What Are the Differences Between Roman Catholic, Protestant & Eastern Orthodox Beliefs?

The Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches represent the three largest branches of the Christian faith. In contrast to the other two, there is no overarching institutional structure to Protestantism. Literally hundreds of Protestant churches exist, most sharing basic theological underpinnings, but also having a wide variety of doctrines and beliefs. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are both centrally governed and have a more coherent and strictly controlled set of doctrines and beliefs.

  1. Scripture and Canon

    • All three branches believe in the Bible as their sacred book. The Eastern Orthodox church uses the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. This is a Greek text first produced by the Alexandrian Jewish community in the 2nd century. It was the original Scripture for the Greek-speaking world, including the early Christian community. It contains some works not found in Hebrew texts. The official Scripture of the Roman Catholic Church is the Vulgate. St. Jerome translated the Vulgate Old Testament directly from the Hebrew in the 5th century. The sections not found in Hebrew were separated out and called the Apocrypha. Protestant Bibles are in the vernacular language of the congregation, and Protestants (like Jews) do not regard the Apocrypha as Scripture. All branches basically agree on the Greek text and books that make up the New Testament.

    Authority and Tradition

    • The Roman Catholic church believes in authority regarding theological truth as deriving from three sources; the Pope and Bishops, the traditions of the Church and Scripture itself. The Eastern Orthodox recognizes Church Tradition and Scripture, while Protestant denominations recognize only the authority of Scripture. One of the slogans of the Protestant dissent from Catholicism was "Sola Scriptura" (Scripture alone). Of course, Protestants do interpret Scripture through a variety of translations and interpretative strategies, but an authoritative belief must ultimately root in Scripture.


    • Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches believe the ordained clergy have special status when it comes to administering the sacraments. These branches believe that for sacraments to be valid, a member of the clergy must admister them. Protestant clergy are simply learned people appointed as leaders by the congregation, and do not claim any special powers or authority unavailable to the laity. Martin Luther's insistence that the church and clergy do not hold special powers to grant forgiveness of sins was one of his major doctrinal objections to Catholic belief.


    • Regarding the central ritual of Christian worship, the Eucharist, in which bread and wine (or unfermented grape juice, in some Protestant denominations) is consumed as instructed by Jesus at the last supper. Important differences in belief separate Roman Catholic as well as Eastern Orthodox (where the Eucharist is also known as the Liturgy). Doctrine holds that the bread and wine, when consecrated by a priest, takes on the essence of the body and blood of Jesus. The belief is not that the substances change in any way that can be measured, but that the essential nature of the bread and wine is replaced so that Jesus is actually present at the communion. Protestant belief holds that the bread and wine are symbolic, a remembrance of Jesus, and nothing more. This difference in belief was another major disagreement between the Catholic Church and Martin Luther.

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