Category Archives: Apologetics

Aspiring Reformed pastor discovers the Catholic Church

Jeremy de Haan was born and raised in the Canadian Reformed Churches, a denomination grounded in the Dutch Reformed tradition. He drifted from his Reformed roots in his early twenties, spending a few years in a Vineyard church but ultimately returned to the Reformed tradition. Sometime later, he decided to pursue the ministry, and completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of the Fraser Valley in 2012 and a Master of Divinity at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario in 2016. In his fourth year of seminary, Jeremy discovered that the search for the fullness of the Christian faith that had brought him from the Vineyard back to being Reformed was incomplete. He found that the Reformed faith remained strong insofar as it held to its Catholic roots; and insofar as it was worked out according to its own principles it weakened and became unorthodox. This meant that the final step was to return to the bosom of the Church the Reformers had left, to seek her not with the hardness of hostility and prejudice, but with the softness of a child turning to his mother in loving obedience. He and his wife, Arenda, and three children hope to be received into the Church at Easter, 2017.

“They shall ask the way to Zion with their faces thitherward.” – Jeremiah 50:5 (KJV).

I.
Mid-September here in British Columbia’s West Kootenays is the season for shoveling bear droppings from your backyard, droppings full of the ripe plums you didn’t get around to harvesting in time (there’s a proverb in there somewhere…). Meanwhile, mid-September back in Hamilton, Ontario, is convocation time for the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, a small but lively seminary tucked away in a neighbourhood on the west mountain. That was where I’d completed my Master of Divinity program in April of this year, having planned for the last six years to be a Reformed pastor. I never could’ve guessed during those years that I’d be absent from my own convocation; that I’d instead be five thousand kilometers away, shovel still smelly in the garage, hollering at the kids so I could watch the ceremony on live-stream from our dinner table. Nor could I have guessed, prior to my fourth and final year at seminary, the reason for my absence: that only a week before convocation, I’d knocked on the door of the local parish church and announced to the surprised priest and secretary our intention to seek communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It no longer seemed right to attend convocation, a celebration of Reformed teaching, when we were in the process of embracing the Catholic faith.

My family and I had driven cross-country in late May, a couple weeks after school was out, settling closer to our roots in the Pacific northwest. We’d been attending Mass at St. Rita’s here in town pretty much since we arrived, and in a congregation of fifty or sixty mostly elderly people you and your three young kids don’t exactly slip in unnoticed. But we’d been attending with a certain amount of distance in our hearts, as we’d arrived with many unanswered questions, and hadn’t introduced ourselves. So when I popped into the office that September morning and sat down with the priest, I explained who we were and where we’d come from. Of course, the fact that I’d recently graduated from a Reformed seminary was an attention grabber, and he asked all sorts of questions.

But if it provokes questions for a Catholic priest, it probably provokes even more for a Reformed person. Probably all the subtle variations of, “What on earth?” I don’t know that I can sufficiently answer that, but it’s worth a shot. While I won’t go into detail here about every doctrinal question, for the sake of space, I will give you the shape of my overall thinking over the last year.

II.
At the close of the summer of 2015 I’d just finished a preaching practicum in Fergus, Ontario. I was looking forward to my fourth and final year at seminary and to the ministry beyond it. Up to this point, my views on the Catholic Church were pretty normal for a Reformed person. I didn’t believe that all Catholics were damned, but if some were going to be with me in heaven it would be in spite of all the rubbish their Church taught – certainly not because of it. After all, in the very name “Reformed” itself was a rebuke of the Catholic Church, for it was the apparent corruptions of that Church that the Reformers had sought to reform. Catholics prayed to dead people, they worshipped Mary, they thought the blood, hair, bones, and organs of a dead saint could be magical, they bowed down to idols, their claims to papal and magisterial infallibility could be debunked by pointing to the many inconsistencies and historical falsehoods; name any teaching of Scripture and Rome had buried it beneath idolatry, superstition, and man-made doctrines. Catholics had mastered the art of erring, and had solemnly festooned their errors with incense, candles, chants, and fancy robes. Considering all that, it never really crossed my mind to take Rome seriously.

But although that was the official view of my mind, at another level those prejudices had been challenged as the years went by. Many of my favourite writers were Catholic, like J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, and Anthony Esolen; or were from the Catholic wing of Anglicanism, like C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Roger Scruton. Reformed readers will recognize some of those names, as they’re pretty much the patron saints of hipster Christians of any stripe. But if John Calvin was right to point to the “corruptions by which Satan, in the papacy, has polluted everything God had appointed for our salvation,”1 then how could men who had bought into that satanic pollution have anything worthwhile to say about the Christian faith, and how to understand the world through the lens of that faith?

In fact, in every encounter I had with the Catholic Church, whether through her writers, her music, her philosophy, her prayers, or her actual members, my prejudices were being challenged. I simply left it in the “inexplicable” category as to how so much insight, virtue, and holiness could be present in a Church that had long since given orthodoxy the bum’s rush.

I did have questions, too, about the Reformed faith. I didn’t see how some Reformed doctrines fully squared with the data of Scripture, and there were non-Reformed doctrines that seemed to equally satisfy the evidence. There were questions of Church authority and confessional authority. But none of these posed any real challenge to my thinking, and I never called into question the validity of the Reformation as a whole. Being Reformed was about much more than answering every intellectual question, anyways. I loved the Reformed Church. I loved her history, I loved her teachings, and I loved above all her emphasis on Scripture. If there were loose ends, apparent inconsistencies, and other inexplicable features of my faith, I merely chalked it up to the fact that life was full of these things. No reason to go all funny in the head about them.

III.
And so I began fourth year. But only a couple weeks into the first semester I came across the philosopher Peter Kreeft’s conversion story on YouTube. I’d read a little of Kreeft’s writings before, and they impressed me as being from the pen of a thoughtful and godly man. I knew he was a Catholic, but what I didn’t know until I saw the title of the video was that he had converted to Catholicism from being a Protestant. And when I started watching the video I realized he had converted from a Dutch Reformed background very similar to mine. That fact alone struck me. Here was a man who seemed trustworthy and thorough in his thinking, who grew up very similar to me, yet who had looked seriously at the Catholic faith and was compelled by what he found to leave the Reformed faith. If Rome was so shot through with false teachings, then how could anyone find the truth there? How could anyone leave what was obviously true for what was obviously false?

It was one particular question of his that unsettled me: if a modern Catholic and a modern Protestant could hop in a time machine and travel back to the early Church, which of the two would feel more at home? I’d always just assumed that the Reformation was a return to the early Church, a pressure-washing of papal grime off the pillars of the Christian faith. After all, if the Reformers were recovering the true apostolic teachings, then Reformed churches should at least look like the churches that the Apostles left behind. I’d never looked much into it, but until these assumptions were challenged I didn’t realize how central they were to my thinking. According to Kreeft, it was discovering that the early Church was essentially Catholic that eventually led him into the Catholic Church. I knew then that I had to look into this myself. There is only one faith, as the New Testament makes clear, and if it was not Rome but the Reformers who had departed from that one faith, then I’d be making some serious life changes.

Within a day or two of watching the video, I’d gone downstairs at the seminary library to the Church Fathers section and checked out the letters of Ignatius. Ignatius wrote his letters only a couple decades after the Apostle John died, and tradition has it that Ignatius was one of John’s disciples. Actually, tradition has it that Ignatius was one of the children blessed by Jesus, too.

So I read his letters, and it was evident quite quickly that the faith this man wrote about was not the Reformed faith. He called the bread of the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality”;2 he wrote that “[the heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again”;3 and he wrote, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”.4 This was about twenty years after the last Apostle died.

IV.
It was at this point that all those other questions and challenges that had lazed about near the horizons of my thinking came bearing down in full force. I was deeply moved by it all, to the point where a couple weeks later I was sitting in my mentor professor’s office telling him, “I think I’ve taken the first steps on the road to becoming a Catholic.” I told Arenda, too, and rather unexpectedly she confessed that she also had been drawn of late to the Catholic Church. That’s her story, and I’ll leave it to her to tell it if and how she wants to; but the point here is that we have walked this path together from the beginning.

I didn’t stop preaching or teaching catechism, however. I’d gone through phases before in life and I figured a good headshake was coming, after which all the familiar Reformed constellations would realign in my theological sky. I’d let the inertia of my life carry me along, and perhaps one day I’d chuckle over it all in my study as I worked on a sermon series through the book of Romans. That was my hope, anyways. As I write this, and enter into the frame of mind I had then, I’m reminded how confusing a time it was. I was in my fourth year of seminary, the ministry within reach, and the last possible thing I could ever imagine happening to me, short of becoming the next Joel Osteen, or the frontman of Queen, really was happening.

But despite the confusion, it was as if a crystal clear bell had sounded in my soul. I did not understand it, and dealt with it every way I could think of: by ignoring it, by fighting it, by hating it, by fearing it, by praying about it, by fasting about it, by writing a hundred thousand words about it, and by reading Scripture with its sound reverberating in my shriveled heart. And no matter what I did, it grew.

It grew throughout the semester, and it grew loud and persistent enough that I contacted a local Catholic priest. There were so many questions by that point, mid-November, that I had to sit down with a real-life Catholic and turn out the contents of my heart. Father Adam generously agreed to come over to our house, sit down with Arenda and me, and answer whatever blunt and awkward questions we had for him. So we sat in the living room, Chimay white beers in hand, and Arenda and I interrogated him about everything from praying to saints to the quality of parish life. I will be forever grateful for that conversation, for his sincerity and openness about the state of the Church. It was clear that he was not there to sell Catholicism to us, since he spoke plainly about nominal Catholics and the reality of sometimes meager parish life. Also, he later introduced us to a Catholic couple who got to deal with all the questions we didn’t get around to asking him. Their friendship put a face to devout Catholics – and it was not an unfamiliar face.

I spent all of my spare time, and even time that was not spare, researching the Catholic question. On the Catholic side, I read, among others, the website Called To Communion; I read John Henry Newman, a nineteenth-century convert to Rome from Anglicanism. On the Reformed side, I read The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith Mathison, Papa Don’t Pope by Doug Wilson, and Are We Together? by R.C. Sproul. I read Reformed blogs like Green Baggins, Triablogue, and Reformation 500. I reread articles from my old Modern Reformation magazines. I watched YouTube debates. I read Scripture with Catholic eyes and with Reformed eyes. I read some of the more famous works of the Church Fathers.

The result of all this was that I was near despair by the end of the semester. It seemed to me that if someone wanted to build a space ladder, all he had to do was make a stack of all the Reformed and Catholic writings that show why the other is wrong about the sacraments, or justification, or the atonement, or Church government, or the communion of saints, etc. If so many intelligent and amply-informed scholars could not agree on these issues, how could I make a decision either way? It seemed that if I wanted to be a faithful disciple of Christ, it meant dealing with a just-shy-of-infinite amount of baggage first. I knew that this could not be why Christ took on human flesh and entered into human history, but as the first semester of fourth year came to a close, this was what troubled my soul.

V.
I was ready to quit school by this point. I canceled my remaining preaching engagements and stopped teaching catechism, as I realized that no immediate headshake would be forthcoming. I ran some of my specific questions past a couple professors and a pastor friend of mine, but these discussions merely confirmed that I needed the one thing I simply didn’t have: time. I was strongly tempted to walk away from my schooling and spend my time instead pursuing the Catholic question to the full.

It was Father Adam who convinced me not to quit. I met with him one frigid January morning in the Chancery Office next to the Cathedral Basilica of Christ the King in downtown Hamilton. He assured me that my eternal salvation did not rest on resolving these questions immediately, which was largely driving my soul ragged; and he reminded me that God is a God of mercy, and all truth is His. I had an opportunity at school to study the Reformed faith in-depth and to ask of it, “is it true?” How could I know if I did not understand it? I might as well take this time, he said, to complete my Masters and to do my best to understand what I was being taught. He advised me to put aside the heavy reading; essentially, to put the whole Catholic question away for the time being.

That was just the advice I needed. I relaxed, once again trusting in God’s mercy rather than in my own efforts to find answers. I devoted myself to my school work, and ignored the world of Catholic vs. Reformed apologetics. I left the whole thing as an open question, one that I could at the moment safely ignore; and embraced Reformed teaching anew for the purpose of understanding and testing it.

But through this all, that bell sounded. It resonated clearly and faithfully in defiance of everything else. It fended off the darkness of despair, and prompted me to bring every question I had before the throne of grace. It acted as the gravitational pull of heaven, fixing me within the orbit of grace and truth. Back in third year I’d written an exegesis paper on Daniel 10, a chapter in which Daniel devotes himself to prayer and fasting. When he’s visited by an awesomely holy angel, the divine messenger tells him, “Fear not Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words” [Dn.10:12 ESV]. I wasn’t in search of a revelation, as Daniel was, but I did badly want understanding. So I devoted myself to fasting and prayer in the hopes of being blessed with at least enough humility to follow the truth when I once again had the time to pursue it.

I returned repeatedly to my baptism: if the Catholics were right, then with the waters of baptism the grace and love of God had been poured into my heart as an infant, I had entered into covenant fellowship with God, and I had the right to call Him Father. If the Reformed were right, then I was part of God’s covenant and I had the right to call Him Father. Either way, I was a baptized child of the Triune God, and I had covenantal grounds on which to appeal to Him. So I pleaded with God as one washed with the waters of the holy sacrament, one ushered into real, covenantal fellowship with my heavenly Father. And when all human answers failed, when all human thoughts failed, when all human emotions failed, then what remained was an inexpressible groaning of the heart. This groaning was my constant companion, my constant prayer. And as I walked with this companion I was comforted, for I knew that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” [Ro.8:26 ESV].

So it was that I stumbled across the finish line back in April. My heart was restless, not with the aimless restlessness of boredom, but with the kind born of yearning for its true home – the thirsting and fainting “as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” [Ps.63:1 ESV]. It was a relief to finally reach what I had looked forward to for months, a time of immersing myself in this question, and a time of opening my thoughts to the analysis of others. I could move again, and it felt good to have the wind on my face.

VI.
This newly-acquired leisure, however, coincided with our move out west. So although I’d hoped to stay in contact with my professors about these questions, this was not to be. On the other hand, moving away brought us some emotional space, some freedom from social pressure. When you are in a community of people who all think the same way, the temptation is to follow suit, even if that means not confronting, and perhaps even distorting, the contents of your own heart and mind when those contents set you at odds with everyone else. Time away can refreshingly de-clutter your inner life, and help you focus the eye of your heart upon God.

So I spent the summer reading, praying, and roughly adventuring my way through the many questions. And if there is one verse that could sum up the whole process, it would be Proverbs 18:17 [ESV]:

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

All my life I’d been presented with the Reformed case: the Reformed case for Scripture, the Church, the gospel. I’d also been presented with the Reformed case against the Catholic Church. As a result, I had obviously been critical of Catholic teaching. I didn’t think Catholics knew much about grace, or love, or faith, focused as they were on their own efforts to make things right with God. I perceived their religion as largely external, not touching the heart, locked in submission to a long-since-apostatized authority. In fact, I thought that the Catholic Church must be full of tortured consciences, for I looked at her teachings through the lens of Luther’s experience. Rome, I presumed, placed upon you the burden of earning your own salvation through penances, Hail Mary’s, indulgences, and bowing down before the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua. But because none of these things are able to save, for we are not saved by works (much less by superstition and idolatry!), the soul seeking salvation through them would only find its burden increased, as Luther found. I was under the impression that there must be in the Catholic Church countless souls crying out from beneath the weight of these teachings for the very relief that Luther found in his doctrine of justification.

But the late Bishop Fulton Sheen famously wrote: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” And when I was presented with the case for Catholicism by Catholics, a much different picture emerged. I found a Christ-centred, God-glorifying, Scripture-based faith. In fact, I kept thinking, “This must be a trick. What am I missing? Because what I’m seeing is a Church whose teachings reveal the full dimensions of Christ’s love, God’s glory, and the beauty of Scripture. This love, glory, and beauty are filling the vision of my soul, and thrilling me to my depths – but that can’t be! Hadn’t the Catholic Church abandoned all those things and chased after man-made corruptions?”

All I had seen before was a religion corrupted by human inventions. I had not seen how the whole Catholic faith holds together in Christ, that its unity, energy, and glory are found in the nature of God Himself. I used to wonder why the early Church had fought so tenaciously over the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ while, as our Dogmatics textbook put it, “the earliest Church Fathers . . . had no clear understanding of [justification] and its relation to faith.”5 Why the Trinity and not justification, when Scripture lay so much emphasis on the latter? In the first place, the Church Fathers understood justification quite well – just not the Reformed understanding of it. But secondly, the reason behind all the fighting about Christology and the Trinity was that those doctrines are the interpretive keys to the rest of the Catholic faith. You can’t understand justification, or the sacraments, or the Church, without understanding the nature of God and the reality of God in the flesh. The very essence of Christianity lies in the mystery of the God who is a Triune fellowship of love, and in the mystery of God becoming man in order to bring man into the fellowship of God.

While I had understood this as a Reformed person, it was not until I began studying Catholic theology that the harmony of all these truths struck home. I found that one Catholic doctrine after another was unlocked by asking what it said about Christ and the Trinity. I found that the essence of Catholic teaching lay in seeking after and being formed by the love, mercy, and generosity of a God whose very nature it is to give.

VII.
This greatly simplified things. I had mentioned earlier the tension of being confronted with a space ladder of reading material while at the same time recognizing that such study was not the nature of true discipleship. And it was discovering that the gravity of the Catholic Church drew you toward the Trinitarian Life of God that made the space ladder seem, well, tiny and insignificant. What were all the arguments of man when compared to the infinity-encompassing love of the Father Almighty? In my journal I had copied a quote from the great Church Father, Athanasius:

“But the Savior effects such great things every day – drawing to piety, persuading to virtue, teaching about immortality, leading to a desire for heavenly things, revealing the knowledge of the Father, inspiring power against death, showing himself to each, and purging away the godlessness of idols; yet the gods and the demons of the faithless can do none of these things.”6

According to Athanasius, one could know the power of the living Christ over and against the false gods and demons by the ever-present effects of Christ in our lives. Only Christ could draw men toward holiness and heaven, toward knowing the Father, and away from the fear of death and all the earthly trappings that fear represented. The devil could not do any of this. So if the Catholic faith only made more sense as one contemplated the Trinity and the Incarnate Son of God, then it could not be a deception of the devil. If the deeper you went into the Catholic faith the more your heart was filled with a vision of love – God’s love for man, and man’s love for God and neighbour – then it could not be a deception of the devil.

Another thing that simplified the whole search was the role of faith in seeking understanding. I found that some Reformed theologians made arguments against the Church that were very similar to the arguments of unbelievers against Scripture. Those who find nothing but disunity, inconsistencies, and contradictions in Scripture are not necessarily poor readers – it’s that their reading is not governed by faith in Christ. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “The natural person does not accept the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” [1Cor.2:14 ESV]. Finding unity in Scripture is not primarily a hermeneutical method. It’s primarily a reaching through the page with our souls to the one true God. We have one Lord and one faith, and it’s through that reality that we read Scripture.

But what is true of the Word of Christ is also true of the Body of Christ. The Church is a supernatural society, a reality that we hold to by faith, as both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds attest. Believers walk by faith, not by sight [2Cor.5:7]; but those who lack faith walk only by sight. Because of that, all they see when they look back across the long ages of the Church and her many documents and teachings, is disunity, inconsistencies, and contradictions. The Church Fathers are read with a focus on their disagreements; the papacy is rejected from a lack of historical evidence; councils are ignored as on the surface they seem to contradict each other. The stress is on the messiness of the teachings of the Church, and thus on her unreliability as an object of faith and source of truth. This perspective sees the Church as governed merely by human teachers ­– redeemed humans, sure, but no less prone to the same trappings as any other human teachers – just as unbelievers look at Scripture as merely a collection of human writings, prone to all the same flaws as other human writings.

Instead, when I started looking at her teachings as those of a supernatural society wrought upon earth by the Spirit of God, and protected by the divine kingly wisdom of Jesus Christ, then the picture dramatically changed. When I looked at her through the unifying eyes of faith, I found remarkable consistency and illumination. The doctrines of Mary, for example, were not opposed to the truth of Christ’s redemptive work, but actually proclaimed the extent and power of His work. The veneration of images was not opposed to the essence of God, but proclaimed the gospel reality of the Christ who is “the image of the invisible God” [Col.1:15]. The Catholic doctrine of justification was not opposed to grace, but proclaimed the fullness of that grace in enabling us to be “partakers of the divine nature” [2Pe.1:4]. And much more, extending back through time and across the world to Christ Himself. This Church demanded that I look at her by faith, not by the sight of evidence; and apart from Christ, and faith in Him, none of it could make any sense. But through faith in the Church, which is faith in the Christ whose fullness the Church is [Eph.1:22-23], the Catholic faith was manifested in its supernatural unity – and I had nothing left to say against it. The bell had won me over, for it was the faithful, persistent, and ringing voice of my Shepherd.

VIII.
Because of all this Arenda and I are no longer of one mind with the Christians who raised us. Through our studies and prayers, we have become convinced that the Roman Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that Jesus Christ founded, that the Reformers erred in not submitting to her, and that it is our duty to submit – even where we do not yet understand. Yet we seek, know, and love Jesus Christ precisely because of those who raised us. We were blessed to be given parents, pastors, elders, and professors who showed us the paths of life that are found only in Christ, and they showed us the beauty and significance of the redemptive work that He purchased with His life on Calvary. They showed us the Scriptures, and taught us to study and cherish them, and to submit to them in all things. We are eternally grateful for these gifts, and carry those gifts forward in our hearts. It has been our joy to find, not a repudiation of any of these things, but the fullness of them as we’ve journeyed toward the Catholic Church. We hope to be received into communion with her come Easter.

1. Calvin, Institutes 4.1.1
2. Ignatius, To the Ephesians, 20
3. Ignatius, To the Smyrneans, 7
4. Ignatius, To the Smyrneans, 8
5. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 511.
6. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 31. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2802.htm, accessed October 17, 2016.

Love,
Matthew

Lies, Damned Lies, & anti-Catholic history…


Dr. Rodney Stark, PhD

Dr. Rodney Stark has written nearly 40 books on a wide range of topics, including a number of recent books on the history of Christianity, monotheism, Christianity in China, and the roots of modernity. This included the above book, Bearing False Witness, (Templeton Press, 2016), a bestseller on Amazon.com, addresses ten prevalent myths about the history of the Catholic Church history. After beginning as a newspaper reporter and spending time in the Army, Stark received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He later was Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington; he has been at Baylor University since 2004. Stark is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and he has won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. Raised as a Lutheran, he has identified himself as an agnostic but has, more recently, called himself an “independent Christian”.


-by Casey Chalk

“Ten years ago I was an AP European History teacher at a school in rural central Virginia. At the time I was a very sincere Reformed Protestant, and although I wanted to maintain academic objectivity in the classroom, I was still quite eager to teach the unit on the Protestant Reformation. We began with the status of the Catholic Church at the turn of the 16th century and its luxuriant and this-worldly Renaissance popes. One of the readings I distributed to my students was that of Johann Burchard’s account of the “Banquet of Chestnuts,” a particularly lurid account of papal sexual excesses supposedly involving former Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. As I expected, the students were stunned to hear of churchmen involved in such devilish activities. Of course, they agreed, a religious reformation would be necessary to clean up this muck.

Except this account is found in only one source, was rejected as fallacious by many contemporary writers, and, as one Vatican researcher has noted, does not fit with what we know of the character of Alexander VI.1 And yet the reading — and other similar implicitly anti-Catholic information — appeared in a school textbook that has been assigned to thousands of American students. Indeed, misinformation regarding the history of the Catholic Church abounds across both popular and scholarly literature and media. This long-standing bias in opposition to Catholicism is what Baylor historian Rodney Stark seeks to illuminate in his work, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. This post will first evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Stark’s project, and then discuss a few of the anti-Catholic historical myths discussed by Stark.

Stark’s Aims

Readers will likely find the author’s background of particular interest: Dr. Stark is codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and honorary professor of Peking University in Beijing. A practicing Lutheran, he is also the author of the best-selling The Rise of Christianity. That a respected Lutheran historian would invest the energy to write what amounts to an apologetic against fraudulent anti-Catholic historical accounts — in the defense of history, he asserts — provides added justification to take this study seriously2 Stark explains:

“…In the course of writing several other books on medieval history as well as on early Christianity, I kept encountering serious distortions rooted in obvious anti-Catholicism — the authors often explicitly addressed their hatred of the Church.3”

Moreover, Stark frequently observed that these distortions, and often the “most malignant contributions to anti-Catholic history,” were attributable to “alienated Catholics,” including “seminary dropouts, former priests, or ex-nuns.”4 Those defecting from a particular group are usually treated with some degree of suspicion; yet in the case of anti-Catholic invective made by lapsed Catholics, it is “widely regarded as thereby of special reliability!”5 Moreover, this misinformation persists in spite of extensive historical research invalidating it. This paradigm exists, Stark argues, because these falsehoods are “mutually reinforcing” and so deeply intrinsic to the West’s common culture.

Indeed, our culture is so littered with references to erroneous slurs against the Catholic Church, having so powerfully entered our common lexicon, it would be difficult to evict them. Take the Spanish Inquisition, a topic Stark spends an entire chapter evaluating. That phrase, whatever its actual connection to a historical event, is commonly cited as a case of Catholic bigotry and particularly demonstrative of anti-Semitism. 6  The Crusades are likewise popularly viewed as an example of religious intolerance and European colonialism.7  Or consider the “Protestant Work Ethic,” that phrase coined by Max Weber to explain the rise of wealthy, capitalist societies in Northern Europe and the United States — and often contrasted with those “lazy” Southern European Catholic countries.8 All of these, and many more, Stark takes to task in this heavily-researched, well-documented examination of anti-Catholic bigotry underlying much of modern Western conceptions of history. Indeed, the book relies on hundreds of primary and secondary sources, with Stark’s most valued sources included in a text box found in every chapter highlighting those historians he views as most authoritative in studying the historical record, so that interested readers can examine the evidence for themselves.

Yet even with these strengths, Stark’s enterprise fails to answer a question fundamental to his own objectives: what, ultimately, determines our knowledge of the past? Are primary sources or the subsequent evaluations of historians and scholars more important? For example, early in the book, Stark notes:

“Sometimes I have done basic research needed to overturn one of these spurious anti-Catholic claims, and in those cases I document my findings so fully that anyone can check them. But, in most instances, I am simply reporting the prevailing view among qualified experts.”

This approach is evident in his very first chapter on supposed Catholic anti-Semitism. Here Stark notes that such esteemed scholars as Rosemary Ruether, Jules Isaac, and Robert T. Osborn have all charged the Church with responsibility for originating anti-Semitism. However, he then goes on to cite scholars such as Peter Schäfer (whom he notes has “impeccable credentials”), Israeli scholar Nachum T. Gidal, and Leon Poliakov (“one of the most respected contemporary historians of anti-Semitism”), whose combined research Stark cites to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the former historians’ anti-Semitic accusations. To his credit, Stark provides extensive examples of the latter academics’ research that make a strong case for the refutation of claims of an alleged intrinsic anti-Semitism in Catholic belief and practice. Furthermore, Stark does routinely note that some scholars are to be trusted and others distrusted because one set of academics rely on better evidence, or their evaluations make better sense of that data. Yet if we wind up evaluating the evidence rather than the scholars’ opinions, it seems largely irrelevant if the scholars are respected or not.

Presumably, Stark is citing historians and their credentials to prove to readers that his arguments have the backing of serious professional historians with less of an explicit bias than say, amateur, patently pro-Catholic writers. Nevertheless, respected scholars can be wrong, and amateur scholars can be right, or vice versa. Either way, evidence, not academic pedigree, needs to be the ultimate criteria upon which historical analysis rests. Indeed, the “prevailing view among qualified experts” may be false, as Stark himself demonstrates wherever he notes that earlier consensus among historians was biased and inaccurate. Moreover, if we rely on the majority opinion of scholars as the determinant for historical truth, Stark’s foundational argument that anti-Catholic historical narratives are untrue may be “disproved” by a future generation of scholars that picks them up once again.

All the same, as noted above, Stark rarely leaves the reader with only a “trust the experts” exhortation, instead consistently allowing the raw historical data to speak for itself, which in many cases does indeed validate the current historical consensus. Indeed, it is fair to presume that Stark believes primary sources to be the bedrock of the historical method, and that his citing of the expertise of secondary sources is only to support, and not ground his arguments.

False Suppositions of the Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition is one of the perennial favorites of anti-Catholic rhetoric. As Stark notes, the usual narrative goes something like this: for several centuries beginning in the late 1400s, the Spanish monarchy, in collusion with Church authorities, engaged in a dramatic witch-hunt of investigations, tortures, and executions to rid the country of all manner of dissidents — Jews and Muslims pretending to be Christians, but also “Protestants, witches, homosexuals, and other doctrinal and moral offenders.”9 Those leading the Inquisition supposedly engaged in “weekly mass burnings all across Spain.”10 A number of contemporary and later historical accounts — including those by Edgar Allen Poe and Fyodor Dostoyevsky — have enumerated the seemingly inexhaustible horrors dispensed on the Church’s many enemies, putting the number killed at the hands of the Inquisition at anywhere from 31,000 to 3 million! Stark evaluates these narratives and death counts:

“The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition is mostly a pack of lies, invented and spread by English and Dutch propagandists in the sixteenth century during their wars with Spain and repeated ever after by the malicious or misled historians eager to sustain “an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bigots”…. [However], the new historians of the Inquisition have revealed that, in contrast with the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”11

These more recent historians have discovered these revelations by examining the complete archives of Aragon and Castille’s Inquisitions, which together amount to the totality of the Spanish Inquisition. I will discuss several of the most common accusations levelled against the Catholic Inquisition, including its supposedly egregiously violent character, its alleged brutal use of torture, and its persecution of witches and Jews. When stacked against the historical evidence, and when evaluated in its historical context, what emerges is not a Catholic Church operating as the sine qua non of late Medieval and early Modern repression and violence, but a “consistent force for justice, restraint, due process, and enlightenment.”12

Let’s first examine the amount of violence conducted with the blessing of the Inquisition. During the 220-year period that marks the entire length of the Inquisition, Stark claims that about 2,200 people were executed,which amounts to about ten deaths per year.13 This number, drawn from the historical records of Aragon and Castile, is significantly lower than the numbers given by many contemporary authorities, including Microsoft’s Encarta, the Encyclopedia of Religious Freedom, or historians Simon Whitechapel and Sam Hunt, all of whom put the number at tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions! These popular accounts of the Inquisition give the impression that the Inquisition was the preeminent exemplar of religious persecution in this historical period. However, to take but one historically contemporaneous example, English king Henry VIII had many more thousands of religious dissidents executed during his reign. This comparison is not in any way to excuse the Inquisition for its complicity in these executions, but to refute any assertions that the Inquisition was either historically unique in its activities, or even the worst offender.14 This is because in the broader historical context of the Medieval and early Modern period, pertinacious heresy was viewed as a threat not just to religious unity, but to public order more broadly, which is why Catholic and Protestant rulers alike were eager to stamp out religious dissidents.

In common parlance, the term “Inquisition” is often associated with torture. One 19th century Protestant account of the Inquisition claimed that not even Satan could contrive a “more horrible” means of “torture and “blood” than those employed by Spanish inquisitors15  It is indeed a historical fact that the Inquisition applied torture to suspected dissidents. Yet according to Stark, in an era when torture was a ubiquitous form of punishment across the known world, the Church was a uniquely moderating force on its application. According to the dictates of Church law, torture was limited to a single session lasting no more than fifteen minutes, no danger to life or limb could be conducted, and no blood exacted.

Moreover, torture was rarely used, as inquisitors were skeptical of its efficacy and validity. Such restrictions did not exist in historically contemporary secular courts. Furthermore, the Inquisition performed torture at a comparatively infrequent rate when compared to those same secular courts: Thomas Madden, a prominent Medieval historian at St. Louis University, estimates that torture occurred in only about 2 percent of cases brought before the Inquisition. Moreover, Inquisition prisons were far more humane than their secular counterparts, as is evidenced by reports that criminals in Spain were known to purposefully blaspheme that they might be transferred to Inquisition-run prisons.16  Again, any comparison to secular practices of torture or imprisonment is not to excuse the Church for encouraging (or allowing) torture, but to demonstrate that the common perception of Church officials eagerly bent on exacting pain from suspected religious dissidents does not square with the historical data.

Moving on to witchcraft: was the Spanish Inquisition also a misogynist program implemented to target so-called witches, demonstrating the ignorance and malevolence of Catholic religious leaders? Hardly. The Inquisition endorsed barely any of the sixty-thousand witches executions estimated to have been performed across Europe during this time period. The Spanish Catholics were, once again, a moderating force against these pogroms, who based their judgments not on the ridiculous caricatures displayed in the familiar Monty Python skit, but on hard evidence. The Catholic authorities oftentimes intervened to prevent mobs and local authorities from lynching suspected witches. Even when the Inquisition did investigate alleged witches, the primary goal of the Inquisition was to achieve repentance on the part of religious dissenters, not brutalize or “make an example” of them, which explains why the few who were executed on such charges had typically already been convicted several times.17

Finally, what of the allegations that Catholic Spain forcibly converted the Iberian Peninsula’s Jewish population? For starters, Stark notes that for more than a millennia, there were more Jews in Spain than the rest of medieval Europe combined. This would hardly have been possible if the Jews were under constant persecution by the Catholic majority. Indeed, historians have found that whenever Jewish communities have harmonious relations with the majority religious community, they often convert in large numbers. This is exactly what we see in Catholic Spain. Beginning in the fourteenth century, tens of thousands of Jews were voluntarily baptized — conversions so sincere that within a few generations many of the prominent Catholics in Spain, to include senior hierarchy, were from converso families. However, the significant number of Jewish converts led to strife between “old” and “new” Christians, with many Spanish Jews accusing conversos of being “crypto-Jews.” The Spanish Inquisition sought — once again — to arrest such passions, but failed to prevent the kingdom’s ultimate expulsion of all Jews in 1492.18

As we examine the history of the Inquisition (vice its caricatures), what materializes is a Catholic Church that is largely unrecognizable from its common depictions in popular, contemporary media (or even most textbooks!). Indeed, in many cases Church authorities in the Iberian Peninsula were those most vocal in their attempts to restrain mob impulses and violence against religious dissidents.

Catholic Church v. Science, Redux Part…I’ve Lost Track

Another common complaint against the Church is its supposed long history of antagonism towards scientific learning and exploration. Be it papal injunctions against vaccinations, the Church’s hostility toward scientific theories deemed contrary to Catholic teaching, or recent Catholic disquiet about transhumanism, many critics view the Church as fundamentally opposed to scientific inquiry and progress. Yet such an accusation bears little resemblance to the historical record. Indeed, as Stark observes, most prominent leaders in the so-called “Scientific Revolution” were men of peculiar religious devotion, and a significant number were Catholic laymen or clergy.

For starters, it is worth addressing the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” perception of Medieval intellectualism, which even one current US presidential candidate has publicly cited. Those who reference this particular scholastic question frequently do so to demonstrate a supposed Medieval Catholic obsession with irrelevant minutiae, rather than philosophic or scientific questions that would benefit humanity. This paradigm, so the story goes, is what Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent Scientific Revolution sought to overthrow. Yet the scholastics were the ones who founded many of Europe’s most famous universities, and conceptualized and instructed the very experimental method that led to what we know today as Western empirical science. Certainly much of the scholastic’s interest lay in theology, yet even here many scholars, including the respected R.W. Southern, have proposed that it was scholastics’ very religious belief in a rational, human nature and an intelligible universe that created the foundation for the scientific discipline. This is in contrast to the Islamic world, where natural philosophy was viewed with deep suspicion and never gained ground with leading Muslim religious thinkers of the time. The universities established by the scholastic movement were thoroughly Medieval institutions (some already in place by the early twelfth century), yet, contra the typical narrative, they “esteemed innovation,” appropriated empirical methods, and employed some of the earliest examples of human dissection.19

The Scientific Revolution then is not so much a rejection of the Medieval enterprise, but in many ways its fulfillment. Stark’s survey of a number of early influences on the scientific method demonstrates the deep unity between piety and scientific innovation: Robert Grosseteste, Albert Magnus, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, Nicole d’Oresme, Nicholas of Cusa, and Nicolaus Copernicus were all men of varying degrees of religious faith. Copernicus is often presented as a prime example of a true “free thinker” suffering under the burden of Church antipathy towards science, who represents the beginning of that supposedly necessary break with the dark, religiously-dominant Medieval way of thinking. Yet, as Stark notes, “everything in Copernicus’s famous book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, is wrong, other than the placement of the sun in the center.” Rather, Copernicus contributed an important, yet small step towards modern scientific knowledge that built upon the work of many Catholic scientists who preceded him.20

The story of Galileo has likewise been dramatized and propagandized far out of proportion.21  Stark argues: “what got Galileo in trouble with the Church were not his scientific convictions nearly as much as his arrogant duplicity.”  An abbreviated version of this sordid tale can be summed up as follows: Galileo’s troubles resulted not so much from his free-thinking scientific rigor, but from purposefully antagonizing Pope Urban VIII, a man with whom he had previously developed a strong relationship. The pope, under increased pressure from Protestant Reformers and their charge that the Catholic Church was not faithful to Scripture, asked Galileo to include a prefatory statement in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems noting the limitations of science as an intellectual discipline. Galileo’s treatise instead openly mocked the pope. The grand irony is that much of Galileo’s research was incorrect, a reality commensurate with his reputation for claiming “false credit for inventions made by others… and to have conducted empirical research he probably did not really perform.” Even in the ruckus that followed this controversy, the pope sought to protect Galileo from extensive punishment.22 So much for Copernicus and Galileo.

Finally, and perhaps most innovatively, Stark performs a mathematical evaluation of the most well-known figures in the Scientific Revolution (52 people in all) and their diverse levels of piety. The numbers speak for themselves: 25% of these individuals were members of the clergy, including nine Catholics. Sixty percent were explicitly devout in their Protestant or Catholic beliefs; another 38% conventionally devout (meaning no evidence of skepticism, but no obvious signs of piety). Half of the individuals were Catholic, the other half Protestant. Only one of the 52 surveyed can be legitimately identified as a skeptic: the Englishman Edmund Halley, who was denied a professorship of Oxford because of his “atheism.”23  Stark, who is not alone in recognizing the ubiquitous faith of these foundational scientific thinkers, ultimately argues that science developed uniquely in medieval Europe precisely because such an enterprise was deemed “possible and desirable.” He cites English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, who assessed that “faith in the possibility of science…[is] derivative from medieval theology.”24

Conclusion

I have examined only two of the ten topics Stark addresses in this review of the historical data regarding a number of contentious issues pertaining to Catholic history. Readers will likely find all the chapters worthy of attention, including those on anti-Semitism (think “Hitler’s Pope”), the Dark Ages (did the Church seek to limit intellectual development?), slavery (how complicit was the Church in New World chattel slavery?), and Protestant Modernity (Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis mentioned above). Stark has done the Catholic Church a great service in presenting a thorough dismantling of many anti-Catholic narratives, as well as offering analysis as to how and why this happened (the answer, in Stark’s review of the history of historians, is overt anti-Catholic bigotry). Even those outside the parameters of the Catholic Church should welcome this study, as it enables us to move beyond the usual sniping characteristic of so many church history debates, and pursue a more thorough, historically faithful ecumenical dialogue.”

1. https://www.historytoday.com/alexander-lee/were-borgias-really-so-bad
2. Stark, Rodney. Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016), 7.
3. Stark, 5.
4. Stark, 3.
5. Stark, 4.
6. See the 23 August Washington Post opinion “So you’re a Jew and you’re starting college? Prepare for anti-Zionism.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/08/23/so-youre-a-jew-and-youre-starting-college-prepare-for-anti-zionism/
7. See the 1 August New York Times opinion “How Religion Can Lead to Violence.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/how-religion-can-lead-to-violence.html?_r=0
8. See the 29 August 2013 opinion in Slate, “Is the Protestant Work Ethic Real?” http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2013/08/29/is_the_protestant_work_ethic_real_a_new_study_claims_it_can_be_measured.html
9. Stark, 117.
10. Stark, 121.
11. Stark, 119.
12. Stark, 119.
13. Other recent historical estimates have offered similar numbers, including Garcia Carcel, who puts the number at approximately 3,000.
14. Stark, 121-122.
15. Stark, 122.
16. Stark, 122-123.
17. Stark, 123-126.
18. Stark, 128-133. The expulsion of the Jews in order to further the program of a united Spain may have been more a factor of the emergence of the modern notion of sovereignty than about Catholicism. Moreover, the Spanish Inquisition was different from other inquisitions (contemporary and previous) in that the Spanish Crown managed to bring it under unprecedented direct control of the crown. The infamous Tomas de Torquemada, for example, was placed as head over the combined Castille-Aragon inquisition directly by Ferdinand in 1483. Pope Sixtus IV had protested the previous year at the inquisition’s lack of due process in Aragon. This direct, temporal control indicates that the Spanish inquisition was just as much an instrument of the nation-state as it was of the Church. See C. C. Pecknold, Christianity & Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (Cascade, 2010), 75; and Edward Peters, Inquisition (University of California, 1988), 85-86.
19. Stark, 141-144.
20. Stark, 151. David Hart makes a similar, more detailed judgment on Copernicus in his book Atheist Delusions.
21. See, for examples, these articles from the Washington Post and The New York Times: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/sept98/galileo.htm; http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/31/world/after-350-years-vatican-says-galileo-was-right-it-moves.html.
22. Stark, 163-165.
23. Stark, 153-157.
24. Stark, 159.

Love & unity, Jn 17:21
Matthew

A Presbyterian pastor discovers the Catholic Church – no longer adrift

Dr. Joseph Johnson was raised in the Baptist tradition, but much of his formative years were in nondenominational and charismatic circles. After entering Bible college, he concentrated in church history, and spent some time among Jewish Christians due to an interest in the relationship between the church and synagogue. Having discovered Reformed theology in seminary, he joined the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and after seven years as a student of theology, he accepted a call to an independent, Presbyterian church as the minister. After leading this parish into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church for four and a half years, he resigned his position for financial reasons. His liturgical studies, particularly the sacraments, CS Lewis and GK Chesterton, as well as John Henry Newman and John Calvin, led him to seek full communion with the Catholic Church, into which he was received at the Easter vigil in 2013. He completed a Master of Arts in Theological Studies (1999) and Master of Divinity (2004) from Erskine Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Education (2014) from Liberty University. He currently lives in Greenwood, SC with his wife and two children, where he serves as pastoral associate to the priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

A Baptist Cradle, Per Se

A native of South Carolina and the last of five children, I was raised in a Southern Baptist home. My mother was brought up in the Baptist tradition; my father in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. My father was converted in 1973, when I was two, so the home that I grew up in was markedly pious—somewhat different from the generically religious home of my siblings. I was converted at a revival meeting at a Baptist church at age eight and later baptized (in a lake) at age 13. We were in church every time the door was open.

Generically Evangelical

Our church split when I was twelve and my family migrated to a small, non-denominational church plant. The pastor was a former Assemblies of God minister and his theological views came through his sermons. My parents had been in the midst of the Charismatic movement while we were nominally Baptist, so the migration to a non-denominational Church wasn’t that difficult. Charismatics are united by their primary emphasis on the present ministry of the Holy Spirit, demonstrative tongue-speaking, healing, miracles, etc. Other issues that often divide Protestants, i.e. views of justification, sanctification, church government, baptism, liturgy, etc., are usually not on the radar for Charismatics and are usually dismissed as “traditions of men.” It never occurred to me that the interpretation of the Bible by the minister often determined/influenced the beliefs of the congregant, who is convinced (for the moment) that their church “preaches the Word.”

My family that nurtured me in the faith always emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – to know Him and follow Him. We were part of several churches growing up, but my parents always told me to go where I believed Jesus was leading me. Of course, my working assumption was that a personal relationship with God through Jesus was all that was necessary to go to heaven as such, so whatever church you belonged to was irrelevant. The church is the people – not the building or denomination. I had no reason to think otherwise. I had never thought Catholics were not Christians (I had Catholic relatives)– misguided yes, but clearly part of the Christian story in which I participated.

Wading Out into the Deep: Jewish Christianity

I entered Lander University in 1989 as an engineering major, though I was terrible at math. While in college at Lander University, I discovered the philosophy and religion section of the library and developed an interest in early Christianity and its relationship to Judaism. After several conversations with the PC(USA) religion professor, I made the move to attend Emmanuel College in the Fall of 1991. In my studies of church history and Judaism, I found a large Jewish Christian community in Roswell, GA that welcomed non-Jewish Christians.

These Christians receive various non-flattering labels as many others consider them to be theologically confused. Yet, something resonated in me, considering the fact that Jesus and His disciples were Jews and practiced Judaism. The non-Jewish worshippers in the synagogue were invited (never compelled) to adopt the customs of Judaism. So I lived my life as much as possible as a religious Jew, who believed in Jesus.

A Dark Night of the Soul

These studies were interrupted by what St. John of the Cross called a “Dark Night of the Soul.” During my time in college, I began to evaluate my own beliefs. In this conservative, Pentecostal college, my beliefs were challenged. I was wrestling with issues about biblical inerrancy, historic and Reformation theology, and existentialism. I had begun to read on my own (contrary to my professors’ advice) the “Makers of the Modern Theological Mind,” Schleiermacher, Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Neibuhrs, Brunner, Barth, Moltmann and Pannenberg. I had become convinced that the Bible was historically inaccurate and unreliable; I denied original sin, and embraced a modalist view of the Trinity and Kantian skepticism. As my theological and philosophical views were becoming increasingly existential and neo-orthodox, my fundamentalist social mores were giving way. I started drinking, smoking and used prolific profanity. I became quite the social and moral libertine, believing all along in the goodness, innocence and responsibility of man – I was none of those things. However, it was C.S. Lewis that helped me out of that quagmire of disbelief. Like Lewis, I came to believe in God again, but I no longer considered myself an Evangelical, and I still held onto a mild observance of my Jewish ritual life.

Wading Out into the Deep – Again: the Reformation

This slowly changed in the Fall of 1995 when I enrolled at Erskine Theological Seminary pursuing a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. In the Spring of 1996, I married my college sweetheart Toby Hall. God put up with my theological arrogance until the Spring of 1996, when I met the new theology professor. We developed a great friendship and his courses challenged my liberal opinions. This was the beginning of my journey into the Reformed faith. In my pursuit of theological roots, I listened attentively to my Reformed professors, and my wife and I joined the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in 2000. Our daughter was baptized in 2000 and I joined Second Presbytery in 2001 as a student of theology. I was working on my Master of Divinity at the time.

In 1997, my wife and I had been consulted on curriculum considerations for the religion department at a local Christian school. We joined the faculty there and wrote and taught the curriculum. We taught Christian (and non-Christian students) of many faith traditions. My time with Nietzsche and seminary helped me teach students the various beliefs of not simply their fellow Christians, but also different religions. Of course, the driving impulse for a nondenominational Christian education was C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” Lewis’ analogy of the Christian religion was a house with many rooms. Each person should be convinced in their own mind of the room to go in, and pray both for those who are not in the house and also those who often remain in the hallway. I climbed to the chair of the religion department and held that position for almost ten years. The school was non-denominational with over 80 churches represented. I taught several courses including Apologetics, the Gospel of John, Dating and Marriage, Logic and Christian Foundations. However, life for me there became increasingly difficult. I served on the curriculum philosophy committee and I had become convinced that “classical Christian education” was the best way to educate children.

In the Fall of 2000, three months after the birth of our daughter, my wife experienced significant health challenges, was hospitalized and we almost lost her. God was gracious; she recovered with some residual effects of her illness, but she began homeschooling our daughter in a classical curriculum. My Calvinism was put to the test in those trying times, but God proved Himself ever faithful.

After leaving the Christian school in 2007, I eventually took a call to pastoral ministry at a nearby Presbyterian Church. Several families I knew at the parish had children who at one time had been students of both my wife and me. Due to procedural difficulties, I withdrew from Second Presbytery and was ordained by the Elders, which at the time was independent. Early in my pastorate, we voted to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 2008, in which I was properly ordained in the Presbyterian tradition. It was in this year that my son was born and I had the pleasure offering him covenant (“infant”) baptism.

Gnawing Questions

It was during my ministry there that questions began to rise about certain aspects of my faith. There were questions of liturgy and sacraments that I spent some time studying. I was working on my doctorate of education at the time, so these theological questions were quite a nuisance. I had been confident enough as a student of John Calvin to become one of his theological heirs; however, as I prepared the liturgy week-to-week, questions continued to arise such as, on what authority did the Reformers “reform” the Mass and how do I know my parish’s liturgy is pleasing to God? I found a “high view” of the sacraments (efficacious, not merely symbolic) in Calvin’s Institutes, and later discovered his view (along with Luther, Bucer and Zwingli) of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

In American religion, the Evangelical community and the Presbyterian tradition specifically, there were various things happening that gave me pause to reflect. Several Reformed ministers and theologians I respected were dragged through the mud of the printing press and declared openly to be heretics by self-appointed theological judges. The blogosphere was a landmine of gossip and slander. These accusations brought to the forefront the problem of Biblical interpretation and the sufficiency of Scripture. One man’s heretic was another’s saint. I became angry and worried. The political climate didn’t help my moorings. The nation in general; conservatives and liberals in my own Reformed tradition were at each others’ throats. The Presbyterian world was fracturing into more splits as controversy after controversy began to wreck the Reformed world. Jesus had promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18) and it seemed like He was failing.

To complicate matters further, I learned of Dr. Frank Beckwith’s resignation from the Evangelical Theological Society to return to Rome and the “resignation” of Dr. Bruce Waltke from a prominent Reformed seminary over interpretations of Genesis. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all Truth (John 16:13), so how did all these splits in the Christian world occur, now numbering well over 20,000 (some estimate over 35,000)? How did I know where the “Church” was to be found? By the time I resigned from my presbytery in 2012, there were 48 splits, each claiming Calvin as their founder. One writer observed 22 different issues that keep Reformed Christians out of each others’ pews. As of this writing, views of theistic evolution, homosexual unions, female deacons, charismatic gifts, exclusive psalmody (in worship), liturgy, music styles, etc., only add to the problems and all using the same Bible.

The Sweater Unravels

I returned to my studies of Church history and started at the beginning: the apostolic fathers and Church fathers – both east and west and the development of the canon of Scripture. I was shocked by the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch; though I had read them 20 years before, I never read them with Reformed glasses. There was nothing in those letters that sounded at all Presbyterian! In AD 95, why was Clement of Rome bypassing the authority of the Apostle John to settle a matter of discipline in the Church at Corinth, claiming the authority of Rome to be that of God? The more I studied the more I felt drawn but kept saying “This can’t be right.” So, I sought the wisdom of friends and mentors alike to help steer me through these troubled waters but on whose authority should I accept their observations or interpretations correct?

In 2010, my daughter and I attended the confirmation of a friend. I remember being impressed with the amount of Scripture heard during the Mass. I had been working on liturgical studies, so I was shocked at how similar the mass was to the Reformed liturgy at my parish.

In the middle of 2011, I read John Henry Newman’s “Development of Doctrine” and G.K. Chesterton’s works on his conversion. They both were Anglican converts to Catholicism and I wanted to know why. In the process, I learned of C.S. Lewis’ devotion to Mary, belief in purgatory and his habit of praying the Rosary, but yet, he never became Catholic. In the middle of Deacon and Elder training, I found myself no longer satisfied with “our answers.” I could not find the favorite “solas” of the Reformation anywhere in the Church Fathers. In the process of looking for a way out of these conundrums, I stumbled upon the “Called to Communion” website and was taken back at how these graduates of Reformed seminaries could become Catholic. About the same time, blogger friend of mine Devon Rose asked me to read a manuscript he had recently published called, “If Protestantism is True.” I read it with a critical eye, but I kept thinking to myself, “I haven’t ever thought that through…” I watched the issues of authority, interpretation, canon, the papacy and sola fide melt away.

I had developed the habit of stopping by the local Catholic Church to pray. On one occasion, I walked in (Presbyterians neither genuflect nor dip our fingers in holy water!) and my eye caught the Tabernacle Lamp. I paused, and staring straight at the Tabernacle, asked out loud, “Is that really you?” The answer to that question would be a game-changer. Tears began to stream down my face as my heart comprehended what my mind could not. There were several events transpiring in my former parish in which we thought we may be closing our doors. I offered to resign in May 2012, which certainly would help with the finances and when my resignation came, I was not sure where my family would attend church. I had wanted to go back to teach and with an end in sight on my doctorate, I was looking at the college and university level. I resigned from my presbytery in July 2012 so that I would not have to be encumbered by presbytery meetings while looking for a new teaching job- wherever that might be. This also afforded me opportunity to investigate the Catholic Church.

The Road Home

With the advice of convert Scott Hahn, we started RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in the Fall of 2012 to have an opportunity to see for ourselves what the Church believed and taught; to have the freedom to walk away if we chose. I asked my parents what they thought about the possibility of us becoming Catholic. They said that if that is where the Holy Spirit was leading us, then go for it. They weren’t without some concerns, but they supported our decision. My in-laws however, prayed for our souls believing us to be joining a cult.

It wasn’t a few weeks into RCIA that my heart longed for home. I began to find comfort in the Magisterium of the Church (bishops in communion with Rome), the faithful guardians of Truth, to have been led by the Holy Spirit in Councils and visible in the Papacy to preserve the identity and unity of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. At the Easter Vigil of 2013, we were confirmed in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, where I now serve as Pastoral Associate to our priest. We helped start St. Ignatius Preparatory School, an independent Catholic cottage school that focuses on a classical approach to learning.

I enjoyed mere Christianity for most of my life, but having come home to the Catholic Church, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker observed, I have experienced more Christianity: a closer walk with Christ, enjoying Him in Holy Communion, the rich heritage of the faith that conquered the pagan Roman Empire through love and truth and birthed saints, whose lives, works and deeds compelled me to leave everything behind and not look back.”

Love,
Matthew

“Loss & Gain”, Reformed & something missing…


-please click on the image for greater detail

John Thayer Jensen was born in California in 1942 and raised in a non-religious home. At a time of emotional collapse in his life, John was influenced by several Evangelical Christians, subsequently leading to his committing his life to Christ in 1969. He eventually made his way into the Calvinist tradition, and joined a Reformed denomination in New Zealand. He converted to the Catholic faith during the Christmas season of 1995. He has a B.A. in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in linguistics from the University of Hawaii. He lives in New Zealand, where he works at the University of Auckland and plays the horn in a local orchestra. He is also the author of a Yapese Reference Grammar and a Yapese-English Dictionary.


-John Thayer Jensen (right) & his wife, Susan (left)

Introduction

8AM Mass this morning – Father gives us a homily that takes its departure from St Paul’s “thorn in the side” to reflect on our own sufferings and trials. His homily is personal and, at points, touching. He surmises that St Paul’s “thorn” may have been some physical defect, such as poor eyesight, or perhaps a tendency to a personal fault – anger, for instance. We ourselves have our “thorns.” We should remember that God’s grace is sufficient for us; that when we are weak, then we are strong. At the end, he reminds us that Christ had, also, His “thorns” – and Father gestures at his forehead to remind us of them. Not such a bad homily, after all, but aimed at sentiment rather than thought.

The music at this, as with most of our Masses, is negligible. The content of the hymns focuses on God’s unconditional love for us; calls us to be “instruments of peace.” We usually recite the Apostle’s rather than the Nicene Creed – perhaps the latter is too long. Our response to the prayers of the faithful is to chant a Maori version of “Lord, hear our prayer” – though of Maori speakers in the congregation of perhaps 200, there may be one at most.

At our Reformed church, of which we were one of the three founding families, the sermon – 40 minutes or so, by contrast with Father’s 15-minute homily – would have been systematic and Biblical; would have explicated the text of a passage chosen by the pastor; would have related it to Reformed theological themes. The singing was always of metrical psalms – for we wished to be Biblical.

In, therefore, the manner of worship in the two churches, there is a real contrast – though not one that allows me to say this or that is better. The ordinary parish Mass can be pretty lacking in many ways; the Reformed service, on the other hand, was often dry and tedious. Still, I am not a Catholic because of ‘bells and smells.’

At the Reformed Church, once every few months those of us who were communicant members would have attended an addition to the service to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

At Mass today, as every day, the liturgical rite to this point, the homily, the singing, are all, in a way, preface. Now the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar. Father prays over them, using the Church’s liturgy. “This is My Body;” “This is the chalice of My Blood.” We adore what is no longer bread and wine. We receive into our own bodies the Body and Blood of Christ.

Is it this, then, that is the reason why, 20 years after my reception into the Catholic Church, I am still a Catholic? Is this tremendous fact what compensates for the lack, in many parishes, of the “bells and smells” which some of my Protestant friends think drew me into the Church? Not exactly. Not precisely just this – the reception of Our Lord. Let me explain. Certainly it is the Eucharist that keeps me a Catholic – but it is not the Eucharist itself. I could, after all, be Orthodox. The Church – the Roman Catholic Church – assures me that the Orthodox Churches have a valid Eucharist. If I were to attend one of the dozen or so Orthodox Churches in Auckland, I would receive Him – His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – and I would experience a much more satisfying, beautiful, and, not to put too fine a point on it, reverent liturgy. My Orthodox friend tells me of the Divine Liturgy at the Serbian Orthodox Church. It causes my heart to long for the beauty that the Catholic Church could achieve – and does, in some Auckland parishes – approach.

It is not the Eucharist by itself that keeps me a Catholic.

I have written elsewhere of how I became a Catholic. I have been asked by (sadly few) Protestant friends which doctrine or doctrines of the Catholic Church made me a Catholic. Which Reformed teachings did I think wrong; which correct in the Catholic Church? What issue made me a Catholic?

This, I think, is to ask the wrong question. It is to put the cart before the horse; to assume that I became (and remain) a Catholic for what, at bottom, must be ideological reasons.

I became a Catholic to join the Church.

Becoming Reformed

I became a Christian on the night of Saturday 27th December, 1969 – probably, actually, early on the Sunday morning. I was 27 years old. I had had no religious experience at all before the night when, under the influence of LSD, I experienced what may be called an intellectual vision. Though I was aware of only as much of Christ as any completely secular young American may absorb from the surrounding culture, that night I knew that Jesus and the Devil were present to me, and that I could choose. I chose Jesus.

I had chosen a Christ with almost no content. I was at the time virtually without a place in the world. I was in the process of being divorced. I had dropped out of University. I was using drugs regularly. Had this not been the case, I have no doubt I would not so readily have reached out to the Hand offered me – would have been skeptical about there being any Hand at all, or anyone to extend it. I was in the position of a drowning man. Candace’s (my future wife Susan’s sister) testimony to me of her own experience was my only Christian story.

The next day I knew that I must put some content into this tiniest flickering flame of faith. I had no sort of Christian background. Susan had been brought up Anglican, but when I met her, she was not actively attending church. If she had been, it is likely I would have attended Anglican (Episcopal) worship with her. During those first weeks of 1970, I heard radio advertisements for Prince of Peace Lutheran Church’s evening youth services (complete with electric guitars). Sue and I began attending. Pastor Norman Hammer baptised me on the 26th of July, 1970. By then I was no longer a Lutheran.

By that statement, I mean that by then I was already a non-Sacramentalist. I was – albeit not very consciously – in the evangelical camp. This came about because I was being catechised by some wonderful people connected with an organisation called Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru). Campus Crusade is non-denominational. I do not think they would have objected if people involved with them were Catholic. Nevertheless, at least in our group, the default assumptions were evangelical; indeed, were Baptist. At no point could I have said that anyone presented me with any doctrines other than that Jesus had died for our sins, the Holy Spirit was there to help us live as we ought, and that we ought to bring others to faith in Christ.

But when, sometime after my own baptism in the Lutheran Church – perhaps around the end of 1970 – I listened to the words Pastor Hammer said in baptising a child: something along the lines of ‘God, Who has regenerated you by water and the Spirit…’ – I was shocked. I had by then read a certain amount of Lutheran theology (including much of Luther), but a greater amount of Baptist (and dispensationalist) theology. I knew, I would have said, that baptismal regeneration -was wrong. It was a form of magic. We were born again by believing. By 1971 I had persuaded Susan that we must become Baptists. We joined International Baptist Church. We were married there on 20 May, 1972. We were still members of that church on 31 January, 1973, when we left Honolulu for my first post-University job lecturing in linguistics at the University of Auckland.

In Auckland, we joined Hillsboro Baptist Church. It was near the flat we lived in. It was Baptist. But by now I was already on my way into the Reformed Church.

From the morning that I turned to Christ, I read. I read voraciously. I read the Bible through – have done about once a year since. I already knew Greek, as my degrees are in linguistics. I taught myself Hebrew. I began reading Christian writers.

John Calvin

Being in a Lutheran Church at the start, I read Luther, and Lutheran authors: Helmut Thielicke is the one I best remember. But soon, from the Campus Crusade influence, I began reading others. I read Spurgeon. I read a lot of dispensationalist authors. I read many popular writers. I read Lewis Sperry Chafer’s multi-volume Systematic Theology. I was introduced to Calvin (by Spurgeon) and read the Institutes. And I read church history – Philip Schaff’s three-volume history, a number of other works. I cannot, at this time depth, remember the names of most of the writers whose books I read.

And, slowly, I was becoming convinced that the Baptists, excellent although they were, were inadequate. In particular, their theology seemed to me simplistic; and they were so extremely clearly a very recent innovation in the history of Christianity.

For I had some independent knowledge of Christianity through historical study. I knew, in particular, that traditional Christian worship had baptised infants. The Baptists argued, of course, that this was an error. It was difficult for me to believe that almost all Christians through most of history had been wrong on this point. And I knew, as well, that Christian worship had been more … well, formal! … through most of its history.

Amongst the authors I had been reading, I especially found the writings of R. J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Cornelius Van Til, and others in the Calvinist line convincing. Their theology was much more satisfying. I had become, by now, a Calvinist Christian. There were, of course, Calvinist Baptist churches in New Zealand. But there was a group called the Reformed Churches of New Zealand that was Calvinist, and baptised infants. The covenantal theology they taught to justify baptising infants convinced me. Sue and I began attending a Reformed Church. At the beginning of 1975 we joined the Avondale Reformed Church. When John, our first child, was born on 12 July, 1975, he was baptised there. When we left Auckland for me to work in the Education Department of the island of Yap, our official church membership remained with Avondale Reformed Church. We were members of Reformed Churches until 1995, when we left to become Catholics.

Being Reformed

I was excited about being Reformed – and I continued reading Reformed writers. I was reading van Til. Rushdoony had led me to him. Rushdoony led me also to Gary North, whose wife is Rushdoony’s daughter. And Gary North led me to Jim Jordan.

Jim Jordan was a Calvinist – at least I believe he would accept the label. However, by contrast with some more doctrinaire Calvinists, he was also interested in good thought wherever it could be found – whether amongst Protestant writers, or Orthodox, or Catholic. His own background had been Lutheran. He wrote exciting things. He seemed to think that we Calvinists had thrown out the liturgical baby when we had thrown out the legalistic bathwater of the Roman Church. He thought we ought to have Communion every Sunday. He thought baptized children should receive Communion. He thought the Reformed liturgy should look a lot like the Anglican – even, in some respects, the Catholic – liturgy.

We lived eight years in Yap. Our three other children – Helen, Eddie, and Adele – were born there. When, on our 12th wedding anniversary – 20 May, 1984 – we returned to Auckland, it was to start a Reformed Church – and I returned as an evangelist of Jim Jordan.

Reformed Church

Although my degrees are in linguistics, I have been involved in computer programming since my first year at University, in 1960. The computer was a tool for my linguistics. In Yap, in 1977, I had ordered my first personal computer. By 1980, I was doing more computing in aid of the Education Department’s needs than in relation to linguistics. And in 1980, two of my dearest friends – one now a Reformed minister – made an agreement with me, that if I moved to Pukekohe, a satellite town of Auckland, Richard would sponsor us as the nucleus of a Reformed Church. In 1983, based on my computing experience, I was offered a job as a programmer with the firm Ross then worked for in Auckland. Susan and I moved to Pukekohe. At the beginning of 1989 the Pukekohe Reformed Church was formally instituted.

I was Reformed – but I was also a disciple of Jim Jordan. I was sure that Jim was right about so much. One thing that he pressed was that communion should be a part of every Sunday’s worship. So I pressed my elders – and they agreed to move from a position of quarterly communion to bimonthly communion. Another matter that I was very hot about was the age of communion. Jim said that the qualification for receiving communion ought to be baptism. Baptism, not a certain age. But in our church in Pukekohe, to be a communicant member was to be able to vote in congregational matters. The age of Communion, said our elders, was ‘marriageable age.’

I became very upset about this. None of our children could commune. I wrote an angry letter to Session about the matter, accusing them of the ‘sin’ (my word) of withholding communion from the baptised. This event proved a turning-point in my growth. I was asked to meet with them. I was very angry. I was sure I was right and they were wrong. What they said to me had nothing to do with the question of who was right on the issue. What they did was to explain that Christ had established His Church as His agent in the world. It was up to the Church to spread the Gospel – and to govern the Kingdom. I had stated that I believed this, that I considered them, the elders of Pukekohe Reformed Church, my ‘rulers’ (Hebrews 13:17). If I wished to take the matter up, it could not begin with my accusing them of sin. It could be a matter for discussion.

In becoming members of a Reformed Church, we answer ‘I do’ to four questions in the Public Profession of Faith. The fourth is this:

“Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”

For the Reformed Churches of New Zealand belief in a visible Church was an essential. From a section of Church Government:

“The New Testament places a great deal of emphasis on the visible church, that is, on particular churches in each place where God is gathering His people together. The apostle Paul wrote Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians and the apostle John wrote letters to 7 churches in Asia Minor as dictated by Christ Himself. Our Lord Himself gave His church a procedure for dealing with sin in the congregation which makes clear that the church He is building comes to expression in visible congregations. The apostle Paul writes specific instruction to Timothy and Titus so that they might “know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).”

All of this makes clear that the visible church and how it is run (church government) is very important to our Lord. I may not have been completely Calvinistic; I was very definitely a churchman. I was shocked. I still thought I was right about the age of Communion. But I knew they were right about the Church. I wrote a statement retracting my intention to accuse them of sin. The matter itself rather faded out after that – but I was changed. I knew that they were right about the Church.

Something Missing

From 1975 I considered myself Reformed. Yet I felt a constant sense of something missing. I longed for … I knew not what. Although I had had no Christian upbringing at all, I had, in my imaginative life, an important exposure to Catholicism. As a teenager, I had read – and been deeply moved by – Sigrid Undset’s Lavransdatter. I have never been a keen reader of historical romances, but Kristin stuck with me. When I was at University, I found it in the library and read it again – and was so moved as to read also Undset’s The Master of Hestviken. That book gave me something I had never had before: a knowledge why Christianity made such a point of Jesus’s death. Olav, the ‘Master’ of Hestviken, hurrying home to his dying wife, is in an unconsecrated church – and meditates on the meaning of Christ’s Passion.1

Jesus thought He was God, dying for the sins of men!  I read this passage, and wept. I was staggered by such a conception.  It did not occur to me to wonder if this could be true.

Indeed, I do not know what content I might have put into a statement: ‘this man thinks he is God.’ I only knew that I was deeply moved by this idea, by the idea of this religion – and I identified this religion with Catholicism.

Until the night I became a Christian, I had little or no exposure to any religious ideas. Providentially, after my conversion, the writer I read and returned to time and time again with a real longing was C. S. Lewis.

But Lewis was not a Catholic.  Am I, perhaps, talking about Christianity in the ‘mere’ sense of Lewis’s “Mere Christianity?”

I do not think I am. The fact is that all of Lewis’s instincts are Catholic. His view of salvation as a ‘good infection’ (Mere Christianity) seems to me more akin to the idea of infused righteousness than that of the Reformed imputed righteousness. His writing is at odds with Calvinism at many points. I knew this, without really knowing how I knew it. All the 20 or so years I considered myself Reformed, I continued to read Lewis – but felt guilty doing so. I read him in secret. I would become unhappy about my Reformed worship in tears, at times – and would retire to my private office to read Lewis.

By 1991, I was thinking more and more about the Catholic-like practices: the Lord’s Supper as part of each Sunday church service, kneeling for prayer, a liturgy that more closely resembled what I thought of as Anglican but which was, really, Catholic. More accurately, my emotions were drawn more to these and similar things. Some songs that we sang before the service began – as I said above, we only used psalmody during the service itself – were translations of old Catholic hymns. One of my favourites was O Jesus Joy of Loving Hearts – a translation of St Bernard’s Jesu Dulcis Memoria.

Although this feeling is not the reason I became a Catholic – I could only become a Catholic because I believed it to be true – yet I think this emotional and instinctive feeling of missing is essential in explaining why, when I suddenly encountered the idea that Catholicism might be true, I was filled with a terrible fear – lest I be deceived – but with a great and deep joyous longing – that it might be true.

The Catholic Storm

In 1993, as part of my work as, by now, computer system administrator at the University of Auckland, I was connecting to the infant Internet. Today, the Internet is a part of everyone’s life. In 1993 it was my entry into a world I had not known existed. People from all around the world met together in this place. I discovered a Christian discussion group. There were people from all flavours of Christianity – including Catholics.

I had no conception of Catholics as … well, in truth, I had no conception of Catholics at all. My ideas were in fact simply imaginary stereotypes of one sort and another. There were Catholics here who seemed to understand the Christian faith – and to be convinced Catholics. I involved myself in one or another discussion – principally defending Catholics against Protestant misconceptions I knew not to be true.


Blessed John Henry Newman

Someone mentioned a Reformed minister who had become a Catholic. I was electrified. I had never heard of anyone becoming a Catholic. I knew of any number of examples of Catholics becoming Protestants. Who was this, I asked? The name Scott Hahn was given. Who was he? What did he write? My University library could have books of his.

‘No,’ someone said, books in the University library were unlikely. He had recorded tapes about his own conversion. If I was interested in books about Catholic converts, had I ever read Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua?

I had not. I had, however, heard of Newman. Newman was respectable in University circles, for he had written The Idea of a University, and University people read it, though I never had.

Francis Schaeffer had been an important early influence on me. In a taped talk of his that I had listened to, he had implied that Newman’s conversion to the Catholic Church had been dishonest. Newman had, Schaeffer had said, been exhausted by his struggles with liberalism. Newman, Schaeffer said, had wanted an infallible Church so that he would no longer need to work things out for himself. He had, in Schaeffer’s words, gone into the darkness of the Church and shut the door behind him.

I was terrified at being known to be seriously interested in Catholicism, but Newman was different. I thought of his writings as ‘serious literature.’ I went to the University library and got out Newman’s Apologia and his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. At about the same time I received, from one of the large number of kind, concerned persons in the Internet discussion group, a copy of Scott Hahn’s conversion tape, and one of Kimberley Hahn’s own story. I read both books in secret – I did not want my wife to know what I was doing! – and listened to the tapes, in my office, with earphones – instantly switching to the radio when Susan came in.

On 22nd September, 1993 – my 51st birthday – I knew I was in trouble. I had long since come to believe that many Catholic practices – such as communion as a part of every Church service – and some beliefs – such as Purgatory (which I had got from Lewis) were desirable and Biblical. As I finished reading Newman and listening to Hahn, I was horrified to find that I had come to think that the question was not what whether Reformed Christianity ought to bring back some Catholic practices and beliefs; the question was whether Jesus had in fact established a visible Kingdom on earth – and that that Kingdom might simply be the Catholic Church.

The ensuing ten months were the stormiest of my life. I have detailed something of what I experienced in the 1998 piece I referenced above. I re-read much of what I had read before in becoming, and being, Reformed. Many good people on the Internet sent me books, both for and against the Catholic Church. I consulted many on the Internet. I talked with the elder in our Reformed church who had been assigned as our family’s pastor. I talked (endlessly) with my family. I prayed. I prayed. I prayed.

Gradually, especially through reading Newman and other Catholic writers, I came to understand that the approach my Protestant – and a few Catholic – friends urged on me could not but fail. This approach was to compare the teachings of the Catholic Church with those of other Christian groups and to decide which taught the truth. In the nature of things, this could not succeed.

How was I to know which group taught the truth?
I was told I should consult the Bible. I should compare the teachings of the individual churches with what the Bible taught, and see which was most Biblical. But:
Why the Bible?
What books were the Bible?
What did the Bible teach?

The Bible is not, prima facie, a communication from God. As far back as 1985, in discussions with my Reformed pastor, I had been told that the truth and inspired character of the Bible had to be presupposed. I had to start with it; could not infer its nature from some other facts. If I did so, I was believing in myself, not in the Bible.

Further, in that same conversation, I had to presuppose the accuracy of the list of books in the Bible – in the Protestant Bible, forsooth! – in order to begin to think at all. Neither what the Bible was, nor what books constituted the Bible, were matters that could be proved from more fundamental premises. If I did so, I was believing in myself, not in God’s Word.

These considerations, nevertheless, were not of overwhelming practical importance. The contents of the Bible – at least the bulk of it, and, a decisive point, the New Testament – were agreed on by most Christians. I could start with the Bible in good company. The difficulty was with the teachings of the Bible.
For the Bible does not teach. The Bible records. People teach.

Some told me that the Sacraments were symbols only. Some told me that they were covenants that God made with me, but were not something independent of my faith in them. Some said that they were real things. For example, if I were baptised, God’s life was really made to exist in me, quite apart from my faith. Some said that there were two Sacraments, but I knew that most of Christians through most of history thought there were seven.

I was told that it was the clear teaching of Scripture that Baptism was a conscious testimony to the world of having been saved (and therefore should not be applied to infants). I was told that faith alone saved me – but that if my faith were alone – that is, did not show itself in works – that I had not truly believed.

The arguable nature of practically every Christian notion, from the very fundamental (the divinity of Christ; the personality of the Holy Spirit) to the smallest detail (must women cover their heads in Church?) cannot be doubted. All these issues are argued from the Bible. To discern the Church by its agreement with the Bible would be, in fact, to discern the Church by its agreement with my understanding of the Bible.

So I did what I had always done: I read. I re-read Van Til and Rushdoony; Luther and Calvin. I read many new books, books arguing for the truth of Catholicism and books arguing for its falsity. By June of 1994, nine months later, crisis came. I had read intensely. I had begun (in fear and trembling) attending weekday Masses at the University Newman Centre. I grew more and more terrified.

On a bus one sunny winter afternoon in June of 1994, I experienced fugue. It was not quite full loss of identity, but a terrifying state nonetheless. I had the dreadful conviction that God was determined that I must choose – and that He had determined that I would choose wrong, and be condemned for that choice. I got off the bus at a random stop. I thought I did not know where I was nor where I was going. I sat on a bench for perhaps an hour, simply trying to calm down.

In the event I did the only thing I could do: I rejected a malicious God, a God who was not only hidden but deliberately deceptive. I consciously refused to believe in such a God. If, I thought, I did my best to find the truth, either I would make the right decision, or God would lead me from there to the right decision. It was a turning point.

As it happened, Ronald Knox’s excellent book The Belief of Catholics was my freedom. Knox freed me, in particular, from the presuppositionalist trap. Speaking of the necessity of the use of ‘private judgement’ in approaching the Church, Knox says:

“Let me then, to avoid further ambiguity, give a list of certain leading doctrines which no Catholic, upon a moment’s reflection, could accept on the authority of the Church and on that ground alone.
The existence of God.
The fact that he has made a revelation to the world in Jesus Christ.
The Life (in its broad outlines), the Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The fact that our Lord founded a Church.
The fact that he bequeathed to that Church his own teaching office, with the guarantee (naturally) that it should not err in teaching.
The consequent intellectual duty of believing what the Church believes.”

That which I had begun to see in reading Newman Knox now made clear for me. Jesus left (again, in Knox’s words) not Christianity but Christendom. He left no writing; He left an authoritative body – His Body! He established a Kingdom. He fulfilled His holy people Israel, by incorporating them, with the Gentiles who would believe in His Name, into His own Body. This Body had an earthly as well as a Heavenly unity. This Body had come down to our own time. It was the Catholic Church. On a ‘plane from Wellington to Auckland at the end of July, 1994, I prayed: “Lord, I will never dot every ‘i’ or cross every ‘t.’ But I know enough to be certain that if You were to tell me I was to die tonight, I would want a priest. If You do not stop me, I am going to become a Catholic.

Coming Into Harbour

The ensuing seventeen months were characterised by frequent storms; a variety of obstacles had to be overcome. The article I referenced earlier describes this period in some detail. By late December, 1995,I had parted, in real tears and grief, with our Reformed minister, the elders, the congregation that we had been instrumental in establishing. Susan, my wife, and our four children, had all determined to enter the Catholic Church. We had gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). On the 23rd December, the day before we were to be received, the Diocese of San Francisco had judged my first marriage to be invalid (due to lack of due discretion).

That day – Saturday 23 December – we spent at the Sister’s house, making our retreat; making our first Confession (a terrifying, and, in the event, unspeakably good, experience). On Sunday morning – Christmas Eve – we affirmed:

“I believe and hold, what the Church believes and teaches.”

That confession contains, it seems to me, the essence of what it means to be a Catholic. It is not that I have sought the truth about this or that religious position, and then found that the Church agrees with me. The asymmetry of the Confession is precisely correct. It is the Church that teaches; I hold. The Church had accepted our Protestant Baptism as valid, so we were confirmed and received our first Communion. We were Catholics.

Looking Back

In 1848, Newman published Loss and Gain – his first publication after he was received into the Church on 9 October, 1845. In the novel, Charles Reding loses much – especially his family’s favor. In the event, the reader is told what he gained. An hour after his reception into the Church:

“[Charles] was … kneeling in the church of the Passionists before the Tabernacle, in the possession of a deep peace and serenity of mind, which he had not thought possible on earth. It was more like the stillness which almost sensibly affects the ears when a bell that has long been tolling stops, or when a vessel, after much tossing at sea, finds itself in harbor.”

I recall, with sadness, our Reformed pastor telling me, the night at the end of 1994 when I told him that I must become a Catholic, that this was yet another wild swing of my heart and mind; that within three years I would have left the Church; perhaps become a Muslim, or a Hindu. Newman, in the Apologia, concludes the history up to his reception, by writing:

“From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no changes to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment. I never have had one doubt. I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any difference of thought or of temper from what I had before. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.”

So it has been with me. In the almost twenty years since I became a Catholic, our lives have gone through many changes. Our children have all grown up, of course, and left home. One has left the Church – indeed, for a time, struggled with belief in God, though now he is a keen Evangelical Christian. Sue and I have seven grandchildren. We are members, now, and, indeed, for the last seventeen or eighteen years, of Opus Dei, an organisation which helps us to seek holiness and sanctification in daily life. It is as difficult for me to imagine not being a Catholic as it would be for me to imagine having had different parents than I have. In John’s Gospel, Andrew and hear John Baptist refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” They respond:

“And the two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned round, saw them following and said, ‘What do you want?’ They answered, ‘Rabbi’ – which means Teacher – ‘where do you live?’ He replied, ‘Come and see’; so they went and saw where he lived, and stayed with him that day. It was about the tenth hour” (John 1:38-39).”

I said above, at the end of the first section, that I had become a Catholic, not because the Church believes this or that doctrine, which I know on other grounds to be true. I became a Catholic to join the Church. I became a Catholic because that is where Jesus lives: in His Body, the Church; in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. I became a Catholic to join the Church.

1 ‘Meditates!’ What a bloodless word for what I experienced! For those interested, the passage is in the last chapter, chapter 15, of the second volume of the English translation of the work, beginning with the words “The snow crunched under their feet as they came outside.”

Love,
Matthew

Truth

“I fear that for many, arguments in favor of the claims of Catholicism have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found inconvenient and left ignored.

And yet, this is a curious thing since every human being intrinsically desires the truth; that is to say, they wish to conform their minds to reality in order to live in the real world. No one wakes up in the morning hoping to be on the receiving end of lies and deceptions. No one loves to be lied to. Nobody craves delusion. We naturally desire to live in “the real world” preferring the real and the true to the fake and the false. No woman seeks a lying husband, and no employer is looking for dishonest employees. If there are objectively-binding traffic laws then naturally we want to know what they are (imagine a world where “your traffic laws are your traffic laws, and mine are mine”).

By knowing how things really are, we can act and react to them as they really are. We desire truth because we desire to live in the real world. We are, after all, what Aristotle called “rational animals.”

Our desire for truth stems from our desire to act rationally. Therefore the desire for truth is a deeply human thing. In the words of philosopher Robert Sokolowski, the desire for truth (or what he calls veracity) “is very deep in us, more basic than any particular desire or emotion…We are made human by it, and it is there in us to be developed well or badly.”

Seeking Truth

As humans we cannot choose whether or not to desire truth; that is inherent in our nature as humans. We can, on the other hand, choose whether we are going to act on—and cultivate—that desire.

St. Augustine understood the human person’s innate desire to know the truth of things. In his Confessions he reflected that he had “met many who wanted to deceive, but none who wanted to be deceived.” And can’t we confirm this truth about human nature by looking inside of ourselves?

Our interior experience confirms that, in the long run, we want the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Why?

Because truth leads to order; and as Augustine observed in The City of God, peace is the tranquility of order. So truth leads to order, order to peace, and ultimately, peace to happiness. In other words: truth fosters happiness. So if happiness matters then truth matters; and we have no good reason to doubt that happiness matters to all people. Aristotle, reflecting on “the highest of all goods achievable by action” observed that “the general run of men….say that it is happiness, and identify living well and faring well with being happy.”

But you cannot live well and fare well if you are not planning and living out your life in accordance with reality.

Insanity is not the way to real, lasting happiness.

What then if Catholicism is true?

What if being a devout believer really can lead to greater sanity and greater happiness—or even the greatest sanity and happiness?

The Catholic faith does not just offer a more complete vision of reality. The central promise of the Catholic faith is the everlasting fulfillment of all of our desires through union with God.

God promises—on the Catholic view—to prepare us in this life for the fulfillment of all our desires in the next. In other words, Catholicism offers a way—the Way—to everlasting happiness. For God promises to fill and complete us, to make us like him or what the New Testament calls “partakers of the divine nature.”

In other words, God wants to bring to fulfillment what it means to be made “in the image and likeness of God,” and He wants to do it in the fullest and most complete sense. And that is why we can agree with Pascal that to be saved by God and enter into eternal life in Christ is to “win everything.”

Some may reel at such incredible claims, thinking it rather arrogant for the Catholic Church to position itself as the “pillar and foundation of truth” and the one religion through which people can best realize happiness in this life and total fulfillment in the next.

What a claim!”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Henry Flood – from Methodist, to Evangelical, to Anglican, to Catholic

“My journey to Rome was a lengthy one, consuming two-thirds of a normal lifetime. I traveled nearly every highway and byway of Methodism, Southern Methodism, United Methodism, and many forms of Evangelicalism. From Methodism my spiritual journey led me to the via media of Anglicanism, across the Newman Bridge and finally, with the help of a devoted cradle Catholic wife of 25 years, Nilde, my friend Gloria, and the ever-present Virgin Mary, my journey to Catholicism was complete at the age of 65.

The Early Years

As the son of a conservative Methodist minister growing up in a staunchly evangelical environment in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s in South Carolina, Catholicism was unimaginable. Culturally, you just never thought about Catholics or what they believed.

In my younger years (1956 to 1963), my father’s ministry was new, vibrant, and exciting. I enjoyed my childhood faith so much that I was confirmed at age nine, although the usual age among Methodists was 12.

Then came the social and civil rights revolution in the Deep South.  These were difficult times socially and “the ordeal of change” caused great social and religious stress as I approached my early teen years. Not wishing to buy into the social gospel message sweeping through the Methodist and other mainline churches, my father left  the relative security of the Methodist Church to become a Southern Methodist minister.

In my mid to late teens, I began to feel some discomfort with the more fundamentalist viewpoints which tended not to be open to inquiry and reflection. We were Bible-believing Christians, with an Evangelical but not fundamentalist outlook.

Two examples come quickly to mind.  The first was the “Bible wars.” I grew up with the King James Bible(KJV) but had some familiarity with the Good News Bible (GNB) and the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Many Southern and Independent Methodist Churches rejected all versions of the Bible except the KJV. In their view, these other Bibles were not the Word of God; they were manufactured by liberals who used modern language to change the word of God. But in my reading of The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? by F.F. Bruce, I saw that such views were both illogical and untrue.

The second area of discomfort distinguishing fundamentalism from evangelicalism was the contempt for intellectual inquiry — especially questioning. If Christianity was merely a collection of set propositions, then what was to distinguish it from philosophy?  Bible and other religious reading was very important to me, and I read widely from the tenth grade forward. Such inquiry caused many questions and sometimes brought me into conflict with the viewpoints held by my father.

A Teen’s Question about Mary

One of my earliest inquiries around the young age of 15 concerned Mary. As a Bible reader, I noticed that there were passages of Scripture that mentioned Mary outside of the Christmas narrative. My recollections were that, when Mary was mentioned, it only addressed her role in giving birth to Jesus. During my Southern Methodist years, Mary only came out of the closet at Christmas time and then quickly returned to her dusty place with the artificial Christmas tree. Rarely, if ever, was Mary discussed except in anti-Catholic terms.

When I did inquire about the other Marian verses in the Bible, my early attempts to do so provoked one of three responses: stone-faced silence, anger, or an invitation to visit some liberal or Catholic group of idol worshipers. I wondered about Mary’s role beyond just giving birth to Jesus. My first serious theological question concerned the Incarnation. Jesus came and dwelt among us. I felt that Mary was more than just a vessel. Why did God choose Mary? She must have been a very special person. It seemed to me that you could not really talk about the Incarnation and ignore Mary’s words in the Annunciation (see Luke 1:26-35). In those years, Mary was just there, latent in the back- ground, but providentially there.

The Search for a Credible Christianity

One of my father’s last churches was in a suburb of Jacksonville, Florida. It was an “Independent Southern Methodist Church” — a church even more conservative than my experiences with the Southern Methodist church.

Although I ended up assisting my father during his last three months and even filling in for him in my early 20’s, such fundamentalism was bewildering to me. It seemed to have little to offer, and the blatant racism present among some of the church membership was likewise unsettling.

When I was 22, our family moved back to Folly Beach, South Carolina, a slender barrier island twelve miles south of Charleston where I had spent much of my childhood and high school years.  I had interrupted my college education while living in Jacksonville, Florida but resumed it after returning to Charleston. My chief desire at this time was to have a credible, non-fundamentalist faith that could engage both mind and heart.

The “New Evangelical” authors fed my intellect and made Christianity believable to me.  They gave me reasons to believe that were theologically and intellectually more convincing than what fundamentalism offered. C.S. Lewis demonstrated that deep learning and Christianity were compatible with each other. Donald Bloesch made reason and spirit come alive for me. Bernard Ramm introduced me to a serious reading of theology and to Karl Barth. F.F. Bruce made Bible history and theology interesting. His works,  The Canon of Scripture and  The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? opened many other vistas of Bible history and scriptural development. I encountered there the concept of oral tradition.

Some Dormant Years

Around this time, I met Rev. Earnest Dugan, a Methodist minister who ran a mission similar to those you might see in the Salvation Army. He engaged my mind while stressing the need for service to others. His sermons were inspiring and his explanation of Scripture was intellectually and spiritually rewarding.

Pastor Dugan presided over my marriage to a young lady who was Episcopalian, although I don’t recall ever visiting her church. We were married at the Folly Beach United Methodist Church in 1976. My new wife and I soon moved to new employment in southern Delaware. She worked in an allied health occupation while I did grants and governmental relations. We both drifted away from religious practice. It just happened, and I cannot really explain why.  Those were religiously dormant years for both of us. It was a difficult marriage, and six years later it ended. Being suddenly divorced and single was difficult.

The Potter’s House

I was newly living in Washington, D.C. and attending graduate school. As I worked my way through earning my Master’s degree in Legal Studies, I found myself involved on the fringes of urban ministry, helping poor people. One of my hangouts was the Potter’s House coffeehouse, a ministry of the Church of the Savior, located on Columbia Road in the heart of the Adams Morgan neighborhood.

The Potter’s House was much more than a coffeehouse. It was a religious bookstore, a place of lively local entertainment, and seekers of every description — even agnostics and atheists — gathered there to share and talk.  The Potter’s House re-connected me to religious reading, talking, and reflection. It fed my heart and mind.

The Potter’s House was the gateway to my religious renewal, serious intellectual engagement with theology, and reaching out to others with a sense of service that goes with a lived faith. I read my first Catholic book there,  The Wounded Healer by the noted Dutch Catholic Henri Nouwen.  This was followed by his book Reaching Out. I strongly identified with Nouwen’s pastoral theology and focus on serving others.

The Episcopal Experience

In Washington D.C., I found a much more open religious environment. A work colleague introduced me to the Falls Church Episcopal — the historic church of George Washington in Falls Church, Virginia, a city just west of metropolitan Washington, D.C. I had earlier read Robert Webber’s little book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.  Through Robert Webber and the witness of a friend, I discovered that one could be Evangelical and liturgical at the same time. At this time, in the mid-1980’s, Falls Church Episcopal was presided over by Rev. Dr. John Yates, a charismatic Evangelical with a decidedly Anglican focus. I fell in love with liturgical Christianity as found in the Book of Common Prayer.

I recall with fondness my visits to the Episcopal National Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in northwest Washington, D.C.  The music and liturgy was astoundingly beautiful. It was not long, though, before I discovered that there were many ways of being Episcopalian and that there was a tension between traditionalists and modernists contending for the heart and soul of the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church leadership nationally and in many of its parishes in Washington were of a decidedly liberal bent. I found that, in many of these parishes, you could believe almost anything and still be Episcopalian.  The church of John Yates held a minority position in that respect. Most troubling to me was the open talk of blessing gay relationships and ordaining gay women and men into the priesthood.

I found these theological events deeply troubling. How was it that a bishop such as John Shelby Spong could denounce key Christian beliefs reflected in the historical Episcopalian creeds and remain an Episcopalian in good standing? My thought began to be centered on what constitutes a real church. When does a church cease to be a church of the Creed? As I watched in horror this undermining of the Episcopal and other mainline churches, my question was, What should I do? Where can I go? Where is authentic belief and worship to be found?

A friendship and the Sacred Heart Years

My next steps on the journey were eight years of courtship and eventual marriage to a cradle Catholic named Nilde whom I met at  The Potter’s House in 1982. Our long friendship and courtship enabled us to safely talk and share. We read and talked together about life and especially about our respective faiths. I was the intellectual one; Nilde was more spiritual. We gravitated towards each other in the Potter’s House friendship. Every week we met at the same little table to read, talk, and enjoy the quiet piano lounge music.

My every Friday coffeehouse friend introduced me to the inside of a Catholic church, the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in northwest Washington. It was strange yet beautiful, a bit bewildering to my then Protestant sensibilities. Statutes of Mary were everywhere. She was beautiful, but the Rosary made no sense to me. Devotion to the Rosary would come some twenty years later.

During this time, John Paul II was in the prime of his papacy.  The “Catholic moment,” so to speak, had arrived, as Richard John Neuhaus and numerous others became Catholic converts, drawing many into the Catholic orbit — including me.

Week after week, I found myself in Nilde’s company at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. It was, and still is, run by a group of Capuchin Franciscans.  They received me openly, never asking me much about my faith.  They just fed me with friendship and fellowship.

Those I remember most were Brother Eric, who later became Father Eric, and Father Don, who is now Bishop of Mendi in Papua, New Guinea. We spent countless hours talking about faith and Catholicism. Catholic belief and practice seemed overwhelming to me at  first. I often wondered if I could be good enough to be Catholic; intellect and heart were not in line with each other at this time. But I kept going there, and no one pushed me away.

Nilde and I did urban ministry and youth ministry together at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. Soon we found ourselves in charge of thirty to forty young people of largely Central American heritage. Many of these young boys and girls were sent here for safety during the Central American wars of the 1980’s. Some had relatives, but for many the Church became their caretakers, their mothers and their fathers. Nilde and I became their “Padrinos,” although we ourselves did not have children.  Thirty of these youth formed half of our wedding party when Nilde and I married in October of 1990. I loved the Central American culture. I too was away from my South Carolina family, so these young people became my family.

Our devotion to Central Americans extended beyond the Washington, D.C. experiences. Nilde sponsored a young Honduran girl of eight in the early 1980’s. Over time, I became involved in the care packages we sent to Maria, and Nilde, with her mother, visited Maria in 1987. After our marriage, I became much more involved with Maria and her little community.  The Honduran people are uniformly poor but deeply spiritual.

Having no children of our own, Maria, and eventually her two children, became our foster family from afar. Over thirty years, we made eight trips to Honduras. We adopted Maria’s little community of fifty houses, known as Rancho Alegre.  Through fundraising, we brought electricity to their little village in the year 2000. We also reached out to the churches of her community and its 250 residents with medicines and other works of charity.

In the Fall of 2015, we had the good fortune of helping to re-build the church of our foster daughter at Rancho Alegre through receipt of a $6,000 foundation grant.  at church was re-dedicated this year on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The Ratzinger Encounter

The next important step along the road to Catholicism was my accidental discovery of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in a second-hand Washington bookstore. Washington was a hotbed of religious controversy in the 1980’s. Hans Kung had been declared to no longer be a Catholic theologian and Father Curran was dismissed from his teaching position at Catholic University. I remembered that Joseph Ratzinger had something to do with this.  The Ratzinger Report caught my attention, and it was only fifty cents.

Unknown to the cardinal, we became intellectual friends after reading this and another tome entitled  The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger, also purchased in that same Second Story Books for a mere two dollars.  The issue then and now revolved around what makes a church authentic and true, as distinguished from a social club or debating society. His book Called to Communion, a series of short essays on ecclesiology, was important for me.  These essays addressed the critical question of what it means to be a Church.

Ratzinger was Christ-centered in his theology and demonstrated an extraordinary command of scriptural interpretation — something that any serious Anglican evangelical could appreciate.

One of the most unforgettable moments of my life occurred when Nilde and I were in Rome on a religious tour in 2007.  The highlight of our visit to the Vatican was a chance to greet Pope Benedict during a Wednesday audience in 2007.

Mary once Again

Remembering my earlier focus on the Incarnation, I began to inquire anew about Mary.  The first explicitly Marian book I read was Mary for All Christians by the Anglican theologian, John Macquarrie. He confirmed my earlier suppositions. Mary made sense, at least from an Anglican and ecumenical perspective. My suspicions were confirmed that Mary belonged to the economy of salvation.  Theological appreciation, though, was far from constituting Catholic devotion.

Mary’s influence grew gradually. Ratzinger’s Daughter Zion, a small book of essays on Mary, convinced me that Mary must be important in any Christian church, Catholic or otherwise. I also read Our Lady and the Church by Hugo Rahner and Mary for Todayby Hans Urs von Balthasar. These works impelled me to undertake a deeper, extended study of Mary and Marian doctrine in Catholic and ecumenical perspectives, eventually leading to my writing  The Virgin Mary — A Resource Guide for Laypersons.

Good Enough to be Catholic?

So why wasn’t I Catholic yet?  The short answer to this question might be found in a quotation from the philosopher Renan, who said, “No one has a religion until they have lost it.”

That quote embodies my forty-year journey to a faith that is credible to both heart and mind.

A Christianity that engages the heart but denigrates the mind is deficient. I felt uneasy. In order for Christianity to be credible, it has to offer something more than fire insurance. I had lost my fundamentalism and visited varieties of Evangelicalism, then the American Episcopal Church — only to discover that what I thought was an authentic church was in fact something else.

At the same time, I was wary of exchanging Protestant fundamentalism for Catholic fundamentalism. Father Francis Sullivan, S.J. helped me to understand that, despite a “Deposit of Faith,” our knowledge is partial.  There are open questions whose resolution may only emerge gradually.  That was reassuring.

I have a special affinity to Cardinal Dulles, who wrote of his conversion in 1946: “The only sufficient cause for any conversion, is, of course, divine grace, for which man can give no ex- planation.” But we both agreed that one can describe how God influences or acts through others to impact our will.

For nearly thirty years, I was a fellow traveler within the Catholic orbit.  Through deep reading and participation as an interloping “guest,” I simply ceased to be Protestant. Like Cardinal Newman, I read myself into a Catholic mindset.

But I could not fully own my Catholicism.  There were barriers. My former wife could not be located, so I could not proceed with the annulment process and pursue being received into the Catholic Church. And I constantly wondered if I was “good enough” to be Catholic. It is surprising how such a doubt can be a barrier for someone considering becoming Catholic.

Seeking a New Spiritual Home

We loved Washington, D.C., but changes in life are inevitable. Nilde and I moved to Miami in 1993 so she could be with her parents during their final years, because Nilde was an only child. At first, we attended Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church in Miami, since that was where Nilde’s parents lived. It was also Nilde’s parish church growing up. We went there every weekend because I began singing in a local restaurant near their home every Saturday. Singing from the American song book was a carry- over from my Washington days, having spent countless hours in Washington’s piano lounges. After visiting several Catholic parishes closer to our home in Aventura, Florida, we eventually found a permanent home at St. Matthew Catholic Church.

Mary for a Third Time

Following Nilde’s recovery from spinal cancer and regaining her ability to walk in 2007, we began volunteering for Memorial Regional Hospital and became members of the Legion of Mary.

Our devotion to Mary grew steadily, and I enjoyed the supportive fellowship of my Legion of Mary friends. As my devotion to Mary increased, I wondered where she was leading me.

At the Legion of Mary, I found a special apostolic partner in Gloria Ippolito. Providence joined us together in a ministry of faith and reaching out to others — especially at funeral wakes.

But my journey was not quite over.  There was my former marriage still to be dealt with.

After years of searching, I did locate my former wife.  The process moved quickly throughout 2014, and the marriage was declared null on May 5, 2015. I went through RCIA a second time.

Now I  finally felt that I could own my Catholicism.  The reality is that Mary brought me home, offering me the fullest expression of Christian truth — the Catholic Church. And my wife, Nilde, was enduringly important too. She was my Monica who prayed constantly for her famous intellectual son, Augustine.

The riddle of my forty years of wandering and deep reading was answered. All that study suddenly came into focus one September day in 2014. I was asked by our Legion of Mary president to give a talk, a study reflection, at the regional Legion of Mary meeting.  The topic was John the Baptist. As I pored through the mass of materials I had gathered, I asked Mary for help. What was the message for me? What was the message for my audience of fifty to seventy other Legion members?

One of the amazing things I discovered was that John the Baptist was the patron saint of my birthplace, Charleston, South Carolina.  The mission of John the Baptist was simply to declare the word, to make straight the ways of the Lord and announce that salvation was coming. John the Baptist is now my Patron Saint too.

Mary gave me one more affirmation through a special Providence of God. June 5, 2015 marked the ten-year anniversary of my mother’s passing. While planning for a Pilgrim Virgin Visit ceremony in my home to mark this occasion, I ran across something I thought had been lost forever. It was a beautiful icon prayer card of Our Lady of Joyful Hope and Our Lady of South Carolina.  The prayer card and the story behind its creation recalled the motto of my home state: “While I breathe, I hope.” I had often quoted this state motto as I awaited what I hoped would be a blessing of my marriage to Nilde and full reception into the Catholic Church. How incredible were the graces of Mary throughout this long journey!

My formal reception into the Catholic Church and convalidation of my marriage to Nilde Martinez took place on June 29, 2015 on the Feasts of Saints Peter and Paul. My confirmation took place at the Cathedral of Saint Mary in Miami, Florida.

A Second Call

I  am determined not to refuse a second calling to declare the word.  That day in September of 2014 was a seminal moment. Mary and John the Baptist have called me to truly declare the word. I had been doing this increasingly through the delivery of short devotions and presiding at funeral wakes. Each time I did these things I felt affirmed by the Holy Spirit to keep doing them.

This affirmation led me to think about what I should really be doing. During some of my trips to Honduras, I discovered people in remote areas of Honduras who did not have regular access to a parish church and the sacraments.  The Honduran Catholic Church filled in these gaps with Delegates of the Word, something similar to deacons when priests were not available. Delegates of the Word.  That concept resonated with me.

I needed a platform to host my writing, speaking, and special works of charity, so I created the Delegates of the Word organization to be the means for doing my apostolic work.  Through this organization, I am reaching out to others by writing, speaking, and teaching in whatever venue that might be open. I do not know where this will lead, but at a minimum, Delegates of the Word can serve as a means for me to unpack forty years of constant Catholic and ecumenical study for laypersons and anyone else who might care to listen.

Was the Journey Worth it?

Non-Catholics might wonder, what really made you Catholic? What about your Evangelical and Anglican heritage? I think it would be accurate to say that I read and studied myself into the Catholic Church.

The second factor has to do with ecclesiology. What is a true Church as distinguished from a club or a debating society? What I discovered was that the Catholic Church has the fullest expression of cumulative truth contained within its history, tradition, worship, and theology. As Thomas Howard said, the Catholic Church is “Evangelical plus.” Authority and ecclesiology are linked together.

Intellectually, Benedict XVI and many of the theological giants of the Ressourcement movement that ushered in Vatican II informed my mind and spirit. It is especially true of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henry de Lubac, and the Jesuit theologian Francis Sullivan.

Long before becoming officially Catholic, Mary was there as a tiny mustard seed in my consciousness. She was the cause of my first serious theological question. Over time, she gradually grew larger, and through my eight years of Legion of Mary affiliation, she, Nilde, and my apostolic friend, Gloria, led me through the final journey.”

Love,
Matthew

“By their fruits…” Mt 7:16-20, the role of works in salvation


Karl Keating

Faith & Salvation are gifts

“Fr. William G. Most (1914-1997) will not end up numbered among first-rank apologists, but his book Catholic Apologetics Today (now out of print) came to my attention just when I could profit from it. It appeared as I was putting together the newspaper columns that, when collected and revised, became my first book.

Every Fundamentalist I have dealt with—or so it has seemed—has faulted the Catholic Church for teaching, supposedly, that we are saved through good works. We earn our salvation by what we do.

Although I took the usual route of referring Fundamentalists to James 2:17 (“faith without works is dead”), I learned early on that that scriptural verse failed to make much of an impress on them.  A few seemed to be wholly unfamiliar with that book. That might seem unlikely, given that Fundamentalists style themselves “Bible Christians,” but many of them read (or study) only those parts of the Bible recommended to them by their preachers. Those who read the whole of the Bible often have little appreciation of the import of some passages, such as John 6, in which the Eucharist is promised and described. James’s comment on works is another. “Faith without works is dead” either is passed over or, at most, is interpreted to mean that good works have no significance higher than public affirmation of having “accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” Doing good works is a good thing—but not a necessary thing.

It was through reading Most that I adopted a formulation that helped clarify the discussion. It came from his making a distinction between the way James wrote about faith and the way Paul wrote about it. They used the same word but in differing senses.

“Is it true that there is salvation in faith alone?” asks Most. “Definitely, yes!” It is “the chief theme of Galatians and Romans.” Yet James could write that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)—a seeming contradiction.

Either salvation is by “faith alone,” as Luther so imperiously insisted, or it is not; either it comes through faith and nothing else or through faith plus something else. Which is it?

Most made the obvious point that the issue here is with the meaning of the word faith as used by the two apostles. The word was not used univocally. James “clearly uses faith to mean, narrowly, just intellectual acceptance of a revealed truth.” To faith in that restricted sense one needs to add good works. We see this confirmed by Paul himself in Romans 2:6: “He will repay to man according to his works.”

Here comes the crucial part. Most says that “Paul does not mean that works can earn salvation—but violation of the law can earn eternal ruin.” (do good/avoid evil*.  how? by doing good!) Paul does not disagree with James, but he uses a broader sense of faith: “total adherence of a person to God in mind and will. This, in turn, implies certain things.” Chief among the implications is that works have a kind of negative role to play in salvation, this being the main takeaway I had from Most. We can affirm that salvation is through faith, but salvation can be forfeited through sin. Salvation is a gift, but any gift can be rejected or returned to the giver. Something taken on by compulsion (Ed. or forced on you, i.e. slavery, the “gift” of faith) is not a gift.

Once a Christian is in the state of grace (Ed. the “readiness/worthiness/ability to receive/having received” the gift), through baptism or through repentance followed by sacramental confession, s/he is, at that moment, “saved”: were s/he to die in that state (Ed. of grace, readiness/worthiness to receive/having received), he would end up in heaven, even if with a sojourn through purgatory. But his/her state is precarious. There is no adult Christian who has not fallen out of grace through sin. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Someone who has not fallen short of the glory of God, however transiently, is someone who is imbued with God’s grace (Ed. “O Mary conceived without sin…”; Hail Mary, full of grace…, Immaculate Conception, Assumption, etc.); to fall short is to fall into gracelessness.

The key, then, is not to fall out of grace. This where works come in (do good/avoid evil. how? by doing good!), both good works and bad works. Bad works are sins. Through mortal sins (Ed. those which are serious, intentional, which “kill” the life of grace within us, the symptom being, likely, a guilty conscience, if not scrupulous) we lose sanctifying grace and thus salvation. What about good works? (do good/avoid evil. how? by doing good!) They don’t earn us salvation but they do something nearly as valuable: they keep us from throwing salvation away. (do good/avoid evil. how? by doing good!) To persist in good works is to avoid evil works, sins (do good/avoid evil. how? by doing good!). Those who habitually perform good works habitually avoid (but they do not necessarily always avoid) sins that destroy grace.  (Ed. “The devil’s playground…”, Prov 16:27.)

This was, for me, Most’s most valuable point. The Fundamentalist, thinking about Catholicism’s insistence that good works are necessary, thinks we believe that we bring salvation to ourselves. (Pelagianism) The Catholic can answer by saying that good works are shields against bad works (do good/avoid evil. how? by doing good!) (Prov 16:27.). Without good works, there is no prospect that a Christian can maintain grace in his soul, the opportunities to fall from grace being ubiquitous and, often enough, seemingly irresistible. Help is needed if they are to be resisted, and that help comes in the form of habitually performing good works, whether in the form of prayer, almsgiving, or something else.

It wasn’t that Most told me something I had not known, but he told it to me in a way that I had not seen before, at a time when I needed a clearer way to convey Catholic teaching to those who were sure the Church was teaching something contrary to Scripture.  Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering spectacles of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across spectacles that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision.”

-from https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/faith-and-works-0, this is GOOD!!!  You SHOULD read the WHOLE thing!!!  I didn’t say “easy”.  I just said GOOD!!!!

“Following the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church held an ecumenical council in the Italian city of Trent to deal with the theological questions that were being debated. The Council of Trent issued the Decree on Justification (DJ), which set forth the Catholic position on the subject…This is the case with the idea that we need to earn our place before God by doing works…According to Trent, “none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace (Ed. gift) of justification. ‘For, if by grace, it is not now by works, otherwise,’ as the Apostle says, ‘grace is no more grace’” (DJ 8, quoting Rom. 11:6).

When we come to God and are justified, it happens WITHOUT ANY MERIT ON OUR PART (emphasis added). Neither our faith nor our works—nor anything else—merits justification...If you go through Trent’s Decree on Justification, or the section on justification in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1987-1995), you won’t find the phrase “faith and works.” And you won’t find the word works at all in the Catechism’s section on justification.

This may be surprising, but the fact that the magisterium does not express its teaching in this way is a signal that we need to look more closely at what it says….

…Earlier we mentioned that Protestants tend to conceive of justification as an event that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life (Ed.  “I accept Jesus Christ as my PERSONAL? (what about everybody else?) Lord & Savior! = saved) where we are forgiven and declared righteous by God, and we said that this understanding is true as far as it goes.

But in the Catholic view, there is more to justification than this.

In the first place, God doesn’t simply declare us righteous. He also makes us righteous in justification. Thus the Council of Trent defined justification as “not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man” (DJ 7).

So at the beginning of the Christian life (being “saved”), God forgives our sins and gives us the gift of righteousness.

But He’s not done with us!!!  (Ed. how is THIS NOT obvious?) He wants us to grow in righteousness over the course of the Christian life, and, if we cooperate with His grace, we will.

Catholic theology refers to this growth in righteousness using the term justification, so, in Catholic language, justification isn’t something that happens just at the beginning of the Christian life. It happens over the course of the Christian life. (Ed. Phil 2:12)

The Council of Trent harmonizes the necessity of grace and works: “If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or by the teaching of the Law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema” (Session 6; can. 1).


-stop screaming. it’s a JOKE!!!! 🙂

Love, and the JOY of DOING (Ps 40:8, Jn 4:34) His will, in faith, by grace.  ALL is grace.  ALL is gift.,
Matthew

* Many proponents and critics of Thomas Aquinas’s theory of natural law have understood it roughly as follows. The first principle of practical reason is a command: Do good and avoid evil. Man discovers this imperative in his conscience; it is like an inscription written there by the hand of God. Having become aware of this basic commandment, man consults his nature to see what is good and what is evil. Ps 37:27, 1 Pet 3:11

Two Objectors to the Catholic faith: Mr. Certainty & Mr. Robot

Devin Rose

Two Protestants You Will Meet

Honestly, being a Catholic apologist has its downsides. One is that people feel they can email you out of the blue with a list of arguments against the Catholic Church and then demand you respond. Over the years I’ve received many such emails, some rudely written, others genuinely seeking answers. One upside to these messages, though, is that they give me insight into a broad swath of Protestant Christians and the varied obstacles that they face. I have noticed that many of those Protestants resemble one of two types: the Certain Guy and the Robot

The Holy Spirit Certainty Guy

Charles was a Protestant who emailed me, describing something of his history as a Christian: going from one denomination to another many times over the years as his beliefs changed and he decided his current church was in error.

His meanderings had finally made him wonder if, perhaps, Catholicism was what it claimed to be. “Maybe there is a true Church?” he asked. When a Protestant comes to this question on his own, it is a wonderful thing. It indicates an openness to the possibility that the whole Protestant paradigm may be mistaken; instead maybe God did preserve the Church from error.

In the second half of his email, however, Charles listed his chief objections to Catholicism, notably the Church’s beliefs about Mary. Charles ended by saying:

“I am a Christian struggling with the dilemma of where to gather among other Christians to worship God—but the issue of praying to Mary is a stumbling block, or should I rather say, heresy in my opinion, which I regard as equal to idolatry and which will keep me very far away from the Roman Catholic Church.”

Charles’s candor was refreshing. He said very directly that he could not imagine becoming Catholic due to what he saw as heresy. In my response, I gently nudged him with questions about how he knew what Christ and the apostles taught and how he knew that his interpretation of Scripture was accurate. I also gave evidence for the perpetual virginity of Mary and the intercession of the saints. I kept it to a few paragraphs and waited for his response.

Charles opened his reply thanking me for my email, but then he said “However, I am still completely unconvinced by your reasoning—and I know that I indeed do have the Holy Spirit who leads me into all truth and he is not leading me to believe what you have suggested.”

Ah, there it was! He believed that he had the Holy Spirit and read John 16:13 to mean that the Spirit will lead him individually into all truth. He was sure that the Holy Spirit was showing him that I was in error and that he was not.

Striking At the Root

When you encounter the Certainty Guy, you could respond to his impregnable certainty with an equally confident assertion, as I did: “I also have the Holy Spirit and am unconvinced by your reasoning, so we are at an impasse. Further, Martin Luther and John Calvin believed they had the Holy Spirit, and they rebutted other Protestants who held the same interpretation that you did about Mary’s perpetual virginity. So our impasse deepens.”

In this brief exchange we exposed the fundamental problem of Protestantism. He claims he’s right because he has the Holy Spirit. I claim that I’m right for the same reason.   And according to Protestantism, no person or church or institution can adjudicate our competing claims. In any dialogue with a Protestant it is important to reach this point, so that your friend can realize the unresolvable dilemma that his beliefs create.

Charles emailed back telling me that he “does not arrogantly pick and choose” his beliefs as I suggested. Of course, I never claimed that his choosing was done in arrogance, only that he was indeed picking and choosing: picking which issues were essential versus non-essential, and choosing what to believe on each of those issues. Even if he did not do it arrogantly, the fact remained that he was doing it, and that under Protestantism’s paradigm he had no choice but come up with an individual belief on every issue he came across.

It is instructive that even though I said nothing about him acting arrogantly or capriciously in choosing his beliefs, Charles inferred that I made such an accusation. Misunderstandings like this occur often in any discussion about beliefs. Faith abides deeply within us, and any perceived challenge to our beliefs can result in a defensive reaction, even if our discussion partner acts in a completely amiable way.

Our email exchange continued for a bit longer and wended toward the question of whether sola scriptura was true, but for our purposes here the main point has been shown. When you face Certainty Guy, who is absolutely confident in his interpretation of Scripture and of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, simply push back, without any rancor, that you can claim the same thing, and so reveal a conundrum.

The One-Way Street

About six months after my book The Protestant’s Dilemma was published, I received an email from a Protestant man (whom I’ll call Louis) directing me to his website where he was making a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal of my book. He was brief but respectful enough, so I went and checked it out. His was the first substantive attempt to rebut my arguments, so I was interested in what he had to say.

Unfortunately, his site had the look-and-feel of a Web 1.0, circa 1998 site hand-coded in basic html. Even though as a computer programmer I winced, I was able to ignore that, but since he was attempting a rebuttal one chapter at a time, I also had no way of knowing when he posted more updates for me to read.

I kindly emailed Louis and suggested he go with a standard blogging website, which would allow him to publish each of his rebuttal attempts as blog posts that I and others could subscribe to. He paid no attention to my suggestions and instead just kept sending me short emails, about once a day, that had a link in them to his argument web pages.

I figured that I would give him another chance to interact in a constructive way, so I went to one of his links, read his argument, then sent him an email rebutting the argument. In this particular case, he was denying that Mary was the mother of God. I explained why this title is valid, but he ignored my argument and sent me yet another link to his web page.

At that point I realized I was dealing with someone uninterested in interacting like a human being. Rather, like a machine he wanted to blast his arguments at me—whether they were sensible or not—and didn’t want to have a discussion. It was a one-way street. I called him out on this and said I would automatically filter his emails into the trash if he continued this robotic behavior. He immediately continued it, and I filtered his emails. The next day he emailed me from a different address!

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Most Protestants, thankfully, are not robots like Louis. But some are, and possibly you will encounter one, whether virtually or in person. Keep in mind that you are not obligated to respond to them or to play by their (lopsided) rules. In my experience, interacting with such people goes nowhere, as they are not truly open to discussion and honest analysis of the arguments.

Instead, they are locked into existing beliefs that see Catholicism as apostate or heretical, and have one goal: to disseminate attacks against the Church in rapid-fire fashion.

And remember, even when people act in such exasperating ways, seek to forgive them. Pray for them—the best thing and often the only thing that you can do—and leave them in our Lord’s hands. You hope to see them and be with them in heaven one day, in spite of their errors and your own faults and weaknesses.”

Love, and the love of neighbor it takes to explain, without being defensive, patiently, calmly, kindly, lovingly, which comes only from His grace,
Matthew

Baptism

Introducing the Church Fathers

Your Protestant friend has may have never heard of the Church Fathers (I certainly hadn’t when I was a Protestant). These were faithful and influential Christians teachers, pastors, and leaders who taught and defended the Faith from the late first century through the sixth. Many, though not all, are considered saints by the Catholic Church.

Given the impasse some Protestants face about how to interpret the Bible on baptism, it makes sense to start with that topic and bring in other evidence. And though your friend may not know much about the Fathers, he will likely be favorably disposed to hearing what the early Christians believed, since (especially with the Fathers of the first couple of centuries) there wouldn’t have been much time for the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to have been corrupted. So, what did these early Christians have to say about baptism?

The Church Fathers on Baptism

Start by sharing with your friend what St. Justin Martyr wrote about baptismal regeneration in the middle of the second century:

“I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.

They then are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water….The reason for this we have received from the apostles.

And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”

Notice how Justin explains that baptismal regeneration remits our sins but also reveals that this teaching was received from the apostles. Justin was born around the time of the St. John’s death, so many Christians of his era still had living memories of the apostles themselves.

Another great Church Father from the second century who witnessed to the truth of baptismal regeneration was St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, a disciple of St. Polycarp who himself was a disciple of St. John. Irenaeus pulls no punches in pointing out that to deny baptism’s regenerating effects is to renounce the entire Christian faith.

“And when we come to refute them [i.e. those heretics], we shall show in its fitting-place, that this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith.”

This is only a small selection. Both of these saints wrote even more about baptismal regeneration, as did other Church Fathers and early Christians in the second century. Once we get to the third century, the writings that support baptismal regeneration multiply. This early Christian witness to baptismal regeneration is unanimous. If this teaching were heretical and contradicted the apostles, you would expect at least a few leaders in the early Church to have stood up in protest of it, but not a single one does—or even offers an alternative interpretation for the relevant verses.

Present this historical evidence to your friend and give him time to respond. But be careful: the Church Fathers are Catholic to the core, and their writings contain many teachings that simply aren’t reconcilable with Protestant doctrine. You’ll want to introduce them to your friend gently and give him time to absorb the evidence they provide for the Catholic Church.

Some Protestants put little stock into what ancient Christians wrote, unless it is explicitly contained in the New Testament itself, so your friend may simply dismiss these writings. He may propose that they’re forgeries or that they represent a misleading sample of what the early Christians. You can patiently explain that even Protestant historians accept these works as genuine and as representative of what was being taught in the early Church. It’s not totally impossible that they represent a minority view, that other early Christians were teaching doctrines in agreement with modern Protestantism, but the simple fact is there’s no existing evidence that there were.”

Love, and new life & joy through baptism,
Matthew

Are alternate theories to the Resurrection plausible?

The Bible says that if Jesus did not rise from the dead then the Christian faith is worthless (1 Cor. 15:17). However, if Jesus did rise from the dead then we know Jesus can keep His promise to give everyone who follows Him eternal life (1 John 2:25).

But how can we know that Jesus really rose from the dead and that the Bible’s description of this miracle wasn’t just a story someone made up?

One way is by showing that the Resurrection is the only explanation for the events surrounding Jesus’ death, events that almost everyone, including skeptics, agrees are historical.

As we examine some of the various theories put forward to explain these facts, you will see that only one theory explains 1) Jesus’ death by Crucifixion; 2) his empty tomb; 3) the post-Crucifixion appearances to the disciples; and 4) the disciples’ willingness to die for their faith: the theory that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

The Swoon Theory

One way to explain these facts would be to posit that Jesus never really died. Maybe he just passed out on the cross and woke up in a tomb. Jesus then met up with the disciples who mistakenly thought he’d risen from the dead. But even if Jesus somehow survived the Crucifixion, the apostles would never have thought he’d miraculously risen from the dead. Upon seeing his bloody, mutilated body, they would have thought Jesus had cheated death, not beaten it, and quickly gotten him medical treatment.

The Trash Theory

How do we know Jesus wasn’t just thrown into an anonymous grave and was forgotten until the disciples imagined they saw him alive again?

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 prohibited the Jewish people from leaving a criminal hanging on a tree, so Jesus would have to have been buried immediately after he died on the cross.

The Gospels say Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council that condemned Jesus to death, buried him (though John 3:1-2 tells us Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but in secret, out of fear of the other Jewish leaders). If the Gospel writers had invented the story of Jesus being buried in a tomb, they would have given their leader an honorable burial at the hands of his friends and family.

This means we have good historical evidence that after the Crucifixion Jesus’ body was placed in an identifiable tomb and simply didn’t vanish in a common graveyard.

The Hallucination Theory

Most historians agree the disciples thought they saw the risen Jesus. The story of Jesus appearing to them was not a legend that developed centuries later but was recorded by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-7). It is almost universally recognized among historians that Paul existed, we have the letters he wrote, and Paul knew the people who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus (Gal. 1:18-19). But could those experiences have just been hallucinations brought on by the terrible grief these men endured after Jesus was executed?

First, it is individuals, not groups, who almost always experience hallucinations. Multiple biblical authors confirm that groups of Jesus’ disciples claimed to see him after his death (Luke 24:36-49, 1 Cor. 15:5-6). As psychologist Gary Collins writes, “By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people.”

Second, the theory that Jesus’ depressed disciples hallucinated his Resurrection doesn’t explain why enemies of the Church came to believe in the Resurrection. The most famous example would be St. Paul, who was a Jewish leader who persecuted the Church until an encounter with the risen Christ moved him to join the “Jewish heresy” he had been persecuting. The best explanation for such a sudden conversion is that Paul had a real encounter with the risen Christ.

The Empty Tomb

We’ve already seen that it is historically certain Jesus was buried in a locatable tomb. The Gospels tell us that on the Sunday after the Resurrection a group of women discovered the tomb was empty. But why should we believe Jesus’ tomb was empty and that the authors of the Gospels didn’t make this up?

First, the disciples preached the empty tomb in the city of Jerusalem. If the tomb were not empty, enemies of the early Church could easily have taken the body out of the tomb and proven Jesus did not rise from the dead.

Second, the earliest enemies of the Church agreed that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Matthew’s Gospel says the Jewish leaders of his day (about forty to fifty years after the Crucifixion) believed Jesus’ body was stolen from the tomb (Matt. 28:11-15). The second-century Christian writer St. Justin Martyr also says that the Jews of his time believed Jesus’ body was stolen.

Finally, the Gospels include the testimony of women discovering the tomb. In Jesus’ time a woman’s testimony was considered to be as reliable as that of a child or a criminal. If the Gospel authors had invented the story about Jesus’ tomb being found empty, they would have used trustworthy characters like Peter or John. The embarrassing detail about women discovering the empty tomb was included in the story simply because that’s what really happened.

The Fraud Theory

Is it possible the disciples stole Jesus’ body and then told people their Messiah had risen from the dead? It’s not impossible, but this theory seems extremely unlikely.

Moreover, fraud is normally committed for personal gain; the only thing the disciples had to gain from their fraud was persecution and death. Since people don’t knowingly die for a lie, we can be confident Jesus’ disciples really believed in the Resurrection they preached to others.

There is no chance they were all deceived or that they all chose to die painful deaths in order to deceive others. What’s more likely is that Jesus’ Resurrection really happened and gave them the courage to share this good news in the face of persecution. They knew that even if they were to die through Christ they would live forever. We too can have eternal life if we trust in God’s promises and choose to be baptized into the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:3-5).

Why We Believe: The Resurrection

Even skeptics admit that Jesus was crucified, buried, his tomb was found empty, his disciples saw him after his death, and they were willing to die for that truth.
Other explanations, like hallucination or fraud, only explain some of these facts. The most plausible explanation for all these facts is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Love & Easter joy,
Matthew