Would #PopeFrancis welcome Protestants to the Eucharist?

Pope Francis has developed a reputation for his fresh take on some long-standing Roman Catholic traditions. The debate between Ross Douthat and a number of Catholic theologians illustrates the range of reactions to the Pope’s revisions. You can now add another controversy to the list. It isn’t altogether clear, but the Pope appears to have encouraged a Lutheran woman to go forward to take the Eucharist with her Roman Catholic husband. The issue arose as Pope Francis was addressing a group of Evangelical Lutherans in Rome. One woman asked: 

My name is Anke de Bernardinis and, like many women in our community, I am married to an Italian, who is a Roman Catholic Christian. We have lived happily together for many years, sharing joys and sorrows. And so we greatly regret being divided in faith and not being able to participate together in the Lord’s Supper. What can we do to achieve, finally, communion on this point?

The Pope’s off-the-cuff reply did not explicitly permit the woman to receive the Eucharist with her husband, but neither was it forbidden. Here’s the most important part of what the Pope said (read the rest here):

To your question, I can only respond with a question: What can I do with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper accompanies me on my path? It is a problem that everyone has to answer, but a pastor-friend once told me: “We believe that the Lord is present there, he is present. You all believe that the Lord is present. And so what’s the difference?”—“Eh, there are explanations, interpretations.” Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.

Always refer back to baptism. “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.” This is what Paul tells us, and from there take the consequences.

I would never dare to give permission for this, because it’s not my jurisdiction. “One baptism, one Lord, one faith.” Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.

Four questions come to mind. 
  1. Does the Pope see substantial differences between Catholic and Protestant theologies of the Eucharist? In my reading, the Pope’s recollection (and affirmation?) of his pastor-friend’s comments at best muddles the difference between the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the various Protestant understandings of what happens at the Lord’s Table. Without getting into the particulars, it is remarkable that a Pope would make a remark that could be interpreted as disregarding the difference between Catholic and Protestant Eucharistic theologies. To suggest that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is a matter of interpretation and that the really important thing is that “the Lord is present” regardless of how you parse it out seems to me to strike at the heart of Roman Catholic doctrine and worship. Definitely not the sort of thing you would expect the Pope to say. 
  2. Would Francis permit this Lutheran woman to go forward and receive the Eucharist in a Roman Catholic Mass? He certainly doesn’t forbid it, which seems to me to imply permission. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “This one is above my pay grade. Who am I to bar one who has faith in Christ from the Lord’s table?” Again, this is a stunning thing for a Pope to say.
  3. What are the implications for global Christian unity? For centuries, Catholic refusal to admit Protestants to the Lord’s Table symbolized the division of the global Church. The Pope’s answer seems to imply a radical change in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. In the view of this Protestant pastor, it is a welcome change. Christ prayed fervently for the unity of his Church. The Lord’s Table is central to that unity. This move by Francis has potential to be highly significant as a step toward global Christian unity. 
  4. What exactly did he mean? As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has the responsibility to clarify his muddled comments. He should take the time to reflect and make a clear pastoral statement on the issue. Would he admit Protestants to the Eucharist? The lack of clarity is not helpful. He needs to say what he thinks about this matter. 

Imputation: Why its not Legal Fiction

Critics of the Reformed doctrine of imputation regularly charge that it constitutes a legal fiction.  The argument basically argues that to say counting the righteousness of one, namely Christ, in the place of another, namely the guilty sinner, means that the verdict for the sinner does not reflect the sinner’s character of life.  Thus, God’s verdict on the sinner is a matter of fiction; it is not true.  He declares someone righteous when that one is actually a sinner.  At least three comments are worth making with regard to this charge.
First, critics are right to point out that the verdict does not reflect the sinner’s moral quality of life, but this is precisely the point that the Reformed doctrine is making.  God justifies the ungodly.  If we were already godly and morally righteous, then we would not need to be justified.
Second, confusion comes in that the critics are using the term “righteous” with reference to the moral quality of the sinner.  That is, they want the language of righteousness to reflect the person’s actual quality of life.  The problem is that in the Reformed tradition, the language of righteousness is purely forensic; that is, it does not refer to the individual’s quality of life but to his legal status.  This happens all the time in courtrooms.  Judges and juries find criminals not-guilty.  We might respond that injustice has been done, but, at the end of the day, the court’s verdict is true as a status.  In the eyes of the civic authority, the person is actually not guilty, even if they actually did commit the crime.  Again, the imputed righteousness was never intended to refer to the moral quality of the sinner.
Third, critics of the legal fiction variety seem to fail to grasp the covenantal nature of union between Christ and the sinner (perhaps they reject it outright).  “Justified” or “righteous” is a status before the divine court.  This status is received by virtue of being covenantally joined to Christ.  The covenantal nature of the sinner’s relationship to Christ means that what is true of Christ is considered true of those who are covenantally related to him.  Because “righteous” is a status by virtue of covenantal union, it is not mere legal fiction.  The status reflects the verdict of the court as true on the basis of union and communion with Christ.  The status was never intended to refer to the moral righteousness of the sinner. 
So, the justified status on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ is true in that it refers to the declaration of the court.  It refers to legal status not moral status, legal righteousness not moral righteousness.  If it were intended to refer to the moral quality of the sinner, then it would be legal fiction.  Since the verdict was never intended to function in that way, it is not actually fiction.  The declaration reflects the reality that the ungodly have been joined to Christ and are sharers in all that is his, including his righteous status before God.

How Reformed is Reformed?

Here is a question I’ve considered as of late:  What does it mean to be a “Reformed” Christian?  The question arose for me, a United Methodist, as I considered the theology of some of my Baptist brothers who have some Reformed beliefs but are not fully aligned with what the term has meant historically.  What is required to be Reformed?  Can there be degrees of Reformed thinking?
It seems best to start with a couple of semi-Reformed options.  Take, for example, someone who would identify himself as a “Reformed Baptist.”  As I understand this descriptor, it refers to someone who holds a Calvinistic soteriology and a Baptistic understanding of church government, church ordinances (including adult-only baptism, of course), regenerate church membership, and, perhaps, an eschatology that wouldn’t normally be identified with the Reformed tradition (e.g. premillenial).  On the other hand, you might take someone like myself.  I don’t hold to a Calvinistic soteriology with regard to unconditional election.  I do, however, affirm justification by faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ as well as Reformed understandings of the sacraments (infant baptism and spiritual presence), the covenantal scheme of redemption, and eschatology.  In light of these affirmations, it would seem that I have more theological commonality with the Reformed camp than my Reformed Baptist friend who uses the term in question in his own self-identification.  Which of us is more Reformed? Are either of us Reformed?  Is it an all or nothing package? How Reformed must one be in order to be truly Reformed?
History may shed some light on the question.  Jacob Arminius considered himself quite Reformed, though he disagreed with Beza on the matter of unconditional election.  Arminius and his disciples, the Remonstrants, considered the Calvinist-Arminian disagreement to be an in-house debate.  I’m quite close to Arminius, as far as I can tell.  This would seem to lend weight to the consideration that within the Reformed tradition there might be room for a charitable soteriological disagreement within the larger framework of Reformed thought.  Though many, I’m sure, would disagree. 
Labels can be abused, at times.  But they can also be helpful.  We need ways of summarizing belief systems so that we don’t have to say something like, “I’m a justification-by-grace-on-the-condition-of-faith-infant-baptizing-sacramental-covenantal-postmillenarian.”  It would be easier just to identify myself as a Reformed Methodist or a Reformed Arminian.  Such a descriptor might indicate an overall affirmation of the typical covenant theology of the Reformed tradition as well as an evangelical Methodist or Arminian soteriology. 
So, what shall it be?  Is this an all or nothing issue?  Can I be a Reformed Methodist? 

Reformation Now: Reviewing The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves

What was the Reformation about and is it over?  These are the central questions raised and answered by Michael Reeves in his recent book The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (B & H Academic, 2010).  As both an academic and a churchman, Reeves is well-suited to author this book, which introduces the Protestant Reformation in a lively, accessible, and often entertaining way. 

The bulk of the book addresses the first question: What was the Reformation all about?  To answer this question, Reeves begins the book with a chapter on state of medieval Roman Catholicism.  Particularly important to understanding the dawn of the Reformation was Rome’s refusal to give common people access to the scriptures.  Such a reality is surprising in a day when Bibles are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and translations.  But this was not so in the period leading up to reform.  Bibles were only published in Latin, and the Roman mass was only said in Latin.  Indeed, many priests memorized the Latin mass without actually learning the language and, as a result, didn’t really know what they were saying as they presided over the service.  This withholding of scripture allowed the Roman Church to perpetuate its own doctrine apart from scriptural oversight and government.  At the heart of the Roman error was the teaching that justification was the process of becoming more righteous in this life so as to merit ultimate heavenly salvation.  This was related to the Romish doctrine of purgatory, which was considered a way of becoming more worthy of salvation after death.  Time in purgatory could be shortened by the veneration of relics or the purchase of indulgences.  And therein lies a major problem.  Through the sale of indulgences, the Roman Church stood to gain a great deal financially.  This, of course, meant that those who could afford to buy more indulgences would be sooner worthy of heavenly bliss.
It was into this context that Martin Luther, or, according to Reeves, God’s volcano, erupted onto the scene.  Luther, an Augustinian monk, was given the opportunity to study the scriptures in the original languages.  In doing so, he discovered the biblical doctrine of justification by faith.  He rejected the Catholic doctrine of progressive justification on the basis of works of merit, purgation, and the purchase of indulgences.  Reeves tells the story of Luther’s great courage in the face of a violent, corrupt, and abusive Catholic Church.  Luther stood for biblical authority over the Pope at the risk of his life, and devoted himself to explaining the scriptures and providing access to them for the masses.
Reeves also devotes chapters to the work of Zwingli, Calvin, the British Reformation, and the Puritans.  His treatment demonstrates the various and distinct emphases of each reformer while revealing also the unity of the Protestant movement, chiefly seen in the reformational motto: sola scriptura – scripture alone is authoritative for the universal church. 
The characters of the Reformation were not bland, and neither is Reeves’ telling of their story.  Luther was a brilliant thinker who also, at times, had a propensity for swearing at the devil.  Many involved in the Reformation lost their lives in the effort.  The book contains gripping stories of courage  in the face of adversity along with a number of humorous incidents.  Ever hear of the Lenten sausage rebellion of 1522 in Zurich? 
The final chapter is devoted to answering the second question: Is the Reformation over?  Reeves’ answer is a resounding, “No!”  He criticizes efforts between Catholics and some Protestant groups to produce joint statements on justification, arguing that such statements are theologically ambiguous and misleading.  The Roman Catholic Church still officially states that justification is a process whereby a person becomes more righteous rather than a single declaration by God that a sinner has the status of righteous.  Roman Church doctrine still officially condemns all who believe that justification comes through faith alone in God’s mercy which forgives sins for Christ’s sake.  Romish dogma still curses all who believe that righteousness is not increased before God through good works. 
The matter of how a person can be right with God was and continues to be the heart of the Protestant Reformation.  The Roman Church continues to mix the work of man with the work of Christ.  Thus, Reeves rightly argues that the Reformation, which asserts the biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, is ongoing and, in the midst of ambiguous and misleading attempts to patch the rift, as necessary as ever. 
The Unquenchable Flame will give any reader an excellent and readable introduction to the heart of the Reformation in the 16th century and its ongoing importance for today.  It comes with my highest recommendation.

NB: Audio resources, links, and suggestions for further reading are available at http://www.theunquenchableflame.org/.