vs. Douglas Wilson
Lately, with the much-ballyhooed debate between two Reformed Protestants: Douglas Wilson and Bishop “Dr.” [???] James White, concerning whether Catholics are Christians or not, renewed discussion on the legitimacy of Catholic baptism (and thus, no need for rebaptism of a convert to Protestantism) has arisen in Protestant (particularly, Reformed) circles. Wilson says Catholic baptism is valid, while White denies it (but of course, White is a Baptist, so he would deny the validity of all infant baptism, including all Reformed and other Protestant varieties).
Wilson thus asserts that Catholics are part of the “Covenant community” and therefore, “brethren in Christ,” while White denies that also. Both men try to enlist the “Reformers” in support of their positions (I believe Wilson is backed-up to a greater degree by the historical facts than White is, in this regard).
What interests me the most, however (as an ecumenical Catholic and opposer of anti-Catholicism) is how little (not how much) the more “ecumenical” side is willing to grant to the Catholic Church. So we are “brethren in Christ” and can be called “Christians.” That’s surely worth something, and is a considerable improvement.
But when one looks at the overall context and opinions of those (at least this one person: Douglas Wilson) making these “concessions,” it is clear that they can still be categorized as “quasi-anti-Catholics,” if not anti-Catholics (since the most widely-used definition amongst Catholics and historians and sociologists of all stripes is one whereby it means that Catholicism is considered a sub-Christian faith altogether).
I have found this to be true of both Calvin and Luther also, in the course of my studies on this issue. They may acknowledge baptism, yet on the other hand, they maintain the whole range of arguments against Catholicism, based on a host of misunderstandings and incoherent examinations, both theologically and historically. In other words, they hold to a contradictory position, whereas true-blue anti-Catholics are at least consistent (though far more wrong and distant from the overall truth of the matter, insofar as they hold to more falsehoods and errors).
Despite the “minimalistic” (too often quite condescending and patronizing) acceptance of Catholicism on a bare-bones level as Christian, these men state in a hundred different ways that the complete system of Catholic theology is abominable, idolatrous, etc. This is especially true in Calvin’s opinion on the Sacrifice of the Mass (and to a lesser extent, Luther’s), and both men’s reactions to the communion of the saints. It goes without saying that both had a very dim understanding of Catholic soteriology, thus leading to a host of distortions and straw men that have plagued that discussion ever since.
But my immediate point is to reiterate that even with the concessions of this relatively more “ecumenical” position, it is still far closer to outright anti-Catholicism in spirit than to a full-fledged ecumenism such as that seen in Vatican II and the ECT statements and the ongoing Lutheran-Catholic discussions.
Luther, Calvin, and men like Douglas Wilson and those who call themselves “Reformed Catholics” today still (generally-speaking) view Catholics as fundamentally “lesser” (often accompanied by much sheer prejudice and ignorance) in a way that they would not view fellow Protestants. They treat scarcely any other Protestant group with the suspicion and apprehension that they bring with them when they approach Catholics.
It seemingly largely remains the case that whoever is a “true Christian” in Catholic circles, must be so despite all of Rome’s “errors.” They are Christian insofar as they sound like good evangelicals or Reformed Protestants. They can’t be a good Christian by being a good (orthodox) Catholic. And that is the condescension and difference in how Catholics are regarded, over against other species of Protestants, by both schools (who are debating each other presently). I shall show examples of how Douglas Wilson regards Catholics in his recent opening statement in the debate mentioned above (his words will be in blue), with my critical interjections:
Before proceeding to my argument, I would like to begin with an assertion so there will be no confusion about my position concerning the Church of Rome. I detest the errors of Rome, and I pray for the day of her repentance. Among those errors I would include the idolatry of the Mass, the use of images in worship, their profound confusion on the matter of faith and works, Purgatory, Mariolatry, merit, the saints, the papacy, and much more. In preparation for this debate, I read James White’s book The Roman Catholic Controversy, which I thought was quite good. Judging from that book, I do not know of any distinctive Roman doctrine concerning which James White and I would disagree.
Note that he accuses Catholics of idolatry in three ways: the Mass, and veneration of images and of Mary.
I want to begin by setting a scriptural pattern, and I want to show how this pattern can be seen as culminating in a specific apostolic warning to the Church at Rome, which is the subject of our proposition being debated tonight.
Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:29)
The book of Hebrews was written to a new covenant people, and it was written in order to head off a looming apostasy. That is what the entire book is about.
Thus Wilson equates institutional Catholicism with an apostate organization supposedly being discussed here, with scarcely any warrant from the immediate textual considerations.
Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted (1 Cor. 10:1-6)
In short, our fathers are our examples, and with a number of them God was not well pleased. But what does all this have to do with the Roman Catholic Church? Rome has fallen into the errors it has because she has refused to heed the warning explicitly given by the apostle Paul to that specific church-a warning very much like the ones we have just been considering.
Isn’t this a wonderfully edifying and ecumenical sentiment? Wilson casually assumes that Paul was discussing the historic Catholic Church here. He doesn’t prove it; he merely assumes it. In so doing, Catholics are equated in moral and discipleship terms with the disobedient Jews in the wilderness, and those who lust after evil.
The apostle Paul saw (with remarkable prescience) that the Church at Rome was going to be a problem, and he addressed it forthrightly. And the only thing that is more remarkable than the Church of Rome ignoring these Pauline warnings aimed straight at her besetting sins is that fact that Protestants have also largely ignored the fact that these warning were directed at Rome. [he goes on to cite Rom. 11:16-22]
I submit, rather, that the quasi-anti-Catholic Douglas Wilson argues eisegetically and with remarkably circular logic.
In the past I have maintained (although I cannot find where I said this) that Rome was guilty of a final apostasy at Trent, where in solemn ecumenical council she anathematized any who faithfully held the biblical gospel. This is no longer my position, and if my worthy opponent has found a quotation of mine that says this, and returns to this point to press me with it, I will merely say, “I changed my mind, and it is a practice I commend to you.” It is nevertheless still my position that what happened at Trent deserved removal from the olive tree, that is, from the catholic church. But I am now convinced that such a removal has not yet occurred. God does not always give us what we deserve.
Absolutely classic example of a distinction without a difference . . . Further comment — and I could make several — would be entirely superfluous and an insult to readers’ intelligence.
The Roman church is shot through with theological liberalism, which Machen correctly identified as another religion entirely.
As if Protestantism isn’t? But the crucial difference is that liberalism (which we received from our Protestant brethren in the first place as an extrinsic “hostile worldview”) has not been enshrined or legitimized or sanctioned in Catholic dogma to the slightest degree, whereas we see Protestant denominations — most notably, Anglicanism (particularly in England and America) — institutionally changing, compromising, and caving to liberalism all over the place. Therefore, this criticism is far more damaging to Protestantism and its faulty principles of authority which have arguably caused the massive institutional apostasy of Protestant liberalism, than to the Catholic Church]
Couple this with feminism, the appeal of Mariolatry to the natural man, and it is quite possible that Mary will eventually get her big promotion, and people will be baptized into the name of a Quaternity. [my emphases]
Oh, really? Now Wilson lowers himself to the surreal and ridiculous levels of an Eric Svendsen or David T. King. Mary (it is “quite possible”) is to be promoted to membership into the Godhead and the Holy Trinity. Wow; it’s weird that I, as a Catholic apologist, have completely missed this turn of events . . . Wilson has now lost all credibility in my opinion, as any sort of “expert” on Catholicism. This is shocking and saddening to me, as I thought some progress was being made. But at least this (rather spectacularly) proves my point about ignorance, distortion, and so forth.
Who cares if he acknowledges our baptism, if he can argue on an absurd level like this, and have these ludicrous views of Catholic Mariology? To make matters worse (and more illogical) Wilson tries to place this in the context of an encroaching liberalism. But it is precisely liberalism which cares less and less about Mary (let alone Marian dogmas). The ones who are devoted to the Blessed Virgin and development of Mariology are the orthodox Catholics: who would be the very last persons to compromise trinitarianism and the nature of the Godhead.
When the creedal core has rotted out, the liturgy cannot remain indefinitely the same. We see this in the mainline denominations which abandoned the faith in substance, but kept the old triune form for a time, a form which we should receive.
This serves to prove my point about Protestant liberalism, too. Stuff like this happens in their ranks all the time, but there is no sign that it has occurred in Catholicism. And that should give folks like Mr. Wilson some significant pause, as to why that is the case. Individual stray, heterodox, dissenting Catholics may reject the Trinity, but that has nothing to do with what the Church teaches. Yet Wilson fears that the Catholic Church may switch from a Trinity to a Quaternity (I wonder if he is scared of the boogeyman “getting him” every night, too?). I swear that I have rarely seen such a ridiculous and empty-headed argument from an otherwise intelligent man, who should know far better.
(Originally posted on 11-7-04)
Photo credit: Protestant theologian Douglas Wilson, Revelation Commentary (7-9-19) [You Tube]