Thanks to The Particular Baptist team for feedback and edits for this article.
There is plenty going around suggesting that it would be improper to utilize Roman Catholic teachers in theology especially as it relates to the doctrine of God. It is easy to see why this would be the case. Roman Catholicism is not known for being by and large orthodox (at least as it is today). They reject salvation through faith alone (see the Roman Catholic Catechism Article 2, Grace and Justification, I Justification), promote tradition over Scripture in lieu of its subservience to Scripture, and have stood against Protestantism for centuries. There seems to be this constant drum beat that we should have a strange view of sola scriptura, reject Greek philosophy, and, at least by and large, Roman doctrine even if what is said in those areas is in fact consistent with Scripture. However, the question is can we actually learn from Roman Catholics? Can we glean good things from them where they are consistent with Scripture? We will look at the rejection of false teachers in Scripture, the principle that truth is truth wherever it is found, and the problem of the genetic fallacy.
Rejecting False Teachers In Scripture
We will start with Scripture since this is our final authority in faith and practice. Scripture has multiple places where it addresses false teachers. Probably one of the most lengthy dealings with them is 2 Peter chapter 2. I will only quote the first three verses:
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”2 Peter 2:1-3 ESV
These verses summarize pretty clearly the rest of what Peter will address. False teachers are destructive. They will bring in heretical doctrine that is dangerous to the church and ultimately they will bring ruin upon themselves. This would strongly imply that we are to stay away from false teachers. If they are so dangerous, then why should we have any association with them? Paul even has an express command toward the end of the book of Romans:
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”Romans 16:17 ESV
Paul is unequivocal here. We are to stay away from those who pervert the truth. There can be no fellowship with such persons. No arm locking, no stage sharing. We are to “avoid them”. This would seem to settle the issue. Roman Catholic theologians would not fall into the orthodox camp, therefore they are to be avoided. However, I think we should qualify what is meant biblically by “avoid” as it relates to false teachers. I don’t think this means we can’t interact or use anything they say. There are two reasons I see this. 1) Scripture qualifies what it means to “avoid” elsewhere in Scripture and 2) Paul himself interacts with false teachings and uses them to his advantage.
- “Avoid” in this case does not mean to stay away from every aspect of a false teacher. 2 John 10-11 is helpful here: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” Contextually, John is telling us to reject those who would teach a different Christ, a fundamentally different religion than what God had given the church. As such, they should not receive them as they would a brother or give them a promotional platform to spread their false teaching. Otherwise, the church is helping them in their evil. This is a far cry from utilizing teachings from a false teacher that are in compliance with Scripture that may be very helpful in a Christian’s understanding of theological truth. The word for “avoid” underlying the ESV translation is the Greek word “ἐκκλίνω” which carries the idea of turning from something and to something else. Romans 3:12 this word is used when men are said, “all have turned aside”. This refers to a “turning” from what is right and toward that which is evil. There seems to be an “avoidance” of good for the evil. This is to be done, in some sense, in relation to the false teachers. Christians are not to heed their pagan teaching but reject it. They are to “turn” from it. But they are also to reject the people themselves in as much as they are not to treat them as a brother and promote them as if they were one. This is where we qualify “avoid” in Romans 16. Interestingly enough, in the ESV the textual note next to the word “avoid” points to 2 John 10 as a cross reference. This means the translators saw 2 John 10 as qualifying what this word was communicating.
- Paul was no stranger to dealing with false teachers and multiple times interacted with false doctrine. In doing so, he would at times reference what was being taught by the false teachers giving the church the content on what teachings they were to specifically reject. An example of this is found in 2 Timothy 2:18 where there were those teaching that the resurrection had already taken place. Paul was not technically “avoiding” the false teachers in the strictest sense and by doing so was interacting with the false teachers. This, at the very least, does not create an absoluteness to the command to “avoid” false teachers in Romans 16 and not even to “avoid” their doctrine. This tactic was used to the advantage of edifying the church.
To be clear, I am not saying that we are to without reservation or even in a general sense expose ourselves to false teaching. I also do not mean that we are to embrace false teaching in any way. If anyone would say I am supporting false teaching or warming up to it, that is a straw man. I am merely trying to point out that if one were to use “avoidance” of false teachers from Scripture as to mean we reject them totally and have no interaction whatsoever, that is problematic as demonstrated in the above two points.
Truth is Truth Wherever It Is Found
This heading should cause no controversy, but it seems it does in the discussion surrounding utilizing Roman Catholics in our theology (such as Thomas Aquinas who was utilized in a qualified sense by the Reformed tradition). In a recent article from Credo Magazine, David Sytsma quotes Luther in dealing with the scholastics:
I do not read the scholastics blindfolded…but ponder them. The apostle told us to prove all things, and hold to that which is good [1 Thess. 5:21]. I do not despise all theirs, neither consider it all good.Sytsma , David. “Appreciating and Appropriating a ‘Sounder Scholastic.’” Credo Magazine, Credo Magazine, 23 June 2022, https://credomag.com/article/appreciating-and-appropriating-a-sounder-scholastic/.
And yes, I am very much aware that Luther criticized Thomas Aquinas, but did so through the influence of another as discussed in the cited article by Sytsma above. However, Luther’s words here are helpful to this discussion. He is laying out basic discernment in how we deal with good and bad doctrine found among scholastic sources. He references Paul’s instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, but I will quote verses 20 and 22 as well for context:
“Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 ESV
Here, Paul is closing out his first letter to the Thessalonians giving them final instructions after he has laid out an eschatology discussing the “day of the Lord.” He is telling them not to despise “prophecies” which would by necessity include some theological teaching. The cross-reference in the ESV is to 1 Corinthians 11:4, where Paul discusses men praying or prophesying with their heads uncovered. They are engaged in theological activity in this case teaching something to the church around them by means of prophetic gifts. However, these prophecies are to be tested and approved, and the good is to be held onto. The implication of “testing” these prophecies is that there is the possibility of there being “bad” theology in these prophesies, otherwise there would be no need to test them against something, checking them as it were. Applied to our discussion here, if a Roman Catholic (say, Aquinas or the Pope of Rome) says something that is in fact theologically correct and could be helpful, we should “hold fast” to it, not because of the source, but because of the veracity of the thing espoused. I find it ironic that those who seem to be the most vocal in the rejection of using Roman Catholic sources are those who hold to an epistemology that teaches that there is no such things as “brute facts,” but that a fact is a fact because God made it so. If God made a fact then it is true on account of Him and not its secondary source (in this case, Roman Catholics). And if this fact is consistent with a true interpretation of Scripture, then we can “hold fast” to it as good in accordance Paul’s words as discussed above. The source should never dictate whether biblically consistent statements should prove useful or relevant. To reject one’s statements as not relevant because of the source, is to commit the genetic fallacy and it’s all too easy to do. This form of foolish argumentation has to stop.
One might ask, “why should we even care about this discussion?” Might seem like a valid question given the fact we are talking about Roman Catholics here. The tradition isn’t known for being the “good kids on the block.” But we should care about this discussion not merely because “we can use Roman Catholics” when talking theology, but because this impacts what we believe about historical theology which then impacts our understanding of Reformed foundations (certain confessions at least). The Roman Catholic tradition has had great influence on the Reformed tradition which not only helped individual Reformers but influenced the writing of Reformed confessions, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1st and 2nd London Baptist Confessions of Faith in particular. We cannot write off the influences of theology proper from this tradition and claim to hold, even substantially, to these confessions. It is inconsistent at best and dishonest at worst given the doctrine of God is central to the Christian faith. This then can have detrimental effects upon sola scriptura and lead a Socinian hermeneutic. An Aquinas can prove to be helpful to an William Ames writing his Marrow of Divinity or a John Owen in discussing the doctrine of God. Finally, this has implications for our understanding of truth itself. To fall into logical fallacies over this issue is to show shortcomings in the handling of truth and as Christians we should strive to be experts at handling truth. We should be making the best arguments, being consistent in all we do. This is keeping with the Christian goal to be as their God is: truthful and by necessity consistent. There is probably more we could say here, but this hopefully provides groundwork for which more discussion can flow.
– Daniel Vincent