With the advent of the Vatican II Council, there has been a greater focus on scriptural authority in the RCC. I have witnessed that first hand in some recent viewings of Catholic masses on EWTN. I actually was impressed with the amount of scripture being read and taught and found little that I disagreed with in the messages. Yet, I wonder how many Protestants would even receive messages delivered by a Catholic priest, let alone watch a Catholic channel. I can’t help but believe that would only perpetuate ignorance and disharmony.

I have been engaging the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church for a number of decades now. It would be easy to become “accustomed” to the errors of the Roman system, but thankfully, I have not succumbed to that temptation. I remain as deeply moved by the blasphemy against the finished and perfect work of Jesus on calvary that is the heart of the Roman Mass as I was when I first came to understand Rome’s teaching on the subject. My heart is still broken at the spiritual carnage Rome produces in the lives of millions, enslaving them to a system that has no finished sacrifice, no assurance, simply no gospel that brings peace. Despite the constant pressures to join in the ecumenical love-fest that is so popular in Western culture, I remain thoroughly convinced that as long as Galatians and Romans remain in the canon of Scripture, Rome will remain an opponent to biblical truth, and those who follow her teachings will need to hear the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ.

But I am no longer in the majority when it comes to that broad, broad field called evangelicalism, and the comments made by Lisa Robinson on the Parchment and Pen blog on August 8th, 2010, illustrate this clearly. Since Frank Beckwith picked up on this entry (I had expected him to when I saw it myself), I believe it prudent and necessary to comment upon it. It seems Mrs. Robinson views the issues that separate “Catholics and Protestants” very differently than I do, and hopefully this review will explain why I believe her position is not only one of compromise, it is tremendously dangerous, not only for her, but for her readers as well.

I, too, have observed some programs on EWTN. But when I see a man who calls himself a priest standing before a congregation, I know well what is going on. I know this is the central act of “worship” in the Roman system, and I know exactly what this religious ceremony means when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This man, ordained as an “alter Christus,” another Christ, believes himself to be sacramentally empowered to bring Jesus Christ down from heaven, body, soul, and divinity, and render Him present upon the altar of the Roman Church, so that this becomes the “eucharistic sacrifice.” In the offensive words of John O’Brien,

When the priest announces the tremendous words of consecration, he reaches up into the heavens, brings Christ down from His throne, and places Him upon our altar to be offered up again as the Victim for the sins of man. It is a power greater than that of saints and angels, greater than that of Seraphim and Cherubim.
Indeed it is greater even than the power of the Virgin Mary. While the Blessed Virgin was the human agency by which Christ became incarnate a single time, the priest brings Christ down from heaven, and renders Him present on our altar as the eternal Victim for the sins of man—not once but a thousand times! The priest speaks and lo! Christ, the eternal and omnipotent God, bows his head in humble obedience to the priest’s command.
Of what sublime dignity is the office of the Christian priest who is thus privileged to act as the ambassador and the vice-gerent of Christ on earth! He continues the essential ministry of Christ: he teaches the faithful with the authority of Christ, he pardons the penitent sinner with the power of Christ, he offers up again the same sacrifice of adoration and atonement which Christ offered on Calvary. No wonder that the name which spiritual writers are especially fond of applying to the priest is that of alter Christus. For the priest is and should be another Christ. (O’Brien, The Faith of Millions, 255-256)

Does it make it any less blasphemous and untrue that Roman Catholics quote scriptures in an attempt to substantiate such teaching? I do not believe so—in fact, it only makes it more offensive that men are willing to twist God’s Word in defense of such things. So why does Mrs. Robinson find it somehow encouraging that Rome reads more Scripture in the process of offering an impotent and soul-destroying “sacrifice” that perfects none of those for whom it is offered? It is hard to understand.

Mrs. Robinson refers to “ignorance and disharmony.” There is a tremendous amount of ignorance about Roman Catholicism amongst evangelicals, that is for sure. There is just as much ignorance, however, amongst Roman Catholics about evangelicalism, and especially about Reformed theology. But what is worse, many Roman Catholic leaders help to promulgate this ignorance, and in fact, foster it. Just listen to Catholic Answers Live sometime to get a taste of the pop-apologetics approach to these issues, and the ignorance and misrepresentation of “the other side” that is epidemic in those quarters. There are many who are “anti-Catholic” out of pure ignorance, just as there are many who are anti-Protestant out of the same pure ignorance. It’s a two way street.

But may I suggest that ignorance is not the reason for “disharmony”? The more I came to learn of Rome’s dogmatic teachings, the more I desired not the slightest bit of “harmony” with her and her teachings. Rome has a false gospel. Rome has created disharmony through her arrogant ascription to herself of the title of “infallible.” Rome refuses correction on the basis of Scripture, and has promulgated as dogma teachings that are utterly unknown to the Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, the true believer does not want harmony with such an organization. Why would we?

Lately, I have been engaged in a variety of discussions in which both Roman Catholics and Protestants have been involved and I have noticed something very interesting. Protestants are very quick to reject what Catholics contribute, even on topics that are not related to Catholicism. In fact, I have observed a projection on the Catholic regarding their doctrine when their doctrine had nothing to do with the discussion. It is as if the Protestant is telling the Catholic they have nothing meaningful to contribute simply because of the doctrinal positions that they hold.

I wonder if Mrs. Robinson has seen the same in reverse? I certainly have. And I will gladly admit: when a person holds a false gospel, I cannot pass over this reality without allowing it to impact my “hearing” of what they have to say in other areas. But why should I? Surely a Mormon, for example, can tell you truthful things about, say, hydraulic engineering (I have known a very bright LDS hydraulic engineer personally). But the fact remains the man has embraced a heretical, unsaying, soul-destroying teaching concerning God and salvation, and as such, remains in spiritual darkness. Hence, when speaking of spiritual things, even in areas where we would have a surface level agreement (say, in opposing homosexuality and the destruction of marriage) the fact is that on a deeper and even more important level, we are light-years apart from one another. The same is true of the Roman Catholic. Our interests and views may intersect in many ways, but this does not change the reality of the fact that at the heart of our faith is a fundamental contradiction, a different gospel.

It is not lost on me why this happens since at one time, I too would be very quick to dismiss Catholics and Roman Catholicism, wholesale. The primary reason I believe is because Protestants have embraced a model of Christianity that leaves no room for practices ascribed by Catholicism. In fact, I think if you were to ask the average evangelical Protestant about Catholic faith and practice, you might get these kinds of responses

they promote a works-based system of merit
they have elevated the Pope to same status of Christ and scripture
they engage in practices that are contradictory to scripture, such as prayer to others rather than God

One must dismiss Roman Catholicism out of a heart-felt, study-based conclusion that Rome is the enemy of the Gospel. I would never suggest anyone dismiss Rome “out of hand.” It is the serious examination of Rome’s claims that leads the honest-hearted person to reject them, not “out of hand” but “out of biblical and historical necessity.”

As to “practices ascribed by (to?) Catholicism,” this may refer to the regular human reaction to that which is strange, that which is “other.” And surely this is a shallow basis for rejection of anything. But the Reformers, for example, did not reject Rome’s authority and standing as the infallible representative of Christ on earth out of a mere unfamiliarity with her practices: in fact, the Reformers were quite at home with those practices, as they came out of her midst. And the issues they raised remain the central issues to this day.

Rome does, in fact, promote a “works-based system of merit,” once you strip away the pretense of Rome’s use of the word “grace.” The problem is, many evangelicals are inconsistent on their use of the term, and their understanding of its centrality, and have embraced a synergistic, man-centered concept of grace that places them far more in Rome’s camp than in Geneva’s, and as such, are unable to dig past the shallow-level defenses Rome offers of its sacramentalism. Once again the solas of the Reformation show their necessity, for while Rome insists upon the necessity of grace (over against Pelagius) her sacramental system surely, and without question, denies the sufficiency of grace to bring about salvation solely on the basis of God’s initiative and decree. This was the dividing line at the Reformation, it remains so today, though the line has moved deep into “Protestant territory.” Sola gratia is mocked when that grace is controlled by the autonomous will of man, and rendered ineffective by that will. Sola gratia is only true when the aforementioned gratia is divine, powerful grace, based upon a sovereign Triune God’s purpose to glorify Himself.

The elevation of the bishop of Rome to the Vicar of Christ is, of course, central to Rome’s authority claims, and central to any meaningful rejection of Romanism as a valid expression of the Christian faith. While the Roman Catholic will deny the exaltation of the bishop of Rome is in any way comparable to the exaltation of Christ, still, the Pope’s unquestionable authority in defining the very essence of the gospel strikes at not only the sufficiency of Scripture (Rome’s constant attack upon sola scriptura is easily documentable) but at the validity of Christ’s promise to build His, not the Pope’s, church. Consider how these concepts are related by pondering the words of Gerry Matatics in our debate on Long Island in 1996, where he claimed that we have the exact same warrant for believing in the Bodily Assumption of Mary as we have for believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. See how these topics are inter-related, inter-connected?

Yes, Rome’s practice of directing prayer to Mary, saints, and angels, is directly anti-biblical, as we have said in the face of Rome’s best attempts at defense in debate with men like Patrick Madrid Part 1 and Part 2.

These were my responses at one time that demonstrated an ignorance of Catholic doctrine and its historical development. Taken at face value, it does seem that Catholic doctrine flies in the face of what we Protestants hold dear with respect to Soteriology and Ecclesiology. This includes

Salvation is through grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone.
Jesus Christ is our advocate and prayer is conducted to God through him; we don’t believe in praying to Mary or to others
Jesus Christ and Scripture is the final authority for faith and practice, not the Pope.

However, I have come to realize that what appears to be contradictory practices of Roman Catholicism must be examined in context of the historical development of the Catholic church and how their doctrine is sourced in a rich tradition of early church practice. It is only through this understanding, that I believe Protestants can be more accepting and understanding of Catholic doctrine and practice. Absent that understanding, we will always measure the practices of Catholicism against our own and deem them unorthodox at best and heretical, at worst.

What element of “historical development” excuses Rome’s errors on these fundamental issues, I wonder? Surely there has been development: no one at Nicea believed what modern Roman Catholics believe dogmatically, to be sure (which exposes the fundamental dishonesty of the constantly repeated claim that Roman beliefs represent the “2000 year old church”), but how does this provide a defense for the fundamental alteration of, and addition to, and contradiction of, apostolic teaching as recorded in Scripture?

These are the words of the ecumenist on the road to the Milvian Bridge, to be sure. The necessary inconsistencies of Rome’s fictional world of history are already present in Mrs. Robinson’s words. When did “historical development” become a norm for Christians? This “rich tradition of early church practice” to which she refers: who gets to define what is, and what is not, “tradition” in the writings and practices of the early Christians? Given that, for example, the most recently defined Roman dogma (the Bodily Assumption of Mary) is utterly absent from that very early church, does Mrs. Robinson see the inconsistency of Rome’s claim? Is she aware of the fundamental problems in Rome’s papal claims, illustrated over and over again by that very same cache of documents representing the writings of the early church?

Why should Protestants want, or desire, to be “more accepting and understanding of Catholic doctrine and practice”? From whence comes this desire? I wonder, should Roman Catholics be asked to be more “accepting and understanding of Protestant doctrine and practice” as well? Can the infallible “Mother of all churches” adopt such an attitude? Could Rome say, “You know what, upon further reflection, we blew it on the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption. We rescind these dogmatic definitions”? Wouldn’t that show a reciprocal desire for “acceptance and understanding”?

It is important to recognize that the first few centuries of the Christian church experienced a universality of doctrine and church practice.

With all due respect to Mrs. Robinson, this is a tremendously naive statement. Universality of doctrine and church practice? Really? I can think of one doctrine in which there was absolute unanimity: monotheism. At that point, you have to start identifying particular people as heretics, for if you include them as part of the “patristic witness” you end up with divergence of opinion. Yes, you can identify outlines, as in the “apostolic tradition” that God is the creator of all things, the cross of Christ, resurrection, etc. But you simply cannot spend much time at all with the patristic sources and talk about a “universality of doctrine and church practice,” and what is more, the outlines of orthodoxy in the earliest centuries exist wholly apart from any Roman predominance or definition. In fact, the very dogmas that define Romanism today are absent from those sources. For example, which bishop at the Council of Nicea believed the bishop of Rome was the infallible head of the church, the Vicar of Christ on earth, and that his dogmatic teachings are, in fact, infallible and irreformable? Which bishop there taught as a dogma of the Christian faith the concept of purgatory, supererogation, the treasury of merit, the perpetual virginity of Mary (the idea of developing, but it had not yet “arrived” at that status), the immaculate conception of Mary, the bodily assumption of Mary, the doctrine of transubstantiation (remember, the dogmatic definition requires the use of Aristotelian categories of accidence and substance utterly lacking in the worldview of the vast majority of the early writers)—all teachings defined as dogma by Rome today? So, if there was a core of orthodox teaching (and there was), why did it not include the very doctrines that set Rome apart today? Doesn’t this demonstrate that Rome’s claims to infallibility constitute a schism from the primitive church, not a mere “development”?

From the doctrinal perspective, there was a unified front on what was deemed authentic Christianity appropriate to the revelation of God and the apostolic witness of Christ. It is why in the early church writings, the word ‘catholic’, which means universal, was commonly used as a reference to one church. In protection of the one church, ecumenical councils were formed to combat false or distorted teaching that were attempting to infiltrate and distort the apostolic message.

This is again a bit of a naive view of the origination and purposes of the early councils. While important issues were, in fact, addressed, an honest examination of the impetus for the calling of many of these councils reveals the universal existence of that thing called “politics.” What is more, what does Mrs. Robinson do with the statements of these councils, outside of the creedal conclusions, that are clearly unbiblical or extra-biblical in their nature? Further, the conclusions of any of these councils must be tested by its faithfulness to the apostolic testimony of Scripture. When one examines, for example, the Second Nicene Council, the arguments used to derive the conclusions of the council are far removed from solid, meaningful biblical argumentation.

In the absence of a solidified canon, writings were circulated to provide instruction to the various assemblies that were emerging. Church practice was an evolution that centered around interpretation of the apostles teaching and the instructive letters. Overtime, these elements would be transformed into a solidified practice incorporated into doctrine of church and shape liturgical practices that are very much apart of the RCC.

In the absence of a solidified canon? As in the utterly solidified canon of the Bible of the early church, the Tanakh, the Old Testament? If Mrs. Robinson is referring to the canon only of the NT, then what are these “other” writings that were circulated to “provide instruction to the various assemblies”? Or is she making reference to the NT writings in this fashion? It is hard to tell, as the statement is ambiguous. But we are not told which “liturgical practices” that were ancient that are now a part of Roman practice, nor are we told whether the context of the ancient church has been maintained in the modern Roman view. But in any case, it seems Mrs. Robinson is already rife for a bad infection of Roman anachronism, that constant malady that infects all Roman Catholic apologists, where modern definitions and concepts are read back into the ancient church all the while ignoring the original contexts. It is no wonder this article “resonated” with Frank Beckwith!

The doctrine of the church is a key element in understanding Catholic theology and why liturgical practices are deemed an important element related to the justification and sanctification of the believer. Affirmed at the Council of Trent, the church is the conduit through which Christ manifests his presence and authority. It is not simply the invisible church comprising all believers in Christ, but the visible organization established by Christ and maintained through apostolic succession based on Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:18. The revelation of God, unveiled in Christ is not simply inscribed in writings of the apostolic witness (scripture) but is carried on through tradition established by the church. This is otherwise known as Sacred Tradition, which is just as valid as scripture, according to Catholic theology and it is the church who serves as the authoritative interpreter of both. It is not as though the overseers of the church would arbitrarily decide to incorporate elements into the church to bolster man-made practices, but to uphold an historic tradition that is reflected in the inception of church practices transmitted by the apostles themselves.

Does Mrs. Robinson actually believe these claims? It is hard to tell. She will later say, “While I do not agree with the authoritative status of the Pope as the succession of the apostolic witness, I do think there is something to be said for the preservation of historic Christianity and ecclesiastical unity that the papal office seeks to uphold.” But the Reformers and their followers for centuries have been pointing out, and documenting, the massive holes in the above cited presentation. Ever since my first encounter with a Roman Catholic apologist in formal, public debate in August of 1990 I have been seeking to demonstrate that the foundations of the Roman argument cannot stand scrutiny. The Roman hierarchy was not established by Christ; there was no monarchical episcopate in Rome until around 140 AD; a careful and fair exegesis of Matthew 16:18 refutes Rome’s use of the text; numerous examples exist in patristic literature of a rejection of Roman pretensions of absolute authority, etc. Even the use of the term “tradition” in this paragraph begs the question repeatedly. Anyone familiar with the wide, wide, and often inconsistent use of the term in modern Roman Catholic theology will recognize the problems with these claims.

But once again, if Mrs. Robinson takes these claims seriously, shouldn’t her argument be with Rome, not those who stand against Rome’s claims? If, as she will say later, she is attracted to the desire to maintain the apostolic tradition, why not recognize how often Rome has done the exact opposite? What is the only sure record of apostolic teaching in our possession? Scripture. Yet, Rome defines the very dogmas that separate her from all the rest of Christendom not on the basis of Scripture, but her own definition of tradition. She is the one creating schism from the apostolic tradition by asserting her own authority. Shouldn’t Mrs. Robinson’s love of ancient tradition cause her to be equally suspicious of, and opposed to, the innovations Rome has introduced based upon her own authority? Should we not expect an article in the near future decrying the addition of the Bodily Assumption of Mary to the gospel itself in light of the fact that there is no question, whatsoever, that such a belief is neither Scriptural, nor to be found in the beliefs of the patristic period?

Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, had this to say in an interview with Christianity Today regarding his conversion to Roman Catholicism

“Looking at tradition would also help evangelicals learn about Christian liturgical traditions, like Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, that many evangelicals reject because they say liturgy is unbiblical. When did these practices come to be? It turns out many of them came to be very early on in church history when people were close historically to the apostles themselves. There must be something to these practices that the early Christians thought were perfectly consistent with what they had received from the apostles.”

Tradition is a wonderfully nebulous term with an amazing array of definitions, depending on context and usage. Examining history does reveal all sorts of developments over time—and some of us believe that examination constantly drives us back to asking the question, “What does Scripture say?” Any student of church history will have a wider appreciation of the breadth of expression of true Christian faith. Any student of Scripture will have the proper boundaries to keep him or her from wandering out of the realm of revealed truth and into the mire of man’s traditions and concepts.

I will continue my examination of Mrs. Robinson’s article in Part Two.

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