A (Very) Brief Explanation: Why are there Catholics and Protestants?

It may seem a bit arrogant, but I think this might be the shortest summary of the historical development of the Roman Catholic Church and the basic reason why there is such a thing as a Protestant.

My purpose in this explanation is not to throw negative light on anyone who claims to be Catholic or anyone who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Not all Catholics believe the same things, just like not all Baptists believe the same things, and there are many members of churches (of all sorts) who have no idea what their church actually teaches on a given subject. So, I invite further conversation; I do not purposefully condemn any particular reader or someone you might know.

First, it is complicated, but Catholics have no unique claim on history.

Simply put, the Roman Catholic Church as it is today, in its doctrines and in its administration, did not exist until (at the earliest) the year 1215 AD. The Fourth Lateran Council ratified some of the teachings and most of the organizational forms that are distinctive of and essential to Roman Catholicism today.1 But it was not until the Council of Trent, which met sporadically from 1545 to 1563 that the main doctrines which separate Rome from Protestants were clearly articulated and ratified.2 Therefore, regardless of what my Roman Catholic friends might say, the Roman Church is not the oldest and most united church. It has a complicated past, and it has no unique claim on the Apostles or early Christians.

Second, Catholics and Protestants alike see the need for reform in the late Middle Ages.

Before and during the 1500s, there were many Christians within the Roman Church who were calling for reform. At least as early as the 1300s, with John Wycliffe in England in and Jan Hus in Bohemia (as well as many others), good Roman Catholics were writing and preaching and working for reforms within the Roman Catholic Church. By all observers, including Roman Catholics, Western Christianity had become so abusive and scandalous that something had to change.

Many historians look back and see that the leadership of the Roman Church was unwilling to change, so Catholic priests, local friars, and Church theologians started protesting. The quintessential moment which seems to capture the scene in the early 1500s was that evening of October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther (a German monk, Catholic priest, and promising theologian) nailed his invitation to scholarly debate on the castle-church door in Wittenberg. The nailing of the 95 theses was a historic moment, but there were others like it happening all over Europe.

Zwingli, in Zurich, encouraged his congregation to eat meat during a Roman fasting day. English men and women were sharing copies of Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin Bible, and they were illegally memorizing passages to recite to one another so that they might all hear the Bible in their own language. Spain and France were killing and exiling those who taught against Rome, and that’s how John Calvin (a Frenchmen) ended up in Geneva, where he wrote the first comprehensive systematic theology textbook for instructing new Christians.

All of this came to a head when Rome called a council to deal once-and-for-all with the reformers. This was the notorious Council of Trent.

Third, Rome formally and officially condemned all Protestants.

It is a historical and present fact that the Roman Catholic Church has formally set itself against Protestants, and it has never pulled back from that clear and official statement. At the Council of Trent, Rome condemned to hell anyone who believes some of the most fundamental doctrines among all Protestants. The canons or decrees of Trent anathematize3 anyone who believes that the Bible is the chief authority over all tradition and papal decrees. They also condemned anyone who believes that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone in the person and work of Christ.4

These statements are clear, they are recorded for anyone to see in the records of that council, and they are repeated in the Roman Catholic Catechism that is still used by Rome today.

It seems to me that Protestants and Roman Catholics can indeed be friends today. But it also seems to me that we must all recognize the differences between them are not mere preference nor are they minor. As I said above, though, it is likely that most Roman Catholics do not know the official teaching of Rome, just the same as most people who claim to be Baptist do not know what Baptists have historically taught.

Therefore, rather than using labels and throwing verbal grenades, I think we all might do well to simply have good conversations about the biblical gospel.

Endnotes

1. The Roman Catholic Church today shares many common doctrines with Protestants. These are not the doctrines that make Rome distinct as a Church. As time moved on, Rome increasingly articulated and demanded adherence to doctrines and organizational structures that are clearly absent from Scripture.

2. This article by Joe Carter does a good job of summarizing some of the main points of the Council of Trent as a historical moment that continues to impact Protestants and Roman Catholics today. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-the-council-of-trent/

3. Anathematize is a fancy word that refers to a religious condemnation. The word anathema is a transliteration from the Greek ἀναθεμα. This was the word the Apostle Paul used to condemn any preacher of a false gospel (Galatians 1:8-9), and the word was and is used by the Roman Catholic Church to condemn anyone who opposes or diverts from official church teaching.

4. The key word in these doctrinal phrases is “alone.” Rome did teach and still teaches that faith in Christ is necessary for justification. The disagreement was never about the necessity of faith, but the sufficiency of it. Is a sinner justified before God by simply believing or having faith in the finished work of Christ? Rome says, “No!” Protestants say, “Yes!”

Should Protestants Still Protest?

This year marks the 500th anniversary since that fateful day when Martin Luther nailed a document, intended to initiate a collegiate theological discussion, to the chapel door in Wittenburg, Germany. Unintentionally (it seems), Luther struck the match that ignited a powder keg.

Germany, Switzerland, England, Scottland, and several other lands experienced an upheaval of the established religious system of the day (Roman Catholicism); and there were many and various contributors. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and many others played their respective and overlapping parts in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Today, many are asking if the Protestant Reformation is over, and others seem to think it was a vastly overblown misunderstanding to begin with. Should Protestants still protest? Are Protestants who do still protest revealing themselves as merely irreconcilable curmudgeons?

I think it is quite helpful to answer questions like these by first understanding the disagreement. One can hardly seek to reconcile two parties without knowing what has divided them thus far. So, let’s go back to the place where the disagreement was codified.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many people believed that some reformation within Christendom was necessary. When the Reformation became undeniable, both Roman Catholics and Protestants still agreed that change was needed, but each side differed considerably on what that reform should look like. The Roman Catholic Church officially responded to their protesting brethren through the forum of a Church Council.

The Council of Trent gathered in Trento and Bologna, Italy, over 18 years (1545-1563). Sometimes infrequent and sometimes intensive, these meetings included discussion and debate on many topics of Roman Catholic theology. Bishops and theologians considered dogma, doctrine, and tradition regarding authority, sacraments, purgatory, indulgences, and much more. Finally, the Council of Trent published its decrees (statements of affirmation) and canons (statements of judgment) in 1564, and these were confirmed by Pope Pius IV.

Specifically addressing some Protestant theological assertions, the Council of Trent clearly presented an opposing position. While there are certainly still many things about which Roman Catholics and Protestants agree (God as Trinity, Jesus as Savior, and grace as necessary), there is a stark contrast on vital matters.

Few questions are as important as, “How is a sinner justified before God?” Rome answered the question by saying (among other things) that the sinner must participate in his/her justification by sacraments and other good works.

The Council of Trent states that baptism is the ‘instrumental cause,’ or the means by which justification is obtained.

“The instrumental cause [of justification] is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which justification never befell any man…”

The Council of Trent states that justification can and should be increased through the efforts of obedience on the part of the sinner.

“Having, therefore, been thus justified… they [those who are justified], through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in the justice received through the grace of Christ, and are still more justified…”

The Council of Trent states that faith alone cannot and will not justify any sinner.

“No one ought to flatter himself upon faith alone, deeming that by faith alone he is made an heir, and will obtain the inheritance [the inheritance of salvation or eternal life in Christ Jesus].”

The Council of Trent not only clarified the Roman Catholic teaching on important matters, it also unequivocally named what is at stake. The strong denials below include the phrase, “let him be anathema,” which is a superlative condemnation of anyone who disagrees with the statement. With intentional language, the Roman Catholic Church condemned all protesters.

The following are some of the Roman Catholic canons on the subject of justification.

Canon 11: If any one shall say, that men are justified by the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ… or even that the grace, by which we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.

Canon 12: If any one shall say, that justifying faith is naught else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or that it is this confidence alone by which we are justified; let him be anathema.

Canon 24: If any one shall say, that the justice received is not preserved, and also increased in the sight of God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification received, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

The message could not be clearer: believing that justification comes by way of Christ’s righteousness and not by any work or effort on the part of the sinner is a justification condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who believes in justification by faith alone in Christ alone is thus condemned or “anathematized.”

In two major Protestant catechisms, the question of justification is asked and answered. The Westminster Shorter catechism (following the Westminster Confession of 1647) and the Baptist catechism (following the Second London Confession of 1689) both provide an identicle answer (dependent upon translation).

“What is justification?”

“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

With the same precision and clarity as the Roman Catholics, Protestants articulated their own understanding of justification, and one cannot miss the antithesis. What Rome said was condemnable, Protestants wholeheartedly affirm. What Rome stated as doctrine, Protestants denied outright.

The only question we are left with now is, Should Protestants still protest?

Well, does Rome still affirm the decrees and canons published from the Council of Trent?

Yes, the current edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, affirms, and cites the Council of Trent throughout (including the section on Justification, pg. 535-537). Furthermore, reversing the official condemnation of “justification by faith alone in Christ alone” would require a new and clear council statement (Vatican I and Vatican II (subsequent councils) reaffirmed the Council of Trent).

Do Evangelical Protestants still affirm the doctrine of justification as articulated in the two catechisms cited above?

Yes, the Westminster Confession is still the authoritative doctrinal body of teaching (under the authority of Scripture) for Presbyterians. Yes, though Baptists are generally a less creedal bunch, this denomination is marked by a fierce affirmation of justification by personal faith alone – apart from any good work – in Christ alone.

So, Should Protestants still protest?

What else can any thinking person expect from a Protestant? The Roman Catholic who seeks to reconcile with Protestants either denies or betrays his/her own ignorance of Rome’s doctrine and dogma. The Protestant who seeks to reconcile with Rome is by definition no longer a Protestant – since he/she has stopped protesting.

Protestants must not only protest, but Protestants must know what and why we are protesting. The very Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, and this is no time to capitulate.

 

*If you enjoyed this article, then you will probably also like others in this category, “Reformation Heroes.”

 

Diet & Protestation at Speyer

Martin Luther had been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in 1521, but his legend and writings continued to spread. Luther, undaunted by the full fury of Rome, also wrote more pamphlets and books in opposition to Roman Catholic doctrines. Furthermore, he attempted to clarify the Bible’s core teachings on justification through Christ alone, apart from any sacramental necessity. Luther was no political genius, but his voice and pen were certainly fueling reform in the civil realm as much as in the religious.

The Roman Emperor, Charles V, called the Diet of Speyer in order to do something about all the political and religious instability Luther and his followers were causing. A “Diet” is a legislative assembly, a meeting of political and/or religious leaders for the purpose of passing judgments and/or laws. Speyer was the German town in which the Diet was to be held.

On March 15, 1529, Charles V sent his younger brother King Ferdinand to oversee the Diet of Speyer. The Roman Catholic leaders were outraged by the doctrines of the Reformation, and there was no room for agreement. Philip Melanchthon (Luther’s partner and pupil) spoke for the Protestants, asking that there at least be the liberty to believe and practice religion according to one’s own conscience.

Ferdinand wanted no more of this unproductive discussion, so he ruled that Roman Catholicism would be the religion of the land. After demanding a full submission on the part of the Protestants, Ferdinand left without giving a moment of time to any objections. It was ordered that the Protestants of Germany live as Catholics whether they wanted to or not.

Some civil and religious leaders among the Protestants refused to give up on their petition to believe and practice true Christianity as they understood the Bible to teach it. They organized and requested an official opportunity to protest.

One month later, another Diet was arranged at Speyer, this one was called the Protestation at Speyer. It was there that civil leaders and reformers objected to the previous ruling of King Ferdinand. John the Steadfast, Elector or Governor of Saxony, read the protest aloud.

“We are resolved, with the grace of God, to maintain the pure preaching of God’s holy Word, such as is contained in the biblical books of the Old and New Testaments, without adding anything to it that may be contrary to it. This word is the only truth; it is the sure rule of all doctrine and of all life, and can never fail or deceive us. He who builds on this foundation shall stand against all the powers of hell…

For these reasons, most dear lords and friends, we earnestly entreat you to weigh carefully our grievances and our motives. …we protest before God, our only Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer and Savior… we, for us and our people, neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree in anything that is contrary to God, to His holy Word, to our right conscience, and to the salvation of souls.

There is no true preaching or doctrine but that which conforms to the Word of God. The Lord forbids the teaching of any other faith… This Holy Book is in all things necessary for the Christian and easy to be understood. It shines clearly in its own light, and is found to enlighten the darkness… We therefore reject the yoke that is imposed upon us.”[1]

This protest is the foundation of the label which all Protestants wear today. The Protestation at Speyer remains the protestation among all true Protestants since. We reject any yoke imposed upon us but the yoke of the Lord Jesus Christ. His Word and His Word alone shall rule and govern what we believe and how we live.

May God, our Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer, help us to build on the sure foundation of His Word in order that – come whatever will – we may stand.

[1] Kleyn, Diane. Reformation Heroes (Kindle Locations 1010-1026). Reformation Heritage Books. Kindle Edition.

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