We all agree that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, was born into 1st century Palestine to a Jewish virgin and her husband. We agree that this baby grew to become a man who died for our sins, achieving for us by His merits alone, eternal life. We believe that we can and should have a personal relationship with Him and that He should be the “center” of our lives a Christians. We believe that this Jesus is the second eternal person of the divine Trinity, and that it is our supreme duty as the one Body of Christ to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations, til the end of the age.
But then things begin to break down for us.
To an outsider looking in, Christians might seem to be more confused than anyone about what true Christianity is; for some Christians say you can lose your salvation; some say you can’t. Some believe baptizing babies is good practice; some say it isn’t. Some believe Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist; some see this as cannibalistic heresy. Some believe killing unborn children is always wrong in every circumstance; others have contrived their own qualifications and exceptions to what was once an objective and unchangeable moral rule. And on and on go the disputes about “what Jesus really taught” amidst the people of over 30,000 Christian denominations, all of whom claim to preach the “truth.”
Yet, as Christians we believe that in every one of these disputes there must indeed be a right answer somewhere. Someone must have it.
But who? Who’s right?
Eight Major Passages of Disagreement
To illustrate this Christian dilemma, I have compiled eight essential passages from the New Testament that Catholics and non-Catholics commonly interpret differently. For all Christians, it is absolutely crucial that one’s interpretation of these passages is qualified within the context of the entire Bible.
This post is not intended to make a thorough case for Catholicism. Rather, my aim is to take a sample of biblical passages and take a closer look at what divides us in the wide world of Christian doctrine and biblical interpretation, but from a Catholic perspective.
I firmly believe if we Christians could reconcile our doctrinal understanding of even just these seven passages, we might experience a new and inconceivable level of Christian unity.
Consider now these eight key passages that divide us:
1. “Baptism… now saves you.” (1 Pet 3:21)
The Catholic Church teaches that the saving grace won by Jesus once and for all on the cross is communicated initially to us through the waters of Baptism. Initiated by baptism, a Christian’s salvation then continues as an ongoing process throughout one’s life. Many non-Catholic Christians hold that baptism is merely symbolic and that no actual changes occur in the baptized soul.
Catholics believe baptism is essential to one’s salvation (provision is, of course, made for those who cannot possibly receive water baptism, like the thief on the cross, for example – see Catechism of the Catholic Church #1259). Many other Christians, however, contend today that baptism is important in its symbolism but not necessary for salvation.
2. “This is my body…” (Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19)
Catholics have always understood Jesus’s language here at the Last Supper to be literal. That is, Catholics have always believed that in the Holy Mass, bread and water are actually changed into the body and blood of Jesus (while remaining under the appearance of bread and wine). This is called the Sacrament of the Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”). According to his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul believed this (1 Cor 10, 11). According to their early Church writings, St. Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp (both disciples of John the “beloved apostle”) also believed this. In fact, no serious Christian thinker opposed this teaching of the “Real Presence” until the beginning of the 11th century. Most non-Catholics today, however, do not believe in the Real Presence, but rather, that Jesus was merely speaking symbolically at the Last Supper.
To many non-Catholics, “communion” is a mere remembrance (although many do maintain a distinct reverence for the practice). To Catholics, “Communion” is an actual encounter and consummation of the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Risen Christ.
3. “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:55-56)
Catholics have always maintained that this passage puts Jesus’ words at the Last Supper in context (see #2). John wrote his Gospel after the other three had been written. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that since Matthew, Mark and Luke had already given detailed narratives of the Last Supper, John may have chosen to provide new insight into the Sacrament of the Eucharist by his Chapter 6 Bread of Life discourse. So Catholics believe that in the Mass, they consume through eating and drinking the glorified bod and blood of the Risen Jesus (eating the body and blood of the glorified and risen Jesus is completely in a league of its own and therefore, not cannibalism). The Greek of John 6 also captures the literal nature of Jesus’s words here. He begins with esthio (meaning “eat), but when His scandalized disciples start to leave Him because of this teaching, he elevates His language to trogon (meaning “gnaw”). He felt no need to “correct” those who were taking Him literally.
To this day, only Catholics (and a few other Christian denominations) go to Mass at least once a week to consume Jesus’ body and blood.
4. “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)
This is the only place in the entire New Testament where the phrase “faith alone” is found. Catholics believe that our works have consequences; that we are saved by grace as St. Paul clearly teaches, but that the faith that comes alive from this grace must work itself out necessarily in love (as St. Paul also clearly teaches). If we choose not to “act” in love, it is a rejection of Christ (Matt 25:45); therefore, Catholics believe that “faith alone” is not enough if that faith is not married to works of love (1 Cor 13:1-3).
When Catholics and Protestants discuss “how we get saved”, I believe the discussion must begin by defining terms. When Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists did this, they found out that they believed, at least fundamentally, in the same way of justification (or salvation). They were just using confusing terms and failing to understand one another. But once they removed the ambiguity of what “faith alone” actually meant to them, they signed the Joint Declaration on Justification. Who would have thought in their human wisdom that such beautiful re-unity could ever be accomplished following the drama of the Reformation?
Yet still today there remains a great divide among many Christians on the doctrine of justification. In plain terms, Catholics hold that we are saved “by grace through faith working in love” while Protestants believe we are saved “by faith alone.”
5. “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 16:18-19)
Catholics believe that in this passage, Jesus confers upon Simon the office of steward of His kingdom on earth, the Church, by giving Him “the keys” (see Isaiah 22: 15-25). As the head overseer and bishop of the Church, Jesus would work through this sinner and his successors to ensure Christian unity through the ages. Talk about writing straight with crooked lines! Yet with God all things are possible and He has proven that through the miraculous survival of the Catholic Church through two milennia (St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both saw the Church’s rote survival and doctrinal integrity through ages of persecution, heresy and corruption as a great miracle of God in and of itself).
Jesus changed Simon’s name to “Rock” – and when God changes the name of someone in the Bible that is a sign of a special blessing, and often it signifies the initiation of a new and important mission for the re-named individual (Abram, Sarai and Jacob, for example, became Abraham, Sarah and Israel at God’s will). Such is the case for Peter – at least from the Catholic perspective.
Authority is perhaps the most essential dividing line in Christianity. Today, only Catholics have persevered in maintaining loyalty to the successor of St. Peter – the pope – as the head steward and representative of the King Who Is To Return, Protestants continue to look to the Bible alone as the sole rule of faith.
6. “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:15-16)
Protestants hold that this passages proves sola scriptura, the doctrine that eliminates the need for the pope, bishops and tradition by turning to the “Bible alone” for instruction in the Christian faith. Catholics disagree with sola scriptura, but agree with the above passage. Why? Because Paul’s words to Timothy here recognize Scripture as profitable and useful in making the Christian complete, and this is fundamental Christian teaching. The Scriptures are “God-breathed” and therefore extremely useful in doing God’s will, believing what is true, and becoming saints.
But this passage does not say “Only scripture.” It says “All scripture.” The Catholic argues that this passage is silent on the “formal” sufficiency of the Bible, and so although the Bible is useful in remaining orthodox (right teaching), it is not the only “equipment” needed. It is all the parts, but no instructions. This is where the Catholics look to the Magisterium – the teaching authority of the Church (pope and bishops) – to remain true to the traditional understanding of the Scriptures. Catholics argue that individual interpretation has been tried and found wanting, as is evident by the rise of 30, 000 + Protestant denominations since sola scriptura came into practice. Catholics, meanwhile, look to the Church as the interpretative authority and “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
The Protestant Christian, therefore, argues that the written Word of God alone suffices for instruction in Christian faith and morals, while for the Catholic, true Christian doctrine is found via the Holy Spirit-inspired tripod of Bible, Tradition and Church.
7. “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess 2:15)
Catholics believe that the Word of God comes in two forms – written and oral (see 1 Thess 2:13; 1 Pet 1:25). There are traditions that contradict the teachings and will of God, and Jesus condemns these “precepts of men” in the Gospels. But as John wrote in his Gospel, there were countless things Jesus said and did that were not written down. Thus, the Catholic argues that the Christian faith has been passed down both in written and oral form for two thousand years. This is how Catholics justify, for example, the Assumption of Mary. Although an explicit account of her assumption is not found in the Bible, it is found implicitly in the Bible and explicitly in the sacred oral tradition of the Church. But implicitly, we see the assumptions of Enoch and Elijah recorded in the Gospel. Further evidence, such as early Church writings and the total absence of her bodily remains (including relics) affirm the Catholic position.
Catholics also recognize a contradiction in the Protestant denial of tradition – as the New Testament table of contents is nowhere found in the sacred writings of the Christian Church. The New Testament as it is for both Protestants and Catholics alike, therefore, is a compilation of writings accepted as “inspired” on the grounds of the infallible tradition of the Catholic Church (defined by the Ecumenical Councils of Rome, Carthage and Hippo in the late 4th century). There is then at least one “extrabiblical” tradition – an essential to the faith – that is affirmed by non-Catholic Christians.
Catholics, thus, hold sacred oral and written tradition on a level playing field while Protestants do not accept oral tradition in addition to the Bible as the Word of God.
8. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23)
Catholics believe that this passage is explicit evidence that Jesus gave the apostles authority to be co-workers in His ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). Protestants, on the other hand, deny the validity of the ordained and sacramental priesthood, and therefore object to the Catholic claim that priests have received the power to forgive sins on Christ’s behalf.
One thing is for sure — the resurrected Jesus gave the apostles authority to do something in the Upper Room, which is the setting of this passage. Preceding the “If you forgive the sins of any…” line, Jesus says “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you” implying some sort of a special task is about to be imparted. Next, Jesus “breathed” on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”; and when God breaths on something or someone — you can bet something amazing has just happened.
Catholics agree that it is important to confess one’s sins “directly to God,” but when Catholics go to “Confession” they believe they are tapping into a Christ-instituted fountain of healing grace through the ministry of the priest. Protestants, however, do not agree that such a remarkable ministry of forgiving sins on His behalf was ever given to men.