Evangelical Reunion in the Catholic Church
By Bryan Cross
The following essay is a guest contribution by Jeremy Tate. Jeremy is finishing a graduate degree at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. this Spring. He was a member of the Presbyterian Church in America until he was received into full communion with the Catholic Church this past February.
Few Reformed theologians have spoken as candidly about the tragedy of denominationalism as Reformed Theological Seminary Professor, Dr. John Frame. 1 Throughout Dr. Frame’s prolific writing career he has consistently spoken of the splintering of Protestant churches as a devastating sin that harms nearly every aspect of the Christian life. In 1991 he devoted an entire book, Evangelical Reunion, to the mission of restoring Christian unity. Rather than treating the subject as merely academic, Dr. Frame writes as a man personally grieved over the crisis of denominationalism, yet also hopeful in God’s sovereign plan. I strongly recommend the book to both Catholics and Protestants alike.
Dr. Frame’s clarity and honesty about the problem of denominationalism also provides common ground for Catholics and Reformed Christians to engage one another. Both groups believe denominationalism is wrong. Both groups believe Christ did not intend His Church to be splintered into countless sects. Both groups believe Christ founded one Church. Dr. Frame extends the common ground even further as he articulates the belief that Christ not only established one Church, but established one with visible and governmental unity. If we both believe that Christ established one Church and that denominationalism is false, we are left with the task of determining the error which has created denominationalism.
In Evangelical Reunion, and again in his more recent work, The Doctrine of the Christ Life, Dr. Frame puts the onus of guilt for beginning denominationalism on the Catholic Church. At the same time, however, he articulates the position that neither corruption nor even false teaching justifies leaving a Church and starting a new one.2 This raises an obvious question; how can Dr. Frame possibly justify the Reformers leaving the Catholic Church? If neither sin nor false teaching is a reason for leaving any church, how can Protestants defend the actions of the men like John Calvin and Martin Luther? Dr. Frame answers the question directly. He writes:
The best justifications for starting a new Lutheran church, I think, were these: (1) the Roman Catholic Church was requiring, as a condition of membership in good standing, commission of sin, namely participation in what Luther came to regard as idolatry in the mass. (2) The church required as a qualification for teachers, subscription to a view of salvation which Luther believed was flawed at its very core.3
Based on Dr. Frame’s own teaching in The Doctrine of the Christian Life, his second reason must be dismissed, as he maintains that not even false teaching justifies leaving a Church. We’re left with his first justification, that to be a member in good standing in the Catholic Church required “commission of sin.”
When I read this, that the Catholic Church required her members to sin, I was unsure of what sin Dr. Frame was referring to. I emailed him for clarification and he kindly responded. He wrote, “What was the sinful practice required by the Catholic Church? Violation of the second commandment in worshiping the host. The church had always required its members to attend mass. Luther could not attend in good conscience.”4 Ironically, this practice, normally referred to as Eucharistic adoration, was recently affirmed by the Lutheran Bishops in the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Joint Commission.5 Yet, Dr. Frame maintains that this practice is sin and thus justifies the Reformers in leaving the Church.
In taking this position, Dr. Frame sets himself against the great Doctors of the Faith. For example, in his commentary on the Psalms, St. Augustine writes:
It was in His flesh that Christ walked among us and it is His flesh that He has given us to eat for our salvation; but no one eats of this flesh without having first adored it . . . and not only do we not sin in thus adoring it, but we would be sinning if we did not do so.6
More importantly, however, Dr. Frame’s rejection of this practice forces him to reject the most natural reading of the Eucharistic passages in Holy Scripture. In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus, holding the bread says, “This is my body.”7 In the gospel of John, Jesus commands his disciples to “eat his flesh and drink his blood.”8 Nothing, in any of these passages suggests that Jesus was speaking symbolically. The Protestant interpretation, though not put this way, begins with the belief that Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant what it sounds like He meant. In fact, the Protestant rejection of the true presence of Christ (the rationale for Eucharistic Adoration) isn’t exegetical at all; it’s simply rational. As one of my friends, a PCA Pastor put it, “the Catholic belief that the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus is insane!” True…it’s pretty wild, but it’s true to the text. More importantly, the body and blood of our Savior are our only hope in life, as St. Augustine said; it would be sin not to worship the sacred Host.
Reformed Christians generally love St. Augustine. They also love John Frame. Yet, one says we sin if we do not worship the Eucharist, the other says we sin if we do. Who should be trusted? The difference between these two beliefs is that one has been affirmed by the Catholic Church and the other has been rejected as heretical. 9 This is the same Catholic Church that rejected Arianism to the glory of Christ’s deity. The same Church that affirmed the reality of Christ’s humanity in the face of heretical docetism. The same Church that rejected the man-centered soteriology of Pelagius for the grace-centered theology of St. Augustine. This Church maintains and safeguards the Apostolic deposit of faith. This is the goodness of Christ manifested in the world — the offer of being incorporated into His bride, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
26And whilst they were at supper, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke: and gave to his disciples, and said: Take ye, and eat. This is my body.
22And whilst they were eating, Jesus took bread; and blessing, broke, and gave to them, and said: Take ye. This is my body.
19And taking bread, he gave thanks, and brake; and gave to them, saying: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me.
52If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world.
- In the Preface of Evanglical Reunion, Frame writes, “By ‘denominationalism,’ I mean, sometimes (1) the very fact that the Christian church is split into many denominations, sometimes (2) the sinful attitudes and mentalities that lead to such splits and perpetuate them.” [↩]
- He writes, “Remarkably, Scripture itself never says that believers should leave a church organization and form a new one because of false teaching. … But nowhere in the Old Testament, nor in Jesus’ teaching, does God command believers to abandon Israel and to form a new nation, church, or denomination. … As we have seen, there is doctrinal and practical corruption in the New Testament church as well. But again, the apostles do not call on believers to leave their churches and form new ones because of corruption.” (The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2008. Print. Page, 431.) [↩]
- “Evangelical Reunion – Preface.” The Works of John Frame and Vern Poythress. Web. 04 Apr. 2010. http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_books/Evangelical_Reunion/Preface.html. Chapter 2. [↩]
- Used with permission. [↩]
- “Pro Unione Web Site – Full Text L-RC Eucharist.” Centro Pro Unione, Christian Unity and Ecumenical Research. Web. 08 Apr. 2010. <http://www.pro.urbe.it/dia-int/l-rc/doc/e_l-rc_eucharist.html>. [↩]
- St. Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 98. [↩]
- Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19. [↩]
- John 6:52. [↩]
- Cf. Council of Trent Session XIII.5, Can. 6. [↩]