Dale, in light of recent events I am grateful that I was hindered from making a timely fulfillment of my promise of a follow-up to this post. Pope Francis’ extraordinary personal outreach to Pentecostals helps put a new and better frame on the issue I promised to write about: how the Protestant-Catholic division shapes intra-Protestant debates over charismata.

On the one hand, I can join you (and have already done so) in affirming that debates over charismata should not become stalking-horses for irrelevant concerns over Rome. When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail, and there are some people for whom the hammer of opposition to Rome makes all theological debates look like the nail with which Luther posted the 95 Theses. As the adage about hammers suggests, the underlying cause can be a lack of appreciation for the importance of other theological topics. But it is more likely to be a failure of love.

Here I think Francis’ words are wise: “We must cry together like Joseph did. These tears will unite us. The tears of love.” This is not to prejudice the questions of whether it is possible for us to agree on the meaning of justification or profess that we have a shared understanding of the gospel. We may come to a negative answer on those questions; in fact, I happen to think a negative answer to those questions is more plausible than a positive one. But then, this is precisely the point; love must precede debate. What I want is to find a mode of loving unity in spite of our real disagreements.

A few years ago I heard a panel discussion on the topic of what is shared or not shared between Christian and Islamic theology. Several members of the panel were very eager to assert that we “worship the same God.” John Piper was one of those opposing this view. At one point Piper asked why some other members of the panel thought this question was so important, and he got the answer that if we can affirm that we worship the same God, it will help us love each other. Piper cried out with palpable frustration: “Don’t we have to love each other whether we worship the same God or not?” I could have shouted amen for an hour. If we only love each other after we reach some kind of theological agreement, we don’t really love each other.

This brings me to my inevitable “on the other hand,” and here I will also quote Francis. While we shouldn’t drag irrelevant disputes with Rome into every debate over charismata, neither should we delegitimize discussion of those issues where they really do arise. You rightly describe the possibility (and, imperfectly, the reality) of “friendship” between Pentecostals and Rome. I would extend that to friendship between all Protestants and Rome; I don’t see any reason why even a Warfield-obsessed paleo-Calvinist like myself can’t be in a state of loving friendship with people just because they don’t share my views of justification. But I do wish Francis hadn’t said “we have to encounter one another as brothers.” He may have meant “brothers” in something other than the biblical-theological sense, but his remarks will inevitably be interpreted in that sense. Unless I misunderstand, it is the teaching of the Council of Trent that we are not brothers in the biblical-theological sense. To insist that we must begin by asserting we are brothers would therefore be interpreted as an insistence that the theological question must be regarded as settled first, and then we can love each other. To paraphrase Piper, don’t we have to love each other whether we’re brothers or not?

This is the light in which I want to return to Warfield. I’ll admit that you’ve made a good case that opposition to Catholicism may have been more operative in Counterfeit Miracles than I had appreciated. But I think there is still a meaningful defense to be made of him on the three points you raise:

1. I can see your point that concerns about conversion to Rome are active in the chapter on the Patristic and medieval church. What I had meant to say about this chapter is that Warfield does not simply identify the Patristic and medieval church as Roman Catholic; to Warfield, the church before 1517 is a shared possession from which both “Catholicism” and “Protestantism” as we know them today grew, and I think this is right. When he critiques an aspect of the Patristic and medieval church, he is not critiquing Roman Catholicism but the church as a whole in that period. Indeed, as the opening passage in his chapter on Roman Catholic miracles indicates, he is not critical of the medieval church because it is Roman so much as he is critical of Rome because it is so medieval! However, this does not exclude his having had a chip on his shoulder in this chapter about modern Protestant—Catholic debates, and I think you have a point about that.

The importance of this issue about the medieval church will become clearer with my response to point 2, on the professionalization of miracles. As you suggest in your post, to the extent that medieval charismata such as visions and healing were not “professionalized,” they are somewhat removed from the core Protestant-Catholic issue. Hence I think it’s worth noticing that Warfield is criticizing the medieval church, not Rome as such. However, we must remember that the total set of claims about “miracles” continuing after the apostolic age include more than claims about charismata; they also include the miracle of the Mass, which is clearly a core Protestant—Catholic issue. The hierarchy which sets the priest spiritually above the layman in Roman Catholicism is closely tied to the priest’s status as one who is able to perform the miracle of the Mass; this is why he is called a “priest” in the first place.

2. Here is where I will take a stronger stand for Warfield, and you have already anticipated what it will be. When he argues that A. J. Gordon and others with similar teachings create a professional class of miracle-workers, it is legitimate for him to be concerned about core Protestant commitments in opposition to Rome in that chapter because a professional class of miracle-workers really does raise the issue of those commitments. Such a professional class threatens to introduce a spiritual hierarchy that elevates clergy to a higher religious level than the laity. Challenging this kind of hierarchy is a core Protestant commitment; indeed, Luther was militant about this years before he became militant about justification or the authority of the Bible. Protestantism was a revolution against religious paternalism well before it was anything else, and among magisterials like Warfield that fact is well remembered. Where clergy/laity hierarchy is an issue, we really are looking at the nail that posted the 95 Theses.

3. Warfield follows the standard magisterial Protestant practice of referring to all believers as saints—a practice that I do not believe is confined to magisterial Protestants. As for “saints in the Catholic sense,” if I understand it correctly, the Roman Catholic practice of canonization takes for granted distinctly Catholic claims about the role of human merit in justification, the possibility of supererogatory works, and the authority of the institutional church that I believe Protestants must reject if they are to remain Protestant.

In the coming generation, it is going to become more and more urgent for all branches of Christianity to find modes of loving unity. This imperative applies both to Protestant-Catholic relations and to intra-Protestant debates about charismata. Previous generations have sought to build such unity either by declaring our differences unimportant or declaring that the important differences have already been resolved. These approaches have fallen apart, because in fact the important differences remain, and remain important. What we need is unity in spite of, not in denial of, our differences.

Articles by Greg Forster


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