We love our Romanist friends and neighbors and we recognize that we have a family tie. We both claim a lineage in the ancient and medieval church but there are, as this brief sketch outlines, grave differences between us. We do not agree on fundamental matters of the faith. We do not agree on the nature of Scripture, on the nature of salvation, and on the nature of sufficiency of Christ’s person and work. These are not small matters. They go to the heart of the faith and to the most ancient “rule of faith.” On these things we cannot both be right.
The phrase “swimming the Tiber” is a metaphor for converting from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. I have not been able to determine its origins but the online Dictionary of Christianese traces the expression to 1963, which, if true, would mean that it arose during Vatican II (1962–65). I would be surprised if the expression is that modern but perhaps it is.
Swimming the Tiber is before us again because, Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today magazine, has announced that he is converting to Romanism. He is only one of a string of notable conversions, some of which have been observed in this space over the years. Why do evangelicals become Romanists?
Leaving Charles Finney And Bob Jones For The Vatican
In a word: burnout. Evangelicalism (whether in the mainline churches or the megachurch) is exhausting and so is fundamentalism. The former is dominated by the endless quest for the next exquisite religious experience (QIRE) and the latter is dominated by the quest to know what God knows, the way he knows it (QIRC). Neither is a sustainable model for the Christian faith or the Christian life. In contrast, at its best, when we are being true to the theology, piety, and practice that we confess, Reformation Christianity (and most especially the Reformed confession), is a pilgrim theology. It is content with the divinely instituted means of grace and to submit to divine revelation as confessed by the churches and, where the Scriptures do not speak explicitly or implicitly, to live in Christian freedom.
For many evangelicals, especially those with roots in fundamentalism (as distinct from evangelicals), converting to Rome used to be unthinkable. Now, of course, it is thinkable and especially for those who are looking for a connection to a theology, piety, and practice that pre-dates “How He Loves” or “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and the like. Many evangelicals and even some fundamentalists assume that what they know of Christianity and what they have experienced in the church is Reformation Christianity. They conclude that when they reject their fundamentalist or evangelical theology, piety, and practice that they are rejecting the Reformation. The truth is that a tiny percentage of American evangelicals and an even smaller percentage of fundamentalists live and worship in genuine Reformation churches.
Genuine Reformation Christianity Is Already Ancient
In truth, Reformation Christianity is another thing altogether from most American evangelical and fundamentalist churches. It is neither revivalist (evangelical, in the modern sense of the word) nor fundamentalist. Reformation Christianity does not have to manufacture a genuine connection to historic Christianity since it is an expression of it. We began recovering Patristic theology, piety, and practice in the early 16th century. The tragedy of evangelical and fundamentalist conversions to Rome is only compounded when then, in search of connection to ancient Christianity, they convert to Romanism because Romanism is not ancient Christianity. One is either a catholic, i.e., he holds the rule of faith (regula fidei) summarized in the Apostles’ Creed (symbolum apostolorum), the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 325, 381), the Definition of Chalcedon (451), and the Athanasian Creed (5th century) or he is a Romanist. He cannot be both. Like the word ecumenical, the word catholic is Greek for universal. Romanism is not the ancient, universal faith of the Church. The Protestant Reformers realized that the church had become seriously deformed and they sought to reform the church, to call her back to the Word of God as the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life (sola scriptura). They sought to revise the church’s worship by removing centuries of practices which were not authorized by God in Scripture and had no precedent in the apostolic church or in the 2nd or 3rd century practice of the church.
Ecumenical Christianity Has No Pope
One of the markers of Romanism is their submission to the Bishop of Rome, whom they regard (and who holds himself out as) the universal vicar of Christ on the earth. We agree with Gregory I, that any bishop who pretends to that title is the antichrist, not a bishop in the church of Christ. There is no evidence in the New Testament that Christ intended to establish the papacy. The Romanist defense of the papacy rests on a specious and tendentious inference from Matthew 16. If Jesus intended there to be a single, monarchical bishop in Rome and that said bishop should be the universal vicar of Christ on the earth, one would think that it would rest on a surer footing but it does not. Further, there is no evidence that the second-century church knew anything about a papacy. The Apostle Peter himself left us two epistles before his death and said nothing about being a pope. We do not even know with certainty that there was a monarchical bishop in Rome in the first or second centuries or even what the succession of bishops, if they existed, actually was. This is beyond odd, if Christ established the papacy. In fact the papacy developed gradually. We might look at Gregory I at the turn of the seventh century, or Leo I in the ninth century. We are some distance from the apostolic church or even the early post-apostolic church.
The Roman communion claims that she is carrying on the apostolic tradition in the sacramental ministry of the church. One great difficulty of this claim is that Jesus instituted only two sacraments, which Rome concedes (by calling them “dominical” as distinct from “apostolic”) and then claims improbably that she has authority to institute five additional sacraments. As late as the 9th century, however, no one knew anything of these five alleged sacraments. They were not formally recognized until the late 13th century. When the Protestant churches rejected Rome’s additional sacraments, she was not rejecting an ancient practice but a 300 year old corruption.
Scripture Is The Apostolic Tradition
Rome claims authority to do as she does on the basis that she was granted authority in unwritten apostolic tradition. Again, this is a fiction. There is simply no evidence for this claim. The first unambiguous claim for such a thing did not occur until the late 4th century (see the resources). When the second-century fathers spoke of apostolic tradition they were typically referring either to a practice received from the apostles, which is reflected in Scripture, or to Scripture itself (e.g., as in the Ep. to Diognetus). All this has been documented. See the Resources linked below. Rome’s appeal to an unwritten apostolic tradition is not only a convenient fiction, it is a wax nose. It says whatever the magisterium needs it to say at the moment. I reject Rome’s appeal to authority and continuing revelation for the same reason I reject the claims of the Muslims, the Mormons, and the Pentecostals: Scripture is sufficient. Everything I need to know for salvation and the Christian life is sufficiently and clearly revealed in the Scriptures, the inerrant, infallible Word of God.
Grace Is Not A Medicine
By the late Patristic period and through the course of the Middle Ages, the church came to think of grace as a sort of medicinal substance with which we are infused and with which we must cooperate for eventual justification. In the Scriptures and in the earliest expressions of post-apostolic Christianity, grace was not regarded as a substance with which we are infused but rather as God’s free favor toward us sinners. The good news is not that Christ died to make salvation possible for those who cooperate sufficiently with grace (as Rome confesses) but that God has favor upon dead, helpless sinners, that in unconditional favor, he raises us to new life (regeneration) and grants us true faith, through which alone we receive Christ and all his benefits (e.g., justification, union, adoption, sanctification).
Faith Is The Sole Instrument
Rome says that we are justified by grace (favor and medicine) and faithfulness. With Scripture and the earliest post-apostolic Christians we say that faith, i.e., knowledge, assent, and trust is the sole instrument of our salvation. Faith is enough because its object, Christ is enough. Jesus did not obey, die, and rise so that we could do our part. He did it all for us. All that he did is imputed or credited to all who believe. This is why we say that justification and sanctification (salvation) are free gifts from God. Rome says that we are justified because we are sanctified. We say that we are sanctified progressively because we are justified by free divine favor alone, through faith alone. In our view Romanism is a kind of slavery because the sinner is never truly justified. According to Rome, one may one day be justified but for a Romanist to say that he is justified now is considered presumption. Paul, however, says that we are justified now (Rom 5:1; 8:1).