The Rigorous Theology of Carbonara

[This article was originally published in Italian and online at locicommunes.it. Loci Communes is an online evangelical magazine in Italy that seeks to promote evangelical culture and reformation thought.]

As someone with a great appreciation for delicious food, April 6 is a day close to my heart. Carbonara Day is an event organized by the Italian Food Union. Since 2017, this international event has been celebrated through the sharing of carbonara recipes from world-renowned chefs via live streaming directly to your kitchen. The world’s largest “spaghetti social” can be followed on social media.

A simple search for #Carbonara or #CarbonaraDay will reach millions of people who appreciate this famous Roman dish. Living in Rome, I continually add to my list the best places to find this delicious gift to humanity. It truly brings me to worship our Creator. One bite of a well-cooked carbonara can lead even non-believers to thank God out loud as their palate explodes with the delicious flavors of the pasta, egg cream, PECORINO cheese, pepper and guanciale. It is truly an incredible experience to thank God for, and a sign of his common grace towards sinners.

Joking aside, this simple yet delicious dish is truly a national treasure that Romans are proud of. While there may be many debates about how best to prepare this dish and what type of pasta to use, Italians are united in one thing: you can’t change the simple ingredients of this dish by adding or taking away anything. And this doesn’t just apply to carbonara. Many people witnessed Neapolitan chef Gino D’Acampo’s ire on British television when his guest wanted to add some sour cream and mushrooms to the bolognese sauce. “Che schiffo!…this is what’s wrong with your country!” he said. We laughed, but his anger was real. After living in Italy for almost 10 years, you can’t deny that Italians are food purists in the strictest form.

If you want to add cream to bolognese, fine. But don’t call it bolognese! If you want to add pineapple to pizza, go ahead, weirdo. Just don’t call it pizza anymore! (Their thoughts, not mine. I actually like pineapple on pizza. But don’t tell my Italian friends). If you really want to see an upheaval in Rome, add peas or mushrooms or cream to the carbonara. Now you’ve gone too far and you definitely can’t call it carbonara anymore! Some things are simply too precious to change.

The same is true of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s salvation to both Jew and Greek (Romans 1:16). I’m talking about the biblical message of the gospel that was rediscovered and boldly proclaimed during the Protestant Reformation. It is a simple recipe not to be trifled with. It is the message we find in Scripture of God’s salvation that comes by His grace alone, through faith alone, in the works of Jesus Christ alone, and to the Glory of God alone. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this does not come from you: it is the gift of God. It is not by virtue of works so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

This simple recipe cannot be subjected to additions or subtractions, otherwise it becomes something else and you can no longer call it gospel. Just as a Roman would be astonished to see someone add peas to carbonara, so the apostle Paul would have been astonished to see the simple recipe of the gospel altered. In fact, he was! He angrily wrote to the Galatians who were tempted to add new requirements to the gospel (adherence to certain dietary and ceremonial laws) saying:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1.6–7 ESV) (Galatians 1:6-7)

Just like adding cream or butter to carbonara changes it completely, adding anything to the simple gospel changes it completely. In a city that understands the significance of this when it comes to food, it is sad to know that it does not understand this point when it comes to the gospel. Scripture says that it is by grace alone that you are saved. But Rome says it is grace plus works. Scripture says it is by faith alone in the works of Christ, the only mediator between God and man. But Rome says it is by faith plus the works of Christ, plus the priests, plus saints, plus Mary. Is it not clear that the recipe has changed? The simple gospel is no longer the gospel and that was Paul’s point. Call it what you will, but it is no longer the gospel, and therefore no longer has the power to save.

P.S. If you are ever in Rome and want to buy me lunch, I would make myself available to worship the Lord with you over a plate of carbonara.

Clay Kannard
is co-pastor of the church Breccia di Roma. In 2013, his family was sent to Rome, Italy from Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, through WorldVenture, to serve as a resource to Italians in communicating and living out the Gospel, developing new leaders, and planting new churches. Clay earned a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and a Master of Theological Studies with emphasis in Preaching and Pastoral Ministries through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Twitter: @claykannard