Author Archives: Leonardo De Chirico

128. How Does the Catholic Church Rejuvenate?

September 1st, 2016

Hierarchical. Institutional. Sacramental. Traditional. This set of markers defines the essence of the Roman Catholic Church as a permanent, conservative, top down religious organization. This is only one side of the coin, however. Rome is also home to movements and groups that express a different sociological outlook. Especially after the Second Vatican Council, many new forms of community have blossomed in the Catholic world: think of the Charismatic Renewal movement, the Focolare movement, the Neocatechumenal way, Communion and Liberation, Cursillos de Cristanidad, just to name a few of the most known Catholic groups that involve millions of people around the world. Today, these movements attract growing numbers of people and are the means by which the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in the West, counters the decline. While the traditional parish model hobbles these movements generally flourish. Serving the “missionary” input encouraged by Pope Francis, they are able to attract new people or to re-engage disconnected Catholics.

The relationship of these two components of the Catholic Church has not always been easy. The territorial dimension of the hierarchical church, centered on the authority of the bishop, has found it difficult to come to terms with the charismatic energy of the movements, more inclined to follow their own lay leaders than the local bishops. The well established patterns of the former have at times clashed with the innovative ways of the latter. The remoteness of much nominal Catholic practice appears to be very different from the intensity offered by the movements. Tensions were experienced to the point of undermining the unity of the Roman Church.

Iuvenescit Ecclesia

After years of gradual and progressive integration of the movements in the sacramental and institutional structure of the Roman Church, it is no surprise to find that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the highest authoritative Vatican voice in matters of doctrine) recently came out with a document addressing this very topic (May 15, 2016). Iuvenescit Ecclesia (the Church rejuvenates) is a detailed study on how the hierarchical and charismatic gifts need to match in the life of the Church. The whole point is to show the necessity and compatibility of both. According to the document, the church is hierarchical in its nature. It is in and through the hierarchy that the Church is also sacramental, i.e. the church dispenses God’s grace through the sacraments, the Eucharist being the most important one, and lives out its peculiar form of communion, i.e. the church being cum Petro (with Peter, with the Pope) and sub Petro (under Peter, under the Pope). Quoting Vatican II but failing to support it biblically, the Vatican Congregation argues that “Jesus Christ Himself willed that there be hierarchical gifts in order to ensure the continuing presence of his unique salvific mediation” (14). What that means is that Christ’s mediation is made present in the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church.

While re-affirming the absolute necessity of the hierarchical nature of the Roman Catholic Church, the document also speaks of “coessentiality” (10) in introducing the charismatic gifts. Both the hierarchical and the charismatic dimensions are essential for the church to be such. Applying this theological point to the issue at stake the document argues that the present-day ecclesial movements are legitimate expressions of the charismatic dimension of the church. They are corporate manifestations of the inner vitality of the hierarchical Church. The only way to secure the “harmonic connection” (7) is to serve the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the church centered on the Pope and the bishops. If this point is preserved, the movements have freedom to exist within the Roman Catholic Church.

Both-And

Following Vatican II, the documents applies the integration process that has been characterizing Roman Catholic theology and practice since its beginnings. The system opens itself up to the point of integrating the new point, the new emphasis, the new movement, making sure that it does not harm its stability but serves its expansion. Each movement captures a new form of spirituality, a specific devotional emphasis, a distinct way of living out the Roman Catholic faith, and inserts it into the wider synthesis held together by the hierarchical Church. The stability of the institution is matched with the dynamism of the ecclesial movements. The vertical and hierarchical structure of the former is countered by the horizontal breadth of the latter. The absorption of these movements is the last instance of the catholicity of Rome expanding its platform without renewing its core.

The current flurry of activity within Roman Catholic movements does not indicate, in and of itself, that there is hope for a biblical reformation within the Roman Catholic Church in an evangelical sense. It will only be as these movements make changes in the structural elements underlying the nature of Roman Catholicism, not expanding it further but purifying it in the light of God’s Word, that they can have a truly reforming function according to the Gospel. In today’s scenario, these movements, although interesting, seem to promote the Roman Catholic project of integration rather than that of biblical reformation. As the document makes it clear, these movements are meant to rejuvenate Rome, not to reform it biblically.

 

    127. Is the Ecumenical Martin Luther the Real Luther?

    August 1st, 2016

    As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is approaching, it is no surprise to find books wanting to offer fresh accounts of Martin Luther’s theology and legacy. Who was this man? What was his message then and how do we understand it five centuries after? Walter Kasper’s recent volume on Luther (in German: Martin Luther. Eine ökumenische Perspektive,; in Italian: Martin Lutero. Una prospettiva ecumenica) is a valuable contribution to the on-going discussion on the historical and theological significance of the beginnings of the Reformation. Cardinal Kasper is one of the most authoritative living theologians in the Roman Catholic Church and he is highly appreciated by Pope Francis because of his work on the theology of mercy, the center of Francis’ pontificate. Since Kasper was President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 1999 to 2010, his analysis of Luther is also worth reading because it gives voice to widespread ecumenical evaluations and concerns.

    Dialectical Interpretation

    Kasper’s book focuses on Luther’s remoteness with regards to our contemporary culture. From the introduction onward Luther is painted as being a “stranger” for the modern public opinion. Very few people nowadays understand his existential questions framed with the language of sin, a guilty conscience, and the fear of divine judgment. Those theological categories and the controversies around them seem “irrelevant” today. These are “outdated” issues coming from a démodé character immersed in medieval mysticism and anti-scholastic polemics. Yet, according to Kasper, Luther was grappling with the “question of God” in his own cultural ways and patterns. He is outdated but his basic concerns are perennial. They need to be heavily decoded in order to be represented in a more palatable way and eventually appreciated.

    Kasper’s interpretation of Luther is therefore dialectical: on the one hand, Luther appears to be very far and in need of significant filtering to be dealt with; on the other Luther is asking the vital questions provided that one understands what he is saying. There is truth in this, of course. As it is the case with any historical character, Luther belongs to a remote world and cultural bridges are necessary in order to meet him. The Cardinal, though, seems to distance the reader from approaching Luther in his own terms by encouraging her to apply a deconstructive interpretation that will tame the German reformer and make him closer to us postmodern Westerners. The impression is that Luther needs to be freed from his idiosyncratic edges and this is something that an ecumenical reinterpretation of him may help doing.

    Kasper suggests many cautionary remarks in encountering Luther, perhaps too many to allow Luther to speak for himself. For example, are we sure that Luther’s concerns (sin, guilt, judgment and therefore grace, faith, the gospel) belong to a buried theological baggage in need of being updated with friendlier present-day standards? Wasn’t Luther rediscovering biblical truths that were blurred in medieval Christianity but are central for the Christian faith in all ages? Ultimately, the issue at stake is whether or not Luther is to be rescued from himself in order to be heard by the church and the world. Kasper seems to pit the confessional “bad” Luther against the ecumenical “good” Luther. Is this a fair way of coming to terms with Martin Luther?

    Reformation or New Evangelization?

    After Vatican II (1962-1965), Roman Catholic scholarship on Luther has seen a significant change of perspective. For centuries he was blamed with all possible theological evils (e.g. being a heretic and schismatic) and personal failures (e.g. prone to drunkness, chasing women). Since the work of church historians like Joseph Lortz, Luther has been mildly appreciated as a sincere reformer who has tragically gone astray. Nowadays, Catholic scholarship considers Luther as a wayward child of the church, provided that his work is excised of all hard line Protestant elements. This is also what Walter Kasper is convinced of.

    According to the Cardinal, Luther belongs to a cloud of witnesses who across the centuries have sought to introduce measures of renewal in the church. Kasper mentions St. Francis of Assisi as one of them preceding Luther. The German reformer went further though, and dramatically so. With his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers he undermined the sacramental structure of the church. With his insistence on the primacy of grace he severed his theology from the optimism of Christian humanism. Instead of exercising patience and longsuffering, Luther changed an emergency situation of tensions within the church in an ordinary condition of separation and controversy. The result was schism and the beginning of a fractured confessional age that now needs to be overcome by the ecumenical age. The question is: have Luther’s basic questions been settled to move from conflict to communion?

    Kasper is convinced that if Luther would appear today he would support the New Evangelization that the Roman Catholic Church is engaged in, i.e. the attempt to draw baptized but not practicing Catholics back to the Church by reaffirming the traditional body of Catholic teachings and practices. The book is an attempt to save Luther from himself and to facilitate his symbolic return to the Roman Catholic Church, dropping his teachings on grace alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone. The New Evangelization is the Roman Catholic re-packaged program of inner renewal that has absorbed some Reformation inputs while rejecting its main doctrinal outlook. Would Martin Luther accept the deal? Perhaps the book speaks more of Kasper and present-day Roman Catholic reinterpretations of history than of Luther and his permanent call to retrieve the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

      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.

       

        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.

          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.

          __________

          * 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].

            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.

              122. Cooperating with the Roman Catholic Church? A Lesson from Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984)

              April 1st, 2016

              In our global world, a cluster of questions are before evangelicals: Should we collaborate with Catholics? On which topics or areas? How far should we go? Is it possible to do mission together?

              Of course, much depends on the various contexts and those who are involved. For example, is it one thing to work with individual Catholics or lay groups; it is something else to join hands with the institutional Church of Rome. It is one thing is to work together on areas of common concern in society, e.g. the promotion of Judeo-Christian values in society; it is an altogether different issue to engage in common mission and evangelism.

              Alliance and Co-belligerence

              To start unpacking the issues involved, it may be useful to remember the lesson of 20th century Evangelical apologist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Schaeffer was a Christian leader who introduced the expression co-belligerence to the present-day Christian vocabulary. In the midst of the cultural transitions of the Seventies, he encouraged Evangelicals to side with people of other religious persuasions for the sake of promoting specific issues that were shared by a cross-section of society and that were under threat by secular tendencies, especially in the realm of basic moral values. Schaeffer’s call to engage in the public square, working together with non-Christians, has been one of the motivating factors of recent Evangelical involvement in society.

              In suggesting a rationale for co-belligerence, Schaeffer made a distinction between forming alliances and engaging in co-belligerence. On the one hand, an alliance is a kind of unity based on truth, and therefore has to do with born-again Christians only who receive Scripture as the standard of their lives. On the other, co-belligerence focuses on a specific issue and is open to all those who share it, whatever their backgrounds and the goals that motivate them. Here is how Schaffer defines it: “Co-belligerent is a person with whom I do not agree on all sorts of vital issues, but who, for whatever reasons of their own, is on the same side in a fight for some specific issue of public justice”.[1] For Schaeffer this distinction reflects Scriptural principles about unity among believers and cooperation among people of different faiths. Co-belligerence is not another way of talking about ecumenism. The latter has to do with unity of believers according to the Bible; the former is related to possible cooperative efforts among different people and beyond agreement on central truths of the Gospel.

              Biblical Foundations

              The distinction between alliance and co-belligerence reflects the teaching of Scripture. Unity exists deep within the people of God on the basis of a common faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:1-16). This unity allows alliances in terms of worship, prayer, evangelism and Gospel witness. This unity allows the church to work out the Great Commission that Jesus gave to go all over the world and disciple the nations (Matthew 28:16-20). This type of alliance shows the power of the Gospel to reconcile different people around the same Lord Jesus who sends His people forth to take the message of reconciliation to the world (2 Corinthians 5:17-20). This unity is not what co-belligerence is all about.

              The Scripture clearly distinguishes the unity of believers in Christ from other types of relationships without separating them. The Bible commands all men and women (Christians included) to inhabit the earth responsibly, taking care of the world and living peacefully as much as possible. Then, the Word of God encourages the church to develop and maintain good relationships with their neighbours and to be committed to the good of others (Genesis 1:27-31; Jeremiah 29:5-7; Titus 3:1-2). In doing what the Bible requires, we will be always in contact with different people who hold a plurality of worldviews and lifestyles. Our family members, co-workers, roommates, and friends may not be believers, yet we are called to live with them for the good of the community.

              In this sense, co-belligerence is necessary, useful and … inevitable. It is a task of our God-given humanity. It is part of our common calling to live in this world without being of the world (John 17:14-18). For the Christian, neither total retreat nor self-imposed exclusion from the world is a viable option. The Christian life requires one to develop and nurture multiple networks of social relations. A mature faith is able to maintain different relationships with different people, without losing its Christian identity and Gospel commitments. The important thing is to practice the distinction between alliance and co-belligerence.

              Alliance or Co-belligerence?

              Back to the question we asked at the beginning. As far as our relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, should evangelicals engage in alliances or acts of co-belligerence? Schaeffer encouraged co-belligerence with people of all persuasions, but would limit alliances to Bible-believing, born again Christians, therefore excluding the Church of Rome as an institution. The basic issue to address is whether or not the Catholic gospel held by the Church of Rome is the biblical gospel in its basic contours. The answer to this question leads to answering the previous one. If the answer is “yes”, i.e. the Roman Catholic gospel is the biblical gospel, then it follows that no theological restriction needs to be put in place. If the answer is “no”, i.e. the Roman Catholic gospel is not the biblical gospel in significant ways, then there needs to be a careful discernment not to blur the distinction between collaborating on social issues and engaging in common mission. The former is possible, the latter isn’t.


              [1] Plan for Action (Old Tappan, NJ: Flemming H. Revell, 1980, p. 68). Schaeffer spoke about co-belligerence in the second chapter of his book The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (1970) various editions.

                121. Karl Barth and Vatican II

                March 8th, 2016

                The interpretation of Roman Catholicism by Karl Barth went through a major change, if not a turning point, with Vatican II (1962-1965). The Council, to which the Swiss theologian did not take part but which he closely followed during and after the conclusion of the sessions, represented for him a testimony of how Roman Catholicism had taken a substantially new direction, away from the mere reiteration of the inherited legacy of XVI century anti-Protestantism, XIX century anti-revolutionary conservatism and the absolutist rigidity of Vatican I (1870).

                The opportunity to meditate on this change is provided in the book by Donald W. Norwood, Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). In this study, based on a doctoral thesis, the English theologian of the United Reformed Church Donald Norwood, examines the understanding of Vatican II by Barth. Norwood is aware that Barth had taken a polemical stance before Vatican II, whereas after Vatican II he emerges as a more “catholic” theologian, that is wanting to address the church in its entirety and totality beyond well-entrenched confessional boundaries. Thinking of Karl Barth’s trajectory, Reinhard Hütter speaks of it as a theological vision marked by “dialectical catholicity” (p. 80) whereby Barth is a catholic theologian, still maintaining his dialectical approach towards the Bible, tradition and the ecclesiastical outlook of the church.

                A Change of Approach

                In reading Vatican II, Barth was struck by the recovery of the Word of God especially reflected in Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation. He saw Catholic theology embracing a more “dynamic” view of the Word of God that in some ways resembled his theology of the Word. According to this shared dynamic understanding of the Word of God, the Bible is the Word only in a relative and secondary sense. The point is that the non-identity view of the Bible and the Word of God was shared both by Barth and Vatican II and gave both theologies their “dynamic” flavor.

                Barth was also impressed by a Christocentic emphasis of the Council (especially in Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church) that may be compared to the Christological concentration of his own theology. Finally, he was further impressed by the desire for unity that he read in the conciliar texts. Bringing all of these elements together, Barth became convinced that the remaining differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were no longer matters of theological substance but needed only to be perceived as multiple emphases within the one and only Church. If before Vatican II Barth had charged Rome of being trapped in the philosophical prison of analogia entis (analogy of being), after Vatican II he endorsed the view according to which the two traditions were ecumenically complementary.

                After Vatican II Barth underlined the more “catholic” elements of the Roman Church focusing on commonalities, rather than criticizing the “roman” aspects of the Catholic Church which might have been controversial. This does not mean that Barth stopped asking deep questions and suggesting issues for discussion; rather his attitude as a whole changed, becoming more ecumenically minded. Norwood mainly focuses on the ecclesiological issues with which Barth continued to critically engage Roman Catholicism, as well as the Catholic readings of Barth by Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and others who did not stop arguing with him. In fact, after Vatican II ecclesiology remains for Barth the decisive difference, while the rest (even Mariology, that for the pre-Vatican II  Barth was the quintessential Catholic error!) is in some way subsumed into the compatible diversity of a plural Christianity. Having said that, for Barth acknowledging ecclesiological diversity no longer means taking a divisive posture with regards to the Roman Catholic Church (p. 188).

                Standing Issues

                Norwood offers a detailed and sympathetic reading of Barth’s interpretation of Vatican II. From the 1960s onwards, the compatibilist and complementary understanding of the relationship between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism became the common denominator of the ecumenical movement to which Barth belonged with conviction.

                The gigantic stature of Karl Barth is undeniable, but these are some of his limits: despite having called attention to the Word of God, his theology of the Word has not actually prevented the long wave of theological liberalism, marked by severe skepticism towards the trustworthiness of the Bible, to become the framework of mainstream Protestantism. In terms of the Protestant evaluation of Roman Catholicism, Barth’s theology of the Word has weakened the evangelical ability to assess Rome having the Bible as supreme standard and has encouraged a dialectical approach which has moved away from Sola Scriptura. Moreover, his seemingly Christocentric theology has been unable to discern the idiosyncratic nature of the Roman Catholic sacramental system, its Mariology and hierarchical structure, thus making all these fundamental elements apparently compatible with a biblical Christology.

                These criticisms are not shared by Norwood, but the question of whether or not Karl Barth’s reading of Vatican II has been beneficial to the Church is worth asking.

                 

                You may be interested in this webinar

                with

                 

                Date & Time:
                17 Mar 2016, 18:00 (London Time)

                 

                The Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, also known as ‘Vatican II’, is widely regarded as one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. Beside the immense influence exerted on Catholic theology and life, the Council has brought aggiornamento to the Roman Church.

                Aggiornamento, or a bringing up to date, does not denote reformation in the evangelical sense but neither is it a merely political and linguistic device aimed at concealing an unchanging reality. It is instead the Catholic way of responding to the need for some form of renewal without altering the fundamental structure inherited from the past.

                This webinar will examine the historical significance of Vatican II and its theological outcomes that continue to shape Roman Catholic identity today.

                Sign up here:

                http://foclonline.org/webinar/aggiornamento-or-what-happened-vatican-ii

                  120. An Atonement-Free Mercy?

                  March 1st, 2016

                  Mercy is by far the most used word by Pope Francis. Actually, it is the interpretative key of his whole pontificate. A book on mercy by Cardinal Kasper was on Bergoglio’s bedside table when he was elected Pope, thus shaping his own personal reflections as he prepared to become pontiff. Mercy was the main rubric of the Synod of the Family when the Pope urged his church to apply less rigorously the “letter” of the teachings on sexuality and to listen more to the “spirit” of inclusion for those who live in various forms of irregular relationships. Mercy is the over-arching theme of the Jubilee Year which Francis indicted in order to offer a year-long display of mercy through the system of indulgences. It is not surprising, therefore, that mercy is also the main theme of his recent speeches where he expounds it and unfolds it. The last instance was the general audience given on February 3rd in Saint Peter’s square.[1]

                  Mercy and Justice

                  The vexed question of the relationship between mercy and justice is central to the Pope’s meditation. Here is how he sets the tone of it: “Sacred Scripture presents God to us as infinite mercy and as perfect justice. How do we reconcile the two?” There seems to be a contradiction between God’s mercy and God’s justice. One way of connecting mercy and justice is through “retributive justice” which “inflicts a penalty on the guilty party, according to the principle that each person must be given his or her due”. Justice is done when one receives what is owed to him. Francis makes reference to a couple of Bible verses that show retributive justice at work but he wants to challenge it. “This path does not lead to true justice because in reality it does not conquer evil, it merely checks it. Only by responding to it with good can evil be truly overcome”. The unnecessary implication here is that retributive justice never produces any good. Does it not?

                  There is a far better way of doing justice according to Francis. “It is a process that avoids recourse to the tribunal and allows the victim to face the culprit directly and invite him or her to conversion, helping the person to understand that they are doing evil, thus appealing to their conscience. And this is beautiful: after being persuaded that what was done was wrong, the heart opens to the forgiveness being offered to it. This is the way to resolve conflicts in the family, in the relationship between spouses or between parents and children, where the offended party loves the guilty one and wishes to save the bond that unites them”. According to the Pope, mercy achieves justice by avoiding tribunals, sentences, and prices to be paid. A whole chunk of what the Bible teaches on justice is chopped out and replaced by a merciful and atonement-less justice. Is it God’s justice though?

                  This is God’s paradigm of mercy, says Francis. “This is how God acts towards us sinners. The Lord continually offers us his pardon and helps us to accept it and to be aware of our wrong-doing so as to free us of it”. What is happening here? No reference is made to the cross, the penalty of sin that was paid there, the wonder of Jesus Christ being punished on our behalf, the need for repentance and conversion for those who believe. Mercy seems to relinquish the cross. The point is that biblical atonement is totally missing here and the resulting view of mercy and justice is severely flawed.

                  What About Atonement?

                  Unfortunately, this is a seriously faulty teaching. Atonement-free justice is one of the popular ways to re-imagine God’s dealings with sin which is practiced by significant trends in contemporary theology. All that sounds connected to punishment, in execution of a lawful sentence, objectively imparted, etc. is seen as belonging to an out-fashioned, patriarchal, legalistic understanding of justice that needs to be overcome by a merciful, restorative, loving extension of pardon. In other words, what contemporary theology seems to reject are the basics of covenant justice instituted by the covenant God of Scripture. This justice presents a righteous Father who is also love, who sent his Son, the God-man Jesus, to pay for sin in order to bring salvation. Fulfilling the Old Testament, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Through His sacrifice, He is God’s provision for the forgiveness of sin.

                  Biblical justice has the cross of Christ at the center (1 Corinthians 1:23): Jesus Christ bore our sin on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). Mercy is possible not because tribunals and sentences are left out and made redundant by an all-embracing love. Mercy is accomplished and displayed exactly because justice was satisfied: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22). Not by us, but by our Substitute, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for us (Romans 5:8). When Pope Francis speaks of mercy, is he missing this fundamental biblical truth?

                    119. Unity … on Which Foundation?

                    February 1st, 2016

                    Unity is one of the most used and perhaps abused words in the present-day Christian vocabulary. The problem is that while the word is the same, its meaning may differ significantly according to who is talking about it. Those who speak about unity may have the impression that they are talking about the same thing because they use the word “unity”, but the reality is that more careful attention is needed in order to avoid unpleasant pitfalls in understanding and communication. The Ecumenical Week of Prayer which takes place in the second half of January is always an opportunity to focus on the different views of Christian unity that are promoted on a global scale. The general message of the Week (which is endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches) is that unity is key for the present and future of Christian witness. Emotionally, this message is very powerful and attractive given the various forms of persecution that Christians suffer in many parts of the world and given the rampant attacks of secularism against Christian values. In the audience on January 20th Pope Francis also made reference to unity, urging Christians of all confessions “to grow in that unity which is greater than what divides us”.[1] Fair enough, but what kind of unity is he talking about?

                    Unity Based on Baptism

                    Commenting on First Peter, the Pope gave a telling insight of the foundation of this unity. Here are his words: “In his Letter, Saint Peter encourages the first Christians to acknowledge the great gift received in Baptism and to live in a way worthy of it. He tells them: ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’. This Week of Prayer invites us to reflect on, and bear witness to, our unity in Christ as God’s People. All the baptized, reborn to new life in Christ, are brothers and sisters, despite our divisions. Through Baptism we have been charged, as Saint Peter tells us, ‘to proclaim the mighty works of the one who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light’”.

                    This rather complex sentence about the foundation of the Christian life needs unpacking. The Pope makes several interesting points about unity here: 1. It is baptism that makes Christians one in Christ; 2. It is baptism that regenerates us; 3. It is baptism that makes us brothers and sisters; 4. It is baptism that commissions us to be witnesses of the mighty works of God. This is the standard Roman Catholic doctrine whereby the most significant turning point in human life happens at baptism, ordinarily administered to infants. Whatever one thinks about this theology of baptism, the implications for Christian unity can be readily outlined: all those who have been baptized are one in Christ. Therefore unity must be sought, lived out and celebrated with all those who have received the sacrament or ordinance of baptism.

                    Building Christian unity on baptism, however, brings several challenges at various levels. In my corner of the world (Italy), for example, a vast majority of people have been baptized and yet very few show any sign of regeneration or even appreciation of basic gospel truths. Many baptized people are as secular or pagan or indifferent or even against any reference to the gospel as their non-baptized, non-Christian fellow citizens. How can Christian unity and brotherhood be based on baptism, then, when in most cases the people who received it consider it a meaningless act and totally removed from their lives?

                    Unity Among Believers

                    More importantly, theologically speaking, unity needs a more biblical foundation than baptism in itself. Rather than being granted through baptism, unity is a gift given to believers in Jesus Christ. According to First Peter, unity is a privilege of those who, having being elected by the Father and sanctified by the Spirit, obey the Son Jesus Christ (1:1-2). They are born again (1:3) and saved (1:5), waiting for their heavenly inheritance (1:4). These are people to whom faith has been granted and is now tested (1:7). This people who responded in faith to God’s initiative are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. In other words, unity is a corollary of the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ which is granted to those who believe in Him.

                    When the Pope speaks about unity as based on baptism, he stands on the ecumenical mainstream consensus about unity. The ecumenical view of unity posits the foundation of unity in the sacrament of baptism. But this view is practically faltering and biblically wrong. There is a far better way to appreciate and to celebrate Christian unity. As the World Evangelical Alliance’s statement of faith argues, we believe “The unity of the Spirit of all true believers[2]. Unity is among believers in Christ. The Lausanne Covenant speaks of unity as it relates to those “who share the same biblical faith” (par. 7)[3], i.e. people who have made a public profession of their faith in the Jesus of the Bible. It is with fellow believers only that Christians can join in prayer asking God to help them “to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3).