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Has Rome's Theology Changed?

Written by Rev. P. VanderMeyden
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SALVATION: The Bible and Roman Catholicism by William Webster, [The Banner of Truth Trust], 1990, 183 pp., U.S.$8.50.
Recently voices have arisen among evangelicals calling for closer ties with the Roman Catholic Church. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are being exhorted to join hands in the cultural war which is going on in North America. One could agree that on moral issues some cooperation as individuals in political lobby groups and social action campaigns could certainly take place without compromising our conscience, but it is urged that we stop evangelizing members of the Roman Catholic Church. This alliance with Roman Catholics is promoted on the basis of mutually recognizing each other as Christians and on the "common ground of core beliefs."

Have the core beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church changed since the Reformation of the 1500's? This is the impression which many Protestants seem to be receiving. But has the basic doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church changed? In light of the confusion which exists among Protestant church members on this matter, and in view of the great need for doctrinal clarity even among Reformed Christians, this book by William Webster is a timely publication for the 1990's.

In the Introduction to this book Webster makes the following observations:

Some time ago I was in earnest conversation with a very devout
Roman Catholic. We were discussing specific teachings of the
Roman Catholic Church. When I mentioned a particular doctrine
this person stated very emphatically, 'But the Church doesn't
teach that any more.'... Some time later I was reading a book by
a Roman Catholic author in which he stated that the Roman
Catholic Church has never taught that the Mass is the re-
sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I was amazed because I knew that the
statement was simply not true, as even a cursory reading of a
Roman Catholic catechism will make clear.

Both these incidents underscored for me the fact that there is
great confusion today with respect to the official teachings of
the Roman Catholic Church. It seems that, as a general rule, few
Roman Catholics know what they believe or what their Church
officially teaches. I should add that, in my own experience,
there is a similar lack of knowledge of Roman Catholic teaching
among Protestants.

Webster, who was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, is very much concerned to clear up some of the confusion. He does so by providing us with a compact overview of Roman Catholic teachings with fully quoted citations out of the The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, The Documents of Vatican II [Abbot-Gallagher edition, New York: America Press, Inc., 1966], The Code of Canon Law and The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism [John A. Hardon S.J., Doubleday, 1981]. These documents "show very clearly that the Roman Catholic Church has not changed its teaching with respect to salvation or the major doctrines of the Mass, the Priesthood, Confession and Penance, the Eucharist, or Baptism" (p.8).

A sampling of statements cited by Webster from these documents will serve to give a sense of the consistency of Roman teaching throughout history. (Note: references are to pages in Webster's book, PVM.) Remember, these are the very words of the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church itself being quoted:

TRADITION: Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred
Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of
devotion and reverence. Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture
form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to
the church (p.13). The Bible and Sacred Tradition are of equal
authority because they are equally the word of God (p.14).

THE MASS: If anyone saith, that the sacrifice of the mass
is ... not a propitiatory sacrifice ... and that it ought not to
be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains,
satisfactions, and other necessities: let him be anathema (p.21).
The Mass re-presents Calvary by continuing Christ's sacrifice of
himself to his heavenly Father (p.22).

THE PRIEST: The primary ministry of a priest is to
consecrate and offer the Holy Eucharist, and to forgive sins
(p.29).

PENANCE: Penance is the sacrament instituted by Christ in
which sinners are reconciled with God through the absolution of
the priests... Essential for absolution are the words, 'I absolve
you from your sins.' The matter of the sacrament is the required
acts of the penitent, namely, contrition, confession, and
satisfaction... We can make up for sin through the sorrows and
trials of life including the pains of death, or through the
purifying penalties in the life beyond. Sin can also be expiated
through indulgences (p.40,41).

EUCHARIST: If any one denieth, that, in the sacrament of
the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and
substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and
divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole
Christ; but saith that he is only therein as in a sign, or in
figure, or virtue: let him be anathema (p.61). The center of the
whole Catholic liturgy is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is most
important in the life of the Church because it is Jesus Christ.
It is the Incarnation continued in space and time. The other
sacraments and all the Church's ministries and apostolates are
directed toward the Eucharist (p.61,62). Christ becomes present
in the Eucharist by means of Transubstantiation.
Transubstantiation is the term used to identify the change that
takes place at the consecration (p.62).

BAPTISM: The effects of baptism are the removal of the
guilt of sin and all punishment due to sin, conferral of the
grace of regeneration and the infused virtues, incorporation into
Christ and his Church, receiving the baptismal character and the
right to heaven (p.69).

Such references are made throughout the book. At the end a section of appendices provide longer quotations of these Roman Catholic documents to give the context of the statements quoted.

Webster divides the first part of his book into six chapters dealing with various doctrinal matters (Tradition and the Word of God, The Mass, The Priesthood, Confession and Penance, The Eucharist, and Baptism). In each, he not only documents the Roman teaching, but also refutes it with the teaching of Scripture. In Part 1, chapter 7, Webster compares Roman Catholicism with the teaching of the Judaisers. He shows how Paul answered their heresy as "a different gospel, which is not another" and pronounced that those who teach such are accursed (anathema). Webster shows the teaching of Rome, like that of the Galatian Judaisers, is a departure from the gospel of grace and a denial of the sufficiency of Christ as Saviour.

This book serves well as a manual for witnessing to Roman Catholics. Contrary to the impression one may get from the first part of the book, its thrust is certainly not negative. It shows the preciousness of the gospel of free grace in Christ and encourages believers to guard jealously their liberty of conscience from enslavement to human inventions or traditions which are added to the Word.

In Part II the author has also provided a summary of the Bible's teaching of the gospel entitled, "The Way of Salvation." In four simply stated chapters (Man's Problem Defined; The Work of Jesus Christ; Repentance and Faith; The Results of Salvation) he gives the reader the alternative. A Roman Catholic reader may be asking but what IS the Bible's teaching about salvation? Webster directs him to the Word of God alone. He shows the nature of the problem of sin and the demand of God's justice. If someone would ask, "But what can wash away my sin?" the answer given is "nothing but the blood of Jesus." Christ's death is presented as having provided the sufficient propitiation for sin. Webter then teaches that the next question that should be asked is, "How do I get that salvation?" He goes on to show that it is appropriated in the way of repentance and faith. The fruits of saving grace applied to us are justification, sanctification and glorification.

This small paperback will serve well for personal study and also for reaching out to a Roman Catholic neighbour. Biblical teaching is much needed. The book serves to challenge Protestants as well as Roman Catholics to follow the noble example of the Bereans. They received the apostle's teaching with readiness of mind, but "searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts 17:11).

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