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Why I Returned to the Catholic Church. Part II: Doubts
Cor ad cor loquitur ^
| 16 November 2004
| Al Kresta/Dave Armstrong
Posted on 08/13/2007 2:20:46 PM PDT by annalex
Why I Returned to the Catholic Church (Al Kresta) . . . Including a Searching Examination of Various Flaws and Errors in the Protestant Worldview and Approach to Christian Living
Part II: Doubts
(edited and transcribed by Dave Armstrong; originally uploaded on 16 November 2004).
[Part breakdown and part titles by Annalex]
Lo and behold, after three years of darkness -- light. During my stay down there I had three visions, or images, if you will, which were the only rays of light that had given me any sense of meaning or purpose through that terrible period of darkness. I could go off and speak on this for days, because it was so remarkable. I did the Liturgy of the Hours down there, and talked to a priest, and when I came out, my life began to reassemble itself. I still had some difficulties, but overall, I was back on track again. It was a great experience. I started reading theology and Scripture again, and began to pray again.
Luther is really the father of the way evangelicals preach on justification. The apostle Paul was not concerned with the same things Luther was concerned with. If you analyze Luther's experience: the questions he was asking God: they're not the same things the apostle Paul was asking of God. Luther has been like a lens that Protestants have put on to read the New Testament. Luther was preoccupied with how he could gain acceptance by a gracious God. This was his question. But the apostle Paul doesn't seem too concerned about that at all. He has a rather robust conscience before God. He knew that God was gracious. He never pleads with either Jews or Gentiles to feel an anguished conscience, and then release that anguish in a message of forgiveness through Christ. He never urges that kind of revivalistic experience upon his readers. When Paul does speak of himself as a serious sinner at all, it's not because of his existential anguish under the righteousness of God in general, but very specifically, because not having recognized that Messiah had come in Christ, he had persecuted the Church, and fought the opening of God's covenant to the Gentiles. That was Paul's issue. It wasn't personal acceptance before God. Luther was asking questions the apostle Paul really wasn't concerned about.
The Jews understood that salvation was granted by God's electing grace, not according to a righteousness based on merit-earning works. Most Protestant scholars since Luther have read Paul as saying that Judaism misunderstood the gracious nature of God's covenant with Moses and perverted it into a system of attaining righteousness by works. Wrong! That's not what they did. That was Luther's problem, not Paul's problem. The Jews weren't boasting that they could attain righteousness by doing works. They were boasting that they were God's chosen -- by grace. Paul agonized over the social nature of the Church. Luther, on the other hand, agonized over the personal assurance of God's acceptance. In other words, Luther, by having misunderstood Paul, developed a whole new approach to religion. The irony of it is, he probably developed it out of Catholic corruptions in the Middle Ages. [laughter] Paul wasn't that concerned about individual salvation. That wasn't his issue. The issue was the nature of the body: the community. This [realization] allowed me to establish even more distance from the evangelical tradition (around 1985).
[recounts how bookstore customers wanted Jack Chick materials, which his stores refused to sell] I was hit again with how anti-Catholic fundamentalism and evangelicalism is. There is a deep streak of bigotry that runs through it. I wasn't that worried about it, though, because in my own mind I could write that off.
The question of the canon of Scripture had always bothered me, almost from the beginning. Where'd it come from? It seemed like such an obvious question that I figured there's gotta be lots of good answers to it and that everybody must know why we have a canon of Scripture. Jesus left us with a community before He left us with a book. I found the appeal to an authoritative Church far more honest and consistent than an appeal to an authoritative Bible. So I ceased to defend the canon of Scripture with any enthusiasm -- except by an appeal to an authoritative Church. The problem was I didn't know where this Church was. It couldn't be the Roman Catholic Church. It just couldn't be. There's too many problems there.
I got this call to pastor a church (Shalom Ministry) in 1985: a job that eventually would lead me to the Catholic Church. I didn't know it at the time. I was looking for this church and I figured that since it wasn't out there, I'd make it myself. And that's what ended up happening. Since there was no church that I felt conformed to a biblical shape, that I might as well use this opportunity to experiment a bit. I really did believe when I entered pastoral work, that you had only two choices: it seemed to me that you could go the independent church route, where every pastor is their own pope, and they've got the Bible alone to work with, or you ought to get honest with yourself, and go ahead and become Orthodox or Catholic, and accept an authoritative teaching church. I really didn't like all the mediating positions in between. Why do you want denominations? Why not -- if you're going to accept the authority of a tradition -- accept the authority of the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, which at least have a developed theology of tradition. Tradition is inevitable.
I thought that the real problem with the evangelical churches was lack of doctrine or Scripture study, and good preaching, and I quickly found that that wasn't the case. There's probably too much teaching. You get up on a Sunday morning, and you prepare a message, and you would preach, and rain on 'em, and it'd be forgotten by the week after, and you'd wonder why you're doing this: your best ideas and study, pouring it out on them. But what people needed was spiritual apprenticeship, discipleship, an elder or spiritual leader to model the Christian life for them. If they needed preaching, let 'em listen to John MacArthur, or buy a book of sermons. You can do that now.
I did see that my approach was destined to futility. And I saw a lot of moral failure. That didn't scandalize me. I knew who was sleeping with who; who was lying about who, and I would confront it, and sometimes people would repent, and sometimes they didn't. But what scandalized me was the ability to use what I called "the language of ultimacy": like "the Lord told me," or "are you sold out for the Lord?," or "we have nothing to live for but saving souls": always this kind of high-pitched language of commitment, which didn't bear any tangible relationship to the lives that people were leading. And these people were not intending to be hypocrites. It was just the function of evangelical language. It was their symbol-system. This was the way they talked. The problem was that the language began to substitute for the reality, so you could talk about your commitment to soul-winning, or how missions has to be number one, and yet sit home and not do a darned thing. But you knew the language. It was just part of the tradition: the revivalistic tradition. It was a way of applying a spiritual anesthetic.
We like to think of ourselves in the evangelical tradition as other than mere churchgoers. You tended not to exercise the judgment of charity towards the churchgoer, and to say "they're not part of us until they prove they're born again." And I saw this as a spiritual arrogance, but it was more a function of language than of the heart of people.
One thing that happened as I began pastoring is that I began to see the failure of "mere Christianity." It was a great discipleship tool. But it was a terrible curse when you wanted to disciple people. It was good for breaking down barriers between Christians and getting them to talk to one another and respect one another, but not very good in trying to teach people a worldview or trying to grow in grace. I would call it the "inner contradiction of mere Christianity." It is unintentionally dishonest and gives the wrong impression about matters vital to Christian growth and maturity. In a sense you're selling people a bill of goods. You're hooking them with a minimalist conception of the faith, and then once they get in, you start laying on them the obligations. Nobody means any harm by it, . . .
By discounting as non-essential to Christianity, anything that would interfere with the evangelistic task, we imply to the convert that only those things which he assents to at conversion, are the essential things. Thus, major biblical doctrines like the Church, worship, work of the Holy Spirit, even the authority of Scripture, end-times teaching, even ethical teachings like our obligation to the poor, the unborn: all those things are minimized and therefore considered secondary and non-binding to the convert. People are called to Christ the head, but it's disconnected with Christ's body. To come to Christ in the New Testament always meant coming into a particular community; accepting this community and them accepting you, and that also meant the tradition and the way of life of the community. This approach cannot sustain a church or a tradition, and not enough to give much direction in life's decisions.
"What you are converted by is what you are converted to." Since the evangelical principle is the Bible alone and the Bible doesn't use the word Trinity and doesn't refer to abortion specifically, how important can these things be? That's the way the argument will go, and I hear it all the time. Free church Protestants have no reliance upon institutionalized teaching authorities. The authority in their mind is them, the Spirit of God, and the Word of God. And quite honestly, that's wrong. That's not biblical. The biblical pattern, is me, the Spirit of God, the Word of God, and the Church of God. The community is an essential dimension of the biblical experience. So you end up with what? Private interpretation. It's me, the Spirit, and the Bible. And while evangelicals say you should be a member of a church (Billy Graham will say that), usually converts are made by driving a wedge between the convert and the Church. Often, you'll hear in evangelistic presentations: "baptism isn't important, this isn't important, denominations aren't important. What's important is you and your relationship with God." In the right context, that point can be made, but the subtext of the message is "once you get saved, it's you and God." So this private interpretation is really overwhelming. We become "theological Atlases." No one person is able to do that against the spirit of the age. You need the full body to teach authoritatively. You can't do it yourself. You can't do it: not authoritatively. To sit there as a papal substitute and do it, independently of, say, the college of bishops, research universities, is wicked. But it's done, all the time.
Great evangelical leaders that have come up this century, who have been very helpful: people like Francis Schaeffer, who I owe an enormous debt to; notice how they function within the evangelical community. They don't function as the leader of a church, but as authoritative celebrities. Their audience has no recourse to hold them accountable. There's no structure set up.
Mere Christianity also undermines confidence in the local church, or (if you believe in them) the denomination, which is secondary to one's primary commitment to Christ. But this is schizophrenic. It pits the head against the body, and ultimately it betrays Jesus Who says the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church, the body. These things are connected. The head doesn't regard the body as a "necessary evil" like many evangelicals do. They think that you gotta go somewhere to get Bible teaching, so you go to church. [The Church] is secondary only in the sense that it flows from my commitment to God, and is entailed in that commitment. How ecumenical is mere Christianity, if it removes the doctrine of the Church, which is central to two of the three Christian traditions? So it really isn't very fair to Orthodoxy and Catholicism. [It amounts to saying that] God is not able to adequately reveal Himself through the things that he has made, or the people that He has called. It's a slap in the face of God.
Mere Christianity is dishonest in that it requires a soft-peddling of differences between Christians. And it belittles our brothers and sisters in the past. When we say "let's transcend and rise above all these denominational distinctives," we are actually emasculating the various Christian traditions. The very things that Wesley and Luther and Calvin found as solutions to the problems of their day, we're saying, "it's not important. Let's just get above 'em. It doesn't matter that these brothers regarded these things as central and essential to the Christian
life. We're so superior to them that we can just rise above it." And I find that that's a very belittling approach to these men and women. Accept them on their own terms. Disagree with them if you have to. But don't say they're irrelevant. Within their systems, these denominational distinctives are meant to be solutions to serious problems in the Christian life, and when we don't take them on their own terms, then we're regarding these men and their traditions as pathological, petty, or unwise. I think Luther was wrong [about justification], but I can't say he's unimportant, you see. And that's what I don't like about "mere Christianity."
By 1987 I was pastoring a church and hosting an evangelical talk show, but I found my heart growing really hard and full of disdain for the tradition that I was supposed to be serving, and I knew that wasn't good, so I made a list [of some of my criticisms] in my journal:
1. Lack of a coherent worldview, which leads to a denial of Christ's Lordship.
2. Methods which cheapen the gospel and promote confusion in converts ("what you are converted by is what you are converted to").
3. Manichaean dualism which is inconsistently and conveniently applied to beat others with one's own taboos.
4. Cultural naivete which presumes the priority of Anglo-Saxon culture and an ignorance of ancient biblical culture and its distinctive marks over against its Mesopotamian, Roman, and Greek backgrounds.
5. Flippancy towards divine mystery and paradox; a loss of the sacred, which is best seen in a casual attitude towards the sublime and lofty.
6. Meaningless and saccharine expressions of piety, and a retreat into jargon.
7. A suspicion of intellect.
8. Evangelicalism has become so shaped by modernity that it is privatized, secularized, and has adopted pluralism.
9. A naive pride in its own tradition of traditionlessness.
10. Duplication of effort among institutions.
11. Individualistic to the point of rebellion.
12. Too many personality cults.
13. Ignorant of its own history.
14. Bizarre prophecy schemes which create escapist mentalities and loss of a stable future orientation.
All those things were weighing on my heart: bang bang bang bang. I realized "why am I doing this? My heart is not really in the revivalistic tradition anymore."
TOPICS: Apologetics; Catholic; Evangelical Christian; Theology
KEYWORDS: conversion; reconversion; thejourneyhome
Part II of several part series on Al Kresta's journey.
Part I: Darkness .
posted on 08/13/2007 2:20:49 PM PDT
To: Salvation; NYer; Romulus; jo kus; Kolokotronis; kosta50; Forest Keeper; Alex Murphy; ...
Part II, for your reading and comment.
posted on 08/13/2007 2:23:04 PM PDT
I think Paul did have an anguished conscience evidenced by his writings about his former life. This is what set him on fire to evangelize the way he did. To undo the wrongs of his past. This was not works for salvation because he did not believe in such. Paul knew his salvation was by grace.
posted on 08/13/2007 2:49:24 PM PDT
(Yes I backed over the vampire, but I swear I didn't see it in my rear view mirror.)
This is what Al is saying also.
posted on 08/13/2007 3:15:30 PM PDT
Okay, re-reading it does support what you said. My bad. Carry on.
posted on 08/13/2007 3:25:05 PM PDT
(Yes I backed over the vampire, but I swear I didn't see it in my rear view mirror.)
posted on 08/13/2007 4:28:09 PM PDT
(†With God all things are possible.†)
posted on 08/16/2007 5:17:26 PM PDT
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