Category Archives: Episcopalian/Anglican

Anglicanism/Episcopalianism


-the founder, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1537–1547

I. The Dilemma of Competing Ecclesiologies: the Visible vs. the Invisible Church

If Anglicans have any sort of notion of “indefectibility” — whereby the true Christian Church (or a valid portion of the universal catholic church, etc.) cannot and will not fall into rank heresy; being protected by the Holy Spirit, then it would be quite difficult for traditionalist Anglicans to square that concept with what is happening in liberal Anglican and Episcopalian circles today.

If one takes a view of the Christian Church that it is a visible, historical institution, then indefectibility would seem to follow as a matter of course. Or one can take an alternate view of the “invisible church,” which is the route of most non-Anglican Protestants, but then (in my opinion) historical continuity, apostolicity, and legitimate apostolic Tradition lose some of their authoritativeness and binding nature.

The presence of heresy and ethical departure from Christian precedent raises troubling questions as to the apostolicity and legitimacy of visible, institutional churches. But the breakaway Anglican communions have to deal with the schismatic principle: i.e., how can they break away and form a new sect without this doing harm to the notion of “one holy catholic and apostolic church” and the apostolic continuity (or, “indefectibility”) of the “mother church”?

In other words, I think (orthodox, traditional) Anglicans have a real dilemma here, since to accept the more institutional, “visible” view of ecclesiology is to be confronted with clear heresy and departure from Christian Tradition, while breaking away, on the other hand, creates the difficulty of a de facto acceptance of the Protestant “invisible church” framework and hence, the actuality or potentiality of yet another schism. So the orthodox Anglican is “betwixt and between” two incompatible forms of ecclesiology, with no easy resolution to either problem.

Anglicanism seems to me to foster an incoherent mixing of low Protestant invisible church beliefs and apostolic succession, which I understand is the mainstream Anglican position. It’s neither “fish nor fowl.” Better (logically speaking) to be either . . .

The Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571 state:

XIX. The visible Church of Christ is the congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

So the Church is visible. If one adopts visibility and “institutionality” as ecclesiological criteria, then the dilemma or difficulty arises, because that is in distinction to the invisible church notion of mainstream Protestantism. But Anglicans (i.e., orthodox ones) seem to be in a catch-22 here, granting the above standard of the nature of the Church.

But then again, I suppose the above might be interpreted in the “invisible” fashion. To me, it is potentially as nebulous and malleable as any Baptist or Reformed Creed or Confession or official denominational statement, etc.

This business of “the congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached” is full of interpretational difficulties. It reads great, but it is extremely difficult to consistently apply. If the Church is merely every “faithful” man, then surely this is the invisible church, rather than the visible, since in the institutional Church, the wheat and the tares grow up together, as Christ tells us. There are sinners in the Church. That is abundantly clear in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Corinthians, and the seven churches in Revelation, among other biblical indications.

And what is the “pure Word of God”? Given the squabbles in Anglicanism, it seems that this is not so simple of a matter to determine. There are no Ecumenical Councils to resolve it, and of course no pope. If it were that simple, then many things in Anglicanism would have long since been determined, and the current civil war would be a lot less serious than it is. But if the “Church” consists of all the faithful, who hear the Pure Word, then I dare say that there isn’t a single congregation in the world, of any trinitarian Christian stripe, which qualifies. So — with all due respect — I contend that the above statement is hopelessly incoherent.

I have faith that my Church is divinely protected, just as most committed, devout, practicing Christians of any stripe have faith that God preserved the Bible from error, and inspired it. One is no more implausible than the other, in my opinion. And just as there are thorny exegetical and hermeneutical and textual difficulties in Scripture to be worked through and mulled over, so there are in Church history. But that need not cause anyone to despair that God is able to protect His Sacred Tradition and His Church and orthodoxy inviolate.

That’s why I’ve always said that Protestants seem to have a lack of faith in what God can and will do. I believe this even has a relationship – however remote – to the Incarnation. God became a Man and so raised humanity to previous untold heights (I’ve actually written about deification and theosis — usually Orthodox emphases — in my second book). Likewise, if God created a Church which is at bottom a divine institution: His institution, is it not plausible to believe in faith that He can protect that institution from doctrinal error? Yet Protestants and (many?) Anglicans want to adopt an “invisible” notion of the Church, which I find to be utterly unbiblical and non-apostolic.

Indefectibility follows from the “self-confidence” of each Church’s Creed and how binding they claim to be; also based on certain statements of Jesus and the Apostles whereby we are led to believe that the true Church would not fall into heresy, as there is a true and false tradition. That is certainly how St. Paul views the matter. For him it is quite cut-and-dried. God is able in fact to maintain pure doctrine. He is not able to maintain pure human beings, because He has allowed free will and the freedom to rebel against Him and righteousness. But doctrinal and ethical truth and orthodoxy – not having free will – are possible for an omnipotent, sovereign Being to uphold, even in a human institution.

Abuse and institutionalization of error are vastly different. Catholic theological and moral doctrine has not changed. Anglican doctrine has: on contraception, on divorce, on abortion, on homosexuality, and any number of other issues. So the traditionalists among them have formed breakaway communions. Their motives are certainly pure, but this doesn’t solve their ecclesiological problem. They’re still applying the Protestant principles of schism and private judgment, and this clashes with the nature of the Church as expressed in the Nicene Creed.

Be that as it may, I see internal inconsistency in how Anglicans are applying the term “church” – an arbitrary switching back and forth between invisible and visible definitions, which I think is improper and illogical. There is a sense in which an invisible or mystical church is properly spoken of, but for those who accept apostolic succession, this can never undermine in the least a visible, institutional church.

II. Anglican “Messiness”: Glory or Tragedy?

More than one Anglican has told me that they “glory” in Anglican “messiness” — i.e., the fact that not all dogmas are infallibly declared, but that the individual can choose among options. They seem to view this as an admirable moderation or restraint, free from the excesses of “Rome.” But where do we find the desirability of “messiness” in Holy Scripture? We find messiness in the early Church, surely (all over the place), but what we never find is commendation for such “messiness,” as if it were a good thing.

What we find, on the contrary, are condemnations of this in the strongest possible terms, from both St. Paul (in places too numerous to mention) and Our Lord Jesus (e.g., John 17). So this approach is somewhat baffling, from a strictly scriptural point of view. Are we to glory in human shortcomings rather than divine ideals and goals and biblical prescriptions? This strikes me — with all due respect — as C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” taken to an extreme.

If I may be so brash as to speculate: the tendency of Anglicanism to perpetually divide itself into parties in many ways mutually exclusive (thus allowing a natural inroads to the modernist with few scruples and little historical sense of orthodoxy), is ultimately doctrinal relativism. It isn’t like Dominicans, Jesuits, and Benedictines in the Catholic Church, since those are primarily differences in spiritual approach and liturgy, rather than fundamental theology and ethics.

Messiness has struck the Catholic Church too, because of the gift of modernism that was born and bred in Protestant ranks and bequeathed to us. But we regard this “messiness” as a bad thing, as a distortion and co-opting of the orthodox Vatican II, whereas so many Anglicans “glory” in it. Strange: traditionalist Anglicans fight the liberals on the one hand, yet revel in theological diversity and relativism on the other. Relativism and a body of truth more than one and indivisible is an absolutely unbiblical concept.

The Church is what it is, because the apostolic deposit was what it was and is. Unity exists insofar as Christians accept this deposit and submit themselves to it. But of course Anglicans and Catholics have arguments as to the nature of the initial Tradition handed down to us by the Apostles. The thing to do is to determine what the Apostles believed and to conform ourselves to those beliefs. But one must necessarily take into account the place of development of doctrine, as well. I think development is the key for understanding the non-essential differences in doctrines from the time of the Apostles to our time, and the key for Protestants to understand the ostensible “growth” of doctrine in Catholicism (what is usually termed “[unbiblical] excess” or “corruption.”

It was even stated by one Anglican with whom I dialogued, that this “messiness” had humility“as its root.” I fail to comprehend this thinking. How is it a lack of humility (as it seems to me this person was perhaps subtly implying) to simply acknowledge that certain things are true, as passed down by an authoritative Christian body, be it Anglican, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed? And how is it “humble” merely to accept the notion that large areas of ethics and doctrine should be left up to choice and a sort of “majority vote” – which I would call a de facto relativism? If I were to choose, I would say that it is arguably far less humble to feel that one can pick and choose Christian truths, rather than submitting in obedience and faith to whatever brand of Christianity they adhere to. This gets into the rather complicated argument about private judgment.

III. The Via Media: the Attempted and Sought-After “Middle Way” of Anglicanism

The Anglican concept of the Via Media is regarded as a “middle way” between Protestantism and (Roman) Catholicism. Cardinal Newman disputed this understanding with great force (I think, compellingly) in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and Apologia pro vita sua, but the perspective is still very much with us today.

What fascinates me about this Via Media approach is: by what means does one arrive at it? What are its first premises, and where do they come from? Is it in the Bible? If so, where? Is this strain of thought present in the Church Fathers? For my part, I would suspect that it is ultimately (in terms of history of ideas) a product of Renaissance nominalism, sola Scriptura, and the negative influences of post-“Enlightenment” philosophical thought. I could just as easily make a case that certain secular philosophical influences have brought Anglicans to this juncture where they think in these terms in the first place, so that they are just as beholden to philosophy as we are with our Thomistic “baptized” Aristotelianism (as they sometimes criticize us).

Catholics are in no way, shape, or form, reducing mysteries to merely intellectual constructs. We bow before the mysteries; we marvel at them. Are Marian apparitions, e.g., instances of a “dominance of intellect”? Yet some of them (notably, Fatima and Lourdes) are accepted at the very highest levels of the Church, and all of our greatest thinkers (e.g., Aquinas, Augustine, Newman, the present pope) had or have a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

It’s not either/or. We value mind and heart, mysticism and systematic theology, orthodoxy and orthopraxis, experience and the pondering of the intricacies of dogma. Our greatest saints are always combinations of these traits and emphases. I say that our “both/and” approach is the truest kind of Via Media: a refusal to create false dichotomies, and to accept all the different aspects of faith, all the while not relegating dogmas to majority vote and “secondary doctrines.” As Chesterton observed:

The Church is from the first a thing holding its own position and point of view, quite apart from the accidents and anarchies of its age. That is why it deals blows impartially right and left, at the pessimism of the Manichean or the optimism of the Pelagian. It was not a Manichean movement because it was not a movement at all. It was not an official fashion because it was not a fashion at all. It was something that could coincide with movements and fashions, could control them and could survive them. (The Everlasting Man, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1925, 228)

If the Via Media is such an attractive and distinguishing trait, then surely it can be found in the Bible and the Fathers and the early Councils, right? Anglicans also value those sources very highly, so it seems to me that if this notion of Via Media cannot be found there, then Anglicanism has a problem of internal incoherence once again — and a rather serious one at that.

Cardinal Newman, in his criticism of the Via Media in his Apologia, argued that the “middle position” between so-called extremes was also heretical. If one takes a position between 4th-century Catholicism and Arianism, one is not a “Via Media Christian.” That person is a Semi-Arian. By pressing various analogies like this, Newman was led to the realization where he wrote (famously): “I looked in the mirror and I was a Monophysite.”

Again, I ask Anglicans (with perfect sincerity and curiosity): where in the Bible or the Fathers or Councils do you find the scenario of always seeking a “middle way” between two other parties? What was the equivalent in the Ancient Church of the Anglican Via Media? I suppose Anglicans could argue that the ancient Catholic Church was closer to present-day Anglicanism than to present-day Catholicism, but that would take an awful lot of arguing to be persuasive. To offer two quick examples: where are, e.g., the analogies to the Council of Chalcedon and Pope Leo the Great in Anglicanism today? But Catholics have John Paul II and Vatican II.

IV. Anglicanism and the Papacy

One Anglican argued that since the ex cathedra definition of papal infallibility was promulgated in 1870, that no pope prior to that date could fulfill that role. That a particular doctrine was not dogmatically defined before a certain date, however, does not mean that it didn’t exist prior to that date, or was not widely accepted. Papal infallibility and supremacy of jurisdiction certainly did exist, and was – by and large – adhered to, until the Orthodox ditched it, and later the Anglicans and Protestants.

The very fact that all of them made a big deal out of rejecting it (we need look no further than Henry VIII) proves that it was in fact present. It is presupposed in Luther’s contrary statement at the Diet of Worms: “popes and Councils can err.” How can one reject something that is nonexistent? Controversy suggests contrary views. St. Thomas More was martyred in order to uphold papal supremacy, which in turn is closely connected (logically and ecclesiologically) to papal infallibility (of some sort, at any rate).

John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his masterpiece, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845; rev. 1878), elaborates upon the above analysis:

Whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated . . . .

Moreover, an international bond and a common authority could not be consolidated . . . while persecutions lasted. If the Imperial Power checked the development of Councils, it availed also for keeping back the power of the Papacy. The Creed, the Canon, in like manner, both remained undefined . . . All began to form, as soon as the Empire relaxed its tyrannous oppression of the Church . . .

Supposing there be otherwise good reason for saying that the Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity, there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict it. . .

Doctrine cannot but develop as time proceeds and need arises, and . . . therefore it is lawful, or rather necessary, to interpret the words and deeds of the earlier Church by the determinate teaching of the later.

Details needed to be worked out (e.g., how wide was the latitude for papal infallibility: Vatican I settled on a (relatively speaking) “moderate” position over against the Ultramontanes and the Gallicans, and what was later known as the “Old Catholics” (led by the historian Dollinger), but this is the case with all developments. I could just as well say that no one believed that Christ had Two Natures before Chalcedon in 451, because it wasn’t yet precisely defined dogma, or that no one accepted the Trinity before Nicaea in 325, etc.

Papal infallibility is a straightforward development and logical extension of papal supremacy. The latter can be indisputably shown in hundreds of patristic (and even conciliar) quotes, perhaps most notably from Pope Leo the Great. And the former is not at all inconsistent with it.

Now, lest Anglicans or anyone else dispute the validity of development itself, they would have to demonstrate how Christological or canonical or soteriological development (particularly concerning original sin) differ in essence from development of the office of the papacy. Anglicanism has no pope; Orthodoxy has none; Protestants have none, but the early Church sure seemed to (even if the office is regarded as merely a primacy of honor).

How does one get from a pope to no pope in a straight line of doctrinal development? Therefore, I submit that having no pope is far more a departure from early Christianity than having an infallible pope. The first is a complete reversal of precedent; the latter a deductive development of what came before.

There either was a pope in Church history or there wasn’t. Most (if not all) would grant that there was. Then the dispute becomes the extent of his power and jurisdiction, and infallibility. At that point it becomes (insofar as it is a strictly historical discussion) basically a “war of patristic and conciliar quotes.” Thus far, no matter how (in my opinion) compelling a set of quotes from the Fathers is produced, I have yet to meet an opponent who will deal with them seriously and comprehensively rather than derisively or dismissively. Granted, I may have limited experience, but I have engaged in many dialogues, and I refer only to my own experience, as far as it goes.

Another tack I would take on this is that Anglicans (as far as I can see) acknowledge (early) conciliar and creedal infallibility (or at least a high degree of authoritativeness, notwithstanding disputes of interpretation). Now, I assume that would be based on consensus of the early Church, just as, e.g., the Canon of New Testament Scripture or the Two Natures of Christ was. But many in that early Church (and not a few from the East) acknowledged the papacy in exalted terms not inconsistent with the full development of papal infallibility, brought to fruition in 1870.

So why accept their opinions on one thing and not the other? If we judge the authoritativeness and truthfulness of Church Fathers at every turn based on our own private judgment, then we are in no wise different in our approach than Luther at Worms and thereafter. And that gets me right back to my point about the incoherent mixtures of Protestant and Catholic notions of ecclesiology and authority in Anglicanism. Apostolic succession means something.

Beyond that are the biblical indications of papal supremacy and the logical deduction of infallibility in the same sense that a Council (e.g., the one in Jerusalem: Acts 15) is regarded as infallible in some binding and dogmatic sense.

Development ought not surprise us. It has always been with us, and always will be. It is evident in Scripture itself (e.g., the angelology which had obviously undergone much development amongst the Jews in the inter-Testamental period). The common mistake is to confuse particulars of definition with the essence of a doctrine, and so conclude falsely that the essential or presuppositional elements were never historically present before they were defined in great precision. Such is the case with papal infallibility, as with many other disputed doctrines – e.g., the Catholic Marian ones.

Anglicans like to claim that papal excesses in the exercise of authority fractured the Catholic Church, with the Great Schism (when three men claimed to be pope simultaneously) and the events of the 16th-century so-called “Reformation.” But the papacy was by no means the sole factor in either break. It was much more so in the so-called English “Reformation” since Henry VIII wanted supremacy to reside in himself rather than the trans-national papacy (in the first instance due to sheer lust). St. Thomas More died because of his refusal to accept that travesty of justice and perversion of Christian governance.

Students of Church history may recall that Martin Luther also rejected conciliar infallibility and five previously commonly-accepted sacraments, among many other things. He had to do so in order to establish absolute supremacy of conscience, private judgment, and sola Scriptura, with its corollary perspicuity of Scripture, as the new formal principles of authority. I don’t see that Anglicans are much different, much as they acknowledge and claim to respect primitive Christian Tradition and the Fathers. I believe Anglicans (at least the more traditional and “orthodox” ones) do respect them, but I see many problems of inconsistent application of their teachings, and an incoherent mixture of visible and invisible church notions (and private judgment vs. the obedience entailed in apostolic succession).

Jesus Himself said that His coming would divide households. Was that His fault? Likewise, if the papacy was indeed divinely-instituted, yet people didn’t like it and rejected it, was it God’s fault that division then occurred? We should also expect conflict in larger Church battles and divisions. But we shouldn’t adopt an indifferentist or relativist approach and assume all sides are equally right, or that there is no right side, simply because division exists, or that every man is in effect his own pope, or despair that there is any answer at all.

The grounds for the papacy are in Scripture itself, and in how the Lord and the early Church regarded St. Peter. That’s where the argument succeeds or fails (at least in ecumenical discussion), not in a momentary dispute between Paul and Peter (over behavioral hypocrisy — not doctrine at all), or some alleged arrogant act of Pius IX, or a whoring Renaissance Borgia pope, or historical-political-cultural happenstance, etc.”

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

Questions from friends…


-by Trent Horn

Questions From Friends

When I was considering joining the Catholic Church I sat down with some of my non-Catholic friends to see if they could talk me out of my decision. They were Christians, but they didn’t consider themselves to be “Protestants.” Instead, they called themselves Evangelicals or just “Christ-followers.” Regardless, their response to my decision to become Catholic surprised me.

One of the girls said, “As long as Catholics believe in Jesus then I don’t think it’s a big deal.” Another chimed in, “I mean, we’re never going to know which church is the right church or even if there is such a thing, so why worry?”

That answer didn’t satisfy me so I asked them, “Don’t you wonder if one of the churches that exists today can be traced back to the Church Jesus founded? Don’t you wonder which church Jesus wants us to join?”

The First Christians

My question was met with a collective shrug and a simple recommendation that I just “believe in Jesus,” but that wasn’t good enough for me. How did my Evangelical friends know we only have to believe in Jesus to be saved? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Do we have to be baptized to believe in Jesus? Do we have to receive Communion? If I stop believing in Jesus will I lose my salvation?

I wanted the answers to these questions so I decided to study what the very first Christians believed. These were the believers who lived just after the apostles. If there was one church I wanted to belong to, it was their church.

In the time of the apostles believers were called “Christians,” but the Church was not called “the Christian Church.” It was simply referred to as “the Church,” as is evident in Luke’s description of what Paul and Barnabas did in the city of Antioch. He said, “For a whole year they met with the Church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

A few decades later St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to Christians who lived six hundred miles away, in the coastal city of Smyrna (located in modern Turkey). He said, “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.”

An Old Baby Photo

“How can today’s Catholic Church with all of its traditions and rituals be the same the humble Church we read about in the New Testament?” It’s a good question, but it’s sort of like asking, “How can that fully grown man be the same little boy whose diaper had to be changed decades earlier?” In both cases the body being described grew and developed over time without becoming a different kind of being.

The man, for example, has many things he did not have as a baby (like a beard he needs to shave). But he also has many of the same things he did have as a baby. This includes the same DNA that guides his growth and gives him features like “his father’s nose,” which can be seen in his old baby photos. In the same way, the Catholic Church, which St. Paul calls the Body of Christ (Eph. 5:23), has the same “DNA” as the Church of the first century: the word of God. This word is transmitted both through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and you can see its effect in one of the Church’s “old baby photos.”

One particular “photo” comes from the second century, when St. Justin Martyr wrote about how when Christians gathered to worship, they “offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place.” After that, they “salute one another with a kiss,” the presider at the service takes bread and wine and does the following:

[He] gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.

Justin’s description corresponds to the prayers of the faithful, the exchange of peace, the offering of bread and wine, and the “great amen” that are still said at Catholic services today. Justin goes on to say that the bread and wine at Mass are not mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but are instead “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” This doctrine, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is one the Catholic Church still teaches and defends.

Here are some other examples of what the first Christians believed. Can you see the resemblance to what Catholics believe today in these other “baby photos”?

  • Submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ.—St. Ignatius A.D. 110.
  • Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.—Tertullian, A.D. 203.
  •  The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.—Origen, A.D. 248.
  • Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner.—St Cyprian, A.D. 251.

Why We Believe: The Catholic Church

  • Jesus established a Church built on the apostles that included a hierarchy, or sacred order, that included deacons, priests, and bishops.
  • Only the Catholic Church can trace its authority back to the apostles and their immediate successors.
  • The Catholic Church has maintained in her current teachings the ancient doctrines of Christ, the apostles, and the early Church.”

Love,
Matthew

Bible study: Acts of the Apostles


-“Saint Paul”, Bartolomeo Montagna, ~1431 AD


-by Casey Chalk

“Ecumenical Bible studies: they are often demonstrations of the best and worst of Christian dialogue. In their most beneficial form, they offer opportunities for members of various Christian traditions, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, or various strands of Evangelicalism, to share their own rich understandings and applications of Biblical literature. Alternatively, they can devolve into unprofitable contests of “name that Scripture verse” to support some particular doctrine — justification by grace through faith alone, Petrine primacy, infant baptism, you name it. A tendency among those Christians eager to “keep the peace” in a setting featuring divergent theological beliefs and practices is to try to find common ground, lowest common denominators, and “non-negotiables.” Such attempts can themselves be profitable, though at times the result is a conversation lacking any theological depth, the participants so frightened of controversy and of offending one another that folks reduce themselves to “this is how this Scripture verse speaks to me” comments. Better than nothing, I suppose, though certainly less than what we are called to do as Christians when approaching Holy Scripture. It’s hard to imagine St. Paul walking into a synagogue in Corinth and declaring in firm confidence to the Jews present: “You may have your own interpretations of the Torah, which may be equally true, but let me tell you what this Scripture means to me!” Is there any way for Christians of different theological stripes to bridge the gap? In this post I will propose an alternative way to read and discuss Scripture that I think offers opportunity for more fruitful exchanges between Christians.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in ecumenical Bible studies is that individuals from different traditions have certain “voices” speaking to them when they sit down to read Scripture, and it’s not that we are all schizophrenics. What I mean is that no one really sits down to read their Bible in a vacuum, as if one could really isolate their reading in such a way that it was just that person, the Holy Spirit, and the text. Rather, we read Scripture with all manner of unavoidable influences: what others have told us about the text, what we have read others say about the text, what influence the text may have had on our lives (presuming we’ve read it before), what associations we have with certain words or ideas in the text, and so on. Truly, there’s no such thing as “me and my Bible” — it’s me, my middle-school youth group leader, my first “Teen Bible,” the pastor at my church, Christian radio, that course I took in college, what my significant other believes, and on and on.

To take a more doctrinal view, some Protestants will be reading their Bibles in light of doctrines prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism (say, Rick Warren or Philip Yancey), Reformed thought (say, John Piper or R.C. Sproul), or even the “emergent church” movement (think Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or William P. Young’s The Shack). Catholics, on the other hand, will read their Bibles in light of popular Catholic thinkers like Scott Hahn or Bishop Robert Barron, and probably with various Magisterial teachings from Church councils or papal doctrinal statements floating around in the background, as well. None of these influences, I would argue, can be easily put aside in an ecumenical Bible study, because their mark on our thoughts and practices runs deep. But neither can members of different traditions just accept an opposing position, as if an evangelical would say, “fine, I’ll just put my opinions on hold for the next hour-and-a-half and act as if whatever the Pope says is true.” We do indeed need some “common ground” beyond just picking up the Bible and starting to read it together, and it needs to be more than just some overly-deferential and vapid validation of everyone’s opinions. Since the New Testament, and particularly Paul’s letters, are one of the more popular texts for Bible studies, I want to focus my attention there. In this case, I propose that reading Paul in light of another New Testament text, the Book of Acts, can reap ecumenical dividends.1

Why Acts?

Using Acts as an interpretive “lodestar” can be an effective tool for ecumenical dialogue because it itself is something everyone at the table should already agree on: it’s Scripture! There shouldn’t be any Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox asserting their defiance to the book, as if it represents some subtle means of asserting one’s particular theological tradition over the conversation. In addition to this fairly obvious point, I can identify at least three other good reasons why Acts can be an interpretive lodestar — meaning, just as certain stars in the sky, like Polaris, can serve as a guide the course of a ship, so Acts can serve as a guide or reference point for reading Paul.

The first is that Acts is history, specifically, the history of the early Church during part of the Apostolic age. Generally speaking, reading a history of a particular era shines light on the “primary texts” of that era, helping contextualize and make sense of that historical period. Consider this example: let’s say you want to learn about the American Civil War. There are many great collections of letters, diaries, and memoirs regarding this historical period: Elijah Hunt Rhodes, Sam Watkins, Mary Chestnut, etc. You could certainly pick up one of them and just start reading. But will much of the text make sense to you, especially if you have little knowledge of that period? If your goal is to answer certain broad contextual questions regarding the Civil War, like “what were its causes?,” “who were the most important people?”, “what were the most important events”?, and “how and why did it end?”, these texts will not provide a systematic or thorough answer. Indeed, they weren’t intended to, because they were occasional, meaning written in reaction to a certain occasion. Elijah Hunt Rhodes, an enlisted soldier in the Union Army, didn’t intend his journal to be a history — he was simply recording his own personal experiences. In order to have a history in the modern sense, one needs a book (or books) written by someone who has read scores of primary and secondary sources, interviewed people, and visited important sites. You need a general history.

The Book of Acts is, in a sense, exactly that kind of general history. It is an overview of the major events and themes of the early Church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension into heaven around A.D. 33, and ending when St. Paul was imprisoned in Rome (probably around A.D. 60). Of course, for us as twenty-first century readers, Acts is itself a primary source of information about the early Apostolic Church, but it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a type of “secondary source,” or maybe more accurately a “proto-secondary source.” The author, St. Luke, very explicitly says in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that his research is a compilation of information based on eyewitness testimony. If we read Acts first, and read Paul’s letters (or any other letters in the New Testament, for that matter), in light of what we know about the Church in Acts, we are sure to reap interpretive rewards.

A second reason to understand Acts as a general history is an argument from literature. Consider this analogy: if you wanted to know about Jane Austen and her literary corpus, reading all of her literature would give you quite a few details about her: her own life, and the major themes and ideas of her writing. But it would still be incomplete, because reading Austen’s work doesn’t tell you a lot of important things about her, information that would illuminate much of her books. If you were to read other works by authors who have done research on Austen, or who have sought to compile a biography of her life, you would be able to grasp more fully what she is trying to accomplish in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

St. Paul’s letters are themselves a genre of literature, what scholars often call epistles, a type of formal letter. If you want to understand St. Paul, his life, the themes and doctrines that defined his theological understanding, you could read only the thirteen letters ascribed to him. Yet this would be woefully incomplete, especially given that the Book of Acts contains so many details about his life and teachings. Indeed, in addition to his conversion story (related three separate times!) and his missionary activity, Acts features several sermons of St. Paul, giving an additional important aspect to interpreting his teaching. Moreover, St. Paul is the main character of the second half of Acts, so much so that he is mentioned 131 times in the entire book. If you know Acts, you will better know St. Paul.

Finally and somewhat obviously is the organization of the New Testament itself. One may know that the books of New Testament are not listed in chronological order. In chronological order, the first book of the New Testament would likely be the Gospels of Matthew or Mark, or possibly Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Then would be most of Paul’s epistles, followed by the Gospel of Luke, then Acts, possibly some more epistles, and finally the Gospel of John and Revelation. Yet in our our Bibles, we have Acts coming right after the Gospels, before any of Paul’s epistles, the other epistles, or Revelation. Why?

Remember that the New Testament canon did not arrive in the early Church overnight, nor was it easily agreed upon by all Christians. The books of the New Testament were written over a period of around 50 or 60 years, and many churches didn’t have access to all of those books for centuries. The earliest lists of New Testament books we have are from the latter half of the second century A.D. — this includes the Muratorian Canon and a list provided by St. Irenaeus of Lyon. No body of Christians (at least that we know of in the historical record) weighed in on an authoritative list of the New Testament until the four century. When these councils did vote on the content of the New Testament, they placed Acts directly after the four Gospels. This seems to have been a reasonable decision, given that the Gospels tell the life of Jesus and His Apostles up through the resurrection and ascension, and Acts picks up the story from the ascension. Possibly a bit more curiously, these Church councils separated Acts from the Gospel of Luke, which most scholars recognize was written by the same author, given the similarity of language and themes. In between the two books the councils placed the last of the Gospels, John, written almost certainly last, and also almost certainly after Acts. Why do this? Possibly because the council wanted to declare to readers: “first, know the story of Jesus; then,, know the story of the early Church; and once you know those stories, know the epistles of Paul and others.” Acts appears where it does in the New Testament because the Church in the fourth century believed it important for people to read it before reading St. Paul’s own works.

A Few Questions to Explore

I’d like to briefly move from theory to application. Bible studies often feed upon group questions for discussion. I’ll propose a few here, with the overarching theme of asking what happens if one reads St. Paul’s letters (or other Apostolic letters, for that matter) in light of Acts. I’ll also offer a few of my own reflections as I’ve sought to read St. Paul using Acts as my lodestar.

Question 1: What were the most important issues facing the early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts? Once you’ve named two or three, consider how those issues are addressed in St. Paul’s letters.

I would argue that apart from the persecution of Christians by Jewish and Roman authorities, the most pressing question facing the early Church was this: who is in the Church, and what do they have to do to be part of it? More specifically, is the Church only for Jews? If Gentiles are allowed in, do they in any sense have to become Jews? Note that the first recorded conflict in the early Church is between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews over the distribution of food to widows from their respective communities (Acts 6:1). This cultural-linguistic division becomes more pronounced when some Church leaders start sharing the Gospel with non-Jews, including an Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40), and a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10: 1-48). Moreover, the centurion’s conversion is so controversial that when St. Peter returns to the Church in Jerusalem he is forced to defend himself against certain Jewish Christians (called “the circumcision party”), who question the decision to baptize a Roman pagan. This conflict becomes an overwhelming tidal wave by Acts 15, when certain Christian men assert that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The greatest controversy within the early Church seems to localize on this particular question: do Gentiles who convert to Christianity need to become Jews by being circumcised and accepting Jewish dietary laws? The Church determines in Acts 15 that no, they do not, but the question continues to dog the Church: St. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:11-21 that St. Peter, coming under the influence of the same “circumcision party,” had separated himself from Gentile believers in Antioch, for which St. Paul publicly reprimanded him. This is actually the only mention we have within the New Testament of one Apostle publicly rebuking another.

What I’ve described above suggests that this was the predominant controversy of the early Church, encompassing the entirety of the historical period during which St. Paul’s letters were written. We should thus ask ourselves how the issues cited in the Pauline epistles (including his discussion of “faith v. works”) appear when viewed as part of this particular conflict over the status of Gentile Christians.2

Question 2: How did the Apostles pursue evangelism toward Jews and Gentiles in the days of the early Church? What was necessary to become a Christian? Do we see those priorities identified in St. Paul’s letters? Is there continuity or discontinuity in St. Paul in comparison to Acts?

St. Peter gives the first sermon of the early Church, recorded in the second chapter of Acts. When his audience asks him what is necessary for them to be saved, his response is that they repent, be baptized, and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The theme of baptism is consistent throughout the conversion stories of the early Church, repeated in Acts 8:13, 38-40; 10:44-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; and 19:5, among others. Baptism, it would appear, is an essential feature of the missionary efforts of the Church. Moreover, baptism seems to be intimately united to the gift of the Holy Spirit, as if the sacrament in some sense actually serves as the mode by which new Christians receive the third person of the Trinity. Baptism also plays a dominant role in St. Paul’s theology, and is often united to discussion of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5, 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 6:11, 10:2; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 2:5-6, 5:26; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5-7, etc.).

Question 3: What is the Church according to Acts? How does the Church resolve crises and conflicts? How does that compare to what St. Paul says about the Church?

The Apostles, unsurprisingly, are central to the leadership of the early Church. Indeed, Acts is largely a story of just a few key leaders: St. Peter, St. John, St. James, and St. Paul. St. Peter and St. Paul loom the largest. As noted above, the debate over the place of Gentiles within the nascent Church seems to reach its apex in Acts 15, when we read that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). This is in a sense the very first council of the Church, with the most important leaders, including St. Peter and St. Paul, present. Indeed, it is St. Peter who seems to give the “keynote address,” while St. James confirms St. Peter’s judgment. The council, apparently representing “the whole Church,” then sends a letter to the church in Antioch with its determination and various commands, while apparently claiming to act with the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

The role of the Church is also central to St. Paul’s letters, emphasizing the importance of its unity (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Ephesians 4:1-6), its holiness (1 Corinthians 6:1, 16:1; Ephesians 5:25-27), its universality or catholicity (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 3:8-10), and its apostolicity (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2). Indeed, St. Paul’s ecclesiology is so high, he declares the household of God, the “church of the living God,” to be the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).3

Conclusion

Disagreements between Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian communions over the interpretation of Scripture are inevitable. In settings like Bible studies, however, we too often try to gloss over the differences as if they weren’t there, or as if discussing them will weaken our fellowship. This only needs to be the case if we aren’t capable of respectfully listening to and considering an interpretation or belief different from our own, or of communicating our own position with humility and charity. Yet through prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome our own weaknesses, and find far richer ecumenical dialogue in the process. Reading the letters of the New Testament through the lens of Acts presents one opportunity for such conversation. We will likely disagree over such issues as the role of faith and works in salvation, or the how and when of baptism, or the exact nature of Church authority. Yet rather than returning to our usual mode of defensive apologetics or proof-texting, we might all benefit from a careful study of Paul in the context of Acts. We might be surprised what we find.”

Love, & Christian charity,
Matthew

1. I am indebted here to Fr. Sebastian Carnazzo, a professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, who provided this methodology in his New Testament course.
2. Helpful analysis of this question can be found in N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) and N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
3. Taylor R. Marshall, The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Dallas, TX: Saint John Press, 2010), 35-46.

Lead, Kindly Light – Rev. Douglas Grandon

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.”
-Bl John Henry Newman


Father Doug Grandon became Catholic in 2003, after serving as a Protestant missionary and pastor for twenty-five years. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI granted Father Doug permission to be ordained a married Catholic priest for the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois. He presently serves as parochial vicar at St. Thomas More Church in Centennial, Colorado, and teaches Homiletics at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

“It was a bittersweet day when I left Christ Episcopal Church. I loved celebrating the Eucharist on Saturday, Sunday, and during the week. I spent hours preparing my homilies. I joyfully taught adult education, First Communion, and Confirmation classes. I enjoyed visiting my flock, especially the sick and elderly, and most especially when I could bring them communion… I had a good reputation in the community, and I was quite well paid. When I departed, I wondered, like John Henry Newman (who also converted in his mid-forties), whether the best chapters of my life had already been written. My wife and I weren’t sure how we would support our family of six.

Just yesterday, an Evangelical Free Church pastor inquired over lunch about my journey from the Free Church to the Episcopal Church and on to the Catholic Church. As John Henry Newman, once noted, one’s conversion story is a bit too complicated to be quickly recounted between the salad and main course of a dinner.

I became a Christian after first hearing the Gospel from a young man named Dan in a Christian coffee shop in downtown Sterling, Illinois. It was there that I was first confronted with the question, “Are you a Christian?” When I replied that I wasn’t sure, Dan arranged to meet with me every other week for Bible study and conversation. In November 1972, I prayed that Christ would forgive my sins. In February 1973, at the age of fourteen, I was baptized.

During the next five years, I attended Dan’s church, a small Pentecostal church, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” The pastor was a self-taught, but serious, Bible teacher, who emphasized that God had called us to holiness and service. However, his leadership style was overly dictatorial, and he was much too confident in his ability to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. It was in that church that I first met my future wife, Lynn, when I was fourteen, and there, at sixteen years of age, that I felt a definite call to ordained ministry.

After five years in that Pentecostal church, and having completed two years of college, I was invited by a faithful missionary to spend a summer with a Protestant pastor in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where I was tutored in Serbo-Croatian. That missionary offered to support me if I would remain in Belgrade and enroll in the Institute for Foreign Languages, which I was happy to do. For the next five years, I assisted his mission as a translator/interpreter in Communist Yugoslavia.

Upon returning to the U.S., I married Lynn, completed my final two years at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and then proceeded to seminary. I first earned an M.A. in Religion from Liberty University, then an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the Evangelical Free Church seminary. I was ordained in the Free Church, and started Glen Hill Evangelical Free Church in Peoria, which still exists today.

During that time, I met Edward MacBurney, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy, a committed Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic, and a godly man. We enjoyed each other’s company and met regularly for lunch. During the course of our numerous conversations, he recommended that I read Tom Howard’s Evangelical Is Not Enough. (Dr. Howard was kind enough to meet me one day for breakfast in Wheaton.) Bishop MacBurney convinced me that my Evangelical experience was deficient.

Several points of Catholic theology became clear to me at that time: apostolic succession, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the role of saints as mediators, the value of liturgy, the sacrifice of the Mass, etc. My early Pentecostal experience had infected me with a strong prejudice against the Catholic Church. To overcome this, God led me into the Church in short steps, from Pentecostalism to mainstream Evangelicalism, and across the bridge of Anglicanism. To this day, I am grateful for each of those churches.

When the timing was appropriate for me to leave my Evangelical Free Church, I became Episcopalian. Bishop MacBurney made it very clear to me that the Episcopal Church was rapidly abandoning its Catholic and biblical roots. I was aware, however, that the worldwide Anglican Communion included a strong Evangelical wing, which was profoundly committed to evangelization, good preaching, holy living, and serious academic work — and that Anglo-Catholics still defended those Catholic convictions championed by John Henry Newman, prior to his conversion to Catholicism. I felt comfortable exploring the Catholic tradition in a church populated by such Evangelical leaders as Alister McGrath, Jim Packer, and John Stott.

During my Anglican years, I completed my doctoral course work at St. Louis University. With my doctoral advisor (a convert himself), I engaged in a serious reading of Newman. With his help, I began to understand the profound importance of Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. (Development was the answer to sola scriptura, which seemed more and more untenable.) My dissertation research on Flacius Illyricus, an immediate successor to Luther and the first Protestant historian, reinforced my doubts about Protestant separation from Rome.

In preparation for ordination to the Anglican priesthood, I was sent to Oxford for a year of postdoctoral theological study. Oxford was fantastic. However, at St. Stephen’s House, I witnessed firsthand the serious degeneration of the Anglo-Catholic movement. I was shocked that the principal allowed a practicing homosexual to remain in residence and was admitting women, who would eventually be ordained to the priesthood.

My Episcopal bishop, Keith Ackerman, allowed me to transfer to Wycliffe Hall, the Evangelical Anglican college, on the other side of Oxford. Scholarship was much more serious there, as was an Evangelical commitment to the faith. Wycliffe Hall was marvelous in many ways, although sacraments, episcopacy, and other Catholic hallmarks were given minimal attention.

I flew back to the U.S. to be ordained to the transitional diaconate in May 1999, but backed out. I almost became Catholic at that point. My wife and I discussed the matter after I returned to England. We concluded that I should proceed with ordination, in order to support my bishop, who had himself indicated that he might one day become Catholic. Later that summer, I was ordained to the diaconate. Bishop Ackerman assured me that he had authority to ordain me, not simply an Episcopal priest, but a priest in the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” After all, he told me, Anglicans do represent the third branch of the Catholic faith. (The first and second branches are, according to this theory, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.)

As Bishop Ackerman later observed, I was a faithful and obedient Episcopal priest. Nevertheless, I began to question the validity of Anglican orders, which, of course, directly led to doubts about the validity of Anglican sacraments. For me, the fundamental problem was neither the ordination of women nor the toleration of homosexual practice. Most fundamentally, I could no longer confidently assert that Anglican orders were valid. As a result, I contacted Bishop Daniel Jenky, who had been recently ordained as Ordinary for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, to whom I expressed my desire to take concrete steps toward entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.

For a number of years, I had been reading Catholic authors and the Church Fathers. In Oxford, I had met an elderly French Jesuit at a Newman Conference who kept in touch, encouraging my conversion and my application for Catholic priesthood. Also in Oxford, I had heard lectures that offered a revisionist (and true!) explanation of the nature of the English Reformation. Others were also quite helpful, including a Catholic, former undergraduate professor, several Catholic priests in the Dioceses of Peoria and Davenport, and numerous Catholic laymen active in the pro-life movement.

When I first met with Bishop Jenky, I made it clear that I was coming with no expectations whatsoever. I needed the Church; the Church did not need me. The Church did not owe me employment nor, even more certainly, Catholic priesthood. Bishop Jenky was kind enough to respond that he was certainly open to having a married, former Anglican minister/priest among his diocesan clergy. (He subsequently made sure this was the case with his Presbyteral Council.) We also spoke about my interest in Russia, where I had lectured each winter for the previous four years. Bishop Jenky spoke most encouragingly about this as a possibility for future ministry. Bishop Ackerman attended my second meeting with Bishop Jenky. He graciously and semi-officially transferred me from his jurisdiction to that of Bishop Jenky. (A bronze bust of John Henry Newman hovered over the table where we spoke.)

It was a bittersweet day when I left Christ Episcopal Church. I loved celebrating the Eucharist on Saturday, Sunday, and during the week. I spent hours preparing my homilies. I joyfully taught adult education, First Communion, and Confirmation classes. I enjoyed visiting my flock, especially the sick and elderly, and most especially when I could bring them communion. We had just completed a large addition to our church building, without incurring debt. I had a good reputation in the community, and I was quite well paid. When I departed, I wondered, like Newman (who also converted in his mid-forties), whether the best chapters of my life had already been written. My wife and I weren’t sure how we would support our family of six.

My wife, our four children, and I entered the Church at a vigil Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Moline, Illinois, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 2003. My first year in the Church, I was blessed to serve as spiritual director and chairman of the theology department at Assumption High School in Davenport, Iowa. At the end of that year, Bishop Jenky appointed me the director of the office of catechetics for the Diocese of Peoria, where I served with great delight.

In September 2006, I traveled to Immaculate Conception Seminary in the Archdiocese of Newark, for the seven initial examinations required by the Pastoral Provision for former Anglican clergy. In November 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officially notified Bishop Jenky that they were “positively disposed” toward my candidacy for priesthood. In February 2008, I successfully completed the final written and oral examinations on the seven subjects. On April 18, the Congregation authorized Bishop Jenky to proceed with my ordination. On May 24, 2008, Bishop Jenky ordained me, along with five seminarians, to the Catholic priesthood. (Three of the six are former Episcopalians, although I am the only former Episcopal priest/minister.) I then served as parochial vicar (associate pastor) at Sacred Heart Church in Moline, where I was received into the Church.

It appears as I write this testimonial [2008], that there may be a sizeable exodus of bishops, priests, and lay people from the Church of England into the Catholic Church. Please pray for all those who find themselves in the Valley of Decision. My message to those pondering full communion with the Catholic Church: “Be not afraid. Obey your informed conscience. If you depart your present church, make sure you leave honorably. Be not afraid.”

Love,
Matthew