Sometimes I blush when I read the writing of fellow evangelicals. This week has been particularly difficult as C. Michael Patton has decided to develop a critique of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters that leaves evangelicalism indefensible. First, he wrote “Embracing Doubt or Why ‘Roman Catholic Scholarship’ is an Oxymoron” wherein he attempted (and failed) to show that evangelicals have substantially more intellectual wiggle room that Roman Catholics. I wrote a response titled “Roman Catholics cannot be scholars?! Then neither can evangelicals.” I don’t want to retread where we’ve already traveled, so I will let you read those post if you have not done so already. Also, I recommend posts from Jeremy Thompson, Rodney Thomas, Josh McManaway, Kevin Greenlee, and any other clear headed blogger who has pointed out the obvious flaws and contradictions located at the core of Patton’s argument.
A couple of weeks ago I heard an evangelical friend of mine criticizing Roman Catholics for the official process of sainthood. While I don’t affirm the doctrine that particular Christians are saints (e.g. Augustine of Hippo; Thomas Aquinas) while other Christians are not (e.g. Mark Stevens, Josh Smith), it was the methodology of his argument that caused me to frown. He asked what right the church had to determine who could be a saint and who could not be a saint. This seemed silly to me. It reminded me of the criticisms leveled against Christians by Liberal/Progressive Christians and non-Christians regarding our “choosing” of the canon. While we evangelicals like to use the language of “discovering” not “choosing” the canon, this seems to me to be semantics at best. For an evangelical to criticize Roman Catholicism’s process of sainthood we must begin somewhere other than where this person began for the same argument can be leveled against us regarding the canon of Scripture or some of our prized creedal affirmations.
Similarly, Patton argues that evangelicals can make better scholars than Roman Catholics because evangelicals can be intellectually honest while Roman Catholics cannot. In his most recent post titled “Why I Hate Roman Catholicism, Part 2″ he begins by acknowledging the critique of some of those who have responded to him. He tells of his own dabbling with Roman Catholicism. He lists several doctrines that he cannot affirm (i.e. prayer to Mary and the Saints; purgatory; and so forth). Then he makes arguments that basically derail evangelicalism in the process.
He criticizes Roman Catholics for saying they have remained loyal to the Apostolic Doctrine while pointing out that there has been change in their doctrine. Uh, well, this is problematic for evangelicals as well. Does Patton realize that the doctrine of the Trinity both (A) claims to be consistent with the teaching of the Apostles while (B) greatly evolving and morphing their teaching. What about our clear statements on the relationship between the humanity and deity of Christ? We infer this from Scripture, but we argue that the church got it right in our further development of Christology! Let’s be clear, the Apostle Paul may be called a “proto-Trinitarian” but he was not a Trinitarian as we describe it now. He wouldn’t have used our categories and terminology to describe how Jesus relates to the Father and Spirit (the Fourth Gospel comes the closest).
While we may not go as far as our Catholic and Orthodox siblings, if we affirm the Trinity, or the dual nature of Christ, or even the canon, then we agree with them that doctrine can unfold.
Patton attempts to display how Roman Catholics cannot disagree with Rome by pointing out several doctrines essential to Roman Catholicism. He uses Hans Kung as an example of someone who fell the wrong side of Rome and who therefore is no longer allowed to be an official teacher in the church. Apparently, he ignores the careers of Peter Enns, Bruce Waltke, and dozens of others who have been on the wrong side of evangelical institutions over doctrines such as inerrancy, or the historicity of Adam and Eve, or defining “hell”, or whether or not the Spirit through Christ can save someone even if someone is not a professed “Christian”.
Listen! These things will get you on the wrong side of evangelical hierarchies everywhere! You can loose your job. You can be removed from a pastorate or a teaching post. Again, I am not saying this is wrong, but I am saying Patton is blinding himself to what evangelicalism shares with Roman Catholicism.
Patton suggests that the important difference is this:
“Finally, a word about Roman Catholicism compared to Evangelicalism. Many have objected to me using Rome as a punching bag, believing that if Catholicism lacks freedom, then the same must be said of Evangelicalism. In a way, I see where people are coming from. However, this does not really work. Evangelicalism is not an institution. It has no creeds, documents of incorporation, headquarters, president, or pope. In theory, Evangelicalism is descriptive of a movement with which like-minded believers network or identify. One cannot be “kicked out” of Evangelicalism. One does not become an Evangelical by vowing to submit to the authority or even the idea of Evangelicalism. Therefore, the comparison does not work.”
This is a red herring. Yes, it is theoretically correct that one cannot be “kicked out of Evangelicalism” but ask a professor who affirmed evolution resulting in their departure from an evangelical institution if that really matters. Ask a pastor who is released from his position for not teaching hell as eternal conscience torment whether or not it matters that he is an “evangelical” who can never be removed from this oblong thing called “evangelicalism”. We still fire people from evangelical churches and institutions. For goodness sake, doesn’t Dallas Theological Seminary have a dozen and a half reasons to unemploy a professor? We still have churches who “excommunicate”. Patton’s point is a throw away.
Yes, evangelicalism allows for Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and others, but doesn’t Roman Catholicism boast the likes of Raymond Brown, Hans Kung, and personalities like Gustavo Gutierrez? And again, I will repeat what I said last time: Wouldn’t the University of Notre Dame hire a qualified evangelical? Yes! Would Wheaton College hire a Roman Catholic? No!
Roman Catholics and E/evangelicals share a lot. We must continue the dialog between the two groups to better clarify and qualify our differences. I am so very thankful for my Roman Catholic friends who give me push back on my various presuppositions. They challenge me to think clearly about why I affirm what I affirm. Often I am convinced that some segments of Roman Catholicism is more open and intellectually honest than many evangelicals. What Patton has written is misleading and lacks the critical self-reflection needed by evangelicals.
Also: See a further response from Jeremy Thompson.