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How I went from being an Atheist, to a Baptist, to a Catholic
by Gary Hoge
Here is an excerpt from this article.
As I said, I wasn’t convinced right away that Catholicism was right, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest until I settled the question one way or the other. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I sought out the best Catholic apologetics I could find, and also the best Protestant apologetics. I read Akin, Armstrong, Hahn, and Shea, among others, on the Catholic side, and Geisler, Kennedy, Ridenour, and Stott, among others, on the Protestant side. Generally, my impression was that the Protestant authors didn’t understand Catholic theology very well, because they kept criticizing it for things it didn’t really teach. The Catholic arguments seemed pretty good to me, and I kept hoping that one of the Protestants would engage them, but they never did. As I began to better understand Catholic theology, I found that I could easily counter the Protestant arguments against it, but I could not counter the Catholic arguments against Protestant theology. Indeed, they seemed to me to be unanswerable.
I began to seriously question the foundational doctrines of Protestantism: sola fide and sola Scriptura. The Catholics made an excellent case that neither of these is taught in the Bible, and that they are both actually refuted by the Bible. Not only that, but neither of them were believed by essentially anyone before the Reformation. I found the Protestant argument in favor of these doctrines unconvincing. They appeared to be taking the Bible out of context, and sidestepping verses that weighed against their interpretation. Sometimes they would quote from some ancient Christian who seemed to support their position, but they ignored other things the same ancient Christian wrote that made it clear that he didn’t support their position. Because Protestants were the ones who broke away from the Church, alleging that it had become corrupted, I knew that the burden of proof was on them, and frankly, I didn’t think they had made a very good case.
The more I understood Catholic theology, the more I felt that it was actually more biblical than my own theology. This was very disconcerting, because I had a high regard for the Bible. I was very proud to be an Evangelical Protestant, because we had the reputation of being biblical literalists, and we were often called “Bible Christians.” God said it, I believe it, that settles it. But as I learned the Catholic interpretation of the Bible, I felt that it was more true to the plain meaning of the text than my own was. I saw that it was true what Mr. Keating wrote in his book:
Fundamentalists use the Bible to protect beliefs that are, in fact, antecedent to the Bible, which is interpreted so it justifies what they already hold, although most fundamentalists think what they believe comes straight out of the sacred text and that they are merely acknowledging its plain meaning. . . . They do not hesitate to read between the lines if such reading is needed to preserve their position – a position that precedes their scriptural interpretation.1
I discovered that in most cases where Catholics and Protestants disagree over biblical interpretation, it was, ironically, the Catholics who interpreted the Bible literally, where we Protestants gave it a figurative, allegorical interpretation. A few examples should illustrate this:
* When Jesus says, “You must be born of water and the Spirit,” Catholics interpret this literally: “Water” equals “water,” i.e., baptism. But some Protestants say that the water refers to something else, perhaps the preaching of the gospel, or even the amniotic fluid of natural child-birth.
* When Paul says that Jesus cleanses his church by “the washing with water,” Catholics interpret this literally. “Washing with water” equals “washing with water”; another reference to baptism. But some Protestants say it refers to something else, perhaps the Scriptures.
* When Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven,” Catholics, again, interpret this literally and believe that Jesus gave his apostles the authority to forgive sins in His name. But some Protestants say that this is just a reference to the apostles’ authority to preach the gospel.
* Again, when Jesus says, “This is my body,” and “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” Catholics interpret this literally. The Eucharist is His body; it is truly His flesh and blood, though it does not appear to be. But most Protestants say that it remains only bread and wine (or grape juice) and that, once again, we should not take Jesus’s words literally..
* When James says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” Catholics interpret this literally. “Not by faith alone” equals “not by faith alone.” But Protestants insist that “not by faith alone” really means that we are justified by faith alone. This is actually one of the core doctrines of Protestantism, sola fide.
Talk about irony! It seemed to me that Catholic theology usually allowed the Bible to simply mean what it says, without the complicated exegesis and linguistic gyrations that were sometimes necessary to make it support my beliefs. I got the uncomfortable feeling that many of the “problem” passages in the Bible were only a problem because I was trying to pound a square Protestant peg into a round Biblical hole. The round Catholic peg seemed to fit much more easily.
In my research, I also read some of the writings of the earliest Christians, men who learned the gospel from the apostles themselves, or from their immediate successors. As a Protestant I had never heard of these men. I had never heard of John’s disciples Ignatius and Polycarp. I had never heard of Irenaeus or Justin Martyr either. I had no idea that these men, and others, left behind writings that might shed some light on the faith of the early Church. In my twelve years as a Protestant no one had ever told me that the apostles’ own disciples left us writings witnessing to the true apostolic faith. Isn’t that strange? Here we had, essentially, a second-century Bible commentary, written, in some cases, by men who knew the Bible’s human authors personally. Why would we ignore such an incredible resource? We Protestants believed that the Holy Spirit spoke to us, so wouldn’t it be worth seeing what He said to the apostles’ own disciples, many of whom laid down their lives rather than compromise the faith?
Well, I for one wanted to see what they had to say. These guys knew the apostles, lived in their culture, spoke their language, and in all likelihood, read the original copies of the New Testament books (in their own native language, no less). If anybody knew the correct Bible interpretation, I figured it would be them! So I read all of the epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp, both of whom were disciples of John. I read some of Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp. I read the epistle to the Corinthians that was written by Clement. I also read portions of Justin Martyr’s letter to the Roman emperor, Antonius Pius, written within living memory of the apostles, and which attempted to explain the Christian faith to an outsider.
It was uncomfortably obvious to me that the second-century Church was much closer in its beliefs to the Catholic Church than it was to my “Bible” church. John’s disciple Ignatius even referred to the Church as the “Catholic Church.” They had bishops, and priests, and deacons; they thought they could lose their salvation; they believed that baptism regenerates; they thought that the Eucharist was a sacrifice, and that it really was the Body and Blood of Christ; and they believed that the succession of bishops in the Church was the standard of orthodoxy. This blew my preconceived ideas about the early Church right out of the water. I had always assumed that the early Church was essentially Protestant in its doctrines and that the distinctively Catholic doctrines were later corruptions that infected the faith sometime around the fifth century. Not so. In fact, I couldn’t find any evidence that the distinctively Protestant doctrines like sola Scriptura and sola fide existed at all in the early Church. This was overwhelming to me, and it reminded me of what that famous Anglican convert, John Henry Newman, said: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
This was all very unsettling, to put it mildly, but at this point I tried to look at the situation objectively. I think I have an advantage here, because I came to the faith as an adult. Since I didn’t grow up in a Baptist-type faith, it was not inconceivable to me that it could be wrong. After all, someone had to be wrong here, and it just might be me! So I stepped out of the fishbowl, as it where, and tried to look at my own denomination and my own theology as objectively as possible. I was surprised to learn that my evangelical theology was mainly an American phenomenon that didn’t go back more than a hundred and fifty years, much less back to the time of the apostles. Having read the writings of the early Christians, I knew for a fact that they would have rejected my theology as “another gospel” (see Gal. 1:6-8).
Given all that I had learned, I had to admit that the Catholic explanation of Scripture and history was much more likely to be correct than my denomination’s explanation, and I realized that if I wanted to go on being a “Bible-believing Christian,” I would have to become Catholic. As far as I could tell, the Catholic explanation of Christianity was consistent with the plain meaning of the Bible, and it was consistent with what Christians believed from the apostolic era right up to the Reformation.
Protestantism, on the other hand, was mainly based on two doctrines that I didn’t think were very well supported in Scripture, and which were entirely absent from Christian history before the Reformation. I didn’t see how Protestantism could be a return to the purity of the early Church, as I had been taught, because the early Church was Catholic. Therefore, I concluded, somewhat sadly, that Protestantism was not a “reformation” of the faith at all, but a corruption of it. And yet, even though the shattering of the visible Church has been a tragic thing, God has brought good out of it. Today, Evangelical Protestants are some of the best, most devoted Christians in the world. It’s hard to find fault with that! And that’s why I created this website, to help these good people, my brothers and sisters in Christ, to understand what the Catholic Church is really all about.