One last post on the whole issue of Protestantism, and then I will give it a rest. But this time I want to give things a push from the other direction. In this post, I want my little ecumenical self come out to play in the sunshine.
In my last post I mentioned that at Christ Church we receive Roman Catholic baptisms, and would welcome a visiting Roman Catholic to the Table, and a friend asked for an explanation of that stance — so here it is.
The first point is that the receiving of Roman Catholic baptism is the historic Reformation position. A few years ago, I debated this issue with James White, and you can get access to the audio here if you would like.
Here is a paragraph from my opening statement in that debate:
“From 1517, when the Reformation broke out, down to 1845, when J.H. Thornwell and Charles Hodge differed at the General Assembly of that year over this issue, the overwhelming position of the Reformed churches was that of receiving Roman Catholic baptism. This was not an issue that can be dismissed as an unexamined holdover from the medieval era. It was thoroughly examined, and regularly debated. This was one of the defining issues that distinguished the magisterial reformation from the radical reformation.”
This was John Calvin’s position:
“Such in the present day are our Catabaptists, who deny that we are duly baptized, because we were baptized in the Papacy by wicked men and idolaters; hence they furiously insist on anabaptism” (Calvin, Institutes IV.15.16-17).
And John Knox, that old temporizer, said this in a letter in 1556:
“No more ought we to iterate baptism, by whomsoever it was ministered unto us in our infancy; but if God of his mercy [should] call us from blindness, he maketh our baptism, how corrupt that ever it was, available unto us, by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
A.A. Hodge provides us with a solid American example of this strain of thought:
“All who are baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, recognizing the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead, the incarnation of the Son and his priestly sacrifice, whether they be Greeks, or Arminians, or Romanists, or Lutherans, or Calvinists, or the simple souls who do not know what to call themselves, are our brethren. Baptism is our common countersign. It is the common rallying standard at the head of our several columns” (Evangelical Theology, p. 338).
Machen was not soft on Rome, but he said this:
“Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today! . . . The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all” (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 52).
So the argument I would want to present here is an a fortiori argument. The early Reformers were the ones who would receive Roman Catholic baptisms, and they were the ones who were in actual danger of martyrdom at the hands of Rome. If we were proceeding on a carnal basis, you would expect the Reformed drift to have been in the other direction — with the early Reformers rejecting Roman Catholic baptisms in the heat of battle and controversy, with later Reformed types mellowing out some. But this is the reverse of what we find.
So for myself, I want to align my position with that of the magisterial Reformation wherever possible, and on this issue I believe I have less ground for rejecting Roman Catholic baptisms than they did, and they did not. So here I am.
Communion might be a bit more difficult to explain, and so here goes. The reason we practice open communion is that we believe that, while we have a responsibility to fence the Table, we also hold that the Table fences us. It is not our Table — it is the Lord’s Table.
Nevertheless, we fence the Table in two ways. The first is that we have the following statement in our bulletin every week, under the heading “May I Come to the Lord’s Table?”
“The Lord’s Supper is observed every Lord’s Day at Christ Church. We warmly invite to the Lord’s table all those who are baptized disciples of Jesus Christ, under the authority of Christ and His body, the Church. By eating the bread and drinking the wine with us as a visitor, you are acknowledging that you are a sinner, without hope except in the sovereign mercy of God, and that you are trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. You also acknowledge to the elders of this congregation that you are in covenant with God, being active in a congregation which is covenantally bound to the triune God through Word and sacrament. If you have any doubt about your participation, please speak to the elders before or after the service.”
This does not mean that we are pronouncing that any church that a visitor might be coming from is a healthy church. It might not be healthy at all — but one sign of trouble would be a sectarian approach to the Supper, which we don’t want to duplicate ourselves. We believe our openness in this matter is quintessentially Protestant, and when a visiting Roman Catholic partakes with us, they are doing so on Protestant terms. It is consistent with our theology, and not with theirs. When they come to the Lord’s Supper administered by a Protestant minister, they are the ones making absolutely all of the concessions. We welcome them, and would like to see them come all the way out. But if we want them to come live with us, we don’t lock the door. While we tend to notice the high profile examples of evangelicals swimming the Tiber, there is also a steady stream coming the other way. I would estimate that between five and ten percent of our congregation have a Roman Catholic background.
The second way we fence the Table is that we have a brief exhortation or homily that accompanies every administration of the Supper. The Word always accompanies the Supper, and the Word always welcomes every believer to Jesus Christ Himself — and no mediator.
One remaining question is whether or not the Roman Catholic Church “ripped it” with her formal denunciation of the gospel at Trent. This used to be my position, but is so no longer. Here is my comment on that issue from my debate with James White.
“It is important for me to acknowledge that this has not always been my position. In the past I have maintained (although I cannot find where I said this) that Rome was guilty of a final apostasy at Trent, where in solemn ecumenical council she anathematized any who faithfully held the biblical gospel. This is no longer my position, and if my worthy opponent has found a quotation of mine that says this, and returns to this point to press me with it, I will merely say, “I changed my mind, and it is a practice I commend to you.” It is nevertheless still my position that what happened at Trent deserved removal from the olive tree, that is, from the catholic church. But I am now convinced that such a removal has not yet occurred. God does not always give us what we deserve.
Why is this no longer my position? First, I find no signal event of providence that could be interpreted this way. No blazing meteor has landed on the Vatican, while crying out, ‘Come out from among her, and be ye separate.’ Secondly, there has been no concerted ecumenical rejection of Rome as entirely and completely apostate. It might be countered that the Westminster Assembly should count, and they reckoned the papacy as the antichrist. Does that not matter? No, because that Assembly occurred 198 years before classical Protestants began rejecting Roman Catholic baptisms in 1845. The men of Westminster would have been on my side in this debate—again, consider men like Rutherford.”
One last thing. I do think it is important for us to be hard line on Roman Catholic errors. But part of this means that we shouldn’t duplicate one of the their central ones.