On this first episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss a tattered book, the Council of Trent, and an unlikely pair of roommates.
STEPHEN NICHOLS: The first thing I noticed about this book, Dr. Sproul, is that this is a pretty tattered cover.
R.C. SPROUL: Yeah, it really is falling apart.
NICHOLS: I couldn’t help but notice that inside here you have a little note tucked away: a schedule. Now, we don’t know what year this was written because there’s not a year on the note, but it’s in November. You were at Knox Seminary, staying at a hotel, and you were scheduled to be picked up at 7:45 a.m. You had to give a lecture on apologetics in the morning. You had another lecture in the afternoon, and then you had to lecture from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on justification. Finally, at 9 p.m., they take you back to your hotel. So, is that a typical day in the life of Dr. R.C. Sproul?
SPROUL: Yes, it was.
NICHOLS: One of those lectures was on justification?
NICHOLS: Now, justification has a lot to do with this particular book. It has a tattered cover and has your writing all through it—do you like to underline in your books?
SPROUL: Yes, I do—and make notes in the margins.
NICHOLS: This book is titled the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Original Text with English Translation by the Reverend H.J. Schroeder O.P. It was published in 1941. So, why this book?
SPROUL: Well, because of its two sections. One section is in Latin, and the beginning section is in English. I had a course in seminary taught by Dr. John Gerstner. The whole course was on the Council of Trent.
NICHOLS: The whole course?
SPROUL: The whole course. This was the textbook from that course. We actually did word-for-word exegesis of the canons and decrees of Trent. Then, when I went to graduate school, my professor, Dr. G.C. Berkouwer, was rooming with the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng in Rome during the Second Vatican Council. Berkouwer wrote a book during this period called The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism. He was consumed in his examination of Roman Catholic theology because of the significance of Vatican II. So, naturally, I had a special interest in studying Roman Catholic theology, and it was kind of like a major for me because of Berkouwer’s major interest in the council.
Between this book on Trent and the book by Berkouwer on the Second Vatican Council, I was constantly coming back and referring to Schroeder’s Canons and Decrees of Trent because the Council of Trent was the primary prong of the three-pronged Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century where the Roman Catholic Church defined de fide their doctrine of justification along with their doctrine of authority, Scripture, tradition, sacraments, and so on. The Council of Trent was an extremely important moment in church history, and it wasn’t just a moment. It took place over several years during the middle of the sixteenth century.
NICHOLS: When you had that course with Dr. Gerstner, the exegesis was on—I assume—the Latin text?
SPROUL: We did both.
NICHOLS: So, you could use a little English to help you?
NICHOLS: What’s interesting when you think about Trent is how it is a fascinating way to look at what the essence of the Reformation was and what the Reformers were up to.
SPROUL: I’ve always said that the best way to understand Reformed theology is to see it against the background of classical Roman Catholic theology.
NICHOLS: Now, as you understand the movement from Trent to Vatican II, there are some changes in what we sometimes refer to as a post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, but there are also some things that stay the same.
SPROUL: Particularly, the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent remain. Many people think that at Vatican II the doctrines such as justification were altered significantly. Pope John XXIII made it very clear when he called Vatican II that it was not to deal with theology itself but with the life of the church. As recently as the Roman Catholic Catechism in the 1990s, there has been a strong reaffirmation of the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. So, to think that the Roman Catholic Church has left Trent, or really in any significant way modified the decrees of Trent, I think would be to misunderstand what has happened.
NICHOLS: Trent is still in place.
SPROUL: Absolutely. I mentioned Berkouwer’s book from 1960s, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, because he defined a sharp difference between understanding of Roman Catholic dogma among theologians of the West and those of the Latin churches: Latin America, Spain, Portugal, but principally, Italy. So, you have to understand that the drifts and changes in the Western church—particularly in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States—are significantly different from what is being held tightly by the Latin church. Remember that when we talk about Roman Catholicism, we are talking about the “Roman Catholic Church,” not the “New York Catholic Church” or the “Washington, D.C., Catholic Church.” It’s the one whose basis is in Rome and whose definitions are found in Rome.
NICHOLS: I see a note that you wrote on the inside flyleaf, and the word not is underlined. It says, “Not cooperate with grace.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
SPROUL: In the Council of Trent’s definition of justification, it says that, for the sinner to be reconciled to God and to be in an estate of salvation, he must assent and cooperate with the grace of God in order to be justified. Justification, then, is not monergistic; it’s synergistic—a cooperative venture. In my note to myself here, I was opposing what was asserted by Trent. There’s not a cooperative venture between nature and grace as far as salvation is concerned.
NICHOLS: And aren’t we glad?
SPROUL: Boy, I sure am.
NICHOLS: How can we contribute anything?