12 February 2007

Sola Scriptura and the Proliferation of Protestant Denominations

by Phil Johnson

"That they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me." (John 17:21).

n a videotape titled "The Pope: The Holy Father," Catholic apologist Scott Hahn claims the proliferation of Protestant denominations proves the Reformers' principle of sola Scriptura is a huge mistake:

Do you suppose that Jesus would say, "Well, once I give the Church this infallible scripture, there really is no need anymore for infallible interpretations of scripture. The Church can hold together just with the infallible Bible."
     Oh, really? In just 500 years, there are literally thousands and thousands of denominations that are becoming ever more numerous continuously because they only go with the Bible. It points to the fact that we need an infallible interpretation of this infallible book, don't we[?]
(Here's a link to a full transcript of the videotape.)

A tract titled "Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth" (published by Catholic Answers) makes a similar charge:

The "Bible alone" theory simply does not work in practice. Historical experience disproves it. Each year we see additional splintering among "Bible-believing" religions. Today there are tens of thousands of competing denominations, each insisting its interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. The resulting divisions have caused untold confusion among millions of sincere but misled Christians. Just open up the Yellow Pages of your telephone book and see how many different denominations are listed, each claiming to go by the "Bible alone," but no two of them agreeing on exactly what the Bible means.

That is a favorite argument of Catholic apologists. They are convinced that the unity Christ prayed for in John 17:21 is an organizational solidarity that is incompatible with both denominationalism and independency. As far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, the only way true Christian unity will be fully and finally achieved is when "separated brethren"—non-Catholic Christians—reunite with Rome under the authority of the Pope.

Keith Fournier, Catholic author and Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, sums up the typical Roman Catholic perspective:

Throughout Christian history, what was once intended to be an all-inclusive (catholic) body of disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ has been fractured over and over. These fractures threaten to sever us from our common historical and doctrinal roots. I do not believe that such divisions were ever part of the Lord's intention, no matter how sincere or important the issues that undergirded the breaking of unity. [Keith A. Fournier, A House United? (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), 37.]

Fournier says he is "not advocating a false non-denominationalism or superficial irenicism that denies distinctives of doctrine or practice." [Ibid.] But he is suggesting that doctrinal differences, "no matter how . . . important," should not cause organizational divisions. Moreover, fewer than five pages earlier, he had berated those who "fight over theology." [Ibid., 25.] And (ironically) just a few pages before that, he had expressed outrage at John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, and Jim McCarthy for saying they believe Roman Catholicism's rejection of justification by faith alone is "doctrinal error" [Ibid., 21-22.]

Notice carefully, then, what Fournier is saying: He claims he wants unity without "superficial irenicism," and yet he objects when anyone contends for sound doctrine or (worse still) labels Roman Catholic doctrine "error." It seems the "unity" Fournier envisions is merely the same kind of unity the Roman Catholic Church has sought for hundreds of years: a unity where all who profess to be Christians yield implicit obedience to Papal authority, and where even individual conscience is ultimately subject to the Roman Catholic Church.

Although Fournier politely declines to state who he believes is to blame for fracturing the organizational unity of Christianity, [Ibid., 29.] it is quite clear he would not be predisposed to blame a Church whose spiritual authority he regards as infallible. And since the Catholic Church herself officially regards Protestantism as ipso facto schismatic, Fournier's own position is not difficult to deduce. Although Fournier manages to sound sympathetic and amiable toward evangelicals, it is clear he believes that as long as they remain outside the Church of Rome, they are guilty of sins that thwart the unity Christ prayed for.

Of course, every cult and every denomination that claims to be the One True Church ultimately takes a similar approach to "unity." Jehovah's Witnesses believe they represent the only legitimate church and that all others who claim to be Christians are schismatics. They believe the unity of the visible church was shattered by the Nicene Council.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Orthodox Church claims the Church of Rome was being schismatic when Rome asserted papal supremacy. To this day, Orthodox Christians insist that Eastern Orthodoxy, not Roman Catholicism, is the Church Christ founded—and that would make Roman Catholicism schismatic in the same sense Rome accuses Protestants of being schismatic. One typical Orthodox Web site says, "The Orthodox Church is the Christian Church. The Orthodox Church is not a sect or a denomination. We are the family of Christian communities established by the Apostles and disciples Jesus sent out to proclaim the Good News to the world, and by their successors through the ages."

All these groups regard the church primarily as a visible, earthly organization. Therefore they cannot conceive of a true spiritual unity that might exist across denominational lines. They regard all other denominations as schismatic rifts in the church's organizational unity. And if organizational unity were what Christ was praying for, then the very existence of denominations would indeed be a sin and a shame. That's why the Orthodox Web site insists, "The Orthodox Church is not a sect or a denomination."

Furthermore, if their understanding of the principle of unity is correct, then whichever organization can legitimately claim to be the church founded by Christ and the apostles is the One True Church, and all others are guilty of schism—regardless of any other doctrinal or biblical considerations.

That is precisely why many Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have focused their rhetoric on "unity." Both sincerely believe if they can establish the claim that they, and no one else, are the One True Church instituted by Christ, then all other Protestant complaints about doctrine, church polity, and ecclesiastical abuses become moot. If they can successfully sell their notion that the "unity" of John 17:21 is primarily an organizational unity, they should in effect be able to convince members of denominational and independent churches to reunite with the Mother Church regardless of whether she is right or wrong on other matters.

The plea for unity may at first may sound magnanimous and charitable to Protestant ears (especially coming from a Church with a long history of enforcing her will by Inquisition). But when the overture is being made by someone who claims to represent the One True Church, the call for "unity" turns out to be nothing but a kinder, gentler way of demanding submission to the Mother Church's doctrine and ecclesiastical authority.

Nonetheless, in recent years many gullible Protestants have been drawn into either Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy by the claim that one or the other represents the only church Christ founded. Having bought the notion that the unity Christ prayed for starts with organizational unity, these unsuspecting proselytes naturally conclude that whichever church has the most convincing pedigree must be the only church capable of achieving the unity Christ sought, and so they join up. Many recent converts from evangelicalism will testify that the proliferation and fragmentation of so many Protestant denominations is what first convinced them that Protestant principles must be wrong.

In a series of posts over the next couple of weeks, I want to examine the topics of like-mindedness, disagreement, and divisiveness; the culpability of popes, feuding bishops, and differing denominations when it comes to causing schism; and the kind of unity Christ prayed for.

Phil's signature


Colin Maxwell said...

This is a common portrayal by Roman Catholic apologists who usually provide statistics from America in general or California in particular. The implication is that each sect or group is at the throats of all the rest - plenty of paint being dashed on to make the overall picture so engaging. However it is easily answered:

We might argue that not all who are called Protestant are actually Protestant nor even identify themselves are such. In one list produced in a book designed to subvert Protestants to the Roman faith, the Church of the Latter Day Saints were listed as Protestants and then they were listed again under their more common identity as Mormons. This is disingenuous.

But to come to the fact that there are many real, genuine Protestant groupings, I use the illustration of one camp but different tents. Although Protestantism finds itself dispersed into different tents yet there is no breaking of fellowship where those in another tent hold to the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.

This is clearly witnessed in various situations: Protestant hymnbooks where the writers come from a fairly wide spectrum of denominations. Not all hymnbooks are denominational - "Grace Hymns" - "Redemption Songs" etc., were not compiled by any one denomination and are to be found right across the board.

It is seen in the books in the library of Protestant ministers where again many denominations are represented. The contents of these books will invariably find their way into quotations from the pulpits.

Although Presbyterian, I am happy to quote the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church when appropriate etc., I find the "Westminster Confession of Faith" being quoted by others. Indeed the Baptist Confession and the Congregational Savoy Confession quotes the WCF verbatim on many subjects - the differences being relatively minor i.e. baptism and church government.

We have many interdenominational missionary societies, Bible societies etc., where again many denominations are represented. Various publishing houses exist who publish books from a wide spectrum of denominational writers e.g. Banner of Truth/Evangelical Press etc., Many Bible Colleges are non denominational. Spurgeon's Baptist College, although strictly believing in baptism by immersion for believers only, engaged the services of a paedo Baptist as the Principle. Spurgeon's biography quotes this as "another instance of the catholicity of spirit that Spurgeon manifested" (The Full Harvest p168)

It is not uncommon even in denominational conferences to bring speakers from other denominations.

We do not deny that within the broad spectrum of Protestantism, there can be squabbles over minor doctrines. This is human nature.

Don't let the Romanist pretend that there is unity within his church. Rome too is split into many varied movements i.e. liberals and conservatives etc., Protestantism enjoys a unity that is spiritual. We do not look for organisational unity as Rome insists on. There is unity of fellowship among Protestants of differing denominations. We see ourselves as "All one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28) This is the unity for which Christ prayed (John 17) and which is already in existence in answer to His prayer (See present tense in Ephesians 4:3)

A good post. Welcome back.

Norman said...

Oh my - the levels of acid in my stomach have been lower during the hiatus.
I had hoped some things might have been different when you came back - a little less contentious, argumentative. The tone (not necessarily the content) looks for an argument, does not seek common ground, and the pics of the pope are disrespectful.
I will be limiting my doses of Pyromaniac because I want to preserve my stomach lining.

John H said...

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

I don't think we have to accept RC/EO claims to represent the true church to acknowledge that the schismatic, fissiparous nature of much of Protestantism is a scandal, and absolutely not what the Reformers - let alone Christ - had in mind.

The problem, however, is not "sola scriptura", but the very concept of the "invisible church" that you describe. Once the church ceases to be something you can see in the visible world, and becomes an invisible grouping of like-minded individuals, then there is no longer any reason to stay in practical, outward fellowship with other Christians. The tragedy of schism is erased, and anyone is free to start their own little Christian grouplet with the excuse that they still have an invisible, inner fellowship with faithful Christians in the 15,000 other such grouplets around them.

Better to go with the Reformation understanding of the church as found in the Lutheran (and Anglican) confessions: the church is the congregation of saints gathered around the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. This is the church defined neither in terms of an organisational structure nor transported off into abstract invisibility, but as something to which you can point and say, "There is the church".

Call to Die said...

Great post! Ever since Marc Heinrich began his apparently-perpetual "hiatus" the blogoshere's been starved for some good pictures of the "Primate of Italy." [It's an official title- just Google it!]

Jason Engwer said...

Catholics often focus on the Reformation in their claims about disunity, but, as early as the second century, Celsus wrote:

"Christians at first were few in number, and held the same opinions; but when they grew to be a great multitude, they were divided and separated, each wishing to have his own individual party: for this was their object from the beginning....being thus separated through their numbers, they confute one another, still having, so to speak, one name in common, if indeed they still retain it. And this is the only thing which they are yet ashamed to abandon, while other matters are determined in different ways by the various sects." (cited in Origen's Against Celsus, 3:10, 3:12)

Regarding the nature of unity, the bishop Firmilian wrote the following during a dispute in the third century with the bishop of Rome:

"For even as the Lord who dwells in us is one and the same, He everywhere joins and couples His own people in the bond of unity, whence their sound has gone out into the whole earth, who are sent by the Lord swiftly running in the spirit of unity; as, on the other hand, it is of no advantage that some are very near and joined together bodily, if in spirit and mind they differ, since souls cannot at all be united which divide themselves from God's unity." (Cyprian's Letter 74:3)

Even within the city of Rome itself, there would often be disputes and rival bishops long before the Reformation. In The Refutation Of All Heresies (9:2), Hippolytus, who lived in Rome, calls the Roman bishop Zephyrinus "an uninformed and shamefully corrupt man". Concerning the influence heretical teachers in Rome had on two of his contemporary Roman bishops, Hippolytus writes the following:

"But Zephyrinus himself, being in process of time enticed away, hurried headlong into the same opinions; and he had Callistus as his adviser, and a fellow-champion of these wicked tenets. But the life of this Callistus, and the heresy invented by him, I shall after a little explain. The school of these heretics during the succession of such bishops, continued to acquire strength and augmentation, from the fact that Zephyrinus and Callistus helped them to prevail. Never at any time, however, have we been guilty of collusion with them; but we have frequently offered them opposition, and have refuted them, and have forced them reluctantly to acknowledge the truth. And they, abashed and constrained by the truth, have confessed their errors for a short period, but after a little, wallow once again in the same mire." (The Refutation Of All Heresies, 9:2)

FX Turk said...


The post is excellent, but the pictures of Benedict are just perfect. I'm still stunned that he looks so much like Norm Shepherd -- uh, I mean Palpatine.

DJP said...

Yeah, but they were "disrespectful."

I mean -- no Pyro logo on his little cape/cowl/doilie/thingie? No "Apply directly to your miter"? C'mon!

Jeff Voegtlin said...

I love the pictures! I'll have to read the post later.

James Scott Bell said...

Welcome back, Phil. I like the way J, F & B comment on John 17:21, that the unity Jesus prays for is NOT "a merely formal, mechanical unity of ecclesiastical machinery."

Looking forward to further reflections on this topic.

Discipled by Him said...

You got Norman Shepard, huh? I was thinking more along the lines of Norman Fell - aka - Mr. Roper.
If only there was a photo of Mr. Ratzinger with a self-amused smile, then we could settle this difference of opinion asap.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Thanks for posting this.

Oh, and when was the shift from "convivial" to "girlblogs"??

Jonathan Moorhead said...

This looks to be a good series. Thanks Phil.

~Mark said...

Good post! As one who really laments the many divisions among Christians, I look forward to your series.

LeeC said...

My stomach gets that way when I think of the millions led to eternal damnation while thinking they are saved through RC dogma myself Norman.

I love those people, and I do not see how a person who says they care about them can blythely see them go to an eternal destiny far worse than Aushwitz quietly because he or she doesn't want to be confrontational.

It would be like having polite conversation with a person on the Titanic while he throws people in the water lead life jackets. You wouldn't want to offend him b pointing out that what he is doing is hurting people instead of helping would you?

Barry Hughes said...

I'll look forward to reading more in this series. Great job!

Tyler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kim said...

I find it really interesting that Catholics use a similar argument that the Mormons used with me. When I was a teenager, and being taught by Mormons, the appeal was made to me that there must only be One True Church (I was even given a little card that said "17 Points of the True Church), and that all of the Protestant "factions" were sinful. This sounds very similar to the appeals I have read by Catholics looking to have Protestants "return" to Rome.

I am wondering about the sentiment about the pictures of the pope. They were obviously out there somewhere for Phil to use; is the one who took them and put them somewhere for Phil to use disrespectful, too?

I like the new "girlblog" designation. Some days, I don't feel convivial.

Phil Johnson said...


Thanks for noticing. I redid the whole blogroll. I removed the defunct, mostly-inactive, or otherwise marginal blogs from every category, and since the only blogs in the "convivial" category were girlblogs, I thought "convivial" sounded condescending and sexist. (Carla certainly isn't always convivial.)

BTW, nice new blogdesign over at "Some Big Greek Word," and I see you are posting again. If you're planning to keep with it, I'll put your blog back in the blogroll--in the brand-new "girlblogs" category.


The most interesting and informative Catholic blog on the Web is "Whispers in the Loggia," by Rocco Palmo. (Sorry, Dave A., but that's a fact.) Rocco publishes goofy pictures of the Pope almost weekly, and no one ever complains that he is being "disrespectful." Why? Well, Rocco accepts the Pope's claim of infallibility. He would gladly kiss the Pope's ring. He believes the Pope has legitimately taken the title "Vicar of Christ." So he can post hilarious snapshots of B16, and that will never get him scolded for being "disrespectful."

Sorry, but if that's what it takes to be thought "respectful," write me down as emphatically disrespectful.

Incidentally, I have zero respect for Paul Crouch, Pat Robertson, and Benny Hinn, too. Pretty much anyone who claims to speak for God but goes beyond what is written falls in the same category. If pictures of such people show up here at PyroManiacs (something fairly rare), you can pretty much expect that we're not going to feel obliged to go out of our way to locate the most flattering portraits.

And if we have a plethora of goofy-looking candids handy, we'll prolly go ahead and use them.

Lee Shelton said...

Not to seem belligerently naive, but what exactly is the difference between the Catholic Church and a cult?

Jmv7000 said...

Roman Catholic apologist, isn't this an oxymoron? :)

1 Cor. 2:14 -15 comes to mind.

I look forward to the series.

FX Turk said...

Lee --

That's a great question, and keep in mind that I am answering for me and not for all of teamPyro.

The reason you can't class "Roman Catholicism" as a "cult" is that the word has no value in this context. Theologically, it doesn't frame your objection; sociologically, it doesn't demonstrate distinctives or sore spots; intellectually, it's too broad a brush.

I think it is far more adequate to say that Roman Catholic lay apologetics is a kind of cult in a traditional sense -- because these are usually movements or religious groups, often with a single charismatic leader, which engage in brainwashing and other mind control techniques.

It probably deserves some clarification to say that by "mind control techniques", I don't mean that they are using a diet of rice and water to starve people into a state of mental weakness. I mean that they are forging ideological grids which people believe they are required to use to interpret reality -- so people who can be otherwise reasonable will revert to these, um, interesting theories to explain contradictions as perfectly logical.

For the record, it happens in Fundy apologetics, too. Consider Dave Hunt as an example of that.


Carrie said...

I was disturbed by the pictures also, especially the first one. I was convinced the Pope wouldn't have a shadow.

Al said...

The Rc does not split… They simply absorb and allow all manner of abhorrent praxis in their body. Look at the Rc Church in Haiti or South America. Where is the purity of the faith the Rc's preach to be found there?
For them if a large enough group of folks like to bow down to Mary then lets add her to the pantheon. Doing this virtually guarantees that there will be no splits. I mean why split? If you confess the Trinity (on paper anyway) then you may do/teach/sing whatever you would like. Everyone is happy! 'cept maybe God.

al sends

Ric said...

I have not had a chance to read this blog posting, but I must know where do you find these pics of the pope?
Too funny!

DJP said...

Here's a parallel thought to Lee's question and Frank's response.

So, a group starts in 1957. It says it's the only true church, that salvation is to be found only in it. It invents reams of doctrines and practices found nowhere in the Bible—some of which in fact flatly contradict the Bible. It adds books to the Bible. It creates a very complex hierarchy of religious figures, and proclaims the top man as the mouthpiece of Christ on earth, with breathtaking authority. It preaches a false gospel. It advocates talking to dead people.

Now the question: who wouldn't call it a cult?

Assuming the answer to that question, is it still a cult if it was founded in 1927 instead of 1957? How about 1877? 1827? What if at some point in this history, it tortured and/or killed people who disagreed with it?

Do you see where this is going?

How old does a cult have to be, not to be a cult? If there are Gnostics today, are they cultists? Or are they not cultists because their cult is really old?

John H said...

@DJP: all your example does is show how utterly devoid of useful content the word "cult" can become.

Disagreeing with the Roman Catholic Church is one thing. But I think if your calculations produce the result, "the Roman Catholic Church is a cult" then you need to go back and work through them again.

While the theological claims made for/by the papacy are highly problematic and are rightly rejected by non-RC Christians, it is a real stretch to claim that the relationship between Roman Catholics and the Pope is comparable to the relationships between the likes of Jim Jones, David Koresh or the leaders of Heaven's Gate.

A couple of features I would tentatively put forward as indicators of a "cult", neither of which the RCC meets:

a. A tendency to undermine the individual's ability to function as a normal member of society (in terms of friendships, family ties, employment etc.) - not just in the case of a minority of fanatics (which can occur in any religion) but as a general pattern for adherents.

b. A tendency towards a certain over-simplified "rationality" (considered on the cult's own terms). There's the old saying about how "The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing". Well, the major world religions, Roman Catholicism included, tend to be "foxes": complex, many-faceted phenomena. One feature of a "cult" is that it tends to be a "hedgehog", centred on a very small, hermetically-sealed collection of teachings/individuals.

In any event, I think the assessment of whether a group is a "cult" has to be conducted "under the sun", in terms of its external, visible nature in this life. The fact that membership of a particular religion is incapable of saving somebody and may therefore result in their eternal damnation does not make that body a "cult" according to any useful definition.

John H said...

Oops, third paragraph doesn't make sense as I lost my train of thought part way through. Should read:

"...comparable to the relationships between the likes of Jim Jones, David Koresh or the leaders of Heaven's Gate and their respective followers"

Lee Shelton said...

I'm suddenly reminded of my 9th grade physics class, and the debate over whether light is a particle or a wave.

Norman said...

Just thought I'd try. Should have known better...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Phil. I'm planning on keeping it up.

Phil Perkins said...

Catholic calls to unity under Catholic authority a eerily similar to liberal calls to unity under liberal disorder. Both call to abandon biblical authority under the guise of unity.

Anyway if you want to really understand the meaning of "papal authority" go here: http://dontadddontsubtract.blogspot.com/2007/02/another-reason-to-reject.html

In Christ,
Phil Perkins.

DJP said...

Well, John H, if you define a "brownie" as "a delicious, green dessert," then I suppose brownies are not brownies.

In my mind, it's hard to picture a useful definition of "cult" that doesn't fit a totalitarian religion that preaches a false gospel, adds books to the Bible, has a special vocabulary and priesthood, and feels itself free to make things up and then demand that they be believed and done by everyone.

FX Turk said...

Dan --

I understand your point about what a cult might look like. I think that your falling back on the matter of "totalitarian religion" demonstrates a mistake in your thinking.

Certainly: Rome issues edict, bulls, writs, and orders. At some point in the past, it stopped enforcing them. In fact, at some point in the past, it started contradicting or nullifying a lot of its totalitarian chatter (btw, I think "authoritarian" is the better word).

I also think that the key matter of a charismatic leader is woefully absent in Catholicism. The ardent Catholics have a high view of the -position- or -office- of the pope, and to them it doesn't matter who sits in that chair. And that's never any more transparent than when you conduct school on the bad popes -- popes who were really not at all concerned about the philosophy or religious truths of the Bible. It doesn't matter that they were objectively bad men who abused power: they were Popes, and that means they were OK.

There's also the problem that Catholicism isn't one-tenth as uniform as Catholics confess it to be. When that uniformity breaks down as much as it does over all kinds of things -- right to life, homosexual lifestyles, whether or not to worship things like the "sacred heart of Christ" apart from the worship of Christ, etc. -- it's impossible to call that thing "unified" in any meaningful way, and if it's not "unified", I find a hard time calling it "authoritarian".

So there's something "cultish" about some aspects of Catholicism, but it's hardly a "cult" in any sense. If it were better at doing the things it says it does, you might be on to something, but until then, just enjoy the show.

donsands said...

"make things up" -Dan

They surely do that.

I had twelve years of Catholic schooling. Lots of made up stuff to observe.

Just a couple weeks ago some friends of mine were asking what's the whole blessing of the throat thing.
Good old Saint Blaze Day, is the day you go to church to have the priest hold two candles against your throat to be blessed by St. Blaze, the throat blesser.

If this ain't cultish.

Thanks for a good post. Some good dialouge and comments as well.
I like the photos, especially the one where the Pope looks like he may be playing poker.

David A. Carlson said...

The RC is not what it once was.

In my hometown in the 60's, you were told by the priest what you were going to tithe in a given year - not a percentage - an actual dollar amount. The nuns taught the kids, you didnt use birth control and everything revolved around the priest. You wanted to marry outside the RC? only allowed if the person converted.

Things have changed considerably in my hometown, and none of those things happen anymore.

Phil Perkins said...

What day was it when you put the candles in your ears?

Phil Perkins.

DJP said...

So, Frank, what are you saying?

If the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons were more poorly-organized, they wouldn't be cults anymore?

Newcenturion said...

I'm looking forward to this series. I was one of those gullible Protestants who moved over to Eastern Orthodoxy because I, like so many others who converted to the EOC or crossed over the Tiber to Rome, was biblically illiterate and doctrinally ignorant of the Reformation. After a few years in the church and after much self study I realized that I had made a mistake and I left. The EOC is not the unified all glorious body it claims to be. It is rife with corruption and “Byzantine Intrigues” and has all the same problems that plague the “Heterodox” Protestant denominations. The EOC is often an ethnic’s only club where divisions are made along cultural boundaries, and between “Cradle Orthodox” and Western converts, who are regarded as second class citizens. While I was in the EOC I had the feeling that this was not the One True Church of Jesus Christ but the One True Church of the Slavs or Greeks.

Kay said...

So what's the difference between a cult and a false religion?

Daniel said...

Libbie said So what's the difference between a cult and a false religion?

The use of soap.

DJP said...



Phil Johnson said...

I'm not sure the cult/not-a-cult debate is helpful without an agreed-upon definition of what a "cult" is.

I don't refer to RCism as a "cult," but I would regard it as an apostate body, headed by an antichristian hierarchy and with a long legacy of false teachers who put too much confidence in the flesh and often set aside the clear Word of God in favor of their tradition.

...the difference being that I generally think of cults as groups that start out bad and follow the teachings of some antichrist from the get-go; but apostate churches start out OK and go bad over time--and sometimes even end up giving antichrist the chair at the head of their table.

I suppose the difference between a cult and an apostate body is more semantic than practically significant. Either way, I would regard the followers of such religions as unbelievers in need of the gospel, and my plea to them would include a call to repent of their false religion.

Robert Ivy said...

I'm looking forward to the rest of this series. I definitely have much to learn here.

I do hope you'll also go into church authority just a little bit when you talk about unity. Since that's such a big part of it, and I'd like to see your thoughts on that.

Steve said...

I'm not sure the cult/not-a-cult debate is helpful without an agreed-upon definition of what a "cult" is.

Bingo. Establishing the definition gives a point of reference.

Rhology said...

newcenturion -

Would you mind emailing me? I'd love to ask you a coupla things!

rhology at gmail

FX Turk said...


If you want a one-word answer, I'd say "yes". If you want something a little more meaty, I'll have to sleep on it. I've had a hard day at work, and I'm tired.

FX Turk said...


I'm flattered. Of course, your name has nothing to do with me, I am sure. Let's start a cult. :-)

However, I'd like to point out there there is no "NewDanPhillips" running around, and there's no "NewPhilJohnson" on-deck.

I'm the Bono of TeamPyro. And I'm not sure that's a compliment, so I said it first.

Dan B. said...

Great post, Phil--I actually worked in the same office with Mr. Fournier as a legal intern (he had a private practice at that time) while I was in law school. An interesting guy, to be sure, though as your article demonstrates, I didn't agree on much with him theologically.

I do remember a debate held at our law school where there was a Roman Catholic on one side and what could be best described as a Scripture alone position. The latter was represented by a quite loud mouthed uber-fundy type (not real sure how else to describe and I certainly don't mean offense to any fundamentalist in the more traditional sense of the word) and to be honest, did not represent well.

Unity is the MAIN argument that I heard (and still hear) from folks I know that are in the RC church. Again, good post.

donsands said...

"What day was it you put the candles in your ears?" Phil

Did you mean, when did I put away, and stop listening to, the man-made doctrines of the Catholic Church?

Real quick: I was saved in 1984: In the autumn, or winter, not completely sure. May have been a Cornelius for a season.
I went back to the Catholic Church for about two years, and started listening to Christian radio. Teachers like, James Kennedy, Chuck Swindoll, James Boice, Charles Stanley, Chuck Smith, and many others began to shape my mind, as I read the Bible as well.

I finally wrote to the Monsignor of St Mark Church, and told him I was now a Protestant, and could not hold to most of the teachings of his church, especially baptism, the eucharist, and their worship of Mary.
He wrote to me, and sent me a few books to read, and wished me well.

That was the start of my sepration from the Catholic Church.

Was this what you were meaning? Let me know.

Kim said...

Yikes! A newcenturion or a newdanphillips!

Is this the invasion of the Dopplegangers?

Andy B. said...

Thank you for the post Phil and the great information in the comments by everyone else. And thank you Phil (Spurgeon 2.0) for speaking at 07SR and braving those teenagers and the cold.

I am also looking forward to further posts because I was RC for a few years in high school and left over discrepancies (I should say blatant heresy) between man-made tradition and Scripture.

I had some angry (testimony degrading) arguments with my step-dad who had trained to become a priest and is very devoted to the RC. Eventually, I left for a small community church "Where the Bible is preached". My step-dad and I have agreed to start a running e-mail conversation discussing theology with the hopes of furthering my Biblical understanding of the RC's error and pointing him to Scripture as the one and only truth and standard.

So I am greatly interested in what you have to say and teach, along with you other Pyros.

Centurion - are you Irish? My father-in-law's eyebrow does the same thing and he say it is because he is Irish.

A Birdy said...

Catholics are not as united as people think they are.
Example - see here

Tom R said...

[1] Re embarrassing or funny pictures of Popes, especially Benedict XVI: A few months ago, Mark Shea - a Catholic blogger with a finely-tuned nose for detecting anti-Catholic prejudice in many places - [re]published a rather amusing juxtaposition of two pictures: B-16 in a red cowboy hat (a real pic) next to Cowgirl Jesse from "Toy Story II", wearing the exact same red cowboy hat.

People have a filter for construing the motives behind things others do and say, especially jokes - whether it's "gentle joshing" (no pun int'd, John H) or "the last acceptable form of bigotry" will depend on whether the person making the joke is part of the tribe, an ally, or an enemy.

[2] Re Catholics as a big happy family: Some years ago, I read a Protestant critique of Scott Hahn's conversion story which mentioned that SH had already gotten himself unpopular with some of the more conservative Catholics because he was promoting the Catholic Charismatic movement.

Intrigued, I googled this further and found an anti-Hahn Catholic site that quoted, with approval, Msgr Ronald Knox's criticism of charismatics as enthusiasts, heretical and cultish. No source given, so I googled the quote and found yet another Catholic site that attacked Knox as a pseudo-Catholic convert and a heretic because he was (eg) reluctant to embrace the more extravagant Marian doctrines. Two anathemas in three mouse-clicks.

Ah, yes, "just as you and I are one, Father..." "The Son holds to the Molinist view of predestination, whereas the Holy Spirit prefers the Thomistic view thereof, and the Father has forbidden them to anathematise one another as long as they reject the Calvinist view as heretical."

John H said...

Hi Tom. :-)

You make an excellent point about the raging doctrinal disagreements that lie behind the facade of Roman Catholic "unity". Of course, RCs who have read their Chesterton carefully will be able to answer that this only demonstrates how marvellously catholic their church is, and how abominably schismatic protestants must be not to be able to find a home within the broad expanses of (Roman) Catholic inclusivity.


But if nothing else, this provides further evidence that, whatever else it is, the Roman Catholic Church is not a cult. Centurion was right: if the JWs and Mormons were less well organised, they would no longer be "cults" (if that is the right word for them even now). That's not to say they would cease to be false religions.

Phil Perkins said...

No, I was just being stupid. But your testimony is really cool.

In Christ,
Phil Perkins.

Newcenturion said...

Centurion...they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. All kidding aside the name I received when I was chrismated into the EOC was “Longinus”, who as tradition has it, was the centurion that pierced the side of our Lord. Hence the handle “newcenturion” I can change it if you want brother. ttsm3@shaw.ca

St. Lee said...

I aggree that the term "cult" needs to be defined. And just to make a useful contribution I looked it up...in the only dictionary on my desk...a Noah Webster 1828. You guessed it, the word "cult" is not even listed. I assume it was not yet a word in 1828. Guess that means any "church" started before 1828 can't be a cult.

That would mean that Roman Catholicism can't be a cult, after all, didn't it begin about 312 A.D. as the union of apostate baptists? ;)

Tom R said...

Thanks, John. Re Mormons - which ones do we mean? Some, indeed, split from their "cult's" leadership because [a] God told Brigham Young's successors that polygamy was now malum intrinsece, or at least prohibitum to get the Feds off their backs. As well as independent "fundamentalist Mormons", there is also a "Reorganised Church of LDS" (based at Provoo, IIRC?) to challenge the magisterium at Salt Lake City.

I find it more useful to reserve the term "cult" for religions that get nasty towards members who quit - who use force, brainwashing or other threats or reprisals (including disfellowshipping, if designed to wreck the ex-member's work prospects or family life). Catholics, for some reason, aren't terribly receptive if you use the word "cult" about their religion, unless you're talking about the "cult" of Saint So-and-so, in which case it has good overtones.

Chesterton famously said (my paraphrase) that what bound Catholics together was not attachment to this or that particular substantive doctrine[s], but agreement on a procedure for declaring doctrines - viz, the Papacy. Every time I have quoted this view without the Prophet's name on it, angry Catholics have corrected me by saying that Catholicism is about a depositum of Apostolic truths and the papacy has no authority to tamper with the same, and that if a Pope ever (per impossibile) did, then s/he would be a heretic.

Didn't Tom Wolfe once define a "cult" as a religion with fewer than 1 billion followers or 1 US Senator in its ranks?

Newcenturion said...


you can reach me at ttsm3@shaw.ca
I tried reaching you on your gmail no luck


Jerry Morningstar said...

I think Janet Reno [Remember Waco] once defined what a cult was - but most of us would qualify under her definition for believing in a literal return of Christ.

Ah - the wonderful cabinet of Bill

John H said...

Didn't Tom Wolfe once define a "cult" as a religion with fewer than 1 billion followers or 1 US Senator in its ranks?


Seth McBee said...

this should be excellent...so what would they say about Barnabas and Paul in disagreement? Acts 15:39

Juanillo said...

What I find most interesting about rc apologist is the circularity in there arguments. For their authority they use the church for the church they use authority. Studying Cornelius Van Til he does the same thing. Uses circular reasoning. That's why so many times the rc apologist would say were saying the same thing you are! Your just ignorant of the more deeper fuller understanding of doctrine! Simply put, the starting point of rc apologetics is autonomous man. And that of the redeemed christian is God. But we see right through you devil !!

Tom R said...

One analogy I've used before goes like this... Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, evangelical Anglicans, are all looking at the sun, which is just about directly overhead. The Presbyterians say "it's 11:55 am" but the Lutherans say "No, it's 12:07" and the Baptists are claiming it's 11.43.

Meanwhile, the Catholics are all taking their time from the Great Clock which has been running without interrruption for 1,700 years and which says the time is... 9 am. But they all agree. When the Great Clock strikes, and its little hand is pointing to 9, then it's 9 o'clock; and that must be 9 *PM*, because it's daylight (you seem, they don't *completely* ignore the sun overhead, whatever the Chick Tracts may claim. In fact they really like the sun, and they use its light to see the clock).

"That clock needs to be re-set," say the Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, and evangelical Anglicans to the Catholics. "It's clearly wrong."

"But Jesus Himself said that 'The role of a clock is to tell the correct time'," the Catholics reply. "That means this clock *can't* be wrong, at least not when it strikes the hours. Besides, you people disagree on exactly what time it is. How can your sola Solis principle possibly be true?"

"But you Catholics disagree too. Only just this morning, Dr Scott Strongstaples was arguing with Prof Marion de Vauchon over whether it was ten minutes or twelve minutes since the Great Clock last sounded the hour."

After a pause, the Catholics reply: "1,700 years. When was *your* denomination founded?"

Tom R said...

Oops, the Catholics are saying "it's 9 AM", not PM. I don't think they're in quite that much eternal darkness.

Should add that, although the Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and evangelical Anglicans disagree on exactly what the time is, eventually they agree to start their scheduled 12 noon meeting anyway and just get on with it.

Anonymous said...

I'm just now reading this entry, me sloooowww.

Down here in Texas and much of the SE United States, we have a group known as the NICOC (non-instrumental/non-institutional church of Christ). They, like the Catholicism they so often deride (as well as denominationalism in general), believe organizational unity is part and parcel of the unity Christ prayed for. They share a common lineage with the Restoration Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century and are like bulldogs when it comes to tradition, many viewing the "denominational world" as they like to call it, as lost and/or in rebellion.

You guys have any run ins with such folk?

Tom R said...

Google's quote of the day for 22 Feb '07:

"A cult is a religion with no political power."

- Tom Wolfe, US author & journalist (1931 - )

At http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/1420.html

I prefer the embellished version, but Wolfe has the primitive [sic] originality of the idea.

Unknown said...

Howdy, ya'll!

Re: a working definition for cult, sci-fi author Orson Scott Card, in Hey, Who Are You Calling a Cult? posits his views on components of cults; he expands on these points:

Charismatic Founder
Withdrawal and Isolation

What do you think?