Articles by Norman L. Geisler

President & CEO of Southern Evangelical Seminary

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Norman L. Geisler
President & CEO of Southern Evangelical Seminary
     Professor of Theology and Apologetics
     B.A., Wheaton College
     Th.B., William Tyndale College
     M.A. Wheaton Graduate School
     Ph.D., Loyola University, Chicago, IL
     Copyright 1993 by the Christian Research Institute
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"What Think Ye of Rome?: An Evangelical Appraisal of
Contemporary Catholicism (Part One)" (an article from the
Christian Research Journal, Winter 1993, page 32) by Kenneth
R. Samples.
The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is
Elliot Miller.
    A crucial starting point in an appraisal of the Roman
Catholic church is to understand some of the unique
sociological features of contemporary Catholicism. Erroneous
classifications of Catholicism frequently fail to grasp the
significant diversity within the church. While the church's
unity is of central importance, Catholicism possesses
incredible diversity -- the church is anything but
monolithic. This diversity is illustrated by the six major
theological types of Catholics: ultratraditionalist,
traditionalist, liberal, charismatic/evangelical, cultural,
and popular folk. A Protestant appraisal of Catholicism
should then examine the areas of genuine doctrinal agreement
between Catholicism and Protestantism (especially evident in
the creeds), before moving on to analyze the significant
areas of difference.
  *Counter Reformation:* A period of reform and revival in
the Roman Catholic church following the Protestant
Reformation of the sixteenth century. The goal was to stem
the tide of Protestantism by genuinely reforming the
Catholic church. This reform included among other things the
Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the establishment of The
Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1540.
  *fundamentalist:* This term, like "evangelical," suffers
from ambiguity, and has changed much in meaning since its
first usage early in this century. Fundamentalists have
always stood in opposition to liberalism within the church.
But today the term conveys certain additional
characteristics which set fundamentalists apart from other
evangelicals, including: a general suspicion of scholarship,
a separatist mentality which includes a rejection of the
entire ecumenical movement, an anti-historical
(anti-creedal) or restorational view of the church, and a
rigid approach to what constitutes appropriate Christian
  *papal encyclical:* A letter of instruction from the Pope
which circulates throughout the church.
  *Reformation:* A wide-ranging, predominantly religious
movement of sixteenth century Europe which attempted to
reform Western Christianity, but in effect resulted in (1)
the rejection or modification of some Roman Catholic
doctrine and practice, and (2) the establishment of
Protestant Christianity. _See_ Roland H. Bainton, _The
Reformation of the Sixteenth Century_ (Boston: Beacon Press,
    One of the most perplexing issues evangelical
Protestants face is how to understand, evaluate, and
ultimately classify the Roman Catholic church. Few topics
prove to be as controversial as the question of just how
Protestants view and relate to Catholics. There exists no
universal agreement or consensus among conservative
Protestants in this regard. The spectrum of opinion ranges
from one extreme to another.
    On the one hand, some people hold to an optimistic but
seemingly naive ecumenism that sees no essential or
substantial differences between the church of Rome and
historic Protestantism. This camp views Catholicism as
authentically Christian, but largely ignores the doctrinal
controversies that sparked the Protestant Reformation of the
sixteenth century. They seem to only take into account the
vast areas of agreement between Protestants and Catholics.
At the other extreme is a band of Protestant fundamentalists
who are literally rabid in their denunciation of
Catholicism. This assemblage (usually led by vociferous
ex-Catholics) dismisses Catholicism outright as an
inherently unbiblical and evil institution. They not only
consider the Roman church to be doctrinally deviant, but
also the efficient cause of many or most of the social,
political, and moral ills evident in the world today.
Genuinely "anti-Catholic," this faction views the Catholic
church as the "Whore of Babylon," a pseudo-Christian
religion or cult. They seem to concentrate exclusively on
those various doctrines that sharply divide Protestants and
    I believe most evangelical scholars who are
knowledgeable about Catholicism would feel uncomfortable
with both of these positions. Unfortunately, however, these
two camps often operate as if their own views are
self-evident and exhaustive. Both camps (especially the
anti-Catholics) virtually anathematize anyone who is not
squarely in their camp. If one is critical of Catholicism
because of Reformational doctrinal distinctives, the first
camp accuses that person of being divisive, not supporting
Christian unity in this important age of ecumenism. In
contrast, if one defends certain Catholic beliefs as being
authentically Christian, the second camp accuses that person
of being a betrayer of the Protestant Reformation and
fraternizing with the enemy. _Both_ camps fail to see that
there is an acceptable alternative position between the two
    This series of articles will attempt to provide some
needed balance to this important discussion by doing several
things. First, we will seek an accurate understanding of
contemporary Catholicism by exploring some of the unique
sociological features of the Catholic religion. We will
consider the Catholic church's size and sphere of influence,
as well as its unity and contrasting diversity. We will look
at the major theological types or classifications of
Catholics, and explore the uniqueness of the American
Catholic church. Second, we will begin our theological
appraisal of Catholicism by probing the common areas of
agreement between classical Catholicism and historic
    In Part Two we will consider serious problems with both
the anti-Catholic and uncritically ecumenical Protestant
views of Catholicism. Then, in Parts Three and Four, the
most important doctrines on which Catholics and Protestants
disagree will be carefully examined. At the close of this
series the necessary groundwork will have been laid to reach
some conclusions about how evangelical Protestants should
view Roman Catholics.
    Our goal will be to steer clear of the extreme and
erroneous classifications of Catholicism described above by
providing an evaluation which is fair and representative of
Catholicism, but genuinely evangelical in its perspective,
and squarely rooted in the central theology of the
Protestant Reformation.
*Defining "Evangelical"*
    Before we begin our evangelical appraisal of
Catholicism, we need to give some definition to what is
meant by the often vague and ambiguous term "evangelical."
The term is derived from the Greek noun _euangelion,_ which
has been translated "good news," "glad tidings," or
"gospel." Therefore, at the most fundamental level, being an
evangelical Christian means being a believer in and
proclaimer of the gospel (the good news that sinful humanity
can find redemption in the doing and dying of Christ [1 Cor.
    If this were all there was to being an evangelical,
however, virtually every Christian group would claim this
title. Obviously, the term carries a deeper historical and
theological meaning. Lutheran theologian and apologist John
Warwick Montgomery has summarized well the historical roots
and doctrinal foundations that stand behind evangelical
     To my way of thinking, "evangelicals" are bound together
     not by virtue of being members of the same Protestant
     confessional stream, but by their firm adherence to
     certain common theological tenets and emphases. These
     latter would summarize as follows:
       (1) Conviction that the Bible alone is God's
     objectively inerrant revelation to man;
       (2) Subscription to the Ecumenical creeds as expressing
     the Trinitarian heart of biblical religion;
       (3) Belief that the Reformation confessions adequately
     convey the soteriological essence of the scriptural
     message, namely, salvation by grace alone through faith
     in the atoning death and resurrection of the God-man
     Jesus Christ;
       (4) Stress upon personal, dynamic, living commitment to
     Christ and resultant prophetic witness for Him to the
     unbelieving world; and
       (5) A strong eschatological perspective. Whether a
     member of a large "inclusivist" church or of a small
     "separated" body, whether Anglican or Pentecostal, an
     evangelical regards himself in home territory where the
     above theological atmosphere exists.[1]
    This concise summary cogently sets forth the belief
system that stands behind authentic evangelical
Christianity. And it is this broad base that evangelicals
affirm to be the very bedrock of Christianity itself. It is
from this historic evangelical perspective that we begin our
appraisal of contemporary Roman Catholicism.
    Some of the more striking features of Catholicism
include its imposing size, its vast sphere of influence, its
unity, and its contrasting diversity. Gaining an
appreciation of each of these characteristics can help us
better understand contemporary Catholicism.
    *_Size._* The size of the Roman church is astounding.
Just less than eighteen percent (17.7) of the entire world
population is Roman Catholic (a whopping total of over 928
million people, soon to be a billion).[2] Additionally, the
church is truly universal in scope, having parishes in
virtually every major part of the world. There is a
significant Catholic presence on every continent, with the
possible exception of Asia. The following are some
percentages of Catholics in the world: Africa, 13.9; North
America, 24.2; Middle (central) America, 86.6; South
America, 88.9; Europe, 39.9; Oceania, 26.5; and Asia,
    In terms of other religious bodies, the Roman Catholic
population is larger than the other two main branches of
historic Christianity combined (Eastern Orthodoxy and
Protestantism). There are approximately the same number of
Catholics in the world as there are Muslims. The Catholic
population in the United States is presently well over 55
million (approximately 22 percent of the U.S.
population),[4] and by some Gallup estimates may actually be
significantly higher.[5] By comparison, the second largest
Christian denomination in the United States is the Southern
Baptists with approximately 14 million members.
    *_Sphere of Influence._* The influence that the Catholic
church has had on the world is incalculable. One of Western
civilization's greatest influences has undoubtedly been
Roman Catholicism. In many respects, European culture has
been directly shaped and molded by events surrounding the
Vatican. From the fourth century to the present, Roman
Catholic thought has had a momentous influence in the areas
of politics, economics, history, science, education,
theology, philosophy, literature, art, and numerous other
areas of culture. The church has wielded great power over
the centuries, often spreading enlightenment and benevolence
among humanity, but at some points corruption and
    While modern-day Catholicism does not exert the kind of
control over Western culture that it did in the high Middle
Ages, it is still, as the great Yale historian Jaroslav
Pelikan put it, "the most formidable religious institution
in the history of America and of the world."[7] Evangelicals
should be interested in the study of Catholicism if for no
other reason than its immense size and vast sphere of
influence. This broadly based system of religious and
philosophical thought has captured the hearts and minds of
untold millions through most of Christian history.
    *_Unity._* The unity of the church is of central
importance within Catholicism. The Catholic church is
understood to be a _union._ This oneness is spoken of when
Catholics refer to the "four marks of the church": (1) one,
(2) holy, (3) catholic, and (4) apostolic. Ideally, this
essential oneness is to be expressed in many aspects within
the church: doctrine, ethical teaching, authority, the
visible and concrete institution, historical continuity, and
sacraments.[8] Unquestionably, one of Catholicism's greatest
strengths over the centuries has been its sense of unity and
historical continuity. Many converts to Catholicism identify
this as their central reason for considering the claims of
the Roman church.
    Catholic apologists frequently try to marshal the
argument that it is this oneness that identifies the Roman
church as the one true and authentic church of Jesus Christ.
And in certain respects the Catholic church has fared better
in terms of unity than its rival -- Protestantism. However,
the Protestant evangelical rejoinder is that they, rather
than Rome, are more faithfully unified in _authentic_
apostolic doctrine. Additionally, if we are to take the
Catholic argument seriously, then it could be pointed out
that the Eastern Orthodox church has remained more
consistently unified in certain respects than has the Roman
church. Regardless, this strong emphasis on unity within
Catholicism has left many non-Catholics with the impression
that Catholicism is in actuality a monolith -- a church
completely uniform in belief and practice and marching to
the same tune.
    *_Diversity._* Catholicism has probably never been the
strict monolith that outsiders have perceived it to be.
However, even 50 years ago it still carried many of the
unyielding and inflexible characteristics associated with a
monolithic structure. In many respects this era of seeming
invariability and immutability came to an end with the
Second Vatican Council (1962-65). This council truly
revolutionized the church.[9] It was not so much a
revolution in doctrine as in perspective. Vatican II allowed
the "wind of change to blow through the church." This change
created an environment that allowed for greater freedom in
theology and practice -- and a greater tolerance of
diversity.[10] In times past the measure of being Catholic
was submission to the teaching and discipline of the
magisterium (official teaching office). Since Vatican II,
however, being Catholic may mean many different things.
    Today the Catholic church is incredibly divergent. Its
diversity is actually on the level of that within
Protestantism. This diversity is evidenced in the various
types of Catholics one finds in the church. While the
_genus_ (class) remains Catholic, there are several
different _species_ (varieties). Evangelical theologian
Kenneth Kantzer calls it "the Catholic montage."
*Different Types of Catholics*
    The following varieties of contemporary Catholics should
not be understood as exact classifications. Not every
Catholic fits neatly into one particular type -- there is
significant overlapping. (Unfortunately, this overlapping
has sometimes caused outside observers to lump differing
viewpoints together.) In addition, the types reflect both a
sociological and theological assessment, and are best
understood in terms of a paradigm (an example or model).
    *_Ultratraditionalist Catholics._* Ultratraditionalist
Catholics consider themselves nonrevisionist Catholics. They
are extremely critical of the changes brought about by
Vatican II and wish the church would return to its earlier
course. They can be somewhat radical in their defense of
"old time" Catholicism. For example, they would be happy if
the mass (liturgical service centered around the Eucharist)
were still recited in Latin. They hold the traditions and
hierarchy of the church in highest esteem (except when the
hierarchy steps on their nonrevisionist toes). They would
strongly affirm classical Catholicism as revealed in the
ancient creeds, councils, conciliar documents (i.e.,
documents produced during councils), and papal encyclicals
(i.e., letters). They are generally suspicious and
intolerant toward other divergent groups within Catholicism.
    One of the best examples of an ultratraditionalist was
the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of Switzerland who
stated that the reforms of Vatican II "spring from heresy
and end in heresy."[11] During his reign as archbishop,
Lefebvre continued to ordain priests even after the pope
ordered him to stop, and he continued to use the form of the
mass as prescribed at the Counter Reformation Council of
Trent instead of its modern form.[12]
    While staunch in their beliefs and commitment to
nonrevisionist Catholicism, the ultratraditionalists are
small in number and their influence within the church is not
of great significance. The ultratraditionalists should
probably be seen as the more extreme segment within the
traditionalist camp.
    *_Traditionalist Catholics._* The traditionalist
Catholics in many ways make up the backbone of the church
hierarchy. A _Christianity Today_ editorial described the
group this way: "This important segment of the church,
specially powerful among the laity of the national churches,
the older clergy, and the bishops and upper level of the
hierarchy, adheres to the whole of creedal Roman Catholicism
and obedience to the church as interpreted by the pope."[13]
The traditionalists are very critical of liberalism and
modernism within the church, but they are generally
accepting of the reforms found in Vatican II. Although this
group's influence diminished somewhat after Vatican II, they
have enjoyed a revival during John Paul II's reign as pope.
While Pope John Paul may be considered progressive in many
of his decisions concerning the church, at heart his
doctrinal views are those of a traditional Catholic. This is
especially illustrated in his beliefs concerning the Virgin
    *_Liberal Catholics._* Liberal Catholics have
substantially departed from traditional Catholicism, and one
might say from traditional Christianity as a whole. While
liberals differ among themselves in the degree to which they
depart from classical Catholicism, like their Protestant
counterparts they have conceded much to the rationalistic
unbelief so prevalent in Western culture since the
eighteenth-century Enlightenment period. They have in effect
replaced the Bible and church authority with the authority
of human reason.
    Many liberal Catholic scholars, such as the German
scholar Hans Kung, have questioned the infallibility of the
pope, church councils, and the Bible. Others, going farther,
have clearly abandoned traditional Christological beliefs
and the miracles of the New Testament, and have forsaken
almost completely the orthodoxy of the ecumenical creeds.
Liberals also question the ecclesiastical practice of an
exclusively male priesthood, and many have cast off the
church's teaching regarding such moral issues as birth
control, abortion, and homosexuality.
    Some within the liberal camp have been strongly
affiliated with liberation theology, especially in Latin
America. Liberation theology interprets the gospel in terms
of liberation from poverty and social oppression, and the
reconstruction of society -- usually along Marxist
lines.[14] Catholics who embrace liberation theology often
show an amazing disregard of traditional doctrinal issues.
    Another subset within the broader category of liberal
Catholics is what might be called "Eastern mystical" or "New
Age" Catholicism. This group seeks to blend Catholic and New
Age spirituality. Orthodox Christian beliefs about God and
Christ are, to varying degrees, replaced with distinctive
New Age beliefs such as pantheism (God is all and all is
God), panentheism (God is intrinsically in the world and the
world is intrinsically in God), and emphasis upon the Cosmic
Christ (a universal, impersonal spirit or cosmic force).
Probably the leading "Catholic guru" is Dominican priest
Matthew Fox with his "creation-centered spirituality."[15]
    Since Vatican II, this liberal camp as a whole has grown
significantly within the scholarly ranks of the church, and
to a lesser degree among the laity (although both the
liberation theology and New Age subsets have strong lay
components). Pope John Paul has attempted to curb this
influence, however, by disciplining some of the more
outspoken liberal scholars (for example, both Kung and Fox
have been disciplined by the church). This crackdown has
been met with some resistance, especially in America.
    *_Charismatic/Evangelical Catholics._* 1992 marked the
twenty-fifth anniversary of the Catholic charismatic renewal
movement. Emerging from humble beginnings in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania in 1967, the late 1960s and 1970s saw the
Catholic charismatic renewal flourish in the church. While
it experienced slow decline in the 1980s, it remains one of
the most energetic forces in the Catholic church. It is
estimated that 10 million American Catholics have been
involved in the renewal, and that worldwide Catholic
involvement may be as high as 50 to 65 million.[16]
Catholics now make up more than a fifth of the worldwide
Pentecostal-charismatic constituency.
    Like the broader movement, charismatic Catholics
emphasize the _charisma_ or gifts of the Holy Spirit, the
importance of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, and the
Spirit-filled life. Charismatic Catholics tend to be more
evangelical in belief, emphasizing personal faith and trust
in Christ, and the assurance of salvation.[17] Reformed
theologian J. I. Packer comments concerning charismatic
Catholic piety:
     It is a fact that in charismatic Catholicism, joyful
     trust in Christ as one's sin-bearing Savior and loving
     fellowship with him in his risen life have shifted the
     traditional devotional focus away from the somber
     disciplines of self-denial and suffering and away, too,
     from the anxieties about merit and destiny to which the
     formulations of the Council of Trent naturally give rise.
     Does Catholic doctrine as Trent defined it permit
     assurance of salvation based on once-for-all
     justification through faith? Opinions, both Protestant
     and Catholic, differ about that. Nevertheless, Catholic
     charismatics do observably enjoy this assurance, while
     yet maintaining humility, a sense of sin, and a life of
     repentance often more successfully than do their
     Protestant counterparts. And Protestant and Catholic
     charismatic teaching on the Christian life is to all
     intents and purposes identical. Is this not significant
     for the Christian future?[18]
    It is true that many charismatic Catholics describe
themselves as "born again, Spirit-filled Catholics."
    Along with possessing a Pentecostal piety, charismatic
Catholics generally tend to give Scripture more of an
authoritative place in their personal spiritual lives.
However, many (though by no means all) charismatic Catholics
also have a strong devotion to Mary. While the issue of
Marian devotion tends to be a stumbling block between
evangelical Protestants and charismatic Catholics,[19]
evangelical Protestants surely have more in common with
charismatic Catholics than with any other type of Catholics.
    Long-time renewal leader, Ralph Martin, is one of the
most recognizable American Catholic charismatics/evangelicals.
    *_Cultural Catholics._* The majority of Catholics in the
world probably fit into the category of cultural Catholics.
This group is unlike any other type we have considered
above. Their identification as "Catholic" is simply more
cultural and social than religious. They might rightly be
called "womb to tomb Catholics." They often are born in a
Hispanic, Irish, Polish, or Italian family -- and are
therefore baptized, married, and buried in the Catholic
church -- but have little or no concern about spiritual
    Cultural Catholics do not understand Catholicism, nor do
they seriously follow its ethical teaching. But they
nevertheless have an emotional commitment to the Catholic
church. When they attend mass, it is out of habit or family
obligation, not religious conviction. Being Catholic to them
is essentially a cultural identity (they may even be secular
or humanistic in their thinking). This is not unlike how
some Jews are merely ethnically or culturally Jewish, rather
than adherents to Judaism. It is also like the person who is
Lutheran _only_ because he happens to be born into a German
family, or the Anglican who is _only_ Anglican because she
was born into a British family. You see, it happens in
Protestantism as well. Nominal Catholics, like nominal
Protestants, do not understand Christianity, and they do not
have a relationship with Jesus Christ. With all due respect,
President John F. Kennedy would seem to have fit well the
mold of a cultural Catholic.[20]
    *_Popular Folk Catholics._* Popular folk Catholics are
found especially in Central and South America. These
Catholics are very eclectic in their religious thinking and
practice. They often combine elements of an animistic or
nature-culture religion (the primitive religious beliefs
that associate the forces of nature and culture with myriads
of spirits) with a traditional medieval Catholicism. The
result is a syncretistic nightmare. People in countries such
as Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina frequently engage in a
religion composed of polytheism, occultic spiritism, and a
superstitious form of Catholicism. This spiritual
smorgasbord enslaves millions of Latin America's peasantry.
    Certainly, official Catholic teaching does not sanction
this kind of syncretistic religiosity. In certain respects,
however, the Catholic church remains culpable. First, the
Catholic church has been negligent by failing to train these
people to reject all forms of paganism and to embrace solely
the Triune God of Christianity.[21]
    Second, the unhealthy and unbiblical aspects of the
Catholic understanding of the communion of saints (i.e., the
belief in the unity and cooperation among believers in both
this world and the next) has contributed to the problem.
Even some Catholics in the United States virtually worship
saints and the church has failed to take aggressive measures
to correct this serious problem of idolatry. It is actually
much worse when it comes to devotion to the Virgin Mary,
where on a practical level millions of Catholics commit
idolatry on a daily basis by worshipping the virgin. This is
certainly contrary to official church teaching (i.e.,
teaching set forth by the Vatican as standard Catholic
doctrine), but the Catholic church has been derelict in
correcting this serious problem. If the Catholic church
wants to convince evangelical Protestants that they merely
_honor_ Mary, but do not _worship_ her, then they must step
in and stop this gross idolatry.
    Third, the Second Vatican Council's openness to forms of
religious pluralism has greatly exacerbated the problem.
Ideas such as the "anonymous Christian" (the belief in the
possibility of salvation without explicit Christian faith --
even through non-Christian religions) as set forth by the
influential German theologian, Karl Rahner, has acute and
distressing repercussions.[22]
    We have discussed six different species of the one
genus: Roman Catholicism. Certainly there are other
viewpoints expressed in today's Catholicism, but these
appear to be the major types of Catholics. We will now turn
our attention to the American Catholic church.
*American Catholicism*
    Just as Americans in general exhibit a different ethos
from the rest of the world, American Catholics have a
mindset distinct from other Catholics. Generally speaking,
American Catholics tend to be both more independent and more
selective in their practice of Catholicism. This attitude
certainly contributes to the fact that many American
Catholics follow their conscience over church authority,
especially when it comes to some of the issues regarding sex
and personal lifestyle. In fact, in 1990 the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops was so concerned about the
inroads the pro-choice element was making into the American
church that it hired a public relations firm to "jazz up its
public appeal on the abortion issue."[23] (This was the same
public relations firm, by the way, that handled former
President Ronald Reagan!)
    Russell Chandler comments on the extent of this American
Catholic individualism:
     American Catholics are more likely to follow their own
     conscience or personal preference than to assent
     unquestioningly to papal pronouncements. In no area is
     this more true than matters of sex and lifestyle. Not
     only do a large majority of U.S. Catholics disapprove
     of the church's teaching against contraception, they also
     favor a limited pro-choice position on abortion.
         And many Catholics agree with dissident theologian
     Father Charles Curran who says that homosexual behavior,
     masturbation, premarital sex, and divorce aren't always
     sinful. (About one-fourth of U.S. Catholics have been
     divorced and a half of these have remarried.)[24]
    This is certainly powerful evidence that American
Catholics tend to think for themselves. The fact is, there
is a defiant attitude among a significant number from the
clergy down to the general laity.[25] This also seems to
illustrate just how strong the cultural and liberal factions
of Catholicism are within the American church. American
Catholicism, like American Christianity as a whole, suffers
from a growing secularization of both society and the
    Another area of great concern in Catholicism worldwide,
but especially in America, is the growing shortage of
priests and nuns. One estimate reported that one out of ten
U.S. parishes had no regular priest in 1990.[26] What has
made this problem more acute is the fact that the American
church continues to experience rapid growth. The church's
demand concerning celibacy is the central reason given for
men not entering the priesthood. This would only seem to
exacerbate the already explosive issue of women's
ordination. However, on the positive side, this shortage of
clergy has led to a great increase of lay involvement in
ministry. As of 1989, an "authorization allows bishops to
designate a deacon, non-ordained sister, brother, or lay
member to lead prayers, read Scripture, preach, and perform
a Communion service if bread and wine consecrated by a
priest is available."[27] In today's church, the laity is
performing many of the duties once performed exclusively by
the priest.
    A continuing bright spot for American Catholicism is its
educational system. From elementary schools to colleges, the
Catholic church has some of the best educational
institutions in the country.
    Having gained some appreciation and understanding of
many of the facets of contemporary Roman Catholicism, we are
now in a position to examine Catholicism from a theological
    In appraising the Roman Catholic faith, we must first
identify which Catholic faith we are speaking about, for as
the previous discussion has clearly shown, Catholicism is
actually more of a montage than a monolith. Nevertheless,
while there are many competing contemporary interpretations
of the Catholic faith, there remains the so-called "official
teaching of the church." This body of official teaching is
quite fluid in many respects, but, nevertheless, it
represents what may be considered the classical or orthodox
position of the Catholic church. Our focus must therefore be
directed toward classical or orthodox Catholicism (as found
in the ancient creeds, councils, and official documents of
the church) as interpreted by the magisterium.
*Standing on Common Ground*
    The appropriate place to begin our appraisal of
Catholicism is with the vast amount of doctrinal agreement
found between classical Catholicism and historic
Protestantism. This doctrinal agreement is especially
evident in our mutual commitment and loyalty to the great
ecumenical creeds of historic Christianity. The creeds,
which attempt to summarize the essence of Christian
truth,[28] are believed and recited in both Catholic and
Protestant churches.
    The common points of agreement between orthodox
Catholics and evangelical Protestants extend to: belief in
the Triune nature and full theistic attributes of God;
assent to God as the sovereign creator and sustainer of the
world; acceptance of Christ's incarnation as the God-man,
including trust in His virgin birth, attesting miracles,
atoning death on the cross, bodily resurrection from the
grave, ascension into heaven, future return in glory, and
work of judgment and resurrection of mankind; affirmation of
the Holy Spirit's personality, deity, and involvement in
redemption; the acknowledgment of sin, the necessity of
grace, and the need of salvation; and confidence in God's
preservation and guidance of the Christian church. And,
while not mentioned explicitly in the creeds, both camps
have a high view of Scripture, affirming both the
inspiration and infallibility of the Old and New Testaments.
    There is certainly much common ground between the two
traditions, but seldom is this carefully and reflectively
considered. Most discussions concentrate almost exclusively
on the differences between the two camps, which are
unquestionably quite significant, as we shall see in detail
in future installments of this series. But, the areas of
common commitment are also quite significant. We should not
gloss over these areas of agreement simply because there
remain serious differences.[29]
    Further areas of agreement are also apparent. For
example, a number of Catholic scholars who would otherwise
be considered traditionalist Catholics (strong in their
defense of the Catholic views on authority, the nature of
the church, the sacraments, etc.), nevertheless set forth
the gospel in very evangelical-sounding terms. Catholic
philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft fits this category.
Kreeft, a prolific author whose books sell well among
evangelical Protestants, describes himself as an
"evangelical Roman Catholic."[30] He made the following
provocative comments in his book _Fundamentals of the
     How do I resolve the Reformation? Is it faith alone that
     justifies, or is it faith and works? Very simple. No
     tricks. On this issue I believe Luther was simply right;
     and this issue is absolutely crucial. As a Catholic I
     feel guilt for the tragedy of Christian disunity because
     the church in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was
     failing to preach the gospel. Whatever theological
     mistakes Luther made, whatever indispensable truths about
     the Church he denied, here is an indispensable truth he
     affirmed -- indispensable to union between all sinners
     and God and union between God's separated Catholic and
     Protestant children.
         Much of the Catholic Church has not yet caught up
     with Luther; and for that matter, much of Protestantism
     has regressed from him. The churches are often found
     preaching one of two "other gospels": the gospel of
     old-fashion legalism or the gospel of new-fangled
     humanism. The first means making points with God and
     earning your way into heaven, the second means being nice
     to everybody so that God will be nice to you. The
     churches, Protestant and Catholic, may also preach the
     true Christian gospel, but not often enough and not
     clearly enough and often watered down and mixed with one
     of these two other gospels. And the trouble with "other
     gospels" is simply that they are not true: they don't
     work, they don't unite man with God, they don't
    Kreeft is just one of an increasing number of Catholic
scholars who see validity in the Reformation concept of
justification by faith.[32] Kreeft goes on to say:
"Catholicism as well as Protestantism affirms the utterly
free, gratuitous gift of forgiving grace in Christ, free for
the taking, which taking is faith. Good works can only be
the fruit of faith, flowing freely as a response to the new
life within, not laboriously, to buy into heaven."[33] While
we will examine the crucial issue of justification in some
detail in Part Three, it is important to note that a number
of Catholic scholars have an appreciation for the insights
of the Protestant Reformers. Certainly this trend does not
insure that there will be a change in the church's official
teaching on justification; but neither should it be
dismissed as insignificant.
    Another point that should be understood and weighed, in
terms of Protestant-Catholic agreement, is that evangelical
Protestants actually have far more in common with orthodox
Catholics than they do with liberal Protestants. And
orthodox Catholics have much more in common doctrinally with
evangelical Protestants than they do with liberal Catholics.
Both camps continue to face the challenge of religious
liberalism which in many respects denies the very essence of
    Even with the significant areas of agreement that I have
discussed above, a notable number of evangelicals remain
utterly convinced that the Roman Catholic church is a
non-Christian cult.[34] They frequently charge that
"Romanism" is: (1) an apostate religious system, (2) an
invalid expression of Christianity, and (3) the largest and
most influential non-Christian cult in the world. In Part
Two I will demonstrate just why Catholicism should _not_ be
classified as a cult. At the same time I will highlight
several aspects of Catholicism which should be of serious
concern to Protestants.
 1 John Warwick Montgomery, _Ecumenicity, Evangelicals, and Rome_
   (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), 16-18. While
   this writer holds firmly to the full and complete inerrancy of
   Scripture (and believes that the "limited inerrancy" view is
   seriously flawed), some would be reluctant to exclude those who
   are, except for their rejection of inerrancy, clearly
   evangelical in belief and practice. For further discussion
   concerning the proper definition of the word "evangelical," see
   Walter A. Elwell, ed., _Evangelical Dictionary of Theology_
   (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), s.v. "Evangelicalism,"
 2 _1993 Catholic Almanac_ (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor
   Publishing Division, 1992), 367.
 3 _Ibid._
 4 _Ibid.,_ 436.
 5 A recent Gallup survey estimates that the present U.S. Catholic
   population may be as high as 65 million (28%). _See_ Andrew M.
   Greeley, _The Catholic Myth_ (New York: Macmillan Publishing
   Company, 1990), 109.
 6 _See_ Williston Walker, _A History of the Christian Church_ (New
   York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970).
 7 Jaroslav Pelikan, _The Riddle of Roman Catholicism_ (New York:
   Abingdon Press, 1960), 12.
 8 Peter Kreeft, _Fundamentals of the Faith_ (San Francisco:
   Ignatius Press, 1988), 245-71. Kreeft discusses several other
   ways in which the Catholic church expresses its essential
 9 _See_ David F. Wells, _Revolution in Rome_ (Downers Grove, IL:
   InterVarsity Press, 1972).
10 George Carey, _A Tale of Two Churches_ (Downers Grove, IL:
   InterVarsity Press, 1985), 7-15.
11 Andrew T. LePeau and Noel Becchetti, "Understanding Roman
   Catholicism," _His Magazine,_ April 1981, 22-25.
12 _Ibid.,_ 23.
13 "What Separates Evangelicals and Catholics?" _Christianity
   Today,_ 25 February 1983, 12-15.
14 _See_ Ron Rhodes, "Christian Revolution in Latin America: The
   Changing Face of Liberation Theology," _Christian Research
   Journal,_ Winter 1991, 8-14.
15 _See_ Mitchell Pacwa, S.J., "Catholicism for the New Age:
   Matthew Fox and Creation-Centered Spirituality," _Christian
   Research Journal,_ Fall 1992, 14-19, 29-31.
16 Julia Duin, "Charismatics on the Pentecostal Trail,"
   _Christianity Today,_ 22 June 1992, 25.
17 Stephen Board, "Are Catholic Charismatics 'Evangelicals'?"
   _Eternity,_ July 1978, 12-16.
18 J. I. Packer, "Rome's Persistent Renewal," _Christianity Today,_
   22 June 1992, 19.
19 _See_ Elliot Miller and Kenneth R. Samples, _The Cult of the
   Virgin_ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992).
20 _See_ Thomas C. Reeves, _A Question of Character: A Life of John
   F. Kennedy_ (Toronto: The Free Press, 1991).
21 Some Catholic scholars and clergy have been greatly troubled by
   this syncretism, and have attempted to reform the Latin wing of
   the church in this regard. However, as a whole the church has
   virtually neglected this problem.
22 We will return to the issue of religious pluralism later in this
   series. For more discussion of Rahner's concept of the
   "anonymous Christian," _see_ Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F.
   Wright, eds., _New Dictionary of Theology_ (Downers Grove, IL:
   InterVarsity Press, 1988), s.v. "Anonymous Christianity," 25-26.
23 "Catholic Soul-Searching in America," _Insight,_ 14 May 1990,
24 Russell Chandler, _Racing Toward 2001: The Forces Shaping
   America's Religious Future_ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing
   House, 1992), 173.
25 _See_ Richard N. Ostling, "Drawing the Line on Dissent," _Time,_
   9 July 1990, 62.
26 Chandler, 168.
27 _Ibid._
28 Some Protestants, especially those from noncreedal or
   nonconfessional churches, experience discomfort when one appeals
   to the ecumenical creeds of Christendom as having some
   authority. This is unfortunate, however, because while the
   creeds are certainly not inspired or inerrant, and while they
   are subservient to Scripture in terms of authority, they
   nevertheless adequately convey biblical truth and are thus
   authoritative statements. For further discussion on this _see_
   Robert M. Bowman, Jr., _Orthodoxy and Heresy_ (Grand Rapids:
   Baker Book House, 1992), 65-66.
29 On this _see_ Carey, 61.
30 Peter Kreeft, "The Catholic Market," _Bookstore Journal,_
   February 1992, 28.
31 Kreeft, _Fundamentals of the Faith,_ 290.
32 _See_ Carey, 44.
33 Kreeft, _Fundamentals of the Faith,_ 291.
34 _See_ Dave Hunt, "Heeding the Berean Call," _The Berean Call,_
   April 1992; Albert James Dager, "Roman Catholicism: Is It a
   Cult?" _Media Spotlight,_ 1991.
Samples is currently serving as director of the Augustine
Fellowship Study Center at Post Office Box 23, Hemet, CA 92543;
(909) 654-1429.
End of document, CRJ0095A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"What Think Ye of Rome?: An Evangelical Appraisal of
Contemporary Catholicism, Part One"
release A, May 15, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
(A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their
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