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Why I’m Catholic: Slip Sliding Away

Ken Hensley
February 1, 2018 17 Comments

One the greatest Church historians of the 19th century was the German Lutheran scholar Adolf Harnack.

A university professor for decades, Harnack bewailed and bemoaned the ignorance his mainly Lutheran students displayed of the Catholic Church. 

I am convinced from constant experience of the fact that the students who leave our schools have the most disconnected and absurd ideas about ecclesiastical history. Some of them know something about Gnosticism, or about other curious and for them worthless details. But of the Catholic Church, the greatest religious and political creation known to history, they know absolutely nothing, and they indulge in its regard in wholly trivial, vague, and often directly nonsensical notions (quoted in Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, p. 12).

As a former evangelical Protestant minister who has spent the last twenty years studying the Catholic Faith, I can testify that, while Harnack’s assessment is harshly worded, it isn’t inaccurate. The vast majority of modern evangelical Protestants have no idea what Catholicism is, nor do they have a clue as to what the case for the truth of the Catholic Faith might be. 

When they think of Catholicism, what most have in their minds isn’t Catholicism at all but a muddle of indistinct ideas, distorted images, mistaken impressions, and absurd caricatures. As to the inner logic of Catholicism as a system of thought, most haven’t the vaguest notion.

I suppose I should quickly point out that the reverse is also true: most Catholics haven’t a clue as to what Protestantism is either! We have ignorance abounding on all sides.

As a Protestant, I, too, had a distorted view of Catholicism. Although I was a serious student of Scripture and theology throughout my years in Bible college, seminary, and the ministry, when it came to Catholicism, like one of Harnack’s wayward students, I indulged “in wholly trivial, vague, and often directly nonsensical notions” about the Catholic Faith.  I had many misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and caricatures.

Becoming Catholic required a rethinking of my entire worldview as a Christian, beginning with the foundation of that worldview.

The Issue of Foundations

One of the first things that struck me when I began discussing Catholicism with knowledgeable Catholics was how exhausting it could be. It seemed there were so many issues about which Protestants and Catholics disagree. 

It was hard to even know what to talk about first: baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, justification by faith alone, confession to a priest, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or Peter, the keys, and the papacy?

But it was more than merely exhausting. There was something else at play that made the conversations downright confusing.

Although we were both Christians and both believed in Christ and in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, we seemed to be coming at the issues from different places. Not only did we disagree on a number of doctrinal and moral issues; we disagreed on how one should go about deciding the issues!

We seemed like two carpenters measuring the same board, but using different standards of measurement. Or maybe like two people standing on the beach debating the color of the sunset, one wearing rose-colored sunglasses and the other amber-colored.

It seems Catholics and Protestants have a disagreement at the level of presuppositions, at the level of foundational commitments.

The image of a building began to form in my imagination. A number of homes were being built in my neighborhood at the time and I noticed that the first thing the builders do when erecting a house is to lay a foundation. I noticed that everything else is built on this and rises from this. I further noticed that the shape of the foundation determines the shape of the structure. I shrewdly concluded that the foundation is (drum roll, please…) foundational.

I had understood for years that the same is true of worldviews. In every worldview — every system of thought — there is some foundational commitment that lies at the bottom and determines the shape of the structure built upon it. This is true of scientific materialism. It’s true of Islam. It’s true of eastern pantheism. It’s true of Catholicism and it’s true of Protestantism.

And the reason the discussion between a Catholic and a Protestant is confusing is simply that the two are operating with different foundational commitments. The two worldviews — Catholic and Protestant — have different methods for determining what is true.

The Foundation of the Protestant Worldview

Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie are two well-respected Protestant scholars. In their book Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences they give, I think, a clear statement of what lies at the foundation of Protestantism as a worldview.

By sola Scriptura orthodox Protestants mean that Scripture alone is the primary and absolute source of authority, the final court of appeal, for all doctrine and practice (p. 178).

In other words, within the Protestant system of thought the answer to the foundational question of authority is Scripture alone.

This is the key idea. As Geisler and MacKenzie recognize, however, there’s more entailed by sola Scriptura than merely stating that the Bible will serve as “the primary and absolute source of authority, the final court of appeal, for all doctrine and practice.” They explain:

A good bit of confusion exists between Catholics and Protestants … due to a failure to distinguish two aspects of the doctrine: the formal and the material. 

Sola Scriptura in the material sense simply means that all the content of salvific revelation exists in Scripture. Many Catholics hold this in common with Protestants, including well-known theologians from John Henry Newman to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).

What Protestants affirm and Catholics reject is sola Scriptura in the formal sense that the Bible alone is sufficiently clear that no infallible teaching Magisterium of the Church is necessary to interpret it (pp. 178-180, emphasis added).

Sola Scriptura, then, contains three basic assertions:

  1. Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith and practice for the Church and the individual Christian. 
  2. Scripture is materially sufficient, meaning that everything God wants us to know can be found in the pages of Scripture, at least implicitly.
  3. Scripture is formally sufficient, meaning that everything God wants us to know is set forth in the pages of Scripture clearly enough that no authoritative interpreter is needed. Christians can read the Bible and see for themselves what is being taught.

The Christian, in other words, does not need for there to exist on earth some authoritative interpreter to tell him what Christianity teaches or to settle disputes among Christians. And there is no such authoritative interpreter on earth. There is no Church or council whose decisions about Christian doctrine or morals are binding on the individual Christian. Only the Bible is binding.

In the words of Geisler and MacKenzie: 

The Bible — nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else — is all that is necessary for faith and practice (p. 178)

Worldviews in Collision

This is the foundation of the Protestant worldview.

As I began to look into Catholicism it didn’t take long for me to realize that it was at this precise level, the level of foundations, that the disagreement between the Protestant and Catholic worldviews needed to be understood.  

Because of this, although I was interested in everything — all the doctrinal issues and differences and disputes that exist between Protestants and Catholics — and I wanted to study them all, the issue that interested me most was this issue of sola Scriptura, which I now understood and believed to be the key to everything else.  

You see, if sola Scriptura is true, Protestantism is true. Period. 

If Our Lord intended for Scripture to function as the “sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice” for the Church and the individual believer, then Protestantism is true.

Of course you and I, faithfully adhering to the principle of sola Scriptura, may have to spend the rest of our lives sifting through the arguments to determine which version of Protestantism is most correct in its interpretation of Scripture. Is it the Baptists, or the Presbyterians, or the Lutherans, or the Anglicans, or the Methodists, or the Church of Christ, or the independent church down the street formed around some bright, charismatic convincing young pastor with his new angle on what St. Paul was really saying? If we care to really know, we will have our work cut out for us.

But we will be Protestant!

On the other hand, if Our Lord did not intend for Scripture to serve as the Christian’s “sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice,” then Protestantism is not true. If Jesus would not agree that “the Bible — nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else — is all that is necessary for faith and practice,” then Protestantism as a worldview, as a system of thought, is not true.

In which case, all of Protestantism’s various iterations collapse at once: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Church of Christ — all come falling down together.

I could see that this issue of foundations was the key issue.  

Slip Sliding Away

At the time of the Northridge earthquake of January 17, 1994, my family lived seven miles from the epicenter.

I can still remember awakening to what sounded like a freight train barreling toward my house. I can remember how it felt bouncing back and forth against the walls of the hallway as I made my way to the kid’s bedrooms. I kept thinking the floor was going to tear open beneath me. The sound was unbelievable. When it ended, our living room was a pile of furniture, but we were all fine. 

There’s little that is more frightening than to feel the earth giving way beneath your feet. After all, this is the foundation. This is what we stand on. When this becomes uncertain, everything feels uncertain.

In a similar way, I have to say that my conversion to Catholicism commenced the moment I began to feel the foundation of my worldview as a Protestant slipping and giving way beneath my feet. The moment I began to doubt that Protestantism’s method for determining the true teachings of Christianity was correct was the moment the question began to insinuate itself into my consciousness: could the claims of the Catholic Church be true?

Over time my doubts about the foundation of the Protestant worldview formed themselves as four distinct questions:

  1. Is sola Scriptura scriptural? Is it the teaching of Scripture?
  2. Is sola Scriptura historical? Was this the belief and practice of the earliest Christians?
  3. Is sola Scriptura even workable as a method for determining what Christianity will teach as true?
  4. Is sola Scriptura logical? Does it make sense?

And here we have our outline for the series to follow. Stick with me!

(Be sure to join the CHNetwork email list and follow along with the whole series!)


Ken Hensley

Ken is a well-known Catholic speaker and author on staff with CHN. To subscribe to his personal email list and browse his many recorded talks on Catholic apologetics, visit his website at kennethhensley.com


  • OFM

    Very well stated.
    As a convert the thing that amazes me is the outright hatred that a number of protestants show towards Catholics, the Catholic faith, and the Catholic Church. I do realize that this hatred is based on ignorance but it is hard to get past their hatred and see them as true Christians.

    • Ken Hensley

      Most are simply reflecting what they’ve been taught. My father also hated Catholicism because in his fundamentalist Baptist Church all he’d ever heard was that it was an evil work your way to heaven system that worshipped Mary and was led by anti-Christ. Keeping this is mind is key to viewing them with compassion.

    • CC

      OFM, I am in the process of converting and I am struggling with Protestant fundamentalists in my family. The pure hatred of Catholicism is disturbing.

      • OFM

        I would like to say that it will get better. But to be blunt, haters have to hate.
        It is the actual presence of our Lord and Savior in the most Holy Eucharist that will give you the strength to become the rampart that will defend the new faith that you are in the process of embracing.
        I was brought up as a free will southern baptist and believe it or not my father kept a very large statue of our Most Holy Mother in the front yard. The members of the baptist church that we attended obviously did not approve of this, but my father was of the correct belief that if Mary was good enough for God then Mary better be good enough for us!
        Remember that you are not alone. Besides those at the Catholic Church you are attending you have a great support system with the Blessed Virgin Mary and our Lord and Savior.
        The Grace and Love of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be with you.
        Welcome home!

  • Alfredo

    Ken Hensley, thank you a lot for this great article gives much cause for reflection. Sometimes I think “sola Scriptura” matches with a modern independent spirit that doesn’t want to be ruled over and to have to obey the commands of other people, it’s almost like a kind of mini-death. The modern soul naturally opposes all forms of restriction. Modern man believes that no other authority, like the Church, is necessary for arriving at a correct interpretation of Scripture. God bless you.

    • Ken Hensley

      Sola Scriptura certainly does fit with a modern independent spirit. This is part of what was happening at the time of the Reformation and it is full blown today. At a time when absolutes of all kinds are denied (you can’t tell me what to think!) it fits with the modern spirit. And since each person brings his own concerns and desires to the Bible, it isn’t surprising that each person comes away with a different sense of what the Bible is teaching on this or that. The fact that some can read the Old and New Testaments and come away saying there’s no problem with homosexuality makes the point.

      • Alfredo

        Ken Hensley, “The fact that some can read the Old and New Testaments and come away saying there’s no problem with homosexuality makes the point” So it seems, based on the utter doctrinal chaos of Sola Scriptura system, that the Bible can be made to say anything that a man thinks he sees in it.
        Adherents of Sola Scriptura love reading: ” You have a gift of understanding from Christ. That gift stays with you. You do not need anyone to teach you. His gift teaches you about everything. It is true. It is not a lie”, they claim that when they read the Bible they are guided by the Holy Spirit in their interpretation and understanding of the Bible. Yet, they claim no man is infallible. If you are fallible in your interpretations, then you are not guided by the Holy Spirit. It has to be one or the other.

        • Ken Hensley

          Yes, I have to think that John’s words about his spiritual children not needing anyone to teach them, because the Holy Spirit teaches them, must be interpreted so that they do not contradict all the other passages in the New Testament that talk about the need for believers to be “taught.” In other words,

          In other words, John cannot mean, “Hey, you don’t need anyone to teach you the doctrines of Baptism or the Eucharist or the Trinity or Salvation or the Atonement or about the Second Coming, because the Holy Spirit just tells each of you the correct view of all these!” He must have something different from this in mind.

          And lo and behold, when read that passage in the context of 1 John 2 we see that he is talking about the identity of Jesus. False teachers are denying that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:18-23) and contrasting this to those who have the Holy Spirit and who KNOW that Jesus is the Christ. This is what he’s talking about when he says that his spiritual children have no need of being taught because they have the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit has revealed to them Jesus’ true identity.

          He’s not saying that all teaching is useless and that every Christian learns all of his doctrine from the Holy Spirit.

          • Alfredo

            Ken Hensley, that is right. We could think about 1 John 2:24: “Therefore, as for you, let that remain in you which you heard from the beginning. If that which you heard from the beginning remains in you, you also will remain in the Son, and in the Father”. How about Zwingli’s “infallibility”?
            ” In this matter of baptism—if I may be pardoned for saying it—I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles. This is a serious and weighty assertion, and I make it with such reluctance that had I not been compelled to do so by contentious spirits I would have preferred to keep silence and simply to teach the truth. But it will be seen that the assertion is a true one: for all the doctors have ascribed to the water a power which it does not have and the holy apostles did not teach” (Zwingli, “Of Baptism”).

  • Edward Hara

    Well, here I am, your loving gadfly, with yet another question.

    We both know that sola scriptura cannot be correct. And as you said, the foundation is the most important part of the building.

    I would assume that you mean the Early Fathers of the Church when you refer to the foundations of our faith, since it is their writings which give us clear insight into the meanings of Scripture and of what the Apostles taught them. The end of their writings is what we call “Holy Tradition,” that is, the understanding of God which goes back all the way to the beginning.

    Here’s something that I have found troubling, and perhaps you can help me with this: in looking over the Douay-Rhiems translation of the Scriptures, I have found at least two words in the original Greek which have been horribly translated into the Latin of the DH. What am I supposed to think about this? It causes me no small amount of angst since if this is true, then it really creates a problem with the teaching that the Church (and not sola scriptura) is the “pillar and ground of truth.”

    Any suggestions?

    • Ken Hensley

      The short answer, Edward, is that I don’t view the Catholic Church as somehow being infallible in all that it does and every decision made by every person in leadership.

      The pattern revealed in the NT (that’s as far as I’ve gone in the series so far — line upon line, precept upon precept) is a combination of Scripture, Apostolic Teaching and a Spirit-led Magisterium. And all I mean to emphasize that this point is that in terms of a basic pattern…. looks a whole lot more like Catholicism than it does Protestantism.

      The subject of the Magisterium and precisely how its authority plays out is way down the road.

      But there is no “translation” of the Greek New Testament that is perfect and translation always involves making choices and it is never as easy as just using the lexical meaning of the word, because words can having varying shades of meaning depending on the context and flow of thought and author, etc. All this to say what I began with: I don’t think the authority of the Church hangs on whether every single word in a translation of the Bible into Latin is correct. Do you?

      • Edward Hara

        I guess I’m hung up on the verse in 1 Tim. 3:15 which describes the Church as the “pillar and ground of truth.” As such then, I cannot imagine that the Church would ever teach ANY falsehood, either through an ecumenical council or through the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. Am I wrong in this?

        How do you understand this verse? Maybe I need your insight to help me understand where there is flexibility and latitude and where we simply MUST accept and obey certain teachings.

        Let me give you an example of what I am discussing here. The Latin translation, which is the basis of all Western translations of the Bible, interprets the Greek word “aionios” as “eternal.” The problem is that Greek scholars have stated emphatically that it means no such thing. It has the meaning of “age-long” or “age-during” and comes from the root word “aion” which means “age.”

        From this interpretation of one Greek word, the Western Roman Church has developed a doctrine of eternal, fiery torment in hell which never ends. Yet the same verses, if properly interpreted, speak rather of an “age” of torment for the sinner, not an eternity. Do you see the problem here?

        Yes, this is the basis of apocatastasis, or the restoration of all things….i.e., that the fires of God’s love are not punitive, but restorative, however, the translation of “aionios” to mean “eternal” has created the doctrine of eternal torment, and I am told that since this is in the Catechism of the Church, I must accept this or be a heretic, even though the translation is horrid and an examination of Christian history shows that apokatastasis was the most common and widespread teaching of the first three centuries of the Church.

        So what does this mistranslation of the Greek mean for the authority of the Church? Of course, even better is this question – what IS the Church? You Romans think the Church is the Roman Catholic Church and that’s it. Was that the opinion of the Early Fathers? I don’t think so. In line with them, I see the Church as 24 sui juris bodies, over which the Church of Rome has the headship, or leadership, due to the keys being given to St. Peter.

        Still working through all this….thanks for bearing with me on my many questions.

        • Ken Hensley

          I must apologize, Edward, but I do not always have the ability to keep up with comments that are removed from the actual content of the post. I made a few simple points in this piece and you are asking about a handful of things that weren’t touched on at all. Again, I apologize. Just too many things to do.

          On 1 Tim 3:15, the problem with interpreting a phrase that occurs only once in the New Testament is that we cannot know exactly what Paul had in his mind when he wrote these words.

          I know that this is a very unpopular thing to say — we all want clarity — but what else can be said? Paul wrote these words. What was he thinking? He’s certainly making a strong statement about the authority of the Church to teach and preserve and hand down the “truth.” But exactly what he meant, the extent of that authority and how it works out in practical terms, we cannot know from that passage alone.

          • Edward Hara

            I do understand, being quite busy myself. I would also like to thank you and all here on this board for the very kind and irenic way in which I have been treated as I ask questions which are vexing me. I may appear to be just a gadfly trying to bother people, but these are actually things that cause me a great deal of personal angst.

            • Ken Hensley

              I believe you, Edward. Seek and ye shall find.

  • Leslie Bresnick

    I’ve been in both Protestant and Catholic churches, and now am firmly planted in the Catholic Church. As a Jewish girl growing up in a non-religious household, I was always attracted to Jesus but didn’t know which church to go to. Logic told me the Catholic Church, since this was the first church, founded by Jesus Himself. I couldn’t figure out which Protestant denomination had the “truth”. Circumstances prevented me from becoming a Christian for many years, and even then I started out as a Messianic Jew, to appease my family. But, my background and my experience have taught me that the Catholic Church is the one. “Sola scriptura” cannot be true – whose interpretation are you relying on, the person who woke up one day and decided to open a church? Or the church which is basically a continuation of Judaism – the Catholic Church. Jewish people rely on scripture and tradition, and Jesus was a Jew. It’s not hard to connect the dots. I am thankful for an organization called the Association for Hebrew Catholics, which encouraged me to “come home” to the Catholic Church.

  • Evangelicus Catholicus

    I agree, Ken. One just has to look at one doctrine. Infant baptism. Nothing in Holy Scripture commands us to do it. The pro group tries to use, “Forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of God.” Then they jump into reason to add meat to the bones of that passage. The anti group says that Jesus was just blessing the children, not baptizing them. The anti group obeys Jesus ruling by blessing their children, they don’t forbid it. They insist that infant baptism is not commanded in Scripture, but they go by, “He who ‘believes’ and is baptized, shall be saved.” How can an infant believe? It all comes down to for the pro group that they do it because of historical church tradition and historical church interpretation, but they can’t use that, because that would slay their love of sola scriptura.