Catholics and Protestants — do the differences still matter? That is the question The Roman Catholic Controversy presents us with from the start. From the very first pages, the book makes clear that the question is merely rhetorical: In the foreword, John H. Armstrong announces unequivocally that “Catholic doctrinal formulations . . . significantly conflict with the plain teaching of God’s Word” and that Catholic doctrines “actually undermine the grace of God in the Gospel.” Accidentally, Armstrong places the book in its context: The Catholic Controversy was published in 1996, amid the first in the new explosion of converts from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism, and the rising wave of conversion literature, especially from Scott Hahn (Rome Sweet Rome, 1993), Patrick Madrid (Surprised by Truth, 1994), David Currie (Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, 1996), and Stephen Ray (Crossing the Tiber, 1997) — and the ensuing counter-wave of panicked evangelical apologetics. I sincerely hope The Catholic Controversy is not another attack book, a blunt weapon designed to stanch the flow of defections by any means necessary.
Thankfully, James White steps forward with an ingenuousness and honesty that seems to reflect a genuine evangelical concern for truth and for salvation. In a world of postmodern relativism*, as “many . . . are, perhaps unwittingly, sacrificing absolute truth on the altar of compromise and expediency,” White fears the true message of the Gospel — the truthfulness — is being lost. This truth is central and crucial — and on this truth, White argues, Protestants and Catholics have a “disagreement of a fundamental nature” regarding the most fundamental of questions: What is the Gospel?
* For what it’s worth, on my first day of grad school, one of my professors announced that “postmodernism is dead.” I am pleased to confirm that at least in the historical discipline, it has shown no signs of stirring.
In a disarming feint, White does a curious thing: He presents a hypothetical dialogue between a recent, enthusiastic Catholic convert and a shocked evangelical friend. I must admit, I nearly laughed out loud as he introduced this. “At the mall, Bill has just run into Scott, an old friend from his teenage years. He and Scott both sang in youth choir; they even passed out tracts together near the downtown mission. Bill is in for a surprise.” It smells in every way like a bad after-school special. And remember, kids, don’t accept food or drink from Catholics: it just might be the Body and Blood of Christ.
Scott, the convert, echoes so many of the arguments and claims I myself have made for the truth of Rome: that Catholic doctrine does have a firm foundation in Scripture; that Catholics don’t worship Mary; that sola scriptura has no basis in Scripture; and that coming to Rome is not to lose the Gospel, but to gain the fullness of Apostolic Truth. White acknowledges that most Protestants are not prepared to answer the claims of Rome, and he implies that this is why Scott converted: because he lacked the knowledge to defend against them. I can only presume that White will return to each of these claims, and provide a counterargument.
White then approaches the main argument of his book: not only to reject the claims of Rome, but to reject all efforts at ecumenism. Merely sharing the “bare confession” that “Jesus is Lord” is not a valid basis for Christian unity, he rightly argues. More than simply calling on the name of Jesus, “who Jesus is, what He did, and how we come to know Him” are crucial questions to the Christian identity. (All emphases are White’s.) “If unity in doctrine on the person of Christ is necessary for meaningful unity,” White asks, “is unity on the doctrine of the Gospel itself also just as necessary?” It is a telling question that I believe underpins White’s argument.
White concludes his first chapter in very certain, concrete terms: that the Roman Catholic Church is “preaching a gospel that is contradictory to that taught by the Apostles of the Lord,” a teaching that is “a dangerous error that is to be avoided at peril of spiritual loss.” Catholics very clearly teach “a different gospel” than Protestants (and with that, he sets up a thesis directly contrary to mine); he knows many Catholics who would acknowledge as much, he adds. “The Gospel message itself is an issue upon which compromise is impossible. No unity can exist where the Gospel is no longer central to the teaching of the Church,” White argues. “The Roman Catholic position on the topic of the Gospel . . . falls outside the realm of biblical truth, not just in minor, secondary issues but with reference to the very heart of the Gospel itself.”
And what, to White, is the heart of the Gospel? He does not leave us in suspense: “The fact that God justifies us freely by his grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone must, I believe, be included in the most basic, fundamental definition of the Christian faith.” It is the standard Reformed refrain that has echoed since the Reformation itself: without the five solas — sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (by faith alone), solo Christo (by Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) — there is no Gospel.
But this returns me to the essential question which White posed: What is the Gospel? Is the Gospel Reformed doctrine? Did Jesus lay out the five solas in His Sermon on the Mount? If this in itself is White’s gospel, then I have no doubt that Catholics denied sharing it. No, doctrine — both Reformed doctrine and Catholic doctrine — is teaching about the Gospel. And even though both Catholics and Protestants claim that their teachings were guided by the Holy Spirit (the Catholic Church does claim infallibly), teaching is something men do; saving is what Jesus does.
Despite White’s insistence that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants, we both agree that Jesus saves. We both agree that we are sinners in need of a Savior, hopeless in our sin without Him. We both agree that salvation is by grace alone, by Christ alone — that no one can approach God, by his own grace and merits, apart from the grace of God. We both agree that God is love — that because He loved us, Christ died for the sins of us all so that we might be saved; that we are justified by His merits alone. And yes, there are doctrinal differences between us. But is the Gospel that Jesus justifies us by faith alone (with works necessarily proceeding), upon which we disagree — or is the Gospel that Jesus justifies us by His grace alone, and nothing we have ever done or could ever do, by our own merits or efforts, could pay the price He paid — upon which we agree? Does White really mean to subjugate the love and the grace and the salvation of God to doctrine?
As often as Protestants accuse Catholics of worshipping Mary, I often wonder if Reformed Christians don’t worship their solas. Doctrine is important; I do not argue otherwise. Doctrinal relativism — the trap I myself fell into for so long — is a lie. But do our different doctrines not describe the same Truth? Is that Truth not the Christ who saves us by His grace, rather than our doctrine?