Still Protesting: Trent Ruins Everything!

I teach a small weekly Bible study that is attended by a couple of Roman Catholics one of which is practicing and the other is not. A third member has embraced the Gospel and broken ties with Rome.  Recently, in one of these studies, I mentioned purgatory and received an instant, “Oh, we don’t believe in purgatory anymore!” I was a bit surprised and so I asked, “Who told you that?”  Their answer was even more staggering than their initial repudiation.  Their bishop had told them that the church no longer affirmed a belief in purgatory. 

Really?  Maybe they ought to ask the Pope.  Well, maybe not, depending on the rumors regarding Pope Francis and his penchant for Universalist statements.  I digress.

But it’s this sort of thing that we encounter among Roman Catholics these days, a freewheeling spirit and willingness to deconstruct and reconstruct what the Roman Church believes are infallible declarations of the Magisterium.  Yet, I have found that the Council of Trent always seems to put an abrupt halt to these attempts to soften or reconfigure the infallible declarations. 

Before saying more, let me introduce the Council of Trent.  Shortly after the Protestant Reformation began in 1517 with Luther’s spirited attack on the Medieval Church the powers that be were astute enough to realize the truth of the moral accusations leveled by the German monk and so they initiated a Counter Reformation.  The embodiment of this Counter Reformation was the Council of Trent that met in Northern Italy between the years of 1545 and 1563. The relevant point in all of this is that because the Council of Trent was considered by the Roman Church to be an ecumenical council its declarations and anathemas are recognized as infallible.

Now, with that in mind let’s consider a simple question.  Is the mass a sacrifice?[1]  Roman Catholics today are well aware of the implications. If they deny that it is a sacrifice, then they must deny the infallible teaching of their church. However, if they answer in the affirmative, then they must take on Protestant objections such as, “What do you do with Hebrews 9:24-28 which clearly states that Christ was offered once and not repeatedly?”  To this Roman Catholics like Jason Evert have argued,

The risen Christ becomes present on the altar and offers himself to God as a living sacrifice. Like the Mass, Christ words at the Last Supper are words of sacrifice, "This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . given up for you." So, the Mass is not repeating the murder of Jesus, but is taking part in what never ends: the offering of Christ to the Father for our sake (Heb 7:25, 9:24). After all, if Calvary didn’t get the job done, then the Mass won’t help. It is precisely because the death of Christ was sufficient that the Mass is celebrated. It does not add to or take away from the work of Christ—it is the work of Christ.

Cleary, Mr. Evert seems to be arguing that propitiation for sins was made on Calvary and the mass is what the Roman Church calls a bloodless sacrifice done in commemoration of the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross.  Okay, but what does Trent have to say?

Should anyone say that in the Mass there is not offered a true and genuine sacrifice, or that to be offered means nothing more than that Christ is given to us to eat, anathema sit. Should anyone say that the sacrifice of the Mass is only one of praise or thanksgiving, or but a bare commemoration of the sacrifice offered on the cross, and not propitiatory…anathema sit.”

Now, I realize that Romans Catholics won’t believe what I’m saying and will contend that their theology in the strictest sense does not teach that the mass is a re-sacrifice. I understand that.  However, if by transubstantiation the bread and wine are the real body and blood of Christ on the altar, if Christ is referred to as the sacred Victim in the Roman Catholic Catechism, if the victim is a sacrifice and if that sacrifice is propitiatory in nature as Trent contends, then the mass sure looks like a repeat of Calvary.  In fact, it reminds me of another aphorism.  If it walks like a duck…  

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] Roman Catholics refer to the Lord’s Supper as the mass.


Jeffrey Stivason