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The Quaint Quibbles Dividing Catholics and Protestants

Jeffrey Bruno

David Mills - published on 09/01/15

Be thankful someone still cares

It’s bracing to find people still fighting the old Protestant-Catholic battles. A leading young Evangelical writer, Tim Challies, just published his rejection of crucifixes, which Religion News Service liked so much that they featured it in their daily email. That’s not a fight you see anyone starting anymore.

I’ve been involved in ecumenical works for almost thirty years, and am all for divided Christians growing closer to each other, but my heart leaps a bit when I come across a Protestant writer saying “We’re right and they’re wrong.” It may feel like a bucket of ice water thrown on a group hug, but it wakes everyone up. As I say, bracing.

Because we still disagree and the disagreements matter a lot. At a lecture a few years ago, a theologically-educated Presbyterian lecturing to a mixed group of Catholics and Presbyterians said that church government was just a matter of which arrangement you preferred, the personal or the collegial. Each had its good points and its bad points, which one needed to weigh, but there was no right or wrong answer. It was up to each of us to decide which model we liked. Catholics liked the personal model and had a pope and Presbyterians liked the collegial model and had presbyteries. I thought, “But God prefers the personal model.” The Catholic priest who was also speaking that day gamely tried to correct him, but couldn’t.

I dealt with this on Monday in The Stream — an ecumenical enterprise run by a Southern Baptist minister and a Catholic convert — in an article titled Don’t Be Nice to Other Christians, which developed a point I’d made here in High Fivin’ the Pope. We disagree on very important matters and the way to real friendship runs through the differences, not, as is so common today, by acting as if we don’t really disagree or the disagreements don’t really matter.

A great benefit of the serious Evangelicals who have kept fighting these battles is that they remind us that we really disagree. They work in a somewhat insular culture that gives them the freedom to say the thing other people won’t say. You read them and sometimes feel, “Gosh, he sounds so nineteenth-century.” It’s as if he walked into your house in a swallow-tail coat with those enormous sideburns some men used to sport. But there’s something to be said for the nineteenth century.

We tend to think that we don’t have to fight the old battles, that everyone’s gotten beyond them. Back then, Catholics and Protestants were set against each other socially and politically as well as theologically, therefore they fought about every little thing. We aren’t, so we don’t.

I think that’s quite wrong. The specific reasons the apologists and polemicists of the sixteenth through the early twentieth centuries fought about remain for the most part dividing issues. People say, for example, that Dei Verbum on the one side and the growing Protestant appreciation for tradition on the other have very much narrowed the difference in our understanding of Scripture.

That’s true, but only sort of. There is a very, very big gap between Dei Verbum’s declaration that “both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” and the Protestant understanding. To take the doctrinal statement of the Evangelical Anglican seminary for which I once worked, the Anglican 39 Articles: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

I can see the look on my former colleagues’ faces if I were to say, “Look at this! We agree!” Thoughtful, kind, serious Christians all, they’d say, “Absolutely not” and remove any alcoholic beverages and sharp objects from my reach.

Catholic priests, and not dissenting ones either, have told me that after the Second Vatican Council there’s no fundamental difference on Scripture between Catholics and Protestants, that it’s a matter of emphasis and nuance. It’s not. Think of the recent feast: The Assumption, a holy day of obligation because we know that Mary was assumed bodily into Heaven. We know that. For Protestant friends like my former colleagues, it’s nonsense, or at best a pious invention, which Christians have no reason at all to believe. Between “Mary was assumed into Heaven” and “We have no possible idea what happened to Mary, who’s not all that important anyway” a great gulf is fixed. We have two very different understandings of the place of Scripture in the life of the Church.

Now back to Tim Challies and his objections to crucifixes. At first you think: Crucifixes? Really? These days you’re still worrying about crucifixes? Where’s the swallow-tail coat and sideburns?

Which would be unfair, and foolish. Challies quotes at length the great Anglican Evangelical patriarch J. I. Packer, from a passage I think comes from Packer’s classic Evangelical work Knowing God. In the quoted passage, he condemns all images as gross violations of the Second Commandment. He makes a serious and thoughtful argument for his claim that “there is no room for doubting that the commandment obliges us to disassociate our worship, both in public and in private, from all pictures and statues of Christ.”

I first met Jim thirty-some years ago and count him a friend, and a man I greatly respect. He’s a man of great kindness and astonishing learning, and in this matter he is, there is no other word for it, a heretic. It’s a harsh word, and I’ve groped around for another, but it’s hard to think of another word for someone who effectively declares heretical the seventh ecumenical council, not to mention the unanimous and continuous practice of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. He doesn’t think images are a mistake, like (as I happen to know from conversation with him) over-elaborate liturgies. He thinks they’re idols.

The difference is not a matter of a taste for images or a dislike for images. It’s not a matter of wanting visual aids or not wanting them. It’s a difference that goes very deep into our understanding of the Christian faith and how it is to be lived out. Think what your spiritual life and your time at Mass and adoration would be like without the crucifix and the icons and the statues, and the holy cards as well. A wiser man or a better psychologist than I could explain this better, but we know these things were given to us as an essential part of our life of faith. They’re not optional.

Catholics can answer Packer and Challies — and on biblical grounds too, as in this article from John Martignoni. We have several other arguments as well, like G. K. Chesterton’s from his Autobiography (search for “bow down to wood and stone”). I don’t think Packer’s reading of the Second Commandment convincing.

My point here is only to say: Thank God for the Evangelicals. In this case, in particular, the great J. I. Packer and his disciple Tim Challies. The issues they raise so starkly still divide Catholics from Protestants. They’re not dead issues, the kind of quibbles our great-grandfathers might have argued about. If we are to make progress in our growth together as brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ll have to face these differences. Three cheers for the people who care enough about the truth, about the faith, and indeed about their Catholic brethren, to bring them up — at the risk of looking as old-fashioned and cranky as a man with bushy sideburns in a swallow-tail coat.

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