Rev. Spronk is pastor of Peace Protestant Reformed Church in Lansing, Illinois.
Father Richard John Neuhaus
Father Richard John Neuhaus died on January 8, 2009. Father Neuhaus was an influential man. Some even give him partial credit for the two-term presidency of George W. Bush. Daniel Burke (in an article posted January 9, 2009 onchristianitytoday.com) began his report on Neuhaus’ death stating, “The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, an eminent Catholic intellectual who tutored President Bush in Catholic social teaching and helped build the political coalition that made his election possible, died Thursday at age 72.” Not only is Neuhaus credited with helping Bush get elected, but he also had the President’s ear and influenced him regarding political issues. In a statement quoted by Burke, President Bush credited Neuhaus with helping him formulate his position on abortion.
As impressive as Neuhaus’ connection to President Bush was, we take note of his passing for different reasons. We take note of his passing especially because he, along with Charles Colson, was the instigator of the prominent ecumenical movement towards reuniting Protestants and Roman Catholics, known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). Interviewed by Susan Wunderkind forChristianity Today (“The Post-Neuhaus Future of Evangelicals and Catholics Together,”christianitytoday.com) Colson reported,
In 1992 [Neuhaus and I] were at a meeting where he had convened a number of Catholic and evangelical scholars, theologians, and activists to consider a report which was coming from two British sociologists about proselytization and open conflict in Latin America, the state persecuting evangelicals, evangelicals desecrating sacred objects. It was during that two-day meeting that I felt this real moving of the Holy Spirit to say to Neuhaus, “We need to have discussions like this frequently and pursue common ground.” That’s where ECT was born.
After its birth, Neuhaus became a leader as a Roman Catholic representative in ECT’s efforts to heal the breach between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
As a leader and active member of ECT, Neuhaus shares responsibility for perhaps the most significant document the group published in 1997, entitled “Gift of Salvation” (this document can be found on this website:www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9801/articles/gift.html). This is an important document because it deals with the all-important doctrine of justification, which stands at the heart of the division between Roman Catholics and Protestants. In this document the members of ECT set forth the doctrine of justification in a way that they believe is acceptable to both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Colson is confident of this document’s success, stating, “I make no pretense that the Reformation is over; but the issue which precipitated it has been solved.”
Did ECT really solve the issue of justification and make reunification possible for Roman Catholics and Protestants? The answer to this question is very important for evaluation of the work of Neuhaus and ECT.
A detailed evaluation and critique of ECT’s doctrine of justification will not be given here; for that I direct you to Professor David Engelsma’s 1999 articles in this magazine on the ECT (see also Dr. R. Scott Clark’s evaluation found at:http://www.wscal.edu/clark/regensburg.php). Suffice it to say that the ECT’s doctrine of justification is not the doctrine of justification by faith alone taught by Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed confessions. It is a compromise that in clever and devious ways mixes man’s own righteousness with the righteousness of Christ as the basis for justification and salvation.
Father Neuhaus believed in and promoted a form of the false gospel of justification by faith and works.
In light of this fact alone it is almost beyond comprehension that Father Neuhaus’ work is being lauded, or at best lightly criticized in Evangelical/Protestant magazines.
Christianity Today’s evaluation of Neuhaus in the article by Burke cited above is entirely positive in its summary of Neuhaus’ work and influence (probably not surprising, considering that Colson is a columnist for the magazine). World Magazine’sMindy Belz recognizes that Neuhaus’ work drew criticism from both Roman Catholics and Protestants, but she begins her article about Neuhaus’ death stating, “Protestant evangelicals have lost a friend who himself was a Roman Catholic.” Belz goes on to praise Neuhaus for his fairness in treating both Roman Catholics and Protestants, writing, “[I]t was a rarity indeed for anyone on either side of the divide to charge Neuhaus with unfairness in his portrayal of friends or foes—a record that was more remarkable because of the sheer volume of his literary output and notable for his kindness in engaging opponents.”
Perhaps the most startling positive evaluation of Neuhaus is found on the pages of Christian Renewal, which advertises itself as “A magazine of distinctively Reformed faith and vision,” in an article entitled “The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus: Loved and mourned by many.” In the last two paragraphs of this article, Harry Antonides writes,
Neuhaus was a brilliant polemicist but always magnanimous toward his critics and adversaries. He was unapologetic in his defense of the Christian faith as an indispensable guardian of freedom. He suggested that on that score we may be in for a time of severe testing.
It is fitting for us Protestants to recognize and celebrate this convert to Roman Catholicism as a brother in the faith who was a gifted yet humble servant of Christ. His life and work have much to teach us about living faithfully, and yes even joyfully and exuberantly, in an age of great spiritual confusion and turmoil.
A lost friend? A defender of the Christian faith? A brother in the faith and a servant of Christ? Is this really how we Protestants should evaluate and therefore celebrate the life of a man who denied the great biblical and Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone? Not hardly!
Scripture’s evaluation of the denial of justification by faith alone and of those who deny justification by faith alone is much harsher. Therefore our evaluation must be harsher. In Galatians 2:4 Paul does not speak of the Judaizers who taught works righteousness as brethren in Christ but calls them instead “false brethren.” Father Neuhaus’ false teaching concerning the doctrine of justification alone must not be excused because he was fair and magnanimous towards friend and foe. His false doctrine must be condemned. And so serious was his corruption and promotion of a false gospel that it prevents us from viewing him as a brother in the faith. His faith was different from ours. He did not share with us in the faith that holds to Jesus Christ as the complete Savior (LD 11). He believed in a Christ who only partially saves, who started the work of salvation that must be completed by the works of the believer. Neuhaus’ teaching and promotion of the false gospel of Rome is enough for us to refrain from proclaiming him a brother in the faith and celebrating his life and work. But there is more.
Neuhaus was raised a Lutheran. In the 1960s he was ordained as a minister in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod). In 1990 he left the Lutheran church for the Roman Catholic Church. In 1991 he was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, Neuhaus was not raised on Roman Catholic doctrine, but was raised on Lutheran doctrine. He was taught Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. He was also taught the other differences between Protestantism and Romanism. When he joined the Roman Catholic Church, Neuhaus consciously repudiated all the great doctrines of the Reformation and accepted not only the Roman Catholic false doctrine on justification, but also the worship of Mary, the supremacy and apostolic succession of the papacy, the accursed idolatry of the mass, and all of the other abominations of Rome.
One who falls away from the truth into error is not worthy of being called a brother in the faith. The word that describes what Neuhaus was guilty of is apostasy. He was an apostate Lutheran. This is all the more reason that we ought to condemn rather than celebrate Neuhaus’ actions.
At this point some might be thinking this is all rather negative and judgmental. I assure the reader that the point is not to judge father Neuhaus. He will be judged and at death was preliminarily judged by Jesus Christ. We leave the judgment to Him.
Though we must not presume to be Neuhaus’ judges, we must in light of Scripture condemn his apostasy and promotion of the false doctrine of justification. Warning bells ought to go off as we see that Evangelicals/Protestants are willing to overlook these faults. To overlook these faults is to give the impression that apostatizing from the Protestant faith to Rome is not so serious.
It is time for us to remind ourselves of the importance of justification by faith alone. We must remember that justification by faith alone is the heart of the gospel and the source of unspeakable comfort. We must teach our children to know, love, and never compromise the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Richard John Neuhaus was an influential man. The pressure is on. It will only become greater. May God grant our churches and our children the strength to withstand it and to hold tightly to Christ and His righteousness alone.