Over the past few months, I finished reading two books on Roman Catholicism. One book I found myself and the second was recommended to me by some friends with Catholic roots. I’ve never really read much on the Roman Catholic church except what others have quoted. So I thought it might be good to familiarise myself more with its teachings and specific beliefs.
The first book I read was entitled, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. It was written by Dave Armstrong, formerly an evangelical and now a Roman Catholic. By no means does he teach on behalf of the church, since he is neither the Pope nor a bishop. But he is a Roman Catholic apologist, defending the church he once denied. Armstrong did not really take much time to show how he converted to Catholicism, but, of course he believes his conversion was to fullest expression of Christ’s Church, the true Church.
Within the work, Armstrong specifically gave a defense for many of the varied beliefs within the Roman Catholic church. He defended their view on justification, sacred tradition and the development of doctrine, the eucharist and transubstantiation, their Mariology (doctrine of Mary), the communion of saints and why they invoke the saints that have already passed on, penance, purgatory and the infallibility of the Pope, as well as devoting short appendices to a few other topics.
While I would disagree with the teachings of the Roman Catholic church on pretty much all of those topics above, I would say it was good to get an understanding of what they teach. I know that many times we understand, or think we understand, something due to someone else’s words. But, as the old adage goes, it’s good to get the story from the horse’s mouth.
And, though I don’t agree with a lot of the Roman Catholic teachings, what I did appreciate reading about is their view on tradition, or sacred tradition as they would call it.
I would typically classify myself as an evangelical. One of the major beliefs of evangelicals is in sola Scriptura. This belief basically states that the 66 books of the canon of Scripture (or the Protestant canon of Scripture, since the Roman Catholics accept the Apocrypha as part of Scripture) are the final authority for the body of Christ in all matters of our faith.
Yet, I am also reminded that the belief in sola Scriptura does not mean there are no other sources of authority, nor that we should throw out tradition. Those who believe there are no other helpful sources of authority and that an understanding of our faith tradition is unnecessary, these folk are usually recognised as holding to the belief of solo Scriptura. For such a person, it is absolutely 100% only about the Bible. But, suffice it to say, I think such a belief is silly and even dangerous. Such is too extreme from my understanding.
But, with regards to the topic of sola Scriptura, I have begun to ask questions about this specific evangelical belief, as well as those beliefs that are usually connected to it (i.e., inerrancy, as well as how Scripture and tradition work together). Mainly, I am trying to understand more about the role of tradition (think church history) in regards to our faith and understanding the Scripture and theological truths. Interestingly enough, a blog I frequent, Parchment & Pen, has recently posted an article along the lines of this topic.
For the Roman Catholic, Scripture is part of the whole of Sacred Tradition. Scripture started what was then carried on in the seven main ecumenical councils, as well as in the authoritative and infallible teaching of the Popes and the bishops with him. For the Catholic, this is known as apostolic succession.
Protestants would disagree with the validity of the seventh ecumenical council, more specifically known as the second council of Nicea in 787 AD, which declared that veneration of icons is to be practised by Christians.
So this is where I think tradition starts to get off. I don’t agree with veneration and honour being given to icons. I now better understand why it is done and what Catholics mean by this practise. But, at this point, I don’t agree with the practise. So, obviously, I believe the teachings and tradition of the church can get off base from ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).
Yet, I have to completely admit we have the canon that we have today because of the faithfulness of our church fathers. Not only that, but these father’s put each of the books up to a test, the rule of faith that had come down orally through the church fathers of the early centuries, since they had no canon at the time. The fully concluded canon did not come until a few hundred years following the last writings of the New Testament, and even some argue of an actual set date of the canon formation if there is one.
In the end, we wouldn’t have a canon if we didn’t have tradition. Not only that, but we have the specific beliefs of the Trinity, Christ’s divinity and humanity, the Spirit’s personhood and divinity, and much more because of the teachings and councils of the early church fathers. We owe a lot to them. Yet, I also believe tradition can go wrong. But, if it didn’t go wrong until 787 AD at the second council of Nicea when veneration of icons was declared a godly practise, then I start to ask, ‘Did it ever go wrong?’, even with that decision on icons.
Of course, the evangelical would typically answer, ‘Yes, it can go wrong.’ But if they started getting off-base at the second council of Nicea, why not at the council of Chalcedon (the fourth ecumenical council) in 451 AD where the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ was confirmed? Of course, I don’t believe the council of Chalcedon came to unbiblical conclusions. I agree with such conclusions. I just simply find myself asking about how we really understand the relationship of Scripture and tradition.
For the evangelical, they will tell me that this is why we must stick with sola Scriptura. Scripture is to be the final authority on the practise of our faith, but tradition (the church fathers and councils) can be very helpful to the understanding of our faith. But this is where I come back asking, ‘But what do we do about the reality that we have the canon we have today because of the church father’s (tradition) decision long ago?’
For me, this is why I desire to look more into the relationship of Scripture and tradition. I had always thought that if I did a PhD, my dissertation would be on the relationship between Scripture and present-day prophecy, since I am a charismatic. But now I’m thinking I might first take up a dissertation on the relationship between Scripture and tradition.
I don’t sit around worried about if and how I might be wrong on my understanding of the relationship between these two entities up to this point in my life. I only point out that, though I don’t agree with many teachings in the Catholic church, I do think we, as evangelicals, can learn a little bit from them on their healthy respect of tradition.
The second book I read was the well-known book, Rome Sweet Home, by Scott and Kimberly Hahn. Well, it might not be well-known to many evangelicals, but it is to Roman Catholics.
Here is another story of two people who converted from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. And that’s just it, this book is their story, not a theological apology for Catholicism. Of course, as a theologian, Scott Hahn weaves in some theological teaching. But this is mainly the account of two people, separately, coming in to the Roman Catholic church. (Yes, separately. I’ll pick up on that in a moment.)
Both were originally part of a Presbyterian-reformed denomination, I believe it was the PCA. He even studied at the popular Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He was even constantly trying to convert people from the ‘evil’ Catholic church to the evangelical faith, which he believed was most biblical.
Interestingly enough, he and his wife’s first introduction to the Catholic faith was through his wife’s interaction with pro-life work. She ended up becoming an advocate for not using birth control, seeing it as a barrier to the God-ordained, natural result of the love-act in marriage, that result being procreation if God so chose. Of course, the Roman Catholic church is against all means of birth control. Hence, their first introduction to Roman Catholicism.
Most of the book details the Hahn’s slow conversion to Catholicism. As I mentioned, they made their conversion on separate dates. Scott converted a few years before his wife. In the book, again written by both, they describe in detail the painful and difficult process of this conversion. But, in the end, Kimberly finally felt the calling to convert over to the Roman Catholic church. And now they are convinced they are in the truest and fullest expression of Christ’s Church.
The book is quite moving, in the sense of seeing a family come together in the end even after all they went through. I wouldn’t agree with the statement that the Roman Catholic church is the true Church. And if one didn’t have any other input outside of Catholic teachings, I guess the book could draw you in, which was the intent of the Hahn’s. I’m not saying they were being deceptive by any means, but it is a moving story.
In the end, the one thing I did really appreciate is the Catholic appreciation for the eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper-communion. I don’t accept the teaching of transubstantiation that says the bread and wine literally transform into the body and blood of Christ. Yet, I do not appreciate the view of many evangelicals that see it as a mere symbol.
Paul said the bread and wine are a participation in Christ’s body and blood (see 1 Corinthians 10:16). I don’t pertain to know what that means fully, but I do believe Christ’s presence is really and truly in our midst during the sharing of the covenant meal. The meal has been given for us to be nourished by Christ. I share more the Lord’s Supper here.
Well, there are my thoughts on these two books. It was insightful to learn more about the Roman Catholic church and its teachings, even if I disagree with many of its beliefs. One thing I think I might try and do is add a book to my list for 2010. I caught wind of this book even today: Romans Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences by Ralph MacKenzie and Norman Geisler. I might try and get a copy sometime soon.