172. Can the Roman Catholic Church survive two Popes? — one Catholic and one Roman

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 nobody could have imagined what has been happening since: the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope (Francis), but also a former yet living pope (Benedict) who still speaks, acts, and intervenes in ecclesiastical matters. There were hints that the prospect of having two living popes would cause some confusion, if not controversy. The fact that Benedict wanted to keep his title as Pope (only adding “Emeritus” to it), as well as his white papal robe (a symbol of the papal office) and his residence inside of the Vatican walls (the home of popes), indicated that, in spite of his pledge to remain silent for the rest of his days, the cohabitation between two popes would easily result in misunderstandings, even conflicts. The outcome has been an increasing polarization between Francis’ fans over against Benedict’s supporters and vice versa, certainly beyond the intentions of both.

One Pope, Two Popes?
In 2019 we had a preview of the present-day turmoil. The two popes spoke on the same subject, the sexual abuses committed in the Roman Church, but with clearly different positions: Francis blamed “clericalism”, an abuse of ecclesiastical power by the priests and religious people involved, whereas Benedict pointed to the collapse of Catholic doctrine and morality since the Sixties and after the Second Vatican Council, a theological decay that according to him was at the root of the scandals. The two popes interpreted the malaise of their church and the possible solutions in radically different ways.

More recently, a power struggle rallying around Pope Francis and Pope Benedict erupted, with the “Francis party” pushing for changes in areas such as the re-admission of the divorced to the Eucharist and the extension of the priesthood to married men, and the “Benedict party” resisting those changes, denouncing them as heresies, confusions and failures. It was indeed an Annus Horribilis (terrible year) for the Roman Church. Last but not least, we have now a popular movie entitled The Two Popes telling a made-up story (with some truth in it) and making fun of the two characters and their unusual cohabitation in the Vatican. All of this was unthinkable seven years ago.

Pope Emeritus, yet Outspokenly Concerned
The last episode in the tale of the two Popes only happened a few days ago. Cardinal Robert Sarah, a prominent member of the traditionalist front, announced the imminent publication of a book written with Pope Benedict. The title of the book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, is indicative of the highly emotional tone of its authors. The book itself is a heartfelt cry seasoned with theological acumen to maintain the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the celibacy of the priests. It arises out of fears that after the 2019 Synod for the Pan-Amazon region, Pope Francis will allow some married men (viri probati, “proved men”) to access the priesthood, thereby breaking a millennial rule of the Roman Catholic Church which prescribes her priests to be celibate. Sarah and Benedict staunchly defend the permanent validity of the celibacy of the priests and denounce any attempts at breaking it, even those painted as “exceptions” in extraordinary circumstances. It is true that after the press release by Cardinal Sarah there has been a backlash against Benedict appearing as co-author of the book, even though it looks like the Pope Emeritus had given at least tacit prior approval for the full manuscript. You can read the full story here.

The theological arguments of the book deserve attention on their own merits because they show that traditional Roman Catholic theology is against progressive and liberal trends, not out of biblical concerns or standing under the authority of the Bible, but in order to preserve traditional Roman Catholic teaching on the basis of the weight of church tradition and extra-biblical arguments (i.e. the “ontological” and “sacramental” nature of the priestly office). Because of its importance for gaining an insight into the traditional Roman Catholic way of theologizing, the book by Sarah and Benedict will be reviewed in a future Vatican File. What is of interest now are the standing questions that it brings.

An Unsettled Tension
One of the roles of the pope has always been the maintenance of the balance between the Roman and the Catholic dimensions. Roman Catholicism is the ongoing tension between two fundamental aspects of the whole: the Roman side, with its emphasis on centralized authority, pyramidal structure, binding teaching and the rigidity of canon law; and the Catholic side, with its emphasis on the universal outlook, the absorption of ideas and cultures and the inclusive embrace of practices into the Catholic whole. The resulting system is Roman Catholicism, at the same time Roman and Catholic. The human genius of Roman Catholicism and one of the reasons for its survival across the centuries has been its ability to be both, though not without tensions and risks of disruption.

Popes embody the Roman Catholic synthesis by holding together the Roman apparatus and the Catholic vision. Of course, they each do it differently, especially after the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II, for example, was a very Roman pope but at the same time a very Catholic one. For example, he strongly defended traditional Roman Catholic teaching (e.g. by launching the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church), but was second to none in promoting the universality of this Church around the world (e.g. inter-religious dialogue, traveling globally). Unlike John Paul II, who was both Roman and Catholic, Benedict XVI made the pendulum swing over the Roman pole. With his staunch conservativism in areas such as liturgy, morality and the critical relationship with the secular world, Benedict appeared to be more Roman than Catholic. He seemed to be a rigid, centripetal, doctrinaire pope. A Roman pope. Many felt that his papacy, while strong in its Roman centredness and boundaries, was weak in its Catholic breadth and warmth.

This criticism helps explain why a pope like Francis was chosen to succeed him. With the election of Pope Francis, Rome seemed to be wanting the pendulum to move in the opposite direction in order to re-address the balance. Distancing himself from many Roman features of the office (e.g. his refusal of the pomp of the Vatican Curia, his blurred teaching that leans away from official teachings), Francis has embodied the role of a very Catholic pope. His stress on “Who are we to judge?”, universal brotherhood with Muslims and other religions, ecological concerns, etc. made his papacy significantly shaped by the Catholic elements. The open-endedness of his teaching, coupled with the ambiguity of his language, has created some interest in the secular West, which resonates with much of what he says on social issues. This is to say that he is a very Catholic pope. Perhaps too Catholic and too little Roman for a growing number of Roman Catholics!

A Struggle to Re-Fix the Balance
Admitting the divorced to the Eucharist, fudging the traditional opposition to homosexuality and extending the priesthood to married men have been perceived as the latest, dangerous “Catholic” moves of the pope which run contrary to the Roman tradition, risking its whole collapse! This is the highly emotional background behind the From the Depths of Our Hearts book, part of which was written by Benedict himself in order to reinforce the “Roman” teaching on the celibacy of priests over against possible “Catholic” openings towards married men, which Francis seems to be in favor of.

The tension between the “Roman” Benedict and the “Catholic” Francis helps explain the present-day crisis. Past popes reigned without a Pope Emeritus around and therefore embodied in their own way the Roman Catholic synthesis. The next pope would have fixed the synthesis differently. But now, with two very different popes living next to each other (with only one reigning, but the other still lucid and active), the situation is very different. The overly Catholic attitude of Francis is compared and contrasted with the Roman outlook of Benedict to the point of creating an unprecedented struggle between opposite parties. For some, Francis has become too Catholic to maintain a proper Roman Catholic synthesis. He is incapable of being the Roman Catholic (at the same time) Pontifex. Therefore, he needs the correction of a Roman pope.

And yet, if this situation goes on unresolved it will undermine the institution of the papacy as it was cleverly crafted throughout the ages. The “progressive” pope will be counter-balanced by the “traditional” pope and the disruption of the system will be achieved. The papacy will be transformed into a two-party political system, as if it were an ordinary parliamentary monarchy. It will be the end of Roman Catholicism as it stands now.

This tension at the highest level of the Roman Catholic Church is not tenable in the long run. This is why it is highly probable that the status of Pope Emeritus (the one which Benedict enjoys now) will be revisited and regulated in order to end the temptation to think of the papacy as a “dual” responsibility, resulting in the on-going confrontation of a Roman and a Catholic party. Roman Catholicism accommodates different positions and tendencies, but the pope is thought of as being the one, living synthesizer of the tension, until the next one takes over and perhaps re-fixes the balance. The tale of two popes will not last long because Roman Catholicism is built on the conviction that its system is capable of keeping together its unchangeable Roman identity and its ever-increasing Catholicity. No biblical reformation is in view; it is only an internal struggle that is causing Rome to go through a stress-test and some chaos until the Roman and the Catholic dimensions find a new, sustainable equilibrium.

171. The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI: Looking for a Deeper Protestant Evaluation

Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) is one of the towering figures in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology. Born in 1927, his impressive biography includes having been a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), holding various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957-1977), being Archbishop of Munich (1977-1981) and Cardinal, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), to eventually becoming Pope (2005-2013), and since 2013, Pope Emeritus. His Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly depth. Needless to say, one cannot think about seriously dealing with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his work.

His stature makes his reputation spillover from the Roman Catholic world. So a book on The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, ed. T. Perry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), is no surprise and is a welcome contribution to approaching the work of Joseph Ratzinger from the outside. The volume contains 15 articles written by Protestant authors who cover various aspects of his work, especially in the areas of dogmatic and liturgical theology, offering an entry point into his theological vision. The overall tone of the articles is generally informative and understandably appreciative, as the subtitle indicates.

Tim Perry, the editor of the book, is not new to initiatives aimed at building an ecumenical bridge between Evangelicals and Catholics. One can think of his editorship of The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (2007), in which Pope Wojtyła was assessed in extremely generous terms– so generous that the analysis seemed to be selective and forgetful of major critical points of his legacy (e.g. see my review asking questions about John Paul II’s alleged but idiosyncratic “Christ-centered legacy”). Other volumes by Perry (e.g. Mary for Evangelicals, 2006, and with D. Kendall, The Blessed Virgin Mary, 2013) also show his desire to wet the evangelical appetite for Roman Catholic doctrine and spiritualità (e.g. Mariology) while not always indicating what is biblically at stake in them. His chapter on Mary in the book (pp. 118-135) confirms his desire to find ways to “redeem” the Catholic Marian dogmas and practices for evangelical readers, even when they should be simply rejected from a biblical standpoint.

In his introduction, Perry looks at the (ecumenical?) future and singles out four ways in which Ratzinger’s theological wisdom can be useful for tomorrow’s church. Learning from Benedict, the church will:

1. find her strength in holy Scripture;
2. affirm that Christian faith is reasonable;
3. depend much more on the visible holiness of her members; and
4. be humble (pp. 7-9).

These are all important points. However, on either side of the Tiber (Protestant or Roman Catholic), who can be against them? They are so generic that even along the liberal-conservative dividing line within various Christian groups, who could say anything contrary? The problem is: does this list fairly and accurately represent, if not the whole, at least the heart of Ratzinger’s theology? Would Benedict himself summarize his work in these points? Are we sure that his message to the churches can be separated from the sacramental, hierarchical, and institutional nature of the Roman gospel and Rome’s “thick” claims on ecclesiology, soteriology, the papacy, Mariology, etc.?

The intention of “appreciating” Ratzinger’s theology is evident, but what about the ability to penetrate it? The impression of a similar gap is confirmed in other chapters of the book. For example, Ben Meyers and Katherine Sonderegger helpfully discuss the relationship between faith and reason in Ratzinger (11-25 and 28-45). The rationality of faith is certainly a theme dear to him, but as clearly demonstrated in his famous 2006 Regensburg Lecture “Faith, Reason and the University”, Benedict builds this rationality on the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” and firmly rejects what he identifies as the “programme of dehellenization” of the faith. According to him, this programme took place on the 16th century “Scripture Alone” Protestant principle, continued through 19th and 20th century theological liberalism, and eventually resulted in present-day relativistic multi-culturalism. One would have thought that in a book that presents a “Protestant” voice, someone would take issue with Benedict for his totally negative assessment of Sola Scriptura, one of the pillars of classic Protestantism, which he considers to hold the main responsibility for the wreckage of the Christian faith. Instead, the overall “appreciation” for Ratzinger’s defense of the rationality of faith over and against the “Scripture Alone” principle takes precedence over a truly Protestant analysis, thus skipping the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue (which involves biblical critique done in a gracious yet firm way).

Another example of this weakness of the book has to do with Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology. In his chapter on the topic, Fred Sanders commends his “powerful set of Trinitarian commitments” (p. 136), a common theological foundation that is often praised in the book as something that Ratzinger shares with Protestants. Because of his Trinitarianism, Ratzinger is presented as an ecumenical theologian from whom Protestants must learn. Staying on the surface of Trinitarian theology, this might be true, but as soon as one begins to dig deeper, things significantly change. In presenting his liturgical vision, Peter Leithart quotes Ratzinger talking about the Eucharist:

The Eucharistic Prayer is as entering into the prayer of Jesus Christ himself, hence it is the Church’s entering into the Logos, the Father’s Word” (p. 197).

The Church enters into the Logos! This is a view of the Eucharist that is heavily embedded in a Trinitarian framework and implies that there is an organic “Christ-Church interconnection” (an expression used by Gregg Allison, p. 63), which is biblically disputable. Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology demands that the Church enters into the Logos, thus becoming one with Him and claiming to prolong (so to speak) His incarnation in her teaching and her sacramental and ruling offices. This view is based on a Trinitarian argument, but runs contrary to the standard Protestant view of the Church and her relationship with Christ.

Or again, in skillfully dealing with Ratzinger’s theology of the Word of God, Kevin Vanhoozer quotes Benedict saying:

As the Word of God becomes flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so Sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 69).

The theology of Scripture is set in the context of Trinitarian theology, and the Church is embedded in this Trinitarian dynamic as if she were the mother of the Word because the presence of the Spirit is intrinsically tied to her. The link between the Holy Spirit and the Church is so organic that “for Benedict, Scripture, tradition, and the Roman magisterium always coincide because they are guided by the same Spirit” (p. 85). His Trinitarian theology leads Ratzinger to “dismissing” (p. 68) and “explicitly” denying Sola Scriptura (p. 75), which is one of the tenets of the evangelical understanding of the gospel.

The question is: if Catholics and Protestants have the same Trinitarian foundation (as many chapters of the book assume), how is it that they come to very different accounts of Revelation, the Bible, the Church, the sacraments, salvation, … the gospel? If we have this foundational commonality, why does Ratzinger argue in (his) Trinitarian terms that “Scripture Alone” is – for example – the main cause of the departure from the rationality of faith (e.g. in the above mentioned Regensburg Lecture) and is to be rejected in order to embrace a proper view of the Eucharist and Revelation? Are we not dealing with gospel issues that stem from different Trinitarian views, which look similar in language and on the surface but are undergirded by different core commitments and result in ultimately different accounts of the gospel?

The “appreciative” tone of the book shies away from asking the question, let alone responding to it, with exceptions and with some interesting hints. The chapters by Allison and Vanhoozer point to the idea that something deeper than acknowledging generic commonalities runs in the Roman Catholic and Protestant theological basic orientations. As Carl Trueman rightly observes in his chapter “Is the Pope (Roman Catholic)?”,

Roman Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with a different set of doctrines. It is a different way of thinking about Christianity, a way that draws a very tight connection between Scripture, tradition, and the doctrine of the church in a manner alien to Protestantism” (p. 153).

“A different way of thinking”. Finally, someone in the book indicates what is at stake in dealing with Roman Catholicism in general and with Ratzinger in particular. “A different way of thinking” that has some overlap in the use of biblical and theological language but is constructed with a different blueprint and results in a different answer to the ultimate questions about God, the world, and eternity. “A different way of thinking”. This is a clue that helps us to appreciate Benedict’s theology much more than lazily praising what we Protestants have in common with it. I think Ratzinger would agree more with this “different way of thinking” type of appraisal than with words of praise that do not go deep enough in the analysis of his theology. Trueman quotes him saying:

The way one views the structure of Christianity will necessarily affect in some measure, great or small, one’s attitude to various particular matters contained within the whole” (n. 26, p. 163).

The book The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation contains several “particulars” of Ratzinger’s theology from a Protestant viewpoint, but the “structure” of his view of Christianity is only touched upon by few of them and is left as a homework that is still to be done. The “appreciation” of the book should be heard, but not at the expense of neglecting the fact that Benedict and Protestants have different views of the “structure of Christianity” that impact the whole of their respective faiths.

P.S. On Ratzinger’s theology I have also written an “appreciative” (I hope) yet evangelically critical article: Progressive, Conservative or Roman Catholic? On the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger in Evangelical Perspective, “Perichoresis” 6.2 (2008) pp. 201-218.

170. Totus Christus (The Whole Christ) or Solus Christus (Christ Alone)? On The Damages of Augustine’s Formula and the Correction of the Protestant Reformation

Solus Christus (Christ Alone) versus Totus Christus (the Whole Christ). If one wants to capture the difference between the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism, here it is. On the one hand, the evangelical stress on the uniqueness of Jesus’s person (the God-man) and His atoning work;[1] on the other, the Roman Catholic insistence on the organic relationship between Christ and the Church.

Essential to Roman Catholicism is what Gregg Allison has helpfully termed the “Christ-Church interconnection.[2]” 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).

A Misleading View of Totus Christus
The origin of the “Christ-Church interconnection” goes back to a faulty interpretation by the Church father Augustine (354-430 AD) as he understood the relationship between Christ and the Church. One of the most controversial points of Augustine’s theology is his conception of the totus Christus, the “total Christ”: the idea that the unity of Christ with the Church is so deep as to form a single mystery.[3] The Head of the body is so united with the body of the Head as to become a single Christ.

On this doctrine, Roman Catholicism built its own theology of the prolongation of the incarnation in the Church. It is as if there was such an intrinsic and profound union between Christ and the Church as to make it possible, indeed necessary, to see the Church as the sacramental extension of the incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, there are texts in which Augustine throws himself into one-sided statements in which, speaking of the Church united to Christ, he affirms “we are Christ” or “we have become Christ”. The whole Christ “is head and body”. At best, these would be ambiguous expressions if they had not been accompanied and supplemented by an orthodox Christology like that of Augustine. Besides the blurred statements about the totus Christus, speaking of Christ, Augustine writes that “even without us, He is complete”. Christ does not need the ecclesial body to be Christ. Elsewhere Augustine writes: “He is the Creator, we are the creatures; he is the craftsman, we are the work made by him, he the molder, we the molded ones”. His doctrine of the total Christ, however ambiguous and confused it is, does not break the distinction between Creator and creature and does not elevate the Church (the body) to a status of divinity.

Having said that, his interpretation of Colossians 1:24, Acts 9:4, and Ephesians 5 on the relationship between Christ and the Church in a spousal perspective led him to affirm the organic nature of that relationship and to go so far as affirming the “totality” of their being combined. The comments on the same texts also indicate the problematic direction of Augustine’s theology on the “deification” of the Christian, that is, his incorporation into the person of Christ becoming part of the mystical body.[4] Indeed, one can understand how Roman Catholicism was dazzled by the metaphor of the total Christ, going far beyond Augustine and developing it in the theology of the Eucharist (the “real presence” of Christ) and the priesthood (the priest acting in altera Christi persona, in the person of Christ), and in the development of dogma (the Roman Church being endowed with the authority of Christ in promulgating dogmas). The Augustinian interpretation on this point is therefore subject to different uses, depending on what one wants to see in his texts as the primary element: the blurred totus Christus or the preserved distinction between Creator and creature.

Rome’s Appropriation of the Totus Christus
Rome interprets the Augustinian reference to totus Christus as a union, which confuses the distinction between the Head and the body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ” (§ 795). According to Subilia, in this mistake lies the “problem of Catholicism”.[5] In his unsurpassed study, Subilia deals with the reason why the Church of Rome has such a high and excessive view of herself and is inclined to claim divine prerogatives. According to the Roman Catholic appropriation of Augustine’s formula, the relationship between Christ and the Church is so organic and profound that the Church becomes part of the whole Christ. Subilia notes that Augustine, who had been a Manichean, and therefore a dualist, suffered the opposite temptation of “monism” (i.e. the reduction to one) in his thought. While emphasizing the distinction between the Head and the members, and therefore between Christ and the Church, in Augustine “the sovereignty of the Head on the body is disastrously lost sight of” (p. 146). Defending Augustine and the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Church father, Catholic theologian Gherardini summarizes the ecclesiology of the totus Christus as “Christ continued and identified in the Church”.[6]

Starting from Augustine, Roman Catholic ecclesiology became radicalized in emphasizing the theme of the unity between Christ and the Church in terms of a hierarchical-sacramental church representing Christ on earth. For Subilia, this is a “radical devastation that has changed the vital centers of the Christian organism and transformed it into a different organism” (p. 150). If this reading is plausible, the “problem of Catholicism” is not merely in one doctrine or in some superficial differences on secondary issues. Its problem lies at the very heart of its system and is pervasively present in all its expressions: from the Trinity to Mariology, from the sacraments to soteriology, from ecclesiology to the manifold devotions. All is infected by the totus Christus.

Back to Solus Christus
The Protestant Reformation was an attempt to face the damages of this inflated and distorted Christianity by putting the totus Christus back within its biblical boundaries. By arguing that the faith and life of the Church needed to be grounded on Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), the Reformers wanted to reaffirm that the authority of God is exercised by Scripture over the Church. The totus Christus allowed the Roman Church to claim to have authority to promulgate new dogmas without Scriptural support and to endorse teachings and practices that went against the Bible. Sola Scriptura was a reminder that the Church is subject to the authority of God in the Bible.

By confessing that salvation comes to us by faith alone (Sola Fide), the Reformers wanted to recognize that we are saved by an external gift achieved by Christ alone and given to us by grace. There is nothing in us that deserves it. The Roman Catholic totus Christus had built a sophisticated system whereby the Church contributes to salvation through its sacramental system and the faithful merits it through his good works. Sola Fide was a reminder that the gospel is indeed Good News because Jesus Christ alone has accomplished what is needed for our salvation. Salvation needs to be received by faith alone.

Ultimately, the Protestant Reformation wanted to re-focus the whole of the Christian faith and life on Christ Alone (Solus Christus): the Son of God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world. The misinterpretation of Augustine’s totus Christus led the Roman Catholic Church to deviate from the biblical faith by endorsing an inflated view of Mary and the saints as mediators, an exaggerated view of the Church as the hierarchical and sacramental institution prolonging the incarnation, and an optimistic view of man’s ability to contribute to salvation. Solus Christus is the best corrective to a blurred understanding of totus Christus and the best safeguard against the intrusion of alien elements into the Christian faith. Whether or not this was Augustine’s intention (and this is disputed), this is nonetheless the biblical medicine to recover the evangelical, Trinitarian, orthodox faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people (Jude 3).


[1] S. Wellum, Christ Alone, The Uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour. What the Reformers Taught and Why It Still Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

[2] G.R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014) pp. 42-67.

[3] Here I rely on this collection of Augustine’s texts on the topic: Sant’Agostino, Il Cristo totale, ed. G. Carrabetta (Roma: Città Nuova, 2012).

[4] On this point see D.V. Meconi, The One Christ. St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification (Lanham, MD: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013).

[5] V. Subilia, The Problem of Catholicism (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1964).

[6] B. Gherardini, La Cattolica. Lineamenti d’ecclesiologia agostiniana (Torino: Lindau, 2011) p. 29.

169.“Baptized and Sent”: Is This the Biblical Mission?

November 1st, 2019

“Baptized and Sent: The Church of Christ on Mission in the World”. This is the theme chosen by Pope Francis for the Missionary Month that he called for this past June. “For the month of October 2019”, he said in the homily that opened the month on October 1st, “I ask the whole Church to live an extraordinary time of missionary activity”.

This special initiative marked the 100th anniversary of Pope Benedict XV’s Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud (1919), a document on the Church’s mission to the world, and was run in conjuction with the Synod of Bishops of the Pan-Amazon region. Pope Francis argued that “It will help us in our mission”, which is not about spreading a “religious ideology” or a “lofty ethical teaching.” Instead, he continued, “through the mission of the Church, Jesus Christ himself continues to evangelize and act; her mission thus makes present in history the Kairos, the favorable time of salvation.”

The Message by Pope Francis for World Mission Day (20th October) contains some important aspects of Roman Catholic missiology that deserve critical attention, especially on the importance that Rome attributes to baptism for mission.

Is Baptism the Foundation of Mission?
The title of the Message indicates a causative link between baptism and mission. The background of the Pope’s appeal to a renewed missionary effort by his Church is given by the presentation of the standard Roman doctrine of baptism, and by extension, of the sacramental life. Mission begins with a sacrament and unfolds in a sacramental journey. This is what the Pope said:

This life is bestowed on us in baptism, which grants us the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, the conqueror of sin and death. Baptism gives us rebirth in God’s own image and likeness, and makes us members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church. In this sense, baptism is truly necessary for salvation for it ensures that we are always and everywhere sons and daughters in the house of the Father, and never orphans, strangers or slaves. What in the Christian is a sacramental reality – whose fulfillment is found in the Eucharist – remains the vocation and destiny of every man and woman in search of conversion and salvation. For baptism fulfils the promise of the gift of God that makes everyone a son or daughter in the Son. We are children of our natural parents, but in baptism we receive the origin of all fatherhood and true motherhood: no one can have God for a Father who does not have the Church for a mother (cf. Saint Cyprian, De Cath. Eccl., 6).

Here we find the traditional Roman Catholic view of baptism in a nutshell. Baptism is thought of as bestowing the gift of faith, giving new birth, incoporating into the Church, granting salvation, enacting adoption, making accessible the promise of God, and making it possible to enter into the sacramental reality which finds its climax in the Eucharist. The Church administers God’s grace through the sacrament of baptism and nurtures it through the sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Roman Catholic view, this sacramental life, beginning with baptism, is what is offered in mission to all people.

In passing, notice that even when Rome speaks the seemingly evangelical language of mission, it does so in its own sacramental understanding. Baptism, and thefore the sacraments, and therefore the Church, are central to the Roman Catholic gospel. Rome cannot be and will never be committed to the gospel truth that salvation is by faith alone. One is not saved by believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but by receiving the sacrament of baptism by the Church. Rome finds it hard to accept the straighforward biblical message that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10). Whatever view of baptism churches might hold (and notoriously Protestants disagree on the meaning of baptism), the gospel is clear that it is by confesssing and believing (in other words, by faith and by faith alone) that one is saved.

“Every baptized man and woman is a mission”

According to Francis, then, mission stems from baptism. One is sent into mission because he/she is baptized. One who is baptized is a missionary by definition. Here is what he said to reinforce the point: “Our mission is rooted in the fatherhood of God and the motherhood of the Church. The mandate given by the Risen Jesus at Easter is inherent in Baptism. In this Roman Catholic view, there is something intrinsic and objective in baptism that makes it foundational to the missionary mandate. This conviction was further elaborated when Francis affirmed, “Today too, the Church needs men and women who, by virtue of their baptism, respond generously to the call to leave behind home, family, country, language and local Church, and to be sent forth to the nations, to a world not yet transformed by the sacraments of Jesus Christ and his holy Church.”

“By virtue of their baptism” people become missionaries, thus the theme of the missionary month: “Baptized and Sent”. Later Pope Francis made the point again when he said,“Every baptized man and woman is a mission”. So mission is rooted in baptism and the missionary calling derives from baptism. Once baptized, one is sent.

There are severe problems here. First, baptism, i.e. a sacrament of the Church, is elevated to an importance that makes personal faith second; it therefore highlights the centrality of the institution that administers it and the physical objects that the Church uses (i.e. water), rather than the personal response to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Secondly, most baptized people in the Catholic church don’t show any evidence of this missionary awareness; indeed, many don’t believe in the biblical gospel at all. Many Catholics in majority Catholic contexts have never professed a personal faith in the biblical Jesus and fall short of any biblical qualifications to be missionaries because they are not believers in Jesus Christ in the first place! How is it possible to maintain such a view that runs contrary to Scripture and the empirical evidence? From both theological and sociological grounds, the link between baptism and mission is not causal and linear as the Pope thinks.

Again, Romans 10 is helpful here: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (10:14-15). The Bible teaches that mission requires believers in Jesus Christ to be sent, not baptized people by the Church. This is a significantly different view than that of Pope Francis! One wonders if the link between baptism and mission actually suffocates the gospel rather than propelling it.

The language of Roman Catholic missiology may look like the evangelical understanding of it but, despite the common language, the theological meaning of the words and the overall theological framework are different. The Roman Catholic Missionary Month promoted by Pope Francis is not good news for evangelical mission.

168. Contested Catholicity: In What Sense Is the Church Catholic?

October 1st, 2019

This is a summary of a paper given at the Giornate teologiche (Padova, Italy, 6-7 Sept 2019), the annual theological conference of the Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (www.ifeditalia.org).

The adjective “catholic” and the noun “catholicity” have a bittersweet usage in ordinary evangelical language. They seem too strictly associated with the reality of Roman Catholicism to be used in a way free from cumbersome superstructures of meaning. For this unsettled relationship with the terms, some churches, in reciting the Apostles’ Creed, prefer to profess the church as “universal” rather than “catholic”. The two words overlap, but the former is less embedded in theological controversies than the latter.

The Bible never uses the expression kath’olon (according to the whole) in the theological sense. The only explicit reference, which is used in a negative form, is in Acts 4:18. The profane use of kath’olon has a variegated range including the meaning of “general”, “total”, “complete” and “perfect”. In borrowing the term, the Church began to understand it as describing the universality of the Church (made of Jews and Gentiles), the fullness of the gospel (once and for all delivered to the saints), and the global extension of the people of God (from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth).[1]

Catholicity Always in Context
In the post-apostolic age, the word “catholic” was included in the Apostles’ Creed as a mark of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Creed defines it as the “one, holy, apostolic and catholic” church. Catholicity was affirmed not in isolation, but in the context of the other three dimensions. In this sense the catholicity of the church was signified and limited by making reference to its unity (i.e. there is one people of God), holiness (i.e. the people of God as set apart by Him and for Him), and apostolicity (i.e. the people of God follow the teachings of the apostles, namely the Bible).

Catholicity is not a standalone ecclesiological parameter but one organically linked to the other three. In this way, it is protected from becoming an omnivore capable of integrating all. If catholicity takes precedence over apostolicity (i.e. biblical teaching), it becomes universalism. If holiness is left out, catholicity becomes a box void of spiritual content. If catholicity loses its connection to unity, it explodes into a myriad of self-referential units. In the 5th century, Vincent of Lérins famously summarized the contours of catholicity with the adverbs ubique, semper, ab omnibus: catholic is something that has been believed everywhere (space), always (time) and by all (extension). Despite the usefulness of the Lérinian description, notice the downplaying of the apostolic, biblical grounding of catholicity, the only external and objective criterion for it to remain anchored to God’s truth. Space, time and extension are all important markers of catholicity only insofar as the apostolic gospel is the binding framework for the universality of the church.

The Romanization of Catholicity
Out of such a looser view, catholicity was deeply impacted by the addition of a fifth mark of the church: its centering on the church of Rome, the see of Rome, the Roman authorities. Catholicity absorbed a Roman element that became so intertwined with it that it gave rise to Roman Catholicism. 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”[2], that of Rome.

As Kenneth Collins and Jerry Walls have aptly demonstrated in their book, Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (2016), 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.

Along the way, ecclesiastical voice and power supplemented and ultimately overtook biblical authority. The Roman Church grew its exclusive claims. The rise of the papacy became the climax of the Romanization of Catholicism. The sacraments were used to divide rather than to unite Christians. Accounts of the Mary of the Bible were idealized, which reflected the Roman Catholic synthesis.“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 ceased to be catholic. The Roman mark was a spurious addition that altered the nature of the catholicity of the Church.

Back to Apostolic (i.e. Biblical) Catholicity
The Roman Catholicity was given primacy over its biblical catholicity, thus modifying the fundamental commitments of the Roman Church. The Protestant Reformation was the attempt to recover the apostolic catholicity away from its Roman/imperial/sacramental/hierarchical tenets.

Martin Luther thought that Rome had taken the Church to a “Babylonian captivity” and there was the urgent need to rescue it. In a certain sense, the Reformation was an attempt to recover catholicity by disentangling it from the Roman world and reconnecting it to the mark of apostolicity: the formal principle of the authority of Scripture and the material principle of justification by faith alone.

Certainly, the Reformation broke away from Roman Catholicism, but it did so because it wanted to restore evangelical catholicity. The Reformation did not break away from the Church; in fact, it recovered the Church by breaking from the bondage of Romanism and by restoring the apostolicity of catholicity. This is not to say that the Reformation always and consistently appreciated the unity of the Church, but its main concern was to radically question the Romanization of catholicity that had taken precedence at the expense of its apostolicity and holiness.

The Reformation reclaimed the catholicity of the evangelical faith by showing its faithfulness to Scripture and its substantial continuity with the Church Fathers, and by rediscovering the universal priesthood of believers away from the Roman, sacramental, and hierarchical division between clergy and laity. This point has been cogently laboured and argued for in recent books such as Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen’s Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015) and statements like A Reforming Catholic Confession (2016) signed by dozens of evangelical scholars and leaders from around the world.

Missional Catholicity
There is another angle from which evangelicals are appreciating the catholicity of the biblical faith in the contemporary world. This emphasis can be called the missional dimension of catholicity. In the Manila Manifesto (1989), drafted as the result of the Second Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, there is a call to take “the whole Gospel by the whole Church to the whole world”. The term catholicity is not there, but the catholicity of the evangelical faith is clearly and pervasively present.

The whole gospel: not a truncated version of it, but the full biblical message of God Creator, Provider and Saviour of a sinful and lost world. The whole church: not a class of professionals, but the whole people of God engaged in mission to the ends of the earth. To the whole world: centers and peripheries, groups and nations, the world of business, media, work and ideas. Standing on the shoulders of the apostolic catholicity recovered by the Reformation, this is a promising way to reclaim and to live out the catholicity of the Church in our broken world.


[1] Cfr. A. Dulles, The Catholicity of the Church (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) and V. Manguzzi, Cattolicità (Assisi: Cittadella, 2012).

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

167. Why Do They Cross the Tiber? Stories of Evangelical Conversions to Rome

Leonardo De Chirico’s note: I am thankful to my friend and colleague Clay Kannard for contributing with this fine article to the series of Vatican Files. Clay is a pastor sent to Rome to be a resource for the Italian evangelical church. He serves as a deacon of the church Breccia di Roma, Communications Director of the Reformanda Initiative and is a co-host of the upcoming Reformanda Initiative podcast.

The following post comes from a paper that was delivered at the 2019 Rome Scholars & Leaders Network in Rome, Italy.

MIND, HEART, & SOUL: INTELLECTUALS AND THE PATH TO ROME: A BOOK REVIEW

Mind, Heart, & Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome by R.J. Snell and Robert P. George is a collection of sixteen stories of individuals who have converted to Roman Catholicism. The interviews are conducted by intellectuals who are Roman Catholic converts, and as the title of the book suggests, each convert interviewed is a public intellectual and notable expert and/or leader in his or her field of study. Each interview recorded in this book provides insight into the converts’ religious backgrounds, personal experiences that led to conversion, the intellectual hurdles or obstacles faced in the journey towards embracing the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, life after conversion and post-conversion struggles, and suggestions of resources for other intellectuals who might be considering the next step on their own path towards Rome.

There is no doubt that the individuals selected to provide a testimony in this book are to be considered brilliant minds, members of the elite intellectual class within Western culture. Each chapter begins with a biography of both the interviewer and interviewee. Immediately the reader is met with impressive resumes of the people offering their personal stories of conversion to Roman Catholicism. These are the conversion stories of leading theologians, a former megachurch pastor, philosophers, ethicists, a novelist and syndicated journalists for major news outlets, political analysts and theorists, historians, legal scholars, constitutional lawyers and policy creators, and even an accomplished astronomer. The majority hold post-graduate level degrees from the most prestigious universities in the West, such as Harvard, Oxford, Princeton and Cambridge where many serve as faculty members and leaders of various university programs. They are no doubt scholars of the highest caliber and undoubtedly influential intellectuals who have demonstrated a commitment to life-long learning and engaging culture in the public square.

Mind, Heart and Soul is an apologetic work. The testimonies within this book demonstrate that faith is not an enemy of reason, intellectual fervor or a threat to scientific innovation, but they do so, for the most part, without diving deeply into the details of the theological, philosophical and intellectual arguments these converts wrestled with. Regardless, these stories demonstrate that faith involves the rational mind in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.[1] What is also evident in every testimony is that these intellectuals were not left alone in their quests for spiritual truth, but were aided through the contributions of those who had come before them. The works of other intellectual Catholics served as powerful resources in capturing these converts minds, hearts and souls for the Roman Catholic faith.

Intellectuals mentioned within these testimonies have successfully convinced countless others to embrace the Roman Catholic worldview. For example, the work of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the once Anglican priest who became a Roman Catholic priest and who will soon be canonized as a saint in the RCC, is mentioned time and time again in these conversion stories as one of the major influencers on decisions to cross the Tiber.[2] Other intellectual influencers mentioned throughout these conversion stories include the theological and philosophical works of Joseph Ratzinger and Peter Kreeft, the literary works of Flannery O’Connor and Oxford inklings such as G.K. Chesterton, Tolkien, and while not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis. A reading of the Church Fathers and the intellectual tradition of Thomas Aquinas played a significant role in convincing many of the converts that the Roman Catholic Church is correct in claiming to be the one true, historic and Apostolic Church.

The richness and influence of the Roman Catholic intellectual world is undeniable in these stories, thus providing a useful list of resources for those on similar journeys. But it was not only the brilliant minds throughout history that are seen to have influenced conversions. There is also the influence of community and a sense of belonging. Many of these testimonies describe a positive experience within a community of like-minded, intellectual Roman Catholics who lived a lively faith, or participation as students in Roman Catholic university clubs. But perhaps the most attractive sense of community came from belonging to a church that claims a doctrinal unity visible under the authority of the Pope, the head of a single, historic, and seemingly unified church.

The religious backgrounds vary among the converts. The majority of the testimonies come from individuals whose religious background was a form of nominal Protestantism. Of particular interest are the testimonies given by those who either grew up in a family with an evangelical religious background, or whose initial experience in the Christian faith took place within an evangelical context. Therefore, this book serves as a useful read for evangelical leaders, scholars, and pastors in seeking to understand common themes or potential weak points that might help to understand what influenced an evangelical intellectual to cross the Tiber and embrace the Roman Catholic Church.

EXAMPLES OF EVANGELICAL CONVERSIONS TO ROME

Ulf Ekman[3]
Former evangelical Megachurch pastor, Ulf Ekman, helpfully summarizes his attraction to Rome using four words: historicity, apostolic continuity, authority, and sacramentality. Ekman admits that in his camp there was a general lack of knowledge regarding church history and at times even an “open scorn for the long history of the church” (50). Ecclesiology was defined, not through a noted historical connection to a global and universal church sharing a common confession of faith, but through isolated independent congregational churches that held a “pragmatic look at the present and a futuristic eschatology” (Ibid).

As Ekman studied church history, he discovered a church with a much higher ecclesiology claiming apostolic continuity and unity under the Petrine authority of the pope. In the midst of liberal protestant developments, Ekman was attracted to a historical tradition of Rome that held an unwavering commitment to her traditional dogmas. He began to realize that his Protestant prejudices towards Rome stemmed from a lack of knowledge regarding the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and he ultimately rejected the Reformation doctrines stating that,

I used to believe the four “sola” tenets of the Reformation…more or less out of Protestant habit or tradition. Step-by-step I started to see how the Protestant mindset has an overriding attitude of “either-or” while the Catholic mindset, as well as the Hebrew, is more of “both-and” (56).

Yet of the aspects of Rome that attracted Ekman the most, it was the sacramental element of the Catholic Church that began to draw him into the Tiber.

Matthew Schmitz[4]
Matthew Schmitz grew up as an evangelical, believing that Catholics were probably not Christians and that the Church of Rome’s teaching was at odds with Christianity. As a child he participated in the Gothard Seminar, a program designed by evangelical Bill Gothard in which biblical morality is taught and encouraged. What Schmitz encountered was a very legalistic form of American Christianity that did not seem to demonstrate grace.

By the age of seventeen, Schmitz had rebelled against this legalistic program but not against the evangelical faith. While on a summer work assignment in Washington, DC, he began attending Capitol Hill Baptist Church. The pastor, Mark Dever, introduced Schmitz to Calvinism by gifting him a book written by J.I. Packer. Soon the young Matthew considered himself among the young, restless and Reformed, although he confesses never making it past page 70 of Calvin’s Institutes. Regardless, this newfound identity led Schmitz to begin reading anything that would be considered “both solidly “Christian” and undeniably great” (122). He began reading both post-Reformation authors as well as some older “Catholic things”, such as Augustine’s Confessions.

Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of Scripture was very appealing to Schmitz, helping him to overcome one of his biggest intellectual problems regarding the Christian faith, evolutionary theory. The literal interpretation of Scripture Schmitz had been taught did not allow for evolution, unlike the allegorical reading of Scripture used by Augustine. He began to embrace a Roman Catholic hermeneutical approach to Scripture.  Schmitz was,

…ceasing to be a Protestant, at least to be a pure kind of Protestant. I was becoming a more complicated kind of Protestant, or a more Catholic kind of Christian. I was looking for ways of reading Scripture, which, though I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, were more traditional and ecclesial (122).

Then while studying at Princeton, Schmitz was faced with the emergence of the gay rights movement. In seeking to defend a traditional Christian understanding of sexuality, he read Roman Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay titled, “Contraception and Chastity”. What Schmitz discovered was a powerful defense for the Christian worldview on sexuality within the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. This surprised Schmitz because he had always considered the Church of Rome as having erred in so many things. The discovery of a certain truth within Catholicism led him to begin looking more seriously at the Roman Catholic faith. Schmitz states that eventually his reason was well disposed towards the Roman Catholic Church and he ultimately became Catholic, “just by beginning to view things in the way Catholics viewed them. All I had to do was relinquish my opposition” (126).

Joshua Charles[5]
Charles crossing of the Tiber began with his doubting the doctrine of sola scriptura, which he ultimately rejecting it 2015. While studying Scripture, Charles came to view the recorded words of the living authorities captured in Scripture as problematic for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. He reasoned that the words of God spoken by men in the Bible (e.g. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Peter, Paul), words that were later written down as Scripture, had to have been authoritative when spoken and therefore indicated a living authority outside of the Scriptures. Charles then found himself trying to identify which living authority should be trusted, and therefore which biblical canon was correct. Was it the Protestant canon, or the Roman Catholic canon? He asked himself, 

Who do I trust to get that canon correct? Who is the divinely ordained authority by which we may be certain that we have the correct canon? Myself? Scholars at universities? The Jesus Seminar? I concluded that my appeal must be to nothing more and nothing less than the authority we see exhibited throughout the Scripture, but particularly in Acts 15, and that is the Living, Authoritative Church that began at Pentecost (102).

It was at this point that Charles set out on a quest to read the Church Fathers. In doing so, he was “absolutely slapped across the face” by church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. According to Charles, these early leaders of the faith seemed to have a more Roman Catholic understanding of theology and practice than did the evangelical tradition in which he grew up—an American Evangelical/Protestant Christianity he claims seemed to be in chaos (102).

Upon reading the Church Fathers, Charles claims to have discovered strictly Roman Catholic teachings such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Eucharist as sacrifice, the authority of the bishops, and apostolic succession (104). Charles even states that in reading the Church Fathers, there was an absence “of any distinctively Protestant doctrines among their writings, and the presence of a great deal of distinctively Catholic Doctrines” (106).[6]

Charles claimed to have found continuity. Namely, that while Roman Catholic doctrine has developed and been refined over time, it is fundamentally still the same, something that Charles states cannot be the said for the thousands of Protestant denominations (111). And yet, while he had recognized various problems within the Protestant tradition, Charles had never previously considered Catholicism because he never properly understood it. He states,

In short, what I thought I knew about Catholicism just wasn’t true. I realized that the Catholic intellectual tradition is extremely powerful, and I studied what the Church actually said about herself and her own dogmas rather than seeing them through an oftentimes erroneous and misunderstanding Protestant lens (117).[7]

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP and Douglas M. Beaumont[8]
In his first years of college, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP began to explore metaphysical frameworks offered by different religious traditions. While reading Flannery O’Connor’s Letters to A, White encountered the name of Karl Barth. He then went to the library, located and read Barth’s Introduction to Evangelical Theology in one sitting. On that day White claims to have received the gift of faith and was soon after baptized as a Protestant, even though he had not yet determined to which church he would belong.[9] Realizing that there were many expressions of Christianity, White set out on a journey to understand his new faith by studying its history.

White enrolled in a Church History course at his university and begin reading the writings of Origen and Augustine. He then read Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, whose emphasizing the combination of philosophy and theology was very appealing to White. He began reading more modern Roman Catholic theologians such as Balthasar, Rahner, de Lubac and John Paul II, in whose writings he found a deep continuity with the Church Fathers. Then during his senior of college, White read John Henry Newman, came to view the Roman Catholic Church as the historic faith and converted to Roman Catholicism.

White began pursuing his MPhil in patristic theology at Oxford where he discovered Aquinas and was trained in Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. White describes Aquinas as a “deeply grounded philosophical realist, a deeply grounded theological realist, and a mystic; it’s a very powerful combination” (70). For White, Aquinas offered a unified system for understanding all of reality within the context of the Roman Catholic Church. According to White,

St. Thomas’s philosophy of nature, metaphysics, understanding of the human person, epistemology, logic, and ethics make sense even independently of divine revelation while being deeply compatible with it. He also articulates an understanding of revelation which assimilates his realistic philosophical approach to the world (71).

In other words, for Fr. White, Aquinas’ philosophical and theological framework offers a unified system for understanding all of reality and that can be fully experienced within the sacramental economy of the Roman Catholic Church. A complete package rooted in an ancient intellectual tradition is very attractive to intellectuals on a quest for spiritual truth.[10]

This was especially true for Douglas M. Beaumont. Beaumont did not grow up in a religious environment, and although he had attended vacation Bible schools as child, it was not until college that he began his “faith life” (233). He admits to having strong sentiments against the Roman Catholic Church prior to his conversion, but without truly understanding it. The more he began to study Catholicism though, the more he began to view shared foundations with Protestantism that had really only diverged in application.[11] While studying apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Beaumont was introduced to the writings of Thomas Aquinas through Professor Geisler, who often assigned the reading of Aquinas to his students. Aquinas’ natural theology was influential in professor Norman Geisler’s classical approach to apologetics. Beaumont immediately came to appreciate Aquinas’ philosophical, careful and systemic thinking.

Beaumont continued to study Church History as part of his role as research assistant to Norman Geisler, who at the time was working on his Systematic Theology series. Beaumont was tasked with finding quotes from Church Fathers that would support Geisler’s beliefs, but he found it very difficult to identify continuity with the early Church Fathers when it came to an Evangelical ecclesiology and eschatology. The longer Beaumont studied Church History, the more he began to agree with John Newman, that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. Ultimately, Beaumont embraced the long intellectual tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, her claim to apostolic unity and continuity with the ancient Church, and a sacramental system structured around a Thomistic intellectual tradition and metaphysical understanding of nature and grace.[12] Dozens of other seminarians from Southern Evangelical Seminary have since followed in his footsteps.

COMMON THEMES AND WEAK POINTS NOTED IN EVANGELICAL CONVERSIONS TO ROME

Each of these converts above was attracted to one or more of the four words mentioned by Ulf Ekman: the historicity, apostolic continuity, authority, and sacramentality of the Roman Catholic Church. There is only one word missing that must be noted, intellectuality. The previous conversion stories are not isolated. Many other examples can be found elsewhere, e.g. Beaumont’s book, Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome. A very helpful analysis on evangelical conversions to Rome has also been provided by Kenneth J. Stewart in his book, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis.[13]

What repeating themes do these evangelical conversion stories reveal that should be noted by evangelical pastors, leaders and scholars? This section does not attempt to provide an in-depth theological analysis of the arguments given by evangelical converts for their crossing of the Tiber. For an excellent psychological, theological, and sociological analysis on what has been labeled, “Convertitis”, check out the new series by the Davenant Institute titled, “Why Protestants Convert“. What we are addressing below are common themes and weak-points identified in testimonies of those who have had a case of convertitis. Our desire is to continue a conversation as to why Roman Catholicism becomes so attractive to some evangelicals and what can we do about it.

1. Weak ecclesiology with no or little historical formation or depth
Every single testimony seems to indicate a weak ecclesiological background. Converts describe evangelicalism in terms of isolated evangelical church expressions with no connection to a historic and global Christian faith. There was no mention of intentional discipleship and theological formation taking place within the context of the local church. In these testimonies, a study of Church history usually took place independently or through Evangelical Bible Schools and Seminaries. In Beaumont’s case, his seminary did not even offer a Church history course for graduate level students, not even as an elective! How is this possible? Our own research has found that many seminaries lack courses on Roman Catholicism. The result is a generation of evangelical leaders who, like majority of the converts in this book, did not really understand Roman Catholicism.

What needs to be done in our institutions to help raise awareness of church history and the evangelical connection to the historic Christian faith? More importantly though, what needs to be done in our churches? Helping evangelicals to grasp and identify with a historic and biblical faith should not be left to Bible schools and seminaries alone. Perhaps there could be a regular recitation during times of worship that include not only Scripture but historic creeds and confessions stretching from the Apostles Creed, to the reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Confession of Faith, etc., to even more modern global evangelical confessions such as those created by the Lausanne Movement.

2. Superficial and individualist expressions of faith
We cannot ignore the American consumeristic and individualistic cultural influence on those who attend our churches or seminaries. Unfortunately, this cultural influence can also be seen within many Evangelical church models today. Many churches have been designed to deliver an experience, having created attractional means in which the attendee can experience their faith, be entertained and consume religious content without being a contributing member or participating in the life of the church. This allows for the development of a shallow, individualistic and consumeristic expression of faith.

When one becomes aware of the superficiality of the experiential expression of faith found in many evangelical churches, a Christianity that provides a way to have an experiential faith through a mystical sacramental system rooted in an ancient, historic and global tradition that claims to be united becomes very appealing. Additionally, when one sees an apparent lack of unity resulting from isolated inwardly focused congregations, the global, ancient and seemingly unified nature of Rome becomes very attractive.

3. A Gospel-less Evangelical/Protestant church experience
Looking back to the testimony of Matthew Schmitz, it appears that his experience within a very legalistic (fundamental) evangelical context played a factor in his journey towards Rome. Others experienced a liberal form of Protestantism which also indicates a lack of the biblical Gospel.

Those growing up in a more legalistic context, like Matthew Schmitz, seem to be attracted to the Church of Rome’s commitment to its historic doctrines maintained under the authority of the Pope and the teachings of the Magisterium. This was in contrast to an apparent Protestant pick-and-choose or “have it your way” menu of churches. These converts found solace in a unified, non-democratic and traditional dogmatic system defined by the Church.

Something that is important to note in these conversion stories is that while there was much positivity regarding the unity of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted to a divided Protestantism and Evangelicalism, there was very little discussion about the divergent theological expressions within Roman Catholicism, both historically and currently at odds with one another. Some of the conservative converts who were put off by the liberalization of many Protestant denominations, often leading to splits and the creation of new denominations, seemed to lack any previous conversion knowledge of the various movements within Roman Catholicism that are at odds with one another. This is also true for the more progressive-leaning converts. For example, in chapter 6, Kirsten Powers openly shared about her post-conversion crisis of faith when she discovered a conservative/progressive divide within Catholicism that is marked with infighting (94-95).

4. Attraction to Roman Catholic intellectual tradition and a lack of biblical discernment when reading the Church Fathers, Church History, and Catholic intellectual giants
There is always a need to recognize our presuppositions on the quest for truth. For evangelicals who hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, we understand that the Bible is the starting point through which truth claims are to be examined. This equally applies when reading, or leading others through a reading of the Church Fathers, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, Chesterton, etc. It is not sufficient to take a merely philosophical approach or a realist approach, evangelicals must take a biblical approach. When it comes to reading these ancient intellectual giants and Church Fathers, is there is a need for greater evangelical scholarly assessment of church history carried out with a greater discernment and theological alertness?

What scholarly work is still left for evangelicals to do in order to address this weak point? What scholarly and literary works have already been done using a heightened theological alertness based on the authority of Scripture to evaluate the writings of the Church Fathers, Church councils and growingly popular intellectual traditions? Has there truly been enough work to study, recognize and indicate where our earliest brothers deviate from Scripture? This kind of work always carries the risk of being labeled historical revisionists, but evangelical scholars must be willing to take that risk and boldly identify where Church Fathers influenced a decision, made a decision or wrote a statement that set a trajectory towards what would ultimately result in unbiblical theology and practice.

Another question we must ask is: How does the local church address this weak point? In Schmitz’ testimony, it is not even clear whether or not he returned from his Summer stent in Washington DC to a local church that could have or would have helped him practice discernment. Was he left to himself as he began reading Augustine and embracing a Roman Catholic hermeneutical approach to Scripture? There is no mention of anyone helping him in this process.

5. Atomistic or no understanding of Roman Catholicism
Every evangelical testimony in this book claimed to have known very little about Roman Catholicism prior to their conversions. There were at times atomistic approaches to understanding Catholicism, only seeing Rome’s teachings as isolated doctrines having minor or isolated disagreements with Protestantism. However, there seemed to be a complete lack of understanding Roman Catholicism as a complete theological system prior to conversion. It is only after crossing the Tiber that some of the intellectuals recognized the systemic nature of Catholicism, and by then they had already rejected the Reformation doctrines that would undermine such a system.

It would be interesting to conduct a poll to see how many of our Evangelical Bible schools, seminaries, and missionary training centers actually offer courses on understanding Roman Catholicism as a theological system, and if any of them do, if they would be required courses in the training of evangelical scholars, leaders, and pastors. I am afraid we already know how the results would look.

What is evident through a reading of these testimonies is that there is much work to be done. It can be unsettling for evangelicals when considering that this book is one among many. However, the crossing of the Tiber is not only unidirectional. We at the Reformanda Initiative have been encouraged time and time again by stories of Roman Catholics who convert to the evangelical/biblical faith of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in the work of Jesus Christ alone. Most recently, we were encouraged by the testimony of Onsi A. Kamel, Catholicism Made Me Protestant, recently published by First Things. Read it and be encouraged.

Our prayer is that God may provide the resources and people who would dedicate their lives to humbly work together in identifying, uniting, equipping, and resourcing evangelical leaders to understand Roman Catholic theology and practice, to educate the evangelical church, and to communicate the biblical Gospel of salvation over and against attractive yet deviating narratives. Will you pray with us?

 Bibliography

George, Robert P., and R. J. Snell. Mind, Heart and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome. TAN Books, 2018.


[1] Kristen Powers, states in chapter six that, “One of my struggles with Christianity was that I thought it was anti-intellectual…I really thought all intellectuals were skeptics too…”, 89.

[2] Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and The Grammar of Ascent are mentioned throughout this book as one of the most influential works that helped converts overcome intellectual challenges towards the Christian faith, and to embrace the Roman Catholic Church as the one true church.

[3] Ulf Ekman was born in Sweden where he was ordained as a Lutheran minister. In 1983 Ekman founded the charismatic evangelical church, Word of Life, which eventually grew into a Megachurch having an expansive outreach and global influence. In his thirty-plus years of ministry, Ekman founded several Bible schools and a seminary, organized and led conferences around the world, and authored over 40 books that have been translated into over thirty languages. Ekman valued the evangelical emphasis on reading and teaching the Bible, having a personal relationship with Jesus and the charismatic experience of faith.

[4] Matthew Schmitz is a senior editor of First Things and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Spectator and more. He holds an AB in English from Princeton.

[5] Joshua Charles is a historian, writer, and speaker. He holds an MA in government and a law degree. As a writer, he has written many articles for publications such as Fox News, The Federalist, and the Jerusalem Post and has authored and co-authored bestselling books on America’s Founders, Israel and the Bible. His testimony provides very little insight into the specifics of his previous religious experience, other than it was within a non-denominational Protestant Christian upbringing.

[6] Then on page 108, Charles gives an example, stating that “every single Church Father believed in baptismal regeneration…”.

[7] As Evangelicals, even the works of the earliest Church Fathers must be read in light of God’s Word as our ultimate authority—Sola Scriptura. In Charles’ case, he had already denied the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

[8] Fr. Thomas Joseph White is the director of the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum in Rome, professor of theology and a convert himself. Douglas M. Beaumont holds a Ph.D. in theology from North-West University and an MA in apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary. At Sothern Evangelical Seminary Beaumont served as assistant to President Norman Geisler and taught Bible and religion for many years. He is also the author of several books, including Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome.

[9] More details are needed, but how is one baptized by a church without yet having decided to what church one would belong to? What was the understanding of baptism by the church who administered this ordinance? Was there any evaluation of White’s claim of faith or any attempt to catechize him?

[10] It is important to note that while Fr. White would present a Thomistic understanding of the Roman Catholic faith, as a comprehensive theological system where everything is interconnected, most of the converts never had this understanding of Roman Catholicism prior to conversion. Rather, Roman Catholicism was approached or thought of through the typical atomistic approach—e.g. doctrine by doctrine. For more on this read Dr. Leonardo De Chirico’s dissertation, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Vatican II and Gregg Allison’s book, Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment.

[11] Beaumont provides examples stating, “immoral popes were no more of a problem than was St. Peter. The evil of Israel no more made it cease to be the people of God than evils committed by those in the Church made it cease to be the Church. These discoveries made me realize that often it was my inconsistent application of shared principles that made Catholicism seem as far off as I had been led to believe it was.” (226). Beaumont states that during his time at SES, Church History was not even taught for any of their graduate-level degrees, even as an elective (227).

[12] Beaumont understands very well the difference between Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, from the systemic nature of Catholicism to recognizing that while we often use the same words (e.g. evangelize, works, grace), we have completely different understandings of them. See his concluding remarks on page 237.

[13] See chapter fifteen of his Stewart’s book, titled “Why Are Younger Evangelicals Turning to Catholicism and Orthodoxy?”, specifically the section titled “Reasons Behind the Drift”.

166. Pope Francis Fears for the Planet, But Where Is the Gospel?

Europe, sovereignism (the “us first” type of politics), migrants, glaciers, the Amazon … these are the topics covered in a recent interview given by Pope Francis to the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa (8th August 2019). It is a fairly long conversation that mirrors the concerns the Pope has in looking at today’s global world: he begins with Europe and stretches to the Amazon, touching on social, political, environmental, and ecclesiastical issues. Some of the topics are politically controversial and divisive even among the Roman Catholic constituency. Beyond confirming stances on which the Pope is strongly convinced, however, what is striking in the interview are his silences.

The Biggest Fear for the Planet
None of the things that Francis said were really new. There have been multiple occasions at all levels in which the Pope has expressed his views on sovereignist ideology (“it leads to war”), the populist tendency in the public opinion (“It leads to sovereignism”), the migrant issue (the four imperatives are to “receive”, “accompany”, “promote”, and “integrate”), the exploitation of natural resources (“the Overshoot Day: On July 29th, we used up all the regenerative resources of 2019… It’s a global emergency”); the challenges that the Amazon region is facing (“deforestation means killing humanity”, “the issue of open-cast mines which are poisoning water and causing so many diseases”, “the issue of fertilizers”, “the economic and political interests of society’s dominant sectors”).

These are all serious points, most of which the Pope touched on in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ on “care for our common home”. They have to be thought through and acted upon. They are real emergencies. However, something is missing in the answers of the Pope. Reaching the climax of the interview, the question comes up: “Your Holiness, what do you fear most for our planet?”. The Pope’s answer is striking. Here it is: “The disappearance of biodiversity. New lethal diseases. A drift and devastation of nature that can lead to the death of humanity”.

The disappearance of biodiversity, new lethal diseases, a devastation of nature. These are the things that the Pope fears the most for the world. Again, these are real and scary threats. But isn’t there something missing from a Christian point of view? If Jesus were asked such a question, what would His response be? If Paul, John, Peter, and James were asked such a question, what would their response be? In the Pope’s answer, there is no mention of Christ, sin, the cross, repentance, conversion, God’s judgement, grace, the gospel. And yet he claims to be the “vicar of Christ”!

The question opened up wonderful opportunities to reply in such a way that those fears could be approached and framed in terms of the gospel, rather than in terms of a merely humanistic worldview. In what he said and what he didn’t say, Pope Francis acted as if he were the spokesperson of a secular NGO focused on humanitarian and environmental issues, rather than a Christian who is passionate to tell the whole world the biblical message of God’s creation, human sin, and redemption in Christ alone and to work out its implication for the church and the world.

Where is Christ in all this?
Actually, Christ is not only missing in this answer – He is never mentioned in the whole interview. Greta Thunberg, the young ecologist activist, is referred to by name, but Jesus isn’t. One might say: but the Pope wasn’t asked direct questions about Christ. That’s true; but it was a long interview with lots of questions, full of entry points for the gospel to be announced. These opportunities were all missed by the Pope. In reading the interview the reader is not at all challenged by the gospel. He or she is instead alerted to some pressing environmental and political issues that an informed and cunning politician could have raised. Does his silence say tell something about the kind of “gospel” the Pope has in mind?

Expressing concerns for the Amazon region, the interviewer talked about the upcoming Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon that is going to take place at the end of October 2019. At this point the Pope shared what is going to be the highlight of the Synod: “The important thing will be the ministries of evangelisation and the different ways of evangelising”.

Evangelisation and evangelising. One is left wondering what evangelisation even means to Francis. In the long interview the Pope does not spell it out. The only hint he gives is to “dialogue”:

This is crucial: starting from our own identity we must open to dialogue in order to receive something greater from the identity of others. Never forget that ‘the whole is greater than the parts.’ Globalisation, unity, should not be conceived as a sphere, but as a polyhedron: each people retains its identity in unity with others.

This is what the Pope says: we open up dialogue in order to form a polycentric unity with the people we dialogue with. Again, there is no reference to the biblical content of the “good news” (i.e. the message of salvation in Jesus Christ), nor the biblical expectation that conversions to Christ will result out of dialogue. For the Pope, the outcome of dialogue is an expanded, polymorphic unity among people. In the Bible, however, evangelisation entails dialogue, but also proclamation, preaching, persuading, etc. (e.g. Acts 17:16-31 ). These elements are totally missing in the Pope’s view of evangelisation. Moreover, the Bible is also soberly aware that when and where evangelisation takes place some refuse the gospel, and some believe it (e.g. Acts 17:32-34). No greater unity within humanity is expected, but the conversion of the lost is the goal of evangelism. This should be the greatest concern for all Christians: taking the gospel to the ends of the world so that those who believe in Jesus Christ will have eternal life. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the Pope’s vision, although he claims to be the highest representative of Christ on earth.

165. What is the Essence of Roman Catholicism?

What defines Roman Catholicism? Is there something that qualifies not only parts of it, but the whole of what Roman Catholicism stands for? Is there a core element that shapes all components in a distinct way? On this question, scores of heavyweight theologians have written masterful analyses over the centuries and up to this day. From John Henry Newman to Romano Guardini, from Adam Möhler to Karl Adam, from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Henri de Lubac, from Avery Dulles to Walter Kasper, dozens of books have tried to identify what makes Roman Catholicism what it is. Despite the different suggestions provided, the common assumption is that Roman Catholicism is an interconnected whole and that its identity is pervasively present – though with different intensities – in all its expressions.

The latest attempt to identify the theological DNA of Catholicism comes from the pen of Karl-Henzi Menke, professor of theology at the University of Bonn and one of the most authoritative voices of present-day Roman Catholic theology in Germany. His book Sakramentalität. Wesen und Wunde des Katholizismus (2015) (English: Sacramentality: The Essence and the Wounds of Catholicism) exactly tackles this issue and is a useful new contribution to the whole discussion.[1] A full review of the book is beyond the scope of this short article, but at least two points are worth exploring.

Looking at Roman Catholicism as a Whole
Menke speaks of the essence of Roman Catholicism in terms of its “thought form” and “life form”. Quoting Greshake,[2] he agrees with his approach:

The Christian faith is not a jumble of single truths: here a dogma, there a dogma, here an exegetical point, there a moral norm, etc. Faith is rather a structured and coherent whole. This has important consequences for the inter-confessional theological dialogue: in the end it is of little use to talk from time to time (only) about individual topics and to seek consensus about them, rather one must ask: what is the ultimate reason for the different view about this or of that single theme? If we proceed in this way, we will come across an ultimate diversity in the overall conception of revelation, a diversity that is concretized in the various individual categorical differences. This means that among the individual confessions, in the final analysis there are no differences but there is a fundamental difference which then unfolds in a series of differences. (p. 12)

Since the context of this argument deals with the differences between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant faith (although he has primarily in mind liberal Protestantism), there are several points to be highlighted here: 1. Faith is a “structured and coherent whole”; 2. The dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics must seek to identify the ultimate motif of the respective faiths and conduct it accordingly; 3. This ultimate motif is apparent in all expressions of theology and practice; 4. The difference between confessions (i.e. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) is traceable to a “fundamental difference” that unfolds in a “series of differences”.

It is important that Roman Catholic theologians of this caliber suggest such a clear view of what is at stake. Often times, people who are involved in ecumenical dialogue show little awareness of the “systemic” (my word, not Menke’s) nature of one’s own faith and the other’s. The popular version of this superficial approach is when it is argued that as far as Evangelicals and Catholics are concerned, “we agree on Christology, we disagree on soteriology and ecclesiology”, or “we agree on the Trinity, we disagree on Mary”, as if theology were made of a bunch of isolated pieces. If we follow Menke and Greshake, it is not theologically feasible to hold such an “atomistic” approach (again, my term, not Menke’s), as if doctrines were disconnected bits and pieces. On the contrary, the Roman Catholic views of salvation, the church, and Mary are shaped around Roman Catholic accounts of the Trinity and Christ. Doctrines and practices cannot be disjoined as if they were independent silos, but must be seen as mutually influencing one another. In other words, Roman Catholicism is a coherent and unified whole, and therefore must be seen as stemming from the “overall conception of revelation” that leads to an “ultimate diversity” with regards to the Evangelical faith.

Sacramentality as the Essence of Catholicism
Given the theologically unified and coherent nature of Roman Catholicism, what is its essence then? According to the Bonner theologian, the essence lies in the “thought form” (Denkform) that is shaped by sacramentality: “the Catholic thought form and life form is essentially sacramental” (p. 14). Again, “the sacramental thought form of Catholicism is the difference that contributes to explain all the rest” (p. 27).

There are three sides to his understanding of sacramentality:

  1. The sacramental representation of the church of Jesus Christ in space and time.
  2. The sacramental actualization of the humanity of Jesus Christ through the liturgy, ministry and dogma of the church as institution visibly united in the successors of the apostles.
  3. The sacramental presence of the absolute in the story of Jesus (original sacrament) and his church (fundamental sacrament) (p. 40).

There is a whole theological universe here that would need a lot of unpacking. Simply put, the essence of Roman Catholicism is its view of the relationship between Christ and church in terms of sacramental representation; the relationship between the humanity of Christ and the institutional and hierarchical church in terms of sacramental actualization of the former in the latter; and the relationship between Christ and whatever the church is and does in terms of sacramental presence. The sacramentality of the church is the mode of Christ’s presence in the world in and through the Roman Catholic church.

The point is that Roman Catholicism has its core in the interconnection between Christ and the Church, between Christology and ecclesiology. Everything else stems from this “essence” that makes Christ and the church co-inherent and their relationship sacramental. The sacramentality of the Roman Church does not entail the seven sacraments only, but the whole of the Church in its self-understanding, life, and practices.

There are far-reaching consequences for an Evangelical assessment of Roman Catholicism. Among other things, this means that the “essence” of Roman Catholicism is its account of Christology, and therefore the Trinity, and the way in which it shapes the broad reality of the Church. This is not a secondary issue. It lies at the heart of the faith: the Roman Catholic account of the person, the work, and the doctrine of Christ. The problem of Roman Catholicism does not primarily lie in its Mariology, its unbiblical folk devotions, or in papal infallibility. These, and many others, are all variations that arise from the ultimate difference that has to do with the account of Jesus Christ himself and his relationship with the Church.

According to Menke, Protestantism is a “wound” of the faith. In his view, the Evangelical insistence on Scripture alone, Faith alone, and glory to God alone are ways in which the Roman sacramental link is severed. There is an element of truth in this analysis. According to the Evangelical account of the gospel, Christ stands above the church through Scripture exercising His authority over his people; Christ stands above the church in having accomplished the work of salvation and granting its benefits to the believers; Christ stands above the church by leading the church to the worship of the Triune God away from idolatry. The essence of Roman Catholicism is ultimately different from the essence of the Evangelical faith. Menke argues it. I agree.


[1] I had access to the Italian translation: Karl-Heinze Menke, Sacramentalità. Essenza e ferite del cattolicesimo (Brescia: Queriniana, 2015). Quotations will be taken and referenced from this translation.

[2]Gisbert Greshake, Was trennt? Überlegungen zur konfessionellen Grunddifferenz, “Theologie der Gegenwart” 49 (2006) 162-174, quotation from p. 162s.

164. From the Mary of the Bible to the Mary of Manifold Devotions

This review of Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven, CT; London, UK: Yale University Press, 2016) pp. 289, was published in “Credo Magazine”, Volume 9, Issue 2 (June 10, 2019).

At the end of September 2018, in the midst of the Annus Horribilis of the Roman Catholic Church (with the explosion of sexual abuse cases and the growing spiral of inner conflicts within the curia), Pope Francis called his people to devote themselves to praying to Mary to ask for her protection.[1] He asked the faithful to conclude the Rosary with the ancient invocation Sub tuum praesidium (“We fly to thy patronage”). The full Marian invocation is recited as follows:

We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God. Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

The prayer contains references to attributes and prerogatives that in the Bible are clearly and exclusively relegated to God, e.g. His protection, His acceptance of our petitions, His ability to deliver, and Him being both glorious and blessed. And yet, this Marian prayer ascribes all of these functions to Mary and her protective mantle. Where does this prayer come from? And why is it part of the liturgical and devotional life of the Roman Catholic Church now? 

The Growth of Mariology
A well-documented and scholarly answer comes from the book Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (Yale University Press) by Stephen J. Shoemaker. Shoemaker traces the complex historical process that saw the Mary of the Bible become the Mary of manifold devotions in the first five centuries of the Christian era. The book maps out the growth of Mariology well beyond the “laconic” (62) portrait of Mary that is presented in the New Testament. Even stretching the focus to the second century, Mary certainly becomes the “new Eve” for Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, thus seeing her role expanded to a useful corroboration of the Pauline parallel between Adam and Christ (the new Adam). However, there is no indication of any devotions attached to her. For these Fathers, “Mary seems to be a figure primarily of dogmatic rather than devotional concern” (47). Moreover, Shoemaker helpfully makes reference to a later Father like Tertullian who has a “lower esteem” for the mother of Jesus than other contemporary orthodox writers (65).

While “there is practically no evidence of any Christian devotion to Mary prior to 150 CE” (3), a first boost to the process came from the Protoevangelium of James, a late second century biography of Mary. Here she becomes “the epitome of sacred purity, as perfect holiness embodied in a human being” (60). Particular stress is put on her virginity that is “an emblem of her own sacred purity” (62) rather than a sign of the divine origin of the Son. Mary’s holiness becomes a dominating feature that attracts devotional attention on herself as an exceptional person. In a telling comment, Shoemaker argues that the Protoevangelium – therefore an apocryphal gospel – laid “crucial foundations for future devotions to the Virgin Mary” (53). For evangelicals wanting to ground spirituality on the canonical Scriptures, this in an important point to underline. Historically speaking, Marian devotions were fueled by writings that were never considered to be inspired, and yet have played a formidable role in generating the Marian cult. 

A Heterodox Backdrop
This is the background out of which the Sub tuum presidium prayer comes from. According to Shoemaker, this 3rd century Egyptian papyrus suggests, “Marian piety initially emerged within a more popular and less culturally elite context” (70). Moreover, the fact that the prayer does not mention the Father or the Son may indicate that it may have been linked with “heterodox groups within early Christianity” (72). The spurious lex orandi negatively influenced the subsequent development of the lex credendi. The fact that the highest Roman Catholic authority still uses this prayer shows how deep the impact has been.

The central chapters of the book are dedicated to a fascinating analysis of an important source such as The Book of Mary’s Repose, which opens the tradition of the Dormition narratives. Here, Mary is revered for “her knowledge of the cosmic mysteries and her influence with her son” (128) and capable of receiving intercessions, performing wonders, and making apparitions. The heterodox backdrop of the tradition depicts Jesus as the Great Cherub of Light, a typically gnostic title. The Six Books Dormition Apocryphon reinforce this insurgent tendency of making Mary the center of a proper cult.

Shoemaker also sheds light on the additions of roles given to Mary (e.g. the “ascetic model” strongly supported by Ambrose) and the liturgical evidence for the cult of the Virgin in terms of feast days, festivals, and hymnography. Here again, the lex orandi of ancient Christianity was “a bit ahead of its lex credendi” (194).

The lex credendi did arrive with the dogmatic pronouncement of Mary as the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus, a “major turning point” in the history of Marian piety (205). The final chapter contains a fascinating examination of the Mariological elements undergirding the historical context, the theological debates, and the ecclesiastical outcomes of the Council of Ephesus. The point convincingly made by Shoemaker is that Marian piety was already present and strong before the Council and was one of the principal reasons why Nestorius was rejected by the party lead by Cyril on the theological side and by Pulcheria on the devotional side. The series of sermons by Cyril that followed the conclusion of the Council “went well beyond mere Christological concerns in its exalted praises to Mary” (225). Nestorius’ Christology was certainly in need of further refinement, but he was at least right in foreseeing the explosion of devotion to the Virgin that would follow the proclamation of her as the Mother of God.

Mariology: An Evangelical Analysis
The historical and literary evidence persuasively presented by Shoemaker shows that Mariological devotions originated in heterodox (read: gnostic) milieux and were later theologized and integrated into the corpus of the Mariological doctrine of the Church (6). The book stops at a careful historical analysis, but the evangelical theologian wants to go further in saying something more that is backed up by historical evidence. Contrary to the idealized Roman Catholic view of the development of doctrine as an organic unfolding of the truth (from J.H. Newman onward), Mariological ideas and practices were added from the outside and allowed to penetrate the faith of the people. While Church Fathers like Irenaeus were painstakingly fighting against the heresies of Gnosticism in order to protect the integrity of the Christian faith, other sectors of the church were being infiltrated by gnostic deviations through Marian devotions. Gnostic influences that were thrown out of the door of theology re-entered through the window of devotions, without the church as a whole exercising enough biblical discernment to understand what was happening. Unfortunately, the lex orandi (in this case soaked in Gnosticism) eventually affected the lex credendi (which did not have enough biblical antibodies to reject them).

Back to Pope Francis. When he called his people to pray the Sub tuum praesidium Marian invocation, he referred to an ancient tradition that the Roman Catholic Church has assimilated and made its own. As has been the case from the late second century onward, “Marian devotion and doctrine continue to be driven largely by popular piety, to which the hierarchs and theologians largely respond” (239).


[1] Holy See Press Office Communiqué, 29.09.2018

163. Five Principles for Interpreting the Church Fathers

June 1st, 2019

This article is an excerpt from my Letture patristiche (II-III secolo), “Studi di teologia” N. 54 (2015), pp. 139-141.

Recent decades have seen Evangelical theology express a renewed interest in the Church Fathers. This is all well and good. Rooted in the Bible, Evangelicalism at its best has always thought of itself in continuity with the apostolic gospel as it was proclaimed and taught in the early church, the medieval period, the Protestant Reformation, and Evangelical revivals up to the present day. In this positive retrieval, there is also the danger of an idealization of the Fathers (as if they were always right and always working with pure motives) and a wholesale and unwarranted appreciation of “tradition” (as if it was a monolithic body that is organically related to Scripture). In order to both affirm the Evangelical interest in the Fathers and suggest some caveats in practising it, here are five principles that can be useful to bear in mind.

1)  In reading the Church Fathers, practice the Sola Scriptura principle (the Bible alone is the inspired written Word of God and the ultimate authority), the tota Scriptura principle (the whole Bible is inspired and needs to be received as a whole), and the Scriptura sui ipsius interpres principle (the Bible is its own interpreter). As Protestant theologians, always remember that Scripture is the norma normans non normata (i.e. the norm of norms which cannot be normed). The Fathers are important, but not decisive; the Fathers are useful, but not definitive; the Fathers can be enriching, but to the extent that they are faithful to Scripture. In the words of John Calvin, “we hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment, and that Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is meet for them to hold, under Christ”.[1]

2) Cherish a theologically sober and realistic view of tradition. The Fathers are the cornerstone of church tradition. As the Protestant Reformation taught us, one can and must hold the Word of God over every theological elaboration of the past while, at the same time, treasuring the inheritance that generations of believers have consigned to subsequent ones. In J.I. Packer’s words, “Tradition, after all, is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it”.[2] The 17th century Huguenot pastor Jean Daillé (1594-1670) wrote in his work Du vrai emploi des Pères (On the Right Use of the Fathers, 1631): “Who does not know that a dwarf, mounting on the shoulders of a giant, sees higher and further away of the giant himself? We stand on the shoulders of this great and sublime Antiquity: we owe this position of advantage to it”.[3]

3) Deconstruct the rhetoric of the consensum patrum, the idea that says there is a unanimity of the Fathers and that the patristic body of writings is a homogeneous monolith. This reading of the Fathers is short-sighted and ideological. The Fathers must be evaluated one by one, work by work, section by section, thought by thought, always relating their specific writings to the whole of their work and the general context in which they wrote. It is not legitimate to assign to the Fathers a dogmatic consensus and a simplistic doctrinal continuity with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Take note of what the Puritan theologian John Owen (1611-1683) wrote:  “The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest to do so. No man of ingenuity, who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretence. For it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others, who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely, in the latter they really differ, and that frequently”.[4]

4) Exercise theological discernment in assessing the historical dynamics in which the Fathers wrote. In general, their Christological and Trinitarian reflection is reliable in the ante-Nicene, post-Nicene, and Chalcedonian phases, although it is subject to a progressive infiltration of the devotional practices that eventually undermined it. After the “Constantinian shift” at the beginning of the 4th century, which transformed the self-understanding of the church into that of a religious and hierarchical empire, the ecclesiological, sacramental, and Mariological reflection of many patristic writings is vitiated by “imperial”, sacramental, and matriarchal categories. These areas are abundantly polluted by pagan parameters that have taken over from biblical teaching. The study of the Fathers therefore urges us to have a theologically responsible view of the “development” and “progress” of dogma (i.e. doctrinal elaboration after the closing of the biblical canon), away from naively simplistic accounts of it.[5]

5) Develop an awareness of systemic issues with important repercussions on the contemporary Christian identity. The Fathers are a field of study much sought after by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant theologies. In studying them, an exegetical and historical expertise is required, but it is not sufficient. There must be a systematic and ecumenical awareness of the issues involved because the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches both claim the Fathers as “theirs”, just as the Reformers felt they had inherited from the Fathers the rediscovery of the biblical gospel. In dealing with present-day readings of the Fathers, we have to deal with the Catholic and Eastern rhetoric of the “undivided church of the first millennium”, as if the way forward towards unity is a “return to the Fathers”. Behind these widespread expressions, there are hidden assumptions that are in danger of abusing the Fathers. The Evangelical study of the Fathers cannot be theologically naive or superficial with respect to the “ecumenical” game that is played on this field. The way forward to unity is a return to the biblical gospel.

In conclusion, John Calvin’s wisdom well summarizes the above mentioned five principles:

“While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in somethings it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin, Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves”.[6]

We must be neither “patrophobic” (i.e. fearing the study of the Fathers) nor “patrolaters” (i.e. elevating them as absolutes). Evangelical theology needs to pursue a realistic reading of the Fathers under the supreme authority of Scripture and at the service of the cause of the gospel.


[1] John Calvin’s Letter to Sadoleto (1539). Notice the reversed Roman Catholic argument presented by John H. Newman (1801-1890): talking about the Fathers he argues that “They do not say, ‘This is true, because we see it in Scripture’—about which there might be differences of judgment—but, ‘this is true, because in matter of fact it is held, and has ever been held, by all the Churches, down to our times, without interruption, ever since the Apostles’”:Discussions and Arguments, II.1 (London: Longmans, 1891) p.46.

[2]J.I. Packer, Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society” 25 (1992) p. 414.

[3] Quoted by G. Peters, I Padri della Chiesa, vol. 1 (Roma: Borla, 20073) p. 20.

[4]John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein (1678) in Works, vol. 4, ch. 9.2, ed. W.H. Goold, 1850-1853 (reprint: Carlisle, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967) pp. 117-234.

[5]See R.A. Finlayson, The Story of Theology(Cambridge, UK: The Tyndale House, 1967): “By saying ‘development of doctrine’ we mean that the doctrine of the New Testament was gradually discovered and formulated as the human mind approached the material provided by divine revelation”. See also J. Orr, The Progress of Dogma (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901).

[6] John Calvin “Prefatory Address to His Most Christian Majesty, the Most Mighty and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French”, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536).