Reformation Day – and What Led Me To Back to Catholicism

That is the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here’s how it begins:

October 31 is only three days away. For Protestants, it is Reformation Day, the date in 1517 on which Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to that famous door in Wittenberg, Germany. Since I returned to the Catholic Church in April 2007, each year the commemoration has become a time of reflection about my own journey and the puzzles that led me back to the Church of my youth.

One of those puzzles was the relationship between the Church, Tradition, and the canon of Scripture. As a Protestant, I claimed to reject the normative role that Tradition plays in the development of Christian doctrine. But at times I seemed to rely on it. For example, on the content of the biblical canon – whether the Old Testament includes the deuterocanonical books (or “Apocrypha”), as the Catholic Church holds and Protestantism rejects. I would appeal to the exclusion of these books as canonical by the Jewish Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90-100) as well as doubts about those books raised by St. Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, and a few other Church Fathers.

My reasoning, however, was extra-biblical. For it appealed to an authoritative leadership that has the power to recognize and certify books as canonical that were subsequently recognized as such by certain Fathers embedded in a tradition that, as a Protestant, I thought more authoritative than the tradition that certified what has come to be known as the Catholic canon. This latter tradition, rejected by Protestants, includes St. Augustine as well as the Council of Hippo (A.D. 393), the Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397), the Fourth Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), and the Council of Florence (A.D. 1441).

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  • David Haines

    I found the article quite interesting as, in my free time, I am working through these issues. I find the problems that you bring up particularly troubling.

  • Baroque Norseman

    Mr Beckwith,

    Thank you for this article. I just found your blog. I hail from the Reformed tradition, but I have spent the last 4 years reading the writings of the Holy Fathers, as well as wrestling with the problematic questions raised by sola scriptura. You’ve no doubt heard similar stories and can probably guess where this one is going.

    In the meantime, do you have any mp3 lectures available online dealing with church history, apologetics, Catholicism, etc.?

    Kind regards,


  • Student

    Dear Professor Beckwith,

    I wonder what you think of the following response on behalf of the Protestant:

    Protestantism does not hold that Scripture is the only source of evidence about God related stuff. Protestantism just holds that Scripture is the only inerrant source of evidence about God related stuff.

    Now, some strands of Tradition are reliable sources of evidence. Those strands tell us that Scripture is inerrant. Relability is good enough for knowledge. So we can know that Scripture is inerrant by appealing to such reliable strands of Tradition.

    This need not, however, force us to hold that any such Tradition is, like Scripture, an inerrant source of evidence about God related stuff.

    So, in other words, the Protestant trusts that the Church is reliable. But the Protestant doesn’t trust that the Church is inerrant.

  • Dean

    The question is still, how do you know which inerrant books belong in the inerrant Bible if there is not an inerrant tradition in the first place?

    As a case in point, a friend of mine is a Lutherian minister.
    If I point out something something from James or Revelations that supports a Catholic understanding, I’ll get back “Well, Luther didn’t believe those books were inspired.” On the otherhand I’ll get an earful on how the latest Apocrypha to be found in a cave in the Holy Land supports (fill in the blank).

    An inerrant book with out an inerrant authority to say what it means is going to be subject to errors.

    BTW Dean responding to Student isn’t meant as an attempt to assert anything. Just my name

  • Student

    Hi Dean,

    Consider the following question: How do you know that the Church is infallible?

    Maybe you know that the Church is infallible through Reason. You’ve thought really hard about it. You’ve come to the conclusion that it is infallible.

    Maybe you know that the Church is infallible through Sense Perception. You heard someone talk about the subject. You read books and saw letters printed on a page about the subject. You heard people give testimony about what the Church teaches on the topic.

    Reason and Sense Perception are fallible sources of evidence. But they are reliable. If together they tell you that the Church is infallible, then that is good evidence that the Church is infallible. You don’t need an infallible source of evidence to tell you that the Church is infallible in order to know that it is infallible. You just need a reliable source of evidence.

    Similarly, you don’t need an infallible source of evidence to tell you that Scripture is infallible in order to be justified in believing it. You just need a reliable source of evidence to tell you.

    Or at any rate, that is how I see it.

  • StrokerMcgurk

    From Catholicism to Evangelical and back to Catholicism? You diehards may not be aware of this but there’s a whole lot more folks going to Protestantism and staying there, very securely, than people going to Catholicism. Period. I help my share to get away as quick as possible from the confines of the very evil Catholic Church.