Why I won’t convert to Roman Catholicism

In the past 6 months, I’ve read more Catholic theology than I have in my entire life. Now, why did I do that? Well, I did it because, to a large extent, I realized I knew nothing about Roman Catholicism except for the common stereotypes. I only really knew the common Protestant objections: pope, tradition, priests, works, Mary, icons, etc. But I had never really dug into the theology. And so, I bought some works by major Catholic theologians.

I have to say, I really enjoyed reading them. At the end of the day, I value theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, Scott Hahn, Thomas Aquinas, Robert Barron, et al. For all my differences, these guys really center on the big picture stuff. So I really enjoyed them.

I also really enjoyed getting to know the distinctives. Papal authority, priesthood, sacerdotalism, infused (vs imputed) righteousness, etc. This was an area which I had simply never studied. I feel better off for having studied these theologians.

With that said: I really don’t plan on converting to Roman Catholicism. I could never convert in good conscience. I want to list 3 reasons why I wouldn’t ever convert:

Exclusivity: 

The first reason I could not convert is because of how exclusive Roman Catholicism is. I’ve read of a number of stories from Roman converts, and the stories are all relatively similar. These people are happy Protestants, until one day, they realize the wide history of the Catholic church. They realize the size, the teaching, the rich theology. And they realize that their thinly-veiled Protestantism just can’t stand up to it. And so they switch. But what most if any of those converts do not realize, is that when they switch, they are saying something very negative about their past experience as Protestants: namely, that it wasn’t a valid or true Christian experience. Peter Leithart explains it this way:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that. (source)

For a Protestant to make the move, they must by definition invalidate everything they had experienced before. That is simply not catholic in the real sense of the word: that is exclusivism. Peter Leithart goes so far to say that it is nothing else than sectarianism. To convert would be to say that my prior conversion was sub-biblical, that my baptism invalid, that my whole life was in some form out of the will of God. There is really nothing “Catholic” about that.

History: 

Of all that I’ve read, the main reason people convert is because of the deep history of the Catholic church. Put simply, Protestants do not understand the history of the church, and they are shocked by the long history of the Roman Catholic church. And for them, when they are exposed to this history, and the relatively shorter history of Protestantism, they opt for the older church.

The problem here is two-fold:

First, the history of the church is much less clear than Roman Catholics would like us to realize. The reality is that the early church did look different from the Protestantism of today; but it also looked different from the Roman Catholic church of today! Anyone who claims that the early church was the same, or even similar, to what it is today, is oversimplifying things. Many people convert because they feel that history is settled: the church of the apostles was Catholic. Not true. It is a historic fact that the Roman bishop (pope) did not have supremacy until the 3-4th century (link). It is a historic fact that transubstantiation was not dogmatically formulated until the medieval period. To make any claim on the early church is to muddy the water.

Second, and more important, many look to the early church as if they had it all figured out. The early church fathers were closer to the apostles, yes, but they did not have everything figured out. For instance, there was no formulated atonement theory until Anselm. The Trinity was not articulated until the 5th century. For goodness sake, it wasn’t until the reformation period that the church really began to think about and formulate the doctrine of justification!

My point here is that while we owe much to the early church, we shouldn’t glorify the period as if they had it all figured out. There was much more to be understood in terms of doctrine and practice. Both Calvin and Luther quoted the early church fathers frequently, and saw themselves in historical continuity to them. They wanted to reform and develop the Catholic churchnot brake from it. They wanted to be a voice in line with saints before them. This is why I see my Protestantism as connected to that wide history of the early church. You should too.

Theology:

Lastly, I am not a Catholic because of the theological distinctives which make up Roman Catholicism. This should be no surprise. I do not believe that their theology, particularly of church authority and justification, is correct. By church authority, I mean papal authority. Their claim that the bishop of Rome has universal jurisdiction is, in my book, historically inaccurate, and biblically unfounded. More particularly, papal infallibility is unsafe, because it binds the consciences of the laity to one man.

Also, I believe their theology of infusion conflates justification and sanctification. What this means is that justification, for Rome, is the infusion of grace into the soul, which can ebb and flow, and can ultimately be lost by mortal sin. I think this is a grave error. This robs the believer of assurance, which is a biblical concept (Rom 8:15). And it places the believer’s final justification on their own shoulders rather than Christ’s. This, to me, is a huge deal.

Carl Trueman says this of Roman Catholicism:

The insight of the Reformation on assurance is key, theologically and pastorally. And… that it is one thing that every convert to Roman Catholicism must lose…That is a very high price to pay. Speaking for myself, all of the liturgical beauty of Rome, all of the tradition, all of the clarity of the authority structure (and the clarity is often, I think, more in the eye of the beholder than the Church itself) cannot compensate for the loss of the knowledge that I know I have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ that conversion to Rome requires (The Creedal Imperative, 125)

Trueman is right on. The owness in Roman Catholicism is on the person, not on Christ. That, to me, is not only unbiblical, but simply devastating. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.

I love much in the Roman Catholic tradition. However, with these reasons in place, I simply couldn’t convert.

If you want further study on this, please read these links, HERE, HERE

Advertisements

Does Calvinism Limit Christian Love?

balthasar

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his controversial well-known work called, Dare we hope that all be saved?, espouses a certain type of “Christian hope” for the salvation of all men. In the first two chapters, he covers and rejects Origen’s and Barth’s absolutist universalism, saying that the certainty of all people’s salvation must be rejected. However, Balthasar does espouse a softer position, saying that a Christian can reasonably hope for all men’s salvation.

Now, why can we reasonably hope for this?

Essentially, what Balthasar says is that hope in and of itself demands that all men could be saved. In other words, if we hope for someone’s salvation, what we are saying is that it is at least possible. So then, universalism is at least reasonably possible. And while we can never truly know if all would be saved, we can be equally uncertain that any will be damned.

Balthasar explains,

If someone asks us, “Will all men be saved?” we answer in line with the Gospel: I do not know. I have no certainty whatsoever. That means just as well that I have no certainty whatsoever that all men will not be saved. The whole of Scripture is full of the proclamation of a salvation that binds all men by a Redeemer who gathers together and reconciles the whole universe. That is quite sufficient to enable us to hope for the salvation of all men without thereby coming into contradiction with the Word of God.

So Balthasar cannot definitively know that any will be damned or saved. And while this may seem like a sort of agnostic universalism, what Balthasar argues is that Christian hope cannot and must not limit itself. If we are to hope that anyone would be saved, what we are implicitly saying is that their salvation is at least possible. If God wills that all men be saved, it must be possible, right? For Balthasar, hope demands this possible end.

Citing Aquinas, Balthasar says,

On to the virtue of hope, [Aquinas] establishes that one “has to believe of whatever one hopes that it can be attained; this is what hope adds to mere desire. Man can, namely, also have desire for things that he does not believe he can attain; but hope cannot exist in such circumstances.”

In other words, what is hoped for must at least be possible. Hope “cannot exist” if what is hoped for cannot be attained. To Balthasar, this is simply logical. So then, Balthasar concludes that universalism, while not absolutely certain, is possible.

As a necessary corollary, Balthasar argues that the doctrine of unconditional election limits Christian hope and love. Covering Augustine’s doctrine of the “massa damnata” (mass of the damned = the non-elect), Balthasar says,

[I]f someone thus sees mankind as a massa damnata from the outset, how can he still adhere to the effective truth of Christ’s statement that, on the Cross, he will draw all men to himself? …

… If one believes in the twofold predestination advocated by Augustine and adheres, on the basis of that, to the certainty that a number of people will be damned, one might object that love would have to stop at this barrier.

Balthasar brings in two arguments here: The first is that unconditional election flattens the universal offer of the gospel. How can Christ “draw all men” to himself if he only draws some? How can the invitation of the gospel be liberal if only some are elected? I’ve heard this argument too many times to count.

However, Balthasar brings in a second argument that is novel to me. Balthasar says that if unconditional election is true, then “love would have to stop at this barrier”. Put another way, Christians are responsible to love only those who are elect. Why? Because that is who God has chosen to love. Should the Christian’s love be more liberal than God’s?

Next, Balthasar cites German theologian Verweyen, saying,

Hans-Jürgen Verweyen…puts forward the thesis: “Whoever reckons with the possibility of even only one person’s being eternally lost besides himself is unable to love unreservedly.” And he stresses here, above all, “the effect of this idea on my practical actions. It seems to me that just the slightest nagging thought of a final hell for others brings on moments in which human togetherness becomes especially difficult, as does leaving the other to himself. If there may, in fact, be people who are absolutely incorrigible, why, then, should not those who make my life on earth a hell perhaps also be of that sort?”

So then, election restricts liberal love. If we are certain that God has not chosen some, or, if we are certain that a mass of sinners will inhabit hell, then for what reason should we love them?

How should we Calvinists answer this question? At this point, it might be helpful to respond to and correct Balthasar’s first point: that election certainly cannot restrict the universal call of the gospel — rather, election limits response to the gospel. In other words, believers preach to every creature, and are sure the elect will say “yes”, but are not sure who they are! With this clarification in view, one should see how universal love plays a part. We love everyone regardless of their election; and pray for their salvation, regardless of their place in God’s salvific plan. Why? Because we don’t know who is who in God’s drama of salvation. We share the gospel, knowing that no one is beyond salvation, and knowing that God will irrevocably draw all whom he wills to himself. This is the part we play in God’s mystery plan of salvation.

With that said, Balthasar’s complaint should be heard. And I’ve seen and known many Calvinists, who seem to struggle to love beyond God’s sovereign choice, which is unacceptable. It assumes a vantage point that is not our own, but only God’s. On the same note, I’ve known many Arminians who feel much of the same, even without the election bit.

Perhaps, ending on this warning by Balthasar (which I agree with) will help in humility for people on either side:

How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this? But: if I hope for you, for others, for everyone, then in the end I am also allowed to include myself. (Not the reverse: I hope for me; but I do not know with certainty whether you are among the chosen.)

[W]oe is me if, looking back, I see how others, who were not so lucky as I, are sinking beneath the waves; if, that is, I objectify hell and turn it into a theological-scientific “object” and begin to ponder on how many perish in this hell and how many escape it. For at that moment everything is transformed: hell is no longer something that is ever mine but rather something that befalls “the others”, while I, praise God, have escaped it…

…And at once the prayer is on [my] lips: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk 18:11). Then one goes on to populate hell, according to one’s own taste, with all sorts of monsters: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin the Horrible, Hitler the Madman and all his cronies, which certainly results, as well, in an imposing company that one would prefer not to encounter in heaven. It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell with a massa damnata of sinners, one also, through some kind of conscious or unconscious trick (perhaps cautiously, and yet reassuredly), places oneself on the other side.

We might ask the great Augustine, the teacher of grace and love who has the greater portion of mankind destined to eternal hell, whether—with his hand on his heart—he ever worried, after his conversion, about his eternal salvation.

What “Unconditional Election” does not mean

election

There are many misunderstandings of the doctrine commonly called “unconditional election”. This doctrine, as defined by the Westminster Confession, says that God, out of the “good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace”. In other words, before we “had done nothing either good or bad” (Rom 9:11) to deserve salvation, before the foundation of the world, God set out to save some. And he did this to the “praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:4), so that salvation would “depend not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16).

What this means, is that the why of our salvation is not ultimately rooted in our great faith or intellect or good works, but rather in God’s gracious choice to save. We are all lost in sin, unable and unwilling to love God, and God, out of his mercy, chose to call some to himself in Christ. The point of election is that grace would be undiluted grace, from beginning to end.

However, there are many who would object to this doctrine, because they would say that if God has elected some to salvation, and they will be saved no matter what, then there is no point to evangelism or prayer. Why share the gospel is the elect will be saved in any case? Why pray if God has already decided? Why do anything, if it’s all been determined? Why not just wait for the elect to be saved?

But this is a misunderstanding of this doctrine. It’s important to understand that unconditional election does not mean that personal responsibility is pointless. It may perhaps seem that way, but biblically, this is not how election is portrayed. God’s sovereignty in salvation, and man’s responsibility in believing, go together in the scriptures.

What is missing in these objections is the logical connection between God’s election to save, and his outworking of that election. In other words, just because God elects some to salvation before the foundation of the world, they aren’t actually saved before the foundation of the world. That is just when God decided to save sinners. What this means, is that God’s election must be accomplished within time, and by certain means. Prayer and evangelism are two of those means. God foreknows our prayers for someone’s salvation, and decides beforehand to answer them. God also decides to use our evangelism as the means to get the gospel to lost sinners.

In other words, while God’s election determines that someone will be saved, the outworking of that salvation happens through a myriad of means. What this means, is that we are called to preach the gospel, and pray, and labor for sinners, and trust that God is using our labor to accomplish the salvation of his elect. We don’t know who will be saved, or who will positively respond to the gospel, but we do know that if someone does respond with faith, that the faith they have is a gift of God (Eph 2:8-9), and is a result of God’s election (and of course, it is all at the same their faith as well).

Paul himself says this in 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Paul does not say, “God has chosen you, and so we didn’t preach the gospel, because what’s the point?” He says “we know God has chosen you, because of the fact that you responded to the gospel we labored to preach“. In other words, God accomplishes his election through our preaching of the gospel.

Thomas Schreiner expounds on this principle, saying

What must be noted here… is that God’s election of some does not invalidate the call the believe. When the gospel is proclaimed, those who preach do not summon the hearers to consider whether they are elect or chosen by God. Rather, they consistently call upon their hearers to repent and believe. One could object that the summons to believe is completely unnecessary, for God has promised to save only the elect… But the Calvinist responds that the preaching of the gospel is the means God uses to bring his own to faith. On a Calvinist scheme, the need to believe in order to be saved is no minimized in the least even though God has chosen who will believe from the foundation of the world. Belief is a condition to be saved, but God through his grace has promised to fulfill that condition in the lives of the elect. Still, such a promise does not eliminate the urgency of believing when the gospel is proclaimed. Those who hear must believe and repent to be saved, and they are summoned to respond with the utmost urgency.

So, election does not mean that personal responsibility is irrelevant, or that evangelism is pointless. Rather, God uses those things to accomplish what he set out to do before the foundations of the world. To be sure, there is mystery is this. And while we may not completely understand this doctrine, it is a doctrine rooted in God’s sovereign love, for our good and his glory.

The Warning Passages and Perseverance of the Saints

schreiner

I have been in dialogue with a friend on the topic of perseverance of the saints. It was what prompted this post HERE. My basic thesis is that all true believers are kept by God’s power, and continue in faith until the end. There is nothing that can separate God’s people from his love, because God, by his power, keeps his people faithful and believing. I affirmed that apostasy is in fact a leaving-of-the-faith; however, this does not demand that those who leave the faith are truly regenerate believers (for texts which affirm this fact, see the link above).

However, my friend objected to my position. His largest beef was that my position doesn’t take the “warning passages” seriously. He argued that the warning passages warn true believers of the dangers of leaving apostasy. After considering these texts a bit further, I do agree that the warning texts are addressing believers.

The question then becomes, how should one view and interpret these texts? To put another way, does that fact that the warning passages address believers demand that they can forfeit their salvation?

Thomas Schreiner, in his book Run to Win the Prize, attempts to wade this issue. As a Calvinist, Schreiner adheres to perseverance of saints. However, at the same time, Schreiner agrees that the warning texts address regenerate believers. He admits that the Arminian reading (that the warnings are addressed to believers) of the warning passages is not at all “far-fetched”, and actually takes “the warnings… seriously”.

However, Schreiner disagrees with the Arminian conclusion that believers can lose their salvation. The reason is because while Schreiner wishes to deal with the warning texts fairly, he also wants to deal with the assurnance texts fairly. In essence, he concludes that Arminians are too one-sided when it comes to the passages on the believer’s security in Christ. He says,

The problem with the Arminian reading is that those adhering to [conditional security] do not have a persuasive reading of the assurance texts in Scripture… For instance, Paul assures the Philippians that ‘he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 1:6). Arminians read this text to say that the good work will be completed, provided that one continues to believe and if one does not fall away. Such a reading, however, drains the verse of virtually all comfort…

…The same line of argument applies to Romans 8:35-39, where Paul promises that nothing will separate believers from the love of Christ. Again the Arminian argues that nothing external can separate believers from Christ’s love, but believers may be detached from Christ by their own choices. Such a reading of the text is unconvincing… The very point Paul makes here is that even the most terrifying experiences will not move one to forsake Christ. The reason for believers’ faithfulness does not lie in the strength of their will but in the love of Christ, which keeps them even through agonizing sufferings.

I totally agree. The security passages are incredibly clear. The question then becomes, how can the warnings texts address believers concerning the dangers of apostasy, if believers cannot/will not apostatize?

Schreiner answer this question by look at the the purpose of the warning texts. He explains, saying:

[The warning texts do in fact warn believers] against falling away, for those who do so will be damned forever. It is precisely at this point that we must [explain]…the function of the warnings in the NT. The writers in the texts we have examined do not accuse their readers as if the latter have fallen away. They admonish them so that they will not fall away. The warnings are prospective, not retrospective. They are like road signs that caution drivers of dangers ahead on the highway. They are written so that readers will heed the warnings and escape the threatened consequence… The purpose of warnings in the NT is redemptive and salvific. The Lord uses them as means so that believers will escape death…

This is an interesting way to observe the warnings. What Schreiner means to explain is that the NT warnings are a means by which God keeps his elect in the faith. Those in the Reformed camp would all agree that God uses means to infallibly save and keep his people. Schreiner argues that the warning texts are one of God’s main ways of doing so. Another important observation is that the warnings are prospective, not retrospective — in other words, the warnings do not address those who have already left the faith — they warn believers of what would happen if they did apostatize.

Schreiner continues:

I would contend that all true believers (all the elect, all those who have the Holy Spirit and enjoy the forgiveness of sins and are members of the new covenant) heed the warnings and are thereby saved. In other words, the warnings are one of the means God uses to keep his own trusting him and persevering in the faith until the end… The warnings in the NT, then, do not rebuke believers for falling away. They urge them most earnestly not to do so…

The main objection that is raised against this reading of the warnings is that the warning is drained of all significance if it cannot be fulfilled. If the elect always and inevitably fulfill the warning, then what is the point of giving the admonition? [To answer by way of illustration], the other day I was driving my car in reverse and almost hit a parked car behind me, but my son cried out, “Dad, stop!” His warning caused me to put on the brakes and prevented me from hitting the car. In the same way, because, when my children were small, I threatened punishments if they ran into the street, they never ran into the street. Warnings are not abstractions. They are the means God uses to keep believers from falling away.

Schreiner ends his argument by making this helpful clarification:

God has promised that his elect will persevere, just as he promised to grant faith to his chosen ones. Such a promise does not eliminate [responsibility]. Both the summons to persevere and [the call to believe] in the gospel are conditions that must be fulfilled to be saved, but in both instances God grants the grace so that the conditions will certainly be fulfilled in those who belong to him.

While I believe that my last post is still in harmony with this position, I think Schreiner has a helpful discussion, especially considering the nature of the warning passages in the NT.

Perseverance and the Gospel

proof cover

Timothy Paul Jones, co-writer of PROOF, articulates well why perseverance is a gospel issue. If a Christian can forfeit or lose or reject their salvation, then grace by definition is lost. Consequently, the gospel itself is lost.

Jones describes how many today perceive that salvation begins with God’s grace, but is kept by our own effort. He continues saying,

Seen this way, our salvation begins by God’s grace — but then it’s up to us to stay saved. Whether or not we remain in God’s good graces depends on our choices. Perhaps there are certain unpardonable sins that must be avoided or certain levels of growth that must be maintained or even religious rites that must be performed. Jesus starts it, but we finish it. But God, according to the scriptures, doesn’t only start our salvation; he plans it and guarantees it from beginning to end…It’s clear throughout the scriptures that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are working together at all times to sustain our salvation to the very end of time.

  • The Father plans our salvation to the end, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6)
  • The Son promises to carry out our salvation to the end: Jesus is both “the pioneer and perfecter” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). In other words, Jesus doesn’t start our faith as the pioneer, but then leave us to finish the project. Jesus is the one who brings it to completion as “the perfecter” of our faith as well.
  • The Spirit guarantees our salvation to the end: God “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:22).

That’s good news for believers in Jesus Christ because it means you don’t have to keep up the payments on your salvation! If you’ve trusted Jesus, it’s not because you planed that faith in your fleeting and faulty wisdom. It’s because God set his heart on you from eternity past; God made this choice knowing everything about you — past, present, and future! As a result, nothing can change his choice to pour out his grace on you.

Not your sin.

Not our fears.

Not the darkness that gnaws at your heart that no one else knows about.

Nothing in your future.

Nothing in your past.

Nothing in all creation.

Nothing at all can separate you from God’s love.

God proved his love for you once and for all through the cross of Jesus and the empty tomb — and nothing can change his determination to save you by his grace. That’s the promise of forever grace. Forever grace means that God preserves us in his grace and that we persevere by this same grace. Both of these realities are rooted in God’s gracious work. Neither one is a work that originates in us, and both truths are essential. We can glimpse both of these truths at the same time in the same verse in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (that’s a command to persevere) “with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30) — that’s an assurance that you will be preserved… God’s planning never writes a check his power can’t cash!

What a comfort to know that if God has saved us in Christ, he will keep us in Christ. He will preserve us, and ensure that we will persevere until the end. As Douglas Wilson once said, Works-righteousness “is a barren mother; she will never have any children, much less gracious children. Grace is fruitful; her children are many, and they all work hard“.