By Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016
$16.99 | 176 pp.
This book began as a “search for clarity” regarding the “commonalities and differences between Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant theology with reference to the Reformation.” (13) Finding no extant resource adequate to this task, the authors elected to put together the volume under review. While the topic of this book is timely (considering the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation), the question is whether what is offered here achieves its stated goal.
Framed between the introduction (‘What Happened 500 Years Ago?’) and conclusion (‘Is the Reformation Finished?’), the authors attempt to elucidate the relationship between Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. In so doing, the emphasis is on highlighting, in a relatively accessible way, areas of theological similarity and divergence between Protestants and Catholics. On the whole, while favoring a Protestant perspective, this monograph nonetheless labors to be present Catholic views accurately and generously, and, in that respect, largely succeeds.
In chapter 1, a treatment of the differences in the ‘fundamental commitments’ of Protestants and Catholics is provided. In short, the authors boil these differences down to two primary areas: matters related to authority and salvation. After doing so they pose the question as to whether the Reformation is finished (a question that is revisited at the end of the book). By way of a preliminary answer, the authors suggest that while the Reformation is not yet over, much progress towards bridging the gap between Catholics and Protestants has been made over the past half-century.
Next, in chapter 2, the authors helpfully supply “ten commonalities” between Catholics and Protestants. These areas of unity are in regard to: 1) the Triune God, 2) the nature of God, 3) the revelation of God, 4) the person of Jesus Christ, 5) the saving work of Christ, 6) the Holy Spirit, 7) the glory and travesty of human beings, 8) the notion that salvation is initiated by God, 9) the idea that God makes us his people, and 10) the living hope of Christian theology. As the authors put it, “These ten essential beliefs constitute the common ground on which Protestants and Catholics stand together.” (66)
Following the authors’ positing of ten core areas of commonality between Catholics and Protestants, they move forward, in chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6, to catalogue central areas of doctrinal differentiation. Chapter 3 deals with differences in the understanding of Scripture, tradition, and interpretation; chapter 4 concerns the image of God, sin, and Mary; chapter 5 relates to the church and the sacraments; and, finally, chapter 6 takes on the topic of salvation.
After sketching, in chapters 2 through 6, key similarities and differences between Protestants and Catholics, chapter 7 seeks to unpack the essence of the gospel, and to show that because of it there is hope for both Protestants and Catholics. While recognizing the “profound disagreement on a host of issues pertaining to Christian authority, ecclesiology, and salvation,” the authors yet strongly believe (writing as Protestants) that “Catholic people can be rescued by Christ through the gospel.” (141)
Still, with the above being said, the authors are conflicted regarding “whether the institution of the Catholic Church constitutes an orthodox body.” (141) Without answering this question conclusively, the authors can say that Protestants and Catholics are both part of one family – albeit a family marked by divisions. Indeed, from a Protestant perspective, Catholic theology “contains serious error,” though not so serious as to be heretical, or as to constitute Catholicism as a cult. (143)
On the whole, the primary concern of the authors relates to their perception that “the Catholic Church presents a deficient gospel,” owing to Catholicism’s doctrine of justification, wherein “justification is not simply a reckoning of righteousness (imputation) but must necessarily involve a process of internal renewal in which the grace and merits of Christ are poured into people’s hearts (infusion), causing them to be increasingly justified.” (147-48) This contrasts with the Protestant view that justification is by ‘faith alone’, and based solely on the merit of Christ’s righteousness.
Even given the above area of tension, the authors ultimately conclude that Protestants and Catholics are much closer together today, doctrinally, than they were five hundred years ago. And yet, continuing progress to the end of bringing together these divergent Christian streams is warranted. Such progress, per the authors, will not happen by simply glossing over real differences. But neither will it happen if our attitude is combative rather than irenic. So then, to the end of unpacking these differences and fostering informed yet charitable dialogue, the authors have made a worthwhile contribution. Let us hope, then, that this volume will be an instrument to the end of realizing Jesus’ prayer that his followers would be unified – that they would “all be one” (Jn. 17:21).
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.