Are We Together? by R.C. Sproul
Reformation Trust Publishing, July 28th, 2012
Before I get started I want to make a very direct and honest expression of my own ignorance. I have only been regularly attending church again for a few years and while I grew up in the Anglican Church, I consider my overall knowledge of theology to be quite poor. I have realised quite recently that this goes especially for my understanding of the differences between Protestants and Catholics. I honestly never gave it much thought before as it is easy to see these differences as superficial; such as with the style of worship. In the society we live in, Christians generally have more in common than not which explains the mutual tolerance we now have.
But there are big and very important differences and I and the late author of this book certainly agree on that. This book is written very much for Protestants and at least going from the introduction, the author seems to have Evangelicals joining the Catholic Church in mind. It is a brief but concise look at the major areas of difference with justification by faith alone as the most important area of contention.
I am writing this review not really to criticise the book as a whole but a few specific sections of the book. I also want to use it as a proverbial springboard for some of my own thoughts. The highest praise I can offer is that I think the late R.C. Sproul generally writes clear and fair accounts of what the Catholic Church actually believes. Indeed, whenever I finished a paragraph describing a doctrine and noticed something missing, it was as if Sproul had anticipated me and it was in the very next paragraph or a bit further along.
I am also not going to get into the differences too much because Catholics and Protestants have been disagreeing about these for 500 years now. I think passages from the Bible used as proof of “faith alone” have perfectly adequate explanations which Protestants and Catholics will nonetheless continue to disagree on. In fact I clearly remember the person who gifted me this book was reading passages from Romans to me and then looking at me as if there was no other way to interpret each verse but the way he had. I just stared back and at no point felt moved to agree. This is precisely why I believe Christ left a church to handle misinterpretations and heresy. If the Catholic Church doesn’t have authority then I can’t really see how you can claim any interpretation of Biblical passages is right. But I am just one man and I don’t expect my humble opinion to have much impact on a 500 year problem.
Of course, the author believes he believes the authentic Gospel of Christ. And he also does
“not believe that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are preaching the same gospel that evangelicals preach.”
This is from the introduction and it hit me quite hard because when Protestants and Catholics try ecumenism we generally agree that we believe the same essential tenets the faith. What bothers me about this more than anything is the idea that the oldest Christian Churches in the world are wrong and the very modern evangelicals are right. Now 1,000,000 people can be wrong while 1 is right. Consensus, tradition and time do not necessarily translate into truth but I was reminded of something C.S Lewis wrote.
“All theology of the liberal type involves at some point — and often involves throughout — the claim that the real behavior and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars.”
C.S. Lewis in Fern-Seed and Elephants
I had to re-read the whole essay this is from even though it isn’t related but I think the message applies just as well to the so-called “Reformation”. The idea that Christ’s Church went wrong very early and was corrected over a thousand years later by comparatively small (and ever fracturing) sects and denominations seems absurd to me. Not because they are new or small or for any other reason than the fact that we are talking about the One True Faith. Many people can be in error but would Christ have allowed the vast majority of Christians to fall into error? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it more likely that Christianity is false altogether than that this is true – which of course, I do not think. This would not be hard for someone of the Calvinist mindset to believe though.
I mentioned that the author is generally fair with his description of Catholic beliefs. Sometimes though he is fair to the point where he seems to lack some self-awareness. For example in the introduction when talking about evangelicals joining the church he says:
“Protestantism seems to be splintered into an infinite number of divisions and trouble by endless disputes and discussions of doctrine, while Rome seems unified and doctrinally settled. This appeals to many who long for unity, peace, and certainty.”
Whenever I bring up the more eccentric (charitable adjective), Protestant sects or practices to another, I am usually reminded that that is not what their church believes. But at other times, Protestants are together and they can’t have both. Just as Catholics are responsible for all the wayward (if not openly heretical), priests as well as the millions of faithful not following church teaching. This is my fault. This is Rome’s fault. This is the fault of all believers. In fact there’s a saying that we get the clergy we deserve. Christ said that we would know them by their fruits and the fruits of Protestantism are exactly what is described above.
Later in the book the subject of Papal authority comes up and in another moment where he seems to argue in favour of something while disagreeing vehemently with it.
“Over the centuries, there was a gradual increase of the power and authority of the bishop of Rome. For example, in the controversies of the fourth century, the theological debates between Pelagius and Augustine in North Africa, the local church authorities appealed at one point for a decision by the bishop of Rome.”
So we have Rome becoming the center of the church as far back as Augustine and arguably further. It is worth remembering that Augustine is often claimed as one of their own by the Reformed churches. Once again, if this was happening this early in church history, it seems unlikely that it was an error.
Soon after the above quote he moves on to Pope Pius IX who was elected Pope in 1846 and convened the first Vatican Council. Now I don’t really quibble with much that follows mostly because I’m not familiar with the period. However, I will note his mention of the Pope reacting to the politics of the time and that at the time of the council was “under siege by secular authorities”. Now I can accept this without looking into it but what is curious is how little we hear about the politics surrounding the Reformation. That there were plenty of secular authorities with an interest in separating the church from the authority of Rome and placing it in their own power. This was certainly true with King Henry VIII in England and he was far from alone. Yet I seldom hear this political realities brought up in the context of the Reformation.
Another topic covered is of course the Holy Mother of Christ. When I was in the early days of becoming a Catholic one of the very first topics I looked into was whether or not Catholics “worship” Mary. It wasn’t hard to find a clear explanation which I have since gone on to explain to others. Simply, Catholics do not “worship” Mary, we “honor” her and ask for her intercession. Sproul knows this but responds,
“However, for all practical purposes, I believe I can say without fear of ever being proven wrong that millions of Roman Catholic people today worship Mary. “
There are a legion of ways I could rewrite the same sentence and have it be just as true of Protestants. Here is one:
“However, for all practical purposes, I believe I can say without fear of ever being proven wrong that millions of Protestants think they will go to Heaven no matter what they do wrong.”
I have heard all sorts of odd interpretations of the Bible from Christians of all stripes. That the faithful (including clergy), get things wrong has not I believe ever been in dispute. What matters is what the church actually teaches. I heard a homily just this morning in a Catholic Church essentially saying “all good people go to heaven”. What precisely “good” is was not defined. Nor, was the point of coming to the church if this was true explained in the same homily. Nonetheless, though my Sundays at this particular church are certainly numbered, this wayward priest doesn’t change what the church actually teaches any more than Evangelical college girls who thinks acts of sodomy before marriage are “okay” change what their Pastor actually teaches about sexual morality. I think Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and Catholics can come together in the spirit of ecumenism to agree that people can be wrong. And interestingly, this sort of observation again puts in perspective why it might be a good idea to have a central source of authority to keep the authentic teachings of the church safe from meddlers. It might even explain why keeping teaching in a language now frozen in time to keep these teachings all the clearer — might also be a good idea.
One more observation I have relates to something early in the chapter on Mary where Sproul says of the Marian shrine in Fatima:
“… where Mary is said to have appeared to three shepherd children in 1917. In the summer of that year a huge crowd reportedly witnessed the so-called “miracle of the sun,” in which the sun seemed to dance in the sky and display multiple colors. Many people who have visited the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima have said they received miraculous cures.”
Now look at the language used here especially, “seemed” and “so-called”. This wouldn’t sound out of place if a non-religious journalist wrote this in the New York Times. Now once again, I am not going to quibble with Sproul’s views here but make an observation about the implications. Miracles attributed to Mary are common (as miracles go), and this seems to me to be a problem for Protestants given how rare miracles are in general. Believing as Sproul does means you should not believe in any miracles attributed to Mary because the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are wrong. Which is just one more step down the stairs to not believing in miracles at all. The next step after that is not believing in Christianity and finally God at all. This is precisely why it can be argued that the Reformation was a step towards Deism, the “enlightenment”, modernism and our current woes. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the areas of the United States settled by the Puritans for example, are now the most left-wing and anti-Christian cores of the country.
I have a few more issues including his wide use of Hans Küng who while nominally Catholic, Sproul must be well-aware is no friend of the Church. I also found the tone of the book often condescending, especially his advice to people that are friends with Catholics at the end. I do appreciate though that he states clearly what he believes and doesn’t dance around anything to be pleasant. We need more of this.
This is a book that is strictly for Protestants that already believe what they do. It is a concise and clear defense of the origins of the Reformation as Protestants see it and the Catholic church as they see it. As the author has passed on, he must surely have discovered whether he was wrong to have written it.