Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Baptist Church in California
Author of The Purpose Driven Life
Are Catholics Christians? That was the title of one of the first articles I wrote for this blog. It was also one of my most popular articles. You can read it here. So what makes a Christian? I mean, at least doctrinally speaking anyway. We can debate about a person's behaviour all we want. That's not the topic of this article. What I want to discuss here is what makes a Christian in a doctrinal sense. Maybe to be more specific, we should ask what defines Christianity, doctrinally speaking? In modern society, we just take this sort of thing for granted. I mean what makes a Christian different from a Jew or a Muslim? They both believe in one God -- right? So couldn't we call a Muslim a Christian, or a Christian a Muslim? Can't the two terms be interchangeable? Well, not exactly.
You see, religions are defined by their understanding of God. This is why Pagans and Christians are not the same thing. Pagans believe in many gods, and worship them. Christians believe in only one God. We are monotheist, as opposed to polytheist. This distinction, between the number of gods, is a very large distinction, and it defines the respective religions. So you see, a religion, in the most simple of all breakdowns, is defined by its understanding of God.
Modern Jews and Muslims define God as absolute one. They are hyper-monotheists. In their understanding of God, there is no room for anything but one divine Person. While there are more distinctions between their respective understanding of God, this form of hyper-monotheism defines them. Christians however, have a modified monotheist approach. We believe in the Trinity, which is to say one God, eternally existent in three Divine Persons. Now this approach may seem strange to outsiders, but there is actually a very logical and profound reason for this. This definition of God has many other facets that further elaborate on it. From the Trinity comes the understanding of the Incarnation, which is to say that the Second Person of the Trinity (called "The Word" or "The Son") took upon himself human flesh and lived as a man named Jesus of Nazareth. From this understanding of the Incarnation we begin to get a better grasp of the Atonement, which is the teaching that God The Son, Jesus Christ, took upon himself all the sins of humanity, and paid the penalty for them on the cross, opening the gates of heaven to mankind, and then rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory over sin and death. These three doctrines -- the Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement -- are intimately tied together, each one further elaborating on the other, creating the religion we know today as Christianity. There are many variations of Christianity today. These are known as communions, branches, denominations, affiliations and sects. But all of them are under the one religion of Christianity.
So what is Christianity in it's most stripped down, bear bones, absolute minimal doctrine. It is...
- The Trinity
- The Incarnation
- The Atonement
The Catholic Church dose not have a problem recognising the essential Christianity in anyone who adheres to these three doctrines listed above. For the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly says...
1240 In the Latin Church this triple infusion is accompanied by the minister's words: "N., I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." In the Eastern liturgies the catechumen turns toward the East and the priest says: "The servant of God, N., is baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." At the invocation of each person of the Most Holy Trinity, the priest immerses the candidate in the water and raises him up again.
1271 Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: "For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptised are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church." "Baptism therefore constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn."
818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."
So in the Catholic Church, the criteria necessary for being recognised as a Christian, in the most basic and minimalist sense, is to be baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The idea here being that as the doctrine of the Trinity is contemplated fully, the other two doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement will be revealed. Catholic Christians, as a matter of Catholic faith, are required to recognise as "Christian" anyone who is baptised in the name of the Trinity.
Wow! That's a pretty generous application when you really stop and think about it. That means, as a practising Catholic, I have to recognise as "Christian" brethren, anyone who was baptised in and professes faith in the Trinity. Who does this include? Well, it generally includes the Eastern Orthodox, and all of the following Protestant denominations...
- Pentecostal (with the exception of "Oneness Pentecostal")
- Assemblies of God
- Church of the Nazarene
- Seventh Day Adventist
- Salvation Army
On the flip side, Protestants, historically and currently, have a harder time with reciprocation, especially with Catholics. This would include many within the list above. Some don't even acknowledge each other as Christian, so it's not surprising that they would exclude Catholicism from their definition of Christianity as well. There is nothing new about this. Indeed, Protestantism was originally founded on the assumption that the Catholic Church had apostate from the Christian faith. Granted, most mainline Protestant denominations have moderated that tone in subsequent centuries, but many of the newer denominations have stuck with it more militantly. Within all of these denominations and groups, one can easily find Protestant individuals who are willing to reach out to Catholics and acknowledge our Christianity. However, that doesn't necessarily mean their church would approve. For example; I know many Baptists and Pentecostals in my personal life. Most of them have been very open and forward in acknowledging me as a Christian brother. Some have even gone out of their way to do so. However, I also know a little bit about their respective churches. Some of their churches would approve of their actions toward me and some would not. In fact, I know of a couple of Baptists and Pentecostals who would be told to stop affirming me as their Christian brother if their pastors knew what they were doing. This is all just part of the overall condition Protestantism finds itself in these days. I certainly don't take it personally, and I never have, nor should any Catholic.
One of the most famous Protestant evangelists of recent memory was Billy Graham. Having a clear focus for keeping things simple, and trying to preach the gospel as clearly as he possibly could, Graham was well known for refusing to pull Catholics out of the Catholic Church. When Catholics would attend one of his crusades, and they would make the customary "altar call" (which is really just saying a prayer to accept Christ as personal Lord and Saviour) Graham would advise his counsellors to tell Catholics they should return to mass and the sacraments for further instruction. Typically, Evangelical "altar calls" (again, there is usually no altar, this is just an expression) are accompanied with an encouragement for non-Evangelicals to leave their previous religious tradition behind and become Evangelicals. Indeed, this is how many Catholics leave the Catholic Church. They attend an Evangelical crusade of some sort, participate in an "altar call" and are then advised to leave the Catholic Church. Graham broke with this custom, and focused instead on the message of salvation through Christ himself, and forming a personal relationship with him. Beyond that, Graham sought to return Catholics (and many other Christians) back to their churches for further instruction and growth. In his autobiography, Graham wrote...
"He [Willis Haymaker] would also call on the local Catholic bishop or other clerics to acquaint them with Crusade plans and invite them to the meetings; they would usually appoint a priest to attend and report back. This was years before Vatican II's openness to Protestants, but we were concerned to let the Catholic bishops see that my goal was not to get people to leave their church; rather, I wanted them to commit their lives to Christ." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 163
"My goal, I always made clear, was not to preach against Catholic beliefs or to proselytise people who were already committed to Christ within the Catholic Church. Rather, it was to proclaim the Gospel to all those who had never truly committed their lives to Christ." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 357
"We also suspected, with some justification, that some of the hard-line Communist officials hoped to use an American Protestant evangelist to weaken the strong authority of the Roman Catholic Church. If so, it was a naive hope; I would not have done or said anything that might be taken as anti-Catholic." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 482
"When we left Hungary, we set off on a brief trip to the Vatican. Years before, I had visited the city-state as a tourist, but on this trip I was to be received by Pope John Paul II, my first visit with a pope. As I was ushered into his quarters, Pope John Paul II greeted me, and we shook hands warmly. I found him extremely cordial and very interested in our ministry, especially in his homeland. After only a few minutes, I felt as if we had known each other for many years. He also expressed great delight at the small gift I had brought him, a woodcarving of a shepherd with his sheep, done by a North Carolina craftsman. We recalled together Jesus' words in John 10:14,16.... In turn the pope gave me a medallion commemorating his papacy and several magnificently bound volumes." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, pages 488-489
"I was asked by Pope John Paul II to participate with him during that same time period in an unprecedented ecumenical service of worship during his visit to Colombia, South Carolina. It was not to be a Mass but a service of Scripture, prayer, and preaching. I was to speak on the subject of the family. I was looking forward to that event, especially since the pope and I had a cordial relationship." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 599
"One whom I have yet to mention - and with whom I felt a special affinity - was Roman Catholic preacher Bishop Fulton L. Sheen." -- Billy Graham, Just As I Am, page 692For this generous and ecumenical attitude toward Catholics, Billy Graham was (and continues to be) savaged by various Protestant Fundamentalists, who have called him everything from a "false teacher," to a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Again, this is nothing new. As I said above, all of Protestantism (from which these various denominations came) was originally founded five-hundred years ago on the prospect that the Roman Catholic Church had apostate from the Christian faith. They said it was no longer Christian. So modern Protestant Fundamentalists are simply being consistent with the Protestant founders. Any Evangelical, Baptist or Pentecostal preacher, be he a pastor or evangelist, walks a precariously narrow line when he steps outside this foundational principle of Protestantism. Indeed, many of these men have come to a better understanding of the truth, realising that there are strong elements of Christianity within Catholicism. But to actually speak about this understanding is very dangerous business in the Evangelical Protestant world. Few venture to tread down this path. Billy Graham was one of them, and he was quite probably the greatest Protestant evangelist of the 20th century. While many Protestant Fundamentalists are quick to write him off as a "heretic" because of his warm relations with Catholics, 20th century Protestantism would be a bleak and lonely religion without him. He was, in my estimation, one of the greatest men in Protestant history. There have been many who have followed in his footsteps, but none can fill his shoes.
This calls to mind my own epiphany while I was an Evangelical. It was that moment when I too, like Billy Graham before me, came to that realisation that Christianity extends far beyond my own Evangelical sphere. Indeed, with the narrow definition many Fundamentalists put on Christianity, scarcely anyone outside of Evangelical Protestantism (such as Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic or Adventist) could be considered Christian. Sometimes these groups don't even recognise each other as Christian. (As an anecdotal side note, I've even witnessed one Baptist church tell a Baptist woman, from another kind of Baptist church, that she would have to be "re-baptised" because they did not recognise her as a Christian.) It was shortly after I moved to the Ozark Mountains when I, as an Evangelical, came to the realisation that this line of thinking is just ridiculous! For if Christianity really is defined by the narrow criteria of Fundamentalists, then virtually nobody outside of North America can be Christian (except for a few missionary pockets here and there). Indeed, as I later came to study history, almost all Europeans for the last 2,000 years would have to be excluded from Christianity. Even the Protestant founders themselves would be questionable. This was absurd. On the flip side, I knew that liberal relativism was not the answer either. There had to be specific doctrinal criteria for what defined a Christian, but I knew it had to be simple. It was after reading authors like Billy Graham, and Dr. Walter Martin, that I came to accept the threefold minimal doctrines as defining Christianity: Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement. Naturally, upon accepting this, I was willing to take a second look at Catholicism as well. While I had many strong issues against the Catholic Church at the time, I was willing to acknowledge, as Christians, those who were its members in spite of the Church. As an Evangelical, this was a big step for me. It would be some years before I finally looked into the actual teachings of the Catholic Church as told by the Catechism. Only then would I begin to understand that Catholicism is Christianity to its fullest!
Other Evangelicals are coming to the same conclusion, and some of them are megachurch pastors. In Sweden recently, the pastor for the nation's largest Evangelical megachurch, Ulf Ekman, actually converted to Catholicism. While in the United States, Southern Baptist Pastor Rick Warren, of the Saddleback Baptist megachurch in Lake Forest, California, has come out speaking the truth about Catholics and the Catholic Church. You can watch the video above or by clicking here.
Pastor Warren has publicly acknowledged Catholics as Christians and the Catholic Church as a Christian institution. For this, in predictable fashion, he is being brutally cannibalised by some of his more Fundamentalist Baptist brethren. His sanity and very Christianity are now being called into question. There is no word yet as to whether or not the Southern Baptist Convention will take any disciplinary action. We Catholics should pray for this man, that he will at least have the courage to hold the narrow line, as Billy Graham did, if not completely swim the Tiber, as Pastor Ulf Ekman did. By making this bold statement, Pastor Rick Warren is calling out many other megachurch pastors to ecumenical recognition of Catholics, as well as other Christians. Let us pray his message does not fall on too many deaf ears.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'
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