What is the difference between a Protestant
church and a Catholic church?


Although both Protestants and Roman Catholics share the common ground of being founded upon faith in Jesus Christ, there are significant differences between the two groups. From general observation, one can see contrasts in everything from the way that their clergymen dress, to the way their services are conducted. Unlike most Protestant churches, Catholic masses are conducted in a liturgical fashion, with much emphasis upon symbols, rituals and ceremony.

In Addition, the Catholic church has traditionally regulated the type of Bible translation used in the church. For centuries, the only version authorized for use was the Latin Vulgate, a translation from the original languages by Jerome, in around 400 A.D. This Bible reads very similar to Protestant translations, however with a major exception. The Catholic version contains the Apocrypha, a collection of seven complete books and a few additions to others. These are considered non-inspired writings written between the period of the Old and New Testaments. Only one is actually dated. Two books, Judith and Tobit tell of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions. Two more, 1st and 2nd Maccabees record the Jewish war of independence of around 165 B.C. Two more, Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom of Solomon, are considered books of wisdom. Another is an addendum to Jeremiah, and there are short additions to Esther and Daniel. The Protestants do not include them because they have never met the criteria for divine inspiration. Further, the writings of Jewish historian Josephus (in 90 A.D.) indicated that the Jews did not accept the books of the Apocrypha as a part of their scriptures, and although Jesus and the Apostles quoted frequently and accurately from almost every other Old Testament book, never once did they quote from the Apocrypha. Even if accepted, it would not alter the message of the New Testament, and it doesn't appear that much, if any, of the doctrines of the Catholic church had any foundation from the Apocrypha

As we have said, there are many differences worth noting between Protestants and Catholics. However, the main distinction that sets them apart is the authority to which they look for their core beliefs. To help you understand this, let's first explain some of the detail about their origin in church history.

Catholic comes from the Greek, KATHOLIKOS, which means "throughout the whole, or universal," and was used as a general reference to the entire Christian church until the reformation period. However, as early as the fourth century, the Catholic church began adopting traditions and beliefs which were never a part of original Christianity as seen in the New Testament. It appears that many of these new ideas first emerged from the era of the Roman Emperor, Constantine who ruled from 313 to 337 A.D.

In contrast to his predecessor, Diocletian, who had vowed to destroy Christianity in 303, Constantine claimed a conversion to Christianity and virtually instituted it as the empire's religion by his Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. This proclamation of religious freedom brought about many positive changes for the church, and was certainly a much welcomed turnabout from the years of brutal persecution. But instead of converting completely from the old practices of paganism, this and the new Christian religion were somewhat mingled together. Since an Emperor was viewed as a god by pagan standards, and he already held the lifelong position of "Pontifex Maximus," chief priest of the pagan state religion, Constantine felt it only proper that he should also claim a high position of leadership in the church — he also authorized many of his secular officials as church leaders. This merger of a pagan, Christian and political hierarchy, produced a diluted spiritual leadership for the church, and its beliefs and doctrines thereafter became increasingly infected with a strange combination of traditions and pagan beliefs.

The Christian creed adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 (called for and presided over by Constantine) was theologically encouraging, but it was also in this era that the church first accepted such unscriptural ideas as praying for the dead, the veneration of angels and dead saints, the use of images, and the celebration of daily mass. This regression from scripture continued through the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., where the worship of Mary became an official doctrine of the church, referring to her as the "Mother of God." And only nine years later in 440, Leo, bishop of Rome was the first to declare himself the successor of St. Peter and laid claim to the role of Universal Bishop, a forerunner of papal authority. While this was widely disputed, Leo commanded that all should obey him on the false notion that he held the primacy of St. Peter.

Later, Leo's successor, Gregory I, was given the title of universal "Pope" (Latin "papas" or father) by the wicked emperor Phocas in 604. He refused the title, however his successor, Boniface III, did accept it and became the first in a long line of successors to be recognized as Pope. Under the new papal authority in the seventh century, many more new beliefs were added to the church, such as the unbiblical doctrine of purgatory (593), the required use of Latin in prayer and worship (600), and prayers said to Mary, dead saints and angels (600).

One reason many of these strange ideas gained accepted credibility was because the Bible was not readily available to the common people, either in print or in translation. They had no idea what the Bible really taught. It was restricted only to priests trained to interpret it as it pleased the church hierarchy. Further, the popes claimed the authority to speak under the unique utterance of "Ex Cathedria," which in effect meant divine inspiration. Their proclamations and decrees carried supreme authority to interpret or overrule Holy Scripture, and to invent whatever doctrines or practices they wished.

The next four hundred years saw many more new beliefs added to the church: The ritual kissing of the Pope's foot (709), temporal (political) power granted to the Pope (750), worship of the crucifix, images and relics (786), holy water mixed with a pinch of salt and blessed by a priest (850), the worship of St. Joseph (890), the establishment of the college of Cardinals to elect the popes (927), the baptism of bells (965), the canonization of dead saints (995), and prescribed fastings on Fridays and during lent (998).

A break in the church occurred in 1054 over a relatively trivial issue, when the eastern church condemned the western church for the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The dispute resulted in Rome's attempt to excommunicate Michael Cerulararious, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who in turn, sought to excommunicate Pope Leo IX of Rome. From that time, the western (Roman Catholic) church and the eastern (Greek Orthodox) churches developed separately — each with their distinct traditions. A classic example of a church split.

As the Roman Catholic Church continued with new independence, it added even more remarkable doctrines that were not taken from the Bible. In 1079, Pope Gregory VII declared the shocking decree of celibacy for the priesthood. Peter the Hermit invented the technique of praying with rosary beads in 1090. A few of the other beliefs and practices authorized by the church were: The inquisition of alleged heretics (1184), the sale of indulgences (1190), the doctrine of transubstantiation (1215), auricular confession of sins to a priest instead of to God (1215), adoration of the wafer (1220), the forbidding of Bible reading by laity (1229), the scapular (1251), the forbidding of sharing the communion cup with laity (1414), the establishment of purgatory as an irrefutable dogma (1439), and the composition of the "Ave Maria" (1508).

Up to this point, the somewhat similar Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches were the two main institutions representing Christianity. But in the sixteenth century, events occurred which would bring a worldshaking reformation of Christian thought. A Catholic monk and professor of theology named Martin Luther, became convinced that the Bible was the only true authority in matters of spiritual instruction, and sought to reform the church with this new insight and to expose its errant doctrines.

Born in Eisleben in 1483, Luther first pursued studies in law at Erfurt, but in 1505 he chose instead to join the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt where he studied theology. After his ordination in 1507, he was sent by his order to the university of Wittenburg to teach moral theology, and in 1512 he became the professor of biblical studies.

Luther's ambitions of reformation emerged from his lifelong search for spiritual conclusions in his personal life. After many years of studying the scriptures, he came to reject all theology based only on tradition and embraced the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith. He believed that all our actions stem from God and that He chose to forgive the sinner by His sovereign grace — that we are justified not by our deeds, but by faith alone. In 1520, Luther wrote a treatise to Pope Leo X, called "The Freedom of A Christian," which outlined the conclusions of his study of scripture. In it, he made this famous statement: "The word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever, but only by faith. Therefore it is clear that as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not by works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word and consequently, it would not need faith."

The move toward reformation began to emerge on the eve of All Saints Day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther announced a disputation regarding the indulgences of the church. He stated his argument in 95 theses which he posted on the north door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg — an act not especially unusual as the church doors were often used as a notice board.

The 95 Theses were not originally intended to promote a reformation movement. They were simply the proposal of an earnest university professor to discuss the theology of indulgences in light of the errors and abuses that had grown over the centuries. Although heavily academic in tone, news of them spread rapidly in Europe. All were amazed how one obscure monk from a new and unknown university could stir the whole of Europe.

The sale of indulgences, which Luther opposed, was based upon a common fear of purgatory, supposedly a painful place of temporal "purging" of the soul after death to make the soul pure for entrance into Heaven. The people would pay for the special indulgences of a priest to shorten their term in purgatory. Luther saw that this trade in indulgences was completely unfounded by scripture, reason or tradition. It was, in effect, directing attention away from God and His forgiveness and looking to man for the absolving of sins.

In December of 1517, the archbishop of Mainz complained to Rome about Luther. Confronted with opposition, Luther's stand became even more determined. He refused to recant his position, and fled town when summoned to Rome. In July 1519, during a disputation at Leipzig with John Eck, his fiercest opponent, Luther denied the supremacy of the Pope and the infallibility of general councils. He burned the papal bull which threatened his excommunication, but nevertheless, the decree came from the Pope in 1520, and he was subsequently outlawed by the Emperor Charles V at Worms in 1521. For his safety, Luther was seized and taken to Wartburg Castle under the protection of Frederick of Saxony. While there, he spent his time translating the New Testament into German so that everyone might have access to the Bible.

Eight months later in 1522, he returned to Wittenburg to begin the reform of worship away from the rigid forms of Rome. Over the next 25 years, Luther published many books in German, written to the common people so that they could judge for themselves, his doctrines and disputes with Rome. As a result, his followers continued to multiply.

In 1529, at the Diet of Speyer, the Emperor Charles V attempted to smother Luther's movement by force, but some of the German state princes stood up in protest. Thus, because of their protest, the movement began to be known as the "Protestants." What had originally been intended to bring reform to Catholicism from within, was now an ousted reformation, forced to split from the original body.

In 1530, Luther presented beliefs of the new movement at the Diet of Augsburg, in a peace-seeking, non controversial attempt to explain their views. But as a result, the division between the Catholic and Protestants remained and became more distinct. New churches began to emerge referred to as "Evangelical" or "Protestant." And from this came three other branches: The Lutherans (in Germany and Scandinavia), the Zwinglian and Calvinists (in Switzerland, France, Holland and Scotland), and the Church of England.

Significant social, political and economic changes followed the reformation, and in some ways helped to shape it further before Luther's death in 1546. But besides exposing the errant beliefs of Catholicism, the reformation which produced the Protestant church was primarily a rediscovery of the authority of God's Word and the salvation which is by faith in the savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is a brief explanation of the historical origin of Catholics and Protestants, and as you can see, the disparities are many. But in the simplest of terms, the basic difference between them is the authority they look to for their beliefs. The Protestant Church generally embraces the Bible as its sole source of authority and faith, while the Catholic Church views the post-biblical traditions of the church and its Popes to have more than equal authority with scripture.

Acknowledgement to Dale A. Robbins.



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