Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
This is the title of a lengthy essay which appeared in the December 12 issue of Christianity Today by James I. Packer. “It” refers to the document,Evangelicals Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (ECT), which was signed by a number of Roman Catholics as well as a number of evangelical leaders and theologians and concerning which we reported earlier in these columns. The 25 page document originated with evangelical leader Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, a former Protestant who turned Roman Catholic. This document calls for Catholic and evangelical cooperation on social and cultural issues where both traditions share common goals, one example being the fight against abortion. The document also stresses mutual allegiance to the Apostles’ Creed, world evangelism, justification “by grace through faith because of Christ,” and encourages “civil” discourse over doctrinal differences.
We are indebted to Dr. Packer, professor of theology at Regent University, Vancouver, Canada, for many of his books: Undersigned, for example, requires his students in Missions to read Packer’s excellent book,Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Thus when we discovered that Dr. Packer had signed ECT we were very disappointed and dismayed. Our disappointment and dismay increase when we read Packer’s defense of his signing the document.
Dr. Packer sees the criticism he has received for signing ECT as motivated in part by evangelical love for isolationism, and rivalry fed by mutual suspicion and inflammatory talk. “So,” writes Packer, “I ought to have anticipated that some Protestants would say bleak, skewed, fearful, and fear-driven things.” Thus in the essay Packer seeks to set the record straight as to his reasons for signing ECT.
Dr. Packer says,
I could not become a Roman Catholic because of certain basic tenets to which the Roman system, as such, is committed. Rome’s claim to be the only institution that can without qualification be called the church of Christ is theologically flawed, for it misconceives the nature of the church as the New Testament explains it. The claim is historically flawed, too, for the papacy, which is supposed to be of the church’s essence, was a relatively late development….
Also, developed Roman teaching on the mass and on merit cuts across Paul’s doctrine of justification in and through Christ by faith. And all forms of the Mary cult, the invoking of saints and the belief in purgatory, and the disbursing of indulgences (which still goes on) damp down the full assurance to which, according to Scripture, justification should lead through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, the infallibility claimed for all concillior and some papal pronouncements, and the insistence that the faithful should take their beliefs from the church as such rather than from the Bible as such, make self-correction, as ordinarily understood, impossible. The assumption that the church is never wrong on basics is very cramping. So I find the Roman communion, as it stands, unacceptable, just as much as more than four-and-a-half centuries of Protestants did before me.
Notice Packer’s language. Rome’s view of the church is “theologically flawed,” and it, “misconceives the nature of the church as the New Testament explains it.” Rome’s teaching on the mass and merit “cuts across Paul’s doctrine of justification in and through Christ by faith.” All forms of the Mary cult, the invoking of saints, the belief in purgatory, and the disbursement of indulgences “damp down” the full assurance to which justification should lead. Scripture, the sixteenth century Reformers, and the Reformed Confessions use different language to describe these aberrations: false doctrine, blasphemy, the lie, an accursed idolatry, pernicious ways, anti-christian. What is more, Scripture calls God’s people to rebuke false teachers and to turn away from them and have no fellowship with them (cf. II Thess. 3:14-15; Romans 16:17; I Timothy 4:7, 5:20, 6:20-21;Titus 3:10; II Peter 2:1-3; and II Peter 3:17-18).
Packer cites three reasons for his cooperating with Rome: 1. There are Christians in the Roman Catholic Church, 2. “Billy Graham’s co-operative evangelism, in which all the churches in an area, of whatever stripe, are invited to share, is well established on today’s Christian scene,” and 3. “Charismatic get-togethers, some of them one-off, some of them regular, and some of them huge, where the distinction between Protestant and Catholic vanishes in a Christ-centered unity of experience, are well established.”
None of these reasons prove anything! All three are beside the point. Reason number 1 is for God alone to judge. Reasons 2 and 3 are denials of true unity in Christ, for how can there be unity except it be unity in the truth of the Word of God?!
Another closely related development took place on January 19. On this date several of the signers of ECT and several evangelical critics of ECT met at D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We are told that although the sessions were marked by “sharp exchanges,” these men were able to agree on a five-point document designed to “elucidate” the stance of evangelicals who signed ECT. Among other things the document declares their belief in justification by faith alone. (The word “alone” is conspicuously absent from the ECT document. And what Roman Catholic will affirm the biblical and Reformation truth of justification by faith alone?)
This is not enough! What these men must do, if they wish to be evangelical, is recant. For as Johri MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California and one of the critics of ECT, said, “Roman Catholicism is ‘another religion.'”
Leakage or Hemorrhage?
A few years ago when asked what effect the women in office issue might have on the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) Dr. Melvin Hugen, professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, predicted that only a few members would leave the CRC. He called that “leakage.”
The facts are that in 1992 the CRC Yearbook listed 316,415 members. The Yearbook of 1995 lists 294,179 members. This represents a loss of over 22,000 members. The 1995 membership total puts the CRC back to 1981 when it had 294,354 members. Besides the loss of all these members, who is to know how many people may have refrained from joining the CRC in the past several years because of this issue and others?
Whether one regards this loss as “leakage” or “hemorrhage,” the fact is that a significant number of people have left the CRC in recent years. The CRC has not grown, she has declined in members.
Meanwhile, the 55 independent churches in the Alliance of Reformed Churches (we emphasize independent churches because some of the churches in the Alliance are still in the CRC) now number 10,805 members.
This is history repeating itself. Where liberalism takes hold in a denomination one sees a decline in membership. At the same time, while it may not be spectacular in terms of numbers, where the Word of. God is faithfully preached the church grows. She grows in number; but, much more importantly, the church grows in the knowledge and grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (cf. II Pet. 3:17-18 and beware!).