147. Does Mariology Imply A Diminished Role for Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?

March 1st, 2018

One common refrain in ecumenical discourse is that all historical religious traditions (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, various branches of Protestantism) differ in the way they understand salvation (e.g. justification, renewal, deification) and the nature/role of the church and the sacraments, but agree on the tenets of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. While at one level this is formally true – each of these traditions adheres to the Apostles’ Creed – a deeper and closer look shows some cracks in this widespread assumption.

Mariology is a testcase that provides an opportunity to see to what extent the Trinity and Christology belong to the shared faith. In the Roman Catholic tradition, at least, Mary is prayed to and is a venerated person surrounded by a vast array of “Marian” devotions, e.g. rosaries, processions, and pilgrimages. The titles with which she is referred to (e.g. Heavenly Queen, Mediatrix, Advocate) resemble those ascribed to her son, Jesus Christ. Mariology is also the theme of two recently promulgated dogmas (i.e. binding beliefs): the 1854 dogma of the immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of the bodily assumption into heaven. Mariology impinges not only on the doctrine of Revelation, but also on the doctrine of the Trinity.

How Central Is Mariology?

While the outspoken intention of Roman Catholic Mariology is that Mariological doctrines and Marian practices in no way detract attention from Jesus Christ, the reality is that the line that Rome wishes to preserve is indeed crossed in multiple ways. When entire shrines or processions or prayer chains are dedicated to Mary so as to completely shape the devotees’ lives, one finds it hard to attribute it simply to the devotional excesses of poorly educated popular piety. Separating Christian worship duly expressed from cultish practices fraught with paganism is a soft, even liquid border line that is not maintained and safeguarded enough, despite the good intentions expressed in the official teaching. The question is whether or not Mariology as it currently stands, with its dogmatic outlook and devotional pervasiveness, involves an inherent proximity, if not blurring, with what is not biblically defendable. The indisputable evidence of many of these devotional acts and habits indicates that in many people’s lives the centrality of Mary is experienced much more than reverence and obedience to Christ. All this happens not in spite of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches but because of what it explicitly or implicitly endorses.

Mariology Superseding Christology?

Since the dogmatic pronouncement of the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD (when Mary was given the title of “Mother of God”) the Mariological trajectory has been strongly pushed forward in ever-expanding and almost self-referential terms. After Ephesus the veneration of Mary became prominent in devotional practices, doxological patterns, and the religious arts. Christianity went through a Marian shift in terms of liturgy and general orientation. The paradox was that the Council that wanted to re-affirm the full deity and humanity of Jesus ended up promoting a functional heresy. Individuals, groups, and movements began to develop quasi-obsessive Marian interpretations of the Christian faith and Mary became the figure most prayed to in daily life. She was not meant to detract attention from her Son, but her post-Ephesus perception functionally superseded Him in terms of experiential forms of Christianity.

The Son always depicted in the company of the Mother, the Mother often portrayed as bigger than the (baby) Son, coupled with a growing prayer investment directed toward her, contributed to the gradual reconfiguration of Christian spirituality away from Christ (who began to be seen as too distant, too divine, too remote to be approached) and towards Mary with her maternal, tender, and compassionate attitude. Christ’s humanity – which is essential in recognizing his role as a mediator connecting the incarnate Son with us creatures – was progressively rarefied at the expense of His divinity. Christ’s divinity was eventually pushed to the forefront, making Him too far above to be invoked directly.

The balance of the confession in the early creeds of Jesus Christ being “fully God, fully man” was nominally maintained but practically abandoned by the increasingly Marian spirituality of the post-Ephesus church. The vacuum left by the lack of appreciation for the humanity of Christ was filled by the growth of the role of Mary the Mother. The nearness of the Mother of God was the answer to the remoteness of the Son of God and even caused the Son to be perceived further as being too distant to understand and take care of the struggles of life. In other words, perhaps unintentionally, the Mother swallowed the Son. Orthodox Christology based on the Councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) continued to be formally professed and defended; in reality, the appropriation of these Christological truths became a far too abstract discourse and of little spiritual benefit. What was practiced at the popular doxological level was an all-embracing Mariology that accounted for the spiritual needs of the people and whetted further theological development along Mariological lines.

Mariology Obscuring the Work of the Spirit?

There is more than that. In Trinitarian relationships, the work of the Son is strictly connected with that of the Holy Spirit. According to the Bible, the Son’s role as mediator is worked out by and through the Spirit. For example, it is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness by interceding for us in accordance with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). Christ is the Mediator to the Father and the Spirit enables us to come to Him. What happened with the unchecked rise of Mariology? By pushing Christ’s humanity outside of the picture and filling the void with the intercessions of the Mother of God, Mariological development diminished also the role of the Holy Spirit by not recognizing His vital involvement in the mediatoral work of the Son. In becoming the figure nearer to the Son who could be always invoked and felt closer than the Son, Mary practically unraveled the bond between the Son and the Spirit and undermined the relationship between the faithful and the Spirit. The “gain” of Mariology was the “loss” of the Holy Spirit. The impressive growth of Mariology meant the disturbing disappearance of the Spirit.

Marianism then obscured the nearness of the Son and froze the unique contribution of the Spirit. Beyond excesses in devotional practices – which are nonetheless intrinsically related to the nature of Mariology itself – the Roman Catholic view of Mary poses serious questions at the level of its Trinitarian implications.

Formal adherence to the creedal basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ needs to be matched with a coherent spirituality centered on the praise of the Triune God —Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — something that does not happen in Mariology because of its inflated view of Mary and its consequent marginalization of Christ and the Spirit. In spite of the stated intention not to divert attention from the Son, Mariology tends to be an intruder into Trinitarian harmony and an obstacle to a full appreciation of who the Triune God is and what He has done for us.

146. Why Are Younger Evangelicals Fascinated by Roman Catholicism?

February 1st, 2018

Present-day Evangelicalism has a strange relationship with history. On the one extreme there are those who endorse a “gap theory,” whereby their experience of the Christian life has little if anything to do with a sense of historical continuity. On the other, recent fascinations with romantic and selective appropriations of “tradition” show how easy it is to uncritically embrace beliefs and practices that are idiosyncratic with regards to Scripture. What is at stake is the historical nature of Evangelicalism as such.

In his new book In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), Kenneth Stewart wrestles with the present-day discussion on if and what Evangelicalism has to do with history. As a learned historian and acute theologian, Stewart helps the reader come to terms with the diachronic dimension of Evangelicalism that runs through church history, taking different shades and colors but ultimately responding to the same principles of biblical faithfulness and spiritual involvement.

This book is a vigorous and rigorous rebuttal to John Henry Newman, according to whom “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Stewart is convinced that to be deep in history one does not need to turn to Rome (become Roman Catholic) nor to Antioch (become Orthodox). To be Protestant means being rooted in Scriptural teaching first and foremost, as well as to be connected with a historical stream within Christianity throughout the centuries that has always carried an “evangelical” banner.

The book is much needed in times in which the label “evangelical” (mainly in the US context, I should say) is again going through a stress test, being too closely associated with political attachments and too loosely defined by its theological core. As this short piece is part of the Vatican Files series, this is not the place to write a full appreciation of the book. Its scope goes beyond an evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism. Suffice it to overview the book’s final chapter, where Stewart helpfully tackles the question “Why Are Younger Evangelicals Turning to Catholicism and Orthodoxy?” (pp. 253-273).

Reasons Behind the Drift

In recent decades there have been some “conversions” of well-known evangelicals to Roman Catholicism, from Thomas Howard in 1985 to Francis Beckwith in 2007, followed by significant numbers of younger intellectuals attracted to Rome. After acknowledging the primarily North American context of this phenomenon, Stewart also readily points to the fact that the “traffic” of those leaving Roman Catholicism for forms of Protestantism far exceeds the movements in the opposite direction. There is no sign of a massive turn of evangelicals to Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, what is happening is worth investigating.

A number of reasons are offered to explain the phenomenon. For some, it is simply a return to the church of one’s upbringing. These are people who were born in Catholic families and left Rome at some point in their life out of personal dissatisfaction, then returned to it at a later stage. For others, it was the search for the “historic church” as a haven from sectarianism. After experiencing naïve forms of evangelicalism characterized by isolationism and localism, some young evangelicals looked to Rome as the “mother” and universal church. For still others, it was a desire for the liturgical and doctrinal stability promised by Rome, in contrast to sectors of evangelicalism that tend to run after what is new and creative and therefore lose any sense of tradition. Finally, an admiration for the Catholic intellectual and theological traditions caused some to distance themselves from the apparent shallowness of the (lack of) evangelical thought.

Tools to Face the Challenge

Thinking through the list of reasons presented by Stewart provides much food for thought. Most of them derive from the lack of an historical sense of identity that often marks Evangelicalism. These weaknesses are real issues and are entry points for Roman Catholicism to look appealing to dissatisfied evangelicals. To them, Rome appears in an idealized form rather than its complex, and at times contradictory reality.

Ending the chapter and the book, the author helpfully suggests ways to recover an evangelical awareness of its being an historical movement grounded in the Bible and in continuity with the historical church. Of course, modernity has influenced the present outlook of Evangelicalism, but its doctrinal and spiritual shape has always been marked by the constant recovery and appreciation of the original (and therefore biblical and ancient) form of Christianity. Christian antiquity and historical legacies must be nurtured in connection with the fact that each evangelical congregation is part of the “catholic” church and the present-day global church. Cultivating both diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the evangelical faith will give antidotes to the allures of Rome.

There is a final point that needs to be underlined. Often the fascination towards Rome is characterized by a certain idealization of Roman Catholicism which can be significantly removed from reality. Roman Catholicism has its own intellectual traditions but is also home to folk traditions, syncretistic practices, and mystical trends that run contrary to this image of a solidly intellectual religion. People who turn to Rome often have a selective and faulty view of Evangelicalism and a selective and idealized perception of Roman Catholicism. This is why the current discussion on the evangelical identity crisis needs to take into account Stewart’s excellent piece of scholarship.

145. Mission. Did Pope Francis say Mission?

January 1st, 2018

“Throughout the world, let us be permanently in a state of mission”(The Joy of the Gospel, 2013, n. 25). These programmatic words epitomize the missionary vision that Pope Francis has been expounding and implementing since becoming Pope in 2013. Without a doubt, mission is central to his thought and action and is a defining mark of his pontificate. Having said that, it is not always clear what he means when he talks about “mission”. Indeed, in today’s religious language “mission” is one of those words which can have multiple “shades of gray”, and discovering its meaning can become a conundrum. Pope Francis adds his own complexities and nuances to the already variegated semantic range of the word “mission”.

The recent papal journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh (28-30 November) provides an entry point into the applied missiology of the Pope. Here Francis was visiting two countries where Christians are minorities and where mission, however definable, is the top priority of the Church. What a great opportunity for him to embody and exemplify the vigorous call to his Church to be permanently “in a state of mission”!

Omitting to speak of Christ?

What took place there – or, should we say, what did not take place? – sheds light on the whole issue. The Pope’s public speeches were about peace and harmony, solidarity and dialogue, and were centered on a generic faith in “God” which could have been understood in all kinds of ways. Any references to Jesus Christ were omitted. As Italian journalist Sandro Magister put it: “There was only one moment in which Jesus was named and his Gospel proclaimed, in the speeches on the first day of Pope Francis’s visit to Myanmar. Only that the one who spoke these words was not the pope, but the Burmese state counsellor and foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi, who is of the Buddhist faith”.

This is a strange way of doing mission, one might think. The gospel was vaguely proclaimed by a Buddhist politician rather than by the Pope. As far as Francis is concerned, important omissions of this kind are not new. For example, acute observers like Chris Castaldo have already pointed out the lack of Christ-related language in other public speeches. In 2015, visiting the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, the Pope delivered Christ-less speeches, however inter-faith and ecumenically friendly they were. As Castaldo soberly commented: “Sadly, he failed to do so much as mention the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ.’”

This omission looks like a pattern in Francis’ mission. It is true that even the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus speech at Athens did not explicitly mention the name of Jesus Christ, though he referred to the “man” (Acts 17:31), which is a clear reference to the Lord Jesus, the risen One and the coming Judge. Paul’s speech, nonetheless, challenged the belief system of his hearers and presented the reality of God’s righteous judgment over all, calling people to repent. All these elements also seem to be missing in the Pope’s missiology. When he is in inter-faith and political contexts, he seems reluctant to boldly and clearly proclaim the name of Jesus as the only Savior and Lord. Unlike Paul the missionary, who faced pushback and criticism because of his presentation of the gospel, Francis is normally liked by his hearers, who feel affirmed in what they already believe rather than challenged by the message of Jesus Christ. What kind of mission are we talking about then?

Mission without Apologetics?

Is this critical assessment based on reading too much into the Pope’s gospel omissions? One way of answering this question is to allow the Pope to speak for himself in explaining his missionary vision. Luckily, in flying back from Myanmar and Bangladesh, Francis gave a telling comment on what had just happened. Here is the script of the in-flight press conference, during which Francis replied to a question posed by a French journalist. The Q&A is worth quoting at length:

Etienne Loraillere (KTO): Holiness, there is a question from the group of journalists from France. Some are opposed to inter-religious dialogue and evangelization. During this trip you have spoken of dialogue for building peace. But, what is the priority? Evangelizing or dialoguing for peace? Because to evangelize means bringing about conversions that provoke tension and sometimes provoke conflicts between believers. So, what is the priority, evangelizing or dialoguing? Thanks.

Pope FrancisFirst distinction: evangelizing is not making proselytism. The Church grows not for proselytism but for attraction, that is for testimony, this was said by Pope Benedict XVI. What is evangelization like? Living the Gospel and bearing witness to how one lives the Gospel, witnessing to the Beatitudes, giving testimony to Matthew 25, the Good Samaritan, forgiving 70 times 7 and in this witness the Holy Spirit works and there are conversions, but we are not very enthusiastic to make conversions immediately. If they come, they wait, you speak, your tradition … seeking that a conversion be the answer to something that the Holy Spirit has moved in my heart before the witness of the Christians. 

During the lunch I had with the young people at World Youth Day in Krakow, 15 or so young people from the entire world, one of them asked me this question: what do I have to say to a classmate at the university, a friend, good, but he is atheist … what do I have to say to change him, to convert him? The answer was this: the last thing you have to do is say something. You live your Gospel and if he asks you why you do this, you can explain why you do it. And let the Holy Spirit activate him. This is the strength and the meekness of the Holy Spirit in the conversion. It is not a mental convincing, with apologetics, with reasons, it is the Spirit that makes the vocation. We are witnesses, witnesses of the Gospel. “Testimony” is a Greek word that means martyr. Every day martyrdom, martyrdom also of blood, when it arrives. And your question: What is the priority, peace or conversion? But when you live with testimony and respect, you make peace. Peace starts to break down in this field when proselytism begins and there are so many ways of proselytism and this is not the Gospel. I don’t know if I answered”.

With this answer one is projected into the missiological vision of the Pope. Let’s briefly mention its main points. First, there is a negative reference to proselytism without defining it. As it stands, his words discourage the expectation for conversions and put a stigma on the missionary activity that looks forward to seeing people embracing Christ out of their religious or secular background (see instead Mark 1:15; Acts 2:37-38). Second, there is an unnecessary polarization between good deeds/attitudes and the verbal proclamation of the gospel. Nowhere in the Bible is such a polarization between the content of the message and the behavior of the messenger maintained. We are instead called to always join what we say, what we do, and how we do it (e.g. 1 Peter 3:15-17). Third, there is a distrust of apologetics in dealing with unbelief. The missionary is not expected to give reasons for what she believes and to challenge the belief system of her friend. In this way, the Pope seems to discourage engaging in meaningful apologetics (evidently against 1 Peter 3:15).

According to Pope Francis then, mission does not look forward to making disciples, refrains from verbally proclaiming the Good News, and is skeptical about apologetics. How different this is to the standard evangelical understanding of evangelization given by the 1974 Lausanne Covenant:

“To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand. But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Savior and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God. In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his Church and responsible service in the world” (par. 4).

In this evangelical definition, almost everything the Pope warns against is instead strongly affirmed: the verbal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the necessity of Christian persuasion in the context of lives marked by integrity. This is not what Pope Francis has in mind when he refers to mission.

144. What Happens If Catholics Think the Pope Is a Heretic?

December 1st, 2017

Roman Catholics as individuals and groups may have different opinions about the Pope. After all, the Church of Rome is not a monolith, and even Popes polarize the assessments of the Catholic people. But what happens when negative voices become more frequent, more outspoken, more radical in their criticism, as seems to be the case in recent months? While public opinion is still heavily influenced by the overall positive image that Francis has, and continues to consider him as a kind of “hero”, within Catholic circles the “wait-and-see” approach toward some awkward aspects of his teaching is coming to an end. Groups of intellectuals, priests, and even cardinals are voicing their growing embarrassment and are doing it publicly and with a severe tone. In raising their concerns, what they point to are not some peripheral elements but important matters of doctrine. The irony is that the one who is supposed to guard the Roman Catholic deposit of faith is charged with allegations of introducing confusion, if not heresy.

Coming to Terms with Recent Criticism

There are at least three criticisms against Pope Francis that are worth considering. Let’s briefly look at them chronologically.

In September 2016, four cardinals (two of whom have recently died) sent to the Pope five questions (in Latin “dubia”, doubts) concerning the interpretation of  key parts of his summary document on the synod on the family, Amoris Laetitia. In the explanatory note, they give voice to the “grave disorientation and great confusion” that exist in the Catholic community. According to the cardinals, the contrasting interpretations of the papal text arise from its ambiguity and the apparent contradictions with previous official teaching on the re-admission of divorced people to the Eucharist. Although they asked the Pope to clear any ambiguity, Francis never responded and perhaps will never do so. Their doubts will remain unanswered.

In July 2017, more than 200 Catholic priests and intellectuals from around the world wrote “a filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies” to the Pope , thus elevating the tone of the criticism to the denouncing of doctrinal deviations. Their observations were no longer questions, but real corrections made to the teaching of the Pope. The word “heresy” was evoked in looking at the demise of the traditional teaching on marriage and the sacraments, as they see happening, and severely threatening the future credibility of their Church.

At the end of July then, Father Thomas Weinandy, a capuchin priest and former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, made public a letter sent to the Pope. In it, he argued that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease.  It compromises their capacity for love, joy and peace”. Moreover, Weinandy charges Francis with “demeaning” the importance of doctrine, appointing bishops who “scandalize” believers with dubious “teaching and pastoral practice”, giving prelates who object the impression they will be “marginalized or worse” if they speak out, and causing faithful Catholics to “lose confidence in their supreme shepherd.”This is hard language coming from a mainstream Roman Catholic theologian who has spent the whole of his life in the service of his Church and the Vatican. What is happening in the Roman Catholic Church? Is Rome on the eve of an internal breaking point with disastrous consequences?

The Tensions between the Roman and Catholic components

These three criticisms are extremely serious and perhaps a tipping point in Catholic circles as far as the growing uneasiness towards Pope Francis is concerned. Various interpretations have been suggested in trying to understand what is happening. What might be useful, in coming to terms with it, is to relate both Francis’s apparent openness to change and ambiguity in teaching on the one hand, and the angrier reactions of the traditionalists on the other, to the inner and constitutive dynamics of Roman Catholicism.

Roman Catholicism is what it is because it inherently combines the “Roman” element with the “Catholic” one. Both are essential components of the synthesis offered by the Roman Catholic system. The genius of Roman Catholicism is its being at the same time Roman and Catholic, one and the other, one never at the expense of the other.

It is “Roman” in the sense that it is organically attached to the city and the Church of Rome, and by extension to the institutions, canon laws, dogmas, hierarchy, and the political outlook associated with it. Much of this derives from a complex history marked by an imperial ideology.

It is “Catholic” in the sense of its being inclusive, global, embracing, and open to different movements, trends, and trajectories. The Roman elements provide stability and continuity; the Catholic element fosters development and renewal. Roman Catholicism is able to hold the tension deriving from its dual identity and to maintain it at a manageable balance.

What is happening with Pope Francis is to be understood against the background of the tensions between the Roman and Catholic poles within Roman Catholicism. Francis is strongly pushing the “catholic” agenda of Rome, embracing all, affirming all, expanding the traditional boundaries of the Church.

Some traditionalist circles are reacting strongly because they see the danger of losing the Roman elements represented by the well-established teachings and practices of the Church. They see the Catholic swallowing the Roman. They see the risk of the Catholic taking precedence over the Roman and therefore severing the dynamic link that has characterized Roman Catholicism for centuries.

Whereas with the previous Pope (Benedict XVI), the overall balance was more in favor of the Roman than the Catholic, with Francis the Roman Catholic pendulum is swinging towards the catholicity of Rome. Francis’s critics believe that he has gone too far and want the pendulum to reverse towards more reassuring Roman elements.

Can There Be a Biblical Reformation in Roman Catholicism?

As we are celebrating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, with its call to the Church to submit to the authority of Scripture and its recovery of the good news that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, it is appropriate to ask whether Rome is still grappling with the same issues that gave rise to it.

Luther took issue with the Pope and his theology and practice of dispensing God’s pardon through indulgences. Luther’s standard was the biblical gospel, and he challenged the Church to embrace afresh the gospel. Rome responded by absorbing some of Luther’s concerns about grace and faith within the sacramental system largely shaped around Roman elements and within its synergistic theology significantly marked by Catholic components, thus reinforcing the overall Roman Catholic synthesis rather than reforming it according to the Word of God.

Ever since, the Roman Catholic system has been swinging and bending one way or another to accomodate either progressive or traditional trends, either reiterating Roman emphases or introducing Catholic ones, and then rebalancing the whole. But the Church was not reformed because it did not recognize the external and supreme authority of Scripture and the gospel of salvation by faith alone. As it stands, it will never be renewed according to the Word of God. It will certainly accomodate “Catholic” movements like the Charismatic renewal and “Roman” movements like the Marian groups, and then re-fix the overall synthesis. It will even accomodate an emphasis on biblical literacy, as well as commend unbiblical devotions and beliefs: both-and, Roman and Catholic!

What is happening now with the criticism of Pope Francis is business as usual in the Roman Catholic Church: at times the pendulum swings one way before readdressing the overall balance. It could be argued that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a great push towards the Catholic element and the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were subsequent attempts to moderate it in terms of reinforcing the Roman elements. With Francis the Catholic is again winning the day. These tensions will go on as long as Roman Catholicism exists. They are inner movements within the system. If one looks at Roman Catholicism as a system, then even the doubts of the cardinals, the criticism of priests and intellectuals, and even their charges of heresy against the Pope become easier to come to terms with. Roman Catholicism is both Roman and Catholic, and will always be so.

Nothing is going to break abruptly and, more importanly, no biblical reformation is possible under these conditions. Roman Catholicism will be stretched and go through a stress test, but will be able to handle both Francis’ catholicity and his critics’ insistence on the Roman component. The synthesis will be expanded, but the gospel will not be allowed to change Rome. This is the reason why the Reformation is not over.

143. Where Does Pope Francis Stand on the Doctrine of Justification?

November 1st, 2017

“Here I stand”: these are the famous words spoken by Martin Luther in front of the Diet of Worms in 1521.Questioned about his convictions as they had been outlined a few years before in the 95 Theses, Luther stood firm on the truth of the Bible and its good news: sinners can be justified by Christ alone through faith alone. It was clear to all what he believed.

The Council of Trent (1545-1562) was the official response of the Roman Catholic Church to the issues raised by the Protestant Reformation. By rejecting the tenets of the Protestant understanding of the Gospel and declaring its proponents anathema, Trent endorsed the view that sinners could not be justified by faith alone; instead, Catholicism insisted on an ongoing journey of good works punctuated by the sacraments administered by the church. Where Trent stood was and is crystalclear.

In recent decades, though, the situation has become blurred. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ)– signed by mainstream Lutherans and the Church of Rome– introduced ambiguities in language, juxtaposition of terms, and theological nuances that make it difficult to understand where the signatories stand incomparison to Luther’s and Trent’s viewpoints. After the Declaration, Rome’s position on justification is harder to ascertain. This ambiguous context is Pope Francis’s framework when he speaks on the topic.

The essence of human existence?

In the ecumenical ceremony that commemorated the Reformation in Lund (Sweden) in 2016, Pope Francis made a perfunctory reference to the doctrine of justification. In a generally positive comment on Luther, the Pope argued that “the doctrine of justification expresses the essence of human existence before God”, thus seeming to be in accord with what Evangelicals might say on the doctrine. Recognizing justification as something essential is surely a pointer toward its primary importance for the Christian life. But notice that the Pope speaks of the essential role of justification in “human existence” in general, not just in the Christian life. The context of this statement does not restrict it to Christians, nor to believers in Christ or disciples of Jesus. The Pope is not referring to the essence of the Christian life, but to human existence as a whole.

Here is the ambiguity. Does this mean that justification is essential for all human beings regardless of whether or not they are Christians? Does it mean that justification is a constitutive component of life in general, a defining mark of the existence of all men and women? Does it mean that all those living a “human existence” are essentially justified? Certainly this is not the meaning that either Luther or the Council of Trent gave to justification. For Luther, there was a sense in which justification could be defined as “the essence of human existence before God,” with the caveat that this would refer only to those who have received the grace of God by faith alone. In other words, justification is the essence of the Christian life, not of human life in general.

On the surface, then, the Pope’s comment on justification seems to be very biblical and indeed very Protestant. At a closer look, though, things are not as clear as they appear. While affirming the importance of justification, Pope Francis seems to confuse it with a universal property that all human beings share. If this is what the Pope meant, we are very far from what both Luther and Trent stood for. Indeed, we are very close to a universalist, all-embracing, humanistic “gospel” that betrays the biblical Gospel of salvation in Christ alone by faith alone for those who repent and believe.

Faithful to one’s own conscience?

Arguably, what Pope Francis said in Lund on justification is generic and can be interpreted in different ways. It is not possible to say for sure that this is what he had in mind. Therefore it is important to look for other references to justification in his thought selsewhere and give him another chance to explain what he means.

Here is another quotation that is worth pondering. In his widely acclaimed 2013 Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, the programmatic document of his pontificate, Francis writes that “Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live justified by the grace of God” (n. 254).This section of the Exhortation deals with ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue in the context of mission. According to Pope Francis, non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (n. 244), Jews don’t need to convert (n. 247), and with believing Muslims the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (n. 252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium, n. 16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are linked to“the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (n. 254).

Justification according to the Pope seems to be receivable by following one’s own conscience. It is still “by God’s gracious initiative” (although not necessarily by His grace alone), but it is no longer by faith – even by faith alone. It is through the conscience that men and women are linked to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, i.e. the work of Christ as it is re-enacted at the Eucharist, the chief sacrament of the church. Faith in Jesus Christ is gone. The Gospel appears to be not a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead a vehicle to access a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind through the conscience.What about faith in Jesus Christ? What about His justice being credited to the sinner? Are, therefore, all human beings justified ultimately by following their conscience? By grace but not by faith?

At this point, it becomes clear that the Lund reference to justification being “the essence of human existence”  was purposefully and intentionally designed to mean that justification defines everyone’s life, not only that of the believing Christian. This reference in The Joy of the Gospel makes it abundantly clear that the Pope, while using the language of justification, has radically altered its meaning and made it synonymous with a universal existence embracing the whole of humanity. He is using the word in an ambiguous way, but a closer inspection reveals its non-biblical content.

Is Pope Francis’ justification what Luther stood for? And, more decidedly, is this what the Bible teaches about justification? As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, with its recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we know where Luther stood and, in contrast, we know where Trent stood. Where does Pope Francis stand? He is saying radically different things. Therefore, before listing Pope Francis as a friend of the Evangelical faith, we must understand what he is saying on his own terms. Beyond commonalities in the use of words, he belongs to a different world.

142. “The Clay of Paganism with the Iron of Christianity”: Cornelius Van Til’s Critique of Roman Catholicism

October 1st, 2017

This is an excerpt of a much longer paper soon to be published in Rerum Novarum: Neo-Calvinism and Roman Catholicism, James Eglinton and George Harinck, eds. (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury, forthcoming).

In the book of Daniel (chapter 2), Daniel tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in which he saw a great statue. This statue had several parts made of different materials, but the narrative is particularly interested in describing its feet. They were made “partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron”. The text goes on to associate some distinctive properties to both materials: the iron speaks of “firmness”, while the clay is materially and metaphorically “soft”. The statue’s feet were partly strong and partly brittle (3:42). After describing the feet, Daniel becomes the interpreter of the dream. The mixture of iron and clay gave the statue a very weak foundation because iron and clay don’t hold together. The statue therefore seemed powerful and looked frightening, but in reality it stood on shaky legs and weak feet. It was going to be broken into pieces by a stone that was “cut out by no human hand” (3:34) and carried away by the wind.

Interestingly, Dutch philosopher and theologian Cornelius Van Til (1896-1987) used the metaphor of the mixture between “clay” and “iron” to describe his view of Roman Catholicism.

Clay and Iron in Roman Catholicism

Van Til argued that “Romanists mix a great deal of the clay of paganism with the iron of Christianity”.[1] The result is a religious framework in which a variety of different materials merge so as to form a composite and complex system of thought which is neither mere paganism nor mere Christianity: it is a synthesis of both, a combination of different materials. These metaphors suggest the idea that Roman Catholicism is not a random encounter between different elements, but rather a sophisticated mélange whereby clay and iron are joined together in something unique, distinct, and new.

This point is worth unpacking. Van Til argued that the fundamental nature of Roman Catholicism is not the on-going, organic development of the early form of Christianity, as John Henry Newman’s account of Catholicism suggests.[2] On the contrary, it is characterized by a structural combination of Christian and non-Christian features that lies at the very heart of the Roman Catholic fabric. The theological task of a Reformed apologetic is to detect this combination, assess it, and constructively criticise it against the background of a Reformed worldview. The ultimate constitution of Roman Catholicism is, for Van Til, marred by the co-existence of Christian and non-Christian elements.

Shifting the focus from categories to contents, Roman Catholicism is, for Van Til, the historical outcome of a process of assimilation of non-Christian and pagan thought-products by what used to be authentic Christianity, which has led to a radical transformation of the latter. Actually, Van Til went so far as to argue that Roman Catholicism is, strictly speaking, “a deformation of Christianity”[3] itself, whereby non-Christian presuppositions and pagan connotations are given a Christianised status and contribute to shaping the whole system in ways that depart from the original outlook. Thus, the Christian “iron” and the pagan “clay” are constitutive parts of the system and are the two legs maintaining the system. Or, in Van Til’s terms, “the concrete blocks may be those of Christianity, but the cement is nothing other than the sand of paganism”.[4]

What is important to underline here is that, according to Van Til, the combination of “iron” and “clay” is to be found everywhere in the Catholic system, perhaps not always in the same measure and balance, but nevertheless throughout the whole spectrum of its theological horizon. The point of difference between the Reformed and the Roman Catholic systems is not in one particular locus on only a few isolated doctrines (e.g. ecclesiology, Mariology, soteriology), but rather is traceable in all loci. The synthesis may be less evident or consistent in some domains than others, but it is to be found everywhere because of the constitutive composite nature of Roman Catholicism. For Van Til, there may be “formal” occasional agreements with the Reformed view, but a closer scrutiny will highlight the presence of iron and clay scattered everywhere beyond the surface of apparent convergences.

The Roman Catholic “Aristotle-Christ” and “Kant-Christ”

Van Til’s view of Roman Catholicism can be summarized in this way: Roman Catholicism is a dynamic and evolving synthesis of Christian and pagan elements. The iron and the clay stand intermingled, forming an inextricable combination that mars the whole fabric of the system. The most established forms are the Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the Kant-Christ synthesis. In the Middle Ages, the Church’s reliance on the writings of Aristotle ended up suffocating the Catholic Christ. In modernity it is Kant who has become the destroyer of the Catholic Christ. There is a significant difference between these syntheses, but also substantial continuity because of the stability of the overarching system that supports them. Roman Catholicism does not stand on Christ alone, but on Christ plus something else.

According to Van Til, the system is governed by a thoroughgoing et-et (both-and) epistemology that needs – indeed requires – the supplementation of Christ with something else. In Van Til’s way of putting it, “the former Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the former Kant-Christ synthesis have joined hands to form the Aristotle-Kant-Christ synthesis”.[5] Modern Catholicism is therefore “a synthesis of medieval essentialism and modern existentialism”.[6] There is no epistemological safeguard that is granted by the Solus Christus principle, but the catholicity of the system makes it possible to expand it in various ways, depending on historical circumstances.

Limits and Insights

Methodologically speaking, Van Til’s systemic approach sometimes prevented him from dealing more extensively with Catholic sources and allowing them to speak for themselves. He often seemed to deductively presume what Catholicism holds, rather than actually following the train of reasoning of individual Roman Catholic theologians or the official Magisterium. Less attention was given to important details and nuances than was granted to the big picture. Moreover, from a theological point of view, he did not invest as much energy in studying post-Vatican II developments as he had done in exploring Thomistic Catholicism. Because the Second Vatican Council is only touched on superficially and selectively, Van Til’s post-Vatican II perspectives are only sketched briefly and are in need of further elaboration in order to become plausible.

Nonetheless, his apologetic method, which looked for the “heart” of a religious worldview in order to figure out what is at stake as far as its basic orientation is concerned, is an asset that cannot be underestimated. Much ecumenical dialogue focuses on minutiae and loses sight of the big picture. Going back to Daniel’s dream, Van Til helps to see the vision of the big statue as a whole and to notice its intrinsically weak foundation if iron and clay are to be found in its legs. This is not only true for Roman Catholicism, of course. Every Christian tradition needs to ask itself to what degree iron and clay are mixed in its building blocks and to be self-critical about the Gospel sustainability of its foundation.

What Van Til argued is that although there is considerable diversity in its forms of expression, Roman Catholicism is a basically unitary reality whose underlying tenets can be discerned. 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 frame of reference of Roman Catholic theology. Any analysis which does not take into account the fact that Roman Catholicism is a system will fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding of it. In this task Van Til was, and continues to be, a voice that may not sound ecumenically friendly, but is nonetheless prophetically true.

[1]  Defense of the Faith, 221.

[2] e.g. Newman’s classical work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London: James Toovey 1845).

[3]  Christian Apologetics, 41; DF, 71 (italics in the original).

[4]   DF, 221.

[5]  Christian Theory of Knowledge, 185. Later in the same book, Van Til writes: “the (Catholic) church has enlarged the vision of herself and of her mission by means of adding the Kant-Christ synthesis with which neo-orthodox Protestantism operates to its own Aristotle-Christ synthesis”, 192.

[6]  CTK, 193.


New book on Mary!

September 20th, 2017

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book. Make sure you get a copy!

A Christian's Pocket Guide to Mary

A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Mary

Mother of God?

Pages: 128
Trim: Pocket paperback (178 x 110mm)
Isbn 13: 9781527100602
List Price: £4.99

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  • Latest in the Christian’s Pocket Guide series
  • A small study on the theology of Mary
  • Her life, character, and impact

The Bible is full of inspiring characters and astonishing events. But, although Mary has without question one of the most wonderful stories, she can often be ignored – to be remembered only once a year at Christmas. This Pocket Guide title looks at the life and character of Mary – and her unique significance in the gospel story.

About Leonardo De Chirico

Leonardo De Chirico has been involved in a church planting project in Rome and is now pastor of the church Breccia di Roma (www.brecciadiroma.it). He is lecturer of Historical Theology at Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (www.ifeditalia.org) and vice-chairman of the Italian Evangelical Alliance (www.alleanzaevangelica.org).


Leonardo De Chirico, one of the leading evangelical thinkers on Roman Catholicism, including its post-Vatican II phase, knows all the ins and outs of the history and theology of Catholicism, from years of study and first-hand experience in Padua and Rome. Against the temptation to think Mariology is just a side-show in Catholicism, he shows how it fits hand in glove with the Roman Church’s doctrine of grace.

Paul Wells, Emeritus Professor, Faculté Jean Calvin, France, Editor in Chief of Unio cum Christo


This is the book I have been searching for! De Chirico’s A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Mary is unique in clearly and succinctly bringing together in one place Mary in the Scriptures and Mary in the history of Christian thought and practice, right up to the present day.

Rachel Ciano, Lecturer in Church History at Sydney Missionary and Bible College; church-planter in a multicultural, urban area of Sydney.


Never before have I read a more masterfully written book on the subject. Leonardo De Chirico marries scholarship with an easily readable style that makes the book extremely useful both for personal and group studies. It is a concise and well researched masterpiece from one of the world’s leading experts on Roman Catholicism and recommendable both to Catholics and Protestants who want to understand one of the most misunderstood and controversial issues in Church History.

José Hutter, Chairman of the Theological Commission of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance


Leonardo De Chirico is one of my most trusted authorities on Roman Catholic doctrine. He has gained my confidence because he is always equally charitable, winsome, and well-informed. In this short book he demonstrates what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about Mary and aptly proves why so much of it is opposed to the plain teaching of the Bible. I heartily commend it to you.

Tim Challies, Blogger at www.challies.com

141. “Greater Oneness in Christ”: What Does it Mean?

September 1st, 2017

“In the journey to overcome internal divisions separating Christians, the top leadership of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Pentecostal World Fellowship (PWF), World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), and the Vatican’s officials for promoting Christian Unity met together, for the first time, in a historic meeting, spending two days facilitating their support of the Global Christian Forum (GCF)”. – Global Christian Forum press release, May 27, 2017

“Historic” may be an overused description, especially when the term is applied not by historians writing 3-4 generations in the future, but by reporters talking about current events. According to the event’s press release, the ecumenical meeting was historic because these leaders – representing  almost the whole of present-day Christianity – committed themselves to work towards “greater oneness in Christ” and pledged to reinforce such a direction in a series of events that will take place in 2018.

The Long Haul Ecumenical Strategy

The announcement of this “historic” meeting comes almost 20 years after the founding of the GCF. The idea of a Forum (i.e. a place to meet and talk) took root in the 1990s as a way to informally gather leaders of different Christian communions around the same table. Such a strategy arose, in part, due to a lack of visible progress in institutional ecumenism and uneasiness among Evangelicals and other less institutionalized Christians towards official ecumenism. With no apparent agenda and no expressed ecumenical intentionality, the Forum sought to be characterized by a relational approach rather than an institutional mindset, and by informality rather than ecclesiastical diplomacy. This more casual format suited Evangelicals and Pentecostals who found it difficult to relate to Rome and the WCC in strictly institutional forms and easier in more informal patterns. Much of evangelicalism is formed from local and regional loose networks, rather than top-down hierarchical institutions. Both the WEA and WPF welcomed GCF and became part of it without perhaps appreciating the long-term ecumenical goals of GCF and without pondering the ecumenical process they were joining.

After 20 years, it becomes clear that the agenda of GCF was to bypass the roadblock of a formalized ecumenical journey with the long-term goal of including sectors of Christianity that are statistically growing (and that happen to be vocally critical of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal tendencies in mainstream ecumenism). It is telling that after 20 years of the informal and relational ecumenism of the GCF, both WEA and WPF are now willing to move further towards “greater oneness” with representatives of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal Christianity without the latter becoming less Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal. The change on the part of these Evangelicals and Pentecostals is indeed significant.

What is at Stake with “Greater Oneness”

What does committing to greater unity mean? Of course, the word “unity” is used in different ways according to context, but in ecumenical theological “unity” it has a fairly established and stable meaning. In this sense, unity refers to a harmony of the baptized, i.e. those who have received the sacrament of the initiation to the Christian life, in view of the sacramental unity around the same Eucharistic table and within the same institutional structures of the church.

So far, Evangelicals and Pentecostals have been talking about unity among “born again” believers in view of loose partnerships aimed at evangelism, social action, and mission. If they commit to “greater oneness” with the Roman Catholic Church and WCC, they need to reflect on what they become committed to:

1. Unity among the baptized. They will be pressed to consider as “brothers and sisters” all those who have received baptism in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal Protestant churches, whether or not they are born again Christians. The reality on the ground is that most of these Christians are baptized only in name, without any personal commitment to Christ. Greater oneness means that we are all “brothers and sisters” not because we are born-again believers in Christ, but because we are all baptized. If we are all “brothers and sisters”, evangelism done by Evangelicals in majority Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox contexts becomes unnecessary. Is this what Evangelicals and Pentecostals believe and find acceptable?

2. Unity as conveyed by the same sacraments and within the same institutions. According to ecumenical theology, “greater oneness” means sacramental unity and institutional unity. This means not only baptism, but the sacramental theologies and practices of Rome (e.g. the Eucharist as sacrifice and re-enacting the cross) and Eastern Orthodox churches need to be accepted as legitimate Christian practice. Moreover, “greater oneness” means that the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, with its complex political, diplomatic, and economic power (e.g. the papacy, the Vatican state and bank) become legitimate ways of representing the church that Jesus Christ promised to build. Evangelicals have always been clear in denouncing all deviations from clear biblical teaching, yet committing to “greater oneness” means that they have to stop doing so because of ecumenical etiquette. Is this what Evangelicals and Pentecostals believe and find acceptable?

Who Decides What?

For the WEA and WPF to commit to “greater oneness” with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal churches is a huge step that significantly changes historic beliefs and practices. It is a watershed event that impinges on biblical convictions (e.g. unity among believers only) that are now stretched in order to make them compatible with mainstream ecumenical correctness. Have we really counted the cost?

A final question remains to be asked. Who decided to move forward? Was there any public decision of the WEA constituency that empowered the leadership to move towards “greater oneness”? Was there an open discussion about the implications? Was there a decisional process based on the involvement of the grass-roots movements? As far as it is possible to know, there was no involvement on regional and national discussion, let alone a vote of the General Assembly.

The fact is that WEA did not ask its constituency to vote to become part of GCF, let alone receive a vote to move forward towards “greater oneness”. Given the “historic” nature of the decision and the wide-ranging theological implications, it is awkward to say the least that the local churches and regional networks that this body claims to represent were not even consulted beforehand. This operational mode undermines the trust essential in horizontal networks such as WEA. When few people decide on their own a question of this magnitude without a serious discussion with the people they supposedly represent, it is the beginning of the end of this historical evangelical network and a transformation into top-down hierarchical organization, which is a completely different thing.

As far as WEA is concerned, the last document that was voted by a General Assembly is Roman Catholicism. A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective (1986). After a careful analysis of present-day Roman Catholicism in its doctrine and practice, the document ends by arguing that unity is desirable but not at the expense of biblical truth and that there are still “unsurmountable obstacles” between Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church because of their divergent accounts of the gospel. Millions of evangelicals are still convinced that this is case and do not see any biblical reason to move towards “greater oneness”.


140. Is the Roman Catholic Church Now Committed to “Grace Alone”?

August 1st, 2017

Many commentators with good intentions, even on the evangelical side, have rightly given attention to what seems to be the heart of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation. No. 15 solemnly says:

By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

If read out of context and in a theologically naïve way, this sentence could be a relevant and pointed summary of the biblical message concerning the mode of justification (by grace only and not based on merits), the means of justification (by faith alone), the grounds of justification (the saving work of Christ), and the consequences of justification (divine adoption and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the renewal of the heart and the activation of the Christian life). However, every sound exercise in theological hermeneutics, including the reading of the documents of the ecumenical dialogue, must take into account the immediate and more general context, the meaning of the words used, and the consequences of what is being claimed. Taken out of context, No. 15 would make much sense from an evangelical perspective. Yet it must be considered as an integral part of the JDDJ and therefore must be understood in relation to the whole document.

Sacramental Grace

Presenting the various aspects of the doctrine, the Catholic and Lutheran Churches agree on a sacramental understanding of grace. It is this sacramental framework that qualifies the reference to the expression “by grace alone” contained in No. 15. Together, in fact, they declare that “by the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they (the sinners) are granted the gift of salvation” (No. 25), thus undermining the idea that it is only by grace that God saves sinners through faith alone. Lutheran theology, with its theology of regenerational baptism, actually runs this risk. Later, in No. 28, the JDDJ states (always with both parties affirming this together) that “in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person”. It is not surprising, however, that the Catholic clarification on this point forcefully underlines that “persons are justified through baptism as hearers of the word and believers in it” (No. 27). On the one hand, then, JDDJ wants to affirm the importance of the declaration of the righteousness of God received by faith. On the other, though, it reiterates the need for sacramental action through the mediation of the church as essential for justification and, therefore, for salvation.

The Catholic point is further reinforced through the claim that Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ is “imparted” in baptism (No. 30). According to this view, grace is not received by faith alone, but is granted by God through the Church that administers it in baptism. This statement cannot be reconciled with the view according to which salvation is by grace alone apart from works, even sacramental ones. So for all the good intentions expressed and the admirable effort in dialogue, the result is below expectations and beyond an obedient adherence to the biblical Word of God. In contemporary Roman Catholicism we see a total consistency with respect to the traditional doctrine, that is, that justification occurs at baptism by a sacramental act.

Stretching Trent Rather than Reforming Rome

For the Catholic Church, the “by grace alone” of No. 15 means that grace is intrinsically, constitutionally, and necessarily linked to the sacrament, and thus to the Church that administers it and the works implemented by it. In this view, salvation cannot be by grace alone, unless “by grace alone” is understood as the same grace being organically incorporated into the sacrament of the Church. We are evidently in the presence of a different concept of grace. In JDDJ there is an attempt to re-describe this theological understanding of salvation in language that looks like the Lutheran one (which the Catholic Church appropriates through the use of such expressions as “by grace alone” of No. 15 and the recognition that works “follow justification and are its fruits” of No. 37). However, this new description does not give the impression of changing the theology of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), according to which grace is sacramental and seen inside of a synergistic dynamic of the process of salvation. This understanding of grace appears to be more in line with the Catholic heritage of the Council of Trent, in an updated form, than with classic Protestant theology. In this sense, JDDJ is a clear exercise in an increased “catholicity” (i.e. the ability to absorb ideas without changing the core) on the part of Rome, which has not become more evangelical in the biblical sense.

You may want to read my comments on the endorsement of the World Communion of Reformed Church to JDDJ, posted on the website of the World Reformed Fellowship.

139. Would You Ever Ask Muslims to Pray for You? Pope Francis Did

July 1st, 2017

In our fragmented and violent world, peaceful and respectful relationships between people of different religions can be crucially important. Such relationships can help us avoid tragedies of religious extremism, such as terrorists attacking their neighbors or political authorities mistreating religious minorities. Pope Francis is working hard to establish and maintain friendly relationships with peoples of all religions, Muslims in particular. In his 2013 programmatic document, he wrote that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities” (The Joy of the Gospel, 250). His relentless encouragement for mutual listening and even cooperation is a clear indication that this is one of the top priorities of the pontificate.

More than Friendships

But there is another side of the coin. Based on Pope Francis’ words and his inter-faith activities and dealings, it is evident that something more is at stake than an attempt at fostering peace and freedom in our world. In a video released in 2016, the Pope appeared with several religious leaders. One after another, each leader affirmed his or her beliefs in a celebration of religious pluralism and fraternity. At the end of the video the Pope concluded by arguing that “there is only one certainty we have for all: we are all children of God”. The message could have hardly been clearer. “We are all children of God” sounded like an endorsement for a pluralistic religion whereby all different theologies and worldviews are legitimate and truthful ways to live out one’s own faith, with the Pope of the Roman Church ultimately endorsing their validity.

For those Christians who are committed to the words of Jesus as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and the words of the apostles according to whom there is no other name (i.e. Jesus Christ) by which men can be saved (Acts 4:12), Pope Francis’ statement that “we are all children of God” was puzzling and perplexing to say the least.

“Pray for Me”

A new and surprising instance of the Pope’s inter-faith theology came more recently. While meeting a delegation of Muslim leaders from Great Britain (April 5th, 2017), and after praising the value of listening to one another as “brothers and sisters”, Francis ended his brief speech by saying: “When we listen and talk to each other, we are already on the path. I thank you for taking this path and ask almighty and merciful God to bless you. And I ask you to pray for me.” The official text of the Pope’s greeting is in Italian and was published in the daily Vatican bulletin.

“Pray for me”. The audience of this prayer request was a group of Muslim leaders, worshippers of Allah, bound to the authority of the Koran, denying the Triune nature of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, following a work-based religion. The Pope went beyond diplomatic politeness or even the cordial, inter-religious tone of the conversation. He addressed these Muslims by asking for their prayers, using language that is ordinarily used among fellow Christians.

Massive Implications

The theological implications of this prayer request are massive. Let’s briefly point to some of the most obvious ones. “Pray for me” is an expression of deep fellowship among fellow believers. Pope Francis often asks people to pray for him, but the general context in which this request normally takes place is when he gathers with those who share his faith. This time it happened in the context of an inter-religious meeting. This request shows that when the Pope talked about all religious people being “children of God” he did not simply mean members of the human family. He meant those belonging to the same spiritual family, all part of the same people of God. Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, etc. are all “children of God” to him. Biblically speaking, however, does the “children of God” include all religious people, in spite of their beliefs and allegiances?

“Pray for me” also implies that when Muslims pray they pray to the same God of the Bible. This is the conviction held by the Pope from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), according to which Muslims “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day” (Lumen Gentium, 16). With his request, however, the Pope goes even further, inferring that the God of the Bible is not only worshipped by Muslims, but He even responds to their petitions as if they were His children. Does not the Scripture teach that our confidence in prayer lies in Jesus being the High Priest and in whose name we can boldly approach the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16)?

Asking Muslims to pray for you goes way beyond the good intention of cultivating friendly and peaceful relationships. It is a theological statement that impinges on basic biblical doctrines such as the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the authority of Scripture, and salvation in Jesus Christ alone. In other words, the very biblical Gospel is at stake. The Pope’s dismaying request has significantly distorted it.