Friday, 18 October 2013

Francis: An 'Evangelical' Pope?

 "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less. "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Is Pope Francis an evangelical Pope?

I suppose entertaining that possibility depends on your definition of evangelical, an English word derived from the New Testament Greek ευαγγελιον, meaning 'good news' or more traditionally 'gospel'. Thus 'evangelicals' are 'gospel people'. The term 'evangelical' was first applied to people,  churches and doctrine during the 1530s when it was a descriptor for those Englishmen who advocated on behalf of Martin Luther's rediscovery of the Gospel, such as William Tyndale and Robert Barnes. Luther himself used the German word evangelische to denominate his doctrine of the Gospel and the churches which confessed it and so to this day in German-speaking lands Lutheran churches are known as Evangelische kirchen (in English 'Evangelical churches'). 

In English usage since the mid-1700s, however, the term 'evangelical' has generally referred to Protestant Christians whose faith is based on a quadrilateral identified by English church historian David Bebbington as consisting of Conversionism (a.k.a. 'Born Again-ism"), Biblicism, Crucicentrism (cross-centredness) and Social Activism. In this sense the term 'evangelical' is today applied to 'low church',  evangelistically active Anglicans as found in Sydney and the UK and associated with the Alpha course, to theologically conservative Methodists like Thomas Oden, to confessional Presbyterians like R.C. Sproul and Tim Keller, to Baptists like John Piper and Al Mohler, to Holiness churches like the Nazarenes,  Pentecostals like the Hillsong church and numerous stranger sects and also a plethora of 'non-denominational' groups who eschew 'man-made' names for their churches altogether. Occasionally even confessional Lutherans like the Missouri Synod are regarded by casual observers as 'evangelical' church bodies. But despite their common identification as 'evangelical' these churches and sects have quite different confessional positions on a number of doctrines, e.g. infant baptism, free will, glossolalia, millennialism, predestination, etc. Confusing, yes? For that reason some 'evangelical' scholars and writers have come to question whether the term 'evangelical' has become too broad to be really useful.

But recently, adding to the confusion over the term 'evangelical', some Roman Catholics have adopted  the term 'Evangelical Catholic', apparently to denote themselves as a new type of Roman Catholic (or is it just a clever attempt at re-branding? btw, some Lutherans were calling themselves 'evangelical catholics' way before this more recent development was started by George Weigel who was in turn probably inspired by Avery Dulles who was certainly well informed about Lutheran 'evangelical catholics'). These Evangelical Catholics are not self-consciously "traditionalist Catholics" but decidedly post and pro Vatican II. Nevertheless they are essentially conservative on moral and theologically matters and inspired by the 'New Evangelization' espoused by John Paul II. When contemporary Roman Catholics describe themselves as  'evangelicals' then, I think that identity derives from their advocacy of the 'New Evangelization' rather than Bebbington's quadrilateral, although it must be said that some strains of Roman Catholic piety do touch at least three of those bases, with 'Biblicism' being replaced by a sort of "ecclesiastical positivism" (e.g. the proverbial German coal miner's faith: "Q. What do you believe. A. I believe what the church believes. Q. And what does the church believe? A. The church believes what I believe.").

One noted Roman Catholic who falls into the Evangelical Catholic category who thinks that Pope Francis is an 'Evangelical Pope' is the deacon, activist lawyer and on-line presence, Keith Fournier, who writes:

"The New Evangelization is meant to bring about an authentic renewal of the Catholic Church precisely so she can undertake a new missionary outreach to the whole world -  through you and me! Only a Church which is fully alive in the Lord and filled with His Holy Spirit can carry out such an evangelical mission in the world of this hour. Pope Francis is an evangelical Catholic Pope who is enlisting us in this vital work." (

Now, let me say at the outset that there are positive aspects to these developments and at times Francis has struck what appear to be authentically 'evangelical' notes in his public statements (although see previous posts). For example, there is this:

"The cross does not speak to us about defeat and failure; paradoxically, it speaks to us about a death which is life, a death which gives life, for it speaks to us of love, the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become “a new creation”. Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners. That is why Saint Francis could say with Saint Paul: “Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14)." Homily on 4th October at Assisi.

As refreshing as language like this coming from the mouth of a Pope may initially sound to Lutherans and other heirs of the Reformation, is this a truly 'evangelical' message according to the original, Biblical meaning of the word as 'good news' of salvation through Jesus Christ? We won't attempt to parse in depth what Francis may mean by "When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us...", except to note that while Roman Catholicism speaks of a prevenient grace which precedes all human effort in conversion, it does allow room for human co-operation in conversion and justification. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that

"God's free initiative demands man's free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love" [CCC para 2002; italics mine].

"Justification establishes cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom. On man's part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent: When God touches man's heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God's grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God's sight [CCC para 1993; italics mine]  

"Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life [CCC para1996; italics mine].


"The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity [CCC para 2001; italics mine].

In this aspect of attributing freedom (presumably freedom of the will) to man in his response to grace and therefore an objective role in the act of conversion to the point of regarding grace as an enabling power that helps us to respond to God's invitation with faith, which is not viewed here primarily as a gift but as man's act of "collaboration" (lit. working together with God), Roman Catholicism has more in affinity with Baptist "decision theology" than with Lutheranism or classic Augustinianism. In that case, perhaps the Pope really is an evangelical!

The truth of the matter is that the Roman doctrines of grace and justification, forged at the Council of Trent as a response to the Reformation and repeated verbatim in the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church, are intentionally ambiguous positions, reflecting unresolved differences and tensions among the body of the Tridentine bishops themselves on these questions, differences which can in turn can be traced to conflicting understandings of theological anthropology and original sin. As a result, rather than speaking with a "great consensus" formed through attentive listening and submission to the Scriptures, Trent's decree on justification is a church political compromise between the Augustinians and those with semi-Pelagian tendencies.

Having noted that ambiguity, let's consider what the Pope means by "the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners". To Lutheran ears, that does sound authentically evangelical, such that we might even wonder: has the Pope been reading Luther? But I put it to you, readers, that the Pope's words need to be read in light of the Roman doctrine because, after all, is the Pope not a Catholic? As we might expect, a theology based on the above mentioned church political compromise cannot speak unambiguously about merit, either. While it acknowledges that with regard to God no man has a strict right to merit [CCC para 2008], and in particular

"Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion [CCC para 2010; italics mine]

"Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life [CCC para2010, italics mine]. 

Just at this point the jig is up and the cat is out of the bag! For Rome salvation is not a gift but a process begun with conversion and justification but only completed through sanctification and the attainment of eternal life (there is a sense in which the via salutis (way of salvation) can be conceived as a process or better yet a journey can be understood in an orthodox manner, but it is not the Roman sense and just for the moment we will refrain from exploring it). The specific "graces" required for this process or journey are things we can merit not only for ourselves but even for others!

Therefore, I submit to you my readers (few though you are!), that when Pope Francis says "Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners" he should be understood in the Roman Catholic, not the evangelical sense; words like 'evangelical' just cannot be made to mean such different things. 

To be continued...




the Old Adam said...

"Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners"

Amen! Thanks you, Pope F.!

And anyone else who says it.

I just wish it would be more often. Louder. And with not so many barnacles covering it up. (and that goes for all preachers of all stripes)

Thank you.

Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark, an interesting subject. As you’ve pointed out, there are many groups who self-describe and are described as “evangelical” which differ on many points.

I think the term “evangelical Christian” is something of a tautology: isn’t a Christian one who thinks “Christ” is good news? And if this needs to be unpacked further, doesn’t it all boil down to the idea that Jesus is a sign of God’s love for imperfect, selfish humankind and that his life and death represented the cosmic act of restoration (“justification”, if you will)?

After all, if somehow, despite Calvary, we are not going to be made right in the end because our own faults and limitations defy it all, then what is the point? In that case, God the Father is no less a propitiatory victim-thirsty deity than Moloch or Saturn.

I think trying to work out and come up with the just-so formula for the idea of grace is not within our human remit. I am reminded of the tale told of Augustine who, walking along the beach trying to puzzle out the Trinity, came upon a youth tipping water from the sea into a hole dug into the sand. When he protested that the youth would never succeed in emptying the sea (or filling the hole), the youth replied that he had more chance of success than Augustine with his problem. I think there’s a message in that tale.

If anyone proclaims a message that God is Universal Love, not Moloch, then I suggest they are evangelical. It is thinking human sin can finally elude that Love (so we must do lots and lots of good and pious acts) that I think in a real sense contradicts the “good news”.

I guess this predisposes me to a kind of universalism. However I don’t abandon common sense by thinking good and pious acts are no good! And on the subject of freedom and grace, I came across this extract from Karl Rahner’s “Grace in Freedom (1968) (p.229:

“.....there is at least today a distinct experience and teaching in Catholic theology according to which God must be understood as the all-efficient Giver who gives himself both the potency of freedom and its good act according to his grace that is neither derived nor compelled, and which nothing in man precedes. Hence all specious sharing out of divine and human causality in this matter is false and an heretical attack on the absolute sovereignty of God............Hence God’s grace, which ultimately means himself, must set freedom free for God. It can therefore perform its very own deed to which it is called, namely to receive God from God through God......the theological doctrine of freedom proclaims the grace of God, while the “natural” freedom of man in potency and act is only the presupposition, created by God himself, to make it possible for him to give himself to man in love.”

Rahner accepts the possibility of “No’ as well as “Yes”, of damnation as well as salvation, but he speaks of freedom, not as some kind of incidental liberty but as a developing existential realisation of one’s own being, which God alone can judge.

We’re discussing subtle theological points here, for which most people simply do not have patience or inclination in the hurly burly of survival, and which I believe are ultimately - or often - an intellectual burden or luxury. Still, interesting.

Mark Henderson said...

the Old Adam,

Please read the blog post again.

Are you Lutheran? (nor sarc.; seriously want to know)

Mark Henderson said...

"We’re discussing subtle theological points here, for which most people simply do not have patience or inclination in the hurly burly of survival, and which I believe are ultimately - or often - an intellectual burden or luxury."
Oh no, Stephen...not at all. We're discussing the nature of the Gospel - whether it offers salvation by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone and is therefore truly good news or whether Christ's work requires completion by us. More to come. In the meantime, I can only suggest you replace Rahner with Luther on your reading desk ;0)

Stephen K said...

“ faith alone on account of Christ alone.....or whether Christ’s work requires completion by us.”

Yes, Pastor Mark, I agree that this is the question. But I disagree that it is not subtle. I’m suggesting most Christians most of the time simply think that if they are good they’ll get to heaven (aka God). I’m suggesting that the instinct that if you do bad things you’ll get just desserts, is common. I think most people might think “the faith alone” is itself a “completing act”.

If most people were asked whether this means that there was something wrong or defective about Jesus’ work, I imagine they would say ‘no’, but would be undecided about how grace works. We are used to both the idea that God prevails over our human foibles and mistakes and can do miracles of conversion, and the idea that grace needs an open door to come inside.

The operant dichotomy is how does one reconcile a “perfect” redemption with the “imperfect” human condition? I thought the Rahner view made a decent fist of it. But here is what the Rev. Charles Neil says in “The Protestant Dictionary” (1904):

“Upon such a subject as the grace of God, full of divine mystery, it is easy to indulge in speculations which lead to little profit...... (Some) speak of grace as irresistible. But here we need to be cautious in adopting such a term. If grace were absolutely irresistible, then man would be a mere machine in the process of salvation and his free will would be entirely destroyed if at least no room be left for its action. The XVIIth Article states that grace works first and then we work with the grace...... the Arminians hold that power is given to enable all to embrace salvation. The Calvinist contends that only the elect can or do receive grace which enables them to believe....... Upon a subject which is profound and highly speculative, upon which we have so little revealed and upon which the holiest men have differed, and will to the end probably differ, it is well to be not unbecomingly dogmatic.”

Ironically, Neil goes on to criticise the Roman Catholic definition of grace as a “supernatural gift” because it becomes “something...possessing a transferable character through human instrumentality than the true grace of God which in its every aspect is sovereign and free in its character.” He thinks there is no better way “to exclude from the Church the Person and work of the Holy Spirit”. He also criticises the Ritualists for adopting “the materialistic theory of Aquinas”.

If all this is not subtle, I don’t know what is. What I am saying is, if grace works one way rather than another, we can’t be dogmatic about it because we don’t know. Best to follow common sense and try to do good, without worrying, self-consciously, whether it is a product of grace or a nobler altruism of human nature, in the hope that God - being God - is more than capable - and according to the Gospel more than willing, already doing - of taking care of the rest.

Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Stephen.

And I received this comment from Steve over at Dr Gene Veith's blog, 'Cranach':

"I read your summary on your blog and thought it did a couple things very well. First, you cited the Catechism, quite a bit. This shows that you're willing to engage what the Church teaches on its own terms.

You also noted that Trent was somewhat ambiguous about the exact place of human freedom in the order of grace. That was a great observation. I appreciate the council's ambiguity on the matter. The interaction of grace and freedom is mysterious, so dogmatically defining technical details can be problematic. So it affirmed that human freedom is real and not extinguished by grace, but that grace moves everything - even mans obedience to grace is grace.

My complaint comes at the end of your analysis. You cite 2010, and dismiss the idea of salvation being a process, but then say in the parenthesis that it can be seen as a journey. Well, if it can be perceived as a journey, why ridicule the Catechism for presenting it as a journey?

Further, your say "For Rome salvation is not a gift but a process". Why can't it be both? Can things that take time not be gifts? College is a process... and for me it was a gift from my parents. Also, you should be aware that the Catholic Church holds that when a person is Baptized, that person is at that moment justified and heaven-bound. If the person dies, he will assuredly be saved. So sometimes that process is short and involves no meritorious works of any kind. I think your article could have used some thought on this.

Lastly, you seem skeptical of the idea of meriting graces for oneself and for one other. Why? What are we doing when we pray for people's conversions, or for their increase in holiness, or healing from sickness? We are asking God to give graces to that person. Hence, James will say, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." James 5:16

Lastly, it would have been very helpful for you to put 2010 alongside 2011, which you didn't cite. The latter was supposed to explain the former, denoting that all merit is from Christ."

I'll endeavour to work responses to both of you into the next post.

the Old Adam said...

I'm Lutheran. Through and through.

When the Pope says Christ centered things...I am for him.

When he does not, I am the first to criticize him.

Mark Henderson said...

Thanks for that, Old Adam.
But you may want to read the blog post again more carefully (and wait for the follow-up, which has been delayed due to other more immediately important duties). What I'm saying is that when the Pope says things like that, which outwardly sound good to Lutherans, we need to dig a little deeper in order to discern if his words really mean what we first think they mean. Words can mean different things to different people.

the Old Adam said...


No argument there.

Catholics use the same vocabulary...but with very different definitions.

Thanks, friend.

PS- If you get a chance, listen to this decidedly Lutheran message:

I think you'll love it every bit as much as I.

Mark Henderson said...

Good to clarify that, Old Adam.
And thanks for the link, which I'll listen to with great interest.