The Last Time a Pope Died

From the October 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal

The Faith of Modernism

When John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, some American evangelical observers of Rome referred to him as “J2P2.” About ten years later that nickname receded, an indication of a significant transition in his pontificate: this pope was becoming even more popular than Star Wars. It is easy to see now why American evangelicals fell in love with pope John Paul II. He was instrumental in the defeat of Communism, courageous in defense of traditional marriage, and relentless in his advocacy of the culture of life.

Why didn’t Paul VI a enjoy similar press? After all, a re-reading of his widely lampooned Humanae Vitae reveals it to be a brilliant, if flawed, critique of our technological age. But Paul VI’s tired and melancholy demeanor lacked the vigorous and telegenic charisma of John Paul II, a master of modern media.

Timothy George compared the winsome attractiveness of John Paul II to the ultimate American evangelical icon, Billy Graham. “Many of the things said of the pope you’d say of Billy Graham,” George recently told Christianity Today. “From an evangelical base he’s tried to reach out and be embracing and yet be faithful to the gospel. And you put those two together, Billy Graham and the pope, you have there the winsome, visible face of world Christianity in the last half century.”

Again, this is understandable, and there is much for Protestants to be thankful for in this remarkable 25-year pontificate. But can it be said from a Protestant perspective that John Paul II’s legacy was marked by theological progress? How ought we to evaluate what Mark Noll described as Roman Catholicism’s “dramatically altered relations with Protestant evangelicals”? Are we led to imagine that the Reformation is over? There are reasonable grounds for skepticism on the part of Protestant confessionalists.

This is not to question the pope’s openness to the theory of evolution, as some Protestant fundamentalists and Roman Catholic traditionalists have. John Paul II hardly endorsed Darwinism; he merely invited Christians to engage in legitimate scientific inquiry without succumbing to scientism. No, John Paul II was clean here, although it was left for his successor, Benedict XVI, to state the matter with greater theological precision when he emphasized that “we are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution.”

In following through with the work of Vatican II, John Paul proclaimed the church’s openness to the future. But should Protestants be encouraged when “aggiornamento” replaces the take-no-prisoners exclusivism of pre-Vatican II Rome with the universalism of Vatican II? A perusal of Crossing the Threshold of Hope should dispel any doubt that John Paul II is a modernist, especially with regard to his attitude toward other religions. John Paul II seems to articulate his own version of Open Theism here: salvation is open to all “people of good will” (though only Rome possesses the fullness of that salvation). Jews are older brothers in this vague and universal faith, and he goes on to make frightening concessions to the “deep religiosity” of Buddhists, Hindus, and Moslems, reserving his criticism of the latter to the “fundamentalists” among them. “It will be difficult to deny that this doctrine is extremely open,” he writes. “It cannot be accused of an ecclesiastical exclusivism” (emphasis original).

The old-style Protestant modernist Shailer Mathews insisted that Modernism was not liberalism. Modernists, he wrote, were evangelicals who use the scientific, historical, social method in understanding and applying evangelical Christianity to the needs of living persons. Mathews’ call for Christian accommodation to modern times reads much like John Paul II’s. Perhaps there is no American Protestant he may resemble so much as Charles Briggs, who though conservative by inclination and committed to traditional doctrines such as the virgin birth, sought to bring American Presbyterians into the modern world, introducing them to confessional revision, higher criticism and doctrinal tolerance.

Another similarity between the recent pope and Protestant modernism was his reticence to apply church discipline to Roman Catholic dissenters. Rising to his defense, many have pointed out how imprudent excommunication would have been. Dissent was far too entrenched in the American Roman Catholic higher education, which had become a barren wasteland beyond correction. A crackdown would involve not just the prominent – he could not limit it to the likes of Hans Küng – but would have involved tens of thousands. So the pope was between a rock and a hard place, and his hands were tied.

Somehow that rings hollow for a pope credited with dismantling communism. Where is the sign of contradiction? And whatever happened to his slogan, “Be not afraid”? He’s the POPE, for crying out loud. A more plausible explanation seems to be that discipline was less beyond his power than contrary to his style. So the dirty work was inherited by his successor, Benedict XVI, and Roman Catholic conservatives have already appealed to him to take serious disciplinary action.

Where Noll’s “dramatically altered relations” is most evident is in ways John Paul II’s papacy has encouraged American evangelicals to collapse spiritual warfare into cultural warfare. Under the pope’s leadership and example American Roman Catholics and evangelicals have found common cause in lobbying for the culture of life. This has led to the confusing and divisive work of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” in 1994 and its successors. To be sure, evangelicals argue that theological differences remain – there’s the whole Mary thing – but these are relegated to the theological periphery. “The disagreements that Protestants have with John Paul II are things that are in addition to the foundations of the faith,” said Southern Baptist Richard Land. In a more theologically literate age, confessional Protestants would call that doctrinal indifference.

In a commonly misunderstood section in his book, Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen suggested that Presbyterian orthodoxy had more in common with Rome than with Protestant liberalism. Machen’s predicament was that if forced to choose between Protestant modernism, which had all but abandoned the exclusivity of the Christian religion, and Roman Catholicism, a faith that in the 1920s was still affirming that outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, the decision would have been to side with the Christian though flawed expression. That choice took on a different dimension after Vatican II when in its effort to engage the modern world the Roman Catholic hierarchy embraced modernism. So with the magisterium of John Paul II, who fleshed out Vatican II’s modernism, Machen would not have been confronted with a choice. For all of his gifts and virtues, John Paul II was a theological modernist. Evangelical adulation of his papacy gives every suggestion of a dance with modernism.

JRM

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