One the great church historians of the nineteenth century, German Lutheran scholar Adolf Harnack, bemoaned the ignorance his mainly Lutheran university students displayed of Catholicism:
I am convinced from constant experience of the fact that the students who leave our schools have the most disconnected and absurd ideas about ecclesiastical history. Some of them know something about Gnosticism, or about other curious and for them worthless details. But of the Catholic Church, the greatest religious and political creation known to history, they know absolutely nothing, and they indulge in its regard in wholly trivial, vague, and often directly nonsensical notions.
As a former Protestant minister who has spent the past twenty-four years studying the Catholic Faith, I can testify that, while Harnack’s assessment may be harshly worded, it’s accurate.
When most modern Evangelicals think about Catholicism, what they have in their minds isn’t Catholicism at all but an absurd caricature, a muddle of indistinct ideas and distorted images born of mistaken impressions and false assumptions. As to the inner logic of Catholicism as a system of thought—not to mention the case for it being true—the vast majority hasn’t a clue.
This was true for me as well. Although I knew something of what Catholics believed, I knew nothing of the case that Catholic theologians and apologists make for the truth of what Catholics believe. And because of this, conversion involved a lot of learning. Actually, it involved the rethinking of my entire worldview as a Christian, from the ground floor up.
Of course, this included thinking hard about what exactly constituted the “ground floor” for me as a Protestant.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of discussing Catholicism with a somewhat knowledgeable Protestant, you may have noticed how taxing the conversation can be. Why is that?
Well, you say, it’s exhausting simply because there are so many issues about which we disagree. Where do you begin—Peter and the keys? Apostolic succession? The rule of bishops in the Church? The sacramental priesthood? Justification by grace through faithful obedience? Sacramental theology? Infant baptism? The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? The Mass as a sacrifice? Confession to a priest? The Marian doctrines? The communion of saints? Contraception? Monastic vows?
But there’s something else at play beyond the number of contentious topics that makes the conversation not merely tiring but downright confusing.
After all, we’re both Christians. We both believe in the inspiration and authority of Sacred Scripture. And yet we seem to be coming from different places. We seem to disagree not only about what the true teachings of Christianity are but on how to go about deciding what they are.
We’re like two carpenters debating the length of a board while using different standards of measurement.
We’re like two people standing on the beach, one wearing rose-colored glasses and other amber-colored, and arguing about the color of the sunset.
The issue of foundations
What’s going on that makes the conversation so confusing and difficult? The answer isn’t even controversial: Catholics and Protestants have different methods for determining the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Faith. It isn’t too much to say that the worldviews of Catholics and Protestants have different foundations.
Gaining clarity on this helped me understand early on where I needed to focus my attention in thinking about Catholicism. And since becoming Catholic, it has helped me understand where I need to focus my attention when discussing Catholicism with my Evangelical friends. Rather than exhausting the both of us, leaping back and forth between thirty different doctrinal disagreements, I find it far more illuminating, and effective, to focus the conversation on the root of the differences between us, the key issue that separates us: the issue of foundations.
So what is the foundation of Protestantism? How do Protestants determine what the true teachings of Christianity are?
Protestant scholars Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie explain:
By sola scriptura orthodox Protestants mean that scripture alone is the primary and absolute source of authority, the final court of appeal, for all doctrine and practice. . . . However good they may be in giving guidance, all the church fathers, popes, and councils are fallible. Only the Bible is infallible. . . . As to sufficiency, the Bible—nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else—is all that is necessary for faith and practice.
As I see it, three main assertions are being made here:
- Scripture is the Christian’s sole infallible rule for determining what we are to believe and how we are to live.
- Scripture is materially sufficient, meaning that everything God wants us to know is there in the pages of the Bible.
- Scripture is formally sufficient, meaning that what the Bible teaches is sufficiently clear that no infallible teaching magisterium of the Church is necessary to interpret it or to formally define Christian doctrine.
Reformed theologian Robert Godfrey put it like this:
The Protestant position, and my position, is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand it.
The key issue
Now, none of what I’ve said here is in the least controversial. Sola scriptura was the very battle cry of the Protestant Reformation. This was at the heart of all that happened in the sixteenth century: the idea that no authoritative Church existed and that no authoritative Church was needed. The Bible—nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else—was seen to be all that is necessary for faith and practice.
This is the foundation of the Protestant worldview.
And because of this, when I began to look into Catholicism, although I was interested in everything—all the doctrinal differences and disputes that exist between Protestants and Catholics—the issue that interested me most was the issue of sola scriptura. Because I recognized it to be the key to everything else.
If sola scriptura is true, then Protestantism is true. Period. If it was our Lord’s intention for Scripture to function as the “sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice” for the Church he established, then Protestantism is true.
Now, accepting the truth of sola scriptura, I might have to spend the rest of my life sifting through the arguments of various theologians to determine which version of Protestantism I believed to be most in line with Scripture—whether the Baptists, or the Presbyterians, or the Lutherans, or the Anglicans, or the Methodists, or the Church of Christ—or maybe the independent church down the street, formed around some bright, charismatic, convincing young pastor with his new angle on how to put the scriptural pieces together.
But I will be Protestant!
At the same time, it was also clear to me that if Jesus did not intend for Scripture to serve as the “sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice” for the Church, then Protestantism as a worldview is not true, and all of its iterations—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Church of Christ, independent—collapse at once.
There was no doubt: this was the key issue.
Slip sliding away
My family lived seven miles from the epicenter of the of January 17, 1994.
None of us will ever forget that morning. As I was bouncing back and forth against the walls of my hallway, trying to get to my kids’ bedrooms, I kept thinking the floor was going to tear open beneath my feet. I remember thinking one of us might die. I remember especially the sound of our house jumping up and down. It was the sound of tons of chain link being dropped repeatedly onto a wooden floor. It was unbelievable. When it was over, our living room was a pile of furniture and shattered glass.
There is little more frightening than feeling the earth give way beneath your feet. After all, this is your foundation. This is what you’re standing on. If this goes, everything goes.
In a similar way, and for similar reasons, my conversion to the Catholic Faith was traumatic. It began the moment I felt the foundation of my worldview as a Protestant slipping and giving way beneath my feet, the moment that first doubt entered my mind that sola scriptura was what Jesus intended for his Church.
As I focused on this key issue—the issue of authority, the most important issue of all—I came to believe that sola scriptura had not been the faith of the earliest Christians; that it was completely unworkable, having led since the time of the Reformation to the fragmentation of Protestantism into countless denominations and sects and independent churches; that it didn’t make sense logically; that it wasn’t even the teaching of the New Testament. In other words, I came to see that sola scriptura refuted itself.
It was at this point I knew I was on my way into the Catholic Church.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles titled “Why I’m Catholic.” Additional installments will appear weekly.
The image accompanying this article is of damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.