Making it clearer

Bruce Baugus has responded carefully to what I had written in reaction to the proposed series on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). I thought it might be helpful to expand my initial response, not least lest "brief and rapid" be misconstrued as "shallow and thoughtless," a mere kneejerk.

Mark McDowell's introductory piece was reasonably clear as to the intentions of the series. For what it is worth, Mark and I have no personal animus against one another, despite what appears to be our disagreement about the wisdom of this approach. With regard to what Mark wrote, I am entirely content that - with the cheerful but clear-eyed confidence that comes from a firm doctrinal basis - we can speak openly and frankly with those who disagree with us. However, the nature of the disagreement is going to make a difference to the way in which that conversation or dialogue proceeds. This is where I take issue.

One matter in which I think danger lurks is in the presentation of the participants. We were generously introduced to "our writers": "a Baptist (George), a Presbyterian (Trueman) and a Roman Catholic (Guarino)." That overarching designation is not the most helpful, at least suggesting a measure of cooperation if not complicity. However, there is something of greater significance to consider. I should perhaps say that, on one level, I should be willing to hear a Catholic speak as a Catholic, in certain contexts and for good reasons. I think it is important to understand those with whom we disagree, and to do so fairly and intelligently. But what is also important is that Mr George may be a Baptist in some senses, but there should be no implication that he is a thoroughgoing Protestant when he is clearly not entirely that. I do not wish carelessly to employ excessively pejorative language, but it is disingenuous at best to afford him the platform implied by the label Baptist when he is going to use that platform to pull down much of what ought to be implied in that label. To identify the three intended authors as a Baptist, a Presbyterian and a Catholic seems to suggest that we are comparing two different kinds of outwardly-Protestant apple with a Catholic orange. That is very different from the reality, for Mr George's words show that he is clearly not a Protestant in the way that most (many?) genuine Protestants would recognise. That should at least have been made very clear. One might be tempted to ask, why not throw a couple of Federal Visionistas into the mix and call them Presbyterians? What about some Romanising Anglicans and simply call them Episcopalians? Or would that need to be qualified?

Furthermore, with the waters already well-muddied, readers were then treated to a fairly (stylistically) compelling encomium upon ECT. With academic urbanity, all our nasty disagreements were explained away ("We're grown-ups, don't you know!"), this being a gentle move toward a more mature ecumenism. After all, we all want unity, don't we? And none of this happened without prayer and fellowship with our brothers. Besides which, a lot of the people involved were very clever. So, let's all be gospel people together, and march together after that "unity-in-truth" which we all want.


That was not a review, not even an academic overview. It was not even a defence. It was a promotion. Taking into account that more was to follow in the series, Mr George was given a platform not to explain or defend his view but to advance it. As so often, all the right words were used, but few of the notions were explained. We need to listen to the gaps and mine the meanings of words, for what really matters is often left out, introduced by way of qualification, changed by way of interpretation, or mentally suspended in making a certain declaration. All this was left to be swallowed entire, a neat little packet of compromise.

Surely these are not mere notions to be pondered, but spiritual truths to be depended on and defended as if life hung in the balance ... which, as it happens, it does. I am not accusing others of being careless in these matters, but neither am I persuaded that this approach reckons with the seriousness of what is at stake. I acknowledge readily that I am an 'Old World' Christian; I know that this has an impact on the way in which I view things. By this I do not mean that I am the stereotypical 'hot Prot' who has Foxe's Book of Martyrs as his favourite bedtime reading. I even think that my confessional language of the Pope of Rome being "that Antichrist" is quite probably an overstatement, though I readily confess that he is an antichrist. Even so, when I drive and walk around my country, I often find myself not far from the scenes of martyrdom of men and women - brothers and sisters in the true faith - who shed their blood for the sake of the gospel that Roman Catholics then denied and at whose hands they suffered, a gospel that is still denied by Rome. In saying that, I am not buying guilelessly into Rome's semper eadem claims. Rome does change in many things. That is part of the genius of the system, adaptable and responsive, morphing and shifting to take account of circumstances and challenges. But that adaptability is actually one of the constants. The common core beneath the shifting surface remains pernicious. To say that Rome has changed is not to say that she has improved.

I trust that Brother Baugus and others who may find all this a little lacking in nuance are fully aware of the kind of impact these errors have in the real world, both past and present. If not, we could, as I did a few weeks ago, walk the park in Manila where millions of Filipinos gathered to see the so-called Vicar of Christ preach to them his false gospel. Or we could wander the streets of the same city where millions more gather for Catholic festivals in which they torture their bodies and venerate their idols. Or we could wander the cathedrals of Italy where we see the mangled Messiah in all his battered poverty resting in the mighty arms of Mother Mary. Here is a Jesus who desperately needs help, who needs saving before he can help to save anyone. Or come with me to parts of Austria and Germany, with a little idol shrine at the corner of every street. Spend some time talking with Polish friends. Or stroll from door to door in my own part of the world, where Roman Catholicism and the Catholicism-lite that passes for Anglicanism in many circles is one of the favourite defences of the unbeliever. And while I am not saying that the Roman communion does not and cannot contain true disciples of Christ, I aver that this is despite and not because of the Roman system as a whole.

Yes, some of it is a far cry from the alleged sophistication of the liberal West, even a liberal Western Catholicism, but it is Catholicism. And even close to home it is not quite the tame and lifeless object of study that we might pretend it to be. It is what one friend who lives and works in such a place calls "live Catholicism." We do no favours by our anaemic engagements with a deadly foe. Process it by all means. Assess it, please. But do not give it a platform as if it is just another variation to be studied and described, not least on a website that purports to be a thoughtful but still popular attempt "to call the Church, amidst a dying culture, to repent of its worldliness, to recover and confess the truth of God's Word as did the reformers, and to see that truth embodied in doctrine, worship, and life." Without wishing to denigrate any readers of this blog, I would not put poison on the table just because I believe a good number of the guests are trained toxicologists.

We get snarky enough when those who profess to be evangelical sit down to chat with "Brother Modalist." Should we not show the same discernment with those who are happy to embrace "Brother Papist"? It may not be the same error, but it is no less dangerous to the soul. And should someone imagine that this is different because of the scholarship involved, I would respond that such a line of reasoning is as carnal as that which opens the ear to the biggest shots on the circuit. Theological integrity and spiritual credibility are no more necessarily attached to a large bunch of letters after a name than they are to a large bunch of people in a building, a large bunch of books on a shelf, or a large bunch of numbers in a bank.

This is not a matter in which we can afford to cultivate a cool detachment in a spirit of academic enquiry. This is not an historical survey of an old problem, not an urbane survey of a few moot points. We cannot afford to engage as if nothing really matters, nor give the impression that these are all equal and equally legitimate perspectives. By all means let there be appropriate engagement at appropriate levels; by all means reason and explain and proclaim as opportunity provides. Leonardo de Chirico's careful and nuanced articles on this website are fine examples of that. To engage properly and fairly we do need instruction and preparation. This is not theology insulated but theology invigorated. I have no appetite for the slavish regurgitation of what were referred to somewhat dismissively as "doctrinal 'facts'." I eagerly desire a scriptural system that "specifies its own theological distinctives with vigour, charity and humility." But I am ready to say again that an apologia for a compromise with regard to saving truth and the implied soft-pedalling of damning doctrine is no wise way to go. The apostle Paul pronounced an unhesitating anathema on those who preach a different gospel, any other gospel (Gal 1.6-9). We cannot afford to be less careful or less clear.

Let us not swallow the illusion of a scholarly objectivity when it comes to the truth of God. It is not gracious to call compromise "ecumenism." It is cruel. It is misguided. It is not gracious to give error a free platform. It is dangerous. It is mistaken. Error needs to be exposed and denied. Truth needs to be explained and applied.

Defending the truth is not the same as retreating to a theological enclave or living in an echo chamber. It means standing on a well-established foundation and not giving the impression that this is all up for grabs or proceeding as if all views are equal. Setting the context and offering the final word is all well and good. However, I am not sure I would wish to release a virus in a centre for disease control simply because I intend to clear up at the end of the day.

If that counts as a lack of sophistication, I am content to be simple.