Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite?

From time to time, calls arise for cooperation between Protestants and Catholics. Some of those times the call is actually stronger. Some people argue that Catholics and Protestants should or must reunite and become one Church again. If nothing else, many would like to see some kind of full communion between Catholic and Protestant churches. Basically, there are three main possible courses of unity:

  1. Cooperation and deanathemization. The easiest level of unity would be simply for Catholic and Protestant churches and institutions to freely cooperate in ministry and to drop any charges of heresy against one another. Each would recognize the other as fully Christian and work together for the Gospel. Nonetheless, Protestant churches would remain Protestant in their own denominations and associations, and Catholic churches would remain a single Roman Catholic Church.
  2. Intercommunion. There exists between the Catholic and Orthodox churches something which¬†is often called “intercommunion,” in which under the right circumstances a Catholic can participate in Orthodox sacraments and¬†vice versa. This would be a major step for Protestants, and one which is incredibly unlikely for the majority of Protestant churches in the near future. In particular, denominations like Baptists which tend to strongly deny any form of Christ’s real presence in Communion would never be allowed without substantial revisions on both sides.
  3. Institutional unity. In this last possibility, certain Protestant churches and the Catholic Church would become one, unified Church, one single “denominational” body.¬†This, of course, sounds like pure fantasy to most on both sides, and if it were ever to happen it would be in the very, very distant future.

So what I’d like to consider are the obstacles to these different kinds of unity. I am personally strongly in support of type A (though I have a slight for that someday before Christ returns type C may happen). There are obstacles to it, but they are not too many, and I believe they can be overcome. But some people would oppose all of these types.¬†As an example, my attention was recently brought to this article on Purely Presbyterian: 6 Reasons Protestants and Roman Catholics Can Never Unite.¬†The reasons given in this post would be accepted by many¬†Protestants as a reason to not only reject any form of unity with the Catholic Church, even type A, but to condemn the majority of Catholicism as damnably heretical. My purpose in this post is to evaluate these 6 reasons and offer responses to each in relation to¬†the types of unity I mentioned above.

Reason #1: The Sufficiency of Scripture

The article states this:

Rome denies the sufficiency of Scripture and supplants it with human tradition. The Scriptures are wholly sufficient for all things pertaining to life and godliness…The human innovations in Roman worship are more than can be listed here. From the use of images of God and saints, to the multitude of manmade ceremonies, rites, and holy days, to the most despicable and blasphemous Mass, in all these, the imaginations of men‚Äôs hearts and man‚Äôs traditions are observed, while God‚Äôs commandments are rejected. We are reminded of Jesus‚Äô rebuke of the Pharisees in Mark 7:9, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

This is, to be sure, a strong criticism. It is also, I believe, one that entirely precludes type C of unity. Catholics believe in an infallible, authoritative Holy Tradition which is not necessarily identical in content to the Scripture but contains other doctrines and practices which cannot be derived from Scripture (though some of them might find a verse or two of hint, perhaps). Moreover, they understand as authoritative 7 apocryphal books which Protestants do not regard as inspired. These differences make for a difference in the final authorities over doctrine and practice, and as such make strong forms of Catholic/Protestant unity impossible.

That said, I do not believe this ought to preclude type A of unity. That Scripture is holy, inspired, and authoritative is accepted by all churches and is taught by Scripture itself, but that there is no other, originally unwritten revelation from God through the Apostles is not stated in Scripture. Thus, ironically, adopting the principle of¬†sola Scriptura seems to make it at best difficult to¬†find grounds for condemning as heresy the belief in certain inspired traditions, since Scripture does not explicitly rule out that possibility. This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that many or all of the Catholic traditions are true, only that they are not automatically signs of a heretical, apostate church.

The problem is, to oversimplify and use a loose analogy, in Catholicism it is almost like Holy Tradition is just another book of Scripture, just not one originally written down in the first century. Just as it is invalid to us for someone to say, “Well doctrine X isn’t in Mark, so it isn’t true!” if doctrine X is found in Ephesians, it would appear to Catholics invalid for us to say, “Doctrine Y¬†isn’t in any of the books of the Bible, so it isn’t true!” if¬†doctrine Y is found in Holy Tradition. Thus we deal with questions of canon and inspiration, complications which are enough to divide the churches as institutions to be sure (preventing type C unity), but are they enough to divide them as brothers? It’s hard for me to say “yes” to that without sufficient Biblical grounding, and so I am willing to support type A of unity even with this issue between Protestants and Catholics.

Reason #2: Salvation through Faith Alone

The criticism:

Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, glory be to God alone. The Scriptures everywhere so plainly attest to this, and yet Rome so arrogantly denies it…By placing its anathema on on the Biblical Gospel, Rome has placed itself under the anathema of God Almighty (Galatians 1:8, 9). Let all those who affirm this doctrine be blessed, but let Rome‚Äôs curse fall on her own head.

This is also a serious charge, but not one which I think holds up to scrutiny in the modern theological world. It is true that Catholics deny the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, but a large part of the difference is¬†due to different semantics and conceptual models. To Catholics, James 2:24 is essential to articulating properly a doctrine of justification, for it says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Now, it is not hard to argue that Catholics misinterpret this verse, but it is also hard to see why a doctrine of justification so directly compatible with this verse at face value must be anathema.

Part of the key here involves realizing that¬†Catholicism does not actually teach salvation by works rather than by grace. While they believe¬†works are required for justification, what they mean by “justification” and “salvation” is not identical to Protestant usage. Both agree that salvation is all because of Jesus, that we can’t earn it, and that our own works are nothing but sin apart from the grace of God. Depending on which Catholic you ask, you may hear them say that salvation can be said to be by faith alone if we mean a faith which necessarily produces works, a position which is frequently said to be the true meaning of sola¬†fide by many Protestants!

There are actually many possible routes to reconciliation between the two parties on justification. Promising leads include the theology of Thomas F. Torrance, a Scottish Reformed¬†theologian whose works¬†Incarnation and¬†Atonementare loved and appreciated by both Protestants and Catholics, the works of N. T. Wright, an Anglican bishop who has made major efforts in reclaiming the original Jewish context of Paul’s doctrine of justification, and¬†the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It is not hard to imagine, if you’re sufficiently familiar with these leads and their details, a future where Reformed, Catholic, Lutheran, and even Eastern Orthodox theologians can all mostly agree with one articulation of¬†Paul’s¬†major Gospel doctrine. If this is true, then many charges of heresy could be dropped, and the way could be opened¬†for greater unity in type A.

To Be Continued

At this point this post is already too long, so I will address the final four objections to Catholic-Protestant unity in a second post. Even so, I think these two objections are the most important, and I hope what I have said in response to them can be useful in bringing further unity to the Body of Christ.

I'm 22. I'm married with a toddler and a newborn. love Jesus Christ. I grew up a Southern Baptist and now situate myself within Evangelical Calvinism (which isn't TULIP!). I also draw substantially from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and Alastair Roberts. I go to the Baptist College of Florida. I'm also a bit nerdy.