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

October 1st, 2017

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

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

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

Clay and Iron in Roman Catholicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limits and Insights

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

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

What Van Til argued is that although there is considerable diversity in its forms of expression, Roman Catholicism is a basically unitary reality whose underlying tenets can be discerned. In dealing with Roman Catholicism, especially in times of mounting ecumenical pressure, evangelical theology should go beyond the surface of theological statements and attempt to grasp the internal frame of reference of Roman Catholic theology. Any analysis which does not take into account the fact that Roman Catholicism is a system will fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding of it. In this task Van Til was, and continues to be, a voice that may not sound ecumenically friendly, but is nonetheless prophetically true.

[1]  Defense of the Faith, 221.

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

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

[4]   DF, 221.

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

[6]  CTK, 193.


New book on Mary!

September 20th, 2017

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

A Christian's Pocket Guide to Mary

A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Mary

Mother of God?

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

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

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

About Leonardo De Chirico

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Tim Challies, Blogger at www.challies.com

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

September 1st, 2017

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

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

The Long Haul Ecumenical Strategy

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

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

What is at Stake with “Greater Oneness”

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

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

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

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

Who Decides What?

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

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

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

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


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

August 1st, 2017

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

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

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

Sacramental Grace

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

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

Stretching Trent Rather than Reforming Rome

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

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

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

July 1st, 2017

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

More than Friendships

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

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

“Pray for Me”

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

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

Massive Implications

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

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

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