Two Christian doctors sat down over dinner in Brussels while attending an international medical meeting, feeling worn-out from intense pro-con debates over involuntary euthanasia that is occurring in that region. The discussion shifted to focus on commonalities and differences in our Catholic versus Protestant beliefs. This led us to explore a recent post by John Piper asking whether Catholics can get to heaven.The Protestant took the question seriously. Soon afterward, two other Catholic friends, an American priest and an Australian nurse, joined me in a hearty exchange of approximately 100 emails with our Canadian Protestant friend, deeply diving into our faith in response to that post. We focused heavily on issues related to sola scriptura/sola fide versus Catholic tradition/magisterium. This blog post is a summary I wrote to him as a letter to conclude our dialogue, focusing primarily on points about which evangelical Protestants differ from Catholics on sacraments and salvation:
To my dear Protestant friend,
In Jesus’ prayer for believers, he says to the Father, “I pray … that all of them may be one” (John 17:20-21). And yet, we know that, although we are one body of Christ, we are a fractured body. To wit, our extensive conversations, stemming from Rev. Piper’s recent article, made clear the extent to which many Protestants think the Catholic path to salvation is heretical. An executive summary is warranted.
Catholic belief is that both Scripture, the inspired word of God, together with sacred Tradition, the handed-down teaching of the Apostles, essentially form one source of divine Revelation, in whichbishops, in union with the Pope, exercise faithful interpretation. We call this interpretational authority the magisterium. This twofold aspect of revelation truthfully embraces the scriptural centrality of the apostolic teaching, the teaching role of the Church and the reality that the written word cannot contain all that Jesus said and did, as evidenced by John 21:25.
Much Protestant understanding of man’s path to salvation is that the words of Scripture alone, without any mediating ecclesial authority, are sufficient for a proper interpretation and fidelity to Christ and his teaching.
Catholics distinguish sacred Tradition (the teaching of the apostles) from many traditions (small ‘t’) and customs that have developed over the last two millennia, such as certain prayers, including the Rosary, specific devotions and some liturgical practices, including adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. For us, such traditions are consistent with all Revelation and part of a mystical, beautiful and joyful path through which we come fully into relationship with God, while you view them as heretical.
I was not at all expecting that both of our Christian churches would accept the magisterial articulation of sacred Tradition represented in the Apostles’ and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. That was very affirming: Though you hold firm to a Scripture-alone position, you readily admit that the critical terms “substance,” “nature” and “person” found in the creed are binding in articulating scriptural teaching on the Holy Trinity. You maintain that the creed is binding because it is faithful to Scripture, yet we remain at an impasse in that, at the same time you hold that the councils that generated that language have no “binding” or “mediating” authority.
Our discussions also taught me that your “word-only” belief does not mean that Protestants necessarily interpret Scripture more literally than Catholics. Many core Catholic doctrinal and sacramental beliefs and practices, contained in sacred Tradition and biblically established, are matters that Protestant churches consider purely metaphorical. I had naively misunderstood sola scriptura to mean that you always more literally interpreted the Bible than we.
For example, many “Creationist” Christians deny the science of evolution, believing that God created the world in seven days or “day-like” intervals, whereas the Catholic Church believes and teaches that proper interpretation of creation texts recognizes the highly symbolic and liturgical nature of these texts. Proper hermeneutics enables us to identify the genre of literature for maximal understanding and context.
This undergirds the 2,000-year witness of the Christian community to the apostolic faith in the realism of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist (John 6). We believe that Jesus meant (and the apostles taught) exactly what he said (e.g., “This is my Body … this is my Blood” Matthew 26:26-28 and John 6) and that the Eucharist is the “real presence” of Christ’s Body. Indeed, for us, the Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism, 1324). Yet you believe that Jesus spoke of his Body and Blood only as a metaphor, even when the biblical account shows contemporaries of Jesus abandoning him precisely because of this radical realism. You do not accept early Christian writers such as Ireneaus, Cyril of Jerusalem and Gaudentius regarding the change (“transubstantiation”) they professed takes place in the Eucharistic bread and wine.
We both believe baptism brings about a real change in the soul of the one baptized. You contended, though, that early Christian witnesses (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, Augustine) were wrong about baptismal “regeneration” — the baptismal wash — being a source of the forgiveness of original sin.
We believe in the unique role given to Peter in Matthew 16 and the authority/power to forgive sins given to the apostles in John 20, whereas you were emphatic that Jesus is the only mediator between God the Father and man and that no other mediation can exist.
In suffering, Catholics believe we join Christ in his passion, through which he accomplished our potential for redemption (Philippians 3:8-11). You interpreted redemptive suffering to imply that we in some way erroneously believe that we “add to” his passion.
We believe in ongoing conversion, whereas you believe that being “saved” by declaring belief in the death and resurrection of Christ is completed conversion, followed by ongoing sanctification.
We honor Mary, the Mother of God, and acknowledge that she has an active role to play in the assembly of believers. While we both agree that no mediator is required to have a relationship with Christ, you hold it heretical to consider Mary as one who efficaciously prays with and for us. This approach minimizes the depth of the scriptural passages that show Mary as a model of faith called “blessed” by “all generations,” whose “pierced soul” was prophesied by Simeon and who averted disaster by her solicitude at Cana.
My Protestant brother, what became surprisingly clear in our monthlong discourse was that no manner of evidence (even biblical), persuasion, passion or history stemmed the tide of our disagreement related to sacred Tradition as an inspired instrument of Jesus’ revelation to the Church for our daily worship and conversion.
Let’s return to Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:20-21. As Pope Francis indicated in praying with other major church leaders at Christ’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we must take pleasure in knowing that we are all facing toward the Lord. We are all asking for God’s mercy. We all want to make him large and ourselves small (John 3:30). As St. Maximilian Kolbe defined sanctity via the equation“V=v,” where God’s Voluntas or “will” must become our voluntas. I pray in thanks for Pentecost with a growing “bonfire” of love for the Eucharist and for the advocacy of Mary and the saints in our ongoing conversion, or, as you would say, sanctification.
E. Wesley Ely, M.D., M.P.H., is a professor of medicine and critical care at Vanderbilt University
and president of the Nashville Guild of the Catholic Medical Association.