Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Kevin Johnson: Catholics R Pelagians (I.e., Advocates of Works-Salvation)

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The facile, hackneyed arguments of anti-Catholicism live, even
among those who aren't anti-Catholics themselves.

Does anyone know how to properly respond to this sort of wanton, know-nothing ignorance about Catholic beliefs, coming from a Protestant pastor who supposedly respects Catholicism, and even calls himself a "Reformed Catholic"? I sure don't. I note it mainly out of a disappointed amazement that such ignorance of basic comparative soteriology is still "out there", even in comparatively ecumenical and nuanced Protestant venues. Kevin knows way better than this.

I have no problem at all with his criticism of Catholics who are grossly ignorant of their own Church's teachings (the second paragraph below, and beginning of the third). I do the same. But at the end of his polemic he starts discussing the Catholic "system of salvation". That's not merely stupid Catholics who don't know their faith, in purple tennis shoes at a Bingo game (all the stereotypes of underinformed, nominal Catholics that have, however, and sadly, a lot of truth in them); it is, rather, Trent and Vatican I and II, and a whole different ballgame:
However, it is appropriate to ask about the faithfulness of each group [Catholics and Baptists] to the gospel both in terms of doctrine and practice . . .

[W]e have Catholics all over the planet who think that no matter what else they do–if they attend church twice a year and make sure they don’t do anything really bad like kill somebody–they’ll eventually make it to heaven. Might have to spend a bit more time in purgatory, but hey, when you’re looking at eternity, what’s a few more hundred years anyway? Live and let live! This sort of cavalier attitude puts millions of Catholics in danger of eternal hellfire.

On the other side of the fence of course are those Catholics that think that getting to heaven is a matter of meeting obligations and while I don’t always agree with the slam dunk nature of Internet apologists against Catholic theology and practice, I certainly agree that from the position of Reformed confessional theology their system of salvation is ultimately one based on works and not on the merit or work of our Lord.

I note all of this to say that if we are going to compare Baptists and Roman Catholics (or their competing ‘ideologies’) it is incumbent upon the person comparing the two to point out the good and the bad about both and not merely the bad about one and the neutral status of the other.

(my emphases)
Even on his own blog, Pastor Kevin seems to be of the minority opinion. His good buddy, regular contributor Pastor Michael J.G. Pahls correctly understands the matter at hand (my emphases):
Regarding the justification question, we all agree that Pelagianism is off limits. For the most part the consensus is that humans may not merit (either de congruo or de condigno) first grace or initial justification apart from God’s gift. Some Franciscans may dissent from this, but Protestants and Thomistic Roman Catholics in the West are in accord here. The universal point is that no one believes they can do something that obliges or coerces God to grant eternal life. The nuancing begins when we try to negotiate the sheer gratuity of grace and the necessary bearing of fruit in keeping with a vital union with Jesus. Here, +Wright certainly thickens our description of what is going on in light of the broader communal and ecclesiastical implications of God and Israel in Christ, but the charge that he has betrayed the Reformation or the catholic traditon is just sad and laughable. Most of the time these criticisms stem from a terrible oversimplification of the nuanced distinctions between Catholics and Reformed Protestants on the question.
Again, regular contributor at, Dr. Paul Owen, adds (my emphases):
I have come to see that all Christians, whether they be Calvinist, Wesleyan, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, or Anglican, can now agree that we are saved by God’s grace, and that we receive by faith those benefits secured for us in Christ. How justification and sanctification are to be related, and what role good works play in the overall process, and just how the sacraments (variously defined) fit into this whole picture, remain areas of dispute. But the fundamental teaching of Paul’s gospel of grace, as it is so clearly expressed in Romans and Galatians, is maintained in every true church.
The semi-Pelagian tendencies within the Church that the Reformers had to fight against, are no longer found so much within Rome, as they are within much of Evangelicalism itself. I have come to see that Calvinists and Lutherans in particular, are all too often guilty of predicating salvation upon a correct understanding of the minutiae of soteriological systems. I thank God for delivering me from such a warped and twisted way of viewing the Christian faith.
In comments, Dr. Owen elaborated:
I also agree with Charles Hodge that the teachings of Rome CAN be understood in such a way as to be consistent with the biblical gospel, . . . I tend to think that were the Reformers around today, they would take a more moderate approach on the issues than was possible in their own 16th century setting, given the progress which has been made in the official dialogues on justification between Rome and the Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist churches, as well as the ECT phenomenon. Even in their own day, the Reformers were able to craft an agreement on the essentials of justification at Regensburg (1541). The current Pope has openly admitted that the Reformers were highlighting the grace of God in such a way that the Church needed to pay heed and hear afresh the gospel. He recognizes that the freeness of justification has not always been adequately communicated by the Church of Rome.
Catholic soteriology is similar to non-Calvinist Arminian soteriology (hence, Calvinists too often savagely trash Arminianism as a sort of "Catholic Lite"). Note how Paul Owen describes the relationship between Arminianism and Calvinism:
Calvinists can hold either to compatibilist or to libertarian human freedom on matters below; and Arminians are (in their better moments) agreed that the human will is in bondage in its fallen condition when it comes to matters “above.” Since Calvinists can hold to libertarianism (as William Cunningham and Donald Macleod have both argued), and Arminians affirm the bondage of the will soteriologically, apart from God’s regenerating grace, there is not really a great deal of difference between us. Both Calvinists and Arminians are of course united against all forms of Pelagianism, despite the tendency of Calvinist writers to misrepresent Arminian theology as Pelagian or semi-Pelagian.
In any case, the above points are significant matters of theological truth, and are areas where I, as a Calvinist (yes, 5 points and all), am ready to admit that our Arminian brothers and sisters often come closer to the truth than we do. So let’s all stop looking down our noses on that noble theological tradition from our lofty towers of Reformed orthodoxy, shall we?
And again, he writes:
I never cease to be amazed at the inability of some internet polemicists to grasp the most basic theological distinctions. In my recent discussion of Roman Catholic and Protestant soteriology, I argued that both parties are agreed that Christ is our sole object of faith. Neither tradition teaches us to trust in ourselves, or any human institution or work for our salvation.

. . . Rome and Protestantism are agreed that salvation is wholly of God, and that God alone can save the soul, for we have no power of our own which we can exert in the saving process that is not itself the effect of God’s operation upon us. In other words, God alone is the SOURCE of our salvation, and the OBJECT of our faith. Our natural capacities and abilities contribute NOTHING to the saving process, for we bring nothing to the transaction which is not itself made possible by the internal workings of God’s saving grace upon our souls. In short, Protestants and Roman Catholics are united in rejecting all forms of Pelagianism.
. . . Warfield is NOT accusing Roman Catholics of believing that the actions of human beings are the ultimate cause of salvation, but rather that the actions of human beings (in administering the sacraments) become the instrumental cause.

These are the sorts of distinctions which polemicists, in their eagerness to club Roman Catholics over the head with their latest SHAZAAM! prooftext, are apparently incapable of making.
But Kevin Johnson has apparently not learned from any of these "most basic theological distinctions". How sad. His anti-Catholic background (he used to be good buddies with James White) seemingly has not yet been overcome in his brain and presuppositional framework. It's just too radical, I guess, for Kevin to bring himself to deny that Catholics believe in salvation by works. The anti-Catholic Myth and Polemic there is still too strong for him.

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