Roman Catholicism and Classical Protestantism
I have been thinking about the differences between Roman Catholicism (RC) and Classical Protestantism (CP) quite a bit lately. I have had a few encounters with some friends and family that have prompted me to evaluate the differences and boil them down for communication to others. Most of the folks I have spoken to (or potentially may speak to) are Roman Catholic, though they are not theologians, they are not students of the Word of God, they are not familiar with what the Council of Trent was or what the main issues were during the Protestant Reformation. They are just regular folks who grew up Catholic and go to church every week like they were always taught.
The differences between RC and CP are completely unknown to them. They may notice some things, like that CP's don't really talk much about Mary and the pastors can marry and are not called "priests", but any of the real meat that divides us is really unknown to them. Thus, opportunities do arise every now and then when we as Protestants are afforded the opportunity to explain to them what the main differences are.
In that regard, we must be careful. First, we must be gentle and humble, because everybody knows that "religion" can be a touchy subject. While presenting these differences we have a grand opportunity to present the Gospel itself, so let us tell them the truth in love and humility. Second, we must be able to discuss the differences briefly and using simple language -we must be able to "boil it down" and give it to them in simple terms. This is absolutely essential. Most folks are under the impression that if lengthy explanation is needed, chock full of technical terms and other jargon that need to be defined, then the difference a) has little practical importance, and b) is more for "theologians" or some super-class of religious folks to argue over. I can tell the person about justification, but if I must then spend time defining all of these technical issues, it may be too much for our hearer to gather in one sitting. However, if we are able to get right to the heart of the matter and outline the main differences and their practical importance in a few brief statements (followed by explanation if needed) then we may have an audience who will come away informed and perhaps with something to chew on.
So, our preparation work is almost the reverse of how we would present it to another individual in conversation. We must collect all of the information for RC and CP, narrow down to the one or two most essential differences, and then boil those down to simple points and simple language: simple principles that can be expressed clearly. Then, when the opportunity arises, we can work in reverse -beginning at the simple statements and expanding out where necessary. The key, however, is to not deviate from those simple principals. Rabbit trails will abound and the conversation will end up far from where we started if we do not keep it focused upon those key issues.
Another thing to consider is that if we are trying to outline the differences then this is not exactly the same thing as mounting a defense. The last thing you want to do is make the person you are talking to, who is probably ignorant of these issues, feel attacked. Present the differences first and then proceed to give details if the conversation leads that way. In my honest opinion, the first step should be simply to articulate that there are differences, that the differences are large, and that the differences impact real life.
All of this said, below is my attempt and explaining the major differences that divide RC and CP:
First, RC and CP differ over their understanding of authority. This means that they differ over who or what is the God-given authority over Christians -to tell us what to believe, to tell us how to live, etc. RC teaches that the Roman Catholic magisterium (the pope and bishops, etc.) is directly linked to the apostles and has the authority to define what it is we are to believe, what the Bible says, and what other things we are to do and believe that are perhaps not explicitly found in the Bible. CP teaches that the Bible alone has the ultimate authority to bind the conscience, tell us what to believe, and tell us how to live, and that it is sufficient to do so.
Both RC and CP believe that the Bible is the Word of God. However, they differ significantly over who or what serves as the ultimate authority over faith and practice. If we don't know who or what is our binding authority, how will we know what to believe or how we are to live? Indeed, this major difference shows itself in some of the differences in beliefs, such as the most significant one which follows.
Secondly, and more pointedly, RC and CP differ over their understanding of how a person is forgiven and found acceptable before God. A short way to phrase the issue is: "Upon what grounds is a person assured of heaven?" Can people, being sinners, be accepted into God's holy presence? Obviously there is nothing more practical than this. If we are living our lives in some kind of religion that leads us astray, and we are not, in the end, found acceptable in God's sight, then all of our religious activity was completely in vain. We were the worst of fools!
RC teaches that a person is acceptable to God partly based upon God's mercy or "grace" in Jesus and partly based on the person being good, being "righteous". This happens through the person receiving the sacraments of the RC Church and thereby cooperating with God's help in becoming good and staying good. On the other hand, CP teaches that if our acceptance before God was ever based, even in part, on something in us, no person would ever be accepted by God because even our best is tained with sin. CP teaches that our acceptance before God is through embracing, by faith alone, the death of Christ as being sufficient to pay for our sins, cover them, and count us "right" in God's sight. The basis for our standing of acceptance is what Jesus did, only, which we merely stand upon as a gift of God.
When you boil it all down, RC teaches that acceptance before God is ultimately deserved (ie. If you cooperate enough, you go to heaven; if you don't, then you don't), and CP teaches that acceptance before God is a free gift based upon what Jesus did or not at all. As you can see, these two systems are mutually exclusive. If one is right, then the other is woefully wrong and is misleading many down a horrible path.
Now, I have left out a lot. I have left out the teachings about Mary, prayer to deceased "saints", the priesthood, celibacy in the priesthood, Papal infallibility, the details of the RC baptism/penance sacramental system of justification, etc. I have highlighted the two most critical issues and stuck to the most critical and basic principles for each of them. What is interesting to note, however, is that these smaller issues such as the Marian dogmas, for example, and the Penance system, serve to underscore these two main differences. They both bring out the differences in authority and beliefs regarding acceptance before God.
Before I finish, it might be good to point out some of the similarities. Both RC and CP teach that Jesus is God the Son, that God is a Trinity, that the Bible is infallible and inspired by God, that there is a hell, that sin is real, that people are born sinners, and that there will be a final judgment. Though these similiarities are very real, the differences are too significant to ignore. We must note in passing that RC teaches that CP teaches heresy, and CP teaches that RC teaches heresy. The differences I have outlined form the major basis of these charges. This means, unfortunately, that there is no reconciling the two. The teaching of one excludes the teaching of the other on these very important issues.