There’s always a difficulty in responding to someone’s story, because it’s just that: a story. That is, Joshua Lim has related his experience and interpretation of a particular series of personal events: his personal understanding of the Christian faith and the way this personal understanding led him to a subjective decision to enter the Roman Catholic Church (his Called to Communion entry is entitled, Joshua Lim’s Story: A Westminster Seminary California Student becomes Catholic). That being said, I offer the following critique of the account of Joshua’s Lim’s experience. I’ve taken the time with this CTC entry because Mr. Lim was a member of the same denomination I belong to (URCNA).
The Use of the Story
CTC often uses the “story” as the vehicle to entice you to look across the Tiber. The first thing therefore anyone reading a CTC entry must keep in mind is to always be on guard for emotional manipulation through the use of a story. There’s not much difference in the methodology used in a late night television infomercial and that being put forth through the repeated testimonials of CTC conversion stories. Like infomercials, conversion stories are all about selling you something. They purport to have something you need that you probably are not even aware that you need. If you’re Reformed like I am, the CTC conversion stories are directed toward you: you and I are the intended audience. The blog entries they put forth attempt to cause dissonance and dissatisfaction for where you are now and show you where you ought to be. If the story presented hits the target, they consider you smart enough to realize you currently don’t really have what you really need: the “fullness” of the truth owned by Romanism. [Elsewhere I’ve described Roman Catholic conversion stories as examples of the theology of glory].
The story relates more than facts to be scrutinized for truth. It places you and the facts in the realm of emotion. Perhaps the particular experience described also strikes a cord in your own experience. For Mr. Lim’s story, did any of his questions about epistemology resonate within you? For instance, can you, my Reformed friend, recall when you were in your non-Reformed church like Mr. Lim and came across “an anti-intellectual ethos, and the study of too much theology, which was often held in contrast to the Bible, was sometimes frowned upon“? I sure can. Can you, like Mr. Lim, recall coming into contact with deep Reformed systematic theology like Calvin, Berkhof and Bavinck for the first time? I sure can. Then, having such deep theological tomes at your fingertips, have you ever wondered why, as Mr. Lim recounts, “Luther felt that it was necessary to separate from the Catholic Church, Zwingli from Luther, the Anabaptists from the Magisterial Reformed, the Calvinists from Arminians, and on and on- all on the conviction that I have the correct interpretation of Scripture“? If you’ve scratched your head “yes” then the story is probably manipulating you. These sorts of recollections of experiences are attempting to provoke you to question the validity of your own experience. The more times you can empathize with a CTC story, the more you’re being manipulated. If you haven’t had the same experience as that being presented, why not? Is it because your experience wasn’t as real as the account in front of you? Don’t you want something real?
Called to Communion describes one of their goals in this way: “Our aim is to effect reconciliation and reunion between Catholics and Protestants, particularly those of the Reformed tradition.” This isn’t fully accomplished by allowing Reformed Protestants to remain where they are, but rather exhorting and enticing them to move to the alleged full level of the true faith found in Roman Catholicism. CTC states, “We do not view ourselves as having left our Reformed faith behind, but rather as having found its fullness in the Catholic Church.” Lim though describes his experience in his first sentence as “a conversion.” He then explicitly states, “I converted to Catholicism.” The very first definition of “convert” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary happens to be “to bring over from one belief, view, or party to another.”
CTC plays loose and fast with these terms and ideas. Their obvious goal is for one to accept a different paradigm of authority, Biblical interpretation, and most importantly, a different Gospel. This isn’t simply taking the allegedly simple rudiments of Reformed theology and sprinkling them with magic Roman dust so as to watch it flourish into a full faith. It’s rather the abandoning of one set of beliefs for another. It is as Mr. Lim describes “a conversion.” The goal of Lim’s story therefore, communion with Rome, must be scrutinized. If a website is actively attempting to persuade Reformed Christians to abandon their beliefs, their tactics and manipulative methods must be exposed.
Which Church is the True Church?
Advocates of Roman Catholicism subjectively claim theirs is the true church. How ironic that Mr. Lim begins by describing one of his early ventures into Protestantism :
“Despite the relatively small size of the church, or perhaps because of it, there was a sense that, in many ways, we were the only truly biblical church. Every other church erred in some way or another, and even those who were seemingly close in terms of doctrine and practice were never fully embraced – and this unspoken suspicion tended to be mutual.”
The irony of course is this is the exact position Mr. Lim now willingly embraces. He is now a member of church that claims to be the exclusive church set up by Jesus Christ. Nothing has really changed between where he once found himself to where he is now. The only difference perhaps, is that Rome is explicit that she is in fact the true church, whereas whichever group he was formerly a member of only hinted at this (according to him, in a “sense”). He says also that “Over time, I began to grow uncomfortable with the arbitrariness of such a small and isolated church structure (the pastor seemed to have as much authority as the pope).” Another irony surfaces. Previously that a minister had interpretive authority was troubling. Now he’s willingly embraced an authority that explicitly claims a particular man can speak infallibly.
Who Speaks For Rome?
As far as I can tell from Mr. Lim’s account, his conversion was not the result of sifting through the infallible documents produced by the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, he used means by which to interpret Roman Catholicism:
1. “…a few Catholic theologians at a conference on Protestant and Catholic theology.”
2. “…a rather intelligent Catholic (though he knew very little about Reformed Protestantism- which, at the time, enabled me to ignore his arguments) at a nearby coffee shop over a span of about two years.”
3. “…constant online debates with Catholics on different blogs that I participated in.”
4. “…I was able to sit down and talk to Dominican friars…”
5. “… I buried myself in books, Catholic and Protestant.”
6. “…I found a source of intellectual solace in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.”
7. “After spending several months meeting privately with a Norbertine Father, I was recently received into the Catholic Church.”
If one looks over this list of means, it becomes rather obvious that they do not speak with one perfect voice as to the content and understanding of Roman Catholicism. These are interpreters of Rome. In the final analysis, the result of this mixture is Mr. Lim’s interpretations of these interpreters. At one point in his story he decries individualism which is said to be “pervasive in evangelical theology.” Here though, the very means by which Mr. Lim arrived in Rome were the individual and subjective opinions of fallible sources, as interpreted by… Joshua Lim.
Roman Catholic Anarchy Isn’t Anarchy Because I say It Isn’t
The most curious offering from Mr. Lim’s story is his admission that “The contemporary Catholic Church in America is far from perfect.” He states:
“Liturgically, there are, at least in Southern California, very few parishes that celebrate Mass the way Catholics should; there are numerous liberal Catholics who don’t submit to the Magisterium (to the delight of Protestants), the list seems endless.”
As I read through Mr. Lim’s description of the problems in contemporary Roman Catholicism, I couldn’t help but wonder if this last section was provoked by a realization that his reasons for leaving a Protestant church similarly plague the Roman church. I like to boil everything down and see what’s left. Here’s what I see once the flame is turned off: There’s a big group of people that trust Rome as their ultimate infallible authority. On the other hand, there’s another group who believe that the Bible is the only infallible authority. What Mr. Lim wants me to believe is that it’s quite alright if Roman Catholics misinterpret or spin their magisterium how one wants to, but it’s not quite alright if a Protestant misinterprets or spins the Bible how one wants to.
Remember, if the argument you’re using works just as well against your own position, it’s best not to use that argument. Over on my own blog, I have my own occasional feature called, Blueprint for Anarchy. What I’ve been doing is simply keeping track of all the times I come across Rome’s zealous defenders disagreeing with each other, or pointing out the lack of clarity within Roman Catholicism as well as the confusion produced by the magisterium. That some people misinterpret or twist the Bible is not the fault of the Bible, hence not a proof against sola scriptura. In the same way, that I may possibly configure my computer incorrectly is not the fault of the owner’s manual that comes with it. The misuse of a sufficient source does not negate the clarity of that sufficient source.
Note the blatant double standard of Mr. Lim on problems within the Roman church:
“These issues have not moved me from the conviction that the Catholic Church is the true Church; on the contrary, they have only increased my faith that this must be the true Church. If Christ could continue to work to build his Church with such a history of failings on the part of the laity, various priests, bishops, and even popes, surely this Church must be sustained by God himself; despite the passage of over two millennia, the Church continues to hold and to teach in substance what it has always held and taught.”
I’m tempted to launch into the story of Athanasius as he stood alone against the church of his day. Rather, it suffices to ask one simple question: Why can I not say the same thing from a Protestant paradigm? Why can I not say that I have a conviction in God’s providence over the world and the church, that despite a history of sinful people, beginning with Adam and Eve, God calls and sanctifies His people in every generation, and he does so without the means of an infallible magisterium, but simply by having his infallible word available?
A conversion story is just that: a story. For every Joshua Lim, there’s someone “converting” to “something” somewhere out in the world. There’s people that find the “fullness” of the truth in Orthodoxy as opposed to Romanism. There are people who become Muslims. There are people who become Mormons. They may even have compelling stories. They may even be former Roman Catholics. One of the ironies about conversion stories are those folks that continue having them. Take the ex-poster child for Catholic Answers, Gerry Matatics. He certainly loved to tell his story. Simply go back and listen to his debates with Dr. White. He’d tell that story every chance he could get. He’d even stay late into the night to tell it again and again. Now, go ask Karl Keating why Mr. Matatics is no longer endorsed by Catholic Answers. Similarly, how do I know that some of the current CTC stars aren’t going to keep having a new conversion story? As Reformed people, if you want an infallible conversion account, you won’t find such an item on the CTC blog, you’ll find it in the pages of sacred Scripture.