“That They All may be One” or “The Mystery of the Great Whore”?

One of the great signs of the coming of Christ is the uniting of the apostate churches as the false church. This is the beast from the earth of Revelation 13 and the great whore of Revelation 17.

One of the great works of Christ in history is the uniting of His people in manifestation of the oneness of His church. This carries out His purpose, “that they all may be one” (John 17:21).

The Reformed Christian and the Reformed church must be aware of these two great events in history. They must be able to distinguish them. They have a calling to be active with regard to them both. The one they must condemn and stand aloof from. The other they must honor and promote.

“That they all may be one” calls the churches to genuine ecumenicity. “The mystery of the great whore” is Satan’s counterfeit.

Recent Ecumenical Events

Two ecumenical happenings in recent times demand Reformed attention. One is the decision this summer by four large denominations, including the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), to enter into full communion. I intend to examine this significant ecumenical achievement later. The other is an ecumenical conference that was held in Aiken, South Carolina in May, 1995. The participants in this conference were prominent representatives of two large churches and one large theological group: the Roman Catholic church; the Eastern Orthodox Church; and evangelicalism, especially evangelicalism in North America.

This conference is reported, and its ecumenicity is promoted, in the book, Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics & Orthodox in Dialogue, ed. James S. Cutsinger (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).

The question concerning this ecumenical event is, “‘That They All may be One’, or ‘the Mystery of the Great Whore'”?

Let us test this church-uniting activity.

The assumption underlying the conference is that, despite their differences, evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox share a “great tradition.” This “great tradition” is thought to be the essence of the Christian faith. Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox share a common faith. The purpose of the 1995 meeting was

to test whether an ecumenical orthodoxy, solidly based on the classic Christian faith as expressed in the Scriptures and ecumenical councils, could become the foundation for a unified and transformative witness to the present age. Is it possible, we asked ourselves, for those who are deeply committed to differing theological perspectives to help each other in defending and communicating their common faith? And if so, how? How can Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians talk to each other so as together to speak with Christ’s mind to the modern world? (Reclaiming, p. 8).

The theme of the conference was “An Ecumenical Conference of Traditional Christians.”

The book that reports and promotes the ecumenicity of the conference consists of the six main conference addresses. Peter Kreeft and Richard John Neuhaus (both, it will be noted, defectors to Rome from Protestantism, the former from the Reformed communion, the latter from Lutheranism) speak for Rome. Harold O. J. Brown and J. I Packer represent evangelicalism. Patrick Henry Reardon and Kallistos Ware are the spokesmen for Eastern Orthodoxy. Each essay is followed by a response from a theologian of one of the other churches or group.

A Common Faith?

All agree that the three bodies represented at the conference do, in fact, have “the great tradition” in common, much as they may differ on non-essentials. This is the error of the book, as it was the error of the conference. The official, creedal Protestant position is that both Rome and Eastern orthodoxy have corrupted the gospel and, thus, abandoned the essence of the Christian faith. They have done this by denying the truth of salvation by sovereign grace alone. Both Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy teach free will; justification by faith and works; universal, ineffectual atonement; general, resistible grace; and conditional predestination. Of course, most of modern evangelicalism is one with Rome and Orthodoxy in this denial of the gospel, but this only means that most of modern evangelicalism has forfeited all right to the name “evangelical.” “Evangelical” means “faithful to the gospel,” and the gospel is the message—the truth—of salvation by (sovereign) grace alone.

Do such then believe in Jesus the only Savior, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?

They do not; for though they boast of him in words, yet in deeds they deny Jesus the only deliverer and Savior; for one of these two things must be true, that either Jesus is not a complete Savior; or that they, who by a true faith receive this Savior, must find all things in him necessary to their salvation.

Heid. Cat., Q. 30

This issue receives little attention in the book, as, evidently, it received little attention at the conference. The prominent issue in this quest for church union, and the issue that vexes the seekers most sorely, is the relationship between Scripture and extra-biblical tradition. The question for the evangelicals, as for the Roman Catholics and Orthodox who desire evangelical participation in the ecumenical venture, is, “What can we do with the Reformation’s insistence on ‘Scripture alone’?” The answer, all across the board, is, “Mute this insistence, and by ambiguous formulas subject Holy Scripture to the authority of Roman and Orthodox church-tradition.” The book is worth reading simply for the purpose of discovering what high-powered ecumenicity is doing with the Protestant Reformation’s confession of the sole authority of the written Word of God. The title of the book gives the game away. Why is the title not, Reaffirming and Returning to Sola Scriptura ?

Distinguished Orthodox

Far and away the most impressive contributors are the Eastern Orthodox. They pull no punches. Bradley Nassif responds to J. I. Packer’s cautious, compromising piece by bluntly asserting that the Orthodox Church is the one, true church, so that “authentic Christian unity” requires ecclesiastical and sacramental oneness with her. He states that the united witness to the gospel that Packer thinks is possible will employ icons, that is, material images of God, Christ, Mary, and the other saints. Unabashedly, the Orthodox zealot urges upon evangelical Packer Orthodoxy’s mysticism; monasticism; asceticism; and doctrine of deification (salvation’s consisting of man’s becoming divine).

Patrick Henry Reardon, another Orthodox theologian, annihilates evangelical Donald Bloesch’s astonishing concession to feminism, that “in teaching us to call him Father ‘God adopted patriarchal concepts in order to reveal his will and purpose to the human race.'” Such teaching, says Reardon rightly, “is to make a claim about God for which there is no warrant in Holy Scripture…. This is purely private theology. It has nothing to do with either the Bible or the church. There is no theological justification for thus attempting to get beyond the Father. Such an endeavor scarcely differs from Meister Eckhart’s (great mystic—DJE) pursuit of a ‘God beyond God'” (p. 108).

Orthodox Isaac Melton gets off one of the great lines in the book. Condemning the liberals’ perverse explanation of the doctrine of the Incarnation as teaching that “by his incarnation Christ sets his divine seal of approval on the base, the tawdry, the mundane and even the corrupt,” Melton tells us, as he told the conference, that

the most extreme but quite revealing example of this I have ever encountered was in a National Public Radio program I heard in 1985. A Roman Catholic priest (who most certainly lacked his bishop’s nihil obstat) informed his interviewer and his audience that anonymous homosexual “acts of love” in a San Francisco gay bathhouse were for him the apex of incarnational spiritual experience.

Melton then observes, “The only ‘incarnational experience’ that took place in the baths was the repeated enfleshing of the AIDS virus in the immune cells of its victims” (p. 96).

Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware has a brilliant article on the doctrine of the Trinity. One who might buy the book for its ecumenical theme will find himself amply repaid in another coin by this treatment of the Trinity. Totally ignoring the matter of the coming together of the churches, Ware sets forth “the Trinity as shared love and interpersonal koinonia (fellowship)” (p. 134). The address is titled, “The Trinity: Heart of Our Life.”

Ignoble Roman Champion

Distressing to me is the presence in the Roman lists of Peter Kreeft. A classmate of mine at Calvin College in the late 1950s, Kreeft has since apostatized from the Reformed faith to Roman Catholicism. He is now one of Rome’s chief apologists to Protestants.

“What Doest Thou Here, J. I. Packer?”

More distressing still is the presence, posture, and performance at the conference of renowned evangelical theologian J. I. Packer. Packer tiptoes gingerly through the minefield of evangelical union with the false church of Rome. He affirms that conservative Protestants are able to join together with the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics “in bearing witness to” the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. With Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, evangelicals share an “understanding of ruin, redemption, regeneration and the reality of fellowship with our risen Savior.”

Packer then lashes out, with uncharacteristic fury and scorn, against those evangelicals who refuse to join him in his unholy alliance:

To be sure, fundamentalists within our three traditions are unlikely to join us in this, for it is the way of fundamentalists to follow the path of contentious orthodoxism, as if the mercy of God in Christ automatically rests on persons who are notionally correct and is just as automatically withheld from those who fall short of notional correctness on any point of substance. But this concept of, in effect, justification, not by works but by words—words, that is, of notional soundness and precision—is near to being a cultic heresy in its own right and need not detain us further, however much we may regret the fact that some in all our traditions are bogged down in it (p. 174).

Ah, Dr. Packer, what has happened to you since you wrote the grand “Historical and Theological Introduction” to your and O. R. Johnston’s translation of Luther’s The Bondage of the Will (London: James Clarke, 1957)? Remember? You said then that the doctrines of “the helplessness of man in sin and (of) the sovereignty of God in grace” are “the very life-blood of the Christian faith” (p. 58). In those days, you taught the children of the Reformation—Protestants, evangelicals—that Arminianism is “a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favour of New Testament Judaism” and that Arminianism is “in principle a return to Rome,” which meant, of course, that Rome is certainly nothing but “New Testament Judaism.” No shared “great tradition” in 1957! And you warned Protestants—evangelicals—at that time, warned them sharply, warned them against the very spirit and conduct that you yourself now display in ecumenical conferences and books:

We are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters? Or do we now, with Erasmus, rate a deceptive appearance of unity as of more importance than truth? Have we not grown used to an Erasmian brand of teaching from our pulpits—a message that rests on the same shallow synergistic conceptions which Luther refuted, picturing God and man approaching each other almost on equal terms, each having his own contribution to make to man’s salvation and each depending on the dutiful co-operation of the other for the attainment of that end?—as if God exists for man’s convenience, rather than man for God’s glory? (p. 60)

I will run the “Conclusion” of your passionate, powerful article of 1957 immediately following this editorial. Consider that the content of this “Conclusion” is the reason why we Reformed Protestants—the real evangelicals in the world—will not, indeed cannot, join you in your oneness and cooperation with Rome.

To abuse us as “fundamentalists” is unworthy of you. Your fellow conferee chides you: “As the academic world grows ever more hostile to Christianity, anything resembling Christian orthodoxy is now called fundamentalism” (S. M. Hutchens, yet another of the Orthodox participants, “A [Somewhat] Protestant Response to Richard John Neuhaus,” in Reclaiming, p. 64).

Packer’s essay in Reclaiming indicates the avowed motivation for the effort to unite evangelicals, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics: only out of this “convergence” can there emerge a “contemporary witness to God that is sufficiently strong and significant” (p. 169). The world has become exceedingly worldly. An effective witness to God demands the size and strength of the union of evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox.

This motivation ignores the biblical injunction that those cooperating in witnessing to God in an idolatrous, immoral world themselves be one in the truth of God. It also ignores the lesson of history that God does not need, and usually does not choose, size and strength for the witness to Himself: Noah; Elijah; the remnant; the apostles; Athanasius; Luther.

Evangelicalism and C. S. Lewis

Many evangelicals who are dismayed by these ecumenical developments are going to have to re-evaluate the Anglican author, C. S. Lewis, with whom they are carrying on a torrid love affair. Lewis, though dead, spoke loudly at the conference. The introduction to Reclaiming, titled, “Finding the Center,” tells us that the conference took its lead from Lewis’ well-known book, Mere Christianity. Explicitly in Mere Christianity and implicitly in his other writings, Lewis advocated what the editor of Reclaiming correctly calls “a most important ecumenical principle” (p. 9). The principle is, as Lewis himself described it, that

it is at her center, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the center of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice (Mere Christianity, cited in Reclaiming, p. 9).

In other words, evangelicals, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics are, in reality, one in God Himself.

But the same C. S. Lewis, it should be noted, taught that all religions are essentially one. In The Last Battle, concluding volume in the Narnia series, Lewis has Aslan, symbol of Christ, inform Emeth (significantly, the Hebrew word for truth), a lifelong worshiper of the heathen god, Tash, and a lifelong hater of Aslan, that “all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” By his noble seeking and honest service of the idol, Emeth is saved at death (The Last Battle, London: The Bodley Head, p. 166). Worshipers of the God of Jesus Christ and worshipers of the Allah of Mohammed alike inherit the new world. Taking Lewis as their ecumenical mentor, those who planned the conference in South Carolina might have invited the noble pagans to participate.

Ecumenicity of the Lie

“‘That They All may be One,’ or ‘the Mystery of the Great Whore'”?

Working for church union while rejecting the truth of the sole authority of Scripture and ignoring the Reformation gospel of salvation by (sovereign) grace alone, the “Ecumenical Conference of Traditional Christians” was further unfolding of the mystery of the great whore.

— DJE

“Conclusion” of the “Historical

and Theological Introduction”

to J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston’s translation of Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will.

—J.I. Packer

The following is an excerpt from J.I. Packer’s “Historical and Theological Introduction” to his and O.R. Johnston’s translation of Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will (London: James Clarke, 1957), pp. 57-61. The section published forms the conclusion of the “Introduction.”

It sets forth the message of the Reformation: “sovereign grace.”

It demands that this be our witness in the world.

It warns against compromise of this message in the interests of “inter-party peace.”

By implication, it insists that this gospel be the basis of all ecumenical union and cooperation.

In all of this, the “Introduction” is right. This was the stand of the Reformers. This is the position of the Reformation creeds. This is the testimony of Scripture.

— Ed.

What is the modern reader to make of The Bondage of the Will? That it is a brilliant and exhilarating performance, a masterpiece of the controversialist’s difficult art, he will no doubt readily admit; but now comes the question, is Luther’s case any part of God’s truth? and, if so, has it a message for Christians to-day? No doubt the reader will find the way by which Luther leads him to be a strange new road, an approach which in all probability he has never considered, a line of thought which he would normally label “Calvinistic” and hastily pass by. This is what Lutheran orthodoxy itself has done; and the present-day Evangelical Christian (who has semi-Pelagianism in his blood) will be inclined to do the same. But both history and Scripture, if allowed to speak, counsel otherwise.

Historically, it is a simple matter of fact that Martin Luther and John Calvin, and, for that matter, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation, stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points, they had their differences; but in asserting the helplessness of man in sin, and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them, these doctrines were the very life-blood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s great work underscores this fact: “Whoever puts this book down without having realised that evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of bondage of the will has read it in vain.” The doctrine of free justification by faith only, which became the storm-centre of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is hardly accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centred upon the contention of Paul, echoed with varying degrees of adequacy by Augustine, and Gottschalk, and Bradwardine, and Wycliffe, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only. The doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace; but it actually expressed for them only one aspect of this principle, and that not its deepest aspect. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a profounder level still, in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration — the doctrine, that is, that the faith which receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God, bestowed by spiritual regeneration in the act of effectual calling. To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christ’s sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith. Here was the crucial issue: whether God is the author, not merely of justification, but also of faith; whether, in the last analysis, Christianity is a religion of utter reliance on God for salvation and all things necessary to it, or of self-reliance and self-effort. “Justification by faith only” is a truth that needs interpretation. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood till it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which it is left to man to fulfil? Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it man’s own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man’s utter helplessness in sin, and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder, then, that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome (because in effect it turned faith into a meritorious work) and a betrayal of the Reformation (because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the Reformers’ thought). Arminianism was, indeed, in Reformed eyes a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favour of New Testament Judaism; for to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle from relying on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus, there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.

These things need to be pondered by Protestants to-day. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognised by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism to-day become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters? Or do we now, with Erasmus, rate a deceptive appearance of unity as of more importance than truth? Have we not grown used to an Erasmian brand of teaching from our pulpits—a message that rests on the same shallow synergistic conceptions which Luther refuted, picturing God and man approaching each other almost on equal terms, each having his own contribution to make to man’s salvation and each depending on the dutiful co-operation of the other for the attainment of that end?—as if God exists for man’s convenience, rather than man for God’s glory? Is it not true, conversely, that it is rare to-day to hear proclaimed the diagnosis of our predicament which Luther—and Scripture—put forward: that man is hopeless and helpless in sin, fast bound in Satan’s slavery, at enmity with God, blind and dead to the things of the Spirit? And hence, how rarely do we hear faith spoken of as Scripture depicts it—as it is expressed in the cry of self-committal with which the contrite heart, humbled to see its need and made conscious of its own utter helplessness even to trust, casts itself in the God-given confidence of self-despair upon the mercy of Christ Jesus—”Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief!” Can we deny the essential rightness of Luther’s exegesis of the texts? And if not, dare we ignore the implications of his exposition?

To accept the principles which Martin Luther vindicates in The Bondage of the Will would certainly involve a mental and spiritual revolution for many Christians at the present time. It would involve a radically different approach to preaching and the practice of evangelism, and to most other departments of theology and pastoral work as well. God-centered thinking is out of fashion to-day, and its recovery will involve something of a Copernican revolution in our outlook on many matters. But ought we to shrink from this? Do we not stand in urgent need of such teaching as Luther here gives us—teaching which humbles man, strengthens faith, and glorifies God—and is not the contemporary Church weak for the lack of it? The issue is clear. We are compelled to ask ourselves: If the Almighty God of the Bible is to be our God, if the New Testament gospel is to be our message, if Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day and for ever—is any other position than Luther’s possible? Are we not in all honesty bound to stand with him in ascribing all might, and majesty, and dominion, and power, and all the glory of our salvation to God alone? Surely no more important or far-reaching question confronts the Church today.

Sola fide

Sola gratia

SOLI DEO GLORIA.