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BY Jennifer Fulwiler
Before my conversion, I had almost no familiarity with the Bible. I’d had some fleeting exposure to it in childhood when I’d accompany friends to their churches after sleepovers, but since I was an atheist even then, I never paid any attention to it. In adulthood, when research led me to believe that I should give Jesus of Nazareth and his religion a second look, I found myself baffled by the Bible. What was I supposed to take literally, and what was meant to be figurative? What did the Bible say about the big issues of the day such as human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia? When I looked on the internet for answers, I found as many opinions as there were people, each person backing up his or her view with Bible verses. I considered going to church, but in my area there was everything from Jehovah’s Witness to Pentecostal to conservative Baptist to liberal Anglican churches. They each taught radically different things, yet all claimed to be based on the Bible. Which one was right?
Based on what I’d absorbed from mainstream American Christianity, I thought that if I simply read the Bible that I would then have the answers I needed. I skimmed the Old Testament, and carefully read every word of the New Testament. I was sincerely trying to deduce the correct meaning from these Scriptures, and even said a bumbling prayer (one of the first I’d ever said) asking God to guide my understanding. Yet I would later find that the conclusions I came to based on my personal read of the Bible were a departure from the traditional Christian view; in fact, they were heresies. Here are a few that seemed to make perfect sense to me:
Sabellus was a third-century priest who taught that the Holy Trinity is not three separate persons. He believed that the one God “revealed Himself to man throughout time as the Father in Creation; the Son in Redemption; and the Spirit in Sanctification and Regeneration.” He analogized it to the sun: Just as the sun has “three powers” (warmth, light and circular form), “so God has three aspects: the warming power answers to the Holy Spirit; the illuminating power, to the Son; and the form or figure, to the Father.” Though it might not be called Sabellianism today, there are plenty of people out there who believe something along these lines (such as the 24 million people in the Oneness Pentecostal denomination). And I can see why: Based on my personal read of Scripture, I didn’t see anything that would make me think that I absolutely had to believe that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. One God who manifests himself different ways is easier for my limited intellect to understand than a three-person God, so this ancient teaching would have been an easy sell for me.
There’s a lot going on with Gnosticism, but the particular aspect of this view that would have resonated with me is the belief that matter is evil. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person, and so, once I believed in Jesus, I would have had no trouble believing that we must reject the material world altogether. When I thought back on my read of the New Testament, I recalled the Gospels and the letters constantly talking about how we needed to not worry about earthly life in order to attain eternal life which, to my mind, would fit with the “matter is evil” understanding of the world.
Pelagius was my kind of guy. First of all, he believed that humans can reach perfection by the power of their own will. (If he’d only lived a couple thousand years later, he would have made a great self-help book author!) As a control freak, this idea is very appealing to me: If I want to be perfect, I just have to try hard enough. Simple as that. Pelagianism also believes that humans were condemned due to Adam’s sin, but that his sin doesn’t have any lingering effects on the human soul (which is how we’re able to reach perfection on our own). That would have also made sense to me. The Bible seemed to emphasize that humanity was condemned by the sins of our first parents more than it talked about the stain of sin remaining on the human soul, so I likely could have been talked into this one.
Semipelagianism takes a less extreme view than Pelagianism, in that Semipelagian thought teaches that “growing in faith…is the work of God, while the beginning of faith is an act of free will, with grace supervening only later.” Like with Pelagianism, the control freak in me would have liked the idea of me being in full control of the first act of faith, and would have found it simpler to comprehend than the orthodox Christian idea of human free will acting in synergy with God. Since I doubt I would have been able to make heads or tails of what Scripture says about the details of free will and grace in the initial act of faith, I’m sure an eloquent Semipelagian theologian could have had me as the newest member of his church.
When I first read the New Testament, I didn’t understand that Jesus was supposed to be fully divine. From my read, knowing almost nothing about what Christianity has traditionally taught, I would have guessed that Jesus had a special connection with God, but was not necessarily God incarnate. My personal view was close to that of Arianism, which says that Jesus is not fully divine in the same way as the Father, and sees him as a creature created in time—i.e. that there was a time when he did not exist. And so it wouldn’t have been a stretch at all for me to buy into this view, one of the earliest heresies of the Church.
As I waded into the strange new world of Christian theology, I saw that the arguments in favor of the orthodoxy of any given doctrine sounded just as reasonable—and often just as scripturally based—as other arguments saying that that same doctrine was heresy. I was trying to decide whether I could have faith in Jesus Christ, but it was made impossible by the fact that I couldn’t even get a clear answer about who Jesus Christ is. If God wanted us to know him, it seemed nonsensical that he would give us a system where even the most basic ideas about his nature and his will were up for grabs.
Then, when I heard the theory behind the Catholic Church, it all came together. Just as God inspired regular people to write the sacred Scriptures, it made sense that he would continue to inspire others to articulate the truths of Scripture and Tradition for all times and places. I finally saw a system that worked when I saw a single authority, established by Jesus himself to be the one guardian of the truth. After my own rocky experience trying to understand what this religion is all about, it was a relief to know that God had provided such a clear path for us. Because as I, Sabellus, Pelagius, Arius and countless other people throughout the ages have found, sometimes even the most reasonable-sounding, well meaning doctrines turn out to be heresy.