Most of you reading this blog are aware that I live in Eastern, IA in a little town named Cascade. Eastern, IA is substantially Catholic. My town is substantially Catholic. Because of this, I find myself regularly speaking about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. And let me be the first to say that I do not always do it well, but today is my attempt to answer some basic questions.
First, let me say that there is a difference. Roman Catholics and Protestants do not believe the same thing. As I regularly tell people, there is a reason that I am not Roman Catholic. (And make no mistake I am not one to drink the Kool-Aid of my upbringing. I have chosen to come to my own conclusions, and I am not beyond throwing out the old wine-skins of my life). Not only are there differences, but these differences are not minor. There are massive implications. Having said that, these differences are not always obvious to a casual viewer, therefore I will do my best over the next several weeks to shed some light on these issues. (And as always, I would love to hear from anyone who disagrees. I love connecting and would be glad to sit down and study God's Word together.)
The first fundamental difference, as I see it, is the issue of ultimate authority. Protestants believe the Bible is the ultimate revelation of God’s authority. Roman Catholics believe that the Church and the Bible have equal revelation of God’s authority. This is why the Catholic Church has what is called the Magisterium. The Magisterium is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.” Therefore if the Pope and the Bishops take an official position on a topic, it is to be accepted as the authority of God and Roman Catholics must accept it or be viewed as sinning against God.
Protestants, on the other hand, do not have a Magisterium. They view Scripture as sufficient and the only supreme authority on all matters. The common phrase is sola Scriptura. The foundation of the Protestant's faith rests upon the Word of God. Therefore, everything that is taught, said or done is held up against the Scriptures to determine if it is true or not. We do not hold it up to a Magisterium. An example of this is found in Acts 17:11 when the Jews in Berea heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” They held this new teaching up to God’s Word and allowed the Bible to guide their path. They implemented Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” They did not resort to Jewish tradition, if they would have, they would have rejected Jesus for he did not fit the traditional Messianic mold; hence why the High Priest and Sanhedrin (the equivalent to a Jewish Pope and Bishop) claimed Jesus was demonic and demanded his death.
So the question is, who is right? Is Scripture the ultimate authority, or does the Church share in that responsibility? Both positions cannot be right, it must be one or the other. In answering this, time does not allow me to go into everything, so here are some brief thoughts for you to ponder, for each of you will need to come to your own decision.
Scripture Claims to be Sufficient
Psalm 14:7-8 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;” God tells us that the purpose of His Word is to be our compass. In fact, if you have time read all of Psalm 119, and ask yourself which position, Roman Catholic or Protestant lines up best with Chapter 119.
Likewise, we see this same understanding in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 when Paul is writing to young Timothy "from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." What makes us wise for salvation? Scripture. What makes up complete and equipped? Scripture.
When God closed the Canon with the last book of Revelation the Apostle John wrote these words, "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." This is not the first time God warned against adding to His Word, he said the same thing in Deuteronomy 4:2 and Proverbs 30:6. Why? Because the Word of God is true, sufficient, and the ultimate authority in how to live for the glory of God.
Man is Sinful
Romans 3:10-11 says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Because of sin, no person has perfect understanding. We are all sinners, our minds are corrupted, this includes you, me, the Pope and the Bishops. This is what Paul says about the state of Christians, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." Seeing dimly and seeing in part sounds like the partially blind leading the partially blind. What we need are what John Calvin called the spectacles of Scripture.
When we give man equal authority to the Scriptures, only bad things can happen. Non-biblical teachings begin to take root and the truth is undermined. If this false teaching becomes the new standard, then the false teaching will never be corrected. Little by little the people of God start to wander away from the truth. This is exactly what occurred at the time of the reformation. And Luther did to the Pope exactly what Paul did to Peter in Galatians 2:11. Luther “opposed him to his face.” Luther (along with many before him) attempted to get the Church back to the Bible (i.e. reform). However, God had other plans, and Luther along with many others were removed from the Church because their rejection of the teaching of the Church was considered a sin against God, because Magisterium of the Church was the highest authority.
So is there a difference? There is, and it has massive implications in regards to the following of Christ and the protection of the truth. Jesus tells us in Matthew 28:19 to "observe all that I have commanded." This stands in stark contrast to observing all that the Magisterium commanded. I believe the proof is in the pudding. Man has walked down the road of man's authority, and the way is riddled with pain and its end is destruction, the narrow way of sola Scriptura has proven far better and its end is eternal life.