In his An Apology of the Church of England Bishop John Jewel argued successfully for the purified and Scriptural Catholicism of the English Reformation. His plea was for the return to the “church of the apostles and of the old catholic bishops and fathers”, the Catholicism of the early church as distinct from the gradual accretion of teachings and practices of that body that came to be identified as the Roman Catholic Church. What we have in the Roman Church, particularly as a result of developments within the medieval period, is a mixture of creedal orthodoxy and credulous, mystical, and theological error. John Duncan is correct to describe it as, “Wheat and arsenic, wheat and arsenic; it all depends on the proportions”. There is enough wheat in Romanism to qualify it as a church capable of dispensing the Bread of Life. On this our Reformers were agreed, and Richard Hooker has shown that the humble faithful, prior to the cleansing of the Church of God in the 16th century, are not deprived of the salvation they sought because of the fallacies adhered to by their pastors. It is patent, as Duncan observes, “that many a devout soul has found its spiritual nourishment in that church” and that they still do, and that massive spiritual wisdom and guidance emanates from the doctors and devotees of Roman Christianity.
In spite of the conviction of many Protestant entities that no good thing exists in Romanism, and even though it is by some classified as a cult, mainstream Reformationalism regards Rome as a part of the Christian church, though deeply flawed. At a personal level, and among its professional theologians, there is too much evidence of a sincere knowledge of Christ and an authentic walk with him that edifies and humbles outside onlookers, and which often points out the immaturity and superficiality of many varieties of Evangelicalism. Through the maze of dubious thought and custom the miracle of grace weaves a path to the Saviour. Here, again, John Duncan, the great and generous Calvinist from Scotland is cognizant of the truth. “There are magnificent prayers in the Missal. They are chiefly relics of a very early and much purer age; and many a good Romanist gets on very well in his church by the help of these alone”. In the vast range of Roman spirituality a careful search can find much that strengthens, restores, and guides the soul, and a great deal that gives first place to the revealed wisdom of Holy Scripture with a charm that surpasses the often cliché ridden treatment of tired Protestantism that loses its sensitivity to the divine word. Roman devotion can be delectable and affecting when derived from the right sources.
As an institution Rome has its obvious scandals and serious defects. All churches evidence a measure of corruption due to the prevalence of remaining sin among their members, leaders, and hierarchies. We are shocked because we are naively ignorant of the depth and power of evil in human life and the role that it still manages to play in the Christian community. Scarcely any Christian has an accurate measure of their own wickedness, or human wickedness in general, and that is why the proclamation and appreciation of the dimension of grace is so weak among us. It is in the area of grace that Rome betrays the heritage of the early universal church and the best witnesses to the facts of human sinfulness and divine mercy that have sprung up within the papal church throughout its history. In spite of all the noble forces and voices that have contended for the truth that salvation is of the Lord alone Rome resists that confession and officially maintains a semi-Pelagian position and a debilitating sacramentalism in its cure of souls. It steadfastly contradicts the doctrine of its greatest teachers and, through its prescriptions and mechanisms supplied for salvation, robs the Redeemer of his offices and glory. Its priesthood, sacramental system, observances, obligations, and innumerable senseless practices are pitted in competition with the Saviour himself, and in many cases eclipse his Person and accomplishment. Rome imperils salvation by numerous dangerous distractions invented by men.
It claims to be the church and faithful follower of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Lombard, and a host of other proponents of the doctrine of effective grace and yet it strays from this excellent testimony at many vitally important points. If it can nourish those within its bosom who find Christ through the “relics” of ancient prayer and liturgy, early creeds, and the remaining influences of Sacred Scripture it hardly has the ability to state with clarity how Christ may be grasped. How wonderfully the Spirit guides his elect through the confusion.
In spite of many setbacks and current uncertainties Rome seems to be reaping a harvest of clergy and lay converts, folk disaffected and dismayed by the languor apparent in the Protestant, Anglican, and Evangelical Churches. Rome seems to offer a “strong centre” and a stable continuity. The decline of Biblical truth and the disdain for authority in Protestant churches have created disunity and insecurity that have caused a migratory disposition among those dispossessed of certainty – though many of these have wilfully spurned the God-given certainties of the revealed faith. But the seeming stability and enduring character of Rome are due more to theatre and propaganda than theology and faithful practice. It remains the product of a mixed recipe: wheat and arsenic. We will certainly fraternize with the faithful. We will definitely benefit from their wisdom. But we must not mistake the minority for the majority if popular attitudes within, and many public pronouncements from, the church are to be taken seriously.
The Roman priesthood, from pope to postulant, is a usurper of the authority and action of Christ. It may be in many cases unwittingly so, but it is effectively so, and especially for and among Rome’s adherents. As “Rabbi” Duncan comments, “The Romish devotee is wrong only in going to the wrong priest”. That “going” is an entrance to a religion alien to the Bible in more aspects than can presently be described.
In areas of Catholicism, now and historically, significant elements of “Reformed Catholicism” joyfully may be found. The bright beams of Augustinianism have frequently shone forth. In the 16th century parallels to Reformed thought and theology arose throughout the church. The 17th century saw the rise of Jansenism which, although officially condemned, left its mark, especially through the writings of Blaise Pascal. Recent ecumenism and exchange of dialogue have eased some of the difficulties between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and in the last two decades or so Evangelical Catholicism has emerged in Ireland with the conviction that,” The Roman catholic Church is a Christian Church that has taken on some un-Christian practices over the centuries” and, “that salvation cannot be earned, it is a free gift . . . . That the Eucharist (or Mass) is not a repetition of Calvary, i.e. , Jesus died once for all. The priest and people enter into that one all-sufficient sacrifice by Grace”. And so on. In an article on Thomas Aquinas one distinguished Evangelical scholar claimed that, “Inside Thomas there is an Evangelical bursting to get out”. That is, of course, an Evangelical in the classic sense, one that uses their mind and prayerfully leans on the Spirit. Protestantism must never ignore or diminish the witness to the gospel of grace in the post-Apostolic, pre-Reformational Church. It abounds in a beautiful, courageous, and glorious way through many appealing testimonies of great saints of God, eminent and unknown. Our prayer must be that the whole church of the Lord will come to nourish his people on pure wheat alone. We all contaminate it to some degree.