A cradle Catholic once asked me to tell him what an “Evangelical” is. I had never really thought about it, but I explained that Evangelicals are conservative, Bible-believing Christians. As a “Bible-believing Christian” I grew up hearing sermons cautioning against liberal Christians who did not believe the Bible, who did not take the Bible literally, who watered down the statements of Scripture to make the Bible all warm and fuzzy for a perverse generation…. I stayed far away from liberal theology, only attending “Bible-believing” churches. Even Billy Graham revivals would typically conclude by urging new believers to begin attending “the Bible-believing church of your choice.”
We knew that whatever was wrong with you, it could be fixed if you would just read the Bible. We knew that if quasi-Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses would just read the Bible, they would see how false their theology was and become Baptists like us. It came as no surprise to me when I became Catholic that my Moody Bible Institute friend told me that I should just read the Bible and I would discover the errors of the Catholic belief system that I had foolishly embraced.
Actually, though, it was in becoming familiar with the Bible that I began to have problems with the “just read the Bible” mentality. As a young mother in central Virginia, I stayed at home with my two kids, so I was able to listen to Protestant Christian radio. There were many different pastors on the radio, all Bible-believing Christians, all preaching the same Biblical truths, or so I thought. As a sincere believer, I listened intently in an effort to imbibe “Biblical teaching.” I really wanted to live a life that pleased God, and to do that I had to know what the Bible taught. But it seemed like the longer I listened, the less sure I became. Each pastor was preaching something different.
Now, “different” isn’t necessarily bad. Different verses at different times in your life can speak to you in different ways, and you are able to appreciate different aspects of God’s truth over the years as you contemplate those verses. But I started to realize that what those radio preachers were preaching wasn’t just “different.” It was “conflicting.” That was a problem for me.
Of course, all those preachers agreed that we must “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” in order to be saved. And that sounded good if you didn’t think too deeply, but after listening for a while I found that although preachers like Presbyterian D. James Kennedy encouraged infant baptism, other pastors like Baptist Adrian Rogers preached against it. Baptist pastors would tell me that it was a sin to drink alcohol, while nondenominational preachers proclaimed that it was not a sin to drink (presumably stopping off for a beer with their producer after the broadcast). Some radio preachers warned against the possibility of “falling away” from the faith – others warned against preachers who said you could fall away from the faith. You would hear messages decrying “charismatic chaos” and other messages insisting that charismatic gifts were the key to growing in Christ. NOBODY could agree on the “End Times,” but nobody could stop talking about them, either.
After a while, the differences began to loom larger in my mind than the agreements. Where did these Bible-believing pastors get all these different ideas from???
From the Bible.
You see, each one of these preachers adhered to the idea that God the Holy Spirit will lead each one of us individually into all truth as we read God’s Word. All we have to do is just read the Bible. You will “know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Contrast that noble-sounding principle with the reality of the (HOW MANY?) Protestant denominations all preaching something different! And yet I realized that every single “Bible-believing” denomination I was familiar with based their beliefs on the Bible alone. Every church I ever attended called itself a “Bible-believing church,” and those churches were all over the denominational map – Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, nondenominational – all insisting on different criteria for “getting saved” which they all found in the same Holy Bible.
And when I familiarized myself with Jehovah’s Witness theology, I became even more unsettled. Jehovah’s Witnesses pride themselves on the fact that all of their theology comes straight from Scripture – and they gleefully deny the divinity of Christ, the physical resurrection of Christ, and the doctrine of hell. So much for “just read the Bible.”
This reliance on the Bible alone is not working, obviously. Where did we go wrong??? We depend solely on Scripture – our beliefs are based on the Bible alone!
Change that – our beliefs are based on
our interpretation of what the Bible says. That’s why different denominations have different takes on how to get saved. That’s why there are different denominations to begin with. The quicksand in the Protestant belief system is the idea is that we can base our beliefs solely on what the Bible says. Sounds great in theory, but in practice it results in (HOW MANY?) squabbling denominations because the Bible must be interpreted. I was right in my belief that if I really want to live a life that pleases God, I have to know what the Bible teaches. The problem is, I know what I think the Bible teaches. But how can I possibly know if my understanding is right? If I can find a bunch of Bible verses that I think support my position? (but then of course I run into that darn “interpretation” problem again….) If I can find other people who agree with me? (but then I am, of course, relying on their interpretation….) If I can find a church that preaches what I think is right? If I can find theologians of whatever stripe who hold my position? If I can find more theologians who agree with me than theologians who agree with you? How can I know that my understanding is correct?
“How can I understand unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31)
The answer is given in Acts 8. Not just anybody can make sense of this confusion. Not just anybody can claim to rightly divide the word of God. Only an authoritative interpreter can help us out of this quandary….
And if that is true, then God must have provided an authoritative interpreter for us.
That’s what the Catholic Church has been saying all along.
On the memorial of St. Pio of Pietrelcina
Deo omnis gloria!