There are at least two main considerations that lead FV to, on the whole, accept Romanists as brothers in Christ and the Roman Church as a true Christian church. The first is a general ecumenical spirit, that wants to affirm the general orthodoxy of those outside the Reformed tradition who affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the ecumenical creeds (thereby arbitrarily setting those standards as not only necessary, but sufficient measures of orthodoxy). The second impulse is FV’s concept of “covenant objectivity”, where the bounds of Christianity and the New Covenant are defined by Trinitarian baptism. The logic goes: baptism is the sacrament of the New Covenant, so those who are baptized are in the New Covenant. But, as we will discuss, this leaves behind the doctrine of the 3 Marks of the (true, visible) Church (as we see defined in the Belgic Confession) on the corporate level, as well as the necessity of a credible profession of faith (“those who profess the true religion” in WCF) on the individual level.
In supporting this contention the FV will first point to the fact that the Reformed have, historically, accepted Roman Catholic baptism and not rebaptized those who had been baptized in the Roman church. While this is true, it is a non sequitur to conclude from this that Rome is a true church or that Romanists are Christians and are in the New Covenant. This is, indeed, supposedly the big “trump” card that FV parades about in order to support its idiosyncratic ecclesiology. As we will see, this position must ignore a huge amount of historical data on the subject, besides the logical problem. Indeed, this fallacy looms large through a great deal of FV argumentation. It ignores the fact that Romanists were not welcomed to the Table in Reformed churches, and that converts to Romanism were considered apostates and routinely excommunicated.
A tertiary argument the FV often appeal to, in order to support the genuine Christianity of Rome and her members, is the idea that one need not believe in justification by faith alone in order to have a genuine Gospel that is believed unto salvation. They want to say that “it is faith itself in Christ himself that brings salvation, not any theory about faith in Christ, justification, or the church.” This position is usually parroted in order to support the idea that one can be saved with a theology that mixes faith and works in justification. I don’t want to spend too much time on this point (it is, perhaps, worthy of a separate post). I will only say, for now, that aside from the logical and scriptural problems, this view cannot comport with the historical and confessional witness (see especially the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 30, especially Ursinus’ commentary).
But back to the point: I can think of fewer areas where the Reformed have had more consensus than that Rome is a false church and that those individuals in her communion lack a credible profession of faith. Notice that this former statement says something about the nature of the corporate and visible church, and the latter deals with the Christian standing of the individual (in the New Covenant). The matters are related, but distinguished. Let us consider the following.
The French (Gallic) Confession (1559)
28 In this belief we declare that, properly speaking, there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments.
Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them. We hold, then, that all who take part in these acts, and commune in that Church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ. Nevertheless, as some trace of the Church is left in the papacy, and the virtue and substance of baptism remain, and as the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it, we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism. But, on account of its corruptions, we can not present children to be baptized in it without incurring pollution.
Several things worth noting: first, that after listing the Word of God and sacraments as the Marks of the Church (the Belgic Confession adds discipline as the 3rd Mark), the French Confession states that the Roman church fails these marks. So, on the corporate/institutional level, Rome is not held to be a true church. Next, the Confession says that individuals in the Roman communion have “cut themselves off from the body of Christ.” So it grounds the non-Christian status of the individual in the non-Christian status of the corporate Roman communion. Third, the Confession sees no tension with these two facts and the denial of rebaptism to those who were baptized in the Roman church. The validity of baptism is not tied to the legitimacy of Rome as a church.
The Westminster Confession of Faith
24.3 It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And, therefore, such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, Papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.
Given that this Confession sees the individual profession of faith (those “that profess the true religion” – 25.2) as defining members of the visible church, it is no surprise that it views Papists in the same way as infidels – as idolaters. Their trinitarian baptism is not sufficient to consider them as being within the true visible church (and therefore in the New Covenant).
Reformed theologians have reflected this opinion as well. Throughout Question 14 of the 18th Topic of his Institutes, Turretin provides a defense of why “the church of Rome of today [cannot] be called a true church of Christ.” This is after his exposition of the pure preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments as Marks of the Church (Question 12). He reasons that the church of Rome is not a true church “because it impinges upon the foundation [of the church]”, “because she is heretical,” “because she is idolatrous,” “because her doctrine is doubtful and opposed to the certainty of salvation and peace of conscience”, “because she is opposed to piety and good morals,” “because she is opposed to freedom by her tyranny,” “because Antichrist sits in her,” and “because she is Babylon.” He remarks:
Now in order to demonstrate this, even this one thing would be sufficient (which we have before proved)- that the proper and essential mark of the true church is no other than the doctrine of conformity with the word of God (which is retained in any assembly). It is clearer than the meridian light from a comparison instituted between both that the doctrine of the Roman church in many most important articles is diametrically opposed to the Scriptures. With whatever pigments and colors it may be covered in order to conceal its foulness and so smooth over its harshness, by that very thing it is evident that neither is she the true church, nor can she be so called except falsely.
Again, he sees no conflict between this truth and the validity of Roman baptism:
The verity of baptism proves indeed that truth of a church with regard to Christianity in general, in opposition to assemblies of unbelievers; but not with regard to Christianity pure and purged from the errors of heretics. For true baptism can be found among heretics who are not the true church; as true circumcision and sacrifices to the one God were consecrated in the church of the ten tribes, which was not on that account a true church. Nor can our opponents deny this. They acknowledge our baptism to be true, yet deny us the name of a true church.
Ursinus (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pg. 448) also addresses the matter of Papist apostates:
Hence, before excommunication can be inflicted upon any one, there must necessarily be a knowledge of some error or sin, which is accompanied with obstinacy and determined wickedness on the part of the offender; so that if any one becomes a Papist, or an Arian, or a Davidian, or any other apostate, he must not be held and recognized as a member of the church, even though he may declare himself to be such, and may desire to remain in the church, unless he renounce and detest his error, and live according to the gospel. The reason is, because God will have his church separate and distinct from all the various sects and adherents of the devil.
Also worth noting, to similar effect, is the opinion of Bullinger, which is documented here. Notice, especially, these remarks from Bullinger’s Decades:
Since Rome is an upstart church and not the true church, then for leaving the church of Rome, the Reformers cannot be considered schismatics.
The church will have evil and wicked men in the visible church, but the Romanists are the very worst of the enemies of God and therefore have neither the outward nor inward marks of the church.
As far as I have read in the Reformed tradition, it is utterly novel to consider Romanists or any others who do not “profess the true religion” to be Christian, either as an institutional, true church, or as an individual New Covenant believer. None of the sources I cited above saw their rejection of Rome and Romanists as Christian as being in conflict with their rejection of rebaptism. I can only believe that FV has blown their view of covenantal objectivism and baptismal efficacy to ludicrous proportions if their system leads them to these sorts of conclusions. And I do not know how this is any improvement on good, old-timey formalism that has plagued the church for so many hundreds of years.
Posted by David Gadbois