Pope John Paul II: The Protestant's Pope

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Pope John Paul II died today at the age of 84. I have little to say except that, as a Protestant, I'm extremely grateful for the most Protestant-friendly pope so far. What I'll remember him for has little to do with what most of the media outlets have been talking about endlessly for the last 24 hours. It's for the groundbreaking progress in Catholic-Protestant relations under his watch, most notably the accords within the last decade between Catholics and Lutherans.

According to a the Catholic end of the declaration from that time, the heresy they had condemned as Lutheranism turns out not to be Lutheranism after all. Luther wasn't a heretic, they now say, though the view they had condemned is a heresy. He just didn't hold that view. They now understand Protestants to be using the word 'justification' the way Paul does, and they believe they've been using it all along the way James does. In the end, the views are close enough that neither should see the other as a heresy.

Joseph Fitzmyer's commentary on Romans and Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary on James are both by Catholics in the new school of Catholic scholarship that recognizes Protestants to have been focusing on how Paul uses the justification family of terms and Catholics closer to how James uses those terms. Both commentators argue that Paul and James are consistent with each other, just using language in different ways. Fitzmyer's interpretation of Paul is remarkably similar to historic Protestant ones, and even sounds like Luther according to D.A. Carson, and Johnson's defense of James and Paul's consistency also sounds very Protestant.

I don't believe either book has the imprimatur, but the cardinals saw all this and discovered that they'd just been using terms in ways that aren't the primary ways they've been used in scripture, thus realizing that they don't disagree with Luther all that much after all, at least in comparison to how much they had thought they were disagreeing. This was a truly historic document, one the Pope signed, and I think it will be seen to be part of his legacy in the long run far more than much of what they've been talking about for the last 24 hours on the news.

From what I remember of the time this all went down, there were a number of Protestants, particularly among the more cranky of the Reformed sectors, who just simply refused to accept this. My suspicion is that it's mere anti-Catholic animus with no basis in reality, but I and some in my immediate circle at the time looked at their arguments anyway, and they just didn't fit the facts. Their claim was that this was just wishy-washy relativism that didn't accept what the Protestants were saying as true in any strong sense. From what I remember, some of the Lutherans involved with this dialogue may have tried to mask the issues with relativistic language (after all, they were from the religiously liberal Lutheran denomination), but I don't think it's a fair charge to say the Catholic contributors to the discussion did so. They seemed to be genuinely convinced by Catholic thelogians' work that had gone back to the Bible to examine Protestant teachings in light of Paul rather than in light of traditional Catholic glosses on Protestant language that had turned out to portray Protestants' views unfairly.

I hate to say this, but I even wondered if some of the critics probably just didn't understand the point the Catholic theologians were making due to being not philosophically acute enough to follow the discussion and just labeled it weaseling out via word games. I see that a lot among cranky types who aren't willing to engage in an argument. They call it word games and won't address what it says. As a philosopher, this frustrates me greatly, but it's all too common. Let me be clear here. I'm not accusing anyone of doing this. It just seems to me that I see it all too often from people who refuse to engage with issues, calling it playing with words. The way some of these people were talking really sounded to me like that.

One place where this sort of thing came out was during the last U.S. election about John Kerry, regardless of whether he was playing word games or whether he had a genuinely nuanced position. There were times when he played word games. I think he painted himself into a corner on abortion, but it's not for the reasons a lot of people were saying. I think he changed his mind a number of times on Iraq or just wasn't sure about crucial details, and his pretense to a consistent position sounded like word games. On the other hand, most of the people making fun of his nuance were just expressing a root American attitude of anti-intellectualism, and I have to wonder if some of the theologians who looked at this issue, or rather didn't look carefully enough at it, were doing the same thing.

Surely not all of them were doing this, and some of the people who I wonder about would be doing something shameful given their training if this is indeed what was going on, but I have to wonder how they can look at an issue that's just so obviously making a clear and specific point about how different groups were talking past each other because of different definitions and then recast it as relativism. That's why I think this declaration by the Roman Catholic Church was a major event toward good. It was officially endorsed by the Pope and carried out by people who had come to influence under the kinds of change that went on under his leadership, and I'm glad for the environment he helped to create that allowed this.

I'm certain to get some cranky people claiming that Catholics commit the Galatian heresy and therefore shouldn't be brought back toward Protestantism. The first thing to keep in mind about that claim is that it's contrary to the gospel. If Catholics don't believe the gospel, then wouldn't we want them to move closer to it? The second point I will insist on is that if they do indeed believe the gospel, and whole quarters of Protestantism pretend otherwise, then their divisiveness is a grave offense against the unity in Christ that Paul so passionately speaks of, most centrally in Ephesians. So either way, this should be seen as a good thing. I don't happen to believe that Catholics commit the Galatian heresy, at least not in the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, but that will take a further post to argue, and I don't intend to do that today.

Comment policy for this post: If critical comments are put in a nice way and argued for, it's likely that I won't delete them. I reserve the right to delete any comments that don't treat Catholics with respect, and I'm very likely to delete any negative comments that don't involve real reasons backing them up. If you want to discuss things politely and with a willingness to support your points and listen to those who disagree with you, then I welcome your participation. Otherwise, be prepared not to be part of the conversation that you're not willing to be part of in the first place. This is not a place for Catholic-bashing, particular during the nine days of mourning for Pope John Paul II that we entered today.

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Some people have gotten upset at La Shawn Barber over her post about the death of the Pope. They are so upset and so offended that they are writing her emails to let her know that they are delinking her blog. First, the differences between Catholic a... Read More


On a related note, First Things put up their March issue online last week. It includes "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" Statement IV.

I haven't actually followed the ECT stuff, except that the people who have been stubbornly resistant to anything good coming out of Roman Catholicism have resisted that as well and denounced any evangelical who associates with it.

ECT was always a grass roots thing some Catholics have endorsed. What I'm talking about was from the top, so I consider it much more significant from the Catholic end as something near repentance for how Luther was treated. ECT is more of a recognition by individuals that what they have in common is far more important than what they disagree on.

Intriguing insights, thanks. I always marvel that people can be so resistant to the idea that "anything good" can come out of Roman Catholicism.

Breif comment. I read this document in seminary, and from a reformed perspective, I'm not as convinced that Catholic theology and reformed theology can be reconciled. If I recall correctly, the concept of justification in the Catholic understanding requires works (sanctification and justification are not distinct), whereas Luther would say that God may choose to save someone without a single work to their credit (Heildeburg Disputation of 1518). My impressions from reading this document were that, yes, there may be more common ground than we once thought, but no, the Catholic church still advocates a basically works based theology. But it's been a few years, so maybe I'm off.

It's not clear to me that the view is that much different from what's often called Lordship salvation and is part of the standard Reformed picture. For example, John MacArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Thomas Schreiner all hold views that seem to me to be consistent with saying that works are a necessary result of a genuine work of God for regeneration, one both due to God's grace and due to our own working out of our salvation. I think there's a danger to the way this is expressed in Roman Catholicism, and it's not a minor danger. I just don't think it conflicts with the gospel in the way that the Galatian heresy made circumcision foundational to salvation. For Roman Catholicism in its current form works are not foundational but a necessary result often described too loosely in a way that suggests something that I don't think they officially believe. My post defending that is still to come.

I do agree that justification in Western theology does not differ much from branch to branch.

Firstly, there is the evident truth that Christianity cannot be dissociated from its ethics. Luther never said that. In the whole Gospel, as well as in the Old Testament, the necessity of doing good works (and not perfect works) has to do with the ethical nature of their teachings. Humans are required to try to do good for the sake of Christ, not in hope of reward or on fear for punishment. If this does not penetrate one's head, it is because he is not sincere when he claims to accept Jesus.

Secondly, the main idea that Christ died to save us all from our sins is Western and is due to the Roman Catholic tradition. Protestants only continued it. In the Eastern thought, Christ sacrificed himself to save us all from mortality. The original sin in Judaism, as well in Orthodox Christianism and Islamism, had been forgiven by God, sooner after they were expelled from Eden. Accordingly, what humans 'inhereted' from Adam and Eve was their mortality. Orthodox theology, thus, revolves around the promise of eternal life, affirmed during the last supper, during the meeting with the Samaritan, etc.

Protestantism is essentialy administratively different from Catholicism. But Protestant thought is a mere variation of Catholic thought, except for the fact that it rejects the Papal authority. Catholic and Protestant divines mostly pretend that they disagree from each other, when what they actually dispute is power not ideas.

Actually, a case can be made that the disputes between the eastern and western church way back were not really over dotrine but politics, and thus the Orthodox vs. Catholic differences are about power and not ideas, whereas Luther was clearly not about power. He questioned some ideas, made a public statement about it, wanted reform, and was denied it and excommunicated.

I do think there's something substantive about the difference between Protestants and Catholics over justification, and I think that's even a crucial issue, though not one worthy of calling it denying the gpspel. I'll get to that in my next post.

Luther wanted what we nowadays call 'more democracy'. That is about power too, no doubt. The Reformation ended with a millenar assumption held in every complex society, whether Christian, Monotheist or Pagan: that the Clergy would form a social class, like the Nobility. After the Reformation a priest would have be just another worker or bourgeois, and for all legal effects a citizen just like any other.

But, nevertheless, theology in the East, which is more attached to the traditions before the year 1,000, has always been clearly different from the Western counterpart, which is basically Roman Catholicism with variatons in small details. The list of important differences are many. One difference: in the East there is no difference between the Bible and the oral tradition, for the Orthodox the Bible is the Tradition, together with the common knowledge. The differentiation between the Scriptures and the oral tradition is something the Roman Catholicism teaches, which is brought from Rabbinistic erudition.

No, that's about structuring the church the way it was structured in the days of the apostles. Luther was quite obviously committed to his views because he thought he could derive them from the scriptures and not because they would lead to certain political results. It's hard to deny that if you've actually read anything by him. History of ideas people like to convert genuine differences in views into sociology, and that's just not always the case, especially with the greatest philosophers and theologians, and Luther was one of them.

Luther's views on the priesthood of all believers aren't about politics. There is no priest/laity distinction in the New Testament because all believers are priests. The apostles worked just as much as anyone else did. Paul made tents. Luther observed this, and that affected his views, just as he observed other things that conflicted with what he'd been taught. It doesn't mean he had any political goals involving the middle class. He may or may not have, but that wasn't driving his ecclesiological views one way or the other, just as it wasn't driving his soteriological views, which were his main emphasis to begin with.

Eastern theology is clearly different from Western theology. That doesn't mean the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism come to nothing or are merely political, and it doesn't mean there weren't political reasons for why some groups did or didn't support various credal formulations. I've been witness to Eastern Orthodox people admitting that they believe the initial division was purely over politics. There's at least as much reason to think politics was involved then as there is to think it was involved with Luther, and I think more.

When you look closely at what they were arguing over, it's pretty clear that it's not the sort of thing that should cause division. These were matters that the scriptures and the apostolic traditions hadn't settled (e.g. whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father directly or through the Son), so why would there need to be two groups that disagree on that. Besides, the main issue was whether the bishop of Rome could claim authority over all the other bishops.

I don't accept that what the Eastern church considers essential is what's essential. Protestants believe that what scripture says is essential is essential, and the differences between Protestants and Catholics do involve central questions related to scriptural essentials. As I said, I'll get to that in my next post.

In the early Church organisation there is a clear distinction between the status of the Apostles and the status of other Christians. One evidence of that are the texts Christian authors wrote at the same time as the Apostles, and which were read and respected, but never considered Scriptures.

The episcopal structure of the Clergy descends from the Apostolic core of those days.

Luther, no matter how brilliant he was, would never have played an important role and his work would never have existed, were it not the social-economic injunctions of his time. His thought is clearly shaped by the ascension of another social class that gradually replaced Royalty and Nobility as the ruling class in Europe.

There's a distinction in role and in the significance of what they were doing as the final representative setting up the scriptures that would guide the church from then on. There's clearly no distinction besides role, however, and Peter himself saw himself as a mere elder on the same level as any other elder of a congregation in terms of authority (I Peter 5:1). There's a sense of the apostles' being entrusted with authority that God had given them for the purpose of teaching and ensuring purity of doctrine and practice from the outset, but there's no sense of greater importance from this (Paul explicitly denies this in I Corinthians 10-12 and Romans 12). I would say that it's at best misleading to say that they had a different status and more accurate to say that it's false. Difference of role does not indicate difference of status.

Not all of the NT books were written by apostles, so your second sentence doesn't help. Mark, Luke, Acts, James, Jude, and probably Hebrews were not from apostles. James was an elder in the congregation of Jerusalem, and he and Jude were Christ's physical half-brothers, which might have given them more importance than some others in some people's minds, but they weren't apostles, and they had rejected Christ during his ministry. John Mark and Luke were both associated with Paul, and John Mark was also associated with Peter, but they weren't apostles. Whoever wrote Hebrews was most likely a second-generation Christian.

The solidification of a bishopric with one central leader in each location and a hierarchy over them didn't really come until the second century. There tended to be multiple elders in congregations during the first century, given the way Paul describes things and calls Timothy and Titus to establish things in the pastoral epistles.

"It's not clear to me that the view is that much different from what's often called Lordship salvation and is part of the standard Reformed picture. For example, John MacArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Thomas Schreiner all hold views that seem to me to be consistent with saying that works are a necessary result of a genuine work of God for regeneration, one both due to God's grace and due to our own working out of our salvation."

I have always tended to see what you are pointing out and others have thought I was a bit strange to think so. This is especially the case in formulations of justification by faith and judgment according to works. So Schreiner and Piper see Rom. 2:6-11 to be speaking about a judgment according to works. This is toned down in those like Moo who see that passage as hypothetical. Although if I remember right Moo takes a position of judgment according to works in James 2 rather than seeing justification there as something like "shown to be righteous."

This also raises certain similarities to the issues of New Perspective people pointing out that Paul's soteriological structure parallels the Judaism of his day. So that Judaism of his day said you "get in" by grace but "stay in" through works. This seems to parallel a Pauline justification by faith but judgment according to works.

I raise the comparison because some people have said that the key way Paul differs from the Jews of his time is anthropology. I believe salvation is monergistic from beginning to end. I believe some Reformed theologians see regeneration and bringing one to faith as monergistic but then see sanctification as synergistic. These difference of opinions really comes from differing anthropologies. Here is where Reformed theologians and Catholics might differ still. I am unfamiliar with the actual statements in question so I don't know. Of course then the question would be whether Luther saw salvation as monergistic from beginning to end.

Another interesting issue is whether what is common in Reformed theology today in scholars such as Piper and Schreiner is really Luther's view. Mark Seifrid has an article arguing that Luther differed from Melancthon and that Piper/Schreiner are closer to Melancthon. Seifrid says that this may seem unusual to American scholarship, but it is common in European circles.

The organisation of the Churches in their formative period was informal, but that does not entail lack of organisation or of hierarchy. And, as the leaders of the Church were expected to set the example (of humility), we could not expect them to say anything about themselves but things like 'I am a servant like the others, etc.'

I accept the traditional version that the NT was written by the Apostles themselves. No claims to the contrary have been proven. They are all historically absurd, and People know well who wrote what. The Didaque was never considered a holly text, although it had been used as a school book for the first centuries of Christianity. The authors, guys who attended the Council of Jerusalem, were mere believers.

But that is not the only example of the authority of Apostles. Who says how the Church must be organised? Paul or another believer? Would the set of Christians accept that some commandments came from Christ if it was a non-Apostle who said them, in disagreement with the Apostles? That is not possible. That does not happen. No Christian will ever think that Tony Marmo's opinions, when in direct opposition to those of any Apostle or Doctor of the Church, are the correct. You yourself will not change your opinion if I say that Peter and Paul were both wrong, or if I say that Luther speaks in behalf of the devil. Simply because me and my opinion cannot have the same weight and importance as them in Christianity.

The History is what happens and not what has not happened. The episcopal structure of the Church, always with several elders in the same parish, has evolved from the incipient period. The original informal organisation evolved to this present state of affair, i.e., it took this course, it followed this track and not another.

Now, pay attention to this: the fact that the original organisation of the early Church was such that an apostolic episcopal structure evolved therefrom does not entail that every Church has to have this form of organisation. It is not written anywhere that the Administrative functioning of any Church cannot be revised or modified. Christ has not forbidden Christians to innovate or to fix very old problems with new solutions.

Just to give you one reference from a Syriac author which is in favour of Jeremy's views:

When I had given much thought and pondered on the matter, I became convinced that these quarrels among the different Christian Churches are not a matter of factual substance, but of words and terminology; for they all confess Christ our Lord to be perfect God and perfect human, without any commingling, mixing, or confusion of the natures... Thus I saw all the Christian communities, with their different christological positions, as possessing a single common ground that is without any difference between them.
Bar Hebrew
(Book of the Dove, Chapter IV)

Just some feed for the fodder...

"If anyone says that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification...Let him be anathema."
(Council of Trent, sess. 6, Cannon 9)

Catholicism's definition of justification is entirely different from the revealed word of God.
"For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

How hard is it to realize that believing in the finished work of Christ Jesus on our behalf is sufficient to redeem our souls?

Not only does the Catholic "church" distort the gospel, but they put unnecessary and unbiblical demands and burdens on their people: rosaries, scapulars, confessions, masses, priests, sacraments, praying to Mary, saints and deceased love ones, etc.

They have made a false priesthood. All born-again believers are priests, not just a select few: "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). As priests, there is no need for confession to a "priest", since we can go directly to the Father through Christ.

One more thing... take some time to research the dogma of Mary as co-redemptrix if you are uncertain as to the heretical positions of the Catholic church on the Trinity and on Jesus' work as our Advocate.

I've made it pretty clear at this point that I've been distinghushing between the Catholic view on justification and some of their other practices. I'm planning to deal with some of their other practices in a post that's forthcoming. It's not nearly complete. It's thus irrelevant to what I'm talking about to raise all those issues. Save them for that post.

As to your points about Trent, try responding to my arguments instead of making bare assertions that I've already said something about. I've argued that your portrayal of it is simplistic, misleading, and inaccurate, so it makes me think your willingness to put it that way without addressing my arguments means you didn't even bother to read my post.

It is important that one sets the canons of the Council of Trent into the context of the Decree. When they say that you are not justified by faith alone, they mean that one must be jusified by grace accompanied by repentance. Check it out...

The priests that are in the Roman Church are in fact presbyters or elders. The bishops the episcopate.

As for confession, we have Our Lord quoted in John 20:23 "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Now some claim this is 'controversial'. But clearly Our Lord is empowering a specific group of people with specific authority.

As for the Mother of God, she is an intercessor between us and her Son, not between us and the Father.

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