Where We (Protestants) Can Learn from Catholics (Part 1)

Protestants have a variety of thoughts and reactions to Roman Catholicism. We first more broadly observe this among various denominations, where, for example, an Anglican may be much warmer toward various parts of Catholic ecclesiology than most Baptists. But we also can observe the spectrum of thought within a denomination such as the SBC. I debated whether this post is more about what Protestants (broadly) or Baptists (specifically) can learn from Catholics. For many of these suggestions, one could also argue that they simply involve retrieval from earlier Protestant practices and theology (or that, for example, Anglicans have something to teach Baptists about the importance of the sacraments). That’s all true. But considering more modern practices and what Protestants can see on the ground—particularly in my Baptist and “non-denominational”[1] circles—the following list can be gleaned most clearly from the historic Catholic tradition.

Therefore, while some suggestions apply more broadly to Protestants, perhaps a more accurate specific audience would be considered contemporary Baptists and non-denominational church members and pastors. Most church members, as I can observe in friends or fellow churchgoers whom I am around or hear about, are (1) not interested in Catholic theology, (2) are confused about Catholic beliefs, or (3) are outright dismissive. Many want as much of a “contemporary worship” feel as they can experience. Many think it’s weird that a few Baptist and non-denominational churches (including my own SBC church) talk about the church calendar and have an Ash Wednesday service. And many in our Baptist/non-denominational circles would also be surprised to hear of just how many people are converting from Protestantism to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy (or moving from Baptist churches to more liturgical spaces such as an Anglican church—including Beth Moore!).

After that long and somewhat scattered introduction, below is the beginning of a few areas of thought or practice that Protestants—particularly Baptist or non-denominational believers—can learn from Catholics. This is again with the acknowledgment that some of these can be found in other Protestant traditions or in Protestant church history; they are just found more consistently in the historic and long Catholic tradition. I also recognize that many or all of these concepts can be found in the Eastern Orthodox tradition—I just am not as familiar or researched in that branch of Christianity.

1. God’s church in all ages

A couple of friends have laughed at my interest in medieval theology and history. But how often do we hear about that time period?! How many Christians who lived between A.D. 100 (so not including the apostolic period) and 1500 (so no Reformers) can Protestant churchgoers name? Many could name Augustine, and some could name Aquinas. One close friend who is an involved church member, daily Bible reader, and is interested in theology said he could name two (Augustine and Aquinas). My fear is that, in this case, my extremely small sample is fairly representative—particularly for millennials and Gen Z.

Protestants often act as though a true church didn’t exist between the death of the apostles and Martin Luther’s bold actions beginning in 1517. But even Calvin, in his prefatory address to King Francis to begin the Institutes, writes that “surely the church of Christ has lived and will live so long as Christ reigns at the right hand of his Father.”[2] Calvin then points to Elijah’s interaction with God in 1 Kings 19 to illustrate that God’s people never die out or cease to exist; God is always preserving a people, even if the body isn’t visible.

It makes sense that Protestants feel that Catholics have the upper hand when it comes to the Middle Ages. After all, the predominant visible church was the Roman Catholic Church. Aquinas (1225-1274) is the foundation for so much modern Catholic thought. But if we believe, along with Calvin, that God is always preserving His people, then we should look back to our brothers and sisters in all of church history! While there will certainly be disagreements (more on that in a later post), we should learn what we can from Aquinas, Anselm, Wycliffe, and others—just as John Owen (1616-1683) did in his reliance on Aquinas.

Thus far, this has more or less been a push for Protestants to engage and learn from the medieval church. This is because even the Protestants who do want to learn from the past have primarily directed their attention to Protestants (Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Bavinck, etc.) or the Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Basil, Augustine, Chrysostom, etc.). This was my first inclination, too. In an effort to change, in a few months I’ll be starting a reading plan through Aquinas’ Summa. However, we must also consider the approach of most believers in my own generation and even some older theologians—what some label as “biblicism.” By this term, I mean a reliance on the Scriptures as authoritative (good) that is often ignorant or dismissive of the help we receive from the Creeds and from church history (bad). This is not how the Reformers understood sola Scriptura. Neither should we. To paraphrase Gavin Ortlund (just hyperlinked), Protestants have historically believed that Scripture is the only final, infallible authority for theology—not that Scripture is the only authority for theology and practice, period. Tradition is important. A “just my Bible and me” approach can be dangerous.

Thus, we need a response to this latter, perhaps now more common approach to church history (dismissive or feeling no need to learn). The goal of this post is not to provide a multitude of solutions for churches or leaders, but I would like to encourage other Christians who read this: go read and learn something. It doesn’t have to be long. Maybe read one book from a dead theologian for every two contemporary books you pick up. Consider Athanasius’ On the Incarnation or Augustine’s Confessions, or learn an overview of church history with a great book like Church History in Plain Language or Turning Points: Decisive Moments In The History Of Christianity.

While Protestants may claim, rightly in my opinion, that Catholics give too much authority to tradition, we often give tradition and church history too little emphasis. Let’s not be dismissive and ignore our past. Just as the Book of Exodus is our story as God’s people today, so is the history of the church—our family over all of time.

The Holy Spirit didn’t work in the early church as we read in the Book of Acts and then take a break until we today became Christians. He’s been moving for 2,000 years! It’s so encouraging—go check it out. In Rom. 15:4, Paul writes about the Old Testament, saying that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (ESV). Church history can do this to us, too, leading us along in the pilgrimage of faith with more encouragement, in awe at God’s work.

[1] C’mon, if you’re non-denominational, you’re really Baptist, in most cases

[2] p. 24, Vol. 1 of the Institutes, edited by John T. McNeill

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