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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Preview sample (PDF)

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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).

Reviews

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.

138. Marian Prayers As Shapers of Roman Catholic Theology and Practice

June 1st, 2017

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book by Leonardo De Chirico, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Mary: the Mother of God? (Christian Focus).

Mariology is not a peripheral part of spiritual life for many religious people around the world. Intertwined with lofty dogmatic definitions, it is the practice of devotional and popular Marianism that largely defines the religious experience of many Roman Catholic faithful who pray to her and are devoutly committed to her. The Catechism goes as far as saying that “the Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship” (971). It also implies that when dealing with Marian devotion, one touches a central nerve of the whole of Christian spirituality, not something that can be dealt with independently. So far, in looking at the development of Mariology throughout the centuries, and the incremental theological significance attached to it, the focus has been both historical and theological. At this point, we want to concentrate on the manifold aspects of Marian devotions to appreciate their phenomenological variety, religious depth, and social pervasiveness in people’s lives.

Prayers

Prayer to Mary is what quintessentially defines Marian spirituality. Mary is perhaps the most invoked figure in many religious quarters. As an acclaimed mother, she is movingly sought by those seeking help and strength. As she is eminently given veneration, she is approached with reverence and awe. As she is magnified with extravagant titles, she has centre stage in peoples’ hearts.

An entry point into the world of Marian prayers is the collection put together by Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). Liguori, an Italian Catholic bishop who was proclaimed saint in 1839 and eventually Doctor of the Church in 1871, spent many years gathering the best material on Mary he could find from various sources that were used in the liturgical practice of the church.[1] In his book, Liguori explains that Mary is “our life, our sweetness and our hope,” and goes on to argue that Mary’s intercession on our behalf is powerful to the point of enabling sinners to regain the state of grace. Mary can be approached confidently because she can obtain for us from her divine Son anything she asks for. Moreover, devotion to her is a most certain mark of eternal salvation. This book has been shaping Marian devotions since becoming the reference point for subsequent Mariological reflection. Against the background of such deep theological and devotional vision, the list of prayers mirrors a Marian-centred spirituality: “Hail Holy Queen”, “Regina Coeli” (Queen of Heaven), and “Ave Maris Stella” (Hail Star of Ocean) are only few of the most common and popular Marian prayers.

Rosary

Another significant form of Marian prayer is related to the Rosary. The word rosary means “crown of roses”. The conviction behind this expression is that Mary has revealed to several people that each time they say a “Hail Mary” they are giving her a rose and each complete Rosary makes her a crown of roses. The rose is the queen of flowers, and so the rosary is the rose of all devotions and therefore the most important one. The Holy Rosary is considered a perfect prayer because within it is the awesome story of salvation retold in a way that highlights Mary’s central role in redemption. With the Rosary, devotees meditate on the mysteries of joy, sorrow, and the glory of Jesus and Mary, thus internalizing the blurred analogy between Mary and the Son.[2] Gone is the story of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection as the Bible tells it. Instead, the Rosary is a powerful tool to shape one’s own imagination in terms of the pervasive presence and agency of Mary in whatever the Triune God is and does. The whole orientation of Roman Catholic “biblical theology” is inherently Marian, in that Mary is thought of as sharing the prerogatives and roles of the Son.

Marian devotions profoundly shape the life of prayer, religious arts, the arrangement of sacred space and time, the imaginations and emotions of people, even becoming a reference point in mapping global territory. In all its theological force and devotional ramifications, Mariology is an inescapable, all-embracing, and fundamental tenet of Roman Catholic theology and practice. Moreover, it is a deeply troubling development because it is impossible to see a linear and coherent connection between this Marian devotion and the more sobering account of what the Bible actually says about Mary.

 

[1] Part of this collection can be found in St. Alphonsus Liguori, Hail Holy Queen. An Explanation of the Salve Regina (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publ., 1995).

[2] A full explanation of the significance of the Rosary can be found in John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter  Rosarium Virginis Mariae (2002): https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_20021016_rosarium-virginis-mariae.html.

The Need for Clarification: Is the Reformation Over?

Five centuries ago the Reformers re-discovered the Bible and its powerful and joyful message that salvation comes to us by faith alone. Last October the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement was released by the Reformanda Initiative, which clarified why Evangelicals affirm the Reformers’ convictions that our final authority is the Bible and that we are justified by faith alone. Hundreds of Evangelical leaders and scholars from around the world signed the Statement.
But not everyone was positive toward the Statement “Is the Reformation Over?”  Some have criticized it harshly and even accused the signers of bearing false witness.  Thus we thought that a response to these accusations and criticisms was not only appropriate, but necessary. We believe that the hundreds of Evangelical leaders and scholars from across the world who signed the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement would have been tarred by these false accusations if a response was not provided.

For this reason the Reformanda Initiative believed it right to write “A Need for Clarification: Is the Reformation Over?“. We believe, however, that this article can have a purpose beyond the immediate controversy.  As the article explains,

Our hope is that this article may serve a wider audience. Because the topic of the relationship between Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism is crucially important, especially given that this year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, our anticipation is that this article may be useful to clarify why the Reformation is not over and what both Roman Catholics and Evangelicals actually believe.

Please visit our website, http://isthereformationover.com/, read the article, sign it, and share it!

 


137. Sanctuaries As Places of Evangelization. Are They Really?

May 1st, 2017

Evangelization seems to be a popular word. Being traditionally part of the vocabulary used by evangelicals (often referred to as “evangelism”), it has become increasingly used by Roman Catholics too. It was Paul VI with his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi who introduced it in Catholic language. It was Benedict XVI who launched in 2010 a new Vatican department to support efforts towards the “new evangelization”. It is Pope Francis who regularly speaks about and practices forms of evangelization, making it a central task of the Church, as attested in his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel.

The word “evangelization” is therefore used across the spectrum of the Christian world. The question is: What is the meaning of it? How is it defined? What does it refer to? In his last motu proprio (i.e. a document signed by the Pope on his own initiative) on April 1st, 2017, Pope Francis opens a window on what he has in mind when he speaks about evangelization. The document is entitled Sanctuarium in Ecclesia (The Sanctuary in the Church) and transfers the competences on the sanctuaries to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the Vatican department inaugurated by Benedict XVI. The basic idea is that sanctuaries and shrines are thought of as being primary places where evangelization takes place and must be encouraged.

Focus on Sanctuaries

What is a sanctuary? Fatima, Guadalupe, Aparecida, Lourdes … these are places where major sanctuaries attract millions of pilgrims and visitors every year. These are shrines dedicated to Mary or to a particular saint, at which special devotions are practiced and promoted in the form of rosaries, prayers, pilgrimages, contemplation of sacred images, etc. They are home to popular forms of spirituality that endure in spite of the steady decline of religious practice associated with the local parish.

Francis explains that sanctuaries are places “where popular piety has felt firsthand the mysterious presence of the Mother of God, the saints and the blessed”. In approaching and entering them, many people “deeply experience the closeness of God, the tenderness of the Virgin Mary and the company of the Saints: an experience of true spirituality that cannot be devalued”. God, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are all considered to be part of the same spiritual experience. Moreover, “many Shrines have been perceived as part of the lives of individuals, families and communities to the extent that they have shaped the identity of entire generations, even affecting the history of some nations”.

Therefore, given their inspirational and symbolic importance, “walking towards the Sanctuary and participating in the spirituality expressed by these places is already an act of evangelization that deserves to be valued for its intense pastoral value”. It follows that “the Shrines, in the variety of their forms, express an irreplaceable opportunity for evangelization in our time” and “a genuine place of evangelization”.

What Evangelization Are We Talking About?

We come back to the question previously asked. The word evangelization is used here; the practice of it is apparently endorsed. Evangelicals, for whom the word strikes deep spiritual chords, may celebrate the emphasis that the Roman Catholic Church is putting on evangelization. Yet a careful and honest reading of the document shows that the kind of “evangelization” the Pope is advocating for here is something utterly distant from the biblical meaning of the word.

According to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, perhaps the most representative evangelical document of the 20th century, evangelism is “the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (n. 4). Notice the different elements of this neat and clear definition: “proclamation”, “historical and biblical Christ”, “persuasion”, “personal reconciliation to God”. None of these elements can be found in what happens in and around the shrines according to the Pope. There is no proclamation of the biblical gospel, but rather contemplation of sacred images and the practice of other forms of Catholic piety. There is little focus on the biblical Saviour and Lord, but rather devotion to Mary and the saints. There is no persuasion to abandon one’s own idols to turn to the living God, but rather encouragement to cultivate deeply entrenched forms of spurious spirituality. There is little or no talk of the necessity of being reconciled to God, but rather the reinforcement of the idea that pilgrims and nations already “belong” to God.

What evangelization are we talking about? The word is the same, but the meaning is far different. In its understanding and practice of evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church legitimately brings in the whole of its theological system, which is based on a combination of the Bible and traditions, Christ and the saints, faith and folk piety, and so on. Its evangelization promotes and commends this kind of blurred and erroneous gospel. Before celebrating the fact that the Catholic Church has become seriously engaged in evangelization, one needs to understand what kind of evangelization Rome stands for.

136. The Gospel of Solidarity: The Future of Roman Catholic Mission?

April 12th, 2017

 by Reid Karr

Leonardo De Chirico’s note: I am thankful to my friend and colleague Reid Karr for contributing with this fine article to the series of Vatican Files. Reid is co-pastor of the church Breccia di Roma, Associate director of the Reformanda Initiative (www.reformandainitiative.org) and a Ph.D. candidate working on the theology of evangelization in post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism.

Here’s a loaded question for you: What is the state of missiology today? Of course the answer to this question depends on any number of variables, such as geography, culture and religion. No doubt it is a difficult and complicated question to answer, and undertaking such a task requires courage and determination. Charles E. Van Engen has accepted this challenge and attempts to respond to this question with his aptly titled work The State of Missiology Today: Global Innovations in Christian Witness. The book represents a collection of papers presented at Fuller Theological Seminary in commemoration of the School of Intercultural Studies’ 50th anniversary. The contributions focus on the School’s fifty years of innovation in mission, and look to the next fifty years, thus presenting a general state of missiology today.

One of the presentations delivered for the anniversary celebration is the focus of our attention here. It is a contribution by Mary Motte, who is a sister of the Franciscan Missionary of Mary and director of the Mission Resource Center in North Providence, Rhode Island. Her article is titled “Emergence of New Paths: The Future of Mission in Roman Catholicism.” Her thoughts are examined here because from an Evangelical, gospel-centered point of view, they are alarming and disconcerting. While it is true that Motte’s is only one voice among many, she accurately captures a very Franciscan (in reference to the Pope) approach to mission and Roman Catholic theology, post Vatican II. Hers is a voice that has been molded by the current Pope and is a clear indication of the direction the Catholic Church is heading in. With that said, we can now ask ourselves, “So what exactly is the future of mission in Roman Catholicism?” The following is a Franciscan answer to this important question.

Missing Vocabulary

When considering a biblical understanding of mission, there are certain words that come to mind as being essential if one hopes to remain faithful to Scripture. For example, it would be impossible to talk about the mission and purpose of God’s people in the world – past, present and future – without considering sin and its devastating effects on mankind. If we avoid sin, then we might as well avoid the cross as well, for it was at the cross where Christ paid the price for our sin. In her article Mary Motte avoids both. The word “sin” is not found once. The closest word she incorporates is “sinfulness,” and is in reference to Pope Francis’s awareness that he is a sinner. The word “cross” is completely absent, and so too is the good news of what Christ accomplished there on our behalf. Not surprisingly then, the word “salvation” is also entirely absent. What about forgiveness? It is used only once, and again is a passing reference to Pope Francis’s awareness that he needs forgiveness. The death and resurrection of Christ are central to the gospel and therefore to the church’s mission. This gospel essential, however, is absent from Motte’s writing, and the word resurrection is never used. Furthermore there is no concept of biblical redemption at all, and the word “redemption” is also nowhere to be found.

The word “grace” is used three times by Motte. With each use, however, there is no attempt to articulate how grace is meant to contribute to the future of mission in Roman Catholicism, nor what role it plays or how it should be understood. The reader encounters the word “gospel” several times, however it is never defined. Despite the lack of definition the reader can easily determine what Motte has in mind when she references the gospel, and perhaps this is why it is never clearly expounded. Whereas a biblical attempt to define the gospel would most certainly include the words discussed above, Motte’s understanding of the gospel does not, so this begs this question: What exactly is the gospel according to Motte, and how does it contribute to the future of mission in Roman Catholicism?

An All-Encompassing Solidarity?

Instead of saturating her articulation of mission and the gospel with words such as sin, forgiveness, the cross, grace, salvation, resurrection, redemption, etc., Motte frequently employs the word “solidarity” to characterize her Franciscan concept of the gospel and the way forward for Roman Catholic mission. In short, the future of mission in Roman Catholicism is to be found in seeking solidarity. Solidarity is the “new path” that has emerged, and represents the road that ought to be followed if the Church’s mission is to succeed. Whereas the words mentioned above (sin, forgiveness, etc.) are virtually absent from Motte’s work, the word “solidarity” is used seven times. The following quotation provides insight into Motte’s gospel of solidarity and how it relates to mission in Roman Catholicism. “Mission,” she suggests, “has gradually been transformed into fidelity to the people and involves walking with them in solidarity bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus” (location 4016, Kindle version).

Mission, therefore, is fidelity to the people (people in general) and walking with them in solidarity. How, then, does one walk with another in solidarity? This is accomplished by working together on behalf of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. It is also accomplished by being with the poor and marginalized, along with the refugees and by praying and working together with others (see location 3933). It must be noted, however, that in praying and working together Motte states that proselytism must be avoided! In her own words she says, “The enormous significance of praying and working together and of avoiding proselytism continue to be sources of energy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (locations 3933-3943). Motte suggests, therefore, that attempting to convert another to one’s own faith or set of beliefs must be avoided, and that this is inspired and energized by the Holy Spirit.

For Motte, synonymous to walking in solidarity is advocating for a “global spiritual community.” Citing Ewert Cousins, Motte notes that “Forces, which have been at work for centuries have in our day reached a crescendo that has the power to draw the human race into a global network and the religions of the world into a global spiritual community” (locations 3824-3834). Again, this is accomplished by confronting the “terrible suffering and losses of children, women and men in their excruciating experiences of migration, natural disasters, hunger, illness and death” (location 3834). In so doing, a “sharp awareness of the global leads us beyond boundaries to growing consciousness about human suffering” (location 3834). This represents Motte’s gospel of solidarity. It is the future of mission in Roman Catholicism. This is the gospel and is, in Motte’s words, “a revolution of mercy” (location 4085). What a fitting epithet to Pope Francis and his papacy.

Motte is of course right to advocate for the poor and the marginalized. She is correct that the church must confront the terrible suffering unjustly endured by so many. Justice and peace define the God of the Bible, and therefore must define His church as well. Walking in solidarity with others, even those of different religious beliefs, is to be encouraged and pursued in order to promote justice and peace and to ease the suffering of the poor and to help the countless refugees and migrants who have been displaced. These are important tasks that require solidarity and collaboration. They do not, however, ultimately define the mission of the biblical church.

The Heart of Mission

The mission of the church is to preach Christ crucified. The church’s mission is to proclaim the good news that Christ defeated death and rose from the grave, thus securing salvation and the forgiveness of sins for those who place their faith in his atoning sacrifice. The mission of the church is to spread the good news that because of God’s tremendous grace we can receive this salvation as a gift. The mission of the church is to proclaim the good news that we are all dead in our sins, but because of what God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ, and through him alone, we can be made alive again and can have eternal life. The mission of the church is to preach this message to everyone in all places, seeking to communicate the gospel in a culturally relevant and effective manner that speaks directly to the heart of the recipient.

For this mission solidarity is indeed essential, but it is a solidarity that is defined by the confession: “Christ is Lord!” Because in Christ alone our salvation is found, proselytism (i.e. preaching the gospel while being respectful of other religious views, but expecting people to turn to Christ without coercion) must never be avoided. How can it be if there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12)? If Motte’s gospel of solidarity represents the future of mission in Roman Catholicism, then contrary to what she believes it is a mission that lacks the energy of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is neither present nor active in a mission in which sin and the cross of Christ are absent. The gospel is about forgiveness and salvation, it is about death and life, it is about grace and redemption. Proclaiming this good news is the mission of the church. It always has been, and it always will be.