20 Centuries in 20 Minutes:
Catholics, Protestants, and why it all matters
A Baptist pastor was inviting people in his neighborhood to visit his church. An elderly lady said, “No thank you, young man, I’m a Methodist.” “If you don’t mind telling me,” he asked, “why are you a Methodist?” “Well,” she replied, “you see, my parents were Methodist, my grandparents were Methodist, and my great-grandparents were Methodist.” The frustrated young pastor responded, “That’s no reason, just because all your relatives are Methodists. What would you do if all your relatives were idiots?” “In that case,” she smiled, “I’d probably be a member of your church.”
If you are a member of a particular church, do you know why? Perhaps you joined your church because your family attended its services, or due to the influence of friends, or because the church met your needs. Or perhaps you are a member because of theological conviction–the belief that your church comes closest to the biblical pattern of God for his people. I hope the latter is more true for you when this short essay is done.
Church history used to be the subject seminary students dreaded most, because it seemed the least relevant to practical ministry. That was before the denominational era ended and people began visiting and joining churches from completely different faith traditions. Now more than ever, understanding where we come from is crucial to knowing where we’re going together. Here’s the shortest way I know to tell the story.
Catholic history in four paragraphs
During the “apostolic” era (AD 30-100), the Christian movement was confronted by three significant religious powers. Roman religion insisted on the worship of the emperor, embraced an eclectic, polytheistic theology, and emphasized form and ceremony over moral standards. Greek religion separated the spiritual from the material, with a strong rationalism and an impoverished morality. Judaism had been scattered out of Palestine for generations and especially after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, establishing synagogues as it spread. The expanding Church took advantage of these settlements and the universal peace, roads, language, and hunger for truth and morality which pervaded the Empire.
The “patristic” era (AD 100-451) witnessed severe persecution of the Church, as some three million believers lost their lives by AD 300. However, the faith grew rapidly despite these challenges, especially in urban centers; some seven million professed faith in Christ by AD 325. The “clergy” (meaning “called ones”) grew to dominate Christian leadership by the mid-third century, as the Church worked to protect and preserve biblical doctrine in the midst of its expansion into the Gentile world.
Constantine’s conversion in AD 312 led eventually to imperial protection for the Church. The emperor merged the Roman Empire with his new faith, believing that this action would unify and revive the state. His leadership at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) settled the theological language which would describe the divinity of Christ but also made him the de facto head of the church.
Over the first four centuries of Christian history, the Bishop of Rome rose to preeminence in the larger faith. Innocent I (AD 402-17) was the first to claim that he stood in succession from Peter (cf. Matthew 16:18-19); Leo I (AD 440-61) asserted scriptural authority for Innocent’s claim, and is often considered the first “pope” (meaning “father”) of the Church. At the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the Roman bishop was recognized as the leader of the Roman Catholic (meaning “universal”) Church. Innocent III (1215) affirmed the universal domination of the pope over the spiritual and secular worlds, and declared the pope to be the representative of Christ on earth.
Financial abuses arose within the papacy in the years following Innocent III. In the early 15th century, three popes claimed authority over the church. The Renaissance led to renewed interest in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, and awakened intellectual independence. Wycliffe and his followers began the work of translating the Bible into the common language of the people (ca. 1382). Secular leaders grew increasingly frustrated with papal authority.
And so the stage was set for Martin Luther, a young Catholic monk and biblical instructor, to question various abuses he documented within the Church. His “95 Theses,” nailed to the door of the town church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, were not initially intended to spark a withdrawal from the Catholic Church. But when his writings were circulated by printing presses across Germany, and the pope excommunicated Luther in 1521, his personal “protest” (cf. “Protestant”) became an organized and unstoppable movement. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) legalized the Lutheran religion within the German world, and made Protestants an enduring dimension of the Christian faith.
To greatly oversimplify, theological differences between Catholics and Protestants can be summarized by two comparisons:
Authority. Luther argued for “sola scriptura,” claiming that the Bible is our only infallible authority, not subject to church tradition, pope, councils, or clergy. The Catholic tradition maintains that as God gave the Scriptures through the Church, so he uses the Church to interpret his word. Papal teachings, councils, and creeds are the means by which he means us to understand his revelation. And so Church and Scripture are the twin authorities of the Catholic Church.
Salvation. Luther argued for “sola fidei,” that salvation comes only through faith. The Catholic tradition maintains that God mediates salvation through the “sacraments”: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (the “Lord’s Supper” to Baptists), repentance, ordination, marriage, and healing of the sick. Some Protestants recognize some of these acts as “sacraments,” while others (such as Baptists) do not; but Protestants do not typically believe that these actions help convey salvation.
While obvious differences exist, great commonalities between Catholics and Protestants can be celebrated as well. Both believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world, and that his atoning sacrifice makes possible our eternal salvation. While Christian denominations disagree regarding some of the practical implications of our faith, we share a common commitment to the most historic of all Christian confessions: Jesus is Lord.