Unity, motherhood and apple pie are things people are reluctant to speak against. Pope Francis recently returned from Lund, where he celebrated a joint service with a branch of the Lutheran Church to mark the beginning of celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. On his way Pope Francis tweeted:
The meeting was full of symbolism—Catholics and Lutherans (some of them) united together at last after 500 years, and meeting in Lund where the Ecumenical movement in 1952 ratified the Lund principle: “Should not our Churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?”
This statement is foundational to the ecumenical movement. The assumption is that all churches, including the Roman Catholic Church believe in the same God and therefore should be united on all things except when compelled by deep differences of conviction or conscience.
But there is a more fundamental question, “Do Catholics and Protestants believe in the same God?” I have recently been involved in a discussion with a Catholic friend, and we concluded that perhaps the differences are so great that we do not.
Now, this is different to the question “Can Catholics be Christian?”, to which my answer would be a hearty yes! Particularly since I consider myself to have been a Christian in the Catholic Church for ten years. I heard the gospel from Protestants at university and then spent ten years trying to live as a Christian in the Catholic Church, doing evangelism, running Bible studies and studiously trying to avoid any questions about the differences between Catholics and Protestants for fear of finding out that the Catholic Church and therefore my parents were on the wrong side of God’s measuring line. God is bigger than any institution, and it is possible to hear the gospel in the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Baptist Church, and in many other settings.
No, the question “Do Catholics and Protestants believe in the same God?” looks at the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church and compares them to those of Protestants and asks if we are talking about the same thing.
Let’s look at the Roman Catholic teaching regarding the nature of Jesus, particularly as they understand him in the Eucharist. It is right to look at the Eucharist, because the Catholic Church considers the Eucharist (what most Protestant churches call the Lord’s Supper) to be:
… the source and summit of the Christian Life. The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it.1
In other words, the Eucharist is the most important thing for Catholics, and all their ministry and mission is focused on it.
So what do Catholics believe about the Eucharist?:
In short, the Catholic Church teach that the bread and wine are actually Jesus. Protestant churches, however, have a fundamentally different understanding of Jesus ,following from Hebrews 8, which testifies that Jesus (fully God, fully man) is seated at the right hand of the throne of Majesty in heaven (v. 1) and not on earth (v. 4), not present in any way other than through his Spirit.
The implications of this fundamental difference in understanding of who, where and what Jesus is are profound.
It leads to a different type of worship. Catholics worship the bread and wine as if it is Jesus. Once a week Catholic priests are required to spend an hour in adoration of the piece of bread placed in a gold case called a monstrance. At Benediction services the monstrance is elevated for the whole church to worship. If Catholics are correct about the bread being Jesus, then what they are doing is appropriate; if they are wrong then it is idolatry. In contrast, Protestants worship God by trusting Jesus and obeying him.
This fundamental difference also leads to a different type of salvation. For Catholics, to be saved you must eat the bread of the Eucharist. They take John 6:5—“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”—literally to mean that you need to eat the Eucharist to be saved. For Protestants, salvation comes by trusting in Jesus, who is in heaven at God’s right hand as Lord and God: “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).
Thirdly, the difference in belief about Jesus leads to a different type of ministry. For Catholics, all ministry is oriented towards the Eucharist, which means the goal of Catholic ministry is to see people baptized and receiving the Eucharist. Protestants proclaim the gospel, so that people repent and put their trust in Jesus alone as their risen Lord. This is what they see as the goal of ministry.
With such profound differences in worship, salvation and ministry, stemming from a different understanding of who, where and what Jesus is, my friend and I came to the conclusion that we really believe in a different God. What do you think?
If Catholics and Protestants don’t believe in the same God, and Christian unity is therefore not possible—shouldn’t we redirect our energy from unity into mission to Roman Catholics, especially given how many there are in our communities?