Thursday, January 28, 2010

Are members of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches Christians?

A reader wrote the following question to me back in December:

Most Reformed believers tend to write off most Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians as unsaved, but there is starting to be a rise (as you no doubt know) of thought from the Federal Vision that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox should be considered Christian, based on their baptism. What are your thoughts on what the evangelical view of RCs and EOs should be? Do you think their sacramental system encourages nominalism?

Those are some really good questions. If you don't mind, I am not going to address the question of nominalism right now and instead focus on your other question. Should Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox be considered Christians based on their baptisms?

First off, I am always cautious when lumping RC and EO in the same camp, as this question implicitly does. From the EO perspective, RC and Protestantism are two sides of the same coin, and from the RC perspective, Protestantism and EO are two sides of the same coin. Which is correct, or whether they are three sides of the same coin or three completely separate coins, is a very sophisticated theological and historical question. Having made that disclaimer, I will try to address your question, making appropriate distinctions between RC and EO as they may arise.

My view (which I will shortly defend) is that evangelicals ought to view Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as part of the true church and that members of these groups are therefore to be considered Christians.

Regardless of their view on RC and EO, many evangelicals will have a problem with this statement on the grounds that membership to any group (even evangelical groups they may consider legitimate) is insufficient to consider anyone a Christian since God takes everyone as an individual. As they would be quick to point out, God doesn’t see Baptists, Presbyterians or Methodists, he only sees Christians. It follows, according to this line of thought, that you cannot say that a Roman Catholic is a Christian any more than you can say that a Baptist is a Christian, since in both of these groups there is necessarily a mixture (some Christians and some non-Christians).

The problem with such a position is that if it is carried to its logical extension then you could never say that anyone is a Christian because only God can discern an individual's heart with certainty. There have been people who have seemed, to an outside fallible observer, to manifest all the fruit of being a Christian but then apostatized later in life. To call someone a Christian only after making an assessment of their eternal condition before God is to place on man an unrealistic burden and it leads to perfectionist, elitist churches.

The solution is to take every person’s baptism or confession at face value unless a person belongs to a heretical sect or has been excommunicated. So the question, “Are RC and EO Christians” is essentially, Do we consider the baptisms of RC and EO to be valid? Or is a RC and EO baptism invalid like a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness baptism?
Before moving on to address this question specifically, it may be helpful to point out that I have the New Testament entirely on my side in applying the category of Christian to everyone in the visible church irrespective of their eternal condition before God. Consider, for example, that the New Testament treats all members of the visible Church members, not just those who will persevere to eternal life, to be in the covenant with God. This is because the New Testament applies covenantal language to everyone in the visible church, even those congregations that contained some wolves in sheep’s clothing. All the Christians in Rome and Corinth and Philippi and Galatia and Thessalonica are addressed distributively as Brethren (Rom. 8:12; 12:1; I Cor. 3:1; 10:1; II Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:12; Gal. 1:11; 3:15; I Thess. 1:4) even though in some cases we know there were wolves in sheep’s clothing. Other labels applied to the entire visible church generally (wheat and tares together) are

Beloved of God: Rom. 1:7
Saints: Rom. 1:7; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1
Saints and faithful brethren: Col. 1:2
Holy brethren: Heb. 3:1
Those sanctified in Jesus and called saints: I Cor. 1:2
The body of Christ: Rom. 12:4, 5; I Cor. 12:27
The Church of God: I Cor. 1:2; II Cor. 1:1; I Thess. 2:14
Church in God and Jesus: I Thess. 1:1
The holy, Spirit-indwelt temple of God: I Cor. 3:16, 17; II Cor. 6:16
Sons of God: Gal. 3:26; 4:6; Heb. 12:5-7
Abraham’s seed: Rom. 4:1; Gal. 3:29 w/ v. 27
Children of the (Abrahamic) promise: Gal. 4:28
Members of the household of faith: Gal. 6:10
Followers of the apostles and of the Lord: I Thess. 1:6
Spiritual house and holy priesthood: I Pet. 2:5
Chosen generation, holy nation, and special people of God: I Pet. 2:9, 10

Paul and the other Biblical writers are quite comfortable using this kind of language for the entire visible covenant community rather than restricting these labels merely to those individuals who have true saving faith. Hence, in keeping with this Biblical pattern we should do the same with the label “Christian.”  (For more about this, see Derrick Olliff’s excellent article All in the Family)

So are RC and EO part of the visible covenant community? Or should we think of these groups as heretical sects? (Again, keep in mind that I am uncomfortable lumping RC and EO together but am doing so only in an attempt to deal with the question on its own terms) When a RC or EO gets baptized, is it part of the ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” of Ephesians 4? Or is this happening outside of the people of God?

In answering yes to the first question of the last paragraph, no to the second, yes to the third and no to the fourth, I do not actually have to positively establish these points since the burden of proof rests squarely with those who would deny anyone membership to the visible church. This is based on the operative principle that we must take all baptisms at face value unless there is some compelling reason to assume that the baptisms are taking place in the context of a non-Christian sect. In the case of RC and EO, no such compelling reason exists. There is no reason to think of the Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox as heretical sects and therefore to dismiss the efficacy of their baptisms.

Consider, both these groups affirm the deity of Christ and the necessity for faith. Both these groups have a robust understanding of the blessed Trinity (in the case of EO, a more robust understanding than Protestantism). Both these groups practice church discipline to contend for the purity of the church (more so, on a whole, than most evangelical denominations). And both these groups contain innumerable individuals showing signs of regeneration and the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which cannot be said of heretical sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.

Rome’s denial of Sola Fide does not constitute a sufficient case against her being part of the universal church. If a person can be saved without believing in justification by faith alone (which can happen, for we are saved by faith, not by our theology about faith – to deny this actually amounts to a functional rejection of Sola Fide), then it seems unreasonable to say that a religious institution is outside the visible church simply because it doesn’t affirm Sola Fide. Nor should it be overlooked that there are many Protestant churches which functionally deny Sola Fide. (As for EO, their approach to justification is ambiguous and arguably more in line with Protestantism than Rome.)

The papacy does not constitute a sufficiently strong case for Rome being outside the universal church. If it did, then Protestantism would be out too since Protestantism, at least in the modern evangelical variety, encourages every person to be his own mini-Pope. Frankly, I believe that the Roman Catholic doctrine of the papacy is a lot closer to the truth than the modern evangelical idea that the interpretation of scripture is an individualistic free-for-all. The subjective hermeneutic of evangelicalism (the individual as Pope), with all the gnostic overtones that so often accompany it, is far more offensive than the present state of the Papacy.

Those who would deny Rome a place in the visible church must deal with the fact that Rome vigorously affirms the Nicene Creed. In his article “Is The Church of Rome a Part of the Visible Church?” Charles Hodge comments on the fact that Rome affirms the Nicene Creed:

If this creed were submitted to any intelligent Christian without his knowing whence it came, could he hesitate to say that it was the creed of a Christian church? Could he deny that these are the very terms in which for ages the general faith of Christendom has been expressed?  Could he, without renouncing the Bible, say that the sincere belief of those doctrines would not secure eternal life? Can any man take it upon himself in the sight of God, to assert that there is not truth enough in the above summary [Nicene creed] to save the soul? If not, then a society which professing that creed professes the true religion...
Apart from Hodge’s implication that we are saved by our doctrine, I think his words are quite sound and should caution all those evangelicals who are quick to pronounce anathemas on our RC and EO brethren.
It is true that both RC and EO have perversions and corruptions in both practice and doctrine, but the same can be said of almost all established churches, not least Protestant churches. In fact, if one considers that the liberal, mainline, sodomite-kissing churches are all the heirs of reformation movements, then present day Protestantism is arguably even more corrupt than present day Roman Catholics and present day Eastern Orthodox. The words of Hodge are again relevant on this point (he is talking only of Rome here and not EO):

Secondly, it is objected that Rome Professes fundamental errors. To this we answer, 1. That we acknowledge that the teaching of many of her most authoritative authors is fatally erroneous. 2. That the decisions of the Council of Trent, as understood by one class of Romish theologians, are not less at variance with the truth; but not as they are in fact explained by another class of her doctors. 3. That these decisions and explanations are not incorporated into the creed professed by the people. 4. That the profession of fundamental error by a society retains with such error the essential truths of religion. The Jewish church at the time of Christ, by her officers, in the synagogues and in the sanhedrim [sic], and by all her great parties professed fundamental error justification by the law, for example; and yet retained its being as a church, in the bosom of which the elect of God still lived.
Thirdly, Rome is idolatrous, and therefore in no sense a church. To this we answer, 1. That the practice of the great body of the church of Rome is beyond doubt idolatrous. 2. That the avowed principles of the majority of her teachers are also justly liable to the same charge. 3. That the principles of another class of her doctors, who say they worship neither the images themselves, nor through them, but simply in the presence of them, are not idolatrous in the ordinary meaning of the term. 4. That it is not necessary that every man should be, in the fatal sense of that word, an idolater in order to remain in that church; otherwise there could be not true children of God within its pale. But the contrary is, as a fact, on all hands conceded. 5. We know that the Jewish church, though often overrun with idolatry, never ceased to exist.

Anyone wishing to study this question in more depth should consult Charles Hodge’s entire article.

Finally, to deny RC and EO place in the visible church leads either to radical subjectivity or viciously circular argumentation. For this final argument I am going to quote at length from Keith Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura where he develops this particular argument a lot better than I could do.

One could argue that his branch is the one true branch because it is the closest to the teaching of Scripture (a Protestant denomination), or to the fathers (Rome and Orthodoxy). But according to whose interpretation of the Scripture or the fathers? A person could say it is according to his own interpretation of the Scripture or the fathers but then he is once again trapped in radical subjectivity. The person would have to say that Rome is the true branch (or Orthodoxy, or a Protestant denomination) because it comes closest to his interpretation of what the Scriptures (or the fathers) teach.
Instead of appealing to his own individual interpretation, a person could say that according to the interpretation of one branch (Rome, Orthodoxy, or a Protestant denomination), only that one branch is the true visible Church. But then he is caught in an untenable circular argument. Rome would be the one true Church because Rome adheres to the teaching of Scripture and/or tradition, as those are interpreted by Rome. Orthodoxy would be the one true Church because Orthodoxy adheres to Scripture and/or tradition, as those are interpreted by Orthodoxy. One Protestant denomination or another would be the one true Church because that denomination adhere to the teaching of Scripture, as it is interpreted by that denomination. The question-begging circularity of the argument is vicious.

If we cannot assert that only one branch is the only true visible Church without falling into one form of arbitrariness or another, what is our other choice? The remaining choice is to assert that the one invisible Church is found scattered throughout numerous visible ‘fragments’ or ‘branches.’ This would allow an appeal to the corporate witness of the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit bears a remarkably unanimous witness to the common confession of faith that has been handed down over the centuries. If we are not to fall into relativistic subjectivity or viciously circular arguments we must examine the idea of the corporate witness of the Spirit as it relates to the identification of the true branches of the Church.

In a sense the issue we are addressing is similar to the question of the canon of Scripture. With the New Testament canon believers were faced with the existence of genuine apostolic books mingled with non-Christian sects. The same criterion is applicable to both situations in a similar, not identical, way.

In the case of the canon, we observed that the criterion was the witness of the Holy Spirit given corporately to God’s people and made manifest by a nearly unanimous acceptance of the New Testament canon in Christian churches. But this criterion assumes that we know what the ‘Christians churches’ are. One way in which we identify the Christian churches is their adherence to the apostolic regula fidei. But what does this mean? It means that we can identify the fragments of the true visible Church by their acceptance of the common testimony of the Holy Spirit in the rule of faith, especially as expressed in written form in the ecumenical creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon. The Holy Spirit has born a miraculously unanimous witness to the same twenty-seven books of the New Testament throughout a confessing Christendom, and the Holy Spirit has born miraculously unanimous witness to a common fundamental creed throughout this same Christendom. This means that ultimately the Holy Spirit is the criterion of truth. But His testimony is made manifest through the corporate witness He bears in the hearts and minds of Christ’s people. The Holy Spirit bears witness corporately to the canon; He also bears witness corporately to the essential truths of Christianity – the rule of faith. Christ’s sheep hear their Shepherd’s voice in the true books of Scripture, and they hear His voice when His truth is confessed in the churches.
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