Friday, November 20, 2009

Chris Castaldo's book, "Holy Ground"

I am very glad to recommend Chris Castaldo’s book, “Holy Ground – Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic,” by participating in his blog tour. Chris serves as Pastor of Outreach and Church Planting at College Church in Wheaton, IL.

One of the things I most appreciate about the book was learning from Castaldo that the factors and influences leading people to journey from Catholicism to Evangelicalism are much more varied and complex than matters of belief and doctrine alone.

Still, the questions that lingered in my mind did in fact relate to doctrine and theology. What follows are Chris’s illuminating, thought-provoking answers to those questions.

1. How do people like Francis Beckwith, who seem to affirm the compatibility of at least the core of Protestant/evangelical belief with Catholic teaching, view matters like Catholic beliefs regarding Mary (immaculate conception, assumption into heaven, etc.)?

When Frank Beckwith was asked this basic question at Wheaton College’s Penner Forum in September (which I moderated), he expressed his commitment to Marian doctrines as part of the Great Tradition. In Frank’s words (elsewhere on the topic), “Like marriage to one’s spouse, when one enters into communion with the Catholic Church, he is responsible to embrace all of its teaching (no exceptions). Just as when I married my wife, I married a whole rather than a collection of parts (e.g., I can’t say, ‘You know, I’d like to marry her, but that third knuckle on her right hand is odd’), I can’t be a ‘Catholic’ and pick and choose based on differing levels of plausibility of different parts of the Catechism isolated from the whole.”

In Holy Ground I posit a historical example of the “evangelical Catholic” in the person of Cardinal Gasparo Contarini. In the year 1511, Contarini experienced a moment of illumination that was likened to Luther’s epiphany, where he was fully convinced that salvation could not be won by any human act but was God’s free gift; and, as in Luther’s case, this conviction was accompanied by a perception that the monastery could not, for himself, procure an eternal blessedness. Like Luther, Contarini found in the contemplation of Christ’s sacrifice the solvent of his fears and the resolution of his anxious striving for perfection. This fresh discovery of Jesus’ passion forged an affinity with Luther’s doctrine of faith alone and motivated Contarini to proclaim the sufficiency of the cross among Catholics. However, years later when it was time for Contarini to choose a side at the Colloquy of Regensburg between the papacy and Scripture alone, he chose the pontiff. At the end of the day his religious identity was Catholic, not Protestant.

This is the light in which I see people like Frank Beckwith. They argue for some evangelical Protestant tenets; yet, they do so as Catholics who consciously weave Catholic threads into their theological fabric, threads which from my perspective don’t fit, but somehow they put it together. Sitting down with Catholic friends to discuss these differences in a clear, objective way is important, but it’s of equal importance that we do so with genuine courtesy and respect (1 Pet 3:15-16).

One practical implication from this observation is the importance of understanding religious identity—our own and the person’s with whom we speak. Theological discussion is most fruitful when we understand where our conversation partner orients himself in the doctrinal/ecclesial universe, since such positioning naturally influences how we read texts, use language, relate to tradition, and a host of other such commitments. If we want to listen, learn, debate, persuade, grow, and glorify God in our interaction, (and not simply talk past one another) we must be attentive to such realities.

2. In light of the Decrees of Trent, wouldn’t we still have to say that official Catholic doctrine on the matter of justification rises to the level of error so serious that it amounts to ‘another gospel’ – thus warranting an apostolic anathema (Gal.1:6-9)?

The most helpful book I’ve read on this topic has been Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment by Anthony Lane, Professor of Historical Theology at London School of Theology. Tony Lane is a fine scholar (it’s a T&T Clark book, so if you buy it, do so when you still have a sizable chunk in your book budget). Here are a couple of Professor Lane’s conclusions, which I agree with and have found helpful.

Is the positive exposition of the Tridentine decree compatible with a Protestant understanding?

“No. When the difference in terminology is taken into account and when allowance is made for complementary formulations the gap turns out to be considerably narrower than is often popularly supposed, but a gap there remains.”

Do the Tridentine canons condemn the Protestant doctrine or only parodies of it?

“Many of the canons do not directly touch a balanced Protestant understanding, but a number clearly do. The verdict of The Condemnations of the Reformation Era (a joint ecumenical commission which met in the early 80’s) is as much a statement about the intentions of the churches today as a statement about the intentions of Trent and the Lutheran confessions.”
According to Lane’s conclusion, disagreement between the Catholic and Protestant understanding of justification remains, although it may not be as profound as we tend to think.

Still, giving the binding nature of Trent’s decrees, evangelical Protestants remain in the crosshairs of the Catholic Church’s anathematizing canons. To the extent that Catholics operate according to this Tridentine framework (i.e., defining their position over and against justification by faith alone), they appear to be skating on the same thin ice as Paul’s Galatian interlocutors and in imminent danger of falling into the frigid water of “another gospel.”

Yet, we must realize that many Catholics, including Pope Benedict himself, don’t understand justification in this Tridentine light. For instance, in the Pope’s sermon on justification in Saint Peter’s Square on November 19, 2008 he said, “Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther’s phrase: ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity in love.” A week later on November 26 in the Paul VI Audience Hall the pontiff continued this emphasis, “Following Saint Paul, we have seen that man is unable to ‘justify’ himself with his own actions, but can only truly become ‘just’ before God because God confers his ‘justice’ upon him, uniting him to Christ his Son. And man obtains this union through faith. In this sense, Saint Paul tells us: not our deeds, but rather faith renders us ‘just.’”

Lest you think the Pope’s statements were an out of turn, momentary flash in the pan, you can also read them in his recent book Saint Paul (Pope Benedict XVI. Saint Paul. [San Francisco: Ignatius Press], 82-85). This same note is hit by many Catholic theologians, particularly those like Beckwith who identify as evangelical Catholic.

Of more immediate concern to me is the penetration of the biblical gospel—the message of divine grace accessed through faith alone—into the hearts of Catholic people who haven’t a clue why Jesus died, much less how salvation is appropriated. Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft describes this problem:

“There are still many who do not know the data, the gospel. Most of my Catholic students at Boston College have never heard it. They do not even know how to get to heaven. When I ask them what they would say to God if they died tonight and God asked them why he should take them into heaven, nine out of ten do not even mention Jesus Christ. Most of them say they have been good or kind or sincere or did their best. So I seriously doubt God will undo the Reformation until he sees to it that Luther’s reminder of Paul’s gospel has been heard throughout the church” (Peter Kreeft. “Ecumenical Jihad.” Reclaiming The Great Tradition. Ed. James S. Cutsinger. [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997]. 27).

This is the concern of Holy Ground—that the grace of God in salvation remains central. When talking with Catholics, there are myriads of potential rabbit trails. We may enter into a conversation to talk about how Jesus provides life with meaning and suddenly find ourselves enmeshed in a debate about the apocrypha or Humanae Vitae. Sometimes it’s right to broach these subjects, but too often we do so at the expense of the gospel. This is tragic. What does it profit a person if he explicates a host of theological conundrums without focusing attention upon the death and resurrection of Jesus? In all of our discussion with Catholics we must consider, celebrate, and bear witness to the splendor and majesty of our Savior, the one who died, rose, and now lives.
In my mind, Chris’s careful, comprehensive replies raise additional questions (e.g., if Trent’s Decrees are “binding” how does that fit with the assertion that “many Catholics, including Pope Benedict himself, don’t understand justification in this Tridentine light”?) – but those questions notwithstanding for now I again want to highly recommend this irenic, empathetic book. It is one of those rare resources that not only would benefit interested evangelicals, but could be confidently shared with Catholic friends as well.


Douglas Phillips said...

JoyinJesus said...

Thank you for recommending this book!

I am a former Catholic. I was saved by grace through faith by HEARING the gospel! No one first convinced me that some Catholic doctrine was incorrect. It was like every other sin. God saved me and THEN began to sanctify me and change my life. It was AFTER I was saved and began to read the Bible that my eyes were opened to the errors in the Catholic church. No one gets saved by first believing correct doctrine... but we are saved when we turn to Jesus in faith and repentance of our sins! THEN, God shows us the truth of Scripture. So, as a former Catholic who had the gospel shared with her I say that we should spend less time arguing with Roman Catholics and more time sharing the gospel!!! Amen?

Douglas Phillips said...

Chris sent me this reply to the key question I alluded to: e.g., if Trent’s Decrees are “binding” how does that fit with the assertion that “many Catholics, including Pope Benedict himself, don’t understand justification in this Tridentine light”?

Here is Chris's helpful answer:

'...I think Tony Lane provides helpful groundwork for understanding the reason when he writes, “The canons [of Trent] were deliberately not addressed against specific people and the statements condemned were derived from second- or third-hand compilations of the statements of the Reformers, taken especially from the earlier years of the Reformation and not seen in their original context' (Anthony Lane. Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment, pp. 104-105).

'Thus, unlike Alexander V’s papal bull against Wycliffism in 1409 or Leo X’s Exsurge Domine against Luther in 1520, Trent’s Canons were aiming into a mist of hearsay (not to be confused with the word heresy). Moving forward in history, even to the present, Catholic theologians have said, in effect, that because the bishops of Trent didn’t accurately understand Reformation teaching, the object of their canons were different from what truly was or is Reformed theology. Accordingly, the preamble of the Joint Declaration, an official ecumenical document endorsed by the Vatican in 1999 with the Lutheran World Federation, says in paragraph seven, “…this declaration is shaped by the conviction that in their respective histories our churches have come to new insights.”

'The “new insights” about which the Declaration speaks is the realization of Trent’s misguided critique of Reformed doctrines such as justification by faith alone. This, it seems, is the view that guides the understanding of Catholic theologians like Pope Benedict.'

Douglas Phillips said...

On Kevin DeYoung's blog, in a parallel discussion, Dr. Francis Beckwith essentially endorsed Chris's explanatory comment.

…and yet, when I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and its section on “Justification” I simply cannot see how this can be portrayed as essentially compatible with the Protestant-evangelical understanding of this crucial doctrine.

Compare with just one section of a recent evangelical declaration regarding the Gospel:

12. We affirm that the doctrine of the imputation (reckoning or counting) both of our sins to Christ and of his righteousness to us, whereby our sins are fully forgiven and we are fully accepted, is essential to the biblical Gospel (2 Cor. 5:19-21).

We deny that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ infused into us or by any righteousness that is thought to inhere within us.

13. We affirm that the righteousness of Christ by which we are justified is properly his own, which he achieved apart from us, in and by his perfect obedience. This righteousness is counted, reckoned, or imputed to us by the forensic (that is, legal) declaration of God, as the sole ground of our justification.

We deny that any works we perform at any stage of our existence add to the merit of Christ or earn for us any merit that contributes in any way to the ground of our justification (Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).

14. We affirm that, while all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and are in the process of being made holy and conformed to the image of Christ, those consequences of justification are not its ground. God declares us just, remits our sins, and adopts us as his children, by his grace alone, and through faith alone, because of Christ alone, while we are still sinners (Rom. 4:5).

We deny that believers must be inherently righteous by virtue of their cooperation with God’s life-transforming grace before God will declare them justified in Christ. We are justified while we are still sinners.

Douglas Phillips said...

The link to the Catechism above was truncated by somehow. It should have read

(delete the space between archive/ and catechism)

Douglas Phillips said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Douglas Phillips said...

Nick Hill's comment on Kevin's blog pointed me to what looks like a very worthwhile book. It's "Nothing In My Hand I Bring" by Ray Galea. You can get a sense of what the book is about, including reading the enaging first chapter at