The Essentials

Back when my husband and I lived in Taiwan, we had the privilege of living next door to a very nice man who also happened to be a real-life nuclear physicist. He didn’t speak English, and my Chinese didn’t extend much beyond “Hi, how are you?” and “What’s for lunch?” so he and I didn’t talk a lot, but he was a good neighbor, and obviously no slouch in the Brains Department. That’s why I will never forget the morning when he knocked on our door, asking my husband to come look at his car which was cranking, but wouldn’t start. My husband didn’t have to be asked twice; he immediately followed our neighbor and set to work determining the problem. The two men discussed the possible causes of the car’s failure to start. As my husband opened the hood and then sat down in the car to turn the key in the ignition, the nuclear physicist suggested several mechanical scenarios which would require repairs. He was clearly worried. It was then that my husband looked up at our neighbor and uttered the Chinese equivalent of the phrase, “Dude, you’re out of gas.”

And so he was. He was one seriously embarrassed nuclear physicist.

I mention this because I recently reread Russ Rentler’s conversion story. By way of introduction if you don’t know Russ, he’s a medical doctor specializing in Geriatrics. He’s also a revert to the Catholic faith after decades spent in Evangelicalism. In his conversion story he admits:

I was embarrassed that as a relatively bright person with the ability to obtain a medical degree, I had never considered reading history and instead based my understanding of Church history from a 16-year-old “Bible Scholar” thirty years earlier. How could I be “so smart” and yet be so close-minded about something so important as my faith?

Call it the “Nuclear Physicist phenomenon,” if you will. Even very bright people overlook the obvious sometimes, NOT because they’re stupid. But why then?

I don’t consider myself a total idiot, yet for 45 years I believed that every Evangelical church I attended was preaching the same Gospel that the first Christians preached. It never occurred to me to question this, despite the fact that I attended churches that taught that you could never lose your salvation, and churches that taught that you most certainly could lose your salvation. Now, really, you’d think that it would have dawned on me that the two were mutually exclusive, that the first Christians must have believed one or the other, and that, ergo, some of the 20th-century churches I was attending had strayed from the Faith once delivered!

But it didn’t. Conflicting doctrines are the status quo in Protestantism, and having been raised a Protestant, it was business as usual as far as I was concerned. Of course different denominations believe opposing doctrines. Why would anybody have a problem with that? As long as you can “prove” your beliefs from Scripture….

Think of it as a blind spot in your visual field. A blind spot is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and it doesn’t mean that you’re blind. There’s just one tiny little area in which you can’t see. We all focus on certain things, and while we’re focused like that, we can’t see what’s in our blind spot. We need to step back and look around – in doing that we may discover things that were right under our nose all along.

Inherent in the practice of “proving” one’s beliefs from Scripture are certain obvious drawbacks. The fact that non-Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses can “prove” straight from the Bible that Jesus was created by God (Col 1:15, Heb 1:5, Rev 3:14), is inherently inferior to God (Jn 14:1, 28, Jn 17:3, 1 Tim 2:5), and therefore under no circumstances should be considered or referred to as “God” (1 Cor 8:6) should tell you something. An old joke warns Evangelicals that quite a few flaky doctrines can be “proved” from Scripture, such as the fact that Jesus is not with believers when they fly in airplanes – Matthew 28:20, “LOW, I am with you always!”

As a Protestant I laughed at that joke. Ironically, when I first heard it I was attending a missionary conference with representatives from 50-some Protestant denominations present, some teaching that you can lose your salvation and some that you can’t, some teaching that baptism actually regenerates and some that baptism is merely a symbol, some teaching that speaking in tongues is what real Christians do and some that speaking in tongues is at best goofy and at worst demonic. I don’t think that one single person in that auditorium understood that the joke was on us.

Evangelical believers in sola Scriptura are taught that their beliefs must come straight from Scripture, and that Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture; in other words, they are taught to focus steadily on Scripture, and Scripture only. Glancing at the historical record, at the extrabiblical writings of the early Christians, just to see how one’s own modern-day beliefs line up with those of the people taught by the apostles themselves, is the spiritual equivalent of ceasing to focus single-mindedly on an object and taking a moment to look around the room. In doing so, something that may have been right in front of us, yet hidden in our blind spot, jumps out at us. How could I not have noticed that? – we ask ourselves. It was when I stepped back and looked around the history of Christianity that I realized that the Catholic Church was right there in front of me in that Bible that I had been so focused upon.

So, no, you don’t have to be an idiot to not realize that your Christian beliefs just don’t add up. You may be excelling in your profession. You may have earned a Ph.D. You may be a nuclear physicist.

But at the same time, your belief system may be out of gas.


On the memorial of St. Isabelle of France

Deo omnis gloria!

Catholicism is soooo countercultural. On the day that the world unwraps the presents and then packs all the decorations away for another year, declaring Christmas to be OVER, Catholics unwrap the presents and then trot off to Mass to declare to the world that Christmas has finally BEGUN. I have to admit, the world’s fierce determination to institutionalize the insane commercialization of the holiday, and then toss the whole thing out with the empty boxes and used wrapping paper on the 26th is pretty discouraging; I long to live in a world where my neighbors understand why I answer the question, “Did you have a good Christmas?” with a hearty “I’m still having a good Christmas!”

I noticed my across-the-street neighbor, Ridley Munridley, out in his yard on Christmas morning assembling the bicycle he had purchased for his son and heir, Ridley Munridley, Jr. At least, I thought he was assembling the bicycle. When I saw him out there again on the 26th, and on the 27th, and then again today, I realized two things: that he gets a lot more time off around Christmas than I do, and that he had merely been attempting to assemble the bike – and still was attempting. I decided to mosey on across the street to see if I could help. Not that I know anything about the assembly of bicycles, or the assembly of anything, but my moral support skills are phenomenal.

So I moseyed. Ridley, good neighbor that he is, waved a welcome at me and motioned to me to come and sit with him on his front steps where he was puzzling over the instruction manual. I noticed a little figure in the bushes; it appeared to be the sad little owner of the bike, Ridley, Jr., spying on his dad’s progress, or lack thereof.

“A very good morning to you!” Ridley greeted me affably. “I hope you’ve brought your bicycle assembly skills with you!” he laughed heartily. I apologized for my deficiency in that area, but offered to perhaps read the instructions to him as he worked if he thought that might be of any help.

“Why, thank you!” Ridley enthused. “Ridley Junior is reading at a 3rd-grade level, and he was helping with that on Christmas morning, but he became distracted and wandered off.” I glanced at the boy in the bushes; he looked more like he had become dejected and wandered off.

“So,” my neighbor continued, “I’ve got all the parts out of the box and ready to go – let’s get going!”

And all the pieces were certainly there, all thirty-three of them, strewn across Ridley’s walkway, the crank arm, the rear sprocket, the seat-post binder bolt, the chainstay, and the front fork, to name but five. He had tentatively connected eight of them; the rest lay waiting for assembly.

Ridley stared intently at the instructions in the manual. “Okay,” he said, “It is recommended that the threads and all moving parts in the parts package be lubricated prior to installation”I did that. “Turn the fork of the bicycle to face forward. Note that “forward” means that the wheel mounting slots are in the furthest forward position. So the wheel axle will be in front of the fork when assembled.” “Hmm…” Ridley hesitated. “The fork of the bicycle – let me see that illustration again.” I held the instruction manual so that he could check the drawing. “‘Forward’ means that the wheel mounting slots are in the furthest forward position” he muttered to himself. “‘The wheel axle will be in front of the fork’ – that’s where I went wrong yesterday…. Okay, now “Check the stem clamp bolts to make sure they are properly tightened” – is that these, or those?” he wondered aloud.

I glanced at the illustration as Ridley held up the handlebars he had assembled. Something just didn’t look right, and he agreed with me on that.

“Where do you think I went wrong?” he asked.

Channeling my inner feminine genius, I made a suggestion. “Look, Ridley, there’s a toll-free number here on the back of the instruction manual. Have you called them? I’m sure they could walk you through this!”

Ridley stared at me as if I had suggested betraying atomic secrets to the Soviets. “There’s no need to panic, Renée. I’ve got this. The instructions are quite clear – we just need to work our way through them in a calm and orderly manner!”

“Just trying to help,” I mumbled.

“Well, you can help,” he retorted, “by reading me the next paragraph in the manual!”

“You must determine if your handlebar mounting is a quill stem or a threadless stem” I read in what I hoped was a calm and orderly manner. “A quill stem is a handlebar assembly that has a wedge-shaped part at the bottom of the stem that is inserted into the fork steer tube. Loosen the center bolt enough so that the wedge and stem can slide into the fork steer tube.”

“Loosen the center bolt?” Ridley mumbled. “What center bolt?”

“Maybe your handlebar mounting is a threadless stem,” I whispered.

“Maybe…” he agreed. “Maybe,” he declared as he lay the handlebars on the ground, “we should assemble some other parts first, and then come back to this.”

I heard a monumental sigh issue forth from the depths of the bushes, but I was not about to argue. “Which part did you want to work on?” I asked.

“What looks easy?” Ridley asked me.

I flipped through the manual, but all the parts in need of assembly seemed to involve different options – the handlebar mounting could be either a threadless or a quill stem, the saddle assembly involved either a bolted seat clamp or a quick-release seat clamp, and the manual likewise informed me that there were two types of front wheel hubs, nutted or quick release. We’d have to figure all that out first. All those options were accompanied by stern warnings that improper assembly could result in irreparable damage and/or loss of bicycle control resulting in injury, or death, or both. Merry Christmas, Ridley Jr.

“Maybe we could work on the pedals,” I suggested hesitantly, reasoning that the two of us together should be able to distinguish the right pedal from the left. And we were, even managing to attach the right-hand pedal to the chainwheel side crank arm with a right-hand thread, only to discover that Ridley was going to need a 15mm narrow open-ended wrench to tighten the pedal into place, a wrench he didn’t have and would have to borrow from someone – certainly not from me. I hammer nails into the wall with the heel of my shoe, because I don’t own a wrench….

Our near success emboldened my neighbor. “You see,” Ridley began pontificating, “the people who wrote this manual did so in the most straightforward and easiest-to-understand manner possible. They WANT us to succeed in the assembly. It should NOT be necessary to call them and force them to walk us through this. If we just go about this in a logical and well-reasoned manner, we will be able to assemble this bike on our own. That’s why the bike comes with an instruction manual!”

I couldn’t resist. “Then why does the instruction manual come with a toll-free number to the ‘Quick Assembly Hotline’?”

“That’s for losers,” Ridley growled. “Let’s find something else easy that we can work on. Hand me that manual.”

Ridley flipped from page to page, apparently disheartened by the intricacies of the braking system and the derailleur gears. Ridley has a Ph.D. in International Comparative Economic Systematology, but the bike assembly seemed to be more than he could handle. “Are you sure this bike even has derailleur gears?” I asked, but Ridley was deep in contemplation. “My left or their left??” I heard him mumbling.

I caught a glimpse of little Ridley’s face; he looked about ready to fall out of the bushes in despair. I lost it.

Call the number, Ridley!” I sputtered. “Look! Read the back of the manual – ‘Our friendly and knowledgeable operators are standing by to help you assemble your new bicycle in no-time-flat!’ Call the number!!

A little face protruded from the bushes. “Call the number, Dad! Call the number!”

Ridley stared at me as if he were Winston Churchill and I had snatched his cigar right out of his mouth. He sat fuming as I plowed ahead.

“It seems to me that we’ve had this discussion before,” I reminded him. He responded with a blank look. “Remember, we talked about the perspicuity of Scripture?” Ridley and his wife are Evangelicals, and they’ve been trying to convince me that anybody can read the Bible and understand what God wants them to know about salvation and the Christian life. “You told me that everything we need to know is laid out there in Scripture; all we have to do is read the Word and ask God to illuminate our minds.”

Ridley sat up very straight. “I stand by that!” he assured me.

“Yet,” I continued, “you have to admit that you, and your neighbor next door, and the folks across the street, and the people around the block are all following the same Instruction Manual, and yet you’ve all assembled your theological “bicycles” quite differently.”

“You’re talking about the non-essentials,” Ridley assured me dismissively.

“Non-essentials??” I asked him, “like – what must I do to be saved?? Because you, and our Methodist neighbor, and our Pentecostal neighbor, and our Lutheran neighbor all give different answers to that Question of all Questions: you have to believe and be baptized; you don’t have to be baptized – all you have to do is believe; you were baptized as an infant, so you’re okay; your infant baptism doesn’t count for anything – you’ve got to be rebaptized; you must speak in tongues or you don’t have the “Spirit of Christ” and can’t be saved; you must persevere to the end or you won’t be saved; you WILL persevere to the end – otherwise you were never saved to begin with…. Sure, the Manufacturer meant what He said when He wrote the Instruction Manual, but many of the directions are open to interpretation. He compensated for that by training His managers Himself – those men knew what He meant to say and they “entrusted those things to faithful men” who can now interpret the Manual according to His intention! The only way to know for sure what was meant is to consult with the staff trained by the management of the company!”

Ridley stared at me as if I’d had one too many butter-rum jelly beans in the run-up to New Year’s Eve, but I was undaunted.

“I realize that many people manage to get their bicycles assembled all by themselves, but which is more complicated, Ridley – the assembly of a kid’s bike, or the ins and outs of justification, predestination and eschatology?? You can’t with a straight face tell me that anybody can just pick up the Manual and figure it out without assistance! That’s why there’s a toll-free number, Ridley – that’s why Jesus established the teaching authority of the Church!”

Ridley shook his head and shrugged. “We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that,” he grumbled. “Looks like it’s going to rain,” he noted, and he was right – in central Virginia the closest we get to a white Christmas is freezing rain. He thanked me for my efforts and assured me that he and Ridley, Jr. would take it from there. I knew I had overstayed my welcome, and took that as my cue to leave. As I walked back across the street, I turned and saw little Ridley helping his dad collect the thirty-three pieces from the walkway and carry them up onto the porch. Still no working bike. So close, and yet so far….

Maybe tomorrow, little Ridley. Maybe tomorrow.


On the memorial of the Holy Innocents

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credits: Shimano Deore XT Schaltwerk hinten (am Mountainbike) by C. Corleis/Wikimedia Commons

Winston Churchill 1941 photo by Yousuf Karsh/Wikimedia Commons

en: Jelly Belly en: jelly beans by Brandon Dilbeck/Wikimedia Commons

I often wonder if some people who stumble across this blog aren’t tempted to believe that I might be presenting a caricature of Evangelical Protestantism. As I have stated before, when I write about the Protestantism I left behind, I write about once-saved/always-saved, nondenominational churches and charismatic assemblies: Bible-alone churches. I’m really not qualified to discuss things from the perspective of a former Lutheran or former Reformed Presbyterian, since I was neither. I did attend Presbyterian churches when I lived in Taiwan, but those churches were led by lay-preachers who delivered a gospel indistinguishable from the one preached at nondenominational churches of my acquaintance in the U.S. My only exposure to real Lutheranism or Presbyterianism would have come from visiting my college friend’s Lutheran church, where I was exposed to Ash Wednesday, and from the one Lutheran and two Presbyterian pastors who, with a Baptist, co-pastored the church I attended right after marrying my Baptist husband – pastors who, because of the extreme ecumenical nature of the church, were not in a position to teach any distinctively Lutheran or Presbyterian notions – once again, it was a lowest-common-denominator kind of Christianity.

I’m sure, though, that to some Protestants it would seem that I am caricaturing Evangelicalism, twisting it out of shape to make it appear grotesque and unappealing, distorting its features. I beg to differ.

Every single church I attended as a Protestant was filled with Bible-believing Christians, good people, sincere people. I have never attended a liberal, Bible-reinterpreting church. Yet the Bible-believing doctrine that I was taught in those Bible-believing churches of my acquaintance varied from church to church. Over the course of the first 45 years of my life I attended churches that told me I had to experience the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and speak in tongues, and other churches derided that notion as holy-rollerism. Some of my pastors preached that I could lose my salvation, and others preached that I could not. The theology taught by certain radio preachers (such as D. James Kennedy) on the local Baptist station ran counter to the theology taught by other radio preachers (such as Adrian Rogers).

I really did think that my Christian beliefs were the same as the beliefs of the first-century followers of Christ, despite the fact that I had attended churches that taught that I could lose my salvation and churches that taught that that was impossible. No matter which Protestant church I attended, I believed that what I was taught was exactly what the first Christians believed. Every Protestant church I attended really did believe that all conservative Protestants agree on “the Essentials.”

I really was baptized twice. This is not unheard of. Sadly, there are folks who get baptized three and four times, because they fear that their first baptism didn’t “work,” just as I feared that my first baptism had been invalid since it had been an infant baptism in my mother’s Methodist church.

The thriving church I attended as a child really did vanish off the face of the earth when the leadership felt “led by the Lord” to hand the church building back to the denomination and meet in informal “home church” settings, in imitation of what they believed the early church looked like.

Our Baptist church really did hold “prophecy conferences” in which various self-proclaimed “prophecy experts” proposed versions of the End Times that conflicted with those of other self-proclaimed “prophecy experts.”

We really did say “Now, we KNOW that Paul did NOT mean ‘continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ when he wrote ‘continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.'”

We really did use 1 John 5:13 to “prove” that true believers could know that they were saved with no chance of losing their salvation (AKA “you can know that you know that you know that you know…”)

I really have attended churches where the pastor was voted into office by the congregation based on his agreement with THEIR interpretation of the Word of God.

I really do know Evangelicals who believe that Mother Teresa most likely wasn’t saved because she was working her way to Heaven.

My former church’s newspaper really did cast doubt on whether we’ll see John Paul II in Heaven, given that he taught “false doctrine.”

Young Earth Creationism really was taught to my kids at their Baptist Academy.

My son’s Bible teacher really did tell the class that she never talks to Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock on her door, because she is afraid that they will deceive her with their false doctrine and lead her away from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, causing her to be damned, and then explained that if that happened and she did fall away, then she had never really been saved to begin with.

I really have met people here in town who believe that the King James Version of the Bible is inspired and inerrant.

When we became Catholic, Baptist friends really did wonder how we could convert to the beliefs of a religious system that burned Martin Luther at the stake.

I really did attend a charismatic healing meeting in which several people were “healed” of leg-length discrepancy.

My mother’s charismatic friend really did teach people “how to prophesy.”

My mother really did believe that lay Catholics are kept in the dark about the real, secret doctrines of the Catholic Church.

My point is, I don’t believe that the Bible-alone picture that I am depicting is a caricature of Protestant beliefs – I believe that nondenominational and charismatic theology are themselves a caricature of more traditional Protestant beliefs. However, in defense of my former beliefs, I would add that nondenominational and charismatic theology take traditional Protestant beliefs to their natural conclusion.

The beliefs and practices of Bible-alone Christians are the logical extension of the beliefs of the Reformers. After all, if the Reformers were right, if the Catholic Church junked up the pure Gospel with the trappings of ritual, why do away with only some rituals – why not all of them? As a nondenominational Christian, I and everyone I worshipped with was disdainful of Lutheran pastors donning robes and Reformed ministers baptizing infants and leading their congregation in the recitation of the Apostles Creed – those practices are not in the Bible! If the Reformers were right, and the Catholic Church added the traditions of men to the commandments of God, why only do away with some of those traditions? Why disavow the conclusions of only some Church Councils, like Trent – why not all the Church Councils?
If no one on this earth can come to infallible conclusions, how can you know for sure that the Council of Nicaea was orthodox while the Council of Florence was not? Why retain the Creed? Why not “no creed but Christ”?

Martin Luther believed that Mary was a sinless, perpetual virgin and that she was the Mother of God. Today’s Lutheranism rejects the former assertions, but still agrees with the latter. Bible-alone Protestants reject the second doctrine as well, with the understanding that Martin Luther set out to strip the Church of the barnacles of tradition, the prime example of a barnacle being the “unbiblical” doctrine of the Theotokos. In this sense nondenominational Christians see themselves as the true descendants and heirs of the Reformation, bringing the “purge” to its proper completion.

Why do things half-way?

I suspect that members of traditional Protestant denominations would listen to my story and explain to me that as a Bible-alone Christian I had fallen prey to “solo” Scriptura, a caricature of what they view as the biblical doctrine of sola Scriptura. Protestants such as I once was who take the Bible as their sole authority are twisting the doctrines of the Reformers, they would tell me. The Reformers actually taught that the Bible is the highest authority, but that the “church” also functions as an authority. Therefore, no true Christian can, for example, reject the Nicene Creed, crafted by the church, on the grounds that it was produced by men and is not found in the Bible. Got it?

As a Bible-alone Christian, my answer would have been, “Which part of Martin Luther’s declaration at Worms don’t you understand?”

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

No, Bible-alone Christians emphatically don’t “get it.” According to Luther’s own words, Bible-alone Christians are the true heirs of the Reformation. Away with your creeds and councils! Just give me Jesus!

It is often noted that as you age, your features may become something of a caricature of your younger face. When the youthful bloom fades from your cheeks, your sharp nose looks even pointier. Your hairline recedes, making your ears look larger. This is exactly what has happened as Protestantism has aged. As Bible-alone Christians have taken the ideas of the arch-Reformer to their legitimate conclusion, the face of Protestantism has changed. It is not attractive, with all of its scars and pits of seemingly endless division. While mainline denominations try to distance themselves from Bible-alone Christians, the family resemblance is unmistakable. The rebellious rejection of the legitimate authority of the Church is ever-present, whether it is traced genteelly on the features of those who claim to submit to the “church,” (a church of their own creation), or drawn in harsher lines on the visage of those who reject every authority on Earth outside of their own fallible interpretation of Scripture. Like it or not, admit it or not, Bible-alone Christians are the spittin’ image of their spiritual forbears. Photoshop was invented for just such a reason.


On the memorial of St. Jerome

Deo omnis gloria!

Like a fish, spawned in water, hatched in water, swimming in water, dying in water – a fish that never in its entire existence will be aware of that element called “water,” as an Evangelical there were certain “givens” that I never contemplated. They formed the basis of my belief system, without them the system would crumble – and they were never investigated, never questioned. They simply “were.”

Prominent among these was the concept of “individual guidance,” based upon the promise of Christ to his Apostles in John 16: “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth….” We had never heard the Catholic interpretation of this verse, that God the Holy Spirit would lead the Apostles (to whom Christ was speaking) into all truth, and each Christian, then, must go to the Church which has for 2,000 years been teaching the truth taught to her by the Apostles and faithfully preserved in the Church’s Magisterium with the help of the Holy Spirit. No, being the big proponents of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” that we were, it seemed obvious to us that this verse meant that if I personally opened up the Scriptures, prayed and sincerely sought the truth, it would be given directly to me – a plausible reading of John 16:13, you’ve got to admit. It could mean that – but if that were the correct understanding of Jesus’ words, then a certain effect would be expected to follow:

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

Put simply, if John 16:13 means that the Holy Spirit will lead me individually into all truth, and you individually into all truth, then you and I will understand and believe the same thing when the Holy Spirit has guided us into all truth. This is pretty basic – conservative Christians will be the first to tell you that there are not multiple versions of “the truth.” Christians believe that Truth is a Person, so when we say that the Holy Spirit guides believers into all truth, that’s pretty serious stuff. God the Holy Spirit cannot teach error. So, if Protestants understand this verse rightly, then every sincere, God-loving believer who studies and prays over the word of God will come away with the same understanding of Scripture. But is that in fact the case?

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

The existence of (HOW MANY??) competing denominations disproves this notion in a big way.

As we all know, Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli relied on individual guidance by the Holy Spirit in their attempts to recreate the Church that Jesus established but apparently allowed to fail. Calvin made individual guidance the cornerstone of his theory on the discernment of the canon of Scripture:

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit.

Sounds good, but way back in the 80’s when I discussed the reliability of the Book of Mormon with LDS missionaries who came to my door, they assured me of exactly the same thing that Calvin was advocating: that they felt a “burning in the breast” when they read the book of Mormon, and thus knew that it was God-breathed. Following Calvin’s directions, Mormons “authenticate” a 19th-century book of fiction as Holy Scripture.

Yes, but what does that prove? – they aren’t Christians! All right then, let’s stick with Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, all definitely Christians, all relying on the individual guidance of the Holy Spirit as they discerned the canon of Scripture. Luther, as is well known, declared that certain New Testament books did not “preach the Gospel” as he understood it, and so he felt led to shunt the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to an appendix in his Bible. John Calvin could not have disagreed more; concerning the epistle of James he wrote that it was “without doubt among the Apostolic Epistles; nor do I doubt but that it was through a device of Satan that some have questioned its authority(!)” Calvin, while endorsing the books of James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation, however, apparently only accepted the inspiration of the first epistle of John, since he referred to it as THE epistle of John, and wrote no commentary on 2 or 3 John. And Zwingli decided (after a debate in which his opponent used a quote from Revelation to prove a point) that Revelation was “not a Biblical book.”

Three sincere, “Spirit-led” men of God – three different New Testament canons (as well as three different views on a number of other Biblical issues as well). How can that be, if the Holy Spirit leads each believer individually into all truth?

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

A practical example of this: Let’s say a Church of the Nazarene pastor retires, and a committee is formed to hire a new pastor. When a candidate is being interviewed for the position, and the committee asks him, “Pastor, tell us what you believe,” if he answers “I believe the Bible, every word of it!” – will the church committee answer back, “Hot-diggity! That’s good enough for us!!!”? If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit is a reality, that’s exactly what they should say.

Or would they rather ask the candidate for his interpretation of the Bible? And when they find out that his interpretation includes snake-handling and getting “slain in the Spirit,” might he be considered less than ideal and shown the door? And why is he being shown the door? Because he doesn’t rely on the word of God to form his doctrine? Since when are the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (which contain the passages upon which the candidate bases his theology) not the word of God? That church committee simply does not interpret the infallible word of God the same way this candidate interprets it. Why not? Because they don’t believe that his way of understanding the Bible is the right way. Yet if he is a sincere Christian believer praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, won’t his understanding of Scripture be the same as their understanding of Scripture??

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

But we agree on the Essentials! Protestants tell us. Indeed? And what are the Essentials? Since the Essentials are… well.. ESSENTIAL, where is the official list of Essentials that all Protestants agree upon? Do all Christians really agree on this list of so-called Essentials? Or are there not rather Protestants who insist that certain issues (such as baptism) are Essential, while other Protestants insist that they are inconsequential and therefore off the list? And if all Protestants cannot agree even upon the contents of this List of Supposed Essentials, does this not give the lie to this foundational presupposition of Protestantism, that God the Holy Spirit will lead each individual believer into all truth?

If individual guidance by the Holy Spirit were a reality, everyone would understand the same thing from the Bible—since God is not the author of confusion.

Enough said.

On the memorial of St. Nicholas

Deo omnis gloria!

Anyone who knows my religious background knows that over a span of 45 years I attended churches of many different denominations. I was christened as an infant in the United Methodist church (I have cousins who are United Methodist clergy) in upstate New York. When we moved to Scottsdale in the early 1960s, my family started attending a Wesleyan Methodist church pastored by Robert Girard, author of Brethren, Hang Loose and Brethren, Hang Together.When my family moved to another part of town in the early 1970s, we began attending the nondenominational Scottsdale Bible Church (before it went mega). My mother then became a charismatic, and off she and I went to various small charismatic assemblies (including a Frances Hunter meeting where folks were healed of that dread malady of one-leg-longer-than-the-otherism). When I went to college in Flagstaff, I attended my friend’s Lutheran church, where I was exposed to Ash Wednesday (with actual ashes on the forehead!) and Lent. After college I moved to West Germany (this was the 1980s), and then on to Taiwan where I taught at a nondenominational Christian college founded by Quakers. The church I attended in Taiwan had four pastors who took turns preaching: a Lutheran missionary, a Baptist missionary, and two Presbyterian missionaries. I married a Baptist, and when we moved back to the States I became a member of Thomas Road. The interesting thing is that I never viewed this varied experience of Protestant theology as “denomination-hopping.” I wasn’t angry. I hadn’t had a disagreement with the pastor of my former denomination and found some new teaching that I thought was more “Biblical.” I hadn’t really thought at all.

My view of the Protestant denominations was that they were all different facets of the beautiful gem of Christianity. I never lay awake at night worrying about denominationalism, just as, I’m sure, most slaveholders had no problems sleeping at night – it simply never occurred to them to question the ethics of keeping human beings enslaved. Most folks never do question the status quo. Denominationalism was of course my status quo – I had never lived in a world without it, and I never thought of it as a good or a bad thing. It just was. Of course there are hundreds of different denominations. Different people have different opinions. So what?

Not that I would have attended any church at all. I self-described as a conservative, Bible-believing Christian. I wanted nothing to do with those durn liberals who tried to explain away the miracle of the loaves and fishes as an outburst of generosity and the Resurrection of Christ as a flight of fancy. No, I only attended churches where the people really believed.

But, believed what? Looking at the list of denominations I was associated with, you can see that I attended churches that baptized babies and viewed Holy Communion as a sacrament as well as churches that baptized only adults and viewed the Lord’s supper as an ordinance. (In fact, my Wesleyan Methodist pastor actually considered my infant baptism in a Methodist church to be invalid and rebaptized me at around age 12. Go figure. And when I wanted to join Thomas Road, the deacon who interviewed me wanted to rebaptize me AGAIN, just in case my Wesleyan Methodist baptism had been for “regeneration.” Fortunately, we were able to dissuade him from that.) Some of the churches I attended taught me that I had to experience the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and speak in tongues, and other churches derided that notion as holy-rollerism. Over the years some of my pastors preached that I could lose my salvation, and others preached that I could not.

And I saw nothing wrong with this mass confusion, because like any member of a badly dysfunctional clan, I had an excuse for what was going on right on the tip of my tongue. Had you asked me, I would have told you that in this life Christians, being sinners saved by grace, will never agree completely with one another on issues of doctrine. All Protestant denominations do, however, agree on The Essentials.

Right…. The Essentials, like salvation. After all, “what must I do to be saved” is the most fundamental question of all. If I don’t learn the correct answer to that question, my eternal soul is in jeopardy. So, of course, all Protestant denominations hold identical beliefs when it comes to salvation, because salvation is ESSENTIAL.

Let’s imagine that I am an unbeliever whom the Holy Spirit has convicted of her sins. I rush into the nearest church and fortuitously find an ecumenical gathering of a Baptist pastor, a Lutheran pastor, a Methodist pastor, a Pentecostal pastor and an officer in the Salvation Army (which is a Protestant denomination). Startled when this wild-eyed woman bursts through the door, the assembled clergy nevertheless react graciously as I blurt out my concerns….

Me: What must I do to be saved????

Baptist pastor John: You’ve come to the right place, ma’am. Let me lead you through the Four Spiritual Laws. First, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.

Me: I believe that! I don’t want to die and be separated from Him!

Pastor John: Good! You’re on the right track. Second, you must recognize that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness.

Me: Oh, I know! I know!

Pastor John: We’re half-way there! Number three: Only through Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the Cross can you be saved!

Me: Amen! I believe that!

Pastor John: And finally, you have to receive Jesus as your personal Savior. If you’ll pray with me now, I’ll lead you in the Sinner’s Prayer and you’ll be saved!

Lutheran minister Bill (clears his throat): AND you’ll need to be baptized, my dear.

Pastor John (bristles slightly): What my colleague means, ma’am, is that of course you WILL be baptized in obedience to our Lord’s command. Matthew 28:19 – “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Just as long as you understand that baptism doesn’t save you….

Reverend Bill (sitting up very straight): Actually,my dear, the Bible tells us in I Peter 3:21: “And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you….” You will NEED to be baptized.

Pentecostal pastor Janice: I wouldn’t worry too much about that, honey, but you WILL need to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. After all, Scripture says quite plainly: “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” – Romans 8:9. If you don’t speak in tongues, you don’t have the Spirit of Christ and you can’t be sure of your salvation!

(Reverend Bill and Pastor John stare dourly at Janice)

Me (squeaking) : I was christened as an infant….

Methodist minister Bev: Oh, well, you’re all set then.

(Reverend Bill and Pastor John, speaking simultaneously)

Reverend Bill: Yes, you’re fine.

Pastor John: No, you’re not!

(They glower at each other)

Salvation Army Captain Sam : Forget all that! We in the Salvation Army don’t baptize at all. Baptism is a holdover from the Roman Catholics.

Me (staring at this collection of clergy, and speaking very slowly): Perhaps I wasn’t being clear. Let me repeat my original question:
What must I do to be saved???

As I said, when I was a Protestant, I only attended churches where the people really believed. WHAT we believed, however, was all over the spiritual map, and for some reason that didn’t bother us….

On the Feast of St. Augustine

Deo omnis gloria