It has been turbulent days for many Christians belonging to the Word of Life network. When my Catholic mother heard the news about Ulf Ekman, she sarcastically uttered that the Swedish missionaries had come to the Czech Republic with pompous declarations of their version of Christianity 20 years ago only to find out that the religion we practice there is better than their own… Well, the matter is not that simple, but when our spiritual leader Ulf Ekman converted to Catholicism, he has left many questions behind him. We were used to listen to him fervently. Now we have been put before a choice: shall we follow him to the Roman Catholic Church, or shall we separate ourselves from his spiritual mentorship? The latter option feels more natural, but in that case, it can be compared to the father leaving his children; so much impact he has had upon us, the church members.
It is an emptiness and restlessness going around in my head simultaneously. Ulf Ekman has always excelled in his morals and spiritual sensitivity; I also admired the way he was uniquely able to connect the Protestant doctrine with the teaching of general Christian unity. It would almost feel right to follow him further, if he has not taken such a dramatic step this time. Perhaps too large to follow. He has appeared on the other side of the bridge while many others were not ready to cross it. Actually, I had come from that other side and enjoyed myself to be on the present location.
I remember year 1991. My parents made the last desperate attempt to divert me from leaving the Roman Catholic denomination for the Pentecostal-charismatic movement. After some talks with our Catholic neighbors had failed, they invited a popular Roman Catholic priest to our home for lunch to discuss the matters of Faith with me. Having been saved a year earlier, I was proud to be a member of the largest Christian denomination in the world. I cherished my infant baptism and was considering the studies at the Catholic Theological Seminary because I wanted to follow Jesus with all of my heart and soul. The celibacy of Paul the apostle attracted me to such an extent that the idea of becoming a professional priest seemed very plausible.
But I did not find peace. The people around me did not radiate the relationship with the living God though I did not judge their inner status with the Lord. Similarly, the Bible that I was very much into had a hard competition in tradition and liturgy. These were constantly diverting my thoughts from God. When I wanted to have a communion in the Eucharist, it required a complicated process of rules, and my non-Catholic friends were left outside. I gradually lost the appetite to undergo the rite of Confirmation and found a Pentecostal church fitting my spiritual needs better. The priest in our home offered me to take a pilgrimage to Lourdes with his group of young people to see the endeavors of the (Roman) Catholic Church at its best. That was a great opportunity to remain a Catholic forever. With all respect, however, I declined and followed my inner voice. Today I am an evangelical charismatic and theologian.
Of course, the members of the Catholic Church remained my brothers and sisters. We are part of one invisible Church. We share many things together. We can work together on the mission field declaring the Good News, we can cooperate in social actions and charity, and we can set educational goals for the poor in the Third World. The invisible unity between us may work in the Spirit and we are obliged to make the most of it. But there are also some doctrinal differences. Some Christians do not like to talk about this area because we should focus on what unites us rather than what separates us. I have a full respect for such an opinion for the reasons I just mentioned. On the other hand, sometimes it is good to name things, as they are, so we do not remain hypocritical, to avoid shaking hands visibly and slandering one another invisibly. I have a greater respect for the one who politely expresses different opinion than a person who says one thing but does another. The doctrines and theology can be compared to the blood in the body. It is not visible on the outside but is present underneath and is essential part of our lives. It can paradoxically be that discussing our differences can eventually bring us to a greater unity, love and respect than if we avoided these discussions. That is what I plan to write about below. We have the same God after all.
At the outset to clear up some misunderstanding, it should be mentioned than both the Catholics and Protestant evangelicals view the common spiritual truth about God and salvation from two different angles. This situation has an impact basically on all comparable doctrines. While the Catholics tend to emphasize the Incarnation of Christ, the Protestants stress the Resurrection of Christ. It does not mean that the other perspective is mutually neglected, on the contrary; but the particular focus found its imprint in the specific church life and doctrines. The Catholics like the material aspects where the Word of God is incarnated in the world: beautiful churches, images, statues, the cross portrayed with crucified Christ, real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the visible (Catholic) Church as the major bearer of salvation. The evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, prefer the spiritual aspects where the Word of God departed for heaven: church buildings without a specific style, images, or statues, the cross portrayed without Christ who resurrected, the spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the invisible church is the bearer of salvation.
Here below, then, I list the major theological differences between the evangelicals and the Roman Catholics. It is not an exhaustive list but it is a comprehensive overview of the major arguments. Even though the section on doctrinal agreements is shorter than the section on mutual differences, it is important to note that these agreements are more crucial. We can mutually consider ourselves as brothers and sisters in Christ. There is also no reason to conclude that a Catholic is morally a weaker person, and vice versa, because both the systems have their strengths and weaknesses. The Catholics excel in ethics and are balanced in their rational approach to life while the evangelicals tend to take “shortcuts” in faith and are less predictable in their behavior. On the other hand, the evangelicals are not afraid to approach God directly in the spirit while the Catholics rely more on the material institution of the church.
The section on the differences is longer in order to explain the issues in a more detail because these are the questions frequently asked. Since the Council of Trent (1545-1563) made most of the crucial modern Catholic doctrines infallible (even the Catholics theologians who are usually more ready to discuss than the church officials must take them as a dogma), these differences cannot be most likely overcome in our era. We can only hope for the future, if the Church is pushed by the liberal world to such an extent that the doctrinal barriers start to fall naturally one after another. But it is a matter of centuries rather than decades unless Christ returns soon and gives the full revelation to all of us at once.
There are many doctrines common to both theological systems. For the first, it is the doctrine of Revelation. God supernaturally inspired the Scripture. The early and later church fathers, just as the medieval theologians before the 14th century, honored the Bible and were devoted to it. The Scripture was the unique and sole source of revelation. Thomas Aquinas claimed that “arguments from Scripture are used properly and carry necessity in matters of faith; arguments from other doctors of the Church are proper, but carry only probability.” The supernatural revelation is necessary to fulfill supernatural and miraculous destiny of human beings. When it comes to Sola Scriptura, the Catholic tendency is to place as much emphasis on the Scripture as possible (material principle) unless it is in a clear “conflict” with the “infallible” teaching of the Church’s Magisterium (formal principle).
For the second, the doctrine of God and Trinity is unanimous for all conservative Christians. God is One in his eternal and unchangeable essence, existing in three inseparable Persons. Already St. Cyprian (200-258 AD) mentioned that the Church is clearly a people whose unity derives from that of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is personal and provident; He should be worshipped and obeyed. He can be communicated with: “Man… is called to communion with God. The invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being.” (Vatican Collection)
For the third, there is a significant overlap on the views of humanity’s origin, nature, fall, and destiny, except perhaps the understanding of 1) how much sin has corrupted the human condition (original sin and sinful nature) where the Protestants also have mutually different opinions, and 2) the distinction between mortal (i.e., unforgivable) and venial (i.e., forgivable) sins. God is the Creator and His plan cannot be ignored at any moment. God created man according to His image, male and female (Gen 1:27). This partnership signifies that man is a social being. He receives blessings and develop spiritual gifts in communion with others. In Adam all have sinned. Due to this original offence, all must suffer the consequences of something that we call the Fall. As for our salvation, it is God who needs to take the initiative. That means, in turn, that both theologies consider God’s grace to humanity as pivotal and necessary for salvation (Augustine against Pelagius, Anselm, Aquinas).
For the fourth, there are common Christological doctrines. The Roman-Catholic teaching about Christ’s person and work basically agrees with the evangelical doctrine. Louis Berkhof points out that the Church as a whole remains clear on the confession about the two natures of Christ and it is featured by the so-called “Chalcedon Christology” (Christ’s divine and human nature is inseparable and unconfused). Christ’s character starts with divinity: the incarnation is the humanizing of deity, not the deification of humanity. Christ “is God’s eternal Son who in time became man to reveal the Father fully” (pope Paul VI). “Christ is the one savior of all, the only one able to reveal God and lead to God… for all people—Jews and gentiles alike—salvation can only come from Jesus Christ.” (John Paul II)
For the fifth, there are some agreements in the doctrine of salvation. Against a possible influence of Gnosticism, it is stated that salvation is historical. It happened in our time and space. Salvation is both moral and spiritual, related to the deliverance from sin and its consequences such as guilt, bondage, death, and judgment. In its eschatological dimension, the fullness of salvation awaits at the parousia of the Lord. Our justification comes from the grace of God. Despite the different understanding of good works as merits for salvation (see below), the Catholic doctrine still claims that “our justification comes from the grace of God … (even) the merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). Augustinian orthodoxy stands firm: for both the groups the salvation comes by grace as an undeserved gift of God and is not prompted by human works.
For the sixth, the doctrine of the church has some points of contact, both doctrinally and organically, especially concerning the invisible church. As a result of the disputes in the 16th century, Rome views church as an institution standing between the people and God, while Luther’s tradition views the church as the very people of God. The Roman Catholics, nevertheless, admit a possible sinfulness of the church. Vatican II began to speak not only about the holy church but also about the sinful church (C. Ratzinger). Some evangelicals also miss the dimension of the catholic substance and sacramental side. “The Church is not a mediator between God and man, but it is a veritable means of grace to man … it can function as an instrument of the Holy Spirit who does convey the grace of Christ to a sinful world” (evangelical D. Bloesch). Evangelical Harold O. J. Brown admits a lack of doctrinal integrity and ecclesiastical orderliness, which can be observed as a weakness in the splittered Protestant movement. The general common agreement includes the following: Church has been founded by Christ; Christ is as the head of the church; the sacraments include baptism and communion; and the church is redemptive and evangelistic.
For the seventh, one of the strongest examples of the Roman Catholic teachings to be followed by evangelicals is their view or ethics and morals. Indeed, the basic Catholic moral system is embraced by much of evangelicalism (issues such as abortion, divorce, homosexuality, euthanasia etc.). It is derived from its revelational character as God discloses himself both in nature (general revelation) and Scripture (special revelation). Both ethical systems are absolutistic (according to the nature and will of God) and essentialistic (God wills something because it is good, not vice versa). It has universal implications for all people via natural law and that is the standpoint how we should view all human actions and human rights. It views the so-called “situation ethics” as too relative and compromising.
Finally, the doctrine of the Last Things has some things in common in both the theologies, especially if the evangelicals think in terms of amillenialism rather than premillenialism. The last things in Catholic theology are not so much last as they are ultimate. Chronology of the events is only tentative. The Catholics recognize a final judgment in general terms while the evangelicals are usually more specific on the number of different judgments (White Throne judgment, judgment of Christ, judgment of Israel etc.). There is a heaven for the believers and a hell for the unbelievers. Jesus will return for his church, and the believers will be reunited with their bodies. The heaven and earth will be made new. The believers will acquire holiness only in the glory of heaven when the complete restoration comes (Vatican II). “There will be degrees of honor there, based on merit, but no jealousy… free will … will be the more truly free because liberated from the delight in sinning” (Augustine).
Despite the similarities, there also exist undeniable differences between the two doctrinal systems. These need to be pointed out in the ongoing dialogs between the Roman Catholics and evangelicals.
Scripture and Tradition
For the first, there is the problem of Scripture versus Tradition with the accompanying problems of deuterocanonical books and infallibility (i.e., flawlessness and irrevocability) of Church’s Magisterium (that is, church officials and their doctrinal statements). The Catholics question whether the Bible alone (Sola Scriptura) has the infallible authority. They agree with the evangelicals that materially, all the salvific content exists in Scripture. The Catholic scholar Yves Congar claims “we can admit Sola Scriptura in the sense of a material sufficiency of canonical Scripture. This means that Scripture contains, in one way or another, all truths necessary for salvation.” But formally, Sola Scriptura is not sufficient and clear enough to be interpreted without the infallible statements of the Magisterium. According to the Catholic teaching, there is only one source of revelation, and both Scripture and tradition mediate it hand in hand. As David Wells points it out, these are two eyes where the second eye only gives more clarity to what the first eye already perceives. Nowhere does the Bible teach Sola Scriptura and instead reminds that traditions should be followed—“hold traditions” (2 Thess 2:15; 3:6). A reference to a possible preference for oral tradition is even stated in 3 John 13. The Catholics argued against Luther that it was the tradition that selected the canonical Scriptures through the long process and is, therefore, dominant, or at least have a decisive influence upon the Scriptures. The first Christians did not have the NT, the Church taught them according to the traditions. If you reject the tradition, it leads to denominationalism, which is an intolerable “scandal” according to John 17. There must be a common Church authority that interprets the Scripture.
The evangelicals argue that the Bible teaches Sola Scriptura. The so-called “non-biblical concepts” such as Trinity are not based on the tradition, as the Catholics would suggest, but on the numerous biblical verses. The Bible is a revelation from God (Gal 1:12; 1 Cor 2:11-13) inspired by Him (2 Tim 3:16-17). Jesus and the apostles constantly appealed to the Bible as the final court of appeal (“It is written”). As a contrast, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for negating the Scripture for the sake of religious traditions (Matt 15:3-6). Since even the Roman Catholics admit that the NT is the only infallible record of apostolic teaching from the 1st century, all apostolic “traditions” are found in the Bible, whether oral or written, because the apostles were living authorities. It is hard to claim a preference for oral tradition because to interpret 3 John 13 in such a way is taken out of the context; John wanted to speak to his audience in person with no ambition to create an oral tradition. Augustine himself believed in tradition but did not seem to place it on the same level of authority as the Scripture: “It is to the canonical Scriptures alone that I am bound to yield.” He referred to the tradition mainly in the context of his dispute with Manichaeus. An outstanding statement comes also Thomas Aquinas: “we believe the successors of the apostles and prophets only in so far as they tell us those things which the apostle and prophets have left in their own writings.”
These discussions about God’s Scripture are made even more complicated by the belief of the Catholic Church in a set of apocryphal books in the Bible. The deuterocanonical books in the Roman canon include seven complete books and four addons (The Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Baruch/Letter of Jeremiah, Additions to Esther, Song of Three Children, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon). The extent of the Scriptures is one of the major differences between the Catholics and evangelicals. It is a two-fold problem. Doctrinally, for instance, the Apocrypha supports prayers for the dead (and indirectly a belief in purgatory) in 2 Macc 12:46 (“Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin”). And canonically, the true test for canonicity (propheticity) is undermined and other books could also be eventually included. One argument claims that since the books were included in the Septuagint and the Septuagint is the most quoted translation in the New Testament, these books have a legitimate place in the canon.
All orthodox Protestants reject Apocrypha because they do not claim to be inspired nor does the Jewish community that produced them (one book even directly disclaims being prophetic—1 Macc 9:27). Philo did not quote them, Josephus excluded them from the Jewish Canon, and the scholars at Jamnia (90 AD) excluded them ultimately (cf. Rom 3:2). True propheticity includes the book into the canon directly after writing, not centuries later. The Jewish writers claim that the prophetic line ended in the 4th century BC and these books come from the intertestamental period. Despite some related material in some biblical books (e.g., the book of Judah), the deuterocanonical books are never quoted as Scripture in the NT. Many church fathers rejected them, including the scholar Jerome. Among those who accepted them were Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) made them authentic, infallibly and irrevocably (pronounced ex cathedra). As a result, it boosted some controversial Roman Catholic doctrines despite the “nonrevelational” character of the books.
The infallibility is another element contributing to the fact that the Tradition is indirectly favored over the Scripture in the Catholic circles. The Roman Catholic dogma claims that the teaching Magisterium is infallible when officially defining faith and morals (the infallibility itself became a dogma at Vatican I in 1870). The pope is infallible while speaking ex cathedra (i.e. officially), but not in all statements, especially those that do not concern “faith and morals.” The pope is considered infallible, but not absolute as God; yet his statement is irrevocable. To secure the integrity of the Catholic Church, it is unclear whether the pope needs the consent of the bishops to make an ex cathedra statement. The Catholics argue that Jesus installed Peter as the supreme pastor to protect the flock from error but Peter would not be able to protect it unless he was infallible (Matt 16:18f). As John 11:49-52 suggests, in the OT the high priest had an official revelatory function connected with his office, and therefore, the same would be expected in the NT era of “the bishop of Rome.” The early church fathers such as Irenaeus contributed to the idea of the decisive teaching authority in the Roman Church. Along the same lines, Thomas Aquinas claimed that the office of the pope had a final word on the matters of faith. It is interesting to note, however, that this dogma causes some controversies even within the Catholic Church, as the Catholic scholar Hans Küng points out.
The evangelicals disagree that a human being would have such a power and authority to pose infallible statements. It is part of the general criticism against the office of the pope. In the classical dispute over Matt 16:18f it is not Peter who referred to as the “rock” because Peter is addressed as “you” while “rock” is the 3rd person. Similarly, Peter (petros) is the masculine gender while rock (petra) is the feminine gender. Even if Jesus spoke in Aramaic that does not recognize genders, it is still the Greek original that is divinely inspired. The authority given to Peter is later given to all the apostles (Matt 18:18). Peter had the supremacy in Matt 16 only because it was only him who spoke and Jesus does not hesitate to rebuke him straight after. Augustine himself thinks of Christ to be the “rock”. Instead of Peter, the church is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). There is no convincing evidence that Peter’s role was the most prominent among the apostles in the book of Acts and in Gal. 2:11 Paul even rebuked Peter. Peter was sent to Samaria together with John (Acts 8:14) so in fact, he did not do the sending, as one would expect form the highest authority. Even if Peter is acknowledged as the “rock”, the word “infallible” is not found in the NT. When Jesus says in John 21:15-17 “feed my sheep,” there is no reference to the infallible authority. The whole context of the passage is rather educational, brining Peter to the same level as the other apostles after his denial of Jesus. The apostolic powers of Peter and the other apostles were not passed directly on anyone after their death because the basic criterion of the apostle was to be an eyewitness of Christ (1 Cor 9:1; 15:5-8). Historically, there were also some problems with heretical popes (Honorius I versus Leo II) and antipopes (cf. the rise of the conciliary movement). Sometimes, it is complex and hard to trace which Catholic statements are infallible and what dogma is irrevocable. The Roman Church was once scientifically embarrassed by Galileo and his theory that the earth is not the center of the solar system.
For the second, one of the crucial differences between the two doctrinal systems is the doctrine of justification. The point of contact with the evangelicals is the Catholic acknowledgment of the primacy and necessity of grace. Then, however, both differ dramatically in the view of how we are eventually justified. The Catholics claim the concept of the so-called infused righteousness in which the grace cooperates with good works. “By his good works the justified man really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God” (Council of Trent). The righteousness is infused into the body of the believer and is intensified by means of the sacraments and a decent moral life. The Protestants, on the other hand, believe in the exclusivity of grace (sola gratia) and faith (sola fide). The somewhat middle ground of Augustine, who claimed that the believer is made righteous by God’s grace (intrinsic justification), was later extended by Luther to the position that a sinner is forensically declared righteous (extrinsic justification). It is the imputed righteousness that is evoked by the personal faith of the believer (Rom 1:16-17). It means that the Christian is both sinner and righteous because the justification is “put on” as a robe of salvation and can be removed again if the faith is lost.
The Council of Trent rejected the imputation of righteousness: man becomes righteous through a life-time process, not that man is declared righteous by an instant conversion or regeneration. That is why the evangelical concept of being “born again” is not justifiable in the Catholic theological terms. Sin has affected the human race and man in incapable of redeeming himself. The Augustinian aspect of “total depravity” in the Catholic thought reflects the idea that our free will is weakened but not destroyed (the concept conflicts with Reformed evangelicals). The sinner cooperates with the grace. The first, initial justification is a gift of grace and comes with baptism (“conversion-initiation”). It is then followed by the second, progressive justification (“sanctification” in non-evangelical terms) that requires good works for the third, ultimate justification. The progressive justification is worked upon in the sacraments of Eucharist and penance and is increased by participation in these sacraments (cf. James 2:24). The ultimate justification is reached in heaven, unless a mortal sin is committed. There is no evangelical assurance of salvation. But to exclude anxiety and despair, the Catholics speak of “moral certainty” of salvation, which is a middle ground between the assurance and doubt. The sacrament is not a sign of grace, it is a cause of grace. The Roman Catholic Church is a primary institution of salvation, as the sacraments are distributed by professional priests according to the direct apostolic succession. The most prominent institutionalization of salvation is the transubstantiation process in the Eucharist, called a “bloodless” sacrifice by Gregory the Great (540-604).
The evangelicals disagree with the concept of infused righteousness. The OT word “justify” (hitsdiq) primarily means to be “declared just by court order” and corresponds also to the NT word dikaioó that is used by Paul in the similar context (Rom 3-4). To be declared righteous is not the same as to be made righteous. The believers are saved by grace through faith alone (Rom 1:16-17). Justification does not take place at the baptism of infants. When it comes to the Scripture, grace and merits are mutually exclusive. The eternal life is a gift of God (Rom 6:23; John 3:16), not that those who work well will receive an eternal life (Council of Trent). Sanctification is subsidiary to actual salvation, not a condition of ultimate salvation. We work from our salvation but never for it (Gal 3:11; Eph 2:8-10). The works are not merits but a consequence of faith (James 2:18). Salvation gains the believer a place in heaven, sanctification only determines how high the place in heaven it will be. An overemphasis of the need for good works decreases motivation to do them. The Mass as a sacrifice is rejected by the Protestants because the sacrifice on the cross was sufficient once for all.
For the third, it is necessary to talk about the Sacraments because these are in the center of Roman Catholic religious practices. The sacraments are infallible, established by Christ, seven in number, and necessary for salvation (Council of Trent). The Protestants recognize only two sacraments, which is a point of dispute. For the Catholics, a sacrament is a cause of grace (Hugo of St. Victor, Lombard). “Sacramentum” means a holy, sacred thing. The grace is transferred from the work that has been worked in the rite (ex opere operato), not by faith alone. The Sacraments have two aspects, the outward sign (substance, action, and spoken formula) and the inner grace (function). “The sacraments…not only point to the external salvation; they contain and bestow the salvation that signify” (Arndt and Jordan, C. Catechism). The seven sacraments generally reflect the seven stages of life from birth to death (salvation process): baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, holy order, matrimony, extreme unction. The first four come directly from Jesus, others from the apostolic times. They became official in the 13th century (the Eastern Orthodox Church is basically in consensus). Catholic lay persons or even certain Protestants may administer two of them: Baptism in the name of the Trinity and Matrimony (but not all Christians can administer them).
If someone denies the infant baptism, for the Catholics it is a heresy. The Eucharist includes two issues: the real presence of Christ and the sacrifice of Christ. The Eastern Orthodox and the Catholics have in common the reality of the change of the elements of bread and wine, but the Catholics also explain the manner of the change (transubstantiation concept utilizing some concepts of Aristotelian philosophy). Luther opposed the philosophy of the transformation and held a view that could be described as “consubstantiation” (both bread and Christ present at the same time without specifying how). The Reformed theology claimed a spiritual presence of Christ while the Zwinglian approach was a symbolic presence. By its nature, it is the most important sacrament for the Catholics. The elements of bread and wine can be worshipped, just as Christ is worshipped. He said that “This is my body” (Matt 26:26; 1 Cor 11:24; John 6:53). The believers usually eat only the bread while the wine is swallowed only by the priest who administrates the Mass (“one kind”). The fact that the believer is deprived of the wine contributed to many historical disputes. As for the sacrificial aspect, the idea goes back to Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) who stated that every Mass Christ was sacrificed afresh. The Council of Trent developed the concept further, stating that Christ is “immolated” (sacrificed) again and again in the mass. An interesting point can be made about the sacrament of extreme unction. Before Vatican II (1962-1965) it served as the “last anointing” before the death of the believer. Under the influence of the charismatic movement, however, this doctrine was changed to leave an option for healing.
The Protestants in general find no real support for seven sacraments in the Bible, the Fathers, or church councils (until the 13th century). Sacraments were biblically meant as a blessing, not an over-mystical transformation of some grace. Baptismal regeneration appears to be contrary to the grace-faith concept because faith is eliminated (cf. Titus 3:5). Luther himself acknowledged the infant baptism because it carried with it sufficient grace without works, but the evangelical tradition eventually followed and recommended the more biblical adult baptism when one makes a personal decision to follow Christ in faith. Catholics admit that someone can be saved if he at least “desires” to be baptized (Aquinas), which would imply that baptism is not essential for salvation. As for the Eucharist, the phrase “This is my body” should not be taken literary (cf. “I am the gate” in John 10:9; “the true wine” in John 15:1, or other figures of speech throughout the Scripture). “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63). The church fathers were not unanimous on transubstantiation and the Eastern Orthodox or Lutheran understanding never went that far. According to the evangelicals, to worship the sacrificial bread is not far from idolatry (The Ten Commandments forbid to worship God’s material images). The Lord’s Supper is supposed to be fellowship, not sacrifice. In Communion we should remember the sacrifice on the cross, not to reenact it.
For the fourth, ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) is another issue where the Catholicism and the evangelical teaching disagree. The Catholics emphasize the visibility of the Church (cf. Rom 1:5). Church is not just “a mere spiritual entity, joining together by an invisible link a number of communities of Christians, in spite of their differences in Faith (Pope Pius XII in his encyclical “Mystici Corporis”). Council of Trent asserted that since the NT there is a visible church and priesthood, into which the old has been translated (cf. Heb 7:12). The authoritative teaching office of the Church is necessary for the purity of the doctrine and administration of the Sacraments. According to the Catholics, the parables of Jesus portray Church like an earthly kingdom, a flock, a building, a vine, or a city. Similarly, Paul compares the Church to the human body. Peter is made the head of a visible universal church in Matt 16 (cf. Eph 5:23) and his office possesses the keys of authority given to the visible church, the power to bind and loose (Matt 18:18), the power of excommunication (Matt 18:18), and the promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (which cannot be applied to an invisible, heavenly church). Irenaeus viewed the church as the 7-branched candlestick giving light to the earth. Augustine viewed the Church as a city (“City of God”). There is a parallel with the Incarnation of the Divine Word: just as Christ was visible to the world so is the Church. The visible church needs a representative on earth to preserve a unity, a head submitted to the ultimate Head of Christ. It is the follower of Peter, the pope (c.f John 20:22-23). The priestly hierarchy of priests and bishops is then to administer the seven sacraments. Didache speaks about the confession of sins and Clement of Rome (AD 96) is an early example of ecclesiastical penance (traces present also in Ignatius of Antioch, Justin, Eusebius, Tertullian).
The evangelicals disagree with the emphasis on the church’s visibility and the office of Peter. In Rom 1:5, Paul speaks about his apostleship, not about Peter’s. An apostle must be an eyewitness of Christ (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:5ff), which disqualifies all people from the 2nd century on to carry on the apostle’s office of Peter. The passage in Matt 16:16-18 implies the invisible church as well. It became particularly important after Jesus himself became invisible. Jesus gave the mandate to all the apostles, not just Peter (Matt 18:18). The Parables of Jesus are mere depictions of the manifestations of Jesus’ followers in a general way. The Church fathers were not unanimous on the topic of the visible church and the teaching was opposed especially by the Eastern fathers. Papacy is a late institution, being introduced not before Pope Leo I (d. 461 AD). While the Catholics promulgate a visible unity of faith and a unity of communion, claiming that Jesus Christ instituted permanent visible Magisterium with the center of Peter and his followers (with certain support of Matt 28, Mk 16, Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Cyprian, and Augustine), the evangelicals are skeptical to any institutionalization implied in Matt 28, Mk 16, or even John 17, Rom 12:4, Eph 4:3-6, 1 Tim 3:15, Titus 3:5. There was no such organizational unity in the first few centuries. Any references to unity before Constantine (Council of Nicea 325 AD) are purely confessional (the Apostles’ Creed) and hard to trace even in later councils (majority of Protestants accept the validity of the creeds and councils of the first five centuries). The evangelicals also question the Catholic scriptural exegesis of John 20 and Matt 16. These passages are just giving power to the apostles and disciples in general, not to Roman Catholic priests. The Scripture teaches the priesthood of all believers (1 Pt 2:9) or only one great high priest Jesus Christ (Heb 7-8). In the NT the church leaders are not called “priests.” When it comes to Tradition, there is a missing link. No proof exists that apostolic authority was passed on anyone after the time of the apostles. The earliest testimony in Didache and ealy church fathers was simple a need to confess sins rather than ecclesiastical penance. Sins are to be confessed to one another (Jam 5:16), not to some selected form of priesthood.
The constituency of the church is best expressed in the question whether the Catholic Church is considered the exclusive bearer of salvation. Before Vatican II, membership in the Roman Catholic Church was necessary for salvation (Pius XII; IV Lateral Council 1215). The Church secured the valid reception of the Sacrament of Baptism (sacerdotal office), the profession of the true Faith (teaching office), and the participation in the Communion of the Church (pastoral office). Outside the Church one could locate the unbaptized, heretics and apostates, schismatics, and the excommunicated. After Vatican II, however, under the influence of the ecumenical movement the theological course has been changed in favor of Protestants and other groups. These are nowadays called “separate brethren” and can be saved. God can even save non-Christians if they are related to the people of God in some way (e.g. Jews). God desires all people to be saved (cf. 1 Tim 2:4). A certain tension remains because if you are not a Catholic, in practice you do not support the unity of the Church. The fact that the Catholic Eucharist is strictly reduced only for their own members echoes the idea that the Roman Catholic Church still views itself as the only authentic church and the other denominations should enter it in the true pursuit of unity. The evangelicals, however, have a simplified concept of salvation based on the Scripture. No one comes to God except through Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Salvation with the promise of eternal life comes to everyone who confesses Jesus with his heart (Acts 16:31; Rom 10:9-10; John 3:36) and the righteousness comes through faith (Rom 4:5).
For the fifth, one of the greatest areas of misunderstandings and disputes has to do with the unique Catholic emphasis of teaching on the Virgin Mary (Mariology). The evangelicals acknowledge many things together with the Catholics. Mary was the most blessed among the women, she was a virgin when Christ was conceived (Isa 7:14, Matt 1:18, Lk 1:26), and as a result, she became “the Mother of God” (cf. Luther, Calvin). There are, however, several areas of interest where the teaching of the two groups differ: 1) the perpetual virginity of Mary, 2) the Immaculate Conception, 3) the sinlessness of Mary, 4) the bodily assumption of Mary, 5) her mediatorship, and 6) the veneration of Mary (and other saints).
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is one of the less crucial doctrinal problems. The Lateran Synod of 649 AD promulgated a threefold character of Mary’s virginity—before, during, and after the Birth of Jesus Christ. Mary gave birth miraculously without opening of a womb and also without pains (Aquinas). When she asked the angel “how can it be?” in Lk 1:34, a special divine grace was bestowed upon her. Jesus urges Mary to receive John as “her son” in John 19:26. It implies that she did not have any other children. Jesus’ brothers in the NT (Matt 13:55; Mk 6:3; Gal 1:19) were his cousins. Another possibility is that these were Joseph’s sons by a previous marriage. The Tradition attests Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa (AD 371), Siricius (AD 393), and 5th General Council at Constantine (AD 553) to acknowledge Mary as “perpetual virgin.” This view was also adopted by the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli).
The Evangelicals claim that there is no indication that the actual birth of Jesus was miraculous (Gal 4.4). As a matter of fact, Jesus’ conception was miraculous but not the birth. Jesus on the cross commended Mary to John because his brothers were not believers yet (John 7:5). The biblical context is rather clear that his brothers and sisters (Matt 12:46; Gal 1:19) were his true siblings (The Greek word “adelphoi”). The Greek word for cousin is “anepsios” (the cousin Mark in Col 4:10). As for Joseph’s previous children, even the prominent Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott admits that this theory faces some theological problems because Joseph’s oldest son would then be heir to David’s throne, and not Jesus (Matt 1:1). Instead, the expression “her firstborn” in Matt 1:25 may imply she conceived more children. Josephus and some church fathers, such as Tertullian, opposed the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity.
The Immaculate Conception is the first in the series of more serious theological differences. The pope Pius IX made an infallible statement in 1854: Mary was at her conception preserved miraculously from the stain of the original sin and “this has been revealed by God.” The Almighty God gave sanctifying grace to her. It is first evidenced by Gen 3:15 where the Mother of the Redeemer is to be seen in the woman. Luke in 1:28 similarly claims “hail, full of grace!” which can be understood as a proper name to symbolize her characteristics. Lk 1:42 views Mary as the most blessed among women, attaining the same blessings that were bestowed upon Christ. The Lateran Council of 649 AD refers to her as “immaculate Mary.” The tradition was followed by the monk Eadmer, John Scotus (d. 1308), 1439 Council of Basel, and eventually Pius IX 1854. The Reformers inclined to this view as well (Luther, Calvin Zwingli).
The evangelicals refute the Catholic evidence from the Scripture. Gen 3:15 primarily talks about Eve. Even if the statement prophetically concerns Mary, it does not suggest her immaculate conception. The verse in Lk 1:28 does not need to imply a proper name, and even if so, there is no reason to apply the doctrine to her birth. It could be claimed, for instance, that Paul considered all believers to be full of grace in Eph 1:6. No parallel between Mary and Christ can be drawn from Lk 1:41. Mary had two natural parents. There is no conciliar reference about the immaculate conception until the 12th century and no church-wide pronouncement was made until the 19th century. The doctrine was rejected by the scholastics such as Lombard, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas: exempting Mary from the original sin was inconsistent with the universality of original sin. God was her “Savior” (Lk 1:46).
The Sinlessness of Mary follows the previous Catholic argument. Mary was also free from sin during her entire life (Council of Trent). The verse in Lk 1:28 “hail, full of grace!” suggests that the fullness of grace prevented Mary’s personal and moral defects, that is, sin. This view was traditionally held by the Latin Patristic authors and The Council of Trent (an infallible statement). The evangelicals in the debate remind of Lk 1:46 that Mary needed a Savior, which suggests she was also a being with the sinful nature. Many Greek fathers taught venial personal faults of Mary (Origen, Basil, Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexander), just as the majority of the scholastics (e.g. Aquinas).
The Bodily Assumption of Mary completes the logic of the Catholic argument. Mary moved from being immaculately conceived to being sinless to being bodily assumed into heaven and venerated as Mediatrix (a mediator of grace—see below). She is sometimes considered to be the “Queen of heaven.” An ex cathedra statement was made in 1950: “Mary was assumed in her body and soul into heaven.” As it was the case with Jesus, her race was eventually concluded with “glorification.” She was immune from the corruption of the tomb and placed at the right hand of her Son. Gen 3:15 can be interpreted that Mary was part of the eschatological battle against the Satan. She was one of those “who belong to Christ” (1 Cor 15:23). When the tombs were opened after the crucifixion of Jesus, there is a possibility that Mary was taken (Matt 27:52-53). Similarly, “the fullness of grace” in Lk 1:28 covers the glorification as well. Rev 12:1-6 talks about a woman who gave birth to a male child and was “caught up to God and his throne.” Mary was sinless and therefore the death could not hold her.
The evangelical theology does not see much support in the above-mentioned biblical verses. The text in Gen 3:15 speaks about Eve rather than Mary, which was even admitted by Ott. In Matt 27:52-53 there is no evidence that these saints were received directly to heaven in immortal bodies, and moreover, Mary is not mentioned in the context. The phrase “fullness of grace” in Lk 1:28 is rather theologically unclear to bear the weight of such an important dogma. In Rev 12:1-6 the “woman” is the nation of Israel and it was only her Son that was “caught up to God” (v.5). Mary was not taken into heaven in the presented form because she was not sinless. Many Catholics also admit that Mary died, which is theologically incompatible with Rom 5:12 (death spreads because of sin). The Tradition is weakly expressed in the 5th-6th century in the Apocrypha. The church fathers are basically silent on this issue. The doctrine was spread more only by the 7th century. The prominent Catholic scholar Karl Rahner was skeptical about it.
The Catholic Church also defends the Mediatorship of Mary. Besides Christ, Mary has a secondary mediatorship, subordinate to Christ. The possibility of other mediators than Christ was acknowledged by Aquinas (Summa Theologiae). Since the 15th century Mary was considered “Coredemptrix,” only subsidiary to the redemption of Christ. Pius IX in his infallible statement from 1854 declared Mary as “Mediatrix” by her cooperation in the Incarnation. Mary cooperates in the application of the redemptive grace to man as an intercessory channel. Mary is Mediatrix of all graces by her intercession in Heaven. As Ott points out, the statement “behold your son” in John 19:26 symbolically views John as a representative of human race. This tradition can be traced in Origen and Augustine, but became more established during the Middle Ages. As it was the case above, the evangelicals are skeptical about the Scriptural evidence. The interpretation of John 19:26 is far-fetched. There is only one mediator Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Tim 2:5; John 10:1-11; 14:6; Heb 1:2-3;10:12). Similarly, the tradition of this doctrine is inconclusive and unclear.
The most problematic part of the dispute is the Veneration of Mary. The Catholic concept claims that “The Mother of God” can be venerated on a level higher than other creatures or angels. To prevent a misunderstanding, this veneration (cultus hyperduliae) is less than adoration (cultus latriae), which is due to God alone, but higher than veneration (cultus duliae) of angels or other saints. Thus, Mary has an intermediate position on the veneration scale dulia – hyperdulia – latria. The biblical support is found Lk 1:28; 1:42.48; 11:27. The veneration of Mary was traditionally practiced in the first three centuries together with the veneration of Christ, from the 4th century there are traces of the veneration of Mary herself. One specific phenomenon concerning with the veneration of Mary are the so-called “apparitions” of Mary (e.g. Medjugorje). The authenticity of these appearances is an unsettled question even in the Roman Catholic circles.
The evangelicals generally express their anxiety with this view claiming that in reality there is not much difference between hyperdulia and latria. The theoretically interesting idea can turn into an undesirable practice (cf. Novena Prayers in Honor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help) and may end up with Mariolatry. The texts in Luke do not speak about veneration of Mary. She was not blessed above all the women, but among all women. Christians should not venerate angels and alike (Col 2:18; Rev 22:8-9). The early tradition is scarce and unclear. There also existed a heretical group of women in Thrace worshipping Mary that was condemned by Epiphanius of Salamis 315-403.
A subsidiary issue to the veneration of Mary is the veneration of her relics or the relics of other saints in general. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma declares “it is permissible and profitable to venerate the relics of saints.” One venerates the person behind the relic, not the relic itself (cf. also the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD on the issue of icons). Scripturally, bowing down is approved in the Bible (cf. Gen 18:2).
The evangelicals, on the other hand, state that relics may serve for spiritual inspiration and anointed artifacts can even bring about healing (Acts 19:12), but it is nothing that should be venerated. The verse in Gen 18:2 speaks about bowing down to a person, not an image. Moreover, it was done out of respect rather than reverence. God is the only proper object of our prayers (cf. Rev 4:11). In the biblical story found in Lk 16:23-31 God did not answer the prayer to the saint from hell. In general, Bible forbids to communicate with the dead (Dt 18:10-12). In fact, the concept of the prayers to the saints is a practical denial of Christ’s mediatorship (1 Tim 2:5; John 10:9; 14:6; Heb 4:15-16) and can result in an insult to the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:26.27). Soteriologically speaking, it is the belief in Jesus Christ that is crucial; the one who neglects Mary or the saints will not be deprived of heaven.
Purgatory and the Prayers for the Dead
Finally, a unique concept belonging to the Catholic doctrine of salvation is the teaching about Purgatory and the prayers for the dead. Martin Luther was hesitant and opposed the doctrine only in a later stage but the Reformers in general asserted that the souls saved by faith go straight to heaven. Nevertheless, Purgatory is an essential part of the Catholic faith and was declared infallible by the Council of Trent, even though one cannot place it on the same level of importance as the doctrine of Trinity or Incarnation. Moreover, the Eastern Orthodox theologians usually neglect this doctrine. Purgatory deals with purification that takes place before one enters heaven. It involves some kind of suffering or pain. At the same time, the purification can be assisted by the prayers of the living. The location of Purgatory is unclear. The cleansing process is theologically more important than the place or even the length of time. The souls of the just burdened by the “venial” sins (i.e., those that can be forgiven—as a contrast to “mortal,” unforgivable sins) enter Purgatory. It is designed only for the believers since it is a preparation for heaven (temporal punishment based on gravity of sins). The unbelievers go directly to hell. The biblical support can be found in 2 Macc 12:42-46 where the Jews prayed for their fallen. Matt 12:32 declares that there is no forgiveness for the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit either on earth or in the following age, which can imply that some sins may be forgiven after death. Matt 5:26 claims that one does not get out of the prison until he or she pays the last penny, suggesting that if one dies in imperfect stage of the human nature but is about to reach heaven eventually, a temporal punishment in form of purification must take place. Likewise, the verse in 1 Cor 3:15 speaks about salvation through fire. Traditionally, it was Cyprian and Augustine to whom the doctrine can be traced.
The evangelical theology does not find enough biblical evidence for the concept of Purgatory. 2 Macc 12:42-46 is rarely discussed because the book in found outside of the Protestant canon and thus has no authority on these matters. Furthermore, Matt 12:32 does not speak about the venial sin but the mortal one; it speaks in the context of forgiveness and other derived themes form this single verse are only speculative. In Matt 5:26 Jesus speaks about physical prison before death, not after. Even if it were the case, there is nothing left to pay for the consequence of sin after death. In 1 Cor 3:15 only the work is burned, not the people themselves. The verse may speak about an earthly judgment or tribulation, which even Ott admits. The context mentions reward rather than consequence for sin. The fire does not purge, it tests one’s work. The doctrine is featured by unclear evidence of some church fathers. There is only one punishment for sin. i.e., death (Rom 6:23). Purgatory is a denial of the sufficiency of the cross. Jesus stated “it is finished” (John 19:30; cf. Heb 10:14). Instead, Purgatory adds another redemptive element after Christ’s death on the cross. But the Scripture teaches that sanctification occurs in this life before death (1 Cor 3:10-13; Rev 22:12). The sanctification after death is usually called “glorification.” The reality of heaven or judgment comes straight after death (cf. Heb 9:27).
Subsidiary Catholic concept to the doctrine of Purgatory is the Treasury of Merit. Treasury (storehouse) of meritorious works can be used for the benefit of the deceased in Purgatory in case someone has an “overflow” of his or her holiness. Christ took our place and similarly, we can also take place for one another. The Council of Trent defined the issue of indulgences (i.e. remission of a temporal punishment for a sin whose guilt God has already forgiven), either as partial indulgence (freeing one from only part of the temporal punishment due for sin, either on earth or in purgatory) or plenary indulgence (freeing from the whole punishment reserved for that sin). In Ex 32:32 Moses offered himself as sacrifice for the people. The apostle Paul teaches that the faithful can render expiation for one another (2 Cor 12:15; Col 1:24; 2 Tim 4:6). The favorable tradition can be found in Ignatius, Origen, Cyprian, and Aquinas (“bear one another’s burdens” in Gal 6:2).
This doctrine does not have sufficient support in the Scripture according to the evangelicals. Ex 32:32 pictures Moses only a moral example that one is willing to suffer for another but mentions explicitly nothing about a storehouse of merit in heaven. Gal 6:2 talks about bearing only burdens, not punishments. Similarly, all the other Scriptural verses used by the Catholic doctrine are rather speculative and taken out of the imminent context. According to the evangelical teaching, the doctrine undermines Christ’s atonement (Rom 6:23). Eph 2:8-9 talks about salvation is by grace, not from works. Another notable verse is Rom 8:1 that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, which makes prayers for the believers in Purgatory irrelevant. The church fathers were not unanimous on the topic and the official infallible statement is late (Council of Trent in 1546). There are also some inconsistencies as to the Catholic teaching claiming that there will be no purgatory after the second coming of Christ, which in turn makes the destiny of those who die just before Christ’s return obscure.
The Catholic concept Prayers for the Dead logically follows from the Treasury of Merit. Prayers of the faithful aid the souls in purgatory, which was another infallible statement of The Council of Trent. Apart from the text in Macc 12, the biblical support is taken out of 2 Tim 1:18 in which the Lord should grant mercy to Onesiphorus and 1 Tim 2:1 that the supplication should be made for all men. The tradition is supported by Tertullian, Cyprian, and apocryphal Acts of Paul.
The evangelicals argue that in 2 Tim 1:18 Onesiphorus was still alive when Paul prayed for him so it rules out the context of the dead. Similarly, the supplication in Tim 2:1 is best to be understood as supplication for all living men. The tradition of early church fathers is too contradictory to arrive at a concrete conclusion. In general, praying for the dead contradicts the separation caused by death. The apostle Paul longed for his “departure” to be with Christ (Phil 1:23; 2 Tim 4:6). The deceased believers are already in heaven and do not need to be prayed for. We will be reunited at the resurrection (1 Thess 4:13-18). The doctrine also contradicts the example of David who stopped praying for his baby when it died (2 Sam 12:22-23). When raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus did not pray for him but simply resurrected him. Praying for the dead also contradicts the sacrifice of Christ because his work was “finished” on the cross to open the gates of heaven.
To conclude, comparing these doctrines is a difficult task due to the broad spectrum of opinions within the two streams (needless to mention other churches and denominations). I noticed, for instance, that the Catholic theologians in North America often do not emphasize some classical Catholic doctrines to a certain extent compared to their European colleagues, perhaps due to the great influence of the evangelical teaching in their culture. On the other hand, the evangelical stream is so broad in itself that it is not always easy to find a common pattern of theology either. But hopefully the article was helpful to see the major agreements and differences. Personally I think that the crucial disagreement had to do with the post-Reformation period when the officials of the Roman Catholic Church did not let themselves be at least partly inspired by Luther’s teaching on the Scripture and perhaps overreacted with the Council of Trent and its doctrinal statements (whether it happened for historical or other reasons). This theory can be supported by the fact that Vatican II rather searched ways how to get closer to the Protestants. Nevertheless, differences between the two streams remain and some middle way is not to be found yet. A Christian basically needs to choose whether to become a Catholic or an evangelical. As “the disciples of Jesus,” however, we can build personal relationships with each other and maintain a full respect; and who knows, perhaps one day we will be capable of reopening the doctrinal questions for a mutual benefit. The key to reconciliation may be the discussion on the doctrine of justification that indirectly affects majority of the other teaching. If the church would be represented as one unit, both on the outside and on the inside, it would be the greatest testimony for the world and a tremendous source of spiritual power for the Christians.
Livets Ord Theological Seminary