95. Roman Catholic Theology and Practice by Gregg Allison. A Review

November 19th, 2014

Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical AssessmentWheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 496 pps. $28.00. This review is also posted on http://9marks.org/review/book-review-roman-catholic-theology-by-gregg-allison/

Since the time of Gerrit Berkouwer’s The Conflict with Rome (1948) and Loraine Boettner’s Roman Catholicism (1962), evangelical theology has been lacking a thorough assessment of Roman Catholicism that penetrates the real theological issues at stake. There has been little work on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and many evangelicals don’t have the tools to grasp theologically what happened then and how it has been impacting the Roman Church since. Growing numbers of people are impressed by the “aggiornamento” (update of language and expressions without substantial change) that is taking place in Rome and are asking whether or not the Reformation is definitely over. Most of these analyses are based on a pick-and-choose approach to Roman Catholicism. Bits of its theology, fragments of its practice, pieces of its history, and sectors of its universe are considered as representing the whole of Roman Catholicism. When the big picture of the Roman Catholic theological cathedral is lost, interpretations become superficial and patchy.

Professor Allison’s new book is good news to all those who have long desired a reliable theological guide in dealing with Roman Catholicism. Based on a painstaking analysis of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, it covers the all-embracing trajectory of Roman Catholic theology and practice. Instead of juxtaposing ephemeral impressions and disconnected data, Allison provides a theological framework that accounts for the complexity of the Roman Catholic system and its dynamic unity.

In the first chapter he sets the theological framework that will give orientation to his analysis of the Catechism. In Roman Catholicism there are two main axes that form its background. On the one hand, the “nature-grace interdependence” and, on the other, the “Christ-Church interconnection.” Historically, the Roman magisterium has given assent to both the Augustinian tradition (philosophically influenced by Neoplatonic thought) and the Thomistic tradition (emerging from a Christian reinterpretation of Aristotle via Aquinas). Whereas Augustinianism has stressed the corrupting reality of sin and the utter primacy of grace, Thomism has given a more positive account of human nature’s intrinsic disposition towards the operations of grace. Both traditions manage to coexist, in that the Roman Catholic system provides a sufficiently capable platform which can host both, while not being totally identified nor identifiable with any one of them. This is another significant pointer to the catholicity of the system itself.

The spheres of nature and grace are thus in irreversible theological continuity, as “nature” in Catholicism incorporates both creation and sin, in contrast to the Reformed distinction between creation, sin, and redemption. This differing understanding of sin’s impact means grace finds in “Roman” nature a receptive attitude (enabling Catholicism’s humanistic optimism), as against a Reformed doctrine whereby entrenched sin leaves us unaware of our reprobate state. This stark anthropological difference underpins even Catholicism’s veneration of Mary. The Roman Catholic epistemological openness, its trust in man’s abilities, and its overall reliance on the possibility of human co-operation all converge in the articulated theology regarding the biblically sober figure of Mary. In this respect, Mariology expresses, therefore, the quintessential characteristics of the Roman Catholic nature-grace motif.

Secondly, Roman Catholicism needs a mediating subject to relate grace to nature and nature to grace—namely, the Roman Church—and thus Allison speaks of the “Christ-Church interconnection.” The Church is considered a prolongation of the Incarnation, mirroring Christ as a Divine-human reality, acting as an altera persona Christi, a second “Christ.” It is therefore impossible for Roman Catholicism to cry with the Reformers solus Christus, for this would be seen as breaching the organic bond between Christ and the Church. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church—in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word, and its administration of the sacraments. There is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the Church) and ecclesia in Christo (the Church in Christ).

At this point, Allison offers his detailed analysis chapter by chapter of the Catechism, summarizing its main tenets and offering an intrigued yet critical evangelical assessment. The picture that comes out is different from what Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom wrote in their 2005 Is The Reformation Over? In that book, Noll and Nystrom argued that “evangelicals can embrace at least two-thirds” of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Later, they admit that when the Catechism speaks of Christ, it interweaves him to the Church to the point of making them one, which is unacceptable for evangelicals who consider the exaltation of a created reality an instance of idolatry. So, on the one hand, there is an apparent “common orthodoxy”; on the other, there is a profound difference on the meaning of its basic words (e.g. Christ, the church, etc.).

Building on the “nature-grace interdependence” and the “Christ-Church interconnection,” Allison helps the reader to make sense of both areas of agreements and disagreements while always pointing to the hermeneutical grid that was set at the beginning. For example, the Catechism teaches a doctrine of “justification by faith.” What the catechism means, though, is a synergistic work that is not forensic in nature but transformative and that is administered via the sacramental system of the Church and by taking into account one’s own merits. The word is the same but the theological meaning, which is confirmed by the devotional practices of Rome, is far away from the biblical understanding of the doctrine of justification. The same is true as far as all key gospel terms are concerned.

Roman Catholicism is an all-encompassing system and one needs to approach it as such, trying to make sense of its teachings not as if they were isolated items but trying to penetrate the fact that they belong to a dynamic yet organic system.

In dealing with Roman Catholicism, especially in times of mounting ecumenical pressure, evangelical theology should go beyond the surface of theological statements and attempt to grasp the internal framework of reference of Roman Catholic theology. From there, one may try to assess it from an evangelical perspective.

This is exactly the point that is tackled by Allison’s book and its main contribution. Professor Allison’s masterly book is to be commended for its biblical depth, theological acuteness, historical alertness, and systemic awareness. Evangelical theology has finally begun to do its homework in parsing the vision of present-day Roman Catholicism. My hope is that this landmark book will re-orientate evangelical theology away from its attraction towards a shallow ecumenicity with Rome towards a serious dialogue based on the Word of God. The Reformation according to the gospel is as alive and relevant as ever.

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    94. A New Era Between Catholics and Evangelicals?

    November 7th, 2014

    Visiting the Pope has become something popular amongst Evangelical leaders around the world. Nearly every month there are Evangelicals from the four corners of the globe that are received by Francis either in private conversation, or around the table of a shared meal, or in the context of more official meetings. Pope Francis seems to have targeted Evangelicals of all stripes (from highly liturgical sectors of Protestantism to prosperity gospel gurus with all variances in between) in order to build bridges with these Christians who have traditionally stayed outside of mainstream ecumenical circles but who nonetheless represent the wing of the Church that is growing more than any other. This phenomenon of Evangelical leaders taking “selfies” with the Pope and then becoming prominent spokesmen of unity with the Roman Catholic Church needs to be examined more carefully.

    Against the backdrop of this growing trend of Evangelical leaders visiting the Pope, the visit of the World Evangelical Alliance and its official delegation of representatives from all over the world on November 6th is perhaps the first time that such a vast delegation has been granted an audience by a Roman Pontiff. The significance and importance of this visit is attested to by the fact that the Pope’s address to the WEA delegation has been made public through the Vatican Press Bulletin which is its official outlet (http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2014/11/06/0823/01747.html).

    United in Baptism?

    The Pope began his address by referring to baptism as the grounds by which unity can be accomplished. After quoting Ephesians 4:13 on attaining to the unity of the truth, Francis went on to say that “this truth is grounded in our Baptism, by which we share in the fruits of Christ’s death and resurrection. Baptism is God’s priceless gift which we have in common”. Interestingly, this is a typical Roman Catholic statement. Whereas Evangelicals would tend to say that unity is grounded in God’s grace received through faith in Jesus Christ, the Pope spells out a different view. According to him it is the “sacrament of baptism”, an ecclesial sacrament, that is the basis for Christian unity. The standard Evangelical conviction is that all believers in Jesus Christ are already united (“We Believe in the Unity of the Spirit of all true believers”, says WEA’s Statement of Faith), but the Pope here presents a different perspective: it is those who are baptized that are united. A person baptized by the church may or may not be a believer as the phenomenon of Nominal Christianity clearly demonstrates, and yet the Pope and his Church think that baptism represents sufficient grounds for unity. A question must be raised at this point: are the Evangelical leaders who seem to be such big fans of the Pope aware of this?

    That Christians are already united in baptism is a shared ecumenical conviction but it is not the historic Evangelical position. The Pope reinforced it when he spoke about “the profound unity brought about by grace in all the baptized” (then by quoting the Vatican II document Unitatis Redintegratio, 13). How can Christians be united by grace with those who are baptized but that do not profess and live out their faith in Jesus? The point is that when Evangelicals talk about unity with the Pope and the Pope talks to them about unity, they are using the same word but they mean different things.

    No Mere Personal Relationship with Christ

    The insistence on baptism as the grounds of unity is demonstrated in another comment made by Francis in his speech. Insisting on the pre-eminence of baptism over faith, the Pope said that “the Gospel is not merely about our personal relationship with God”. It is more than that. This language of having a “personal relationship with God” is dear to Evangelicals and is one of the defining marks of their spirituality. Pope Francis likes to use it too. However, the reference to the sacrament of baptism which is for him sufficient grounds for unity and that precedes a personal relationship with God puts this phrase into context. According to Francis, unity is based on baptism, not on personal relationship with Christ. Evangelicals also believe that the Christian life is more than having a personal relationship with Christ. Yet they believe that this is the foundation upon which the full Christian discipleship must be built. Regardless of which view of baptism they hold to, it is nonetheless personal faith that is central. For Francis, God’s grace comes to us not by faith alone but through the sacramental system administered by the Church. This is not merely a minor point of difference.

    The speech included an appeal to enter a “new era of relations between Catholics and Evangelicals”. But if they still don’t agree on what is the basis of Christian unity and there is no indication of openness to change according to the Gospel, how can there be a “new era”?

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