Volume 12, Issue 1: Presbyterion
Down the Road to Rome
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 latters
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 sameonly 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 sinners
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 accountthat 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 liketrifles, rather than
issuesin 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
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,
Youre comfortable with Salt Lake City. Youre
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 notthey still agree on almost everything.
And it does not matter that Calvin wore a robe along with the
pope of his daythey 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.