Gathering at the river

No, not the Grand River in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where some of our spiritual relatives gathered after immigrating from the Netherlands in order to establish Reformed churches.1

But the Tiber River in Rome, Italy, where some of our ecclesiastical relatives are gathering today, there to destroy Reformed churches. They are there, ready to forsake Reformed tradition and join the Roman Catholic Church.

“Crossing the Tiber” is an old expression describing what a Protestant does when he leaves the Reformation faith for the Roman Catholic fold. The Tiber River ran alongside old Rome; to get to Rome, one crossed it. Thus, “crossing the Tiber” refers to entering the Roman Catholic enclave. Today, descendants of our Reformed fathers gather on the banks of the Tiber River, preparing to cross.

In the past few decades, some notable individuals have crossed the Tiber, the Romish hierarchy welcoming them heartily. The “erring brethren” (since Vatican II we Protestants are given the friendlier label “the departed brethren”) are finding their way into ‘Papa’s’ arms. Rome Sweet Home is the title of one book that gives the conversion testimony of two notable Tiber-crossers, Scott and Kimberly Hahn.2 The Hahns, a former Presbyterian minister and his seminary-educated wife, crossed separately in the late ’80s and early ’90s and became popular speakers on the Roman Catholic circuit, luring more Protestants to ford the river. Since then, many have followed. “The Coming Home Network” and “The Journey Home Program” are two flourishing organizations that both promote such conversions and support the defectors once they go “home” to Rome.

What may not be so well known to readers of the Standard Bearer is that the banks of the Tiber are swelling with crowds of nominal Protestants who show fervent interest in defecting. And yet more are considering how to get to those banks. Reformed and Presbyterian men and women. Most grievously, Reformed leaders, men and women, from our mother church.

The present editorial reports this with no ill-will, but with deepest sorrow and the ardent prayer that God will use it to inform and warn. Are some yet unaware of the leanings of their denominations, or of their relatives or friends?

“What can Protestants and Catholics learn from one another today?”

That question is posed on the cover of the recent Forum magazine, the newsletter of Calvin Theological Seminary, official seminary of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). This newsletter reports on an October meeting between representatives of Calvin Seminary and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). With some of Calvin Seminary’s staff were a Roman Catholic professor from Hope College (Holland, MI; college of the Reformed Church in America) and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Grand Rapids, who “brought their own voice to this important topic.” Participants discussed what they could “learn from one another and see as points of convergence….”

The President of Calvin Seminary notes that their previous Forum highlighted the five solas of the Reformation. Now, and “out of that framework,” is the seminary’s present issue, “What Can Catholics and Protestants Learn From One Another Today?” There was no attempt to explain how commonality with Rome fits in the framework of the solas of the Reformation.

The first article, by the Director of the Meeter Center for Calvin Studies and Editor of the Calvin Theological Journal, Karin Maag, examines Reformed and Romish unity in worship. Maag asks, rhetorically, “…are Reformed and Roman Catholic congregations still so far apart when it comes to worship?” and says that “steps are being taken to highlight areas of common agreement.” Both the CRC and Reformed Church in America (RCA) “formally signed the ‘Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism,’ with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.” And there are long-running partnerships between local CRC congregations and RCC groups where “confessional differences shrink away.” Maag participated recently with Roman Catholics in a “panel discussion on how to commemorate the Reformation.” This last beggars belief: discussing with Rome how to celebrate the Reformation! This is not unlike the children of a man—who in grossest wickedness tried to kill their mother and still today is impenitent—children who have finally freed themselves from the man, now asking him to discuss with them how to celebrate his attempted murder. In the end, Maag urges that “arguments over who is more faithful to the teachings of Scripture and the practices of the Church throughout the ages tend only to reinforce divisions.”

The seminary’s Assistant Professor of Moral Theology, 3 Matthew Tuininga, believes that two forces reduced the antipathy between Protestants and Catholics in the twentieth century. First, in Vatican II, the RCC opened herself ecumenically (which certainly is the posture the RCC seeks to show). Second, “Protestants and Catholics alike came to view secularism and the increasing abandonment of Christianity as the far graver threat.” That is, the theological differences become relatively insignificant in light of the foes called secularism and paganism. Now read carefully his conclusion: “faithful Protestants and Catholics of all denominations will increasingly find that, as pilgrims on the same journey, serving one Lord with one faith, they will come much nearer to their goal if they walk together than if they walk separately.” Re-read that, without blinking, for its significance. If that is believed, Christian Reformed ministers will instruct their members that they and Roman Catholics are on the same journey, serve the same Lord, have one faith, and have the same goal. Thus, they must walk together.

The seminary’s Director of Communications wraps up with the report that speakers “noted shared beliefs and values…even around religious beliefs and practices such as the concept of Justification or the observance of the sacraments” (emphasis added). The evening concluded with a shared blessing on the event by the President of the Seminary and the Catholic Bishop.

It is as though the evening was spent entering coordinates into MapQuest to determine the best road from the Grand River to the Tiber. Has it ever looked more bleak for our mother church?

A stronger impetus and a wider road to the Tiber

But the CRC’s friendly leanings toward Rome give only a small glimpse into a much larger movement of Protestants hasting toward the Pope, with his devotion to Mary, rosaries and indulgences, patron saints, and the doctrine of purgatory.

When “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) published their first ecumenical statement in 1994 (ECT: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium), Protestant denominations were emboldened to meet in public with Rome’s delegations. Since then, ECT has been actively publishing statements, even if this further work has not had the publicity of 1994. Nine more statements have been ‘nailed on church doors’ (now, however, on Protestant church doors) on Justification, Scripture, the Communion of Saints, Sanctification, Abortion, the Virgin Mary, Religious Freedom, Marriage, and (in December of 2017) “the Christian Way.” In a preface to a collection of these statements,4 J.I. Packer calls those who oppose them “Evangelical isolationists,” serious condemnation of those who do not join them, and a forewarning of more severe condemnation to come. Timothy George, co-editor of the collection, is certain of the soon-coming day Protestants and Roman Catholics are “fully united in the common witness for which Jesus Christ himself prayed.”

The names of Protestants who took part in writing or who support these joint statements are notable.5 The following list is enough to give the reader an idea how prominent: Bill Bright, Bryan Chapell, Hans Boersma (formerly Canadian Reformed), Charles Colson, Frank James and Harold Brown from Reformed Theological Seminary,6 Peter Leithart, Peter Lillback, Max Lucado, Eric Metaxas, Richard Mouw, J.I. Packer, Joni Eareckson Tada, and Kevin VanHoozer. Finally, and most noteworthy for Standard Bearer readers, Dr. Laura A. Smit, ordained minister in the CRC and professor at Calvin College. These and hundreds more influential church leaders press for the unity of Protestants and Roman Catholics.

By the way, the fact that so many are interested in Rome presages the nearness of the end when the false church will persecute the true church who will not join her. For now the persecution may be merely pejorative labels—“isolationists!” Soon, there will be threats. But the true church must be prepared to die for her faith, as were Luther and the other Reformers whose traditions are being betrayed, even under the façade of celebrating their work. Unity apart from Scripture truth is not the unity “for which Jesus Christ himself prayed.”

An explanation

Such a strong movement toward Rome is astounding, but should not be surprising. The simple reason so many are able to anticipate “crossing the Tiber” is that the doctrine in many Protestant, even Reformed and Presbyterian, churches has so warped and deformed that it is more like Roman Catholic dogma than Reformation truth (deformation in liturgy and ethics is close behind). Combine this doctrinal deformation with the doctrinal illiteracy of the common member—sound catechism instruction of the youth has long disappeared in most denominations—and the heavy traffic on the roads to Rome is not at all surprising. If Calvin Theological Seminary can report “shared beliefs…even around… the concept of Justification,” there is not much truth yet to abandon before all their members recognize that the Tiber, at this point, looks to be a pretty narrow ford.

But the common denominator among these who desire to join in Rome is not agreement in theology, even the doctrine of salvation, significant as this agreement is. Instead, it is their united aim of world transformation, desire for the “common good,” for promotion of the “kingdom of God.” All their writings breathe such sentiments.

We may never weary of reminding each other and our children that the common grace goal of “transforming the world,” “renewing communities,” “redeeming creation,” and “seeking ‘shalom’ in the city,” is what binds these Reformation-abandoning groups together. They may have many other aspirations, but the one yen that binds them all is their will to Christianize the world, their hope that common grace will transform it into the “kingdom of God.” Protestants are abandoning their traditions—biblical traditions—for this. For this, our mother church relinquishes her Reformed heritage. Abraham Kuyper, what hast thou wrought?!

Our hearts’ desire for their salvation

We say the truth in Christ: we have heaviness and sorrow in heart. Our hearts’ desire and prayer is that those traveling Rome-ward might be saved. They have zeal, indeed, but not according to knowledge—saving knowledge governed by Scripture alone.

O, beware of Rome! Be members of the true church, for “out [outside] of it there is no salvation” (Belgic Confession, Art. 28).

Shall one of the churches’ Evangelism Committees sponsor a lecture that will explain the similarities between Roman Catholicism and the teaching and practice of contemporary Protestantism—and publicize it broadly in Reformed communities—so that some may yet be rescued? Shall a capable writer extend this effort and show clearly that Rome is not moving toward Protestantism, but Evangelicals toward Rome? Rome does not budge, despite its claims to be “open” to ecumenical dialogue. (As they say, ‘the mountain does not come to Mohammed.’) Let preachers in faithful Reformed and Presbyterian churches be clear in their public preaching and in their instruction of the youth in catechism. Let parents and preachers alike prepare the youth to attend the Christian colleges where they will face smart and amiable professors who may try to direct them to the roads that bend toward Rome.

With genuine love for those who remain in these churches angling Rome-ward, we call them loudly, clearly, urgently: “Come out from them or perish with them.”


1 The title of my editorial plays off the title of a book, Gathered at the River, which describes “Grand Rapids, Michigan, and its people of faith” (by James D. Bratt and Christopher H. Meehan, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993).

2 Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993.

3 It may be worth noting that in Reformed seminaries historically this position was called “Professor of Ethics” and in Roman Catholic institutions “Professor of Moral Theology.”

4 All but the 2017 paper are included in the recent Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics, “at twenty” referring to the twenty years since the first statement in 1994 (eds., Timothy George and Thomas Guarino, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

5 The difficulty of research to determine all the names is compounded by the fact that ECT has no website, calls itself an “ad hoc” and “informal” fellowship, whose statements have no “imprimatur or endorsement” from the churches of which the signers and endorsers are members (ECT at Twenty, 166). News of ECT will be found in the (mostly) Roman Catholic journal First Things.

6 On January 31, 2018, the RTS website did not list these two as current faculty at RTS.