I have been reading an interesting exchange between a stalwart Reformed Protestant, Carl Trueman, and a staunch Roman Catholic, Bryan Cross.
In the essay by Cross he points out that many “Protestants” are not at all offended (his word) by the Roman claim to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded to the exclusion of all other sects, denominations and traditions because they frankly don’t even know that Rome makes that claim. Others do know of this claim and are deeply offended by it (think James White). A third group is aware of the claim and not offended because they see Rome as the source of Protestantism. From his blog post:
Some Protestants who know of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the Church that Christ founded are not offended by this claim. They are not offended by it, because they remember Protestantism’s historical origin in the Catholic Church. They remember that in the minds of the first Protestants, the intention was not to separate from the Catholic Church, but to reform the Catholic Church. For these first Protestants, their resulting separation from the Catholic Church was a kind of ‘necessary evil,’ not intended to create one or many schisms from the Church, but to bring needed moral and doctrinal reform to the very same Church that Christ had founded. In the minds of those first Protestants, this separation was to persist only until the Catholic Church was sufficiently reformed, so that they could return to full communion with her. The present-day Protestants who remember this obviously do not believe that the Catholic Church is infallible; that is why they believe that they can justifiably be separated from her. But they do believe that the Catholic Church from which they are visibly separated is (or has the best claim to being the visible continuation of) the Church that Christ founded, and they look to be reunited to her as soon as she is sufficiently reformed.
In many ways both Cross and Trueman are right. Protestantism did start with the basic premise of reforming Rome and that is in large part why it has been so splintered for so long. Rome is essentially a centralized, hierarchical, controlling institution. Everything about Rome is designed to perpetuate the institution and control what people think and do by controlling their access to the Scriptures and to God Himself in the form of the Eucharist, the priest system and the papacy itself. There is no coming boldly before the throne, you must go through an intermediary like a priest or pray to some long dead “saint” to intercede on your behalf. If you are outside of the Roman church, you are estranged from God Himself.
Little wonder that trying to tinker around with this system has led to chaos. It is not that the Roman system is right and we should return to it. It is that Christians have stubbornly clung to Roman tradition and in doing so are trying to fit the proverbial square peg in a round hole with predictable and demonstrable results. The reality of the Christian life with its blatantly counter-cultural stance and worldly rejection is always at odds with the sinful human desire for something tangible to worship, for rituals to engage in and exaltation of other men.
It is very true that the Reformers, as the name would indicate, sought to reform the Roman Catholic church at first and then only after that failed sought complete separation from her. Likewise those who dissented from the Reformers and were persecuted for it were mostly seeking to push the Reformers to go further, not merely changing the doctrine of the church but also changing the practice of the church. It was only when they were stonewalled in that effort that they broke away from the Reformers, a path that left them vulnerable to persecution and martyring by Roman Catholic and Protestant alike. Little wonder that many Anabaptists eschew the title “Protestant” when their history is one of bloodshed from both sides of that conflict.
That is why many Christians are not as closely aligned with the Reformers as perhaps would seem appropriate. The Roman church does not now, did not during the time of the Reformation and has not represented the Church of Jesus Christ for over 1500 years. I am not interested in reforming Rome because Rome was never right in the first place. I am all for preaching Christ and Him crucified to Roman Catholics and welcoming them into the communion of the saints when God sovereignly brings them to faith. However many Protestants, those who embrace the title more than as a generic “not Catholic” title and seek a return to the Reformation find themselves in a precarious spot. As Carl Trueman says in his response to the blog post by Bryan Cross: Bryan picks up on a point I have made numerous times, both in print and in the classroom, that Protestants need a positive reason not to be Catholic. In other words, the default position for Protestants is that once Rome is sufficiently reformed, we can all go back. Merely being “not Catholic” for whatever reason is insufficient. I think that is troubling and dangerous.
When I look at the historic faith, I don’t see Rome as the fount. I am not like Trueman, assuming Cross is accurately representing him, in his view of Rome:
He writes about the Catholic Church as someone who knows that in a certain sense, the Catholic Church is his Church; she belongs to him, and he belongs to her, even though he believes he must now remain separated from her. In that respect, he writes of the Catholic Church as one writes about a parent from whom one is estranged, waiting to be joyfully reconciled.
Far from an estranged parent, I see Rome as a complete stranger who is sitting in our living room and helping herself to the contents of our fridge. The fact that she has been camped there for a very long time doesn’t change anything. The church that I trace back to is not now and never has been Rome. The so-called schism I see is not a 16th century event, it is something that happened around the time of Constantine when the unholy church-state alliance was formed, when the “visible church” stopped being a called out people, unique in and apart from the world, and became a man-centered religion that bore no resemblance to the Church of Christ. There have always been Christians and many of them could be found throughout the ages in the Roman Catholic Church but that doesn’t legitimize Rome in any sense.
Trueman is quoted as saying we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic. I respectfully disagree. The Roman Catholic Church in no way is representative of the early church that existed when Peter and Paul were spreading the Gospel. I no more need a “good, solid” reason to not be Catholic than I do a “good, solid” reason to not be a Buddhist. I am not estranged from Rome, Rome is estranged from the Gospel. Being Roman Catholic is not the default for Christians, the position that we all naturally align ourselves to. The idea of innocent until proven guilty is a great one for civil laws but not when it comes to the Gospel. Since coming to Christ some ten years I have never once considered Rome because even in my limited understanding of Scripture a decade ago coming out of mormonism, I realized that there was very little that Rome had to offer that was supportable in Scripture. Even more so, I saw in Roman dogma and practice regarding the church much that seemed eerily familiar to someone who came out of an authoritarian cult like mormonism.
So to Mr. Cross and my friends in Rome, there is no need to leave the porch light on for me. I am not “coming home” because Rome never was home in the first place. I would instead like to invite you to come to Christ and join in the communion of His Church alongside believers all around the world, now and throughout the centuries. The historic church of the Scriptures was not a religion of hierarchy, ritual and works. It was and is a family of new creatures in Christ, believers who are linked by our common salvation instead of by label and baptism as an infant. I encourage you to come join His people all around the world. I would further exhort my fellow believers in Christ to make their division with Rome complete by rejecting Roman practice as well as doctrine.
Would the last one to leave Rome please turn the lights off on your way out?