What makes Catholics different from Protestants? Why do the differences matter?
On occasion we’ll devote a morning essay to a significant faith question. Today’s issue arises from an event that occurred 494 years ago, yesterday. Absolutely no one had any idea at the time that it would shock and change the world forever.
Martin Luther was an obscure, young Catholic monk living in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany. Frustrated by abuses he perceived within the Church, he made a list of “95 Theses,” points he wanted to discuss with Catholic authorities. On October 31, 1517, he nailed his list to the door of the town church, a kind of bulletin board for the community.
Luther had no intention of sparking a movement to leave the church. However, his theses were quickly circulated by printing press across Germany, leading to a widespread revolt against Catholic authorities. Called upon to recant in 1521, Luther refused. His “protesters” (from which we get “Protestants”) became an organized and unstoppable movement. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) legalized the Lutheran religion within the German world, making Protestants an enduring reality in Christianity.
To greatly oversimplify, theological differences between Catholics and Protestants can be summarized by two comparisons.
The first deals with spiritual authority. Luther argued for “sola scriptura,” claiming that the Scriptures are our only infallible authority. As such, they are not subject to church tradition, pope, councils, or clergy. According to Catholic tradition, as God gave the Scriptures through the Church, so he uses the Church to interpret his word. Papal teachings, councils, and creeds are the means by which he helps us understand his revelation. And so Church and Scripture are the twin authorities of the Catholic Church.
The second comparison deals with salvation. Luther argued for “sola fidei,” that salvation comes only through faith. The Catholic tradition maintains that God mediates salvation through the “sacraments”: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (the “Lord’s Supper”), repentance, ordination, marriage, and healing of the sick. Some Protestants recognize some of these acts as “sacraments,” while others do not; but Protestants do not typically believe that these actions help convey salvation.
While obvious differences exist, great commonalities between Catholics and Protestants should be celebrated as well. Both believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world, and that his atoning sacrifice makes possible our eternal salvation. While Christian denominations disagree regarding some of the practical implications of our faith, we share a common commitment to the most historic of all Christian confessions: Jesus is Lord.
Martin Luther proved that one person empowered by God can change the world. What step of courageous service is your Father asking you to take today?