26 March 2010

becoming catholic: part 3

Becoming Catholic icon

Disclaimer: When it comes to matters of faith (and matters of Catholicism in particular), emotions run high. It is a topic on which many have strong bents, preferences, and biases and regarding which particular views are held strongly. In many circles, there is much in the way of fear, misinformation, and outright antagonism when the topic of Catholicism is broached. I do not claim to speak in any official terms about matters Catholic, I claim only to speak for my own experience and journey. That being said, things may be introduced or stated in this series of posts which directly impacted my decision to convert. The purpose of stating these things is not to exact judgment on anyone or to incite anger or division, but only to provide reasoned explanations for why I now freely and deliberately chose to become Catholic.

Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here

Definitions & Context
In this post, I refer frequently to the university town of Wittenburg. Wittenburg is the town in Germany where Luther posted his 95 theses to the door and that was the starting place of the Protestant Reformation.

* * * * *

Well ... what about Orthodox? Or Anglican?

We had heard this question a lot when telling friends about the change upon which we had embarked. As if deciding to become Catholic was the worst or most ridiculous thing we could have done. I remember talking about it with one of the sponsors for the RCIA program in which I'm currently participating, a convert herself. Ah yes, she said. The ABC question: Anything But Catholic.

So this wasn't anything new. Though I appreciated the concern demonstrated toward us, I was also saddened to see people who know us well imply that we hadn't thought any of this through, or that if we hadn't checked out everything else first, we were doing ourselves a disservice. It's not as if we were in a buffet line of religions, trying to choose what was most palatable to our preferences. It wasn't just a liturgical service or the smell of burning incense we were after; we were seeking out faith in its fullness. Though I can't speak for the twenty or so others in my group who are taking these steps of conversion with me, I am becoming Catholic not simply because I find it the most palatable, but because I am deeply convicted that this is the Christian faith in its fullness. And that means that (as far as we're concerned) there is no other choice.

I know it sounds ridiculously bold to say that. And believe me, I know how it sounds to non-Catholic ears. And yes, I know plenty of people who have objections to that, who disagree vehemently, or those yet who paint in broad stokes of ecumenism that say this really doesn't work for me, but I'm so glad it works for you.

But it's only ridiculous if it's not true.

* * * * *

The question of Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone
Before I launch into my personal study of and response to Sola Scriptura, it is important to define terms so that we're all on the same page with what I mean when I say it. The below definitions provide complementary and adequate description of what I mean when I refer to Sola Scriptura:
Sola scriptura is the teaching that the Bible is the only inspired and authoritative word of God, is the only source for Christian doctrine, and is accessible to all—that is, it is perspicuous and self-interpreting.
-- Wikipedia article on the Five Solas of the Reformation, emphasis mine

Sola Scriptura is the doctrine that the Bible is the only infallible and inerrant authority for Christian faith, and that it contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness
-- Wikipedia article on Sola Scriptura, emphasis mine
NOTE: I will also add that to treat this subject adequately, you would need at least a book or two. Maybe six. As such, this is going to be a super condensed treatment of sola scriptura. As always, you can refer to the links at the end of the post to start in on some deeper reading.

The Protestant case
Luther made a bold claim when he claimed the Church's leaders were without the authority to teach and interpret -- that the Bible was the only infallible source of faith and morals for the Christian. Some proclaimed this move a return to orthodox Christianity (where "orthodox" means: correct belief; conforming to the beliefs/creeds of the early Christian church), but it is misnamed "return" when this claim was a new one in the history of Christianity. The apostles didn't teach it, and the church fathers never espoused the concept.

I couldn't find any Scriptural support for the doctrine from Luther himself, but there are plenty of pastors and theologians today that are defending his claim. In many of the Protestant texts we read and debates we listened to, 2 Timothy 3:16 is often cited as a support for sola scriptura:
"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work."
I have no argument with what this text is saying: all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for all the things listed. Amen! Some serious equivocation goes on, however, when "all" comes to mean "only" in the mind of the reader. It is rather simple to show that all and only mean very different things. Consider the following statements.
Only men are professional baseball players. All men are professional baseball players.
Only women give birth to babies. All women give birth to babies.
All and only are not the same thing. So where else might the support for this doctrine be? If Sola Scriptura is so fundamental and foundational to Christianity, if this really is an orthodox belief, and if this particular belief is to provide the foundation for every other belief, then there must be other texts in Scripture in support of it, right? Or else it does not meet its own standard.

In our study of this particular doctrine, we weren't really surprised to learn that there is nothing in Scripture -- not a single verse -- that teaches sola scriptura. Fortunately, this did not result in any cataclysmic or earth-shaking shocks for either of us. Neither James or I were particularly attached to this sola since we had yet to see any church truly live and worship in a manner befitting "the Bible alone." Even the strictest "Bible only" churches have traditions and practices not found in Scripture. Now don't think that not believing in "the Bible alone" means we take a low view of Scripture, or that we somehow think of it as less than the breath of God Himself. There is no doubt in my mind that Scripture is divinely inspired, authoritative, and instructive. It is a principal authority in the Christian life, but not the only one, as Luther claimed. There is not a single verse or passage in the Bible that teaches it.

In other words, sola scriptura fails to meets its own criteria.

This doesn't boil down to a mere difference of belief that we can just shake off and label something sweet and pithy like "diversity." Beliefs have real-life consequences. Shortly after Luther's death, while Wittenburg was still fresh in the throes of the Reformation, one public servant called Wittenburg "a stinking cesspool of the devil." Holding this view did have then (and continues to have) some very significant consequences. All manner of division and of morally questionable practice became justifiable. For example, Luther said that since Scripture did not expressly forbid it, polygamy was perfectly permissible.
"I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter."

De Wette II -- a translated collection of the letters of Martin Luther, 459, ibid., pp. 329-330
This went well beyond talk. Martin Luther did grant the Landgrave Philip of Hesse permission to take a second wife since while still married to his first wife, he was "constantly in a state of adultery and fornication." I cannot locate the reference (so take this with a grain of salt), but I did read in relation to this case that Luther considered polygamy a mercy to the first wife since her husband was so oversexed. With no Scripture explicitly forbidding it, plural marriage was, in the mind of Luther, absolutely permissible.

It doesn't end there. There are also popular Christian teachers today who say that masturbation is perfectly acceptable, since the Bible says nothing against it. And where does the Bible speak to human cloning, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, and the like? Are we to presume that these things are acceptable because the Bible does not mention them? There are even Christian denominations saying there are circumstances which make abortion morally acceptable, because they are not expressly forbidden in the Bible. And this is the result of us all reading the same, "perspicuous and self-interpreting" Scripture?

Chaos and division result
It didn't take long for the effects of the Reformation and Luther's solas to have a profound effect. Even during his lifetime, Luther and others keenly felt the fallout of his new doctrines. "There are nowadays almost as many sects and creeds as there are heads," he once lamented. Though I doubt it was his intent (it seems for all intents and purposes, that he wanted just one Protestant church), people took Luther's teaching to the bank, claiming the Holy Spirit's authority and styling themselves to have new, competing, but authoritative doctrines. Every new self-styled Protestant leader that popped up anathematized the others for not holding to his own particular doctrine which was (you guessed it) based on Scripture. And since sola fide meant good works counted for nothing, morality became a real free-for-all. It was utter chaos.
"Nowadays we hear voices in all directions praising up the enemy" (i.e., the Catholics) "and justifying these eulogies on the ground that owing to the want of unity among our preachers, it is impossible to know what it is right to believe. This tendency is augmented by the cries of agitators bent on stirring up insurrection. The papists, at any rate, it is said, agree among themselves, and so do even the Turks. We Protestant Christians, on the contrary, are at ceaseless war together, fighting one another with frenzied, implacable hatred, while every breath of new opinion scatters us about like a whirlwind."

-- Matthew Blochinger (professor at Wittenburg, approx. 1560, quoted in Janssen, History of the German people at the close of the middle ages, Volume 7, p. 278)

"Of reverence for the aged, there is no trace left among the young; they treat them with the uttermost contempt. The world is at its last gasp; the day of judgment cannot be far off; all the energies of the Church and of society are dormant. In consequence of the interminable dissensions between theologians and preachers, the populace no longer knows on which side the real truth lies. The papists cast in our teeth the iniquity of separation from the Church. I know well how great this sin is, and that we cannot sufficiently grieve over it. But I know also that simple souls are so sorely perplexed and bewildered that they are in doubt as to where truth is to be found, and whether there is still a Church of God in existence which can be distinguished from the unbelieving multitudes around them."

-- Georg Major (Lutheran theologian of the Reformation, quoted in Janssen, History of the German people at the close of the middle ages, Volume 7, pp. 277-278)

"Our evangelical Church is so marred and disfigured throughout with terrible rents and blemishes, that its appearance altogether belies its vaunted character. If you look at the evangelical teachers you will see that some of them, either from ambition, or jealousy, or presumption, crush out and destroy the true doctrine and propagate and protect false teaching; others twist and bend religion to suit their own tastes or the requirements of their overlords or of the people; while yet others, who have really preached the truth, counteract all their teaching by the frivolity and profligacy of their lives. If you turn to the evangelical congregations, you will see lamentable abuse of religion and of Christian liberty; you will see contempt and want of veneration for Church worship, disgraceful contention, shameless squandering of Church goods, ingratitude towards the faithful ministers of the Word, decay of all morality, unbounded insubordination among the young, and a most abundant daily growth of every imaginable vice."

-- Paul Eber (professor at Wittenburg, 1560, quoted in Janssen, History of the German people at the close of the middle ages, Volume 7, pp 276-277)
I provide these quotes not to tell you how awful the Reformation was, because though misguided (in my opinion), I think the motives behind it were good. There were abuses and misapplications of doctrine taking place in the Catholic church, no doubt. But no matter how good the intentions were, there was some terrible fallout that was the result of new doctrines like sola scriptura and sola fide (or, "faith alone," which I will discuss when I get to the issue of justification). Before I researched this in any depth, I had never heard of this before. I had always heard the Reformation described in purely noble and heroic terms. But this is the other side to the story.

Even as a young child, the lack of unity in the church troubled me. I saw Baptist, Catholic, Unitarian, Assemblies of God, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and so on. Every one taught and worshiped differently, and every one believed the way they did it was the "right" way. Just a few hundred years we are not any better off; we have anywhere 9,000 -34,000 Christian denominations and counting (depending on which resource you consult), all teaching something different, but all claiming to preach and teach the "Bible alone." We easily have at least as much confusion and chaos in Protestant theology now as they did in the early years following the Reformation. Even then, and much more as this journey progressed in recent weeks and months, I was asking myself: Is this really the way it is supposed to be? Is this what Christ meant when He said, "I will build my church"?

If it's not Sola Scriptura, then what is it?
Oh, but this leads into another blog post entirely. It wasn't my original intent to leave this unresolved; I really wanted to combine the two, but it just got waaay to long. I'll be dealing with what I learned about the Catholic approach of Scripture + Tradition in the next post. And lest you think I've forgotten something important or am trying to claim the Catholic church is, was, and has always been perfect, I'm not quite done yet. I don't want to ignore or overlook the abuse of the system of indulgences toward which Martin Luther had valid objections, and which the Catholic church itself was seeking to reform. I'm getting there. Again, there just wasn't room here to treat it adequately.

In the next post, I will move beyond why Sola Scriptura doesn't work and explain how I've come to understand and appreciate the Catholic view of Scripture and Tradition and how it's actually a really good thing for the Church to have (and there is Scriptural support for it, to boot).

* * * * *

Got questions?
There is a method to my madness, I promise. I'm hitting the foundational "big stuff" first before I get into the questions people typically have like What about the pope? What about praying to the saints and Mary? What about purgatory?. But are you wondering about how I have come to understand a particular point? Though a bona fide Catholic nerd now, I'm no expert, but I will do my best to explain what I know (and try to find out what I don't know). Feel free to drop a question in the comments on this post, and I'll address it in an upcoming post in the near future.

Additional Reading/Resources:
Blog Post: Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority by Bryan Cross
(Note on this article: Very nuanced, thorough, and academic. Excellent stuff!!)
Sola Scriptura: Is the Bible the sole rule of faith? Audio CD by Steve Wood
Reformation or Revolt? Audio CD by Steve Wood
Luther's own statements concerning his teaching and its results (available online through Google books)

A quick word about Steve Wood
Please just let me plug the above Steve Wood CDs listed above. Wood is a former Presbyterian minister who converted to Catholicism and really worked through all of these questions himself, so he understands both sides of this very well and is very sympathetic and respectful toward Protestant listeners. He is an absolute pleasure to listen to, has spent oodles of hours in study with the material he presents, and really has a gift for taking complicated concepts and making them understandable for the laity (i.e., us!!). If you're interested in finding out anything more about Sola Scriptura or the Reformation, I couldn't recommend these CDs more highly. I may even do a giveaway of his CDs ... who knows??


  1. Hi Kirsten!
    Congrats on your marriage, pregnancy, and on your developing spirituality! Although I often consider myself a "recovering Catholic", in many ways I have chosen faith practices that closely resemble my Catholic roots. We attend a UCC congregational church which is considered "mainline protestant" but by no means operates under sola scriptura... I guess we would fall into the "paint in broad strokes of ecumenism" category. Our service is much closer to a Catholic mass than any other protestant church I've attended including liturgy, the unison prayer, and silent confession. I have a lot of respect for the Catholic Church as it was my mother's and grandmother's faith tradition. However our church has several members who have been rejected by the Catholic church after "coming out", and so have found their spiritual home after years of feeling rejected by God and other churches. I admit that I cannot claim to know what is completely right and true. The only impression I have of Jesus on Earth was that he was always pouring out love among the poor, the sick, and the outcasts of society. I'm looking forward to reading about more of your journey!

  2. It's so funny to me that you said what you did about Steve Wood at the end of your post ... because the entire time I was reading your post, I was thinking the same thing about YOU! You take these massive, huge ideas and have a way of communicating them in a very easy to read format. I kept thinking, "Kirsten is such an incredible communicator."

    But we already knew that. :) You're a writer!

    I'm enjoying your series so much. I don't have a ton to say at this point because I am just taking it all in, weighing it, adding to each piece as you present the next most logical thing to the mix. I'm an information gatherer at heart. But I'm listening.

    One thing that felt a little confusing to me, though, as I was reading was the part about morality becoming a free-for-all (and is this also somehow connected to Wittenberg being a "stinking cesspool of the devil"?). I'm confused how that happened if people were, in fact, using Scripture. Aren't there standards for holy conduct in Scripture? How could morality deteriorate for those who were clinging to Scripture alone in the first place?

    So this isn't a question of criticism or doubt about what you're presenting, more a question of clarification because I got confused. :)

  3. @Katie
    Hi Katie!! Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate what you have to say about your own experiences as a "recovering Catholic" and the faith tradition you practice now.

    It's unfortunate to hear that so many feel rejected after coming out. Catholic theology is very delicate and nuanced when it comes to homosexuality, so it's sad to hear that it may have been misapplied. My understanding is that the Catholic church says that being a homosexual is not a sin, but acting out in that fashion is "disordered" (i.e., not in the order of God's creation), so it is not acceptable for there to be a same-sex sexual relationship. What What I understand also is that homosexual persons are totally welcome into full communion if they live as celibate. I know this is not a popular view, and some would probably say it was unloving. But the motivation here is: what is best for the person. If this really is contrary to God's original design, then it makes sense. We are probably not in agreement on this point, but that is my understanding of it.

    You're right in Jesus extending love and acceptance to the marginalized and outcasts of society -- he definitely did that. But so much of his ministry was to turn people toward a better way. I always think of his words toward the woman caught in adultery, which were both merciful and truthful: "Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."

    Thanks again for stopping by!!

    Thank you for your sweet comments, my friend. This post went through so many drafts, I lost count, so I was afraid some of my points might not be too lucid.

    I'm sorry about the confusion regarding the moral free-for-all I described in the post. With the doctrines of sola scriptura and sola fide, Luther accomplished a couple of things. By claiming Scripture as the sole authority, he removed the idea of any centralized moral or interpretive authority. Everyone was free to interpret Scripture for himself, and many did this with tremendous freedom, ignoring the parts of Scripture that were not convenient to them, as Luther himself did when he decided the duterocanonicals would not be in his published versions of the Bible. Luther himself was commonly known as a womanizer and a drunkard, even after the Reformation. Secondly, with the doctrine of sola fide which I mentioned but have not developed in this post ("And since sola fide meant good works counted for nothing, morality became a real free-for-all. It was utter chaos."), the claim was that since we are saved by faith alone, our good works count for nothing. Belief in God is all that is required.

    So even though (as you wisely and correctly noted) Scripture has plenty of commands regarding our behavior, these were largely ignored based on an individual's personal interpretation and the notion that good works are pointless in the heavenly economy.

    Does that make sense? I'm sorry that was a point of confusion in what I wrote. :o)

  4. I love your new profile picture :)

    ThankFULL you live for Christ :)

  5. Is this what Christ meant when He said, "I will build my church"?

    I am very much looking forward to hearing your treatment and interpretation of this foundational question, Kirsten.

    Again, thank you for your thorough and succinct sharing of your journey thus far.

    Love to you, James and little bean.

  6. hi kirsten,

    just wanted to pop in and say i'm still listening. waiting to hear the whole thing unfold and wondering where it will lead.

    peace to you.

  7. I'm really enjoying this series!

    If I might chime in and add something to your answer to Christianne who said How could morality deteriorate for those who were clinging to Scripture alone in the first place?

    One of the four main movements in the Protestant Reformation was the Anabaptists or Radical Reformers. They attempted to reject all tradition and only go with what the Bible said*, applying it to life and society as they saw fit. This led many of them to openly espouse rebellion against the civil authorities, hold that property should be owned communally, and some among them declared the End was coming at such and such a town, causing widespread hysteria.

    The societal upheaval from the Radical Reformers and the other Reformation movements (Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists (Reformed)) was tremendous, so it is not surprising that moral behavior was poor.

    * The Radical Reformers were the only movement that denied the validity of infant baptism--all the other three (the magisterial) Reformation movements accepted infant baptism.

    God bless!

  8. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your take on all of this.
    What an incredible amount of work . I hope you realize how generous it is of you to share like this.

    Thank you , thank you.