The Infallibility of the Church?

Systematic Theology, 3 Volumes The Roman Catholic Church teaches that “the infallibility of the Magisterium of the Pastors extends to all the elements of doctrine, including moral doctrine, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, expounded, or observed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, III.1.3.3.1).  In short, Rome teaches the infallibility of the Magisterial Church.

Charles Hodge (d. 1878), in Systematic Theology, gives five arguments against the infallibility of the Church of Rome: 1) it is founded on a wrong theory of the church, 2) it is founded on the false assumption of the perpetuity of the Apostleship, 3) it is founded on a false interpretation of Christ’s promise, 4) it is contradicted by facts, and 5) it is contradicted by the present doctrinal errors in the Church of Rome.  Though Hodge’s arguments are all solid, I appreciate his third one:

The third decisive argument against the infallibility of the Church is, that Christ never promised to preserve it from all error. What is here meant is that Christ never promised the true Church, that is, “the company of true believers,” that they should not err in doctrine. He did promise that they should not fatally apostatize from the truth. He did promise that He would grant his true disciples such a measure of divine guidance by his Spirit, that they should know enough to be saved. He, moreover, promised that He would call men into the ministry, and give them the qualifications of faithful teachers, such as were the presbyters whom the Apostles ordained in every city.

But there is no promise of infallibility either to the Church as a whole, or to any class of men in the Church. Christ promised to sanctify his people; but this was not a promise to make them perfectly holy in this life. He promised to give them joy and peace in believing; but this is not a promise to make them perfectly happy in this life —that they should have no trials or sorrows. Then, why should the promise to teach be a promise to render infallible. As the Church has gone through the world bathed in tears and blood, so has she gone soiled with sin and error. It is just as manifest (obvious) that she has never been infallible, as that she has never been perfectly holy. Christ no more promised the one than the other.

Hodge, Charles. (1997). Systematic theology (Vol. 1, pp. 142–143). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church
hammond, WI

Leaving Rome

On the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church seems impressive with her history, symbols, liturgies, popes, and rituals.  Some people become Catholic because they appreciate these types of religious things.  However, others are leaving Rome because amidst the rituals and symbols, they cannot find the gospel.  In Stepping out in Faith, Mark Gilbert has collected eleven stories of Christians who left Rome because they weren’t hearing the message of grace.

This book isn’t too long (c. 120 pages), the stories aren’t too difficult to read, and it isn’t a point by point theological/biblical critique of Rome.  Rather, Stepping out in Faith is simply a collection of short personal stories that explain how and why these people left Rome and became evangelical Protestants.  Though the stories are mostly written by Australians who are now Anglican, they are certainly understandable for any Christian interested in this topic.

A common theme that struck me in these stories is how Rome’s traditions and theology actually cloud the gospel of grace.  One priest told a young boy that if he did what he said (concerning religion) it would all be OK.  Another child grew up thinking that God was ready to condemn him if he’d screw up.  Still another child was told by a nun that if he didn’t confess all his sins to the priest, he would go to hell.  Several stories in this book said the Catholic church taught them that God helps those who help themselves.  Indeed, the theology, tradition, and rituals of Rome cloud the gospel.

Along these lines, here are a few excerpts from the stories in this book.

“I came to believe that Roman Catholic teaching makes it very difficult for people to understand the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I know this is a very serious charge…, but because the gospel is so fundamental, I decided to leave the Catholic Church” (p. 79).

“I was taught that if I didn’t go to church one Sunday and I died before my next confession, I would go to hell.  I became totally confused.  The only thing I truly understood was fear – fear of a God of punishment, fear of committing mortal sins before confession, fear of dying and going to hell” (p. 86).

“I was angry with the Catholic Church for a number of years after I left.  I felt that my trust had been betrayed.  I’d attended mass thousands of times, not to mention the retreats and youth groups I’d been to; I’d even met the Pope.  But I’d never heard the gospel.  I also felt angry because they did not teach the truth about God to the people I loved.  With time that anger settled, and I came to realize that it was only God’s grace and generosity that enabled me to hear the gospel and trust in him in the first place” (p. 120).

Again, this book isn’t a deep Reformed theological refutation of Roman Catholicism.  But it still is a good resource – a good resource for those interested in a starting point for what it means to leave Rome.   This book would be helpful for average Catholics who are questioning.  It’s also a good read for those of us who are in solid Protestant churches.  Stories like this should make us thankful for the Reformation and for churches that proclaim the doctrines of grace clearly Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day.

Stepping out in Faith ed. Mark Gilbert (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2012).

[This book was reviewed as part of the CrossFocus review program; I was not compelled to give a positive review in exchange for the book.]

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Rome: Sola Ecclesia, not Sola Scriptura

Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books A short while ago I posted some helpful and critical comments about Rome’s view of Scripture by Michael Kruger (in Canon Revisited).  Here is part two of that post.  The quote is a bit longer than my usual ones, but it is well worth the time.

“…The most fundamental concern [is] whether the Roman Catholic model, in some sense, makes the Scripture subordinate to the church.  The answer to that question is revealed when we ask another question: How does the Roman Catholic Church establish its own infallible authority?  If the Roman Catholic church believes that infallible authorities (like the Scriptures) require external authentication, then to what authority does the church turn to establish the grounds for its own infallible authority?  Here is where the Roman Catholic model runs into some difficulties.  There are three options for how to answer this question.”

(1) The church could claim that its infallible authority is authenticated by (and derived from) the Scriptures.  But this proves to be rather vicious circular reasoning.  If the Scriptures cannot be known and authenticated without the authority of the church, then you cannot establish the authority of the church on the basis of the Scriptures.  You cannot have it both ways.  Moreover, on an exegetical level, one would be hard-pressed to find much scriptural support for an infallible church….”

(2) The church could claim that its infallible authority is authenticated by external evidence from the history of the church: the origins of the church, the character of the church, the progress of the church, and so forth.  However, these are not infallible grounds by which the church’s infallibility could be established.  In addition, the history of the Roman Church is not a pure one – the abuses, corruption, documented papal errors, and the like do not naturally lead one to conclude that the church is infallible regarding ‘faith and morals.’”

(3) It seems that the only option left to the Catholic model is to declare that the church’s authority is self-authenticating and needs no external authority to validate it.  Or, more bluntly put, we ought to believe in the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church because it says so.”

“The Roman Catholic Church, then, finds itself in the awkward place of having chided the Reformers for having a self-authenticating authority (sola scriptura), while all the while it has engaged in that very same activity by setting itself up as a self-authenticating authority (sola ecclesia).  On the Catholic model, the Scripture’s own claims should be received on their own authority.  The Roman Catholic Church, functionally speaking, is committed to sola ecclesia.”

Here’s Kruger’s helpful critique of Rome’s view of the church over the Word.

“…This presents challenges for the Catholic model.  Most pertinent is the question of how there can be a canon at all – at least one that can genuinely challenge, correct, and transform the church – if the validation structure for the canon, in effect, already presupposes that the church bears an authority that is even higher?  On the Catholic system, then, the canon’s authority is substantially diminished.  What authority it does have must be construed as purely derivative – less a rule over the church and more of an arm of the church, not something that determines the church’s identity but something that merely expresses it.”

This sheds some new light on the Reformation phrase, “always reforming according to the Word.”  Rome can’t logically say this phrase because it does not believe that the Scriptures alone are the highest authority for faith and life; Rome believes in sola ecclesia, not sola scriptura.  One cannot have it both ways.

The above quotes are found in Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 47-48.

rev. shane lems

Prayer to Mary?

Product Details In the Roman Catholic Catechism prayer to Mary is explained in part 4, chapter 2, article 2.  The Catechism talks about the “twofold movement of prayer to Mary” which 1) consists of magnifying the Lord for what he did through her and 2) “entrusts the supplications and praises of the children of God to the Mother of Jesus.”    This twofold movement is found in the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), the traditional Catholic prayer which addresses Mary, who is “full of grace.”  The Catechism also calls her “the dwelling of God…with men,” and ascribes to her these names: “the Mother of Mercy, the All-Holy One.”

Because Mary is at the top of the human ladder of blessedness, the Catechism also says we can “entrust all our cares and petitions to her: she prays for us as she prayed for herself…we give ourselves over to her now…to surrender ‘the hour of our death’ wholly to her care.”  In fact, Rome says, “We can pray with and to her.  The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope.”

This is one of the major reasons why the Reformation happened: because Rome was steeped in corrupt, idolatrous worship.  And this is why the Reformation matters today, because Rome has not repented of her idolatry; the above quotes are from the Roman Catholic Church’s modern Catechism.

Herman Bavinck was right: “In Rome, Mariolatry increasingly crowds out the true Christian worship of God. … It is against this idolization of the human that the Reformation rose up in protest” (RD III p. 282).

The [Lutheran] Smalcald Articles (Part 2, article 2) also say it well: “The invocation of saints is…one of Antichrist’s abuses that conflicts with the chief article [the gospel] and destroys the knowledge of Christ [Phil. 3:8].  It is neither commanded nor counseled, nor has it any warrant in Scripture.  Even if it were a precious thing – which it is not – we have everything a thousand times better in Christ.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 puts it this way: “Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone: not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a mediator, nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.”

The Lutheran and Presbyterian confessions are right.  Since Christ alone is sufficient for everything we need in salvation (body and soul, life and death), we don’t have to look elsewhere for anything.  When we do so, we are turning from Christ, committing idolatry, and acting as if his work is not enough.  This is one great reason to thank God for the Reformation –  he used it to bring the focus on back upon Christ and him alone.  Post tenebras lux!

shane lems

Legalism: Working for God’s Favor Forfeits It

 In this excellent summary of Christian theology (which I’ve used to train younger as well as newer Christians), J. I. Packer writes the following about legalism.

“Legalism is a distortion of obedience that can never produce truly good works.  Its first fault is that it skews motive and purpose, seeing good deeds as essentially ways to earn more of God’s favor than one has at the moment.  Its second fault is arrogance.  Belief that one’s labor earns God’s favor begets contempt for those who do not labor in the same way.  Its third fault is lovelessness in that its self-advancing purpose squeezes humble kindness and creative compassion out of the heart.”

“So far, then, from enriching our relationship with God, as it seeks to do, legalism in all its forms does the opposite.  It puts that relationship in jeopardy and, by stopping us [from] focusing on Christ, it starves our souls while feeding our pride.  Legalistic religion in all its forms should be avoided like the plague.”

This quote is found on pages 175 & 177 of Concise Theology by J. I. Packer.  Right now it is selling for under $10!  I highly recommend this one for all Christians – whether young in the faith or old. 

shane lems

The European Reformation(s)

The European Reformations I just noticed a clearance sale on a seminary textbook I’ve grown to love: The European Reformations by Carter Lindberg (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).  Note: this is the first edition of the textbook.  The second edition is out as well (check it out here).  The first edition would be good for those of you who enjoy Reformation history reading as a sort of hobby.  Probably if you’re doing academic work you’ll want to check out the second edition, but if you’re reading for “fun” I’d guess this first edition (which is half-price!) would be fine.  Here are the topics which Lindberg discusses (in this order):

1) The Late Middle Ages – culture, society, military, and values.
2) The Early years of the Reformations in Europe – Luther, politics, theology, and piety.
3) Luther’s contemporaries – Melanchthon, Karlstadt, and other reforms.
4) The ethical and social aspects of the Reformation (good works, vocation, and service).
5) The Reformations and the common European person.
6) The Swiss Reformation (Zwingli).
7) The Radical Reformations (the Anabaptist fanatics).
8) Later Lutheran situations and confessions (i.e. Augsburg).
9) The Genevan Reformation (Calvin).
10) The Reformation in France.
11) The Reformation in the Netherlands.
12) The Reformations in England and Scotland.
13) The Papal Counter-Reformation.
14) The many legacies of the Reformations.

This book is outstanding.  There are also several maps and genealogies to aid the reader in understanding the many aspects of the Reformation(s).  It is around 450 pages, but to me it read almost like a novel because I am interested in this history and because it was well written.  All in all, if you have around $27 that you want to invest in a Reformation history book, I’d recommend this one.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Models of the Church

Since one of my reading hobbies is ecclesiology I recently picked up and read the newest edition of Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002).  In this book, Dulles summarizes and explains what he thinks are the five major models of ecclesiology in contemporary Christianity: Church as institution, church as mystical communion, church as sacrament, church as herald, and church as servant.  The updated book has a chapter on the church as community of disciples as well.

The book is very informative and well written.  Being a Reformation Christian, I knew from the get-go that I wouldn’t agree with everything in the book, as Dulles is a Roman Catholic theologian.  For example, he thinks that though all of the models have some benefits, his choice is the church as sacrament, which goes hard against my Protestant ecclesiology. 

Furthermore, I was disappointed that Dulles never interacted with any Reformation ecclesiology, aside from mentioning Lutheranism a few times.  He did mention Calvin in the beginning, but never came around to Reformed ecclesiology.  He used Barth and company to describe the church as herald, but I would have liked to see Dulles interact with Reformed/Presbyterian ecclesiology.  It seems to me that he made the mistake of lumping all Protestant ecclesiologies together, which is a pretty glaring error.  Certainly most mainline American Protestant ecclesiologies are far from confessional Reformed, Lutheran, or Anglican ecclesiology (just for a few examples)!

As I said, however, the book is worth reading.  Here is one quote I appreciated.

“…the Church of Jesus Christ is not perfectly realized anywhere on earth, and…any existing ecclesiastical body will be only deficiency the Church of Jesus Christ.  At the end of time, the Church will be ‘without spot or wrinkle;’ it will be the Bride fully adorned to meet her Husband.  But as yet the bodies that go by the name of ‘church’ all have their shortcomings and are to some extent vitiated by foreign elements” (p. 129).

If you’re an “ecclesiologist” you’ll want to get this book.  Even though I really didn’t find myself convinced by all of Dulles’ arguments and explanations, it was a helpful and enjoyable book to read.  Dulles does make some excellent points, and this should be on the shelves of those of you who are interested in the doctrine of the church. 

shane lems