This is the tweet that broke the camels back! Every couple of months an American fundamentalist called Chuck O’Neal, tweets a message which is then retweeted to me several times by his followers, identifying me as a friend of the Antichrist and a counter reforming heretic in the midst of the Reformed world. It’s kind of sweet, and nuts at the same time. It reminds me of the rumour that went round a few years ago that I was brought up by the Jesuits and then planted in the Free Church as their secret agent!
Poor Chuck went to John MacArthur’s conference where each of the 3 1/2 thousand delegates got a copy of Magnificent Obsession. I think he almost had a heart attack! The next deluge of tweets followed:
“How can major Reformed men & ministries promote @theweeflea, his apostate book, & his counter-reformation?”.
So I think it’s about time that I answered Mr O’Neal and the others who think that for some reason I am a great danger to the Reformed Church in the West. And more importantly lets reflect on how we relate to the Catholic Church and our Catholic brothers and sisters.
Apart from the fact that Chuck rather overestimates my role in the reformed world, (I am after all just a wee flea,) perhaps I need to take his charges a bit more seriously? After all he is not the only one.
For example last week a simple post about a beautiful psalm sung in Aramaic kicked off yet another Internet argument.
Given that this was a beautiful rendition of Psalm 53 in the context of a war-torn region of the world, in the language that Jesus spoke, why would some Christians be offended by it? It was because of the presence of the Pope. This resulted in such comments as:
Strangest looking protestant church I have ever seen…. Pretty sure there is something mentioned in the Westminster confession about popery? True colours showing him through here.
Have you repented of your supporting the previous Anti-Christ’s visit? Have you repented of your breach of your ordination vows?
That is not beautiful! A bunch of people howling. Sounds like rock meets Hillsong!
David Andrew Robertson, you have failed to disown Catholic doctrine by openly treating Catholics, including the last pope, as Christians. You have wholeheartedly endorsed the same pope’s Christology by stating that he had written the best book on Jesus that you had read.
Someone remarked that I was being accused of Potpourri – I found this deeply offensive – I have never put dried petals into a ball in order to perfume a room!
When I was really being accused of was popery. Love of the Pope. Devotion to the anti-Christ. Normally it’s the kind of thing that one just let’s go, because it’s an argument that goes nowhere – however it has become a little bit tiring to have a handful of people follow you around everywhere and accuse you of being a heretic.
The trouble is that I quote the Pope. Or at least the previous one – Benedict. Here are three of my favourites from Magnificent Obsession.
If people do not believe the word of Scripture, then they will not believe someone coming from the next world either. The highest truths cannot be forced into the type of empirical evidence that only applies to material reality.
‘Was Jesus in reality a liberal rabbi – a forerunner of Christian liberalism? Is the Christ of faith, and therefore the whole faith of the Church, just one big mistake?
And the Antichrist, with an air of scholarly excellence, tells us that any exegesis that reads the Bible from the perspective of faith in the living God, in order to listen to what God has to say, is fundamentalism; he wants to convince us that only his kind of exegesis, the supposedly purely scientific kind, in which God says nothing and has nothing to say, is able to keep abreast of the times.
It’s really quite hard to find anything wrong with these quotes, but the objection is not so much with the content as with the person who made them. The objectors make the illogical conclusion that citing someone means that you approve of them, their role and everything they say. There are actually two reasons that I cited Pope Benedict. Firstly I wanted to make Magnificent Obsession accessible to Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, atheists and others. Secondly I thought the quotes were brilliant, and they came from two of my favourite books about Jesus. The fact that they were written by a Pope is irrelevant to me. And it is this that damns me in the eyes of the Pharisaic-Protestants.
They will be even more disappointed to find that I quote the current Pope in my latest article on Christian today. And that I am currently reading Augustine, Aquinas and GK Chesterton – all great heroes of the Roman Catholic Church.
And yet I now have to upset my Catholic friends. Whilst there is much I can agree with in the Catholic Church and much that we have in common (indeed I have far more in common with a conservative Catholic than a liberal Protestant) I’m afraid that I don’t buy into all the doctrines. The office of Pope, Mariolatry, the Mass, Baptismal regeneration and the refusal to accept justification by faith alone, are all an unbiblical departure from the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’. I therefore cannot come ‘home to Rome’ but would instead plead with the Catholic Church to ‘re-form’ and come home to the apostolic church.
I guess this article best sums up my position (from the Gospel Coalition).
The history of the Catholic Church as a whole has been very varied – some Popes have been anti-Christian, whilst others have been clear followers of Christ. The point is that just because someone is Pope does not make them a Christian, nor does it make them the Antichrist. Given that the Antichrist is somebody who denies that Jesus has come in the flesh, and then Pope Benedict, whose works are the ones I know best, it is clearly not the antichrist. Unless you are so obsessed by this that you are prepared to say that the Holy Spirit speaking through the apostle John got it wrong!
Are Catholics Christians?
The other objection people have is to my referring to Catholics as Christians, and the Catholic Church as a Christian church. Somehow they regard this as unreformed. Which shows how little they know the Reformers. I’m somewhat amused by the more rabid fundamentalists who quote me of being anti-Calvinist because I accept infant baptism – which then has the wonderful result of making Calvin an anti-Calvinist! It is surely wrong to regard someone as being a Christian solely because of the membership of a particular church, whether Catholic or Protestant. But it is just as wrong to say that because they belong to a particular church they cannot be a Christian? I have met many fine Catholic Christians and many not so fine Protestant atheists!
Several years ago a doctor from Zambia came before our Kirk session asking to become a member in the church. When we asked why she wanted to join St Peters, she said, “it’s because it’s the church in Dundee that’s most like my church at home in Zambia”. “What church is that?” – “the Roman Catholic Church!”
We have had several Catholics attending St Peters – I remember especially the teenage mum who thought I was just a trendy priest without a dog collar, and the 80-year-old lady who remarked as she left “Father, I’ve not been in the Catholic Church for 50 years. My how it’s changed!”
We began to say the Apostles Creed occasionally, because it gave those Catholics who are nervous about coming to a “Protestant” church (there is sectarianism on all sides!) the assurance that we were part of the one holy catholic, apostolic church. I have met Catholics who are not Christians who needed to come to know the Lord, as I have met Protestants in the same condition. And I’ve also met those who, despite being in the Catholic Church (or as they might say because of being in the Catholic Church) are lovely and faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Let me put it bluntly – Catholics are as welcome in St Peters in Dundee as they are in St Peters in Rome. If they know Jesus they are welcome as brothers and sisters, if they don’t they are welcome as those who have been brought up in a tradition that says that the Bible is the word of God and that Jesus is the Son of God. I will teach them that word and plead with them to give their lives to that Son. I will not attack Catholicism or abuse people from a different Christian denomination. I will teach what the word of God says, and where their tradition (or indeed mine) differs from that then they must choose to follow Christ and his word, or the tradition. The irony for me is that there are people whose loyalty is to an anti-Catholic tradition, as much as it is to the word of God.
Being in McCheynes’ Church I love what he wrote to a local Dundee newspaper:
But the living servant of Christ is dear to my heart, and welcome to address
my flock, let him come from whatever quarter of the earth he may.
I have sat with delight under the burning words of a faithful
Lutheran pastor. I have been fed by the ministrations of American
Congregationalists and devoted Episcopalians, and all of them who
know and love Christ would have loved to hear them too. If dear
Martin Boos were alive, pastor of the Church of Rome though he
was, he would have been welcome too; and who that knows the
value of souls and the value of a living testimony would say it was
wrong? Had I admitted to my pulpit some frigid Evangelical of our
own Church (I allude to no individual, but I fear it is a common
case), one whose head is sound in all the stirring questions of the
day, but whose heart is cold in seeking the salvation of sinners,
would any watchful brother of sinners have sounded an alarm in the
next day’s gazette to warn me and my flock of the sin and the
danger? I fear not.”
McCheyne should be thankful he lived in the era before social media or he too would have suffered the wrath of Chuck!
Let me return to the original tweet that sparked all this off:
The answer is very simple. Because I am a Truly Reformed man. I don’t buy into these special days and seasons. I don’t need to engage in these Popish practices of having Saints days. St Luther, St Calvin and St Knox – just doesn’t work for me. Part of me regards the modern fad of having a Reformation day as being a little bit like those who boost the card industry by Father’s or Mother’s Day. I realise that that is heresy for some people, but you know the best thing about being reformed is the wonderful liberty of conscience that the good old reformed biblical theology gives me. Those who want to celebrate Halloween, or All Saints with a Calvin Tulip party can feel free…just as I feel free not to. Perhaps this Johnny Cash tune may enliven the party?!
Protestant popes with their pathetic little Twitter campaigns and online rants, are not going to put me back into their Pharisaic cage. II. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (WCF: 20:2) So you tweet your doctrinal ‘orthodoxy’, and I will continue to read Calvin/Chesterton/ Keller/Augustine/Flavel/Newton and Benedict and rejoice as they point me to Christ. And the bad news for you is that next year on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation I will be preaching in Wittenberg at a conference organised by the Reformed World Fellowship (start the angry tweets game now…!)
Happy Reformation Day…
This was my main reply to those who attacked the post from Georgia.
To those who turn beauty into ashes:
There are not many things that both surprise and depress me but this thread has turned out to be one. I posted some Georgian and Iraqi Christians singing this beautiful version of a psalm and you have allowed an ugly and self-righteous ignorance to display itself – in the midst of such beauty.
It is ignorant because you condemn it as ‘the religion of anti-Christ’ and don’t seem to realise that it is a Psalm from God’s Word and it is sung in the language that Jesus used.
It is self-righteous because you who condemn think that you alone are the righteous ones – you could not even admit what your own professed doctrine teaches – that you are as sinful and desperately wicked as the rest of us. You dare to presume to judge people on the basis of their clothes and their style of worship.
And it is ugly because you take the beauty of this simple singing of God’s Word in a style that probably dates from the very earliest days of the Church and turn it into a vehicle for your own pompous and arrogant prejudice. To call this ‘wailing’ is at best a crass lack of taste and musical knowledge. Its bad enough that you accuse me of breaking ordination vows (although you as yet have not been able to show one false doctrine that I have taught – I often disagree with some Roman Catholic teachings – indeed my last radio debate was proving that the Pope is not the leader of the Christian church, and of course I believe in justification by faith alone – although it appears from your comments about the style of worship etc. that you don’t!). But what is far worse is that you condemn people you don’t know, presuming to judge hearts you cannot see, purely by your own external prejudices and ignorance. As far as I am aware this group included Iraqi Christian refugees who are currently being wiped out in their own homeland. Does that not concern you at all? Incidentally I belong to a biblical church that takes church discipline and false doctrine very seriously – so if you genuinely think that I am breaking my ordination vows it is your duty to report me to my Presbytery and not to rant and rave on social media.
I don’t condemn these comments on the basis that they are unloving (which they clearly are). I condemn them by your own criteria – they are unbiblical and Godless. To claim that all Catholics, by virtue of being Catholic are not Christians is itself a doctrine from the pit of Hell. You take the glorious beautiful doctrine of Christ and turn it into something cold, crass and ugly. I often get upset at those who mock Christ who do not profess to know him – but I get far more upset and indeed angry with those like you who profess to know Christ and yet cause his name to be blasphemed because of your harsh, cold and ignorant comments. And if anyone thinks that is not very Christian let me just simply repeat Paul’s words to the Galatians legalists “As for these agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves”. (Galatians 5:12) Paul had no time for those who distort the grace of God and make these kind of external judgements – and neither do I.
So please – go away and rant to your hearts content on your own FB pages…but leave mine alone and don’t ever come on here and turn something so beautiful into something so ugly again. And may God have mercy on you. And may he save us from the ‘frigid evangelicals’ that McCheyne warned us about. Its bad enough having to deal with the enemies of the Gospel….my prayer is that the Lord would save us from some of its professed ‘friends’!
And this expressed it better than I could have – from someone on the frontline, not pontificating from the sidelines.
Some of the reactions on this thread have been bonkers. David shared a beautiful piece of acapella Psalm singing and he’s accused of breaching ordination vows?! Govan Free Church, where I attend, is full of converted Catholics and mine is the only family from a Protestant background. When we conduct our bible studies on a Thursday in the community centre, a Republican Flute Band practices next door; it’s not unusual to hear the Boys of the Old Brigade or the Fields of Athenry as we study the Gospels. Many of the folk in attendance at our church go to the chapel on a Saturday night and then our church on a Sunday morning. The amazing thing is, time and again folk have come to reject RC doctrine and give up their catholic practice because of the faithful, confessional teaching of Scripture by Norrie. We don’t ask them to be re-baptised because, as good confessional Protestants, we believe that RC baptism is Christian baptism done in the triune name. My point is, if we pulled any of that anti-Catholic, hardcore hun vitriol with these folk when they came around at first, we’d lose them (and probably cop a well deserved punch in the mouth).
The vitriol of our Reformed fathers against Rome needs to be seen in the context of bitter persecution where they were being hounded and murdered by the papists. We live in different days and need to be sensible enough not to transport 16th Century polemic method into the present day. I can’t help but feel so much of the anti-Rome rhetoric I hear is analogous to the self-righteous cultural sabre-rattling that Paul condemned as ‘garbage’ (scholars suggest that the word is more analogous to a swear word) in Philippians 3:8.
David is a man who cares for the lost and has offered to conduct an evangelistic service in Govan entitled ‘Is Presbyterianism anti Irish?’ He’s no crypto-Romanizer, but doesn’t feel the need to pander to the shibboleths of the WATP-crowd. He cares for people more than alienating rhetoric. In short, if your anti-Roman rhetoric isn’t accompanied by tears and evangelistic zeal, shut up.\