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Which Church Would the Reformers Join Today? Avoiding a False Choice

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It doesn’t really matter in the final analysis whether Luther and Calvin would find the average evangelical church in America today more or less congenial than Rome. Yet it does suggest an interesting point of departure as we think about the reasons why some find the latter attractive.

Many of us were raised to believe that we had all the answers (whatever they were) and that Roman Catholicism believes in Mary and the pope rather than Jesus and the Bible, in salvation by works rather than grace. And yet, as the surveys demonstrate, we didn’t really know what we believed or why we believed it—beyond a few slogans. If one asked the question in the correct form, we could possibly give the right answer on the big ones at least. However, a rising generation now is indistinguishable in its beliefs from Mormons, Unitarians, or those who check the “spiritual but not religious” box. “Moralistic-Therapeutic-Deism” is the working theology of most Americans, including evangelicals, we’re told. So when it comes to authority and salvation—the two issues at the heart of the Reformation’s concern, Protestantism today (mainline and evangelical) seems increasingly remote from anything that the Reformers would have recognized as catholic and evangelical faith and practice.

In my “cage phase” (when emerging Reformed zealots should be quarantined for a while), I read from a sixteenth-century confession the section on grace and justification. The audience was a rather large group of fellow students at a Christian college. “Do you think we could sign this statement today?”, I asked. Several replied, “No: it’s too Calvinistic.” That was interesting, because I was quoting the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, which anathematized the Reformation’s teaching that justification was by Christ’s merits alone, imputed to sinners through faith alone. I didn’t quote the whole section, but only the part that affirmed that we are saved by grace and that our cooperation in the process of salvation—even our will to believe—requires God’s grace.

You have to dig beneath the sweeping slogans and generalizations; its precisely in the details—where many eyes glaze over—that the massive differences between Rome and the Reformation appear.

Pelagianism—the view that we are saved by our own choice and effort, apart from grace, was condemned by several ancient church councils and bishops of Rome. Even Semi-Pelagianism—the view that we make the first move by free will and then grace assists us—was also condemned. (The Second Council of Orange in 529 even anathematized those who say that we’re born again by saying a prayer, when it is even God’s grace that gives us the will to pray for Christ’s mercy.) Yet the Latin Church always struggled with the Pelagian virus in varying degrees. Medieval leaders like Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine wrote treatises titled, “Against the New Pelagians.” Thomas Aquinas emphasized the priority of God’s grace in predestination and regeneration. Luther’s own mentor and head of the Augustinian Order in Germany, Johann von Staupitz, wrote “A Treatise on God’s Eternal Election” in which he expressed concern that free will and works-righteousness had begun to undermine faith in God’s grace in Christ. By the time of the Reformation, popular piety was corrupted by countless innovations and superstitions. Luther was first aroused to arms by the arrival of a preacher with papal authority to dispense indulgences (time off in purgatory) for money that would help built St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Reformation couldn’t be dismissed precisely because it resonated with so many who knew that Rome had drifted far from its ancient moorings into myriad corruptions. Awakened by the new biblical scholarship, many of Europe’s leading Renaissance humanists became convinced that the Reformers were correct in their interpretation and application of Scripture to the church’s condition.

The Council of Trent, which anathematized the Reformation’s convictions, affirmed the importance of grace going before all of our willing and running. Nevertheless, it condemned the view that, once regenerated by grace alone in baptism (our first justification), we cannot merit an increase of justification and final justification by our works. Trent said in no uncertain terms that Christ’s merits are not sufficient for salvation. Everything turned on different understandings of grace (God’s medicine infused to help us cooperate vs. God’s favor toward us in Christ) and therefore justification (a process of inner renewal vs. a declaration based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone).

As Hodge and Warfield pointed out, the explicit convictions of the famous evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, Charles G. Finney, were much further down the Pelagian road than Rome. Finney not only denied justification through faith alone in Christ’s merits alone. He based this on a rejection of original sin, the substitutionary atonement, and the supernatural character of the new birth. Consequently, his “new measures”—methods whose only criterion was whether they were “fit to convert sinners with”—replaced the divinely ordained means of grace and his “protracted meetings” (revivals) radically altered the shape of most Protestant services and ministries in America. As Arminian theologian Roger Olson has pointed out, much of evangelical preaching today isn’t really Arminian but is closer to Pelagianism.

So you have a distinctly Protestant kind of hazy moralism (works-righteousness) and an equally hazy notion that somehow Rome believes we’re saved by works rather than grace. It can be a fatal combination, especially when people realize that Rome does in fact believe in original sin and the necessity of grace—more in fact than many who call themselves evangelicals.

Now we see many evangelicals being attracted to the Reformation’s emphases, discovering a tradition that is both catholic and evangelical without many of the trappings of evangelicalism. As their encounter with the Reformation widens beyond election and justification, they bump into views that sound at first “too Catholic.” Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) doesn’t mean that creeds and confessions and the decisions of church councils and assemblies don’t have any authority. Although Scripture alone has magisterial authority, these faithful summaries of Scripture nevertheless have a ministerial authority. Sola gratia (by grace alone) is not set over against the regular ministry of preaching and the sacraments; rather, these are the means of grace through which the Spirit delivers Christ with all of his benefits. It’s not Roman Catholic, to be sure, but to many evangelical brothers and sisters, it sounds “too Catholic.” Reformed and Lutheran churches include the children of believers in baptism. Liturgy, orders and offices, discipline and the accountability of local churches to each other in wider assemblies. These characteristics of Reformed ecclesiology also strike many evangelicals, again, as “too Catholic.”

And that makes some sense. After all, despite its critique of the magisterial authority assigned to the pope officially at the Council of Trent, the Reformation differs at least as much from the freelance ministry of “anointed” preachers who act like popes, only without any accountability to the magisterium.

Churches of the Reformation not only challenged the hierarchical government of the Roman Church but the sects who followed their own self-appointed prophets. Yes, said the Reformers, individual members and ministers are accountable to the church in its local and broader assemblies. God doesn’t speak directly to individuals (including preachers) today, but through his Word as it is interpreted by the wider body of pastors and elders in solemn assemblies. Tragically, evangelical hierarchies today are more prone to authoritarian abuses and personal idiosyncrasies than one finds in Rome.

Reformation Churches and Rome

Dislodged from confidence in Pastor Bob and the givens of the evangelical subculture, they realize that the Reformation was, well, a reformation and not a revolution or “do-over.” Luther was not the founder of a new church, but an evangelical-catholic reformer. As expressed in the title of one of the great works of Elizabethan Puritanism—William Perkins’s The Reformed Catholic, there is a deep continuity with the undivided church.

On the Roman Catholic TV network (EWTN) recently, Fr. Pacwa interviewed a professor who had graduated from Wheaton and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Becoming more interested in the Reformation, the professor pursued a PhD at the University of Iowa focusing on the theology of Calvin. The title of this segment was “How Calvin Made Me a Catholic.” The Reformers were eager to show their connection to the pre-Reformation church. They did not believe that the church had basically gone underground—much less extinct—between Paul and Luther. Rather, they argued that a gradual decay had been accelerated by recent emphases and innovations that needed to be corrected. Calvin is recognized by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike as a scholar of the early fathers and his Institutes and commentaries are replete with citations from writers of the East and West. The great theologians of Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy engaged the ancient and medieval theologians as their own, yet always subject to critique as well as approval on the basis of their interpretation of Scripture according to a shared confession.

So I can understand why some evangelicals find the Reformation “too Catholic” or, weary of Protestantism in any form, look back to their “Reformation episode” as a gateway drug to the mysteries of Rome. For a long time now, American Protestants have defined their faith and practice in reaction against Rome. Now, a growing number are defining their faith and practice in reaction against evangelicalism. “If the Reformers were alive today, they’d be Roman Catholic before they would join an evangelical sect.” I’ve heard that sentiment on more than one occasion.

However, the men and women who risked their lives in the sixteenth century to defend the sufficiency of Scripture and the sufficiency of Christ would refuse the false choice between a chaotic Protestantism and a Roman Catholicism that still maintains the theology of Trent. (See, for example, the most recent Catholic Catechism.) It would be perverse to imagine that Luther or Calvin would find Rome more acceptable today than it was in their day. Even in the much-publicized “Joint Declaration on Justification,” it was the mainline Lutherans who surrendered their confessional convictions; Rome did not change any of its official positions. In any case, the Vatican has made it clear that this consultation in no way has any magisterial weight.

If anything, Rome is a more confusing place today. The magisterium tolerates views that contradict its official teachings—even on points that we share in the ecumenical consensus. In Rome today there are as many competing schools, sects, and the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal, as in Protestantism. The only difference is the one doctrine that really matters to Rome: implicit faith in and obedience to the authority of the pope. And make no mistake about it: Anyone who does convert out of a desire to surrender responsibility for interpreting Scripture in exchange for the infallible certainty of an earthly teacher is making a very “Protestant” move. At least that first leap is a personal judgment and interpretation of Scripture, every bit as individual as Luther’s “Here I stand.” The decision to embrace any confession or ecclesiastical body is a personal commitment that involves (at best) one’s own discernment of the plain teaching of Scripture.

Is the growing interest in Reformation theology among younger evangelicals going to mean that, for some, Geneva, Wittenberg, and Canterbury will be a rest stop before moving on to Rome or Antioch? I suspect that there will be this kind of trend of some sort in the future. We dare not treat those struggling with these issues among us as “necessary casualties,” a minimal loss compared to net gains. Pastoral love, wisdom, and patience will be more valuable than gold. There are real questions here—existential, exegetical, theological, and practical, with real lives being affected. It’s not a time for us to grand-stand or to shoot from the hip with speculations about peoples’ motives or character, but for trying to make a persuasive case and leaving the results to the Spirit of truth. In my next post I’ll explore the issue of authority, which is a major issue for those wrestling with these questions.
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