Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment

Written by Gregg R. Allison Reviewed By Chris Castaldo

Protestants have a long history of subjecting Roman Catholic theology and practice to a written critique. Calvin, Chemnitz, Vermigli, Zanchi, Turretin, Usher, Newman (prior to his conversion), Bavinck, Boettner, Berkouwer, and Van Til are just a few notable examples. The volume under review continues this legacy of rigorous, trenchantly biblical engagement from a Reformed perspective. It differs, however, in that it is current, irenic in spirit, and driven by a particular methodology, that is, by a consideration of how the various strands of Catholic doctrine relate to its overall fabric.

Gregg Allison begins by reflecting on his experience as a young man preparing to engage Catholics in evangelism at the University of Notre Dame (p. 22). Such background sets the stage for what follows by introducing the author as an evangelical with two basic concerns: understanding Catholicism as it is taught by the Catholic Church, and responding to Catholic claims in an authentically evangelical manner, that is, with the gospel of Jesus Christ at the leading edge.

Precisely because this is an “evangelical assessment,” Allison begins with consideration of the Catholic and Protestant approaches to Scripture in his opening section (pp. 31–32). It is at this initial point where he also spells out his understanding of Catholic theology “as a coherent, all-encompassing system with two major features: the nature-grace interdependence, that is, a strong continuity between nature and grace; and the Christ-Church interconnection, that is, an ecclesiology . . . that views the Catholic Church as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus Christ” (p. 31). These two features comprise the methodological lens through which Roman Catholic theology and practice are evaluated throughout the book.

Recognizing the importance of definition, Allison explains, “As for evangelical theology, one must understand first of all that evangelicalism is not a church or denomination but a massive broad-tent movement that encompasses thousands of churches and ministries from many different theological persuasions” (pp. 32–33). He proceeds to explicate what he regards as the typical expression of evangelical theology in terms of “a vision of life with God and human flourishing” (p. 33). However, he is not content to simply define the gospel; he proclaims it with the pathos of a preacher (p. 35).

Allison credits the outline of his systematic approach to the Italian scholar, Leonardo De Chirico, whose doctoral thesis, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), lays the groundwork (p. 43). From this foundation several principles of Catholic theology are highlighted: its ability to assimilate new ideas in an increasing complexity without altering its basic unified identity, its “and-and” approach, rather than an “either-or” (e.g., soli Deo Gloria, glory to God and special honor attributed to Mary as the theotokos), and the incarnational impulse that integrates concepts with visible, material, and organizational structures. This would have also been a good place to also mention the notion of doctrine’s development—so central to post-Vatican II Catholicism—as popularized by John Henry Newman.

After explaining how Catholic theology functions as a coherent, all-encompassing system, Allison begins to exposit the Catechism of the Catholic Church (p. 71). Before doing so, however, he explains the historical background of the Catechism from the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). The various drafts through which it passed, its publication in English in 1994, and its overall scope and sequence are summarized in these pages (pp. 71–72). In the exposition that follows, Allison is sensitive to the proportion of space that he dedicates to various doctrinal subjects, taking his cues from the Catechism itself (p. 267).

The section on “Scripture and Its Interpretation,” a central focus of Allison’s research, is pure gold (pp. 95–108). Once again, he is quite comfortable identifying the significant agreement that Catholics and Protestants share on this subject: e.g., the importance, divine inspiration, and truthfulness of Scripture. At the same time, he sheds light on differences such as the canon of Scripture, perspicuity, and methods of interpretation.

Allison’s analysis goes further than simply the Catholic Catechism. He also considers trends in the Catholic Church, such as its charismatic renewal movement (p. 158). Furthermore, he draws from sources outside of the Catechism, such as Vatican II documents (unfortunately, references to these do not appear in the index), encyclicals, conciliar statements, documents from important events such as the World Day of Prayer for Peace (p. 165n32), motu proprios (papal edicts), canon law, Church Fathers, lectionaries, and a host of secondary sources.

In addition to shedding historical theological light on Catholic teaching (pp. 194–96), including its relationship to sixteenth century Protestant thought (p. 170), Allison’s reflection is also pastoral in nature. Speaking of Catholics attempting to emulate the lives of their saints, he writes: “these saints cannot offer grace and mercy to them, only an unattainably high standard that functions as a law that brings greater condemnation as it is not reached” (p. 174). Underscoring the need for Christian faith to maintain a missional impulse, he writes, “Withdrawal from the world . . . is no more an option for Christians than it was for Jesus himself” (p. 201).

When treating a subject, Allison often steps backward to provide insight into its wider and fuller context, such as when he explains the etymology and biblical orientation of the word “baptism” (p. 260). Readers will also appreciate the various illustrations sprinkled throughout the book, drawings and explanations that elucidate complex concepts. For example, in explaining the catholicity of the Church, he writes:

The Catechism raises an important question: “Who belongs to the Catholic Church?” To envision its response, think of concentric circles with the Catholic faithful in the center, others who believe in Christ—Orthodox Christians, Protestant Christians, evangelical Christians—in the circles farther out, and all the rest of humanity, “called by God’s grace to salvation,” in the more remote circles. (p. 163)

Such statements are consistently followed by an evangelical critique. In this case, Allison notes, “Evangelical theology decries this notion of the Church’s universality as embracing inclusivism . . . (p. 177). In his section on Catholic inclusivism, one wishes that Allison would have explained the Catholic doctrine of “invincible ignorance” and compared it to Karl Rahner’s notion of “Anonymous Christianity.”

Allison’s nuanced approach in navigating areas of controversy between Catholics and evangelical Protestants endows his treatment with an explanatory force. For instance, after presenting the evangelical position on Petrine supremacy in Matthew 16, he writes, “This interpretation should not be taken to be minimizing Peter’s salvation-historical privilege among the apostles” (p. 182n82). Likewise, Allison dispels common misconceptions, such as the notion that the Roman Catholic Church is without a doctrine of the priesthood of believers (p. 187).

For readers who desire to better understand the Mass, Allison explains why the Catholic liturgy takes the particular form that it does—the various movements of the Liturgy of the Word followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist (p. 247). He considers the tangible elements in which the liturgy consists: “the altar, the tabernacle, the sacred chrism (myron, or oil), the chair (cathedra), the lectern (ambo), the baptistery, the holy water font, the confessional, and the threshold” (p. 256). Moreover, he overviews the legally recognized rites, explaining how they fit into the Catholic picture, including Byzantine, Alexandrian (Coptic), Syriac, Armenian, Maronite, and Chaldean (p. 250).

There are a few areas where readers may find themselves disagreeing with Allison’s presentation. For instance, in a visual image on page 47 he distinguishes (in his words) the “primary elements” of Catholic theology in terms of “nature” and “grace” (which are portrayed as parallel) from the “secondary element,” that is, “sin” (which is depicted below the previous elements). I expect Catholics will protest this portrayal, since Catholic theology is quite clear that grace is higher than nature. Then, a couple of pages later, Allison asserts, “According to evangelical theology, grace has nothing to work with in nature because creation has been devastatingly tainted by sin” (p. 49, emphasis added). This, it seems to me, sounds like a Barthian view, but not exactly an evangelical understanding of how divine grace redeems humanity.

The final chapter of Allison’s book, “Evangelical Ministry with Catholics,” is full of practical, ministry-oriented suggestions (pp. 453–58). Growing out of the “many commonalities that are shared between Catholics and evangelicals,” and also the many differences that have been critiqued, particularly the nature-grace interdependence and the Christ-Church interconnection, Allison encourages readers to engage Catholic friends in respectful conversation (p. 453). One wishes that this section (of only 6 pages) were longer.

Readers will want to ask themselves at the conclusion of this book whether Allison has succeeded in portraying Catholic theology and practice as an all-encompassing system. Frankly, while I have been in agreement with Allison’s presuppositions for a long time, I was unsure whether they would serve as an effective heuristic lens without having to die the death of a thousand qualifications. In my humble opinion, Allison not only succeeds, he does so in a way that is genuinely helpful to anyone desiring to understand and relate constructively to the Catholic Church.

Chris Castaldo

Chris Castaldo
New Covenant Church
Naperville, Illinois, USA

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