My Return to the Catholic Church
This is the story of my return to the Catholic Church. I will attempt to explain how my walk with the Lord these past years has led me to this important and difficult decision, yet one that I make in peace and joy. It is addressed to my Evangelical Christian and Messianic Jewish friends in Israel, and particularly to those who do not believe that one can be a "true believer" and a Catholic at the same time. It is also written as a personal testimony for my many good friends around the world who may be interested in my walk of faith. To them I dedicate this essay and pray that it will help us to grow in unity in loving and worshipping the King of Kings.
First, a definition of terms: I will use the term "Evangelical" to describe non-Catholic Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible as the only and final authority for truth. This definition will generally include "Bible-believing" and "Born-again Christians," Pentecostals and Messianic believers, both Jews and gentiles. I will use the term "Protestant" sparingly since it also includes liberal denominations that sometimes question or even reject the basic tenets of the Christian faith. For those unacquainted with Messianic Judaism, Yeshua is the Hebrew name for Jesus and the Tanakh is the Old Testament.
At the outset, I wish to clear any potential misunderstandings by stating what this conversion story is not. First, I hesitated to entitle this essay my "return" to the Catholic Church, because I am of course not "returning" to where I was several years ago. My way from the nominal Catholicism of my youth, through Evangelical Christianity, through Messianic Judaism and back to (a now better understood) Catholicism was not a confused, circular path, but a logical, gradual, and fascinating growth towards finding the fullness of Christ, of Yeshua the Jewish Messiah, within the Catholic Church.
Secondly, my return to the Catholic Church does not mean that I am now turning my back on Evangelical Christianity or Messianic Judaism. My debt to these two traditions is considerable, and I thank God that I have had the privilege to be a part of them. I make this decision in a spirit of unity and not of division, remaining committed to continue to serve the whole Body of Messiah - Catholic and non-Catholic - in Israel and in the nations
Thirdly, this decision is not based on emotional or family-related reasons. Although I have faced much opposition and many difficulties from some Messianic believers as they heard of my growing interest for Catholicism, my return to the Catholic Church is not a reaction of escapism back to the familiar and safer environment of my youth. On the contrary, coming to terms with Catholicism has probably been the greatest trial of my life as a believer. It was much more unsettling than my entering the Evangelical "world" six years ago - at the cost of much strife and division within my family - or of going through an anti-missionary course in the summer of 1999 to fully comprehend the position of those who oppose the Messiahship of Yeshua. My return to the Catholic Church is the result of an uncompromising search for truth motivated by my love for God. Even though it has even threatened the safety of my precarious situation as a foreigner involved in ministry within the Body of Messiah in Israel, I had no other choice but to go forward - whatever the cost - for the sake of truth.
This essay is not intended to be a full-fledged apologetics work covering and defending every point of contention that some Evangelicals and Messianic believers have against the Catholic Church. I will hardly succeed in summarizing the hundreds of hours I spent reading, thinking, and praying about this decision. My goal is to clear some common misunderstandings about Catholicism and demonstrate that it is not only a valid way of following Christ, but actually the most biblical and Jewish expression of faith in Yeshua. Although I look forward to many interesting conversations about this "conversion", I hope this written testimony will help you see the fuller picture with more clarity than by relying solely on my potentially confusing verbal explanations.
My return to the Catholic Church has honestly been a difficult, obstacle-ridden, painful, and often lonely path. I can easily join my voice to Scott Hahn's, a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism, who writes in the foreword of the book Surprised by Truth: "I've considered my own journey to Rome as a mystery story, a horror story, and a love story. Sometimes being surprised by truth is initially being horrified by truth. Does the Catholic Church have the truth? The fullness of the truth? Confronting this fact is a gut-wrenching agony for staunch, Bible-based Evangelical Protestants who've thought and taught, largely because of misunderstandings and prejudice, that Catholics are not even Christians." Like Hahn and many others, I have come to realize that what seemed like the most "unbiblical" church is really the Church of the Bible. Follow me now for my story.
My Youth as a Nominal Catholic
I grew up in a suburb of Ottawa, Canada. My parents did their best to teach me the basics of the Catholic faith – their heritage as French and Italian-Canadians. I remember that my faith in God during my teen years was sincere. But it was not an easy thing to uphold Christian values growing up in a secularized world largely estranged from God. I occasionally read the Gospels and was impressed by the life and teachings of Jesus. I don't think I ever really questioned their authenticity, although I had no real understanding of Jesus' work of redemption. I remember praying often and sincerely. It seemed obvious to me that God was there and heard me when I spoke to Him.
My relation with the Church, however, was more difficult. Whereas God was a needed friend that I could trust, I had a much harder time understanding what going to church had to do with real life. I liked the atmosphere of the Christmas Masses and Easter Vigils, singing hymns and celebrating the coming of the Savior and His resurrection. But the rest of the time the Mass seemed like a tedious, outdated ritual that was detached from reality. Most of the people who attended were elderly, and the few young people that attended seemed as bored as I was.
On the moral level I was even more confused. While my parents had inculcated in me a clear sense of right and wrong, it was obvious that the world was living on a totally different track, and enjoying it at that. Slowly I developed the austere concept that I had to choose between two options: either enjoy life and pay for it in hell afterwards, or forsake everything enjoyable and live a monotonous, dull religious life in order to get to heaven. Neither option seemed particularly attractive. I longed for a fulfilled life but with upheld moral standards; sadly, I thought that these two concepts were incompatible with each other. The result was that I was often guilt ridden in the awareness of my sin, knowing that fully going the way of the world was wrong, yet uninspired and unwilling to lead a boring, "religious" life. Still, I am grateful for this fragmentary contact I had with the gospel which generally kept me out of trouble in my teen years while my peers discovered the world of "sex, drugs and rock & roll" of the 80s.
Things began to change when I turned 20. I started to date a girl who was staunchly anti-religious and, especially, anti-Catholic. In the year and a half that I dated her she challenged me to think about my faith in a critical way. She told me that my beliefs were based on what I had been taught as a child and not on objective truth or facts. She pointed out many dark moments in the history of the Church and advocated the Marxist notion that religion is the "opium of the people." To her, Catholics were blind sheep who didn't know what they believed and hung on to their religion as a crutch of elusive and imaginary hope.
In good faith, I began to challenge my own beliefs and to seek explanations from my parents. I asked questions such as: "Who made up this religion? How do we know it's true and not the invention of man? There are so many religions in the world, why would this one be the truth?" I challenged notions such as purgatory, the rosary, venial and mortal sins, confession and penance, but never really received satisfying explanations. Most of these questions centered more around Catholic doctrines and practices rather than on the existence of God and the redemptive work of Jesus. Yet doubt had been sown in my mind and heart. I began to perceive Catholicism as a religion lacking in rational foundations that only imposed limitations on my freedom and burdened me with guilt. It no longer drew me to God, but pushed me away from Him. As a result, my dislike for the Catholic Church and its "legalistic system" gradually grew, while my relationship with God declined.
In retrospect, I wonder if the loss of the Christianity of my youth could have been avoided. It certainly would have been helpful to have someone answer my questions and explain to me the premises of my faith. But I believe the main problem was that I perceived Catholicism as a system of "dos and don'ts", rather than a way of knowing the unconditional love of Jesus. Without the experience of a living relationship with Him and the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit, it was almost inevitable that I would eventually reject this religious system imposed on me.
But certainly it is the classic and most ancient reason known to man that led me away from the Lord in my youth. Allured by the deception of sin, "pleasant to the eyes and...desirable to make one wise" and the tempter's lies that "your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5-6), I succumbed to the temptation to run away from the God who loves us. As my soul fled from the refuge of His love, seeking freedom in the vain pursuits of life, it began to build its own prison, whose only escape would be to return under the shadow of His wings several years later.
Exile to Europe
In 1993, I moved to Graz, Austria to study music. I decided to "hit the reset button" of my religious beliefs and give myself a few years to free myself from my biased childhood influences and think on my own. I occasionally went to Mass, as to "give the Church one more chance," but was left unmoved. I experienced what seemed to be the same lifeless ritual and lukewarm people I had seen in church where I grew up and I was generally not attracted to come back.
Humanism had by then become my "religion." Unsure of God's existence and will, I decided that my purpose in life was not to subscribe to a certain set of beliefs or follow a religious routine, but rather to contribute to the good of mankind. Although I lived a good life, I was aware of the void in my heart caused by the absence of God. I knew my shortcomings and felt I should counterbalance my sins with good works - just in case there was one day a final judgment.
Out of this motivation, I decided to volunteer with a Christian humanitarian organization in Croatia and Bosnia during the Yugoslavian civil war. I went there regularly for short periods of time during the school holidays, from 1993 to 1995. The experience of helping refugees of war became a turning point in my life. As I saw the extent of their suffering, I realized the insignificance of my help to them. No matter how good my intentions were, material humanitarian help could never replace what they had lost, restore their dignity, or give them lasting hope. I felt like I had nothing to offer them. In addition, far from filling the void in my heart, this experience enlarged it. My conscience could never find rest by doing good works, because the more I did, the more I realized there was to do.
I saw, however, that the Christian people with whom I worked had solutions to these problems. They were not helping refugees in order to offset their bad deeds and quiet their conscience. They already had peace with God, and their work flowed out of their relationship with Christ. In addition, far more than providing mere humanitarian help, they had the love of Christ to give to the refugees. They had a message that could restore the whole person, heal the broken hearts, and offer them the real and tangible hope they needed.
Returning to Austria after this traumatic experience left me in a state of utter confusion. I had been confronted with so much suffering that I could hardly continue living "normally" and selfishly as a music student. I needed God, and so did these refugees. But I didn't see how a cold and impersonal church could make any difference in either my life or theirs. The churchgoers I had seen all my life didn't seem any happier than the atheistic friends I knew.
My Journey with Evangelical Protestantism
All of this changed in the fall of 1995, when I began to attend a small Evangelical church in Graz. At first it didn't even occur to me that this wasn't a Catholic church. But I liked what I saw. The people worshipped freely and sang modern songs that I could relate to. There was a joyous, informal atmosphere contrasting with the stiffness and drabness of the churches I was used to. In addition, everyone brought their Bibles to the service, and even read them! We were encouraged and challenged to apply the Word of God to our lives, a new experience for me that soon bore tangible results.
A short time after I began attending this church, one sermon revolutionized my concept of God. The pastor taught that Jesus loved me so much that He died for me, in order to redeem me of my sins. This was not some abstract religious formula, but something personal that could make a true difference in my life. A man, he said, is saved by faith in Christ's redemption work at the cross, and not by works. These words from Galatians struck deep in my heart. So that was why I could never find the peace with God that I longed for. I was trying to do it on my own, rather than trusting in Christ's finished work at the cross! I had to be "born again" said the preacher, by "accepting Jesus-Christ as my personal Lord and Savior" to have the assurance of forgiveness and salvation. I knew that this was what I needed. When the pastor made the altar call, I went to the front to "receive the Lord" and begin a new life in dedication to Him.
When my parents heard about my newly found zeal for God, I was disconcerted to see that rather than expressing joy, they accused me of "having become a Protestant". Although I now understand that they were technically correct, I never in practice felt it that way. In my eyes, I had not converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, but from agnosticism to living Christianity.
This new faith in Christ within Evangelicalism was to radically transform my life in the next three years within this small church in Austria. I learned spiritual principles that were to form the foundation of my faith to this day, and for this my debt to Evangelical Christianity is enormous. It is there that I experienced the transforming power of Jesus Christ who loved me and died for me, so that I could now live for Him. I learned to love and treasure the Holy Scriptures, to receive them as the Word of God and to study them diligently. Within Evangelical Christianity I began to "walk by faith, not by sight", and to trust in the goodness and sovereignty of God in all situations. I was awakened to the urgency of Jesus' Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, in a world that was lost and craving for the love of God. I learned about the power of prayer, the joy and freedom experienced in praise and worship, the reality of spiritual warfare against the powers of evil, spiritual gifts, and prophecy. I read just about everything I could get my hands on, especially books on apologetics. Evangelism was my first passion, and I wanted to make sure to be "ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3:15).
My conversion to Christ through Evangelical Christianity, however, had an inevitable side effect. I began to wonder why I had failed to find the living Christ despite going to church every Sunday for over 20 years. What was this religious system I had known where a loving relationship with the Father had been tragically absent? There was something wrong with this picture, and through reading and studying Scripture, I began to believe that there was something terribly wrong with Catholicism.
Questions arose: Why had no one ever told me that I needed to be "born again" to receive eternal life? Why was there so much attention on Mary and the saints in the Catholic Church when the Bible says that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man? Why did people seem to pray to statues when this was clearly forbidden by the second commandment? Where did the idea of purgatory come from when the Bible seemed to say no word about it? What was the purpose of all these rules, regulations and sacraments that I had to keep and perform and receive, when the Bible claimed that I was saved by faith in the redemptive work of Christ and not by works? Why was there a need for a Pope if Christ was the leader of His church? Why were infants baptized while yet unable to make a decision to believe? How could the Mass be considered a sacrifice, when the Bible says that Christ's sacrifice on the cross 2000 years ago was final and complete?
No Catholic I knew could provide serious answers to these questions. Consequently, my Evangelical friends and the books I read soon convinced me that Catholicism had long ago departed from the biblical faith and had become an apostate religion based on traditions of men rather than on the Word of God. This conclusion was supported by my personal experience with Catholics all my life. Most of them had shown either a lukewarm, liberal faith, or an ultra-conservative, inflexible legalistic system. I did not quite understand how the Church could produce these two conflicting extremes, but in either case both were devoid of the life of Christ. I became convinced that to be a good Christian, I not only had to preach the good news but also warn the poor Catholics who were deceived by such an erroneous religious system.
Israel and Messianic Judaism
In 1998 I completed my music studies in Austria and moved to Israel to begin theological studies at the Israel College of the Bible in Jerusalem. Studying in Israel and discovering Judaism opened to me an entirely new world. Until now, my faith had been mostly based on the gospels and the New Testament. Although I had read the Old Testament extensively, I perceived it as a thing of the past that had now been abolished and replaced by the superior New Covenant. Living in Jerusalem among the Jewish people made me see and experience that the Torah and the Tanakh (Old Testament) are alive and well still today.
I saw how God's Word was being fulfilled before my very eyes with the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel after 2,000 years of exile. Better yet, I could also experience the spiritual restoration of Israel: the growth of the modern Messianic Body, Jews who had recognized their Messiah Yeshua, yet who wished to retain, affirm and live out their Jewishness. I began to understand the continuity of Judaism and Christianity and how Jewish Christianity really is. I realized how gentile Christians such as myself should not adopt an attitude of spiritual arrogance towards the Jewish People, but rather be conscious of how much we can, and should, learn from them. As I saw that the most Jewish thing one can do is to believe in Yeshua, I also realized how much a true Christian should study Judaism and learn to love the Jewish People.
This first contact with Judaism and Messianic Judaism, however, did not win points for the Catholic Church in my eyes. On the contrary, I was confronted with its dark past towards the Jewish People. I was shocked to discover that the crusades, the inquisition, the pogroms and the Holocaust were still haunting nightmares in the memory of the Jewish Nation. Worse, these horrific acts were all associated in some way with Christianity and Jesus Christ Himself.
I soon understood that anti-Semitism had often found its roots in the error of "replacement theology", the idea that the Church has now replaced Israel as God's chosen people. Consequently, I became an ardent Christian Zionist, convinced that God's covenant and promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still valid. It seemed obvious to me - and still is - that the Jews are still God's chosen people, and that His promise of the land of Israel to their descendants as an everlasting possession still stands as a testimony of His great faithfulness to them.
After my year of studies and having arrived at a new understanding of Israel, I was fortunate enough to join the International Christian Embassy, a Christian Zionist organization in Jerusalem committed to supporting Israel and educating Christians about it. This lasted until March 2001, when I decided to leave Jerusalem and move to Tel Aviv to work with a Messianic congregation and outreach center.
Why Search Further?
By this time, it seemed that my theological position was well established and reached a point of relative stability. I had found a living relationship with the Messiah, had come to love His People as my own, and had the immense privilege to live among them and share with them about Yeshua. My position towards Catholicism had also appeared to reach an irreversible low point. Not only was it unbiblical and had completely severed its connection with the roots of Judaism, so I thought, it had seemingly become more pagan than Christian, culminating in the persecution of God's own people in the name of their Messiah!
Having found such riches in Evangelicalism and Messianic Judaism and such evil in the Catholic Church, what then caused such a dramatic change of heart and mind in a matter of months? I have described at length the evolution of my opinions to show that nothing short of a miracle has brought me back to Catholicism. In addition, the environment I was living in could not have been less conducive to my return to the Church. Ironically, it was while living and working in a very anti-Catholic environment in Tel Aviv that I was to return to the Catholic Church. God is not without a sense of humor. At any rate, I hoped at this point to finally and permanently close the door on Catholicism, but my integrity demanded that I settle every point before I drove the last nail into the coffin. Yet there were a few nagging issues that remained unresolved.
First, I had met some true Catholic believers. I had encountered some Catholic charismatics who had shown that they had a genuine relationship with the Lord. I remember giving them a hard time about the Mass and Mary, and though their explanations were not the clearest, they showed through their lives humility, love and true faith in Christ. I had also met true Catholic believers in Israel. Of course, there was also the sincere faith of my parents. This was annoying, because the very fact that the Catholic Church could produce such good fruit robbed me of my right to declare it outright a demonic system!
Second, I was impressed by the sound orthodoxy of the fundamentals of the Christian Faith (best expressed in the Nicene Creed) taught by the Catholic Church. There was no denying that the Church had guarded and defended for 2,000 years the key doctrines of the Christian faith, such as belief in the triune God, the Virgin Birth, Christ's atoning death, his resurrection, and his expected return in glory. It seemed odd that a Church in error could also firmly and consistently teach so much truth. Parallel to this, the Church's moral teachings were unequalled. No other church had ever upheld such high standards of morality and human dignity. Only the Catholic Church had always persistently refused to waver on controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortion, extra-marital sex, euthanasia, divorce and contraception. Accordingly, no other church has ever produced such a hall of fame of remarkable saints, holy men and women who gave their lives to love Christ and their neighbor.
Third, the sort of anti-Catholicism that I encountered baffled me. It was often expressed in an emotional and judgmental way. Although I could understand this hostility, stemming from a painful history, I found it to be seldom based on a solid, rational knowledge of Catholic theology. I certainly cannot judge such an attitude since I had been a victim of it myself in my zeal for the Gospel and misunderstanding of the Church's teachings. Still, it sometimes seemed that to attack the Catholic Church was more important than to live out the love of Yeshua. This certainly could not be the Holy Spirit at work. Furthermore, it bothered me that on one hand there were Catholic believers who lived an exemplary life and sincerely believed that the Catholic Church was the true church founded by Christ - but on the other hand, equally sincere Evangelicals or Messianic Jews claimed with similar vehemence that surely the Catholic Church was the work of the devil and that the Pope was no other than the antichrist. How could sincere believers come to such contradictory conclusions? Who was right? Could there be a middle ground?
Fourth, I began to feel uncomfortable with many Scriptures that were difficult to explain from a "Protestant" perspective. Why did Jesus emphasize so strongly in John 6 that one must "eat his flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life"? Where was Jesus when He went to preach to the spirits in prison? (1 Pet 3:19) Why did He seemingly give His disciples the authority to forgive sins: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23)?
This uneasiness only increased when I took a course on early church history. To my surprise, I discovered that the earliest Christian writings indicated that the first believers held beliefs and practices strangely similar to Catholic beliefs and practices today. In fact, our professor, although not trying in any way to defend or support the Catholic Church, openly admitted this similarity between early Christianity and modern day Catholicism. I wrote a paper on the development of the doctrine of the Eucharist and apprehensively discovered that the first Christians unanimously held the bread and wine to be truly the body and blood of the Lord, offered as a sacrifice to God, just as taught in the Catholic Church today.
In addition to this theological questioning, I began to wonder if something was not missing from the Evangelical and Messianic services I went to. Although carried out by dedicated and sincere ministers, the "success" of a meeting seemed dependent on so much human effort: whether the worship was "powerful" enough, or whether the preacher was sufficiently "anointed". It sometimes felt as if the congregation was responsible to go up to heaven and pull God down into the room. Everything seemed so dependent on our emotions and efforts that sometimes the services were more exhausting than fulfilling. I also began to seriously ask myself why there was so much theological disagreement and division in the Body of Messiah. Everyone took the Bible as the Word of God and claimed to have the Holy Spirit to guide him, yet there was perpetual and substantial disagreement about countless doctrinal issues among Protestants, and even more so among the Messianic Congregations.
Such were the thoughts that were hindering me from declaring all-out war on Catholicism at the beginning of 2001, and that were beginning to erode my confidence in Evangelicalism and Messianic Judaism.
A Shock: "Born-Again" Believers Convert to Catholicism
While visiting my parents in Canada in June 2001, my father bought me two books that left me in a state of shock. The first was the previously mentioned Surprised by Truth, a compilation of testimonies of 11 converts from Evangelicalism to Catholicism. I could simply not believe what I read. These people were "born-again", Bible-believing Christians who had come to accept the Catholic Church as the truth on the basis of Scripture. The second book was even more stunning. It had the repulsive title of "Rome Sweet Home" and was the conversion story of Scott and Kimberly Hahn. Scott Hahn had been a committed Evangelical minister and a fierce opponent of the Catholic Church - the kind that believed that the Pope is the antichrist. As I read, I saw that he was a brilliant man, a top-notch Bible scholar, but above all someone who loved the Lord and was after the truth, no matter what the cost. And he found it in the Catholic Church.
After reading these two books, I returned to Israel determined to settle this "Catholic issue" once and for all. Before I left my parents' home, I grabbed the thick Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a book on church history, both of which I devoured in just a few weeks. I continued my research on the Internet, finding more writings from Dr. Hahn that completely shattered my prejudices against the Catholic Church. I downloaded more reading material and ordered several books from Catholic Answers, a California-based Catholic apologetics organization. I had read earlier some popular anti-Catholic books, such as Dave Hunt's A Woman Rides the Beast and Ralph Woodrow's Babylon Mystery Religion. Now I had found their match. Karl Keating, in particular, in his book Catholicism and Fundamentalism systematically addressed all of the typical anti-Catholic arguments and tore them to shreds.
A Gross Caricature of Catholicism
One of the first things I realized when I embarked in this extensive study of Catholicism is that what I had come to despise about the Catholic Church was in fact a caricature of what I thought the Catholic Church to be, and not the real thing. I believe the majority of opponents of Catholicism are in a same situation and attack in good faith something of which they really have little understanding.
I was relieved, for instance, to learn that papal infallibility does not mean that everything the Pope says or does is infallible, that Mary is not to be worshipped as one worships God, and that her title of "Mother of God" does not imply that she is divine or existed before God. I was surprised to learn that the Church never taught things like salvation by works, or that Christ is re-sacrificed at every Mass, or that people can be saved by other religions.
Another surprise was to discover that the Catechism affirmed God's eternal and irrevocable covenant with the Jewish People. I thought in amazement: "What? The Catholic Church does not teach replacement theology?" I realized that replacement theology and anti-Semitism had been the product of ignorance in the Church - admittedly sometimes on a very large scale - but not of true adherence to the Catholic Faith.
Many non-Catholics often have a poor impression of Catholicism because of a real discrepancy between the official teachings of the Church and the popular practice of the people. Sadly, Catholics are too often ignorant of their own faith. Little do they realize how they discredit their religion in the eyes of others, and help to create this caricature of the Catholic that so many protestants rightly dislike: the one who worships Mary and prays to the saints more than he does to Jesus, kisses statues but does not read the Bible, and believes that he can gain his salvation by his good works. This is not a description of a good Catholic, but of someone who understands little of what Catholicism is about.
Yet it is undeniable that many issues, in theology and in practice, still divide Catholics from Evangelicals, and Messianic Jews. Let us look at some of them.
The Believer's Authority: the Bible Alone?
The central issue that has influenced my return to the Catholic Church is the question of the authority of our faith. Since my conversion to Christ, I had been a firm believer in sola scriptura, one of the two theological pillars of the reformation. Sola scriptura is the notion originally advanced by Martin Luther that the Bible is to be our only and final source of authority in matters relating to faith and religious truth. Generally, Evangelicals and Messianic believers unilaterally accept this notion, with few ever examining or challenging the source and foundation of this belief.
Sola scriptura seemed to make much sense to me. I saw it as the only way to preserve the integrity of the original biblical message from transformation and distortion through the ages. After all, I thought, this was exactly what the Catholic Church had done: in flagrant violation of Jesus' warnings against the traditions of men replacing the Word of God, the Church had added tradition upon tradition to the original Gospel until it had become buried under a mountain of Catholic doctrines, papal decrees and pagan practices.
I was in for a surprise, however, once I seriously started to examine this issue. To my astonishment - and horror - I saw the premise of sola scriptura completely break apart in the light of Scripture, history, and simple logic.
The first shock came when I realized that the Bible does not teach sola scriptura. We believers took for granted the idea that the Bible is our only source of authority, yet did Scripture support this idea? Where did the Bible say that it was to be our only authority? I had to admit that I could not answer this question. Although 2 Tim 3:16 says that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable", nowhere is it written that Scripture is to be the only source of authority for our faith. How could this be, I wondered, that this foundational principle for our faith is not taught anywhere in the Bible?
Second, I discovered passages in the New Testament that seemed to support the idea of tradition as a form of authority. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians to "stand fast and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle" (2 Thess 2:15). This clearly means oral traditions. He also praised the Corinthians for "keeping the traditions" which he had taught them (1 Cor 11:2). Jesus also endorsed oral tradition. He told his disciples that "the Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat", and therefore they should observe and do what they said (although not imitate their hypocrisy) (Mt 23:1-3). What the Scribes and the Pharisees taught at the time of Jesus was already much more than just the written Torah. It included a large volume of oral traditions, which Jesus was apparently endorsing.
We see more evidence for the validity of extra-biblical tradition when the writers of the New Testament casually refer to events that are not found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In 2 Timothy 3:8, for example, Paul refers to Jannes and Jambres resisting Moses. Jude 9 refers to Michael the archangel contending with the devil about the body of Moses. These events are not recorded in the Tanakh, and belong to Jewish tradition. Yet the New Testament writers accept them as authoritative. Yeshua kept the traditional Feast of Hanukkah (John 10:22), a Feast neither commanded by God nor found in the Hebrew Scriptures. We see then that although Yeshua warned against the traditions of men that opposed the Word of God, both He and the New Testament writers also assumed that oral tradition could complement and help interpret (though never contradict) the Scriptures. A little reflection on the practical and historical application of this idea made it even more obvious.
The Early Church's Authority
How did the early Christians learn about their faith? They did not go around with their Bibles under their arms like we do today. They learned the Old Testament Scriptures in the synagogues, and heard the Gospel through the teaching of the apostles. In fact, the early church did not even have a New Testament. Many believers do not realize that it took nearly 20 years after the resurrection for any of the New Testament writings to come into circulation, and nearly 60 years for all of our New Testament to be put down in writing.
Even then, many other Christian writings existed. This created another problem: How did believers in the early Church know which books were inspired and which weren't? For several centuries there was intense debate as to what to include in the New Testament. Many churches believed that books such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Acts of Paul or the Apocalypse of Peter should be part of the canon. Others believed that books that are now part of our New Testament should be rejected. The historian Eusebius, writing in the year 324, lists only 22 books as accepted; 2 Peter, 2-3 John, James and Jude were still considered "disputed writings". Other important books, such as the Epistle to the Hebrews and Revelation, were also regularly excluded. These were finally admitted into the canon after several centuries of debate, but not unanimously or without suspicion. It is only at the Council of Carthage in 397 CE that the present content of our New Testament was closed. For almost four centuries the Church lived and flourished with a slightly different New Testament than ours!
Historian Henry Chadwick notes about the authority of the early church: "In the first century the Christian Bible had simply been the Old Testament...Authority resided in this scripture and in the words of the Lord, which long circulated in oral tradition...The authoritative standing of this oral tradition continued to be high even after the sayings and doings of the Lord had been written down in the ‘gospel' according to Mark, Luke, Matthew, or John. Even as late as the time of Irenaeus (c. 185-90) this oral tradition of the words of the Lord was regarded as an authority that had not yet been wholly merged with the written gospels."
It is evident then, that the Church preceded the New Testament and not the other way around. Yet how could we, as Evangelicals, be sure that this early church - the Catholic Church - had made the right decision in compiling our New Testament almost four centuries after Christ? Why did we blindly trust in the decision of the same Catholic bishops who also believed in the veneration of saints, devotion to the Virgin Mary, purgatory, and sacraments? How could we have confidence in the infallibility of Scripture if we didn't believe at the same time that the Church had to make an infallible decision on which books to include and which not to include in the canon? (In fact, the same argument goes for the compilation of the Old Testament by the Jews)
These conclusions were very disturbing. The early believers did not rely on the Bible alone. Their main authority was the oral teachings of the apostles and their successors - in other words, the Church. Could such an idea be biblical? Yes, says Paul. He wrote to Timothy that the "pillar and foundation of truth" was not the Bible, but "the Church of the living God" (1 Tim 3:15), against which, Jesus promised, "the gates of Hell would not prevail".
The Logical Consequence of Sola Scriptura.
These thoughts gradually led me to believe that the very notion of sola scriptura was flawed - a tradition of men not taught anywhere in Scripture. This does not undermine the authority of Scripture, but does mean that the Bible is not enough. We only need to look at the fruits of the reformation to understand this: Sola scriptura has produced in five centuries thousands of Christian denominations, sects and cults who keep multiplying ever rapidly, all of them claiming to have the Bible as their authority, but perpetually disagreeing on all possible doctrinal issues. Is this what Jesus had in mind when he prayed for the unity of His Church?
In addition to being unbiblical and unhistorical, the refusal of Evangelicals to attribute any authority to tradition also began to appear inconsistent. Though it declares itself opposed to authoritative tradition, Evangelical Christianity in fact accepts many traditional Christian doctrines that are not taught explicitly in Scripture. Some examples are the Trinity, the divinity of the Holy Spirit, monogamy as the only acceptable form of marital union, and the position against abortion. None of these ideas are clearly taught in the Bible. Yet Evangelicals usually accept them without reservation - and rightly so - even though they are Catholic traditions unanimously accepted as part of the deposit of Christian faith by the first believers.
Some streams of Messianic Judaism and "Christian" cults are more consistent than Evangelicals and reject all Christian tradition. The inevitable outcome is that these groups frequently undermine and reject the very foundations of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity or the divinity of Yeshua. The result is heresy, but it is really a logical consequence of the rejection of all tradition and of relying on the Bible alone as a source of authority. Evangelicals, thankfully, retain much early Christian tradition (albeit often unconsciously) and thereby stay within the realms of "orthodox" Christianity.
Sacred Tradition: Perversion or Preservation of the Gospel?
But isn't the idea of a "sacred tradition" dangerous? After all, what guarantees that the Church could stay on the right track for 2000 years? Is this not merely a license for the Church authorities to "invent" new, unbiblical doctrines as it pleases them? Does it not threaten the very integrity of the original Gospel and place the believers at the mercy of a fallible and often corrupt clergy? Although the concept of a "sacred tradition" may indeed sound threatening at first, several reasons have led me to believe that it is in fact a biblical, sound, and even vital element for the preservation of the original Gospel.
Karl Keating describes what the Church means by Tradition: "The term does not mean legends or mythological accounts, nor does it mean transitory customs or practices that come and go as circumstances warrant, such as styles of priestly dress, particular forms of devotion to saints, or even liturgical rubrics. Tradition means the teachings and teaching authority of Jesus and, derivatively, the apostles. These have been handed down and entrusted to the Church (which means to its official teachers, the bishops in union with the Pope)."
The existence of a "sacred tradition" alongside of Scripture does not mean that tradition may contradict Scripture. Both are in harmony with each other. The idea of apostolic tradition exists precisely to preserve the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, not to pervert it. One must here make a distinction between invention and development of doctrine. The Catholic Church has no authority to suddenly "invent" a new doctrine out of the blue. Yet it is undeniable that the Church has developed doctrines over time, in the sense of explaining them more fully. This is a natural and unavoidable process. Every believer constantly seeks to better understand and define the contents of his faith, and this is what the Church has done. It took three centuries, for example, for the Church to formally define the doctrine of the Trinity, even though the belief already existed in the beginning (see Isa 48:16, Mt 28:19, 2 Cor 13:14). Likewise, although the doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus) was only formally defined in the year 1215, the belief is already attested to in the earliest Christian writings (and in John chapter 6 for that matter).
Still, how can we be sure that the Church did not make at least some wrong interpretations in the development of their dogmas? We have this assurance because Yeshua gave it to us. He promised the disciples that the Spirit of truth would guide them into all truth (John 16:13). He also said to Peter: "You are Peter (Aramaic: Kephas), and on this rock (Aramaic: Kephas) I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16:18-19). Numerous interpretations have been given for this verse, yet how much more sense does it make when we give it its simple "Catholic" meaning. What tremendous authority Yeshua is giving here to Peter and the Church, the "pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim 3:15). If we insist on believing that the early Church soon perverted the original teachings of Yeshua, we are saying that His prayer for the worldwide Church was completely ineffective.
But does not history blatantly show that the gates of hell have indeed prevailed over the Catholic Church, at least over long periods of time? There is no denying the horrible facts: Catholics have failed and sinned, seriously and repeatedly. Some popes were notorious for their vice and immorality. In addition, many practices of the Church have changed over time. How can we reconcile these facts with Yeshua's promise that the gates of hell would not prevail? To answer this, we need to look at the Church's definition of infallibility.
The Catholic Church claims to be infallible only in matters of faith and morals, not in matters of practice and discipline. Infallibility does not apply to practices such as, for instance, the celibacy of priests or the form of the liturgy, which can change over time. Also, "infallibility" should not be confused with "impeccability". There is no guarantee that the Pope will not sin or neglect to teach the truth. Neither does infallibility apply to a Pope's disciplinary decisions, private theological opinions, or even unofficial comments on faith and morals. A statement of John Paul II, for instance, about Israel or the status of Jerusalem is certainly not considered infallible or binding on all Catholics. Infallibility, then, is a negative protection. It means that the Holy Spirit will prevent the Church from officially teaching error in matters of faith and morals.
The only infallible statements are those that the Pope pronounces ex cathedra, that is from the chair of St. Peter, regarding faith or morals. They are usually made when some already accepted doctrine is called into question. No dogma may be "invented". Such infallible pronouncements are quite rare. For instance, in the entire 20th century, the Pope has pronounced only one infallible statement: the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. The Pope did not "invent" the doctrine at that date, but merely confirmed an ancient belief already attested of in the first centuries of the Church.
In short, the Pope is not a quasi-divine man who cannot sin or make mistakes. He is like a pastor - of a very large, international congregation. Catholics owe him respect and obedience, but are not obliged to consider everything he says as coming straight out of God's mouth. This is far from the autocratic system many imagine the Catholic Church to be.
To conclude this section on the authority of our faith, we have seen that sola scriptura is an unbiblical concept. It is unhistorical, illogical and a relatively recent "tradition of men" that creates division within the Church. By contrast, the idea of a Catholic Sacred Tradition, passed down from the apostles to their successors is biblical, historical and logical. Paul wrote to Timothy: "the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim 2:2). Sacred Tradition preserves the teachings of Christ and the apostles. Especially in the light of the Church's sins, it shows the greatness of God in how He has preserved the deposit of faith through 2,000 years of often dark Church history. Catholic practices have come and gone. Sinful popes, bishops, priests and laymen also have come and gone. But through my research I have discovered that the Catholic doctrines in matters of faith and morals have existed since apostolic times and have not changed. This is why the Church is the "pillar and foundation of truth" which Yeshua promised to guard from error.
Belief in Sacred Tradition does not undermine in any way the authority of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. It does not turn me away from the Bible, nor does it cause me to stop searching for more treasures in Scripture. On the contrary, it makes me appreciate the Word of God even more as I come to understand it in the light of the teaching of the apostles passed down to us through the tradition of the Church. Whereas the fruit of sola scriptura has been ever-increasing division and the advent of liberal churches and cults that now question the foundations of our faith, apostolic Catholic tradition has not only preserved the integrity of Yeshua's Gospel, but also the unity of His Church.
Salvation by Faith Alone?
"You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only" (Jam 2:24). This verse, understandably, does not get much attention in Evangelical circles. Even before I began to question the validity of sola scriptura, James 2:24 was causing me to question the second pillar of Protestantism: sola fide, or salvation by faith alone.
When I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior in 1995, the idea of salvation by faith alone had appeared supremely attractive. I could be saved by trusting exclusively in Christ's redemptive work at the cross - this had nothing to do with the extent of my sins or my good works. All I had to do was to "receive" the gift of salvation. No matter what I did thereafter, I could not lose it because it was a gift from God independent of my own actions.
As attractive as this idea of salvation was, however, I could not deny that James 2:24 clearly contradicted it. Paul also exhorts us to "work out our salvation in fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12), and does not take his salvation for granted: "I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (1 Cor 9:27). How could these Scriptures be reconciled with the idea of salvation by faith alone?
To answer this question, I embarked in an extensive study of the concept of salvation in Scripture. This has helped me understand the similarities and differences between the Evangelical and Catholic concepts of salvation, and how other issues, such as the baptism of infants and the notion of purgatory, are intimately related to it.
An Evangelical View of Salvation
According to Evangelical tradition, one is saved by "receiving Jesus as personal Lord and Savior", or becoming "born again". These two expressions are usually viewed as synonyms (although nowhere in Scripture is it written that to be "born again" means to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior). Evangelicals typically use a language such as "I was saved on such and such a date", or "before I was saved...", the implication being that salvation is received as a one-time event in our life. Once we have sincerely repented and made a confession of faith, we are considered part of the "elect", the chosen children of God. Those who have never done this are the "unsaved" or the "lost". Naturally, then, the most emphasized event in Evangelical meetings is the "altar call", where the "unsaved" have to opportunity to "receive the Lord". The process of sanctification is then of course to follow, but it is often treated as an issue that is separate and distinct from the one of salvation.
I do not intend to criticize the concept of the altar call, nor the necessity to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. These are certainly ways through which God can touch the repentant sinner with His grace. Nonetheless, I believe that this Evangelical concept of salvation does not show the complete biblical picture.
The first problems I had with this concept of salvation were more of a practical than a theological nature. When I accepted Jesus as personal Lord and Savior in 1995, I accepted the notion that I had become one of the "elect", and I was now to dedicate my life entirely to God. I thought that all other born-again believers, having made the same commitment to the Lord, would show the same wonderful fruit of a consecrated and godly life. Most Catholics, on the other hand, had not been born-again or received Jesus as Lord and Savior, therefore they were not to be expected to be like "real believers".
The reality however, was different. In the six years that I have been in Evangelical and Messianic circles, I have seen believers who "have been born-again" and who have subsequently completely backslidden into the world. I have seen strife, selfishness, lack of love, dishonesty, arrogance, pride and betrayal, in just about every "born-again" church that I have been - and often observed some of these unflattering qualities in myself! On the other hand, I have known Catholics who have been a constant example of humility, love, self-sacrifice and faithfulness to God. My point is not to say that one side is better than the other, but rather to question the difference between a "born-again-backslidden-believer" and a "baptized-as-an-infant-Catholic", who has "endured to the end" in his faith in Christ (Mt 10:22). Who is "saved" here according to Evangelical theology? These questions confused me until I began to understand what the Bible really says about salvation.
Salvation: One-Time Event or Continual Process?
Evangelicals sometimes have a rather narrow view of the term "salvation", equating it with the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of going to heaven. The Bible, however, presents a much wider meaning, either in the Hebrew word yeshuah or the Greek sozo. The term refers to the deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians (Ex 14:13), victory over the enemy in time of war (1 Sam 11:13), temporary deliverance from death, or even physical healing. When Jairus came to Jesus to plead with Him to heal his daughter, he told him "Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be saved (Gr. sozo, usually translated be healed), and she will live" (Mk 5:23). In the same chapter, the woman who had an issue of blood said to herself: "If only I may touch [Jesus'] clothes, I shall be saved" (gr. sozo, NKJ translates be made well) (Mk 5:28). After she was healed, Jesus told her "Daughter, your faith has saved you" (sozo, NKJ has made you well). Yet the only issue here is one of physical healing - there is no talk about forgiveness of sins or receiving Jesus as savior.
These examples demonstrate that "salvation" in the Bible implies a complete restoration of man to God's image, in the physical, emotional, and spiritual realms. It is not a "one time event", but a continual process over the course of our lives. Paul sees salvation as a past experience: "For we were saved" (Rom 8:24, Eph 2:5-8), as a present process, conditional upon our faithfulness: we are "among those who are being saved" (2 Cor 2:15) and "you are being saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you" (1 Cor 15:2), and also as a future event: "we have hope that we shall be saved" (Rom 5:9-10, 1 Cor. 3:12-15). Perhaps the scripture that best shows that salvation is a process and not a one-time event is Romans 13:11: "for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed". Even though the Roman believers were "saved" when they repented and were baptized, Paul makes it clear that their salvation is not yet completed as long as they are alive.
The First Covenant: Circumcision
In order to better understand the concept of salvation in the New Testament it is important to first understand how Israel was justified before God in the Tanakh. A study of the relationship between covenant, circumcision and justification in the Old Testament will shed light upon the relationship between covenant, baptism and salvation in the New Testament. This will show us that salvation in the Bible is not seen merely as an individualistic one-time event that begins only in adulthood through a conscious decision to believe (though this is also very important), but rather is an insertion into God's covenant people, initiated within the faith of the family and community through baptism (which can therefore be received by infants). This gift of salvation is then called to lifelong growth in faitfulness and love, and it can be lost by persistent and unrepented sin, neglect, or rebellion.
In the Old Testament, God's plan of salvation was initiated through the covenant of circumcision with Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:1-3; 17:1-12). The male child who was not circumcised had broken God's covenant and was to be cut off from his people (v.14). Circumcision was not meant to be only an outward covenant: God also commanded the people of Israel to "circumcise the foreskin of your heart" (Deut. 10:16). Paul wrote that "he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter" (Rom 2:28-29). Both things were important: the outward sign of the covenant, and the inner reality of faith and obedience that manifested the covenant in the Israelite's life.
God's covenant with Israel was both individual and collective. It was individual because each Israelite was responsible for his actions before God. But it was also collective, because God redeemed a people, and not just a bunch of individuals. Children were automatically circumcised on the eighth day and included in the people of God without asking them for permission or a profession of faith. This did not however dispense them with personal responsibility for their actions and lives. Circumcision embraced a child into the covenant, but did not guarantee justification before God. An Israelite who transgressed important commandments was to be "cut off" from his people and put to death. Ezekiel makes it clear that salvation was not dependant on circumcision or on one's good standing with God in the past, but on one's present heart attitude, faith and deeds: "if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live... But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die." (Ezek 18:21-24).
Salvation in the Tanakh, in the narrow sense of forgiveness of sins and assurance of eternal life, is hidden because the Messiah had not yet come. In the covenant of circumcision, however, we see a type and a shadow of the greater salvation that was to come. Abraham was justified by faith. He "believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness" (Gen 15:6; Gal 3:6). He was also "justified by works when he offered Isaac on the altar." His faith was "working together with his works, and by works his faith was made perfect" (Jam 2:21-22).
The New Covenant: Baptism - the New Birth (and the legitimacy of infant baptism)
With the coming of the Messiah and His establishment of the New Covenant, God's plan of salvation was fully revealed. The New Covenant's equivalent of circumcision is baptism. Paul calls it the "circumcision of Christ": "In [Yeshua] you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith" (Col 2:11-12).
Although there are many parallels between circumcision and baptism, Yeshua has given us a better covenant (Heb 9:22). Unlike circumcision, baptism has true salvation power: "In [Noah's ark] only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also" (1Pet 3:20-21). If we look at the true biblical meaning of the expression "to be born again", in fact, we discover that it is associated with baptism and not with a profession of faith. To Nicodemus' question on how he should be born again, Yeshua answered that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:5). Paul speaks in similar terms: "according to His mercy [God] saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior" (Tit 3:5-6). We see in these passages a direct connection between the washing through water and salvation.
Conscious of this close relationship between circumcision and baptism, we are now in a better position to understand the Catholic view of baptism and salvation. When a child is born into a Catholic family, it receives the sacrament of baptism as the efficacious sign of God's covenant which erases the mark of original sin and restores God's sanctifying grace and divine life into the soul (though the inclination to sin remains). As with circumcision, God makes a covenant not only with individuals but also with a family and a people. In both covenants, infants are received into the household of faith although they are not yet old enough to consciously believe. Baptism opens the door to salvation, but in no way diminishes one's accountability before God, the necessity of personal faith, the importance of one's actions, or the consequences of one's sins. This is why Paul tells us that we should "work out [our] salvation in fear in trembling" (Phil 2:12) and not take our salvation for granted: "But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (1 Cor 9:27). We are not immune from the risk of being cut off: "Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off." (Rom 11:22). This is in perfect harmony with Yeshua's words: "Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven (Mt 7:21). Our lives and works are important because they are our response to God's covenant with us.
Many Evangelicals logically oppose the idea of infant baptism because of their notion of salvation as a "one-time event": Since an infant has not yet made a decision to believe, baptism would imply that it could be "saved" without ever coming to faith. But this individualistic view of baptism completely misses the collective aspect of God's covenant. The apostles understood that God receives children into the covenant by grace, even if they are not yet able to make a decision for Christ. Since mainly infants were circumcised, it was natural that the "circumcision of Chris