One of the more controversial wings of Evangelicalism--the wing known as Christian Reconstructionism--has a new journal. Antithesis, a bimonthly, is subtitled "a review of Reformed/Presbyterian thought and practice."
Published in Irvine, California under the auspices of the Covenant Community Church, Antithesis promises to be a major vehicle for aggressive Calvinism--and an interesting read for anyone outside the Reformed tradition. Among its senior editors are David G. Hagopian, an attorney well known for his debating skills, and Greg L. Bahnsen, the chief theoretician of the Christian Reconstruction movement.
Christian Reconstruction seeks to "christianize" America, and its proponents maintain that much of the Old Testament judicial code, not just the moral code, should remain in force in a Christian society, a provocative position which has generated plenty of infighting among Evangelicals.
If the listing of upcoming articles is any indication, Antithesis will discuss some aspect of Catholicism every second issue or so. In fact, the second issue of the magazine includes a long essay about the Revised Code of Canon Law. The author is Thomas Schirrmacher, a German who edits Bibel und Gemeinde.
Unfortunately, Schirrmacher's essay does little to calm a Catholic's anxiety about how his church will be treated in the new magazine. The essay is full of errors, most minor, some profound. It is an essay no one well versed in Catholicism could write, and we hope Antithesis, which we so far otherwise enjoy, will be more cautious in the future when it comes to selecting articles about Catholicism.
Let's be clear about our complaint. We don't object to a Reformed journal taking a Reformed position and, on its own principles, criticizing Catholic positions. That's perfectly fair. The weight given to the criticism will depend, of course, largely on how the criticism is communicated. Sometimes a critical article can be so error-ridden that little good can come from it--for either side.
Schirrmacher’s article is translated from the German, so we don't know whom to blame for the many references to "ecumenical counsels." The word "counsel" is used dozens of times when "council" (such as Vatican II) is meant. A few times the correct word "council" is used. In one paragraph both spellings are used. But usually the wrong word is used.
This may be a proofreading problem rather than a problem with the German author. (We hope Schirrmacher isn't in the habit of using the German equivalent of "counsel" when he writes about councils.) Still, it indicates a certain lackadaisicalness on someone's part. Someone was careless, but there is more than carelessness inSchirrmacher's essay. This is evident when he discusses Catholic doctrines.
Consider this sentence: "The Pope, without a counsel [sic] meeting and without being able to refer to the slightest precedent in known church tradition, declared the dogma of the ascension of Mary" [italics in the original].
Since when have Catholics believed in the ascension of Mary? We believe, of course, in her assumption. No one who knows the difference between an ascension and an assumption could write such a thing.
Only Jesus has ascended into heaven. No one else ever will. At the end of time, when our bodies are resurrected, they will be assumed into heaven (presuming that's our final destination). They won't ascend into heaven. In an assumption you go "up" under God's motive power. In an ascension you go "up" under your own.
In your generosity you might say this was a translator's error; perhaps he didn't know the difference, while Schirrmacher did. But here's another goof, one that calls Schirrmacher's understanding into question:
According to him, Vatican I declared the "Pope is infallible like the counsel [sic]." The implication throughout the essay is that until 1870 ecumenical councils, working on their own without papal approbation, were considered infallible in their decisions, while popes, working on their own, were not. After 1870, each was independently infallible, the popes having gained equality with the councils.
This gets Catholic doctrine quite wrong. No ecumenical council's decrees have ever been considered infallible unless and until they were approved by a pope, either directly or through his legates. No approval, no infallibility. This has been understood from the time of the earliest councils, which operated under the watchful gaze of papal legates and which waited for papal approval of their decisions.
Another goof: Schirrmacher says, "The sacrament of penance is moreover the only way to forgiveness." He doesn't realize that he contradicts himself in the next sentence by quoting Canon 960: "Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary way by which the faithful person who is aware of serious sin is reconciled with God and with the Church."
See, confession is the "only ordinary" means of having one's sins forgiven. That implies there are means that aren't "ordinary"--that is, that aren't primary or normative--such as a good, private act of contrition, which does, indeed, effect the remission of sins (but if mortal sins are involved, one still must go to confession as soon as possible; for venial sins that requirement doesn't hold).
Schirrmacher was tripped up by the technical term "ordinary," you might say. Not likely, since he defined it properly earlier in the essay. What he was tripped up by was a poor g.asp of the elements of Catholicism, that's what.
We look forward to future issues of Antithesis. It promises to become one of the main vehicles for an intelligent explication of the Reformed tradition. We know that Catholicism will not be the journal's main concern, and we don't even expect all of its articles to get all the facts right. (Good is good enough; we don't insist on perfection.)
But we're concerned about articles that criticize the Catholic Church for doctrines it doesn't even teach, and we're concerned about careless writing that may confirm non-Catholics in their misapprehensions about our faith. We're especially concerned about such things coming from people who are really closer to us than many of them (and many of us) suspect.
It's becoming ever more apparent that certain segments of Christianity are disappearing. The mainline Protestant churches continue their precipitous decline. (In Britain Muslims now outnumber practicing Anglicans.) Ditto, ultimately, for the progressive or anti-miraculist wing of Catholicism. The only growth within Christianity is to be found within Evangelicalism (and its subset Fundamentalism) and within the traditional, miraculist wing of Catholicism.
We want to see Evangelicals and Catholics understand one another better, but that can happen only if our respective journals don't confuse their readers.