A Response to an Exiled Preacher

A nice chap in the homeland has posted some differences between Catholic beliefs and the Reformed. What is refreshing in this post is the absence of the usual rancor that accompanies these discussions. Furthermore, he actually gets Catholic teaching mostly right, a fact that does not often happen. I have a few comments, so here goes. I will limit myself to commenting on his characterization of Catholic beliefs, figuring he knows (infinitely) more about his own tradition. Also, I do not mean to debate which view is correct. Only to point out where some of his statements about Catholicism are not quite right, from a Catholic perspective:

1. The Roman Catholic Church believes that its traditions are as authoritative as Scripture. The Reformed value tradition, but accept the Bible alone as their authority.

Guilty as charged. Of course we would say that the acceptance of tradition as authoritative is downright biblical.

2. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the pope, as bishop of Rome is head of the visible Church. The Reformed believe that Christ alone is head of the Church and that no man may claim universal primacy over the people of God.

Anything I would add to this would be mere quibbling. The pope is the visible head of the visible Church. Christ is the head, in the ultimate sense, of the Church, both visible and invisible. I note that our exiled preacher baits and switches a bit, attributing to Catholics a certain belief about the “visible Church”, and then countering with something about the Church (not visible?). Not sure if that means anything.

3. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the Bible cannot be properly understood apart from the official interpretation of Rome (the Magisterium). The Reformed believe that the Bible can be rightly understood by all believers through responsible exegesis and the witness of the Spirit.

This is mostly right, though a bit simplistic. Certainly, the Magisterium has the final say in matters of faith and morals, and our interpretations may not contradict such teachings. But it is also the work of non-magisterial theologians and exegetes to help the Magisterium formulate her doctrines. So the process is a little more organic than simply decrees coming down from on high.

4. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that we are justified at baptism and that justification must be supplemented and improved by works. The Reformed hold that the Bible teaches that justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous in his sight, on the basis of the finished work of Christ, apart from works. We are justified by faith alone. Baptism does not effect justification, it is a symbol that a person has been forgiven and put right with God.

This is where our exiled preacher gets it a little wrong. The Church certainly does teach that we are justified in baptism, based on ample Scriptural evidence. But it’s the part about “justification must be supplemented and improved by works” that is wrong. First, it’s not a “must”. Baptized babies who die before the age of reason go straight to heaven. Why? Because they have been justified in baptism. The fact that they were unable to perform any works has no bearing on the matter. In adults, our justification certainly must be increased by further justification (what Protestants usually refer to as “sanctification”), but not to get into heaven. To get into heaven, one need only be in a state of grace. We are in a state of grace from our baptism alone. Further justification sanctifies us so that 1) we may further grow into the image of Christ, and 2) to help us grow in freedom to avoid sin. And this is the part where the Reformed and the Catholic position really part ways. Because for the Catholic, avoiding sin is doubly important, not just because it is an affront to God, but also because some sins can separate us from Christ. Thus further justification helps us to remain in the state of our first justification, in a state of grace.

5. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Lord’s Supper is a re-offering of the sacrifice of Christ and that the bread and wine transubstantiate into the body and blood of the Saviour. The Reformed hold that that in Scripture, the Lord’s Supper is a fellowship meal that reminds believers of the finished work of Christ. The bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood. At the Lord’s Supper, believers enjoy communion with the risen Christ, who is present at the Table by his Spirit.

True.

6. The Roman Catholic Church regards its officers as priests. They re-offer the sacrifice of Christ at the Mass and act as mediators between God and the faithful. The Reformed teach that all Christians are priests, who offer a sacrifice of praise and worship to the Lord. Church officers, especially pastors are ministers of the Word. Their task is to give themselves to prayer, the preaching of the gospel and to care for the flock.

This is true as far as it goes. But contrasting the Catholic view of the ministerial priesthood with the Reformed view of the “priesthood of all believers” doesn’t really hold up, as the Catholic Church also teaches that all Christians are priests.

7. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that after death, the souls of departed believers go to purgatory to be purged from remaining sin prior to going to heaven. The living can affect how long the departed spend in purgatory by observing Mass and praying for the dead. The Reformed hold that purgatory is not taught in Scripture. The souls wicked dead are send to hell to be punished for their sins, awaiting the day of judgement and the resurrection of condemnation. At death, the souls of believers will depart from the body to be with Christ in heaven, awaiting the resurrection to life, glory and immortality.

Kinda. The souls of the departed usually go to purgatory. There is no necessity involved, though. The “purging” can also be seen as a post-death sanctification, presuming the person was not already completely sanctified at the point of death.

8. The Roman Catholic Church believes that Mary is co-mediatrix with Christ and that the faithful should pray to Mary and offer worship to her. Rome also teaches that believers should pray to the saints for themselves and for the dead. The Reformed honour Mary as the mother of our Lord and see her as an example of obedience and love to God. But there is only one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. Prayer and worship is to be offered to God through Christ alone.

Mary is Mediatrix. What that means will vary from Catholic to Catholic, as the Church has officially defined no such thing. Certainly, she was the means by which our Lord assumed the instrument of our salvation (i.e., his body), and in so doing, she performed a mediating role for us. Also, all Christians act as mediators for each other when they pray to the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit for each other. We believe that Mary, and all the Christians in heaven, continue to pray for all the Christians on earth (and incidentally, that is the reality that the exiled preacher’s “pray to the saints” corresponds to; i.e., we don’t pray to them, we ask them to pray for us). As such all Christians in heaven also act, in a sense, as mediators. But Mary gets the cool title because of her unique role in the economy of salvation.

9. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are seven sacraments. These sacraments work ex opere operato. They effectively convey grace to those who receive them, so that baptism regenerates and justifies. The Reformed find only two sacraments or ordinances in Scripture; the Lord’s Supper and baptism. These are means of grace that are only effective when received by faith.

True. They convey grace to those who do not place an obstacle to that grace’s reception. Thus, in adults, baptism without faith will get you a good bath. Communion without a state of grace will get you condemnation. Etc.

10. The Roman Catholic Church regards herself as the true Church through the apostolic succession of her bishops. Non-Roman Catholic Christians are regarded as “separated brethren” who have schismatically divided the body of Christ. The Reformed define the Church not institutionally, but as a company of believing, godly people where the gospel is truly preached, baptism and the Lord’s Supper rightly administered and Church discipline graciously applied.

True enough. However, “schism” applies to one kind of separating from the Church, whereas “apostasy” and “heresy” apply to other separations. So people separate from the Church in various ways.

Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to clarify.

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~ by Rob on May 11, 2007.

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