Is the Roman Catholic Church unorthodox?  

From the perspective of a Protestant understanding of “orthodoxy,” relations to other traditions can vary. Protestants can be found who believe that any deviation from the developments and articulations found in the Reformation, particularly with regard to justification by faith alone, amounts to abandoning the Gospel completely.

The question is this: Does a denial of sola fide (justification by faith alone) amount to the production of a different Gospel and to what degree?

If a denial of sola fide produces a different Gospel in an absolute sense, then it is, by definition, unorthodox in the most severe way. However, if it deviates from the Gospel causing a distortion of the Gospel, but not a destruction of the Gospel, can it be said to be unorthodox to the degree that the Catholic church is a heretical institution?

Please understand, the question is not whether someone can deny sola fide and be saved. Most Evangelicals would (should?) agree that we are saved by faith alone, not necessarily by our belief or confession in salvation by faith alone.

The question is Can the true Gospel be proclaimed when sola fide is denied or ignored? Is sola fide so central to the Gospel that its neglect or denial amounts to a heterodox Gospel?

Those who answer in the affirmative are going to have to recognize the difficulties with such a stand. If the absence of sola fide from the Gospel represents an absolute destruction of the Gospel, what of the church before the Reformation that had yet to articulate salvation in such a way? I know that Thomas Oden has done much to show that the early church did hold to an unarticulated view of sola fide, and I think he has done a good job of showing that this problem is not as severe as some people make it out to be (see Oden, The Justification Reader). Yet, at the same time, it is hard for me to read through the early church and see this without definite qualifications. We need to recognize that the pre-reformation church, even the pre-Roman Catholic church, did hold to beliefs that would be outside of the orthodoxy produced by a Reformed view of sola fide. For example, the early church held to a primitive belief in baptismal regeneration. As well, we often find the blurring of the lines between justification and sanctification.

Therefore, if we were to say that the Reformation’s restoration, development, and articulation of justification by faith alone was a restoration of that which was completely corrupt beforehand, we will have some issues.

Was the Gospel proclaimed in the sixteenth century for the first time?

Did true and full orthodoxy begin in the mind of Luther? 

I think that there is a more reasonable option here. This option follows the idea of progressive orthodoxy that we have talked about in previous posts. It allows for corruption of orthodoxy, to some degree, as corruption is a vital part of its evolution to maturity.

Here is the chart from the last post:

Let me now advance my thesis a bit.

With regards to the Roman Catholic understanding of justification, I would see the orthodoxy produced as a distorted orthodoxy. This distortion, while serious, does not amount to an absolute departure from Christianity. In other words, the Gospel can still be found in Roman Catholic orthodoxy, even if the “fullness of the Gospel” is lacking.

Their development (along with that of the Eastern Church) may look like this (please don’t try to dissect all the letters and such; that would be over-analyzing my intentions):

Notice a few things:

Early Church: The early church was orthodox. Some doctrines were developed, matured, and articulated more than others. This is the difference in the capital letters and lower case. Capital represents maturity (e.g. the work of Christ). Lower case represents an orthodox belief, even if it remained immature. The italics represents distorted orthodoxy. In other words, there were certain beliefs in the early church that had the essence of truth, but, because of immaturity, could often misrepresent its later matured form (e.g. the atonement as a ransom to Satan).

Eastern Church: Here, I primarily mean the Eastern Orthodox church. Notice that they are also orthodox. The further developments represented by the “TH” show the progress and maturing of certain doctrines (e.g. person of Christ and the Trinity). The lower case show an undeveloped doctrine (e.g. salvation) and the italics show a distorted understanding (e.g. atonement).

Roman Catholic: Notice here, the difference. Now we have a misspelling of “orthodox.” This represents the additions that the Roman Catholic church brought to the table that, from a Protestant perspective, distorts the Gospel in a more severe way. These additions might include the infallibility of the Pope, Marian dogmas, additions of ”mortal” sins, and, a definite articulation of process justification along with an absolute denial of sola fide. The distortions would include sacredotalism, depository of grace, the institutionalized church, and the like. But, as you can see, much of Christian orthodoxy remains in tact in Roman Catholicism. So much, in fact, that from my perspective, it would be wrong to call them “unorthodox” in an absolute sense. They just have a distorted orthodoxy that, when read, can still be seen as orthodox.

Reformed Protestantism: Obviously you will see I believe that Protestantism has the best articulation of orthodoxy, even if it remains imperfect. There are definitely some distortions (possibly ecclesiology) and some areas that need development (we must always leave room for such). But in the end, I believe that this represents the fullest representation of orthodoxy and, hence, the Gospel message.

Back to the question: Does a denial of sola fide (justification by faith alone) amount to the production of a different Gospel and to what degree?

The answer is yes and no. “Yes” in that it amounts to the production of a distorted or undeveloped Gospel, and, in this sense, it is different from the fullness of the Gospel (like that of the Galatian Judizers). “No” in the sense that its denial does not completely destroy the Gospel beyond recognition. For example, I believe that the Mormons have a different Gospel to the degree that orthodoxy is destroyed beyond recognition. If they were on the chart, their orthodoxy would look something like this: “XXoMOXY.” It may have some of the same elements, but it is too different and too distorted to find the truth Gospel (primarily because of the absence of the God-man). The same could be said for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Catholics are different. I don’t believe that Catholics are orthodox to the degree that Protestants or Eastern Orthodox are, but, nonetheless, orthodoxy can be found in their Gospel. They do have the God-man and this means a lot.

Once again, you must remember, this is looking at these things from an Evangelical Protestant perspective. I am an Evangelical Protestant. So don’t give me any cries of “Arrogance!” I don’t believe Evangelicals are perfect, but I do believe we have the fullest articulation of the Gospel. If I did not, then I would go to the tradition that did!

At least, this is where I am at today.

Hopefully, you can now see how my understanding of how progressive orthodoxy can account for the development of doctrine in the face of many difficulties.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    7 replies to "An Emerging Understanding of “Orthodox” – Part 4: Are Catholics Orthodox?"

    • Cameron

      I really enjoyed this thread. I gave me some good things to think about.

      There’s something that I’m confused on, however. While I agree that solafide wasn’t articulated until the 16th century, it has to make one wonder about Gal 1. Paul warns twice that any other gospel than the one recieved means eternal damnation. Paul lays out the gospel in Rom 2-5, but also in Gal 3. Then in Gal 4-5 warns the judaizers not to seek justification by the law or they are shut off from Christ. Yet, Rome has been trying to do what the judaizers tried (just with their own sacraments instead) for thousands of years!

      We could even safely say that the judaizers were “orthodox” to a degree, yet were considered shut off from the gospel by trying to be justified by it. Why shouldn’t we say the same thing about Catholics (at least in a general sense)?

    • cynthia curran

      My biggest issue with eastern orthodox isn’t theology but their anti-western view of history. The crusades is one thing brought up by them but they killed thousands of Italian merchants in 1182 but to the Orthodox only the Roman Catholic are to blame because of the sack of Constantinople. Also, the west supporting either the Ottomans or the Turks are other reasons why the Orthodox particulary Greek Orthodox dislike the west or Roman Catholics or Protestants. I know this because I have been on two orthodox blogs and know the anti-western and nationalistic views of the eastern Orthodox. The Byzantine and Russian Empires are white wash by the Orthodox while westerners are always seen in the wrong by some orthodox.

    • Scott Robert Harrington

      Scott Harrington
      The truth is that both Roman Catholics and Reformation Protestants are heterodox (unorthodox/heretical) because they affirm Filioque and deny John 15:26 and Acts 2:33 and they thus deny the Bible that shows the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. They affirm therefore an Augustinian-based philosophical-psychological model of the Holy Trinity and lack a Holy Spirit-filled living encounter with the true Holy Spirit in the true Church, the Orthodox Church. From there they fall into self-authoritarianism, individualism, solipsism, nominalism and postmodernism, atheism, in the form of Papism and Protestantism (predestinarianism). They affirm the infallibility of one man (either the pope of Rome, or each one of theirselves as individual Protestant Reformers and their orphaned stepchildren, the 28,000 and more Protestant Evangelical denominations, and their cults: Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Armstrongism, Christadelphianism, Way International, etc. On this Western soil grows even more destructive cults like Scientology. Papal infallibility, sola fide, sola Scriptura, and double predestination, and Filioque, are damnable heresies not taught in the Holy Scriptures.

    • Scott Robert Harrington

      Will the Heterodox Be Saved?
      Archimandite (Metropolitan) Philaret, of blessed memory (+1985)
      Question: “If the Orthodox faith is the only true faith, can Christians of other confessions be saved? May a person who has led a perfectly righteous life on earth be saved on the strength of his ancestry, while not being baptized as Christian?
      Answer: “For He saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth [struggleth], but of God that showeth mercy” (Romans 9:15-16). In the Orthodox Church we have the path of salvation indicated to us and we are given the means by which a person maybe morally purified and have a direct promise of salvation. In this sense St. Cyprian of Carthage says that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” In the Church is given that of which Apostle Peter writes to Christians (and only Christians): “According as His divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:3-8). And what should one say of those outside the Church, who do not belong to her? Another apostle provides us with an idea: “For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). God “will have mercy on whom He will have mercy” (Romans 9:18). It is necessary to mention only one thing: that to “lead a perfectly righteous life,” as the questioner expressed it, means to live according to the commandments of the Beatitudes—which is beyond the power of one, outside the Orthodox Church, without the help of grace which is concealed within it.
      The question: Can the heterodox, that is, those who do, not belong to Orthodoxy—the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church—be saved, has become particularly painful and acute in our days.
      In attempting to answer this question, it is necessary, first of all, to recall that in His Gospel the Lord Jesus Christ Himself mentions but one state of the human soul which unfailingly leads to perdition—that is, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:1-32). The Holy Spirit is, above all, the Spirit of Truth, as the Saviour loved to refer to Him. Accordingly, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is blasphemy against the Truth, conscious and persistent opposition to it. The same text makes it clear that even blasphemy against the Son of Man—i.e. the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God Himself may be forgiven men, as it may be uttered in error or in ignorance and, subsequently may be covered by conversion and repentance (an example of such a converted and repentant blasphemer is the Apostle Paul. (See Acts 26:11 and I Timothy 1:13.) If, however, a man opposes the Truth which he clearly apprehends by his reason and, conscience, he becomes blind and commits spiritual suicide, for he thereby likens himself to the devil, who believes in God and dreads Him, yet hates, blasphemes, and opposes Him.
      Thus, man’s refusal to accept the Divine Truth and his opposition thereto makes him a son of damnation. Accordingly, in sending His disciples to preach, the Lord told them: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16), for the latter heard the Lord’s Truth and was called upon to accept it, yet refused, thereby inheriting the damnation of those who “believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (II Thessalonians 2:12).
      The Holy Orthodox Church is the repository of the divinely revealed Truth in all its fullness and fidelity to apostolic Tradition. Hence, he who leaves the Church, who intentionally and consciously falls away from it, joins the ranks of its opponents and becomes a renegade as regards apostolic Tradition. The Church dreadfully anathematized such renegades, in accordance with the words of the Saviour Himself (Matthew 18:17) and of the Apostle Paul (Galatians 1:8-9), threatening them with eternal damnation and calling them to return to the Orthodox fold. It is self evident, however, that sincere Christians who are Roman Catholics, or Lutherans, or members, of other non-Orthodox confessions, cannot be termed renegades or heretics—that is, those who knowingly pervert the truth…* They have been born and raised and are living according to the creed which they have inherited, just as do the majority of you who are Orthodox; in their lives there has not been a moment of personal and conscious renunciation of Orthodoxy. The Lord, “Who will have all men to be saved” (I Timothy 2:4) and “Who enlightens every man born into the world” (John 1:43), undoubtedly is leading them also towards salvation In His own way.
      With reference to the above question, it is particularly instructive to recall the answer once given to an inquirer by the Blessed Theophan the Recluse. The blessed one replied more or less thus: “You ask, will the heterodox be saved… Why do you worry about them? They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins… I will tell you one thing, however: should you, being Orthodox and possessing the Truth in its fullness, betray Orthodoxy, and enter a different faith, you will lose your soul forever.”
      We believe the foregoing answer by the saintly ascetic to be the best that can be given in this matter.
      * The Greek word for “heresy” is derived from the word for “choice” and hence inherently implies conscious, willful rejection or opposition to the Divine Truth manifest in the Orthodox Church.

      From Orthodox Life, Vol. 34, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec., 1984), pp. 33-36.

    • Scott Robert Harrington

      Dear Mike:
      My spiritual evolution as a practicing Christian depends upon my phases and stages on life’s way where I was “walking the walk” rather than just “talking the talk” of the various Christian denominations which I had exposure to. I have been at services, worship services, weddings, funerals, in differing Christian traditions, from friends and family. I had contact with Lutheran LCA/ELCA, Presbyterian PCUSA Methodist UMC non-denominational (Evangelical Protestant/Coalition for Christian, Rev. Dr. John Guest, Evangelical Anglican, Pittsburgh, PA), Billy Graham Crusades (Southern Baptist), TV, CBN 700 Club (Pat Robertson), Oral Roberts (TV), Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye Bible Prophecy Books, Jack Van Impe (JVIM, tv), Jerry Falwell Sr. (Moral Majority, Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, VA, tv), Hour of Power (Robert Schuller, TV), John Ankerberg Show (Chattanooga, TN), I had some exposure to non-Christian cults on TV Herbert W. Armstrong, World Tomorrow, TV, conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, Mormons; conversations with Roman Catholics, watching Fr. Benedict Groeschel, O.F.M., Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., Mother Angelica (ETWN, Roman Catholic TV), seeing Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, reading them, reading Fransiscan Spirituality, Gannon University, Erie, PA, John Michael Talbot, music & books, “The Fire of God”, evangelical music, Michael Card, book, “Immanuel: Reflections on the Life of Christ”:, David Wilkerson, The Cross and the Switchblade, The Vision, Racing Toward Judgment, Have You Felt Like Giving Up Lately?”, Set The Trumpet to Thy Mouth, The Jesus Person Pocket Promise Book, Lutheran Charismatic Renewal, The Renewed Mind, The Charusmatic RENEWAL Among Lutherans, A Message to the Charismatic Movement, The Kingdom of the Cults, Walter R. Martin, D.A. Carson, The KJV Version Debate, a Plea For Readlism, KJV only people, Peter S. Ruckman, Bible Baptist Bookstore, Pensacola, FLA, Dr. Gail A. Riplinger; contact with evangelicals, Thomas Howard (Roman Catholic), Evangelical is Not Enough, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, Robert E. Webber, The Complete Works of Francis A Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, James Arminius, Works, 3 Vols. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI: Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Small Catechism, Large Catechism, The Book of Concord, Smalcald Articles, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Westminster Confession of Faith, Grace Unlimited, Clark H, Pinnock, The Other SIde of Calvinism, Lawrence M. Vance, What Love Is This: Dave Hunt, New Scofield Reference Bible, E. Schuyler English, The Rapture Question, John F. Walvoord, Why I Left Scofieldism, William E. Cox, Presbyterian & Reformed, Franky Schaeffer, A Time For Anger, Franky Schaeffer, Bad News for Modern Man, Frank Schaeffer, Dancing Alone: The Quest For Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religions, Peter E. Gillquist, Love Is Now, The Physical Side of Being Spiritual, Let’s Quit Fighting About the Holy Spirit, Designed For Holiness, The Handbook for Spiritual Survival, Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith, Old Orthodox Prayer Book, Russian Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ, Old Rite, Erie, PA Fr. Seraphim Rose, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, Ivan N. Ostroumoff, The History of the Council of Florence, Rev. Fr. Marc Auer, The Myth of Papal Infallibility, Holy Apostles Convent, The Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy: Saint Photius the Great, Saint Gregory Palamas, Saint Mark of Ephesus, Saint Photius (1983), Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Rev. Michael Azkoul, Ph.D., trans. On the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, Saint Photios. (1987). The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, Joseph Farrell, Ph.D., trans., The Mystery of the Church, Willaim Bush, Regina Orthodox Press, Salisbury, MA. And others left me behind with rejecting the Pretribulation Rapture heresy, the Filioque heresy, and Lutheran sola fide, and Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism, and antinomianism from Lutheranism, getting beyond watching Billy Graham, have never accepted the weird fringe of religious TV like Herbert W. Armstrongism, nevere belived his doctrines or religion, got a lot of good things from Lutheranism, but came to differ from both Martin Luther and Pope John Paul II on Filioque. Became Russian Orthodox Christian, Old Rite, Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Moscow Patriarchate, NY New York/Moscow (Russia), USA, Metropolitan Hilarion, historic Eastern Orthodox Church, coming down from Apostle Saint Andrew the FIrst Callled, Saint Stachys (Romans 16), Byzantium, Constantinople, Moscow, New York, Erie PA, and me. God save us all. LORD Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.

    • Scott Robert Harrington

      Catholics and Orthodox were still One Church when Constantine the Great was Emperor.
      Western Christians fail to ignore the historic fact that anti-eastern views and nationalism started with Charlemagne. The Orthodox never needed to defend their nations from the wars caused by the West because the West and East were one Undivided Catholic Church until Charlemagne. And he brought in Filioque. The rest is history. Those who fail to learn from Church history are doomed in the curse of perdition in the wild animal and fox heresy of Filioque from the seditious and schismatic Charlemagne.

    • Scott Robert Harrington

      An affirmation of sola fide amounts to a denial of Scripture James 2:24 and another gospel other than the gospel preached by Saint Paul (Galatians). It is a denial of Paul’s “faith which worketh by love” and of Eph. 2:10 a denial of James “faith without works is dead”.
      “The Kingdom of the Holy Trinity is, in fact, within the mystery of the church, the only Kingdom the Church is allowed to claim as her own. This is a great truth unfortunately neglected by Orthodoxy’s sister Church of Rome. With Rome’s pressing desire to be first and the one true head pf the spiritual Kingdom of Christ on earth, she forgets that what is of the earth is earthly, and what is of heaven is heavenly. Therefore, the extent to which she attempts to claim for herself an earthly kingdom, is the same extent to which, unwittingly but inevitably, she, divorces herself from her divine Bridegroom.

      “Within the mystery of the Church His kingdom is, as He reminded Pilate, “not of this world” (John 18:36). The Pope’s claims of world supremacy, culminating in 1870 in the dogma of infallibility, a dogma espoused and expostulated by Rome to this day, are both totally foreign to Orthodox’s Holy Tradition, as we have seen”. [Bush, William. (1999). The Mystery of the Church. Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press; page 55.].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.