Weekend Fisher takes a look at some of the stupid, stupid things that Protestants and Catholics say about each other. Read it in the spirit it was written: a plea for all of us to rise above the less-than-Christlike rhetoric and learn to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Let me confess to having done my share of Catholic-bashing in earlier days. I never distributed any Chick tracts, but I know what they say. I did read Hislop’s The Two Babylons–which did more to feed an interest in understanding both comparative religions and ancient history than anything else! I never made a big deal of my anti-Catholic beliefs but I did hold them, I am ashamed to say. Trust me when I say that some Protestants can be downright nasty when discussing Roman Catholicism.
Weekend Fisher highlights some of that nastiness, but also some of what I can only call the silliness of some Protestant criticisms of Rome–like objecting to the Catholic innovation of using wax candles in church! I guess only proper New-Testament-era oil lamps should be used?
I can understand where the nastiness comes from. If you and I disagree sharply about certain issues, it is going to be difficult for me not to inject a bit of sarcasm into the debate, and the line between sarcasm and venom can be thin. If I think what I believe is important enough that everyone ought to agree with me, I can take it personally if you continue to disagree. I can even play at discerning your motives for your failure to accept what is patently obvious, which will usually make you into either an idiot or a demon. So I understand how theological debates can turn nasty. I don’t like it but I understand it. I can deal with it if you think I’m a moron or a jerk. It is the silliness factor that really sticks in my craw. There are at least two silly strategies Protestants use in condemning Catholics.
The first way we Protestants act silly in our dealings with Catholicism is to insist on an absolutist definition of sola scriptura that none of the Reformers would have recognized. Rather than sola scriptura (Scripture alone), we embrace a bizarre doctrine of nuda scriptura (naked Scripture).
I remember a time in a Wednesday-night Bible study. The pastor at the church in question has a Ph.D. in theology and loves to spend some time in Wednesday Bible studies outlining the various streams of Christian thought on various topics to give people a lay of the land and help them come to their own conclusions about controversial issues. He probably does it as well as anyone I know. This night the discussion was on some topic on which Catholics and Protestants generally have divergent points of view. I don’t remember what we were discussing; it might have been something to do with the Virgin Mary. Regardless, here is what I remember. There was someone in the congregation who apparently wanted nothing to do with any opinions on the issue from previous generations. It didn’t matter that the Catholic Church’s dogma was x. Nor did it matter that Luther believed y or that Calvin taught z. He’ll just open his Bible and follow its clear teachings, thank you very much.
This line of thinking is a one-way ticket to sillyville. Do you really believe that no one–no one!–has an opinion on a given issue of biblical interpretation that is worthy of your consideration? Even if they are really, really smart and really, really godly? Do you really think you are equal to Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, or Wesley in either devotion or intellect? Even if you disagree with them (and they would assuredly disagree with each other!), is it wrong even to acknowledge that they made a contribution to Christian thought, that we stand on their shoulders when we pick up our Bibles to read?
The Protestant Reformers (who gave us the doctrine of sola scriptura, for heaven’s sake!) read the early church fathers for a reason: they accepted them as authoritative guides to the Bible’s meaning. Shouldn’t Protestants do as the Reformers did?
“Catholics Are Wrong By Definition”
A second example of Protestant silliness often rears its head when we begin to discuss Catholic beliefs and practices. In its simplest terms, it may be stated thus: “If Catholics do it, it must be wrong.” This might be what the letter-writer Weekend Fisher mentions was getting at with his condemnation of candles (though like her, I really can’t figure that one out). The theory goes, early Christianity was going along just fine until the early fourth century when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Not long thereafter, superstitious, quasi-pagan elements began to be added to the faith.
For example, Catholics sometimes make the sign of the cross when they pray. Therefore, this reasoning goes, no good could ever come of doing so. Likewise, Catholics use a set liturgy, chant the psalms, and their clergy dress in distinctive clothing. Never mind that all of these practices predate the rise of Roman Catholicism–the eastern churches that have never been under Rome’s jurisdiction have the same custom, as do the Armenian Orthodox, the Assyrian Orthodox, and other groups whose faith developed beyond the borders of the Roman Empire entirely–if it even smells like Rome, we want nothing to do with it!
(Actually, some Protestants go so far as to date the apostasy of the church even earlier than Constantine, before the bodies of the last apostles were even cold. How unfortunate that Christ was so ineffectual in preserving his church for even a single generation!)
I pity the poor soul who embraces this line of reasoning when it is pointed out to him that Catholics read the Bible and pray in their worship services! Let’s not even talk about the fact that they also care for the sick and believe in strong families and sexual purity. Like the bizarre doctrine of nuda scriptura, this approach is also a non-starter.
Protestants are obviously going to disagree with Catholics about theology, church order, devotional practices, and other things. Sometimes we are going to be rather adamant about what we think is wrong with Catholicism. That’s not being mean, it is just stating the obvious. If we didn’t have profound disagreements, we’d already be Catholics and this whole discussion would be irrelevant. Let’s just strive to behave Christianly–and intelligently–when we disagree, shall we?