Answering Protestant Objections to Catholic Teachings
What If Protestants Are Right About the Eucharist
By Joe Heschmeyer
There are a great many intelligent Protestant Christians, well-versed in Scripture, faithfully seeking to know and follow the will of God, who have concluded that Jesus' words about the bread and wine of the Last Supper becoming his body and blood are merely symbolic.
What if they're right?
At first, it seems like such a revelation would be a tragedy. Receiving the Eucharist is the most intimate encounter with Jesus Christ possible this side of eternity. Suddenly to discover that this intimacy was a sham, and that what we thought was God was actually just bread, would be disheartening, to put the matter mildly. Worse, it would mean that those hours spent in adoration were something approaching idolatry rather than proper worship of God.
But the true tragedy would be greater still - it would mean that the Church has been wrong about the Eucharist from the beginning. For the earliest Christians universally believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The well-respected early Church historian J.N.D. Kelly, a Protestant, has acknowledged that "Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior's body and blood" (Early Christian Doctrines, 440).
Take, for example, the church at Smyrna, in modern-day Turkey. In the latter half of the first century, the apostle John had delivered a message directly from Jesus Christ to the Smyrnaeans, encouraging them in their faithfulness amidst their sufferings (Rev. 2:8-11). Shortly thereafter, a student of John's, St. Ignatius of Antioch, wrote to this same local church on his way to be martyred in Rome early in the second century.
In his letter, Ignatius warns the Smyrnaeans to "keep aloof from" the heretical Gnostics "because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ" (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 7). Notice that Ignatius doesn't feel the need to convince his readers of the truth of the Real Presence. For him, it's enough to say that since the Gnostics reject the Real Presence we should not even "speak of them either in private or in public."
And this is the way that Christians approached the Eucharist throughout the first few centuries of the Church. It was not just that a theologian here or there taught the Real Presence, but that it was the Christian position on the topic. In a series of lessons given to catechumens about to enter the Church, St. Cyril of Jerusalem reminded them that "you have been taught and you are firmly convinced that what looks and tastes like bread and wine is not bread and wine but the Body and the Blood of Christ" (Catechetical Lecture 22). Cyril is comfortable assuming that even those not yet baptized know enough about Christianity to realize that Christians believe in the Real Presence.
Even more telling than the many Church Fathers teaching and preaching on the Real Presence of the Eucharist is the absence of Christian leaders either rejecting this Catholic position or teaching a contrary position.
If a Baptist pastor got up on Sunday and declared that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, you could expect that there would be angry letters denouncing him as a heretic, or at least seeking to correct him. That's because Baptists don't believe in the Real Presence.
The fact that we don't see this sort of outcry in the early Church is compelling evidence that the early Christians didn't believe what modern Baptists do about the Eucharist.
Rather, they were united in belief about the Real Presence in the Eucharist at a time when Christians weren't afraid to squabble with one another over relatively smaller matters.
So why is this important?
Because it means that these Protestants aren't just saying, "I think Jesus' words at the Last Supper are meant to be merely symbolic," but "I think that the entire Church misunderstood one of the most basic aspects of Christianity for centuries." Call this the "everybody got the gospel wrong" position.
At the Last Supper, Jesus said, "I will not leave you desolate" (John 14:18), a promise not to abandon the Church or to leave us as orphans. Specifically, Christ promised to preserve his Church by sending "the Spirit of Truth," the Holy Spirit, to "teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:17, 26).
How is belief in this promise compatible with the idea that the whole Church lost the true meaning of the Last Supper, and that no Christians successfully followed his instructions to "do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11:24)? To be sure, left to our own devices, you and I would get some aspects of the gospel wrong. That's why there are so many competing Protestant denominations. But the solution to that is to turn to the Church and to have the humility to be guided, rather than trusting that our own reading of Scripture is superior to everyone else's. This is the model laid out in Scripture itself. When the apostle Philip found an Ethiopian official reading the book of Isaiah, he asked him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" to which the man replied "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (Acts 8:30-31). But the Protestant view undermines all of this by suggesting that the visible Church, and indeed all Christians everywhere, might be the ones in the wrong.
This isn't just about rejecting the Church's teaching authority, but about rejecting all of Christianity prior to a certain point in history. If you can simply throw out all of (say) pre-1517 history as heretical and off-the-mark, why not throw out all pre-2018 Christianity?
What appears on the surface to be a question simply about the Eucharist or the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is really a question about whether we can trust Christ's promise not to abandon us, leaving us to our own private theological interpretations.
What's more, if everybody got the gospel wrong then, what makes us think that anybody has the gospel right now? If we could all be wrong on the literality of the Eucharist for centuries, why couldn't we be wrong about the literality of the Resurrection or of any other aspect of Christian teaching? If all of Christianity can get the core message of Christianity wrong, then it seems that we simply can't be trusted to get the basics of Christianity right. But holding that, of course, undermines our ability to trust Christianity itself.
Testing a Biblical Objection to Purgatory
By Karlo Broussard
"Where's purgatory in the Bible?" Protestants ask this all the time.
Any Catholic who is familiar with apologetics knows to answer with:
(1 Corinthians 3:11-15 "For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw- each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."
Paul is talking about the day of judgment that comes after death Hebrews 9:27). And in light of the "fire" that tests the quality of a person's works, Catholics argue that the person is being purified. Fire is used metaphorically in Scripture as a purifying agent-in Matthew 3:2-3,11 and Mark 9:49-and as that which consumes: Matthew 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). This state of existence can't be heaven because the individual has the defilement of bad works and is suffering loss. Nor can it be hell because Paul says the person "will be saved." A state of purification in the afterlife that is neither heaven nor hell-that's purgatory!
But for Protestants it's not so clear. They offer a few reasons why they think this doesn't refer to purgatory. One is that Paul says these things will only happen at the final judgment-"for the Day will disclose it" (v.13; emphasis added). For this text to support the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, so the argument goes, it would need to speak of an intermediate judgment before the Second Coming. Since it doesn't, a Catholic can't use it to support purgatory.
What should we make of this Protestant counter? Is it a precious stone that would survive the fire of scrutiny? Or is it more like straw? Let's test it and find out.
It's true that when Paul speaks of "the Day" he is referring to the final judgment - that is, the judgment at the end of time when Christ comes in glory (Matt. 25:31-46). But this doesn't prevent a Catholic from using this passage to support purgatory. Paul was not envisioning this passage for such an intermediate state because, as some scholars point out, Paul wrote this at a time (c. A.D. 53) when he thought the Second Coming was imminent, and that he and most of his audience would experience it. For example, he writes in reference to it, "we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thessalonians 4:17; emphasis added. Cf. 1 Corinthians. 15:51).
Given this, we wouldn't expect Paul to think that these events take place during an intermediate judgment before the final judgment. But what if the time horizon shifted and most people died before the Second Coming? Could we say they received some kind of judgment prior to the last judgment? And would these events that Paul describes have taken place at that judgment?
The time horizon indeed does seem to shift for Paul. In 2 Timothy 4:6, he tells Timothy that he knows his death is imminent: "For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come." If he knows he's about to die, then surely he doesn't expect to be alive for the Second Coming.
What about an intermediate judgment before the final judgment? Scripture reveals that such a judgment does exist, and it occurs immediately after death when God determines a person's final destiny-what the Catechism calls "the particular judgment" (1022).
Jesus makes this clear in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus is "carried by angels to Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22) and receives a fate of comfort (v.25). The rich man is taken to Hades where he experiences "torment" (v.23) and "anguish" (v.25). The different fates assigned to each man immediately after death imply a particular judgment.
Hebrews 12:23 speaks of our union with "the spirits of just men" as members of the New Covenant. That we approach their spirits suggests they are dead. And that they are a part of the heavenly reality that Christians participate in tells us that they exists in heaven, and thus have been judged. Revelation 6:9 implies the same thing, for the martyrs in heaven beg God to avenge their blood on their persecutors who are still on earth. Revelation 7:9-14 describes those "clothed in white robes" who "have come out of the great tribulation" of the first century experiencing their eternal reward in heaven.
Now that we know there is such a thing as an intermediate judgment ("the particular judgment") before the final judgment, the question becomes: "Can we apply the events that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 to the particular judgment?" We have good reason to think that we can.
The events that Paul describes have no intrinsic relation to the timing of judgment, but to judgment itself. Works are being weighed, and the soul receives its final destiny (in this case it's heaven).
This is what happens at the particular judgment. According to the Catechism, each person has his works weighed (1021) and receives his "eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death," "either entrance into the blessedness of heaven-through a purification or immediately," or "immediate and everlasting damnation" (1022).
Since the type of judgment that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (e.g., works are tested, the soul's final destiny is determined) is the type of judgment that takes place for souls at the particular judgment, then it's reasonable to use this passage to describe what happens at the particular judgment. And if the particular judgment, then purgatory.
Pope Benedict XVI points out in Spe Salvi that the "fire" could be "Christ himself, the Judge and Savior," before whose gaze "all falsehood melts away." "This encounter with him," he explains, "burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves" (47). The particular judgment for those who die in friendship with Christ, and thus are guaranteed heaven, could be the purgatorial experience itself.
Therefore, Paul's reference to the final judgment in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 in no way stops a Catholic from using this text for purgatory. The "Last Day" objection has been tested and proven inadequate.
Faith and Works
By Jimmy Akin
"Protestants believe in faith alone, while Catholics believe in faith and works." You hear both Protestants and Catholics say this all the time. But it's a misleading over simplification. If you tell a typical Evangelical, "You believe in faith alone, but we Catholics believe in faith and works," you will cause him to think that the Catholic Church teaches something that, in fact, it says is false.
Here's why . . .
The justification connection
The discussion of faith and works doesn't take place in a vacuum. It occurs in a specific context - the doctrine of justification. The New Testament uses the word justification to refer to one of the things that God does for us by his grace. Unfortunately, there is considerable disagreement about what justification involves.
The way typical American Evangelicals use the term, when God justifies someone, he declares that person's sins forgiven and proclaims the person righteous. This is occurs at the beginning of the Christian life, when a person first turns to God.
As far as it goes, this description is accurate. Catholic theology would say that there is more to justification than that, but it is true that at the beginning of the Christian life God forgives a person's sins and declares him righteous.
When Protestants use the phrase "faith alone," they are describing how we are justified. The idea is that in order to come to God, be forgiven, and be declared righteous, you don't need to do anything to earn your place before God except have faith in Jesus Christ.
In practice, Protestants give different meanings to the "faith alone" formula. Lutherans, for example, don't see the idea that baptism grants salvation as conflicting with this.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther asks, "What does baptism give? What good is it?" His answer: "It gives the forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, just as God's words and promises declare."
Various Protestants-including some Calvinists, Anglicans, Methodists, and others - believe baptism plays a role in salvation, but others sharply disagree. Some - particularly Baptists-claim that if baptism were to play a role in salvation it would violate the "faith alone" formula. They thus understand this formula in a way that excludes baptism. This is the most common position in American Evangelicalism.
Regardless of how they interpret the "faith alone" formula, there is one thing that Protestants agree would violate this formula: works. "Works"-whatever they may be - are precisely the thing that the "faith alone" formula is meant to exclude.
Much can be said about what "works" are in the Bible, but, for reasons of space, we won't be going into that here. It will do for our purposes to note that most Evangelicals understand the term to mean "good works" (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.). Some understand it even more broadly to mean anything that you do.
Both groups commonly envision works as somehow earning our place before God.
Faith and works?
If a Catholic tells a Protestant, "We believe in justification by faith and works," it will cause the Protestant to believe something about Catholic doctrine that is not true.
Remember: Protestants use the term justification to refer to an event at the beginning of the Christian life where God forgives us and declares us righteous. As a result, a Protestant will think that the Catholic is saying that we need to do works in order to come to God and be forgiven.
This will confirm his biases against the Church and play into all those stereotypes left over from the Reformation - the ones where Catholics are depicted as holding a false gospel according to which we need to earn our place before God by our own efforts. But the Catholic Church does not teach this.
Following the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church held an ecumenical council in the Italian city of Trent to deal with the theological questions that were being debated. The Council of Trent issued the Decree on Justification (DJ), which set forth the Catholic position on the subject.
In the heat of the times, Protestant leaders painted the Council of Trent as a great villain that simply reiterated the Church's false teachings and its false gospel. That characterization is still found today in a lot of Protestant literature on the subject.
But if you read what Trent says, you find it actually denies much of what is attributed to it. This is the case with the idea that we need to earn our place before God by doing works-particularly at the beginning of the Christian life when we are first justified.
According to Trent, "none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification. 'For, if by grace, it is not now by works, otherwise,' as the Apostle says, 'grace is no more grace'" (DJ 8, quoting Rom. 11:6).
When we come to God and are justified, it happens without any merit on our part. Neither our faith nor our works-nor anything else-merits justification. Trent thus denies the very thing our Protestant brethren fear it asserts-and that we lead them to believe if we tell them simply that we believe in "justification by faith and works."
Isn't that our language?
Given how common the "justified by faith and works" language is in some Catholic circles, the idea that we should be careful using it with Protestants may seem unfamiliar. "Isn't the language we use when summarizing our beliefs about justification?" one might ask.
It depends on whom you mean by "we." Many Catholics use this as a kind of top-level summary of justification, but you don't find the magisterium - the Church's teaching authority - using it that way.
If you go through Trent's Decree on Justification, or the section on justification in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1987-1995), you won't find the phrase "faith and works." And you won't find the word works at all in the Catechism's section on justification.
This may be surprising, but the fact that the magisterium does not express its teaching in this way is a signal that we need to look more closely at what it says.
What about James?
A key question at this point is how the magisterium handles James 2:24, which says that we are "justified by works and not by faith alone."
In popular discussions, this verse is often presented to Protestants as if it proves that we are justified by faith and works, with nothing more to be said. Confronted with this claim, the Protestant may respond, "But that's not the kind of justification that James is talking about."
Before dismissing this claim, a Catholic should be aware of one thing: The magisterium agrees with it. At least, the magisterium doesn't quote James 2:24 in connection with the justification that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life. Instead, it refers it to something else.
Growth in righteousness
Earlier we mentioned that Protestants tend to conceive of justification as an event that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life where we are forgiven and declared righteous by God, and we said that this understanding is true as far as it goes. But in the Catholic view, there is more to justification than this.
In the first place, God doesn't simply declare us righteous. He also makes us righteous in justification. Thus the Council of Trent defined justification as "not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man" (DJ 7).
So at the beginning of the Christian life, God forgives our sins and gives us the gift of righteousness. But he's not done with us. He wants us to grow in righteousness over the course of the Christian life, and, if we cooperate with his grace, we will.
Catholic theology refers to this growth in righteousness using the term justification, so, in Catholic language, justification isn't something that happens just at the beginning of the Christian life. It happens over the course of the Christian life.
The righteousness connection
The reason the Church refers to this growth in righteousness as a form of justification is a little unclear in English. This is because the English vocabulary draws on both German and Latin roots. As a result, the same underlying concept can appear under more than one English term.
That's the case with righteousness and justice. They are two different words in English, but they both represent the same underlying term in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, etc. As a result, you sometimes see Catholic works in English translated so that they speak of God giving us the gift of "justice" (i.e., righteousness), of us growing in justice, and thus of us being further justified.
This sounds unusual in English, and both Protestant and Catholic scholars have lamented that we don't have the vocabulary to say things like "God gives us the gift of righteousness, we grow in righteousness, and thus we are further righteoused."
As a result, we have to keep in mind the way that righteousness and justification are related.
Trent on James
This leads us to what the Council of Trent had to say about James 2:24.
After discussing the justification that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life, Trent quotes several passages from St. Paul on how Christians grow in virtue by yielding our bodies to righteousness for sanctification. It states that by good works we "increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified" (DJ 10).
It is in the context of this growth in righteousness-and in this context only-that Trent quotes James 2:24: "Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only?"
Trent thus relates James's statement not to the initial justification that occurs when we first come to God but to the growth in righteousness that occurs over the course of the Christian life.
Thus, a Protestant objecting that James is talking about a different kind of justification than the one the Protestant has in mind would be correct. James isn't saying that you need to do good works in order to be forgiven. And neither is the Catholic Church.
From a Protestant point of view
If this were explained to many Protestants, they would likely be somewhat relieved and somewhat perplexed.
They would be relieved to hear that the Catholic Church doesn't teach that we need to do good works to come to God and be justified, and they would be relieved to hear that the Catholic Church relates James 2:24 to later events in the Christian life.
On the other hand, they'd likely still have some differences, at least on the level of terminology. Though Protestants acknowledge that God sanctifies and renews the inner man when one is initially justified, they don't tend to include this under the term justification. Instead, they treat it as a separate but simultaneous event.
And, although they acknowledge that by cooperating with God's grace and doing good works we grow in righteousness as Christians, they don't use the term justification for this process, either.
An open-minded Protestant might say, "Well, we don't use the term justification that way, and we might not agree about the interpretation of particular verses, but we can acknowledge that what Catholics are saying here is true, even if they express it differently."
Still, such a Protestant might wonder how far we can agree. He might ask: "Didn't Trent condemn 'faith alone' with an anathema?"
Canon 9 from Trent's Decree on Justification states: "If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, so that he understands 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."
This is widely misunderstood.
One reason is that the term anathema is often glossed in Protestant circles to mean something like "damned by God," and the canon is represented as condemning Protestants to hell.
It isn't. At that time in history, the term anathema referred to a form of excommunication that could be imposed by a Church court for certain serious offenses. It was performed with a special ceremony, and its purpose was to motivate people to repent. When they did repent, it was also lifted with a special ceremony. It was seldom imposed and was eventually abolished.
The anathema did not sentence people to hell, it did not take effect automatically, it was never applied to all Protestants as a group, and it doesn't apply to anyone today. The use of the term does, though, imply an authoritative rejection of the "faith alone" formula-when it is used to mean a specific thing.
The canon doesn't say, "If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, let him be anathema." Instead, it rejects a particular use of the formula, whereby someone "understands 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."
Trent is therefore concerned to reject "faith alone" when it's used to say that you don't need to in any way cooperate with God's grace, that a merely intellectual faith would save you.
And that's correct. Merely agreeing with the truths of the theology is not enough to be saved. As James puts it: "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder" (James 2:17).
A Catholic "faith alone"?
If Trent didn't reject all uses of "faith alone," could the formula have an acceptable use from a Catholic point of view?
It might come as a surprise, but quite a number of the Church Fathers used it (see Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, 360). Even Thomas Aquinas used it(Commentary on 1 Timothy, ch. 1, lect. 3, Commentary on Galatians, ch. 2, lect. 4).
The fathers of the Council may have known that some Catholics sources used the formula, and this may have been one reason why they only rejected certain interpretations of it.
Since the time of the Council, Catholic theologians have explored the senses in which the formula might be compatible with Catholic teaching. Specifically, they have pointed out that the theological virtue of charity (the supernatural love of God) unites us to God, and so, if one has faith combined with charity, then one has "faith working through love," which is what Paul says counts in Christ (Gal. 5:6).
That kind of faith, which Catholic theologians refer to as "faith formed by charity," would-of itself-unite one to God spiritually.
Benedict XVI on "faith alone"
This understanding has been endorsed by the papal magisterium.
Pope Benedict XVI taught: "Luther's phrase 'faith alone' is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St. Paul speaks of faith that works through love" (General Audience, Nov. 19, 2008).
It thus seems that the "faith alone" formula can have an acceptable meaning. Does this mean that Catholics should start using it?
Reasons for caution
There is a big difference between it being possible for a formula to be given an acceptable meaning and it being prudent to use it in common practice.
There are several reasons why Catholics should not do the latter.
First, the formula is not the language that Scripture uses to describe how we are justified. The phrase "by faith alone" (Greek, ek pisteos monon) appears only once in the New Testament, in James 2:24, where it is rejected. Using this formula, whatever meaning it is given, creates an automatic tension with the language that Scripture itself uses, and that's bound to cause confusion.
Second, the formula is inherently open to confusion. In common speech, the term faith is a synonym for belief. When coupled with the word alone and used to describe the method of our justification, it communicates to most people the erroneous idea that we can be saved by intellectual belief alone-the view that Trent rejected.
Third, though there are precedents for its use in Catholic history, it is not the primary or even a common way that Catholic theology expresses itself on justification.
Fourth, the magisterium does not use the expression on a regular basis. If you look in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you will not find it. Neither will you find it used regularly in other magisterial documents. There are a handful of such documents that acknowledge that the formula can have a Catholic sense, but there are none that use it regularly or recommend that Catholics use it.
Speaking the truth in love
There are many points on which Catholic and Protestant thought differs, including on the subject of justification, but we should be precise about these and not create additional confusion.
A careful look shows that it is problematic to frame the Protestant-Catholic discussion of justification simply in terms of "faith alone" verses "faith and works." This is an over simplification that will lead Protestants to think that the Catholic Church teaches things that it does not.
The way that the Church approaches the issue is more careful and more sophisticated.
Communicating it is therefore more difficult. It's always easier to reduce two positions to a pair of slogans and pit them against each other, but the Church doesn't call us to do what's rhetorically easy.
It calls us to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), and that means taking the care to explain what the Church teaches with both accuracy and charity.''
Defending the Papacy
By Trent Horn
1. The papacy is not found in the Bible.
It's true the word papacy is not in the Bible, but neither are the words Trinity or Bible found there. This argument assumes that all Christian doctrine is explicitly described in the Bible, even though this teaching itself is not found in Scripture. Catholics believe, on the other hand, that divine revelation comes from God's word given to us in written form (Sacred Scripture) and oral form (Sacred Tradition), both of which testify to the existence of the papacy.
According to Scripture, Christ founded a visible Church that would never go out of existence and had authority to teach and discipline believers (see Matt. 16:18-19, 18:17). St. Paul tells us this Church is "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15) and it was built on "the foundation of the apostles" (Eph. 2:20). Paul also tells us the Church would have a hierarchy composed of deacons (1 Tim. 2:8-13); presbyters, from where we get the English word priest (1 Tim. 5:17); and bishops (1 Tim. 3:1-7).
Get the new book: a teacher-of-strange-things by Catholic Answers Live host Cy Kellett Paul even instructed one of these bishops, Titus, to appoint priests on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). In A.D. 110, St. Ignatius of Antioch told his readers, "Follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop."
Unlike the apostles, Christ's Church would exist for all ages, so the apostle's passed on to their successors the authority to bind and loose doctrine (see Matt. 18:18), forgive sins (see John 20:23), and speak on behalf of Christ (see Luke 10:16). Acts 1:20, for example, records how after Judas's death Peter proclaimed that Judas's office (or, in Greek, his bishoporic) would be transferred to a worthy successor. In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul warned Timothy to "not be hasty in the laying on of hands" when he appointed new leaders in the church.
At the end of the first century, Clement of Rome, who according to ancient tradition was ordained by Peter himself, wrote, "Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop . . . [so they made preparations that] . . . if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry" (Letter to the Corinthians 44:1-3).
Just as the apostles' authority was passed on their successors, Peter's authority as the leader of the apostles was passed on to his successor. This man inherited the keys to the kingdom of heaven (see Matt. 16:18-19) and Peter's duty to shepherd Christ's flock (see John 21:15-17). Peter's successor was the pastor of Christ's church and a spiritual father to the Lord's children (1 Cor. 4:15), thus explaining his offices future title pope, which comes from papa, the Latin word for father.
2. Peter was important, but he had no special authority.
Peter's role as "chief apostle" is evident in the fact that he is mentioned more than any other apostle, often speaks for the whole group, and is placed first in every list of the apostles. Since Judas is always listed last, we can deduce that these lists were made in order of importance. Moreover, Christ made Peter alone the shepherd over his whole flock (see John 21:15-17), and the book of Acts describes Peter's unparalleled leadership in the early Church. This includes his authority to make a binding, dogmatic declaration at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). As the Anglican scholar J.N.D Kelly puts it, "Peter was the undisputed leader of the youthful church" (Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, 1).
Finally, in Matthew 16:18-19, Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter, which means rock, and said, "You are Peter [rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
This passage is an allusion to Isaiah 22:22, which tells of how Israel's wicked chief steward Shebna was replaced with the righteous Eli'akim. Isaiah 22:22 said Eli'akim would have "the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open." Just as King Hezekiah gave Eli'akim authority to oversee the kingdom of Israel, Christ gave Peter authority to oversee his Church (i.e., the "keys to the kingdom"), which included the authority to "bind and loose"-in other words, to determine official doctrine and practice.
In response to these verses, some Protestants claim Peter is not the rock upon whom the Church was built, because 1 Corinthians 10:4 says "the rock was Christ." Others say the Greek text of Matthew 16:18 shows that while Simon was called petros, the rock the Church will be built on was called petras, thus showing that the Church is not built on Peter. But in first Corinthians, Paul is talking about Christ shepherding ancient Israel, not the Church, and in Matthew 16, petros and petras both refer to Peter.
According to John 1:42, Jesus gave Simon the Aramaic name Kepha, which means simply "rock." But unlike in Aramaic, in Greek the word rock is a feminine noun, so Matthew used the masculine version of rock, or petros, since calling Peter petras would have been on par with calling him Patricia! As Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman puts it, "petra=Kepha=petros" (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 98). Even the Protestant Reformer John Calvin said, "There is no difference of meaning, I acknowledge, between the two Greek words petros and petra" (Commentary on Matthew Mark, and Luke, vol. 2).
Finally, if Peter is not the rock upon whom the Church is built, then why did Jesus bother to change Simon's name in the first place? As Protestant scholar Craig Keener writes in his commentary on Matthew, "[Jesus] plays on Simon's nickname, 'Peter,' which is roughly the English 'Rocky': Peter is 'rocky,' and on this rock Jesus would build his Church" (426).
But didn't Peter refer to himself as a "fellow elder" and not as "pope" in 1 Peter 5:1?
Yes, but in this passage Peter is demonstrating humility that he is encouraging other priests to practice. He wrote, "Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another" (5:5), so exalting his status would have contradicted his message. Besides, St. Paul often referred to himself as a mere deacon (see 1 Cor. 3:5, 2 Cor. 11:23) and even said he was "the very least of all the saints" (Eph. 3:8)-but that did not take away from his authority as an apostle. Likewise, Peter's description of himself as an elder does not take away from his authority as being "first" among the apostles (Matt 10:2).
3. The Bishop of Rome had no special authority in the early Church. Peter was never even in Rome!
Both the New Testament and the early Church Fathers testify to Peter being in Rome.
At the end of his first letter, Peter says he is writing from "Babylon" (5:13), which was a common code word for Rome, because both empires were lavish persecutors of God's people (see Rev. 17-18; Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, 6).
In the words of Protestant scholar D.A. Carson, Peter was "in Rome about 63 (the probable date of 1 Peter). Eusebius implies that Peter was in Rome during the reign of Claudius, who died in 54 (H.E. 2.14.6)" (An Introduction to the New Testament, 180).
Peter may not have always been present in Rome (which would explain why Paul does not address him in his epistle to the Romans), but there is a solid tradition that Peter founded the Church in Rome and later died there.
For example, Paul says the Roman Church was founded by "another man" (Rom. 15:21), and St. Ignatius of Antioch told the Christians in Rome he would not command them in the same way Peter had previously commanded them. At the end of the second century, St. Irenaeus wrote, "The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the church [of Rome], they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus" (Against Heresies 3:3:3).
A priest named Gaius who lived during Irenaeus's time even told a heretic named Proclus that "the trophies of the apostles" (i.e., their remains) were buried at Vatican Hill (Eusebius, Church History 2:25:5). Indeed, archaeological evidence unearthed in the twentieth century revealed a tomb attributed to Peter underneath St. Peter's basilica in Rome. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, "it is probable that the tomb is authentic. It is also significant that Rome is the only city that ever claimed to be Peter's place of death" (353).
In regard to the authority of the Bishop of Rome as Peter's successor, in the first century Clement of Rome (the fourth pope) intervened in a dispute in the Church of Corinth. He warned those who disobeyed him that they would "involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger," thus demonstrating his authority over non- Roman Christians. St. Ignatius of Antioch referred to the Roman Church as the one that teaches other churches and "presides in love" over them. In fact, the writings of Pope Clement (A.D. 92-99) and Pope Soter (A.D. 167-174) were so popular that they were read in the Church alongside Scripture (Eusebius, Church History 4:23:9).
In A.D. 190, Pope St. Victor I excommunicated an entire region of churches for refusing to celebrate Easter on its proper date. While St. Irenaeus thought this was not prudent, neither he nor anyone else denied that Victor had the authority to do this. Indeed, Irenaeus said, "it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church [Rome] on account of its preeminent authority" (Against Heresies, 3.3.2). Keep in mind that all of this evidence dates a hundred to two hundred years before Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, thus deflating the Fundamentalist theory that the papacy was created by the Roman emperor in the fourth century.
Some people object that if Peter and his successors had special authority, why didn't Christ say so when the apostles argued about "who was the greatest" (Luke 22:24)?
The reason is that Christ did not want to contribute to their misunderstanding that one of them would be a privileged king. Jesus did say, however, that among the apostles there would be a "greatest" who would rule as a humble servant (Luke 22:26). That's why since the sixth century popes have called themselves servus servorum Dei, or "servant of the servants of God."
Pope Gregory I used the title in his dispute with the Patriarch of Constantinople John the Faster, who called himself the "Universal Bishop." Gregory didn't deny that one bishop had primacy over all the others, since in his twelfth epistle Gregory explicitly says Constaninople was subject to the authority of the pope. Instead, he denied that the pope was the bishop of every individual territory, since this would rob his brother bishops of their legitimate authority, even though they were still subject to him as Peter's successor.
4. The Bible never says Peter was infallible, and history proves that Peter and many other alleged popes were very fallible.
The doctrine of papal infallibility teaches that the pope has a special grace from Christ that protects him from leading the Church into error. That grace won't keep him from sinning (even gravely), nor will it give him the right answer to every issue facing the Church. Instead, it will protect the pope from officially leading the Church into heresy. As a private theologian, the pope might speculate, even incorrectly, about the Faith, but he will never issue a false teaching related to faith or morality that claims to be binding and infallible (or an erroneous ex cathedra teaching).
But why believe the pope is infallible? Matthew 16:18 says the "gates of Hell" will never prevail against the Church, so it makes sense that the pastor of Christ's Church will never steer it into hell by teaching heresy. Luke 22:31-32 records Jesus telling Peter, "Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." The original Greek in the passage shows that Satan demanded to sift "you all," or all the apostles, but Jesus prayed only for Peter and his faith not to fail.
Now, it's true that Christ once called Peter "Satan" for trying to stop the crucifixion (Matt. 16:23), and he knew Peter would later deny him at his trial. But God doesn't call the perfect-he perfects the called. Christ prayed that once Peter had "turned again" from his sins, he would lead and strengthen the apostles. Jesus even appeared to Peter first after his Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:5).
Most Protestants would have to admit that Peter was infallible when he wrote 1 and 2 Peter, or at least that those epistles have no errors. Catholics simply take this reasoning to the logical conclusion that Peter never led the Church into error, nor did any of his successors. Some argue that Peter was fallible because St. Paul opposed him in Antioch and said Peter was wrong or "stood condemned" (Gal. 2:11-14). But in this situation Peter, at most, made an error in behavior, not teaching.
Peter feared antagonism from Christians who thought circumcision was necessary for salvation. So, while he was in their presence, Peter declined to eat with the uncircumcised. Paul criticized Peter for doing this, but Paul himself accommodated this same group when he had his disciple Timothy circumcised. Paul did this to make it easier to preach to the Jews (Acts 16:1-3), but Paul called circumcision a grave sin in Galatians 5:2. Therefore, if prudentially yielding to critics doesn't invalidate St. Paul's authority, then neither does it invalidate St. Peter's.
No one denies that some popes engaged in serious sins, like fornication, but infallibility means only that the pope won't teach error, not that he will be sinless. Indeed, some Church Fathers, such as St. Cyprian of Carthage, criticized the pope's decisions; but even Cyprian believed the pope could not lead the Church astray. He writes in A.D. 256 of heretics who dare approach "the throne of Peter . . . to whom faithlessness could have no access" (Epistle 54.14), or, as other translations put it, "from whom no error can flow."
Ironically, when well-read Protestants claim certain popes taught error, they pass over the tabloid-worthy medieval popes. They agree that even though a few of them engaged in debauchery, none of them took part in heresy. However, the examples they cite typically involve a pope cowardly tolerating heresy and not one officially teaching it. For example, it's true that the Third Council of Constantinople (680) said Pope Honorius I (625-638) was a heretic, but only in the sense that Honorius failed to curb the Monothelete heresy, not that he endorsed it.
This heresy taught that Christ had only a divine will and not a corresponding human will.
But even Jaroslav Pelikan, a renowned non-Catholic scholar of Church history, admits that Honorius's opposition to the idea that Christ had two wills "was based on the interpretation of 'two wills' as 'two contrary wills.' He did not mean that Christ was an incomplete human being" (The Christian Tradition, vol. II, 151). Another good resource on this subject is Patrick Madrid's book Pope Fiction, which contains a good overview of Honorius and other popes who are accused of being heretics.
5. The Pope is the beast from the book of Revelation.
Some of the strangest and most persistent attacks on the papacy are claims that the pope is the antichrist, the beast from the book of Revelation, and the whore of Babylon. But these claims are easily rebutted. 1 John 2:22 says that the antichrist "denies that Jesus is the Christ," but no pope is recorded as ever having done this. Likewise, Revelation 17 speaks of a beast that sits on seven mountains and persecutes the holy ones of God, but the Catholic Church doesn't persecute Christians or sit on "seven mountains." Vatican City rests on Vatican Hill, which lies across the river from the seven hills of Old Rome where Christians were crucified and fed to the lions.
The beast in the book of Revelation does have a name that is numbered 666 (Rev. 13:18), which Seventh-day Adventists say corresponds to the numerical value of the Latin rendering of the Pope's title, Vicarius Fili Dei (Vicar of the Son of God). The problem with this claim is that this is not one of the pope's titles; he's known as the Vicar of Christ. Ironically, the numerical value of the Latin rendering of the name of El en Gould White, founder of the Seventh-day Adventists, is 666! This shows that many names can correspond to this number, though many scholars agree that it probably refers to a Roman emperor like Nero, or the Roman Empire as a whole because of its violent persecution of the Church during the first century.
God's gift to the Church
While some Fundamentalists might say it is the "spawn of Satan," the papacy is actually God's gift to the Church. It ensures the Church will be united in one faith, one baptism, and the worship of one God who entrusted his Church to the successors of the apostles under the leadership of Peter's successor, whom we call the pope.
The Case for Mary's Perpetual Virginity
By Tim Staples
Those who deny Mary's perpetual virginity most commonly refer to two texts:
A surface reading of these passages seems problematic. If Jesus had "brothers" and "sisters," would not Mary have had other children? If Jesus was Mary's "firstborn," would there not be at least a second-born? And if "he knew her not till," did he not then "know her" at some point? We'll begin with Matthew 13:55-56.
First, we must understand that the term brother has a wide semantic range in Scripture. It can mean a uterine brother, an extended relative, or even a spiritual brother. In Genesis 13:8 and 14:12, we read of one example of brother being used to describe an extended relationship: Abraham and Lot. Though they were actually uncle and nephew, they called one another "brother." Moreover, in the New Testament, Jesus told us to call one another "brothers" in Matthew 23:8. The passage obviously does not mean to suggest that all Christians have the same physical mother.
Second, if we examine more closely the example of James, one of these four "brothers of the Lord" mentioned in Matthew 13:55, we discover him to be a cousin or some other relative of Jesus rather than a uterine brother. For example, Galatians 1:18-19 informs us: "Then after three years I [Paul] went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother."
Notice, the "James" of whom Paul was speaking was both a "brother of the Lord" and an "apostle." There are two apostles named James among the 12. The first James is revealed to be a "son of Zebedee." He most likely would not be the "James" referred to because according to Acts 12:1-2 he was martyred very early on. Even if it was him, his father was named Zebedee, not Joseph.
Paul more likely is referring to the second James who was an apostle, according to Luke 6:15-16. This James is revealed to have a father named Alphaeus, not Joseph.
Thus, James the apostle and Jesus were not uterine brothers. Easy enough. Some will argue, however, that this "James" was not an apostle or that he was not one of the original 12. Though this is a possibility-others in the New Testament, such as Barnabas in Acts 14, are referred to as "apostles" in a looser sense-the argument from Scripture is weak. When Paul wrote about going "up to Jerusalem" to see Peter, he was writing about an event that occurred many years earlier, shortly after he had converted.
He was basically going up to the apostles to receive approval lest he "should be running or had run in vain." It would be more likely he would have here been speaking about "apostles" (proper), or "the twelve."
But for those inclined to argue the point, the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses another line of reasoning:
The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, "brothers of Jesus," are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls "the other Mary." They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression. (CCC 500)
The Catechism here refers to the fact that 14 chapters after we find the "brothers" of the Lord listed as "James, Joseph, Simon and Judas," we find "James and Joseph" mentioned again, but this time their mother is revealed as being named Mary, but not Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We can conclude that "James and Joseph" are "brothers" of Jesus, but they are not uterine brothers.
But what about Matthew 1:24-25, and the claim Jesus was Mary's "firstborn son" and that Joseph "knew her not until" Christ was born? Does Matthew here teach that Mary had other children?
Exodus 13:1-2 reveals something very important about the firstborn in Israel: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and beast, is mine.'"
The "firstborn" were not given the title because there was a "second-born." They were called "firstborn" at birth. Jesus being "firstborn" does not require that more siblings be born after him.
Scripture's statement that Joseph "knew [Mary] not until she brought forth her firstborn" would not necessarily mean they did "know" each other after she brought forth Jesus.
Until is often used in Scripture as part of an idiomatic expression similar to our own usage in English. I may say to you, "Until we meet again, God bless you." Does that necessarily mean after we meet again, God curse you? By no means. A phrase like this is used to emphasize what is being described before the until is fulfilled. It is not intended to say anything about the future beyond that point. Here are some biblical examples:
In recent years, some have argued that because Matthew 1:25 uses the Greek words heos hou for "until" whereas the texts I mentioned above from the New Testament use heos alone, there is a difference in meaning. The argument goes that Heos hou indicates the action of the first clause does not continue. Thus, Mary and Joseph "not having come together" would have ended after Jesus was born.
The problems with this theory begin with the fact that no available scholarship concurs with it. In fact, the evidence proves the contrary. Heos hou and heos are used interchangeably and have the same meaning. Acts 25:21 should suffice to clear up the matter: "But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I commanded him to be held until (Gk. heos hou) I could send him to Caesar."
Does this text mean that Paul would not be held in custody after he was "sent" to Caesar? Not according to the biblical record. He would be held in custody while in transit (see Acts 27:1) and after he arrived in Rome for a time (see Acts 29:16). The action of the main clause did not cease with heos hou.
The Affirmative Argument
Now let's look at some reasons to believe in Mary's perpetual virginity. Among the many we could examine, we will briefly consider three:
1. In Luke 1:34, when Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she was chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah, she asked the question, literally translated from the Greek, "How shall this be since I know not man?" This question makes no sense unless Mary had a vow of virginity.
When we consider that Mary and Joseph were already "espoused," according to verse 27 of this same chapter, we understand Mary and Joseph already have what would be akin to a ratified marriage in the New Covenant. They were married. That would mean Joseph would have had the right to the marriage bed. Normally, after the espousal the husband would go off and prepare a home for his new bride and then come and receive her into his home where the union would be consummated. This is precisely why Joseph intended to "divorce her quietly" (Mt 1:19) when he later discovered she was pregnant.
This background is significant because a newly married woman would not ask the question "How shall this be?" She would know-unless, of course, that woman had taken a vow of virginity. Mary believed the message, but wanted to know how this was going to be accomplished. This indicates she was not planning on the normal course of events for her future with Joseph.
2. In John 19:26, Jesus gave his Mother to the care of John even though by law the next eldest sibling would have the responsibility to care for her. It is unthinkable that Jesus would take his Mother away from his family in disobedience to the law.
Some claim Jesus did this because his brothers and sisters were not there. They had left him. Thus, Jesus committed his Mother to John, who was faithful and present at the foot of the cross. This claim betrays a very low and unbiblical Christology. As John tells us, Jesus "knew all men" (cf. Jn 2:25). If James were his uterine brother, Jesus would have known he would be faithful along with his "brother" Jude. The fact is Jesus had no brothers and sisters, so he had the responsibility, on a human level, to take care of his Mother.
3. Mary is depicted as the spouse of the Holy Spirit in Scripture. In Luke 1:34, when Mary asks the angel how she will conceive a child, the angel responds: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God."
This is nuptial language hearkening back to Ruth 3:8, where Ruth said to Boaz "spread your skirt over me" when she revealed to him his duty to marry her according to the law of Deuteronomy 25. When Mary became pregnant, Joseph would have been required to divorce her because she would then belong to another (see Dt 24:1-4; Jer 3:1). But when Joseph found out that "the other" was the Holy Spirit, the idea of his having conjugal relations with Mary was not a consideration.
An obvious question remains: Why did St. Joseph then "take [Mary] his wife" according to Matthew 1:24 if she belonged to the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is Mary's spouse, but Joseph was her spouse and protector on this earth for at least two obvious reasons. First, as Matthew points out in his genealogy in chapter 1, Joseph was in line to be a successor of David as King of Israel. Thus, if Jesus was to be the true "son of David" and king of Israel (see 2 Sm 7:14, Heb 1:5, Rv 19:16, 22:16), he needed to be the son of Joseph. As the only son of Joseph, even though adopted, he would have been in line for the throne.
Also, in a culture that did not take too kindly to espoused women getting pregnant by someone other than their spouse, Mary would have been in mortal danger. So Joseph became Mary's earthly spouse and protector as well as the protector of the child Jesus.
What Exactly Do You Mean By Sola Scriptura?
By Jimmy Akin
One of the stickiest points in Catholic-Protestant debates is what is meant by the Protestant term sola scriptura, or "Scripture alone."
Protestant apologists assert the doctrine but are often reluctant to offer a precise definition of it. Most will say that it does not mean certain things and will make a general stab at saying what it does mean, but I do not know of a Protestant apologist who has offered a complete and precise definition.
Thus, Catholic apologists are left in the unenviable position of critiquing an imprecise assertion. They commonly critique what they perceive most Protestants to mean by sola scriptura, which brings on nigh-inevitable charges of misrepresenting "the Protestant position."
The problem is that there is no single Protestant position on sola scriptura. The term is used different ways, the details of which vary. But there seem to be two major ways the idea is interpreted.
At times the phrase is taken to mean that we must be able to derive from Scripture alone all of the theological truths that God wished to reveal to mankind-and even all of the religious practices in which Christians should engage (i.e., that Scripture is "sufficient for faith and practice").
Other times a more restricted claim is made: that we can derive from Scripture alone all of the truths that are needed for salvation.
When the doctrine of sola scriptura is not under cross-examination, though, a more robust understanding is employed, and Evangelical Christians are trained to ask reflexively for a biblical basis whenever any theological idea or religious practice is proposed. Thus when Evangelicals talk with Catholics, they identify a particular Catholic doctrine or practice they disapprove of and then ask, "Where's that in the Bible?" For example, an Evangelical may select a topic such as purgatory (a theological belief) or praying to saints (a practice) and demand a biblical basis for it.
Necessary for Salvation
Note that, strictly speaking, neither of these appears to involve a truth that is necessary for salvation: God exists; God is a Trinity; Jesus is God the Son; Jesus died on a cross for our sins; and we need to repent, believe, and be baptized to be saved-in other words, truths connected directly with the gospel.
Purgatory is not connected with the gospel in that way. Neither is praying to saints. A Protestant asking for biblical bases for these would seem to be using a more expansive understanding of sola scriptura than just the idea that Scripture states or implies all truths necessary for salvation. He seems to be expecting Scripture to contain bases for all theological truths and religious practices.
If the same individual retreats, when sola scriptura is being questioned, to the more modest understanding of it, then it is fair for the Catholic to note the inconsistency and ask him to choose one understanding of the doctrine and stick with it.
If he chooses the more expansive understanding, then he endorses a position that is much more difficult to defend. As many works of Catholic apologetics have shown, nobody in the pages of Scripture itself operated on the principle that all belief and practice should be derivable from Scripture alone. It's hard to find passages that could be construed as teaching this idea, and it is easy to find passages that indicate the contrary, such as Paul's exhortation to his readers to heed all of the traditions they had received, whether they were written in his letters or conveyed orally (2 Thess. 2:15).
If, though, the Evangelical chooses the more modest interpretation of sola scriptura, then he will have to let go of many common Protestant objections to Catholicism. If only truths necessary for salvation have to be given a biblical basis, then he would not be able to object to purgatory or praying to saints or Marian doctrines or other Catholic beliefs and practices that have been criticized since the Reformation. He might still disagree with Catholics on these, but he would not be able to fault a Catholic for not providing a biblical basis for them.
An Evangelical might say, "Wait a minute: If a Catholic denies the existence of purgatory, which the Church has taught infallibly, that would be a grave sin. If he did it with adequate knowledge and consent, his grave sin would become mortal, and he would lose his salvation. Thus, for a Catholic, things such as purgatory are necessary for salvation."
It's true that a Catholic would commit a mortal sin under the circumstances just named, but that does not make purgatory a truth "needed" for salvation. If you have mere moments to evangelize a dying man, there are certain things that he needs to be told for the sake of his salvation: the truths mentioned above about God, Jesus, and how to respond to God's offer of salvation.
Purgatory is not one of those. Purgatory may be an imminent reality for the dying man, but it is not necessary for him to know about it in order to accept God's offer of salvation. If he has a while to live, he should be taught the fullness of the faith, including purgatory. But if he is in danger of death, he most needs the core facts of the gospel.
Ya Gotta Have Faith
Purgatory and similar beliefs are related to salvation in a different way: The reason it would be sinful to deny them is that it involves a rejection of the virtue of faith. God has taught them and empowered the Church to propose them infallibly to the faithful.
Because that has happened, our faith in the working of God demands that we give assent to them. To refuse to do so, with adequate knowledge and consent, is to reject faith in God. One might still believe in the existence of God-and any number of other individual teachings of the faith-but the virtue of faith that unites us to God is extinguished if we reject his authority to teach us in the manner of his choosing.
A parallel can be proposed in an Evangelical context: The Bible clearly teaches many things that are not directly required for salvation. For example, it teaches the existence of angels. The reality of angels is not itself something that you need to know to get into heaven.
If you have a short time to evangelize a dying man who, by some fluke, has never heard of angels, you don't have to take time away from telling him about God to make sure he knows about angels. Angels may be about to escort him to the pearly gates, but he doesn't need to know about them in advance. The existence of angels is thus something that Scripture teaches, but it is not a truth necessary for salvation.
But suppose the dying man knows that the Bible teaches the existence of angels but refuses to believe it. Suppose he also knows that God is the author of the Bible and that God teaches the existence of angels, yet he still refuses to believe it. Does that man have faith in God? He may acknowledge God's existence, he may want to be saved by God, but classical Protestant theologians would not say that a man who acknowledges God's existence but refuses to accept what he knows to be God's word has faith in God-certainly not saving faith.
The question for the Evangelical thus remains whether such beliefs require a biblical basis. If they do require one, then we arrive back at a hard-to-defend interpretation of sola scriptura whereby everything we are expected to believe must have a biblical basis.
But what if the Evangelical really were willing to stick with the more modest interpretation? Suppose he said, "Okay, I don't agree with Catholics on teachings such as purgatory, but I recognize that they are not necessary for salvation, so I won't demand that Catholics produce a biblical basis for them."
He might also say, "In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul makes it clear that a person can sin by violating his conscience even when he mistakenly believes he is required by God to do or not do something. Paul even speaks as if such individuals may not be saved. So I can acknowledge that a person who believes the Catholic Church has been authorized to teach infallibly for God would sin and jeopardize his salvation if he rejected the 'infallible' teachings of the Church, even if they are not necessary in themselves for salvation.
"I just want to maintain," he might conclude, "that there must be a biblical basis for every teaching that is in itself necessary for salvation. That's all I mean when I talk about sola scriptura. What would a Catholic say about that?"
A Catholic Perspective
I don't know any Evangelicals who are this startlingly consistent in advocating the modest interpretation of sola scriptura.
A Catholic would not use the term sola scriptura-which is historically contentious and highly prone to misunderstanding-but he certainly can agree that the basic facts of the gospel and how to respond to it can be derived from Scripture. A Catholic would add that these facts need to be understood in the light of Sacred Tradition and that the Church's intervention may be necessary to make sure they are understood correctly.
Indeed, Peter warns that "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation" (2 Pet. 1:21) and says of Paul's writings that "there are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (3:16). But despite these qualifications, the basic facts necessary for salvation can be given a biblical basis.
It would be interesting to know how far such an Evangelical would be willing to rethink matters: If he's willing to confine sola scriptura to just the basic facts needed for salvation, then what principles are to be employed in determining the rest of his theology?
The Catholic Church has a few he might want to consider.
From CATHOLIC ANSWERS