A recent article in Christianity Today sported the headline “Protestants: The Most ‘Catholic’ of Christians.” With one eyebrow raised, I clicked on the link, wondering what could support such an audacious claim. It turns out the article was promoting the new Reforming Catholic Confession, which describes itself as a “‘Mere Protestant’ Statement of Faith to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.” The statement currently boasts about 700 signatures from Protestant pastors and academics.
The idea is the brainchild of Christian philosopher Jerry Walls, who is set to release a co-authored book titled Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation. A description on the book cover says it is “A Critique of Roman Catholicism in Defense of the Catholic Faith.”
If your head is spinning, let me try to set it right.
What Walls and the other signatories of the “Reforming Catholic Confession” claim is that Protestantism should not be thought of as an anarchic collection of bickering denominations. There are certainly denominations that disagree about doctrines and disciplines, but they claim this only involves “non-essential issues.” Instead, Protestant churches share a collection of universal beliefs that represent the “Catholic faith” of the New Testament in contrast to the man-made traditions of the “Roman Catholic Church.”
However, the group’s method of proving the “catholicity” of Protestantism falls victim to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. This occurs when a person ignores the differences in a set of data and simply focuses on the similarities by drawing arbitrary boundaries. The name comes from a joke about “the best gunslinger in Texas” who randomly shoots at the side of a barn and then paints bullseye targets around each of the bullet holes, gloating, “A perfect shot every time!”
It’s easy to hit your mark when you define whatever you hit as “the mark.” Likewise, the Reformed Catholic Confession proves only that Protestants are united in the essentials of their faith because they’ve defined the “essentials” as those things about which they agree. These include the Trinity, sola scriptura, sola fide, man’s fallen nature, and the necessity of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
But what about other beliefs that many Protestants consider “essential” to their understanding of the Christian faith? For example:
- Does baptism spiritually regenerate someone, and is it, therefore, necessary for salvation? Should infants be baptized even if baptism does not spiritually regenerate us? Protestants disagree about these issues, and the confession only says that baptism “strengthen[s] the faithful by visibly recalling, proclaiming, and sealing the gracious promise of forgiveness of sins.” This stands in contrast to Martin Luther’s declaration that baptism “delivers us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God's own . . . [it] suppresses and takes away sin” (The Large Catechism).
- Is hell an eternal, conscious separation from God, or is it the annihilation of the sinner after death? Although the Confession mentions heaven, it does not speak of hell. It only says that those who persist in unbelief will be consigned to “an everlasting fate apart from [God].” This wording could include a significant number of Evangelicals who believe the damned will be destroyed after death and thus “kept out of heaven” forever.
- Is man so fallen that he cannot freely choose to accept God’s offer of salvation so thatGod must give him irresistible grace that guarantees he will never lose his salvation? Many Protestants say man is not that fallen and has free will, but Calvinists disagree and claim that man contributes nothing to his own salvation.
Even issues like the Trinity and justification have become flashpoints of serious disagreement among Protestants. For example, Evangelicals such as the late Walter Martin deny the traditional view of Christ’s eternal sonship and say the second Person of the Trinity became the Son only after the Incarnation. Other Protestants disagree about whether sola fide means that a person must repent of past sins or if any future sins could ever cause one’s justification to be lost. In the book Justification: Five Views, four of the views come from Protestants.
The confession also makes no mention of Protestants being united on specific moral truths but only of their being committed to “works of love, compassion for the poor, and justice for the oppressed.” The signatories might object that confessions of faith generally don’t mention specific moral issues, but there’s no denying that Protestants are sharply divided over issues like abortion and homosexual behavior. The Reformation Project even tries to use arguments from the Bible alone to promote homosexual behavior. Isn’t it essential for Christians to know—and agree on—whether these behaviors are sinful, just as they do on adultery and murder, for example?
The Role of the Church
Some Protestants will probably respond to this critique by saying that the Catholic Church fares no better. After all, you can find theologians and priests who reject fundamental dogmas of the Faith like the perpetual virginity of Mary or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That’s true, but unlike “mere Protestantism,” the Catholic Church is an enduring hierarchical body that speaks through the Magisterium to the question of what Catholics are obliged to believe. Those who call themselves “Catholic” but openly reject these dogmas have put themselves outside of communion with the Church.
But for Protestants, there is no such authoritative body, no one to say which dogmas are essential to believe. The Reforming Catholic Confession says that “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” is “an earthly place where his will is done and he is now present, existing visibly everywhere two or three gather in his name to proclaim and spread the gospel in word and works of love.” There is no mention of the church disciplining (Matt 18:17) or excommunicating believers (1 Cor. 5:5). Notice especially that Jesus did not say in Matthew 18:17 that, concerning a brother who sins against you, “tell it to your church.” He said to “tell it to the church,” which implies that believers were to be united organizationally as well as doctrinally.
Without this organizational union, an excommunicated sinner or heretic could simply walk down the street to the next church that welcomes him. But according to Evangelical scholar D.A. Carson, “only ‘church’ (ekklesia in the singular) is used for the congregation of all believers in one city, never ‘churches’; one reads of churches in Galatia [a region, not a city] but of the church in Antioch or Jerusalem or Ephesus (“Church Authority,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 250).
The truly “catholic faith” will be the one that is universal across space and time. Catholicism is made up of different customs and even theological opinions, but the twenty-four particular churches of the Catholic Faith (e.g. Latin, Byzantine, Syriac) that represent the one Catholic Church are not just a loose collection of denominations that share a few “essential beliefs” and nothing else. Also, unlike the ambiguous ecclesiology present in the Reforming Catholic Confession, from the beginning Catholicism was visible and tangible. As the non-Catholic scholar J.N.D. Kelly notes, the early Christians’ idea of the Church “was almost always the empirical, visible society: they had little or no inkling of the distinction between a visible and invisible Church” (Early Christian Doctrines, 190).
So who are the most “catholic” or universal Christians? The ones who follow St. Peter’s dictum, “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20) and adhere to the universal teachings of the church of the living God, which is "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).
 For more proof that Protestants are divided over essential issues, consider the following titles from the Zondervan Point/Counter Point series, which contains opposing essays from various Protestant scholars: Understanding Four Views On Baptism, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, Four Views on Hell, Four Views on Eternal Security, and Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World.