Does Protestant Truth Still Matter? (4) Roman Catholicism before Vatican II

On Reformation Day 2023 we returned to a series of posts we started in 2021 but never finished – the text of ‘Why Protestant Truth Still Matters: A Biblical Perspective’ by Garry Williams. This is the fourth post in the series. (The first post is here, the second here, and the third here.)

The printed version of the full publication can be obtained from the Protestant Truth Society.

The piece is structured like this:

1. Introducing the Five Solas

2. The Solas Stated:
            Sola Scriptura
            Solus Christus 
            Sola Gratia and Sola Fide
            Soli Deo Gloria

3. Roman Catholicism before Vatican II:

4. Contemporary Roman Catholicism:
            In with the New
            Out with the Old?
            More of Mary
            Understanding Contemporary Roman Catholicism 

5. Protestant Truth Still Matters 

3. Roman Catholicism before Vatican II

The five Solas of historic Protestant theology may be summed up in a single sentence thus: the self-attesting Scripture authoritatively reveals the unique Christ who saves by grace alone through faith alone for the unshared praise of his glory. These five tenets of Protestantism were formulated against the background of late mediaeval Roman Catholic theology. In response to the rise of Protestantism, the Council of Trent then clarified and defined Rome’s view on these and other issues. From a Protestant perspective, three great problems stand out among the Tridentine decrees and canons: the doctrines of revelation, justification, and worship. Rome’s sixteenth-century position on each of these demonstrates why the Solas mattered so much at the time of the Reformation, and that position was if anything worsened by subsequent pronouncements through to the twentieth century. I will outline this historic position briefly before turning to consider its abiding relevance amid more recent developments in Roman Catholic theology. 


Session 4 of the Council of Trent treated the question of Scripture and tradition. The brief but dense statement produced by the Council clearly affirms that the revelation of saving truth is contained in two equal sources, the ‘written books and unwritten traditions’.1 While some modern Roman Catholic theologians have tried to reinterpret the Council, the text is clear: the word of God is found in two different forms, written and unwritten. The Council ‘receives and venerates with the same sense of loyalty and reverence’ both the written and the unwritten form of the word of God.2 The Old Testament canon maintained by Trent is not the list of thirty-nine books which would have been used by Jesus himself and was accepted by Jews like Josephus and Philo, but includes the additional writings represented in the Greek Old Testament that were rejected by such church fathers as Origen and Jerome. The unwritten traditions were supposedly dictated orally by Christ or else by the Spirit, and the Council claims that they have been preserved in ‘continuous succession’ since then through the bishops of the Roman Catholic church.3 In other words, there is a line of oral tradition from Christ down to this present day that contains no doctrinal innovations but faithfully hands on what Jesus and the apostles taught. When Rome appears to teach something new, it must be attributed to this ancient tradition. When it comes to interpreting the twofold form of the word of God, the church alone has authority.  

To this Tridentine position Vatican I (1869-70) added the doctrine of papal infallibility, locating the supreme authority for interpreting the deposit of the word of God in the Pope himself. The decree on Papal infallibility was defined on 18th July 1870. It declares that the Pope is infallible when teaching ex cathedra on matters of faith and practice, that he can teach thus even without the consent of the church, and that such teachings are ‘irreformable of themselves, not because of the consent of the Church’.4 Again, the Pope did not technically claim the right to innovate: when speaking ex cathedra he simply declares the correct interpretation of the already given twofold word of God. 


Session 6 of the Council of Trent on the doctrine of justification does not teach that we can save ourselves by our own effort. It is not Pelagian. It clearly states that divine grace is necessary for salvation. Nevertheless, it does teach that we can cooperate with God in the work of our justification by using the free will that remains after the fall, a free will that has been weakened but not destroyed by sin. In that sense, the Council is semi-Pelagian. According to Trent, faith is necessary for justification, but it is only the beginning of it. When we cooperate and do good works in the power of the Holy Spirit, those works themselves grow our justification and can actually merit the reward of eternal life on the last day: 

We must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified for them to be regarded as having entirely fulfilled the divine law in their present condition by the works they have done in the sight of God; they can also be regarded as having truly merited eternal life, which they will obtain in due time, provided they die in the state of grace.5


Writing at the time of the Reformation, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer reflected on the activity of the people in Roman Catholic masses rushing from altar to altar to worship the elevated host. He explained their activity on the basis of the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that in the mass the substance of the bread becomes the substance of Christ himself:

What made the people to run from their seats to the altar, and from altar to altar, and from sacring (as they called it) to sacring, peeping, tooting and gazing at that thing which the priest held up in his hands, if they thought not to honour the thing which they saw? What moved the priests to lift up the sacrament so high over their heads? Or the people to say to the priest “Hold up! Hold up!”; or one man to say to another “Stoop down before”; or to say “This day I have seen my Maker”; and “I cannot be quiet except I see my maker once a day”? What was the cause of all these, and that as well the priest and the people so devoutly did knock and kneel at every sight of the sacrament, but that they worshipped that visible thing which they saw with their eyes and took it for very God?6

The doctrine of transubstantiation was defined at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and repeated at Session 13 of the Council of Trent: ‘by the consecration of the bread and wine, there takes place a change of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of his blood’.7This belief forms the basis for Roman Catholic worship of the bread and wine in the mass, which Trent takes to be the worship of God himself:

There remains, therefore, no room for doubting that all the faithful in Christ, in accordance with the perpetual custom of the Catholic Church, must venerate this most holy Sacrament with the worship of latria that is due to the true God.8


[1] Decree on the Reception of the Sacred Books and Traditions, in Compendium, §1501.

[2] Compendium, §1501.

[3] Compendium, §1501.

[4] Pastor Aeternus, c. 4, in Compendium, §3074.

[5] Decree on Justification, c. 16, in Compendium, §1546.

[6] Cited in Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 98.

[7] Decree on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, c. 4, in Compendium, §1642; for Lateran IV, see §802. 

[8] Decree on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, c. 5, in Compendium, §1643.