My book on “Indulgences” was translated from German to English and will be released in September. My preface deals in general, how Protestants should deal with Roman Catholic Teaching:
The Roman Catholic Church and its 1.1 billion members, under the leadership of the Pope, is by far the largest organization in history. It is also the oldest organization to exist without interruption in history, and it has survived massive upheavals since the time of the Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic Church, in the half-millennium since the Reformation, has experienced enormous development and change. One cannot simply cast today’s pope into the same pot with the popes of the Crusades and the Inquisition. An honest discussion regarding Roman Catholic teachings always has to be done with respect to the current state of the Roman Catholic Church. One has to soundly research what the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and its theologians are today. We see ourselves obligated to truth in a way that requires exhaustive study of the comprehensive literary efforts of the recent popes.
It is not a simple matter of dispensing with all that is Roman Catholic and welcoming everything that is protestant or evangelical, which would be to not listen to the interpretations of others but rather, in an anti-Roman-Catholic reflex, always hold the opposite of papal teaching to be correct. I have come to know the Roman Catholic Church in diverse countries like France, Mexico and China. It is important to note that the 1.1 billion members do not represent a monolithic block.
In my book Der Papst und das Leiden (The Pope and Suffering), I present the idea that in Protestant theology the theme of suffering and its importance for the body of Christ are all too often completely neglected or forgotten. The Pope reminds us of weighty Bible passages that we may not suppress. I demonstrated with Colossians 1:24, Pope John Paul II. favorite verse, what in my opinion is an incorrect view, that Paul then and the Pope today, with their individual sufferings, make the suffering of Christ more perfect. This is in contrast to the fact that the same verse does not even appear to exist as a general rule in Protestant circles, and furthermore, that the idea of the suffering of the entire body of Christ practically does not even exist as a topic. Even there, where the Pope’s interpretation of the Bible is rejected, one still needs to remain open to the critical question of whether we are truer to the Scriptures. To be evangelical means to be self-examining, since we as people are not infallible. It is rather the case that God and his Word are infallible. We as Christians are, and remain until the return of Jesus, threatened by sin, vanity, and self-deception. This is one of the central teachings of the Reformation, and we need to pay attention that we do not preach to others and become condemnable ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:27).
In many questions of faith, the Roman Catholic Church, on the basis of its development over the last 500 years, stands closer to Bible-believing Christians than was the case 500 years ago. Nowadays lay people may read the Bible, and Roman Catholic Bible societies distribute millions of Bibles every year. Home groups, in which the Bible is studied, are also present within the Roman Catholic Church. Granted there may still be too few such groups, but they are welcomed. The Pope is surely still the political leader of a miniature country, but his political and military leadership role from times past has disappeared. It is rather the case that the Pope has consciously relinquished political rights and has even disarmed the remainder of his Swiss Guards, which used to be an effective set of elite troops. Today the Vatican is protected by the Italian State. For more than forty years, worship services have taken place in the vernacular. Latin is only an internal administrative language or the language used in international worship services. In the teaching of grace, the Roman Catholic Church nowadays gives immense priority to grace over merit, which in certain cases cannot always be said about Protestants and Evangelicals. The list of points in which the Roman Catholic Church has changed for the better over the past 500 years could easily be extended.
At the same time, we want to consciously admit that the Roman Catholic Church basically never retracts earlier pronouncements of dogma. Rather, the Roman Catholic Church has its own view of the development of knowledge that allows it to introduce basic changes without officially changing anything. These changes are understood to be elucidations of earlier perspectives, even in cases where de facto the opposite is being said. In this manner, the ban on Bible study by lay people has never been repealed, but it has long been replaced by the call to Bible study. This unusual course of action is typically Roman Catholic and is difficult for Protestants to understand, but for the sake of fairness, one should always make sure whether what was once stated as infallible is still to be viewed today as valid or whether it has tacitly been replaced by new, infallible decrees.
Conversely, there are also questions and topics in which the Roman Catholic Church in the past 500 years has distanced itself more from Bible-believing Christians preaching the gospel of the New Testament and the Reformation. The Roman Catholic view of the Virgin Mary at the time of Luther pales in comparison with the present-day view of Mary. In the meantime, Mary, just as Jesus, is not seen to have been born into sin (the immaculate conception). She became sinless just as is Jesus, and she ascended into heaven just as did Jesus. Mary is also coredemptrix, or the co-Redeemer. While the Pope has lost and relinquished political and military power, his ecclesiastical and religious power has vastly grown. The Pope is, in the meantime, infallible, and the unanimous decision of the worldwide council of bishops, an authority the Roman Catholic Church repeatedly invoked against Luther, is invalid and fallible today if not confirmed by the Pope.
To simply quote Roman Catholic documents and dogma from the sixteenth century does not suffice for good or for bad. Since my 1982 comments on Roman Catholic Canon Law, I have repeatedly tried, in particular, to address the newest Roman Catholic texts in a matter-of-fact manner. That is not to say that sources from the sixteenth century as well as those which inform us about the Roman Catholic Church’s history cannot be of interest to us. Pope Johannes Paul II, as we will see in detail later, called, in his 1998 encyclical, for a Jubilee Indulgence for the Jubilee Year 2000. In doing so, he referred directly and without qualification to the Jubilee bull of his predecessor Boniface VIII in 1300. Such an action clearly demonstrates how important historical continuity is for the Roman Catholic Church, and this, far prior to the Reformation. It also demonstrates how we can practically never understand the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church without at the same time understanding historical developments.
In short, every reader is invited to review the sources and texts presented herein and to come up with his or her own opinion. It is not a matter of winning a discussion, whereby the opponent is put in a worse light than he deserves, or of setting up a straw man, who only imaginarily exists. This has to do with a reliable and comprehensible presentation of the current view of the Roman Catholic Church on the topics found in this book and with a discerning examination in light of Holy Scripture. Both the author and the publisher willingly accept pointers where opposing positions are concerned and where such positions are unintentionally incorrectly presented. These will be accordingly changed in later editions.
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