Back-Handed Compliments from CRI Founder Dr. Walter Martin

I was reading criticisms of Catholicism by Dr. Walter R. Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute. If you’re not familiar, CRI is the group that Hank “Bible Answer Man” Hanegraaff took over upon Martin’s death. Anyways, here’s what Martin has to say (these quotes, including emphasis and brackets, are from here; all I’ve done is changed the font to red):

We are not descendants of this papacy, nor do we wish to be… We [who are Christian] reject a corrupt church; a backslidden church; an apostate church

What’s most strange about this is that the author of the page this was drawn from praised Dr. Martin for this “excellent defence [sic] of the historic orthodox Christian faith.” Yet no reasonable historian denies that the Reformers broke with the Catholic Church, and that the modern Protestant denominations descend from those Reformers to various degrees. What’s stranger is that Martin was an ordained Baptist preacher, and so his own lineage back to Rome is easy to trace: the Baptists descend from the Anabaptists, who broke with Rome (and with the early Reformers) in the Radical Reformation under Menno Simons and certain other leaders.

Obviously, there are serious differences between modern Baptists and Reformation-era Anabaptists, Reformation-era Anabaptists and Magisterial Reformers, and all three and the Catholic Church. But this lineage still bears some practical consequences. Louis Bouyer, in his book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (which I haven’t read), argues that the numerous postives found in Protestantism are derived from its Catholic roots – that for any positive practice, one can trace it to a Catholic source (even if Catholics often neglect their own inheritence: for example, in a deep love for the Bible). This is surely a Catholic way of looking at things, but at least an element is seemingly undeniable. I think that those on all sides would agree that the deposit of the Faith existed in the Catholic Church at least until 1517. Protestants didn’t have to go searching through the Nag Hammadi library to try and recover the “lost Gospels” which had been destroyed by Rome. There were no “secret teachings” which had to be recovered once the Reformation started. To the point that post-Reformation novelties exist, they’re viewed either as optional (like reciting a “Sinner’s Prayer” to invite Jesus into your heart) or heterodox (like open theism) even by other Protestants.

Take the five solas, for example. The Catholic Church affirms the necessity of faith for justification, affirms the Scriptures as the inspired word of God, affirms sola gratia, affirms the uniqueness of Christ’s role as mediator, and that all glory comes from God alone. To the extent that the Reformers modified these ideas, they modified them by subtraction: they took the Catholic idea of justification, and subtracted the necessity of obedience; took the Catholic Scriptures and substracted Sacred Tradition and the Deuterocanon; took sola gratia, and subtracted (in some cases) the ability for humans to reject or respond to this grace; took Christ’s unique role as mediator, and philosophically eliminated any subordinate mediation (while still affirming such mediation in practice, by evangelizing, bringing Christ’s Gospel to the unsaved); and took the Catholic view on the glory of God and substracted the veneration of those blessed and raised up by God.

Now whether this is pruning the Tree of Life or squandering part of the family inheritence is a reasonable question, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to me to deny what’s being subtracted from – Baptists didn’t just stumble into the fully formed doctrine of a Trinitarian God whose begotten and not made Son has two natures (human and divine) but is only one Person: they inherited it.

The [Roman Catholic] Church has adapted to the necessity of survival, as she always has. But she has never changed [her] positions. Now; as Christians, what ought our attitude to be [concerning Roman Catholicism]? It ought to be an attitude of gratitude; and attitude of joy, because God has delivered us from this system into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.

I gladly acknowledge the truth of the first sentence of this criticism. While the Catholic Church explains things in new ways, and tries to reach out to people in ways which will be effective, meaning that the form of the message may vary by culture, time, and setting, and even certain points of emphasis, She remains constant in the substance of the message. If the “glorious liberty of the sons of God” means anything, it means a liberty rooted in absolute Truth, not a liberty to change dogma. If something is dogmatically true yesterday, it was always and forever dogmatically true: the Trinity was true from all time, not just when it was formulated. A liberty to change religious dogmas isn’t a God-ordained liberty at all.

What’s depressing about all of this is that what both sides readily acknowledge is presented as some sort of exposé: “A-ha! This really is the same Church!” I have two theories about what might be going on here: first, the “Spirit of Vatican II” types, who present Vatican II as if it were the new Pentecost to a new Church, have grossly misrepresented both the Second Vatican Council, and Catholic doctrines generally. The Church is substantially the same now as always, even if the form can vary somewhat. The second theory I have is that Martin, like many other Evangelicals, had a mythological Antichrist Church built up in his mind, and was frustrated that there are no visible signs of such a Church anywhere in real life: and moreover, that a growing number of Evangelicals were likewise realizing that they’d been sold a bill of goods. Documents like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, published five years after Martin’s death, show signs of a real growth in Catholic-Protestant ecumenism, and for those on both sides who desire schism or distrust the other side, these changes are shocking. So Martin and others keep beating the tired old “Rome is the Whore of Babylon” drum to a dwindling crowd. I think that in the next quote I pulled, we see something

You must understand what you are seeing in this country is not pure Roman Catholic theology. What you are seeing in this country is a watered down version adapted to the American mind, so that the Americans will live with it. Rome is a great chameleon, she changes color on what ever surface you place her.

I agree with the first part, in that many American Catholics have watered down their Faith to adapt to the world (although this criticism is hardly unique to Catholics). Bishops afraid to stand up to gay rights groups and sexual libertines are indeed watering down the Faith, and it’s a disgrace to Christians everywhere.

But then Martin jumps the shark by claiming that “Rome” is behind it as a “great chameleon,” instead of acknowledging that different cultures impact systems differently. You’ll find this in virtually any other context: capitalism looks pretty different in Singapore or London than it does in the US, even though all three consider themselves free-market economies. McDonald’s in Europe have vegetarian items, smaller portions, and special menu items designed to appeal to the local market. Still the same restaurant, but with special outreach.

So of course Catholicism looks different in America than in Nigeria. They’re worshipping the same God, and believing the same thing, but practicing that in a different way. There may even be localized outreach, like a greater emphasis in some areas on charismatic praise, in other areas on contemplative prayer, in others on Bible study, and so forth. Besides that, the Catholic Church was for centuries the closest thing to a homogeneous presence anywhere in the world of any religious system: prior to Vatican II, you could go to a Tridentine Mass anywhere in the world and find it very nearly identical (one of the benefits of Latin as a lingua franca). While an intentional effort has been made to make the Faith more culturally accomodating and relevant, the substance isn’t being altered, and it’s not to “camoflague” the Church.

The face is different, but underneath, the theology remains unchanged. The statement “we never change” – is true. They never change on the basics. They will change on the peripherals, [but] never on the centrality, the authority of the papacy. I’m quoting these things so that you get some idea of the concept in which the average Roman Catholic grows, and matures in the educational process of the church. It is a closed system, absolute thought control enforced by fear.

Once more, thank God we never have to change our theology! If we did, how could we be trusted to get it right the second, or third, or twentieth, time around? That aside, a sure-fire mark of someone who doesn’t understand the Catholic Church is found in this obsession over the papacy. The papacy is viewed as the center of the Faith, and the pope at the time, John Paul II, took time out from his constant international travels to control the minds of over a billion Catholics worldwide.

The papacy is a focal point of the Catholic-Protestant divide, certainly. I’d argue that the Eucharist is a more important division, but if the papal issue is resolved, the Eucharistic issue will be resolved as well, I suppose, since the pope is the key earthly guardian of the Faith, including the Eucharist. But that doesn’t mean that the pope is the focal point of the Faith: Christ is. If you are contrasting cars and trucks, you might spend a lot of time considering the bed of a truck and its value. But the most important part of a truck isn’t the bed, it’s the engine. As it is, Protestants and Catholics agree on the engine of the Faith, Christ, but where we loudly disagree is over the papacy, the truck-bed carrying and protecting the Deposit of the Faith. For those Protestants who know Catholics only through disagreements, it’s easy to assume all we care about is the papacy (or any number of other contentious beliefs). Those who can set those disagreements aside and praise and worship God with us from time to time find a fuller picture.

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