Notes on Roman Catholicism (2009-2012)


Rich Lusk




Below are various emails I have exchanged over the years with Reformed church members who were drawn to Roman Catholicism or who had already converted to Romanism. Most of these discussions took place 2009-2012. Obviously only one side of the conversation is presented, but I trust they will still be helpful. My hope is to eventually work these notes into a book entitled “Peter, Paul, and Mary – Or, Why I Am Not a Roman Catholic.” The proposed book title encapsulates why I could never become a Roman Catholic. The Roman church gets Peter wrong (he was not the first Pope, nor does claiming he was solve any great hermeneutical or epistemological problem), Paul wrong (especially his crucial teaching on forensic justification and the nature faith), and Mary wrong (as their distinctive Marian dogmas and devotional practices are abominable and unbiblical). This is not to say that I have no respect or appreciation for the Roman Catholic Church – obviously the body that can claim Tolkien and Chesterton as its own does not have everything wrong. I believe the Roman Catholic Church is part of the visible, historical church despite massive doctrinal, liturgical, and practical corruptions. I am happy to stand with faithful Roman Catholics in many of the cultural battles afflicting our world today. But none of that changes this fundamental fact: The sixteenth century Reformation was a work of God to deliver the church from great error, and many of the errors that necessitated the Reformation are still present in the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, Rome has even doubled down on many of those errors, and added many new errors along the way in the last 500+ years.


This is not say Reformational Protestants (or Reformed Catholics in my preferred terminology) do not have many problems of our own. We do. But the best way forward for the church at this juncture is the Reformed catholic faith. When the Reformed catholic church is at its best, it integrates biblical theology, tradition, liturgy, and mission in the most mature form yet attained by the people of God in history. We need a new reformation, to be sure, but any new reformation will have to incorporate the best fruits of the Reformation that took place 500 years ago.


I have talked with a lot of converts who moved in each direction - Rome to Protestant and Protestant to Rome. And I have wrestled with all these issues in my own life - but every time I have done so I have become more firmly convinced of the basic rightness of the Reformation. The issues that can draw a Protestant towards Rome can vary widely, so it is best to deal with each person’s questions on their own terms. The emails below were specific answers to specific questions. They may not scratch everyone’s itch, and they are certainly not comprehensive. But I do trust they will be helpful to some.




Here are a few further recommendations:

- on Scripture vs tradition, see Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura (also the first two sermons here:

- on Rome’s liturgical idolatry, see Jim Jordan’s series on the Second Commandment: 

- on how to understand the Reformation, see Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism

- on the Lord’s Supper, see John Nevin’s The Mystical Presence, which defends Calvin’s view beautifully

- on true catholicity, see Peter Leithart’s essay:


I have also have posted extensive notes on related issues as a supplement to my sermons linked above. Those notes can be found here:







Dear XYZ,



I've read the fathers on Mary and I think I fully agree with them. But I'm not exactly sure what the point of those quotations you included is with regard to the debate over Mary between Protestants and Romanists [Note: The quotations under discussion may be found here:]. I might be missing where you're going, but it seems to me they don't address the issues that divide the two camps, e.g., Marian devotion. What exactly is the "comparison" you're trying to make? You'll have to spell it out for me. In the meantime, I'll spell out a little more how I see things.


Vintage Protestants have always believed Mary is the Second Eve (and Second Sarah, Second Hannah, etc.). We call her Theotokos/God-Bearer (though the Reformers wisely warned about misuses of this title as well). We see her as a type of Israel and the church. We see her, in her pregnancy, as the new Ark of the Covenant, bearing the Shekinah-glory of God in her womb. We do not object to using various typologies to explain her great role in redemptive history, or giving her appropriate titles. We know that we need to understand and appreciate Mary's role in order to have a fully biblical Christology because Mariology and Christology are correlated to one another. These are all legitimate ways of "honoring" her. 


Remember that everything contained in those quotations that Newman cites from the fathers has been preached from the TPC pulpit; there is nothing distinctive to Roman Catholicism in those quotations, and I've cited at least one or two of the more eloquent ones myself. Sure, some Protestants are more restrained with their use of typology, but viewing Mary as a typological figure is commonplace. See my sermon from December 7, 2008 and the accompanying notes, available on the website. In those notes, I wrote this (following Lutheran commentator Art Just):


As Mary visits Elizabeth and pens the Magnificat, we find the movement of the story from promise to confirmation to praise. Mary is driven to reflect on God choosing her to play this central role in salvation history. God has shown favor to her, though she had no claim on him. God has raised her up from a position of lowliness to blessedness. The pregnancy of Elizabeth confirms her own pregnancy and enables Mary to better grasp what God is doing and how the divine purpose is going to be fulfilled. The result of her fellowship time with Elizabeth (and probably lots of bible study!) is the magnificent Magnificat!


The entire scene is shot through with liturgical elements. Elizabeth “intones” her greeting to Mary (Just, p. 75f, points out this term is used in the LXX in conjunction worship before the ark of the covenant, e.g., 1 Chron. 15:28; 16:4, 5, 42) in a liturgical style. Elizabeth is able to discern the true meaning behind John’s dancing movements in her womb; hence, she gives voice to John’s response to Mary’s child. Her speech is dripping with blessing for Mary, a fact reflected in Mary’s hymnic composition (1:48). The words of Elizabeth reverse the standards of convention as the older blesses and honors the younger. The movement from Elizabeth to Mary is a step up to a higher plane of miraculous action.


Then the entire narrative pauses for us to listen in as Mary chants God’s praises in her highly inter-textual hymn. In her song, she looks ahead with total certainty to what God will bring about through her Son. Of course, the rest of Luke’s gospel, and indeed, the rest of the NT, spell out how Mary’s prophetic song comes to realization. As Just puts it, Mary celebrates the realization that, “The entire OT hope is about to be realized...All of God’s prior saving activity finds its source and culmination in Christ...Mary stands as the one through whom the fulfillment is accomplished” (p. 64). Just fills this out with several typologies: Mary as new Eve (p. 68: “As Eve contained in her womb all humanity that was doomed to sin, now Mary contains in her womb the new Adam who will father a new humanity by his grace”); Mary as Israel (p. 65, 86); Mary as church (that is, both bride and mother; p. 65f); Mary as ark of the covenant (p. 72); Mary as tabernacle (p. 76); and Mary as new Abraham (p. 87). We could also view Mary as a new Sarah and new Hannah, though Elizabeth also fits these typologies in various ways.


So there you have it. But nothing in those quotations from the fathers leads to the distinctively Romans Catholic dogmas and devotional practices regarding Mary. Nothing in the quotations suggest the points that Newman wants to draw from them, such as the the claim that Mary "had a real meritorious operation." Instead, everything about Mary's own language in the Lukan account shows she is amazed by God's grace and gift to her. She does not "merit" anything according to her own confession. (Presumably, Newman is going to jump, as some Romanists do, from the merit Mary earned to the worship she deserves. But I cannot imagine Mary herself approving of that kind of jump, and certainly nothing in the Lukan text warrants it.) Mary should certainly be honored for her humility and obedience, for saying "yes" to God's proposal, but the whole passage emphasizes all that God is doing to fulfill his covenant promises, not Mary's merit.


Further, and more to the point, nothing in the quotations from the fathers proves Mary was or should be the object of "veneration" or worship. No one prays to her, or worship her image, or ascribes divine qualities to her any more than they do to her parallel, the first Eve. In fact, the silence of the fathers on just these points is telling. Mary was honored as a great saint who played a crucial role in redemptive history; her place in God's plan certainly was unique. But she was not venerated/worshipped by the apostles or the church fathers. That much is clear. If the fathers wanted to develop a whole system of Marian devotion, they could have done so in the places Newman is quoting; but instead they limit themselves to biblical types and titles. Sure, Marian devotion eventually popped up here and there, probably brought into the church through semi-converted pagans who were used to goddess worship. But the patristic consensus will not support the Marian devotion that the Catholic church advocates. It comes back to the same kind of question I keep raising: If things like papal infallibility and the immaculate conception are necessary for salvation (as the Catholic church claims they are, however much Vatican 2 nuances those claims), why are there are no traces of them in the early church's regula fidei  and baptismal vows? No new convert had to commit to these things to receive baptism and enter the church for many, many centuries; by what standard and by what right did the Catholic church suddenly impose them upon the faithful as essential? I'm totally at home with saying doctrine develops, so the early church is not the end-all and be-all of Christian doctrine. But Rome's novelties have refashioned the very core of Christian belief, the very articles of doctrine that must be upheld in order to escape the wrath and curse of God. It's all very untraditional.


The earliest fathers know nothing of Mary's immaculate conception or assumption (or dormition), even if these eventually became widely believed doctrines. They are later accretions that have no solid foundation in the Scriptures or the earliest Christian tradition or the ancient creeds, and most certainly should not carry anathemas for those who do not consent to them, as the Roman dogmas of 1854 and 1950 pronounce. To require as a condition of salvation something that cannot be known from the Scriptures is entirely uncatholic and contrary to the most basic principles of the gospel (Matt. 15:7-9; Gal. 1:8-9). This is why holding to the regula fidei of the early church is so important. Some of the Reformers continued the medieval habit of believing things about Mary that I do not think can be established from Scripture, but they certainly did not make them tests or conditions of salvation and communion, and they avoided any kind of idolatry, so they were relatively harmless errors (at worst).


What do you do with a passage like Luke 11:27-28? (This is the passage the Lewis quote I sent you refers to.) Note how Jesus (mildly, perhaps, but still firmly) rebukes a person who "blesses" his mother. Yes, Mary is "blessed." But "more that that," Jesus says, "blessed are those [including Mary] who hear the word of God and keep it." Consider what's happening in this text: When the woman in the crowd blesses Jesus' mother in 11:27, we may think back to the words of blessing spoken to Mary in Luke 1:28, 42, and 45. But now we find there is an even greater blessing, and it isn't just for Mary, but for ALL who trust in, obey, and follow her Son. That's the point of Jesus' response in 11:28. Those who follow Jesus find an even greater blessing than Mary found in giving birth to him. Even for Mary, salvation was found not in birthing Jesus, but in trusting him. Why else would Jesus say there is greater blessing for his followers than for his mother (considered only in her motherly role, of course)? Clearly, Jesus is putting limits on the "blessedness" that can be ascribed to Mary simply in view of her role as Theotokos/Second Eve and pointing to a greater blessedness. The ultimate blessedness is found in discipleship.


What do you do with a passage like Luke 8:19-21, where Jesus redefines the family in terms of discipleship? He relativizes his "natural bond" to Mary as his biological mother and instead emphasizes that his true mother and brothers are those who follow him. Again, we see however great the blessing was that Mary received in bearing the messiah (and it was great!), there is a greater blessing to be found in following the messiah. In other words, Mary's role in redemptive history amounts to a means to an end, and the end is greater than the means. In those sermon notes, I concluded,


The ultimate way we can honor Mary is by imitating her faith and by trusting in her Son alone for salvation. We honor her when we say to God “let it be to me according to your Word” (echoing Lk. 1:38) and put into practice the things she sang about in her glorious psalm of praise. All of creation is feminine in relation to God; Mary’s “yes” to God is the model creaturely response. We pay Mary the highest form of homage when conform our lives to her pattern of life and her song of kingdom justice.


So I'm all for honoring Mary, but we need to do it in the proper way. Roman Catholic devotion to Mary, in the US, but especially in other places in the world, goes far beyond what Scripture actually warrants. Whatever we think of the blessing bestowed on Mary in Luke 1, Luke 11 points to a greater blessing. Whatever we think of the holy family of Mary, Joseph, and their divine/human Son, Jesus himself points to and defines the true holy family in Luke 8.


Listen to that sermon and tell me what you think. I'm all for a biblically-grounded Marian typology. But I'm very opposed to claiming things for and about Mary that go beyond and even against the Scriptures, the creeds, and the fathers....which, I would contend is exactly what the Roman church has done as its theology and practices about Mary have evolved over the centuries. 






Dear XYZ,

I know I said I wouldn't pester you about this stuff with emails, but I did want to throw a couple more things out as a way of follow-up to our lunch the other day.


First, this quotation from C. S. Lewis:


The Roman Church where it differs from this universal tradition and specially from apostolic Christianity I reject. Thus their theology about the Blessed Virgin Mary I reject because it seems utterly foreign to the New Testament; where indeed the words “Blessed is the womb that bore thee” receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Their papalism seems equally foreign to the attitude of St. Paul toward St. Peter in the epistles. The doctrine of Transubstantiation insists on defining in a way which the New Testament seems to me not to countenance. In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claim: though this, of course, does not mean rejecting particular things they say.


I'm sure there are thousands of Catholic apologists on the web who have dissected this quotation and attempted to refute it. My only point in throwing it out there is to show you that my interpretation of Catholicism's novelties and sectarian nature is not unique to me. Lewis also rejected Catholicism because it was neither truly catholic nor truly traditional. Lewis was a pretty good historian, especially of the medieval period, and he believed the Roman Catholic church had innovated in all kinds of ways, which amounted to serious departures from apostolic (and patristic) Christian faith and practice. Sure, each one of his criticisms of Catholicism in the quotation needs to be further unpacked (especially the stuff about Peter), but it's still a very good summary of the core issues in just a few sentences. The more Lewis learned about the Catholic church and the medieval period, the further he moved away from Catholicism and the closer he got to classical Protestantism -- much to the consternation of his Catholic friends, like Tolkien.


Second, I'm curious how you think Catholics would resolve an issue like the one that was briefly mentioned in our lunch meeting. You and I both agree that the Catholic church in Latin America practices open worship of Mary. As you pointed out, Catholic priests in the US object and are trying to correct that. They would say that Latin American Catholicism, with its Mariolotry, is not representative of true Catholicism. But how do you know the US priests are right? Read the teachings of the Catholic church on Mary for yourself; I have and, frankly, I see why Latin American Catholics end up doing what they do, even if the documents can be interpreted in other ways by priests in the US. What if it were suggested that US Catholics generally don't worship Mary because Catholicism here has been corrupted by Protestant influence, whereas the Latin American Catholics are really being more faithful to Catholic teaching? Has the pope resolved the issue between the US and Latin Catholics? If so, where and how? And if he hasn't, what is he waiting for? Where's that infallible and universal authority when you really need it?  Either US priests are falsely accusing Catholics in Latin America of idolatry, or Latin American Catholics really are idolaters. Which is it? Either way, it would seem resolution is crucial.


Obviously, priests and laymen in Latin America think they're being "good Catholics" when they worship Mary. A US priest might say, "Well, they're not reading the church's documents on Mary correctly." But then it's just priest vs. priest, Catholic vs. Catholic. Whose "private judgment" interpretation of the church's teaching is correct, and how do you know? What good is an infallible interpretation of Scripture if that infallible interpretation is still in need of interpretation? Does it settle anything? How do we know which view of Mary represents true Catholicism? And how is this any less problematic than having to discern between varieties of Protestantism? Is it possible that conservative Catholics and Protestants in the US are actually closer to one another than Catholics in the US and Catholics in Latin America? And if so, doesn't that raise huge questions about what it actually means to be Catholic in a global sense? Is the truth of Catholicism relative to where one happens to live? Is the Catholic church in Latin America the one true church there, even if it persists in (what we would both call) idolatry, and even if non-idolatrous, fully Trinitarian Protestant options are available there?


I would further ask: If Mariolatry were to become the official teaching of the church (assuming it isn't already), then what? What if the next pope comes from Latin America, and simply takes the next step in the church's ever-developing, ever-evolving teaching on Mary, and openly declares she should be worshipped as a goddess, as is already practiced by millions and millions of Catholics in other parts of the world? It's not that far fetched, really, since its already happening on such a wide scale and fits with the trajectory of increasing Marian devotion in the Catholic church for the last 1000 years. On what grounds can Catholics in the US consistently oppose the Mariolotry of the Latin church, especially as they find themselves more and more the minority in terms of global Catholicism? How do they know that they have Catholicism right, and what will they do if Catholicism changes in the future? Sure, it's easy to side with the wealthy, white, educated (Protestantized?) priests of the US, over against their darker, poorer Latin American counterparts, but to simply dismiss Latin American Catholicism as a corruption of the real thing smacks of imperialism. How do you judge when it's Catholic vs. Catholic on such a major issue, without falling into the (supposedly incoherent) Protestant insistence on private judgment? Will the true Catholics please stand up?


Again, I don't mean to push too hard on these issues, and I don't want to come on too strong, but we've opened the discussion, so we might as well have at it. There are a zillion things to discuss, and my main goal is to try to scratch where you itch, rather than just give my own reasons for not being Catholic. But our lunch meeting raised a host of questions I wanted to bring up with you over time, and I know we can only get together face to face every so often.







Dear ABC,


It is obvious from what you sent me to read that everything flows downstream from the papacy —it’s those "who says?” questions you keep bringing up. Thus, I think Galatians 1-2 are really the key since we find there [1] Paul expected the ordinary, non-ordained Galatian Christians to have a such a sure, secure interpretation of the gospel that they could stand up against angels and apostles who teach a counterfeit gospel (that is to say, their knowledge of Christ in the gospel has epistemological priority over everything else, including whatever Peter or another ecclesial authority figure might say contrary to it); and [2] Paul had to confront Peter for denying the gospel when he schismatically cut off Gentile believers, so fellowship with Peter (or Petrine successors, if there are any) cannot be considered the final boundary marker of the church, contrary to Rome's claims. 


Obviously, point [1] addresses the "who says?" question. Paul expected the Galatian Christians to be able to take a stand against anyone, any apostle or angel, on the basis of the gospel (1:8-9). Paul expects them to be able to defend the gospel, even against straying apostles. They didn't need a pope to interpret the Scriptures, at least in their core meaning, for them. He expected them to have basic interpretive competency, as they are led by the Spirit. And the reality is, that is what we have in the church today. While different branches of the church disagree over all kinds of things, pretty much everyone agrees the Apostles and Nicene creeds define the faith. And note that those creeds say nothing about the necessity of being in communion with particular popes or patriarchs, so to add those requirements for salvation or communion is to go beyond the apostolic and patristic faith, which means it is a serious corruption of the gospel. That’s the irony: Every Christian community should be able to search the Scriptures and see that Rome has twisted the gospel with its false claims of authority and exclusivity. To answer the "who says?" questions with "the Pope says!" is to go beyond the apostolic and patristic faith. If the Galataian Christians of the first century had gone "the Pope says" (or "Peter says") route, they would have inadvertently ended up denying the gospel!


Obviously, point [2] relates to Peter Leithart's argument for catholicity, ’Too Catholic to be Catholic” (see Galatians 2:11-16). But you really have to go one or two steps further to meet many Roman catholic arguments head-on. The point is not just the post-Pentecost fallibility of Peter. Rome says we cannot commune with them at Mass because we are not under the authority of a bishop who is under the authority of the bishop of Rome; we are not part of "the church Jesus founded" because that church is headed by Peter (and his successors in Rome). But in Galatians 2 Paul considered the Gentile believers to be true Christians/church members and to have valid Eucharists, even after Peter had cut them off. In other words, these Gentiles were still true church members even when they weren't connected to Peter or approved by Peter. On Rome's principles, there's no way that should or could be the case. But it was. Ergo, Rome's principles must be false. Indeed, Rome’s view is exactly backwards. Those who stood with Peter in his exclusivisdm in Galatians 2 were the ones guilty of denying the gospel; those who were out of fellowship with Peter but still in line with the Pauline gospel were the faithful ones. If Galtians 2 is not a preview of more or less exactly what happened in the 16th century Reformation (with the Reformers on Paul’s side, and the Romanists walking out of line with the gospel as Peter did temporarily), I do not what would be. It’s as if Galatians 1-2 were written to prophesy these later church controversies and show us who is in the right.


The Called to Communion website has not impressed me. The articles, and the comments that follow, are of such low quality, there's just not much of anything there worth interacting with. Take this article:

He says that many Protestants have softened in their claims about the corruptions of the medieval church, and now see more continuity between the Reformation and earlier church history, e.g., we no longer view the pope as THE antichrist and try to make connections with the pre-Reformation church and traditions. That, he says, is no way to defend the Reformation! But the entire argument is reversible. The changes  -- yes, changes!!! -- the Roman church made since Vatican 2, such as softening their stance towards Protestants (we are now merely "separated brethren" rather than heretics) and doing the mass in the vernacular (as the Reformers insisted!) are no way to defend the Roman church against the Reformation! Not to mention all the Roman Catholic Bible scholars who interpret Romans and Galatians on justification in ways that are much closer to the Reformers than the Council of Trent. One could argue that Rome is slowly conceding the case, piece by piece.


Or take this post:

It's just false. Calvin did not condemn the "liturgy of the hours" as such. Daryl Hart points out that "up until 1987 when it introduced its new Psalter Hymnal, the Christian Reformed Church’s hymnals included Calvin’s prayers for public and private worship, along with prayers for church assemblies. The prayers for families ran to only four in number, ones for the beginning and close of the day, and for before and after meals." How could Calvin have opposed morning and evening prayer if he wrote prayer forms for just those occasions? What Calvin opposed was the superstitious prayer practices of the medieval church, not set prayer times -- there's a big difference! Anders says that Reformed worship practices cannot be sustained on the basis of Scripture alone....well, fine, but that's not what Calvin or the Reformers ever meant by sola scriptura anyway. Just read WCF 1. It's pretty simple. Anders has tried to create an argument against the Reformers by pointing to inconsistencies, but it's a flawed argument all the way around.


There was another post a while back that tried to argue that sola scriptura could never lead to the conclusion that the apostles came to in Acts 15 that Gentile Christians were exempt from circumcision. Nonsense. Acts 15 shows the apostles themselves debated and argued from Scripture; a biblical case for the inclusion of the Gentiles as Gentiles had to be made. And more importantly, Paul's whole argument in Romans 4 is precisely about this -- he uses Genesis 15-17 alone to show that Gentile believers do not have to be circumcised or come under the law. It's elementary stuff. The sheer ignorance, biblical and otherwise, of the people who write for that website is astounding. Here's the link:







Dear ABC,


You asked about why I think “baptismal succession” is preferable to “apostolic succession” when we go searching for historical continuity. I'm not opposed to a succession of ordinations as such -- there may well be such a thing, and it might be useful to recognize it. My guess is that most everyone who has been ordained to the pastorate (or priesthood) in the history of the church was ordained by someone who was already ordained. Further, I think it's pretty obvious that the Scriptures, creedal statements, the sacraments, and other customs have been passed down from one generation to the next. But I do not see "apostolic succession" as belonging to the essence of the church. I'm not opposed to a succession of orders, so much as making that succession of orders into something it isn't. If it is argued that a succession of ordinations defines the church, I think we have a case of misplaced emphasis. And I say that as someone who holds the pastoral and episcopal offices in the highest regard -- but I think episcopal authority should not be grounded on an historical succession of orders (which may or may be verifiable), but on the fact of ordination itself -- as well as God's Word, the presence of the Spirit, and the integrity of the office holder. So: Would you prefer to sit under the instruction of a Roman preist who molests little boys, but stands in the right succession, or a Presbyterian minister who is known to have godly character and an exemplary family? Whose ministry has more "validity"? I realize those aren't the only options -- but it also seems evident to me that no historical succession of orders can serve to guarantee the fidelity of a particular man's ministry.


We also need to do justice to the unique, foundation-laying character of the ministry of the apostles themselves -- Eph. 2:20 + Mt. 16:18 + 1 Cor. 15:7-8. The apostolic foundation was laid once and for all by the apostles -- in that sense, no one can duplicate the apostolic ministry (e.g., giving eyewitness testimony to the risen Christ), nor is there any need for it. Rather, their ordained successors (pastors and bishops) build on their foundation. Thus, there is certainly a concern in NT for raising up a new generation of faithful men to lead the church after the apostles (e.g., the pastoral epistles). There's a kind of "apostolic succession" there -- those who will serve as their delegates and continue their work of word, sacrament, and discipline. But none of this indicates the church is constituted by a succession of men who got ordained by the right men, who in turn ordained others. Indeed, note that in 1 Cor. 15, Paul calls himself the last of the apostles. Properly speaking, there are no successors to the apostles, as they played a unique role in history, as witness to once-and-for-all historical events. Whatever kind of succession flows from the apostles, it is not a succession of office. Those who came after the apostles (e.g., Timothy and Titus) carried on their work but did not have the same office. Today, I would argue that apostolic succession really belong to the whole church. Apostles are those “sent” by the risen Lord. But the whole church has a missional character – every member is to be a missionary, and in that sense is ‘apostolic.” We carry on what the apostles began by building on their foundation, believing and living according to their teaching.


I have a lot of questions about how apostolic succession is supposed to work. Which line is the "true" line? How do we decide? Where is Scriptural guidance on this? If there is such a line, why wouldn't I be a part of it (and other Protestant ministers)? Who gets excluded by an apostolic succession doctrine? (Jesus had hard things to say to his disciples when they opposed faithful teachers who were not part of the right "group." Insofar as a doctrine of apostolic succession has been used to serve sectarian ends, I have to oppose it.)


It makes more sent to me to focus on “baptismal succession” – the waters that flow out of the temple in Ezekiel’s vision, or the river that flows through the new Jerusalem in John’s vision. It is very likely that every Christian who has ever been baptized was baptized by a baptized person, tracing all the way back to Acts 2. That should be all the historical continuity we need.


I don't think the "succession of baptisms" doctrine had any need to arise in the early church in an explicit way. For 1000 years, there was virtually no debate about the boundaries of the church, at least not the way there is now, after a great deal of fragmentation. So to ask if the church fathers taught such a thing is a bit anachronistic. There was no need to. I do think many, many of the church fathers understood that baptism is ordination into the royal priesthood of the church (see Peter Leithart's The Preisthood of the Plebs), and that's sufficient to make my point, really. 


Frankly, I have no problem critiquing certain aspects of patristic doctrine. I do not think one will find a uniform view of apostolic succession in the fathers -- so we end up having to pick and choose even among them. And then when things like papal infallibility get brought in much later, it only muddies the water more.


So I think the biblical emphasis is on a succession of the Melchizedekal, not Levitical priesthood, or to put it another another way, the royal priesthood, rather than the servant priesthood. We are all priests by virtue of our baptismal union with Christ, the great High Priest (See Geddes MacGregor, Corpus Christi, Jim Jordan, The Sociology of the Church, and T. F. Torrance, The Royal Priesthood.) Again, there are numerous biblical passages that emphasize the flow of water/Spirt out into the world (e.g., Ezek. 40-48, Jn. 7:37-39, Rev. 21-22, etc.) -- there is no such corresponding image for the succession of ordinations. The servant priesthood (clergy) arises from within the royal priesthood, and while critical to the life of the church (Eph. 4:1-11), does not define the church in the same way. Baptism is more basic to the church's identity than ordination. Baptism is "catholic" in a way ordination is not. Ordination does not make a man priest; rather it gives a man who is already a priest a special role within the larger priesthood.


I think that for many, the doctrine of apostolic succession fulfills a psychological, epistemological need. "How can I trust this man to give me God's forgiveness? To give me the body and blood? How can I know it counts? How can I know that he's God's instrument?" And then apostolic succession is whipped out to establish the man's credentials as agent of God. The historical connections supposedly prove legitimacy. I fully sympathize with those kinds of questions -- but I think ordination itself, in a duly constituted congregation, apart from a genealogy, is sufficient. And, in fact, raising the genealogical issue can actually undermine confidence since, well, as we all know, the church's clergy have a rather checkered history. (I know one guy who set out to find the true succession of orders, and ending up concluding that there was no church at all in the world today! True story!) It seems to me that attempts to claim or prove apostolic succession are a case of misplaced faith, an attempt to walk by sight. This does not make me a gnostic – history, rituals, and institutions all matter. But not in the way the champions of apostolic succession believe they do.


Further, any view of apostolic succession that would make it impossible for a group of laymen stranded on a desert island to constitute a church is problematic. (In other words, congregationalist ordinations are valid, even if irregular.) I would warn anyone against joining a church that requires him to unchurch millions of baptized people. I don't see how doing that can help bring about an answer to Jesus' prayer for unity among his people.


This essay by Craig Higgins (PCA, Rye, NY), pretty much sums up a lot of my own vision for a "Reformed ecumenicity" that respects the tradition while also making room to grow and mature within it:


All too rushed, but I hope that helps a little!




Dear XYZ,


Jim Jordan says we should refer to “church fathers” as "church babies" instead since they come closer to the infancy of the church than its time of maturation (Eph. 4:11ff). Jordan argues that we should respect the fathers, but they are only a starting point. We should expect maturation and growth over time. It dishonors the ongoing work of the Spirit to try to freeze historical development at a particular point (which point always turns out to be arbitrary, anyway).


Judging from what you said, your friend was serious about the "only read pre-9th century stuff" comment, I think he's doing with the early church exactly what the anti-Federal Vision guys in the PCA are doing with the 1640s: Finding a period of history they're comfortable with and then making it into a "golden age." This is a way of trying to find security, but I think there's something very immature about it. It's like a kid who's growing up, but doesn't want to give up his blankie or stop sucking his thumb. Yes, the ecclesiastical world is a mess right now, but the mature, adult thing to do is face that world for what it is and play our part in healing its brokenness. History only moves in one direction and we can no more recreate the 9th century than the 17th century. And even if we could, it would be wrong to do so. We need to live in the time and place God has put us, not try to escape into a supposedly better, by-gone era. When Frodo told Gandalf he wished the ring had never come to him, Gandalf replied wisely: "So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." We don't live in the first 9 centuries and it's not wise to pretend we did or wish we did. We have to figure out how to "do church" in the 21st century, the "time that is given us" -- and we won't be able to do that if we ignore everything that has happened in the last 1000 years.


Besides that, isn't there something incredibly ironic about using a blog to say we should only read pre-9th century theology? Is there any other area of life where we'd want to that? And isn't it odd to use a blog to talk about ways we can purge ourselves of modernity?


Now, if your friend is not really serious, you can disregard all this....but I do think those who long for the "something more" that EO or RC seem to offer have a tendency to live in a dream world. And what they often find is that entering those communions solves some problems, but actually creates a new set of problems at the same time (though they will often ignore or downplay these problems in order to justify their decision). Many who go in these directions are highly idealistic....that is, they are looking something that rarely exists in the actual world, if at all. They need a heavy dose of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It’s all too easy to concoct a romantic vision that suggests joining a RC or EO body makes one part of an ancient church, where things are done just as they were 1700 years ago. But that is virtually always a lie.  At the end of the day, we all live and move and have our being in the local church. And whatever advantages EO and RC might seem to offer at the theoretical level are often cancelled out by their shortcomings at the much more important practical level. You just have to hope the dose of reality doesn't come too late.


You and I probably share 95% of your friend’s frustrations with the Protestant world. But jumping into EO or RC to escape those problems is just not a real solution. Not only do you get a new set of practical and theological problems to deal with, you enter communions where healthy change is almost impossible, where the local body is likely to have a lot less to offer, and where you have to unchurch millions of faithful Christians, all in the name "catholicity." I think it's a huge mistake. Not apostasy necessarily -- but a serious mistake. I still think being a "Reformed catholic" Christian is the best place to practice and embody the kind of church vision and catholicity God calls us to in his Word. We do not have to give up doctrines we believe the Bible teaches (like predestination or justification by faith), we do not have to embrace doctrines we beleive the Bible doesn't teach (like Mary's perpetual virginity, bowing to idols, etc.), nor do we have to say that some branch of the church is not really a church at all (as RC, EO, and extreme Protestants all do to one another). The only problem is that there are not very many of us around right now.







Dear XYZ,


Just a quick follow up to our lunch conversation...


In terms of sola Scriptura, the best book is Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura.  Many of the kinds of arguments that educated Roman Catholics make against Protestants are certainly valid against a certain kind of Protestantism. But they do not hold up against classic Protestantism, which took the authority of the church seriously. The Reformers were actually the "middle way" in the 16th century, standing as a via media between Rome and the Anabaptists. Rome would not allow the church to be corrected by the voice of God speaking in the Scriptures. The Anabaptists treated Scripture as a kind of private revelation, with every man reading it for himself. The Reformers insisted the church really does have an authoritative voice, but it is not the ultimate authority. Scripture is the ultimate authority because it is the only infallible authority. This is why Rome later (much later!) had to add papal infallibility to its list of doctrines. In fact, I would say the real debate is not so much over where is authority found (Scripture vs. church/tradition), but where is infallibility found (Scripture vs. the pope).  Van Til and Frame really help sort out the epistemological issues here.


Besides all that, Rome's claim of papal infallibility really solves nothing. Rome claims that Scripture is not always clear, so we need the Pope to tell us what it means. But who's going to tell us what the Pope meant? Doesn't the Pope need an infallible interpreter as well? And doesn't that lead, obviously, to an infinite regress? Or are we each left to interpret the Pope's words for ourselves? Besides that, why should God be allowed to speak more clearly through the Pope than through the prophets and apostles? Roman Catholics fight all the time over exactly what the Pope has said, e.g., in an encyclical, so this is not hypothetical. Some form of "private judgment" (like the Bereans) is inevitable and not problematic. Rome, historically, silenced dissent by force, rather than allowing conversations and variations. Protestant denominationalism is a huge problem, but also the somewhat inevitable outcome of freedom. Is a tyrannical church that demands conformity and uniformity really a preferable alternative?


I'm also not at all convinced that Rome has the early church on its side. There was no infallible Pope in the first several centuries. There was no icon worship. The Marian doctrines were not yet a part of the church's faith. There were no indulgences or penances. Priests/pastors and bishops were married. Etc. The Roman Catholic church is full of historical novelties. Again, I think careful study of the 16th century will show the Reformers were the true catholics, and were much closer to the doctrine and practice of the early church than their Roman Catholic counterparts. There is a reason why C. S. Lewis once said the more medieval he became in his outlook, the further he got away from the Roman Catholic church. Schaff helps develop this point, showing the Reformers were rooted in both Scripture and history.


When dealing with someone exploring Romanism, leaning that direction, I usually ask diagnostic questions like, "What are you reaching for? What are you presently missing that you're trying to find?" Is it truth? beauty? community? tradition? Most converts are actually not ready to embrace everything the RCC requires its members to believe and practice – but then again, most all Catholics are pretty good at picking and choosing anyway (how Protestant of them!).




Dear XYZ,


On another personal note, I have to confess that I went through a period some years ago where I really had to "double check" my Protestant convictions, maybe somewhat like your present struggles. I had to investigate both Rome and the East not only because I saw so many things wrong with Protestantism but because I found much in these other branches of the church that was undeniably attractive. As I explored Romanism and Orthodoxy, I found a great deal to appreciate. I learned a great deal from both traditions. But in the end, I decided I was in a better place as a "Reformed catholic." The errors of Rome and the East were just too big to swallow, and seemed to me to be far worse than the errors in Protestantism, all things considered. When I thought about where I wanted my family to be, where I could serve most faithfully, where I would get the most Bible and the best worship, I concluded I was bound to live and die as a Protestant Christian. I hope you'll come to the same conclusion. 


Another thing I found odd/interesting in my explorations is that Catholicism seemed to be most vibrant in places where it was heavily influenced by, and forced to engage with, Protestantism. Likewise, Protestant converts to Catholicism were their best spokesmen, had more interest in the Bible than other Catholics, and showed more zeal to live a godly life. I grew up around a huge number of "cradle Catholics" and I cannot remember a single one who was faithful...the only ones who ever showed any signs of Spiritual life were the ones who eventually got involved in evangelical Bible studies, youth groups, and churches. Why is that? Can there be any doubt that the Reformation was necessary, and had a very salutary effect not only the nations where it took root, but also even on the Roman church itself? Protestantism in America is certainly a mess, but it's no where near as corrupt as, say, Catholicism in Mexico, South America, or even Italy. Why is that? If you lived in Mexico would the Catholic church, as syncretistic as it is, have any appeal at all? Why do so many "serious Christians" in the rest of the world (and even America!) find the need to leave the Catholic church to find decent parish life, worship, fellowship, and Bible teaching? Those were not the decisive questions for me, but they were important observations. 


Even when I look at global Christianity today, I can't help but notice the evangelical Protestant church has far, far more vitality, fruit, and blessing than any other branch of the church all over the world. There will be a "next Christendom," as Philip Jenkins has put it, but it will not be a Roman Catholic Christendom. Whatever other problems we see in Protestantism, the fact of its amazing power and vitality all over the world still has to be recognized. Is it possible that whatever evangelicalism lacks in ecclesiology (and, sadly, it does lack quite a bit!) it more than makes up for in other ways?


On to the issues....


I finally got to read on the "Called to Communion" site a bit today but, honestly, I don't see what the big deal is. To me it looks like the same old recycled Roman Catholic arguments that (in my opinion) vintage Protestants have already answered quite effectively over the years (though I fully grant many of the criticisms I see on the website of American evangelicalism are fully valid, and I would share them!). Several of these guys, like Bryan Cross, have been doing this sort of "Catholic apologetics" thing on the web for years so I'm at least somewhat familiar with their appeal and how they argue. But I don't see anything different from what I've come across in the past. Frankly, on "C to C" I see a lot of misunderstanding of what sola Scriptura means and not very convincing arguments for the papacy, Marian doctrines, etc. Maybe I'm missing the posts that you have found compelling. Can you point me to a specific argument or post or article that gripped you? Obviously, I'll never have time to read everything on such a prolific blog so narrowing it down would help focus our discussion. (I went to print one article, only to find that, with comments, it was over 700 pages!!!)


My first priority is to listen to you and hear what you're thinking. Along with that, I want to give the best possible responses to questions you've already raised about how sola Scriptura should work in practice, and how we should deal with Protestant fragmentation -- I know I have not addressed the valid concerns you've raised adequately in the past because I didn't really understand where you were coming from at the time. Of course, I have my own set of questions I'd like to pose to you as well, since I think many Roman arguments for their distinctive views are not very strong, biblically or historically. Like I've said (echoing C. S. Lewis), I'm a far more "traditional" Christian right where I am than I could be if I were in the Roman Catholic church, which would require me to adopt all kinds of positions which are both novel and unbiblical. But before getting to that, it'd be better for me to know more about what you find attractive and compelling about Catholicism. What do you feel you are lacking where you are at present and how does Rome address that? What is the strongest pull towards Romanism? What do you see as Rome's biggest strengths and weaknesses?


Some more specific questions of the sort I think you need work through: Have you read anything on the Protestant side that might be considered an argument in response to the "Called to Communion" website? Something like Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura or his specific replies to the website? Or even better, Martin Chemnitz's response to the Council of Trent on Scripture and tradition? Or something on the history of concilliarism, to show how biblical and ecclesial authority actually worked for the first several centuries of the church, and again in the Reformation? Or something on the catholic/patristic roots of the Reformers, like Philip Schaff's Principle of Protestantism? Or, regarding denominationalism, Lesslie Newbigin's take on how to identify the "true church" in light of historical schisms? Or Peter Leithart and Ephraim Radner on the ecumenical, evangelical ecclesiology of 1-2 Kings as a model for practicing catholicity in an era of institutionalized schism (e.g., -- an important article for CREC folks wondering if there's biblical/historical precedent for the odd situation we find ourselves in)? Or Roman Catholic scholar Eamon Duffy's sympathetic but still very troubling history of the papacy, Saints and Sinners? Or how to reconcile the changes in Roman soteriology, from Unam Sanctam to Trent to Vatican 2? 


In one of your emails, you said sola Scriptura means “interpreting Scripture without the church.” But that’s simply false. That would be solO Scriptura. Classic Protestants do not reject tradition. But they do sift tradition since not all traditions are faithful (just look at how Jesus challenged the Pharisaic traditions). Have you ever looked at the index of sources in Calvin’s Institutes? Calvin was the greatest patristic expert of the 16th century. He cites both the church fathers and the medieval theologians with ease, and often uses them to build his own arguments. Classic Protestants have a healthy respect for the history of interpretation – and add to that tradition with their own commentaries and theological books. Classical Protestants also believe that the ancient creeds have a genuine authority. The WCF has a whole chapter devoted to the real (albeit limited) authority that church councils possess. Equating the doctrine of sola Scriptura with “me and my Bible” fundamentalism is simply dishonest at this juncture. Sola Scriptura does not mean Scripture is our only authority; indeed Scripture itself establishes and recognizes other authorities, calling on us to submit to them in ordinary circumstances (pastors, parents, magistrates, etc.). This is what sola Scriptura means: Scripture is our highest and only infallible authority. Scripture is our final court of appeal. If we disagree on what Scripture teaches, we continue to reason together, with submissive minds and hearts, over an open Bible, constantly referencing what the Spirit has done and is doing in the wider community of the catholic (small “c”!) church. Contrary to what has been claimed, ascribing infallibility to the Pope solves nothing. Even if we say the Pope is infallible only when speaking ex cathedra, how do we know when he is speaking ex cathedra? Romanists disagree amongst themselves on the criteria for ex cathedra pronouncements. And even if they did agree, those supposedly infallible pronouncements must still be interpreted themselves. And so we are right back to where we started, with the problem of private judgment – which turns out not to be a distinctively Protestant issue, but a distinctively human issue that is inescapable. Do you want to debate what God says in his inscripturated Word? Or do you want to debate what the pope has said?


The papacy does not solve the epistemological problem. But neither does it solve the hermeneutical problem. Let’s say we are debating the meaning of Jeremiah 25. A Protestant will rely on the Spirit to teach him the meaning of the text. He will use Scripture to interpret Scripture, knowing the Scripture cannot be broken. Further, he knows the Spirit has been at work in other times and places, so he will consult the history of interpretation. What have faithful readers of Scripture said about this text in the past? What are faithful readers saying about it the contemporary church? Now, how will a Roman Catholic interpret this passage. He has the Pope. But has the Pope produced an infallible commentary on Jeremiah 25 (or any passage of Scripture for that matter)? No. So what advantage is the papacy in biblical interpretation? The Roman Catholic may invoke the rule of faith from the ancient church, but a Protestant is happy to the same – and he might even be quick to point out that the rule of faith (in its various forms) does not teach any distinctive Roman Catholic beliefs. The papacy solves nothing.


Further: How much have you looked at the role of the papacy in bringing about, and even causing, the split of the Great Schism with the east in 1054, and the 16th century split with Protestants (e.g., Is it possible the pope is the chief schismatic in history? Have you considered why there wasn't anything like the papacy, a universal bishop with infallible authority, at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) or the Nicene Council? It was James, not Peter, who presided over the council at Jerusalem. At Nicea, the bishop of Rome was not even present – just a few representatives. And obviously no one at the council – not a single attendee and not Constantine who convened the assembly – believed the bishop of the church at Rome had authority or infallible powers to settle the debated matters. Instead, Nicea functioned just the way Protestants believe church council should operate. Nicea has more in common with the Westminster Assembly than anything Rome does.


Ask yourself: Does the papacy really solve the authority issue, or does it achieve a "cheap unity" by excommunicating dissidents? At the same time, the Roman church has failed to discipline known heretics, the mafia, pro-choice politicians, pedophile priests, etc. -- so again, I ask, is this anything more than a "cheap unity"? Or what about the fact that many nations, like England, Scotland, and Germany, had long and rich histories of Christian faith before coming under the jurisdiction of the Roman bishop, and saw themselves as recovering those ancient, pre-Roman traditions at the time of the Reformation? Have you considered why the Roman church felt the freedom to innovate and disregard the ancient, apostolic, and patristic custom of paedocommunion in the 12th century? Or why the Roman church invented doctrines about Mary and practices like clerical celibacy that have absolutely no basis in Scripture and were unheard of in the early centuries of church history? Etc.


Here's the bottom line: The Reformation was largely a response to the failure of the papacy to live up to its promise. Whatever problems have arisen because of misuses of sola Scriptura, they pale in comparison to the problem the papacy created. The church tries the papacy. It failed. And the Reformation was the result.


I know it is facile to say that "Rome believes in salvation by works." That isn't so. There is more than enough gospel truth in the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church to save any who believe. At the same time, I think we should be very concerned about Rome's lack of clarity about how God saves us by his grace. The gospel is there, but muddled. And we should also be troubled by what Rome requires for membership in her communion. Look at Paul's opening statement to the Galatians in 1:8-9 and then Paul's confrontation with Peter in 2:11ff, and then ask yourself: What would Paul say about a group of Christians who functionally excommunicate massive groups of other baptized believers simply because they do not believe in the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary, or the infallibility of Peter(!) -- doctrines which I am quite certain Paul himself never heard of?! I think I know what Paul would say to that, and it would look a lot like the speech he delivers to Peter in Galatians 2. If you disagree with me, I would like to know why and I'd like to know how you read and apply Galatians 2 to today's church. I applaud Rome (and the East, for that matter) for all it has maintained from the early church, but I lament the way it has gone far beyond what the Bible warrants in its terms of admission/communion. 


Rome claims that salvation is found in connection with the bishop of the church of Rome. One must be in communion with the Pope to be saved. But consider Galatians 2:11ff again. For a period of time, those who were in communion with Peter were denying the gospel. And those out of fellowship with Peter were the faithful. This shows how atrociously wrong Rome’s view of salvation is. It shows why so many Reformational Christians believe Rome preaches another gospel. It’s almost as if God had Paul write Galatians 1-2 so the church would have a permanent testimony against errors of just the sort propagated by Rome. Galatians 1 deals with private judgment: Paul expected the Galtians to be able to interpret Scripture well enough (even without recourse to a Pope) that they could distinguish a counterfeit gospel from the true gospel, no matter its source. And Galatians 2 shows that any view that requires a connection to Peter (or later popes) for salvation is an utter lie. Nothing objective – including a link to the papacy – guarantees subjective faithfulness or final salvation. A link to Petrine office cannot even be a condition of salvation since in Galatians 2, the saved have been cut off by Peter and those who are united with Peter are the ones denying the gospel. It’s all pretty simple and straightforward. I pity the person who cannot see Rome’s errors – especially when he should know better because he has been a member of a Bible-teaching Reformed church. God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of.


Some key questions: Are you really thinking this through or just reacting to perceived deficiencies in Protestantism?  Is this just a feeling "the grass must be greener on the other side of the fence"? Are you sure you are hearing both sides of the Protestant/Romanist debate? Have you read the Protestant/evangelical equivalents of the "Called to Communion" blog, e.g., this kind of thing,, or or In your mind, who has the burden of proof at this point -- the Roman side or the Protestant side? Why?


Those are the sorts of questions and the kind of reading you need to wrestle with. There's more of course, but that gives you a taste of the kinds of things I'm curious about hearing you address.


XYZ, it's great that you are taking your time in making any kind of decision. Just make sure you use that time to consider the issues from both perspectives. There are flaws in Protestantism that raise questions, to be sure, and I will not try to defend the indefensible. Protestants have much to repent of. But Rome has its own flaws and problems that raise questions. And given that Rome makes much, much stronger claims for itself than any Protestant church body, she has a much harder case to prove. If Protestantism looks screwed up at times....well, we expect that, because Protestants profess that the church has not yet arrived at the goal and thus is still sinful. But if Rome screws up, all is lost because she has claims to be infallible and indefectible (arrogant, absurd, and easily disprovable claims in my opinion, but that's a discussion we'll have to have).


In my experience with people who consider conversion like this, or go through with conversion, in the end, it has a lot less to do with theology, and lot more to do with personal issues, existential issues, relationships, etc. I don't know what has driven you to the point you're at today, but I would be curious to know what you think going to Rome would do for you at a personal, experiential level. Again, what are you missing where you are right now that you think being Roman could give you? What's the "bigger picture" here? Why are you (quite suddenly from what I can tell, though I may be wrong) so discontent with your present situation?


Frankly, I'm surprised/caught off guard by this whole thing, so I'm still trying to get a handle on where you are and what your issues are. I look forward to talking about it soon. Just try to help me narrow down what I should be reading from the website so I can better scratch where you're itching. I really think that if you give the historic Protestant answers to your questions an honest, objective consideration, you'll end up finding renewed peace and comfort right where you are. I know in the end, you'll make your own "private judgment" about whether to join the Roman church or remain Protestant and I can live with that, however this ends up...but as your pastor and friend, I just want to make sure you hear both sides fairly before you come to a conclusion. There's too much at stake.







Dear XYZ,


Yes, the Pitre book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist has a lot of good material, though there are a few things I'd object to (as I'm sure you'd expect). No doubt, most of the good stuff in the book you've already heard in my sermons on the Eucharist over the years. The ironic thing is that this whole project of looking at the Eucharist in light of the old covenant has been something Reformed biblical theologians have popularized long before Pitre's book. Scott Hahn, who wrote the forward to Pitre's book, has written some very good books, but he was infamous for taking stuff he learned from men like Jim Jordan and David Chilton when he was still a Protestant, and then using it in his Catholic books -- without attribution, of course. 


I'll look at the website. It certainly looks interesting. I did watch the first 15 or so minutes of this video on this page:

It sounds like a lot like Philip Lee's book Against the Protestant Gnostics -- though Lee's solution is that Protestants should return to their Reformed Catholic roots, rather than turn to the Roman Catholic church.


Of course, I agreed with most everything David said about Calvin's doctrine of baptism and how many of his modern "heirs" have departed from that view. The only thing I would point out is that both Calvin and the Roman church departed from paedocommunion, which was the universal practice of the early church (and both Calvin and the Council of Trent acknowledged paedocommunion was ancient so why they felt free to disregard such a venerable and well attested patristic tradition remains a mystery to me). Anyway, on that point at least, TPC (and Eastern Orthodoxy!) are far more faithful to the patristic consensus than either Rome or Calvin.


After the stuff on baptism, David starts talking about how Protestants believed that even the regenerate are so depraved they cannot do any works that please God. That is manifestly false. Calvin talks about this all the time in his commentaries. There's also an extended discussion of this in book 3 of the Institutes, showing that God accepts the works of his people, is pleased with them, and even rewards them with blessing in this life and the next, e.g.:


[When God] examines our works according to his tenderness, not his supreme right, he therefore accepts them as if they were perfectly pure; and for this reason, although unmerited, they are rewarded with infinite benefits, both of the present life and also of the life to come.  For I do not accept the distinction made by learned and otherwise godly men that good works deserve the graces that are conferred upon us in this life, while everlasting salvation is the reward of faith alone...


Finally, while they [the Sophists] repeatedly inculcate good works, they in the meantime so instruct consciences as to discourage all their confidence that God remains kindly disposed and favorable to their works.  But we, on the other hand, without reference to merit, still remarkably cheer and comfort the hearts of believers by our teaching, when we tell them they please God in their works and are without doubt acceptable to him . . .


[T]he promises of the gospel…not only make us acceptable to God but also render our works pleasing to him.  And not only does the Lord adjudge them pleasing; he also extends to them the blessings which under the covenant were owed to observance of his law.  I therefore admit that what the Lord has promised in his law to the keepers of righteousness and holiness is paid to the works of believers, but in this repayment we must always consider the reason that wins favor for these works.


If David wants to really interact with Calvin, he needs a much better understanding. Making obvious mistakes like the ones in that video really undermines his credibility to someone who is supposed to the Roman “apostle to the Reformed.”







Dear ABC,


We have to distinguish sola Scriptura from solo ScripturaSola Scriptura does not, and never did, mean "reading the Bible without the church" or "reading the Bible without tradition."  Sure, you can find a few nutty Protestants who have spoken that way, just like you can find a few (well, really a lot!) Catholics who don't think they ever need to crack open a Bible. But solo ecclesia is as messed up a view of authority as solo Scriptura. The church and Bible were always meant to work together, never one without the other.


The classical Protestants did not hold to solo Scriptura, but sola Scriptura combined with historic conciliarism. All of the Protestant Reformers were hyper-concerned with making not just a case from the Scriptures, but also establishing their historical credentials. And I don't just mean copiously quoting Augustine, Chrysostom, Bernard, and other great fathers who informed and shaped their reading of Scripture. I mean they were actually concerned to show real, organic continuity with the church of the previous 1500 years. I still find their arguments persuasive. As Doug Wilson has said, asking "Where was my church before the Reformation?" is like asking a boy who was out playing in the mud but has now been bathed, "Where was your face before you washed it?" The Reformation carried forward many of the best features of the medieval church and recovered many aspects of the patristic and apostolic church that had been lost. They saw things like the papacy, Marian devotion and doctrines, clerical celibacy, transubstantiation, and the system of indulgences, as barnacles that needed to be scraped off the hull of the ship that is the church. In each case, I think careful historical investigation shows they were correct to see these things as novelties. At the same time, they rightly saw the spirit of the early church had been compromised by greed, immorality, and the desire for political power. The Reformers, more than anything, were hoping to restore the vitality and purity of the early church; the Reformation was largely a project of historical recovery. Newman said, "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant," but I would add, following C. S. Lewis, "To be really deep in history is to become Protestant all over again."


Another thing to remember is that Protestants always believed in the ancient conciliar pattern of church authority, inherited by the apostles from the Jews. It is not enough for you to investigate the case for sola Scriptura against the papacy -- you also have to look at the biblical basis and history of conciliarism, over and against the papacy. The Protestants simply maintained and carried forward the conciliar strand of the church that had continued to press against the ever-growing claims of the papacy throughout the medieval period. That's why the early Protestants called so many assemblies, wrote so many confessions and liturgies, and so forth. In doing all of this, they were just acting like the church of the apostolic and patristic eras, which everyone agrees is the most united period of church history, and yet which functioned without a pope, or universal bishop, of any sort. As late as the 590s, Pope Gregory said that any bishop who claims universal authority is an anti-Christ (a label the Reformers picked up on the 16th century). Roman Catholic attempts to explain away his charges are just not convincing. Likewise, and even earlier, you have Cyprian, who (circa 250 AD) grants primacy to the Roman see, but not supremacy, and in fact says that every bishop is a legitimate successor to Peter's chair. He simply did not accept, or even know of, anything like what the Roman Catholic church upholds as the papacy today. And yet he is one of the most prominent fathers from the so-called "golden age" of the pre-Constantian church.


Catholics seem to forget that there was a very strong conciliar movement running through the medieval period, right up to the time of the Reformation. Conciliarists  believed the church's authority was found in a council of bishops, not the singular pope. According to conciliarists, there could be a first among equals in the council, and that first among equals could even be the bishop of Rome, but authority itself was found in a plurality of churchmen, not one man. Conciliarism (re)gained strength in the 14th-16th centuries because of things like the Avignon papacy (when there were multiple popes in multiple locations, all vying for authority, and no one could say for sure who the true pope was); the realization that the "Donation of Constantine," which had done so much to prop up the authority of the papacy, was actually a forgery; and, to be frank, the fact that many of the popes in the late medieval period were corrupt jackasses who clearly had no business holding any office in the church, much less the highest one. 


Again, all this means it is not enough to study Sola Scriptura if you want to understand how biblical and ecclesiastical authority relate in the Protestant mind. You also have to study conciliarism. The question is not just, "Does sola Scriptura work?" but "Does conciliarism work?" The place to start, of course, is with the first ecumenical council, in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15. Read Acts 15 and ask yourself, "Does look like what a Roman Catholic council would look like, given the role of Peter, James, and Scripture in the council's proceedings?" Of course, you also have to look at Nicaea in the 4th century, where the bishop of Rome played no significant role at all. What I find decisive about these two councils -- which are arguably the ONLY two councils that ever had any real lasting success -- is that they arrived at a universally accepted consensus in an entirely "Protestant" way. In other words, if you ask the question, "How do Protestants think church debates should be settled?" the answer is, "Just like they were settled in Jerusalem and Nicaea." But neither council had a pope! Both councils relied on godly men working towards a consensus, based on experience, tradition, and, obviously, the study of Scripture. The Holy Spirit in each of these cases gave the church what she needed apart from the whole Roman Catholic apparatus. We can trust the Spirit to continue to lead the church in similar fashion today.


If Roman Catholic arguments were going to get traction with me, they would need to (among other things) explain [a] how the early church got along so well without the institution of the papacy; [b] why the conciliar model used in Acts 15 and Nicaea should not continue to be the model for church authority; and [c] how Scripture can correct the papacy/church in Rome's model of authority. Appeals to Matthew 16 simply don't cut it -- though that's a discussion we'll have to save for another time. As you point out, it may often seem like Reformed and Roman Catholic apologists are talking past each other, or like they've heard everything the other side has to say already. And no doubt, to some degree that's true; our disagreements are hard to resolve because of so many differing presuppositions and paradigms. But that being said, I have never seen a Roman Catholic really give a good explanation of why conciliarism shouldn't be the model of authority we follow, especially in light of Acts 15.


Now, someone might ask, "Well, it's nice for Protestants to say they want to uphold the conciliar tradition. But it still hasn't kept them from continuing to split, leading to ecclesiastical anarchy. And besides that, how can there ever be an ecumencial council when the church is so fragmented?" First, while you have certainly heard me lament Protestant sectarianism many times over, I think it's also possible to exaggerate how bad things are. Protestants still have no problem, in general, distinguishing themselves from cults who deny the historic Christian faith. Even the lowest of low church backwood Baptists uphold the faith of the Apostles Creed, whether they recite it in church or not. They are Trinitarian all the way down. So there is still a common core of faith that is shared not only by all Protestants, but by all Christians. The situation we find ourselves with countless denominations is certainly less than desirable, but it is not pure anarchy. The very fact that terms like "Protestant," "evangelical," and "Reformed" identify specific groups and, yes, traditions, tells you that.


Besides, consider the dangers of the other extreme: From reading a lot of Roman Catholic critiques of sola Scriptura (often, really, solo Scriptura), I get the distinct impression that a lot of Roman Catholic apologists really think it's dangerous for people -- even people who attend church regularly -- to read the Bible on their own. I see no way for Rome to avoid the conclusion, which has indeed been reflected in her practice for centuries, that the Bible belongs to the clergy and religious elite and not to the people of God. Is that a conclusion you're comfortable with? If people are simply told they can read the Bible themselves but not interpret it themselves, you can safely bet they won't read it at all. The history of the Roman church is standing proof of that fact. 500 years after the Reformation, a lot of Roman Catholic priests are finally talking about how important it is to get the Bible into the hands of the people, but its not surprising that movement has been accompanied by widespread defections to evangelical Protestantism (about 1 million Roman-to-evangelical converts a year was the last figure I saw).


The fact that there is no way to call a truly ecumenical council today is troubling, but it is not just a problem for Protestants. It confronts Roman and Orthodox Christians as well. The possibility of a truly ecumenical council has not existed since at least 1054, and maybe even a few centuries before that. Sure, Rome and the East like to give a clean and tidy narrative of church history that shows how essential their particular versions of authority are to preserving unity, but the reality is that unity has not been preserved. The faith has been preserved, but unity has not been. There's just no way to get around the messiness of church history....unless you are willing to unchurch huge, huge numbers of apparently baptized and faithful people, which is exactly what Rome and the East end up doing in order to preserve their exclusive claims and their self-justifying stories of church history. Protestants rightly see that our sin (beginning with the papal excommunication of the East in 1054!!) has divided the church in unhealthy ways, but all we can do now is recognize that the true church exists in a plurality of institutions, spread across a variety of denominations. Of course, if we know the Bible well, we know this is not unprecedented: Israel and Judah broke off from one another in similarly tragic circumstances. But here's the thing: The one thing we SHOULD continue to do, even when governmentally fractured, is practice a common table (1 Cor. 11; Gal. 2). Israel and Judah should have (and to some degree did) continue to celebrate Passover and the other festivals together, even after their governmental/institutional breach (call it "open communion, old covenant style," if you wish). Many Protestants manage to do this, but Rome and the East do not. All that to say: Your way of framing the question -- which institution has preserved the true faith? -- is misguided. The true faith continued to exist among a remnant in both Israelites and Judahites after their separation. And it continues to exist among Rome, among the Orthodox, and among Protestants today. That may not jive with the way Rome (or the East) wants the church to work, and it may mess with their claims about church history and the papacy, but it is an undeniable fact. Sadly, the only branch of the church that really allows for the kind of messiness we find ourselves in is Protestantism.


More to say as usual...but that's enough for now. And I don't feel bad writing a lot because you sent me to a webpage with blog posts that run into the hundreds of pages! I'm a master of brevity compared to those guys!







Dear LMN,


A few notes on our discussion of the papacy.


It is hard to see how papal infallibility is the source of the Roman church's unity since only about third of RCC members globally even believe in it. The source of Roman unity is more likely found in claims to exclusivism, e.g., if you leave the Roman church you leave the place of salvation (this was nuanced by vatican 2, in both helpful and unhelpful ways, but is still the popular belief). Few Protestants on the other hand make such exclusivise claims for their church, so folks have more freedom to mix, move around, and absorb from other traditions. In the end Protestant churches have to be held together by love and truth, not the threat of damnation if you leave for another church. 


What does papal infallibility solve? If it is a real solution, why is it so rarely invoked, benedict acknowledged. As you say, it only provides certainty on about 7 points, e.g., Council of Chalcedon, the Marian doctrines, etc. To say the pope provides Roman Catholics with an infallible interpretation of scripture is really overstating the case -- the pope's infallible declarations hardly even touch on scriptural teaching and when they do, e.g., council of Chalcedon, the authority can be established by conciliarism just as well.


Roman Catholics like to say the canon is grounded in papal infallibility, but the pope never made an ex cathedra decree about the canon, so Protestant and Romanists are in exactly the same situation with regard to canon recognition -- it's a matter of received tradition, as the sheep hear ther Shepherd’s voice speaking in his own Word. See Ridderbos’ Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures and Cornelius Van Til’s Intro to Systematic Theology.


It is not as if the pope has produced a commentary of infallible interptations of the Bible – indeed, popes have hardly spoken with authority to any passages of Scripture and many of the official declarations, e.g., the Marian doctrines, have nothing (or almost nothing) to do with biblical interpretation at all, as they add to Scripture rather than interpret it.


The pope does not solve the canon issue, and neither does he settle the or textual or manuscript issues – again, he never spoke ex cathedra to any of this! If he has such powers, why not invoke them?


Romanisst accuse Protestants of “picking and choosing” from church history. But Romanists do the same. For example, the pick and choose which councils have biding authority, choosing Second Nicea (an iconodule council) over the Council of Heiria (an iconoclast council) even though Heiria was earlier .


So tell me again: What exactly does papal infallibility provide?


TPC obviously has Scripture and tradition (we recite the Nicene Creed every week, etc.). What the Roman Catholic 3-legged stool would add that we don't have is the papal magisterium speaking infallibly. I wonder: Are there any moral or theological issues you are in a quandry about that can truly and only be resolved in Catholic fashion? Are there any moral dilemmas you feel cannot be solved in Protestant fashion, looking at Scripture and the consensus of the historic church?


What part of tradition is missing at TPC? We're a very traditional church, e.g., we revite the creeds, we use vestments and the church calendar, we have a liturgy rooted in tradition, etc. What more are you looking for? In some ways, we are more traditional than Rome (we allow paedocommunion, we do not require celibate priests, etc.)


Can Rome be corrected by scripture? Even in an area where she is obviously wrong like clerical celibacy?


The 2 biggest splits in church history are the fault of the papacy -- the Great Schism and the Reformation, where he excommunicated those who disagreed with him rather than working to a solution. Why assume Rome was right in each case? Can you prove that Rome was right in each case without resorting to circularity (the Pope is right because he’s the Pope)?


What about disagreements over what Trent means? Romanists no longer agree amongst themselves, if they ever did. Does Trent anathematize Protestants or not? You cannot seem to make up your mind about this. I want to know: Did Luther and Calvin go to hell? In the 16th century, everyone thought that's what Trent meant. Rome is engaging in revisionist history if it says otherwise today. What do you say?


If you convert to Rome it will be because  in your PRIVATE JUDGMENT, you determined that the Roman Catholic church is the best option. you cannot escape the responsibility of being a Berean. Keep searching the Scriptures. Paul did not tell the Bereans to look to Peterine/papal authority to settle the question of his preaching’s veracity. The Bereans are commended for doing Bible study on their own, and it presumed they are competent judges. This jives with Gal. 1:8ff.


You say you care about rhe unity of the church. But the Roman church is one gigantic sect; it is a denomination too, and an exclusivist one at that. The Roman church is not really catholic, at all. And, yes, this means the pope is not really catholic in the true sense as well. He is a sectarian.


Why do you think Roman Catholics do so little Bible study? Why is liberalism, nominalism, and progressivism so widespread in the Roman circles? Further, why should Romanisst study the Bible?


Yes, there are many embarrassing things about being Protestant. But do you really want to join Nancy Pelosi’s church?


What happened at Nicea was concilliar -- pastors and bishops with open Bibles resolving a controversy. There was no "infallible successor to Peter" who could speak and settle it. Indeed, I ask: Name one controversy the pope has settled.


Isn’t the search for the true church is foolish? Isn’t the true church spread out in all several branches?


How do you resolve the differences between Rome and the East over Mary? What would you say to the charge that Rome innovated here? See, e.g,


How does Rome resolve the use of icons vs statues. Hasn’t Rome has departed from 7th ecumenical council by allowing veneration of statues? (In my view both Rome and the East are in violation of the second commandment since they bow before created objects. But my point here is that Rome has not been able to resoplve controversies that arose even before the Reformation happened.)


Are you familiar with Brian Tierney’s work, Origins of Papal Infallibility 1150-1350 (Leiden, 1972)? Tierney comes to the conclusion, "There is no convincing evidence that papal infallibility formed any part of the theological or canonical tradition of the church before the thirteenth century; the doctrine was invented in the first place by a few dissident Franciscans because it suited their convenience to invent it; eventually, but only after much initial reluctance, it was accepted by the papacy because it suited the convenience of the popes to accept it". From Wikipedia: “The Rome-based Jesuit Wittgenstein scholar Garth Hallett argued that the dogma of infallibility was neither true nor false but meaningless; see his Darkness and Light: The Analysis of Doctrinal Statements (Paulist Press, 1975). In practice, he claims, the dogma seems to have no practical use and to have succumbed to the sense that it is irrelevant.”


Do you approve of the way the Roman Catholic church handled the pedophile priest issue?


I fully admit that the church today is a mess, including Protestantism. But this should not surprise us. Consider the words of the familiar hymn:


Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore opprest,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distrest,
Yet Saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, ‘How long?’
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.


Instead of crying with the saints, “How long?” you seem to think joining Rome is the solution. You are wrong. It will not solve anything.




Dear ABC,


You asked about Lewis and Romanism in passing in our conversation the other day. I did not get to address it then, so here’s a quick follow up.


Lewis once wrote to a papist correspondent who wondered why he wasn't Catholic, "By the time I had really explained my objection to certain doctrines which differentiate you from us (and also in my opinion from the Apostolic and even the Medieval Church), you would like me less." In other words, for Lewis, the real problem with Rome is that she departed from the apostolic and medieval church -- she had encrusted the faith of the fathers with all kinds of novelties that were not rooted in the apostolic Scriptures or even the medieval period. Remember, papal infallibility was not codified until 1870. Rome will claim it was held before that, obviously, but then we would say the same thing about justification by faith being taught before Luther. Roman Catholics do not agree on which statements of the Pope count as infallible, e.g., I've heard it range from 2 ex cathedra statements to 12. The Great Papal Schism also creates all kinds of logical problems, e.g., when there were multiple claimants to the papal chair, how was anyone to know where infallible authority was found? If a pope is necessary to validate a council, what does that say about Nicea, since the pope wasn't there? Or what about Constance, which sought to end the Great Papal Schism by deposing two popes and electing a third, but obviously without a pope to authorize it's actions until after the fact? There are two many historical interruptions, too much historical messiness, to fit with their view of succession.


Thus, I would paraphrase Lewis’ view with this twisting of the famous Newman quotation: "To be really deep in history is to become Protestant all over again.” I oppose the papacy on historical grounds just as much as I oppose the papacy on biblical grounds.







Dear XYZ,


According to Galatians 1:8-9, you should be able to determine for yourself if Luther and Calvin were preaching the gospel, right? That's not a responsibility you can pass off to someone else. Paul expected the Galatian Christians to recognize and stand against corruptions of the gospel, even if promulgated by an angel from heaven or an apostle (including Peter, the "first pope," as Paul shows in Gal. 2:11ff).  That being said, I don't see how there can be any question about Luther and Calvin being faithful to the gospel Paul received and passed on in 1 Cor. 15:1-4, or to the regula fidei (basically the Apostles Creed) of the early church. If you think otherwise, I'd be curious to know why. What definition of "gospel" must one have in order to deny that Luther and Calvin were preachers of the gospel?

Of course, the way you're asking the question about Rome's view of the Reformers does not allow for an easy answer because the history involved is so complex. In the 16th century, Trent supposedly anathematized the Reformers. Was that an infallible declaration? Can disciplinary actions of popes and councils be infallible, or only dogmatic declarations? And what is the status of the anathemas of Trent today? Has the Roman church reneged? From the 16th century until the mid 20th century, pretty much everyone on both sides agreed the Tridentine anathemas were aimed at Luther, Calvin, etc., as well all contemporary Protestants. But at least since Vatican 2, most Roman Catholic scholars seem reluctant to say that. Instead, Rome has moved in a Protestant direction with regard to its own teaching on justification and has, accordingly, softened its stance on Protestants. Thus, you have documents like the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," produced by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, and, more informally, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together."

So I would say the situation is pretty muddled. It gets even more muddled if you try to figure out how Vatican 2, which calls Protestants (among others) "separated brethren," relates to the 14th century work (ostensibly infallible), Unam Sactam, which not only gives the pope the temporal sword, but also declares that "it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff." Is Vatican 2 just nuancing that, by saying Protestants are Catholics whether they know it or not? Are we “anonymous Romanists”? Or what? And does Rome have the humility to admit it has changed its mind about Protestants, if indeed it has? I think N. T. Wright's assessment of Rome is fair, and gets back to my question about how (if at all) the Roman church can be corrected or reformed, given the high claims it makes for itself: 


Trent, and much subsequent RC theology, has had a habit of never spring-cleaning, so you just live in a house with more and more clutter building up, lots of right answers to wrong questions (e.g. transsubstantiation) which then get in the way when you want to get something actually done.

In particular, Trent gave the wrong answer, at a deep level, to the nature/grace question, which is what’s at the root of the Marian dogmas and devotions which, despite contrary claims, are in my view neither sacramental, transformational, communal nor eschatological. Nor biblical.

The best RCs I know (some of whom would strongly disagree with the last point, some would strongly agree) are great conversation partners mainly because they have found ways of pushing the accumulated clutter quietly to one side and creating space for real life. But it’s against the grain of the Tridentine system, in my view. They aren’t allowed to say that but clearly many of them think it. Joining in is just bringing more of your own clutter to an already confused and overcrowded room…" (

Up until Vatican 2, Rome was pretty free with its anathemas. Trent anathematized those who held to a particular doctrine of justification which, up until that time, had been one of several "acceptable" ways of teaching justification (remember, most of what Luther had to say he learned in the monastary from Staupitz). In 1870, after declaring the dogma of papal infallibility, the definition concludes, "So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema." Similar anathemas/condemnations were declared over the Marian doctrines in 1854 and 1950. It raises the question: Just what exactly does Rome believe is necessary for salvation, that is, to escape anathema? There are a lot of things encrusting and obscuring the simple gospel in the Roman Catholic church. This has hugely significant implications.  Thus, for example, it's no surprise when you tell me about the worship of Mary going on Central American churches; Rome has set itself up for just that kind of thing, and who's to say they're "bad Catholics," while the "good Catholics" are the ones up here in the (heavily Protestant) U. S.? Obviously, the priests down there disagree with the priests up here. They're reading, interpreting, and applying the infallible teaching of the papacy concerning Mary in a different way. So the infallible declarations of the pope in 1854 and 1950 solved nothing, but just created an even bigger problem...and one that is not going to be resolved anytime soon. Marian worship is probably more likely to infiltrate Roman churches in the U.S. than it is to be halted in Latin America. The one hope I have for the Latin American church is that it is becoming Protestant evangelical at an amazing pace.


To sum it up: My problem with the Roman Catholic church is that it is not nearly traditional enough (having introduced all kinds of novelties, theological and otherwise, compared to the apostolic and patristic church) nor catholic enough (having drawn its lines of communion far, far tighter than the early church ever did). Maybe that's a counter-intuitive critique, but it 's precisely what the Reformers argued in the 16th century. They claimed to be the true traditionalists and true catholics. They didn't leave the church; the church left them (just as the apostles didn't leave the synagogues in the 1st century, but were abandoned by them).

In terms of the historical credentials of the Reformers, Jaroslav Pelikan (great Lutheran-turned-Orthodox historian) might be helpful (even if he's a bit too prejudiced against Calvin!):

In fact, recent research on the Reformation entitles us to sharpen it and to say that the Reformation began because the reformers were too catholic in the midst of a church that had forgotten its catholicity. That generalization applies particularly to Luther and to some of the Anglican reformers, somewhat less to Calvin, still less to Zwingli, least of all to the Anabaptists. But even Zwingli, who occupies the left wing among the classical reformers, retained a surprising amount of catholic substance in his thought, while the breadth and depth of Calvin’s debt to the heritage of the catholic centuries is only now beginning to emerge….There was more to quote [from the church fathers] than their [the reformers’] Roman opponents found comfortable. Every major tenet of the Reformation had considerable support in the catholic tradition. That was eminently true of the central Reformation teaching of justification by faith alone….That the ground of our salvation is the unearned favor of God in Christ, and that all we need do to obtain it is to trust that favor – this was the confession of great catholic saints and teachers….Rome’s reactions [to the Protestant reformers] were the doctrinal decrees of the Council of Trent and the Roman Catechism based upon those decrees. In these decrees, the Council of Trent selected and elevated to official status the notion of justification by faith plus works, which was only one of the doctrines of justification in the medieval theologians and ancient fathers. When the reformers attacked this notion in the name of the doctrine of justification by faith alone – a doctrine also attested to by some medieval theologians and ancient fathers – Rome reacted by canonizing one trend in preference to all the others. What had previously been permitted also (justification by faith alone), now became forbidden. In condemning the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent condemned part of its own catholic tradition….


Interpreters of the New Testament have suggested a host of meanings for the passage [Matthew 16]. As Roman Catholic scholars now concede, the ancient Christian father Cyprian used it to prove the authority of the bishop – not merely of the Roman bishop, but of every bishop….So traumatic was the effect of the dogma of papal infallibility that the pope did not avail himself of this privilege for eighty years. But when he finally did, by proclaiming the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on November 1, 1950, he confirmed the suspicions and misgivings of the dogma’s critics. Not only is Scriptural proof obviously lacking for this notion, but the tradition of the early Christian centuries is also silent about it….


In asserting their catholicity, the reformers drew upon the church fathers as proof that it was possible to be catholic without being Roman. Study of the fathers thus became an important part of the Protestant panoply as well. In fact, the very word ‘patrology’ as a title for a manual on the church fathers and their works is a Protestant invention, first used by Johann Gerhard (d. 1637). When Protestant liberalism developed during the nineteenth century, one of its principal contributions to theological literature was its work on the fathers. The Patrology of the Roman Catholic scholar Johannes Quasten and an essay by the Jesuit scholar J. de Ghellinck both reveal the dependence even of Roman theologians upon the scholarly achievements of Protestant historians, the outstanding of whom was Adolf Harnack (d. 1930)...


You asked me, “According to Protestants how do you tell the difference between theological opinion and dogma?”

Of course, those are Roman Catholic categories that came in later. For Protestants, like the early church, the "rule of faith" is supreme (basically, the Apostles Creed; see, e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies; Tertullian, Prescription Against the Heretics). The regula fidei served to mark out the doctrinal boundaries of the church. It is the closest we can get to anything that conforms to the canon of Vincent of Lerins, namely, "what has been believed by all, at all times, and in all places." So it's "dogma."


I'm not just asserting this as the Protestant standard. It's historically verifiable. Luther took the creed as the sum of saving faith. Calvin did as well, and organized the 4 books of his Institutes around the 4 paragraphs of the Apostles Creed. His whole "system" of theology was just an unpacking of the Creed. The Westminster Assembly attached the Creed, along with the 10 commandments and Lord's Prayer to the Confession and Catechisms, and called the creed a "brief sum of the Christian faith, agreeable to the Word of God, and anciently received in the churches of Christ." In short, the regula fidei reflects the consensus of the historic church and cannot be contradicted in any legitimate profession of faith. The Protestant church stands squarely in that tradition.


Of course, this is our practice at TPC, and not just because we use the oldest ecumenical creeds in the liturgy throughout the year. We will accept any "mere Christian" for membership, as our membership vows show. Rome, on the other hand, has piled on all kinds of additional beliefs one must submit to that go far beyond the Apostles Creed (and even Scripture) in order to enter the full communion of the Roman church.


Protestants work with a pyramid of authority. Scripture is at the top, then the regula fidei as the summation of Scripture's core teaching and a hermeneutical guide, then the confessions from regional assemblies and synods (subject to error, but possessing the authority of consensus), then liturgical preaching (which the Reformers called the "word of God" in a qualified sense), then private teachings (books by individual theologians, Bible studies, blogs, etc.). Thus, I suppose the best way to answer your question would be to say the regula fidei is "dogma" for us. But we really need more than just the categories of "dogma" and "opinion" (and, frankly, the Roman church does as well).


Protestant practice may not always match up to that model of authority, but then, Rome's practice doesn't match up to her belief system and structure either. We are all sinners....Lord, have mercy.






Dear ABC,


One thing I meant to add to the discussion from yesterday. You mentioned that you read WCF 1, and it looked like solO Scriptura to you. I mentioned that the whole confession is the product of the an assembly/council that was intended to have authority, providing a binding confession for the nation and for the church of England, replacing the 39 Articles (although only Scotland ended up adopting it). So there's really no way the Westminster Assembly could have produced a solO Scriptura document.


One further thing I meant to mention. The WCF actually has a separate chapter devoted to "conciliarism" -- chapter 31 on synods and councils. That would be the place to look, if you want definitive proof that the WCF does not teach solO Scriptura, but sola Scriptura + councils. It subordinates the results of councils to Scripture, of course, pointing out that councils have contradicted themselves, and so there must be a higher court of appeal. (Incidentally, when it comes to the history of councils, EVERYONE picks and chooses because the councils really did produce contradictions on a number of issues. After Nicaea, conciliar history gets a bit messy. It's just a fact.) What I find most interesting is that the WCF says the decrees and determinations of councils are to be received with reverence and submission  NOT ONLY because they agree with the word of God, but because such councils are ordained by God. In other words, councils have REAL power and authority, power and authority that comes from God. Sure, councils partake of the church's "pilgrimage" character since the church is still a "church on the way." But in the meantime, God has appointed councils as the way to resolve disputes and handle cases of discipline. The councils don't supplant or replace Scripture, but help the church in both faith and practice along the way. I think to demand more than that is to ask for an over-realized eschatology. It's to demand something from the church that she will not possess until the glory of the resurrection.


Its very interesting to see how conciliarism played itself out in the 16th and 17th centuries among Protestants. We can wonder "what might have been." John Knox told Mary he was hoping for a pan-European council, with "the sect of Romanists" (yes, he considered Rome a sect) and Protestants meeting to resolve their disputes. Calvin and Cranmer made plans for just such a council, and Calvin, who did not take kindly to travel, said he would gladly "cross 10 seas" to attend such a gathering. Bucer was the same, and worked very hard behind the scenes to build unity among Protestant groups, and even with Roman Catholics. And there are many more stories like this. Political conditions, rather than a lack of will, kept these councils from happening. But the desire to follow out a conciliar model was certainly there on the part of the Protestants.


Are you familiar with the history of Regensberg? Its fascinating. Its the closest the 16th century actually got to a an ecumenical council. Leading Reformers, including Calvin, gathered with leading Roman Catholics to resolve their issues. They actually reached agreement in a few areas, including justification. But political conditions changed, the pope got nervous, and the council disintegrated. But it's still a fascinating episode in history.






Dear XYZ,


Let me attempt to pick apart the claims made by your friend in his email about why is a Roman Catholic. I hope you will hear me out. I enjoyed our conversation, but I hope this email will clarify for you some things that came up in our exchange.


First, he thinks you have to have an infallible teaching authority in the church or you will end up with the chaos of Protestantism. It's either/or. You have to have a supreme court to interpret the constitution, so to speak, or you have anarchy. According to him, Protestants have no way to know they're right because they have no such authority -- it's just one person's interpretation against another's, hence the proliferation of denominations. Protestants can't call a council to settle anything amongst themselves. 


The problem is that this is not how we see inter-ecclesial disputes being settled within Scripture itself (or in the early church, for that matter). The papacy is not in Scripture, not in the early church, and not at Nicea. Pope Gregory (590-604AD) said any bishop claiming universal authority is "antichrist," etc. But for your friend, it's really more of a philosophical problem, so the historical and exegetical challenges don't get as much traction as they should. You just have to have an infallible magisterium or no one knows what to believe. Without the infallible magisterium, no controversy in the church can be settled. Without the pope/magisterium, Protestants cannot tell you where the church begins and ends, e.g., whether or not the Salvation Army is a church. Frankly, I think your friend is replacing sola scriptura with sola ecclesia -- the church alone will be his functional authority. 


Of course, his critique of Protestantism carries weight because we do have a problem here. In our sin, we have so divided the church that we really can't speak with a united voice and we really have no mechanism for resolving our differences. But this is due to sin, not some structural problem with sola Scriptura or conciliarism.


Just because we think we want something like the papacy doesn't mean we have it. Why should the pope be believed on his own say-so if his claims to authority and infallibility do not withstand scrutiny? Plus, while, Rome has institutional unity, which is wonderful, it does not have likemindedness -- the deeper, richer unity Scripture calls us to. Roman Catholics are all over the map in terms of actual beliefs and practices, just like Protestants. Also, what good is an infallible interpreter of Scripture if there is no infallible interpretation anywhere to be found, e.g., the church nowhere tells me the meaning of Ecclesiastes or Galatians? 


Your friend is not really all that interested in discussing particular doctrines, e.g., icons, indulgences, etc. Basically, everything flows downstream from the church's authority. Once you've settled that Rome is the true church, you simply accept what she teaches. When I asked how the church could ever be corrected, he admitted he didn't really know. When I asked where infallible authority was found during the high/late middle ages when there were multiple claimants to the papacy, and the papacy was corrupt (as he even admitted), he couldn't answer. But he says there are Catholic theologians who have answers....


Your friend’s inability to answer basic questions on his own concerns me. It’s as if he just says, "I'm a Catholic. I buy into their claims." He does not see TPC as church; at best, we are "separated brethren.” How can he say that?


That brings me to the other issue here, which is clearly the prestige of the Roman church -- it's the church of Chesterton, Newman, Tolkien, etc. There are lots of scholarly/academic types who have gone from Protestantism to Catholicism but not very many who have gone the other way. Again, he probably has a point here — while there are actually more converts from Romanism to evangelicalism than the reverse, I can't think of a lot of high profile conversions from Catholic to Protestant in recent years. But it still doesn't seem this is any way to determine the truth. 


At one time years ago, I had started writing a book entitled Peter, Paul, and Mary -- Or, Why I Am Not a Roman Catholic. Maybe it's time to dust off that manuscript and go back to work on it....




Dear ABC,


Here are the quotations I was referring to--


C S Lewis:


The Roman Church where it differs from this universal tradition and specially from apostolic Christianity I reject. Thus their theology about the Blessed Virgin Mary I reject because it seems utterly foreign to the New Testament; where indeed the words “Blessed is the womb that bore thee” receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Their papalism seems equally foreign to the attitude of St. Paul toward St. Peter in the epistles. The doctrine of Transubstantiation insists on defining in a way which the New Testament seems to me not to countenance. In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claim: though this, of course, does not mean rejecting particular things they say.


Doug Jones:


C.S. Lewis once quipped that the more medieval he became in his outlook, the farther from Roman Catholicism he seemed to grow. The history of the doctrine of sola Scriptura tends to produce the same effect in many of us. Once one gets beyond the superficial, individualistic, confused accounts of this doctrine presented in contemporary Evangelicalism, this teaching becomes very natural, organic, medieval, and apostolic.


In contrast, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox accounts fall out of rather perfectionistic and rationalistic commitments that are alien to the earthiness of biblical reality. Submitting to an infallible magisterium requires relatively little faith; everything is, in principle, neat and clean, like a doctor's office or a robot husband. A perfect husband would make for a very easy marriage; faith wouldn't be hard at all... Submission takes on much more fascinating dimensions when marriage involves sinners...


In this light, the various widely publicized departures of many Evangelicals to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have the distinct aroma of youthful haste and short-term zeal. The Sanhedrin was far better organized than the fishermen, and it had a  grand liturgy, an authoritative line of oral tradition, and a succession of leaders. In a healthy church, those forms are good and holy. But to have turned to the Sanhedrin at that time would have been to embrace apostasy. Truth, beauty, and goodness were with the fishermen.










Dear XYZ,


I'm still trying to assess your struggle here, since I think this more than just a matter of your Roman friend asking you some questions you didn't have answers for. I think one temptation we face whenever we start to doubt or deal with challenging questions is wanting to walk by sight, rather than faith. But I think David in the psalter is a helpful model. When assailed with doubts, what did he do? He turned straight to God. He did not turn to prophets (who would have been "infallible" interpreters in his day) or priests (though no doubt, prophets and priests played a role for him), but to God himself. Only God can rescue us from epistemological crisis in our darkest moments. I think there is a temptation to want to find some objective church structure that will somehow guarantee our faith. But there isn't anything objective that can provide a guarantee of subjective faithfulness. Scripture repeatedly warns against this approach because the Jews continually fell into it, just like Christians have. In Jeremiah's day, they thought that because they had the temple and priesthood, they were safe from apostasy and judgment. They believed in the infallibility of their prophets and the succession of their priests. They had the temple and the sacrifices. But they had indeed apostatized and were judged accordingly. Likewise, in NT times, the Galatians thought they could find security in circumcision and other badges of the covenant. "These things will guarantee we are children of Abraham." But Paul showed they were wrong. Throughout church history, Christians have looked to baptism, church membership, apostolic succession, or some other objective mark as a guarantee. Those things all have immense value, but none of them are guarantees in and of themselves. The papacy is not a guarantee either. The bishop of the church of Rome rightfully rose to a place of prominence in the early church, but as the warnings of Romans 11 show, even the church in the capital of the empire was not protected against apostasy. If Peter (Gal. 2:11ff) and Paul (1 Cor. 9:27) were in danger of being disqualified despite their apostolic credentials, then no Christian since then, including popes and bishops, have a guarantee of faithfulness just because of the office they hold. In the end, we have to live by faith.


As to your question about how authority is functioning in that Presbytery right now:


I think your real strategy here has been to point to Protestants at their worst and Romanists at their best (or maybe even an imaginary, idealized Roman church that does not exist in reality). But nevertheless, here goes: Protestants believe pastors and creeds and councils all have authority; they also believe all those authorities are accountable to God speaking in Scripture. Obviously, Rome does not believe the Bible is necessary to back up its teachings; the pope appeals (tyrannically, I would say) to his own bare authority to establish whatever he wants to establish, on pain of damnation. Protestants, like the early Christians, believe the Spirit works when God's people charitably discuss the Scriptures and strive for consensus, just like the apostles and elders did in Acts 15 and just like the bishops did at Nicaea and just the men of the Presbytery have been doing. If you think there's a better way to settle inter-ecclesial disputes, I'd like to hear it. Appeal to the papacy won't cut it; the papacy is an institution founded on myths and lies and has solved nothing in the history of the church. The authority of the papacy either depends on a particular interpretation of Scripture (e.g., Mt. 16) which is highly questionable, and in which case Scripture is still the supreme authority anyway; or it depends on the papacy's own say-so, in which case there is no real reason to believe the pope is who he says he is or has the powers he so arrogantly claims for himself.


I have to admit it's quite frustrating when I read things like what you say at the end of your email: "I don't see how Christianity makes sense without a Church to give you dogma." The reason I find it frustrating is that you are in a church that confesses dogma every Sunday of the year, using the ecumenical dogmas of the whole church, namely, the Nicene Creed, Apostles Creed, and Athanasian Creed. How you could say or imply that we Protestants don't have dogma just completely baffles me. ALL Protestant Christians, whether Presbyterian, Baptist, Ev Free, Bible church, etc., confess the same basic, core dogmas -- the Trinity, the divinity and humanity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ. The Westminster Confession (itself a dogmatic document produced by the church) says "decrees and determinations" -- in other words, dogmas -- declared by synods and councils "are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the word of God, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God." The Greek term dogmata (often translated as "decree") shows up in Acts 16:4, with reference to the decrees of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Certainly, Protestants have dogmas in that sense; we believe councils can and have issued authoritative decrees. But the dogmas of Acts 16:4 were not issued unilaterally by the pope (Peter) since James was clearly the chief apostle in the council, and the decrees resulted from church leaders (elders and apostles) working together to reach consensus by following the leading of the Spirit through the Word (in this case, Amos 9, which James quotes). At some point, you have to get past simplistic, naive slogans that do not come close to doing justice to the Protestant side. Even if you are inevitably going to become a Roman Catholic, you should want to avoid caricatures of Protestantism and make sure that you really understand what it is you're rejecting. To say things like, "Protestantism is built on sand" (as I've heard you say) is no more helpful or constructive than me saying "Roman Catholic priests are pedophiles." Real discussion requires making a real effort to understand and deal with the best representation of any given position. It also seems to me you're only looking at the supposed authority of Rome's dogmas (based on the claim of the pope's infallibility when speaking ex cathedra), and not paying much attention to the content of those dogmas (which is just as problematic as the claims of papal infallibility); obviously, I think that's a serious mistake. Rome's claims to authority have to be examined, of course, but that examination has to include an evaluation of what Rome has actually said when speaking with whatever authority she possesses.