When I was growing up, my family went to two churches. My mom, being a Roman Catholic, wanted to go to St. Benedict’s on Irving Park Road and Leavitt Avenue. My dad, being a Baptist, wanted to go to Irving Park Baptist Church on Irving Park Road and Kostner Avenue. Two churches on the same road separated by roughly three miles. I was around 7 or 8 years old at the time, so apart from not having a choice in the matter, I didn’t really know the difference between the two churches; I thought both were Christian churches. Sure there were external differences — one church did a lot of standing, kneeling and sitting, a lot of responsive reading and had a priest in robes, the other just did standing and sitting, very little responsive reading and had a minister in a suit. One church was gothic with high ceilings, arches, and lots of statues of dead saints, the other was simple and austere. Aside from these superficial differences, I didn’t really care; I’d rather be out playing with my friends than going to church on Sunday morning. Eventually, my mom switched from Roman Catholic to Baptist, and we became Protestants.
I was a Protestant until about the age of 18, when I rejected my faith and became an atheist/agnostic — I claimed to be an agnostic, but I lived as a practical atheist. That lasted until about the age of 36, when I truly became a follower of Jesus Christ. Prior to then, my current wife and I were looking for a church to get married in, when we stumbled upon Long Grove Community Church in Long Grove, IL. I came to Christ several months after getting married. We had no real reason in picking the church other than it was an historic church (and thus very scenic) and they were willing to marry us. It also happened to be an historic Protestant church — originally founded by German Reformed Lutherans, it was swallowed up in the United Church of Christ (UCC) denomination in the 1950’s, and eventually split from the UCC and became an independent, non-denominational church.
I have been Protestant for most of my church going life, and until recently (within the last seven or eight years) I would say that I was more Protestant by tradition than conviction. I was a Protestant because my daddy was and because the church I went to was, not because I knew what it meant to be Protestant. I believe there are many people in our churches (more so in the non-denominational and ‘mainline’ Protestant churches than in the more conservative Reformed churches, but there as well) who are Protestant by tradition than by conviction; just as there are many people who are Roman Catholic by tradition than conviction, or Muslim by tradition than by conviction. This is aided along by our post-modern culture that sees religious differences as merely superficial and all religions as basically teaching the same ‘truth’ (to the extent that they acknowledge any truth).
However, as I began studying what it meant to be Protestant, I soon realized that there are major, significant differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox). We are not all ‘merely’ different flavors of Christianity with minor, superficial differences. Rather the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics go down to the very core of what it means to be a Christian. The differences can be summed up in the what have been called the ‘formal’ and the ‘material’ causes of the Protestant Reformation — Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide.
- Sola Scriptura — What is the final, ultimate authority for Christians? Scripture alone, or Scripture along with church tradition as both are ‘infallibly’ interpreted by the Church; i.e., Sola Scruptura vs. Sola Ecclesia (Church Alone)?
- Sola Fide — What is the basis for our justification before a holy and righteous God? How is a sinner saved? Is it by faith alone, or by faith combined with sacramental observance?
These are not trivial differences, and any modern attempts at ecumenism between Protestants and Roman Catholics would inevitably lead to a compromise on one or both of these principles. This is akin to a compromise of the gospel itself, and as the Apostle Paul says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Any one who claims the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics are trivial, quite frankly, is a nominal Protestant or Roman Catholic and doesn’t take their faith seriously.
Now, as a Protestant, I do want to acknowledge my indebtedness to the Roman Catholic Church. Protestantism comes out of the tradition of Western Christianity; we hold, with Roman Catholics, to the historic creeds of Christendom — The Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed and the Symbol of Chalcedon. We recognize, along with Roman Catholics, the first four ecumenical councils — Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). During the disputes of the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic scholars referenced the early church fathers. Protestantism and Roman Catholicism share the same history and tradition.
As the ancient church moved into the middle ages, the early apostolic and post-apostolic teachings were subsumed under an increasingly imperial and sacerdotal system. I would argue, and I believe that church history bears this out, that the problems began once the church was married to the political system — i.e., once Christianity became the ‘official’ religion of the empire. The rise of monasticism was an attempt to reform the church from within as monastic communities formed to get back to the essence of Christianity. There were other attempts of reform within the church that met with failure and execution (John Wycliffe and John Huss). It should be noted that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was an attempt to reform the church, not an attempt to split with the church. However, split became inevitable as the differences between both parties were seen to be at the core of the faith.
Despite this common tradition, the doctrinal differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics cannot be ignored. When Christ said he would build his church (Matthew 16), did he envision the imperial hierarchy of Romanism with the Pope as the Vicar of Christ and the bishops as lords over their dioceses? Did Jesus commission Peter as the first pope? Is the pope the head of the church, or is it Christ himself? When Paul says that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16-17), did he have in mind faith in the sacerdotal system of Romanism? Are Christians to make continual use of the sacraments in a never-ending attempt to earn enough merit to enter into paradise upon death, or at the very least shorten our stay in purgatory? When our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament, did he intend to have it practiced as a “bloodless” sacrifice in which the actual body and blood of Christ are continually offered up week after week for our sins in direct contradiction to the writer of Hebrews who says that the sacrifice of Christ was once for all time? When Christ died and gave us direct access to the Father in heaven, did he intend for the church to pray to Mary as a co-redemptrix, or to the saints as mediators? Is Christ the only mediator between God and man, or are the saints fellow mediators as well? What about the extra-Biblical traditions such as papal infallibility, the bodily assumption of Mary, or purgatory — none of which can find a single shred support in the Bible, yet are supposedly part of church tradition, and thus are to be believed by all Christians?
These all highlight the difference between a tradition that relies on Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide versus one that relies on Sola Ecclesia. Now I know some Roman Catholic apologists claim that Sola Scriptura leads to confusion and fracture within the church. Without an infallible and authoritative church to interpret the Scriptures and teach us doctrine, the church will splinter into thousands of denominations, each with their own interpretation of the Bible. This has led to the (erroneous) claim that there are “over 30,000” Protestant denominations. This claim is bogus as well as the counter claim that the Roman Catholic church is the lone, stable, monolithic defender of orthodox Christianity. Here is an article by Dr. Joseph Mizzi at Just For Catholics that puts the truth to those lies.
The Bottom Line: I am a Protestant by conviction. I believe that the Bible is the sole, infallible rule for faith and practice (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and that one is justified by faith alone apart from works of the law (or sacerdotal observance; Galatians 2:16). I will not and cannot reject these claims for a false sense of unity. I will not and cannot give allegiance to the pope in Rome or observe a ritual that, for all intents and purposes, offers the body and blood of Christ as a sacrifice, making a mockery of the finished work of Christ. I will not and cannot reject the authority of the Scriptures for the authority of popes and councils that can, and do, err. I will not and cannot trade in my security in Christ alone for salvation for the sacerdotal treadmill of Rome. I will not and cannot give up my hope in the gospel for a false gospel that cannot save. By the grace of God, I am a Protestant, and by the grace of God, I will stay a Protestant until the day I die.
Soli Deo Gloria!