My Respect for Protestants / Catholic Ecumenical Principles

My Respect for Protestants / Catholic Ecumenical Principles June 9, 2019

Some people, after reading my apologetic writings, particularly in debate with Protestants, have concluded that perhaps I don’t respect Protestants or consider them sincere. Nothing could be further from the truth. To acknowledge these very characteristics is exactly what ecumenism is about — what it presupposes right from the outset. I am careful throughout my writings to assert my great love and respect for my Protestant brethren. Even if I don’t state this where I could do so, I assure readers that it is always my assumption and opinion and state of mind.

Just because I may criticize (at times even excoriate) Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Protestant Reformation, or Protestant theology in general or in particulars, does not mean that I have negatively judged any individual person. That doesn’t follow at all. I can’t know a person’s heart. How I view them individually as a Christian and disciple of Jesus is a quite different matter than disagreements as to theology.

I conducted an ecumenical discussion group at my house for four years. Near the end of that time, I did a survey, in which none of the Protestants or Orthodox (when asked) said that they had been offended in all that time. I think this speaks volumes, and I am very gratified by it. Certainly if I had been anti-Protestant, it would have come out in that survey.

Likewise, an evangelical Protestant who has since become a Catholic, read my conversion story in Surprised by Truth and picked me out of the eleven whose stories were included, to call on the phone, because (as she told me) she sensed I was not anti-Protestant at all (and this, in a story which recounts how I converted from Protestantism to Catholicism!). That indicates, I think, how highly I regard ecumenism and respectful fellowship, charity, and unity among Christians (based on John 17 and many other biblical exhortations).

Any impression that I am “anti-Protestant” in any way, shape, or form, concerns me very much, and I want to make sure this issue is cleared up. Criticism of ideas and certain beliefs is not intended at all to be personal or “hostile” criticism. I try my utmost to refrain from judging persons and hearts. I have had mine wrongly judged on several occasions and know first-hand how painful that is. I always strive to judge ideas but not peoplesins but not the sinners. I’m sure I’ve failed at times like we all do, but that is my constant goal nonetheless.

I greatly admire and respect conservative, orthodox Protestantism. I once was an evangelical Protestant, and praise God for that experience, which was exceedingly beneficial to my spiritual advancement and theological education. I now consider myself an evangelical Catholic. None of my writings are intended as an attack on the personal integrity of any individual. I do strongly criticize the ideas of the Protestant Founders, however, because they were public figures who made momentous claims, so that they ought to be held accountable for their actions and effect on Christianity. I take pains to carefully distinguish between the person and their ideas.

Catholics can benefit greatly from much of Protestantism. I hope to show that the converse is also true. My goal is to build bridges of understanding among Christians of all stripes, who are brothers in Christ (John 17:20-23). Catholics believe that the fullness of apostolic Christianity resides in their Church, but this does not at all mean that great, profound amounts of truth and goodness are not to be found in other Christian communions as well. All validly baptized Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and ought to be accorded the proper amount of respect befitting that status, as well as charity at all times.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time at my extensive website, Biblical Evidence for Catholicism can easily, readily observe, I believe, my respect for Protestantism, by perusing the hundreds of Protestant links I provide. I think it is commonly understood online that a link (like a standard reference citation in a book) does not necessarily imply across-the-board agreement. I choose my links according to a substantial commonality with Catholic doctrine, on whatever subject the link is categorized under.

For example, a Protestant apologist or theologian defending the Trinity or the Resurrection of Christ, or presenting philosophical arguments for the existence of God or angels or the devil or heaven and hell (i.e., an evangelical Protestant who upholds traditional Christian teaching in these areas), will offer virtually nothing a Catholic would disagree with.

So why shouldn’t a Catholic utilize sites where we have common ground with our separated brethren, over against our secular, pagan culture? As Catholics, we are called upon to be ecumenical. We have no choice. Evangelicals have been doing a great job in the last generation, in the area of general Christian apologetics. Catholics are just now getting into that again. So I cherish and am thankful and grateful for all the excellent, helpful, worthwhile non-Catholic efforts which agree with Catholic and Christian theology and orthodoxy.

Many Catholic converts wrote excellent books and articles before they converted, which are used by Catholics all the time, because they are orthodox and eloquent: Newman, Chesterton, Thomas Howard, and Malcolm Muggeridge come to mind immediately. Other lifelong Protestants, like C. S. Lewis, and (to some extent) John Wesley, are very close to Catholicism in spirit and doctrine. In a strict, non-ecumenical point of view, on the other hand, a John Henry Newman sermon from 1839, no matter how brilliant and orthodox, would be considered “unorthodox,” as would a Lewis essay on miracles, etc. Very few Catholic apologists (and I know scores of them) would agree with that approach. Truth is truth, wherever it is found, and our Protestant and Orthodox brethren have a lot of it, despite their many errors.

We need to stand with fellow Christians wherever we find common ground, so that we can affect our culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not be defeated by a “divide and conquer” strategy. Whether it’s trinitarianism, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, the inspiration of the Bible, or an opposition to homosexual acts, radical “unisex” feminism, pornography, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, or whatever, we have much in common, and we are called to rejoice in the truths that bind us.

Much truth can be found in, for instance, C. S. Lewis’s writing (he remains my own favorite author), as in the writing of many Protestant (not to mention Orthodox) writers, clergymen, and apologists. Catholics are free to acknowledge, and rejoice in, truth. We are sharp enough (or should be) to discern the errors.

Should a Catholic refuse to read Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine? After all, it was written in 1845 when the Venerable Cardinal was still an Anglican. Or should we look down our noses at the even earlier Parochial and Plain Sermons, from the 1830s: widely considered the most elegant sermons in the English language? Of course not. A hundred times no . . .

Most Catholics love and appreciate G. K. Chesterton. But should they eschew his classic work Orthodoxy, simply because it was written in 1908, some 14 years before Chesterton became a Catholic? No. Likewise, Malcolm Muggeridge was only a Catholic for the last eight years of his life (from 1982 to 1990)! Chesterton was only formally Catholic for the last fourteen years of his life (I’ve already been a member of the Catholic Church more than ten years myself!).

Muggeridge himself rejoiced in truth wherever he found it. In one of his last books, written as a Catholic, about his conversion, Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim, he cites approvingly many non-Catholics (as he had always done in his writing), such as: William Blake (pp. 17, 45, 49, 69), Thomas Traherne (p. 20), John Milton (p. 35), John Donne (pp. 45, 145), Simone Weil (pp. 44, 51-52), George Herbert (pp. 74, 103-104), Alexander Solzhenitsyn — one of his great heroes (pp. 75, 116-117), Nicholas Berdyaev (p. 88), Fyodor Dostoevsky (p. 98), Jonathan Swift (p. 145), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (p. 146), and Dr. Johnson (p. 148).

Concerning C. S. Lewis, what possible objection (apart from perhaps minor disagreements) would a Catholic have to works such as The Chronicles of Narnia or, say, The Problem of Pain, or Miracles, or The Screwtape Letters, or The Four Loves? Lewis had many Catholic friends in his inner circle – such as J. R. R. Tolkien (the author of Lord of the Rings). Many other Catholics are Lewis scholars and experts (Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, Walter Hooper).

Would any educated Catholic who knew their faith argue that Hilaire Belloc shouldn’t have been best friends with G. K. Chesterton, or cite him as an influence, until the latter converted? Or that this friendship and admiration somehow proves his lack of orthodoxy? I trust that readers can see the sheer silliness of this “guilt-by-association” sort of “reasoning.” It breaks down almost immediately upon examination.

It is true that C. S. Lewis rejected Catholicism, and even had (so it seems) a stubborn prejudice against it (one explanation advanced for that is his having been raised in Belfast – J. R. R. Tolkien has stated that Lewis actually admitted this prejudice to him in a private conversation). This doesn’t mean, however, that he didn’t accept many beliefs which we hold (indeed, this was in fact the case), or that his work is worthless. Lewis was highly influenced by Chesterton (he cited The Everlasting Man as perhaps the most influential book he ever read). Chesterton was arguably the preeminent Christian popular apologist in the first third of the century, right before Lewis hit the scene.

No properly-catechized Catholic denies that a non-Catholic will have error mixed in with his views. It is a matter of degree. Yet such a person might express himself on particular matters in an orthodox sense, and more eloquently than a Catholic. I think — again -– of Newman’s Anglican sermons in particular. John Wesley preached many sermons which would be of great benefit to Catholics, as he possessed almost identical beliefs with regard to things like sanctification, regenerative baptism, the perpetual virginity of Mary, Christology, etc.

Even anti-Catholic preachers like Charles Spurgeon or (today) John MacArthur, have many fine and beneficial insights to offer, for the discerning and careful Catholic reader or radio listener. Truth remains truth, even if it is surrounded by erroneous propositions and statements. We have reason to believe, for example, that the early Church was influenced by Jewish liturgics and sacred architecture. Does that mean that the early Church was therefore Jewish, or compromised, because it was influenced by a non-Christian religious group?

This applies to the New Testament also. It was clearly profoundly influenced by the Old Testament and “Jewishness” (just look at all the quotations), yet no one in their right mind claims that this is a compromise, or improper, because it is recognized that influences can be developed further, with some elements retained, and others rejected.

Likewise with C. S. Lewis’s influence on myself. Could Lewis somehow cease to remain an influence on my thinking simply because I took a different ecclesiological path than he did? The entire argument is silly and insubstantial, and works only for someone who has presupposed an anti-ecumenical, quasi-Feeneyite mindset in the first place.

Ecumenism is a great emphasis in the Catholic Church today, especially with Pope John Paul II, and one stressed by Vatican II and the last several popes. What is ecumenism if not attempting to find common ground with our non-Catholic Christian brethren? Internet links are a very concrete way to do that, where there is commonality and agreement. My perspective is completely orthodox and proper within a Catholic framework.

There is far more good in conservative, traditional Protestant writings than bad. We are in the world; we ought to learn to interact with our theological opponents – not avoid them like the plague or pretend they are not there. We can’t do an end run around the Church’s desire for ecumenism and cooperation where possible. Error is all around us; we are told, that 70% of Catholics disbelieve in the Real Presence, and that 70-80% contracept. These are matters of infallibly defined dogmas and objective mortal sin. So the error is in our midst as well — though not on the level of official teaching, of course.

I have been accused, in particular, of “bashing” or “disliking” or even “hating” Calvinist, or Reformed Protestants. This occurs because I have written quite vigorously (as part of what I would describe as my “apologetic duty”) in response to virulently anti-Catholic factions within Calvinism. But this, too, is an inaccurate appraisal of my beliefs.

Actually, I have a rather high view of Calvinism and many Calvinists. I state this in several places on my website. I intensely dislike certain beliefs or strands of Calvinism (particularly supralapsarianism) — as I oppose all error –, but other aspects I highly admire: the scholarly approach, the more historically-oriented view, the retention of sacramentalism, the appreciation for Covenant theology, a superior ecclesiology to many evangelicals, a concern for self-consistency, a high view of the majesty and Providence of God, an exceptional and praiseworthy interest in theology and apologetics, the Lordship salvation view, emphasis on cultural and political aspects of Christianity and Jesus as Lord of all of life, etc., etc.

Francis Schaeffer was and is a huge influence on me, as were Charles Colson, J. I. Packer, G. C. Berkouwer and many other Calvinists. I often listen to R. C. Sproul on the radio and receive much benefit from him (I think he is a wonderful teacher). I have Internet acquaintances who attend John Piper’s church. I visited a Calvinist pastor and his wife in another state in 1997. I have other Calvinist pastor friends. Many cordial debates with Calvinists are posted on my site. I could go on and on.

It is quite possible to seek to understand something better even if one largely disagrees with it (at least in the sense that it is not superior to Catholicism). Otherwise I couldn’t have ever converted to Catholicism. I used to think it was much inferior to evangelicalism (though I never hated Catholicism either), but I actually took the time to learn more about it, and I was persuaded.

That is my attitude towards Protestantism in general. I continue to admire it, and believe that Catholics can learn much from it, for the simple reason that it possesses much Christian and biblical truth, and because individual Protestants (or even denominations) often excel (especially in practice) at particular aspects of the Christian life or theology (e.g., Bible study, prayer, outreach, teen ministry, fellowship) in a way that puts Catholics to shame.

I hasten to add that all of the foregoing would also apply in a general way to my view towards the Orthodox Church, in fact, even more so, as there is much more substantial agreement between Orthodoxy and Catholicism than between Protestantism and Catholicism. I presuppose this at all times, even while issuing strong critiques on individual issues on my website and in my conventional published writings.

The Christian apologist (of whatever stripe), by nature, writes about disagreements; he critiques, and defends and expounds upon what he sincerely and deeply believes are the “superior” views of his own party. But it is incorrect and improper to conclude from this obvious fact, that any given apologist totally lacks all humility, or “hates” or wishes to “bash” personally someone of a different persuasion, or an entire group.

There is a right way to disagree and a wrong way. We are to love at all times, but there are also occasions when we must disagree, in principle. The latter is not exclusive of the former, and indeed, it ought to always incorporate it, if we are to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of a disciple of Jesus Christ. We all fall frequently, of course, but the biblical guidelines for handling disagreements (doctrinal or otherwise) are clear and straightforward.

Ephesians 4:15-15 (RSV) Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, who is Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.

Addendum (8 January 2003)

Examples on my website of my respect for, and agreement with various aspects of Protestant apologetics and theology are endless, and found at every turn, from my General Apologetics page, to hundreds of Protestant links throughout, to the numerous Protestant links about the cosmological and teleological arguments (e.g., William Lane Craig, whom I am quite fond of), to my C. S. Lewis page (the 2nd or 3rd largest on the Internet, and very highly-regarded, judging by letters received — the evangelical magazine Christianity Today regularly recommends it when they have an article about Lewis), to Wesley and Anglican links, the Romantic and Imaginative Theology page, to my Ecumenism page, the Heresies and Comparative Religion page, which includes many links to Protestant cult-fighters (a class I used to be part of myself in the early 80s)

There are also pro-life articles and links, lots of Protestant links on the Bible, articles on the Trinity, Protestant links against theological liberalism; many many positive letters received from Protestants, recorded on my site; two books of generic Christian apologetics (utilizing mostly Protestant references): Mere Christian Apologetics and Christian Worldview vs. Postmodernism, and my book, The Quotable Wesley (published by Protestant publisher Beacon Hill Press).  I’ve spent literally many hundreds of hours on these parts of my website, and in promotion of ecumenism.


(originally from 2001; addendum from 1-8-03)

Photo credit: donwhite84  (1-8-09) New England Protestant church [PixabayPixabay License]


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