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Evangelical – Roman Catholic relationships – Part 3

September 2004 | by Eryl Davies

We come to the third and final part of my review of Leonardo de Chirico’s book, Evangelical theological perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003).

In the first article, I outlined the historical and theological background to Evangelical-Roman Catholic relationships from 1950 onwards. In the second, we considered six Evangelical theologians identified by the author as contributors to this debate or dialogue. Their contributions were outlined briefly and contrasted.

This final article focuses on the heart of the book — the author’s own perspective on this important subject. Concentrating on chapters 5 and 6 (pp.165-303), I will continue my question and answer approach.

How should Roman Catholicism be viewed?

Three introductory but basic points need to be noted. Firstly, the author underlines the ‘theological diversity’ (p.165) apparent in the varied evangelical attitudes adopted towards Catholicism in recent decades.

Secondly, Roman Catholicism itself is complex and ‘can offer to the external observer’ — from different disciplines, including theology — a ‘multiplicity of perspectives’.

Thirdly, the author highlights the importance of interpretation in attempting to understand Roman Catholicism. An ‘interpretative key’ is essential (p.166), and this must be found in what he calls a ‘fruitful hermeneutical [interpretative] model’.

What does this model involve? Firstly, that Catholicism must be viewed as a system (p.167) — a system in which there is both unity and diversity. This means, secondly, that we must consider all of Rome’s ‘doctrine, culture, history and institutions’ and then bring these different aspects into one ‘coherent whole’. It is a demanding and time-consuming task.

In arguing for a systemic approach to Catholicism, de Chirico finds support in the approach of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), which we will now consider.

Why appeal to Abraham Kuyper?

The author feels obliged to reveal his sources and ‘the legacy’ which has influenced him. More significantly, however, he believes that a probing, competent evangelical interpretation of (and response to) Rome, can only be achieved if we are willing to adopt the systemic approach advocated by Kuyper.

Using Kuyper’s 1898 Lectures on Calvinism, de Chirico describes how Kuyper understood Calvinism as a ‘life system’ or worldview — with Roman Catholicism and ‘Modernism’ as rival competitors.

For Kuyper, therefore, Calvinism was more than just a theological, historical and ecclesiastical phenomenon — it is a system which applies to the whole of life and society (p.170). According to Kuyper, each life-system has a central core or ‘mother-principle’ (p.173) around which the system revolves and operates.

But for something to be a system in the Kuyperian sense, it must satisfy additional criteria. For example, while the core principle is a ‘starting-point’ that governs the whole framework, a ‘system’ also needs to fulfil certain ‘conditions’ (p.174). Foremost among such conditions is that the system must address the ‘three fundamental relations of all human life’ (p.175), namely, our relationships to God, to man and to the world.

Is Roman Catholicism a ‘life-system’?

Yes, says Kuyper, but not the only one that competes with Calvinism. He also identifies other competing life-systems such as ‘paganism’ (including theological modernism) and Islam.

But it is his view of Catholicism as a system which concerns us here. He sees that Catholicism, like Calvinism, bears the marks of a life-system — it exhibits unity alongside diversity, has a practical and cultural expression, and it fulfils the ‘conditions’ concerning our fundamental human relationships.

For example, Romanism views the relation of man to man ‘hierarchically’. Kuyper also sees ‘the church’ generally as a visible institution mediating between God and the world (p.177) — with the world either ‘overshadowed’ by the church or set against it.

Kuyper argued that Calvinism emerged ‘by the side of Romanism, and in opposition to it’ (pp. 179-180) with a ‘different church-form’. Accordingly, there is ‘a fundamental antithesis between Rome and ourselves’ which gave rise to controversy over major issues such as ‘ecclesiastical authority’, the nature and extent of sin, ‘justification’, ‘the mass’, ‘the invocation of saints and angels’, ‘the worship of images’ and ‘purgatory’ (p.180).

On the other hand, Kuyper showed considerable respect for the Roman system (pp.176-177) as well as a willingness to co-operate with Rome in achieving particular social and political goals (p.182).

How does Kuyper help us understand Catholicism?

The author is critical of Kuyper’s ambiguity and inconsistency in his approach to Rome, as well as his failure to achieve a ‘more sustained coherence’ (p.184). However, he believes Kuyper’s systemic perspective on Romanism provides a ‘useful starting point’.

Catholicism is a unitary system — complex, dynamic, expanding, structured and capable of incorporating apparently conflicting elements.

Leonardo de Chirico rightly affirms: ‘Roman Catholicism is a master at incorporating into its system many elements which are not only different but contrasting and perhaps even incompatible, at least as far as the perception of other religious systems like the evangelical one is concerned’ (p.199).

This is an important and salutary warning. One outstanding example is Rome’s adaptation to, and incorporation of, many aspects of the Charismatic movement in the late twentieth century, which led many former Evangelicals astray. That is only one of many examples.

Evangelical responses to Rome have not only been piecemeal — they have also been naïve, failing to appreciate that the Catholic ‘system’ has great agility in coping with radically different theologies and practices. Ecumenical dialogue with Evangelicals poses no problems for Rome (see pp.200-215), but can be a snare to unwary Evangelicals!

Is Rome’s theological framework assessed?

Over pages 218 to 283 the author does provide an evaluation, but it is demanding! I will summarise it briefly.

At the heart of Rome’s distinctive worldview, de Chirico identifies two essential aspects — the nature-grace relationship and ecclesiology. These, he insists, ‘are the two poles of its ideological core’ (p.284).

Historically, Rome has accommodated two differing traditions. One is Augustinianism with its emphasis on sin and the primacy of grace. The other is Thomism in which Thomas Aquinas recycled and re-interpreted Aristotle’s philosophy, complete with its optimistic view of human nature and a belief in man’s ability to respond to the operations of grace.

These two conflicting traditions coexist happily within Rome. ‘The Roman Catholic system provides a sufficiently capable platform which can host both’, observes de Chirico, ‘while not being totally identified nor identifiable with any one of them’ (p.228). Here is a pointer to the breadth of Rome’s system — a breadth that often confuses and befuddles Evangelicals.

Concerning the second ‘pole’ or aspect — ecclesiology — the Roman church claims to mediate between grace and nature. The implications are enormous.

For example, the incarnation of the Lord Jesus is extended to the church itself which becomes a second ‘Christ’. The huge gap between biblical Calvinism and Catholicism is sharply focused here. ‘Christ alone’, insisted the Reformers; Rome weakens this affirmation to ‘Christ in the church and the church in Christ’.

Sadly, Christ’s three-fold ministry as Prophet, Priest and King is truncated by Rome and his ministry diminished and re-interpreted in favour of the church’s magisterial interpretation of the Word, the administration of sacraments by priests, and the hierarchical rule by a pope and bishops.

What of the Evangelical response to Rome?

Dr de Chirico turns finally to a critique of Evangelical approaches to post-Vatican II Catholicism (pp. 284-303). He establishes that Evangelical theology ‘lacks a unitary hermeneutic [interpretation]’ of Catholicism.

He suggests that our failure to develop a systemic understanding of Roman Catholicism is due to the fact that many evangelical theologians themselves do not think of Evangelicalism as a theological system (p.307).

Fearing that Evangelicalism is losing its Reformation roots and shifting ‘from a Reformed-revivalist theology to a less Reformed but more revivalist one’ (p.306), de Chirico warns that ‘Evangelical theology will be able to engage Roman Catholicism systematically only if it regains its Reformation heritage as expressed by the systemic awareness of the Reformed tradition’ (pp.307-308). It is a perceptive and proper warning to contemporary Evangelicalism.

This book represents a major contribution to the subject, in which the author does not compromise the gospel. Rather, he sharpens gospel distinctives and contrasts them with Rome’s distortion of the glorious Christ-centred and divinely given gospel.

The warning is clear, however. We must return to our Reformation roots and appreciate the systemic nature of our own theology. Then we will be able to address — and challenge more effectively — Roman Catholic theology at its systematic and complex heart