For years I had a very fervent faith, even up to my first year in college – when the theory of evolution and the desire to sin enticed me to abandon my faith. I conveniently became an atheist for two years during the 60’s. Then, my mom gave me a copy of The Late Great Planet Earth, a book about the second coming of Christ. After reading it, I decided that perhaps the Bible was relevant after all and not just some dusty old book I could safely ignore. So, I rededicated my life to Christ.
I gave a copy of The Late Great Planet Earth to my boyfriend Mike, a first-year medical student, and he committed his life to Christ too. A year later we took a Bible course called The Bethel Series – a two year overview of the whole Bible. We got married, taught Bethel, led small group Bible studies and studied Scripture in depth. We moved from California to Baltimore so Mike could do his surgery residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. And then we moved to Houston so he could do specialty training.
Since we were convinced that the Bible alone was sufficient for faith and salvation, we wanted to know exactly what words in the Bible meant. I bought a Greek dictionary and a Greek interlinear Bible and taught myself to read the Greek alphabet. When Mike finished his residency we moved to California with our three young children. Mike set up practice in a small town north of San Diego. We found a great church and we joined a weekly Bible study group.
It was here that we first heard about the doctrine of Eternal Security – the belief that a once a Christian is “saved,” he cannot lose salvation no matter what he does. We objected initially, but were assured it was true, our friends firing off memorized Bible verses to support the doctrine. We backed down for a while. Then Mike began his own Bible study by listening to tapes of the Bible while exercising. I also studied, on my own, with my dictionaries, concordances and Greek interlinear. Before long, Mike was using these sources as well. We soon became convinced that there were hundreds of verses that did not align with the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. Our Bible study group swelled to overflowing as Mike taught how Scripture refuted Eternal Security. We were labeled Arminian even though we had never heard of Arminius or what he wrote. But we did reject Calvinism, especially the doctrine of Limited Atonement.
Our pastors did not agree with us, but since everything Mike was teaching was biblical he was allowed to continue as an elder in the church and even to teach from the pulpit several times a year. Some people agreed with us; some were convinced we were heretics and told us so. Mike’s sermons usually caused controversy. The Elder board tried to talk Mike out of speaking on Eternal Security issues; others tried to show us the error of our ways.
We worried about the people who might think they were eternally secure and bound for heaven no matter what kind of life they lived. My husband even wrote a two volume book and was asked to teach at a Bible college by a popular radio preacher in order to point out the errors of the “once saved, always saved” theology. We were still convinced that once all the biblical evidence was compiled it would be irresistibly persuasive and all our friends and pastors would see the truth.
But the evidence was met with a yawn. Those who disagreed with us didn’t refute the scriptural evidence – they just ignored it. We were astounded! We eventually realized that most people didn’t really practice sola scriptura after all; they clung to the Protestant traditions begun by Luther and Calvin, sometimes in spite of Scripture. After ten years of attempting to show how the Bible did not support Eternal Security, being called heretics, hearing through the grapevine about people who resented and suspected us, we became discouraged and disillusioned.
If I hadn’t been so thoroughly convinced there was a God, I could easily have become an atheist. In my heart I was prideful, arrogant, and critical. No church quite suited me since most Protestant churches incorporate some form of Calvinism. According to my understanding of the Bible, which I was convinced was led by the Holy Spirit, all the nearby churches were wrong about something. Despite this, I sensed that my attitude was not Christ-like, so I would pray about that. I wanted to be humble, but I just…wasn’t. “Maybe I am a heretic?” I wondered. “What makes me so sure I’m right and other Christians are wrong?” I desperately wanted to find a church where I could simply worship God without being critical. In the meantime, all I could do was studiously try to keep my mind from dwelling on criticisms. I thought I could be content in my apathy.
A few years later, in the summer 1997, while perusing home school curriculum catalogs, I saw a course for junior high school students designed to introduce Protestants to the Catholic faith and vice versa. The student was supposed to read the books in one order if he was Protestant and in the opposite order if he was Catholic, so that the last book read confirmed him in his own faith tradition. Since my oldest daughter had just started college at USD, a Catholic university, I decided that this would be the perfect time to find out more about the Catholic faith. That way if Heather came home with questions, I would be able to answer them. I didn’t want her to become Catholic!
I ordered three of the books. The first, Evangelical Is Not Enough was written by Thomas Howard, a convert to Catholicism and the brother of prominent Evangelical, Elizabeth Elliot (Through Gates of Splendor and End of the Spear). I had long been curious about why a “Christian” would join the Catholic Church, and found Howard’s story interesting. He also made a lot of sense, and I grew slightly annoyed that I had accepted so many misconceptions about the Catholic faith. Hey, I thought, maybe the Catholic Church wasn’t so weird after all.
One evening at our Bible study, my husband brought up John 14:26, where Jesus says,
“the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Mike reminded every one that our usual interpretation of this verse was that this promise was given to each and every believer. The result has been that there are now over 25,000 different Protestant denominations. But the Catholic view, as Howard had explained it, is that this promise was made in the upper room to the twelve disciples and therefore it only applied to them and their successors: the Pope and the Catholic leaders. Without the final, ruling authority of Christ through the Bishop of Rome and the Magisterium, the Catholic Church would splinter into even more sects than Protestantism.
I was quietly aghast because I wasn’t ready to say anything yet. No one said much and we went on with the study as usual. But I found out the next day that one of my best friends at the study had cried all the way home. She had been shocked to hear us say something outside of “Scripture alone”. And I didn’t blame her. I decided then not to say a word to anyone about my research into the Catholic Church until it became absolutely necessary, if ever.
After reading Howard’s book, I felt very broadminded toward the Catholic Church. But I did not sense the danger my Protestantism was in as I opened up the second book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating. This book promised Catholic answers to the charges against “Romanism” by “Bible Christians”. By the time I had read about half of the book, I no longer felt broad minded, but sick and horrified all at once. I had read enough of Keating’s book to learn, for the first time, that Catholicism had a defense for beliefs like the Eucharist and Papacy. Keating’s use of Scripture was standard exegesis. It made sense. What I read in that book coalesced with doubts and questions I had put on the back burners of my mind. No longer simmering, they began to boil.
For instance, I had long wondered, how could each and every individual person’s faith rest on personal devotional Bible reading, when most people, until relatively modern times, couldn’t even read? And even if they could read, they wouldn’t be able to own their own personal Bible because Bibles were hand copied (until the 16th century) and very expensive.
Personal devotional Bible reading for growing in Christ began to seem suspiciously modern. Especially when I discovered that the Catholic Church had read Scripture to the faithful at every Mass for 2000 years. But could the Catholic Church be the one Church founded by Jesus Christ himself? No! Never! It couldn’t possibly be true. My soul in turmoil, I slammed Catholicism and Fundamentalism shut and grabbed the book that was supposed to confirm me in my Protestant faith, The Gospel According to Rome by James McCarty.
In McCarty’s book I was looking for a rebuttal to Catholic Scripture interpretation. I wanted to know why Jesus didn’t literally mean to eat His flesh in John 6, when that sure seemed like what He said. I wanted to know exactly why Jesus did not found His Church on Peter in Matthew 16, when that is what He said. I wanted to know what was wrong with confession to a priest when the Bible says, “confess your sins to one another,” and “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven….” But, The Gospel According to Rome didn’t help at all. It didn’t address my questions, but merely explained why Catholicism was wrong according to traditional Protestant interpretations of certain Biblical passages. It never convincingly refuted the Catholic interpretation of verses that supported Catholic beliefs.
Now I really felt scared. I begged God to show me the truth about what was wrong with the Catholic Church. I did not want to be Catholic. There were no Catholics anywhere in either of our families. I had never been anti-Catholic; I believed there were a few real Christians in the Catholic Church in spite of Catholicism. I liked Catholics, I just didn’t want to be one!
I stopped reading for several weeks. I needed to get my perspective back. I thought and prayed. When I felt calm again, I picked up Keating’s book and finished it. Yes, the Catholic Church had good reasons, Biblical reasons, for its theology. But I was certain there had to be a good Protestant refutation, by somebody, somewhere.
But here was my dilemma. We had this early church that we trusted to tell us which writings floating around the ancient world were inerrant and inspired. It seemed logical, then, that we should therefore be able to trust this same church and the doctrines taught by it at least up until the time the Bible was canonized. Right? We always used to talk about the church of the Apostles and how it was the true model for Christian belief and practice. So when reading the Acts of the Apostles we sought to align our present day worship with what we found in sacred scripture. This goal of worshiping in imitation of the early church was a foundational principle. Therefore, you can imagine my shock when I discovered that this early church believed in that particularly Catholic doctrine, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again.” - St. Ignatius of Antioch 110 AD
“We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes…so too, as we have been taught the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the Flesh and the Blood of that incarnated Jesus.” - St. Justin Martyr 150 AD
Jesus tells his followers eight times to eat His flesh in John 6. I came to the inescapable conclusion that the earliest Christians took Jesus literally. When I found out that even Martin Luther – one of the principal fathers of the Reformation – believed in the Real Presence I realized that Christians had always believed this doctrine.
This put me in a tough position.
On the one hand, the early Church canonized the Bible around 400 AD. On the other hand that very same early Church believed in the Real Presence of Christ (and, I was discovering, many other Catholic doctrines). The standard Protestant solution to this dilemma was that these strange Catholic doctrines were pagan corruptions of the pure and simple Christianity of the apostles. But I could no more take the Bible from the hand of a church that was supposed to be corrupted by paganism than I could accept the Pearl of Great Price (an extra biblical text considered part of inspired Scripture by Mormons) while rejecting everything else about the Mormon belief system. That seemed totally irrational. I couldn’t buy it.
Being a Protestant was like watching a Corpus Christi procession, then rushing up and knocking down the priests and nuns, candles, censors, crucifix, and monstrance but grabbing the Bible and carrying it away and basing faith on it alone. What sense does that make? I just could not find a logical way to accept the authority of the Bible while rejecting the beliefs of the very earliest Christian Church that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (which we all believe) chose the books that make up the Bible.
I began to read Catholic books, hoping to find the Church’s Achilles heel.
Still resisting, I called Hector, a pastor friend who had a ministry to bring Hispanics out of the Catholic Church. He seemed like a likely candidate to know the intricacies of Catholic doctrine and what was wrong with it. I told him what I was going through and he sympathetically recommended The Gospel According to Rome. I told him I’d read it and it wasn’t convincing. Then he asked, “But, what about the fact that Jesus had brothers? The Bible talks about the brothers and sisters of Jesus.” My experience with Greek had already helped me tackle this question.
“I looked that up and the Greek word can legitimately be translated ‘kinsman’ or ‘brother’ depending upon the context,” I said. “And that same Greek word is translated ‘kinsman’ in lots of other places in the New Testament. Such as when Paul addresses the recipients of his epistles. So the Catholics could be right about Mary being ever-virgin,” I said.
He kindly promised to pray for me and we hung up. I silently stared into space and wondered, “Is that the best he can do?!”
A few hours later my pastor called. I decided Hector must have called him so I told him all about my dilemma. Then I asked,
“Why don’t we believe in the Real Presence of Christ in Communion when Jesus says in John 6 over and over that we must eat His body and drink His blood in order to have eternal life? Why don’t we take it literally like the Catholics do?”
“That is just symbolic,” he responded “because later Jesus says the flesh is of no avail.”
“Yes, Jesus says, ‘the flesh is of no avail’ but what does He mean by that? Jesus is God in the flesh. Is His flesh of no avail?”
“Well of course His flesh is important. The ‘flesh of Jesus availeth much.’ But Jesus is speaking symbolically when he talks about eating his flesh.”
“Ok, but how do we know that for certain?” I asked.
“Because cannibalism is strictly forbidden in the Old Testament.”
“You’re right. But the Old Testament prohibition against cannibalism is exactly why many of Jesus’ Jewish disciples left Him at this point saying, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ And as far as we know Jesus didn’t chase after them and say, ‘Wait, I was only speaking symbolically!’ So the disciples who left understood Jesus to be speaking literally. Otherwise, why would they leave? So somehow Jesus must have been speaking literally and yet not advocating cannibalism. The Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is literal and yet not literally cannibalistic since Jesus didn’t cut off His arm and pass is around saying, ‘Take, eat.’ How can we as Protestants respond to this?”
“Well, what about all the money they spent building cathedrals when people were starving?”
“But when they built a cathedral it was like a giant welfare project. People had work for years and years,” I replied.
He changed the subject again: “The Catholic Church became corrupted by pagan beliefs shortly after the apostles died.”
“Well then, wouldn’t that mean that the gates of Hell prevailed against His Church and Jesus was unable to keep that promise?”
“No…there was always a remnant.”
“But how can we know for sure that the remnant part of the Church, the true Church of Christ, was the one that canonized the Bible and not the corrupted part of the Church?”
“We just trust the Holy Spirit was able to do that.”
“But the earliest Christians held Catholic beliefs like the real presence and the perpetual virginity of Mary? Who threw these beliefs out? Luther believed them. Luther and Calvin believed Mary was a perpetual virgin. Who decided Mary definitely had other children when everyone right up to and including the Reformation believed she only gave birth to Jesus?”
Our conversation continued like this for a couple of hours. When he couldn’t give an answer he changed the subject. I wasn’t actually defending the Church at that point. I was telling him the Catholic viewpoint in desperate hope that he could give me a convincing Protestant rebuttal. But nothing he said was convincing.
Later I wrote him letters with about forty questions and included a review of the books I had read. He was in a doctoral program at the time, and I hoped maybe he could get some answers from his professors. When we talked again he said I had done so much research that he didn’t have time to get up to speed with me. He told me to go ahead and visit a Catholic Church, thinking that would put an end to my fantasy. It didn’t. Meanwhile I kept searching for a Protestant refutation of the Catholic Faith. There just had to be one.
Next, I watched a video debate between Father Mitch Pacwa S.J. and two prominent Protestant apologists (Walter Martin and John Ankerberg). Again, there was no refutation of Catholic claims, no explaining what was wrong with Catholic exegesis: only what was wrong with the Catholic beliefs, according to the interpretation of Scripture in a particular Protestant tradition. My husband, who was at once fascinated by the Catholic interpretation of Sacred Scripture and at the same time repulsed by the thought of becoming Catholic, was also disappointed that no one refuted the points Father Pacwa made. Martin and Ankerberg never explained why Fr. Pacwa’s interpretation was wrong. They merely condemned Catholic theology according to what they thought the Bible meant.
For example, I remember Walter Martin asking,
“Why does the Catholic Church believe Mary was without sin when she admits that God is her savior in Luke 1:47? She must have needed a savior because she sinned.”
Fr. Pacwa replied “Yes, she needed a savior. But, a person can be saved out of a pit after he has fallen in, or he can be saved from the pit before he falls in. We believe God saved Mary before she fell into sin by creating her, from conception, without the fallen nature caused by the stain of Original Sin, she otherwise would have inherited from her parents. So He created Mary without sin just like He created Adam and Eve without sin.”
Martin and Ankerberg would then go on to to another topic without dealing with Fr. Pacwa’s explanations.
Then, I decided to find out why some of my ex-Catholic friends had left the Church. One of them, I was surprised to learn, was on the verge of returning to the Catholic Church. The others had just drifted away when their parents could no longer make them go to Sunday Mass. None had left for any particular doctrinal reason.
One friend assured me the Catholic Church was really weird and unscriptural because she remembered, as a young, devout Catholic, having to go from church to church all in one day in order to say prayers for her loved ones. She assured me that she couldn’t pray for all the people she cared about in one church, but was only allowed pray for one person per church. I have since asked priests and lay Catholic friends if they have ever heard of this; none have. Perhaps she was either misinformed or misunderstood. Even if it were true, it seems to me little reason to reject the Church!
After six months of frantic detective work, I had exhausted every avenue I could think of to find a Protestant rebuttal to Catholic doctrine. There were of course many great Protestant arguments out there.
The trouble with them was that they rebutted doctrines that Catholics didn’t believe. For instance, you could find lots of apologetic material condemning the worship of Mary, complete with scriptures against idolatry. But that was useless, since the Catholic Church too condemns the worship of Mary. Most importantly, I could find no good Protestant reason for the rejection of the Real Presence in the Eucharist when John 6 so clearly has Jesus commanding his disciples to eat His flesh, and historically all Christians believed this doctrine for the first 1500 years of Christianity. I finally “knocked at the door” of my parish church and began the process of entering the Church.
When I told my friends, they were mostly kind and accepting. Some tried to dissuade me from entering the Church. And one friend, Donna, invited me to go to hear anti-Catholic, apologist Bart Brewer speak about the Catholic Church at a large nondenominational church in a nearby town. I knew Brewer was an ex-priest and anti-Catholic but I went anyway. The Easter Vigil was only months away. I wanted to let him take his best shot at me before I entered the Church. But as it turned out his was just the same old attack on the Catholic Church without refuting the scriptural and historical evidence for its doctrines.
Surprisingly, Donna saw through his double standard. While Brewer criticized and condemned the Catholic Church for relying on the “Bible plus the Catechism” instead of relying on the Bible alone, she was struck by the realization that he wasn’t sola scriptura either! He was relying on the Bible plus Calvin’s Institutes. She found him totally useless in helping her to “deprogram” me.
Eighteen months after my inquiry began, I embraced the Holy Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 1999. Our four youngest children were received into the Catholic Church at Easter 2000 with my husband’s permission. My husband and three oldest children are still Protestant but they are very supportive – especially my husband In fact, Mike is currently leading a Catholic/Protestant Bible study on the Gospel of John, with the stated purpose of teaching the biblical basis for Catholic theology. At first, I thought he would quickly follow me into the Church, but he has his own path to follow on the journey of faith.
But Donna entered the Catholic Church at Easter 2002. I am thankful to my Protestant teachers for the solid foundation they laid in me about the truths of Christianity, the illusions of worldly passions, and encouragement to study God’s Holy Word. It fed my soul for forty years. The irony is, I studied the Bible so much I uncovered many discrepancies between some Protestant doctrines and Sacred Scripture. This was the beginning of my loss of confidence in Protestant Christianity.
But it wasn’t until Catholic authors made me face the historical evidence that Christianity preexisted the New Testament by 400 years that I began to consider the implications of this fact. That the Faith was alive, making converts, establishing churches, instructing and baptizing converts for so long (for reference, 400 years ago was about the time the Pilgrims came to America!) before the New Testament was compiled, meant that the New Testament could not be the touchstone of the Faith. The New Testament was not the very first reservoir of Christian teaching.
Something else existed before it.
And that same “something else” kept the Faith alive and also gave birth to the New Testament. It was the oral teaching, the deposit of the Faith of the Apostles, that was used to make the final decisions about which books would end up in the New Testament. No book was included in the canon of the New Testament that contradicted the Faith of the Apostles. And that is why, I discovered to my joy, that nothing in Catholic doctrine contradicts anything in the Bible. The Bible, loved by Protestants as well as Catholics, the inspired and inerrant word of God, was written and published by the Catholic Church.
The icing on the cake of solid, scriptural Catholic doctrine was the beauty and poetry of Catholic worship. Its reverence in comparison to modern Evangelical praise services spoke to me of its ancient pedigree and authenticity. The Mass is ancient and Jewish – closer in form to Temple worship than to a Calvary Chapel. The ritual, prayers, and priestly robes are more Old Testament than my former Evangelical Free Church. And the incense and chants echo the heavenly worship found in the Book of Revelation better than any Baptist service.
In the end, a thousand tiny puzzle pieces of Bible verses, doctrines, prayers history, martyrs, liturgy, came together to form for me a clear image of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
“It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair.” - G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
You can learn more about Pam and her ongoing insights into the Catholic faith by visiting her blog Bread From Heaven.