Could the doctrinal differences among Christians be a legitimate reason to reject the truth of historic Christianity? Some skeptics think so. In fact, some secular critics of Christianity think the faith is hopelessly divided. Even many Christians say they are turned off by what they perceive as bickering among the various branches and denominations within Christianity. Because of these historic controversies, some believers in Christ have chosen to not use the word “Christian” in describing themselves but rather prefer the term “followers of Jesus” or “Christ followers.”
Some time ago I made the following comment on Facebook, which led to an exchange about the specific agreements and disagreements among Protestants and Catholics (the two major branches within Western Christendom). I can only share parts of the lengthy exchange but I hope the following dialogue will help you to think about and weigh both the unity and disunity within the Christian faith, particularly as it relates to Catholics and Protestants.
Me: The important doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants that emerged at the time of the Reformation remain. But given the state (apparent decline) of our culture I think theologically conservative Catholics and theologically conservative Protestants ought to at least consider working together as moral and cultural allies. To promote this idea I try to emphasize truth, unity, and charity in my interactions with all Christians.
Respondent: Please correct me if I am wrong. You know I respect your work, but this proposal seems a very soft approach considering the strong stands our Reformed forefathers took with Rome. Many Protestants insist that Roman Catholicism is apostate—at least from the Council of Trent (1545–1563) onward. Is this not still true? Does our work with them in the culture war take precedence over these unresolved doctrinal issues? Or, must we be sensitive over these issues for fear that disagreement would jeopardize our cooperation in areas where we can agree?
Me: I like to think my proposal is doctrinally sound and graciously delivered, not soft. In my 1997 dialogue-debate1 with Jesuit scholar Father Mitchell Pacwa I present what I think is a robust defense of sola Scriptura (Scripture as final authority), and in my coauthored book The Cult of the Virgin: Catholic Mariology and the Apparitions of Mary I strongly critique aspects of Catholic Mariology. But as an orthodox or theologically conservative Anglican I may find more common ground with Catholics than do some Reformed Christians, perhaps particularly Reformed Baptists (though some Reformed Episcopalians/Anglicans may say otherwise).
The main doctrinal differences that divide Catholics and Protestants such as authority (the relationship of Scripture and church tradition), justification (relating to salvation), and devotion to Mary—among other topics—remain important and unresolved theological issues. But conservative Catholics affirm every word of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and for me that is a huge part of historic Christianity. So I weigh carefully both where I agree and disagree with Catholics. Accordingly, I don’t view Catholics the way I view Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think conservative Catholicism is a branch of Christendom with which I share much in common (Trinity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, etc.) but also with which I have sharp doctrinal differences.
I wrote about the common ground and the differences among Catholics and Protestants and their significance almost 30 years ago in the Christian Research Journal (see the reference section below). I also think it is critical that Catholics and Protestants work together to promote a culture of life and marriage that stresses the value and dignity of all people who are made in God’s image.
Respondent: The one area I really question is the gospel, and I’m not trying to be ungracious. Just as it is not being ungracious to say the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not worship the God of the Bible, it is also not ungracious to say that the Roman Catholic Church has corrupted the gospel itself! They do not preach the gospel the apostles preached, I contend, and many of our forebears died over these truths, including Anglicans! I’m not saying many Catholics are not true brothers in Christ, but only in spite of Rome’s heresy. Why doesn’t the “essential Christianity” movement regard the gospel as just as important as the Trinity, deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and bodily resurrection of Christ?
I also agree with you about working not only with Roman Catholics on the cultural issues, but even with Mormons, Muslims, Jews, etc, to foster a culture of life and decency. Yet I would not hesitate to tell them they are lost without faith in Christ alone, by grace through faith alone as well!
Me: You and I may respectfully disagree on exactly how to evaluate Catholicism and I’m fine with that. In my scholarly studies I have found that thoughtful Christians can arrive at different positions. But may I humbly encourage you to continue to study carefully just where the Catholic view of grace, faith, and works compares with the historic Protestant view. Catholics emphasize the primacy of grace in salvation and in my view that is no small thing. For example, you might consider taking a look at the works of orthodox Anglican theologians George Carey and Peter Toon on the subject as well as read the Catholic Catechism (see the reference section below). Also, you might read the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed and ask yourself how much of Christianity is reflected in these ancient and medieval statements of faith. I think I have weighed carefully all of essential Christianity in coming to my view, including justification by faith.
But I find it interesting that conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches usually accept Catholic baptisms but reject those of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But why accept the sacraments of a false church that preaches a different gospel? Also, if Roman Catholicism is a false church, where was Christ’s church prior to the Protestant Reformation? Something to consider.
I agree with you that we can build common ground on moral values with Mormons, Muslims, and Jews. But I don’t view Catholics in the same way I do adherents of those non-Christian religions. Affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity and all its grace-oriented implications2 puts the Catholic Church in a different category, at least for me.
As a Christian, however you view the agreements and disagreements among Catholics and Protestants, as well as other groups within Christendom, I hope you’ll give careful consideration to matters of truth, unity, and charity. Non-Christians are watching how Christians express their agreement and disagreement in public. And on this basis, they often evaluate the potential truthfulness of the faith.
Reflections: Your Turn
What stands out to you most regarding Catholics and Protestants—their areas of agreement or areas of disagreement?
- For a discussion of historic Christianity’s agreements and disagreements, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined: Is It Rational, Relevant, and Good? (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chapter 10.
- For an introduction to Catholicism, see Peter J. Kreeft, Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Church Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
- For a Catholic apologetic, see Peter Kreeft, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic.
- For a Catholic view of common ground, see Peter Kreeft, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other?
- For an evangelical Protestant evaluation of Catholicism, see Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences.
- For an evangelical Protestant evaluation of Catholicism, see James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy: Catholics & Protestants—Do the Differences Still Matter?
- For a Protestant appreciation of a Catholic pope, see Tim Perry ed., The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation.
- For an Anglican theologian’s view of Protestants and Catholics, see George Carey, A Tale of Two Churches: Can Protestants & Catholics Get Together?
- For an Anglican theologian’s view of Protestants and Catholics, see Peter Toon, Protestants and Catholics: A Guide to Understanding the Difference among Christians.
- For a discussion of where and how evangelicals and Catholics can work together, see Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission.
- For a discussion of where and how evangelicals and Catholics have worked together, see Timothy George and Thomas G. Guarino eds, Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics.
- For a Protestant critique of evangelicals and Catholics together, see R. C. Sproul, Are We Together?: A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism.
- For two articles I wrote almost thirty years ago on weighing the agreements and disagreements among Catholics and Protestants, see “What Think Ye of Rome? (Part One): An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism” and “What Think Ye of Rome? (Part 2): An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism.”
- Father Mitch Pacwa vs. Professor Ken Samples Debate on the the Authority of the Catholic Church #1 of 4 (1997), Ultimate Challenge: A Catholic-Protestant Debate, posted November 15, 2017.
- For the Trinity’s unique relationship to salvation by grace, see my article No Trinity, No Salvation.