Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some thoughts on the Papal visit

Everyone agreed that old Ratzy lacks the film star charisma of the last Pope to visit this green and pleasant land, John Paul II. Everyone agreed that the Pope's tour of the UK would be overshadowed by the child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Everyone apart from Chris Patten, the Roman Catholic grandee charged with organising the event, agreed that the papal visit would therefore be something of a damp squib. Now, however, everyone seems to agree that the state visit of Benedict XVI was a rip roaring success. It turns out that the famously combative German Shepherd has a nice smile. He kisses babies. He is sorry for Rome's failure to protect children from predatory priests. He is given the ultimate political accolade, as David Cameron tries to enlist "His Holiness" as a spokesman for the Big Society. According to The Times, "The Government with Opposition MPs and Catholic and Anglican bishops is expected to spend the next few days working out how to capitalise on what is being described as 'the Benedict bounce'."

Of course, not everybody was quite so impressed. Richard Dawkins, who is rapidly becoming the unacceptable face of atheism denounced the Pope for his being leader of "the world's second most evil religion." No doubt disturbed by seeing the papal insignia fluttering in the breeze above Westminster Abbey, some Protestants demonstrators greeted Ratzinger's arrival at the Abbey with cries of "Antichrist, Antichrist!"  Ah, well, you can't please everybody.

Now, I am theologically predisposed to disagree with a man who claims, "full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." Such power belongs to Jesus Christ alone. But even I have to admit that Benedict's central message to civic society was bang on. Repeatedly he warned of the danger of rampant secularism being allowed to squeeze faith-based values from the public square. It seems that politicians are getting the point, with David Cameron saying, "For many faith is a spur to action. It shapes their beliefs and behaviour, and gives them a sense of purpose. Crucially, it is their faith that inspires them to help others. And we should celebrate that. Faith is part of the fabric of our country, It always has been and always will be." The Prime Minister "doing God", my, how things have changed.

But let's not get too carried away by all this. It will take more than the Pope's visit to revitalise the Christian faith in our country. Indeed, some aspects of the visit serve as a reminder of the fact that many of the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church are far from the teaching of the New Testament. The very idea of a Pope exercising unlimited power over the whole church has no foundation in Holy Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church attributes the titles "Holy Father, and "Vicar of Christ" to the Pope. Evangelical Protestants agree with Rome on the doctrine of the Trinity as set out by the early church councils. But speaking of the Pope in the language just mentioned dishonours the blessed Trinity. The church has only  one Holy Father, that is God the Father (John 17:11). The true ‘vicar of Christ’ is the Holy Spirit,  who has come to earth in the place of Jesus, (John 16:7, 13-14). The Spirit of Christ dwells in the heart of every believer. The Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures is our ultimate authority. We need no infallible Pope to guide the church.

The high ceremony associated with the "beatification" of John Henry Newman is a far cry from the Bible, where all believers are called saints simply by virtue of their being set apart to God as holy through union with Christ, Romans 1:7.

The Masses at which Benedict officiated were a travesty of the Lord's Supper as instituted by Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Lord's Supper is a re-offering of the sacrifice of Christ and that the bread and wine are actually changed into the body and blood of the Saviour. This only became official church teaching in 1215 at the Second Lateral Council. The "elevation of the host" at the Mass, where the faithful adore the "transubstantiated" bread borders on idolatry. With the early church fathers and the Reformers we believe that according to Scripture the Lord's Supper is a fellowship meal that is to be kept by believers in remembrance of the finished work of Christ. The bread and wine are symbols to believers of Christ's body and blood. At the Lord's Supper we enjoy communion with the risen Christ, who is present at the Table by his Spirit. The Protestant martyrs of the English Reformation were consigned to cruel flames precisely because of their denial of the Roman doctrine of the Mass.

While we might applaud  Benedict's penetrating critique of of atheistic secularism and welcome his clear stand against the culture of death, Rome isn't the answer to the spiritual problems of modern Britain. With its many unbiblical teachings it is part of the problem. Evangelicals may act as "co-belligerents" with Roman Catholics on issues like abortion and euthanasia, speaking out for faith-based values in public life. But we also must be clear on the serious theological differences between Rome and genuinely biblical Christianity. Above all, what we need is not "Benedict's bounce", but a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon gospel preaching churches to enable us to proclaim the word of God with boldness and power. It is not enough for us to simply denounce the errors of Rome. We need to search our own hearts, return to the Lord and cry out to him that he will revive his work again in our land.

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