CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

In Defence of My Protestantism (A Response to My Catholic Friends)

Jun 17, 2017

I am an evangelical Protestant, and I make no apologies for that. I feel that the full range of biblical truth is best found in evangelical Protestantism. Sure, no one church or denomination (or Christian for that matter) has all the truth. We all see through a glass darkly. We all are on a theological journey. We all have some things wrong.

But I find no reason thus far (having been a Christian now for 46 years) to consider leaving my theological tent. Yet I have many Catholic friends, and every once in a while they will ask me why I am not a Catholic. They seem puzzled that I am not, and think I am somehow really missing out.

beliefAs an example, just today I received a lengthy comment on this from a concerned Catholic. It began with these words: “Hi Bill, I follow you on facebook and appreciate much of what you write. What I can’t get my head around is why you are not yet Roman Catholic? What is it that is stopping you?”

I often get questions like this. While I was in the process of answering this person, my comment became longer and longer. So I figured I might as well turn it into a full-fledged article, something I can refer folks to when I am next asked the same question. Thus this article.

Let me begin by stating something I want everyone to understand – and hopefully respect. This is a crucial point, so if you don’t get this, then please do not even think about coming back here with a reply. My initial point on all this is found in the next three paragraphs. Perhaps I better put them in italics so people get it!

I have long made it my policy not to allow my site to become a place where Protestants can bash Catholics, or Catholics bash Protestants. My many Catholic friends should know this by now (and my Protestant friends too!). I always hope people will abide by my wishes (but sadly some just cannot or will not).

There are plenty of places (including numerous websites, books, articles, conferences, etc.) where each side can make their case and critique the other, and it is not my intent or calling to repeat all that here. So if you want to yet again get into these sectarian battles, feel free – but not on my website thanks!

This just happens to be what God has called me to do. So if you don’t like it, then complain to God, not me. While I of course think theology is very important indeed, it has not been my God-given role thus far to repeat the endless debates that have transpired over the past 500 years on these matters. If that upsets you, no one is forcing you to come to my page!

As I have said so often now, I have far too many major theological differences with Catholics to consider becoming one. These would include the very big question of religious authority, as well as the nature of salvation, the place and role of Mary (including hot topics such as her immaculate conception, her bodily assumption, her perpetual virginity, her place as co-redemptrix, and so on).

Also, the role and place of the saints, papal authority and infallibility (whether or not speaking ex cathedra), sacred tradition and the Magisterium, and various other debatable doctrines like purgatory, how we understand the Lord’s supper and other sacraments, and so on. These are without question key areas of difference. Perhaps in future articles I will expand on all these points in greater detail.

And let me say at the outset that I do know a bit about Catholicism thanks. Indeed, I often find myself discussing with Catholics what they sometimes seem to not know much about from their own church tradition on some key issues. See for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/05/05/killing-and-catholic-social-teaching/

I have taught theology often over the years, and have written extensively on the topic for decades now. Along with many thousands of tomes on theology, I have an entire shelf full of volumes on Catholicism (both pro and con). I have several of the key Catechisms of the Catholic Church. I have many close Catholic friends who on occasion I discuss these matters with. So please do not tell me I know nothing about Catholicism. I may well know more about it than many at least nominal Catholics do.

While I know something about this faith tradition, and have many disagreements with aspects of it, I have long been willing to work with Catholics. This in part is what is known as co-belligerency. It is about working together with others on some key issues, while broader differences remain.

And the reason I am willing to work together with most Catholics (at least to a certain extent, and on certain issues) is because Catholics, like the Orthodox, and Protestants, hold to most of the key Christian beliefs. They adhere to the ancient creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed which laid out the basics of orthodox Christian teaching.

So unlike the cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the main biblical doctrines, such as the Trinity and deity of Christ, are not denied by Catholics. A cult, in evangelical eyes, is a group like the JWs. They do indeed deny key biblical truths, and end up teaching heretical doctrines.

In this sense Luther of course was not a cultist – or a heretic – since he fully supported and affirmed the core biblical doctrines and truths. And of course it was never his intention – at least at first – to break away from the Catholic Church. He simply sought to reform it, as did so many other reformers.

It was the church which hurled anathemas at him and so many others seeking to bring about much-needed change. But again, it is not my intention to revisit all this here. It has been debated thousands of times before and will continue to be. I am not at this point called to join in those now quite tired – albeit important – debates.

Indeed, if the urge is welling up within you just now to shoot off a comment to debate me, I again refer to you the paragraphs in italics above. I will just delete comments from those who feel they must come here and attack me and revisit all these old debates. I will not say it again thanks.

Let me also say a word about theology and individual salvation. As to whether an individual Catholic is a Christian (that is, genuinely born again and headed to heaven), that is something no one can know with absolute assurance – only God knows fully the human heart and can make that judgment.

So whether a Pope or a priest or a pastor or an individual Catholic or an individual Protestant is a genuine Christian is ultimately something only God knows for sure. I happen to believe that many people in the Catholic Church are truly converted and have a personal relationship with Christ. In a similar sense, there are many people in the Protestant churches who are not saved and do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Of course Jesus said we will know those who are truly his by their fruit. And we have various doctrinal and behavioural tests found throughout the New Testament which can also help us in assessing where a person is at. On a very simple level, one who delights in known sin and refuses to repent of it, or one who insists that Jesus is not God and so on, is not a genuine Christian.

Let me make one last point here – not to start another fight, but to head off more possible objections from Catholics. The claim will often be made that Protestantism must be false because it is so divided, while Catholicism must be true since it is so united.

Sorry, but this is wrong on several counts. The impression that everything is sweetness and light in the Catholic world, and that it is somehow a monolithic unity, is of course simply incorrect. There may be just as much division, disunity and schism in the Catholic world as there is in the Protestant world.

Given that perhaps 80-90 per cent of Catholics worldwide do not even practice the teachings of, say, Humanae Vitae (the 1968 papal encyclical on contraception written by Pope Paul VI), let alone even know what is found in the document, it may be a bit rich for Catholics to attack Protestants about division, disunity, disagreements, and so on. And see the link below about how overblown are the claims concerning the number of Protestant denominations.

In sum, I hope that this helps explain just a bit where I am coming from. Obviously much more could be said. Indeed, entire libraries have already been filled on these issues. If you are keen to get into all that, there are plenty of places you can go to. But I have a somewhat different calling here, so I will stay true to what God wants me to do.

You may not agree with me, and you may be chomping at the bits to come here and attack me and debate me. And I realise it is not only some Catholics who will want to do this, seeing me as an estranged brother, if not a heretic, but some evangelicals as well who will claim I am not being tough enough on Catholicism.

Well, what can I say? I cannot please everybody and I have no intention of doing so. My only real calling is to please God and serve him as faithfully and consistently as I can. Those who are unhappy with my stance on this matter have a few options:
1) They can cut me some slack, show me some Christian grace and love, respect my wishes and go along with my request here.
2) They can rage against me, see me as the Anti-Christ, and have nothing further to do with me.
3) They can grin and bear it, not really like it, but grudgingly remain friends and allow me to do what I am called to do.

Your choice. God bless all of you regardless of how you respond.

For further reading

On the issue of what is a cult (at least from the standard evangelical point of view), see this article:

billmuehlenberg.com/2016/01/06/dealing-with-cults/

On the issue of what is heretical (and what is not), please see these pieces:

billmuehlenberg.com/2016/01/07/six-theses-on-truth-error-heresy-and-disagreement/
billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/09/on-heresy-hunters/
billmuehlenberg.com/2010/02/06/a-review-of-heresy-by-alister-mcgrath/

On the issue of working together with those from other religious traditions, and the issue of cobelligerency, please see these articles:

www.billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/02/on-co-belligerency/
www.billmuehlenberg.com/2009/11/27/on-biblical-cooperation-and-separation/
www.billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/30/8405/ (Francis Schaeffer and working with allies)
billmuehlenberg.com/2015/12/12/co-belligerency-again/
www.equip.org/articles/should-christians-be-cobelligerents-in-ecumenical-coalitions/

On the issue of one well-known convert from evangelicalism to Catholicism, and my disagreements with him, see this:

billmuehlenberg.com/2002/06/28/a-review-of-hail-holy-queen-by-scott-hahn/

On the issue of whether there are really 33,000 Protestant denominations, see here:

www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2007/08/22/the-33000-denominations-myth/

[1829 words]

33 Responses to In Defence of My Protestantism (A Response to My Catholic Friends)

  • I fully realise that for some folks this will once again fall on deaf ears, but let me be the first to comment here. If you want to come here to debate these matters, you obviously have not read a word I said! I am not going to start WWIII here, and if you feel so compelled to go on the attack, I will just delete your comments!

  • Good on you Bill, we’re entering a “new dark age” we can’t afford to keep dredging up these same old Protestant/Catholic debates. They’re destructive and pointless in the present climate. Bill, I for one (as a former student of yours) will continue to back you all the way. Your balanced and informative teaching keeps enriching me immensely. Heaps of blessings on you, Kel.

  • Many thanks Kelvin. As I said in my article, the various theological differences are indeed important. So I am not trying to imply they are not, nor am I saying they should not be debated and discussed. All I was trying to say is this is not quite the debate I am called to get heavily involved with now, especially since there a hundreds of other sites where you can find such debates in full swing. They are important matters indeed, but I am just asking those keen to do battle over them to do it elsewhere. If the past is anything to go on, some Christians will respect my wishes here and show me some grace, and some will not!

  • Bill, I have taken on all you have said. The Catholic Faith is a Gift from God, and when He is ready He will grant you that Gift when you are ready.

  • Thanks Mel. The good news is, the free gift that we all need is the gift salvation, based on the finished work of Christ. And that is something I already have. As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 9:1: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” He offers more detail in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” But of course we are now doing what I pleaded that we not do: engage in yet more debate about all this! Hmmm, I just can’t win here!

  • I couldn’t agree more. I love Catholics and the church has done a phenomenal amount of good and the more I learn the more I realize that the Protestant complaints are overstated but I hope you don’t mind me saying I once asked a Catholic about praying to Mary because there is no indication anywhere in the scriptures that anyone, including the angels in Heaven, are omnipresent, even the obviously very blessed Mary. The answer came back that…….

  • Thanks Michael but I have cut you short there. If you wonder why, see everything I said above! If I run with your full comment, in the name of fairness I of course will have to run with Catholic replies to it. And then Protestant replies to the Catholic replies. And then Catholic replies to the Protestant replies to the Catholic replies. In other words, a full-scale debate on this will ensue – the very thing I pleaded for us to not enter into here!

  • Mel, by ‘Catholic Faith’ as being a gift from God, do you mean faith in the Catholic Church or faith in Jesus Christ? If you put your faith in the Priests and Bishops of the Catholic Church – even the Cardinals and the Pope – to save you, I wish you good luck on judgment day. Only Christ saves.

  • What I can’t get my head around is why you are not yet Roman Catholic?
    What amazes me is the blithe assumption by this writer that his or her denomination is so obviously correct that anybody who does any in depth theological study would automatically accept it.
    I once wrote that I have always found it strange that any educated person could be an unbeliever. I can say the same thing about certain subsets of believers (not just Roman Catholics).

  • To all of Bill’s blog followers, as Bill has stated there are plenty of other forums if you want to get into a punch up over the differences between Protestant and Catholic Theology. Whether you’re Protestant or Catholic, WE’RE ALL IN A FIGHT FOR OUR VERY SURVIVAL from LGBT pressure groups putting pressures on our State & Federal Governments and our Education Systems. The material that Bill researches and publishes is for the benefit of US ALL. I sincerely hope more of the “Blog Family” will come in support of Bill at this time. As always Bill, keep dishing it out, Blessings, Kel.

  • Dear Bill,

    Just to let you know as a person who was brought up a Methodist and who converted to Catholicism when I was 18 [I am nearly 81 now] I am happy with the decision I made all those years ago . I can’t presume to know what God thinks about you or me of course but in my humble opinion I think you are a good person the way you are.

    I am not clever or interested enough to enter any debates on theology.It is far too late for me anyway.I am content enough to wait and see and realistically I can’t have that long to wait although I think as Tolstoy did ” Life is God and to love life is to Love God” One last word, the Holy Spirit blows where it wills as far as I am concerned and it why shouldn’t it blow through you?

  • Thank you for this article. On an intellectual level I know that being Catholic does not preclude one from being a Christian, but on a practical level I often find it hard to not lump them all into the unbelieving category. There is even a movement in Central America that calls themselves evangelical Catholics. So, this article is a good reminder that the church as a whole needs to work together, and that sometimes theological differences are a distraction. Though, as you say, it is important to get theology correct.

  • AMEN Bill – Brother in Christ – We report to GOD first + foremost + how AMAZING + liberating that is…….

    For anyone who HAS NOT been empowered by God’s Holy Spirit + experienced 1st hand the Love of Jesus Christ – You’re living life in your own strength – It’s exhausting, soul-sapping + depressing.

    May God continue to bless you, Bill, May His Holy Spirit continue to inspire + uplift you to educate others in the culture of our time + may the Love of Jesus continue to shine through in Your Ministry for us all. Christian Love, your Catholic Sister in Christ,
    Melinda

  • God Bless my Protestant friends.
    God loves them with intensely.
    So do I.
    Terry McDonnell

  • Thanks Bill,

    You quoted in comments Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”There is no ambiguous language her, no difficult words, nothing that would cause confusion, yet Catholics and Protestants differ in their interpretation of this verse. Among Protestants, there are differing views and I suspect Catholics also differ among themselves as to what Paul is saying here.

    This verse is vitally important, it deals with the way we are saved and is found in an epistle that is all about Jesus Christ. In my case, this verse settles my theological position, gives me peace of mind and assurance concerning my eternal destiny. Anyone who would want to challenge me on my doctrine and my understanding of this verse must first ask themselves if they have complete, unmovable assurance in that the matter of their salvation has been categorically finalised.

  • Hi Bill,

    Do you know of a good resource that summarises the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church and provides an evangelical response?

    Blessings,

    David Clay, Parkes NSW

  • Thanks David. As with Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy is a very complex topic to tackle, especially in one short article. I have a number of books on the topic, including several by Daniel B. Clendenin. He is an evangelical who is very knowledgeable about, and sympathetic toward, the Orthodox faith. Twenty years ago he penned a lengthy article entitled “Why I’m Not Orthodox”. It is well worth having a read:

    www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1997/january6/7t1032.html?start=1

    And a much more recent piece can be found here:

    www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2017/april/how-should-we-respond-to-hank-hanegraaffs-switch-to-orthodo.html

  • This is a very good write-up…Very balanced too. I simply believe the most important thing is to be reconciled with GOD by faith in JESUS CHRIST. If we really are, the HOLY SPIRIT will indeed lead us into all Truth. He will not let us wander off without reproof. May GOD help us. We need the HOLY SPIRIT greatly at this time of human existence.

  • Dear Bill,
    As much as we love Christ and His command to love our neighbour i.e. each of our brother n sisters.
    (and hopefully we do?)
    Saint Paul hit the nail od the head with;
    1COR. 1:12-13.
    A sign back then of an already broken church.
    Today; we also see “Jesus” body is broken.
    Terry

  • Hi Bill, I am in agreement with most of your comments & those of B T Walters and others, it should be glaringly obvious to anyone who reads tbe BIBLE and Jesus’s gospel words that there are various groups of people seeking and worshipping God on their own terms, holding on to pagan doctrines & vain religious traditions making void His teaching. We must come humbly before Him asking for truth & understanding to be revealed to us through the Scriptures by his Holy Spirit. K McDonald.

  • I suspect Catholics and Protestants will work together more and more as Islam and paganism grow increasingly threatening.
    They already do.
    An example of Protestant fault is the “quick sinners prayer” salvation method. I was reminded of this while reading the sad message from a doomed occupant in the Grenfell tower saying she was “going to heaven”. I hope so, but what were her grounds? Sorry to use this sad occasion, but how many westerners are convinced they are on their way to heaven, but aren’t, because of some faulty concept of righteousness? Or just lazy thinking? (Yes, this poor Grenfell occupant was Italian, so she was so probably Catholic, but the “automatic heaven” disease has infected almost everybody)
    So the real problem is the millions of Protestants and Catholics that are on the highway to hell. These are the same people that allowed doubt over God’s Word to open the way for the evolution substitute which invited paganism which is now paving the way for Islam to destroy completely.
    But God is doing real revival in the midst of Islamic countries. I would hazard a guess that there might be more Iranian converts getting into heaven than Germans. (both countries are about 80 million). Western Christianity might have a much lower heaven yield than most people think – Protestant of Catholic. We might be quibbling over a 9% Protestant and an 8% Catholic yield, when there are much bigger problems, like 91-92% of churchgoers, to worry about. Or the much bigger group on non-churchgoers even!

  • “Only God knows”. My late Dutch bro-in-law had a Protestant mother and a Roman Catholic father. The parents asked that their children follow God and choose freely which denomination they desired to belong to. My bro-in-law was interned in a Nazi prison camp in WW2 in Holland and was deeply impressed by the leadership of the priest who endured torture before the whole camp. After the war he became a catholic. As a protestant I witnessed to him the gospel freedom that Christ gives. He remained a Catholic and received Last Rites when he died of cancer in his 80s. The day he died – before it occurred I not knowing what was happening was sovereignly assured that all was well with him and he was already or soon to be in the Presence of his Saviour and Father. This gift of knowledge by the Spirit of Jesus was a great comfort to his protestant daughter (who was with him in his last hours) when she received it from Him thru me. Look unto Me and be ye saved all the ends of the earth. Sayeth the Lord.

  • Thank you Bill for this big can of worms, I will not open the lit of it.
    I just like to say that I am grateful to receive spiritual nourishment from you, God’s word, through my own reading of scripture and from the pulpit where the word is opened weekly, to speak the truth.
    I have just returned from the Netherlands where I visited with my siblings and some remaining cousins, aunts,and uncles. The greater family back there are members of the RCC. Regretfully I found very little faith amongst any of them, most don’t even feel sure of life hereafter. Why is this, primarily because they are not being fed. They are coals removed from the hearth, non of them attend church any more, and non are reading scripture. They live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and have very little need for God. Hope that this does not break your rule, not to engage in catholic bashing. It’s with love and sorrow for my family that I make this comment.
    Bill Heggers.

  • Brilliant article Bill,

    I chastise myself whenever I go any length of time not reading your articles.

    This is such a great way to put this topic.

    I have recently been confronted with some points made here myself, as a protestant researching and writing on the crusades. Something that seems obvious but I hadn’t really thought about until now, not only that Catholics affirm the Nicene Creed and many others, but indeed they wrote it!

    Protestants I think would do well to realize that we have a lot to thank Catholics for, theologically at least. My work on the Crusades has inspired me to get deeper into church history and Catholic theology, if only out of sheer interest.

    Praise the Lord for your sensibility and fair handedness Bill.

  • Hi Bill,

    I choose option 3). That’s good, because anaphylaxis is my first response to the Church of Rome (but not to individual Catholics), whereas the nuanced response you demand causes me to rethink my dogma.

    Interestingly, I’d not considered the credal common ground I have with Catholics despite the line in the Apostles Creed that is between the Holy Ghost bit and the forgiveness of sins bit. You make a very interesting point about credal common ground and distinction with the cults. Years ago, I found it easy to fall into step with a United Pentacostal Church (oneness theology) while railing against the Church of Rome. Praise God for brothers who steered me away from a potential train wreck there with simple theology found in the creeds.

    I think Biblical illiteracy is the greatest threat to our society. Many went to extreme lengths in the days of Foxx’ Book of Maryters to keep the people ignorant of Gods word and in modern days many churches (including some Protestant churches) steal the Sword of the Spirit from the people by lightly esteeming the Bible and trivialising the importance of scripture. Questionable and incipient preaching from the pulpit coupled with Biblical ignorance has produced a weak congregation and a culture in decline. The cults and militant Islam can only be effectively countered with Biblical Christianity, which begins when people read, believe and obey the Bible.

    My daily devotional quotes Spurgeon, “Though you mourn over the disciples rejoice over their Master.”

    Thanks for the article Bill, and a different way of looking at things. It will be interesting to read the ‘further readings’ you recommend.

    Actually, now I choose option 1).
    Cheers,
    Tony

  • A common antagonist of serious Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Protestants would be liberal theology, which seeks to eviscerate historic Christian core beliefs in the name of reason and the “long march march” of an evolving collective human consciousness. I strongly suspect that it was a deep unease at liberal theology which drove the likes of G.K. Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge into the Roman fold.

    I’m sure I’m not the only Protestant who has read Thomas à Kempis, Brother Laurence, and Augustine of Hippo with not inconsiderable spiritual profit. Protestants sing hymns by Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi, too.

    Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection offers trenchant critiques of both the late 19th Century Russian Orthodox Church and of a character who is based on the legendary Dr Baedeker, a Christian Brethren missionary who preached in drawing rooms of sympathetic Russian aristocrats as well as delivering Bibles to prisons right throughout the Russian empire, even as far as Siberia.

  • Thanks guys. As might be expected, there have been more comments which have come in on this article than appear here. A number of these commentators wanted to keep the sectarian war going, so as I promised, I did not post them. If you are among those who have had a comment blocked, I trust you will see where I am coming from. Thanks for understanding.

  • Hi Bill,
    Although it is nice to debate and hear your point of view in relation to this theology. The reality is that people are going to believe what they want to believe regardless of one mans point of view and in reality this is YOUR belief system not anyone else’s. You and You alone will stand before God and give account, as will each and every one of us…
    Thank you for your wisdom and insight in so many areas that are of relevance to the world today and the war that is raging around us, I for one am truly blessed that you are a light in the darkness…
    Thanks again, and many Blessings.
    Kylie

  • I really enjoyed this article. It has always bothered me why different denominations feel the need to criticize and/or condemn others because they have different styles of worship. I was raised Lutheran Church Missouri Synod but have gone to baptist and non-denominational churches too. My husband and I are back at the Lutheran church because it is where we feel at home. That doesn’t mean any of the other churches we attended in the past are wrong it is just what is right for us.

  • Hi Amanda, thanks for your comment, the issue between many denominations is not different styles of worship, rather it’s whether they follow God’s word as found in the holy scriptures or substitute their own religious ideas and traditions as truth. I hope you can understand the difference…

  • Bill, ‘co-belligerence’ is the best term I’ve heard this week. We are an army of faithful (sometimes pig-headed) warriors for the Truth and will let anyone join: paid soldiers, mercenaries, even peasants armed with pitchforks. We’re animated by the same Holy Spirit who wants to rescue this world from its self-inflicted destruction. I can affirm that you definitely know more about Catholicism than 90% of Catholics. As for sectarian wars, we in the Catholic Church don’t need external enemies – we have enough within!

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