Review: Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism

Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman CatholicismAre We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism by R.C. Sproul

Sproul begins his book with utter clarity: in the debate between Roman Catholicism and evangelical, Reformation Protestantism, the gospel itself is at stake. It takes him just a page and half to specify the fundamental difference between the two groups:

The fundamental difference was this. [The Roman Catholic council of] Trent said that God does not justify anyone until real righteousness inheres within the person. In other words, God does not declare a person righteous unless he or she is righteous. So, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, justification depends on a person’s sanctification. By contrast, the Reformers said justification is based on the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus. The only ground by which a person can be saved is Jesus’ righteousness, which is reckoned to him when he believes. (2)

Sproul is driven to write by current ecumenical efforts, especially the ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) initiative. Apparent changes in Roman Catholic theology have led some evangelicals to seek a rapprochement with Rome. Some evangelicals, notably Evangelical Theological Society president Francis Beckwith, have even crossed the Tiber.

Sproul is not shy about naming areas of agreement between Catholicism and Protestantism, but Sproul won’t give in on one thing especially: the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness. That, he says, is his nonnegotiable. Catholicism’s sober liturgy (more attractive to many than the casual, even flippant, worship of many evangelical churches) and apparent unity and certainty (more attractive to many than the fissiparousness of Protestantism) are not enough to bring Sproul into the pope’s fold.

Sproul makes his book’s thesis quite clear:

In this book, I have a simple goal. I want to look at Roman Catholic teaching in several significant areas and compare it with Protestant teaching. I hope to show, often using her own words, that the Roman Catholic Church has not changed from what it believed and taught at the time of the Reformation. That means that the Reformation is not over and we must continue to stand firm in proclaiming the biblical gospel. (9)

And his book’s organization is also simple and straightforward; the “several significant areas” he covers are the following:

  • Scripture
  • Justification
  • The relationship of the visible church and redemption
  • Sacraments
  • Papal infallibility
  • Mariology

Scripture

Sproul opens by showing from various conciliar documents that the Catholic church does have an “officially” high view of Scripture. He notes carefully that Vatican II’s statement on the Bible’s inerrancy was ambiguous: it made conservatives feel that the Church had definitively proclaimed the Bible’s inerrancy, and it made liberals feel that the door was still open to ascribe historical and scientific errors to Scripture.

There are significant differences between Catholic and Protestant approaches to Scripture of course, and two obvious ones are 1) the extent of the canon and 2) the relationship of Scripture and tradition.

  1. Sproul argues that “orthodox Protestants believe that the canon of Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books” (in other words, we may have inadvertently left some out) while “the Roman Catholic Church believes that the Bible is an infallible collection of infallible books.” (22)
  2. In the case of Scripture and tradition we have another ambiguity: did Trent make them both authoritative sources of revelation, or just one, namely Scripture? What Trent leaves ambiguous, later Catholic theology (including the 1994 Catholic Catechism) makes clear: there are two deposits of divine authority available to the Catholic faithful.

To Sproul (and to me), this means ecumenical dialog can get nowhere. “All the efforts to have biblical discussions between Protestants and Roman Catholics have come to dead ends when they encountered a papal encyclical or a conciliar statement.” (28) And Trent doesn’t allow for interpretations of Scripture which contradict that of “holy mother Church—whose it is to judge of the true sense … of the holy Scriptures.” (28, quoting Trent)

Justification

In Catholic theology, grace is infused into a person at baptism (as long as he or she is not actively resisting it). But that grace comes in a quantity—a quantity which can be increased or diminished, even to the point of being lost. “Mortal sins”—the list of which is not agreed upon by all Catholic theologians—can cause one to lose his justification.

But this is different from saying that salvation is earned by works. Faith is still necessary; it’s just that, in the Catholic system, justification can be lost even if faith remains. (37)

Sproul argues that the concept most precious to Protestants in Reformation-era debates with Catholics was the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness.

My sin goes to Jesus and His righteousness comes to me. This is a truth worth dividing the church. This is the article on which the church stands or falls, because it is the article on which we all stand or fall. (44)

Sproul spends some time arguing for a careful harmonization of Paul and James’ teaching on justification, and then he quotes the Catholic Catechism at length, showing how it differs from biblical teaching.

Sproul is very clear that Rome is teaching another gospel, and he explicitly cites Galatians 1:8, anathematizing Rome for its false teaching.

The Church

Deep distrust between communities of Protestants and Catholics was a feature of Sproul’s Pittsburgh childhood, and it lasted into his adult life. He tells a few interesting stories from those days—a Catholic friend not allowed to attend Sproul’s Protestant wedding, Catholic children throwing trash and mud on the devil’s house (the town’s Protestant manse).

These attitudes, among Catholics at least, stemmed from the hard line the Church had taken on Protestantism. The early father Cyprian gave the hardest line: “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (“Outside the church there is no salvation.”) Pius IX in the 19th century allowed that some Protestants “are struggling with invincible ignorance” about the Catholic faith. If they “live honest lives,” “sincerely observing the natural law,” they will receive mercy. But those Protestants who know what they’re rejecting are bound for hell, Pius said.

By the 1960s, however, Vatican II was calling Protestants “separated brethren.” And it has continued to speak somewhat ambiguously since then. Sproul quotes the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium and other authoritative Catholic sources to display that ambiguity, and he contrasts it with the biblical clarity of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The Sacraments

Sproul very briefly describes each of the seven Catholic sacraments, explaining what graces they are thought to convey ex opere operato (basically meaning “automatically”).

He points to penance as the biggest area of disagreement between Catholics and Protestants. “The question of how a person is justified has eternal consequences.” (73)

The sacrament of penance was instituted by the church to help people who commit mortal sin. As I mentioned in the introduction, it is regarded as the second plank of justification for those who have made shipwreck of their souls. One makes shipwreck of his soul by committing mortal sin, which destroys the grace of justification. However, the person can be restored to justification through penance. (73)

Penance is performing actions of satisfaction for one’s sin. A penitent sinner might be required to recite three particular prayers or, for a more serious sin, give alms or even make a pilgrimage. The merit he receives is “congruous,” not “condign” (in other words, the sinner didn’t do anything extra), but it’s still merit. Only when someone gets enough merit can he make it into heaven, but the Church has access to the full “treasury of merit” made up of all the extra merit various saints have earned over time. Using this merit can lessen someone’s time in purgatory. Protestants, of course, believe that if there is a “treasury of merit,” it is full of the merit of only one person: Jesus Christ, and it is infinite and inexhaustible, available for all people.

Regarding the mass, Sproul raises the issue of transubstantiation and of the apparent re-sacrifice of Christ.

Particularly in its continuing insistence that baptism conveys the grace of justification and its teaching that the body of Christ is broken anew each time the Mass is celebrated, Rome is proclaiming things that are repugnant to those who believe and trust the Word of God. (84)

The Papacy

Papal infallibility was not officially put forward as Catholic doctrine until July 18, 1870, during the ecumenical council Vatican I. Its declaration was a fruit of the fight between “Gallicanism” and “ultramontanism,” between those who bucked the pope’s authority (beginning first in France [or Gaul]) and those who sought to keep it no matter its distance from them “over the mountains.”

The pope who led the Church in 1870 was Pius IX, who began his papacy (the longest ever) as a liberal—definitely not an ultramontanist. But after some of his reforms failed to take hold, he became a firm opponent of the Gallicans. He unilaterally declared Mary’s immaculate conception in 1854.

By 1860, the pope had suffered a political blow: Italian king Victor Emanuel II had seized his lands. He won the PR battle however; an outpouring of sympathy from the faithful carried the pope into Vatican I. Sproul quotes the Vatican I documents which define papal infallibility, and he carefully explains that this infallibility only appears when the pope speaks “ex cathedra,” or in his official capacity of teacher of the Church.

This doctrine was not without controversy. A largely European splinter group, the Old Catholic Church, even left the church.

Vatican II tied up some of the loose ends left by Vatican I concerning papal infallibility. It clarified the authority of the bishops under the pope.

Mary

Official Catholic doctrine concerning Mary did not reach its current state till 1950, but Sproul notes that Mary has long been an object of Catholic veneration. Sproul opens this chapter by focusing on the “Hail Mary,” the prayer at the heart of the rosary. He takes particular exception to the prayer’s call upon Mary to “pray for us sinners”—the Bible makes Christ the sole mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).

Other Catholic teachings about Mary that are objectionable to biblically minded Protestants are her immaculate conception (or sinlessness, a doctrine defined in 1854), the belief that she was taken up into heaven bodily (a doctrine defined in 1950), and her status as “Queen of Heaven” alongside King Jesus (a doctrine defined in 1954). Mary, in Catholic teaching, is the Mother of the faithful, the Second Eve.

One Catholic idea Sproul brings out that was entirely new to me was that Mary’s response to the Annuncation—”Let it be to me according to your word”—was not a humble acquiescence to God’s plan so much as a command to set redemption in motion! And it’s a good thing, too: “from the Roman Catholic perspective, Mary had to be the one to bear the Savior. Why? Because she was the only sinless woman in the world.” (112)

While carefully allowing the Catholic Church to speak for itself, Sproul makes a key point:

Officially, the Roman Catholic Church does not sanction worship of Mary—but it comes very close. Rome sees a difference between what it calls latria and duliaLatria is the Greek word for worship, while dulia is the Greek word for service. Giving latria to something other than God would be to worship an idol. Giving dulia is simply to give service, obeisance, or veneration, which can be given to things other than God. Rome made this same distinction with regard to statues during the iconoclastic controversy in the Reformation era; it said that when people bowed down and prayed before images, they were not worshiping them, they were merely doing service, using them as means to stimulate their own worship. Rome insists that Mary is given dulia, not latria; she is venerated but not worshiped.

However, for all practical purposes, I believe I can say without fear of ever being proven wrong that millions of Roman Catholic people today worship Mary. In doing so, they believe they are doing what the church is calling them to do. I grant that there is a legitimate technical distinction between latria and dulia, between worship and veneration, but it can be very hard to spot the line of separation. When people are bowing down before statues, that is of the essence of worship. (114–115)

Praises

Sproul endeavors to be fair. I’m not an expert in Catholic theology by any means (that’s why I read Sproul’s book), but I noticed several places in which he was careful to represent the Catholic position correctly in the face of common Protestant caricatures.

For example, Sproul points out that the practice of confession was not necessarily opposed by the Reformers, and that the priest in the booth need not necessarily be standing in between the penitent and God. The problem was not having to confess one’s sins to the priest; it was that “in order to be restored to a state of grace, the repentant sinner has to perform works of satisfaction.” (34; cf. 73–74)

Sproul also notes that Johann Tetzel, the indulgence-hawker of Luther’s day, was abusing the Catholic system of indulgences by omitting to call for contrition—something Sproul says the Catholic Church acknowledges to this day. So it would be wrong to say that Tetzel was acting with the full blessing of the Church.

The most important and common caricature Sproul attacks is one I’ll let him speak on:

If you ask a Protestant the difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, the Protestant will typically say: “We believe that justification is by faith but Roman Catholics say it is by works. We believe it is by grace but Roman Catholics say it is by merit. We believe it is through Christ but Roman Catholics believe it is through one’s own righteousness.” These are terrible slanders against Rome. From the sixteenth century to today, the Roman Catholic Church has said that justification requires faith, the grace of God, and the work of Jesus Christ. The debate arose because Protestants said justification is by faith alone, whereas Rome said justification requires faith plus works, grace plus merit, Christ plus inherent righteousness. It was those pluses that became so problematic in the sixteenth century, particularly with respect to the works of satisfaction that were part of the sacrament of penance. (34)

But this where one of my relatively minor criticisms comes in.

Relatively Minor Criticisms

  • I did not see much acknowledgment in the book that the official teachings of the church and the actual theology of the person in the pew tend to be very different. Nearly every Roman Catholic I’ve ever had the chance to speak with did basically believe that his good works got him to heaven. But I think one line saying this in the final chapter would have been sufficient.
  • I doubt that the Latin justificare always meant “make righteous” and that the Greek (near-?) equivalent dikaioo always meant “declare righteous.” (30) Sproul makes it sound as if the Reformation’s ad fontes return to the Greek New Testament, and therefore to the lexeme chosen by the Holy Spirit, was what got us all back on the right theological track.
  • “Mariolotry” is misspelled twice on the one page on which it appears. As anyone who knows his Greek roots can tell you, the would should be spelled with an “a”—”Mariolatry”—because it derives from latria, worship. (Interestingly enough, Sproul actually cites the word latria on the same page.)
  • Also, I was a bit surprised that Sproul did not mention the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. But he says he could have gone into much greater detail on many more doctrines.

Conclusion

The book enjoys a fairly impressive array of endorsements, and many of them use the same adjectives I have: careful, charitable, concise. Indeed, Sproul is refreshingly simple, straightforward, and brief. He zeroes in on the essentials and buttresses his points with responsible quotations from authoritative Catholic and Protestant sources.

Sproul ends his book with a brief but—and again I find myself using this word—careful call to biblically minded evangelical Protestants to love their Catholic neighbors and ally with them on cultural issues—but to make clear when appropriate what our differences are. (Sproul firmly rejected the Manhattan Declaration, for example, arguing that cobelligerency on abortion and marriage must never suggest that Rome shares with Protestants “a common faith and a unified understanding of the gospel.”) Sproul lays out important theological differences responsibly, concisely, and without rancor or invective. This is definitely the book to hand to someone who raises the questions it addresses.

View all my reviews

I read an electronic review copy provided by the publisher. I wasn’t required to like the book, only to take it seriously!

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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