Is Rome the True Church? – a consideration of the Roman Catholic claim, by Norman Geisler and Joshua Bettancourt, explores a series of questions related to Rome’s exclusive claim to be the true church. The book explores this topic by taking out several links in the chain of alleged authority. First, the book addresses the alleged primacy of the Apostle Peter. Next, the book addresses the alleged infallibility of Peter. Finally, the book examines the idea of Apostolic Succession or inheritance of the supposed primacy and infallibility of Peter. In the following review I’ve attempted to identify some of the strengths and weaknesses of the work, as well as to supply some errata, in case a second edition of the book is printed.
A Fundamental Flaw – The Gospel and Christian Orthodoxy
The introduction of the book ends on an encouraging note: “In fact, after seriously considering the relevant evidence, perhaps they will choose just to remain evangelical, if they desire to be truly ‘catholic.'” This promising beginning, however, is not fully realized. Indeed, at pages 187-88, we find the following: “Kreeft was exposed to the typical Calvinist anti-Catholicism, which holds that Catholics believe ‘another gospel.'”
The point taken by the authors seems to be summarized at page 184: “We have seen that the Roman Catholic claim to be the true church is false. The biblical, theological, and historical arguments against it are strong. Indeed, on either standard of orthodoxy Rome falls short, and on the Reformation standard of orthodoxy Roman Catholicism is a false church with significant truth in it.” Indeed, the authors even go so far as to say, “This is not to say that the Roman Catholic church has no true believers in it, nor that it has no essentially true beliefs. It has both. It is only to say that no only is its central claim to infallibility false, but so is its plan of salvation.” (p. 184)
How the authors propose to differentiate between Rome’s false plan of salvation and Rome believing in something other than “another gospel” is not at all clear.
Indeed, while the authors seem to view Rome’s plan of salvation as “false,” the authors appear to affirm Rome’s orthodoxy: “In fact, all orthodox Christians, Catholics and non-Catholics, agree with the basic doctrines affirmed in the earlier so-called ecumenical councils, such as the Trinity, virgin birth, deity of Christ, and Christ’s hypostatic union of two natures in one person.” (p. 52) However the authors then turn around and suggest that the “main concern of orthodox Christians is with attributing any divine or even ecclesiastical authority to creedal and conciliar pronouncements,” which would seem to suggest that only what the authors call the “Free Church” or Anabaptistic view is truly orthodox. Yet at still other places, the authors provide a very broad ecumenism, listing among the churches that “confess historic biblical Christianity” “Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist, and others.” (p.49)
When posed with the direct question: “Is Rome a False Church?” the authors respond “This must be answered in parts and with qualifications.” (p. 180) The authors proceed to provide a mixed answer that Rome “makes some major false claims” and “If judged by the standards of the Protestant Reformation … Rome is a false church with significant truth,” even while affirming that on alternative grounds for judgment “Rome is a true church with significant error” even going so far as to assert that “Rome has ‘practical heresy,’ if not both practical and material heresy.” (pp. 180-81)
This seems like a fundamental flaw in the book, in that the book attempts to answer the question, “Is Rome the True Church?”
Depiction of Roman Catholic Theology
It is clear that the authors attempted to portray Rome’s position fairly. The book relies on a variety of Roman Catholic sources from serious sources like Ludwig Ott to popular sources like Steve Ray. The presentation of Rome’s position attempted to suggest a large amount of continuity between post-Vatican II and pre-Vatican II Rome. For example, regarding Vatican II’s statement:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.
the authors seek to suggest that this is “nothing more than a restatement of baptism by intention in early Catholic proclamations.” (p. 16) This seems excessively generous. Baptism by intention, also called “baptism of desire,” has traditionally had reference to Christ and to baptism. As the phrase may suggest, it has a primary reference to those who want to be baptized by are hindered by some extraordinary obstacle.
Roman Catholic priest, Dwight Longenecker, writes that “The baptism of desire refers to those individuals with faith in Christ who would be baptized if they had the opportunity and if they truly understood what baptism means. It applies to those who, due to extraordinary circumstances, do not have access to water for baptism.” (source) Longenecker then goes on to explain that baptism of desire “may” apply to those who lack Christian faith, or who think baptism is unnecessary. Longenecker, however, is quick to note: “Even in these cases, however, it should be understood that the Church teaches that such individuals ‘may’ be saved, not that they are saved.”
Instead of being nothing more than a much older view of baptism by desire or intention, Vatican II’s comments should be viewed as the latest development or mutation of that doctrine. Vatican II’s definition appears at odds with more traditional explanations, such as that of Robert Bellarmine:
Perfect conversion and penitence is rightly called baptism of desire, and in necessity at least, it supplies for the baptism of water. It is to be noted that any conversion whatsoever cannot be called baptism of desire; but only perfect conversion, which includes true contrition and charity, and at the same time a desire or vowed intention of baptism.
– Robert Bellarmine (1542—1621), On the Sacrament of Baptism, Book 1, Chapter 6
An even older version is found in Bernard of Clairvaux, who appealed to Augustine and Ambrose as precedent for his view of salvation by faith alone:
Believe me, it will be difficult to separate me from these two pillars, by which I refer to Augustine and Ambrose. I confess that with them I am either right or wrong in believing that people can be saved by faith alone and the desire to receive the sacrament, even if untimely death or some insuperable force keep them from fulfilling their pious desire
– Bernard of Clairvaux (1090—1153), Letter 77, section 8.
But I digress. The authors of the book go to great lengths to make sure that they are providing the Roman Catholic argument before they rebut, including qualifiers that Rome’s apologists are normally quick to provide (for example, the caveat that “Not all papal statements are deemed infallible; only those made ex cathedra of doctrine or morals.” p. 94)
One place at which one might level a charge of unfairness was in a personal anecdote that Dr. Geisler provides:
I personally had a Roman Catholic teacher at a Jesuit institution I attended who was an atheist. When I asked how he could be a Catholic and an atheist, he replied: “You do not have to believe in God to be a Catholic. You just have to keep the rules of the Church.”
This anecdote may accurately reflect Geisler’s experience, but it is not an official position of Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, despite a few minor points such as an excessive willingness to treat Vatican II as continuous with previous positions and reliance on anecdotal evidence, the authors seem to have provided an accurate representation of the mainstream Roman Catholic position.
The authors have also sought to bring in the testimony of the fathers. For example, the authors cite Cyprian of Carthage as writing, “Hence it is in vain that some who are overcome by reason oppose to us custom, as if custom were greater than truth;” (Letter 72, Section 13) and “custom without truth is the antiquity of error.” (Letter 73, Section 9) Also, in Appendix I, beginning at p. 199, the authors explore Irenaeus and the alleged authority of the church. At p. 220, the authors provide another appendix related to Irenaeus, Appendix 5: “Irenaeus on Scripture and Tradition.” While the authors appear to rely heavily on J.N.D. Kelley’s important work, Early Christian Doctrine (1960) (for example, the authors at p. 230 quote Kelly for the proposition that “Irenaeus believed that ‘Scripture and the church’s unwritten tradition are identical in content.‘”), the authors occasionally provide some of their own insights into the patristic literature. For example,
Other than a few scant references in early Fathers to the oral words of apostles confirming what is in their written word, which alone is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16; cf. 2 Pet. 1:20-21; 3:15-16), the Bible is not only the primary source of divine authority cited; it is the only source. Hence, it is not simply a matter of the primacy of Scripture but the exclusivity of Scripture as the sole written, God-breathed authority from God. Indeed, Irenaeus criticizes heretics because “they gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures.” Likewise, he condemns them because they “adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings.” In this sense, Irenaeus held to sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) – one of the great principles of the later Reformation.
(p. 224, footnotes omitted)
These appendices are worth reading for those interested in the patristic debate, in that the authors conclude:
Taken in the total context of his writing, Irenaeus favored the non-Catholic position on almost all the major areas of concern. First, he held to the Protestant canon, rejecting the Apocrypha canonized by the Catholic Council of Trent (1546). Second, he believed in sola Scriptura (see Appendix 4), the Protestant sense of both material and formal sufficiency. Third, this means Irenaeus held to the perspicuity of Scripture. Fourth, Irenaeus did not hold the Roman Catholic views of tradition as a second source of revelation. Nor did he believe tradition was divinely authoritative. Fifth, he has written nothing that supports the primacy of Peter, let alone any alleged infallibility.
Likewise, the authors brought to bear medieval testimony, especially the testimony of Aquinas (at p. 198, Geisler points out his familial and educational connections with Roman Catholicism and states: “I am a follower of the great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas.”) One interesting quotation that the authors repeatedly reference (e.g. pp. 57 and 83) is Aquinas’ comment that “We believe the prophets and apostles because the Lord has been their witness by performing miracles. . . . And we believe the successors of the apostles only in so far as they tell us those things which the apostles and prophets have left in their writings,” (Thomas Aquinas, On Truth, 14.10-11) which suggests a primacy of Scripture incompatible with contemporary Roman Catholicism’s claims.
Likewise, the authors provide some interesting discussion of Aquinas from Roman Catholic scholar Yves Congar:
However, even given the authority of the pope, noted Roman Catholic authority Yves Congar admitted, “It is a fact that St. Thomas has not spoken of the infallibility of the papal magisterium. Moreover, he was unaware of the use of magisterium in its modern sense.” He goes on to say that it is not certain that Aquinas would even have said that the pope is without error “in his role of supreme interpreter of Christ’s teaching.”
Congar cites several texts in support of this conclusion (see On Truth 14.10-11). One reads, “The simple have implicit faith in the faith of their teachers only to the degree that these hold fast to God’s teaching. . . . Thus the knowledge of men is not the rule of faith but God’s truthfulness.” Further, Congar refers to this text: “Note, however, that where there is real danger to the faith, subjects must rebuke their superiors even publicly. On this account Paul, who was subject to Peter, publicly rebuked him when there was imminent danger of scandal in a matter of faith.”
(p. 57, footnotes omitted)
There are some good arguments presented in the book in response to Rome’s claims. For example, against the claim that Christ appointed Peter to be the head apostle in Matthew 16:18, the authors provide an argument from George Salmon: “If our Lord meant all this [concerning Peter], we may ask, why did he not say it? Who found out that He meant it? The Apostles did not find out at the time; for up to the night before [Jesus’] death the dispute went on, which should be the greatest.” (Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church, 334)(That excellent work may be downloaded or read at this link.)
A similarly good argument is presented (at p. 162) based on the fact that Peter and John were sent on a mission to Samaria by the other apostles at Jerusalem, as explained in Acts 8:14-17. If Peter were organizationally the chief of the apostles, it would be strange for him to be sent by them, rather than simply going and taking John with him.
Another interesting argument is a response to the argument that Peter’s primacy is established from the fact that he is the first of the apostles to see the resurrected Christ. The authors point out, however, “but the Gospels tell us that the women saw Jesus before Peter. Why then would not Rome take that as proof of the primacy of women over men?” (p. 82) The answer to their rhetorical question, of course, is that Rome’s apologists are using 1 Corinthians 15:5 as a pretext.
Another argument that was used with some success was what the authors called “The Argument from Death by Qualifications.” As the authors pointed out, “In actual practice, the attempt to keep infallibility alive by qualifying it is in effect killing it both in principle and in practice.” (p. 178) The authors explain that in principle the infallible statements have to meet very rigid criteria, resulting in very few such statements. As a practical result, such statements provide “no ongoing practical value in the life of the church.” (p. 178) To rephrase it, “by the time one adds up the non-infallible list of qualifications of what constitutes infallible statements, the doctrine of infallibility proves to be just as fallible as non-infallible statements made by opposing groups in Christendom.” (p. 148)
On the topic of apostolic succession, the authors presented an argument regarding the fact of laying on of hands. As they explain,
… one of the deacons (Philip) on whom they laid hands had the gift of both evangelism and healing (Acts 8:6), but his converts did not receive the [extraordinary gifts of the] Holy Spirit through him. Philip had to call for the apostles this act directly (Acts 8:15-18). So, “laying on of the apostles’ hands did not grant Philip any powers of apostolic succession.
While the argument may suffer from not dealing directly with the issue of authority, the underlying principle that the apostles’ ability to transfer special abilities to people by the laying on of hands is shown to be non-transferable.
The authors actually go so far as to suggest that Hebrews 2 indicates that the extraordinary gifts were passing during the lifetime of the apostles.
How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?
The apparent rationale in the argument is that “at the first” refers to a prior time, and “confirmed unto us” is phrased in a past (technically aorist) tense. This might be taken to suggest that the time of confirmation was already passing or already gone, as the authors assert at p. 160.
In addition to some of the valuable arguments set forth in the book, the book provides, in appendix 4, an interesting definition of Sola Scriptura. The definition is this:
Sola Scriptura in the formal sense means that the Bible alone is sufficiently clear so that no infallible magisterium of the church is necessary to interpret it.
This definition is interesting in that it does not necessarily rule out an infallible magisterium, it just renders one unnecessary. Many of the Roman Catholic arguments against Sola Scriptura seem to be focused on demanding that the advocates of Sola Scriptura disprove the existence of an infallible magisterium, whereas this definition leaves such proof or disproof for a separate argument.
There are also some weak arguments presented. Regarding the “keys” mentioned in Matthew 16, and the alleged (by the Roman Catholics) link to Isaiah 22, the authors write:
In Isaiah 22:22, the “key” refers to the stewardship of the house of David that would be placed in the hands of Eliakim. It has nothing to do with Peter or the New Testament church.
(p. 81 and p. 127, exactly the same words)
This argument is weak in two ways. First, this response ignores the typology argument that Roman Catholics typically make, and which is even presented to the reader as the Roman Catholic argument at pp. 65, 67, 95, and 98. Second, this response omits the strong Biblical counter argument from the fact that the type of Eliakim is connected Scripturally with the ante-type of Jesus (not Peter), as can be seen from Revelation.
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.
Since Revelation is still a part of the New Testament, and since the Scriptures of the New Testament are undoubtedly for the New Testament church, the argument that the verse “has nothing to do with Peter or the New Testament church” seems to be only partially true. The verse does have nothing to do with Peter, but it does have to do with Jesus and with the New Testament church in consequence of its connection with Jesus.
This facile dismissal of the argument from Isaiah 22:22 is sadly reflective of the practical canon of the authors. As can be seen from Scripture index, at p. 233 and following, while most of the New Testament receives some treatment (1-2 Thessalonians are curiously omitted, and Jude is also omitted from the index), there is a dearth of references to the Old Testament Scriptures: the references consist of references to three passages from Exodus, two from Isaiah (including the one mentioned above), and general references to the books of Jeremiah and Daniel. The seeming reason is a failure to appreciate that not only the New Testament but also the Old Testament Scriptures are for the New Testament church, although the emphasis of the Roman Catholic arguments from New Testament Scriptures is also undoubtedly a factor in the relatively high amount of New Testament usage. Contrast this, however, with Irenaeus who “cites freely from every major section of the Old Testament and from most of the books,” as the authors report at p. 227.
Another argument that could have been improved is the argument related to the Roman Catholic allegation that “Christ changed Peter’s name from Simon to Cephas” (p. 94, discussion continued to p. 95). I’ve discussed this at greater length (link), but the short answer is that Cephas or Peter was not a substitute for Simon, it was a surname. Thus, we find the expression “Simon Peter” twenty times in the Authorized Version (once in Matthew, once in Luke, once in 2 Peter, and the remainder of the times in John).
With that in mind, Origen’s argument makes much more sense than the Roman Catholic argument:
But if you suppose that upon that one Peter only the whole church is built by God, what would you say about John the son of thunder or each one of the Apostles? Shall we otherwise dare to say, that against Peter in particular the gates of Hades shall not prevail, but that they shall prevail against the other Apostles and the perfect? Does not the saying previously made, “The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it,” [Matthew 16:18] hold in regard to all and in the case of each of them? And also the saying, “Upon this rock I will build My church”? [Matthew 16:18] Are the keys of the kingdom of heaven given by the Lord to Peter only, and will no other of the blessed receive them? But if this promise, “I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” [Matthew 16:19] be common to the others, how shall not all the things previously spoken of, and the things which are subjoined as having been addressed to Peter, be common to them? For in this place these words seem to be addressed as to Peter only, “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,” [Matthew 16:19] etc.; but in the Gospel of John the Saviour having given the Holy Spirit unto the disciples by breathing upon them said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” [John 20:22] etc. Many then will say to the Saviour, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God;” but not all who say this will say it to Him, as not at all having learned it by the revelation of flesh and blood but by the Father in heaven Himself taking away the veil that lay upon their heart, in order that after this “with unveiled face reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord” [2 Corinthians 3:18] they may speak through the Spirit of God saying concerning Him, “Lord Jesus,” and to Him, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” [Matthew 16:16] And if any one says this to Him, not by flesh and blood revealing it unto Him but through the Father in heaven, he will obtain the things that were spoken according to the letter of the Gospel to that Peter, but, as the spirit of the Gospel teaches, to every one who becomes such as that Peter was. For all bear the surname of “rock” who are the imitators of Christ, that is, of the spiritual rock which followed those who are being saved, [1 Corinthians 10:4] that they may drink from it the spiritual draught. But these bear the surname of the rock just as Christ does. But also as members of Christ deriving their surname from Him they are called Christians, and from the rock, Peters. And taking occasion from these things you will say that the righteous bear the surname of Christ who is Righteousness, and the wise of Christ who is Wisdom. [1 Corinthians 1:30] And so in regard to all His other names, you will apply them by way of surname to the saints; and to all such the saying of the Saviour might be spoken, “You are Peter,” etc., down to the words, “prevail against it.”
– Origen (circa A.D. 185—254), Commentary on Matthew, Book XII, Chapter 11
In responding to a Roman Catholic argument alleging that denials of ecclesiastical infallibility are self-defeating, the authors provided several good arguments, but one argument that seems to be mostly an argument that would be accepted by “Protestants.” (pp. 138-39) The good arguments are first that the Roman Catholic argument confuses the issues of determination and discovery. God, as author, determines the meaning of Scripture. Man, as reader, merely discovers the meaning of Scripture. This argument connects with an intuitive argument that correct discovery of God’s meaning in Scripture does not require infallibility any more than discovering the speed limit requires infallibility. Another argument, however, is one that I can not highly recommend:
Indeed, all other major sections of Christendom have come to the same basic understanding on the essential doctines of the faith they all hold in common. If all these essentials of the faith – including the Trinity, virgin birth, deity of Christ, his atoning death, bodily resurrection, bodily ascension, and second coming – can be be known by non-Catholics without an infallible magisterium, then it is proof positive that an infallible magisterium is not needed to come to a sufficient and saving knowledge of the common essentials of the Christian faith.
However, Roman Catholicism doesn’t recognize those things as more essential than Purgatory, the Bodily Assumption of Mary, and Papal Infallibity, at least not in any official way. While Vatican II indicates that those “separated brethren” outside the walls of Rome may be saved, it also indicates that even Muslims (who deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, his atoning death, and bodily resurrection) may be saved. The “mere Christianity” position that the authors are advocating is, then, more a matter of their own “Protestant” view of what constitutes the essentials of the faith, rather than the Roman Catholic position, which makes many more things essential.
This same view is reflected in a few other arguments in the book, such as:
[responding to the charge that Sola Scriptura undermines pastoral authority and discipline] … even with its claim of an infallible pope, Rome is guilty of the very thing it is claiming about Protestants. Orthodox Protestants, all of whom hold to all the essentials of the faith, were not in charge when Rome’s allegedly infallible pope could not stop the greatest schism in the history of the church, that between the Eastern and Western churches (AD 1054).
It’s important to note that while many Evangelicals may believe that the essential doctrines of the faith are captured in the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, the Roman Catholic church requires assent of the faithful to a much larger group of doctrines.
Formal and Personal Considerations
The book seems to get a little tedious at points. The reason for the tedium is that there seems to be a significant amount of repetition. For example, one finds substantial repetition at pages 79, 126, and 163, including a pair of longer than average footnotes. While the repetition may serve some sort of legitimate purpose (perhaps it allows the book to be divided into a number of smaller self-contained books at a later date), it seems mostly to serve to puff up the length of the book without adding any depth.
As well, one notices a significant fraction of the footnotes are to Geisler’s own previous work, especially his book with Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (it may be noted that the single blurb on the reverse cover of the book is from MacKenzie). It may be, in view of the significant apparent amount of overlap that one would be better served by simply reading the early work by Geisler.
One additional personal note exists with respect to this book. Apparently shortly after the publication of the work, Geisler’s co-author, Joshua M. Betancourt, announced his conversion to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism. It is not clear what prompted Mr. Betancourt’s move. Considering that the book is so wishy-washy on Rome’s status as orthodox Christianity (or not) and whether or not Rome’s gospel is the gospel of Christ or another gospel, this sort of move (while sad) cannot be said to be shocking.
At page 84, there is a very unfortunate typo in which “Ott says clearly” should be “Tertullian says clearly” for a matter that Ott omits.
At page 111, term 4 of the argument states “But we do not know the truth of Scripture” although it ought to state “But we do know the truth of Scripture.”
At page 152, due to a misplaced quotation mark, the text as written has Clement calling himself “The disciple of the Apostles, St. Clement of Rome” – the quotation mark before “The disciple” should be moved to just before “In countries and towns … .”
At page 154, I’m not sure whether this is properly a typographic error, but the claim that Justin Martyr “was not a contemporary to anyone who was contemporary with the apostles,” seems like an unlikely claim. It is believed that the apostle John lived into the 90’s A.D., that he was a disciple of John and that he died around A.D. 155, only a decade before Justin Martyr’s death. A better claim is that Justin Martyr was not a contemporary with any of the apostles.
Is Rome the True Church? may be asking the wrong question, but nevertheless answers the question in a systematic negative way. Many of the arguments employed against Rome’s exclusive claim are valid arguments that ought to persuade the reader that Rome’s claims are in error. There are a few weak arguments in the book, some of which can be bolstered by reference to further arguments. While the book may not excel other available responses to Roman Catholicism, it may at least provide the beginning of a discussion on Rome’s claims and the flaws, both Scriptural, logical, and historical in those claims.