Since the Protestant Reformation, several church traditions have been established which differ distinctly from the Catholic Church. Collectively referred to as Protestant churches, major denominations that grew from these movements include the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anabaptists, and later the Methodists and Baptists. Though differing from one another in structure, operation, and secondary doctrinal matters, the various Protestant traditions adhere to confessions of faith which align with a core set of teachings and distinguish them from Catholic doctrine and practices. Seven prominent differences between Protestant and Catholic teaching are examined below.
Salvation by Grace through Faith
Protestant doctrine states that believers are saved by the unmerited favor of God (Ephesians 2:8), and made righteous by the wholly sufficient atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Upon receiving the free gift of salvation, believers, through the work of the Holy Spirit, mature in holiness (a process known as sanctification). Expression of the believer’s spiritual maturation is seen in the good works which result from the Spirit’s sanctifying work in his life. Thus, the works of believers are an effect of God’s work of grace, neither causing nor contributing to the believer’s salvation.
By contrast, Catholic doctrine imposes a merit-based system, whereby after receiving an initial gift of grace and forgiveness, the Catholic must, through adherence to sacraments, maintain his own ongoing justification. Upon death, only the Catholic who has sufficiently adhered to the sacraments and to meritorious works is permitted to enter into Heaven. However, if a Catholic, after having received the initial grace of salvation, does not achieve sufficient merit through the sacraments to earn passage into Heaven, he enters first into Purgatory upon death, which is further described below.
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Purgatory as “a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.” The purpose of Purgatory then, is to provide for the completion of the Catholic’s preparation for the afterlife by administering penalties for any sins not fully absolved through the sacraments during the Catholic’s lifetime.
This teaching is not consistent with the Biblical doctrine of atonement held by Protestants, which teaches that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is a complete, final, and wholly sufficient payment for the sins of all who believe (1 John 2:2, Hebrews 7:27). Scripture further states that believers were not redeemed by the perishable, but by the blood of Christ, who is the Lamb without blemish (1 Peter 1:18-19). Accordingly, Protestants reject outright the doctrine of Purgatory.
Authority of Scripture
When comparing Protestant and Catholic understandings and perceptions of scripture, several distinctions emerge; among the most obvious is the text of scripture itself. The Protestant Bible consists of the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) plus 27 New Testament books. In addition to these 66 books, the Catholic Bible includes seven additional Old Testament books (plus additions to two others), that are collectively known as the Apocrypha, which were written during the intertestamentary period, and are not recognized by Orthodox Judaism as part of the Hebrew Bible. Support for some disputed Catholic teachings may be found in the Apocryphal books (for example, the aforementioned doctrine of Purgatory is said to be supported by 2 Maccabees 12:42-45).
Another prominent distinction between the Catholic and Protestant views of scripture is the weight given to church tradition. As stated in the Catholic Catechism: “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”
This stands in contrast to the Protestant doctrine that the Bible alone is God’s revelation to mankind, and is the final authority on matters of faith and practice. The Bible establishes itself as authoritative (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and while it is not exhaustive in all that it records (John 21:25) it contains all that is needed for salvation and sanctification. Where Protestant teaching respects tradition, it does so in deference to the authority of scripture.
Upon close examination, one might conclude that every major difference between Catholic and Protestant doctrines finds its roots in these two differing views of scripture. The practices of the Catholic Church which the Reformation sought to expose and correct are those that grew out of Catholic tradition, and not out of a different interpretation of scripture. The most visible of such Catholic practices, even to those outside of Christendom, is the office of the Pope.
According to the Catholic Church, the authority to make definitive interpretations of scripture rests in the office of the magisterium. The most widely recognized exercise of the magisterium is found in the declarations of the Pope, though the magisterium may also be exercised by the bishops and cardinals in communion with the Pope.
All exercise of the magisterium is accepted by the Catholic Church as authoritative, though not necessarily infallible. Catholic tradition, however, allows that on solemn matters, an infallible declaration may be made by an Ecumenical Council of bishops, or Papal declaration made ex cathedra (literally “from the chair”). There is debate among Catholic scholars as to the exact nature and frequency of past ex cathedra declarations, since Papal infallibility had not been defined as dogma prior to the First Vatican Council in 1870. Since 1870, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church has defined an infallible ex cathedra declaration as one made by the Pope as teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, regarding doctrine to be held by the Church universal.
The Catholic reliance on Apostolic authority is rooted in the Catholic tradition that Peter, as the leader of the first twelve apostles, was appointed by Jesus to be the first head of the Church, and is thusly recognized by the Catholic Church as the first Pope. From Peter, according to Apostolic succession, the authority of the Papal office has been handed down unbroken to each subsequent successor.
Neither the authority of the Pope nor the doctrine of Apostolic succession is affirmed by Protestant churches. Protestant teaching affirms Christ alone as the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22), and that the Holy Spirit dwells within all believers, guiding them in understanding and applying the truths of scripture. The authority to teach God’s Word is also given by Christ, through the Holy Spirit to individuals throughout the church (Ephesians 4:11-12). The test of authoritative teaching rests not with a particular title, office, or tradition, but rather with the alignment of the teaching with the truths of scripture (Galatians 1:6-8, 1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Priesthood of Believers
Deference to man made traditions and authority within the Catholic Church are apparent in the role of priests as well. The primary function of Catholic priests is the administration of the seven sacraments. It is beyond the scope of this article to examine all of the seven sacraments, but it is necessary to elaborate on the sacrament of penance. Penance is the Catholic sacrament whereby a priest hears the confessions of parishioners in his care, and offers absolution (forgiveness) of the confessor’s sins. Viewing priesthood as a continuation of the Aaronic tradition of the Old Testament, the Catholic Church teaches that only priests are granted the authority to forgive sins.
Protestant churches have done away with the function of priesthood, understanding that the Old Testament office of priesthood was established by God as a mediator for the people of Israel to offer up sacrifices for the remission of sins. When Jesus offered himself as the final and complete sacrifice for our sins, his death tore the temple veil in two (Matthew 27:51), indicating that the priesthood was no longer necessary, as all believers may now approach God directly through Jesus, who is both our high priest (Hebrews 4:14) and our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5).
Affirming the Biblical declaration that Jesus is the only mediator between man and God, Protestants also reject the Catholic practice of venerating and praying to canonized saints. Over 4000 historical figures have been officially canonized as saints by the Catholic Church, and parishioners are taught to pray to the saints to intercede, often invoking a certain saint’s help for specific needs.
Protestants hold a different view of both sainthood and intercession. Throughout the New Testament, believers are regularly addressed as saints; nowhere in scripture is this word used to refer only to a certain subset of deceased believers. Similarly, throughout scripture and church history, believers have interceded for one another in prayer, bearing one another’s burdens before God. This is sound practice for faithful Christian community that applies to all of the church, but never with instruction to petition the dead.
The most prominent saint in the Catholic Church is Mary. Viewing Mary as the mother of the church as well as the mother of Jesus, the Catholic Church venerates Mary, teaching that she was conceived without original sin (Immaculate Conception), remained a virgin in perpetuity, and was assumed into Heaven. As with other saints, Catholics offer prayers to Mary.
Protestants reject the above attributes of Mary, determining that there is no Biblical basis to support them. Protestants recognize that Mary was favored by God, in that she was called to serve a specific purpose in God’s plan. However, she is no more or less human than any other individual.