Dialogue on Common Anti-Catholic Objections to Catholic Beliefs Concerning Mary and Justification

Dave Armstrong vs.Brian Schwertley (schwertley.brian@acd.net) and Stephen Pribble (spribble@tir.com or pribble.1@opc.org

This exchange took place in January 1998.  I discovered these two Protestant (Reformed; anti-Catholic) polemicists on the Internet, and responded to a tract of theirs, with an Anglican friend (since converted to Catholicism) observing. A brief direct personal correspondence is included at the end (my two opponents never replied at all to my critique itself). Their words shall be in blue.

Pastor Brian Schwertley (as far as I could determine) presides over a  Reformed Presbyterian church in Lansing, Michigan, and has many extensive published articles on the Internet. His writing is featured on the  website Reformed Witness. The present response of mine deals with two portions of his online tract: Roman Catholicism: A Biblical Analysis / Roman Catholicism: A Biblical Analysis (two different URL's). A more lengthy, comprehensive refutation of this paper (largely inspired - it would appear - by the noted anti-Catholic Lorraine Boettner) has also been undertaken by two Catholic apologists,  Scott Rogge and Mario Derksen:  The Bible and Catholicism

Pastor Stephen Pribble is the pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Holt, Michigan. He is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, William Tyndale College and Ashland Theological Seminary,  and is the author of Scripture Index to the Westminster Standards (Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1994). He often edits the writing of Pastor Schwertley, as is the case presently.

I. Mary

In order to understand the extent that Roman Catholic teaching concerning Mary has departed from the Scriptures, Dr. Joseph Zacchello has placed Roman Catholic teaching on Mary in one column and the Word of God in another column. The Roman Catholic teaching is from The Glories of Mary by Bishop Alphonse de Ligouri (Brooklyn: Redemptorist Fathers, 1931). The Bible quotations are from the Douay Bible.

Roman Catholic Church:

The Word of God:

¶ As - sadly - is so often the case in anti-Catholic propaganda, the writer above engages in flat-out dishonest, slanderous "scholarship" in order to put forth a lie about what the Catholic Church teaches. Fortunately, I have this book, so that I can easily prove how this miserable "Dr." has warped and distorted its passages.

First of all, so what? So was Moses (a "mediator") , for he says:

God pardons the Jews "according to your [Moses'] word" (Num 14:19-20). For other examples of such mediatorship and vicarious atonement, see Num 16:46-48 and 25:6-13. Is this just an Old Testament phenomenon? No, for the Apostle Paul writes that he is about:

He speaks of "being sacrificed" (2 Tim 4:6; cf. Rom 12:1), and says that:

We are mediators for each other before Almighty God whenever we pray for one another. So the fundamental premise here is fatally flawed. Our mediatorship in no way usurps that of Christ, for they are completely different in their essence. Likewise - rest assured - that of Mary is essentially different from Jesus' mediation, in Catholic teaching.

In any event, soon after this quote, St. Alphonsus cites St. Bernard, saying that Mary would:

The writer above, in deleting that portion, wishes to dishonestly leave the impression that Mary is a replacement of God in salvation, which is nonsense. This is no different than any of us asking Jesus for something in prayer. Now suppose that God chose to grant all Mary's intercessory requests. He could conceivably do that. If so (and this is the full-blown doctrine of Mary as Mediatrix), this is not because of Mary's alleged equality with God, but because God has chosen to involve her in His (not her) distribution of grace. That no more usurps God's Divine prerogatives than does Moses bringing down the Tablets of the Law from Mt. Sinai, or the Apostles being used to spread the Gospel and "bringing down" the indwelling Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands. God can use whomever He wants for whatever purpose He wants. That is called sovereignty, and Calvinists are supposed to be big on that...........

Now, the above excerpt has this immediately following the statement just dealt with. But in fact it appears about a pages' length later. So the usage is woefully dishonest and unscholarly (to put it mildly), on this, as well as two other counts:

Again, once the Catholic notion of Mary as preeminent intercessor is understood, there ought to be no difficulty whatsoever in accepting the above description, just as Moses and Paul "obtained grace" for others, in equally flowery (yet biblical) language.

In any event, summing all this up as "Mary is given the place belonging to Christ," is nothing less than a scandalous and abominable lie - bearing false witness.

There is no question that St. Alphonsus uses very flowery, hyperbolic, and poetic language about the Blessed Virgin Mary. But this is nothing more than Scripture itself does in many different contexts and on many subjects, especially in the Psalms and Proverbs. This is clearly a proverbial utterance. For instance, a Protestant might say,

Would that then mean that he thinks believers are saved by those things, or that they take the place of God Himself? Of course not. By the same token, Mary is not regarded as taking the place of God in any way, shape, or form. She is merely a vessel. But she is the very highest and most exalted creature, by God's decision, as Mary herself testifies (Luke 1:48-49).

¶ Of course this statement of our alleged beliefs and practices is itself a damnable lie.

Roman Catholic Church:

¶ "Worship" here means "veneration," as is carefully taught by the Church. It is fundamentally and essentially different from the adoration owed to God alone. There is a sense of this in old English, where the traditional marriage ceremony included a line (paraphrasing): "thy body I do worship."

The Word of God:

¶ As already explained, God can choose to involve any creature he wants to use, in His distribution of graces. He can cause any creature to be sinless, and thus within His perfect will, just as the angels are. This has not a whit to do with some crazy scheme whereby we are "saved" by Mary rather than Jesus. It simply doesn't follow. The Catholic Church never said that Mary's name was higher than Christ's. This is a false and malicious inference made as a result of bigotry, ignorance, and an inability or unwillingness to understand the distinction between complementarity and contradiction, between Final, primary cause, and secondary cause (agents or vessels).

Roman Catholic Church:

The Word of God:

¶ Again, nothing here contradicts Scripture and the unique divine prerogatives of Jesus. We believe that Jesus chose to incorporate His mother into the providential plan whereby all who are saved have been interceded for by Mary. Scriptural indications of this "spiritual motherhood" of Mary can be found in my Biblical Treatise on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Protestants who approach the whole subject with an extreme bias and blatantly false premises about what is biblically plausible and about what the Catholic Church indeed teaches about Mary have virtually no hope of understanding this, the most "deep" and involved of Marian doctrines. And the subject does not lend itself to brief explanation, so I urge all readers to peruse my treatise, which collects many many scriptural evidences together, in order to form a powerful cumulative argument.

Roman Catholic Church:

The Word of God:

¶ Nothing we teach about Mary usurps God's glory or uniqueness as the Creator and Lord of the universe. St. Alphonsus explains the first sentence above as follows (p. 181; emphasis mine):

In other words, this is yet another instance of hyperbole, which is rampant in this book, and which readily lends itself to being misinterpreted by those who don't take the time to accurately learn Catholic Marian teaching. This applies to the following passage as well:

Roman Catholic Church:

The Word of God:

Roman Catholic Church:

The Word of God:

¶ Sheer nonsense. To "prove" this lie, the writer again deliberately misquotes, for in the deleted spaces ("name....above") the text reads "after that of Thy Son." This makes all the difference in the world. This is true; Mary's name is exalted next after Jesus, because Jesus is God and Mary is God's highest creation, being the "God-bearer" (Theotokos). But that fact alone doesn't mean that she takes away Christ's glory, since she is not adored as God is; merely venerated because she reflects the glory of God, just as the moon reflects the sun. The moon doesn't produce its own light. Nor does Mary produce her own glory and perfection. Secondly, the actual text reads "in thy name" rather than "at that name," a similar vast distortion of what is being expressed.

Liguori, more than any other person, has been responsible for promoting Mariolatry in the Roman Church, dethroning Christ and enthroning Mary in the hearts of the people. Yet instead of excommunicating him for his heresies, the Roman Church has canonized him as a saint and published his book in many editions (recently under the imprimatur of Cardinal Patrick Joseph Hays of New York). [13]

¶ This is simply a matter of different sorts and forms of language. Does anyone take literally the love poems of a man to his young bride? Likewise, the admittedly excessive language of St. Alphonsus has to be understood in this light. The Church in recent years (e.g., Vatican II) has taken the greatest pains to express Marian truths in ways which will not be misinterpreted and misunderstood, such as evidenced in abundance in this atrocious, pathetic critique.

Mother of God. The Roman church calls Mary the “mother of God,” a name impossible, illogical and unscriptural. It is impossible, for God can have no mother; He is eternal and without beginning, while Mary was born and died within a few short years. It is illogical, for God does not require a mother for His existence. Jesus said, “Before Abram was born, I am” (Jn. 8:58). It is unscriptural, for the Bible gives Mary no such contradictory name. Mary was the honored mother of the human body of Jesus—no more. The divine nature of Christ existed for eternity from eternity past, long before Mary was born. Jesus never called her “mother”; He called her “woman.” [14]

This exhibits gross, embarrassing, laughable ignorance, both of Catholic Marian dogma and Church and conciliar history - enough (along with much else) to completely cast into doubt the writers' credentials as any sort of critic of Catholicism. I cite a passage from my book A Biblical Defense of Catholicism:

Accordingly - as in the case of the perpetual virginity of Mary - all the Protestant Founders accepted this notion. Luther correctly wrote (he also believed in the Immaculate Conception, by the way):

Calvin agreed:

In conclusion, with regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the writers fail miserably in proving their charges against the Catholic Church, and the Dr. Zachello's pitiful scholarship throughout the whole futile enterprise does not help things any!

II. Justification

The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that salvation depends ultimately upon ourselves,

No. That is Pelagianism. We teach that men need to cooperate with God's totally sufficient enabling, causative grace in order to be saved. This is explicit Pauline teaching (and that of James as well). I have dozens of proofs in my papers. As such, this debate really reduces to one about free will (whether man can cooperate with God in his salvation or not). Trouble is, I rarely see Calvinists constructing websites or ministries around the purpose of confronting their Arminian, Wesleyan Protestant friends on the question of free will and alleged "semi-Pelagianism." No, it is only us Catholics who get the full treatment! :-) I have many papers on this topic on my Justification page:

Also, the all-important decrees of Trent and 2nd Orange on Justification are available on the same page. I wonder if my anti-Catholic friends have ever read them?

From the last-mentioned paper is the following information:

. . . earned by obedience to the law of the church (for example, regular attendance at mass, rosary prayers, fasting, the wearing of medals, crucifixes or scapulars, etc.).

Of course these pious acts are praiseworthy, but they are not what ultimately "earns" our salvation. That is, of course, God's grace and the cross.

In this system God forgives only those who try to atone for their sins through fruits of penance. [43]

Penance and "binding and loosing" are completely distinct subjects. The biblical rationale for them can be found in my Biblical Treatise on Penance.

This whole system exists because Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is regarded as not sufficient.

This is nonsense. We must still cooperate and obey God's commands, repent, etc. Most Calvinists (and old man Calvin himself) accept secondary causation, and consider that we are at least free agents. We must deliberately choose to follow God, make an altar call, get baptized, devote ourselves to Christ, accept Him into our hearts, - whatever the framework or phraseology used. One can say that God ultimately does all that, but we certainly do something. Since none of that is intended as denigratory towards the cross, neither are any of our works of obedience and piety.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification (how a man becomes justified or perfectly righteous before God) reflects Romanism’s complicated system of salvation by works. [44]

It most emphatically is not "salvation by works," since this - again - is Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism: both soundly condemned by the Catholic Church. How can we believe what we ourselves condemn? This is typical of the ludicrosity and utter implausibility of anti-Catholic critique.

But what anti-Catholics rarely understand is what we mean by the term "merit." So they compound error upon error in their bogus analyses of what we supposedly "teach." They build houses of cards and then triumphantly blow them down, thinking they have destroyed the basis of the Catholic Church. Thus, some preliminary, basic explanation is in order:

The existence of a measure of human free will in order for man to cooperate with God's grace does not reduce inevitably and necessarily to Semi-Pelagianism, as Luther, Calvin, and present-day Calvinists wrongly charge. The Catholic view is a third way. Our "meritorious actions" are always necessarily preceded and caused and crowned and bathed in God's enabling grace. But this doesn't wipe out our cooperation, which is not intrinsically meritorious in the sense that it derives from us and not God. Second Orange again:

This is not Semi-Pelagianism, and Protestants admit that Orange was not a Semi-Pelagian council by placing it in alleged opposition to Trent. Yet this is the identical teaching of Trent, and also has to do with the merit that virtually all Protestants appear to detest as heretical and contrary to God-originated grace. Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott describes the Catholic view:

St. Augustine wrote:

Ott comments:

Ludwig Ott again:

The concept of merit and its corollary reward is well-supported in Scripture: Mt 5:12, 19:17,21,29, 25:21, 25:34 ff., Lk 6:38, Rom 2:6, 1 Cor 3:8, 9:17, Col 3:24, Heb 6:10, 10:35, 11:6, 2 Tim 4:8, Eph 6:8. Trent must be understood in this light, and nothing in it contradicts Orange, Scripture, or the doctrine of all grace as originating from God, not man. Thus, neither Trent nor Catholicism is Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian.

Justification is God’s work of grace in man. Justification is God’s work of grace in Jesus Christ. [45] “Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24 DB).

This is a false dichotomy. What God declares, He creates in reality, not just abstractly. Many, many proofs on actual sanctification can be found in my treatise on justification.

Roman Catholic view:

As a man, by grace, becomes more and more righteous by obeying God’s law, Church canon law, and the use of the sacraments, God will accept him.

Biblical view:

God accepts men solely on the merits of Jesus Christ. “For we account a man to be justified by faith, without the works of the law” (Rom. 3:20 DB).

Merit has just been explained. The notion of "works" and their relationship to grace is also thoroughly explained and defended in my treatise, with copious biblical support. Protestants have much more in Scripture to explain concerning these matters than we do.

Roman Catholic view:

Faith and good works are the basis for justification. [46]

Biblical view:

Faith in Christ alone is the basis for justification. “By grace have ye been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory” (Eph. 2:8-9 DB).

Ditto. Sola fide was unknown in Church history until Luther. Even Protestant apologists and scholars like Norman Geisler and Alister McGrath admit this. The anti-Catholic is forced to believe in the absurd scenario of the Church immediately getting its central doctrines wrong right after the Apostles died. What becomes of God's protection of His Church if this is the case? Is the Holy Spirit that unable and unwilling to preserve His truth amongst His people?

Roman Catholic view:

God’s transforming grace infuses righteousness into men who cooperate with grace. Thus, justification is subjective.

Biblical view:

The righteousness of Christ is imputed or credited to the believer through faith. Thus, justification is objective. “When a man does nothing, yet believes in him who justifies the sinful, his faith is credited as justice.... Blest is the man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt” (Rom. 4:4-8 NAB).

Some proofs to the contrary:

John 1:29 . . . Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Here we see that sins are obliterated, not merely "covered over." There are many other passages in the same vein:

2 Samuel 12:13 . . . The Lord also has put away your sin . . .

1 Chronicles 21:8 . . . take away the iniquity of thy servant.

Psalm 51:2,7,9-10 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! . . . Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow . . . blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Psalm 103:12 As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

Isaiah 43:25 I am he that blots out your transgressions . . .

Isaiah 44:22 I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist, for I have redeemed you.

Ezekiel 37:23 . . . I . . . will cleanse them.

Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out . . .

1 John 1:7 . . . the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

1 John 1:9 . . . He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The Greek word for blotted out in Acts 3:19, exalipho, is used in Revelation 3:5, where names from the book of life are blotted out - obviously an obliteration (with the most dire consequences). In Revelation 7:17 and 21:4, the word has reference to God's wiping away tears in heaven: again, clearly an absolute act of removal. Therefore, the notion that the above passages are metaphorical or symbolic only would appear to be a strained and implausible interpretation. The language is so definite as to leave no doubt: sin is taken away, put away, swept away, washed, purged, cleansed, blotted out, or removed. Likewise, the word for cleanse in 1 John 1:7,9 is katharizo, which is used to describe the cleansing of lepers throughout the gospels (for example, Matthew 8:3, 11:5, Mark 1:42, Luke 7:22). This is indisputably an "infused" cleansing rather than an "imputed" one. Why should God settle for anything less when it comes to our sin and justification? To be fair, Protestants stress this actual sanctification, but in separating it in principle, and abstractly, from justification and the "working out" of one's salvation, they have constructed yet another unnecessary dichotomy, the net result of which has been a lessening of the vital role of works, which thereby tend to be regarded as far less compulsory, to the detriment of holiness.

Roman Catholic view:

Our righteousness is acceptable to God. In fact, some saints have done more than what God has required, and have stored extra merit that we can acquire.

Biblical view:

Even the best of good works are tainted with sin. Our good works contribute nothing to our salvation. “But we are as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6 RSV). “I want only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ, and is from God and based on faith” (Phil. 3:96 JB).

This gets back to the warped Calvinist Protestant view of Total Depravity: the false, unbiblical notion that even our best works are somehow evil in part or wholly. I deal with this in my paper on Total Depravity, and also in " 'All Have Sinned....' (Mary?)".

Roman Catholic view:

Justification is a gradual process which may not even be complete in this life. It usually is completed by the tortures of purgatory.

Biblical view:

Justification is an instantaneous act. It is whole, eternal and perfect, not piecemeal or gradual. “I solemnly assure you, the man who hears my word and has faith in him who sent me possesses eternal life. He does not come under condemnation but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:25 NAB). “Even when you were dead in sin...God gave you new life in company with Christ. He pardoned all our sins He cancelled the bond that stood against us with all its claims, snatching it up and nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14 NAB).

My treatise deals with all this. Paul is very explicit. As for purgatory, see my many biblical proofs in my Biblical Treatise on Purgatory.

The Roman Catholic Church has perverted the doctrine of justification by confounding it with the doctrine of sanctification. [47]

We say the Protestants have perverted it by separating it from reality, actual holiness and sanctification......

Biblically speaking, after a man is justified before God, he begins a lifelong process of sanctification where he grows in holiness and obedience to God’s law.

Both camps wholeheartedly agree that men need to grow and become holy, so there is a sense in which all the theological arguments are beside the point. Let's just follow God's commands and rejoice that we can agree on that fundamental aspect of the Christian life.

Justification is the basis, the starting point, for sanctification (Rom. 6). Justification removes the guilt of sin and restores the sinner to God’s household as a child of God.

Yes, we believe precisely this with regard to what we call initial justification (and baptism).

Sanctification removes sinful habits and makes the sinner more and more like Christ.

I have argued that the two cannot be separated, biblically and ethically speaking.

Justification takes place outside of the sinner in the tribunal of God. Sanctification takes place in the inner life of man. Justification takes place once and for all. Sanctification is a continuous process which is never complete in this life. [48]

All unbiblical dichotomies, as I have shown in my treatise.

The following is the only response I received from either man, including my counter-responses:

Dear Stephen,

God's blessings upon you on this His day.

You wrote:

Please forgive me for not taking the time to make a detailed refutation of all your arguments.

Fair enough; I accept and appreciate this, but I would still say that you (and your friend Brian) are duty-bound to deal with your opponents' best arguments at some point, or else remove your analysis from the Internet, or at least revise portions I have shown to be false beyond all doubt. My [Anglican] friend is observing all this, and he can see, I think, who is dealing with the biblical material more straightforwardly.

I've done my work and research for now more than seven years as a Catholic (I studied Scripture intensely as an evangelical for the previous ten years). It takes much work and time indeed, and I maintain that you have not done nearly enough for you to put up the page you did. That's all I'm saying. I can whip off these responses very fast because I have painstakingly and carefully previously done the research and examined both sides fairly. You - with all due respect - (obviously, in my opinion) have not.

If you want to get together personally sometime and talk about these things, let me know.

That would be very good, but I would insist on there being a strictly-followed agenda: one subject, and an in-depth analysis of it, to see which side is more "biblical." I'm not interested in the scattershot, "1001 objections to Catholicism" approach, with which I am all too familiar. That is a cop-out, and impossible for the purpose of legitimate dialogue and constructive learning. That's no better than the technique of the Jehovah's Witnesses (on whom I am an expert).

I would go much further and propose a group meeting, and/or a formal debate. If you are so sure of your position, that should be no problem for you, right? I have many apologist friends who would gladly debate your position in a second. I haven't done public, oral debates (I prefer to stick to writing - and have engaged in dozens by that method), but I would certainly be involved in such an endeavor in some fashion, perhaps as part of a panel.

If the Roman Catholic Church is wrong in its doctrine of salvation (taking many millions to hell) and its worship (rife with images, contrary to the Word of God), then clearly it is a false church.

But of course! You haven't established this, however, and you have yet to explain the necessary, unavoidable historical relationship of your "church" to ours. This no Protestant can do. You have a particularly insuperable dilemma with regard to Scripture, since the Canon was unarguably determined only by Catholic Church authority.

The images dispute (iconoclasm) is simply silly and groundless (not to mention unbiblical), and I don't even wish to pursue that. Here again, why don't you take on all of your Protestant brethren who disagree on this as well (e.g., Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, etc.)? Why don't you go on a crusade and whitewash all the great religious works of art (Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Giotto, etc.) and destroy stained glass windows, on the ludicrous grounds that they are all idolatrous, and leading people to hell? Calvin and his minions even destroyed organs; decapitated statues of Jesus Christ Himself......Are you against liturgical music, too? Bach as an instrument of gross idolatry? Magnificent hymns such as "Holy Holy Holy" or "Amazing Grace" or "How Great Thou Art" as impermissible worship? Theatre and Shakespeare is inherently evil, as the English Puritans thought? How far will you take this? The whole view is ridiculous and beneath contempt. This is Islam, not Christianity.

If it ever repented of these egregious errors, then Roman Catholics and Protestants could get together as brothers and discuss whether Mary was perpetually a virgin or not.

How can we change what we have merely inherited from Jesus and the Apostles? We cannot do so. But we can trace our views historically back to Christ (there is development of them, but not change in essence). You cannot. That, my friend, is the huge difference in feasibility between us. And I think I have shown that our views are scriptural, whereas yours ultimately (where you differ with us) are not. If you respect Scripture as much as you claim (I have no reason to doubt that), it seems to me that all the Scripture I have brought to bear should give you some pause, if not great trepidation. You must explain our scores of proof texts somehow, at least in your own mind.

Frankly, that is a non-issue by comparison to the doctrine of salvation and purity of worship.

Then why do you make it an issue on your website; a topic where you differ even from Luther and Calvin?

Thank you for your publications. I will look them over when I have time.

You're welcome, and good! :-)

You may think I am being very hard on you, but look what you say about us!!! I wholeheartedly believe my views just as strongly as you do yours, but I regard your church as a Christian one, and that makes a big difference in fundamental attitudes. I try to critique your views, not you or your friend as persons, and I would never question sincerity without the most compelling of grounds. Just wanted to make that clear.

His servant and yours,

Dave Armstrong

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Main Index & Search / Justification Index / Blessed Virgin Mary Index / Anti-Catholicism

Compiled on 9 August 2000 from exchanges of January 1998. My opponents have been informed of this paper via e-mail. They are more than welcome to respond and start up a fresh round of dialogue on these same topics, and perhaps also others, if they wish.