Church & Bio-ethics Articles

What's the Difference Between Protestants and Catholics?

by William Edgar, Ph.D. , Professor of Apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary

Usually when Dan Brown writes about the Church he is describing the Roman Catholic Church, often known as Catholicism. However, readers should know that there are other expressions of the Christian faith. In addition to numerous smaller groups, there are two other major branches. Eastern Orthodoxy, which became an autonomous body in 1054, and is found mostly in the eastern Mediterranean and eastern Europe, counts some 300 million members worldwide. The branch known as Protestantism has existed since 1517, a symbolic date upon which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the University of Wittenberg, one of the triggers of the Reformation.

Today there are some 600 million Protestants worldwide. These compare to Roman Catholicism, which counts a little over 1 billion members, which is half the total number of Christians, and one sixth the world’s population.
Of course no one is neutral about the differences between Protestants and Catholics. Here, we will be content simply to list some of the major points of agreement and differences. Readers interested in exploring this subject in depth would need to be informed about the history of these two branches, the issues that defined them at the Reformation in the 16th century, subsequent developments, current differences, and attempts to establish ecumenical relations.

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are diverse and complex, so any one list of issues will be problematic. What follows is quite minimalist and should not be taken to exhaust the relationship between these two vast communions. Although there are critical points of difference, it is important to begin with to stress their agreement in certain fundamental areas.

Points of Agreement:

1. The contents of the first seven universal church councils: (1) Nicaea (325) the Nicene Creed; (2) Constantinople (381) supplementing the Nicene Creed particularly on the Holy Spirit; (3) Ephesus (431; 439) refuted Pelagianism on adding human merit to God’s grace; (4) Chalcedon (451) on the “hypostatic” union of human and divine nature in the Person of Christ; (5) Second Constantinople (553) condemnation of the “Three Chapters,” that is, Monophysite writings supporting only the one nature of Christ (human, which became divine); (6) Third Constantinople (680-81) which proclaimed that Christ had two wills, over against Monothelitism; and (7) Second Nicaea (787) which restored the veneration of icons (this council was accepted by Anglicans and most other Protestants, but not all – veneration is not meant to be worship).

2. The unique authority of Holy Scripture. While Catholics have a far stronger position on tradition and church authority alongside the Bible than do Protestants, they do still officially accept some subordination of the teaching office to the Bible.

3. The need for grace through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ to obtain salvation. While Catholics differ with Protestants over the way the benefits of Christ’s work are communicated, both agree that the sacrificial death of Christ, God’s only son, is the only foundation for human salvation.

4. The central mission of the church. The church is a worshiping assembly of God’s people. It is the fellowship of those who belong to Christ, and whose mission is to spread the gospel throughout the world.

5. The need to define doctrine and practice for each era. Both communions assert the need to apply the universal apostolic teachings to the cultural context of each era.

Points of Disagreement:

1. The role of the church. Catholics emphasize the mediatory function of the church as an organized body in a way Protestants do not. For the former spiritual life is mediated by the sacraments, administered by the hierarchy, centering ultimately on the Pope as “Vicar of Christ.” For the latter the church is crucially important, but its power is chiefly spiritual (the Holy Spirit is the main agent of Christ’s power) and declarative (the preaching of the Word is the main vehicle of Christ’s authority. While after Vatican II (1962-65) a greater emphasis on the participation of the people supplemented the views affirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-63) as a hierarchical and clerical.

2. The authority of the Pope and church councils. Catholics believe the temporal head of the church is the Pope, whose seat is in the Vatican. In Medieval times the papacy had widespread powers, including over lands and armies. Today his position is described more in spiritual terms. According to Vatican II, his role is as the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity of the bishops and of the multitude of the faithful.” Still, he is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, from his bishop’s seat. Church councils cannot err. Protestants reject the vesting of such authority in human beings. They stress that only Christ is the head of the church, and the constitution is the Holy Scripture. Ministers are “elders,” shepherds who teach and administer the sacraments, and whose decisions ought to govern the church in areas of faith and practice. However, the final court of appeal is neither a church council nor a Pope, but the Bible, which alone is infallible.

3. The sacraments. Protestants and Catholics differ not only over the number of authorized sacraments but their nature. In the Middle Ages, and ratified by Trent, the number of the sacraments according to Catholicism was established as seven: baptism, confirmation, ordination, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, and marriage. In addition, numerous acts are considered “sacramental”: canon law, the cult of the Virgin, baptismal water, blessed ashes, crucifixes, etc. For Protestants there are only two: baptism and the Eucharist. The basis for this difference lies in the two conceptions. For Catholics a sacrament is not only a sign of God’s work in the world, but a means for conveying his grace. For Protestants sacraments are signs and seals of the reality of Christ’s presence, and so must be (1) instituted by Christ; (2) administered by duly authorized elders; and (3) celebrated in the church, with the preaching of the Word. While official Catholic teaching denies any re-sacrifice of Christ, there is nevertheless a popular view that he is sacrificed again in the mass, albeit without blood (see the New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism, vol. 2, question 357). Protestants reject any such notion, based on the finality and sufficiency of Christ’s death (see Hebrews 9:26-28).

4. The Bible. While Catholics accept the unique authority of Scripture, they are required to believe in a second authority, that of “tradition.” Trent declared that it was the duty of the “Mother Church” to judge the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scripture over against any who would “rely on his own skill” to do so. Vatican II softens this somewhat, and yet still holds that the magistracy of the church has the final say in the meaning of Scripture. Protestants certainly accept the importance of the church in understanding and teaching the meaning of the Bible, but they also hold sacred the right of individuals or groups to be guided in biblical interpretation by their own conscience, because of the work of the Holy Spirit in them, even in cases where that might lead them to differ with the church. In practice, this divergence has led to  variance on a number of issues. For Catholics, for example, if the Bible does not directly address a matter, tradition can fill in the gaps. A case in point is the cult of Mary. Bernard of Clairvaux declared that while Christ was our mediator, we need a mediator to him, the merciful Virgin Mary. Significantly, the only two times the Pope has in fact spoken ex cathedra, infallibly in the Catholic view, is over Mary: (1) she was born “immaculately,” free from original sin; (2) she ascended bodily into heaven. Protestants vigorously disagree with this cult of Mary. If the Scripture does not expressly speak on a subject, one may by “good and necessary inference” deduce the matter from what is said, but never by adding to the Bible. And the correct rule of the interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself (known as the “analogy of Scripture”), since the Holy spirit speaks through it to us.

5. Good works. One of the foundational questions separating Protestants and Catholics at the Reformation is “justification.” Typically, Protestants assert that justification is a once-for-all declaration of acquittal from the guilt of sin by God, based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers, who receive the gift of justification by faith alone. According to Trent, on the other hand, justification is a “translation” from the state of original sin to a state of grace, thus a transformation to access the merits of Christ. It is thus more an infusion of grace than a change of status, which it is for Protestants. Trent declared that justification through faith alone is “anathema” (6/9,12). For Catholics faith must be supplemented by the practice of the sacraments and of good works in order to continue to obtain justification. Protestants do argue that transformation will follow from justification. They call this “sanctification.” But the two must not be confused. They assert faith is not alive if it does not lead to the practice to the practice of good works (James 2:15-18), and yet they assert good works in themselves contribute nothing to our justification (Romans 3:22). Faith is the empty hands, lifted up to ask for God’s justifying mercy.


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