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Volume 12, Issue 1: Presbyterion

Down the Road to Rome

Douglas Wilson

We all have a tendency to extrapolate, trying to guess the final destination of any practice that differs from our own. For example, if we see something in a worship service which is contrary to our established traditions, and if that practice looks anything at all like what the Roman Catholic church has done, then we assume that those good folks with the strange liturgical tradition are on the road to Rome.

Examples of this are numerous. Many evangelicals object to infant baptism, not on the basis of any doctrinal concerns, but because it “looks Catholic.” The same can be said for raised hands in a benediction, a corporate confession of sin, or the use of creeds in worship.
This tendency presents a rhetorical problem for classical Protestants, because classical Protestant worship is formal, and follows a defined liturgical pattern. The same can be said for traditional Roman Catholic worship. But modern evangelical worship, on the other hand, strives for that spontaneous, reactor-scram, contemporary look. How do we answer the charge that our worship, like the apostle Paul, is getting perilously near the three taverns?
The answer is that we must distinguish similarities in meaning and similarities of appearance. Visible similarities are certainly not unimportant, but they are far less important than issues of content and meaning.
In the Great Books series, Freud and Augustine share the same kind of binding, same kind of font, and have the same look throughout. The only thing that distinguishes them, really, is what they are saying. Only a very foolish analysis would suspect Augustine of incipient Freudianism on the basis of this packaging. And if The City of God in the Encyclopedia Britannica series were to be compared with his Confessions in the Loeb Classical Library, only a fool would dismiss them as incompatible because of the latter’s smaller red cover.
Doctrinally, the basic theology of modern evangelicalism does not differ at all from the basic theology of the Roman church. Disregard for a moment the decorative differences between them. The Roman church holds that there is a reservoir of grace, and that sinners can come to receive that grace. The grace is, in their view, dispensed from seven sacraments, gold-plated faucets, overseen by priestly attendants. In modern evangelicalism, the process is the same—only the grace in this case comes out of the reservoir through a green garden hose and is emptied into a dented tin bucket, overseen by a trained counselor while the busses wait. Put bluntly, modern evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism are both Arminian. They both hold to the autonomy of the sinner’s will in conversion, and they both offer to manage the process of closing the deal between a sinner who has “decided” and the God who offers grace at the reservoir for those who will come and get it.
Classical Protestantism denies all this, in much the same way that Augustine would assault the work of Freud. The driving force behind the Reformation was the simple acknowledgement that man is dead in his sins (not sick in them), and nothing can bring about a resurrection but the gracious and unilateral work of God. This work is accomplished entirely without our permission. Luther said this to Erasmus at the conclusion of The Bondage of the Will. “Moreover, I give you hearty praise and commendation on this further account—that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like—trifles, rather than issues—in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.”2 The “hinge” upon which all turned was the Protestant denial of autonomous free will in unregenerate man. Luther was not worked up over the decorations; what mattered to him was the issue of sovereign grace working in sinners to bring about saving faith.
With regard to appearances, a Billy Graham crusade looks nothing like a High Mass. But with regard to the theology of the thing, what is believed to be occurring, virtually the same thing is happening. And this is something which Graham, to his credit, openly acknowledges. In 1997, he was interviewed by Larry King and was asked, “What do you think of the other [churches], like Mormonism? Catholicism? Other faiths within the Christian concept?” Graham answered, “Oh, I think I have a wonderful fellowship with all of them. For example. . . .” King interrupted, “You’re comfortable with Salt Lake City. You’re comfortable with the Vatican?” Graham said, “I am very comfortable with the Vatican. . .”. King said, “You like this Pope?” Graham answered, “I like him very much. He and I agree on almost everything.”
Huh. So it does not matter that the pope has a high liturgy and Graham does not—they still agree on “almost everything.” And it does not matter that Calvin wore a robe along with the pope of his day—they still collided over the very definition of the gospel. Jesus told us not to make superficial judgments, but rather to use a right judgment. Which, as it turns out, we still need to do.

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