Swimming the Tiber?
by Mark Jones
The Roman Catholic Church poses several attractions for evangelical Christians. Whether their motivation is Rome’s apparent unifying power, its claims to be semper idem (“always the same”), its so-called historical pedigree, its ornate liturgy, or the belief that only Rome can withstand the onslaught of liberalism and postmodernism, a number of evangelicals have given up their “protest” and made the metaphorical trek across Rome’s Tiber River into the Roman Catholic Church.
Historically, particularly during the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, those who defected back to Rome typically did so out of intense social, political, and ecclesiastical pressure—sometimes even to save themselves from dying for their Protestant beliefs. But today, those who move to Rome are not under that same type of pressure. Thus, we are faced with the haunting reality that people are (apparently) freely moving to Rome.
In understanding why evangelicals turn to Catholicism, we must confess that churches today in the Protestant tradition have much for which to answer. Many evangelical churches today are, practically speaking, dog-and-pony shows. Not only has reverence for a thrice holy God disappeared in our worship, but even the very truths that make us Protestant, truths for which people have died, such as justification by faith alone, have been jettisoned for pithy epithets that would not seem out of place in a Roman Catholic Mass or, indeed, a Jewish synagogue. Our polemics against Rome will be of any lasting value only when Protestant churches return to a vibrant confessional theology, rooted in ongoing exegetical reflection, so that we have something positive to say and practice alongside our very serious objections to Roman Catholic theology.
The attractions of Rome are, however, dubious when closely examined. For example, after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Catholic Church lost not only the claim to be “always the same” but also its claim to be theologically conservative. Besides the great number of changes that took place at Vatican II (for example, the institution of the vernacular Mass), the documents embraced mutually incompatible theologies. Perhaps the most remarkable change that took place in Rome was its view of salvation outside of the church, which amounts to a form of universalism: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (Lumen Gentium 16; hereafter LG). Protestants, who were condemned at the Council of Trent (1545–1563), were now referred to as “separated fellow Christians” (Unitatis Redintegratio 4). Once (and still?) anathematized Protestants are now Christians? This is a contradiction. But even worse, present-day Roman Catholic theologians candidly admit that those who try to be good possess divine, saving grace, even if they do not explicitly trust in Christ.
Such a view of salvation is really the consistent outworking of Rome’s position on justification. So, while the Roman Catholic Church can no longer claim to be “always the same” or theologically conservative, she still holds a view of justification that is antithetical to the classical Protestant view that we are justified by faith alone. Whatever pretended gains one receives from moving to Rome, one thing he most certainly does not receive—in fact, he loses it altogether—is the assurance of faith (Council of Trent 6.9; hereafter CT). It is little wonder that the brilliant Catholic theologian Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) once remarked that assurance was the greatest Protestant heresy. If, as Rome maintains, the meritorious cause of justification is our inherent righteousness, then assurance is impossible until the verdict is rendered. For Protestants, that verdict is a present reality; the righteousness of Christ imputed to us is the sole meritorious cause of our entrance into eternal life. But for Roman Catholics—and those outside of the church who “do good”—inherent righteousness is a part of their justification before God (CT 6.7).
The Reformation doctrine of justification was not something about which Protestant theologians could afford to be tentative. At stake is not only the question of how a sinner stands accepted before God and, in connection with that, how he is assured of salvation (1 John 5:13), but also the goodness of God toward His people.
In the end, our controversy with Rome is important because Christ is important. Christ alone—not He and Mary (LG 62)—intercedes between us and the Father; Christ alone—not the pope (LG 22)—is the head of the church and, thus, the supreme judge of our consciences; Christ alone—not pagan “dictates of conscience” (LG 16)—must be the object of faith for salvation; and Christ’s righteousness alone—not ours (LG 40)—is the only hope we have for standing before a God who is both just and the Justifier of the wicked. To move to Rome is not only to give up justification and, thus, assurance— even more so, it is to give up Christ.