On Becoming Catholic

Here is Arenda’s account of becoming Catholic, from her blog, The Upcast Eye.

The Upcast Eye

The winter of 2015-16 was one of the strangest seasons of my life. Jeremy was halfway through his fourth and final year at seminary, and the end of seven long years of studying was finally within sight. Up to that point, everything had led us to believe that Jeremy would make a good pastor, and he was being contacted by various churches who were interested in calling him when he completed his Master of Divinity. We were looking forward to some stability in life: a steady income, knowing where we’d be living for the next five years, and getting to know the congregation Jeremy would be pastoring.

But by the end of 2015 that vision of the future had crumbled. Rather than discussing questions like, “Which of these calling committee inquiries sounds more interesting?” and “Would you ever consider moving to Australia?” I was wondering, “Can I really believe in…

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Flashes, Thunders, and Shakes: The Bible on Prayers to Saints

I was having a discussion recently with a Reformed person about the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints. It’s this doctrine that informs the Catholic practice of venerating and praying to saints, especially to Mary. But this Reformed person insisted, as Reformed people all insist, that this practice is unbiblical.

I aim to show here that this simply isn’t the case. But first, what does it mean that something is “unbiblical”? Or what does it mean that something is “biblical”? It is certainly true that the Bible never commands us to seek the intercession of Mary and the saints. The Bible says very little about what to think about the faithful departed at all. Yet the Catholic Church teaches that this practice is indeed biblical; and what’s more, it’s a practice that Christians since the early Church, including the Church Fathers, believed was biblical. So, what do we mean by the word, “biblical”?

My Reformed conversation partner also brought up the topic of children who die in infancy. According to Reformed teaching, believing parents whose children die in infancy, regardless of whether those children are baptized, can be certain that those children are in heaven. However, the Bible does not say this. In the same way that you will search in vain for a Bible text that teaches that we ought to pray to Mary, so you will search in vain for a Bible text that teaches that believing parents of unbaptized children “ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy” [Canons of Dort, I.17]. The reason Reformed people believe this, though, is because of what they believe about the covenant. They draw conclusions from Scripture about the covenant, and from those conclusions they infer that children of believers who die in infancy, regardless of baptism, will go to heaven.

I mention this because of its significance for the meaning of the word, “biblical.” The Catholic Church teaches that prayers to saints are biblical for the same reason that Reformed people believe that canon I.17 is biblical. That is, while there is no text that commands praying to saints, from everything the Bible says about the communion of saints the Catholic Church infers that the saints in glory hear our pleas for their intercession and bring those intercessions before God. That’s how the Catholic Church has always understood the word “biblical” – as referring to a teaching that isn’t necessarily mentioned in Scripture, but that nonetheless follows from, and is in perfect accord with, everything that is mentioned in Scripture. Just like Reformed people believe about canon I.17.

I. On the word, “prayer.”

Before looking at the biblical evidence, I should say something about the verb, “to pray.” It often causes confusion in these discussions, and no discussion can be successful without defining our terms. When Catholics use the verb “to pray” with regard to saints, they are using it the way it was once always used in the English language, back when people might have said to each other, “Please pass the pottage, I pray you.” That is, the word “pray” in English means “ask,” or, “petition.” You can find this usage of “prayers” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit:

“But help came swiftly; for Bard at once had speedy messengers sent up the river to the Forest to seek the aid of the King of the Elves of the Wood. . . But the king, when he received the prayers of Bard, had pity, for he was the lord of a good and kindly people. . .”[1]

That’s the meaning Catholics use when they talk about prayers to saints. I realize that prayer can also mean much more than petitioning. Time spent in prayer with God is often a time of worshipping Him and basking in His love. But my point here is that the word “pray” doesn’t necessarily entail worship – it has (or had) a much more pedestrian use in the English language, and that’s the use that is relevant to this discussion.
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The Scriptures, the Spirit, and the Sheepfold: A Reply to Dr. Wes Bredenhof

A page from the Wenceslas Bible, written in the German language in the 1390’s.

Over at his blog, Yinkahdinay, Dr. Wes Bredenhof has written a post, “True and False Catholicism.” He argues there that the Reformed are “the true Catholics,” and that the Catholic Church, in contrast, “represents the spirit of Antichrist.” To demonstrate this, he points to three areas where Catholic and Reformed teaching is at odds – authority, the doctrine of man, and worship – and concludes that in all three areas the Reformed are correct and the Catholic Church wrong.

I’ve responded to Wes’s arguments about authority over at Called to Communion: The Scriptures, the Spirit, and the Sheepfold: A Reply to Dr. Wes Bredenhof.

Fragrant Mary on the North Wind

Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden that the spices thereof may flow out.
– Song of Solomon 4:16 (KJV).

I.
In November of 2015, I was well into my Catholic ordeal. Arenda’s parents had come to visit for a few days, and we were saying farewell when James came bounding into the room saying, “Look, Mom, I found a necklace!” He jumped onto the couch and showed us a circlet of beads with a cross dangling from the end. What on earth? I thought. That’s no necklace – that’s a rosary. I was taken aback by it, and as soon as my in-laws had left I asked James were he’d found it. He took me to the basement, to the small workshop room, and showed me the nail on the wall shelves where it had been hanging. We’d lived in that house for four years and gone into that room countless times, and I’d never seen a rosary hanging there. The previous homeowners had been Polish, so I assumed that they were Catholic and had forgotten the rosary there. But why, at that tender point in our lives, had we suddenly found a rosary hanging in plain sight that we’d never before seen? I didn’t know what to think of it. I was nowhere near becoming Catholic at that point, much less willing to pray to Mary, so I left it as just one of those things in life. But I did say to Arenda, “If we start finding more rosaries hanging about the house, I’m going to take it as a sign.”

The interior of Notre Dame, "Our Lady", Cathedral in Paris, France. Courtesy, Traveldigg.com

The interior of Notre Dame, “Our Lady”, Cathedral in Paris, France.
Courtesy, Traveldigg.com

We didn’t find any more rosaries. I did, however, return often to the question as to why we’d found it. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was everything. But the whole question about Mary remained one of the biggest obstacles in my acceptance of the Catholic faith. From what I know of other converts from Protestantism, this is often the case. There are usually two major objections: first, the Catholic teachings on Mary are not found in Scripture; and second, they obscure the work and glory of Jesus Christ. Even after I’d accepted that the Catholic Church was who she said she was, the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, I still found myself holding out against her Marian teachings. How could Catholics say the exalted things they said about Mary? And what was the point of it all, anyways?

Because of this, I turned a good chunk of my attention to studying those teachings. And I doubt I’m alone in having found that looking into their scriptural and theological foundations has been among the most rewarding parts of the journey to the Catholic faith. Mary is a living sermon about Christ and the sheer gratuitousness of His love. But since Rome’s claims about her are perhaps the primary obstacle to embracing the Catholic faith, I thought I’d respond to my former objections. In this post I’ll address the second of the above objections: that the Marian teachings detract from Christ’s work and glory; and in a future post I’ll address the scriptural foundations.

II.
May as well dive right in with some of the Reformed-beard-sizzlers given to Mary by the Catholic Church: Queen of Heaven, Mother of Mercy, gracious Advocate, Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of all Graces. These offend Reformed ears because they appear to confer on Mary glory that belongs to Christ alone. Christ is our advocate [1Jn.2:1], the source of grace [Ep.4:7], the source of mercy [Ro.9:18], our Redeemer [Ep.1:7], and our royal Head [Ep.1:22]. These verses, and many others, proclaim these wonderful and rich truths about Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church, too, teaches those things about Christ, for she confesses every word of Scripture to be breathed out by God and binding for all men. But how on earth could she claim to uphold Scripture, honour Christ, and yet confer similar titles on Mary?

First of all, it’s important to be clear what is meant by these titles. Take “Mediatrix” for example. Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy,

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all [1Ti.2:5,6 ESV].

How can the Catholic Church call Mary a mediator when Scripture says we have only one mediator? We can see in the above Scripture quotation what Paul meant by referring to Christ as our “one mediator”: He was the one “who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Christ stood in the middle, between God and man, as payment on behalf of man to God for the sins of the world. That’s not what the Catholic Church means in conferring on Mary the title, “Mediatrix.” She did not give her life as a ransom to God for our sins. Rather, what the title means is that Mary intercedes on our behalf to Christ. She brings our requests to her Son and by her intercession wins every grace that God is pleased to grant us. In fact, the very mediating work ascribed by Rome to Mary is commanded of us by Paul only a few verses earlier: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” [1Ti.2:1]. If Mary’s mediating work detracts from Christ’s work, then so do our intercessions.
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Called to Communion

1%d0%b3_ugolino_di_nerio-_the_last_supper_metropolitan_mus-_n-yThe most influential resource for me in becoming Catholic has been the website, Called to Communion. The authors are former Reformed/Presbyterian pastors, seminary students, and laymen who have all converted to the Catholic faith and who started the site in order to discuss the obstacles that exist between Protestants and Catholics, being motivated by Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17. They’ve written on pretty much every contentious issue out there, and the debates in the comments section are perhaps the site’s most valuable feature. It was reading through those debates late into the hours of many nights that helped to change my mind.

Anyways, they’ve been kind enough to host my “Thitherward” post, and you’re welcome to leave comments. I’m still undecided as to whether I’ll open comments here or not, as it could mean a lot of extra work on my part. We’ll see.

On Scripture and the Bereans

I.
In my previous post I argued that the Church has a divine teaching authority, which means she has the authority to declare which doctrines are true and which are false. One of the objections I’ve encountered in discussions about this comes from the account of the Bereans in Acts 17. The Bereans, the objection goes, were praised for not simply submitting to Paul’s teachings but for checking those teachings against Scripture before accepting them. If the Bereans were praised for doing this with an Apostle, how much more ought we to do this with the Church? Therefore, we shouldn’t just accept the Church’s teachings – we should always check them against the Bible.

The context of Acts 17, as well as of Paul’s broader ministry, however, shows that this objection is unfounded. At the beginning of Acts 17, Paul has paid a visit to the Jewish synagogue in Thessalonica. Scripture tells us,

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” [Ac.17:2,3 all quotes from the ESV].

Paul's journey through ancient Greece. Courtesy Lambert Planet

Paul’s journey through ancient Greece.
Courtesy Lambert Planet

Paul opens the Scriptures and demonstrates to the Thessalonians how those Scriptures proclaim Christ. This was his main method for ministering to the Jews, as we can see from other examples in Acts (Acts 13, for example, gives a detailed look at how Paul went about “explaining and proving” Christ from the Old Testament). Some of Paul’s hearers were persuaded [v.4], but the Thessalonian Jews were not, and made their disagreement known with a city-wide temper tantrum [v.5]. In response, Paul and Silas leave under cover of night and travel to Berea. They do just what they did in Thessalonica and they pay a visit to the synagogue [v.10]. But the response of the Berean Jews was very different from the jealous Jews of Thessalonica. We read,

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so [Ac.17:11].

The Holy Spirit praises the Berean Jews, informing us that they “were more noble than those in Thessalonica.” But what exactly are they being praised for? Are they being praised for not merely accepting Paul’s gospel but for double-checking Scripture before accepting it? The nobility of the Bereans is contrasted here with the ignobility of the Thessalonians. So if the nobility of the Bereans lay in double-checking Paul’s teachings before accepting them, then the ignobility of the Thessalonians lay in accepting Paul’s teachings without double-checking them. But as we’ve seen, this isn’t what happened in Thessalonica. It wasn’t that they accepted Paul’s teachings without first seeing if Scripture supported them; it was that they didn’t accept Paul’s teachings at all. Their response to Paul’s ministry was one of sorely undignified unbelief.
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From Sola Scriptura to a Radical Surrender of Fate

gerard-dou-hermit-praying

A Hermit Praying, by Gerrit Dou, 17th c.

I.
As you can imagine, we’ve received many comments, questions, and exhortations from Reformed people over the last few months. Perhaps the main critique we’ve received is that we need to obey the Bible, or attend a church that is biblically sound, or something along those lines. One of the reasons behind the Reformation was that the Reformers had accused Rome of forsaking God’s Word. So if someone from a Reformed background becomes Catholic, this must involve a lower view of Scripture.

While that’s how it looks from the Reformed end, that isn’t at all what changes in the heart and mind of a convert to Rome. Catholics believe as much as Reformed people do that their beliefs are in accord with God’s holy and authoritative Word. Rome teaches that that Bible is inspired by God, and because of its divine source man must live in submission to its every word. What changes in the heart and mind of a convert rather, and perhaps surprisingly, is one’s amount of faith. It’s not a matter of a higher or lower view of Scripture, it’s a matter of more or less faith. And becoming Catholic requires much more faith than I had as a Reformed person.

The reason for this is simple, and it has to do with sola scriptura. According to sola scriptura, Scripture alone is the infallible authority for our doctrines, worship, and lives as Christians, because Scripture alone has divine authority. The Reformed have a high view of other authorities like the Church, creeds, and confessions, but these are all human authorities. Their words are only a human response to divine speech, so none of them has more right than any other to lay claim to our unquestioning submission.

Rome, however, teaches that the Bible is not alone as a divine authority in the world. She teaches that Jesus Christ granted to His Church not just human authority, but His own divine authority. Because of this, Catholics must submit to the Church in faith. A Catholic accepts the Nicene Creed, for example, not because he’s necessarily convinced from Scripture that every article is true, but because Jesus Christ through the Church has told him that it’s true. As a Reformed person I understood the Church as being loved by Christ, guided by Christ, taught by Christ – but not as having Christ’s authority. I had to judge, then, whether I thought her teachings were biblical. It was an exercise of my judgment, not of my faith. But when you become Catholic, you put your judgment off to the side. It doesn’t matter anymore whether you’re convinced of a certain doctrine or not. Since the Lord Jesus through His Body has told you that it’s true, you believe it. It’s an exercise of faith, not of judgment.

This question of divine authority is the most important question of all. Were the Reformers right in claiming that only Scripture has divine authority? Or does Scripture itself teach us that the Church has it, too? The significance of the issue can’t be understated. If the Church has divine authority, then submitting to her is submitting to Jesus Christ, and rejecting her is rejecting Jesus Christ. If she has this authority, then every Christian on earth has the duty to seek her out and submit to her in obedience and humility.

What I hope to explain here is why I think that Scripture plainly testifies to the divine authority of the Church, and how the great teachers of the early Church confirm it.

II.
Just to make this concrete, here’s a scenario to show the difference between a sola scriptura world and a non-sola scriptura world. Let’s say you’re sitting at the kitchen table with Alphonse, a friend from a different denominational background. You’re arguing about a certain doctrine, a doctrine Alphonse thinks Scripture teaches, and one that he thinks is essential to salvation. You’re convinced that he’s misinterpreting Scripture, and you argue for a different interpretation of the passages in question. This goes back and forth as you wind your way through Scripture, but eventually you both realize you won’t change the other’s mind. You both have explanations for every relevant passage, and you both believe that you have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to the truth.
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