Building a Fine Fire in the Fireplace

September 1995By Dale Vree

Dale Vree is Editor of New Oxford Review.

Surprised by Truth: Eleven Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic.  Edited by Patrick Madrid. Basilica Press. 271 pages. $15.90.



Over the past 15 years we've heard a good deal about conversions to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism, especially Anglo-Catholicism. Such transitions are seldom easy, but the theological distance traveled is not all that great. But now a new phenomenon is gathering steam: converts from the more distant precincts of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Why? The Holy Spirit, one trusts. But the Holy Spirit often works through human instruments. So one would have to mention the magnetic orthodoxy of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. Then there is the indefatigable prolife movement, which has brought evangelicals and fundamentalists into close contact with ardent orthodox Catholics. Also, the conversion of evangelical Presbyterian minister Scott Hahn, ho argued his way into the Catholic Church by studying the Bible, has had a profound effect on many, thanks to his speeches and booming tape industry, and most recently to his account of his conversion, Rome Sweet Home, written with his wife, Kimberly (reviewed in the July-Aug. 1994 NOR). Finally, the rise of fundamentalism in the 1980s, heavily laced with aggressive anti-Catholicism, has elicited a spirited response, notably from Karl Keating, who, with his colleagues, has gone forth to debate fundamentalists in the public forum. Keating's organization (Catholic Answers Inc., PO Box 17490, San Diego CA 92177; 619-541-1131) conducts seminars and distributes a prodigious amount of apologetic material -- books, tracts, tapes, and a vigorous magazine called, appropriately, This Rock -- and is bearing much good fruit.

Surprised by Truth nicely captures the crest of this newest wave of converts to Rome. As a whole, the book explodes the canard that fundamentalists take the Bible literally and Catholics don't (ask a teetotaling fundamentalist why Jesus turned water into wine instead of vice versa). The writers in this book want to understand the "plain sense" of Scripture. In their struggle to do so, they came to the realization that the meaning of Scripture is not always self-evident, that interpretation is often required, and that there is the Catholic interpretation as well as a Protestant tradition of interpretation. To their bewilderment, they realized that the Protestant tradition is fractured into some 28,000 different interpretations (corresponding to the 28,000-plus Protestant denominations extant in the world today); these interpretations are often mutually exclusive, such that if one is right, the others must be wrong. The problem: Which one is right? And this is no merely academic problem. As Marcus Grodi, formerly an evangelical Presbyterian pastor, tells it: "Every Sunday I would stand in my pulpit and interpret Scripture for my flock, knowing that within a fifteen mile radius of my church there were dozens of other Protestant pastors -- all of whom believed that the Bible alone is the sole authority for doctrine and practice -- but each...teaching something different from what I was teaching. 'Is my interpretation of Scripture the right one or not?' I'd wonder. 'Maybe...I'm misleading these people who trust me.'" (Grodi now heads an organization that facilitates the entry of Protestants, especially pastors, into the Catholic Church: The Network, PO Box 4100, Steubenville OH 43952; 614-283-6517.)

Which Protestant group is right? Several of these writers tell of how they joined and then left numerous Protestant denominations in pursuit of the answer. That's how serious they were.

Or perhaps the answer is a charismatic, creedless nondenominational church? Forget "truth," just go for "the experience"? Steve Wood, a former youth minister in one such church, tells us that "the unwritten creed in non-denominational churches is whatever the pastor happens to believe. Woe to the member who crosses the line and disagrees with the pastor." So, no, this wouldn't do. Al Kresta was the leader of a nondenominational congregation, but simultaneously bewailed the disunity of Protestantism: "I felt like I had killed my mother and then complained about being an orphan." No, nondenominationalism doesn't solve the problem of disunity, but only adds to it.

The question of truth always reasserts itself to the discerning soul. James Akin was "bothered" by Christ's clear statement to Peter and then to the Apostles that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven (Mt. 16:18-19, 18:18), and by His statement to the Apostles that they have the power to forgive sins (Jn. 20:21-23). Soon the Catholic Sacrament of confession made sense to Akin. Bob Sungenis found that the passage on binding and loosing "clearly implies the Church's infallibility."

Akin was also troubled by Paul's words telling that good works, as well as faith, are necessary to salvation (e.g., Rom. 2:7: Gal. 6:6-10). The Protestant doctrine of sola fide (salvation by faith alone) ceased making sense to Akin. Digging deeper, he discovered that "where Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law" (Rom. 3:28), Paul was referring to the Mosaic Law. That's why Paul asks us to fulfill "the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2) and tells us that what is needed is "faith made effective through love" (Gal. 5.6). Sungenis notes: "In order to substantiate his claims that man was justified by faith alone, Luther deliberately added the word 'alone' to his German translation of Romans 3:28. In reality, the only time 'alone' appears with the word 'faith' in the Greek text is in James 2:24 where it says we are 'not saved by faith alone.' Luther defended his novel addition [by] bragging, '...If your Papist makes such an unnecessary row about the word "alone," say right out to him: "Dr. Martin Luther will have it so," and say: "Papists and asses are one and the same thing." I will have it so, and I order it to be so, and my will is reason enough.'"

Paul Thigpen realized he couldn't claim to be adhering to the plain sense of Scripture and still interpret Jesus' words about His Body and Blood figuratively, as fundamentalists and evangelicals are wont to do. Jim Staples tried to interpret Jesus' "this is my body" and His "unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you" figuratively, but failed. Staples: "in response to the Jews' grumbling about his talk of 'eating his flesh and drinking his blood,' Jesus said, 'I solemnly assure you...my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink' [John 6:53, 55]. The text says that his teaching was so difficult...that many of them returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him' (v. 66). When this occurred Jesus didn't say, 'Wait, folks! You misunderstood. I just meant you have to...believe in me as your personal Lord and Savior. You don't think I really meant you have to eat my flesh and drink my blood, do you?' No. Jesus let them leave...." T.L. Frazier puzzled over Paul's warning (1 Cor. 11:27-32) that those who partake of the Eucharist unworthily heap condemnation upon themselves: If Holy Communion were only symbolic, "Paul's stern warning...seemed incomprehensible."

More basic than the issue of interpretation is that of authority. The Protestant authority is sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. But, as Sungenis notes, sola Scriptura "is simply not taught anywhere in the Bible, either explicitly or implicitly." Sungenis explains that "the decision as to which books should be included in the Bible and which books should not, was made by the Catholic Church...," an authority Protestants reject reflexively. Because of that, and because "the Bible does not indicate which books belong within it," Protestants are left with an "epistemological dilemma" they cannot escape. All they can say is that they have a fallible collection of infallible books -- which is self-refuting. It was logical, therefore, that Luther wanted to delete James, Hebrews, 2 Peter, and Revelation from the New Testament. After all, he didn't think them to be inspired, and what mattered was what he thought, not what the Catholic Church had decided.

But the Bible is authoritative because the Church authoritatively determined which of the various books claiming inspiration truly were and were not inspired. And the Church's authority comes from Christ -- e.g., His declaring Peter the Rock upon which He would build His Church and giving Peter the keys to the Kingdom. The missing epistemological link is the Church, but Protestants cannot allow themselves to admit that because, logically, if the Church had the authority to assemble the Scriptures, she also has the authority to interpret them. And then the Reformation's doctrine of private interpretation is fallacious, and the true authority for a Christian is Scripture and Catholic tradition.

The Catholic Church is immensely blessed to have people such as these 11 writers entering her bosom. They are earnest truth-seekers, they love the Lord, believe the Bible, and yearn to live holy lives. It is telling that not one of them credits the Hans Küngs or Richard McBriens with inspiring them to enter the Church. Of course not: The doubting and dissenting theologians are not a converting force; if anything, they only give Catholics excuses for becoming de facto Protestants or leaving the Church altogether.

The Catholic Church is still in need of authentic renewal, not unlike what the Reformers at their best saw was needed. But the Reformers fumbled the ball. The tragedy of evangelicalism, says Kresta, is that it is "a reform movement that forgot the Catholic Church it was seeking to reform.... It generates fire but gets burned because it can't settle on a fireplace. It manages to convert many goats to sheep but leaves them wandering without the shepherds Jesus has appointed for them."

The Fireplace without the Fire is empty ritual and mere churchianity. The Fire without the Fireplace is chaos and hairsplitting and division. But with more converts like those in this book, we'll have a fine Fire, and we'll have it where Jesus wants it -- in the Fireplace.



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