The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
A response by Leonardo De Chirico and Greg Pritchard to articles written by Thomas Schirrmacher and Thomas K. Johnson.
In 2015, the Evangelical Reformanda Initiative was established to describe and analyze the Roman Catholic Church’s beliefs and practices. It was created because many Evangelicals seem to be uncertain about what Roman Catholics actually believe. Do they believe in the same Gospel, or something significantly different? One of the first articles produced by the Reformanda Initiative was “What Do You Think About Pope Francis?”, co-authored by the writers of this paper, Leonardo De Chirico and Greg Pritchard.[i]
In response to this article, Thomas Schirrmacher (with Thomas Johnson) wrote the article “Why We, As Evangelical Reformed Christians, Seek to Dialogue with Pope Francis.”[ii] Unfortunately, the article was emotionally reactive and lacked academic rigor, even including many simple misspellings and grammatical mistakes.[iii] But more seriously, it accused our article “of painting a very negative picture of the Pope’s character” and charged that we “impugn both the Pope’s motives and his character. They seem to suggest that Pope Francis is an expert at deluding people.”[iv] At that time, we did what one often should do in response to false accusations: nothing.
In October of 2016, the Reformanda Initiative released the statement “Is the Reformation Over?” (“Is the Reformation Over?” Statement or the Statement), which was signed by over two hundred global Evangelical leaders and scholars and translated into French, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish, Slovakian, and Romanian.[v]
Schirrmacher and Johnson (this time as a co-author) wrote a response to the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement with the article “Let the Reformation Continue!”[vi] Again, this article makes very strong accusations against not just us, but also against the hundreds of Evangelical leaders who either helped craft or signed the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement:
The statement seems to assume that the Pope purposely deceives us or even lies to us and the public without providing clear evidence. We are afraid this could violate the ninth commandment by bearing false witness against our neighbor (in this case the Pope and other Catholic leaders).[vii]
This is a very serious charge. As we will see shortly, this accusation is also false, but it cannot be ignored as the first article was. The hundreds of leaders and scholars who signed the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement will be tarred by this accusation, and so we believe we must respond.
The present article is a response to both Schirrmacher’s first article and Schirrmacher and Johnson’s second article.[viii] We have to acknowledge that this article has been painful to write. It is not pleasant to publically critique two brothers in Christ. Both Schirrmacher and Johnson have knowledge of Roman Catholicism and extensive experience working with Roman Catholic leaders, and we would have welcomed a critical response that advanced the discussion. However, because their articles have so many inaccuracies, distortions, and false accusations, we need to respond in a candid and straightforward way.
Our hope is that this article may serve a wider audience. Because the topic of the relationship between Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism is crucially important, especially given that this year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, our anticipation is that this article may be useful to clarify why the Reformation is not over and what both Roman Catholics and Evangelicals actually believe.
We will first make a few comments about both articles’ general method of argumentation and then evaluate the central argument of the Schirrmacher-Johnson article.
There are multiple problems with both articles’ basic method. We will only mention two here:
1) Inaccurate and Misleading Statements
There were an alarming number of inaccurate statements in both articles, and we do not have space to respond to all of them.[ix] However, we will briefly respond to Schirrmacher’s accusation and Schirrmacher-Johnson’s accusation mentioned above.
Schirrmacher writes that the authors of “What Do You Think About Pope Francis?” are “painting a very negative picture of the Pope’s character,” “impugn both the Pope’s motives and his character,” and “seem to suggest that Pope Francis is an expert at deluding people.”[x]
What does the article “What Do You Think About Pope Francis?” actually say about Pope Francis?
The article explains that the Pope is “one of the most liked leaders in today’s world” and his message is “inclusive and nonjudgmental.” Personally, Francis is “sincere, kind, and loving,” “charming” and “relationally warm.” He is described as “magnetic” and able to “winsomely communicate,” with an enormous capacity for “empathetic listening” and “profound political gifts.” He is described as having an “extraordinary openness and warmth toward evangelicals.”[xi]
The article does explain that Francis is a Jesuit (he is), who is also a “gifted and canny politician” (he is), and that some have described him as a “chess player” (they have).[xii] At one point, Schirrmacher accuses the authors of falsely describing Francis as a chess player, and yet in the same article he asserts that “you have to be [a chess player] if you have to deal with the Curia!,” in effect disagreeing with himself. [xiii]
Schirrmacher seems offended by the article’s description of Francis’ extraordinary communication and political gifts as comparable to one of the greatest public communicators of the day, former U.S. President Barack Obama. But both Francis and Obama have an amazing ability to listen to and empathize with others and communicate effectively, and the article seeks to help readers to understand Francis by using Obama’s extraordinary gifts as a point of comparison.
Schirrmacher’s description of the article as “a very negative picture of the Pope’s character” which “impugn[s] both the Pope’s motives and his character” is clearly incorrect.[xiv]
In short, the article “What Do You Think About Pope Francis?” portrays Francis as an sincere, kind, and extraordinarily gifted Jesuit from South America who is also a canny political leader and the most ecumenical Pope yet -- who is relationally reaching out to Evangelicals (and others). It encourages Evangelicals to do their homework regarding how to understand Francis and his role as the Pope of the Catholic Church as he is (according to Catholic sources) seeking to establish a new relationship between Catholicism and Evangelicalism.
Schirrmacher-Johnson’s article continues the pattern of inaccurate statements and character assassination of the over 200 signers of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement. We quoted their comment before, but it bears repeating:
The statement seems to assume that the Pope purposely deceives us or even lies to us and the public without providing clear evidence. We are afraid this could violate the ninth commandment by bearing false witness against our neighbor (in this case the Pope and other Catholic leaders).[xv]
There are only two references to Pope Francis in the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement. The first explains one of the reasons why some claim that the Reformation is over:
The challenges for Christians worldwide (e.g., secularism and Islam) are so daunting that Protestants and Catholics can no longer afford to remain divided. A unified witness (with perhaps the Pope as the leading spokesman?) would greatly benefit global Christianity.[xvi]
The second describes the Roman Catholic theology of indulgences:
Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church’s view is revealed by its continued use of indulgences (i.e., the remission of the temporal punishment for sin allotted by the Church on special occasions). It was the theology of indulgences that triggered the Reformation, but this system has been invoked most recently by Pope Francis in the 2015-2016 Year of Mercy.[xvii]
It is likely that Schirrmacher and Johnson’s accusation is referring only to a short section of the Statement that they quote immediately beforehand, in which the Pope is never mentioned:
The fact that millions of Catholics have become Evangelicals in recent years has not gone unnoticed by Roman Catholic leaders. They are seeking to respond strategically to this loss of their faithful by adopting traditional Evangelical language (e.g. conversion, gospel, mission, and mercy) and establishing ecumenical dialogues with churches they once condemned.[xviii]
If they mean this paragraph when they use the term “the statement,” they seem to believe that this passage is asserting that because Catholic leaders in recent years have been strategically using Evangelical language and seeking to establish ecumenical dialogue, the Pope is exercising intentional deception by misrepresenting Catholic beliefs. However, that is clearly not what this quote states or implies. At no point does the Statement, or the article about the Pope Francis, assert that Pope Francis is dishonest. So again we have a false accusation with no evidence.
The fact that Schirrmacher and Johnson make such a false accusation is disconcerting, and should encourage a careful reader to question any of their assertions. A similar problem exists in how both articles distort the most basic descriptions.
2) Distortions not Descriptions
A key element of good scholarship is an ability to describe another writer’s argument fairly and honestly.
At the beginning of the article “Let the Reformation Continue!”, Schirrmacher-Johnson summarize their main point in extra-large bold font: “We respectfully believe that the statement ‘Is the Reformation Over? A Statement of Evangelical Convictions’ is not a sufficient description of our present theological situation.”[xix] The remainder of the article then seeks to unpack why the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement is not a “sufficient description of our present theological situation.”[xx]
But this was not the point of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement. There is an extensive list of topics one should address in attempting to provide “a sufficient description of our present theological situation.”[xxi] To list only a few issues from an Evangelical perspective, one would need to include the health and wealth gospel, Islam, Evangelicalism’s discipleship crisis, new perspective movement, higher critical approaches to the Bible, theological education, etc. However, the goal of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement was only to provide a 2-page summary of Evangelical convictions regarding Roman Catholicism on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Imagine walking into a typical Italian restaurant and asking for sushi. They don’t serve sushi. Why would you ask for something they don’t have? This is similar to what Schirrmacher and Johnson have done with their article. They inaccurately describe the goal of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement and then say it has not achieved the false goal they have foisted on it. This fundamental distortion is embedded in (and garbles) their entire article.
There are many distortions and wrong characterizations in how Schirrmacher and Johnson formulate the issues and questions in their articles. In particular, Schirrmacher-Johnson list seven statements that, they assert, are stated or assumed in the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement and then explain why they disagree with each statement. However, these seven statements distort the most basic issues and do not provide a fair description or analysis of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement’s claims. The rest of this article seeks to clarify and evaluate just a few of these distortions.
[i] De Chirico, L., & Pritchard, G. A. (2015, September 24). What Do You Think About Pope Francis? Retrieved from http://reformandainitiative.org/what-do-you-think-about-pope-francis/.
[ii] Schirrmacher, T. (2015, October 27). Why We, As Evangelical Reformed Christians, Seek to Dialogue with Pope Francis. Retrieved from http://wrfnet.org/articles/2015/10/wrf-member-thomas-schirrmacher-suggests-reasons-why-evangelicals-should-engage-pope#.WMxY0DvythE.
[iii] An indication of this emotional tenor can be seen in Schirrmacher’s use of exclamation points (3 times), underlining (9 times), and bolding (2 times), italics (5 times), and all capital letters (3 times). Grammatical errors include misspellings of “retheoric” (paragraph 4, line 4), “Petecostals” and “entert” (par. 9, line 6), “no” instead of on (par. 11, line 3), “France’s charm and kindness” (par. 16, line 2), “opporyunity” (par. 21, line 4), “definuition” (par. 23, line 13), “ge” (par. 30, line 3). Other grammatical errors include “respecting each others opinions…” (par. 2, line 2, missing apostrophe), “Pope Francis does seem to worry…” (par. 10, line 2, should be does not), “explicitly see it Pope Francis’ strategy…” (par. 13, line 1, “it” is unnecessary), “The fact that people have contact me” (par. 13, line 4, instead of contacted), “confused’” (par. 24, line 6, extra apostrophe), and “in order to to get together” (par. 29, line 1, “to” repeated). It is also curious to observe the number of self-referential pronouns (I, me, my, we, us, our) used in the article (a total of 136 times in the 3502-word article, or every 26th word), even though the original article makes no reference to Schirrmacher.
[iv] Schirrmacher, Why We, as Evangelical Reformed Christians, Seek to Dialogue with Pope Francis.
[vi] Schirrmacher, T. and Johnson, T. (2016, December 16). Let the Reformation Continue! Retrieved from http://wrfnet.org/sites/default/files/Let%20the%20Reformation%20Continue!.pdf.
[vii] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
[viii] From this point forward, we will refer to the first article, “Why We, As Evangelical Reformed Christians, Seek to Dialogue with Pope Francis” as “Schirrmacher’s article” and the second article, “Let the Reformation Continue!” as the “Schirrmacher-Johnson’s article” or “Schirrmacher and Johnson’s article”.
[ix] There are many inaccurate comments in these two articles, and it would take a much longer article to describe, analyze and evaluate all of them. We will simply list below some of these remarks and make a brief observation. 1) Schirrmacher asserts that “Leonardo De Chirico and Greg Pritchard criticize those evangelical leaders who visit the Pope.” We did not criticize all Evangelical leaders who visit the Pope. We criticized those who don’t do their homework regarding what Roman Catholicism actually teaches and gave specific examples. 2) Schirrmacher states that “the authors… are convinced that Reformed evangelicals who visit with him (the Pope) are naïve and ignorant of the Pope’s real goals and of Catholic theology”. We never used the phrase “Reformed evangelicals” or talked about Reformed Evangelicals. 3) Schirrmacher writes that we “have moved a bit too quickly to a final judgment about Pope Francis’s motives.” We tried to describe Pope Francis honestly and fairly and never stated that we know or have come to a “final judgment about Pope Francis’s motives.” 4) Schirrmacher states, “The Pope apologizes for something different nearly every month. Is this all to win Evangelicals?” We never said or implied this. In fact, we noted that he has apologized to non-Evangelical groups and that he also seeks to reach out to others including Muslims, liberals, homosexuals, atheists, etc. 5) Schirrmacher and Johnson state that the signers of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement have not been involved in dialogues with Roman Catholics but “Viewing this process from afar, they have made presumptions about what is happening that are not consistent with reality.” The signers of the Statement have a wide and rich history of official and informal dialogue with Roman Catholics. For example, one signer attended all three of John Stott’s Lausanne discussions with Roman Catholics and noted that they started in 1977, not in 1983 as Schirrmacher claims. 6) Schirrmacher-Johnson write that “Bishop Tony Palmer has stated privately several years ago that Luther’s protest is finished.” As noted in this article, Tony Palmer has made very public arguments that “Luther’s protest is over.” 7) Schirrmacher-Johnson assert that parts of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement “imply that the Evangelical world is theologically in good health.” The Statement neither states nor implies this. 8) Schirrmacher-Johnson argue that the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement’s “actual content does not do justice to the authority of the Bible, as it does not argue on the basis of the exegesis but only on the basis of history.” Schirrmacher-Johnson are once again foisting a false goal on the statement. We would repeat what we argue in this article, that the purpose of the Statement is to provide a two-page summary of Evangelical convictions on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But we find it curious that this expectation of exegesis in a theological article is written in a theological piece that is almost three times as long as the Statement and yet never once quotes Scripture or does exegesis.
[x] Schirrmacher, “Why We, as Evangelical Reformed Christians, Seek to Dialogue with Pope Francis”
[xi] De Chirico and Pritchard. “What Do You Think About Pope Francis?”
[xii] De Chirico and Pritchard. “What Do You Think About Pope Francis?” For one example of Francis as a chess player, see Grimm, W. (2014, Nov 18): “Is Pope Francis moving towards checkmate? Recent developments suggest the Pontiff might well be a formidable chess player.” Retrieved from www.ucanews.com
[xiii] Schirrmacher, Why We, as Evangelical Reformed Christians, Seek to Dialogue with Pope Francis
[xiv] Schirrmacher, Why We, as Evangelical Reformed Christians, Seek to Dialogue with Pope Francis
[xv] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
[xvi] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[xvii] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[xviii] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[xix] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
[xx] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
[xxi] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!