An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
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Greetings, I’m Fred Zaspel and welcome to another Author Interview here at Books At a Glance. Today we’re talking to Dr. Gregg Allison of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary about his new book, 40 Questions about Roman Catholicism.
Gregg, welcome back, and congratulations on your new book!
Thanks, Fred. This is maybe the 4th or 5th interview I have done with you. It is a pleasure being back with you.
Let’s begin just broadly: what is your book all about, and what is the contribution you hope to make? And for whom?
Several years ago, I wrote more of a scholarly work called Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. That was for a little higher of an audience who wanted to dig more deeply into Roman Catholic theology and practice. This book, 40 questions about Roman Catholicism, is a part of a series of books on 40 questions on different topics. This is for laypeople. People have interesting questions from friends, relatives, and colleagues and they want to know basic ideas about Roman Catholicism.
Explain the terminology for us — “catholic” and “Roman Catholic.”
There is a huge difference. The early church said the church is one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Catholic means universal. The church can be anywhere the Gospel spreads, the church is planted, matures, and engages in mission. The idea of the catholic church is universal. Roman Catholic refers to the one specific church. We would call it one of the 3 major branches of Christendom. The other two are Orthodox and Protestant.
The Roman Catholic Church refers to this worldwide institution. About 1.2 billion adherents. It is led by the pope. There are the cardinals, bishops, and priests. There are parishes all around the world. It claims to be the one true church of Jesus Christ. According to the Roman Catholic Church, we as Protestants do not belong to the church, we are considered members of an ecclesial community.
What are the origins of the papacy? And what about Rome’s claim that Peter was the first pope?
The papacy comes from the words of Jesus recorded for us in Matthew 16:13-20 when Peter makes the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus commends Peter for his confession and emphasizes that he did not figure this out on his own, but it came through the Father through revelation. Jesus promises on this rock I will build my church. The gates of hell will not prevail against it and I will give the keys to the kingdom of God. The Roman Catholic believes this is the passage that establishes the papacy with Peter. Who, along with the other apostles transfer their authority through apostolic procession? These would be the bishops who continue to exercise authority in the Roman Catholic Church.
Historically it is not this easy. We do not see anywhere in Acts where a notion of a papacy is developing. The apostles preached the Gospel and planted churches. There is a church in Rome, but Peter was never there except for his martyrdom. Paul did not launch the church there but wrote a letter to it. There are historical factors, the fact that Rome was the capital of the Western part of the Roman empire. It was orthodox and stepped in on political issues.
As it developed the bishop of Rome began to make some outstanding claims. Rather than all bishops of the world being equal, the bishop of Rome was above them. He argued this because the church in Rome was sanctified by the martyrdom of Peter and Jesus’ words in Matthew. The claim was made that the bishop of Rome should exercise authority over all the rest of the bishops. This developed over 5 or 6 centuries. There was controversy over this being true. In the early part of the 7th century the term pope gets used and he is a political, wealthy, monarch over western Europe.
In the early church, there were several key churches that had bishops developing a very important position. Rome in the 2nd to 4th centuries is one of the five leading churches. This evolves into the papacy in Rome as the bishops of Rome increasingly made these outlandish claims saying the bishop of Rome holds the primacy over all the bishops of the world. This was not only over the church but also over the entire world. It was a powerhouse and resembled a monarch rather than a spiritual leader of the church.
In the middle of the 8th century the protector of the pope, Pepin the Short in Rome engages in a military victory over the Lombards. They are barbarians who are attacking the city of Rome. They win the victory. The pope hands Pepin the Short a document that gives him the deed over the city of Rome and the papal states to the pope. In the 15th century, this document is exposed as a fraud. The whole idea of the vast landholdings by the papacy is built on a lie.
Ephesians 2:20 is the foundation of the apostles. There is no mention of Peter. Peter is very important but so are others like Cornelius and the Jerusalem Council. The cornerstone is Jesus and the foundation is the apostles without a necessary primacy being attributed to Peter and the pope in Rome.
Highlight for us the theology that Roman Catholics and Protestants hold in common.
There is quite a bit of commonality. Catholics and Protestants alike believe that God is triune. He eternally exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We agree on the nature of God. He is eternal, loving, holy, wrathful, and righteous. In part, we agree about the revelation of God, that he reveals himself to all peoples, times, and places through general revelation. He reveals himself to particular people, times, and places through special revelation. We agree on the person and works of Jesus Christ. He is the eternal Son of God. He became God the Son incarnate. He lived a holy life, taught, performed miracles, and had conflict with his enemies. We agree on the saving work of Christ. We agree on penal substitution. Jesus took our place and became our substitute.
We agree on the Holy Spirit and his various works. We agree on the glory and travesty of human beings. All humans are created in the divine image, and all have fallen into sin. We agree that salvation is initiated by God. This may be a shock. There is a strong emphasis on grace at least in initiating salvation. We agree on the fact that God makes us his people. There is a lot of disagreement on the doctrine of the church, but we agree somewhat on the church. We agree on the living hope that we have. When we die, we can experience salvation, Jesus is coming again, the wicked will go to hell, and the righteous will go to heaven. These are some very broad categories of agreement.
What, then, are the primary issues that divide us, and what makes them so serious?
There is a lot. Just going back to the doctrine of revelation. How does God speak to the world today? The formal principle of Protestantism is sola scriptura. Divine revelation is contained in Scripture alone. According to Roman Catholic divine revelation consists of three elements. They have written Scripture, Tradition, and the magisterium or teaching office of the church.
Tradition is referring to teachings that Jesus orally communicated to his apostles who in turn orally communicated those teachings to their successors. Scripture and Tradition are two sources of divine revelation and are to be equally venerated and consulted in order to have the fullness of God’s revelation. The third part, the magisterium, the pope and bishops have determined the canon, which books belong in Scripture. They are the official interpreters of the Bible. If you remove one of the three legs of their divine revelation, the stool crumbles. All three are necessary. This is a major dividing point.
Thinking on our Bible’s the New Testament is the same in both. In the Old Testament, however, we Protestants have 39 books, but Roman Catholics have 7 extra books. In those apocryphal writings, there are varying doctrines we would disagree on. Purgatory is established. This is the idea of when the Catholic person dies and they are not completely pure in this world, their souls go to purgatory and are purged of the taint of sin. There are indulgences, prayers, and masses for the dead. In several of the books of the apocryphal writings, there is merit theology. This is how God’s grace enables us to cooperate and engage in good works to merit eternal life.
From Tradition, the Catholic Church affirms the immaculate conception of Mary. This is a dogma proclaimed in 1854 that binds on the consciousness of all Roman Catholics that when Mary was conceived, she was born without sin and lived her entire life without sin. Then the bodily assumption of Mary, another dogma proclaimed in 1950. At the end of Mary’s days, she did not undergo a normal death. There was no unzipping of her soul from her body. She was assumed in the integrity of her soul and body. She was taken into heaven. She is the only embodied follower of Jesus Christ in heaven. We Protestants looking at the Immaculate conception and bodily assumption in Mary say there is no biblical basis for it. For Catholics, Scripture plus Tradition composes divine revelation so it is absolute, true dogma binding on the conscience for Roman Catholics. This changes Solus Christus, in Christ alone. This is the veneration of Mary.
We do not believe the idea of the Roman Catholic Church claiming to be the one true church of Jesus Christ. The seven sacraments are different, and they believe that grace is infused and transforms the very nature and cooperates with grace to merit eternal life. We believe in justification through God’s grace alone, in faith alone. God declares us not guilty and attributes to us the righteousness of his Son. Our standing before God is settled forever.
Grace in the Catholic view is an infusion of unmerited favor that becomes transformative and enables us to merit eternal life through our good works. There is a cooperative saving work. We as Protestants embrace monergism, God and God alone works out our salvation. He alone regenerates us and declares us not guilty but righteous by justifying us. We do not add anything to his work.
Assurance of salvation is a doctrine that is vital to so much of Protestant and especially Reformed theology. Why do Roman Catholics deny it?
The Roman Catholic Church, going back to the Council of Trent, defines justification as not only the forgiveness of sins but also the sanctification and the renewal of the inner person. According to Roman Catholic justification is a blend of forgiveness, regeneration, and sanctification which makes it a lifelong process. You never know how justified, sanctified, or renewed you must be in order to know if you are saved. You are in perpetual doubt if you have done enough.
The Catholic Church not only puts its people in this position but also explicitly says you cannot know. Assurance of salvation is a reformed Protestant doctrine. We hold onto the assurance of salvation because Scripture addresses the perseverance of the saints and God holds us by his power. He gives us the assurance of salvation through his mighty acts, prayers, and promises.
Every now and then we read of a Protestant moving over to Roman Catholicism. What is the attraction?
Protestants who are disturbed by the divisions within Protestantism, long for unity and they think they will find it in the “one true, only church of Jesus Christ.” If you scratch below the surface, you will see it is also diverse. Our Protestant friends have received shallow teaching in their churches and lacked sound doctrine. They look at the Catholic Church, the pope’s official interpretation of the Bible, and the direction of the church and see they can find certainty in this regard. There is a longing for a historical rootedness in the past. Many evangelical churches do not know their history. Finally, they find the Catholic Church has a kind of mystery and reverence. There is just entertainment in a lot of Protestant churches. We need to have sound doctrine, teaching our people, and having strong communities for our people.
For those of us with Roman Catholic friends, what do you suggest may be a good way to approach them with the Gospel? What are the issues we need to keep in focus?
We must be Gospel-centered. Something I have done regularly with Roman Catholic neighbors; I have them come to my house. We have a meal and then gather in my living room. I lead what we call a reading group of the Gospel. I take the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. Every day says what is emphasized in the mass worldwide. I look at Sunday’s readings and see what is offered in the mass. This reading becomes our Bible study. I read the passage and have a Catholic neighbor read it. I teach them a very basic Bible study. Observation, application, interpretation, and prayer. Then I relate it back to the Gospel and try to aim to give them a deeper knowledge of Scripture.
It is a long-haul approach. There is so much we must get through to our Catholic neighbors and friends. We are trying to show them who Jesus really is and what he has done. Just in case those Catholic friends go to mass that Sunday and hear that Gospel reading and maybe the priest will preach on it. Inevitably they come back the next week and reflect on what the priest and you have said. We look at what the Bible says and its authority over us. I am instilling in them reverence for and obedience to the authoritative word of God. I am leading them to the Gospel of justification in Christ alone, through faith alone, for the glory of God alone. I have never had someone ask to study Tradition. They know we just read the Gospel.
We’re talking to Dr. Gregg Allison about his new book, 40 Questions about Roman Catholicism. It’s an excellent resource for all of us and very helpful in sharpening our theological understanding, and it’s especially helpful for those of us with Roman Catholic friends – get a copy and improve your witness!
Gregg, thanks again for your good work, and thanks for talking to us today.
Thank you, Fred. Always a pleasure.
Buy the books
40 QUESTIONS ABOUT ROMAN CATHOLICISM, by Gregg R. Allison