Today is Reformation Sunday, commemorating October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s Theses led to his excommunication, and this precipitated a division within the western Christian church that has yet to be healed today. For many modern Christians, the issues that brought about the Reformation seem abstract and academic, and hardly anything worth quarrelling about today. What’s the division about?
1. Presbyterian perspective of the Reformation
Looking back 500 years later, was the Reformation a God-ordained renewal of the Christian church, or was it a tragic schism that Christians should work towards healing? The answer is both. Division, if it ever occurs, should only occur when the gospel is at stake, and even then we shouldn’t be glib about it; we should always recognize the monumental tragedy that division among Christ’s followers is.
For Presbyterians, the chief obstacle that presents itself whenever discussions arise of reunion between Protestants and Catholics is the issue of justification. Is it by faith alone, as Martin Luther so emphatically insisted, or is it possible, as the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, to, in some sense “merit” eternal life? This focus on justification explains why many Protestants, especially conservative Lutherans and Presbyterians, are leery of recent efforts to unify Protestants and Catholics. For all the good that Evangelicals and Catholics Together has done, the controversial phrase “faith alone” is conspicuously absent from their official joint statements.
This examiner is a supporter of such ecumenical efforts as the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. At the same, this examiner sympathizes with why some Reformed Christians are leery of such movements. If unity is to occur, it has to entail real agreement on the gospel, including controversial points of doctrine—it can’t merely mean wording statements of faith generically enough to where all modern Catholics and Protestants (and all 16th century Catholics and Protestants, for that matter) can say Amen.
For many Presbyterians, because of its doctrine of justification, Catholicism represents, not a legitimate form of Christianity, but an apostate departure from it. This view is found in numerous Reformation-era confessions, and in the 1647 Westminster Confession. In the section on marriage, Westminster cautions against marrying non-Christians, and then specifies that this means not marrying “infidels, papists, or other idolaters.”
2. C.S. Lewis’ perspective of the Reformation
For C.S. Lewis, himself an Anglican, Roman Catholicism represented a legitimate branch of Christianity, albeit a branch he had personal qualms about and did not wish to join. Roman Catholicism’s legitimacy in Lewis’ eyes can be seen from the fact that before publishing it he sent Book II of Mere Christianity—“What Christians Believe”—to be “vetted” by an Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic to make sure no sectarian religious views were sneaking themselves into the manuscript.
Lewis personally didn’t view the differences on justification between Protestantism and Catholicism as an insurmountable barrier. He was even sympathetic to certain practices that are generally associated with Catholicism—he prayed for the dead and endorsed the doctrine of purgatory. While not necessarily agreeing with transubstantiation, he didn’t view it as the “damnable error” that Reformation-era confessions labeled it as. In fact, Lewis was so sympathetic to so much within Roman Catholics that some Catholics have conjectured that had Lewis lived longer—long enough, for example to see the reforms of Vatican II in 1965—he may have left the Church of England and become Catholic.
3. The obstacle of papal infallibility for Lewis
In their 2005 book Is the Reformation Over?, Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom suggest that the Reformation was not so much about any particular doctrine (justification by faith or anything else) as much as it was about authority—who is the final authority that gets to determine how to interpret any given Biblical doctrine? For Protestants, the Bible is, in essential matters pertaining to salvation, self-interpreting, in the sense that average readers can, by reading Scripture, come to a basic understanding of the gospel without any outside aid (other than the Holy Spirit). For Catholics, the church (and specifically, the pope as the infallible head of the church) is indispensible to understanding the Bible.
Papal infallibility was Lewis’ sticking point. He explained his position to a friend:
“The real reason why I cannot be in communion with you is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but also to what he is going to say.”
Clearly, for Lewis the crux of the issue wasn’t justification, nor was it qualms about church tradition or the Virgin Mary or the saints or the sacraments. For Lewis, the biggest barrier was papal infallibility, an issue that wasn’t even really on the table in the 16th century. As the above quotation shows, Lewis felt that being a Catholic meant being prepared in advance to accept as God’s truth the teachings that came from any given pope.
Of course, Catholics believe the pope’s responsibility to safeguard the faith once for all given to the saints, not to innovate the faith. Who were the innovators in the 16th century—Catholics or Protestants? How a person answers that question, of course, depends on her own religious affiliation. Lewis sympathized with the Protestant fear that subscribing to papal infallibility meant being prepared to accept dogmas that couldn’t be supported by Scripture, or even ancient church tradition. This, more than anything, is the single reason why Lewis remained an Anglican, despite his Roman Catholic leanings.
The First Vatican Council in 1870 defined papal infallibility, explaining that when the pope speaks, as the representative of the universal church, on matters pertaining to faith and morals (this is what is officially known as an “ex cathedra” statement), he is gifted by God with infallibility. Among other things, this means that Catholics do not believe the pope is incapable of sinning, nor that he is incapable of erring factually in any number of things—he simply cannot, in his official capacity, teach error pertaining to faith and morals. Ex cathedra statements do not need ratification by the bishops and are in themselves authoritative. Because they are infallible, they are “irreformable”.
Though Vatican II’s tone in the 1960s was much softer, no substantial doctrinal changes were brought about in the Roman Catholic Church as a result of the council. The infallibility of the pope was strongly reaffirmed. It’s difficult, then, to see how this council, had Lewis lived to see it, would’ve inspired him to leave the Anglican church.
4. Final thoughts
C.S. Lewis, and the Anglican Communion in which he spent his life as a Christian, set a good example of finding all that is right and best both in the world of Protestantism and within Roman Catholicism. For many Protestants (and historically this certainly has often included Presbyterians), being a good Protestant means being anti-Catholic, disapproving of things, if for no other reason, than simply because Rome approves of them. Lewis, ecumenist that he was, managed to avoid that error. He saw much in Roman Catholicism that he agreed with and he affirmed it, not caving in to what Peter Gilquist calls “Romophobia”. Where his conscience forced him to draw a line (papal infallibility), he drew the line, but even in doing so he remained charitable, avoiding smugness. Wherever Presbyterians choose to draw the line, may God enable us to follow that example.
What should the contemporary evangelical and Catholic with the good intention of seeing disunity in Christ’s Body healed do, practically speaking? Three things come to mind:
1) Seek to understand. It’s crucial to understand what is really at stake between Catholics and Protestants. It’s crucial to not waste time debating about straw men or caricatures, but to try very hard to really understand what people believe.
2) Love. Even the most rigid Protestants and Catholics who regard each other as non-Christians are still under Christ’s command to love. We shouldn’t regard each other as enemies, but even in the event that we do, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount reminds us that we still have the God-given responsibility to love.
3) Pray. Protestants and Catholics are separated by five centuries of memories of mutual persecution. Healing and unity won’t happen easily or painlessly. God’s intervention will be necessary, and this is why prayer is so important. Comparing Christianity to a house, and likening the various denominations to rooms within the house, C.S. Lewis once said, “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong, they need your prayers all the more, and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”