One of the reasons participating in anti-Catholic apologetics can be so satisfying is because there actually is such a thing as Catholic doctrine. Although opponents can and do make up bogus “doctrines” to refute (works-righteousness, Mary worship, Purgatory as a second chance at Heaven after death), Catholic doctrine is a very clearly defined target: open up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and you can say, “The Catholic Church teaches….” There is, however, no such thing as “Protestant” doctrine. Protestant beliefs run the gamut from you-can’t-lose-your-salvation to oh-yes-you-can-lose-your-salvation to baptism-is-necessary-for-salvation to baptism-is-a-symbol-of-your-already-accomplished-salvation to baptism-MUST-be-by-immersion to don’t-be-silly-you-don’t-actually-have-to-be-immersed to speaking-in-tongues-is-a-sign-that-you-are-saved to speaking-in-tongues-is-a-sign-that-you-are-a-grade-A-kook… which can turn Catholic attempts at refuting Protestant beliefs into a religious Whac-A-Mole tournament. As soon as the Catholic apologist says, “Protestants believe…” someone in the room will retort, “Well, that’s not what I believe!”
The problem is that Protestants multiply by dividing. Each time believers run up against a doctrinal emphasis that rubs them the wrong way, they pack up their Bibles and move across the street to start a new church, and sometimes a new denomination. Take the Baptists as an example of this. To say, “I am a Baptist” is supposed to mean that you adhere to Baptist theological premises. That, of course, is not as straightforward as it sounds – technically there is no such thing as “Baptist doctrine.” There are many, many different kinds of Baptists. There are:
Free Will Baptists
Evangelical Free Baptists
Full Gospel Baptists
Six Principle Baptists
Separate Baptists in Christ
Sovereign Grace Baptists
And more besides. And no, these are not just different names for the same thing – each is a separate Baptist denomination. Seventh-Day Baptists worship on Saturday rather than on Sunday. Full Gospel Baptists are “Bapticostal,” while Southern Baptists hold a cessationist view of the charismatic gifts (although that has relaxed in recent years). The American Baptist Churches Pacific Southwest are quite similar to the American Baptists USA except for their views on homosexuality. Missionary Baptists are pro-missions, obviously, while Primitive Baptists are not. Primitive Baptists also reject musical instruments in church (the use of musical instruments in church is not in the Bible), Sunday School (also not in the Bible), and seminary training (not in the Bible, either). Free Will Baptists are Arminian; Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists are Calvinist. The Separate Baptists (as in “Come out from among them, and be separate”) later united with the Regular Baptists and became United Baptists, except for the Separate Baptists in Christ who took the Arminian view and remained separate. As Arminians they agreed with General Six-Principle Baptists (who held to the six principles of Hebrews 6:1-2), but rather than emphasizing the laying-on of hands as did General Six-Principle Baptists, Separate Baptists in Christ emphasize foot-washing – not to worry, as the General Six-Principle Baptists appear to have petered out in the mid-20th century. Now, these were the General Six-Principle Baptists (meaning that they preached the general view of Christ’s atonement, i.e., Jesus made salvation possible for all men) – not to be confused with Particular Six-Principle Baptists – (holding the particular or limited view that Jesus’ death atoned for the elect only). Particular Baptists are the ancestors of the Reformed Baptists, who are Calvinists, as are Sovereign Grace Baptists and Strict Baptists, who practice closed communion. Landmark Baptists are also Calvinists, but believe that Baptists and only Baptists will be saved – most likely only Landmark Baptists.
You can’t make this stuff up!
And there lies the difficulty in refuting Baptist doctrine – one simply cannot say, “Baptists believe…” in any coherent sense. And when you factor in the Independent Baptist churches, which are literally independent and allow each church to decide its own doctrine, any kind of Catholic effort at apologetics would have to be on a case-by-case basis.
For obvious reasons, a growing number of Protestants simply decline to self-identify as members of a particular denomination. When I was a Protestant, non-denominational churches were all the rage. Since then, more and more Protestants are dropping the “n” – they are not “NON-denominational” but rather “NO denominational.” They want to be known as “just-Christians.”
This opens up a very unattractive can of worms, as an increasing number of Protestants cut themselves loose from all denominational ties and become their own theologians. Their Christian independence appears to go well until they are asked to clarify exactly what they believe, and they realize that they have no clue. “I just believe the Bible!” they will tell you, but then are at a loss to explain what they believe the “Biblical” position is on most issues, such as justification. There are among Protestant denominations conflicting views concerning exactly what justification is and how it works. Anglican bishop N.T. Wright and Baptist pastor John Piper have different takes on justification, leading Christianity Today to attempt to summarize for Protestant layfolk their respective views:
Piper: By faith we are united with Christ Jesus so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). In this way, perfection is provided, sin is forgiven, wrath is removed, and God is totally for us. Thus, Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification. Trusting in Christ as Savior, Lord, and Supreme Treasure of our lives produces the fruit of love, or it is dead.
Wright: God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ (the faithful Israelite), has come, allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world. The Messiah represents his people, standing in for them, taking upon himself the death that they deserved. God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are “in Christ,” so that the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him. Justification refers to God’s declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God’s purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the “works of the Law” (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart).
So which view of justification is the “Biblical” one, Piper’s or Wright’s? you might ask your “just-Christian” friend. Good luck getting an answer. A “just-Christian” simply can’t tell you what he believes – “just-Christianity” is more of a religious land of the lotus eaters than a coherent belief system.
And this all boils down to one big daily headache for the average “just-Christian” Protestant. My mother, a charismatic layperson with no theological training, spent many years moving from one charismatic assembly to another, encountering all kinds of doctrinal oddities, constantly forced to decide for herself what she believed “correct doctrine” to be. This came to a head when a former-Catholic-turned-charismatic-Protestant friend of hers started teaching classes on “How to Prophesy.” Forced to confess her inability to discern the “Biblical” position on every single matter, my mother admitted that she believed what her friend was doing to be incorrect, but couldn’t say why. “It just isn’t Biblical!” my mother stated definitively, only to finish her thought with a plaintive – “Is it?”
In practice, all Protestants end up perpetually sifting through doctrinal possibilities as they confront theological questions. This state is for Protestants the norm, and they don’t think to question it. To someone who has left the system, however, it takes on the appearance of a mythological punishment inflicted by the gods. Psyche comes to mind, consort of Eros, who was forced to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of sorting a tremendous pile of barley, corn and poppy seeds by morning. Pity the poor just-Christian layperson who decides her own beliefs on a case-by-case basis: she, like Psyche, is condemned to a task of mythological proportions: to sort and sift perpetually. Are musical instruments allowed in church? Can women wear pants? Is liturgy legitimate? Is it necessary? Was my infant baptism valid, or should I be re-baptized? Should I attend a church with closed communion, or one that offers communion at all? Should I be going to church on Sunday or on Saturday? Is it okay to celebrate Christmas? May I divorce, and under what conditions? Can women be ordained? Do I have to go to seminary in order to call myself a pastor? Is same-sex marriage unbiblical? Did Jesus die for everyone, or just for the elect? What is justification, anyway???
Yet, even those Protestants spared this dilemma by membership in a particular denomination must undergo this sifting ordeal – for how can they know that they have chosen the correct denomination? Are they sure that the “Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists” are proclaiming the Truth? Are they absolutely certain? How can they be sure that their denomination will never defect from the Truth? If their church announces an openness towards same-sex marriage, is it time for them to follow their leaders or to seek new ones? No one in their denomination has ever claimed indefectibility or infallibility, and they do not claim it for themselves. And if that is the case, if there is no Protestant denomination that can infallibly guard the good deposit with the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Tim 1:14), no Protestant denomination that has been guaranteed that it will be preserved from defection (Mt. 16:18, 1 Tim 3:15), then what choice do believers have? Sorting is their life sentence; sifting is the fate to which they have been condemned because they are the ultimate religious authority in their world – they are their own pope. Their spiritual ancestors belligerently declared themselves free as they handcuffed themselves to their system of private interpretation, a system that doomed them to the ever-increasing forced labor of sifting and sorting without end.
An indefectible, infallible teaching Church is the only gateway to freedom, the very path laid out by the God Who promised that the Truth would set us free. Only an indefectible, infallible Church can possess the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, the Truth that frees frustrated former “popes” to become what God meant them to be in Christ.
On the memorial of St. Maria Crucifixa di Rosa
Deo omnis gloria!