“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.