Were The Reformers Wrong?

by Rick Shrader

Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of pope or of councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything. For to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.             Martin Luther, 1521

The Roman Catholic Church has always looked on the Reformation as the antics of wayward children. Sooner or later, they believe, children come home. That is why the Church does not rebaptize a Protestant, but consecrates his baptism. In 1961, Msgr. John J. Dougherty said in a New York conclave, ‘‘Let no one be deceived that reunion is just around the corner. Great doctrinal chasms separate the Catholic and the Protestant churches, the greatest being the concept of the church itself.’’ But their outlook has always been ‘‘reunion.’’ And when it comes, they say, it will be on their terms.

On March 29 of this year, in New York, forty prominent Evangelical and Catholic leaders signed a declaration titled ‘‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.’’ It is a result of a coalition launched in 1992 by Charles Colson (an Evangelical) and Richard Neuhaus (a Catholic Priest) to have Protestants and Catholics put aside their differences and call one another brothers in Christ. The document is signed by such Evangelical leaders as Colson, J.I. Packer, Pat Robertson, Bill Bright and Michael Novak.  In true ecumenical spirit, the document says, ‘‘As Evangelicals and Catholics, we dare not by needless and loveless conflict between ourselves give aid and comfort to the enemies of the cause of Christ . . . We together, Evangelicals and Catholics, confess our sins against the unity that Christ intends for all His disciples.’’ I guess that means that they are apologizing to God for Luther’s words (quoted above) and the resulting Reformation movement! It is one thing to join a Catholic in a voting booth, it is quite another to call him born again!

Even two agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Home Mission Board and Christian Life Commission endorsed the document (Baptists, of course, were never Protestants). And this after the Pontifical Biblical Commission on Bible interpretation said, ‘‘The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life.’’ And, ‘‘Fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide.’’ The Commission espouses the historical-critical (rationalistic) method of Bible interpretation.

Charles Colson, in his 1992 book The Body, spends the first section arguing for accepting Catholics as believers. ‘‘Who are we to question, let alone know, whom He calls? He has the people of His own choosing in every nation of every color and political persuasion and from every confessing tradition’’ (p. 89). ‘‘I’ve been enriched deeply by my fellowship with those who hold different, but equally strong doctrinal convictions–particularly my Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Lutheran brothers and sisters’’ (p. 99). On p. 104 he cites a survey that suggests that more Catholics than Protestants claimed to have a personal relationshipwith Jesus Christ. On p. 87 he presents Mother Teresa as an obvious believer with a ‘‘single-minded devotion to Jesus as Lord and Savior.’’

The rest of the book is a plea to the ‘‘church’’ for action but without committing what he calls ‘‘the sin of presumption’’ (p. 86) i.e. presuming to know who is really in the faith and who is not. That is why the March 29 declaration condemned ‘‘proselytizing’’ and ‘‘sheep-stealing.’’ In other words, we must stop treating Catholics as if they are not Christians and stop trying to win them to Christ! I know that Colson and others want to clean up America and that it takes all Americans with moral values to do it. But to ask that we ignore the view of personal faith apart from works is too high a price. How can we call spiritual darkness light for any purpose?

John Calvin, the great Reformer, asked that all people ‘‘make confession and render reason of their faith, that it may be ascertained a) which accord with the Gospel, and b) which prefer to be of the kingdom of the Pope rather than of Jesus Christ.’’ I am surely not Reformed in my theology, but the Reformation was a reform of soteriology (salvation) with which I, as a Baptist, am in agreement about personal faith. ‘‘Without faith it is impossible to please God.’’ Do we remember? Perhaps we, as people of faith, are just tired of the strife that contending for the faith brings. Colson writes, ‘‘Harmony and oneness in spirit can be achieved only when Christians put aside their personal agendas’’ (p. 107).

Vance Havner wrote in 1955, ‘‘Some Christians who once championed sound doctrine beat a retreat once in a while and from stratospheric heights announce that they ‘do not stoop to controversy.’ When a man contends for the faith in New Testament style he does not stoop! Some assert that they have become mellow in later years, but one must remember that some things become mellow just before they spoil.’’ Where would Luther have been if he decided that peace was more valuable than freedom? Of Romans he said, ‘‘This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.’’ Yet the fight for the truth of Romans cost him his life and that of many others who loved truth more than peace.

One cannot read an Evangelical periodical today without being urged to ignore soteriological differences for the sake of peace. From Tony Campolo uniting Irish Catholics and Protestants in Belfast to Alexander Solzhenitsyn uniting Russian Orthodox with Russian Evangelicals to Bill McCartney leading the pep rallies, all we seem to want is freedom from contention even over the mode of salvation. In 1958 A. W. Tozer wrote, ‘‘The Bible is a book of controversy. The Old Testament prophets were men of contention. Our Lord Jesus while on earth was in deadly conflict with the devil. The Apostles, the Church Fathers and the Reformers were men of controversy. They fought the devil to the death and kept the torch of truth burning for all succeeding generations. Is our contribution to history to be the ignoble one of letting the torch go out?’’