(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. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
A question that immediately arises: Does any of this, the doctrinal differences between Protestants and Catholics, actually matter? Was the Reformation important, or was it over inconsequential academic subtleties?
Put another way: We know that somewhere there must be a limit beyond which we cannot have Christian fellowship with the followers of other churches. We would all agree, I think, that we cannot have any sort of Christian fellowship with Mormons, who hold a blasphemous view of all three persons of the Godhead and in particular Jesus. What about Roman Catholics? Clearly we are much, much closer to Catholics than to Mormons—by orders of magnitude. But are Roman Catholics also “beyond the pale” of orthodoxy? And even then, there is another question: even if I can’t have Christian fellowship, does it make sense to join forces to fight the culture wars? Does it make sense for Catholics and Protestants to join forces to fight abortion, or pornography? What about Protestants and Mormons? Protestants and Moslems?
What is the proper balance? On the one hand we have Christ's high priestly prayer of John 17, a prayer for unity of all believers. We dare not live in ignorance of our Lord’s call for unity. On the other hand we, have tension arising from frightful passages such as:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! (Gal. 1:8)These are not simple questions.
A lesson may be found from the time Paul encountered someone who was teaching a different gospel. Paul did not tolerate the diversion from the true gospel. He did not dismiss the crime, chalking it up to unimportant intellectual differences that shouldn’t be of concern to true believers united in their love of Christ. No, he publicly condemned the error and labeled it as hypocrisy.
You know the punch line. The person Paul condemned was none other than Peter.
We read of the account in the book of Galatians:
Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Gal. 2 11:16)Peter, if not explicitly then at least implicitly through his actions, was teaching that works are required for justification. No doubt Peter also understood that grace was necessary for justification, but by his actions he was, in effect, stating that in addition to grace one had to act as a Jew and do the works of the law in order to be justified. Peter was teaching:
From the rest of the New Testament, we know that Peter corrected himself and ceased his Judaizer error. Paul, in challenging rather than tolerating Peter, did him a great loving service. As for Paul, John Calvin theorizes that the credibility of his (Paul’s) entire ministry depended on his fortitude in standing up to Peter.
We live in an age where society worships at the altar of tolerance. I think we have to resist grabbing onto the humanists’ coattails.
Paul’s rebuke of Peter can serve as a model. Their positions differed by some amount. Clearly Paul’s circle was not big enough to accommodate Peter’s position. If you stress unity among believers whose positions differ as much as those of Peter and Paul (which by today’s standards may not be so rare), then I would say gracious debate, rather than unity, is called for.
Next time, however, let us examine some of the non-essential differences between Catholics and Protestants.