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My Journey to Catholicism: Part II

Hello again! Thanks for joining in on this second installment (Part I is here). I hope that my story encourages you—regardless of how you trace your Christian lineage—to delve deeper into the stories that shape our common past, while sharing your passion for truth in loving service to your own faith community.

Last time, we chronicled my slow departure from childlike trust in the doctrines of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), and witnessed the rise of uncertainties about my church’s place in the world. In today’s post, the angst of teenage years will lurk in the background. These were years of spiritual dryness, but also years of important exploration and identity formation. Ultimately, my experiences in this period led to my becoming a better Lutheran, and then to an adult reappraisal of the Lutheran principles I had always believed.

As before, I will sometimes deviate from personal anecdotes in order to consider theological topics. I ask for your patience in this! Although my mind meandered in Part I, it allowed me to treat many of the arguments that support my decision to become Catholic. These arguments are based on Yves Congar’s definition of Tradition,1 and on the need for a guiding authority to properly interpret the Scriptures. Today I will examine the arguments in further detail.

Now, back to the story. As a teenager, I became less interested in being a Lutheran. Although I remained captivated by the liturgy, the content of sermons and Bible Classes often fell upon deaf ears. To be honest, I was suffering from the disease of pride. I thought I had things figured out. When it came to life, I planned for an independent future and grew anxious to leave home. When it came to religion (as if the two could be separated), I developed a somewhat smug attitude, one that valued belief over practice. What mattered most was simply reading the Bible correctly. I remember getting the sense that I knew the Old and New Testaments backwards and forwards, even though there were many books I had not read. To be sure, I knew more than many adolescents in my age group. My parents had diligently read us Bible stories and texts throughout our lives. Our family attended Bible Classes regularly, and I was instructed to memorize large portions of Scripture with extended excerpts from Luther’s Small Catechism. During my teenage years, these beautiful and commendable practices worked somewhat against me—at times fanning my pride and sense of accomplishment. Tough theological questions didn’t really bother me, since all the answers seemed simple. I trusted in my own ability to interpret Scripture impartially and truthfully at all times. This was, I believe, a classic case of Paul’s “knowledge that puffs up” (1 Cor 8)! Don’t get me wrong, I know that many of these attitudes are typical (in all facets of life) for burgeoning young adults. What I do want to highlight is how a particular model of exegesis facilitated my feelings of superiority, and my inability to become vulnerable before God through the “suffering” of intellectual and spiritual humility.

This model of exegesis is called The Law and Gospel Hermeneutic. In the most basic sense, it involves incorporating any Scriptural passage into a “Law” and “Gospel” framework.2 The entirety of the Bible, I believed at one point, could be explained through this interpretive lens. This hermeneutic tends to simplify rather than complicate the text(s) of Scripture. It utilizes a few key passages to show that the Bible has self-evident answers to “the big questions” about the nature of God (theology) and the nature of humankind (anthropology). For instance, the concept of “Law” is often associated with Pauline passages about the old man and the sinful flesh (cf. Rom. 6, Eph 2, Eph 4, Col 3). These texts foreground the (nearly) total depravity of human nature. Passages about grace and faith, by contrast, are associated with the concept of “Gospel,” which remedies the inability of humanity to follow the Law.3 A verse that clearly captures the relationship between Law and Gospel is the one that I chose for my own Confirmation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8–9).4

It is not my aim to berate this particular interpretation of Scripture. There are many times when its message hits home and aptly describes the work of Christ in and through human beings. The Law and Gospel Hermeneutic does, however, raise difficulties about whether the Law itself is good. It also runs aground when supported by proof-texting. Exegesis that uses proof-texting fails to consider the different possible “senses” of a Scripture passage (such as literal, moral, allegorical, or eschatological) and abstracts from the historical and literary contexts of Biblical composition. In other words, Scripture’s human elements are ignored. As an aside that returns to my personal story, one of the most influential books in my journey toward seeing the multiplicity of possible meanings in every part of the Bible is Northrop Frye’s The Great Code. A careful scholar of the English language, Frye reveals the formal unity of the Bible by considering it as a story beginning in Eden and ending in Paradise. His book, which I read during my senior year of college, helped both my wife and I realize that the human elements of Scripture take nothing away from its divinely-inspired nature. In fact, they accentuate the message of God’s love by placing it in narrative form—telling stories to which all people can relate. The Law and Gospel Hermeneutic attempts to convey universal truths about human existence. It tells a narrative of how our sinful hearts are always opposed to God, a narrative wherein the very core of the Gospel involves denying the possibility that humans can do good. But does this narrative accurately depict the relationship of human beings—particularly those who have been Baptized—to God? For example, does it account for Scriptural language that speaks of the enduring Image of God in humanity (e.g. Gen 9:6), or even Paul’s own admission about the possibility for natural man to see God (e.g. Rom 1:19-20)?

We will revisit these questions soon. But first, I’d like to explain a bit more about why I began to question the authority and sufficiency of the Law and Gospel Framework for interpreting the Bible. It began during my junior year at Truman State University, when I took a medieval philosophy class with Dr. Patricia Burton. Before this course, I was seeking the truth just about everywhere except Christian philosophy.5 This was more than a bit ironic, since at the time I considered myself a Christian. Nonetheless, I was not attending church and had not been for two years. When I enrolled in the class with Dr. Burton, I had no idea I would discover a treasure-trove of Christian thinkers. As I entered into dialog, across time, with these great Catholic theologians, the voices I had been listening to (in both philosophy and in popular culture) began to fade in influence, or at least to be seriously challenged. It was a major awakening. Exposed (finally) to the richness of the Christian intellectual tradition, I began to reaffirm and relate to my faith on a completely new level. Soon, it became unfathomable that I had known nothing of Augustine, when Luther himself was an Augustinian monk. It became an atrocity that I had overlooked nearly 1500 years of Church History, when the writers of the Augsburg Confession began by placing themselves within this very history.6 My decision to embrace Roman Catholicism was a conscious movement toward the communion of saints across all of time and space. It was a choice to raise my children in an environment where they would never be taught that the “true church” began only 500 years ago. The environment of the Catholic Church encourages the faithful to relate to each period of Christian history in many ways, but primarily through the telling and retelling of the stories of the saints. After all, without them we would not be here today! There are no “dark spots” when it comes to Church History.

None of these insights would have been possible without Dr. Burton. She is one of the kindest and gentlest souls I have ever encountered. She is also a rigorous scholar, challenging her students to delve into texts by asking tough questions and engaging specific arguments over extended periods of time. She taught the texts with a real passion to find out what their authors were saying, rather than with an “academic” desire to impose interpretations or theories onto the material. The first text we engaged was Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will. Here, the Doctor of Grace inquires about the source of evil, and locates it in the human decision to forsake the Good by disobeying God. This decision came through the power of choice, a good gift that is nonetheless a free gift. Because it is free, choice can prioritize lesser goods (such as the desire for created things7) over the ultimate Good. God allows human beings to have choice because God wants our love to be like divine love: motivated by a personal movement toward the other.8 God loves us because God sees the Good in us (see footnote for clarification).9 Our dignity is derived from the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. As we love others, through self-sacrifice and service, we become more like Christ, who is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Imitating the one who “first loved us” (1 John 4:19), we truly experience growth in grace. Growth in grace leads us toward our End, namely, God. This End is attained fully in heaven, where we participate in divine life by finally being the people we were created to be.10

What would an advocate for the Law and Gospel Hermeneutic have to say about these observations? For one, he or she would be wary of the statement, “God sees the Good in us.” Let’s parse this out by comparing Lutherans and Catholics on Baptism. For Catholics, Baptism makes a person wholly clean from the “stain” of original sin. All that remains is concupiscence, or disordered desire:

By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin. In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam’s sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God. Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, “the tinder for sin” (fomes peccati); since concupiscence “is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” (CCC 1263-64)

In contrast, I was taught by Lutherans that we are sinning all of the time, whether we know it or not.11 This view of sin makes the fall a complete destruction of human nature. Baptism can do nothing to change this. Hence, a baptized Lutheran retains concupiscence and the same fallen nature (identified with the “old Adam” that wars against Christ). Although both groups say Baptism makes us a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), I struggle to see what is really different about us, from the Lutheran view. It seems that Christ’s grace is simply imputed to us, or “written over” our nature.

Allow me to reflect further on the topic of human nature (anthropology). In Lutheranism, the old Adam is more than concupiscence. It is an ontological orientation of our human nature that forever fights against God. This nature is constantly at war with new imputed nature of Christ. LCMS Lutherans derive these ideas from passages like Romans 7:19: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” For the LCMS, these words show that Christ does not cause real change in our nature, and that there can be no spark of redeemable “Goodness” in us.12 This radical account of human depravity means that God does not truly love us—God only loves Christ. The way I learned it growing up is that “God looks at us through rosy-colored glasses.” The blood of Christ “covers up” our sins, which continue lurk beneath the surface.13 Such doctrine fails to account for the fact that Paul describes humans as being “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1) only before we receive “the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Likewise, in the Romans passage cited above, Paul is actually saying that he himself wants to do the good, but his flesh (not his true self; but rather, concupiscence) fights against this. In fact, in verse 22 of the same chapter Paul proclaims, “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self.” All Christians agree that following Christ is a struggle. We are engaged in a war with sin, the powers of this world, and the lies of the devil. But the Lutheran notion of human nature’s depravity seems to rely on proof-texts rather than sound exegesis. Furthermore, it completely eliminates any aspect of the human will (choice, or the desire for good things) in the dialog of salvation.14

Some of these effects are unintended. For example, I was taught at one point that God saving us is like a lifeguard throwing an inner-tube to a drowning person. That person was powerless to do anything to save him or herself, but nonetheless could interact with the “inner-tube of grace” that God threw. In other words, the person had to use his or her will. This person had to choose not to remain inert, and indeed to grab ahold of the inner-tube. I see this illustration as completely in line with the Catholic doctrine that human beings must assent to God’s revelation and God’s truth. This assent of the will is the assent of faith, an assent guided by the Holy Spirit. In the LCMS theology of my larger upbringing, however, the power of human choice is generally overlooked when it comes to salvation and living the Christian life.15 Even though Lutheran commentators speak of the Law as a curb, a mirror, and a guide (see page 16 of this Introduction to Luther’s Small Catechism), the last dimension is rarely emphasized. The idea that humans can make good choices causes general discomfort and concern, because this might impinge upon Christ’s work.16 Instead of empowering us to do good, the Gospel in “Law and Gospel” is inextricably tied to our inability to do anything good. I now realize the absurdity of this statement, since the Gospel is the news that we can become sons and daughters of God by living the way God has commanded—by following God’s “Law!” Granted, Lutherans believe that the Gospel enables us to live rightly, through Christ. But this is predicated on a negative understanding of Law that comes dangerously close to “superseding” rather than “fulfilling.”17 Again, Lutheran views on sin, anthropology, and the imputation of grace are in the background.18

As a final homage the many positive things that I learned from Lutheranism, it is true that the Augsburg Confession sees human nature as not completely corrupted.19 But its doctrine that we have no role to play in our salvation is simply not Biblical. If it were, all of Christ’s exhortations would be for naught. Why would he tell us to be perfect (Matt 5:48) if perfection were not something to be attempted? Of course, we must note that there is a difference between 1) We can do nothing and 2) Our strength is insufficient. Catholics believe the latter. We live, move, and have our being in Christ (Acts 17:28). It only makes sense that our good works are prepared for us by Christ, as attested to in Ephesians 2:10 and Philippians 2:12-13. So as a Catholic, I no longer see a worrying disjunct between Christ’s work and our work.20 Revisiting the eager, twenty-year-old Ben reading St. Augustine in Dr. Burton’s medieval philosophy class, it was here that I began to realize we aren’t so different from our first parents. Like them, God endowed us with a will. When we knowingly commit a serious sin, we throw our relationship with God out of line. These “mortal sins” separate us from union with human beings and union with God. Without Christ’s work, we could never overcome this divide. And yet, forced love is no love at all. Christ works in us by infusing grace into our innermost being, effecting reconciliation with God and neighbor through life-giving sacraments. Just as a tree can only be known by its fruit (see Lk 6), so a Christian is known by works of love. The Apostle James clearly dictates, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17). This is the death that Christians need be wary of—not the “death in trespasses and sins” that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 2.

The long and short of all this is that I no longer see Scripture upholding a dualistic distinction between Law on the one hand and Gospel on the other, just like it does not radically divide Christ’s gift of grace and the necessary human response to that gift. This transformation in my thinking occurred not just in the classroom but also and above all in a Lutheran ecclesial community. My wife and I started getting involved at Faith Lutheran Church in Kirksville around the time I finished the medieval philosophy course. Once we became connected with other Christians and began actively receiving the sacraments, we began to grow in grace. The good we accomplished in the relationships that we built as youth group leaders in the coming years is not attributable to us alone; but Christ indeed worked through us (in our own unique talents, as well as in our unique quirks and flaws) to build others up. Upon mature reflection, I realized that I could not account for these experiences of growth using a Lutheran framework of Law “vs” Gospel, or of Christ “vs” us. As Augustine puts it:

“Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.” (CCC 2001)

That will have to do it for this week. In our third and final reflection, we will move onward to my time at Villanova University studying theology as a Master’s student. Here there were no LCMS churches to attend, so my wife and I flourished together in an Anglican community. But enough with the spoilers! I do hope you will join me again next time. I apologize if today’s reflections are somewhat foreign to your experience (unless you grew up LCMS), but I will make up for this in Part III by abandoning discussions of Lutheranism in order to treat issues like the development of doctrine, the balance of faith and reason in theology, devotion to Mary, and Catholicism in light of the Second Vatican Council. God bless you all on your own journeys…

Link to Part I

Link to Part III

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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