Areas of agreement
Another area in which honesty is needed and which is sometimes a stumbling block for evangelistic outreach to Roman Catholics is the fact that Catholics and evangelicals really do agree on quite a few theological points. So here a review of some of the most important agreements will be given before the areas of disagreement are brought forward.1
First, Roman Catholics and evangelicals agree on the nature of God. At the most basic level, both view God in the sense of classical theism. What is meant by classical theism is that there is one Creator God2 who is personal, transcendent, and immanent. Note the following declaration from the Vatican I council (1869-70) which is still official church dogma:
The holy, Catholic, apostolic Roman Church believes and professes that there is one true and living God, the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth. He is almighty, eternal, beyond measure, incomprehensible, and infinite in intellect, will and in every perfection. Since he is one unique spiritual substance, entirely simple and unchangeable, he must be declared really and essentially distinct from the world, perfectly happy in himself and by his very nature, and inexpressibly exalted over all things that exist or can be conceived other than himself.3
Thus, one can see agreement between Catholicism and evangelicalism by marshaling the traditional attributes of God as taught in the two camps—characteristics like omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. One could also put forward the acts of God in history, namely creation and redemption, although in redemption the means of attainment would be different between the two groups. The classical view of the Trinity is also evident in both traditional Roman Catholicism and biblical evangelicalism. In short, in both there is a robust belief in a supernatural Trinitarian God that is in harmony with the Scriptures.
Second, Roman Catholics and evangelicals agree on the person of Christ. In both movements, Jesus is believed to be God in human flesh. From the Roman Catholic side an appeal is sometimes made to John’s Gospel as would be made in any evangelical church:
John begins the fourth Gospel with a Prologue that leaves nothing to the imagination. His triad is a close-knit testimony to the person of Jesus Christ. The Logos, therefore, is God; the Logos became a human being; and this Logos as a human being lived among men and was witnessed by them. Language cannot be clearer, as John intended to leave no doubt who Jesus Christ really was (italics original).4
Thus, the incarnation is definitely approved. Along with this comes a commitment to the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ, although there would certainly be some divergence on the nature and role of the Virgin Mary in that birth.
Third, Roman Catholics and evangelicals agree that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world and that he was physically raised from the dead—the death and resurrection of Christ is affirmed. Much is made of the shed blood of Christ in both Roman Catholicism and in biblical evangelicalism. Note the following teaching from a Catholic catechism: “After man had sinned, he was obliged to repair the injustice committed against God, which God took upon himself to expiate in the person of Jesus Christ…what the Church has always held, that Christ by his sufferings and death rendered vicarious atonement to God for the sins of men.”5 There is some debate about the meaning of the cross, but not its fact in history. The same could be said for the resurrection of Jesus: “From Peter’s Pentecost homily on through the apostolic age, Christ’s bodily resurrection was the primary evidence offered to the Mediterranean world that there is no other name than Jesus by which men are to be saved.”6
Fourth, traditional Roman Catholics and biblical evangelicals affirm the existence of a real heaven and a real hell. Concerning the truth of hell, albeit a mystery, the claim is made that “the Catholic Church has never flinched in communicating this truth from Christ along with the Savior’s assuring promise that his words would never fail.”7 Concerning the existence of heaven, multitudes of Catholics pray to a Father who is “in heaven.” The term refers to the abode of God and the future home of the just.8 Such an understanding in its basic outline is comparable to the understandings of evangelicals.
Fifth, Roman Catholics and evangelicals possess strong ethical commitments in marriage and life such as opposition to abortion and the gay agenda. In fact, political activism on the part of both groups has brought them together in common cause during the last thirty years. This common work has perhaps fed to some degree the two-way highway as some leave one group for the other.
Areas of disagreement
In spite of numerous agreements in doctrine and outlook, the differences between Catholics and evangelicals remain many and are of such a character to suggest a total lack of compatibility. In fact, it will be seen that the two groups diverge at the most important points of theology and life. In light of the current situation and evangelical confusion on the matter, a review of these significant differences must once again commence. It is as if we must revisit the days of the Reformation in the early twenty-first century.
(1) A different view of history
One starting place in this discussion is to see how each camp views the past two thousand years of church history. Catholics will acknowledge many doctrinal developments over time, but they consistently affirm that the “mother church,” so to speak, is their church and that all other Christian religious groups have departed and spun off from them in error. Even Vatican II, with its alleged softer stance toward Protestantism, is viewed as reinforcing the centrality of the Roman Catholic Church in history:
For the first time in conciliar history, this issue was squarely faced and answered. The issue in question was not whether the Church is one. No believer in Christ would say otherwise. The issue was where this one Church of Christ can be found. The Second Vatican Council’s answer is unequivocal. That which constitutes the one true Church—its churchness, so to speak—not merely exists but it subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Behind the carefully chosen verb “subsists” stands the affirmation that the objective fullness of Christ’s heritage to the Church—totality of his revelation, totality of his sacraments, and totality of authority to rule the people of God in his name—resides in the Catholic Church, of which the bishop of Rome is the visible head.9
This universally received view of Roman Catholics about their own history is well summarized by Knox:
The modern Christianities [Protestants and others], be they what they may, are the relics of schism; not one of them dares to represent itself as the one Church of Christ. Consequently, in appealing to the early Church, with its instinct of inviolable unity, they are appealing to an arbiter who has already given the award against them.10
Again, the main theme of Catholic understanding of history is that all other churches have broken away from the “mother church” of Rome.
The biblical and evangelical understanding follows the traditional Protestant response to such claims. Boettner, in his classic work Roman Catholicism (1964), written during the time of Vatican II, posits a clear evangelical viewpoint:
Roman Catholics often attempt to represent Protestantism as something comparatively new, as having originated with Martin Luther and John Calvin in the sixteenth century. We do indeed owe a great debt to these leaders and to the Reformation movement that swept over Europe at that time. But the basic principles and the common system of doctrine taught by those Reformers and by evangelical churches ever since go back to the New Testament and to the first century Christian church. Protestantism as it emerged in the 16th century was not the beginning of something new, but a return to Bible Christianity and to the simplicity of the Apostolic church from which the Roman Church had long since departed.11
Discussions of the details of history are beyond the scope of this work. It is important at this juncture, however, to note that there have always been Christian groups who were not aligned with a Roman-centered visible, church organization. In fact, Catholic analysis of the early church fathers often overzealously appeals to the catholicity and oneness of the church in their writings. However, on many occasions the church fathers are speaking of a spiritual oneness that has nothing to do with Rome.12 Even if a visible unity is being asserted, it is still a giant leap to jump to the conclusion that the one church is organizationally being run by the bishop of Rome. Instead, it is best to see Romanism as an age-long development.13
Moreover, it is doubtful that a case can be made for a true Pope, that is, a bishop of the church in Rome, who organizationally controlled a wide number of churches scattered throughout the world, until Pope Gregory I (590-604) or some other point in church history. Marsden, using the example of Jonathan Edwards, notes that
one conventional Protestant interpretation of prophecies concerning “the beast” in Daniel and the Apocalypse, for example, was that Antichrist or the papacy would be defeated 1,260 years after the rise of the papacy. Edwards followed those who said that A.D. 606 marked the Pope’s ascendancy, so that meant the decisive blow against papal power was likely to occur around 1866.14
One must note clearly, in light of this historical understanding, that Catholicism and evangelicalism do not hold the same view of church history.
Tomorrow: Roman Catholicism’s different view of ultimate authority
1 The discussion on agreements assumes traditional and conservative understandings of both Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism and does not entertain liberal notions. I will highlight Catholic teaching in the various areas of agreement. Sometimes I may assume my reader is fully aware of the evangelical and biblical positions.
2 For example, see John A. Hardon, The Catholic Catechism: A Contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 69-83.
4 Ibid., 124. See also Austin P. Flannery, ed., Documents of Vatican II (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 932. On my cursory reading of the Vatican II documents it seems that the humanity of Christ is emphasized more than his deity, but his deity is not denied. The incarnation is fully endorsed.
5 Ibid., 168. Interestingly, this basic understanding is couched in a context in which Mary’s role in the redeeming process is also emphasized as the Mother of Christ cooperates with the atonement. This aspect would decidedly be rejected by biblical evangelicals.
6 Ibid., 38.
7 Ibid., 268.
9 Hardon, Catholic Catechism, 213.
10 Ronald Knox, The Belief of Catholics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958), 112. This is an older work but it is well worth the read.
11 Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964). The dates on Vatican II were 1962-65. Boettner writes in the religious environment of its ongoing discussions. Boettner as a Reformed theologian would not parse every detail of history the same way that a Baptist would. However, in the broad sweep of things, he is on target in his summary of the non-Catholic position of how to view history. The reader will find some of his analysis a bit strange such as his insistence that Roman Catholicism’s resurgence would help America become communist (4-7). Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, had a rather strong say in the decline of communism in Europe.
12 For example, see the Alexandrian fathers: Clement, Stromata VII.17; Origen, Contra Celsum VI.48.
13 Boettner, Roman Catholicism, 7-10.
14 George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale UP, 2004), 89. These facts about the beliefs of Jonathan Edwards come from Edwards two writings “Notes on the Apocalypse” and An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer (1747). Perhaps the best place to find these writings is Jonathan Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings, vol. 5 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Stephen J. Stein (New Haven: Yale UP, 1977). Note that Edwards was a postmillennial historicist who accepted the erroneous view, common to his day, that one day in a prophetic passage means one year.
Dr. Michael Stallard is Dean at Baptist Bible Seminary. He also teaches dispensational premillennialism, ecclesiology, Baptist distinctives, and theological method. He has authored several articles for publications such as The Journal of Ministry and Theology, The Baptist Bulletin, The Conservative Theological Journal, Bibliotheca Sacra, and The Dictionary of Premillennial Theology. He has also written a commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians published by AMG Publishers. Dr. Stallard is a frequent speaker at the Conservative Theological Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and Pre-Trib study group. He has several years of experience as a senior pastor, including involvement in inner-city church planting. He is the founder and director of Mission Scranton and the founding pastor at New Life Baptist Church in Scranton, PA.