I’ve made a concerted effort to understand the Protestant/Catholic divide. And praise God, I am understanding it, and I think, with the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, the true church is in a position to genuinely clarify some of the issues for a lot of people.
My efforts have taken me (intellectually) all over the history of Christianity; from the life of Christ and Acts 2 to today; across the Roman empire and into the dark (relatively unknown) history of the church in Persia and India and Asia. That’s a lot of ground to cover.
Of course, anyone who’s been reading this blog knows I’m not a fan of Roman Catholicism or the papacy; I think it’s impossible to say that anybody or any office or person is capable of “infallibility” in its teaching, at any specific time, or within any circumstances in general. And when such “infallibility” is said to have been exercised, it is always subjected to “death by a thousand qualifications…” — popes make grand claims (see Unam Sanctam, for example), but there are many, many different explanations for why this pope really didn’t mean what he said, or didn’t say what he said infallibly, etc. And the explanations often don’t agree with each other.
One recent commenter said that the Roman church is the master of plausible deniability. I’ve seen this many times.
So I want to step back and offer a few (summary) thoughts on the grand sweep of church history.
If I had to put a metaphor to it, it would not be Newman’s acorn/oak, or the stream/riverbed metaphor. The church is not a linear thing.
Rather, utilizing Jesus’s “kernel of wheat metaphor,” and applying that to what we see happening in history, the history of the church is more like a vast forest, where trees grow, and they die; they shed seeds, new trees and other forms of plants grow. This metaphor also coheres with the wheat/tares metaphor. An evil presence also is growing up in the forest– poison ivy comes to mind, or any variety of poisonous plants or berries that appear.
I like Paul’s “body” metaphor, too. A body takes in food; nourishment is distributed to every cell via the circulatory and respiratory systems. “You are what you eat,” for sure, but no cell in your body has a long life span. Cells die and are absorbed back into the system, while other cells are generated to take their place and function. Your body is composed of 100% different cells from what it was a month ago, but it is still the same body. In this case, I would say that Roman Catholicism (or more precisely, something within Roman Catholicism) is like a cancer that has taken up residence.
So, moving forward, I’d like to keep these metaphors in mind. (Not to use them as a controlling principle.) So while metaphors are useful, they’re not something to 100% hang our hats on. Calvin cautioned moving beyond the boundaries of what Scripture tells us.
In a more “positively stated” set of boundaries for you “positive thinkers” out there, consider this set of boundary markers from the Westminster Confession of Faith:
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”
But just because Newman is repeatedly going to come up, I’ve proposed my alternatives to Newman’s metaphors for “the Church” which do conform closely to the revealed Scriptures. I’ve given, in summary form, two metaphors that I think are more realistic than Newman’s contorted explanation for the “difficulties” that he so studiously avoided describing in any great detail.
But those “difficulties” exist, and they need to be documented, and Lord willing, my hope is to document them here, in such a way as (a) to make people aware of them, and (b) to do something about them.
The impetus to life in both of my metaphors is “the Gospel of Grace.” I’ll use that term, and I’ll define it (somewhat) here, with the hope of defining it further as I go along.
The history of the church has been a process of (a) having some messenger deliver the Gospel of Grace, and (b) falling from that understanding.
Many people talk of John 17 as the great “unity” prayer of Jesus. But one of the things they fail to see is this:
“To let the world know that you … have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Now, I learned something about the Trinity in my grade school catechism classes, and I learned something about the love of the persons for one another within the Trinity. Here, though, the love of Father for “those who will believe in me through their message” is said to be the equivalent to the love of the Father for the Son.
Who has grasped this? Further, given what Christ Jesus has said here, who wants to step between that love that the Father has “for all who will believe”? This language does not allow for a mediator.
“The thought is breathtakingly extravagant. The unity of the disciples, as it approaches the perfection that is its goal, serves not only to convince many in the world that Christ is indeed the supreme locus of divine revelation as Christians claim (that you sent me), but that Christians themselves have been caught up into the love of the Father for the Son, secure and content and fulfilled because loved by the Almighty himself (cf. Eph. 3:17b-19), with the very same love he reserves for his Son. It is hard to imagine a more compelling evangelistic appeal.” (D.A. Carson, Commentary on John)
But this is not an appeal that Roman Catholicism can make. It’s not one that Rome does make. Rome cannot permit the unmediated love (or, mediated only by Christ) of Father for believers.