One the greatest church historians of the 19th century was the German Lutheran scholar Adolf Harnack. A university professor for decades, he bewailed and bemoaned the ignorance his mainly Lutheran students displayed of Catholicism.
I am convinced from constant experience of the fact that the students who leave our schools have the most disconnected and absurd ideas about ecclesiastical history. Some of them know something about Gnosticism, or about other curious and for them worthless details. But of the Catholic Church, the greatest religious and political creation known to history, they know absolutely nothing, and they indulge in its regard in wholly trivial, vague, and often directly nonsensical notions.
When most modern evangelicals think about Catholicism, what they have in their minds isn’t Catholicism at all but an absurd caricature, a muddle of indistinct ideas and distorted images born of mistaken impressions and false assumptions. As to the inner logic of Catholicism as a system of thought—not to mention the case for it being true—the vast majority haven’t a clue.
This was true for me, as well. Although I knew something of what Catholics believed, I knew nothing of the case that Catholic theologians and apologists make for the truth of what Catholics believe. Like one of Harnack's wayward students, I indulged in the Church's regard "in wholly trivial, vague, and often directly nonsensical notions."
And because of this, conversion involved a lot of learning. Actually, it involved the rethinking of my entire worldview as a Christian, from the ground floor up.
Of course this included thinking hard about what exactly the ‘ground floor’ consisted of for me as a Protestant.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of discussing Catholicism with a somewhat knowledgeable Protestant, you may have noticed how incredibly exhausting the conversation can be. Why is that?
Well, you say, it’s exhausting simply because there are so many issues about which we disagree. Where do you begin? Peter and the keys? Apostolic succession? The rule of bishops in the Church? The sacramental priesthood? Justification by grace through faithful obedience? Sacramental theology? Infant baptism? The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? The Mass as a sacrifice? Confession to a priest? The Marian doctrines? The communion of saints? Contraception? Monastic vows?
It's true: the sheer number of issues upon which there is disagreement can make the conversation exhausting. But there’s more to it than that. There's something else at play that makes the conversation not merely tiring but downright confusing.
After all, we’re both Christians. We both believe in the inspiration and authority of sacred scripture. And yet we seem to be coming from different places. We seem to disagree not only on what the true teachings of Christianity are, but on how to go about deciding what they are!
We're like two carpenters debating the length of a board while using different standards of measurement.
We're like two people standing on the beach, one wearing rose-colored glasses and other amber-colored, and arguing about the exact color of the sunset.
The Issue of Foundations
What's going on that makes the conversation so confusing and difficult? The answer isn’t even controversial: Catholics and Protestants have different methods for determining the doctrinal and moral teachings of the faith. It isn’t too much to say that the worldviews of Catholics and Protestants have different foundations.
Gaining clarity on this helped me to understand early on where I needed to focus my attention in thinking about Catholicism.
And since becoming Catholic, it has helped me to understand where I need to focus my attention when discussing Catholicism with my evangelical friends. Rather than exhausting the both of us, leaping back and forth between thirty different doctrinal disagreements, I find it far more illuminating, and effective, to focus the conversation on the root of the differences between us, the key issue that separates us, which is the issue of foundations.
So what is the foundation of Protestantism? How do Protestants determine what the true teachings of Christianity are?
Protestant scholars Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie explain:
By Sola Scriptura orthodox Protestants mean that scripture alone is the primary and absolute source of authority, the final court of appeal, for all doctrine and practice.... However good they may be in giving guidance, all the church fathers, popes, and councils are fallible. Only the Bible is infallible.... As to sufficiency, the Bible -- nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else—is all that is necessary for faith and practice..
- Scripture is the Christian’s sole infallible rule for determining what we are to believe and how we are to live.
- Scripture is materially sufficient, meaning that everything God wants us to know is there in the pages of the Bible.
- Scripture is formally sufficient, meaning that what the Bible teaches is sufficiently clear that no infallible teaching Magisterium of the church is necessary to interpret it or to formally define Christian doctrine.
The Protestant position, and my position, is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand it.
Now, none of what I’ve said here is in the least controversial. Sola Scriptura was the very ‘battle cry’ of the Protestant Reformation. This was at the heart of all that happened in the 16th century: the idea that no authoritative Church existed and that no authoritative Church was needed. The Bible—nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else—was seen to be all that is necessary for faith and practice.
This is the foundation of the Protestant worldview.
And because of this, when I began to look into Catholicism, although I was interested in everything—all the doctrinal differences and disputes that exist between Protestants and Catholics—the issue that interested me most was this issue of Sola Scriptura. Because I recognized it to be the key to everything else.
I saw very quickly that if Sola Scriptura is true, then Protestantism is true. Period. If it was our Lord’s intention for Scripture to function as the "sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice" for the Church he established, then Protestantism is true.
Now, accepting the truth of Sola Scriptura, I might have to spend the rest of my life sifting through the arguments of various theologians to determine which version of Protestantism I believed to be most in line with Scripture—whether the Baptists, or the Presbyterians, or the Lutherans, or the Anglicans, or the Methodists, or the Church of Christ, or maybe the independent church down the street, formed around some bright, charismatic, convincing young pastor with his new angle on how to put the scriptural pieces together.
But I will be Protestant!
At the same time, it was also clear to me that if Jesus did not intend for Scripture to serve as the "sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice" for the Church, then Protestantism as a worldview is not true, and all of its various iterations collapse at once: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Church of Christ, Independent—all come falling down together.
There was no doubt: this was the key issue.
Slip Sliding Away
At the time of the Northridge earthquake of January 17, 1994, my family lived seven miles from the epicenter.
None of us will ever forget that morning. As I was bouncing back and forth against the walls of my hallway, trying to get to my kid's bedrooms, I kept thinking the floor was going to tear open beneath my feet. I remember thinking one of us might die. I remember especially the sound of our house jumping up and down. It was like millions of tons of chain link being dropped repeatedly onto a wooden floor. It was unbelievable. When it was over, our living room was a pile of furniture and shattered glass.
There's little that is more frightening than feeling the earth give way beneath your feet. After all, this is your foundation. This is what you're standing on. If this goes, everything goes.
In a similar way, and for similar reasons, my conversion to the Catholic faith was traumatic. It began the moment I felt the foundation of my worldview as a Protestant slipping and giving way beneath my feet, the moment that first doubt entered by mind that Sola Scriptura was what Jesus intended for His Church.
As I focused on this key issue -- the issue of authority, the most important issue of all -- I came to believe over time that Sola Scriptura had not been the faith of the earliest Christians, that it was completely unworkable, having led since the time of the Reformation to the fragmentation of Protestantism in countless denominations and sects and independent churches, that it didn't make sense logically, that it wasn't even the teaching of the New Testament. In other words, I came to see that Sola Scriptura refuted itself.
It was at this point I knew I was on my way into the Catholic Church.