EDIT: This article is a fair representation of where I was at at the time (September 2013) but was reworked immediately after it was published to be less harsh on Catholics… I’ve since grown much more after attending a Catholic ACT men’s retreat.
Why I’m a Protestant
I was baptized Roman Catholic, then my parents switched to Methodists when I was a kid (I was an atheist though). Now, I’m non-denominational/reformed Presbyterian (that’s Protestant, duh!).
The interplay between Catholicism and Protestantism has always interested me. As an atheist, it seemed like it was just a matter of preference. As a new Protestant, it seemed a matter of salvation. Now… well – let’s explore!
I want to dig into what unites us, what separates us, and what matters.
What Catholics and Protestants AGREE on:
- We believe in The Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
- The Bible was divinely inspired.
- We believe Jesus Chris was born of a virgin and lived a sinless life, then was crucified and resurrected.
- We believe atonement for sin was made possible through Jesus’ sacrifice.
- We believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior.
I mean, that’s pretty big. But of course it’s not the whole story. So let’s briefly explain the history and what happened to cause the split.
History of Church formation until the Protestant Split
- After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostles preached the Gospel, created churches, and wrote letters.
- By 397 AD (about 200 years after the Apostles wrote the original manuscripts), The Council of Carthage published a list of all the inspired books of the Bible. The Old Testament was based on Jewish tradition, and the books of the New Testament were agreed upon as having been written by the Apostles and inspired by God. At the time, there were many individual churches with limited structured hierarchy.
- Then Rome seized power, tracing their Pope (one of several at the time) to the Apostle Peter and claiming central authority over the other churches. Whether this was legitimate depends on your perspective – Catholics, of course, believe it was.
- NOTE: This is when the Catholic (meaning “universal”) Church referred to in Scripture became the Roman Catholic Church. More on that later, but I must note that when I say ‘Catholic Church’ I’m referring to the Roman Catholic Church f0r the sake of brevity.
- By the 11th Century, the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church had split over the Pope/Roman Church’s authority, as well as theological differences.
- In 1517, Martin Luther posts The 95 Theses on the church door for discussion to reform the Church. The primary complaint was the Church selling indulgences to reduce time in Purgatory.
- The Catholic Church disagreed with Luther’s theses and refused any attempt at reformation. Luther went on to challenge many other Catholic teachings, including the authority of the Pope to interpret or confirm interpretation of the Bible. He was excommunicated and the Protestant Reformation was born.
Protestant Disagreements with Catholicism
Protestantism can be summarized by ‘The Five Solae‘ (or Solas)
- Sola Scriptura – By Scripture Alone
- Sola Fide – By Faith Alone
- Sola Gratia – By Grace Alone
- Solus Christus – Through Christ Alone
- Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God Alone.
(I’ve thought about getting a tattoo of this – here’s the sketch I did)
*EDIT: The idea of a protestant tattoo seems ridiculously confrontational and silly now.
We are saved by faith alone (not works), through grace alone (not based on anything we do), in Christ alone (not via a Priest), based on Scripture alone (not other writings are divinely inspired), and all glory goes to God (no worship/heavenly praise to Mary, the Saints, Popes, or Statues).
The Catholic response to The Five Solae
By Scripture Alone: The Catholic Church recognizes Holy Scripture as well as Sacred Tradition (including the infallibility of The Pope) as sources of divine authority. Catholics believe Sacred Tradition is necessary, impossible to part from Holy Scripture, and use the time before the New Testament was canonized as proof. Protestants do not reject tradition offhandedly, of course, but believe it is subject to sin and thus should not be held in the same esteem as Scripture.
By Faith Alone: The Catholic Church does not explicitly teach that we are saved by a combination of faith and works, but they do deny you can be saved by faith alone. This, of course, necessarily implies that something else must be required…
By Grace Alone: Catholics agree that we are saved by grace, and that it is a free gift from God. Sort of. The Catholic Church teaches that it dispenses grace through the sacraments, where as Protestants believe God’s grace is a result of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling in us, which does not require an act to obtain or renew.
In Christ Alone: The Catechism teaches that Priests can forgive sins, that the means to salvation lies within the Church, and that we can pray for Saints to pray for us, as opposed to having a direct relationship with Jesus Christ who alone has the power to forgive.
All Glory to God Alone: Catholics believe that by venerating Mary and the Saints, they are giving glory to God in a roundabout way. Further, the Catholic appreciation for images and statues is supposed to be used as a reminder of God’s glory. Protestants skip all the intermediaries.
You’ll notice that on three of the five, both sides could in theory agree to the statement – it’s just the context and understanding of the statement where we differ (By Scripture Alone and By Faith Alone are explicitly denied by the Catholic Church though).
Resulting World View
Before we get into each side’s arguments, let’s look at the primary difference that results from these issues – the view of salvation.
- Catholics believe that you must continue to work towards your salvation and cannot know if you’ve been saved until after you die (at which point you will suffer in Purgatory).
- Protestants have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and can feel secure in their salvation, having already occurred, and will be with Jesus in Heaven immediately upon death.
Arguments against Protestantism
Unity and History are the best arguments for Catholicism and against Protestantism, in my opinion. The Protestant Reformation did indeed break the apparent Christian unity in teachings and traditions at the time. Catholics would also argue that this means Protestants are not part of “the church” as described in Scripture.
It seems to me that the underlying Catholic belief is this: God had to ensure a single institution (with lineage from an Apostle) that was the guardian of the truth. The simple logic then is that since the Protestant Reformation created so many different denominations, each disagreeing with each other on any number of issues (which could, it seems, lead some to damnation) that it cannot be correct.
Very valid concerns.
Protestant Defense of Church Unity and History
First, we must recognize that the goal of the Protestant Reformation was not abolishing the Catholic Church or creating a new church – it was to reform the Church to be in line with Scripture and the early church fathers. At the time, the Church strongly resisted this which is why a split occurred.
Secondly, we must recognize the fallen, sinful nature of man and world that we live in. Knowing this, we should expect the teachings of God to be corrupted no matter the church.
- Is there ever any reference to central governance of the church in the Bible? No.
- Is there ever any reference to a single individual at the church’s head? Only Christ.
- What was the original wording used for “the church” and what was its context? The word translated “church” in the English Bible is ekklesia, which means “the called out ones” in Greek. It is not used to refer to a building or establishment, but a body of believers.
And so we see why, in our own eyes at least, Protestants have not broken the unity or history of the church… because “the church” was not necessarily the visible organization, which has always been filled with wolves and false teachers, but the body of believers. This is also why there can be multiple Protestant denominations – each denomination with slight differences, each a mix of wolves and believers (some have much better ratios than others).
Scriptural Arguments on either Side
Catholics point to James 2:24 “Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only?”, while Protestants point to Romans 3:28 “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” among others.
Though it may seem that Scripture is contradicting itself here, both verses can be (and are) true. I encourage you to read the full passages for yourself.
Protestants are particularly fond of the following verses against Catholicism –
1st Timothy 4:1-3, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods [meat] that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.“
Matthew 15:9, “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
Matthew 8:14, “And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever.”
1st Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.“
Psalm 118:8 admonishes, “It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man.“
Matthew 23:9 “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.”
Mark 6:3, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.”
Catholics prefer these verses –
Proverbs 3: 5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
John 17:21, “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Romans 16:17, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”
And of course Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Can both Protestants and Catholics be saved?
Some Catholics believe that Protestants, being outside the Roman Catholic Church, cannot be saved. And some Protestants believe that Catholics, belonging to a religion that teaches false doctrine, are not saved (in fact some notable Protestants consider the Popes to be the antichrist!).
But what does the Bible say? Scripture tells us that you can know a Christian by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), aka the visible results of their faith. And I know both Catholics and Protestants that display the fruit of the Spirit.
PS: I didn’t even get into Purgatory, the Apocrypha, the Sacraments, or any number of other issues, because I believe they are secondary to the issues discussed here.