David Ahlquist is the brother-in-law of the late, great Larry Norman—arguably one of God’s greatest gifts to Christian music. Ahlquist is also the president of the American Chesterton Society and a convert to the Catholic Church from Protestantism. As Ahlquist tells in his own conversion story it was Norman who first encouraged him to read G.K. Chesterton and it was Chesterton who convinced Ahlquist to become a Catholic.
As Chesterton himself tells it, one of the cruxes that finally led him to become Catholic after a long and stubborn journey was a deeper understanding of Scripture and a better understanding of the historical formation of the biblical canon. This is the case in my faith journey, too. Chesterton explains it and expounds it brilliantly so it’s worth the work to follow his logic through.
Ahlquist, in an article about his own conversion, sums up G.K. Chesterton’s thinking like this,
Chesterton says he can understand someone looking at a Catholic procession, at the candles and the incense and the priests and the robes and the cross and the scrolls, and saying “It’s all bosh.” But what he cannot understand is anyone saying, “It’s all bosh — except for the scrolls. We’re going to keep the scrolls. In fact, we’re even going to use the scrolls against the rest.”
That is exactly it, and that’s why, at a certain point on this faith journey of mine I realized that I couldn’t make sense of saying, “It’s all bosh, except the scrolls.” I couldn’t fathom, like Chesterton, how the Catholic Church could get everything wrong except the Bible.
As a cordial Catholic I never intend to sound harsh or mean-spirited. If I do come across in that way know that it’s reflected back at myself first of all because as I’ve walked along this path, this journey towards Catholicism, these are all things that I held to be true. I criticize, first of all, myself.
Whether I realized it or not I was the unfathomable man that Chesterton talks about. I was the one watching the Catholic procession go by and saying, “All of that is bosh, except those scrolls.” Somehow those scrolls were above boshness, even though the bosh predated the scrolls. Somehow, my way of thinking went, the Bible is reliable and without error even though the tradition it sprung from, the tradition that predates it, is itself fatally flawed.Whether knowingly or not, that’s what I believed.
Now, like Chesterton, I have a hard time understanding it.
I’ve come to believe that the Bible—those scrolls Chesterton refers to—was put together under the authority of the Catholic Church. This isn’t so much a matter of faith as it is a matter of history. The Catholic Church agreed on which gospels, epistles, and writings ought to be considered a part of the biblical canon. The same Catholic Church that uses incense, that has a celibate priesthood, that encourages its members to pray for the intercession of the saints and the Virgin Mary. This is one and the same Catholic Church. How can all that be bosh, but somehow the Bible survives?
In the past, I could’ve argued, in good conscience, that the Catholic Church fell into error at some point after putting together the Bible. God established this Church but it didn’t last forever. For good measure, this is the same argument used by Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And it doesn’t make sense, at least not to me, and at least not anymore. Because plenty of traditions and practices that are condemned or, at best, frowned upon, by Protestant Christians pre-date the collection of the Bible in its current form.
Ancient documents outlining the Mass; church fathers’ pronouncements of the Eucharist as the actual blood and body of Christ; evidence of early veneration of the saints; a sacramental understanding of baptism; the papacy. These are things that pre-date the official canon of the Bible.
How could everything else about the Catholic Church be “bosh” except the Bible—especially when some of those objectionable things came before the Bible?
If the Catholic Church had enough God-given authority to reliably put together the Bible—and we take that for granted—why and when did that authority sudden cease, and how do we know? If all the trappings and traditions of the Catholic Church is faulty, how can we say the Bible isn’t?
If my journey towards Catholicism could be described as a walk down a wooded trail, this was the sudden and unexpected landslide. If the Catholic Church is “bosh” then it needs to all be bosh and I can’t see a way to reliably pick and choose but if it isn’t, and this is what I’ve come to understand, then that’s a whole other story.