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.
* * * * *CLARIFICATION: The actual number of Protestant denominations is a number that is in dispute (some sites referencing numbers around 9,000), depending largely on the methods used by those who are doing the counting. I have amended the previous post in which I cited a total of 38,000 Protestant denominations (a number projected by some for 2010). The sources I referenced treated each individual non-denominational church not affiliated with any formally defined denomination as a "denomination" unto itself. According to this (non-Catholic) site, these types of churches comprise just over half of 34,000 Christian denominations counted. The post has been amended to reflect a range.
Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here
Read Part 3 here
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The first time I contemplated the word in relation to Catholicism, it was a little over three years ago. If I'm already a Christian, why do they say I'm converting? The word left a bitter taste in my mouth. If I was honest, my pride was offended.
To apply the term to myself was to take on an aspect of humility I had not yet encountered in my Christian walk. I was raised in a Christian home and accepted the truth of the gospel at an early age. Assenting to the truth of Christ's lordship when I could count my age on one hand wasn't quite the feat of humility and pride-swallowing that it had become in my later twenties, and now in my early thirties. I was educated, and I knew my faith well. And now they want to call me a convert?
But moving between the worlds of any branch of Protestantism and Catholicism requires conversion in every sense of the word. It's a different way of thinking and praying and worshiping. It's a different way of understanding God and the world and our place in it. It's a different way of being and living the Church.
Convert. And now I embrace the word and wear it happily, wondering what in the world took me so long.
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Scripture & Tradition
In my last post, I left off discussing some of the reasons why Sola Scriptura doesn't work, not being a belief expressed in Scripture itself, nor being a belief held by the early church or the early church fathers. While I believe the intentions of the Reformers were good in wanting to ensure that Scripture as an authority was not lost or superseded by any other authority not put in place by God, I am now convinced that eliminating the authority of the Church to teach and interpret was a misguided move.
So if it isn't Scripture alone, then what else is held as authoritative? Catholics believe in what is often referred to as Apostolic, or Living Tradition. This tradition is believed to have been handed down by Christ to the apostles, with the understanding that that it is to be continually passed down through the ages of the church. Instead of being something that competes with Scripture for authority, it is an authority that is meant to uphold the very truths that are written there.
In one of his letters to Timothy, Paul writes:
"I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth."Paul states it here quite clearly: part of the Church's function is to act as the pillar and support (some renderings use buttress or foundation in place of support) of the truth. The Church's role is to uphold and undergird, or support the truth. The idea of being a foundation lends to the notion that the Church is foundational to a proper understanding of the truth. Without the Church, in other words, our understanding of the truth will be vulnerable and subject to collapse, just as a building without a foundation.
1 Timothy 3:14-15, NASB, emphasis mine
The following claim shouldn't come as a terrible surprise, but may strike some readers as incredibly bold for me to say: there are things pertaining to our faith that were not written down in Scripture. Allow me to explain. We shouldn't suppose that the Old Testament prophets had their entire prophetic careers in print, nor that the oral commands of God to His people were any less authoritative because they were not received in writing. Or else Elijah's prophetic career was not worth much at all, and Obadiah's lasted a grand total of about three minutes. Abraham, though without any written form of the law, was obedient to God's commands and did not once respond: Can I get that in writing? In the same way, the church has traditions that were to be carried down and transmitted orally that were to be regarded as being of equal authority with anything that was written. Take a look at the following passages from some of Paul's epistles:
"Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours."In the first passage, we see that Paul instructs the Thessalonian church to hold fast to the traditions as he passed them on -- not to let them go. This command holds true, Paul says, regardless of how the tradition was delivered, either in written or in oral form. Later in the same letter, he issues a warning against those who would deviate from these traditions: Shun them, is what he says. It is evident that keeping the traditions Paul speaks of is a matter of great importance.
2 Thessalonians 2:15
"We instruct you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us."
2 Thessalonians 3:6
"I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you."
1 Corinthians 11:2
"So you, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well."
2 Timothy 2:1-2
In his letter to the Corinthians, we see him commending the church for holding to the traditions, just as he handed them on -- exactly what he instructs to the Thessalonian church. Keeping the traditions Paul passed on is a good a praiseworthy thing in the mind of the apostle. And finally, in his letter to Timothy we see that this is not something that was meant to be passed down for just a generation or two, but to be kept in perpetuity. Paul instructs Timothy to pass on to reliable men the instruction he received from Paul himself ("what you heard from me"), so that these men will be able to instruct others also. These traditions aren't something that should be abandoned at any point, but should be honored and promulgated in the life of the church.
Keep in mind that this is Saint Paul writing these words, an apostle who, as far as I know, is highly regarded no matter what brand of Christianity one professes. He writes these words about tradition repeatedly to different people and churches. This isn't a lunatic, or a heretic, but someone who was faithfully discharging what had been commanded of him. And this is what he is saying, again and again: Keep the traditions as I passed them on to you. Hold fast to the traditions. Whether written or spoken, stand firm and keep the traditions. Call me crazy, but this caught my attention.
But isn’t “tradition” a dirty word?
A lot of Christians have a negative response to the mention of tradition, and not without good reason. Christ Himself spoke negatively of the rabbinic traditions in Matthew 15. When the Pharisees come to Jesus and complain that the disciples do not keep the traditions of the elders (i.e., washing their hands prior to a meal), Jesus issues a word to them about how in keeping their own traditions, they break the commandment of God. In particular he accuses them of approving the financial offerings of those who, in so doing, neglect the care of their parents, and so dishonor their fathers and mothers. Basically, they spiritualize irresponsibility. "You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition," he says in verse 6. Those are strong words against tradition, indeed.
So what are we to make of Paul's instructions to maintain tradition? Between the tradition of which Jesus speaks in Matthew and the tradition Paul speaks of in his letters, it would appear there are at least two types of tradition being mentioned here (since we know Paul would not be contradicting Christ). Jesus rejects the rabbinic traditions, or the traditions of men, but Paul is commending a different kind of tradition altogether to the churches to which he writes. This apostolic tradition has its roots not in the apostles themselves, but from the authority which Christ conferred to them. In other words, these traditions that are being passed on by the apostles came from the instruction of Christ Himself.
Tradition & Authority
If Luther was in error when he presumed to have his own authority to change some of the most foundational things about Christianity, it would be equally erroneous if the authority claimed by the apostles was one they assumed upon themselves. But the Catholic church in claiming apostolic authority as it has been handed down via the apostles does not claim to have authority from within themselves, but from Christ Himself. I know this is going to sound strange and brash to some Protestant ears, but keep this in mind -- it's only ridiculous if it isn't true. The apostles did not presume this authority in and of themselves; Christ gave it to them and we see Him conferring it to them in the Gospels (specifically the power to "bind and loose" mentioned Matthew 16 & 18, and then the power to "forgive or retain sins" in John 20). This form of tradition (Apostolic, or Living Tradition) distinguishes itself from the type of tradition Christ condemned by being from God, and not having its origins with men.
Many are quick to point out the following in an attempt to refute the notion of Apostolic authority: Peter denied Christ. Three times. He flaked out. He was brash and bold and often spoke too soon. The other disciples were fighting amongst themselves about who was to be the greatest in the kingdom, about things like who would sit on Jesus' right hand or on His left. After Jesus died? They were all frightened and in hiding. These were hardly heroic Christian virtues on display. And Christ would give this ragtag group of guys His own authority?
In a word: exactly.
Is it any more ridiculous that He would choose to love and adopt us as His own children, or yet that He still uses us to accomplish His mission on earth? It's not as if we are particularly worthy, either (except that His love makes us so). He didn't confer His authority to men because they were perfect, or because they were already so well equipped, or yet because He couldn't do it better on His own. They were the ones He chose, and that was enough. In the same respect, Jesus doesn't call us because of how accomplished we are or because of anything we have done or can do for Him, but because He can do something through us. That is a gift from a gracious heavenly Father, allowing us to participate in His mission here on earth.
To the disciples, he says:
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."The command to the disciples is to go into every nation, baptizing them, and instructing them to observe all He commanded of them. We are fortunate to have so many of Christ's words and teachings written down in the gospels, but do you suppose that in His three years of ministry, things were taught and commanded that were not written down? When he commanded the apostles to go and to preach and teach what He had commanded them, they didn't have a Scripture to reference. Christ's words would not have been written down yet, at least not in the form in which we have them today. As the gospels were not yet completed immediately upon Christ's ascension, they would have had to use what they had received from Christ orally, and of course, the books of the Old Testament. Even after the resurrection and prior to the ascension, we know that Christ continued to provide His disciples with instruction:
Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine
"In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. ... While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for 'the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak ...'"
Acts 1:1-2, 4, emphasis mine
What follows here is purely my conjecture and not an academic opinion, as far as I know. This is just me being curious and asking the question (I figure it can't hurt to wonder): What if, in those days between His resurrection and His ascension, Christ was laying down the plans and the groundwork of the church? Christ did say in Matthew 16 that He would be building His church, not that He expected the apostles to build it on their own, so it naturally follows in my mind that He had a specific plan for it. No one builds without a plan. What if the content of the instruction to the disciples that Luke is writing about in those short statements of Acts 1:1-2 is just that: Jesus' own blueprint for the church?
It's a big what if?, I admit. Again, this is just me wondering. Whether or not this was the content of His instruction, the truth remains that those best equipped (and chosen) to put hands and feet to Christ's command were those who received His words directly. They sat, ate, walked, and ministered with this man for three years. They reclined at table with him and witnessed his miracles. They saw him in moments that were common, quiet, mundane. And I believe that those words of Christ to which Luke refers in those opening verses of Acts, whatever they may be, those things that are not written down for our review, are just as authoritative as those that are penned for our instruction.
Scripture & Tradition: Both are needed
While a faithful Christian should always be devoting himself to the study of Scripture, I realized that it still remains true that an authoritative text demands an authoritative interpretation, or else the whole thing crumbles. If you recall, one of the assumptions made with Sola Scriptura is that scripture is "perspicuous and self-interpreting." This would be wonderful if it were true, but the fact that we have as much doctrinal confusion and disparity as we do and as much division as over doctrinal differences should indicate to us that this claim is questionable at best. Though I don't believe it was their collective intent, the Reformer's declarations of Sola Scriptura gave rise to a subjectivism never before seen in the history of the church. The last post contained a number of quotes from Luther's own contemporaries (people who were Reformed Christians themselves) that described the confusion and despair of the general populace at hearing so many conflicting teachings on what was right and wrong. Similar confusion exists today throughout Christendom as a whole.
Moreover, it seems pretty clear that while the early Christians devoted themselves to the preaching, teaching, study, and reading of Scripture, they didn't practice Sola Scriptura in the same sense that the reformers were teaching. In the earliest days of the church, the New Testament was still in the process of being composed (if you recall, the Canon of Scripture was not formally defined until late the the 4th century AD). They would have had the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT (which would have included the seven deuterocanonical books) and the epistles likely would have been circulating amongst the churches individually or in small groups. They did not have the compiled volumes of the Old and New Testaments like we do.
There is also additional positive evidence that the early church held to this two-streamed approach of Scripture and Tradition. We can see in the writings of the earliest church fathers that the early church upholding this apostolic, or oral, church tradition and regards it as being of equal authority with the Scriptures.
St John Chrysostom, Commentary on 2 Thessalonians:While the writings of the early church fathers are not equal to Scripture in terms of their authority, they do give us as good a picture as we can hope for as to what the life and practices of the early church actually were. They are such a gift to us! Through these writings we can learn of how they understood the teachings and commands of the apostles who were closest to Christ's teaching. And the two that I quoted here (St. John Chyrsostom and St. Augustine, two men that are highly regarded in most sects of Christianity) were far from being alone in this opinion; several other of the respected early church fathers understood the apostolic tradition to be authoritative including: Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and many others. At the very least, this whole idea of tradition is a truth in Scripture and in the history of the church that demands to be reckoned with.
“'Stand firm and hold fast to the Traditions you were taught, whether by an oral statement or by a letter' (2 Thess 2:15). Hence it is manifest that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things UNWRITTEN, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore, let us think the TRADITION of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a Tradition, seek no farther."
St Augustine, Letter to Januarius, AD 400:
"But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the Apostles themselves or by plenary [ecumenical] councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church."
What I found a little ironic as I was studying Sola Scriptura, the Reformation, and Apostolic Tradition was that even if someone were to hold strictly to Sola Scriptura, you somehow still end up with that the tradition Paul speaks of as being authoritative. It is in the text and even in the context of the passages cited, there are no conditions of time or place in regards to holding to it. There are some Protestant scholars who answer this by arguing that tradition was only authoritative until the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., or until the completion of the New Testament. To which I just have to ask: Where does it say that in the Bible?
Though the notion of tradition was one to which I was resistant when I first encountered it three years ago, it is something now that is a tremendous comfort to me. I remember when I was about eight years old, lamenting how many different kinds of churches and Christian teachings there were. As I matured, I became aware of how Christians argued and fought over the same passages of Scripture, how each claimed his interpretation was superior to another's interpretation. They were all well-educated, and I still believe they had the best intentions. But I would still look at my Bible, knowing it was the same one they were all reading too, and would wonder what had happened to the injunctions toward unity, loving one another, making every effort to live in peace with others, and humility. It made it seem as though being right or winning the argument became infinitely more important than obeying these particular commands from the same Scriptura. Yes, it was important to know what was right and what was wrong. But did there have to be a body count on the way toward learning what this was?
What I've come to love about my Catholic faith is that there is still such a marked reverence for Scripture. I have been encouraged to continue my reading and personal devotion. I am still encouraged to study, to reason, and to think. That has not changed. Scripture is still honored and upheld as the very breath of God. But in addition to that, there are teachers who have had the Holy Spirit passed down to them through a lineage traced all the way back to the apostles who can teach and interpret authoritatively on what it means, not only in the time and place in which it was originally written, but also in the confusion that is the United States in 2010. I think we need this: a clear voice amidst the din of voices that can say: This is the way. Walk in it.
Faith of the Early Fathers: Three Volume Set, compiled by William A Jurgens
By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Sacred Tradition by Mark Shea
Sola Scriptura: Is the Bible the sole rule of faith? Audio CD by Steve Wood