The Accidental Catholic

[Note: this is essentially the same article that I wrote for Called to Communion in 2011. I thought it might be helpful to post here too, at least as a backup copy. I have made a few alterations to chronological references, as well as correcting a typo and making a few other small editorial modifications.]

A gentleman going by the name “MarkS” posted a comment on Bryan Cross’s article about St Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitory. Mark wrote (in part):

As I have tried to sort out different theological issues over the years, I find multiple, often contradictory, opinions about the truths of the faith coming from people who are highly trained in theology and the Bible. Often, these people also appear to demonstrate a love for Christ and the fruit of the Spirit. But, the HS obviously does not lead people to contradictory positions. So if God’s means for providing the perspicuous truth are the Scriptures, the Spirit, and tradition, then it appears that the only ways a person cannot know the truth are that he is not adequately educated or he lacks the Spirit. (I deliberately left out the church as a means of conveying the truth because if the church is marked teaching the truth then one must first know the truth in order to identify the church). But, I see no reason to believe that either of these are true about men, for example, like Keith Mathison and Francis Pieper. This makes their disagreement over an issue like baptism all the more frustrating to me.

Mark’s comments here struck a chord with me, because it was this exact issue that forced me out of Protestantism. When the enormity of this problem finally hit home it was epiphanic in its force for me. I knew almost instantly that I could no longer remain a Protestant (at the time, I also said that there was no way that I would ever become a Catholic). I started writing a reply to Mark on the day his comment appeared, but I decided against posting it because I feared my reply would be off-topic for the Commonitory article’s comment box. This turns out to have been fortuitous, because I have the privilege of saying something in reply to Mark today.

Although I was baptized in the Lutheran church, Sunday worship was a rarity for us until my early teens when my mother experienced something of a spiritual awakening (she considered it her conversion) that bore fruit in her becoming a faithful member of a Free Methodist congregation. She started taking my brother and me with her to worship every week (although I think that “dragging us” probably more honestly characterizes my interest at the time). Her prayers for me were eventually answered a few years later when I embraced the Christian faith myself. In the interval a cross-country move meant that we needed a new church home, and the encouragement of a friend of mine led us to the PCA, whose doctrine I gladly received as reflecting scriptural truth.

In the course of time I evinced an interest in considering the pastorate, and my pastor encouraged me to think about attending Covenant College. I accepted his counsel, and though my enthusiasm for the ministry waned, I graduated with a degree in Biblical Studies. My great interests when I left Covenant were in biblical languages, covenant theology, and presuppositional apologetics. Subsequently I attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia for a year before getting married—something that proved to be the end of my educational career. Although friends would from time to time encourage me to finish my schooling, the best course of action seemed to lay elsewhere for me: I didn’t know for sure whether I ought to be a college professor, but I knew for a fact that I already had a calling to be a faithful husband and father. So I contented myself with serving as an adult Sunday School teacher on a regular basis and reading. And reading. And reading some more.

I won’t presume to say whether I deserved it or not, but I acquired a reputation with those who knew me as a well-informed layman. I read a lot (did I mention that?), and I earnestly tried to integrate what I read with what I believed the Bible to teach. I wasn’t content merely to know what I believed; I wanted to understand it as well as I could, and I wanted to be able to explain the truth to others as well.

There came a time when being a presuppositionalist inspired a goal: to discover unbiblical presuppositions that I held, and to root them out. This wasn’t something that I tried to do in one day, or in a week or even a month; for a variety of reasons (the exigencies of work and family, to say nothing of my own weaknesses in the art—if that is the right word—of introspection) it was a long-term project that I pursued when I could. I couldn’t have imagined it at the time, but this earnest desire to think biblically—to think Christianly—would prove to be the first step on my road to the Catholic Church.

The second step was my departure from the PCA in association with a cross-country move, which led us to a Reformed Episcopal Church parish. In retrospect I think that this was an important step for us, because it constituted a move away from my Presbyterian comfort zone. I had no intention at all of forsaking Reformed theology, but I was introduced to a wider world, so to speak, than the fairly insular Presbyterian communities I had always known and loved. I was introduced to conservative Anglican theological perspectives and began reading the Church Fathers. I was particularly affected by St. Ignatius’ remarks on the centrality of the bishop to the life and structure of the Church (something that has been discussed at Called to Communion here), and remember being both surprised by this fact and struck by how different his view was from what I had always believed.

The most critical event, though, occurred in early 2004. A friend mentioned that a gentleman named [Thomas Howard]( would be speaking nearby. I knew nothing about him, so I looked him up in the encyclopedia. I found an interview of him conducted by Frank Schaeffer (Eastern Orthodox by that time). It inspired the following thoughts in an email to friends (redacted somewhat for the sake of brevity, and to preserve the privacy of one friend whose name is mentioned):

What — or who — is the final authority for the Church? For the Christian? I suppose I’ve made it pretty clear here many times what my view is: The Bible is the final authority, because it is God’s Word.

If we are going to say – if I am going to say – that the Bible is the final authority, what does the Bible say? How do we know what the Bible says? Who is going to tell me what the Bible says? My answer, and/or the Protestant answer, and the Roman Catholic answer, are different.

The Protestant basically decides for himself what the Bible says. Now that is very coarsely put: he may accept what he is taught by others, and he doesn’t just make it up out of whole cloth (well – normally he doesn’t), and he may (as my college Doctrine textbook said we ought to do) treat the opinions represented by 2000 years of church history and theology with utmost respect in arriving at his conclusions, and he may use all the right hermeneutical tools to try to understand what the Bible says, and all good Protestants will say that they submit or try to submit to the instruction of the Holy Spirit while reading the Bible, and blah blah blah…

And yet the Protestant still makes up his mind for himself.It’s not hard to see, and it has been said many times before and by better minds than mine, that this is the root cause of the umpteen thousand different Protestant denominations in the world. And if I remember correctly Rome predicted this sort of thing as the inevitable consequence of individual believers being declared free to decide for themselves what the Bible says — what the truth is.

It’s not hard to see the validity in criticisms of Protestantism, which has become so disgracefully splintered thanks to elevation of the individual as the one who decides what The Truth is.

And as for me? Well, I suppose I’d wind up getting slapped with the criticisms leveled against the Protestants.

I don’t think even the Westminster Confession—surely a high-water mark for Protestant Theology—entirely escapes the force of the problem. It says: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined; and in whose sentence we are to rest; can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (I:10).

Okay, that sounds good. But how do we know what He says?

Elsewhere in the same chapter they say: “Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word” (I:6).

Okay, sounds good. So how do we explain the fact that godly men differ about things?

Jimmy-Joe and I differ about at least one of the sacraments — surely not a thing we may describe as adiophora. So has one of us not benefited from “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God”? Which one of us? Or, if someone decides that both he and I (or either one of us) are obviously not blessed with the Holy Spirit’s illuminating power at all, fine: that merely forces us to ask the same about men like, say, Luther and Calvin, or Owen and Wesley, or Spurgeon and Hodge.

How can men of unquestionable godliness arrive at different conclusions about what the Bible says on fundamental issues like the sacraments, if what the Westminster Confession says about illumination by the Spirit is true? Is the answer that the Spirit doesn’t illumine everyone in the same way and to the same degree?

But if that is the case, then it seems to pretty much demolish what the Confession says, and we’re back to asking the same ol’ question, put slightly differently this time: On question X, who has been more illumined by the Holy Spirit, so that we know who is right?

[emphasis added]

So I was asking the same question in 2004 that Mark asked in 2011. And it hit me soon after writing that email that the problem is insoluble. On the Protestant’s terms, and given that Protestants disagree with each other about things that even they say are not matters of indifference, there is no way that I know of to preserve any certainty whatsoever about the Bible’s teaching.

Why? Consider the two (or possibly three) appeals made by Protestants to justify their statements as to what the Bible teaches.

  1. The appeal to exegesis: This is by far the most common resort among at least non-charismatic Protestants. But it goes almost without saying that exegesis doesn’t settle all the questions. There are brilliant scholars on practically every side of practically every disputed question. Is Calvin or Luther right about the Eucharist? Is Spurgeon wrong about Baptism? It would be one thing if we could reasonably say that Protestant differences do not extend to questions of essential or important doctrines. But we surely can’t say that. It seems both unjust and ad hoc to say that the reason “the other guys” get it wrong is because they are lousy scholars. Cannot “the other guys” say the same thing? Of course they can. And they do. Consequently it seems the inescapable conclusion must be that mere exegesis simply cannot bear the weight that is placed upon it by Protestants. Exegesis cannot answer all questions concerning important or even essential doctrines. It seems worthwhile to point out a related problem. The appeal to exegesis eventually has the practical effect of creating a government of the academics, so that the Church depends upon scholars for her knowledge of revealed truth. But there is neither historical nor scriptural warrant for such a thing. This is not to say that there is no place for exegesis, of course, but rather that it is unwarranted for the scholar to be the arbiter of revealed truth.

  2. The appeal to the Holy Spirit: It is not unusual for Protestants to say that the Holy Spirit guides their interpretation of the Bible, at least in regard to essentials or important things. But this appeal runs up against the same problem as the appeal to exegesis: Baptists and Presbyterians and Lutherans may all make the same appeal. But God does not lie, and He is not the author of confusion. Consequently it cannot be the case that He has illumined the credobaptists and the paedobaptists, or the Lutheran view of the Eucharist and the Presbyterian view. One way to resolve that conflict is to deny that the Spirit has guided “the other guys” (and as we shall see this has been done), but “the other guys” can of course make the same claim about us. Stalemate. Hence as with the appeal to exegesis it is clear that the appeal to the illumination of the Holy Spirit cannot answer all questions concerning important or even essential doctrines.

  3. The appeal to tradition: Some Protestants will occasionally appeal to the authority of some tradition or other as corroboration for their views. Among the Reformed this often takes the form of appeals to the Westminster standards. But in the long run this bare appeal does not resolve the problems related to how we know what the Bible teaches. In the first place, the centrality of the doctrine of sola scriptura means that Protestants who disagree with some tradition feel no obligation to accept it: they simply say, “that is a human tradition that contradicts the Bible.” Secondly, there are a variety of theological traditions among Protestants, of course. So how do we know that we should accept the Reformed or the Lutheran or the Baptist one? Appeals to exegesis or to the guidance of the Spirit run up against the problems we’ve pointed out above. So on the Protestant’s terms that there is no principled way to identify the authentic tradition.

For these reasons, then, it seems that Protestantism cannot offer certainty about the Faith. The very best that could be hoped for is some sort of consensual agreement among them that this and not that are taught in the Bible. But of course the question then arises: which consensus? The Baptist one, or the Presbyterian-Lutheran-Anglican one? The Federal Vision one, or the PCA General Assembly one? And on what principled basis shall we choose?

Well…I think it is clear that no principled basis is possible on Protestantism’s terms, and that is why I broke with it in 2004.

One alternative could be sought in the primacy of the individual conscience. But not even Luther, who rather famously made such a claim (“Here I stand”), could remain consistent with it in the long run:

Luther believed that if Scripture were studied with the aid of all linguistic and critical tools, its sense would become absolutely plain, and no honest and competent inquirer would fail to miss the meaning, because the Holy Spirit would guide him to the true sense. If there were actually divergent interpretations, one would have to be wrong, and the Spirit lacking in the case of him who erred (Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, p. 215).

So who is lacking the Spirit? And to say that about one’s theological adversaries is tantamount to saying that they’re probably not even Christian, because who but a non-believer would be lacking the Spirit’s guidance? This kind of thinking is why we sometimes see suggestions that “the other guy” is wrong either because he is ignorant or stupid (and consequently his exegesis is wrong), or that he is wicked (because his disagreement shows that he lacks the Spirit’s guidance and therefore can’t be a Christian).

And again:

Luther came to feel that the Holy Spirit was responsible not onlyfor the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed but even for the Augsburg Confession. If the dissenter appealed to his conscience the reply was that conscience as such has no claims but only a right conscience. … Only the correct conscience therefore is to be respected (ibid.; emphasis in original).

Indeed. But who has the ‘correct conscience’?

Bainton’s observations are consistent with the remarks of historian H. Daniel-Rops:

For three centuries Protestantism has been unable to escape the dilemma: either the freedom of the Spirit which leads to anarchy, or else the acceptance of an orthodoxy which in substance is contrary to the spirit of the Reformation. (Our Brothers in Christ, p. 188)

The appeal to the primacy of the individual’s conscience certainly has Reformation precedence, but it is flatly inconsistent with the attempt to arrive at an objective Rule of Faith.

All of this being the case, I submit that it is unreasonable to say that certainty about the content of revealed truth is possible on these terms, because they inevitably reduce down to subjectivism. And when I realized this, I knew that my days as a Protestant were over. And though I had no intention on that day of becoming Catholic, it was only a matter of time before I knew that I would have to at least consider the Catholic Church’s claims concerning herself. The rest is history.

So what do the steps I mentioned at the beginning of this article have to do with this conclusion? Well, not a whole lot. But they constituted the framework within which I eventually arrived at it. At no time did I seek to question the Reformed Faith, nor was I dissatisfied with it. I was simply seeking the truth, and the Truth turned out to be rather different than I expected. I remember thinking at the time something very similar to what Bryan Cross wrote here (Warning: that link is to the giant “Solo Scriptura” thread; I will quote the relevant portion momentarily). I had set for myself the goal of rooting out unbiblical presuppositions from my thinking, and it occurred to me in 2004 that with its emphasis upon the primacy of the individual conscience Protestantism in one sense amounted to a baptism of Renaissance Humanism: man makes himself the judge of Scripture, and its truth is reduced to what he can understand in it for himself. Years later Bryan Cross would say, in the comment I just linked:

Protestantism is the daughter of Renaissance Humanism and the midwife of Enlightenment philosophy. In that time especially, men began to place their own reason above the divine authority of the Church.

Well, my goal was to think biblically, but I certainly didn’t expect to discover this as an unbiblical presupposition that I needed to remove!

And what about St Ignatius? Well, I came to wonder just how probable it could be that he—a likely student of St John himself—could have got ecclesiology wrong?

My path out of Protestantism can be reduced down to a single question. If I believe ‘X’ about doctrine ‘A’ (which cannot be a matter of indifference) and the Church (however you define it—I don’t think it matters at this point) teaches ‘Y’ about it such that X and Y are mutually exclusive, who is right? This one question demanded that I address the presuppositional question (“Do I really have standing to judge for myself what Scripture’s truth is?”), the historical question (“Is it really credible to think that the Church ‘blew it’ by the start of the second century?”), and obviously the authority questions I discussed in email with my friends.

If I say that I am right, I have to ask how it is possible that the Church could be wrong. If the Church could be wrong, then we are left with ecclesial deism: I am forced to conclude that God does not preserve the Church (however it is defined) from error. But if that is the case there is likewise no reason to suppose that I have been preserved from error. Consequently there is no principled reason to suppose that I am right rather than the Church. But if this is the case, then there appears to be no way that I can know what God has revealed, and Protestantism’s claims about how we know revealed truth do not work. Consequently they are false.

So I think that this is a fair question to put to the Reformers. If the Catholic Church can be wrong in what she teaches, why should we accept what Luther and Calvin said instead?

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Posted in Ecclesiology, Epistemology, Protestantism

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