This is an informal explanation sent to me by Kenneth Howell, PhD., former PCA minister and seminary Professor at Reformed Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, now a very devout and joyful Catholic.
So, what's the issue? First, understand that the differences on justification follow a broader pattern of Protestant versus Catholic thinking. Think about faith and works, preaching and sacraments, the symbolic and real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forgiveness in and outside of the confessional. The Protestant pattern is either/or. It must be either faith or works that justifies. It must be either the Bible or Tradition, Scripture or the Church. It must be either preaching or the sacraments that saves. It must be either a symbolic presence or a bodily presence. Forgiveness must either be directly from God or from a priest. Now it is difficult to document this in the Reformed confessions but it is a definite cultural trait of Protestants. What saves? Faith alone What is our authority? The Bible alone. What is God's chosen instrument of salvation? Preaching. Think hard about what you've seen in Reformed churches and I think this will become evident.
The Catholic pattern is both/and for these above and more.
There are dangers on both sides. The Protestant side tends to reduce the faith while the Catholic side tends to encumber the faith with a lot of extras. I really believe that these deep seated differences are a large part of the communication problems between traditional Protestants and Catholics.
Again, what's the issue? It seems to me that it comes done to one word, sola. Is faith alone the only instrument of justification? Both the Reformation and Trent recognize the importance of works as the fruit of righteousness but the Reformation sees them as evidence of justifying faith while Trent sees them as a part of justification itself. Both Reformation and Trent recognize declaration and infusion of righteousness as part of salvation, but Reformation splits them up into justification on the one hand and regeneration/sanctification on the other, whereas Trent sees both declaration of forgiveness (as in sacramental confession) and infusion as essential parts of justification. Both Reformation and Trent include remission of sin in justification but Reformation reduces justification to this while Trent says that's not enough. Both Reformation and Trent recognize faith as trusting in divine mercy by faith. Trent rejects Reformation's notion that trust (fiducia) is all that there is to faith. These are just some of bi-polar opposites. You see the pattern?
But the pattern is explained by a deeper difference. There are two visions of salvation here that can only be seen by putting ourselves in eternity and looking back on this life. The goal of the Protestant doctrine is to be able to stand before God's throne of judgment in the righteousness necessary for eternity. The final declaration of righteousness must be imputed because we can never attain perfect righteousness in this life. The other benefits of eternity, such as union and communion with God and the other things described in Revelation 22:1-5, are fruits of that imputation. The goal of the Catholic doctrine is the beatific vision, to be able to see God in all his glory and not be consumed. It is to be completely absorbed in and permeated by the presence of the Triune God.
Justification is a means to that end. Now both Reformation and Trent agree that no one can see or experience God with sin. Since he is pure, only the "pure in heart will see God" (Mt 5:8). For the Reformation, that purity is a legal kind. For Trent and Catholicism in general, purity must be real. And if it must be real in heaven, it must really begin today.
Another difference explained:
Catholic Dissent vs. Protestant Divisions
by David Palm
I have heard a Protestant apologist say that widespread dissent in the Catholic Church is no different than the divisions in Protestantism and this proves that having an infallible Church to interpret the Bible is no better in practice than just reading the Bible by itself. How should I respond?
There is a fundamental difference between the divisions that take place within Protestantism and the "dissent" that takes place in the Catholic Church. The divisions between Protestants take place because they cannot agree on what the Bible teaches on a host of issues. They continually claim that the Bible is clear and easy to understand, but their quarrels about the meaning of the Bible on all these issues undermine that claim. Their differences center fundamentally on how to understand their own central authority.
But the disagreements between orthodox Catholics and "dissenting" Catholics of various kinds are quite different. Dissenters *agree* with faithful Catholics that the Church does officially teach just what faithful Catholics insist it does; they just want that teaching to change. The question is never whether the Catholic Church officially teaches that contraception is wrong, or that homosexual acts are sinful, or that divorce and remarriage are not permitted, or that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood. Even between Catholics and Protestants the debate never centers on whether the Catholic Church really teaches transubstantiation, or veneration of the saints, or the Eucharist as a sacrifice, or the infallibility of the pope. All parties understand full well what the Church teaches on these and a multitude of other issues. They prove this by insisting not that the Church actually teaches something different, but rather that the Church is wrong and should change her teaching to conform
to their own ideas. Groups such as "We Are Church" prove this by calling for the convocation of Vatican III in order to implement their agenda, thus admitting that their beliefs have never been part of the teaching of the Church, including Vatican II.
Thus, the Catholic Church has spoken with clarity throughout the centuries; even its enemies, whether within or from outside the Church, unwittingly admit this. And this clarity is indeed in stark contrast to the inability of Protestants to agree on even central doctrines.
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