Is Roman Catholic doctrine “not unbiblical?” Have you ever thought of that?
The late, beloved Bible teacher, R. C. Sproul was a champion of Martin Luther’s reformation. Sproul died in the year marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s defiance of the medieval church. But was Luther’s reformation, back in 1517, simply all one huge mistake?
More than anyone else in recent times, R. C. Sproul sounded a call to the church of the late 20th and 21st centuries, to reaffirm the message of Martin Luther. Sola Scriptura, the authority of Scripture, and Scripture alone, must be the watchword of a truly godly church. Many Christians, unfamiliar with the history of the church, have largely forgotten what Luther was all about. Others have heard Sproul’s clarion call, and seek to continue the work of the Reformation, for yet a new generation. At the same time, there are defenders of Rome, who believe that this renewed enthusiasm for Luther, while well intentioned, is unfortunately misplaced.
On a road trip over Christmas, to visit family in the American Midwest, I listened to an audiobook, that inspired me to write the following book review (SPOILER ALERT: this review is in-depth, as the subject matter itself is pretty deep). But first, let me give you some background, and why the idea of the Reformation as a “mistake,” is actually a very good topic to consider.
Was The Reformation a Mistake? … and Why is This is Worth Thinking About
When I first began my journey with Jesus in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I stumbled across the popular Christian singer and songwriter, Keith Green. Green not only recorded some of the finest music, in the early days of CCM (Christian Contemporary Music), he also wrote an irregular, magazine-like publication, with his wife, Melody, The Last Days Newsletter. Keith’s message was hard hitting, with album titles such as No Compromise, encouraging Christians to be completely “sold-out” for Jesus. I was challenged and inspired to drink in whatever Keith envisioned to be radical, faithful, Reformation-principled Christianity.
Every month, or so, Keith Green (and wife, Melody) would send out copies of their newsletter, to his music fans, filled with encouraging articles, for the Christian journey. But for a sequence of several editions of the newsletter, Green put out a series called the Catholic Chronicles. In these articles, Green made a reasonably convincing argument, at least to me, at the time, that Roman Catholicism was a “cult.” In a nutshell, the church of Rome had borrowed much of their beliefs from pagan religions.
I knew next to nothing of church history, and not much about theology. Green seemed like he had his facts together. However, I still felt a little bit of unease with what Keith Green wrote. The tone of his anti-Catholic message felt a bit too much like a conspiracy theory, something akin to the idea that the Pope and the AntiChrist, if not one in the same, were at least good buddies with each other.
Keith Green’s life was cut short, in 1982, by a plane crash, but I still continued to receive Melody Green’s newsletters. So, I was both relieved and puzzled, when maybe a year or so later, Melody Green wrote in one of the newsletters, urging readers to stop passing on the editions of the newsletters, that contained the series on the Catholic Chronicles. It would appear, that upon further research, Keith Green’s surviving wife learned that some of the information found in her husband’s anti-Catholic writings was horribly off-base.
Melody Green had, by this time, become involved with the pro-life movement. Several of her supportive friends, in her pro-life work, turned out to be Roman Catholics. When she actually sat down with mature, thoughtful Roman Catholics, she realized that she had much more in common with them spiritually, than she ever could have imagined before, despite whatever theological differences remained.
It took great courage for Melody Green to retract her husband’s writings, as many of the Green’s fans felt that his surviving wife was now the one doing the “compromising” of the Gospel message. But I was relieved that Melody had the courage to step up and say, “We were wrong. We made a mistake about Roman Catholics.”
So, yes, I was relieved to know that the whistle had been blown on the anti-Catholic conspiracy theory, but I was still puzzled. After all, there were still real differences, were there not, when it comes to Roman Catholic and Protestant theological doctrine? Was Melody Green now shoving these differences underneath the rug, as being unimportant?
This is when I realized that you simply can not believe everything you read when it comes to Protestant propaganda, that claim that the Roman Catholic Inquisition killed “68 million” people, and other such nonsense. At the same time, it became hard for me to believe that Martin Luther’s efforts to reform the church, in the 16th century, were simply a “mistake,” and that we should all just sit around a campfire and sing “kum-bay-yah.”
Where do you go to sort this stuff out? I realized that I needed an education in church history and theology. Keith Green was a starting point, but he was no scholar. Thankfully, this was also when I learned about Ligonier Ministries and the teaching of R. C. Sproul. Sproul was an ardent Protestant and Bible teacher, engaged in teaching ordinary people about the principles of the Reformation, who did not bother with all of the silly anti-Catholic propaganda floating around (still) on the Internet. This was theology with substance.
But was there anyone on the Roman Catholic side of the discussion, who could effectively address some of the legitimate concerns raised by R. C. Sproul and his Ligonier colleagues about Roman Catholic doctrine? Is Roman Catholic doctrine really unbiblical?
This is where my audiobook, on my recent trip over Christmas, rumbling along the Interstate highways, in sub-freezing temperatures, got me thinking. So let me tell you what I learned…
Was the Reformation a Mistake?… Theological Dialogue with Substance
Matthew Levering, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes a serious collection of essays with a rather edgy title, Was the Reformation a Mistake? In another review, one of Sproul’s successors and teaching fellows, at Ligonier Ministries, Stephen Nichols, is not convinced by Levering’s proposal, though Nichols does acknowledge that Levering’s proposal is actually more modest, than the title suggests. For Levering does not think that Martin Luther’s reformation was a “mistake.” Levering is greatly indebted to much that the Protestant Reformation has to offer. The Roman Catholic 16th century church really needed reform, and Protestantism continues to inform the church of Rome even today. What then, does Matthew Levering find to be so “mistaken,” in a certain sense, about Luther?
Levering finds fault with Luther, for being too polemical. Luther charges that the Roman Catholic church has championed doctrines that are surely unbiblical. Levering’s argument concedes that Luther was right about many things, but that Luther went too far in his critique of the medieval Roman church. If Luther had only understood that the Roman church actually employs sound, “biblical modes of reasoning,” the great 16th century Reformer would have been less caustic with his attack on the church.
Levering does have a point. Luther’s conflict with Rome did lead the Western church down the road towards a “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” to borrow a term from Notre Dame sociolologist, Christian Smith. In his attack on Rome, and Rome’s insistence that the papal tradition rightly interprets the Word of God, Luther failed to be self-critical enough to realize that his own interpretation of Scripture might be flawed. Luther was unable to see how fellow Protestant interlocutors, like Ulrich Zwingli on the nature of the Lord’s Supper, and the Anabaptist emphasis on “believer’s baptism,” might actually have some biblical substance in their arguments. In emphasizing the clarity of Scripture, Luther became frustrated that many of his fellow Reformers did not read the Bible the same way he did. Likewise, other Reformers, who championed Sola Scriptura just as fervently as Luther did, thought Luther to be no better than the pope of Rome!
The results of Protestant Reform have been somewhat mixed. For example, while the Protestant Reformation led to greater commitment to the authority of Scripture, it also came at a very high cost. On one side, there have stood conservative Protestants who are so sure of their particular interpretation, on important, yet still, non-essential matters of the faith, that they continue to anathematize their fellow Protestant brethren. At times, particularly in the early years of the Reformation, such theological conflict degenerated into appalling violence.
On the other side, the Reformation led to a despair about the Bible, among liberal Protestants, who feel that we can no longer confidently hear God’s voice revealed to us in the pages of Scripture. With so many conflicting interpretations existing within the church, liberal Protestants have largely given up on the Bible, undercutting Scriptural authority, and replacing it with appeals to experience, reason, and ironically, in some cases, tradition (just as Rome has done), as being more helpful guides in supposedly hearing more clearly from God. In doing so, they have discarded the very revealed Word of God, leaving us with the human word writ large, as an inadequate substitute. They have thrown the baby out with the bath water.
Roman Catholic “Biblical Modes of Reasoning?”
In steps someone like Matthew Levering, who appeals to those Protestants, who still uphold the supreme value of Scripture, to urge them to reconsider how the Roman Catholic magisterium appeals to “biblical modes of reasoning,” that improve upon the cacophony of voices that so often characterizes Protestantism. Levering’s proposal hinges on two arguments.
First, Levering expounds upon the ministry of Ezra, the great post-exilic priest in Israel, who with a team of fellow priests, stood before the worshipping community, who “helped the people to understand the Law.” These stewards of the priestly ministry, as the people participated in the spiritual life of the community, “gave the sense” of what they read from the Scriptures, “so that the people understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:1-8). Likewise, it follows, that the Roman Catholic magisterium continues this priestly ministry of Ezra, for the New Testament people of God.
Secondly, Levering contends that the Apostle Paul’s argument for justification by faith, in Romans 4, relies on an understanding of Genesis 15, regarding Abraham, that is not clearly evident, in the actual Old Testament text. Paul, being under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was able to see and elucidate the deeper, divine meaning in Genesis, that typologically anticipates the truth of the Gospel, as revealed by Jesus (“typologically?“… What is that? Surf around on Veracity to explore what this is all about). Likewise, the Roman Catholic magisterium continues in that same apostolic ministry, inaugerated by the likes of Paul and Peter, to explain the true meaning of the Scriptures.
The Apostle Peter readily admits that there are some things in the letters of Paul that are difficult to understand, that can be easily twisted by false teachers to confuse the faithful (2 Peter 3:16). Likewise, the Roman Catholic magisterium serves in that biblical function to make certain things clear in Scripture, that on their own, require further explanation.
Levering therefore sees the Roman Catholic teaching ministry as having the same role as the Jerusalem council did in Acts 15. Where there is confusion about the teaching of Scripture, the teaching office of Rome brings out clarity. By way of example, Levering applies his method to explain the Roman Catholic “biblical modes of reasoning” behind such doctrines as Mary, the Eucharist, the Seven Sacraments, Monasticism, Justification and Merit, Purgatory, Saints, and the Papacy.
Responding to Matthew Levering’s Proposal: Yes, But….
But does Levering’s argument work? He admits that the loss of confidence in papal authority, in Luther’s 16th century, and earlier, anticipated the need for reform. With multiple concurrent “popes,” all claiming the title in the earlier 15th century, to the flagrant moral failures of many of the popes in that era, it is all too easy to explain why the papal office could not be trusted. How can one confidently say that the papal office continues in the ministry of the New Testament apostles, when it has tolerated such morally challenged leadership, at the top of the institutional hierarchy? This is not merely a Roman Catholic problem, as Protestants have had their fair share of celebrity pastors, with their adoring fans, that can and have degenerated into unhealthy personality cults. But, why should anyone unquestionably trust such people in matters of Christian doctrine?
The other issue with Levering’s thesis is in how the Roman Catholic magisterium might be able to authoritatively expound upon the true meaning of difficult passages of Scripture, by appealing to the same methods that the Apostle Paul used to interpret the Old Testament. It is one thing for a Holy Spirit-inspired apostle in the New Testament to draw out the divine meaning of the text. It is something different to claim that any contemporary church official, or particular hierarchy, has that same level of infallible inspiration.
Levering sees that the ethic of the Acts 15, Jerusalem council is embodied in the papal teaching tradition. But for Levering’s thesis to really work as he intends, it should also include those followers of Christ outside of the church of Rome, as well. Acts 15:6 indicates that the “apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.” Nothing in the text suggests that this gathering is limited to the curia of Rome. The claim to Roman primacy stands upon shaky ground.
Levering’s proposal only makes sense if it means serious dialogue between Roman Catholics and Protestants (and Eastern Orthodox), to study Scripture together, to arrive at a common understanding of biblical truth. However, even then, there is no guarantee that such a common understanding could be infallibly trusted to be Holy Spirit inspired.
As the Reformers of the 16th century indicated with the call of semper reformanda, the church is to continually seek reformation, always reforming, under the authority of the Word of God, in each and every generation. Given that the anathemas against Luther’s statements on justification, as articulated by the Council of Trent, are still present in those Roman church documents, and have never been rescinded, it is difficult to conceive how such dialogue can make effective progress towards genuine Christian reconciliation. Rome has to let go of its adherence to its own infallibility, something which is unlikely to take place in the near future.
Still, Matthew Levering does a remarkable job in showing how certain Roman Catholic dogmas can be shown to be at least not in conflict with a high view of Scripture. For example, with respect to the Virgin Mary, Levering demonstrates that Mary acts as the “new Eve” in Scripture, a theme rarely taught within Protestant circles. When Jesus addresses Mary as “woman,” when he turned the water into wine at Cana, at the beginning of his public ministry, he is not being rude to his mother (John 2:4). Rather, Jesus is alluding to Mary’s connection with Eve. Eve was also called “woman” in the garden (Genesis 2:22). Yet, Eve was disobedient to God, whereas Mary was obedient (John 2:5). Through God’s grace working in her, Mary becomes a vehicle for the restoration of who Eve was meant to be.
Many Protestant interpreters do not follow this line of thought, arguing that addressing Mary as “woman” was no more than a certain idiomatic expression, akin to “ma’am.” Jesus is still rebuking his mother, indicating that Jesus must do the will of the Father, and not submit to the imperfect human will of Mary as his mother. While this is certainly a possible explanation, is it really more plausible than the one Levering offers from a Roman Catholic perspective? Levering at least ties the New Testament together with the Old Testament, in a manner Protestants rarely, if ever, talk about.
Nevertheless, it still begs the question: How do you get from Mary as the “new Eve” to Mary being born without original sin, as in the 1854 “infallible” Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, or to the 1950 “infallible” doctrine of Mary’s Bodily Assumption into heaven? In other words, the kind of biblical reflections Levering offers to support particular Roman Catholic dogmas is very encouraging. It is a step in the right direction, but does Levering really succeed to convince?
Kevin Vanhoozer: An Informed, Nuanced Protestant Response
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, a theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes a lengthy, generous Protestant response in Levering’s book, at Levering’s invitation. Vanhoozer rightly credits Levering for moving the dialogue in the right direction, but ultimately, Vanhoozer is not persuaded by Levering’s appeal to Roman Catholic “biblical modes of reasoning.” It is one thing to try to demonstrate, according to Levering’s book’s subtitle, “Why Catholic doctrine is not unbiblical.” But that does not lead one to necessarily conclude that Catholic doctrine is biblical.
Vanhoozer sees the fundamental problem in Levering’s proposal, in that it fails to take seriously the problem of the church in Roman Catholic theology. Is Jesus Christ truly sufficient in performing the work of salvation, or is the Roman church a necessary part of Christ’s saving work, too? Do we trust in the finished work of Christ at Calvary, or must we also trust in the work of the church, on top of that? For example, like Vanhoozer, I bristle at Levering’s suggestion that the celebration of “the Eucharist saves us from the punishment of death” (p. 89). Really? Has not Christ already accomplished that at Calvary? Levering’s “biblical mode of reasoning” seems quite a huge stretch, not to mention, difficult to square with Scripture itself.
Vanhoozer appeals to the late Jaroslav Pelikan, in viewing that, while the Reformation was not a mistake, it was, nevertheless, a “tragic necessity.” Vanhoozer very much appreciates the fact that his dialogue with Levering is indeed moving things in the right direction. Roman Catholics need to understand that the Reformation was indeed necessary, whereas Protestants need to understand that the Reformation was tragic.
This is why I mention the late R. C Sproul, in this review, and one his leading teaching fellows with Ligonier Ministries, Stephen Nichols. R. C. Sproul, and others associated with Ligonier Ministries, have had an incredible influence in my own life, and I continue to benefit from their emphasis on recovering the great truths of the Reformation. However, R.C. Sproul was well-known for his rejection of the 1990s dialogue between Protestant Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, culminating in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together consensus statement, advocated by folks like Charles Colson and J.I. Packer.
It is therefore no wonder to observe that Nichols never once acknowledges, in his Gospel Coalition review of Was the Reformation a Mistake?, any of the detailed, nuanced counter-argument that Vanhoozer offers, in closing the book. Vanhoozer ultimately disagrees with Levering, but he is willing to grant that Levering presents some important challenges to Protestantism. Is it perhaps that some folks at Ligonier rightly see the Reformation as a necessity, as Vanhoozer does, but that they hold back on acknowledging the Reformation to be a tragedy, that needs to be overcome?
There is a growing number of Protestant evangelicals, like Kevin Vanhoozer, who understand the narrative of the 16th century Reformation quarrels very well, but who also realize that we live in a much different world, than the days of Luther, 500 years ago. There was no such thing as “liberal Protestantism,” much less “secularism,” 500 years ago. The growing agnostic and atheistic movements in our day, were associated with only the isolated “village atheists” of the 16th century. Conservative evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, like Levering, have a lot more in common with each other, than they have in common with liberal Protestants (or liberal Catholics, for that matter). Both conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics believe that God has spoken through biblical revelation, whereas liberals in those same traditions tend to fall along the lines of a Marcus Borg, who considered the Bible to be a “human construction,” and not necessarily God’s Word revealed to humanity.
Vanhoozer goes onto say that such conservative Protestants and Catholics have more in common with one another, than certain elements supposedly existing underneath the umbrella of Protestant evangelicalism. Proponents of the “health and wealth,” Prosperity Gospel, that elevates human experience, spring to mind.
What is the Real “Mistake” that Protestants Make Today?
I have sadly met many people from a Roman Catholic background, who have little, if any, background in reading Scripture. For these people, the Roman faith is but an appeal to tradition, with only a tenuous anchoring into the Bible. However, I also know of other Roman Catholic folks, who like Matthew Levering, demonstrate a profound saturation within the world of the Scriptural text. If the future of relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants is characterized by this kind of careful attention to Scripture, it might go a long way towards healing the rift between Rome and Luther.
Yes, conservative Roman Catholics and Protestants still have their points of disagreement. Teachers like Stephen Nichols, at Ligonier Ministries, have much to teach the church as to why the principles that drove the Reformation are still important today.
But if there is such a thing as a “mistake,” regarding the Reformation, it is that we would be mistaken if we think that the real points of conflict today are still between Rome and Luther. The whole concept of godly authority, as given to us in Christian revelation, is under attack today, an attack that supersedes the challenges associated with correct biblical interpretation. Without a grasp of biblical authority, our still important debates over biblical interpretation are rendered superfluous. I wonder if a more robust dialogue between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants, based on our readings of Scripture, modeled by Levering and Vanhoozer, might help us to face those real points of conflict.
UPDATE: January 6, 2018… 6:40 pm. A dedicated Veracity reader observed that I incorrectly confused the name of “Keith Green” with “Steve Green,” several times in the blog post. I have since made the corrections.