Book Review: The Roman Catholic Controversy: Catholics & Protestants – Do the Differences Still Matter? (by Dr. James R. White)

I just finished reading Dr. James White’s book, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Bethany House Publishers, 1996), and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.  The sub-title of the book, Catholics & Protestants – Do the Differences Still Matter?, is a question that apparently still needs to be addressed, though this should not be so.

With the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States a lot of discussion surrounding this very issue has ensued.  No doubt, the large number of so-called Protestants that welcomed Pope Francis with open arms and open hearts is the major cause for this frenzy.  But is all the uproar really necessary?  Should there really be protests at such partnerships?  Can’t Protestants and Catholics finally put their differences aside and once and for all join hands?

If one truly understands the issues at hand — what it is that the Roman Catholic Church dogmatically teaches in relation to what the Bible teaches — the answer to these questions must of necessity be “No”.  For the sake of the truth of the Gospel we cannot embrace the Pope as a fellow brother in the Lord and welcome him with open arms.  The differences are simply to great.  The cost of compromise accords with the degree of the differences — eternal punishment in Hell.

Now, there will likely be people who read this post who disagree with my position.  To them I simply say, read this book!  If you value truth, honesty, and the word of God, then read this book so as to become educated in that which truly divides Roman Catholics from those who hold the Bible as their ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice.  For those who are already familiar with the differences, and who claim to hold to the Bible as their ultimate authority, and yet rejoice in the Pope (in particular) and Roman Catholics (in general), I can only conclude that you have betrayed your commitment to the Bible as God’s ultimate authority.  One cannot truly hold to the Bible as their ultimate authority, believing what it so clearly and bountifully teaches us in matters of faith and practice, especially with regard to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and yet welcome the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church he officially represents.  Truth and falsehood do not go hand-in-hand; they cannot be equally yoked (2 Cor. 6:14-18).

I suppose now would be a good time to supply a review of James White’s book.

Anyone who is familiar with Dr. White knows the great effort he takes to accurately represent his opponents and to focus on those things that truly matter.  He has demonstrated this honesty countless times in his numerous debates and books.  This book is no different.  In the preface of his book, Dr. White clarifies his approach:

This book arises out of a sincere attempt to follow in the Apostles’ footsteps with reference to the glory of God and the truth of the Gospel.  My motivations are transparent.  I love God and I love the Gospel He has revealed in Jesus Christ….

To believe in the God who has revealed himself in Christ is to be a lover of truth.  How can we claim to follow the One who called himself ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ if we do not take such a claim seriously?  And if we believe in truth, we must be diligent in making use of the means God has given us to know and apply His truth.  This requires that we be students of His Word, the Bible, constantly seeking to learn more about its teachings and to bring our own beliefs into line with it.  It is also imperative that we think as clearly and logically as we can.  God is not honored by muddled thinking. (p. 14)

Dr. White’s deep concern for the Gospel is evident throughout, as he’s constantly examining the teachings of Rome according to the infallible, God-breathed Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15-17; cf. Tit. 2:9).

In Chapter 2, “Cutting Through the Fog,” Dr. White dispels the fog (i.e. confusion and distraction) that is often created by Protestants and Catholics alike.  Often times misrepresentation, emotionalism, focus on side-issues, and the like, create a hazy scene that is difficult to navigate through.  Such practices must be forsaken and discernment needs to be implemented if we are to focus on those matters of greatest significance.  The essential issue here is the Gospel of peace, and it’s this very thing that Dr. White addresses in the following chapter.

Chapter 3, “The Essential Issue: The Gospel of Peace,” is the heart of this book.  Everything else ought to be read in light of its contents.  This is the main issue, and the question is whether or not the Roman Catholic Church possesses this Gospel of peace.  Peace with God, and how one may obtain it, is no light matter.

Lest we lose our focus, let me remind you of the issue at stake: peace with God.  People on both sides of the Roman Catholic/Protestant debate who are honest realize that these arguments have to do with nothing less than people’s eternity destiny (sic).  If you take nothing more from this book than the content of this chapter, I will have accomplished what a Christian author desires to do: communicate the core truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (p. 39)

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to a brief examination of key Scriptures that teach us about this Gospel that brings us peace with God, and how this is achieved by grace through faith (e.g. Acts 10:36; Rom. 3:24-26, 28; 4:4-5, 16; 5:1).

A discussion of such issues, however, necessitate a discussion of the question of authority.  That is, who defines this Gospel?  How can we know for certain what the Gospel truly is?  The next five chapters are devoted to this issue of authority, each chapter having its own unique emphasis:

Chapter 4: “Who Defines the Gospel?”

Chapter 5: “Sola Scriptura: God Speaks Clearly”

Chapter 6: “The Thousand Traditions”

Chapter 7: “Sola Scriptura vs. Sacred Tradition”

Chapter 8: “The Claims of the Papacy”

Due to the recent visitation of Pope Francis, I will simply provide a brief overview of Chapter 8.

Early on in the chapter Dr. White supplies a dogmatic declaration from the Church of Rome regarding the office and person of the Pope.  It reads as follows:

We, therefore, for the preservation, safekeeping, and increase of the Catholic flock, with the approval of the sacred Council, do judge it to be necessary to propose to the belief and acceptance of all the faithful, in accordance with the ancient and constant faith of the universal Church, the doctrine touching the institution, perpetuity, and nature of the sacred Apostolic Primacy. (First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution, ‘Pastor aeternus,’ April 24, 1870)

With further quotations from Roman Catholic sources, Dr. White goes on to clarify that the official teaching of Rome regarding the Papacy is that Christ bestowed on Peter primacy of honor, jurisdiction, and rulership, and that such primacy applies to Peter’s successors (the bishops of Rome).  Further, it is the belief of the Roman Catholic Church that this view has “been the ancient and constant faith of the Christian Church”.  Dr. White goes on to demonstrate the high position the Bishop of Rome possesses in the Roman Catholic Church by quoting Unam Sanctam, a papal bull by Pope Boniface (November 18, 1302):

Consequently we declare, state, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. (p. 107)

The remainder of the chapter consists of an examination and refutation of the Church of Rome’s claims regarding the Papacy.  A look at Matthew 16:18-19, the role of Peter in the life of the Church in Acts 15, and some of Peter’s own words regarding himself (e.g. 1 Pet. 5:1-2) follows.  An examination of John 21:15-17 and Luke 22:31-32 are also supplied, noting that Cyril of Alexandria (c. 370-444) provides an interpretation of John 21:15-17 that is in line with the Protestant view, not the Roman Catholic view (p. 113-114).

Dr. White also provides a section on the early Church’s view regarding Matthew 16:18-19, documenting that the early Church primarily viewed “this rock” as referring, not to Peter, but to the faith that Peter confessed, or to Christ himself (pp. 118-122).  While there were Church Fathers who viewed “this rock” as referring to Peter, it does not mean that they believed the bishop of Rome was a Pope (p. 120).  A quote by a Roman Catholic, the Jesuit Maldonatus, is one such evidence:

There are among ancient authors some who interpret ‘on this rock,’ that is, ‘on this faith,’ or ‘on this confession of faith in which thou hast called me the Son of the living God,’ as Hilary, and Gregory Nyseen, and Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria.  St. Augustine, going still further away from the true sense, interprets ‘on this rock,’ that is, ‘on myself Christ,’ because Christ was the rock.  But Origen ‘on this rock,’ that is to say, ‘on all men who have the same faith.’ (p. 121; quoted from Dr. Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church, p. 335)

The exegetical studies and historical documentation in this chapter alone ought to cause any serious-minded Roman Catholic to give second thought to the lofty claims of the Church of Rome.  At the very least, further investigation should be ensued.

The next four chapters center around the biblical doctrine of justification:

Chapter 9: “Justified Before God: Rome’s View”

Chapter 10: “Justified Before God: By Grace Through Faith Alone”

Chapter 11: “What of the Mass?”

Chapter 12: “The Divine Waiting Room” [i.e. Purgatory]

For the sake of time, and due to the central place of the Mass in the worship of the Church of Rome, focus will be given to Chapter 11.

Once again Dr. White begins the chapter with numerous quotations from Roman Catholic sources, such as the Council of Trent, so as to accurately represent the Catholic position, making it very clear as to what it is the Church of Rome officially teaches with regard to the administration of the Mass.

After providing such documentation, Dr. White summarizes the Roman Catholic teaching on the Mass as follows:

(1) Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist following the words of consecration.

(2) Transubstantiation involves the change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ, and the change of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of the blood of Christ.

(3) Since Christ is said to be really present in the Eucharist, the elements themselves, following consecration, are worthy of worship.

(4) The Sacrifice of the Mass is properly called ‘propitiatory’ in that it brings about pardon of sin.

(5) In the institution of the Mass at the Lord’s Supper, Christ offered His own body and blood to the Father in the signs of the bread and wine, and in so doing ordained the Apostles as priests of the New Testament.

(6) The Sacrifice of the Mass is properly offered for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities, not only for the living but for the dead as well.

(7) Finally, anyone who denies the truthfulness of any of these proclamations is under the anathema of God. (p. 164)

What follows is a biblical examination of the Roman Catholic teaching that the Mass involves transubstantiation and is a propitiatory sacrifice.  Since the main, “go to” passage of Roman Catholic apologists for the Mass is John 6 (especially vv. 53 and 57), Dr. White spends a good deal of his time examining this text in its context, to include those sections that are often overlooked by the Roman Catholics, thus supplying proper context to accurately interpret Jesus’ words found in vv. 53 and 57.  In short, an honest study of the greater context demonstrates that “eating” and “drinking” are utilized as a metaphor for Jesus’ previous words “coming” and “believing” (pp. 169-172).  Dr. White concludes, “The literal meaning, given the parallelism already firmly established in this passage, has to refer to the union of the believer by faith with Jesus Christ, not a participation in the Roman Catholic Mass” (p. 172).

The final section in this chapter focuses on the effectual nature of Christ’s sacrifice, examining closely Hebrews 9 and 10 (see especially 9:12, 14, 24-28 and 10:10-14).  The following are key points from this section:

Rome teaches that believers can approach this ‘re-presentation’ of the sacrifice of Christ a thousand times or more in their life and still die ‘impure,’ needing yet to undergo the suffering of atonement in Purgatory before being able to enter into the presence of God. (p. 177)

Christ did not need to ‘suffer often.’  His one act of suffering is sufficient, since He was able to ‘put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.’ The old sacrifices could not put away sin and therefore had to be repeated.  Repetition demonstrates insufficiency. (p. 177)

The repetitive nature of the Mass stands in stark contrast to the completedness of the Cross. (p. 179)

Chapter 13, “When Sola Scriptura Is Rejected,” is an examination of the kind of doctrines man can develop when they reject the perspicuity and ultimate authority of the Bible. In this case, the Marian dogmas.  Dr. White looks at the teachings of Rome regarding the immaculate conception of Mary, the distinctions Rome places on the terms dulia and latria, and the exaltation of Mary.

The discussion of the exaltation of Mary in Roman Catholic theology is by far the most disturbing, as it clearly demonstrates (numerous quotes are given) the unbiblical devotion that the Church of Rome gives to Mary, even to the point of directly associating her with the accomplishment of our salvation.  For example, Pope Pius X (February 2, 1904) is quoted as referring to Mary as “the supreme Minister of the distribution of graces” (p. 215), and Pope Pius XII (October 11, 1954) as referring to her as “His [Christ’s] associate in the redemption” (p. 215).  Karl Keating is quoted as referring to Mary as “the Mediatrix of all graces” (p. 217).  Perhaps most shocking to anyone who seeks to believe that which the Scriptures teach, especially with regard to Christ and the Gospel, are the following words by St. Alphonsus Ligouri (The Glories of Mary):

But now, if God is angry with a sinner, and Mary takes him under her protection, she withholds the avenging arm of her Son, and saves him.

St. Anselm, to increase our confidence, adds, that ‘when we have recourse to this divine Mother, not only we may be sure of her protection, but that often we shall be heard more quickly, and be thus preserved, if we have recourse to Mary and call on her holy name, than we should be if we called on the name of Jesus our Saviour,’ and the reason he gives for it is, ‘that to Jesus as a judge, it belongs also to punish; but mercy alone belongs to the Blessed Virgin as a patroness.’ Meaning, that we more easily find salvation by having recourse to the Mother than by going to the Son.

And shall we scruple to ask her to save us, when ‘the way of salvation is open to none otherwise than through Mary’?

The holy Church herself attributes to the merits of Mary’s faith the destruction of all heresies: ‘Rejoice, O Virgin Mary, for thou alone hast destroyed all heresies throughout the world.’ (pp. 216-217)

If only Mary could destroy the heresy of the Marian dogmas that Rome has espoused.  It is suspicious indeed how the Church of Rome can place such central emphasis on the place, role, and merits of Mary in their theology, yet somehow the apostles themselves, those who walked with Jesus, who were taught by Jesus, and who actually lived during the time of Mary, never taught such things.  It is completely lacking from their writings; writings, I might add, that are God-breathed.

Well, the book concludes with one more chapter, “Sola Gratia,” a summary of sorts, emphasizing yet again that the biblical Gospel is the Gospel of God’s sovereign grace, all to the glory of God.  This is the Gospel that Rome does not possess, as is clearly demonstrated throughout the pages of this book.

Of special note is the mention of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) in this final chapter.  This seems to be, at least in part, why Dr. White took up the duty of writing this much needed book.  The spirit of Evangelicals and Catholics Together continues, as has been recently witnessed with the visitation of Pope Francis to the United States.  Yet such a spirit is a deceiving spirit, as it calls for the blurring of lines, the muddying of water, the ignorance of Church history, and rejection of the Gospel itself, without which no one will have peace with God.

This book may have been published in 1996, nearly twenty years ago, but it continues to speak to our times, calling for a fresh and continued examination of the things that truly matter — the Gospel itself — especially in relation to the teachings of Rome.  Let the reader understand, there is indeed a dividing line that exists between Catholics and Protestants, and that dividing line is the very Gospel that bleeds on every page of Scripture, the redeeming blood of Jesus our Savior running from Genesis to Revelation.  We must not, indeed we cannot, back down from this issue.  The spiritual battle rages on, but Christ has the victory, and all those who have truly placed their faith and hope in Him and His perfect and sufficient work alone (life, crucifixion, and resurrection) have the victory in Him.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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