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Roman but Not Catholic:
What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation

by kenneth j. collins and jerry l. walls
baker, 464 pages, $34.99

Controversial theology—so popular during the Reformation—has long been out of vogue in the academy. Ecumenical correctness and norms of scholarly detachment dictate that the theologian should be critical of his own confession and tread softly when discussing others. In particular, he should not engage in interconfessional polemics of the Reformation variety.

This taboo needs to be challenged more often. The kind of ecumenism that looks for lowest common denominators has reached way’s end. Further progress can only be achieved through a common, earnest quest for truth. This requires that traditional confessional positions be critiqued from other confessional perspectives in open and straightforward debate.

Kenneth Collins and Jerry Walls’s new book is therefore refreshing. With the stated aim of keeping Protestants from diving into the Tiber, Collins and Walls offer a frontal attack on Catholicism from a Protestant perspective. 

Unlike classical Protestant controversialists, the authors do not want to prove that the Catholic Church is a “false church.” In line with ecumenical correctness on this one point, Collins and Walls advance a “branch ecclesiology” that pictures Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism as three different branches of the universal Church. The one Church of Christ is the sum of all the Christian denominations that exist today.

Roman Catholicism’s main error is to reject this inclusive ecclesiology by making exclusive claims on behalf of itself—most notoriously that “the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church” (Dominus Iesus, no. 16). Behind this claim lies a false insistence on hierarchical priesthood, apostolic succession, and the papacy. This ecclesiology causes “division and lasting separation within the body of Christ.” Hence the title of the book: The Roman Catholic Church might be Roman, but it is not catholic. It is, in fact, the most uncatholic of all the main churches. Its hierarchical and exclusivist attitude “rends the garment that the death of Christ had sown together.”

Besides this general complaint—which is serious enough—Collins and Walls criticize a number of Catholic dogmas. The doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception “in effect denies that Jesus was truly human.” The doctrine of transubstantiation amounts to “consummate idolatry” and “turns Christian revelation on its head.” The hierarchical structure of the liturgy, in which the roles of priests and laymen are clearly distinguished, means that soteriological equality is suppressed in favor of hierarchical difference. This is “a fundamental and not insignificant modification of what the church is in its essence or nature.” Even worse is the Catholic Church’s policy of excluding Protestants from Eucharistic Communion. This exclusion means that “the body of Christ is visibly rent asunder for all the world to see.”

One sympathizes with this desire for unity, even while noting it is not consistently held. The authors observe that “Protestants call transubstantiation idolatrous; Roman Catholics call that view sacrilegious. For our part, we believe that such an offense is unavoidable.” Collins and Walls are quite right about this divide (at least if we disregard those Protestants who affirm real presence). But if Catholics and Protestants perceive each other’s Eucharistic doctrines as—respectively—idolatrous and sacrilegious, would it not be dishonest if they were to celebrate the Eucharist (or is that the Lord’s Supper?) together? Here and elsewhere in the book, the authors’ sharp polemics cut against their inclusive ecclesiology.

One of their central concerns is to show that Protestantism is not “lacking in full integrity” compared with Catholicism. Protestants recognize—and have good reason to recognize—the importance and authority of tradition, the Church Fathers, and the ecumenical councils. Here Collins and Walls join a current trend within Protestant theology that emphasizes “catholicity” (with a small c), historical rootedness, and community. Protestantism is not essentially individualistic and historically shallow, and those who think so have misunderstood or vulgarized the celebrated standard of sola scriptura. This principle means that the Bible is the highest authority—not the only one. Accordingly, Protestants can and should accept the Nicene Creed as a “binding authority,” as well as the decisions of Ephesus and Chalcedon.

Cardinal Newman is a thorn in the side of this kind of Protestantism. “On what principle do we receive Chalcedon yet not Trent?” he asked. Newman’s point was ecclesiological: On what conception of the Church is it consistent to accept the early councils as authoritative while rejecting the later ones? Collins and Walls’s ambition is to demonstrate the coherence of a Protestantism that does exactly this. In the spirit of “controversial theology,” let me explain why I believe their argument fails.

Collins and Walls attribute “binding authority” to the early councils, but it is a bit unclear what they mean by the term. If they ascribe authority to the statements of the early councils simply because they happen to be true—because those statements correctly capture what the Bible teaches—then their position reduces to what we might call “vulgar” sola scriptura: an individualistic form of Protestantism that only acknowledges the Bible and private judgment as authoritative. Even those who endorse sola scriptura in its most simple and literal form can agree that any statement that correctly captures what the Bible teaches should be believed. Such an attitude does not entail a respect for authorities other than the Bible—it simply entails a general respect for truths the Bible teaches.

Since Collins and Walls reject vulgar sola scriptura, we can assume that they mean something more when they ascribe binding authority to Nicaea. But people who are prepared to trust Nicaea’s interpretation of the Bible (or that of some preferred group of experts) over their own private interpretation owe an explanation of why they do so. Collins and Walls have such an explanation. They argue that “there are perfectly good Protestant reasons to accept the authority of the Nicene creed.” In the period prior to and including the Council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451), they write, “the Christian faithful were marked by considerable and broad unity.” Collins and Walls refer to this era as “the ancient ecumenical church,” and they argue that the doctrinal decisions of this period were and are authoritative because they represent a “truly catholic consensus.” The Nicene Creed, in particular, “represents something as close to a doctrinal consensus among all Christians as anything.” The doctrine of transubstantiation, on the other hand, or the Tridentine decree on justification, were “product[s] of a divided church” and are therefore not authoritative. Consensus among Christians is the source of conciliar authority.

This reasoning is based on a false premise. Nicaea was not accepted by all Christians. Arians of various shades rejected the council, and large groups of Arians as well as powerful Arian kingdoms existed during the entire period of the “ancient ecumenical church,” and even long after. Perhaps the Arians do not count as true Christians (although Collins and Walls call them Christian), but if so, the authors owe us an account of what the criteria are for being a true Christian. This account cannot be circular. One cannot say that only those who accept the Nicene Creed are true Christians, and then argue that the Nicene Creed is authoritative because it was accepted by all true Christians.

Perhaps the authors could solve the problem of Arian dissent from Nicaea by appealing to a principle along these lines: Doctrines, decisions, or creeds that at some point in church history have been accepted by all (or nearly all) Christians are authoritative and binding. After the decline of Arianism around the seventh century, there has indeed been a very broad consensus around the Nicene Creed, so this principle would explain why Nicaea is authoritative.

But this principle is inconsistent with what Collins and Walls argue elsewhere in the book. For example, they reject the idea of apostolic succession in the episcopate. But this doctrine was taken for granted by basically all Christians (except some heretical sects) for more than a millennium prior to the Reformation era. Why is this not a case of “truly catholic consensus”? Infant baptism, which they also criticize, was likewise the object of a solid consensus for the larger part of Christian history. The doctrines of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharistic elements and the sacrifice of the Mass were accepted by practically all Christians at least between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries (and by most Christians for many centuries prior to this). The practice of venerating relics was countenanced by all major Church Fathers and flourished in the East and West at least from the third century, as did—by the sixth century—the practice of praying to Mary. If universal consensus among Christians persisting for centuries is the criterion, Collins and Walls will have to disown large parts of their book.

Worse yet, the Councils of Ephesus (a.d. 431) and Chalcedon (a.d. 451)—which the authors count among the authoritative councils of the “ancient ecumenical church”—have never been accepted by all or nearly all Christians. The Assyrian and Oriental churches reject those councils to this very day (although they accept apostolic succession, infant baptism, and real presence). Ephesus and Chalcedon cannot be binding if consensus among Christians is the criterion.

If conciliar authority cannot be anchored in simple Christian consensus, how else can one assert the binding authority of Nicaea in a way consistent with Protestant beliefs? One cannot do so by arguing that the early councils, but not the later ones, teach in accord with Scripture. Such an argument presupposes that our own interpretations of Scripture are the norm whereby the councils’ interpretations should be judged. This is to regard the councils as non-authoritative.

So Newman comes back with a vengeance. As he realized, Catholics can rationally accept the authority of Nicaea because the Catholic faith includes certain “background beliefs” that Protestantism lacks. Catholics believe that there exists a divinely authorized interpreter of revelation, the Church’s magisterium, which God has promised to assist in a special way. This gives Catholics a good reason to submit to the interpretive authority of the magisterium even if its judgments would differ from their own.

Belief in the existence of a divinely authorized interpreter, however, would be of little value for settling doctrinal disputes unless this authority could be recognized by people with differing opinions on the issues under dispute. This means that the authorized interpreter must be identifiable by a formal criterion. The criterion cannot be a material one of doctrinal correctness. If it were, people with different doctrinal opinions would also have different opinions on where the authoritative interpreter is to be found.

Catholics, however, believe that the magisterium can be recognized by the formal criteria of apostolic succession in the episcopate, and episcopal communion with the pope. A conciliar decision approved by bishops in communion with the pope is therefore difficult for Catholics to ignore. They cannot coherently argue that a perceived departure from what they take to be sound doctrine is evidence that the “true magisterium” is to be found elsewhere—or nowhere.

Of course, non-Catholics will say that one or both of these background beliefs are disputable or false. Anybody will have to admit, however, that if you accept them, you are rationally bound to accept the Nicene Creed. Moreover, it is supremely reasonable for you to do so—even if your personal Bible study inclines you toward Arianism. Catholics, in other words, can give a coherent account of why Nicaea is binding and irreversible. It is less clear whether Protestants can do so.

Collins and Walls offer no formal criteria by which Christians can recognize binding authority. In fact, an oft-repeated claim of their book is that apostolic succession and the Petrine office are myths. Here is their argument: The doctrine of apostolic succession says that the apostles were succeeded by bishops. However, in the early Church, “bishops” were not clearly distinguished from “presbyters” (elders), and the monarchical episcopate did not emerge until the second century, especially not in Rome. In many cases, Christian communities were governed by groups of presbyters rather than by solitary bishops. Therefore, apostolic succession is a myth.

The authors might be surprised to learn that Joseph Ratzinger agrees with the historical premises of this argument. During his tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he pointed out that the ecclesiastical offices “do not yet possess a permanently established form or fixed names” in the time of the New Testament. This is not a problem for Catholic doctrine. If the apostles authorized some people to succeed them as leaders and gave them a mandate to authorize their own successors, what we have is apostolic succession. It does not matter if some of those who were authorized by the apostles were called “presbyters” rather than “bishops.” Nor does it matter if the apostles passed along their authority not to “bishops ruling their flocks as monarchs,” but to bodies of elders. Catholics do not view the apostolic office as immune to historical development.

Jesus’s words to Peter in Matthew 16:18—“you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”—have always presented something of an enigma to non-Catholic exegesis. Why is a mere human being identified as the foundation of the Church? And why Peter, who denied Jesus and needed doctrinal correction by Paul (Gal. 2)? The authors conclude that Jesus did not mean to found his Church on Peter (“a highly unlikely basis in our estimation”). The “rock” in Matthew 16 is not Peter but his confession, or the object of that confession—Christ himself. This interpretation has had its defenders, but most contemporary biblical scholars reject it. “A majority of exegetes from all denominations,” writes Lutheran exegete Hans Kvalbein, “support the view that Peter is the petra: the rock or foundation stone on which Jesus will build his church.”

The authors go on to argue that even if Jesus had given Peter a special office in the Church, the popes could not possibly be his successors. To be a pope means to be the bishop of Rome, and—according to a common scholarly view—there was no monarchical bishop in Rome until well into the second century. The papacy, hence, has no connection to Peter, who died in the sixties of the first century. 

This argument is no better than the one against apostolic succession. Catholic doctrine does not entail that Peter’s first successors must have been “monarchical bishops” in the strict sense of the term. Peter himself was primarily the leader and spokesman of the Twelve, and his first successors might have been something like the leaders or chairmen of the presbyterial college at Rome, where the apostle was martyred. The Catholic belief that Jesus gave Peter and his successors power to govern the universal Church does not mean that this power must always have been publicly recognized or acknowledged. To make an analogy: During his whole life, Jesus had the divine authority to forgive sins, but this power was never acknowledged by many people, and at times Jesus himself might not even have been aware that he had it (for example, when he was two years old). It would be no surprise if a similar situation obtained with respect to the authority that Peter and his successors received from Jesus. For this authority to be fully realized and acknowledged, a process of development was necessary. As Newman put it: “Even though [the pope’s power] has been brought about by natural and human means, it may be the fulfilment of the prophetic promise to St. Peter.”

Most of the pointed criticism leveled against Catholic doctrine in this book is familiar from historical debates and popular Protestant apologetics. Even such classical polemical cudgels as the indulgence-dealing Tetzel and the Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches,” an infamous fifteenth-century book) make their appearance. For Collins and Walls, the old confessional conflicts are still important, and the battle lines remain basically the same.

Despite this, they express high hopes for future unity between Protestants and Catholics. At one level, they say, unity is already a reality, since Catholics and Protestants agree about the essential contents of the Christian faith—what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” The main obstacle standing in the way of full, visible unity and the sharing of sacraments is the Catholic Church’s intransigent and misconceived insistence that certain doctrines beyond those included in “mere Christianity”—such as the priesthood, the papacy, and transubstantiation—are necessary for the fullness of the Christian faith.

My assessment of the prospects for Christian unity is different. Who decides what “mere Christianity” is, and which doctrines are essential, acceptable, intolerable? How far should doctrinal tolerance be extended? As Newman pointed out, the fourth-century champions of Nicaea must have seemed extremely intolerant when they refused to accept the term homoiousios (“of a similar substance”) as an orthodox alternative to homoousios (“of the same substance”). Today, Protestants and Catholics agree that this intolerance was justified.

Collins and Walls seem prepared to tolerate serious doctrinal deviations in the name of ecclesial inclusivity, but cannot abide the idea that a church hierarchy has the authority to make the same decisions today that it did at the time of Nicaea. In their view, it is precisely the Catholic Church’s claims to divine authority that divide Christians from one other.

Whatever the body of Christ might look like in the future, and however successful the strivings for Christian unity will turn out to be, there is one thing that remains certain: Doctrinal disputes will continue to arise. The traditional model for resolving disputes—a college of bishops with apostolic succession in which the pope has the final word—might have its problems, but it is an internally coherent system with a clear theological rationale and the weight of long-standing tradition behind it. What alternative can Protestants suggest for the universal Church? Although I do not find a satisfactory answer to this question in Collins and Walls’s book, I appreciate their straightforward approach. In today’s situation, ecumenical progress can only happen if we are willing to be ecumenically incorrect.

Mats Wahlberg is associate professor of systematic theology at Umeå University in Sweden.

Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our May 2018 issue.