by Matthew Gaetano
As we look back this year to 1517 and the rupture in the Western Church that took place in the first half of the sixteenth century, it is worth stating clearly that, though the Regensburg Forum has an interest in inter-confessional dialogue, we do not think that the Reformers and Trent were saying essentially the same thing. Most of us who have written here reject the easy ecumenism that characterized some dialogues in the second half of the twentieth century and since. We realize that Trent said anathema sit to those who affirmed statements associated by the Council fathers with Protestant teaching. We recognize that Luther and Calvin saw the pope as the Antichrist. And we acknowledge that the Roman Catholic Church continues to hold many of the views seen as “antichristian” by the Reformers; we also acknowledge that many Protestant communions still affirm teachings that were deemed heretical by Trent. TRF wants to be a space for irenic and thoughtful inter-confessional conversation and writing, but it is strongly committed to taking seriously the controversies of the sixteenth century. Honest examination of the sources is necessary for mutual understanding.
Though things have changed in the past 500 years, we shouldn’t forget that Reformed theologians saw “papists” as in danger of damnation. (And it goes without saying that this warning went in both directions.) Gisbertus Voetius (who has appeared here in the past), a major Dutch Reformed theologian, asked the question in 1646 whether the “faith of the papists” was saving or damnable. (The issue of who really is a papist for Voetius is a complicated issue, which I’ve discussed a bit here and will address again in future posts on this topic.)
This is a twin question about the salvation of papists, one about the salvation of ancestors (de majorum salute) before the times of reformation, especially those who remained in the communion of the Roman-papal Church during those most corrupt of centuries–the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, etc., nor withdrew from it with the Waldensians, Albigensians, Wycliffites, Hussites through external and formal separation. The other question is about the salvation of those who in the time of reformation professed popery, especially who still today  adhere to it after so much proof (convictio).
We have addressed the first question in The Desperate Cause of the Papacy, bk. 3, sec. 2, where we have determined from the common consent of the Reformed how, notwithstanding the torrent of corruption and Antichristian tyranny, our individual ancestors could be saved by the mercy and providence of God.
In his lengthy and very precise discussion of the issue of post-Reformation popery, Voetius says that the faith of the papists is damnable, but he also clarifies that those under “Roman tyranny” might be saved because “someone can have the grain of true, saving faith and true, saving repentance and, consequently, can be saved” (781), even though someone is not in external communion with the Reformed Church and is worshiping in an erroneous Church–even the Papal Church. It is noteworthy that he condemns Roman Catholics for saying that one must be a member of the Roman communion to be saved. Despite this attack, he observes that many Roman Catholic laypeople and even clergy agree that some can be saved who are not subject to the Roman Pontiff (780-81).
These qualifications are compatible with a sharp attack by Voetius on libertines, syncretists, and others who fail to reject the Papal Church. He says clearly that “all should withdraw from it” (785). He offers a few analogies to clarify how this call for withdrawing from Roman Catholicism doesn’t contradict his point that some might be saved who are born, raised, and even die in the papal communion:
We do not say that drinking poison is salutary (or saving), nor we do recommend it to anyone, even if perhaps someone at some time, who has the benefit of a peculiar complexion … , is said to have overcome the powers of a poison that he has drunk. He has done so with great difficulty and so-to-speak through a thousand deaths. Nor we do test a conflagration or remain in a burning house, even if we have heard about someone by a rare felicity whose life … has been saved from the flames. (785)
Just because someone might survive being poisoned or an act of arson doesn’t mean that we should experiment with dangerous drugs or a raging fire. Likewise, people are saved who have died as Roman Catholics, but, for Voetius, your soul is put in jeopardy if you remain in communion with the pope. There are a number of factors involved in assessing whether or not the poison of popery will really damn you or just devastate your spiritual progress. Ignorance regarding the facts about papal error and tyranny are significant elements in that discussion. But, for our purposes, it is especially interesting to see what he says about the leading theologians of the Counter-Reformation like Robert Bellarmine, Cornelius a Lapide, and others. (He lists a lot of Jesuits.) Voetius thinks that they have employed historical evidence and other arguments in a way that indicates that these theologians have “craftily covered up and excused the Roman [faith] against their knowledge and conscience, while calumniously and odiously perverting the Reformed [faith]” (788). If these theologians did act against conscience in their defense of the Roman Catholic Church, then this was a “horrible sin” (788). And, he continues, “I do not see what could be hoped concerning their salvation unless they have mourned over it before God and emended it with serious repentance” (788).
It is noteworthy that Voetius–a rigorous theologian, fierce critic of Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, Anabaptism, etc.–opposes some of his Reformed peers who think that all in communion with the pope are heading towards damnation. God knows the heart, Voetius says. Voetius also affirms that many Christian truths are still mixed into the “monster” of the papal communion. But the error and superstition, the confidence in Masses, indulgences, merits and satisfactions, and the religious adoration (i.e., idolatry) of images, the cross, saints, and the eucharist, are a poison that justify Voetius’s call for all Roman Catholics to abandon their particular churches (786).
I am certainly not holding up Voetius as a model for twenty-first-century Christians to follow. But we cannot forget that, in the seventeenth century, one could avoid two extreme positions: 1) seeing everyone on the opposite side of the Reformation schism as inevitably heading for damnation and 2) thinking that there were no fundamental disagreements. One could recognize that basic Christian doctrines were affirmed by the “other side,” while also condemning key doctrines deemed to be damnable error. The possibility of such a position might be obvious, but we nonetheless think that it is sometimes forgotten. More importantly, we often forget that working through such a position was once worthy of rigorous investigation and reflection. Most of the contributors at TRF, even those who may disagree with Voetius on the state of Christianity after the Reformation and about the nature (and danger!) of particular doctrines, take theologians like him seriously. We haven’t entirely moved past quite a few of the controversies mentioned by Voetius above: Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians still disagree about the adoration of the Eucharist; they still disagree about the role of satisfaction and merit in the Christian life; they still disagree about the veneration of the saints.
We are not interested in any dialogue that simply dismisses the detailed, sophisticated, careful argumentation of theologians writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We think that understanding them is worthwhile. Only then will we be prepared to argue with them.