Two Book Reviews on Roman Catholicism

Over the past few months, I finished reading two books on Roman Catholicism. One book I found myself and the second was recommended to me by some friends with Catholic roots. I’ve never really read much on the Roman Catholic church except what others have quoted. So I thought it might be good to familiarise myself more with its teachings and specific beliefs.

The first book I read was entitled, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. It was written by Dave Armstrong, formerly an evangelical and now a Roman Catholic. By no means does he teach on behalf of the church, since he is neither the Pope nor a bishop. But he is a Roman Catholic apologist, defending the church he once denied. Armstrong did not really take much time to show how he converted to Catholicism, but, of course he believes his conversion was to fullest expression of Christ’s Church, the true Church.

Within the work, Armstrong specifically gave a defense for many of the varied beliefs within the Roman Catholic church. He defended their view on justification, sacred tradition and the development of doctrine, the eucharist and transubstantiation, their Mariology (doctrine of Mary), the communion of saints and why they invoke the saints that have already passed on, penance, purgatory and the infallibility of the Pope, as well as devoting short appendices to a few other topics.

While I would disagree with the teachings of the Roman Catholic church on pretty much all of those topics above, I would say it was good to get an understanding of what they teach. I know that many times we understand, or think we understand, something due to someone else’s words. But, as the old adage goes, it’s good to get the story from the horse’s mouth.

And, though I don’t agree with a lot of the Roman Catholic teachings, what I did appreciate reading about is their view on tradition, or sacred tradition as they would call it.

I would typically classify myself as an evangelical. One of the major beliefs of evangelicals is in sola Scriptura. This belief basically states that the 66 books of the canon of Scripture (or the Protestant canon of Scripture, since the Roman Catholics accept the Apocrypha as part of Scripture) are the final authority for the body of Christ in all matters of our faith.

Yet, I am also reminded that the belief in sola Scriptura does not mean there are no other sources of authority, nor that we should throw out tradition. Those who believe there are no other helpful sources of authority and that an understanding of our faith tradition is unnecessary, these folk are usually recognised as holding to the belief of solo Scriptura. For such a person, it is absolutely 100% only about the Bible. But, suffice it to say, I think such a belief is silly and even dangerous. Such is too extreme from my understanding.

But, with regards to the topic of sola Scriptura, I have begun to ask questions about this specific evangelical belief, as well as those beliefs that are usually connected to it (i.e., inerrancy, as well as how Scripture and tradition work together). Mainly, I am trying to understand more about the role of tradition (think church history) in regards to our faith and understanding the Scripture and theological truths. Interestingly enough, a blog I frequent, Parchment & Pen, has recently posted an article along the lines of this topic.

For the Roman Catholic, Scripture is part of the whole of Sacred Tradition. Scripture started what was then carried on in the seven main ecumenical councils, as well as in the authoritative and infallible teaching of the Popes and the bishops with him. For the Catholic, this is known as apostolic succession.

Protestants would disagree with the validity of the seventh ecumenical council, more specifically known as the second council of Nicea in 787 AD, which declared that veneration of icons is to be practised by Christians.

So this is where I think tradition starts to get off. I don’t agree with veneration and honour being given to icons. I now better understand why it is done and what Catholics mean by this practise. But, at this point, I don’t agree with the practise. So, obviously, I believe the teachings and tradition of the church can get off base from ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).

Yet, I have to completely admit we have the canon that we have today because of the faithfulness of our church fathers. Not only that, but these father’s put each of the books up to a test, the rule of faith that had come down orally through the church fathers of the early centuries, since they had no canon at the time. The fully concluded canon did not come until a few hundred years following the last writings of the New Testament, and even some argue of an actual set date of the canon formation if there is one.

In the end, we wouldn’t have a canon if we didn’t have tradition. Not only that, but we have the specific beliefs of the Trinity, Christ’s divinity and humanity, the Spirit’s personhood and divinity, and much more because of the teachings and councils of the early church fathers. We owe a lot to them. Yet, I also believe tradition can go wrong. But, if it didn’t go wrong until 787 AD at the second council of Nicea when veneration of icons was declared a godly practise, then I start to ask, ‘Did it ever go wrong?’, even with that decision on icons.

Of course, the evangelical would typically answer, ‘Yes, it can go wrong.’ But if they started getting off-base at the second council of Nicea, why not at the council of Chalcedon (the fourth ecumenical council) in 451 AD where the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ was confirmed? Of course, I don’t believe the council of Chalcedon came to unbiblical conclusions. I agree with such conclusions. I just simply find myself asking about how we really understand the relationship of Scripture and tradition.

For the evangelical, they will tell me that this is why we must stick with sola Scriptura. Scripture is to be the final authority on the practise of our faith, but tradition (the church fathers and councils) can be very helpful to the understanding of our faith. But this is where I come back asking, ‘But what do we do about the reality that we have the canon we have today because of the church father’s (tradition) decision long ago?’

For me, this is why I desire to look more into the relationship of Scripture and tradition. I had always thought that if I did a PhD, my dissertation would be on the relationship between Scripture and present-day prophecy, since I am a charismatic. But now I’m thinking I might first take up a dissertation on the relationship between Scripture and tradition.
I don’t sit around worried about if and how I might be wrong on my understanding of the relationship between these two entities up to this point in my life. I only point out that, though I don’t agree with many teachings in the Catholic church, I do think we, as evangelicals, can learn a little bit from them on their healthy respect of tradition.

The second book I read was the well-known book, Rome Sweet Home, by Scott and Kimberly Hahn. Well, it might not be well-known to many evangelicals, but it is to Roman Catholics.

Here is another story of two people who converted from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. And that’s just it, this book is their story, not a theological apology for Catholicism. Of course, as a theologian, Scott Hahn weaves in some theological teaching. But this is mainly the account of two people, separately, coming in to the Roman Catholic church. (Yes, separately. I’ll pick up on that in a moment.)

Both were originally part of a Presbyterian-reformed denomination, I believe it was the PCA. He even studied at the popular Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He was even constantly trying to convert people from the ‘evil’ Catholic church to the evangelical faith, which he believed was most biblical.

Interestingly enough, he and his wife’s first introduction to the Catholic faith was through his wife’s interaction with pro-life work. She ended up becoming an advocate for not using birth control, seeing it as a barrier to the God-ordained, natural result of the love-act in marriage, that result being procreation if God so chose. Of course, the Roman Catholic church is against all means of birth control. Hence, their first introduction to Roman Catholicism.

Most of the book details the Hahn’s slow conversion to Catholicism. As I mentioned, they made their conversion on separate dates. Scott converted a few years before his wife. In the book, again written by both, they describe in detail the painful and difficult process of this conversion. But, in the end, Kimberly finally felt the calling to convert over to the Roman Catholic church. And now they are convinced they are in the truest and fullest expression of Christ’s Church.

The book is quite moving, in the sense of seeing a family come together in the end even after all they went through. I wouldn’t agree with the statement that the Roman Catholic church is the true Church. And if one didn’t have any other input outside of Catholic teachings, I guess the book could draw you in, which was the intent of the Hahn’s. I’m not saying they were being deceptive by any means, but it is a moving story.

In the end, the one thing I did really appreciate is the Catholic appreciation for the eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper-communion. I don’t accept the teaching of transubstantiation that says the bread and wine literally transform into the body and blood of Christ. Yet, I do not appreciate the view of many evangelicals that see it as a mere symbol.

Paul said the bread and wine are a participation in Christ’s body and blood (see 1 Corinthians 10:16). I don’t pertain to know what that means fully, but I do believe Christ’s presence is really and truly in our midst during the sharing of the covenant meal. The meal has been given for us to be nourished by Christ. I share more the Lord’s Supper here.

Well, there are my thoughts on these two books. It was insightful to learn more about the Roman Catholic church and its teachings, even if I disagree with many of its beliefs. One thing I think I might try and do is add a book to my list for 2010. I caught wind of this book even today: Romans Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences by Ralph MacKenzie and Norman Geisler. I might try and get a copy sometime soon.

12 thoughts on “Two Book Reviews on Roman Catholicism

  1. I enjoyed your reviews. You have an open mind and read the material in a peaceful and thoughtful way that says a lot about your integrity. Thanks for that. I hope you will continue to explore the nature of sacred tradition, even just starting with what was preserved by the Protestant reformers and how they accepted how the rule of faith was transmitted to us (and the Canon of Scripture, the Creeds, teachings on the Trinity, etc). This means that we’re linked to Christ through the past — His teachings were preserved by the apostles and given to the early fathers. The New Testament is a part of that divine heritage.
    Regarding icons, the “thing” is reverenced only for what it represents. In the same way, the Ark of the Covenant was just a “thing”, but it was held in such reverence that none would even touch it. But it wasn’t the wood or metals of the Ark that were sacred, but what it held and represented (even the stone of the tablets is only sacred because of what God wrote on them).
    In any case, I appreciated your thoughtful reviews and I enjoyed reading them. Thanks again.

  2. Dear Scott,

    I enjoyed reading these reviews, and hearing your pondering about the relationship between Scripture and tradition. I am in the process of converting to the Catholic Church from the PCA, so have a longstanding interest in some of the things you discussed.

    Going out on a limb, it sounds like you’ve read Keith Mathison (you mentioned “solo” scriptura, which he takes up in great depth in his book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura). At the risk of putting in an unwelcome plug, my friends Bryan and Neal did an extensive article two months ago arguing that there is no principled difference between “solo” scriptura and sola scriptura. Keith Mathison checked it out and said he would respond in another place, but to my knowledge he never did. Also, I just wrote an article about the formation of the canon, arguing that neither tradition nor anything consistent with the doctrine of sola scriptura could yield the 66-book canon. This also seems on point with your post here. These articles are available on the main page of calledtocommunion.com. I hope to hear your thoughts or questions if you have any.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  3. creationbydesign –

    Thanks for the comment. You stated: Regarding icons, the “thing” is reverenced only for what it represents. In the same way, the Ark of the Covenant was just a “thing”, but it was held in such reverence that none would even touch it. But it wasn’t the wood or metals of the Ark that were sacred, but what it held and represented (even the stone of the tablets is only sacred because of what God wrote on them).

    Most evangelicals do not believe anything outside of God Himself, including Christ, should be revered in that sense of holy reverence. Now, the thing is, many evangelicals can put certain living people on pedestals today. So there is inconsistency. But I cannot see me, in good conscience, giving reverence for Mary and a whole list of saints that have gone before us. Of course, I believe the body of Christ now is just as much saints as those who have gone before us. That’s what I see Scripture teaching.

  4. Scott,

    But I cannot see me, in good conscience, giving reverence for Mary and a whole list of saints that have gone before us.

    Well, if God commanded you to do it, I’m sure you would. But I fully accept that you don’t see it that way. We do have some support in Scripture. “All generations shall call me blessed” … is Mary’s prophecy. So, as a small step, you could give that kind of honor to Jesus’ mother.

    Of course, I believe the body of Christ now is just as much saints as those who have gone before us. That’s what I see Scripture teaching.

    It can be a good idea to wonder how you arrived at that conclusion. Does it line up with what was “handed down”? Are you sure of your interpretation? We could look at a Protestant reformer like Martin Luther and see that he had a great reverence for Mary (and he did not want images or crucifixed removed).

    So, eventually it’s important to see the history and question if our interpretation has support.

    In my view, the Reformers offered much that was good. I don’t think that they should have broken off from the Catholic Church though. I also think that they drifted too far from correct teaching over time.

    Please know of my appreciation of your journey in faith — and that I’ve benefitted from your good words.

    God bless.

  5. creationbydesign –

    Thanks again for the comment.

    I do believe Mary was blessed, very much so to have carried the divine Christ in her womb and mother Him. But, I find it so amazingly interesting that we don’t see Mary mentioned really at all after the Gospels. We do see her definitely mentioned in Acts 1:14, and there is also the possibility in the beloved passage of the RCC in Rev 12. But knowing the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation, I am not sure we can say this is speaking of THE Mary. So, one or maybe two mentions following the Gospels.

    We have to consider that the NT, following the Gospels, is very, very silent about Mary. If venerating Mary was such a major practise of the early church, in those first 100 years, why don’t we ever see anything about it and teaching such an important doctrine? It’s something that we have to consider.

    I’m not sure if you did or did not agree with my statement that all of those who are in Christ now are saints now. Paul’s letters are rampant with the early greetings stating that he is writing to the saints. He was talking about people who were actually alive then and there. I think a passage like 1 Cor 1:2 makes it very clear that saints are those alive: ‘To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.’

    To be a saint is to be one ‘set apart’. That is who we are right now in Christ. Of course we are continually being set apart as He transforms us regularly. But this is a reality here and now. I wrote an article on this – click here.

    Thanks again.

  6. Scott,

    From the quote you posted, I read it like this:
    …called to be saints …. So God does call us, and we need to respond to that call always. In the Catholic view we could say that a person is living a saintly life, certainly. But we’re on a journey and we haven’t fully reached the destination. Some can deny the faith after having received it — some walk away. So, a more permanent label of “saint” is for those who have reached that permanent status in eternity. But we affirm that all in heaven are saints. Some are canonized and others not, but that is just a recognition of a person’s greater response to God’s gifts. St. Paul explained that he was distinguished among followers himself. He had done more, etc.

    As for reverence for Mary in the Early Church, this book is an excellent resource:

    Mary and the Fathers of the Church
    The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought
    http://www.ignatius.com/ViewProduct.aspx?SID=1&Product_ID=736

    I will check out the essay you linked later. Thanks.

  7. I read your essay, Scott. I agree with much of it, and also don’t agree with other parts. But the Catholic view on that topic is different, as I think you know. Thanks for sharing it.

  8. creationbydesign –

    Again, I think we have to deal with the evidence at the beginnings of Paul’s letters. He writes to the saints – to those who were presently alive, not those who had been declared to go straight to heaven and canonized following their death.

    Phil 1:1 is a great example as well – Paul writes to the saints, as well as to the overseers and deacons in that church. The overseers and deacons were there presently, and so were ‘all the saints’ that he was writing to as well, being those set apart in Christ. Saints are the ‘holy ones’, and for those in Christ, that is who we are. We are the holy ones. I can’t see myself getting around the Scriptural teaching.

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