Your Starting Point Doesn’t Always Determine Your Conclusion… Part 1: Context
A pastor friend who had heard of my conversion to Catholicism cautioned me that, “Your starting point always determines your conclusion.” Often this is a maxim that I would wholeheartedly agree with. I too have recognized that frequently a faulty conclusion is indeed the result of an erroneous starting point. This certainly seems to be a maxim that can be applied to many endeavors involving human reason and logic – endeavors such as science, mathematics, philosophy, and theology. And yet, while this maxim seems to generally hold true, there are exceptions to the rule. In science for instance, one often starts with a hypothesis (starting point) which then must be abandoned during the course of research, since your research may lead you to a very different conclusion indeed.
In theology and religion, these exceptions to the rule are most often referred to as conversions – i.e. people whose staring point (like Saul of Tarsus) very much do not determine their conclusion! [Tweet This]
Having said that, I wanted to start by providing a bit of context for my conversion story. I was extremely fortunate to be raised in a Christian home by parents who did an excellent job of acquainting me with the Holy Scriptures. Our Christian faith was a very central part of our life and identity as a family. Within our faith, I was exposed to both ends of the spectrum so to speak, both to legalistic and fundamentalist churches who were very dogmatic and certain about everything, and also to more “regular” denominations that were very certain about some things (the necessity of speaking in tongues) but not so certain about others (pre-destination vs. free will). Over the years, we attended various denominational and non-denominational churches, but they were all characterized by the idea that the bible alone was our only basis for truth, faith, morals, and authority. Many of these churches also tended to interpret Scripture in a very literalistic fashion. From a very young age I was fascinated by theology, and I would often engage in theological discussions with the adults I knew – probing them for answers to thorny questions. At a very young age I was also taught that Catholicism was wrong, and grew up with the impression that many Catholics weren’t even “saved.”
Nevertheless, I frequently found myself at odds with the accepted theological beliefs of our Christian friends, many of whom could probably be best described as Evangelical Fundamentalists. As a result, I frequently felt that my own views bordered on the “unorthodox”, leading me to feel that I struggled with issues of faith more than most. In particular, starting when I was about seventeen, I really began to struggle with the doctrine of the bible alone. I couldn’t seem to get a good answer as to where this idea had come from, or more importantly where the bible asserted this doctrine.
I found myself at odds with the idea of sola Scriptura for primarily logical reasons. If it is, “the bible and the bible alone” then where does the bible make this claim?
If anything when I studied the bible I found that it seemed to argue against this idea as it was full of times when God spoke both through direct revelation, and also times when He spoke through others (prophets, priests, judges, kings, etc.) to His people. In Scripture I saw that God revealed Himself through His creation, through His incarnate son who dwelt among us, through the disciples who, “handed on … what [they] had in turn received:” (oral tradition)1 , through His Church, etc., etc. Obviously this revelation was inscripturated and preserved for those of us who came later, and Scripture is indeed God’s revelation to us, but this was never the primary means by which God choose to reveal Himself. In other words, He didn’t, with the notable exception of the Ten Commandments, choose to simply drop a written users manual from heaven in order to communicate with us – and even that didn’t end up working so well 😉
I also encountered many of the problems that come along with a very literalistic interpretation of Scripture. For example, most of the churches we attended failed to take into account the fact that the bible is ancient Near Eastern literature and comprises a wide variety of literary types. Many pastors also forgot that the author may have intended a meaning that has nothing to do with our modern context. Additionally, I struggled with the ideas of faith alone, faith as somehow opposed to science, and especially the lack of agreement over countless different doctrines. Everyone seemed to understand Scripture in a different way, and it profoundly disturbed me that there seemed to be no way to know with any certainty what the bible meant about anything. The only “solution” proposed for this problem was to learn to accept it. To me this was no solution, and left only a gnawing frustration.
The bible was asserted to be our only guide for all matters of faith and morals, and yet no one agreed on what it meant – and no one else seemed to find this particularly problematic!
I wouldn’t have categorized any of these issues as being fundamentally Protestant versus Catholic at that point as I honestly had very little notion of what Catholics believed. I have since discovered that almost all of what I thought I knew of Catholicism was either flat out wrong, or very misleading. I should clarify that I bear no ill will towards any of those churches or their people; on the contrary, many of my closest friends, people who are unquestionably fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, are still Protestant. Having said that, I always felt that I stood very much at the fringe in these communities with questions that no one had good answers for. Since I didn’t have any frame of reference at that point to categorize any of these issues as Protestant vs. Catholic, I wound up thinking that these were issues that I had with Christianity in general – issues that most other Christians didn’t share. I felt that my faith was lacking and my views were “unorthodox” Christian views without realizing that they were probably more accurately unorthodox Protestant views. As it turns out, many of my views are entirely orthodox from a Catholic perspective 🙂
When I was nineteen I went to bible college for a year at Western Baptist College in Salem (now Corbin College) with my fiancé, where I majored in youth ministry. The next year we were married, and I quit bible school to work to pay off the bills we had accrued after one year of private Christian college – around $40k for the both of us – and that was 20 years ago! I continued to pursue my theological study on my own, going through countless Protestant theology books and slowly trying to piece together my “own” beliefs out of all the competing theories. I did a lot of study though my early adulthood and was very confident when it came to the claims of Christ, but on countless other issues I kept ending up with noticeably different conclusions than everyone else when it came to our faith. I would sit very quietly any time creationism came up for instance because I had views which, from a fundamentalist mindset, would potentially call into question my very salvation. I also found that I had a much greater respect for communion than many of the Christians I worshipped with; for them communion was merely symbolic, and often times entirely optional or only partaken of very erratically. The more I studied scripture, especially the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, the more I was convinced that there was something more going on – something that wasn’t merely symbolic.
And, increasingly I was becoming more and more uncomfortable with the implications of Scripture as the only measuring stick that we used. Scripture was used to justify everything in peoples lives from their unwise life decisions regarding jobs and finances, to their multiple divorces and remarriages, or even their homosexuality. I’m not saying that we don’t all make mistakes and bad choices, I was just bothered when God and the bible got blamed for all of them. I also noticed that even when Scripture was interpreted by those who were honestly trying to follow God and to submit to Scripture’s authority in their lives, they invariably arrived at very different conclusions from one another.
In other words far from Scripture being the “final authority” it really just opened the floodgates for division and a lack of certainty within the church. – Tweet This
This division within the church – especially when it came to our inability to even agree on what constituted salvation, has always bothered me tremendously. Gradually, I gravitated more and more towards “bible churches” like Calvary Chapel, and non-denominational churches that refused to take a stand on anything that could be considered remotely divisive, but fundamentally sought to bring people into a personal relationship with Christ. This could be both good (less divisiveness), and bad (a lessened ability to proclaim truth). They basically taught that a “relationship with Christ” was the ultimate truth – the only truth which really mattered (No Creed but Christ). Many of the “bible churches” and non-denominational churches that I attended could probably be best summed up by the statement, “Just me, my bible, and Jesus.”
This resulted in churches that were very uncertain about almost everything doctrinally. Churches where no one could say for sure that this is what the Scriptures mean when they said ___________. Churches that tended to start with the assumption that as mere men it was presumptuous for us to think that we as finite beings could be “certain” about the Infinite. And, there is an element of truth to this. God is Infinite and Uncreated, Triune in nature, too Numinous, too Holy, and beyond our comprehension. But ultimately this overall lack of certainty on much of the Protestant side results in the statement, “We can’t really know for sure” or perhaps, “We can’t agree with any degree of certainty on what ought to be sure.” And I was told that we had to be okay with that, because that is the way things are. In fact, those who were most certain about any given doctrine were looked down on as being arrogant and legalists – which often times they were 😉
Through the years that followed, it seems as if I was always involved in ministry of one kind or another, and as I’ve already said, I really enjoyed studying theology and especially teaching others. We moved to Boise, Idaho when I was around thirty, and got involved with a small non-denominational church in Kuna, Idaho called New Beginnings. Our time at New Beginnings was wonderful! Where previously my learning and growth had always been largely up to my own studies and discipline (or lack thereof) I now found myself in a community of believers where I was actually being taught and challenged by others. Many of those in leadership were involved in some manner with Boise Bible College, and one of the founding pastors was a professor there. During our time there, I had the opportunity to take un-accredited classes through Boise Bible college for around two and a half years and I was asked to move into a ministerial role serving as one of the pastors at the church. Feeling led by God to move towards ministry as a full time vocation, I even applied and was accepted into a Masters of Divinity Program through Fuller Seminary. Due to my previous individual studies and my ministerial experience they were willing to make a special provision for me in spite of the fact that I hadn’t completed an undergraduate degree. I was definitely moving along in a certain direction, and for me that direction did not include the Catholic Church!
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“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 ↩