by Jaroslav Pelikan
Abingdon Press, 1959, 272 pages
The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (1959) by Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) initially presents itself as an examination of Catholicism for curious Protestants but eventually reveals it’s true purpose as an ecumenical clarion call for unity among fellow “Christians.” Pelikan was a Lutheran minister, Yale professor, and author of more than thirty books mostly dealing with the history of Christianity.
This book is an interesting look at Catholic-Protestant relations immediately prior to Vatican II. Pelikan challenges both Catholics and Protestants to acknowledge the shortcomings of their own traditions and to recognize the positives of the other camp. Many of Pelikan’s critiques of Rome are right on the money but there’s also an amazing amount of compromising and accommodation in these pages. Pelikan concedes that Catholicism preaches a legalistic gospel of sacramental grace and works and has largely replaced genuine faith in Christ with ritual and ceremony yet still accepts it as a “Christian” church (see Norman Geisler for a more recent example of this head-in-the-sand “tolerance”). Pelikan, always an admirer of tradition, joined the Eastern Orthodox church in 1998 when he was seventy-five.
We’ve seen some disturbing changes in Catholic-Protestant relations since this book was published. The mainline Protestant churches have largely embraced modernism and have become almost entirely irrelevant. We can even see evidence of modern criticism/disbelief in the pages of this book: e.g. “Since Jesus expected the end of the world to come very soon, he did not envision anything like a church; therefore the two passages in the gospels where he uses the word “church” are both pious inventions of later Christians” (p. 78). Catholicism, beginning with Vatican II, turned from confrontational militancy and adopted a policy of dialogue and reconciliation with the “Separated Brethren” as a more effective strategy. With the demise of mainline Protestantism, Catholicism’s focus has turned increasingly to Evangelicalism. Catholics understand “unity” to mean complete submission to Rome and that appears to be okay with some doctrinally-indifferent ecumenical Evangelicals who jostle in line for the chance of a photo op with the pope.
Praise the Lord that many still proclaim the Gospel of salvation by His grace through faith in Jesus Christ ALONE!
“But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” – Matthew 15:9