Better than Chick Lit II

Better than Chick Lit II

Better than Chick Lit II
Wages of Spin
Carl Trueman


Last month, I devoted this column to reflecting on some of the areas of Catholicism with which Protestants can not only sympathise but from which they can learn much to their profit. This month, I want to spend my time looking at areas where principled disagreements exist. I hope I do this not with a censorious or pharisaic spirit, but out of a desire that there are points where Protestants and Catholics must part company because of sincerely held, cherished beliefs. Of course, these areas of disagreement are often historically and theologically complex, and cannot be dealt with in any truly adequate way here; so what I offer is, in effect, a short inventory of such which hopefully will act as a starting point for further investigation and reflection.

Tradition and Authority

Ask a thoughtful Protestant about where Protestantism and Catholicism most significantly diverge, and it is likely that they will mention the closely related areas of tradition and authority. Now, Protestants tend to be very suspicious of any talk of tradition as playing a role in theology as it would seem to stand somewhat in tension with the Reformation's view of scripture alone as the authoritative basis for theological reflection. In fact, the Reformation itself represented a struggle over two types of tradition, that which scholars call T1, tradition based upon scripture as the sole source of revelation (the position of Protestants such as Luther and Calvin, and of some pre-Tridentine Catholics) and that which they term T2, tradition based upon two sources, namely, scripture and an oral tradition mediated through the teaching magisterium of the Church. This latter was arguably the position codified at the Council of Trent, although it would seem that the boundary between T1 and T2 is in practice often blurred, and very difficult to define in any formal or precise sense; nevertheless, as a heuristic device the distinction is useful and it is really only as Protestants come to understand exactly what the Catholic view of tradition is (i.e., T1 plus T2) that they can come to properly understand how tradition (T1) does not subvert the notion of scripture alone.

A moment's reflection on Protestant practice should demonstrate the truth of this. Every time a Protestant minister takes a commentary off his shelf to help with sermon preparation, or opens a volume of systematic theology, or attends a lecture on a theological topic, he practically acknowledges the importance of T1, whether he cares to admit it or no. A belief in scripture as a unique and all-sufficient cognitive foundation for theology does not, indeed, cannot, preclude the use of extra-biblical and thus traditional sources for help. Protestantism and Catholicism both value tradition; the difference lies in the source and authority of this tradition: Protestant tradition is justified by, and is ultimately only binding insofar as it represents a synthesis of the teaching of the one normative source of revelation, holy scripture.

Catholicism is more flexible. Though, as noted above, the boundary where T1 ends and T2 begins is not an easy one to formalize or define, Catholicism has proved far more open to the development of dogmas not immediately justifiable on the basis of scripture; and has also been willing to take more seriously ancient practice as a significant guide. Thus, the practice of praying to saints has no apparent scriptural warrant, but was something evident very early on in the post-apostolic era, a point used by Catholics to argue for its validity (a good example of a T2 dogma).

The difference on tradition, of course, connects to other differences on authority. Undergirding Protestant notions of scripture is a belief in the basic perspicuity of the Christian message. This lay at the heart of Luther's dispute with Erasmus. Erasmus saw scripture as complicated and obscure and thus as requiring the teaching magisterium of the church to give definitive explanations of what it teaches; Luther saw the basic message as clear and accessible to all who had eyes to see and ears to hear. The basic Erasmus-Luther dispute epitomizes the Catholic-Protestant divide on this issue and also reminds us of why the papacy and the teaching magisterium of the church are so crucial in Catholicism. The problem of the Anglican, John Henry Newman, as he wrote his masterpiece on the development of doctrine, was not that doctrine developed, but how Protestantism could discern which developments were legitimate and which were not. By the time the work was published, Newman was a Catholic, having become convinced that the authority of Rome, not the scriptural perspicuity of Wittenberg, was the only means to resolve the problem.

One might add here, almost as an aside, that the canonical and hermeneutical chaos of modern Protestant biblical studies and systematic theology, along with the moral and epistemological and ecclesiological anarchy which it brings in its wake, is inherently unstable from an ecclesiastical perspective. It is surely not surprising that it has provided the context for some high profile conversions to Rome over recent decades: Protestantism was born out of convictions regarding scripture's basic perspicuity; the destruction of that doctrine can be read as an unwitting prolegomenon to a return to an authority structure which is functionally like that of Rome; and, given the choice of scholars or postmodern arrivistes or the Vicar of Rome calling the shots, it is not surprising that many have chosen the latter. The New Perspective on Paul is the most obvious attack on Luther's legacy in Protestantism; but just as significant is so much of modern hermeneutics, representing as it does the posthumous triumph of the spirit Erasmus over that of Luther.

Other Religions

One of the great mysteries for casual observers of Catholicism since the 1970s has been the apparent conflict between internal and external Vatican policies. On the one hand, liberal Catholic teachers, such as Kung and Schillebeeckx, have found themselves on the receiving end of very conservative internal reforms; on the other hand, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have pursued what seem to be (from and evangelical Protestant perspective) a fairly liberal and concessive attitude to other religions, most notably Islam.

Vatican policy is, in fact, consistent with Vatican beliefs, despite the appearance. The Catholic Catechism is clear that the God of Christianity and the God of, say, Islam, are the same God. This does not relativise Catholicism and Islam in terms of making them equally legitimate expressions of human worship; but it does reflect the standard Catholic acknowledgement of Christianity as a higher and purer form of the more general phenomenon of theism. Now, natural theology is a vexed issue in Protestantism, partly because of Karl Barth's belligerent `NO!' to Emil Brunner in the 1930s, and partly because of the persistent misreading of the Reformers and the Reformed Orthodox on these issues through the popular historiography of the issue at the hands of writers as diverse as Francis Schaeffer, Cornelius Van Til, and Stanley Grenz and their various disciples. Yet even the most historically sensitive reading of confessional Protestant traditions requires us to emphasise the centrality of the Trinity to divine identity and revelation, and to use this as a critical measure by which to judge other religions, such as Islam. For a confessional Protestant, if Allah is one, if Allah has no Son, then Allah is not Jehovah, for Jehovah is not god in general but God the Triune in particular; consequently, there should be no joint worship services with the local Imam, no blurring of the religious boundaries, whatever popular front platforms we might share on moral issues.

Sacraments, Justification, and Assurance

The most obvious aesthetic difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the role of sacraments, specifically that of the Mass or the Lord's Supper, in the respective traditions. Walk into Cologne Cathedral, and your eyes are immediately drawn to the far end of the aisle, where the altar stands; walk into St Giles's Cathedral, Edinburgh, and your eyes are drawn to the centre, where the pulpit stands. The respective architects knew their theology, as each building focuses attention on the most important action which takes place there. While Catholics have always had preaching, they focus on the Mass; while Protestants have always had sacraments, they focus on the reading and preaching of the Word.

Underlying these differences of emphasis are basic differences of theology. Catholics see grace as coming through sacramental participation in the church; Protestants see grace as coming to them through the promise of the word grasped by faith as it is read and preached. Then, allied to these differences are others: Catholicism sees justification as a process whereby the righteousness of Christ is imparted to the believer through this sacramental participation; Reformation Protestantism sees the righteousness of Christ as imputed to the believer by grace through faith in Christ. Catholicism understands human nature in terms of substance; Protestantism understands it in terms of relation. Salvation for Catholics thus involves a substantial change; for Protestantism, it involves a change in relation or status.

Much has been written, of course, about the basic agreement between Catholicism and Protestantism on justification, but the differences listed above are real and cannot be sidelined as minor aberrations. Post-Christian feminist, Daphne Hampson, has written of the failure of ecumenical discussions to address seriously the fundamental differences on human identity; and I find myself in basic agreement with her on this point. One could go further: the continuing centrality of the mass, the persistence of Catholic catechetical belief in purgatory, and the Tridentine emphasis on human ability vis a vi gace, all show that there remains fundamental differences between Rome and Geneva on this issue. We share a common Pauline canon and vocabulary, and we share a history of Augustinian conceptualization of issues surrounding matters of grace and salvation, but we can only unite if one, or both, sides abandon cherished beliefs which lie at the heart of our respective theological and ecclesiastical identities.

Now, many Protestants cannot articulate a full-blown doctrine of justification by grace through faith, in much the same way as many Catholics do not really understand the Mass. Thankfully, we are not saved by commitment to a dogma but by believing in Jesus Christ. But the difference on justification leads to a fundamentally different view of the Christian life. For the Catholic, assurance of God's favour is a non-issue; indeed, assurance can be a dangerously subversive thing, encouraging moral laxity and poor churchmanship. For the Protestant, however, it is absolutely crucial: only as we are assured of God's favour can we understand his holiness without despairing, and do good works - live as Christians! - in a manner which is not servile but rather affiliative and familial. Catholics, and, indeed, Protestants who have a faulty understanding of justification, are at the very least losing out on the sheer joy and delight of the assured Christian life.

I hope these few brief thoughts have highlighted some areas of disagreement between Catholicism and Protestantism. I am a committed, passionate Protestant; but I can recognize in Catholicism much in which I take delight even as I see much from which I must differ. I have said it before in this column and I will say it again: Protestants need good reasons not to be Catholic. Catholicism is the Western default position. If you do not regard the great confessions and catechisms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as being biblical in their teaching on justification, then you should probably do the decent thing and become a Catholic. The implications your position has for scripture's teaching, for church history, and for notions of authority, makes such a move a good one. Converting to Catholicism is not a crime, after all. Yet justification is not the only issue: if you buy into the theological anarchy of modern evangelical thought, then acknowledge it for what it is -- a statement about the fundamental obscurity of scripture's teaching, then do what Newman did in similar circumstances: turn to Rome.

If, however, you value the Protestant tradition on justification, and its concomitant pastoral point, that of the normativity of the individual's assurance, you may, indeed, you should, appreciate much of what Catholicism and Protestantism share in common, but you should remain at Geneva and not head to Rome. For me, the right to claim Question One of the Heidelberg Catechism as my own, as the most profound statement of a truly childlike faith and ethic, is too precious to cede either to the numpties of postmodern evangelicalism or the geniuses of Rome, even the great Newman:

Question: What is your only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful saviour Jesus Christ who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the Devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and, therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing, and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.