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Book Review – The Roman Catholic Controversy

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“More than at any time in the past, Roman Catholics and evangelicals are working together. They are standing shoulder to shoulder against social evils. They are joining across denominational boundaries in renewal movements. And many evangelicals are finding the history, tradition and grandeur of the Roman Catholic Church appealing.” While these words, taken from the back cover of The Roman Catholic Controversy were written nearly ten years ago, they are as true today as a decade ago. In the past couple of weeks, following the death of pope John Paul 2, we have seen new evidence of the softening of Protestant attitudes towards Rome. And while it once seemed that anyone who “crossed the Tiber” was turning his back on Rome, this is no longer the case, as many Protestants are turning (or returning, depending on perspective) to the Roman Church. Yet despite those who would downplay the differences between Catholic and Protestant doctrine, and who would seek to join on the common ground, there remain deep and troubling doctrinal divides. This is the topic of study for The Roman Catholic Controversy.

This is not a book that seeks to accuse Rome of being “the whore of Babylon” or to be disrespectful towards the men and women of the Church. It does not even mention, as do so many treatments of the subject, the horrors of the past committed by Rome against Protestants. Instead, White carefully, respectfully and methodically compares Catholic theology to the Scripture and shows where it falls short. He turns to Catholic theologians and apologists, and often to official Catholic documents and Catechisms, to search the very heart of Catholic theology. He responds not to the theology of the “average Catholic” but to the church’s official doctrine, deemed infallible and beyond correction. In this way the book is valuable to increase our understanding of Catholic theology, but also to increase our knowledge of biblical doctrine.

Among the issues the author examines are the Gospel, Sola Scriptura, Tradition, the claims of the papacy, justification, the Mass and the doctrine of purgatory. Each is defined using Catholic sources, examined using the Scripture, and where necessary, refuted and corrected. I was glad to see that where often authors spend undue time on the doctrines that are most easy to refute, in this book the doctrines that are most destructive to a biblical understanding of the Gospel receive the bulk of the attention. White does not shy away from the difficult topics.

White is careful to not only present information, but also to guide in the application of this information. “We come then to the “big question.” How shall we respond to the information we have here presented? I believe Christians committed to God’s truth must think long and hard on the issues presented by Rome: such things as the Sacraments, the state of grace, the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, Purgatory, merit, and indulgences. Should we share the Gospel with those who claim to already know it? While we are thankful God’s grace surpasses even the most stubborn human barriers, we must also begin with the basic truths and face the obvious conclusions. Rome’s official gospel is not the Apostle Paul’s Gospel…” (page 220-221).

Those who believe James White knows nothing of grace, and there are many, ought to consider his words on page 221. “I conclude that the official teachings of Rome have compromised the Gospel through both addition and subtraction. Not only are the central places of grace and faith replaced with a human-centered concept, but additions are made that likewise violate the spirit of the Gospel of grace. Does the Roman Catholic gospel save? I do not believe it can. Does it follow that all Roman Catholics are lost? Not unless we believe that all Roman Catholics walk in lock-step with the offical teachings of the Vatican. I am thankful there are those who know the freedom of grace even while maintaining a relationship with a Church that does not give place to that freedom in its official teachings” (page 221).

When it comes to evangelizing Catholics, White concludes that we are to evangelize everyone, believer and unbeliver, Protestant and Catholic. The Gospel is not a one-time presentation that serves only to bring people to the Lord. It does every person good to be reminded of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, taught in all it’s purity of grace. The Gospel is such joyous news, that we ought to rejoice every time we hear it.

White’s level of expertise in understanding Catholic doctrine, honed through much reading and through many formal debates, combined with his expert handling of Scripture, make this a must-read for anyone concerned with the softening of biblical distinctives and the confluence of Protestant and Roman doctrine. To echo the endorsement of Dr. John Armstrong, “Any renewal in our time must begin with a fresh confidence in the Word of God as our supreme authority in all matters of Christian faith and practice. It must be a movement rooted again in the Gospel of grace alone, received by faith alone. If you wish to discover or reaffirm these twin truths, read this book.” You will not be sorry.

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