195. The Latest Evangelical Convert to Rome. What Does Rome Have to Offer?

I am not English, nor Anglican, but the story of the conversion of the former Anglican bishop Michael Nazir-Ali to Catholicism struck me. He is not the first evangelical Anglican to become Roman Catholic, and he probably will not be the last. He stands on a tradition that has important antecedents like the conversion to Rome of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and many more. However, Nazir-Ali was a well-known evangelical Anglican who belonged to the “evangelical” family and was a respected voice in that world.

Nazir-Ali. CREDIT: ALAMY

Transitions of this kind have personal motivations that ultimately only the Lord knows and the person(s) involved are aware of. This is to say that speculations are out of place. What is instead possible – and indeed necessary – is to reflect on the public and theological issues involved.

Here are a few remarks that can make us think. Commenting on it, the renowned evangelical thinker Os Guinness in a recent interview said: “Institutionally, the switch makes great sense… Rome is a far more prestigious liner to sail in than the battered barque of Lambeth”. However, “in terms of the Gospel itself, the switch makes no sense, and I hate to think that ecclesiastical factors outweighed theological factors at the end of the day”. And again: “the humblest West African church in the land, still faithful to the Gospel, would have been a better destination.”

In the same article, the Rev. Roger Salter added further food for thought: “How can Rome be the Home for any authentic adherent of the Augustinian 16th century Reformation where the doctrine of grace regained its bold and beautiful clarity? … Rome is as deeply divided as Anglicanism between the progressives and the orthodox. And the present pope not only betrays his own persecuted Church (in China, for example) but embraces a range of heresies, including universalism.” 

These comments underline important points and indicate at least two main flaws. Let me briefly elaborate on them.

The Danger of an Idealized View of Rome
Bishop Nazir-Ali’s concerns over the trajectory taken by the Anglican Church on some key doctrinal and moral issues made him look at Rome as a much safer place to identify with. Rome’s image was perceived as being a traditional, stable, authoritative institution with an aura of doctrinal and moral integrity.

As often happens in similar stories, given its “Roman” dogmatic and hierarchical structure, Rome is viewed as a safe haven in the turmoil of our day, a bulwark against liberal and secularizing forces, and a better place to find refuge and support. The question is whether Bishop Nazir-Ali is aware of the evolutions of Roman Catholicism under the papacy of Francis, which are the result of trends stemming from Vatican II. They not only relate to the “uncertain teaching” of the present Pope, but belong to well-established trends in contemporary Catholicism.

One example will suffice. In terms of its universalist trends, since John Paul II and even more so under Francis, Rome encourages joint prayer with Muslims given the fact that according to Vatican II they “along with us adore the one and merciful God” (Lumen Gentium 16). We are “all brothers” (to quote the title of the latest papal encyclical) after all, not only with Muslims but with the whole of humanity. Roman Catholicism has re-engineered the language of “brotherhood and sisterhood” replacing its spiritual meaning (i.e. belonging to the same family as believers in Christ) with a biological one (i.e. belonging to the same human species). This replacement has immense theological, soteriological, and missiological overtones. It is another way of saying that we are all children of God, we are all saved in following our different religious journeys, and we Christians no longer need to look for conversions to Christ from among people of other religions.

Pope Francis regularly asks Muslims to pray for him because we are all “children of God” and says that atheists go to heaven because, after all, they are good people. Though biblically untenable, these “politically correct” positions can be heard in the Anglican Church but also at the highest level of Roman Catholic teaching authority.

In many respects, in fact, the doctrinal and moral confusion that made the Church of England no longer bearable for Bishop Nazir-Ali is very similar to the one that Roman Catholicism has been going through since Vatican II. That confusion is even more evident today, given the many moral and financial scandals that have shown the brokenness and failures of the Roman Catholic system.

As it is “Roman,” i.e. centered on a hierarchical structure that gives an idea of stability, Rome is also “catholic,” i.e. a sponge capable of “updating” and developing itself to adapt to the changing situations. Has Bishop Nazir-Ali fallen prey to a shortsighted, selective and, in the end, idealized view of Rome – a sort of wishful thinking in times of personal crisis? Has he really grasped the present-day reality of Roman Catholicism as a whole before embracing it?

The Risk of Going from Bad to Worse
There is a further – and perhaps more important – point to be made. Rome is no better than Lambeth, and not only in terms of its unstable and unreliable doctrinal and moral standards. Rome is no better a place because it has created a theological system that is not committed to Scripture Alone, nor to Christ Alone and Faith Alone. In other words, Rome does not embrace the biblical gospel as it was rediscovered at the Protestant Reformation, although it contains elements of a “conservative” religious culture that is nonetheless rapidly evolving towards a more pluralist and inclusivist position.

As an evangelical, Bishop Nazir-Ali should have had enough spiritual awareness to see what is at stake with Roman Catholicism from a doctrinal viewpoint. How can a Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, that is dogmatically committed to salvation by faith and works, an augmented canon of Scripture, the intercession of the saints and Mary, a host of spurious devotions and practices, Eucharistic adoration, papal infallibility, the dogmas of Mary’s immaculate conception and bodily assumption, and so on be a better place for a Christian who is concerned with biblical truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Despite some areas of apparent and formal agreement (e.g. the Nicene creed), there are even deeper disagreements with Rome. The vocabulary of Nicaea is the same: God the Father, Jesus Christ, salvation, Holy Spirit, virgin Mary, church, a holy apostolic catholic church, baptism, remission of sins, but while the words are shared, the same cannot be said of their theological meaning. When a Roman Catholic refers to the “virgin Mary”, to “salvation”, to “the church”, etc., they mean things that are far from plain biblical teaching. The recent “catholic” moves in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice (e.g. historical-critical readings of Scripture and universalism in salvation) make the difference even sharper.

The 2016 article Is the Reformation Over? A Statement of Evangelical Convictions, signed by dozens of evangelical global leaders, says it well: “The issues that gave birth to the Reformation five hundred years ago are still very much alive in the twenty-first century for the whole church. While we welcome all opportunities to clarify them, Evangelicals affirm, with the Reformers, the foundational convictions that our final authority is the Bible and that we are saved through faith alone.” Rome does not share these convictions.

Ours is not the time to cross the Tiber. On the other side of the river, the reality is different from what it appears to be and, even more importantly, it is flawed in terms of its basic commitments. Ours is the time to continue to uphold the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t know if Lambeth is the best place for a believer to find his spiritual home, but certainly, Rome is worse.

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194. Christ Unfurled or the Roman Catholic Christ-Church Interconnection. Evangelical Remarks on David Meconi’s latest book

“Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ.” Here is how the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§ 795) hammers out one of the two axes of the Roman Catholic theological system, i.e. the Christ-Church interconnection (the other being the nature-grace interdependence). If one wants to come to terms with the deep structure of the theological vision of Rome, they must begin by addressing this critical Christological-ecclesiological point whereby Rome considers itself the prolongation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

In his masterful book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. An Evangelical Assessment (2014), Gregg Allison has done a great service in highlighting the foundational importance of the nexus between Christ and the Church for the whole Roman Catholic framework. Every doctrine and every practice occurs between the two axes: on the one hand an optimism about nature (regardless of the covenant-breaking brought about by sin) and on the other inflating the claims of the church that acts as another Christ. Now, from within the Roman Catholic tradition, David Meconi, S.J. reinforces the crucial importance of the fact that “the Church and Christ really are one” (2) given the fact that the Church is “an extension of Jesus Christ himself” (2).

Meconi is academically well-qualified to write from a conservative Roman Catholic perspective. In the past I have read his The One Christ: Saint Augustine’s Theology of Deification (2013) and consulted The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (2014) of which he is one of the chief editors. He is a Roman Catholic Augustinian scholar with a particular interest in a “whole Christ” theology. With the recent book Christ Unfurled: The First 500 Years of Jesus’s Life (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2021) Meconi labours on the Christ-Church interconnection even more closely, thus offering an account of what it means for Roman Catholic theology to affirm that “the Church is a replication of the incarnate God’s own human and divine life” (6).

The Early Centuries
He does it by emphasizing the historical perspective, i.e. reading the five centuries of the Christian church as if they were “the first five hundred years of Jesus’ life on earth” (14). Since “the Church is the extension of Christ’s very incarnate self” (15), the Church is therefore Christ unfurled as the title of the book indicates. In the first chapter, the thesis is repeatedly stated: “The Church is the unbroken continuation of Christ’s own incarnate self, the extension of his divine and human presence on earth” (17) so that “post-Ascension people could see, hear, and still touch the Lord” (17). Moreover, “The Church as founded by Jesus Christ is the continuation of his own divinely human, or humanly divine, life” (19). The unfurling of Christ in the church stretches to His work of salvation, establishing an interconnection between the cross of Calvary and the chief sacrament of the Church; in fact, “in and through his Church, the life-giving Body and Blood of Jesus continue to be with us in the Most Holy Eucharist” (19-20). Reiterating the point, Meconi goes as far as saying that “the hypostatic union of the incarnate Son’s humanity and divinity continues in the unity of the Eucharistic sacrifice” (114).

In subsequent chapters, Meconi attempts to prove that this Roman Catholic view has been upheld in the church since the beginning. As for Apostolic Fathers (e.g. Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch) and in writings such as the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas, he argues that the early Christians understood themselves “as envoys and extensions of Christ’s very presence in the world” (30). However, the proofs given for such a strong statement are less than convincing. In fact, the “canonicity of Scripture” (i.e. the recognition of the inspired books of the Bible) and the “rule of faith” (i.e. the comprehensive summary of the gospel) which the Apostolic Fathers were interested in are hardly early attestations of the Christ-Church interconnection. They are simply some of the concerns that the early church had in trying to faithfully live after the death of the apostles. Their tendency toward “monoepiscopacy” (i.e. one bishop over each local church) is more of an unfortunate influence of Roman imperial authority structures than a sign of their endorsing the “whole Christ” theology. As for later Fathers, Meconi is right in saying that, for example, Tertullian spoke of the church as the “mother Church” and Origen of the “bride of Christ” (69), but these two titles given to the church do not intrinsically imply the theology of the extension of the incarnation, unless one wants to see it retrospectively, having already decided that this is what he wants to see.

The Legacy of the Creeds
Examining the legacy of the early councils and creeds (Nicea and Constantinople) which focussed on the trinitarian nature of God and the divine and human natures of the person Jesus Christ, Meconi makes the point that “Jesus Christ founded a Church so he would have a visible locus, a freely-chosen Body, unto whom he could extend his life” (135). Again, this is an inference that stretches what the creeds say by filling in the terms with meanings they don’t have. The language of “extension” and “continuation” is not found in the creeds. The union or fellowship between Christ and the church (or the believers) is certainly maintained, but whether this relationship points to the “extension” of the incarnation is beyond what the texts of the councils say. In order to cross the boundaries between the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the life of the church, one needs further theological elaboration than what can be found there.

Finally, a long section of a chapter is dedicated to Augustine’s views of the “whole Christ,” Meconi’s own area of expertise. According to him, “for Augustine, the ‘whole Christ’ is not just Jesus now seated at the right hand of the Father but the entire Christ is Jesus as well as those whom Jesus loves” (182). Together they form “one mystical person” (197). This is accurate as far as Augustine is concerned, although in Augustine there is also a strong emphasis on the distinction between Christ and the church and the submission of the latter to the former. On this point, Augustine is at best confused. I have written elsewhere of the damages of Augustine’s formula (totus Christus) and the corrections brought about by the Protestant Reformation in stressing the uniqueness of Christ (solus Christus).

The Whole Christ or Christ Alone?
On the axes of the Christ-church interconnection,Rome builds its self-understanding as a church endowed with the authority of Christ the King, the priesthood of Christ the Mediator, and the truth of Christ the Prophet. 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. But this is not what the gospel teaches. This is an inflated view of the church based on a defective view of Christ. According to Rome, there is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the church) and ecclesia in Christo (the church in Christ).

The emphasis on the Christ–church interconnection seems to forget that the Church is made up of creatures (human beings). Because the church is made up of creatures, it is part of creation, and is not the creator, while Christ is the divine Creator, the One from whom all things are and who is perfect now and always. When we talk about Christology, we are talking about the unique relationship between human nature and divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the Creator; when we talk about ecclesiology, we are talking about the people of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit – all of these titles referring to a created reality. The distinction between Creator and creature is decisive for not falling into the trap of elevating the church into a quasi-divine body.

After the Ascension to the right hand of the Father, Christ did not continue his incarnation in the church. Having formed the church through his finished work on the cross, He sent it to the ends of the earth and empowered it with the Holy Spirit to preach and to bear witness to his gospel of salvation. Christ is the head of the church, and the church serves His purposes and His alone, until He comes again.

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