Regardless of reports to the contrary, the Presbyterian Church in America is not a very large denomination. In fact, we are small enough for news to travel fast when one of our rank seems to be approaching the banks of the Tiber (the Italian river which borders the city of Rome). The news of Jason Stellman’s departure from the PCA and presumed entrance into the Roman Catholic Church has travelled fast and caused great alarm. So how do we process such a move? Does frustration with American Evangelicalism necessitate a swim across the Tiber? I want to look at three things: The Appeal of Catholicism, What You Give up when you make that swim, and an alternative to such a swim.
What is the Attraction to Catholicism?
Authority – In a world where anyone with a smartphone can become an “authority” on a topic, we can find it more and more difficult to bend the knee to any source outside ourselves. While popular movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street fight against the notion of power and authority, many people are yearning for some outside guidance. People want help navigating life, and the Catholic Church offers an army of priests and bishops, supposedly vested with the authority of the Apostles, able to pardon your sins and lead you into the straight and narrow. Forget postmodernism; no view is important unless it is the view of the Church. For many people, this kind of harbor from uncertainty has a great pull.
Transcendence – While much of our life is consumed with being in the now; entirely focused on connection to as many people far and wide, the Catholic church offers a faith that transcends our current experience and connections us with a supernatural reality. Unlike the worship experiences of so many churches, the RCC offers a vertical experience. For many Christians who have come out of churches largely modeled on concert venues, pep rallies and self-help seminars, this is an intriguing alternative.
Tradition – Western culture breeds a fierce self-dependence and yet people long for external authority. Our culture often mocks tradition and yet many people want to see their lives as part of a larger story. Tradition gives people this story. When you walk into a Catholic church, how very little seems new. Everything, from the priest’s clothing, to the words of the mass, seems to be an ancient artifact long-preserved, with great attention.
Legitimacy – Because of their tradition and transcendent experience the Catholic Church can create an environment of permanency and legitimacy. One does not walk into a Catholic Church and think, “I wonder if these folks will be here in a few months.” The uniformity and ceremony of Catholicism proudly declare, “we have been doing things the same for thousands of years, and we will be here long after you are dead.”
A Counter-Cultural Faith – So much of American Christianity is wrapped up in chasing fads and seeking to stay fresh. Many people are beginning to reject the commoditization of their religious experience. They are beginning to welcome a faith that can stand on its own without contorting itself to slavish fads.
What do you have to give up to swim that river?
The ability to protest – Ironically, while many people might disagree and say they can hold disputes with the RCC, when you are Catholic you lose the right to disagree. If the Pope can speak as the unerring voice of God in our world, then to disagree with him is to disagree with God.
The efficacy of Christ’s work – In the Roman Catholic schema, the effectiveness of Christ’s work depends on our participation with him. As the Catholic Council of Trent declared, our work can add to our justification: “…faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified…”
Assurance of your salvation – In the Roman Catholic framework, you cannot know your status with God until your final judgement is declared. You cannot look to your profession of faith, your baptism, the work of the Spirit in your life, or anything else as an assurance of your status with the Father. In fact, the Catholic Church condemns and sees as cursed, “anyone [who] saith, that a man, who is born again and justified, is bound of faith to believe that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate.”
Unity with the Protestant Church – To join Rome is to say that all Protestant Christians are fumbling around in the dark, it is to say that they are at best “separated brothers”. It is to say that Protestants have never really received communion, or been a part of a true church.
Now here is the thing; for many people longing for a faith that is more than a bumper sticker, or a five-paragraph “We Believe” page on a church website, what is gained is more than what is lost. This listless and untethered faith seems small and inferior to a historic and robust alternative offered by Rome.
The American Church can sometimes fall into the trap of constantly repainting a timeless truth in an ever-hopeless attempt to make Christianity relevant to that moment in space. American culture is chemically preserved and repackaged as a better alternative. Forget the Incredible Hulk, check out Sampson. Like American Idol? We can give you CCM. A Thin Red Line was your favorite movie? Have you seen Courage yet? This McRibbed version of the Christian faith is so focused on seeming to be fresh and culturally present that it often distances itself from the history of God’s people. McRibbed Christianity is too busy creating a movement that it doesn’t have time to care about what our family has believed or what they accomplished.
In full disclosure sometimes McRibbed Christianity gets me so frustrated that I find myself sometimes entertaining thoughts of a swim across that little river to the banks of Rome (or maybe Constantinople), but don’t put on your Tiber Trunks just yet, there is an alternative.
A Robust Protestant Orthodoxy.
The alternative is to embrace a robust Protestant orthodoxy. It is not a dead tradition, but alive in the world today. It realizes that a reunion with Rome is impossible without jettisoning far too many crucial issues. Yet it is also a faith which recognizes that we are bound together with all people united to Christ, and, therefore, we value and honor the faith once delivered to the Church. We embrace the historic truths which have bound the Church together, especially as they are summarized in the early creeds and confessions of the church. A robust Protestant orthodoxy sees itself as being indebted to the history of the church.
While much of the American church has spent at least a few decades trying to fit itself into a pair of shoes that just don’t fit, there are still many churches built on the principles of the Protestant Reformation. These churches embrace the history of the church and seek both a vertical and horizontal experience in the Christian life. For this kind of Protestant orthodoxy, the Bible is our final authority, and yet we recognize that all readings bring in the baggage of our life, and should be subjected to criticism. We can’t read scripture in a vacuum, and nor should we. Any new or novel reading of Scripture should be followed by the questions, has any other Christian before me come to these conclusions?
Yet we still believe that we can meet with God in his self-revelation. We don’t have to go anywhere other than his word to find what is necessary for our life with Him.
A robust Protestant orthodoxy is concerned with theology and history, but is not content simply to read the 20th century summations of the Reformers. I would challenge you to read the primary sources. Once you get there, you will realize that the Reformers were right to stand in protest of the errors of the Catholic church. You will also learn that these men were not looking to set up an alternative papal tradition, through men or documents. They were seeking to bring the church closer to the plain truths of Scripture, and they were doing so because of their interaction with the Christian church that had come before them. The truth that informed the Reformation is that the answer to errors has always been a robust understanding of the authority of Scripture. An understanding that is enlightened by the history of the church, but not bound by it.
There is nothing that Rome can give anyone that cannot be found with a robust Protestant orthodoxy. Dive into a faith which recognizes the fact that God has been moving in His Church for thousands of years, and yet at the same time see God’s self revelation through Scripture as our highest authority.
A robust Protestant orthodoxy:
- Submits to the Scripture as the final authority, but never seeks to read it within a vacuum
- Is interested in the whole history of God’s people.
- Seeks to care about those living now, while, at the same time, still honoring the family of faith that has come before us.
- Isn’t afraid of learning about tradition because it is properly seen as a secondary source of instruction.
- Is willing to disagree with certain traditions when necessary.
- Is willing to submit to the teaching of Scripture, and to the authority which Scripture gives to the Church.
- Acknowledges that all Christians are part of one family of faith, and yet does not pretend as if we can all live under the same ecclesiastical roof.
- Is willing to embrace mysteries as a part of the Christian faith.