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When dealing with Protestant criticisms towards Catholic beliefs and practices, us Catholics are often met with a high level of smug cynicism. While they are often well-meaning in their pursuit for truth and sharing the Gospel, it can often be challenging to respond to fundamentally dishonest allegations in a charitable fashion.
John Piper, a Calvinist and prominent figure in America’s network of pastor-celebrities, is probably one of the most outspoken opponents to Catholic theology in modern times. He often takes a jab at Catholicism in his writing, videos and podcasts associated with his founding ministry Desiring God while promoting a ‘friendly’ Calvinist narrative on Scripture.
As a former Protestant myself, I have no doubt in my mind that many have come to faith in Christ through his sermons and articles. In fact, there are several articles written by Piper that I wholeheartedly agree with and would share with others who would benefit from them. But ecumenicalism aside, I believe Catholics ought to always be prepared to give an answer whenever false allegations cross our path.
The brief YouTube clip of an interview summarizes Piper’s view on Catholicism in a nutshell when asked what he would say to the Pope if he were to meet him in person:
“One minute: explain your view of justification. And on the basis of his one minute, I would give my view of justification. I think Rome and Protestantism are not yet ready. I don’t think the Reformation is over. I don’t think that enough changes have happened in Roman understanding of justification and a bunch of other things. I’m just picking justification because it’s so close to the centre. You could pick papal authority or the nature of the Mass; or the role of Sacraments or the place of Mary. But those seem to be a maybe little more marginal than go right to the heart of the issue of… do you teach, uh, whatever you call him… ‘sir?’ Do you teach that we should rely entirely on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith alone as the ground of God being 100 percent for us after which necessary sanctification comes. You teach that? And if he said, ‘No we don’t,’ I’d say I think that’s that, right at the core of Roman Catholic theology, is a heresy. Something like that.”
To be fair, just about every Christian denomination (including Catholicism) likes to lay claim to being the truest church. But the underlying problem in Piper’s statement lies in two fatal words: ‘my view.’ Piper, whether he realizes it or not, speaks from his own interpretive bias, which is a common symptom of the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone).
The heart of the issue does not lie in Piper’s blurred definition of justification versus sanctification, but rather in the issue of authority. In which case, Piper assumes his pastoral authority in having the right interpretation of what the Bible says about salvation based on Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide (Faith alone) – which, in themselves, are unbiblical when taking the entire context of the Bible as a whole.
If I was on the receiving end of his ‘one-minute’ question, I would say, ‘Yes, the Catholic Church does teach we ought to rely on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith, but not by faith alone. Why not? Because even the demons believe in Jesus, and shudder (James 2:19). The narrative he establishes is based off the presumption that faith alone (Sola Fide) is the only infallible means of justification derived from the Bible – to which the only place in Scripture where ‘faith alone’ is explicitly mentioned is in James 2:24,
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.“
I will agree with Piper that Rome and Protestantism are not yet ready to unite because of the fact that there are Protestants who still militantly believe the Reformation is not over. It is to be expected he wouldn’t believe enough changes have been made in Catholic theology. People like Mr. Piper will never be satisfied until the Vatican either recants every doctrine or suffers God’s wrath at the Second Coming.
Piper later clarifies his use of the big H-word in a follow-up article,
“Heresy” is a strong word. The problem with it is that its meaning and implications are not clear. Dictionary.com defines heresy, for example, as:
- opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.
- any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.
If ‘Faith Alone’ is the standard for justification, then Roman Catholic theology is definitely at variance with Calvinism’s supposed infallible orthodoxy. To which I’d have to question what makes Calvinism the standard for truth when the ideology is the product of a 16th-century political revolt? The Catholic Church has been wrestling with these theological issues long before the Reformation even started. I’ve written a 7-part article on why Calvinism is a deviation from biblical Christianity, which can be found here.
I, myself, hate tossing around the big H-word, but if the heart of Roman Catholic theology is a heresy to John Piper, it is only based on his own biased exegesis influenced by Calvinism and not on objective truth. In summary of his above statement, Piper might as well have sported his own papal tiara and spoke ex cathedra from the seat of his own chair.