WHAT THINK YE OF ROME?
An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism
by Kenneth R. Samples
Catholicism possesses a foundational orthodoxy reflected in its affirmation of the
crucial doctrines expressed in the ancient ecumenical creeds. Nevertheless,
Protestants detect serious problems in Catholic theology in that the church affirms
teachings that are extraneous and inconsistent with its orthodox (Christian)
foundation. These doctrinal errors are of such a serious nature that aspects of
orthodoxy are undermined, thus warranting the Protestant Reformation of the
sixteenth century and the continued separation of present-day Protestantism from
Catholicism. These divergent views, however, do not warrant classifying
Catholicism as a non-Christian religion or cult. The doctrinal disputes of the
Reformation era remain substantially unchanged today, extending to: (1) religious
authority, (2) the doctrine of justification, (3) beliefs concerning the Virgin Mary,
and (4) sacramentalism and the Mass. The twentieth century trend toward
religious pluralism has also become a serious concern.
A prominent evangelical theologian was asked the pointed question,"What
separates Catholics from evangelical Protestants?" The theologian retorted,
"Nothing and everything!" This response, though paradoxical, is actually keenly
insightful. When one examines the common doctrinal ground between the two
camps, it seems nothing separates Catholics from evangelicals. When one
explores the areas of difference, however, it seems that virtually everything
separates Catholics from evangelicals.
In Part One of this series we gained some appreciation and understanding of
contemporary Catholicism by exploring some of its unique sociological features.
We also began our theological appraisal by probing the common areas of doctrinal
agreement between classical Catholicism and historic Protestantism -- especially
those crucial doctrines succinctly summarized in the ancient ecumenical creeds.
In the present article we will extend our appraisal of Catholicism by, first, discussing
to what extent evangelical Protestants consider the Catholic church to be an
authentic Christian church. Second, we will respond to the charge made primarily
by popular fundamentalists that Catholicism is a completely invalid expression of
Christianity, and therefore a "non-Christian" or "anti-Christian" cult or religion. In
this connection we will also address the common errors in reasoning and
methodology made by those who insist that Catholicism should be classified as
nothing more than an apostate, non-Christian cult. Third, we will begin our own
critical evaluation of Catholicism by outlining the central doctrinal issues that sharply
separate evangelical Protestants from Roman Catholics.
IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH A CHRISTIAN CHURCH?
My research convinces me that the majority of evangelical Protestant theologians
and scholars who are knowledgeable concerning Catholicism would be perplexed to
hear Catholicism classified simply as a "non-Christian religion" or an "anti-Christian
cult." This perplexity would stem from the fact that no matter how theologically
deviant Catholicism might be -- even if in some respects apostate -- it certainly
does possess a structural or foundational orthodoxy, reflected in its adherence to
the ancient ecumenical creeds (see Part One). As such, it should be considered
at least provisionally a Christian church body. Certainly most evangelical Protestant
scholars would also insist that the unfortunate unbiblical elements found in
Catholicism mitigate against, or in some instances tend to undermine, aspects of
that foundational orthodoxy.
Recognizing and understanding this tension in Catholic theology of the right hand
giving (foundational orthodoxy) and yet the left hand taking away (affirming
teaching that is inconsistent with that orthodoxy) is, in this writer's opinion, a key
to formulating a sound Protestant evaluation of Catholicism. Despite this tension,
however, most evangelical scholars believe that the core orthodoxy is never
entirely eclipsed. For example, though very critical of Catholicism at numerous
points, evangelical theologian John Jefferson Davis of Gordon-Conwell Theological
Seminary stated that "conservative evangelicals could affirm about 85 percent of
what Catholics believe."
Even the Protestant Reformers themselves clearly acknowledged that
Catholicism as a system affirmed the basic articles of the historic Christian faith.
The Reformers simply charged that in both belief and practice the medieval Catholic
church compromised its formal adherence to orthodoxy -- specifically as related to
its obscuring and undermining the gospel message.
Because the Catholic church would not itself reform, the Reformation became an
unavoidable though tragic necessity. However, while the Reformers called into
question the Catholic church's right to be called a "true church" (because it was
failing to preach the true gospel), they did not think it had lost all the qualities of a
true church. For example, they did not require the rebaptizing of those who had
once been baptized as Roman Catholics. In a book discussing the relationship of
heretical doctrine to historic Christian orthodoxy, theologian Harold O. J. Brown of
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School made this insightful comment concerning
The strongest accusation that can be made against Roman Catholicism from this
perspective is not that it is heretical in structure, but that it is heretical in effect, in
that it effectively undercuts its own formal adherence to the major Christological
stands of its official creeds. In other wo