Protestant Vs. Catholic – Do the Differences Matter?

Protestants and Catholics have been debating their differences since the time of the Reformation. Throughout history, the debates have often gotten to the point of violence and vehemence towards one another. Even today, in Ireland, that which separates Protestants and Catholics often manifest in outward violence thus bringing about both social and political tension. However, are the differences between the Protestants and Catholics significant to warrant such violent disagreement between the two groups? Well on the one hand, while the differences do in fact matter, and I would argue, they matter very much even to the point that the Gospel itself is at stake, the violent tension that often expresses itself in physical and verbal harm between the groups are not warranted, and in fact quite unbiblical. Let us not forget what 1 Peter 3:15, 16 tells, “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (Respect).”

Let us be clear, the differences between Protestants and Catholics are vastly important, and require of us Protestants to engage apologetically with them, but we are to do so in a fashion that honors God; not giving a foothold to Satan who seeks to accuse and hurt our witness before the world. The gentle and respectful response we give allows us to “Keep a good conscious so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame” (v.16). So keeping the issue of proper God honoring conduct in mind, let us turn to the topic of our study this morning:

Do the Differences Matter? Yes.

As a faithful Protestant, I will be the first to admit that there is much similarity between the Protestant and Catholic. For instance, we both agree on:

  • The biblical doctrine of the trinity
  • The biblical doctrine of the hypostatic union; namely that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures both human and divine
  • The belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16)

There are other areas of agreement as well, but the areas upon which we disagree are a genuine dividing line that prohibits a Bible believing Protestant to affirm the orthodoxy of the faithful Roman Catholic who is fully aware of the teachings of Rome and who is in full agreement with those teachings. So where do we differ? The answer on the surface of it it’s quite simple. The difference between the Protestant and the Roman Catholic is their SOURCE OF AUTHORITY.

  • Protestant’s Authority: Bible (Sola Scriptura): Scripture Alone
  • Catholic’s Authority: Bible & Sacred Tradition (External to the Bible) Authority of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. When the Pope speaks ex cathedra, that which is spoken is dogma to be followed by every faithful Catholic

In popular debates between the Protestant and the Catholic, one will often hear the Protestant say something to the affect: “Hey, but that’s not in the Bible!”. You see the fact that a particular belief is not in the Bible does not phase the Catholic, because unlike the Protestant, the Catholic denies that the Bible is the “sole” source of divine authority. Hence, Catholics will affirm the Bible while also allowing for sacred tradition to inform their beliefs. Of course, we must recognize, although as a Protestant we would disagree with the Catholic here, that the teachings of sacred tradition are fully consistent with the divine revelation of scripture.
Historical Context:

This important difference between the Protestant and the Catholic was brought into focus during the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther began to affirm (the other important difference between Protestant and Catholic) the doctrine of Sola Fide, the two main issues were brought to the fore; namely, 1) How is one made right with God?, and 2) What is the authority? These two points of disagreement eventually came to be understood as the Formal and Material Causes of the Protestant Reformation.

  • Formal Cause: Sola Fide (By Faith alone)
  • Material Cause: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)

On the one hand, the Reformers came to understand that the scriptures taught that a man is made right before God by faith alone. While this challenged the teachings of Rome, it also by extension challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church since the next question became: By what right do people have to interpret scripture in a fashion that disagreed with the supposed sacred tradition, councils, and Papal declarations? Hence the issues of the Reformation boiled down, and they still boil down to these very points.

Exploring the Differences

Formal Cause: Sola Fide

Rome outwardly denies the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide (Salvation by Faith Alone):

“If anyone saith, that by faith alone the impious are justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining 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”. (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9).

“If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself to be justified; and that, by his faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 14).

Material Cause: Sola Scriptura

Rome outwardly denies the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura:

“…the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about revealed truths from Holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 82).

Why Does the Protestant Affirm Sola Fide?

The scriptures affirm it:

  • “For we maintain that a man is justified apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28)
  • “But to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5).
  • “For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”. (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
  • “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace”. (Romans 11:6).

On the other hand, Protestants affirm the importance of “works”. Jesus clearly taught a “tree is known by its fruit” (Luke 6:43-45). If a person clams to be a “Christian” tree, then he or she must produce fruit consistent with such a tree. However, for the Protestant, the fruit (i.e. works), demonstrates the root. The works, demonstrate true saving faith. So Protestant’s do not deny the scriptural passages which emphasize the importance of living right before God. For again, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15).

Why Do Protestants Affirm Sola Scriptura?

Protestants affirm this doctrine because of the nature of scripture as God’s very Word, which as Paul asserts is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). Hence the scripture’s are sufficient to equip the believer for EVERY GOOD WORK. If external tradition is also required, such that to deny it when it is presented is to not be fully equipped, then this seems to contradict the teaching of scripture. There is more to be said here for sure, but the key important difference between the Protestant and the Catholic is that the Protestant believes that the scriptures are “sufficient”, while the Catholic argues that external sacred tradition is also required for a fuller and better understanding of the written Word.

It is because of these fundamental differences that the Protestant and the Catholic are divided, but let us make no mistake; this division is in fact warranted since the issues strike at the very heart of the Gospel. As a result, we need to stand firm on the bedrock solid Word of God as we share the Gospel with those who need to hear it.

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