Vatican II and the Confessional Reformed Community: Prospects and Difficulties for Service

Howard Griffith
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, DC

Editor’s Note: The following brief address was part of a symposium “Vatican II, Remembering the Future,” sponsored by Georgetown University on May 23, 2015 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

I would like to thank Dr. Mannion, and the other organizers of the conference, for their warm welcome and extreme kindness. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to make new friends here, and to learn more about Vatican II and Roman Catholic theology. I considered that in 20 minutes, I could do only minimal damage to anything.

The title identifies me as part of the “Confessional Reformed Community.” Though I very much admire my “evangelical” brothers, the definition of “evangelical” has broadened so much in the last 20 years that I thought it more transparent to call myself “Confessional Reformed.” I am a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (founded in 1973), and a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary (founded in 1966). The doctrinal standard of both is the Westminster Confession of Faith.[1]

My thesis is that, as Confessional Reformed and post-Vatican II Roman Catholics, facing great challenges in a changing culture, each community must respond by loving its neighbors outside the faith, in the name of Christ, based on the Christian worldview of God as Creator, Redeemer and Consummator; further, that the biblical portrait of this love is suffering service.

Prospects: Cultural Crisis and Vatican II

At the present moment to say that humanity is moving toward unity is a matter of faith, not sight. Not to mention our international struggles, the polarization within our own society seems to increase daily. The Council’s statement in Unitatis Redintegratio 4 was most welcome in urging

every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the conditions of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult.

How desperately our society needs to hear Christians observing this dictum.

But it is not only the forum of public discourse that needs Christian influence. It is people in our cities. Although the poverty rate among black married couples has been in single digits every year since 1994, poverty in our cities represents a massive complex of problems. Moreover, the redefinition of human sexual identity, which we are witnessing, is comprehensive in scope. As we are aware, today 6 in 10 Americans favor the legalization of same-sex marriage. Simply to demur at the proposed new definition of marriage, on the basis of the teaching of Holy Scripture, is to be accused of bigotry, and perhaps one day, will become illegal.[2] Both Roman and Confessional Reformed communions (in contrast to mainline communions)[3] are committed to the biblical definition of marriage as the exclusive and life-long union of one man and one woman (Gaudium et Spes 48, WCF 24.1).[4] We will almost certainly have serious difficulty maintaining religious freedom in the coming decades. The opening words of Dignitatis Humanae enjoin the preservation of free exercise of religion, such that all people

should enjoy the use of their own responsible judgment and freedom and decide on their actions on grounds of duty and conscience, without external pressure or coercion. (DH 1[5])

Religious freedom—protecting the rights given to conscience—and heterosexual marriage, belong to humanity as gifts of the Creator.

Confessional Protestants and Vatican II Roman Catholics hold, together, that the human being is God’s creature, his image (Gaudium et Spes 12, WCF 4.2). We hold together that heterosexual marriage is an analogue of the rich unity in personal love of the Triune Creator. We hold that as his image, even in the state of sin, all human beings are the objects of God’s love (Mt 5:44-45). They are worthy of respect and service.

In the face of these massive societal needs, I think we can agree that the Holy Spirit is calling all Christians to a renewed commitment to service of neighbor. Surely this is integral to the holiness to which Vatican II constantly calls the Church. This task is not simply aimed at self-preservation, but is part of the pastoral and ethical witness God has given us. As the Christian worldview becomes less plausible in the West, service will be a major part of the credibility of our Christian witness.

The new creation has begun in Christ. Where is God at work in new creation? Manifestly, He is working where believers, in fellowship with the exalted Lord, imitate him as “last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

The foundation for Christian service is the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of union with the resurrected Christ. Paul’s own ministry announced the message of reconciliation, through the death of Christ, and called upon all to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:18-21). On that basis in redemptive history, he could declare, “behold, today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). That day continues. But Paul also recognized that he held the treasure of the gospel in a “jar of clay.” In 2 Cor 4:7-16, Paul described what was true and remains true of the people of God. We have the treasure, but only in the clay jars that we are, so that the power might be seen to be of God.[6] As jars of clay, we are hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and even struck down. But also as possessing this treasure, at the very same time, we are not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, not destroyed. Paul then summarizes the tension he’s been describing: “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (v. 11). Believers are resurrected with Christ in “the inner man,” even though, until the last day, “the outer man is wasting away” (4:16). Paradoxically, life and death are together in our experience. And it is just the power of Jesus’ resurrection that is expressed in the suffering service of the church. Again, it is not the case that “the life of Jesus” somehow compensates for “the dying of Jesus.” Until Jesus returns, “the life of Jesus” manifests itself as “the dying of Jesus.” Indeed, this resurrection power is nothing short of the beginning of new creation for the Corinthians, v. 12, “so death works in us, but life in you.”

By referring to “death,” Paul gives a clue about the breadth of the sufferings he has in mind. In Romans 8:17, he writes that we are “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him.” He then proceeds to outline the futility that believers, and the entire cosmos, experience, on account of the curse of Genesis 3. Not only persecutions, but involved is everything related to the principle of futility leading to death. Until the resurrection of the body, these sufferings are a given. The indicative of the gospel then, is not just that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures. The indicative of the gospel includes that we have been united to Christ in his sufferings. It is our privilege to follow our Lord (cf. Phil 3:9-11).

Union with the resurrected Christ, bringing all the benefits of eschatological salvation, has a distinctive mark in the lives of believers: the cross. Lumen Gentium 8 resonates deeply with this:

The Church, “like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world, and the consolations of God,” announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes. But by the power of the risen Lord she is given strength to overcome, in patience and in love, her sorrows and her difficulties, both those that are from within, and those that are from without, so that she may reveal, in the world, faithfully, however darkly, the mystery of her Lord until, in the consummation, it shall be manifested, in full light.

These are very beautiful words. Therefore, the greatest prospect for service together is just the calling our Lord God has given to serve our neighbors, in his creation, in union with Christ. Based upon this confession of the triune Creator, humanity made in his image, based upon the calling of believers in this world to serve in the likeness of their once crucified, now glorified, Lord Jesus, we can serve the world together in virtually countless ways. In light of the “hierarchy of truths, that vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith” (Unitatis Redintegratio11), these truths are certainly primary. Unitatis Redintegratio 12 agrees. This is, I believe, the calling of both Confessional Protestants and Vatican II Roman Catholics.

As I suggested before, this is the criterion of eschatological life. This implies a warning, to the Roman Church and to Protestant Churches no less: Christians are pilgrims, we are on the way; we have not entered the heavenly rest that is our hope. The new covenant church is a church in the wilderness (cf. LG 9). Thus, we must all strive to enter that rest (Heb 4:11), and to walk by faith, not by sight, lest we be disqualified.[7] We are not victors, except that we always triumph as the slaves of Jesus Christ, chained to his chariot wheels (2 Cor 2:14).

Vatican II and Difficulties for Service

Theological discussion is still necessary and welcome. For although Vatican II acknowledged Protestants as “brethren,” and the Holy Spirit as active in salvation among us, differences remain, differences of great importance. These are summarized by the ordo salutis, the weakness of the church “in him,” and the character of saving grace.

First, the ordo salutis. By this term I mean simply the acts and processes by which God applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ on the cross. The Westminster Larger Catechism, consistent with the presentation in the Confession of Faith, considers the benefits of redemption as manifestations of our union with the resurrected Christ.

Q. 69. What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?
A. The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him.

As the previous question of the Catechism makes plain, God establishes this union by Spirit-worked faith in effectual calling. This powerful calling renews us in the image of God, lost in the fall. It unites us to Christ covenantally, that is, in a saving fellowship of love. Saving union with Christ is “Spiritual,” not ontological (like that between persons of the Trinity), nor hypostatic (like that between Christ’s divine and human natures), nor psycho-somatic (like that between body and soul in human personality), nor somatic (like that between husband and wife).[8] In this fellowship we receive the pardon of guilt, renewal in the image of God, and the full riches of sons.

Thus, it is this living union that makes the church what it is. Sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant in which this union is promised and applied. Sacraments do not, however, establish the union, apart from faith. Faith is the gift of the life-giving Spirit, as the Father calls by the Word. Thus union with Christ is a “Spiritual” reality. This distances our doctrine of salvation from Rome’s with its confession of sacramental grace. Sacramental grace establishes, for Rome, that extra ecclesiam nulla salus. For the Reformed, the truth is rather, as Barth put it, extra Christum nulla salus. Union with Christ is first in order, union with his people follows. We agree that “there is no legitimate private Christianity,”[9] but we deny the necessity of holy orders to establish saving union with Christ.

As the Father appointed, all the benefits of salvation, in their fullness, have been accomplished by the last Adam in his death and resurrection. The life-giving Spirit communicates those benefits to the elect by uniting them to the resurrected Christ. The church has both the elect and non-elect within its legitimate number.

Second, the weakness of the church, “in him.” We do not hold that the church imitates Christ its head as a sacrament, even as a sacramental analogy.[10] Jesus, in whom dwells the fullness of God bodily, is the sole mediator of salvation (1 Tim 2:5). We look to him for everything, and recognize that his fullness is ours in the Spirit who indwells and who enables our knowing and believing, our preaching, praying and service. In his ascension, Christ has now passed into the state of exaltation. What we observed above about the sufferings of believers identifies the church’s place in this age, as long as it continues, as corresponding to Jesus’s humiliation. We wait patiently in hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:2). We must persevere in faith, to the end, to be saved. As Paul put it, when dealing with troubles in Corinth, “He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:3-4). The church’s weakness/suffering in Christ is the only expression of his resurrection power.

Third, saving grace, in our theology, is deeply personal. It is God’s unmerited favor, sovereignly set on the elect, despite their guilt. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom 9:15). We think of the relation of nature and grace differently. As created in the beginning, the non-image-bearing creation was “good.” Created humanity was “very good.” The eschatology promised in creation did not suppose an ontological union between Creator and creature. Supernatural grace (whether considered as a superadded gift or as found within creation’s sphere) was not a metaphysical necessity for elevation to a supernatural order. Rather, the reward promised for obedience to unfallen Adam, and his posterity, was to be confirmed in likeness to God, body and soul, as beloved children, and to live with him forever, glorying in his love.

Sin distorted this blessed relationship, and reversed the future, bringing humanity under God’s wrath and curse. But in wrath, God remembered mercy. God promised eschatological life through the Seed of the woman.

As we understand it, “The moral and spiritual dimension of the image has been totally damaged by the fall, while the ontological setting of creation has been preserved from being disrupted by it.”[11]

The human race, fallen in Adam, is under God’s righteous judgment due to sin. That is, our need is not ontological or metaphysical, but ethical. We do not need a change of substance or a humanizing influence, but personal reconciliation with the Holy One. In saving grace, God reconciles sinners to himself, forgives their sins, and confers the holiness that restores the moral aspect of his image lost in the fall. This is what it means to be “alive in Christ.” Grace cannot be communicated to nature, even the natural elements of the sacraments, but is communicated directly by God himself. He speaks to us. He calls us to return to his covenant fellowship. He regenerates us. He makes us new in Christ. His purpose is not the elevation of nature to a divine order, but the removal of the effects of sin (guilt, corruption, and punishment). The Father chose freely and so expresses his eternal self-giving. He redeems at the cost of his Beloved Son, and brings us into relation to him as sons. Thus we are made sons, in the Beloved Son. The church is the beginning of this new humanity, which in its fullness will express, in its creaturely way, in a new heaven and earth, the manifold fullness of the Triune God. God will be all in all, and we will be his people.

This, of course, underscores a very different doctrine of sin, as well. For our confession, the created order was good for God’s planned purposes. Sin, however, radically disrupted those purposes, and called down God’s righteous curse. Sin is a breach which has a significance much more far-reaching than a wound or a stain. It is a complete reorientation of humanity. Fallen humans have no capacity to image God in righteousness or knowledge. The moral and spiritual dimension of the image has been totally damaged by the fall. For man in rebellion, the relationship with God and the blessedness of hope cannot be restored in his own strength, and he has no desire to do so. Thus Guardium et Spes 13’s statement, “sin diminished humanity, preventing it from attaining its fulfillment,” does not reflect the gravity of the actual situation.

Still, so that redemptive history can occur, God restrains his wrath and shows kindness to all. He preserves life and allows culture to develop. In these last days, the Lord has fulfilled the promise in his Son. He bore the curse in our place, and freed his ungodly people from the guilt and slavery of sin. Saving grace is Triune love, working monergistically, giving life to the dead.


So, there are wonderful prospects, and great difficulties for our service to the world. By God’s grace, may we welcome both, with faith, hope and love.

  1. As adopted by the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America in 1789.
  2. Cf. Frank Bruni, “Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana,” New York Times, April 3, 2015:[O]ur debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.”
  3. Cf. Cardinal Walter Kaspar’s statement: “…and in part also of moral issues (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 23). The latter have recently come to the fore and have created problems within both the Ecclesial Communities of the Reformation and relations between them and the Catholic Church., accessed 5/5/15.
  4. With CCC 2357-2359, we hold that homosexual acts are sins. Cf. the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q and A. 139.
  5. John W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II? (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2008), 309.
  6. This biblical exposition follows that of Richard B. Gaffin, “The Holy Spirit and Eschatology,” Kerux 4/3 (1989) 14-29.
  7. Therefore no characteristic of any church is “indefectible.” Pace Unitatis Redintegratio 4.
  8. Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not By Sight, 2nd edition. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013). p 44.
  9. Church Dogmatics IV.1, p. 689.
  10. Formerly, I wrote, “continues the incarnation of Christ on earth.” Cf. LG 62, “…the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude, but rather gives rise among creatures to a manifold cooperation, which is but a sharing in this unique source.”
  11. Leonardo De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Oxford: P. Lang, 2003), p. 239.