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 words, Reformation Protestantism
acknowledges that Catholicism possesses the fundamental articles of the faith, but
claims that it so overlays them with extraneous and sometimes false doctrines
that the foundations are no longer accessible to the majority of Catholic
While Catholicism is foundationally or structurally an orthodox Christian church
(affirming the creeds), Reformed theologian Roger Nicole is nevertheless correct in
stating: "Reformation Protestants believe that much in Catholic theology tends to
undermine and compromise that orthodox Christian confession -- especially as it
relates to the crucial issue of the gospel message." In agreement with most
evangelical scholars, then, the Christian Research Institute regards Roman
Catholicism as neither a cult (non-Christian religious system) nor a biblically sound
church, but a historically Christian church which is in desperate need of biblical
The compromises in Catholic theology are so serious as to warrant the sixteenth
century Reformation and the continued separation on the part of present-day
Protestantism. At the same time, however, these compromises are not serious
enough to warrant the extreme classification of Catholicism as a non-Christian
religion or anti-Christian cult. Some have criticized this position for not being more
definite; however, rarely does one find simple black and white answers to complex
theological issues. As theologian Desmond Ford has articulately stated:
"Theological truths are seldom pure, and almost never simple." The task of
correctly understanding and evaluating the long history, intricate doctrine, and
diverse practices of Roman Catholicism is no simple chore.
IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AN ANTI-CHRISTIAN CULT?
Even with the significant areas of doctrinal agreement between Catholics and
Protestants (see Part One), a notable number of Protestant fundamentalists insist
that Catholicism is an anti-Christian cult. Organizations and individuals (some of
them quite popular) who classify Catholicism as a cult include: Chick Publications,
Alberto Rivera's Anti-Christ Information Center, Tony Alamo's Christian Foundation,
Bill Jackson's Christians Evangelizing Catholics, Albert James Dager's Media
Spotlight, and Dave Hunt's The Berean Call. (This is not to say that all of these
people belong in the same category -- the latter three are more respectable than
the former three.) Actually this is just a few of many individuals and organizations
that classify Catholicism as an anti-Christian cult. Because their position receives a
wide hearing in some evangelical circles, we must address their claim.
Ten Reasons Why Catholicism Is Not a Cult
What those who label Catholicism a cult do not seem to understand is that even if
one considers Catholicism to be unscriptural and greatly mistaken on many
important doctrinal issues (certainly this writer does), it is simply misplaced and
erroneous -- for a variety of reasons -- to classify Roman Catholicism as an
anti-Christian cult. Let me give ten reasons why I say this.
(1) Cults, generally speaking, are small splinter groups with a fairly recent origin.
Most American-based cults, for example, have to a greater or lesser degree
splintered off from other Christian groups, and emerged in the nineteenth or
twentieth centuries. Catholicism, on the other hand, is the largest body within
Christendom, having almost a two-thousand-year history (it has historical
continuity with apostolic, first century Christianity), and is the ecclesiastical tree
from which Protestantism originally splintered.
(2) Cults are usually formed, molded, and controlled by a single individual or small
group. The Catholic church, by contrast, has been molded by an incalculable
number of people throughout its long history. Catholicism is governed by creeds,
councils, and the ongoing magisterium.
(3) Cults typically exercise rigid control over their members and demand
unquestioning submission, with disobedience punished by shunning and/or
excommunication. While Catholicism has exercised a triumphalism and an
unhealthy control over its members in times past, this is far less true today,
especially since the Second Vatican Council. Contemporary Catholicism's broad
diversity as illustrated in Part One of this series certainly proves this point.
(4) An appropriate description of a cult is "a religious group originating as a
heretical sect and maintaining fervent commitment to heresy." Regardless of
one's criticism of Catholicism, even if it is heretical at certain points, it does not fit
this description. It does not originate in heresy, and, as was mentioned before, it
possesses a structural orthodoxy that other cults simply do not have
(5) Cults (when defined as heretical sects) are classified as such because of their
outright denial or rejection of essential Christian doctrine. Historically, this has
principally been a denial of the nature of God (the Trinity), the nature of the
incarnate Christ (divine-human), and of the absolute necessity of divine grace in
salvation (the Pelagian controversy). While Protestants have accused
Catholicism of having an illegitimate authority and of confusing the gospel (two
serious charges to be examined later), Catholicism does affirm the Trinity, the two
natures of Christ, and that salvation is ultimately a gift of God's grace (a rejection
of Pelagianism). I challenge anyone to name a recognized cult that affirms the
Trinity or the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ (see comparison chart).
(6) Cults frequently have a low view of the Bible, replacing or supplementing it with
their own so-called "sacred writings." In fact, cults often argue that the Bible has
been, to some extent, corrupted and therefore their writings are needed to restore
the truth. While Catholicism's acceptance of noncanonical writings (the Apocrypha)
and placing of apostolic tradition on par with Scripture are fundamental problems to
the Protestant, Catholics nevertheless retain a high view of the Bible (inspired and
infallible) and see it as their central source of revelation.
(7) Cults usually have some kind of authoritarian, totalistic leader or prophet. While
some feel that the pope fits this category, in reality the pope governs the church
with heavy dependence upon the bishops (college of cardinals), and within the
restrictions of the official teaching of the church. Protestants clearly disagree with
the authority and exalted titles given the pope, but he still does not fit the category
of a cult leader.
(8) A frequent characteristic of cults is their emphasis on a "remnant identity" --
that is, they claim to be God's exclusive agent or people who restore "authentic
Christianity," which has been corrupted or lost. Usually this type of restorationism
has an accompanying anticreedal and antihistorical mindset. While Catholicism has
at times been guilty of an unfortunate exclusivity (some Protestant churches
have also), they emphatically deny restorationism, and strongly emphasize the
continuity of God's church throughout history.
(9) Those who classify Roman Catholicism as a cult (an inauthentic and invalid
expression of Christianity) usually also give the Eastern Orthodox church the same
classification. What they do not realize, however, is that if both of these religious
bodies are non-Christian, then there was no authentic Christian church during most
of the medieval period. Contrary to what some Protestants think, there was no
independent, nondenominational, Bible-believing church on the corner (or in the
caves) during most of the Middle Ages. Additionally, the schismatic groups who
were around at the time were grossly heretical. So much for the gates of hell
not prevailing against the church (Matt. 16:18).
Some try to sidestep this argument by reasoning that as long as there were even a
few individuals who remained biblically orthodox apart from the institutional or
organized church, then those select individuals constituted God's authentic church
(a remnant) -- thus the church was never truly overcome. This thinking, though
containing an element of truth, is not completely correct. It is true that the church
has an invisible and local dimension to it, but it also has a visible and
organizational dimension (John 17:21). While the church is primarily a community
of believers, it also functions as an institution through which believers encounter
the ministry of the Word and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper).
Scripture does not allow for the sharp distinction between the spiritual and
organizational dimensions of the church that some would like to draw.
(10) Even with the serious problems evident in Roman Catholic theology from a
Protestant point of view, Catholic doctrine overall does not fit the pattern of the
recognized cult groups (see comparison chart). Catholicism affirms most of what
the cults deny and possesses an orthodox foundation which all cult groups lack.
In summary, a cult generally emerges as a group that rejects orthodoxy and
remains fervently committed to heresy. Catholicism's problem, by contrast, is of a
different nature. It affirms teaching which is both extraneous and inconsistent with
its historical affirmation of orthodoxy. From an evangelical Protestant viewpoint,
Catholicism is definitely "too much" -- but the cults are clearly "not enough."
Roman Catholicism is not a cult. The classification of Catholicism as given above is
much more accurate and preferable to the overly simplistic and misguided
classification of Catholicism as a non-Christian cult.
A Doctrinal Comparison of Catholicism and the Cults
DOCTRINES RC JW LDS CS WCG[*] TWI UPC
|All Theistic | | | | | | | |
|Attributes Of |affirm| deny | deny | deny | deny | deny |distor|
| God | | | | | | | |
| Triune | | | | | | | |
| Nature |affirm| deny | deny | deny | deny | deny | deny |
| Of God | | | | | | | |
| Personality | | | | | | | |
| Of The |affirm| deny |distor| deny | deny | deny |distor|
| Holy Spirit | | | | | | | |
| Two Natures | | | | | | | |
| Of Christ |affirm| deny |distor| deny | deny | deny |distor|
| (God-Human) | | | | | | | |
| The | | | | | | | |
| Virgin |affirm|affirm| deny | deny |affirm|distor|affirm|
| Birth | | | | | | | |
|Justification | | | | | | | |
| By |compro| deny | deny | deny | deny |distor|compro|
| Faith | | | | | | | |
| Sufficiency | | | | | | | |
| Of Christ's |compro| deny | deny | deny | deny |distor|distor|
| Atonement | | | | | | | |
| Christ's | | | | | | | |
| Bodily |affirm| deny |affirm| deny | deny |compro|affirm|
| Resurrection | | | | | | | |
| Eternal | | | | | | | |
| Conscious |affirm| deny |distor| deny | deny | deny |affirm|
| Punishment | | | | | | | |
| Literal | | | | | | | |
| Return Of |affirm|distor|distor| deny | deny |affirm|affirm|
| Christ | | | | | | | |
| An | | | | | | | |
| Immortal |affirm| deny |distor|distor| deny | deny |affirm|
| Soul | | | | | | | |
| Infallible/ |affirm|distor| deny | deny |distor|distor|distor|
| Inerrant | | | | | | | |
| Bible | | | | | | | |
| Authority | | | | | | | |
| Of The |compro|compro|compro|distor|compro|compro|compro|
| Bible | | | | | | | |
| Continuity | | | | | | | |
| Of The |affirm| deny | deny | deny | deny | deny | deny |
| Church | | | | | | | |
| | | | | | | | |
|Predestination|affirm| deny | deny | deny | deny | deny | deny |
| | | | | | | | |
| Salvation | | | | | | | |
| Outside |compro| deny |compro|compro|compro|compro|compro|
| Their Ranks | | | | | | | |
| Total | | | | | | | |
| |compro| deny | deny | deny | deny | deny | deny |
| Depravity | | | | | | | |
| Eternal | | | | | | | |
| Life In |affirm|distor|distor| deny | deny | deny |affirm|
| Heaven | | | | | | | |
|Consciousness | | | | | | | |
|In The Inter- |affirm| deny |affirm| deny | deny | deny |affirm|
|mediate State | | | | | | | |
| Final | | | | | | | |
| |affirm|distor|distor| deny |distor|distor|affirm|
| Judgment | | | | | | | |
[*]These positions more rightly reflect Armstrongism. The current Worldwide
Church of God seems to have moved somewhat toward orthodoxy, but has yet to
accept the Trinity and remains in a state of flux.
*Identifications*: | *Definitions:*
*RC:* Roman Catholicism | CRI distinguishes between
| teaching that is
*JW:* Jehovah's Witnesses | *aberrational* (a serious
| confusion or compromise of
*LDS:* Latter-day Saints | essential biblical truth) and
| teaching that is *heretical*
*CS:* Christian Science | (a continued outright denial
| or rejection of essential
*WCG:* Worldwide Church of God | biblical truth).
| *affirm:* declare to be true
*TWI:* The Way International | *deny:* declare to be untrue
| *distort:* (distor) a serious
*UPC:* United Pentecostal Church | change or negative alteration
| *compromise:* (compro) an
| unacceptable blending,
| settlement, or concession
Rome's Seduction of Evangelical Christianity?
There is certainly legitimate room for disagreement among evangelicals as to just
how Catholicism should be viewed (though, as previously noted, most scholars
would concur in large part with our discussion above). But the approach to
Catholicism taken by some Protestant fundamentalists is simply unacceptable. This
approach not only condemns Catholicism as a non-Christian religion or cult, but
also suggests that anyone who disagrees with that condemnation is somehow
being seduced by the allegedly all-powerful Vatican. If one dares defend Catholicism
from the unfair charge of being called a cult, then one is either knowingly or
unknowingly aiding and abetting the enemy, and betraying the Protestant
While this writer derives no pleasure from singling out other Christians for criticism,
in this case it is both necessary and appropriate. There are many who take this
unfortunate approach to Catholicism, but one fundamentalist writer in particular
consistently makes very serious charges: the popular and controversial
discernment ministry author, Dave Hunt. Hunt, in an article entitled "A Cult Is a
Cult," states that Catholicism is "the most seductive, dangerous and largest
cult...." He also states that major evangelical leaders, apologists, and cult
experts are cooperating with, and therefore being seduced by, Catholicism as
Hunt does at points raise some legitimate doctrinal concerns regarding Catholicism.
However, his overall approach in evaluating and classifying Catholicism is both
logically and theologically flawed. As our previous discussion demonstrated,
Catholicism simply does not fit the category of a non-Christian cult. Further, Hunt
seems unwilling to take into account the vast areas of doctrinal agreement
between classical Catholicism and historic Protestantism. While he rightly points to
many unbiblical elements and false teachings within Catholicism (issues which, by
the way, have been pointed out by the very apologists he criticizes), he fails
repeatedly to identify and draw carefully nuanced theological distinctions. Instead
he erroneously asserts that Catholics embrace a "different God, a different Jesus
Christ...." Certainly no one has been more critical of the excesses of Catholic
theology than were the Reformers. However, even they affirmed that Catholicism
embraced the triune nature of God and the two natures of Jesus Christ as
expressed in the creedal statements of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon.
What is worse than Hunt's assertion that Catholicism is a cult is his insistence that
anyone who arrives at a different position is simply deceived -- and thus at risk of
compromising their gospel witness. Consequently, Hunt impugns the character of
all of those individuals and ministries simply because they disagree with his
theological assessment of Catholicism.
The fact is that all of the cult experts and apologists Hunt has criticized have very
strong criticisms of Catholicism at numerous points (this writer knows most of
them personally). They simply do not classify the Catholic church as a
non-Christian cult. They are not being seduced, nor are they compromising -- they
merely disagree with many of Hunt's conclusions! Cannot evangelicals have honest
areas of disagreement without being labeled compromisers?
The last of Hunt's charges which should be addressed is his claim that "to deny that
Roman Catholicism is a cult is to repudiate the Reformation and mock the more
than 1 million martyrs who died at Rome's hands as though they gave their lives
for no good reason!" I find this charge to be personally unsettling. As a
Reformed (Calvinist) Christian and apologist, I have great admiration for the
sixteenth century Reformers. In fact, as a conservative Presbyterian, I adhere to
the Westminster Confession of Faith (a Reformed confession of 1647). However,
while I am not willing to repudiate the Reformation, neither am I willing to classify
Catholicism as a non-Christian cult (though I remain staunchly critical of Catholic
Let us examine Hunt's reasoning on this point. His argument seems to follow this
pattern: Either one classifies Catholicism as a non-Christian cult, or one is guilty of
repudiating the Protestant Reformation. As a Protestant, one could not possibly
want to repudiate the Reformation. Catholicism must therefore be classified as a
cult. This argument is a classic example of the informal logical fallacy known as the
"false bifurcation" (also known as the "black-and-white," "either-or," or "false
The error in Hunt's reasoning is twofold. First, he assumes too few alternatives.
There are other possible alternative classifications for Catholicism that would not
repudiate the Reformation, including other critical classifications such as the one we
discussed earlier. By erroneously reducing the number of alternatives, he has
oversimplified the problem and is clearly thinking in extremes. Second he assumes
(illegitimately) that one of his jointly exhaustive alternatives must be true (ergo --
Catholicism is a cult). Hunt's disjunctive (either-or) premise is false, and his
argument is unsound.
While some individuals unfortunately exaggerate the theological faults of
Catholicism, there remain in reality some central doctrinal differences between
Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants. It is to these areas of difference that
we now turn.
WHAT SEPARATES ROMAN CATHOLICS
FROM EVANGELICAL PROTESTANTS?
There are many areas of difference between Catholicism and evangelical
Protestantism. These areas extend to both doctrines and practices, and range
from very minor differences to those that can only be considered major points of
contention. The following is just a brief list of the most consequential doctrinal
differences between the two groups. These are areas in which Catholicism
generally differs with virtually all of the specific denominations within evangelical
Protestantism. These areas obviously overlap and have significant implications for
further areas of theology and religious practice. We will briefly note the general
concerns expressed by Protestants.
The question of authority is an area of central dispute between Catholics and
Protestants. The Reformers referred to it as the formal cause of the Reformation.
Catholics affirm a triad of authority: Scripture, apostolic tradition, and the teaching
office of the church (magisterium). Implications of this authority system include:
the Petrine doctrine (primacy of Peter), apostolic succession, papal supremacy and
infallibility, and, as it relates to Scripture, the acceptance of the Apocrypha.
Protestants, by contrast, reject the Catholic system in favor of the Reformation
principle of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone as the primary and absolute norm of
doctrine). Sola Scriptura implies the authority, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture,
and uniquely gives Scripture alone the role of final arbiter in all matters of faith and
Evangelicals charge the Catholic church with affirming an illegitimate authority
system and express great concern about Catholicism's decision to: (1) place
human traditions on par with God's written Word, (2) grant infallibility to the church
(magisterium), (3) subordinate the individual believer's interpretation of Scripture
to the magisterium, (4) affirm the primacy and infallibility of the pope, and (5)
introduce noncanonical books into the canon (the Apocrypha). Evangelicals believe
that Catholicism's misguided authority structure has allowed numerous unbiblical
teachings to arise in the church.
We will return for a more thorough discussion of this crucial issue of authority in
Part Three of this series.
Also of central dispute between evangelicals and Catholics is the crucial
soteriological doctrine of justification. The Reformers referred to this doctrine as
the material cause of the Reformation. Although we can only summarize the
views here, we will also return to this issue in Parts Three and Four.
Theologian and Reformation scholar Peter Toon summarizes the main features of
the official Roman doctrine of justification:
1. Justification is both an event and a process. An unrighteous man becomes a
righteous man. Becoming a child of God in baptism and having the remission of
sins, the Christian is made righteous. (If during this process he should lose faith or
fall away, he may be restored through the sacrament of penance.)
2. Justification occurs because of the "infusion" of the grace of God into the soul,
whereby inherent righteousness becomes one of the soul's characteristics.
3. This imparted, "infused" righteousness is described as the "formal cause" of
justification. The "meritorious cause" is Christ's passion and death.
4. The believer will only know for certain that he is justified at the end of the
process. In the meantime, his constant duty is to co-operate with the grace of God
given to him.
Oxford theologian and internationally recognized authority on the Reformation
doctrine of justification by faith, Alister McGrath, summarizes the Reformation
Protestant position on justification:
1. Justification is the forensic [i.e., legal] declaration that the Christian is righteous,
rather than the process by which he or she is made righteous. It involves a change
in status rather than in nature.
2. A deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification (the
external act by which God declares the believer to be righteous) and sanctification
or regeneration (the internal process of renewal by the Holy Spirit).
3. Justifying righteousness is the alien righteousness of Christ, imputed to the
believer and external to him, not a righteousness that is inherent within him,
located within him, or in any way belonging to him.
4. Justification takes place per fidem propter Christum [by faith on account of
Christ], with faith being understood as the God-given means of justification and the
merits of Christ the God-given foundation of justification.
While the Protestant Reformers were essentially unified in their understanding of
justification, modern-day evangelicalism is much less so. Nevertheless, today's
Reformation Protestants have consistently criticized the Catholic position for: (1)
failing to recognize that justification is solely a judicial act of God that changes our
status but not our state; (2) not making the necessary distinction between
justification (being declared righteous) and sanctification (being made righteous);
(3) interpreting justifying righteousness as infused and intrinsic, rather than imputed
and extrinsic; (4) failing to see that assurance is a necessary byproduct of being
justified; and (5) making justification a synergistic (man cooperating with God)
process rather than a monergistic (God working alone) act.
Because Reformation Protestants see the doctrine of justification by faith as the
very heart of the gospel, this dispute takes on extreme significance. While it is
important to understand the nuanced doctrinal points described above, the issue of
how one is justified before God is more than just an academic theological debate.
Reformation Protestants believe that to confuse or compromise the doctrine of
justification is to run the dangerous risk of obscuring the very gospel of Christ.
Following the Reformers, today's Reformation Protestants believe that the Catholic
church's soteriological system has actually placed obstacles in the way of Catholics
entering in to an authentically saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
It might rightly be said that evangelicals have a tendency to ignore Jesus' mother
Mary. Catholics, on the other hand, greatly exalt her. Such dogmas as the
Immaculate Conception and bodily Assumption, coupled with such titles as "Queen
of Heaven," "Queen of all Saints," and the "Immaculate Spouse of the Holy Spirit,"
make Mary in the minds of Catholics the most exalted of all God's creatures.
While Catholics propose Mary as a point of unity with other Christians, most
evangelicals see Mariology as a formidable barrier between themselves and
Catholics. Even evangelicals who are for the most part sympathetic to Catholicism
generally view this element of Catholic belief as grossly unbiblical. One evangelical
commission on evaluating Catholic Mariology stated: "We as evangelical Christians
are deeply offended by Rome's Marian dogmas because they cast a shadow upon
the sufficiency of the intercession of Jesus Christ, lack all support from Scripture
and detract from the worship which Christ alone deserves." Although the
documents of Vatican II inform us that Mary's exalted role "neither take away from
nor add anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator," most
evangelicals believe Catholic Mariology actually undermines the foundation of
orthodox Catholic Christology.
Sacramentalism and the Mass
Sacramentalism is a central and vital component within Catholic theology. For
Catholics, sacraments are "effective signs" of grace instituted by Christ.
Catholicism's seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance,
extreme unction[last rites], holy orders[ordination into the priesthood], and
matrimony) both signify grace and cause it to happen ex opere operato ("they
work by their own working").
While various evangelical denominations differ in their acceptance and approach to
sacraments (or ordinances), generally speaking evangelicals differ with the Catholic
view in number, nature, and operation of the sacraments. The Eucharist and the
sacrificial nature of the mass in particular engender great dispute between Catholics
and evangelicals. Both of these areas of concern have direct Christological
From the time of Cyprian until modern times, the Catholic church has affirmed the
slogan extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the [visible body of the
one institutional] church). Vatican II affirms, however, that salvation is "not only for
Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen
way." These statements of Vatican II clearly opened the door for German
theologian Karl Rahner's "anonymous Christianity" -- the belief in the possibility of
salvation without explicit Christian faith, even through non-Christian religions.
While Catholic theology assures us that all the redeemed are ultimately saved
through Christ alone, evangelicals are greatly concerned that these pluralistic trends
greatly detract from the uniqueness of Christianity and open the Pandora's box of
universalism. In light of this pluralism, is there any necessary reason to consider
becoming Catholic, or even Christian?
In Part Three of this series we will examine the issues of authority and justification
in more detail.
1 I have personally interviewed many of Protestant evangelicalism's finest
theologians (Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopal, Evangelical Free,
Dispensational, etc.), virtually all of whom thought the classification of Catholicism
as a non-Christian religion or cult was misguided and inaccurate. Most were
extremely critical of Catholicism at numerous points, but still rejected the above
2 Orthodoxy refers to the body of essential biblical teachings, especially (but not
completely) reflected in the ancient ecumenical creeds. The doctrines summarized
in the creeds are the foundation of Christian orthodoxy. See Robert M. Bowman,
Jr., Orthodoxy and Heresy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 116.
3 Dr. Davis expressed this to me during a private interview regarding Catholicism.
4 When I speak of the Reformers, in this context I am speaking of the magisterial
or classical Reformers, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John
Knox. I am specifically excluding those who would be part of the radical
5 See John M. Frame, Evangelical Reunion (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,
1991), 37. If the Catholic church were a completely false church, then its
sacraments would be completely invalid.
6 Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1984),
7 Dr. Nicole expressed this to me during a private interview regarding Catholicism.
8 Some people have charged that this view of Catholicism does not reflect the
view held by CRI's founder Walter R. Martin. This is a false charge. This writer has
been CRI's specialist on Roman Catholicism for the past seven years, and I came
to embrace this view, at least in part, from interacting with Martin himself.
9 Peter Kreeft offers five good reasons why Catholicism is not a cult. All five, to
some extent, are included in my list. ("The Catholic Market," Bookstore Journal,
February 1992, 28.)
10 Bowman, 115.
11 The primary doctrinal controversies of early church history centered on these
three issues, as is reflected in the creeds. Pelagianism was a heresy that originated
in the late fourth century stressing man's ability to take the initial steps toward
salvation, apart from the special intervening grace of God. See Walter A. Elwell,
ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,
1984), s.v. "Pelagius, Pelagianism," 833-34.
12 Council of Trent (Canons on Justification no. 1): "If anyone saith that man may
be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of
human nature or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ let
him be anathema." Dogmatic Canons and Decrees (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and
Publishers, 1977), 49. Some Reformation Protestants have nonetheless accused
Catholicism of affirming semi-Pelagianism; see Robert C. Walton, Chronological
and Background Charts of Church History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing
House, 1986), s.v. "The Pelagian Controversy," 17.
13 Statements from the Second Vatican Council concerning ecumenism reflect a
new approach taken by Catholicism toward other churches (Decree on
Ecumenism, no. 3). See Walter M. Abbott, gen. ed., The Documents of Vatican
II, trans. Joseph Gallagher (New York: The American Press, 1966), 345-46.
14 See Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vols. 1 and 3 (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1971).
15 See Walton, s.v. "Medieval Dissenters and Heretical Groups," 28.
16 The "invisible church" consists of all truly regenerate believers (i.e., the elect)
throughout history. The "visible church" consists of all persons (true believers and
merely professing believers alike) in the current church on earth.
17 Frame, 28.
18 Dave Hunt, "A Cult Is a Cult," CIB Bulletin, June 1991, 1.
19 Ibid. Hunt indicts numerous ministries for their compromising cooperation with
Rome, including: Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity, Youth with a Mission,
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship. In the
wake of this seduction, however, Hunt asserts that "most cult experts refuse to
identify this horrendous cult as such! Instead they accept it as 'Christian.'" These
cult experts and apologists include the late Walter Martin, Hank Hanegraaff,
Norman Geisler, Josh McDowell, Don Stewart, Bob and Gretchen Passantino, and
20 The Christian Research Institute has published numerous works which have
been very critical of certain areas of Catholic theology. See, for example, Elliot
Miller and Kenneth R. Samples, The Cult of the Virgin (Grand Rapids: Baker Book
House, 1992). Simply because we do not classify Catholicism as a cult does not
mean that we give Catholicism a clean bill of theological health, or that we are not
uncompromisingly critical of Catholicism at numerous points. In fact, one Catholic
apologetics organization accuses CRI of being anti-Catholic. While the accusation is
false (CRI is not anti-Catholic in emphasis, but pro-Protestant), it serves to
illustrate that CRI is consistently critical of the excesses of Catholic theology.
21 Dave Hunt, Global Peace (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1990), 141.
22 When discussing why evangelical apologists do not list Catholicism as a cult,
Hunt stated: "The current deafening silence concerning the Catholic Church may
have less to do with one's courage than with the practical concern that to oppose
Rome severely limits one's audience" (Ibid). Likewise, the Research and Education
Foundation affirms that "it is to be feared that the desire to get money out of
millions of Catholics is stronger than the desire to defend the truth by exposing
error wherever it is found." (Larry Wessels, "Lack of Discernment among
Apologetic Ministries?" The Researcher, Jan.-Feb. 1993,3.) This is an
unconscionable ad hominem -- and patently false. The anti-Catholic approach
seems to sell quite well within fundamentalism -- just ask Jack Chick.
23 Hunt, "A Cult Is a Cult," 1.
24 See T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 2d ed. (Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1987), 56.
25 Certain differences can be attributed to the vast diversity found within
evangelical Protestantism. Some Protestant denominations will have many more
areas of agreement with Catholicism than others (e.g., liturgical and sacramental
26 For an excellent overall evaluation of Catholicism from an evangelical
perspective, see "An Evangelical Perspective on Roman Catholicism I and
II,"Evangelical Review of Theology 10 (1986): 342-64, and 11 (1987): 78-94;
and Tony Lane, "Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism," Evangelical
Quarterly61, 4 (1989): 351-64.
27 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand
Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), s.v. "Sola Scriptura," 284.
28 Peter Toon, Protestants and Catholics (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1983),
29 Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing
House, 1988), 61.
30 The Reformed and Arminian theological traditions have important differences in
their formulation of this doctrine. In a similar way, current Dispensational
theologians are sharply divided concerning the so-called "lordship salvation"
31 "An Evangelical Perspective on Roman Catholicism I," 356-57.
32 "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," chapter 8, see Abbott, 92.
33 As cited in Lane, 353.
About the Author:
Kenneth Samples is currently serving as director of the Augustine Fellowship Study
Center at Post Office Box 23, Hemet, CA 92543; (909) 654-1429.
Taken from the Christian Research Journal, Spring 1993, page 32. Copyright © 1993-1994 by the
Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 7000, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688-7000. The
Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller. Faith and Reason Forum would like
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