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New Horizons

Still Protesting

"Glen Roberts"

Dear James,

News of the recent storm on your campus reached me even before your letter of last week. I read in the newspaper that the new faculty that Rutherford College hired for next year included two Roman Catholics and that the Dean resigned in protest.

Although his retirement was probably imminent, I was sad to hear of Dr. Morton's resignation. He was a young sociology professor during my undergraduate days, and I numbered him among my favorite professors. Moreover, his arguments in this debate would easily have carried the support of the faculty in those days. I remember when an older colleague of his converted to Rome, before those "pilgrimages" became so popular among evangelicals. At that time, it was understood that such a step meant forfeiting a tenured position on the faculty.

Back then, Protestants tended to dismiss Rome as backward, superstitious, and tyrannical, in contrast to our more progressive and enlightened mind-set. Of course, after Vatican II and John Paul II, those arguments sound so dated. What's the fuss anymore, and why do we need to distinguish ourselves from Rome? After all, Roman Catholics have often become our allies against secularism and theological liberalism. Since many older prejudices against Roman Catholics have been buried, many evangelicals are asking whether the Reformation is over.

This seems to be the logic of Rutherford College's board of trustees. Yet its claim that the school's doctrinal statement does not exclude Catholics is only partly true. Certainly it did not have Rome in view when it was crafted, but just as surely the framers of that statement would never have imagined that this would become an issue. Perhaps that anomaly would be best resolved by amending the doctrinal statement to specify that (and why) Roman Catholics should be excluded, as Dean Morton has suggested. The history of Christian higher education does not suggest that schools maintain their identity very well after they have broadened their faculty.

Indeed, the Dean's fears seem reasonable when you tell me that two of your hall mates have begun to worship at a Roman Catholic church. Of course, the college did them no favors when, as you reported to me, its student orientation packet included Roman Catholic parishes among the local church options.

What is the best way, you asked me, to respond to your hall mates? First, to those who are attending Mass: while it may be possible to be a sincere Christian in the Roman Catholic Church, that concession hardly settles the question. Is what Protestants once confidently described as an "abominable idolatry" a healthy practice for anyone's soul? Will they grow in godliness under the false teaching of Rome? You are now forced to pray that your friends have a greater trust in the ministry of Christ than in the official teaching of the church where they worship. To put it mildly, there are strong grounds for pessimism about their spiritual health.

Secondly, to your other hall mates, who have urged you to "chillax" over these developments, you might want to begin by citing a Roman Catholic. I think it was G. K. Chesterton who observed that an open mind is never enough. The purpose of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to shut it on something solid. On what basis, then, ought we to exclude Roman Catholics? The Reformation defense of the gospel (sola fide) and the authority of God's Word (sola Scriptura) have not vanished. They are as real today as they were for the Reformers.

You remarked that a friend of yours considers "ludicrous" your hesitation to refer to practicing Roman Catholics as "brothers in Christ." I don't suppose that he would be dissuaded from his ecumenical desire to embrace everyone who repeats the Apostles' Creed if you appealed to what the Reformed confessions say about what it entails to "profess the true religion." So perhaps a better way to respond to him would be to turn his claim on its head. On what basis can a Roman Catholic consider you to be his brother? We remain "accursed" by the official teachings of Rome, which claims infallibility for its head, the Pope.

One more thought. It does not help that Rutherford College has become, over the past thirty years, less of a Presbyterian school, as it has hired a faculty that represents a wide range of Protestantism. Dr. Morton always held that the key to Rutherford College was its distinctiveness as a Reformed institution. Recent faculty appointments have certainly compromised that uniqueness. Still, it may be worth noting that, unlike some of the previous issues we have corresponded about, your concerns this time do not involve Presbyterian particularism. This is not a matter of Presbyterian, but rather Protestant, scruples. This is a point that the faculty and board of the school, as broadly Protestant as they have become, ought to be willing to embrace.

So when you register your concern, remember that in this case you are not a Presbyterian sectarian, just a narrow-minded Protestant. Maybe your hall mates would consider that progress.


Glen Roberts

"Glen Roberts" is a pseudonym shared by two prominent ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2008.

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