John Ankerberg’s Protestants and Catholics caught my eye as I passed the bookshelf in our local Bible bookstore. I took it home and thumbed through it. I had recently purchased Dave Hunt’s A Woman Rides the Beast and James McCarthy’s The Gospel According to Rome.
I’m interested in this topic (how some Christians negatively characterize the Catholic Church), and I respect the amount of time and energy these writers must invest in such books. Out of that respect I offered brief comments on Ankerberg’s book.
What follows is based on a letter I sent to Ankerberg in the hope that subsequent editions will be more carefully researched. Having had no reply from the author, nor from the other Protestant writers to whom I sent copies, I present it here.
Quoting the Pope
The first thing that grabbed my attention was a quotation from the Pope in the chapter titled “Redefining Biblical Words.” In this section Ankerberg says that Catholics redefine biblical words based on their ancient tradition: “Catholic theology goes on to teach that the works which come after God infuses grace, though inspired by grace, are also what help to save a person. As Pope John Paul II emphasizes, ‘Man is justified by works and not by faith alone'” (page 114). [The footnote reads: “As cited in the Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1983, part 1, p. 10.” It is unclear why he cites an article no one can research easily. Has the Pope written so little that Ankerberg must quote from a twelve-year-old newspaper article? ]
What is the point in quoting these words? Is Ankerberg aware that John Paul II is directly quoting Scripture? In James 2:24 we read, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (KJV). In criticizing the Pope’s words, Ankerberg seems to criticize the original inspired author. He should correct this blunder. Such things damage one’s credibility.
Faith Alone and James
In the chapter “The Apostle James,” Ankerberg addresses arguments on justification by “faith alone,” centering on Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Catholics agree with this Scripture, but the same words (“it was reckoned to him as righteousness”) are applied to another person in the Old Testament besides Abraham, and the “justification” was there attributed to actions and zealousness, not faith alone.
The phrase used in Psalm 106:31 is the same (in both the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Septuagint) as is used in Genesis 15:6. In Psalm 106:30, 31 we read, “Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed. And that was counted unto him for righteousness unto all generations for evermore” (KJV).
Evangelicals say his faith justified him, like his father Abraham-but the Psalmist must not have understood the faith alone doctrine, for he attributes the imputation of righteousness to Phinehas’ zealousness. Girdlestone, in his Synonyms of the Old Testament, writes, “It is not a little remarkable that the privilege thus granted to Abraham was accorded to another person in exactly the same terms, but apparently on a different ground” (Eerdmans, 1897, 1974, 163).
I found the chapter on James disappointing. Ankerberg makes the point that the word “justify” really means “vindicate” and that “vindicate” has nothing to do with salvation, but with the proving of the believer’s faith-Abraham’s faith. But he does not address the major weakness of this perspective: It is not the faith that is being justified by works-it is the man. If that is true shouldn’t we read, “Was not Abraham our father’s faith justified (vindicated) by works?” making it clear that it is his faith and not his person which is vindicated? Instead we read, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?”
This passage does not sit well with Ankerberg’s interpretation. He says that it is always faith that is proven by works, whereas the apostle James seems to say it is the person.
Ankerberg also says that “Paul is writing about a person being justified before God, while James is writing about a man being justified before men. Men cannot see another person’s heart as God can” (37).
We must take care with this theory, or we’ll end up scratching a few verses out of Genesis. Was it men who were testing Abraham’s faith? The book of Genesis says God, not men, who was testing Abraham in Genesis 22. Ankerberg writes that James is referring to justification before men, because God can already see the heart (37). But the problem remains: It was God who was testing Abraham in Genesis, because Moses wrote, “Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham” (Gen. 22:1). It was not men who were finding out what was in Abraham’s heart- whether he had true faith-it was God.
Abraham passed God’s test of faith. “For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you” (Gen. 22:16, 17).
Does Ankerberg think the Catholic won’t notice that, even though God could see Abraham’s heart, he had to test Abraham to see if he had real faith? God says to Abraham, “Now I know . . .” implying he didn’t know earlier. Couldn’t God tell if Abraham had saving faith, once and for all, by looking at his heart? According to the “legal imputation” theory, God saw Abraham’s saving faith in Genesis 15:6-so why did he have to test it in Genesis 22, as Ankerberg says, “thirty years later”?
Another problem with the Fundamentalist interpretation is that there were no men around to be “vindicated” before-this test was strictly between God and Abraham. Ankerberg’s position (that this was “justification before men”) is at odds with the whole of Scripture. This great test of faith took place far from civilization-three days’ journey to Mount Moriah-where Christ would someday become the Lamb of sacrifice. [“And he said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer trim there as a burnt offering on one of he mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2). “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah” (2 Chron. 3:1). ]
Genesis 22:3-6 tells us, “So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. And Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.”
We don’t see crowds of people gathered around Abraham on Mount Moriah, as around Elijah on Mount Carmel. If God already knew Abraham had saving faith, why did he put him through such a cruel experiment? Think of the implications of Ankerberg’s position: that God is capricious.
Ankerberg writes that “Paul appeals to Abraham in Genesis 15, stating that Abraham was justified the moment he believed in God” (37). The Catholic may wonder when Abraham really was saved. Maybe in the next printing Ankerberg can revise his book to address this issue. The Genesis record is not clear as to when Abraham was saved, and the writer of Hebrews appears unclear as well.
Paul quotes from Genesis 15, but is that where Abraham first had faith? What about Genesis 12? Doesn’t Hebrews 11:8 tell us, “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went” (KJV). Was this some other kind of faith? No, his obedience here is based on faith. He built altars to God on the plain of Moreh (Gen. 12:6, 7), in Bethel (Gen. 12:8) and Hebron (Gen. 13: 18). During this time by faith “he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Yet this takes place before his justification in Genesis 15. There were probably more than ten years between his first-mentioned demonstration of saving faith and the subsequent declaration of righteous in Genesis 15. At what point did his faith save him-or was it a process of faith and obedience?
In the Christian context, justification is seen as the entrance into the new covenant, the kingdom of God’s dear Son. When did God give Abraham the sign of the covenant? In Genesis 12, when he first believed at seventy-five years of age? In Genesis 15, when it says he acquired imputed righteousness? In Genesis 17, when he was ninety-nine years old?
God established a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17. The sign of the covenant was circumcision. Abraham was then justified by faith, but what would have happened if he had refused to obey and be circumcised? What would his status have been before God? Would his obedience (good works) or disobedience (evil works = sins) have altered his relationship to God? What if Abraham had refused to sacrifice his son?
James thinks Abraham was not justified in Genesis 15 or 17, but much later in Genesis 22, when he offered up Isaac. He states, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21, KJV). And then James is bold enough to say, “So you see, a man is justified by his works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). I can understand why Martin Luther disliked James, called it the “epistle of straw,” and relegated it to the back of his translation, since it did not agree with his novel doctrine of sola fide.
Somehow Paul’s argument in Romans also has been squeezed into the framework of this Protestant and Catholic debate. Some Jews of that time considered it a logical necessity that the Gentiles first convert and obey Jewish laws and customs and bear the mark of the covenant before being allowed to follow the Jewish Messiah. In other words, the Judaizers were saying that one became a Christian by first observing all the laws of the Jewish religion (Gal. 2:14).
Paul was not arguing salvation by faith vs. faith plus obedience. He was saying, “Abraham did not become righteous by circumcision and obedience to the Ten Commandments. No, he was reckoned as righteous long before these things existed. How was he made righteous? By believing God while being virtually a Gentile. There were no Jews yet, no Law yet, no circumcision yet. If Abraham was right with God before the giving of the Law, why can’t the Gentile be right with God apart from works of the Law?” Gentile converts could be justified just as Abraham was-by faith.
James elaborates what faith is, and its crucial element of obedience (works), as does John in his first epistle. The Catholic vs. Protestant argument, the faith vs. faith and obedience debate, has nothing to do with the discussion Paul was having with the Jewish Christians in Rome and Galatia.
Tainted with Tradition
Ankerberg says Catholics read the Bible from a viewpoint tainted by their ancient traditions, and, in so doing, they don’t allow the Bible to speak for itself. He implies that Protestants haveno distinct tradition through which they filter Scripture. Catholics, who usually have a pretty good g.asp of history, will think he is naive on this point-and so will most Protestants. An Evangelical for thirty-nine years, I know of Evangelicals who won’t acknowledge that they also have a tradition through which they read the Bible and understand Christian theology.
Just as there are no completely objective journalists, no one can come to the Bible with complete objectivity. To maintain credibility, Ankerberg should have admitted that Evangelical Protestants also approach history, the Bible, and theology from a certain tradition.
Since the Bible is not as perspicuous as Protestants sometimes think (as is proven by the thousands of different interpretations by well-meaning, sincere folks), [Luther said in his Commentary on the Psalms, “The Bible is its own interpreter.” It doesn’t take a genius to see where that idea has gotten us. Even Luther quickly saw its devastating effect: “There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads; this one will not admit baptism; that one rejects the Sacrament of the altar; another places another world between the present one and the day of judgment; some teach that Jesus Christ is not God. There is not an individual, however clownish he may be, who does not claim to be inspired by the Holy Ghost and who does not put forth as prophecies his ravings and dreams” (Martin Luther, cited in Leslie Rumble, Bible Quizzes to a Street Preacher (Rockford: TAN Books, 1976, 22). Luther also wrote, “If the world lasts for a long time, it will again be necessary, on account of the many interpretations which are now given to the Scriptures, to receive the decrees of the councils, and take refuge in them, in order to preserve the unity of the faith” (Epis. ad Zwingli). ] people approach it with their own biases, as Ankerberg does in his book. The dilemma of Protestantism is that “the Protestants are also split-by the incoherence of their own teaching that proclaims individual reading of Scripture as the highest authority, and at the same time imposing their views as correct.” [Protestants can’t come close to agreement on basic doctrines, such as baptismal regeneration, which Luther and Calvin believed in, especially for infants. Many claim the Reformers as their own, yet are selective as to which Reformation doctrines they embrace.]
Ankerberg seriously misrepresents the Catholic position regarding the Mass. Catholics will listen to non-Catholics if they are honest and correctly represent the Catholic position. But if they caricature Catholic teaching, Catholics rightly dismiss them as uneducated or uninterested in the truth. It would be best to give honestly the position of the Catholic Church and deal with it squarely, instead of setting up straw men that are easily demolished.
The Catholic Church does not teach that Christ is “re-sacrificed” on the altar. Why does Ankerberg say that it does? The quotation he uses from the Catholic Encyclopedia does not use anything like”re-sacrifice,” yet Ankerberg says it teaches “re-sacrificing.” Words are important; smart Catholics will catch on to what he is doing- playing footloose with terminology to suit his own interests.
In fact, the Catholic Church teaches exactly the opposite, and Ankerberg, as a supposed scholar, should know that. Christ was sacrificed once for all, as Hebrews tells us, and he does not need to come down and be crucified every day.
Catholics teach that there was only one sacrifice and that the Mass is a re-presentation of that sacrifice, a partaking in and of the one sacrifice-the eating of the Lamb (Ex. 12:11, John 6:52-58). There are not many sacrifices-only one. Catholics teach that the Mass is a participation in the one sacrifice, the sacrifice on Calvary.
Notice that we see Christ before the throne of God in Revelation 5:6, forever presented as a “lamb as though slain” (the Greek perfect tense). The apostle John tells us the Lamb was slain but is still on the altar before the throne of God.[ How do Protestants explain an altar, the table of sacrifice, in heaven before the throne of God (Is. 6:1; Rev. 6:9; 8:3, 5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:18; 16:7)? Didn’t altars become extinct with the new covenant or dispensation?] So we have an anomaly: Christ seated at the right hand of the Father, and Christ, the Lamb of God, standing on the altar. In the temporal world, he was slain once-but in heaven, the world outside time, it appears that the sacrifice of Christ is an eternal event. We are even told that he was crucified before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).
Let’s take a close look: When was Christ crucified-“before the foundation of the world,” in A.D. 30, or as the “Lamb standing as though slain” presented in eternity future?
Catholics say, “All of the above.” They see the Mass as a partaking of that eternal event. It brings that event into their presence. It transports them into heaven to see, experience, and partake of the eternal liturgy going on before God’s throne. Catholics wonder why Evangelicals make this so complicated, since Catholics think of it as simple and biblical.
Ankerberg should have quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church and not given his own paraphrased and private interpretation. In paragraph 1367 the Catechism states, “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: ‘The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.’
“‘In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the Cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.'”
One of the early Christians, Justin Martyr, wrote: “Hence God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve prophets, as I said before, about the sacrifices at that time presented by you [Jews]: ‘I have no pleasure in you,’ says the Lord, ‘and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands; for from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same my Name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my Name, and a pure offering: for my Name is great among the Gentiles says the Lord, but you profane it.’
“He then speaks to those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to him, that is, the bread of the Eucharist and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify his Name and you profane it.” [Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew chap. 41 (A.D. 135). As Protestant scholar J. N. D. Kelly writes, “It was natural for early Christians to think of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The fulfillment of prophecy demanded a solemn Christian offering, and the rite itself was wrapped in the sacrificial atmosphere with which our Lord invested the Last Supper. The words of institution, ‘Do this,’ must have been charged with sacrificial overtones for second-century ears; Justin at any rate understood them to mean ‘Offer this.’ If we inquire what the sacrifice was supposed to consist in, the Didache for its part provides no clear answer. Justin however, makes it plain that the bread and wine themselves were the ‘pure offering’ foretold by Malachi. . . . [I]t would seem that, while his language is not fully explicit, Justin is feeling his way to the conception of the Eucharist as the offering of the Savior’s passion” (Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978]).]
When I read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I see the same kind of language:
“I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation[ Augustine places these words on Jesus’ lips to describe what happens at the Eucharist: “You will not change me into you, as happens with bodily food; rather, you will be changed into me” (Confessions, VII, 10, 16). Even Kittel’s says, “Koinonia denotes participation, fellowship, esp. with a close bond. It expresses a two-sided relationship. It means participation, impartation, fellowship” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, III, 798). ] in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
“Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? . . . I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink of the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” [It seems Paul is comparing three sacrifices offered on altars (tables): that of the Jews (verse 18), that of the pagans (verses 19-21) offered to idols, and that of the Christians, the Eucharist. Paul confirms the sacrificial nature of the Christian Eucharist. The “table of the Lord” is a common technical term in the Old Testament referring to the altar of sacrifice (Lev. 24:6, 7; Ez. 41:22; 44:15; Mal. 1:7, 12). The “table of the Lord” in the Church, referred to by Paul, drawing from Old Testament terminology and practice, is now the altar for the new sacrifice referred to by Malachi (Mal. 1:11) according to the first- and second-century Christians. Notice the “table of the Lord” is mentioned twice in the first chapter of Malachi, before and after the Yahweh’s promise of a future, worldwide sacrifice offered by the Gentiles. The “table of the Lord,” or sacrificial altar, will be the place of this offering which corresponds to the Eucharist offered on the “table of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 10:21.]
Notice the sacrificial language being used. The term “table of the Lord” is a technical term which in the Old Testament always refers to a table of sacrifice. Why would Paul use such blatantly sacrificial terminology if he is trying to deny any association between the Eucharist and sacrifice?
Why is the Protestant position on the Lord’s Supper at such odds with the universal teaching of the first Christians who called the Lord’s Supper “Eucharist”? As a Protestant, I always believed that the first four centuries of Christendom were essentially Evangelical. Pagan elements infiltrated, and the Catholic Church was the resulting mutation. After reading the Fathers, I could not find my Evangelical doctrines presented. In fact, I found distinctly Catholic doctrines.[ For example, the first-century Christian, Ignatius of Antioch, who, history tells us, knew the apostles, writes, “Observe those who hold erroneous opinions concerning the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how they run counter to the mind of God! They concern themselves with neither works of charity, nor widows, nor orphans, nor the distressed, nor those in prison or out of it, nor the hungry or thirsty. From Eucharist and prayer they hold aloof, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His loving kindness raised from the dead. And so, those who question the gift of God perish in their contentiousness” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6, 7). ]This is a real problem that needs to be addressed, and Ankerberg does not address it.
Perhaps he is smart to keep readers from investigating the writings of the first centuries. They certainly disturbed me when I began to read Christian history. Why would those who received the Gospels from the apostles have gone off track so quickly? It didn’t make any sense.
Being eternally secure is one of the great promises found in the Bible, and it gives all Christians a great sense of assurance. Ankerberg distorts what John is really trying to say in 1 John 5:13 (p. 236). Most readers would agree that verse 13 is a summary verse, concluding the whole epistle, as Evangelical scholar F. F. Bruce says it is.
The intent of John’s letter was to defend the true Faith against the heresies of the Gnostics (especially one Cerinthus), who said one needed special knowledge beyond Jesus Christ to have eternal life. John is refuting the Gnostics and assuring the Christians that they did have the true knowledge, which John had seen, heard, and handled (1 John 1:1-3). Eternal life was in the Son, not in esoteric teachings of Gnostics, and of this the believers could be assured.
Since verse 13 is the summary of John’s letter, what about the conditional word “if,” which is used twenty times in the preceding text? Isn’t John saying, “If you understand and abide by the conditions of this letter, if you love one another, if you avoid sin, if you believe in the Son, you may know that you have eternal life?”
Evangelical John Stott says in his commentary, The Epistles of John, “They [the recipients of John’s letter] had been unsettled by the false teachers and become unsure of their spiritual state. Throughout the epistle John has been giving them criteria (doctrinal, moral, social) by which to test themselves and others. His purpose was to establish their assurance.” But could they securely “rest” in their absolute assurance of salvation if they were not living up to the “criteria” John gave them?
Sometimes Paul gets iffy too. In Colossians 1:22-23 he writes, “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.” Is Paul saying our final salvation is conditional? Ankerberg, characteristically, ignores the question.
I was raised in an Evangelical Protestant home. My favorite authors have always been Sproul, Ironside, Packer, Kennedy, Bruce, Henry, Geisler, Luther (I have his complete works), and Calvin. I spurned Catholics and their books. When I read first-century writings and the history of my Protestant heritage, the words of John Henry Newman started to make sense. Newman said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
G. K. Chesterton wrote, “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair. When one has entered the Church, he finds that the Church is much larger inside than it is outside.” [G. K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990 ).]
If Chesterton is correct, Protestants would be wise to stay far away. Thirty Evangelicals, in my immediate area alone, have joined the Catholic Church in the last few years. It seems to be part of a wide-ranging “exodus” back to the Catholic Church. One of my best friends, a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Seminary in Deerfield, Illinois (he has a degree in New Testament), just joined the Catholic Church, as did several Baptist friends.
What is the result in their lives? They really display the love of Christ. They seem to take sin much more seriously, and they say holiness is a wonderful adventure, not just an optional appurtenance. This may worry Ankerberg. Anti-Catholic theology is losing its grip on those willing to challenge the narrow confines of recent Fundamentalist tradition.
While I was examining Ankerberg’s book, I realized it was just one more in a series of books that don’t give the Catholic Church the credit due to it.
I set Protestants and Catholics on the shelf beside Boettner, Hunt, Hislop, Swaggart, McCarthy, Wilson, White, and all the others. I’m still waiting for a book that deals fairly with the issues that divide us. It would help if it didn’t treat the intelligent Catholic as a buffoon and if it addressed questions squarely without Fundamentalist jargon.
I am also waiting to see the love of Christ in one of these books. I am dismayed to see that Catholics are the ones who display gentleness and love, accepting their Protestant brethren, while Evangelicals often seem suspicious, cold, and calculating.
I hope John Ankerberg finds these suggestions helpful, and I hope he will revise his book to fix some of its weaknesses-and I wouldn’t mind having him answer my original letter either.