Making the best of it
Pope Benedict’s visit this September – the first ever state visit to the UK by a pontiff – is another marker of Britain’s declension from vital Christianity. This declension has continued steadily for well over a century.
While we acknowledge that a pluralistic society allows free access of religious leaders to their adherents, we do well to remember that Roman Catholic popes carry a lot of historical baggage.
In ecclesiastico-theological, even if not real, time, it is not long since Catholic regimes in Western Europe tried to stamp out Protestantism by intimidation and persecution.
It is surely a fair question to ask if the (highly symbolic) triple tiara, laid aside for the inauguration of the present pope, is jettisoned for ever, or mothballed against more favourable circumstances.
However, in the providence of God, there could be some unplanned benefits from this unwelcome visit. The first would come if those who profess to be evangelicals gain fresh appreciation of the spiritual issues at stake during the sixteenth century Reformation.
If, for example, the prospect of Cardinal Newman’s beatification by the pope, soon to take place at Coventry Airport, leads us to re-examine our Bibles, and particularly pay attention to Romans and Galatians, then all is not lost.
By rereading too about Martin Luther, the English Reformers, the Marian martyrs and others, we may yet appreciate more fully the wonders of this gospel that is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
How great is a gospel that justifies the vilest sinners through faith! How merciful a salvation accomplished by the agonies of the Son of God 2000 years ago, without reference to the merits of Mary or the saints! And how full the assurance of forgiveness grounded in the knowledge of the glorified Saviour in heaven!
The Reformation’s struggles often centred on the validity of the Mass. Archbishop Cranmer’s biblically based conclusions were that ‘transubstantiation … is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture’ (Article 28, 39 Articles), and any claims that the ‘sacrifices of Masses’ bring ‘remission of pain or guilt’ for the ‘quick and dead’ are ‘blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits’ (Article 31, 39 Articles).
So, if this visit causes evangelicals to refocus on the gospel of grace, it will have done some unexpected good!
And it will do even more good if evangelicals then follow this undeniable logic – if Catholicism is totally wrong about the gospel, then participation in ecumenical ventures involving Catholics and their traditions is the high road to spiritual disaster.
It isn’t that evangelicals should indulge tribal resentments against Catholics; that would be the spirit of hatred, and, in fact, another kind of gospel denial. But we should certainly concentrate on and reject the message that Rome brings.
Catholic dogma explicitly repudiates and undermines justification by faith alone (Romans 1:16-17); it takes away salvation. Therefore, the proper biblical response is to give no ecclesial encouragement to those who bring such teaching, and to recall to their senses those foolish Christians who dally with unbiblical ecumenism (Galatians 2:11-16).
This does not prevent us, of course, from lovingly preaching the gospel to Catholics. But it must mean that we heed the apostle John’s (the apostle of love) warning that, ‘If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house [church] nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds’ (2 John 9-11; cf Galatians 1:6-9).