What was I before?

I’ve been doing some reading lately. Feeling slightly ashamed, I used to admit to my Catholic friends that I was reading a Protestant book, but I don’t anymore. No one has ever said anything. Whether a book is Catholic or Protestant has little bearing on its read-worthiness; both Catholics and Protestants have worthy things to say about God.

Belatedly (posthumously?), I’ve been boning up on my Protestant theology. When I was a Protestant, I had little understanding of theology, and little patience for its uncertainty — with all of the voices disagreeing, interpreting Scripture differently, how could I possibly find the truth in that muddle? But now that I’ve found an absolute certainty in the authority of the Church and Magisterium — now that I have a firm foundation on which to base what I believe — then I am better able to comprehend and consider the ideas of others. It’s ironic that the very cornerstone of the Reformation, sola scriptura, the Reformers’ very attempt to find a bedrock of authority, proved to be my greatest stumbling block.

My theological underpinning was never strong to begin with. Growing up, I never had any formal catechesis on Christian doctrine or theology. What I knew, I knew by osmosis, more from the culture around me than from any teaching or preaching: Jesus died to forgive our sins that we might have eternal life. Beyond that basic truth was muddiness. I had heard of Martin Luther as the heroic Reformer, and of John Calvin as “that guy who believed in predestination, and we don’t believe in that” — but we didn’t seem to be following in either of those traditions. Who were we? Where did we come from?

It wasn’t until late in high school, when we reading The Scarlet Letter, that I first learned the differences between Calvinism* and Arminianism. And I realized that we at Calvary were essentially Arminian, a term I had never heard before. Predestination (election), grace, and human nature just weren’t talked about at my church, ever. In my thinking, our salvation depended on us, on our choosing to follow God in faith. God wasn’t compelling us by His grace, snatching us up against our will, or damning others to the fires of hell. Neither was He denying that we had free will at all. And we could certainly backslide and walk away from God. I had this crude, misshapen conception of Reformed theology for years.

* Some of my Reformed friends have taken exception to the term “Calvinism,” preferring instead “Reformed” theology or even simply “doctrines of grace.” I use the term “Calvinism” both out of grammatical expediency and an aim for doctrinal clarity, to refer to those doctrines taught by, in line with, or in the tradition of John Calvin and his followers, and not to convey any negative connotation. Because there is more than one “Reformed” tradition, and more than one understanding of the “doctrines of grace.” I’m talking about the Calvinist one.

As I grew older and attempted to educate myself more, I became more and more frustrated by theological confusion and my lack of foundation. And I eventually decided that it didn’t really matter anyway, that God loved us all no matter what we believed about Him, that there was no way to find the truth in all the mess. It was a position of thoroughgoing ecumenism, or worse, doctrinal agnosticism. I have met so many Christians at this same point, eschewing labels and denominations and formal doctrine in favor of terms like “nondenominational Christian,” “mere Christian” (I preferred that one, after C.S. Lewis — but Lewis never intended in that book that anyone should remain a “mere Christian”), or “Jesus follower.”

But the more I read, the more I see that labels and denominations and doctrines do matter. In one sense I believe I was right, and still maintain, that all orthodox believers are followers of Christ and should strive to find our common ground rather than be continually divisive in our disunity. But in another, what we believe about God and about salvation profoundly affects how we view God and ourselves and our relationship to Him, how we view the world around us, how we view our neighbor and our mission as Christians on this earth. Just looking around to what different Christians do attests to this. Some emphasize world missions, devoting money and time to spreading the Gospel and ministering to the needs of regions of our world stricken with poverty, disease, and strife. Others are more focused on caring for the needy in their own back yard. Some are ardently evangelical, canvassing cities with tracts and distributing Bibles, warning of the immediacy of death apart from salvation. Others are more reflective and calculated in their evangelism and outreach, preferring their lives and their works to be their witnesses. Still others, perhaps the majority, don’t do anything at all. It’s not so much about labels as about lifestyle.

I never thought much until recently about the differences between how Christians view the Christian life and Christian piety. In my Pentecostal upbringing, as I’ve written, the focus was on the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, and on personal piety, Bible study and “quiet times” of private devotion. Other Christians around me just didn’t seem to care about that, and I must confess, I wondered, especially when I was younger, if they were “bad” Christians, if they didn’t care about God or their relationship to Him. But no — the book I’m reading pointed out that this understanding of a personal, private relationship with God is essentially an evangelical one — that some Christians, especially Reformed (as the book is treating), but just as well Catholics, see the heart of Christian life in public professions of faith, in liturgy and the Sacraments, and most of all in service. That doesn’t diminish the importance of personal piety and personal faith at all — but it’s what we do in the light that makes us Christians (John 3:19-21).

I’ve always struggled with the terms “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.” So do a lot of people; there have been whole books written on the difference. I am not convinced the distinction is really very helpful: most evangelical Christians believe the “fundamentals,” and most fundamentalists are evangelical in outlook or piety; the difference, especially to the secular world, often seems to be one of the degree of fervency or severity, and especially the latter label is often used pejoratively. It seems clear (I now realize fully for the first time) that Reformed (Calvinist) Christians are not evangelicals. And it also seems clear to me that I as a Protestant was an evangelical, because of the emphasis on a personal conversion experience and personal relationship with God, and a Charismatic and a Pentecostal (the latter is a subset of the former), because of the emphasis on miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. And, I would argue, because of the emphasis on personal, emotional experiences of God, on sensation and feeling over reason and doctrine.

A friend of mine, a convert to Orthodox Christianity, shared something while I was converting that I didn’t really understand until I reached this point. She wrote that her identity as an Orthodox Christian doesn’t erase or overwrite her identity as a Protestant or evangelical, but that deep down she will always have that and be that. I feel that about myself, too, as a Catholic. In converting, I didn’t cease to be something I was, but became something more. The butterfly still has the genes of the caterpillar. Though my feelings toward the faith of my youth are often ambivalent, I have taken many things from it that I will always carry with me as a Christian, that I believe are good things: devotion to private prayer and Bible study, a commitment to regular tithing of my income, and love for praise and worship music. So no, reflection on Protestant things is not “posthumous” at all or even retrospective. I am sure there are many other fruits of my Protestant identity that will continue to come to light.

9 thoughts on “What was I before?

  1. “A friend of mine, a convert to Orthodox Christianity, shared something while I was converting that I didn’t really understand until I reached this point. She wrote that her identity as an Orthodox Christian doesn’t erase or overwrite her identity as a Protestant or evangelical, but that deep down she will always have that and be that. I feel that about myself, too, as a Catholic. In converting, I didn’t cease to be something I was, but became something more. The butterfly still has the genes of the caterpillar.”

    An interesting view of conversion, and one I can appreciate (though I’ve never gone through it). We can’t ever leave behind what we once were. It will always be a part of us, shaping us.

    • Thanks. By the way, I’m really struggling with this term “evangelical.” This book I’m reading now says some Reformed Christians are evangelical. A lot of people seem to use “evangelical” as the opposite of “liberal,” but it seems like it needs a better definition than that to me. I tend to associate “evangelical” with the kind of personal, experience-driven Protestantism I came out of, and not necessarily “promoting outreach through the Gospel” as the name might imply. Would you say Lutherans are “evangelical”? I know it’s in the title of your denomination. 😉

      • “Evangelical” is a touchy word. The ELCA purposefully included it in their name as a reaction against the misuse of the word in popular American Christianity. Most people when they think of “Evangelical” think of the televised Bible-thumping fire-and-brimstone preachers. It took me a while to find it on the website, but this is how the ELCA sees the word Evangelical:

        “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America understands “evangelical” as emphasizing the gospel or good news of salvation received apart from human works and, based on this, the ELCA values worship forms and confessions of faith of the historic Christian tradition. In the United States, the term “evangelical” is often associated with a religious and cultural movement known as “evangelicalism” that came to prominence in the 19th century and stresses individual conversion, the authority of the Bible, and moral and social reform.”

        • Thanks. That popular misuse is indeed what I think of when I hear “evangelical.” But I’ve been around enough to know the root of the word and what it actually means. The ELCA description seems pretty dead on. My observation from usage in historical writing is that “evangelical” Christianity first arose out of the First Great Awakening in contrast to Puritanism and Anglicanism, emphasizing personal revelation and conversion experiences. That’s usually the way I define it.

          I know very little about Lutheran theology — I’d like to learn. How do you “get saved” as a Lutheran?

  2. As a Lutheran, you don’t get saved–God saves you. Lutherans very highly emphasize the grace of God. Nothing we can do will ever put us right with God, so we have nothing else to rely on but God’s love and grace.

    • That seems to be a common thread. Even Catholics say that salvation is only by God’s undeserved grace. The difference is how one receives that grace. The Church teaches that man has to participate in that grace — but that even that participation is enabled only by God’s continuing grace (CCC 1996-2001). To “get saved” (or to receive salvation) is passive. I don’t think anybody, at least not either Catholics or Arminians, honestly believes that they can save themselves by their own merit apart from God.

      But what I mean is, what is the process by which one becomes a Lutheran Christian? For Catholics, one is initiated into the Church through baptism and confirmation, and salvation is a lifelong process — we are not really “saved” until we get there at the end of our lives. For evangelicals, one prays the sinner’s prayer and invites Jesus into his or her heart (confesses his or her sins and believes) — which can be done apart from any church. How does it work for Lutherans?

      • Oh, heh, misunderstood the question!

        Lutherans operate in much the same way as Roman Catholics–the whole Evangelical “invite Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and savior” makes my skin crawl…

        Lutherans recognize that same Baptism that Roman Catholics do. Baptism is the entrance into Christian community. That’s all that’s necessary to be a Lutheran. We of course have our sets of ideas about how things work, but there’s no other special requirement or rite needed to be a Lutheran.

        • That’s understandable, the way I asked it. I’m not sure many Catholics would understand the concept of “getting saved,” either.

          The evangelical way of doing things doesn’t exactly make my skin scrawl, since it’s what I grew up in — I’m inoculated to it. I do think God gives grace to those people in his mercy, as evidenced by the changes in their lives. I think it’s the sincere repentance, belief in Christ, and commitment to follow him that marks the change as effectual, and I do think they receive the Holy Spirit in some fashion. Hopefully such a conversion is followed up by Baptism. It was, eventually, for me, and it kept me on a Christian path for most of my life.

  3. Pingback: What is “Evangelical”? « Catholicus nascens

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.