Faith and Reason in the Context of ConversionJul 26th, 2010 | By Guest Author | Category: Blog Posts
The following is a guest post written by Devin Rose. Devin is a 32-year-old software engineer and lay apologist who blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard. He and his wife, Katie, live in Austin with their four children.
After years as a devout atheist, I converted to Evangelical Protestantism in February of 2000 and was baptized at a Southern Baptist church. One year later I became Catholic. I would like to use my own (double) conversion to examine the role that faith and reason played in discovering the Catholic Church.
I initially turned to Christ from atheism out of sheer desperation: I was clinically depressed, suffering from an anxiety disorder with panic attacks and agoraphobia. My atheism offered nothing but black despair. Christianity seemed to offer more, so I “gave it a try.” Since I had been brought up to believe in a kind of scientism, which holds that the natural sciences are the lone authoritative source for forming one’s worldview, the idea of believing in God, much less a God who became man, seemed irrational. Nonetheless, I realized that I had nothing to lose, since all my own efforts to solve my problems had failed. I reasoned that if God was real, He would help me. If He did not exist, then trying to believe in Him would do nothing, and I would be no worse off than I already was.
I suppressed the many atheistic beliefs which I “knew” were true, and tried to believe in God. I began praying a simple prayer each day: “God, you know I have never believed in you, but I am in trouble and need help. If you are real, then please help me.” I also started reading an old King James version of the Bible that my cousins had given me when I was ten years old. Amazingly, over the next few months, my disordered anxieties improved somewhat, and I began to feel something (that must have been the grace of God) drawing me to read more, pray more, and to try to believe more.
Happily, I had several good friends who were Evangelical Protestant Christians, and around this time they took me under their wing. I had a ton of questions, especially about how Christians could reconcile the theory of evolution with their beliefs, and my friends had answers. I started going to their Baptist church and learning more about the Christian Faith. After a few more months, I was baptized and quickly became an Evangelical of Evangelicals. Just as I had been a fervent atheist, I now became a fervent Protestant. I accepted the (NIV) Bible I was given by my new-found brothers in Christ and off I went! Bible studies, accountability groups, frequent church attendance (with requisite note-taking in the margins of my Bible during the sermon), praise and worship, serving the poor and needy–I was living a new life in Christ, and it felt great.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was absorbing a specifically Evangelical Protestant understanding of the Christian Faith–not purely Reformed or Anglican or Lutheran or Methodist or Anabaptist, but some parts of all of them mixed together. However, after six months of being a Christian, I started noticing the fact that there were lots of other churches and realized that there were significant differences in the beliefs of Christian denominations. Previously, as an atheist, I knew at some level that these differences must exist, but all types of Christians were so far from where I was at the time that their internal differences seemed unimportant. Now that I was a Christian, those differences began to matter.
I was taught that Jesus Christ was God and that the sixty-six book Bible was God’s inerrant Word, and I believed it with all my heart. Unwittingly, I had also accepted en masse all of the other standard Protestant doctrines. Yet even with the same Bible and these fundamental doctrines like sola Scriptura and sola Fide as common ground, we Protestants managed to find substantial disagreement on a host of important issues, so much so that split after split after split had divided Protestantism into thousands of splinters. Something struck me as very wrong about that, especially given Christ’s clear statements in John 17 that we all be perfectly one, as He and the Father are one.
Around this same time, I learned that Catholics had seventy-three books in their Bibles. I assumed that they must have added books to the Bible, since I had already accepted the claim that Catholics “contradicted Scripture” in many ways, adding extra man-made traditions onto God’s Word. But, I soon began asking how, exactly, I knew that the Bible was composed of the particular sixty-six books that I was given. I asked the canon question and at first was blithely confident that I would find the answer from my Protestant friends. But their answers weren’t convincing–in fact, most of them hadn’t even considered the question. So I turned to the internet to find what I knew must be solid Protestant arguments for the canon. Much to my chagrin, the answers I found there were weak as well, and I began to grow uneasy.
The “answers” that Protestant apologists gave to the canon question often focused on pointing out the historical testimony that was in favor of the Protestant canon as reasons for believing it to be true. But though there is some historical testimony in favor of the Protestant canon, there is at least as much testimony for the Catholic one. (Not to mention the fact that the Eastern Orthodox Churches also accept the deuterocanonical books.) If the canon had been universally agreed upon in the Church by the early second century, perhaps it could give one certainty that that particular canon was obviously the true one, but that simply didn’t happen. Instead, for over three centuries different canonical lists were proposed and discussed in the long and winding road of the Church’s discernment of the canon. The ambiguous historical testimony regarding the formation of the canon cannot provide conscience-binding certainty for any of the different canons accepted today by the major Christian groups. I realized that my belief in the Protestant canon could not be maintained without making an ad hoc claim that God protected the Church from erring as she determined which books belong to the canon, but did not protect from error anything else the Church did.
But I had already put my faith in God, accepting that He had communicated infallibly to us through these sixty-six books, so what was I to do? One possibility was to simply claim that “I believed” that the Protestant canon was the true one and use that as my starting theological assumption. Some of my Evangelical friends opted for this route. I would thus avoid the ad hoc logical fallacy. But this attempt to salvage the position just traded out one offense against reason for a worse one: the error of presuppositionalism.1 Presuppositionalism is the idea that every worldview or position is based on theological assumptions and that the only way to find the truth is by choosing the right presuppositions. It is a form of philosophical skepticism which doubts the ability of the human intellect to ascertain truth. If I accepted presuppositionalism, I knew that I would then have no argument to make against a Catholic who claimed his starting point was the seventy-three book Bible or the infallible Church, or against the Mormon who claimed the Book of Mormon as his theological assumption.
So far, I didn’t see a way of reasonably believing in the Protestant canon and in the inerrancy of its books, but what if I simply gave up the belief in inerrancy? I would then entirely avoid the fallacies of the first position and side-step Catholic arguments for the canon on the basis of infallibility. Perhaps it is reasonable to believe that, instead of inerrant Scriptures, God gave Christians a loose set of writings to act as a guide and touchstone, which were to be discussed and prayed about in community, and though this could not give certainty that any given doctrine is true, it could, with the Spirit’s help, get us “close enough” to the truth so that we could live lives pleasing to God?
This position does not have an ad hoc fallacy or a presuppositionalist stance, since it lacks the belief that God can and did work infallibly through fallible human beings. Nonetheless, it has problems. For one thing, it isn’t reasonable that God would leave us in such a state of darkness with regard to His revelation. If He protected nothing from error, then the deposit of faith that Christ gave to the Apostles could have been corrupted almost immediately. In fact, this is the position held by the Jesus Seminar and scholars like Bart Ehrmann, who have created their own theories of what “Jesus really taught” to fit the subset of historical writings they deem authoritative. If one denies God’s protection of the truth from error, the possibility of handed-down divine revelation is completely lost. Instead of being able to look to the living Church as the authority to be trusted, one must choose which members of the academy to follow, and hope that the chosen scholars are trustworthy.
I found myself at a cross-roads: I could either jettison my nascent faith or find a more reasonable ground for my faith. Only two options seemed left to me: either God protected one Christian denomination’s teachings from error, or He did not. I was not yet ready to abandon my new faith by giving up on the possibility that God made sure we could know the truth, even two thousand years after Christ, so I decided to explore the option that God did indeed protect some Church from error.
The two “denominations” that had the hubris to even claim such protection were the Mormons and the Catholics.2 And the Mormons never seemed credible to me, whether as an atheist or an Evangelical Protestant, so my attention turned to the institution which I had already learned to dread and mistrust: the Catholic Church.
I read the writings of the Church Fathers and grew even more uneasy. Whether their teachings squared with those of the Catholic Church I did not yet know enough to confirm, but one thing I did know was that their beliefs differed significantly from my Baptist faith. For instance, the Fathers’ unanimous belief in baptismal regeneration was undeniable and disturbing because it meant that either that doctrine was true (and my symbolic-only baptismal doctrine was false) or that the Church fell into serious error in her teachings almost immediately.3 As I investigated more doctrines which divide Catholics and Protestants, I found that the Fathers’ writings strongly favored the Catholic positions. For every one quote that could possibly be construed as supporting uniquely-Protestant teachings, twenty more existed that were utterly incompatible with Protestantism.
After a significant period of study and prayer, I became Catholic. Why? Because I already had placed my faith in Christ and had faith that He could and did work infallibly through fallible human beings (in the sixty-six books of the Bible I accepted at the time). “So what’s to stop Him from working infallibly through fallible human beings in other matters of the Faith? Or perhaps even in all matters of faith?” I couldn’t see anything unreasonable about that, and accepting the Catholic Church’s claim of infallibility resolved the ad hoc rationale I had accepted as a Protestant that He worked infallibly in sixty-six specific instances but in no others. (Well, to be more accurate, that He had done so sixty-seven times: in the sixty-six inspired books plus the decision about which books those were).
Reflecting back on my double conversion, I now realize that I came to faith in Jesus Christ outside of full communion with the Catholic Church, which was only possible because God is so gracious that even schisms cannot thwart His desire for all men to come to know Him in truth. Only after prayer and study did I come to realize that there were flaws in the reasoning supporting my Protestant beliefs. I knew that God would not require me to believe something that contradicted reason. From reading John 17, I also knew that God wanted us to be in unity. But the principle of sola Scriptura was incapable of achieving this unity for Protestantism, so something was wrong: either sola Scriptura was false, or God had given us a deficient means to reach unity in the fullness of the truth.
Even before I knew Him, God gave me reason to see that my life without Him was empty and purposeless. He brought me to a place of despair so that I would be humbled enough to recognize my need for Him. After becoming a Christian, He again showed me through various reasons that the Catholic Church was all that she claimed to be. None of this, of course, was done without tremendous outpourings of grace. God gave us a great gift in His Church by making it both beautifully faithful as well as eminently reasonable. If either piece were missing, it would be immeasurably more difficult to discover her. But God in His wisdom has shown us that just as grace builds upon nature, so faith builds upon reason and does not eradicate it or make it unnecessary. Pope Benedict recently devoted a Wednesday audience to St. Thomas Aquinas and explained that “the trust St. Thomas placed in both ways to knowledge—faith and reason—can be traced to his conviction that both come from the single wellspring of all truth, the divine Logos, which is at work in the area of both creation and redemption”4 The truth in its fullness can be found in the Church and the good news is that it can be known by the most brilliant philosopher and the most simple manual laborer alike. Let us continue to pray for and work toward unity in the truth.
- by Devin Rose. Devin blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard.
- To gain a better understanding of the error of presuppositionalism, see Bryan Cross’ helpful blog post or this Called to Communion article (as well as the comments). [↩]
- My understanding of the Orthodox was that they claimed to be the true Church but only claimed infallibility of the first seven ecumenical councils. At the time of my conversion, I only examined the Orthodox claims in a cursory way, but having done more in-depth study over the past ten years, I remain convinced that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded. [↩]
- Interestingly, Protestant apologist William Webster also concedes that the Church went off the rails on baptism early on, in his book, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History [↩]
- Papal Audience on 6/16/2010. [↩]