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Archive Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

Why Squishy Converts Are The Worst

My friend and fellow pastor in the CREC, Toby Sumpter, has been posting some clear-thinking reflections on what is practically involved when Reformed Christians convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. I thought this post was especially accurate, particularly this paragraph:

A convert must leave the unity of the church that he/she is currently enjoying. The convert must cut ties and refuse to enact the central sacrament of unity with those Christians any more. A convert must sometimes be re-baptized, often confirmed/chrismated, but at the very least make a profession of faith that the new communion is the fullness of the Body of Christ and implicitly (if not explicitly) denounce the previous church as something less than a true church where the Lord is present in all His glory.

This is exactly right, and it shows why anyone who converts from an informed and self-aware Reformed church to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy needs to make strong and exclusive claims and why they had better really believe them. The act of joining a church which makes such claims is itself a profession of a kind of faith, and it bears direct and sober implications about the status of churches outside of their institutional jurisdiction. The various nice-guy converts who try to downplay all of this and say that it’s not that big a deal, or that nobody has to take a big criticism in all of this, are actually the least loving and least responsible of all. Let me explain.

To join the Roman Catholic Church, you must believe that Jesus ordained Peter as a singular bishop with full jurisdiction over the entire church. Further, you must believe that this Peter set up his jurisdiction in Rome and conferred that jurisdiction, in an institutional form, to all succeeding bishops of Rome. They were given, by Jesus Christ Himself, plenary authority over all other Christian churches. Beyond this, one must also believe that the substance of bread and wine are wholly removed from the eucharistic elements when the words of institution are spoken (Council of Trent, 13th Session, Declaration Concerning the Eucharist, Canon 2) and that anyone who denies this is anathema. An anathema is the placing of someone under a divine curse:

Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N– himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.

There are many more claims for which the Roman Catholic Church places objectors under anathema. One must believe that Jesus Christ is truly sacrificed in the Mass for continued remission of sins. One must believe that priests have judicial and penal authorities over the laity. One must believe that the pope can speak infallibly under certain conditions and that earlier ex cathedra papal statements, including prior anathemas, are also infallible and thus irrevocable.

And I just don’t see how you can believe those things in any other way than dead-serious earnest. You don’t have to be boastful or puffed-up. But you can’t view them as “not really that big of a deal.” And you can’t rightly take issue with people who think those things are direct affronts to them. You can believe those people are wrong, and you can be sad for them, but you can’t think they are ridiculous for making a stink over it.

Vatican II did not change this situation. Vatican II did change a number of things, and its exact meaning is hotly contested among Roman Catholics, but it did not cancel earlier anathemas. Vatican II extended a sort of exception (or exemption) to those who are sufficiently ignorant of the teachings of the Roman Church, and so it does take away a lot of the earlier exclusivity, but it does not lift anathemas from those who study the matter and become informed. A conscientious and informed Protestant is as condemned today as he was in the 17th century.

Eastern Orthodoxy does not have the same distinctives as Rome, and they do not have nearly as many or as specific anathemas, and yet the Service of the Triumph of Orthodoxy does include the following:

To those who dare to say that the all-pure Virgin Mary was not virgin before giving birth, during birthgiving, and after her child-birth, Anathema!

To those who mock and profane the holy images and relics which the holy Church receives as revelations of God’s work and of those pleasing to Him, to inspire their beholders with piety, and to arouse them to follow these examples; and to those who say that they are idols, Anathema!

Many Orthodox refuse to recognize Protestants (in general) as Christians, but even the more big-minded of them will need to say that informed and committed Protestants who actively reject teachings like those quoted above are outside of salvation. I don’t doubt that many individuals in Orthodox churches do not believe this, but the sort of “official” position is what it is.

And so again, to believe this requires a strong personal constitution. One ought to speak clearly and firmly, and one really ought to be evangelizing Protestants with a sincere passion. What someone who converts to these churches cannot do is downplay the action as a minor move, an internecine squabble, or a case of different flavors for different tastes. To do so would be terribly insensitive and demeaning towards those who sincerely disagree, to the memories of those who fought and died in the past, and to the integrity of God’s truth.

Many converts take refuge in the postmodern retreat to commitment. They say, “Hey, don’t be mad. This isn’t personal. It’s just what I believe now.” And yet they do not seem to recognize or admit that what they believe has public consequences and bears directly on the status and fate of others. It cannot but impact all of those in their former congregation.

Now, none of this is an argument for why Protestantism is right and why Rome or Orthodoxy are wrong. I have not tried to make that claim (though I believe it). I am only talking about how conversions ought to be understood. They are not the kinds of things which can avoid hard edges. I also do not mean that all converts need to be jerks. One can be very kind and very sympathetic while still maintaining an uncompromising and clear position.

And this means that Protestant responses to such conversions must also be firm. As tempting as it would be to hug it out and tell everyone to be warm and filled, it would not actually be the right thing to do. It would not be loving. It would not be respectful. It would not be true.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

15 replies on “Why Squishy Converts Are The Worst”

The Romans and Greeks also both accept Second Nicaea (787) as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the canons of which council explicitly anathematized those who refuse to bow to images. Not just those who regard such practices as idolatrous, but any who refuse to do it!

I think the popes agree with you on that last part bc they earn us of a “false ecumenism ” while exhorting us to commune as far as possible and work towards unity in charity. Whatever we say and do should always be motivated by love, love of the brethren and love of truth. The only possible way of spinning this as no big deal, is bc God knows our hearts. In that we may rest.

Dear Mr. Wedgeworth,
I greatly appreciate the honesty of this post. I think all members of the church, whatever their juristiction, denomination, etc, would do well to remember the “hard edges” of the Faith.
In keeping with this, I hope, in love, to address your assessment of Orthodoxy in that “informed and committed Protestants who actively reject teachings like those quoted above are outside of salvation.”
Allowing for individual variations, I believe it is safer to say that the “sort of ‘official’ position” of Orthodoxy does not say this. Rather, it is more correct to say that Orthodoxy does not believe that anyone, even those who hold beliefs which we must declare anathema because they go against the foundational beliefs of the Church, is “outside” of salvation. This language implies that we, mere humans, have the ability to see how Christ will ultimately judge an individual. This implies that one person has the ability to see into another’s life, another’s journey – to see their struggles, their knowledge, their motives – and assess how well they loved God and followed Christ. We do not have that ability and would be wrong to claim so. The Orthodox Church says, rather, that we are /unsure/ about the salvation of those who fit the description above.
For an accurate look at the Orthodox view of other religions, I would recommend to you Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s book “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy”.
Sincerely,
Emily Shoemaker

In fairness can the same not be said of a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox convert to Protestantism? Heck, even a convert within Protestantism (say Presbyterian to Baptist) might need to be re-baptized, and so much of the same logic applies, no?

Hi Emily,

I think you are explaining well a rather modern variation of Orthodoxy. Compare what you’ve written with what one finds in the Synodicon of Orthodoxy: “These blessings have passed down from them to us, as from fathers to sons who are zealous for their piety, and curses overwhelm the parricides, who disdain the master’s commands. Therefore, we, as the community of piety, publicly inflict on them the curse which they have brought on themselves…”

Quite a few persons get named directly too: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/02/synodicon-of-orthodoxy.html

Dan,

That’s a good question, but it doesn’t quite hold because “Protestantism” is not an institution and so various churches within it might differ. The majority practice within Magisterial Protestants has been to receive all Trinitarian baptisms.

This works to an extent with conversions between protestant groups. Honestly, as an Anglican, I get tired of the number of squishy conversions I see. I became an Anglican, because I honestly found myself caught between the teachings of Luther and Calvin after an honest study of scriptures. Terribly ironic that my own stance on the clear teaching of scripture would lead me birthplace of ecclesiastical squishiness. Ah well.

One minor criticism I would have on this is that the article does kind of assume that Roman Catholics and Orthodox have the rigid logical consistency of the Reformed. Catholicism has been ever since it’s inception a pell mell of conflicting doctrines. The Romans hold the Councils of Orange (Augustinian), Trent (Near Semi-Pelegian), and Vatican II (modernist), outright contradict each other, yet they’re all considered to be divinely inspired. It’s impossible to be a consistent Catholic in the same way that’s its possible to be a consistent Reformed Calvinist. If a Catholic started being logical about their theology, they would cease to be Catholic.

The case is the opposite one with Orthodoxy. Where Catholics teach lots of mutually contradicting theories, the Orthodox have very few binding theologies that make them distinctive. Orthodoxy is ninth century Christianity frozen in stasis, and as such, hasn’t even considered many of the theologies debated by Protestants and Catholics. It’s still too busy worrying about the addition of the filoque clause. They don’t have the theological branches to take a strong stand against Protestantism.

But I do agree, that if you believe your doctrine is correct, one should act like it.

Mr. Wedgeworth,

I certainly agree with your insistence that our faith must be real and absolute and not relativist. That being said… One of the most difficult aspects of conversion for most Protestants is the thought that their friends and family are lost along with a wholesale condemnation of their past Christian experience. This is the greatest stumbling block I have found. Apparently you are aware of this serious hurdle so I must congratulate you on your article which shrewdly plays on this fear in a persuasive manner. But you do not understand the Orthodox Church’s position on this and are mistaken. All that you have said about taking the faith seriously and not underplaying the ramifications is good but the part about denying the salvation of dear ole grandma is just bunk. I must say it sure appears that you are craftily trying to create fear and doubt in would be converts and by all means ply your trade but please be honest or at least find out the truth of the other side.

Fr. Patrick (an Orthodox priest)

I think you are slightly misinterpreting the binding and loosing power of Peter w.r.t. anathematizations. It is a power to bind on earth and have it reflected in heaven, not a power to bind heaven. As such, I do not think that it is Catholic doctrine that being anathematized makes it impossible for God to lead you to salvation by some means. It is rather a teaching that anathematization excludes you from taking the surest path, that you are no longer able to take the path Jesus originally laid out.

>The majority practice within Magisterial Protestants has been to receive all Trinitarian baptisms.

I’m not sure how this affects anything, since that is the Catholic practice as well?

Fr. Patrick,

I did not address “dear old grandma” in this post, and so I’m not sure I was as shrewd as you supposed. I made several references throughout to those who are self-aware, committed, and informed. I even wrote about those “who actively reject teachings like those quoted above.”

So your critique fails, at least in regards to what I have written.

Now, if grandma has been dutifully catechized since her youth and enjoys reading the works of Francis Turretin, then the situation is different.

As an Orthodox person (who reads heavily in the biblical theology of Jordan and Leithart, and just started Sumpter’s commentary on Job, incidentally), I agree with the great majority of this article. Conversion to Orthodoxy is a radical reconfiguration of one’s Christian faith, and Orthodoxy is affirmed as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, to the exclusion of all others. That said, one wouldn’t want to say that the non-Orthodox are definitively damned. Such harsh condemnations are usually reserved for those who were Orthodox and left the faith- this isn’t a modern, twentieth century position either. St. Theophan the Recluse wrote this back in the nineteenth century:

“”You ask, will the heterodox be saved… Why do you worry about them? They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins… I will tell you one thing, however: should you, being Orthodox and possessing the Truth in its fullness, betray Orthodoxy, and enter a different faith, you will lose your soul forever.”

Around the same time, St. Innocent of Alaska was making organs for Franciscan monasteries on the coast of California. I don’t want to imply that there haven’t been harsher voices- there have been. But the most consistent teaching, in my view, is represented by the arch-traditionalist (and future saint), Fr. Seraphim of Platina:

http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/howtotreattheheterodox.aspx

“About those Christians who are outside the Orthodox Church, therefore, I would say: they do not yet have the full truth—perhaps it just hasn’t been revealed to them yet, or perhaps it is our fault for not living and teaching the Orthodox Faith in a way they can understand. With such people we cannot be one in the Faith, but there is no reason why we should regard them as totally estranged or as equal to pagans.”

Hi Seraphim,

Thanks for your comment, and I appreciate its tone. I have received several others, saying much the same thing, but combining it with various levels of personal attacks and insults. So I didn’t let them through. I was glad yours was publishable.

I think a few rejoinders will be helpful. First, I did not write in my post that Orthodoxy teaches all non-Orthodox persons to be assuredly damned. I wrote, “…will need to say that informed and committed Protestants who actively reject teachings like those quoted above are outside of salvation.” The reason I said this is because Orthodoxy holds 1) That the Orthodox Church is the true church in its entirety (no branches or 2nd-class churches) and that 2) There is no salvation outside the Church. On top of this, it adds anathemas to those who would openly and directly teach against its key dogmas.

Can Orthodoxy admit of exceptions? Certainly. Can those once-anathematized have later conversions, even secret ones? Yes. Can there be misunderstandings and points of disconnection? Yes. But the generality is still general. You don’t hear the Orthodox apologizing for Cyprian and demanding asterisks be placed beside “No salvation outside the Church.” They are not afraid to say the following:

Since, in the case of schismatics and heretics, we have a break in love, unity, and catholicity, and consequently a “departure” from the “observable limits of the Church,” outside which Divine Grace cannot generate “living flames,” how is it possible for us to talk about Mysteries and Saints outside the Church?

If it is the Great High Priest Who celebrates the Mysteries in the Church, is it possible for the Same to celebrate the mysteries of those who have fallen away from love, unity, and Catholicity?

It is, assuredly, impossible for us to speak about salvation through the mysteries of heretics, thereby violating a basic ecclesiological principle: that salvation is accomplished within the context of communion in Christ, that is, within the Body of the Church as a charismatic and therapeutic organism, in which the Head—Christ—finds fullness in the entire Body and the entire Body finds fullness in the Head: “The fullness of Christ is the Church. And rightly, for the complement of the head is the body, and the complement of the body is the head.”7

If the isolation of some member of any organism whatever spells doom for that member, how can we speak about the Church if, in the end, one does not experience, either as an individual or as a community, this unique life of the Theanthropic Body, with its complementary relationship of Head and Body?8

Let it be clearly established that “Grace in truth acts, but is not salvific outside catholicity”;9 though it acts, it does so not by effecting Mysteries and producing Saints, but by mystically prompting those outside the Church to repent and return to the Truth and catholicity of the One Church.

In conclusion, there really is an indisputable “boundary” whereby the “definitive contour” of the Body of the Church is delineated and which reveals the “ultimate limits” of the Church: the correctness of Faith, of which the Mysteries are an expression.

http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/baptismal_theology.aspx

Two other articles which present this view of “generally no” are on the same website:

http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/stcyprian_eccles.aspx
http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/did-saint-cyprian-change-the-doctrine-of-the-church.aspx

Secondly, let’s look at those quotes you’ve posted.

The quote from Theophan (the 19th century isn’t that long ago, mind you…) actually doesn’t say anything positive in favor of the non-Orthodox’s fate. He says that the Savior will “take care of them.” But he doesn’t say how or through what mode, and he basically tells the questioner to mind his own business.

I would also challenge the description of Seraphim Rose (of whom I have much respect) as an “arch-traditionalist.” He wrote against those who deemed themselves to be arch-traditionalists, and he certainly had a bigger vision of Orthodoxy than many (His love for Augustine comes to mind). And so I would expect him to want to apply oikonomia broadly. However, let’s not try to stretch his words too much. He says not to regard Protestants and others as “totally estranged or equal to pagans.” But he doesn’t say that they are in state of spiritual safety. To the contrary, he says this: “The Orthodox Church alone is the Body of Christ, and if salvation is difficult enough within the Orthodox Church, how much more difficult must it be outside the Church! …If God wishes to grant salvation to some who are Christians in the best way they know, but without ever knowing the Orthodox Church—that is up to Him, not us. But when He does this, it is outside the normal way that He established for salvation—which is in the Church, as a part of the Body of Christ.”

So we do see a kind and hopeful sentiment, but Seraphim still stays that this is an exception to norm and that such persons are in a very difficult and dangerous place. He goes on to say that you shouldn’t be harsh and polemical. But he does not say that you should give them assurance or dismiss the seriousness of their separated status.

I would agree that the Orthodox can give lots of exceptions to their rule. The Roman Catholics can as well. But for my post above, the point was not that RCs or EOs have an absolutely rigid and closed view of salvation. It was that they have a definitive and “ordinary” view of the status of those who actively reject their dogmas and that this means converts have to have a very serious and sober view of the matter.

Steve,

Thanks for your reply. I agree with much of it. Just the following comments (which I’ll make my last to avoid weighing down your comment section)

1. The question with respect to salvation and the Church, for me at least, isn’t whether Protestants are presently in the Church (I don’t believe they are) but whether it is possible that some will be joined to the Church in the age to come who are not joined to the Church in this life. It’s impossible to give a dogmatic account of such persons, because it is a mystery, but this view has been articulated by authors such as Patrick Barnes. There have also been interesting experiences in the context of prayers for the dead (which I don’t think you buy, but I don’t want to speak for you) which are suggestive of the possibility of heterodox salvation.

2. I definitely don’t want to give the implication that it’s safe to be outside the Church. It’s not. I only want to say “the Church is fundamental” and “God is merciful and utterly fair” at the same time. I’ll admit to struggling over how to communicate these two things most precisely, and maybe St. Theophan’s advice is apt- one ought to mind one’s own business.

3. There are a couple things which help me in attempting to consider the heterodox in the modern world. The first reality is those saints of the old covenant who never possessed the Spirit. It’s clear (to me at least) that the only persons who possessed an actual indwelling of the Spirit in the old covenant were the prophets. Joel 2, alluding to Numbers 11, predicts a day when all the Lord’s people will be prophets and have the Spirit, and that’s fulfilled at Pentecost. I don’t think this means every Israelite without the Spirit was damned. After all, only Joshua and the elders had the Spirit when the conquest began, but every Israelite male sat under Jericho’s nose incapacitated and vulnerable after the circumcision. The situation isn’t exactly analogous (especially regarding covenantal status) but there are insights to be had.

The second reality which helps me understand the heterodox is the fact that from the time of Noah to the arrival of Europeans in the New World, there were some Native Americans who plainly worshiped the one true God. Winfried Corduan in his book on original monotheism documents the existence of monotheistic, monogamous, sexually conservative Native Americans with an ethic of love for one’s neighbor. They said that the Great Spirit had flooded the world for it’s wickedness some time in the past- this is plainly the God of Scripture. The question would then be how one accounts for them after the incarnation. They had continued to be faithful to God through the Noahic revelation and had no idea that the Noahic covenant had been subsumed into the New Covenant. My strong suspicion is that God treated them as He did under the Noahic covenant, even as He knew that the covenants had changed. Again, it’s not precisely analogous, but it helps give another dimension to the problem.

Thanks for the conversation. I don’t know if you’re ever at the Theopolis classes, but I’m planning on heading down for one at some point, so perhaps we’ll meet sometime in the future.

“The majority practice within Magisterial Protestants has been to receive all Trinitarian baptisms.”

That may well be, but the thing I observe most often around me is something like Presbyterians or Anglicans who might find themselves at a church of some credobaptist persuasion. And to me the thought of being baptized again (which many – if not all – credobaptists tend to require of members), I mean if I was utterly convinced of it I suppose I would have to follow my convictions, but I would essentially be denying that any who had been baptized as a baby was really a Christian. Either that or there’s more than one baptism.

So in my corner of the world, this looks a lot like what your describe when folks swim the Tiber, or um, the Bosphorus? (I don’t know the EO equivalent to that expression.)

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