A Protestant Historian Discovers the Catholic Church
Featuring A. David Anders, Ph.D./
February 13, 2012
I grew up an Evangelical Protestant in Birmingham, Alabama. My parents were loving and devoted, sincere in their faith, and deeply involved in our church. They instilled in me a respect for the Bible as the Word of God, and a desire for a living faith in Christ. Missionaries frequented our home and brought their enthusiasm for their work. Bookshelves in our house were filled with theology and apologetics. From an early age, I absorbed the notion that the highest possible calling was to teach the Christian faith. I suppose it is no surprise that I became a Church historian, but becoming a Catholic was the last thing I expected.
My family’s church was nominally Presbyterian, but denominational differences meant very little to us. I frequently heard that disagreements over Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or church government were unimportant as long as one believed the Gospel. By this, we meant that one should be “born again,” that salvation is by faith alone, and that the Bible is the sole authority for Christian faith. Our church supported the ministries of many different Protestant denominations, but the one group we certainly opposed was the Catholic Church.
The myth of a Protestant “recovery” of the Gospel was strong in our church. I learned very early to idolize the Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, because they supposedly had rescued Christianity from the darkness of medieval Catholicism. Catholics were those who trusted in “good works” to get them to heaven, who yielded to tradition instead of Scripture, and who worshipped Mary and the saints instead of God. Their obsession with the sacraments also created an enormous impediment to true faith and a personal relationship with Jesus. There was no doubt. Catholics were not real Christians.
Our church was characterized by a kind of confident intellectualism. Presbyterians tend to be quite theologically minded, and seminary professors, apologists, scientists, and philosophers were frequent speakers at our conferences. It was this intellectual atmosphere that had attracted my father to the church, and his bookshelves were lined with the works of the Reformer John Calvin, and the Puritan Jonathan Edwards, as well as more recent authors like B. B. Warfield, A. A. Hodge, C. S. Lewis, and Francis Schaeffer. As a part of this academic culture, we took it for granted that honest inquiry would lead anyone to our version of Christian faith.
All of these influences left definite impressions on me as a child. I came to see Christianity as somewhat akin to Newtonian physics. The Christian faith consisted in certain eminently reasonable and immutable laws, and you were guaranteed eternal life provided you constructed your life according to these principles. I also thought this was the message clearly spelled out in the official textbook of Christian theology: the Bible. Only mindless trust in human tradition or depraved indifference could possibly explain anyone’s failure to grasp these simple truths.
There was one strange irony in this highly religious and theological atmosphere. We stressed that it was faith and not works that saves. We also confessed the classic Protestant belief that all people are “totally depraved,” meaning that even their best moral efforts are intrinsically hateful to God and can merit nothing. By the time I reached high school, I put these pieces together and concluded that religious practice and moral striving were more or less irrelevant to my life. It was not that I lost my faith. On the contrary, I absorbed it thoroughly. I had accepted Christ as my Savior and been “born again.” I believed that the Bible was the Word of God. I also believed none of my religious or moral works had any value. So I quit practicing them.
Fortunately, my indifference lasted only a few years, and I had a genuine reconversion to the faith in college. I found that my need for God was deeper than simple “fire insurance.” I also met a beautiful girl with whom I started going to Protestant services. Jill had grown up nominally Catholic, but failed to keep up the practice of her faith after Confirmation. Together, we found ourselves growing deeper in our Protestant faith, and after a few months, we both became disillusioned with the worldly atmosphere of our New Orleans University. We concluded that the Midwestern and Evangelical Wheaton College would provide a more spiritual environment, and we both transferred in the middle of our sophomore year (January 1991).
Wheaton College is a beacon for sincere Evangelical Christians of various backgrounds. Protestants from many different denominations are represented, united in their commitment to Christ and the Bible. My childhood had taught me that theology, apologetics, and evangelism were the highest calling of a Christian, and I found them all in plentiful supply at Wheaton. It was there that I first thought of committing my life to the study of theology. It was also at Wheaton that Jill and I became engaged.
After graduating, Jill and I were married and eventually found our way to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. My goal was to get a seminary education, and then eventually to complete a Ph.D. I wanted to become one of those theology professors who had been so admired in the church of my youth.
I threw myself into seminary with abandon. I loved my courses in theology, Scripture, and Church history, and I thrived on the faith, confidence, and sense of mission that pervaded the school. I also embraced its anti-Catholic atmosphere. I was there in 1994 when the document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” was first published, and the faculty was almost uniformly hostile to it. They saw any compromise with Catholics as a betrayal of the Reformation. Catholics were simply not brothers in the Lord. They were apostates.
I accepted the anti-Catholic attitudes of my seminary professors, so when it came time to move on in my studies, I decided to focus on a historical study of the Reformation. I thought there could be no better preparation for assaulting the Catholic Church and winning converts than to thoroughly understand the minds of the great leaders of our faith — Martin Luther and John Calvin. I also wanted to understand the whole history of Christianity, so I could place the Reformation in context. I wanted to be able to show how the medieval church had left the true faith and how the Reformers had recovered it. To this end, I began Ph.D. studies in historical theology at the University of Iowa. I never imagined that Reformation Church history would move me to the Catholic Church.
Before I began my studies in Iowa, Jill and I witnessed the birth of our first child, a son. His brother was born less than two years later, and a sister arrived before we left Iowa (we now have five children). My wife was very busy caring for these children, while I committed myself almost entirely to my studies. I see today that I spent too much time in the library and not enough time with my wife, my infant sons, and my daughter. I think that I justified this neglect by relying on my sense of mission. I had a high calling — to witness to the faith through theological study — and an intellectual view of the Christian faith and my Christian duty. For Evangelical Christians, what one believes is more important than how one lives. I was learning how to defend and promote those beliefs. What could be more important?
I began my Ph.D. studies in September of 1995. I took courses in early, medieval, and Reformation Church history. I read the Church Fathers, the Scholastic theologians, and the Protestant Reformers. At each stage, I tried to relate later theologians to earlier ones, and all of them to the Scriptures. I had a goal of justifying the Reformation, and this meant, above all, investigating the doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” For Protestants, this is the most important doctrine to be “recovered” by the Reformation.
The Reformers had insisted that they were following the ancient Church in teaching “faith alone,” and for proof they pointed to the writings of the Church Father Augustine of Hippo (354–430). My seminary professors also pointed to Augustine as the original wellspring of Protestant theology. The reason for this was Augustine’s keen interest in the doctrines of original sin, grace, and justification. He was the first of the Fathers to attempt a systematic explication of these Pauline themes. He also drew a sharp contrast between “works” and “faith” (see his On the Spirit and the Letter, 412 ad). Ironically, it was my investigation of this doctrine and of St. Augustine that began my journey to the Catholic Church.
My first difficulty arose when I began to grasp what Augustine really taught about salvation. Briefly put, Augustine rejected “faith alone.” It is true that he had a high regard for faith and grace, but he saw these mainly as the source of our good works. Augustine taught that we literally “merit” eternal life when our lives are transformed by grace. This is quite different from the Protestant point of view.
The implications of my discovery were profound. I knew enough from my college and seminary days to understand that Augustine was teaching nothing less than the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. I decided to move on to earlier Church Fathers in my search for the “pure faith” of Christian antiquity. Unfortunately, the earlier Church Fathers were even less help than Augustine.
Augustine had come from Latin-speaking North Africa. Others hailed from Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, Rome, Gaul, and Egypt. They represented different cultures, spoke different languages, and were associated with different Apostles. I thought it possible that some of them might have misunderstood the Gospel, but it seemed unlikely that they would all be mistaken. The true faith had to be represented somewhere in the ancient world. The only problem was that I could not find it. No matter where I looked, on whatever continent, in whatever century, the Fathers agreed: salvation comes through the transformation of the moral life and not by faith alone. They also taught that this transformation begins and is nourished in the sacraments, and not through some individual conversion experience.
At this stage of my journey, I was eager to remain a Protestant. My whole life, marriage, family, and career were bound up in Protestantism. My discoveries in Church history were an enormous threat to that identity, so I turned to biblical studies looking for comfort and help. I thought that if I could be absolutely confident in the Reformers’ appeal to Scripture, then I essentially could dismiss fifteen hundred years of Christian history. I avoided Catholic scholarship, or books that I thought were intended to undermine my faith, and focused instead on what I thought were the most objective, historical, and also Protestant works of biblical scholarship. I was looking for rock-solid proof that the Reformers were right in their understanding of Paul. What I did not know was that the best in twentieth-century Protestant scholarship had already rejected Luther’s reading of the Bible.
Luther had based his entire rejection of the Church on the words of Paul, “A man is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28). Luther assumed that this contrast between “faith” and “works” meant that there was no role for morality in the process of salvation (according to the traditional Protestant view, moral behavior is a response to salvation, but not a contributing factor). I had learned that the earliest Church Fathers rejected that view. I now found a whole array of Protestant scholars also willing to testify that this is not what Paul meant.
The second-century Church Fathers believed that Paul had rejected the relevance of only the Jewish law for salvation (“works of the law” = Mosaic Law). They saw faith as the entrance to the life of the Church, the sacraments, and the Spirit. Faith admits us to the means of grace, but is not itself a sufficient ground for salvation. What I saw in the most recent and highly regarded Protestant scholars was the same point of view. From the last third of the twentieth century, scholars like E. P. Sanders, Krister Stendhal, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright have argued that traditional Protestantism profoundly misread Paul. According to Stendhal and others, justification by faith is primarily about Jew and Gentile relations, not about the role of morality as a condition of eternal life. Together, their work has been referred to as “The New Perspective on Paul.”
My discovery of this “New Perspective” was a watershed in my understanding of Scripture. I saw, to begin with, that the “New Perspective” was the “Old Perspective” of the earliest Church Fathers. I began testing it against my own reading of Paul and found that it made sense. It also resolved the long-standing tension that I had always felt between Paul and the rest of the Bible. Even Luther had had difficulty in reconciling his reading of Paul with the Sermon on the Mount, the Epistle of St. James, and the Old Testament. Once I tried on the “New Perspective,” this difficulty vanished. Reluctantly, I had to accept that the Reformers were wrong about justification.
These discoveries in my academic work were paralleled to some extent by discoveries in my personal life. Protestant theology strongly distinguishes belief from behavior, and I began to see how this had affected me. From childhood, I had always identified theology, apologetics, and evangelism as the highest callings in Christian life, while the virtues were supposed to be mere fruits of right belief. Unfortunately, I found that the fruits were not only lacking in my life, but that my theology had actually contributed to my vices. It had made me censorious, proud, and argumentative. I also realized that it had done the same thing to my heroes.
The more I learned about the Protestant Reformers, the less I liked them personally. I recognized that my own founder, John Calvin, was a self-important, arrogant man who was brutal to his enemies, never accepted personal responsibility, and condemned anyone who disagreed with him. He called himself a prophet and ascribed divine authority to his own teaching. This contrasted rather starkly with what I was learning about Catholic theologians. Many of them were saints, meaning they had lived lives of heroic charity and self-denial. Even the greatest of them — men like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas — also recognized that they had no personal authority to define the dogma of the Church.
Outwardly, I remained staunchly anti-Catholic. I continued to attack the Church and to defend the Reformation, but inwardly I was in psychological and spiritual agony. I found that my theology and my life’s work were founded on a lie, and that my own ethical, moral, and spiritual life were deeply lacking. I was rapidly losing my motivation to disprove Catholicism, and instead I wanted simply to learn the truth. The Protestant Reformers had justified their revolt by an appeal to “Scripture alone.” My studies in the doctrine of justification had shown me Scripture was not as clear a guide as the Reformers alleged. What if their whole appeal to Scripture was misguided? Why, after all, did I treat Scripture as the final authority?
When I posed this question to myself, I recognized that I had no good answer. The real reason I appealed to Scripture alone was that this is what I had been taught. As I studied the issue, I discovered that no Protestant has ever given a satisfactory answer to this question. The Reformers did not really defend the doctrine of “Scripture alone.” They merely asserted it. Even worse, I learned that modern Protestant theologians who have tried to defend “Scripture alone” do so by an appeal to tradition. This struck me as illogical. Eventually, I realized that “Scripture alone” is not even in Scripture. The doctrine is self-refuting. I also saw that the earliest Christians knew no more of “Scripture alone,” than they had known of “faith alone.” On the issues of how-we-are-saved and how-we-define-the-faith, the earliest Christians found their center in The Church. The Church was both the authority on Christian doctrine as well as the instrument of salvation.
The Church was the issue I kept coming back to. Evangelicals tend to view the Church as simply an association of like-minded believers. Even the Reformers, Luther and Calvin, had a much stronger view of the Church than this, but the ancient Christians had the most sublime doctrine of all. I used to see their emphasis on Church as unbiblical, contrary to “faith alone,” but I began to realize that it was my Evangelical tradition that was unbiblical.
Scripture teaches that the Church is the Body of Christ (Eph 4:12). Evangelicals tend to dismiss this as mere metaphor, but the ancient Christians thought of it as literally, albeit mystically, true. St. Gregory of Nyssa could say, “He who beholds the Church really beholds Christ.”1 As I thought about this, I realized that it spoke to a profound truth about the biblical meaning of salvation. St. Paul teaches that the baptized have been united to Christ in His death, so that they might also be united to Him in resurrection (Rom 6:3–6). This union literally makes the Christian a participant in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). St. Athanasius could even say, “For He was made man that we might be made God” (De incarnatione, 54.3). The ancient doctrine of the Church now made sense to me because I saw that salvation itself is nothing other than union with Christ and a continual growth into His nature. The Church is no mere association of like-minded people. It is a supernatural reality because it shares in the life and ministry of Christ.
This realization also made sense of the Church’s sacramental doctrine. When the Church baptizes, absolves sins, or, above all, offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is really Christ who baptizes, absolves, and offers His own Body and Blood. The sacraments do not detract from Christ. They make Him present.
The Scriptures are quite plain on the sacraments. It you take them at face value, you must conclude that Baptism is the “bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NAB). Jesus meant it when He said, “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55 NAB). He was not lying when He promised, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (Jn 20:23 NAB). This is exactly how the ancient Christians understood the sacraments. I could no longer accuse the ancient Christians of being unbiblical. On what grounds could I reject them at all?
The ancient Christian doctrine of the Church also made sense of the veneration of saints and martyrs. I learned that the Catholic doctrine on the saints is just a development of this biblical doctrine of the Body of Christ. Catholics do not worship the saints. They venerate Christ in His members. By invoking their intercession, Catholics merely confess that Christ is present and at work in His Church in heaven. Protestants often object that the Catholic veneration of saints somehow detracts from the ministry of Christ. I understood now that the reverse is actually true. It is the Protestants who limit the reach of Christ’s saving work by denying its implications for the doctrine of the Church.
My studies showed this theology fleshed out in the devotion of the ancient Church. As I continued my investigation of Augustine, I learned that this “Protestant hero” thoroughly embraced the veneration of saints. The Augustine scholar Peter Brown (born 1935) also taught me that the saints were not incidental to ancient Christianity. He argued that you could not separate ancient Christianity from devotion to the saints, and he placed Augustine squarely in this tradition. Brown showed that this was no mere pagan importation into Christianity, but rather tied intimately to the Christian notion of salvation (see his Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity).
Once I understood the Catholic position on salvation, the Church, and the saints, the Marian dogmas also seemed to fall into place. If the heart of the Christian faith is God’s union with our human nature, the Mother of that human nature has an incredibly important and unique role in all of history. This is why the Fathers of the Church always celebrated Mary as the second Eve. Her Yes to God at the annunciation undid the No of Eve in the garden. If it is appropriate to venerate the saints and martyrs of the Church, how much more appropriate is it to give honor and veneration to her who made possible our redemption?
By the time I finished my Ph.D., I had completely revised my understanding of the Catholic Church. I saw that her sacramental doctrine, her view of salvation, her veneration of Mary and the saints, and her claims to authority were all grounded in Scripture, in the oldest traditions, and in the plain teaching of Christ and the Apostles. I also realized that Protestantism was a confused mass of inconsistencies and tortured logic. Not only was Protestant doctrine untrue, but it bred contention, and could not even remain unchanged. The more I studied, the more I realized that my Evangelical heritage had moved far not only from ancient Christianity, but even from the teaching of her own Protestant founders.
Modern American Evangelicals teach that Christian life begins when you “invite Jesus into your heart.” Personal conversion (what they call “being born again”) is seen as the essence and the beginning of Christian identity. I knew from my reading of the Fathers that this was not the teaching of the early Church. I learned studying the Reformers that it was not even the teaching of the earliest Protestants. Calvin and Luther had both unambiguously identified Baptism as the beginning of the Christian life. I looked in vain in their works for any exhortation to be “born again.” I also learned that they did not dismiss the Eucharist as unimportant, as I had. While they rejected Catholic theology on the sacraments, both continued to insist that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. Calvin even taught in 1541 that a proper understanding of this Eucharist is “necessary for salvation.” He knew nothing of the individualistic, born-again Christianity I had grown up with.
I finished my degree in December 2002. The last few years of my studies were actually quite dark. More and more, it seemed to me that my plans were coming unhinged, my future obscure. My confidence was badly shaken, and I actually doubted whether or not I could believe anything. Catholicism had started to seem like the most sensible interpretation of the Christian faith, but the loss of my childhood faith was shattering. I prayed for guidance. In the end, I believe it was grace that saved me. At that time, I had a wife and four children, and God finally showed me that I needed more than books in my life. Quite honestly, I also needed more than “faith alone.” I needed real help to live my life and to do battle with my sins. I found this in the sacraments of the Church. Instead of “Scripture alone,” I needed real guidance from a teacher with authority. I found this in the Magisterium of the Church. I found that I needed the whole company of saints in heaven — not just their books on earth. In sum, I found that the Catholic Church was ideally formed to meet my real spiritual needs. In addition to truth, I found Jesus in His Church, through His Mother, in the whole company of His saints. I entered the Catholic Church on November 16, 2003. My wife also had her own reversion to the depths of the Church, and today my family is happily and enthusiastically Catholic. I am grateful to my parents for pointing me to Christ and the Scriptures. I am grateful to St. Augustine for pointing me to the Church.