With the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation coming up later this year, it’s sad to note that while great strides have been made in ecumenical outreach between the various Christian communities out there, there are still many things that divide us. However, there are more than a few Christians, typically those outside of mainline Protestant communities, who really don’t see this division as much of a problem in the “big picture”.
Those that subscribe to the increasingly popular “once saved, always saved” (OSAS) theology of redemption, have a different view of the disunity that has existed in Christendom for the last 500 years.
The various doctrines, creeds, and theologies of each specific Christian religion, not to mention Sacred Tradition (in its oral or written form) itself, are seen as merely “window dressing”. Anything else, such as the baptism of infants, or the Eucharist and other sacraments, or the Deuterocanon and the liturgical calendar, is looked at simply as superfluous and non-essential to Christ’s message and commands in the Gospel.
All That is Essential is Belief in Christ?
All that is really essential, we are told, is that we come to Jesus Christ, we believe in Him, and accept the saving sacrifice that He made on the Cross on our behalf. Once we accept Him as Savior, there’s no way we can lose that salvation; there’s no going back. This is why many non-denominational Christians today acknowledge that one can be saved, according to this formula, whether they are Evangelical, Lutheran, or Catholic. Therefore, all other “trappings” of these specific religions are unnecessary; the things that make these religions distinct from one another are just “window dressing”, so it really doesn’t matter what church you belong to as long as you believe in and accept Jesus’ sacrifice for yourself on Calvary.
Of course, this view of salvation and of the Church Christ established is rejected by Catholics, the Orthodox Churches, Lutherans, and many others. This notion that one religion is just as good as another has classically been referred to as “indifferentism”, and through the course of this essay, we’ll see how such a view is actually spiritually dangerous, and how it is contrary to what is presented in Scripture.
Many of our separated Christian brethren hold that there is more we have in common than we might think. I agree. Catholics and non-denominational Christians share in a common baptism and common profession of Jesus as God and savior. However, it’s pretty obvious that there are also some glaring differences between these two faiths, and I would argue (as would many Catholic and Orthodox Christians) that these differences are in essential areas, i.e., salvation.
The first point to make in response to this view of indifferentism regarding Jesus’ Church is to simply ask, how can this be that the doctrines and Traditions of Christian religions are merely window dressing? Who has decided which teachings and doctrines are window dressing and which are actually the structure of the building itself, that is, essential? The “essentials” seem elementary to any Evangelical.
But on the flip side, the “essentials” seem pretty clear to Catholics, too. The problem here is that these essentials are defined differently between these two faiths, and often, the “essentials” even contradict each other. But what if everything revealed to us by Jesus and the New Testament writers are essential? Sophia Institute Press has just released a fresh, new reprint of Rev. John MacLaughlin’s Is One Religion as Good as Another?, in which Rev. MacLaughlin makes some salient points.
Were not those Apostles as strictly bound to announce all the doctrines that the Redeemer taught as they were to announce the truth that He was the Redeemer? Is not this evident from the words He Himself made use of when He gave them the worldwide commission- ‘Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’? Was there anything in that commission… to warrant them in believing that He gave them leave to class His doctrines under the heads of principal and subordinate, or to put forward some as of primary and others as of secondary importance? Did they not look upon everything that came from his lips as equally important and equally grave?
Both sides base their respective teachings on the same Scriptures, so who decides whether certain teachings are essential or not?
John Henry Newman
We can first get some insight to that answer from an important figure in Christian history, John Henry Newman. He was a 19th century Evangelical Christian of the English Calvinist tradition, who later became an Anglican priest, and finally converted to Catholicism in his mid-40s, eventually becoming a cardinal. Newman’s spot-on analysis will be quoted at length:
Many…consider that a certain message, consisting of one or two great and simple statements, makes up the whole of the Gospel…These statements they sometimes call the essentials…and all this sounds very well; [until] we come to realize…that no great number of persons agree together what are those great truths…
It is but one shape of [indifferentism]. If we will have it so, that the doctrines of Scripture should be on the surface of Scripture, though I may have my very definite notion what doctrines are on the surface, and you yours, and another his, yet you and he and I… nevertheless will not agree together >what those doctrines are; so that, practically…(if we are candid), we shall be forced to allow, that there is no system, no creed, no doctrine at all lucidly and explicitly set forth in Scripture; and thus we are brought to the result, which I have already pointed out: if we will not seek for revealed truth under the surface of Scripture, we must either give up seeking for it, or must seek for it in Tradition…
Obviously, Newman is not denying the authority of Scripture here but makes the plain point that as Scripture can be interpreted and twisted in so many different ways, there has to be some way we can trust a certain interpretation of a Biblical passage to be the correct one. Catholic and Orthodox Christians have recourse to Sacred Tradition, as Newman said. But that begs the question: who possesses the revelation gained through this Sacred Tradition?
What Teaching is Essential?
That leads us to the second step in our quest to figure out who decides whether a specific teaching is essential or not. The decision can come from nowhere else except for the visible Church that Jesus founded upon Peter (Matt. 16: 18-19). In His divine wisdom, our Lord let us know specifically how Sacred Tradition would find its way to the faithful; through the teaching authority (or Magisterium) of His own Church:
I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. (John 14:16-18)
The Apostles and the rest of the early Christians did not have a Bible to go off of to receive their doctrine, much less allow non-existent Scripture to be absolutely perspicuous in its meaning. Instead, the Apostles as the first bishops and their successors relied on the Holy Spirit to complete His revelation to the whole world through the Catholic Church. This promise from Christ of the Holy Spirit is a promise applicable not only to Christians in the first century but Christians of all ages.
Unfortunately, with so much division among Christians, it makes it hard for some on the outside looking in to discover where the fruits of Christ’s promise are truly blossoming. That there is division in the first place is a grave scandal, but when we consider Scripture’s words again, we can see just how scandalous division is. First our Lord’s, and then St. Paul’s:
I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word… I pray not only for them but also for those who will believe in me through their word so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one…(John 17: 6, 20-22)
It’s clear that Jesus desires a unity so great between His believers, that He wills that it be analogous to the way He and the Father are one in the Godhead. Because of this call of unity from our Lord, we should shudder at the thought of any divisions among Christians. Let’s next turn to Paul, who was even clearer that unity between Christians was of paramount importance:
I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment ( 1 Cor 1:10)
Let’s pay particular attention to the word “dissensions.” It comes from the Greek word schisma, where we get the word “schism”. The short definition for schism is “a split or gap; a rent, as in a garment; a division.” The Douay-Rheims translation renders this word as the more accurate “schism”. How powerful an image this is. Since all Scripture is God-breathed, we should take seriously what Paul says here. Paul is exhorting the Christians in Corinth that a schism or split completely contradicts what Jesus says in the Gospel. If a schism were to occur (and it sadly has many times over), this would fly in the face of Jesus’ exhortation that all believers be “one”. This is, of course, one of the four marks of the Church; that it is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Does God desire the type of division, or schism, seen today throughout Christendom? Should not all Christians be united under one Church
For it to be “OK” that there exists a difference of opinion between Christians on doctrinal matters, such as a visible hierarchy of bishops that are the successors to the Apostles or the Real Presence in the Eucharist, is wrongheaded and smells somewhat relativistic.
How can two correct opinions exist?
We Christians must be of the same mind as Christ wills. I’d bet the Son and the Father don’t disagree on anything and don’t have contradictory views on the Eucharist, or on whether faith and works are necessary through the system of grace, or on the role of bishops, etc. We can no longer call these differences mere “window dressings” as if the differences in doctrine aren’t essential to Christian life. These differences, these divisions, are more than just surface wounds on the Body of Christ. They are deep, draining, and potentially life threatening for us. Paul asks “Is Christ divided?” Of course, He is not.
Pray For True Unity
However, if Jesus is truly one with the Church as its Head, it’s apparent that in rejecting the authority of that Church, a schism occurs with the painful results we see today. Catholics and non-Catholic Christians have a lot in common, but reducing the differences down to virtually nothing but taste helps no one.
It’s a slap in the face to the various Christians who were martyred during the Reformation, on both sides, for their deaths had no meaning. It’s also a slap in the face to our Lord, in that some of His commandments just aren’t essential. Belief in God is not enough for salvation, for “even the demons believe”. Let us rejoice with our non-Catholic brethren in the areas where we agree. Yet let us all pray for true unity, as Christ did to His Father, so we may all become one as They are one.