There really is such a thing as Reformed Papists. Sometimes called Romish, or Romanists, these men will balk at these apt handles. They will mock and they will scoff. After all, THEY believe in Sola Fide and all that good stuff. Surely THEY can’t have anything to do with Rome. But they can, and many do for various reasons.
Much has been written about the Romanist ideas that these men perpetrate. Herman Bavinck, in his The Catholicity of Christianity and The Church, explains the distinctively Roman Catholic error of conflating the visible universal Church with the institutional church. Bavinck connects what we would now call a covenantal error of Roman Catholicism and why this foundational error brings about the destruction of the important distinction between the institutional church and the universal Church. Simply put, Bavinck understood the Two Kingdom implications of conflating those ideas.
Ecclesiology is not covenantally neutral. We cannot adopt the ecclesiology of Rome or the closely related ecclesiology of Escondido and expect no problems, as if ecclesiology is a theology on an island fully independent of other ideals. How we view the Church will affect how we view the world, and how we view the world will affect how we view the Church. Reconstructionists that have an ecclesiology identical to Michael Horton desire to see the world, well, like an Reconstructionist. However, their view of the Church and their view of the world is in conflict. It is very much like attempting to push the gas pedal while the emergency brake is engaged. Not only won’t you get far, you might break something.
By this point, some of my readers will be seeing red. They may already be planning their hundredth passive-aggressive social-media post about “loving the Church” that is actually about how much they don’t love THOSE Recon Abolitionists. To be fair, not all critics are that given over to their baser appetites. Many are good intentioned. Many are also very much distracted by references to Rome. They read the words “Reformed Papist” and they stop reading. Or, if they continue reading, they are fuming and only thinking about how they’ll sharply respond. Conversation after conversation is about how they do not like being called “Romish”. Comment thread after comment thread is a futile attempt to dig your way to something of substance. Very often the skin is far too thin and the hearts are only more hardened.
This isn’t solely the problem of the offended. If I know a term will trigger someone, it must be weighed in order to determine if it is wise to use the term, triggered pastors or not. Sometimes it is not worth it. Other times exposing the pride of those who are easily offended is very much worth it. Tone and persuasiveness matter, but not nearly as much as the truth of a word or idea.
“Name-calling” is not automatically a virtue or a vice. “Romish” or “Papist” are not randomly picked insults from an insult fishbowl, they are well-reasoned and descriptive terms. Sharp? Sure. True? Absolutely. Rome teaches on many things. One can be Reformed soteriologically, but fully Roman ecclesiologically. It is naive to think oneself immune from error, even Roman error, because you adhere to the Five Points of Calvinism.
One thing is certainly true. It is far easier to be offended than it is to make an argument. Being offended by a term should not be the “get out of logic for free” card for Christians. Focus on the content.
Although those who hold to either Two Kingdom ecclesiology or Papist ecclesiology would have you believe that these few Reconstructionist and Abolitionist rabble-rousers are delving into novel and peculiar theological ideas, that is simply untrue. These are not new ideas, and yes, I will insist that the Neo-Calvinists and Rushdoony were correct on the implicit dangers of this conflation of concepts.
As I previously stated, Bavinck, Rushdoony, and others have clearly called out these ecclesiological errors as from Rome. Rushdoony brilliantly called this spade a spade in Chapter Four of Intellectual Schizophrenia. This short excerpt from that chapter significantly deepened my understanding of ecclesiology. Since reading Intellectual Schizophrenia, and later reading Bavinck’s work on the Church, I have become fully convinced on the covenantal and eschatological implications of ecclesiology. Furthermore, next time someone you don’t like (perhaps someone from Bulgaria) calls your idea “Papist”, remember that Rushdoony would have said the same. In this excerpt, Rushdoony states that “This point cannot be emphasized too strongly.” It would do us to pay attention, especially those that claim to understand and hold to Christian Reconstructionism. Strutting about as if you “love” the Church more than the men you admire and read does not make you look clever. As we should remember, nothing is neutral and everything is covenantal. Ecclesiology matters. I hope this excerpt is as helpful to everyone who reads this as it was to me. The following is from RJ Rushdoony and JM Spier.
“A very real problem, however, confronts us in the definition of the “church,” a concept which must be understood if education is to be free. Here we find an area of considerable confusion, and some thinkers ready to assert conclusions unaware of their far-reaching implications. Again, Reformed thinkers have not always themselves been consistent with their insight here. The question is this: is the institutional church to be identified with the visible church? The Roman Catholic Church holds that the visible and invisible church are very closely linked and that the visible church is the institutional church. In other words, the Roman Catholic Church is the Kingdom of God on earth. The Immediate implications of this for everyday life are far-reaching. The world is divided into two realms, first, the realm of grace, which is the Kingdom of God or the church,and, second, the realm of nature, which is the rest of the world. As a consequence, the only way in which the home, the school, and the government can be linked with God is through the institutional church, in that they possess no direct relationship with Christ and hence no direct relationship with God. Their relationship being mediated and subordinate to the institutional church, it becomes necessary for the state, school and home to be under the authority of the church in every avenue of life, and, as members of an inferior realm, the realm of nature, to be under constant suspicion and guard. The realm of nature is seen as in constant tension with the realm of grace and only able to serve God as it is dominated by the authority of grace, the church. Now as Dooyeweerd, Spier, Van Til, Vollenhoven and others have pointed out, this fundamental dichotomy between grace and nature is altogether unbiblical and wrong. The dichotomy is not between grace and nature but between grace and sin, so that when any realm of nature enters into the state of grace, it becomes part thereby of the visible church. To define the kingdom of God or the visible church in terms of the institutional church is to take the road to Rome, to drift toward the subordination of every avenue of life to the church. Many Protestants indeed share in this position and view every avenue of life with suspicion apart from ecclesiastical domination. But for us the biblical church, the kingdom of God on earth, is to be identified with the reign of God in the hearts of men wherever they are. Consequently, we must hold that the Christian home is a part of the visible church, as is the Christian school, the Christian state, and the Christian man in his calling, godly men everywhere in their calling serving as priests of the Kingdom of God on earth. The Christian as scientist manifests the activity of the visible church, of the Kingdom of God on earth, in his particular sphere of activity. The Christian farmer, as he subdues the earth and exercises dominion in the name of God is thereby manifesting the activity of the visible church in his particular sphere. Consequently, the Institutional church is definitely not one area above all the other areas of life, but is one aspect of the Kingdom of God on earth among many others. For us, therefore, the Institutional church together with and not above the school, the home, the Christian man in whatever calling or sphere of activity is his, equally represents the Visible church, the Kingdom of God. The Christian school is a part of the visible church, and every school has a responsibility, if it be true to its function, to become a manifestation of the Kingdom. This entire concept has been well summarized by Spier, in his study of Dooyeweerd: [ An Introduction to Christian Philosophy (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing. Co., 1954), 223.]
“If the visible church is equated with the church as an institution then the Roman Catholic dualism between “nature” and “grace” cannot be avoided. According to it, temporal life belongs to the sphere of nature. Christ is not the direct King of secular life. The sphere of faith is separate; it is a sphere of grace. Society is not a part of the body of Christ, but in its inner structure society is worldly and devoid of grace. It has its origin and end in temporal existence and, as such, does not lead to eternal life. The Only tie that the sphere of nature can have with the sphere of Grace is indirect. Society can be bound only to Christ By grace. It can only approach God through the institution of the church. The latter alone can afford a haven for the sphere of nature. “Nature” is not “idle in the Lord,” insofar as it is connected with the church. The latter cannot rest until it dominates human life in its entirety. If The consequences of the dualism between nature and grace are to be avoided, we must unequivocally maintain that the invisible church includes more than the institutional life of the church. The “visible” church is all of temporal society, insofar as it derives its life from Jesus Christ and employs its energy to advance His Kingdom. A Christian Marriage, a Christian family, state, school, or any other Christian relationship which acknowledges Christ as the King of heaven and of earth, belongs to the visible church. Thus, the church as an institution, as a household of faith,is on the same level with all other relationships. The visible church, or the Kingdom of God, manifests itself in a multiplicity of forms, forms in which the Body of Christ Is revealed. The church as an institution is not the revelation of the Body of Christ, but it is one revelation of it. The Body of Christ is revealed in other forms,(Compare Ephesians 5:23).”
This point cannot be emphasized too strongly. The integrity of life depends upon it. In view of the confusion of many churches at this point, and their malpractice, the suspicion of many people with regard to the church is clearly justified.”
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