Exposing the Blind Side: A Reverted Catholic Looks BackJan 1st, 2014 | By Guest Author | Category: Blog Posts
Gustavo Martin-Asensio was born and raised in Madrid, Spain, in a traditional Catholic family of four. He discovered Evangelicalism while a high school exchange student in West Virginia, and immediately became an avid student of the Bible. Gustavo pursued wholeheartedly the study of the Scriptures, obtaining a masters degree (MCS) in biblical languages from Regent College, Vancouver, and a Ph.D. in biblical Greek and linguistics from the University of Surrey in the U.K. Gustavo is married to Magdalena, a Polish citizen, and together they have two boys, David (5) and Gabriel (2). Gustavo and Magdalena initiated a process of reentry into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2011, receiving the sacrament of Confirmation in May 2013. Among Gustavo´s publications are: Transitivity based Foregrounding in the Acts of the Apostles (Sheffield. JSNTSup 202; 2000), and «Procedural Register in the Olivet Discourse: A Functional Linguistic Approach to Mark 13», in Biblica, Vol. 90 (2009) 457-483. Gustavo presently works in the telecommunications software industry.
I was born and raised in Madrid, Spain in a traditional Catholic family in which weekly mass attendance was a given. My father, a former seminarian, enforced an outward participation in the sacraments, while at the same time failing to fulfill his most basic duties as a father and husband, to put it charitably. This deep inconsistency, this lack of integrity and depth in my father´s religiosity was apparent to my brother and me. Although we never rejected faith per se, we bode our time until in our late teens we had a chance to make our own decisions.
While completing my senior year of high school as an exchange student in West Virginia, I became friends with a girl who invited me to attend her independent Baptist Church. Her family and her community embraced me and demonstrated for me both agape and koinonia. In addition, their strong emphasis on personal conversion, on the fact that Jesus had died for me and was calling me by name to give Him my life and follow Him felt new and compelling to me. When I finally did respond to an altar call, it was completely genuine and a fundamental turning point in my life. In retrospect, it is clear to me that 17 years of liturgy and sacraments, exposure to God´s word in mass, and weekly recitation of the creed, ensured that this decision for Christ was not done in a vacuum, or merely driven by emotion. Yet, I needed to see and experience Christian love in community, and I needed to hear a call to personal conversion. In God´s mercy, this crucial moment in my journey to faith took place far from home, far from my father, in rural West Virginia.
To make a long story short, the pastor of this Church presented me with a beautiful leather-bound KJV Bible and told me to dive into that Book, pray and evangelize faithfully until Jesus comes. An almost unquenchable love for the Word did take hold of me, and I ended up going to Bible school in Hawaii, followed by graduate school in Biblical languages at Regent College in Vancouver, and lastly earning a Ph.D. in New Testament Greek at Surrey University in the UK. While at Regent College, a set of circumstances converged providentially upon me, which started me on a journey that would lead me back home: Back home to Spain, and more importantly, back home to the Catholic Church.
After a couple of years of fully restored communion with the Church, I have taken time to reflect on my experience of over two decades in Evangelicalism. I want to share the highlights of that reflection in the hope that they will prove useful to other pilgrims making their way, or their way back to Rome. None of the below is intended as an attack against Evangelicalism. I feel nothing but love and gratitude for my friends in Christ in the various Evangelical communities to which I belonged. I have had the immense blessing of encountering numerous men and women of God full of the Spirit over these many years, many of them increasingly aware of both the flaws in Protestantism, and the strengths and beauty of Rome. However, I do believe that all the marvelous, ecumenical awareness and activity we see among Evangelicals today must eventually lead only to full and visible unity with the one Church that Jesus and His apostles founded.
In retrospect, I have come to realize that during my twenty years in Evangelicalism, I suffered the effects of a substantial gap in my theological field of vision. I had a significant blind side, as crippling as the one that gave Lawrence Taylor an open door to sack Joe Theismann and end his brilliant career on the 18th of November, 1985.
My blind side was characterized by a semi-Gnostic and multifaceted inability to recognize sanctity in matter, grace in nature, goodness in creation, and the deep and blessed connectedness of the visible with the invisible. As I moved from theologically naïve independent Baptist to mainline Evangelicalism and finally to a thoroughly Reformed position, this blind side in my theology became ingrained and entrenched. My blind side impacted the way I saw, or, rather, did not see, several fundamental truths that constitute, I would argue, the essence of what separates Protestants and Catholics to this day. I will discuss these truths in the paragraphs that follow, by addressing this blind side in three major areas:
During my two decades as an Evangelical, Mary was nearly invisible to me. Perhaps above all else, the Mother of God stood squarely in my proverbial blind side. In the context of telling his conversion story, Peter Kreeft shares the account of an ecumenical meeting attended by both Catholics and Evangelicals. Upon returning home, the Catholics were asking all their friends and family: “Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and savior,?” while the Evangelicals demanded: “Why don´t we love Mary?” Why indeed?
Some of the best minds in Evangelicalism have done much in recent years to steer the popular understanding of Sola Scriptura away from radical individualism, aligning it, rather, with the way Luther, for example, would have understood it (see, for example the Evangelical Ressourcement book series). Both Luther and Calvin saw themselves as part of a hermeneutical tradition that went back to Augustine and even earlier, and understood and embraced the fact that biblical interpretation must always take place in a spirit of faithfulness to that tradition. Further, a number of Protestant biblical scholars have stressed the importance of interpreting individual passages within a larger framework of the history of salvation running throughout the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments. When it comes to understanding the doctrine of Mary, both insights are required. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made this point with tremendous clarity in his 2003 Communio article “Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine and Piety in Faith and Theology as a Whole.” Mary stood, Ratzinger shows, at the climax of salvation history, appearing at all the crucial moments of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, as well as the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. With her quiet, humble, believing fiat, she becomes bodily the mother of the Lord, but also more importantly she is Israel, she is the Church, and her yes to God becomes humanity´s yes to God.
But the tremendous theological significance of Mary is not discernible within a narrow Biblicism that weighs numbers of verses, rather than the significance of these verses in the context of the history of salvation. My Evangelical proof texting on the subject of Mary was misguided and fruitless, because I failed to see the larger picture both in biblical theology and in what was then my own Protestant tradition going back to Luther…and Augustine. It is amazing to me, looking back, to observe the selective Evangelical readings of Luther and Augustine which, somehow, never get to the strong Marian passages.
But Mary is not only of tremendous importance for theology, but equally so for anthropology. In Ratzinger´s words, “Mariology demonstrates that the doctrine of grace does not revoke creation, but is the definitive Yes to creation” (p. 156). Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, insightfully affirms that God enters the heart of matter: “mater comes from materia, in the noblest sense, indicating concreteness and reality” (Mary, Mirror of the Church, p. 65). The incarnation begins with Mary, God´s marvelous beachhead in the redemption of humankind. Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, was made full of grace, kecharitomene, and becomes the first and greatest beneficiary of her Son´s salvific gift. As the Nicean fathers rightly stressed, Jesus was born of Mary (ex Maria virgine), not through Mary. That is, Jesus did in fact take upon himself Mary´s nature. But her nature had been made ready, had been thoroughly graced by God, so that in Mary, Jesus takes on full, true human nature, except for original sin. God´s graceful gift to Mary was fitting and proportionate to her glorious task. Yet, God´s grace requires and relies upon Mary´s yes, freely given. That is, God´s preserving Mary from original sin does not detract from her humanity nor from her freedom, but, rather, elevates them.
While as an Evangelical I was fully orthodox in my embrace of the Nicene and Chalcedonian symbols, I had missed a fundamental dimension of the incarnation. The Marian dogma of the Immaculate Conception has been for me the easiest to accept, because it is fundamentally Christological, and the truth it expounds was clearly understood by the fathers, by Augustine and even by Luther. Immaculate Mary is the paradigm and mirror of the Church, whose glorious end is to be made “immaculate” (me echousan spilon, Eph. 5:27). This blind side of mine manifested itself in other ways. As Cantalamessa points out, the same God who became flesh in Mary´s womb also comes to us in the heart of matter, in the Eucharist, and those who cannot comprehend the former, are not likely to grasp the latter. (Cantalamessa, p.65)
In the context of both Ecclesiology and Church History, Evangelical seminary students typically explore the various Protestant theories on the Eucharist, vis-à-vis the received Catholic view, in reaction to which Reformed perspectives emerged. From Luther´s understanding of a real corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist, to Zwingli and Calvin´s spiritual and commemorative interpretations, Evangelicals choose their own position in light of their denominational commitments and their exegesis of the relevant texts. The shared starting point, however, is that the received pre–sixteenth century understanding of a true, material presence of Jesus´ flesh and blood in the Eucharistic bread and wine, is an unscriptural medieval sophistry to be rejected.
Calvin´s commentary on John 6, along with his detailed treatment in the Institutes, are probably the most influential texts on the subject among Evangelicals to this day. Calvin, usually an outstanding exegete, opts in his reading of John 6 for a symbolic interpretation, though the language in context allows no room for such an option. “[T]his discourse,” writes the Geneva reformer, “does not relate to the Lord’s Supper, but to the uninterrupted communication of the flesh of Christ (De la chair de Christ) which we obtain apart from the use of the Lord’s Supper.”) As C.K. Barrett, among others, has shown, however, the linguistic choices made by the author in the context of Johannine literature “unmistakably points to the Eucharist.” (Barrett, Commentary on the Gospel of John). Institutes of the Christian Religion Book IV, Chapter XVII contains Calvin´s detailed discussion and reveals to us his line of reasoning on the subject. Here the reformer rejects both the Catholic and the Lutheran views as crass materiality, “detracting from Christ´s heavenly glory.” Having rejected any material, physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist, however, Calvin does affirm a “true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord.” (IV. XVII.19).
Calvin´s line of reasoning was very much like my own, and is widely assumed, knowingly or not, by most Evangelicals, including Evangelical Anglicans. Christ´s glory is upheld, it is believed, proportionately to His being “freed” from any human or material means and second causes. Grace and nature are at war. With such a premise in place, it was far easier for me to believe in a purely spiritual reality, than in God´s graceful intrusion into the material and physical world, as He did in the incarnation. One of the highlights of my time at Regent College was taking communion from the hands of my theology Professor J.I. Packer and hearing his words to me: “Gus, take and eat this, remembering that Christ died for you. Feed on Him by faith in your heart, with thanksgiving.” My experience of the Eucharist was surely enhanced by my taking it from one of the wisest and godliest men I have ever met. Yet, at that time I failed to see how this formula was enforcing the Reformed relegation of the Eucharist to the realm of the purely spiritual, blinding me to one of the greatest manifestations of the materiality of God´s grace.
As a restored Catholic, I have had to study what the Magisterium has affirmed about the Eucharist, as well as, just as importantly, engage in contemplating and adoring Christ in the Sacrament. The materiality of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, matches wonderfully our needs as physical human beings, and embracing God´s wisdom in providing them through the Church opens God´s rich store of grace and blessing to us. The doctrine of transubstantiation is a solid attempt at framing the clear teaching of Jesus in an intellectually coherent way: In answer to the prayer of consecration made by the priest, the substance is transformed while the accidents remain. My rationalistic attempts to plumb the depths of this mystery, however, lead irrevocably to failure, as, ultimately faith is required, faith seeking to understand as I am met by Christ, truly present in the Eucharist.
A fascinating discussion is ongoing among leading Church historians, historical theologians and philosophers concerning the way incipient secularizing forces in sixteenth century Europe shaped to some extent the magisterial reformers´ thinking. The desacralization of the Eucharist by emptying it of Christ´s real presence has been seen by many as a significant accelerator of these secularizing forces, the results of which continue to be evident in our contemporary Western society (see, for example Regina Schwartz´s Sacramental Poetics and the Dawn of Secularism.) Examining the contemporary Evangelical landscape, however, there are reasons for optimism. Hans Boersma´s (J.I Packer Chair of Theology at Regent) work on sacramental theology is, as Packer would say, “rubbing Evangelical noses up against” the fragrance of the Eucharist, challenging them effectively to recover an awareness of Christ´s real presence in it. Boersma´s publications, together with his ecumenical activity, represent an important step towards Christian unity, the visible unity of all Christians around the Lord´s Table.
Præstet fides supplementum
(Let faith provide a supplement
to the failure of our senses.)
In 1994 leading American Catholic and Evangelical scholars penned and signed a document entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” Among the Evangelical signatories was J.I. Packer, the Regent Professor whom, together with Bruce Waltke, I admired and appreciated the most. That same year, as editor of the student paper at Regent, I interviewed the Catholic archbishop of British Columbia, Adam Exner, on the topic of the then new papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor. I had read the document and was deeply moved by Pope John Paul II´s rigorous and deeply spiritual call to confidence in the eternal validity of Christian revelation and morality. Archbishop Exner graciously gave me over an hour for the interview and his commentary and insights on the papal document were as inspiring to me as the encyclical itself. Lastly, in the Winter term of 1994 I opted to take a seminar class entitled “Text and Canon,” and chose as my topic the contribution of St. Irenaeus of Lyons to the formation of the New Testament canon. Those three events, particularly my reading of Irenaeus, set me off providentially on a journey that would lead me back to the Catholic Church.
My great passion after my conversion experience as a high school senior was to know the Word, especially to be able to master the languages. By the time I got to graduate school my Greek was, for the most part, all there, thanks to undergraduate teachers who believed in immersing students in the text itself after the first year grammar was under their belts. However, I had not spent enough time reading and thinking rigorously about the canonical process and how the New Testament canon was formed and eventually closed. The Regent College seminar followed the typical format of a series of lectures on the key topics (criteria for canonicity in the early Church, examination of books eventually rejected as non-canonical, canon within the canon debate, canonical criticism etc.), followed by papers presented by the seminar participants. My choice of studying Irenaeus´ contribution to the formation of the New Testament canon was driven by my awareness of the fact that the Bishop of Lyons quotes from a majority of the New Testament as authoritative, and does so as early as the late second century.
Irenaeus was in a highly privileged position. A disciple of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of John the apostle, Irenaeus was a first-hand witness of the process of episcopal succession. He was thus uniquely positioned to record, study and testify to the content of what he calls the traditio apostolorum, the regula fidei, as handed over faithfully from the apostles and through the episcopal succession down to Irenaeus´ own time. Further, and perhaps more importantly, Irenaeus testifies to the fact that the content of this tradition is fully coherent with the content of the documents we know as the New Testament, and he quotes from 22 of the 27 of books of the New Testament.
Irenaeus´ primary focus in Against Heresies is the refutation of Docetic deniers of the incarnation of Christ. These heretics put forth various secret and novel traditions of their own making, which Irenaeus exposes as spurious and external to the flow of apostolic tradition. Against the Gnostics’ denial of the incarnation, Irenaeus puts forth a fully human Christ, the Christ of the gospels, who took upon Himself human flesh from Mary, without detracting in the least from his divinity. Against the Gnostics´ secret traditions and documents, Irenaeus puts forth a fully human process within the authoritative apostolic Church, without detracting in the least from divine providence. The episcopal succession, especially in Rome, argues Irenaeus, is a trustworthy process, partly because it is open to enquiry and tracing back to its source, unlike the secret traditions of the Valentinians.
I set out to study Irenaeus´ Against Heresies from a canonical studies angle, and the Bishop of Lyons is certainly important as a contributor to the crystallization of the New Testament Canon as we know it. However, book III of his treatise unveiled for me, as nothing else could, a vision of an early Church which was apostolic and authoritative, even before she could speak of an authoritative collection of inspired books. What would we do, asks Irenaeus, if the apostles had not left us Scriptures? Should we not follow the course of the tradition as handed down faithfully from the apostles through the bishops in the Church? When a dispute arises, he argues, should we not consult with the most ancient of Churches? “For where the Church is, there is the Holy Spirit” (AH III.24). This discovery of full apostolic ecclesial authority ante, and therefore extra Scriptura, was unexpected and was truly revolutionary for me.
In our seminary discussions, much of the time was spent debating various conflicting criteria for canonicity on one hand, and the post-critical canonical approach of Brevard Childs and his followers on the other. The seminar format intentionally left all the options open. In contrast to the uncertainties generated and even encouraged by such an approach, after my reading of Irenaeus, the ground felt firm beneath my feet. The New Testament as a closed collection of inspired books had not come into being as a result of the Church´s recognition of divine inspiration in these texts, that is, merely by the passive and objective witnessing of the divine origin of the texts. This is what my former colleague Craig Allert has called the “dropped out of the sky” view of the Bible (Craig Allert, A High View of Scripture? p. 10). Indeed, my confidence in Scripture as an Evangelical had been based on an almost complete elimination of human agency from the process of its consolidation as a canon. Contrary to this Docetic Evangelical view, I came to understand the fully human process by which an apostolic Church bearing the authority of Christ Himself actively preserved and handed down the same tradition Saint Paul had received from Christ Himself (I Cor. 15:1 etc.) This apostolic tradition, as providentially preserved, taught and lived in the Church, became the regula fidei, the criterion by which books were eventually included or excluded from the canon. Irenaeus had mightily hammered the last nail into my Protestant coffin.
A final word
In his seminary days, my father used to walk the short distance between the Seminario Menor in Segovia, and the Carmelite monastery where St. John of the Cross is buried, to play football on its front yard. John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church and great Spanish reformer, dedicated his life to calling the Church back to simplicity, to first love for Christ. In his prologue to his Ascent of Mount Carmel, the Spanish saint writes that in composing this work he is not led by experience, but by divine Scripture, since, following Scripture one cannot err. John of the Cross adds, however, that if in anything he fails to understand Scripture, “it is not my intention to separate myself (no es mi intención apartarme) from the sound sense and doctrine of the holy mother, the Catholic Church.” John of the Cross preferred prison to schism. In refuting the schismatics of his own day, Augustine coined the Latin phrase “totus Christus,” the total Christ: Head and Body are an organic, holy unity. When the Donatists separate from the Church, thus dividing the Body, argued Augustine, they are also attacking the incarnation of Christ. Indeed, the incarnation of the Son of God in the sinless womb of Mary, His true, material presence in the Eucharist, and the apostolic teaching authority of the Church are three precious and inseparable strands in the single cord of God´s redemptive plan.