Russell Moore vs Pope Francis – On Who’s A ‘Theological Wrack’

Russell Moore

According to Wikipedia, ‘Russell D. Moore is an American evangelical theologian, ethicist, preacher, and President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (Baptist Press). He previously served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, as Dean of the School of Theology, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration, and as Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics.’

His name appeared previously on this blog (HERE and HERE) in relation to his rigid ‘complementarian’ (or, rather, patriarchal) views on gender issues (he is also board chairman of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood).

In a recent article on his blog he discusses the pope’s latest interview in La Repubblica, calling it nothing less than a ‘theological wreck’. One wonders what could make a pretty average, be it audacious, Southern Baptist theologian make such a bold critical statement about the head of the Catholic Church. Let us see.

* * *

First, he says that the interview is ‘more than just confusing’. Why? Maybe because he said so. Anyway, we are not told, and we will have to resort to deductions from the rest of Moore’s text.

Here is the first chunk of Moore’s ‘argument’:

In an interview with La Repubblica, in response to a question about whether there is a “single vision of good,” the Pope said, “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place,” and “The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood.” When the reporter commented, “Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me,” the Pope also said “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.”

From Augustine’s Confessions to “Well, everyone has his own ideas about good and bad…” is a mighty long path.

What should we make out of this? Let me try:

1. Moore does not like the idea of a ‘single vision of good’ and that an agreed cultivation of the common good’ could ‘make the world a better place’. His Calvinistic obsession with total depravity does not seem to leave space for any goodness as an expression of God’s image in humanity. The pope, thank goodness, does not believe in such theological nonsense, and Moore is upset.

2. Similarly, the Baptist theologian seems to dislike also the idea of common ‘brotherhood’ as proven by the Incarnation. His separatist and isolationist views, humanly and ecclesially, blind him again on what is common to all of us, humans, in virtue of our mere humanity, outside of any soteriological considerations. In Scot McKnight’s words, Moore proves to be a ‘soterian’, rather than an ‘evangelical’.

3. He seems to dislike profoundly the pope’s disdain towards proselytism; and understandably so, since this is the very substance that defines the missionary  philosophy of Moore’s denomination. Moreover, the idea of ‘listening to each other’, meaning a Catholic (or a Baptist) could listen to (and learn from) an atheist, appears to Moore as a catastrophic suggestion.

And Moore continue saying:

If Pope Francis wishes to reclaim the primacy of the gospel, he must simultaneously speak with kindness to those outside of its reach and speak of the need for good news…. Without speaking to the conscience, and addressing what the sinner already knows to be true about the day of giving an account, there is not love, only the consigning of the guilty conscience to accusation and condemnation. If the church is right about the personhood of unborn children (and I think it is), then why would we not be “obsessed” about speaking for them, and for the women and men whose consciences are tyrannized by their past sins?

Here is what I make out of these:

1. Moore finds it very problematic that Pope Francis speaks a lot about the love of God,as the core of the Christian Gospel,  but not enough about God’s judgement (one of Moore’s favourite topics).  Unfortunately for the Baptist leader, Pope Francis does not seem to be very eager to scare people away from sin with the flames of hell. He prefers Christ approach: speaking kindly to sinners and harshly to religious hypocrites (Southern Baptist appear to like much better the opposite approach).

2. The Baptist theologian is also very upset by the fact that the pope does not buy into the aggressive fundamentalist anti-abortion (and probably also, though not mentioned anti-homosexual) agenda, which is indeed an ‘obsession’ of Southern Baptists and others like them on the Religious Right front.

Of course, the pope’s critic pretends to do all this out of concern for the ‘burdened conscience’ of the sinner, a quite transparent trick used by fundamentalists to cover their inherent aggressiveness and their obsession with hell and God’s judgement.

Again, says Moore:

But opposite a harsh, rule-oriented Christianity is a way that is just as condemning, a way that we’ve seen often in hyper-Protestant communions: the tendency to downplay sin at all.

1. When mentioning a ‘a harsh, rule-oriented Christianity’, Moore unintentionally describes his own version of legalistic fundamentalist Christianity.

2. And because the pope does not condone that, he accuses him that, at least implicitly, he ‘downplays sin’. Or course, for somebody on the extreme right, everybody else appears like a communist.

And, finally, using a cheap rhetorical gimmick, Moore says:

I’m in no position to advise the Bishop of Rome, but I hope we’ll see a fuller-orbed message from him. I’m with Pope Francis on the need for kindness, but I pray it will be a convictional kindness that addresses both the reality of God’s holy justice and his reconciling love.

1. Of course he tries, from the stance of his illusionary theological superiority, to ‘advise’ the pope, and only God knows what catastrophic consequences will follow for the Catholics if Francis does not heed this warning.

2. So, in conclusion, the pope would do well to speak more often of God’s justice and judgement, or he risks to not be validated as a Christian at the high court of Southern Baptist version of the Great Judgement. Otherwise his theology will continue to be boldly labeled as a ‘wreck’.

What else could we say, then, except ‘may God have mercy on the pope’.

In the mean time, Southern Baptists seem to be all OK, after the fundamentalist take over, a few decades ago.




Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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