The question of Rome is something that Protestantism has been wrestling with since its very inception. The very existence of the Roman Communion is something that all Protestants must wrestle with. In this brief assessment, theologian R.C. Sproul analyzes and explains the primary differences between the theology of the Roman Catholic Church and the essential doctrines of Protestantism (particularly Reformed Protestantism).
Sproul sets the stage by identifying that in recent history there has been a tendency developing within Protestantism to attempt to bridge the gap between Protestantism and Catholicism. Identifying movements such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) and the Manhattan Declaration as examples, he zeroes in on phrases used by both movements that identify that with Catholics, we must stand together in the Gospel. This draws the battle line that would serve as a scarlet thread throughout the rest of the book. The Gospel, says Sproul, is what is at stake. I couldn’t agree more. He clearly articulates that one side of the discussion has the Gospel, and the other does not.
In the first chapter he goes straight to the primary dispute that drives the theological discussion and disagreement. Although not the most important disparity between the two schools of thought, Sola Scriptura and the question of authority is the difference that has placed us on such different trajectories. Through careful historical inquiry, Sproul highlights the development of Rome’s view of Scripture throughout its history. By providing and explaining quotation from authoritative Roman documents, he shows that the Catholic Church has moved from a very conservative view of Scripture as fully authoritative and inerrant, to allowing for the influence of liberalism and modernism to deconstruct the text in a way remarkably similar to Protestant Liberalism. In addition, he explores the formalization and definition of the Catholic view of Scripture as demonstrated in the proclamations at the Council of Trent. The difference between partim, partim and et as represented in the various drafts and minutes of the council is illuminating to show that the Church not only hasn’t always had a uniform view on the role of Scripture and Tradition, but that even in their most formal definition the question is left ambiguous.
In the second chapter Sproul gets at what he says is the most important disagreement that exists. That is the disagreement that started it all, and which all other disagreements ultimately relate to. That is the question of justification. Sproul carefully, accurately, and charitably outlines the Roman Catholic system of justification. He identifies the primary import of baptism, penance, and works and the role they play in the justification schema of Rome. He also makes space to clarify some of the misconceptions that Protestants have regarding this central dogma, something that he does throughout the book.
The third chapter is a, primarily historical, exposition of the Ecclesiological position of the Church. Starting with Cyprian and Augustine he explains the historic position that was developed in the Patristic and Medieval ages. He then proceeds to demonstrate that later Church pronouncements through the first Vatican Council are mostly restatements of the doctrine. Finally, he sets out to prove that Vatican II, although not reformulating any explicit doctrine, opens the door formally for those outside the Roman Catholic Church to be saved, while at the same time demonstrating the inconsistency of such a position.
Fourthly, Sproul gives a 30,000 foot overview of the Sacramental system and then zooms in on the sacraments of Eucharist and Penance. It is in these Sacraments that Sproul sees the most egregious errors of the Roman corruption of Justification sola fide. This section of the book is extremely valuable, as it is in these two doctrines that the disparity between Roman and Protestant views of Justification come to a head.
In the fifth chapter, and in my view a bit too briefly, Sproul goes after the institution of the Papacy. Again by beginning with the historical development of the dogma and moving to the doctrinal issues surrounding it, he demonstrates the problems surrounding the Pope as well as showing that the doctrine is substantially different today than it was in the Early Church. Drawing in primary sources as early as 1st Clement, Sproul shows that the Church’s view on this subject has been far from Monolithic, and even today there are factions of Catholics who view Papal Primacy as suspect.
Finally, Sproul addresses the role of Mary in the Church. I must admit that this chapter feels like something of an afterthought. It does not follow the same structure as the previous chapters, and does not address the subject with the same level of depth and critique as the others. I found it helpful, albeit a bit superficial.
The conclusion of the book comes in the form of a question: How Then Should We Proceed? I won’t ruin the answer for you, but I suspect that readers of the book will not find the answer surprising. Sproul handles the answer with all the charity and winsomeness that one would expect.
All in all, I found the book to be valuable as an overview to the question at hand, which is exactly what it set out to be. Sproul is charit
able to the opposing view without compromising, and he insists on accuracy in his representation of the Catholic position, something that is lacking in similar endeavors by other authors. Acknowledging that this is not an academic work, I did find the rather sparse notes to be somewhat frustrating as it seems to me that a good overview should serve to point its readers to further sources of study. However, I think that any Christian who is engaged with Roman Catholic adherents, I.E. all Christians, ought to read this book.
Please note: Reformation Trust / Ligonier Ministries has provided me with an electronic version of this book for review purposes, and will be providing me with a hard copy edition in exchange for this review. They do not require positive reviews, nor have they edited or modified this review in any way.