Protestants and Catholics Use Same Terms, Different Dictionaries

Real ecumenical dialogue must recognize that Protestants and Catholics, while sharing similar terms, often mean widely different things.

The Catholic Church and Protestant churches often use the same vocabulary—words like “gospel,” “grace,” “mercy,” “evangelization,” and more. Importantly, however, these words don’t carry the same connotations when used by the two traditions. One thinks of the “Door of Mercy” in the Catholic Church, a means of obtaining mercy polar opposite from the way Protestants obtain mercy.


Peter Kreeft—philosophy professor at Boston College and highly regarded apologist for the Catholic faith—offers a simple and eminently readable book on the threshold of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other?

Readers hopeful for ecumenical reconciliation between these two traditions will especially appreciate this book (importantly, Kreeft’s vision of ecumenicity is not the typical “lowest common denominator” variety). Yet many won’t find Kreeft’s book convincing, since he fails to breach the divide on the following seven topics.

  1. Theological Approach

Roman Catholic theology is characterized by an et . . . et (and . . . and) approach. In Kreeft’s own words, “Whenever two positive things seem to conflict, the Church sorts them out as some kind of a ‘both-and’ instead of a simple ‘either-or’” (11). This is the opposite of Protestant theology’s approach, which is grounded on the five “solas”: Scripture alone, rather than Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium; grace alone, rather than grace that enables human effort for the meriting of eternal life;faith alone, rather than faith plus sacramental grace that promotes good works; Christ alone, rather than Christ and the Roman Catholic Church as the prolongation of the incarnation of Christ; and the glory of God alone, rather than divine glory plus a measure of honor accorded to Mary and the saints.

  1. Justification

The Roman Catholic Church maintains the Reformation is over due to “the greatest ecumenical achievement in the 500 years since the Reformation” (17): Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999). Since agreement seemingly exists on the key doctrine in the Protestant-Catholic schism, Kreeft is hopeful agreement on the remaining divisive issues will be achieved.

While I appreciate his earnest hope for unity to overcome division, I don’t agree the first step toward such healing has been taken. Indeed, many Protestants consider the Joint Declaration to be both wrong and dangerous, and it doesn’t indicate the Reformation is over (see Chris Castaldo’s and my The Unfinished Reformation).

  1. Scripture and Tradition

Roman Catholic theology embraces the broad category of Tradition, part of which is Scripture. For Kreeft, this perspective on divine revelation prevents the debate from being framed as sola Scripturaversus Scripture plus Tradition. But I don’t think Kreeft’s presentation accords well with Dei Verbum’s formulation of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition (Dei Verbum, 9).

Kreeft’s presentation of conservative Protestants’ view of the inspiration of Scripture is also lacking, as he nearly identifies it as mechanical dictation. I also dissent from Kreeft’s narrative of the historical development of the New Testament canon, with his conclusion that the Catholic Church “was the efficient cause (the producer) and the formal cause (the definer) of the Bible” (38). On the contrary, as John Webster explains, “Scripture is not the Word of the church; the church is the church of the Word.”

  1. Theology of Mary

Roman Catholic theology maintains that Mary, “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin” (Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854). I can’t help but feel Kreeft equivocates on the doctrine of salvation when he discusses Mary’s Immaculate Conception (64–66; cf. 135).

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