Friday, September 21, 2012
Why the Reformation was Necessary - I
Roger E. Olson, one of the many excellent bloggers at Patheos.com (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/), recently posted a blog entitled "Confession of an Ecumenical, Evangelical, Baptist Christian," with emphasis on "ecumenical" and "Baptist." This prompted a discussion about whether or not Roman Catholics should be considered Christians and whether it is possible for a Baptist to have fellowship with a Catholic. We admire Dr. Olson's irenic spirit, but wonder at times if he has gone a bit too far.
It must be admitted at the outset that the Roman Catholic Church has always adhered to the Nicene Creed, and has always professed that Christ is the Son of God, "Who for us men and our salvation, came down from heaven." It has always professed faith in "the remission of sins." The better Catholic theologians have always understood that the death of Christ on the cross was an atonement for sin. They understood this, of course, sacramentally: sins are washed away in baptism and Christ is physically present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. But the locus of their faith was on Christ, and He was recognized as the Savior from sin. Thus Anselm of Canterbury could say: "What then is the strength and power of your salvation and where is it found? Christ has brought you back to life. He is the good Samaritan, who healed you. He is the good friend who redeemed you and set you free by laying down his life for you. Christ did all this. So the strength of your salvation is the strength of Christ." (Prayers & Meditations, "Meditation on Human Redemption").
Likewise we have a beautiful Eucharistic hymn by Thomas Aquinas in which he says: "I do not see thy wounds, like Thomas;/ Yet I confess Thee my God. / Grant that I may ever more and more / Believe in Thee, hope in Thee, love Thee . . .Pelican of mercy, Jesus Lord, / Cleanse me, unclean, by Thy blood, / Of which one drop is enough / To wash the world of all sin . . ." ("Adoro te devote")
The experience of Thomas a Kempis is especially interesting, in that it parallels, in some ways, that of Martin Luther nearly a hundred years later. The first two books of The Imitation of Christ are typical of medieval piety and the theology on which it was based. Here we find Thomas saying such things as "For there a man doth profit most and merit more abundant grace, where he doth most overcome himself and mortify his spirit" (I.25.3). Here "grace" apparently refers to a kind of infused righteousness, and this is why speaks of a man "meriting grace"!
But when we come to Book III of The Imitation we now encounter a deeper awareness of sin. Here we have Thomas making statements such as this: "Oh, how humbly and lowly ought I to think of myself; of how little worth, whatever good I may seem to have!" (III.14.3).
Finally, when we come to Book IV we see Thomas placing his faith firmly in Christ, albeit in a Christ Who is literally received in the Eucharist: "But here, in the Sacrament of the altar, Thou art really present, my God, the man Christ Jesus; where also is derived, in full copiousness, the fruit of eternal salvation, as often as Thou art worthily and devoutly received. To this, indeed, we are not drawn by any levity, curiosity, or sensuality, but by a firm, devout hope, and a sincere charity" (IV.1.9). Thus we can see in Thomas a Kempis, as well as in Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, a genuine faith in Christ, in that they were looking to Him as their Redeemer and Savior from sin. If we are justified by faith, they are undoubtedly in heaven.
Next: How the Catholic Church lost the way.