Freedom of Religion & the Clarity of Scripture

Over against Rome, the churches of the Reformation indeed have no more powerful weapon than Scripture. It delivers the deadliest of blows to ecclesiastical tradition and hierarchy. The teaching of the perspicuity [clarity] of Scripture is one of the strongest bulwarks of the Reformation. It also most certainly brings with it its own serious perils. Protestantism has been hopelessly divided by it, and individualism has developed at the expense of the people’s sense of community. The freedom to read and examine Scripture has been and is grossly abused by all sorts of groups and schools of thought. On the balance, however, the disadvantages do not outweigh the advantages. For the denial of the clarity of Scripture carries with it the subjection of the layperson to the priest, of a person’s conscience to the church. The freedom of religion and the human conscience, of the church and theology, stands and falls with the perspicuity of Scripture. It alone is able to maintain the freedom of the Christian; it is the origin and guarantee of religious liberty as well as of our political freedom. Even a freedom that cannot be obtained and enjoyed aside from the danger of licentiousness and caprice is still always to be preferred over a tyranny that suppresses liberty. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, p. 479. Also quoted in K. DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word

Reformed Catholicism, Authority, and Unity


Peter Leithart continues to write about the need for unity in the church. His latest work, which I have not read, is titled The End of Protestantism.  There have been numerous blog posts with more on the way about this push for unity.  Douglas Wilson has written several posts. Derek Rishmawy has also written one trying to work out some of the practicalities of Leithart’s vision.  Eric Hutchinson asked a basic question: Is institutional unity necessary or desirable? And of course, the indefatigable Leithart continues to write posts as well. As a pastor in the CREC where Leithart makes his home and has tremendous influence, I have tried to keep up over the years on the debates and discussions.

I always learn from Leithart and find his way of writing, his learning, and his insight valuable. However, there are some problems with his ecumenical project. This post is in response to one portion  of Leithart’s “wish-list” for Protestant churches, which you can find it here.  I also read his older post, which contains some of his basic desires for the Protestant Church moving forward. I encourage you to read his list or open it in another tab as you follow along.

Typical of Leithart much of what he says is excellent, including the encouragement to sing Psalms, weekly communion, pray for other churches and denominations, reform church music, and include children in the sacraments and worship.  A couple other points need more explanation. For example, he wants churches to give up “treasured tribal slogans and symbols for the sake of unity.” I am not sure what he means here. What is a “treasured tribal slogan?”  His points about seminaries following Scripture, preachers teaching the whole Bible, and faith without works probably contain some truth. But my guess is that conservative seminaries and pastors believe they already do those things. He would need to explain those points more for them to challenge the status quo.  My focus in this post will be his points about church discipline and his final point about one body.  Here are those points in order. Continue reading

Second Helvetic Confession: Of Idols and Images

broken-jesusThere are two issues addressed in chapter IV of The Second Helvetic Confession: whether or not Christ should be pictured in an image and whether or not we should put up images of the saints. The first issue continues to be of interest in the Reformed world. The second issue is one of the reasons Protestants are not Catholics. Despite claims to the contrary Catholics and Orthodox continue to use images, relics, etc. in a way that is unbiblical. Here is what the confession says about these two issues.  Continue reading


Church 1The fractured nature of the Body of Christ should grieve us all. However, the pursuit of unity can lead to the downplaying of central truths. In theory, all Christians agree there are lines that cannot be crossed. But where exactly are those lines? Here is what those who are pursuing unity need to answer. Where are the brakes? What is out of bounds? What makes a church not a church? What makes a worship service out of bounds? Can I take the Roman Catholic Mass? Can I worship at an Eastern Orthodox Church? Can I worship with lesbian pastor? Why would a lesbian minister be worse than a celibate priest who thinks the bread is really, truly the Body of Christ? Why would Joel Osteen be worse than someone who believes that the Pope is the vicar of Christ? The drive for unity tends towards fuzzy lines. And of course, there are some fuzzy lines. But there are also some lines in bold.

By unity here, I mean at the very least, an agreement that we could worship at the other denomination’s service and that the doctrinal beliefs of a denomination are not an obstacle to me considering them brothers in Christ if that doctrine was held consistently. That last phrase is important. It is possible for someone to be part of a wayward church and yet not be apostate. How? They do not hold the church’s doctrines consistently. If we would not or should not worship with them, then there is not true Christian unity.

I am going to use Roman Catholicism’s view of Mary as a foil, but this can be applied to lots of different denominations, doctrines, and practices. Rome’s view of Mary is thoroughly woven into the Roman Catholic Catechism, university life, and into the life of the average Roman Catholic. The veneration of Mary is not a tangential doctrine in Roman Catholicism. There are three options for Protestants:

1. Rome is wrong, but it doesn’t matter. What Rome believes about Mary is not a threat to orthodoxy or an obstacle to unity. They may believe and live out that Mary was a perpetual virgin, was born sinless, pray to her, etc. and we can still be united to them. We can worship at a Roman Catholic church where they pray to Mary and not worry that we are compromising. We may not think it wise or best, but we would not condemn it.

2. Protestants are wrong about Mary and we need to adjust our view of her and those doctrines and practices which are affected by our view of her in order for there to be unity. In other words, we are wrong enough that we need to change.

3. Roman Catholics are wrong about Mary and need to adjust their view of her and those doctrines and practices which are affected by their view of her in order for there to be unity.

There is a fourth option for Roman Catholics, which is #1 in reverse. Protestants are wrong, but it doesn’t matter.

We could do the same thing with justification, the authority of the Bible, the Mass, the nature of baptism, the celibate priesthood, purgatory, the Pope, etc. In all these areas movement must happen for there to be meaningful unity. One group must either renounce their position or minimize it for there to be unity.

We could use this paradigm with other denominations as well. For example, we may agree in doctrine with a denomination, but they ordain women. There may a denomination that renounces God’s sovereignty, thinks the Bible is not infallible, believes in baptismal regeneration, or theistic evolution, as well as broad range of other issues that denominations disagree on. The above process would have to be used to determine whether the doctrine or practice was important enough to separate over.

Meaningful unity requires movement away from certain doctrines and practices and towards others. We are separate for a reason. Unity does not require agreement on every issue. But it does require agreement on what doctrines and practices are central, secondary, and which ones can be ignored. If one denomination considers a doctrine essential and another does not there cannot be unity. It is my impression that many young Christians are not sure where the lines are. In their longing to repair breaches they have forgotten that many (not all) breaches exist for a good reason.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Here is a quote from Richard Gaffin’s book Perspectives on Pentecost. Brackets are mine.

The Reformers asserted themselves so energetically on both these fronts [Roman Catholics and Anabaptists], because they recognize that, along with all the obvious differences between the two, they posed a common threat to the supremacy of the Bible (scriptura sola): Rome with its institutionalized, ecclesiastically authorized body of tradition; the Anabaptists with their spontaneous, charismatically sanctioned “revelations,” each endangering the sole authority and sufficiency of Scripture and so the true freedom of the Christian man. Confirmation of these observations would seem to be found in the way contemporary Roman Catholicism has so easily accommodated the charismatic movement.

My first pastorate was in a Pennsylvania town that was predominately Roman Catholic and Orthodox. When I told an older pastor I was going there he said, “The biggest church besides the RC will be the Charismatic one.” He was right. It is easy to slide between the two.