Tag Archives: R. C. Sproul

Was the Reformation a Mistake?: A Book Review

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.

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Reformation: R. C. Sproul

R.C. Sproul (1939-2017), on camera, recording one his many Ligonier conference sessions, back in 1985 (photo credit: Ligonier Ministries).

Robert Charles Sproul, known to most people as “R. C.,” was one of the most influential theologians in 20th/21st century evangelical Christianity. A primary architect of the 1970’s Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and an outspoken critic of the 1990’s dialogue statement between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Sproul was first and foremost a Bible teacher, whose passion was to help Christians integrate their thought life with the teachings of Scripture.

I first heard of R. C. Sproul when a friend handed me a set of cassette tapes, on the relationship between modern philosophy and Christianity. Sproul had given these talks at various retreats held at Ligonier Valley, a study center Sproul had founded, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a young believer, I was blown away at how articulate R. C. Sproul was in addressing the type of intellectual challenges I was facing in college.

Not too many Christian Bible teachers were doing this at the time. R. C. Sproul was against efforts within the evangelical church to “dumb-down” the Gospel message. Every Christian, not just professional pastors, needed to know the basics of theology, and he had the gift of taking difficult theological concepts and making them understandable to the average believer.

R. C. Sproul had zero interest in God, and plenty of interest in sports, until he got to college. He became a believer in college, and eventually studied theology under John Gerstner, at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. At first, Sproul resisted the Reformed theology of Gerstner, making himself into a “pest,” but he gradually came around to Gerstner’s perspective. Later, Sproul pursued doctoral studies under the preeminent Dutch scholar, G. C. Berkouwer, in Amsterdam. The Ligonier ministry was moved to Orlando in the mid-1980s, sponsoring dozens and dozens of weekend and week-long conferences. He was able to pass the leadership of Ligonier Ministries, along with a magazine he had founded, Table Talk, and his Renewing Your Mind radio program and podcast to a new generation of teachers. Over his half century of ministry, R. C. Sproul lived a life of impeccable integrity.

As an ardent Calvinist, R. C. Sproul nevertheless had his critics. He left the mainline Presbyterian church (the PCUSA), over concerns of a drift towards liberal theology. He joined the younger, more conservative, Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) in the 1970s, identifying himself as an heir to the Reformed tradition of the 1648 Westminster Confession of Faith, to the chagrin of other evangelicals who would embrace “believer’s baptism” only, or elements of Arminian theology. Others criticized him for not taking a firm stand regarding the age of the earth, with respect to the doctrine of creation, while others accused him of holding to “replacement theology,” by his not taking a stronger stand to support national Israel’s role in biblical prophecy. He was drawn to taking a more preterist view of the Book of Revelation, that suggests that many events described in that book of the Bible have already taken place, to the consternation of many evangelical futurists, who see most of Revelation being fulfilled in the End Times. Sproul publicly rebuked the late theologian, Clark Pinnock, for the latter’s advocacy of the controversial doctrine of open theism. Some thought Sproul was too heady, in promoting theology, at the expense of practical spirituality. However,  R. C. Sproul resisted pressures by other evangelical leaders, to make political statements, preferring to stick to his core themes of teaching Christian theology and apologetics.

It is fitting that R. C. Sproul would finish his earthly life in the year of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. R.C. Sproul loved to tell the story of Martin Luther’s encounter with Rome, generally marked by the year 1517, with Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Sproul saw in Luther’s theology the missing ingredient in much of evangelical thought and life today, a consciousness of the holiness and sovereignty of God. If there was one note that R.C. Sproul sang loudly and sang well, it would be to call the church back to God’s sovereignty and The Holiness of God, the title for perhaps his most important book.

R. C. Sproul was truly a man of the Reformation. He is remembered here at Ligonier Ministries, and with this obituary at The Gospel Coalition. Below is a video set of snapshots of Sproul, over the years, teaching on his favorite subject, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (check out that head of hair!!).


Vatican II, Embracement, and Pope Francis: Roman Catholicism Today

Martin Luther, a “heretic” or “a witness to the Gospel?” How has the Roman Catholic communion changed in 500 years? (credit: Finland stamp from 1967, from a ETWN web page)

I need some help from my Roman Catholic friends. It is difficult to figure out exactly what is going on in Rome today.

An Italian evangelical leader, Leonardo De Chirico, gave a very thoughtful 30-minute message at a recent Ligonier Conference, in this year of remembering the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In the video below, Chirico argues that in order to understand Roman Catholicism today, we need to have in mind three concepts/names:

  • Vatican II: The 16th century Council of Trent codified for hundreds of years what has been traditionally understood to be Roman Catholicism, the high water mark for the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a formulation of doctrine that sought to refute many of the reforms of Martin Luther and other Protestants. The next major council, Vatican I, set much of Roman Catholicism against the changing modern world of the 19th century, affirming the work of the Council of Trent, and reinforcing traditional boundaries. But the early 1960s, Vatican II council changed all of that. However, Vatican II did so, not by altering the doctrine of the church, but rather, by changing the tone and attitudes towards those outside of the Roman communion.
  • Embracement: Vatican II set the wheels in motion, whereby this change of tone and attitude has characterized the trajectory of the Roman church for the past fifty-plus years. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict put the brakes on much of this Vatican II trajectory, embodying the doctrinal commitments that have traditionally defined Rome. Still, incremental changes in smaller ways, in terms of a warmer spirit of embracement and inclusiveness of others, made their way into the church. But the doctrine remained effectively the same.
  • Pope Francis: Now however, unlike his recent predecessors, Francis has downplayed the doctrine and turned up the warmth of this new spirit of embracement. Arguably, Francis is the first truly “Vatican II”-like Pope. In the past four years since his ascendancy, Francis has hinted at or suggested various reforms in the church, some that point towards reconciliation with other parties in the universal Christian community (like Protestants and Eastern Orthodox), some that thrill liberals and others outside of  the church, and some that horrify Catholic conservatives.

What are we to make of all of this?

Briefly stated, on the one hand, Roman Catholicism has never been a monolithic movement, even during the era of the Council of Trent. On the other hand, Protestants can easily misrepresent what Roman Catholics believe and think, and that does harm to efforts to try to heal the divisions of the last 500 years. That being said, here are two things that come to mind as examples of what puzzles me, as to what is coming out of Rome in the Pope Francis era:

  • A generation ago, those Catholics who experienced the tragedy of divorce, were conscience-bound to go through the process of securing an annulment for improper Catholic marriages. Nowadays, fewer divorced Catholics even bother with the annulment proceedings. Also, according to authoritative Catholic tradition, regular confession is a required sacrament of the Catholic Church, and yet, I know many Catholic friends who rarely, if ever, go to confession. What are we to make of all of this?

Leonardo De Chirico offers some insights from a Reformed Protestant perspective. I can imagine that many traditional Catholics might be terribly dismayed by all of the changes. Can any of my Roman Catholic friends help me out here? Are Chirico’s observations correct?

Ligonier Ministries, associated with Bible teacher R. C. Sproul, has some great resources, particularly for those with interest in the theology of the Protestant Reformation. In this year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Ligonier sponsored their annual conference, with the theme of the Reformation, and you can even view all of the videos of the conference on YouTube.

 


Podcasts for the Thinking Christian

Plumb LineJohn’ s recent post on William Lane Craig’s Defender Series of podcasts brought to mind that I should update my list of recommended podcasts for the thinking Christian (here is an earlier list John and I have discussed).  I do not have the time to read books as much as I would like, but the marvel of MP3 players is that I can download audio files and listen to them while I work in the yard or drive to and from work.

John’s suggestion of William Lane Craig as the “graduate school” for the next step following after Dick Woodward’s Mini Bible College is very appropriate. Dick was an amazing teacher who continues to impact the world through his unique ability to “put things on the bottom shelf” for people by exploring the basic contours of the Bible. Dr. Craig then makes it more in-depth in terms of helping you grasp and develop your own understanding of God (theology) founded on Scripture and then applied in terms of being able to offer a rational defense of the Christian faith (apologetics).

But just as there are fine and different academic graduate schools out there, there are different “graduate school” approaches to theology and apologetics. For example, Dr. Craig is probably one of the leading Christian apologists alive today, such that atheist Richard Dawkins awkwardly still refuses to debate him. But Dr. Craig is known for his “Middle Knowledge” approach to the issue of God’s sovereignty vs. free will. He is also known for his classical/evidentialist approach to apologetics.  Without digging too much into those things right now, let me just say that not everybody is totally with Dr. Craig on these issues. But, PLEASE, do not let that dissuade you from digging into William Lane Craig! He is awesome! It is just important to know that there are other approaches that Christians take to these issues. You might want to check out some of the other podcast resources available to get a flavor of what is out there. So here we go!

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