Category Archives: Non-denominational

Lies, Damned Lies, & anti-Catholic history…


Dr. Rodney Stark, PhD

Dr. Rodney Stark has written nearly 40 books on a wide range of topics, including a number of recent books on the history of Christianity, monotheism, Christianity in China, and the roots of modernity. This included the above book, Bearing False Witness, (Templeton Press, 2016), a bestseller on Amazon.com, addresses ten prevalent myths about the history of the Catholic Church history. After beginning as a newspaper reporter and spending time in the Army, Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He later was Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington; he has been at Baylor University since 2004. Stark is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and he has won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. Raised as a Lutheran, he has identified himself as an agnostic but has, more recently, called himself an “independent Christian”.


-by Casey Chalk

“Ten years ago I was an AP European History teacher at a school in rural central Virginia. At the time I was a very sincere Reformed Protestant, and although I wanted to maintain academic objectivity in the classroom, I was still quite eager to teach the unit on the Protestant Reformation. We began with the status of the Catholic Church at the turn of the 16th century and its luxuriant and this-worldly Renaissance popes. One of the readings I distributed to my students was that of Johann Burchard’s account of the “Banquet of Chestnuts,” a particularly lurid account of papal sexual excesses supposedly involving former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. As I expected, the students were stunned to hear of churchmen involved in such devilish activities. Of course, they agreed, a religious reformation would be necessary to clean up this muck.

Except this account is found in only one source, was rejected as fallacious by many contemporary writers, and, as one Vatican researcher has noted, does not fit with what we know of the character of Alexander VI.1 And yet the reading — and other similar implicitly anti-Catholic information — appeared in a school textbook that has been assigned to thousands of American students. Indeed, misinformation regarding the history of the Catholic Church abounds across both popular and scholarly literature and media. This long-standing bias in opposition to Catholicism is what Baylor historian Rodney Stark seeks to illuminate in his work, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. This post will first evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Stark’s project, and then discuss a few of the anti-Catholic historical myths discussed by Stark.

Stark’s Aims

Readers will likely find the author’s background of particular interest: Dr. Stark is codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and honorary professor of Peking University in Beijing. A practicing Lutheran, he is also the author of the best-selling The Rise of Christianity. That a respected Lutheran historian would invest the energy to write what amounts to an apologetic against fraudulent anti-Catholic historical accounts — in the defense of history, he asserts — provides added justification to take this study seriously2 Stark explains:

“…In the course of writing several other books on medieval history as well as on early Christianity, I kept encountering serious distortions rooted in obvious anti-Catholicism — the authors often explicitly addressed their hatred of the Church.3”

Moreover, Stark frequently observed that these distortions, and often the “most malignant contributions to anti-Catholic history,” were attributable to “alienated Catholics,” including “seminary dropouts, former priests, or ex-nuns.”4 Those defecting from a particular group are usually treated with some degree of suspicion; yet in the case of anti-Catholic invective made by lapsed Catholics, it is “widely regarded as thereby of special reliability!”5 Moreover, this misinformation persists in spite of extensive historical research invalidating it. This paradigm exists, Stark argues, because these falsehoods are “mutually reinforcing” and so deeply intrinsic to the West’s common culture.

Indeed, our culture is so littered with references to erroneous slurs against the Catholic Church, having so powerfully entered our common lexicon, it would be difficult to evict them. Take the Spanish Inquisition, a topic Stark spends an entire chapter evaluating. That phrase, whatever its actual connection to a historical event, is commonly cited as a case of Catholic bigotry and particularly demonstrative of anti-Semitism. 6  The Crusades are likewise popularly viewed as an example of religious intolerance and European colonialism.7  Or consider the “Protestant Work Ethic,” that phrase coined by Max Weber to explain the rise of wealthy, capitalist societies in Northern Europe and the United States — and often contrasted with those “lazy” Southern European Catholic countries.8 All of these, and many more, Stark takes to task in this heavily-researched, well-documented examination of anti-Catholic bigotry underlying much of modern Western conceptions of history. Indeed, the book relies on hundreds of primary and secondary sources, with Stark’s most valued sources included in a text box found in every chapter highlighting those historians he views as most authoritative in studying the historical record, so that interested readers can examine the evidence for themselves.

Yet even with these strengths, Stark’s enterprise fails to answer a question fundamental to his own objectives: what, ultimately, determines our knowledge of the past? Are primary sources or the subsequent evaluations of historians and scholars more important? For example, early in the book, Stark notes:

“Sometimes I have done basic research needed to overturn one of these spurious anti-Catholic claims, and in those cases I document my findings so fully that anyone can check them. But, in most instances, I am simply reporting the prevailing view among qualified experts.”

This approach is evident in his very first chapter on supposed Catholic anti-Semitism. Here Stark notes that such esteemed scholars as Rosemary Ruether, Jules Isaac, and Robert T. Osborn have all charged the Church with responsibility for originating anti-Semitism. However, he then goes on to cite scholars such as Peter Schäfer (whom he notes has “impeccable credentials”), Israeli scholar Nachum T. Gidal, and Leon Poliakov (“one of the most respected contemporary historians of anti-Semitism”), whose combined research Stark cites to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the former historians’ anti-Semitic accusations. To his credit, Stark provides extensive examples of the latter academics’ research that make a strong case for the refutation of claims of an alleged intrinsic anti-Semitism in Catholic belief and practice. Furthermore, Stark does routinely note that some scholars are to be trusted and others distrusted because one set of academics rely on better evidence, or their evaluations make better sense of that data. Yet if we wind up evaluating the evidence rather than the scholars’ opinions, it seems largely irrelevant if the scholars are respected or not.

Presumably, Stark is citing historians and their credentials to prove to readers that his arguments have the backing of serious professional historians with less of an explicit bias than say, amateur, patently pro-Catholic writers. Nevertheless, respected scholars can be wrong, and amateur scholars can be right, or vice versa. Either way, evidence, not academic pedigree, needs to be the ultimate criteria upon which historical analysis rests. Indeed, the “prevailing view among qualified experts” may be false, as Stark himself demonstrates wherever he notes that earlier consensus among historians was biased and inaccurate. Moreover, if we rely on the majority opinion of scholars as the determinant for historical truth, Stark’s foundational argument that anti-Catholic historical narratives are untrue may be “disproved” by a future generation of scholars that picks them up once again.

All the same, as noted above, Stark rarely leaves the reader with only a “trust the experts” exhortation, instead consistently allowing the raw historical data to speak for itself, which in many cases does indeed validate the current historical consensus. Indeed, it is fair to presume that Stark believes primary sources to be the bedrock of the historical method, and that his citing of the expertise of secondary sources is only to support, and not ground his arguments.

False Suppositions of the Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition is one of the perennial favorites of anti-Catholic rhetoric. As Stark notes, the usual narrative goes something like this: for several centuries beginning in the late 1400s, the Spanish monarchy, in collusion with Church authorities, engaged in a dramatic witch-hunt of investigations, tortures, and executions to rid the country of all manner of dissidents — Jews and Muslims pretending to be Christians, but also “Protestants, witches, homosexuals, and other doctrinal and moral offenders.”9 Those leading the Inquisition supposedly engaged in “weekly mass burnings all across Spain.”10 A number of contemporary and later historical accounts — including those by Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky — have enumerated the seemingly inexhaustible horrors dispensed on the Church’s many enemies, putting the number killed at the hands of the Inquisition at anywhere from 31,000 to 3 million! Stark evaluates these narratives and death counts:

“The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition is mostly a pack of lies, invented and spread by English and Dutch propagandists in the sixteenth century during their wars with Spain and repeated ever after by the malicious or misled historians eager to sustain “an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bigots”…. [However], the new historians of the Inquisition have revealed that, in contrast with the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”11

These more recent historians have discovered these revelations by examining the complete archives of Aragon and Castille’s Inquisitions, which together amount to the totality of the Spanish Inquisition. I will discuss several of the most common accusations levelled against the Catholic Inquisition, including its supposedly egregiously violent character, its alleged brutal use of torture, and its persecution of witches and Jews. When stacked against the historical evidence, and when evaluated in its historical context, what emerges is not a Catholic Church operating as the sine qua non of late Medieval and early Modern repression and violence, but a “consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”12

Let’s first examine the amount of violence conducted with the blessing of the Inquisition. During the 220-year period that marks the entire length of the Inquisition, Stark claims that about 2,200 people were executed,which amounts to about ten deaths per year.13 This number, drawn from the historical records of Aragon and Castile, is significantly lower than the numbers given by many contemporary authorities, including Microsoft’s Encarta, the Encyclopedia of Religious Freedom, or historians Simon Whitechapel and Sam Hunt, all of whom put the number at tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions! These popular accounts of the Inquisition give the impression that the Inquisition was the preeminent exemplar of religious persecution in this historical period. However, to take but one historically contemporaneous example, English king Henry VIII had many more thousands of religious dissidents executed during his reign. This comparison is not in any way to excuse the Inquisition for its complicity in these executions, but to refute any assertions that the Inquisition was either historically unique in its activities, or even the worst offender.14 This is because in the broader historical context of the Medieval and early Modern period, pertinacious heresy was viewed as a threat not just to religious unity, but to public order more broadly, which is why Catholic and Protestant rulers alike were eager to stamp out religious dissidents.

In common parlance, the term “Inquisition” is often associated with torture. One 19th century Protestant account of the Inquisition claimed that not even Satan could contrive a “more horrible” means of “torture and “blood” than those employed by Spanish inquisitors15  It is indeed a historical fact that the Inquisition applied torture to suspected dissidents. Yet according to Stark, in an era when torture was a ubiquitous form of punishment across the known world, the Church was a uniquely moderating force on its application. According to the dictates of Church law, torture was limited to a single session lasting no more than fifteen minutes, no danger to life or limb could be conducted, and no blood exacted.

Moreover, torture was rarely used, as inquisitors were skeptical of its efficacy and validity. Such restrictions did not exist in historically contemporary secular courts. Furthermore, the Inquisition performed torture at a comparatively infrequent rate when compared to those same secular courts: Thomas Madden, a prominent Medieval historian at St. Louis University, estimates that torture occurred in only about 2 percent of cases brought before the Inquisition. Moreover, Inquisition prisons were far more humane than their secular counterparts, as is evidenced by reports that criminals in Spain were known to purposefully blaspheme that they might be transferred to Inquisition-run prisons.16  Again, any comparison to secular practices of torture or imprisonment is not to excuse the Church for encouraging (or allowing) torture, but to demonstrate that the common perception of Church officials eagerly bent on exacting pain from suspected religious dissidents does not square with the historical data.

Moving on to witchcraft: was the Spanish Inquisition also a misogynist program implemented to target so-called witches, demonstrating the ignorance and malevolence of Catholic religious leaders? Hardly. The Inquisition endorsed barely any of the sixty-thousand witches executions estimated to have been performed across Europe during this time period. The Spanish Catholics were, once again, a moderating force against these pogroms, who based their judgments not on the ridiculous caricatures displayed in the familiar Monty Python skit, but on hard evidence. The Catholic authorities oftentimes intervened to prevent mobs and local authorities from lynching suspected witches. Even when the Inquisition did investigate alleged witches, the primary goal of the Inquisition was to achieve repentance on the part of religious dissenters, not brutalize or “make an example” of them, which explains why the few who were executed on such charges had typically already been convicted several times.17

Finally, what of the allegations that Catholic Spain forcibly converted the Iberian Peninsula’s Jewish population? For starters, Stark notes that for more than a millennia, there were more Jews in Spain than the rest of medieval Europe combined. This would hardly have been possible if the Jews were under constant persecution by the Catholic majority. Indeed, historians have found that whenever Jewish communities have harmonious relations with the majority religious community, they often convert in large numbers. This is exactly what we see in Catholic Spain. Beginning in the fourteenth century, tens of thousands of Jews were voluntarily baptized — conversions so sincere that within a few generations many of the prominent Catholics in Spain, to include senior hierarchy, were from converso families. However, the significant number of Jewish converts led to strife between “old” and “new” Christians, with many Spanish Jews accusing conversos of being “crypto-Jews.” The Spanish Inquisition sought — once again — to arrest such passions, but failed to prevent the kingdom’s ultimate expulsion of all Jews in 1492.18

As we examine the history of the Inquisition (vice its caricatures), what materializes is a Catholic Church that is largely unrecognizable from its common depictions in popular, contemporary media (or even most textbooks!). Indeed, in many cases Church authorities in the Iberian Peninsula were those most vocal in their attempts to restrain mob impulses and violence against religious dissidents.

Catholic Church v. Science, Redux Part…I’ve Lost Track

Another common complaint against the Church is its supposed long history of antagonism towards scientific learning and exploration. Be it papal injunctions against vaccinations, the Church’s hostility toward scientific theories deemed contrary to Catholic teaching, or recent Catholic disquiet about transhumanism, many critics view the Church as fundamentally opposed to scientific inquiry and progress. Yet such an accusation bears little resemblance to the historical record. Indeed, as Stark observes, most prominent leaders in the so-called “Scientific Revolution” were men of peculiar religious devotion, and a significant number were Catholic laymen or clergy.

For starters, it is worth addressing the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” perception of Medieval intellectualism, which even one current US presidential candidate has publicly cited. Those who reference this particular scholastic question frequently do so to demonstrate a supposed Medieval Catholic obsession with irrelevant minutiae, rather than philosophic or scientific questions that would benefit humanity. This paradigm, so the story goes, is what Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent Scientific Revolution sought to overthrow. Yet the scholastics were the ones who founded many of Europe’s most famous universities, and conceptualized and instructed the very experimental method that led to what we know today as Western empirical science. Certainly much of the scholastic’s interest lay in theology, yet even here many scholars, including the respected R.W. Southern, have proposed that it was scholastics’ very religious belief in a rational, human nature and an intelligible universe that created the foundation for the scientific discipline. This is in contrast to the Islamic world, where natural philosophy was viewed with deep suspicion and never gained ground with leading Muslim religious thinkers of the time. The universities established by the scholastic movement were thoroughly Medieval institutions (some already in place by the early twelfth century), yet, contra the typical narrative, they “esteemed innovation,” appropriated empirical methods, and employed some of the earliest examples of human dissection.19

The Scientific Revolution then is not so much a rejection of the Medieval enterprise, but in many ways its fulfillment. Stark’s survey of a number of early influences on the scientific method demonstrates the deep unity between piety and scientific innovation: Robert Grosseteste, Albert Magnus, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, Nicole d’Oresme, Nicholas of Cusa, and Nicolaus Copernicus were all men of varying degrees of religious faith. Copernicus is often presented as a prime example of a true “free thinker” suffering under the burden of Church antipathy towards science, who represents the beginning of that supposedly necessary break with the dark, religiously-dominant Medieval way of thinking. Yet, as Stark notes, “everything in Copernicus’s famous book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, is wrong, other than the placement of the sun in the center.” Rather, Copernicus contributed an important, yet small step towards modern scientific knowledge that built upon the work of many Catholic scientists who preceded him.20

The story of Galileo has likewise been dramatized and propagandized far out of proportion.21  Stark argues: “what got Galileo in trouble with the Church were not his scientific convictions nearly as much as his arrogant duplicity.”  An abbreviated version of this sordid tale can be summed up as follows: Galileo’s troubles resulted not so much from his free-thinking scientific rigor, but from purposefully antagonizing Pope Urban VIII, a man with whom he had previously developed a strong relationship. The pope, under increased pressure from Protestant Reformers and their charge that the Catholic Church was not faithful to Scripture, asked Galileo to include a prefatory statement in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems noting the limitations of science as an intellectual discipline. Galileo’s treatise instead openly mocked the pope. The grand irony is that much of Galileo’s research was incorrect, a reality commensurate with his reputation for claiming “false credit for inventions made by others… and to have conducted empirical research he probably did not really perform.” Even in the ruckus that followed this controversy, the pope sought to protect Galileo from extensive punishment.22 So much for Copernicus and Galileo.

Finally, and perhaps most innovatively, Stark performs a mathematical evaluation of the most well-known figures in the Scientific Revolution (52 people in all) and their diverse levels of piety. The numbers speak for themselves: 25% of these individuals were members of the clergy, including nine Catholics. Sixty percent were explicitly devout in their Protestant or Catholic beliefs; another 38% conventionally devout (meaning no evidence of skepticism, but no obvious signs of piety). Half of the individuals were Catholic, the other half Protestant. Only one of the 52 surveyed can be legitimately identified as a skeptic: the Englishman Edmund Halley, who was denied a professorship of Oxford because of his “atheism.”23  Stark, who is not alone in recognizing the ubiquitous faith of these foundational scientific thinkers, ultimately argues that science developed uniquely in medieval Europe precisely because such an enterprise was deemed “possible and desirable.” He cites English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, who assessed that “faith in the possibility of science…[is] derivative from medieval theology.”24

Conclusion

I have examined only two of the ten topics Stark addresses in this review of the historical data regarding a number of contentious issues pertaining to Catholic history. Readers will likely find all the chapters worthy of attention, including those on anti-Semitism (think “Hitler’s Pope”), the Dark Ages (did the Church seek to limit intellectual development?), slavery (how complicit was the Church in New World chattel slavery?), and Protestant Modernity (Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis mentioned above). Stark has done the Catholic Church a great service in presenting a thorough dismantling of many anti-Catholic narratives, as well as offering analysis as to how and why this happened (the answer, in Stark’s review of the history of historians, is overt anti-Catholic bigotry). Even those outside the parameters of the Catholic Church should welcome this study, as it enables us to move beyond the usual sniping characteristic of so many church history debates, and pursue a more thorough, historically faithful ecumenical dialogue.”

1. https://www.historytoday.com/alexander-lee/were-borgias-really-so-bad
2. Stark, Rodney. Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016), 7.
3. Stark, 5.
4. Stark, 3.
5. Stark, 4.
6. See the 23 August Washington Post opinion “So you’re a Jew and you’re starting college? Prepare for anti-Zionism.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/08/23/so-youre-a-jew-and-youre-starting-college-prepare-for-anti-zionism/
7. See the 1 August New York Times opinion “How Religion Can Lead to Violence.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/how-religion-can-lead-to-violence.html?_r=0
8. See the 29 August 2013 opinion in Slate, “Is the Protestant Work Ethic Real?” http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2013/08/29/is_the_protestant_work_ethic_real_a_new_study_claims_it_can_be_measured.html
9. Stark, 117.
10. Stark, 121.
11. Stark, 119.
12. Stark, 119.
13. Other recent historical estimates have offered similar numbers, including Garcia Carcel, who puts the number at approximately 3,000.
14. Stark, 121-122.
15. Stark, 122.
16. Stark, 122-123.
17. Stark, 123-126.
18. Stark, 128-133. The expulsion of the Jews in order to further the program of a united Spain may have been more a factor of the emergence of the modern notion of sovereignty than about Catholicism. Moreover, the Spanish Inquisition was different from other inquisitions (contemporary and previous) in that the Spanish Crown managed to bring it under unprecedented direct control of the crown. The infamous Tomas de Torquemada, for example, was placed as head over the combined Castille-Aragon inquisition directly by Ferdinand in 1483. Pope Sixtus IV had protested the previous year at the inquisition’s lack of due process in Aragon. This direct, temporal control indicates that the Spanish inquisition was just as much an instrument of the nation-state as it was of the Church. See C. C. Pecknold, Christianity & Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (Cascade, 2010), 75; and Edward Peters, Inquisition (University of California, 1988), 85-86.
19. Stark, 141-144.
20. Stark, 151. David Hart makes a similar, more detailed judgment on Copernicus in his book Atheist Delusions.
21. See, for examples, these articles from the Washington Post and The New York Times: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/sept98/galileo.htm; http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/31/world/after-350-years-vatican-says-galileo-was-right-it-moves.html.
22. Stark, 163-165.
23. Stark, 153-157.
24. Stark, 159.

Love & unity, Jn 17:21
Matthew

A Presbyterian pastor discovers the Catholic Church – no longer adrift

Dr. Joseph Johnson was raised in the Baptist tradition, but much of his formative years were in nondenominational and charismatic circles. After entering Bible college, he concentrated in church history, and spent some time among Jewish Christians due to an interest in the relationship between the church and synagogue. Having discovered Reformed theology in seminary, he joined the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and after seven years as a student of theology, he accepted a call to an independent, Presbyterian church as the minister. After leading this parish into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church for four and a half years, he resigned his position for financial reasons. His liturgical studies, particularly the sacraments, CS Lewis and GK Chesterton, as well as John Henry Newman and John Calvin, led him to seek full communion with the Catholic Church, into which he was received at the Easter vigil in 2013. He completed a Master of Arts in Theological Studies (1999) and Master of Divinity (2004) from Erskine Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Education (2014) from Liberty University. He currently lives in Greenwood, SC with his wife and two children, where he serves as pastoral associate to the priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

A Baptist Cradle, Per Se

A native of South Carolina and the last of five children, I was raised in a Southern Baptist home. My mother was brought up in the Baptist tradition; my father in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. My father was converted in 1973, when I was two, so the home that I grew up in was markedly pious—somewhat different from the generically religious home of my siblings. I was converted at a revival meeting at a Baptist church at age eight and later baptized (in a lake) at age 13. We were in church every time the door was open.

Generically Evangelical

Our church split when I was twelve and my family migrated to a small, non-denominational church plant. The pastor was a former Assemblies of God minister and his theological views came through his sermons. My parents had been in the midst of the Charismatic movement while we were nominally Baptist, so the migration to a non-denominational Church wasn’t that difficult. Charismatics are united by their primary emphasis on the present ministry of the Holy Spirit, demonstrative tongue-speaking, healing, miracles, etc. Other issues that often divide Protestants, i.e. views of justification, sanctification, church government, baptism, liturgy, etc., are usually not on the radar for Charismatics and are usually dismissed as “traditions of men.” It never occurred to me that the interpretation of the Bible by the minister often determined/influenced the beliefs of the congregant, who is convinced (for the moment) that their church “preaches the Word.”

My family that nurtured me in the faith always emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – to know Him and follow Him. We were part of several churches growing up, but my parents always told me to go where I believed Jesus was leading me. Of course, my working assumption was that a personal relationship with God through Jesus was all that was necessary to go to heaven as such, so whatever church you belonged to was irrelevant. The church is the people – not the building or denomination. I had no reason to think otherwise. I had never thought Catholics were not Christians (I had Catholic relatives)– misguided yes, but clearly part of the Christian story in which I participated.

Wading Out into the Deep: Jewish Christianity

I entered Lander University in 1989 as an engineering major, though I was terrible at math. While in college at Lander University, I discovered the philosophy and religion section of the library and developed an interest in early Christianity and its relationship to Judaism. After several conversations with the PC(USA) religion professor, I made the move to attend Emmanuel College in the Fall of 1991. In my studies of church history and Judaism, I found a large Jewish Christian community in Roswell, GA that welcomed non-Jewish Christians.

These Christians receive various non-flattering labels as many others consider them to be theologically confused. Yet, something resonated in me, considering the fact that Jesus and His disciples were Jews and practiced Judaism. The non-Jewish worshippers in the synagogue were invited (never compelled) to adopt the customs of Judaism. So I lived my life as much as possible as a religious Jew, who believed in Jesus.

A Dark Night of the Soul

These studies were interrupted by what St. John of the Cross called a “Dark Night of the Soul.” During my time in college, I began to evaluate my own beliefs. In this conservative, Pentecostal college, my beliefs were challenged. I was wrestling with issues about biblical inerrancy, historic and Reformation theology, and existentialism. I had begun to read on my own (contrary to my professors’ advice) the “Makers of the Modern Theological Mind,” Schleiermacher, Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Neibuhrs, Brunner, Barth, Moltmann and Pannenberg. I had become convinced that the Bible was historically inaccurate and unreliable; I denied original sin, and embraced a modalist view of the Trinity and Kantian skepticism. As my theological and philosophical views were becoming increasingly existential and neo-orthodox, my fundamentalist social mores were giving way. I started drinking, smoking and used prolific profanity. I became quite the social and moral libertine, believing all along in the goodness, innocence and responsibility of man – I was none of those things. However, it was C.S. Lewis that helped me out of that quagmire of disbelief. Like Lewis, I came to believe in God again, but I no longer considered myself an Evangelical, and I still held onto a mild observance of my Jewish ritual life.

Wading Out into the Deep – Again: the Reformation

This slowly changed in the Fall of 1995 when I enrolled at Erskine Theological Seminary pursuing a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. In the Spring of 1996, I married my college sweetheart Toby Hall. God put up with my theological arrogance until the Spring of 1996, when I met the new theology professor. We developed a great friendship and his courses challenged my liberal opinions. This was the beginning of my journey into the Reformed faith. In my pursuit of theological roots, I listened attentively to my Reformed professors, and my wife and I joined the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in 2000. Our daughter was baptized in 2000 and I joined Second Presbytery in 2001 as a student of theology. I was working on my Master of Divinity at the time.

In 1997, my wife and I had been consulted on curriculum considerations for the religion department at a local Christian school. We joined the faculty there and wrote and taught the curriculum. We taught Christian (and non-Christian students) of many faith traditions. My time with Nietzsche and seminary helped me teach students the various beliefs of not simply their fellow Christians, but also different religions. Of course, the driving impulse for a nondenominational Christian education was C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” Lewis’ analogy of the Christian religion was a house with many rooms. Each person should be convinced in their own mind of the room to go in, and pray both for those who are not in the house and also those who often remain in the hallway. I climbed to the chair of the religion department and held that position for almost ten years. The school was non-denominational with over 80 churches represented. I taught several courses including Apologetics, the Gospel of John, Dating and Marriage, Logic and Christian Foundations. However, life for me there became increasingly difficult. I served on the curriculum philosophy committee and I had become convinced that “classical Christian education” was the best way to educate children.

In the Fall of 2000, three months after the birth of our daughter, my wife experienced significant health challenges, was hospitalized and we almost lost her. God was gracious; she recovered with some residual effects of her illness, but she began homeschooling our daughter in a classical curriculum. My Calvinism was put to the test in those trying times, but God proved Himself ever faithful.

After leaving the Christian school in 2007, I eventually took a call to pastoral ministry at a nearby Presbyterian Church. Several families I knew at the parish had children who at one time had been students of both my wife and me. Due to procedural difficulties, I withdrew from Second Presbytery and was ordained by the Elders, which at the time was independent. Early in my pastorate, we voted to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 2008, in which I was properly ordained in the Presbyterian tradition. It was in this year that my son was born and I had the pleasure offering him covenant (“infant”) baptism.

Gnawing Questions

It was during my ministry there that questions began to rise about certain aspects of my faith. There were questions of liturgy and sacraments that I spent some time studying. I was working on my doctorate of education at the time, so these theological questions were quite a nuisance. I had been confident enough as a student of John Calvin to become one of his theological heirs; however, as I prepared the liturgy week-to-week, questions continued to arise such as, on what authority did the Reformers “reform” the Mass and how do I know my parish’s liturgy is pleasing to God? I found a “high view” of the sacraments (efficacious, not merely symbolic) in Calvin’s Institutes, and later discovered his view (along with Luther, Bucer and Zwingli) of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

In American religion, the Evangelical community and the Presbyterian tradition specifically, there were various things happening that gave me pause to reflect. Several Reformed ministers and theologians I respected were dragged through the mud of the printing press and declared openly to be heretics by self-appointed theological judges. The blogosphere was a landmine of gossip and slander. These accusations brought to the forefront the problem of Biblical interpretation and the sufficiency of Scripture. One man’s heretic was another’s saint. I became angry and worried. The political climate didn’t help my moorings. The nation in general; conservatives and liberals in my own Reformed tradition were at each others’ throats. The Presbyterian world was fracturing into more splits as controversy after controversy began to wreck the Reformed world. Jesus had promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18) and it seemed like He was failing.

To complicate matters further, I learned of Dr. Frank Beckwith’s resignation from the Evangelical Theological Society to return to Rome and the “resignation” of Dr. Bruce Waltke from a prominent Reformed seminary over interpretations of Genesis. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all Truth (John 16:13), so how did all these splits in the Christian world occur, now numbering well over 20,000 (some estimate over 35,000)? How did I know where the “Church” was to be found? By the time I resigned from my presbytery in 2012, there were 48 splits, each claiming Calvin as their founder. One writer observed 22 different issues that keep Reformed Christians out of each others’ pews. As of this writing, views of theistic evolution, homosexual unions, female deacons, charismatic gifts, exclusive psalmody (in worship), liturgy, music styles, etc., only add to the problems and all using the same Bible.

The Sweater Unravels

I returned to my studies of Church history and started at the beginning: the apostolic fathers and Church fathers – both east and west and the development of the canon of Scripture. I was shocked by the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch; though I had read them 20 years before, I never read them with Reformed glasses. There was nothing in those letters that sounded at all Presbyterian! In AD 95, why was Clement of Rome bypassing the authority of the Apostle John to settle a matter of discipline in the Church at Corinth, claiming the authority of Rome to be that of God? The more I studied the more I felt drawn but kept saying “This can’t be right.” So, I sought the wisdom of friends and mentors alike to help steer me through these troubled waters but on whose authority should I accept their observations or interpretations correct?

In 2010, my daughter and I attended the confirmation of a friend. I remember being impressed with the amount of Scripture heard during the Mass. I had been working on liturgical studies, so I was shocked at how similar the mass was to the Reformed liturgy at my parish.

In the middle of 2011, I read John Henry Newman’s “Development of Doctrine” and G.K. Chesterton’s works on his conversion. They both were Anglican converts to Catholicism and I wanted to know why. In the process, I learned of C.S. Lewis’ devotion to Mary, belief in purgatory and his habit of praying the Rosary, but yet, he never became Catholic. In the middle of Deacon and Elder training, I found myself no longer satisfied with “our answers.” I could not find the favorite “solas” of the Reformation anywhere in the Church Fathers. In the process of looking for a way out of these conundrums, I stumbled upon the “Called to Communion” website and was taken back at how these graduates of Reformed seminaries could become Catholic. About the same time, blogger friend of mine Devon Rose asked me to read a manuscript he had recently published called, “If Protestantism is True.” I read it with a critical eye, but I kept thinking to myself, “I haven’t ever thought that through…” I watched the issues of authority, interpretation, canon, the papacy and sola fide melt away.

I had developed the habit of stopping by the local Catholic Church to pray. On one occasion, I walked in (Presbyterians neither genuflect nor dip our fingers in holy water!) and my eye caught the Tabernacle Lamp. I paused, and staring straight at the Tabernacle, asked out loud, “Is that really you?” The answer to that question would be a game-changer. Tears began to stream down my face as my heart comprehended what my mind could not. There were several events transpiring in my former parish in which we thought we may be closing our doors. I offered to resign in May 2012, which certainly would help with the finances and when my resignation came, I was not sure where my family would attend church. I had wanted to go back to teach and with an end in sight on my doctorate, I was looking at the college and university level. I resigned from my presbytery in July 2012 so that I would not have to be encumbered by presbytery meetings while looking for a new teaching job- wherever that might be. This also afforded me opportunity to investigate the Catholic Church.

The Road Home

With the advice of convert Scott Hahn, we started RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in the Fall of 2012 to have an opportunity to see for ourselves what the Church believed and taught; to have the freedom to walk away if we chose. I asked my parents what they thought about the possibility of us becoming Catholic. They said that if that is where the Holy Spirit was leading us, then go for it. They weren’t without some concerns, but they supported our decision. My in-laws however, prayed for our souls believing us to be joining a cult.

It wasn’t a few weeks into RCIA that my heart longed for home. I began to find comfort in the Magisterium of the Church (bishops in communion with Rome), the faithful guardians of Truth, to have been led by the Holy Spirit in Councils and visible in the Papacy to preserve the identity and unity of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. At the Easter Vigil of 2013, we were confirmed in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, where I now serve as Pastoral Associate to our priest. We helped start St. Ignatius Preparatory School, an independent Catholic cottage school that focuses on a classical approach to learning.

I enjoyed mere Christianity for most of my life, but having come home to the Catholic Church, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker observed, I have experienced more Christianity: a closer walk with Christ, enjoying Him in Holy Communion, the rich heritage of the faith that conquered the pagan Roman Empire through love and truth and birthed saints, whose lives, works and deeds compelled me to leave everything behind and not look back.”

Love,
Matthew

Teaching the Bible to atheists made me Catholic – Don Johnson


-by Don Johnson

“I clearly remember the moment I became a Christian. I don’t recall how old I was exactly, probably six or seven, but it was a Sunday afternoon and I had been to church that morning. Something about Sunday School must have made an impression on me, because I asked my mother to come to my room to talk to me about getting saved. She graciously led me in a prayer of repentance and faith. As we finished, I felt great joy and relief sweep over me. I knew that I was going to get into heaven because Jesus had died for me.

If you had asked me at the time what it meant to be “saved,” I’m not sure what I would have told you. However, as I think back now to the theology of my youth, several images come to mind. For one, I considered salvation as a type of fire insurance. To avoid hell, make sure you sign on the dotted line by doing whatever the preacher says you need to do (“believe,” “repent,” “have faith,” “give your life to Jesus,” etc.) and then rest easy, knowing that you are covered. Your papers are in order, and when that fateful day arrives, everything will be just fine. In more familial and relational terms, I thought of becoming a child of God as a one-time transaction in which I got a new legal guardian, but one with whom I didn’t get to live. It’s like I was an orphan who got adopted, but then had to stay in the orphanage, even though I was now assigned a new name and even guaranteed an inheritance at some point in the future.

One of the unfortunate consequences of this view was that I lived a rather pathetic spiritual life as a youth. By that I mean I wasn’t really any different from any of the unbelievers I knew. I was enslaved to the same sins, beset by the same character flaws, and guided by the same materialistic priorities as everyone else. I didn’t pursue a life of radical righteousness or intimacy with God because I didn’t think it ultimately mattered. I was going to get to Heaven regardless. God didn’t take into account my sin and worldly ambition; He only saw the “Jesus covering” He had placed on me. I may not actually have been righteous, but God saw me as legally righteous, so everything was all right.

However, as a young adult my view of salvation began to change. I became heavily involved in ministry and started to study the Bible intensely. I was particularly interested in the Gospels and their relationship to the Old Testament. As I dug into Exodus, for example, I saw how it prefigured the entire story of God’s redemption. I became convinced that legal forgiveness is only one part of the equation. God doesn’t just purchase sinners while leaving them essentially unchanged. He doesn’t just take legal guardianship of children and cover their sins. Rather, He creates new children that are in intimate union with Him. God doesn’t just look at a believer “as if” he were a new person; he is actually a new person. The old person is dead, a new person is alive.

This birth is just the start of the Christian life, however. I now saw that salvation is a process by which we strive, by God’s grace, to become ever more like him. It is not simply a legal transaction in the past, but an ongoing journey to be finished and a battle to be won. My theology had been missing these truths. As I now started to understand and live them out, my relationship with God was taken to a much deeper level. It also turned out to be my first step toward the Catholic Church.

I was interacting with many skeptics in those days, and I noticed that their objections to Christianity were often based on the false view of salvation that I had come to reject. My childhood beliefs regarding salvation, and the spiritually weak Christians it produces, are a huge stumbling block. Unbelievers, particularly, simply can’t abide the notion that God doesn’t care what kind of person you are. They can’t understand why God would forgive some people and let them into heaven ahead of those who have lived morally better lives based on something as seemingly capricious and silly as saying a prayer, intellectually assenting to certain propositions, getting confirmed, or jumping through some other seemingly arbitrary hoop. It seems terribly unjust.

As my view of salvation shifted, I found myself agreeing with these atheists. If that view of God’s plan is correct, it is unjust. However, I was now convinced that that view was false. So I started teaching my new theology through my ministry and sharing it with the skeptics. And frankly, most of them were eating it up. The Evangelical churches I was speaking at greatly enjoyed my messages, and I was making good headway with many atheists and agnostics.

But not everyone appreciated my “insights.” I faced objections on two fronts. First, I was taken to task by an individual at one church, who claimed that I was contradicting the official doctrinal statement of his denomination. Frankly, I had never read it, and no one had ever asked me to. However, when I did, I realized that he actually had a case. There, in black and white, was the proposition that salvation was a one-time legal transaction that should be understood as separate from any call to ongoing holy living.

Secondly, the skeptics I was sharing with, while generally receptive to my understanding of salvation, often ended the conversation by saying something like this: “That’s nice, Don, and if God really was how you portray Him, and if His plan of salvation actually did work that way, I might accept it. But that’s just your opinion. The pastor down the street says something different, and I can find any number of Christian leaders who would offer any variety of opinions, and they all use the same Bible you do. Why should I believe your interpretation?” I had to admit they had a point.

In response, I started to dig into church history. Specifically, I started studying the history of various local denominations and the history of the doctrine of justification. That led me directly to the Reformation. Curiously, I had never really studied the Reformation. I had just assumed that it was a righteous movement that restored the Church to its biblical roots. However, as I analyzed what actually had happened, several startling facts jumped out at me, none of which aligned with my presuppositions.

First, the understanding of salvation that I had accepted as a child but now rejected as unbiblical was actually an articulated doctrine of several Reformers. (Today it is often called “forensic justification.”) Indeed, it was a key point of disagreement with Rome and a foundational element of much of Protestantism. It was a shock to me that, in many of my sermons, I was actually attacking one of the cornerstone doctrines of the movement that led to the very churches in which I had been speaking.

So the question naturally arose: Was the doctrine of forensic justification something new with the Reformation, or was it a renewal of the early Church’s teaching? In other words, were the beliefs that I now rejected held by the early Church Fathers — in which case I would have to re-think my stance — or were they developed fresh by the Reformers — in which case I could feel justified in rejecting them.

After extensive research, the answer was clear: the idea of forensic justification was new with the Reformation. Before that, the Church had been unanimous and unwavering in its understanding of salvation as a process whereby Christ’s life makes us new, and we are formed to be like Him. My “new” understanding of salvation, based on my personal interpretation of Scripture, turned out to be simply the historical orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church.

That truth dovetailed nicely with another fact I discovered: the Reformation notion of sola Scriptura was also new, and the crisis of authority that I faced in my evangelism work was its direct result. The idea that the Bible alone should guide us had never been accepted within Christianity before 1517, and its introduction led only to doctrinal chaos. Without an authoritative interpretive guide, people could — and did — teach and believe anything.

As I now realized, Jesus never intended such confusion. That’s why He left us a Church. He didn’t drop a book from the sky and say, “Do your best to find your own way based on your own interpretation.” He appointed Apostles and gave them His authority to lead in His name. I now had an answer to the skeptics who claimed that my theological views were just my opinion: No, my views are simply the teaching of the Church that Jesus founded.

Faced with the beginning of a clear biblical, historical, and philosophical case for the Catholic Church, I started to panic. This was going to cause a huge disruption in my life! But the more I studied, the more reasonable and attractive Catholicism became. I read authors like Scott Hahn and Jeff Cavins. I even enrolled in the MA Theology program at Franciscan University of Steubenville and became enthralled with the writings of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as well as scholars such as Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. One by one my various objections were answered.

The last stumbling block was the Sacraments. I had been raised in a very non-liturgical, non-sacramental church culture, and I was having trouble getting comfortable with the idea that God would use matter as a means of grace. However, here again, my study of Scripture and the Reformation, as well as my work with skeptics, was a great help.

First, I realized that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist had been universally accepted and practiced from the early Church until the Reformation. Its rejection in the 16th century represented something novel in the history of Christianity. If the Reformers were right, it meant that everyone from the very first disciples of the Apostle John had been wrong. That made no sense to me.

Secondly, having already been making the case that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old, I applied this interpretative principle to passages such as John 6. What could Jesus possibly have meant, and how would His Jewish followers have understood Him? I began to understand that the Eucharist was the fulfillment of the Passover celebration and those early Christians, who were almost all Jews, would never have understood it after my gnostic manner. They would instead have understood it according to the sacramental worldview they had always held; they would have seen it as the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus.

Finally, my work with skeptics helped me to come to a revelation about the Sacraments. My approach to atheists and agnostics, especially those who tend towards a materialistic view of the world, is to suggest that there might just be more to the world than they’ve been led to believe.

I then asserted that their worldview is reductionist, and that there might be dimensions to reality that they hadn’t really taken into account. By ignoring these, they were missing out on a lot of really good, true and beautiful things that God was offering. Their skeptical worldview was a handicap for them, it was reducing their understanding of reality and constraining them from living life to the fullest.

Then, a question began to arise within my mind. What if there was more to the world than I, too, had been led to believe? What if there were dimensions to reality that I hadn’t taken into account, and that by ignoring them, I had been missing out on a lot of really good, true and beautiful things? What if, I asked myself, not only did Jesus love me and long for me to live a joyful life, but that He had made possible an even more abundant life than I had imagined by offering His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist? Could it be that my Protestant worldview was equally reductionist and gnostic in a way similar to the atheist viewpoint?

My answer was yes. I realized that I had been guilty of unjustified skepticism towards Catholicism in the same way that unbelievers are unjustifiably skeptical towards Christianity in general. I also realized that I longed for the Eucharist and the intimacy with Jesus that it promised. That was the final piece of the puzzle, and I was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 2015.”

Love,
Matthew

Bearing False Witness: Debunking Ten Myths about Catholicism

BearingFalseWitness

rodney_stark
Dr. Rodney Stark, PhD

INTERVIEW WITH DR. RODNEY STARK, PHD BY CATHOLIC WORLD REPORT
Why is this non-Catholic scholar debunking “centuries of anti-Catholic history”?
An interview with Dr. Rodney Stark, sociologist and author of “Bearing False Witness”
May 07, 2016 03:21 EST
-by Carl E. Olson

“Dr. Rodney Stark has written nearly 40 books on a wide range of topics, including a number of recent books on the history of Christianity, monotheism, Christianity in China, and the roots of modernity. After beginning as a newspaper reporter and spending time in the Army, Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He later was Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington; he has been at Baylor University since 2004. Stark is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and he has won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. Raised as a Lutheran, he has identified himself as an agnostic but has, more recently, called himself an “independent Christian”.

His most recent book is Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton Press, 2016), a bestseller on Amazon.com, addresses ten prevalent myths about Church history. Dr. Stark recently responded by e-mail to some questions from Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report.

CWR: You begin the book by first noting your upbringing as an American Protestant and then discussing “distinguished bigots”. What is a “distinguished bigot”? And how have such people influenced the way in which the Catholic Church is understood and perceived by many Americans today?

Dr. Rodney Stark: By distinguished bigots I mean prominent scholars and intellectuals who clearly are antagonistic to the Catholic Church and who promulgate false historical claims.

CWR: How did you go about identifying and selecting the ten anti-Catholic myths that you rebut in the book? To what degree are these myths part of a general (if sometimes vague) Protestant culture, and to what degree are they encouraged and spread by a more secular, elite culture?

Dr. Stark: For the most part I encountered these anti-Catholic myths as I wrote about various historical periods and events, and discovered that these well-known ‘facts” were false and therefore was forced to deal with them in those studies. These myths are not limited to some generalized Protestant culture—many Catholics, including well-known ones, have repeated them too. These myths have too often, and for too long, been granted truthful validity by historians in general. Of course secularists—especially ex-Catholics such as Karen Armstrong—love these myths.

CWR: The first chapter is on “sins of anti-Semitism,” perhaps the most divisive and controversial of the topics you address. How have your own views on this issue changed, and why? Why do you think there continues to be a wide-spread belief or impression that the Catholic Church in inherently anti-Semitic?

Dr. Stark: When I began as a scholar, “everybody” including leading Catholics knew the Church was a primary source of anti-Semitism. It was only later as I worked with materials on medieval attacks on Jews that I discovered the effective role of the Church in opposing and suppressing such attacks—this truth being told by medieval Jewish chroniclers and thereby most certainly true. Why do so many ‘intellectuals,’ many of them ex-Catholics, continue to accept the notion that Pope Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope,” when that is so obviously a vicious lie? It can only be hatred of the Church. Keep in mind that it is prominent Jews who defend the pope.

CWR: Why have various historians, such as Gibbons, presented the ancient pagans as either benevolent or mostly tolerant toward Christianity? What was the actual relationship between Christianity and paganism in the first centuries of the Church’s existence?

Dr. Stark: In those days, the safe way to attack religion was to let readers assume it was only an attack on Catholicism, so that’s what Gibbon and his contemporaries did. Perhaps surprisingly, once the pagans were no longer able to persecute Christians, they were pretty much ignored by the Church and by emperors and only slowly disappeared

CWR: How did the mythology of the “Dark Ages” develop? What are some of the main problems with that mythology?

Dr. Stark: Voltaire and his associates made up the fiction of the Dark Ages so that they could claim to have burst forth with the Enlightenment. As every competent historian (and even the encyclopedias) now acknowledges, there were no Dark Ages. To the contrary, it was during these centuries that Europe took the great cultural and technological leap forward that put it so far ahead of the rest of the world.

CWR: What relationship is there between the mythology of the “Dark Ages” and the myth of “secular Enlightenment”? How rational and scientific, in fact, was the Enlightenment?

Dr. Stark: The “philosophes” of the so-called “Enlightenment played no role in the rise of science—the great scientific progress of the time was achieved by highly religious men, many of them Catholic clergy.

CWR: The Crusades and the Inquisitions continue be presented as epochs and events that involved Christian barbarism and the murder of millions. Why are those myths so widespread and popular, especially after scholars have spent decades correcting and clarifying what really did (or did not) happen?

Dr. Stark: I am competent to reveal that the Crusades were legitimate defensive wars and that the Inquisition was not bloody. I am not competent to explain why the pile of fine research supporting these corrections have had no impact on the chattering classes. I suspect that these myths are too precious for the anti-religious to surrender.

CWR: In addressing “Protestant Modernity” you flatly stated that Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism birthed capitalism and modernity is “nonsense”. What are the main problems with Weber’s thesis?

Dr. Stark: The problem is simply that capitalism was fully developed and thriving in Europe many centuries before the Reformation.

CWR: You emphatically state that as a scholar with a Protestant background working at a Baptist university you did not write your book as “a defense of the Church” but “in defense of history.” Why is that significant? And, finally, do you think most Americans actually give more credence to history than to the Church?

Dr. Stark: I think the distinguished bigots will have a hard time accusing me of being a Catholic toady, trying to cover up the sins of the Church. The only axe I have to grind is that history ought to be honestly reported. As to your final point: I don’t think ‘most Americans’ will ever know that this book was written. I can only hope that I will influence intellectuals and textbook writers—maybe.”

Love,
Matthew