Posted by David Gadbois
Last year Peter Leithart posted an article, The End of Protestantism, over on the First Things web site and among other things asserted that we Protestants (including, of course, us confessional Presbyterian and Reformed folk) needed to adopt a more “Reformational Catholic” perspective and start to consider those in Roman Catholicism to be part of the same Christian family along with us. That is,
Some Protestants don’t view Roman Catholics as Christians, and won’t acknowledge the Roman Catholic Church as a true church. A Reformational Catholic regards Catholics as brothers, and regrets the need to modify that brotherhood as “separated.”
The Torrey Honors Institute at BIOLA University and First Things organized a public discussion of the issues raised in Leithart’s article last month between Leithart, Sanders, and Carl Trueman. I assume Sanders recruited Trueman to represent the traditional (confessional) Reformed position. You can watch the whole discussion here, and you can read Leithart’s follow-up post here.
Unfortunately Trueman offered a timid and inadequate rebuttal to Leithart’s errors. I attended the public discussion on the campus of BIOLA University, and I felt both disappointed and aggravated that my own Reformed tradition was neither accurately nor forcefully represented before an audience of Bible college students who primarily hail from Baptist churches, EV Free churches, and various non-denominational evangelical churches.
Trueman is usually a reliable exponent of reformed and presbyterian theology, so I was surprised that the discussion turned out the way it did. The premise that cannot be granted Leithart is the assumption that Roman Catholics are our brothers and that Rome is a true church of Jesus Christ. If that is granted, then Leithart’s logic and conclusions must follow, and there can be no objection to his central thesis that we are all one family in Christ who need to learn to get along with each other. Trueman essentially granted this premise, and the only difficulty seemed to be some pesky logistical issues and pastoral concerns. All four men on the stage seemed to be on board with this faulty premise. But this represents a failure of basic pastoral discernment.
If my assessment seems harsh, click the video link and watch for yourself. I had a brief opportunity to challenge this point during the Q&A session toward the end of the night. I pointed out that as Reformed Christians we identified true churches according to the 3 Marks of the Church (see, for instance, the Belgic Confession). At least as early as the French Confession (1559) it was explicitly held that Rome failed this test:
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 those acts, and commune in that Church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ.
It will not do to hold up as a fig leaf the fact that Roman Catholic baptisms were accepted as valid and rebaptism was rejected. It is true that the rite ought to be considered as valid when administered in the name of the Triune God, but even granting this that would only make it a necessary, not sufficient, basis for a credible profession of Christian faith. And, as I pointed out during the Q&A, the Reformed barred Romanists from the Lord’s Table. Shouldn’t that be sufficient indication that this ecumenical attitude is out-of-step with our tradition’s earliest belief and practice? It is true that one can find exceptions to this traditional view (at least in some respects), but I have found most of such anecdotal examples to be quite late (e.g. Machen, Hodge) and certainly never rising to the level of a confessional standard (of which there are a great many).
Turning aside from the historical considerations, you will notice that this ecumenical premise of Leithart’s does not ground the brotherly or ecclesial unity he seeks in the Gospel, but only in baptism and a shared Trinitarian confession. In fact, did anyone even mention the Gospel by name in that entire discussion? I certainly don’t recall. Sure, there was talk of justification by faith and such but nowhere was our unity explicitly grounded in a shared Gospel of Jesus Christ. Leithart is, of course, aware that Rome rejects justification by faith alone, and trots out the old chestnut about it being possible for people to be saved by faith in Christ who don’t realize they are saved by faith in Christ. A critical thinker would observe that that is beside the point. There are many true believers who simply exercise extrospective trust in Christ, and nothing else, for their salvation and are not particularly self-reflective about the nature of their faith nor the precise mechanism God has used to unite them to Himself. The problem is that Rome explicitly denies that we are justified by faith alone and sets up false objects of faith that deny Christ’s completed and sufficient work. It is not a matter of simple ignorance but of essentially setting up false co-redeemers alongside Christ. As Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 30 reads:
Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare from “saints,” themselves, or anywhere else?
No; although they make their boast of Him, yet in their deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus; for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.
The Reformers saw in the errors of Rome a direct parallel with the Gospel-denying doctrines of the Judaizers that Paul anathematizes in Galatians, the core of which is the idea that some good work needs to be wrought in addition to the faith-received righteousness of Christ in order for the sinner to receive justification before God. “Faith” in Christ becomes nullified by competitors. In his commentary on Galatians Calvin writes:
[Paul’s] greatest severity of language is directed, as we shall see, against the false apostles. He charges them with turning aside, not only from his gospel, but from Christ; for it was impossible for them to retain their attachment to Christ, without acknowledging that he has graciously delivered us from the bondage of the law. But such a belief cannot be reconciled with those notions respecting the obligation of ceremonial observance which the false apostles inculcated. They were removed from Christ; not that they entirely rejected Christianity, but that the corruption of their doctrines was such as to leave them nothing more than an imaginary Christ.
Thus, in our own times, the Papists, choosing to have a divided and mangled Christ, have none, and are therefore “removed from Christ.” They are full of superstitions, which are directly at variance with the nature of Christ. Let it be carefully observed, that we are removed from Christ, when we fall into those views which are inconsistent with his mediatorial office; for light can have no fellowship with darkness.
The book of Galatians, in fact, furnishes for us the reason why rightly distinguishing between wayward brother and false teacher is a critical pastoral task. For the former we offer loving but firm rebuke and call to repentance as Paul has offered the Christians at the church at Galatia along with the Apostle Peter. The sin is temporary and the rebuke is met with repentance. It is like the discipline of a child or family member. But for the false teachers we are to follow the NT and regard them as pseudoadelphoi (false brothers), pseudoapostoloi (false apostles), dogs, serpents, and deceitful workers with whom we should not even eat nor wish godspeed. The attitude and orientation is entirely different for the impenitent apostate. It is our obligation to paint a clear and bright line between those in the covenant community and those outside of the visible church of Christ. And surely we compound our sin of cowardice if we also extend the false hope of eternal life to those who are in the state of impenitent apostacy, by telling them that they are simply misguided but still in Christ. That is simply partaking in a lie that leads to the damnation of souls rather than spurring saving repentance.
Other matters could be discussed at length that I will only mention briefly. The idolatry of the mass was shamefully glossed over in the discussion, even though Heidelberg Q&A 80 calls it “nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.” It is also unfortunate that Trueman did not mention the fact that the errors in Leithart’s essay should come as no surprise, inasmuch as he is a primary leader in the heretical Federal Vision movement within the Reformed and Presbyterian landscape. Many (most?) of both the systemic and particular errors of the FV movement and Leithart in particular are errors shared with Rome. So it naturally follows that he would have a rather ecunemenical spirit toward Rome. It should have been mentioned that this movement has been unanimously condemned by confessional Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. It should have also been mentioned that, while Leithart’s presbytery acquitted him of heresy charges, a good many people in his denomination (the PCA) are outraged by the acquittal and would like to see him out of the denomination. Obviously these matters have been documented and discussed at length on this blog, but I doubt that more than a handful of people in the room at BIOLA that night were aware of this crucial background knowledge.
I do find a bit of irony in the fact that Leithart mentioned the practice of praying the imprecatory psalms against the enemies of the church. In a qualified way I can agree with that practice, but one has to at least be able to identify friend from foe to do so. We are only a few decades away from the 500th anniversary of the Council of Trent, wherein Rome anathematized the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and since has done nothing but dig into her errors while ignoring the calls by Reformational Christians to repent. There ought not be any debate or mystery amongst educated believers over what we are dealing with here.