Saturday, August 16, 2008

Trinity Reformed Church Statement on Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Reformed Catholicity

The following will be up on the Trinity Reformed Church web site when our new site is up and running, but since there were a few folks interested in seeing it sooner, I post it here for your convenience.

One holy, catholic and apostolic Church
Trinity Reformed Church recognizes itself as part of the ancient Christian Church established by the apostles, rejoicing in the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jud. 1:3). We are thankful for the fellowship we share with all the faithful in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church throughout the ages. We affirm with the apostle that there is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:5). Therefore with the holy fathers, we confess that one faith as it has been handed down in the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and Athanasian Creed. On this basis we cheerfully recognize the Trinitarian baptisms of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, receive them (and all others who confess this ancient faith) to our celebration of the Eucharist, and warmly welcome them into membership in our congregation. Because there is one body and one Spirit, we insist that the unity of the body of Christ is fundamentally something to be preserved through humility, gentleness, and love in the Holy Spirit and is not dependent upon institutional forms, church polity, or bureaucratic decisions (Eph. 4:2-3).

Likewise, in submission to the apostle’s instructions, we seek ecclesiastical maturity which rejoices in all of the ways the saints are being built up and equipped for ministry, striving for the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, until we reach mature manhood, the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:14). Standing firmly in the Reformed and Protestant branch of the Church, we are committed to enriching and deepening our understanding, practices, and doctrines, fully expecting continued reformation and renewal in the entire body of Christ.

Gratitude for the rich and fruitful heritage of the Reformed faith
At the same time, this tradition of “semper reformanda” (“always reforming”) has periodically been a subject of confusion and misrepresentation. The Reformed tradition at its best, far from willfully dividing and abandoning the one true Church, seeks to preserve that Church which the apostolic, patristic, and medieval fathers established and has continued in the lives of all the faithful throughout Christendom. Yet, some within the Reformed tradition itself today misinterpret ongoing reformation and preservation of this rich catholic heritage as an abandonment of historic Reformed principles. Some think they see a trajectory in our reformational progress which leads back to Roman Catholicism or leans toward Eastern Orthodoxy. Individuals who claim that we are moving this direction after having studied and worshipped and lived in our community have dramatically misread our aims and purposes. Furthermore, such interpretations fail to appreciate the deep catholicity found in the Reformed tradition and display ingratitude for the great sanctifying work our sovereign God has done in His Church by the faithful labors of protesting catholics over the centuries. While we affirm our fundamental unity with all the saints within the body of Christ, including those in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as our great appreciation for the many gifts, insights, and contributions they bring to the broader Church, we equally affirm our great thankfulness for our own history and tradition. Our commitment to the Reformation and those central claims of the Protestant Reformers is unwavering and as robust as ever, and our thankfulness for this rich and fruitful heritage has only deepened as we have grown. In particular, we are grateful for and committed to those summaries of the faith found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, The Three Forms of Unity, and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. At the same time, we do not understand this gratitude to be at odds with a genuine catholicity and love for the saints throughout the body of Christ. Rather, we are most thankful for the insights and concerns of the Reformed tradition because of how hopeful we are that God will be pleased to use us to bless and build up the broader Christian Church.

Catholicity and the ultimate, infallible authority of Holy Scripture
In keeping with this hope, we reject views which place the ultimate, infallible authority of the Scriptures in competition with other sources of authority since Christ is Lord over all, and His Word cannot be broken (Jn. 10:35). The sixty-six books of the Bible in their entirety are this perfect, God-breathed Word and comprise the only ultimate, infallible source of tradition for the Christian Church (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6, 14).

With the Reformers, we insist that liturgical idolatry is a most dangerous temptation and sin for many within Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This includes the veneration of man-made images, statues, relics, Eucharistic elements, the invocation of the saints, as well as other practices and traditions which are not according to Scripture. Likewise, we warn all the faithful to flee those doctrines or practices which, whether in doctrine or in practice, undermine the fundamental and sovereign graciousness of God in salvation.

Finally, while we consider divisions in the body of Christ most grievous to the calling of the Church, and we confess that the Reformed tradition has contributed its own failures to this state of affairs, we do not believe that abstract considerations of church polity, apostolic succession, or institutional unity rise to the level of weightier matters of the law. Therefore, however helpful the study of those issues may be, they must not jeopardize genuine Christian fellowship, justify the denunciation of the least in the kingdom of God, or result in disparaging the validity of the ordinations or sacraments of other churches that worship our Triune God in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Individuals who join communions that effectively excommunicate their Protestant brothers and sisters contradict their search for catholicity, and ironically, the goal of unity comes at the expense of further divisions in the body of Christ. We desire to be of one mind with all the saints, not by coercion, but by the same patient love of our brothers and sisters shown by Christ in His patient love for His Bride, the Church.

Toward greater unity and purity of the body of Christ
As we hope and pray and continue to work toward the greater unity and purity of the entire body of Christ, we do so committed to the most central callings of the Church: humble submission to Scripture and the proclamation of the gospel, the centrality of faithful worship and celebration of the sacraments, and loving God and neighbor with all that we are, which includes caring for the poor as well as widows and orphans in their distress. And this, we confess, is the way to grow up together with all of Christendom “into Him, who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

Adopted by the Elders of Trinity Reformed Church on Thursday, August 14th, 2008


Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Clear and helpful, but idolatry is an extremely weighty charge and it should not be used without even defining what it means and how and when folks are guilty of it.

This is a significant failure I think.

Anonymous said...

so idolotry is the main issue between Reformed and Roman Catholic/EOs?!

Anonymous said...

I agree that 'liturgical idolatry' is a pretty significant charge and deserves careful analysis, though the drafters of this statement are hardly to be blamed for failing to enter into a protracted discussion on the topic here.

As someone who is both (a newly-minted) Catholic and also extremely sympathetic to FV, I'm probably not the one to decide what should count as the main issue between Reformed Christians and others; however, I am not at all surprised to see that a scholar of Leithart's stature would refrain from producing a document (with his elders) which suggested that "the main issue" between Reformed folks and Catholics could be accurately summed up via any overly simplified 'sola' sloganeering.

I appreciate the irenic, calm and careful tone that the elders of Trinity Reformed have employed here; the statement encourages me.

Peace in Christ.

Anonymous said...

Those who call into question this document's charge of idolatry have a serious point.

I think also worthy of adverse criticism is the logical difficulty, I think, of declaring oneself "part of the ancient Christian Church established by the apostles." Without actually declaring myself a Roman Catholic, the Roman Catholic Church's claim to apostolic succession seems one difficult to refute.

To put it another way, one cannot simply declare, "I recognize myself as a subject of the ancient and historic Estados Unidos Mexicanos." It just doesn't work that way.

Toby said...


The charge of idolatry is not something new with us. We join our fathers throughout the centuries in this stance. More than a theological point, this statement is meant to be a sort of confession that aligns us with this particular catholic tradition which is grounded in the clear teaching of the apostles in the Scriptures.

Anonymous said...

"we do not believe that abstract considerations of church polity, apostolic succession, or institutional unity rise to the level of weightier matters of the law."

Apostolic succession is a weightier matter. One can personally engage in physical training, read military history, practice markmanship, wear a uniform and can call himself an Army man. It does not make himself one.

Does one really believe that Jesus Christ left open the issues on polity and succession just "to work themselves out on their own?" or was there a divine design to Christ building of the duly authorized leadership of the church?

I believe the 7th Ecumenical Council already weighed in on icons, etc. and allowed for them in worship (not objects of worship).

Anonymous said...

(Anonymous guy #2 here again.)

I too must admit that categorizing these matters (the issues of 'mere' institutional unity, apostolic succession, and the like) as "abstract" struck me as, if not intentionally evasive, then at any rate open to the charge of reflecting an odd sort of bias in an otherwise fairly even-handed statement (putting 'liturgical idolatry' to one side).

I mean, what does it mean to call these things 'abstract'? What's the intended implicature? They seem to me no more and no less 'abstract' than the doctrine of justification. If by 'abstract' the authors mean 'less important' or 'less weighty' than such things as "genuine" spiritual unity -- an assessment which is voiced explicitly in the same context -- then while I can certainly respect the authors' theological prioritization here, it is equally clear that a person who confidently accepts apostolic succession on the basis of Scripture (and, yes, everything it entails vis-a-vis ordination and the sacraments) can't legitimately be charged with schismatic behavior for following Scripture where it leads (at least as they, together with the preponderance of Christians across time and space, see things). Not, at any rate, if it isn't schismatic to leave the Catholic Church and join a Protestant one after deciding that the teaching about apostolic succession can't be Biblically supported.

This connects too with the very interesting suggestion made in the final section to the effect that a Christian who enters into full communion with the Catholic Church for reasons related to ecclesial unity and authority (or for any other prima facie legitimate reason for that matter) is being schismatic. Perhaps Trinity Reformed considers itself in a position to render this judgment because they do not withhold their celebration of Communion from Catholics and Orthodox, whereas Catholics and Orthodox aren't prepared to return the favor. Thus a person who joins their ranks is joining an outfit which is more inclusive than the Catholic Church when it comes to admitting folks to the Table. But however that may be, it is, I think, a little strained to hold that if a person leaves a particular denomination like the CREC -- a denomination which they must have joined after having left a distinct denomination only relatively recently -- and enters into the Catholic Church deliberately, then they'd be acting more schismatic than (or even as schismatic as) a person who leaves the Catholic Church to join any particular Protestant communion.

Laying that aside, there is a historical dimension to grapple with here as well. Schisms aren't just instigated, they are also maintained. So schismatic behavior can't be reduced to just those instances in which a person creates a fresh schism in the present or leaves one ecclesial group for another, or whatever. (I'm not suggesting the drafters explicitly attempt such a reduction, but the argument in the final section is weakened to the extent that the reduction doesn't go through.) So if a person becomes convinced that they are currently affiliated with a Christian tradition which is the historical product of an unjustified schism, then -- regardless of how much real and objective good all of the godly and intelligent believers in that tradition have done for the Church at large -- it's incumbent for them to go back to the juncture at which the wrong turn was taken and rejoin the Church from which their forerunners had wrongly broken off. Else they're open to the charge of schismatic behavior: not because they're instigating any fresh schisms, but because they're perpetuating a schism which was not, in fact, justifiable at the time it occurred.

(All this proceeds on the hypothetical and un-argued for assumption that the schism in question wasn't theologically justified, and the point I'm making only requires the reader to grant the assumption arguendo.)

Maybe I'm betraying my own 'bias' as regards the importance of visible and institutional unity as well as 'spiritual' and 'inward' unity in the above, but I doubt I'm very far apart from my brothers at Trinity Reformed on this issue. I agree with the authors that mere institutional uniformity, without the operation of the Spirit who "knits and binds" us together in His love, wouldn't be much to write home about. But even if 'genuine' 'spiritual' 'inward' unity is in some real sense the more weighty, I doubt very much whether Christians in the CREC of all denominations will require much convincing that our Lord is not some sort of Gnostic avatar who couldn't care less about 'mere externals'. You CREC folks, as a rule, are among the most incarnational- and sacramental-minded Evangelicals who've ever walked planet earth, and in that you are most faithful to the best of what historic Reformed theology, with all its deeply Christian and profound insights, has to offer. That said, I find it strange that this historically faithful vision leads (a) to a recognition that visible disunity amounts to "grevious failure" on all of our parts on the one hand, and then (b) to a downplaying of anything seemingly related to visible, 'tangible' unity as somehow being "abstract" and so, evidently, not "weighty" enough to bother about on any more than a purely academic or theoretical level.

Toby said...


Thanks for your thoughtful interaction. I intend to continue exploring some of these questions in the coming posts.

A short response to your questions regarding polity and unity has to do with the weight of the Scriptures themselves. They stress over and over again the necessity of loving, bearing with, and cheerfully serving the people right in front of you. This of course includes submission to elders, rulers, pastors, etc. While good order, ordination, membership, and polity assist us in prioritizing our loyalties, they are merely aids to the goal of loving our neighbors.

I of course agree that history is a messy place, and we don't always know where to begin picking up the pieces. We do need to begin picking up the pieces of Christendom, but part of the point of this statement is to suggest that the way out of this mess is not through a bunch of membership transfers, confirmations, or the like. The way out is fundamentally found in serving and loving the people right in front of you, and of course that eventually means having various outward, public forms of unity and communion as well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response, Toby. As I said, I'm happy to agree with you as regards the theological prioritization that you're stressing here. Given the state of the Body as it is, bare institutional uniformity can very reasonably be regarded as the intended, desired and natural culmination of the kinds of virtues with which you're principally concerned, not something that could be imposed top-down so as to achieve brotherly love in some mechanical fashion. Still less could it replace brotherly love. My only concern is that, given the tendency of the 'natural man' to reassert himself in our thoughts and conduct, and given the fact that we aren't without need of outward, structural forms to reinforce and maintain the genuine heartfelt unity we both long for, one may begin to suspect that the institutional aspects of unity you've mentioned may indeed have to play some role in helping to bring that unity to its full expression, to say nothing of maintaining it.

But I meant what I said in my first comment. I've been tremendously enriched by the scholarly work of Leithart and others associated with him, and I remain encouraged by your admirable efforts.

Peace in Christ,


Anonymous said...

"The charge of idolatry is not something new with us. We join our fathers throughout the centuries in this stance. More than a theological point, this statement is meant to be a sort of confession that aligns us with this particular catholic tradition which is grounded in the clear teaching of the apostles in the Scriptures."

Dear Toby:

One other thing.

I appreciate and understand your concerns here. I would point out, however, that the final clause ("which is grounded in the clear teaching of the apostles in the Scriptures") unquestionably entails that this 'aligning confession' is intended to *express* a 'theological point': namely, that Catholics and Orthodox are in fact guilty of idolatry. Maybe it's "more" a confession than a theological point, but it isn't any less a theological point for all that.

Such Christians as find themselves implicated in this charge may then reasonably ask for an articulate account of where Scripture clearly condemns them on point of this most grievous offence, and how it has happened that the distinct streams of catholic tradition with which (non-idolatrous) Christians refuse alliance have managed repeatedly to miss it. Otherwise, your statement concerning the perspicuous teaching of the Bible together with your appeal to certain "fathers throughout the centuries" who, for example, deny that the communion of the saints extends beyond the borders of this life, may easily be read, through Catholic eyes, as saying what Catholics are used to hearing Protestants say: Our orientation is the right one because the Bible is "clear" on this point, as everyone (all the "fathers") who already agrees with us on this point also thinks. But what to do with the fathers, and contemporary brothers and sisters, who fail to see what's "clearly" there in this case, despite the fact that they're able to pick up on "clear" teaching (i.e., the teaching with which your tradition decides to allign itself) elsewhere?

That, as I say, is how a Catholic might read your explanation -- and perhaps not without some justification given the seriousness of the accusation, and given the line of defense Catholics are accustomed to hearing: my view is "clearly" in the Bible, and everyone who agrees with me thinks so too.

I myself don't at all think that this is your last and only line of support for the convictions you're expressing in the statement; I only wish to venture a guess as to why your reference to 'liturgical idolatry' has provoked some protest. In the interest of charitable and balanced discussion on the matter -- and to ensure that Catholics and others do not simply turn away from the important issue you've raised with a roll of the eyes -- it may be well to find a way of inviting discussion which doesn't proceed from the evident assumption that your dissenters are, well, either too dumb to see what's "clearly" there in the Bible, or not sensitive enough to the Spirit to know when they're offering worship to devils. Do we really want to suggest that the behavior of, say, St Augustine should be understood in either of these ways whenever he offered up the Mass for St Monica?

In Christ,


Toby said...

Hi Neal,

Sure, I understood your concern, and there does need to be a place for ecumenical dialogue. And of course there is always theology involved in confession; I'm certainly not trying to pit those against each other. This document is meant more as a warning against some in our context who think that because we are self-consciously seeking to be catholic, that means we hope to end up Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic.

I understand your point though, and of course the place of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church is the real underlying question.

Just as a side note, I would want to liken the "idolatry" in EO and RC as something very much akin to the story of the bronze serpent from Num. 21 that concludes in 2 Kgs. 18:4. The implication seems to be that there was something good, holy, and glorious about the bronze serpent. It was a relic, a memorial of God's presence, and an aid to worship. But clearly things went down hill, and it was good and right for Hezekiah to break it into pieces. To be clear, I'm not calling for any sort of modern day iconoclastic church raiding. But the point is the obvious conclusion that good and glorious things can be turned to evil use or tempt others to evil if not carefully explained, guarded, etc. All that to say, I think Protestants do need to do a better job of allowing for numerous nuances and historical factors in these discussions. And I think EOs and RCs would benefit the discussion if they were willing to more readily admit that there are people in their communions being led astray.

But again, the document is merely a general statement that concurs with the basic Reformational stance against certain practices in RC and EO. It's discussions like these that flesh those concerns out more fully. Hope that makes sense.

Blessings, Neal.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Toby, you're making a lot of sense here.

I for one am fully prepared to admit that Catholics need to guard against misunderstanding practices and devotions or misusing objects which can in principle be used in ways that glorify God and edify His children. (Even as strongly devoted a Marian as John Paul II had to crack down on perceived abuses related to Marian veneration in South America.) A good number of Catholics see the potential danger here too, and I'd happily concur with your assessment of what needs to be learned through the bronze serpent episode.

Speaking personally, even after I'd come to believe that many of the pracitices I'd rejected as unBiblical as a Protestant are not at variance with Scripture -- and can even be helpful and salutary when the Christian engages in them properly -- I wasn't automatically any more comfortable with them. For what it's worth, I think this bit of autobiography has more to do with remnants of my previous, deeply held convictions than it does with my having some sort of superior line of communication with the Holy Spirit. But that didn't make the internal resistence and concern any less real. So I understand well where you're coming from.

For my part, I think that Catholics and Orthodox really do have an onus here to explain carefully to understandably bewildered (or just concerned) Protestants exactly what they're doing and what they aren't, and what benefits they believe to derive from bothering with any of it in the first place. This *is* a stumbling block -- even more so, perhaps, than much of what is typically presented as responsible for separating Catholics and Protestants -- and, like any other intrinsically good and godly thing, it brings with it opportunities for abuse. I'll certainly stand you that, if you're prepared to accept the possibility that some Catholics -- I'm prepared to say most Catholics -- understand the difference between God working miracles through a handkerchief from the hands of St Paul and a magic handkerchief.



Anonymous said...

I can't stand with the dissenters here. This is a positive step forward. The only disappointing thing, to me, is that this is not a document representing hundreds or thousands of churches.

But I am grateful that Trinity Reformed is willing to stand here.

For One Church in One Faith,