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The Dividing Line
Chapter 11: Roman Catholicism

The Heart of Catholicism


Probably one of the most asked—and least answerable—questions in church history is "When did the Roman Catholic Church begin?" Men have offered various ideas, aside from the Catholic claim that it is simply the true church since New Testament times. The Protestant reformers generally held to the papal theory. According to this view, when the popes (bishops of Rome) took the overlordship of the church, they corrupted it into the Roman Catholic Church of today. One question would be with which bishop of Rome this corruption began. Suggestions include Leo the Great (440-61), Gregory the Great (590-604), and Gregory II (715-31). The papacy alone, however, cannot bear the blame for all of the problems of Catholicism.

Another popular idea is the Constantinian theory. When the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in A.D. 313, he began the process of bringing the pagan masses of the empire into the Christian church. These unregenerate crowds, with their superstitions, transformed and corrupted the church into the Roman Catholic Church. There is an element of truth to this theory, certainly. Making all Roman citizens members of the church introduced greater superstition and unquestionably sped up the process of corruption. Some distinctive Catholic teachings existed before Constantine's time, however, and many other doctrines developed later.

Some hold that the Council of Trent marks the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church. That council, held in three sessions from 1545 to 1563, expressly rejected the teachings of the Protestant Reformation and demanded submission to all teachings required by the Catholic hierarchy. By this decision, this theory holds, the Roman Catholic Church locked itself into a system of false teaching. Again there is much truth to this idea. Trent drew hard lines between Catholicism and Protestantism and forced all who held Protestant ideas either to submit or to leave the church. We should not ignore the fact, though, that the teachings required of all Catholics by Trent had existed in one form or another before the Reformation; they just had not formerly been made official.

Authority and Salvation

Each of these theories contains an element of truth. The Roman Catholic Church is the result of a process of development over a period of centuries. At the same time, its teachings have remained fairly stable since the Reformation. There are many points of difference between Catholicism and biblical Christianity that we could note. As examples, we will focus on just two major issues: the authority of Scripture and the nature of salvation.2

The Protestant reformers clearly stated that the Bible alone is the authority in religious matters. The Catholic Church replied that Scripture and tradition are both to be religious authorities. By "tradition" Catholics mean a body of oral teaching given by Christ to the apostles along with the written Scriptures. This oral tradition is the authority for the nonbiblical Catholic teachings rejected by Protestants. Karl Keating, writing to warn Catholics against Fundamentalism, notes that some Catholics looking through the pages of their Bibles "are dismayed to discover there is no clear mention of auricular confession, infant baptism, or the Immaculate Conception in any book from Matthew to Revelation."3 Later, dealing with the Assumption of Mary (i.e., that Mary was bodily taken to heaven at the end of her life), he writes, "Still, fundamentalists ask, where is the proof from Scripture? Strictly, there is none. It was the Catholic Church that was commissioned by Christ to teach all nations and to teach them infallibly. The mere fact that the Church teaches the doctrine of the Assumption as something definitely true is a guarantee that it is true."4

As the last quotation from Keating indicates, not only do Catholics view tradition as an authority, they also believe that the church, under the leadership of the popes and bishops, is the only interpreter of what Scripture and tradition actually teach. Edward Panosian notes that the practical effect is not to have two sources of authority, Scripture and tradition, but one authority, the church that interprets Scripture and tradition.5 In 1870 the First Vatican Council strengthened this idea by declaring that the pope is preserved from all error when pronouncing official church teaching. Pope Pius XII invoked this authority, for example, when he declared in 1950 that all Catholics must believe in the Assumption of Mary.

The doctrine of salvation is another key battleground. The Bible teaches salvation by faith; the Catholic Church teaches salvation by faith and works. In particular, the Protestant reformers declared that a man is justified by faith alone. He is declared righteous by having the righteousness of Christ credited to him. Roman Catholicism teaches that a man is justified by faith and works.

In an effort to build bridges between Catholics and Evangelicals, Alister McGrath says that "some evangelicals continue to insist that the Roman Catholic church officially teaches justification by works, yet that is simply not true"6 McGrath's observation is partly correct. Catholics do not believe that anyone can be saved without faith. However, they equally believe that no one will be saved without works. Both are necessary in Catholic teaching.

The problem is that Catholicism confuses justification with sanctification. Biblically speaking, in justification the Christian is declared righteous on the basis of Christ's atonement, not on any merit of his own. In the process of sanctification, as a result of his justification, a Christian actually becomes more righteous in thought and action. Catholics, however, say that in justification righteousness is actually poured into the believer so that he really becomes more righteous. Salvation becomes a process in which the Catholic, on the basis of faith, strives to be righteous enough to merit heaven. In other words, instead of being declared righteous, he actually becomes more righteous.

What good works must Catholics perform? Chief among their duties is to receive the sacraments. There are seven of these: baptism, confirmation, holy orders (ordination), matrimony, penance, Eucharist (the Lord's Supper), and anointing of the sick (formerly known as extreme unction or last rites). By participating in these sacraments, Catholics believe they receive grace from God. That grace in turn enables them to perform meritorious works to secure their salvation.

The idea of personal merit is obviously very important to Catholicism, but Catholics claim that this merit is earned by the grace of God. God graciously gives the Catholic the ability to perform good works, and God graciously accepts the good works as sufficient for earning merit, even though humans could actually do nothing truly meritorious before God. But Paul says that "to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt" (Rom. 4:4). Later he says of "the election of grace" that "if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work" (Rom 11:6).

In effect, the Catholic Church uplifts human merit at the expense of Christ's merit. For example, in Catholic teaching, Christ's satisfaction for sin is sufficient to pay the penalty for eternal punishment and save a person from hell. It is not sufficient, however, to pay for the "temporal" punishment. Catholics must satisfy the temporal punishment either through performing good works or by suffering in purgatory before entering heaven. By contrast, Paul says, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1)—neither eternal nor temporal condemnation.

There are other controversial teachings that we could cite. The glorification of the virgin Mary, the intercession of Mary and the saints for Christians, the idea that in the Mass (celebration of the Eucharist) the body of Christ is actually offered in an "unbloody sacrifice"—all of these teachings clash with those of Scripture. In a sense the root of these problems is the first problem we listed. If Roman Catholicism were bound by the authority of Scripture, instead of binding the Scripture to the church's authority, it would not hold these teachings, for there is no scriptural support for them.

The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation. By Mark Sidwell. ©1998. BJU Press. Reproduction prohibited. This work is available for purchase at the Bob Jones University Campus Store (phone: 1-800-252-1927; web address:

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