Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Do We Still Need the Reformation? A Response to Protestant Author Dr. Gregg Allison

Below is an article by Gregg Allison, a professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  He's written a good bit on Catholicism, and comparing Catholicism with Protestantism.  I've read a little of what Dr. Allison has written, and what I've seen makes me want to read more.  He seems like a very insightful, careful commentator who obviously goes to great lengths to portray Catholic positions accurately.  I've been impressed a number of times with his tendency to state the teachings of the Catholic Church in ways that are fair to those teachings, even though, of course, he is critical of them as well.  He's written at least a couple of books on Catholicism (which I very much want to read):  Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment and (as co-author) The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years.

I've written inline responses of my own throughout Dr. Allison's article, responding to various things that he has said.  Hopefully the dialogue will prove helpful!

I've reproduced Dr. Allison's article in its entirety, though I have altered some of his formatting (changing fonts, removing pictures, removing hyperlinks to Bible passages, etc.).  The original article can be found here, on the Desiring God website.  Thanks to Desiring God for permission to repost the article with my comments!

October 31, 2017, will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Martin Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on that day in 1517 has proven to be one of the most important events in the history of the world. Indeed, many evangelicals trace their beginnings to this moment that launched the Protestant movement, of which we consider ourselves heirs.

But the Reformation was five hundred years ago! Like most everything else a half-millennium removed from its start, things have changed. Or have they? What issues sparked the Reformation? What were the key protests against the Catholic Church at that time? Do those same conditions exist now, such that the Reformation remains unfinished?

Half a Millennium Ago

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses constituted a call to debate some of the flagrant errors of the Catholic Church in his time. His subsequent writings exposed many other problems:

- a denial of justification by God’s grace received through faith alone in Christ alone 
- an unbiblical view of salvation as joining together God and sinners such that divine grace, communicated through the Church’s sacraments, initiates the lifelong process, and human effort responds by engaging in good works in order to merit eternal life 
- a faulty authority structure illegitimately combining Scripture with tradition and the papacy 
- a disgraceful Catholic Mass that minimized God’s word, ignored the importance of faith, and focused on the Eucharist as little more than mere ritual 
- an incorrect belief that, during the Mass, Jesus Christ is made physically present through transubstantiation 
- an inappropriate elevation of the role of Mary as a mediator between her son, Jesus Christ, and sinful people, and as an intercessor who prays for and helps them 
- a defective perspective on the seven sacraments as communicating God’s grace ex opere operato 

- an unbiblical hope in purgatory — time in which can be shortened by the purchase of indulgences

These were the key issues that Luther exposed and critiqued with regard to the Catholic Church of his day.

500 Years Later

It is popularly noted that the only constant in our world is change — and such is true of the Catholic-Protestant dynamic after five hundred years. One happy example is that the two groups are no longer at war with each other. Rather, Protestants and Catholics work closely together in politics, education, health care, ethics, and more. They engage in co-belligerence, fighting together against disturbing sins like abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, population control, violence, promiscuity, and antireligious bigotry. The once-frigid atmosphere has thawed.

Additionally, the two traditions are apt to underscore the commonalities that unite them. From a Protestant perspective, those similarities (at least in part) include the Trinity, the nature of God, divine revelation, the person of Christ and his crucifixion and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, the image of God, the depravity of sin, divine initiative in salvation, and future hope. From a Catholic perspective (fueled largely by the changes initiated at the Second Vatican Council, 1962–1965), Protestants are no longer bound for hell but, as separated brothers and sisters, experience salvation (though not its fullness, which is only for the Catholic faithful).

The Catholic Church has never declared that all Protestants, in any circumstances, are going to hell.  But it is true that, over the past couple hundred years or so, the Church as a whole has developed a more sanguine, hopeful attitude towards many Protestants.  There are many reasons for this.  For one thing, being a Protestant is a significantly different proposition these days in some ways than it was in the sixteenth century.  The early Protestants had to break from the established Church to do their own thing.  Nowadays, people are quite used to being Protestant.  For the most part, it's not really a "protest" movement anymore, at least not in the way it was at the beginning.  For another thing, there is much more religious confusion in the West and in the whole world than there was in the sixteenth century.  It is harder in many ways to find truth.  For another thing, Catholics have had an even worse enemy to deal with recently--namely, secularism, the Agnostic view that has absorbed western culture over the past couple hundred years.  In the face of that, it is more natural now to consider the points of similarity between Catholics and Protestants than it used to be.

Dr. Allison says that Protestants don't experience the "fullness" of salvation in the Catholic view.  I think what he means is correct, but it might sound like he is saying that Protestants go to a lesser heaven or something like that.  On earth, Protestants can be true Christians, members of the Church, the Body of Christ, but they are missing out because Protestantism is like a side-stream coming off of a great river.  Or it is like a branch that is partially severed from the tree.  There is still sap there, and so life, but there is a truncation of Christian experience there in varying ways and to various degrees.  However, any person who dies in a right relationship with God--what Catholics tend to call a "state of grace"--will go to heaven and will experience the blessed life of a glorified child of God to all eternity, no less than a person who died in full formal communion with the Catholic Church.

The Church has described its relationship with other Christians here, among other places.

Still, major differences continue to divide the two traditions. For instances, take the points above one by one.


The “material principle (the key content) of Protestantism” continues to be a hotly debated point. On the one hand, the Lutheran World Federation has come to an official agreement with the Catholic Church on this doctrine in their Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999). On the other hand, most Protestants continue to consider this doctrine a key point of difference.

This is certainly the case when we consider the definitions of justification as embraced by the two traditions. Justification, according to Protestantism, is a legal act of God by which he declares sinful people “not guilty,” but instead “righteous,” as he imputes or credits the perfect righteousness of Christ to them. For Catholicism, “justification is not only the remission of sins, but also sanctification and the renewal of the interior man” (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, 7). The Catholic doctrine combines regeneration (the new birth, which comes about, according to Catholicism, by the sacrament of Baptism), sanctification (lifelong transformation, fueled by the sacraments), and forgiveness. Such a fusion of justification with regeneration and sanctification contradicts the Pauline concept of justification (for example, in Romans 3–4), around which the debate centers.

Justification, at the heart of salvation, continues to be a major point of division.

The Scriptures, including the Apostle Paul's writings, do not make an ultimate distinction between justification, regeneration and sanctification.  Rather, all of these are regarded as different aspects of the single work of God whereby he frees us from sin and makes us righteous by his grace through the sacrifice and merits of Christ.  We can certainly distinguish between various aspects of God's work, but we cannot separate these aspects into fundamentally different processes.

Is the Catholic view of justification fundamentally different in nature from the classic Protestant (Lutheran/Reformed) view?  I think it depends on how we understand the Protestant view.  Particularly, it depends on how the Protestant view understands the role of sanctification in our acceptance with God, and how it relates the righteousness of Christ imputed to us with sanctification imparted within us.  Does the inward change of regeneration and sanctification matter to God?  How would God regard a person who had Christ's righteousness imputed to him but who was not regenerated or sanctified (which I am aware is something that never happens in the Protestant viewpoint)?  Would he regard such a person as fully righteous?  If so, then it would seem that inward moral character and good works are irrelevant to God, thus making us wonder why sanctification even happens at all.  If not, then it seems that imputation by itself is not sufficient to make us acceptable to God; we must not only have Christ's righteousness declared ours but we must also have the fruit of that in our lives in order to truly be in a right relationship with God.  Or what about a person who is entirely regenerated and sanctified but who does not have righteousness imputed to him?  Would God regard him as nothing but a hateful sinner?  If so, then, again, it appears God has no concern for a person's actual moral character.  If not, then it appears that a person's legal status cannot be considered separately from his inward state.  If Protestants wish to take the path of disconnecting a person's status and state, then there is a true and very significant difference between the Catholic and the Protestant view of justification, and the Catholic would say that the Protestant view distorts the biblical picture of God by portraying him (at least implicitly) as being unconcerned with a person's actual moral condition.  On the other hand, if Protestants wish to say that the imputation of righteousness cannot of itself make us right with God unless that righteousness actually comes to live in us, and that the latter is essential to experience truly and fully the state of being right with God, then perhaps there is no real substantial difference in this respect between the two views.

What Catholics and Protestants definitely agree on is that none of us can be saved by our own righteousness.  Left to ourselves, we are enemies of God doomed to hell.  Our only and entire hope must be in the righteousness of Christ given to us as a pure gift of grace, not at all merited by us.  Acceptance with God is a product entirely and completely flowing from the sacrifice and merits of Jesus Christ and not at all from anything we can produce of ourselves and call our own.  It is entirely a gift of grace, not of nature.

For more on these things, here are a few articles.  This article compares the Catholic and the Protestant views of justification.  At the end, it also contains links to other articles, some of which critique certain versions of the Protestant view.  This article contains a biblical analysis of the doctrine of justification and shows how the biblical view does not endorse the idea of a fundamental separation between justification and sanctification.

One more thing on this subject:  The Protestant tendency to separate justification and sanctification into two fundamentally distinct processes is something invented at the time of the Reformation.  So far as I have seen and am aware, no one in the entire previous history of Christianity ever held it or put it forth.  Here is an interesting article by Ken Hensley where he describes his shock at discovering that the Protestant formulation of the doctrine of justification did not predate the Reformation.

The paragraph above also mentions that, in the Catholic view, regeneration comes about by means of the sacrament of baptism.  This is true, as Catholics understand the terms, but the statement may be a bit misleading to some Protestants (I have in mind particularly those of the Reformed tradition).  I just wanted to mention this now.  I'll deal with it in substance later on when we come to the section on the sacraments.


Flowing from the difference regarding justification, the way God saves sinful people continues to divide the two traditions. According to Protestant theology, salvation is monergistic (mono = sole; ergon = work): God is the sole definitive agent who works salvation through justification, regeneration, adoption, and more. He supplies grace (through his Word, Spirit, preaching, and ordinances, though not tied exclusively to baptism and the Lord’s Supper) that effects salvation through Spirit-empowered faith (Acts 18:27; 1 Peter 4:11).

According to Catholic theology, salvation is synergistic (syn = together; ergon = work): God and people work together to operate the salvation of sinners. The grace of God initiates the process, and the Catholic faithful cooperate with that grace. Importantly, grace is infused through the sacraments, thereby transforming the faithful so they can engage in good works in order to merit eternal life. Because salvation is a lifelong process, and because divine grace can be forfeited, Catholics believe in the loss of salvation. Consequently, they cannot enjoy the assurance of salvation, a doctrine embraced by many Protestants.

Salvation — how God works to rescue sinful people — continues to be a major doctrinal divide.

OK, there are a number of issues brought up here.  First of all, there is the question of monergism vs. synergism.  I don't think there is any substantial difference between the Protestant (Reformed/Lutheran) position and the Catholic position on this point, though the ways they express their positions sometimes cause apparent conflict.  When Reformed people say that regeneration is monergistic, they don't mean to say (though it often sounds this way to Catholics) that man is converted purely by God to the exclusion of the person's own will, as if God's grace just circumvents our reason and will altogether, dragging us along like inanimate objects.  The Westminster Confession, a classic Reformed doctrinal statement, says that God converts people by "enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace" (10:1).  God changes the sinner's internal viewpoint and thus his affections and motivations, causing him to voluntarily and sincerely turn from sin to God.  Mr. Allison's words above make it sound like God is the only agent in the process of conversion, but the Reformed view holds that the sinner himself is a real agent also in the process.  God's agency by his Spirit inspires and causes man by his agency to choose to turn to Christ.

The Catholic position is the same.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this statement (footnote removed):

The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, "since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it:"

The Catechism then continues to quote St. Augustine:

Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing. 

In other words, it is God who produces, by his grace, the good will which then cooperates with that grace.  We cooperate, but that cooperation itself is a work and gift of God's grace, not something we contribute of ourselves.  As the Apostle Paul put it in Philippians 2:12-13, "[w]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure."  I see no substantial difference between the Reformed and the Catholic views on this subject.

The Catholic Church had to face the idea that our righteousness is something we produce from ourselves and not a gift of grace during the age of the Church Fathers.  The Pelagians and Semipelagians were heretics who tried to turn salvation into a product of works instead of a product of grace.  The Church dealt with these ideas and affirmed the doctrines of grace at the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Orange (529).  Take a look at the canons of the Council of Orange to see the Church's definitive response on this matter.  The great St. Augustine, often called the "Doctor of Grace," played a major role in these controversies.

See here for more on this, and for even more see here and here.

The article mentions that, in the Catholic view, "grace is infused through the sacraments, thereby transforming the faithful so they can engage in good works in order to merit eternal life."  Protestants often recoil at a statement like this, for it sounds to them as if the Catholic is claiming that we can merit God's favor, making eternal life a reward for our own righteousness rather than a gift of unmerited grace.  But the Catholic agrees fully with the Protestant that salvation and eternal life, and all the blessings that accompany them, are unmerited gifts of grace, flowing entirely from the sacrifice and merits of Christ.  But the Catholic also affirms that the righteousness that God gives us through Christ is a righteousness that does warrant (or "merit") God's favor.  God is truly pleased with the sanctification he produces in us through his Spirit, which is the application of the sacrifice and merits of Christ within us.  God does not simply impute Christ's righteousness to us externally with no concern for our inward condition.  He gives us Christ's righteousness in a much richer and fuller way, by counting it ours as a gift of grace and by infusing it within us so that we become truly, inwardly, experientially righteous and show the fruits of this in our living a life of faithfulness to God.  To use an analogy, he does not just deed the house over to us legally, but he also helps us to actually move into it and enjoy life within it.  But although righteousness is infused within us by the Spirit of God, it still remains God's righteousness and not ours intrinsically (as if from us originally), becoming ours only as a pure, unmerited gift of grace.  So while we can say in a sense that through grace we can merit eternal life with God--meaning that the righteousness God has given us through Christ is quite sufficient to procure this blessing to us--at the same time we cannot boast of this and claim that we, from our own resources, have merited God's favor in a way that would put him in debt to us.  To do so would be absurd, like a person buying groceries with borrowed money boasting that he had attained the groceries by his own efforts simply because the money used to buy them was in his hands when he made the purchase.

St. Augustine, a favorite theologian of both Catholics and many Protestants, put it this way ("Treatise on Grace and Free will," chapters 19-20):

And hence there arises no small question, which must be solved by the Lord's gift. If eternal life is rendered to good works, as the Scripture most openly declares: "Then He shall reward every man according to his works:" [3055] how can eternal life be a matter of grace, seeing that grace is not rendered to works, but is given gratuitously, as the apostle himself tells us: "To him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt;" [3056] and again: "There is a remnant saved according to the election of grace;" with these words immediately subjoined: "And if of grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace"? [3057] How, then, is eternal life by grace, when it is received from works? Does the apostle perchance not say that eternal life is a grace? Nay, he has so called it, with a clearness which none can possibly gainsay. It requires no acute intellect, but only an attentive reader, to discover this. For after saying, "The wages of sin is death," he at once added, "The grace of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." [3058] 
This question, then, seems to me to be by no means capable of solution, unless we understand that even those good works of ours, which are recompensed with eternal life, belong to the grace of God, because of what is said by the Lord Jesus: "Without me ye can do nothing." [3059] And the apostle himself, after saying, "By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast;" [3060] saw, of course, the possibility that men would think from this statement that good works are not necessary to those who believe, but that faith alone suffices for them; and again, the possibility of men's boasting of their good works, as if they were of themselves capable of performing them. To meet, therefore, these opinions on both sides, he immediately added, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." [3061] What is the purport of his saying, "Not of works, lest any man should boast," while commending the grace of God? And then why does he afterwards, when giving a reason for using such words, say, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works"? Why, therefore, does it run, "Not of works, lest any man should boast"? Now, hear and understand. "Not of works" is spoken of the works which you suppose have their origin in yourself alone; but you have to think of works for which God has moulded (that is, has formed and created) you. For of these he says, "We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works." Now he does not here speak of that creation which made us human beings, but of that in reference to which one said who was already in full manhood, "Create in me a clean heart, O God;" [3062] concerning which also the apostle says, "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God." [3063] We are framed, therefore, that is, formed and created, "in the good works which" we have not ourselves prepared, but "God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." It follows, then, dearly beloved, beyond all doubt, that as your good life is nothing else than God's grace, so also the eternal life which is the recompense of a good life is the grace of God; moreover it is given gratuitously, even as that is given gratuitously to which it is given. But that to which it is given is solely and simply grace; this therefore is also that which is given to it, because it is its reward;--grace is for grace, as if remuneration for righteousness; in order that it may be true, because it is true, that God "shall reward every man according to his works." [3064]

The section on "grace and justification" in the Catechism of the Catholic Church can be found here

Dr. Allison says that in the Catholic view, salvation can be lost, and thus that there can be no assurance of salvation.  There is some truth to this, but Dr. Allison's statements lack sufficient nuance.  Regarding the possibility of losing salvation, in the Catholic view it is the case that not all whom God regenerates receive from him the gift of final perseverance to the end.  So there are some who are brought to faith only temporarily, whom God later allows to reject the gospel and return to a state of rebellion against God.  Dying in that state, they go on to eternal damnation.  This view is different from the Reformed position, which holds that God never brings anyone to faith to whom he does not also give the gift of final perseverance.  However, the Catholic view is not to be confused with the so-called "Arminian" view, which holds that the reason some fall away is because grace is insufficient to make and keep someone a Christian, that there is also needed an independent contribution from the free will of man and that, though God gives the same grace to both, some make the necessary contribution and some don't.  In the Catholic view, as we've seen, salvation is entirely a gift of God, and our cooperating good will is itself a gift of grace, so final perseverance, like initial conversion, is a gift of God, a gift not given to all.

In the Reformed view, since all converted people persevere to the end and receive eternal life, it is possible to know from the fact that one is currently a follower of Christ that one is among the elect of God who will achieve eternal life.  Since the Catholic view does not hold that all converted people persevere to the end, it is not possible for a Catholic to make that kind of inference, and so it is true that the Catholic view does not allow the same sort of infallibly necessary assurance of salvation that the Reformed view (at least theoretically) does.

However, assurance of salvation is not an all-or-nothing affair.  Final perseverance is a gift of grace, and it cannot be presumed on as if we have a right to it, but at the same time God's grace works in us in a natural and organic way in which early attainments in sanctification lead to later ones.  In this way, sanctification is much like every other area of human life.  The more we develop certain habits, the more we are likely to live in accordance with those habits in the future.  If I have spent a good deal of time and effort to train myself to avoid immoderate anger in my responses to the events of life, I am much less likely to have an outburst of such anger at any given time, all other things being equal, than a person undisciplined in this area.  Most of us do not go around nervously wondering if tomorrow we shall slit our neighbor's throat, not because it is absolutely impossible that we might do so or that we know infallibly that we shall not, but because we recognize that through the training of our habits, beliefs, and values throughout our lives, and because of other traits of our personalities that we have come to know, it is extremely unlikely that we will engage in that sort of activity.  Similarly, if, by God's grace, we have become the sort of people who truly love God, who have developed habits of living faithfully for him, of loving our neighbors, of living a life of charity, etc., we have good reason to believe that the growth in grace we have attained will have the effect of helping preserve us from much possible future sin, such that we are unlikely to spend a great deal of time (if any) in a state of mortal sin (that is, in a state of total rejection of a right relationship with God) or to die and end up confirmed eternally in such a condition.

We must also remember that God will never abandon a person who has not abandoned him first. If we choose Christ, we are secure. We cannot go to hell if we die in such a state. If we end up in hell, it will only be because we have deliberately, with full knowledge and consent of our hearts, chosen to turn away from a relationship of love to Christ and from the way of life he has called us to in favor of living life according to our own desires. To do this, we must resist the testimony and pleading of God to our consciences, calling us back to the good path of salvation. We are not talking here about the venial sins we all commit throughout our lives--slips into sinful attitudes and behavior flowing from the fact that we have not yet been made perfect in grace--for these, though evil (and converted souls long to be rid of such evils), do not interrupt the overall commitment of our lives to God. In Catholic language, they do not destroy the overall state of charity (that is, the state of love to God in the commitment of our lives). If we are following Christ, however imperfectly, God will not abandon us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2005--footnotes removed) has this to say about assurance:

Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved. However, according to the Lord's words "Thus you will know them by their fruits" - reflection on God's blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty. 

A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: "Asked if she knew that she was in God's grace, she replied: 'If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.'"

The Council of Trent (Chapters XII and XIII--page numbers removed) put it this way:

No one, moreover, so long as he is in this mortal life, ought so far to presume as regards the secret mystery of divine predestination, as to determine for certain that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate; as if it were true, that he that is justified, either cannot sin any more, or, if he do sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance; for except by special revelation, it cannot be known whom God hath chosen unto Himself. . . . 

So also as regards the gift of perseverance, of which it is written, He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved:-which gift cannot be derived from any other but Him, who is able to establish him who standeth that he stand perseveringly, and to restore him who falleth:-let no one herein promise himself any thing as certain with an absolute certainty; though all ought to place and repose a most firm hope in God's help. For God, unless men be themselves wanting to His grace, as he has begun the good work, so will he perfect it, working (in them) to will and to accomplish. Nevertheless, let those who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall, and, with fear and trembling work out their salvation, in labours, in watchings, in almsdeeds, in prayers and oblations, in fastings and chastity: for, knowing that they are born again unto a hope of glory, but not as yet unto glory, they ought to fear for the combat which yet remains with the flesh, with the world, with the devil, wherein they cannot be victorious, unless they be with God's grace, obedient to the Apostle, who says; We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh; for if you live according to the flesh, you shall die; but if by the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live.

In short, we cannot know with infallible certainty that we are truly converted or that we are among the elect who will receive eternal salvation.  But we can observe the fruits of God's grace in our lives and so know that we love God and choose to follow him just as we know other things about our internal desires and choices by self-observation, and so be comforted that we are in a state of grace.  And we can observe in ourselves the development and growth of our love towards God and our neighbors, and the strengthening of godly habits and desires, and so have a strong hope that we will  not in the future finally abandon God but will continue to follow to the end, in reliance on the ever-present help of God who continues to build within us grace upon grace.


Who or what constitutes the authority in the relationship between God and people? The “formal principle (the authoritative framework) of Protestantism” continues to be a point of division between the two traditions.

The Protestant sola Scriptura — Scripture alone — means that in all matters of faith and practice, the word of God is the ultimate authority. Every doctrine, every moral action, and the like must be grounded in Scripture. This position does not deny the value of the early church’s creeds, the Protestant confessions of faith, and the distinctives of evangelicalism. But it assigns this wisdom from the past a ministerial authority — it plays a helpful role — not magisterial, or ultimate, authority. And to each Protestant church, God has given pastors who have the authority to teach, lead, exercise discipline, engage in mission, and more.

The Catholic structure of authority is like a three-legged stool. One leg is Scripture, which is the written word of God. Catholics and Protestants continue to disagree over the canon — the official list of books — of the Old Testament. The Catholic Bible contains the Apocrypha, seven additional books — Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees — and additional sections of Esther and Daniel. Because these writings were never part of the Hebrew Bible of Jesus and the apostles, and because they were not accepted as part of the Old Testament of the early church until the end of the fourth century, Protestants reject the Apocrypha.

A second leg is Tradition, the teaching that Jesus orally communicated to his apostles, who in turn communicated it to their successors, the bishops, and which is maintained by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Two examples of Tradition are the immaculate conception of Mary and her bodily assumption.

The third leg is the Magisterium, or teaching office of the Church. Composed of the pope and the bishops, the Magisterium continues to provide the official interpretation of Scripture and to proclaim Tradition, with infallibility.

Thus, Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium together constitute the authority structure in the Catholic Church. The issue of authority continues to be a major point of division.

I agree with Dr. Allison's description of Sola Scriptura.  I also agree with Dr. Allison's description of the Catholic view as being like a three-legged school of Scripture, Tradition, and the authority of the Magisterium.  This is indeed a point of significant difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.  Indeed, I think it is one of the key differences, a difference which leads to the vast majority of other differences.

Dr. Allison's comments about the Apocrypha (or, as Catholics would be more likely to call them, the Deuterocanonical books) are a bit simplistic and misleading.  The actual state of things in the early church was this:  The early church up until the end of the fourth century waffled quite a bit on the status of the Deuterocanonical books.  The western church tended to be basically accepting of them, the eastern church less accepting.  Individual fathers differed.  There was a spectrum of views.  Many, if not all, the fathers quoted them and used them, often treating them as and considering them Scripture.  From the Catholic point of view, this got settled by the synods of Hippo and Carthage at the end of the fourth century, though medievals continued to dispute about the precise nature and authority of the books.  Later on, Church councils reaffirmed the list of inspired books as delineated at Hippo and at Carthage.

For more on the Deuterocanonical books, at least for starters, check out here, here, and here (this last link is to a Protestant apologist arguing against Catholicism).

Dr. Allison's comments about Tradition are accurate, although I think he conflates a bit the category of things delivered by the apostles orally with the category of positions arrived at by the Church over the centuries by means of the development of doctrine.  For example, he mentions the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, giving the impression that the Catholic view is that this doctrine was handed on orally by the apostles.  In reality, I think things are a bit more complex.  Oftentimes, we don't know for sure where to draw the line between things orally passed down from the apostles and positions arrived at over time in the Church, because we don't have a complete and exhaustive list anywhere of things the apostles handed down orally.  With regard to the Immaculate Conception, it may be that the apostles handed down orally the tradition that Mary was kept free from sin by God, since we find this idea so early in the Church's history.  However, details regarding how Mary was kept free from sin were not spelled out, so far as we know, in the earliest periods of the Church.  During the Middle Ages, there was debate over whether Mary was "immaculately conceived."  Everyone granted that she was (by grace, through the sacrifice and merits of Christ) sinless, but there was disagreement over whether God allowed Mary to fall into original sin and then saved her from it before it could bear fruit in evil works, or whether she was kept free from ever falling into original sin from conception.  (See here and here for some articles on this subject which discuss this history of controversy in more detail.)

As Dr. Allison points out, the Catholic Church teaches that God has given power to the Church to accurately and authoritatively exposit the meaning of divine revelation, whether received through Scripture or through other forms of passing down of doctrine (orally, through the liturgy of the Church, etc.).  The Church has received the revelation of God, and it is her task to accurately receive, hand on, preserve, explain, unpack, and apply this revelation over the centuries.  (See here for a statement of the Church's official doctrine on this subject.  See here for a nice summary statement by St. Francis de Sales, a Doctor of the Church.)  The Immaculate Conception may be a result of both oral tradition as well as the development of doctrine over time through the guidance of the Holy Spirit as the Church continued to unpack the implications of what was given to her in revelation.

Regarding Sola Scriptura, the Catholic claim is that there is no basis for this position.  Sola Scriptura is not biblical, and it is not the position of the historic Church.  It may have been advocated by a few heretics here and there through Church history, but it was never embraced formally by any church, so far as I am aware, before the Protestant Reformation.  The historic Church has always held to the Catholic understanding of how revelation is passed down and observed.  For just two examples, consider the words of Basil of Caesaria and Vincent of Lerins, two of the early Church Fathers:

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?  (Basil of Caesaria, On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 27, from the New Advent website, embedded links removed) 

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.  (Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Chapter 2--from the New Advent website, embedded links removed)

For more on Sola Scriptura, see here and here.


Since Vatican II, the Church has instituted many changes to its Mass. The most obvious change is its celebration in the language of the people, not in Latin. Whereas formerly Scripture was given slight attention, it now receives a prominent place, especially in the first part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word. There are readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and one of the Gospels. Moreover, the priest’s homily (or sermonette) ideally reflects those three texts and exposits their common meaning. The participants are urged to attend the Mass with the proper disposition (faith, humility, receptivity) and not as mere ritual.

Though Protestants still disagree with much that takes place, the Mass has undergone many significant changes from Luther’s day.

Vatican II did indeed institute some changes in the liturgy of the Mass (which is, by the way, simply the typical Catholic term for what Protestants call a "worship service," with the Sacrament of Communion at the center).  The Vatican II council document that put forth these changes is called Sacrosanctum Concilium.  You can read it here to see what the council actually said.  This article summarizes the changes made.  This article describes the changes in the amount of Scripture read in the Mass.

It is true that there is more Scripture read in the Mass after Vatican II than there was before.  It is also true that there is greater encouragement and facilitating of participation by all the people in all the parts of the Mass.  Sacrosanctum Concilium says this:

In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.

As the council said, there are some aspects to the Mass that cannot be changed, and other aspects that are subject to change.  Change might happen because abuses or unsuitable ways of doing things have crept in, or because certain forms used to be suitable but have become less suitable because of changes in culture over time, or because certain forms suitable in one culture are not suitable in another, etc.

Both before and after Vatican II, Scripture reading was an important part of the Mass.  So was the need for the people to have the right internal dispositions--faith, repentance, etc.  These things have not changed.


The most noticeable Protestant disagreement with the Catholic Mass concerns the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is the most evident disagreement because Protestants are forbidden to take this sacrament.

The Catholic Church believes that, during the Mass, the power of God and the priest’s words and actions bring about a change in the nature of the bread so it becomes the body of Christ, and a change in the nature of the wine so it becomes the blood of Christ. Jesus’s crucifixion two thousand years ago is not an event that remains locked in space and time. Rather, his death becomes re-presented during the Mass. Thus, the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1324), makes present Christ’s unique sacrifice again and again.

This has been the Church’s view since the thirteenth century, and remains its belief today. The Reformers strongly disagreed with transubstantiation, and no Protestant since them has embraced it. Transubstantiation continues to be a major point of division.

It is true that transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass have been and are points of division between Catholics and Protestants.  Dr. Allison's description of the Catholic view of the sacrifice of the Mass is a delightful surprise in terms of its accuracy.  So many Protestants fundamentally distort Catholic teaching on this point, saying that the Catholic view is that the one sacrifice of the cross was not enough and that in each Mass Jesus is sacrificed over and over again.  As Mr. Allison indicates, this is not the Catholic position.  Rather, the Catholic position is that Christ's one sacrifice on the cross has completely purchased eternal redemption for all believers.  The Mass is where the people of God connect with that one sacrifice, as Christ makes present the fruits of his redemption to those who partake of his body and blood in the Eucharist.  The Mass is called a sacrifice, not because it adds a completely new sacrifice to Christ's death on the cross, but because the Mass is an offering up of Christ and his one sacrifice on behalf of those who receive it.  It is propitiatory with God, not because it is a new sacrifice but because it presents and makes effectual the once and for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Protestants should recognize this idea, at least partly, in their understanding of the idea of Christ continuing to intercede for us in heaven.  Is Christ's intercession for us in heaven something that unites us to God by bringing grace to us?  Yes.  Is it a new sacrifice because the sacrifice of the cross was insufficient?  No, it is simply an application of that one sacrifice.  Here is the Baltimore Catechism (a very well-known American Catholic catechism) on this subject:

Q. 931. {268} Is there any difference between the sacrifice of the Cross and the sacrifice of the Mass? A. Yes; the manner in which the sacrifice is offered is different. On the Cross Christ really shed His blood and was really slain; in the Mass there is no real shedding of blood nor real death, because Christ can die no more; but the sacrifice of the Mass, through the separate consecration of the bread and the wine, represents His death on the Cross.

And here is the Catechism of Pope St. Pius X:

6 Q. What difference and relation then is there between the Sacrifice of the Mass and that of the Cross?
A. Between the Sacrifice of the Mass and that of the Cross there is this difference and relation, that on the Cross Jesus Christ offered Himself by shedding His Blood and meriting for us; whereas on our altars He sacrifices Himself without the shedding of His Blood, and applies to us the fruits of His passion And death.  

8 Q. Is not the Sacrifice of the Cross the one only Sacrifice of the New Law?A. The Sacrifice of the Cross is the one only Sacrifice of the New Law, inasmuch as through it Our Lord satisfied Divine Justice, acquired all the merits necessary to save us, and thus, on His part, fully accomplished our redemption. These merits, however, He applies to us through the means instituted by Him in His Church, among which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Regarding transubstantiation, the idea is that when the bread and wine are consecrated, Christ becomes present in the bread and the wine, so that they are no longer bread and wine but are now the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ (that is, all of Christ) under the empirical qualities of bread and wine.  The "breadness" and the "wineness" remain, but we no longer say they are simply bread and wine because under these empirical qualities Christ is specially present.  Martin Luther believed, and Lutherans believe, in a doctrine sometimes called "consubstantiation," which means that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine, but that the bread and wine remain as well.  I'm personally not sure these two positions (the Catholic and the Lutheran) are necessarily in conflict, depending on what is meant by the idea of the "bread" and "wine" being still present.  What, exactly, is still present?  Catholics acknowledge that the empirical qualities--that is, the physical qualities manifest to our senses--of the bread and wine remain.  They simply deny that the identity of the bread and wine remain the same, since now there is Christ when before there was not.  If this is all Lutherans mean when they say the "bread" and "wine" are still present, perhaps there is no substantial difference here.

Even the Reformed view affirms Christ's real presence in the Eucharist.  They simply deny that Christ is physically present but affirm he is only spiritually present.  The Lutheran and Catholic response is to ask how this distinction can really be made, considering that Christ's physical body has been glorified (giving it qualities transcending the limitations of matter as we know it) and is inseparable from his general person.  Catholics and Lutherans don't believe that Christ's physical presence is of the crude kind that would be the case with an unglorified body--as if a particular piece of bread was a particular chunk out of Christ's right arm or something like that.  Rather, the entire Christ (body, blood, soul, and divinity) is present in all the fullness of his being in each piece of bread and wine.  But however we parse this particular debate, since the Lutherans agree with the Catholics here, the debate is not just Catholic vs. Protestant but intramural within Protestantism as well.

For more on transubstantiation, see here.


Challenged by the vast divide between Catholics and Protestants over Mary, the two traditions at least hold common ground on three points: Mary is the mother of God; that is, the one to whom she gave birth is the Son of God, fully divine. She is a blessed woman because she was the mother of our Savior and Lord (Luke 1:42, 48). And she is a model of the obedience of faith because she yielded to God’s difficult will for her (Luke 1:38, 45).

Still, the key doctrines that Protestants reject include Mary’s immaculate conception, sinlessness, perpetual virginity, participation in the sufferings of Jesus to accomplish salvation, and bodily assumption into heaven. Protestants also reject Mary’s “titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (CCC, 969). The role of Mary continues to be a major difference.

Let me very, very briefly define the doctrines Dr. Allison lists as points of Protestant contention with Catholic doctrine:

Immaculate conception:  This is the idea that God gave a special grace to Mary, through the merits of Christ, such that she was not only saved from sin after sinning as we all are, but that she was also saved from falling into a state of sin in the first place.  This special grace came to her of God's free good pleasure, in connection to the role he chose her for in being the mother of Christ.

Perpetual virginity:  This is pretty self-explanatory, I think.  It simply means that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life and not only until after Christ was born.

"Participation in the sufferings of Jesus to accomplish salvation":  (Of course, this is not a doctrinal term in the Catholic Church, but rather Dr. Allison's phraseology.)  Mary helps in our salvation in several ways.  She became the mother of Christ, thus facilitating the incarnation.  She raised Christ and kept him safe while he grew up.  When we are incorporated into Christ as Christians, Mary becomes our mother because of our adoption in Christ.  As such, she prays for us and pleads for us, and her intercession, because it is the intercession of the Mother of God, "availeth much" (James 5:16).  Mary's intercession for us is like our intercession for each other when we pray for each other, but even more powerful because of who she is by God's grace.

Bodily assumption into heaven:  Mary was not left in death, but was raised up into heaven, and has been crowned as queen, thus sharing in a special way in her son's resurrection.  She is the queen-mother.  Just as Christians in general are destined to "reign with Christ" and share his glory, so Mary, as in many other things, exemplifies this in a special way.

The titles of Mary Dr. Allison mentions correspond to her important role in aiding our salvation and being a means through whom God works--again, just as we all are, but in a special way because of her special role.

Of course, Mary is not God and she is not our Savior, and she is not to be treated as such.  She is not to be worshipped as God.  She does not add anything to the sacrifice and merits of Christ, which are alone sufficient for the salvation of the whole world.  She is merely a means through which God gives grace and blessings and applies the merits and satisfaction of Christ, just as our prayers for each other are likewise means of grace in this sense.

For more on Mary, see the section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  See also here, here, and here.


The Catholic Church embraces seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders. The Reformers reduced this number to two, underscoring that only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were ordained by Jesus and have accompanying physical signs (baptism: Matthew 28:18–20, water; the Lord’s Supper: Matthew 26:26–29, bread and cup).

Moreover, Protestants disagree that these sacraments are effective in conferring grace ex opere operato — just by the sacrament being administered. For example, when a priest administers Baptism, grace is infused into the infant and she is cleansed from original sin, born again, and incorporated into Christ and his Church. Her baptism is effective no matter the moral state of the priest administering the sacrament, and clearly she is not disposed to salvation. Protestants emphasize the association of baptism and the Lord’s Supper with the word of God and with faith that embraces God’s grace, which is not infused into people.

The number, nature, and administration of the sacraments continues to be a major point of division.

First of all, Catholics believe that all seven sacraments are ordained by God, because God has guided the Church through the Holy Spirit to affirm all of them as contained in his revelation.

The concept of "ex opere operato" seems to be frequently misunderstood by Protestants.  1. Many seem to think it means that baptism, the Eucharist, and the other sacraments work by means of the ritual alone, without any involvement or effect from the disposition of the person, etc.  So, for example, the idea seems to be that even if a God-hating Atheist were baptized, undergoing this ritual simply to spite God, he would be regenerated and made holy by the grace of God just as much as a person choosing to undergo the ritual for better motives.  2. Many Protestants seem also to think that the effects of God's grace on the soul through the sacraments are tied to the time of the administration of the sacraments, as if, for example, a person goes into the sacrament of baptism totally unregenerate, hating God, and then comes out of the ritual totally turned around in his heart.  3. And finally, many Protestants seem to think that Catholics think that a person cannot be saved if, through no fault of his own, he cannot receive certain sacraments (baptism, the Eucharist, or Confession).

None of these ideas are correct.  1. First of all, the sacraments do not produce their full fruit unless there is a proper disposition.  A person who gets baptized to spite God does not come out of baptism free and forgiven of his sin unless he repents during the event.  A person who receives the Eucharist while hating God with all his heart is not receiving the benefits of this sacrament.  On the contrary, in both cases, things are actually worse for the person, because he is committing sacrilege, and because he is binding himself by promises to God without intending to keep them.  If such a person in such a state is baptized, he does indeed join the Church, but he is still in a state of mortal sin.  If he dies without repenting, he will go to hell.  So he is not spiritually right with God, even though he has now joined the people of God outwardly.  In his catechism (questions 21-26), Pope St. Pius X distinguishes between the "soul" and the "body" of the Church, and between "living" and "dead" members.  There are those who have joined the Church but are not spiritually part of the people of God.  There are those who are outside the Church bodily but are spiritually members of it.  This distinction corresponds, at least with regard to those currently living, to the Protestant distinction between the "visible" and the "invisible" church (as that is explained, for example, in the Westminster Confession, Chapter 25).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite clear on this (#1127, 1128, and #1131--footnotes removed):

Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son's Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power. 

This is the meaning of the Church's affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: "by the very fact of the action's being performed"), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God." From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. 

The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.

2. God's grace is not tied to his sacraments in the Catholic view.  Catechism #1257:  "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments."  A person choosing to be baptized, for example, must already have grace working in him, must already have a heart turned to love of God, must be in a state of grace internally, in order to have the proper disposition required to participate in this sacrament.  Obviously, then, the conversion of the heart is not so temporally connected to baptism that a person begins the ritual in a state of mortal sin and comes out of it in a state of grace.  God has connected the inward grace to the outward sign, but not in such a way as to make them in every way temporally simultaneous.

3. Going along with this, those who die without being able to receive the required sacraments are not doomed to hell, but can be in a right relationship with God, in a state of grace, bound for heaven.  The Catechism speaks of this (#1258-1260--footnotes removed):

The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament. 

For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament. 

"Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery." Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.

Dr. Allison says that "Protestants emphasize the association of baptism and the Lord’s Supper with the word of God and with faith that embraces God’s grace," suggesting that Catholics don't.  But see, for example, Catechism #1122--footnote removed, ellipsis in original):  "The People of God is formed into one in the first place by the Word of the living God. . . . The preaching of the Word is required for the sacramental ministry itself, since the sacraments are sacraments of faith, drawing their origin and nourishment from the Word."

Dr. Allison says that grace is not infused into us according to Protestants, but I think that must be a semantic quibble, since Protestants typically accept the idea that God gives us grace that makes us holy through his Holy Spirit, and also gives us spiritual gifts.  That is what Catholics mean by God "infusing" grace into us.


According to Catholic theology, if a Catholic dies in the grace of God (so, not having unconfessed mortal sin that would doom her to hell) yet not fully purified, she goes to purgatory. This is a temporary state of final cleansing of the stain of forgiven sin, purifying her so she will eventually go to heaven. While she undergoes passive suffering in purgatory, her experience can be shortened. The saints in heaven intercede for her. Living Catholics also pray for her, pay money so that Masses will be celebrated for her sake, and obtain indulgences on her behalf. An indulgence remits the temporal punishment either in full or in part.

Protestant theology dissents from this doctrine because its support comes from 2 Maccabees 12:38–45, an apocryphal writing, and from a misinterpretation of other biblical texts (1 Corinthians 3:15; Matthew 12:32). Moreover, if justification declares a sinful person “not guilty,” but “righteous” instead, there is no need for further purification of sin after death.

Purgatory continues to be a major difference.

Catholics do indeed believe in purgatory.  What is purgatory?  As Dr. Allison rightly says, purgatory is a state in which a soul which dies needing further purification is further purified before entering heaven.  It is strange that Mr. Allison says that purgatory is not necessary, according to Protestants, because "justification declares a sinful person 'not guilty,' but 'righteous' instead".  Does Dr. Allison, and do not Protestants, believe in the necessity of sanctification as well as justification?  Do we not need to be made holy internally, and not merely be declared righteous externally?  If so, then how does the fact that a person is justified imply that he doesn't need to be further purified in purgatory?  If it implies that, it must also imply he doesn't need any further purification on earth by the the same reasoning, which would render sanctification unnecessary for justified persons.  Here I think Dr. Allison may be unconsciously stumbling over a problem with the Protestant view of justification as it is often understood.  Protestants often want to say that we are totally right with God by means of the external imputation of righteousness, apart from any contribution from an internal sanctification.  (That's why they are so adamant about separating "justification" from "sanctification" and making these two fundamentally different processes.)  If this is so, however, it raises the natural question, "So why does God even care if we are sanctified or not, since he is fully satisfied with us morally merely by means of external imputation?"  Such a view of justification seems to render sanctification superfluous.  But Protestants know the Bible too well to say that God doesn't care about sanctification, so they affirm it.  But perhaps with a doctrine he doesn't agree with, like purgatory, Dr. Allison temporarily forgot himself and made the logical inference he declines to make elsewhere--that the Protestant doctrine of justification eliminates the need for sanctification.

Dr. Allison rightly notes that a person's experience in purgatory can be shortened.  He says this can happen because "[t]he saints in heaven intercede for her. Living Catholics also pray for her, pay money so that Masses will be celebrated for her sake, and obtain indulgences on her behalf."  Let's unpack these briefly:

1. The saints in heaven intercede for her.  Yes, that is correct.  Just as God gives blessings to people through the prayers of other people on earth, so he often blesses us through the prayers of those who are in heaven.  When Catholics talk about the "intercession of the saints" or "praying to saints," this is the sort of thing being referred to.  The saints are not intercessors for us in the sense that they can make atonement for our sins.  Only Christ could do and has done that, and his atonement is the only and fully sufficient foundation for our justification.  But the saints can intercede for us in the sense that God can bless us because of them, because of things that they do.  Again, this concept should be familiar to Protestants, who typically understand the idea that God often gives blessings in response to what people do and how people pray.  The saints in heaven are especially effective intercessors, because they lived a holy life while on earth and have been made perfect in soul in heaven, and they dwell in the presence of God.

2. This brings us to the concept of "indulgences"--a topic greatly feared by Protestants, but, so it seems, so rarely well understood by many of them.  Dr. Allison's description, as is typical for him (and so refreshing!), is basically accurate, though very brief.  Here's the basic idea:  When we repent of our sins, we are forgiven for them, but that does not mean there is not sometimes still something that needs to be done to make up for the sin or to continue to grow in grace after repentance.  If we steal money, we must repent, but we must also restore the money.  When David repented of his adultery with Bathsheba, he was forgiven, but the child still died.  Even after we repent, we are not perfect, and we often have a ways to go before we have learned fully what we need to learn from our experience in order to do better in the future.  Parents recognize this in their dealings with children as well.  Johnny may be truly sorry for hitting his sister (again), but Mom may feel that Johnny still needs to have some consequences in order to help the reality and seriousness of his offense sink in better.  Catholics call this idea "penance."  When a Catholic goes to Confession, in which he is granted forgiveness from God sacramentally through the Church (John 20:23, etc.), the priest (the presbyter, the elder) will give him a "penance"--something to do to help his repentance sink in better, to help him avoid sin in the future, to learn better from his experience, to make up in various ways to some degree for what he has done, etc.  This is part of the ongoing process of sanctification in our lives, and it will go on until we are fully purified and fit for God's presence.

What if we die before this process is complete?  Then it will be completed between our death and our entrance into the presence of God.  This is "purgatory."  But there are ways in which our penances can be shortened.  Consider an analogy (taken from my larger article on this subject):

Imagine a pretty ordinary family.  There are Mom and Dad, and there are two children--Sarah and Michael.  One day, Sarah and Michael are playing, and Sarah hits Michael.  Mom scolds Sarah, and asks her to apologize to Michael.  Sarah does so, and seems sincere.  Michael accepts her apology.  However, Sarah has been doing a lot of this sort of thing lately--in fact, this is the third time she has hit Michael that day--and so Mom also tells Sarah she will not be allowed to play with a particular favorite toy for the rest of the afternoon because of what she did.  It is good that Sarah has apologized and been forgiven, but she still needs to be disciplined for her behavior.  A little later, Sarah, out of a desire to make things up to her Mom, voluntarily decides to clean her room.  Mom finds out about this, and out of respect and pleasure towards what Sarah has done, she declares that Sarah's punishment is mitigated--she can have her toy earlier than was originally planned.  Or, alternatively, imagine that her brother Michael, feeling sorry for her and wanting to help, asks Mom to let her have her toy earlier than was planned.  Mom, out of pleasure over Michael's compassion for his sister, and wanting to honor that, agrees to mitigate Sarah's punishment and tells the repentant Sarah that her punishment is being mitigated on Michael's behalf. 

All of this makes a lot of sense in terms of ordinary family dynamics.  But interwoven into this story are analogies for the Catholic doctrines of penance, purgatory, and indulgences. . . .  Sarah's punishment was mitigated by Mom.  In the first scenario, this was because Sarah spontaneously decided to clean her room out of a desire to help her mother.  In the second scenario, this was because Michael, her brother, made a compassionate request that her sister's punishment be mitigated.  Similarly, a sinner may have his penances mitigated by some extra-ordinary act of charity, or even by God's accepting someone else's charitable act or request on his behalf, as God honors such acts (assuming an appropriate repentant attitude in the sinner).  This is the essence of the Catholic doctrine of indulgences.  The Church, having the authority and responsibility to retain or remit sins and to prescribe or remit penances, can, in appropriate circumstances, grant mitigations of certain temporal penalties or consequences of sins based on certain acts or intentions or requests of the penitent sinner himself or of other saints in the communion of saints.

Sometimes it is clear that Protestants get these ideas to a great degree, even if they don't realize it.  One time I was having a conversation with a Presbyterian elder.  He was telling me about a discipline case in a certain Presbyterian church.  A member of the church had lost his temper and punched someone in the nose.  Repentant, he went to the session (the body of elders in a Presbyterian church) and confessed what he had done.  The session forgave him, but declared that he would be barred from communion for the next two communion seasons (in some Presbyterian churches, communion is held only at certain times of the year, and those times are called "communion seasons").  The point of this penalty was to bring home to him--and to testify to the rest of the congregation--the seriousness of his offense.  Here we have the concept of "penance" beautifully displayed, and by a church which undoubtedly would condemn the idea as "works righteousness" and a betrayal of the gospel of free grace in Christ!  We see in Presbyterian practice also the role of the Church as the body that retains and remits sins (that is, which officially recognizes and pronounces God's reception or rejection of a person by barring him from the sacraments, sometimes by excommunicating him, by receiving back an excommunicated person, etc.).  In this particular case, there was no "indulgence" granted by the session, but it is not hard to see how such a thing might have taken place.  If this man had done some extraordinary work testifying greatly to his remorse and repentance, or if the church had pleaded on his behalf out of compassion, the session might have mitigated his penalty.  And this would have been, in essence, the same thing as an "indulgence" in the Catholic Church--though, again, the church would never have recognized that but would have continued to condemn indulgences as horrible perversions of the gospel.

Dr. Allison says that Catholics can also help to shorten a person's experience in purgatory by "pay[ing] money so that Masses will be celebrated for her sake."  This is a bit of a low blow, I think, for the obvious intention here is to try to throw dirt on the Catholic practice by giving the impression that crass money-grubbing is going on.  It is true that stipends are sometimes requested or required for certain priestly services in the Church.  But this is not because the Church is selling salvation, but because priests must make a living.  Latter-day Saints (Mormons) often complain that evangelical ministers are money-grubbers because pastors have a salary.  Evangelicals ought to know better, then, than to make this kind of charge without a little more careful consideration.  Here is a nice little article addressing this in more detail.

Still Reforming

While some things have changed with the Roman Catholic Church to bring Catholics and Protestants closer together after five hundred years, many major differences remain to divide them. One approach to this quandary is to minimize the division. For example, it is anticipated that within the next year, Pope Francis will declare that the Reformation is over. Working from the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification, he will emphasize the agreements achieved on this once divisive doctrine and underscore that the sixteenth century anathemas (condemnations) of Protestants by Catholics and of Catholics by Protestants are removed. Thus, the Reformation will be formally finished.

Tragically, this perspective fails to address the continuing differences between the two traditions. The Catholic Church still holds to untrue doctrines of justification, salvation, authority, transubstantiation, Mary, seven sacraments that are effective ex opere operato, and purgatory. It is not helpful to skirt those issues for the sake of unity in a lowest-common-denominator approach.

While we can agree that much has changed, we must also agree that the Reformation remains unfinished.

Quite true.  Our divisions will not be healed until we come to agreement on the points of difference (though we can have a limited, but substantial, fellowship as fellow Christians in the meantime as well).

See here for a nice letter to Protestants inviting them back to the Catholic Church.  The Reformation may not be over yet, but I think it should be.  What a wonderful way that would be to celebrate its 500th anniversary!

Gregg Allison is professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and co-author of The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years.

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