Two Protestants Look at Rome

THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL AND THE NEW CATHOLICISM by G. C. Berkouwer. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1965. Translated by lewis B. Smedes. 264 pages. Price $5.95

ROMAN CATHOLICISM TODAY by H. M. Carson. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids. First American Edition 1965. 128 pages. Price (paper) $1.45

Though, generally speaking, these publications concern themselves with the same subject matter, they certainly are not “companion volumes.” Nevertheless, after scanning one of these books, the reader owes it to himself to study the other also. Both authors appear to be well informed and qualified to write on Roman Catholicism as it is developing today. However, though it should not be said that there is a clash in evaluation with these two writers, yet there is a difference in appreciation of the things occurring within the Roman Church at present.

Dr. Berkouwer writes on such important subjects as “The Unexpected Council,” “The Changed Climate,” “Unchangeability and Changeability of Dogma,” “Scripture and Tradition,” and the like. I understand that he is an official observer at the Second Vatican Council and should, therefore, be in a position to report accurately on its pronouncements and deliverances. He is very much impressed by what is occurring. Yet he does not lose sight of the fact that “Clearly the unchangeability of truth—and of doctrine—is not in question.” He quotes Cardinal Bea (in a note) as maintaining, “What the Church has once for all declared as a matter of faith was declared under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as a divinely revealed truth, over which the Church can no longer in any way dispose.” At the same time Dr. Berkouwer attaches considerable significance to the “new” interpretations of the teachings of the Church. He quotes Pope John XXIII as follows: “The certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which we must remain ever faithful, must be examined and expounded by the methods applicable in our times. We must distinguish between the inheritance of the faith itself, or the truths which are contained in our holy doctrine, and the way in which these truths are formulated, of course with the same sense and the same significance.” Though the unchangeability of doctrine is not denied, yet Berkouwer asserts, “…the distinction that the Pope made between the substance and the formulation of the truth sparked immediate interest.” This distinction, so he claims, “…seemed to open the door to new interpretations of Church dogma.” He likewise states, “What is happening is that these men are intent on analyzing the possibilities that misunderstandings have occurred and whether, if these misunderstandings are removed, together we can discover where the real controversy lies.”

However, Dr. Berkouwer does not only write as an observer at the Council, but also as one who has read Widely in present day Roman Catholic literature. He refers to this literature, throughout his book, as much as to the pronouncements of the Council. Says he, “Many writers among Roman Catholics witness strongly to the idea that there is a Catholic sola fide—sola gratia [faith alone grace alone]. In view of the fact that the so fa fide—sola, gratia along with the solo Christo and sola Scriptura [Christ alone and Scripture alone] have always been assumed to be exclusive Reformation properties precisely in opposition to Rome, these Catholic witnesses are the more noteworthy.” One of the foremost of the Catholic witnesses is, of course, Dr. Hans Kung of Tubingen. It is he who seeks to reinterpret the acts of the Council of Trent (1545–1563). This was the Counter-Reformation Council, which pronounced its imprecations, its anathemas, time and again upon those who held to the Biblical doctrines as confessed by the Reformers. Now Kung seeks to reinterpret the pronouncements of this Council in such a way that there is hardly a difference between them and the Biblical doctrines confessed by the Reformation. Berkouwer writes, “For though the new interpretations of Trent are received with official reservation, no one has suggested that what Kung claims to read in the intention of Trent is unorthodox.” Throughout the volume Dr. Berkouwer appears to be much impressed by the alleged fact that a dialogue or a discussion is now possible by Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians. The climate has evidently changed.

Dr. Carson, who writes on Roman Catholicism Today, appears to be well acquainted with recent Roman Catholic literary productions. He has read the products of Dr. Hans Kung, for instance, and states that, “Behind all this ferment [in the Roman Church) lies the work of some brilliant and forward-looking Roman Catholic theologians.” He writes further, “The one who has undoubtedly caught the Protestant ear is Dr. Hans Kung from Tiibingen. Here is a man who says much with which any Protestant would heartily agree.” Carson says that we are thankful to God for the way Kung and others are turning men back to the Bible. “But,” so he writes, “we must remember that he is still one of the avant garde. He has been permitted a great degree of latitude. But the question is still very much an open one as to the final reaction of Rome.” The author reminds us of the fact that in the past “rebellious voices,” going too far, “have either been silenced or driven out.” He continues, “So we must wait and see; but meanwhile we must meet Rome, not as Dr. Kung would like her to be, but as she really is.” He likewise states that Kung’s “…reforms are still in the realm of what evangelical Protestants would maintain to be secondary issues.” Kung claims that the Council of Trent has been guilty of overstatement, and Carson remarks, “Now, while clearly we must make allowance for overstatement in any controversial debate, it will require a great many more convincing arguments (than Kung offers) before one could accept the Council of Trent as really saying the same thing as Calvin’s Institutes!”

Rather than leaning on assertions made by Roman Catholic theolOgians, Carson would depend for his discussion on what the Roman Church offiCially confesses. For that purpose he turns to another present day Roman Catholic theologian of Germany, Dr. Ludwig Ott. This scholar wrote a book entitled Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Carson describes it as “…a lucid presentation of the doctrines of Trent. It carries the full imprimatur of the Church, and as the edition is May 1962, it may be claimed to be an up-to-date statement.” The book is said to be “an authoritative and reliable work.” The author now states, “It is therefore not surprising that the course of studies reflects Dr. Ott and the Council of Trent, rather than Dr. Kung. But in view of the latter’s [Dr. Kung’s] insistence on the maintenance of ‘the essentials’ we find that, in spite of his apparent ‘Protestantism’, he himself is really advocating the same basic doctrinal position [as does Dr. Ott].”

From the vantage point of Dr. Ott’s book the author discusses such important subjects as “By What Authority?”, “The Test of History,” “The Appeal to Scripture,” “The Evidence of Tradition,” “The Sacraments,” etc.

As suggested above, to obtain an adequate view of the changes occurring in the Roman Catholic Church these days, both of these books, as well as others, should be consulted. Besides, for a proper evaluation other matters must likewise be kept in mind.

Though the Roman Church claims to be the one Catholic (Ecumenical) Church, yet there is doubtless a great difference not only among the various orders in the Church, but also in Roman Catholicism as it manifests itself in different lands. It is, for instance, generally known that the Roman Catholic theologians in the Netherlands are much more “progressive” than those found in other places. These Dutch theologians even dare to seek a reinterpretation of the dogma of transubstantiation, for example. One wonders whether such “national” differences are taken into account sufficiently when evaluating the changes occurring within the Roman Church.

Moreover, it is evident that attempts are being made by Roman Catholic scholars to bring about changes in conceptions and doctrines through reinterpretations of age-old teachings of the Church. The dogma of transubstantiation is not only subjected to such reinterpretation, but the pronouncements of the Council of Trent are treated similarly. I feel that all such attempts at reinterpretations are highly precarious. Of course, it is generally known that such ventures in regard to history and also in regard to Scripture are “in the air” at present. Not a few clamor for a “new” hermeneutics. Now in line with this it is claimed that the Reformers of the Sixteenth Century, and hence living and laboring at the very time of the Council of Trent, misunderstood the pronouncements of this Council, and that the present day “critics,” living some 400 years after the closing of the Council, are in better position to understand just what the Council meant to assert! I am not saying that such reinterpretation is altogether impossible, but is certainly is highly improbable. Let’s not forget that the Reformers were excellent Latinists and that they could appreciate the shade of meaning given to the terms used by the Council better than many a one today.

Again, it should be kept in mind that though the Second Vatican Council is making some gratifying changes, it certainly does not alter the basic position and dogma of the Church. For instance, the Second Vatican Council does not repudiate the pronouncement of the First Vatican Council (1870) and its dogma of papal infallibility. Neither does it repudiate the terrible imprecations which the Council of Trent pronounced upon Protestant “heretics.” Of course, we acknowledge that the Protestant believers are not called “heretics” by the Roman Catholics today, but “separated brothers” (note well, not separated churches). That indicates a change in attitude. Yet I am writing these things the day after Pope Paul VI visited the United Nations and New York, and that impressed me. I did not stumble so much over all the outward pomp and genuflections displayed and seen. That was expected, and we were ready for it. Moreover, that can be observed in practically any Catholic Cathedral. But, presumably with millions of Americans, I heard the Pope say in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, by means of T.V., that he is the vicar of Christ upon earth. Indeed, the fact that the Roman pontiffs make this claim is generaUy known and wasn’t new to me, but to hear this mortal man say it and to say it unabashedly, shunned me for a moment. He did dare to say it! In the same connection the Pope spoke of the apostles Peter and Paul, whose successor he claims to be. I could not suppress the thought that these apostles did realize that they were witnesses and ambassadors of Christ, but none ever claimed to be Christ’s vicar upon earth. After all, a vicar stands in the place of Christ, functions for Him and has, as it were, power of attorney from Him. Of course Christ never assigned such power to any man. We resent the idea and deny the right to any man, no matter who he is, to seek to stand between the believer and Christ. Besides, that assertion of the Pope certainly indicates that basically the Roman Church is the same. It has not changed. The doctrine of the Pope’s vicarage is one of the main pillars upon which Roman Catholicism rests, and it is significant to note that that pillar, according to the conception of the Church, remains intact.

May I suggest in closing that the change occurring in Roman Catholicism these days does not involve any basic doctrine of the Church, but only a willingness on the part of the Church to discuss matters, not with separated churches, but with separated brothers. The Church will engage in so-called dialogue, but with “missionary” or “proselytizing” purposes in mind. As Protestants we are willing to do that too, and with the same purposes in mind. We should seek to bring the Roman Catholic Church not to subjective and deceptive reinterpretations, but to a thorough-going reformation.

With the reconvening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome in these recent weeks, the Roman Catholic Church is again much in the news. Especially during the past year several significant volumes have been published, dealing with the issue of Roman Catholic-Protestant relations. Two of these are singled out for the reader’s attention in this article by the Rev. Nicholas J. Monsma, retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church, presently residing in Grand Rapids, MI.