The Roman Catholic Controversy: The Essentials

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The second post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

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.

12 thoughts on “The Roman Catholic Controversy: The Essentials

  1. Looks to me as though White is defining ‘essential’ in a way that, say the Orthodox would define what is ‘orthodox’ – it is what we say it is. On the other hand, if we read another Protestant book, you can bet someone else will have a slightly different set of essentials. They may, of course, all be right, and the ‘essentials’ are wider than any one church thinks. My understanding (which is very imperfect) is that a wide reange of belief, within what the Pope defines as orthodox, is practised in the Catholic Church. I have been to an Ordinariate Mass and a Ukrainian Catholic Orthodox one – very different traditions and emphases – but all centred on ultimate obedience to the Pope.

  2. 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.”

    Well, this certainly does show the typical Protestant idea of what the focus of worship should be. Perhaps it would be useful if someone challenged White as to WHY it is that preaching and exposition should be the centerpiece of worship? And just HOW does a crucifix lead one away from the truth of the Gospel?

    I mean, I admit I’ve heard all these statements before. But then when I asked “why is preaching so central?” and “what is so wrong with the crucifix?” I found there were no decent answers.

    • I’ve always disliked the ‘either/or’ approach. For me, the heart of the Liturgy is my encounter at the altar with Christ, and I happen to find that old Liturgies prepare me better for this. But I find that a poorly prepared or delivered homily can also disturb me. I sometimes go to a Catholic Mass locally where the priest delivers mini masterpieces in 10 minutes. He clearly puts an immense amount of effort into making the homilies that short. but every word counts. It isn’t either The Word or the word, it ought to be both.

      • Yes, I don’t like that the sermon has become the centerpiece of Protestant worship. However, I certainly wouldn’t want to do away with Bible reading and interpretation. I think a ten-minute homily (in a Eucharistic service) is really the perfect amount of preaching. In fact, in my preaching class we learned that crafting a ten-minute sermon is more difficult than crafting a longer one because it’s rather easy to be long-winded. It can be very tough to get a great and clear point across in a relatively short amount of time.

        I hate to pick on a good friend of mine, but his sermon the other week was a paragon of this long-winded approach. He started out preaching on the parable of the woman with the issue of bleeding (which was the text read.) Then he started mentioning lessons from other parables throughout the sermon. Parables which weren’t part of the readings. It even got me, as a fairly literate Bible reader, a bit lost. What about someone who is not so fortunate to be biblically literate?

        • Urg. At the evangelical church I’m coming from, the services are scheduled to last two hours: roughly an hour of worship and an hour of preaching. And the sermons last an hour without ever really going into any satisfying depth. Spending time with God is great and all, but I get so much more out of a ten-minute, insightful homily than being pounded with a biblical pep-talk for an hour. And even the insight of a good homily pales in comparison to the glory and grace of the Eucharist.

      • Father Joe here is the master of the short, succinct homily, especially for daily Masses. He can cut right to the heart of the Scripture readings — because the homily is not about him at all; he has no eye to showing off himself or his knowledge, only to showing us the Truth.

    • Yeah, I thought the Crucifix bit was pretty funny. He says that displaying Jesus on the Cross distracts from the truth of Christ’s completed work; that it might give somebody the idea that He is still suffering on the Cross and that His sacrifice isn’t once and for all. Since, you know, we sacrifice Him again at every Mass, pagans that we are. In the very next paragraph after making these statements, he talks about how meaningful it is that he wears a cross around his neck as a reminder of “what Christ did for us.” And the Crucifix, an ever more vivid reminder of what Christ did for us, is misleading and harmful?

      I complained about the focus on preaching a couple of months ago. The focus becomes so much about the preacher, about his personality and his merits — while for Catholics, the center of the whole liturgy and experience is Christ. And yet White complains about this? This is exactly what I’m talking about. Do we worship Christ, or do we worship Scripture and doctrine?

      • Frankly, I love how the crucifix is a vivid reminder of how Christ IS still suffering. That is, Jesus is God incarnate in our human messiness and fleshy stuff. When we see those suffering around us, we are called to see Jesus suffering in them. When we see Jesus suffering, we are called to think on all those who suffer. And if we love Jesus, wouldn’t we want to ease his suffering? And so wouldn’t we tend to the suffering around us? So I would say that in a manner of speaking, Jesus is still suffering and the crucifix can be a valuable icon of this truth.

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