I Fought the Church, and the Church WonSep 23rd, 2012 | By Jason Stellman | Category: Featured Articles
This is a guest post by Jason Stellman. Jason was born and raised in Orange County, CA, and served as a missionary with Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa in Uganda (’91-’92) and in Hungary (’94-’00). After becoming Reformed and being subsequently “dismissed” from ministry with Calvary, he went to Westminster Seminary California where he received an M.Div. in 2004. After graduation he was ordained by the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America and called to plant Exile Presbyterian Church in the Seattle area, where he served from 2004 until resigning in the Spring of 2012. He is the author of Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet (Reformation Trust, 2009), and The Destiny of the Species (forthcoming from Wipf and Stock Publications). In 2011 he served as the prosecutor in the trial of Peter Leithart in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the PCA. He currently resides in the Seattle area with his wife and three children. He was received into full communion with the Catholic Church on September 23, 2012.
Part of me has wished for a while now that I was born early enough to have been a fan of The Clash back in the Seventies. The first song I ever heard by them (several years after its release) was their cover of Sonny Curtis’s hit, the chorus of which goes, “I fought the law, and the law won.” Despite being a fairly law-abiding guy, I can relate to being on the losing side of a battle, only mine was not against the law, but against the Church.
As many of you know, I recently resigned from my pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church in America (you can read my resignation letter here, as well as some clarifying posts here and here). My stated reasons for stepping down were that I could no longer in good conscience uphold my ordination vow that as a PCA minister I sincerely accept the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture. More specifically, I no longer see the Reformed doctrines of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide as faithfully reflecting what the Bible teaches, which is why I will, Lord willing, be received into full communion with the Catholic Church sometime in the next several months.
The purpose of this piece is not to unpack those claims in detail (there will be plenty of time for that in the future), but rather to provide a little more insight into the process that led up to my resignation, as well as to respond briefly to those who have sought to analyze me and the supposed internal psychological factors that must have led to my making such a drastic decision.
The Lure of Rome?
One of the things I found especially curious (slash bemusing, slash maddening) while reading the diagnoses of my volunteer analysts was the fact that my being drawn to, or lured by, Rome was simply assumed, and that the only real question was what, exactly, was it that ultimately did it. Was it some positive aspect of Catholicism that appealed to me, or was it a nagging drawback of Protestantism that finally proved to be the deal-breaker?
Now, I realize that I went into a period of radio silence during the weeks following my resignation (one that was not exactly self-imposed, but that has turned out to be a blessing), and that this created something of a vacuum that invited speculation on the part of some. But now that I am no longer “off the grid,” I would like to clear something up once and for all:
Catholicism never held any allure for me, nor do I find it particularly alluring now.
Now to be honest there has always been an attraction of a “Wouldn’t-it-be-nice” or “stained-glass-windows-are-rad” variety, but when it came to an actual positive drawing to Rome or a negative driving away from Geneva, there has never been any such thing. In fact, since much of my theological output has been part of the public domain for so long (especially in the form of my preaching, teaching, and writing), this claim of mine can actually be proven. If anyone cares to go back and listen to or read what I was talking about right up until the day I was confronted with the claims of the Catholic Church as they relate to those of Protestantism, the inquirer will easily discover that I was about as staunchly confessional an Old School Presbyterian as anyone would want to meet. There was not even the slightest hint of discontent with my ecclesiastical identity, not a trace of longing for greater certitude, nor a smidgen of regret that my soteriology didn’t have enough works in it.
I will raise the pot even more: I wrote a book whose entire purpose was to demonstrate, in the highest and most attractive terms possible, how ironically boastworthy all the supposed disadvantages of amillennial Protestantism are. Messiness? Lack of infallible certitude? The need for faith over sight? Check, check, and check.
Further still, so far from longing for a type of kinder, gentler Catholicism that I could disguise in Reformed garb, I was the prosecutor in a doctrinal trial against a fellow minister in my presbytery for espousing views that I, and many others, considered dangerously close to being Catholic. No, there was never any desire to place human works anywhere but where the Reformed confessions say they belong: in the category of sanctification and never justification.
In a word, I was as happy and comfortable in my confessional Presbyterian skin as anyone, and the trust I had earned from many well-known and respected Reformed theologians, as well as having graduated with honors from one of the most confessionally staunch and academically rigorous Reformed seminaries in the nation, should be sufficient to dispel any notions that I never really understood Reformed theology in the first place or that I was always a Catholic in Protestant clothing.
Driven, Not Drawn
One of the things that made fighting against the claims of the Catholic Church so frustrating was that there was no single, knock-down-drag-out argument to refute; neither was there an isolated passage of Scripture or silver-bullet issue of theology to deal with. If it had been simply a matter of answering one specific challenge that came from a single direction, the battle would have been much easier to win. But as it happened, there were two distinct issues that were coming under attack (Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide), and the attacks were coming from multiple directions: the biblical, the historical, and, in the case of Sola Scriptura, the philosophical as well.
In the case of Sola Scriptura, I, as a self-described Reformed non-evangelical, considered the distinction between Solo- and Sola Scriptura as absolutely essential to my own spiritual identity. It was the evangelicals who were the heirs of Anabaptism, not the Reformed; it was the evangelicals who espoused “no creed but Christ,” not the Reformed; it was the evangelicals who interpreted the Bible in isolation from history and tradition, not the Reformed. Therefore as one can imagine, when I was confronted with Catholic claims that called this crucial distinction into question, it was a sucker-punch of epic proportions. Needless to say, my confessional brethren and I did not appreciate our ancestral city of Geneva being confused with Saddleback.
But the more I read and wrestled, the more I began to see that Geneva was not being “confused with” Saddleback at all; the two were just different sides of the same coin (or to be more precise with the metaphor, they were sister-cities in the same Protestant county). Readers of this site have no need for the arguments to be rehearsed here, so suffice it to say that, philosophically speaking, it became clear to me that Sola Scriptura could not provide a way to speak meaningfully about the necessary distinction between orthodoxy and heresy (or even between essentials and non-essentials); neither could it justify the 27-book New Testament canon, create the unity that that canon demands, or provide the means of avoiding the schism that that canon condemns.
Historically speaking, the idea that the written Word of God is formally sufficient for all things related to faith and practice, such that anyone of normal intelligence and reasonably good intentions could read it and deduce from it what is necessary for orthodoxy and orthopraxy, is not a position that I see reflected in the writings of the early Church fathers. While there are plenty of statements in their writings that speak in glowing terms about the qualitative uniqueness of Scripture, those statements, for them, do not do away with the need for Scripture to be interpreted by the Church in a binding and authoritative way when necessary.
This discovery in the church fathers is unsurprising if the same position can be found in the New Testament itself, which I now believe it can. To cite but one example, the Church in her earliest days was confronted with a question that Jesus had not addressed with any specificity or directness, namely, the question of Gentile inclusion in the family of God. In order to answer this question, the apostles and elders of the Church gathered together in council to hear all sides and reach a verdict. What is especially interesting about Luke’s account of the Jerusalem Council is the role that Scripture played, as well as the nature of the verdict rendered. Concerning the former, James’s citation of Amos is curious in that the passage in the prophet seems to have little to do with the matter at hand, and yet James cites Amos’s words about the tent of David being rebuilt to demonstrate that full Gentile membership in the Church fulfills that prophecy. Moreover, Scripture functioned for the Bishop of Jerusalem not as the judge that settled the dispute, but rather as a witness that testified to what settled it, namely, the judgment of the apostles and elders. Rather than saying, “We agree with Scripture,” he says in effect, “Scripture agrees with us” (v. 15, 19). And finally, when the decision is ultimately reached, it is understood by the apostles and elders not as an optional and fallible position with which the faithful may safely disagree if they remain biblically unconvinced, but rather as an authoritative and binding pronouncement that was bound in heaven even as it was on earth (v. 28). Despite some superficial similarities, no existing Protestant denomination with an operating norm of Sola Scriptura can replicate the dynamic, or claim the authority of the Jerusalem Council (or of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon for that matter). The fact that the Bible’s own example of how Church courts operate was hamstrung by Protestantism’s view of biblical authority was something I began to find disturbingly ironic.
Moving on to Sola Fide, I found myself wrestling with this issue from both a historical and biblical perspective as well, and this is what ultimately proved to be the coup de grâce for me as a Protestant. As long as I believed that Catholicism mucked up the gospel so severely, its arguments about authority remained merely annoying, like a stone in my shoe that I would eventually get used to (after all, better to be unauthoritatively right about justification than authoritatively wrong about it). But when I began to dig into the issue more deeply and seek to understand Rome on its own terms, I began to experience what some have referred to as a “paradigm crisis.” A severe one.
As a Protestant minister, I had always operated under the assumption that the fullest treatment of the gospel, and of justification in particular, came from the apostle Paul, and that the rest of what the New Testament had to say on these issues should be filtered through him. But as I began to investigate again things that I had thought were long-settled for me, I began to discover just how problematic that hermeneutical approach really was. If justification by faith alone was indeed “the article on which the church stands or falls,” as Reformed theology claimed, then wouldn’t we expect it to have been taught by Jesus himself, somewhere? Moreover, wouldn’t John have taught it, too? And Peter, and James? Shoot, wouldn’t Paul himself have taught the imputation of alien righteousness somewhere outside of just two of his thirteen epistles?
Having realized that I was using a few select (and hermeneutically debatable) passages from Romans and Galatians as the filter through which I understood everything else the New Testament had to say about salvation, I began to conclude that such an approach was as arbitrary as it was irresponsible. I then sought to identify a paradigm, or simple statement of the gospel, that provided more explanatory value than Sola Fide did. As I hope to unpack in more detail eventually, I have come to understand the gospel in terms of the New Covenant gift of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, who causes fruit to be borne in our lives by reproducing the image of the Son in the adopted children of the Father. If love of God and neighbor fulfills the law, and if the fruit of the Spirit is love, having been shed abroad by the Spirit in our hearts, then it seems to follow that the promise of the gospel is equivalent with the promise of the New Covenant that God’s law will no longer be external to the believer, but will be written upon his mind and heart, such that its righteous demands are fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. And again unsurprisingly, when I turned to the early Church fathers, and especially Augustine, it was this very understanding of the gospel that I encountered over and over again.
While the case for the Catholic Church may not be immediately obvious or easily winnable, the fact remains that Rome’s claims are philosophically compelling, historically plausible, and biblically persuasive. Yet despite the claims of most Reformed believers who, when wrestling with the issue of people like me leaving Geneva for the supposedly-greener pastures of Rome, insist that such a move betrays a “quest for illegitimate religious certainty,” the fact is that if it is a sense of personal and psychological certitude that one is searching for, Catholicism will more than likely disappoint. Ironically enough, Protestantism provides more certitude for the seeker than Catholicism does, since the ultimate basis for the truthfulness of its claims is one’s agreement with one’s self and one’s own interpretation of Scripture. But if what you are searching for is not subjective certitude but the Church that Jesus founded, the Catholic Church’s case for being that Church, when harkened to with charity, humility, and faith seeking understanding, is as compelling as it is disruptive.
And make no mistake, the Catholic Church is disruptive. It is audacious and confrontational, sucker-punching and line-in-the-sand drawing. Like the Lion Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, it is not a tame Church, and will make no promise not to devour and discomfit its subjects as they partake of its life-giving water, causing them to constantly bend the knee and cede their worldly wisdom to the foolishness of the cross. In the words of Aslan to Jill, who expressed fear about letting down her guard to drink from the water by which he stood, “There are no other streams.” Or the words of Peter to Jesus when asked if the Twelve would forsake Him because of His difficult and demanding message, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The Catholic Church, wistfully alluring? Hardly. Tidy and tame? Not by a long shot, for once discovered it demands that the seeker relinquish the one thing above all others that offers him confidence, namely, his own autonomy. In fact, submitting oneself to the authority of the Catholic Church is the most harrowing experience a person will ever endure, which is why the suggestion that converts from Geneva to Rome are simply opting for a feel-good, fairy-tale romance betraying an “over-realized eschatology” and desire to skip blissfully down the yellow-brick road to heaven, utterly trivializes the entire ordeal.
In a word, I fought the Church, and the Church won. And what it did was beat me, but it didn’t draw me, entice me, or lure me by playing upon some deep, latent psychosis or desire on my part for something Protestantism just couldn’t provide. Catholicism went from being so obviously ridiculous that it wasn’t even worth bothering to oppose, to being something whose claims were so audacious that I couldn’t help opposing them. But what it never was, was attractive, and in many ways it still isn’t.
But what Catholicism is, I have come to discover, is true.
(Update: See also “How the Church Won: An Interview with Jason Stellman” – eds.)