On October 31, 1517, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 theses on the door of All Saints church in Wittenburg, Germany, thus beginning what is known as the Protestant Reformation. With the 500th anniversary approaching, many of our Protestant brothers and sisters will be marking this event in a celebratory manner. As Catholics, we need to prepare ourselves to understand Luther’s revolt and what happened in the aftermath.
This past weekend, our little town enjoyed our annual Mint Festival, culminating in a Sunday afternoon parade. One of the parade floats was sponsored by the local Lutheran church. Upon it was a mockup of the church doors in Wittenburg commemorating Luther’s protest. On each side of the float were four placards. They read as follows:
95 Theses Equals 3 Facts
Faith Alone – Not By Works
Grace Alone – God’s Grace
Scripture Alone – Only the Bible
The parade passed in front of our Catholic Church and I could not help but think that some sort of response was needed. As Catholics, we have a responsibility to share our faith charitably and to educate our own. Here was a Lutheran church boldly displaying as fact, at least two statements that are inherently problematic. Our challenge is to present Catholic truth in a non-confrontational manner, out of love for our fellow Christians. (1 Pet 3:15)
I am not going to address the second statement about Grace Alone because without added context, I do not see any disagreement. All goodness comes through God’s Grace. Let me begin with the third Protestant belief displayed on the float.
Sola Scriptura, the belief that the Bible alone is the sole rule of faith, is what remained after Luther rejected the Oral Tradition and Teaching Authority of the Catholic Church. Most Protestants believe the Bible is all they need to live a Christian life because all truth is contained within. To some extent, that is true. The problem comes when that belief leads to the rejection of any inerrant magisterial authority external to the Scriptures alone, especially since the establishment of that authority by Jesus Christ is prescribed in those very Scriptures.
Perhaps the most ironic problem with Sola Scriptura is that we would not have a Bible without the teaching authority of the Church. Bishops of the Catholic Church had to decide which of the many disputed early Christian writings were indeed God-breathed, and therefore could be read at Mass. Prior to the Council of Carthage in 397 AD, the Epistles of James, Jude, Barnabas, Clement, Second Peter, Second and Third John, Hebrews, and many others were disputed. Some early Christians accepted them as Scripture, and some did not.
Without a Divinely-instituted inerrant Authority to determine the canon of Scripture, we could not know with certainty that the Bible contains only the inerrant Word of God. The Bible is simply a collection of early Christian writings that Bishops of the Catholic Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, determined to be inspired by God, and therefore, became the New Testament. To accept the Bible as the sole rule of faith while rejecting the infallible teaching authority of the Church that determined its table of contents is untenable. Now some Protestants may claim the Church had the authority in early Christian history but eventually went off the rails. This too is impossible if one believes what Scripture says. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide His Church, and said the gates of Hades would never prevail over it. (John 14:26, Mark 13:11, 1 Tim 3:15, Matt 16:18)
Once the Divinely established authoritative Church is denied, understanding of Scripture is left to personal interpretation. Theological disagreements abound, and become fissures in Christianity. The resulting divisions are thousands upon thousands of Protestant Christian denominations, many with differing beliefs and no ultimate authority to unify.
Let us move on to the first proclamation on the Lutheran parade float. Scriptural quotations referring to the necessity of faith apart from works are addressing a particular controversy for early converts to Christianity. Did the Gentiles need to follow the works of the Mosaic Law, and specifically, must the males be circumcised? When Paul declares that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law in Romans 3:28, he is saying that Old Testament Mosaic laws can not bring salvation, whereas under the New Covenant, salvation comes from faith working through love. (Gal 5:6)
The Bible contains many references to the importance of what we ourselves must do to be saved. When the rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to be saved, Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. (Matt 19:16-17) The importance of doing corporal works of mercy is explicitly evident. Those who do not will go off to eternal punishment. (Matt 25:31-46) The most explicit refutation of the faith alone argument is in James 2:24 where he says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Here, James is referring to corporal works. (James 2:14-26) To be clear, Catholics do not believe we have to work our way to heaven. Our faith is manifested in good works as we follow in the footsteps of Christ.