I love my Roman Catholic friends and family deeply and I disagree with them sharply. And I think that’s a classically Protestant stance to take. After preaching a sermon in which I called Roman Catholics “our friends,” a good brother in the church took me aside and mildly rebuked me for that phrase. It might communicate, he told me, that we don’t have many great differences with them, that we’re one big family that occasionally shouts across the room at each other. But again, I think I can hold deep love and sharp disagreement in both hands. And I think I’m well within the Protestant and catholic (“universal”) stream of the Christian faith in doing so.
When you read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he takes a rather generous approach to Roman Catholics (even if does call the pope “Anti-Christ”). While he wouldn’t go so far as to call the Roman Catholic church an actual “church”, he concedes that there are vestiges of God’s Church that remain in those parishes.
Book IV, chapter two, of the Institutes is one of the clearest and most elegant defenses of the oneness and wholeness of the Church. There are certain Roman Catholic doctrines that I simply cannot hold to (their Mariology comes to mind). But Calvin shows us that the Reformers actually stand rooted in the Great Tradition, and it was Rome that took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. As a result, I don’t feel the need to swim the Tiber and go “home to Rome.” As a Protestant, I never left home.
Nevertheless, Calvin thought that Roman Catholics could very much be true Christians for two reasons. First, he believed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain what they are, despite the people administering or receiving them. But secondly, besides the “marriage rings” of the covenant promise we have in the sacraments, his own strong providence keeps his people from completely perishing from Roman Catholicism. When buildings are torn down, the foundation can remain. In the Protestant Reformation, God “allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place.”
So, there are genuine believers in Roman Catholic churches. But Calvin went further than most evangelicals are willing to go today. He thought that there were entire Roman Catholic parishes that were made up of true Christians. Just as in apostate Israel, there were faithful groups of Jews (Israelites from the heart), so in Rome there were true believers, even whole churches. God deposits his covenant people all over the world and in places ruled by other religions. In other words, just as Christ has his elect among the Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews, he has his beloved Church scattered among the Roman Catholic church.
“In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (IV.II.xii.).
So, whereas a devout Roman Catholic might look at me and sadly declare me lost, I would look at a devout Roman Catholic and think, “Yeah, you could be my brother or sister.” So, I have no need to cross over to Rome. I just need to love them and wait for my God to claim his own within Rome.
Calvin knew that he stood in the Great Tradition of the catholic (meaning, universal) Church when he resisted papal authority and conceded salvation to any of God’s elect under that papal authority. And in doing so, Calvin wasn’t in danger of breaking the unity of the Church.
Calvin knew the fathers well, and followed Augustine in saying that Church unity was held together by two chains: agreement in what sound doctrine and brotherly love. As Augustine put it, heretics break the first chain with false doctrine and schismatics (dissenters, stirrers of strife) break the bond of unity, even as they hold the same faith. But the point is that united love must reset upon united faith.
This is right in line with the apostle Paul (Eph.4:5; Phil.2:2,5). Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, put it beautifully:
“The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem out poured from their bounty and superabundance, still at the source unity abides undivided.…So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends its rays over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere. Nor is the unity of the body severed; it spreads its branches through the whole earth; it pours forth its overflowing streams; yet there is one head and one source.“
All members of Christ’s Bride have this connection with each other, whether they were saved by grace in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic church. So, I don’t need to be a Roman Catholic to be at home in the Church. The Church persists, whether God places her people in Rome or elsewhere.
Light sunlight through a prism, branches from the tree, and like streams from the spring, the one faith of the Church unites us in Christ. And the Church is then able to spread light and fruit and water to those who hunger and thirst in darkness.
“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
*Clarification: I believe that salvation is contingent upon repentance. True Christians come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Protestantism stands in concord with the early church in proclaiming this.