In James White’s second chapter, “Cutting through the Fog,” he aims to pierce through the “fog” of obfuscation that both Catholics and Protestants, he acknowledges, tend to get lost in in their debates with one another. Both Catholics and Protestants believe many things about each other that are myths or misconceptions or misrepresentations. He points out that most converts out of a faith — for example, former Catholics and former Mormons — tend to present views of their former faith in the worst possible light. In my case, I consider myself blessed to be a convert from evangelicalism who holds no bitterness for my former faith: just, I like to think, rightful and constructive criticism. More important, having been on both sides of the divide, I hold no negative myths about Protestantism, and, I hope, no rosy myths about Catholicism.
I must thank Dr. White for his honesty, forthrightness, and generosity toward Catholics on several points. In sweeping away the “fog,” he admits the falsehood of some widely-held evangelical myths and prejudices toward Catholics. The Sign of the Cross (“crossing oneself”) is not “pagan,” but is an ancient practice that even some Protestant sects do; the act is not in itself godly or ungodly, but can be wrong when it becomes “superstition.” Liturgy, to the evangelical, may seem stuffy, empty ritual — but White rightly acknowledges that all Christian worship is liturgy (λειτουργία, leitourgia, public service), that many great men of God have practiced formal, traditional liturgy, and that evangelical liturgy can be just as empty and devoid of meaning if it becomes merely religious practice without faith. He suggests that “danger” arises “when liturgy, no matter how ancient or well-intended, takes over to such an extent that the preaching and exposition of the Scriptures are minimized or completely done away with.” I wonder if White has ever attended a Roman Catholic Mass?
White narrows on what he believes are the “essentials” of this debate, and what are “nonessentials.” Forebodingly, he casts a rather wide net for what he considers “essential”: “The essential topic in the Roman Catholic/Protestant debate is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A number of issues are [so] closely related to the Gospel that, by virtue of that relationship, need to be classified as ‘essentials.’” In this definition, he manages to encompass the authority of Scripture versus Tradition, the authority of the Church, the doctrine of Purgatory, and teachings about the Virgin Mary as all “essential.” The canon of Scripture, the Apocrypha (or Deuterocanon), and “certain historic events” also have “great importance,” in the context of their relationship to the Gospel. Even the Crucifix, the display of Christ on the Cross, “leads one away from the truth of the Gospel” (acknowledging that the Protestant cross is “a constant reminder of what Christ did for us”). In short, it seems that White leaves little room for “nonessentials”: most everything he disagrees with is “essential” to the Gospel.
In a strict sense, everything the Church teaches is “essential” to the Gospel, since the Gospel is what we teach. And if we believe the truth of our doctrines, then all of these teachings are indeed “essential” (of the essence, fundamental, necessary). But some doctrines, it can’t be denied, are more marginal to the truth of the Gospel than others. The Gospel would still be the Gospel — we would still believe that Jesus saves — without the belief in Purgatory. Purgatory merely offers an extra chance for Jesus to save the sinner, so that even “if [his] work is burned up, . . . he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). The Virgin Mary is essential to the Gospel in that it is through her obedience that Christ came into the world; but even without the beliefs in her perpetual virginity, her Assumption, or her intercession, Jesus would still be able to save. The Gospel is still the Gospel whether Christ catches up believers in a sudden Rapture, or comes in glory with trumpets, or does so either before or after a time of Great Tribulation. I dare say that even whether one is baptized as an infant or as an adult believer, Christ’s ability to save is uninhibited. With the doctrines of Purgatory, or the Virgin Mary’s intercession, or infant baptism, or the Rature included, the essential message of the Gospel is unchanged; with them excluded, nothing essential is lost. We still teach that Jesus saves sinners by His grace alone, through his death on the Cross and His Resurrection. This is why, at the core, in its essence, both Catholics and Protestants teach the same Gospel.