Why I’m Catholic ~ Catholicism and the Reformation

Part 2: Catholicism and the Reformation

(This is part two of a three part series.  For part one click here.)

Before moving on I should probably note that I’ve always been fairly anti-Catholic. As I said before, growing up I was raised in a context that was dubious about whether or not Catholics were even saved and I was even exposed to the occasional fundamentalist who was convinced that the Catholic Church was the beast of Revelation and the Pope was the anti-Christ! If you had suggested to me a few years ago that I would ever be considering a conversion to Catholicism I would have literally laughed in your face! I had not the faintest inkling that the Catholic Church was even a remote consideration. I would have thought it about as likely that I would convert to Islam or Judaism.

If asked, I would have probably allowed that there were “real” Christians in the Catholic Church, but probably more at a uninformed lay level, i.e. the people of “simple faith in Christ” who were being led astray by those higher-ups within the Catholic hierarchy.

There was, however, a gradual softening in my attitudes to towards Catholicism over the years. Even as early as junior high I had talked with a gymnastics coach of mine who was a strong Catholic and asked him about prayers offered to Mary and the saints. I was surprised, even at twelve, to find a very reasonable answer given and one I couldn’t easily refute. From that point on prayer to the saints wasn’t something which I personally practiced, but I had begun to understand it and no longer viewed it as “wrong.” Additionally, I had believers in my life who began to expose me to the writings of people like Henri Nouwen, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton, and others. I began to realize that some of the authors whom I most admired and who had influenced me the most were either Catholics themselves, or very strongly Catholic in their theology like C.S. Lewis who was a member of the Anglican Church.

As I began to read these Catholic authors, theologians, and philosophers, I discovered that not only were they “Christian” (to my great surprise!) but in many cases profoundly so. They were, in fact, some of the most deeply committed Christians, insightful theologians, and brilliant philosophers I had yet been exposed to. This didn’t change my mind on Catholicism, but it definitely began to soften my previously superior attitude. This exposure in fact softened my anti-Catholic views to the point where I began to suspect the reverse of my earlier position. Namely, that at the “higher levels” of Catholicism there were perhaps some of the very best Christian theologians, apologists, and philosophers. I continued to feel however, that large portions of the Catholic laity didn’t necessarily share this deeper understanding of Christianity. This is sadly probably the case with not just the Catholic Church, but most of church-going Christianity in general.

As I continued to study Catholicism with a progressively more open attitude I was very surprised to find that much of what I thought I knew about Catholic belief was either flat out wrong, didn’t do justice to the nuances of the position, or was based on “straw-man” arguments.

I also discovered that many of the authors I had been reading were converts to the faith. Men like G.K. Chesterton, Peter Kreeft, and Cardinal John Henry Newman who once famously said, “To become deeply immersed in history is to cease to be Protestant.” While I am not sure that this is a maxim that would apply to everyone, it was certainly true in my case.

I decided to teach a Church history class at the church I was pastoring at. I wanted to teach it at a collegiate level, and to try and cover a period of time from Christ thru the present in about sixteen weeks of one hour classes plus homework for the students. I wanted to tie each portion of Church history to a particular Christian of that period who had really made a difference in the life of the church. My goal was to give attendees some familiarity with the heroes of the faith since the time of Christ – to provide positive role models who would hopefully inspire our congregation to live lives of heroic virtue themselves. I didn’t think of these “heroes” as saints, nor did I realize that this idea, this communion of saints, was a deeply Catholic one. It was an ambitious undertaking, especially for me as I had never really studied Church history in any sort of intensive way. All of my studies of Church history up to that point had either been broad overviews, or very thorough studies of particular aspects of Church history such as the Reformation, or the early American Revivals.

Like most Protestants, for me Church history began in Acts and then in some vague and indefinite way “veered off course” around the time of Constantine. Then there were even vaguer interludes of crusades and inquisitions, with Church history thankfully resuming some 1500 years after Christ with the Protestant Reformation!

I had, of course, been acquainted with snippets of Augustine and Aquinas, but had never really understood them to be Catholic. I spent countless hours preparing to teach my class and reading multiple Protestant books on the history of the church. As I studied, for the first time it came home to me that,

For the first 1,500 years of Christianity – for fully three quarters of all Christian history – to be Christian was to be Catholic! [Tweet This]

All the early church fathers, saints, theologians, etc. were Catholic. There was no other expression of the church until the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries1 . I know that it’s kind of dumb, but this floored me. I had never taken the time to consider it from an intellectual perspective before. From the time of Christ until some 400 years ago there was no question as to whether Catholic theology, teaching, and practice were an authentic expression of Christianity – they were the only expression of Christianity which existed. I shouldn’t say that there was no question, because there have always been heretics and dissenters to the true faith.

Heresies aside, the Church was one, holy, apostolic and Catholic until very recently in her history. [Tweet This]

I will readily admit that reform was needed within the Catholic Church during the time of the Protestant Reformation; but in reality the Church is always and in every age in need of reform because she is composed of sinners such as myself. It is a historical fact, however, that Luther didn’t intend to leave the Catholic church but to reform it. Furthermore, his excommunication from the Catholic Church was for his heresy – not his efforts at reformation. Consider the following quote from Luther himself:

“That the Roman Church is more honored by God than all others is not to be doubted. St, Peter and St. Paul, forty-six Popes, some hundreds of thousands of martyrs, have laid down their lives in its communion, having overcome Hell and the world; so that the eyes of God rest on the Roman church with special favor. Though nowadays everything is in a wretched state, it is no ground for separating from the Church. On the contrary, the worse things are going, the more should we hold close to her, for it is not by separating from the Church that we can make her better. We must not separate from God on account of any work of the devil, nor cease to have fellowship with the children of God who are still abiding in the pale of Rome on account of the multitude of the ungodly. There is no sin, no amount of evil, which should be permitted to dissolve the bond of charity or break the bond of unity of the body. For love can do all things, and nothing is difficult to those who are united.”2 .

And this is precisely where I began to have my own problems, because when I began to take a hard look at the five solae of the Protestant Reformation – the reasons which the Protestants gave for leaving the Catholic Church – I found that I disagreed with most of them.

Disagreements with the Reformers

I’ve already covered some of my objections to sola Scriptura, but as a side note, it seems telling that even the fathers of the Reformation who believed in a doctrine of Scripture alone still felt it necessary to write extensively on how to properly interpret Scripture so as to arrive at the same conclusions as they did. For instance, have you ever tried to get through all of Calvin’s institutes?!!

If you want to examine my problems with the doctrine of sola Scriptura in greater detail, check out my following three posts on the topic:

  1. Sola Scriptura ~ An Anachronism
  2. Sola Scriptura ~ Logically Flawed
  3. Sola Scriptura ~ Not Scriptural

It was around this time that I came across an interesting quote from the Orthodox Church in America. “…the Orthodox Church does not accept the notion that everyone can properly interpret the Bible as he or she wants. Some Protestant bodies believe in this, but Orthodoxy does not. We say that the Church has the ability to properly interpret Scripture, and this means that we should study and adopt the interpretations that have been handed down over the 2000 years of the Church’s living history. Given the fact that that which is contained in Scripture is the inspired word of God, revealed to mankind and not to a single individual, no individual has the right or ability to offer ‘the’ definitive interpretation of Scripture.”3

I also took issue with Luther’s teachings on sola fide – by faith alone. Justification by faith alone without the necessity of good works seems to contradict the vast majority of Scriptural teaching on the subject. This contradiction between Luther’s theology and the Scripture’s teaching was emphasized by Luther’s addition of the word “alone” to St. Paul’s declaration in Romans 3:28 that it is by faith that we are justified. For those raised Protestant it is often difficult to even read that passage without subconsciously inserting the word alone into the text!

This unscriptural teaching was also reflected in Luther’s desire to entirely remove the book of James (which he labeled an Epistle of straw) due to it’s assertion that faith without works is dead! This seemed to me to be a very inconsistent position for someone who had just affirmed the sufficiency and authority of Scripture alone for all matters of faith and morals!

My problems continued with the doctrine of sola gratia or “grace alone.”

Catholicism teaches that man can cooperate with the graces given him by God, and that works done with, in, and through Christ have value! [Tweet This]

Luther taught that man cannot by any action of his own, even acting under the influence of grace, cooperate with God’s grace in order to “merit” greater graces for himself or others. In Luther’s view, even as Christians our works have no value and are, “as filthy rags.” Since even the good works done in Christ have no value we must rely on God’s grace alone. But this creates serious problems when you consider the inverse of this doctrine; namely that our lack of good works and our sin will also not in any way adversely affect our relationship with God or our salvation.

Consider the following quote from Martin Luther, “If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life in not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.”4

This however stands in stark contrast to St. Paul who writes, “Should we go on sinning that grace may abound? May it never be!”5 and, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.”6 I also have lesser issues with the two remaining solae which I won’t waste time on here.

If you want to read more on my problems with the remaining two solae of the Reformation you can check out my post: On Christ Alone – The Parable of the Vine and Branches

I’ve spoken to many Protestant friends who have agreed with me on various aspects of my objections to the five solae, but then say that those aren’t the reasons why they reject Catholicism, they have their own reasons! Maybe they reject Catholicism because of its teaching of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist – but Luther and Calvin still believed in the real presence after their split from the Catholic Church! In fact this doctrine was the reason for the first of the divisions (this one between Luther and Zwingli) which have so plagued the Protestant movement for the last 500 years.

Or perhaps they have issues with Catholicism due to the veneration of Mary and the saints, but Luther himself continued to highly venerate Mary saying among other things,“[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ. ..She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough.”7 John Calvin said, “It cannot be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of his Son, granted her the highest honor.” and Zwingli said, “I esteem immensely the Mother of God” and “The more the honor and love of Christ increases among men, so much the esteem and honor given to Mary should grow.”

Often my Protestant friends don’t realize how many “Catholic” beliefs and practices were held by the fathers of the Reformation. Not because they were Catholic beliefs, but rather because they were the historic, orthodox, and Scriptural positions of Christians from the time of Christ forward! For instance, they often don’t realize that the fathers of the Reformation believed in the necessity of baptism for salvation, that they practiced infant baptism, and that they taught that there was no salvation outside of the Church. Granted, they took that doctrine to mean their church rather than the Catholic Church as we see in Calvin’s remarks, “Herman has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the fellowship of the Church. He has confessed that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that the true Church is with us. Therefore, it was defection when he belonged to a sect separated from it.”8 Nevertheless, this was the historic Christian position – not just of the Catholic Church but also of the fathers of the Reformation.

The bottom line was the more I looked at it, the more it seemed as if,

The objections to Catholicism that the Reformers initially held weren’t objections that I shared, and the objections that my friends held weren’t objections that the early Reformers shared!

This led me to begin to study what the early Church actually believed when it came to Sacred Tradition, confession, the Eucharist, the communion of the saints, and other “Catholic” positions. To my shock I found that virtually all Catholic doctrine found its roots in the teachings of the early Church – and almost all of it is attested to within the first two hundred years after Christ! There has obviously been an ongoing process of defining doctrine along with the refinement and development of that doctrine, but I was shocked at just how many “Catholic” doctrines were actually early Church doctrines. {As a side note, I highly recommend Jimmy Akin’s book The Fathers Know Best which arranges more than 900 quotes from the early Church Fathers by topic. I’ve put a link to the book at the bottom of this post.}

This obviously destroyed my previous assumption that somehow around the time of Constantine or shortly thereafter, the church was led into error, probably largely due to Roman influence, and that human reason and meaningless church tradition gradually replaced the true authority of the Scriptures. Instead, I was forced to ask the question, “If the early Church was wrong – was she wrong from the very start? If not, why have we dispensed with so much of what the early Church believed, practiced, and taught based on the say so of Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformers?” This is still following the tradition of men – just men of much more recent descent.

And that is fundamentally my problem. There are logical inconsistencies with the argument on the Protestant side that I just can’t seem to resolve.

You have men arguing against the authority of the Catholic Church and for the authority of Scripture alone, but ultimately all they are saying is that they have the right to authoritative interpretation and the Church doesn’t. This requires us to believe that God didn’t work through His Church to teach right doctrine and properly interpret Scripture, but instead we must believe that God has worked through Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other “Reformers” to teach right doctrine and properly interpret scripture.

Protestants assert that the Reformation was divinely ordered and necessitated a split from the Church which Christ founded, but most of them don’t even agree with the theology or doctrines of the original Reformers. And, in the end, I just couldn’t seem to find a logically consistent argument for the split from the historic Catholic Church.

Part 1: Context

Part 3: Conversion

An Interview with Gus Lloyd on Seize the Day – Adam’s Conversion Story

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  1. I say this with the obvious exception of Orthodoxy which I exclude on the basis that it isn’t really a differing expression of the Church. Orthodoxy shares with Catholicism apostolic succession, sacraments, sacred tradition, and similar liturgy, cannon, practices, disciplines, etc. 

  2. Martin Luther – An Instruction on Certain Articles: Late February 1519 

  3. Orthodox Church in America Website 

  4. A Letter From Luther to Melanchthon Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521, From the Wartburg (Segment) Translated by Erika Bullmann Flores from: _Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche Schriften_ Dr, Johannes Georg Walch, Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15,cols. 2585-2590. 

  5. Romans 6:1-2 

  6. Ephesians 5:3-6 

  7. Martin Luther – Sermon, Christmas, 1531 

  8. John Calvin – Letters of John Calvin, trans. M. Gilchrist, ed. J.Bonnet, New York: Burt Franklin, 1972, I: 110-111. 

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