“All who are baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, recognizing the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead, the incarnation of the Son and his priestly sacrifice, whether they be Greeks, or Arminians, or Romanists, or Lutherans, or Calvinists, or the simple souls who do not know what to call themselves, are our brethren. Baptism is our common countersign. It is the common rallying standard at the head of our several columns.” A.A. Hodge, Reformed scholar and president of Princeton Seminary between 1878 and 1886 (Evangelical Theology, p. 338).
Like many thinking and engaged Protestants, I was trained from the get-go of my newly born-again life to be suspicious of Roman Catholicism. (It is important I think to use the descriptive “Roman” when referring to it because, in truth, all Christians are Catholics: meaning members of the universal church.)
For example, as a young campus minister I attended a series of classes on the cults where I was instructed in the inherent errors of Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Way, Scientology, EST, Islam, and the main eastern religions. But there was also an entire session on RCism. Because it was Trinitarian, used and professed to have a high view of the same Bible we had (with seven questionable books thrown in—but, hey, they’ve been around before Christ so it’s not like the Book of Mormon or anything) and enthusiastically embraced the life, death and resurrection of the God/man Jesus as the key to redemptive history, RCism couldn’t quite be lumped into the same camp as the others.
Nevertheless, some extra-Biblical–and many would argue contra-biblical—weirdness (to me and most Protestants) existed in spades. Then there were the hundreds of thousands of former RCs who had had born-again experiences and now made up a significant percentage of Protestant congregations, many angry because they felt they had been inoculated against the Gospel of grace by what they now saw as rote ritual and a works-oriented system of salvation. Finally, toss in the Dark Ages, some ridiculously corrupt popes and the millions who were killed, directly or indirectly, by RCism—including the hyper-cruel torture and martyrdom of many Protestant heroes. Add it all up and the conclusion seemed clear: Roman Catholicism may not be a anti-Christian cult in the classic sense of the term, at least not in its 20th Century form. (The Reformers may have been right to label the papacy as the seat of Anti-Christ during the medieval period.) But it sure was cultish…and we needed to call people out of it.
But then the RC church had been and was changing, clearly impacted by the growth and influence of Protestantism, particularly in America. The Jesus Movement and the charismatic renewal suddenly had RCs and Protestants rubbing shoulders in big ways. And when it came to standing strong on two key social issues—the sanctity of life and biblical marriage—RCs were often leading the way…while half of the Protestant church seemed to be more a part of the problem than the solution.
It was in the epicenter of pro-life activism that I began to get to know sincere RCs and, through them, better understand the heart of their faith. (There were several times when we had entire days to discuss things: while we were in jail together, having been arrested for blocking clinic access while praying in front of abortion clinics.) As we prayed together and allowed “iron to sharpen iron” (Proverbs 21:17) in a spirit of humility and mutual respect, I began to realize I had something of a cartoon-like, “Jack Chick” version of their beliefs in regard to a number of suspect doctrines: purgatory, Mary, praying for and to the dead, the Eucharist, penitential works, the Magisterium and papal infallibility, etc. I was challenged to and agreed to read some of the writings by the early church fathers (most notably the three book compilation by William Jurgens) and was surprised to see how many of their distinct doctrines were hinted at, if not down-right espoused, by more than a few of the great men of God who were the immediate heirs of the Apostolic era.
My pious, pro-life RC friends also kindly pointed out to me one distinct area in which the Protestant emperor had the back of his hospital gown flapping in the wind: with all their problems and failures, the RC church had a credible claim to still be standing and unified after two millennia. While Protestants? Still protesting, the little cusses, and not just against the RC church. We have divided and split like a science project run amok, forming hundreds if not thousands of denominations—many of which have descended into abject loopiness and error.
I wasn’t buying it all—at least not hook, line and sinker. But as I was growing in my faith and walk with the Lord, I was also coming to understand that some of my own pet—and often overly pat—doctrines were at best approximations of much deeper truths. I began to humbly appreciate the inherent limits of the human mind in fully comprehending ultimate truth and God’s mysteries. Feedback loops, cognitive biases, the impossibility of true and sufficient fact gathering, the influence of propaganda and manufactured consent, and the fact that the closer we get to the mind of a God who lives and moves and has His Being in utter Transcendence, the more fragile our four-dimensional time/space perch becomes. (Yes, one of Christianity’s many unique doctrines is that God is simultaneously Immanent—and was even wonderfully, physically so in the Incarnation. But as Phil. 2:7 and other verses makes clear: from our vantage point as fallen, fallible, finite beings, all we are capable of grasping from this Immanence are the barest outlines—the form or likeness—of His Being.)
I also began to deeply appreciate some aspects of their faith and religious traditions. The ancient liturgy, for example: how in every service over 2,000 years the Word was sung, prayed, preached and—in climax—eaten. Communion (the Eucharist) seemed charged with reverence, meaning, transcendence and a gracious power that made my Protestant experience of passing grape juice and a little hardtack cracker down the aisle seem lame—almost blasphemous—by comparison. I learned there were Protestant services that were roughly equivalent and began attending them. And frankly, I still stand with Calvin and other Reformers—over and against the RC tradition—in seeing the Real Presence of Christ spiritually manifest in the bread and wine. They are not mere mementoes or symbols but rather are infused with His Presence: the miracle of con- rather than tran- substantiation.
But at the end-of-the-day, I prefer what humbly seems to me the RC error in regard to this sacrament to the anemic (a rare instance where a descriptive is scientifically/medically accurate) version offered in the majority of Protestant churches.
And therein may be an example or metaphor we would all do well to consider. We’re dealing here with mysteries. And each of the three main approaches to the sacrament of communion, I believe, is sincerely seeking to honor and glorify Christ as the center and fount of this mystery. I’ve got my own take on the Eucharist; one that is pretty different from the one I had thirty years ago. I think…I hope I’m right about it. But I will not succumb to the hubris of insisting I’m right and then, even worse, condemning those who believe differently as being in error.
And I can say the same thing about the ordo salutis, election, predestination, baptisms, eschatology, ecclesiology, the scope of atonement, perseverance, tongues, the place and state of souls after death and a hundred other doctrines and mysteries over which Christians disagree and even divide. That’s fine, even necessary and helpful…as long as it is done in a spirit of charity and humility, allowing iron to sharpen iron so that greater truth and understanding can eventually emerge.
But it is bad for the Church, tragic for a lost and hurting world, and a wound to the heart of the One who prayed the words of John 17 when these disagreements and divisions become a tool of strife, accusations, condemnations, fighting and even war.
God knows. And only God knows. And in the end, will not the Judge of the whole earth and men’s hearts do right?
(In part 2, I will share a recent experience that I hope illustrates how this unity can work—as well as the mindsets that exist in the Church which will try and frustrate it.)
* I write this as one who has humbly studied the Roman Catholic faith with a willingness to join should I become convinced that it was the truest and best depository of the Apostolic faith. (Yes, RC friends, I’ve read and listened to a bunch of Scott Hahn…and a whole lot more.) To date, I remain a Protestant with both feet planted in the Reformed/Augustinian tradition. And that perspective or bias—for example, examining the potential error (graciously, I hope) inherent in the RC tradition—is obvious in this article. I want to acknowledge that a Roman Catholic apologist could and even should turn this on its head and write a similar essay describing how he or she had been raised to be suspect of Protestants and all their heterodox ideas and practices. And then with a tut-tut, advise RC’s everywhere to learn to love and work with their Protestant neighbors as sincere but errant, separated brethren.
What’s good for the reformer is good for the formed.