155. Roman but Not Catholic: A Book Review

November 1st, 2018

What remains at stake with the Roman Catholic Church 500 years after the Protestant Reformation? This question is of capital importance given the general ecumenical climate, which blurs differences and even finds them disturbing to talk about. The book Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation provides timely food for thought in assessing the historical and theological implausibility of Rome being “catholic” and “Roman” at the same time. Written by two evangelical scholars (Kenneth Collins, professor of historical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Jerry Walls, professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University), this work is an engaging exercise in historical theology that helpfully grapples with the defining claims of the Roman Catholic Church: on the one hand, its claim of  “catholicity” (universality), and on the other, its “Roman” structure. This combination is essential to the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is highly questionable on various grounds. The book is a well-argued critique of the very fabric of Roman Catholicism.

Roman and Catholic?
First, let’s have a look at the main claim that shapes Roman Catholicism. Its catholicity has a Roman element so intertwined that it is an inextricable part of the whole. “Roman” is not just a geographical reference, but an essential and constitutive part of a system that is both Roman and catholic, or better still, “Roman Catholic” in a single breath. The romanitas of the system is co-essential with its catholicity. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “the name ‘Roman Catholic’ conjoined the universality of the Church over the entire world, which has long been the content of the term ‘Catholic’, with the specificity of only one single see”[1], that of Rome.

Within the Western tradition, then, Roman catholicity is a long-established union of catholic universality and Roman particularity, catholic plurality and Roman unity, catholic comprehensiveness and Roman distinctiveness, the catholic totus (whole) and the Roman locus (place), catholic fullness and Roman partiality, catholic breadth and Roman narrowness, catholic elasticity and Roman rigidity, the catholic universe and the Roman center, catholic organism and Roman organization, the catholic faith and the Roman structure. Roman Catholicism wants to affirm both. But is it a warranted claim biblically or even historically?

Pointed Critique
Having briefly described the nature of the combination of Roman and Catholic elements in the Roman Catholic Church, the main critique of the authors is intelligently summarized at a number of points in the book. For example, the authors state, “Roman Catholicism represents not the universal church, as is so often claimed, but instead a distinct theological tradition, one among others” (p. 30, emphasis in the text). If Roman Catholicism is Roman, it cannot be truly catholic, and since Roman Catholicism wants to be Roman, it is not truly catholic.

The book surveys the development of Roman traditions that departed from the catholic (read: biblical) stream of the ancient church. Along the way, ecclesiastical voice and power supplemented and ultimately overtook biblical authority (ch. 2-4). The Roman Church grew its exclusive claims (ch. 6-7). The rise of the papacy became the climax of the Romanization of Catholicism (ch. 8 and 11-12). The sacraments were used to divide rather than to unite Christians (ch. 9). Accounts of the Mary of the Bible were idealized, which reflected the Roman Catholic synthesis (chps. 15-16).

“In short,” the authors say,“ironic though it is, the Church of Rome is not sufficiently catholic” (p. 83). The cumulative argument presented is that Rome wants to tie its romanitas (made of imperial structure, political power, hierarchical organization, extra-biblical traditions) to its status as the only church of Jesus Christ where the fullness of grace can be found. But this is exactly the point at issue. By wanting to be Roman, the Church ceases to be catholic. Hence the brilliant title: Roman but not Catholic!

This critique is always gently and respectfully put, but it has devastating effects on the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church if it is taken seriously. Among other things, it means that the Roman aspect of the church takes precedence over the biblical outlook and leads it away from clear biblical teaching in core areas like tradition, authority, Mariology, salvation, etc. It means that its Roman Catholicity was given primacy over its biblical catholicity, thus altering the fundamental commitments of the Roman Church.

One Standing Issue
The book is outstanding in its impressive scholarship and careful argumentation. I have many words of commendation with only one remaining criticism. The authors, though masterly at presenting a convincing case, don’t go far enough in coming to terms with its consequences. They still operate with the mindset that what divides Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church is less than what unites them. Here is the way they put it: “Deep Disagreement despite Deeper Agreement” (p. 78). According to them, the deeper agreement is the Trinitarian and Christological foundation of the “catholic” tradition (as it is enshrined in the early creeds of the ancient church), whereas the deep disagreement refers to the later Roman accretions (as they are, for example, reflected in the papacy).

This way of understanding the dividing line between Evangelicals and Catholics is popular in ecumenical circles, but it is not fully consistent with the thesis endorsed by the authors. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is committed to its Roman identity and to its catholic heritage means that even the catholic (i.e. Trinitarian and Christological) core is affected by its Roman commitment. According to the Catholic Church, the Roman and non-biblical elements (i.e. the Roman pontiff, the Roman imperial institutions, the Roman hierarchical ecclesiology) are not accidents of history; they are considered to be de iure divino (i.e. stemming from divine law, being rooted in God’s will) constitutive components of the church. For Rome, its catholic and Roman dual identity is grounded in the divine will. So these foundational Roman commitments do impact the way  in which the “catholic” ones are understood and articulated in doctrine and practice. The “catholic” heritage of Rome has been shaped, curved, and bent by its Roman additions to the point that it is no longer the way it was in the ancient church. It is a different catholicity. It is Roman Catholicism.

Moreover, all of the spurious Roman elements are argued for in Trinitarian and Christological ways by Roman Catholic theology. For example, the Pope is believed to be the “vicar” of Christ and chosen by the Holy Spirit. This is a Trinitarian argument, but a kind of Trinitarianism that is significantly different from the biblical one to the point of allowing and demanding the wrong Roman developments.

The point is that the “deep disagreements despite deeper agreement” approach adopted in the book should actually be reversed. Between the Evangelical faith and Rome are deep agreements despite deeper disagreements. “Roman but not Catholic” means that the catholic that is in Rome is no longer biblically catholic, but distortedly Roman Catholic, and needs to be reformed according to the gospel.

[1]J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 4 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1963) pp. 245-246.

150. Pope Francis’ Re-Interpretation and Actualization Of Gnosticism and Pelagianism: A Plausible Suggestion?

June 1st, 2018

Pope Francis is hardly known for his interest in historical theology. Unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Francis’ speeches and writings usually contain no reference to patristic, medieval or modern sources. The texts he consistently quotes are his own. His “down-to-earth” communication style is aimed at simplicity and immediacy, with little or no concession to theological erudition. There is one exception, though. Since his programmatic apostolic exhortation EvangeliiGaudium (The Joy of the Gospel, 2013), he has often referred to the dangers of “Gnosticism” and “Pelagianism” as present-day threats for the Church.

Here are the somewhat cryptic concerns of the Pope:

One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.(n. 94)[1]

A Warning Against “Subjective” and “Traditionalist” Deviations
Gnosticism and Pelagianism were two ancient currents of religious and theological thought that the Church had to deal with in the first centuries of its life. Gnosticismis the belief that the material world is created by an emanation of the highest God, trapping the divine spark within the human body. This divine spark could be liberated by “gnosis”, i.e. a direct participation in the divine. Gnosticism was mainly countered by Church Fathers like Ireneus of Lyon (130-202 AD),who insisted on the goodness of creation, the reality of sin, and the embodied Son of God who saves us entirely by way of His death and resurrection.

Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that the will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid. It was mainly fought against by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), who underlined the transmission of original sin to all mankind and the utter inability of sinful man to change his destiny without the intervention of divine grace.

What about Francis’ interpretation of Gnosticism and Pelagianism?

From the outset, it seems that the Pope is actually referring to movements and trends within Roman Catholicismthat he labels as Gnosticism and Pelagianism. He opposes these trends and warns Catholics about being trapped by them. For Francis, Neo-Gnosticism is a “subjective faith”: the implicit concern is that it lacks the sacramental, institutional, Marian, and hierarchical outlook of the Roman Catholic faith. Is he here warning against the danger of absorbing too many doses of the “evangelical” faith, which is often caricaturized as “subjective” because it focuses on personal faith and witness? Is he admitting that he is concerned with the spreading of “evangelical spirituality” around the world and trying to counter its success by derogatorily labeling it as the latest form of Gnosticism? Moreover, is he also referring to the danger of a cafeteria-Catholicism where people subjectively pick and choose what they want to believe and practice?

As far as Pelagianism is concerned, the Pope seems to address another critical front. Neo-Pelagians “trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past”. It is clear that he is pointing to traditionalist sectors of the Church of Rome, which dislike that his more casual style and pastoral “reforms” run contrary to well-established patterns. By warning against the latest forms of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, he is criticizing what he perceives as deviances on both the right front (the traditionalist) and the left front (the evangelical and the secular).

A Two-Edged Sword
Gnosticism and Pelagianism provided alternative accounts to biblical Christianity. That is why they have always been perceived as lethal, and that is the reason why the Pope refers to them in very negative and critical terms. However, Francis does not present a historically accurate or theologically comprehensive assessment of Gnosticism and Pelagianism.[2] He uses (and perhaps abuses) them to fight his own battles. He is more interested in warning against vague present-day forms of these trends – to the point of disregarding their established meaning – than talking as a Church historian about what happened in the past and gathering lessons for today’s Church.

This “creative” way of redefining historical heresies for the sake of present-day quarrels could also be used against Francis. From a “traditionalist” point of view, he too seems to endorse a “subjective” form of Catholicism whereby people are told to follow their consciences and to gather in the Church (the “field-hospital” that includes all) with no personal cost of repentance and faith. Is this not also a form of Gnosticism whereby you are expected to follow the “spark” that is in you? On the other hand, secular voices and evangelicals could take issue with Francis for maintaining an ecclesiastical and magisterial apparatus which is grounded on medieval canon law, a monarchical and absolutist political state (i.e. the Vatican), the Vatican bank, a complex combination of works and religious practices, etc. Is this not a form of Pelagianism, i.e. a work-based system which obscures the primacy of grace?

Playing with historical theology and re-engineering its vocabulary for present-day purposes is never a neutral business. The denounced abuse can be easily turned back on the denouncer. The task of defending God’s Church from threats and dangers needs clearer and more accurate tools.


[1]Other references to Gnosticism and Pelagianism can be found in his Encyclical Lumen Fidei(The Light of Faith, 2013) n. 67 and in his Address to Participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church(2015).

[2]The lack of Francis’ historical and theological accuracy is perhaps one reason behind the recent document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo(22 February 2018), in which both modern versions of Gnosticism and Pelagianism are treated in more historically informed ways and seen as dangers in “certain aspects of Christian salvation”. It is interesting to note that the two applications by Pope Francis are not really followed through.

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

March 1st, 2018

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

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

How Central Is Mariology?

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

Mariology Superseding Christology?

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

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

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

Mariology Obscuring the Work of the Spirit?

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

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

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

129. Roman Catholic Theology after Vatican II: An Interview

October 1st, 2016

Excerpts of an interview published in Unio Cum Christo. International Journal of Reformed Theology and Life, Vol. 2, No. 2 (October 2016).

Since Martin Luther’s reformation, three major events in the life of the Roman Catholic Church have marked its reaction not only to Protestantism but also to developments in the modern culture: The Council of Trent (1545–1563), Vatican I (1869–1870), and most recently Vatican II (1962–1965). Whereas the first two are often considered as hardening the arteries of the church in their reaffirmation and defense of traditional doctrine, Vatican II is often seen as a renovation that makes the life blood of the Roman church flow swifter, opening a way to greater receptiveness to the world, bringing hope for a new ecumenical era with respect to Protestantism and openness to other religions. But since then, what has happened, and where is the Roman church headed?

1. How did Roman Catholic theology change in your country after Vatican II?

Vatican II brought significant changes in the theological landscape of Roman Catholicism. Catholic theology found itself pushed toward a season of aggiornamento (update). The retrieval of patristic influences introduced by the nouvelle théologie softened the rigidity of neo-Thomism as the main theological grid and nuanced many clear-cut boundaries that were prevalent before. Modern biblical criticism was introduced into biblical studies, thus blurring Rome’s previous commitment to a high view of biblical inspiration. After Vatican II, there has been practically no distinction between critical scholarship done by Catholic exegetes and that done by liberal Protestants in their study on Scripture. More broadly, after Vatican II, Roman Catholic theology connected with many modern trends like evolutionism, political theories, existentialism, feminism, and religious studies, all developed in a highly sophisticated “sacramental” way that is typical of Rome. Post–Vatican II Roman Catholic theology has become more “catholic” and diverse in the sense of being more open to anything, embracing all trends, and hospitable to all kinds of tendencies without losing its Roman institutional outlook. “Dialogue” seems to be its catchword: dialogue with religions, dialogue with other Christian traditions, dialogue with the sciences, dialogue with social trajectories, dialogue with the secular world…. We need to understand what dialogue means, though. I think it means expanding the boundaries, stretching the borders, rounding the edges, but not changing or moving the institutional center. Roman theology seems to reflect the catholicity project launched at Vatican II.

2. How has it continued to change, and what new directions do you note since the turn of the twenty-first century?

At times the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e., the former Inquisition) felt it right and necessary to warn about possible theological derailments. For example, the 2000 document Dominus Iesus reaffirmed the centrality of the role of the Roman Catholic Church in God’s salvific purposes, trying to silence dangerous moves towards universalism and relativism. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church tried to provide a comprehensive magisterial presentation of Catholic doctrine that would define and confirm the basic contours of Roman teaching in an age of much theological diversity and confusion. The catholicity of Rome does not mean that anything goes. It is always and organically related to the Roman center of the system. The former is at the service of the ever-expanding, universal scope of the catholic vision; the latter maintains the whole process connected to the sacramental, institutional, and political hardware of the Church.

With Pope Francis, a new development that can be seen is the increasing role of the “theology of the people,” a specific theological motif that has been shaping Latin American theology over the last few decades. It is a version of theology “from below.” Instead of jumping top-down from the official magisterium to the peripheries of the world, it makes the voices, concerns, and traditions of the “people” central for theology. This insistence on the “people” explains Francis’s endorsement of folk traditions and devotions, even ones that are idiosyncratic with regards to biblical teaching.

3. Are there signs of biblical renewal because of Bible reading by Roman Catholics?

After centuries of stigmatization if not prohibition of the use of Bible translations in the vernacular languages, the Bible is finally accessible to the people. Official documents are replete with Bible quotations. The present pope gives a short daily homily based on Scripture, focusing on a kind of sacramental-existential reading of it but often missing the redemptive flow of the Bible. There are some lay movements that encourage a spirituality that gives Scripture a significant role. The theological framework of Vatican II, though, while recognizing the importance of Scripture in the life of the Church, has placed it within the context of Tradition (capital T), which precedes and exceeds the Bible and which ultimately speaks through the magisterium of the Church. Besides these positive developments, post–Vatican II theology has increasingly aligned itself to a critical reading of the Bible: the last document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (“The Inspiration and the Truth of Sacred Scripture,” 2014) echoes the typical liberal skepticism on the reliability of the Old Testament stories, the miraculous nature of certain events, and the full inerrancy of the Bible, thus needing the magisterium to fill the vacuum with its authoritative teaching.

4. How is Pope Francis changing things now?

Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history. It is ironic that a pope who appears to be close to Evangelicals actually belongs to the religious order that was founded to fight Protestantism. The former soldier Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1566) gathered a group of friends who called themselves The Society of Jesus (Societas Jesu), and eventually they were commissioned by the Pope to stop the spread of Protestantism. Their task was to imitate the strengths of Protestantism, that is, spiritual depth and intellectual brightness, but to use them as Catholic weapons against it. The Jesuit order provided the “alternative” catholic way to the Protestant faith. It comes as no surprise then that the first saint that Pope Francis proclaimed in 2013 was Pierre Favre (1506–1546), a first-generation French Jesuit with a “smiling face,” who more than others tried to look like a Protestant in order to drive people back to the Roman Church.

5. What can we expect from the Roman church in future?

In our fragmented and violent world, unity is one of the catchwords that many people are attracted to. Francis is strongly advocating for Christian unity and ultimately the unity of mankind. His passion for unity makes many Evangelicals think that he is the person who may achieve it. Francis developed his idea of ecumenism as a polyhedron, a geometric figure with different angles and lines. All different parts have their own peculiarity. It’s a figure that brings together unity and diversity.

Polyhedrons are fascinating figures, and Francis’s use of the image of a polyhedron is thought provoking. However, the problem for Christian unity lies primarily not in the metaphors used, but in the theological vision that nurtures it. The unity proposed by Francis still gravitates around the Roman Catholic Church and its distinct outlook, and not around the biblical Gospel that calls all Christians to conform to the mind of Christ.

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, nor will even the addition of a new Evangelical offer to the traditional menu. 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.

95. Roman Catholic Theology and Practice by Gregg Allison. A Review

November 19th, 2014

Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical AssessmentWheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 496 pps. $28.00. This review is also posted on http://9marks.org/review/book-review-roman-catholic-theology-by-gregg-allison/

Since the time of Gerrit Berkouwer’s The Conflict with Rome (1948) and Loraine Boettner’s Roman Catholicism (1962), evangelical theology has been lacking a thorough assessment of Roman Catholicism that penetrates the real theological issues at stake. There has been little work on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and many evangelicals don’t have the tools to grasp theologically what happened then and how it has been impacting the Roman Church since. Growing numbers of people are impressed by the “aggiornamento” (update of language and expressions without substantial change) that is taking place in Rome and are asking whether or not the Reformation is definitely over. Most of these analyses are based on a pick-and-choose approach to Roman Catholicism. Bits of its theology, fragments of its practice, pieces of its history, and sectors of its universe are considered as representing the whole of Roman Catholicism. When the big picture of the Roman Catholic theological cathedral is lost, interpretations become superficial and patchy.

Professor Allison’s new book is good news to all those who have long desired a reliable theological guide in dealing with Roman Catholicism. Based on a painstaking analysis of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, it covers the all-embracing trajectory of Roman Catholic theology and practice. Instead of juxtaposing ephemeral impressions and disconnected data, Allison provides a theological framework that accounts for the complexity of the Roman Catholic system and its dynamic unity.

In the first chapter he sets the theological framework that will give orientation to his analysis of the Catechism. In Roman Catholicism there are two main axes that form its background. On the one hand, the “nature-grace interdependence” and, on the other, the “Christ-Church interconnection.” Historically, the Roman magisterium has given assent to both the Augustinian tradition (philosophically influenced by Neoplatonic thought) and the Thomistic tradition (emerging from a Christian reinterpretation of Aristotle via Aquinas). Whereas Augustinianism has stressed the corrupting reality of sin and the utter primacy of grace, Thomism has given a more positive account of human nature’s intrinsic disposition towards the operations of grace. Both traditions manage to coexist, in that the Roman Catholic system provides a sufficiently capable platform which can host both, while not being totally identified nor identifiable with any one of them. This is another significant pointer to the catholicity of the system itself.

The spheres of nature and grace are thus in irreversible theological continuity, as “nature” in Catholicism incorporates both creation and sin, in contrast to the Reformed distinction between creation, sin, and redemption. This differing understanding of sin’s impact means grace finds in “Roman” nature a receptive attitude (enabling Catholicism’s humanistic optimism), as against a Reformed doctrine whereby entrenched sin leaves us unaware of our reprobate state. This stark anthropological difference underpins even Catholicism’s veneration of Mary. The Roman Catholic epistemological openness, its trust in man’s abilities, and its overall reliance on the possibility of human co-operation all converge in the articulated theology regarding the biblically sober figure of Mary. In this respect, Mariology expresses, therefore, the quintessential characteristics of the Roman Catholic nature-grace motif.

Secondly, Roman Catholicism needs a mediating subject to relate grace to nature and nature to grace—namely, the Roman Church—and thus Allison speaks of the “Christ-Church interconnection.” The Church is considered a prolongation of the Incarnation, mirroring Christ as a Divine-human reality, acting as an altera persona Christi, a second “Christ.” It is therefore impossible for Roman Catholicism to cry with the Reformers solus Christus, for this would be seen as breaching the organic bond between Christ and the Church. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church—in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word, and its administration of the sacraments. There is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the Church) and ecclesia in Christo (the Church in Christ).

At this point, Allison offers his detailed analysis chapter by chapter of the Catechism, summarizing its main tenets and offering an intrigued yet critical evangelical assessment. The picture that comes out is different from what Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom wrote in their 2005 Is The Reformation Over? In that book, Noll and Nystrom argued that “evangelicals can embrace at least two-thirds” of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Later, they admit that when the Catechism speaks of Christ, it interweaves him to the Church to the point of making them one, which is unacceptable for evangelicals who consider the exaltation of a created reality an instance of idolatry. So, on the one hand, there is an apparent “common orthodoxy”; on the other, there is a profound difference on the meaning of its basic words (e.g. Christ, the church, etc.).

Building on the “nature-grace interdependence” and the “Christ-Church interconnection,” Allison helps the reader to make sense of both areas of agreements and disagreements while always pointing to the hermeneutical grid that was set at the beginning. For example, the Catechism teaches a doctrine of “justification by faith.” What the catechism means, though, is a synergistic work that is not forensic in nature but transformative and that is administered via the sacramental system of the Church and by taking into account one’s own merits. The word is the same but the theological meaning, which is confirmed by the devotional practices of Rome, is far away from the biblical understanding of the doctrine of justification. The same is true as far as all key gospel terms are concerned.

Roman Catholicism is an all-encompassing system and one needs to approach it as such, trying to make sense of its teachings not as if they were isolated items but trying to penetrate the fact that they belong to a dynamic yet organic system.

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 framework of reference of Roman Catholic theology. From there, one may try to assess it from an evangelical perspective.

This is exactly the point that is tackled by Allison’s book and its main contribution. Professor Allison’s masterly book is to be commended for its biblical depth, theological acuteness, historical alertness, and systemic awareness. Evangelical theology has finally begun to do its homework in parsing the vision of present-day Roman Catholicism. My hope is that this landmark book will re-orientate evangelical theology away from its attraction towards a shallow ecumenicity with Rome towards a serious dialogue based on the Word of God. The Reformation according to the gospel is as alive and relevant as ever.

88. Is Scripture True Only in a “Limited” Way? The Truth of the Bible According to the Pontifical Biblical Commission

August 28th, 2014

The “Biblical Renewal” is one of the most significant movements that has both preceded and followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). After centuries of prohibiting the circulation of the Bible in the vernacular languages and forbidding access to it, the Roman Catholic Church has been working hard to reconnect with the Scriptures. Leo XIII’s encyclical Provvidentissum Deus (1893) defended a high view of the inspiration of the Bible while Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) welcomed historical-critical methods into Catholic exegesis. These two magisterial statements are the tracks within which the present-day Roman Catholic approach to the Bible can be found. A traditional appreciation of the Bible as an inspired book, on the one hand, and a critical reading of it which questions the clarity and finality of Scripture, on the other, are the two poles that open the door for the intervention of the Magisterium for the interpretation of Scripture.

Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (1965) is the highest authoritative statement on the Bible which combines the two emphases within the framework of a triangular dialectics between Tradition, Scripture and the Magisterium. A summary of Dei Verbum was offered by Pope Benedict XVI in his letter Verbum Domini (2010) in which he writes that the Word of God “precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture, nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word” (17). Here we find the classic reference to inspiration, but also the preceding existence of Tradition that envelops the Bible and speaks through the church’s Magisterium. According to Catholic teaching the Bible only “contains” the Word and this difference between Scripture and the Word allows for both critical readings of the Bible and the need for a human authority to discern what it contains and what it doesn’t.

The most recent pronouncement on this doctrine is an extended document released by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (February 22, 2014), which is the Vatican’s official study group on biblical issues. The title well captures the discussed topic: “The Inspiration and the Truth of Sacred Scripture”. This 250-page text is basically an elaboration of what Dei Verbum had argued as far as the scope of biblical inerrancy is concerned, i.e. that the Bible “teaches, without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (11). What, though, is the significance of relating inerrancy to “the sake of our salvation?” Is it then a kind of inerrancy that is limited only to the message of salvation? What about the rest of the Bible? Is it without error? And how can that which is related to salvation be distinguished from the rest? And who can discern what is without error and what is instead disputable? Roman Catholic theology has been discussing these issues since Vatican II and the Pontifical Biblical Commission has now entered this very important debate.

The document attempts to reaffirm and expand on what Dei Verbum highlights. The truth of the Bible is affirmed but is related to the “project of salvation” (3), the “salvific plan” (4), and “our salvation” (63). The detailed biblical overview on the truth of Scripture is understood as limiting the inerrancy of the text to its soteriological purpose. As for the rest, “in the Bible we encounter contradictions, historical inaccuracies, unlikely accounts, and in the Old Testament there are precepts and commands that are in conflict with the teaching of Jesus” (104). More specifically, the Abrahamic narratives are considered more as interpretations than historical facts (107), the crossing the Red Sea is more interested in actualizing the Exodus than reporting its original events (108), most of the book of Joshua has little historical value (127), and Jonah’s story is an imaginary account (110). In the New Testament, the reference to the earthquake in the passion’s narratives is a “literary motif” rather than a historical report (120). More generally, the Gospels have a normative value in affirming Jesus’ identity but their historical references have a “subordinate function” (123): in other words, the theology of the Gospels is valid, but their historical reliability is less important. How the two aspects can be neatly distinguished is not explained. In the end the truth of the Bible is “restricted” to what it says about salvation (105).

Another section of the document deals with the “ethical and social issues” raised by the alleged truth of the Bible, e.g. the theme of violence and the place of women. The hard and “offensive” texts of Scripture (e.g. the conquest narratives and the imprecatory Psalms) are not read in Catholic services due to “pastoral sensitivity” (125). According to the document, how can they be the Word of God is difficult to say. Again, the standard criterion to discern the inerrancy of the text is to “look at what it says about God and men’s salvation” (136) leaving the rest to the historical-critical readings and cultural sensibilities of the time. In a telling final statement, the document says that “the goal of the truth of Scripture is the salvation of believers” (144). The implication is that the Bible says beyond salvation (however defined) is not to be taken as necessarily true in the same sense.

What about the role of the Church in this matter? Since the truth of the Bible is not plenary but needs to be discerned according to its salvific purpose, it is the Church that mediates the acceptance and the proclamation of the truth of Sacred Scripture (149). It is the Church (the Roman Catholic Church) that selects and limits what is the truth of Scripture. According to the document then the Bible is true as far as its message of salvation is concerned and as far as higher criticism dictates. Ultimately, it is the Church that defines the truth of Scripture and rules over it.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Inspiration and the truth of Sacred Scripture” argues for a “limited inerrancy” of Scripture (limited to the message of salvation) and reiterates historical-critical views about the un-reliability of the historical accounts of both the Old and the New Testament. It is a Roman Catholic blend of traditional and critical views of the Bible which finally exalts the role of the Church. While rejoicing for some fruits of the “biblical renewal” that is taking place in Roman Catholicism, especially as far as the encouragement to all to read the Scriptures is concerned, the battle for the truth of Scripture still rages. In no way has Rome come closer to Sola Scriptura, i.e. the obedience to the self-attesting Word of God written that truly witnesses to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Roman Catholicism has nuanced its position and has relaxed the sharp edges of its opposition, but it still maintains the prominence of the Church over the Bible.