Protestants and Roman Catholics

The Reformation Paradigm

All over the world today it is happening afresh. Evangelical Christians are rediscovering the literary works of the Protestant Reformation and are self-consciously studying Protestant theology as a model for a new Reformation.

There is no doubt that this is a work of the Holy Spirit. God is revealing the Reformation paradigm to the hearts and minds of Christians throughout the world. God is emphasizing once again the historic doctrines of the Reformation: the sovereignty of God, the Law of God, the total depravity of man, justification by faith alone, the authority of Scripture alone, and the universal priesthood of the believer.

In many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries today, there is an evangelical awakening. Many new believers are joining evangelical Protestant churches for the first time after a remarkable born-again experience. Prior to their conversion, many of these new believers had only a vague understanding of Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox doctrine. They were only nominal in their faith and now have many questions. Pastors of evangelical churches in the midst of this spiritual awakening are spending much of their time answering the same questions over and over again.

While they should be training the mature believers in their churches to be useful in ministry, they are spending untold hours explaining the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants. While they should be training church leaders, they are too busy teaching new converts their ABC’s.

In the midst of this evangelical awakening, even Christians in traditionally Protestant countries are recovering a biblical worldview. They are beginning a systematic study of biblical doctrine which will strengthen them in Reformed thinking. They are following in the footsteps of the Protestant Reformation and returning to the vibrant, robust faith found in Reformed theology.

“Reformed Theology?” you may ask, “Does this mean that every Christian should master the Westminster Confession?

No doubt such a serious course of study must seem overwhelming to the average Christian, who is just trying to pay his bills, fulfill the needs of his family, and find time to pray to God, study the Bible, and be useful to the local church. This chapter provides a beginning to this study of Reformation theology. It is an outline of the basics of Protestant doctrine.

Protestantism establishes Jesus Christ as Lord over all areas of life and can be defined as a return to the basic doctrines of the New Testament; especially a reemphasis of the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone.

Time and again, God has given the blueprint for reformation throughout history. Whenever the Church has reached a crisis stage, God has always brought revival and reformation to transform the moral climate of the Church and the entire culture. Every great revival has been preceded by a fresh emphasis on the doctrines of justification by faith alone and regeneration.

The Reformation paradigm requires that all spheres of human life be reformed according to biblical principles. Man’s lasting achievements are institutions given by God. Consequently, the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw great strides of reform in the areas of civil government, law, the study of history, literature, the arts and sciences. The Reformed models of these great institutions have since been imitated all over the world.

The world is clamoring for answers which only a pure and living Gospel can give them. What have we to offer? There is much “preaching of the Gospel” today, but too often there is no framework, no undergirding, no consistent biblical worldview, no sense that the preacher is sure where he is taking us. Thus the average Christian is not trained to be discerning of what he hears and is tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.

But this is changing. Throughout the world, there is a reemergence of the Reformation paradigm. We are hearing a clear trumpet sound. God is marshaling His troops! The call to battle is being clearly heard and understood!

This chapter will give you the basics of the Reformation Paradigm and point you in the right direction so that you may be used of God to lead your church and nation in the direction of revival and spiritual awakening.

Where Protestants and Roman Catholics Must Agree

It may seem ironic, but the strongest argument that Protestants have against the Roman Catholic Church, stems from where we must agree the most with the Catholic Church.

Protestants must begin by affirming two truths: (1) sola scriptura: that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of the living God, the only objective rule of faith and worship; that the Bible alone — not the Roman Catholic Church, the pope, nor church dogma — is infallible; and (2) catholic orthodoxy: that the God who inspired the Bible has preserved of the correct understanding of His Word in history by means of catholic orthodoxy. By catholic orthodoxy we mean the unifying truths of the Church which are found in the four ecumenical creeds of the patristic Church (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian and Chalcedonian).

Catholicity means literally “unity” or “universality.” The term Catholic with an upper-case “C” is used to denote the Roman Catholic Church, while catholic with a lower-case “c” is used in creeds and confessions to denote all Christians. All true believers in Jesus Christ are, in this sense, catholic, because they hold to the univeral faith.

Orthodoxy means literally, “right opinion,” and is expressed by the body of biblical doctrines systematized by the creeds of the early Church. Orthodoxy is the basis for unity among Christians of widely different beliefs and practices.

Affirming both sola scriptura and historic orthodoxy at once may seem contradictory, but in actuality, we cannot have one without the other. The Bible itself would not have been passed down to us today had the Church not faithfully preserved the texts written by God’s apostles and prophets. We cannot accept the canon of the Bible unless we accept the authority of the patristic Church that received the canon.

Modern evangelicals are accustomed to hearing that the creeds are “Roman Catholic” and therefore bad. Therefore, the creeds are often neglected and not taught. But if we consider ourselves true Christians, then we must accept the creeds. We must also believe that certain biblical doctrines were faithfully preserved throughout the centuries by the Catholic Church, such as — original sin; the Trinity; the human and divine natures of Christ; the virgin birth, the death burial and resurrection of Jesus; the Second Coming of Christ; the resurrection and judgment of the dead; and eternal heaven and hell.

In short, Protestants must agree with Roman Catholics in the area of historic orthodoxy.

Doctrines of the Protestant Reformation

Too often discussions on the Reformation between Protestants and Roman Catholics generate more heat than light. Two things that should concern us from the outset are being fair in characterizing the views of Roman Catholics which are different from ours; and the spirit that we manifest when we disagree with these views. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s were attacked viciously and unfairly by the Roman Catholic Church, and sometimes they responded in the same spirit. Yet the majority of the Protestants throughout history showed their spirituality and close walk with God in the way in which they disagreed. We need to be careful to exhibit this same spirit today.

R.J. Rushdoony, Christian author and theologian, has said: “When we are Christians, to the extent to any degree we are faithful to the gospel, we are bigger than ourselves. And that is why whether they are Arminian, Roman Catholic, or Calvinist, people who are truly serving the Lord are bigger than their own thinking, bigger than their own faith. We transcend ourselves. And that is the glory of the gospel. It enables us to do more than we can do. It is the grace of God working through us. It is not that we teach different gospels; we are trying to teach the same gospel even though at times our emphasis will be a warped one, a limited one, a partial one. All the same, God can use it.”

We should keep this in mind as we study the history of the church and the dividing lines that have separated Christians over the centuries. When the Protestant reformers of the 1500s began to emphasize justification by faith alone, the universal priesthood of the believer and the authority of scripture alone, they did not mean that individual Christians should overthrow the faith once delivered to the saints through the Catholic Church. On the contrary, Reformers such as Luther and Calvin discovered these doctrines through reading both the Bible and the writings of the Church fathers. They found that in Augustinian Christianity — sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura — were well known doctrines.

In their study of historic Church documents, they found that there had been so many additions to orthodoxy in the Catholic Church that a once a vibrant Biblical faith had been polluted. The Protestant Reformers set out to do exactly what their name implies — to reform the Church — to turn back to the form of doctrine the Church had in the early centuries. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Tyndale and the Puritans saw the Reformation not as a rebellion against the Catholic Church, but as a break with Rome in order to return their nations’ churches to the true catholic faith.

Protestants maintained through careful argument, using appeal to both Scripture and historic orthodoxy, that their Reformed doctrine constituted a recovery of correct biblical doctrine. Protestants held to the first four ecumenical creeds of the early church, the teachings of St. Augustine, the Council of Orange, the Councils of Second and Third Constantinople (which further clarified the Chalcedonian Creed), and the Synod of Constantinople (which dealt with the iconoclast controversy).


Protestants owe a great deal to Augustine. The Protestant Reformers were Augustinian in their theology, especially in terms of their soteriology. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk prior to his conversion. Luther and John Calvin took their view of the bondage of the will, election, predestination, and justification by faith alone directly from Augustine who emphasized that man can do nothing to please God outside of His sovereign grace which regenerates and justifies man who is a fallen sinner.

Augustine elaborated on the writings of third and fourth century apologists, Tertullian, Cyprian and Ambrose who taught the doctrine of original sin: that through the sin of the first man, Adam, all his descendants come into the world tainted with sin. This sin originated with pride, the desire to put man’s will in the center rather than the desire to serve the will of God. The penalty for the sin of pride was death. Adam perished and in him we all perished.

This choice was made deliberately since God created man with free will. However, man’s free will was marred by original sin and he cannot recover a right standing with God by his own effort. Man cannot raise himself up by his own bootstraps.

Augustine wrote: “The entire mass of our nature was ruined and fell into the possession of its destroyer [the devil]. And from him no one — no, not one — has been delivered, or ever will be delivered, except by the grace of the Redeemer.”

Augustine did not teach a total obliteration of free will by man’s sin. Man is still free, but free only to sin. This is the doctrine of the bondage of the will. By Adam’s sin, the wills of all of Adam’s descendants have been in bondage to sin and death. The bondage of the will refers to our inability to turn wholly to God. Though man may try to reform himself, he cannot choose eternal life. Although man’s will is free in other respects, he is unable to choose to serve the will of God and will always choose the way of rebellion and death. In His great mercy, however, God predestined some to salvation and eternal life. We can be rescued from eternal damnation only by an act of God — a sovereign rebirth or a “born-again” experience.

Augustine strongly believed in the doctrine of election, that only those who were predestined can be saved. Only the elect will be saved. Even though they may fall into sin, the elect will repent and persevere in their faith in the end. Augustine believed just as strongly in the doctrine of reprobation, that God has predestined some to the punishment in hell which they rightfully deserve. This is consistent with the Reformed doctrine of Luther and Calvin.

From Augustine’s City of God (410 AD)

“This race we have distributed into two parts, the one consisting of those who live according to man, the other of those who live according to God. And these we also mystically call the two cities, or the two communities of men, of which the one is predestined to reign eternally with God, and the other to suffer eternal punishment with the devil…. Of these two first parents of the human race, then, Cain was the first-born, and he belonged to the city of men; after him was born Abel, who belonged to the city of God….

“When these two cities began to run their course by a series of deaths and births, the citizen of this world was the first-born, and after him the stranger in this world, the citizen of the city of God, predestinated by grace, elected by grace, by grace a stranger below, and by grace a citizen above. By grace, — for so far as regards himself he is sprung from the same mass, all of which is condemned in its origin: but God, like a potter (for this comparison is introduced by the apostle judiciously, and not without thought), of the same lump made one vessel to honor, another to dishonor….

“For the Church predestined and elected before the foundation of the world, the Church of which it is said, ‘The Lord knoweth them that are His,’ shall never be seduced by [the devil]…. Both those of the Gentiles and those of the Jews whom He predestinated, called, justified, glorified: none of these will be condemned by Him; but we cannot say none of all men whatever….

“What will He give to those whom He has predestined to life, who has given such things even to those whom He has predestined to death?”

The Council of Orange

Protestants see in the Council of Orange of 529 exactly how much the Catholic Church of that era believed the doctrines later preached by Luther and Calvin. The Council of Orange was an outgrowth of the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius. This controversy had to do with degree to which a human being is responsible for his own salvation, and the role of the grace of God in bringing about salvation. The Pelagians held that human beings are born in a state of innocence, i.e., that there is no such thing as a sinful nature nor original sin.

As a result of this view, they held that a state of sinless perfection was achievable in this life. The Council of Orange dealt with the semi-Pelagian doctrine that the human race, though fallen and possessed of a sinful nature, is still “good” enough to able to lay hold of the grace of God through an act of unredeemed human will. The Canons of the Council of Orange differed with Augustine, however, in refuting the doctrine of reprobation.

Nevertheless, as you read the Canons of the Council of Orange, you will be able to see where John Calvin and Martin Luther derived their views of the total depravity of man, the bondage of the will and justification by faith alone.

The Canons of the Council of Orange (529 AD)

CANON 1. If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was “changed for the worse” through the offense of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius and contradicts the scripture which says, “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20); and, “Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are the slaves of the one whom you obey?” (Rom. 6:126); and, “For whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19).

CANON 2. If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin affected him alone and not his descendants also, or at least if he declares that it is only the death of the body which is the punishment for sin, and not also that sin, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man to the whole human race, he does injustice to God and contradicts the Apostle, who says, “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

CANON 3. If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred as a result of human prayer, but that it is not grace itself which makes us pray to God, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah, or the Apostle who says the same thing, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me” (Rom. 10:20, quoting Isa. 65:1).

CANON 4. If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, “The will is prepared by the Lord” (Prov. 8:35, Septuagint), and the salutary word of the Apostle, “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

CANON 5. If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism — if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.

CANON 6. If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

CANON 7. If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).

CANON 8. If anyone maintains that some are able to come to the grace of baptism by mercy but others through free will, which has manifestly been corrupted in all those who have been born after the transgression of the first man, it is proof that he has no place in the true faith. For he denies that the free will of all men has been weakened through the sin of the first man, or at least holds that it has been affected in such a way that they have still the ability to seek the mystery of eternal salvation by themselves without the revelation of God. The Lord himself shows how contradictory this is by declaring that no one is able to come to him “unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), as he also says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17), and as the Apostle says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).

CANON 9. Concerning the succor of God. It is a mark of divine favor when we are of a right purpose and keep our feet from hypocrisy and unrighteousness; for as often as we do good, God is at work in us and with us, in order that we may do so.

CANON 10. Concerning the succor of God. The succor of God is to be ever sought by the regenerate and converted also, so that they may be able to come to a successful end or persevere in good works.

CANON 11. Concerning the duty to pray. None would make any true prayer to the Lord had he not received from him the object of his prayer, as it is written, “Of thy own have we given thee” (1 Chron. 29:14).

CANON 12. Of what sort we are whom God loves. God loves us for what we shall be by his gift, and not by our own deserving.

CANON 13. Concerning the restoration of free will. The freedom of will that was destroyed in the first man can be restored only by the grace of baptism, for what is lost can be returned only by the one who was able to give it. Hence the Truth itself declares: “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

CANON 14. No mean wretch is freed from his sorrowful state, however great it may be, save the one who is anticipated by the mercy of God, as the Psalmist says, “Let thy compassion come speedily to meet us” (Ps. 79:8), and again, “My God in his steadfast love will meet me” (Ps. 59:10).

CANON 15. Adam was changed, but for the worse, through his own iniquity from what God made him. Through the grace of God the believer is changed, but for the better, from what his iniquity has done for him. The one, therefore, was the change brought about by the first sinner; the other, according to the Psalmist, is the change of the right hand of the Most High (Ps. 77:10).

CANON 16. No man shall be honored by his seeming attainment, as though it were not a gift, or suppose that he has received it because a missive from without stated it in writing or in speech. For the Apostle speaks thus, “For if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose” (Gal. 2:21); and “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8, quoting Ps. 68:18). It is from this source that any man has what he does; but whoever denies that he has it from this source either does not truly have it, or else “even what he has will be taken away” (Matt. 25:29).

CANON 17. Concerning Christian courage. The courage of the Gentiles is produced by simple greed, but the courage of Christians by the love of God which “has been poured into our hearts” not by freedom of will from our own side but “through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5).

CANON 18. That grace is not preceded by merit. Recompense is due to good works if they are performed; but grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be done.

CANON 19. That a man can be saved only when God shows mercy. Human nature, even though it remained in that sound state in which it was created, could be no means save itself, without the assistance of the Creator; hence since man cannot safe- guard his salvation without the grace of God, which is a gift, how will he be able to restore what he has lost without the grace of God?

CANON 20. That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.

CANON 21. Concerning nature and grace. As the Apostle most truly says to those who would be justified by the law and have fallen from grace, “If justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose” (Gal. 2:21), so it is most truly declared to those who imagine that grace, which faith in Christ advocates and lays hold of, is nature: “If justification were through nature, then Christ died to no purpose.” Now there was indeed the law, but it did not justify, and there was indeed nature, but it did not justify. Not in vain did Christ therefore die, so that the law might be fulfilled by him who said, “I have come not to abolish them [the law and prophets] but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17), and that the nature which had been destroyed by Adam might be restored by him who said that he had come “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

CANON 22. Concerning those things that belong to man. No man has anything of his own but untruth and sin. But if a man has any truth or righteousness, it from that fountain for which we must thirst in this desert, so that we may be refreshed from it as by drops of water and not faint on the way.

CANON 23. Concerning the will of God and of man. Men do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is his will by which what they will is both prepared and instructed.

CANON 24. Concerning the branches of the vine. The branches on the vine do not give life to the vine, but receive life from it; thus the vine is related to its branches in such a way that it supplies them with what they need to live, and does not take this from them. Thus it is to the advantage of the disciples, not Christ, both to have Christ abiding in them and to abide in Christ. For if the vine is cut down another can shoot up from the live root; but one who is cut off from the vine cannot live without the root (John 15:5ff).

CANON 25. Concerning the love with which we love God. It is wholly a gift of God to love God. He who loves, even though he is not loved, allowed himself to be loved. We are loved, even when we displease him, so that we might have means to please him. For the Spirit, whom we love with the Father and the Son, has poured into our hearts the love of the Father and the Son (Rom. 5:5).

CONCLUSION. And thus according to the passages of holy scripture quoted above or the interpretations of the ancient Fathers we must, under the blessing of God, preach and believe as follows. The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God’s sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him. We therefore believe that the glorious faith which was given to Abel the righteous, and Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and to all the saints of old, and which the Apostle Paul commends in extolling them (Heb. 11), was not given through natural goodness as it was before to Adam, but was bestowed by the grace of God.

And we know and also believe that even after the coming of our Lord this grace is not to be found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is bestowed by the kindness of Christ, as has already been frequently stated and as the Apostle Paul declares, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). And again, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and it is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). And as the Apostle says of himself, “I have obtained mercy to be faithful” (1 Cor. 7:25, cf. 1 Tim. 1:13). He did not say, “because I was faithful,” but “to be faithful.” And again, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). And again, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17). And again, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). There are innumerable passages of holy scripture which can be quoted to prove the case for grace, but they have been omitted for the sake of brevity, because further examples will not really be of use where few are deemed sufficient.

According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul. We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema [a term meaning: damned]. We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and after baptism be able by his help to do what is pleasing to him. We must therefore most evidently believe that the praiseworthy faith of the thief whom the Lord called to his home in paradise, and of Cornelius the centurion, to whom the angel of the Lord was sent, and of Zacchaeus, who was worthy to receive the Lord himself, was not a natural endowment but a gift of God’s kindness.

The Iconoclast Controversy

Another controversy addressed by the Reformation is whether or not the saints, and especially images, statues and icons, should be worshipped. I have included the following two documents to show that the debate over the use of images in worship is not new. It is part of an ongoing debate throughout Church history over what is to be worshipped. There were various branches of the Catholic Church which opposed or supported the iconoclast position to varying degrees, and the documents produced by the iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries were the basis of the position taken by the reformers in the 16th century.

At the beginning of the 8th century, Leo III, emperor of the Eastern Roman empire, attacked the use of images as aids in worship. He was the first leader of the iconoclasts (image breakers). Statues and icons of Jesus, Mary, and various other holy men and women were being used as aids in worship, and many ordinary Christians were failing to distinguish between the spiritual reality represented by the image and the image itself.

Leo III came into power after a series of military defeats. There was also a major earthquake at the beginning of his reign. Leo launched his attack on the use of images because he felt that these disasters were the result of God’s judgment. Leo believed that Christians were no longer obeying the commandment against idolatry. In any case, Leo and his successors, for the next century or so, fought against the use of images in worship. In 753, Constantine V, Leo’s son, called a synod at which a gathering of 338 bishops produced the statement below:

The Synod of Constantinople (Hiera, 753 AD)

When, however, they are blamed for undertaking to depict the divine nature of Christ, which should not be depicted, they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart? So is it with the human soul of Christ which mediates between the Godhead of the Son and the dullness of the flesh. As the human flesh is at the same time flesh of God the Word, so is the human soul also soul of God the Word, and both at the same time, the soul being deified as well as the body, and the Godhead remained undivided even in the separation of the soul from the body in his voluntary passion. For where the soul of Christ is, there is also his Godhead; and where the body of Christ is, there too is his Godhead.

If then in his passion the divinity remained inseparable from these, how do the fools venture to separate the flesh from the Godhead, and represent it by itself as the image of a mere man? They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity. Moreover, they represent as not being made divine, that which has been made divine by being assumed by the Godhead. Whoever, then, makes an image of Christ, either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians. The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, however, is bread and wine in the holy Supper. This and no other form, this and no other type, has he chosen to represent his incarnation …


Thirty-five years later, Irene, the regent for Constantine VI, called another council at which 350 bishops repudiated the decision documented above. The result of their deliberations is given below:

Council of Nicea (Seventh Ecumenical, 787 AD)

To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely fantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.

We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented …


Protestants did not agree with the “Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicea” which contradicted the previous Synod of Constantinople by stating that statues and icons of Mary, the saints and the angels are to be reverenced. The Reformers viewed this council as one of the departures from the Catholic faith. This council was, in the view of the 16th century Protestants, one of the positions of the Catholic Church which needed to be reformed.

Medieval Catholics

One may wonder at this point: If there was such a strong tradition of orthodoxy in the Catholic Church, where did Rome go wrong? For the sake of both clarification and brevity, we should recognize two things:

We should recognize that the historic Church was never perfectly uniform in doctrine. There were heresies in the Church even from the first century. The existence of heresy is not our main concern, because God always raised up those — as “Athanasius against the world” — who were able to stand and prevail against error even when they were in the minority. Our main concern is not with the prevalence of heresy, since the Catholic Church maintained orthodoxy through the early creeds.

We should also recognize that the government structure of the Catholic Church, since the time of the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine (325 A.D.), began to progressively center on the city of Rome. This is also not a great concern, since God allowed for several different styles of government of Israel in the Bible. The Protestant Reformers themselves settled on various forms of Church government: Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Congregational, but stressed that the individual alone was accountable to God in terms of his salvation.

The main concern of Protestants is what the Roman Catholic Church teaches on salvation. Here we must stand for the total depravity of man, the bondage of the will, and justification by faith alone. These are unchanging biblical doctrines. We must also contend for sola scriptura as the means by which God has chosen to reveal the truth. Protestants accept the counsel of the historic catholic Church in interpreting Scripture. However, where the Roman Catholic Church has contradicted the Bible, we protest.

Thomas Aquinas

The great dividing wall between Protestants and Roman Catholics can be seen clearly in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Although Thomas was a great biblical scholar, he relied heavily on Greek philosophy and metaphysics. He began a scholastic tradition which then began to erode biblical truth in terms of salvation.

The Reformers of the 1500s discovered that the Roman Catholic Church, circa 1100 to 1500, was influenced more heavily by Thomas Aquinas and medieval mysticism than by Augustine. Thomas Aquinas was more influenced by Greek philosophical concepts of free will and taught that man cooperated with God by doing good works in order to secure his salvation. Although Thomas admired and drew from Augustine’s theology, he disagreed with Augustine’s theology of salvation.

During the Middle Ages Christianity did not cease to spread. The Church was the great civilizing force of the Western world. However, the doctrine of the Church of the Middle Ages was far removed from that of the Church fathers. Despite the emphasis on extra-biblical doctrine, some Catholics of the Medieval period worked for reform, among these were Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, and Girolamo Savonarola.

Bernard of Clairvaux

A great saint of the pre-Reformation period who sought to promote orthodoxy was Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century who stressed, among other things, the bondage of the will and justification by faith alone.

Bernard’s sermon “On Conversion” was given in a public setting in Paris to a group of people who had not yet been converted. This was a departure, in that the term “conversion” was usually reserved for an already devout person deciding to join a monastic order. Bernard was now speaking of the conversion of the heart by the grace of God. As a result of this, several of his hearers (about 23 in number) were converted to Christ. Their profession of faith proved lasting a year later.

Bernard preached that no one can be converted unless the Lord wills it first. He presented conversion as a sovereign act of God, not a work of the human will. The voice of God speaks to all, even those who do not want to hear. God reveals his righteousness though the Son of God, the Word of the Father, who is the expressed image of His glory. Man in his depravity can only respond by doing works of sin. All good works done before justification, in whatever manner they may be done, are truly sins. The more zealously one strives to justify himself, the more he will see that he sins. Works of penance, fastings, strivings, and the making of laws and decrees designed to subdue the flesh are likened to the efforts of a paralytic trying to walk on his own. The more discipline we apply to reform ourselves, the more the sinful nature of Adam will war against our efforts.

“You foolish sons of Adam!” preached Bernard, “In devouring the husks meant for pigs, you are not feeding your hungry souls but only the hunger itself. Indeed, we continue to lack food when we sit at this banquet.” The promises of the Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled,” (Matt. 5:6) can only be received by grace. A simple faith, which is hidden from the wise and strong but revealed to little children, is what justifies us in the sight of God.

Bernard railed against the Catholic clergy who presumed to bring salvation to others, before their hearts were pure through faith. “The Church seems to have grown. Even the most holy order of the clergy is multiplied beyond counting … Everywhere people are rushing to join sacred orders, and they seize with neither reverence nor consideration upon ministries which the angels themselves regard with awe.” Bernard warned that true conversion was not to be had by the seeker of high position in the Church, but by the repentant and lowly seeker after Christ’s righteousness. Conversion could not be had through our own works, but it is the gift of God to the child with simple faith.

Francis of Assisi and Savonarola

Time and again, preachers of reform would appear to preach salvation to the common people and condemn the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. Sporadically, powerful preachers would appear and the common people of Europe would once again receive the power of the Lord’s testimony.

St. Francis of Assisi, founded an order in the 13th century which would go and preach evangelistically among the people rather than stay shut up in cloistered monasteries. They lived simple lives and preached repentance and the love of God. Throngs flocked to hear them preach.

Girolamo Savonarola, a fifteenth century Italian friar, charged the church of his day with idolatry in sermon after sermon: “In the primitive Church the chalices were of wood, the prelates of gold; in these days the Church has chalices of gold and prelates of wood.” With fiery oratory, Savonarola likened the Roman hierarchy to a building “wood, hay and stubble” which the Apostle Paul had warned against: “This is the new church, no longer built of living stones; but of sticks, namely, of Christians dry as tinder for the fires of hell.”

But the battle to restore the doctrine and experience of the Church Fathers was most often lost. Preachers of reform, such as Savonarola and the Bohemian preacher John Hus, were often put to death by church authorities. It became evident even to the common people that the Roman church was corrupt; the deaths of the martyrs only rallied sympathy for their cries for reform.

For the people of the Middle Ages, the Reformation had lacked one essential ingredient: the written Word of God. Since the time of St. Jerome had passed, the fifth century monk who translated the Greek Septuagint and the Greek New Testament into vulgar Latin, the Word of God had remained obscured from the common people. It wasn’t until the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the late 15th century that the Bible became available in mass quantities. The invention of the printing press now set off a revolution in Germany. Now, every scholar could own a copy of a book or some type of printed material. The Latin editions of the Gutenberg Bible proliferated among the nobility and the church leaders of northern Europe.

Ironically, Gutenberg’s livelihood came mainly from the printing of indulgences: one page documents which were paid for by Catholic parishioners in order to obtain pardon for their sins after receiving the sacrament of penance. The doctrine of purgatory appeared in the Church as early as the late sixth century, but did not become part of the official dogma of the Catholic Church until the Council of Florence in 1439. The sale of indulgences also guaranteed that the holder could be pardoned from punishment in purgatory for his sins. Some German priests grew rich from the sales of these indulgences.

Only the intellectual elite could benefit from the printing of the Gutenburg Bibles since they were only available in Latin. If you happened to be a scholar or a nobleman, the print revolution might have affected you spiritually; but as for the common people of the fifteenth century — the masses — there was little benefit. Reform was a slow process occurring over the space of centuries. The Bible was painstakingly translated into the common tongue of each nation. The common people of Europe had to become literate before mass revival was to take place. This was a long struggle won with the blood of the martyrs.

The Reformation Period

The Reformation of the Church in the 16th century marked the end of the Middle Ages, a time in which the Church had been mired in every vile depravity known to man. Under the weight of papal abominations, sexual promiscuity, financial scandal and sweeping ignorance of God’s Word, the Church had lost the testimony of Christ’s character. In the midst of such carnal chaos, the Lord began a process of restoring truth, order, and vitality to the Church.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox were used of the Lord to recover foundational truths of the Christian faith which had been lost for nearly a millennium. God chose rough hewn men of conviction, intelligence, and spiritual depth to carry the day, and win the fight for Christ’s testimony in their generation.

Martin Luther championed a rising dissent coming from every political, social and religious sphere in Europe. Luther protested the many abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. Having been one of the elite who had studied the Latin Bible, Luther realized that there were many areas of official church dogma which did not align with the teachings of the Word of God.

Luther wrote that he was shocked in reading Erasmus’ newly published Greek New Testament, that the frequent command was to repent — not do penance — as had been translated in Latin by the Roman Catholic Church. The difference here is that to repent implies a change of heart as a result of hearing the Gospel and to do penance implies that the sinner can do works in order to prepare himself to receive salvation.

When Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenburg in 1517, he was merely calling his colleagues to a theological debate over the sacrament of penance, the existence of purgatory, and the sale of indulgences. In the controversy that ensued, church officials demanded that Luther recant his theses, although they were not willing to debate the stocky German friar concerning his knowledge of Scripture. The soldiers who came to arrest Luther did so only after Luther refused to recant his theses. His immortal words were the galvanizing force of Protestant Reformation of the 16th century: “Here I stand; I can do no other; God help me. Amen.” It was only the assistance of the armies of Frederick the Wise which kept Luther from the same fate as prior reformers.

Meanwhile in Zürich, Switzerland, a young priest named Ulrich Zwingli began to push for reforms which went beyond those of Luther. In 1523, Zwingli, with the full support of the civil authorities, came out against monastic vows, clerical celibacy, the veneration of the saints, the existence of purgatory, the sacrificial character of the mass, and the teaching that salvation can be obtained by good works.

In 1536, in Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin first published his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In it, he outlined a comprehensive theology for Protestant Christianity, something Luther had failed to do. He articulated and implemented a plan of church government separate from the rule of bishops and popes. His theology emphasized the ultimate sovereignty of God and the idea of divine election as being the necessary prerequisite for salvation.

The Protestants began the Reformation, not as a revolt against the catholic faith, but as a reemphasis of orthodoxy and doctrines of salvation outlined by Augustine, the Council of Orange, and the Synod of Constantinople. The Protestants saw clearly that their doctrines were consistent with historic orthodoxy and had precedence in the early centuries of Christianity and among some Catholic scholars of the Middle Ages.

Rome’s Response to the Reformation

Rome responded to Luther and Calvin’s reformation with great ferocity. One of the most noteworthy examples is their reaction to the Protestant reformer, William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English and was martyred for his faith. Although the actual trial and execution of Tyndale took place after King Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the arrest warrant was issued prior to this time. The following charges were leveled at Tyndale by Sir Thomas More, a Roman Catholic prelate acting on behalf of Rome:

1. He maintained that faith alone justifies;
2. He maintained that belief in Christ’s atonement was enough for salvation;
3. He said that human traditions cannot bind the conscience;
4. He denied the freedom of the will;
5. He denied that purgatory exists;
6. He said that neither Mary nor the saints may pray for us;
7. He said that neither Mary nor the saints should be invoked by us.

The beliefs of Tyndale were nothing more than the assertions of the historic, orthodox Christian faith to which many Catholics had long held. Protestants must hold to these truths uncompromisingly today. The Roman Catholic Church responded that those who believe and teach these things are damned.

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent, or the 19th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, was held at Trent in northern Italy between 1545 and 1563. It marked a major turning point in the efforts of the Catholic church to respond to the challenge of the Protestant Reformation and formed a key part of the Counter-Reformation.

The Council of Trent refused any concessions to the Protestants and codified Roman Catholic dogma far more than ever before. Tradition was declared coequal to Scripture as a source of spiritual knowledge, and the Roman Catholic Church claimed the sole right to interpret the Bible. The council directly opposed Protestantism by reaffirming the existence of seven sacraments, transubstantiation, purgatory, clerical celibacy, the necessity of the priesthood, justification by works as well as by faith, the efficacy of relics, indulgences, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints.

Most importantly, the Roman Catholic Church set down its views on justification. In doing so, Rome officially rejected justification by faith alone (sola fide) and excommunicated the Reformers who had begun to articulate this historic doctrine. The Council of Trent gave an unalterable decree that all Protestants are damned:

If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema [a term meaning: damned].

If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.

If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.

If anyone says that in order to obtain the remission of sins it is necessary for every man to believe with certainty and without any hesitation arising from his own weakness and indisposition that his sins are forgiven him, let him be anathema.

If anyone says that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he firmly believes that he is absolved and justified, or that no one is truly justified except him who believes himself justified, and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are effected, let him be anathema.

These statements by Rome were far more than a theological treatise — they served as a political declaration of war on the Protestant world. The Thirty Years War, the Battle of the Spanish Armada, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and many other political persecutions were the result of Rome’s decree that Protestants were “anathema.”

Roman Catholics and Protestants in the 20th Century

The First Vatican Council of 1870, decreed the doctrine of infallibility of the pope in matters of faith and morals. This statement affirmed the belief that the Council of Trent was correct and unchanging. Papal infallibility set a wedge between any serious dialogue for unity between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the 20th century. Protestants may accept the pope as the “bishop of Rome” but cannot accept Rome’s “infallible” decrees when they are in contradiction to Scripture. Our unity with the Roman Catholic Church can come only when the pope will agree that he cannot make this claim. Until that day comes, there will always be Protestants and Roman Catholics in separate churches.

The Council of Trent was reaffirmed as recently as Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Roman Catholics, as their name implies, claim to be concerned with unity in the Body of Christ. Since Vatican Council II, the pope and his bishops have been willing to promote dialogue between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church prays each day in its masses that the Church would be one. They are continually imploring God to return their “separated brethren” (a term meaning: Protestants) to the fold of the “one true Church.” This does little to soften the Canons of the Council of Trent (which is supposedly unalterable) that declare all Protestants “anathema.”

Protestants can respond to this challenge by saying that we admire the Catholic Church’s defense of historic orthodoxy, its tradition of Augustinian theology, the creeds of the patristic church, and those Catholic saints who preached the Gospel of justification by faith alone. We view our faith as “catholic” and believe that all who are under the Lordship of Jesus Christ are “catholic” in the truest sense of the word; that is, we are part of the universal Body of Christ. Although Protestants are “catholic,” we are not Roman Catholic because we do not recognize the authority of the Bishop of Rome (the pope) over the universal church.

In our zeal to promote the unity of the faith (for which Jesus prayed in John 17:20-23) we must continue to contend for the faith of the great Protestants such as Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Knox, the Puritans, Edwards, Whitefield, Wesley, Hodge, Spurgeon, etc. In doing so, we will be promoting the historic “catholic” faith.

We can also respond by recognizing that there are many true believers within the Roman Catholic Church who do not agree with us on certain issues, but who are nevertheless orthodox on the central doctrines of the Christian faith. We must recognize that if Roman Catholic believers are orthodox and have been born-again, then they are our brothers and sisters and we must seek unity with them.

However, we cannot agree with Roman Catholics on doctrines such as the veneration of the saints, purgatory, transubstantiation and penance. We cannot enter into worship with Roman Catholics when these doctrines are being promoted simply because we desire “unity.” Therefore, our purpose cannot be to promote unity between Roman Catholics and Protestants for unity’s sake. To do so would be to compromise our faith.

We can also implore the Roman Catholic Church to renounce their persecution of the Protestant Reformers and agree with today’s Protestants that Reformed doctrine is consistent with the historic catholic faith.

The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church rest on the idea of “rightful, Catholic authority.” Protestants believe that there is a rightful catholic authority, but we do not believe that it rests with the Roman Catholic Church. We believe that it rests rather on the infallible Word of God and the teachings of historic orthodoxy. This “rightful catholic authority” was thankfully recovered by the Protestant Reformation.

A Guide for Further Study

  • Introduction
  • The Names and Attributes of God
  • The Authority of Scripture
  • Why Creeds and Confessions?
  • The Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • Christology
  • Christianity and the Cults
  • Protestantism: Both Orthodox and Catholic!
  • About the author
  • 1 Comment

    As a Catholic, I of course agree with you on the need of Evangelicals to return to the creeds. In fact, if it weren’t for your praise of the reformers, I almost mistook you for a Catholic. It certainly is an important point you make. What chance do we have of Christian unity when Christianity is breaking into thousands of minidenominations as small as one local church. Of course, we have to agree to disagree on the solution. To me, being creedal and believing in Sola Scriptura, does certainly seem to be a contradtion — and I think that anti-creedal Evangelicals would agree. To my Catholic mind (and of course, I have my biases like all do), it seems that the authority of early creeds and the very canon of the bible is directly dependant on the authority of the ones making those statements — namely the Church (with apostolic teaching as an intreptive guide). The best page-for-page Catholic apolgetic that I am aware of on this subject is “By What Authority?” by Mark Shea.
    Anyway, I am aware that the issue is stale, (500 years old and counting.) But it always strikes me as interesting when when Protestants come full circle to become more Catholic — the Oxford movement and Arminian movement very notably. I realize that you intend to become more Protestant, not more Catholic by stressing the creeds, but you must understand what it looks like from my perspective.
    God Bless.

    Your comments are welcome

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