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Should Evangelicals Honor Pope John Paul II?

  • Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
  • Published Apr 04, 2005
Should Evangelicals Honor Pope John Paul II?

Catholics around the world today mourn the loss of their leader, Pope John Paul II, who died April 2 after a long illness. While a number of Evangelical leaders have praised the political and humanitarian legacy of this pope, some Christians are wondering how much honor to pay the figurehead of a seemingly different faith. Is there a place for respect in the midst of disagreement over theology? Dr. Mark Bailey, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, helped answer these questions in a phone interview Monday morning.


Bailey recently assumed the Seminary’s presidency after years of service as both a professor and the Vice President for Academic Affairs. He also served as pastor at a local church. Bailey was a seminar instructor for Walk Thru the Bible Ministries for 20 years and is in demand for Bible conferences and other preaching engagements.


Crosswalk: To start with, can you help readers who are unfamiliar with Catholic theology to understand the issue of papal authority?


Bailey: The view of the Catholic church is that papal authority goes back to the first pope, which they think was Peter. This comes from an interpretation of Matthew 16:18 that says the church was built on Peter as the rock and therefore, there is apostolic and ecclesiastical authority. The difficulty with that, of course, is that Ephesians chapter 2 tells us the church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – plural – with Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. It’s never been limited to Peter.


Crosswalk: What are the other main theological differences between the Evangelical and Roman Catholic churches?


Bailey: First, we as Evangelicals don’t believe authority resides in a person – an earthly priest. We believe, as First Timothy told us, that there is one mediator between God and man – Christ Jesus. Therefore, through the single mediation of Jesus Christ, the New Testament teaches we all are priests – a royal priesthood – and we have direct access to the very throne of God.


The second difference is the centrality of Christ compared with the veneration of Mary within the Catholic church. Although the New Testament calls her blessed among women for having been the mother of our Lord, Luke 2 says that even she needed a savior and she was dependent upon the grace of God.


That takes us to the third difference, which is the means of salvation. When you ask most Roman Catholics how a person is justified they would say that faith is infused at Baptism and confirmed at Confirmation. Whereas the whole argument of the Protestant Reformation was that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.


Crosswalk: What are some of the changes taking place in the modern Catholic church?


Bailey: In 1965, papers that came from Vatican II opened the door a little bit to the idea that salvation is not restricted to the Catholic church, that the Spirit can blow with a mighty wind beyond the Catholic church. But even with Vatican II, there has never been a repudiation or backing off the Council of Trent that would call all Evangelicals “devils” and really deny that Evangelicals and Protestants can have a place in eternity. There’s a bit of contradiction between Vatican II and the Council of Trent prior that still has to be wrestled with.


Crosswalk: Given some of the differences, how should non-Catholics view this Pope? Can we revere his achievements without revering the papal office?

Bailey: Sure. We have shared values in the common grace that God has given to all men; there’s a conscience, a morality within everyone. Although sometimes that is seared and sometimes it is outright rejected. We share certain moral principles that this Pope espoused – the sanctity of human life, the Biblical view of marriage, a desire for justice and peace and caring for the downtrodden. We would all share, hopefully, those values. They are rooted in Scripture and in the character of God. There is a shared agenda, at times, with regard to moral issues and social issues.


He was noteworthy in his boldness in the area of abortion, going against the wave of popularity, even within the Catholic church at large. He refused to budge on those kids of issues and probably could be viewed as a very conservative pope in the community of the Roman Catholics.


Crosswalk: How are Catholics dealing with the scandals involving priests, which some media outlets are highlighting? Is this a problem unique to their faith?


Bailey: It’s not limited to Roman Catholics. There have been people of all persuasions that have been involved in such scandals, at times to epidemic proportions, as it’s been revealed and exposed. That is tragic whether it happens within the Catholic church or outside of it


Crosswalk: Lastly, some of our readers may wonder if it possible for this Pope – or any Catholic – to be saved. Can you comment on that?


Bailey: Some people can find themselves part of a tradition that holds certain truths, but they themselves have come to a personal faith in Christ and are dependent only on Christ for their salvation through what He did on the cross. Our prayer, obviously, is that this Pope had come to that conclusion. And the next pope, we would hope, will place the authority in Scripture and would see the exclusivity of Jesus as the only possibility of salvation and that the death of Christ and not our works is the absolute provision by a gracious God for our sin.


I have known Roman Catholics that are believers. My personal preference would be that they then distinguish themselves from those who hold to a different doctrine. But there are Baptists in bad Baptist churches. There are Presbyterians in bad Presbyterian churches, who have lost the message of the Gospel, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be people who – because of family or because they want to have an impact – stay within that system for the purpose of evangelism and hopefully, renewal.

For more on this topic, visit Albert Mohler's weblog on Crosswalk.com. Learn more about Dallas Theological Seminary at www.dts.edu.