Is Pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism a Closed Church? A Review of Chapters 2-3 of Neo-Calvinism

February 14, 2023
Author: Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto 
Publisher: Lexham Academic
Publishing Date: January 11, 2023
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1683596462

I have written elsewhere of my deep appreciation for the writings and translations of Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto. Here I review Chapters 2 and 3 of their book, Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction. In those chapters they criticize the allegedly closed nature of pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism and its non-historical orthodoxy, then contrasting it with historical consciousness and its citadel mentality, where the Church retreats behind the walls of the city, separating itself from the world. The authors raise honest questions about the closed nature of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, and as such, they deserve honest answers. But their unnuanced and inaccurate criticisms miss out on the already present seeds and principles of an “open Catholicism,” which admits of no compromise, nor a watering down in vagueness and relativism of the Church’s teachings, but rather “to the possibility that the full treasure of the Church may becomes fruitful for all others in a world-wide vision.”1

A closed Church is one that imposes uniformity. “Rome produces no multiformity.” The authors quote Kuyper: “(Rome’s) beliefs system had to be uniform, its government uniform, its liturgy uniform, its message to all regions of the world carried in one language, and life everywhere shaped by one model.”

I am at a loss to explain the authors charge about the lack of liturgical multiformity, but it is easily refuted. The pre-Vatican II Church had liturgical diversity, viz., Byzantine, Maronite, Chaldean, Coptic, and Armenian liturgies. In the West, there would have been the Mozarabic Rite in Spain and the Ambrosian Rite in Milan, but these were often considered variations of the Western or Latin Liturgical Rite. Furthermore, ecclesial life is not shaped by one model because there are also a diversity of religious orders, viz., Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Augustinians, and Benedictines, each order reflecting its own distinctive spirituality. 

Moreover, a closed Church reflects a hyperconfessionalism, which is a dead orthodoxy. Here, too, unity and uniformity are conflated. A closed Church lacks the inherent dynamism “toward producing theological plurality in the search for a deeper penetration of the riches of God’s truth.” This charge against Roman Catholicism is aligned with its anti-modernism; its identification of orthodoxy with repristination; and hence its failure to distinguish form and essence, namely, “true orthodoxy preserves the essence and is uninterested in the fading forms.”

“ … true orthodoxy preserves the essence and is uninterested in the fading forms.”

Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto

This charge, too, regarding theological plurality is refutable. In the nineteenth-century, most of the significant theological/philosophical attention given to the problem of theological diversity appeared in the treatment of doctrinal development by Catholic theologian John Henry Newman (1801–1890), An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). 

Newman developed necessary but not sufficient “tests” for distinguishing true and false doctrinal development in his Essay. There are seven “tests”: Identity of Type, Continuity of Principle, Assimilative Power, Logical Coherence, Fecundity, Conservation, and Vitality. They are necessary but not sufficient because “ecclesial warrants” are also necessary to assess doctrinal development. One of these warrants is Sacred Scripture, which has primacy, ecumenical councils, doctors of the Church, the Christian faithful, and the Magisterium. Still, all these “tests” and attendant warrants help us to distinguish “development” from change, i.e., proper growth in understanding, which may involve correction, modification, and complementary formulations, from improper mutations and corruptions.

In particular, Newman says, “A true development is that which is conservative of its original, and a corruption is that which tends to its destruction.” The “continuity of principle” and “identity of type,” or what Oliver Crisp calls a “dogmatic conceptual hard core,” is what Newman refers to when he speaks of what must be conserved. Fundamental to doctrinal development is the idea of “propositional revelation.” Newman held that revealed truths, what he called “supernatural truths of dogma,” have been “irrevocably committed to human language.” God’s written revelation, according to the late Ian Ker’s reading of Newman, “necessarily involves propositional revelation.” This propositional revelation in verbalized form, or what Newman called the “dogmatical principle,” is at once true though not exhaustive, “imperfect because it is human,” adds Newman, “but definitive and necessary because given from above.”

“A true development is that which is conservative of its original, and a corruption is that which tends to its destruction.”

John Henry Newman

Newman is clearly inspired by Vincent of Lérins (died c. 455), the fifth century theologian and monk. So, too, was the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). The constitution, Dei Filius, of Vatican I, cited a passage from the Commonitorium 23 of Vincent of Lérins in which he raises the question whether there is progress in religion. “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia).” Although the truths of the faith may be expressed differently, the Church must always determine, in light of the ecclesial warrants listed above, whether those new re-formulations are preserving the same meaning and judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths. Only then can we distinguish between true and false development. I have written elsewhere of Bavinck’s affinity for a Vincentian hermeneutics.

Regarding modernism, the 1864 Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX, promulgated jointly with Quanta Cura, and the 1907 Syllabus of Errors of Pius X, promulgated jointly with Pascendi Dominici Gregis, contains many propositions that Bavinck affirms. The rejection of pantheism, naturalism, absolute rationalism, religious relativism, and relativism about truth, to name a few. Most significantly, the rejection of a doctrine of revelation that takes revelation to be experiential and then assertions, doctrines, creeds, etc., are simply expressions of that experience. For modernism, there is no such thing as revealed truth, or propositional revelation.

Still, as Aidan Nichols, OP, says succinctly, “though modernism had been a false answer it had set a real question.” What is the real question it raised? A pre-Vatican II French theologian, Yves Congar, OP, replies: modernism raised the problem of “the variations in the representations and the intellectual construction of the affirmations of faith.” The nouvels théologiens “solved the problem by distinguishing between an invariant of affirmations, and the variable usage of technical notions to translate essential truth in historic contexts differing culturally and philosophically.” Bavinck would agree with the position of the nouvels théologiens, making his position clear of being at the same time Catholic and Modern.

Furthermore, Bavinck’s view of ecclesial unity and diversity leads him to highlight critically what he calls the “church-dissolving” element of Protestantism, its prevailing sectarianism, or as Leslie Newbigin once put it, “the tendency to endless fissiparation which has characterized Protestantism in its actual history.” At the root of this tragic fragmentation of the Church is the faulty ecclesiology of what some have called “ecclesial atomism,” which is the idea that “the church (is) a (voluntary) association of individuals who first become believers apart from the church and subsequently united themselves.” Bavinck rightly rejects this ecclesiology. The Church is a people convoked by God that precedes the Church as a gathering of believers who worship together—convocatio precedes congregatio, as the pre-Vatican II French theologian, Henri de Lubac says. For this isolationism, or division from one another, is in contradiction to the heart of the Gospel because it divides Christ. Indeed, all such divisions, according to Bavinck, are caused by sin, and are in conflict with Christ’s high-priestly prayer for unity.2

“Indeed, all such divisions, according to Bavinck, are caused by sin, and are in conflict with Christ’s high-priestly prayer for unity.”

The Catholic ecclesiologist’s response to Bavinck asks whether Bavinck can extricate himself from the “church-splitting dynamism” of Protestantism. Although he affirms that the institutional Church has, inter alia, the authority to teach, he nonetheless argues that ultimately every believer has the complete freedom to interpret the Word of God for himself, by his own light, leaving him “free to confess otherwise” than what the Church teaches in accordance with its creeds and confessions and hence “to conceive the truth of God in some other sense.” Here, then, we have what Alister McGrath once called Protestant Christianity’s dangerous idea. But how can Bavinck’s position avoid obstructing the complete fulfillment of the Church’s catholicity in history? Bavinck stipulates a condition of legitimate diversity, namely, preserving the catholicity of the Church. But how does one decide whether this condition has been met, and who decides? Who speaks for the Church in the name of the whole Church? Are we thrown back on our private judgment? If so, how do we block the move to hermeneutical individualism, anarchy, subjectivism, and sectarianism?

Lastly, their over emphasis on the institutional element of Catholic ecclesiology misses out on the more organic and spiritual conceptions such as the Mystical Body of Christ. For this, see Pius XII, 1943 encyclical, Mystici CorporisChristi. They also miss out on the Lordship of Christ over the full spectrum of culture. It is affirmed by Leo XIII, for example, in Rerum Novarum, the 1891 encyclical on Capital and Labor and social theory; it is also affirmed in the 1925 encyclical of Pius XI, Quas Primas, on the Kingship of Christ. “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, and peace and harmony.”

Pre-Vatican II Catholicism deserves a deeper engagement by neo-Calvinists, Cory Brock and Gray Sutanto. 

Dig Deeper

Check out our latest podcast with host, Dr. Justin Bailey, and authors of Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction Cory Brock and Gray Sutanto.

This review is the fifth in a series of five that will engage “Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction”. Neo-Calvinism is a distinctive of Dordt’s historical background.

“Orthodox, Holistic, and Organic” – part 1, by Gayle Doornbos

“Total, Unified, Catholic World” – part 2, by Laremy DeVries

”Do Modern Christians Know God Differently?” – part 3, by Geoffrey Fulkerson

“Created to Glorify” – part 4, by Jess Joustra

“Evangelizing Everything, Including Ourselves” – part 5, by Justin Bailey

About the Author
  • "Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He is the author of several books, including Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants (Lectio Publishing, 2022)."

  1. Berkouwer  

  2. John 17:21  

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