Authentic and Inauthentic Reform: A Brief Response to Reformanda Initiative’s “Is the Reformation Over: A Statement of Evangelical Convictions”

Nov 3rd, 2016 | By | Category: Blog Posts

I was asked to respond to an article from Reformanda Initiative posted recently on The Gospel Coalition site. The article is titled “Is the Reformation Over? A Statement of Evangelical Convictions.” The full “statement,” which some evangelicals have signed, is located here at “isthereformationover.com.” For readers who may be unfamiliar with Reformanda Initiative, this is a project led by three evangelicals: Leonardo De Chirico, Gregg Allison, and Michael Reeves, whose purpose is “to identify, unite, equip, and resource evangelical leaders to understand Roman Catholic theology and practice, to educate the evangelical Church and to communicate the Gospel.”1

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We have previously written some replies to arguments presented by De Chirico and Allison, and some of those are closely related to what I write below, for readers who wish to examine the question more deeply.2 The article from Reformanda Initiative argues that the Protestant Reformation is not over for at least two reasons. First, because one purpose of the Protestant Reformation was to “recover the authority of the Bible over the church.” A second purpose of the Protestant Reformation, according to the article, was to affirm that “salvation comes to us through faith alone.” Because these two purposes have not been accomplished in the Catholic Church such that the Catholic Church embraces both beliefs, therefore, according to the article, the Protestant Reformation is not over, and the protest must continue.

One Catholic response to these claims is to consider the prior necessity of determining how to distinguish authentic reform from inauthentic reform. Otherwise if we had no such way of making this determination, every heresy in the history of the Church prior to the sixteenth century could have applied the label ‘reform’ to itself to justify itself and its adoption by the Church. We can agree that Church reform is authentic, if it is to be something other than mere alteration or mutation, only if it more fully conforms the Church to her own principles, not if it attempts to change the Church according to principles alien to her, either by introducing novel principles or by contradicting her own principles.3 Attempts to address corruption in the Church, for example, are authentic reforms because, as both Protestants and Catholics agree, such corruption is contrary to the very principles of the Church. So how does this relate to the two positions endorsed by Reformanda Iniative as beliefs the Church must affirm in order to reform?

Consider first the question of the authority of Scripture. Both the Protestant and Catholic positions affirm the authority of Scripture as the divinely inspired (“God-breathed”) written word of God.4 So the Catholic teaching concerning the authority of Scripture entails that Scripture has authority over the Church, because the Church affirms both that Scripture is God’s word, and that God is the ultimate authority over His Church. Therefore the Protestant-Catholic disagreement concerning Scripture is not as simple as saying that according to one side Scripture has authority over the Church and that according to the other side Scripture does not have authority over the Church. Rather, the actual disagreement regarding Scripture is over four points that are not per se about the divine authority of Scripture. They are: (a) whether Christ also gave teaching authority to men, (b) whether that teaching authority continues through the succession of ordinations, (c) whether that teaching authority includes the authority to determine what is the authentic interpretation of Scripture, so as to determine for the Church what is orthodoxy and what is heresy, and (d) whether the deposit of faith is not limited to what was included in the Scriptures but also includes the Apostolic Tradition which the Apostles preached orally, and is preserved in the Church Fathers. The Catholic position answers yes to each of those four.5 Protestantism answers no to one or more of these four.6

The full “statement” by Reformanda Initiative mentions also the Catholic doctrines concerning Mary, indulgences, purgatory, the intercession of the saints, and the divine protection of the Church under specified conditions from teaching error. But these are not fundamental points of disagreement between Protestants and the Catholic Church, because whether or not they are true and authoritative doctrines depends upon the four points laid out above.7 Similarly, the full “statement” claims the following: “From the Catholic perspective, the Bible is only one source of authority, but it does not stand alone, nor is it the highest source.” That last claim, namely, that from the Catholic perspective Scripture is not “the highest source” of authority is false, because that is not the Catholic perspective regarding the authority of Scripture. Rather, that is what the Catholic position looks like from the perspective of the Protestant answer to the four points mentioned above. In other words, only under the [Protestant] assumption that Scripture alone can be the highest divinely established authority in the Church does the co-presence of non-written Apostolic Tradition and divinely-established teaching and interpretive authority entail that in Catholic doctrine Scripture is not the highest authority in the Church. From the Catholic perspective there is no higher authority in the Church than Scripture. As the Catechism teaches, “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant.”8 So this criticism too presupposes a Protestant position on the four points mentioned above.

Since authentic reform must conform to the Church’s own principles, authentic reform regarding the authority of Scripture within the Church must also conform to the Church’s own principles. One way of attempting to determine the Church’s own principles concerning these four points is to presuppose the Protestant position regarding those points, and then try to derive from Scripture what must be the Church’s principles. This approach, however, is not a neutral approach. It begs the question by presupposing precisely what it is attempting to show, and by presupposing the very points in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church, as a way of determining how to resolve the disagreement. It also presupposes ecclesial deism by excluding the early Church’s teaching and practice from the pool of evidence by which we are to determine rightly what are the Church’s principles regarding these four points of disagreement, and thus what counts as authentic reform regarding these four points. This approach also begs the question by presupposing that the individual possesses ultimate interpretative authority, as Neal Judisch and I have argued elsewhere. If, however, we do not presuppose ecclesial deism, but allow the early Church to guide us regarding these four points, we find that on each of the four points, the early Church held to something very much along the lines of the Catholic position, as I argued in my reply to Michael Horton in 2010, and as Ray Stamper, Barrett Turner, and I argued in our reply to Brandon Addison in 2014.

What then about the claim that “salvation comes to us through faith alone”? Again, authentic reform regarding soteriology is that which moves the Church to conform better to her own principles regarding soteriology, rather than introducing as a principle a novelty or accretion that is incompatible with or contradicts her own principles.9 Here too one approach to determining what are those principles presupposes the Protestant position regarding the four points noted above, and uses one’s own interpretation of Scripture, and what books even count as part of Scripture, to arrive at a conclusion concerning what are the Church’s principles regarding soteriology in general and the relation between faith and salvation in particular. And again this approach begs the question, i.e. presupposes the very point in question between Protestants and the Catholic Church, and presupposes ecclesial deism, just as it does in the case of the four points discussed above.

If, however, we allow the early Church to inform us regarding what are the Church’s principles concerning soteriology, we find, for example, an overwhelming consensus among the Church Fathers that we are regenerated through baptism. We find a complete agreement between the Council of Trent and the Second Council of Orange. We find that none of the Church Fathers believed in salvation by faith alone as faith uninformed by agape. On the contrary, their conception of the relation of law and grace was in general like that of St. Augustine. Unlike Luther and Calvin, the Church Fathers believed and taught a Catholic doctrine of merit. And when we look at all the purported proof-texts for the Protestant notion of “faith alone,” we find that they do not necessitate being interpreted in the Protestant way, and, when interpreted within the Apostolic Tradition handed down by the Church Fathers, we find that they are not only compatible with but even made more intelligible within this Tradition. So in order not to use the early Church as a guide in determining what are the Church’s own principles of soteriology by which we can distinguish between authentic and inauthentic reform, we have to presuppose ecclesial deism, with all its [Arian] theological implications. But if we use the early Church as a guide in determining which principles are the Church’s own soteriological principles, the claim that we are saved by faith alone, as understood in the uniquely Protestant sense of that phrase, turns out to be contrary to the Church’s own soteriological principles.

Thus by considering initially how we are to distinguish authentic reform from inauthentic reform, and not treating everything that labels itself ‘reform’ as ipso facto counting as authentic reform, we find that the ‘reforms’ Reformanda Initiative claims the Catholic Church must embrace turn out not to be authentic reforms at all. The two beliefs Reformanda Initiative wishes the Church to adopt are contrary to the Church’s own historic principles, much as if in the first millennium, under the label of ‘reforming’ the Church, the Marcionites, Montanists, Arians, Sabellians, Nestorians, monophysites, Pelagians, or monothelitists, or iconoclasts attempted to persuade the Church to adopt their own doctrines. So long as we do not critically reflect in a second-order way on what distinguishes authentic reform from inauthentic reform, we can end up inadvertently staking out as our own a position that is contrary to the Church’s own principles, and turning our position into a sine qua non for reconciling with the Church, while justifying our stance under the rubric of reforming the Church for Christ’s glory. And non-arbitrarily and non-stipulatively ruling out that one is engaged in this sort of reasoning or falling into this sort of error is a necessary condition for determining when to stop standing outside protesting and begin returning to the Church.

However, this self-examination cannot effectively be accomplished alone or in isolation because what is to be examined lies precisely within our fallen human blindspot. Hence only when by the grace of God we have the love and courage to examine together, face to face, person to person, in a stance of genuine willingness to embrace the truth no matter what the cost of doing so, professional, reputational, or otherwise, whether our proposed approach to reforming the Church is authentic or inauthentic, can we truly reform the Church when the reform in question is authentic, or return and be reconciled to the Church when our proposed reform turns out to be inauthentic. As I wrote elsewhere in 2008, “True love seeks both to reach over and break down the wall of separation, even if that activity involves immense sacrifice, suffering, rejection, and persecution — even if it involves the cross.”10

The perennial danger of rigorism for every believer who takes up the mission of advancing doctrinal orthodoxy is allowing zeal for the truth to blind one to the very truth that can be received only in docility to divinely established authority, and thus unintentionally and unknowingly to be fighting against the Church, in the name of truth. As I have argued previously, authentic reform takes place not while in schism from the Church, estranged both from her principles and from her community, but rather from within the Church, showing one’s love for the Church by entering her, embracing her, and then in service engaging self-sacrificially in the authentic reform that is consistent with the Church’s principles, and needed always in every age until Christ returns.

Heavenly Father, may Protestants and Catholics be made one, just as you, Father, are in Christ, and He is in you, that we also may be in You, so that the world may believe that You have sent Christ. Heal the schism that still divides us, so that this fracture is no longer a scandal to the world. And though we are weak and flawed vessels, make us instruments of this healing, by your grace. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

  1. From the Reformanda Initiative home page. []
  2. See my post from July, 2011, titled “The Vatican Files N. 4: A Reply to Ref21’s Leonardo De Chirico.” See also my response to interviews with Allison in comment #109 and comment #110 of “Trueman and Prolegomena to “How would Protestants know when to return?”,” and my reply to Chirico’s review of Allison’s book, in comment #111 of that same thread. See also Eduardo Echeverria’s 2015 CTC article titled “A Catholic Assessment of Gregg Allison’s Critique of the “Hermeneutics of Catholicism”.” []
  3. In the Catholic tradition this is known as the “hermeneutic of continuity.” For resources on this idea see comment #13 in the “Catholics are Divided Too” post. []
  4. See Providentissimus Deus, Spiritus Paraclitus, Divino Afflante Spiritu, and Dei Verbum. []
  5. See Dei Verbum from the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict’s Verbum Domini, from 2010, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” from 1993. []
  6. Notice that one question not among these four is whether God is capable of communicating sufficiently for salvation through His written word. This question is not one of the points in question because when we disambiguate the claim, and frame it in terms of a question of divine omnipotence, we find that both Protestants and the Catholic Church agree concerning God’s omnipotence, and therefore concerning what God is capable of doing in man through His written word. So because both Protestants and the Catholic Church agree on this point, the disagreement between them does not hang on this particular point. []
  7. See, for example, my explanation of the underlying nature of more fundamental principles, regarding the disagreement between Evangelicals and the Catholic Church with respect to the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, and comment #11 in that thread. []
  8. CCC, 86 []
  9. Notice that development of doctrine, in the sense described by Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is fully compatible with authentic reform so defined, and is neither a kind of inauthentic reform nor compatible with inauthentic reform. []
  10. Cf. “Love and Unity: Part 1.” []
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4 comments
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  1. Hi Bryan,

    Great post. This is a great summary page outlining the main differences and the Catholic position.

    I have two questions:
    1- I am assuming that the Orthodox believe they could answer yes to all four points. But presumably the difference is in the understanding of (c). Is that correct?
    2- Assuming one accepts a yes to all four points, how does one stop from falling back into doubt on one of these points when a sub-issue arises? I.e. Mary, indulgences, Catholic doctrines of inerrancy, use of higher criticism, interpretations of things such as Genesis, chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, etc. At each point one of these has seen my progress pause in moving forward, the last mentioned being the current one I’m reviewing. Presumably, one cannot have all the answers to everything before converting, but must accept it on faith / trust. Am I missing something?

    Many thanks in advance. I’ve found this website quite helpful whilst investigating these things over the last 3 – 4 years.

    Josh

  2. Hello Josh,

    Thanks for your comment. Regarding your first question, yes the Orthodox also answer yes to all four points. The difference is complicated, but in part it has to do with the locus of that teaching authority, and the role of the pope in that teaching authority. In other words, does the bishop of Rome have a unique divinely established authority among the bishops, and if so, what sort of unique role is that?

    Regarding your second question, your question presupposes the Protestant paradigm. In the Catholic paradigm each of those four points is an article of faith. The act of faith, as a Catholic, includes affirming these four articles, as part of the divine revelation given to us through the Apostles, whether handing on what they had heard from the mouth of Christ directly or what they were taught by the Holy Spirit after the ascension of Christ. So to ask a Catholic how to stop from falling back into doubt about those four points is, roughly, like asking a Protestant how to stop from falling back into doubt about the divine authority of Scripture, or about the divinity of Christ.

    Regarding your statement, “one cannot have all the answers to everything before converting, but must accept it on faith,” yes, that is correct. I don’t know whether you are missing anything, but I’ve got a hunch at what you’re getting at. See my answer to Q5 in “The Tu Quoque” article. See also the last two paragraphs of “Ecclesial Consumerism.” If that doesn’t answer your question, please write back.

    As for Amoris Laetitia, the helpful way to look at this is not myopically, within a thin time slice. When you study Church history, as I presume you know, you find that there have been controversies throughout Church history. And usually these are not instantly resolved. Sometimes it takes some time to resolve them. (Think of the Western Schism!) But because of the Magisterium, even with its political human dimension and political drama, these disagreements can be resolved, even definitively if necessary. And eventually, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they will always be resolved in accordance with the truth. That last part is itself part of the Catholic faith, namely, that the Holy Spirit will always be with the Church guiding her and protecting her from doctrinal error. That doesn’t mean that all a pope’s statements are clear or true. Think of Honorius. The Catholic faith, and its teaching about itself, is compatible with an event of Honorius magnitude. That helps situate the current Amoris Laetitia controversy in a more accurate conceptual context with regard to the Catholic faith.

    I’m glad the site has been helpful to you. Thank you for letting us know.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  3. Hi Bryan,

    Thanks for the response (and apologies in advance for any anglicised wording).

    I’ve gone back and reviewed the relevant sections of the articles mentioned. It seems Tu Quoque Q.3. A. c) makes sense of the Catholic – Orthodox divide. My main point here was that by definition the Orthodox are protesting the catholic position whilst holding a yes to all four points, so a fifth may be required, or a further nuance of answer c) above to ensure one does not define protestant as including orthodox, syriac, coptic, etc. churches as being legitimate alternatives.

    Re: The Tu Quoque q.5: You write, ‘One rightly becomes a Catholic by an act of faith in which one believes all that the Catholic Church teaches, even if not fully understanding it, on the ground of the apostolic authority of the Church’s magisterium.’

    I’d agree this is true. This may be different from the Tu Quoque, or merely the same objection. For instance, I can identify the church, have read the catechism and have learned new views on many things (presuppositionalism, mariology, justification, scripture, authority, the church, etc.). Each time I’ve had to delve deeper to understand and then subsequently retract my position in favor of the catholic. I’ve been working through RCIA with a priest one-on-one for about a year on and off (hard to maintain a consistent schedule due to work commitments). And yet, I feel like I’m at a point of needing to make a leap that feels almost fideistic in coming into full communion. And it seems to make me feel hesitant, though I’m not sure why I feel that way.

    If I’m still presupposing a Protestant Paradigm, how do I overcome that hurdle to move forward? Must I presuppose the Catholic Paradigm?

    The other points are helpful, and put Amoris Laetitia into perspective.

    Your thoughts and prayers would be very much appreciated.

    Grace and peace,

    Josh

    P.s. My priest has told some of my Catholic acquaintances that he believes I’m ready to come into full communion but don’t realise it yet.

  4. Also Bryan, I’ve been praying the Australian liturgy of the hours and experimenting with different catholic bible translations (RSVCE, D-R, NRSV, JB, CTS, etc.). Does called to communion have a recommended translation/s of the bible both for scriptural and devotional study?

    Thanks,

    Josh

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