Rome: Opponent or Partner?

The Rochester/Monroe County library system only has a small number of books which critically examine Roman Catholicism. I thought that this volume, which was published during the final year of Vatican II, might be an interesting historical example of mainline Protestant attitudes towards “dialogue” with post-conciliar Rome.

Rome: Opponent or Partner?
By Rudolf J. Ehrlich
The Westminster Press, 1965, 296 pages

At its Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Roman Catholic church declared that it would be changing direction with regards to Protestantism. Militant opposition and confrontation would be replaced by rapprochement and ecumenical dialogue towards the goal of eventual reunification.

The results of the council were met with great enthusiasm by many Protestants. In this book, published during the last year of the council, Church of Scotland pastor and theologian, Rudolf J. Ehrlich, examines the major differences between Rome and Protestants (although most of the discussion is focused on justification) and ponders whether unity is a realistic possibility.

Ehrlich begins by examining the writings of Catholic theologian, Louis Bouyer (1913-2004), who in his pre-Vatican II book, “The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism” (1956), defended the Tridentine Catholic gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit and attacked the Biblical Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone that had been recovered by the Reformers.

In brief, Catholicism teaches that its sacraments infuse grace into the supplicants soul, giving them the ability to obey the Ten Commandments (impossible!) and to become increasingly intrinsically/subjectively holy so as to hopefully merit Heaven at the moment of their death. Biblical Christianity teaches man is totally depraved, but by repenting of sin and trusting in Jesus Christ as their Savior, Jesus’ perfect rightousness is imputed to a believer. They are extrinsically/objectively righteous because of Christ. A genuine believer will then strive to follow the Lord in obedience, albeit imperfectly. A Christians’ good works won’t save them, but are the fruit of their faith in Christ.

Throughout his presentation, Ehrlich cites “Neo-Orthodox” Protestant theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), as the “true heir of the Reformation,” which is problematic from a conservative evangelical point of view. More on that later.

The author then presents the writings of Catholic theologian, Hans Küng (1928- ), who takes a much more conciliatory approach to Protestant belief than Bouyer. He argues that the Reformers and the Council of Trent basically had the same view on justification, but they approached it from different paradigms. Ehrlich politely concludes that Küng is employing sophistry and that the issue of justification still divides Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Additional thoughts:

  • Ehrlich’s Church of Scotland was already drifting into modernism when this book was written. Fifty-years later, we wonder if the genuine Gospel is preached in any of its churches? John Knox would grieve if he could see the Church of Scotland today.
  • Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, was considered at the time of this book’s writing a conservative in comparison to most European Protestant theologians, but he was a Universalist and disagreed with Biblical inerrancy.
  • Liberal theologian-priest, Hans Küng, was a rising star in Catholicism before he became a persona non grata within the church in the late-1960s when he publicly challenged the notion of papal infallibility.
  • In answer to the book’s title, Ehrlich identifies post-Vatican II Catholicism as a Christian entity and the “partner” of Protestantism. However, he also concludes that post-conciliar Rome’s teaching on justification via sacraments and merit is the same as was propagated at Trent and is anti-Biblical. So if Rome still preaches a different gospel, how can it be a partner of Gospel-preaching churches? It’s frustrating to have the irreconcilable issue of justification/salvation sidestepped in the pursuit of false unity. Today, we have people like Geisler, Zacharias, Strobel, and Lane Craig holding to the same impossibly dichotomous view.
  • This book was a difficult read with much more theological jargon than I’m comfortable with. There is also a plethora of Latin quotations with no translation, which I view as a blatant form of intellectual snobbery. Argh!

7 thoughts on “Rome: Opponent or Partner?

  1. Sounds like a “Modernist” a term that fits what back then they refer to as what we would now call Mainline Liberals. Good review. I appreciate these historical insights of older books that you write up on thanks Tom!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! This one was a bear to get through. I thought about abandoning it a few times and that’s saying a lot for an anal completionist like myself. But after awhile it felt like the familiar old shoe of contemporary evangelicalism with its schizophrenic embrace of Catholicism while opposing its soteriology as per Geisler and Lane Craig.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It took 50 years but we now see evangelical pastors adopting the same dialogue/partner approach with Rome as the mainline ministers did in the 60s.

        Liked by 1 person

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