I remember when this book was first released back in the early 90's. It was billed as a "fair and accurate critique" of Roman Catholicism by evangelical and reformed scholars. I also remember the conversations I had with a Professor of Church History on how this book was far from what it represented itself to be. It was in fact plagued with inaccuracies, misrepresentations and logical fallacies. Of course not every contributor fell into these faults but on a cursory glance at the list of contributors it read as a who's who of polemical anti-Catholic Protestants, who were well known for misrepresenting not only Catholic dogma in general but the Patristic Fathers in particular, (i.e., Robert Godfrey, Michael Horton, William Webster). At the time I decided not to waste my money and to wait until I bumped into it on a used bookshelf somewhere. Well, yesterday while making my rounds at my local bookstores I picked it up sitting on a used rack.
And so begins this multi-part point by point response to Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us, (Chicago. Moody Press. 1994).
The first entry is, "One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church" by Tom Nettles, famous Baptist scholar. While stating that true saving faith is the same in Rome as it is in Protestantism,
"Saving faith for an Evangelical is not different from saving faith for a Roman Catholic." (p. 26)
It would seem to be found almost by accident or ignorance by the Catholic given the institutionalized error in the Roman soteriological system,
"the false gospel embodied in the sacramental system of Rome...the Roma error is institutionalized and creedalized...the Roman error purposefully canonized a historical aberration at the sixteenth-century Council of Trent and has maintained it since." (p. 27)
With such words of encouragement and irenic spirit Nettles paints the usual Protestant distorted figure of the early Church. The Catholic Council of Nicea is praised for unpacking the difficult doctrines surrounding the person of Christ since of course it is "in harmony with Luke 19:10 and John 3:16 and 12:47." (p. 27). No word however is made concerning the other canons of Nicea which mark it as definitively Catholic (and not Protestant) such as Canon 2 which upholds baptismal regeneration and the episcopal clerical form of government, or Canon 3 which forbids a woman to even live with an Officer of the Church, save it be a blood relative. What about Canon 6 which gives bishops particular jurisdiction over their areas, which jurisdiction is modeled after the unique bishop of Rome? (and thus giving plain witness to the Roman primacy of the Catholic Church). The imposition of hands of Canon 7 or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as seen in Canon 18? Of course to mention such things would run counter to Nettles re-writing of the early Church. Nettles goes on to say against nearly all Patristic scholarship,
"Irenaeus's development of the concept of recapitulation was powerful, and, though manageable as a part of different soteriological schemes, its dependence on Christ's human obediance clearly harmonizes with the doctrine of imputed righteousness." (p. 27).
Several problems can be pointed out here. First, Nettles would lead his readers to believe that there were several and possibly contadictory "soteriologcal schemes" among the Fathers. This line of reasoning springs from the Protestant insistence that early Patristic (Catholic) teaching was not unified and monolithic but chaotic and already falling into a multitude of errors. But the soteriology of the early Catholics was far from uncoordinated rather it remains as it is today (among Catholics), a large encompassing multi-faceted doctrine as taught by the New Testament. It is the Protestants who have mutilated and reduced soteriology into a sort of truncated bare-boned equation. The early Fathers simply exemplified different facets of soteriology during the process of the development of doctrine, St. Irenaeus for example bringing out the recapitulatory aspect of salvation as found most clearly by St. Paul in Romans. Secondly, Irenaeus' recapitulatory doctrine proves exactly the opposite of what Nettles is claiming for it. Recapitulation at it's base runs on the principle of Christ's re-acting the various stages of life from fallen man (Adam). This in turn argues St. Irenaeus should be a model for every Christian to emulate. Thus, it is on the basis of man's subsequent actions (works) that he is justified for salvation according to the great bishop of Lyons. Salvation is not a one time event contra the Protestant ordo-salutis but a life long struggle in which works are a critical factor, St. Irenaeus writes,
"Paul, an able wrestler, urges us on in the struggle for immortality, so that we may receive a crown, and so that we may regard as a precious crown that which we acquire by our own struggle, and which does not grow on us spontaneously. And beause it comes to us in a struggle, it is therefore the more precious...Those things which come to us spontaneously are not loved as much as those which are obtained by anxious care." (Adversus haereses. 4, 37, 7).
Works which cannot even begin to be performed unless one is spiritually regenerated in baptism,
"The Lord promised to send us the Paraclete, who would make us ready for God. Just as dry wheat without moisture cannot become one dough or one loaf, so also, we who are many cannot be made one in Christ Jesus, without the water from heaven. Just as dry earth cannot bring forth fruit unless it receives moisture, so also we, being at first a dry tree, can never bring forth fruit unto life, without the voluntary rain from above. Our bodies achieve unity through the washing which leads to incorruption; our souls, however, through the Spirit. Both, then, are necessary, for both lead us un to the life of God" (Adversus haereses. 3, 17, 2).
So we see that Nettles baseless contention that Irenaeus' doctrine of recapitulation is in line with Luther's later teaching of imputed righteousness is unsound (for a classical presentation of Irenaeus' recapitulation doctrine by a true Patristic scholar see J. Quasten Patrology, Vol. 1, p. 295-96). Nettles however is not done with the Fathers, he asserts confidently,
"Tertullian's traducianism in anthropology virtually demands the monergism of reformation thought, but his soteriology was disorganized and shows little coherent development." (p. 27).
We have already spoken about Nettles and Protestantism's misunderstanding on the unity of Catholic thought. What is more surprising however is the incedible notion that Tertullian's anthropology demanded that he was a thoroughgoing monergistic Protestant. Such rhetoric is typical among Protestant anti-Catholic polemicists. The truth is not hard to gather. Pick up any real acknowledged presentation of Patristic thought and you will read how Tertuallian is considered the father of Latin penitential/merit dogma and the idea of Jesus introducing the nova lex, or the new law that Christians must follow. Both ideas that are mutually contradictory to the Protestant monergism of today. Indeed merit plays a major role in Tertullian's soteriological writings, it is the works that are done in life which will reward some to eternal salvation and others to eternal damnation, (Apologeticus pro Christianis. 18, 3; 48, 12). Again the reader has been duped by Nettles.
St. Augustine is the next helpless victim of Nettles. He writes,
"The Reformers rediscovered Augustine...The soteriology that emphasized justification as a forensic, declaratory, imputative act of God consistent with all aspects of the obediance of Christ emerged as a corrective to the semi-Pelagianism into which much scholastic thought had fallen." (p. 28)
The problems with this statement are manifold. St. Augustine never held nor taught any notion of a forensic or imputative justification1. Any introduction on Patristic thought can confirm this. In Augustine it was faith and works working through love that justified a man a definition that is forever codified by Catholics in all of our Councils and Creeds.
1. Recently the entire notion of justification via the imputation of Christ's righteousness has come under penetrating critique, see the criticism's of Robert Gundry in his articles in Books & Culture 7 (2001) and his entry in, Justification: What's at Stake in the Current debates (Illinois. InterVarsity Press, 2004). For Augustine's docrtine of justification from a much sounder Protestant perspective see Peter Toon's article which can be viewed on-line, - http://www.anglicanbooksrevitalized.us/Peter_Toons_Books_Online/Doctrine/justsanct1.htm