126. What Does It Mean to be Catholic? A Book Review

July 1st, 2016

Jack Mulder Jr., What Does it Mean to be Catholic? (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2015) 226 pp.

What does it mean to be Catholic? The question is simple but the answer is fraught with complexities. Is there a recognizable core, a pervasive blueprint, a distinct pattern of what Roman Catholicism is all about? The issue is worth tackling, especially in times like ours where confessional identities are often blurred and flattened. The merit of this book is to present a comprehensive, albeit short and readable, introduction to what is constitutive of the Roman Catholic identity. The intention of the Author, an associate professor of philosophy at Hope College (Michigan, USA), is to show “a small glimpse of the internal coherence, the beauty, and the depth of the Catholic faith” (p. 9). Rather than testing Roman Catholicism in terms of biblical truth or gospel faithfulness, the primary interest is to underline the coherent nature of Roman Catholicism in terms of its aesthetical attraction and profound structure of thought. In itself this is already an indication of what it means to be Catholic: looking for coherence, beauty and depth, not necessarily according to and under God’s revealed Word. The Author was raised in the Protestant faith and converted to Roman Catholicism in his adulthood. So he knows the evangelical subculture quite well. In presenting his newly found faith he often and interestingly interacts with concerns and questions that are normally asked by evangelical protestants.

Catholic Distinctiveness

The opening sentence of chapter 1 well captures the essence of what Roman Catholicism is all about in its practical outworking. “In my wallet I carry a little card with a picture of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and a tiny piece of cloth laminated to it. Next to the cloth it reads: This piece of cloth has been touched by his relics” (p. 11). What used to be thought of as being the quintessence of idolatry, i.e. the reliance on pictures, relics and saints, is now seen as expressing the genuine longing of the Catholic faith: the blessed presence of divine grace accessed through tangible objects and human holy mediators. The Author readily acknowledges that in order to make sense of this practice one needs to have a wider concept of Divine Revelation than Scripture alone. According to Roman Catholicism, Scripture and tradition are streams of the same wellspring of Revelation that the Church is given the task to rightly interpret and duly apply, thus governing the “development” of doctrine and practice. From the religious point of view, carrying the card with St. Thomas Aquinas makes sense given the fact that the “formal principle” of the Roman faith is not Scripture alone, but Scripture as interpreted as part of a bigger Tradition ultimately received and spelt out by the teaching office of the Church. As it was the case in the XVI century, the evangelical “Scripture alone” is utterly incompatible with Roman Catholicism.

Having clarified this foundational epistemological point, the rest of the book aptly presents the Roman Catholic faith, introducing topics as central and diverse as The Church and her Magisterium, God and Humanity, The Person and Work of Christ, Mary and the Communion of the Saints, The Seven Sacraments, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, The Human Person. All in all, the Author well manages to navigate the complexities of Catholic doctrine and practice, always trying to trace their doctrinal development and pointing to the coherence of the whole in terms of the present-day teaching of Roman Catholicism. He does a great job in expounding the coherence of the system given its wide foundations which go well beyond the Bible. The problem is: is it what the biblical Gospel is all about? Once established that the normative reference point is not Scripture alone, every point he deals with raises serious concerns from a biblical perspective.

A Gradualist View of Salvation

A test-case of the deviant direction of Roman Catholicism has to do with the view of salvation as having a universal scope and a hopeful end for all. The Author sides with the post-Vatican II account whereby there are circles of salvation which ultimately embrace the whole of humanity. Quoting Paul VI and John Paul II, but evoking standard Vatican II teaching, “There are four concentric circles of people: first, all humanity; second, the worshipers of the one God; third, all Christians; and fourth, Catholics themselves” (p. 9). Salvation is seen as a gift that people receive in different degrees depending on the circle they chose to identify with or find themselves in. Roman Catholics receive God’s grace in the fullest measure through the sacraments administered by the (Roman) Church under the Pope and the bishops who are the successors of the apostles; other Christians receive God’s grace to a lesser extent because they retain true elements of the faith but lack the fullness of it in not being in full fellowship with the Church of Rome. Religious people receive it because they have a sense of the divine, although they miss important aspects of the faith. Finally, the whole of humanity receives it because they are human and therefore existentially open to God’s grace which works in mysterious ways. Ultimately, “the only real way to get outside of God’s grace is to expel oneself from it” (p. 190). The conditions for such self-expulsion are so remote and limited that practically there is hope that all will be saved. This is quite different from clear biblical teaching that turns the picture upside down. According to Scripture we are all by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3), all sinners (Romans 3:23), all under his judgment (John 3:18). It is not us who exclude ourselves from God’s grace. Because of sin we are all born into this condition. Roman Catholicism turns the argument around and believes the contrary, i.e. we are all born into God’s grace albeit at various levels of depth and at different degrees.

As an aside comment, the Author interestingly says that “when evangelical leader Rob Bell came out with a book called Love Wins, which only raises the possibility of everyone ending up in heaven, and never definitively claims that this will happen, controversy erupted in evangelical circles, but Catholics took very little notice” (p. 187). This is no surprise given the hopeful scope of the Roman Catholic gradualist view of salvation for all.

The book is very honest in presenting the Roman Catholic faith and not hiding points of controversy with other Christian traditions. Contrary to some attempts to blur the lines, this volume does a good job in highlighting what is distinctive of Roman Catholicism and therefore in showing how it is different from the evangelical faith. Even in its post-Vatican II outlook, Roman Catholicism is still idiosyncratic to Scripture alone, Christ alone and faith alone.

 

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    125. What Happened to Justification by Faith?

    June 1st, 2016

    A talk given to the Resolved! Conference of Acts29 Europe (Rome, April 4th, 2016). The video can be watched here: https://vimeo.com/164251636

    The evangelical understanding of the gospel stands on two pillars: the authority of Scripture as God’s word written (the formal principle) and justification by grace alone through faith alone (the material principle). Scripture is the norm of the Christian life; justification is the ground of it. Without the norm of Scripture, our lives are shaped by false standards and deceived by false narratives. Without the ground of justification, our lives are built on sinking sand and will ultimately collapse under the righteous judgment of God.

    In J.I. Packer’s lucid way of condensing Biblical teaching, justification is “God’s act of remitting the sins of, and reckoning righteousness to, ungodly sinners freely, by his grace, through faith in Christ, on the ground not of their own works, but of the representative righteousness and substitutionary blood-shedding of Jesus Christ on their behalf”[1].

    Historically, justification has been the landmark of the evangelical faith since the times of the Apostles. The Church Fathers maintained it, and while it was not their main concern, they fully endorsed it. The Reformation did not invent it. Simply it restated it in more biblical and coherent terms, in times in which it had been obscured by medieval opacity. Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxies embraced it wholeheartedly. Giants like Jonathan Edwards and the British Puritans preached it with full conviction. German Pietism shaped its spirituality around it. Great preachers like C.H. Spurgeon made justification by faith central to their preaching and that pattern continued up to the times of John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Even Billy Graham’s message fully stands within the parameters set by justification by faith. The sinner is saved by grace alone through faith alone, apart from good works without any merit on our part. This has been a fundamental mark of the biblical faith throughout the centuries because it lies at the heart of the biblical gospel.

    Reactions Against Justification

    However, there have been two strong reactions against justification. One the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church violently rejected it at the Council of Trent (1545-1562). Trent continued to use the word justification but filled it with a completely different meaning. For Trent, justification was a process rather than an act of God; a process initiated by the sacrament of baptism where the righteousness of God was thought to be infused; a process nurtured by the religious works of the faithful and sustained by the sacramental system of the church; a process needing to go through a time of purification in purgatory, before perhaps being enacted on judgment day. Rome reframed and reconstructed justification in terms of a combination of God’s initiative and man’s efforts, grace and works joined together resulting in an on-going journey of justification, ultimately dependent on the “clay and iron” of human works and ecclesiastical sacraments. What was missing was the declarative, forensic act of justification, the exclusive grounding in divine grace, the full assurance of being justified because of what God the Father has declared, God the Son has achieved, and God the Spirit has worked out. Trent came up with a confused and confusing teaching on justification that has been misleading people since.

    The other objection to the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone came from theological liberalism since the XIX century. In this case, too, the word justification was maintained but the meaning of it was totally undermined and eventually redefined. By rejecting the biblical doctrine of sin as a tragic separation from God and rebellion against God, liberalism objected to the need for justification. According to liberalism, our problem is not so much us being sinner in the hands of a righteous God, but our call to be righteous people as human beings. Christ is the perfect righteous man whom we need to imitate if we want to become righteous. No atonement is needed, no sin is to be forgiven, no judgment is previewed. The liberal vision is to create a world where self-defined righteous people attempt to build a would-be righteous society marked by universal human brotherhood. This culture of self-righteousness has been damaging Western churches and society to the point of making them implode under the weight of unrealistic and false illusions.

    While Evangelical Protestants have always advocated for justification, making it central in their preaching, pastoral practices and missionary endeavors for centuries, there have been contrary accounts of justification that have offered alternative accounts of it. Despite their differences, both the Catholic and liberal versions of justification significantly converge in presenting an inflated view of man’s abilities to do something for one’s own salvation (whatever salvation means for them), a defective view of sin, a rejection of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and an uneasiness towards everything related to God’s justice and judgment.

    It is no surprise that in 1999 these Catholic and Protestant liberal accounts of justification merged together into the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. They were already close enough to finally come to the point of drafting a joint statement. The non-tragic view of sin is shared by both Catholic and liberal views; the necessity of the sacramental system of the church is what the Catholic part insists on while the liberal emphasis is on the universalist scope of justification. All are and will be justified because in the end God will have mercy on all. This is the present-day common understanding of justification shared by both the RC Church and the liberal churches. Next year (2017), these two bodies will celebrate the fact that the Reformation is over! And if justification is what they say it is, they are right! It is over indeed.

    Church Planting and Justification by Faith

    How are we then to plant churches in such a context? The church will continue to be founded on the authority of Scripture and justification by faith. There is no other recipe available for a healthy gospel church. There is no other gospel than the biblically attested message of Jesus Christ that saves unworthy sinners like us on the ground of his one-and-for-all work on the cross. We may and should be creative to find new and better ways to convey justification, to preach it, to apply it, to witness its living reality, but the Bible is crystal clear that we are either justified by God’s grace or we fall into a kind a self-justification that is a tragic deception. This is a false gospel. Any accommodation to the idea that we are ultimately capable of saving ourselves, any accommodation to the fact that salvation is not God’s gift from beginning to end is a slippery slope towards a false gospel. Do not think that justification is a theological relic of a distant past. It is indeed key to grasping the good news of Christ. May all church planters wholeheartedly embrace what the apostle Paul wrote: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:8-9). Let us plant churches in Europe that faithfully and passionately reflect and embody this gospel!

     


    [1] J.I. Packer, God’s Words. Studies in Key Bible Themes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988, p. 139.

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