Paul Owen has set out to delineate the differences between Reformed Baptists and “Reformed Catholics”:
1. Reformed Catholics have an understanding of the unity of the church as the family of the faithful over the entire history of the church. Rather than tracing our spiritual pedigree through some sort of elitest remnant theory, we understand the fact that church history is family history. And family history includes not only those relatives who have brought honor to the family name, but also those who have brought disgrace as well.
i) This disregards the fact that remnant theology is a Biblical doctrine common to both Testaments.
ii) Apropos (i), it ignores the distinction between true and nominal believers.
However, I’m more than happy to concede that if we ran a paternity test, the three mouseketeers would share the same pedigree as Tetzel, Pighius, Cardinal Law, Alexander VI, and Julius II.
2. Reformed Catholics are able to distinguish between the defining doctrines of the faith, and those subjects which can and ought to be argued in a spirit of good fun and good will. The defining doctrines of the faith are derived from Holy Scripture, and authoritatively defined in the Nicene Creed and like statements of the collective mind of the Church. Other subjects, such as predestination, the possibility of falling from grace, the definition of free will, the nature of God’s providence in relation to human decisions, the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, the meaning of baptismal regeneration, the legitimacy of the distinct office of bishop in the Church, the relationship between justification and sanctification, the precise definition of the role of works in justification, the Marian dogmas, the place of images in worship, addressing the saints in prayer, and other such topics, are not worth persecuting and killing people over.
i) I agree that defining doctrines of the faith are derived from Scripture. This is logically distinct from the Nicene Creed or the “collective mind of the Church”—whatever that means.
ii) Apparently, Dr. Owen believes that it’s okay to persecute and murder people over matters “authoritative defined in the Nicene Creed and like statements of the collective mind of the church”, but just not for “other” subjects.
3. Reformed Catholics have a meaningful doctrine of the sacraments. Unlike most modern Baptists, and the majority of Presbyterians in our day, we understand that the sacraments are means of salvation (according to Calvin and the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 153-154, 161), and not merely outward visible signs which only speak to the senses and confirm our possession of things we already have without the sacraments. Though we affirm that justification is by faith alone, we can also affirm that God imparts his saving grace to the soul of the believer through the instrumentality of the word AND the sacraments. The saving grace of God is initially applied through the sacrament of baptism, working in conjunction with the preached word, and it is reapplied to the benefit of the soul through the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
i) Since the Nicene Creed does not enunciate baptismal regeneration or the real presence, then, by Dr. Owen’s own standard, these must not be “defining doctrines of the faith.”
ii) Also, is he excluding many Presbyterians as well as most Baptists from the collective mind of the church? What about liberal Lutherans and Anglicans?
iii) Why is he quoting the Westminster Standards on the sacraments, but not on predestination, providence, perseverance, sola fide, iconography, or the cult of the saints?
4. Here is where we get two very different answers. The Reformed Catholic (with Calvin and all the major Reformational voices) says that the Church has the authority to define and in a real sense determine what God has set forth in his word. The Anabaptist/Evangelical says that the Church does not possess such authority. According to (a popular abuse of) the analogy of faith, Scripture interprets Scripture itself, and so in essence, the only authority the Church really has is the authority to repeat what Scripture has said. The task of interpretation is now left to the individual. Armed with his Strong’s Concordance, his seminary level education, and an arsenal of woodenly applied Greek grammatical rules, the job of the preacher is just to “exegete” the text, without the constraints of the Fathers, tradition, creeds, and the judgments of church councils.
i) The church is a Biblical category. The nature of the church is defined by Scripture. Hence, the church is authorized by Scripture.
ii) The church is not inspired. The church is not a beneficiary of continuing revelation. Hence, the church has no oracular insight into the sense of Scripture.
iii) The church is not an institution over and above the men and women who compose it. So it still comes down to individual judgment. A church council is simply 51 individual votes. Church councils preselect for the delegates, and even then there’s a fair amount of horse-trading to arrive at a majority.
iv) Tradition is the voice of the past. It has no greater or lesser wisdom than the voice of the present or the future. What is more, tradition doesn’t speak with one voice, but many.
v) Dr. Owen is actually making the Reformed Baptist case for them. He wouldn’t be deriding sola Scriptura and the grammatico-historical method if he could exegete his “Reformed Catholicism” from the pages of Scripture.
He plays up human authority because he lacks divine authority for what he believes.
5. Usually this mindset goes hand in hand with a flawed ecclesiology, which declares the local church to be the only existent form of the church in the world today. Since there is no such thing as the universal body of Christ on earth (viewed as the visible church through the ages and throughout the world), there is no way for a church council to authoritatively define the doctrines of our faith in a manner which would be binding upon all local congregations. You might call it the “anarchy” model of church government. Once you move beyond either an Episcopal or Prebyterian form of church goverment, it becomes very difficult to maintain a Reformational view of the authority of Scripture, tied as it is to the recognition of earthly levels of ecclesial accountability and authority which extend beyond the local church.
i) Since the Nicene creed doesn’t enunciate a prelatial or Presbyterial polity, then by Dr. Owen’s own standard, this must not be a “defining doctrine of the faith.”
The very fact that he regards each of these models as live options goes to show, by his own lights, that there is no normative model of church government in Scripture.
So if God has not disclosed a normative polity, then this should be a point of liberty.
ii) Bishops and elders are sinners too. They can be corrupted. If their authority is binding, then their corruptions are binding.
iii) In a topdown polity, accountability is a one-way street.
We locate our spiritual pedigree in the historic Catholic church rather than a string of kooky sects whose confused trail can be dimly followed through the ages. We do not spend a lot of time urging people to flee from the deadly errors of Arminianism and Romanism. (And we are not afraid to admit that the rhetoric of Calvin and the Puritans, though understandable given the political climate of the time, sometimes went beyond the limits of Christian charity.)
So if “radical Baptists” break with Calvin over the sacraments, then they must belong to a kooky sect; but if the three mouseketeers break with Calvin or Dordt or the Westminster Divines over the regulative principle, predestination, providence, perseverance, sola fide, iconography, or the cult of the saints, then they must be then true heirs of the Reformation.
At the end of the day, Dr. Owen has neither tradition nor revelation on his side. He and his cobelligerents form a three-man cult.