Becoming Catholic #11: Vexing Verses, Part 1

Making Wisdom Popular

The “Becoming Catholic” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size, fact-focused attempt at describing the journey of a lifelong protestant to the Catholic Church.  You can read all the individual articles here.

Question Mark (for BC).png

I am set to be received into the Catholic Church in May 2019.  I made the decision to convert in February 2018.  I only considered the Catholic Church as a possibility (one I hated, despised, and feared) in July 2017. To become Catholic is, quite simply, the most unexpected turn of events of my entire life.

But the truth is, long before I was consciously considering the Catholic Church, there were many questions about the broadly protestant framework in which I was raised that never went away.  Since deciding to convert, I’ve had many protestant friends ask me questions, and when I probe a bit deeper, it turns out quite a few of them had similar questions about similar topics, but assumed someone somewhere had come up with an answer—an assumption I made as well.  Many devout protestants who later become Catholic or Orthodox have had similar questions, but failed to find satisfying answers within a protestant framework—all evidence that the protestant idea of the perspicuity of Scripture simply isn’t true. If Scripture is apparently so clear, and protestant ideas naturally leap off its pages, then why have so many people raised as protestants (especially educated ones), and without knowing anything about Catholicism or Orthodoxy, been unable to square what they were taught the Bible meant with the Bible itself? But I digress…

In 6th grade, I began reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.  I got the MacArthur Study Bible with some of the first bits of money I earned in high school teaching piano lessons, along with the Reformation Study Bible (R.C. Sproul).  I also had my dad’s Geneva Study Bible, and would later get a New Kings James Version Study Bible and an ESV Study Bible in college.  In my late teens I bought all of Calvin’s Commentaries and his Institutes, along with a good deal of Luther’s sermons, a six-volume collection of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons, books by John Piper, the puritans, etc. etc. etc. 

I say all of this because it must be understood I always took my faith very seriously, very early.  It was, after all, a matter of ultimate truth. How could I not?

And yet, so much of what I was learning from these sources simply didn’t make sense of the Bible.  Instead of clarifying it, they often made it murkier and harder to understand.  I grew up loving the Bible, and to this day, I say no other book did more to bring me to the Catholic Church than it. The reason why is because what I was being told it meant simply didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

In short, I was struggling with these sorts of issues for over a decade of my life before I ever thought of the Catholic Church—indeed, when I was deeply suspicious and bigoted toward the Catholic ChurchAnd the reason why was the Bible.

These struggles, these questions, were often caused by what I’ll call “vexing verses”—verses that raised questions to which I could find no satisfying answers within a broadly protestant framework.

I can’t possibly list all the questions I had in one blog post.  But I’d like to spend a few posts on these “vexing verses,” sharing what some of those questions were (the answers I discovered will be unpacked elsewhere).

But before getting to some of the more specific ones, I’ll use Part 1 of “vexing verses” to briefly discuss the two meta-questions that framed all the others: what was “the gospel,” and what was “biblical”?

Which “gospel”?

Growing up, I constantly heard about “the gospel.”  Everyone appealed to the Bible as their authority for what “the gospel” was.  The problem was, they often came up with quite different answers.  So the biggest question I had was “which gospel?”  Each sect, denomination, or whatever you want to call them, had profoundly different views on what the Bible meant, and hence what “the gospel” meant.  Each denomination had their own style of worship, liturgy, preaching, and theology.  But they all claimed to preach “the gospel.”  So which one was right?  Which one taught the “true” gospel?  The Bible seemed to propose one Gospel that was binding on all.  I was hearing many that were binding on none.  If someone disagreed with their pastor or church, they just moved on to a new church, or founded their own.  I saw zero examples of this in the Bible.

Which “biblical”?

This was basically the same question as with “the gospel.”  Every church, every Christian I knew, claimed that everything they believed and did was “biblical.”  But this raised the same basic problem: they weren’t just different, but often contradicted each other.  So who was actually “biblical”?  Reading the Bible, I found no precedence for this whatsoever.

Do we baptize babies or don’t we?  Do we sing these types of songs, or those?  Do we sing at all?  What about dance?  What is “worship”?  Do we do communion once a week, once a quarter, once a year?  Wine or Welch’s?  Is communion central, or peripheral, to Christian worship? Should the pastor be formal, or casual?  Exegetical or topical preaching?  Faith alone, or did works matter a bit?  If so, how much?  Baptismal regeneration or not?  Once saved always saved?  Lose your salvation?  Backsliding?  How often do we need altar calls?—let alone, I would ask myself, “where the heck is the altar!?” (had to wait to become Catholic for an answer to that one).  Should Sundays be “seeker friendly” or just for the already initiated?  Is tithing required?  Is membership required?  Should the pastor have an elder board?  Independent congregations, or denominational oversight?  Can someone endlessly sin and still be saved?  What about “lordship salvation”?  What about divorce and remarriage?  Pornography?  Touchy subjects like masturbation and contraception?  Female ordination?  And don’t even get me started on those charismatic gifts!

On and on and on.  Admittedly, some of these are not huge issues—but many of them are.  And throughout my life, I was deeply troubled by the fact that many people who claimed (and I believe did) love Jesus, and also asserted the Bible as their only binding authority, were all coming up with very, very different answers.  To make matters worse, I knew lots of smart people on multiple sides of each issue.  Who was right?  How could I know?  Even if I was convinced of a particular interpretation, there were really smart, godly men and women who I respected who took the exact opposite side.  We contradicted.  But if these were matters of eternal salvation (as some of them no doubt are) how could this be so?  Was the faith in doubt?  Who could define it?  Who decided which was right?  Did I simply have to make my best guess as to the proper interpretation of the Bible? Is that what my soul ultimately depended on—a guess?

But I had never seen any such thing in the Bible itself.  Were Christians always behaving and getting along in Scripture?  Absolutely not.  But the idea that individuals, congregations, or different denominations could interpret Scripture to the best of their own ability, and then directly contradict that of other Christians, is simply nowhere to be found in the Bible In this case, it was the lack of any verses that supported such an arrangement that proved to be most vexing.

So, I asked, what is truly “biblical”?

Conclusion

The two meta-questions that framed all my other questions about the “vexing verses” were: what is actually “the gospel,” and what is actually “biblical”?  I was haunted by these questions for more than a decade before I read a single word by a Catholic.  But my love of the Bible, my burning desire to understand it, my inability to make sense of so much of it within a protestant framework, alongside the appeals made to it as the authority behind wildly divergent and contradictory theologies, compelled me to dig deeper.

In Part 2 of “vexing verses,” I’ll being listing many of those questions.

RESOURCES

You can access my conversion story, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers (purchased and free) at the following links:

(1) My Conversion Story (podcast)

(2) Heart, Mind, and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome (Chapter 7 features my Conversion Story)

(3) “38 Volume Set” of Church Fathers for purchase (physical books)

(4) Church Fathers: New Advent website (the “38 Volume Set” online for free)

(5) Church Fathers: Ethereal Library of Christian Classics website (another free version of the “38 Volume Set”)