Reformation Reconsidered: On Re-Discovering the Word of God
The Church not only nourishes us with Scripture in the liturgy—she also urges us to devour the Bible on our own.
I teach at a small evangelical college, and last September I had the privilege of addressing my colleagues on ecumenism from a Catholic point of view. “Ecumenism” is that fancy word for how Christians of varying traditions – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and otherwise – get along with each other (or not, as the case may be). It’s an area of particular interest this year as we mark 500 years since Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. In fact, my presentation was the de facto kickoff of our campus’s Reformation anniversary observations – quite an honor for this token Catholic faculty member!
Anyway, I did my best to give a nuanced outline of this complex issue in the time allotted – no easy task. Authentic Catholic ecumenism is not math, you see; it’s more like a Venn diagram. The fullness of the church catholic – the universal and mystical Body of Christ – subsists in the visible unity of the Catholic Church, no doubt. But there are elements of that Body that truly overflow into non-Catholic ecclesial communions.
“There is one body and one Spirit, Lord,” St. Paul told the Ephesians, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Among other things, this means that all those who call Jesus Lord and proclaim essential Gospel truths – particularly when accompanied by Trinitarian baptism – are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ in some way or another. It’s a messy business, this ecumenical stuff, but that should come as no surprise. We’re talking about a Body here, a living organism akin to our own bodies, and bodies are messy and mysterious things. Consider that we’re still making discoveries about how the human body works (garnering Nobel Prizes for medical researchers every year), and so it stands to reason that we’d still be deepening our understanding about that Body which we call the church – the invisible, small “c” church, substantially identified with the visible, capital “C” Catholic Church, but encompassing other, non-Catholic Christians as well (cf. LG 8).
Like I said, I did my best to trace out the contours of this messiness for my evangelical colleagues, and we had an excellent follow-up period of Q&A. Toward the end, Dr. David McCabe, a member of our theology faculty, started to raise his hand but then retracted it with a shake of his head. My curiosity compelled me to catch up with him afterward to find out what was on his mind. “Based on the flyers that went out,” Dave said, “I was expecting more fireworks.”
Fair enough. In the teaser summary that had been disseminated around campus, I’d written that “the Protestant movement rapidly turned into a series of schisms, and actual reform in the Catholic Church was accomplished without reference to Luther, Calvin, or those other guys.” I think that’s largely true with reference to the Council of Trent and its sequelae, but I decided to bypass inflammatory sixteenth-century history in order to focus on the rapprochement between Christians of various traditions that has been taking place in more recent times.
But Dave deserves an answer – what about those fireworks? What about that “real” Catholic reformation I alluded to that followed the original Protestant splits? I’m not qualified to parse all the historical and doctrinal developments associated with the Counter-Reformation period, but maybe a personal testimony will suffice, for I personally realized spiritual reclamation by becoming a Catholic myself.
My own reverse Reformation from Protestantism to Popery was a messy one (there’s that word again) involving intense, layered readings from such disparate figures as Dorothy Day and G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and William F. Buckley. Like most converts from evangelicalism, I had doubts and struggles and uncomfortable, even agonizing conversations with family and friends. To them, it seemed like I was severing ties with my Protestant past, and in a way, I was. But once I’d thrown in my lot with Rome, I found that my born-again identity was both restored and rejuvenated. That is, my becoming a Catholic was less about leaving Protestantism behind than building on it. It was like my years as an evangelical were merely the suburbs of the Catholic metropolis I eventually, by God’s grace, stumbled into.
Most notably, a renewed love of Sacred Scripture accompanied my Catholic conversion. Prior to that, I’d pretty much given up on Bible reading because it was so closely identified in my mind with the Reformation’s sola Scriptura principle of interpretation – something I no longer found tenable. Surveying the fractious history of denominational Protestantism, I’d become convinced that the words of Scripture could be made to support virtually any doctrinal or moral assertion if one applied a pick-and-choose approach. Consequently, and perversely, the Bible itself became that source of my evangelical misgivings and despair: Who’s right? Where’s the best understanding of the Bible, the true one? How did the earliest Christians, the ones who knew Jesus and the Apostles, make use of biblical texts? How and why did they put together the New Testament to guide them into the future?
Catholicism gave me satisfactory answers to all those questions, and I came to the conclusion that the Catholic Church was – and remains – the original “Bible Church.” It was she who put together the canon of Scripture under the Holy Spirit’s guidance; she who provided the magisterial context in which the earliest Christians came to understand and apply the Sacred texts; she who acted as final arbiter whenever there was disagreement over interpretation; and she who ensured that all her sons and daughters were regularly immersed in the Word – drenched in it, saturated and sated, every time they came to Mass.
Not only do we have Scripture readings at Mass, but the very words of the liturgy itself are essentially right out of the Bible, as are the liturgy’s menu of gestures, choreography, and materials. We see biblical scenes in window, statue, and illustration; we smell the incense evoking God’s numinous presence; we touch forehead, heart, and shoulders when we invoke the sign of the cross; and, most importantly, we taste the Bread of Heaven when we receive the Eucharist.
Indeed, it’s that Eucharistic Jesus that was so central to my Catholic conversion because I desperately wanted “more Jesus” than I was getting as an evangelical – I wanted him, not just words about him. Yet once I joined the Church and started receiving Jesus in Holy Communion, I also came to understand that I’d really been receiving him all along through the written Word. “The Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body,” the Catechism reads. “She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body” (§103).
This simple notion led to a radical rediscovery of Scriptural immersion as a way of life. It was a re-discovery because Bible reading had been like breathing in my evangelical youth: Stop doing it and you stopped being. For cradle Catholics, on the other hand, the habit of Bible reading is too often rare, and so when an evangelical acquaintance first introduces it to them, its natural appeal can lead to their effective abandonment of Catholicism and embrace of a “Bible-alone” substitute.
That needn’t be the case, of course, because the Church not only nourishes us with Scripture in the liturgy, she also urges us to devour the Bible on our own. “The fact that Catholics don’t see religion through the Bible is a deficiency in Catholics,” Flannery O’Connor observed. “Maybe in fifty years, or a hundred, Catholics will be reading the Bible the way they should have been reading it all along.”
Huh. Like our Protestant brethren. Props to them for a half millennium of spurring us on.