Renewing the Call to Reformation with Urgency

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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.”[1] 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.

1 Jan Hus, Herbert B Workman and R. Martin Pope, The Letters Of John Hus., 1st ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904), 274.

Photo by Tim Graf on Unsplash

5 thoughts on “Renewing the Call to Reformation with Urgency

  1. Hi Nathan,

    Thanks for taking the time to interact with what I wrote.

    Unfortunately, whatever it is you’re responding to in this post, you aren’t responding to my argument. In fact, it’s not even clear you understood my argument. According to you,

    Jeremy is frustrated with the different interpretations at play within the Protestant Churches.

    This wasn’t at all what I argued, much less am I “frustrated” by any particular state of things in the Protestant world. The fact that there are different interpretations not only in the Protestant world but also in the Catholic Church, and all through the Church’s history, for that matter, is not something that I see as a problem. I didn’t see it as a problem when I was Reformed, and I don’t see it as a problem now. Attributing any other belief to me is false, and the result of misreading what I wrote.

    The problem I’m pointing to in my post is not Protestants interpreting the Bible differently from each other. The problem I’m pointing to is Protestants claiming that accepting their particular interpretation is what it means to be faithful to the Lord; and conversely, claiming that those who reject their particular interpretation have strayed from the Lord and need to repent.

    And that’s a problem because according to sola scriptura, only Scripture is the truth of God – not any particular set of human claims about what it means. But those Protestants such as James White and yourself, who claim that Catholics need to repent, or that they’ve “veered off the path of Scripture,” however you want to put it, for rejecting what they think the Bible means, are treating a rejection of their human words as a rejection of Christ and His Word.

    What you cannot explain is why a Catholic must think that accepting the Reformed confessions is being faithful to Christ, and why rejecting those confessions is being unfaithful to Him, since the Catholic wholeheartedly believes everything the Bible says. The fact that you cannot explain this is highlighted by your refusal to answer a question at the heart of my argument:

    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.

    Not only is this not the wrong question, it is exactly the question prompted by what you claim is the truth. And it’s exactly the question that exposes the error in your thinking, which is why you cannot answer it, and must deflect away from it. On the one hand, you accuse the Catholic Church of being unfaithful to Christ, and you tweet that she must return to Him. And yet when I ask why a Catholic should think that in rejecting Reformed opinions he’s straying from Christ (which is merely a restatement of my above question), you deflect by claiming, without argument, that it’s “the wrong question.”

    But I would urge you to reflect on this question. I have no doubt that you don’t want to believe false doctrines, and that if a doctrine could be shown to be false, that you’d reject it. That’s what this question shows. No matter how you answer it, you will be undermining something you believe to be true. You will either be undermining sola scriptura by believing that an acceptance of your opinions is what it means to be faithful to Christ, or you will be undermining the reality of heresy, as I explained in my post. Either way, whether undermining sola scriptura or undermining heresy, answering this question puts you in a dilemma.

    These are largely the points I made in my post, and if you aren’t addressing these points directly, then you aren’t actually responding to me.

    In Christ,
    Jeremy

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  2. Hey Jeremy!

    Thanks for the very thorough response!

    Let me flip your question the other way around: “Why should a convert think he needs to kneel before God and beg forgiveness for disagreeing with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church?” Evidently the Council of Trent has placed Reformed tradition outside the boundaries of Roman Catholic dogma, I would not be able to work within the confines of a Presbyterial system within the Roman Catholic Church, and I stand together with “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, Christadelphians, Arians, Pelagians, and Nestorians” in my subjective reading of Scripture. This means that I must recant along with Luther and return to the confines of Rome.

    Thanks also for clarifying what you are saying. You summarize your thesis statement: “The problem I’m pointing to in my post is not Protestants interpreting the Bible differently from each other. The problem I’m pointing to is Protestants claiming that accepting their particular interpretation is what it means to be faithful to the Lord; and conversely, claiming that those who reject their particular interpretation have strayed from the Lord and need to repent.” I’m glad that you make that distinction, I was blurring the two elements together.

    I point out in my article: “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.” I could hypothetically imagine a Church institution which adopts the 39 articles, the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, and the Book of Concord. There are differences between these standards, but the key is that they all look to the Word of God as the sole source of authority. As such, we can study this Word of God without “muddying” the waters by raising the opinions of popes and councils to the level of the Word of God. I realize that there are dilemmas to work through as we move forward, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20), and pursuing full manhood in Christ (Eph. 4:13).

    Now am I caught in a dilemma of either sola Scriptura or heresy? If I am a Oneness Pentecostal or a Jehovah’s Witness, then yes! If I become Roman Catholic, then I can just leave any questions I have about heresy and error on my way in, because the institution seems to be outside of the criticism of the Reformation. I have made it clear in my various arguments that many of the churches of the Reformation are seeking to hold on to the Apostolic Tradition. Are they doing it in exile? It could be put that way. But the Roman Catholic Church has still not responded to de Bres’ critique of the Roman Catholic Church, which I believe to be largely characteristic of the response of the various churches in Germany, the Netherlands, the British Isles, France, Switzerland, and even Italy and Spain to some degree: “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.”

    I know I am repeating a number of points, but I hope I have sufficiently replied to your concerns. I keep studying this matter, as I have a lot more to learn. Blessings to you as you continue to study and learn as well!

    In Christ,
    Nathan Zekveld

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  3. Hi Nathan,

    You wrote,

    Let me flip your question the other way around: “Why should a convert think he needs to kneel before God and beg forgiveness for disagreeing with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church?”

    That’s a very helpful question, since it shows the difference between our two positions. A Catholic can easily answer this question without undermining his own beliefs: those who reject the Church’s teachings reject Christ, because her teachings are the truth of God, not Scripture alone.

    So, for example, in Catholic teaching, the Nicene Creed is not merely what 318 bishops thought the Bible meant in the year 325 AD. No, we believe that it’s the very truth of God. Therefore, it’s consistent with our own beliefs to accuse those who reject the Nicene Creed, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, of rejecting the truth of God itself and therefore of being guilty of the sin of heresy.

    The same goes for the teachings of the Council of Trent. In Catholic teaching, the teachings of Trent aren’t merely what some sixteenth-century Christians thought about the Bible and the Christian faith. No, we believe that they are the very truth of God. So, it’s entirely consistent for us to believe that those who knowingly reject the teachings of Trent are guilty of a sin against God, the sin of heresy, and must repent.

    But where we believe that the dictates of Trent and Nicaea are the truth of God, you do not believe that about the confessions or the creeds. You believe that only Scripture is the truth of God. That is why you can give no reason why anyone should repent for rejecting the confessions or creeds. It’s why you cannot accuse Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, of having committed any particular sin in rejecting the Nicene Creed, since, given sola scriptura, the Nicene Creed is as much the words of men as the Council of Trent.

    And it’s why, given sola scriptura, you can give no reason why Catholics who read the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, hear the Bible preached, and in every way strive to conform their lives to every word found in the Bible, should think that they’ve “veered off the path of Scripture” for rejecting what Reformed people think the Bible means.

    In your post and your comments you’ve brought up various points, like why Guido de Bres did not consider himself a schismatic, why you think Reformed teaching doesn’t depart from the tradition of the Church, and various problems you see in Catholic thinking. I don’t dispute that these are important issues. But what you haven’t done is responded in any meaningful way to the argument I made in both my blog post and my previous comment to you. In your post, you dismissed my key question as “the wrong question,” and in your comment, you flipped it around to ask it of me. But what you haven’t done is answered the question, nor have you provided a single objection directly against my argument. You’ve written many words, but you’ve merely danced around the issue.

    I don’t point this out because I feel like winning an argument with you. I point it out because I genuinely want you to think about why you are unable to answer that question. The argument I’m making here is not about just one issue among many. The argument I’m making strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Protestant. The fact that you have no response to it should trouble you greatly.

    For myself, although I wasn’t sure yet that I’d become Catholic, the day I knew I could no longer be a Protestant was the day I finished reading The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith Mathison, the Catholic critiques of it, and Mathison’s response to those critiques. I realized then that there was no Protestant defense to the kind of argument I’ve been making here. Sola scriptura defines heresy out of existence, and with it, any objective line between sound doctrine and false teaching. There’s only your opinion about the meaning of the Bible, and my opinion, and Arius’s opinion, and no reason at all why rejecting any of those opinions would be a sin against God.

    If I wanted to believe that heresy was real and that sound doctrine was real, and I did, because Scripture itself tells me that they are real, then I could no longer believe that Scripture alone was the truth of God.

    In Christ,
    Jeremy

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  4. Thanks for another reply Jeremy!

    You refer to “Catholics who read the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, hear the Bible preached, and in every way strive to conform their lives to every word found in the Bible.” I have seen Roman Catholics who do this along with all of those in the Holy Catholic Church!

    I have given you a reasoned argument, and the fact that you want the Roman Catholic Church to have the monopoly on the truth makes it indeed difficult to debate. But if the RC Church really does have a monopoly on the truth, I am befuddled by the contradictions within the Roman Catholic Church…

    I dropped a line in my comment above: “If I become Roman Catholic, then I can just leave any questions I have about heresy and error on my way in, because the institution seems to be outside of the criticism of the Reformation.” Maybe I should add that it seems that they are also incapable of falling prey to heresy. When you blindly accept the opinions of popes and councils who so often err and contradict themselves, then the debate gets easier, because then you can just toss the exegesis of the Reformers away with the wave of a hand. All cognitive power is surrendered to the pope and the institution. Basically, you can check your conscience at the doors to the RC Church. As such, you say: “In Catholic teaching, the teachings of Trent aren’t merely what some sixteenth-century Christians thought about the Bible and the Christian faith. No, we believe that they are the very truth of God.”

    As I have made the point with the Reformers, Calvin cited many of the Fathers against the erroneous opinions of the RC Church at that time. De Bres, was holding to the core of the gospel. It is not just our opinion vs. the Arian opinion, because we are reading the Bible within history and the framework of the Catholic Church throughout the ages.

    Have I danced around the issues? Is that your subjective interpretation? Is it the subjective interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church who do not want to be proved wrong? I don’t see this particular debate going too much further, although I am sure we will have more interactions! I do see an objective standard in the Word of God and I am willing to surrender my interpretations to that standard.

    Blessings,
    Nathan Zekveld

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