When "Catholic" is not "Catholic"

When "Catholic" is not "Catholic"


Jerry L. Walls and Kenneth J. Collins, Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 464 pp. Bibliography and indicies. Paperback. $34.99.

The title itself implies a kind of jiujitsu--that of turning an opponent's weight or strength against itself.

If you've encountered the phrase, "to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant" (coined by John Henry Cardinal Newman and oft-repeated today), and if you've felt some frustration that you couldn't voice precisely why that's not true, Roman but Not Catholic by Jerry Walls and Ken Collins is a book for you.

Roman but Not Catholic is simply the best and most complete book that has been written on Roman Catholicism in its historical totality to date. The suggestion here is that Newman's approach was "deeply confused and his conclusions badly overstated" (p. xxii).

The book is a sustained analysis of the Roman Catholic Church and its claims to be today's version of "the Church that Christ founded"--written specifically for the person who has been or is being persuaded by Roman Catholic apologists that they should "return home to Rome". It carries the message, "We never have to apologize for being Protestant" (from the Introduction). Yet all the while there is an overriding effort to remain "broadly ecumenical and generous".

There have been several good works on Roman Catholicism recently. Gregg Allison's excellent Roman Catholic Theology and Practice comes to mind. Allison follows up with Leonard De Chirico's excellent assessment of modern Roman Catholicism by explicating the "nature/grace" and "ongoing incarnation of Christ" aspects of Roman Catholic theology, and significantly, he makes a sustained analysis of most of the 1994 "Catechism of the Catholic Church" in the light of these two principles.

One weakness of Allison's book, however, and much exploited by Roman Catholics, is that Allison makes these critiques from a perspective that he calls "evangelical theology". While providing an excellent assessment of current Roman Catholic doctrine, his critique from the perspective of a vaguely-defined point of view plays directly into the Roman Catholic critique of Protestantism in general, that of a failure to come to an agreement on many important points of doctrine.

This is the first point at which Collins and Walls demonstrate their methodological jiujitsu. Rather than arguing from the point of view of an ill-defined "evangelical theology" as Allison does, Collins and Walls locate their arguments firmly in in the perspective of what they call "the ancient ecumenical church" - that is, the ancient "catholic", or "universal", church of the first four centuries, prior to any of the schisms that arose out of conciliar activities.

The book then continues to ask, in a sustained way, "how does the Roman Catholic Church adhere to the doctrines and ideals of this ancient "catholicism" (small "c").

The authors' conclusion is that, frankly, it doesn't.

The word "catholic" was first used as a modifier for "church" by Ignatius, during the early part of the second century. Later it made its way into the Niceno-Constantinopolitian creed, in the oft-repeated phrase, "one holy catholic and apostolic church" in 381 AD.

But even at the council that affirmed that phrase, the church of Rome was not present and the bishop of Rome, Damasus, "did not even send delegates", as Collins ironically points out.

And here is another point of methodological jiu-jitsu. By the 18th and 19th centuries, Roman Catholic dogma had become so precisely defined, so "infallible", that it had become incapable of sustaining serious critique. In fact, it created a need for a new kind of hermeneutic, articulated in 1950 by the pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani Generis: "Theologians must always return to the sources of divine revelation: for it belongs to them to point out how the doctrine of the living Teaching Authority is to be found either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures and in Tradition" (emphasis added).

Aiden Nichols identifies this method as the "regressive method" (The Shape of Catholic Theology, p. 253), again noting that "the theologian's highest task lies in proving the present teachings of the magisterium from the evidence of the ancient sources."

This "regressive method" is highly anachronistic: it gives the impression that a particular doctrine is "historical", without having actually existed much in actual history.

Collins and Walls continually keep in mind this type of anachronism, and instead ask, "what did the church believe, and when did they believe it?" Chapters 2 and 3 then take on the well-known issues surrounding the relationship of Scripture and Tradition. In Chapters 4 and 5, Walls particularly addresses Newman's claim that if one accepts such things as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Canon of the New Testament, then one must therefore necessarily accept the rest of the dogmas given by later councils and popes.

"Indeed," Walls says, it is "precisely the sort of [unbiblical] extravagance that Newman defends [which] is what the principle of sola Scriptura intends to guard against" (p. 82). He points out that there was a universal kind of support (as well as explicit Biblical support) in the ancient church for the Nicene Creed that does not exist for a dogma such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary or papal infallibility.

In Chapters 6 and 7, Collins examines "Rome's exclusive ecclesial claims". Here the concept of the "ancient ecumenical church" is developed, and the reasons for and the consequences of the various schisms in the church over time. Collins points out that the Roman Catholic failure to take into account its own responsibility for these splits is "like a divorced man who tells his friends that he has never been divorced because he feels that he was not at fault and that it 'was done to him.' It seldom works that way. (p. 93)."

"In short", Collins says, "there are no unsplit churches" (p. 94).

In response to this charge, Roman Catholic apologists cite their own objection to what's become known as the "Tu Quoque" objection - a familiar objection that Roman Catholic apologists make when Protestants suggest that "Roman Catholicism is equally as divided as Protestants, with the same kinds of divisions with "private interpretations" of papal claims as Protestants are accused of over Sola Scriptura. That objection seeks to emphasize that Rome is indeed "the Church that Christ founded", and that other churches have split away from "communion with the Roman pontiff".

In Chapter 8, Walls looks at this objection, concluding that "there is no escaping individual responsibility" in assessing the claims made by the Roman Catholic Church for its own centrality (p. 142), and "Christ should not be identified with his church in any way that makes our knowledge of him and of the way of salvation hinge on any particular ecclesial or theological tradition" (p. 144).

Chapter 9 looks at the Roman Catholic sacramental system, Chapter 10 look at the early and identifiable evolution of the sacerdotal priesthood. Chapters 11-13 review the papacy (early, medieval, and also from a logical probability perspective that takes into consideration the inordinate number of "pestilent popes" in the face of claims of "unbroken succession").

Chapter 14 takes a look at popular Roman Catholic apologetics. Two chapters talk about Mary, and Chapters 17-19 talk about Justification, Assurance, and Conversion. In keeping with their commitment to remain generous and ecumenical, only points of Protestant agreement on these topics are illustrated; there's not a hint of Protestant contention in these chapters.

This is a book that I wish had been written in the 1970's, when I was first looking at the question of whether I should remain Roman Catholic.

By way of disclaimer, both authors consulted with me prior to the publication of this book, and my name appears in the acknowledgements. Jerry Walls (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University. Kenneth Collins (PhD, Drew University) is a professor of historical theology and John Wesley studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

These gentlemen have provided a tremendous service to the one true church, and I highly recommend this book to you.