Monday, December 29, 2014

Gregg Allison on Roman Catholicism: Front Matter

I’m walking through various parts of Gregg Allison’s work on Roman Catholicism, “Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment”. I’d like to take a look at the “front matter”.

What I’m calling the “front matter” encompasses what Allison calls the “Preface” (pgs 17-20) and the “Introduction” (pgs 23-30). It seems to me as if this work may have been rushed a bit, and that with a little bit of effort these could have been combined into one unit.

In the Preface, Allison is careful to thank a number of Roman Catholic contributors for “personal counsel, guidance, inspiration, suggestions, editorial help, corrections, and the like:

Specific contributions from Catholics came from Father James Keleher, my professor for “The Documents of Vatican II” course at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary; Don Pio Iorg, with whom I worked in Lugano, Switzerland; Father Slider Steurnol, who contributed to my Catholic theology classes at Western Seminary; and various priests, monks, and deacons who have contributed to my Catholic theology classes at Southern Seminary. Many thanks go to the original members of Alfa-Omega for giving Nora and me such an incredible opportunity to work with their nascent movement: Don Carlo Stanzial, Mario and Giulia, Ruggiero and Theresa, Lilli, Andrea, Luigi and Anna, Antonio, Margherita, Ninetta, Maria, Sandro and Velia, Sandro and Ornella, Annamaria, Stefano and Emilia, Roberto, la famiglia Poppi di Sorbara, and others who have faded from memory.

[Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 426-432, Crossway, Kindle Edition; pgs 18-19 in the printed edition).]

Then in his Introduction, he expands on his personal history a bit, stressing his interactions with Roman Catholicism (it includes an episode from his childhood, his experience with “Campus Crusade” (“Cru”) at Notre Dame, an experience with an organization “Alfa-Omega” in Rome for three years).

Along with our ministry within Alfa-Omega came numerous opportunities to work with priests, meet one of the bishops of the Province of Rome, attend a “private” audience with Pope John Paul II (along with 9,998 other invitees), sneak the Jesus film into what was then called Yugoslavia, speak before hundreds of Catholic clergy (bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and seminary professors) on the topic “The Importance of the Bible in Ministry,” train other Cru staff for similar ministries with Catholics, and much more.

[Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 558-562, Crossway, Kindle Edition; pg 26 in the printed edition).]

He also outlines his experiences studying, teaching, and writing about Roman Catholicism.

Twice (once each in the Preface and Introduction), Allison makes the point that this work “does not aim to be an anti-Catholic diatribe”. Perhaps this is in response to critiques he received from Roman apologist Art “Art of Attack” Sippo. The charges are more humorous than substantive. Sippo charged that that Allison was “an undercover saboteur trying to find fault with Catholicism”, and he concluded that:

Allison obvious [sic] does not know his Bible very well. Even worse, he is still blinded by his confessional bias so that he refuses to see what is clearly in Scripture. He is not the expert on Catholicism or on Scripture that he thinks he is. He needs to stop and reflect on his own inadequacies and accept that the modernist views of Protestants are not the only possible ways of interpreting Scripture.

Allison is anything but “modernist”. In fact, in his two previous works, “Historical Theology”, and “Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church”, are thoroughly biblical and historical.

If any one “criticism” is going to stick to this book, it will be along the lines of what they say at Called to Communion, that Allison is “begging the question in the dialectical sense” by not beginning with Roman Catholic presuppositions. But I consider that objection to be really quite bankrupt.

Allison’s stated his purpose in writing the book:

This introductory background sketch serves to highlight two points: First, though I do not have a Catholic background, I am an evangelical theologian whose experience with Catholic theology and practice is more extensive and personal than that of most evangelicals. Hopefully, this familiarity puts me in a position to be a trustworthy guide for evangelicals who desire to know about Catholicism.

Second, my experience helps to explain the purposes of this book, which are twofold. One purpose is to highlight the commonalities between Catholic and evangelical theology, agreements or similarities that prompt intrigue. These shared doctrines and practices— e.g., the Trinity; the full deity and full humanity of Jesus Christ; worship and prayer— need to be recognized and appreciated, and they lead to thanksgiving for a limited yet real unity between Catholicism and evangelicalism. The other purpose is to underscore the divergences between Catholic and evangelical theology— disagreements or dissimilarities that require critique.

These doctrinal and practical disparities—e.g., apostolic succession, transubstantiation, the immaculate conception of Mary, praying for the dead in purgatory—are serious points of division that must be faced honestly and sorrowfully, yet with a humble conviction that avoids minimizing the substantive distance between Catholicism and evangelicalism.

Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 572-582). Crossway. Kindle Edition. Pg 27 in the printed edition.

The words intrigue and critique, of course, are what motivated him to write in the first place. They are the title of his Preface:

Intrigue and Critique

The Catholic Church is everywhere one turns. In terms of its sheer size, the Church claims well over a billion adherents, so the Catholic faithful are present in most parts of the world. Wherever they are found, they are leaders in government, educational institutions, health care, social programs, law, business endeavors, the arts, and much more. The head of the Church, the pope, wields enormous influence on the international stage, not only in terms of spiritual matters but also in the realms of politics, ethics, education, culture building, and the like. Recent scandals—child abuse by priests, the Vatican banking fiasco—have propelled the Church into the limelight with widespread notoriety. Whether for good or for bad, the Catholic Church is in the center of public attention.


Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment seeks to accomplish two things: first, to note with fascination and appreciation the commonalities between Catholic and evangelical theology—which I shall describe as the intrigue component; 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—I’ll call it the critique component. Though I offer this book primarily for evangelicals who want to become familiar with and assess Catholic theology and practice, I nourish a hope that some Catholics will also read it to learn what evangelicals think about Catholic theology and how they assess it.

Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 397-415). Crossway. Kindle Edition. Pgs 18-19 in the printed edition.

I do understand the “intrigue” part. For me, the question became evident the first time I read through the New Testament, and I didn’t find “Roman Catholicism” in there. I wondered, “how did things get to be the way they are?”

While it’s recently been suggested that “large chunks of Mass-going traditional Catholics don’t believe in basic doctrines of the Church”, and that hence “something is going very wrong at the most basic level”, still, Allison is correct to say that “the influence of the Roman Catholic Church may be found all over the place”, not least of which include the pope’s many media appearances, the Supreme Court of the United States (where there are six Roman Catholics currently sitting as justices), news media and political commentators including Brian Williams, Chris Matthews, the late Tim Russert, and Stephen Colbert, sports figures like Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant, and entertainers including Mel Gibson and Nicole Kidman, and such popular writers as Flannery O’Connor and G.K. Chesterton, and plenty more, all of whom have played a significant role in various components of our political and popular culture, and whose Roman Catholicism may be seen in one way or another.

With that said, there is also the lament of the late Fulton Sheen, (famous in Roman Catholic circles). Sheen quipped, “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.”

In conjunction with that, recall the ruckus that occurred surrounding the Anglican Addison Hart (who had originally converted to Roman Catholicism, then “de-converted”). One of the bigger questions was, “didn’t you know what you were getting into when you poped?”

It’s quite possible that he did not. Not until he became enmeshed in it.

If you are going to “hate” Roman Catholicism (or even dislike it or oppose it), you should do it for the right reasons. Allison will help you to cut through a lot of the fog.

One of the reasons why people misunderstand Roman Catholicism is because, for centuries, the Roman Catholic apologetic has not been one of honesty and clarity, but it’s one of deflection. It’s a classic bait-and switch, which I would argue, is fundamentally dishonest, on a regular basis. Hart allowed in his comment that he had “high ideals.”

As I’ve argued for years, there is something fundamentally dishonest with Roman Catholic apologetics. Roman apologists are constantly these days appealing to “unity” and “antiquity” and even to equate “the Roman Catholic Church” with “the ongoing Incarnation of Christ” [“you will be like God”] – appeals to high ideals. But one thing they don’t lead off with – in fact, they hide from public view what their true doctrines actually are. What the Roman Catholic apologetic appeals to is … “just trust us on this one … wink wink”.

Allison’s assessment is thorough, fair, and honest. With respect to “method”, as I mentioned in my previous article, he picks up where De Chirico leaves off, and then works in a fairly methodical way through the recent “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (“CCC”):

To accomplish this task, I have designed [this book] to be a walk through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Beginning in chapter 3 of this book, for each section of the Catechism, I first describe in summary form and without comment the Catholic theology or practice addressed in that section; then I offer an assessment of that Catholic theology or practice from the perspective of both Scripture and evangelical theology.

In chapter 2, I explain my interpretive approach to Scripture and outline the evangelical theological perspective that I use throughout the book. In that chapter I also address my understanding of and approach to Catholic theology as a system that is characterized by two axioms: the interdependence between nature and grace, and the Catholic Church as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus Christ. I then briefly set forth how these two tenets manifest themselves in concrete Catholic doctrines and practices. I conclude this chapter with an assessment of the two axioms. [This is largely a condensation of what De Chirico outlines in the last third of his book.]

Following closely the structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, chapters 3 through 6 will cover its first part, entitled, “The Profession of Faith,” because it describes Catholic theology as it is professed in the Apostles’ Creed (with a few additions from the Nicene Creed). Chapters 7 through 11 treat the second part of the Catechism, “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery,” which explains the Catholic Church’s sacramental economy and seven sacraments. Chapters 12 and 13 discuss the third part of the Catechism, on “Life in Christ,” which presents salvation, law, grace, justification, merit, and the like. Conclusions and applications will be drawn in chapter 14.

Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 594-607). Crossway. Kindle Edition. Pgs 28-29 in the printed edition.

As I mentioned in my previous article, Allison’s decision to closely follow the CCC’s outline in the table of contents makes the book somewhat difficult to follow, although as I related last time, he does include pertinent paragraph numbers from the CCC in the footnotes.

But that’s a relatively small quibble in the face of the enormous value that Allison provides, to the enormous amount of clarification he brings to the entire Protestant/Catholic divide.

In upcoming installments, Lord willing, I hope to spend a significant amount of time going through Allison’s “evangelical summary”, then treat both of the two primary “core doctrines” of Roman Catholicism, and then Allison’s response (and I’ll be clarifying with appropriate selections from De Chirico.

My hope is to provide access to large chunks of this book, without the reader actually having to buy it. Of course, I feel confident to say that both Allison and his publisher, Crossway, would want you to buy the book. I want you to buy it as well – one for yourself, and one or two to lend to your Roman Catholic friends and relatives. And if you have the means and opportunity, to purchase one for your church library, and also use it as the textbook for a Sunday School class that you’ll volunteer to teach at your church.

Correction: An earlier version of this article had passed along an inaccurate attribution of a quote that Dr. Allison was “an undercover saboteur trying to find fault with Catholicism”. The footnote does attribute that quote to Dave Armstrong; but in an email exchange with Dr. Allison, he admitted that it “looks like I did indeed give the wrong attribution for that quote”, and that he would make note of the error in case of future printings of the book. The article above has also been corrected to reflect this.


  1. The charges are more humorous than substantive; in Dave’s case, the charge was that Allison was “an undercover saboteur trying to find fault with Catholicism”,

    Hi John,
    I think those are Art Sippo's words at his blog, "the art of attack" - (at the beginning of Art's article) it appears that Gregg Allison made a mistake in attributing it to Dave A. because Sippo mentions DA on the sidebar with links to his books.

    I could not find anything from DA regarding Allison.

    Anyway, just for your info. Maybe I missed something. It was hard following the different links for someone to reconstruct and follow.

    But, Allison's book is good, so far - I just got it also and am reading some as time allows.

    1. Hi Ken, thanks for that research -- I admit I did not look too closely at that, and I took Allison's word for it. Maybe upon further checking, I'll provide a correction in the main article here.

    2. Hi Ken -- I emailed Dr. Allison, and it appears as if you are correct about Dave Armstrong not being the source for that quote. I've corrected the article above. Thanks for the heads-up!

  2. Hey John,
    You're welcome.

    What did you think about what Dr. Allison said at bottom of page 25, when he was on Cru (Campus Crusade) Summer Project staff in Rome that lead to the discovery of the "Alfa-Omega" group, about seeking out "Evangelical Catholics" who "are Catholics but who believe as we evangelicals believe about the gospel, justification by grace through faith alone, and so forth?"

    I guess he is going to explain more on that in the chapters that deal with Justification.

    1. Hi Ken - I don't recall seeing that discussion in the "justification" section -- although, as was mentioned (and linked) above, “large chunks of Mass-going traditional Catholics don’t believe in basic doctrines of the Church”. Some of these do hold to evangelical beliefs. (I believe Keith Fournier wrote a book called "Evangelical Catholicism" discussing this very phenomenon, at some point before ECT came out.)