229. Thomas Aquinas, Man of Dialogue?

How can a man who lived 800 years ago be taken as a model of “dialogue” to deal with the cultural fragmentation and winds of war blowing through the world today? This was the question behind a major conference held in Naples (25-27 April) to mark the 750th anniversary of Thomas Aquinas’s death (1274). The conference’s title was “St. Thomas Aquinas. Man of the Mediterranean, Man of Dialogue,” and it was held partly at the Pontifical Theological Seminary of Southern Italy and partly at the Dominican Convent of Madonna dell’Arco. Twenty-five papers were presented including some by leading Italian scholars of Thomas, both Dominicans (e.g., Serge-Thomas Bonino, Angelicum, Rome; Giuseppe Barzaghi, Bologna; Giorgio Carbone, Bologna), university academics (e.g., Pasquale Porro, University of Turin; Luciano Malusa, University of Padua) and prominent Roman Catholic theologians (e.g., Antonio Staglianò, president of the Pontifical Academy of Theology).
 
The conference had three sections: 1. Thomas and Naples, 2. Thomas as a man of dialogue, and 3. Thomas and the dialogues of the 21st century. It aimed to highlight the comprehensive scope of Thomas’s thought, which can include and encompass the concerns of the dialogue partner in a greater whole. This is why he was referred to as a model of “dialogue”: his thought does not oppose what is different, does not reduce it, but enmeshes it by integrating and expanding it.
 
A Snapshot of the Conference
Thomas Aquinas was presented by S.-T. Bonino as a “catholic” intellectual who could gather the thoughts of other philosophers and theologians, purify them, and recapitulate them in Catholic fullness. As J. Ellul argued, Thomas could leverage the principles of “natural reason” and thus invited interlocutors of other faiths, e.g., Muslims, to reason with him by assuming the universal possibility of “right” reason. As a way of application, what we need in our world is not the kind of reason that polarizes issues and people but the one that can build bridges between them. Thomas is a champion of this approach. According to M. Benedict, reason is the hinge that holds together his dialogue and confrontation with the Jews. According to F. Tramontano, Thomas argues that reason is accessible to all, especially in the Summa contra Gentiles; against this background, Aquinas challenges non-Christians to use reason to arrive at what all can attain and then open themselves to faith. A. Cortesi went as far as saying that as for today’s inter-religious dialogue, Thomas helps to see “more” of reality that will make us discover “more” of truth to make “more” friends among us. These are just a few insights that help to get an idea of what was presented at the conference.
 
This understanding of Thomas serves the catholicity of Roman Catholicism, i.e. its willingness and ability to include all in its synthesis. Today, it has a very attractive and inviting trajectory. Still, it loses sight of the integrity of the biblical gospel because it underestimates the devastating effects of sin on all life, including reason. It also loses sight of the antitheses of the gospel (“God vs the idols,” “either with me or against me,” “light vs darkness,” “sin vs holiness”), and the call to take every thought captive to Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) instead of flirting with the thought-patterns of the world. What was presented was a fascinating, welcoming, non-oppositional Thomism, inviting one to participate in the extended synthesis that Roman Catholicism aspires to, i.e. Bible and traditions, nature and grace, faith and reason, Christians and non-Christians, Christianity and religions.
 
On Elenctic and Eclectic Readings of Thomas
As the only evangelical scholar contributing to the conference, my paper was entitled “Between Eclectic Reading and Elenctic Theology: Thomas Aquinas in the Reception of Protestant Theology.” In it, I identified two ways of reading Thomas that have been common on the evangelical side: on the one hand, the “elenctic” one (i.e., objecting and refuting), of those who approached him to challenge his system (Martin Luther is the chief example, Francis Schaeffer is the latest); on the other, the “eclectic” one (i.e. appropriating sections and parts), of those who used him in a selected and circumstantial way, taking cues here and there from his thought, always maintaining a certain distance from his system (Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli are examples in the sixteenth century, Francis Turretin in the seventeenth century, Herman Bavinck in the last century).
 
On the Reformation’s side, the long history of Protestant interactions with Thomas Aquinas can be summarized with a series of theological exercises between evangelical eclecticism and elenctics. On the one hand, Thomas was never considered as belonging to the Protestant camp as if he were a proto-Reformer. On the other, he did belong to the Medieval tradition with which the Reformation has always been in critical dialogue, at times retrieving and expanding it, other times radically departing from it. The best link that can be established is eclectic, on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis, with strong resistance, if not opposition, to embrace Thomas and Thomism as shapers of the theological architecture of Protestant thought.
 
Protestant discomfort with Thomas concerned his view of the nature-grace relationship and its repercussions on understanding and living out of the Christian faith. His overly positive view of human reason and his too-optimistic trust in it are signs of Aquinas’s moderate consideration of the effects of sin. Thomas seems to concede too much to natural reason and too little to the disruptive consequences of sin. From an evangelical standpoint, his problem is not in the details or some compartments of his thought (which can be brilliant as they mirror Scripture’s teaching) but in the fabric of his system that is permeated by a thoroughgoing optimism in human capabilities. This was the conclusion of my paper.
 
Having an evangelical voice contribute to this academic conference on Thomas was important. The lesson of historical evangelical theology should be kept in mind by present-day retrievers of Thomas: between elenctic (critical) and eclectic (selected appropriation) reading lies what is the proper approach for evangelical faith vis-à-vis Thomas Aquinas and tradition in general, always to be subject to the supreme scrutiny of Scripture.
 
P.S. For a more in-depth evangelical study of Thomas, I recommend my newly published book Engaging Thomas Aquinas. An Evangelical Approach (London: Apollos, 2024).

228. The Filioque and Christian Unity

On a recent symposium addressing the old controversy in the hope of breaking new ground
 
Filioque (“and from the Son”) is the Latin expression that the Western church added to the article of the Nicene Creed concerning the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Filioque).
 
The point that was intended to be made by the insertion was twofold. On the one hand, it wanted to honor what Jesus himself had affirmed when He said: “I will send you the Helper … the Spirit of truth” (John 15:26; see also 14:26), thus indicating an active role of the Son in the procession of the Spirit. On the other hand, the Filioque wanted to reinforce the recognition of the full deity of Jesus Christ, which had been challenged by the heresy of Arianism, according to which Jesus was a divine creature but not God himself.
 
The Eastern Church rejected the Filioque because it was introduced without prior consultation and because the Church feared that it could infringe on the Father’s unique role in the procession of the Spirit.[1] Of course, there are better places to review the millennium-old controversy which has complex theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural overtones. However, the reference to the Filioque is nonetheless necessary to introduce a conference that took place in Rome on the topic.
 
On April 9th, I participated in a theological symposium on the Filioque at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the flagship academic institution of the powerful Catholic organization, Opus Dei. Professor Giulio Maspero’s book Rethinking the Filioque with the Greek Fathers (Eerdmans, 2023) was at the center of the discussion, and the symposium was the opportunity to test the book’s ecumenical proposal. In a nutshell, Maspero suggests to re-signify the Filioque in a way that is acceptable to the West and the East, and to do so, he goes back to the lesson of Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappadocian Fathers who used relational and non-essentialist categories in thinking about the procession of the Spirit.
 
“In the fourth century, when Pneumatomachians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Cappadocian Fathers came to a relational understanding” of the Holy Spirit, i.e., He “was conceived of as the glory and power eternally exchanged between the Father and the Son.”
 
According to Maspero, the Cappadocians help us to overcome the misunderstanding of the procession of the Spirit. They taught that the Son has an “active role” in it, not a “causative” one which only the Father has.
 
At the symposium, prominent scholars took part and debated the proposal. Among them were Khaled Anatolios, dean of the School of Theology of the University of Notre Dame and a leading authority on Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea; Edward Siecienski, author of The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (OUP, 2013), the definitive book on the topic; and Msgr. Andrea Palmieri, of the Pontifical Dicastery for Christian Unity. I was invited to the table to represent an evangelical voice.
 
In my remarks, I underlined that Maspero’s distinction between the essentialist approach (with its emphasis on cause/causation) and the personalist one that was apparently favored by Gregory of Nyssa strikes as very promising. On the one hand, the Reformers arguably abandoned essentialism and theories of causation, which are not biblical and almost inevitably must lead to some form of subordinationist heresy, whether it is linear or triangular. On the other hand, a personalist approach allows for the full equality of the Persons of the Trinity and emphasizes their mutual relations. It is into those relations that believers are drawn by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, making it vitally important for us that he should communicate an equal relationship with the Father and the Son. If that is what Gregory of Nyssa was saying (as Maspero seems to think it was), then evangelical theology has much in common with him.
 
In short, the rediscovery of the Cappadocians’ personalist and relational categories that challenge the essentialist categories of Greek metaphysics introduced into much Christian theology is laudable. The appreciation of the active role of the Son in the procession of the Spirit from the Father helps to break out of the impasse of thinking of the procession as “caused” by the Father and the Son, with the risk of having two sources of divinity and not one.
 
While locating itself on the Western side of the Filioque, Evangelical theology has always shown at least implicit appreciation of the Cappadocians (e.g., John Calvin), thought that the East was not heretical for not subscribing to the Filioque (e.g., Francis Turretin), and more recently maintained an open-minded attitude toward the issue (e.g., Gerald Bray, Robert Letham, John Frame).
 
After appreciating Maspero’s proposal, I took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions to contribute to further the discussion, especially regarding the ecumenical proposal.
 
First, if it is right to move beyond the “causative” categories to recover the biblical ones that are relational, should we not also do so for the sacraments and thus move out of the causative sacramental mechanisms of Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology to appreciate the action of the Spirit in communicating grace by faith alone in Christ alone? In other words, we cannot limit the recovery of relationality to the Filioque issue alone but must extend it to all theology, as Scripture invites us to do and as the Reformation did.
 
Evangelicals do not believe that the Holy Spirit comes down into the sacramental elements by an act of invocation or epiclesis. That idea fits in very well with the mystical notion of the resting of the Spirit on the Son and is explained in terms of “causation,” but the Bible does not teach that the Spirit works in that way. It is not through the ministry or sacraments in causative terms but by a direct conviction of sin in our hearts that the Spirit builds up the church. While it is good to move away from causative categories in addressing the Filioque, should we not do the same in the area of the sacraments to re-discover the relational import of how God bestows his grace in his Son by the Spirit?
 
Second, since Maspero’s proposal is ecumenical, the question is: Are we sure that by smoothing the corners on the Filioque there is a genuine rapprochement? Historic divisions in Christianity are made of layers and levels that have affected the deep structures of the different confessions. The Catholic “system” differs from the Orthodox and Protestant systems. What lies at the heart of the respective faiths is a complex combination of theology, history, politics, culture, etc. The Filioque may have some weight, but other issues have a much greater impact on the real differences and divisions.
 
One indicative example in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue is the acclaimed 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed 25 years ago between Lutherans and Catholics. Ecumenical theologians and leaders considered it a watershed in ecumenical relationships and overcoming the issues that had caused the Reformation. These initial enthusiastic expectations have proved to be wishful thinking. JDDJ is so ambiguous and inconclusive that it has left both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran “systems” untouched. Not unsurprisingly, very little has changed since JDDJ. This is a sober reminder even for the conversations around the Filioque. We may come to a more common appreciation of the issue across the Christian spectrum, but will this new awareness touch on the foundational commitments of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical faiths?
 
Ultimately, we must ask if we are prepared to review and revise our traditions in light of Scripture as our ultimate authority and be willing to change accordingly. This is the real benefit and promise of the “Scripture Alone” principle, whether for Trinitarian discussions or the cause of Christian unity. Far from being reductionist or one-sided, the Scriptural principle goes deeper into the heart of issues and is the reliable entry point into divine truth to be confessed and lived out.


[1] On the whole issue see Gerald Bray, “The Filioque Clause in History and Theology”Tyndale Bulletin 34 (1983) pp. 91-144, and Id., “The Double Procession of the Holy Spirit in Evangelical Theology Today: Do We Still Need It?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41 (1998) pp. 415-426

227. Thomas Aquinas, a test case for evangelical discernment

Thomas Aquinas died on March 7, 1274, exactly 750 years ago. This year and next (the eighth centenary of his birth) will be special occasions to reckon with his legacy. Indeed, there will be conferences, publications, and various initiatives worldwide.
 
To approach Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is to encounter one of the all-time giants of theology. Thomas is second only to Augustine in his influence on Western Christianity. More specifically, for centuries, Roman Catholicism has regarded Thomas as its champion, the highest, most resounding, most complete voice of Roman Catholic thinking and believing. Canonized by John XXII as early as 1323 only forty-nine years after his death, he was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pius V in 1567 as the quintessential Catholic theologian whose thinking would defeat the Reformation. During the Council of Trent, the Summa theologiae was symbolically placed next to the Bible as evidence of its primary importance in formulating the Tridentine decrees and canons against justification by faith alone. In the seventeenth century, Thomas was considered the defender of the Catholic theological system by Robert Bellarmine, the greatest anti-Protestant controversialist who influenced entire generations of Roman Catholic apologists.
 
In 1879, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, where he pointed to Thomas as the highest expression of philosophical and theological science in a climate marked by bitter confrontation with modern thought. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) stipulated that the formation of priests should have Thomas as the supreme guide in their studies (Optatam Totius, no. 17).
 
In more recent years, Paul VI (Lumen ecclesiae, 1974) and John Paul II (Fides et ratio, 1998) expressed deferential appreciation by pointing to Thomas as a “master of thought and model of the right way of doing theology” (FR, no. 43). This is to say that the Church of Rome has appropriated Thomas persistently and convincedly, elevating him to the Roman Catholic theologian par excellence. Moreover, Thomas is the recognized authority behind many unbiblical developments in medieval and modern Roman Catholicism, from Trent to Vatican I and II. One cannot fail to see the distorting elements at the heart of his system that have generated departures, rather than approaches, to biblical faith.
 
In recent decades and with increasing intensification, Thomas has instead been brought closer to a Protestant theological sensibility. Today, there seems to be a widespread perception that Thomas is no longer a heritage for Roman Catholics and that evangelicals can and should learn much from Thomas. Protestant theologians (from Peter Martyr Vermigli to Herman Bavinck via Francis Turrettini) generally exercised theological discernment that enabled them to appreciate the aspects of his theology that fell within the groove of biblical and orthodox faith and to reject his teaching where it conflicted with Scripture. In other words, they did not espouse the Thomist system as such (including its metaphysics and epistemology). Still, they broke it down into its parts as far as possible to do so with integrity and used it “eclectically.” Their attention to Thomas was more methodological than substantive. They merely borrowed some of his ideas but did not assign them architectural importance.
 
While certain sectors of evangelical theology know a genuine flirtation with the thought of Thomas, it may be useful to recall the lesson of a great Reformed theologian like Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). As with other ancient and medieval church fathers, Bavinck adopts an approach to Thomas that has been described as “eclectic,” that is, free to pick up insights and theses from him in awareness of his being on the other side (the Roman Catholic side) from the foundations of evangelical theology. Within a theology anchored in Scripture, Bavinck reads Thomas with intelligence and spiritual acumen, using various elements without espousing his system. For Bavinck, grace does not elevate or perfect nature but redeems it from sin. This eclecticism is also how the Reformers and Reformed and Lutheran scholastics read Thomas, sometimes endorsing his positions and arguments but being clear that the framework of Thomas’ theology built on the nature-grace motif was distinct and distant from the evangelical faith.
 
This is not to reject Thomas as a quintessentially toxic theologian to be avoided at all costs, nor to elevate him as a champion of Christian orthodoxy, but to regard him as an indispensable interlocutor in the history of Christian thought to be read critically and generously in light of the principle of “sola Scriptura” that the Reformation called to the attention of the whole church.
 
P.S. Let me point out my upcoming book (May 2024) that can help evangelical discernment related to Thomas: Engaging with Thomas Aquinas. An Evangelical Approach (London, Apollos, 2024).

226. If the Pope thinks that Rome is a “mission field.”

Evangelicals have known for centuries that Rome is a “mission field.” It is no coincidence that as soon as the breach of Porta Pia opened in 1870 (when Rome was liberated from papal power and the Pontifical State ended), Bibles and Christian tracts were immediately smuggled in to further the evangelization of the city. Despite being considered the cradle of Christianity, Rome had experienced a somewhat tyrannical religious monopoly by Roman Catholicism over the centuries. Still, it could not be said to be an evangelized city. Very religious, yes, but Christian, no. Rome was a mission field because it prevented the free circulation of God’s Word in the vernacular language and suppressed any attempts to bring about a biblical reformation.
 
For this reason, after 1870, evangelism and church planting activities were initiated by evangelicals surrounded by suspicion and, at times, opposition. This continues to this day. By evangelical standards, Rome was and is still a mission field. With around 100 evangelical churches and a population of 4 million, it is indeed a mission field.
 
Since 1870, much water has passed under the bridges of the river Tiber. Today, even the Roman Catholic pope says Rome is “a mission field.” Meeting with the Roman Catholic clergy on 13th January, Francis said just that: the heart of Roman Catholicism, the seat of the papacy, the center of Roman Catholicism, the city that Popes have claimed their own is a “mission field.”
 
What does that mean? The challenges of secularization, disengagement, and abandonment of religious practice are putting increasing pressure on the Roman Catholic Church right here in the eternal city. Accustomed to imposing its primacy on consciences for centuries, now that its authority structure and the social imposition of customs no longer work automatically, even Roman Catholicism in Rome is in a crisis of numbers and participation. Masses (with exceptions) are semi-deserted, and parishes (with exceptions) are perhaps attended for the services they offer to the young or the poor, but certainly are no longer known to be places of spirituality (e.g. prayer, catechesis). Much of the Roman population is not “active” in Catholic practices.
 
Rome is still religious in its “hardware” but less and less so in its “software.” Everything in Rome speaks of the established and pervasive presence of the Roman Catholic Church (palaces, institutions, churches, the Vatican). Still, it is beginning to perceive itself as a presence needing self-defense and promotion. So, the pope, who is the Roman Catholic bishop of Rome, says that the city must be considered as a mission field to be reached with the “new evangelization” by an “outgoing” church, the two passwords that he has been using since the 2013 programmatic document “The Joy of the Gospel.”
 
Although it may appear so, what Pope Francis said is not a new thing. Back in 1974 (exactly 50 years ago), Cardinal Poletti, then the pope’s vicar for the city of Rome, said that Rome was a “mission field.” It caused a stir then. Ten years after celebrating the splendors of the Second Vatican Council, the church began to see Rome not so much as “our” city but as a place to be reached.
 
When Francis says Rome is a “mission field,” one must also see the other side of the coin. On 4th January, he met with the Mayor of Rome, Roberto Gualtieri, and the President of the Lazio Region, Francesco Rocca—something that does not happen for any other faith community. The city’s two highest political and administrative authorities are not generally received “in audience” by religious leaders in their offices. However, the pope does it frequently, and they go to him with deferential attitudes. He is a top political figure.
 
Four days later on 8th January, the president of the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, signed the hiring of 6,500 new religion teachers (chosen by Roman Catholic bishops and paid for by Italian taxpayers) with the Italian government. This, too, is not a practice of a “mission field” but of a country enslaved to a religious denomination. A mirror of an unjust privilege is the fact that in public, state-funded schools, Roman Catholic teaching is the only option available for students and is paid for by the state.
 
And then, on Sunday evening, 14th January, Pope Francis was interviewed live on prime-time: an hour-long, almost kneeling interview by anchorman Fabio Fazio on “Che tempo che fa” show. It was on this program that, after defending the blessing of same-sex and irregular couples, when asked about the reality of hell, the pope said: “I like to think hell is empty; I hope it is.” Again, this is not an opportunity that other religious leaders are given, but it does not signal the fact that Italy is a “mission field” in the sense that evangelicals would give to the expression. Rome is rather an “occupied” field by a religion only.
 
The Roman Catholic hierarchy may consider Rome to be a “mission field,” but the pope and the Roman Catholic Church are not letting go of their grip on the city. Evidently, the pope feels the ground shaking under his feet and clings to the political-economic-institutional-media privileges of the past. He says he wants to do “mission,” but what he does is manage power.
 
For evangelicals, Rome was and is a mission field in need of evangelization by people and churches who witness the biblical gospel. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6). Neither the promise of political favour nor the prospect of social status, the gospel is the message of salvation in Jesus Christ alone by faith alone according to the Bible alone. This is the evangelical mission to the city of Rome. The pope’s is something else.

225. What is at Stake with the Roman Catholic View of the Church? Ask Professor Henri Blocher

Opening a book by Henri Blocher is like being invited to a wedding dinner. It is a theologically and culturally rich, tasty, and challenging experience. I consider Blocher among the top four living evangelical systematic theologians, along with John Frame, Paul Wells and Pietro Bolognesi. So, the release of his latest book La doctrine de l’Église e des sacrements, vol. 1 (Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2023), is a feast for theology, all the more so because it is a work (the one on ecclesiology) long awaited by the Parisian theologian (while we wait for the second volume on the sacraments).
 
The book consists of two parts. In the first, Blocher expounds on the biblical data, while in the second, he analyzes three types of church conceptions and models: the Catholic, the Reformed (paedobaptist) and the Confessing (credobaptist). This article will gloss over much of the book to focus on the section regarding Roman Catholic ecclesiology.
 
Blocher does not enter the conversation as a novice. In his long theological career, he has participated in international and national (French) dialogues between Catholic and evangelical theologians, and was among the leading architects of the 1986 World Evangelical Fellowship (now Alliance) “Roman Catholicism. A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective”, edited by Paul G. Schrotenboer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publ., 1998), which contains a solid evangelical assessment of Roman Catholicism. In this section of his book, Blocher offers a thoughtful theological analysis that is the fruit of a lifetime of study and interactions with Roman Catholic theology.
 
Methodologically, in addition to Roman Catholic magisterial texts (above all Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium), Blocher constantly interacts with Y. Congar (“a theologian of exceptional breadth and finesse,” p. 108), A. Dulles, H. De Lubac, B. Sesboüé and W. Kasper: practically the best and most representative Roman Catholic ecclesiological reflection since the Second Vatican Council. In the background, there is a constant focus on Thomas Aquinas, who “embodies the Catholic option in theology” par excellence (p. 109). Among evangelical authors, Blocher acknowledges a particular debt to Alain Nisus (p. 7), author of L’Église comme communion et comme institution. Une lecture de l’ecclésiologie du cardinal Congar à partir de la tradition des Églises de professants (Paris: Cerf, 2012): a “fundamental work” (p. 108, n. 2). In the Protestant camp, Blocher treats Vittorio Subilia’s work, e.g. The Problem of Catholicism (London: SCM, 1964) and Le Nouveau Visage du Catholicisme (Genève: Labor et Fides, 1968) with great respect as it expounds an “in depth critique of conservative Barthian inspiration” (p. 105). Blocher reads Subilia’s interpretation of Roman Catholicism very carefully and generally approvingly, except to point out that for the Italian Waldensian theologian, his rejection of Catholic temple theology also means the Barthian rejection of the “deposit” of biblical revelation (pp. 150-151). For Blocher, the restlessness of dialectical theology concerning the inspired status of Scripture is not the evangelical position: while the latter criticizes the Roman Catholic reconstruction of the temple system (with its sacerdotalism, ritualism and church mediation), it receives the Bible as the written Word of God, the stable and reliable record of divine Revelation.
 
Blocher’s analysis of Roman Catholic ecclesiology is an ordered one. First, he focuses on the “heart” of it, that is, the conception of the church as a “continuation of the Incarnation” in its various articulations (body of Christ, mystery, sacrament, church and Mary). He then dwells on the “main dualities” present in Catholic ecclesiology (institution and community, pilgrimage and glory, church and society); third, he suggests four critical remarks that summarize an evangelical evaluation: 1) the exaltation of the human, 2) the attack on God’s rights, 3) the monophysite temptation, 4) the weakening of the significance of the biblical “once-and-for-all.”
 
At the “Heart” of Roman Catholic Ecclesiology
Given the breadth and historical stratification of Roman Catholic ecclesiology, one could get lost in the meanderings of individual aspects. To prevent the risk of an atomistic reading, Blocher argues that Roman Catholic ecclesiology has a pulsating “heart” from which everything else radiates and that this heart is the conception of the church as a “continued incarnation” or prolonged incarnation. It is affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 521), evoked by Lumen Gentium (nos. 8, 48 and 52), and argued with different nuances and accents by such modern theologians as J. Möhler, J.H. Newman, M.-J. Scheeben and Y. Congar. Some emphasize the “theandric” (divine and human) nature of the church, some the almost symmetric convertibility between Christ and the church, some the mystical indwelling of Christ in the church, others the continuation of the story of Jesus in the church’s sacramental life …
 
It is true that in recent years there are those who, like Congar, have argued that the relationship should be thought of with the mediation of pneumatology, i.e. the church continues the incarnation of Christ in the Spirit. Others, like W. Kasper, are more reticent to employ it and, if they do, use it with sophisticated clarifications. The ecclesiological point is that the church as an extension of the incarnation remains a “pertinent” (p. 110) category for touching the heart of the Roman Catholic church’s self-understanding. From it, the following definitions of church find their roots and framework of reference:
 
– the “body of Christ” (pp. 114-115) which Catholicism bungles by not correctly distinguishing the “head,” i.e., Christ, and the “body,” i.e., the church, and thus maintaining the ambiguity of the “total Christ” introduced by Augustine.
 
– the church as “mystery” (pp. 115-116); Roman Catholicism uses it plastically and fluidly to speak of the actualization of Christ in the church and His making himself present in the church’s sacramental life.
 
– the church as “sacrament” (pp. 116-117); Catholic theology employs it in a participatory way to emphasize the co-participation between Christ and the church and the sacramental mediation of grace.
 
– the church as a reality defined by the Marian principle (pp. 120-122) through which Mary is seen as the “type” of the church and the church is seen as prototyped in Mary.
 
As a systematician, Blocher aims to penetrate Catholic ecclesiology, not just by piling up data. He dissects its internal structure and tries to grasp the connections that legitimize Rome’s high view of itself and its inflated prerogatives.
 
Roman Catholic Dualities
Relying on Congar, Blocher recognizes that Roman Catholic ecclesiology is crossed by some dualities that give it both solidity and elasticity.
 
First is its dialectic between institution and community (pp. 122-131). In the Roman Catholic conception of the church, there is the clergy and the laity, the hierarchical institution and the Catholic communion, the Roman monarchical primacy and the universal catholicity, the teaching church and the hearing church, the sacramental structure and the people of God, the perfect society and the gathered humanity, the universal church and the particular church. The duality is not a matter of degrees but of a genuine diversity of essence between the two poles.
 
This first duality grounds the second, which allows the Roman Catholic church to think of itself simultaneously as militant and triumphant, as an “already” all accomplished and a “not yet” in the making (pp. 131-134). Its unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity are thought of within this elastic duality. In doing so, Roman Catholic ecclesiology has developed an outstanding ability to bring opposites together: a robust theology of complexio oppositorum (p. 133), i.e. unity of opposites.
 
The third Roman Catholic duality involves the church and society (pp. 134-139), the internal and external boundaries, its juridical constitution and its all-encompassing horizon. The Catholic church thinks of itself at the center of an ecumenical project that embraces the “separated brethren” (no longer considered heretics or excommunicated), viewing in them “elements” of the church and at therefore including them within an even bigger “catholic” vision that envelops all of society. Rome wants to “dialogue” with the world to pilot its progress toward unity. After Vatican II, it is no longer a matter of reconstructing a lost “medieval synthesis” (p. 138), but of encouraging increasingly advanced forms of catholicity.
 
Four Critical Evangelical Remarks
Blocher acknowledges that this system has “great persuasive power” (p. 139) but is based on “insufficient” biblical foundations that have led to “ambiguities in its construction” (p. 113). He suggests four observations for critically evaluating Roman Catholic ecclesiology from a biblical perspective. Let us briefly review them:
 
1. The too-human exaltation of the human (pp. 140-148)
As the Bible teaches, one recognizes the tree by its fruit. If one looks at the “products” of Catholic ecclesiology such as the inflated Mariology and the institutionalized papacy, one cannot help but take note of the departure from biblical principles that led to the “impossibility of scriptural verification of dogmas” (p. 141). In Roman Catholicism, biblical data are used in a manner that robs Scripture of its full sovereignty as a critical instance over the church. Historical processes and evolutions of dogma have taken over from biblical “evidence” resulting in a construction that has lost sight of the roots of God’s Word. In exalting what is human, it endangers (with the risk of breaking?) the distinction between Creator and creature.
 
2. The attack on God’s rights (pp. 148-151)
Blocher aligns himself with the classical Protestant (also Barthian) critique that Roman Catholicism attacks God’s freedom and robs him of his glory, which is then attributed to the creature, of whom Mary is the emblem and the church the institutional embodiment. The three great maxims of the Protestant Reformation (sola Scripturasola fide and sola gratia) capture the heart of the evangelical critique in that they want to safeguard God’s “jealousy” (p. 149). Following Herman Dooyeweerd’s categories of the nature-grace ground motif, this does not mean pitting nature and grace against each other (the risk of Barthianism) or even synthesizing them (the risk of Roman Catholicism): both are symmetrical errors. It means being guided by Scripture that, in dealing with the relationship between God and humankind, accentuates “the language of exclusion over that of inclusion” (p. 149).
 
3. The Monophysite (one nature, namely the divine one) temptation (pp. 151-152)
The concept of the church as a continued incarnation touches Christology and, in particular, the hypostatic union. In Roman Catholicism, a “larval monophysitism” manifests itself, i.e., the church is attributed divine traits that override human ones. Blocher agrees with Congar that the disagreements between Protestants and Catholics have their root in the different role attributed to Christ’s humanity and, therefore, must come to terms with the interpretation of the Chalcedonian dogma, whereby the two natures of Christ are confessed as related “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”.
 
The point is that the problem with Roman Catholicism is not only in the different understandings of Christ’s work but also in His person. The overemphasis on Christ’s divinity extended to the Church is at stake. Here, respectfully, a note should be made to Blocher. Earlier, he had spoken of an important agreement between Protestantism and Catholicism on the dogmas of the Trinity, incarnation, virgin birth and resurrection. At the same time, the difference is traceable to the areas of grace and sacraments (above all: the eucharist). In support of this view, he cites works (such as those by Geisler and Mackenzie and those related to the French Catholic-Evangelical dialogues, p. 140, n. 1)[1] that are atomistic, i.e., they put together pieces of the issue without offering an overall framework to understand the big picture theologically. From these books it appears that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have in common the same Christology and Trinitarian theology.

In contrast, the matter of contention concerns soteriology and ecclesiology. But then, as we have seen, Blocher argues that the underlying problem lies in the different interpretation of the Christology of Chalcedon, which, contrary to earlier assertions, is all about Christology (and implicitly Trinitarian theology) and not only about grace and the church. Blocher seems to move between an atomistic and a systemic understanding of the underlying problem. While the entire section of the book tends toward the latter until concluding with the critical statement that “Roman theology is too little Trinitarian” (p. 156), he fails to see the apparent limitations of the former. Perhaps it is the case that the unresolved issues with Roman Catholicism appear more clearly in soteriology and ecclesiology but are rooted in deeper Trinitarian and Christological differences.
 
4. The Weakening of the Significance of the Biblical “once-and-for-all” (pp. 152-156)
The last suggested critical remark concerns the erroneous Roman Catholic understanding of the biblical éphapax: once-and-for-all. Driven by an eagerness to actualize and make grace present in the church’s action, Roman Catholicism makes fluid and open-ended what should instead be considered a once-and-for-all event: both the once-and-for-all events of the cross and the ascension of Jesus Christ mark a watershed in the economy of salvation. Since the Roman church is thought of as prolonging the incarnation, Christ’s vicar is the pope, and Christ’s grace is the sacraments. Quoting Tertullian, Blocher argues that the only vicar of the risen Christ is the Holy Spirit (p. 154) and that, if anything, the only prolongation that took place is the Word of Christ, i.e. Scripture.
 
Blocher’s analysis of Roman Catholic ecclesiology should be read and studied by all evangelicals who aspire to “dialogue” with Roman Catholicism at every level: local, national, and international. They would gain depth in their ability to penetrate the “heart” of the Catholic system without getting lost in embarrassing theological naiveté that damage the cause of evangelical witness. With his style and finesse, Henri Blocher has enriched contemporary evangelical theology with a contribution that lives up to his reputation.


[1] N.L. Geisler & R.E. Mackenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995) and P. Le Vallois & D. Bresch, Des catholiques et des évangéliques se questionnent mutuellement (Charols: Excelsis, 2014).