No Longer Adrift
Featuring Dr. Joseph Johnson/
June 6, 2017
A native of South Carolina and the last of five children, I was raised in a Southern Baptist home. My mother was brought up in the Baptist tradition; my father in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. My father became Baptist in 1973, when I was two, so the home that I grew up in was markedly pious — somewhat different from the generically religious home of my siblings. I was converted at a Baptist revival meeting at age eight and later baptized in a lake at age 13. We were in church any time the door was open.
Our church split when I was 12, and my family migrated to a small, non-denominational church plant. The pastor was a former Assemblies of God minister, and his theological views came through in his sermons. We had been in the Charismatic movement while we were Baptist, so the migration to a non-denominational church wasn’t difficult. Because doctrinal concerns are not a priority among non-denominationals, it never occurred to me that the interpretation of the Bible by the minister often determined or influenced the beliefs of the congregants.
My family always emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus Christ — to know Him and follow Him. We were part of several churches growing up, but my parents always told me to go where I believed Jesus was leading me. My assumption was that a personal relationship with God through Jesus was all that was necessary to go to heaven, so the particular church you belonged to was irrelevant. I had never thought that Catholics were not Christians (I had Catholic relatives). I believed they were misguided, yes, but clearly part of the Christianity that I shared in.
I entered Lander University in 1989 as an engineering major, though I was terrible at math. While there, I discovered the philosophy and religion section of the library and developed an interest in early Christianity and its relationship to Judaism. After several conversations with the religion professor, I moved to Emmanuel College in the fall of 1991. In my studies of Church history and Judaism, I found a large Jewish Christian community in Roswell, GA that welcomed non-Jewish Christians.
These Jewish Christians receive various non-flattering labels, since most other Christians consider them to be theologically confused. Yet something resonated in me, perhaps because Jesus and His disciples were Jews and practiced Judaism. The non-Jewish worshippers in the synagogue were invited (never compelled) to adopt the customs of Judaism. The unspoken assumption was belief in Yeshua (Jesus), but the important thing was to practice His religion. So I lived my life as much as possible as a religious Jew who believed in Yeshua.
Nevertheless, during my time in college, I began to evaluate my beliefs. In this conservative, Pentecostal college, I wrestled with issues of biblical inerrancy, classical and Reformation theology, and Existentialism. I began to read on my own (contrary to my professors’ advice) the writings of Schleiermacher, Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, the Neibuhrs, Brunner, Barth, Moltmann, and Pannenberg. I became convinced that the Bible was historically inaccurate and unreliable; I denied original sin and embraced a modalist view of the Trinity and Kantian skepticism. As my theological and philosophical views were becoming increasingly Existential, my moral principles were becoming compromised. I started drinking, smoking, and using profanity. I became a libertine, while believing all along in the goodness, innocence, and responsibility of man; I was, of course, none of those things.
C.S. Lewis’s books helped me out of that quagmire. My skepticism faded away as I read what has been dubbed the “Moral Proof” for the existence of God in Mere Christianity. My problem with evil was alleviated through reading his little book, The Problem of Pain, which is sketched out autobiographically in his memoirs of the death of his wife, Joy (A Grief Observed). Like Lewis, I came to believe in God again, but no longer considered myself an Evangelical, although I still held onto a mild observance of my Jewish ritual life.
The Reformed Tradition
My religious views began to change again in the fall of 1995, when I enrolled at Erskine Theological Seminary to pursue a Master of Arts degree in Theological Studies. In the spring of 1996, I married my college sweetheart, Toby Hall. God had put up with my liberalism until that time, when I was introduced to the new theology professor. We developed a great friendship, and his courses challenged my liberal opinions. This was the beginning of my journey into the Reformed faith.
Reformed theology was initially associated with the former priest, Ulrich Zwingli, and later associated with the French attorney, John Calvin. Calvin’s best-known contribution to the Reform was the Institutes of the Christian Religion.
The controlling theme for Calvin is the sovereignty of God over His creation — particularly the doctrine of election, or predestination. The so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” are a later development from the controversy in the Dutch Reformed Church.
Another of Calvin’s foundational doctrines is his emphasis on the covenant as the primary means through which God has worked with His people and in the world. This continuity with ancient Israel in terms of covenant oaths and amendments has become a hallmark of Reformed thinking. It was Calvin’s covenant theology that slowly drew me away from my Jewish observances, as I now understood that Jesus, the giver of the New Covenant, had updated the terms of the “new agreement.”
Covenant theology reinforced my understanding of the Church’s government. My “mere evangelicalism” gave way to a more historically connected view of the Church. It was now not merely “Jesus and me.” I came to believe what St. Cyprian had written in The Unity of the Catholic Church, “You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother .… God is one and Christ is one, and his Church is one; one is the faith, and one is the people cemented together by harmony into the strong unity of a body.” Calvin had written about this plainly in the Institutes (4.1.i):
I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith … for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother.
The Presbyterian system was an innovation. It was developed by John Calvin, and was a conscious rejection of the ancient hierarchical, episcopal governance of the Church by bishops. It was introduced in Scotland by a former priest, John Knox, who had been a student of Calvin but was exiled for participating in the murder of Cardinal Beaton.
In my pursuit of theological roots, I listened attentively to my Reformed professors, and my wife and I joined the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in 2000. The ARP Church is a small Scottish group, organized in the United States in 1789. Our daughter was baptized there in 2000, and I joined Second Presbytery in 2001 as a student of theology, while working on my Master of Divinity.
In 1997, my wife and I had been consulted on curriculum considerations for the religion department at a local Christian school. We joined the faculty there, wrote, and taught the curriculum. The driving impulse for this non-denominational Christian education was C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. His minimalist approach, as I later realized, rested on Protestant assumptions about the nature of the Church. This is a glaring element which he does not unpack.
I climbed to the chair of the religion department and held that position for almost ten years. However, life for me there became increasingly difficult. I served on the curriculum philosophy committee and had become convinced that “classical Christian education” was the best way to educate children.
In the fall of 2000, shortly after the birth of our daughter, my wife experienced significant changes in her health. She was hospitalized, and we almost lost her. God was gracious; she recovered, though with some residual effects, and went on to homeschool our daughter in a classical curriculum. My faith had been tested, but God proved Himself faithful.
After leaving the Christian school in 2007, I took a call to pastoral ministry at a nearby independent Presbyterian parish. It was an unusual situation for a Presbyterian church to be out of the jurisdiction of a presbytery, which is the proper ordaining body. I withdrew from the ARP presbytery and was ordained by the local elders of the independent parish. In 2008, our parish voted to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, in which I was then properly ordained in the Presbyterian tradition. It was in this year, too, that my son was born and baptized.
During my ministry in this parish, questions began to arise about certain aspects of my faith. I spent some time studying the liturgy and sacraments. I had been confident enough as a student of Calvin to become one of his theological heirs. However, as I prepared the liturgy week to week, questions continually came up, such as: on what authority did the Reformers “reform” the Mass, and how do I know my parish’s liturgy is pleasing to God? I found a “high view” of the sacraments (efficacious, not merely symbolic) in Calvin’s Institutes and in the Westminster Larger Catechism. I later discovered Calvin’s view and defense (along with those of Luther, Bucer, and Zwingli) of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
In American religion, and in the Evangelical community and the Presbyterian tradition specifically, there were various things happening that gave me pause. Several Reformed ministers and theologians whom I respected were dragged through the mud in the media and openly declared to be heretics by self-appointed judges. I understood this controversy, called the “Federal Vision,” to be typical Reformed theology, with its emphasis upon the sacraments and the covenant. The blogosphere was a landmine of gossip and slander. These accusations brought to the forefront the problem of biblical interpretation and the sufficiency of Scripture. One man’s heretic was another’s saint. I became angry and worried.
The general political climate didn’t help. Throughout the nation as a whole, conservatives and liberals in my own Reformed tradition were at each others’ throats. The Presbyterian world was fracturing and splitting as controversy after controversy assaulted the Reformed world. Jesus had promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18), and it seemed like He was failing.
To complicate matters further, I learned of Dr. Frank Beckwith’s resignation from the Evangelical Theological Society to return to Rome, and the “resignation under fire” of Dr. Bruce Waltke from a prominent Reformed seminary over his interpretation of Genesis. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth (John 16:13), so how did all these splits in the Christian world occur? Denominations now numbered well over 20,000. How did I know where “the Church” was to be found? By the time I resigned from my presbytery in 2012, there had been 48 splits, each group claiming Calvin as their founder. Dr. John Frame of Westminster Theological Seminary discerned 22 different issues that were keeping Reformed Christians out of each others’ pews. Ongoing controversies of theistic evolution, homosexual unions, female deacons, charismatic gifts, exclusive psalmody in worship, general liturgical principles, acceptable styles of music, etc., have only added to the problems. Yet all claimed to be using the same Bible.
The Sweater Unravels
I returned to my studies of Church history and started at the beginning: the Apostolic Fathers and Church Fathers, both east and west, and the development of the canon of Scripture. I was shocked by the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Though I had read them 20 years before, I had never viewed them with Reformed glasses. There was nothing in those letters that sounded at all Presbyterian! Or why, in ad 95, was Clement of Rome bypassing the authority of the Apostle John to settle a matter of discipline in the Church at Corinth, claiming the authority of Rome to be that of God? The more I studied, the more I felt drawn to the Catholic view, though I kept saying, “This can’t be right.” I sought the wisdom of friends and mentors to help steer me through these troubled waters. But on whose authority should I accept their observations or interpretations as correct?
In 2010, my daughter and I attended the Catholic Confirmation of a friend. I remember being impressed with the amount of Scripture heard during the Mass. I had been working on liturgical studies, so I was shocked at how similar the Mass was to the Reformed liturgy at my parish.
In the middle of 2011, I read John Henry Newman’s On the Development of Christian Doctrine and G.K. Chesterton’s works on his conversion. Newman had begun his study as an Anglo-Catholic (the conservative end of the Anglican spectrum) and finished as a Catholic convert. G.K. Chesterton was a major inspiration to C.S. Lewis and his essays, “The Catholic Church and Conversion” and “Where All Roads Lead,” which were powerful and common sense defenses. In the process, I learned of Lewis’ devotion to Mary, his belief in purgatory, and his habit of praying the Rosary. Yet Lewis never became Catholic.
I found myself no longer satisfied with “our answers.” I could not find the favorite solas of the Reformation anywhere in the Church Fathers. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell noted in his History of Western Philosophy that Luther’s “new religion” was the most novel turn in Western Philosophy since the Greeks!
In the process of looking for a way out of these conundrums, I stumbled upon the website Called to Communion and was taken back at how these graduates of Reformed seminaries could have become Catholic. About the same time, a blogger friend of mine, Devin Rose, asked me to read a manuscript he had recently published, called If Protestantism is True. I read it with a critical eye but kept thinking to myself, “I haven’t ever thought that through.…” I watched the issues of authority, interpretation, canon, the papacy, and sola fide melt away.
Facing Toward Rome
Some have described the crisis in Protestantism as a crisis of authority. As I noted earlier, how could I know that my liturgy, which I used at my church, was pleasing to God? The Lord had promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth. I then asked myself, If He had promised that, either Jesus was a colossal failure or He had accomplished it — somewhere. The only places I knew that made that claim were the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. It certainly could not be in Protestantism, where there are divergent opinions on any given issue. How could I trust Protestants? How could I trust Calvin?
Coming into the Catholic Church, I chose St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, as my patron, since he was Calvin’s nemesis in Geneva. He had been banished by Calvin under pain of death, though he also many times invited Calvin to debate. It seemed odd to me that Calvin refused to consider Francis’ rhetorical and logical prowess. While De Sales was no orator or rhetorician, he was a persuasive writer. He used his skills and stuffed the doors of Genevans with his pamphlets.
De Sales saw over 70,000 Calvinists return to the Catholic Church during his ministry. He wrote a personal account of the Reformation, called The Catholic Controversy. In the opening pages, he spoke of the mission of the disciples of Jesus, under authority, bringing the Gospel to the world. He asks a simple question that infuriated me: Who sent Luther? What bishop sent Calvin? How did they discern their vocation, whose fruit was the fracturing of the Church and scandal among the faithful? How does one evaluate the Reformers’ messages, which they were spreading all over Europe?
Cardinal Newman’s axiom, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” was ringing true in my life. My wife and I both studied the early papacy, asking the question, “Why Rome and not Jerusalem?” I had been taught in seminary that Rome’s appeal to history was questionable and had no solid foundation in the early Church. However, to see the historical development of the papacy, its scriptural foundation, and its service as a unifying role in the Church of the first millennium was gut-wrenching. A very helpful text was The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon in 451 by Fr. Adrian Fortescue, D.D.
It was acknowledged by St. Ignatius of Antioch, a student of the Apostle John, in his prologue to To the Romans, that the Church at Rome “presides in charity” over all other churches. The connection of the papacy to St. Peter was acknowledged by both Eastern and Western bishops at the Council of Chalcedon (ad 451).
I had been taught that one of the reasons the Eastern churches split away was the Pope “overstepping his bounds.” Yet here they were enthusiastically agreeing with him. The ministry of Pope St. Leo the Great at Chalcedon was proof enough for me that this assertion was false.
Running Toward Rome
I had always been fascinated with the development of the canon of Scripture, and it never occurred to me that if I trusted the Lord to form the infallible Scriptures through fallible men — particularly through the Catholic Church — why could I not trust them with the other things they taught? As Frank Beckwith observed, on what objective basis did I cherry-pick the doctrines or canon of Scripture itself from the other things taught by the same Church? I had none other than my subjective reasons, which, as already seen, had changed so often. To add insult to injury, in Bible college, I was referred to the Council of Carthage for the definitive list of New Testament books, but they didn’t tell me that the same council had listed the longer Old Testament canon from the Septuagint.
I had studied biblical languages and canonical history, so Luther’s subjective decisions to “add and subtract” were never problematic; I had implicit faith in the magical canon. After all, for Presbyterians the opening chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF, 1647) made it clear:
IV. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
I never questioned it; the elect of God simply “know the canon” of Scripture by the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. I never questioned this circular reasoning, particularly the assumption in WCF (viii) that the Old Testament is to be received in Hebrew. I was told in seminary that St. Jerome contradicted St. Augustine on the canon of Scripture. The former scholar preferred the Hebrew canon, the latter the canon of the Septuagint in Greek. But the Elect must have always “known” the 66 books of the Bible were normative!
Who decided the canon? The Council of Rome in ad 381, presided by Pope Damasus I, confirmed the same 73 books translated into Latin by St. Jerome in ad 384 and reaffirmed them at the Council of Florence in 1439. This is the same canon which was handed down untouched until it was challenged by Fr. Martin Luther in the early 1500s but again reaffirmed by the Council of Trent in 1545. It was the Holy Spirit who guided the Church to affirm the canon that was to be read at Mass — just as Jesus had promised.
But to learn that Luther added the word allein (“alone”) to Romans 3:8 was troublesome. As an exegete, I understood clarification of a passage from the original language to the receptor language. But Luther purposely added to the text to clarify his understanding of how one is saved, in contrast to the hierarchical and sacramental system of the Church. Equally, in translating the New Testament into German, he initially thought James, Hebrews, and Revelation (among others) taught questionable doctrines and shouldn’t be in the canon! Just as with Luther’s removal of the seven “disputed” books in the Old Testament, these books taught doctrines believed by Christians everywhere — until this one man rejected them.
Luther’s novel theology of sola fide (faith alone) melted as I found it nowhere in the Church Fathers. My wife had always wondered about Jesus’ words of judgment against our works and how that is played out if we are given imputed righteousness by faith alone. The typical explanations did not do justice for us, considering that the outcome of the judgment is heaven or hell (see Matthew 25). The books that Luther (and with him all of Protestantism) rejected did indeed teach the contribution of our good deeds, prayers, and acts of piety toward our own salvation, as well as for the dead. It was becoming easier to believe that, when Jesus said in Matthew 12:36, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will have to give an account for every careless word they utter,” this would be accomplished in purgatory, where we would “pay the last penny” (Matthew 5:26).
Arguably, these books had no Hebrew originals and did teach doctrines believed by Catholics and Orthodox. Yet, had Calvin and Luther lived to the year 1947, they would have seen that most of the “disputed” books of the Old Testament did have Hebrew originals, as discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. My wife and I both found these facts to be quite unsettling.
The Game Changer: “God in a Box”
I had developed the habit of stopping by the local Catholic church to pray. On one occasion, I walked in and my eye caught the tabernacle lamp. I paused, and staring straight at the tabernacle, asked out loud, “Is that really you?” The answer to that question would be a game-changer. Tears began to stream down my face as my heart comprehended what my mind could not.
My wife had always thought the Catholics had it right in their interpretation of the Passover narratives in the Gospels. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” why should we think that He had to be speaking figuratively? I had come to that conclusion, too, while studying the Church Fathers, and the unconscious bias of “We don’t believe that because it’s Catholic” began to fade.
There were several events transpiring in my Presbyterian parish, and we feared it might be closing its doors. I offered to resign, which certainly would help with the parish finances. When my resignation was accepted, I was not sure where my family would worship. I had wanted to go back to teaching, and with an end in sight on my doctorate, I was looking to teach at the college and university level. I left my presbytery in July 2012, now free to look for a new teaching job. This also afforded me an opportunity to investigate the Catholic Church.
I had already sought the wisdom of several seminary professors to help me with my intellectual problems. I also sought the help of converts Scott Hahn and Fr. Dwight Longenecker, whose own stories and wisdom resonated with me on many levels. My wife and I started RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in the fall of 2012 to see for ourselves what the Catholic Church believed and taught. We would still have the freedom to walk away if we chose to. I asked my parents what they thought about the possibility of us becoming Catholic. They said that, if that is where the Holy Spirit was leading us, then go for it. They weren’t without some concerns, but they supported our decision. My in-laws however, prayed for our souls, believing us to be joining a cult.
It wasn’t more than a few weeks into RCIA that my heart longed for home. I began to find comfort in the Magisterium of the Church (the teaching authority of the bishops in communion with Rome), the faithful guardians of truth, led by the Holy Spirit in councils and visible in the papacy, to preserve the identity and unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. At the Easter Vigil of 2013, we were confirmed in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. Since then, we helped to start an independent Catholic cottage school that focuses on a classical approach to learning.
I had embraced “mere Christianity” for most of my life. However, having come home to the Catholic Church, as Fr. Dwight Longenecker observed, I have experienced more Christianity. I have enjoyed a closer walk with Christ and partaken of Him in Holy Communion — the rich heritage of the faith that conquered the pagan Roman Empire through love and truth and which birthed saints whose lives, works, and deeds have compelled me to leave everything behind and not look back.