Correctio Filialis de Haeresibus Propagatis (Or Why the Reformation Still Matters 500 Years Later)

On 23 September 2017, the National Catholic Register reported that a group of Catholic clergy and scholars had issued a “filial correction” (Correctio filialis in Latin) to Pope Francis, a step that has not been taken since 1333 when Pope John XXII occupied the seat of St. Peter. To call the Correctio historic, as many have been doing, is thus no exaggeration, and it underlines the ever-increasing gravity of the crisis that has been brewing for some time now in the Catholic Church. The website dedicated to the Correctio introduces the statement as follows:

A 25-page letter signed by 40 Catholic clergy and lay scholars was delivered to Pope Francis on August 11th. Since no answer was received from the Holy Father, it is being made public today, 24th September, Feast of Our Lady of Ransom and of 6a00d83451619c69e201b7c9238509970bOur Lady of Walsingham. The letter, which is open to new signatories, now has the names of 62 clergy and lay scholars from 20 countries, who also represent others lacking the necessary freedom of speech. It has a Latin title: ‘Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis’ (literally, ‘A filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies’). It states that the pope has, by his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia, and by other, related, words, deeds and omissions, effectively upheld 7 heretical positions about marriage, the moral life, and the reception of thesacraments, and has caused these heretical opinions to spread in the Catholic Church.

As I read the text of the Correctio itself, I was most interested to see that the writers and signatories of the document dedicated the final pages to addressing not only the alleged “7 heretical positions” upheld by Pope Francis, but also to what they interpret as the encroachment of Protestant influence — specifically in the form of Martin Luther’s ideas — on the pope’s thinking and teaching. They write:

In the second place, we feel compelled by conscience to advert to Your Holiness’s unprecedented sympathy for Martin Luther, and to the affinity between Luther’s ideas on law, justification, and marriage, and those taught or favoured by Your Holiness in Amoris laetitia and elsewhere….

[Luther] claims that faith justifies man insofar as the punishing justice withdraws into mercy and is changed permanently into forgiving love. This is made possible out of a “joyful bargain” (fröhlicher Wechseln) by which the sinner can say to Christ: “You are my righteousness just as I am your sin” (LW 48:12; cf. also 31:351; 25:188). By this “happy exchange”, Christ becomes the only sinner and we are justified through the acceptance of the Word in faith….

The gospel does not teach that all sins will in fact be forgiven, nor that Christ alone experienced the ‘judgement’ or justice of God, leaving only mercy for the rest of mankind. While there is a ‘vicarious suffering’ of our Lord in order to expiate our sins, there is not a ‘vicarious punishment’, for Christ was made “sin for us” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21) and not a sinner. Out of divine love, and not as the object of God’s wrath, Christ offered the supreme sacrifice of salvation to reconcile us with God, taking upon himself only the consequences of our sins (cf. Gal. 3:13). Hence, so that we may be Pope_Francis_Luther(3)_810_500_55_s_c1justified and saved, it is not sufficient to have faith that our sins have been removed by a supposed vicarious punishment; our justification lies in a conformity to our Saviour achieved by that faith which works through charity (cf. Gal. 5:6).

Most Holy Father, permit us also to express our wonderment and sorrow at two events occurring in the heart of the Church, which likewise suggest the favour in which the German heresiarch is held under Your pontificate. On January 15th, 2016, a group of Finnish Lutherans were granted Holy Communion in the course of a celebration of Holy Mass that took place at St Peter’s basilica. On 13th October, 2016, Your Holiness presided over a meeting of Catholics and Lutherans in the Vatican, addressing them from a stage on which a statue of Martin Luther was erected. (Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis12, 16)

There is clearly a lot going on here, and it is not my intention to evaluate the merits, or possible lack thereof, of the Correctio‘s allegations. I only want to draw attention to the fact that, as attested by the Correctio itself, the movement of ecclesial reform that began 500 years ago when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against the abuses of papal indulgences still matters today, and that for at least two reasons.

First, Luther and his demands for reform seem to be gaining something of a hearing in the upper echelons of the Catholic hierarchy, as represented by Pope Francis and others sympathetic to his views. Now I do not want to exaggerate this claim, as even I have expressed concern in the past relative to the pope’s underlying intentions, but I have no doubt that Francis does desire to reform the Catholic Church, and Luther seems to be playing a role in that, however minor it may be. This to me seems beyond question, evidenced by the fact that the signatories of the Correctio perceive Luther’s influence on the pope to be significant enough as to warrant attention in the document.

Second, in opposing key points of Luther’s teaching, the Correctio reveals why the Catholic Church does indeed still need reform to bring it into greater conformity with the Word of God. Two key statements bear this out: that 1) “Christ offered the supreme sacrifice of salvation to reconcile us with God, taking upon himself only the consequences of our sins”; and 2) “it is not sufficient to have faith that our sins have been removed by a supposed vicarious punishment; our justification lies in a conformity to our Saviour achieved by that faith which works through charity (cf. Gal. 5:6).”

Now the first statement is problematic when set alongside certain biblical assertions. For example, Paul argues in Romans 8:1,3 that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” Verse 1 is unequivocal: there is now no condemnation for those in Christ! The justification of those in Christ is not in question; it is an accomplished reality. And it is an accomplished reality not on the basis of their own “works through charity”, but simply on the basis of union with Christ. This is further grounded in the fact that in Christ God did not, contrary to the Correctio, deal with “only the consequences of our sin”, but also sin itself: “he condemned sin in the flesh [of his own Son].” The cross did not merely take away the guilt of sin; it went to the very root of sin entrenched in human flesh and condemned it there. Thus, having dealt with both sin and its consequences, Paul can confidently declare that there is no condemnation for those in Christ.

Or we can consider Hebrews 10:11-12,14: And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Again, the finality of Christ’s vicarious accomplishment is not in doubt. In contrast with the Old Covenant sacrifices which could never take away, Christ’s single self-offering did! This is why follows the astonishing declaration that Christ has in that single self-offering already “perfected for all time” those who are sanctified in him. This salvation is not something that hangs in the balance dependent on our working through love; it is an accomplished and completed reality in Christ.

Thus, with regard to the second of the Correctio‘s statements, it is enough to have faith that God has dealt once and for all with our sin in Christ. Whether “vicarious punishment” is the appropriate phrase to describe this act is another question. But the vicarious nature of what Christ achieved is clear. As John Calvin stated, every benefit and grace of our salvation is found in Jesus Christ, and it is thus simply through union with him—displayed in our baptism (Rom. 6)—that we come to partake of all that is in him. The decisive locus of our salvation is not in ourselves but, as Paul tirelessly repeats over and over, “in Christ”. It is thus simply by looking to Christ in faith—just as the Israelites looked to the bronze serpent in the wilderness—that we enjoy the eternal life which is in him (John 3:14-16). Inasmuch as the Catholic Church (at least as represented by the Correctio) continues to insist otherwise, it stands in need of reformation according to the Word of God.

Thus Luther’s legacy remains as relevant five hundred years later as ever. Not that Luther was perfect, far from it actually! But the movement of reform that he by God’s grace was instrumental in launching in the sixteenth century did accomplish much in recalling the church to greater fidelity to the Word of God, and we would be wise to listen to its insights and renew our commitment to carrying forward its mission in the twenty-first century.


Fracturing the Rock of St. Peter: Pope Francis and “Doctrinal Anarchy” in the Catholic Church

Trouble is brewing in Rome. As I wrote a while back about the fractures developing in the foundation of the Catholic Church over the interpretation of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, the situation has only become worse. Not only have requests for clarification gone unheeded, but talk has now begun of “doctrinal anarchy” as regional conferences of bishops around the world have been issuing contradictory guidelines for the admission of divorcees to the sacraments. In an article posted on the National Catholic Register, Edward Pentin writes:

Since the publication last year of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family Amoris Laetitia, a “doctrinal anarchy” that was feared and predicted at the synods on the family is becoming apparent. Belgium’s bishops have become the latest to read the exhortation as giving — under certain conditions but with an emphasis on the primacy of conscience — access to the Sacraments for some civilly remarried divorcees without an annulment. They follow the bishops’ conferences of Malta, the Pope Francis Brings Doctrinal AnarchyPhilippines and Germany, as well as some bishops from other countries who have issued similar guidelines and statements for interpreting Amoris Laetitia’s controversial Chapter 8.

By contrast, Poland’s bishops’ conference last week became the first national conference to declare that Amoris Laetitia has not changed Church doctrine on Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and that they continue not to have access to the Sacraments as the Church considers them to be living in an objective state of adultery. In a statement following their annual plenary meeting, the bishops said the exhortation must be read in continuity with Church teaching, especially with regards to Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. That document stated the Church was not to allow remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion unless living as “brother and sister.”… The Polish bishops’ position is echoed by that of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has continually maintained that Amoris Laetitia should only be interpreted in line with the Church’s teaching, and that it has not changed the Church’s discipline….

Growing Confusion

The practical implications of this doctrinal confusion are already being witnessed. At a Mass last Sunday in an Argentine parish, Bishop Ángel José Macín of Reconquista determined that after six months of discernment, parishioners living in irregular unions or divorced and civilly remarried could be included in full and sacramental Communion. They may have all been living chaste lives as brother and sister, but the blog Rorate Caeli reported that at no point was that mentioned, nor was any reference made to the Lord’s commandment against committing adultery. The reality of the situation is that the members of that Argentine parish have access to the Sacraments, but that would not be the case were they in a Polish one. Thus your geographical location becomes the determining factor on whether you must adhere to traditional Church teaching and practice, or not.

“The first effect on the Church of doctrinal anarchy is division,” said Monsignor Nicola Bux, a former consulter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. This is “because of apostasy,” he added, “which is the abandonment of Catholic thought, as defined by Saint Vincent of Lerins: quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditur [what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all].”… Msgr. Bux warned that the Church “cannot change the faith and at the same time ask believers to remain faithful to it.”

Further problems relate to how priests are dealing with the ambiguity over the change in practice, with bishops reporting many incidences of deep confusion as well as issues of obedience and conscience. A few clergy have reportedly abandoned the ministry as they refuse in conscience to give Holy Communion to remarried divorcees not living in continence.

A Chance to Clarify

A key problem is that the Pope’s own position on this issue has been ambiguous. Although last year he backed an Argentine bishops’ directive advocating support for giving Holy Communion to some remarried divorcees and, a few months ago, wrote a letter thanking Maltese bishops for their guidelines on interpreting the document, he has yet to state an official position, despite being formally asked to do so by four cardinals. Cardinals Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, and Joachim Meisner sent him a list of dubia last September, five doubts about Amoris Laetitia aimed at resolving confusion over this issue, and other questions over whether the document is in continuity with the Church’s teaching.

The Pope has asked Cardinal Müller not to respond, but said in an interview that some, “as with certain responses to Amoris Laetitia, persist in seeing only white or black, when rather one ought to discern in the flow of life.” He added that these “critiques — if they’re not from an evil spirit — do help. Some types of rigorism spring from the desire to hide one’s own dissatisfaction under armor.”

Speaking last year at a presentation, Archbishop Bruno Forte, who was special secretary during the synods on the family, shared comments the Pope made during the synod which give an indication of his approach. “If we speak explicitly about Communion for the divorced and remarried, you do not know what a terrible mess we will make,” Archbishop Forte reported the Pope as saying, reportedly adding: “So we won’t speak plainly, do it in a way that the premises are there, then I will draw out the conclusions.”

The current situation is causing widespread unease, frustration and anger. German Catholic journalist Peter Winnemöller, writing on the Austrian website Kathnet, said he found it hard to believe that this “absurd situation” is what Pope Francis means when he says he wants the decentralization of the Church. The “valuable suggestions” made at the synod to strengthen the Sacrament of marriage and the family are “unfortunately being completely undermined” by the chapter and its “problematic interpretation,” he added. This is exacerbated by the Pope “in not making a binding decision and announcement,” he said.

Adding gravity to the situation depicted by Pentin, four Catholic cardinals recently made the following urgent plea to Pope Francis after their previous appeals for clarification on his position were ignored:

Most Holy Father,

A year has now gone by since the publication of Amoris Laetitia. During this time, interpretations of some objectively ambiguous passages of the post-synodal Exhortation have publicly been given that are not divergent from, but contrary to, the permanent Magisterium of the Church. Despite the fact that the Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith has repeatedly declared that the doctrine of the Church has not changed, numerous statements have appeared from individual Bishops, Cardinals, and even Episcopal Conferences, approving what the Magisterium of the Church has never approved. Not only access to the Holy Eucharist for those who objectively and publicly live in a situation of grave sin, and intend to remain in it, but also a conception of moral conscience contrary to the Tradition of the Church.

And so it is happening — how painful it is to see this! — that what is sin in Poland is good in Germany, that what is prohibited in the archdiocese of Philadelphia is permitted in Malta. And so on. One is reminded of the bitter observation of B. Pascal: “Justice on this side of the Pyrenees, injustice on the other; justice on the left bank of the river, injustice on the right bank.”… Faced with this grave situation, in which many Christian communities are being divided, we feel the weight of our responsibility, and our conscience impels us to ask humbly and respectfully for an Audience.

The last time I posted on this topic, many Catholic “apologists” tried to downplay the crisis provoked by Amoris Laetitia. To me, it seems that one would need to be blind, even if willingly so, to not see that this is no small matter. It does no one any good to deny that there is a problem, for the first step to healing is the willingness to admit that a sickness exists.

Ultimately, however, I think that the root issue goes deeper than what the above quotations would suggest. From my perspective, Pope Francis has merely brought to the surface a fundamental flaw systemic throughout the entire structure of Catholicism. When the Word of God is domesticated under the authority of the church, when it is not permitted to speak not only in the church but, more importantly, to the church and, when necessary, against the church, then the kind of crisis evident now in Catholicism is simply inevitable. Only if the church — or more precisely, the whole church including its governing and teaching office — is wholly subject to the correction, reproof, and instruction of the living voice of God in Holy Scripture can there be hope for resolution. Only God can save, and the moment his voice is drowned out by ecclesial canons, decrees, and (ahem) apostolic exhortations, the final result can only be what we are seeing now in the Catholic Church: the rise of “doctrinal anarchy”. Contrary to Catholic polemic, sola Scriptura is not the cause of disunity; failure to submit wholly and exclusively to God’s Word is.

Is Pope Francis a Heretic? A Catholic Priest Responds

Among the various Roman Catholic news and blog feeds that I follow, I came across the following post written by Fr John Hunwicke who responds to the question: Is Pope Francis a heretic? I found his answer intriguing, and I hope you might as well:

To this question there can only be one answer: NO. And NO means, as Mrs Brexiteer May might put it, NO. Pope Bergoglio has NEVER, to my knowledge, formally enunciated doctrines which are unambiguously heretical. The claim one sometimes 9592641cd5fb1d67fcae8d8afe8d467ahears, to the effect that he has formally, as if from his chair, made doctrinal assertions which the Church has formally defined as heretical, is NONSENSE….

One easy reason for being confident that the Sovereign Pontiff has not formally taught heresy is the simple fact, confirmed pretty well every time he opens his mouth, that he despises theology and holds doctrine in not-even-barely-concealed contempt. To be a heretic, or, more precisely, to be a formal heretic, it is in practical terms necessary to operate within the respectable constraints of propositional discourse. The fact that Bergoglio does not do this is proved by the fact, written large over this whole pontificate, that nobody ever quite seems to be sure what he means. The DUBIA which the four Cardinals put forward provide a good example of this. Four men of erudition (not to mention seniority) thought they needed to ask the Bishop of Rome what he meant. His tardiness, so far, in exercising the Petrine Ministry of Confirming his Brethren demonstrates his resolute determination not to be tied down by propositions. I do not believe that it is possible to convict such a man, operating such a policy, of being a formal heretic….

In other words, how can you be a heretic if you never say anything definitive? Honestly, I’m not sure what’s worse!

Post Tenebras Lux: After 500 Years, Can Reformation Finally Come to the Heart of Roman Catholicism?

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, that is a picture of Martin Luther posted on the right in front of a Catholic Church in Italy in remembrance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.


Don’t believe me? Here is a closer look.


As if one picture of Luther were not enough, a nearby Church thought it necessary to post five!


Not only is this posting of Luther’s picture in front of the Catholic Church in Italy a reason to celebrate, but it also holds a special significance for me in that my name is printed on it as well. Why? Because the Catholic Church in the community where I live has asked me to participate in a conference that will be open to the public in which I will have the opportunity to discuss the significance of the Reformation past, present, and future with Catholic priest and eminent professor of theology and history Don Ermis Segatti. I have participated in something like this in the past, and I am very much looking forward to another occasion in which I will be able to speak on the continuing relevance of the Reformation in a public forum.

The reason why this is exciting for me is because, as it is well known, the Reformation had little to no lasting impact in Italy, largely due to its proximity to the heart of Catholicism in Rome. Five hundred years ago, the Catholic Church succeeded in stamping out the majority of the Protestant incursions into the Italian peninsula. Since that time, the Church in Italy, to say nothing of the wider culture, has borne the indelible imprint of the countermeasures adopted against the Protestant faith and immortalized in the decrees of the Council of Trent.

Times are changing, however, as evidenced by the fact that a local Catholic Church here in Italy is commemorating the start of the Reformation, posting Luther’s next to its main entrance. Even the pope has recently expressed a measured amount of respect for Luther in his good intentions to bring necessary reform to the Church. Among the various explanations for why this may be occurring, it might be helpful to know that the Catholic Church in Italy has suffered, and continues to suffer, a severe hemorrhaging of its faithful. The number of Italians still claiming to be Catholic has dropped dramatically in the last few years and has reached an unprecedent low. In his book Can We Save the Catholic Church?, Catholic priest and theologian Hans Küng details this steady exodus of Italians away from their inherited faith when he writes:

It has become increasingly clear that the number of people who consider the Church necessary – or even useful – has continually decreased since the peak of public approval at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), and under Benedict XVI it dropped to an all-time low. The results of significant surveys conducted in a number of Western countries show that this decline is not a development restricted to the ‘recalcitrant’ German-speaking countries.

In Italy, the land of the pope, less than half of the population still consider themselves to be Catholic, 20 per cent less than in 2004 (IARD RPS). This is despite the fact that more than 80 per cent consider religion to be important, a drop of only 8 per cent compared to six years previously. But many people want to have nothing more to do with the Church as an institution. Only 46 per cent still have confidence in the pope; six years ago the number stood at 60 per cent.[1]

Since Küng wrote these words back in 2013, nothing seems to have stemmed the tide of Italians leaving the Catholic Church. A new article published last year documents that:

…a record number of Italian Catholics are also thought to have defected from the Church in 2015, according to figures published in January by the Italian Union of Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists (URR), an organization that helps Catholics abjure their religion by providing them with forms that can be downloaded online and sent to their local parish. Some 47,726 forms were downloaded in 2015, beating the previous high of 45,797 set in 2012, while the not-so-popular Pope Benedict was still at the helm of the Catholic Church. [Full article here]

Not only are the Italian faithful disillusioned over the condition of their Church, but trouble is also brewing in the highest echelons of the Roman hierarchy. On March 2, 2017, CSN News reported the following:

According to a report in The London Times and best selling Catholic author and journalist Antonio Socci, about 12 cardinals who have supported Pope Francis since his election in March 2013 now fear that his controversial reforms may cause a schism in the Church, and so they hope to pressure the Pope to resign. 

“A large part of the cardinals who voted for him is very worried and the curia … that organized his election and has accompanied him thus far, without ever disassociating itself from him, is cultivating the idea of a moral suasion to convince him to retire,” reported Socci in the Italian newspaper Libero, as quoted in The London Times of March 2. 

The cardinals who want Pope Francis to resign are among the liberal prelates who backed Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) four years ago, said Socci, and they would like to replace him with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state. 

“Four years after Benedict XVI’s renunciation and Bergoglio’s arrival on the scene, the situation of the Catholic church has become explosive, perhaps really on the edge of a schism, which could be even more disastrous than Luther’s…” said Socci. [Full article here]

Socci is manifestly not an admirer of Martin Luther, whom he holds to be responsable for a “disastrous” schism. Nevertheless, he fears that the Catholic Church is on the verge of a schism potentially more disastrous than anything Luther provoked, and this time the instigator is none other than the pope himself.

I do not write this as one who sits in judgment over the Catholic Church. I strongly disagree with Socci’s view of Luther and of the Reformation in general, but that is really beside the point that I want to make, which is this: the Church in Italy needs gospel renewal! It is no mere Protestant polemic to acknowledge the fact that the Catholic Church, at least the part of it that lies closest to its center, is sick and bleeding out. Everyone in Italy knows this. According to Hans Küng, there is no denying “debilitating and potentially terminal illness from which the Church is presently suffering” [2]. Although I am sure that many Catholic apologists elsewhere will object, it is a fact that most Italian Catholics who live closest to Rome, like Antonio Socci, are gravely concerned over the languishing health of their Church and are fearing the worst. It is no unkindness to call something what it is.

It is no human strategy or solution that can bring healing to the fatal wound of Italian Christianity, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ which alone is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). To say that the increasing numbers of Italians turning their backs on their Church, and for that reason on Christ as well, need the gospel is simply to say that they need others who will share the gospel with them. As Paul argued in Romans 10, how will they hear unless they are told, and how will they be told unless others are sent to them?

All this to say, Italy needs missionaries. Not necessarily missionaries of the traditional “jungles-of-Africa” variety, but reformissionaries who are committed to bringing gospel renewal and revival to a land increasingly devoid of Christianity. Even Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged this when he wrote:

 …we also sadly know of some areas that have almost completely abandoned the Christian religion, where the light of the faith is entrusted to the witness of small communities: these lands, which need a renewed first proclamation of the Gospel, seem particularly resistant to many aspects of the Christian message. This variety of situations demands careful discernment; to speak of a “new evangelization” does not in fact mean that a single formula should be developed that would hold the same for all circumstances. And yet it is not difficult to see that what all the Churches living in traditionally Christian territories need is a renewed missionary impulse, an expression of a new, generous openness to the gift of grace. [Full text here]

Indeed, the contemporary situation and need of Italy is not unlike that which John Calvin described in the 16th century:

…the question is not whether the Church suffers from many and grievous diseases, for this is admitted even by all moderate judges; but whether the diseases are of a kind whose cure admits of no longer delay, so that it is neither useful nor proper to wait upon too slow remedies…. We maintain to start with that, when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and on whose ministry our churches are founded and built, those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete.[4]

This is why I am in Italy. I long to hold forth the torch taken up by Luther five hundred years ago and play some small part in sparking true gospel reformation across the land that has always been the center of Roman Catholicism. For the last five hundred years, the light of the gospel has not been permitted to shine with its refulgent glory throughout the peninsula. Up until the 20th century access to the Bible was extremely limited in Italy, and not until Vatican II was full blessing given to the faithful to read it for themselves. For this reason, the Bible has been dubbed “‘the absent book'” in the history and culture of modern Italy”,[3] and the significance of this cannot be overstated. Centuries of suppression have ingrained within the Italian psyche a reticence, if not downright opposition, to reading the Bible. We can only pray that God would mightily work to change this tragic reality. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. If they will not hear, how will they have faith?

So I would ask that you would pray for me in my work here in Italy, and specifically as I prepare for this upcoming conference on the Reformation. Might God be pleased to use the current crisis in the Catholic Church to open wide its door that for five hundred years has remained bolted shut against the great truths rediscovered during the Reformation? I don’t know, that is in his hands. For my part, I just hope to maybe push it open a crack! If nothing else, I would at least celebrate the small victory that is the local Catholic Church’s decision to post pictures of Martin Luther just outside its doors and host a public event commemorating his work. Perhaps now is the time to start proclaiming again the great Reformation motto: Post Tenebras Lux! After Darkness Light!



[1] Hans Küng, Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013), p.45

[2] Ibid., p.1.


[4] John Calvin, Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), pp.185-186.

Not By Bread Alone: Karl Barth on the Word of God as the Divine Determination of All Humanity

Sometimes when presenting the gospel, it is all too easy to speak as though an act of faith or an existential decision play some sort of determinative role in altering the reality of the individuals in question. Appeals are made to “make” or “accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior”, as though our acceptance of Christ could create a new situation that did not previously exist, as though Christ were not already our Lord and Savior, whether we acknowledge him or not! Now I realize that there is a kernel of truth here, for there is a fundamental change that occurs in the conversion of sinners under the preaching of the gospel, but overall this kind of approach fails in that it comes across more as suggestion than declaration, more as counsel than command. As Pope Francis recently stated (full text here):

The Word of God cannot be given as a proposal – ‘well, if you like it…’ – or like good philosophical or moral idea – ‘well, you can live this way…’ No! It’s something else. It needs to be proposed with this frankness, with this force, so that the Word penetrates, as Paul says, ‘to the bone.’ The Word of God must be proclaimed with this frankness, with this force… with courage… you will say, yes, something interesting, something moral, something that will do you good, a good philanthropy, but this is not the Word of God.

How very true. The gospel is not a proposal, not a good idea, not self-help advice or a “try it and if you don’t like it then return it for a full refund” bargain. Rather, it is the declaration of what is already true of all people, regardless of whether they realize it or not. It is then a command to submit this new reality as the already-determined basis of human life under the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ. When Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31, he did not offer them Jesus Christ as simply a better option among the pantheon of their other gods; rather he solemnly asserted:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

According to Paul, the advent of Jesus Christ has set all of reality on an entirely new basis. In Christ, a whole new order – a new creation, a new kingdom – have come into being, and this is something which has irrevocably determined the destiny of every single human being, whether they realize it or not. As Karl Barth explains:

As God’s Word itself is revelation, i.e., a new word for me, so the situation in which it sets me as it is spoken to me is an absolutely new situation which cannot be seen or understood in advance, which cannot be compared with any other, which is grounded in the Word of God and in this alone. It is, of course, a situation of decision. But this barth-lecturing1is not the decision of my own particular resolve and choice (though there is a place for these too). It is a decision of being judged and accepted. And because the particular judgment and acceptance are God’s, it is a decision of my particular reality, of the particular meaning of my resolve and choice.

Just because the Word of God means “God with us,” just because it is the Word of the Lord, of our Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, it obviously pronounces our judgment to us. In it, it is decided who we are. We are what we are on the basis of this judgment, what we are as its hearers, i.e., we are believers or unbelievers, obedient or disobedient. Previously and per se we are neither the one nor the other. Previously and per se we do not even have the possibility of being either the one or the other. Faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, are possible only to the extent that, as our act, they are our particular reply to the judgment of God pronounced to us in His Word.

In faith and obedience my resolve and choice is truly good before God. Whatever else may have to be said about me, I exist in correspondence to God’s Word. I have received and accepted His grace. In unbelief and disobedience my own resolve and choice, whatever else may have to be said about me, is truly bad before God. I exist in contradiction to God’s Word. I have not accepted His grace. Either way it is I—this is really my own supremely responsible decision. But it is not in my decision that it acquires the character of being a good choice on the one hand or a bad one on the other. The implication of this decision of mine taken with my own free will, namely, the step either to the right hand or to the left, the choice to believe and obey or the refusal to do either—this qualification of my decision is the truth within it of the divine decision concerning me.

In speaking to me God has chosen me, as the man I am, to be the man I am. The new quality I acquire through the Word of God is my true and essential quality. I cannot give myself this true and essential quality. Only God can judge me. I am wholly and altogether the man I am in virtue of the divine decision. In virtue of the divine decision I am a believer or an unbeliever in my own decision. In this decision whereby it is decided who I am in my own decision and whereby it is decided what my own decision really means—in this realisation of my reality, this bringing of our works to light (Jn. 3:20f.; Eph. 5:12f.), the Word of God is consummated as the act of God. It is always the act of the inscrutable judgment of God.[1]

Whoever we are, wherever we are, we are what we are because of the Word of God. In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses reminded the people of Israel that God had allowed them to hunger in order to teach them that “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. As Barth helps us to understand, this is not a metaphorical statement, neither is it expressing an existential truth related only to our religious or spiritual experience. At bottom, it is ontological fact: it is by the Word of God that we were created, it is by the Word of God that we are sustained in existence, and it is by the Word of God that we are reconciled and redeemed, and it is by the Word of God that we will be judged. The reality to which this Word attests is the reality of every human being, prior to and independent of any recognition of it.

This is what makes missions and evangelism so desperately urgent: the church must proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God that undergirds and enfolds their existence and summons them to live in accordance with it. This is also what makes missions and evangelism possible: the church can proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God because it is already true for them, irrespective of whether or not they accept it or reject it. Certainly, the moment of decision when the Word of God confronts us is massively important, and it will bear decisively on whether we will be judged as obedient or disobedient, as believers or unbelievers, as sheep or goats. But the salient point, as Barth makes clear, is that even before our decision to believe or to disbelieve in the Word of God, that Word has already made a decision regarding us, and it is ultimately on that basis that our eternal existence has been decisively determined, and it is precisely for this reason that we must make known that decision to every human being and call them to respond with their own decision of repentance and faith.

Therefore, let us, with the apostle Paul, boldly proclaim as far and as wide as we can the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ accomplished once for all and for all, confronting all people with the reality to which they are commanded to submit, the reality of God’s judgment of the world in righteousness through the man Jesus Christ, died, resurrected, ascended, and coming again.


[1] Karl Barth Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.161-162.

True Ecumenism: Pope Francis and the Centrality of Jesus Christ

As of late I have written a number of articles that address the now 500 year old division between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. I have been largely critical of what I see in the Catholic Church as standing in the way of healing that division, not least of which is the Roman papacy as it has come to be defined and exercised. Since, however, my aim is not to be critical as an end in itself (for critique should only clear the ground for construction), I want to give credit where credit is due and highlight positive developments where and when they occur. For this reason, I think that Pope Francis should be commended for his recent definition of “true ecumenism”.

First a word of introduction. Although in some evangelical circles the term “ecumenical” carries negative connotations, I unreservedly confess to being an ecumenical at heart, for I would desire nothing less than to witness a clear and visible manifestation of unity between the churches now divided. I am concerned, however, that such unity be pursued in the proper way, in the way in which the New Testament itself directs us. I do not envision that the Catholic-Protestant schism will be overcome through a mere “return to Rome” or a glossing over of the differences that exist. Why not? Because for all of the various social, cultural, and political factors that contributed to the birth of the Reformation, the Reformers were driven fundamentally by theological motivations. It is easy to forget that Martin Luther did not initially intend to break communion with the bishop of Rome, indicating that his basic complaint was not with the Church as an institution so much as with the errors that he discerned in its teaching. Since the Reformation arose primarily as a movement aimed at correcting the faith of the Catholic popefrancis_speaks_during_an_ecumenical_gathering_at_malmo_arena_in_lund_sweden_oct_31_2016_credit_losservatore_romano_cnaChurch, then it is unlikely that a mere return of the Reformation’s offspring to the institution of the Catholic Church will suffice for true unity.

All of this leads me to the substance of this post. This month (18-25 January) witnessed the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity whose theme, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, was “Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us”. During the celebration, Pope Francis had this to say in an address the Finnish Lutheran Ecumenical Delegation (full text here):

True ecumenism is based on a shared conversion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Redeemer.  If we draw close to him, we draw close also to one another.  During these days let us pray more fervently to the Holy Spirit so that we may experience this conversion which makes reconciliation possible.

On this path, we Catholics and Lutherans, from several countries, together with various communities sharing our ecumenical journey, reached a significant step when, on 31 October last, we gathered together in Lund, Sweden, to commemorate through common prayer the beginning of the Reformation.  This joint commemoration of the Reformation was important on both the human and theological-spiritual levels.  After fifty years of official ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, we have succeeded in clearly articulating points of view which today we agree on.  For this we are grateful.  At the same time we keep alive in our hearts sincere contrition for our faults.  In this spirit, we recalled in Lund that the intention of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her.  The gathering there gave us the courage and strength, in our Lord Jesus Christ, to look ahead to the ecumenical journey that we are called to walk together.

Now the pope’s address contains some elements with which I could take issue, but that is not the purpose of this post. Rather, I would like to commend the pope for clearly articulating what I believe to be the heart and soul of “true ecumenism”. Though I still stand by the reservations I have voiced in the past about the pope’s ecumenical intentions, I cannot but wholeheartedly affirm his summary of the true path to unity between the churches: it is ultimately by drawing close to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, that we draw near (or are drawn near!) to one another. I am reminded here of the apostle John’s admonishment in his first epistle: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). This verse is highly instructive: we have fellowship with each other – visibly manifesting the fullness of our catholicity – to the extent that we walk in the light as Christ is in, and indeed himself is, the light. If we do not have fellowship with one another, then the only conclusion is that we are not walking in the light of Christ! In some form or another, we do not have full fellowship with each because we do not have full fellowship with Christ. As Karl Barth powerfully put it:

The quest for the unity of the Church must in fact be identical with the quest for Jesus Christ as the concrete Head and Lord of the Church. The blessing of unity cannot be separated from Him who blesses, for in Him it has its source and reality, through His Word and Spirit it is revealed to us, and only in faith in Him can it become a reality among us. I repeat: Jesus Christ as the one Mediator between God and man is the oneness of the Church, is that unity within which there may be a multiplicity of communities, of gifts, of persons with the one Church, while through it a multiplicity of churches are excluded. When we confess and assert that it belongs to the Church’s commission to be one Church, we must not have in mind the idea of unity, whatever its goodness and moral beauty may be – we must have Him in our mind; for in Him and in Him only…can those other multiplicities of the Church whether recent or of long standing, which claim an independence of their own, lose their life. “Homesickness for the una sancta” is genuine and legitimate only insofar as it is a disquietude at the fact that we have lost and forgotten Christ, and with Him have lost the unity of the Church.[1]

If the root problem of our disunity is a disrupted fellowship with Christ, then the only solution, as the pope rightly observed, is a “shared conversion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Redeemer”. This means, as the pope further acknowledged, that we must “keep alive in our hearts sincere contrition for our faults”. I appreciate that the pope included himself, and by extension the Catholic Church as a whole, in this. He did not say to the Lutheran delegation: “you keep alive in your hearts sincere contrition for your faults”, as though the blame is only to be laid at the feet of Luther. Indeed, Pope Francis reaffirmed the fact that Luther never wanted to divide the church, but quite the contrary: he believed that a renewal of the church could only strengthen its unity. Rather, the pope stressed that when it comes to church disunity, all sides are culpable and thus must adopt a fundamentally repentant attitude.

It is not coincidental that in the verse subsequent to the one quoted above John wrote: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”. (1 John 1:8). In other words, when we find that we have broken fellowship with each other, than it will not do for some of us claim that we have no sin in the matter! None of us, neither Catholic nor Protestant (to say nothing of the Orthodox!), can be wholly exonerated. We have all contributed to this division in one way or another. Self-posturing or self-justification will never bring about the fellowship of which John is speaking. That can only happen through confession and repentance: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Thus, if we as Catholics and Protestants truly want to walk the pathway to greater unity, that pathway will first and foremost be directed toward Christ himself. It is only as we draw near to Christ (rather than to a particular tradition or person or institution) that we will find ourselves drawn nearer to each other as well.


[1] Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches. (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2005), pp.13-15.

Who Interprets the Interpreters? A Question to Roman Catholics in Light of the Debate over ‘Amoris Laetitia’

The focus of this post is fairly straightforward: I have a question to pose to my Roman Catholic friends and dialogue/debate partners. It is a question I have long considered in that it directly impinges upon the historic debate revolving around the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis the authority of the church, especially in relation to biblical interpretation. Before I get to my question, however, I want to begin with excerpts from two articles posted this month on the National Catholic Register. As will become apparent from the quoted sections, the specific issue being addressed is the confusion over the meaning of certain statements made by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia. Yet, as I will explain below, this particular issue seems, at least from my perspective, only to bring to light a much deeper difficulty in the Catholic Church’s view of interpretive authority that usually tends to lay hidden below the surface. First, though, the articles.

The first was reported by CNA/EWTN News (full text here):

BOLOGNA, Italy — In an interview with an Italian daily published Saturday, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra discussed at length the questions that exist about the interpretation of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on love in the family. Cardinal Caffarra, the archbishop emeritus of Bologna who was head of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family from 1981 to 1995, spoke to Matteo Matzuzzi of Il Foglio in an interview published Jan. 14He is among the four cardinals do922-amoris-laetitiawho authored a letter with five dubia, or doubts, about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, requesting that Pope Francis “resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity.” Their letter was sent privately to the Pope Sept. 19, but released to the public two months later.

The letter and its dubia “were long reflected on, for months. … For my part, they were also the subject of lengthy prayer before the Most Blessed Sacrament,” Cardinal Caffarra explained to Il FoglioThe four cardinals believed themselves obliged to submit the dubia because of their role in counseling the Pope and because of “the fact … that in the Church there exists great confusion, uncertainty, insecurity caused by some paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia.” “In these months, in terms of fundamental questions regarding the sacramental economy (marriage, confession and the Eucharist) and the Christian life, some bishops have said A, some others have said the contrary of A, with the intention of interpreting well the same text.”

Cardinal Caffarra said that “the way out of this ‘conflict of interpretations’ was to have recourse to fundamental theological criteria of interpretation, the use of which I think can reasonably demonstrate that Amoris Laetitia does not contradict Familiaris Consortio.” And yet, he said, “We saw that this epistemological model would not suffice. The contrast between the two interpretations continued,” and so the only way to address the question was to ask the author of Amoris Laetitia to clarify it.

Out of respect for the Pope, the four cardinals chose to submit their dubia privately, deciding to make them public only “when we had certainty that the Holy Father would not respond. … We interpreted his silence as authorization to continue the theological discussion. And, moreover, the problem profoundly involves both the magisterium of the bishops (which, lest we forget, they exercise not by the delegation of the Pope, but on the basis of the sacrament which they have received) and the life of the faithful.”

The cardinal noted that scandal on the part of the faithful had been growing, “as though we comported ourselves like the dogs who did not bark,” alluding to Isaiah 56:10, in which the prophet says the Lord’s watchmen “are all mute dogs; they cannot bark; dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber.”…Cardinal Caffarra pointed to the example of a pastor who had written him saying, “In spiritual direction and in confession, I don’t know what to say” when confronted by penitents who wish to receive Communion despite their adulterous situation, and they cite the Pope in their defense. “The situation of many pastors of souls, I mean above all parish priests, is this,” the cardinal continued: “There is on their shoulders a burden too hard to bear.”

In another article published on 23 January (full text here), Fr. Raymond J. de Souza has this to say about the issue:

The Church opened 2017 with another ride on the Amoris Laetitia roller coaster, with bishops issuing contradictory guidelines on the interpretation of its ambiguous eighth chapter. The most notable intervention was that of the bishops of Malta, who wrote explicitly that Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, should they feel “at peace with God,” can receive absolution in confession and holy Communion…The Maltese guidelines were published in L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, suggesting that Pope Francis favors the proposed change in the traditional sacramental discipline.

I had written last year that Amoris Laetitia is destined to be forgotten, as it does not itself address with sufficient gravity the key issues at stake. The relevant canons from the Code of Canon Law (915 and 916) are simply never mentioned. Indeed, the question of Communion is never explicitly mentioned, only hinted at in an ambiguous footnote. Given the long and detailed tradition it was attempting to modify, if not overturn, Amoris Laetitia would have had to address the relevant issues forthrightly and with a great deal more sophistication than it does. The magisterium is a public act of teaching; it cannot proceed by stealth.

I stand by that earlier assessment, but before Amoris Laetitia is set aside for practical purposes, it is now likely that there will be several years of confusion, conflict and even rancor, unless the Holy Father chooses to resolve the crisis. He does not appear inclined to do so. Given that Amoris Laetitia itself is the cause of the contradictions now arising, it is not evident that a further papal intervention would resolve the matter. It is possible that it would produce a genuine crisis.

Without getting into the details of the debate, I only want to take advantage of this occasion to pose a question that I have had on my mind for a while now. The question is simply this: who interprets the interpreters? That is to say, if, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (85) declares, “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone”, then who interprets, for the rest of the Church, the interpretation of the living teaching office, if and when that interpretation is unclear?

 Under normal circumstances, the gravity of this question may not be particularly apparent. As long as everyone in the Church seems to agree, then the potential problem stays hidden. However, when it happens that (as is happening right now according to the aforementioned articles) the interpretation of the living teaching office of the Church is disputed, then who decides what the correct interpretation actually is? In the current situation, an appeal to the supreme teaching authority of the pope in order to resolve the issue seems out of the question, not only because the confusion originated from him to begin with, but also because the request for clarification has already been made and thus far the pope has refused to give one. Moreover, the rest of the teaching office does not seem capable of providing an authoritative interpretation inasmuch as its members do not seem to be in full agreement among themselves.

Now what is the relevance of this to the question of sola Scriptura? One of the most common rebuttals that I have heard in response to my own writings on this matter is that sola Scriptura leaves us stranded in a sea of interpretive pluralism, far from the secure moorings of the authoritative interpretation given by the one true church. When Scripture is considered the highest authority, then who can decide which interpretation of Scripture is correct and thus normative for the church? biblical-interpretation-imageIt is this lack of interpretive authority that, according to many Roman Catholics, leads to the endless splintering of Protestantism into thousands of different denominations.

I would suggest, however, that Roman Catholics face a similar dilemma. On the one hand, of course, the living teaching office of their Church appears to supply the authority necessary for determining the proper interpretation of Scripture. On the other hand, this really only pushes the question of interpretation back a step, for who is to provide an authoritative interpretation of the authoritative interpretation when the latter is unclear? If it is answered that the teaching office interprets itself, then my counterquestion would be this: why should the teaching office be granted the privilege and authority of self-interpretation but not Scripture, as Protestants have historically maintained? Many Catholics insist that the Protestant principle of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” is circular and impractical. But why then do they not react the same way to the idea that “the teaching office interprets the teaching office”? Isn’t this just as circular and impractical as the Protestant position to which they object?

Not only is this problem evident in the confusion over Amoris Laetitia, but it can also be seen in the still-ongoing debate over the proper interpretation, or at least the proper application, of Vatican II. To be sure, Pope Benedict XVI attempted to cut through the chaos with his concept of “reform in continuity”. Yet a survey of the relevant literature still being produced today shows that the controversies are far from over. Therefore, regardless of whatever may be claimed by the Catholic Church about the rock-solid certainty that its own interpretive authority provides, the reality, as illustrated currently by Amoris Laetitia and for the last 50 years by the aftermath of Vatican II, is that even the interpreters need to be interpreted, and thus the rock of certainty can still dissolve into a quicksand of confusion.

To conclude, I will simply say that while none of this proves that sola Scriptura is a better option (though of course I’m convinced it is!), it reveals that the Catholic Church’s teaching office offers no surer foundation upon which to ground the correct interpretation of the Bible than does the Protestant commitment to the supreme authority and self-interpreting power of what the Westminster Confession calls “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture”.

Not of This World: Why the Way of the Cross Opposes the Will to Power

This week Fr. Paul Samasumo, writing on behalf of Radio Vaticana, reported on an interesting development regarding the Catholic Church’s international relations:

Pope Francis Monday revealed that the number of ambassadors accredited to the Holy See has grown. In his annual address to members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, it also emerged that in the course of last year, the number of African countries that signed or ratified bilateral Agreements with the Holy See had increased. The establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a month ago, brings to 182 countries and entities that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See in the world. In his annual address to the diplomats, Pope Francis named the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Benin as African countries that signed or ratified agreements aimed at recognising the Catholic Church’s juridical status, last year (full text here).

Samasumo’s article brings to light, albeit somewhat incidentally, a sometimes neglected facet of Roman Catholicism, namely, its existence not merely as an ecclesial body but also as a political state. Indeed, the fact that official diplomatic relations exist between the Vatican and “182 countries and entities” that recognize it as a sovereign state capable of playing a significant role in international affairs reveals much about the way in which the Catholic 150928_pol_franciscongresscon-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2Church construes itself and its mission in the world. Italian theologian Leonardo De Chirico explains:

The Roman Catholic Church is the only church that also has a sovereign state with its own political, financial, juridical and diplomatic structure. It is the only ecclesial body that deals with other states as a state. When the Church signs agreements with another state in the form of a concordat, for instance, it does so according to the rules of international law, as one sovereign country with another. The Pope is head of the church and head of state. When he visits a nation he is welcomed as if he were a king, not simply as an archbishop or some other ecclesiastical figure. Though small and symbolic, the Church also has an army, like any other state. Its double identity (ecclesial and political) is the fruit of its long and complex history, and is also an indication of its composite institutional nature: both church and state in one. Theology and politics are so intertwined in the system of the Roman Catholic Church and its activities that it is impossible to separate them.[1]

For Protestants like myself, this conflation of church and state, of the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, is highly problematic. It also represents, beyond whatever theological bones we Protestants may have to pick, one of the clearest signs that the Catholic Church has lost its way as a church, that is, as the communion of saints (disciples) called to follow their Lord by denying themselves, renouncing all that they have, and taking up their cross (Luke 14:25-33). As Jesus demonstrated through his own example, the way of the cross is fundamentally opposed to the will to power, even as we see clearly illustrated in his encounter with the imperial authority of Rome embodied in the person of Pontius Pilate. As John (18:36) recounts the scene:

Jesus answered [Pilate], “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

The reason why Jesus refused (and prohibited his disciples) to inaugurate his kingdom by the same means as those employed by Pilate on behalf of the Roman empire was because his kingdom was not of the Roman empire, nor of any other form of earthly power and authority. His kingdom instead executes judgment on all the ways and works of the kings of the earth (Psalm 2). Like the vision, interpreted by Daniel (2:44-45), by which God confronted King Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom of God is like a stone, not cut with human hands, that smashes all earthly kingdoms to dust. And with Jesus, the actual way in which the kingdom of God came with this earth-shattering power was not by military might, political pressure, or diplomatic maneuvering, but rather through the foolishness, weakness, and suffering of the cross. As Roman Catholic theologian Paul Molnar writes (in reference to T.F. Torrance):

The church cannot use temporal power to achieve [its] ends because that would undermine the reality of the church’s existence as the Body of Christ who suffered and died for the church. Its own historical form can only be one of taking up its cross and following Christ and of allowing the living Lord to build his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven through the Holy Spirit. What Torrance opposes, then, is the “use of political theology as a basic hermeneutic to interpret the Gospel and the mission of the Church in the world today” because in doing this they “become trapped in an ecclesiastical will to power” [Torrance, Theology in Reconciliation, 78]. He opposes using temporal power to attain spiritual ends because this is not the way the church as the Body of Christ exists as the Kingdom of God on earth between the time of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and second coming. The determination to use temporal power to attain unity or universality will always mean that the positive evangelical and spiritual forces at work in the church will be suppressed.[2]

Any church, therefore, that claims the name of Christ and yet adopts the very means of power and influence that Christ himself eschewed has, in reality, abandoned the way of Christ and followed in the footsteps of Pilate. This is not to say that the church should not be in any way involved in matters concerning worldly governments but that it should not assume the form of those governments or imitate their way of achieving their goals. Sadly, this is precisely what we see in the Roman Catholic Church. Is it any coincidence that the only church to have taken up the political will to power, in diametric opposition to the way of the cross, is centered in Rome?

It is for this reason that I, like Leonardo De Chirico (and the vast majority of Italian evangelicals), insist…

that it is incompatible with the teaching of Scripture to have a church whose heart is a political state that is a legacy of an “imperial” church from which it has inherited titles and prerogatives. Christian churches must refrain from imitating “the princes of this world” and follow the example of Jesus who came to serve and not to be served (Mark 10:42-45)...While it is true that evangelicals should point to the fact that we are united with those who trust in Christ alone for their salvation, they should still find the Catholic church as an institution to be in need of radical reformation according to the Word of God. There is no “reconciled diversity” with sin and rebellion and with “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). [source]

What is therefore to be demanded of the Catholic Church? Simply this: that it deny itself, renounce its will to temporal power, and take up the cross. Only by forsaking its use of worldly means to accomplish spiritual ends will the Catholic Church begin to truly reflect the crucified Lord that it claims to represent. As Jesus responded to his disciples’ desire to receive from him the authority of an earthly kingdom:

You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:42-45]

If only the Church of Rome had yielded to the summons of Martin Luther to reform itself according to the New Testament’s “theology of the cross” in opposition to the “theology young-lutherof glory” that had come to prominence in its thinking and practice! In his famous “Heidelberg Disputation”, Luther wrote:

Because humans do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires….The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.[3]

Indeed, the wisdom of the cross is folly to the world. The wisdom of the world cannot be reconciled with or incorporated into the wisdom of the cross. They are diametrically opposed. Thus, as Luther urged, the church, when tempted by the desire to emulate the kingdoms of man to fulfill its mission in the kingdom of God, must not seek to satisfy it but extinguish it. Although the Catholic Church of Luther’s day turned a deaf ear to his admonitions and has continued to do so up to the present day, perhaps by the mercy of God it is not too late for it to finally repudiate the “wisdom…of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (1 Cor. 2:6) and repentantly take up its cross to humbly serve the Suffering Servant whose kingdom is not of this world.


[1] Leonardo De Chirico, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Papacy: Its Origin and Role in the 21st Century. (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2015), pp.7-8.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, T.F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity. (Surrey/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2009) p.279.

[3] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds., (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012) p.23.

A Fragile Glory: John Calvin on the Grandeur of Human Inability

John Calvin has the unfortunate reputation of having been a rather dour and depressive individual. Among the countless caricatures that have proliferated in various publications about Calvin, perhaps Pope Francis said it best when he called Calvin “that cold Frenchman” who gave birth to a “squalor…whose foundation is faith in the total corruption of human nature”. Ranking close to Luther and his view of the bondage of the will, Calvin and his doctrine of total depravity are often considered to have disparaged humanity and degraded human nature to vile and loathsome depths, far removed from the goodness and grace which Scripture ostensibly attributes to them.

I would like to suggest, following Calvin scholar Julie Canlis, that such a conception of Calvin is just as disfigured and distorted, if not more so, than the dismal picture that he supposedly painted of fallen human beings. Rather, Calvin stressed the fragility, the depravity, and the resultant inability of humanity to raise itself to God precisely for the purpose of liberating and exalting humanity to its rightful place as image-bearers of God and participants in the divine nature. Canlis writes:

Calvin’s notion of mediation is governed by communion. The greater reason is that Calvin establishes the Mediator, rather than righteousness, as our primary bond with God. The structure of our existence, the “proper condition of creatures, is to keep close to God.” Not even righteousness can circumvent this primary anthropology, which relates all humanity to God in the second person of the Trinity. Calvin reacts against medieval theologies of grace because they prohibit this specific anthropology. Instead of taking creaturely (dependent) anthropology as opportunity for participation, medieval theologians took it as weakness and thus invented capacities that we do not have. Calvin views our anthropology as occasion for constant communion, using even f593a-calvinsladderour unfallen state as proof. Thus we see that, for Calvin, our telos is not moral perfection (outside the Mediator) but communion. This is why redemption has surpassed creation: we now have the “life-giving Spirit,” who enables us to participate in Christ more fully and to enjoy the Father’s fatherhood.

This dependent anthropology is compounded by Calvin’s second reason for a mediator: creaturely frailty. Unfallen creatures (and even angels) not only lack sufficient righteousness, but their lives lack “a constancy and stability.”Again, Calvin makes his point by using a best-case scenario: angels…As early as the 1536 Institutes, Calvin held that even angels (“so far as they are creatures”) are “liable to change and to sin, and consequently their happiness would not have been eternal…. Men had been lost, and angels were not beyond the reach of danger.” Calvin’s anthropology can be easily obscured here if readers do not ask what creaturely frailty is for. Hidden in this passage is Calvin’s definition of the creature: one whose finitude (and potential for defection) is certain but who has already been provided for, in that “Christ is already and eternally the Mediator between creatures and their Creator.” For all too long the negative cast of such a definition has been overplayed. When we interpret this as Calvin’s pessimism about creaturely capacity, we have lost Calvin’s startling vision of participation. For Calvin, even the perfect (nonfallen) creature must constantly be united to the Mediator. This is its condition. This is its glory. “The proper condition of creatures is to keep close to God.”

It would be a common but basic error to hold this extrinsic, relational orientation responsible for demeaning creaturely reality itself. For Calvin, being creaturely (and, as we shall see, being imago Dei) is to accept gratefully our status as created – with its accompanying conditions of finitude. Adam’s life in the garden was entirely dependent on this acceptance; “he could not otherwise retain it than by acknowledging that it was received from Him.” Although at times Calvin’s rhetoric degenerates into an obsession with creaturely limitation, what needs to be remembered is this: human “lack” is part of its fundamental need for a divine partner. At times this may come across as rubbing our noses in our own finitude, but it is more true to Calvin to understand that this interpretive pressure is to glory in our unique status as dependent, loved, even participating in God. Calvin’s emphasis on creaturely frailty and sin is not to stress the distance from God but to stress that it is God who takes the initiative with us – not we with him…Calvin can appear to be against humanness, but he is predominantly against a humanness that is defined without reference to Christ…[W]hat Calvin is attempting is to free humanity to be itself.[1]

What Canlis articulates here may seem counterintuitive to some, but such is the paradox that obtains when full weight is given to the scandal and folly of the God who saves by humiliating himself to the point of death on a cross (1 Cor. 1:18-31). Canlis rightly notes that while Calvin could at times overstate his case, his aim in emphasizing human frailty and inability was not to debase humanity but to revel in its true glory! The reason for this is because, as creatures, human beings are not equal to the Creator but have been created for the purpose of personal communion with and participation in the Triune life.

To think, on the other hand, that humanity has some measure of intrinsic power to reach God or some innate capability that, as Thomas Aquinas would say, needs only to be elevated and perfected by grace to be able to attain the beatific vision would ultimately mean that humanity is possessed of some kind of independent possibility in relation to God. Not only would this blur the absolutely indispensable line of demarcation between Creator and creature (for only the former can be said to be self-sufficient and autonomous), but it would effectively deprive humanity of its true glory as God’s image-bearer. By definition, an image-bearer, like a mirror, does not achieve its end through reflecting its own glory but only by reflecting the glory of the One who created it!

To be human – truly, fully, beautifully, gloriously human – is to be brought into reconciling communion with and by the God who is the author of all life and the fountain of all love and joy. As creatures – and fallen creatures at that! – it is our peculiar glory to be wholly dependent on our Creator. It is when we are empty of ourselves that we are able to be filled with the fullness of God’s Spirit. It is when we come to the end of ourselves that we find in Christ our true beginning. It is precisely our innate powerlessness that permits us to experience God’s power. It is when we lose ourselves that we find ourselves. It is by exulting in our weakness that God’s strength is made perfect. It is in our humiliation that we are elevated by sheer grace to an exalted status.

This is Calvin’s understanding of humanity’s fragile glory, and it is for this reason that he never ceased to accentuate the depths of human need and weakness: “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Indeed, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God…so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'” (1 Cor. 1:27-29, 31).


[1] Julie Canlis, 2010. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. Kindle Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, (Kindle Locations 680-708). See this as well for the exact citations of Calvin’s writings.

All the World Sub Petro: The Goal and Scope of Roman Catholic Ecumenism

With the approaching 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses and the concomitant efforts to ecumenically declare, in the wake of initiatives such as the joint Lutheran-Catholic statement on justification, the end of the Reformation, it is important that non-Roman Christians, especially Protestants, be aware of the overarching goal and scope of Rome’s ecumenism. A century ago, the Catholic Church refused any involvement in the burgeoning ecumenical movement that was actually born among Protestants. Today, especially under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church is perhaps the foremost advocate of ecumenical unity. What accounts for this change? Does it download-e1477092858100even represent a change from the decisively Rome-centric form of post-Tridentine Catholicism? What does the Catholic Church hope to accomplish in relegating the Reformation to the pages of history?

To answer these questions, it is important to understand how the Catholic Church defines itself and its mission. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) plainly states that “the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her”, a reality visibly manifested in three primary ways: “correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession” (830). While the first two marks are utterly important, serving as the indispensable bonds of unity and means of salvation, the Catechism emphasises that only the third can ultimately guarantee their integrity and efficacy (837, 861, 1087). Therefore, the Catechism, citing Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, affirms that “the Roman Pontiff by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church” is “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” and thus “has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered”(882). So foundational is the apostolic hierarchy to Catholic identity that other “ecclesial communities which have not persevered the valid Episcopate” are consequently not considered by Rome to be “Churches in the proper sense” (Dominus Iesus 17). Rather, “Catholics are bound to profess that…they belong to the Church which Christ founded and which is governed by the successors of Peter and the other Apostles” (Mysterium Ecclesiae 1). The Church, in other words, is ‘Catholic’ insofar as it is ‘Roman’.

Roman Catholicism’s clear sense of identity imbues it with an equally clear sense of mission as “a sacramental sign and an instrument of intimate union with God, and of the unity of the whole human race” (Christus Dominus 42). According to Rome’s missionary manifesto Ad Gentes (1), the Church is “driven by the inner necessity of her own catholicity…to save and renew every creature, that all things may be restored in Christ and all men may constitute one family in Him”. On the one hand, therefore, Rome’s ‘Catholic’ identity propels it outward to redemptively embrace all the peoples of the world who are at enmity with God and with each other. On the other hand, however, Rome’s particular notion of catholicity, inseparably bound to the apostolic authority exercised by Peter’s successor, requires that its mission remain inseparably tethered to its Roman centre.

Thus, although recognising that salvific grace “can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church” among “the separated Churches and Communities”, Rome declares that “it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is ‘the all-embracing means of salvation,’ that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation” (Lumen Gentium 3). Indeed, whatever “elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” are ultimately “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ” and “forces impelling toward catholic unity” (Dei Verbum 8). Undoubtedly, Vatican II signalled a new degree of receptivity to the outside world; nevertheless, as Pope John Paul II (Ut Unum Sint 87, 97) enunciated, “the desired goal of the journey we are making” is “full and visible communion” of which “an vatican-1_wide-99824f48ff0590cf1e349e13f88d0e5ed5631e46-s900-c85essential requisite” is “the communion of the particular [i.e. separated] Churches with the Church of Rome”.

At first glance, Catholicism’s centripetal ‘Romanising’ force may seem incompatible with its centrifugal, and more ecumenical, ‘Catholic’ impulse, especially for those who construe Vatican II’s unprecedented openness as a radical break from Tridentine intolerance and isolationism. Nevertheless, Roman Catholicism is able to resolve this tension on account of its essence as a complexio oppositorum (combination of opposites) – manifested in its et-et (both-and) epistemology – that permits it to absorb and assimilate (i.e. catholicise) seemingly contradictory components and reincorporate (i.e. Romanise) them within its existing framework Rome is thus capable of reconciling various “customs, views on life, and social order…with the manner of living taught by divine revelation” such that “[p]articular traditions, together with the peculiar patrimony of each family of nations…can then be taken up into Catholic unity” (Ad Gentes 22).

As Italian theologian Leonardo De Chirico, an expert on Roman Catholicism, explains:

The Roman Catholic mindset is characterized by an attitude of overall openness without losing touch with its Roman center. It is inherently dynamic and comprehensive, capable of holding together doctrines, ideas and practices that in other Christian traditions are thought of as mutually exclusive. By way of its inclusive et-et (both-and) epistemology, in a catholic system two apparently contradicting elements can be reconciled into a synthesis which entail both. In principle, the system is wide enough to welcome everything and everyone. The defining term is not the Word of God written (sola Scriptura) but the Roman Church itself. From a catholic point of view, then, affirming something does not necessarily mean denying something else, but simply enlarging one’s perspective of the truth…

Catholicity allows doctrinal development without a radical breach from the past and also allows different kinds of catholicity to co-exist. Each Pope has his own catholicity project. John Paul II pushed for the church to become a global player, thus expanding geographical catholicity and its profile with the media. Benedict XVI tried to define catholicity in terms of its adherence to universal ‘reason’, thus trying to remove the chasm between faith and reason that Western Enlightenment had introduced…

After the initial years of his pontificate, it is becoming apparent what kind of catholicity Francis has in mind. He wants to build on John Paul II’s global catholicity while shifting emphases from Wojtyla’s doctrinal rigidity to more inclusive patterns. He pays lip service to Ratzinger’s rational catholicity, but wants to move the agenda from Western ideological battles to ‘human’ issues which find appeal across the global spectrum. If Ratzinger wanted to mark the difference between the Church and the world, Francis tries to make them overlap…Francis has little time for ‘non-negotiable’ truths, and gives more attention to the variety of people’s conscience. He is more interested in warmth than light, more in empathy than judgment. He focuses on attitude rather than identity, and on embracing rather than teaching. He underlines the relation over the doctrinal. For him proximity is more important than integrity. Belonging together has priority over believing differently. Reaching out to people comes before calling them back. Of course, all these marks are not pitted against each other, but their relationship is worked out within a new balance whereby the first one determines the overall orientation. Roman catholicity works this way: never abandoning the past, always enlarging the synthesis by repositioning the elements around the Roman center…

However, lest we think that Pope Francis represents a radical reversal in Catholicism’s Roman-centricity, De Chirico cites the pope’s reference

to a ‘full’ and ‘visible’ unity as the goal of ecumenism. According to the Roman Catholic view, ‘full’ means sacramentally full, i.e. the same baptism, same eucharist, same ministry. Given the self-understanding of the Roman Church, it means adhering and submitting to the sacramental theology of Rome and the hierarchical nature of its priesthood. ‘Visible’ means that unity needs to accept the visible Papal structure of the Roman Catholic Church as the divinely appointed way for the One Church of Christ. The ecumenical price for full and visible unity is the acceptance of the Roman Catholic view of the Church. All other views are defective and, in the end, partial and invisible.[2]

Therefore, while at one level discontinuous with the past, Catholicism’s post-conciliar receptivity may actually reflect its efforts to achieve deeper coherency with its own et-et nature and greater recognition as “the global Church” (pace Karl Rahner) in the modern era, a vocation that its ‘catholic’ identity has always entailed . Whereas Trent sought to francis-interfaithachieve this goal through condemnation and excommunication (an approach more suitable to medieval society), Vatican II and Pope Francis seem to do so more effectively by giving Rome a more irenic and welcoming image (indispensable for its mission in contemporary society) and by enabling it to claim those outside its traditional boundaries whether they acknowledge it or not. Thus, Rome can now consider former heretics as “separated brethren” in partial communion (Dignitatis Humanae 3) and even define non-Christian religions as, again in Rahner’s  words, “anonymous” forms of Catholic Christianity that have not yet reached full maturity. From this perspective, the contemporary form of Roman Catholicism may actually be considered as its most true and powerful iteration, most capable of fulfilling its inner mandate to become the One Church of the whole world sub Petro, under Peter and his papal successor.

Indeed, as De Chirico further explains, this movement toward Roman Catholic universality can be seen in the way in which the pope is increasingly becoming a global figure whose influence extends beyond the merely religious and touches the political and the cultural, a worldwide leader to whom more and more people, both Christians and non, are looking as their advocate and spokesperson:

The debate on the prospects of the Papacy is not confined to ecumenical circles. Since present-day Popes are global figures, well known far beyond the borders of Christianity, the discussion has taken an inter-faith dimension too…In these inter-faith circles, the Pope is increasingly considered to be the highest representative of Christianity and the most authoritative figure in the religious world. Some religious leaders (e.g. from the Muslim world) go as far as saying that the Pope represents the whole of humanity when he advocates for the poor of the world or when he makes appeals for peace. The symbolic importance of the Pope as embodying the unity of mankind further stretches the Papacy into a pan-religious service. The fact that many secular people, though not recognizing the outward religious elements of the Papacy, are ready to acclaim the Pope as a ‘star’ (at least when he makes politically correct statements) is a further indication that the contours of the debate over the future of the Papacy go far beyond the traditional intra-ecclesiastical boundaries. The world, religious and secular, seems to need a global figure that no political institution and no international organization can provide at the moment. Could the Papacy become such a universal leadership structure? [3]

In conclusion, I would simply like to say, in reference to Revelation 13:18, that De Chirico’s provocative question is a “call for wisdom” that the Protestant “who has understanding” should heed: could the papacy become such a universal leadership structure at the head the world’s global church?


[1] De Chirico, L., 2015. A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Papacy: Its Origin and Role in the 21st Century. Ross-shire: Christian Focus, pp.90-92.

[2] Ibid., p.99.

[3] Ibid., pp.101-102.