(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
In this section, we will try to take a rather lengthy look at Roman Catholicism. We will try to understand what Rome actually teaches, rather than attack a caricature of the Catholic Catechism.
In addition to Gerstner’s book, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).
In fact, let’s begin by quoting a hypothetical encounter taken from White’s book. Bill is a lifelong Baptist, who at the mall, encounters Scott (let the reader guess why that name was chosen) an old friend from his teenage years. Bill and Scott both were in the church choir.
Bill: Remember the choir director at church, Scott? We had some great times with him, especially when we kept bugging him to sing “Love is the Flag Flown High.”This dialog, while obviously contrived, makes some very good points. One is that there are some very smart and knowledgeable Roman Catholics, some of them former Protestants, who can and will skillfully defend their faith. The other is that, as Protestants, if we don’t know (a) how to defend our faith and (b) don’t know what Rome really teaches, then we are impotent in the face of such opposition.
Scott: (suddenly feeling a bit uneasy) Yes, I remember him well.
Bill: So, where have you been attending church these days?
Scott: Well, Bill, I’ve been thinking about getting back in touch with you about that. I’ve had a change in direction, you might say.
Bill: Oh? Last I heard you were over at Southside.
Scott: Yes, I was there for quite some time. But a few years back—well, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Bill: You’ve become a Roman Catholic? I can’t believe it! How could you do that? You know a lot of what they teach isn’t in the Bible at all. Worse, some of it is contrary to the Bible. I remember when we talked about things like Purgatory and the Pope and worshipping Mary and all that—remember? You even said once, “Yeah Purgatory. You’ll find that in your bible dictionary—right next to venial sins!”
Scott: I do remember saying that. But, Bill, I’ve got to tell you, we were both wrong. There’s so much more to it than we ever thought. And the Bible does teach about venial sins, and Purgatory, and the Pope, and we don’t worship Mary….
Bill: Wait a minute, Scott, I’m still in shock here. You’re actually telling me that you are a member of the Roman Catholic Church? That you believe the teachings of that church—that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, and Mary is the Mother of God, and you have to work your way to heaven?
Scott: I believe everything the Church teaches, though you aren’t very accurate in your understanding of what the Church does teach—neither was I, I can assure you. Look Bill, I had all the same ideas you have now. But I looked into what Rome really teaches. I discovered that not only did I have a lot of misconceptions about the theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but I found out they had a tremendous foundation for their own beliefs in the Bible! And what really clichéd it, Bill, was that I couldn’t defend what I always believed against the objections raised by the Apostolic Church.
Bill: Like What?
Scott: Well, like believing the doctrine of sola scriptura, that everything has to be spelled out in the Bible or it’s not to be believed. Where does the Bible teach sola scriptura, Bill? You and I had always assumed the Bible was our sole rule of faith, but where does the Bible teach that? If you can’t support that from the Bible, then you have a self-refuting belief, don’t you?
Bill: Well, in the book of Matthew, Jesus said that we should reject traditions. I think it’s in the fifteenth chapter or so, isn’t it?
Scott: Yes that’s correct. But if you look at the passage carefully, Jesus said to reject human traditions, not divine traditions. He himself held men accountable to extrabiblical traditions. For example, in Matthew 23:2, He told people they needed to obey the person who sat in the “seat of Moses.” Now where in the Old Testament do you find the teaching about “Moses’ seat”?
Bill: Well, I’d have to look it up. I can’t think of any place.
Scott: I looked. It isn’t there. And what of Paul’s command to the Thessalonians, “Hold fast to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by epistle”? I have never heard any discussion of holding fast to traditions that have been passed on orally in any Bible study you or I ever attended, did you?
Bill: Again, I’d have to look that one up. But I can’t believe you are really convinced of all the unscriptural doctrines Rome teaches. Like, what about the Gospel itself, Scott? Do you really think you can work your way to heaven?
Scott: No, of course not, and neither does any informed Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church doesn’t teach that you can work your way to heaven Bill. That’s a Protestant myth. In fact, one of the turning points of my journey was when I discovered that the Council of Trent had condemned anyone who said you could work your way to heaven! The very first canon on justification from Trent says “If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.”
Bill: But what about the Mass, and confession to priests, and all that?
Scott: I’ve discovered a lot about the teaching of the Church over the past few years, Bill, and I’ll tell you that the early Christians believed in all those things, just like the Church teaches today. And there is solid basis in the Bible for the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, for the office of priest, for confession, absolution, the Sacraments—all of it.
Bill: You aren’t going to tell me that you find biblical support for worshipping Mary, are you, Scott?
Scott: No, I’m not because I don’t worship Mary.
Bill: Scott, you and I have both watched Catholics lighting candles to Mary, saying the Rosary, all of that. How can you not call that worship?
Scott: Believe me, Bill, the teachings about Mary were the toughest. I just couldn’t understand them at first. But slowly, over time, I realized that most of my problems had to do with Protestant myths, like the idea of worshipping Mary rather than venerating her. I also came to understand how biblical the devotion to the Mother of All Christians is. I’d love to explain this all to you, I really would…
Bill: And the Pope, you really call him “Holy Father”?
Scott: Yes, Bill, I do. He is the successor of Peter, the one on whom Christ built his church, as Matthew 16:18-19 teaches. He’s the modern fulfillment of Christ’s prayer for Peter that his faith would not fail.
Bill: I can’t believe this. You really are of all this, aren’t you?
Scott: Yes, Bill. And you’ve got to admit, I have the advantage right now. I’ve been where you are, and I know what you believe. You haven’t been where I am. You can’t honestly say you’ve given Rome a fair chance, can you? Instead you’ve accepted what others have said at face value. Most of the time when we were young we heard from former Roman Catholics Now, tell me Bill, would you want your church judged solely on the word of former members?
Bill: Well no, probably not.
Scott: I’d really like to talk to you some more about this, Bill. Let me just tell you that I haven’t abandoned anything. I’ve simply found the fullness of what Christ gave us in His Church. I’ve found the Apostolic Church, the historic church, the one Christ founded and promised never to abandon. I believe and love the Bible as much as I ever did. I’ve simply learned that it doesn’t teach what Martin Luther thought it did. (White, pp. 21-24)