I don’t plan to talk much at all about myself. But since I’m new here, I just want to say a few introductory things.
Many readers here will know me from Beggars All, and maybe if you’ve been around for a while, you might know me from the old NTRMin discussion board. I’ve described my conversion story briefly, here.
Finding my way around
As a young man, in the early 1980’s, I traveled extensively, working for a disabled Christian singer named Jeff Steinberg. My life consisted mainly of (a) helping Jeff with his personal needs, (b) driving long distances to a place I’d never been to before, setting up a fairly extensive sound system, running sound for a concert, then packing it all up and frequently driving a couple more hours to get to our next location. I did that for about five years, from 1981-1986.
Often we’d make arrangements for local hosts to do a number of concerts in an area, and that would require that I quickly get to know my way around a new city or town. Over time, I developed a method for understanding my new short-term environment. That involved finding one main highway that I could understand and recognize, then branching off into other areas before finding my way back to that one main highway.
There’s precedent in our day for this method of learning theology and church history, too. Robert Jewett, in the introduction of his commentary on Romans, notes the requirement of “a firm chronological structure” – that one main highway, because “chronology is the skeleton of history.” (Romans, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, pg 18). You expand your learning by finding that one main highway that you trust – in my case, theologically, it has been the Scriptures, and then branching off into other, lesser known areas.
As a person who has wrestled with Roman Catholicism all my life, on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide, the one question that kept coming back to me was, “why is the Roman Catholic religion so different from ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) that’s so plainly evident in the New Testament?”
Not long ago, I was talking with my Pastor about all of this. (I am a member of a PCA church that’s located near the University of Pittsburgh campus.) And from a pastoral point of view, he said that many converts from Roman Catholicism don’t seem to struggle with those kinds of issues. His own mother-in-law and father-in-law are a case in point. Once their daughter married a Presbyterian minister, they stopped attending their Roman Catholic church and started attending our PCA because they just felt more of a love of the Lord in the Presbyterian church.
And I’ve talked to his father-in-law. There was no angst. It was, as Carl Trueman has noted, a case in which Roman Catholics are “generally cultural rather than committed,” and the love for the Lord was far more evident in their new church than their old one.
I did not have it so easy. When I decided to leave Roman Catholicism for the first time, my father and I had terrible wars over it. I was in college at the time, certainly dependent on him financially, and he, having grown up in a poor rural area during the depression, had developed a hatred for “Proudestants” some time during his youth, that I was not aware of. He was determined that his son was not going to be a “Proudestant”.
Most teens in those days, the late 1970’s, were rebelling with “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” I was rebelling by reading the Bible and going to prayer meetings. And it was almost immediately following my graduation from Pitt that the Lord put Jeff Steinberg in my path.
During my years with Jeff, he was active in the pro-life movement, and we interacted with a number of devout Roman Catholics. Of course, the question asked of me was, “why don’t you come back home,” and eventually I did. And as I’ve mentioned in my brief conversion account, I considered and dismissed the idea of becoming a priest, married, had six kids, and spent probably the next 15 years as a devout Roman Catholic.
It was the publication of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” in 1994 that started me thinking about all of my old questions again. At first, I was overjoyed that Evangelicals and Catholics were getting together, but as I read the statement, and read the reviews from both sides, it was apparent that there were some folks on both sides who were not happy about such a development. The 1997 statement, The Gift of Salvation, was one of the last straws for me, particularly this paragraph:
The New Testament makes it clear that the gift of justification is received through faith. "By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the Gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).While it’s true that Roman Catholics view all of “salvation” as a “gift,” – it’s also true, as the priest was telling me as I walked out of confession for the last time, “We’ve gotta do our part too.”
Spending Your Life on the Sacramental Treadmill
But for Roman Catholics, “our part” means spending a lifetime on the sacramental treadmill. Most Roman Catholics are baptized as babies, and so they are never urged to repent, they are never called to conversion to Christ.
On the other hand, when Roman Catholics say that “works” are required, they don’t mean “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners in jail.” Those things are helpful, but the works that are genuinely required by Church law are known as “the precepts of the church”. My older version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (ccc) says they are “the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” (ccc 2041). It’s the least that you are required to do in order to assure yourself that “you have been good enough to get to heaven when you die.” (To miss Mass on a Sunday, without getting to confession, involves Mortal sin.) In newer printings, this has been edited to read “The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” These are:
The first precept ("You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor") requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.So there you have the “Sacramental Treadmill”. Catholics will affirm that God gives the grace to accomplish all of that through a lifetime. That’s why they say it’s a “gift.” But as the priest said, you surely gotta do your part.
The second precept ("You shall confess your sins at least once a year") ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism's work of conversion and forgiveness.
The third precept ("You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season") guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord's Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy.
The fourth precept ("You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church") ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.
The fifth precept ("You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church") means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.
What it takes to interact effectively with Roman Catholics
In recent weeks, Steve provided an overview of what’s needed in order to interact with Roman Catholicism in our day. I have always taken this advice to heart.
I think a lot of people would like to forget Roman Catholicism, but if you want to go back in time about 900 years, imagine that your government is your religion, and that government rules the world. (At least, the only world you know. But all of it.) There is nothing else: you’re born, you’re baptized by the government; the government gives you sacraments that promise “eternal life”; you get married by the government; your kids have to be baptized by the government. It’s true, there were civil authorities in those days, “lesser authorities” but it was the Roman Church that was asserting authority over all of it. You knew who was in charge. Especially given that there was a lot more death around to help focus the mind.
The Reformation and the American Revolution were fought to break out of that cycle, which is, unfortunately, still evident in many ways in our day. (The “sacraments” no longer apply to your eternal life, but to your natural one. Health care is the big one now, but I’m sure you can think of others.)
I’ve told Steve Hays in the past that I’m a “one-trick pony” – the trick that I seek to understand is Roman Catholicism. And to be sure, Roman Catholicism is a big trick. It’s a bait-and-switch of of the first magnitude. For a long time, it was a huge, unexplored world. But now, within that world, I’ve found that one main highway that I understand and trust. I’ve read a lot. I’ve branched off into those areas that I hadn’t been previously familiar with. And in the process, I’ve gotten to understand this multi-dimensional world of church history, theology, and the breadth of the Protestant/Catholic divide. My hope is to be a trustworthy guide for those who want, for some reason, to explore that world.