Many of you have read my “conversion story” at Why I’m Catholic. This term “conversion” leaves a lot to be desired. Technically, Protestants don’t “convert” to Catholicism – we are reconciled to the Church, because we are already Christians by virtue of our baptism. But that’s so wordy – it’s so much easier to say “I converted.”
The word “convert” comes from the Latin “com” (with) and “vertere” (to turn). Nowadays we also speak of “deconversion,” when someone falls away from the faith, and of “reversion,” as when a Catholic convert to Protestantism “reverts” to his former Catholic beliefs. Since Protestants and Catholics are all Christians to begin with, I think we need some more specific terms for what happens when someone leaves Catholicism for Protestantism, or vice versa. I tend to think of Catholics as “subverting” when they reject the teachings of the Church for “what does this Bible verse mean to you?” I myself “supraverted” when I left behind a lifetime of private interpretation of Scripture in order to be reconciled to my mother, the Church. I am motivated by the desire to see all of Protestantism supravert!
So, for those of you who have read my supraversion story, here are a few of the Scriptures I listed as posing a problem for me as a Protestant. Some of these verses (like Colossians 1:24 – “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church”) were a shock to me when I first encountered them, because there was no way to comfortably reconcile them to my existing beliefs. Others, like II Timothy 3:16, had bothered me all my life because of the nagging certainty that we were stretching or twisting them all out of proportion to make them agree with our theology. After all, what’s a Bible-Alone Christian to do if the Bible won’t say what it SHOULD say?
II Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
As an Evangelical, I was convinced that Holy Scripture is the pillar and foundation of truth. That’s how I was taught to read II Timothy 3:16, ignoring the fact that that verse claims only that:
a) Scripture is God-breathed
b) Scripture is useful
c) Scripture makes it possible for God’s servants to be fully equipped for good works.
We distorted that into “Scripture is the sole infallible guide and rule of our faith and practice!” As you can see, the verse just doesn’t say that. Holy Scripture simply isn’t (and never claims to be) the pillar and foundation of the truth.
1 Timothy 3:15: “…the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
In 45 years of Protestant experience, I never knew that that statement was in the Bible. If you had told me that the CHURCH is the pillar and foundation of the truth, I would have told you that you were badly deceived.
James 2:24: “A man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.”
Another one of those verses that I read right over. Try walking up to a “Bible-believing Christian” and saying, “A man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” They may very well shriek “Heresy!!” No, not heresy – James 2:24.
Revelation chapters 2 and 3
Works, works and more works! For a “Faith Alone” kinda guy, the Jesus of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 seems weirdly hung up on the “works” that the churches have been performing! “I know your works” – Rev 2:2. “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.” “I know your works” Rev 3:1. “I know your works” Rev 3:8. “I know your works” Rev 3:15. To calm the Evangelical soul, the NIV (the most popular Protestant translation of the Bible into English) translates this as “I know your deeds.” “Works” just has that Catholic ring to it….
Matthew 25:31-46: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
An assignment for those who insist that “works” have nothing to do with our salvation – find a judgment scenario in Scripture where anyone is judged on their faith alone.
1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
As Evangelicals, we were all about FAITH. Every passage in the Bible was made to fit into our interpretive paradigm of FAITH ALONE. This little verse acts as a tiny pinprick in the great big balloon of FAITH ALONE assumptions. If “love” is the greatest, how can we possibly be saved by faith alone?
Galatians 5:4-6: You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.
Here’s where 1 Corinthians 13:13 goes to work – it’s NOT faith alone, but “faith working through love,” because the greatest of these is NOT faith, but love. This has been the Catholic position vis-à-vis faith and works since the beginning.
John 17:20-23: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
As a Protestant, I was certainly familiar with this passage, but I took it to mean that Christians need to get along in a generalized sense. In my understanding, “be one” morphed into “don’t argue too much over the passages of Scripture you can’t agree on – if necessary just go out and start your own church – nothing wrong with that.” We all knew that denominations were a necessary accommodation to our Christian inability to see eye-to-eye on every little thing.
1 Corinthians 1:11-13 – “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
St. Paul’s definitive statement against denominationalism comes complete with excuse-making that sounds suspiciously like “I follow Luther”; “I follow Calvin”; “I follow Wesley.” As Evangelicals we realized this, but were helpless to do anything about it, preferring instead to believe that we Protestants agreed on The Essentials.
Ephesians 4:11-13: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
This passage presents a problem to those who stretch II Timothy 3:16 all out of proportion, for while that verse tells us that the Scriptures fully equip us for good works, Ephesians 4:12 tells us that the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers do this as well – a problem if you are trying to attribute that role to Scripture ALONE. Obviously Church leaders must play some part in that equipping. The Bible isn’t even mentioned here.
Ephesians 4:13 also presents a difficulty for those who believe that we just need a live-and-let-live attitude towards Christians of other denominations, proclaiming as it does that our goal must be “unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God.” Obviously, this unity is only possible if our leaders are all preaching the same doctrine….
Philippians 2: 12-13: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
As Baptists, there was one thing we were all certain of when we discussed Philippians 2:12-13, and that was that St. Paul did NOT mean “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling!” That was IMPOSSIBLE, because when we prayed the sinner’s prayer, we were saved in an instant for all time and eternity. We twisted the verse like a lump of clay until we made it say something like “continue trying to become more Christ-like!” – emasculating the “fear and trembling” part, and sweeping the word “salvation” under our theological carpet. Over the years that carpet got quite a few lumps under it….
1 John 5:13: These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
What we did to 1 John 5:13 should be illegal. Placing the last 8 words of this verse in solitary confinement, we proclaimed that you could “know that you know that you know” that you are saved for all eternity. We wanted so badly to assure you of your eternal salvation that we neglected to read you the fine print: 1 John chapters 1-4! St. John’s checklist is extensive (“You can know if you have eternal life IF you (a) walk in the light, (b) obey God’s commands, (c) walk as Jesus did, (d) do what is right, (e) love your brother), and it is enough to send anyone scurrying back to St. Paul’s advice in Philippians: “WORK OUT YOUR SALVATION WITH FEAR AND TREMBLING!”
So there are twelve examples of the major “fudge factor” that I participated in as an Evangelical. And I’m not the only one who feels this way; apparently the translators of the New International Version agreed with me – Evangelicals simply have to put a “spin” on certain passages of Scripture in order to make popular Evangelical theology work. Well-known Anglican bishop and author of Justification: God’ Plan and Paul’s Vision, N.T. Wright, critiqued the NIV with the following words:
“Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said….”
On the memorial of St. Regina
Deo omnis gloria!