Do Confessional Protestants Have Anything At Stake in the Papacy?

Ridley and Latimer“Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” These were among the last words of Hugh Latimer, as he and Nicholas Ridley stood back to back at the stake to be burned on October 16, 1555. As confessional Protestants reckon with the election of a new Bishop of Rome and Pope, Francis I, we should give thought to how those who still hold to the great achievements of the Protestant Reformation should think of him and his office.

The point of recalling the martyrdom of Ridley and Latimer on the Broad Street, in Oxford, is not to stir the ashes, as it were, of old prejudices but to recall that they died as partisans for an spiritual, theological, and ecclesiastical cause. The same is true for the 12,000 martyrs under the Spanish in the Netherlands and the no-fewer than 30,000 French Huguenot martyrs in the week of St Bartholomew’s Day, 1572. The word “martyr” is Greek for “witness.” Those confessing Protestants who died under Romish tyranny died as martyrs, witnesses to certain basic Christian truths: Scripture is clear enough to be understood where it must be understood and it, not the church (or an unwritten apostolic tradition), is the unique authority for the Christian faith and Christian life. Grace is not a substance but it is God’s free, unconditional favor by which he saves his people and by his credits to them Christ’s righteousness earned for them and those benefits (righteousness with God and salvation) are freely received through faith that rests in Christ and his finished work for his people.

Those are the truths that Rome confessed at Trent (1545–63) and confesses today in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) to be “anathema” (eternally condemned).

Thus, it is interesting to see how some are reacting to the election of what appears to be a fairly conservative Jesuit (!) to the papacy. In this interview with Luis Palau, the broad “evangelical” approach is clear:

You know he knew God the father personally. The way he prayed, the way he talked to the Lord, was of a man who knows Jesus Christ and was very spiritually intimate with the Lord. It’s not an effort [for him] to pray. He didn’t do reading prayers; he just prayed to the Lord spontaneously. It is a sign that good things will happen worldwide in the years of his papal work.

This is the triumph of religious experience over confession. It’s good that Francis meets Palau’s spiritual tests but the question between Rome and Geneva (or Rome and Heidelberg or Rome and Augsburg) has never been that of religious experience. We’ve never said that there are not Christians in Rome. What we dispute, however, is whether Rome is a church.

Speaking of the Roman communion, we confess:

As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry (Belgic Confession, Art 29).

We confess that Rome is a false church. It’s not that we are bigots or that we don’t like Roman Catholics. Rather, it’s about truth. The Roman communion does not serve the Word. She sets herself as master over the Word. She sees herself to be not only the mother of the faithful, but mother of the Word and to that Word she adds man-made commandments and practices. The Reformation recognized that Rome, considered relative to conciliar decrees, became a corrupt church in the 13th century and after and thus, after prayer and study, repudiated the 300 year old decisions of the Roman communion and returned to God’s Word as understood by the early church and by the better Patristic and medieval theologians, in their better moments. According to the Reformed confession of God’s Word, Francis I may love Jesus, he may pray, he may even be a believer but if he is, it is extraordinary case because “ there is no salvation apart from”the true church (Belgic Confession, Art 28).

On Palau’s premise, however, the Reformation is essentially mistaken because, as he describes the new pope (in virtually the same terms used by evangelicals to describe Idris Cardinal Cassidy during the ECT discussions in the 90s) the Reformation is no longer relevant. A common religious experience trumps objective truth.

There is another, more sophisticated approach to the papacy. My friend Matt Tuininga writes:

These events should remind Protestants just how important the papacy is for the witness of Christianity in the world. If Rome is to recover a consistent witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, movements like the “New Evangelization” will play an important part in that recovery. But these events also remind Protestants just how different Catholic piety is from their own.

I should not like to use this word “witness” in this context. I should rather write of the consequences of the perception of the Christian faith by the watching, pagan world. The “witness” of the Christian faith is exactly why Ridley and Latimer died: to give witness, testimony to the faith and that is why Bloody Mary put them to the stake, in order to silence that witness. Our testimony is that Christ obeyed for us, was crucified for us, and was raised for us on the third day, that the righteousness whereby we stand before God is outside of us. Rome confesses that we are accepted with God on the basis of his working in us and our cooperation with that sanctifying work. Thus, we are both making claims about Christ to the world, but our witness is considerably different.

There is no question that what the Vatican and the new pope does and says will have an effect on the global perception of Christianity but perhaps that’s why we should not be aligning ourself with Rome at all but rather distancing ourselves from her? I’m not suggesting that we cannot make common cause with Romanists on civil matters but I am suggesting that, however rude it might seem to Rome and to her new pope, perhaps now is a good moment to re-think the tendency to carry over the social strategy of co-beligerency into the matter of the witness to the faith. Confessional Protestants ought to distinguish themselves from Rome precisely for the sake of the witness of the faith and to the faith to a watching world.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Dr. Clark, was this a typo? “We’ve never said that there are Christians in Rome. ” Just trying to help out.

  2. “Rome confesses that God accepted with God on the basis of his working in us and our cooperation with that sanctifying work.”

    Dr. Clark,
    Can you please restate the above sentence? Thanks!

  3. On that note… “Rome confesses that God accepted with God on the basis of his working in us and our cooperation with that sanctifying work.” Is that a typo as well?

  4. Man, this is some great stuff here. Dr. Clark, thanks for nailing the big differnce betweem Rome and confessional Protestants, i.e. the gospel of salvation – by God’s grace alone, by Chrit’s finished work alone, through simple receiving faith alone.

    We remeber the martyrs.

  5. Thanks for the link Scott. You write, “We’ve never said that there are not Christians in Rome. What we dispute, however, is whether Rome is a church.” Would you affirm Calvin’s statement that although ‘Rome is not a true church there is a true church within her’?

    I take this phrase not to apply simply to there being true Christians who are members of the Roman Catholic Church, but to indicating that there are Catholic priests who do preach the gospel, however rare they may be, and that where the Word of God is thus faithfully preached, there is the glimmer of the true church, however faint and obscured it may be.

    • Matt,

      Well, it’s a highly subjective question and fairly theoretical. I know a former priest who taught protestant doctrine informally before he left Rome. Are there Roman priests somewhere teaching justification sola fide? Perhaps. When Calvin said that there is a true church within her, he was thinking of those believers, whom he sometimes called Nicodemites. I’ve described this phenomenon here and pt 2 and part 3 and part 4 (there are following installments).

      Calvin wasn’t naive about those who chose to stay in the Roman communion. It was an irregular situation at best. It’s one thing to concede that there are or may be believers, irregularly outside the true church, and quite another to leverage the judgment of the churches that Rome is a false church with speculation about Christians in the Roman communion and then to turn that into an ecclesiola in ecclesia.

  6. The historic, original Protestant confessions speak with one voice of the Papacy, that it is the great Antichrist (man of sin, son of perdition, etc.).

    This is one more place where modern confessionalists seem to part ways with historic confessionalists.


      Pope = anomos (2Thess 2:1-12)

      In case anyone would charge me with slander, the Holy Spirit spoke in 2Thess 2:1-12 and intended to be understood. It is my firm conviction that this passage is a prophecy concerning the papacy. It makes perfect sense that the Lord would put such a prophecy in Scripture in order to help us poor sinners discern the truth.

      IOW: God wants us to understand that the papacy is the fulfillment of 2Thess 2:1-12. This is why the Reformed Confessions do not shrink away from trumpeting this truth.

  7. Thanks for this Scott. You wrote, The Reformation recognized that Rome, considered relative to conciliar decrees, became a corrupt church in the 13th century and after and thus …

    You are talking about the age of Aquinas, maybe the Fourth Lateran Council ruling on transubstantiation (and other things)?

    It would be good for Protestants in general to look at this period, and work to sort out the “bad conciliar decrees” within the context of Medieval theology. I have not done so, but it’s an area of study that I want to focus on.

    • Yes, I’m thinking of the 4th Lateran Council. Prior to that point there were writers advocating what would become the Roman view of the sacraments but, as I keep reminding people, as late as the 9th century, Radbertus and Ratramnus knew ONLY two sacraments.

      We do need to distinguish between what various theologians wrote and those dogmas adopted by the churches. Sometimes those two get blurred and the picture of what actually happened in the church gets obscured.

  8. Scott, I’m not sure that what happens in Rome will even affect Roman Catholicism in the U.S. Can you say Garry Wills? Sure, you can.

    • Darryl,

      It depends on where we look at what measures we use. E.g., if we look at the Romanist acquisition of popular media, we could say that there’s there’s a resurgence of more traditionalist Romanism. RC laity recently bought a powerful AM station out here and now broadcast conservative Romanism all day long. Back home they bought the most powerful FM station in the area and are doing the same. There’s also EWTN and the web presence. So, from that perspective, yes, what happens in Rome does influence Romanism in the states.

      Does it affect elites like Wills? Probably not, but he’s not terribly submissive to the magisterium is he?

      The USCCB is a more interesting case. In places the Bishops and Archbishops are quite conservative and in others it’s as if John Paul and Benedict never happened. That diversity reflects the dialectical process of post-Tridentine Romanism. What she “is” depends on where one looks.

      • Scott, this is why I think the “publicizing” of history is so useful in this context. As much as the Called to Communion gang try to feign seriousness, their denial of what we know about history undercuts their appeal to people who are more serious about understanding “what’s true”.

  9. Amen to your article! The R.C.C. sometimes changes its colors but at the end it will remain the same – a false church!
    P.S. What was one of the first things the new pope did. Pray to the Madonna!

Comments are closed.