January 27, 2021

Catholic Questions Part 2: Horton, Sungenis, Justification and the Confusion Over Trent

logo-wi.gifThe November 4th edition of the White Horse Inn was an interview of well-known Roman Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis. It is called “Roman Catholicism and Justification.” The MP3 is available free from WHIs OnePlace site, and I highly recommend it.

(By the way, if you want to hear what it sounds like when a world-class Reformation scholar restrains himself commendably in an interview so his opponent can have his say clearly and without being attacked, listen to this. I imagine Horton was about to respond and disagree loudly at points, but he plays the gracious interviewer and says nothing. Well…with one exception 🙂

Sungenis gives what I consider to be a refreshingly honest collection of answers on the subject of grace, justification and the “solas.” Horton follows that interview with a brief interview with Mark Noll, co-author of Is The Reformation Over?

The interview brought a few questions to my mind that I’d like to invite IM readers, especially Catholics, to engage. As usual, I am not looking for debate, but a clear presentation of distinctions, definitions and meanings.

If possible, listen to the program. If not, and you still are going to comment, say so.

Sungenis was the first Catholic I’ve heard in a long time interpret the anathemas of Trent in the following way: A) They are still the clear and unaltered teaching of the church on justification, B) anyone who understands the teaching of the church against justification by faith alone and knowledgeably rejects it is anathema, and C) this does not simply refer to the Reformers, but to any Christian who knowledgeably rejects Catholic teaching and teaches that justification is primarily a legal declaration by God.

Question 1: Is Sungenis correctly interpreting the Council of Trent for Protestants, or is there a major reinterpretation/clarification necessary for those who have never been Roman Catholics, but always taught in Protestant beliefs?

Question 2: If Sungenis is correct, then is the Roman Catholic Church, in the Vatican II teaching on Ecumenism, calling as “Separated Brethren” large numbers of persons who are, because of their knowledgeable rejection of the teaching of Trent, actually condemned and who must repent of heresy to be saved? In other words, is “Separated Brethren” really an honest and accurate description?

Question 3: Sungenis portrays Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmeyer, prominent Catholic New Testament scholars respected and cited by many Protestants, as liberals corrupted by Protestant graduate educations. Is Sungenis giving a mainstream point of view here, or are these scholars considered on the fringes of Catholic teaching?

Question 4: Is Sungenis, a former seminary educated evangelical fundamentalist for 18 years, indicative of mainstream Catholic apologetics, or has Catholic apologetics become a primary example of a kind of “denominationalism” in Roman Catholicism; in this case, where former Protestants represent Catholicism to other Protestants in ways quite different from the ways lifelong Catholics would present it?

Question 5: Mark Noll says that the entire separation between Protestants and Catholics over justification is the result of Protestants separating justification and sanctification, while Roman Catholicism holds both together under the term “justification.” Accordingly, Noll sees this as a false dilemma for both communities, though other issues are real dilemmas. Is Noll correct that the heart of the Reformation debate is simply semantics, and we would be fairer to one another to graciously accept that both sides are talking about salvation by the grace of God, but in different ways?

NOTE: Part of the reason that I am raising these questions are the simply bizarre and inconsistent responses I have received from RC friends the past few months to any serious inquiries about the anathemas of Trent. One person waved his hand and dismissed them as irrelevant to contemporary Protestant understanding of Catholicism. One person said that V2 had changed the relationship of Protestants and Catholics so that Trent didn’t matter. Another said Trent only applied to the Reformers who were once Roman Catholics, not to those of us born outside of the RCC. Other Catholics are irritated when I’ve brought up the anathemas, like they were a weird uncle who should never be discussed in polite company. And of course, there’s always the “Well…since the Pope’s not right here at this moment, I really can’t say” response. Great to have all those authoritative pronouncements resolving the questions Protestants can’t agree on, isn’t it? What’s up with this? If I can’t get a coherent answer to those one, it’s “check please” for me in RC/Evangelical discussions.

In Protestantism, we can all distance ourselves from whatever we disagree with or find embarrassing with a bit more ease. For example, the dating rules of Bob Jones University were not something all Protestants had to defend in some way. Or take my views of Creationism. I’m not obligated to assimilate and agree with Ken Hamm. But Trent’s anathemas are going to dominate the discussion of Protestant-Catholic relations, and all Catholics have to believe them. I find it highly confusing that the responses from Catholic friends are so evasive and inconsistent.

I read V2 on ecumenism and I think “Separated Brethren.” I hear Sungenis and other conservative Catholics and I say, “Separated, by the fact that I’m going to hell.” In fact, when you put it all together, Muslims get a far better shake than Protestants who knowingly reject the RC doctrine of justification. If God is less hacked by the Koran, Mohamed, salvation by works, Hajj and jihad than he is by distinctions made among Apostles’ Creed believing Christians over the exact description of greek terms in Romans, then I’m toast for sure.

I wouldn’t bring this up if it didn’t matter, and I doubt that I am the only Protestant who’s had this problem.


  1. I did not enjoy the interview. I really thought Dr. Horton should have challenged Sungenis more than he did. And if Horton didn’t want to debate with him, he should have at least used the last ten minutes of the show to reaffirm the Christian position of Sola Fide, not interview another person who was planting seeds of doubt.

    If this was the first episode of White Horse Inn I ever heard, I would have never listened to it again. This episode seemed to be a platform for the other side to espouse their views without any resistance.

    – The Pilgrim

  2. sara ali says


  3. I am always fashionably late to these parties.

    They are still the clear and unaltered teaching of the church on justification


    anyone who understands the teaching of the church against justification by faith alone and knowledgeably rejects it is anathema

    Not quite. Anathema was a particularly “intense” form of excommunication. As is obvious, the Catholic Church cannot excommunicate those who are already outside her communion. Which is to say, insofar as the Council of Trent represents the truth about justification, those who dismiss it obviously do so at their peril. However, the canonical penalties (i.e., anathema) attached to the various truth claims were aimed at Catholics, to whom the Church is Mother. And the Reformers were Catholics.

    To incur the canonical penalty of anathema required that one be brought before a court in Rome. Rarely has anyone actually been brought before this court for this purpose. So few, in fact, that the penalty of anathema was taken off the books when the new code of canon law came out in 1983. Anathema is, however, still considered by many theologians to be a signal that an infallible truth has been proclaimed in council. So though the canonical penalty no longer exists (and has historically rarely been incurred), those anathemas are still useful as delineations of Catholic truth.

    this does not simply refer to the Reformers, but to any Christian who knowledgeably rejects Catholic teaching and teaches that justification is primarily a legal declaration by God

    It would apply to Catholics (as the Reformers were), not as an anathema, but to truth claims that must not be denied by Catholics. Denial of such truths would constitute heresy, which does carry an excommunication with it, according to canon law, but again, you can’t kick out of communion those who aren’t in communion. It would be about as meaningful as your local church excommunicating Paris Hilton. Presuming she’s not a member 🙂

  4. Fruimbblism says

    enaggde.It shsll rerquire an annual reporf from every minbister and the hmuan omumnity. Gong ni thw

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