I Can’t Interpret the Bible but I Can Interpret History

Perhaps responding to recent apostasies, Mark Horne put the problem with certain conversions to Rome and the East perfectly:

You are not impressing anyone when you claim that you don’t have the ability to read the Bible for itself but you do have the ability to study all of Christian history and identify the supernatural office that can tell you what to think.
If you can really read and argue from history in the hope of persuading others, then why not simply argue for your views from Scripture?  If you aren’t following your own authority in deciding which church to submit to then how are you following your own authority when you read the Bible and believe what it says? If you are willing to argue over the meaning of the last papal writings, why not argue over the meaning of Scripture?
The fragmented nature of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches gives the lie to the “unity” narrative. And yes, you think you can interpret history perfectly, but not the Bible…patently absurd.

Is Conversion the Answer?

Rod Dreher makes several salient points about converts to Rome and Orthodoxy:

Yes, but in my personal experience, the Catholic Church in America has only a facade of unity. Every Catholic parish I’ve been a part of has been basically Protestant, insofar as most of the people seemed to believe that they had a right to believe whatever they wanted. The unity was fairly superficial. Mind you, I’m in no position to say to what extent the Orthodox Church in this country is any different, because my experience is relatively short and limited almost entirely to my own parish. But I would be surprised to learn that we Orthodox on the whole were much different in that regard.

I’ve said the same thing myself: Catholicism in the USA is just Protestantism with a different name. You have gay Jesuits, hardcore Trad Opus Dei types, the First Things crowd, EWTN, liberals like the Kennedys, and on and on. There is no unified, glorious Church. It’s an illusion in the mind of the convert who lives in the world of ideas. Dreher continues:

I keep telling Protestants I know who want to convert to Catholicism that I don’t want to get in the way of their decision — though I would like them to consider Orthodoxy — but that they should realize that they’re probably not going to find an escape from modernism in their local parish. The church of Pope Benedict and First Things magazine, and your favorite conservative Catholic bloggers, is not the church you’re likely to encounter down the street. If you’re convinced of the case for Catholicism, then you almost certainly have to become Catholic — but go in with your eyes open. Similarly with Orthodoxy, we have, like Catholicism, the institutional and historical tools for resisting modernism, but if the pastors and the people remain indifferent or hostile to them, Protestants searching for solid ground to stand on may be unpleasantly surprised.

Again, this is not an argument against becoming Catholic or Orthodox. But it is a warning that it’s impossible to escape modernity and its challenges to tradition and traditional faith. When Father Dwight says that the fissiparous nature of individualist modernist faith will eventually give way to disbelief, because it’s not anchored in communal experience, I agree with him in principle, but would ask him what his prediction is for Catholic parishes that are populated by individualists in religion? (N.B., Father Dwight recognizes in his post that modernist Catholic priests shouldn’t be surprised when people quit coming to mass.) Similarly, I am aware of several Protestant congregations who are far, far more unified in belief than any Catholic parish I’ve been a part of, no doubt because those Protestants who don’t share the core convictions of that congregation found another congregation to attend. Mind you, without a Magisterium (Catholic) or a high view of the authority of Tradition (Orthodox) to hold on to, I don’t know how those congregations over time will remain grounded in their particular judgments. But having the theological mechanism for stability, as the Catholics and the Orthodox do, is no guarantee either.

This makes lots of sense. Because Protestant churches in our day are usually based on shared convictions such as worship style or theology, we have much more unity (at the micro level) than Catholics do.

I have a friend who left the Greek Orthodox church to which he belonged, because he was desperate for a spiritual encounter with the living God, as opposed to the empty formalism of his home parish, which, as he puts it, was more interested in worshiping Greekness than in worshiping God. He became a born-again Evangelical. Despite all the legitimate criticism that can be leveled at American Evangelicalism re: its lack of stability and susceptibility to cultural trends, is it really the case that children raised in a traditional church that has valid sacraments but is spiritually dead are going to have a better chance of living as Christians there than they would in an Evangelical church that has all the trappings of modernity, and an essentially modernist, individualist theology, but that for whatever reason has chosen a theologically traditional set of principles around which to organize, and lives it out in a vigorous, vibrant way?

This is the rub. Tradition and liturgy are life to me and those like me who seek to escape the modern church wasteland, but they were death to my Mom who wanted relationship with God and wasn’t taught that in the Lutheran Church of her day (though she could have had it, had they rightly understood their own past). We can’t re-pristinate the past and create some perfect model that never existed. We can meld the best liturgy and tradition with our modern condition, all the while being bathed in the Scripture as the ultimate norm.

Catholic Idolatry

Mark Horne has a helpful post on why he is not a Roman Catholic. An excerpt:

  1. Idolatry is a huge sin and praying through icons (whether 3d or 2d) is idolatry.  I cannot possibly engage in such a practice, allow anyone in my guardianship to do so, or excuse such a thing, without falling into rank unbelief.
  2. Necromancy is almost as huge a sin and praying to the departed saints is necromancy.  See #1 above.  People raised thinking bigamy is Christian may be true Christians, but people who know better are living in sin and without hope of eternal life unless they repent of such behavior.
  3. The way some Roman Catholic constituencies provide ministry opportunities for defectors from Protestantism is, of course, tempting–but it can hardly count as anything more than thirty pieces of silver if #1 and #2 hold.  If one must be marginalized and impoverished in the Protestant world due to sectarian sins, well, God has called many Christians and their families to far worse martyrdoms.
  4. Claiming unity can be achieved by everyone else joining one’s own denomination is exactly the sect spirit that is so loathsome in many Protestant groups, and it gains no more attractiveness in Rome.

While Mark’s honesty will offend many who justify idolatry by appealing to John of Damascus, we have an opposite example in the Internet Monk’s interview with Bryan Cross, someone who has made that plunge into idolatry. I don’t know why these issues are never raised in these ecumenical interviews. Many Protestants still seem to assume that justification is the core issue between us and Rome, while in fact idolatry is and always has been one of the central concerns of the Reformation, if one that is often ignored today.

Converts can’t let it go

It seems that often when Protestants convert to becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox they do the following:
– Convert their blogs into a constant stream of Patristic quotes. You’ll see a fine example of this here. Do they think no one has ever read these quotes before? Do they think people are hanging on these words and converting themselves due to reading them? Or does it merely feed their own self-narrative of being part of the new, most correct church? How is it that a brand new convert is best qualified to teach the world about his newfound Church?
– Turn all of their energy to attacking their previous, woefully mistaken ways as Protestants. Protestants had this, that and the other wrong. Augustine was bad, preaching was over-emphasized, art was neglected, Tradition ignored, Authority not thought through, etc.
These attempts at converting other Protestants who have not made whatever leap these individuals have made are puzzling. Do they need the justification of others making the same choice that they have made in order to feel better? Why is it that you never (in my experience) see these bold new converts out in the world evangelizing the lost? Where is the Great Commission in their new life? So let’s just say to them:
“Hey, you converted, that’s great. Now why don’t you go fulfill our Lord’s command and evangelize the lost world? Get back to us and tell us how that goes. Until then, lay off the constant attempts at proselytization of Protestants.”
It seems that often when Protestants convert to becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox they do the following:
– Convert their blogs into a constant stream of Patristic quotes. You’ll see a fine example of this here. Do they think no one has ever read these quotes before? Do they think people are hanging on these words and converting themselves due to reading them? Or does it merely feed their own self-narrative of being part of the new, most correct church? How is it that a brand new convert is best qualified to teach the world about his newfound Church?
– Turn all of their energy to attacking their previous, woefully mistaken ways as Protestants. Protestants had this, that and the other wrong. Augustine was bad, preaching was over-emphasized, art was neglected, Tradition ignored, Authority not thought through, etc.
These attempts at converting other Protestants who have not made whatever leap these individuals have made are puzzling. Do they need the justification of others making the same choice that they have made in order to feel better? Why is it that you never (in my experience) see these bold new converts out in the world evangelizing the lost? Where is the Great Commission in their new life? So let’s just say to them:
“Hey, you converted, that’s great. Now why don’t you go fulfill our Lord’s command and evangelize the lost world? Get back to us and tell us how that goes. Until then, lay off the constant attempts at proselytization of Protestants.”

Romanism and Orthodoxy

Steven Wedgeworth’s lectures on the subject are now available here. The subjects are:

“Why I’m Not A Roman Catholic”
“Lost in the Shamayim: A Psychology of Conversion”
“The Eternal City and the Seven Councils: Just Who is the Church?”
“What’s a Reformed Catholic to Do?: Towards an Equilibrium of Christendom”
“Why I’m Not A Roman Catholic”
“Lost in the Shamayim: A Psychology of Conversion”
“The Eternal City and the Seven Councils: Just Who is the Church?”
“What’s a Reformed Catholic to Do?: Towards an Equilibrium of Christendom”