By Gregg R. Allison, professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This material is adapted from his recently released Crossway book, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. He is also the author of Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Zondervan, 2011) and Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012).
Recently a visitor at our church asked me about a proper approach to engaging in conversation with his Roman Catholic friends and colleagues. Should he focus on communicating the gospel, or should he target the differences between Catholic theology and Evangelical theology and show how Catholic doctrines like justification, Church tradition, and the Eucharist are wrong?
I encouraged him to focus on the gospel, as that is the ultimate need not only of Catholics, but of all people. However, presenting the gospel to Catholics in a clear and convincing way is aided by an understanding of Catholic theology and practice, which is quite different from the faith that we Evangelicals embrace and live.
Importantly, Catholic theology is an overarching system, rather than a mere series of different doctrines and practices haphazardly thrown together. This fact means that Evangelicals cannot just pick out a few key Catholic beliefs like salvation, purgatory, and penance and attack them as separate errors, expecting that when a sufficient number of these “bricks” are demonstrated to be wrong, the Catholic theological “wall” will come tumbling down.
A proper approach begins instead with the recognition that Catholicism is an all-encompassing structure, and for the gospel to be ultimately and wholly effective, it must address and penetrate the entire system. *This comprehensive system is grounded on two foundational principles: the nature-grace interdependence, and the Christ-Church interconnection.
As for the first major tenet, nature and grace were designed by God to operate in reliance upon one another. Indeed, nature is to be a channel of grace, and grace is to perfect nature. To give some illustrations, water (in the realm of nature) is capable of receiving and becoming a vehicle of grace when, consecrated by the Catholic Church, it is used for the sacrament of baptism, which confers grace upon its recipients. The same is true of oil (in the realm of nature) that, when consecrated, conveys grace on priests who are ordained by the sacrament of Holy Orders. In the same way bread and wine (in the realm of nature) are capable of being transubstantiated, or changed, into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, thus nourishing the Catholic faithful through grace when they participate in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
This key principle of the nature-grace interdependence helps Evangelicals understand why the sacraments of the Catholic Church are considered to be necessary for salvation: Grace must always be communicated through these concrete means of nature. It also demonstrates how different the gospel of the grace of God as communicated by Evangelicals is from Catholic theology.
The second foundational principle is the Christ-Church interconnection. Grace meets nature, and nature receives grace, through the tangible and concrete Catholic Church, which is nothing other than the prolongation, or extension, of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Beginning two thousand years ago, the incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ, mediated grace to nature, as he came to save sinful human beings. As a continuation of the incarnation of Christ, the Catholic Church mediates grace to nature; indeed, the Church acts as another person of Christ, standing between the world (the realm of nature) and God (the realm of grace). This is so because the whole Christ—in the totality of his divine and human natures, together with his body, the Church—is currently present as and in the Catholic Church.
Again, this key principle of the Christ-Church interconnection helps Evangelicals understand why the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation, and why the Catholic faithful focus on the Church much more than the gospel, the Word of God, justification by faith alone, and other points so cherished by Evangelicals.
Because Catholic theology and practice is an overarching system, and because its system is grounded on the nature-grace interdependence and the Christ-Church interconnection, all Catholic doctrines and practices flow from these two foundational principles. To give a few examples:
Doctrine of salvation: Catholic theology views the process by which God rescues fallen human beings as being synergistic, that is, a cooperative venture between divine grace and human effort (the realm of nature), aided by grace, to work so as to merit eternal life. Moreover, it considers the operation of salvation to be an infusion of divine grace into people, by which their very nature is transformed. This point dovetails with Catholic theology’s understanding of the goal of salvation as deification, or the process by which human nature, through grace, becomes more and more like God. If this process is interrupted through engaging in mortal sin, it can be restarted through the sacrament of penance by which grace is conveyed again for the perfection of human nature. Finally, if this process is not completed in this earthly lifetime—that is, if grace has not fully elevated human nature to perfection before death—existence after death in purgatory promises to finish the purification procedure.
Catholic Priesthood: For the Catholic system, grace must be concretely expressed in nature, and the highest tangible expression of grace (after Jesus Christ himself) is the Catholic Church. This aspect is especially seen in the Church’s association of the forgiveness of sins with its priesthood. Indeed, by the sacrament of Holy Orders, men (the realm of nature) are consecrated so as to be able to administer the sacraments (the realm of grace). Because the Church is the extension of the incarnation, it is Christ who through the Church baptizes, teaches, ordains, etc. The priest, then, acts in the person of Christ the head when he engages in the service of the Church. For example, when Catholics commit a mortal sin, they lose justifying grace and, hence, salvation. This grace can be obtained again, however, through the sacrament of penance. By confession of their mortal sin(s) to a priest, who absolves them and stipulates concrete acts of penance for reparation for their sin(s), Catholics receive infused grace that once again transforms their character.
Doctrine of Mary: Mary, and the doctrines associated with her, demonstrates the nature-grace interdependence. Mary, as a fully human being, is in the realm of nature; however, due to her immaculate conception, her human nature is not fallen and, through her cooperation with grace, it remains unfallen throughout her life. Accordingly, in Mary’s nature, grace finds complete openness and full capacity for cooperation, leading to the incarnation of the Son of God and her meritorious sufferings at the foot of the cross. Moreover, because she never once sinned (attested to by the fact of her perpetual virginity), at the end of her days, her body was assumed (taken up) into heaven. Additionally, the Church elevates Mary to a particular mediatorial role in the distribution of grace, naming her as Mediatrix alongside her son, the Mediator.
Scripture: The Catholic Church claims to be the determiner of the canon of Scripture, which is longer than the canon of Scripture in Protestant Bibles. The Catholic Old Testament contains the apocryphal writings, or Apocrypha for short, which are additional books (e.g., Tobit, Judith) and additional sections to books appearing in the Protestant Bibles (Esther is longer, as is Daniel). But none of these apocryphal writings were ever included in the Hebrew Bible (which was the Bible of Jesus and the apostles), and the earliest lists of Old Testament books that were included in the early church’s Bible did not include them. Also, according to the Catholic Church, divine revelation comes through both written Scripture and unwritten Tradition, which is the oral teaching of Jesus Christ communicated to his apostles, who in turn communicated that teaching orally to their successors, the bishops, and which continues to be nourished in the Catholic Church through its Magisterium, or teaching office, consisting of the pope and the bishops.
The only true church: Because the Catholic Church is the prolongation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, it understands itself as the only true church, meaning that evangelical gatherings are only ecclesial communities, not actual churches. Moreover, for the Catholic system, the universal church is identified with the visible Catholic Church on earth. The Church is both Mother and Teacher and, as the mediator of grace to the realm of nature, the Church is necessary for salvation.
Evangelical theology finds two grounds for critique of these Roman Catholic doctrines and practices: (1) they depend on either the nature-grace interdependence, the Christ-Church interconnection, or both—and both of these foundational principles are seriously wrong; (2) they conflict with Scripture and thus are seriously wrong. For example, though Scripture itself emphasizes that each and every person is sinful, Catholic theology insists that Mary is sinless. This is a clear example of Tradition trumping, or exercising greater authority, than Scripture.