Several years ago, I did some research on Roman Catholics who had converted to conservative Protestant churches. What intrigued me most about those who shared their experiences with me was the large number who said that they left the Catholic Church because they became Christians or that they became Christians after leaving. At least in retrospect, these converts do not think they were Christians while they were in the Catholic Church.
Though I am a Protestant with fundamental objections to certain Catholic practices and doctrines, I found these testimonies puzzling. The Catholic Church, after all, explicitly confesses Jesus Christ as God and Savior. The Christian Bible occupies a central place in its liturgy and doctrine. Catholics are baptized in the name of the Triune God and celebrate the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. But meanwhile, some attain adulthood as Catholics apparently without ever considering themselves Christians. How does this happen?
I was given a number of answers to this question. Some Catholics claim that conservative Protestants have a monopoly on the word “Christian.” Others imply that Protestant “sects” virtually brainwash converts with anti-Catholic propaganda. Still others say the problem is pastoral rather than theological; Catholic doctrine requires conscious faith of each member of the Church, but the force of this teaching gets lost in the rituals of automatic infant baptism and confirmation.
Some Catholic leaders have admitted the Catholic Church’s own culpability for this situation. The Most Reverend Pastor Cuquejo, Auxiliary Bishop of Asunci”n, Paraguay, attributes the strength of Protestant “sects” in Latin America to the failure of the Catholic Church to keep the gospel central to its mission: “We have at times advanced to a second stage’ of evangelization without laying the foundation for everything else: the kerygma, the apostolic preaching of the Church about the good news of the life and passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ-which has to be the first stage of any valid evangelization.” Along similar lines, the Rev. John Catoir has written, “My own instinct is that the Catholic Church has not emphasized Jesus Christ enough in its teaching. He is certainly central to the Church, but the popular perception of Catholicism is that it is more issue-oriented than Christ-centered.”
These observations are both refreshingly honest and, in my judgment, profoundly true. But I would go still further to suggest that the tendency to obscure the gospel and to displace Christ is inherent in Roman Catholic theology and practice. At this point, a Protestant might be expected to launch into a defense of the Reformation doctrine of justification or an assault on the papacy. In my view, the more theologically fundamental point dividing Roman Catholics from conservative Protestants is the doctrine of revelation, and specifically the relation of Scripture to tradition. The nineteenth-century church historian Philip Schaff called sola Scriptura the “formal principle” of the Reformation, but this “formal principle” affects piety and religious experience in very substantial ways.
One of the lesser-known works of John Calvin is a tract whose short title is “An Inventory of Relics.” It is predominantly a sharp attack on the extremes of medieval Catholic piety-practices that I imagine many Catholics would today dismiss as empty superstitions. Samples of Christ’s hair, teeth, even his foreskin were distributed across Europe, and so much of Jesus’ blood had been preserved as to “be diffused over the whole world.” Calvin complained that “had the most Holy Virgin yielded a more copious supply [of milk] than is given by a cow, or had she continued to nurse during her whole lifetime, she scarcely could have furnished the quantity which is exhibited.” The complaint could have been written by Voltaire.
Calvin’s attack on relic veneration, however, was grounded in an evangelical insight that lies at the heart of the Reformation. “The first abuse,” Calvin wrote, “and, as it were, the beginning of the evil, was that when Christ ought to have been sought in his Word, sacraments, and spiritual influences, the world, after its wont, clung to his garments, vests, and swaddling clothes; and thus overlooking the principal matter, followed only its accessory.” In his Institutes of the Christian Religion , Calvin offered a similar critique of the liturgical tradition of the medieval Church. Formally, Calvin’s argument is that many medieval ceremonies were human inventions, unwarranted by Scripture. It would be a mistake, however, to reduce his argument to a trivial quarrel over the warrant for this vestment or that gesture. Calvin’s principal concern was evangelical and pastoral; he wished to direct sinners to that “place” where they could encounter the living God. Ceremonies, he argued, “to be exercises of piety, ought to lead us straight to Christ.” Ceremonies and devotional practices that fail this test are best removed from the Church.
For Calvin, then, sola Scriptura was inseparable from solus Christus. Solus Christus and sola Scriptura were the Reformation’s answers to two fundamental religious questions. Solus Christus answered the question, How can I have communion with God? Sola Scriptura answered the logically prior epistemological question, From what source do I learn how I can commune with God? Solus Christus means Jesus alone can bring sinners into true life, the life of fellowship with the Triune God . Sola Scriptura means the Scriptures are Christ’s unique revelation of the way to life; it means that Scripture alone, being the Word of God, identifies where the living and life-giving Christ can be found. The Reformers found in Scripture that Christ had promised to meet with His gathered people through His Spirit, His Word, and the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. To see Him elsewhere is to search in vain.
At this point, Calvin’s attack on relics and superfluous ceremonies strikes at the foundations of Roman Catholicism, both medieval and modern. While Jesus promised to offer Himself to His people through bread and wine, Calvin argued, He never promised to encounter them through icons or relics. While Jesus promised that sinners could gain access to the Father through Him, He nowhere promised access to the Father through the saints or Mary. While Jesus promised that Scripture gives wisdom leading to salvation, He never promised to communicate that wisdom through papal decrees. The Roman Catholic Church had, Calvin admitted, preserved the Word and Sacraments, so that one could come to know God truly in the Catholic Church. But the Word and Sacraments had been so shrouded by layers of tradition and distracting ceremony that Christ could be perceived only with difficulty. Calvin charged, in short, that Roman Catholicism taught people to look for God in all the wrong places.
Ultimately, this a question of truth. If the Reformers were wrong about sola Scriptura , they were wrong too about the source of errors in the Catholic Church. For myself, I stand with Calvin, who, I am certain, would be as heartened as I to hear the recent calls from Roman Catholic leaders to reaffirm the centrality of the gospel, Jesus Christ, and Scripture. Given even a modest open door, the Word of God can take care of itself; it never, Scripture says, returns void. Though Protestants believe that Roman Catholic teaching continues to veil the Christ of the gospel, we know that God has a habit of rending veils.
Peter J. Leithart is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama.