How different are they really? (Part 2)

In my first post on the theological differences among Christian denominations, I briefly covered the differences between the Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

In this post, I look at Protestantism, whose beginnings are generally attributed to Martin Luther (who was, among other things, a raving anti-Semite). Although I’d like to focus on the current differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, rather than their long history, I feel I must mention one aspect of Catholicism that helped trigger the Reformation: indulgences. If ever there was the perfect snake oil, indulgences must surely have fit the bill. In a nutshell, indulgences commute people’s sentences in hell: they are awarded by the Catholic Church to those whose sins apparently deserve a lighter than normal punishment.

At about the time of the Reformation, the Church started selling indulgences. People were parted with their money for empty promises about imagined events. It is a marvelous testament to our bottomless capacity for superstition that such a scheme ever worked. And we have St. Peter’s Basilica as a testament to the amount of money this scheme generated.

But I digress.

Here are some of the key differences between Protestants and Catholics:

1. Protestants believe that salvation is obtained by faith alone. Works and sacraments are not necessary.

2. Protestants reject the concept of purgatory in which the saved are temporarily punished for their sins as preparation to enter heaven.

3. Catholics are perhaps best known for the authority they place in the Pope, and the associated doctrine of apostolic succession. Protestants reject these ideas, and place authority in the Bible alone. They also encourage the participation of the laity in the operation of the church.

The first two points cover the main theological differences between the two traditions. The first is especially fundamental: the means to salvation is one of the most important issues to believers, and the two approaches – faith vs. works – have real implications for how believers choose to live their daily lives.

This is where believers’ claims of uniformity across Christendom ought to be challenged. For sure, almost all Christians have certain core beliefs in common – that Jesus was divine, for instance – yet many of these core beliefs have little practical impact. The daily decisions made by Christians are determined not by their views on the divinity of Jesus or whether he rose from the dead. They are determined instead by the moral teachings their church upholds, the recommended actions needed to ensure salvation, the required attitude toward non-believers, etc. And it’s in these areas that the some of the biggest disagreements can be found.

In the next post in this series, I’ll review some of the divisions among major brands of Protestantism.


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