Spiritual Life
Reasons to Believe
Religions & Sects
Church History
In the News
Faith & Reason Press Speaker's Forum Links Resources About Us


An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism

(Part Two)

by Kenneth R. Samples


Catholicism possesses a foundational orthodoxy reflected in its affirmation of the crucial doctrines expressed in the ancient ecumenical creeds. Nevertheless, Protestants detect serious problems in Catholic theology in that the church affirms teachings that are extraneous and inconsistent with its orthodox (Christian) foundation. These doctrinal errors are of such a serious nature that aspects of orthodoxy are undermined, thus warranting the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the continued separation of present-day Protestantism from Catholicism. These divergent views, however, do not warrant classifying Catholicism as a non-Christian religion or cult. The doctrinal disputes of the Reformation era remain substantially unchanged today, extending to: (1) religious authority, (2) the doctrine of justification, (3) beliefs concerning the Virgin Mary, and (4) sacramentalism and the Mass. The twentieth century trend toward religious pluralism has also become a serious concern.

A prominent evangelical theologian was asked the pointed question,"What separates Catholics from evangelical Protestants?" The theologian retorted, "Nothing and everything!" This response, though paradoxical, is actually keenly insightful. When one examines the common doctrinal ground between the two camps, it seems nothing separates Catholics from evangelicals. When one explores the areas of difference, however, it seems that virtually everything separates Catholics from evangelicals.

In Part One of this series we gained some appreciation and understanding of contemporary Catholicism by exploring some of its unique sociological features. We also began our theological appraisal by probing the common areas of doctrinal agreement between classical Catholicism and historic Protestantism -- especially those crucial doctrines succinctly summarized in the ancient ecumenical creeds.

In the present article we will extend our appraisal of Catholicism by, first, discussing to what extent evangelical Protestants consider the Catholic church to be an authentic Christian church. Second, we will respond to the charge made primarily by popular fundamentalists that Catholicism is a completely invalid expression of Christianity, and therefore a "non-Christian" or "anti-Christian" cult or religion. In this connection we will also address the common errors in reasoning and methodology made by those who insist that Catholicism should be classified as nothing more than an apostate, non-Christian cult. Third, we will begin our own critical evaluation of Catholicism by outlining the central doctrinal issues that sharply separate evangelical Protestants from Roman Catholics.


My research convinces me that the majority of evangelical Protestant theologians and scholars who are knowledgeable concerning Catholicism would be perplexed to hear Catholicism classified simply as a "non-Christian religion" or an "anti-Christian cult."[1] This perplexity would stem from the fact that no matter how theologically deviant Catholicism might be -- even if in some respects apostate -- it certainly does possess a structural or foundational orthodoxy, reflected in its adherence to the ancient ecumenical creeds (see Part One).[2] As such, it should be considered at least provisionally a Christian church body. Certainly most evangelical Protestant scholars would also insist that the unfortunate unbiblical elements found in Catholicism mitigate against, or in some instances tend to undermine, aspects of that foundational orthodoxy.

Recognizing and understanding this tension in Catholic theology of the right hand giving (foundational orthodoxy) and yet the left hand taking away (affirming teaching that is inconsistent with that orthodoxy) is, in this writer's opinion, a key to formulating a sound Protestant evaluation of Catholicism. Despite this tension, however, most evangelical scholars believe that the core orthodoxy is never entirely eclipsed. For example, though very critical of Catholicism at numerous points, evangelical theologian John Jefferson Davis of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary stated that "conservative evangelicals could affirm about 85 percent of what Catholics believe."[3]

Even the Protestant Reformers[4] themselves clearly acknowledged that Catholicism as a system affirmed the basic articles of the historic Christian faith. The Reformers simply charged that in both belief and practice the medieval Catholic church compromised its formal adherence to orthodoxy -- specifically as related to its obscuring and undermining the gospel message.

Because the Catholic church would not itself reform, the Reformation became an unavoidable though tragic necessity. However, while the Reformers called into question the Catholic church's right to be called a "true church" (because it was failing to preach the true gospel), they did not think it had lost all the qualities of a true church. For example, they did not require the rebaptizing of those who had once been baptized as Roman Catholics.[5] In a book discussing the relationship of heretical doctrine to historic Christian orthodoxy, theologian Harold O. J. Brown of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School made this insightful comment concerning Catholicism:

The strongest accusation that can be made against Roman Catholicism from this perspective is not that it is heretical in structure, but that it is heretical in effect, in that it effectively undercuts its own formal adherence to the major Christological stands of its official creeds. In other wo