Where We (Protestants) Can Learn from Catholics (Part 3)

[The following post is part three on this topic. Check out part one here and part two here].

With the goal of moving on to spend time writing on other subjects—which will include some future posts about medieval church history and Catholic theology—I am hoping to wrap up this series of posts with this part three post. It’s obvious that many more topics could be considered that are not, such as liturgy and architecture, but my goal isn’t to be entirely comprehensive on the subject. I hope, however, that this short three-part dive into the subject has stirred your interest!

3. Learn from the deuterocanonical books

I’ll say up front: the point here is to learn from those books, not for Protestants to accept them as canonical.

If you’re new to church history or haven’t picked up a non-Protestant Bible before, “deuterocanonical” might be a new word for you; maybe you’ve only heard deutero before in the title of the book of Deuteronomy. Deutero– means second. “Deuterocanonical” means “of the second canon,” just as “Deuteronomy” means “second law.”

I’m not nearly an expert (or even fairly experienced) when it comes to the history and theology of the deuterocanonical material and the Apocrypha. But I’ll give it a shot and try to provide a short introduction to the topic. Other churches, such as in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, consider the deuterocanonical books to be part of the Old Testament. Most of these books were written in the second half of the period known as Second Temple Judaism, which as a whole lasted from approximately 515 B.C. to A.D. 70 (when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed).

The following deuterocanonical books are considered canonical in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church traditions:

  • 1-2 Maccabees
  • Judith
  • Tobit
  • The Additions to the Book of Esther
  • The Wisdom of Solomon
  • Baruch
  • Ecclesiasticus (also often known as Sirach)
  • The Letter of Jeremiah (added to Baruch)
  • The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men (additions to the book of Daniel)
  • Susanna and the Elders (added to the book of Daniel)
  • Bel and the Dragon (added to the book of Daniel)

I haven’t read every word of all these yet, but an undergraduate course I took required that we read 1-2 Maccabees, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’ve spent some time in some of the others.

I do not think that Protestants should accept these texts as canonical and inspired, but I think we can still benefit from the texts, such as in (1) seeing texts that deal with figures like Antiochus Epiphanes that may affect the depth at which we understand prophecies (such as in the book of Daniel) and (2) reading more Jewish literature that further illuminates the historical context. On the resourcefulness of other Jewish literature, read this insight from Michael Bird: “On several occasions I have heard D. A. Carson counsel that before writing a commentary on Revelation one should read 500 pages of Jewish apocalyptic literature in order to get a feel for the genre.”[1] Most people aren’t looking to write a commentary on Revelation, but the principle about the helpfulness of the literature is the same. The deuterocanonical texts can do the same for us as we learn the Bible and its context.

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It’s possible that so far you have had your doubts if you’re reading as a Protestant. “We just have so many differences!” And some say, “if Protestants can’t trust Catholic theologians on a big topic like justification, how can we elsewhere?” I think these general ideas brings up my two concluding points on how engaging Catholic doctrine helps. First, we can clarify and strengthen our own theology where we do have disagreements. Second, we can grow in our knowledge of God and the world where there is not a fundamental distinction.

4. Clarifying our own theology where we do have disagreements

This section will be a blend of a couple example subjects and some questions. I think Protestants’ quick dismissal of some Catholic doctrines is unhealthy in that we don’t engage in our own deep thought. Examples:

  1. Grace — How does God’s grace relate to our righteousness and justification? Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian of the Middle Ages, and Martin Luther, the magisterial Reformer, certainly had some differences in opinion; Protestants and Catholics do today as well. In his great book Paul & the Power of Grace, John Barclay highlights this distinction: for Aquinas, grace is “‘infused’ into the human soul and does not destroy but elevates human nature, such that the believer is made righteous and rendered ultimately worthy of salvation.”[2] This notion of merit contrasts Luther’s contention that “believers remain deeply flawed,” and we receive a righteousness (Christ’s) alien to us.[3] Thus, for Luther, the focus is an imputation of righteousness (on the basis of faith, which is sufficient for salvation), while for Aquinas, there is an infusion of grace that produces righteousness. Theologians have focused on this for a long, long time. But how do you specifically think about this, and where can you, as a Protestant, clarify your thinking? How do you individually think through the historic Protestant teaching that we are saved by faith alone, yet judged by works?[4] How would you teach this distinction to someone?
  2. The Lord’s Supper — Transubstantiation, the Catholic position on the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of communion, posits that “by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood.”[5] Many might immediately react along the lines of “there’s just no way that happens.” But that’s not only unconvincing; there also isn’t much integrity there. We as Christians believe that God the Father raised His Son Jesus from the dead—He can do anything. Thus, the first step for Protestants should be to ask, “what do the Scriptures say?” and work from there. Given the three distinct views held by Reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli on Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, (or put in somewhat equivalent more modern terms, Lutherans, Reformed churches/Presbyterians, and most Baptists, respectively), there’s lots of room for an opinion in the Protestant wing of the church. So, we can clarify our theology and thinking on the issue.

5. Growing in knowledge of God & the world

Martin Luther, along with the other Reformers, certainly had some substantial problems with various Catholic teachings, such as some of those found in Aquinas. However, Luther also said this: “We have precious books on this subject by St. Augustine, Hilary, and Cyril at our disposal. And this article of faith remained pure in the papacy and among the scholastic theologians, and we have no quarrel with them on that score.”[6] Here Luther is affirming the teachings of the Church Fathers and medieval theologians on the Trinity. Thus, Luther rejects the sentiment with which I introduced points four and five above—the idea many Protestants have that we cannot learn from Catholics if we do not follow them on an issue like justification. We have much to learn from Anselm, Aquinas, and others—whether it be on our doctrine of God, natural law, the beatific vision, or something else.

This concludes a series of posts that could’ve been discussed differently (connecting Protestants to earlier Protestant traditions) or given more time (the list could go on). But with limited time to write and other interests as well, this is the final post. I hope you benefitted or learned in some way!


[1] https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/54/54-2/JETS_54-2_299-309_Bird.pdf, p. 301

[2] p. 21

[3] p. 22 (emphasis added)

[4] For an introduction on this subject, see the article “Final Judgment According to Works” by John Piper.

[5] See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Council of Trent, here.

[6] Indebted to Stéphane Simonnin for this quote, which he posted recently.

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