R. C. Sproul, Are We Together?: A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism. Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2012. 125 pp. $17.00.
Many of us owe a spiritual debt to R.C. Sproul. He has reminded us through decades of writing and speaking that we stand on the doctrinal shoulders of our predecessors. His skill for telling the church’s story, including its historical and philosophical movements, expressed with his characteristic pathos, has been a gift.
If there is one topic in the Sproul corpus for which he is most noted, it might be justification by faith alone in 16th-century Protestantism. Full disclosure: I am biased on this point. Sproul’s book Faith Alone was valuable to me when I was a former Catholic and newly minted Protestant wrestling through the complexities of salvation. Taking my conscience captive to the doctrines of grace, his book not only allayed my momentary angst but also stimulated my desire to train evangelicals for gospel witness among Catholics, a ministry in which I now serve.
To begin, Are We Together? includes a foreword by Michael Horton titled “Combating the Drift,” underscoring its timeliness. It also features an introduction by Sproul, expressing the current stakes in the Catholic/Protestant conversation. The sequence of chapters begins logically with Scripture (the formal cause of the Reformation), moves to justification (the material cause), and then proceeds to four critical topics: the church, sacraments, papacy, and Mary. Each topic is developed by first considering doctrine's historical context, followed by reflection on its significance for today. The concluding section “How Then Should We Proceed?” calls readers to a theologically informed response.
Sproul is forthright about his concern. He writes in his conclusion, “I am happy to make common cause with Roman Catholics on social issues, but we have no common cause in the gospel” (121). Elsewhere he writes, “When our involvement in social issues brings us into contact and camaraderie with Roman Catholics, we need not draw back” (122). He contends, however, that such partnership must not happen in the name of the gospel, for he understands Rome to have compromised the gospel with unbiblical doctrines. Nor can we afford to be cavalier in our use of Scripture. “Our task,” according to Sproul, “is to be faithful not to our own traditions or even to the heroes of the Reformation. We must be faithful to the truth of Scripture” (10).
The doctrine of justification factors most significantly in Sproul’s analysis. In fact, the topic frequently emerges outside the justification chapter. For example, the chapter on “The Church” concludes this way:
If justification is not by faith or trust in Christ alone, but occurs primarily by means of the sacraments, most importantly the sacraments of baptism and penance, which require the function of the priest to perform, then Protestant churches cannot provide salvation, and Rome must be the only true church. But if Protestants are correct in their doctrine of justification, Rome is not a true church at all. Rome cannot have it both ways (66).
The same is true for the chapter on Mary:
Furthermore, [the Marian dogmas] strike at the very basis of the Protestant belief about salvation—justification by Christ alone. Protestants must continue to stand firm on solus Christus (119).
Sproul’s explanation of the doctrine of justification answers a lot of questions, but it also raises others. One such question concerns his reading of the Regensburg Colloquy, where, according to Sproul, Catholics and Protestants “could not reconcile their competing views on imputation.” This view contradicts the assessment of John Calvin, who was personally present and wrote about the meeting to William Farel in 1541. The doctrine of the Eucharist and the authority of the church undermined discussion at Regensburg.
Another questionable approach concerns Sproul's use of the present tense. He writes, for instance, that “Rome teaches” a doctrine of condign and congruous merit. Indeed, Scholastic theologians made hay with this doctrine, and it played an important role in Luther’s protest, but we must not ignore the fact that the Catholic Church long ago jettisoned these categories. In fact, they were gone by 1547, as evidenced by their exclusion from Trent’s Decree on Justification.
The question of time frame impinges on other aspects of Sproul’s argument. He corectly asserts that “[Catholics] are members of a church that has anathematized the gospel” (past tense). But does the Catholic Church currently assert this position? At the end of the day, the answer is probably “yes” after one deconstructs contemporary Catholic (post-Newman) methods of interpretation, but it is generally not by direct application of Trent’s canons from the 16th century. Recent examples include the “Annex” to the Joint Declaration (an official statement of the Church) or the pope’s recent book Saint Paul, in which he explicitly endorses sola fide. Sproul's argument would have been strenghthened by outlining how the Catholic Church marshals this case and explaining why we evangelicals, nevertheless, continue to sing the Song of the Lamb from a different sheet of music.
Despite these critiques, this book is valuable for the way it underscores the necessity of theological precision and the urgency of gospel outreach. Ever since sociologist Peter Berger developed the idea of a “religious market,” we have become more aware that, in his words, “religious institutions must compete for the allegiance of their putative clientele.” Such competition has resulted in politically correct guidelines for religious interaction, the first of which is to avoid “proselytizing” people who have been baptized as Christians. In other words, don’t evangelize Catholics. Sproul rightly points out that we who ground our obedience in Scripture as the supreme revelation of Jesus and cherish the doctrines of grace dare not march in this parade. Woe to us if we don’t preach the gospel.