When Martin Luther nailed his lengthy list of doctrinal objections to the church door in Wittenberg, he probably never imagined that his actions would set in motion a train of events which would rend the Western Church in two for the next 500 years.
Today, Catholics and Protestants are much nicer to each other than they have been for most of their history. Many of the events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation focus on unity and reconciliation. But the two wings of the Church still have their differences.
James Bogle and Chris Arnzen know that only too well, because they’ve each experienced both sides of the divide.
James Bogle, the vice-chairman of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, was an Anglican until his student years when he converted to Catholicism. Chris Arnzen, an evangelical Christian from the USA, grew up as a Catholic but converted to Protestant faith in his 20s. Both have different journeys and backgrounds, but share a common passion for the truth and a conviction that what you believe about your faith matters.
James is a London barrister with a former career in the British Army, while Chris hosts a Pennsylvania-based Christian radio show called Iron Sharpens Iron, with an emphasis on Reformed theology. Both know what they believe and why, and seemed to enjoy sitting down together to discuss their differences.
A Protestant becomes Catholic
James was raised with middle-of-theroad Anglican churchgoing as the norm, predominantly through his public school education. In fact, as a young man, he was more committed to his Anglican faith than his parents who adhered to the Church of England in a “semi-detached” way, he says.
“At boarding school, we would go to church every Sunday, but the doctrine was fairly flaccid. Nonetheless I had some good teachers who prepared me for confirmation. After confirmation I actually continued going to church on Sundays, which slightly astounded my parents.”
Compared to his school days, James found that university in the 1970s was a hotbed of leftist radicals, both among the student body and the academics. Their ideology was anathema to James’ more conservative-leaning politics. While struggling to make sense of the social and political milieu, he discovered an old friend from school who had recently converted to Catholicism. James was both disturbed and intrigued.
“Some wag once said, ‘an Englishman doesn’t know what his religious beliefs are but he jolly well knows he’s not a damn Catholic’. I suppose that would have been my view.”
There followed two years of extended conversation. By good fortune (or divine providence), James’ friend happened to be a brilliant thinker and historian. James says he levelled every question and objection he could think of at him. “Every time I presented him with an objection he was able to answer it fully and completely. After two years I ran out of objections.”
James describes his conversion to Catholicism as a meeting of the head and the heart: “Having been intellectually persuaded isn’t enough. Faith is a gift of God. I accepted it, not only by an internal feeling but because it seemed to me true - logically, historically and rationally.”
A Catholic becomes Protestant
Chris Arnzen was raised in a Roman Catholic home in Long Island, New York. He has positive memories of growing up and being taught by the nuns and priests at the Catholic school he attended. He also insists his childhood faith was not a nominal one.
“I was an altar boy, a very religious young man. I prayed often. I believed in the truths of Jesus Christ. I was not indifferent to faith.”
Things began to change in his teenage years, however, as he began to drift away from the faith he had grown up in. One particular encounter was pivotal in his walking away from Catholicism. At a confirmation class, Chris asked the priest, “Is heaven a real place or a state of mind?” The priest didn’t even attempt to make a case for the reality of the afterlife, answering that heaven was merely a state of mind.
In retrospect, Chris admits that a similarly woolly answer might equally have been delivered by a liberal Protestant minister (and he knows plenty of Catholics who disavow such theology). Nevertheless, Chris describes it as “a crucial point at which I began to become dissatisfied with Catholicism”.
As his faith began to drift, so Chris’ personal life began to go awry too. By his mid-20s he was in the grip of alcoholism and was smoking marijuana almost continuously. Then, he was contacted by a friend who told him she’d been saved in a Pentecostal church. Chris’ older brother had also been born again, and began to “aggressively” evangelise his younger sibling.
These things “chipped away” at his heart, says Chris. Eventually, it was a friendship with a church pastor that led him to repent and embrace the gospel. For the first time, Chris says, by faith he received salvation through Christ’s death alone. The smoking and drinking came to an end and Chris was transformed.
“My Roman Catholic mom, who had some initial misgivings that I was leaving the faith of my youth, really came to rejoice in my conversion because she saw the stark contrast that came about in my life after repentance.”
It could be argued that both James and Chris had similar conversions – experiencing Christianity as something that made sense of the world they were faced with. James’ intellectual search was answered by Catholicism’s rich tradition of thought, history and doctrine. Chris’ search for meaning was answered in a transformative act of repentance and faith.
When explaining why they ended up on different sides of the Reformation’s dividing lines, both inevitably end up criticising the other’s Church stream and doctrines.
For James, the ongoing permanence and stability of a unified Roman Catholic that has weathered cultural change and religious persecution over the millennia, stands in contrast to a Protestant Church fractured into thousands of denominations and riven with differences.
Soon after his conversion James began to devour the works of John Henry Newman, a 19th-century Anglican priest who, in the course of writing a treatise on the Roman Catholic Church, was famously converted to Catholicism himself (and would become a cardinal in the church). What Newman wrote about the stability and endurance of the Catholic Church as an evidence of its truth was historically and theologically compelling.
In James’ view, the Reformation led to a chaos of doctrines, as independent authorities began interpreting scripture for themselves, thus proving the value of Catholicism’s centralised body of teaching centred on the authority of the Pope.
“Most important of all was the consistency and inerrancy of doctrine. The Catholic Church never contradicted itself when it spoke with authority.”
Chris, however, sees belief in papal authority as standing in direct contradiction to the doctrine of sola scriptura – the Bible alone being the infallible guide for faith and doctrine. He takes particular issue with doctrines ratified by popes down the centuries, such as the immaculate conception (the belief that Mary was born free from original sin) which, in his view, have no basis in scripture.
Indeed, he believes that when the Catholic Church formally responded to the teaching of the Reformation at the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s (known as the Counter-Reformation), it denied the most important truth that scripture gives us: that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
“You have the gospel of the Roman Catholic Church and you have the gospel of the Reformation, which is the gospel of the scriptures and of Jesus Christ.”
Of course, James believes that a true Catholic understanding of salvation does not deny grace and the unique work of Jesus Christ. For him, the offices and sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church are the instruments by which that grace is dispensed. For Chris, no such intermediaries, rituals or works are necessary for salvation.
They may have disagreed strongly, but Chris and James enjoyed their conversation. Both said they prefer crossing doctrinal swords with those of robust theology on the other side, than woolly liberalism in their own denominations. And, while we can be glad that we no longer burn each other at the stake over these issues, their conversation was proof that many of the disputes which the Reformation first gave rise to are still a going concern today.
Hear the conversation in full on Unbelievable? at https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Why-I-became-a-Protestant.-Why-I-converted-to-Catholicism.-Chris-Arnzen-James-Bogle