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From the swimming pool to the ocean

From the earliest beginnings of the Reformed church, the Reformation has played a key role in shaping its identity. So much so, that to many, being Reformed meant more than a change of doctrine; it meant not being Catholic. But 497 years later, were the issues of Luther’s day so important as to divide the church?

Taking a fresh look at the Reformation, Christian Courier interviewed Clement Ng, an evangelical who converted to Catholicism six years ago. Clement grew up in a mainstream Chinese evangelical church and attended a Christian elementary school. He holds a M.Phil. from the University of Western Ontario.

When did you make the switch from Protestantism to Catholicism? What was the selling point for you, when you said, “This is why I’m making this change”?
I went off to Western around 2002 to study philosophy. Probably it was on that occasion where I first formally encountered Christian thinkers. Their works weren’t assigned as part of my course readings, per se, but in a comprehensive exam I had to pass to obtain my Master’s degree, I had to look over a few selections of Aquinas, Augustine and Anselm.

It was at that point I realized that I was in the middle of something that was deep and very aged. Aquinas wrote around 800 years ago. Augustine, in the fourth and fifth century. That piqued my interest.

It was around 2007 that I decided I would become Catholic. I had been under the influence of a few people who were converts. One was an evangelical Anglican who’d become Catholic. They convinced me I should take this step. And they answered my objections.

Do you see Catholicism as an optional choice, or do you believe that everyone who calls themselves Christian should call themselves Catholic?
That’s complicated. To come into the Catholic church is not merely to change denominations. Catholic ecclesiology is such that it considers itself the true church, but it also calls Protestant and Orthodox churches, “separated communities.” We say that there is only one church because Christ only has one body, and a single body can only have a single head.

One might think that the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches are many branches of a tree. That is one way of looking at it. But the Catholic church continues to claim that it is the trunk. They don’t use that metaphor in official statements, but they do say the Catholic church is Christ’s church proper; other Christian communities are related to it, in that the Holy Spirit can work outside the formal confines of the Catholic church.

So I can say with confidence that my parents, who are evangelical, are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are not in full communion, though. That said, I consider them much stronger believers than some Catholics I know who may go to church on Sundays, but otherwise don’t appear to be visibly transformed.

The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s opened up the Catholic church to a more ecumenical way of thinking. Do you think that if the reforms of Vatican II were in place much earlier, that the Reformation would not have happened?
The reforms of the Second Vatican Council are important. They allowed Protestants to see the willingness of Catholics to confess common truths. Had it happened way back in the sixteenth century, I don’t think that would have changed matters for Luther or Zwingli or Calvin. You might have had agreement on certain things, but if you don’t think the Pope is the pastor of the church, then no amount of reform of the papacy will convince you otherwise.

You understand Christianity as a tree, where Protestantism is a branch, not a trunk. In the same way that a tree’s branches bring nourishment to the tree, can you see things coming out of the Protestant Reformation that are positive for the Catholic church?
 What emerged out of the Reformation was a necessary corrective to a lot of the abuses of the time: for example, the sale of indulgences. Luther was like a prophet standing outside the church, calling it to account.

At that time, people were not particularly literate. They didn’t read their Scriptures. They heard them recited and expounded upon in sermons. The need for individual study of Scripture intensified during the Reformation, and that is an important part of the legacy that the Catholic side needs to appropriate.

Still today, Catholics are not a biblically literate bunch. It’s not that they don’t have Bibles, or that they only touch them on occasion – that’s not the case. But they don’t often study the Bible book by book. They are not good at drawing out the big narrative themes that you might find in some types of evangelical scholarship today.

In downgrading the apostolic succession from the way that Catholics understand it, the Reformation also empowered regular church members to take on [ministerial] functions. On the Catholic side of things, it remained the case for many years that the priests did everything. Now they have a staff, and of course, more people take on ministerial functions.

Do you feel like you’re getting something now in the Catholic church that you weren’t getting in the Protestant church? What might Protestants have lost through the Reformation that Catholicism can draw them back to?
Rootedness. In many evangelical churches I was a part of, I got the feeling that they believed that church history consisted of the early church in the book of Acts and then it basically skipped forward to the modern day. When you walk into a Catholic church and see the statues of the saints, the inscriptions from the fifteenth or sixteenth century, you have the sense that this has been around here for a long time. As a young boy I thought the Bible dropped out of heaven – literally. I didn’t know that it took several centuries for the early church to have an understanding of what the canon consisted of.

This understanding dawned on me: I wasn’t standing in front of Christ alone. I was there as part of a larger corporate body of believers whose origins date back to the day of Pentecost. And I am the last in a very long, long line. And there is a sense of universality I had when I entered the Catholic church. It was almost like leaving a swimming pool and diving into the ocean.

We need to realize that we are all part of certain traditions that form us. One does not look through the New Testament and find the word, “Trinity.” It’s not there. We confess the Trinity because early church leaders came to see that certain pieces of Scripture had to be pieced together in such a way that the conclusion that God is one and three persons is inescapable.

I learned that God is a Trinity from my parents, who learned it from their pastor, who learned it from their pastors and parents. On and on it goes in a chain. I think this escapes the attention of many Protestants. They don’t realize they are part and parcel of tradition.

I don’t think you would want to say that Protestantism properly began in the sixteenth century [with the Reformation]. You want to make a connection with the early church. If you think something went terribly wrong in the second, third and fourth centuries of the church, then your job is to find what is pure. You have two thousand years of history to comb through.

Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
You know, six years in the Catholic church, I’m continuing to learn. I try to keep tabs on all sorts of areas. I think I surprise my Catholic friends by telling them that some of my favourite thinkers are Protestant. Peter Leithart at First Things. N.T. Wright. I feel I have much to learn from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox authors, while all the while admitting that I consider the Catholic church to be that place where the body of Christ is most fully and truly alive. I pray for the unity of Christendom, as our Lord did at the Last Supper in John. I know that will not take the form of Catholicism for other people. In which case, I hope we can work together to confess common truths.

Author

  • Peter Frieswick is the Spiritual Formation Director at Muskoka Bible Centre. He is also the official PR writer for Canadian rapper Fresh I.E.

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