The Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517 when a 34-year-old German friar named Martin Luther boldly nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, sparking the great schism that would be later coined the Protestant Reformation. These 95 Theses, or oppositions to teachings of the Catholic Church, highlight some of the problems that Luther had with the papacy and doctrines taught within the church that were not rooted in scripture. It has been nearly 500 years since the Reformation began, and with Pope Francis’ recent visit to America, it makes the average person wonder just what the differences between Catholics and Protestants really are. Obviously there are Catholics who differ slightly with other Catholics and the same can certainly be said about Protestants as well. With that being said, we will take a look at some of the traditional differences that have distinguished these two church bodies.
- The Magisterium VS Sola Scriptura- This is not to say that Catholics do not hold a high view of scripture; many do. However, the official position of the Catholic Church is that tradition holds the same amount of importance as scripture. The magisterium is composed of the pope and the bishops who have great power in deciding what the church is to believe. A strong focus is given to historical tradition of early church fathers, and the pope has great influence especially in areas not explicitly addressed in scripture. Traditional Protestants on the other hand, hold to the view of Sola Scriptura, stating that scripture alone is our authority on all matters of Christian practice (2 Tim 3:16). The pope is viewed in Catholicism as the “Vicar of Christ” (Vicar meaning substitute), implying that the pope takes the place of Christ as the visible head of the church. Protestants throughout history have frowned heavily on this idea of having a single entity that speaks authoritatively for the entire church body.
- The doctrine of Justification- The doctrine of justification is probably the fuse that gave way to the entire Reformation. Catholics hold to a view that says faith + works = justification. They also make the distinction of mortal and venial sins. Venial sins being “lesser” sins that do not fully and finally separate us from God, and mortal sins being the more serious in nature that require confession before a priest. Protestants believe that those who are born again are immediately justified in God’s sight and are imputed with the righteousness of Christ, as opposed to Rome’s view of infused righteousness. Imputed righteousness says that it is only by the merit of Christ, whereas infused righteousness says that Christ helps “us” to become righteous. We also believe in justification by faith alone (Gal 3:24; Rom 5:1), and that our sins don’t actually justify us or “unjustify” us so to speak. It is the knowledge of God’s grace and his working in us (Phil 2:13) that leads us to walk daily with him and to keep his commandments. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:16 that it is faith that justifies us, and that no one will be justified by the works of the law.
- The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper- The position of the Catholic Church is that the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist are one single sacrifice. However, the manner in which the offering is given is different. In one sense Christ offered himself in a bloody manner when he was crucified, and that he is now offered in an unbloody manner by means of the Eucharist. This view, referred to as transubstantiation, states that the wine becomes the literal blood of Christ and the bread becomes his literal body. This idea is taken from Jesus words in John chapter 6 where Jesus says that if you don’t eat his flesh and drink his blood then you have no life in you. Protestants do not hold transubstantiation to be true, but rather hold communion to be symbolic reminder of what Christ has already accomplished for us. I will not give a full rebuttal of transubstantiation; however, it is important to note that Jesus often spoke figuratively, and there is little ground to think that Jesus meant for this teaching to be literally interpreted. It would also defy the very definition of the word “Sacrament” which is defined in short as a symbolic spiritual sign of divine grace.
- The priesthood of the believer- As Protestants, we believe in what is called the priesthood of all believers. This doctrine (illustrated in 1 Peter 2:5-9) teaches that an Old Testament type priesthood through an earthly mediator is no longer necessary for us to come before God’s throne of grace. This access has been granted to us through the substitutionary death of Christ. Matthew 27:51 tells us that the veil in the temple shielding the Most Holy Place was torn from top to bottom, symbolizing that Christ had accomplished what the law, weakened by the flesh could not. The priesthood of the believer means that we may now come before God with our concerns directly, without the means of an earthly high priest. This next part gets a bit tricky. Catholics would actually say that they accept this doctrine. However, the emphasis on confession of mortal sins would at least suggest otherwise. The point is that the stronger idea of this priesthood is held by Protestants.
These are just a few of the core beliefs that have long separated Protestants from the Catholic Church. There are definitely many other beliefs that play a large part in this topic, and this list is by no means exhaustive. It’s very troublesome that there are so many Christians who are absolutely bankrupt when it comes to knowledge of the core differences that sparked the Reformation. Reformation theology was defended by some of the bravest men to have ever lived. Many lost their lives, being labeled as heretics and burned at the stake for holding to some of these beliefs. There is still much contention between the doctrines held by the Vatican and those taught by Protestants. The best way to lead people to the truth of the gospel is to educate them on the positions and let the whole of scripture speak to our hearts. I leave you with this quote by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Luther was asked to recant his teachings and submit to the authority of the church.
Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest evidence…I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience….Here I stand. God help me! Amen!”
-Martin Luther, Diet of Worms 1521