Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review: Roman Catholic Theology and Practice

Allison provides another positively excellent contribution to the multi-faceted Christian world. I imagine that all three major branches of Christianity will greatly benefit from his careful and gracious work in Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. How can I review in only a few paragraphs this much needed book weighing in at 496 pages?

Book thesis:
[This book] seeks to accomplish two things: first, to note with fascination and appreciation the commonalities between Catholic and evangelical theology… and second, to examine the differences between the two, demonstrating how Catholic theology and practice at these points of divergence do not conform properly to Scripture.

Allison elaborates further upon his methodology:

[he] will propose for the purpose of understanding and assessment an approach that considers Catholic theology as a coherent, all-encompassing system with two major features: the nature-grace interdependence, that is, a strong continuity between nature and grace; and the Christ-Church interconnection, that is, an ecclesiology (a doctrine of the church) that views the Catholic Church as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus Christ. These axioms will also be assessed.

Indeed this holistic view of the Catholic faith is desperately needed for those who wish to think honestly and truthfully about their estranged heritage. Allison posits a two-fold axiom upon which the rest of the Catholic faith depends. Quoting one thinker he states that this [or these] is “perhaps the only theological topic in which Catholic and Protestant thought have gone their own ways, passing like ships in the night, with no sense of common problems and standards of judgment.” We must consider the Catholic faith as a unity, not as series of unconnected statements that can be argue tit-for-tat as if we are already operating on the same basis. Indeed, much of Catholic theology makes sense within its system, and to argue from a Protestant theological system against minor points does no good when the Catholic system necessitates those very points. The army of Sparta is strong because they hold together, and even if one is removed, he is replaced by  another—the whole system holds itself together. Allison offers a valued critique to the two-fold axiom of Catholic systematic theology as the start to the book; only then can he rightly wade into the maelstrom to point out flaws in the particulars.

Allison opens each section/chapter with the Roman Catholic view, highly substantiated with footnotes from the catechism itself, and then follows it with an evangelical assessment of the views in question—first through notes of “intrigue” (areas of agreement) and then through notes of “critique.” Each critique section includes reference to one or both of the axioms which Allison has dealt with separately in a presuppositional critique, as well as following detailed logical and biblical criticisms. I must say that Catholic theology and practice has never before made as much sense to me as it does now.

There is hardly room for improvement throughout, which is quite a statement considering its length, breadth, and nature! And yet I believe it holds true. I think there is a slight misunderstanding of thought in two places, but which does not bear much upon anything else. For example Allison critiques the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ in the mass (which he is at pains to explain the Catholics do not view as re-sacrifice), and argues against their understanding of the eternal nature of the sacrifice—because the sacrifice was unbound by time it can be presented again in a different time. In the course of his argument he cites the institution of the Lord’s Supper as evidence: it could not be the re-presentation then when Christ had not yet been presented at all—meanwhile forgetting that timelessness works in both directions (or perhaps better, no directions because it is without time). However this slight flaw in argument is by no means the lynch pin of an adequate critique, and Allison’s case by and large remains sound.

His thesis is supported in every chapter. His tone is cordial and serious—noting that the issues at stake are quite serious and not at all inconsequential. After spending so much time invested in this book, it feels abrupt to end the review without further comment, though I believe it necessary. So I will leave you with a few concluding personal reflections:

The areas of divergence are really quite significant; not something small to be glossed over.

But there is also much insight to be found in the Catholic faith which can be affirmed (even as it is/not found in prominent evangelical theology).

I want a similar assessment of the Orthodox faith and the Pentecostal faith.

Where do we go from here in work with Catholics? Do we primarily work for them or alongside them?

I received an electronic copy of Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment from the publisher as part of Crossway’s Beyond the Page program. My thoughts are my own.