Standing with Christ
A Response to R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
by David Mills
I told some of you yesterday that the middle part of Dr. Mohler’s talk would set the cat among the pigeons. For one thing, to reject ECT is just not done in polite ecumenical circles. But as a Catholic, I found the paper quite bracing, and not least his claim, certainly not politically correct even in these circles, that there are certainly true Christians within the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, but that these true believers must in some sense come to the simplicity of faith through means other than the official teaching of their churches. I found that enormously bracing. Such clarity and honesty pleases me because it is so rare and because it is so kind. I do not believe what Dr. Mohler believes, but I am grateful that believing it, he has so loved his neighbor as to say it.
Before I respond to the paper, I want to say one thing about Christian divisions. The scandal of division is not necessarily so scandalous as we tend to think. We are always told that it is a great scandal to the world and a reason people do not become Christians, but I think this is not quite true. I speak as someone who came to Christ in high school but was so badly formed that I only came to a recognizably Christian mind some years later, in my twenties. In fact, I remember, in one of the more idiotic acts of my youth, leaving out the Virgin Birth when I said the Creed in church on Sundays because it seemed to me unnecessary and unproven.
As an unbeliever, and then as a stupid believer, I never found the argument against Christianity that I heard people make from the fact of Christian division the least bit compelling. And that for two reasons: First, it seemed to me obvious that something as old and as big and as complicated as the Church would be divided even if it were true. This seemed to be built into the thing, built into the nature of fallen humanity. This may only express the historical fatalism left over from my Marxist youth, but it seemed to me obvious.
Second, and more important, the argument did not compel me because I saw that the Christians I knew, and the ones I read, clearly maintained the divisions because they were men of principle who would not buy peace at the expense of what they thought to be the truth. They were all one in the love of truth in a world that valued camaraderie and compromise over truth, and I found that integrity compelling. It was for me a sign of the Kingdom. And I found Dr. Mohler’s integrity a sign of the Kingdom.
I feel, I should say, like a living experiment in living with the gulf that J. Gresham Machen described, because I speak as a Catholic serving the Lord at a decisively Anglican and Evangelical seminary. It was a seminary founded about thirty years ago with the aid of people like J. I. Packer and John Stott. (I should say also, having become a Catholic recently, that I speak as someone with great gratitude for the liberality and generosity of the dean and academic dean, who found this person suddenly jumping ship and did not sack him.)
I feel quite deeply and quite personally these stresses we have been talking about in the conference, because my colleagues are people I love and respect, and people with whom I have stood under fire in the ecclesiastical wars of the Episcopal Church, and people with whom I share in a common ministry, but from whom I am separated. We are brothers, blood brothers, who do not eat from the same table, and this is painful. I say this so that you do not think that I express my agreement with Dr. Mohler’s thesis with any pleasure except the pleasure of truth.
To the paper. I am going to address the middle part of the paper, which is the most important for our concern. It is the setting-cats-among-pigeons part of the paper. I should note that in my comments I will be leaving out the Orthodox. All of my comments apply to the Orthodox, but sometimes in a slightly different way, and to make all the needed qualifications would make the argument quite labored and confusing.
Dangers & Differences
I want to make just four comments expanding on his paper. First, Dr. Mohler argues in effect that the sentimental form of conservative ecumenism really covers over serious dangers—not just problems or misunderstandings but real dangers. It covers them somewhat as the snow over a junkyard covers the old cars and hides the ragged metal edges and the broken glass. It is an illusion and a dangerous one—you can put a picture of this junkyard covered with snow on a calendar, but you should not run through it. Reality can hurt, and it is best we know this. Dr. Mohler has said clearly, but not explicitly, that being a Catholic is dangerous, and anything that obscures this fact, no matter how well-intended, is a very problematic enterprise. And I think he is right, as a Southern Baptist, to say so.
David Mills has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.
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