Reading Machen is wise and admirable and even necessary. But what should conservative Reformed Protestants think of this quote by Machen?
“Far more serious still [than other differences among Christians, such as the differences of belief between Calvinists and Arminians, for example] is the division between the Church of Rome and evangelical Protestantism in all its forms. Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today!
We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but [theological] liberalism is not Christianity at all” –Machen (Christianity and Liberalism, pg 52).
Machen is talking about the phenomenon of “naturalistic liberalism”:
Naturalistic liberalism [the form of liberal Christianity that denies elements of supernaturalism in the Bible, and hence, denies the idea of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ] is not Christianity at all. That does not mean that conservatives and liberals must live in personal animosity. It does not involve any lack of sympathy on our part for those who have felt obliged by the current times to relinquish their confidence in the strange message of the cross. Many ties—ties of blood, of citizenship, of ethical aims, of humanitarian endeavor—unite us…. We trust that those ties may never be weakened, and that ultimately they may serve some purpose in the propagation of the Christian faith.” (Christianity and Liberalism, pg 52)
The first thing we should note is that, simply because Machen is calling “naturalistic liberalism” “not Christianity at all”, does not mean that we should live in personal animosity with them. We likely live on the same streets, in the same neighborhoods, with individuals of the “naturalistic liberal” persuasion (or of some descendent of the “naturalistic liberalism” that Machen was writing about).
So please keep in mind that, because I will speak of Roman Catholicism the way that I do, it does not mean that I’m espousing that we live in “personal animosity” with Roman Catholics. My own mother is still Roman Catholic, I love her dearly, and we get along well. I am not a bigot. (Yes, I have recently been called a bigot). I am not a bigot. And when I talk about Roman Catholicism, I’m not saying that my mother, for example, is going to go to hell.
Second, both sides of the equation that Machen points out have changed. Our conception of “naturalistic liberalism” has been modified in many ways, notably by Barth, but also many others, and as is the point of my argument here, the Roman Catholicism that Machen was talking about no longer exists. It has also been modified beyond recognition.
Third, I do not have some sort of “irrational blik” about Roman Catholicism, as has been alleged of me. This phenomenon of “blik” is from R.M. Hare as described by Nicholas Wolterstorff in “Reason Within the Bounds of Religion”. Hare describes both an “irrational blik” and a “rational blik”. He notes that:
Let us call that in which we differ from this lunatic, our respective bliks. He has an insane blik about dons; we have a sane one. It is important to realize that we have a sane one, not no blik at all; for there must be two sides to any argument—if he has a wrong blik, then those who are right about dons must have a right one.
It was Hume who taught us that our whole commerce with the world depends upon our blik about the world; and that differences between bliks about the world cannot be settled by observation of what happens in the world. That was why, having performed the interesting experiment of doubting the ordinary man’s blik about the world, and showing that no proof could be given to make us adopt one blik rather than another, he turned to backgammon to take his mind off the problem (pg 26).
I agree: I have a blik about Roman Catholicism. I am likely to judge Roman Catholicism far more “uncharitably” than virtually every other Protestant writer of our day. However, I do this because I have studied Roman Catholicism both from the inside and the outside than even the most conscientious Protestant scholar has done. Please note that I do not go beyond anything that someone like Robert Strimple (former WSCal professor) has said in public.
I can say this because I took it seriously – as if my life and the lives of my wife and children depended upon it. I have felt the irrational fear – “If I leave the Roman Catholic Church, I cannot be saved” – and I have researched it and thought it through from virtually every possible angle. Mine is the kind of study that has taken place not merely for the purpose of the acquisition of some sort of scholarly credentials – I have studied it my entire life, from both sides of the issue, for the purpose of coming to terms with that which, for serious Roman Catholics, has historically been a very severe anathema.
My contention is that the “blik” about Roman Catholicism is rather more solvable than what Hare and Wolterstorff were writing about. It takes a LOT of investigation, but it is coming more clearly into focus in recent decades, and as I have said, it is ultimately solvable. And whether or not any particular reader thinks I have solved it (or partially solved it), I have come to terms with it, and I have come to peace with my posture toward Rome in my own mind.
In fact, what I believe about Roman Catholicism has risen in my mind to the level of presupposition. I have studied it enough that I do not need to come to different conclusions. The “new information” that comes my way is only bad information.
So, in a way similar to the way Van Til relies upon the truth of Scripture as foundational for his thought system, along with that, I take it as a truth that Roman Catholicism is not what it says it is – that its claims can be debunked Scripturally and historically – and that therefore, what Rome says about itself must be analyzed from the viewpoint that it is a hostile witness. For what is the alternative? To give Rome “the benefit of the doubt”?
(Throughout, I will use “Rome” as a synonym for “Roman Catholicism”.)
That’s my answer to the “blik” accusation, and that’s my response to “How is it that even someone like Gregg Allison, whom you like, says that Protestants and Roman Catholics have things in common?”
The two parties use the same words, but there are different concepts and meanings behind them. It is simple equivocation.
* * *
Back to the point I made above about Roman Catholics not going to hell – what I attribute to Roman Catholicism – is what it “officially” says about itself. I am speaking about it in its “corporate”, “Magisterial” manifestation, which is given in multiple places, but first (the first time in history) it is given in ( Lumen Gentium 8):
This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, …
Now, Lumen Gentium says a lot of the same things, in a lot of the same ways, that earlier manifestations of the Roman Catholic Church have said.
But there are subtle differences, and it is those subtle differences where the equivocation occurs. And these equivocations, via a new kind of “hermeutic”, become the new dogma.
[Elsewhere, by the way, I have argued, that Rome officially misunderstands what “pillar and mainstay of the truth” means, or, what Paul meant when he said it. Paul’s understanding is jettisoned in favor of what “the mind of the Church” thinks. That alone suggests that “the Roman Catholic Church is not what it says it is”. But that is a digression.]
The question is, what is that “great … common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today”? Does it persist now as it did in the day of Machen?
In what follows, I will argue that it has vanished. The appearance of it still exists, in the form of language that has appeared in Roman (and other) documents in the past. But the fact is that post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism has essentially disengaged itself from this “common heritage” – in a way that still seeks to maintain the appearance of it, but which, at its most fundamental level, has little to do with it.
The counter claim will be made that Roman Catholic doctrine is clear on what may or may not be believed (or acted upon), and therefore, those who disagree with this (or act in a contrary manner) really ought to be called “heretics” or “sinners”. Official Rome, with its equivocal language, is not responsible for, or empowering of, anything bad.
Here is one classic example, cited by David Wells, in his work “Revolution in Rome”:
Present-day Catholicism, on its progressive side, is teaching many of the ideas which the liberal Protestants espoused in the last century. Though progressive Catholics are largely unaware of their liberal Protestant stepbrothers, the family resemblance is nevertheless there. Since these ideas have only come into vogue in Catholicism in the last two decades, they appear brilliantly fresh and innovative. To a Protestant, whether he approves or disapproves of them, they are old hat. (Wells pg. 8)
One kind of interpretive problem, then, which an analyst of the documents faces concerns the existence of those passages which are so brilliantly ambiguous as to be capable of serving the interest of both parties. The statement on biblical inerrancy best illustrates this problem. The council affirmed:
“since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. (emphasis added).”
This statement, over which there was a considerable tussle both in private and in public, seems at first sight to affirm Rome’s traditional stance on this matter. For this reason, conservatives in the Council agreed to it, and some Protestants subsequently have been led to think that Catholicism’s historic stance on this matter is unaltered….
But is this really the case? A careful scrutiny of the Council’s statement shows that it can be interpreted in an entirely different way, one which a majority of Catholic scholars are now following. (JB note: And it certainly seems like “Pope Francis” is following this method –which I will describe below.) In perhaps the most lucid account of the Council’s theology, B.C. Butler the English bishop and progressive theologian, explains how.
The council obviously spoke of the Bible “teaching without error”, but the significance of this phrase, he argues, depends on the view of “the truth” [“that truth”] which Scripture is said to teach without error. ‘Here the word “truth” is qualified by a statement of the finality or purpose of inspiration; it is a question of truth relevant to God’s saving purpose summed up in Christ (citing B. C. Butler “The Theology of Vatican II” London, 1967 pg. 56). The point he is making is that many truths of science and history have no part to play in our salvation. “For instance” he says, “the date of the appearance of the human species in natural history is not formally relevant to our salvation; the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection is formally relevant.”
The illustration in the first half of Butler’s sentence is so obvious that the reader is disarmed against the thrust of the second half. The council’s statement, he argues, guarantees as inerrant only those truths necessary for our salvation. (emphasis added). The meaning of the passage, therefore, turns on the question of how much we need to know with certainty to be saved. Apparently there is room for discussion on this point. Butler has limited the inerrant statements of Scripture to those which bear on the saving actions of God which were summed up in Christ, but Gregory Baum has trimmed this core even further. To be saved, he says, we need to know exceedingly little; exceedingly little, then, is inerrantly taught in scripture.
This easily equivocable statement is from Dei Verbum, Section 11. Such statements, open to equivocation, are peppered throughout Roman doctrine. And as Wells says, the majority of Roman Catholic scholars are using that statement to the fullest to be able to deny the former understanding of Biblical inerrancy.
The alert Roman Catholic reader will quickly note that Butler (and Wells) is not providing “the most charitable interpretation”. But on the other hand, you have such notables as “Pope Francis” suggesting that these types of “interpretations” ARE the most pastoral, the most charitable. They are even described as “divine surprises of the Holy Spirit”. So, “is the pope Catholic?”
Raymond Brown articulated how these statements became “peppered” in the first place, in his work “The Critical Meaning of the Bible”. Here, I explain how this cashes out with respect to the early papacy. This whole section is worth being cited at length:
Raymond Brown, a leading Roman Catholic biblical scholar of the 20th century, explicated how this process came about:
One should start with the ... assumption … that no twentieth-century Church is the same as the Church of Churches of NT times … A critical study of the NT can point out unexpected differences, thus reminding us how much things have changed and what has been lost (or gained). … Churches and Christians, confronted by a critical picture of NT times, can be led to needed reform, either by chopping away distracting accretions or by compensating for deficiencies.
What I have just described is not pure theory; that [the above] is possible is verified by what has happened in Roman Catholicism in this century. … Scholars can be purged once or twice, but a new generation keeps coming along; and eventually the [Roman Catholic] Church has to enter into dialogue with them. Thus [the second of three periods into which Brown divides Catholic Biblical Scholarship in the 20th century] saw the introduction of biblical criticism and the gradual but reluctant acceptance of its initial results an and through Vatican Council II. More than by any other single factor, the self-reform of Roman Catholicism in that Council was influenced by the modern approach to the Bible [and one might say, “the modern approach to other Roman Catholic documents as well].
[Roman] Catholic mastery of biblical criticism [and criticism of other ecclesial documents] has progressed since Vatican II, and the implications have proved more wide-ranging than even the most perceptive leaders of the Council foresaw. The third period of the century (1970-2000) in which we now live, therefore, has involved the painful assimilation of those implications for Catholic doctrine, theology, and practice (Raymond E. Brown, “The Critical Meaning of the Bible,” New York, NY: Paulist Press ©1981, Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur, from the Preface, pg ix).
Later in this same work Brown further explains this process works out in real life:
“Essential to a critical interpretation of church documents is the realization that the Roman Catholic Church does not change her official stance in a blunt way. Past statements are not rejected but are requoted with praise and then reinterpreted at the same time” (pg 18 fn 41).
Robert B. Strimple, in his contribution to “Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze what Divides and Unites Us,” (Chicago: Moody Press, Ed. John Armstrong, pg. 103), cites this very passage from Brown, along with other contemporary Roman Catholic theologians, and because of this “untethering from history,” Strimple concludes, “I am convinced that the theological situation in the Roman Catholic Church today must be viewed as worse than it was at the time of the Reformers.”
Machen had no access at all to the changes that Brown wrote about (the second or third phases of Critical understanding). Machen was talking about the Roman Catholicism of “Pope Pius X”, and not of the Roman Catholicism that we see in our lifetimes. To suggest otherwise is to engage in anachronism.
And yet, that initial quotation from Machen is frequently thrown out, without context, and unsuspecting young Reformed believers often draw the conclusion that Reformed believers really do have some common bond with Roman Catholicism (however slight). But I’ve heard astute Roman Catholic formerly Reformed apologists tell me with a straight face, “we’re closer than you think, and Machen said so.”)
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
* * *
Keep in mind that Rome not only applies this evolving “critical meaning” to the Bible – but it has also a raft of other texts – creeds, conciliar texts, papal documents. All of these documents are fair game for this kind of “re-interpretation”.
So with respect to Machen’s original statement about “naturalistic liberalism”, I was given the charge: “What you need to do is produce an authoritative document that allows Catholics to believe that Jesus didn't rise bodily from the dead.”
Here, produced from CCC 644 is the statement, “Given all these testimonies, Christ's Resurrection cannot be interpreted as something outside the physical order, and it is impossible not to acknowledge it as an historical fact.” – That is the Catholic Doctrine – that is the Catholic Doctrine forbidding anyone from taking an opposite interpretation”.
That statement is merely, as Raymond Brown said “Re-quoting the doctrine with praise”. But what the astute Roman Catholic apologist fails to understand is the “re-interpretation” – which is freshly-written doctrine “re-interpretation”, with no prior Magisterial statements to back it up.
Such a “re-interpretation” occurs in CCC 647:
CCC 647 But no one was an eyewitness to Christ's Resurrection and no evangelist describes it. No one can say how it came about physically. Still less was its innermost essence, his passing over to another life, perceptible to the senses. Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles' encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history."
But Richard McBrien – a professor of theology for many years at Notre Dame, who never had his credential stripped, used that statement to turn that doctrine on its head (and for all practical purposes, “spiritualized” it:
On the historicity of the Resurrection: "The problem, of course, is that no one actually saw the resurrection. We have no eyewitnesses. To the extent that we know anything about it at all, we know it through its effects. Is it a historical event, therefore? The answer has to be "No" if by historical one means an event that could have been photographed as it was occurring or that a disinterested person could have observed happening. There is no indication in the New Testament record that the early Church believed the resurrection to have been in the very same category of history as the crucifixion, for example".
Even an astute Protestant theologian such as Gregg Allison, in his “Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment”, cites from CCC 643-644 and 646, but misses 647, which McBrien finds. Allison writes,
“Catholic theology and evangelical theology agree fully on the doctrine of te resurrection, including its reality in space and time, the rejection of naturalistic explanations for it, the nature of the resurrected body of Christ, its Trinitarian dimension, and its multifold significance” (pg 148).
But that doesn’t stop McBrien, and while I haven’t counted them, likely another large number of Roman Catholic scholars are using that statement to the fullest to be able to deny the former understanding of the resurrection. More McBrien:
The objectivist, or fundamentalist, on the other hand, oversimplifies the New Testament and simply ignores the manner in which it was put together. He or she ignores the metaphorical character of New Testament language about the resurrection and the symbolic imagery used by Paul, who describes the risen Jesus in terms of a “spiritual body” and “ a life-giving spirit” (“Catholicism”, pg 437).
So the rejoinder was, “Such people are heretics”. Except, in our day, they are not. McBrien continued to teach all throughout his lifetime – at one of the premier Roman Catholic universities in the US. And as I’ll cite Ratzinger below, what McBrien is doing is a “hermeutic” – a legitimate takeaway in the modern Roman Catholic theology, not a heresy.
In that way, many thousands, if not millions, of Roman Catholics, were allowed, permitted, even persuaded to believe allows “that Jesus didn't rise bodily from the dead”. All from someone who could in no way be considered a heretic – in no way could be considered to be something other than an official source.
Another example of this Magisterial statement being “requoted with praise” and then “re-interpreted” according to the new paradigm are CCC 2357 and 2359. First the original statement:
2357: Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
No, they can’t be “approved”. But they can be “permitted over time” while one “slowly, imperceptibly” works one’s way toward “Christian perfection” (which, according to Roman Catholic dogma, cannot be obtained on this earth):
2359: Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
The message is, “Yes, gay priest, your homosexual acts can in no way be approved, but if you have to, uh, only ‘gradually’ approach [not “reach”] perfection, well, who are we to judge?”
So I’ve produced Brown’s explanation of what’s happening, plus three examples: McBrien and the not-so-physical resurrection, toleration for homosexual acts (above), “that truth which is to be believed” as inerrant (and cited by Wells and Stimple
As well, elsewhere I’ve cited Ratzinger’s own statement that “for every statement advanced in one direction, the text offers one supporting the other side”.
So, can I prove that the sun will come up tomorrow? Strictly speaking, no, I can’t. On the other hand, we can see a pattern of how Rome does business.
Yes, Rome “officially condemns” these things, but that is only one side of the forked tongue (which I claim is satanic). With the other side of its forked tongue, it makes allowances for and even embraces opposite positions – or enables “good Catholics” to disagree with (or act in a contrary manner) all the while maintaining official sanctions for these heresies and sins.
[And here it should be said, too, that Tridentine Roman Catholicism – that which “anathematized the Gospel – is bad enough. It is Satanic enough that we should reject it. But this newer, Vatican II Roman Catholicism, is Satanic in a whole different way. And as Robert Strimple of an earlier generation of WSCal has stated, “I am convinced that the theological situation in the Roman Catholic Church today must be viewed as worse than it was at the time of the Reformers” – see above.]
* * *
Finally, these two “streams of thought” (at least – in their most summarized forms) about Roman Catholicism – are typically considered to be the conservative and the liberal, the traditionalist and the progressivist. Joseph Ratzinger (who days later became “Pope Benedict XVI”) identified these two streams:
What has been the result of the Council? Was it well received? What, in the acceptance of the Council, was good and what was inadequate or mistaken? What still remains to be done? No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult … Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?
Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.
On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.
The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.
Well, in the Wojtyla/Ratzinger years (“popes” John Paul II and Benedict XVI, or JPII or BXVI), Ratzinger’s “correct” interpretation was ascendant, “silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.”
But in the day of “Pope Francis” (the squirrelly Bergoglio) is clearly relying on Ratzinger’s “hermeneutic of discontinuity of and rupture”, and that is very much causing “confusion”, and now quite evidently having “frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology.”
Roman Catholics who want to remain loyal to the papacy have a standard explanation. They say “nothing he is saying is contrary to Catholic teaching” but this is to fail to miss the key point: While relying on the standard language of Roman Catholic “teachings”, “Pope Francis” is also, contrary to the advice of Ratzinger, is applying what Ratzinger calls “the hermeneutic of discontinuity of and rupture”.
This “hermeneutic of discontinuity”, according to Ratzinger, now is a hermeneutic of mercy, according to “Pope Francis”. The Roman Catholic Church is not going to return to the JPII/Ratzinger “hermeutic”. As McBrien said, these are objectivists, “fundamentalists”. They can have the world of sedevacantism, they can have the world of the SSPX. The one true Roman Catholic Church, official Rome, has far too many “gay” clerics and bishops and cardinals; “mercy” and “pastoral care” are the name of the game, and will be for a long time.
This is a critical distinction that the huge majority of Protestants, including Gregg Allison, and also I would say, the huge majority of recent Roman Catholic converts do not understand.
Protestants are “the people of the book”: that is, we hold that Scripture is inerrant – we spend huge amounts of time and effort recovering the earliest and best manuscripts, and understanding the ancient languages correctly, and learning what the cultures understood in their own times, for the purpose of coming to a correct understanding of what the text actually says.
But for Roman Catholicism, texts – including Biblical texts, but also including things like creeds, papal documents, and conciliar documents – are subject to further “official” interpretation, and that “official interpretation” is highly dependent upon whatever the current Magisterium is saying that the “correct” or “authoritative interpretation” is. There is little use for “a correct understanding of what the text actually says”.
Remember, from above, on inerrancy:
To be saved, he says, we need to know exceedingly little; exceedingly little, then, is inerrantly taught in scripture.
In the same way, the Roman cleric may feel comforted in practicing his homosexuality within the confines of the priesthood – so long as he is “gradually”, ever-so-gradually, working toward the elusive “Christian perfection”.
The naturalistic, cultural Roman Catholic, too, may feel comforted in McBrien’s “radically different” resurrection, “something really happened to Jesus”, but “lies beyond the confines of space and time”.
The ancient doctrines are “re-stated with praise”, and then “re-interpreted”, in the most official way possible, in the documents of a council ratified by a pope, in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, and yes, Roman Catholic Convert, by your priest in your parish.
So, do we Protestants have more in common with Rome than with “naturalistic liberalism”? Or, has Rome, while maintaining all of the bad things that we knew about it at the Reformation, brought in “naturalistic liberal” elements that?
Protestants should not be citing that passage from Machen outside of its historical context, or without heavy qualification.