Catholic, Not Unreformed

Peter Leithart has written some thoughts to follow up on Tuesday’s Future of Protestantism forum. Among other things, he says:

I should have made clearer the force of my argument about what Protestant churches are to do. I gave examples in my talk of ways that the Protestant churches might converge toward a common confession, a common liturgical and sacramental life, a common discipline. That is, I’d like to see Protestant churches converging toward classical Protestantism, but – and the but is critical – without anxiety that this convergence might make Protestants too Catholic. I would like to see every Protestant church celebrating weekly Eucharist and baptizing babies, for instance, without fearing that they will be mistaken for Catholics.

The more catholic we are, the better! What allows us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly and baptize babies is precisely that we wish to be catholic in fact. Doing these things, we will never be mistaken for catholic Christians, because we will actually be catholic Christians.

But, though we should never fear appearing or even being catholic, it is of great importance that we Protestants, embracing the catholic heritage of the whole Church, clearly reject the distinctive doctrines of Rome. Being catholic, not Romish, we need to calm about outward marks that are catholic – such as the ancient sign of the Cross – while being careful to distinguish ourselves from the errors that belong to Rome. It is unseemly, for instance, that Protestant bishops should kiss the ring of the Bishop of Rome as if to signify their subjection to his rule and appointment. Nor should we allow wafers to be shown in monstrances, nor even hanker after the icons of the East. We should be confident that none of the distinctive doctrines and practices of Rome and Constantinople – whose adoption is more indicative of exoticism than of œcumenism – would make us a jot more catholic: the catholic path, defended by Bp John Jewel over and against the innovations of the unreformed church, is more ancient than these.

So, though I want to affirm Dr Leithart’s contention that the separation of the Church should disturb us, and that the Lord will one day gather up his elect from among both Protestants and other Christians, I agree with Carl Trueman that the catholic doctrine is to be taught through unapologetic use of the ancient creeds and Protestant formularies. It would surely warm Dr Leithart’s heart to see Protestant congregations saying the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds from week to week or even from day to day, and I wager Fred Sanders could not help but smile at the habitual use of this content by the Evangelical trinitarian community. In the creeds we have a structure through which to present Christ as the revealer and Word of the Father and the fulfilment of the Israelite prophets: the Incarnation, the Passion and Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Second Coming are all to be taught as fulfilling (‘according to the Scriptures’) what God revealed in the pages of the Old Testament. Through these creeds we can return again and again to the Scriptures as they interpret the significance of each of these events, and so deepen in the catholic faith, both confessing it with Christians through the centuries and coming to know the biblical teachings they express. So we can both hold to the creeds and enrich our thoughts and practices upon that foundation.

Indeed, as the creeds oppose error to uphold the true teaching of the Bible, the Reformation’s doctrinal formularies have enriched us while opposing new and strange doctrines contrary to the word of God. With renewed clarity they have proclaimed salvation in the person of Jesus Christ alone, justification by faith alone, and worship by the ordinance of God alone; and these doctrines have reformed both our piety and, through our individual and common piety, our cultures at large. The Reformation documents and the work done under them have apostolic and patristic depth enough to remain long after this generation is dead, and there are untold riches in their biblical reflections that the churches of today need as much as the churches of the sixteenth century. Defining our form of Christianity positively, and not just negatively against Rome, is a matter of temperament: if we devote ourselves to biblical doctrine and practice and continually encourage Rome to do the same, critiquing where we must and working together where we may, we will be catholic.

Teaching and practising the catholic faith will address the problems Dr Sanders worries about: ‘precipitous loss of the once-widespread mastery of the content of the Bible; perversion of gospel into prosperity teaching; meaningless membership; normless sexuality; treason of the clerics and the defection of the church’s educated class; aloofness toward evangelizing; and so on’. The ongoing task is catechesis of the Church, teaching Christians to believe the word of God and to do as it says. Of this task the problem of separation from Rome is but one among many, and most of that due to the uncatholic innovations of Rome. So let us not just affirm that we share the catholic faith with Rome – which will be clear to those who confess the same creeds – but set an example of growth in that catholic faith. Yes, let those of us who know the value of weekly communion practise it after the example and the desire of the Protestant Reformers, but let us also effectively hear the whole counsel of God, submit to its judgements in faith, declare the gospel to the pagans, use church censures, oppose abortion and unconsidered contraception, and model natural gender roles resolutely but graciously. What the Apostles and the Didache did in the world of ancient Rome, let us do now in our societies. So we will have the testimony of a holy catholic and apostolic Church.


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