Sunday, May 28, 2006

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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am currently in the midst of intensely re-examining the Catholic/Protestant debate, and may switch back (or not).

Though, it seems to me, the deeper I study, that both systems are pretty much alike. Calvinism focuses on sanctification (and our cooperation with God in this) more than on justification and focuses on the third use of the law. Calvinists say we are justified by faith alone, but saved by faith and works. (They say there is no salvation without sanctification.)

Likewise, RCs teach justification is completely free, given to us in infant baptism before we can do a single good work -- but after that, we must grow in holiness.

Anonymous said...

Further adding to the similarities, Catholicism proclaims Sola Gratia. Also, the works by which we are saved, according to them, are not works of Moses' Law, but works stemming from total committment to Christ. Evangelicalism promotes "Lordship Salvation," which is basically the same thing: Salvation by faith AND committment to Christ.

Tim said...

There are similarities, but there are glaring distinctions. Both RC and CP teach justification, but their definitions differ greatly. Both teach salvation by grace, but again they differ about what they mean by that.


Calvinism focuses on sanctification (and our cooperation with God in this) more than on justification and focuses on the third use of the law.


I disagree. Calvinists only *focus* on sanctification in so far as it always proceeds from justification, or better stated, from a heart that has been born again (which results in embracing Christ by faith). I understand there are some differences between Lutherans and Calvinists on the 3rd use of the Law, but both would say that sanctification is the result of a God-given faith.


Calvinists say we are justified by faith alone, but saved by faith and works. (They say there is no salvation without sanctification.)


Is there any Protestant who teaches that a man can be saved without being sanctified? Just because we say that sanctification is essential doesn't mean we teach that sanctification contributes any merit whatsoever to our standing before God. Rome collapses sanctification into justification.

I also dispute your use of language. It seems you are dismissing some important distinctions. No CP would say that we are saved *by* our works. We would say that a faith that produces no works is a false faith -there has been no true conversion. We are saved *unto* good works (Eph 2:8-10).


Likewise, RCs teach justification is completely free, given to us in infant baptism before we can do a single good work -- but after that, we must grow in holiness.


That is not completely true. According to RC, the grace of justification is infused into the person via baptism. But does the person have any assurance of their justification before God? Can they say they have peace with God (Rom 5:1) or that they are the blessed man of Rom 4:6-8? RC teaches that the person must actually *be* just in order to be declared just, by cooperating with the grace of justification. There is the fatal flaw. The person must sufficiently cooperate with God's infused grace, but what level of cooperation is sufficient? How can the man know he has attained righteousness? Are you justified in God's sight?

I encourage you to read through Galatians where Paul makes clear His point: the one who relies upon works of the Law at all lies under a curse. If one would seek to be justified by their own doings at all, even in part, they nulllify the grace of God and must live under the Law perfectly, else they are cursed.

Tim said...


Further adding to the similarities, Catholicism proclaims Sola Gratia. Also, the works by which we are saved, according to them, are not works of Moses' Law, but works stemming from total committment to Christ. Evangelicalism promotes "Lordship Salvation," which is basically the same thing: Salvation by faith AND committment to Christ.


Those are not the same thing at all. First, Rome teaches salvation by grace, but I'm assuming that you must know that this is a far cry from what the Reformers meant by Sola Gratia.

I am sure that there are some who pervert Lordship salvation, so I am not even going to argue from that. I am going to argue from CP which says that if a man's faith does not result in works, if there is no love for Christ, no desire to obey Him, then the man is not converted -he is a hypocrite, a false brother. A man is justified by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone.

Also, I am hoping that you realize that when we say we are "justified by faith" we essentially mean we are "justified by Christ's work". Faith does not form the grounds of our justification one bit.

Also, the works by which we are saved, according to them, are not works of Moses' Law, but works stemming from total committment to Christ.

There is a higher Law than Moses Law? Did not Jesus say He came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it? I am aware that RC apologists try to get around all of this by qualifying the "works", but the Scriptural principle remains in tact: if one seeks at all to base his justification before God upon something within himself, even "deeds done in righteousness (Titus 3:5-7), even "faith working through love" then he remains under the curse of the Law. It matters not what kind of works they pretend them to be -mere word games. If it is any kind of righteousness in self upon which I am trying to stand before God's Holy tribunal then I am lost.

Tim said...

From the Canons of the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent:


CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.


This is where Rome, in the Counter-Reformation, anathematizes the Gospel. CP, Calvinists included, teaches that a man is justified by Christ alone through faith alone, excluding all renewal of the Holy Spirit which takes place within the person. This does not deny that there will be renewal in a person in whom the Spirit dwells (since they are truly born again). However, our renewal never in any way merits our standing before God. It is "required" in the sense that if it is absent then it indicates that person does not possess true God-given, saving faith because he has not been converted.

Compare what the above quotation from Trent says with what the Scriptures say, namely in Rom 4:4-5, Gal 2:16, Gal 2:21, Gal 3:10, Rom 3:21, Rom 10:4-5, Phil 3:9, 2 Cor 5:21, etc.

I am aware that Rome and some RC apologists have some language that tries to fit around this stuff, but again, the principles are clear. A man is justified either through standing solely upon what Christ did for his standing before God, or he is not justified at all -something which Trent, unfortunately, condemns. :(

What I also find somewhat funny is the passing reference in Canon XI to Romans 5:5 as if the pouring of love into the heart through the Holy Spirit refers to *our* love and charity "inherent within" us. Contextually, in Romans 5, it is clear that this verse is referring to an inner assurance of God's benevolence toward us, not our love toward Him or anyone else. That is why hope does not put to shame. We know that His love for us, His favor, rests upon us ultimately because of Christ and we *have been* (past tense) justified in Him.

Tim said...

If there are any materials I can point you to, I will be more than willing to help. I know that some of the RC apologists can sound very convincing at first, but there are answers -real, Biblical ones that show their inconsistency and their deviation from the Scriptures. I'm not claiming to have them all, either :), but maybe I can help point you to resources that do. Obviously I hope you come back to the Protestant Gospel! And I don't mean that because it would somehow make me "right" in the debate. My sinful pride might like that, but it would be meaningless and cheap.

Anonymous said...

thanks for those comments. sure, feel free to point me to any materials.