January 14, 2007 Q & A

"Bashing" Roman Catholics?


Is there a specific reason as to why we seem to look down upon Roman Catholics more than other religions? They are Christians after all. A lot of my friends are Catholic and they seem like nice people. We even share many of the same beliefs. So why do we "bash" them?


Thank you for your question. There are several presuppositions in your question that need to be teased out as a part of my answer. You write, "we seem to look down upon Roman Catholics more than other religions." And there are other usages of we: "we even share many of the same beliefs". "So why do we 'bash' them?" Are all the usages of 'we' referring to the same group? Who is the "we": all Protestants, Presbyterians, the OPC, some in the OPC?

Do you mean by "look down" that we differ sharply with Roman Catholics and regard their doctrine as deficient? If so, we do, and we hold that position confessionally. In this regard, let me take the liberty to append a fairly lengthy review that I have written of Mark Noll's and Carol Nystrom's book, Is the Reformation Over? The short answer is "No, there was a reformation for a good reason and that reason continues": Rome fails to understand properly the depth of man's sin and need and thus the necessity for a wholly gracious salvation. Our differences are addressed in a number of places in the Bible and in the Westminster Standards. Please take a look at the OPC's confessional standrds (especially the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 25, for a proper definition of the church).

If by "look down" you mean deride, belittle, or mock, any who do such are wrong. Our Roman Catholic friends are in serious error and we deeply differ from them. I do not dispute that they may be quite nice and that some of them may truly trust Christ. But with regard to Roman Catholics being true Christians, those who are true Christians in that communion are such in spite of the serious errors about salvation taught in the Roman Catholic Church.

We should not "bash" the Roman Catholic Church but call her to repentance for her errors. I hope that you do not see the expression of sharp differences in and of itself as indicative of a lack of love. In truth, we as Protestants do understand the Christian faith rather differently from those in the Roman Catholic Church. We need to speak the truth to our Roman Catholic friends and do it in love.

Perhaps after you look over the review below and reflect on the Confession's teachings, you will have further questions. If so, I would be happy to answer them.

Book Review:

Mark H. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005. Pp. 272. ISBN 0-8010-2797-7 $24.99 (cloth).

Mark Noll is one of America's best church historians and has particularly distinguished himself as a student of Christianity in America. He has taught since 1978 at Wheaton College and was recently named to the chair in history that has been held by George Marsden at the University of Notre Dame. The other author of this volume, Carolyn Nystrom, has written scores of books, many of them for children, and has also co-authored several books with J. I. Packer.

It should be noted that Noll, for his part, has proven himself to be a sensitive interpreter of American church history, paying special attention to the political, social, and cultural aspects of church history and the ways in which the church in America has assumed a particularly American character. He has not always been, however, as attentive to the significance of theology itself in the life of the church. His less explicitly theological approach can be seen, for instance, in his America's God, especially as one considers that work over against a work like E. Brooks Holifield's Theology in America, which is heavily theological in its analysis of American religion.

What I mean by Noll's less explicitly theological approach is not that Noll lacks understanding of or fails to address theology altogether, but that he seems at times to accord greater weight to factors other than theology in his reading of American church history. The weight and emphasis that Noll gives to factors other than the theological one sometimes raises the broader question of the importance he places on theology and detailed theological battles in the life of the church. Not a few historians, for instance, view the theological battles of the fourth and fifth centuries, culminating in the four great ecumenical councils, more from a sociological point of view than a theological one. To be sure, the controversy between the Arians and Athanasius involved more than theology. Theology was at its very heart, however, and any historian who marginalizes theology in his treatment of the ecumenical councils misses the core of the controversy. We do not expect historians writing from a secularized, anti-supernatural perspective to accord much weight to theology, which, though it may be thought to reveal much about various things in the lives of those under consideration, is ultimately, for such secularists, much ado about nothing. This is not, of course, Noll's position, and for that reason we could wish that he accorded greater weight to matters theological in his historical analysis. That is particularly the case in the book now under review.

It is perhaps noteworthy that Noll and Nystrom carry out their project more as a historian and a journalist than as historical theologians. I make this observation inasmuch as the authors downplay the significance of the theological differences that have long existed between Roman Catholic and Protestants, and this proves to quite problematic. If the gospel is still at stake in the dispute between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, to emphasize other factors at the expense of the theological is to miss the heart of the dispute. As so many in our ecumenically-focused era, Noll and Nystrom seem to embrace a "mere Christianity" approach to matters theological and, since Rome and Protestants agree on so much in this regard, the authors apparently believe that for one to continue to insist that the theological differences between the two are very important is to succumb to obscurantism and a doctrinalism that is out of step with the modern Zeitgeist.

Noll and Nystrom begin their work by noting that "things are not the way they used to be" (17), specifically, relations between Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals are no longer as tense as they were, as recently as the election of John F. Kennedy. Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer reflected on this significant shift in attitudes in an interview at the time of the 2004 presidential election: "When John F. Kennedy made his famous speech that the Vatican would not tell him what to do, evangelicals and Southern Baptists breathed a sigh of relief. But today evangelicals and Southern Baptists are hoping that the Vatican will tell Catholic politicians what to do" (20). Why this sea-change? An increasingly secularized culture, as well as a more Protestant-friendly post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church (RCC), has prompted both sides to seek and recognize that they now enjoy much common ground.

Billy Graham is a good bell-weather of this change. In the 1940s through the mid-1960s, Graham permitted no involvement of Roman Catholic priests in his crusades. Nor did priests seek or want any involvement. Now the RCC is involved with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). Graham has moved from a more distinctly evangelical and fundamentalist approach to a broader "mere-Christianity" one and, in so doing, has found the RCC to be more congenial than he earlier believed. That this is the case highlights that whatever changes may have occurred in the RCC as a result of Vatican II and its aftermath—certainly we have witnessed after Vatican II a more ecumenical RCC, open to a host of external influences, including Protestantism and the world religions—seismic changes have occurred within Protestant evangelicalism, moving it away from its earlier non-negotiable doctrinal commitments to a stance more "open" to a host of belief-systems, including the RCC. The redefining of evangelicalism that we have witnessed in the last few decades is another book and not the one that Noll and Nystrom are writing here. The new coziness between Roman Catholics and evangelicals could never have occurred, however, without evangelicalism being transformed and the kind of reconfiguration that we see in the BGEA in the 1960s is a significant part, along with many other such changes, of the re-shaping of evangelicalism in its new ecumenical mold.

Why this rapprochement between Roman Catholics and evangelicals? It is not, it should be noted, because Rome has repudiated its anathemas against Protestantism and has embraced the solas of the Reformation. Rome continues, in its recent Catechism, and even in its concordat with the Lutheran World Federation, to insist that baptism bestows initial justification upon the subject baptized and that one enjoys final justification if—and only if—one is fully sanctified, which most would not experience in this life but in purgatory. All the sanctifying grace that one needs is bestowed ex opere operato by the sacerdotal agency of the church. Rome thus teaches that the church holds out salvation for those who persevere to the end, which perseverance is secured both by God's grace and also by the will and work of the believer, at least in some measure. For Rome, man is not totally depraved and grace is not irresistible, not to mention Rome's take on the other three points addressed by Dordt. Noll and Nystrom note at several points that while Calvinism may continue to have these sharper differences with Rome, the Reformed faith would also have such differences with Arminian evangelicalism. This is doubtless true, but only highlights the truly non-evangelical nature of any evangelicalism that is not Reformed. C. H. Spurgeon was right that soteriological Calvinism, as expressed in the five points, is but a nickname for the gospel. Older evangelicalism, and evangelicalism to this day in other parts of the world, is coterminous with being Reformed, or at least classically Protestant.

The reason for the rapprochement between Roman Catholics and evangelicals is the current of the times. In a world in which atheistic modernism, liberalism, and post-modernism reign, and which is also threatened by militant Islam, many Roman Catholics and evangelicals believe that they can no longer afford alienation. Even among Roman Catholics and evangelicals who have not changed much in recent years and retain many of their older theological convictions, considerations of these societal shifts prompt a closer alliance. So the combination of secularization and doctrinal downgrade—with many Roman Catholics and evangelicals increasingly knowing and caring little about doctrine—has created the coalition of Roman Catholics and evangelicals that we now witness. Francis Schaeffer had called for co-belligerency between Roman Catholics and evangelicals in matters pertaining to public policy on which each shared common ground as part of a broader Christian heritage; he did not envision, or desire, however, the kind of theological or ecclesiastical cooperation that we now commonly see and that Noll and Nystrom discuss in this book. In an era such as ours, whose chief desideratum is ecumenicity, perhaps at any price, evangelicals have embraced "mere Christianity" and have jumped on the bandwagon that liberals have been riding the whole century: thus evangelicals now seek closer ties with a Rome that has changed in tone (Vatican II) but remains fixed in anti-Protestant doctrine (Trent and Vatican I).

Noll and Nystrom proceed to contrast the "better days" that Roman Catholics and evangelicals now enjoy with the way things used to be. The authors trace the hostility between Protestants and the RCC to the historic roots with which we are all familiar (40 ff.) and then move forward. They examine that history, particularly in America, in which they survey eighteenth and nineteenth century antipathy between Roman Catholics and Protestants. They tend to treat American Protestantism, particularly with its being the majority view, as narrow, bigoted, and partisan, especially with respect to the minority Roman Catholic view. At Noll's and Nystrom's hands, Protestantism is depicted as suffering from a kind of religious prejudice against other faith traditions, which now, thankfully, at least in a measure, we have begun to overcome. Noll and Nystrom downplay the fact that before Vatican II, Rome not only dismissed Protestantism altogether, but spoke vigorously against a whole host of civil, economic, religious and other liberties that America in particular sought to embody and to which Protestants were generally committed. Pope Pius IX, for instance, condemned not only naturalism, and many other genuine ills, like rationalism, socialism, and communism, in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), but he also condemned Bible study and many other concomitants of Protestantism, including many of the elements of republican government. When Rome continued to support absolutism, both in the government of church and state, it is hardly surprising to find the RCC opposed in many places in the West, particularly in the United States.

In more recent times, the Pope has been quite positive about many features of American, as well as broader Western, democracy; but not in the nineteenth century, and, because of that, many Americans naturally viewed Rome as an "enemy." Noll and Nystrom tend, as noted above, to downplay (at least they do in chapter 2), the fact that the papacy was viewed warily because for so many years it opposed capitalism across the board, all sorts of freedoms (of press, of speech, of religious affiliation), and seemed almost unquestionably to support many of the worst features of the ancient regime. Noll and Nystrom do acknowledge in chapters 7-8 some of these factors as contributing to why Rome was seen as the great foe of liberty by Protestants in America. They also question, fairly enough, whether the divide on these issues was ever as great as all sides imagined and points out that subsequent events, particularly the secularization of American culture, has called even more sharply into question how divided Protestants and Roman Catholics really are, or should be.

That there was, on these shores, as well as in Protestant strongholds in Europe, much unwonted prejudice against the RCC, is hardly to be denied. It is the case that the majority religion often oppresses and even tyrannizes other religions that are in the minority. This happens today in some countries, especially in Latin America, where Rome is still in the ascendancy, and several people that I know from such countries have commented that these authors' sanguine view of a beneficent RCC is quite parochial: Noll's and Nystrom's sense that the RCC is tolerant and desirous of good relations with all churches is a North-American, but not necessarily a world-wide, experience.

If more recent events have taught us all that we enjoy greater common ground in the Western church than we previously recognized, at least with respect to matters social, cultural, and political, this does not mean that we should be unduly critical of our American Protestant forebears for failing to affirm such in their day, particularly before America was secularized as much as it is now and when the papacy openly appeared as a foe to the American experiment, which, rightly or wrongly, Protestants identified with their own cause.

Noll and Nystrom, in chapter 3, discuss why things changed, surveying changes within the RCC, world Christianity, American politics and society, and evangelicalism itself. They proceed in chapter 4 to discuss how all these changes have led, in the last few decades, to a series of ecumenical dialogues between the RCC and a wide range of other bodies (including world religions, which the authors downplay), addressing also the topics of discussion among them. This chapter provides an excellent thumbnail sketch of these discussions for anyone desiring a brief reprise. While they touch on the dialog with evangelicals in Chapter 4, they reserve their most complete discussion of the state of affairs between Roman Catholics and evangelicals for chapter 6, which is exclusively on "evangelicals and Catholics together" (ECT). They look at ECT I-IV, as well as a number of the leading figures involved in these agreements, all for the purpose of highlighting what Noll and Nystrom distinctly regard as ecumenical accomplishments.

In Chapter 5, Noll and Nystrom set forth the new Catholic Catechism that was published in English in 1994. While they certainly point out the classical differences between the RCC and the Protestants, they chiefly glory in the commonality of the two. Of course, the Western church has much in common, particularly in terms of the doctrines of God and of Christ. Both rejoice in Augustine and Anselm and all that they, along with Athanasius, Irenaeus, and others, gave the church. Noll and Nystrom also seem, curiously, to downplay the vibrant confessionalism that remains in many branches of the Protestant church and to overplay that the Catholic Catechism "is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church" (116). Noll and Nystrom present the Catholic Catechism as if there is nothing like it for completeness, and Protestant confessionalism comes off rather poorly in comparison to it, at least as far as its comprehensive and pastoral tone are concerned.

This leaves unanswered whether the document, particularly at the points in which it continues to differ from Protestantism, is biblically and theologically correct. The authors' encomium to the Catholic Catechism also leaves unanswered the question, which Noll and Nystrom as much admit, of how much latitude the magisterium allows in its enforcement of doctrinal purity, especially given the length of the Catechism. Better to have a shorter confession/catechism to which the church closely adheres, and to which she holds her office-bearers, than to have such a large, unwieldy document (the Catholic Catechism is 756 pages) that is quite loosely enforced. Better yet to have secondary standards that are truly secondary to the Word and that faithfully, accurately, and concisely set forth what the Word teaches. What Noll and Nystrom miss here, as elsewhere—or else simply refuse to acknowledge—is that what has always been at issue between the RCC and Protestants are not those places on which we agree but rather those points on which we differ. Faithful Protestant evangelicals regard justification by faith alone as crucial, a doctrine which continues to divide the RCC and evangelicals, and a teaching for which some of us are still willing to contend.

That some evangelicals still believe there are issues worth fighting for is part of Noll's and Nystrom's focus in Chapter 7, in which they gauge Protestant reaction to the more recent interactions with Rome and see them as ranging along a spectrum of what they call antagonists on the one end to converts on the other, with critics and partners falling in between. This chapter, while showing that there are still those who glory in the Reformation and who have no intention of going "home to Rome," shows that there are altogether too many Protestants who are too cozy with Rome. So much so that some—like Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, Scott and Kimberly Hahn, and others—have converted and become Roman Catholic.

Finally, in the last chapter, Noll and Nystrom turn more specifically to their title question: "Is the Reformation Over?" As to the question of justification by faith (Noll and Nystrom conveniently ignore the formulary always employed by the Reformers: justification by faith alone), the authors conclude, "on the substance of what is actually taught about God's saving work in the world, if not always on the exact terminology used to describe that saving work, many evangelicals and Catholics believe close to the same thing." Noll and Nystrom flatly assert that the RCC and evangelicals believe "close to the same thing" when it comes to salvation. They had earlier described this newly minted agreement on salvation as reducible to two propositions: "(1) Salvation is an absolutely free gift from God. (2) There is no Christian salvation that is not manifest in good works." The first of these propositions is broadly Augustinian, ignoring the specifically Protestant conviction that justification is an act, not a process, in which God remits sin and imputes the righteousness of Christ, received by faith alone. Luther's "discovery" was that what God requires of us, but that we can never produce (perfect righteousness), God gives feely as a gift in justification. Justification "doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation" (WLC 77). The second proposition listed by Noll and Nystrom is affirmed by all except some varieties of antinomianism. Thus these two propositions do not, even when taken together, amount to agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith, as Noll and Nystrom claim that they do (232).

The first proposition, furthermore, does not address the question, "wherein do justification and sanctification differ?" which is the heart and genius of the Protestant Reformation. Insofar as this distinction is ignored, the heart of the matter remains unaddressed. Even apart from the failure of the first proposition to address the distinctiveness of justification, I do not concede that the RCC is purely Augustinian, which it must be to affirm the utter freeness of salvation, as does the first proposition. These sorts of "quibbles" notwithstanding, Noll and Nystrom see agreement on these two broad points as meaning, as they put it, that with regard to justification, as the article on which the church stands or falls, "the Reformation is over" (232). They never tell us how they get from the broad statement of proposition "salvation is an absolutely free gift from God" to the particulars of the Protestant doctrine of justification (and proposition two is not relevant to the specific question of justification by faith alone). But never mind. It's close enough for them and other partisans of "mere Christianity" and thus, on this score, "the Reformation is over."

Perhaps the Reformation is not quite over yet, however, Noll and Nystrom demur. After all, continuing disagreement does remain in what they term "questions of the church" (233). These remaining "questions," or areas of disagreement include, but are not necessarily limited to, the papacy and the magisterium, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the sacraments, and clerical celibacy. Even having said that, though, Noll and Nystrom then say, "In sum, the central difference that continues to separate evangelicals and Catholics is not Scripture, justification by faith, the pope, Mary, the sacraments, or clerical celibacy—though the central difference is reflected in differences on these matters—but the nature of the church" (237). The difference, then, all comes down to the ecclesial. Noll and Nystrom continue, "For Catholics, the visible, properly constituted, and hierarchically governed church is the principal God-ordained agent for the work of apostolic ministry. For evangelicals, the church is the body of Christ made up of all those who have responded to the apostolic proclamation of the God-given offer of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ" (237). While I would take issue with this latter "evangelical" definition of the church from a Reformed viewpoint, that Noll and Nystrom permit the whole of the Roman Catholic and Protestant dispute to be reduced to "the nature of the church" is a remarkable concession to Rome.

If, as for Noll and Nystrom, the real continuing divide between Rome and Protestantism is not soteriology but ecclesiology, then Rome triumphs. It is true that for Rome, ecclesiology swallows soteriology. For them, the doctrine of the church is all-encompassing. In the Roman schema, much ultimately comes under the rubric of "church" that we might place elsewhere in the loci of systematic theology. The Protestant Reformation had crucial insights, particularly with regard to anthropology, soteriology, and pneumatology, that qualified and shaped its ecclesiology. Rome, in the Counter-Reformation, insisted that the Roman church retain her primacy, both anathematizing Protestant doctrine and relegating its primary concerns subsidiary to the doctrine of the church. Rome said, in effect, "it's all about the church and submission to her." To say, then, as do Noll and Nystrom, that it's all about ecclesiology is, in an essential matter, to agree with Rome and to allow the whole discussion to be put on Rome's terms.

Protestants do not agree that it's all about ecclesiology but that it's all about theology as a whole—particularly about God in Christ bringing his people to salvation by the power of the Holy Spirit, all to God's glory—lived out in the context of the church. All, however, is not to be reduced thereby to ecclesiology; by doing so, Noll and Nystrom place the whole of the controversy between Rome and Protestantism on terms that allow Rome to prevail. If there is nothing more important than the external, organized, institutional church as the vehicle for our salvation, as Rome claims and teaches, then all that calls itself church but is not organized as a hierarchical world church, as is Rome, must give way to the Roman church, since their external organization manifestly trumps all others. But the claim of Protestantism has always been that what makes the church the church is the faithful proclamation of the truth, among other things, and lacking those marks of the true church, Rome may enjoy the institutional form of the church, but she does not enjoy, as an institution, the spiritual life of the church formed by the Word and other marks.

Noll and Nystrom then ask why these fundamental differences over the nature of the church exist (240). Their answer to this takes us back to our beginning observations of his failure to see the theological as important a factor as the historical or the sociological. They explicitly say that they see the factors still making for division between Protestant and Roman Catholic as historical and missiological, preferring to adopt those approaches to understanding the difference "rather than a strictly doctrinal approach to the questions of what Christianity is in its essence" (241). I agree that a host of cultural, linguistic, sociological, and other factors are vital to understanding the shape of Christianity through the centuries. But Christianity, in all of its forms or expressions, can never be reduced to this, as Noll and Nystrom seem to do in the concluding pages (240-251). On this view, there is Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism because of a whole host of differences between the Greek world and the Latin world. Those cultural and linguistic differences certainly contributed to the split of the church in 1054 but there were also real theological differences that had developed between the Augustinian West and the mystical East. All differences within the major historic branches of the church may not be reduced to such factors, exclusive of the question of right doctrine and which church believes it. Given Noll's and Nystrom's approach, which is not to see the essence of Christianity as necessarily doctrinal, we are left with historicism: Christianity is not, at its heart, about the truth that is universal in and for all times and places, but about culturally conditioned expressions of it. It is not surprising to read a historian who sounds like Hegel. It is disappointing to read Noll and Nystrom sounding like a German historicist.

The difference between Rome and Protestantism, however, is not, as Noll and Nystrom would have it, merely one of different Christian traditions serving as different languages (244). Rome has one way of salvation, as described above, and classic Protestantism another, as also described above. And they cannot both be right. Now it may be true that for contemporary evangelicalism these soteriological differences no longer make a difference. Ministers still meet with opposition from elders and parishioners if they criticise Roman Catholics and their theology. Many evangelicals seem quite ready on that score to say that the Reformation is over or perhaps should never have happened. Noll and Nystrom are too sophisticated to affirm the latter given all the kinds of historical conditions that brought it about and caused Rome ultimately to profit from it. They do not outright affirm the former either, though it seems clear that they wish that, even if the Reformation is not over, Roman Catholics and evangelicals particularly, would learn to make more and more common cause on every front. Such unity, however, may never be purchased at the price of purity. Rome remains besotted with a number of theological errors, not the least being her denial of justification by faith alone, which remains the article on which the church stands or falls. The vital need of the hour is not reunion with Rome but recovery of the clarity of the gospel as the Reformers preached it and as it is embodied in our confessions and catechisms. Evangelical fuzziness is not commendable but lamentable, and if we would do Rome the most good, we should seek to hold forth the pure gospel in all its power, undimmed by Rome's errors, which gospel is alone fitted for the eternal welfare of us all.



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