124. Evangelicals and Catholics: A New Era?

May 1st, 2016

A talk given to the Annual General Assembly of the Italian Evangelical Alliance (Rome, April 8th 2016)

Is this a new era for Evangelicals and Catholics?

To give an answer we need to place this question in a wider historical and theological context, because otherwise we risk reducing everything to the here and now. This preliminary observation about method is always valid, but even more so when analyzing Catholicism, which is an institution that boasts two thousand years of history with its doctrinal, institutional and cultural heritage. Roman Catholicism has to be assessed using macro-categories able to hold together the largest possible number of elements. Failing to do this will lead to a collection of fragments, just pieces of Catholicism, which will not allow a real understanding of its dimensions, depth, connections and projects. A “spiritual” assessment cannot ignore the fact that while we are dealing with a system made up of people, they are in fact people within a framework that has a history, a doctrine, a bond to the sacraments, a political commitment, a financial system, popular piety, a plurality of spiritual expressions, etc., all of which are nonetheless connected to an institutional centre and a theological heart. To speak of a “new era” it is important to remember that along the course of its history Catholicism has known some particularly significant eras. Here is a brief summary:

The Era of Imperial Catholicism

After the Constantinian turning point Catholicism quickly transformed into a religious empire, forged in the institutional mold of the empire and animated by an imperial ideology. From the ashes of the Roman Empire rose the imperial church that assumed a pyramidal institutional structure clothing it with Christian language and symbols. The imperial hubris of Roman Catholicism (that is, its desire to be both church and state) is its original sin which has never been seriously questioned, let alone refuted. The orthodoxy of primitive Christianity has been gradually broadened in the attempt to assimilate new beliefs and new practices, causing the Christian faith to become contradictory. The desire to represent all of humanity has moved the point of entry into the church from conversion to Christ to the baptism administered by the church, leading to the establishing of a church composed of baptised people and not of believers. Biblical revelation has in fact been relativised due to the growing role of the church’s tradition. The church has become a nominal church made up of baptised people who are not necessarily believers. The grace of God has become the property of a religious institution that claims it can administer and dispense it through its sacramental system. The imperial era has given rise to an imperial DNA that Catholicism has never laid aside. In this era all Biblical renewal movements were either fought against or assimilated through a policy of domestication to the imperial ideology. Niches of different forms of spirituality were carved out so as to be inoffensive and lifeless and thus maintain the status quo.

The Era of Oppositional Catholicism

The second great age was that of the Counter-Reformation, structured around two central moments: the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the Vatican (1869-1870). The Roman Catholic Church’s long trajectory is characterised by a doctrinal trend which is at the same time abrasive, dulling, and interested in affirming the centrality and superiority of the church. It is the age in which the modern Catholic doctrine based on the prerogative of the church as alter Christus is formed; it is the age in which the doctrine of the two sources of Revelation is expressed: Scripture and tradition; it is the age in which the church elevates itself to the point of thinking that its imperial structure is the divine will of God. Confronted with the Protestant Reformation that invited the church to rid itself of its self-referentiality and rediscover the gospel of God’s grace, Rome strengthened a sacramental system that made the church mediator of divine grace. Confronted with modernity that pushed for a review of the prerogatives of the church over people’s consciences and society, Rome elevated its main institution (the papacy) to an even more accentuated role, as well as dogmatizing some Marian beliefs without any Biblical support whatsoever. This recovery of a robust identity also led to a missionary expansion of Catholicism and the development of mystical and Marian forms of spirituality.

The Era of a Compliant and Captivating Catholicism

The oppositional method led to isolation and a marginalised role for Catholicism. The change took place with Vatican II (1962-1965). The new era began there, when instead of siding against the modern world, Rome changed strategy, choosing to assimilate it, to penetrate it from within without changing in its own essence. Now it adopted the method of “updating”: adjustment without structural reform, incorporation without loss or cost, expansion of the system without purification, development without renunciation of tradition, a continuous adding without subtracting anything. Vittorio Subilia has rightly spoken of the “new catholicity of Catholicism:” a different posture, a new style, a new language. In every direction, however: in the direction of theological liberalism, making room for a critical reading of the Bible and universalism of salvation; in the Evangelical direction, learning the linguistic code of Evangelical spirituality (personal relationship with Christ, etc.); in the direction of Marian theology, traditionalism, ecumenism, etc.  A 360-degree expansionary catholicity, that still maintains the sacramental, hierarchical, devotional and imperial structures (certainly made more discreet but definitely still present), and all of which revolve around an abnormal and dilated ecclesiology, and around the fundamental pillars of traditional doctrine.

The Question for Us

Without quoting it often, Pope Francis incarnates the catholicity of Vatican II: open to dialogue, merciful, pleasing, but without paying any dogmatic, theological or spiritual price. The imperial and Counter-Reformation framework of the former ages remains, only “updated” to the new requirements of the contemporary global world. He speaks all languages, Evangelical, ecumenical, interreligious, secular, traditional. He seems to draw close to everyone without actually moving.  He seems to reach out to everyone without going very far. And then, the fact that everyone (from secularists to Muslims, and including liberal Protestants and Evangelicals) considers him close to them must make us ask: Is he really near to anyone? In other words, the strategy of the “polyhedron” seems to be the instrument of catholicity that has its roots in Vatican II and that fulfills it: all have to relate to a Roman church that has axes of various lengths in order to reach everyone, but without shifting its centre of gravity. Rome has already reached such a well-oiled homeostatic balance that it can play on more than one table at the same time without altering the overall framework.

In this climate, some people claim that the Reformation has practically finished because there no longer exists the oppositional Catholicism that rejected it. Catholicism has widened its synthesis and has also made room for the concerns of the Reformation, though trimmed of their groundbreaking character and bent to enable them to co-exist, to cohabit, to live side by side with other demands opposed to the gospel within a Catholic system which is even more eclectic and plural but still Roman and papal. Catholicism continues to add places to the table and extend the menu; it variegates more and more the codes, to fulfill its vocation to unite the world inside the net of catholicity and under the effective or honorary jurisdiction of a head.

In the new era of captivating catholicity there will be a niche for the Evangelicals who have made peace with the imperial structures of the church of Rome and its abnormal theology, and who are no longer concerned about a comprehensive reform in accordance with the gospel. These Evangelicals instead are content to be able to integrate their own spirituality into a system that is more fluid but still vertebrate, that is programmatically open to everything and yet opposed to everything. The criterion of the system is not the gospel of Christ, but a version of the gospel that guarantees the universalist and Rome-centred strategy of Catholicism.

The new era between Evangelicals and Catholics requires us to ask the question which is both old but also relevant for every generation of believers: can the church of Rome  be renewed in accordance with the gospel from within, or do we have to envisage moving past it and leaving it behind in the name of the gospel? With its encumbrance of unreformable dogmas, imperial institutions, projects of omnivorous catholicity, can the church of Rome be impacted by the gospel in its propulsive heart? In other words: is the gospel just one option amongst many possibilities, or is it the radical “yes” to the Word of God that says “no” to all forms of idolatry? Can a church, whichever one it is, be programmatically open to a multitude of offers, or, if it wants to be a church, must it be founded exclusively on the Biblical gospel?

Thus, Evangelical theology has the necessary instruments to focus consistently on the gospel without degenerating into sectarian and spiritually autistic attitudes. As is stated in the document An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism (1999):*

12. What refers to the Catholic Church in its doctrinal and institutional configuration cannot necessarily be extended to all Catholics as individuals. The grace of God is at work in men and women who, though considering themselves Catholics, entrust themselves exclusively to the Lord, cultivate a personal relationship with Him, read the Bible and live as Christians. These people, however, must be encouraged to reflect on whether their faith is compatible or not with belonging to the Catholic Church. Moreover, they must be helped to critically think over what remains of their Catholic background in the light of Biblical teaching.

Criticism of the Catholic system must not indiscriminately group together all people on their spiritual journeys. Furthermore, it is possible, and even necessary, to create opportunities for cobelligerence in areas of common commitment:

13. In fulfilling the cultural mandate there can be agreement, collaboration and communal action between Evangelicals and people of other religious and ideological leanings. Wherever shared values in the ethical, social, cultural and ideological fields are at stake initiatives of cobelligerence are desirable. These forms of necessary and inevitable cooperation must not be mistaken for ecumenical initiatives, neither must they be considered expressions of a new-found doctrinal consensus.

A new era between Evangelicals and Catholics? A long look at history, the spiritual discernment of the gospel, the overall view the Spirit leads us to answer “yes” and “no”. Certainly, with Vatican II a different period began that needs to be understood. It is wrong to have a flattened or static view of Catholicism. On the other hand, Vatican II and Pope Francis, who is its most successful incarnation, are only the latest evolutionary step in a system that was born and developed with an “original sin” from which it has not yet been redeemed, but which instead has been consolidated. No ecumenical diplomacy will be able to change it and not even the addition of a new Evangelical offer to the traditional menu. The invitation of the Lord Jesus applies to everyone: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14). The real new time, God willing, will be when Roman Catholicism breaks the imperial ecclesiological pattern and reforms its own catholicity, basing it no longer on its assimilation project, but on the basis of faithfulness to the gospel.

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* http://www.alleanzaevangelica.org/cattolicesimo-romano/1999-1_cattolicesimo_orientamenti.htm. “Orientamenti evangelici per pensare il cattolicesimo”, Ideaitalia III:5 (1999) 7-8 [trad.: “Le catholicisme romain: une approche évangélique”, Vivre, 8-9 (2000) 10-14 e Fac-Réflexion 51-52 (2000/2-3) 44-49; “Ein Evangelikaler Ansatz zum Verständnis des Römischen Katholizismus”, Freie Theologische Akademie, 2000 and Bibel Info 59/3 (2001) 10-13; “An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism”, Evangelicals Now, Dec 2000, 12-13; European Journal of Theology X (2001/1) 32-35].

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    123. The Blurring of Time Distinctions in Roman Catholicism

    April 18th, 2016

    The following is a condensed and modified version of an article published in Themelios 29/2 (2004). The full article can be accessed here:

    http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/journal-issues/29.2_DeChirico.pdf

    A consideration of the question of time offers a useful perspective from which to view the contours of the Christian faith. In a recent work John Stott proposed the idea that the message of the gospel may be summed up adequately by two biblical adverbs which are linked to the concept of time: hapax (once and for all) and mallon (for evermore).[1] It is around these two words that both the uniqueness and the definitive character of the incarnation are asserted, and the dynamic, progressive nature of the sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit articulated. The terms refer to two important aspects of the work of the Trinitarian God in the world. The first (hapax) is circumscribed by time and is definitive in regards to the completion of the work of salvation. The other (mallon) proceeds throughout time and develops the outworking of salvation in history. The gospel is a message that is based on what God has done (hapax), and on what he is doing (mallon). The demarcation that differentiates the two terms may be subtle but it must be maintained in order to avoid any distortion of the fundamental structure of the Christian faith. Even the tiniest of violations could become devastating, producing effects of enormous consequence.

    The way in which Catholicism perceives time – the sense of definitiveness as well as that of a progression – is a solid indicator of its basic theological framework. The argument suggested here is that Roman Catholicism performed a crucial breach of the boundary between hapax and mallon with its understanding of the Church as a prolongation of the incarnation. This breach subsequently caused a series of further incursions, most plainly noted in the doctrines of the Eucharist and revelation.

    The Prolongation of Time with Respect to the Incarnation

    Roman Catholic ecclesiology is built on the idea of the continuation of the incarnation of the Son of God in his mystical body, that is, the Church. Adam Mohler’s classic definition is helpful here; “The visible Church…is the Son of God himself, everlastingly manifesting himself among men in a human form, perpetually renovated, and eternally young – the permanent incarnation of the same.”[2] This “incarnational” understanding of the Church, rooted in the Counter Reformation tradition and renewed in recent authoritative teaching[3] and theological reflection,[4] is the key to understanding the basic framework of Roman Catholic ecclesiology.

    However it must be remembered that the incarnation of Christ is a hapax (once and for all event) in the work of God which is uniquely related to the person and mission of the Son so that it does not require any supplement or continuation, nor integration or representation. The very fact that Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father is the supreme culmination of his earthly mission. It is done. In Roman Catholic thought, however, while the virgin birth is rightly considered to be the beginning of the incarnation, the ascension does not represent a definitive end of Christ’s work in salvation which confirms its uniqueness and completeness. Instead it is considered as part of a process which, although changing the mode of Christ’s presence (from a physical to a mystical presence), carries out the continuation of his incarnation in the nature and mission of the Church. A substantial continuity remains between the incarnation of the Son and the work of the Church, and that carries with it serious consequences.

    The act of having destroyed the unique and definitive nature of the incarnation with its glorious conclusion at the ascension implies the transferral of the mission of the Son from Christ to the Church. By overthrowing the hapax (once and for all) of the incarnation in favor of its continuation through the Church, Christ’s prerogatives are aligned with those of the Church.[5] The unique mediation of Christ yields to the mediation of the Church. The regal authority of Christ is absorbed into the jurisdictional power of the Church. The final revelation of Christ is subsequently administered by the magisterial office of the Church and, given that is also embraces oral tradition, at times results in the emergence of other truths that are not attested in biblical revelation. The choice of the apostles by Christ, instead of being a once and for all event, evolves into the succession of bishops which is established by the ecclesiastical institution. The prerogatives of salvation that belong solely to Christ are indirectly (but really) attributed to Mary, who shares with the Son an assumption into heaven. The worship that is attributed to God exclusively is also deflected to other figures, even if this is only in the form of veneration. In short, the hapax of Christ continues in the mallon of the Church. The time period of Christ becomes identified with, and actualized in, the time of the Church, just as the time of the Church is always thought of as a direct continuation of the time of Christ. Therefore the Protestant teaching of Solus Christus (Christ alone) is the vindication of the integrity of the hapax of the incarnation against any attempt to infringe on its time delimitation and to extend his unique nature and mission to another agent.

    The Re-presentation of Time in the Eucharist

    One of the inevitable results of the Roman Catholic understanding of the church as a continuation of the incarnation is the expansion of the categories through which Roman Catholicism understands the work of redemption, in particular the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Because the Church is involved in the time of the incarnation of the Son, it is also active in His redemption which is accomplished on the cross. Both the incarnation and redemption are understood as mallon (for evermore) instead of hapax (once and for all). This transition is seen most clearly in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is based on a twofold, co-existing assumption: On the one hand there is the acceptance of the unique, historical event of the cross. On the other is the necessity of the re-presentation of the same sacrifice by the Church. In other words there is both the recognition of the exclusive role of Christ in His sacrifice, and the simultaneous insistence on the role of the Church in the act of re-presenting that same sacrifice.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the uniqueness (614, 618) and perfection (529) of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary. The uniqueness of salvation-history intersects, however, with the eucharistic developments in such a way that what is affirmed about the sacrifice of Christ becomes integrated with the language of re-presentation (1366), perpetuation (611, 1323) and making present (1362). The Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ re-enacted, perpetuated and made present. Among other things, this means that as the cross is a sacrifice, so too the Eucharist is a sacrifice (1330, 1365), to the point that together they are “one single sacrifice” (1367). The uniqueness of the cross is explained in loose terms in order to include the Eucharist so that the hapax of Calvary is dissolved into the mallon of the Mass. The work of the cross, therefore, is considered definitive, but not final. Above all it is unable to actualize its own efficacy without the active participation of the Church in making it present. Given the fact that the enactment of the Eucharist is a supplement necessary in making the cross effective, it is in the Mass that the real work of redemption is carried out (1364).

    It must also be noted that the fluid nature of the time periods of redemption also have repercussions for the doctrine of justification. Roman Catholicism sees it as a gradual and progressive process through which the righteousness of Christ is increasingly infused into man and is therefore not seen as a declarative act of God through which the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinner.

    Inseparably connected to these crucial elements of the doctrine of the Eucharist is the centrality and agency of the Church. If the Eucharist is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, then the subject (the Church) that offers the sacrifice assumes a decisive role in the workings of it. That is, it not only receives its benefits, but it also actualizes them and carries out its memorial. The theology of re-presentation can be explained in terms of the violation of the uniqueness of the soteriological completeness of the sacrifice of Christ by an enlarged view of the sacrifice which includes both the unique event of the cross and the on-going events of the Mass. The Roman Catholic theology of the Eucharist, “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11), is a consequence of a prior intrusion of “church time” into the time of Christ that in turn establishes a continuity between them in terms of the prolongation of the incarnation of the Son within the mission of the church.

    The Dynamic Time of Revelation

    A third area of vital theological importance in which it is possible to clearly discern the Roman Catholic understanding of hapax and mallon is that of revelation. On this point the yardstick of biblical data sees the faith as being given to the saints once and for all time (Jude 3). Divine revelation has been made known in Christ hapax in the sense of its completeness (Heb. 1:1-2). It has certainly undergone an historical progression in the unfolding of salvation history, but in the fullness of time has reached its final apex in the mission of the Son of God (Gal. 4:4). After Christ, the culmination of revelation, no further revelation must be expected until his return. As definitive revelation, the canonical Scriptures are the divinely inspired testimony by which, through the Holy Spirit, the mission of the church is made possible together with the transmission of the gospel from generation to generation (2 Tim. 3:16). If Jesus Christ is the definitive divine revelation, then the canonical, inspired Scriptures are the complete revelation of the Son in the books of the Bible. The closure of the canon is the attestation that the revelation of Jesus Christ is complete until he returns. Both events, the revelation of the Son of God and the final acceptance of the canonical Scriptures, are organically linked and are deeply permeated with a sense of hapax: revelation is complete and definitive. After the revelation of the Christ of the Bible, there can no longer be revelations but only interpretations of the already given revelation. The work of interpretation of the revelation is a mallon type of divine intervention. It is the Holy Spirit who continually guides into all truth (John 16:13). While revelation belongs to hapax time, the hermeneutic of revelation belongs to the mallon time. From the evangelical perspective, the Bible is the canonical authority revealing the hapax event of Christ and it needs to be known mallon through the Spirit.

    The Roman Catholic perspective, however, while attributing a conclusive character to the revelation of Christ and to the Bible, has a wider understanding of the Word of God than simply the canonical Scriptures. Revelation is one “divine wellspring” (Dei Verbum 9) from which the Bible and tradition flow. The two means of transmission refer to the unique revelation that is interpreted authentically and authoritatively by the Magisterium.[6] What needs to be stressed here is that the stream of revelation by tradition is neither independent nor necessarily anti-biblical, but it can certainly be extra-biblical in the sense that it is now given the status of a fully legitimate stream of revelation in itself. In the words of the encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998), the Scriptures are not “the only point of reference of truth” for the Roman Catholic Church. Scripture and tradition together bring revelation. The hapax sense of biblical revelation is opened up to being integrated with tradition that is mediated by the Magisterium, thus creating a dialectic between the biblical message and the process of tradition. The example of the promulgation of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary (1950), explicitly lacking any biblical warrant but well attested in tradition, indicates that such an idea is not just hypothetical. For Roman Catholicism, revelation can be seen as a mallon action of God that is administered by the church. Given that both the interpretation of Scripture and the discernment of tradition are the roles of the Magisterium, it finds itself invested with enormous powers.

    The Protestant Reformation identified the core of the problem with Roman Catholicism in its mingling of what ought to remain distinct. Solus Christus and Sola Scriptura are none other than an urgent call to rigorously respect the hapax of the gospel in order to benefit from it more and more. In fact, enjoying the mallon of the gospel is only possible after respecting its hapax. Looking at Roman Catholicism today, it is hard to believe that that call has been superseded.

     

    [1] John Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999).

    [2] Johann Adam Mohler, Symbolism or Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences Between Catholics and Protestants as Evidenced by their Symbolic Writings (London: Gibbings & Co. 1906), 259.

    [3] E.g. Lumen Gentium 8; 10-12; Catechism of the Catholic Church 737; 766; 787-88; 795.

    [4] E.g. Romano Guardini, Henri De Lubac, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner.

    [5] On the transposition of the threefold office of Christ (king, prophet and priest) to the Roman Church, cf. the stimulating critique by Vittorio Subilia, The Problem of Catholicism (London: SCM, 1964). On the same subject, cf. also Mark Sacuy’s “Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox Together: Is the Church the Extension of the Incarnation?”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43/2 (2000), 193-212.

    [6] Cf. Dei Verbum 7-10; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 50-141.

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