Talking Past One Another?

I didn’t know Rich Mouw has a blog. Indeed, a number of evangelical scholars maintain blogs, including John Stackhouse. In a recent entry he responded to criticism of his essay in The Christian Century proposing that Protestant re-think their approach to the mediation of the saints. I am one of those critics.

In this recent entry Mouw argues that evangelicals and Protestants often talk past each other because they are using different categories. He uses the example of tensions between evangelicals and a Roman priest over the way a funeral was conducted. The evangelicals complained that the priest didn’t take the opportunity presented by the funeral mass to preach the gospel to the unsaved gang members present. The priest replied by pointing to the value of demonstrating the communion of the saints and the evangelicals wanted an explicit gospel message. Mouw says that this is an example of the sort of talking past one another about which he was writing in the original essay.

Two problems:

1. The evangelicals in Mouw’s story clearly don’t “get it.” Rome denies the very message they seemed to expect the priest to announce at the mass;

2. Mouw is correct that Rome is thinking “ecclesiology” while Protestants are (or should be) thinking “soteriology” but he wrong to assume that if we just understood the categorical tension that we could (perhaps?) come to some agreement.

The difference in the way we analyze the human condition is at the root of the disagreement between Rome and Protestants. To concede Mouw’s point would be to concede the Reformation! According to Rome ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) is soteriology. Confessional Protestants don’t accept the premises behind this identification.

We certainly confess the (Belgic Confession Art. 28) importance of the visible, institutional church in salvation and the Christian life:

We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.

In large measure, the Reformation was not an argument over whether there is such a thing as a true church but over which church is the true church. The Protestants denied (and continue to insist) that Rome is not the true church if only because she anathematized the gospel (Council of Trent, session 6; 1547). We insist (Art. 29) that a true church has three marks:

The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.

According to confessional Protestants, Rome is a church, a false church (Art 28). She arrogates to herself authority she does not have. I realize that, in our ecumenical age, this is regarded as intemperate or even rude language. Others would dismiss this language by saying that it was the product of a heated debate and a remnant of the rhetoric of an intolerant age. It’s not rude, however, to persist in the truth. We can be firm AND gracious simultaneously can’t we?

The refusal of many to persevere in the Reformation says less about the value of the Reformation faith than it does about evangelical Christianity in our day. Whatever the mainliners (whether liberals or evangelicals) would have us think, the Reformed confession is not a relic. It cannot be marginalized so long as folk still actually believe and practice it and there are some who still hold and practice it. It’s true that there aren’t many of us (about 500,000 in North America) but we’re holding our own while the mainline Reformed and Presbyterian denominations continue to decline.

However important the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) is in Reformed theology, piety, and practice, we cannot accept either the premise that it’s acceptable to conflate ecclesiology and soteriology (doctrine of salvation) or the premise that we (Protestants and Romanists) really don’t understand one another.

Regarding the latter, I’m sure that many evangelicals don’t understand Rome. That much seems clear from the several evangelical ecumenical moves in the last 15 years or so (e.g., ECT) but that doesn’t mean that there are not principled reasons to continue to insist on separation from Rome. There are. The evangelicals, of course, having reduced Christianity to the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) are poorly positioned to withstand Rome’s charms. As soon as representatives from the Roman communion can demonstrate that they too value personal religious experience of the risen Christ, and personal Bible study, most evangelicals seem to melt.

Regarding the former, the formal principle of the Reformation was the uniqueness of the authority of Scripture. To concede Rome’s right to make ecclesiology central would be concede the question of authority. At least it would weaken the Protestant case. Second, the material question of the Reformation was justification by grace alone through faith alone. Those slogans imply very precise definitions. It has never been sufficient to say “Rome believes in grace and faith and we believe in grace and faith, so why are we fighting?”

The questions of the Reformation were: “what is grace?” and “what is faith?” Is grace a medicinal substance with which we are infused and with which we must cooperate toward sanctification and eventual justification or not? Is faith a Spirit-wrought virtue infused in us by grace or is it the gift of God and the sole instrument through which sinners receive Christ and his benefits? What is the ground of justification? Is it Spirit-wrought, intrinsic justice or is it Christ’s righteousness imputed to those who believe?

These questions cannot be reduced or marginalized in favor of religious experience. Schleiermacher was wrong. Christianity is not the feeling of divine dependence. Theology is not just the quest for the most accurate way of speaking about our experience of the transcendent. We confess a faith grounded in redemptive history and we are making truth claims about objective reality, not just about our subjective experience.

Rich Mouw is partly right. It may be that most evangelicals who no longer remember what the Reformation was all about, but some of us do and many are discovering the Reformation as we speak and being delivered all over again from the bondage of moralism (“Ten Steps to…”). Often as not, they aren’t coming out of the Roman communion, but out of ostensibly “evangelical” churches. If Mouw really wants to be of service to evangelicals perhaps he could use his gifts and influence toward helping them to remember what “evangelical” used to mean?

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