Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Roman Catholicism's Many Denominations

An excellent article by Steve Parks, a seminary student at Concordia, Fort Wayne, IN


DENOMINATIONALISM AND CATHOLIC CLAIMS?

Roman Catholic apologists often make much of the fact that there are allegedly somewhere around 20,000 different Protestant denominations, each with their own set of doctrine, and each with their own interpretation of Scripture. This, they contend, proves that the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura is unworkable, and thus the Protestant Church can not be the institution founded by Jesus Christ, against which the gates of hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:18).

Simply citing the number of extant Protestant denominations does little to vindicate the Roman Catholic claim that Rome is the one true church. The primary error is this. For Catholicism, unity necessarily equals truth. If we use this criteria, theoretically speaking, there could be an absolutely unified corrupt church, and a hundred fruitful denominations. The denominations would be written off, while the corrupt church would be vindicated using the above criteria.

Let me supply some additional examples. Eastern Orthodoxy has also been able to stave off denominationalism. Does this make them the one true church? How about the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society? They are an extremely monolithic organization. Does this make them the one true church? Of course it doesn't, and to make such an argument would be preposterous.

Not to mention, many of the suppose 20,000 plus denominations have doctrines that are well nigh identical to one another. For example, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is in doctrinal agreement, and thus participates in full altar and pulpit fellowship with the Lutheran Church of Argentina, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil, The Lutheran Church-Canada, Iglesian Evangelical Lutherana de la Republice de Chile, the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church of Denmark, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England, the Confessional Lutheran Church of Finland, The Evangelical Lutheran Church-Synod of France or Belgium, Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church, Germany (SELK), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana, the Lutheran Church of Guatemala, the Lutheran Church - Hong Kong Synod, the India Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Japan Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in Korea, the Lutheran Synod of Mexico, the Lutheran Church of Nigeria, the Gutnius Lutheran Church (Papau New Guinea), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Paraguay, the Lutheran Church in the Philippines, the Lutheran Church in Southern Africa, the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa, the China Evangelical Lutheran Church, Iglesia Luterane de Venezuela, etc.

These Lutheran assemblies comprise separate denominational bodies, yet their confessional symbols are virtually identical (i.e. The Book of Concord). Thus, diversity in denomination does not always mean diversity in doctrine. In short, it isn't like Protestantism has produced 20,000 divergent views on justification. Rather, the issues on which we differ are minor, compared to those fundamentals upon which we agree.

Furthermore, many of the denominations included in the above number are Protestant in name only. In other words, while they may be popularly numbered among Protestantism, many deny the chief tenets of what has historically set Protestants apart from the Roman Catholic communion, namely the confessional principles of sola Scriptura and sola fide.

Finally, it should be pointed out that division is not always a bad thing. When a denomination begins to deny such cardinal doctrines as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc., division is not only advisable, it is a divine mandate (Rom. 16:17).

It should also be kept in mind that unity can be a fa├žade for apostasy, while fragmentation can be the mark of faithfulness.

For example, in the New Testament, the Pharisees apparently had a pretty good religious program going for them. They were highly organized, and very unified in their interpretation of Scripture and tradition. They could have complained that the teachings espoused by Christians were novelties, never before heard in Israel. They also could have pointed to the fragmentation of the New Testament Church as evidence that God was not pleased with such division. After all, the apostolic church was quite confused on a number of issues. The Corinthian Church, for example, was teaching conflicting doctrines relating to church discipline (1 Cor. 5-7), Christian liberty (1 Cor. 10), the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11), the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14), and the bodily resurrection of believers (1 Cor. 15)! Nevertheless, we know that they were not disqualified as being part of the true body of Christ (1 Cor. 1:2).

In addition, in the early church under the reign Constantius, the Arians had a pretty solid religious system. They were also very organized, and greatly unified in their error. In fact, they even got the Bishop of Rome, Pope Liberius (352-366) to subscribe to the Arian creed of Sirmium (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994], 371).

Like the days of Elijah, true believers were once again fragmented and exiled. So Athanasius asked:

Where is there a Church which now enjoys the privilege of worshipping Christ freely? If a Church be a maintainer of true piety, it is in danger; if it dissemble, it abides in fear. Every place is full of hypocrisy and impiety, so far as he is concerned; and wherever there is a pious person and a lover of Christ (and there are many such everywhere, as were the prophets and the great Elijah) they hide themselves, if so be that they can find a faithful friend like Obadiah, and either they withdraw into caves and dens of the earth, or pass their lives in wandering about in the deserts (History of the Arians, VII.53).

Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, and Hilary all affirm that the church can become quite fragmented and obscured at times.

Nevertheless, Christ remains faithful in fulfilling the promise He made to His people. Beginning in Matthew 16:13, Jesus asks His disciples what people are saying about Him, and what the populace believed about Him. After getting an answer from them as to who others said that He was, Christ asked His disciples who they believed He was (Matt. 16:15). Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). In response to Peter's confession, Christ noted that He would build His church upon this confession, and that the gates of hell would never prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Therefore, any church that shares Peter's confession, and intends by it what Peter intended, is a part of the church that Christ promised to build and preserve.

While it is true that Protestants have Calvinists and Arminians, it should not be overlooked that Catholicism has Augustinians and Mollinists. True, Protestants have Lutheran and Reformed Christians arguing about the sacraments, but so do the Scotists and the Thomists.

Rome may have one genus, Roman Catholic, but they have many species within this broad genus including but certainly not limited to ultratraditionalist Catholics, traditionalist Catholics, progressive Catholics, liberal Catholics, charismatic Catholics, evangelical Catholics, cultural Catholics, radical feminist Catholics, popular folk Catholics, and the list could go on and on.

In his book Catholicism and Fundamentalism, responding to the claims of Lorraine Boettner, Catholic apologist Karl Keating asks the rhetorical question:

Have "doctors of theology...violently opposed other doctors"? Of course, but Catholics do not hold that theologians are infallible, so disagreement between them is immaterial, and certainly the fact that they may disagree with one another says nothing about the existence of papal infallibility (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism [San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988], 219).

Keating thus unwittingly proves that a Church who claims to be the exclusive mouthpiece of God has been unable to prevent disagreements within her ranks. As Keating points out above, even papal infallibility has not been able to stem the tide of disagreement among Catholic doctors of theology.

So what are the differences over which Catholic doctors of theology have violently opposed one another? In addition to the differences already referenced above, there are others that should be noted.

Many are unaware that Catholics are divided on what it takes to get into heaven. For instance, look at an authoritative statement on the part of the Roman Church that may at face level appear to be pretty straight forward: "If anyone saith, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary for salvation: let him be anathema" (Session VII, Canons V on Baptism from the Council of Trent).

Pretty clear right? Unfortunately for Rome some Catholic doctors of theology interpret the above to mean that nobody can possibly receive final salvation apart from the reception of sacramental water baptism. Others assert that the above affirmation is only intended to communicate that sacramental water baptism is ordinarily essential under most circumstances, but a baptism of desire (for unbaptized catechumens) or a baptism of blood (for unbaptized martyrs) is sufficient for final salvation under extraordinary conditions.

How about the following statement issued by Pope Boniface VIII in his Bull Unam Sanctum:

So when the Greeks and others say that they were not committed to the care of Peter and his successors, they must confess that they are not of Christ's sheep, even as the Lord says in John, "There is one fold and one shepherd"...Furthermore, that every human creature must be subject to the Roman pontiff,- this we declare, say, define, and pronounce to be altogether necessary to salvation.

Many Catholic doctors of theology interpret the above decree to mean that nobody can possibly be saved outside of communion with the visible Roman Catholic Church. More moderate Catholic doctors of theology assert that the above affirmation was not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church. These, they conclude, can be saved outside of communion with Rome.

"Wait a minute" some might say, "these doctrines are secondary issues and don't affect personal salvation." Strange, this is the same argument that Catholic apologists are constantly asserting is invalid when employed by Protestants. However, we should go on.

Certainly, when it comes down to it, Catholics must be united on what it takes to get to heaven, right? I mean, apart from the above, there is a pretty clear consensus among Catholics on what it takes to spend eternity with God isn't there? Let's take another look at what the Church has officially said:

If anyone saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such a wise as to mean, that nothing else is requited 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 movement of his own will: let him be anathema (Session VI, Canon IX of the Council of Trent).

Traditionally, Catholic doctors of theology have interpreted the above to mean that whoever holds to the Protestant formulation of justification by faith alone has been officially anathematized by Rome. However, many other celebrated Roman Catholics apologists, such as Peter Kreeft (at Boston College) and Alan Schreck (of Steubenville University) claim that the disagreements on justification between Luther and Roman Catholicism boiled down to semantics, and that Luther's doctrine of justification was essentially correct.

"Well," some Catholics might say, "we may have some argumentation as to what Church Councils and Papal Bulls have meant, but we all agree on what the Catechism teaches." Is this true? Do Catholics understand the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the same way? Let's take a look:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, [New York, NY: Doubleday, 1994], 841).

Conservative Catholic doctors of theology interpret the above statement to mean that Muslims believe in a supreme creator, and therefore they have a chance to eventually be saved if they come to a fuller knowledge of God's plan of salvation. However, other Catholic doctors of theology (and it could be argued even the Pope) are of the opinion that Muslims will finally be saved, as long as they sincerely follow their conscience (see, for example, John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope [New York, NY: Random House, 1995]).

Without much difficulty these examples could be multiplied by the hundreds. For example, is Mary the Co-Redemptrix of Christians? Are Scripture and Tradition two separate sources of revelation? Which brand of predestination should we believe? Does the Bible contain errors? Is the current Bishop of Rome a legitimate pope? Who is the current Bishop of Rome? Was Vatican II a legitimate council? Clearly, when it comes to Roman Catholic interpretation, they have an agreement of words rather than an agreement of things.

Rome constantly harps on the fact that we are admittedly fallible human beings, and therefore we need an infallible interpretation of God's word for any doctrine to be believed or confessed. The dilemma is, are Roman Catholics able to infallibly interpret the Church's unerring interpretation? Catholics must admit that they are unreliable as individuals, and as such, they are painted into a corner. Rome can infallibly declare what God's revelation says (though they rarely do so), but individuals must still must interpret Rome's infallible explanation of Scripture and/or Tradition.

As is evident from the above, Rome has only pushed that problem of interpretation back one step, and not really dealt with the issue at all. Why is it that the church councils, papal decrees and encyclicals, and catechisms are seen as being easier to interpret than the God-breathed Scripture? As demonstrated, there is just as much division over these authoritative statements as Protestants have over Scripture.

Sure, Protestants have their disagreements on matters relating to salvation as well, but it is eminently important to bear in mind that Protestantism does not claim to be the infallible mouthpiece of God.

Clearly, doctrinal variance does not disqualify a fellowship from being a genuine part of the Body of Christ.

The Church Father Chrysostom bears eloquent testimony that doctrinal disunity existed in his day as well. His advice was to go with those who held fast to the Scriptures:

What then shall we say to the heathen? There comes a heathen and says, "I wish to become a Christian, but I know not whom to join: there is much fighting and faction among you, much confusion: which doctrine am I to choose?" How shall we answer him? "Each of you" (says he) "asserts, "I speak the truth." (b) No doubt: this is in our favor. For if we told you to be persuaded by arguments, you might well be perplexed: but if we bid you believe the Scriptures, and these are simple and true, the decision is easy for you. If any agree with the Scriptures, he is the Christian; if any fight against them, he is far from this rule (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 33).

Christ never promised that His church would be absolutely unified or unshakable on every single point of doctrine. In fact, knowing human nature as he did, the apostle Paul stated that factions were unavoidable, even among believers, so that those who are approved of God might be recognized in the church (1 Cor. 11:19).

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