A Response to Jason's Charge of Injustice

So, I have now been accused of an injustice.  I might take that as a bit of a rhetorical flourish on Jason’s part since I haven’t really impinged on anyone’s rights or oppressed them, perhaps something along the lines that I have been unfair.  I’ll be the first to admit that it is possible that I have been unfair.  It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve done something wrong, and unless I die shortly after writing this post it probably won’t be the last.  In fact, it probably wouldn’t be the first time I’ve committed the particular wrong of having been unfair (feel free to ask my six year old – she thinks I’m unfair all the time).  I am, in fact, a human being given to my own biases and sometimes controlled more by my emotions than anything else.

So, I am trying to write the rest of this with that in the back of my mind.  Though I have probably been unfair to others at points throughout my life, in this case, I think that the injustice, at least to some extent, is dependent on whether or not there is any merit to what I have said.  So, I’ll try to go back to the beginning.

1. Bob makes these two statements, one in his original post and one in the comments: First, in the post, he states “There may be genuine Christians who are RC or Orthodox, but they are the exception not the rule. Perhaps those faiths are more open to the struggle for faithful celibacy and so have something he can identify with. As a Protestant, I fear the Gospel can be at stake in so easily recommending Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy with their denial of justification by faith alone.”  And, in the comments, he states: “This doesn’t mean I think no true Christians are to be found in those churches, but a self-reliance or ritual-reliance, even a church-reliance is not the same as Christ alone-reliance, which Protestantism at least officially stands for.

I’ll begin with the second statement.  This is the statement that originally tipped me off that Bob probably hasn’t read much Catholic theology, or even nuanced Protestant discussions of Catholic theology for that matter.  To make an analogy, this statement is roughly equivalent to me saying something like “Many Protestants believe in eternal security, which means after their conversion they believe they can basically live however they want to and it won’t matter.”  Do some Catholics think that is what Protestants believe? Certainly.  But, is that statement true to Protestant self-understanding?  No, that would be an unwillingness to understand Protestant theology on its own terms.

So, perhaps one can imagine my disdain that just ever Bob has said, “There may be genuine Christians who are RC or Orthodox, but they are the exception not the rule. Perhaps those faiths are more open to the struggle for faithful celibacy and so have something he can identify with. As a Protestant, I fear the Gospel can be at stake in so easily recommending Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy with their denial of justification by faith alone” he makes a statement like the one above that is a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic theology.  To stretch the analogy a bit further, it would be like me saying, “There may be true Christians among Protestants, but they are the exception rather than the rule,” and then following that up with “Many Protestants believe in eternal security, which means after their conversion they believe they can basically live however they want to and it won’t matter.”

I don’t really have time to go into explaining why Bob’s misunderstanding is so egregious, because I’m only trying to defend myself against a charge of injustice.  But, my guess is that those who have really read Catholic theology, or even nuanced Protestant treatments of it, and tried to understand it on its own terms, know exactly where I am coming from.  My guess is that, if I had made the analogous statements above, I probably would have faced quite a bit of fire myself.

2. In the comments to his original post, Bob makes this statement about Trent just before citing some of the statements from that Council: “It appears that the Roman Catholic Church says the same of me” (i.e. calls into question his salvation – it’s pretty clear this is what he means at the end of the comment).  My main concern about this is to ask why he is citing only Trent.  If you want to cite Trent, fine.  But, let’s not get stuck in the 16th century.  In other words, why is he not reading Trent in light of anything like: THIS, THIS, THIS, THIS, THIS, THIS, and THIS (several of these are official teaching documents of the Catholic Church and recognize either explicitly or implicitly Protestants as “separated brethren,” separated, but brethren nonetheless).

This is only a sampling, but I could probably have kept going with months worth of reading if I was going to cite individual Catholic theologians, instead of only official Church documents and joint statements between Roman Catholics and other groups of Protestants.  The bulk of material that has not been brought into the discussion is a bit overwhelming.  I am aware of detractors from some of these documents (see below), but at the same time, not to even bring these documents into a discussion, in which they are incredibly pertinent, to me shows that Bob has either a very strong bias or a lack of knowledge.  And, from his own admissions, I went with lack of knowledge.

3. Then there is the situation with Jason.  For one thing, I think that part of the issue is that Jason is Bob’s friend and is trying to defend him.  And, I can’t say that I really blame him.  If I saw one of my friends taking a few blows, there is a chance I might come to their aid as well.  Yet in doing so, I think Jason has, perhaps unintentionally, softened significantly some of the things that Bob actually said.

Here is that issue in a nutshell.  Jason has said, “Neither Bob nor I have presumed to declare that every Roman Catholic is an apostate who is hell bound.” Perhaps not, yet Bob closes the door pretty tightly for starters with: “There may be genuine Christians who are RC or Orthodox, but they are the exception not the rule. Perhaps those faiths are more open to the struggle for faithful celibacy and so have something he can identify with. As a Protestant, I fear the Gospel can be at stake in so easily recommending Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy with their denial of justification by faith alone.

Next, he seems to pretty well shut the door on me personally when he cites affirmatively this statement from Martyn Lloyd Jones “There are, of course, individuals who are both Roman Catholics and Christians. You can be a Christian and yet be a Roman Catholic. My whole object is to try to show that such people are Christians in spite of the system to which they belong, and not because of it.”  I am a faithful Catholic who accepts the teachings found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  I have absolutely no intention of being saved “in spite of the system to which I belong.”  Nor do I have any desire to be.  I will either be saved as a Roman Catholic or not at all.

So, one thing I am asking here is for Jason to step back and see, at least from my perspective, that I believe Bob has called my salvation called into question.  Is there another way to read Bob on this?  Maybe.  But, try to put yourself into my shoes as a faithful Catholic and read again the excerpt he cites from Martyn Lloyd Jones above.

Furthermore, if you can see where I am coming from, especially in light of the statement about Christians among Catholics being an exception, then try to realize just how personal a matter this is.  For instance, if a Catholic is saved only “in spite of the system to which they belong,” that implies, though it is not explicit, that if I teach my six year old and three year old daughters to be faithful Roman Catholics, I am actually doing them harm, though, of course, unintentionally.

For me, this is a very serious issue, and I feel as though Bob has treated it too glibly. I don’t think that it is appropriate for Bob to quote things like “There are, of course, individuals who are both Roman Catholics and Christians. You can be a Christian and yet be a Roman Catholic. My whole object is to try to show that such people are Christians in spite of the system to which they belong, and not because of it” when he says “Now, I admit, I haven’t read Catholic theologians.”  I especially don’t think this is appropriate considering that some of the other statements that Bob makes are fairly severe misunderstandings of Catholic theology.  If I am wrong for believing this or for saying it rather emotionally, then so be it.  But, I am asking that Jason try to read the quotes from Bob above from my perspective as a faithful Catholic.

4. There is still a somewhat similar issue with Jason, though not entirely the same as the one with Bob.  Jason has read some Catholic theology – Trent, Vatican II, Karl Keating, and now he’s starting in on Scott Hahn.  Yet I called him out for not having read enough Catholic theology either, though I never did so in a post.  My only interactions with Jason were in the comments to one of my posts and in the comments of one of his posts.  Perhaps I was wrong for doing so, because I may not have framed the issue quite properly.  The problem that I have with Jason’s posts is that, whether he has read Catholic theology or not, he shows little awareness, at least in his posts, of a significant amount of Catholic, and even Protestant, material that speaks directly to some of the statements that he makes.  I find it hard to imagine that Jason is unaware of at least some of this material, but I just can’t understand why he doesn’t bring any of it into the discussion at points where it would seem to be highly pertinent.

Take this statement from Jason:

Here’s what I’d like to do:  I want to see some quotes from Catholic theologians that show us that the grace of God in Christ is ALL that we need.  Let them show us justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  If they cannot do so, why do they not come under the same anathema as the Judaizers of Paul’s day?  I’m willing to listen to someone who can show me unequivocally that Catholic dogma does not teach that one must do certain things/works/rites in order to stand before God  justified.

I find it somewhat ironic, that he makes this statement in a post entitled “Martin Luther is Rolling Over in His Grave!”.  The problem is that if those who have followed most closely in the tradition of Luther are any indication, what he asks for in the statement above has already been done to some extent in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.  Nor has he cited the fact that a significant number of Methodist, Presbyterian and Reformed Churches have looked at that Lutheran-Roman Catholic statement and said that we are in fairly substantial agreement.

Now, I am aware that there have been critiques of these statements, and I do not deny that they  make many valid points.  Cardinal Avery Dulles provides one of those helpful critiques, yet at the end he still concludes that, though the agreements have problems, “In the dialogues of the past fifty years, Catholics and Lutherans have come to respect one another as Christian believers.”    Similarly, from a Protestant perspective, I believe it somewhat likely that these kinds of dialogues have played a major role in prompting statements like the following from Mark Noll, an Evangelical Church Historian whose work I still read and find nothing other than expert and well-balanced: “In sum, the central difference that continues to separate evangelicals and Catholics is not Scripture, justification by faith, the pope, Mary, the sacraments, or clerical celibacy-though the central difference is reflected in differences on these matters- but the nature of the church.”  These joint statements are all on either the Vatican website or the website of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops website and should be read on their own before reading the critiques.  And, the critiques, when read in unison with the documents themselves, should not overshadow the fact that progress has been made.

Jason doesn’t cite the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together either.  The first document from this group contains this statement: “We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.” Of course, Jason might object that the word alone is not found there, but in essence there is nothing added either and a number of Evangelicals were willing to sign the document.  In addition, when disagreements are added toward the end of the document the doctrine of justification is not included as one of them.  This document is signed by no less than 12 Catholics theologians, likely more, only I don’t know the religious affiliations of some of the signatories.

Now, as I have said above, Jason may be aware of the dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed Churches, and Evangelicals.  But, he doesn’t display this awareness in any way in this statement where it would seem to be of importance:

Here’s what I’d like to do:  I want to see some quotes from Catholic theologians that show us that the grace of God in Christ is ALL that we need.  Let them show us justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  If they cannot do so, why do they not come under the same anathema as the Judaizers of Paul’s day?  I’m willing to listen to someone who can show me unequivocally that Catholic dogma does not teach that one must do certain things/works/rites in order to stand before God  justified.

If he had started this statement with something like “I am aware that Catholics have reached some agreements with major Protestant groups concerning justification, but I reject those statements because of X …,” I wouldn’t have nearly as big of a problem with the statement that he makes.  But, the statement as it stands reflects a lack of awareness of the dialogue of the past 25-50 years or so.  And, I don’t think that it is asking too much to expect Jason to qualify his statement in this way, because this doesn’t require being an expert in Catholic theology, but could be considered being a part of being an expert in Protestant theology, especially if Luther is going to be brought into the discussion.  As a Catholic, when I read a statement like Jason’s, my first response is to think “hasn’t that already been done to some extent?”.

This brings me to a related issue with Jason’s statement above of who exactly is this “us” that Jason is referring to?  “Let them show us…”  Who is “us”?  Who is Jason speaking for?  Protestants in general?  Well, considering the documents linked to above it wouldn’t seem so.  Lutherans? It wouldn’t seem so, at least for many.  Presbyterians?  It wouldn’t seem so, at least for many.  Methodists?  It wouldn’t seem so, at least for many.  Evangelicals?  Perhaps for some or even many, but by no means all.  What I have trouble with from time to time is who this “us” remains to be and why Catholics must continue to prove themselves, when what this “us” is asking for has already been shown in a way that is satisfying to many.

As Jason’s statement stands, I don’t think it shows enough self-awareness.  In my own study and experience, I think that Jason actually represents a very, very small minority of Christians percentage-wise, especially from the perspective of global Christianity.  But, at least to me, some of the statements that he makes don’t seem to reflect that he is very aware of that, as he claims to stand on the side of Luther and Paul, whereas I suppose the vast majority do not.

Not just in my study, but in my own day to day experience, I don’t find Jason’s statement to hold.  In my own experience, it is sometimes difficult for me to point to this “us.”  It certainly isn’t my Presbyterian friends who have invited me to preach at their church because their pastor just retired, and they are asking individuals to fill in during the interim.  It certainly isn’t my Southern Baptist cousin who asks me many of his deep theological questions because he trusts I know what I’m talking about in the realm of theology.  It certainly isn’t the Anglican folks who sometimes attend Bible studies that I teach.  It certainly isn’t my Methodist SBL roommate, or my Church of Christ buddy.  It certainly isn’t my Dutch Reformed dissertation supervisor who attends mass when he’s in Germany.

With all of this said, I do not question whether either Jason or Bob is a Christian.  In fact, I like Jason.  To some degree, I think it was noble of him to come to Bob’s defense when he was being called out.  I’ve been sick for a couple of weeks, and when I’ve mentioned that on Facebook, Jason has wished me well.  Jason may disagree with everything that I’ve written here.  But, I don’t think that what I have done is an injustice.  I simply do not think that some of the things that Bob has said are in any way appropriate in light of his clear misunderstandings of Catholic theology and his own admission of not having read Catholic theologians.  And, I think that Jason, whether he has read Catholic theology or not, is only showing his awareness of only one side of it.  And, I don’t think that is appropriate either, especially in light of the gravity of the subject matter, at least the gravity of it from my perspective as a faithful Roman Catholic.

5 Comments

  • the problem with jason and bob is that they fulminate from the sidelines. they really should be engaged in first hand ecumenical dialogue before they pretend to be correctly informed. what they both demonstrate is 1) that second hand information about a theology is useless and 2) fundamentalists of all flavors prefer second hand useless information to actual personal engagement.

    anyway, jer, you’re just wasting your time. i learned long ago that there’s absolutely no point in even conversing with fundamentalists. they are invincibly ignorant. invincibly.

    • Jim, I don’t know. In my conversations with Jason, I don’t know that I feel that way. I don’t really know Bob well enough.

      Perhaps it will be the case that we will in the end have to agree to disagree, but this really is the last time I plan to say anything on the matter.

      The other issue is that I’m not just writing this for Jason. With the word injustice used it was a little difficult to remain silent. Now, I’ve written and I’ll let everyone else be the judge.

  • Jeremy,
    You bring up some good points. Yes, I’m aware of the joint statement/declaration on justification. I am also aware of ECT. Everything was written on the fly and in a bit of a heat for all of us, I think.
    I see your point about the use of the word injustice. For some reason, my blog isn’t accepting trackbacks, so I’ll put the link to this in my post so that people can see what’s going on.
    We’ll probably not come to terms anytime soon on justification, but I appreciate your willingness to engage with me and discuss. I also appreciate your defense of me to Jim.

    Jim,
    Sadly, you have very little idea about Fundamentalists. Your experience probably extends to Independent Fundamental Baptists who are so separatistic that they refuse to learn from others. If that’s the case, I understand your issues. It is painting with a very broad brush to declare all us of as being ignorant, however. If you do so, please discard any books you have by B.B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen. Don’t forget that they were Fundamentalists.
    Finally, remember that I (ignorant person that I am) have come to your blog and had discussions with you in which we disagreed. At the same time, however, you responded and we had a good conversation. This is the guy who grew up in anti-intellectual circles and is now trying to learn Greek. I read extensively. Your charges are unfounded and unfair. There is an injustice there, because it’s an unrighteous claim that you are making.
    I hope you’ll reconsider.

  • […] Jeremy has posted a lengthy, yet kind reply on his […]

  • For all who come here to read, or choose to click through to my blog:
    Jeremy and I aren’t enemies. The tone of Jeremy’s post shows that, I think. In fact, Jeremy and I plan to meet another of our online bibliobloggers for coffee in a few weeks.
    Will we discuss theology? I don’t know. Whatever, when we’re done, agree or disagree, we plan to be friends. That’s the thing to take away from this discussion; people can disagree on even the most important of doctrinal issues and still be friends.

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