Category Archives: Baptist

Merit & righteousness – part four & finis, merit


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“A subject which is misunderstood by Protestant apologists just as much as the Catholic view of righteousness is the Catholic view of merit. A lot of this is due to the connotations the term “merit” has in Protestant minds. Normally this is taken to be a synonym in Protestant vocabulary for “earn,” however as we will see this is nothing like what the term means in Catholic theology.

In fact, it has never been what the term meant. It has only gained that connotation from its usage in post-Reformation anti-Catholic polemics. From the very beginning the term was used differently. Thus in the second century the Latin term meritum was introduced as a translation of the Greek term for “reward.”[6] In fact, it was picked over another term (merces) precisely because it lacked the legalistic connotations of meritum. Thus a document released by the German conferences of Catholic and Lutheran bishops states: “[T]he dispute about merit also rests largely on a misunderstanding. The Tridentine fathers ask: How can anyone have doubts about the concept of merit, when Jesus himself talks about ‘reward’ and when, moreover, it is only a question here of acts that a Christian performs as member of Christ? . . . Many antitheses could be overcome if the misleading word ‘merit’ were simply to be viewed and thought about in connection with the true sense of the biblical term ‘wage’ or reward (cf., among other passages, Matt. 20:1-16; 5:12; John 4:36; 1 Cor. 3:8, 14; Col. 3:24). There are strong indications, incidentally—and a linguistic analysis could provide the evidence—that the language of the liturgy does not merely reflect the true meaning of the concept of merit stressed here, but—quite contrary to the Reformers’ fears—prefers to explain what was meant through the word meritum rather than through the term merces (reward), for the very reason that merit sounds less ‘materialistic’ than reward.”[7]

The term merces does in fact have very materialistic connotations. In fact, there is a joke among Latinists concerning Jesus’ statements in the Vulgate of Matthew 6, Receperunt mercedem suam which is jokingly translated “They have received their Mercedes”—the car brand name “Mercedes” being derived from merces.

Because meritum is simply the Latin translation of the theological term “reward,” this reveals to us a fundamental unity of the doctrine of merit and the doctrine of reward, a doctrine which even (most) Protestants acknowledge since the Bible uses the term. In fact, the Bible uses very “materialistic” terms in this regard. The three key terms for reward the New Testament uses—misthos, apodidomai, and misthapodosia mean respectively “wages,” “to deliver or pay off,” “payment of wages due.” It kind of puts a new feel on things when one brings this forward into English and one sees Jesus saying: “Rejoice and be glad, for your wages are great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

“He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s wage, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s wage” (Matthew 10:41).

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your wage will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35).

This kind of puts a different slant on it, and the New Testament is chocked full of this kind of “profit motive” language (see C. S. Lewis’ excellent essay, The Weight of Glory for a Protestant exposition of this point), though translations often obscure the fact. In fact, one may note that Protestant translations tend to translate misthos inconsistently, as “wage” whenever the context is worldly-economic and “reward” whenever it is something promised to believers by God.

Nevertheless, though the New Testament uses highly economic language in speaking of the believer’s rewards (e.g., “He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor,” 1Co. 3:8; “The Lord will repay everyone accord to his works,” Rom. 2:6), it does not in any way intend this language to be taken to mean that Christians earn their place before God.

Thus in Catholic theology, merit is in no way earning, but identical with the concept of reward. Brought about by God’s grace, acts which please God are done by Christians (Phil. 4:18, Col. 1:9-10, 1Th. 4:1, Heb. 13:16, 13:20-21) and God chooses to reward them (Rom. 2:6, 1 Cor. 3:8, 4:6, 2 Cor. 5:10, Gal. 6:6-10, Rev. 2:23, 22:12). These elements, God’s grace, the acts pleasing to God that they bring about, and the reward God chooses to give, are the key elements in the Catholic theology of merit, as we shall see.

The doctrine of merit is thus the same as the doctrine of rewards. To help Protestant readers grasp this and cut through the linguistic confusion experienced on this point because of the associations of the term “merit” in the Protestant vocabulary, they should try substituting “reward” or “rewardable action” or “to perform a rewardable action” for “merit” in what follows. This should cut through the confusion.

In the previous section, we discussed three senses of righteousness—legal, actual, behavioral.[5] In this section we will look at three forms of merit, which we will call congruous, condign, and strict.

In all three forms, there is a similarity between the action and the reward, and it is this similarity which makes it fitting for the reward to be given for that work, which is why the term “merit” is applied. In all cases of merit, an action merits its reward in the sense that the action is similar to the reward in a certain way and thus makes it fitting that the reward be given. The difference between the kinds of merit depends on the kind of similarity between the action and the reward and, correspondingly, it depends on the kind of fittingness there is that the action be given the reward.

Before looking at the three kinds of merit we are concerned with (congruent, condign, and strict), it is helpful to note two kinds that we are not concerned with.

The first of these is natural merit. Natural merit occurs when a person does an action that has natural value but not supernatural value, and which consequently deserves a natural reward. For example, if I do natural labor for an employer, that merits the paycheck I receive in return. Because I am only doing something with natural value (natural labor), the act deserves only a natural reward, such as money, not a supernatural reward, such as glory in heaven.

The only way for a natural task such as doing one’s job becomes supernaturally meritorious (and consequently receiving a supernatural reward), is if one does the natural task at least partly on the basis of the virtue of charity, or supernatural love. Charity is the principle of all supernatural merit, and the only thing God chooses to supernaturally reward. Thus if you give a cup of cold water to a thirsty person for a natural motive, such as to get him off your back or to assuage your guilt, then this will get no reward from God. However, if you perform the natural act partly from a supernatural motive, such as giving the thirsty person a cup of cold water because you supernaturally love him as a creature of God and wish to help him, then this is supernaturally meritorious and will receive a reward from God.

This principle lies behind Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-47)

Even the unregenerate (tax collectors and heathen) have natural love for those who do good to them, and so if we have only natural love for others, we will receive no reward from God (” . . . what reward have you”). God’s love is different, it is supernatural and embraces all people, regardless of whether they do good or not. Thus he sends rain and sun (blessings in an agricultural society) on both the righteous and the wicked, on both his friends and his enemies. Jesus tells us that to be sons of our Father (i.e., to behave as Christians), we must display this same supernatural love that the Father does, and that when we do this we will receive a reward from him.

The same principle lies behind Jesus’ statements in Matthew 6 concerning doing acts of righteousness in front of men. If we do an act of righteousness in front of men, we may be tempted to do it for purely natural motives (i.e., so they will praise us or think well of us), and thus it will receive no reward. The only way for the act to be rewarded is if it is done for supernatural motives—to please God out of love for him—and thus Jesus instructs us (using typical Hebrew hyperbolic language) that if we are going to be tempted to do acts of righteousness for natural motives we should avoid the temptation by doing them in such a way that only God will know about them.

In any event, natural merit is not of interest to us at present because it gains no supernatural reward. Only supernatural merit is of concern here.

The second kind of merit we are not concerned about in this paper is demerit—that is, the kind of merit which is accrued when an action has a negative value and so it is fitting for it to receive a negative reward. This can happen in both natural and supernatural merit, and thus it can be fitting for one to be punished naturally (by being put in jail, fined, spanked or whipped or caned, etc.), as well as being punished supernaturally (by losing the joy of fellowship with God, being denied the sacraments, being tortured in spirit in this life, or going to hell in the next). Demerit is not also not of interest here because we are concerned with the sense in which the term “merit” is objected to by Protestants.

Having said that, let us now look at the three forms of merit in which we are interested—congruent, condign, and strict.

Since we are here talking about supernatural merit, the most basic sort of similarity between the action and the reward is that it is a supernatural action and so makes fitting a supernatural reward. As we said before, the only kind of actions which God supernaturally rewards are those which have a supernatural motive—the virtue of charity, which God implants in our hearts and which it is completely impossible for us to produce ourselves. In fact, according to Catholic theology each new supernaturally motivated act we do requires God to give us a special, new grace (called an “actual grace”) in order to do it. The denial of this was the position known as semi-Pelagianism, which claimed that God gave us all the grace we need at the beginning of the Christian life and that we do not need to be sustained in salvation by new grace, a position which was infallibly condemned by the Church. Thus when supernatural merit occurs, God gives us the supernatural motive to perform the supernatural act to which he then gives a supernatural reward.

This is the principle behind Augustine’s statement: “What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace?—when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us” (Letters 194:5:19).

The basic principle of supernatural merit, therefore, the thing that makes it supernatural, is the grace which God gives to enable there to be a supernatural act in the first place, the only kind of act for which a supernatural reward is fitting.

But in some cases God has not promised a reward. A reward might be fitting, but it may not have been promised. To give a human analogy, if someone holds the door open for me while I have a load of books in my arms (a common event for me), it is fitting that I hold the door for them next time. However, I have not promised to do so, and all things being equal I am not strictly bound to do so. Thus it is fitting for me to hold the door for this person, but there is no strict obligation involved. This is, on a natural human level, what Catholics would call congruent merit.

Congruent merit occurs with respect to God when a person under the influence of actual grace does an action which pleases God but which he has not promised to reward. Some times God chooses to reward the act, sometimes not. For example, if we obey Jesus’ instruction to supernaturally love our enemies and pray for them; however, God has not promised that he will answer our prayers concerning them, and although he is pleased with the prayers we are offering out of supernatural love for them, he may not give them the blessing we are asking for them. It may simply not be God’s will for that to happen. The same is true of prayers for ourselves; even when we pray from supernatural charity we are likely only congruently meriting the thing we are asking for since God has not promised to give it.

The obvious next higher form of merit is one in which God has promised to reward the action. In this case when a person under the influence of actual graces performs the supernatural act, God is not only pleased by the act but he is guaranteed to reward it because he has promised to do so. This kind of merit is known in Catholic theology as condign merit.

One thing it is important to realize about condign merit is that, even though God has promised to reward the at, that does not mean that the act has an intrinsic value equal to the reward it is receiving. If I perform an act of charity and God gives me a heavenly reward in the next life by giving me an additional level of supernatural beatitude, the value of the act I perform in no way equals the value of the beatitude. There may be a proportionality that can be drawn between the amount of charity God’s grace has led me to exercise in this life and the amount of beatitude I get in the next life, but there is no equality between the two values.

The reasons that there is no equality and thus the intrinsic value of God’s rewards always immeasurably exceeds the intrinsic value of our merits is that, as Anselm pointed out in his Cur Deus Homo, the value of an act is proportional to the value of the person making it. Thus I, as a finite being, could never make the infinite atonement Christ did on the Cross (even if I was sinless and always had been). It took a Person of infinite value—the Son of God—to make an infinite satisfaction. Similarly, I, a finite creature, can never merit anything of infinite value, but the beatitude which God bestows upon us in the afterlife is of infinite value because it will be enjoyed for all eternity.

Thus the fundamental basis for all condign merit is God’s promise, not the intrinsic value of the human act, even when it is brought about by God’s grace. Without God’s promise we would have no claim on the beatitude God offers; however, under God’s grace we do indeed claim the promises of God, even though what he promises always infinitely outweighs what we have done by his grace.

If our actions were equal in value to his reward then what would have occurred would be referred to in modern Catholic parlance as strict merit. Strict merit is what would occur when someone gives to God something of equal intrinsic value to the reward he has promised to give. The trick is, only Christ is capable of doing this since only Christ is capable of doing things of infinite value for God. Other humans are totally incapable of this because we lack the infinite dignity of the Godhead supervening on our actions.

Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator” (CCC 2007).

The same themes have been stressed by Catholic theologians for ages, not only by St. Augustine and his famous axiom “when you crown our merits, you crown your own gifts,” but by theologians ever since.

In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “[W]here there is no simple right [to a thing], but only relative, there is no character of merit simply, but only relative . . . [as when] the child merits something from his father and the slave from his lord. Now it is clear that between God and man there is the greatest inequality, for they are infinitely apart, and all man’s good is from God. Hence there can be no justice of absolute equality between man and God, but only of a certain proportion, inasmuch as both operate after their own manner. Hence man’s merit with God only exists on the presupposition of the divine ordination” (Summa Theologiae Ia:114:1).

At the Council of Trent, when the mutual hostilities with Protestants were greatest, the Council fathers wrote: “Christ Jesus himself, as the head into the members [cf. Eph. 4:5] and as the vine into the branches [cf. John 15:5], continually infuses his virtue into the said justified [people], a virtue which always precedes their good works and which accompanies and follows them, and without which they could in no wise be pleasing or meritorious before God . . . [F]ar be it that a Christian should either trust or glory in himself and not in the Lord, whose bounty toward all amen is so great that He wishes the things that are His gifts to be their merits. And since in many things we all offend, each one of us ought to have before his eyes not only the mercy and goodness but also the severity and judgment [of God]; neither ought anyone to judge himself, even though he be not conscious of anything [1 Cor. 4:3-4]; because the whole life is to be examined and judged not by the judgment of man but of God, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts and then shall every man have praise from God . . . ” (Decree on Justification 16).

In the twentieth century, theologian Michael Schmaus writes, “In this connection, it must be remembered that man cannot make any valid claim on God. Since the ‘reward’ give by God always infinitely exceeds what is due man, the word ‘merit’ can only be used analogously. Because of God’s transcendence and the resultant inequality between God and man, merit in the strict sense of the word cannot occur in the relationship between God and man.”[8]

“We would not dare to hope that God would reward the actions of the justified man if he had not promised it; our hope is based on his word. At the same time, the reward is a grace . . . . What is meant [by merit and reward] is not an extrinsic, material repayment for the pain and trouble endured in the accomplishment of good works; it is rather the intrinsic fruit of the action itself.”[9]

“All of this does not, of course, mean that like all good things, the promise of a reward from God cannot be misunderstood and misused. There is a danger that the ill-instructed Christian may hope to gather merit as a basis for bargaining with God, to use his good works as a kind of pledge which God must at once redeem. Needless to say, notions of this sort are very far from the meaning of the scriptural texts and the Church’s teaching” . . . . [That God rewards our merits] “rests on his free decision: he has promised that he will do so, and he keeps his word. Except for this divine promise, no one could flatter himself that his good works would have such an effect.”[10]

And twentieth century theologian Ludwig Ott writes: “Merit is dependent on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting bliss the good works performed by His grace. On account of the infinite distance between Creator and creature, man cannot of himself make God his debtor, if God does not do so by His own free ordinance. That God has made such an ordinance, is clearly from His promise of eternal reward . . . . St. Augustine says: ‘The Lord has made Himself a debtor, not by receiving, but by promising. Man cannot say to Him, ‘give back what thou hast received’ but only, ‘Give what thou has promised'” (Enarr. in Ps. 83, 15).[11]

These quotes, stretching throughout history as they do, from Augustine through Aquinas and Trent and twentieth century theologians into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, show how false and foolish the idea is that the Catholic Church teaches that we earn our place before God. Only Christ as the infinite God-man, whose infinite dignity gives his every action infinite weight, is capable of earning anything before God. So while God’s grace does bring about in Christians actions which please God and which he chooses or even promises to reward, only Christ is capable of doing before God what Protestants mean by the term “merit.” Catholics only say Christians do what God rewards.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[6] Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 70.

[7] The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? Justification III.7.

[8] Schmaus, Dogma 6:138.

[9] ibid., 142.

[10] ibid., 143-4.

[11] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th. ed., 1960, (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1974), 247.

Merit & righteousness – part three, moral realism


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“Another reason why Protestants need to accept the language of objective guilt and innocence is that the Bible itself uses this kind of language. It often speaks of guilt and innocence in terms of objective properties, such as colors or cleanliness. Scripture speaks of our sins being “crimson like scarlet” (Isaiah 1:18), and the Psalmist says “wash me with hyssop and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7). It is also the kind of righteousness Scripture has in mind when it talks about our sins making us “unclean” or “filthy” and our forgiveness making us “pure” and “clean” before God. In these passages, guilt and innocence are conceived of as objectively real properties that cling to us just like colors and cleanliness.

So there is no reason why Protestants need to object to the metaphysical understanding of righteousness that Catholics use. In fact, many Protestants are uncomfortable with using purely legal language for justification and state quite adamantly that justification is not just a legal fiction. That God actually “constitutes” us in righteousness. The only difference on this point is that they do not use the metaphysical understanding of righteousness in order to explain what constituting in righteousness means. But there is no reason why they cannot do so and, as we have seen, there are positive reasons why they should. Thus for example Protestant authors such as Norman Geisler, who are more familiar with the principles of ontology, are willing to talk about actual righteousness being given in justification. Geisler, for example, uses the helpful terminology of speaking of legal righteousness as “extrinsic” righteousness and actual righteousness as “intrinsic righteousness.”

Catholics, for their part, have no trouble saying that a person is legally righteous before God when they are justified. If God constitutes a person in righteousness.  Furthermore, Catholics don’t need to have any problem with saying that our righteousness is brought about by a decree of God. The Catholic can be perfectly happy saying that when we are justified God declares us righteous and his declaration bring about what it says. He declares us righteous, and so our guilt is taken away and our righteousness is restored.

This is something for which there is good Biblical support for. God’s word is efficacious. It accomplishes what it says. In Genesis 1 God spoke and his word brought about the things that he spoke. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. He said, “Let the waters be divided from each other so that dry land may appear,” and they did. He said, “Let the waters teem with living creatures,” and they did. Furthermore, in Isaiah 55:11, God said, “[S]o shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (RSV).

God may sometimes choose to give graces which are incomplete, which do not of themselves bring about their target goal (see the essay, “Resisting and Cooperating With God“), but when God declares something to be so, it is so. God’s word is efficacious; it brings about what it says. So when God declares us righteous, we actually become righteous: we have our guilt taken away and our purity before God restored. This is true even if the righteousness that is being restored is the original righteousness which Adam lost for the whole human race.

Thus in Catholic theology the term “justification” is used to refer to the event by which we are given ontological or real righteousness. Coextensive with this, of course, is legal righteousness, for God will not treat anyone as unrighteous who is really righteous. Similarly, God will not treat as righteous anyone who is really unrighteous. As God declares in Scripture, ‘I will not justify the wicked” (Ex. 23:7)—His holiness prevents it. Thus for God to make someone legally righteous, He also must make them actually righteous; He must constitute them in righteousness. And for God to make someone actually righteous, He must correspondingly make them legally righteous.

So a Catholic need have no problems with the forensic/declaratory aspects of justification. God does indeed declare us righteous, and that is nothing with which a Catholic needs to quarrel. A Catholic also does not need to quarrel about which kind of righteousness is the cause and which is the effect, whether God declares a person legally righteous and that, by the miraculous creative power of his word, makes the person actually righteous, or whether God makes the person actually righteous and therefore declares the person legally righteous. This is a matter of indifference in Catholic theology.

Furthermore, when Catholics talk about progressive justification/sanctification, they are again thinking of God making us ontologically righteous. This is almost totally missed by Protestants when they compare the Catholic view of progressive justification to the Protestant idea of sanctification, which is in turn part of the basis on which they say Catholics confuse justification with sanctification. No, Catholics don’t. They recognize that growth in personal holiness (behavioral righteousness) is a separate and subsequent event to initial justification. The confusion is on the part of the Protestant who thinks Catholics are talking about growth in behavioral righteousness when they talk about progressive justification/sanctification. They aren’t. They’re talking about growth in actual righteousness.

This is sometimes a difficult concept for Protestants to grasp since they have heard so many sermons about righteousness being an all or nothing thing that they have trouble understanding the concept of how righteousness can grow. This is one of the things that keeps them boxed into a two-fold understanding of righteousness. However, the problem is solved when one grasps the concept of actual righteousness, which is not a one-dimensional but a two-dimensional concept.

The first dimension of actual righteousness is its level of purity, which we might refer to as the quality of the righteousness. When one becomes a Christian and is justified, one receives totally pure actual righteousness. There is no admixture of sin or unrighteousness in the righteousness God gives one. Thus in this sense one is made just as righteous as Christ, because the level of purity in Christ’s righteousness and ours is the same.

However, from this point of initial justification one’s righteousness begins to grow during the course of the Christian life. This is the hard part for Protestants to understand since they will ask, “But if we are already made totally pure, how can our righteousness grow from there?” The answer is where the second dimension of actual righteousness comes in. Righteousness does not continue to grow in the first dimension; once total purity has been received, it is not possible for righteousness to grow in that dimension. One cannot go beyond total purity in the quality of righteousness, so righteousness grows in its second dimension—its quantity.

Even though when we first came to God we were made totally righteous in the sense that we became totally pure, we have not yet done any good works, for these are made possible only by God’s grace after justification. The righteousness God have given us may be totally perfect in quality but it is not yet totally perfect in quantity. We may be just as righteous as Christ in the sense that the righteousness God has given us is just as pure as Christ’s, but it is not as extensive as Christ’s because we have not done as many good works as Christ. The tiny little good works we do in our lives—works wrought only by the grace God himself gives us—in no way compare to the huge, overwhelming, infinite good works of Christ, such as his death on the cross. So while we may have just as much righteousness as Christ in terms of its quality (total purity, by God’s grace), we do not have just as much righteousness as Christ in terms of its quantity.

It is in terms of the quantity of righteousness that rewards are given in heaven, and thus because Christ has a greater quantity of righteousness than we do, he also has a correspondingly greater reward. As Paul says: “[B]eing found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:8-10). And as the book of Hebrews declares: “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, . . . for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). And so “in everything he [has] the supremacy” (Col. 1:18).

This understanding of the three kinds of righteousness—legal, actual, and behavioral[4]—enables us to look back at the reasoning of the Protestant apologist we mentioned earlier and see where it goes wrong. One will recall that the apologist reasoned: “Catholics believe we are made righteous when we are initially justified, but they do not believe we are made legally righteous, so they must mean that we are made behaviorally righteous at initial justification.”

Obviously this is false since the Catholic is not boxed into a two-fold view of righteousness. It is natural for the Protestant to think this, since his own thoughts on righteousness are normally limited to legal and behavioral, but in fact that Catholic believes that in justification we are given actual righteousness (and in conjunction with it, legal righteousness, for the two are co-extensive, as well as being given the first stirrings of behavioral righteousness through regeneration). The apologist then reasoned: “They also believe that we grow in righteousness during progressive justification. This has to be growth in behavioral righteousness, because legal righteousness before God cannot grow; you are either legally righteous or you are not. Thus Catholics must mean by ‘progressive justification’ what I mean by ‘sanctification’—that is, growth in behavioral righteousness.”

This is also false because in progressive justification Catholics are again talking about actual righteousness, and actual righteousness does grow in quantity though not in quality.

“However, if it is possible to grow in behavioral righteousness after initial justification, that must mean the Catholic does not believe he was made completely righteous in initial justification.”

This is false because the Catholic does believe we are made completely righteous in terms of the quality of our righteousness (both actually and, consequently, legally) at justification. The growth that occurs later is a growth of quantity, not quality.

“Thus Catholics must believe they are made partially behaviorally righteous during initial justification and then they grow in righteousness during progressive justification, which I call sanctification. Thus they confuse justification and sanctification.”

If Catholics did believe initial justification is to be identified as the event where we are made partially behaviorally righteous, followed by later growth in behavioral righteousness, then they would indeed be confusing justification with the sanctification (as Protestants use the term “sanctification”), because this would merely make justification the first stage of behavioral sanctification. However, while there is a gift of partial behavioral righteousness at the time of justification (because of regeneration, which makes us spiritually alive and no longer dead in our sins, so that the power of sin is broken in our lives and we are no longer enslaved to it, though we do still have to battle it, cf. Romans 6), this gift of partial behavioral righteousness is not what justification consists in. In Catholic language, justification consists in God making us actually righteous (and 100% righteous in terms of quality), which is either brought about by God’s declaring us legally righteous or which brings about this legal declaration.

The confusion is thus not on the part of the Catholic. The Catholic is not confusing justification with sanctification—not confusing our initial reception by God and the growth in behavioral righteousness which follows—the confusion is on the part of the Protestant apologist who has not studied Catholic theology properly (and who probably has never read Catholic sources or has only scanned them looking for “ammo” to use against Catholics, rather than trying to enter into the Catholic thought-world and understand what Catholics really mean rather than what he has been told in sermons and lectures and radio program they mean), and who has thus confused his own understanding of sanctification with the Catholic understanding of both justification and sanctification.

Unfortunately, the misunderstanding the Protestant apologist has concerning these matters leads him into other confusions as well. For example, I have talked to, debated, and read numerous Protestant apologists who, because they are confused about the growth of righteousness, ask questions like, “If Catholics believe we are only made partially righteous in justification and you do good works after this to make this righteousness grow, how do you know when you have done enough good works to go to heaven? How many good works do you have to do?”

Protestants who say this at least have a leg up on those who think Catholics believe we must do good works in order to become justified—a position which was explicitly condemned at Trent, which taught “nothing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification” (Decree on Justification 8).Catholic theology teaches we do not do good works in order to be justified, but that we are justified in order to do good works, as Paul says: “[W]e are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Justification is the cause, not the consequence, of good works.

However, these Protestants are still confused about the fact that Catholics do not teach we are made only partially righteous in justification. The Church teaches that we are made totally righteous—we receive 100% pure righteousness—in justification. Thus Trent declares: “[I]n those who are born again God hates nothing, because there is no condemnation to those who are truly buried together with Christ by baptism unto death . . . but, putting off the old man and putting on the new one who is created according to God, are made innocent, immaculate, pure, guiltless and beloved of God, heirs indeed of God, joint heirs with Christ; so that there is nothing whatever to hinder their entrance into heaven” (Decree on Original Sin 5).

This one quote alone, even without the surrounding infrastructure of Catholic theology, from which the same thing could be deduced, shows how false, foolish, based on inadequate research, and motivated by a lack of comprehension of basic Catholic theological reasons is the whole, “How can you know when you have done enough?” line of argument. Nothing beyond one’s initial justification and regeneration is needed in order to go to heaven. In fact, this is one of the arguments in the Catholic case for infant baptism. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Since the earliest times, baptism has been administered to children, for it is a grace and a gift of God that does not presuppose any human merit; children are baptized in the faith of the Church. Entry into Christian life gives access to true freedom” (CCC 1282).

And also: “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God . . . [And thus] The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant baptism” (CCC 1250).

You don’t have to do a diddly-do-da thing after being justified by God in baptism in order to go to heaven. There is no magic level of works one needs to achieve in order to go to heaven. One is saved the moment one is initially justified. The only things one then does is good works because one loves God (the only kind which receive rewards) and not choose to cast out God’s grace by mortal sin. And even if one does cast it out by mortal sin, the only thing needed to get it back was the same thing needed to get it in the first place—repentance, faith, and sacrament, except the sacrament in this case is confession rather than baptism.

People try to make the Catholic message sound complex, but it’s really simple: “Repent, believe and be baptized; then if you commit mortal sin, repent, believe, and confess. Period.”—even a five year old child can understand that. All the exegesis and infrastructure of catholic soteriology I am giving in this work is strictly not necessary, any more than the exegesis and infrastructure found in Protestant soteriology books is either. From a Catholic perspective, repentance, faith, and baptism are just as easy to get across in an evangelistic appeal as they are for Protestants; in fact, they are easier since one doesn’t have to explain, “Okay, repentance and faith are necessary, but baptism isn’t, but it’s still really important, and so you need to do it, okay?” On the Catholic view, the message of the elements we have to preach is much simpler: Repent, believe, and in the saving waters, receive the righteousness of God.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[4] There is also a fourth kind of righteousness, historical righteousness, which is one’s track-record in terms of righteousness through history. Once historical righteousness has been lost through sin, it cannot be regained since God does not change history when he justifies us. This is something both Protestants and Catholics agree upon, and so this kind of righteousness we do not need to go into in this paper.

[5] Actual may be taken as the middle term between legal and behavioral, since behavioral unrighteous leads to actual unrighteousness, which leads to legal unrighteousness. Similarly, increased behavioral righteousness leads to increased actual righteousness, which leads to increased legal righteous (in the forensic recognition of the quantity of righteousness, though the quality of one’s legal righteousness remains unchanged).

Merit & righteousness – part two, Righteousness


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“One often hears Protestant apologists saying things like, “Catholics do not recognize justification as an event which happens to a person when he first comes to Christ because they confuse sanctification with justification.” This is false on two fronts.

To begin with, Catholics do not confuse the two, thinking there is only one phenomenon when there are really two. Catholics do use the terms “justification” and “sanctification” interchangeably, but they distinguish two (actually, more than two) senses in which these joint-terms can be applied.

First, they recognize what is called “initial justification,” (baptism) which is a single event that happens to a person once, at the beginning of the Christian life and by which one is given righteous before God. Second, they recognize what is called “progressive justification,” which occurs over the course of the Christian life and by which one grows in righteousness, and, eventually, upon death, every individual’s particular judgment by God Who alone can and does judge, hopefully leading to final salvation, accomplished after a lifetime of striving to do God’s will (sanctification).

The Protestant apologist, out of lack of familiarity with the Catholic position, usually jumps on this second phenomenon—progressive justification—and says, “Aha! You see! That’s sanctification! Catholics confuse justification with sanctification!”

But in fact no confusion is going on. Catholics recognize that there are two phenomena; that is why they have given them two different names—initial versus progressive justification. They are not confusing the two events, one instantaneous and one stretched out over time, nor are they confusing the terms; they use the terms consistently, one name for one event, another name for the other. They are simply using the terms differently than Protestants, but it is a logical fallacy of the first caliber to confusing a difference in the use of terms with a confusion in the use of terms.

But there is a second reason why the Protestant apologist’s assertion is false, and this one again springs from a lack of familiarity with the Catholic position, and it concerns the different senses in which the term “righteousness” can be used. Even the Protestants who get past the initial versus progressive issue tend to wrongly assume that what Catholics mean when they talk about progressive justification is what Protestants mean when they talk about sanctification. It isn’t, and the difference between the two turns on the meaning of the term “righteousness.”

For Protestants, the term “righteousness” tends to be used in one of two senses—legal and behavioral. Although they do not always express it in this manner, Protestants will say that in justification one is made legally righteous (i.e., is given legal righteousness by God), but in sanctification one is made behaviorally righteous (i.e., is given behavioral righteousness[2] by God, so that one behaves more righteously than one did before).

The misunderstanding Protestants get into when they look at the Catholic doctrines of initial justification(/sanctification) and progressive justification(/sanctification) is caused by the assumption that Catholic thought on these issues is dominated by the same legal vs. behavioral understanding of righteousness that Protestant thought is dominated by.

Thus the Protestant apologist often reasons to himself like this: “Catholics believe we are made righteous when we are initially justified, but they do not believe we are made legally righteous, so they must mean that we are made behaviorally righteous at initial justification. They also believe that we grow in righteousness during progressive justification. This has to be growth in behavioral righteousness, because legal righteousness before God cannot grow; you are either legally righteous or you are not. Thus Catholics must mean by ‘progressive justification’ what I mean by ‘sanctification’—that is, growth in behavioral righteousness. However, if it is possible to grow in behavioral righteousness after initial justification, that must mean the Catholic does not believe he was made completely righteous in initial justification. Thus Catholics must believe they are made partially behaviorally righteous during initial justification and then they grow in righteousness during progressive justification, which I call sanctification. Thus they confuse justification and sanctification.”

This is an elegant piece of reasoning, and except for a couple of qualifiers I would want thrown in[3], I would not fault it as a piece of logic. However, like all pieces of logic, its soundness is contingent on the truth of its premises, and the Protestant apologist’s piece of logic is based on a hugely, whoppingly false premise—the idea that Catholics are talking about legal and behavioral justification when they are talking about initial and progressive justification.

Because the Protestant’s thought world is dominated—so far as the idea of righteousness goes—by the concepts of legal and behavioral righteousness, he naturally assumes that when Catholic theologians are thinking about righteousness in the same sort of way. This is the false premise that causes the entire argument to go askew. Catholic thought in connection with the terms “justification” and “sanctification” is not dominated by the ideas of legal and behavioral righteousness. Instead, it focuses on a third kind of righteousness which may be called ontological or real righteousness.

Ontological or real righteousness is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does righteous acts. Its opposite, ontological or real unrighteousness, is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does unrighteous acts. Catholics conceive of guilt and innocence as objectively real properties which cling to our souls just like colors cling to the surface of objects. When we sin, we become guilty and our souls grow dark and dirty before God. But when we are justified, God purifies us and our souls become brilliant and clean before him. Guilt and innocence, righteousness and unrighteousness, are therefore conceived of as properties of our souls

Even though Protestants do not normally use this language to talk about justification, there is no reason why they cannot. In fact, the Catholic will point out that there are very good reasons for Protestants to accept the claim that when we are justified God removes one objectively real property of our souls and replaces it with another.

First, moral realism demands it. Protestants are firm believers in moral realism. Our actions are either right or wrong, good or bad, and they are that way objectively, regardless of how we feel about it. Protestants are the first to agree that moral relativism is a crock. If you commit a homosexual act, it is simply wrong and perverted, no matter what you think about it. It’s just wrong. Wrongness is an objectively real moral property that attaches itself to certain actions.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you intentionally commit a objectively wrong act, then you become objectively guilty. Guilt is therefore an objectively real moral property as well. The same goes for positive moral properties, like righteousness. If you intentionally perform an objectively righteous act then you become objectively righteous. Righteousness, like guilt, is an objective property just as guilt is, and it clings to your soul just in the same way that guilt does.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[2] One might also call behavioral righteousness “dispositional righteousness” since it is the change in dispositions that God gives one which produces the change in behavior.

[3] Such as a clarification of the sense in which one is either legally righteous or not-righteous before God, for Hitler was less legally righteous in front of God than the average sinner in the sense that Hitler had racked up more legal/moral crimes before God. However both Hitler and the average sinner are equally legally unrighteous before God in the sense that they lack the total legal righteousness of Christ. They are both equally lawbreakers, but they have not broken the law equally.

Merit & righteousness – part one


-by James Akin (Jimmy Akin is an internationally known author and speaker. As a senior apologist, he has more than twenty years of experience defending and explaining the Catholic faith. Jimmy is a convert to Catholicism and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.)

“Two Catholic doctrines which are phenomenally confusing to Protestants are the Catholic understandings of righteousness and merit. The key reason for this—in fact, virtually the only reason for this—is the different ways in which the two key terms “righteousness” and “merit” are used in the two communities.

Often a given theological term may be used in several different technical senses, and when one sense is common in one community and another sense is common in a different community, terrible confusion and hostility can result.

For example, it is vitally important to distinguish the different senses in which the Greek term theos is used. For example, the term can refer to: (a) an idol, (b) one of the pagan gods, (c) the Christian God (that is, the Being who is three Persons in one Being), or (d) the Person of God the Father.

Now let us consider the statement in Greek, iesous estin theos, which we would normally translate in English as “Jesus is God”—a perfectly ordinary statement of Trinitarian faith. However, this reading of it presupposes that the term theos is being taken in the third sense mentioned above—that is, as a designation for the one Being we call God. If the term were taken in any of the other senses, disastrous understandings would result. Jesus would alternately be declared to be an idol, one of the pagan gods, or God the Father himself (i.e., Sabellianism).

Now imagine two communities of Christians, one of which had developed in such a way that it used the term theos exclusively as a reference to the one Being we call God and one of which had developed so that it used theos exclusively as a Personal name for the Father. If these two communities came into contact with each other, even though they both believed in the doctrine of the Trinity, would immediately be at each others throats, with one declaring “Jesus is God!” (meaning, “Jesus is the Being we call God”) and the other declaring “Jesus is not God!” (meaning, “Jesus is not the Person we call the Father”). Both statements would be equally orthodox in meaning, though not equally orthodox in expression.

In order to prevent this kind of misunderstanding from happening, the Church must prohibit certain expressions from being used (such as “Jesus is not God”) even though they can be given an orthodox reading.

This happened in the 1500s when the Protestant Reformers began to use the term “faith” in a novel way and began preaching salvation by “faith alone.” Throughout Church history the term “faith” has normally been used to mean “intellectual assent to the teachings of Christ” (hence the infidels are those who do not accept the teachings of Christ—Muslims, Jews, etc.[1]).

When the Protestants appeared proclaiming that “man is justified by faith alone” this would instantly be read by the ordinary man in the street as “man is justified by intellectual assent alone”—a position known as easy believism or antinomianism, which even (the good kind of) Protestants themselves reject (since they define faith in such a way that it includes the virtues of hope—trust in God for salvation—and charity—the principle which produces good works in the life of the justified Christian).

The Church was left with no choice but to prohibit the use of the phrase “faith alone.” It would have been grossly misunderstood by the common man (as the fact Protestantism has been plagued since its inception with a battle against internal antinomian factions). And, in fact, the formula “faith alone” is against the language used in the Bible, for while we regularly read in Scripture of justification “by faith”, the only time the phrase “faith alone” appears in Scripture it is explicitly rejected as a means of justification (Jas. 2:24). Even if Protestants can give this text a meaning which does not contradict their doctrine, this does nothing to change the fact that the formula faith alone goes directly against the language of Scripture, even if not against the doctrine of Scripture.

Once two sides of an argument perceive that the other side is using an unorthodox term in an orthodox sense, Scripture prohibits us from fighting about it. Paul orders Timothy concerning his flock: “Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2 Timothy 2:14).

And Paul describes the person who is quarrelsome about words, saying: “[H]e is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:4-5).

However, while Paul is adamant that we are not to engage in quarrels about words (so long as our meanings are the same), he equally insists that the community has a right to retain a normative use for given terms. In fact, he prefaces his description of the man obsessed with words by saying, “If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, etc.” (1 Timothy 6:3-4a).

With this as background on the necessity of distinguishing the different senses in which terms can be taken and on the necessity of a community having fixed meanings for the terms it uses, we can proceed to look at the confusion that exists in Protestant minds concerning the Catholic view of righteousness and merit.”

Love & technical precision for the sake of clarity & peace & love,
Matthew

[1] Infidels are those who have never embraced the Christian faith, as opposed to schismatics, who accept the teachings of Christ but have broken from union with the Church, and as opposed to heretics, who accept some but not all of the teachings of Christ, and as opposed to apostates who have once accepted the Christian faith and then totally repudiated their profession of faith.

Luther’s reflexive faith: “I am saved because I am certain I am.”

“Now reflexive faith, with its insistence on certitude of grace, is intrinsically contrary to the spirituality of the cross, which willingly accepts the trial of darkness.”

-Hacker, Paul. Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (p. 54). Emmaus Academic. Kindle Edition.

“…it must be admitted, and modern research has left no doubt about the fact, that the 95 Theses were completely within the range of subjects open for discussion in the Church. In early 1518, Luther wrote his explanations and proofs of the Theses, the Resolutiones , which he sent not only to his more immediate superiors but also to the pope…

…especially of the Dominican Order, who resented Luther’s views as threatening the practice of selling indulgences. The Dominicans succeeded in inducing the Papal Auditor, Girolamo Ghinucci, to summon Luther to come to Rome. An interrogation was intended with hopes that he could be brought to recant. But then the political situation made a different procedure appear more advisable. Cardinal Cajetan, who was on a political mission in Germany at that time, was entrusted with the examination of Luther’s case. He was ordered to hear Luther and demand the recantation of him. This was a turn of events more favorable for Luther than anything that could possibly be expected in the utterly confused situation. Cajetan was one of the most erudite and clear-sighted theologians of his time…Cajetan clearly perceived the point where Luther was really in danger of lapsing into heresy. The Cardinal prepared himself most thoroughly for the hearing. The notes he wrote down while examining Luther’s writings are extant. Even a stiff anti-Catholic of our days, scrutinizing these notes, has found that Cajetan “understood Luther well,”37 and acknowledged an “admirable insight into the essential”38 as a distinctive feature of the Cardinal’s judgment. Cajetan also differed from other theologians in being quite aware that the doctrine of indulgences was far from being settled in all aspects. Therefore, when he met Luther in Augsburg in October 1518, he picked out only one aspect of that problem. Luther has said in a later letter39 that this aspect was not of ultimate importance to him and that, had he been tried only for this point, he would have been ready to recant. So we may confine ourselves to noting that this first point at issue ultimately involved a question about the spiritual power of the Church.

A second issue, however, was the decisive one for both Cajetan and Luther. This was Luther’s new concept of faith. While preparing himself for the hearing, Cajetan stated briefly Luther’s point, namely “that the sacraments bring damnation to the contrite person if he does not believe that he is being absolved.” Cajetan’s terse comment on this were the prophetical words: “This implies building a new Church (Hoc enim est novam Ecclesiam construere).”40 Luther, in his turn, composed a report on his encounter with Cajetan, known as the Acta Augustana. Here he recounts that the Cardinal criticized as “a new and erroneous theology” his view that it was the “indispensable condition” of justification that man “believe with certitude (certa fide) in his being justified, not doubting of his receiving grace.”41 Thus, Luther’s account and Cajetan’s preparatory notes perfectly agree as to what formed the chief issue. Twenty-eight years later, the Council of Trent declared the doctrine in question to be heretical, in stating: “If anyone says that a man is absolved from his sins and justified by his believing with certitude that he is being absolved and justified; or that no one is really justified unless he believe that he has been justified; and that through this faith alone justification and absolution are perfected: let him be anathema.”42 It is necessary today to recall this canon of the council because there are contemporary scholars who contend that Luther’s conception of faith is not contrary to the Catholic faith, or even assert that the Council of Trent did not “understand” the German Reformer.

Cajetan spoke to Luther not as a private opponent but in his official capacity as representative of the Roman Church, which is the center of unity of the Universal Church. One may describe it as a stroke of luck, but it was certainly providential, that the person whom Luther encountered was a bishop who had penetrated his thought more thoroughly than could possibly be expected of anyone else in Rome at that time. Yet Luther, unfortunately, thought that he was bound in conscience to resist the warning. This is the more amazing as he was here overriding principles which he himself had often proclaimed with great emphasis.”

-Hacker, Paul. Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (p. 50-53). Emmaus Academic. Kindle Edition.

Love & truth,
Matthew

37 Gerhard Hennig, Cajetan und Luther (Stuttgart, 1966), p. 78
38 Hennig, op.cit., p. 49
39 WBr 1, no.110, p. 238, lines 73–76
40 Hennig, op.cit., 56. 41 2, 13, 6–10
42 Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, no.824

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

“Loss & Gain”, Reformed & something missing…


-please click on the image for greater detail

John Thayer Jensen was born in California in 1942 and raised in a non-religious home. At a time of emotional collapse in his life, John was influenced by several Evangelical Christians, subsequently leading to his committing his life to Christ in 1969. He eventually made his way into the Calvinist tradition, and joined a Reformed denomination in New Zealand. He converted to the Catholic faith during the Christmas season of 1995. He has a B.A. in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in linguistics from the University of Hawaii. He lives in New Zealand, where he works at the University of Auckland and plays the horn in a local orchestra. He is also the author of a Yapese Reference Grammar and a Yapese-English Dictionary.


-John Thayer Jensen (right) & his wife, Susan (left)

Introduction

8AM Mass this morning – Father gives us a homily that takes its departure from St Paul’s “thorn in the side” to reflect on our own sufferings and trials. His homily is personal and, at points, touching. He surmises that St Paul’s “thorn” may have been some physical defect, such as poor eyesight, or perhaps a tendency to a personal fault – anger, for instance. We ourselves have our “thorns.” We should remember that God’s grace is sufficient for us; that when we are weak, then we are strong. At the end, he reminds us that Christ had, also, His “thorns” – and Father gestures at his forehead to remind us of them. Not such a bad homily, after all, but aimed at sentiment rather than thought.

The music at this, as with most of our Masses, is negligible. The content of the hymns focuses on God’s unconditional love for us; calls us to be “instruments of peace.” We usually recite the Apostle’s rather than the Nicene Creed – perhaps the latter is too long. Our response to the prayers of the faithful is to chant a Maori version of “Lord, hear our prayer” – though of Maori speakers in the congregation of perhaps 200, there may be one at most.

At our Reformed church, of which we were one of the three founding families, the sermon – 40 minutes or so, by contrast with Father’s 15-minute homily – would have been systematic and Biblical; would have explicated the text of a passage chosen by the pastor; would have related it to Reformed theological themes. The singing was always of metrical psalms – for we wished to be Biblical.

In, therefore, the manner of worship in the two churches, there is a real contrast – though not one that allows me to say this or that is better. The ordinary parish Mass can be pretty lacking in many ways; the Reformed service, on the other hand, was often dry and tedious. Still, I am not a Catholic because of ‘bells and smells.’

At the Reformed Church, once every few months those of us who were communicant members would have attended an addition to the service to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

At Mass today, as every day, the liturgical rite to this point, the homily, the singing, are all, in a way, preface. Now the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar. Father prays over them, using the Church’s liturgy. “This is My Body;” “This is the chalice of My Blood.” We adore what is no longer bread and wine. We receive into our own bodies the Body and Blood of Christ.

Is it this, then, that is the reason why, 20 years after my reception into the Catholic Church, I am still a Catholic? Is this tremendous fact what compensates for the lack, in many parishes, of the “bells and smells” which some of my Protestant friends think drew me into the Church? Not exactly. Not precisely just this – the reception of Our Lord. Let me explain. Certainly it is the Eucharist that keeps me a Catholic – but it is not the Eucharist itself. I could, after all, be Orthodox. The Church – the Roman Catholic Church – assures me that the Orthodox Churches have a valid Eucharist. If I were to attend one of the dozen or so Orthodox Churches in Auckland, I would receive Him – His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – and I would experience a much more satisfying, beautiful, and, not to put too fine a point on it, reverent liturgy. My Orthodox friend tells me of the Divine Liturgy at the Serbian Orthodox Church. It causes my heart to long for the beauty that the Catholic Church could achieve – and does, in some Auckland parishes – approach.

It is not the Eucharist by itself that keeps me a Catholic.

I have written elsewhere of how I became a Catholic. I have been asked by (sadly few) Protestant friends which doctrine or doctrines of the Catholic Church made me a Catholic. Which Reformed teachings did I think wrong; which correct in the Catholic Church? What issue made me a Catholic?

This, I think, is to ask the wrong question. It is to put the cart before the horse; to assume that I became (and remain) a Catholic for what, at bottom, must be ideological reasons.

I became a Catholic to join the Church.

Becoming Reformed

I became a Christian on the night of Saturday 27th December, 1969 – probably, actually, early on the Sunday morning. I was 27 years old. I had had no religious experience at all before the night when, under the influence of LSD, I experienced what may be called an intellectual vision. Though I was aware of only as much of Christ as any completely secular young American may absorb from the surrounding culture, that night I knew that Jesus and the Devil were present to me, and that I could choose. I chose Jesus.

I had chosen a Christ with almost no content. I was at the time virtually without a place in the world. I was in the process of being divorced. I had dropped out of University. I was using drugs regularly. Had this not been the case, I have no doubt I would not so readily have reached out to the Hand offered me – would have been skeptical about there being any Hand at all, or anyone to extend it. I was in the position of a drowning man. Candace’s (my future wife Susan’s sister) testimony to me of her own experience was my only Christian story.

The next day I knew that I must put some content into this tiniest flickering flame of faith. I had no sort of Christian background. Susan had been brought up Anglican, but when I met her, she was not actively attending church. If she had been, it is likely I would have attended Anglican (Episcopal) worship with her. During those first weeks of 1970, I heard radio advertisements for Prince of Peace Lutheran Church’s evening youth services (complete with electric guitars). Sue and I began attending. Pastor Norman Hammer baptised me on the 26th of July, 1970. By then I was no longer a Lutheran.

By that statement, I mean that by then I was already a non-Sacramentalist. I was – albeit not very consciously – in the evangelical camp. This came about because I was being catechised by some wonderful people connected with an organisation called Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru). Campus Crusade is non-denominational. I do not think they would have objected if people involved with them were Catholic. Nevertheless, at least in our group, the default assumptions were evangelical; indeed, were Baptist. At no point could I have said that anyone presented me with any doctrines other than that Jesus had died for our sins, the Holy Spirit was there to help us live as we ought, and that we ought to bring others to faith in Christ.

But when, sometime after my own baptism in the Lutheran Church – perhaps around the end of 1970 – I listened to the words Pastor Hammer said in baptising a child: something along the lines of ‘God, Who has regenerated you by water and the Spirit…’ – I was shocked. I had by then read a certain amount of Lutheran theology (including much of Luther), but a greater amount of Baptist (and dispensationalist) theology. I knew, I would have said, that baptismal regeneration -was wrong. It was a form of magic. We were born again by believing. By 1971 I had persuaded Susan that we must become Baptists. We joined International Baptist Church. We were married there on 20 May, 1972. We were still members of that church on 31 January, 1973, when we left Honolulu for my first post-University job lecturing in linguistics at the University of Auckland.

In Auckland, we joined Hillsboro Baptist Church. It was near the flat we lived in. It was Baptist. But by now I was already on my way into the Reformed Church.

From the morning that I turned to Christ, I read. I read voraciously. I read the Bible through – have done about once a year since. I already knew Greek, as my degrees are in linguistics. I taught myself Hebrew. I began reading Christian writers.

John Calvin

Being in a Lutheran Church at the start, I read Luther, and Lutheran authors: Helmut Thielicke is the one I best remember. But soon, from the Campus Crusade influence, I began reading others. I read Spurgeon. I read a lot of dispensationalist authors. I read many popular writers. I read Lewis Sperry Chafer’s multi-volume Systematic Theology. I was introduced to Calvin (by Spurgeon) and read the Institutes. And I read church history – Philip Schaff’s three-volume history, a number of other works. I cannot, at this time depth, remember the names of most of the writers whose books I read.

And, slowly, I was becoming convinced that the Baptists, excellent although they were, were inadequate. In particular, their theology seemed to me simplistic; and they were so extremely clearly a very recent innovation in the history of Christianity.

For I had some independent knowledge of Christianity through historical study. I knew, in particular, that traditional Christian worship had baptised infants. The Baptists argued, of course, that this was an error. It was difficult for me to believe that almost all Christians through most of history had been wrong on this point. And I knew, as well, that Christian worship had been more … well, formal! … through most of its history.

Amongst the authors I had been reading, I especially found the writings of R. J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Cornelius Van Til, and others in the Calvinist line convincing. Their theology was much more satisfying. I had become, by now, a Calvinist Christian. There were, of course, Calvinist Baptist churches in New Zealand. But there was a group called the Reformed Churches of New Zealand that was Calvinist, and baptised infants. The covenantal theology they taught to justify baptising infants convinced me. Sue and I began attending a Reformed Church. At the beginning of 1975 we joined the Avondale Reformed Church. When John, our first child, was born on 12 July, 1975, he was baptised there. When we left Auckland for me to work in the Education Department of the island of Yap, our official church membership remained with Avondale Reformed Church. We were members of Reformed Churches until 1995, when we left to become Catholics.

Being Reformed

I was excited about being Reformed – and I continued reading Reformed writers. I was reading van Til. Rushdoony had led me to him. Rushdoony led me also to Gary North, whose wife is Rushdoony’s daughter. And Gary North led me to Jim Jordan.

Jim Jordan was a Calvinist – at least I believe he would accept the label. However, by contrast with some more doctrinaire Calvinists, he was also interested in good thought wherever it could be found – whether amongst Protestant writers, or Orthodox, or Catholic. His own background had been Lutheran. He wrote exciting things. He seemed to think that we Calvinists had thrown out the liturgical baby when we had thrown out the legalistic bathwater of the Roman Church. He thought we ought to have Communion every Sunday. He thought baptized children should receive Communion. He thought the Reformed liturgy should look a lot like the Anglican – even, in some respects, the Catholic – liturgy.

We lived eight years in Yap. Our three other children – Helen, Eddie, and Adele – were born there. When, on our 12th wedding anniversary – 20 May, 1984 – we returned to Auckland, it was to start a Reformed Church – and I returned as an evangelist of Jim Jordan.

Reformed Church

Although my degrees are in linguistics, I have been involved in computer programming since my first year at University, in 1960. The computer was a tool for my linguistics. In Yap, in 1977, I had ordered my first personal computer. By 1980, I was doing more computing in aid of the Education Department’s needs than in relation to linguistics. And in 1980, two of my dearest friends – one now a Reformed minister – made an agreement with me, that if I moved to Pukekohe, a satellite town of Auckland, Richard would sponsor us as the nucleus of a Reformed Church. In 1983, based on my computing experience, I was offered a job as a programmer with the firm Ross then worked for in Auckland. Susan and I moved to Pukekohe. At the beginning of 1989 the Pukekohe Reformed Church was formally instituted.

I was Reformed – but I was also a disciple of Jim Jordan. I was sure that Jim was right about so much. One thing that he pressed was that communion should be a part of every Sunday’s worship. So I pressed my elders – and they agreed to move from a position of quarterly communion to bimonthly communion. Another matter that I was very hot about was the age of communion. Jim said that the qualification for receiving communion ought to be baptism. Baptism, not a certain age. But in our church in Pukekohe, to be a communicant member was to be able to vote in congregational matters. The age of Communion, said our elders, was ‘marriageable age.’

I became very upset about this. None of our children could commune. I wrote an angry letter to Session about the matter, accusing them of the ‘sin’ (my word) of withholding communion from the baptised. This event proved a turning-point in my growth. I was asked to meet with them. I was very angry. I was sure I was right and they were wrong. What they said to me had nothing to do with the question of who was right on the issue. What they did was to explain that Christ had established His Church as His agent in the world. It was up to the Church to spread the Gospel – and to govern the Kingdom. I had stated that I believed this, that I considered them, the elders of Pukekohe Reformed Church, my ‘rulers’ (Hebrews 13:17). If I wished to take the matter up, it could not begin with my accusing them of sin. It could be a matter for discussion.

In becoming members of a Reformed Church, we answer ‘I do’ to four questions in the Public Profession of Faith. The fourth is this:

“Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”

For the Reformed Churches of New Zealand belief in a visible Church was an essential. From a section of Church Government:

“The New Testament places a great deal of emphasis on the visible church, that is, on particular churches in each place where God is gathering His people together. The apostle Paul wrote Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians and the apostle John wrote letters to 7 churches in Asia Minor as dictated by Christ Himself. Our Lord Himself gave His church a procedure for dealing with sin in the congregation which makes clear that the church He is building comes to expression in visible congregations. The apostle Paul writes specific instruction to Timothy and Titus so that they might “know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).”

All of this makes clear that the visible church and how it is run (church government) is very important to our Lord. I may not have been completely Calvinistic; I was very definitely a churchman. I was shocked. I still thought I was right about the age of Communion. But I knew they were right about the Church. I wrote a statement retracting my intention to accuse them of sin. The matter itself rather faded out after that – but I was changed. I knew that they were right about the Church.

Something Missing

From 1975 I considered myself Reformed. Yet I felt a constant sense of something missing. I longed for … I knew not what. Although I had had no Christian upbringing at all, I had, in my imaginative life, an important exposure to Catholicism. As a teenager, I had read – and been deeply moved by – Sigrid Undset’s Lavransdatter. I have never been a keen reader of historical romances, but Kristin stuck with me. When I was at University, I found it in the library and read it again – and was so moved as to read also Undset’s The Master of Hestviken. That book gave me something I had never had before: a knowledge why Christianity made such a point of Jesus’s death. Olav, the ‘Master’ of Hestviken, hurrying home to his dying wife, is in an unconsecrated church – and meditates on the meaning of Christ’s Passion.1

Jesus thought He was God, dying for the sins of men!  I read this passage, and wept. I was staggered by such a conception.  It did not occur to me to wonder if this could be true.

Indeed, I do not know what content I might have put into a statement: ‘this man thinks he is God.’ I only knew that I was deeply moved by this idea, by the idea of this religion – and I identified this religion with Catholicism.

Until the night I became a Christian, I had little or no exposure to any religious ideas. Providentially, after my conversion, the writer I read and returned to time and time again with a real longing was C. S. Lewis.

But Lewis was not a Catholic.  Am I, perhaps, talking about Christianity in the ‘mere’ sense of Lewis’s “Mere Christianity?”

I do not think I am. The fact is that all of Lewis’s instincts are Catholic. His view of salvation as a ‘good infection’ (Mere Christianity) seems to me more akin to the idea of infused righteousness than that of the Reformed imputed righteousness. His writing is at odds with Calvinism at many points. I knew this, without really knowing how I knew it. All the 20 or so years I considered myself Reformed, I continued to read Lewis – but felt guilty doing so. I read him in secret. I would become unhappy about my Reformed worship in tears, at times – and would retire to my private office to read Lewis.

By 1991, I was thinking more and more about the Catholic-like practices: the Lord’s Supper as part of each Sunday church service, kneeling for prayer, a liturgy that more closely resembled what I thought of as Anglican but which was, really, Catholic. More accurately, my emotions were drawn more to these and similar things. Some songs that we sang before the service began – as I said above, we only used psalmody during the service itself – were translations of old Catholic hymns. One of my favourites was O Jesus Joy of Loving Hearts – a translation of St Bernard’s Jesu Dulcis Memoria.

Although this feeling is not the reason I became a Catholic – I could only become a Catholic because I believed it to be true – yet I think this emotional and instinctive feeling of missing is essential in explaining why, when I suddenly encountered the idea that Catholicism might be true, I was filled with a terrible fear – lest I be deceived – but with a great and deep joyous longing – that it might be true.

The Catholic Storm

In 1993, as part of my work as, by now, computer system administrator at the University of Auckland, I was connecting to the infant Internet. Today, the Internet is a part of everyone’s life. In 1993 it was my entry into a world I had not known existed. People from all around the world met together in this place. I discovered a Christian discussion group. There were people from all flavours of Christianity – including Catholics.

I had no conception of Catholics as … well, in truth, I had no conception of Catholics at all. My ideas were in fact simply imaginary stereotypes of one sort and another. There were Catholics here who seemed to understand the Christian faith – and to be convinced Catholics. I involved myself in one or another discussion – principally defending Catholics against Protestant misconceptions I knew not to be true.


Blessed John Henry Newman

Someone mentioned a Reformed minister who had become a Catholic. I was electrified. I had never heard of anyone becoming a Catholic. I knew of any number of examples of Catholics becoming Protestants. Who was this, I asked? The name Scott Hahn was given. Who was he? What did he write? My University library could have books of his.

‘No,’ someone said, books in the University library were unlikely. He had recorded tapes about his own conversion. If I was interested in books about Catholic converts, had I ever read Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua?

I had not. I had, however, heard of Newman. Newman was respectable in University circles, for he had written The Idea of a University, and University people read it, though I never had.

Francis Schaeffer had been an important early influence on me. In a taped talk of his that I had listened to, he had implied that Newman’s conversion to the Catholic Church had been dishonest. Newman had, Schaeffer had said, been exhausted by his struggles with liberalism. Newman, Schaeffer said, had wanted an infallible Church so that he would no longer need to work things out for himself. He had, in Schaeffer’s words, gone into the darkness of the Church and shut the door behind him.

I was terrified at being known to be seriously interested in Catholicism, but Newman was different. I thought of his writings as ‘serious literature.’ I went to the University library and got out Newman’s Apologia and his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. At about the same time I received, from one of the large number of kind, concerned persons in the Internet discussion group, a copy of Scott Hahn’s conversion tape, and one of Kimberley Hahn’s own story. I read both books in secret – I did not want my wife to know what I was doing! – and listened to the tapes, in my office, with earphones – instantly switching to the radio when Susan came in.

On 22nd September, 1993 – my 51st birthday – I knew I was in trouble. I had long since come to believe that many Catholic practices – such as communion as a part of every Church service – and some beliefs – such as Purgatory (which I had got from Lewis) were desirable and Biblical. As I finished reading Newman and listening to Hahn, I was horrified to find that I had come to think that the question was not what whether Reformed Christianity ought to bring back some Catholic practices and beliefs; the question was whether Jesus had in fact established a visible Kingdom on earth – and that that Kingdom might simply be the Catholic Church.

The ensuing ten months were the stormiest of my life. I have detailed something of what I experienced in the 1998 piece I referenced above. I re-read much of what I had read before in becoming, and being, Reformed. Many good people on the Internet sent me books, both for and against the Catholic Church. I consulted many on the Internet. I talked with the elder in our Reformed church who had been assigned as our family’s pastor. I talked (endlessly) with my family. I prayed. I prayed. I prayed.

Gradually, especially through reading Newman and other Catholic writers, I came to understand that the approach my Protestant – and a few Catholic – friends urged on me could not but fail. This approach was to compare the teachings of the Catholic Church with those of other Christian groups and to decide which taught the truth. In the nature of things, this could not succeed.

How was I to know which group taught the truth?
I was told I should consult the Bible. I should compare the teachings of the individual churches with what the Bible taught, and see which was most Biblical. But:
Why the Bible?
What books were the Bible?
What did the Bible teach?

The Bible is not, prima facie, a communication from God. As far back as 1985, in discussions with my Reformed pastor, I had been told that the truth and inspired character of the Bible had to be presupposed. I had to start with it; could not infer its nature from some other facts. If I did so, I was believing in myself, not in the Bible.

Further, in that same conversation, I had to presuppose the accuracy of the list of books in the Bible – in the Protestant Bible, forsooth! – in order to begin to think at all. Neither what the Bible was, nor what books constituted the Bible, were matters that could be proved from more fundamental premises. If I did so, I was believing in myself, not in God’s Word.

These considerations, nevertheless, were not of overwhelming practical importance. The contents of the Bible – at least the bulk of it, and, a decisive point, the New Testament – were agreed on by most Christians. I could start with the Bible in good company. The difficulty was with the teachings of the Bible.
For the Bible does not teach. The Bible records. People teach.

Some told me that the Sacraments were symbols only. Some told me that they were covenants that God made with me, but were not something independent of my faith in them. Some said that they were real things. For example, if I were baptised, God’s life was really made to exist in me, quite apart from my faith. Some said that there were two Sacraments, but I knew that most of Christians through most of history thought there were seven.

I was told that it was the clear teaching of Scripture that Baptism was a conscious testimony to the world of having been saved (and therefore should not be applied to infants). I was told that faith alone saved me – but that if my faith were alone – that is, did not show itself in works – that I had not truly believed.

The arguable nature of practically every Christian notion, from the very fundamental (the divinity of Christ; the personality of the Holy Spirit) to the smallest detail (must women cover their heads in Church?) cannot be doubted. All these issues are argued from the Bible. To discern the Church by its agreement with the Bible would be, in fact, to discern the Church by its agreement with my understanding of the Bible.

So I did what I had always done: I read. I re-read Van Til and Rushdoony; Luther and Calvin. I read many new books, books arguing for the truth of Catholicism and books arguing for its falsity. By June of 1994, nine months later, crisis came. I had read intensely. I had begun (in fear and trembling) attending weekday Masses at the University Newman Centre. I grew more and more terrified.

On a bus one sunny winter afternoon in June of 1994, I experienced fugue. It was not quite full loss of identity, but a terrifying state nonetheless. I had the dreadful conviction that God was determined that I must choose – and that He had determined that I would choose wrong, and be condemned for that choice. I got off the bus at a random stop. I thought I did not know where I was nor where I was going. I sat on a bench for perhaps an hour, simply trying to calm down.

In the event I did the only thing I could do: I rejected a malicious God, a God who was not only hidden but deliberately deceptive. I consciously refused to believe in such a God. If, I thought, I did my best to find the truth, either I would make the right decision, or God would lead me from there to the right decision. It was a turning point.

As it happened, Ronald Knox’s excellent book The Belief of Catholics was my freedom. Knox freed me, in particular, from the presuppositionalist trap. Speaking of the necessity of the use of ‘private judgement’ in approaching the Church, Knox says:

“Let me then, to avoid further ambiguity, give a list of certain leading doctrines which no Catholic, upon a moment’s reflection, could accept on the authority of the Church and on that ground alone.
The existence of God.
The fact that he has made a revelation to the world in Jesus Christ.
The Life (in its broad outlines), the Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The fact that our Lord founded a Church.
The fact that he bequeathed to that Church his own teaching office, with the guarantee (naturally) that it should not err in teaching.
The consequent intellectual duty of believing what the Church believes.”

That which I had begun to see in reading Newman Knox now made clear for me. Jesus left (again, in Knox’s words) not Christianity but Christendom. He left no writing; He left an authoritative body – His Body! He established a Kingdom. He fulfilled His holy people Israel, by incorporating them, with the Gentiles who would believe in His Name, into His own Body. This Body had an earthly as well as a Heavenly unity. This Body had come down to our own time. It was the Catholic Church. On a ‘plane from Wellington to Auckland at the end of July, 1994, I prayed: “Lord, I will never dot every ‘i’ or cross every ‘t.’ But I know enough to be certain that if You were to tell me I was to die tonight, I would want a priest. If You do not stop me, I am going to become a Catholic.

Coming Into Harbour

The ensuing seventeen months were characterised by frequent storms; a variety of obstacles had to be overcome. The article I referenced earlier describes this period in some detail. By late December, 1995,I had parted, in real tears and grief, with our Reformed minister, the elders, the congregation that we had been instrumental in establishing. Susan, my wife, and our four children, had all determined to enter the Catholic Church. We had gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). On the 23rd December, the day before we were to be received, the Diocese of San Francisco had judged my first marriage to be invalid (due to lack of due discretion).

That day – Saturday 23 December – we spent at the Sister’s house, making our retreat; making our first Confession (a terrifying, and, in the event, unspeakably good, experience). On Sunday morning – Christmas Eve – we affirmed:

“I believe and hold, what the Church believes and teaches.”

That confession contains, it seems to me, the essence of what it means to be a Catholic. It is not that I have sought the truth about this or that religious position, and then found that the Church agrees with me. The asymmetry of the Confession is precisely correct. It is the Church that teaches; I hold. The Church had accepted our Protestant Baptism as valid, so we were confirmed and received our first Communion. We were Catholics.

Looking Back

In 1848, Newman published Loss and Gain – his first publication after he was received into the Church on 9 October, 1845. In the novel, Charles Reding loses much – especially his family’s favor. In the event, the reader is told what he gained. An hour after his reception into the Church:

“[Charles] was … kneeling in the church of the Passionists before the Tabernacle, in the possession of a deep peace and serenity of mind, which he had not thought possible on earth. It was more like the stillness which almost sensibly affects the ears when a bell that has long been tolling stops, or when a vessel, after much tossing at sea, finds itself in harbor.”

I recall, with sadness, our Reformed pastor telling me, the night at the end of 1994 when I told him that I must become a Catholic, that this was yet another wild swing of my heart and mind; that within three years I would have left the Church; perhaps become a Muslim, or a Hindu. Newman, in the Apologia, concludes the history up to his reception, by writing:

“From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no changes to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment. I never have had one doubt. I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any difference of thought or of temper from what I had before. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.”

So it has been with me. In the almost twenty years since I became a Catholic, our lives have gone through many changes. Our children have all grown up, of course, and left home. One has left the Church – indeed, for a time, struggled with belief in God, though now he is a keen Evangelical Christian. Sue and I have seven grandchildren. We are members, now, and, indeed, for the last seventeen or eighteen years, of Opus Dei, an organisation which helps us to seek holiness and sanctification in daily life. It is as difficult for me to imagine not being a Catholic as it would be for me to imagine having had different parents than I have. In John’s Gospel, Andrew and hear John Baptist refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” They respond:

“And the two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned round, saw them following and said, ‘What do you want?’ They answered, ‘Rabbi’ – which means Teacher – ‘where do you live?’ He replied, ‘Come and see’; so they went and saw where he lived, and stayed with him that day. It was about the tenth hour” (John 1:38-39).”

I said above, at the end of the first section, that I had become a Catholic, not because the Church believes this or that doctrine, which I know on other grounds to be true. I became a Catholic to join the Church. I became a Catholic because that is where Jesus lives: in His Body, the Church; in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. I became a Catholic to join the Church.

1 ‘Meditates!’ What a bloodless word for what I experienced! For those interested, the passage is in the last chapter, chapter 15, of the second volume of the English translation of the work, beginning with the words “The snow crunched under their feet as they came outside.”

Love,
Matthew

Questions from friends…


-by Trent Horn

Questions From Friends

When I was considering joining the Catholic Church I sat down with some of my non-Catholic friends to see if they could talk me out of my decision. They were Christians, but they didn’t consider themselves to be “Protestants.” Instead, they called themselves Evangelicals or just “Christ-followers.” Regardless, their response to my decision to become Catholic surprised me.

One of the girls said, “As long as Catholics believe in Jesus then I don’t think it’s a big deal.” Another chimed in, “I mean, we’re never going to know which church is the right church or even if there is such a thing, so why worry?”

That answer didn’t satisfy me so I asked them, “Don’t you wonder if one of the churches that exists today can be traced back to the Church Jesus founded? Don’t you wonder which church Jesus wants us to join?”

The First Christians

My question was met with a collective shrug and a simple recommendation that I just “believe in Jesus,” but that wasn’t good enough for me. How did my Evangelical friends know we only have to believe in Jesus to be saved? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Do we have to be baptized to believe in Jesus? Do we have to receive Communion? If I stop believing in Jesus will I lose my salvation?

I wanted the answers to these questions so I decided to study what the very first Christians believed. These were the believers who lived just after the apostles. If there was one church I wanted to belong to, it was their church.

In the time of the apostles believers were called “Christians,” but the Church was not called “the Christian Church.” It was simply referred to as “the Church,” as is evident in Luke’s description of what Paul and Barnabas did in the city of Antioch. He said, “For a whole year they met with the Church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

A few decades later St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to Christians who lived six hundred miles away, in the coastal city of Smyrna (located in modern Turkey). He said, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

An Old Baby Photo

“How can today’s Catholic Church with all of its traditions and rituals be the same the humble Church we read about in the New Testament?” It’s a good question, but it’s sort of like asking, “How can that fully grown man be the same little boy whose diaper had to be changed decades earlier?” In both cases the body being described grew and developed over time without becoming a different kind of being.

The man, for example, has many things he did not have as a baby (like a beard he needs to shave). But he also has many of the same things he did have as a baby. This includes the same DNA that guides his growth and gives him features like “his father’s nose,” which can be seen in his old baby photos. In the same way, the Catholic Church, which St. Paul calls the Body of Christ (Eph. 5:23), has the same “DNA” as the Church of the first century: the word of God. This word is transmitted both through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and you can see its effect in one of the Church’s “old baby photos.”

One particular “photo” comes from the second century, when St. Justin Martyr wrote about how when Christians gathered to worship, they “offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place.” After that, they “salute one another with a kiss,” the presider at the service takes bread and wine and does the following:

[He] gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.

Justin’s description corresponds to the prayers of the faithful, the exchange of peace, the offering of bread and wine, and the “great amen” that are still said at Catholic services today. Justin goes on to say that the bread and wine at Mass are not mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but are instead “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” This doctrine, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is one the Catholic Church still teaches and defends.

Here are some other examples of what the first Christians believed. Can you see the resemblance to what Catholics believe today in these other “baby photos”?

  • Submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ.—St. Ignatius A.D. 110.
  • Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.—Tertullian, A.D. 203.
  •  The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.—Origen, A.D. 248.
  • Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner.—St Cyprian, A.D. 251.

Why We Believe: The Catholic Church

  • Jesus established a Church built on the apostles that included a hierarchy, or sacred order, that included deacons, priests, and bishops.
  • Only the Catholic Church can trace its authority back to the apostles and their immediate successors.
  • The Catholic Church has maintained in her current teachings the ancient doctrines of Christ, the apostles, and the early Church.”

Love,
Matthew

Bible study: Acts of the Apostles


-“Saint Paul”, Bartolomeo Montagna, ~1431 AD


-by Casey Chalk

“Ecumenical Bible studies: they are often demonstrations of the best and worst of Christian dialogue. In their most beneficial form, they offer opportunities for members of various Christian traditions, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, or various strands of Evangelicalism, to share their own rich understandings and applications of Biblical literature. Alternatively, they can devolve into unprofitable contests of “name that Scripture verse” to support some particular doctrine — justification by grace through faith alone, Petrine primacy, infant baptism, you name it. A tendency among those Christians eager to “keep the peace” in a setting featuring divergent theological beliefs and practices is to try to find common ground, lowest common denominators, and “non-negotiables.” Such attempts can themselves be profitable, though at times the result is a conversation lacking any theological depth, the participants so frightened of controversy and of offending one another that folks reduce themselves to “this is how this Scripture verse speaks to me” comments. Better than nothing, I suppose, though certainly less than what we are called to do as Christians when approaching Holy Scripture. It’s hard to imagine St. Paul walking into a synagogue in Corinth and declaring in firm confidence to the Jews present: “You may have your own interpretations of the Torah, which may be equally true, but let me tell you what this Scripture means to me!” Is there any way for Christians of different theological stripes to bridge the gap? In this post I will propose an alternative way to read and discuss Scripture that I think offers opportunity for more fruitful exchanges between Christians.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in ecumenical Bible studies is that individuals from different traditions have certain “voices” speaking to them when they sit down to read Scripture, and it’s not that we are all schizophrenics. What I mean is that no one really sits down to read their Bible in a vacuum, as if one could really isolate their reading in such a way that it was just that person, the Holy Spirit, and the text. Rather, we read Scripture with all manner of unavoidable influences: what others have told us about the text, what we have read others say about the text, what influence the text may have had on our lives (presuming we’ve read it before), what associations we have with certain words or ideas in the text, and so on. Truly, there’s no such thing as “me and my Bible” — it’s me, my middle-school youth group leader, my first “Teen Bible,” the pastor at my church, Christian radio, that course I took in college, what my significant other believes, and on and on.

To take a more doctrinal view, some Protestants will be reading their Bibles in light of doctrines prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism (say, Rick Warren or Philip Yancey), Reformed thought (say, John Piper or R.C. Sproul), or even the “emergent church” movement (think Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or William P. Young’s The Shack). Catholics, on the other hand, will read their Bibles in light of popular Catholic thinkers like Scott Hahn or Bishop Robert Barron, and probably with various Magisterial teachings from Church councils or papal doctrinal statements floating around in the background, as well. None of these influences, I would argue, can be easily put aside in an ecumenical Bible study, because their mark on our thoughts and practices runs deep. But neither can members of different traditions just accept an opposing position, as if an evangelical would say, “fine, I’ll just put my opinions on hold for the next hour-and-a-half and act as if whatever the Pope says is true.” We do indeed need some “common ground” beyond just picking up the Bible and starting to read it together, and it needs to be more than just some overly-deferential and vapid validation of everyone’s opinions. Since the New Testament, and particularly Paul’s letters, are one of the more popular texts for Bible studies, I want to focus my attention there. In this case, I propose that reading Paul in light of another New Testament text, the Book of Acts, can reap ecumenical dividends.1

Why Acts?

Using Acts as an interpretive “lodestar” can be an effective tool for ecumenical dialogue because it itself is something everyone at the table should already agree on: it’s Scripture! There shouldn’t be any Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox asserting their defiance to the book, as if it represents some subtle means of asserting one’s particular theological tradition over the conversation. In addition to this fairly obvious point, I can identify at least three other good reasons why Acts can be an interpretive lodestar — meaning, just as certain stars in the sky, like Polaris, can serve as a guide the course of a ship, so Acts can serve as a guide or reference point for reading Paul.

The first is that Acts is history, specifically, the history of the early Church during part of the Apostolic age. Generally speaking, reading a history of a particular era shines light on the “primary texts” of that era, helping contextualize and make sense of that historical period. Consider this example: let’s say you want to learn about the American Civil War. There are many great collections of letters, diaries, and memoirs regarding this historical period: Elijah Hunt Rhodes, Sam Watkins, Mary Chestnut, etc. You could certainly pick up one of them and just start reading. But will much of the text make sense to you, especially if you have little knowledge of that period? If your goal is to answer certain broad contextual questions regarding the Civil War, like “what were its causes?,” “who were the most important people?”, “what were the most important events”?, and “how and why did it end?”, these texts will not provide a systematic or thorough answer. Indeed, they weren’t intended to, because they were occasional, meaning written in reaction to a certain occasion. Elijah Hunt Rhodes, an enlisted soldier in the Union Army, didn’t intend his journal to be a history — he was simply recording his own personal experiences. In order to have a history in the modern sense, one needs a book (or books) written by someone who has read scores of primary and secondary sources, interviewed people, and visited important sites. You need a general history.

The Book of Acts is, in a sense, exactly that kind of general history. It is an overview of the major events and themes of the early Church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension into heaven around A.D. 33, and ending when St. Paul was imprisoned in Rome (probably around A.D. 60). Of course, for us as twenty-first century readers, Acts is itself a primary source of information about the early Apostolic Church, but it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a type of “secondary source,” or maybe more accurately a “proto-secondary source.” The author, St. Luke, very explicitly says in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that his research is a compilation of information based on eyewitness testimony. If we read Acts first, and read Paul’s letters (or any other letters in the New Testament, for that matter), in light of what we know about the Church in Acts, we are sure to reap interpretive rewards.

A second reason to understand Acts as a general history is an argument from literature. Consider this analogy: if you wanted to know about Jane Austen and her literary corpus, reading all of her literature would give you quite a few details about her: her own life, and the major themes and ideas of her writing. But it would still be incomplete, because reading Austen’s work doesn’t tell you a lot of important things about her, information that would illuminate much of her books. If you were to read other works by authors who have done research on Austen, or who have sought to compile a biography of her life, you would be able to grasp more fully what she is trying to accomplish in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

St. Paul’s letters are themselves a genre of literature, what scholars often call epistles, a type of formal letter. If you want to understand St. Paul, his life, the themes and doctrines that defined his theological understanding, you could read only the thirteen letters ascribed to him. Yet this would be woefully incomplete, especially given that the Book of Acts contains so many details about his life and teachings. Indeed, in addition to his conversion story (related three separate times!) and his missionary activity, Acts features several sermons of St. Paul, giving an additional important aspect to interpreting his teaching. Moreover, St. Paul is the main character of the second half of Acts, so much so that he is mentioned 131 times in the entire book. If you know Acts, you will better know St. Paul.

Finally and somewhat obviously is the organization of the New Testament itself. One may know that the books of New Testament are not listed in chronological order. In chronological order, the first book of the New Testament would likely be the Gospels of Matthew or Mark, or possibly Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Then would be most of Paul’s epistles, followed by the Gospel of Luke, then Acts, possibly some more epistles, and finally the Gospel of John and Revelation. Yet in our our Bibles, we have Acts coming right after the Gospels, before any of Paul’s epistles, the other epistles, or Revelation. Why?

Remember that the New Testament canon did not arrive in the early Church overnight, nor was it easily agreed upon by all Christians. The books of the New Testament were written over a period of around 50 or 60 years, and many churches didn’t have access to all of those books for centuries. The earliest lists of New Testament books we have are from the latter half of the second century A.D. — this includes the Muratorian Canon and a list provided by St. Irenaeus of Lyon. No body of Christians (at least that we know of in the historical record) weighed in on an authoritative list of the New Testament until the four century. When these councils did vote on the content of the New Testament, they placed Acts directly after the four Gospels. This seems to have been a reasonable decision, given that the Gospels tell the life of Jesus and His Apostles up through the resurrection and ascension, and Acts picks up the story from the ascension. Possibly a bit more curiously, these Church councils separated Acts from the Gospel of Luke, which most scholars recognize was written by the same author, given the similarity of language and themes. In between the two books the councils placed the last of the Gospels, John, written almost certainly last, and also almost certainly after Acts. Why do this? Possibly because the council wanted to declare to readers: “first, know the story of Jesus; then,, know the story of the early Church; and once you know those stories, know the epistles of Paul and others.” Acts appears where it does in the New Testament because the Church in the fourth century believed it important for people to read it before reading St. Paul’s own works.

A Few Questions to Explore

I’d like to briefly move from theory to application. Bible studies often feed upon group questions for discussion. I’ll propose a few here, with the overarching theme of asking what happens if one reads St. Paul’s letters (or other Apostolic letters, for that matter) in light of Acts. I’ll also offer a few of my own reflections as I’ve sought to read St. Paul using Acts as my lodestar.

Question 1: What were the most important issues facing the early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts? Once you’ve named two or three, consider how those issues are addressed in St. Paul’s letters.

I would argue that apart from the persecution of Christians by Jewish and Roman authorities, the most pressing question facing the early Church was this: who is in the Church, and what do they have to do to be part of it? More specifically, is the Church only for Jews? If Gentiles are allowed in, do they in any sense have to become Jews? Note that the first recorded conflict in the early Church is between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews over the distribution of food to widows from their respective communities (Acts 6:1). This cultural-linguistic division becomes more pronounced when some Church leaders start sharing the Gospel with non-Jews, including an Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40), and a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10: 1-48). Moreover, the centurion’s conversion is so controversial that when St. Peter returns to the Church in Jerusalem he is forced to defend himself against certain Jewish Christians (called “the circumcision party”), who question the decision to baptize a Roman pagan. This conflict becomes an overwhelming tidal wave by Acts 15, when certain Christian men assert that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The greatest controversy within the early Church seems to localize on this particular question: do Gentiles who convert to Christianity need to become Jews by being circumcised and accepting Jewish dietary laws? The Church determines in Acts 15 that no, they do not, but the question continues to dog the Church: St. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:11-21 that St. Peter, coming under the influence of the same “circumcision party,” had separated himself from Gentile believers in Antioch, for which St. Paul publicly reprimanded him. This is actually the only mention we have within the New Testament of one Apostle publicly rebuking another.

What I’ve described above suggests that this was the predominant controversy of the early Church, encompassing the entirety of the historical period during which St. Paul’s letters were written. We should thus ask ourselves how the issues cited in the Pauline epistles (including his discussion of “faith v. works”) appear when viewed as part of this particular conflict over the status of Gentile Christians.2

Question 2: How did the Apostles pursue evangelism toward Jews and Gentiles in the days of the early Church? What was necessary to become a Christian? Do we see those priorities identified in St. Paul’s letters? Is there continuity or discontinuity in St. Paul in comparison to Acts?

St. Peter gives the first sermon of the early Church, recorded in the second chapter of Acts. When his audience asks him what is necessary for them to be saved, his response is that they repent, be baptized, and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The theme of baptism is consistent throughout the conversion stories of the early Church, repeated in Acts 8:13, 38-40; 10:44-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; and 19:5, among others. Baptism, it would appear, is an essential feature of the missionary efforts of the Church. Moreover, baptism seems to be intimately united to the gift of the Holy Spirit, as if the sacrament in some sense actually serves as the mode by which new Christians receive the third person of the Trinity. Baptism also plays a dominant role in St. Paul’s theology, and is often united to discussion of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5, 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 6:11, 10:2; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 2:5-6, 5:26; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5-7, etc.).

Question 3: What is the Church according to Acts? How does the Church resolve crises and conflicts? How does that compare to what St. Paul says about the Church?

The Apostles, unsurprisingly, are central to the leadership of the early Church. Indeed, Acts is largely a story of just a few key leaders: St. Peter, St. John, St. James, and St. Paul. St. Peter and St. Paul loom the largest. As noted above, the debate over the place of Gentiles within the nascent Church seems to reach its apex in Acts 15, when we read that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). This is in a sense the very first council of the Church, with the most important leaders, including St. Peter and St. Paul, present. Indeed, it is St. Peter who seems to give the “keynote address,” while St. James confirms St. Peter’s judgment. The council, apparently representing “the whole Church,” then sends a letter to the church in Antioch with its determination and various commands, while apparently claiming to act with the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

The role of the Church is also central to St. Paul’s letters, emphasizing the importance of its unity (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Ephesians 4:1-6), its holiness (1 Corinthians 6:1, 16:1; Ephesians 5:25-27), its universality or catholicity (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 3:8-10), and its apostolicity (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2). Indeed, St. Paul’s ecclesiology is so high, he declares the household of God, the “church of the living God,” to be the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).3

Conclusion

Disagreements between Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian communions over the interpretation of Scripture are inevitable. In settings like Bible studies, however, we too often try to gloss over the differences as if they weren’t there, or as if discussing them will weaken our fellowship. This only needs to be the case if we aren’t capable of respectfully listening to and considering an interpretation or belief different from our own, or of communicating our own position with humility and charity. Yet through prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome our own weaknesses, and find far richer ecumenical dialogue in the process. Reading the letters of the New Testament through the lens of Acts presents one opportunity for such conversation. We will likely disagree over such issues as the role of faith and works in salvation, or the how and when of baptism, or the exact nature of Church authority. Yet rather than returning to our usual mode of defensive apologetics or proof-texting, we might all benefit from a careful study of Paul in the context of Acts. We might be surprised what we find.”

Love, & Christian charity,
Matthew

1. I am indebted here to Fr. Sebastian Carnazzo, a professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, who provided this methodology in his New Testament course.
2. Helpful analysis of this question can be found in N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) and N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
3. Taylor R. Marshall, The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Dallas, TX: Saint John Press, 2010), 35-46.

Catholicism is true – Casey Phillips


Casey Phillips

“What would convince a Jesus-loving, hymn-singing, Baptist preacher’s son to become a Catholic? This is a question that many have had for me over the past couple of years, whether they have worded it quite as succinctly or not. Why would someone with such a vibrant faith, rooted in a rich, solid family tradition, walk away from it and leap into the arms of the Church of Rome? Though many have probably speculated, citing history, art, or unity, they all fall short of the true reason that my wife and I made the journey across the River Tiber. As the famous Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton, once put it, “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons, all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” Though it may seem simplistic, it all boils down to that. Catholicism, when taken seriously and studied critically, simply cannot be denied.

My journey began in a small, rural Baptist church in western Kentucky. My wife’s began as a member of one of the largest Baptist churches in the state. Though from different church climates, both of us grew up alongside caring, God-fearing people who loved the Lord and wanted nothing more than to serve Him. We both were taught about the atoning death of Christ, the reality and impact of our sin, and the importance of Scripture. We were inspired to live lives totally entrusted to God’s love, and though we often took that mission for granted, the impact of that message remained with us throughout our formative years. The Baptist church was the only thing I knew as a child. We would often pass by the Methodist church downtown, but there was always an unspoken understanding that the Baptist tradition was the correct one. As far as Catholicism was concerned, my exposure to it, and that of my family, was non-existent. A thick shroud surrounded the term Catholicism, and none of us knew enough about it to commend or condemn it. Was it a Christian church? We weren’t exactly sure, but we also did not see any real necessity to investigate further. In short, the Baptist church was the only filter through which we understood the Christian Faith and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lunchroom Preacher

As a young child, I fondly remember going to our local Baptist church with my entire family and participating fully in each service. As I moved into adulthood, I was asked to be the song leader as well as the Sunday school secretary, charged with recording each morning’s attendance, Bible reading participation, and offering. This active participation in my church community bled over into how I acted at school among my peers. I was the “lunchroom preacher” who called my peers to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I recall one occasion when I attended a party, very much out of my character, after graduation. Upon my arrival with a friend, and greeting many familiar faces from school, one of my peers retorted: “Casey, what are you doing here? It’s like Jesus is here!” To those around me, my identity was inextricably linked to the faith that I proclaimed. I was not ashamed to stand up for what I believed, and I often did so with vigor. In one instance, of which I am not particularly proud, I made a girl my age cry after expressing to her my dislike for the less than laudable activities that she and some of her friends had planned for Easter weekend. For better or for worse, I was type cast as the “Jesus Freak” among my friends, and I had no intention of rejecting that title.

As I matured, I began to have troubles of my own, and my relationship with Christ was challenged. I had private struggles which no one knew about, that threatened to destroy the image that I had made for myself. At the very least, the perception that others had of me kept me from outwardly manifesting my innermost vices. This tug of war between who I claimed to be and who I was behind closed doors persisted and drove me to question my own justification before God. How could I sincerely call myself a follower of Christ and knowingly persist in the sinful ways from which He had died to redeem me? Many days I would return home from church, a cold sweat on my back, in fear that I had somehow lost the salvation which God had given to me at age fourteen. As a Baptist, I believed that God, once He justified or “saved” someone, kept him or her in His graces regardless of whatever sin he or she may have committed. Known as the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” this teaching was ordinarily a source of great solace for me. No matter how blinded I became of my sin, no matter how far I wandered away from my Creator, He persisted in holding me tightly in His clutches. Throughout high school, this doctrine was enough to keep me from completely questioning what I believed to be true. As many others have experienced, it was not until my undergraduate years that I was forced to make a decision about what I ought to believe about God. An encounter with other people who believed differently than me about eternal salvation, but who at the same time were God-fearing Christians, sought to frustrate my understanding of who God is and what He wanted from me.

Discovering That Not All Christians Are Baptist

Yes, it was during college, that proverbial hotbed of rebellion and dissension, when I was faced squarely with the fact that I may have had it wrong on at least one aspect of the divine. It was impossible for me to persist, as I had been doing up to that point, in the sinful acts that had begun during my high school years. This realization did not happen overnight, however, and it took me delving even deeper into sin before I experienced any real awakening. An addiction to pornography had ravaged my interior life with God, not to mention the serious relationship that I had with my fiancée (now my wife). This addiction, which had started when I was a pre-teen and which subsequently worsened when I became a young adult, forced me even deeper into the role of a faux Christian. But wasn’t my salvation secure? Was I not justified before God regardless of my sinful actions? My ruminations on the Baptist doctrine of “once saved always saved” grew longer and more intense. I continually sought to cool my burning conscience through watching and listening to different Protestant pastors or apologists who also promulgated this doctrine. Though they seemed to answer my questions for a time, I always ended up back online, searching the web for answers. The justifications that I had previously used for my actions had all failed to convince me that what I was doing was morally benign. It was through this struggle with sin that I was brought to the realization that I could not continue in it and legitimately call myself a Christian. Through God’s grace, I eventually stopped justifying my actions, became honest with myself about their malignancy in my life, and started the arduous trek toward walking uprightly with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though I was still far from becoming Catholic, I began to seriously doubt the legitimacy of certain doctrines with which I had been raised. Specifically, I began to no longer believe that once God “saved” or justified someone, he or she could no longer be found outside of His fold. I realized that this man-made tradition of “once saved always saved” had been the source of all the stress and anxiety that I had endured over the last 10 years of my life. The biblical truth was that I needed to continue following Christ and guarding my relationship with Him, lest I be cut off from His grace (see Romans 11:22).

At the same time that I was coming to an awakening in my faith, I was double majoring in Spanish and religion as an undergraduate student. As I studied religion, with a focus in biblical studies, I began to see the divergence of beliefs between people who called themselves Christian. The professors who made up the religion department were themselves a testament to this fact; I took a class on Judaism with a Lutheran, a class on Augustine with a former Baptist, and advanced Old Testament with an Episcopalian priest. The culture of the college campus also lent itself to a broad range of belief and practice, some not even Christian. As I studied church history and the Bible, I began to discover that my understanding of the Christian religion, as described within the boundaries of conservative Evangelicalism, was somewhat limited, and that it could not be the only legitimate understanding of what Christianity is or should be.

As time progressed and my receptivity of other views increased, I was asked to serve as a teaching assistant under an Episcopalian professor. Noticing my progression away from my Baptist moorings, this professor would casually assert, jestingly, the superiority of the Episcopalian faith. During one specific exchange, he conveyed to me what he thought to be the benefit or advantage of being an Episcopalian. “Look,” he had said, “you don’t want to be Catholic because that is going too far. As an Episcopalian, you can be as Catholic or as Protestant as you want to be.” Though he did not know it at the time, that statement stuck with me until I eventually came home to the Catholic Church. It was not until much later that I found out that this view, known as the via media, was one that confronted other, more notable converts like Blessed John Henry Newman. Though my professor was a sincere, faith-filled individual, I could not begin to imagine having it “my way” when it came to eternal truths. Can I lose my salvation or not? Is the Eucharist truly the Body and Blood of Christ or merely a symbol? Must I confess my sins to a priest or not? I wanted the truth on these topics, as well as many others, and I did not wish to be the arbiter of divine revelation. Little did I know that the answers to these questions would be found in the Catholic Church.

At the same time that I was discovering the multiplicity of Christian belief, I had a Spanish professor who was one of the most outspoken people I have ever met, and he was unapologetically Catholic. Up until this point of my journey, I had never encountered anyone who was a practicing, sincere Catholic. In fact, when I first found out that this professor was Catholic, I remember being somewhat shocked. You mean Catholicism and Christianity are related somehow? At no point did this professor seek to evangelize or proselytize me during my four years of undergraduate work, but he did live his faith. No power or institution, not even the very institution for which he worked, could stand in the way of his ability to genuinely live his faith in everyday life. It was via his witness, and that of other Catholics that I met during this time, that I began to incorporate Catholicism into the panorama of Christian views that I considered to be legitimate. This move, though I did not recognize it at the time, would be my first step into the River Tiber, on my way to the Eternal City.

Amidst all of this spiritual awakening, God gifted me with a spouse who would prove vitally important to the direction of my faith journey. On July 28, 2012, the summer before our senior year of college, I exchanged vows with the woman who would become the mother of my children. Our wedding took place in a small country church just outside of Lexington, Kentucky, presided over by a very close friend with whom I had worked previously in a small startup church back in my home town. Marrying Erin was the best decision I had made up to this point in my life, outside of following our Lord. Though we would see our ups and downs, she would prove to be the rock I would lean on along the rough road we followed on our journey of faith.

My journey during college can only be described as an awakening. Transitioning from a fundamentalist, Missionary Baptist understanding to one which appreciated the beauty of many different Christian traditions was the first step toward my eventual conversion to the Catholic Church. Through an intense struggle with the Protestant doctrine of “once saved always saved,” I was convinced that I had erred in my understanding of how God redeems and heals His children. I vividly remember, toward the end of my undergraduate work, clutching an application to Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky and feeling unable to complete it. The application asked me to describe my relationship with Christ up to that point in my faith journey. How could I reveal all that I had gone through? Would they accept my application if I was truthful? I wasn’t even sure where I stood on my justified state before God, so undertaking a masters degree in theology seemed irresponsible. With the help of my wife, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Spanish rather than undertaking the life of a Protestant seminarian. Though I could not see it at the time, and I often entertained doubts about my decision, the Lord was preparing my heart to receive something that I would have otherwise rejected out of hand. If I had gone to that seminary, who knows if I ever would have become Catholic?

What Is This Thing Called Catholicism?

After college, my wife and I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where I completed the master’s degree in teaching Spanish. Resolving not to go to seminary was a difficult move, but I felt it was the only honest one to make. I was still struggling with what to believe as a Christian. After our move, my wife and I attended the church where she was raised, Southland Christian Church. Southland, the second largest church in the state of Kentucky, holds a very special place in my heart. Though it seemed at least ten times larger than the church I was raised in, Southland’s mission to serve others as the hands and feet of Christ left an impact on me. These people loved Jesus and loved each other in a way that I had not seen before.

For the first few months after our move, we attended Southland regularly, often accompanied by my mother-in-law. All seemed well, and from the outside it must have seemed like the perfect scenario. But my wife and I still felt as though something was missing. Was worship truly supposed to be about entertaining sermons, loud music, and strobe lights? Our hearts longed for something different, but we didn’t know what we were looking for. Though we had not considered it seriously before that point, we decided to go to Mass at the local Catholic cathedral. Both of us were nervous as we entered the cathedral and found a seat. “What if they smell the Protestant on us, Erin?” I asked semi-jokingly. We had been to Mass a couple of times before, but neither time were we fully engaged or remotely tuned into what was happening there. This time, however, we were very aware of our surroundings. When the people next to us stood, we stood, and when they knelt, we knelt. How very strange this experience was for someone who had grown up in a church where sitting throughout the service was the norm, and the only time the congregation spoke was to sing a hymn or offer an occasional “amen.” These people seemed like robots, chanting after the priest, who led them in these odd rituals. Though the Mass did not make sense to us at the time, it piqued our curiosity and set us on a course to investigate this “Catholic thing.”

Our investigation centered at first on the conversion stories of other Protestants turned Catholic. The Journey Home program on EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network) I had long been familiar with. I had begun watching it while I was still in college. Looking back, I cannot remember what my initial motivation was for watching it as a college student, because I was at that time not considering Catholicism, but the episodes took on a new meaning to me once I began considering the Catholic Church seriously. Story after story, I found myself being drawn into the lives of many people, like myself, who had searched for answers and finally had found them in the Church of Rome. “Why couldn’t that be us?” I often pondered. Programs like The Journey Home provided my wife and me with a safe way to engage with Catholicism without the threat of being “found out.”

Books, like Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie, also played a role in breaking down barriers between myself and becoming Catholic. I remember becoming excited and re-reading portions of the book to my wife at night. Also, Bishop Robert Barron’s video series “Catholicism” played a major role in our eventual conversion. Displaying the Church in all her beauty and universality opened my eyes to the incredible breadth of Catholicism. Truth after truth emerged before my eyes. Catholics actually had good reasons for their beliefs! I found out that the Catholic Church has taught about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist since the earliest days of Christianity, that Jesus established a hierarchical order to safeguard the Church, and that Peter was truly the first pope. These revelations, along with many others, swept over me like a tidal wave.

Of these revelations, one of the most exciting to discover, and at the same time the scariest, was the Church’s teaching on justification. I was relieved to find that the Church did not teach the doctrine of “once saved always saved,” but I was also concerned about what that might imply. I quickly found out that the Church taught that a Christian can, after initially being justified by God, sin against Him in such a way as to sever the relationship with his or her Creator. As with all things that the Catholic Church teaches, there is scriptural support for the assertions she makes. I remember looking to verses such as 1 John 5:16 and seeing the differentiation between sin that leads to death and sin that does not lead to death (mortal and venial sin). I also learned that priests were given the authority by Christ to forgive my sins and to restore the life of grace that is lost through my disobedience (John 20:23). As a Baptist, I had been taught that no sin could separate me from my life in Christ, and yet the Bible clearly showed me otherwise. The truth had been hiding in the very book that I carried back and forth to the Baptist church of my youth. Answers were coming, and I welcomed them.

As our objections to the Catholic Church continued to fall, the ominous realization that we needed to become Catholic became something we could not “shelve” or mentally evade any longer. When Erin and I both concluded that Rome was our destination, we took the next step in our journey and joined adult faith formation classes. Having intellectually grappled with the Church for months on our own, we decided to stop by our local cathedral parish to pray. Though we were seated several pews away from one another, we both began to sob as we prayed. It was as if the Lord was saying, “Enough waiting, come follow me.” Though our intellectual battle had not completely ended, it was safe to say that our hearts had “caught up.” So we joined RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), formed wonderful relationships with faithful Catholics and aspiring converts, and finally arrived at our confirmation day. On February 23, 2014, filled with joy and anticipation, my wife and I were sealed with sacred chrism and graced by the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Son of God Himself. The finish line then became the starting gate as we entered fully into the life of the Church — the Church that Jesus Christ Himself had established on St. Peter some 2,000 years ago.

Proclaiming the Invitation to the Feast

In Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a master who sends his servants out to gather people for a great feast at his home. After many of society’s prominent figures had rejected the master’s call, in verse 23 the master commands the servants to go out into the highways and byways and bring in anyone who will come to the feast. I definitely feel that I am one of those who has been graced by the master’s call to the peripheries, that I must respond by going out to those in need. I am now the leader of a local chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization, an apostolate which seeks to take the truth of the Church to the streets, to those who have not heard it before or who had rejected it at some time in the past. The reality is that the Church needs voices to proclaim the good news of Christ and His Church. God can use the most unlikely avenues, as He did in my story, to convert souls.

In the past two years, since being received into the Church, my family has seen the moving of the Holy Spirit in a mighty way. Since our Confirmation, my sister has become Catholic, my mother-in-law was received into the Church on Christ the King Sunday of 2015, and my grandmother was confirmed during the Easter Vigil this year. The Lord truly is good, His love truly does endure forever, and His faithfulness endures through all generations (Psalm 100:5).”

Love,
Matthew