The following is an excerpt from article DC170-1, “What Think Ye of Rome” from the Christian Research Journal. The full PDF can be viewed by clicking the link below the excerpt.
Evangelicals and Catholics- A Background
In appraising the Roman Catholic faith, we must first identify which Catholic faith we are speaking about, for as the previous discussion has clearly shown, Catholicism is actually more of a montage than a monolith. Nevertheless, while there are many competing contemporary interpretations of the Catholic faith, there remains the so-called “official teaching of the church.” This body of official teaching is quite fluid in many respects, but, nevertheless, it represents what may be considered the classical or orthodox position of the Catholic church. Our focus must therefore be directed toward classical or orthodox Catholicism (as found in the ancient creeds, councils, and official documents of the church) as interpreted by the magisterium.
Evangelicals and Catholics- Standing on Common Ground
The appropriate place to begin our appraisal of Catholicism is with the vast amount of doctrinal agreement found between classical Catholicism and historic Protestantism. This doctrinal agreement is especially evident in our mutual commitment and loyalty to the great ecumenical creeds of historic Christianity. The creeds, which attempt to summarize the essence of Christian truth,28 are believed and recited in both Catholic and Protestant churches. The common points of agreement between orthodox Catholics and evangelical Protestants extend to: belief in the Triune nature and full theistic attributes of God; assent to God as the sovereign creator and sustainer of the world; acceptance of Christ’s incarnation as the God-man, including trust in His virgin birth, attesting miracles, atoning death on the cross, bodily resurrection from the grave, ascension into heaven, future return in glory, and work of judgment and resurrection of mankind; affirmation of the Holy Spirit’s personality, deity, and involvement in redemption; the acknowledgment of sin, the necessity of grace, and the need of salvation; and confidence in God’s preservation and guidance of the Christian church. And, while not mentioned explicitly in the creeds, both camps have a high view of Scripture, affirming both the inspiration and infallibility of the Old and New Testaments. There is certainly much common ground between the two traditions, but seldom is this carefully and reflectively considered. Most discussions concentrate almost exclusively on the differences between the two camps, which are unquestionably quite significant, as we shall see in detail in future installments of this series. But, the areas of common commitment are also quite significant. We should not gloss over these areas of agreement simply because there remain serious differences.29 Further areas of agreement are also apparent. For example, a number of Catholic scholars who would otherwise be considered traditionalist Catholics (strong in their defense of the Catholic views on authority, the nature of the church, the sacraments, etc.), nevertheless set forth the gospel in very evangelical-sounding terms. Catholic philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft fits this category. Kreeft, a prolific author whose books sell well among evangelical Protestants, describes himself as an “evangelical Roman Catholic.”30 He made the following provocative comments in his book Fundamentals of the Faith:
How do I resolve the Reformation? Is it faith alone that justifies, or is it faith and works? Very simple. No tricks. On this issue I believe Luther was simply right; and this issue is absolutely crucial. As a Catholic I feel guilt for the tragedy of Christian disunity because the church in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was failing to preach the gospel. Whatever theological mistakes Luther made, whatever indispensable truths about the Church he denied, here is an indispensable truth he affirmed — indispensable to union between all sinners and God and union between God’s separated Catholic and Protestant children. Much of the Catholic Church has not yet caught up with Luther; and for that matter, much of Protestantism has regressed from him. The churches are often found preaching one of two “other gospels”: the gospel of old-fashion legalism or the gospel of new-fangled humanism. The first means making points with God and earning your way into heaven, the second means being nice to everybody so that God will be nice to you. The churches, Protestant and Catholic, may also preach the true Christian gospel, but not often enough and not clearly enough and often watered down and mixed with one of these two other gospels. And the trouble with “other gospels” is simply that they are not true: they don’t work, they don’t unite man with God, they don’t justify.31
Kreeft is just one of an increasing number of Catholic scholars who see validity in the Reformation concept of justification by faith.32 Kreeft goes on to say: “Catholicism as well as Protestantism affirms the utterly free, gratuitous gift of forgiving grace in Christ, free for the taking, which taking is faith. Good works can only be the fruit of faith, flowing freely as a response to the new life within, not laboriously, to buy into heaven.”33 While we will examine the crucial issue of justification in some detail in Part Three, it is important to note that a number of Catholic scholars have an appreciation for the insights of the Protestant Reformers. Certainly this trend does not insure that there will be a change in the church’s official teaching on justification; but neither should it be dismissed as insignificant. Another point that should be understood and weighed, in terms of Protestant-Catholic agreement, is that evangelical Protestants actually have far more in common with orthodox Catholics than they do with liberal Protestants. And orthodox Catholics have much more in common doctrinally with evangelical Protestants than they do with liberal Catholics. Both camps continue to face the challenge of religious liberalism which in many respects denies the very essence of Christianity. Evangelicals and Catholics- Dividing LinesEven with the significant areas of agreement that I have discussed above, a notable number of evangelicals remain utterly convinced that the Roman Catholic church is a non-Christian cult.34 They frequently charge that “Romanism” is: (1) an apostate religious system, (2) an invalid expression of Christianity, and (3) the largest and most influential non-Christian cult in the world. In Part Two I will demonstrate just why Catholicism should not be classified as a cult. At the same time I will highlight several aspects of Catholicism which should be of serious concern to Protestants.