Since we have spent the last few installments clearing away some contemporary misconceptions about Roman Catholicism, readers may be wondering what is so objectionable about Rome after all. It would be simple enough to string together a set of ad hominem arguments against the Roman Catholic Church. Popular Protestant hostility to Rome may come from sources like the recent Luther film, which portrays the sixteenth-century papacy engaging in some particularly corrupt practices. For example, the church instituted the sale of indulgences in order to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.
But, some may respond, that was then; what about now? Hasn’t the papacy been reformed? Do these abuses of the past render it a false church and justify the division of Christ’s church? Are the concerns of the Reformation that led to scores of Protestant denominations still valid today? Here the recent clergy sex scandals might come to mind as further evidence of Roman Catholicism’s inherent corruption. The problem with citing Rome’s abuse of church office is that this sets the bar at a height that Protestant churches would also have a hard time clearing. If Rome’s jurisdiction is no longer valid because of moral scandals or clerical abuse, would not Protestant churches need to be perfect to be worthy of the status of true church? In point of fact, the Protestant world has too many of its own examples of immorality and clerical misconduct. For objections to Rome to stick, then, the case needs to rest on substantial matters. Here we see that the original protests against Rome involved not simply some corrupt bishops or prelates. Rather the focus was on the ministry of the church.
Ten Theses of Berne
The Ten Theses of Berne offer us good place to start in understanding the difference between humanists like Erasmus, who simply wanted to clean up church corruption, and the Reformers, who believed that church abuses stemmed from underlying problems in theology and worship. Under the leadership of Berthold Haller and Franz Kolb, the city of Berne joined Zurich in starting the Reformation in Switzerland. In 1528 the pastors in Berne convened a disputation that produced one of the earliest confessional statements of Protestantism, summarized in a short set of ten propositions. The theses cut to the heart of the Reformation.
The statement begins by affirming the authority of Scripture: “The holy, Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the words of a stranger.” Thus the church may only require Christians to believe what the Bible reveals; it cannot appeal to tradition on matters of conscience.
The theologians from Berne went on to affirm, on the basis of Scripture, that there was no salvation apart from the work of Christ: His merits are the only that will satisfy. He is the only, and therefore, the true mediator. We do not need the mediatorial work of Mary or any other saint. Moreover, to worship Christ alone is to do so free without the aid of images.
Finally, the Berne theses condemn the Roman Catholic theology of the Mass, and they reject the doctrine of transubstantiation. For the first Protestants, to call the Mass a sacrifice was the same as saying that Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross was insufficient.
In less than three hundred words, this confession identifies precisely what was wrong (and still is) with Roman Catholicism, namely, its rejection of the sufficiency of Scripture and the sufficiency of Christ. As prophet, Christ has revealed the grace of God through his inscripturated Word. As priest, he has made the final sacrifice. As king, he is the head of his church, and his Word bears authority over tradition and the papacy. These initial and very basic interests of the Reformers had profound consequences as Protestants defended and propagated the gospel.
John Calvin and the Necessity of Reform
No one had a greater role in developing these principles than John Calvin (1509–1564). As the international Reformed community celebrates the 500th anniversary of his birth, it is fitting to give some attention to Calvin’s work and his objections to Rome. Calvin is credited with reshaping western culture in many ways. He was the “constructive revolutionary,” according to one biographer, the architect of a Christian “world-view,” and founder of western principles of education, economic, and politics, according to others. Among his enemies, he is vilified as the cruel theocrat of Geneva. What all of these characterizations overlook is that Calvin was first and foremost a Reformer of the church. Calvin’s passion was the unity and purity of the church. Calvin is best known for his majestic Institutes and his monumental Commentaries. These works bleed with his ecclesiology. He also composed the ecclesiastical ordinances a catechism for the Genevan church.
Often overlooked in his vast literary output was his defense of the Reformation, The Necessity of Reforming the Church. This 1544 book is a lens in which all of Calvin’s corpus can be comprehended. His successor, Theodore Beza, described this book as among the most vigorous and weighty of anything produced in this era. What is noteworthy in this treatise is how it echoes the Ten Theses of Berne. Calvin addresses four subjects in this book: worship, salvation (both of which were for him the soul of the church), the sacraments, and church government (which for Calvin constituted the body of the church). The Reformation cause, especially in Geneva, focused on these four issues. All “the evils and remedies” of Calvin’s day, the sum and substance of the Reformation’s cause, came down to worship, salvation, sacraments, and church government.
Worship was Calvin’s first concern. The church worships God properly only when worship is regulated by the Word of God. Contrary to the modern claim that the only criterion for true worship is the zeal of the worshiper, Calvin wrote: “God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to his worship, if [it is] at variance with His command.” He goes on to ask, “What do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘obedience is better than sacrifice’.” Worship in the Roman Catholic Church had declined to the point where it was “gross idolatry.” For Calvin, idolatry was as serious as works—righteousness in justification, because both replaced divine revelation with human wisdom.
From here Calvin addressed the chief doctrine in the Christian message of salvation: justification by faith alone. Calvin wrote, “there is no point which is more keenly contested, none in which our adversaries are more inveterate in their opposition, than that of justification, namely, as to whether we obtain it by faith or works.” The Roman Catholic teaching was a deadly wound upon the church. Calvin proclaimed the biblical teaching in the clearest possible language: man “is regarded as righteous before God, simply on the footing of gratuitous mercy, because God, without any respect to works, freely adopts him in Christ, by imputing the righteousness of Christ to him, as if it were his own.”
Calvin was quick to challenge the Roman Catholic charge that this teaching would encourage sinful licentiousness or antinomianism in the church. It had, in fact, the opposite effect. “By convincing man of his poverty and powerlessness,” he wrote, “we train him more effectually to true humility, leading him to renounce all self-confidence, and throw himself entirely upon God; and that, in like manner, we train him more effectually to gratitude, by leading him to ascribe, as in truth he ought, every good thing which he possesses to the kindness of God.”
Because believers need to have their faith strengthened to trust in God’s forgiveness, Calvin moved easily from justification to the Lord’s Supper. The Catholic principle of transubstantiation and the worship of the consecrated elements of bread and wine—for Calvin these practices were unbiblical, and they destroy the meaning of the sacrament and the comfort and blessing it is designed to convey. “While the sacrament ought to have been a means of raising pious minds to heaven, the sacred symbols of the Supper were abused [by Rome] to an entirely different purpose and men, contented with gazing upon them and worshiping them, never once thought of Christ.”
Calvin despaired at the condition of the church and the function of the Christian ministry, the last subject in The Necessity of Reforming the Church. Were he to review ecclesiastical indiscretions in detail, he lamented, “I should never [be finished].” He especially focused on the nature of church office, especially that of the pastor. This in turn required the restoration of the importance of preaching. “None of the churches [in Geneva],” he noted, were “without the ordinary preaching of the Word.”
Together, these four topics, representing the body and soul of the church, embraced “the whole substance of the Christian religion.” As he addressed them, Calvin labored to be faithful to Scripture and thus prove innocent of the charge of schism.
Rome’s Response: The Council of Trent
The Roman Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation by convening the Council of Trent, from 1546 to 1563. Spanning the tenure of two popes, the council sought to institute reform in the church, but it also responded to Protestant arguments by reaffirming Rome’s teaching.
Trent defended the authority of church tradition. God revealed himself both in written books and in unwritten traditions that came to the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself or to the church through the Holy Spirit in “continuous succession” of apostolic authority. The church must receive and venerate these two forms of revelation “with an equal affection of piety and reverence.”
On this basis, the Council took up Reformation claims, from Berne to Calvin, and it pronounced the Protestant cause as “anathema” (accursed). Here are some examples:
• On justification: “If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life—if so be, however, that he depart in grace—and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.”
• On transubstantiation: “If any one denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue; let him be anathema.”
• On the Mass: “If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the Mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema.”
Has Rome Changed?
By the terms of the Council of Trent, Protestants still stand condemned. And because Rome claims infallibility for the church’s teaching, the anathemas pronounced by Trent would appear to be forever true. What does Rome now say about Protestants?
The Roman Catholic Church is far more willing to dialogue with Protestants today than it was five hundred years ago. The second Vatican council (1962-1965) ushered in a kinder, gentler Rome. And more recently, Pope John Paul II particularly tried to reach out to Protestants. His 1995 encyclical, Ut unum sint (“That They May All be One”) builds on Vatican II’s potential bonds of unity with “separated brethren.” But there are limits to the ecumenicity of John Paul and his successor, Benedict XVI. For them a true church is one that is in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome.
More significantly, Roman Catholic Church has never lifted the anathemas of Council of Trent. The Vatican may tend to refer to Protestants as “separated brethren” rather than “heretics.” But Protestantism remains condemned, and Protestant churches are false churches, from Rome’s point of view.
So is the Roman Catholic Church a “synagogue of Satan” (to cite the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith)? Were the Reformers justified in separating from Rome? That question must be rephrased, because the problem with Rome lies in its separatism. It has abandoned the Word of God. It has “listened to the words of a stranger” and obscured the glory of the saving work of Christ.
Does that mean that no member of the Roman Catholic Church can be a Christian? Again, that might be asking the wrong question. A better question to ask is this: should Christians be Roman Catholics? Clearly, the answer to that question is no. Genuine Christians within the Roman Catholic communion must possess a greater trust in the merits of Christ than they receive from the official teachings of their church. If this conclusion is anti-Catholic, then at least the basis for such antipathy to Rome concerns not who deserves more credit for the achievement of western civilization or which branch of Christianity is more compatible with American political traditions. Instead, the foundation of anti-Catholicism must always and only be the weighty matter of man’s chief end.
Dr. D.G. Hart and Mr. John R. Muether are coauthors of several books, most recently Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Protestantism (P&R 2007). Both are ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.