Justification, unity, and papacy: A blind spot

Catechism of the Catholic ChurchOne of the most frequent charges I hear, when I point out the inherent chaos and disunity of Protestantism, is that “there is a lot of disagreement in the Catholic Church, too” — that somehow disagreements within the Catholic Church are equivalent to, or excuse, the fundamental doctrinal disagreements between diverse Protestant churches. In particular, opponents point out the large number of self-identified Catholics who practice artificial birth control or support abortion or same-sex marriage in contradiction to the teachings of the Church. My response is that there is a fundamental distinction between what the Church teaches — the one, consistent, unified and unambiguous teaching of the Church’s infallible Magisterium, as summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church — and what individual Catholics do and believe, the doings and failings of fallible people who may make mistakes and stray from the flock. Even if a large number of people should disagree, sin, or fall away from the truth, it does not change the truth that is taught or besmirch the teacher.

The leading charge of the Protestant Reformation is that the Church had fallen away from a true understanding of the doctrine of justification as taught by St. Paul — that in contrast to the claims of Protestants, that justification is “by faith alone” (sola fide), the Catholic Church taught a doctrine of “works’ righteousness,” that somehow by our own working we can deserve or earn our own salvation. I have written a lot on justification and presented frequently here that this is not what the Catholic Church actually teaches. I have attempted to make the distinction before, and I have a new post in the docket in which I want to explore the point further: Catholics do believe in justification by faith and not our own efforts; where Protestants disagree is only in proposing that no human response at all is necessary.

Antonio Rodríguez - Saint Augustine

Antonio Rodríguez, Saint Augustine (Wikimedia).

It’s clear from history that the Church has never actually taught a doctrine of “works’ righteousness,” the thesis that man, by his own effort, can in any way save himself. This is the heresy of Pelagianism, which the Catholic Church has always and consistently condemned. Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and other monuments of Catholic theology consistently maintain that justification is only by the grace of God through faith and not human effort. Alister McGrath, in his brilliant Iustitia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification, demonstrates convincingly that even throughout the rigorous scholastic debates of the Middle Ages, the teachers of the Church never abandoned the orthodoxy that no effort or merit of man can save him apart from God’s grace. The teaching of the Church, then, I’ve believed, was always consistent in teaching justification by God’s grace alone: what the Protestant Reformers charged and challenged was nothing new and nothing needed.

A blind spot

Gentile da Fabriano, Thomas Aquinas, detail from Valle Romita polyptych, c. 1400 (Wikimedia).

In my recent forays into the history of the Reformation era, I’ve come to realize that in this I may have had a blind spot. Despite the Church’s consistent condemnation of Pelagianism (“works’ righteousness”); despite the clear teachings of Augustine and Thomas and other theological lights; the situation among the Catholic faithful and even many clergy in the late Middle Ages and early modern era prior to the Reformation may have been much like the situation today — with many believing something that wasn’t true, something that was contrary to the actual teachings of the Church. And this idea of the “actual teachings of the Church”: to presume the kind of monolithic unity that we have today, to be able to point at a single compendium of doctrine, the Catechism, and say, “This is the one, consistent teaching of the Catholic Church” — may be projecting an anachronism onto that era. There was no such book in the sixteenth century; there were few printed books at all, at the dawn of the age of printing, and the vast majority of the faithful were illiterate. The “one, consistent teaching of the Catholic Church” was scattered among myriad tomes, among the writings of numerous Church Fathers and the canons of numerous councils; and though it was one and consistent, it was not digestible in a form that any but the most learned academic could grasp. In practice, the actual teaching of the Catholic Church was what individual bishops and priests actually taught the faithful, and the truth is, in very many cases this was pretty shoddy.

John Calvin

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

For Protestants, the doctrine of justification is the very core of the Gospel, the fundamental essence of the truth, the sine qua non of salvation. This emphasis on justification may be myopic: Sacred Scripture devotes only a few words in a few passages to the idea of justification — much more pervasive ideas being the love and mercy and grace of God. Prior to Augustine in combating Pelagianism, no Christian author paid much attention to the doctrine of justification; in him, both Catholics and Protestants find the foundations of their doctrines. In Eastern Christianity, justification has never been a major focus, let alone the cornerstone of the Gospel. In the West, between the times of Augustine and the Council of Trent, the mechanics of justification were mostly a subject for scholastic exposition and debate, not “the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.” So I think Protestants too have something of a blind spot in this regard.

But I concede that a lack of emphasis on justification and grace by the teachers of the faithful in the early modern era may have led to poor understandings by many about something that is crucial: how we can have a relationship with God, and how we can be saved. When Protestant preachers arrived on the scene in the sixteenth century, in many cases the idea of justification by faith alone caught on like wildfire, to those who felt they had been striving in themselves for salvation. Even if this belief in human effort leading to salvation was an incorrect understanding of what was in fact the true and orthodox Christian doctrine, it was the failure of the Church, in her individual pastors, to teach that truth. As much as we may deplore the breakdown of Christian unity that followed in their wake, in this even Catholics owe the Protestant Reformers a debt of gratitude, in returning the focus of Christian teaching to the grace of God.

The failure of the papacy?

Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation

I recently read a review of Brad S. Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation by Reformed author Carl Trueman. In Gregory’s book, he argues that many of the foibles of modernity, in secularism and postmodernism, were the unintended fruits of the Protestant Reformation’s denial of authority, and the resulting diversity of Protestant interpretations of Scripture and inability to affirm one, unified truth. Trueman’s response is essentially, “That may be so, but what you offer is even worse.” “Perspicuity [the belief that the Scriptures themselves teach a single, clear truth] was, after all,” Trueman writes, “a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.”

Alexander VI

Alexander VI (Cesare Borgia), one of the more notorious Renaissance popes. (Wikimedia)

I was taken aback to read this. The papacy — a failure? Honestly, in all my years, even as a Protestant, I don’t think such a thought ever crossed my mind, that the institution of the papacy was a failure. Trueman presents several respects in which he thinks the papacy was a failure: the medieval papacy was corrupt and caught up in politics and worldiness; the Western Schism of the papacy was such a mess that it took several councils just to sort out who the pope was; the early modern papacy failed to reform the Church with due speed and diligence following the Fifth Lateran Council even when many corruptions and failures were known. Yes, these things are all true. I would add my own: many popes of the medieval and early modern papacy failed to make the pastoral care of souls their chief concern; failed to make teaching the doctrines of the faith the heart of their work; failed to appoint bishops who would do the same. There was a breakdown, and yes, reform was desperately needed. But was the breakdown, the failure, in the office of the papacy, or in the men who held it, who allowed the world to pull their focus from what it should be?

Perhaps the most central concern is whether the papacy is a failure for what we maintain Christ intended it to be: as a guarantor of the truth and unity and orthodoxy of the faith. Yes, some men who held the office of the papacy were failures in some respects: they failed to be “good Christians,” perhaps even good pastors; they failed to keep the heart of the gospel, the salvation of souls, at the center of their concerns. Perhaps they even failed as teachers, in that they could have taught the truth, and overseen the teaching of the bishops, with much better clarity and focus and consistency. But we look to the papacy as the final safeguard between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the one to whom all other bishops must guide in teaching the truth, to ensure that error is not taught. In this respect, the only way that the institution of the papacy could be a failure is if the pope in fact taught error with regard to doctrine or morals. As near as I can figure, this has never happened. In contrast to the to multiplicity of contradictory interpretations from “perspicuous” Scripture alone, the papacy has taught a single course of doctrine.

The triumph of the papacy

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent.

So some men of the papacy failed, for a time, even for centuries. Perhaps if popes had done better at keeping the Church on the right course, if they had been reforming the Church all along, then the violent upheavals of the Protestant Reformation might never have occurred. But I maintain that in its essential purpose, the papacy never failed at all — not the way dependence on the “perspicuity” of Scripture has failed. And even the men of the papacy did not fail forever. I would argue that the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, the way that, by God’s grace, the Catholic Church reformed itself, reaffirmed her doctrines, and has driven forward into modernity with a renewed heart and focus, is the greatest triumph of the papacy. I would argue that many modern popes — for example, Pius V, Pius X, and even the popes of recent memory, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, do present to the world the gospel of Christ the way a pastor and successor of Saint Peter should. Having divested itself of political and temporal encumbrances, and gained the publicity of mass communications media, the papacy of today, rather than being a “failure,” is succeeding in its mission of maintaining the unity of the faith and guiding the Church toward the gospel and salvation of Christ, perhaps better than it has in many centuries.

On life, apologetics, and Reformation

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted, so I wanted to give you an update.

Hamster

Finally free from the wheel!

I graduated in December with my latest degree, in computer science. I’ve gone to work as a research scientist in information technology for a research center at my university. For the first time in my life, I consider myself gainfully employed, and it’s a good feeling. Work keeps me busy, not in the same, 24/7, constant-crisis mode of being in school, but in a consistent, rewarding manner that brings new challenges and opportunities to research and learn every day. I really love my job. I’m engaged to be married. Life is moving forward, after years of feeling like I was running in a hamster wheel.

The Great Courses: The History of Christianity

As part of my daily commute, I started listening to audiobooks a year or so ago. I listened to Stephen King’s epic The Stand three times in a row — it being the only book I had at the time and an enthralling one. Then I subscribed to Audible.com, where I can get new books every month. After a couple of abortive forays into other fiction, I began listening to audio courses in history through Audible and The Great Courses. I listened to an outstanding history of Christianity by Professor Luke Timothy Johnson; now I’m about halfway through another great history of Christianity in the Reformation Era by Professor Brad S. Gregory. What I have learned is inspiring and challenging.

The Great Courses: The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era

The truth is, even with my history degrees, I’ve felt my foundation in the history of the whole of Christianity was weak, especially in the Reformation era. I took one survey course in the history of Christianity years ago with Dr. G, and it was life-changing, but it stopped short of the Reformation. I took several other courses in medieval European history, but never took Dr. G’s Renaissance and Reformation course, which I’ve always regretted. I had one graduate course in early modern European historiography which touched on some Reformation topics. Beyond that, my only contact with Reformation history as a whole was in the broad European survey courses I took as an undergraduate and helped teach as a graduate.

St. Augustine, Lateran fresco

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome. (Wikimedia)

I’ve written here how history guided me to the Catholic Church. It’s true, what I learned of the Catholic Church in especially Dr. G’s surveys, and of the great Church Fathers, bishops, popes, and theologians, was something to fall in love with. As I approached the Church later, what guided me most was my own study of the Church Fathers — realizing that the faith and Church of the Fathers did not at all resemble anything in the Protestant world, but rather instead gave the foundations and antecedents of the Catholic Church. This was enough to convince me that this course is right, but it gave a rather lopsided view, especially coupled with my immersion in Catholic apologetics.

My reengagement with history has been sobering. Rather than the triumphalism of apologetics, I am coming to see that the Church has had many faults and foibles. Christians have done wrong, committed sins, or otherwise fallen short of the glory and calling of the Gospel of Christ. Doctrines and traditions have accreted, built up and calcified in not a glorious way, but at times a constrictive way, impeding people from coming to Christ rather than bringing them to Him more ably. I see that reform was desperately needed — as it is always needed. Just as in our individual lives, we must constantly reform ourselves and turn again toward Christ, so as a Church we must constantly be reformed and refreshed and renewed. There were glories of the medieval Church, but there were also failures. Semper reformanda.

Protestant iconoclasm

Protestant iconoclasm.

That is not to say that I’m a fan of the Protestant Reformation, either. From chapter to chapter, my emotions have ranged from disgust and revulsion, to horror, to deep depression at the extreme actions and reactions of Protestants. Yes, reform was needed; yes, the institutional Church was slow to embrace it; but no, not only Protestant theology, but especially the way in which Protestant reforms were carried out, was deeply wrong and destructive. Daily I struggle to understand how so many Christians raised up in the traditions of the Church, even those educated as ministers, could so vehemently, viciously, and hatefully turn against her and reject her.

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

More than anything, I am seeing how it is only by the grace of God that we have a Church at all; how He holds us up, even in our weakness and failures. Triumphalism in apologetics bothers me almost as much as falsehood. It is misleading to present that the Church was always right and that Christians have never made mistakes, or that the way things are now is the exact same way they have always been. I have struggled for a long time to understand Protestant arguments, to understand how, presented with the same Catholic arguments that I have found so convincing, others do not. I’m convinced now that a good apologist must acknowledge faults, but present how even despite them, God has used the Church. The strongest argument of all to me, now, is that despite all the ways humans have screwed it up, despite the “idolatry” and “apostasy” the Protestants who abandoned her charged, God did reform the Catholic Church and continues to use her, even more ably than before, as a vessel of salvation. It’s a testimony, too, that the Protestant enterprise was not wholly corrupt, but that Protestants and Protestant churches have continued to be used for God’s glory, and that they too can change, be tempered, and be reformed. The greatest truth, I’m convinced, lies somewhere in our reconciliation and reunion.

May we all be reformed and renewed in this journey of Lent toward the Resurrection. I hope to write more about these reflections soon.

[Oh, by the way, my site (and my whole hosting account) was recently hacked. I believe it’s fixed now, but please let me know if you see anything suspicious.]

Grappling with Sola Fide, Part 1

St. John Lateran, interior

Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome, interior. (Wikimedia).

So as I journeyed to the Catholic Church, sola scriptura didn’t put up much of a fight. I don’t remember ever even considering, at the earliest stages, whether a particular doctrine could be found in Scripture: if it could be found among the teachings of the early Church Fathers, that was good enough for me. I felt that I was rediscovering the lost treasures of the faith, those that my Protestant brethren had cast away.

I had begun reading books and reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For some six months, I attended weekly and daily Mass at St. John’s, falling in love more and more deeply with the Mass and longing to receive my Lord in the Eucharist. I went up every time for the pastor’s blessing. He praised my diligence and dedication in attending, even though I couldn’t receive. Catholic friends elsewhere asked why I put up with it for so long, why I attended like that for over a year, some fifteen months, when I probably could have asked to enter the Church some other time. For me, it felt like an important part of the journey: traveling with the Lord and learning more of His Church’s ways, as I longed to be with Him in more and deeper ways.

It is probably a good thing that I took the long road. Though the going seemed to go easily at first, I did come to rough terrain — Catholic doctrines that I really struggled with — and when they came, they came on fiercely.

Salvation

Conversion experience

As an Evangelical Protestant, naturally, my conception of salvation consisted almost entirely of the conversion experience: Of an emotional coming to Jesus moment, an altar call, a “sinner’s prayer,” asking Jesus to be Lord of my life.

It occurs to me that it’s possible I might have Catholic readers who might not be familiar with the dynamics of all this, so perhaps I should give a brief explanation. This is not going to be any sort of comprehensive summary of how Evangelicals understand salvation, but rather how I myself did. — And so begins, I now say after writing everything below, my next not-so-brief series.

Bernhard Plockhurst, Jesus Blessing the Children

Bernhard Plockhorst (1825–1907), Jesus Blessing the Children (Wikimedia).

I still remember vividly the images on the transparency: of Jesus knocking on the door of my heart, and of the Holy Spirit, a dove, coming to live in me. This is what I understood, at the age of three, when a team of young evangelists came to our small nondenominational church. I remember the smiling young man very well who asked me if I wanted to ask Jesus to come into my heart, and who prayed with me when I said yes.

I had no appreciation of theology or soteriology or probably even sin then. All I understood was love, and I felt it. I do think this was a genuine experience, a true encounter with God. In the terms I was taught then and understood as an Evangelical, I was then saved.

This is how Evangelicals understand salvation: typically in terms of a conversion experience, of turning from one’s sins and confessing Jesus is Lord, usually in a dramatic or emotional moment. This moment is supposed to be a landmark, the end of one’s old life and the beginning of a new life: the moment of being “born again.” After this moment, the believer in Jesus is saved, from that point forward.

Sin and Repentance

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter (c.1625-1629) (Wikimedia).

Growing up, of course, I did eventually come to a full knowledge of right and wrong and understood doing wrong to be sin. I remember feeling remorse, and the need to ask God for the forgiveness of my sins continually. I don’t think this is something that was ever taught to me, just something I intuited.

As an adolescent, I remember having changing feelings and attitudes. I remember struggling with depression. I remember one day, in the car in front of my cousins’ house, a long conversation with my mom, and she asking me if I thought I was saved. I said I wasn’t sure. I cried and we prayed the prayer again together. It was the second of many times.

I remember, as a teenager struggling with the sins of youth, a constant tension between the idea that Jesus had paid the price for all my sins and they were all covered, and the message of preaching that I needed to get right with God — the implication of this being that when I sinned, I wasn’t right with God. This is, I guess, not very good Evangelical theology — but to this day, I don’t really know how to understand or deal with this situation as an Evangelical: If all our sins are already covered, what are the consequences of continuing to sin? In classical Protestant theology, in which God overlooks all our sins and sees only the righteousness of Christ, is it even possible to “not be right with God”? If not — what incentive is there to repentance or holiness? And if a believer persists in sin, even to the point of falling away, are there still no consequences? I have only ever heard vague and unsatisfying answers to these questions from Evangelicals; especially the unsatisfying answer, especially from those of the Reformed (Calvinist) persuasion, that the believer who falls away was never “saved” to begin with.

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther as an Augustinian Monk (after 1546) (Wikimedia).

This answer completely undermines and dismisses the reality of a believer’s struggle with sin. Scripture is very clear that even Christian believers do still struggle with sin (Romans 7:15-20, 1 John 1:8-10) — and Protestant theology acknowleges this, as in Luther’s famous dictum of simul justus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”). And it is true that God gives the believer grace to resist temptation and overcome sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:13, Romans 5:14). But to conclude that a believer who struggles for years with sin and grace, repentance and reconcilation, only to at last lose hope, give up the fight, and fall into defeat was never “saved” to begin with, is presumptuous, arrogant, and uncompassionate — the very image of the church who shoots its own wounded — the subjection of the reality of human suffering to a theological ideal.

Struggling

Repentance, altar call

So yes, I struggled with sin as a youth. I suffered, with depression, anxiety, and obsessive and compulsive behavior. In the Arminian theology of my church (which I did not understand then, but only years later), it was possible to “backslide,” to fall away from the Christian life, which we certainly understood to endanger the soul. So I found myself, almost weekly, answering altar calls, declaring myself a wretched sinner in need of grace, asking Jesus to forgive me and come into my heart anew every time. And I did find comfort in this, for the moment. But days, even hours later, I would again be on my knees.

agonizing

Baptists and their ilk stress the assurance of salvation, the idea that a believer can be sure he is saved, despite any struggle or vicissitude; my church never taught this. This notion seems to be based in Reformed (Calvinist) principles, even for those Evangelicals not generally of that persuasion. Would such a teaching have helped me, given me some consistent comfort? It’s possible. But I think it far more likely that I would have concluded — in keeping with the common Reformed conclusion about those who fall away — that I wasn’t saved at all. I would have given up the fight completely. As it stood, I eventually fell into complacency, essentially giving up in the opposite direction: accepting the premise that Jesus had covered all my sins and drawing from this that He understood my struggle, He understood that I was just a sinner, and that even though I was making no efforts toward holiness, I was saved anyway.

This was the wilderness period of my life, and it persisted into my early twenties. I had become a thoroughly defeated Christian, and though I never formally renounced my faith, I had all but fallen away: not attending church, nor praying, not striving.

When I started this article, I wasn’t sure I had much to say about grappling with sola fide. I thought I would give just a few words about the Evangelical view toward salvation. But now that this post has turned in this unexpected direction, I think it’s safe to say that like sola scriptura, I had been grappling with sola fide for a long time before I ever approached the Catholic Church.

Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 1: Paralysis

In this post, I relate how, as a Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church, I came to terms with the doctrine of sola scriptura. I have been trying to write this post for months, and have started over from scratch several times — mostly because it rambled at too great length, or strayed into trite polemic. Catholic apologists tend to repeat and rehash the same complaints — “sola scriptura” isn’t scriptural! The Early Church functioned just fine for a period of decades before the New Testament was written and compiled! No Christian held to such a constraint prior to the Protestant Reformation! — and though I do think these arguments are persuasive now, I was not even aware of them then, and they played no role in my own convictions.

This post proved to be really long, so I split in into two. I will post the second half soon.

Part of my ongoing conversion story.

Approaching the Church

Pannini, Nave of St. Peter's Basilica (1731)

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (1731). (Wikimedia)

At last, I had stumbled my way into the Mass, and found in it something glorious and transcendent and compelling. I began to attend Sunday Mass on a weekly basis. All the fragments that had been circling around me my whole life seemed to be falling into place. I felt peace. But this is still not yet the end of the story. I had some final hurdles to overcome, confronting Catholic doctrine head-on as it came to bear on what I held as a Protestant.

I hadn’t been attending Mass very long at all, perhaps only about a month, before one day I happened to speak to Father Joe. I had not sought him out; Audrey and I had been standing there outside the church chatting, and he asked me what I thought so far. I blurted out that I liked it and was thinking about joining the RCIA class. I was alarmed to hear myself say it; I don’t think I had even articulated the thought before that. I understood that this didn’t mean I was making a commitment; that there was still plenty of time to learn and change my mind; but as I had at so many moments before, I felt a sinking feeling that I was approaching a point of no return.

This was still early in the year, about March. The next RCIA class would not begin until September. So over the next six months, I committed myself to reading and learning as much as I could, and to experiencing as much of the Mass and of the Church as I could. I began attending daily Mass also at every opportunity I could. At St. John’s they offered Mass every weekday, and being just on the edge of campus, I could run over almost anytime. My reading took on a new focus. Up to this point, I had still not read any “Catholic” book. I had not read any of the Catechism or any apologetic work. I had not read any of the great body of conversion literature, the writings of other Protestants like me who had made their way to the Catholic Church. Rather than the end of my journey, I was really only beginning my approach in earnest. I was just beginning to consider the Catholic Church with an open and discerning mind. I did not jump in head first. As it should have, my exploration of the Catholic Church soon came into confrontation with my convictions as a Protestant.

Sola Scriptura

(Source: peachknee on Pixabay)

(Source: peachknee on Pixabay)

I was no dummy. I understood that to embrace Catholic doctrine entailed a renunciation of what was has been called “the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation”: sola scriptura, the thesis that Scripture alone is to be the sole source of divine truth for the Church and for Christians. I knew well, as all Protestants know, that this is one of the fundamental disagreements between Catholics and Protestants: that Protestants hold as authoritative the Bible alone, while Catholics deny this and add other things.

But looking back, I don’t recall ever having much of a serious struggle with sola scriptura. On the contrary, it seems to have folded quite readily and early on in my final approach to the Church. Why? Could it be true, as some have charged, that I never had a firm commitment to Protestant principles in the first place? Or were there other forces at work in my life, under the surface and behind the scenes, preparing the way before me and making it straight to the Church? The truth is, whether I openly acknowledged it or not, that I had been struggling with sola scriptura for years. I can think of several factors underpinning the idea of sola scriptura that I had already been dealing with, and that had already weakened that foundation, long before this point.

A Flimsy Default

Open Bible with coffee

(Source: mnplatypus on Pixabay)

If I had ever been asked about the source of my Christian doctrine as a Protestant, I would simply have pointed to Scripture. Because what else was there? This was the default position, what Protestants did, the only thing I knew. Where else would one possibly look? But if I had been asked to explain why, I would have been a little dumbfounded. Because it’s the Word of God, God’s message to mankind? Obviously, when one is looking for source material about God and Christianity, the Bible is your source. This seemed to be a reasonable proposition at the time.

But why did I believe that? Why Scripture alone? How did I know? I would have been hard-pressed to defend it. The only thing I knew, the only thing I recall ever hearing, was that Martin Luther proclaimed sola scriptura in opposition to the “unscriptural doctrines” of the Catholic Church. Did the doctrine really only exist as a negative? Was there no positive reason for it to stand on its own? It is possible that some Protestant apologetics might have shored up the position for me, but generally I have found Protestant apologetics on this matter unsatisfactory. Every Protestant argument I have read in support of sola scriptura inevitably begins with or returns to the point that “the Catholic Church believes unscriptural doctrines.”

“Unscriptural doctrines”

Juan de Juanes, Christ and the Eucharist (16th century)

Juan de Juanes, Christ and the Eucharist (16th century) (Wikimedia)

The rote line of Protestant lore, what I recall hearing all my life, is that Martin Luther proclaimed sola scriptura in opposition to the “unscriptural doctrines” in the Catholic Church. It was often told, even in my mostly ahistorical corner of Protestantism, how Luther discovered the truth of God’s grace and salvation by faith alone by reading Scripture — the implication being that Catholics did not read Scripture, that the Catholic Church had entirely thrown the Bible out the window. I believed this because I knew nothing else.

But by the time I was in my thirties, having spent all my life as a Protestant, and for several years having exerted a lot of effort trying to attain a more academic grasp of Christian theology, starting from scratch, I had become inured to this charge of “unscriptural doctrines” — since the sad truth is, many Protestant sects accuse each other of believing “unscriptural doctrines,” even those who proclaim sola scriptura — the fact of the matter being not that these believers didn’t read Scripture, but that they read and interpreted Scripture differently. I had struggled mightily for years to sort out the truth among many such competing interpretations, ultimately concluding that in most cases, these couldn’t be called “unscriptural doctrines” at all, but the result of ambiguities in Scripture and good-faith differences of opinion.

And I came to realize that Catholicism was probably the same way. I knew, from studying the history of Christianity in school, that Catholics believed that the bread and wine in Communion actually became the Body and Blood of Christ — and reading Scripture for myself, I could see how that could be a defensible reading: Jesus did say, “This is my Body,” and it is only by assuming premises not in Scripture, that He was speaking symbolically or metaphorically, that one concludes otherwise. I came to expect that the same might be true for other supposedly “unscriptural” Catholic doctrines: what if they were only as “unscriptural” as what Protestants accused each other of? And if that was the case — what was the cry of “sola scriptura” really all about?

Paralysis

Protestant church divisions

Protestant church divisions

Perhaps the strongest argument against sola scriptura, the reason that led to the doctrine’s downfall in my mind more than any other, was my growing conviction that sola scriptura just doesn’t work. I probably would not have put it in those terms as an Evangelical — such would have seemed heresy — but the fact of my experience is that I found myself completely unable to discern between the claims of competing denominational camps to have the exclusive, correct interpretation of Scripture. Sola scriptura — relying on Scripture alone — proved unable to bring me to any conviction of the truth, so far as any certainty or precision of doctrine or theology was concerned. Historically, it had proved unable either to unite the Protestant cause or to preserve any degree of unity at all in the Church. If anything, the doctrine of sola scriptura itself is the single most culpable culprit for the continued fragmentation and division of Protestant churches, both historically and contemporarily — since any believer with his own divergent interpretation of Scripture feels entitled to break away and found his own sect.

The Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Pentecostals, all came to different, sometimes radically different, interpretations of the very same passages of Scripture. And I found myself completely unable, in many cases, to choose one over another, to declare one right and another one wrong. And this was not on account of any ignorance or lack of preparation on my part (though a lack of indoctrination into a particular interpretive tradition, I suppose, could be credited): I had studied the original languages and trained in translating ancient texts; I had studied history and the historical contexts of the Early Church and the ancient cultures in which it dwelled. If anything, it was on account of that preparation that I had less confidence than some of my peers, who were able to affirm their churches’ particular interpretations with conviction. Such people and churches could make strong, valid arguments for their positions — but so could all the others.

I was forced to conclude that in many cases, Scripture was not “perspicuous” at all, but that in many locations the text was ambiguous enough to allow more than one valid interpretation. To weigh between multiple, valid interpretations of the words requires something more than the words themselves: it requires a consideration of the wider textual context, both in the same text and in other texts. It requires a consideration of the historical and cultural contexts, and an understanding of the way the text was received by its earliest recipients. And ultimately, it required having an opinion, and being willing to draw conclusions based on it — and though I did have opinions, they were neither strong enough nor certain enough for me to stake my eternal life or death on them with anything like security. I realized that scriptural exegesis is not an exact science, and the “right” interpretation is often not clear from the text at all, as the popular view of sola scriptura would lead me to believe: it ultimately, and inevitably, involved making my own understanding the final authority in interpreting Scripture.

There is a lot more to come! You can expect the next post in a day or two.

The signposts converge

The next chapter in my conversion story, and the continuation of my post about the first time I went to Mass in Oxford, Mississippi.

Roma signposts

All roads lead to Rome. [Source]

So I checked the Catholic Church in Oxford off my list. Before I even moved to Oxford, I had made an informal list of churches I wanted to visit. It included, as I recall, Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and various other Evangelical churches (it had not actually included the Catholic church). I wanted finding a church to be a new experience and adventure, to finally find where I was supposed to be in the Body of Christ.

Alas, I was big on planning but short on fortitude. I was never able to show up alone to an entirely new church where I didn’t think I knew anyone. I visited the big United Methodist church in town several times with a couple of fellow teaching assistants, but I never felt like I belonged there. As the pressures and demands of grad school set in, I gave up, and within a couple of months, I was not going to church at all.

The first semester of grad school went very well; but the second semester got off to a very rocky start. I was struggling with loneliness, depression, and anxiety. I felt completely disconnected from people, more at odds with my classmates and professors than cooperative. I had no friends, I frequently thought. I had run into Audrey a couple of times at lectures, and she was just as friendly as she was when we met the first time, and though each time we promised to meet for coffee, nothing came of it.

I was washing out and I knew it. My classwork was suffering. I spent most of my time alone at my apartment. I went to bed each night with the overwhelming feeling of sinking. So I can only describe what happened next, something so personal that I’ve only told one or two others, as an act of God’s intervention. What I know is that this is not something I did, planned, or even expected at all.

Waking up

Roma sunrise

Sunrise over the Vatican. [Source]

I had a dream, about Audrey — about a friendship that was supposed to be. The dream was nothing at all romantic — she’s now married, and was very much taken even then — but it was real and personal and intense. I woke up feeling more hopeful than I had in a long time, and longing for that connection.

It was Saturday morning when I woke up from the dream, and suddenly, I felt an overwhelming urge to go to the library. I couldn’t explain it or why it was so important, but I felt that it was what I was supposed to do, like my life depended on it.

I was heading up to my study carrel, my hidden perch in the rafters of the library where I would withdraw and see no one else, when I almost ran into Audrey on the third floor landing. We stopped and talked. I remember being shushed (it is the quiet study floor), so we probably only spoke for a few moments. We talked about church — she must have brought it up, because I don’t think I would have.

She asked me where I was going to church, and I told her nowhere, and she said I should come with her sometime. I don’t think I mentioned my previous visit to St. John’s, but I started to rattle off my rehearsed list of Catholic objections: “I don’t like how the Catholic Church insists on interpreting Scripture for believers.” What Audrey said next was simple, but it made perfect sense, and I felt my objection crumbling: “It’s like authority for a historian.”

I’ve written about this conversation and this matter before, and I plan to write still more as I examine how I grappled with sola scriptura in my final approach to the Church. But the most important part of this meeting: she invited me to church, and I accepted; not the next day, I don’t think, but the Sunday after that.

Coming inside

St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, nave

The nave of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford. [Source]

The second time I attended Mass at St. John’s was an entirely different experience than the first. The first time I was frightened and unsure, a foreigner on the outside looking in to something foreign. This time I had been invited inside. Just that simple change — knowing that I knew somebody; knowing that somebody wanted me to be there; that I wasn’t a foreigner, but a welcome guest — made all the difference in the world.

I was taken aback by things I hadn’t noticed before. For one thing, this was the early Mass, on a typical Sunday (as opposed to the later Mass on an overcrowded Sunday I had witnessed before); and I got there early. People were quiet, reverent in the church, not socializing and carrying on, but kneeling and praying. I had never seen that sort of reverence before in church, except perhaps in Rome. Audrey had her magazine, the Magnificat, which had the prayers and readings from the Mass as well as reflections and stories about the saints. I was intrigued, and caught myself asking her about it in a normal tone of voice, not realizing that she wanted to pray and that I should be quiet.

From the very beginning of Mass, I think I was captured. The liturgical singing was according to traditional chant forms — I only knew that it sounded very ancient. As the cantor sang the closing, descending strains of Kyrie eleison, I imagined that what I was participating in reached back through the ages to the worship of the Apostles themselves.

It was the same priest as before, the one I had thought was “goofy,” but somehow he didn’t seem that way at all this time. The difference, I think, was me: this time I was not there to be served but to earnestly seek. The people, the liturgy, the experience all seemed so much realer.

A Presence

Holy Eucharist elevation

The elevation of the Eucharist at the consecration. [Source]

When it came time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, especially the consecration, I was overcome with an awe I can’t explain. I surely understood what Catholics believe about the Lord’s Supper, about Jesus’s Real Presence, and I had even entertained the thought in Protestant services; but I cannot say I was anywhere close to accepting it before that point. But in that moment, something came over me; I sensed something profound happening at the altar. It was more powerful, more immediate, more earthshaking than all the times in my youth I spoke of feeling the presence of God in the Holy Spirit; all the times I laughed or danced or was “slain in the Spirit.” It was not a fire, or a wind, or an ecstasy, but simply an overpowering presence. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” I said (as the liturgy of the Mass at that time read). Not only that, but I felt singularly unworthy to even gaze upon this mystery. “But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” I lowered my head and shielded my eyes, and did not look up again until we rose for the Lord’s Prayer.

For the longest time, I thought that what I was looking for more than anything in a church was community, fellowship with people like me with whom I could relate and share. That wasn’t what I immediately found in the Catholic Church: it was slow meeting people, and it was far from the social atmosphere I had envisioned. But then one day after I had been attending Mass for several weeks, as I was speaking the words of the Memorial Acclamation, I was again overcome by a feeling: I was not alone. More profoundly than I had ever felt it, I felt connected — not only with the couple of hundred people in that room, but with countless others whose presence I could only sense, not only connected by space throughout the world, but by time through all the ages: I was there, together with all the Christians who had ever lived, at the altar of the Lamb. It was still more than a year before I could partake in the Eucharist with the Church, but even in that moment, I felt the truth of true communion with the Lord and with His Body, the Church, in the Blessed Sacrament: the communion of saints.

I was falling in love with the Mass, both the visible and the invisible. I realized with a painful start that I had been wrong about the Catholic Church all those years, all the times that I presumed that it was “dead in religion,” bound up with empty ritual without any meaningful relationship to Christ. It was not the end of my journey to the Church, not by far, and there is still much to tell and share, how I dealt with doctrine and doubt. But this marks the beginning of the end: the day when I was finally confronted with, and brought to accept, the reality of where the Lord had been leading me for so many years. This was the destination of all my wanderings: my musical romance; my journeys with history; my long approach to Rome; my pilgrimage to the Eternal City itself; and every other landmark. All the signposts pointed here, I soon realized, with a gravity, finality, and not a little fear.

I went to Mass and didn’t like it: Faltering steps in my journey to the Church

The other day was the three-year anniversary of my entering the Church. And as I’ve been helping dear ones through their own conversions this year, it occurs to me that once again, I’ve left my own conversion story hanging. Here is another chapter.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

The first week I moved to Oxford, Mississippi, for graduate school, I visited the Catholic Church. I guess I was thinking of Audrey and the other people I had met when I visited, and hoping to make some kind of social connection. I was desperately afraid that unless I quickly formed some kind of support system in this new town and university, I would not be able to cut it in grad school.

My thinking on the purpose of the church at that time was that it existed solely as a community for the support of the fellowship of believers. So that is exactly what I was looking for the first time I attended Mass at St. John’s in Oxford: for social connection; for fellowship with people like me who could support me and encourage me. And I couldn’t have been more disappointed and discouraged.

Packed pews

I went to the eleven o’clock Mass on what I later learned was one of the busiest Sundays of the year, the Sunday of move-in week, when the families of all the undergraduates were in town to get their children settled and off to a good start. The place was packed, standing room only, and I had no idea where to go or what to do. From the beginning, this worked against my social anxiety and my comfort level. I was further dismayed that no one greeted me, in the way I had come to expect as a Protestant. No one seemed to notice I was there. I narrowly squeezed into a seat in one of the back pews.

Several key things stand out in my memory from that visit. First, I thought the priest was goofy. He seemed not entirely put-together, dignified, or solemn as I expected a Catholic priest to be. Second, he was reading the liturgy! I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was deeply bothered by this: Much as many Protestants feel that composed prayers, as opposed to extemporaneous ones, are somehow less real and less genuine, I felt that this priest did not really, sincerely mean or even understand these words he was reading out of a book about God, Jesus, and salvation. Did he even have faith at all, or was this just the “dead religion” I had been fearing for so many years? How does reading prayers out of a book make them applicable to me? How does reading prayers out of a book serve me? It contradicted my whole understanding of what a church service was supposed to be.

Hands raised in worship

Emotion is what I grew up with.

Perhaps most important, I didn’t feel anything. I did not feel the presence of God. I did not hold this up as a standard — this focus on my own feelings had defined my existence as an Evangelical, whether and how I felt the presence of God, and I understood this had been a problem for me and one of the main reasons for my searching — but nonetheless it troubled me a lot. It wasn’t that I was closed-minded to any part of the experience; indeed, I had felt God’s presence profoundly when I had been in Catholic churches before. But I wondered that day if God was really there in the Catholic Church at all.

At Communion, I went forward to receive a blessing at the invitation of the priest. I was in the line of a lay extraordinary Eucharistic minister, a female, and I had no idea what I was doing, so I just stood there awkwardly crossing my arms. She seemed impatient and frustrated (I’ve since learned that laypeople really ought not to be giving blessings at all), and I felt unwelcome. I took a visitor card and filled it out, but had a difficult time finding anyone to give it to. I ended up giving it to the same extraordinary minister, who again acted (I imagined) as if she had no idea what I was doing there if I wasn’t Catholic.

I did not see Audrey or anyone else I knew. Not only did no one greet me, but no one really spoke to me at all. I left feeling singularly foreign and unwelcome, disappointed and unfulfilled, and more than a little disheartened and disturbed. What I came looking for — a social community — was nowhere to be found. I had been in denial for a while about my attraction to the Catholic Church, maintaining a ready collection of objections to Catholic doctrine. Now those objections were bolstered, and I added one more. This was a major setback: I would not consider the Catholic Church again until some six months later.

A life update

No, I haven’t abandoned my blog. I just have way too much on my plate.

I’m trying to get back into it, at the request of several dear friends. So I thought I would start with an update of where I am and what I’m up to.

Back to school

As you may know, I graduated last December with my master’s degree in history. After a frustrating and fruitless year of job hunting, I’m looking to other pastures than history or education. One of my first great loves and passions was computers. I’ve always enjoyed programming and developing, which are creative and artistic faculties for me, adventures in language and communication and problem-solving. I brushed up on a lot of my old skills in pursuit of my thesis, which involved statistics, demographics, data mining and databases. So for the past few months, I’ve been plugging myself in the IT sector — but with little or no results. As somebody with liberal arts degrees and no applicable work experience, in a supersaturated job market, I simply don’t have the credentials to even get in the door. Even though I do have a lot of useful skills and knowledge, on paper I look like a total noob.

So, I’ve decided to go back to school, again, for a second bachelor’s degree and possibly another master’s in computer science. I resisted this step for the longest time, but now I’m strangely excited. I’ll start in January, taking a full-time load, consisting of an unexpectedly mixed bag at first: in addition to a computer science course, a calculus course, a speech course (a requirement for computer scientists, since so many are lacking in that skill), a seminar in computing ethics (to encourage me to be a white hat and not a black hat), and a course in developmental psychology. The last is an education requirement: I thought that while I’m going back, I might as well see about taking care of another obstacle to my employability, my lack of state teaching credentials.

Kung fu masters

Kung fu masters (from Wikipedia).

You might recall that I was a computer science major for several years as an undergraduate, before I was a history major. What discouraged me from CS before was the requirement that I minor in mathematics. The math minor is no longer a requirement (as of this semester, I think), though there are still math prerequisites. That’s a welcome relief, but oddly, I’m even excited about the math. Mathematics, I’ve come to see as I’ve gotten older, is a beautiful and amazing intellectual pursuit, the manifestation of this ordered and rational universe God has given us. And I’m excited to be able to fill up my brain with yet another discipline, or three. Immersing myself in programming languages and algorithms and technologies again, I feel like a kung fu master, learning an arcane art to bend mind and body and media to my will.*

* I’m excited today to learn that kung fu or gōngfu (功夫), in its original meaning, refers to “any skill achieved through hard work and practice.” Perhaps I’ll be a kung fu master yet!

Juggling

Egyptians juggling

Ancient Egyptians juggling, apparently. (From Wikipedia.)

In the past few months I had been feeling rather discouraged and burned out anyway. It was not a good spiritual state to be in. But now I’m feeling reinvigorated and revivified. Ever-so-often (possibly too often), my interests and passions take radical shifts: I’ve often said that I have academic ADD. My bookshelves were already overburdened with Christian history and theology; I’m not sure they can handle the recent and rapid influx of bulky computer books. Lately, in addition to computing, I’ve also been drawn back to genealogy, video gaming, travel, food, cooking — if it weren’t all so distracting and overwhelming, I would say it was pretty nice. I’ve also been dating a very lovely lady named Kelly.

So I hope all of this begins to explain a little of why my blog posting has suffered of late. Oh, and I also have a new website, at which I’m presenting my résumé and computer stuff, and I’ve been working on revamping my old genealogy site with my newfound skillz (an updated incarnation of that to be unveiled soon). I still love this blog and feel a calling to teach here — I just can’t, to my chagrin, do everything at once. Time management and multitasking have never been my fortés.

As much to motivate myself as to inform you, here are some things I would like to write about here in the near future:

  • More thoughts on the “Hebrew Roots” movement, specifically, the fallacy of several major arguments I’ve been hearing from it lately, and its increasingly radical and apocalyptic tone.
  • As previously promised, a series on the Sacrament of Reconcilation or Confession, and eventually, the rest of the Sacraments.
  • More in the line of “Reading Church History as a Protestant,” thoughts on some major fallacies, including the “Trail of Blood” argument.
  • There were still a few topics I wanted to address on Baptism in Depth, specifically, the teachings of Jesus on Baptism in the Gospels, a focused look at Baptism in the Acts of the Apostles, and Peter’s teaching on Baptism in 1 Peter 3:18–22.
  • A post that I had half-baked at some point on the Catholic understanding of salvation, in line with the recent series on Grace and Justification, but hopefully dealing with it in more practical terms.

Please keep me in your prayers. I love you all, and my God bless you and grant you His peace!

Farewell to a Brother Pilgrim

image

This past Thursday morning, one of my dearest friends and brother pilgrims, Sam Campbell III, passed away.

I met Sam some ten years ago during my travels on LiveJournal, as a fellow Christian journeying on this road. Over the years we grew close, sharing in some of the same struggles, grappling with temptations, and grasping for an intellectual understanding and faith in God, and for His peace. Sam has been one of the gentlest, humblest, most caring souls I’ve ever encountered. He has looked out for me. From time to time, particularly if I’d gone silent from the online world for a while, he would drop me a line to ask if I was okay, to let me know he was thinking of me and praying for me. We’ve shared a love for Star Trek, Tolkien, hobbits, Linux, and so many other things; I could always be sure he would get my wry jokes and references. I never got a chance to meet him in person, but I felt as if I knew him so well: he was always there close by.

Sam was deaf and blind, and experienced so many sufferings in this life, but I never heard him complain. This week as we reflect on the Passion of our Lord, I’m reminded how willingly and patiently Sam took up the cross he had been given; how freely he gave of himself and made sacrifices for the sake of love, moving halfway across the country to become a loving husband to his wife Noelle, and a father to her two children. He was a good man, one of the best men I’ve ever known. I loved him a lot, and I’m going to miss him terribly.

I remember this week, too, that in the suffering and death of our Lord — though wrenching, painful, and sad — He purchased Resurrection and eternal life for those who trust in Him. Parting with those we love is sorrowful, but death from this life is but for a moment — the road goes ever on and on. Farewell for now, Sam. I look forward to the day when our paths will cross again.

Requiescat in pace, frater peregrine. Vale, dum coeamus iterum die illa.

Resolutions

Reni, St. Peter Penitent

St. Peter Penitent (c. 1600), by Guido Reni. (WikiPaintings.org)

Hi. No, I haven’t forgotten about blogging. I’ve been pondering it every day, wondering what I should say next. I’ve written posts several times and then decided not to post them. It’s been an intense time of growth and healing and change, being broken and rebuilt. And I’ve come to a few resolutions for this new year.

I’ve been increasingly convicted about the polemic tone my blog has taken. I set out to show the world the reasons for my faith, how the Lord had guided me to the truth, and all the beautiful and glorious things about the fullness found only in the Catholic Church. But especially in the past six months or so, I’ve taken more to attacking what others believe, particularly Protestants, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I do believe that in some respects they’re wrong — but the right of Christ’s love, which we share, outweighs by worlds the wrong of their sometimes errors in doctrine. And I am put here to show that love, to love, above all, my own brother and sister, that the world may know that we are Christ’s and that He is sent by God.

So from now on I will strive to emphasize what is good and true and right about Catholicism. That will sometimes entail demonstrating what is wrong with opposing views, but I will always strive to do so in love, and to present what can build up rather than merely tear down.

Oh, and my thesis is done and approved. I defended it now about a month ago. New things are coming in my life. And it’s time to return to blogging. This morning as I was lying in bed, the Lord gave me several posts to start brewing — likely to be series, given my penchant for words. I want to pick up the Sacraments with a post on the sacrifice of the Mass. There’s still more to talk about with Baptism, and then I want to talk about Confession and Anointing of the Sick and Holy Orders. And I have the next post in my conversion story brewing. Stay tuned!

The Sovereignty of God, or, My Brush with Calvinism, Part 2: A Crisis of Faith

The next post in my spiritual autobiography, and the conclusion(?) to my account of my struggle with Calvinism. I don’t know; maybe there will be more. I thought I would nudge a couple of Reformed friends in case they might be interested in my thoughts.

John Calvin, by Titian

John Calvin, by Titian (This blog). I am thrilled to find this! I had no idea Titian painted Calvin! I love it when my favorite people cross paths!

I grew a lot as a person and as a Christian over the next few years — though still in short spurts, leaps, and sometimes stumbles. Over the last couple of years of my undergraduate career, I continued to have occasional flirtations with Calvinism. I hung out a few times with the fledgling RUF group on our campus, and attended the nondenominational Campus Crusade from time to time. But I struggled to feel that I fit in in any meaningful way. I visited the churches of several friends, but for reasons I don’t entirely understand looking back, I never settled down. I remained restless, insecure, and lonely.

In the spring of 2009, thanks be to God, I finally graduated. Over the next summer I flailed around uselessly looking for a job — and then, in one of the clearest manifestations of God’s providence that I’ve experienced, one came to me. One day my friend Gloria, who had been one of my dearest Christian friends in school and always an example to me of how to live one’s faith on campus, wrote on my Facebook wall. “Hey, Joseph, would you like to teach Greek at a Christian school?”

The Trivium

The Trivium.

Would I! I don’t think there could have been a more perfect job for me at that time if it had been custom-tailored. All through my undergraduate degree majoring in history, I had never given any serious thought to teaching or pursued teaching credentials — but to my great surprise and joy, I loved teaching more than anything I’d ever done. My year at Veritas Classical School, teaching history, Latin, Greek, and English grammar and vocabulary to grades seven through twelve, was a monumental landmark in my journey as a student, teacher, and Christian.

But more on that later. In coming to Veritas, my road brought me face to face with Calvinism.

That year also — not coincidentally — brought my walk with God closer than it had been in many years. Becoming a teacher, I felt an obligation to be a model and example spiritually, a mentor and tutor and protector as well. I prayed for my students before I even met them, and for myself that I would be worthy to stand before them. For the first time I read the whole New Testament with an eye to serious Bible study. For my thirtieth birthday I bought myself a new Bible — the Reformed-friendly ESV Study Bible. It was a time of great growth, and I felt that that — towards the Reformed — was the direction my faith was moving in.

Calvin with books

As it turned out, the teacher I was replacing at Veritas was Megan, whom I had known years earlier as a member of the Society. (The pool of students in North Alabama trained in classical languages being small, this was not as big a coincidence as one might think.) She had recently had a baby and was leaving the school to be a mother. In my preparation that summer, I visited Megan’s home a couple of times to discuss curricula and planning. I was immediately impressed with the bookshelves of Megan and her husband: tome upon tome of Christian literature, particularly Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and other works of the Protestant Reformers. Could this be the intellectual foundation for my faith I’d been looking for? In talking with Megan, I was struck with a major emphasis of her teaching: history as a product of God’s sovereign will.

Veritas met in the building of a small Presbyterian church, and though at the forefront I’d been told that its reach was ecumenical — that I would have students of all different Christian traditions, and that no particular doctrinal position was expected of me — I learned very quickly that in its wider affiliations, Veritas was by and large Reformed. Toward the end of that summer, I attended a few days of workshops with the founders and leaders of the Veritas organization, at a large Presbyterian church in the Atlanta area.

The Apostle Paul

(This is the Protestant Paul.)

It must have been the will of God that I would be reading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that week, that specifically I would have arrived at Romans 8, 9, and 10. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that I’d read a passage of Scripture and had the nagging thought, What if the Calvinists are right? But the morning of the first day of workshops, I remember sitting in the beautiful garden of the home that had so graciously hosted us, reading those chapters. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach, the rising panic, as the words seemed to confirm what I feared: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?” (Romans 9:21–23). As I review my notes from that day (I kept a journal of my studies), I see that I made a surprisingly sharp exegesis then — which I can only credit to the Holy Spirit — as my mind reeled, clawing for an understanding of the passage that didn’t entail what it appeared to entail.

Over the next several days, as I was pondering these words, I found myself cast into an increasingly alien and uncomfortable situation: Veritas seemed to be an overwhelmingly Reformed phenomenon; every teacher whom I met was motivated by a Calvinistic outlook on faith, on education, and on history. Not only that — but I’d had up till that point only marginal contact with homeschooling and its mechanics and philosophy and culture; here I was thrown into the thick of a stirred pot in which everyone around me was a native and veteran and I was a lost foreigner, not knowing the terminology or concepts or attitudes. I heard lecture after lecture on incorporating a Christian worldview into education, and on that worldview’s inherent opposition to my whole, secular, academic educational background; how the whole world I had known, everything I’d been taught, was opposed to God and the Christian formation of young people. I wrote in my journal, amid my lecture notes and observations, God, I’m scared. God, I’m so terrified. A page or so later: More and more horrified. I can’t do this. I have absolutely nothing in common with these people. By the second day of this, I had all but resolved that I would resign my position at the first opportunity.

Van Gogh, Man with His Head in His Hands

Man with His Head in His Hands (1882), by Vincent Van Gogh (WikiPaintings).

As these ideas worked through my head, and my reflections on Romans 9 continued to mushroom, I felt more and more alienated and alone: and this brewing storm soon blossomed into a full-brown crisis of faith. I began to seriously question whether I was even a Christian, if I even knew God at all. I remember sitting at a table there at that Presbyterian church, feeling more alone than I ever had, as the thoughts I’d been collecting finally coalesced: How could a loving God, a God who is love, create some flesh with no other purpose but to be damned? That rather than loving every creature, He only “endures with much patience” those “prepared for destruction” whom He doesn’t love at all, they existing only to “make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy,” those predestined for glory? How could a loving God deliberately and arbitrarily consign some on His creations to hell and save others, based on no merit or fault or choice or action of either? How could it be that many of the people around me, those whom I knew and loved — the very neighbors whom Jesus commanded us to love and serve, for whom he called us to give ourselves wholly — were “objects of wrath,” of mere tolerance in God’s eyes, and not of love? were hopelessly damned from the beginning of the universe? were bereft of any hope at all of salvation? The notions I had understood seemed to undermine the whole gospel of Christ as I knew it, to reject the essential dignity of all men and women, to call into question my entire moral fabric: if some men are not worthy even of the love of God, then why love the hurting or seek the lost? why feed the hungry or clothe the poor or bind up the brokenhearted? I began to understand, I thought, so much of what I saw in the world around me, why so few Christians in America seemed to care about the plight of the least of these: they are not “of us,” so they must be “vessels prepared for destruction.” As my horror reached it peak, I came to a conclusion: If this is the God I’m being asked to serve, then I want no part of that god.

Of course, so much of this was overreaction, and the fruit of everything else I was feeling at that time. These thoughts are not fair representations of the ideas or formulations of well-minded people of the Reformed faith. But I still feel truthfully that these are the logical implications and consequences of Reformed propositions.

Crossroads

As I went home after three days in Atlanta, I had come to a sense of peace. I don’t remember even acknowledging it consciously, but my conclusion had reduced to an absurdity: That couldn’t be the God I love and serve, therefore the premises from which I was proceeding must be false. The Calvinist understanding of Romans 9 must be mistaken: for it otherwise contradicts all the rest of Scripture and revelation. Over the coming weeks, I devoted myself more and more to Scripture study and prayer. I delved into Paul’s meaning and context, and at last came to understand; looking back, my notes upon my reading that first day were pretty dead on. It was an epoch in my journey: I never again seriously considered Calvinism as a valid theological option or the Reformed faith as a destination for my pilgrimage.

In the end, I stuck with Veritas. The director of our school was so very reassuring and so supportive. He restored my faith in my own calling and gifts, and in the promise of Veritas. He never asked me to teach in a way with which I wasn’t comfortable, and stood behind me through my entire year there. And the students and the parents and the environment made the most loving, nurturing, enriching educational experience I’d ever been a part of. I loved teaching more than I ever could have known, and loved my students with all my heart. I left convinced of the merits of classical education and homeschooling — but more on that next time.