‘A different worldview’: Allison discusses new book on Roman Catholic theology
EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Gregg R. Allison, professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary, discusses his new book, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment, with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders.
CS: What was your methodology for assessing Roman Catholic theology and how did you engage with it in this book?
GA: Most Protestants and evangelicals — and I’ve used those words synonymously — most of them take a piece-by-piece approach. So if the Catholic theology is like a wall, you just discuss and assess each individual component. It’s an atomistic approach. And through the influence of Leonardo De Chirico, I decided to take a systemic approach to see Catholic theology as an overall worldview, a complete framework for understanding everything: doctrine, practice, and life. I understand Catholic theology as grounded on two tenets, two axioms. Then I assess each individual doctrine as a manifestation of this whole system.
The first axiom is the nature-grace interdependence. Nature is anything that exists. Anything that exists is in the realm of nature and, according to Catholic theology, nature is capable of receiving and transmitting the grace of God. So think of water, bread, and wine. Those are elements within nature. Water is capable of receiving the grace of God when it’s consecrated by a bishop and communicating that grace of God when a priest sprinkles water on the head of an infant. And that infant then is infused with the grace of God cleansing the infant from original sin, regenerating the infant, incorporating the infant into the Catholic Church. So nature — in this case, water — becomes a vehicle for the grace of God. Bread and wine, when consecrated by the priest, become the body and blood of Jesus Christ and thereby when the Catholic faithful take those elements, they’re receiving the grace of God through these natural elements. The second axiom is the Christ-Church interconnection. The Catholic Church is actually the prolongation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, so that Christ in his wholeness, his divine nature, and his human nature together with his body are present in the Catholic Church.
CS: Now you’ve done a lot of work on the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture and even on the doctrine of the Church. How has your time spent investing in those areas informed your understanding of Catholic theology?
GA: Let’s take first the sufficiency of Scripture. Catholic theology denies that Scripture is sufficient for salvation, godly living, and so forth, because according to Catholic theology, divine revelation consists not only of Scripture but also Catholic Tradition. Yes, Scripture is obviously the Word of God written, but it is not the entirety of divine revelation that includes Tradition. So, from an evangelical point of view, when we affirm the sufficiency of Scripture we run into conflict with Catholic theology, which doesn’t deny the importance of Scripture, but argues it is insufficient for everything we need to know in order to be saved and live godly lives. Regarding the clarity of Scripture, Catholic theology holds to multiple meanings of Scripture so that not only is there a literal sense of the Bible, but also spiritual senses. And to be able to interpret the Bible correctly according to all those senses, you must be trained to be able to discern and understand all those senses. That means if you’re a lay person who’s never been to seminary, never been trained to understand the Bible, then according to Catholic theology you can’t understand the Bible, at least in its wholeness.
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I think one of the major differences between evangelical theology and Catholic theology is the doctrine of the church. We have what we call a very biblical and lean understanding of what the church is, because we focus on the sufficiency and necessity and clarity of Scripture. We build our ecclesiology as evangelicals on the Word of God and we don’t build much beyond that. So we’ve got simple structures of pastors or elders and deacons and congregationalism, which are very evident from the pages of Scripture. The Catholic Church, relying not only on Scripture but also its Tradition, has developed an ecclesiology which almost in every way shape and form is extremely complex and very much different from our evangelical understanding of the doctrine of the church.
CS: What are some trends in Catholicism right now that concern you?
GA: I think an element of concern is this new pope. He’s popular and he’s very different from his predecessor Benedict XVI, who was very theologically oriented. This pope isn’t that and he’s putting a new face on the Catholic Church. And nothing wrong with that, but I think the liberal media loves to take sound bites he says and then for their own purposes stretch that into saying the Catholic Church is fundamentally changing. I think the media is inventing an image of the pope and these changes, which probably will not be found to be actual. Catholics are also jumping ahead and thinking that the Catholic Church is fundamentally changing. I don’t think that’s the case.
CS: You are an elder at Sojourn Community Church, and at the Midtown campus Sojourn has renovated the abandoned St. Vincent’s cathedral. How has Sojourn’s approach modeled your understanding of Catholic engagement and response?
GA: Coming at that issue from the perspective of human embodiment, it’s embodied Christians who come here to this cathedral. The space itself does something with us and for us. The space is intentionally created to emphasize certain realities of the Christian faith like the Trinity and Jesus Christ and things like that. So I’m very glad that we bought this cathedral and that we’re using it, because the space itself forms us in a certain way according to Christian theology and practice. At the same time, we have re-appropriated the space to communicate elements that truly are biblical, but we’ve also removed those elements which would reflect more Catholic Tradition. For example, we’ve removed the stations of the cross. And so I think it shows that there are certain things we agree with as evangelicals in terms of Catholic theology and practice and we want to reinforce those matters, but there are other doctrines and practices with which we disagree, and so we are going to make changes even in the physical space in which we worship.
CS: In your response to the Catholic understanding of justification you cited Southern Seminary professor Brian Vickers. How has his work helped you respond in a definitive way against the Catholic understanding of justification?
GA: Even from very early on when I became a Christian, the doctrine of justification was a focus of my reading and studying but also of immense importance to me personally — to know that God by his grace alone has declared me not guilty but righteous instead. I don’t have to then work alongside the grace of God, incorporating it in order to merit eternal life. Justification for me was absolutely revolutionary. And then while writing the book, working through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I came to the latter part of the book that discussed law and grace and salvation and justification — personally, I was deeply depressed. I was saddened and burdened by the emphasis on what we as human beings must do to cooperate with grace — follow the Ten Commandments, follow the teachings of Jesus Christ on the Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s apostolic laws and the Catholic Church’s rules and regulations. I felt overwhelmingly burdened by their theology of salvation and justification. And then I came across Dr. Vickers’ book — of course he’s a good friend and I literally read it in two hours from cover-to-cover. It refreshed my soul, reminding me that what I’ve just read from the Catechism is not biblical, and just reminding me again that there’s nothing that I can do to merit God’s grace and I can’t even cooperate with the grace of God to merit eternal life. God has completely justified me. I stand before God not guilty, clothed in the righteousness, the complete total righteousness of Jesus Christ. There’s nothing left for me to do.
CS: What does the Catholic Church believe about Mary and the saints?
GA: Just to focus in on one area, the Catholic Church insists that Mary was conceived without sin, born without sin, lived her entire life without sin, and then at the end of her days her body was not sloughed off and laid in a tomb, but it was assumed, taken up into heaven. So she is the only embodied believer in heaven — that’s according to Catholic theology. Now take evangelical theology, which affirms with Scripture that no one is without sin. Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So we have, right there, a startling contrast. Here’s one who was conceived without sin, born without sin, lived without sin, died without sin. And here is Scripture’s perspective embraced by evangelicals that no, Mary was sinful also. And here’s an example of the difference between “based on Scripture” and “Scripture alone.” One based on Scripture, even contradicting Scripture, and Tradition. In a sense, Mary is a stellar example of the difference between the two approaches.
CS: Given Louisville’s rich Catholic history, what is the best way for evangelicals to engage with Catholics and ex-Catholics in a way that both emphasizes the commonalities that we share but also being firm in our differences?
GA: I think first and foremost, our approach needs to be the gospel, rather than attacking the differences. The key need of every person — whether Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim, atheist — is the gospel. I think we also have to understand that with Catholics they’ve often heard terms that we will use as we communicate the gospel you know: grace and forgiveness, justification, mercy, and things like that. And so we need to understand that it will most likely take not just weeks, but maybe months, maybe even years with those who’ve come from a Catholic background as we communicate the gospel. It will take that extra amount of time to really understand who Jesus is and what he has done so that they’re in a position through the grace of God to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
CS: What do you hope this book accomplishes?
GA: My primary audience is evangelicals. I want them to understand Catholic theology and practice, grounded in the Catechism and not my own opinion. I am assessing it, but I am assessing it according to Scripture and evangelical theology. So I want evangelicals to understand what Catholic theology is and how to assess it from an evangelical perspective. With that same audience, if there are evangelicals who are moving towards Catholicism, I want them to stop and think. Evangelicals who move toward Catholicism often go there for the Tradition, the authority, the mystery. I want them to see that if you move towards Catholicism you’re not just embracing a few elements, you’re embracing this entirety. It’s a different worldview; it’s a whole system. And please, before you make that move, think through carefully Catholic theology and practice.
Greg Allison serves as professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary. Along with Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment, Allison is the author of Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine among other works. He also serves as an elder at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville.