Are Catholics Christians? A Note for New Calvinists: Part 1

by Trevor Anderson

Having been a New Calvinist for several years, I know that there are some who do not think, or seriously doubt, that the Catholic Church is a Christian church, and who do not think, or seriously doubt, that an informed, faithful, practicing Catholic can be considered a Christian. From this basic conviction can often follow the de facto disposition toward Catholic theology that it is not something worth spending any significant time on – after all, why become well-versed in, and potentially open oneself up to, dangerous Roman errors, falsehoods, and idolatries?

I understand this view, and shared it for many years. I can respect people who hold it, and am not attempting here to convince anyone to give it up. Rather, I want to suggest to those who hold such a view that (a) there are more moderate views that a New Calvinist might take, and (b) that even if one does not think a more moderate view is warranted, one should still make a good-faith effort to understand Catholic theology and its relation to historic Protestant theology. Let me frame my thoughts by reference to two stances, which I think encapsulate the two most prominent New Calvinist approaches to the Catholic Church.

Stance 1: the Catholic Church has forsaken the gospel, and is not a Christian church

This is the strongest position, and is represented by R.C. Sproul, venerable founder of Ligonier Ministries and firm supporter of New Calvinism, in his book Are We Together? (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2012). The answer Dr. Sproul gives to the book’s title is in accord with the belief he has held for years regarding the Catholic Church: “No.” Catholics and Protestant evangelicals, he argues, are not together when it comes to that essential of the Christian faith, the gospel. Here are two quotations that encapsulate his conclusion in this regard:

[W]e have no common cause in the gospel. (p. 121)

[W]e must not assume that we are brothers and sisters with them [Roman Catholics] in the gospel. They are members of a church that has anathematized the gospel, so we ought to pray for them and seek to reach them for Christ. (p. 122)

Although I disagree with Dr. Sproul, I know that there are many who take their Christian faith quite seriously, both spiritually and intellectually, who agree with him. Again, I can respect this position. So let us assume Dr. Sproul is right that the Catholic Church per se preaches a false gospel, and therefore that Catholics are not Christian brothers and sisters. Even so, Dr. Sproul says that one ought to investigate Catholic theology in order to better understand its errors:

It is our calling to hold high the truth and expose falsehood. To this end, it is essential that we know and understand what Rome is teaching, so distinctions can be made. (p. 121, my emphasis)

Our hope for The Regensburg Forum is that readers, including those who would identify themselves as New Calvinists, will come into contact with an authentic presentation of Catholic theology and its position in relation to Protestant theology. Perhaps, as Dr. Sproul suggests, it will turn out that Rome does, in fact, embrace heresy and leads its members astray with respect to the essential truths of the Christian faith. But, as he says, in that case it is still essential to engage with Catholic theology, if only to more effectively refute it – though it would perhaps be putting the cart before the horse for one to decide it must be refuted before it’s known and understood (and it would perhaps be disingenuous to suppose it’s known and understood if one has limited oneself largely to books on Catholic theology by Protestants, rather than Catholic theology written by Catholics).

So, if you share Dr. Sproul’s opinion about the imperative of understanding Catholic doctrine, then according to Dr. Sproul you ought to engage with it all the more – and of course, the best way to engage with it is to read and listen to Catholics, in the same way that the best way to learn New Calvinist theology is to read and listen to New Calvinists. It may turn out that it is as erroneous and idolatrous as you thought, or it may not; either way, you will be in a better position to judge than you were before.

Stance 2: the Catholic Church has complicated the gospel, but is a Christian church

This second position is represented by Chris Castaldo, in his book Talking with Catholics about the Gospel (Zondervan, 2015). Dr. Castaldo is a former Catholic who is now a Protestant Reformed evangelical, and writes frequently for The Gospel Coalition. In the introduction to his book, he situates himself and his understanding of the Catholic Church:

I write as an evangelical Protestant. I am not among those who consider the Roman Catholic Church to be a cult. I regard it as a legitimate Christian tradition, unlike, for instance, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), because Catholicism subscribes to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. I also contend that there are valuable lessons that evangelical Protestants can learn from our Catholic friends. But with regard to the biblical gospel, I believe that the Catholic Church has complicated and confused the faith by which one believes in Christ and is saved. (p. 11)

Now, I don’t want to make Dr. Castaldo friendlier to the Catholic Church than he wants to be, and I don’t want to put words in his mouth. But it does seem that his understanding of the Catholic Church is not as disapproving as Dr. Sproul’s: the Catholic Church is still a Christian church (it is “a legitimate Christian tradition”), though it has complicated and confused the Christian gospel in serious ways (but, I take it, has not lost it entirely). Certainly it is clear that he thinks that Reformed Protestant evangelicals can benefit from engagement with Catholic theology.

If this is the sort of view you find yourself holding as a New Calvinist, then please continue to read along; we invite you to respond, discuss and share our content as you’re able. We have been greatly enriched by your lives and theological commitments and would love to learn from you.

If, though, you are of the mind of stance 1, that Catholics do not believe the gospel, I want to emphasize again that I do not insist that you ought to change that view – certainly not until you are sincerely convinced otherwise, should that ever happen. Similarly, I respect those who take stance 2 and cautiously affirm that Catholics per se are (or can be) Christians, and that the Catholic Church, though limping from self-inflicted wounds, retains the gospel.

What I want to say, though, is that on either of these views it is worthwhile, even necessary, for a New Calvinist to engage with the Catholic Church’s doctrines and practices, and to make an effort to understand its positions in honesty and good faith. Of course, it is likewise just as incumbent upon Catholics to make sure they understand historic Protestant theology as well! In a word, it seems necessary that a dialogue (in the least-spineless sense possible) take place between Reformed evangelicals – including New Calvinists – and Catholics. That is what we hope we can facilitate at The Regensburg Forum. We sincerely hope you’ll follow along.

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