"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." -Cardinal Francis George

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How do I deal with Catholicism's differences

This is a somewhat lengthy reply to Debbie from my former Presbyterian Church.
Hi David, This response is regrettably very,very late in coming. Please forgive me for letting you and your family leave GSPC and first reading this very thoughtful post without responding. It's hard to believe that you have been gone since July. The reason I am writing now is that after another family has left for what I understand are reasons similar to yours, I wanted to read your post again to try to understand the issue. I'm not sure that I'm any closer to comprehending your decisions, but this I know: you love the Lord and did not make this decision lightly. My main question is how do you handle the many differences between Reformed and Catholic doctrines? I'm not being judgmental, I'm seriously wondering how this happens. God bless you and Bridget and the children as you continue to love and serve Him. Debbie S.
Hi Debbie, Thanks so much for commenting, it means a lot to Bridget and I! Only one or two others from GSPC have, so thanks for taking the time to try to understand our reasons for converting to Catholicism. This response could get long, I hope you don’t mind, and I want to invite you to ask anything you want without fear of offending me. In my opinion, the best, smartest thing people at GSPC (or any Reformed person) can do is to try to at least understand from the converts perspective why they left Protestantism. I have heard some very wild statements by some highly educated Reformed men (not from GSPC) that I am certainly going to hell, I am uninformed, uneducated, desire to worship something other than Jesus, etc. Of course you would not say that, but I only bring it up to show the real need of godly Reformed people like you to try to have an informed and not just a reactionary way of understanding these conversions to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. I have had multiple people tell me I am sending my kids to hell. As you can imagine, that is not a very convincing argument! Actually it isn’t even an argument. Of course many I have talked with also are trying to understand. Jason Stellman (he has a great article in Tabletalk this month) is a PCA Pastor who is dialoguing with the converts from Reformed Christianity to Catholicism on the website Called to Communion, which was instrumental in my conversion. Keith Mathison has taken time to dialogue with me personally (read our correspondence on my blog) and has written a large reply to arguments made on the Called to Communion site. Anyway, I really hope more Reformed people take the time to at least understand the arguments. For one thing, I think some may become Catholic! ;-) Which of course I think would be great. If they don’t, they will at least be able to give an intelligent, informed response to those who do convert. Understanding disagreements in a search for the truth is NEVER a bad thing. I don't know if you are aware, but Hector and Bree Amaya are becoming Eastern Orthodox. Remember Fred Noltie? He was teaching through Deuteronomy in the adult Sunday School when Bridget and I joined GSPC. He has been a fervent Catholic for years now. Phillip Barnes and family are Eastern Orthodox as you probably know. Phillip Barnes' conversion to Orthodoxy was the reason I got fed up and started investigating why people were leaving GSPC. At the time, I lumped him in with the folks who left to form the CREC church. I see the difference now, but it took looking all the way down to the root of the tree; at the basic principles of Protestantism. There is also another family at GSPC (besides the Van Somerens) that are converting to Catholicism. I don’t know how public it is though. I apologize if that seems gossipy, but I say it to show that this issue is massive for the Reformed community. Every one of these families that converted are far and away more educated in Reformed theology than mine and certainly in education in general. They are all godly, serious Christians, some incredibly so. Chalking their conversions up to a mere desire for “Episcopal church government” (as I was told by one of your elders) or some such petty thing is sort of a slap in the face to their combined decades of living faith and deep learning. Their conversion is not so trivial. These people cannot be lightly dismissed as just not “getting” Reformed theology. They (and I) “get” it, and yet in their desire to follow Christ they have entered the Catholic Church. So, having said that, I commend you for wanting to understand better what is going on. If anything, if you agree with the WCF that the Pope is the antichrist, it would be good to understand why we are converting so as to prevent us from such a horrid error! Debbie, you asked: “My main question is how do you handle the many differences between Reformed and Catholic doctrines?” This is a great question that gets to the heart of why we converted to Catholicism. The main reason I am Catholic is because I was dead tired and worn out from trying to “handle the many differences” in Christianity in general. I no longer have to handle those questions as the final teaching authority. To explain what I mean, let me give background first before I answer your question in a direct way. Back in 2008-2009 when I was teaching my girls (mainly Annabel and Noel at the time) the Westminster children’s catechism, I started to change some of the answers and omit some questions and answers. Which ones aren’t really the point. I came to a type of despair in my ability to find the truth for them, and a longing for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Once, when reflecting on this after I had just crossed out a question, I literally felt sick to my stomach, Debbie. I desire NOTHING in this world more that to teach my children the truth of Christ. I would be burned, drawn and quartered before I sent them to a public school even. But here I was giving them the sure foundation of… my opinions. I remember praying in the car on my way to work for weeks for wisdom. I remembered the promise given to Solomon and just simply poured out my heart to God and asked that if He gave me only one thing it would be wisdom to guide my family. I feared the millstone being tied around my neck. Now granted, Christ is in that children’s catechism! I still to this day respect Reformed Christianity above all other Protestant groups for their careful attention to the scriptures. But in the end Debbie, if I disagree on a point of doctrine, what would the GSPC session tell me to do? If I decided to become a credo-baptist, what would they say? I know for a fact they would gently admonish me that they believed me to be in error, but then they would point me to Piper’s church down the road. This knowledge of how “discipline” actually would work if I were to push the limits led to other, darker thoughts. What if I were, at this moment, in grave error or heresy at another church? How would that look any different from my current situation at GSPC? Again, let me restate my thinking at that time:
“What if I were, at this moment, in grave error or heresy? How would that look any different from my current situation at GSPC?”
Well let’s see, if I were in a church that the GSPC session considered to be teaching heresy, or error to some degree, I would still have a session I was under, right? Right. I would be excommunicated or possibly just frowned upon by the GSPC session, but to my “new” session I would be doing just fine. What looks different from my perspective? The awful answer is ‘nothing’. And it wasn’t enough for me to just tell myself that the “big doctrines” are all agreed upon by Protestants. It just ain’t true. Is Federal Vision a “big” deal? Some say yes some say no. Who do I listen to? I am an Electronics Technician Debbie, not a theologian. When godly, smart theologians like Michael Horton, Doug Wilson, and R.C. Sproul disagree on these issues, why do I think I can figure it all out? Do I have more of the Holy Spirit than them? It was painfully obvious to me that I was at GSPC for one reason: I agreed with their teaching and thought it was scriptural. If I ceased to agree with them, I would (with their sanction in most cases) find another session I did agree with. This is the mechanics of sola scriptura Debbie. This is how the root level, basic principal of Protestant ecclesiology works in the real world. Beyond intricately formulated definitions, this is how it works in real life. Scripture is the final authority, yes I agree. But the simple unchallenged fact of facts is that scripture MUST be interpreted, and only one interpretation is correct, while the others are errors of varying degrees with no thermometer held in common by all to measure how much error is too much. For someone like me who desires that my opinion be completely removed from the equation, that situation will not do. Christ is Lord. I want to obey Him, do what He says, follow who He wants me to follow, teach my children what He wants them taught, baptize them when He wants them baptized, give them the Eucharist when He wants them to have it, tell them to approach God in the liturgy the way He wants to be approached, give my children access to the sacraments Christ wants them to have, and to understand those sacraments the way He wants them understood. It is self evident that if brilliant men like Luther and Calvin cannot agree on serious issues of doctrine like the sacraments, (and certainly agreement has not increased in the Protestant experiment, but multiplied,) that I, a mere layman who likes beer more than Herman Bavinck have no chance of finding the truth within the sola scriptura paradigm. Each godly, intelligent, Bible loving Protestant will tell me “listen to me”. My response is, “Why? Why shouldn’t I listen to the other guy? He is just as smart and well meaning as you?” And yes, of course each man is pointing to scripture and telling me to listen to the scripture, not to him per se. And of course they would each tell me (as Josh Moon rightfully would) to flee from anything that was only their opinion and to hold fast to only the truth of God’s word. But let’s be real, If both men point to the scripture, and both men contradict each other, and I can’t tell who is right, how do I know what is truth? If they say it is not a central, important issue, how do I know it is not a central issue? What Phillip Barnes had said to me in passing (in a very joking context in a Christian Education Committee meeting) was that I was the pope of my family. The committee had been discussing some general education paradigms for the church. Is the “Sunday school” type education at church more a function of the church hierarchy or is it more a function of the families within the church? Should the teaching of the catechism and such come down from the session and be taught at church, or should fathers from individual households do that teaching at home? I was firmly on the side of fathers at home. To me it seemed self evident that the father is the spiritual leader of his family, and in the end is the one who makes those decisions… right down to which church is chosen to submit to or which catechism is taught to the children. I gave an example of an issue (paedocommunion I think?) where a father might decide he does not agree with his church session, and would have every right within the bounds of sola scriptura to teach his children what his conscience dictated. “So,” my reasoning went to Mr. Barnes, “I am not my own Pope, I am submitting to the scriptures.” Josh Moon, who was at the meeting voiced his agreement that a father was perfectly within his rights to do such a thing as the spiritual leader in the family. So, one day a few months later, while I was researching some theological questions about Paedocommunion online, I stumbled across the website “Called to Communion” that consists of a bunch of highly educated Reformed guys that have all converted to the Catholic Church. I laughed to myself at the strangeness of it. A week or two later, my curiosity got the better of me that these guys would do such a thing, and I went to the site again. I read an article about Keith Mathisons book “the Shape of Sola Scriptura”. This book was very influential on me when I read it back around 2002, and it is considered by many to be the high water mark in modern Reformed study of sola Scriptura. The idea of the book is that most of Protestantism has left true blue sola scriptura and descended into “solo” scriptura, or a “just me and my Bible” mentality. Mathison then calls for a return to the original “sola” scriptura which puts the Nicene creed and the doctrines of our fathers in the faith as a standard alongside (but subordinate to) scripture. The article on Called to Communion absolutely demolished the main thesis of Keith Mathison’s book by showing that there is no principled difference between the two views. As I labored to show above from my own experience, that and many other articles on that site showed that in the end the believer in sola scriptura is where he is based on whether his interpretation of scripture agrees with his church. The interpretation changes, then the church changes. I was staggered by the truth of it. I was stunned for a couple days wondering what would happen. I needed to see this article refuted and my faith in sola scriptura restored. So I emailed R.C. Sproul Jr., who had been my hero in the Reformed community. I trusted his opinion, and I told him that my faith in sola scriptura had been shaken to the core, what should I read or who should I contact to restore it? He told me to read Keith Mathison’s book! He also put me in contact with Keith and we corresponded by email while I tried to find reason to stay Reformed. Those letters are available here on my blog. I was disappointed with his arguments and found them quite unconvincing. I then contacted Doug Wilson, my other Reformed hero. He said there was one book that is better than any other on the topic of sola scriptura… yep you guessed it, Keith’s book! So, after reading Keith’s book again, and reading the article refuting it again, and then reading a few books from each side of the debate, I just could not in good conscience hold to sola scriptura. A doctrine that was supposed to provide a solid foundation of truth for my family, by giving us the unvarnished Word of God divorced from the traditions of men, ended up being a doctrine which led me to back to my own mere opinions and that ITSELF was a tradition of men! I knew then that no body of believers that held to this tradition could be correctly called “the Church”. Forgive me if I offend, I certainly know that most evangelicals and Reformed people are quite solid in their love of our Lord, I do not question that fact in the least, nor do I question their salvation if it is in Christ. This realization narrows the field of candidates for the title “Church”. The “Church” must at the very least *claim* to have a single doctrine that cannot ever contradict itself like the “branched” church of sola scriptura. The “Church” must also have some other reasons for its claimed title that correspond to the reasoning of a simple mind (like mine). In other words, Mormonism is out. Yes they claim to be *the* church, with a single doctrine, but their claim is ridiculous in light of history and scripture. I did not even consider such cults because of their fanciful claims. The only plausible claimants are The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. They both have apostolic succession; they both can plausibly claim to have always had a single, objective doctrine. Either option is fine by me, and really either option looks exactly the same from a Protestant vantage point because the doctrine of these bodies is so incredibly similar, so I won’t go into the reasons in Rome’s favor. So back to that question of what do I do with the different doctrines? I reject any doctrines not taught by the Church’s teaching office. I obediently receive those that are so taught as being from Christ. The doctrines it has not seen fit to define yet, I am free to come to an informed opinion on them. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, and guides her into all truth. The Magisterium (teaching office) of the Church is there to interpret scripture; that is its job. When they do so and require the faithful to receive it, we obey the authority of Christ. Who am I to say “nope, you got it wrong.” St. Augustine (AD 354-430) writes:
“The Catholic Church is the work of Divine Providence, achieved through the prophecies of the prophets, through the Incarnation and the teaching of Christ, through the journeys of the Apostles, through the suffering, the crosses, the blood and death of the martyrs, through the admirable lives of the saints, and in all these, at opportune times, through miracles worthy of such great deeds and virtues. When, then, we see so much help on God’s part, so much progress and so much fruit, shall we hesitate to bury ourselves in the bosom of that Church? For starting from the apostolic chair down through succession of bishops, even unto the open confession of all mankind, it has possessed the crown of teaching authority.”
BUT, having said that, there are many doctrines I thought would be hard to accept. Purgatory was one of these. Some doctrines about the Virgin Mary I also was prepared to accept simply on faith without really understanding how they could be true. I was amazed at how my fears were relieved by studying what the Catholic Church actually teaches in her documents regarding these topics. I compare it with many Christian’s misconceptions of what Calvinism is, and how that conception can change once they actually read what Calvinists believe. The two that I mentioned (Mary and purgatory) are shockingly biblical, and have actually become a comfort and a beautiful part of my faith in Christ. These are simply wonderful doctrines that show forth God’s holiness and glory in ways I never dreamed of. Many of these doctrines that we “left behind” at the Reformation thinking they were additions to the deposit of faith are actually rich mysteries that are are quite important to how we understand the incarnation, salvation, etc, and important in our relationship with God in Christ. These are treasures that I am now discovering are not “barnacles” to be scraped of the hull by the reformation, but flags to be hoisted up the mast to the glory of God. Redemptive suffering is a doctrine I did not even know about before looking at Catholicism, but after learning this beautiful doctrine and experiencing it for myself, I feel as if I had been deprived of an inheritance! Many “differences” are not differences in a bad way either. For an example, the common refrain of R.C. Sproul and many Reformed people is that the sacrifice of the mass is a “re-sacrificing” of Jesus… again. Like he is being killed again. That is simply false. It is a re-PRESENTation of the once and for all sacrifice of Calvary. Just as the Reformed would say that in worship we are “carried to heaven” in a way, so the Catholic Church believes that in the mass we are present in heaven as the sacrifice of Christ is offered to the Father. There is no time in heaven, and therefore the sacrifice can participated in again and again. And hey, we weren’t alive in 30AD, so the sacrifice needs to be re-presented for us, right? Even if you “disagree” with this teaching of the Church for the past 2000 years, at least perhaps admit that the characterization of a re-sacrificing is out of line. The Catholic view of the mass does not resemble the one I was taught. Now I used that as just one example of a doctrine where perhaps Protestants see a huge gap that cannot be bridged. They see a sort of blasphemy to Christ where in reality there is beauty and an honoring of Jesus and His Blood shed for us. In this already long reply, I will forego boring you with other doctrines that are similarly just not as big an issue for me to accept, and actually quite good to accept. Believe it or not justification falls into this category. The issue is FAR more complex and nuanced than the average Christian can begin to understand (me included). Suffice it to say, Catholics believe in the work of Christ alone for salvation, just not in an “extra nos” imputation of that work. In both Catholic and Reformed soteriologies, the Father sees a clean, sinless person whom He accepts into glory. In both soteriologies it is Christ ALONE who makes them clean. Period. That is it. Nobody works their way to heaven, that is absurd. But I mention these things last, because like I said, if I were not inclined to believe some dogma of the Catholic faith (and perhaps that is or will be the case) I would still submit to the wisdom of Holy Mother Church and not lean on my own understanding. I will obey Christ’s Church. In Luke 10:16 Jesus says to the men He chose to lead his Church:
"He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me."
Otherwise the result can only be division and squabbling amongst isolated little groups of Christians who sincerely believe their interpretation of scripture to be correct. They become a kingdom of Popes. That statement is not theoretical, it is the reality of Protestantism. If you have any other questions Debbie, feel free to ask in the comments here. If you prefer more anonymity, feel free to email me at davidmeyerfamily[AT]gmail[dot]com Peace to you Debbie, thanks again for you kind comment and God bless you and yours. Bridget is Pregnant by the way, if you think of her in your prayers we would be grateful. -David


  1. David, As a member of the PCUSA community I've become increasingly disatisfied with the denomination as well as the general trend of modern evangelicalism and Protestantism. I'm not an intellectual but even I can see the multiplicity of conflicting doctrines in my faith. I've been more and more drawn to Catholic teachings. Your article is another that expresses many of my growing frustrations. Thank you for your faithful witness.

  2. Beautifully said!


  3. David, great article.

    I would suggest Calvinists check out this article on the Atonement since it's a teaching most are unaware of but holds the Reformed faith together. It's issues like these that totally 'woke me up' to the real problems of Protestantism, which was essentially that when one error is embraced and dogmatized, other errors will have to also be embraced.

  4. RichnHim,
    Thanks for the comment. I would really encourage you to make the switch and come home to Rome. The PCUSA seems to me a very obvious example of Protestantism going "off the rails". But upon reflection, it becomes clear it went off the rails at the reformation. St. Francis was a reformer, Luther and Calvin were simply not. If there is anything I can do, let me know.

    Nick, thanks for that. Yeah doctrines are not isolated. they all tie together and inform each other(as any Calvinist can afirm). The striking thing about the cardinal doctrines of the Reformation is how absent they are in the early church, and how there are OTHER doctrines firmly in their place at that time. Called to Communion has a great article right now that shows this clearly: