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“Considering Roman Catholicism”
1 John 4:1-3
January 4, 1998
Introduction of Series on Roman Catholicism

Today we begin a series of Lord’s Day morning sermons unlike our usual fare. As you know, it is the custom of this pulpit, for reasons I have given you from time to time, to preach consecutively through books or parts of the Bible. I deviate from that plan from time to time for sermons apropos of Advent or Lent or Easter or Pentecost, but, by and large, I preach the Bible to you, Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, in its own order and proportion. But the Bible also shows us preachers who respond in their preaching to events that are unfolding around them, to the spiritual crises of the people of God, and to the needs of the hour. And I have come to feel that there is need for me to address directly a situation that has been developing before our eyes over the past ten years or so, a movement within American evangelical Christianity that, while still small in absolute terms, seems to be gaining some momentum. I am speaking of the new attraction that evangelicals seem to be finding in Roman Catholicism or, if not attraction, the growing sense among many evangelicals that the differences that have separated evangelical Protestantism from Roman Catholicism over the centuries since the Protestant Reformation are not as significant as they were once thought to be. The attraction is not for Rome only. There is also a movement toward the Orthodox Church or, as it is also known, the Eastern Orthodox Church. What I will have to say in this series will, in the largest part, apply as well to the one as to the other, necessary changes being made. But the Roman Catholic church is clearly the center of this new interest among American evangelicals, and so I will concentrate my attention on her.

Some of you may be less aware of this development than others, but for students of American evangelicalism — that is, Bible-believing, historic Protestantism — the new interest in Roman Catholicism is nothing short of a dramatic change. I don’t want to overstate the situation. Surely it continues to be true even today that more Catholics leave Roman Catholicism for Protestant Christianity in any given year than Protestants join the Roman Catholic church. But, through centuries until very recently, there was nothing like the sort of shift toward Rome that we have seen of late.

We have seen it among such prominent evangelicals as Thomas Howard, the well-known evangelical author, the brother of Elizabeth Elliot and former English professor at Wheaton College. He left the evangelicalism of his upbringing and of the rest of his family for Rome some nine years ago and wrote a book explaining his move which he entitled Evangelical is not Enough. He has recently published a second book entitled On Being Catholic, his reflections after nine years a Roman Catholic. Just this past year, another prominent evangelical, Thomas Reeves, an Episcopalian laymen, a college history professor, and the author of a widely circulated book describing and condemning the theological relativism of mainline Protestant churches, left for Rome. In his book, The Empty Church, Reeves had summoned the mainline Protestant churches to a recommitment to historic Christianity, but he didn’t wait to see whether anyone would heed his call. And these are not the only such men. Most of you are aware that Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, has joined the Orthodox Church and now both edits a magazine devoted to Orthodox Church opinion and offers his services as a speaker on behalf of Orthodoxy. Some of you are no doubt familiar as well with the writings of Peter Kreeft, now a professor of philosophy at Boston College, but formerly a member of the Christian Reformed Church and a professor at Calvin College.

But, far more interesting and far more relevant to our own interests in this church is the fact that over the past ten years or so the Presbyterian Church in America has lost some ten ministers or more to either Roman Catholicism or to the Orthodox Church. Perhaps ten does not seem a very large number when we are speaking of thousands of ministers, but it is larger than it may seem when one remembers that in the decades, perhaps even in the century before, conservative Presbyterians may not have lost a single man to the Roman church, and if they lost one, they certainly didn’t lose ten. And what has happened to conservative Presbyterians has happened to Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists!

I have a college classmate, a very bright fellow and an earnest and devout believer, who, after graduating from Covenant College and from various graduate schools, taught for some eight years at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He is now a Roman Catholic and teaches the history of the philosophy of science at the University of Indiana. Scott Hahn, a former PCA minister, who now teaches at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, is now very well-known in Roman Catholic circles for the tapes of his lectures explaining why he left the conservative Presbyterian ministry for Rome and why he now believes various Roman Catholic doctrines he once would have repudiated with all his heart. In fact, if you consult the catalog of Ignatius Press, a conservative Catholic publishing house, you will find an entire page devoted to Scott Hahn tapes defending Roman Catholic doctrine and practice from the criticisms brought from the Protestant side. This is, practically speaking, the PCA’s gift to the Roman Catholic church.

As if, on cue, to confirm the reality and significance of this new development, there arrived in the church office this week the most recent New Horizons, the magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a sister church of our own Presbyterian Church in America. In the column devoted to keeping track of the church’s ministers — those who have changed pastorates, or retired, or died — I read this: “William O. Rudolph Jr., formerly the pastor of Westminster OPC in Westchester, Ill., has renounced the jurisdiction of the OPC and joined an Eastern Orthodox church.” [New Horizons, Jan. 1998, p. 22]

And we have had evidence of new thinking about Roman Catholicism on the part of evangelicals also in the publication of the document entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and its recent successor, “The Gift of Salvation” a more explicit attempt to discuss what certain evangelicals and Roman Catholics perceive they believe in common about Christ and salvation. These two papers are collaborative efforts on the part of evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics. The latter document was signed by such evangelical luminaries as Bill Bright, Harold O.J. Brown, J.I Packer, and a friend of mine and PCA minister, T.M. Moore.

But, it is not only on the large landscape of evangelical–Catholic dialogue that we hear this new thinking or in the public utterances of prominent evangelicals. I know that at least one of our own PCA congregations in this presbytery has lost a member to the Roman Catholic church and conversations continue with another member on the same theme. Indeed, as I will point out later, I think that Presbyterians are perhaps more vulnerable to the attractions of Rome in our day than other evangelicals may be.

Now, from what comes this new interest in Roman Catholicism, this new willingness to consider the Roman Catholic church as a superior expression of Christianity than Protestant evangelicalism? What has changed to open up to evangelicals the possibility of union with Rome either for themselves personally or in hopes eventually of entire groups and churches of Christians ecclesiastically?

Well, many things no doubt.

From the Roman Catholic side there have been many changes in the last thirty years, dramatic changes with all manner of intended and unintended consequences.

1. Vatican II, the Church Council of the early 1960s, opened the way to a new place for the Bible, the reading of the Bible and the study of the Bible in Roman Catholic circles. One of the results of this has been many Catholics gaining a biblical orientation in their faith they did not have before. In this they came closer to what Protestants had long understood to be the nature and the ethos of genuine Christian faith and life. One now meets people who will refer to themselves as “born-again Catholics” and the like, in a way one did not before. I suppose most of us know Roman Catholic folk we believe are real Christians, that is, people who have a living trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior and who see their lives as a matter of walking with that same Jesus Christ, present through his Holy Spirit. Few of us would have known such people in a previous generation. When I was in seminary, it was still widely forbidden in Roman Catholic St. Louis for catholics to pray with protestants. Nowadays, of course, many catholics will pray with Buddhists and Jews and Muslims in inter-faith services — that too is the result of Vatican II — but many are also praying with evangelicals because of a sense on the part of both that they share the same faith taught in the Bible, which the Catholics too now are reading and studying. The charismatic movement has further served to assimilate Roman Catholics and Protestants. For good or bad, the charismatic experience has bound them more tightly together than their theological or liturgical differences — so far as they even understand them — can keep them apart.

2. What is more, the pro-life movement especially, and some other socio-ethical issues have brought conservative catholics and protestants together in the street and marketplace and prison. They have found that they share a common ethic, at least in many respects, and have won one another’s admiration and confidence by a willingness to fight for right and against wrong and even to suffer in that fight. Steve Wood, a former PCA minister, now a Roman Catholic, says in his account of his pilgrimage to Rome, that it was meeting Roman Catholics in prison, where he had been thrown for his part in a pro-life “rescue,” that is, civil disobedience on behalf of the unborn, that overcame some of his final objections to Roman Catholicism.

It is, by the way, important to say that the Roman Catholics we are speaking about, and will be speaking about in these weeks to come, are, as I said, “conservative Roman Catholics.” These are not the nominal folk who fill up Roman Catholic churches, the typical American catholics, for example, who follow the teaching of the Pope so long as he agrees with them, but dispense with his teaching as soon as it crosses their own opinions or desires. These are the real believers who take supernatural Christianity seriously and their Roman Catholicism seriously. The former Protestants we have mentioned who have now joined Rome were serious Protestants and have become serious Catholics and are all quite ready to believe that many catholics are not serious as they should be.

From the Protestant side there have also been many changes that go a long way to explain why more North American Protestants are attracted to Rome today than in any time since the discovery of the New World.

1. Their co-belligerency with Roman Catholics in the pro-life movement has opened them up to think well of Catholics and to admire their morality and their commitment as Christians.

2. In some cases, certain Protestants having been galvanized ethically and morally by the pro-life movement, the moral collapse of our culture, and the recent socio-political involvement of churches in moral crusades, have been attracted to Roman Catholicism by what they take to be the high moral ground it has staked for itself. For example, Steve Wood, the former PCA minister, was finally attracted to the Roman Catholic church by its doctrine of the indissolubility of the marriage vow, its refusal to countenance divorce after remarriage, and its prohibition of contraception. He says in his account of his pilgrimage to Rome that at one point he might well have been as attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy as to Rome, but the Orthodox allow remarriage after divorce and do not forbid the use of contraception. For him, now zealous for these positions, that decided the matter in Rome’s favor.

3. But there have also been a number of developments in the evangelical Protestant world that have made Rome more appealing simply because they made Protestantism seem so much weaker, uninspiring, and less admirable. For example, the continued atomization of the Protestant world has led many of these men to think that a Christian world that is constantly splitting itself into ever smaller parts cannot be what the Lord Jesus had in mind when he prayed that his disciples might be one! What is more, the decline, if not the effective death of denominationalism within Protestantism has created a vacuum of authority and of institutional loyalty. The Protestant denominations no longer speak for their people, even the conservative ones, at least not as they once did. They are a loose amalgamation of Christians who share certain things — and not necessarily even the most important things — in common.

Let’s be honest. The Presbyterian Church in America, which is the denomination to which this congregation belongs, does not determine very much about us and many churches that belong to this same denomination are very different from us. The fact is, we have folk who leave us for other parts and do not end up worshipping in PCA churches where they now live, even if there are PCA churches in the area, because those churches do not represent or adorn, so they think, their own convictions. And, since we are speaking frankly, there are PCA folk who move to the Tacoma area, take one look at us and worship with other Presbyterians or Baptists or Independents or Charismatics. The fact that they came from a PCA church matters little. Protestants who want to belong to something larger, to belong with enthusiasm and loyalty to something large enough to seem like a real expression of the Christian church in the world, find in Roman Catholicism what they are no longer finding in their own Protestant churches; that is, a real Church, a real Church as institution and authority, a church that has an unbroken history of unity stretching back a thousand years and more, a church that connects us to Christianity’s past and to the generations of the church in the world, a church that exists in visible unity everywhere in the world, a church that is, in other words, not just a loose and not very meaningful association of independently minded American Christians. The Roman Catholic church seems to convey to them a timelessness appropriate to the eternal truth of the gospel in contradistinction to the ephemeral faddishness of American evangelicalism. G. K. Chesterton explained his embrace of Catholicism by saying he sought a church that would free him from the degrading slavery of being a child of his time. Well, we say, “Amen to that!” When we find ourselves, when I find myself, in closer sympathy to Christians outside of my own Presbyterian church, than I do to many who belong to my same denomination, a way has been made for me to begin thinking about finding a more congenial home elsewhere. And, if you add to this the phenomenon of “church-hopping,” so much a feature of Protestant evangelicalism in the second half of the 20th century, Christians who’ve gone from church to church to church, looking for one they liked, that satisfied them, there is not too much that is strange in making one more hop. I don’t mean to suggest that that is the case with the men whose names I have mentioned. It is not. But in regard to the general evangelical population, such hopping about makes an occasional landing in a Roman Catholic church virtually inevitable.

Further, as the American Protestant world has increasingly lost interest in theology and has more and more defined itself in terms of the “feeling” or “psychological state” that people want to have about their lives, in terms of present happiness rather than future bliss, in terms of “helpfulness” rather than in terms of “truth,” the reasons why Protestants who find attractions in the Roman Catholic church should not pursue them there grow less and less clear and persuasive and important. American protestants — American Catholics too for that matter, of course — are not used any more to thinking theologically about their lives. That has made much less important the sort of issues that once separated Protestants and Catholics.

You have now a movement like Promise Keepers, for example, that in hopes of being “helpful” to the maximum number of men, minimizes as much as possible discussion of theological issues. They want men present and involved irrespective of their theological views and Roman Catholic men are flooding to their events. So it is not hard to see why, if in churches and Christian ministries, these doctrines that have so divided Protestants and Catholics in the past, are now passed over in silence, more and more would draw the conclusion that such doctrinal differences are not that important and so should not keep me from becoming a Roman Catholic if there are other reasons why I should want to do so.

And that is very important because there are some reasons why many people might very well want to leave Protestantism for Roman Catholicism. I’ve mentioned some of them already. But I haven’t mentioned the chief reason why so many have chosen to leave the Protestant world for the Roman Catholic world. It is the liturgical philistinism of Protestant Christianity that has done more to destroy loyalty to Protestant doctrine than anything else. Now, this too must be put in perspective. Many more protestants love the new “worship.” Many catholics are leaving their churches to find it in the new Protestant services. But, many thoughtful Protestants simply cannot take the worship services of their Protestant churches any longer: the banal and childish choruses, a Sunday morning meeting that has all the reverence and divine seriousness of a sales convention, the “seeker-friendly” concentration on all that reduces Christianity to something anyone would like and no one would find offensive, the further diminishment of an already diminished sacramental life, lacking all serious attention to aesthetics and beauty in music, architecture, and art, and all sense of man as a sensual being, and so on. I read and I hear the folk who tell their stories and I hear this over and over again. They went to Rome because they thought there they could find the worship of God that was in keeping with the true character of God and the best understanding of the Christian ages. What they had in their own churches was a late 20th century creation concocted for those who took their cue from Madison Avenue and the television culture.

You may feel that I am being too hard on contemporary evangelical worship. Well, these are not my opinions I am sharing with you, but those who have left American Protestant churches for Rome. The fact that I share those opinions only makes it easier for me to state them with conviction.

And so, I propose in coming weeks to consider the challenge of Roman Catholicism, issue by issue, doctrine by doctrine. I think that, in some ways, I am uniquely fitted for this study, because I feel the attraction myself in certain ways. It will not surprise you, of course, that I will not defend distinctively Roman Catholic viewpoints as faithful to Holy Scripture, but I know and can feel myself the pull that others have found too strong to resist. As I said, I think serious Presbyterians are perhaps more vulnerable to this attraction than other evangelical Protestants. Our high view of the church renders us both more dismayed by contemporary Protestantism’s virtual lack of an ecclesiology or doctrine of the church and practice of its unity and at the same time more enamored of the notion of the institutional expression of the one, holy, catholic church of Jesus Christ. Our high view of the OT as the living Word of God renders us more susceptible to serious engagement with the issues of worship forced upon us by the developments in modern evangelicalism, and our respect for Church History, the sovereignty of God in historical action, makes us hungry and thirsty for a church that connects us to the past, to the great stream of Christian faith in the world. All of this makes me take more seriously than others might the attractions of Rome.

Now, let me tell you, I want and I certainly intend to attempt to be fair and honorable in my treatment of Roman Catholicism. I want to deal with its doctrines in such a way that a loyal Roman Catholic hearing me would feel that his doctrine had been correctly presented and presented in its best construction. Protestants have not always done that, of course. And it is easy enough to put Roman Catholicism in a bad light. It contains many viewpoints within itself — from the purest superstition to Marxist/feminist chic. The conservative Catholics I read find themselves much closer to evangelicals in many ways than to Jesuits. But I’m going to consider only the views of the conservative, devout, Roman Catholics. Indeed, I want to try to communicate to you something of the passion and the ardor that a Scott Hahn or Steve Wood or Thomas Howard communicate on behalf of their new Roman Catholic faith. It will be good for you to hear them in this way, perhaps a challenge to your own zeal, certainly an education. Steve Wood, in a tape I have listened to, challenges Protestants who criticize Roman Catholicism, by asking whether they have ever read a book that presents Roman Catholic thinking positively? Or have they only read Protestant diatribes against it? Well, I am reading such books and have before. I am listening as carefully as I can to Thomas Howard and Scott Hahn and Steve Wood. And, you know how often I have commended to you the thinking of a Roman Catholic like G.K. Chesterton or the living and spiritual example of a Francis or Bernard or Teresa of Avila. You have heard me say that there are many Christians in the Roman Catholic Church and many who are better Christians than I am.

But, at the last, we are here, where we began, with the command of the Holy Spirit, through John the apostle, to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” I chose that text not only for the obvious reason, but because v. 2 prepares us in a way not immediately obvious for the careful thinking that we are going to have to do in these coming weeks. For, you see, John was writing against Cerinthus. And Cerinthus would not necessarily have denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. He would have certainly denied what John meant by saying that Christ had come in the flesh, but he could have used those terms himself. What is more, Cerinthus would certainly have denied that he did not acknowledge that Jesus was from God. He would have said that Jesus was from God, just not in the sense that John meant that. That is why the spirits need to be tested, because it is not always immediately obvious what is being said or what is being meant or how that deviates from the truth. We could illustrate that in so many ways in Protestant theology. Calvinists and Arminians both speak of salvation by grace, but they mean something very different by that phrase.

So, not only will this study give us a window on contemporary American Christianity, it will teach us something more about thinking deeply and carefully about our faith and the teaching of the Bible. That is why, finally, I make no apology for some weeks in this study because it will prove a fine opportunity for us all to go over the ground of our faith once again. What do we believe in regard to these fundamental matters? Why do we believe as we do? What difference does it make? Surely we ought all to know the answers to those questions and love the truth that lies in those answers. God help us both to know the truth and to love it.