I recently tweeted and posted on Facebook a call to prayer: “Pray for the Roman Catholic Church. Pray that God would spark another Reformation and that they would return to the Lord.” I believe that the recent scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have shown once again that the Roman Catholic Church as an institution is deeply flawed and in deep need for further Reformation. That being said, I have met true believers in the Roman Catholic Church, and since their priests have the Scriptures which speak in clear letters of Jesus Christ, I am sure that there are also true believers among their priests. But we also must consider their established teaching (which continues to change), and the fact that the Church as institution has still officially condemned the Reformation.
Just to get some background out there on the history of our two churches, I would be seen as a schismatic in the Roman Catholic Church. I respond to some of these charges here. What I want to do in this blog post is to interact with a former classmate of mine, Jeremy DeHaan. He writes a post, arguing for the importance of tradition, and against some of the perceived inconsistencies in our doctrine of sola Scriptura. He observes about the Reformed communities, in which I find myself, that: “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, Christadelphians, Arians, Pelagians, and Nestorians stand together with Reformed people looking into the same box at the same book and declaring that every word it says is true.” He concludes his post with a bold claim:
It is, in fact, in becoming Catholic that you discover Scripture’s rightful place. You find not just the inspired words of Scripture, but the entire body of divinely-revealed truths the Apostles taught. You find Scripture as the New Testament Church would have known it, and as the Church has always known it, within the living apostolic ministry. You find Scripture not alone, but as it belongs within “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jd.3).
Now, if this bold claim is true, then great! I’m a convert, and I am headed back to the fold of the Roman Catholic Church. Now, Luther’s testimony can become a little cliche, but the reason it became so famous is because he actually laid his finger on a real issue in what the Roman Catholic Church was promoting: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” What I continually focus on is the words: “for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves.”
It is increasingly clear in the current Roman Catholic Church, that this is no less true now than it was 500 years ago. There are various interpretations of Scriptures within the Roman Catholic Church. But just to muddy the waters, there are many more interpretations of tradition (I must confess that as an ‘outsider’ I am totally lost when it comes to interpretations of tradition). And I do have to admit that the Church does not fall with the current Pope’s errors and sins, because there are various interpretations of who he is and what his authority is, at play within the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, Jeremy is frustrated with the different interpretations at play within the Protestant Churches. He quotes James White in the cited blog post, and it should be recognized that James White does not come from his former Canadian Reformed background. James White would not be able to teach in Jeremy’s Canadian Reformed background (or my United Reformed community, for that matter), because he does not teach that babies should be baptized. That being said, I would look up to James White as a leader in Protestant communities.
Realize that the variety of interpretations in Reformed communities is a difficulty for Reformation Churches. We have tried to clear this up with confessions, and some Reformed leaders have fallen into the Roman Catholic error of raising those confessions to the level of Scripture. But let us clarify the intent of those confessions. Reformed Christians do not deny the importance of tradition, we do not deny the importance of a public testimony and summary of Scripture, in fact Guido de Bres recognized the necessity of a confession in the face of accusations from the Roman Catholic Church that we are schismatics and heretics. You can read de Bres’ introduction to the Belgic Confession here, and read his defense below:
Through this confession, as we hope, you will acknowledge that we are unjustly vilified as schismatics or as disturbers of the unity of society, as disobedient and as heretics, since we are committed to and confess not only the most fundamental points of the Christian faith that are contained in the symbols of the common faith but also the whole doctrine revealed by Jesus Christ for a life of righteousness and salvation. This doctrine was preached by the evangelists and apostles, sealed in the blood of so many martyrs, preserved purely and wholly in the early church; until it was corrupted through the ignorance, greed, and the lust for praise of the preachers, through human discoveries and human institutions contrary to the purity of the gospel.
But the Roman Catholic Church is in no place to critique the struggles of Protestantism. I would argue that the Reformation cleared the mud that the Roman Catholic Church mixed into the waters of interpretation by raising the conflicting and contradictory opinions of Popes and councils to the level of Scripture. The problem wasn’t so much in the tradition itself that came down from the Apostles, the problem was a lack of self-criticism in doing the work of examining what they were claiming with what the Church Fathers and more importantly the Apostles were actually saying.
I find it a breath of fresh air to be able to do the hard work of digging deep into the exegesis of a text with a Presbyterian or a Baptist brother, as we struggle to rightly discern the Word of truth. Of course, we are doing this in a broader tradition of Church history. It is within that tradition that we can also discern error and heresy. It is within that tradition that we can also see where the Roman Catholic Church went off the path of Scripture to start declaring certain errors to be established doctrine. Notice that one of the reasons that I hold to infant baptism is not only because I see it to be clearly on the pages of Scripture, but because I see a rich Christian tradition of baptizing babies.
Jeremy DeHaan asks the question: “Why should a convert think he needs to kneel before God and beg forgiveness for disagreeing with James White and the Reformers?” May this attitude never be the case. This is the wrong question, and is oriented in the wrong direction. We simply remember the words of men like Jan Hus who spoke these words from a prison in Bohemia: “I write this in prison in fetters, which I am wearing, I trust, for the gospel of God, expecting every moment the sentence of death. For God’s sake, I pray you suffer not good priests to be oppressed.” We pray that the Roman Catholic Church would return to the Lord: that means bringing justice to wicked men in places of power, but that also means praying that they would suffer not good priests who seek to preach and teach the Word of God faithfully to be oppressed. I posted that call to prayer, not to point the finger at the Roman Catholic Church, but to point to the Word of God, the glory of God, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. May we see Reformers and Roman Catholics on their knees together in prayer, as we continue to work for Reformation according to the sole foundation of the Word of God.