Nearly two decades ago, a group of Evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars began work on a document entitled "Evangelicals and Catholics Together". Its premise was that Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have reached a point where, in spite of some minor differences, they agree on the essential points of doctrine. Sixteen years later, both the Pope and a leading voice in the largest Protestant denomination in the United States still seem to disagree with them.
Many reading this will obviously respond with an indifferent "who cares?" But with the 75 million American Catholics and 16 million Southern Baptists making up more than 30 percent of the country's population, it is an issue worth discussing. And Pope Benedict XVIII's recent visit to the United States has brought the issue to the forefront.
Before looking at a few of the differences that still divide Catholics and Protestants (particularly Evangelicals) 500 years after the Reformation, it is good to acknowledge the many areas of agreement. Catholics and Protestants believe the same things about God's nature and about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Catholics and Protestants also have essentially the same Bible; the Catholic Bible has the same 66 books of the Protestant Bible, but also adds the apocryphal texts. Catholics and Protestants also agree on a number of political and social issues, including opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research.
But as both Pope Benedict and R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, have stated in recent days, while there is agreement on many things, the differences continue over the most important issues. In reacting to a statement released by the Vatican last July re-asserting that non-Catholic churches were defective or not true churches but merely ecclesial communities and therefore did not have the "means of salvation," and that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church, Mohler summed up the impasse this way in a recent article:
"The Roman Catholic Church believes that evangelicals are in spiritual danger for obstinately and disobediently excluding ourselves from submission to its universal claims and its papacy," Mohler wrote. "Evangelicals are concerned that Catholics are in spiritual danger for their submission to these very claims. We both understand what is at stake."
The key issue remains, as it has since the time of Martin Luther, salvation and the "true" church. And a person's view on the concept of Scripture Alone vs. Scripture and Tradition will pretty much determine where they fall in the argument. Mohler is solidly in the Scripture Alone camp, with the Pope obviously on the Scripture and Tradition side.
One thing I can say from personal experience (having been raised Catholic and later becoming Southern Baptist) is that the teaching about salvation is more consistent (or dogmatic, if you prefer) on the Baptist side. Every Baptist preacher I've ever heard has said that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They would likely point out various verses to support this (Ephesians 2:8-9, for example). The only time in the Bible that the question "what must I do to be saved?" is asked directly is in Acts 16:30-31. Paul's answer to the Philippian jailer was "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."
Yet if you ask this question of 10 priests you may get 10 different answers. In an ongoing correspondence with various Catholic priests and educators a few years ago, I asked what the Catholic Church teaches is necessary for salvation. Some of the answers I received included:
"Baptism (as an infant)"
"Faith and good works"
"Faith in Christ"
"We are saved by grace alone but not faith alone"
"Love of God and neighbor"
"Salvation is both a gift from God and a reward"
"The Sacraments, especially receiving the Eucharist"
"Salvation is a lifelong process"
Most lay Catholics, not surprisingly, would answer with some type of works-based response. An impromptu survey outside of St. Patrick's in New York several years ago had most respondents answering that since they had done more good than bad, they'd probably get in. The official teaching of the Catholic Church is found in its Catechism, which states: "Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods." (#2027, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994). The Catholic Church also sees the sacraments as necessary for salvation.
The two sides even disagree on the assurance of salvation. It is no secret that most Evangelicals believe that you cannot lose your salvation, although many mainline Protestant denominations take varying views on the subject. The Evangelical view is based, in part, on the following verses:
"My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand (John 10:27-29)."
"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)."
"These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13)."
The official teaching of the Catholic Church, however, says exactly the opposite. The Council of Trent stated: "if anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance even to the end...let him be condemned (Canon 16)." It is further stated that it is works that preserve justification, which means that if you don't have enough good works, your salvation will be lost.
In spite of all these crucial differences, Albert Mohler ended his article with an almost admiring tone, saying that "Protestants should appreciate the fact that Benedict stands for some theological absolutes in a world that often capitulates to secularism and postmodernism. The divide between evangelical Christians and the Roman Catholic Church remains -- as this Pope well understands. And, in so many ways, this is a Pope we can understand. In this strange world, that is no small achievement."
In an age when people actually see truth as subjective, it's no small achievement indeed.