Church History 101 a Protestant perspective on knowledge of Catholicism as vital for

Not open for further replies.


Puritan Board Post-Graduate
To my Protestant Bretheran on the PB

Church History 101 a Protestant perspective on knowledge of Catholicism as vital for Protestants and vice versa!

The following article appeared in a Reformation 21 newsletter I received this evening. Its main thesis is that a knowledge of Catholicism is vital for Protestants, and vice versa. I am an ex Roman catholic and now a Reformed Presbyterian Protestant. I do think my knowledge of Roman catholicism has helped me have a deeper and more penetrating understanding of Protestantism, the Reformed Faith and our Reformed Protestant theology as a Presbyterian. I still have much to learn about being a Protestant and our reformed Protestant faith. I learn much right here on the PB; but I am often startled at both some Protestants and many Roman catholics who really know so little of each other and each others theology.

I have been told by some in both groups I am and have become more Protestant than many cradle Protestants. I will confess I think there is some definite truth in that statement. I do think I am in many ways more profoudly Protestant now than some of my Protestant friends who were born into the Protestant fold even though I have only been a Protestant since 2006 and only a Presbyterian since 2007, 3 years this month.

I think the following article is worth reading for all on the PB and I would be interested in the responses from those PB members who are cradle Protestants and those, there are actually several like myself, who are converts to Reformed Protestantism from the Roman catholic church.

I am posting the article here for all to read , enjoy and hopefully respond to.

In faith,

Reflections on Rome (Part II): The Need for History 101
Article by Carl Trueman March 2010

In last month's Wages column, I reflected upon my experience in Rome and Padua shortly before Christmas, a week that involved both the awesome beauty of the Vatican, the dazzling intellectual accomplishments of Catholic theological education, and the weird folk religion that surrounds relics such as the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua.

In between wandering around spectacular pieces of art, paying homage at the bust of Cicero (which, much to chagrin, I discovered might not be Cicero after all), and eating some of the best food I have ever tasted, I did get a chance or two to do some actual work. Perhaps the most unusual opportunity was the invitation to present a seminar on `Giovanni Calvino' at the Diocese of Trento's Interfaith Dialogue Centre.

Trento, of course, was the place where the famous Council took place in the sixteenth century, not merely defining Catholicism in a clearer and more comprehensive way than ever before, but also helping to trigger the great era of Protestant confessionalisation, as Europe's territories sought to give theological expression to their emerging identities. I spent a couple of hours wandering around the city, still beautifully and distinctly medieval in appearance, and also touring the cathedral. Unlike St. Peter's in Rome, this was a dark building, and somewhat claustrophobic, easily tempting the Protestant visitor to draw metaphysical conclusions from what was really just a typical facet of a certain type of medieval architecture.

The seminar went well. The priest in charge was a delightful fellow who made me and my Protestant companions most welcome. A brief perusal of the books in his study indicated that confessional Protestantism rated somewhat lower than Buddhism on the reading list priorities, but I was genuinely honoured and delighted to be given an opportunity to speak in such a setting.

The content of my seminar was straightforward enough: a brief outline of Calvin's life; and then discussion of both his exegetical techniques and the theological underpinnings of his thought. I had chosen these topics for a purpose: both allowed me to connect Calvin to both patristic and medieval antecedents, and thus provided a point of contact with the tradition of my Catholic hosts.

The Catholics in the audience did not respond to my points about Calvin's exegesis, but one thoughtful priest did pick up on the late medieval context I had drawn, arguing that the Scotism which underlies certain aspects of Calvin's thought inevitably led to radical skepticism. I won't delay Ref21 readers by elaborating the thesis but it harks back to the arguments laid out in the 1940s by a Catholic scholar, Joseph Lortz, who saw the Reformation as the result of a decadent and degenerate late medieval theology which had abandoned the more faithfully Catholic paths laid out by Thomas Aquinas. On that one, you pay your money and take your choice; though my own work on later Reformed theologians such as John Owen has provided evidence that Thomism remained a force even within Protestantism.

What was surprising, however, was the number of questions I had to answer on the idea of Calvin as theocrat and as the murderer of Servetus. The former was easy to dispatch, as the late date of Calvin's citizenship in Geneva puts the lie to any notion that he was a Christian equivalent of an Iranian mullah. The Servetus questions, however, puzzled me; and I was sorely tempted to respond simply by pointing out that, when it comes to blood on the church walls, Rome should probably not ask too many questions about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nevertheless, I offered a patient and detailed account of Servetus' life, of his involvement with both Catholics and Protestants, and of the certainty of his death at the hands of whoever reached him first. The smiles told me that I had probably not persuaded everyone; but I had done my best.

The odd historiography of Protestantism that came through so clearly in the seminar in Trent resurfaced a few days later, on a flight from Rome to Padua. Flying Ryanair (no, that wasn't the enjoyable part, though it wasn't bad either -- they don't yet charge you to use the toilet on the plane, despite the rumours), I found myself seated by a young guy in jeans and sweater who had escorted a group of nuns on board. We struck up a conversation and it turned out that he was a priest in the Maronite Order who was taking his cousin and some sisters from her convent to Venice for the weekend to celebrate her successful completion of a PhD. When he asked what I did, and I told him I was a Presbyterian minister and a professor at a Protestant seminary, his eyes lit up and what could have been a boring flight turned into a delightful conversation. Among other things, I learned that Maronite priests can marry - but he could not, because he had taken monastic vows; I also listened as he told me of growing up on the streets of Beirut in the 1980s, and how he had been injured when a rocket exploded while he played football; and I was moved as he informed me that he gave money to an evangelical mission in Turkey and prayed for the Protestants there.

In return, I told him of growing up in Gloucestershire - no bombs, only cheese rolling, which is nearly as dangerous and just as frightening; and also explained my academic research to him, how I had nerdishly spent much of my adult life examining the connection of medieval thought to Protestant orthodoxy. He seemed genuinely fascinated, though as an ice-breaker at parties, I don't generally recommend the line `Do you think Scotus was right to deny the real distinction between existence and essence?' however, it soon became clear that his knowledge of Protestantism, and of the medieval scholastic traditions of Thomism and Scotism, was minimal. And, when we came to the Reformation, he was unaware that Luther had a sense of humour, a sure sign that his theological education had never required him to read him.

It is self-serving for a church historian to say this - though being self-serving does not make it any less true - that a knowledge of Catholicism is vital for Protestants, and vice versa. The theological and ecclesiastical upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shaped as they undoubtedly were by wider factors such as economic, cultural, and political changes, are central to what both Catholicism and Protestantism became. Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with different doctrines; while we share a common grounding in Nicea and Chalcedon, the two faiths have differing views of authority, of the sacraments, of the nature and function of faith, and of the nature of the church. In an era which oscillates between neglecting history and simply regarding history as something negative or oppressive, it is easy to lose sight of the significance of these differences and reduce them to Swift's Lilliputian struggles over which end of a boiled egg should be removed at the breakfast table; or to misunderstand the differences completely, and, as with the gentle priest who chaired my seminar in Trento, see them as purely matters of seditious individual ambition and the abuse of religious power. Only a careful, articulate education in the history of Catholicism will help Protestants truly to understand it and, where necessary, argue against it; and the same holds true for Catholics. We cannot even agree to differ with any integrity if we have not taken the time to learn each other's history.

As I disembarked at Padua Airport, my new found priest friend turned to me `How long are you staying in Venice?' he asked. "I'm not,' I replied, my disappointment anticipating the invitation to come. `I teach today and then head back to Trento tonight.' `What a pity.' he declared, `The nuns will all be in bed by 8 and I was hoping we could continue our conversation over a drink. No-one should be in bed by 8 o'clock in Venice.' On that, we could both agree.

Carl Trueman is an Alliance Council Member.

Carl Trueman, "Reflections on Rome Part II: The Need for History 101", Reformation21 (March 2010)

© Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Inc, 1716 Spruce St Philadelphia PA 19103 USA.

This article was originally published in/on, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation through broadcasting, events, and publishing. This article and additional resources can be found at Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc or by calling 800-956-2644.
Last edited:


Puritan Board Graduate
I cannot pretend to objectivity due to the fact that I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. I will agree that familiarity with both the ecclesiastical histories and doctrines of Catholics and Protestants is very beneficial.

Knowing more about the matrix from which emerged the Protestant and Reformed churches ought to enhance our appreciation for the recovery of the gospel of grace.


Puritan Board Freshman
I've taken a different tack (though I have come to precisely the same conclusion) in a posting entitled, The Catholic Historical Method.

It’s important to understand, when Catholics and Protestants approach a given topic, they approach things in different ways.

In comments to a recent posting on the question of the origin of the Bible, one Catholic writer prefaced his statement this way: “Both sides, yours and mine both can be accused of question begging.”

The dishonesty of this statement is astounding.

In his “Biblical Theology,” Geerhardus Vos discussed the Protestant attitude when approaching the Scriptures. He spoke of “an instinctive recognition that at the beginning of all Theology lies a passive, receptive attitude on the part of the one who engages in its study. The assumption of such an attitude is characteristic of all truly exegetical pursuit. It is eminently a process in which God speaks and man listens.” (“Biblical Theology,” pg. 4).

So when Reformed theologians “beg the question,” it is only at a point at which there is no way to avoid admitting one presupposes God at the beginning of such a study. Following that, the Reformed work with Scripture through a process of exegesis, that is getting out of the text what is there. The Reformed continue to follow the practice of Irenaeus, which I’ve outlined in another post. (“The parables will agree with the clear statements and the clear passages will explain the parables.”) Scripture interprets Scripture.

With regard to the Catholic Church, it is a blatant form of revisionism. This is evidenced by Pius IX’s method articulated in his Letter, “Gravissimas inter,” to the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Dec. 11, 1862, reiterated in Pius XII’s statement in Humani Generis, “theologians must always return to the sources of divine revelation: for it belongs to them to point out how the doctrine of the living Teaching Authority is to be found either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures and in Tradition.”

This is further explained in a variety of sources. One Roman Catholic theologian wrote, “We think first of developed forms for which we need to find historical justification. The developed forms come first and the historical justification comes second.” (“Ways of Validating Ministry,” Kilian McDonnell, Journal of Ecumenical Studies (7), pg. 213, cited in Carlos Alfredo Steger, “Apostolic Succession in the Writings of Yves Congar and Oscar Cullmann, pg. 322.) Steger calls this type of historical revisionism “highly questionable if not inadmissible.”

Aiden Nichols, “The Shape of Catholic Theology” (253) notes that for the last several hundred years, according to these popes, “the theologian’s highest task lies in proving the present teachings of the magisterium from the evidence of the ancient sources.” One internet writer, who I knew some time ago, called this method “Dogma Appreciation 101” (related in a discussion of his seminary studies.) Nichols calls this, “the so-called regressive method,” and notes that Walter Kasper (now a Cardinal) has traced the origins of this metod to the 18th century.

Prior to Newman’s “theory of development,” it was the practice of Catholic apologists (see Bossuet) to argue that the church had never changed: “semer eadem.” But in the course of further historical research, it became necessary for someone like Newman to explain the huge scope and number of the changes that Rome had effected on the church over the centuries.

In the Orwell novel, 1984, it was the job of the main character, Winston Smith, “to rewrite historical documents so they match the constantly changing current party line. This involves revising newspaper articles and doctoring photographs — mostly to remove ‘unpersons,’ people who have fallen foul of the party.”

To find precedence for this practice, Orwell had to travel no further than the Roman Catholic Church, which had made this its practice for centuries. In describing how we have come to know about the genuine teachings of Nestorius, Friedrich Loofs wrote, “The church of the ancient Roman Empire did not punish its heretics merely by deposition, condemnation, banishment and various deprivation of rights, but, with the purpose of shielding its believers against poisonous influence, it destroyed all heretical writings ... a similar fortune was prepared for Nestorius.” (Loofs, “Nestorius,” 2-11).

Of course, according to Orwell, “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say this or that even, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.” (Book 1, Chapter 3)

This is precisely what the Catholic Church, at an official level, has been doing for centuries, and it is the type of thing that its modern apologists continue to do today. (Especially adherents to Newman’s “theory of development.”)

Unthinking Protestants, however, let such comments as the initial commenter made go unnoticed; in my estimation, a failure to understand that this is the foundation of the Catholic side of these discussions, is all too often the reason why these discussions end up the way they do. I’m convinced it is a major reason why many “intellectuals” convert to Rome.

I have a son who likes to light matches so he can smell the smoke. Islamist terrorists investigate ways to create the maximum amount of death and terror through the use of incendiary devices. True, both could be said to be “playing with fire.” But the sheer dishonesty of that statement, with regard to proportion, must truly be understood before one can move forward with a sound understanding of what’s really happening.

Those who were alarmed by the requirement of the Chinese government that Google censor its search results, should be equally alarmed by this method of argumentation that is so widespread among Catholics. Until this basic methodology is acknowledged, examined and understood, it is useless and even damaging for Protestants to have any kind of “friendly” discussion at all with Catholics.
Last edited:
Not open for further replies.