What Should Protestants Think About Catholicism?
We recently had a good discussion in one of our theological equipping classes about what Protestants should think about Catholics. Are they friends or foes? Can a Catholic be saved and remain a Catholic? Is Protestantism a new church or is it simply a purification of a church that had drifted a bit?
Below are three sections addressing how Protestants should think of Catholicism in general, what makes Catholics and Protestants similar, and what makes us different:
1. Catholicism is a branch of Christianity. Sometimes people contrast the terms “Catholic” and “Christian”; however, we must remember that church history is 2,000 years old, and about 1,500 of them have been thoroughly Catholic. Catholicism is not “another religion” (like Hinduism), but rather a branch of orthodox Christianity. Furthermore, Catholicism is not “heretical” (as I’ve heard many Protestants wrongly say). Yes, it is true that there is false teaching in modern Roman Catholicism, but that is different from the definition of actual heresy (which technically refers to a belief that has been officially condemned at a formal church council, and to believe it means one is going to hell).
2. Protestantism cannot be a brand new church. It is not the case that the gospel was overcome by the devil for most of church history and really just began at the Reformation. In fact, Jesus said that the gates of Hades would never overcome his church (Matt 16:18). The Protestant reformers did not believe they were creating a “new church” - Christ only has one bride - but rather returning to the early Catholic church and early church fathers like Athanasius and Augustine. Though the church has had seasons when it was more or less pure, there have always been true, orthodox believers throughout church history.
3. What the Catholic Church “officially” believes is different than what some, individual Catholics may believe. In other words, the official positions of the church are not necessarily what each, individual Catholic believes. Therefore, we have to distinguish between the “official” positions of Roman Catholicism and what your average, nominal Catholic neighbor, for example, might believe. This is especially helpful in discussions with friends and family who identify as Catholic. We shouldn't assume that they hold to every official teaching or dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. They may hold some views that are better and some that are worse than “official” Catholicism.
4. Early Catholicism is purer than Medieval Catholicism. We must recognize that the Catholic Church has been more pure in some eras than others. The Christianity of the fifth-century looked very different than the Christianity of the fourteenth-century. Augustine’s views regarding Mary, transubstantiation, indulgences, and grace, for example, are vastly different from that of Pope Innocent III’s. This is why the Reformers were not protesting the concept of creeds, church fathers, or the unity of the church. They were protesting the abuses and semi-pelagianism that had crept into the church throughout the Middle Ages.
5. We should love Catholics as people regardless of what we think of Catholicism. No matter the beliefs of a particular Catholic, we are called to love them even though we may disagree with some of their theology. Regardless of what they hold, we should seek to develop relationships with them.
6. There is a difference between an imperfect gospel and “another gospel.” Catholics do not teach “another gospel.” They are not a cult (like Mormons, etc.). They teach an imperfect gospel, which is different than teaching that which is no gospel at all. Most of us would admit that when we got saved there were still places in our theology there were pretty far off. Additionally, and pay attention to this if you are a Protestant, the gospel is the good news about the person and word of Jesus; it is not the doctrine of justification by faith. Justification is vitally important as it is how one gets the gospel, but it is not the saving content of the gospel. The kingdom of God manifest in Christ is the saving content of the gospel. And Catholics believe and teach this.
7. You can be Catholic and be saved. Not only do you have guys in church history who are clearly saved and Catholic (like Augustine), but many of the Reformers, like Luther, got saved while still being very Catholic! Can a Catholic be saved? Absolutely. However, are the majority of Catholics saved? Unfortunately, it appears unlikely. Catholicism is not technically heretical, but there are some doctrines in Catholicism that make it harder for people to trust Christ alone for salvation. Most of the Catholics that I know whom I believe are saved are actually kind of “bad Catholics” in that they don’t fully agree with all the teachings of Rome.
A few agreements
1. The Trinity. Protestants and Catholics worship the exact same God. We both believe that there is only one, eternal God who consists of three, distinct persons.
2. The person of Christ. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that Jesus is one person with two, distinct natures (in that he is fully God and fully human).
3. The major elements of the gospel. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, was born of the virgin Mary, lived righteously on our behalf, died on a cross for our sins, was resurrected from the dead, and is coming again to judge everyone.
4. Salvation is not earned. Believe it or not, Catholics and Protestants believe that we are saved by grace alone. Catholics are not Pelagian. Pelagius was a heretic who taught that we put God in our debt by freely choosing to be righteous and that we are born morally neutral. That is actual heresy (he was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418). Both Catholics and Protestants agree that we are born with original sin and that salvation is a gift purchased by Christ’s work alone. Both believe we are saved by grace alone but, as we’ll discuss below, the debate is over how one acquires this grace.
5. The Bible is God’s Word. Yes, Catholics include some Jewish books written in between the time of the Old and New Testaments called the “Apocrypha” in their canon, but, other than that, we have the same Bible and both believe that it is God’s Word. We mustn’t forget that major Catholic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas treasured God’s Word, and were passionate biblical exegetes who devoted much of their lives composing enormous commentaries on the Bible.
6. Many other things. Both Protestants and Catholics believe that sin is bad, that God is gracious, that we will all one day be resurrected, that life starts at conception, that God is immutable, impassable, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, etc., that Christians should seek to live in holiness, and many other things.
These agreements are extremely helpful in that they protect us from caricaturing the Catholic position. Although there are serious disagreements between Protestants and Catholics, we must be quick to remember that the areas of disagreement do not cross into the realms of Trinitarianism or Christology. This is important for helping us to think rightly of them and in making sure that we do not think of them as a cult, which would deny such things.
A few disagreements
1. The final source of authority. Protestants believe that the Bible alone (interpreted using a historical-grammatical method within the context of the believing community) is the ultimate authority in the Christian life. Catholics believe that the Bible plus the official teachings and official interpretations of the Roman Catholic Church, who has the Pope as its head, serve as the final authority..
2. How one is justified and what “justification” means. In Protestantism, one is justified by grace alone, received through faith alone. In Catholicism, one is justified by grace alone, but that grace is not received through faith alone; rather, it is by faith, the sacraments, and by living as a faithful Catholic. In Protestantism, you are declared to be 100% justified upon the moment of faith. In Catholicism, “justified” is not something you are instantaneously declared to be, but rather something you actually become over time.
3. The definition of the church. For Catholics, the “church” is an institution, going back to the apostles, which continues on by the ordaining of bishops and priests through the laying on of hands. For Protestants, it is the gathering of believers that trace their theology back to the Apostles and the early church. For Catholics, the church has more of an institutional definition; for Protestants, the church has more of a doctrinal definition. One looks at a history of an organization; the other looks at a history of biblical teaching.
4. The sacraments. Protestants have two sacraments (baptism and communion) and see them as something that primarily sanctifies. Catholics have seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, marriage, holy orders, and final unction) and see them as something that helps justify.
5. Many other things. Protestants and Catholics disagree on prayers to saints, the veneration of Mary, the use of statues and images, church government, the material presence of Christ in communion, purgatory, the distinction between priests and laity, the office of the pope, and many other things.
In examining the differences between Roman Catholic theology and Protestant theology, the doctrine of Scripture moves front and center. Is Scripture sufficient or do we also need the authoritative interpretation of the official, Roman Magisterium? Is Christ's mediation sufficient or do we also need grace from Mary as a “mediatrix” and “co-redemptrix?” Was Christ's one sacrifice sufficient for our lives or do we need an on-going sacrifice as one participates in the Eucharist in the mass? Is faith sufficient for our justification or do we also need the sacraments for that purpose?
In the end, Mary should be respected, communion should be celebrated, works should be accomplished, and tradition should be cherished, but none of these negate the all-sufficient work of Christ Jesus.
So, what should Protestants think about Catholicism? It kind of depends on who you are talking to at the time.
When talking to someone who thinks that Protestantism and Catholicism are basically the same, we have to challenge them on that. There are some serious differences that Protestants have with Catholicism. Catholicism’s view of justification often keeps many people from just trusting in grace, and that is very dangerous.
However, when talking to a Protestant who thinks that all Catholics are heretics, we have to challenge them as well. Protestants should be quick to recognize that Protestants have actually been grafted into the rich root of the olive tree of the Catholic Church (even if there are some serious problems with modern Roman Catholicism). Ultimately, Catholicism remains under the umbrella of orthodox Christianity, and we should acknowledge it accordingly.
Such corrective conversations aren’t necessarily easy, but they are most faithful in our attempt to save the lost and disciple our brothers and sisters. Essentially, open biblical dialogue is the clear solution as we seek to better understand one another for the glory of God and the unity and diversity of the Church.