Top Shelf: Understanding Catholicism (Review)

Leon Theophilus’s top shelf of books critiquing and explaining Roman Catholicism.

It is hard to overemphasize the extraordinary nature of recent developments within Catholicism. In the name of unity and peace, the Pope now prays with Orthodox, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists from Africa, American Medicine men and other non-Christian leaders. And in the Protestant world we hear respected evangelical leaders minimizing those things that have historically divided Protestants and Catholics, even describing them as “petty differences”.1

These are perplexing and confusing times—although one thing is clear: Jesus’ ‘narrow gate’ gospel (Matt 7:13-27) simply does not mesh with today’s ecumenical climate. That only ‘a few’ enter life is ignored by the pluralistic tendencies of both contemporary Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. Evangelicals, too, are buckling under the pressure to cull their evangelism, and are simultaneously losing their grasp of the gospel itself.

In these matters, the single most helpful book to read at present would have to be Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants analyse what divides and unites us, ed. J. Armstrong (Moody, 1994). The great strength of this book is in the way that the 12 contributors add successive strokes to a large canvas. This enables us to see the many particulars of our contemporary dilemma more clearly against their proper historical and theological background. For example, this backdrop enables Riddlebarger to convincingly argue that one cannot simultaneously be an ‘evangelical’ and a ‘Roman Catholic’ without significant redefinition, confusion or compromise (p. 228f). He also discusses with insight the factors which lead Protestants like Thomas Howard to convert to Catholicism: factors such as the defining of ‘evangelicalism’ as a particular style of Christian piety rather than specific doctrinal allegiance. He adds:

It is important to make a distinction between ‘form’ and ‘content’. If one already holds to similar doctrinal content (i.e., the semi-Pelagianism of Wesleyan pietism and historic Tridentine Catholicism—since it is argued by both that salvation is a synergistic process in which God contributes grace and man contributes the energy of an act of the will), it is then much easier to change forms of Christian practice (from pietism to Roman Catholicism) for reasons of preference (i.e., aesthetics).

If you are thrown by the vocab in this quote, rejoice, for you have another reason to buy this book: it has a terrific glossary.

Though a few of the chapters, at points, were unconvincing, even naïve, I thank God for this very timely book which calls us back to the truths of the gospel. You must buy this book, even if only to read the last four chapters these are particularly helpful!

Right with God: Justification in the Bible and the world, ed. D. A. Carson (Paternoster, 1992) offers much needed insight. Klaas Runia’s contribution (‘Justification and Roman Catholicism’) is arguably the clearest and most perceptive contemporary evaluation of what is at the heart of our dilemma: the doctrine of the justification of the sinner by faith alone. He compellingly argues why, with Luther, we must still say that “Nothing in this article can be given up or compromised”. When Roman Catholic scholars claim agreement with this doctrine, Runia says, the validity of such claims can be seen in the extent to which they permit this doctrine to critique and reform other areas which effectively deny Sola Fide—such as the role of the church, the sacraments and indulgences. Luther is still right: “If this article stands, the church stands; if it falls, the church falls”.

Dawn or Twilight? by H. M. Carson (IVP, 1976). The genius of this book is in the way it makes the complexity of Roman Catholicism accessible to the average reader who is eager to get on with the task of evangelism. Carson avoids the unhelpful reactionary approach of so many writers (e.g. Boettner, who has greatly influenced Presbyterian apologetics). Very occasionally, however, sufficient nuance is lacking (e.g. in his depiction of papal claims to infallibility). In his treatment of the Catholic Charismatic movement, there is timeless advice for dealing with anyone for whom the intensity of experience becomes the criterion of truth. Sadly, the current lack of demand for a reprint would appear to be another barometer of the health of evangelicalism.

Though a little old and out of print, I am unaware of any book which surpasses this one as an evangelistic resource.

Catholicism: Crisis of Faith by J. G. McCarthy (Lumen, 1991) is an evangelistic video produced by former Roman Catholics. Anyone who is serious about Catholic evangelism needs to have ready access to this terrific tool (see review in Briefing #137). A very helpful companion is The Catechism: highlights and commentary by B. Hill (Collins Dove, 1994).

Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church (St Paul’s, 1994). I have included this as an antidote to the frequent misrepresentation of Catholicism by (well meaning?) Protestants which has not helped the cause of the gospel. Though primarily outlining traditional Catholicism, a reading between the lines will also reveal many of the tensions that characterize modern Catholicism.


1 Charles Colson, quoted in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants analyse what divides and unites us, p. 241.

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