How Ought We View Roman Catholics? A Protestant Perspective
Updated: Jul 9, 2022
"It is easily seen what sort of Christians we were under the Papacy, namely, that we went from mere compulsion and fear of human commandments, without inclination and love, and never regarded the commandment of Christ." ~Martin Luther
I’m an evangelical. By that I mean I identify with the movement heralded by men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Carl F. H. Henry, and Billy Graham. These men held the gospel of Jesus Christ (i.e., the euangelion) to be paramount in the Christian life. Inherent within evangelicalism are several commitments, namely, a belief in the primacy, sufficiency, and inerrancy of Scripture, an identification with the theology of the Protestant Reformation including an affirmation of the five solas and the tenets of credal orthodoxy, and a recognition of the importance of the local church. To these commitments, I eagerly subscribe as a minister of a church within the Southern Baptist Convention.
One question every evangelical must ask is “How are we to understand and relate to the Roman Catholic communion?” An imagined survey of results might boil down to this: “The Roman Catholic Church is an idiosyncratic and pagan expression of apostate Christianity,” Indeed, I’ve heard some iteration of that statement more times than I can count. For many years I too adopted that rather bleak viewpoint. After all, as an evangelical, I believe the Bible to be perspicuous about what Christians are to believe and, by implication, what we are to reject. I recognize the warnings given by the apostles of those who would seek to pervert the faith once delivered (e.g., 2 Pet. 2). I know about the Mass, Marian dogmas, purgatory, and about the magisterium. However, over time I have found my understanding of the RCC refined and shaped by a number of influences.
In 2009, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, a personal hero of mine and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, signed the Manhattan Declaration; a statement made by both Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians in favor of life, marriage, and religious liberty. This document spoke of the common Christian duty to “proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness.” Mohler’s contribution to the defense and proclamation of orthodox Protestantism is unquestionable. His loyalty to the evangelical faith is inscrutable. I wondered, how then could he sign this document? Don’t we have a different gospel than the RCC or Orthodoxy? I wondered how a man with such sterling evangelical credentials could make such a statement.
In 2015, my wife Marion, and I lead a group of teenage youth from my fellowship to a Christian music festival in another state. The attendees were mainly evangelicals but there was a significant Catholic presence. I had learned that one of the headliners of the festival, Matt Maher, was a Roman Catholic. When Maher took to the stage I began to leave. My wife pleaded with me to stay. At the time, my refusal to participate was an expression of my loyalty to Christ and his gospel of grace and I walked away. I wondered, “How could we worship with Catholics?” From afar I listened to the voices of evangelicals and Catholics signing praise to the Triune God. That day, I realized that we do, in a certain sense, share a common faith—a catholic faith.
Sapere Aude: How Should Evangelical Protestants View Rome?
The RCC affirms as de fide dogma a litany of grossly unbiblical teachings. The papacy, ever-virginity of Mary, her immaculate conception and bodily assumption, and the sacramental system including the Mass are merely a few. Admittedly, the notion that we might “merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life” is so completely contrary to the New Testament one wonders how anyone might come to that conclusion after having read it. From a Protestant perspective, many of the teachings of the Roman communion are severely out of step with that of sacred Scripture. However, there is also a catalog of dogmas within the church that reflect a sound understanding of the Word. Chief among these is the Church’s resolute trinitarianism. The RCC affirms the great creeds and views the work of Christ as the only hope for fallen humanity. The Church clings to his cross and resurrection.
How then should we view Rome? For many of my Protestant brethren, relegating the Church to apostasy is the clear choice. However, there is a more evenhanded route that recognizes the considerable theological good within the Church while not overlooking the error.
One of my very favorite works of literature is The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Not only have I read it half a dozen times, but I’ve also seen all of the various cinematic efforts to portray Bunyan’s epic allegory. Even after nearly three hundred years, no one has been able to portray the Christian life in such masterful fiction. Bunyan covered the gamut of Christian experience, even detailing the pernicious threat of projecting an outward faith without true devotion to Christ.
I mention The Pilgrim’s Progress because there is a particular scene wherein Christian, the main character, walks the treacherous path through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Seeing the various dangers by means of the light given to him by God, Christian spotted the dwelling of two figures amidst the tortured remains of many pilgrims. One figure lay dead, a giant named “Pagan” who deceived the hearts of many. Undoubtedly, Pagan had been slain by the Lord of lords long ago. Bunyan described another giant who had previously had much power to destroy pilgrims—there he sat gritting his teeth and coveting the lives of pilgrims. This giant, named “Pope,” had been incapacitated and could no longer pose a significant threat to passersby.
This vignette in Bunyan’s allegory divulges several aspects of his view of the RCC. First, Bunyan viewed the papacy as the spiritual equivalent of a deadly monster. Second, Bunyan viewed the leadership of the RCC as a threat to the spiritual wellbeing of God’s people. Third, Bunyan believed that the teaching of the RCC was a lethal distraction to those on the road to the celestial city. Fourth, Bunyan made a tacit distinction between those pilgrims who had either been threatened or killed by Pope, and thus Bunyan recognized a difference between the papacy and those under its authority.
In Bunyan’s account, I see a distinction made by the apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians. However, we’ll need to do a little work to see it. In that letter, Paul wrote to those churches he had planted in the region of Galatia. In his absence, this church entertained the teaching of a group of “agitators” who were shilling a distorted gospel (1:6), even “another gospel.” To this threat, Paul didn’t mince words: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (v. 8). For Paul, there is only one gospel and no one, not even an apostle, can alter it.
What kind of alteration to the gospel did these “agitators” propose? Given Paul’s response, one might imagine that they promoted a form of cross-less Christianity, or perhaps they denied the virgin birth or the deity of Christ. Instead, these false teachers sought to persuade the Galatians to circumcise themselves in keeping with the Mosaic law code. Even then, only half of the congregation would have to participate. Admittedly, Paul’s remark in 4:10 (i.e., “You observe days and months and seasons and years”) implies that the Galatian Christians were also keeping certain Jewish feast days. However, we’re not told that these feast days were also considered a legalistic requirement for peace with God. It is noteworthy then, that even one alteration to the gospel whereby sinners must complete a single work of obedience confounds the gospel even rendering it “another gospel.”
Note Paul’s phrase in v.8: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach…” Paul leveled the anathema upon anyone who preached or taught an unbiblical gospel. He did not issue the anathema to the Galatians themselves, but instead called them “brothers” in v. 11. For Paul, these were Christians who were deceived by false teachers. It was those who set themselves up as teachers of the church to whom he leveled the anathema.
This distinction is the same one made by Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Teachers and church officers are held to a different standard than pilgrims (Jas. 3:1) and thus whereas we might, as Protestants, be tempted to abominate the entire RCC as apostate, we must instead, as Bunyan and Paul, discriminate between those that teach false and partially false doctrine and those that are under the authority of those teachers. Hence, we must recognize that the RCC is a church, albeit a heterodox church comprised of many Christians.
In necessariis unitas: Recognizing the Roman Catholic Church as Catholic
Over the course of years, I’ve come to embrace the doctrine of catholicity, or what the Apostle’s Creed calls “the holy catholic church.” The shape of this catholicity takes into account the classical distinctions implied by Hebrews 12:18-29. In that passage, the author of Hebrews compared the Mosaic Covenant to the New Covenant in Christ while describing the church upon the earth as “the church of the firstborn registered in heaven” (i.e., the church militant) and the church in the presence of God as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (i.e., the church triumphant). This church is comprised of every believer who has ever lived and is the holy catholic church.
Intrinsic to the concept of the “catholic (Grk. katholikos as in “universal” or “general”) faith” is the notion that the church is diverse in geography, ethnicity, tradition, and even theology. The church has historically distinguished catholic orthodoxy in terms of primary or essential Christian doctrine (hence the adage “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity”). That is, whereas Christians may differ on secondary or tertiary theological matters, there is a boundary line that defines the essential teachings of the faith. The question, then, is what are the essentials?
By God’s sovereign providence, the ancient church dealt with this question in detail as they faced various heretical movements. Their findings are well summarized in the last of the great ecumenical creeds, namely, the Athanasian Creed. The Athanasian Creed, or what is sometimes called Quicunque Vult (i.e., “Whosoever will” as in the first two words of the creed), combines the teaching of the three most important and vital creeds of the Christian faith, namely the Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Apostle’s creeds. For this reason, the Athanasian Creed is a powerful teaching tool for Christian discipleship. It is also a helpful means of distinguishing essential biblical teaching from the pretenders. Martin Luther, the great magisterial reformer, called the Athanasian Creed, “The most important and glorious composition since the days of the apostles.” In the Gallic Confession, Calvin described the creed as “In accordance with the Word of God.”
The Athanasian Creed defines catholic orthodoxy as trinitarianism:
Whoever will be saved: above all, it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except everyone shall keep whole and without violation: without doubt, he shall eternally perish. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity.
As the Creed continues it includes the incarnation of the Son of God, his authentic humanity, true deity, and consubstantiality with the Father, and concludes with the broad strokes of the gospel. Thus, if we were to define the catholic orthodoxy according to the Athanasian Creed, we would recognize the essentials of the faith as trinitarianism and trinitarian Christology, the life, death, burial, resurrection, and second coming of Christ, body-soul dualism, and his return in judgment according to works, resulting in either eternal life or eternal fire. Of course, inherent in the Creed is the recognition that there is a catholic faith and, therefore, the recognition of the catholic faith is included in this list of essentials. Out of necessity, we might also add the recognition that the Bible (i.e., the sixty-six books of the authentic canon) as the inspired Word of God is assumed in this Creed.
As a summary statement of essential teachings, the Athanasian Creed barely gives the gist and is by no means comprehensive. Ironically, one area wherein the Athanasian Creed falls short is in its failure to reflect how one is saved. As Mohler noted, “Central to the Christian message is the kerygma—the most basic declaration of how sinners are saved by the atonement achieved by Christ and applied to the believer through faith.” Surely, one cannot reject the doctrines contained within the Creed and be a Christian. But one can heartily affirm these doctrines and be a heretic. For example, one could affirm the Athanasian Creed while simultaneously affirming that circumcision is a requirement for salvation. If Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells us anything, it is that faith in the work of Christ alone merits Christians peace with God, the forgiveness of sins, and the righteousness of Christ. This too must be in our list of essential doctrines of the Christian faith. And, it is this last doctrine that serves as one of the primary means of division between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
In light of the above, whereas the RCC has evidently erred in its theology of salvation, it does recognize the necessity of grace. Whereas the RCC has effectively mangled the atonement by means of its sacramentalism, it does believe that the forgiveness of sins is found in Christ and him alone. Add into the mix the reality of the theological diversity within the RCC. Such diversity is writ large in the two living popes, Francis and Benedict. Could they be any different? Moreover, there are Catholics who, like Gustavo Gutiérrez, feel more comfortable with Marx than they do with Paul. There are Catholics who, like Peter D. Williams, communicate their faith with biblical and historical rigor and who are willing to be critical about the ungodly ideologies within their church. Hence, evangelicals are faced with the intractable task of recognizing that there is a way to communicate the Roman Catholic faith that is plausibly Christian and thus catholic. Even so, we must also recognize the distinction between those who teach falsely and those who have a simple and sincere faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
__________________  For a similar statement see Larry Ball, Escape From Paganism: How a Roman Catholic Can Be Saved (Victoria, CA: Trafford, 2008), 328.  The Latin expression de fide, which is translated “of the faith,” refers to those teachings which are considered absolutely true and essential tenets of the RCC. Thus, de fide dogmas are binding upon the church and must be affirmed.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2010.  The best of these is the 2019 animated edition directed by Robert Fernandez.  The present active participle tarassontes (“harrassers,” “troublers, or “agitators”) often bore the sense of political and social upheaval in the ancient world and it implies that these false teachers were presently working to upend the Galatian churches with their message, even as Paul wrote his letter. Cf. Acts 16:8, v. 13; 19:23.  In most places, the NT terms for “another,” allos and heteros, are essentially synonymous. However, in the phrase “a different gospel” (Grk. heteron euangellion), heteros indicates that this gospel isn’t merely another of a similar kind but that this gospel is altogether different.  The English Standard Version translates the active imperative anathema estō (“go make yourself accursed”) as passive (“let him be accursed”). Paul’s language, both here and in his other uses of anathema, reflects the way this term appears in the Septuagint (i.e., the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament). The Septuagint, just as the NT, uses anathema to refer to something that is devoted to a purpose, whether to God, or to some other authority. For example, in Acts 23:14, those who plotted to murder Paul said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath (anathemati anethematisamen) to taste no food till we have killed Paul.” A similar double occurrence of anathema occurs in Deuteronomy 13:15 LXX: “You shall do away with all those living in the city by slaughter by the sword; with a curse (anathemati), you shall devote it to destruction (anathematiete).” The term is often, although not exclusively, used with reference of destroying something or someone who has devoted themselves to another god. Paul always uses this term in its negative sense, referring to someone who, by virtue of their own action, has devoted himself to complete destruction by the judgment of God (1 Cor. 12:3; 16:22; cf. Rom. 9:3).  Bunyan, as most Protestants of his day, associated the biblical antichrist with that of the papacy. See “Of Antichrist, and His Ruin and the Slaying of the Witnesses” in George Offor ed., The Works of John Bunyan, Vol. 2 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 41-82. Notably, despite such an acerbic assessment, Bunyan believed the RCC to contain many Christians. See ibid., 80.  This statement echoes the position of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. See 2020, “Frequently Asked Questions—Denominations,” The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, https://www.lcms.org/about/beliefs/faqs/denominations#catholic.  Body-soul dualism refers to the belief that human beings are comprised of two elements, namely, a physical body and immaterial soul.  R. Albert Mohler, July/August 2003, “Standing Together, Standing Apart,” Touchstone, http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-06-070-f.