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A Reformed Farewell to Benedict XVI

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Taken from the highest ranks of the clergy, popes should be among the best living pastors, biblical scholars, and theologians. That this has often not been the case is obvious enough throughout history, as any well-informed Roman Catholic will concede. (More than a few instances of corruption and heresy may be found on the Protestant side as well.)

However, Benedict XVI has regularly been impressive on these counts. Living alongside Protestants in Germany, he often engages Reformation views with more sympathy and knowledge than most—especially more than many Protestants who convert to Rome and trade on caricatures of the evangelical faith based on the worst of evangelicalism.

One example of Pope Benedict's judicious engagement is the way he explains the context that helped to provoke the Reformation. Though he realizes that there was more to it, he refers to the Great Western Schism (1309-1417). Not many people know about this today, so it's worth considering.

Often called the "Babylonian Captivity of the Church," the Schism was provoked by the election of rival popes and the removal of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France. Before becoming pope, Benedict explained,

For nearly half a century, the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side. The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form--the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 196)

Throughout the Middle Ages there had been a running feud between popes and kings, leading to excommunication from the one and imprisonment by the other. However, the disruption of the papal succession provoked widespread anxiety within the church—and indeed, the whole of Christendom. Between 1305 and 1377, the pope was French and so were most of his cardinals. The schism was consummated when Pope Urban VI in Rome and Pope Clement VII in Avignon excommunicated each other—and therefore all of those under each other's respective sees. They continued this division by appointed their own successors.

Who would resolve this stand-off? Some leading theologians had argued for a while that church councils always had priority over the pope until fairly recently. The early ecumenical councils were a prime example.

However, in this case councils it became clear that councils, too, were fallible. The Council of Pisa (1409) elected a third pope to replace the two rivals. At the Council of Constance (1414-18), where the reformer Jan Hus was condemned to the flames, the two rival popes and the third pope were replaced now by a fourth, Martin V. It came at a cost to the papacy: the Council declared its sovereignty over the pope. Pope Martin, who could not attend, declared its position on this matter null. As a binding council, some Roman Catholic theologians today invoke its memory for a new conciliar movement.

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, leading theologians defended the authority of Scripture over councils and of councils over the pope, drawing on the example of the ancient church. Arguing that Scripture is above the whole church, William of Ockham (d. 1349) argued that the whole church (including laity) should hold a council to elect the pope and limit his authority. It is this whole church that is the communion of saints, not the Roman church. If a pope falls into heresy, a council can judge him without his approval. Marsilius of Padua agreed (Defensor Pacis, 1324): the church consists of all the faithful, not just priests. Christ is the only head of the church. More conservative reformists defended the principle of Scripture's magisterial authority and the priority of councils over the papacy. These included the leading Sorbonne theologian Jean Gerson, as well as Pierre d'Ailly, Francesco Zabarella, and Nicholas of Cusa.

The last gasp of the conciliar movement came at the Council of Basel (1431-49). Papalists formed Council of Florence, while conciliar party in Basel elected another pope. Martin called it but died before it met. Eugenius IV succeeded him and was prevented by health from presiding. He couldn't have done so in any case, as the fathers declared (on the basis of Constance) that the Council was superior to the pope. Eugenius made concession after concession until he finally submitted. His papal legates could only attend if they accepted this as well, though they were duplicitous afterwards.

Finally, on the eve of the Reformation, Pope Julius II reasserted papal primacy and packed the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) with cardinals who supported him. Thomas Cajetan, famous (among other things) as Luther's curial opponent, staunchly defended papal primacy. In condemning the Reformation, the Council of Trent also condemned positions that had been argued by theologians well within its pale for centuries.

With the First Vatican Council in the 1850s, papal infallibility became binding dogma—necessary for salvation. In spite of a few statements in Lumen Gentium exploited by more liberal theologians, Vatican II and the latest Catholic Catechism reaffirm that there is no full and perfect communion with Christ apart from obedience to the pope. Before becoming Benedict XVI, and since, Cardinal Ratzinger defended these views with great energy and skill. I have no doubt that he will continue to do so.

But this tale does clear our eyes from the foggy mists of sentimentalism. Is the Roman Catholic Church united by an unbroken succession from St. Peter? Roman Catholic theologians—and especially historians—know that an uncomplicated "yes" will not do. Are the church's decisions irreformable? Then what about the Council of Constance? Even the Council of Basel was a duly constituted synod. Whose conclusions are binding? At the very least, Rome has compromised its claim of an unbroken unity—not only between councils and popes, but within the papal line itself. It can invent theories of "anti-popes" to preserve its claim to valid succession. But even if one were to accept the idea in principle, history has already provided too much contrary evidence. Romantic glances across the Tiber are thwarted by the reality. At the end of the day, this story provides one more reminder that the church that is created by the Word and stands under that Word, with all of its besetting sins and errors, is still the safest place to be in a fallen world and imperfect church.

    Further Reading:
  • C. M. D. Crowder, Unity, Heresy, and Reform, 1378-1460: The Conciliar Response to the Great Schism (New York : St. Martin's Press, 1977).

  • Oakley, Francis. The Conciliarist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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  • Guest - Rooney

    Great Pope. Wonderful Pope.

    He de-hereticized Protestantism and said in some of his books that Evangelicalism saves, despite the lack of apostolic succession.
    If I sneaked into the Vatican in 2005 and became the Pope, I could hardly have done a better service for Protestantism.
    I bet Benedictus XVI would actually take on Ahmed Deedat in debate, unlike JP2 who declined to debate the Muslim.
    If I became the next Pope (which is actually not impossible, if I am cleaver enough), I would certainly seek to be more seeker friendly to Evangelicals and praise the reformation.

    Thank you, Pope Benedict XVI!!

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  • Guest - Lindert

    @Jane Gootherts

    "Did God establish a Church? Is He capable and interested sustaining His Church, Body of Christ, People of God (like the nation of Israel) in spite of us?"

    The answer is: most definitely, on both counts. As the Apostle's Creed says: "We believe in (...) the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints". This Church, i.e. the communion of the saints, is not a visible organisation, but consists of all faithful believers around the world, regardless of which denomination they belong to.

    In regards to the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today, that organisation has by its many heresies and dogmatic condemnations of the Gospel of Christ seperated itself from this holy catholic Church. Its priesthood is completely unbiblical: nowhere in the New Testament is there any hint of there being priests in the Christian Church apart from Jesus Christ the High-Priest, and the sacrifice of the Mass is a denial of Christ's true sacrifice, which was 'once for all' (Hebrews 10:14). That is not to say that no Roman Catholics exist who belong to the communion of the saints, but they are part of the holy catholic Church despite being Roman Catholics, not because of it.

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  • Hello Michael,

    I wrote a response to the last paragraph in your article, in comment #165 of my "Some Thoughts Concerning Michael Horton's Three Recent Articles" post.

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

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  • Guest - Paul Swift


    The charge of equivocation by a straw man is less than helpful. In reference to Horton's "the church that is created by the Word and stands under that Word" you argue:

    But here Horton equivocates by conflating the uncreated Word (i.e. the Logos), with the created words of Scripture and the spoken words of humans preaching from Scripture. The inscripturated words inspired by the Holy Spirit and preserved in Sacred Scripture are not the Uncreated Word, because the former’s existence is contingent upon God’s having chosen to create the world, whereas the Logos is not contingent at all.

    But your charge is baseless. An ample public record testifies against your assertion that Horton is conflating the various usages of "Word"; the most recent example I remember was in the January 13, 2013 White Horse Inn episode An Introduction to the Gospel of John:

    (19:21-20:12, in the context of a discussion of John 1:1)

    Rosenbladt: How does the New Testament use the word "Word"? And it's like a stone being thrown into a lake; concentric circles that work out. First of all, he's Jesus--John 1:1. But the New Testament also uses the word "word" to speak of the Gospel--the word of the Gospel. Then finally it uses the word "word" for all of Holy Scripture. All those three are legit, and are all used in the New Testament.

    Horton: But the "Word" being spoken of here is not his sacramental word or the word as Scripture, it is the hypostatic Word. I wouldn't fall down and worship the Bible, but if Jesus walked in the room right now, I would fall down and say "My Lord and my God."

    Horton's statement about the relationship of the Church to the Word indeed encompasses all three meanings of "Word", and though two of those three are ontologically contigent while the first is not, the non-contigency of the first nevertheless ensures that the two contigents are of equal authority to himself--and that's the issue here: the fact that inscripturated Word is created has no bearing on its authority. Were the graven Ten Commandments of less authority than he who engraved them? Was the authority of the eternal Logos diminished by one iota as his thought somehow passed into the created order along neural pathways, over vocal cords, past tongue and teeth, to be carried by innumerable collisions of Judean nitrogen and oxygen atoms, into various sets of cochleae, encoded by senstive hairlike structures, sent back along neural pathways, and thus somehow into doubting or believing hearts?

    Bryan, it's hard to tell from your post whether you are aware of the vast gulf between the easy target of private interpretation of Scripture--with which you ludicrously keep painting Horton, one of most outspoken modern critics, in defiance of all public testimony--and the classical Reformed insistence on catholic consensus under the final authority of the Word. If you are not, you should really spend an evening with Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura to get up to speed with the Reformed view of Scripture in contradistinction to its sometimes caricatured Evangelical version.

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  • Guest - Paul Swift

    Wow, a hat trick on misspellings of "contingent"! Noetic effects of the Fall indeed.

    Another question for you, Bryan, has come to mind:

    Would it be an accurate restatement of your position to say that while the contingent nature of Holy Scripture subordinates its authority to that of the uncreated Logos, the more contingent nature of the Roman Magisterium nevertheless subordinates its authority to a lesser degree relative to that of the uncreated Logos?

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  • Guest - Jane

    Greetings from a servant of Jesus Christ, may mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to us!

    Jane, “Did God establish a Church? Is He capable and interested sustaining His Church, Body of Christ, People of God (like the nation of Israel) in spite of us? "
    Lindert, "The answer is: most definitely, on both counts."
    Jane, "I agree with you."

    Who wants to divide the Body of Christ so it falls? Who wants to deceive the believer that unity is not now but "later" when it is too late? Who wants the world to mock the people of God?

    Yes, the weeds are growing in with the wheat but we must continue growing side by side until God harvests us. Matthew 16 clearly teaches us that Jesus will build His Church.

    There is only one Body of Christ of which Jesus is the Head. For that Jesus prays, and continues to Intercede, in John 17 for us to be in unity SO THAT THE WORLD WILL KNOW GOD SENT JESUS TO SAVE. caps only for emphasis not anger! :)

    There is one body and one Spirit,...one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all..."

    Find a Catholic Church which has a Friday Stations of the Cross Prayer. Really, Come and see!

    Shalom and Love be with us to guide us in God's Truth!

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  • [...] Michael Horton gives a Reformed Farewell to Benedict XVI. [...]

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  • [...] A Reformed Farewell to Benedict XVI  White Horse Inn Blog  The ever-reasonable Michael Horton writes a good piece on this [...]

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  • Guest - Teressa Wing

    Dear Dr Horton, Thank you so much for this very cogent and important article. Bless the new pope, Pope Francis, for his heart's focus on the people of Christ who suffer in poverty and adverse conditions. Bless his peaceful but aggressive concern for children. I pray that Christ will use these intents for His glory and for love of others. However, I am concerned about the Evangelicals' enthusiasm for him, (based on articles I have seen from Evan. newspapers on the internet), and the extent to which that might go. Your article clearly shows how we must stand back and take a clear look at the R.C.Church, in all it's history and meaning. Love in Christ, Mrs. Teressa Wing

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  • Guest - Jane

    Dear Teressa,
    I agree with your sentiment to ask God's blessing on Pope Francis for his heart's focus and his commitment to serve those who suffer in poverty and ill health. It is a fulfilling of the Gospel to "do unto the least of these, you do unto Me"

    My plea to all Christians is to step back and see God. He called forth Abraham, Moses, and David to lead His people -with His guidance. They were not perfect and yet God accomplished His goal of building the nation of Israel.

    IF God desired to call forth Peter as the rock upon which "Jesus said, "I will build my Church", then God will accomplish His goal. It is God's Church, not Peter's Church, that is the Bride of Christ to which the Catholic Church belongs as confessing Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. Romans 12 & 1 Corinthians 12 & Ephesians 4

    Jesus prayed in John 17 that we would be one as He and the Father are one. He continues to Intercede for us to be one so that the world would know that God sent Jesus to save the world.

    The world has looked at the Catholic Church this past week, 1.2 billion strong, yes, with wheat and weeds today and in history. May they see God’s love. I Corinthians 13

    God, help us to desire and strive to the unity that only you can guide us to, for our sake and for your world. Increase our faith, hope and love.


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