At Easter 1986, I left “Bible-only” Fundamentalism to join the Catholic Church. What I am going to write is not intended to be a triumphalistic manifesto for Catholicism. I do not pretend any special gift in the area of apologetics or the exposition of Sacred Scripture. What I have to relate is simply an abbreviated account of one man’s struggle toward the fullness of faith.
As a child I had virtually no Christian training aside from a children’s picture Bible. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I learned of Jesus Christ. I had picked up The Living Bible and started reading the Gospel of Luke. I was not struck by what I read–no, I was overwhelmed. At that moment I gave my allegiance to Jesus Christ, to be forever his friend and follower.
I found a pocket-sized New Testament and was never without it. My new friend Jesus and I became inseparable. Figuring that Jesus must have friends other than I, I decided to find a good church so Jesus’ friends could be my friends as well. I found the mainline, liberal Protestant denominations more interested in men called Bultmann and Tillich than in my friend Jesus and my little New Testament. I quickly fell into Evangelicalism and Bible Fundamentalism without even considering the Catholic Church.
Over the following years I consumed Scripture and Calvinistic literature to learn about my new Christian Faith. My biblical and theological background became considerable, though admittedly eclectic. Indeed, my home came to resemble an outlet of the Lighthouse book store chain.
Yet not all was perfect in paradise. The more I studied, the more I realized the depth of the theological differences resulting from divergent interpretations of Scripture. Even among the Evangelical sects there exist controversies over such basic questions as whether or not a Christian could ever lose his salvation.
Operating under the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, taking the Bible alone as the source of all Christian truth, I constantly was being challenged by conflicting doctrines claiming scriptural warrant. While some of these biblical “warrants” were patently superficial, others raised genuinely complex issues over which a person’s spiritual life could conceivably stand or fall.
I saw that what sola scriptura needed for credibility was a more decisive method of exegesis to obtain greater theological agreement. This is especially important if one believes we are saved sola fides, by faith alone.
If we are saved by faith alone, the issue of what this faith is to consist of becomes crucial. Sola scriptura must be able to provide the theological foundation upon which to build a comprehensive and unambiguous faith–or else the entire Reformation is a failure. Like any Protestant, it was this decisive and biblical Christianity for which I was searching.
I suppose the revolution really began during a casual reading of the Gospel of John. I remember going through the sixth chapter where, during the Passover, Jesus gives thanks (eucharistein–whence the word “Eucharist”) and feeds the five thousand with two barley loaves and two small fish. After this miracle Jesus proclaims himself the “bread of life” and proceeds to declare to the crowd, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (verses 53-54).”
I was shaken by the directness of the entire passage from verse 51 to the end of the chapter. As a faithful Fundamentalist, I had always interpreted the passage metaphorically. Yet the crowd, including the disciples themselves, were understanding Jesus literally and were stunned with disbelief. Jesus does not clarify himself to the Twelve as he usually did with the parables he told. Rather, Jesus simply responds, “Does this shock you?” I began to wonder whether Jesus could be speaking literally when he said we must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
I knew little of Catholicism, but I did know that Catholics believed that the bread and wine used in the Lord’s Supper literally became the body and blood of Christ when the priest said the words of institution found in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. I reviewed the entire New Testament carefully and noted that the Eucharist is intimately connected with Christian worship (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; Jude 12; 2 Pet. 2:13). In fact, it seemed 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 and 5:7b-8 implied a regular celebration of the Eucharist.
As for the idea of the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist, the dire warning of Paul–that those who partake unworthily are guilty of “the body and blood of the Lord”–did not lend itself well to my symbolical notion of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:27-32). Why were Christians in grave sin when doing violence to this particular “symbol” and not to other Christian symbols?
Moreover, 1 Corinthians 10:14-18 speaks of us “participating” in the body and blood of Christ at the Eucharist in the same way Israel participated in the sacrifices of the altar–which would be by actually, not symbolically, eating the sacrifice of the Passover. I was beginning to think that a literal understanding of John 6:53-54 wouldn’t be entirely out of line.
Still, I wasn’t led to consider Catholicism seriously. After all, I’d seen Scripture used to support all sorts of propositions, and I was sure the Bible wasn’t teaching “Romanism.” It seemed a strange idea to “accept Christ as personal Lord and Savior” not only cognitatively and purposefully, but Eucharistically as well. I assumed I must have been reading ideas into the text, and I let the matter drop for more worthy pursuits.
One of these pursuits was a book of ancient Christian literature. I thought it would be fascinating to learn how Christians who immediately followed the apostolic era understood Scripture. Perhaps I would glean a method of interpreting the Bible that would liberate the average Protestant from so much vicious sectarianism.
I was reading the epistles of Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch after Peter and Evodius and a disciple of the apostle John. Around the year 110, Roman soldiers were leading Ignatius to Rome where martyrdom awaited him. On his journey the holy bishop wrote letters to local churches.
In his letter to the church at Smyrna, Ignatius condemned heretics who did not hold that Christ had an actual, physical body; probably he was referring to the Gnostics. John may have had these same people in mind when he penned 1 John 1:1-4.
To refute them, Ignatius wrote, “They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins and which the Father in his goodness afterwards raised up again” (7:1).
I believe I nearly suffered cardiac arrest. This was the bishop of Antioch, the city where Jesus’ followers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26) and a major center of Christianity. This was a man who had heard the Good News from the lips of the apostle John himself, the very apostle who wrote that shocking passage in his Gospel. Writing merely ten or fifteen years after the death of John, Ignatius refers to the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist as though it were common knowledge throughout the Church!
And then, to add insult to injury, Ignatius went on to say, “The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is one that is celebrated by the bishop himself or by some person authorized by him [that is, a duly ordained priest]. Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church” (8:1, 2).
Could it get much worse? Yes. Ignatius advised the church at Ephesus “to obey your bishop and clergy with undivided minds and to share in the one common breaking of the bread–the medicine of immortality and the sovereign remedy by which we escape death and live in Jesus Christ for evermore” (20:3). This was completely intolerable.
I suspected diabolic mischief was afoot to subvert the true Evangelical faith. These could not be legitimate documents. Researching their backgrounds, though, I learned that these epistles were so highly regarded in the early Christian community that they were held as part of Scripture in many churches. I also found that nearly all modern Protestant scholars consider them authentic.
Even so staunch an anti-Catholic as Henry H. Halley validated them and, in reference to patristic literature in general, commented that these “writings are extremely valuable” and “how we wish there were more of them” (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 24th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), p. 749).
Intrigued, I began to pursue this matter more fully and came across Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons. Irenaeus was a student of the celebrated Polycarp, the same Polycarp who, tradition states, was made bishop of Smyrna by the apostle John (who was forever popping up in my study of the Eucharist).
Condemning Gnosticism, Irenaeus wrote in his treatise Against Heresies that “He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase to our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup and the baked bread receive the Word of God and become the Eucharist . . . how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life–flesh which is nourished by the Body and Blood of the Lord and is in fact a member of him?” (5:2).
Also significant was a certain first-century church manual probably composed in what is today known as Lebanon. Called the Didache and known commonly as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, it was written as early as A.D. 60, making it older than some of the Gospels themselves. It was held to be so authoritative that throughout the Christian world of the second century much of it is cited in other writings, such as the Epistle of Barnabas. Among its tantalizing contents are instructions for baptism, the treatment to be accorded to visiting prophets, and the oldest condemnation of abortion known in the Church.
At the very center of this document (chapters nine and ten) is to be found a set Eucharistic liturgy, the prayers of which are closely modeled after Jewish prayers for the dinner table. The absolute holiness of the Eucharist is stressed: “For the Lord’s own saying applies here, `Give not that which is holy unto dogs.'” This sacred.aspect of the Eucharist is reinforced at the end: “Whosoever is holy, let him approach. Whoso is not, let him repent.” There is a strong relationship between the Eucharist and the final act of salvation at the Second Coming.
Ever since the discovery of the Didache in 1873, I would suppose it has been difficult for any knowledgeable person to assert the apostles taught anything except a Eucharistic Christianity. Christian worship is summarized this way: “Assemble on the Lord’s day and break bread and offer the Eucharist, but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one” (14:1). Nowhere in the early Church did I find any evidence for the notion of a purely symbolic Eucharist celebrated only occasionally.
What disturbed me more than anything I’d found up to this point was a passage from the famous Christian apologist Justin Martyr. His First Apology (A.D. 148) contains a description of worship in the ancient Church widely cited by Protestant writers.
Let me again cite Dr. Halley: “Here is Justin Martyr’s picture of early Christian worship: ‘On Sunday a meeting is held of all who live in the cities and villages, and a section is read from the memoirs of the apostles [that is, the Gospels and epistles] and the writings of the prophets, as long as time permits. When the reading is finished, the president, in a discourse, gives the admonition and exhortation to imitate these noble things. After this we all arise and offer a common prayer.
‘At the close of the prayer, as we have before described, bread and wine and thanks for them according to his ability, and the congregation answers, “Amen.” Then the consecrated elements are distributed to each one and partaken of, and are carried by the deacons to the houses of the absent. The wealthy and the willing then give contributions according to their free will, and this collection is deposited with the president, who therewith supplies orphans, widows, prisoners, strangers, and all who are in want'” (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 763-764).
I had seen this passage cited often in the works of Evangelical writers, yet never had I seen the immediately preceding section. It says: “For we do not take these things as ordinary bread and ordinary drink. Just as our Savior Jesus Christ was made flesh by the word of God and took on flesh and blood for our salvation, so also were we taught that the food, for which thanksgiving has been made through the word of prayer instituted by him and from which our blood and flesh are nourished after the change, is the flesh of that Jesus who was made flesh.
“Indeed, the apostles, in the records left by them which are called Gospels, have thus passed on that which was enjoined upon them: Jesus, having taken bread and given thanks said, ‘Do this in memory of me, this is my body.’ Likewise, having taken the cup and given thanks, he said, ‘This is my blood,’ and he imparted it to them alone” (Apology I, 66).
The Protestant tendency to “sterilize” early Christian history of peculiarly Catholic elements came to my notice for the first time here, and the tendency became more apparent the more I researched Christian history from the primary sources. I found ancient evidence for the papacy, apostolic succession, baptism by infusion, the veneration of saints and relics, and so on, all explicit within the first century following the apostolic era. In fact, much of the evidence was within the first 50 years.
John Henry Newman, the most significant Protestant convert to Catholicism ever, apparently was quite right when he stated that a knowledge of history is the death of Protestantism. At least that’s how it turned out for me. I might also suggest that a fear of history is part of the underlying rationale for the sola scriptura doctrine–it serves to insulate the believer from the historical facts, thereby allowing the Fundamentalist to create a mythological past in which he finds himself one of the “faithful remnant.”
I had discovered an impressive method of interpreting Scripture through the study of ancient Christian records. Using this method, I had determined that the apostolic Church, while certainly being Scripture-oriented and evangelical, was Catholic and not Protestant. Approximately three years after that casual reading of the Gospel of John, I joined the Catholic Church, naturally adopting the Beloved Disciple as my patron.
Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I would extend this to the spiritual life. Does history disprove Fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture? Is Reformation religion truly “Bible Christianity” or merely the private interpretations which Peter warned about in his epistle? I contend that anyone honestly trying to answer these questions will find himself in the Catholic Church, “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).