Thursday, September 14, 2017

“Mere Protestant” Confession Seeks to Reclaim the Word “Catholic”

Mere Protestant Confession Reclaims the word Catholic
By 1529, a dozen years after the start of the Reformation, there was an on-going dispute, both political and theological, between Martin Luther’s German Reformation, and the Swiss Reform led by Ulrich Zwingli. In an effort to bring the two sides together, Philip of Hesse, a local Protestant ruler, brought Luther, Zwingli, and a number of other Reformers (including the Stephan Agricola, Johannes Brenz, Martin Bucer, Caspar Hedio, Justus Jonas, Philipp Melanchthon, Johannes Oecolampadius, and Andreas Osiander) at the castle hall at Marburg for what has become known as the “Marburg Colloquy”. Primarily a political conference, the colloquy nevertheless marked the start of a long-standing division. According to Alister McGrath’s account:

This attempt foundered on one point, and one point only. On 14 articles, Luther and Zwingli felt able to agree. The fifteenth contained six points, on which they were able to reach agreement on five. The sixth posed difficulties. Luther and Zwingli reluctantly were forced to declare that they had not “reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine.” From Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 183). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

This week, more than 250 Protestant leaders and theologians published what they call a “Reforming Catholic Confession”, “A ‘Mere Protestant’ Statement of Faith to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation”.

Just on the surface, I don’t like the word “catholic”, because of the kinds of confusion it can lead to, but this statement seems to genuinely re-capture and re-establish the proper meaning of that word.

The “confession” has multiple components, including the confession itself, an “explanation”, plus an overview of the committees who put it together, a “” page, and a page of signatures (more than 600, as I write this).

The new confession was introduced in a Christianity Today in an article entitled “Protestants: The Most ‘Catholic’ of Christians”, which, ironically and unthinkingly, begins by repeating the old “there are more than 33,000 denominations” fallacy.

This confession attempts to correct that fallacy.

It first “came about because of a conversation between Jerry Walls of Houston Baptist and Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School”, according to Dale Coulter, an associate professor of historical theology at Regent University, writing in First Things.

The confession itself follows a standard confession format, beginning with the words “We believe…” and explicating on the following 11 points:

• Triune God
• Holy Scripture
• Human Beings
• Fallenness
• Jesus Christ
• The Atoning Work of Christ
• The Gospel
• The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit
• Baptism and Lord’s Supper
• Holy Living
• Last Things

The statement was drafted by a “Drafting Committee” that included Jerry Walls, Ken Collins, Kevin Vanoozer, Gregg Allison, Dale Coulter, Kelly Kapic, Fred Sanders, and several others. There was a “Steering Committee that included Timothy George, Richard Mouw, Ed Stetzer, and others.

The confession is a reiteration of the Gospel, and it appears to be carefully crafted in a way that avoids some of the disputes that have occurred over the centuries within the Protestant realm, while affirming some of the most basic creedal, confessional, and in fact “catholic” (in the sense of being universal) statements from all of church history.

Things are written in such a way that controversies are avoided. At the same time, there is none of the equivocation that cause the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” statements to be questionable and later to fall apart (i.e., “We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.”)

Here are a few examples

Affirming God’s sovereignty

The “Triune God” has “has freely purposed from before the foundation of the world to elect and form a people for himself to be his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6), to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:3-14)”.

Affirming Sola Scriptura

Scripture is “the only infallible and sufficiently clear rule and authority for Christian faith, thought, and life (sola scriptura). Scripture is God’s inspired and illuminating Word in the words of his servants (Psa. 119:105), the prophets and apostles, a gracious self-communication of God’s own light and life, a means of grace for growing in knowledge and holiness. The Bible is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it commands, trusted in all that it promises, and revered in all that it reveals (2 Tim 3:16).”

The Creation of Man

God created humans “in his own image, both male and female”; “the original goodness of creation and the human creature has been corrupted by sin”. Consequently, there was “divine condemnation instead of approval, and death instead of life for themselves and their descendants”.

Jesus Christ

“Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God become human for us and our salvation (John 3:17), the only Mediator (solus Christus) between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5), born of the virgin Mary, the Son of David and servant of the house of Israel (Rom. 1:3; 15:8), one person with two natures, truly God and truly man. He lived a fully human life, having entered into the disorder and brokenness of fallen existence, yet without sin…”

“By his death in our stead, he revealed God’s love and upheld God’s justice, removing our guilt, vanquishing the powers that held us captive, and reconciling us to God (Isa. 53:4-6; 2 Cor. 5:21; Col. 2:14-15). It is wholly by grace (sola gratia), not our own works or merits, that we have been forgiven; it is wholly by Jesus’ shed blood, not by our own sweat and tears, that we have been cleansed.”

The Church – Without “a Successor” to Peter

Regarding “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, “the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is the church’s firm foundation (Matt. 16:16-18; 1 Cor. 3:11)” excludes that there is or can be a papacy. “The local church is both embassy and parable of the kingdom of heaven, an earthly place where his will is done and he is now present, existing visibly everywhere two or three gather in his name to proclaim and spread the gospel in word and works of love, and by obeying the Lord’s command to baptize disciples (Matt. 28:19) and celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19)”.

Ordinances and “Sacraments”

“That these two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which some among us call ‘sacraments,’ are bound to the Word by the Spirit as visible words proclaiming the promise of the gospel, and thus become places where recipients encounter the Word again.”

The statement also seems to consciously distinguish itself from what Walls and Collins referred to in their work as “some of the traditions and practices [Rome] has developed over the centuries” that “at times detract from both the power and clarity of the gospel”.

More concretely, this idea plays itself out more fully in “the explanation”. In the explanation, the authors note that theirs is an attempt to “confess … in the words of Ambrose of Milan”, “There ought to be no strife, but conference, among the servants of Christ.” The group further explains, “We commit ourselves to the study of God’s word with one another, with the Reformers and the early church: ‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up’ (1 Cor. 14:26)”.

What follows is a kind of quick recap of some of the more salient points that I found myself attracted to:

The Protestant Reformers believed … their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical, that is, on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, particularly the singularity and sufficiency of Christ’s person and saving work (solus Christus).

While we regret the divisions that have followed in its wake, we acknowledge the need for the sixteenth-century Reformation, even as we recognize the hopeful possibilities of the present twenty-first century moment. Not every denominational or doctrinal difference is a division, certainly not an insurmountable one.

We dare hope that the unity to which the Reformers aspired may be increasingly realized as today’s “mere” Protestants, like Richard Baxter’s and C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christians,” joyfully join together to bear united witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to its length, depth, breadth, and width – in a word, its catholicity. We therefore aim to celebrate the catholic impulse that lies at the heart of the earlier Reformation even as we hope and pray for ever greater displays of our substantial unity in years to come.

In sum: the Reformers directed their protest against the Roman Catholic Church not at the concept of catholicity but towards those unwarranted dogmas based on an appeal to human tradition rather than Scripture. What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

The claim here is one of continuity, from the time of the New Testament, through the Patristic era, through the Middle Ages, and to today. It is a tying together of all of church history, a reclamation of church history for all Protestants, without an attempt to suggest that Roman Catholicism is somehow a good and unifying factor. In fact, the emphasis of the need for the Reformation was precisely to counter the “unwarranted dogmas” of Rome.

The Reformers were persons of one book – and one church. Accordingly, they had a healthy respect for tradition and councils alike. Tradition at its best is the biblically sanctioned practice of handing on the good news of Jesus Christ received from the apostles (see 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Th. 2:15, 3:6). Having set apart certain written witnesses to the gospel to form the New Testament documents, the Spirit proceeded to guide (and continues to guide) the church into a right understanding of these foundational texts (John 15:26; 16:13).

While we repudiate the “traditions of men” (Mark 7:8) – teachings that conflict with or have no clear basis in Scripture – we affirm tradition insofar as it refers to the church’s continuous attention to and deepening understanding of the apostolic teaching through time and across space.

The Reformers acknowledged that church councils stand under the authority of Scripture, and can sometimes err. A conciliar decree is authoritative only insofar as it is true to Scripture. Yet, given the weight of orthodox judgment and catholic consensus, individuals and churches do well to follow the example of the Reformers and accept as faithful interpretations and entailments of Scripture the decisions of the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) concerning the nature of the Triune God and Jesus Christ.

The Reformers’ robust emphasis on the gospel as the saving activity of the triune God also led them to view the church as called forth by the gospel, a community of believers vitally united to Christ, and to one another, by the Spirit, through faith. In Christ, the church comprises a new humanity, the harbinger of the new creation.

This conception of the church as an organic fellowship under the lordship of Christ, ruled by Scripture as his sufficient word and illumined by the Spirit, led the Reformers to correct certain misunderstandings and problematic practices of the church’s leadership, ministry, and sacraments.

… the Reformation was an appropriation and further development of the seminal patristic convictions presupposed by the Rule of Faith, the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and the Chalcedonian definition, particularly as these clarified the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, essential conditions for the integrity of the gospel. The solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone) enabled a deeper insight into the logic and substance of the gospel as well as the unique significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ and, as such, stand in continuity with the whole (catholic) church, even as they represent a genuine elaboration of faith’s understanding.

the common notion that Protestants are theological innovators who are hopelessly divided over doctrine because of a lack of centralized authority is an unwarranted caricature.

While we continue to disagree about the particular form and content of certain doctrines, we together affirm God’s Word as the singular and ultimate authority to which we must all submit our respective interpretations for judgment. Our interpretive disagreements must therefore be viewed in the context of our even greater agreements about Scripture.

… we want here to strengthen the Protestant cause by focusing on the doctrinal beliefs we have in common, not least for the sake of our common witness to the truth and power of the gospel. Protestants today need to recover the promise of the Reformation and repudiate its pathologies. This is our primary aim.

We do not intend the present statement to replace the confessional statements of the various confessional traditions and churches here represented but rather to express our shared theological identity as mere Protestants …

We primarily see ourselves not as Protestants defining themselves against others but rather as mere Protestant Christians who affirm the common spiritual tradition to which creedal Christianity bears eloquent witness. … we all value the Reformation solas, not simply because they distinguish us from Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christians, but rather because they are salient reminders to the whole church that God alone saves in Christ alone through faith alone.

We are under no illusion that the statement of our mere Protestant faith will suddenly usher in a millennial age of church unity. We continue to appreciate the distinctive emphases of our respective churches, denominations, and confessional traditions. We wish to discuss our remaining differences in a spirit not of divisiveness but discipleship …

One Roman apologist cracked (on Jerry Walls’s Facebook site), “The Catholic Church and its creeds have been a living reality for 2,000 years. Do you think this creed will be remembered next year?” Walls correctly noted, “I will be happy if it encourages more Protestants to own and appreciate their catholic roots and identity. It is those roots that unite the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of which Orthodox, Romans and Protestants are all a part.”

There is in fact just “one church”. That Rome is so blinded that it believes that it, itself, and its hierarchy, is the heart and soul (“subsists in”) of that church, is both falsehood and hubris of the highest magnitude in human history.

We are at a moment in history at which it is appropriate, fair, and necessary to point that out.

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