Blurred Distinctions: Evangelicals and Roman Catholicism

In a day that is considered by many as "secularized," the oldest institution in the West is enjoying great popularity, not only among its members, but also among Protestants. Even the so-called "media elite" is interested. The choice of Pope John Paul II by Time for 1994's Man of the Year  is not what one would expect from a "secularized," "anti-God media"--especially  when one considers that the essays for the most part portray John Paul in a positive light. While we continue to hear strong disagreement within the Catholic church, particularly toward the Pope, loyalty is high and Catholicism is resurgent in the world today. It seems that while some of its official ethical views are unpopular (e.g. birth control), as a source of spirituality,  Catholicism is very popular.

A clear indication of this popularity is the widespread interest in Pope John Paul's recent book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the first book written by a reigning pontiff for the general public. According to Christianity Today (December 12, 1994), Alfred A. Knopf paid $8.5 million for publication rights, a record for a single volume in the United States. Crossing the Threshold of Hope was an instant bestseller, following the success of the 800-page Catechism, which was released in June of 1994,  and has  sold more than 2 million U.S. copies. Christianity Today reports:

The first official statement of Catholic teachings to be issued since 1566 is  apparently meeting a felt need for church guidance on everything from donated sperm to communism.    The 800-page Catechism of the Catholic Church has been on the top of Publisher's Weekly's best-selling religion paperbacks.  The book also has been in the top ten for general paperback sales.    There are more than 1.5 million copies in print, and a fourth printing will start later this month. Sixteen publishers, in the largest joint publishing agreement in U.S. history, simultaneously released the book on June 22.[1]

In March of 1994,  a document was released called "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium." It is the outcome of an ongoing dialogue between evangelicals and Catholics who seek an alliance in the war against secularism.  While I have no problem with the idea of cooperating as “co-belligerents” (to  use Francis Schaeffer’s term) on certain some social issues,  I am troubled by the prospect of forming an alliance that acts as though evangelicals and Catholics are virtually the same--a position that overlooks crucial theological differences.

Most surprising of all has been the increasing sense of camaraderie between Roman Catholics and Protestants, raising hopes of a "House United, " the title of a new book by Catholic lawyer Keith Fournier.  A number of prominent evangelicals have actually converted to Catholicism. As John Armstrong remarks,  "Much has changed on the religious scene in recent decades. Certain individual Roman Catholics increasingly sound more like evangelicals, while certain evangelicals sound more and more like Roman Catholics."[2] This is,  in part, because of common social and political agendas. Armstrong quotes Charles Colson, who is up front about this:

It's high time that all of us who are Christians come together regardless of the difference of our confessions and traditions and make common cause to bring Christian values to bear on society. When the barbarians are scaling the walls, there is no time for petty quarreling in the camp.[3]

Later in this paper I will examine whether the disagreements between Protestants and Roman Catholics could be called "petty." For now, I am simply trying to make the reader aware of an ecumenical trend. Charles Colson wrote in his very popular book The Body,  “In recent decades, Catholic and Protestant doctrine has dramatically converged.”[4] He cites the area of justification by faith as one of the issues Catholics and evangelicals are close on.  In a recent ABC Auditorium “chat” on America Online, Peggy Wehmeyer, religion reporter for ABC News, and a professed evangelical, was asked, "I'm interested in the move of evangelicals back to deeply historical bodies such as the Eastern Orthodox. How big a movement do you see there? She responded:

That's very interesting. I have not researched the figures on this... but I personally have sensed that there is a real movement of people in that direction. I think many evangelicals, when they hit middle age, often look for more mysticism and liturgy... which they are not finding in some of the contemporary evangelical churches. I have seen many evangelicals turn to the Catholic and Episcopal churches for the tradition and liturgy.

The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a feature story last fall on the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, founded by the late Thomas Merton. Sure, people are not rushing off to become monks, but the article reflected a new admiration for those who do. Gethsemani attracts many visitors who come for weekend retreats. One retreat-goer said, "There's a presence here."

In a recent Christianity Today article, Colson endorses a culture war, urging that "Let's be certain that we are firing our polemical rifles against the enemy, not against those who are fighting in the trenches alongside us in defense of the Truth."[5] As he admits, this is the driving motivation for those who signed "Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), the statement of cooperation referred to above and signed in the spring of 1993 by a number of leading Catholics and Evangelicals, including  J. I. Packer, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade,  and Pat Robertson. Evangelicals are divided in their response to ECT—some  deeply suspicious, others very encouraged.

What is Going on Here?

How are we to understand this embracing of an institution that was not so long ago seen as an entrenched survivor of antiquity? Are we moving beyond secularism? Have centuries of Catholic-Protestant antagonism been overcome? What or who changed? In my view, what has changed has not been the theological positions of either side, but the pastoral practices of both.  A common spirituality has superseded doctrinal distinctives and shared social agendas have replaced theological discourse. What has changed among both Evangelicals and Catholics is the attitude taken toward matters of theology and doctrine—they have become a diminished priority. This inevitably leads to a weakness in theological discernment—the inability to make crucial judgments about what is essential. Michael  Horton asks, "After five hundred years, have Protestants and Roman Catholics achieved closer agreement? Has there been a legitimate advance, or is the current spirit of ecumenical agreement due more to a lack of doctrinal clarity and awareness of one's own doctrinal distinctives?"[6] Horton argues the latter, that a profound lack theological awareness exists. I could not agree more. In most discussions of Catholicism I have read, there is little to no discussion of beliefs or theology. What is discussed is their changing practices since Vatican II. Catholics and  Protestants  are both defining themselves differently these days--in terms of morality, spirituality, or experience--rather than doctrine. The concern of this writing is not with cooperation with Catholics per se--that is not a problem.  Nor am I suggesting that we shun Catholics.  And by no means is this paper about how to communicate with Catholics. That should be done, and done with love, but this paper is not a communication strategy.  It is written for evangelical Protestants who may not realize that fundamental differences in theology are being smoothed over by the trend toward Evangelical-Catholic unity, the most crucial of which is the way of salvation.

The Issues of the Reformation

The tendency today of evangelicals to see so much in common with Catholics reveals a lack of a sense of history and theology. Evidently, to some, the Reformation was simply a sixteen century issue--an "age of dogma" dispute. We are beyond that in our enlightened and tolerant age, they reason. In my view, this kind of thinking is incredibly naive. Modern inability to comprehend the seriousness of the issues debated in Reformation reflects the same relativism that evangelicals and Roman Catholics so abhor in secular society. For this reason, we must gain an appreciation of the central concerns of the Protestant Reformers.

In his book Luther's Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther's Theological Breakthrough, Alister McGrath takes the reader through the complex labyrinth of medieval thought from which Luther eventually broke free. As he puts it, there was "considerable confusion on matters of doctrine" in the medieval period, "particularly concerning justification."  The question, "what shall I do to be saved?," became enigmatic in a quagmire of conflicting traditions, theologies, and philosophical orientations.

The medieval version of justification required something from man.  No, it was not meritorious works, but a "prepared condition" to receive grace. That condition, for the young Luther, appears to have been a recognition of one's need for grace, and an appeal to God, in his mercy to bestow it. Yet, with all that said, Luther's initial concept was a humanly initiated state that God would then reward.  Faith required humility, and humility was understood as a self-abasing state, the condition of seeing oneself as detestable. If you think about this very long, you realize that faith has taken on the role of a work--a rigorous one at that. How could one know if he has become humble enough?  In addition,  the medieval understanding of righteousness had been colored by Roman (Latin) ideas of justice. Cicero's idea of justice was "giving to every man as he is entitled." Under this notion of justice, it would be impossible for God to justify the ungodly (as per Rom. 4).

Michael Horton puts his finger on the core issue that Luther eventually came to see: "To Luther, the debate over how a person is accepted before God was the whole issue of the Reformation. Everything else was derivative."[7]  The two central concerns in this question of salvation have been called the "formal and material principals" of the Reformation. The formal principal was sola scriptura (only scripture).

The Scriptures singled out as the sole and sufficient source for faith and practice. The church has no divine authority except to pass on what was written by the prophets and the apostles. The Roman church had begun to argue that tradition was also a source of revelation, since God continued to speak to His church through its magisterium  (teaching office), with the pope as its chief shepherd under Christ. Against the Roman claim, the Reformers asserted the sufficiency of Scripture.[8]

Because Roman Catholic theology then and now acknowledges more than one source of authority,  the question of how one is saved cannot be answered by a simple appeal to scripture. It must be scripture as interpreted by the Catholic Church. That is why this principal--sola scriptura-- is foundational  to any Evangelical-Roman Catholic debate. As long as Roman Catholicism holds to tradition as a source of divine revelation, it will be impossible to change any theological positions it has held. That is why all the change that one sees is in areas of practice and liturgy. The new Catholic Catechism holds the same view of tradition as the church held at the time of the Reformation.

Related to the issue of sola scriptura was the Reformers' belief that the Bible was clear in its teaching (the "perspicuity" or clarity of Scripture). Rome, on the other hand, viewed scripture as virtually unintelligible to the layman, who would have to rely on his priest to explain it him. The Reformers were not saying that all parts are of the Bible were equally clear, but concerning how one is to be saved, it is very clear.

The material principal of the Reformation was justification by faith alone. This was "the article by which the church stands or falls." In Luther's view, as long as a person is unaware of this doctrine, "he is no different than a Jew, a Turk, or a Heathen."  Rome had never actually denied the necessity of grace. What then, we may ask, was the big deal about?  If Rome held that salvation was by grace, why did Luther and others challenge the church on this point? Horton answers

It was not enough for the Reformers to say that we were by saved  grace. Nor, indeed, was it even enough to say that we are saved by grace alone. Thus far they would have not said anything that a typical Augustinian would not have affirmed in his day. What Luther and the other Reformers insisted on was grace alone through faith alone.[9]

To the Catholic, justification was seen as the beginning of moral change. The whole process may indeed be described as "grace alone," yet the way one received this "grace" was, in effect, by meriting it (through receiving the sacraments). The Catholic Response at Trent was the anathematizing of the Gospel.[10] I concur with G.C. Berkouwer: "The Reformation did not break with the church...the church rejected it...The Reformers knocked on the door, but the Council of Trent shut out the sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura of the Reformation."[11]

Roman Catholic Teaching in its Official Ecumenical Councils

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent ( 1543-1563), the Catholic church's response to the Protestant Reformation movement, set the tone for the next 400 years.  The purpose of the council was to refute the Protestant "heresies" and clearly state the "orthodox" (Catholic) position.  The result was the vigorous condemnation of all the Reformers.  Scripture and tradition are equal authorities as standards of divine revelation.

“This Synod receives and venerates, with equal pious affection and reverence, all the books both of the New and Old Testaments...together with the said Traditions, as well as those pertaining to faith as to those pertaining to morals, as having come from the lips of Christ or by the dictation of the Holy Spirit and preserved by unbroken succession in the Catholic Church...”[12]

The Council declared that faith alone is not enough for salvation.  Note that all the specifically Reformed, evangelical understandings of the gospel are rejected.  In the Decree on Justification, chapter 9, it is clear that for in the view of this Council,  no one should claim certainty of salvation and it is good to live in fear of damnation:

  • "...yet it must not be said that sins have been forgiven to anyone who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the forgiveness of his sins and rests on that alone, since among heretics and schismatics this vain confidence may exist..."
  • "For, just as no pious person should doubt the mercy of God, the merit of Christ, and the virtue and efficacy [power, effect] of the sacraments, so every one, when he considers his own weakness and indisposition, may entertain fear and apprehension as to his own grace, since no one can know with the certainty of faith....that he has obtained the grace of God."

Canons on Justification [the positions they reject]

  • Canon 14 "If anyone shall say that man is absolved [acquitted, exonerated] from his sins and justified, because he believes for certain that he is absolved and justified, or that no one is justified but he who believes himself justified, and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are perfected: let him be anathema."
  • Canon 8 "If anyone shall say that the fear of hell, whereby by grieving for sins we flee the mercy of God or refrain from sinning, is a sin or makes sinners worse: let him be anathema."
  • Canon 9 "If anyone shall say that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to understand that nothing else is required to cooperate in the attainment of  the grace of justification, and that it is in no way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will: let him be anathema."
  • Canon 29  "If anyone shall say that he who has fallen after baptism...can recover lost justice, but by faith alone without the sacrament of penance...let him be anathema."

The Seven Sacraments are Indispensable to Salvation. In the Canons on the Sacraments in General, we come to the heart of the Catholic system of salvation--the regular infusion of grace in the sacraments through the agency of the priesthood--those empowered to transmit grace. As can be seen, sacraments are not memorials of a past reality. They are not symbols. They confer actual spiritual life. Sacraments are the “medicine of immortality,” as Ignatius of Antioch once said. Here the Council flatly rejects the Reformers’ view that that sacraments did not save, but only celebrated what already occurred spiritually.

  • Canon 4 "If anyone shall say that these seven sacraments of the new law are not necessary for salvation, but are superfluous, and that, although all are not necessary for every individual, or without the desire of them through faith alone men obtain from God the grace of salvation; let him be anathema."
  • Canon 5.  If anyone shall say that these sacraments have been instituted for the nourishing of faith alone:  let him be anathema."
  • Canon 6 "If anyone shall say that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify, or that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place an obstacle in the way, as though  they were only outward signs of grace or justice received through faith...let him be anathema."

In the Doctrine of the Sacrament of Penance, it is most clear that justification is by no means complete without continued repentance. In this sacrament, the priest confers forgiveness on the fallen believer---through the “power of the keys.” This is even more clear in recent Catholic doctrine.  It is not enough to repent to God in your heart.  It must be through the Church—that is, the priesthood.
Ch. 2  "..this sacrament of penance, moreover is necessary for the salvation of those who have fallen after baptism, as baptism is for those who are not yet regenerated."

It should be noted that all of the decrees of the Council of Trent still stand today, complete with the anathemas.  The door was slammed on change for 400 years.  For simple clarity concerning the positions of the Council of Trent, note the official Profession of Faith that was issued by Pope Pius IV in 1564,[13] a year after the Council adjourned. Again, I have highlighted some things to draw your attention to them:

  1. I most steadfastly admit and embrace Apostolical and ecclesiastical traditions, and all other observances and constitutions of the Church.
  2. I also admit the Holy Scripture according to that sense which our holy mother the Church has held, and does hold, to which it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretations of the Scriptures. Neither will I ever take and interpret them otherwise than according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.
  3. I also profess that there are truly and properly seven sacraments of the New Law, instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord, and necessary for the salvation of mankind, though not all for every one…  I also receive and admit the received and approved ceremonies of the Catholic Church in the solemn administration of the aforesaid sacraments.
  4. I embrace and receive all and every one of the things which have been defined and declared in the holy Council of Trent concerning original sin and justification.
  5. I profess, likewise, that in the Mass there is offered to God a true, proper, and propitiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead; and that in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist there is truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ; and that there is made a conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the blood, which conversion the Catholic Church calls Transubstantiation. I also confess that under either kind alone Christ is received whole and entire, and a true sacrament.
  6. I constantly hold that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful.
  7. Likewise, that the saints, reigning together with Christ, are to be honored and invocated, and that they offer prayers to God for us, and that their relics are to be respected.
  8. I most firmly assert that the images of Christ, of the mother of God, ever virgin, and also of the saints, ought to be had and retained, and that due honor and veneration is to be given them.
  9. I also affirm that the power of indulgences was left by Christ in the Church, and that the use of them is most wholesome to Christian people.
  10. I acknowledge the Holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church for the mother and mistress of all churches; and I promise true obedience to the Bishop of Rome, successor to St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and Vicar of Jesus Christ.
  11. I likewise undoubtedly receive and profess all other things delivered, defined, and declared by the sacred Canons, and general Councils, and particularly by the holy Council of Trent.
  12. And I condemn, reject, and anathematize all things contrary thereto, and all heresies whatsoever, condemned, rejected, and anathematized by the Church.

This true Catholic faith, without which no one can be saved, I do at this present freely confess and sincerely hold; and I promise most constantly to retain, and confess the same entire and unviolated, with God's assistance, to the end of my life.

At the first Vatican council in 1870,  Papal Infallibility was made official. More celebrated is Vatican II.

Vatican II (1962-66)[14]

There is a popular belief that everything changed at Vatican II. There were changes, mostly in the liturgy, but not in soteriological doctrine. Trent and Vatican I were reaffirmed.

Scripture and Tradition

"Therefore Christ the Lord . . . commissioned the apostles to preach to all men that gospel . . . This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by ordinances, handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ . . . in order to keep the gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the apostles left bishops as their successors, handing over their own teaching role to them. This sacred tradition, therefore, and sacred Scripture of both the Old and the New Testament are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God . . . The words of the holy Fathers (i.e., the ancient Fathers of the Church, early orthodox Christian writers up to and including St. Gregory I in the West and St. John of Damascus in the East.--Ed.) witness to the living presence of this tradition . . ."  (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Chapter 2, Article 7)

Personal bible study is allowed, but by no means can there be private interpretation:

"Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the Church . . The task of  authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.  This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it...”
"It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls." (Chapter 2, Article 10)

The Church & Its Hierarchy

When you combine what was said above about who can interpret the bible with what follows, you can see how hard it would be for the Roman Catholic church to ever change its position on what salvation really means. It would undermine its very basis of legitimacy. No Pope can be wrong on doctrine.

“In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teachings and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul. This religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.”

“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly....provided they maintain unity among themselves and Peter’s successor...This authority is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council... Their definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.”

“This infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed with in defining a doctrine of faith and morals extends as far as the deposit of divine revelation [as defined above]... This is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff enjoys in virtue of his office,  when as supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful,  he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith and morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit... Therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment...”

“But when the either the Roman Pontiff or the body of bishops together with him defines a judgment, they pronounce it in accord with revelation itself. All are obliged to maintain and be ruled by this revelation, which,  as written or preserved by tradition, is transited in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops and especially through the Roman Pontiff himself.”

“Under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth, revelation is thus religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church. “
(Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Chapter 3,  Article 25)

The Vital Role of the Church in Salvation

“Basing itself [this Sacred Synod] on Scripture and tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile is necessary for salvation. In explicit terms He [Jesus] affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5) and thereby also affirmed the necessity of the Church, for through baptism [infant] as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter her or remain in her could not be saved.”[15]

“They are fully incorporated into the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and through union with her visible structure are joined to Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops.[16] This joining is affected by the bonds of professed faith, of the sacraments, of ecclesiastical government, and of communion. He is not saved , however, who, though he is part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity... And all the sons of the Church should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits, but to the special grace of Christ.  If they fail to respond to that grace in thought, word, and deed, not only will not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Chapter 2,  article 14)

Article 15 goes on to explain how those who out of ignorance, are  outside the visible  Catholic structure, can be related to the people of God.

How Grace is Imparted: Through the Priesthood via the  Sacramental System

Here we can see why the Church is so essential to salvation: salvation is a sacramental process and only the Church with its sacerdotal[17] priesthood can dispense sacraments that are efficacious. When Catholics say they believe in salvation by grace this is what they mean: saved by grace as it is regularly sought in the sacraments of the church. Grace is not a once and for all pardon to Catholics--it is more like a “fill-up” at a full serve station. You have to go get it.

“The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; at the same time it is the fountain from which all her power flows.”[18]

“From the liturgy,  therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a fountain, grace is channeled to us; and the sanctification of men and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their goal, are most powerfully achieved.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, chapter 1. Article 10)

“But in order that the sacred liturgy may produce its full effect, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their thoughts match their words, and they cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain (cf. 2 Cor. 6:1). (chapter 1. Article 11)

“They [the sacraments] do indeed impart grace, but in addition, the very act of celebrating them disposes the faithful most effectively to receive this grace in a fruitful manner...”(Chapter 3, Article 59)

"Well disposed members of the faithful, [through the sacraments] are given access to the stream of divine grace which flows from the paschal mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, the fountain from which all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power.” (Chapter 3, Article 61)

"Recalling thus [through the observance of the ritual calendar, especially the Lord’s Day and Easter]  the mysteries of redemption,  the Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present at all times, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold of them and become filled with saving grace.” (Chapter 5, Article 102)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994)

In what it calls the "The Sacramental Economy, " the new Catechism continues with the same sacramental definition of salvation.

"Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace they signify."  (292)

In the Profession of Faith, Article 10 "I BELIEVE IN THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS," the “Power of the Keys" is explained.

"After his Resurrection,  Christ sent his apostles, "so that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations." [Luke 24.:47] The Apostles and their successors carry out this 'ministry of reconciliation,' not only by announcing to men God's forgiveness merited for us by Christ, and calling them to conversion and faith; but also by communicating to them the forgiveness of sins in Baptism, and reconciling them with God and with the Church through the power of the keys, received from Christ."

"By Christ's will,  the Church possesses the power to forgive the sins of the baptized and exercises it through bishops and priests normally in the sacrament of penance."

"In the forgiveness of sins, both priests and sacraments are instruments which our Lord Jesus Christ, the only author and liberal giver of salvation, wills to use in order to efface our sins and give us the grace of justification."(257)

Alister McGrath observes this about the Catechism:

The catechism affirms the role of an unwritten or oral tradition in addition to scripture. Hence, in the Catholic view, Scripture alone is insufficient; the church authorities must also be looked to for direction in matters of faith and practice.

The Reformers regarded the Roman Catholic notion of oral tradition beyond the period of the first-century church as the basis for a number of unacceptable beliefs and practices in the medieval church, and, most significantly, they saw it as undermining the authority of Scripture. Even today, many observers feel that Catholics continue to give oral tradition priority over Scripture.[19]

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II, whom Billy Graham believes is evangelical, continues the tradition of sacramentalism in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1994). Here are a few excerpts (italics mine).

“Ultimately, only God can save man, but He expects man to cooperate... Synergism...With God, man "creates" the world; with God,  man "creates" his personal salvation.” ( p. 195)

“The fact that Christianity is a religion of salvation is expressed in the sacramental life of the church. Christ...discloses for us the sources of this life. He does so in a particular way through the Paschal Mystery of His Death and  Resurrection. Linked this Mystery are Baptism and the Eucharist, sacraments which create in man the seed of eternal life. In the Paschal Mystery, Christ established the regenerative power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After the resurrection, He said to the Apostles "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.” ( p. 74, 75)

Has The Catholic Church Changed its Doctrine?

It is very difficult, after covering the ground that we have, to see how Colson could say that Catholic and Protestant doctrine are converging. The only thing it could mean is that Protestants have changed. The Catholic position on salvation remains faithful to the view put forth at Trent over four hundred years ago.  As John H. Armstrong sees it:

...Rome is really no closer to the major concerns of the Reformation than she was five centuries ago. Indeed, she is much further away when we consider the effects of modernity and liberal theology.

I am convinced that with rare exception, and that in opposition to the official creeds of the church and writings of major Catholic theologians, Roman Catholic theology still does not believe or understand justification by faith alone.[20]

What Still Keeps us Apart?

Some argue that bad attitudes and prejudice are what divide evangelical Protestants and Catholics. And surely, some people do harbor such attitudes. Some of the early anti-Catholic sentiment in the America was based more on dread of European immigrants than on theology. Yet, the evidence of this paper has shown that what divides us who are consciously evangelical Protestants from Catholics is essentially theological. Cooperation on some issues would be good, but saying we both preach the same gospel is quite another. Such a claim completely overlooks the history and the clear theological affirmations of both groups. I will conclude with an excellent remark from Michael Horton:

As the pressures of secularism become increasingly burdensome and religious conviction is increasingly marginalized in society, great are the temptations to overcome four and a half centuries of separation and embrace each other in a common struggle to win the world for Christ...There is only one thing standing in the way:  The gospel itself... If we do not get the Evangel [gospel, good news]right, how much excitement can there be over combining resources and energies in promoting it?[21][italics mine]


[1] Christianity Today, December 12, 1994, On-line version

[2] John Armstrong, "The Evangelical Moment?" in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Unites Us and Divides Us ( Chicago: Moody Press, 1994) 295

[3] John Armstrong, "The Evangelical Moment?” 296

[4]Charles Colson, The Body (Dallas: Word Publishing,  1992)   271

[5] "Why Catholics are Our Allies,” in Christianity Today, November 14, 1994, 136

[6]Michael  Horton,  "What Still Keeps Us Apart?" in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Unites Us and Divides Us,  244

[7] Michael  Horton,  "What Still Keeps Us Apart?”   251

[8] Michael  Horton,  "What Still Keeps Us Apart?" 251, 52

[9]  Michael  Horton,  "What Still Keeps Us Apart?" 255

[10] Michael  Horton,  "What Still Keeps Us Apart?" 258

[11]Cited by John H. Armstrong in “The Evangelical Moment?,”  Roman Catholicism: What Unites Us and Divides Us,  318

[12] Henry Bettenson,  Documents of the Christian Church,  262. All the quotations from Trent that follow are from Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma. All highlighted italics are mine.

[13] See  Bettenson,  Documents of the Christian Church,  267

[14] While the quotes below are verbatim from the documents,  all bold italics are my own. The source for Vatican II citations is The Documents of Vatican II in a New and Definitive Translation with Commentary and Footnotes,  Walter M. Abbot, general editor (New York, Herder and Heder, 1966)

[15] An interpretive  footnote reads: “To indicate the importance of the union with the Church, the Council first reiterates the traditional  Catholic teaching on the necessity of the Church for salvation. This necessity is a double one arising both from the positive precept of Christ that men should enter the church and efficacy of the Church’s means of grace (especially her proclamation of the faith and her administration of the sacrament of baptism) for imparting and sustaining an authentically Christian life.”

[16] An interpretive footnote reads: “ is not sufficient to be externally Catholic; one must be animated by the Spirit of Christ. Where charity is absent, a bond essential to salvation is lacking.”

[17] The idea that ordination to the priestly office  conveys the ability to dispense grace. Thus, Holy Orders (ordination) is one of the seven sacraments.

[18] The footnote to the text here makes sure we don’t miss the point: “This solemn paragraph represents the core of the Church’s official teaching on the liturgy. It is thus something central, by no means secondary or peripheral.”

[19] Alister McGrath, "Do We Still Need The Reformation?” in Christianity Today, December 12, 1994, on-line version

[20]John Armstrong, , "The Evangelical Moment?" in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Unites Us and Divides Us,  294, 317

[21] Michael  Horton,  "What Still Keeps Us Apart?" 248