n this eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, diverse voices sound out in response to the question, “Is the Reformation over?” For example, Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston University and an apologist for Roman Catholicism, maintains, “What happened in our day that never happened before was that both sides [Protestants and Catholics] listened with new openness and passion and honesty, and the result was a miracle: the central issue of the Reformation, which was the single most serious schism in Christian history, was resolved to the satisfaction of both sides without compromise.”1
To what resolution does Kreeft refer? The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by the World Lutheran Federation and the Roman Catholic Church in 1999.2 The Joint Declaration weds together statements about justification on which Catholics and Protestants agree, other statements that represent the unique Roman Catholic understanding of justification, and still other statements that represent the unique Lutheran understanding of the doctrine.
Accordingly, the Joint Declaration claims that the two traditions have found vast agreement on this doctrine. Given that justification was the material principle (the core doctrinal content) of Protestantism and a key reason for the division between Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church, the Joint Declaration, according to Kreeft, is “the greatest ecumenical achievement in the five hundred years since the Reformation” and signals that “the single greatest obstacle to reunion … has essentially been overcome.”3 In reality, the Protestants who have signed the Joint Declaration represent more liberal churches and denominations, who appear to be far more committed to ecumenism than to the theology of the Reformers.
This voice affirming the end of the Reformation contrasts with other voices denying it is finished. For example, Chris Castaldo and I, in our co-authored book, The Unfinished Reformation,4 applaud the many steps taken by Protestants and Catholics to better understand one another. We no longer kill one another over points of doctrinal disagreement, for example. Furthermore, we rejoice over our commonalities, doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Catholics and Protestants protest against the culture of death whose shadow falls steadily over the United States, and together we champion religious freedom and other human rights.
At the same time, we do not believe the Reformation is over – not at all. “We say this because of the many basic doctrinal differences that still exist between the Catholic and Protestant traditions. These include views on Scripture and Tradition, justification, the nature and role of the church/Church, the sacraments, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Mary and the saints, merits, indulgences, and purgatory.”5
No, the Reformation is not over. The theological chasm between the Catholic Church and Protestants remains. Here’s why:
The two traditions operate with widely different definitions of justification. According to Catholic theology, justification “is not only the remission [forgiveness] of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man.” This definition contrasts with the Protestant view that justification is “a mighty act of God by which he declares sinful people not guilty but righteous instead. He does so by imputing, or crediting, the perfect righteousness of Christ to them. Thus, while they are not actually righteous, God views them as being so because of Christ’s righteousness.”6
Our understanding of justification makes all the difference in the world as to how we achieve right standing before God. If, according to the Roman Catholic view, justification is forgiveness and sanctification and regeneration, then salvation is a lifelong process. It begins with the new birth (and, as we will see, this takes place through the Catholic sacrament of baptism), includes the removal of original sin, and continues through progress in holiness, specifically, cooperation with the grace of God (through the other Church sacraments) so as to merit eternal life. Excluded from this lifelong process of justification is the assurance of one’s salvation. Perseverance in Christ is not guaranteed, because at any point in the process one may commit mortal sin, lose the grace of justification, and forfeit salvation. Accordingly, Roman Catholic theology denies that the Catholic faithful may be assured of their salvation.
If, however, according to the Protestant view, justification is the divine declaration that (1) we are no longer guilty because of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and that (2) we are righteous before God because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ being accredited to our account, our standing before God is sealed. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The sentence of “not guilty” but “righteous instead” has already been rendered on our behalf, so we can be assured of our salvation.
Scripture and Tradition
Catholics and Protestants disagree as to what constitutes divine revelation. To the question, “How does God speak to the world today, Roman Catholic theology answers, through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium?” Scripture is the written Word of God and, while it corresponds closely to the Protestant notion, there is a major difference: The canon of the Catholic Bible (the list of divinely inspired, authoritative books that constitute Scripture) is longer than that of the Protestant Bible. It includes seven additional writings—Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (notice the ending; it is also called Wisdom of Sirach), Baruch, and First and Second Maccabees—as well as additional sections to Esther and Daniel. Called the apocryphal writings, or the Apocrypha for short, these extra books and sections affirm “purgatory and prayers for the dead (2 Macc. 12:46), the merit of works (Tobit 4:10; 12:9; 14:10-11), . . . and almsgiving atoning for sin (Sirach 3:30).”7
When believers search the Bible to understand the gospel, find God’s will, receive comfort and guidance, resolve doctrinal disputes, and lead their churches, they have the sufficient, truthful, clear, necessary, authoritative, and divinely inspired revelation—everything they need to please God fully.
Catholics hold that tradition includes the teaching of Jesus that he orally communicated to his apostles, who in turn orally communicated it to their successors, the bishops of the Catholic Church, who guard, nurture, and occasionally proclaim it to be official dogma that the Catholic faithful are obligated to believe and practice. Tradition includes the immaculate conception of Mary (she was conceived without sin), her bodily assumption (upon her death, Mary’s body was immediately taken up into heaven), transubstantiation (the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ when the sacrament is celebrated), and more. Importantly, then, the Catholic Church “does not derive her certainly about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. According to Catholic doctrine, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiment of devotion and reverence.”8
The responsibility for the proper interpretation of Scripture and the establishment of Tradition, in Roman Catholic mind, falls to the Magisterium, or the teaching office of the Catholic Church. Consisting of the pope and the bishops, this office is not, most Catholics insist, a third source of divine revelation; rather, according the Roman Catholicism, the pope and the bishops constitute the authoritative structure for the determination and understanding of divine revelation. Indeed, we can argue that because the Catholic Church determined the canon of the New Testament (a claim that does not bear up under historical investigation) and proclaims Tradition, it stands above both Scripture and Tradition. Accordingly, Catholics believe through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, God speaks to the world today.
But Protestants answer the same question with reference to Scripture only. Indeed, the formal principle (the authoritative structure of the faith) of Protestantism is sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). This stance means that when believers search the Bible to understand the gospel, find God’s will, receive comfort and guidance, resolve doctrinal disputes, and lead their churches, they have the sufficient, truthful, clear, necessary, authoritative, and divinely inspired revelation—everything they need to please God fully. The Catholic Church officially denies that the final authority in the church is Scripture alone.
The Church, sacraments, and the presence of Christ at the table
According to Roman Catholic theology, “the sole Church of Christ … subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.”9 This stance rests on the Christ-Church interconnection, that is, the Roman Catholic Church self-identifies as the continuation of the incarnation of Christ. Thus, the whole Christ—divinity, humanity, and body—exists in the Church, and given the fact that there is only one Christ, they argue there is only one Church: the Roman Catholic Church.
The implication of this position is that the gatherings of Protestants are not churches; rather, they are “ecclesial communities.”10 “Furthermore, Catholic theology insists that the salvation offered to people through evangelical ecclesial communities actually flows from the ‘fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church.’ What is more, if unity is ever to be recovered among evangelical ecclesial communities and other churches, those evangelical assemblies must join the Catholic Church.”11 It goes without saying, such a perspective is unacceptable to Protestants.
At the heart of the Catholic Church is its sacraments, and this sacramental orientation rises and falls on the nature-grace interdependence: The elements of nature—created things like mountains, forests, angels, human beings, water, oil, bread, and wine—are capable of receiving and transmitting the grace of God. Moreover, divine grace must be concretely transmitted through elements of nature. Accordingly, they teach the sacraments of the Catholic Church transmit God’s grace to the Catholic faithful. When Catholics participate in the Mass, they believe divine grace is infused into them through the consecrated bread and wine; thus, they experience a more intimate union with Christ, separation from sin, and more.
Focusing briefly on this last point, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is “the source and summit of the Christian life” because it contains the “whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself,”12 involves transubstantiation: The natural elements of bread and wine are consecrated such that “by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the words of Christ, [they] become the body and blood of Christ. Christ is thus really and mysteriously made present.”13
According to Protestant theology, two marks establish a true church and distinguish it from a false church: “The church is the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered.”14 Thus, a true church is marked by preaching the Word and the two rites Christ ordained for his church to celebrate: baptism (Matt 28:18-20) and the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:26-29). This view contrasts with the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony. And Protestant theology disagrees that grace is infused through the sacraments. As we saw with justification, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to his people, but he does not infuse grace to enable them to cooperate with grace in doing good works in order to merit eternal life. Moreover, whereas Protestants disagree among themselves as to the nature of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, they all reject transubstantiation because it is grounded on a misunderstanding of Scripture (“This is my body;” Matt 26:26), it developed late in time (the 13th century), and it appeals to divine power without any biblical warrant. Thus, Catholics and Protestants, in the sixteenth century and now, profoundly disagree about the identity of the church. Historic Protestants have insisted that the Roman Catholic Church, abandoning the Gospel and the preaching of the Word of God, is a false church.
Mary and the saints, merits, indulgences, and purgatory.
Based on Scripture and tradition, and with a faulty notion of justification, Roman Catholic theology claims that salvation involves both divine grace and human effort: God’s grace initiates the lifelong process, and the Catholic faithful cooperate with that grace by doing good works, thereby meriting eternal life. Accordingly, four categories of people exist:
(1) “All who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified” go immediately into the presence of the Lord in heaven.15 Mary is the forerunner of these Catholic faithful, who have fully cooperated with divine grace, engaged in good works (even to the point of doing more than their duty), and thus merited eternal life. These people are the “saints,” and they provide examples of holiness and engage in prayer for the Catholic faithful on earth.
(2) “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”16 These people are in purgatory, experiencing passive suffering, being purified so that one day (with certainty) they will enter the presence of the Lord in heaven.
(3) All who “die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love” go immediately to hell, “where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God.”17 Accordingly, there are two eternal destinies—heaven and hell—and one temporal destiny—purgatory.
(4) As for the Catholic faithful on earth, they participate in the sacraments, receiving infused grace so as to engage in good works and merit eternal life. They make progress in the lifelong process of justification. Part of their responsibilities is to pursue indulgences: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven.”18 These releases from punishment, which are of two kinds—plenary, or full remission, and partial remission—may be obtained for themselves (thus, avoiding purgatory) as well as for others (thus, helping those suffering in purgatory to be released more quickly, or even completely).
Protestant theology rejects these Catholic doctrines because they have no place in light of the gospel and no foundation in the Bible. Not on the basis of good works, but by faith alone, sinful people embrace God’s provision of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, God declares them “not guilty” but “righteous instead,” signifying they have a completely righteous standing before him. Out of thankfulness to God for his saving work, and because they have been born again (regeneration is another mighty act of God in salvation), they engage in good works, not to merit eternal life, but as the fruit of their salvation. There is no need for indulgences, no need for purgatory, no possibility of merit, and no special classification for people who faithfully walk with God. All are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2).
The Reformation is not over, and it was not a mistake. And why does that matter? Because nothing less than our right standing before God, his way of speaking to us today, our belonging to a true church, and the hope of the gospel are at stake. They are always at stake.
Gregg R. Allison is professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary.
1 Peter Kreeft, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 21.
2 Following the original signing of the JDDJ in 1999, the World Methodist Council signed the statement in 2006, the Anglican Consultative Council agreed in principle to the statement in 2016, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches is set to sign it this year (2017).
3 Kreeft, Catholics and Protestants, 17.
4 Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo, The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics andProtestants after 500 Years (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).
5 Ibid., 150.
6 Gregg R. Allison, The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), s.v. “justification.”
7 Owen Chadwick, “Significance of the Deuterocanonical Writings,” in The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective, ed. Siegfried Meurer (New York: United Bible Societies, 1991), 128.
8 Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 82.
9 Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 816.
10 This point was underscored and clarified in the motu proprio of Pope Benedict XVI, “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” (July 10:2007); accessible at www.vatican.va
11 Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 171. The citation is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 819.
12 Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1324.
13 Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1357.
14 Augsburg Confession, 7. See also John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.8.
15 Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1023.
16 Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1030.
17 Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1033 and 1035.
18 Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1471.