How Do Catholics and Protestants Disagree over Scripture & Tradition?
In 1994, leading Catholic and Evangelical leaders signed the document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” affirming their common faith and common mission on the eve of the third millennium.
Five years later, mainline Lutherans and the Catholic Church similarly came together to bury the hatchet, as it were, in their “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”
While such ecumenical endeavors are encouraging, do they belie the real differences that exist between Protestants and Catholics? If so, what are they, and why are they significant?
The Unfinished Reformation brings clarity to these questions by examining what unites and divides these two dominant Christian groups. Theologian Gregg Allison and pastor Chris Castaldo take a nuanced and thoughtful look at the doctrines and practices of Protestants and Catholics so both groups can have fruitful discussions about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Beginning with their views on Scripture and Tradition, which are briefly sketched below.
Where Catholics and Protestants Agree
Before attending to the differences, it’s important to understand the points of agreement between Catholics and Protestants when it comes to Scripture generally and revelation particularly.
First, “Catholics and Protestants alike point to God’s disclosure of himself through revelation.” (48) Both have traditionally understood such disclosure to come by two means: general revelation, which includes the modes of creation, human conscience, providential care, and an inner awareness of God; and special or divine revelation, God’s particular communication to us through mighty acts, dreams and visions, direct speech, the incarnation, and inspired communication.
Second, regarding this last mode, that God discloses himself through inspired communication, both “affirm together that Scripture is the God-breathed, written revelation of God.” (49) They also both “highlight the transformative power of Scripture and its centrality for salvation, Christian living, and worship." (50)
Catholics and Protestants both affirm God’s self-disclosure through general and special/divine revelation, and also affirm Scripture as God’s written, truthful revelation. Yet, there are several distinct differences.
Catholics and Scripture and Tradition
An important question that highlights the genuine differences between Catholic and Protestant theology is this one: “How does God speak to the world”?
“Catholics respond by saying ‘through Scripture and Tradition.’” (72) Allison and Castaldo go on to explain how Catholic teachings compare God’s communication to his people in a similar twofold pattern as Jesus' apostles communicated the gospel: as they communicated it orally (preaching) and in writing (biblical texts), so God communicates through Tradition (oral teachings of the Church’s bishops, who succeeded the apostles) and Scripture (the writings in the Bible).
They also highlight something important in further explaining Tradition: “Catholics consider the Word of God to consist of both Scripture and Tradition. There are two modes of divine revelation, and both must be interpreted.” (81) Significantly, Catholics believe the revealed truth of the Word of God “has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit” (CCC 81), which is Tradition. Therefore, the Word of God comes to us as divine revelation in the forms of both Scripture and Tradition.
Interestingly, this is why Catholics believe “if Scripture were to be lost, the Church could still exist because it would have Tradition, part of divine revelation.” (71) As Allison and Castaldo explain, Scripture is necessary for the well-being of the Church, not the being of the Church.
Protestants and Scripture and Tradition
Protestants assert something very different: sola Scriptura.
“Scripture, and Scripture alone, is authoritative divine revelation. God speaks to the world through his Word, which is written Scripture only, not Scripture plus Tradition.” (69) Therefore, Protestants believe Scripture is all we need. “Scripture is sufficient in that it provides everything that people need to be saved from sin and death, and everything that Christians need to please God fully.” (71)
Though Protestants do value and hold to tradition, it is viewed differently. They take their cues from the early church who equated tradition with the “rule of faith,” a summary of the essential doctrines based on Scripture. Significantly, this tradition wasn’t a separate mode of revelation, as Catholics assert. Instead for Protestants, tradition (lowercase “c”) affirms the same content as Scripture.
Given that Scripture is viewed as the only mode through which God speaks his Word to the world, it makes sense that Protestants insist the Church loses its way without Scripture. As Allison and Castaldo explain, “if Scripture were to be lost, the Church would cease to exist because all of divine revelation would have disappeared." (72) Perhaps this is why encouraging personal Bible engagement, group Bible studies, and translating the Bible into other languages has been a hallmark of Protestantism.
If you’re a Protestant and have wondered how your beliefs compare to those of your Catholic friends, or vice-versa, The Unfinished Reformation is for you. Join Allison and Castaldo on an important exploration to better understand what unites and divides Catholics and Protestants after 500 years.
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