When Catholics Were Catholic

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 21, 1999

One good reason to take a backwards glance at the last millennium is to remind ourselves that church history did not begin with the Protestant Reformation in Europe. By the providence of God, the Reformation rediscovered the gospel for our times. But of course people were repenting for their sins and trusting in Jesus Christ for their salvation centuries before Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg church.

There was a time when people who belonged to the church belonged to the church in Rome, and when people who belonged to the church in Rome belonged to the one true church. To put it another way, there was a time when Catholics were catholic. “Catholic,” remember, simply means “universal.” For example, when Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed, they say they believe in the “holy catholic church,” which simply means that there is only one worldwide church of Jesus Christ. Properly speaking, the real catholic church consists of all believers in Jesus Christ. And there was a time, I am saying, when (even) Catholics were catholic.

The church was like that in the 13th century, a century most Protestants have long since forgotten. Too easily, we move from Augustine in the 5th century to, say, Luther in the 16th, carelessly skipping over the intervening millennium. The eleventh century is (barely) remembered for the schism between East and West. The twelfth century had its infamous Crusades. But the thirteenth century, at the tired end of the Dark Ages, is almost forgotten altogether.

In this Window on the World I want to make a few comments about the great theologian of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas is usually considered a Roman Catholic theologian, and in some ways he was, but he is our theologian, too, because he lived when Catholics were catholic.

Aquinas was an accomplished philosopher, famous for his proofs for the existence of God. But he also wrote many commentaries and theological treatises, the greatest of which was his monumental Summa Theologiae, a complete systematic theology. As far as his theology was concerned, many parts of it were thoroughly biblical. Aquinas believed and taught fundamental doctrines like the Trinity, Creation, Sin, the deity of Jesus Christ, predestination, and so forth.

In his own way, Aquinas even believed that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. What he said was that “Among all the goals of human actions one is ultimate… . Men attain their goal by coming to know God and love him… . We call man’s way of attaining his goal being happy” (173-74). Being happy may sound overly self-centered. But Aquinas went on to explain that what makes human beings happiest of all is to contemplate God and all his perfections.

Obviously, Thomas Aquinas can still be read with some profit, as can many other theologians who wrote prior to the Reformation. Yet reading his Summa also shows why the Reformation was so necessary. For one thing, it contains many of the standard Roman Catholic errors, such as unbiblical views of Mary, unwarranted additions to the sacraments, and improper elevations of papal authority to the level of Holy Scripture. But the main reason the church needed to be reformed was because the Medieval church had practically lost sight of the grace of God in salvation.

The writings of Thomas Aquinas give a good indication what Christians were starting to believe and teach about faith and works in the 13th century. They were starting to believe, for example, that grace works with us so that we can win our way to heaven. In the words of Aquinas, “Our actions earn the good God has planned as man’s reward” (322). He was quick to say that salvation first comes by a free gift. “But,” he went on to say, “once one has grace—to begin good works—one can earn further grace as a result of those works” (323).

This is why it is never enough to say that justification comes by faith, which is what Roman Catholics say to this day. Yet the only justification God offers is that which comes by faith alone. No doubt the apostle Paul would pose the same question to Aquinas that he posed to the Galatians: After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Gal. 3:3). Like the Galatians, although Aquinas and other Medieval theologians started with faith, they continued by works.

What this all shows is why the Reformation was necessary. Aquinas himself may well have been a genuine believer. He probably was. Thankfully, one does not have to be able to explain the doctrine of justification by faith alone in order to be saved by it. One only has to believe in Jesus Christ. But by the 13th century, the true message of salvation was becoming obscured, and in danger of being lost altogether.

The example of Thomas Aquinas also reminds us to continue to pray for the saving work of the Holy Spirit within the Roman Catholic church. We forget, sometimes, that Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and all the rest of the Reformers were born and bred within the Roman church. When Catholics were catholic, they were Catholic, too, and it was within the Roman church that they came to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

To be sure, the Pope would not stand for their plain teaching of the gospel, so that eventually they were thrown out of the church. But God can and does carry out his saving work to this day, even where his gospel is not preached in all its clarity.

Toward that end, we should pray for the recovery of the gospel and the salvation of sinners within the Roman Catholic Church. This weekend marks the culmination of months of work by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to get Catholics back to church. The more than one million Roman Catholics in the Philadelphia area received mailings and heard radio ads inviting them to come back to the Mother Church and do penance.

It is a good thing to go back to church, but all the better when the church preaches the one true gospel. So pray accordingly.

[Quotations come from St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, ed. by Timothy McDermott (London: Methuen, 1989)]

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