A line in the sun
Richard Bennett & Michael de Semlyen
On 10 July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a new decree1 in which he restates his conviction that the Roman Catholic Church is the one Church founded by Jesus Christ, and that other churches are either defective or not churches at all. What is new, however, is the claim that ‘Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century’ cannot be ‘called “Churches” in the proper sense’. The pope has drawn a line in the sand.
Earlier, in September 2000 – when Benedict was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Guardian of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -he had stunned the ecumenical movement by launching an assault onallother churches in the Vatican decree Dominus Iesus prepared by his office.
As an arch-conservative, true to the pre-Vatican II view that Bible Christians are heretics rather than ‘separated brethren’, Benedict has long sought to correct what he calls ‘erroneous interpretations’ of Vatican Council II’s ecumenical intent.
Accordingly, the 2007 document formulates and answers five questions setting the record straight. Benedict’s mission is to rescue the teaching and conclusions of the Second Vatican Council from Catholics who, through their association with non-Catholics, are drifting away from hard-line Catholic dogma.
The last of the five questions is of special importance: ‘Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of “Church” with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?’
The response is as follows:
‘According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense’.
Bible truth exposes the error
In denying the faith of the Reformation, the Pope denounces all who are committed to the biblical revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ and his everlasting gospel. Benedict is unable to see that he is denouncing the true church – that which is defined in Scripture and founded on the Rock who is Christ Jesus himself.
They are Christ’s people – believers who adhere to God and his written Word, and acknowledge themselves saved by grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone. They are the temple of the living God, his dwelling place forever.
This is the church that Jesus loved and for which he gave himself, that its members might be washed in his blood. It is the church he has sanctified and cleansed by his Word, ‘that he might present it to himself a glorious Church’. It is the ‘general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven’ (Ephesians 5:25-27; Hebrews 12:23).
In rejecting the gospel rediscovered by the Reformation, and seeking to re-establish hard-line Catholic dogma, the pope reveals his own church as biblically counterfeit.
The basis for Benedict’s denunciation is given in the answer to his second question:
‘Christ established here on earth only one Church and instituted it as a visible and spiritual community that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted … This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him’.
The presumption here is that the apostle Peter went to Rome, and that each pope is the successor of Peter. This is groundless conjecture. The Scriptures provide no evidence that Peter ever went to Rome, nor do they refer to ‘successors’ to Peter or the other apostles.
The criteria for apostleship are given in Acts 1:21-22. Their position was unique – all were directly chosen by Christ with no hint of succession. In the New Testament the apostles appointed elders and deacons, never new apostles.
Yet the biblically unsubstantiated claim of ‘apostolic succession’ is the very foundation of the papacy. Papal primacy and authority are based on it. The only human priestly succession instituted by God was the Levitical priesthood – which was long ago abolished by a better covenant under the sole priesthood of Christ (Hebrews 7:11-22). The concept of apostolic succession is therefore hopelessly flawed.
Peter’s true legacy
Since ‘apostolic succession’ is the pope’s reason for denouncing other churches, it is important to review Peter’s legacy. Peter did not proclaim an institution or organisation, but only the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Rather than promoting a top-heavy hierarchical system – laypeople, priests, bishops, cardinals and pope – Peter refutes the ‘holy tradition’ of the papacy by stating that born-again Christians together constitute ‘a chosen generation, a royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9).
He declares that ‘Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but quickened by the Spirit’ (1 Peter 3:18). Christ offered himself as the once-and-for-all sacrifice to atone for the sins of his people, thus propitiating the righteous wrath of God.
The blessed design of Christ’s sufferings was to reconcile us to God, to credit us with his righteousness, to give us access to the Father, and to fit us for eternal glory. Peter taught salvation and redemption, not through the church, but by the blood of Christ: ‘ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold … but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot (1 Peter 1:18).
Pope Benedict insists that physical sacraments are necessary for salvation.2 Peter, by contrast, condemned the traditions of men, warning of false teachers who would secretly introduce heresies into the church – which is precisely what Roman Catholicism has done (2 Peter 2:1).
The pope’s foundation is not the word of God alone, for he decrees, ‘Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence’.3
But Peter asserts that the only source of gospel truth is Scripture. Thus he writes of ‘being born again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever’. And again, ‘the word of the Lord endureth for ever, and this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you’ (1 Peter 1:23-25).
Peter’s teaching demolishes the foundations of Benedict’s worldly system.
A change of strategy
For more than forty years the papacy has pursued a spurious ecumenical strategy contrived at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). It is often said that ‘Vatican II’ changed everything, but in this decree Pope Benedict comes clean.
He states, ‘The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine [No. 28, on the ecclesial doctrine of the Catholic Church]’. In support he cites John XXIII, who opened the Second Vatican Council and stated that while Catholic dogma on the church would be unaltered, the papacy’s ‘manner’ needed to change as ‘required by our times’.4
Accordingly, Vatican II ceased to condemn other religions in favour of a false ecumenism. It was a public relations exercise on a global scale. The new warmth and acceptance were applied to Bible believers who were ‘welcomed back into the fold’, being no longer ‘heretics’ but ‘separated brethren’. The major pagan religions of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism were now to be regarded as ‘acceptable ways to God’.5
With this new strategy, the Church of Rome set out to win the world back to herself.
There were other important strands of the new policy. The popular Pope John XXIII was said to have prayed on his deathbed for ‘a new Pentecost’ as his church set out purposefully to adopt the fledgling ‘charismatic renewal’.
The Vatican’s backing for this movement – with its blurring of doctrinal differences and emphasis on tolerance and unity – proved successful in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet another approach was by dialogue. In 1970, the Catholic Church carefully spelled out the goals and rules of dialogue, by which it sought to make incremental advances into Bible believing churches. The unchanging nature of Rome’s agenda was clear:
‘Dialogue … serves to transform modes of thought and behavior and the daily life of [non-Catholic churches] … preparing the way for their unity of faith in the bosom of a Church one and visible: thus little by little, as the obstacles to perfect ecclesial communion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered … into the unity of the one and only Church … This unity, we believe, dwells in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose’.6
Conciliatory no more
For more than four decades and four pontificates the ecumenical mood-music from the Vatican has been soothing, reassuring, tolerant and conciliatory. Although the Second Vatican Council documents were published in 1975, only once before, in all the years since that Council, has the mask slipped.
Pope Benedict in his less exalted identity as Cardinal Ratzinger, issued the decree Dominus Iesus stating what he has now chosen to repeat with heightened authority – ‘the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense’.
At least we now know!
1. Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church,
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), Para. 1129.
3. Catechism, Para. 82.
4. John XXIII, Address, 11 October 1962.
5. Vatican Council II Document No. 56, in Documents of Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar documents, Austin P. Flannery, Ed., New Revised Edition (1975, 1984) p.739.
6. Post Vatican Council II Document No. 42, Reflections and suggestions concerning ecumenical dialogue, 15 August 1970, Sect. II, p.541.
The author’s website is www.bereanbeacon.org and his book Catholicism: East of Eden can be obtained in UK and Europe from www.evangelicalpress.org/esales/