Book review: Roman Catholic Theology and Practice

  • Mark Gilbert
  • 23 September 2015

Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment by Gregg Allison
Crossway, 2014, 496 pages

For my money, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, by Gregg Allison, is the book to read in 2015. It’s important because it is the first book I’m aware of since Vatican II that looks at Roman Catholicism as a system (rather than just a set of isolated beliefs) and then critiques that system. The advantage of this is that it helps us Protestants understand how all the different bits of Catholicism fit together, and as a result be wiser in the way we speak about it. We can then present the gospel more clearly to our Catholic friends, avoiding the criticism many Catholics make of us: “You just don’t understand Catholicism”.

Gregg Allison is a professor of Christian Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the largest Reformed evangelical seminaries in North America. Whilst never having been a Catholic himself, Allison honed his understanding of Catholicism by working for Campus Crusades for Christ at one of the largest Catholic universities in North America, Notre Dame. Following that, he and his wife moved to Rome, where they worked for Cru for three years. Most of his ministry there was reading the Bible with Catholics, using an inductive style similar to the Swedish Method. During his time there he met with many priests, bishops, monks, nuns, and seminary professors, plus Pope John Paul II in a private audience (with 9998 other invitees). He also studied the documents of Vatican II at a Catholic seminary before settling at SBTS.

In the first three chapters of the book, Allison explains the way Roman Catholicism holds together many diverse thoughts in a cohesive and robust way, giving a simple system that helps us to understand how they relate together as a whole. (He acknowledges that much of this material is from Leonardo De Chirico—a church planter in Rome who is part of Tim Kellers City to City initiative. Leo writes a great blog on current movements in the Catholic Church, particularly regarding the Pope: the Vatican Files.) He does this by explaining two key principals in Roman Catholic theology to which help to relate all the various parts of Catholic theology.

The first is an interplay between Nature and Grace. In contrast to evangelical theology, which often presents doctrines as an either/or proposition, Catholic theology presents doctrine as an and/and interdependence. For example, Scripture plus Tradition, grace plus human effort, faith plus good works. Allison argues that describing God and the world in this way minimizes sin.

The second major element in Roman Catholicism he describes is the “Christ-Church interconnection, arguing that the Catholic Church sees itself as the continuation of the incarnation of Christ. This interconnection can be seen in the way the Church presents herself to the world throughout history. The reason this is so important is that in Catholic thinking there needs to be a mediator between nature and grace to represent nature to grace and grace to nature, so that nature will progressively and more fully be graced and grace will eventually achieve its final goal of elevating nature (p. 56).

The rest of the book uses this analysis as a way of explaining the Catechism of the Catholic Church—a book put out by the Church following Vatican II to present its beliefs in a systematic way. He sticks closely to the structure of the Catechism, and this helps it be a comprehensive and systematic assessment. After helping us understand how each part of Catholicism fits together, he then evaluates it all using the Bible.

Allison writes primarily for university-educated evangelicals, so that they can understand and assess Roman Catholicism better, but he is also conscious of Catholics who are moving toward embracing the evangelical faith (p. 28). The book models the evangelism he hopes it will encourage, and Allison is generous in recognizing the things evangelicals have in common with Catholics and the great contribution Catholics have made, and continue to make, in the world.

Apart from the obvious benefit of understanding Roman Catholicism in a more holistic way, this book is practically useful in ministry in other ways. Because the book follows the structure of the Catholic Catechism it is easy to look up a particular Catholic doctrine and get a concise summary of what the Catholic Church teaches, with references directly back to the Catechism followed by an astute evangelical critique. Last week when I had to explain to a group of university students what the Catholic Church taught about Holy Communion all I had to do was look it up in his book, read his summary and his biblical critique, and work out how I was going to communicate this to the students. This reduced a task that could have taken several hours into less than 30 minutes, and helped me to accurately and fairly represent the Catholic position.

The fact that Allison manages to do all this in fewer than 500 pages is testimony to his organized thought and efficient writing. I would recommend reading and re-reading the first three chapters, where he presents his systematic analysis of Roman Catholicism, and then using the rest of the book as a reference, looking up particular doctrines and Allison’s critique of them as the need arises.

I think this book is essential reading for evangelists and pastors as they share the gospel with Roman Catholics and teach others to do it.