Just a year ago, if you and I had been discussing Christian theology and you asked me “What is the foundation of Christian truth?” I would have, without a moment of hesitation or even a hint of uncertainty, said “What a ridiculous question! It’s the Bible of course.”
For someone raised as a Protestant, that is the obvious answer. This is one of two teachings that clearly separate the Protestant denominations from Rome (there are 5 “solas”, but the first two clearly and uniquely separate the Reformers from the Vatican). These teachings are held in an especially strict manner in the Reformed denominations: an ever expanding set of Protestant denominations who have re-devoted themselves to the teachings of the leaders of the reformation and who have committed themselves to continually reforming the Faith (more on that at a later date, perhaps).
In 2011, I was in leadership training in the P.C.A Church, to either be a deacon or an elder, and while we were working through the Westminster Confession of Faith, my pastor was very clear on this. He stated (paraphrased): [we can talk about what it says in catechism, but remember, in all things, the Bible alone is our final authority].
At the time, this made a lot of sense. All Christians believe the Bible is inspired, inerrant writing. More so, Presbyterians are taught that scripture interprets scripture, so, in essence, all of the answers to all the questions of life are in this book. Why would I have any reason to look elsewhere? I never questioned this, until February of this year.
On February 19th, when I started asking a friend the questions that would open the doors of Rome to me, “What is the foundation of the Christian truth?” wasn’t even in my personal top 50 of things I was going to ask about.
If my memory serves the first thing I asked was: [Does the Catholic Church teach you’re saved by works?] The answer to that was [No, the Catholic Church teaches you are saved by the Grace of God. It is the Holy Spirit that indwells you and produces good works which is the evidence of your faith and God’s Grace. It’s in James chapter 2].
I quickly read James 2 and to save you some time, I’ve included the interesting parts below:
[What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.] - James 2:14-24 (NIV)
Two things struck me immediately:
That this was the exact thing that I had believed for many years. It never made any sense to me that you could actually be saved by “faith alone” and live a terrible life as Luther wrote.
The practicalness of this interpretation. It was almost like the Catholic church believed that the guys who wrote the books of the Bible said what they meant and meant what they said.
With regards to #1, I wrote in a previous post (here) what Luther really believed. Many Protestant pastors today will try and tell you that is not what Luther meant, but they are mistaken, I’m sad to say. This is okay, many Protestant denominations have come to have a theology of salvation that is very “Catholic-ish” (I can provide links if you like, just let me know) and the reason for that is that it is what the Bible literally says. Sola Fide, “by Faith alone” had now been “un-done”, in my mind, by the Bible itself and not just a single verse, but by a lengthy diatribe of James that is quite clearly not taken out of context.
With regards to #2, this is something I’ve noticed throughout my exposure to Catholic theologians and the early Church Fathers: they believe that Jesus said what he meant and meant what he said, which I love. There’s very little “mental gymnastics” when it comes to scriptural interpretation in the Catholic faith, in my opinion.
Continuing my conversation with my Catholic friend, I said something to the effect of [Oh so you believe in the ideology of the “visible Church” vs the “true Church”?]. My Catholic friend had no idea what I was talking about. I’ve come to realize that this idea of “visible Church” vs “true Church” is one of these intellectual devices that we Protestants have conjured up so we can reconcile the writings of James (and a few other books) with the teachings of Luther.
At this point, my friend asked me if I’d like a book to read and I said “Yes! Anything”.
She recommended “Rome Sweet Home” by Scott Hahn.
I’ve written about my reading of this book before. I’ve given away at least 5 copies of this book (If you want one, message me on Facebook).
If God gave me the command to ask the questions, and the answers I got above put me at the front door of St. Peter’s Basilica, then Hahn’s book threw the doors wide open for me.
In it, I learned that what I believed to be the sole source of Christian authority, the Bible, actually has something quite different to say about that in several places.
The most glaring one was the verse I had literally NEVER seen before: 1 Timothy 3:15.
To give you a bit of context, in 1 Timothy, Paul is writing to Timothy, the first Bishop of Ephesus. In chapter 3 he is giving him instruction on what type of man should be considered to be a Bishop or Deacon. You can read the whole chapter here (KJV).
It’s verse 15 that really blew the doors open, it says:
“But if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
Now, there it is..in plain black and white “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
It’s pretty incredible that every-time I’ve mentioned this verse I get accused of taking it out of context but here we can clearly see that Paul is talking about the governance of the Church. In fact, if you include the previous verse (14) you can see that Paul would much rather deliver these instructions, in-person, orally, but is having to write them as a last resort (“But if I am delayed”). Here is 14-15 combined so you don’t have to go search:
“Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
Here Paul is, without question, stating that it is Christ’s Church that is the pillar and foundation of the truth, not the Bible. Now he’s not saying the Bible is not true (the Bible didn’t even exist yet btw..I’ve written about that before), but he’s certainly confirming the Catholic viewpoint that it is the Church(via the Magisterium) that decides what is true, not a set of scriptures that has no official interpretation other than itself.
At this point, if my theological world had been one of those 1500 piece lego castles you always wanted as a kid and you worked hard cutting lawns all summer to afford and then spent hours one weekend building it; then Jesus was about to be the neighborhood kid who came over, charged into your room and demolished it with one swift kick and sent the one key piece you don’t have a duplicate for down the air-vent in the corner.
Now, during this process, I had been talking with another Catholic friend of mine and I was describing what I had just learned and he sent me a meme. I LOVE memes..but this one..well, I’ll just show it to you.
When I got this I was like “SHUT UP! It DOES NOT SAY THAT!! Does it? WHERE!?!?”
It says it in 2 Thessalonians 2: 15.
“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”
HOLD UP! Here is Paul (and Protestant apologists LOVE to bring up Paul to bash the teachings of Rome) in plain language contradicting one of the two core tenants of Protestantism..that being “scripture alone”. Here Paul is plainly teaching that the truth of the Gospel and of Christ’s heavenly kingdom was taught by both word of mouth and by the written word.
If you read 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul is warning the Thessalonians about false teachers and the “son of perdition”. He is telling them to cling to the things that they’ve been taught, both orally and in writing.
The second of the two primary “solas” of the reformation, “Sola Scriptura”, now officially “un-done”, in my mind, by the writings of Paul himself.
My lego-set had officially been kicked over and smashed to pieces.
If you feel the same way right now, take a breath, I’m done kicking over your lego-castle for today.
Take heart, while Jesus came in and kicked over my theological lego-castle, he also gave me great comfort in that he was about to rebuild it, upon “the rock”, which we’ll get to tomorrow.
For today I leave you with a personal story about this process.
This past winter, Ali and I tried numerous churches in our area. Most of them were the big mega-churches with rock-n-roll worship bands, big stages, smoke, gas-lights and a pastor who seems larger than life. They were all the same. There wasn’t anything appreciably different about any of them and trying to choose one was exhausting. During this conversion process I was reading a book called “Evangelical Exodus”, which is the story of 10 seminarians at Southern Evangelical Seminary, in Charlotte, NC who studied the early Church Fathers and became Catholic. There was a passage in this book, by one of the seminarians, that really summed up my feelings well:
As I considered Christian unity and the source of Christian authority, I began to notice similarities between Evangelical churches and the American marketplace. It appeared to me that choosing a church was, for all intents and purposes, simply a matter of taste and personal preference. Protestant churches and the seemingly endless promotion of differences and offerings to interested parties and guests appeared to have more in common with the cereal aisle at the local grocery store than with that unified and Mystical Body established by Jesus Christ (Eph 4:4-5; Col 1:24). A theological commitment, an identification with a mission, the variety and offerings of church ministries and groups, the attraction to the personality and preaching abilities of the pastor, a preference for the style of music, comfortableness with the ambiance and physical layout, availability of coffee and pastries, a sense of shared social similarities and interests among parishioners, a vague and subjective appeal to individual needs uniquely being met, and many other factors were, it seemed, what drove people, including me, to choose which church to attend. It was a buyer’s market, and churches seemed more engaged in passive, yet strategic competition rather than in unified purpose and worship of Jesus Christ. The idea of belonging and being a part of my church community at the time, therefore, grew increasingly artificial. I belonged to the church so long as I felt as if they wanted me there and so long as I was benefiting from the relationship, which again, was based on my preferences and my beliefs and their meanings. The notion of “church”, therefore, became confusing, unimpressive, and, aside from a cultural obligation, absolutely pointless for entering heaven’s gates. I grew weary not only of my choice but of even having a choice, for it was not simply a matter of choosing a church, but a matter of continuing to choose that church week after week, month after month, and year after year. Every Sunday, I left judging the merits of the service, and thus the church, according to my own theological scruples and preferences. I slowly began to wonder if I was creating Christianity in my own image.” - Travis Johnson, Evangelical Exodus