Turning Romeward? Not an Option

I was struck by an editorial in the Frankfurt (Germany) newspaper, which observed that the election of Cardinal Ratzinger to be the new pope was not a threat to Germany, a country that voted for the Reformation, even though Benedict XVI represents “the Counter-Reformation in person.” First, I enjoyed the admission from a secular European source that Germany really had been, at least at a time long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, a Protestant country. Second, I was glad to see it offered in print the assertion that Benedict really is the Counter-Reformation in person.

Let’s look at this a minute. Benedict is great. We all, or almost all evangelical Christians, like what he says about most doctrines, and probably all moral teachings, of the Christian faith. A couple thousand orthodox Episcopalians, who were attending an emergency conference in Dallas right after an openly gay bishop was approved by our denomination, will never forget the moment when we were called suddenly back into the hall, to hear a telegram read out from … Cardinal Ratzinger! It was a telegram to us, specifically, the “traditionalist” Episcopalians meeting in speechless disarray after the Rubicon had been crossed through the election of a gay bishop in New Hampshire, telling us of the Vatican’s sympathy with us, and its solicitude for us in our church suffering. It was an amazing moment!

So yes, we really do like Benedict XVI.

We also really like his implied confrontation with secular Europe. I sometimes just want to throw up my hands at the Europeans, and the English, too, for their rationalist indifference, which has resulted in a debased youth culture, a terminally low birth rate, and an unprincipled capitulation to the Islamic minority which will soon be a majority if present trends continue. It is not the anti-Americanism that throws me-a fair piece of which is hard not to agree with at times. It is rather the unblinking secularism and even anti-Christianity of the region, which strikes me as a massive case of shooting themselves in the foot.

So there is a lot to appreciate in the new pope’s collision course with the severe agnosticism of the land mass that surrounds him. This is all to the good.But it is not enough to make me wish to swim the Tiber! Many of my orthodox colleagues in the Episcopal Church are going over to Rome these days. Even if they are married clergy, if they are anywhere near to retirement-especially, believe it or not, if they are bishops-the pull of Rome is strong. It is like the tractor beam in Star Wars. Rome looks so good, for conservative Christian people, that it becomes so good. It has a powerful pull. For several of my colleagues, Benedict’s election was the final “double plus good” (George Orwell), sealing the deal on the finality and authority of Rome’s position. My friends have “poped.”

I do not blame them. But I cannot agree with them.

The big problem with Roman Catholicism is the old and enduring problem, which has never been resolved. It is the problem of the first formal cause of our justification. “They” believe in infusion, “we” believe in imputation. For the layperson, this means “they” teach that we are OK when we become actually OK, while “we” teach that we are OK before we become actually OK. The classic way of putting this is that we become righteous after we are regarded, in our lostness, as righteous. And we remain, in this human life, both 100 percent righteous (from God’s point of view because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice) and thoroughly flawed (instrinically) even as our fruited works show the gradual growth of actual righteousness within us.

Here is how the ninth article of the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion” (1561) puts it: “Man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated.”

“Doth remain”! This means that we are both sinners and saved, at the same time, throughout our Christian lives. It is a vital point. It is called theological anthropology, and declares the tragic truth that we are, as Christians, both saved to the max and human (i.e., sinners) to the max, simultaneously. We are never not both completely perfect in God’s sight and totally messed up in our own eyes and in “the eyes of the world” (Jerry Garcia).

Imputation, or God’s “wording” and regarding us as righteous in the very midst of our (repentant) sinfulness, is the mechanism of our justification, which is our salvation practically applied. Rome teaches infusion-we are not graced until God recognizes the grace that dwells within us through the sacraments-and we teach imputation. That distinction remains the single source of our separation.

In addition, the Church of Rome has made it a point of dogma (since 1711 at least), following from their lopsided and reactive assertion of the infusion anthropology at the Council of Trent, that human beings possess free will. If I am, through infusion, on the road north, then let’s track this artificially enhanced image of man right on back to the south side of our salvation. Salute the fair lord of all the earth, “Man”! He is free to choose and also free to un-choose.

Reformation Protestants hold a deeper view than this of humanity’s loss. We believe that free will was lost with the Fall, and no matter how smart we are, we always choose the self-serving wrong unless by God’s grace we are given to choose the right. Reformation Protestants always wish to remind Rome that Peter’s greatness consisted in his repented-of fallenness and weakness of will, and that 100 percent of Good Friday’s observers voted for Barabbas.

Thus I, for one, am happy yet to protest. I could also protest about the Bible: we weight it differently than they. I could also protest about the authority question: We cannot trust a human individual, no matter how fine, to rule our spirits before the Lord. I could also protest the place of Mary, although I still think The Song of Bernadette (1943) is maybe Hollywood’s best hymn to orthodoxy. There are several other matters, too, which still deserve our protest. But the big one is theological anthropology. As long as the Church of Rome annuls the simul iustus et peccatorresult, on our this-world side, of the Gospel’s declaration of our justification on the merits of Christ alone, then we cannot go there. We have to stay where we are.

May I add just one more point: Our Protestant protest does not mean meanness in spirit or lack of generosity in conceding to Roman points that are not central. Nor does it mean being closed to grace and gestures of love which come from their side. Just because one is a convinced Protestant does not mean that one can ever be unloving in any way. When Richard Hobson, the ardent Protestant rector of St. Nathaniel’s, Windsor, a Church of England parish located in the slums of Liverpool, retired in the early twentieth century from decades of service cheek-to-jowl with thousands of inner-city Irish Catholics there, he had the entire respect of the Roman Catholic community because of his completely unstinting embodied caring for all of God’s children in his patch, acted out in countless deeds of mercy to all who approached him.*

The Reverend Brother Dr. Paul F.M. Zahl

Rev. Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl is a prolific author and passionate theologian, respected Anglican Minister and Chaplain of the Loyal Orange Institution of the United States of America. He has authored numerous books including The Protestant Face of Anglicanism, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, A Short Systematic Theology, Five Women of the Reformation, The First Christian, and Grace in Practice.


* This article originally appeared in the [insert current issue date] edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit http://www.modernreformation.org/ or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.