Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim

By Norman L. Geisler and Joshua M Betancourt
Wheaton, IL : Crossway (2008). 235 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Greg Harris
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 268-271

Norman Geisler and Joshua Betancourt have written an excellently researched and logical examination of the claims of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that it is the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. They document their writings with quotations from the Bible, the early church fathers, the various Catholic councils, including Vatican I and Vatican II. Though they include footnotes for those with a more scholarly intent and five appendices for those who want to do further study on related topics, the book is very readable for a lay audience and clearly delineates the differences between the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and what is considered biblical orthodoxy. Often throughout the book the authors present a base statement (such as in Chapter Five: “The Roman Argument for the Infallibility of Peter Evaluated” and why Matthew 16:18 does not support the apostle Peter being the superior apostle, with a list of twelve reasons why the verse does not show Peter to be the first pope). Most paragraphs begin with “First,” “Second,” “Third,” etc.—all the way through to the twelfth (199-22). Thus the reader can go through the book and follow the logical presentation of the material; there should be no confusion on how the authors divide the material and present and support their case. The summary at the end of each chapter is a very worthwhile review and restatement of their findings.

The claims by the Roman Catholic Church that they are the true church should be evaluated and are of great eternal significance:

According to the Roman Catholic Church, it is a mortal sin to reject one of its infallible teachings. Unrepented moral sins lead to eternal condemnation (hell). The Council of Trent often indicated this by attaching anathema to its decrees, saying something like, “If anyone, however, should not accept the stated dogma knowingly and deliberately, let him be anathema.” But the claims that the Roman Church is the only true church of Christ on earth and that its pope is the infallible interpreter of Christian truth are Roman dogma, since they were proclaimed at the ecumenical councils such as the Fourth Lateran Council and Vatican I. This means that, according to Rome, anyone who knows and rejects this, as most knowledgeable Protestants do (including the authors of this book), will go to hell (21).

Obviously, such a claim by RCC is either true or false; as the authors repeatedly point out on multiple occasions, they cannot be both at the same time.

The authors realize the seriousness of their study because

if the claims [of the Roman Catholic Church] turn out to be false, unsupported by scriptural, historical, and rational argument, then the very structure of the Roman Church, being built as it is on its own magisterium, collapses. Not only is Rome not the true church, but it is also false in at least two, if not more, of its central claims. Its claim to infallibility would be false, since its fallibility is proven in its claim to infallibility. Accordingly, since its claim to infallibility underlies other distinctive doctrines of the Roman Church, these too are left, by their own confession, without a solid basis for belief. By its own claim, it is the infallibility of its magisterium that grounds its essential teachings for the faithful. An infallible Scripture, they claim, is not enough. What is also needed, they say, is to define Scripture and its meaning. Without this, they claim, there is no real basis for our faith. If so, if infallibility can be undermined, then the Roman Church as a whole crumbles. The rest of the book sets out to prove that this is indeed the case (12).

Geisler and Batancourt divide their book into eight chapters. Throughout the book the Roman Catholic position is presented (chapter one “The Roman Claim to be the True Church” and chapter two “The Historical Development of the Roman Primacy Structure,” each with substantial quotations from the original sources where possible). These are often done in block quotes so that no accusation about taking a sentence out of context can be made; the autho rs repeatedly stress their effort to convey accurately the teachings of the church. These chapters are followed by the authors’ assessments of the claims (such as chapter three “The Roman Argument for the Primacy of Peter: Stated and Evaluated”). Substantial biblical and logical refutations appear in each chapter, e.g., chapter four (“The Roman Argument for the Infallibility of Peter: Stated”) followed by chapter five (“The Roman Argument for the Infallibility of Peter: Evaluated”). Chapter six is entitled, “The Roman Argument for Apostolic Succession,” and chapter seven, “Is Rome the True Church?”

In the final chapter (“Why Some Protestants Convert to Rome”), the authors note how some people long to appeal to antiquity and thus want to realign themselves with Rome. To this they respond: “Just because the current Roman Catholic Church, which in turn has a connection with the early NT church, does not mean it is faithful to its apostolic founders. There is a direct continuity between the pluralistic, liberal Harvard University today and the original evangelical institution started by the Puritans, but who would argue that they have been faithful to their founders’ beliefs” (189)? Geisler further adds a more personal note in the same chapter. Having explained that he grew up in an RCC household and attended two Catholic universities where he studied under the top Jesuit philosophers and theologians, he still remains resolute:

And when I examine the real grounds upon which others convert to Catholicism, I am not impressed. By the same logic of one looking for an older, deeper, richer, more intellectual, more beautiful tradition or rejoining the family tradition, one could easily justify becoming a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, pagan, or better, an Eastern Orthodox (198).

All in all, this reviewer thought this was a fair, extremely well-reasoned presentation of the substantial differences. The authors conclude that while the RCC is not “a cult, it is in many respects, nonetheless, cultic in its practices” (184). Also, “[T]his is not to say that the Roman Church has no true believers in it,’ nor that it has no essentially true beliefs. It has both. It is only to say that not only is its central claim to infallibility false, but so is its plan of salvation” (ibid.). For those who did not grow up in a Roman Catholic environment (such as myself), this book was quite informative about not only the differences, but also in several crucial elements how the differences evolved over many centuries and thus substantially differ from the Bible and the earliest church history. For those who have RCC family members and friends and desire to discuss with them logical, biblically based theology, this is an excellent resource.