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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With Faces Thitherward

“They shall ask the way to Zion with their faces thitherward.”
– Jeremiah 50:5 (KJV).

I.
Sitting at last year’s convocation, I never could have guessed that a year later I’d be watching my own convocation from our dinner table five thousand kilometers away, hollering at the kids to be quiet so we could listen to Jake’s valedictorian address. Even more impossible to guess would have been the reason: that a week or so earlier I had knocked on the door of the local parish church and announced to the surprised priest and secretary our intention to seek communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It didn’t seem right to attend convocation, a celebration of Reformed teaching, when we were calling into question the validity of the Reformation itself. But I should say that although that convocation was the forty-second in order of time, it really was the first in order of quality – a fitting end to a unique and challenging chapter of our lives.

St. Rita of Cascia - through her humility and intercession her wicked husband was converted and her sons were spared a life of sin.

St. Rita of Cascia – through her humility and intercession her wicked husband was converted and her sons were spared a life of sin.

Arenda and I had been attending Mass at St. Rita’s, here in Fruitvale, for some time, and in a congregation of fifty or sixty people you and your three young kids don’t exactly slip in unnoticed. But we hadn’t introduced ourselves. So when I popped into the office that day and sat down with Father Ben, I explained who we were and where we’d come from. Of course, the fact that I’d recently graduated from a Reformed seminary was an attention grabber, and he asked all sorts of questions.

But if it provokes questions for a Catholic priest, it probably provokes even more for a Reformed person. Probably all the subtle variations of, “What on earth?” I don’t know that I can sufficiently answer that, but it’s worth a shot. While I won’t go into detail here about every doctrinal question, for the sake of space, I will give you the shape of my overall thinking over the last year.

II.
At the close of the summer of 2015 I’d just finished a preaching practicum in Fergus, Ontario. I was looking forward to my fourth and final year at seminary and to the ministry beyond it. I hadn’t been a complete flop in the pulpit, and my sermons contained, if nothing else, proper English grammar. No one told me that I’d be wasting everyone’s money if I continued in my studies, so I went ahead hoping that I’d maybe get a call when I was done. It was exciting to finally see land in the distance, and there wasn’t a Catholic cloud in the sky.

Up to this point, my views on the Catholic Church were pretty normal for a Reformed person. I didn’t believe that all Catholics were damned, but if some were going to be with me in heaven it would be in spite of all the rubbish their Church taught – certainly not because of it. After all, in the very name “Reformed” itself is a rebuke of the Catholic Church, for it was the apparent corruptions of that Church that the Reformers had sought to reform. Catholics prayed to dead people, they worshipped Mary, they thought the blood, hair, bones, and organs of a dead saint could be magical, they bowed down to idols, their claims to papal and magisterial infallibility could be debunked by pointing to the many inconsistencies and historical falsehoods; name any teaching of Scripture and Rome had buried it beneath idolatry, superstition, and man-made doctrines. Catholics had mastered the art of erring, and had solemnly festooned their errors with incense, candles, chants, and fancy robes. Considering all that, it never really crossed my mind to take Rome seriously.
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Post Script

Although I formally ended this blog a month or so ago, I thought it may be helpful to explain in a public forum a little bit more about our situation. It’s becoming public knowledge that the reason I did not enter the ministry was because of substantial misgivings about the truthfulness of Reformed teaching. These misgivings are not mine alone; Arenda shares them. These questions have led us on a search for the truth, to find out whether or not the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints is found in Reformed teaching, or is found elsewhere.

Although a small handful of people had known about this for some time, we only very recently shared our misgivings with a broader audience. As a result of this information becoming more public, we’ve received many notes of support, prayer, and, understandably, disappointment, notes for which we are most grateful. But this has all been further complicated by our move three weeks ago from Hamilton to the small town of Fruitvale, in the West Kootenays region of BC.

It’s clear from the notes that we’ve received that our questioning of Reformed teaching and our move to Fruitvale have led to some speculation regarding our motives and our faith. I’ve enjoyed a certain amount of publicity over the past years, not only as a CRTS student, catechism teacher, and tenderfoot preacher, but also as a blogger, and it’s expected that people will be concerned, and that this concern will in turn lead to some speculation. I understand this, and I hope here to fill in the picture a little.

Seeing as we knew months before school ended that I would not be entering the ministry, we had considered many possibilities for what to do. Did we want to move back “home” to BC? If we stayed in Ontario, did we want to stay in Hamilton? What did I want to do in the long term? Go back to woodworking? Teach? I considered a wood-finishing job in Cambridge, ON. I applied for a cabinetry job on Vancouver Island. I thought about being an arborist in Brockville, ON. Did I want to commit to something long-term while at an unstable point in our lives?

Fruitvale, nestled in the Selkirk Mountains, in a valley above the mighty river from which British Columbia gets its name.

Fruitvale, nestled in the Selkirk Mountains, in a valley above the mighty river from which British Columbia gets its name.

We eventually made up our minds that we were going back to BC. The pull of family, and the pull of the landscape that had shaped our imaginations, was what did it. We didn’t want to live in the Fraser Valley, though, wanting both emotional and physical space. It’s just way too crowded and busy there to think straight about anything. We also concluded it would be best if Arenda worked as a nurse. This would give us the income we needed, as well as the necessary time to fully engage with our questions. So she applied for a number of positions throughout the interior of the province, and it was Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in Trail that bit. So here we are in Fruitvale, just outside of Trail, on two thirds of an acre, carrots, radishes, beets, corn, and potatoes freshly planted in the raised beds out back, tomatoes and hot peppers in the greenhouse, all the fresh air we could hope for, and a view of the mountains that lifts our souls to God.

When people hear that I am not convinced of the truth of Reformed teaching, it leads to deeper questions about faith and the heart, and I understand that. There’s an ancient maxim, however, that prescribes the way in which a Christian must learn the truth: faith seeking understanding. One must first believe, and only then will one understand. You don’t first try to make sense of a man ascending into heaven, and then believe it. Rather, you first believe that a man ascended into heaven, and only then will you understand how the whole meaning of life depends on that fact.
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Okay, One More Thing

Because I just couldn’t resist, here’s a little parable to summarize things:

Let’s say it’s a sunny Monday morning, and Sam is sitting on his front porch, on a tattered sofa, drinking beer. Out on the street in front of Sam’s house there’s a construction crew at work on the road. At one point in the day, a bunch of Sam’s friends come over to have some beers. The construction workers overhear him loudly berating the laziness of the workers, and their ignorance. If they were anything enlightened like Sam, they too would quit their jobs and enjoy the freedom of front porch sofa beers. One of the workers responds to Sam, and using the very arguments that Sam had used, shows that Sam is actually the lazy and ignorant one. This is not a personal attack on Sam. Sam had made very simple and direct statements exalting himself over and against the workers, and the worker had refuted those statements. Now, it may be that the worker was wrong. It may be that the workers were in fact the lazy and ignorant ones and that Sam had been right all along. But instead of trying to show this, Sam simply complains that the worker, by using Sam’s very words against Sam, had unfairly deconstructed the argument to suit his own views, and that this was further evidence that Sam was right. At the end of the day, the workers went back to their work, and Sam went back to his beer.

(I won’t be approving any new comments on these posts. Judging from the ones that have been made so far, I can’t see this going in any sort of fruitful direction.)