The Christian Research Institute and Ecumenism
A Critique of Hank Hanegraaff's teachings re the Catholic Church
by Michael Skinner
The Christian Research Institute and its president, Hank Hanegraaff, have a powerful voice in Christian radio and in print. The CRI-sponsored " Bible Answerman Broadcast" is heard on over 100 stations in the US and Canada. Hanegraaff has written several highly-acclaimed books on discernment, apologetics and popular theology.
It is his ministry's stated purpose to equip Christians to be discerning and to be able to give Biblical answers to show that our faith is founded on solid ground. To great degree, CRI has done just that; and yet what may be seen as a small compromise in the name of broadmindedness has tremendous consequences.
Debating and rhetorical skills are certainly a useful tool in the hands of a skilled apologist; and yet these skills alone cannot save the day:
"For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect." 1 Cor. 1:17.
"And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." 1 Cor. 2:4-5.
"Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual." 1 Cor. 2:13.
For this reason, is it crucial that a defender of the faith be equipped, not only with memorized platitudes or even a collection of proof-texts, but with a well-rounded Biblical education. Hence, the frequently-quoted apologist's raison d'tre text:
" But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:" 1 Peter 3:15.
I suppose the question is: what is the legitimate answer to that question - and how should the reason be given?
" Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints." Jude 1:3.
In other words, if you are to give a reason for your hope, first assure yourself that it lines up with that faith which was once delivered unto the saints. Once assured, by all means, earnestly contend for it - yet not solely with the wisdom of men's words or argumentative methods.
I find Hanegraaff's rhetoric increasingly disturbing with regard to many issues, but chief among them is the Catholic one. Most of his callers who share my concerns get caught up in the " cult" issue - they want him to come out and say Catholicism is a cult. He has his own special definition of what a cult is, so he will never call Catholicism a cult, either in the doctrinal or the sociological sense.
As far as it goes, that's fine, but what's more disturbing is that he won't be cornered on this (or any other) issue. Like it or not, he is an authority - and he can tell his listeners to " let Scripture be the final court of arbitration" all day long, but many of them are frankly too lazy to get a solid Biblical education apart from his program.
Like a clever politician, Hank has memorized statements about just about every controversial issue confronting the church today, and will not depart from them, EVEN WHEN THEY DON'T REALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION. He will maneuver into a situation where he can make his quote rather than directly answer the question - saying, " Well, I would say...." - like for instance what he always says about Catholicism: "
åI will not go so far as to say it is a crass system of works-righteousness, but I will say that I would differ with them in regard to soteriology: specifically in the process of justification. While I would say because of the cross the righteousness of Christ through faith is IMPUTED to me, a FOREIGN righteousness, they would say that the believer is justified by faith INFUSED with good works and that those works are meritorious."
Isn't that clever? This is how Hank will answer almost EVERY question about Catholicism. Whether it's in regard to the reasons for the Reformation, the worship of Mary, the infallibility of the Pope, etc., etc. Why is this? I believe it's because it's double-talk, to a certain degree. Because those who are " in the know" are at least partially satisfied, because he has disagreed with their soteriology - which, essentially, is their gospel. (Especially since he has been careful to utilize the well-known terminology - " infused" vs. " imputed" - around which the controversy has circled for centuries.)
The Bible Answerman disagrees with Rome's gospel! That's all I need to know, he's OK if that's the case. But wait - because of his unique definition of a cult, and because of his use of a theological term and willingness to call Catholicism a christian church, he is very misleading.
Mutual compromise with Catholicism is a no-win situation: when you have a works gospel, even if you " compromise" with a grace gospel, you still end up with a works gospel. So essentially there is no compromise for Catholicism. On the other hand, compromise of the essential of essentials for true christianity - the very gospel message itself - renders everything else immaterial.
First of all, CRI's definition of a cult:
(1) Cults, generally speaking, are small splinter groups with a fairly recent origin. . . .Catholicism, on the other hand, is the largest body within Christendom, . . . and is the ecclesiastical tree from which Protestantism originally splintered.
(2) Cults are usually formed, molded, and controlled by a single individual or small group. The Catholic church, by contrast, has been molded by an incalculable number of people throughout its long history.
(3) Cults typically exercise rigid control over their members and demand unquestioning submission . . . While Catholicism has exercised a triumphalism and an unhealthy control over its members in times past, this is far less true today.
(4) An appropriate description of a cult is "a religious group originating as a heretical sect and maintaining fervent commitment to heresy".  Regardless of one's criticism of Catholicism, even if it is heretical at certain points, it does not fit this description.
(5) Cults (when defined as heretical sects) are classified as such because of their outright denial or rejection of essential Christian doctrine. . . . While Protestants have accused Catholicism of having an illegitimate authority and of confusing the gospel (two serious charges to be examined later), Catholicism does affirm the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and that salvation is ultimately a gift of God's grace (a rejection of Pelagianism)..
(6) Cults frequently have a low view of the Bible, replacing or supplementing it with their own so-called "sacred writings. . . While Catholicism's acceptance of noncanonical writings (the Apocrypha) and placing of apostolic tradition on par with Scripture are fundamental problems to the Protestant, Catholics nevertheless retain a high view of the Bible (inspired and infallible) and see it as their central source of revelation.
(7) Cults usually have some kind of authoritarian, totalistic leader or prophet. While some feel that the pope fits this category, in reality the pope governs the church with heavy dependence upon the bishops (college of cardinals), and within the restrictions of the official teaching of the church.
(8) A frequent characteristic of cults is their emphasis on a "remnant identity" -- that is, they claim to be God's exclusive agent or people who restore "authentic Christianity," which has been corrupted or lost. . . . While Catholicism has at times been guilty of an unfortunate exclusivity (some Protestant churches have also), they emphatically deny restorationism, and strongly emphasize the continuity of God's church throughout history.
(9) Those who classify Roman Catholicism as a cult (an inauthentic and invalid expression of Christianity) usually also give the Eastern Orthodox church the same classification. What they do not realize, however, is that if both of these religious bodies are non-Christian, then there was no authentic Christian church during most of the medieval period.
The writer of this article displays 1) a set of assumptions regarding Catholicism's founding and history, (for which the only source of information is Catholic history!) 2) a subtle willingness to see Catholicism as orthodoxy, then define cultism as heterodoxy, thus Catholicism is not cultism. This is known as " begging the question," and it's a logical fallacy in the technical sense. 3) a tendency toward artificial and unnecessary narrowness within his defined categories in order to show how it might seem on the surface that Catholicism violates them but it really doesn't because it does not PERFECTLY violate them.
By contrast, I think much of christendom sees cultism in general usage as more or less defined by the below:
Roman Catholicism is a cult because it has the major characteristics of one:
- a false gospel of works and rituals;
- an allegedly infallible leadership which must be obeyed;
- the prohibition of its members to interpret the Bible for itself;
- the placing of its hierarchy's dogmas and traditions on a par with Scripture;
- its claim to be the exclusive vehicle of salvation;
- the cultic claim that members cannot be saved apart from its sacraments;
- the anathematizing of all who reject its dogmas and traditions; etc.
To continue - the term " soteriology" - most of us in this forum know what it means - the doctrine of salvation - however, do all of Hank's listeners know this? Further, do all listeners put 2 and 2 together to the extent that it dawns upon them what should be manifestly obvious: that if a church's soteriology is ruined IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW 'ORTHODOX' THEY ARE IN OTHER MATTERS??? In other words, they have a DIFFERENT GOSPEL. Essentially, to call a church a " christian church" if it has a different gospel is to redefine the terms.
Back to parsing Hank's opening statement - he won't go so far as to call Catholicism a " crass" system of works-righteousness, BUT.... then he goes on to say that justification involves the necessary component of good works. I hope my opening paragraph and logical deduction has shown that you either have a works-gospel or a grace-gospel - that what is CALLED mixing the two actually results in a works-gospel. If not, consider the following from the Apostle Paul:
" And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work." Rom. 11:6.
I am by no means suggesting that Hank isn't clever enough to know this - so what's the alternative?
That the validity of his statement hinges upon the word " crass" - which I've NEVER heard him leave out. You know what's funny? I'M going to look ridiculous for even suggesting this (maybe less so after Bill Clinton's impeachment trial). But I'm really beginning to believe that what he means is that it is not a " crass" system of works-righteousness but a HIGHLY SOPHISTICATED ONE!
This cautious wording is working very effectively because of the tendency to perceive what one wants to hear. To the ecumenist, Hank is not condemning the Catholic Church and is leaving the door open for civil discussion. To the conservative evangelical, Hank is denying the sufficiency of the " gospel" preached by Catholicism.
It probably seems to many like a good middle ground - not to alienate those deceived by Catholicism from civil discussion; yet to express reservations about their doctrine of salvation. Which theoretically should allow for debate of that very issue, with the " Bible being the final court of arbitration." Except what we see in ACTUAL PRACTICE is that a willingness to adopt this attitude leads to an UNWILLINGNESS to fully discuss the " controversial" doctrine of justification, relegating it to just another insoluble element of " theology" for those in ivory towers to discuss.
And the fact remains that others don't interpret your actions by your unstated intentions - but by their own impressions. Therefore, even if Hank's motives are the very best (I have to assume they are!), to open the door for discussion and allow legions of BAMB fans to use the Bible to convert unsaved Catholics; if Catholics instead see his terminology as affirming them as a genuine Christian church and burying the Reformation hatchet (and there seem to be grounds for that view!) and ecumenically-minded evangelicals likewise begin to see fellowship as a higher goal than evangelism, focusing on the areas of agreement rather than the crucial area of disagreement, he's doing them no favors. Get it?
On the other hand, we fundamentalists are getting painted into the corner of " hate rhetoric" by the rest of the world (other Christians AS WELL AS the lost) - cleverly backed into an either/or corner where we are seen to either affirm or hate - " NEITHER" is not offered as an option. (It is a 'loaded question' - sort of like the question, " did you stop beating your wife yet?" )
The message is clear--" open dialog" is the catch-phrase, and the strategy is that defined above. If we dissent from this strategy, there is no OTHER allowed strategy. And as difficult as it is to witness to those who are offended by the fact that you believe they are on their way to hell, it is made MORE difficult if they have been primed to believe that simple use of the Bible to define saved and lost is hateful. What does Bob Jones University REALLY teach about Catholicism? Is it even POSSIBLE to get down to the truth of that matter (or publish it) after all of the misinformation surrounding the issue?
But when you get right down to it, in view of the 1.5 billion Catholics in the world, many of whom are trusting in the sacraments to save them, is it more important to condemn Kenneth Copeland's teaching of God the Father's physicality and belief that faith is a force which may be harnessed by positive confession, (clearly heresies), or is it more important to condemn the preaching of a false works-gospel which CANNOT save?
I think Hanegraaff is violating his own stated (quoted, actually, from Martin Luther) principle of " in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in ALL things, charity" because if works-righteousness can be defined as " Christian" with liberty, there can BE no true unity - and that's NOT true charity.
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. .
© Nov 25, 2003, undated 9-29-19