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Book Review: "The Roman Catholic Controversy"

by Nicholas J Mattei

This work by Dr. James White is particularly concentrated on the great divide that still separates Roman Catholics and Protestants hundreds of years after the Reformation of the 16th century. Some would have us believe that the things that unite Roman Catholics and Protestants are greater than the things that divide them. Dr. White takes a strong stance and shows that the controversy between Protestants and Catholics is as great as ever and that a creeping latitudinarianism and an inconsistency among Protestants has blurred the dividing lines between the two groups.

Dr. White opens the book with a call to consistency and a determination to stand for truth no matter the cost. When dealing with Roman Catholics, Protestants must not waiver on any of the cardinal doctrines of the Bible but at the same time they must not approach Roman Catholic apologetics with a mind to use whatever tactics is necessary to just win an argument. As he says, “A Christian who shares with those who have a preexisting faith system should always seek to use the highest standards of honesty in bringing such a person to a knowledge of the truth” (37). Dr. White goes on to state that this standard includes studying the other side’s views in depth and representing them fairly.

The two major differences between Catholics and Protestants that White begins to break down are what have been called the formal and material principles of the Reformation, the formal principle being Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and Sola Fide (Faith Alone). These are at the heart of the issue of why Catholics and Protestants have a different Gospel and understanding them will allow one to fully understand the controversy.

The first of the two Solas that White focuses on is Sola Scriptura. For the Protestant, the Scriptures alone are the sole and sufficient authority for the infallible rule of faith for the Church. But, for the Catholic, it is the three-legged stool of the Scriptures, Tradition and the teaching Magisterium of the Roman Church. As White points out, there is a major disagreement here over one’s final authority. This topic occupies a solid one third of the book, as this issue of final authority is fundamental to the debate between Protestants and Catholics. Dr. White painstakingly lays out what is meant and not meant by the Protestant’s position of Sola Scriptura and then provides Scriptural support for this position. He then proceeds to dissect the Catholic’s concept of the Scriptures, oral traditions and the teaching Magisterium of Church. White concludes that “Since the Magisterium defines the extent of the Scriptures (by defining the canon), claims sole right of interpretation of the Scriptures, tells us what is and what is not tradition, and defines doctrines on the basis of this self-defined tradition, in reality we see that the only one of the three ‘legs’ of this system that is not defined by one of the others is the Magisterium itself” (74).

Dr. White brings his work to a close by taking the last third of the book to discuss the second of the two Solas, Sola Fide. White contrasts the way of salvation between Catholics and Protestants by probing the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and how at its essence it teaches that one can only be saved by being apart of the RCC and receiving the infused grace from its sacraments so that one can atone for their own sins by meriting the merit of Christ and earning favor from God so as to finally enter into heaven. White contrasts this view with the clear teaching of the Scriptures that no human can atone for their sins and that no human can produce any righteousness that is expectable to God. Only the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ can justify someone before God and that is only appropriated to someone by the instrument of faith alone which God gives by grace. In the end it’s either salvation by the pure grace of God or salvation through the Church and human effort.

The great value of this book rests in the treatment Dr. White gives on the issue of Sola Scriptura. His presuppositional approach aims to fortify the foundation of the Protestant’s final authority, which can then be used to dismantle the whole Roman Catholic system. If Sola Scriptura is not shown to be valid the Protestant position is severely weakened as White points out “No matter how deeply we delve into exegesis of Scripture, eventually the issue of authority will arise. As Protestants we will be told that our interpretation is not possible because it goes against “the unanimous consent of the Fathers” (47). But if Sola Scriptura is shown to be valid, Rome’s position is severely weakened. In all reality the whole controversy hinges on this point. The valuable defense Dr. White gives of Sola Scriptura is the fact that Scriptures are what the Apostle Paul in 2nd Timothy 3:14-17 calls “God-breathed” or “inspired”. The authority of the Scriptures comes from what they are by nature. All that is inspired, or God breathed, is authoritative for the Church and anything that is not inspired is not authoritative. Paul goes on to say in that same section that the Scriptures are sufficient for “every good work”, if there was something outside of the Scriptures that was needed it would have been mentioned here. So, the Church derives its authority from its fidelity to the Scriptures. What is not being dealt with however in 2nd Timothy 3:14-17 is the extent or cannon of Scriptures but the nature and origin. A Roman Catholic might say “OK, but then what are the Scriptures, did not the Church give us the cannon of the Scriptures?” This is where White is again very helpful in pointing out that the cannon is not an extra biblical revelation, “The canon is a function of Scripture, or, to be more specific, it is a result of the inspiration of Scripture itself. It is not an object of revelation separate form Scripture but is revealed and defined by God’s action of inspiration” (93). Humans do not create the cannon they simply recognize the act of God in the enscripturation of His inspired word. Whether we recognize it or not there is a cannon, and as White goes on to say, if we needed an outside infallible source to define for us what is and is not the word of God, how did a Jew in the 3rd century B.C know that Isaiah was Scripture? The whole point is that if one needs an infallible source to know what and what is not Scripture and only the Roman Church has the infallible authority to define Scripture than none of the Jews could have ever known any of the Old Testament was Scripture because they did not have the Roman Church to tell them it was. We, just like the Jews of the OT, can have sufficient knowledge of the cannon “based upon the overall acceptance of God’s people and the internal consistency and integrity of the Scriptures as a body” (95).

The only thing lacking in this book is a treatment on the clearly adopted pagan practices of the RCC and how these practices are just wrapped with a Christian garb. Dozens of overtly pagan practices are still endorsed and used by the RCC as has been documented in other books. Though it need not have taken up much space in Dr. White’s book, perhaps at least a chapter dedicated to this topic would have made this work even stronger than it already is.

In the end, Dr. White’s book equips its readers with a priceless apologetical and polemical tool especially on the topic of Sola Scriptura and final authorities. After reading this book the Protestant believer can feel confident in standing on the Word of God alone in his encounters with Roman Catholics. Too many times Protestants get caught off guard and are not able to defend their ultimate authority and are not able to articulate the other side’s views accurately and thereby are retendered ineffective in their witness. The Roman Catholic Controversy addresses and more than adequately fixes both of these issue in Protestant evangelistic efforts towards Roman Catholics.


White, James. The Roman Catholic Controversy. MN, USA: Bethany House Publishers, 1996. 270pp. $14.60

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