An Emerging Understanding of “Orthodox” – Part 4: Are Catholics Orthodox?

Is the Roman Catholic Church unorthodox?  

From the perspective of a Protestant understanding of “orthodoxy,” relations to other traditions can vary. Protestants can be found who believe that any deviation from the developments and articulations found in the Reformation, particularly with regard to justification by faith alone, amounts to abandoning the Gospel completely.

The question is this: Does a denial of sola fide (justification by faith alone) amount to the production of a different Gospel and to what degree?

If a denial of sola fide produces a different Gospel in an absolute sense, then it is, by definition, unorthodox in the most severe way. However, if it deviates from the Gospel causing a distortion of the Gospel, but not a destruction of the Gospel, can it be said to be unorthodox to the degree that the Catholic church is a heretical institution?

Please understand, the question is not whether someone can deny sola fide and be saved. Most Evangelicals would (should?) agree that we are saved by faith alone, not necessarily by our belief or confession in salvation by faith alone.

The question is Can the true Gospel be proclaimed when sola fide is denied or ignored? Is sola fide so central to the Gospel that its neglect or denial amounts to a heterodox Gospel?

Those who answer in the affirmative are going to have to recognize the difficulties with such a stand. If the absence of sola fide from the Gospel represents an absolute destruction of the Gospel, what of the church before the Reformation that had yet to articulate salvation in such a way? I know that Thomas Oden has done much to show that the early church did hold to an unarticulated view of sola fide, and I think he has done a good job of showing that this problem is not as severe as some people make it out to be (see Oden, The Justification Reader). Yet, at the same time, it is hard for me to read through the early church and see this without definite qualifications. We need to recognize that the pre-reformation church, even the pre-Roman Catholic church, did hold to beliefs that would be outside of the orthodoxy produced by a Reformed view of sola fide. For example, the early church held to a primitive belief in baptismal regeneration. As well, we often find the blurring of the lines between justification and sanctification.

Therefore, if we were to say that the Reformation’s restoration, development, and articulation of justification by faith alone was a restoration of that which was completely corrupt beforehand, we will have some issues.

Was the Gospel proclaimed in the sixteenth century for the first time?

Did true and full orthodoxy begin in the mind of Luther? 

I think that there is a more reasonable option here. This option follows the idea of progressive orthodoxy that we have talked about in previous posts. It allows for corruption of orthodoxy, to some degree, as corruption is a vital part of its evolution to maturity.

Here is the chart from the last post:

Let me now advance my thesis a bit.

With regards to the Roman Catholic understanding of justification, I would see the orthodoxy produced as a distorted orthodoxy. This distortion, while serious, does not amount to an absolute departure from Christianity. In other words, the Gospel can still be found in Roman Catholic orthodoxy, even if the “fullness of the Gospel” is lacking.

Their development (along with that of the Eastern Church) may look like this (please don’t try to dissect all the letters and such; that would be over-analyzing my intentions):

Notice a few things:

Early Church: The early church was orthodox. Some doctrines were developed, matured, and articulated more than others. This is the difference in the capital letters and lower case. Capital represents maturity (e.g. the work of Christ). Lower case represents an orthodox belief, even if it remained immature. The italics represents distorted orthodoxy. In other words, there were certain beliefs in the early church that had the essence of truth, but, because of immaturity, could often misrepresent its later matured form (e.g. the atonement as a ransom to Satan).

Eastern Church: Here, I primarily mean the Eastern Orthodox church. Notice that they are also orthodox. The further developments represented by the “TH” show the progress and maturing of certain doctrines (e.g. person of Christ and the Trinity). The lower case show an undeveloped doctrine (e.g. salvation) and the italics show a distorted understanding (e.g. atonement).

Roman Catholic: Notice here, the difference. Now we have a misspelling of “orthodox.” This represents the additions that the Roman Catholic church brought to the table that, from a Protestant perspective, distorts the Gospel in a more severe way. These additions might include the infallibility of the Pope, Marian dogmas, additions of ”mortal” sins, and, a definite articulation of process justification along with an absolute denial of sola fide. The distortions would include sacredotalism, depository of grace, the institutionalized church, and the like. But, as you can see, much of Christian orthodoxy remains in tact in Roman Catholicism. So much, in fact, that from my perspective, it would be wrong to call them “unorthodox” in an absolute sense. They just have a distorted orthodoxy that, when read, can still be seen as orthodox.

Reformed Protestantism: Obviously you will see I believe that Protestantism has the best articulation of orthodoxy, even if it remains imperfect. There are definitely some distortions (possibly ecclesiology) and some areas that need development (we must always leave room for such). But in the end, I believe that this represents the fullest representation of orthodoxy and, hence, the Gospel message.

Back to the question: Does a denial of sola fide (justification by faith alone) amount to the production of a different Gospel and to what degree?

The answer is yes and no. “Yes” in that it amounts to the production of a distorted or undeveloped Gospel, and, in this sense, it is different from the fullness of the Gospel (like that of the Galatian Judizers). “No” in the sense that its denial does not completely destroy the Gospel beyond recognition. For example, I believe that the Mormons have a different Gospel to the degree that orthodoxy is destroyed beyond recognition. If they were on the chart, their orthodoxy would look something like this: “XXoMOXY.” It may have some of the same elements, but it is too different and too distorted to find the truth Gospel (primarily because of the absence of the God-man). The same could be said for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Catholics are different. I don’t believe that Catholics are orthodox to the degree that Protestants or Eastern Orthodox are, but, nonetheless, orthodoxy can be found in their Gospel. They do have the God-man and this means a lot.

Once again, you must remember, this is looking at these things from an Evangelical Protestant perspective. I am an Evangelical Protestant. So don’t give me any cries of “Arrogance!” I don’t believe Evangelicals are perfect, but I do believe we have the fullest articulation of the Gospel. If I did not, then I would go to the tradition that did!

At least, this is where I am at today.

Hopefully, you can now see how my understanding of how progressive orthodoxy can account for the development of doctrine in the face of many difficulties.

2 Responses to “An Emerging Understanding of “Orthodox” – Part 4: Are Catholics Orthodox?”

  1. I really enjoyed this thread. I gave me some good things to think about.

    There’s something that I’m confused on, however. While I agree that solafide wasn’t articulated until the 16th century, it has to make one wonder about Gal 1. Paul warns twice that any other gospel than the one recieved means eternal damnation. Paul lays out the gospel in Rom 2-5, but also in Gal 3. Then in Gal 4-5 warns the judaizers not to seek justification by the law or they are shut off from Christ. Yet, Rome has been trying to do what the judaizers tried (just with their own sacraments instead) for thousands of years!

    We could even safely say that the judaizers were “orthodox” to a degree, yet were considered shut off from the gospel by trying to be justified by it. Why shouldn’t we say the same thing about Catholics (at least in a general sense)?

  2. My biggest issue with eastern orthodox isn’t theology but their anti-western view of history. The crusades is one thing brought up by them but they killed thousands of Italian merchants in 1182 but to the Orthodox only the Roman Catholic are to blame because of the sack of Constantinople. Also, the west supporting either the Ottomans or the Turks are other reasons why the Orthodox particulary Greek Orthodox dislike the west or Roman Catholics or Protestants. I know this because I have been on two orthodox blogs and know the anti-western and nationalistic views of the eastern Orthodox. The Byzantine and Russian Empires are white wash by the Orthodox while westerners are always seen in the wrong by some orthodox.

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