Faith

Five Catholic Authors Protestants Should Read — And Why

[Getty Images] Photo of priest with Bible taken In Ogre, Latvia.

I am a Protestant pastor. I am also evangelical, and hopefully one of the nicest and most polite Calvinists you will ever meet. I believe the central Protestant doctrines of “sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone as the final basis of belief) and “sola fide” (we are justified by God on the basis of faith only in Christ). So why do I read Catholic authors, and why this short list?

First of all, I read just about everything … from cereal boxes to every historical plaque in just about every obscure park in America to the owner’s manual of my truck. I can’t stop reading — yes, it is an obsession.

I love to read what other people think. I am very content with my own faith, but I like to read how other people come to their views, so I read the writings of Buddhists, atheists, Muslims, political liberals and conservatives and libertarians. As a Christian, I highly value the thoughts of professing Christians from other traditions, whether they agree with me or not.

In fact, when I read authors who are not necessarily of my faith, it is my hope that my mental debates with them will sharpen my skills in logic (a very necessary skill in this highly emotive day and age). I hope to learn from others, and I enjoy every minute of it.

So even though I am not Roman Catholic, who are the Catholic authors I enjoy and benefit from the most?

1. Gilbert Keith “G.K.” Chesterton (1874-1936).

Gilbert Keith Chesterton in a suit with glasses.

G.K. Chesterton, painted by Ernest Herbert Mills, National Portrait Gallery. Public domain.

You knew he would be the first one, didn’t you? Chesterton converted to the Christian faith as a young man, then later converted to Catholicism. He was a philosopher, lay theologian, writer (the author of the “Father Brown” mystery novels as well as several works of Christian apologetics and biographies of Catholic saints). So far, my favorite books by Chesterton are “Orthodoxy,” “The Everlasting Man,” and his biography of Thomas Aquinas.

In his apologetical works (“Orthodoxy” and “The Everlasting Man”), Chesterton is framing a worldview in which he sees the Christian faith as touching everything around him. Christ involves everything: political theory, the family, economics, war, peace, entertainment, art, and literature. Since Christ is Lord of all, there is no part of our lives that He is not concerned with … and no part of our lives that should be off limits to His involvement.

I personally think that these two books alone should be read every year by every Christian (in addition to the Bible, of course). (C.S. Lewis remarked that “The Everlasting Man” was one of the books that influenced him the most to become a Christian.) You cannot read them in a hurry. Besides the fact that Chesterton is incredibly witty and humorous, his logic slows you down and makes you do something unheard of these days. Chesterton makes you think.

The man takes on the great skeptics of his day (George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Clarence Darrow) and aggressively (but politely) debates them on evolution, morals, as well as the flow and purpose of history. You want to debate the skeptics of the Christian faith today? Start by reading Chesterton and using him as a model.

Here is Dr. Ryan Reeves explaining (from a Protestant perspective) Chesterton’s influence on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and his contribution to a thorough Christian worldview:

2. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).

Bernard of Clairvaux depicted with a book and a crozier.

Stained glass window of Bernard of Clairvaux, in the public domain.

Around this time of the year, Christians all over the world sing the hymns “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee.” Well, you can thank Bernard for the words of those wonderful hymns of the faith. Bernard was a Catholic monk (a Cistercian) and led a reform movement in the twelfth century.

The reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, quoted Barnard extensively and always approvingly, even though the Cistercian monk venerated Mary and wrote glowing books about her.Why? Because, as Luther and Calvin saw it, Bernard of Clairvaux understood and taught a salvation based entirely on the grace of God and not at all upon human merit.

Dr. Nathan Busenitz, in his book “Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel From Christ to the Reformation” (2017, Moody Press), documents several quotes from Bernard stating that salvation is acquired by faith in Christ alone, and not by our efforts.

Here is one example: “Nobody will be justified in his sight by works of the law. … Conscious of our deficiency, we shall cry to heaven and God will have mercy on us. And on that day we shall know that God has saved us, not by righteous works that we have done, but according to His mercy. … Grace freely justifies me and sets me free from slavery to sin.”

The book I enjoy the most from St. Bernard is “On Loving God.” In this book I find a theme that runs throughout the Bible: God loves us even though there is nothing in us worth loving. Therefore, since we partake of the redemption bought by Christ, we should love God in return out of gratitude. The French monk speaks of four loves: loving one’s self, selfish love, loving God as God, and loving one’s self in God. It’s just a little book, but filled with great thoughts from a world almost 1,000 years ago. I often read it as part of my devotions after my Bible reading.

Here’s a great intro to Bernard’s life and thoughts by Dr. Reeves:

3. Bishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979).

Bishop Fulton Sheen in a dark suit

Bishop Fulton Sheen, from the Harris & Ewing collection in the Library of Congress.

I had heard of Bishop Sheen when I was a young man, but never really paid any attention to him or his writings until one day in a doctoral course at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary taught by Dr. Warren Wiersbe. Dr. Wiersbe was telling us about influential 20th century preachers in America and how they used modern media. He told us about Fulton Sheen and how, during his TV show “Life Is Worth Living” (1951-1957), he would speak for half an hour, live on the air, without any notes or cue cards, and keep the audience riveted as he spoke about how his faith intersected with the events of the day. (Well I was certainly impressed! How many people can speak without notes or a teleprompter these days?)

Then Dr. Wiersbe told us to read his book “The Life of Christ” (1958, McGraw-Hill). He said the book was so good, “you could get saved reading it, if it were not for the sacramentalism in it.”

That was a good enough endorsement for this Protestant. So I got the book and read it. Dr. Wiersbe was right! I was very impressed with Bishop Sheen’s biblical knowledge and his exegesis of most of the texts. No, I still don’t believe in transubstantiation or his veneration of Mary, but I do like most of what he had to say. Here’s a small sample of Sheen’s incredibly powerful writing and insight:

There was a nobility in His kingdom, but it was opposite to the rank of the world. In His kingdom one rose by sinking; one increased by decreasing. He said that He came not to be ministered to, but to minister. In His own Person, He was exemplifying humiliation as ascending to the depths of defeat of the Cross. Since they understood not the Cross, He bade them to learn of a child whom He embraced to His heart. The greatest are the least, and the least are the greatest. Honor and prestige are not to him who sits at the head of the table, but to him who girds himself with a towel and washes the feet of those who are his servants. He who is God became man; He who is Lord of heaven and earth humbled Himself to the Cross; this was the incomparable act of humility which they were to learn. If for the moment they could not learn it from Him, they were to learn it from a child.

4. Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471).

Thomas à Kempis

Thomas à Kempis portrait, Public Domain

During the dark days of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, a devout Dutchman named Geert Groote formed a lay movement to reform the spiritual life of Europe, “the Brethren of the Common Life.” His followers were to devote themselves to Bible reading, moral purity, education, and charity to the world around them. One of the Common Life followers was the monk Thomas à Kempis. (His real name was Thomas Hemerken; he was from Kempis, hence the name.) Thomas was the main author of a devotional work that was initially intended only for his fellow monks. Entitled “The Imitation of Christ,” it later became the most popular devotional book in the history of Christianity.

This book transcends faith traditions. It is not only revered by Catholics (such as the Jesuits), but also by staunch Protestants. Puritan notables such as Richard Baxter and Thomas Chalmers recommended the book for devout Christians in their daily devotional reading. John Wesley was profoundly impacted by the book, and John Newton (the slave trader who became a Christian and wrote “Amazing Grace”) took the book with him on his voyages. He later confessed that the words of Thomas à Kempis were instrumental in his conversion to Christ and his later crusade to end slavery.

Why should you read this book? It is one of the best summaries of a disciplined spiritual life. It stresses silence and solitude (don’t we need that today?), inner peace, purity of heart, a serious turning away from distractions, and a single-hearted focus on seriously serving God in all that we do. Yes, book four is “too Catholic” for me with its emphasis on the “blessed sacrament,” and yes, the author does teach a few other things I disagree with.

But over the years, I have learned to “spit the bones out” and glean what is useful. There is much in this book that has blessed people of every stripe over the years. Get a copy of the book and see for yourself.

5. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Thomas Aquinas with a book in front of him

St. Thomas Aquinas in a stained glass window. Photo via Flickr.

Of course. No list of Catholic authors is complete without Aquinas. In fact, no list of leading thinkers in world history is complete without him. You simply cannot have a good grasp of world history or the history of Christianity without knowing who this man was and what he believed. That is no overstatement. Aquinas was THE leading intellect of the Middle Ages, and virtually defined Roman Catholic doctrine until the present day. But I’m Protestant; why should I study him?

First, how can I understand someone else’s beliefs if I do not go to the source who explains it the best? Since I have many friends and relatives who are Catholic, I want to know exactly what they believe, not just hearsay. So I read Aquinas.

Secondly, Aquinas is refreshing (at least for nerds like me). In a day and age of hyper emotionalism and zero attention span, Aquinas uses rigorous logic and detailed arguments on every page. His greatest works, of course, are the voluminous “Summa Theologica” and the shorter “Summa Contra Gentiles.” I am still wading through both works, and it will take me years to get through them.

In these works, this medieval brainiac is attempting to synthesize the logical thought processes of Aristotle and the teachings of Christianity. One of his main purposes is to be able to present the Christian faith in a logical, rational way, especially to unbelievers (like Muslims) who do not accept the Bible as authoritative.

Unbelievers may not accept the Bible as authoritative, but they certainly can follow logical arguments. And so Aquinas gives them. His works cover ethics, political theory, angels, the family, metaphysics, natural law, the nature of God, proofs for the existence of God, salvation, on and on. He believed that God is rational and created man to understand the world around him in a rational way. Even though sin has marred the image of God in man, people can still understand much through logic.

Man can reason about faith, however there are limits. Man cannot reason TO faith (and I certainly agree with him on that). Reason alone cannot tell us who or what God is like. That is where revelation from God and faith come in. Aquinas believed he could prove the existence of God from logical arguments, but faith was needed to understand concepts such as the Trinity, grace, and salvation.

Here is Dr. Peter Kreeft using one of Aquinas’ arguments to prove the existence of God:

Here is Bishop Robert Barron explaining Aquinas’ argument a little more thoroughly:

Dr. Ryan Reeves, presented a very reasonable and balanced evaluation of Aquinas from a Protestant perspective for Ligonier Ministries and in this video:

Dr. Norman Geisler has a good evaluation on the usefulness of Aquinas to all people, not just Protestants or Catholics.

Thomas Aquinas’ rationalistic arguments are a tonic to my brain, especially in this age where it seems that pure emotionalism (and much silliness and insanity) reigns. Aquinas brushes away much chaff with logic and gives me clear thinking with his insistence on objective truth and divine revelation. In those areas where I differ with him, I know that I really need to sharpen my debating skills in order to take him on. And it’s always a good thing to sharpen my critical thinking skills. It’s good to wrestle with Aquinas!

At the beginning of this article I stated plainly that I am an evangelical, Calvinistic Protestant. I am very happy and content in what I believe. I fully understand that Christianity did not disappear sometime after the apostles and somehow reappear in 1517 with Martin Luther. I believe that God has always had His people in every age — people who humbly acknowledge their utter lostness before a holy God and trust only in Christ to save them. And I believe that God can (and does!) teach me today from a variety of people whom He has sovereignly used down through the ages … even if we don’t see “eye to eye” in many areas of faith.