could only be comprehended by the professionals. To that end, they did not want "Lutherans," "Zwinglians," and "Calvinists" populating the landscape; therefore, "evangelical" was a favored term, although we can see how poorly successive generations followed their counsel. The Reformers really believed that the gospel had been so obscured and its chief claims so consistently denied that "in the place of Christianity is substituted a dreadful profanation," as Calvin put it in the preface to his commentary on Hebrews. Luther argued in a sermon on John 14:23-31, "People say that our teaching is contrary to the old, traditional faith. To what sort of faith do they refer? To what the pope together with his priests and monks believes. How old is this faith? Two or three hundred years!" Our evangelical forebears, therefore, believed that the Roman church had substituted novelties for the apostolic faith. At this point, the concern of the evangelical Reformers must be sharply distinguished from many popular misconceptions.
First are the misconceptions of a good number of secular historians. Many secular historians of this century have been incapable of comprehending the schism of the sixteenth century in spiritual or theological terms, so they have appealed to that which is most familiar to them: secular motivations. For instance, Marxists have reduced the Reformation to a struggle for economic and social liberation. Meanwhile, political and constitutional historians such as G.E. Elton have seen the Reformation primarily as an evolution of society from feudalism to constitutional republicanism. The more psychologically inclined, like Erik Erickson, have explained the movement in terms of Luther's relationship with his father and his sexual drive, which picks up on some unhappy and unscholarly caricatures of nineteenth-century Roman Catholic hagiography.
But Protestants have had their own tradition of hagiography, and that brings me to the second group of misconceptions as to why the Reformation happened. Victorian Protestants (and this would include American Protestants from approximately 1800 to 1950) were fond of caricaturing Romanism as a political and social menace and inculcated irrational suspicion of Roman Catholics as subverters of liberty and practitioners of a secret society in which cultlike rituals were conducted. As a result, when describing the differences between Protestantism and Rome, the accent often fell upon such subjects as Mary, the intercession of the saints, the veneration of statues, superstition, calling the priest "father," going to confession. In other words, it fell on practice rather than on doctrine.
It is not that these issues do not matter but that they are of secondary importance. Luther himself declared in his debate with Erasmus over free will and grace that if the pope would simply discard his gospel of free will and merit, he would gladly cut his losses and begin negotiations on the rest. That, of course, is a paraphrase, and surely the other matters cannot be severed from the misunderstanding of the gospel. But Luther's point was that the debate over how a person is accepted before God was the whole issue of the Reformation. Everything else was derivative.
Having said all this, what were the central concerns in this question of salvation? And does one have to embrace the conclusions of the Reformation in order to be considered "evangelical"?
THE FORMAL PRINCIPLE OF THE REFORMATION
Because it is the thing that forms, shapes, and determines what we believe as Christians, the Scriptures were singled out as the sole and sufficient source for faith and practice. "Only Scripture" (sola scriptura) was the phrase, and it meant that the church could not preach, teach, command, or practice anything contrary to Scripture, even for very good reasons. The church had no divine authority except to pass on what was written by the prophets and apostles. What it did not mean (but, too often, has come to mean in Protestantism) is that individuals could decide for themselves what to believe, for the individual is obligated to Scripture every bit as much as when one was obligated to the church. Furthermore, it did not mean that every Christian had the right to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, even if that meant contradicting the consensus of the Christian community. Luther reflected that this would simply mean that "each man could go to hell in his own way."
As already mentioned, Luther and Calvin certainly did not argue that they had seen something in Scripture that somehow missed the attention of every other thinker for one and a half millennia; they called upon the Fathers, and especially Augustine, for support. Thus, they demonstrated that their message was not something new but a recovery of something old—something that had been lost by a corrupt curia. It was not a brand-new insight but the recovery of a message that had been taught by the Catholic Church during its best days. Then they formed congregations based on a common confession of faith and immediately drew up catechisms (teaching guides) for the instruction of the faithful. One will notice that in every one of the Protestant confessions and catechisms, each assertion is given a scriptural reference, indicating that Scripture is the final authority and that these distillations are merely authoritative in a derivative sense (in that they are faithful to Scripture), not in an infallible sense (as though they were equal to Scripture in their freedom from the possibility of error). The shared consensus of the churches was not infallible for the Protestants, as it was for Rome, but it was certainly essential, and renegade teachers had to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the whole communion that they understood a certain point in the Bible better than everybody else before it would be accepted.
The Roman church, by the Middle Ages, had begun to argue that tradition was also a source of revelation, since God continued to speak to His church through its magestirium (teaching office), with the pope as its chief shepherd under Christ. Against both the Roman claim to continued revelation apart from Scripture and the similar claims of Anabaptist "enthusiasts," with their alleged revelations, the Reformers asserted the sufficiency of Scripture.
But, granting the infallibility of Scripture, how on earth could an infallible Word be understood and interpreted correctly without an infallible teacher? In answering this understandable objection, the Reformers simply followed many of their fellow Catholic humanists in pointing to the contradictory claims of popes and councils in the Middle Ages. History simply proved that the church was not infallible, so long as the law of noncontradiction applied. The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, nor the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider "communion of saints" down through the ages. The community may err, but "there is much wisdom in many counselors," and we are most likely to be faithful to the text when we recognize that it is infallible but we are not.
A summary of the Protestant "formal principle" would not be complete without a discussion of the "perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture." At the bottom of Rome's suspicions lay the belief that the Bible was unclear. Obviously, if this is the case, giving the Bible to the laity would invite schism, heresy, and sectarianism. The last two centuries of Protestantism, especially in America, seem only to confirm Rome's greatest fears. Nevertheless, the Reformers were convinced that the Bible was clear, so long as the teachers, pastors, and theologians were not busying themselves with turning the straightforward statements of Scripture into puzzles. That is not to say that it is equally clear about everything. Surely the Bible is clearer in its declarations of Christ's divinity than in its apocalyptic language concerning end-time events, and there must be a distinction between the clear, essential, cardinal truths upon which all Christians must agree (and, for nearly two thousand years, have), and those convictions—perhaps even strongly felt and maintained as clearly scriptural—that are not as obvious and straightforwardly articulated in the text.
The question that keeps popping up, from Genesis to Revelation, is "How are we saved and reconciled to God?" That was Israel's longing, as it looked to God for salvation through the coming Messiah, foreshadowed in the temple, sacrifices, priesthood, kings, and prophets, and it is the oft-repeated question of those who hear the apostles' message: "What must I do to be saved?" It is answered so many times, so clearly, that this is surely in the category of things that are unmistakably clear in the text itself. To deny the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, therefore, when Paul so plainly declares, "To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness" Romans 4:5), which is so clearly and emphatically spelled out in many parallel passages, is to miss the whole point of the Evangel. This leads us to the second rule of the Reformation: the material principle.
THE MATERIAL PRINCIPLE OF THE REFORMATION
It is the articulus ecclesiae stantis et cadentis, the "article by which the church stands and falls," the Reformers declared of the doctrine of justification. "As long as a person is unaware of this doctrine" and the distinction between the law and the gospel, Luther insisted, "he is no different than a Jew, a Turk (Moslem] or a Heathen." In other words, what distinguishes the Christian message from all others is that salvation is not a project in which God helps humans save themselves, but a rescue operation from start to finish.
First, in order to get to the root of the division on this point, we have to be clear about where the agreement lay. Just as Rome never denied the infallibility of Scripture, it never denied the necessity of grace. In the forth century, a British monk named Pelagius disturbed the peace of the church with a pernicious teaching that his disciples developed even further. Pelagianism denied the doctrine of original sin, which teaches that we are born in sin (Psalm 51:5; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:9-18; Ephesians 2:1-5; 1 Corinthians 2:14; etc.). People are born into the world neutral, said Pelagius. If they exercise their free will in the direction of righteousness, following Christ's example, they will be saved; if they exercise their free will in the direction of sinfulness, following Adam's example, they will be judged. Augustine defended the biblical doctrine of original sin by insisting that we are not only sinners because we sin, following Adam's example, but we sin because we are sinners, inheriting Adam's guilt and corruption. Therefore, what we need in a Second Adam, too, is something more than an example. We need a Savior. We need someone to rescue us by His own grace, since we cannot even respond to Him of our own free will, corrupted as it is by our sinful affections. The accent, therefore, fell on God's grace in the atonement, conversion, and the gift of saving and persevering faith.
In the eleventh century, Anselm refined this Augustinian doctrine of grace on the subject of the Atonement. Jesus Christ had to be God because the debt we owed was infinite and no finite creature could pay it. And yet, He had to be man because the debt was something owed by sinful humanity. In this way, Christ performed the office of a peace-making substitute. Throughout the Middle Ages, questions about grace and works and predestination and free will were fiercely debated, but everyone knew that one rule of the game was that Pelagianism was not allowed, although many theologians came as close as they could to the edges of that heresy.8
So if Rome, on the eve of the Reformation, affirmed that salvation was by grace and that no one could be saved without grace first making a change, why did Luther and his associates attack the Roman church for denying that very doctrine?
It was not enough for the Reformers to say that we were saved by grace. Nor, indeed, was it even enough to say that we were saved by grace alone. Thus far they would not have said anything that a typical Augustinian would not have affirmed in his day. What Luther and the other Reformers insisted on was grace alone through faith alone. In medieval doctrine, justification was considered what evangelicals call "regeneration" or the new birth. In baptism, the child received his or her "first justification," and this began the process of sanctification. Thus, justification was seen as the beginning of moral change, and only at the end of the process—assuming one made proper use of the sacraments, confessed one's sins verbally to a priest, and died without having committed a mortal sin—could one hope to be justified. In fact, the process actually continued beyond the grave, in purgatory, where the remaining corruptions and transgressions were purged. The whole process may indeed be ascribed to "grace alone," and yet the way one received this "grace" was, in effect, by meriting it.9
When Luther realized, through his study of the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians in particular, that justification is a declaration based on the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer through faith alone, while the sinner remained a sinner—rather than a process based on the righteousness of Christ infused into the believer through faith, the sacraments, love, charity, and obedience—he said it was as if the windows of heaven were "flung open and I was born again." The Latin Vulgate, the version of the Bible produced by Jerome, which had been used by the medieval scholars, was an inferior translation. This was what the classical humanists within Rome were beginning to say, and even Erasmus, the brilliant Renaissance humanist who never fully joined the Reformation, nevertheless was the first to point out that the Greek word meaning "to declare righteous" had actually been mistranslated by Jerome as "to make righteous" Though Erasmus was not willing to follow this through to its theological conclusion, his scholarship opened the door through which the Reformers would pass.
Is such a distinction just playing with words? Surely not. The difference between "to declare righteous" and "to make righteous" is the difference between a definitive, once-and-for-all verdict and a gradual progression. If we are justified by a declaration, through faith alone, then the very moment we believe that Christ is our salvation we are declared righteous in Christ. If we are justified by a process of sanctification, which is never complete in this life, there is not a sufficient basis for God to ever accept us. After all, God does not grade on the curve; He requires absolute, perfect obedience, and anything short of it is sin. A holy God will not—cannot—violate one aspect of His own character (justice and holiness) for the sake of another (love and mercy).
Just as the Jews, in spite of their zeal, had forfeited salvation because they sought to justify themselves by their own obedience and would not accept the imputation of Christ's righteousness freely given through faith alone (Rom. 10:1-11), so the Reformers believed that the Church of Rome had abandoned the gospel and substituted for it that age-old confidence in self. That was the difference between the two gospels, between life and death, heaven and hell, justification and judgment. To suggest that we are accepted by God on the basis of Christ's righteousness and our own cooperation—be it free will, obedience, love, charity, prayer, a good heart, whatever—is to deny the gospel.
WHAT STILL KEEPS US APART?
1. The doctrine of justification, together with its implications for theology, church life, piety, and worship.
Even as the curia began sitting in Rome to draft a conciliar response to the Reformation, there was hope of reconciliation. A number of cardinals who had gathered at the Council of Trent were convinced of one or more of the Reformers' objections to the popular teaching of the day, and the popular rejection of the gospel by the pope and the monks had not yet been solidified. Since at this stage popes were not regarded as infallible (that was not declared until Vatican I, 1869-70) the door was open to the full reformation of Western Christendom until the Council of Trent (1545-63) finally closed it with its devastating canons against the gospel. Things that had been left to debate in the universities were now closed to discussion as the Council issued what it considered infallible pronouncements on the doctrine of justification and related truths. Now, issues upon which men and women of goodwill could differ were given a single answer: tradition is equal to Scripture in authority; the interpretation of Scripture and the elements of Holy Communion are to be denied to the laity; the Mass is a repetition of Christ's sacrifice and each Mass atones for the people; transubstantiation was officially affirmed, as was the belief in purgatory.
However, the most important decree was also the longest, Concerning Justification. The decree begins by affirming, against any Pelagianism, the traditional Augustinian insistence on original sin and the need for grace. Human beings cannot even believe until grace first enables them. In fact, "It is furthermore declared that in adults the beginning of that justification must proceed from the predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ, that is, from his vocation, whereby, without any merits on their part, they are called"—then the good news ends and the Roman error begins—"that they who by sin had been cut off from God may be disposed through his quickening and helping grace to convert themselves to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with that grace." So, while a person is not "able by his own free will and without the grace of God to move himself to justice in his sight," he can and must cooperate with grace. Justification is defined as "not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just."
The Protestants never denied the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, but this was identified in Scripture as sanctification, not as justification. Rome simply combined the two concepts into one: God justifies us through the process of our moving, by the power of God's Spirit at work in our lives, from being unjust to becoming just. This, however, rejects Paul's whole point in Romans 4:1-5, that justification comes only to those who (a) are wicked and (b) stop working for it. God justifies the wicked as wicked, the sinner as sinner. That is the good news of the gospel, and the scandal of the Cross!
The most relevant canons are the following:
In other words, men and women are accepted before God on the basis of their cooperation with God's grace over the course of their lives, rather than on the basis of Christ's finished work alone, received through faith alone, to the glory of God alone. There are indeed two fundamentally different answers to that recurring biblical question, "How can I be saved?" and, therefore, two fundamentally different gospels.
2. The doctrine of the church as expounded by the Roman church, which requires sound, orthodox Roman Catholics to regard the gospel, as understood by evangelicals, as heresy.
We must remember that it is not we who anathematized Rome, but Rome that anathematized the gospel and thereby anathematized itself. The issue is not even really the condemnation of Protestants (those wounds are easy to heal) but the anathema against the gospel. The evangelicals who remain authentic witnesses to the gospel of grace alone through faith alone, therefore, are carrying on the Catholic faith. Just prior to the Council of Trent, there were many—including cardinals—who accepted the material principle (that is, the gospel) as the Reformation restated it. In fact, there was still much hope on both sides that a unity could be achieved. But when the Council of Trent repeatedly declared that those who believed that their only hope for salvation was faith in Christ now fell under the church's ban, Rome became a schismatic body. It divided itself from historic Christianity by denying, in unmistakable language, that which we as evangelical believers insist upon as "the gospel." This, of course, does not mean that there are not many justified souls in the Church of Rome. As Calvin said, "There is still a church among her," but she herself is not a true visible church. She has denied those marks that are essential to the being of a church: the preaching of the true gospel and the true administration of the sacraments. Apart from these marks, there can be no true visible congregation and, indeed, no formal communion.
This is a very sad business and difficult to accept, much less to defend. It is difficult because of the many personal sympathies I have with my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We must not confuse Rome's general apostasy from the visible church with the apostasy of individual Roman Catholic believers. We may have fellowship with Roman Catholics who affirm the gospel, even though we may not have fellowship with the Church of Rome. In spite of the ecumenical aspirations we all share, there is a higher authority to which one must answer. Better for the church to have peace in the next life than in this one. Better to proclaim the true gospel, with earthly divisions, than to abandon the gospel for spurious, humanly created unity.
In recent decades, many Roman Catholic theologians have done much to promote understanding between the two traditions, and some have even confessed agreement with the Reformation doctrine. In that case, then, they are "evangelical." But in order to be sound evangelicals they cannot be sound Roman Catholics, for two simple realities: the Council of Trent regards the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone as "damnable" and condemns to everlasting judgment anyone who embraces it; and the Council of Trent is as binding as Holy Scripture for Roman Catholics. That is what we have to comprehend. In Protestantism, a theologian may disagree with Luther or Calvin in principle, but in Roman Catholicism a Council is considered infallible and irrevocable. Post-Vatican II Roman Catholic theologians may irenically and zealously attempt to harmonize Vatican II with Trent; indeed, some will even reject Trent altogether, but they cannot speak on behalf of the church, so long as the Roman church retains in the very warp and woof of its ecclesiology the claim to infallibility for those councils and papal decisions.10 As long as Rome is officially committed to its notion of an infallible tradition and unerring councils, there can be absolutely no hope for a visible restored union, for there can be no hope of its repentance for having rejected the gospel in such clear and dogmatic terms. It is not because, after all, so many martyrs spilled their blood over this matter and, therefore, we owe it to their memory to carry a grudge. If the gospel is transcendent and eternally true, it defines the identity of a true visible church.
Here I would like to digress briefly, to consider one recent argument made by Wolfhart Pannenberg, the distinguished German Protestant theologian.11 This discussion is illustrative of the numerous exchanges that take place today in ecumenical circles. In the early 1980's, Bishop Lohse of the Protestant church of Germany openly published to Cardinal Ratzinger, then Archbishop of Munich, his intention "that it was now time for the churches affected to establish, not merely in personal dialogue but to declare in binding form, that the condemnatory pronouncements formulated in the sixteenth century about the doctrine, form, and practice of the Roman Catholic Church are no longer applicable to today's partner." In other words, it was Lohse's belief that the Roman church that Luther and Calvin regarded as a false congregation is no longer that same organization. Ratzinger met Lohse's olive branch by declaring that "a corresponding reexamination of the doctrinal decisions of the Council of Trent was also necessary."
It seems on the surface that Cardinal Ratzinger, now in charge of doctrinal concerns for the entire Roman Catholic Church, was much more on target than the Protestant bishop in recognizing the real impasse. Whereas Lohse was interested in establishing a commission to determine "that new realities have come into being, and that the old massive dissensus to all intents and purposes no longer exists," Ratzinger realized that the real issue was Trent. What can possibly be achieved by an attempt either to say that the Reformers did not really mean what they said they meant or to deny that Rome's anathemas are unambiguous? For those who believe that the Reformation doctrine of justification sola fide (that is, the declaration of a sinner to be right solely because of the righteousness of Christ imputed through the mere reception of the gift in faith) is equivalent to the New Testament doctrine of justification, the issue is not over what was said in the sixteenth century but whether Protestants and Catholics believe that this is what is still binding on the churches today.
That is surely not to say that research, debate, and dialogue on the historical understanding of particular issues in the Reformation are useless. After all, as Alister McGrath has clearly demonstrated in chapter 9, on a number of issues it may be argued that both sides exaggerated the views of their opponents in the heat of polemical warfare. Hyperbole must be distinguished from reality. Nevertheless, there are certain areas where the divisions are clear, and this, unfortunately, is where they come to a head: the Council of Trent. Here there is no ambiguity. That is why it is important to realize that the issue concerning us is not Rome's condemnation of Protestants. These, indeed, can easily be retracted or softened. But harsh words are not really at issue. The main concern is not, Does the church of Rome still condemn the Protestants? (After all, that was answered negatively at Vatican II.) The real issue is, Does the church of Rome still condemn the gospel? In other words, are those anathemas still binding on the faithful who are in communion with the Roman See? Therefore, I think Lohse missed the point, along with his ecumenical commission, and Ratzinger hit the mark. If Rome were to reverse the decisions of the Council of Trent, or even indicate an official openness to that possibility, the door would be wide open for meaningful ecumenical dialogue.
The problems, however, come into sharp focus on the Protestant side when theologians such as Pannenberg endorse this Protestant commission of Bishop Lohse when it declares that the reason such denunciations are no longer binding is that the doctrine of either side is no longer "determined by the error which the condemnation wished to avert." In other words, Roman Catholics no longer really stand where Trent stands and Protestants are realizing that they need to reevaluate New Testament teaching because of more recent studies that seem to have weakened or contradicted the Reformers' dogmatic judgments. Pannenberg applies this when he writes that "one would expect that the Protestant side be prepared at least in principle to admit certain difficulties in the form of the Reformation doctrine on justification as compared to the biblical witnesses." He adds further, "For example, the Pauline phrase about the love of God being poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5)" suggests difficulties with the Reformation formulation of justification.12 But it is not as if this passage suddenly appeared in the twentieth century; it is thoroughly exegeted by Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers in painstaking detail. They did not ignore it; they included it in the category of sanctification rather than justification. If Paul had said, "We are justified by the love of God being poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit," that would present difficulties, but the Reformers never denied or even downplayed the reality that both actions of God take place in a person's salvation: justification by a righteousness external to us, and sanctification by the Holy Spirit's transforming work within us.
Pannenberg's remarks point up the recurring problem with Protestant ecumenism, and that is the tendency to say that the Reformers got justification wrong. It is an understandable response if one is in a discussion with partners where a consensus is sought. In any resolution of conflict, should not both sides be willing to give up certain territory? And if Rome is kind enough to be open to taking a fresh look at Trent, should we not also be open to the possibility that the Reformers did not have it all right? Surely Protestants do not believe that the Reformers cannot be contradicted in principle (unlike the traditional Roman Catholic position on councils); nevertheless, are we actually prepared to say that the New Testament does not clearly teach justification by grace alone through faith alone? For those of us who still believe that the Reformers at least got this point correct, it is impossible to reach a consensus that falls short of endorsing it as the gospel.
One further note must be added to the discussion of Rome's official (and, therefore, binding) pronouncements. Prior to Vatican II, a devout Catholic and Protestant in America would happily work side by side but would not even dream of attending an event sponsored by the other person's church. But the Council radically changed the ethos of parish life for Catholics. The Mass was now conducted in English, the charismatic movement brought Catholics into closer proximity to evangelicals, and Bible studies were encouraged. Protestants began to exult that Rome was going through the Reformation after five centuries of rejection. Upon closer inspection, however, Vatican II appears to have sown the seeds of its own destruction, and that is attested to by many Catholic theologians who, after three decades, are wondering if the Council unleashed Protestant liberalism in the Catholic Church.
Vatican II not only did not contradict previous dogmas and decrees; it is itself even more seriously flawed at key points than Trent. The universalism of Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar found its way into the Council's official pronouncements. (See chapter 4 for more on this.) It is not an overstatement to say that whereas Trent avoided the Pelagian heresy, though condemning justification by faith alone, Vatican II embraced the naturalistic perspective.
By making peace with modernity, Rome embraced the Enlightenment, not the Reformation, and that means that conservative Catholics who are suspicious of the affects of Vatican II are actually closer to evangelicals than to their own theologians. Rome may appear to be moving closer to Protestantism, but those who are guided by the historic evangelical convictions must regard the change as negative rather than positive, especially for Roman Catholics, if liberal Protestantism is the partner.
It is often said that "time heals all wounds." It may indeed heal many, but one wound time can never heal is error. A wrong understanding of the way m which God justifies sinners in the sixteenth century is still a wrong understanding in the twentieth. This chapter — probably this entire volume will be regarded by some, both Roman Catholics and Protestants, who frequently attach to the word doctrine some negative adjective, as a rather anachronistic, if charming, naivete considering the ecumenical strides of the last half-century. How can we sweep away the achievements of the theological negotiators from Vatican II to ARCIC II? It is surely not because these great attempts have gone unnoticed or without sympathy from orthodox Protestant theologians; rather it is due to our conviction that the fundamental disagreement still centers on the teaching of the Council of Trent. However clever the attempts at "denying" that which is not allowed to be denied, genuine unity requires a common affirmation of a shared faith, and we simply cannot exclude from a shared faith our confidence in the very gospel that still stands officially condemned by Rome. Time has not changed either the truth of that gospel or the judgment of Rome.
But that does not mean, of course, that there is no spiritual unity between Roman Catholics and Protestants, provided both are not found to deny the gospel. There are many Roman Catholics who either do not understand enough of their church's position to deny justification or who embrace it in spite of the church's having gone on record against it. Either from ignorance, or from rebellion, there are many Roman Catholics who are surely numbered among Christ's flock and universal church. As orthodox evangelicals, we long and pray for the day when Rome repudiates her own repudiation of the gospel at Trent and related declarations so that we can once again be united in a visible demonstration to the world of the power of that gospel to not only liberate individuals and restore them to a right relationship with God but to establish peace and unity among the people of God. But if in that process of work, ministry, and prayer, we are found to have established our unity on some other foundation, on some other rock, it will be a unity built on sand, which, when the waves of God's judgment crash at the Son's appearing, will be washed out to sea.
NO PLACE FOR SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS
In conclusion, I would be remiss not to point out how inconsistent (perhaps even hypocritical) it is of evangelicals to criticize Roman Catholics while they themselves are ignorant of, or even reject, the very Evangel they claim to protect. Very often evangelical preachers and laypeople speak of being saved by "being born again," and this expression, much less the emphasis, conveys the same impression we find explicit in the Council of Trent: that justification (that is, being made right with God) is identical to the new birth and sanctification rather than specifically linked to faith in Christ and imputation.
Earlier, I mentioned the Pelagian heresy and the stand the Roman church took (with Augustine) against this destructive teaching. Denying original sin, Pelagianism argues that human nature is not corrupted by the Fall; we sin by following Adam's poor example but not because we have inherited a corrupt nature. Therefore, all the human race needs is just enough grace to get us going in the right direction so that we will follow the right example, Jesus Christ. In this way we can get back on track (that is, be "saved"). This heresy, repudiated regularly and consistently by the Roman church, is nevertheless embraced by such noteworthy evangelicals in this country as the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Finney and by a growing flank of evangelical thinkers in the twentieth. It is gaining a wider hearing in evangelical circles today, just as it had in the earlier part of this century, as the optimistic core of the modernist gospel.13
Though Rome may not maintain an official commitment to the gospel in its insistence on justification by grace alone through faith alone, surely, judging by history, it has been no less faithful than Protestants in the last two centuries in defending the doctrine of grace in general. Entire denominations that were committed confessionally to the doctrine of justification have ended up adopting, in actual practice, a Pelagian message. When evangelicals deny human depravity and inability, affirm that human beings cooperate in their own conversion by the use of their free will, and view salvation as a project of moral improvement (especially when that affirms a notion of entire sanctification), they are further afield from the gospel than Rome has ever been.
When it comes to the evangelical doctrine itself, where is the emphasis on the objective work of Christ outside of us, in history? It has taken a back seat, it seems, to spirituality, piety, morality, social and political crusades, inner healing, and psychologized inwardness. No longer are we saved from sin by grace; we are now healed from neuroses by therapy. No longer is condemnation by God for our sins our greatest fear but condemnation by ourselves for our negative self-image. No medieval theologian or mystic could improve on the inwardness of evangelical spirituality in our day. The interior experiences of the Christ within are heralded, while the objective, external work of Christ on the cross, dying for our sins and being raised for our justification, is largely ignored.
My own experience has led me to conclude that most of our people cannot even define justification. In fact, 84 percent of the evangelicals surveyed said that in the matter of salvation, "God helps those who help themselves," and well over half even thought it was a biblical quotation. Seventy-seven percent of "evangelical" Christians believe that human beings are basically good.14 This means that 77 percent of evangelicals are Pelagian, well beyond the ranks even of traditional Roman Catholic understanding.
These things must be said because I am convinced that we need a second Reformation, but it will not be a reformation in which insults and caricatures will be hurled from Protestants who wonder why Catholics still have not gotten the message; it will be just as heated a debate within Protestantism because of unprecedented unfaithfulness to the Word of God. Who can deny that Protestants have led the way in the twentieth century away from a high view of Scripture and God's grace in Christ? Which branch of the church has done more to lower the doctrine of Christ to a mere moral example? Which church has gone so far as to deny original sin and affirm the goodness of human nature? Which tradition has done so much to deny not only the sufficiency, but even the reliability of the Word of God? In short, which branch of Christendom has so carelessly capitulated to the spirit of the age?
For these reasons and more, many conservative Protestants correctly perceive in Rome a degree of faithfulness—at least in its official declarations. (One must beware of the degree to which Roman Catholic theologians are now carriers of the modern Protestant virus, as Robert Strimple points out in chapter 4.) The temptation is to abandon an uncertain, confused Protestantism—and even an evangelicalism that is, in James Hunter's words, "a tradition in disarray"—in order to be part of something that, though it may not have it all right, looks better on a scale of 1-10. I know these temptations and have experienced them myself. Nevertheless, here is where we must constantly remind ourselves of the difference: In Protestantism, an unreformed church—regardless of how unfaithful—may, in principle, be reformed. The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, will never repudiate its own condemnation of the Evangel until it repudiates the infallibility of the Council of Trent and the popes who have endorsed it. This is the issue upon which authentic ecumenical dialogue must turn. I do not suggest that we should give up trying to seek visible unity, nor that we refuse to dialogue with Roman Catholic laypeople and theologians, many of whom may be our brothers and sisters.
To conclude by returning to the opening query, "What still keeps us apart?" my own reply at the end of a century of Protestant "truth decay" (as Os Guinness has expressed it) is, "Nothing." Absolutely nothing keeps evangelicals and Catholics apart if evangelicals abandon the distinctive convictions that have made the past divisions so painfully necessary. We need to seek a reformation of both of our traditions.
That will require, on the part of Protestants, a return to Scripture and its Evangel and, for Rome, a repudiation of its anathema on the gospel. Though we may not agree with the total package, mark well the words of the Roman Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz:
Is this beyond the sovereignty of God's Spirit to accomplish? With Christ, in His reply to the disciples, we prayerfully answer, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).
"What Still Keeps Us Apart" is chapter 11 from the book, Roman Catholicism - Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us, Dr. John Armstrong, General Editor, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), pp. 245-66. Permission has been granted for its use on The Highway.
Michael S. Horton received his B.A., Biola, University; M.A.R., Westminster Theological Seminary and D.Phil., from Oxford University. He is founder and president of Christians United for Reformation (CURE). He is also the editor of The Agony of Deceit and Power Religion and the author of Mission Accomplished, Made in America, Putting Amazing Back into Grace, and Beyond Culture Wars. His web site "Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals" (ACE), is surely one of the more popular sites on the Internet for thinking Christians and boasts many fine articles on various topics of interest.
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