The Catholic Church — 500 Years Later
Article by Gregg Allison
October 31, 2017, will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Martin Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on that day in 1517 has proven to be one of the most important events in the history of the world. Indeed, many evangelicals trace their beginnings to this moment that launched the Protestant movement, of which we consider ourselves heirs.
But the Reformation was five hundred years ago! Like most everything else a half-millennium removed from its start, things have changed. Or have they? What issues sparked the Reformation? What were the key protests against the Catholic Church at that time? Do those same conditions exist now, such that the Reformation remains unfinished?
Half a Millennium Ago
Luther’s Ninety-five Theses constituted a call to debate some of the flagrant errors of the Catholic Church in his time. His subsequent writings exposed many other problems:
- a denial of justification by God’s grace received through faith alone in Christ alone
- an unbiblical view of salvation as joining together God and sinners such that divine grace, communicated through the Church’s sacraments, initiates the lifelong process, and human effort responds by engaging in good works in order to merit eternal life
- a faulty authority structure illegitimately combining Scripture with tradition and the papacy
- a disgraceful Catholic Mass that minimized God’s word, ignored the importance of faith, and focused on the Eucharist as little more than mere ritual
- an incorrect belief that, during the Mass, Jesus Christ is made physically present through transubstantiation
- an inappropriate elevation of the role of Mary as a mediator between her son, Jesus Christ, and sinful people, and as an intercessor who prays for and helps them
- a defective perspective on the seven sacraments as communicating God’s grace ex opere operato
- an unbiblical hope in purgatory — time in which can be shortened by the purchase of indulgences
These were the key issues that Luther exposed and critiqued with regard to the Catholic Church of his day.
500 Years Later
It is popularly noted that the only constant in our world is change — and such is true of the Catholic-Protestant dynamic after five hundred years. One happy example is that the two groups are no longer at war with each other. Rather, Protestants and Catholics work closely together in politics, education, health care, ethics, and more. They engage in co-belligerence, fighting together against disturbing sins like abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, population control, violence, promiscuity, and antireligious bigotry. The once-frigid atmosphere has thawed.
Additionally, the two traditions are apt to underscore the commonalities that unite them. From a Protestant perspective, those similarities (at least in part) include the Trinity, the nature of God, divine revelation, the person of Christ and his crucifixion and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, the image of God, the depravity of sin, divine initiative in salvation, and future hope. From a Catholic perspective (fueled largely by the changes initiated at the Second Vatican Council, 1962–1965), Protestants are no longer bound for hell but, as separated brothers and sisters, experience salvation (though not its fullness, which is only for the Catholic faithful).
Still, major differences continue to divide the two traditions. For instances, take the points above one by one.
The “material principle (the key content) of Protestantism” continues to be a hotly debated point. On the one hand, the Lutheran World Federation has come to an official agreement with the Catholic Church on this doctrine in their Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999). On the other hand, most Protestants continue to consider this doctrine a key point of difference.
This is certainly the case when we consider the definitions of justification as embraced by the two traditions. Justification, according to Protestantism, is a legal act of God by which he declares sinful people “not guilty,” but instead “righteous,” as he imputes or credits the perfect righteousness of Christ to them. For Catholicism, “justification is not only the remission of sins, but also sanctification and the renewal of the interior man” (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, 7). The Catholic doctrine combines regeneration (the new birth, which comes about, according to Catholicism, by the sacrament of Baptism), sanctification (lifelong transformation, fueled by the sacraments), and forgiveness. Such a fusion of justification with regeneration and sanctification contradicts the Pauline concept of justification (for example, in Romans 3–4), around which the debate centers.
Justification, at the heart of salvation, continues to be a major point of division.
Flowing from the difference regarding justification, the way God saves sinful people continues to divide the two traditions. According to Protestant theology, salvation is monergistic (mono = sole; ergon = work): God is the sole definitive agent who works salvation through justification, regeneration, adoption, and more. He supplies grace (through his Word, Spirit, preaching, and ordinances, though not tied exclusively to baptism and the Lord’s Supper) that effects salvation through Spirit-empowered faith (Acts 18:27; 1 Peter 4:11).
According to Catholic theology, salvation is synergistic (syn = together; ergon = work): God and people work together to operate the salvation of sinners. The grace of God initiates the process, and the Catholic faithful cooperate with that grace. Importantly, grace is infused through the sacraments, thereby transforming the faithful so they can engage in good works in order to merit eternal life. Because salvation is a lifelong process, and because divine grace can be forfeited, Catholics believe in the loss of salvation. Consequently, they cannot enjoy the assurance of salvation, a doctrine embraced by many Protestants.
Salvation — how God works to rescue sinful people — continues to be a major doctrinal divide.
Who or what constitutes the authority in the relationship between God and people? The “formal principle (the authoritative framework) of Protestantism” continues to be a point of division between the two traditions.
The Protestant sola Scriptura — Scripture alone — means that in all matters of faith and practice, the word of God is the ultimate authority. Every doctrine, every moral action, and the like must be grounded in Scripture. This position does not deny the value of the early church’s creeds, the Protestant confessions of faith, and the distinctives of evangelicalism. But it assigns this wisdom from the past a ministerial authority — it plays a helpful role — not magisterial, or ultimate, authority. And to each Protestant church, God has given pastors who have the authority to teach, lead, exercise discipline, engage in mission, and more.
The Catholic structure of authority is like a three-legged stool. One leg is Scripture, which is the written word of God. Catholics and Protestants continue to disagree over the canon — the official list of books — of the Old Testament. The Catholic Bible contains the Apocrypha, seven additional books — Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees — and additional sections of Esther and Daniel. Because these writings were never part of the Hebrew Bible of Jesus and the apostles, and because they were not accepted as part of the Old Testament of the early church until the end of the fourth century, Protestants reject the Apocrypha.
A second leg is Tradition, the teaching that Jesus orally communicated to his apostles, who in turn communicated it to their successors, the bishops, and which is maintained by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Two examples of Tradition are the immaculate conception of Mary and her bodily assumption.
The third leg is the Magisterium, or teaching office of the Church. Composed of the pope and the bishops, the Magisterium continues to provide the official interpretation of Scripture and to proclaim Tradition, with infallibility.
Thus, Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium together constitute the authority structure in the Catholic Church. The issue of authority continues to be a major point of division.
Since Vatican II, the Church has instituted many changes to its Mass. The most obvious change is its celebration in the language of the people, not in Latin. Whereas formerly Scripture was given slight attention, it now receives a prominent place, especially in the first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word. There are readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and one of the Gospels. Moreover, the priest’s homily (or sermonette) ideally reflects those three texts and exposits their common meaning. The participants are urged to attend the Mass with the proper disposition (faith, humility, receptivity) and not as mere ritual.
Though Protestants still disagree with much that takes place, the Mass has undergone many significant changes from Luther’s day.
The most noticeable Protestant disagreement with the Catholic Mass concerns the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is the most evident disagreement because Protestants are forbidden to take this sacrament.
The Catholic Church believes that, during the Mass, the power of God and the priest’s words and actions bring about a change in the nature of the bread so it becomes the body of Christ, and a change in the nature of the wine so it becomes the blood of Christ. Jesus’s crucifixion two thousand years ago is not an event that remains locked in space and time. Rather, his death becomes re-presented during the Mass. Thus, the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1324), makes present Christ’s unique sacrifice again and again.
This has been the Church’s view since the thirteenth century, and remains its belief today. The Reformers strongly disagreed with transubstantiation, and no Protestant since them has embraced it. Transubstantiation continues to be a major point of division.
Challenged by the vast divide between Catholics and Protestants over Mary, the two traditions at least hold common ground on three points: Mary is the mother of God; that is, the one to whom she gave birth is the Son of God, fully divine. She is a blessed woman because she was the mother of our Savior and Lord (Luke 1:42, 48). And she is a model of the obedience of faith because she yielded to God’s difficult will for her (Luke 1:38, 45).
Still, the key doctrines that Protestants reject include Mary’s immaculate conception, sinlessness, perpetual virginity, participation in the sufferings of Jesus to accomplish salvation, and bodily assumption into heaven. Protestants also reject Mary’s “titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (CCC, 969). The role of Mary continues to be a major difference.
The Catholic Church embraces seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders. The Reformers reduced this number to two, underscoring that only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were ordained by Jesus and have accompanying physical signs (baptism: Matthew 28:18–20, water; the Lord’s Supper: Matthew 26:26–29, bread and cup).
Moreover, Protestants disagree that these sacraments are effective in conferring grace ex opere operato — just by the sacrament being administered. For example, when a priest administers Baptism, grace is infused into the infant and she is cleansed from original sin, born again, and incorporated into Christ and his Church. Her baptism is effective no matter the moral state of the priest administering the sacrament, and clearly she is not disposed to salvation. Protestants emphasize the association of baptism and the Lord’s Supper with the word of God and with faith that embraces God’s grace, which is not infused into people.
The number, nature, and administration of the sacraments continues to be a major point of division.
According to Catholic theology, if a Catholic dies in the grace of God (so, not having unconfessed mortal sin that would doom her to hell) yet not fully purified, she goes to purgatory. This is a temporary state of final cleansing of the stain of forgiven sin, purifying her so she will eventually go to heaven. While she undergoes passive suffering in purgatory, her experience can be shortened. The saints in heaven intercede for her. Living Catholics also pray for her, pay money so that Masses will be celebrated for her sake, and obtain indulgences on her behalf. An indulgence remits the temporal punishment either in full or in part.
Protestant theology dissents from this doctrine because its support comes from 2 Maccabees 12:38–45, an apocryphal writing, and from a misinterpretation of other biblical texts (1 Corinthians 3:15; Matthew 12:32). Moreover, if justification declares a sinful person “not guilty,” but “righteous” instead, there is no need for further purification of sin after death.
Purgatory continues to be a major difference.
While some things have changed with the Roman Catholic Church to bring Catholics and Protestants closer together after five hundred years, many major differences remain to divide them. One approach to this quandary is to minimize the division. For example, it is anticipated that within the next year, Pope Francis will declare that the Reformation is over. Working from the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification, he will emphasize the agreements achieved on this once divisive doctrine and underscore that the sixteenth century anathemas (condemnations) of Protestants by Catholics and of Catholics by Protestants are removed. Thus, the Reformation will be formally finished.
Tragically, this perspective fails to address the continuing differences between the two traditions. The Catholic Church still holds to untrue doctrines of justification, salvation, authority, transubstantiation, Mary, seven sacraments that are effective ex opere operato, and purgatory. It is not helpful to skirt those issues for the sake of unity in a lowest-common-denominator approach.
While we can agree that much has changed, we must also agree that the Reformation remains unfinished.
Gregg Allison is professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and co-author of The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years.