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When Protestants Attack

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.

Nuda Scriptura

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?

technorati tags: liturgy, protestantism, roman catholicism, theology


  1. All this is very true, but it is also true that Catholics often have very warped ideas about what Protestants believe. I have taught at 3 different Catholic institutions–warmly received at all 3–but the views of Baptists found among students and some faculty were entirely shaped by TV preachers! Further, some conservative Catholic organizations deliberately repudiate the Vatican II teaching that other Christians are “separated Brethren,” and still refer to Protestants as heretics.

    I had a long conversation once with a priest who was an adult when Vat. II came along and still had to unlearn earlier teachings: His Catholic high school and seminary had taught him that Luther was a mad monk who left the monastery because he couldn’t control his lust(!); that very few Protestants held to the Nicene Creed, etc.

    Every time I think we are past such stereotypes, I find that we are not.


  2. PS says:

    These discussions have been very helpful to me. I’ve run into (in person and more so on blogs) some of the anti-RC rhetoric. I’ve wondered why the feelings are so strong.


  3. […] Weekend Fisher has posted a lengthy piece analyzing counterproductive argument styles between Catholics and Protestants. His point is not that one side of that eternal theological debate is correct and the other wrong, but merely that both sides tend to make use of predictable and inappropriate language that guarantees the other side will feel insulted, not edified. Dr. Platypus then takes the ball and runs with it, with a thoughtful post about specific ways that Protestants sabotage their own efforts to interact with Catholics. […]


  4. Catholics Of The Western Tradition…

    First of all, a definition – when I used the term “Catholics of the Western tradition” in the title of this post, I mean it to encompass the expression of the universal Church that developed from the Latin Church after……


  5. Bob K says:

    Appreciated your acknowledgement in my blog. We really do need to deal with the plank in our own eyes before nitpicking about the speck in another’s πŸ™‚


  6. Teci Pulido says:

    Thanks for the reminders! I really need them πŸ™‚ I grew up Catholic in a predominantly Catholic country, am now a Protestant/evangelical/born-again Christian. If we say we follow Christ, then we should remember His call for unity and love among us, and it is love and unity that would motivate us to dialog, share and witness to Christians and non-Christians alike.

    My friend noticed that the Bible advises us to speak truth, but with love, gentleness, respect and so on. And if God quietly convicts us of our faults, who are we to condemn our brothers and sisters (regardless of who’s “correct”)?

    Thanks so much and God bless! πŸ™‚


  7. Teci Pulido says:

    Just remembered, I’ve blogged about this previously as well. Why don’t you take a look (especially at the series “teci talks to a Catholic friend”):

    Again, God bless! πŸ™‚


  8. D. P. says:

    Welcome, Teci, and thanks for your comments. I’ll check out your blog later today πŸ™‚


  9. In an effort to get the correct idea of worship in Protestant churches (and to prepare me for the backgrounds from which people might be coming when they enter the RCIA process), I attended several services over the past year. Some were certain more structured — that is, liturgical, from a Catholic perspective — than others.

    But I also noticed a fair amount of misinformation about Catholicism, including one woman who didn’t understand my introduction and explanation and said she was glad that “God is calling [me] out of that place (the Catholic church)”. At a Bible study I attended for several months at a local non-denominational evangelical church, one of the members said that Catholics sacrifice Jesus at every Mass, which is a misrepresentation of the Eucharist.

    I have met with the “if it’s Catholic, throw it back” mentality, especially online. A recent blog post I read about fasting (http://kinneymabry.blogspot.com/2007/02/when-you-fast.html) asked why most Christians today don’t do it. One person’s answer included “It seems too ‘Catholic'”. Now, while he was listing erroneous reasons, what he says is true, that some people avoid a practice because Catholics do it. (I’m curious what’s “too” Catholic and what’s “acceptably” Catholic.)


  10. D. P. says:

    Welcome Jeff! I’m going to have to start using “If it’s Catholic, throw it back”! That is an apt description of what I have observed as well. I’m sure that expresses the “real” reason a lot of Protestants are suspicious of such established Christian practices as fasting, the liturgical year, frequent Communion, etc., etc.


  11. I find it odd that Protestant churches don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper (or Communion, or whatever that denomination happens to call it) at every opportunity. Paul says that we preach Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23) and that every time we share in the bread and the cup we are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26). I believe it is for that reason that the Catholic Church has a Mass every day (except Holy Saturday), so that we can always be proclaiming the crucifixion (where the Incarnation and the Resurrection are joined).


  12. D. P. says:

    Some Protestant do: the Churches of Christ/Christian Churches do, I think Plymouth Brethren, and probably some others. Being in a church with very infrequent Communion is a major sticking point with me because it fails to root our worship in the church’s history and because, frankly, I need all the Jesus I can get!


  13. Ed Jacoutot says:

    As a Catholic I have always been curious re the differances in the act of worshipping God between the two entities – Catholicism and Protestant churches in general. We Catholics have as central in our weekly (and even daily) worship services the “Mass” – which is essentially a re-inactment of the “Last Supper” and our Lords directive to “…do this in memory of me”. We see Protestant “worship” of God as an act of sitting (mainly) and listening to a minister reading from Scripture and then “preaching” upon it. As relief the congregation will join in hymns – but, it seems, very little else. Now, a common complaint I hear is that “Catholics do not understand us and our practice of Christianity”. That may very well be true – pointing out it goes both ways – but can anyone tell me where I am wrong – and just how do Protestants (recognizing that there are many variations) preform the act of worship in practice? Or – and I hope this isn’t true – is “worshipping God” too Cahtolic?

    Together in Christ –


  14. D. P. says:

    Welcome, Ed. You make an astute observation in that a lot of Protestants, especially in the free-church tradition, are largely clueless about worship. The best Protestant definition of worship that I know (and I’m working from memory here) is that of Robert Webber, who describes it as proclaiming and re-enacting the saving acts of God. In short, worship involves celebrating what God has done through both the Word and the Table. Some Protestant groups come closer to this vision than others. Perhaps other Protestant readers would care to chime in?


  15. Ed Jacoutot says:

    Dr. P – thank you for your reply. If worship in the Protestant Tradition is “proclaiming and re-enacting the saving acts of God” – per Robert Webber, and your paraphrase – “celebrating what God has done through both the Word and the Table.” Then – where do we differ? I see nothing in these descriptions that Catholics can filnd a quarrel – and if there is hardly a quarrel – why are we not one? A confounding question with no easy answer I know, but if our primary function as His servants is to worship the Almighty and “celebratilng what He has done” for us why do (too many at least) hurl insults such as “whore of Babylon” and accusations like “worship idols” on the one side and “heretics” on the other? Though I’m not sure what real and total “Unity” might look like I do believe that a greater effort might (or should) be made to approach it. In the meantime we all proceed merrily along, Catholics insulatilng themselves and Protestants actilng as if they alone qualify for the sobriquet “Christian”. We exist side by side, sharing the same national geographic, cultural and economic environment – political parties – social outlets and community interests yet – in relilgion we view each other from afar and “…thru glass darkly”. Why is that? I live in a largely non-Cahtolic community and occasionally in polite conversation – mostly on political issues – a remark will be made about the role of the Catholic Church in the world today. It seems tht the impression most non-Cahtolics have abut the Church carries the listener back about 5 centuries or more to the Inquistion -and/or Papal Corruption – as if these old issues from another era protray reallity today. I suffer silently when folks today recall such things usually with a large ingrediant of ignorance. I note that a previous entry recalled that Cahtolics too know very little about Protestant beliefs and practices. But one thing I am willing to admit is that whatever they are – I believe they arise from a sincere desire to make their relationship with God as perfect as possible – and wish it for others too. Maybe it will help (me at least) if some of your Protestant readers can tell us what it is that we Catholics or our Church makes them cringe so? And, maybe I am wrong – maybe the anamosity I think I detect is much milder than I imagine and instead – we are in realilty “Brothers in Christ”. Wonderful would that be so. I’m listening.

    Your “Catholic” neighbor. Ed


  16. brent says:

    I think when a person becomes a protestant/born-again christian, they follow Bible laws……..and then God makes their lives feel very bless and happy……..So you can understand why there’s animosity…….Catholism undermines the unity of God and the believer………you can expect a little conflict between people on these issues when it’s important to them!……

    -my personal view is that no believer of any religion, should give a group of humans (like a church) power to rule over them…only God deserves this authority…..There should be NO church whatsoever…….A church can only lead to harm, hypocrisy…..and evil.

    -so it is my right and my christian duty to oppose any church that is corrupt


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