Convinced evangelical Christians need to think carefully and deeply of their relationship to Roman Catholicism. Within Protestant circles one frequently hears theologians and ministers expressing regret that the Reformation took place. Contemporary interest in the doctrine of the Church, ecumenics, and a growing abhorrence of the sin of schism—legitimate concerns—have led some thinkers in this direction. It is vital to the health of evangelical Christianity that the necessity for the Reformation of the sixteenth century be stated in no uncertain terms. Under the circumstances of corruption which then prevailed in the Western Church, the Reformation was necessary, and was, in fact, God’s gift for the restatement of the Gospel in its biblical form. Having affirmed this, it is proper to ask whether Romanism, against which the protest was then made, has so changed its direction that a continuing Protestantism is now unnecessary.
The factors which have created the present climate of thought are multiform. One of the more precipitate, of course, was Pope John’s encyclical, Ad Cathedram Petri. How appealing and how ecumenical was this call for unity and peace! And since that act of October 28, 1958, other pronouncements have been made in the same tenor. It is surprising how many fail to see, apparently, that Pope John’s call, acted upon, would funnel all of us down a one-way street to Rome—the same Rome with the same doctrines (with the addition of other extra-biblical ones) against which the great protest was made earlier.
Moreover, an admirable amount of choice scholarship is being produced, despite the fact that Roman Catholic scholars are required in their research to reach certain pre-stated conclusions (defined by the Biblical Commission set up by Leo XIII in 1902 and subsequently strengthened in a conservative direction by his successor, Pius X). This rightly has won appreciation from Protestant scholars in these areas. At the same time, in spite of the Protestant revival of biblical interest, the fruit of a sterile liberalism which ignored or obscured the biblical message is still evident in our own circles. It is easy for Protestants lacking deep theological concern to talk of union with Rome, for in the sphere of theology lies the chief divisive factor. The Reformation, while pregnant with social and economic overtones, was essentially doctrinal in nature. When theologians grow indifferent to theology, concern for reformation, historical or contemporary, goes by the board.
Is it not true, too, that in their eagerness to be “fair to all concerned” some have lost Reformation concerns? Many Protestants doubtless voted for a Roman Catholic candidate in the recent presidential election just to prove, at least to themselves, that they were “unbiased,” though they did not consider deeper implications. The attitude of “co-operation at any price” is easy to come by in a society marked by the organization-man, love of conformity, and fear of being different, and this attitude is easily carried over into the realm of the Church. Here the passion for “togetherness” leads many to conclude that the Reformation was a mistake which must now be corrected. This conclusion is further assisted by inadequate knowledge and understanding of early (pre-Reformation) church history. Contemporary Roman Catholic pamphlets, including some published by the Knights of Columbus to convince non-Roman Catholics of “the error of Protestantism,” date Protestantism from the early sixteenth century, while (Roman) Catholicism is cleverly portrayed as the true Church having an unbroken line from Jesus Christ to the present day. The Reformation as an historic event can indeed be dated, but the spirit of Protestantism which necessarily produced the Reformation can easily be shown to be biblical. God had prophets in every period of biblical history to protest the adulteration of truth. A Roman Catholic once taunted a keen Protestant Sunday school girl, “Where was your church before the time of King Henry VIII?” The child was not altogether incorrect with her reply, “Where your church never was, sir: in the Bible.”
Even so, as evangelicals we surely must strive to appreciate Rome. Not all about Rome is wrong and false. Ignoring additions to the biblical statements by the authority with which Rome has invested tradition, we can say to Rome’s praise that she has adhered to key doctrines of the Christian faith, at least in doctrinal statement. Some Roman Catholic works are, despite their bias, a delight to work with, and certainly one can agree more with some Roman Catholic works than some Protestant works. The ancient heresy of universalism, reasserting itself with growing strength within Protestant circles today, is denied right of entry among Romanists. In certain areas of “togetherness” Protestants and Roman Catholics are at work, often in spite of themselves. The fields of biblical criticism (particularly that of lower, or textual, criticism), liturgies, and art are examples.
THE GREAT GULF
We must sadly acknowledge that we can more easily appreciate Rome while sitting at a desk than when moving among her people. When the evangelical moves among the people of Rome he realizes how great is the gulf between his faith and theirs.
There is the matter of the biblical revelation. I love my Bible; I teach it and preach it as best I can; I endeavor to lead my people to love it, too, for I believe that this “sword of the Spirit” can be the powerful instrument in molding them after the image of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Roman Catholic church accepts tradition alongside the Bible. Now tradition is whatever the hierarchy defines it to be, since authoritative tradition must be selected from a profusion of traditions. By adding authorities, the true authority of the Bible is destroyed. Now one of the strengths of the evangelical is in a sense also a weakness: we are specialists in Reformation history and exceedingly deficient in other areas. To avoid being led astray into that which is extra- or contra-biblical (the dangers into which the Bible-plus-tradition approach leads), the evangelical must become better acquainted with the history of the post-apostolic Church prior to the Reformation. The study of patristics is almost an obligation we owe to the other communions in any attempt to understand them. But in doing this, the insistence upon the final authority of the Bible must be maintained. Generally speaking, Roman Catholic laymen are not actively encouraged to become students of the Bible.
This is perhaps the great reason why one just does not find Roman Catholics who have a radiant assurance of salvation. One of the precious gifts of God to the believer is the gift of the Holy Spirit who bears witness with our spirit that we are the sons of God. The Bible exalts Jesus Christ in his atoning death as the ground and hope of our salvation. Evangelical faith and assurance of salvation are corollaries. This is not to say there are no Roman Catholic Christians. In spite of the roadblocks of purgatory, Mariolatry, and other extra-biblical doctrinal accretions which stand in the way of the Roman church’s laity, we do not doubt that there are those who have a personal faith in Christ as their Saviour. But one must confront Rome with a broken heart here and pray that the blessings of personal salvation (with the blessed assurance which ought to accompany it, but does not always do so) may be visited upon many within her system.
It is frequently announced within fragmented Protestantism today that schism is a sin. This has almost become the shibboleth of parties whose chief end is church union regardless of doctrinal considerations. Schism is a sin. But it should not be forgotten what caused the great schism of the sixteenth century: the Reformation resulted from the Roman doctrinal emphasis. Schism is a sin—but whose sin? So long as the position of Rome on such vital matters as, for example, atonement, mediatorship, and authority, remains so extra- or contra-biblical, the sixteenth century schism must abide. Otherwise union becomes sin.
EVANGELICAL THOUGHT AND ACTION
What must the evangelical in the twentieth century think and do in relationship to Roman Catholicism?
First it is essential that we should love. Nearly always when my sermons must be critical of Roman Catholicism, I stress to my people that such criticism, even though valid, does not excuse us from loving Roman Catholics. The Saviour loved without distinction and so must we. It should not be necessary to point this out. But, sad to say, some Protestants seem to feel that they are the best Protestants when they most dislike “Catholics,” or serve Christ most effectively when they march in a Protestant parade. No one, be he Protestant or Roman Catholic, is going to be won to Jesus Christ by someone in whom he senses a spirit of distrust or dislike. But men respond to love, and multitudes can be loved to Christ who would remain forever unmoved by all other methods. Let us remember that we love Him because he first loved us.
Second, the evangelical must endeavor increasingly to appreciate the Bible. This is the great hedge against the creeping in of any teaching which is out of harmony with the Word of God. To this must be added the sure responsibility of evangelicals to acquaint themselves better with such neglected areas as the sub-apostolic Church and the Fathers. From the pre-Reformation period one can gain a helpful understanding of the Roman Catholic church. One learns how soon the purity of the early Church was stained, and is impressed again with the necessity of being rooted and grounded in the Scriptures as a guard against going astray. And if we do have a vital relationship to the biblical teachings, we shall hear less often that “Protestantism is negative.” The New Testament will give us a vigorous and positive evangelicalism.
Third, evangelicals need to recognize the need for constant restatement of doctrine. This is no confession that the basics of the faith change. But in the past there has been too great a readiness to “canonize” a system, and then to use the system as a touchstone for orthodoxy. Even orthodoxy must be relevantly restated. To take refuge in giants of the past is to surrender our minds instead of using them. In the last few years there has been a movement in the right direction in this regard which will increasingly win for evangelicals the respect and the ears of those whom we should want to win. A formula statement of the biblical faith may set forth its highlights, but is no easy answer to the theological issues confronting the Church today. These must be grappled with. Our honesty and intellectual virility here will appeal to and win at least some of the theologically inclined within the Roman Catholic church.
Finally, evangelicals must venture to evangelize Roman Catholics. This suggestion may seem to negate some present-day ecumenical thought. But read this:
We do, on the part of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and also by the authority of the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul, and by our own, excommunicate and curse all Hussites, Wicliffites, Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Huguenots, Anabaptists, Trinitarians, and Apostates from the faith of Christ, and all and sundry other heretics, by whatsoever name they may be reckoned, and of whatever sect they may be; and those who believe in them, and their receivers, abettors, and in general, all their defenders whatsoever; and those who without our authority and that of the Apostolic See knowingly read, or retain, or print, or in any way defend the books containing their heresy, or treating of religion.
This is a part of the bull In Coena Domini, which has been confirmed or enlarged by more than 20 popes and which was published in Rome every Holy Thursday or Easter Monday for centuries. It fell into disuse in the latter half of the eighteenth century, not through any abandonment of its intent or spirit but through a canny regard for the sensitivities of temporal powers. Evangelicals should realize that any union with the Roman church would have to be on Rome’s terms. The finest Christian answer to the curse pronounced upon us in In Coena Domini is evangelism, the prayerful attempt to confront Roman Catholics and the Roman Catholic church with the pure and biblical gospel of Jesus Christ which ministers true freedom and the assurance of salvation. We must evangelize Roman Catholics until we are convinced that the Roman Catholic church is preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in its biblical purity. The ecumenical Church must be the fruit of a Holy Spirit-guided evangelism, not the product of careless conjunction with a Roman Catholicism which has never evidenced godly sorrow for the sins against which the Reformation was a protest.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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