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

Dean of European evangelical theologians, Henri Blocher needs little introduction. The opportunity to measure up to his work again is offered by the publication of the second volume on the church and the sacraments: La doctrine de l’Église et des sacrementsvol 2 (Charols: Excelsis; Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2024). The Parisian theologian’s ecclesiology and sacramentology are confirmed to live up to the notorious depth of his thought.

As with the first volume on the church, La doctrine de l’Église e des sacrements, vol. 1 (Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2023), which I reviewed in the article “What is at Stake with the Roman Catholic View of the Church? Ask Professor Henri Blocher” (1 February 2024), the focus of this review will also be on Blocher’s assessment of Catholic sacramentology. The book also contains a discussion of Reformed theology’s conception of the sacraments and that of the baptistic churches. Obviously, it is worth reading it all to appreciate not only Blocher’s critical reading of Roman Catholicism but also of the Reformed view, especially concerning pedobaptism.

Blocher begins the volume with an analysis of the Catholic understanding of the sacraments. While he acknowledges that it is a well-codified doctrine in the Roman magisterium, he does not hide the fact that in Catholic seminaries in the last century the “traditional” version has been subject to very discordant interpretations and versions. It is not so much a matter of detail, rather of different conceptualities with which it is approached: no longer the Aristotelian-Thomistic one with which it was constructed, but those borrowed from Heidegger’s philosophy, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Oddo Casel’s “mystery” theology or Austin and Searle’s speech-act theory. This is to say that Catholic sacramentality, while retaining a “Roman” hard core still tied to a certain causative mechanism, also has its own “Catholic” vitality that allows it not to limit itself to the mere repetition of past formulas and arguments, but to expand them to readings influenced by theories of signs, symbols and meanings inferred from modern currents of thought. An example of this internal dynamic of Catholic sacramental theology is, for Blocher (p. 11, 15-20, 37-40), represented by F. Schillebeeckx’s work, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (1960 ; English edition 1987), who rereads sacramentality from a personalist perspective.

Questioning sacramental causation
For Blocher, at the heart of Catholic sacramentality lies the causative role in the administration of grace, that is, “the real efficacy of the sacramental operation” (p. 13). The cause is connected to the sign. While in the Church Fathers and the early Middle Ages the relationship between cause and sign is established but still fluid, Thomas Aquinas imprinted on Catholic theology the concept of “causative efficacy.” Famous is his phrase “significando causant” (Summa Theologiae III, qq. 60-65) as it refers to the sacraments as a cause of grace by means of signifying it. In an anti-Protestant function, the Council of Trent espouses this definition and carves it into its canons, which anathematize those who do not embrace it. In the Thomist-Tridentine line, Christ acts through “another Christ” (the priest) through the sign that causes the administration of grace contained and conferred by the sign.

Blocher warns against the temptation to have a “magical” view of Catholic sacramentality (p. 20). There is no impersonal mechanism that disregards the disposition and cooperation of each person (priest, faithful) and the absence of “obstacles.” However, while recognizing the role of the faith of the subjects, it is the sacramental conception of the church itself as an extension of Christ (p. 25) that makes up for the shortcomings of one or the other and ensures the efficacy of the sacrament. As the human and divine natures are united in Jesus Christ, the humanity of the element is joined to the “divinity” of grace bestowed by the church in the unity of the sacrament. As already argued in the first volume on the church, for Blocher the Roman Catholic understanding of the church as an extension of the incarnation is a distinctive feature of the entire Roman Catholic system, including its view of sacramentality.

Being the fine exegete that he is, Blocher reviews the biblical texts that Catholic theology reads from a sacramentalist perspective, noting that no evidence stands out about the plausibility of this reading. Moreover, it reverses biblical proportions about the relationship between interiority and exteriority (the former being more important than the latter). Moreover, it is in open contradiction with biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 1:17, Romans 14:17 and Hebrews 9-13. In addition, the New Testament never associates the sacraments with the action of Christ Himself, but with that of the disciples sent by Christ. In other words, it is not Christ who baptizes or administers the Supper (as Roman Catholicism believes), but it is the disciples who are commissioned to do so in His name. Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit but commands the church to baptize in water and administer the Supper.

The Roman Catholic sacramental system, thus infused with causal efficacy, turns out to be a mirror of pagan systems of rites of passage associated with birth, adolescence, marriage and death (p. 35). By minimizing the impact of sin, Roman Catholicism has opened itself to syncretistic forms and structural compromises with pagan forms of “natural” religiosity (pp. 36-37).

On the theories of causality at work in Catholic sacramentology, Blocher shows awareness of the nuances present between the Thomist reading already referred to (“significando causant”), the “occasional” one of Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, the “moral” one by Melchor Cano,” and others. These are all variations on the theme of causality that do not eliminate the underlying problem: for Rome, grace is made to flow from an act of the church.

Roman Catholicism elevates the incarnation to a metaphysical principle that must reproduce itself to be efficacious. Because of that, it loses sight of the “once and for all” of the atonement, it shatters the “it is finished” of the cross, it derogates from the celebration of God alone and his glory, it questions justification by faith alone (without works). It elevates the church to a dispenser of grace (pp. 43-45). In short, Catholic sacramentology considers the church to be a “mediator” of grace and stands in radical contrast to the biblical message.

Continuing his discussion, regarding the seven sacraments dogmatized at the Council of Trent, Blocher notes that “the sacramental septenary leads to fragmenting grace in a way the New Testament does not” (p. 93). In breaking down grace, Roman Catholicism parcels it by losing sight of its being a divine gift: God’s grace is not a “thing” that the church slices up and serves individually, but God himself giving himself.

On baptism, the Parisian theologian dwells more on the critique of Protestant paedobaptism while glossing over the Catholic conception. This is a limitation of the book: not including a chapter on baptism according to Rome.

The Problems of the Roman Catholic Eucharist
Blocher focuses on the Roman Catholic Eucharist the most. He recalls that Thomas Aquinas described the Eucharist as the most important sacrament because it essentially contains Christ Himself, while the other sacraments only involve Christ by participation (meaning Christ’s presence not being as real and substantial as in the Eucharist). Blocher speaks of a “Catholic exaltation of the Eucharist” (p. 145) because it is considered the source and summit of all Christian life. In it, Roman Catholicism encapsulates all: ecclesiastical dogmatics and institutional belonging. Besides being prevented by Rome itself, evangelical participation in the Eucharist is therefore to be avoided precisely because it is the sacrament par excellence of those who are Roman Catholic (p. 187).

Blocher devotes an entire chapter to analyzing two pillars of the Catholic Eucharist: the “real presence” and the “sacrifice.” From the Council of Trent, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 1373-1377) speaks about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist by using the adverbs “truly, really and substantially.” Blocher notes that evangelicals too (even the Zwinglians!) speak of “presence.” One must understand what meaning to attribute to this presence: for evangelicals (except Lutherans who have a conception of their own), it is “spiritual,” that is, thanks to the Holy Spirit and in the Spirit; for Catholics, on the other hand, it implies the change of substance of the bread and wine brought about by the officiant into the sacramental body of Christ. These are two effectively distant experiences and concepts of presence.

Where does this Roman Catholic understanding come from? Blocher recalls the evolution of Catholic dogma. While the thinking of Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian swings and tends toward a realist interpretation, more spiritualist readings are found in other Church Fathers (p. 195): Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine are cited. The latter has an unresolved theology of the Supper: at times he identifies the divine reality and the sacramental sign, at other times he speaks of their difference (p. 200). Medieval development reached its peak with the dogma of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This dogma adopted a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words, “this is my body,” and became a core part of Roman Catholic doctrine. It was accompanied by a devotion to the mystery of the Eucharist, a desire for physical contact to receive grace, and a heightened reverence for the ecclesiastical institution’s power to sanctify (p. 207).

Biblically speaking, Blocher notes that in Scripture the body and blood of Christ are not linked to the bread and wine: it is out of biblical parameters to think of a change in their nature. It is “methodologically irresponsible to invent a new use of language without the text requiring it” (p. 215). If anything, the church is the body of Christ and “nothing indicates that the bread becomes the body” (p. 217). In addition, the wine remains the “fruit of the vine” (Matthew 26:29). Moreover, bread and wine signify and represent the body and blood of Christ, without being transformed into Christ Himself. Finally, Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father does not allow for the “localization” of Christ’s presence on the Eucharistic table (p. 211).

Remaining tied to the Tridentine dogma of transubstantiation, Roman Catholicism has in recent decades paved the way for relational re-interpretations of substance (e.g., B. Sesboüé) or in the direction of “transignification” (e.g., P. Schoonenberg) that, however, do not change the Catholic sacramental system (p. 213). The bottom line of the problem remains: Roman Catholicism needs to locate a “substantial” contact by which divine life is transmitted (p. 220).

As for the Catholic conception of the Eucharist as a “sacrifice” (and therefore propitiatory), Blocher notes how in the early Church Fathers the Eucharist is primarily associated with the sacrifice of prayers (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian). It is only from the second half of the third century that the emphasis changes and the idea of the re-presented immolation of Christ’s sacrifice takes hold (Cyprian of Carthage, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom). Again, Augustine oscillates between positions. At the Council of Trent, Rome carved into its doctrine the sacrificial and expiatory conception of the Eucharist: according to Dutch theologian G. Berkouwer, it is a shadow cast over the sufficiency of Christ’s work (p. 232). The work of the atonement is not accomplished once and for all but is continually immolated. For Roman Catholicism, it is therefore not complete: it requires the substantial presence of the body of Christ and the continual offering of the church. Blocher is peremptory: “the idea of a sacrificial immolation of Christ on the Eucharistic table, transformed into an altar, has no justification whatsoever, be it biblical or theological” (p. 241). We are in the presence of an accretion of Roman Catholicism dependent on the natural and pagan religions absorbed into the corpus of Catholic experience.

Contrary to the ecumenical reading that wants to see in the Roman Catholic conception of the Eucharist another and complementary way of understanding and practicing the Lord’s Supper, Blocher helps to clarify that, even in the presence of the same and similar words, Roman Catholic sacramentology operates in a universe other than the evangelical faith. For this reason, the Parisian theologian has rendered with this dense and profound book another useful service to evangelical theological discernment.

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.