Starting with Thankfulness
We want to talk about other branches of the Christian Church with thankfulness. This includes thankfulness for faithfulness in the Roman and Eastern branches of the Church, but this also includes thankfulness for what God has given us and thankfulness for the truth.
Here we also want to be thankful for our history, our tradition and story, and this includes a good thousand or more years we have in common with Rome and Constantinople. We are Protesting Catholics. This means we are professing/confessing catholics.
We also want to thank God for all true reformation, and even granting a critical read on the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, it is simply and wonderfully true that the Roman Church was in desperate need of renewal. And God used men like Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and Cranmer to break up the fallow ground.
We also want to be thankful to God for the churches and traditions we were born and raised in. More specifically, we want to thank God for the particular parents He has given us.
Walking with the Spirit by Faith
Walking by faith and with the Spirit is not easy. Jesus certainly promises peace and a burden that is light, but this is not the promise of an “easy” life where everything is straightforward and simple.
The two ends of the spectrum we are called to balance are faithfulness to tradition and faithfulness to the Scriptures. And the Scriptures teach both of these things: While the Scriptures are critical of certain kinds of tradition (e.g. Col. 2:8), the Scriptures require us to keep and honor other kinds of tradition (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:2, 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6). The fifth commandment requires that we honor our fathers and mothers, and this command does not cease to apply after they have died. Removing the ancient landmark was a temptation for Israel as much as it is a temptation for us (e.g. Prov. 22:28). At the same time, constrained by Scripture, we also confess the sins of our fathers and cling to the promises of Scripture that call us to work for and expect more glory, new glory. Reformation is not to be understood as merely a onetime event, but rather as our marching orders. Sanctification is not just for individuals, but also for the Church as a whole.
This means we have to commit ourselves to patience, prayer, and reformation.
Let’s Be Critical
1. Idolatry: This is a very serious charge, and we should be careful about how we file it. At the same time there is much popular idolatry in the veneration of images, statues, relics, and the elements of the Supper. We should note that these practices do vary somewhat from culture to culture, but it is very disturbing that there is no widely known effort to curb misplaced devotion but only/usually defensiveness and self-justification (Num. 21, 2 Kgs. 18:4). At the same time, Protestants have sometimes only responded with negative charges. Positively, we should seek to lead in the arts (e.g. Tabernacle, Temple), honoring the saints (e.g. Heb. 11), and venerating living image bearers (Gen. 1:26, Ex. 20:12, 1 Kgs. 1:23, Ps. 115:4-8, Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Th. 5:26, 1 Pet. 5:14).
2. Schism: Roman and Eastern Christians have schismatic views of the Church. This is centrally evident in their refusal to share the Eucharist with Christians of other communions. Frequently, we in the Reformed and Protestant Tradition have been just as schismatic, and we need to lead in catholicity. The Bible teaches that unity is first of all found in and through the Holy Spirit and is therefore something to be kept and guarded (Eph. 4:3). This is done through putting on the fruits of the Spirit and ministering in and through the Church until we all come to the unity of the faith, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). This most certainly means submission to particular elders (Heb. 13:17), but this does not mean that unity is found in a letterhead or central office.
3. Misplaced Authority: The Roman and Orthodox Churches displace the authority of Jesus to varying degrees. They are right to point out that tradition is a lawful authority, but they are woefully insufficient in their response to abuses and failures in the tradition (cf. 2 Kgs. 18:4, Mt. 15:3). We pledge ourselves to the supreme authority of Jesus Christ who has spoken supremely in the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:21). But this Word is always read, heard, preached, and sung in time. This means that Jesus leads His Church through the Spirit (Jn. 16:13), in the gospel proclaimed (Rom. 10:14), and in the sacraments (Mt. 28:18-20, 1 Cor. 10:16), in short, through the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5, 1 Cor. 12:12ff, Eph. 4:11ff). It is also important to note that we do not dismiss the apostolic tradition, rather, we insist that it is contained infallibly in the NT Scriptures (2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6-14).
4. Misplaced Priorities: This is not so much a criticism of Roman or Eastern brothers, but a criticism of those who “convert.” Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are largely what Jesus would call Pharisees. They are after an empty glory, they want human traditions that trump (or simplify) the Word of God, and they are guilty of tithing mint and dill and cumin having neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith (Mt. 23:23). Church polity and icons need to be discussed, but only after we have cared for the orphans and widows, honored our parents, and loved the needy right in front of us (Mt. 25:31ff, Js. 1:27).
Loving the Reformation
The Reformers were some of the greatest scholars of their day. This does not mean they got everything right, but we should read them with admiration, expecting to learn from them. And in God’s good timing and grace, we should expect to build upon them (e.g. paedocommunion).
An example: Gregory the Great writes: “Therefore I fully affirm that whoever calls himself the universal Priest, or wants to be called that elevates himself to Antichrist, because he vaunts himself over all the others. Not only does this extreme arrogance lead to error, it’s also perverse since this person wants to be seen as God over all people; thus whoever he is, who wants to be called the Priest alone, he exalts himself over all the other priests.” (Cited in Principle of Protestantism, 169)
This is an example of the medieval and patristic pedigree of Protestantism. It wasn’t like Luther and Calvin came along and decided they really didn’t like the Pope, flipped through their Bibles till they came to a bad name to call him, and then slapped “Antichrist” on the Papal See. They were in good catholic company calling the office of the “universal bishop of the Church” Antichrist. It was at least part of the teaching of the fathers.
Working and Praying for Unity
In all of this we should be careful to remember that what we are working for is unity with Rome and Constantinople. This means that they are some of the brothers and sisters we want to love, care for, and bless. And this brings us back to thankfulness and patience.