Tag Archives: Roman Catholicism

Letter to a Friend

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Some time ago, a friend asked me for some help in figuring out the differences between Roman Catholicism and the biblical faith confessed by Reformed churches.  This was my reply:

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I think you hit it dead on when you mentioned the “solas” of the Reformation.  The “solas” strike at the heart of the differences between Rome and Reformed churches.

Grace Alone

Rome states that salvation is by grace — as your correspondents above have argued.  However, it is grace plus man’s effort.  The traditional Roman Catholic formulation is, “God will not deny his grace to those who do what is in their power.”  In more modern terms, “God helps those who help themselves.”  The technical term for this is semi-Pelagianism.  Man is not spiritually dead, but only sick and needs a little help from grace.

By contrast, the Reformed churches state that salvation is by grace alone — grace being defined as unmerited or even forfeited divine favour, receiving the opposite of what one deserves.  Man is dead in sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1), his heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9) and he can do nothing to help himself.  This is the traditional Augustinian position — it was emphatically not a Reformation innovation.  It is only and entirely by God’s grace that man is saved.

Faith Alone

Rome states that people are justified by faith.  However, Rome has explicitly denied that justification is by faith alone and in fact condemns Reformed believers who hold to this position:

If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning thereby that no other cooperation is required for him to obtain the grace of justification, and that in no sense is it necessary for him to make preparation and be disposed by a movement of his own will:  let him be anathema [accursed] (Council of Trent, session 6, canon 9).

Moreover, according to Rome, justification is a life-long process by which we are made righteous, rather than a one-time event where we are declared righteous.  We must, they say, increase and preserve our justification.  Finally, faith is also redefined by Rome to include good works and these good works become part of the meritorious basis of justification.

By contrast, the Reformed churches state that justification is by faith alone (Romans 3-4).  God declares us righteous (a one-time event) not on the basis of our faith, but through the instrument of our faith.  We’ll come to the basis in a moment.

Christ Alone

Rome states that Christ is needed for salvation and our well-being for now and eternity.  However, one may and should also make use of the merits of the saints, especially Mary.  It is not Christ alone, but Christ plus.  The worship (devotion) given to Mary is the most glaring example of this.  The Catholic Catechism goes so far as to say that she is our Advocate and Mediatrix, and that “the Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship.”  Also, as noted above, it is not Christ alone when it comes to justification.  Instead, it is Christ plus…  Here’s Trent again:

…they through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified (Trent, session 6, canon 10).

And here Reformed believers are again condemned by Rome:

If anyone says that justice once received is neither preserved nor increased in the sight of God by good works, but that the works themselves are no more than the effects and signs of justification obtained, and not also a cause of its increase, let him be anathema (Trent, session 6, canon 24).

The Reformed churches argued that only Jesus Christ is needed for our salvation and for our well-being for now and eternity.  They could find no evidence in the Bible of a distinction between devotion and adoration, much less of the idea that we should be offering any kind of worship to a mere human being.  Second Timothy 2:5 is clear that there is one Mediator between God and men, allowing no room for a Mediatrix or co-Advocate.  Furthermore, Christ alone is the basis for our justification — he lived a perfect life of obedience for us and in our place.  He died once for all on the cross for us and in our place.  God imputes all his merits to us, and all our sin has been imputed to him and thus we are accounted righteous before God.

Scripture Alone

Rome states that the Bible has authority.  But it is not the Bible alone which has the ultimate authority.  Rather, for Rome, it is Scripture plus tradition.  So, for instance, even though the Assumption of Mary (the doctrine that Mary did not die but was taken up directly into heaven) is nowhere found in Scripture, the tradition makes it a dogma and it becomes one.

The Reformed churches retorted that only the Bible can be our ultimate authority and we may not add or take away as we please, even if we were angels from heaven (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Deut. 12:32, Rev. 22:18-19, Gal. 1:8).  Yes, we ought to give heed to the early church fathers, councils, synods, etc.  In fact, the writings of the Reformers are filled with references to these.  But because these are all made up of men, they can and have erred.  Thus, everything is to be scrutinized with the infallible and inerrant Scripture, which is the norming norm.

The Glory of God Alone

Finally, Rome states that God is to be worshipped and glorified.  Yet, Rome also promotes the worship of Mary and the saints, giving glory to human beings.  The “Hail, Mary” and “Hail, Holy Queen” prayers on the rosary would be enough to prove this, and much more could be added.

The Reformed have always said, “Soli Deo Gloria,” “To God Alone the Glory.”  God alone is to be worshipped and glorified, God alone receives all credit for our salvation and all thanks for all good things (Romans 11:36, Ephesians 1 — see how many times it mentions “to the praise of his glory”).

I think it bears noting that the first generations of Reformers, including the authors of the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism, were raised in the Roman Catholic Church.  They were very familiar with what the Roman Catholic Church taught, probably a lot more than many modern day Protestants and Roman Catholics.  The Reformation happened for a reason — Rome did not make its case on the basis of the Bible, nor did it evidence a love for a Christ-obsessed and Christ-saturated gospel.  Rome forsook the narrow path and opted for an eclectic mix of teachings which diluted the monergistic and God-glorifying doctrines of the apostles and prophets.  If a person truly believes (rests and trusts) in Jesus Christ alone for his or her salvation and well-being for now and eternity, that person does not belong in the Roman Catholic Church where such a belief is condemned.  The Catholic Church is not found at the Vatican.


True and False Catholicism (Part 2)

The Doctrine of Man

We spent a lot of time on that question of authority because it is so critically important.  It lies at the root of most of the other doctrinal problems in the Roman Catholic Church.   We could touch on many other issues, but let’s stay where the fire is hottest.  Let’s briefly examine what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about man.  The Roman Catholic Church holds to a position called “Semi-Pelagianism.”  Pelagius, a fifth-century British monk, taught that man is not conceived and born in sin.  Man is born essentially good and he learns evil by imitation.  Augustine of Hippo opposed Pelagius and insisted on man’s corruption.  Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church adamantly maintains that Pelagius was wrong.  They maintain a doctrine called “Original Sin” and assert that “original sin is transmitted with human nature by propagation, not by imitation.” (CCC, art.419)

Though the Roman Catholic Church holds to original sin, it is defined in a special way:

“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants.  It is a deprivation of the original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted; it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’  Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”  (CCC, art.405)

Take note of the view of human nature here:  it has not been totally corrupted, but it is wounded, inclined to sin.  This is a more pessimistic view than Pelagius, but more optimistic than the biblical view.  For this reason, we rightly label this doctrine semi-Pelagianism.  Under this doctrine, man is given a significant role in his own salvation.  He is weakened, but once he is baptized, original sin disappears, though its effects may still be seen.  At the end of the day, man retains some good within him.  With a little push from God’s grace, man can help to save himself.

The true Catholic view is quite a bit different.  In article 15 of the Belgic Confession, the truth of Scripture is summarized like this:

“We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race.  It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother’s womb…It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”

The direction of the Belgic Confession seems clear enough.  However, in the seventeenth century, the followers of James Arminius tried to weaken the interpretation of the Belgic Confession.  The Synod of Dort in 1618-19 answered with its Canons that make very clear that man is totally depraved.  The Canons of Dort, following Scripture, state without reservation that all men are not merely wounded, but “dead in sin, and slaves of sin.  And without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they neither will nor can return to God, reform their depraved nature, or prepare themselves for its reformation.” (CoD, 3/4.3).  This view is the truly Catholic one, for it encapsulates the doctrine of the apostles that has been maintained by true believers around the world (including Augustine, Calvin and others) for centuries.   This view alone gives all the glory for man’s salvation to God.

Worship

The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the place of Mary, the saints, the Mass and other sacraments, and the use of images are especially objectionable to Bible-believing Christians.  All of these teachings can be lumped together under the general heading of worship.  It has often been noted that worship was one of the central issues in the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century.  It only makes sense, then, that we ask what the Roman Catholic Church believes about worship.

We can do this by looking at how the Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with the first and second commandments.  The RCC traditionally puts the first and second commandments together and calls them the first commandment.  Yet, the Catechism does divide the explanation.  What we call the first commandment is explained as forbidding the honor of other gods as well as a prohibition against superstition and irreligion.  What we call the second commandment is first explained as prohibiting the “representation of God by the hand of man.” (art. 2129).  However, the doors are quickly opened with the following articles:

2130 Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word:  so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.

2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints.  By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images.”

What is striking about the Roman Catholic understanding of the second commandment is that there is no recognition that this commandment originally pertained to the worship of God through graven images.  This is exactly where the Roman Catholic Church goes wrong in its understanding of worship.  In art. 2132 of CCC, it is stated plainly:

“Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate.  The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church worships God through these images.  Roman Catholics will say the same about their “veneration” of Mary and the other saints:  we are worshipping God through them and thus the “veneration” is no idolatry.   This is nothing less than a violation of the second commandment.

This was recognized during the Reformation.  The Heidelberg Catechism states that we may not have images “in order to worship them or to serve God through them” (QA 97).  Further, this Reformed Catechism also asserts that the second commandment gives us a basic principle for our worship:  we are not “to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word.” (QA 96)  The same principle is found with the Belgic Confession in article 7, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length,” and then also in article 32, “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”

The Roman Catholic Church follows a different route when it comes to worship:  we may add to or take away from the worship of God as we please.  Thus, the RCC has an elaborate ritual for baptism that obscures the simplicity of the sacrament as found in Scripture:  sprinkling or immersion with plain water.  Following their unscriptural worship principle, the RCC adds images and countless other innovations.  The whole procedure and doctrine of the mass, though it often uses the words of Scripture, not only twists those very words, but also adds or takes away from the teaching of our Lord Jesus.

Other Examples

Numerous books have been written documenting the differences between the teaching of the Papacy and the teaching of Scripture.  This article could quickly turn into one of those books!  Before we finish off, here are two more examples of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted with the teaching of Scripture as summarized in our Confessions:

Regarding justification, Rome teaches:

“Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.  Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” (art. 1992)

But the Bible teaches:

“Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works of law. Meanwhile, strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith as such justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness;  He imputes to us all His merits and as many holy works as He has done for us and in our place.”  (Belgic Confession, art.22)

Note the difference between an infused justification (“conferred in Baptism”) and an imputed justification that is by faith alone.

Regarding the extent of Christ’s atonement, Rome teaches:

“The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception:  ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.”  (art.605)

But Scripture teaches us:

“For this was the most free counsel of God the Father, that the life-giving and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect…This means:  God willed that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and tongue all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and were given to Him by the Father.”  (Canons of Dort, chapter 2.8)

Here the difference is between a universal atonement, and an atonement restricted to God’s elect.

On these and so many other points, the Roman Catholic Church has departed from the teaching of Scripture.  We may say without hesitation that the RCC represents the spirit of Antichrist.  In fact, the Westminster Confession is not off the mark when it implies that the Roman Catholic Church is a synagogue of Satan (25.5).  And certainly we may agree that the Pope is not in any sense the head of the church of Jesus Christ, “but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.” (25.6).

Through the Apostles’ Creed, we continue to confess that we believe a Catholic Church.  Through the course of our brief examination, we have seen that there is a true Catholicism and a false Catholicism.  There is a church chosen to everlasting life which experiences the unity of true faith – a true faith built upon submission to God’s Word alone.  This is the true Catholic Church.  There is also a church that “assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.” (BC art.29).  This is the false Catholic Church – the Roman Catholic Church.  We are the true Catholics and should not be ashamed to say so.  Moreover, we should also be eager to bring the true gospel to those enslaved to the manifold diabolical errors of Rome.


True and False Catholicism (Part 1)

It is fair to say that the Roman Catholic Church has rarely, if ever, been entirely free of scandal.  This especially holds true for the hierarchy.  Especially during the Middle Ages, the practice of priests, bishops and even popes having concubines drew the Church’s commitment to clerical celibacy into serious question.  In more recent times, the Roman Catholic Church has been besieged by allegations of sexual misconduct.  In Canada, the Mt. Cashel Orphanage fiasco remains a shameful episode.  Another low point was the barbarism inflicted upon Canada’s First Nations at many residential schools.  In modern-day Italy, numerous nuns have been infected with HIV/AIDS because of clerical lusts.  We could go on to the point of nausea.

However, it would be wrong for us to judge the Roman Catholic Church based on these scandals.  The Roman Catholic Church is a global institution with millions of members.  Scandals of lesser and greater notoriety have occurred in Reformed churches as well – perhaps even in disproportionate numbers.  Would we want our churches to be judged solely by the misbehaviour of a proportionately small number of its members or ministers?  No, there is a better way:  we should examine the doctrine of the Church in question and compare it with Scripture.

So, let’s now look at what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about several important points and compare these with the teaching of Scripture.  In doing this, we’ll take the modern standard of Roman Catholic doctrine as our guide.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in several languages in 1994 and is an excellent compendium of Roman Catholic teaching.  If you regularly have contact with Roman Catholics with an eye to evangelism, it would definitely be helpful to have this book in your library.

The Most Important Issue

Let’s start with the most important issue.  In my experiences with educated Roman Catholics, this is where any discussion will lead you.  We tend to focus in on hot-button issues:  Mary, the Mass, purgatory, and the like.  However, when we get into some heavy discussion on these issues, appeals are made to authority.  The Reformed person appeals to Scripture.  But the Roman Catholic is not persuaded by appeals to Scripture.  In his mind, Scripture belongs with tradition and tradition stands on an equal footing with Scripture.  The two will never contradict each other.  Thus, in any discussion with Roman Catholics, things will always get bogged down over the question of authority.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) maintains that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture come from the same source:  God.  There is one common source, but two distinct ways in which God’s revelation comes to the Church:

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit…Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.”

Those statements come from article 81.  Then we read the following in article 82:

“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone.  Both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.’”

Tradition is more tightly defined in the eighty-third article as what has been handed down from the apostles via oral transmission.  The apostles, in turn, received the tradition from the Lord Jesus.  The Roman Catholic Church also distinguishes between the great Tradition, which is unchangeable, and “various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time.”  The latter “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium [body of authoritative teachers].”  In short, the Roman Catholic view can be defined as Scripture plus tradition – but both are regarded as having a divine origin and so both are equally authoritative.

Oftentimes, the biblical or Reformed view is defined as “Sola Scriptura,” Latin for “by Scripture alone.”  Unfortunately, this often degenerates into what some have called “Solo Scriptura.”  “Solo Scriptura” is the caricature of the biblical view and it is maintained by many evangelicals.  It is the reason why one writer stated, without hyperbole:   “…Evangelicalism has created far more novel doctrines than Roman Catholicism.” [i] With this view of Scripture, the Bible stands with me all by itself.  I will come with my private interpretation of the Bible and it is valid and authoritative for me.   This “Solo Scriptura” view is not biblical.

The biblical view is that the Bible alone is the most clear and authoritative source of revelation – the only other source being “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” (Belgic Confession, article 2).  The Bible alone is where God reveals all we need to know for our salvation.  Scripture must be acknowledged as the ultimate and infallible norm for Christians.  However, Scripture must always be interpreted in an ecclesiastical context – after all, it is the Church which has been entrusted with the Scriptures.  We may not have an individualistic approach to the Bible.  The Bible always has to be understood not only in its own context, but also in the context of the true Church.  This is why astute Bible students (including ministers) place great value upon commentaries.  Good commentaries (like those of John Calvin) give Bible students an excellent sense of how the Scriptures have been understood by those who have gone before us.

At the same time, it is clear in our Belgic Confession (article 7) that we cannot consider “any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures.”  According to the same article, we may not place custom or tradition on the same level as God’s Word either.  This is a direct jab against the teaching of the Roman Catholics.  The reason given is biblical:  “for all men are of themselves liars, and lighter than a breath.”  So, the biblical view of the authority of Scripture acknowledges several things:  the supreme and ultimate authority of the Bible, the importance of the Church in interpreting the Bible, and the sinfulness of man has an impact on his interpretation and understanding of the Bible.

This biblical view can be truly labelled as Catholic in the good sense of the word.  This was the view held during the first three centuries of the Church.  It was the view that found acceptance by the majority of the Church through most of the Middle Ages.  Finally, this was the view that re-emerged during the Great Reformation under men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.[ii] The Roman Catholic view as it stands today actually originates around the twelfth century.  As Keith Mathison puts it, “The historical novelty [of this view] is simply not in debate among patristic and medieval scholars.”[iii] In other words, the view expressed in CCC may be Roman, but it is certainly not Catholic.


[i] The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison, Moscow: Canon Press, 2001, p.280.

[ii] Ibid..

[iii] Ibid., p.211.