Two Contrasting Books on Roman Catholicism

I am approximately 150 pages into Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. In the interests of being able to report on my reading more often than every three months (which is about how long it will take me to get through one volume of the Summa), I am reading other words on Roman Catholicism. Two books I have read recently are Thomas Howard’s On Being Catholic, and Devin Rose’s If Protestantism Is True. My basic evaluation is that the Howard book is very interesting reading, is more constructive, and seeks to focus on the heart of Roman Catholicism. As such, I found the book quite interesting and informative (he writes quite a lot like G.K. Chesterton).

What is especially helpful about Howard’s book is the class of statements that begin “To be Catholic is…” If one were to put all these statements together in a row, one would get a fairly complete picture of what it means to be a Roman Catholic. His viewpoint on Roman Catholicism certainly seems to jibe with Robert Barron’s view of the church as an extension of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The book I am reading by de Chirico is also leaning in this direction, though he would include the Roman Catholic understanding of the relationship of nature and grace to be equally central to Roman Catholicism (though I don’t think Howard would necessarily disagree with that assessment). Howard’s book will be extremely useful in formulating what Roman Catholicism is.

The Rose book I found rather disappointing. Rose tends to take a Baptist, general evangelical, low-church approach as constitutive of all Protestants. Even though he quotes Lutherans and Reformed (though he quotes Calvin as if the Reformed world were entirely indebted to Calvin in the same way that Lutherans are indebted to Luther, which is not the case), when he argues, it is as though the Reformed have dropped off the map. Many, if not most, of his arguments don’t work against the Reformed world. There are false dichotomies everywhere (the two options usually being Roman Catholicism and low-church, generally evangelical Baptist theology). He does not understand Reformed Protestantism, that much is quite certain. A few examples will suffice. On page 36, he says: “The Protestant teaching on grace is that it is divine aid but not divine life. Holiness comes from Christ imputing His righteousness to the Christian and so the Father legally declares him to be holy, but in reality he is not transformed into holiness” (emphasis original). Apparently Rose has never heard of the idea of sanctification. This is a recurring problem in Roman Catholic writings. I found the same problem in Ott’s Fundamentals. The correct Reformed Protestant teaching is that we get two benefits from being united to Christ. The first is justification, which is the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience to the believer, received by faith alone. The second is sanctification, which is God changing the person on the inside by infusing the Holy Spirit within the believer, such that the person becomes positionally holy, and progressively holy. The doctrine of sanctification says precisely what Rose thinks Protestants never say. The difference is that Protestants do not confuse the outward declaration with the inward change, but rather distinguish them as distinct (though inseparable) acts of God’s grace. The believer is not transformed on the inside in justification, but most certainly is transformed on the inside in sanctification. I have yet to see a Roman Catholic who understands this about Protestantism.

Another example is the description of Mary as Mother of God (and this issue was hashed out in excruciating detail on this blog a while ago). Yes, fundamental Baptists probably aren’t very comfortable saying this. But the Reformed have said that this is an appropriate way to refer to Mary, as long as it is understood by this that Mary is the mother of Jesus, a person who is God and man. We can refer to the person of Jesus by reference to either nature. And in this way, we can say that Mary was the Theotokos, the God-bearer. No one believes that Mary was the origin of Jesus’ divinity (although I would still argue that Roman Catholics go way too far with their doctrine of Mary). Still, one must not throw out the proper way of speaking about Mary, just because some people go too far. The abuse does not prohibit the use.

Rose, like other Roman Catholics I have read, misunderstands the Protestant doctrine of the perspecuity of Scripture rather badly. His definition of the Protestant doctrine is that “Protestantism teaches that the Scriptures are clear-despite any person’s experience to the contrary” (p. 153). The examples that Rose brings up involve things that are not central to being a Christian. Protestants do not, and have never taught, that all Scripture is perfectly clear. Protestants have taught that what is necessary for salvation is clear. The clearest example of how this works is the work of the Gideons. They place Bibles everywhere they can. The stories and testimonies told by the people who are affected by the Gideons’ work proves the Protestant thesis: many people who have either never been in a church, or didn’t understand and therefore went very seldom, are at the verge of committing suicide, or are seriously down and out. They go to a hotel, and are about to do something drastic, when they find a Gideon Bible there. Without a single person explaining to them what the text means, they come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit worked through the Word to convert that person. Now, it is true that saving faith comes far more often through hearing the Word preached. However, the Scriptures are clear enough on matters related to salvation that a person can come to a saving faith simply by reading the Bible. That is what the Protestants mean by perspecuity.

On authority, Rose again presents a false dichotomy. He seems to think that if a Christian does not have a Roman Catholic heirarchical authority telling him what to believe, then the Christian has no authority at all instructing him. Related to this is the idea of individualism: Rose thinks that the only alternative to Roman Catholicism is radical individualism. Reformed Protestants beg to differ. The church is most definitely an authority. The pastor is an authority figure. It is not just “me and my Bible and Jesus.” The difference is that we do not posit infallible authorities other than Scripture and the Holy Spirit. We posit fallible authority over (yes, OVER!) a Christian’s life.

In short, Rose’s book is entirely too simplistic in its analysis of Protestantism, which leads me to believe that Rose did not thoroughly explore Protestantism before he left it. He did not scour the multitudinous writings of Evangelicals on Roman Catholicism before he left. Apparently, he asked his pastor and friends questions which they were not able to answer. And because they were not able to answer them, he left Protestantism. Folks, let me stress this: if you are considering such a life-changing move as going from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, shouldn’t you leave absolutely no stone unturned? Shouldn’t you read as widely as you can on the subject before you give up? So far, I have not found a single objection to Protestantism from Roman Catholicism that has not been answered somewhere or other in Protestant works. This is not to say that Roman Catholic objections have no substance. Many of their objections are weighty questions indeed. However, there are answers, as there have been answers for centuries.