Reformation 500: Catholicism—Christless cult or Christian church?

This year celebrates the five hundredth year of the Protestant Reformation. While significant attempts were made earlier than 1517 to reform the Catholic Church (think Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe or John Hus), it was really the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses that kicked off the Reformation in earnest.

Luther (and others before and after him) was concerned that the Catholic Church had lost, or at least severely obscured, the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. He assumed that his efforts at reform would be appreciated, but found only severe opposition at every turn.

One of the stark features of the Reformers’ writings is their strong condemnation of the Catholic Church. Luther spoke of “these arrogant and unlearned papists” and considered the pope to be “possessed by demons” and “full of devils.” He called for the pontiff to “be exterminated by the Word and by prayer.”

John Calvin thought that “the Holy Spirit has good reason to call them apostates.” He wrote, “Thus, whatever the Papists babble about Christianity, it is nothing but mere hypocrisy and lies. They falsely and wickedly use the name of the Son of God, either as a mask or as an idol.”

The Reformers’ distaste for Catholic dogma is clearly seen in the historic Reformed confessions. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, for example, calls the pope “that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God; whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.”

In recent times, Protestants have tended to become far friendlier toward the Catholic Church. In September 2015, LifeWay Research performed a telephonic survey of a thousand Protestant pastors on their opinions of Pope Francis. Where Luther considered the pope to be “possessed by demons” and “full of devils,” 63% of Protestant pastors surveyed by LifeWay believed that Pope Francis is a brother in Christ, while a further 16% were uncertain. LifeWay concluded, “Within a few centuries, the pope has gone from anti-Christ to ‘brother in Christ’ for a lot of Protestants.”

Forty-two percent of pastors surveyed admitted that they value the pope’s opinion on theological matters. This is a far cry from the opinion of the early Reformers.

Of course, this favourable opinion of the pope and the Catholic Church is not universally shared by Protestants. The divide between Catholics and Protestants (evangelicals, in particular) is still very much alive, and there are still a fair number of Protestant interpreters who expect the pope to ultimately fulfil the role of Antichrist.

My theological background is one that is highly critical of Catholic dogma. While I have come over the years to realise that I have in the past badly misrepresented Catholic teaching, I remain committed to the concerns of the Reformers concerning the blurred gospel officially promoted by the Catholic Church.

Over the next few posts, I want to share some of my concerns about Catholic dogma and examine why the Protestant Reformation still matters. The line between Catholics and Protestants has been blurred on both sides. The quest for ecumenical unity has affected not only Protestants, but also Catholics, who have even spoken of Luther as a “Gospel witness and a teacher of the faith.” But, in essence, the doctrines that divided the Reformers and Catholicism during the Reformation still divide today.

But before we come to specifics, it may be helpful to ask whether Catholicism should be considered a cult or a part of the Christian tradition.

A cult has been defined as “a separate religious group generally claiming compatibility with Christianity but whose doctrines contradict those of historic Christianity and whose practices and ethical standards violate those of biblical Christianity.” By this definition, some might consider Catholicism a cult. Catholic doctrine does claim compatibility with Christianity, even though some of those doctrines (as we will see) contradiction historic Christianity. Certain Catholic practices do clearly violate biblical Christianity. Other definitions of a cult include the demand of submission to an unbiblical authoritarian structure or individual leaders, which again sounds very Catholic.

However, I am persuaded that the definition of a cult needs to go a little deeper. I would personally consider a cult to be a religious movement or organisation so devoid of Christian truth that there is no (or extremely little) hope of its adherents hearing the gospel and being saved. By this definition, I would be reticent to label Catholicism a cult.

It is quite possible for a Catholic to be saved in a Catholic worship service. Whatever else might be said of Catholicism, it is rooted in basic Christian truth. That truth is admittedly often sufficiently blurred as to be unrecognisable, but the core of truth is still there. If faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God, we must conclude that it is possible for a Catholic worshipper to be saved in a Catholic worship service, where much Scripture is read. I suspect that, at Christ’s return, Protestants will find themselves worshipping with far more Catholics than they imagined.

Catholics and Protestants share much common theological ground. Both affirm the Trinity and consider God to be sovereign creator and sustainer. Both believe the incarnation and the virgin birth of Christ. Both traditions affirm his miracles, his atoning death on the cross, his bodily resurrection, his ascension to glory, and his future second coming, the general resurrection, and the final judgement. Catholics and Protestants alike affirm the personality and deity of the Holy Spirit and his involvement in redemption. Both acknowledge sin and affirm the necessity of grace and the need of salvation. The two traditions share confidence in God’s preservation and guidance of the Christian church and a high view of Scripture.

The Christian Research Institute is probably correct, then, in regarding the Catholic Church as “a [broadly] Christian church with a mixture of orthodox and erroneous teachings.”

As evangelicals, we are sometimes guilty of misrepresenting Catholics (although the reverse is equally true). It is unhelpful for evangelicals to make blanket, unqualified statements like, “Catholics worship Mary,” “Catholicism teaches salvation by works,” or, “Catholics believe the pope is infallible.” Even if these things are true of many Catholics in practice, when evaluating “what Catholicism teaches,” it is more helpful to consider the official teaching of the Church than it is to talk about how the Catholic next door practices his religion.

While I consider the Catholic Church to rest on a foundation of Christian truth, I am convinced that that truth has been so obscured that the foundation is extremely shaky. Sufficient truth is held within the Catholic Church for me to imagine that many practising Catholics are genuine brothers and sisters in Christ—despite the teachings of the Church. Nevertheless, as I will discuss over the next few posts, Catholicism promotes grave error—sufficiently grave to consider the Catholic “gospel” to be “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6–9)—which means that the Protestant Reformation, five hundred years after it started, is hardly over.

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