“The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it!”
That was how I began and ended the story of my conversion to Catholicism. As a Bible-believing Evangelical Christian, Biblical inerrancy was a hot-button issue as far as I was concerned. I was convinced (and as a Catholic still am convinced) that the Scriptures do not err. As a group, we Evangelicals despised “liberal theologians” who taught gullible Christians that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead – His disciples supposedly just couldn’t deal with the guilt of having abandoned Him to His enemies, so they collectively hallucinated His Resurrection. Any semi-intelligent, modern-day Christian knows that people don’t rise from the dead!
Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? we cried! Of course He did! How many different ways did the writers of the inspired Scriptures assure us that He did? Are we supposed to follow the lead of those liberal theologians and believe that all the witnesses to the Resurrection were delusional – and willing to die for this Resurrection delusion??? And liberal believers call Evangelicals gullible!
Yet, about 10 years ago, I had a close encounter with John chapter 6 – the chapter in which Jesus explains that He is the Bread which came down from Heaven. He says that this bread is His flesh which He will give for the salvation of the world, and that he who does not eat His flesh and drink His blood has no life in him. An unanticipated light began to dawn in my consciousness as I grasped that Jesus could not be speaking any more clearly if He was trying to say that the bread and wine on the communion table actually do become His Body and His Blood – something that we Baptists found ludicrous in the extreme. From our viewpoint it was OBVIOUS that Jesus COULD NOT change crackers and grape juice (our communion materials) into His Body and His Blood – OBVIOUS. At that moment I realized that our insistence on this put us in the same skeptical boat with the liberal theologians who denied the Resurrection – we reserved the right to take figuratively the parts of the Bible we didn’t have the faith to believe.
That was the beginning of my journey into full communion with the Holy Catholic Church, a journey on which I was made aware of the many, many verses that I as an Evangelical had discounted, overlooked or spiritualized away in order to make my theology work. Evangelicals tend to lump Catholic teaching in with liberal theology and are convinced that only those of the Evangelical persuasion take the Bible at its word. The hypocrisy of this viewpoint became clear to me as I examined verses like 1 Peter 3:21– “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you” – and Philippians 2:12 – “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” – verses which the Catholic Church takes quite literally, but which we as Evangelicals insisted on explaining away because they contradicted our beliefs.
It became apparent to me that Evangelical theology does not take the Scriptures more literally than Catholic theology. Despite our insistence that we Evangelicals were “the good guys” who stick to a literal understanding of Scripture, we told jokes about people who believe in the Real Presence. “They probably think God is a celestial chicken!” we would say, referring to a goofy literal interpretation of Psalm 91:4: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” In other words, if you as a Catholic or Orthodox Christian put John 6:22-71, Luke 22:19, and 1 Corinthians 11:29 together and come up with a literal understanding of the Real Presence, you are just too dumb to understand that some things in Scripture are meant to be taken figuratively. We had you in a box; if you didn’t understand Scripture the way we understood it, you were damned one way or the other. If you didn’t take literally what we took literally, you were a dastardly liberal. If you didn’t take figuratively what we took figuratively, you were a superstitious Catholic. Only Evangelicals struck the right balance.
This of course presupposed that we had infallible knowledge of what God meant to be taken literally in Holy Scripture and what God meant to be taken figuratively – and there’s the rub. No Evangelical pastor will tell you that he is rendered infallible when he preaches that the secret rapture can occur at any moment. No liberal theologian will tell you that he is rendered infallible when he writes books explaining that there is no hell. No Protestant (in his right mind) claims infallibility. Yet by stigmatizing or anathematizing anyone who takes literally what they take figuratively, or takes figuratively they take literally, both conservative and liberal Protestants are claiming that that they do have infallible knowledge of how Scripture is to be understood. And this has consequences.
The story of Joshua Horn is a case in point (h/t: Russ Rentler at Crossed the Tiber!). Horn was raised Southern Baptist. Most Southern Baptists are proud to point out that they take the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2 quite literally. They believe in a literal 6-day creation and in an Earth that is 6,000 years old. The belief in an imminent, secret, pre-tribulational rapture of believers is another non-negotiable in Baptist circles (substitute teachers at our local Baptist school have to sign a statement declaring their agreement with this doctrine). While not every Southern Baptist is ready to die for these beliefs, to most the theory of evolution, with its corollary that the Earth is billions of years old, is anathema. Young Earthism not optional in this setting – it has become an Article of Faith. Real Christians, the reasoning goes, will hold to a Young Earth understanding of Genesis, just as surely as they will hold to a belief in the secret rapture doctrine. Josh Horn’s family was dead-set against the notion of evolution, to the point of forbidding him to watch episodes of Pokémon (since the little critters “evolve”). As a high school student, Horn began to examine the evidence for and against evolution. He began questioning the “left-behind” soteriology. He began questioning everything he had been taught in the Southern Baptist setting, and he left Christianity altogether, eventually becoming president of his university’s Secular Free Thought Society (read how this all turned out here).
Deconversions like Horn’s are all too often the unintended consequence of the Evangelical insistence that their interpretation of the word of God IS “what the Bible says.” Renowned evangelist Charles Templeton experienced the same kind of deconversion when he began to question the 6-Day creation model. Templeton, once more famous than his friend and fellow evangelist Billy Graham, left Christianity for agnosticism when he found himself unable to believe that God created the heavens and the earth in six literal days. Interviewed shortly before his death, he admitted poignantly how much he missed the Jesus of his youth, the Jesus he had preached to large crowds, the Jesus he felt he could not possibly reconcile with a figurative understanding of the first two chapters of Genesis.
From a Catholic standpoint this tragedy makes no sense. Templeton was convinced that to reject 6-Day creationism was to reject Christianity. Because he found the assertions of Young Earthism untenable, he could no longer in good conscience consider himself a Christian. Templeton wrote that when he discussed his doubts concerning a literal understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 with his old friend Billy Graham, Dr. Graham said to him:
I believe the Genesis account of creation because it’s in the Bible. I’ve discovered something in my ministry: When I take the Bible literally, when I proclaim it as the word of God, my preaching has power. When I stand on the platform and say, ‘God says,’ or ‘The Bible says,’ the Holy Spirit uses me. There are results.
Fine and dandy – as a Baptist, Billy Graham believes in a literal understanding of the first chapters of Genesis “because it’s in the Bible.” And yet, he as a Baptist obviously discounts a literal understanding of John 6:22-58 – also “in the Bible” –because he does not believe that it is appropriate to understand this passage literally. Baptists would never claim to be infallible interpreters of Scripture, but those Christians who interpret Scripture differently with respect to the creation narrative can find themselves “excommunicated” nonetheless. Young Earthers have made the insistence on a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 a stumbling block, and believers fall away from Christianity because of this.
When I was a Baptist, I knew what the verb “inflate” meant. When I was looking into Catholicism, I learned the meaning of the verb “conflate.” It means “to blow together.” When you conflate two different subjects, you blow them together until it looks like they are one and the same. Baptists are conflating their literal understanding of the creation narrative with a belief in Biblical inerrancy. This conflation is a stumbling block to many who then feel honor-bound to leave Christianity when they find what looks to them to be insufficient evidence for 6-Day creationism. Evangelicals have introduced a false connection between believing that the Bible is inerrant and believing that Genesis 1 and 2 must be taken literally. If someone questions the literal interpretation of Genesis, he is told that he is questioning the word of God itself. What he is actually questioning is the Evangelical interpretation of the word of God.
Here’s a quote which was produced by a popular 6-Day creation speaker when he was asked to explain the equivocal support for Young Earthism in the writings of the Church Fathers. He called upon Martin Luther to defend his position, and Dr. Luther provides us with an excellent example of conflation:
That Adam was created on the sixth day, that the animals were brought to him, that he heard the Lord giving him a command regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that the Lord sent a sleep upon him – all these facts clearly refer to time and physical life. Therefore it is necessary to understand these days as actual days, contrary to the opinion of the holy fathers. Whenever we see that the opinions of the fathers are not in agreement with Scripture, we respectfully bear with them and acknowledge them as our forefathers; but we do not on their account give up the authority of Scripture. …we dare not give preference to the authority of men over that of Scripture! Human beings can err, but the Word of God is the very wisdom of God and the absolutely infallible truth. (Martin Luther, “Lectures on Genesis”)
Luther made a career of conflating the inerrancy of Scripture with the inerrancy of HIS UNDERSTANDING of Scripture. In HIS OPINION, the 6 days of Genesis were 6 literal days. What sounds like a noble defense of Biblical inerrancy (“the word of God is the very wisdom of God and the absolutely infallible truth”) is twisted into a defense of Luther’s OPINION, HIS INTERPRETATION of Holy Scripture. Disagree with that, Luther warned, and you are disagreeing with the Bible itself!
Only the Catholic Church claims to have an infallible teaching office. The existence of this infallible teaching office, based upon the promises of Christ to the Church He established, means that only as a Catholic am I safe from the subjectivity of both Evangelicalism and liberalism, whose only criterion for declaring that certain disputed passages must be taken literally is their own strangely high opinion of their understanding of Scripture, and whose only criterion for declaring that certain disputed passages must be taken figuratively is their own sad lack of faith. Buy a ticket into their belief systems, and you risk shipwreck. Until they can produce an infallible Magisterium, let the buyer beware.
On the memorial of St. Louis Bertrand
Deo omnis gloria!
Postscript: This was not intended as a post on creationism vs. evolution – you can read a Catholic discussion of those topics here.