Interview: Talking with Chris Castaldo about the Gospel

Castaldo face shotDr. Chris Castaldo (Ph.D., London School of Theology) is the Senior Pastor at New Covenant Church, Naperville, IL. Dr. Castaldo has authored and contributed to several books on the Reformation including The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years (Zondervan, 2016), Talking with Catholics about the Gospel: A Guide for Evangelicals (Zondervan, 2015), Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism (Zondervan, 2012), and Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic (Zondervan, 2009). He has written articles for publications such as Christianity Today, Touchstone Journal, Credo Magazine, Themelios, and First Things. Dr. Castaldo’s research interests focus upon movements of gospel renewal in early sixteenth-century Italy, particularly the life and times of Peter Martyr Vermigli, and the study of John Henry Newman. He writes at

Chris, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. To begin, can you tell us about your background as a Catholic, and the reasons for your transition to Protestant evangelicalism?

It is my pleasure to join you Trevor.

Like most Italians from Long Island, New York, I was raised Catholic. My sister and I loved our priest, Father Tom, who occasionally visited our home. His black clerical shirt with unfastened collarino (collar in which the white plastic insert fits) expressed the nature of his relationship to our family. It said, “I am here not only as your priest, but also as your friend.” Under his pastoral oversight, I enjoyed participating in our local parish right through the Sacrament Confirmation. Years later I also worked professionally in the Roman Catholic Church.

The reason that I became an evangelical Protestant was the central theme of my first book, Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic. In short, it began with my experience of religious guilt. I had a nagging fear preoccupying my soul, a root of doubt constantly posing the question: was I truly forgiven in Christ? Consequently, I would often go to bed and wonder, “Has my behavior been good enough today to merit divine approval?” Like Martin Luther, who attempted to find a gracious God, I never knew whether or not I was fully and finally accepted. It was in hearing the gospel from an evangelical Protestant that I encountered the living Christ, finding in his death and resurrection the solvent for my guilt.

Why have you chosen to maintain a connection with your Catholic heritage, and what continues to drive your ecumenical efforts?

That is an interesting way to think about it: my “Catholic heritage.” I suppose at this point the connection largely consists of relationships with Catholic family members from New York. The phrase “ecumenical efforts” is also thought provoking. Part of my work may be described as “ecumenical,” in that I enjoy dialogue with some Catholic thinkers. I have participated in some formal dialogues (with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and under the auspices of the Lausanne Congress). But I mostly function as a pastor who tries to bring illumination to the Catholic/Protestant intersection through writing, speaking, and counseling.

Given the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding the necessity of a church being in communion with the Bishop of Rome, isn’t any ecumenical ‘conversation’ that might occur between Catholics and Protestants merely a Catholic front for bringing Protestants ‘back into the fold’? How do you understand genuine dialogue to be possible?

To call it a “Catholic front for bringing Protestants ‘back into the fold’” may not be the most charitable way to put it. The Catholic approach to ecumenism grows out of a certain ecclesial self-understanding, which recognizes the living Christ to incarnate himself in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Thus, the Vatican II document Lumen gentium states (in chapter one, paragraph 8) that the Church of Christ “subsists in the Catholic Church” (haec ecclesia subsistit in ecclesia catholica). While the Catholic Church recognizes that “many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside its visible confines,” it understands itself as imbued with the fullness of all the means instituted by Christ. Lumen gentium therefore concludes, “Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.” 

As Protestants, we might read this and think, “How arrogant for Catholics to believe that they possess the fullness of Christian faith.” Another approach, however, is to recognize that because the Catholic Church understands itself to be the ecclesial incarnation of Christ, it is naturally self-referential when it approaches ecumenism. I disagree with the Catholic position, but I can deal with it. If a Catholic sincerely believes that the fullness of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, he should try to persuade me to become a Catholic. In the same way, however, I hope that my Catholic friends respect that evangelical Protestants will seek to persuade them regarding justification by faith alone according to Scripture. If we are not afraid of listening to and respecting the earnestness of each other’s convictions, genuine dialogue is possible.

How might a young evangelical go about gaining a better understanding of Catholic theology without compromising his or her own integrity as a Protestant? What ought an evangelical to keep at the forefront of his or her mind in order not to be be ‘swept away’ by some of the new things he or she might learn about Catholic doctrine in the process of investigation?

I want to always be open to persuasion by Catholicism. Anything less is intellectually disingenuous. For instance, when a Catholic friend explains some aspect of Catholic teaching, I want to honestly listen and learn, and not be thinking of a Protestant comeback. Such discussions always result in making me more theologically astute.

As for what Protestants should keep in mind when they dialogue with Catholics, I would suggest always asking the question, “How does this relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ?” In magisterial teaching there is a necessary connection between elements of sacred tradition and the Lord of those traditions. Think for instance of Mary’s mediation, the Papacy, or the various moral directives that emerge from natural law. Catholic theologians are emphatic that each of these doctrines either extend from or lead to Christ. However, in actual practice, I’m not sure that they work this way. Natural law can easily remain on the level of moralism, Mary often becomes the final object of one’s devotion, and Pope Francis stands before both an assembled US Congress and a United Nations General Assembly without so much as mentioning Jesus Christ.

What resources are there within New Calvinist theology for the furtherance of ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church?

I must confess that I am not exactly sure what you mean by “New Calvinist theology.” If you mean the sorts of people featured on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) website, the size of the bibliography is fairly modest. I would recommend Gregg Allison’s book, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. This would be my first suggestion for understanding Catholic teaching. Along this line, Gregg and I have recently co-authored a book, which is due out this September, titled The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years. The closest thing to ecumenical dialogue in the TGC universe may very well be my contributions in Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic and my most recent, Talking with Catholics about the Gospel: A Guide for Evangelicals.

What are the most significant ways you understand the Catholic Church to have departed from biblical and historic Christian teaching?

Great question. One could easily write an entire book to answer it. I think Philip Schaff shed helpful light on the fundamental areas of difference between Catholics and Protestants in his popular distinction between the “material” and “formal” causes of the Reformation, that is, the doctrine of justification (material cause) and the normative authority of Scripture (formal cause).[1] This helpfully identifies where our traditions part company. For details of the particular doctrines and implications of these differences, I would recommend a book coming out this fall, written by a fantastic scholar named Gregg Allison and some other bloke, titled The Unfinished Reformation.

One view of the Catholic Church is that it has ‘lost the gospel’ in such a decisive way that it is no longer a Christian church. Consequently, Catholics that might be born-again Christians are saved despite their Catholic identity, not because of their Catholic identity. Do you think this is the case?

This is probably the most controversial question one can ask. The answer turns on whether the gospel is limited to the objective teaching of Christ crucified and risen or if it also entails the subjective appropriation of forgiveness, which evangelicals understand to come by faith alone. I realize that some very capable theologians such as NT Wright argue that “the gospel” is strictly the objective announcement; but with all due respect, I disagree. Part of what makes the gospel good news is the particular way God extends his favor, as a gift that we cannot merit.

With this conviction, then, I am forced to recognize the Catholic doctrine of justification as fundamentally inconsistent with the evangelical understanding of the gospel according to Scripture. However, this does not mean that the Catholic Church is no longer a Christian Church. In the words of Martin Luther, “The Roman Church is holy, because it has God’s holy name, the gospel, baptism, etc.”[2] Statements such as this, which grant legitimacy to the Catholic Church, can also be found in the writing of such figures as John Calvin, Charles Hodge, and J. Gresham Machen. And, for that matter, even in TGC circles, this position is affirmed. So Phil Ryken writes,

Sometimes we forget that Luther, Calvin, and the rest of the Reformers were born and bred within the Roman church. When Catholics were catholic, they were Catholic too, and it was within the Roman church that they came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. To be sure, the pope would not tolerate their plain teaching of the gospel, so eventually they were thrown out of the church. But God can and does carry out his saving work to this day, even where his gospel is not preached in all its clarity.[3]

I think Ryken’s statement sheds light on the last part of your question. Catholics are not saved because of their Catholic identity (of course, neither are Protestants saved by their Protestant identity). They are saved because God in his grace uses his word to impart saving grace. 

What are some of the major ways Catholics misunderstand evangelical, perhaps particularly New Calvinist, theology? How might a Catholic who is interested in doing so go about remedying this?

In my book, Talking with Catholics about the Gospel, I lay out several such ways. Let me cite what I think is one of the two most significant misunderstandings. From an evangelical Protestant perspective, the fact that our ultimate acceptance comes by faith apart from human works is about as central as it gets to the good news of the gospel. But it does not generally sound this way to Catholic ears. Given the Catholic assumptions concerning justification—that it is a process in which one becomes increasingly righteous—the assertion that God accepts us by faith alone often sounds like “cheap grace”(to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer). It sounds like we’re saying, “Don’t worry about pursuing a life of holiness. Just say this sinner’s prayer, walk this aisle, and then you’ll be safe for all of eternity.” Thus, for Catholics, our doctrine of salvation resembles a form of fire insurance that requires a minimal investment in exchange for an eternal payoff.

On one side, evangelical Protestants are sharing one of the most glorious and beautiful truths that they possess—the message that God, like the father of the prodigal son, wraps his loving arms around us despite the filthiness of our sin; meanwhile, to Catholics it seems like a sleight of hand that diminishes divine holiness and reduces salvation to a momentary experience. I shudder to think of how many gospel conversations have been blown to smithereens by this landmine. This is one of many examples of where the Catholic/Protestant intersection needs illumination. (By the way, evangelicals can help our Catholic friends understand the glory of justification by stressing that while faith alone accesses divine acceptance, it is a faith that never remains alone).

Do you think it is legitimate to pray and hope for the visible unity of Christ’s Church, such that Catholics, Eastern Christians, and Protestants would share in worship and the Lord’s Table together? If so, what, to your mind, are the main areas the Catholic Church would need to focus on to move toward such unity?

Yes. Precisely because the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the church, there is always hope. On the one hand, however, we can have an over-realized eschatology (expecting more of the kingdom now than God ordains) that imagines 500 years of differences will somehow disappear or become irrelevant. On the other hand, we might hold an under-realized view which fails to trust that God can work beyond our imagination. Over and against these polar extremes, we should seek to be realists who trust in the reality of a living God.

Rather than explaining what only Catholics can do, I will suggest what Catholics and Protestants can both do to move toward one another. I would encourage you to find a thoughtful friend from the other tradition and meet for a drink to discuss your experience of Christ from Scripture and the Christian tradition. Ask questions that are intelligent and respectful. You’ll be amazed by how much you learn and by how much you move toward the unity for which our Lord Jesus prayed.

Our sincere thanks for your time, Chris, and for your work for God’s Church. 

[1] The Principle of Protestantism: As Related to the Present State of the Church, trans. John W. Nevin (Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church), 54-94.

[2] Martin Luther, quoted in Gustaf Aulen, Reformation and Catholicity, trans. Eric H. Wahlstrom (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962), 76.

[3] Philip Ryken, My Father’s World: Meditations on Christianity and Culture. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2002), 230–231.

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