As we approach 2017 and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, renewed attention will come to the Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism, and the issues that still divide us. Since my childhood in Mobile, Ala. (a city with a large RCC population), and my college years at a Jesuit institution, I have been intrigued by the Roman Catholic Church’s history and doctrine.
The intensification of cultural controversy over marriage, gender, abortion, and religious liberty has brought Roman Catholics and Protestants closer together as co-belligerents—uneasy allies of a sort. This has also prompted Evangelicals to pay closer attention to the papacy, its tone, and its teaching.
I am occasionally asked about resources to better understand Roman Catholicism, and two books—one I read last year, and one I read last week—are helpful for those seeking to understand Roman Catholicism.
If one desires a more comprehensive understanding of Roman Catholicism, Greg Allison’s Roman Catholic Theology & Practice is the one to reach for. If one is reading, as an Evangelical, wanting to understand Protestantism and why one is not a Roman Catholic, R.C. Sproul’s Are We Together? will suffice.
Roman Catholic Theology & Practice
Allison’s Roman Catholic Theology & Practice is an indispensable resource for any serious student of Roman Catholicism. Allison’s book is thorough, copiously documented, and charitable in tone. Allison points out commonalities the RCC and Protestants share, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, and the joint affirmation of early-church creeds.
Allison succeeds in objectively letting the RCC speak for itself. He documents the church’s teaching, puts it into broader contextual consideration, and then engages and assesses from an evangelical perspective.
Are We Together?
Sproul’s Are We Together? is a shorter, more popular engagement with Roman Catholic teaching. While Allison’s book is more structured, moving systematically through Roman Catholic teaching, Sproul is more topical, engaging and clarifying common key points of tension. Sproul is a veteran in the RCC versus Protestant debates. He landed firmly against the Evangelicals & Catholics Together Statement, which appeared in 1995, and has written extensively on the Roman Catholic Church.
Sproul’s book covers six topics in six chapters: Scripture, Justification, The Church, The Sacraments, The Papacy, and Mary. In each chapter, he covers Roman Catholic teaching, clarifies misperceptions—whether fostered by the RCC or foisted on them by Protestants—and offers historical, theological and Scriptural refutations.
For example, Sproul’s chapter on Mary is especially helpful. He clarifies Roman Catholic teaching on the Immaculate Conception (it refers to Mary having been born sinless, not Jesus, as many Protestants mistakenly think), the veneration of Mary, and then rightly honors Mary, as a Protestant, for her unique place in the New Testament.
With over 1 billion adherents, it is unfair to judge the RCC by the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of its members. Moreover, it is unfair to judge all 1 billion Catholics by the worst moments and most inaccurate teachings of their church. As a Southern Baptist, I would not want someone to judge me, or my church, along these lines.
We should rejoice over genuine followers of Christ within the RCC, but we must have the theological clarity and ministerial courage in such instances to acknowledge they are saved despite, not because of, the RCC’s official teachings on salvation.
As Evangelicals, we must have the boldness to insist we are Protestant for a reason. The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church gets the Scriptures, the church, the way of sanctification, and, most of all, the gospel wrong. The Roman Catholic Church teaches faith plus works equals justification. Protestants believe faith equals justification plus works.
With increasing secularism at home and militant Islam abroad, we are reminded how much Evangelicals have in common with the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, as these two books make clear, there is still much we differ on, including the most urgent matter of them all—how one is reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.topicsBook Review, Roman Catholicism