Does Protestant Truth Still Matter? (7) Protestant Truth Still Matters

On Reformation Day 2023 we returned to a series of posts we started in 2021 but never finished – the text of ‘Why Protestant Truth Still Matters: A Biblical Perspective’ by Garry Williams. This is the fourth post in the series. (The first post is here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth here.)

The printed version of the full publication can be obtained from the Protestant Truth Society.

The piece is structured like this:

1. Introducing the Five Solas

2. The Solas Stated:
            Sola Scriptura
            Solus Christus 
            Sola Gratia and Sola Fide
            Soli Deo Gloria

3. Roman Catholicism before Vatican II:

4. Contemporary Roman Catholicism:
            In with the New
            Out with the Old?
            More of Mary
            Understanding Contemporary Roman Catholicism 

How then should Protestants respond to the contemporary Roman Catholic Church? I am asking here how Protestant churches should respond to the Roman Catholic Church, not how individual Protestants should respond to individual Roman Catholics. For a variety of reasons, those two responses often need to be very different. There are unorthodox Roman Catholics who believe very little of what the Church teaches, both in a more liberal and a more biblical direction. The encouragement given to the laity to study the Bible at Vatican II must, given the power of the word of God, mean that there are more people within Roman Catholic Churches discovering the truth of the Gospel than previously possible. Such individuals need kind nurture in biblical teaching. They need to understand the errors of the Church, but the stance of Protestants toward them as individuals must be one of gentle encouragement. At the levels of ministry and denomination, however, the situation is very different because we are dealing with the Church’s official representatives and her defined doctrinal position. When someone asks a question such as ‘Is the Reformation over?’, the teaching of Rome must be the decisive factor not the possibility that individual Roman Catholics are actually born again despite what their church teaches. I suspect that the confusion of the individual and the ecclesial is the common source of enthusiasm for ecumenism among evangelicals: reflections arising from experiences of individuals are projected onto the level of church-wide relationships. The consequence is a loss of clarity on the Gospel. Much of the impulse for ecumenism also comes from a sense of increasing cultural isolation. Timothy George speaks of an ‘ecumenism of the trenches’.1 Compared to an aggressively secular culture, Rome seems close to Protestants on some issues. But it is identity with the Gospel not relative proximity to it that is the proper basis of unity. We must be confident that the gates of Hades cannot prevail against the church, no matter what enemies she has. 

How then should a Protestant view the Roman Catholic Church of today? As we have seen, Rome’s new open but embracing stance exists alongside the theology of revelation, justification, and worship that was taught at the Council of Trent and Vatican I. There are some points of theological departure from previous positions that render Rome’s total position through history incoherent, for example on the question of salvation for those outside the church. On that issue it is hard not to conclude that the new position simply contradicts the old. But on the three key areas we have examined Protestants have to deal with the ongoing affirmation of the old doctrines and now also the centripetal stance within which Rome holds them. 

The historian A. G. Dickens once wrote that the tenuous link between mediaeval Roman Catholic writings and the Gospel ‘could be demonstrated with almost mathematical precision’.2 The same comment could be made on the abiding Roman Catholic doctrines of revelation, justification, and worship. At each point, Rome rejects the biblical Solas. Scripture is rendered only a partial deposit of the word of God and is subjected to the church. Justifying righteousness is found in the works of the believer. The glory that is due to God alone is wrongly given to the elements in the mass. On these three most crucial questions, Rome still departs from Scripture: ‘How is the mind of God revealed?’, ‘What must I do to be saved?’, and ‘How is God to be worshipped?’. The departure on revelation has a pervasive effect on the rest of Roman Catholic theology. Since the doctrine of revelation functions as an engine for all other doctrines, change here opens the door to innovations that are not taught in Scripture. The departure on justification fosters a trust in the believer’s own works that if followed through fatally shifts his confidence away from Christ and onto himself. The worship of the elements in the mass is, as the English Reformers who died over the issue knew, quite simply idolatrous. In trying to prove transubstantiation, Thomas Aquinas himself argues that the substance of the bread cannot remain in the elements because if it did this ‘would be opposed to the veneration of this sacrament’ and would mean the elements ‘could not be adored with adoration of latria’.3 Thomas wrongly affirmed the absence of the bread because he took the worship as given, but he rightly saw that if the bread remained the worship would be unthinkable, as it is. Rome is not exculpated by insisting that it is Christ and not the bread or wine that is being worshipped, since the elements remain bread and wine. Christ’s substance is not there to worship. Moreover, a similar excuse did not help Israel when she worshipped the golden calf, despite the fact that Aaron called the people to worship by announcing ‘Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord’ (Exodus 32:5). 

If there is a focal point of the problems with Rome’s theology it remains, perhaps surprisingly, the same as it was at Vatican I: the displacement of Christ. He is displaced by Rome itself, and by Mary. The papal stance is much gentler than in 1870, but it remains Rome, specifically the Pope, who is at the heart of the Catholic claim to be the centre of God’s gracious work in the world. The new Catholicism is just as clear as the old that Rome is the proper destination for all inclined to God. As such, her Romanitas is as strong as it ever was. For Rome, Peter (Vatican I), and now from him the Church (Vatican II), has assumed the function of Christ. In this precise sense, Rome stands anti Christou, ‘in the place of Christ’. And it remains Mary who takes from Christ his unique place in heaven. For Vatican II, the assertion of Mary’s role in our redemption does not threaten the uniqueness of Christ because it ‘flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it’.4 But Christ’s is the kind of unique mediation that cannot be shared. Roman Catholic apologists sometimes point out that the Bible itself invites mere men to make intercession (for example in 1 Tim. 2:1), but there is a world of difference between urging a man on earth to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven and promoting a woman to be Queen of the universe! One is enjoined by Scripture, the other could not be further from its emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ. As Solus Christus is in the order of being the first Sola, so Rome’s failure to give to Christ his unique place becomes her most grave error.

I find an analysis of contemporary Roman Catholicism that recognizes the changes within it more troubling than one that attempts to freeze-frame the picture in the 1560s. Rather than observing piecemeal just Rome’s departure from Gospel of grace or her doctrine of revelation or worship, understanding the dynamic within Vatican II Catholicism opens our eyes to her entire global project. Cornelius Van Til spoke of how Trent called him back with  a ‘stern’ voice whereas Vatican II speaks ‘with a soft and pleading voice’.5 A more peaceful relationship between Roman Catholics and Protestants is greatly to be appreciated given the tragic history of bloodshed. Everyone would prefer debate to warfare. Nevertheless, Rome remains fundamentally acquisitive of what she regards as her own. There is no secret here. I am not implying that there is anything underhand about Rome’s stance, as if it were a cunning popish plot: she is perfectly plain in her official documents about how and why she conducts her relations with Protestants as she does. If we are surprised by the disclosure of her theology and her aims then that is our fault for not listening to what she herself has clearly said. Rome tells us frankly that the elements of grace that exist outside her are on the move: moving toward her, propelled by their own inner reality to rejoin the Mother of all humanity by submitting to Peter’s successor in Rome. She is simultaneously open toward those outside her and zealous in her desire to unify them only in herself. As De Chirico comments, the Church is ‘programmatically searching outside its circle for whatever can enrich and expand it’.6 Given her departure from the biblical Solas, it is a search by which we must determine not to be found.

[1] Cited in Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), p. 192.

[2] The English Reformation, revised edn (Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1967; repr. 1988), p. 17.

[3] ST, 3a 75. 2, 5:2442.

[4] Lumen gentium, 60, in Compendium, §4176.

[5] A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), p. 175.

[6] Perspectives, p. 235.