Swimming the Tiber 1: Introduction and Definitions

On this Reformation Day, marking 499 years since Martin Luther set the snowball rolling on what would eventually become Protestantism, I have decided to begin a series on my own Counter-Reformation. You see, of late I have been feeling a conviction of the Spirit that I have been too taciturn about my faith. Part of that is wanting to avoid a misrepresentation leading to misunderstandings; I may well do the topic a disservice. Part of my reticence, too, is avoiding the modern trend of getting fired for expressing my beliefs too publicly, too loud, or too obnoxiously.

But those reasons fall flat when examined. Careful exposition on the reasons for my conversion is not bad presentation; and if someone will be offended by my conversion, they will likely be so regardless of what time I mention it. Most employers (some excepted) do not fire good employees on account of a mild expression of their faith, even if that faith contradicts the opinions held by managers and executives at that company (and since I do not plan to use slurs or other grotesque terminology, legitimate reasons for my firing are not likely to come up); and besides that, even if I am fired on these grounds, I shall “offer it up”–that is, I shall adhere to Colossians 1:24.

The astute and frequent site visitor may doubt my resolve in beginning a long series. You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t reviewed many books lately, and that my translations of Romans have been inconsistently timed. This slow-down is due almost entirely to my busy schedule: two toddlers (or a toddler and a baby, depending on how much denial I’m in about the passage of time), a full-time job, graduate classes in computer science, and my work on The Aegipan Revolution (sequel to The Chimaera Regiment). In all of that, I don’t really have time to read regularly (which is a shame).

“But wait!” you interrupt. “If you don’t have time to read, why would you have time for a new series of blog posts?” Good question! The answer is that I probably don’t. Taking this up will likely deter some other hobby, but that’s okay. Like my translations of Romans, I think this is important enough to let other hobbies (especially those that are the least productive) fall by the wayside.

What, then, is this series about? I have mentioned it obliquely already: my conversion to Catholicism. It will not follow exactly the route I did; my path from Southern Baptist to Catholic was non-linear, darting from one topic to another without logical progression, until finally everything fell into place in a moment of clarity. Instead, I will try to provide structure, building upon each topic to establish the next. I don’t intend to cover every possible objection to the Catholic Church (an endeavor that would surely take a lifetime), but only those which I had myself (and a couple that are tangentially related). Even so, assuming I can post these on a weekly basis (which is my current plan), this series will take me the better part of a year to complete.

Before I get started, let me quickly say that, if you want your apology from someone more intelligent, more humorous, more structured, and more precise, go out immediately and read St. Francis de Sales’ The Catholic Controversy, which is a series of letters he wrote to his diocese as it became Protestant around him. (He succeeded in converting a great many souls back to the Church, and this is the book I blame more than any other for my own conversion.) More than a few of the points I will present come directly from St. Francis’ work. (You can read my review of it here, if you want an overview. And if you don’t want to buy it, though I recommend you do–taking notes is optional, but probable–there is an English translation available online.)

The first step in any good discussion is an agreement of terms. Disagreeing on definitions is the largest hurdle in any conversation about theology and it is the one most often missed or ignored. Simply put, Catholics and non-Catholics do not use the same terms in the same way, and assuming that they do creates a false understanding of the others’ teaching. I am endeavoring, in this first post of the series, to lay out the terms on which Protestants and Catholics frequently disagree so that these misunderstandings are minimized.

(It is probable that I shall edit this post in the future when I think of more terms that need to be defined.)

to pray
To ask or request. Compare once-common English usage, “Pray tell!” in which the speaker asks that the listener provide more information on a subject. Compare archaism “prithee,” literally, pray thee, used by Shakespeare 228 times to have one character ask another something. In Catholic circles, does not mean “to worship.” (In Protestant circles, excluding usages as in Shakespeare, means almost exclusively “to worship,” and praying can only be done to God. This is a linguistic oddity more than a theological one; Protestants use “pray” for its original meaning so infrequently that laypeople are rarely even aware of that definition.)
to worship
As a general rule, Catholics mean the same thing as Protestants when they say, “to worship,” but sometimes, very rarely, they mean it in a literal way: “to apply the appropriate worth to” something or someone. With this usage, it can be applied to just about anything. Because of the rarity of this usage, I prefer never to engage in it, but in case you come across someone saying, “We worship X, Y, Z (not-God),” don’t automatically say it proves that all Catholics are idolaters. It’s just another linguistic alteration over time, and some folks haven’t caught up yet.
works
I will delve into the soteriological implications of “works” in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the term needs to lose its baggage for a good conversation. For Protestants, this word often means that you have fallen into a paganesque method of rote behavior, thinking you can build a stairway to heaven; for Catholics, this word mostly means “labor,” “effort,” or “action.” Attributing more meaning to it will confuse a Catholic and infuriate a Protestant.
holy / holiness
More than a few Protestant evangelical friends of mine have defied usage of the term “holy” in one direction or another. Either “holy” is something that only God is, and therefore we should not apply it to people of any stripe (no matter how good they may be), or “holy” is something all Christians are, and therefore we should not restrict it to certain people. For Catholics, “holy” (synonymous with “saintly”) tends to be held in reserve for both God and the saints. I will delve into the saints in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the saints are those “set apart” by God in heaven. Catholic doctrine does not preclude the definition used by Paul (meaning “the faithful” or “Christians in general”) in Romans 15; I Corinthians 6; 2 Corinthians 1; and other places, both in the New and Old Testament. But rather, it favors the definition used by Paul (meaning “the ideal” or “those delineated as holy by God” or “those by the side of God”) in Romans 1; 8; Ephesians 5; and other places. Which of these is the more appropriate meaning can be debated, but the modern usage of Catholics has more than a thousand years of history behind it at this point.
The Five Solas
These belong to Protestantism, and the five solas are: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the final authority on God’s plan for salvation), sola gratia (men are saved by grace alone), sola fide (that grace comes through faith alone), solus Christus (that faith is in Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (creation gives glory to God alone). These are not uniquely Protestant, in that some can be interpreted through a Catholic lens and be entirely accurate (most easily the last), but especially the first is peculiarly Protestant (excluding Anglicans, whose three-legged stool of faith gives no primacy to Scripture). To read more about the five solas, here’s a randomly selected website.

That’s all for now. Look forward to more posts in the future. The first topic will be Sacred Tradition, and will involve the daunting task of disagreeing with sola Scriptura. This may seem a very challenging place to begin, but without it, much of the Catholic Church may be dismissed by those who ignore her historical authority.

Next Post:
The Rules of Faith >

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