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Matthew Levering—a Roman Catholic theologian who teaches at the University of Saint Mary on the Lake in Illinois—has a number of books to his credit. His newest book, Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical, was written at the invitation of Zondervan. Levering offers an introduction then nine chapters on the following doctrines: Scripture, Mary, the Eucharist, the seven sacraments, monasticism, justification and merit, purgatory, saints, and the papacy. Each chapter consists of two parts, “Luther’s Concern” and “Biblical Reflection.” A lengthy response by Kevin Vanhoozer, titled “A Mere Protestant Response,” closes out the book.

On the first page of the introduction, Levering gives his answer to the book title’s question: “I do not call the Reformation a mistake,” (15, all page references to advanced reading copy). He adds that he’s grateful for many of the Reformation’s theological emphases. He contends, however, that “the [r]eformers made some doctrinal mistakes” (15).

In his rebuttal of the reformers, with Luther as the main focus, Levering seeks to show Roman Catholic doctrine is “not unbiblical.” It’s worth noting that isn’t the same as being biblical. It’s also worth noting Levering’s theological method or, as he puts it, his “mode of biblical reasoning.” He writes, “Rather than presenting his twelve disciples with a list of doctrinal truths, the Lord Jesus made clear that his disciples would need to learn the truth about him in a communal and liturgical way, by living with him over a period of time and by being intimately related to him” (21).

He further speaks of a “liturgically situated mode of reasoning about the realities described in the Bible” (25), adding that “the Holy Spirit may guide the church in Spirit-guided modes of biblical reasoning” (27).

Reasoning on Doctrine

This mode of reasoning is immediately pursued in chapter one on Scripture. Levering posits that “the church is the faithful interpreter of Scripture” (35), adding that if the church fails in being faithful, then “Scripture itself would fail in its truth” (35). Of course, for Levering the Bible can’t fail so, therefore, it must be true that the church can’t fail as interpreter. Levering does admit that church leaders err, but he maintains they are “preserved . . . from an error that would negate the church’s mediation of the true gospel to each generation.”

Now the reader can decide. Was Luther making a mistake at the Diet of Worms in 1521 when he claimed popes and councils may err and that his conscience was captive to the Word of God? Levering needs to reconcile his pronouncement of de facto gospel fidelity on behalf of Rome against the data of the 16th century (and other centuries for that matter).

Would Levering endorse the systemic abuse of indulgences as practiced in the church at the time of the Reformation? The fact that Levering doesn’t address this challenge to his thesis in a book on the Reformation is a serious gap, if not a death blow to his argument. At the very least, this chapter demonstrates clearly the distinction between sola scriptura and the Roman Catholic view.

Levering then turns to eight Catholic doctrines. He makes the point that Mary’s suffering was “uniquely united with her Son’s suffering,” and from there asks, “Did Mary receive a unique share in his exaltation?” (71). He then employs “typological reasoning” to see Mary in many exalted roles and places—including as the “Queen Mother” in Jeremiah 13:18.

On the saints, Levering acknowledges that Paul uses saints to refer to all Christians, but then notes how Rome identifies certain individuals as “saints in a particular sense” (157). Levering ends the chapter by declaring, “To love the saints and to ask regularly for their prayers is to love Christ and the Father who sent him” (171).

On the papacy, he offers no attempt to show the evidence of apostolic succession from Peter onward. He simply states, “The form that this Petrine ministry takes in the church develops over the centuries under the guidance of the Spirit” (186). That’s not an argument; it’s a supposition. Given the role of the papacy in the Roman curia, Levering is going to have to do better.

Shared Gospel?

As important as these doctrinal differences are, the central issue is the gospel. At various points Levering speaks of Catholic and Protestant communion around the gospel, but such communion doesn’t exist. Regarding purgatory, Levering says, “Christ has paid the penalty of sin and has perfectly forgiven us, but we nonetheless must go through the penitential experience of suffering and death so as to be fully configured to him in love” (154). The “but” there is damning. The gospel is Christ’s finished work plus nothing, yet Levering here holds to Christ’s finished work plus something: extra suffering after death if life’s sufferings didn’t fully purify you.

But Luther’s fear wasn’t purgatory; he feared the final judgment on the last day. Purgatory is actually a distraction from the real threat to humanity: eternity in hell under the just wrath of God. Either Christ removed the curse from us and we’re reconciled to a holy God and will be with him at the moment of our death, or the curse isn’t removed and we’ll be separated from God in this life and forever. Purgatory isn’t only unbiblical; it’s an affront to the gospel.

In chapter six on justification and merit, Levering rejects imputation. He asks if it’s possible that “we are made truly just and not merely imputed to be just?” (133). This is a crucial distinction. If we’re made just, then we work with the grace God gives us, and our justification is a result of both God’s grace and our works. There could be no more crucial place for a distinction than between justification and sanctifciation. The doctrine of imputation is key to that distinction. Justification is apart from works, apart from merit—and apart from penitential suffering in purgatory.

Necessary Reformation

Was the Reformation a mistake? No, it wasn’t, for there are clear and crucial differences between Rome and the reformers on Scripture and the gospel, not to mention the other seven doctrines in this book.

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Noël and I recently returned from three weeks in Poland, Switzerland, and Italy, where my task in each setting was to give expositions of Scripture. Here are seven experiences that linger in our minds, and are bearing fruit for the way we do ministry.

1. Catholicism’s Shape and Shackles

The overwhelming common denominator of these three events was the challenge of heralding the gospel of Christ to minds and hearts shaped and shackled by centuries of religious and cultural Roman Catholicism. Yes, I do mean shackled.

  • Shackled by centuries of, first, forbidding (on threat of death in the sixteenth century) and, then, diminishing the reading of Scripture as dangerous to proper faith, and as subject to papal interpretation and accretion. I was told of an 80-year-old nun recently converted, who had never read the Gospel of John.
  • Shackled by a Roman Catholic conception of Christianity that leads people away from simple communion with God, through Christ and his word, into a thoroughgoing dependence on other mediators, including, Mary, the saints, the indulgences, the priest-enacted sacraments, and the all-encompassing structure of authority outside the Bible.
  • Shackled by a system of penance structured by papal rulings that burden the conscience of the ritual-driven penitent with places and times and events and structures for the temporary relief of guilt. For example, besides the usual necessity of the physical reception of grace through transubstantiated bread at the mass, and the temporary unburdening of sin at the priestly confessional, Pope Francis has declared this year a special jubilee year in which “indulgence is granted to the faithful.”

For example, his letter reads, “To experience and obtain the Indulgence, the faithful are called to make a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Door, open in every Cathedral or in the churches designated by the Diocesan Bishop, and in the four Papal Basilicas in Rome, as a sign of the deep desire for true conversion.”

The Reformation Is Not Over

Any thought that “the Reformation is over” is, it seems to me, provincial. It never came to Italy. It was muted by the peculiarly secular revolutionary spirit in France. And it was weakened in Eastern Europe by a strong Catholic counter-reformation.

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Today, the great need is a robust, crystal clear, Spirit-anointed proclamation — in the churches, in the media, and one-to-one — of the gospel of justification by grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone, as laid out with final authority in Scripture alone. Few things make the preciousness and power of these “alones” more clear than the religious situation in continental Europe today.

2. Gospel Movements Emerging

Every place I went I saw a growing, gospel-saturated movement of largely younger (but not only younger!) Europeans committed to church planting and aggressive evangelism and life-transforming Reformed theology. In France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, the influence of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is discernible.

But in line with the stated intentions of TGC, there are no international “branches.” If there are to be international expressions of the theology and ministry-vison of TGC, they must be created, conceived, structured, and led indigenously. That is happening. And as far as I can see, this is owing to the Holy Spirit’s on-the-ground work, so that TGC is not the primary catalyst but rather a way of identifying one of God’s works in relation to the same divine work in other places.

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In particular, I saw some remarkable individual ministries and churches that reflect the energy and joy and seriousness of aggressive outreach. Nuova Vita is a church in Bologna, Italy, with significant outreaches to refugees and prostitutes (whom they call their “treasures”). Mark Brucato, a copastor at the church, told me one story of God’s amazing grace. One of the “treasures” came to Christ. Her most frequent “client,” instead of being alienated, also came to faith. They were both baptized and after coming out of the water, he proposed to her.

God is at work saving what we often look at as simply unsavable.

Not Every Challenge Ends with Transformation

One missionary pastor, who had been in France for thirty years, told me about a new challenge in his small church. A member of his church was studying sexuality in school, and came to the view that the Greek word porneia always means “prostitution,” rather than its usual meaning of “fornication.” This influential member was teaching, therefore, that the New Testament has nothing to say about whether an engaged couple can sleep together. Very practically he was opposing any attempt to do church discipline in such cases.

Such are the challenges in the ordinary life of a church planter in France.

3. Hope for Hopeless Collegiates

Bologna, Italy, has the oldest university in Europe, and evangelicals are reaching out to students.

The unemployment rate in Italy, I was told, of young people ages 18–38 is about 45%. This has produced a depressed and hopeless atmosphere among many students who see little future for all their university efforts. Some even deceive their parents, pretending to be in school, but actually using the money to pursue a life of fun until the time of expected graduation, and then, just when their parents would find out, they commit suicide.

Christ has hope for these students, because what he offers is so eternally valuable that neither poverty nor affliction can stop a new believer from overflowing with joy and generosity (2 Corinthians 8:1–2).

4. Two Surpises in Rome

We spent a whole day walking around the Colosseum and Roman Forum in the heart of Rome. Two things were new and surprising to me. One was the sheer size of the Colosseum. It simply was overwhelming for its greatness — especially its height — knowing that it was built in the first century without any modern machinery. These massive stones were set in perfect place — so that they are still holding 2,000 years later — without any cranes. It is the largest amphitheater ever built. Construction began under the emperor Vespasian in AD 72. It was completed in AD 80 under his successor and Titus.

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The other striking thing was realizing that the Colosseum was built with the spoils taken by Titus from the Jewish Wars in which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. In AD 82, the Arch of Titus was built by Domitian to commemorate Titus’s victory in those wars. It is still standing. And as I stood there, I saw inside the arch the sculptures of the victory procession where the Jewish Menorah is clearly visible. “Along with the spoils, an estimated 100,000 Jewish prisoners were brought back to Rome after the war, and many contributed to the massive workforce needed for construction” of the Colosseum (Wikipedia).

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5. Nudity in the Vatican

We visited the Sistine Chapel which, of course, has the hugely famous scenes of God’s creation and the history of redemption memorialized in Michelangelo’s paintings. My admiration for Michelangelo’s artistry is huge. I am less sure of what he was trying to communicate.

The sheer quantity of nudity in the Vatican is astonishing to anyone who has not already decided that comments like this are a sign of artistic oafishness.

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I come away with the serious question whether all these ubiquitous private parts are a devout message, or a subtle disdain for the church. Is the in-your-face exposure of God’s buttocks really a faithful exposition of Exodus 33:23? Or is the pope being mooned?

My own take is that if this is an attempt at exposition, it does not succeed.

6. Joyful, Humble, Missionary Calvinists

Predestination was a hot topic surrounding the conference in Italy. I was interviewed for a television program by an Assembly of God host and one of his questions was, “What does predestination mean for you?” Then there was an on-stage interview in front of 1,500 folks where one of the questions was again, “Why is predestination important?” I did my best to be pastorally sensitive and faithful to the Scriptures, like Acts 13:48, “The Gentiles . . . began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”

My sense is that the divisions in the church over this issue are, in part, generationally defined. The older stereotypes of those who hold to Reformed doctrines do not apply the way they once did. Increasingly, those who love these doctrines are joyful, humble, evangelistic, mission-minded, and in love with the church. When the stereotypical objections don’t work anymore, we are left with the Bible. For example, the prayer of Jesus to the Father: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me” (John 17:6).

7. All Cultures Need Transformation

I was asked about the effects of culture on evangelism. What seemed crucial to me to say was that all cultures are man-centered, self-exalting, and essentially insubordinate toward God. All of them — American, Italian, German, Polish, Nigerian, Brazilian, Chinese — all of them.

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by Ray Ortlund

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“The central problem of our age is not liberalism or modernism, nor the old Roman Catholicism or the new Roman Catholicism, nor the threat of communism, nor even the threat of rationalism and the monolithic consensus which surrounds us [nor, I would add today, postmodernism or materialistic consumerism or visceral sensualism or whatever].  All these are dangerous but not the primary threat.  The real problem is this: the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit.

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