What’s the Difference? (Interview with Gregg Allison)
In the most recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Purgatory: An Evangelical Doctrine?” we have interviewed Gregg Allison, Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, concerning the ongoing differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The interview is titled, “What’s the Difference?” and here are the first two questions:
In recent years a number of Protestants have converted to the Roman Catholic faith. Why is this the case?
Protestants convert to the Catholic faith for several reasons (the following are not necessarily in any particular order). First, they desire certainty of salvation and truth concerning God and his ways. Disturbed by the multiplicity of interpretations of Scripture and theological formulations within Protestantism, they are attracted to what they consider to be a monolithic, consistent Catholic biblical and theological position (such a view is an utopian vision of Catholicism that does not exist in reality). Second, they want to feel connected to the church of the past and be organically related to Christians from ancient times. They lament the apparent Protestant loss of traditional/historical moorings, which is evidenced by the neglect or rejection of liturgies, creeds, traditional practices, and the like within many Protestant churches and movements. Third, they long for the unity of all churches because they are scandalized by the historical and current divisions among Christians. They believe in the vision, fueled by Catholicism’s claim that “the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church,” that the Catholic Church is the bastion of unity by and to which all other churches will eventually be reunited. Fourth, they yearn for authority and thus are attracted by the authority of the Church and its Magisterium, whose responsibility it is to provide the authoritative interpretation of Scripture and Tradition and guide the Church properly.
What would you say to evangelicals today who are thinking of converting to Rome?
Before making the journey to Catholicism, consider a robust Protestant vision and its implications for the above four areas. First, for those searching for certainty of salvation and truth concerning God and his ways, a robust Protestant vision offers such assurance. In terms of its “big picture” it embraces creation—fall—redemption—consummation, the very storyline of Scripture. It rests foundationally on the triune God and his works of creation, providence, and salvation. It embraces the inspired Word of God that is wholly true in all that it affirms, completely sufficient for salvation and for living a life that pleases God fully, authoritative to command faith and obedience, intelligible to all who read it, necessary for knowing God and his will, and powerful to rescue fallen human beings and transform them into the image of Jesus Christ. Such a vision magnifies the complete sufficiency of the death and resurrection of Christ and makes no provision for a cooperative effort by which people depend on the grace of God while working to merit eternal life. It highlights the many faceted mighty works of God to actualize such salvation in human lives, from election to regeneration, from justification to sanctification, from perseverance to glorification. This vision offers certainty of salvation and truth concerning God and his ways.
Second, such a vision embraces the essential doctrines that Christians have always believed, defended, and lived—core truths like the Trinity and Christology hammered out in the earliest centuries of Christianity. But it does not embrace certain key elements held by Catholicism because the vision is forged in the context of a chastened tradition, accepting those doctrines and practices that enjoy Scriptural support and rejecting other beliefs that lack such warrant or are based on a faulty interpretation of Scripture. Just because the early church and medieval church believed and practiced something does not mean that the church today must believe and practice that as well. What is called for is a chastened tradition that distinguishes between doctrines and practices that have biblical justification and those that do not. A robust Protestant vision clings to that which is rightly warranted. Furthermore, it inherits proven doctrines and practices from the Reformation that were essential for the church both in terms of modifying already existing beliefs and discovering new ones that came to light in that desperate situation of a carnal and spiritually bankrupt Roman Catholicism. This vision is properly connected to the church of the past.
Third, an intense longing for the unity of all churches so as to overcome the historic and current divisions between them is not satisfied by leaving Protestantism and joining the Catholic Church, for the latter does not even consider Protestant “ecclesial communities” to be true churches, a fact that patently does not overcome the problem of disunity. A robust Protestant vision will certainly not overcome this problem either, but it does embrace a universal church of which all genuine Christians—both those in heaven with Christ and those currently alive—are members and that manifests itself in local churches that establish strong connections with like-minded churches for high impact ministries in their region. These churches long for the actualization of the vision of perfect unity still to come, when those “from every tribe and language and people and nation” will worship the Lord together (Rev. 5:9-10). This vision encourages and provides for a realistic unity of churches now and a hope for perfect unity in the future.
Fourth, as for the yearning for authority that attracts people to the Catholic Magisterium, it is one thing to long for an authority that is perfect and inerrant, and quite another thing to long for an authority that rests on some claim of infallibility but that demonstrates that it is susceptible to error. With respect to the former, such perfect and inerrant authority does not belong to any human institution—religious or otherwise—but to God and his Word alone. With respect to the latter, the Catholic Magisterium may be established as the official interpreter of Scripture and Tradition and may claim infallibility for (some of) its pronouncements, but due to its errors in interpretation and theological formulation, it must be regarded like other human authorities. It is certainly not a panacea that satisfies in reality the yearning for perfect authority. A robust Protestant vision places such authority in its proper place—in God and his authoritative written Word. This robust Protestant vision places such authority in its proper place.
Thus, I would encourage evangelicals who are contemplating a journey to Catholicism to embrace a robust Protestant vision of salvation, authority, history, chastened tradition, and the like, and stay the course on which they are journeying.
Read the rest of this interview today!
To view the Magazine as a PDF
This issue of Credo Magazine might come as a surprise. Purgatory? Really? I thought we addressed that back in the sixteenth-century? Think again. Not only is purgatory a hot button issue once again on the table, especially given the current excitement with some Protestants returning to Rome, but most recently there has been a renewed interest in purgatory among committed evangelicals. For example, in his new book, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, Jerry Walls addresses evangelicals today, arguing not only that Protestants should whole-heartedly embrace purgatory, but that such a doctrine as this can serve as an ecumenical bridge with Catholics. Spoiler alert: The purgatory Walls has in mind does not look exactly like your Catholic grandmother’s. You will have to read this issue of Credo Magazine to see why.
So what should we think about purgatory anyway? My guess is, most evangelicals know little about the history of purgatory, let alone how to jump into a debate over purgatory with their Catholic friends. And to complicate things even more, today we even have evangelicals incorporating purgatory within their Protestant theological framework. So the topic is a relevant one. To give just one anecdote, I was speaking at a conference on the topic recently and to my surprise a pastor approached me afterwards. He shepherds a congregation in a city where Roman Catholicism has a strong presence. Often he has Catholics in his pews, considering Protestantism for the first time. Among other doctrines, they want to know whether purgatory is a biblical “yes” or “no.” Perhaps that is you. Or perhaps you are that pastor. Either way, this issue is for you.
Contributors include: R. C. Sproul, Gregg Allison, Matthew Barrett, Chris Castaldo, James White, Lee Gatiss, David and Sally Michael and many others.