What Richard John Neuhaus Means to Me

A number of evangelical and socially conservative blogs and publications are marking the death (not “passing” but that’s another post) yesterday of Richard John Neuhaus at age 72. It is not remarkable that social conservatives are weeping today. After a career as a social liberal, Neuhaus began to move to the right, after Roe v. Wade (1973), and became one of the leading lights of American conservatism. It is or should be remarkable, however, how attached evangelicals became to RJN.

Educated as a Missouri Synod Lutheran minister at Concordia Theological Seminary, in 1990 Neuhaus converted to Roman Catholicism and was ordained to the Roman priesthood in 1991 by John Cardinal O’ Connor. I realize that, in an age of utter ecclesiastical and theological latitudinarianism what I am about to say may seem (even though it is not) narrow and even bigoted, but the fact, however, that RJN apostatized from the Protestant confession, especially from the doctrine that,

Accordingly, we believe, teach, and confess that our righteousness before God is [this very thing], that God forgives us our sins out of pure grace, without any work, merit, or worthiness of ours preceding, present, or following, that He presents and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ’s obedience, on account of which righteousness we are received into grace by God, and regarded as righteous (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Art. III; emphasis added)

should temper evangelical celebrations of his life and work. After all, from RJN’s own testimony, he heartily embraced the official Roman dogma that, when we appear before God, it will not be on the basis of Christ’s work for us and imputed to us and received by faith (trust, resting, receiving) alone, but on the basis of the Spirit’s work in us and our cooperation with that grace. According to the Reformation confession, the Roman doctrine of justification through grace and cooperation with grace was tantamount to the anti-Pauline doctrine of justification by works.

These are categorically two different doctrines concerning the single most important thing in the world and, unlike the evangelicals, RJN understood that. In seminary RJN was taught the gospel and, by confessional Protestant lights, he abandoned it. According to the Word of God as confessed by the Reformation churches, upon his conversion to Rome, RJN embraced what Paul called “another gospel.” RJN swapped Luther’s Small Catechism for Rome’s very large catechism and the latter is quite clear about the doctrine of justification.

Before one becomes indignant about any supposed bigotry, I hasten to remind our evangelical mourners that, as a Roman priest, RJN also embraced the anathemas promulgated at Trent (1547) against the very doctrine of justification that is the proper definition of “evangelical.”

One might, however, say to oneself, “Listen one, okay, RJN poped. He identified with the social program of the Romanist social conservatives (as distinct from the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, which has been socially left of center for decades), but he was confused and he kept his theology to himself and worked with the poor and oppressed. Leave him alone.” Some of this is certainly true but some of it is not. He did not keep his newfound theology to himself. Just as he became a celebrated Roman convert he not only engaged socially conservative evangelicals, he hornswoggled them of their most important treasure: the gospel of justification by the free, unmerited, undeserved, unconditional divine favor alone, on the basis of Christ’s active and passive obedience imputed to sinners alone and received through resting and trusting in Christ and his finished work for sinners alone.

Maybe it was not really hornswoggling? After all he did it with willing collaborators such as Chuck Colson and J. I. Packer in the negotiations to produce the first two “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” statements. I think hornswoggling involves the pointy end of a sword and Colson and Packer brought their evangelical booty to Black John’s pirate ship and handed it over without so much as an “avast ye maties.” Call me a “neo-Reformed zealot” but as odd as it might seem in 2009, back in 1994 there was a little bit of shock and even outrage and counter-statements and agreements over Colson’s and Packer’s equivocation and capitulation on justification.

What does RJN mean to me? If the evangelicals actually valued the confession of the gospel that used to make one a proper evangelical, then RJN’s death would be noted as a significant event, a personal loss to those who knew him, and a loss to soc-con movements but it is more than that to “the evangelicals.” The evangelical reaction to RJN’s death signals that what matters to “the evangelicals” is not “the evangel” but social-cultural influence and power.

Finally, according to the Reformation, in distinction from Rome, grace does not “perfect” nature. It renews it. Nature does not become grace and grace does not become nature. The two natures of Jesus are and remain inseparably united but distinct. The corollary to the Protestant axiom on nature and grace is that there, in this world are two spheres in which God administers his sovereignty, an ecclesiastical sphere (the church) and a civil, common, creational sphere, we do not need to cut theological deals to cooperate with Father Neuhaus or an imam or the president of the Mormon Church in civil, common, creational, social matters. In social, civil matters we need only to relate to one another on the basis of creational law and as creatures made in the divine image.

Since the early 1990s many evangelicals have demonstrated that they neither love nor understand fundamental Protestant and genuinely evangelical doctrine. What they love is religious experience and social influence. For these reasons the process of theological erosion, which came to the surface 15 years ago, has continued apace and today the evangelicals seem less aware of it than they were then and the way evangelicals have embraced RJN is a signal of that decline.