A Review of Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s The Light of Christ

Nov 20th, 2017 | By | Category: Blog Posts

A friend of mine attending the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) — a Catholic adult Sunday school of sorts for those interested in learning more about Catholic doctrine and practice — asked me if I were to recommend one book for him what would it be? I told him this was a daunting, perhaps unanswerable question. Those on the outside looking in have all manner of different objections to or questions about the Catholic faith, largely dependent on their own religious background, education, and life journey. Some are focused on technical definitions of doctrine, others on Church history, still others on prayer and spiritual life. A single, twenty-year-old Reformed seminary student is perhaps more interested in getting a handle on the intricacies of the Catholic doctrine of justification than Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage. I doubt there is any such book adequately suited to address the diversity of interests of every person investigating the Catholic Church. However, one book that covers an impressive amount of ground for its labeling as an “introduction” is Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism. This book, written by one of the preeminent Catholic theologians in the United States, speaks to many, if not most of the most popular questions people have about Catholicism, and is particularly relevant for those most familiar with the Reformed tradition. This is for a number of reasons, including the book’s heavy reliance on Holy Scripture to explain Catholic teaching, its engagement with a number of Protestant theologians and scholars, and its interaction with several Calvinist doctrines.

Scripture as Central

Someone familiar with many Protestant polemics against Catholicism might presume that an introduction to its beliefs and practices would rely heavily on extra-Biblical sources, Church councils, and papal decrees. Fr. White shows the reader that Catholic theology is thoroughly Biblical, especially in his treatises on such topics as the Trinity, Incarnation, and the Last Things. In each of these chapters, Fr. White cites extensively from Holy Scripture to explain Catholic teaching, while also drawing on many other historical and theological sources to clarify and expound on various sub-topics. For example, in his chapter “Incarnation and Atonement,” Fr. White begins with recourse to St. Athanasius and St. Anselm, who reflected on the question of why God became man. In seeking to answer this question, Fr. White delves deep into the wells of Holy Scripture, showing how the Bible teaches that the incarnation serves two fundamental purposes: divinization, the process by which man becomes like God, and atonement, the means by which an atoning sacrifice is made by Christ to reconcile God to man. Christ can do this precisely because He is God, as many Biblical verses explain: Phil. 2:6-11, Rev. 4, Heb. 1:6, Mat. 14:33, 28:9, 28:17; Mark 5:6, John 9:38, and Acts 7:59, among others. Fr. White even spends several pages countering an argument found in modern Biblical criticism that the Gospels do not all teach Christ’s divinity — and relies exclusively on Scripture to support his argument. Other aspects of Christology in this chapter are similarly defended or explained on Scriptural grounds: Christ’s humanity, the kingdom of God, the Eucharist, and the resurrection.

Ecumenical Reliance on Protestants

One investigating Catholicism might also presume a certain triumphalism in Catholic scholarship — if the Church is who she claims to be, the inheritor and guardian of Christ and the Apostle’s teaching, why would she bother to study extra-Catholic sources? Yet Fr. White’s explication of Catholic teaching consistently relies upon Protestant scholars and theologians where their work or ideas are compatible with Catholic doctrine. In his chapters discussing the New Testament, Fr. White draws heavily on Protestant New Testament scholars such as Martin Hengel, Larry Hurtado, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington III. He also cites C.S. Lewis, a favorite of Protestants of practically every stripe, to explain or bolster various points.

I would also add to this category Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, whom readers might find an odd choice to lump in with Protestant New Testament scholars and popular apologists. Newman died one of the most well-known Catholic figures in the United Kingdom, as well as a cardinal, having been named as such by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. However, Newman was for many years prior to his Catholic conversion one of the most influential men in the Anglican Church (indeed, an Anglican priest for twenty years), and he accomplished some of the theological work for which is he is known while a Protestant. This is significant in reference to Fr. White’s book, because it refers so frequently to Newman. Indeed, this may very well be the most heavily “Newman-ized” explanation of Catholicism ever written. Six different texts by Newman appear in the bibliography, while the Englishman is cited in the introduction and six of seven chapters. In effect, Fr. White has declared that Newman’s perspective on the most important topics of Catholicism — faith and reason, the Trinity, Creation, Christology, ecclesiology, and the Last Things — is valuable enough to include in an introductory text on the Catholic faith. This is relevant to ecumenism precisely because Newman was for so long a Protestant; his scholarship and theology appropriated by the Catholic Church. Indeed, in some areas, such as the doctrine of development, Newman is considered by many to be the ultimate authority, at least within the field of sacred theology as a discipline. Protestants are thus capable of profoundly enriching the Catholic Church.

Catholicism and Calvinism

Although not publicized in The Light of Christ, Fr. White is himself a convert to Catholicism. His grandparents were Presbyterian missionaries in central Africa. When he began serious study of theology during his undergraduate years. Fr. White explored Calvinist thought before eventually joining the Catholic Church. Indeed, he notes in one place that some of John Calvin’s teachings “function practically as a magisterium of reference for many over the centuries.”1 It is perhaps for this reason that he engages with a number of Calvinist doctrines in the course of his introduction, and why he elsewhere gives attention to some of the most common Calvinist objections to Catholic teaching. For example, among other topics, Fr. White addresses total depravity (p. 118), the role of grace in salvation (pp. 124-125), and penal substitutionary atonement (p. 170). In his explanation of justification, he goes so far as to say:

The Catholic Church teaches that justification occurs in a human person by grace alone and not by any natural moral agency or works of self-righteousness. This is not a subject of contention between Catholics and Protestants, at least so long as the true teaching of the Catholic Church is accurately understood!2

Other topics of possible interest to Reformed readers will be his treatment of the non salus teaching of the Catholic Church (i.e. “outside the Catholic Church, there is no salvation”), and his defense of Marian doctrines on Scriptural and historical grounds.

…And Then There’s St. Thomas…

Fr. Thomas Joseph White

Those familiar with the charisms of the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans, will not be surprised that St. Thomas Aquinas looms large in Fr. White’s book — indeed, larger than any other source besides Holy Scripture. Readers interested in acquiring an elementary grasp on Thomistic theology — and its role in Catholic theology and practice — will find it here. These were areas I was particularly interested to explore as a Calvinist, since St. Thomas was not “recommended reading” in my Presbyterian church or seminary. Among the Thomistic topics discussed in this book include the relationship of intellect and will, the five proofs for the existence of God, and Aquinas’ Trinitarian theology. I conclude this review with St. Thomas precisely because his teachings are an area I yearn to explore further, and Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s book has helped me achieve this. It is for this reason that I recommend The Light of Christ, not only to interested non-Catholics, but also to Catholics seeking to deepen their understanding and appreciation of their own faith.

  1. Fr. Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2017. []
  2. Ibid. 198. []

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