Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, November 20, 2009

Response to Protestant Inquirer #2 

The following is a response sent to another dear Protestant friend. As in this post below, this student is in a mainstream, liberal-leaning divinity school and is having trouble maintaining the tension between his Evangelical convictions (about the Bible, in particular) and the historical critical questions raised by modern criticism of Scripture.

My response to him follows:

I think, even if my examples aren't always the most apropos, [this] captures the essence of my frustration with Evangelicalism - the sense that the entire foundation of my faith didn't really seem to get beyond me. It led to frustrations even in college, and I remember having a lot of talks with [a friend] who was going through a lot of the same things (though he didn't go the way I did). There was a burning sense that, when [a teacher] pointed out an error in the Scriptures, I felt that, if I didn't personally resolve the problem and disprove [the teacher], my entire faith would go plummeting down in flames. If I couldn't defend an article of faith in a debate with a fellow believer, then I had to adjust my entire system accordingly. That I was accountable to, and could depend upon, no one but myself.

I remember reading a debate between an Evangelical and a Catholic (when I was looking into this I looked up every debate I could find on the internet - there are a surprising number of them, many of them videotaped, and I never found one where the Evangelical came off looking smarter) where the Protestant ended the debate by saying something along the lines of, "All I want is for every Protestant to wake up every day and ask himself, 'why am I not Catholic?'" What he meant was that he felt that Protestants had drifted into a chummy, ecumenical co-existence with Catholics and had forgotten why the Reformation happened, and that being a Protestant meant being in a constant state of Protest against the Catholic enemy, and hence insisting again and again upon points like sola scriptura and sola fides, because when we forget those things, we forget who we are as Protestants, and what is most important to us. Well, the Catholic opponent immediately stood up and said that was exactly what HE wanted too - the Protestant to continually ask himself why he was not Catholic. So this seemed a good starting point. At the time I had been calling myself a 'Christian' instead of a 'Protestant', deliberately and self-consciously, because I wanted to transcend and stand above all of those differences. And I took some comfort in C. S. Lewis' 'Mere Christianity', which aims at something just like this. But soom I realized that I was 'cheating', in a way. Because one cannot simply be a 'mere Christian'. Such a creature does not exist. Lewis, in an essay I have never been able to find . . . speaks of the Christian hanging out in the 'hallway' between various rooms (the 'rooms' being denominations', and that the hallway between the rooms ('mere Christianity') is often more attractive than any of the rooms, but the Christian can only stay a while and then he will have to grow up and decide on a room. Simply because a hallway is not a home and one cannot live there. The denominations, like them or hate them, have provided the only stable, communal, structural Christian 'environments' where one can make a home. To avoid denominations is to be in a continual state of drift, which is to live a lie. So here I was, pretending that the great rifts of our history had never happened, and that we were all one happy family.

So now I began to ask myself the question that both apologists (Catholic and Protestant) had asked me to ask myself - why am I not Catholic? And I began to see the horror of the question, you see, which is that Catholicism is the default position, for the burden of proof lies with the Protestant. If one cannot come up with a satisfactory answer to the question, one is left with the option of Catholicism. So the question was framed in a way that seemed to pre-empt a thorough answer. But you see, one cannot really frame it any other way. One cannot ask the Catholic to ask 'why am I not Protestant', because Protestantism is not a default position. Protestantism exists precisely as a rejection of Catholicism, and identifies itself with a set of epithets (sola Scriptura, sola fides) which are really concise rejections of the Catholic system. Protestantism, is, by its very name, a protest against Catholicism. So it cannot very well be a default; it makes no pretenses of being 'mere Christianity'. But Catholicism is not like this at all. Catholicism is not a rejection of the Protestant system. Catholicism does not formulate its teachings in a polemical or antithetical manner.

This is exactly what made the Catholic church so horrifying to John Henry Newman, who is one of my heroes - an Anglican church historian from the 19th century who at the end of his life became Catholic. 'Unjudged, she judges the world', he says. In other words, the Catholic Church simply goes about her business teaching, and doesn't really seem to care what anyone else thinks of her teaching. She makes utterly preposterous claims - like being the one Church of Christ, His vicar on earth, an infallible vessel - with the same kind of flippancy with which one pronounces that one likes one's pancakes with syrup and not butter, without diffidence or defensiveness. And if challenged, she insists that she has always taught these things, and will never stop teaching them.

And the frightening thing is how well these claims stand up to the test. I went into church history for a reason, and the classes I took with . . . started this journey for me. Newman wrote a book called 'Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine', and he noted that Christian doctrine develops without changing. Using analogies from human and plant growth (think an embryo-->adult, or acorn-->oak tree), a thing develops and expands while remaining substantially the same. I knew that all of the doctrines the Catholic Church taught today (regarding Mary, the Pope, etc.) would never be found in the early Church. Not in the same form, that is. But I found that all of the doctrines that I held dear (the Trinity, the inerrancy of the Bible) were not taught in the early Church either. What I found in the early Church were early hints of those doctrines (Triniity, Bible), like acorns and embryos, which I could recognize as having some loose connection with the later development of the doctrines. The problem, of course, was that I found just as many hints (acorns and embryos) for all those Catholic doctrines (Mary, Papacy) I wished to avoid. In fact, in many cases, there was much stronger evidence in the early Church for the Catholic doctrines (Eucharist, purgatory, papacy) than for the doctrines I preferred.

Anyway, I'm sounding preachy and I'm beginning to annoy myself. You have to understand I've been teaching all weekend, a good deal of it on John Henry Newman, so I get in a certain mode, and I have to remember I'm supposed to be writing a personal email and not a sermon.

The point is, Newman famously said, 'to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant'. I found that to be true, and I've known very few Evangelicals who have survived the journey. It's true that not all have become Catholic - some have found happy homes in Orthodoxy or even (pace Newman) Anglicanism. There are some rare birds who are content to remain Evangelical, but these - if pressed - are often more Catholic in their doctrine than they want to admit. I can't guarantee that, had I been surrounded by Orthodox or Anglicans instead of Catholics, I wouldn't have gone that direction at the time, although in retrospect I can now say that neither could prove as satisfying. I met a guy at a conference in North Carolina last month who said he converted from Evangelicalism to Anglicanism because he just wanted to be an 'ecclesial' Christian, and I think that about sums it up. The Evangelical, to me, is not an 'ecclesial' Christian, because he does not live his Christianity in reference to other Christians. His gathering with other Christians on various occasions - Sunday worship or other social events - is a purely accidental feature of his Christianity. He does not allow other Christians to define his faith. He does not allow other Christians to define his mode of worship. He does not allow other Christians to modify or intervene in his relationship with God. The 'ecclesial' Christian, on the other hand, knows that his relationship to God subsists only through the medium of the Christian community - its creeds, its worship and its traditions. The most helpful book for me in making this realization was 'Evangelicalism is Not Enough' by Thomas Howard, who wrote this book after he converted to Anglicanism. (He later became Catholic.) I think both Orthodoxy and Anglicanism can be called 'ecclesial' communities, although (naturally) I think the logic of ecclesiality is realized most fully in Catholicism. (And perhaps Lutheranism is the most 'ecclesial' of Protestant communities, and Reformed coming somewhat after that.)

And I hope you understand, I bear no bitterness against my Evangelical past - I realize I keep referring to my 'frustrations' but I think I only realized I was frustrated in retrospect, like when you get in a warm bath and find yourself falling asleep within two minutes, and only then do you realize how hellish the day must have been that you've just been through, based on how dramatic the relaxation was (wow, how did I come up with that analogy?). I was raised as a Reformed Christian, and discovered my faith as an Evangelical, and I have the kindest, warmest memories of my time in Intervarsity [Christian Fellowship], where my faith bloomed. In fact, I think that it was the inner logic of this Evangelical experience that led me to the Catholic Church. I think, in retrospect, all of the positive, Christian values of Evangelicalism (what Louis Bouyer calls the 'spirit of Protestantism') - vibrant spirituality, disciplined prayer, zealous evangelism, biblical rootedness - is best protected, fostered and channeled within the ecclesiality of Catholicism. While at the same time, the exaggerations and dangers of Evangelicalism - emotionalism, individualism, anti-intellectualism (what Bouyer calls the 'forms' of Protestantism) - are avoided or carefully restrained.

So, it's late and I'm just dumping some thoughts on paper. I hope I don't come off as preachy. I've come so far from the days when I knew you that, sometimes, and it's hard to express this, I don't really know how I sound to Evangelicals anymore. The frustration of the convert is that 'once I was X, and I saw Y, and when I saw Y I realized with absolute clarity that I could no longer remain X - so, given that you are X, and you see Y, I assume you realize too with the same absolute clarity that you can no longer remain X.' When of course we realize that we are not talking X's and Y's but persons, each of whom has his own history and his own framework by light of which he sees things.

# posted by Jamie : 4:13 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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