CalvinistConversion Stories

Toward the Celestial City

By: Dr. Frank Hermann April 23, 2012 One Comment

Browsing the religion section of the local used bookstore, I caught sight of a peculiar volume, the black and red ink on the spine contrasting sharply against the drab surroundings. “Now, there’s an oxymoron!” I thought to myself as I reflected on the book’s title, which read Catholic and Christian. Intrigued by the apparent paradox, I reluctantly grasped the book from the shelf and began reading, beginning with the ornate back cover. The author was a certain Dr. Alan Schreck, a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His objective was simple—to clarify Catholic doctrine for the many Catholic and non-Catholic Christians who misunderstand it. At $4.50 the paperback seemed a bargain I couldn’t afford to ignore. Little did I know that this meager investment would pave the foundation for my journey home to the Catholic Church.

I grew up in a secular family with little concern for things spiritual. I can recall visiting church with my family on only two occasions, both times to a Unitarian congregation. We never prayed and rarely talked about God. At the age of 19, however, after reading the gospels for the first time in my life, I underwent a profound transformation and yielded my life to Jesus Christ. Our neighbor at the time, who was the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church, quickly became my mentor, teaching me literally everything I knew about theology. Noticing my passion for studying the Scriptures, Brother Lee, as we affectionately called him, encouraged me to pursue my passion on a more formal level. Within a year, I found myself enrolled as a biblical studies major at Criswell College, a conservative Southern Baptist college in Dallas, TX.

Criswell College (founded by the late W. A. Criswell, long-time pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas) was known principally for two things: its staunch defense of biblical inerrancy and its unwavering proclamation of premillenial eschatology. Although I initially subscribed to both doctrines, I soon abandoned the dispensational approach to interpreting Scripture in favor of a more reformed view, eventually becoming a committed — and, it now pains me to say, militant — Calvinist. The attraction toward reformed theology soon led me into the Theonomy movement, where I remained content for several years.

Upon graduating from college I experienced something of an existential crisis. Although I had a passion for studying the Bible and had even become licensed to preach in Southern Baptist churches, I had never felt called to be a pastor. I did, however, feel a romantic tug to be a missionary — more specifically, a Bible translator. I had enjoyed studying Greek in college and was enticed by the thought of living in an exotic culture, translating the New Testament into languages unknown to the Western world. So I began studying at the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the training arm of the Wycliffe Bible Translators.

There I learned to read and write the phonetic alphabet and to parse languages into their underlying structures. But the most important thing I learned was that God was not calling me to be a missionary. Indeed, I concluded that God was not calling me into any full-time ministry. I nonetheless retained an evangelistic spirit and a desire to spread the gospel, even if only in a lay capacity. To make a long story short, I returned to graduate school, eventually earning a master’s degree in applied English linguistics and a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition. To earn a living, I began teaching English at a local community college. Meanwhile, I remained active in my church, teaching Sunday school as well as a weekly home Bible study.

Some of my fellow parishioners had asked me to devote a class to the topic of how we got the Bible. It was a subject I had studied in college, but as I prepared for the lesson, I began to see the issue in a new light — one that was incongruent with my beliefs about Scripture and the Church.

Now, as a Protestant I never believed that the Bible had simply fallen out of the sky or that the Lord had dictated its contents to the apostles and given them explicit instructions about what to write. Like most Evangelicals, I realized that the New Testament emerged as part of an organic process in which the Holy Spirit inspired fallible men to record infallibly the spiritual and moral truths He willed mankind to know for their salvation. Yet, the full implications of this process escaped me until now, as I researched the topic in preparation for our Bible study.

Although Christians had unanimously accepted the four gospels and the Pauline epistles from a very early time, the Church Fathers remained divided for centuries over the inspiration of other texts. Even as late as the fourth century the issue of the canon still had not been resolved decisively. Among the disputed books of his day that Eusebius (ca. A.D. 264-340) lists in his Ecclesiastical History were James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, and the Revelation of John, all books that I as a Protestant took to be divinely inspired. Moreover, other books that we do not consider canonical today, such as 1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas, were held in high esteem by more than a few Church Fathers and were frequently cited in homilies. Only gradually, through tradition and a great deal of discernment, did the bishops become likeminded about the shape of the New Testament canon.

The more I pondered these historical truths, the more unsettled I felt about my own views of Scripture and the Church. By what authority, I asked, did Christians in the second and third centuries govern their lives, since they had recourse neither to the apostles nor to the Bible as we know it? Furthermore, what if the bishops erred when defining the canon of Scripture? This, I feared, was a distinct possibility, for as a Protestant I never believed in an infallible Church, only in an infallible Bible. But since a house is only as strong as the foundation upon which it is built (Mt 7:24-27), how could I place my faith — indeed, the state of my eternal soul — on a scriptural edifice that might be built on sand? In short, I realized that if the early Church was fallible, my Bible might very well be also.

It was at this time that I encountered Alan Schreck’s book Catholic and Christian. Under any other circumstances, I would have ignored the book, treating it as propaganda unworthy of my attention. Yet, on this occasion I decided to give this Professor Schreck an impartial hearing, if for no other reason than to collect ammunition that I could use to evangelize Catholics.

Although I was never one who believed that all Catholics went to hell, I did harbor a deep-seated animosity toward the Catholic Church, believing that it had, as the Lord accused the Scribes and Pharisees of doing, neglected the commandments of God for the traditions of men (Mk 7:8). Idolatry, simony, works salvation, pomp — these were all things I associated with Catholicism. I can remember on one occasion even feeling strong revulsion as I watched a procession of bishops on television, their hands folded in pious reverence while they strutted around in their little red caps, chanting Latin and pretending to be ambassadors of God. “What a joke!” I thought to myself as I mocked them from the comfort of my living room.

My anti-Catholic sentiments stemmed from a number of sources, including many reformed authors whom I admired. One author in particular was Loraine Boettner, whose infamous work Roman Catholicism became the definitive sound bite for the emerging field of anti-Catholic apologetics. Another influence, of all things, was a comic book — namely, Jack Chick’s Alberto series. Chronicling the life of Alberto Rivera, an alleged Jesuit priest turned Fundamentalist, these captivating comics portray a massive conspiracy in which the Vatican, in an effort to obtain global dominance, secretly orchestrates the events of history, including the advent of Islam, communism, and the Mafia. Now, I was only nineteen years old at the time and a brand new Christian. And although I never believed half of what I read in these comic books, they did, I am convinced, exert an influence on me, contributing in some small way to my indoctrination against Catholicism.

It was with this mindset that I approached Catholic and Christian. Naturally, I was skeptical and not a little defensive. The author’s conciliatory tone, however, quickly disarmed me so that I began to read the book out of a genuine sense of curiosity. I had read books by Protestant authors about Catholicism, but this was actually the first book by a Catholic I had ever read.

Although I found myself disagreeing with the author quite often, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Catholics and Protestants were not as far apart on certain issues as I had thought. One issue of importance to me was justification. As a reformed Evangelical, I was a staunch proponent of sola fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Catholicism, I believed, was a religion of works, one in which man tried to ascend into heaven through his own merits, by pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, so to speak. In true religion God seeks man; but in Catholicism I perceived just the opposite — a religion in which man seeks God. My mantra was Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not because of works, lest any man should boast.” In my mind, Catholicism was hopelessly irreconcilable with this creed.

By referring to the Council of Trent’s “Decree on Justification,” however, Professor Schreck explained that although the Catholic Church insists on the necessity of good works as a fruit of justification, it indeed teaches that salvation occurs solely through God’s grace and that even our faith and good works are gifts of God that cannot be earned. This new understanding of the Catholic doctrine of justification sat well with me, for the Calvinist in me obstinately refused to consider any theology in which man makes the first move. Man, every Calvinist believes, is totally depraved as a result of original sin, and in an unregenerate state has no more desire to be saved than a plate of broccoli can have a desire to be eaten. Catholic theology, I realized, also recognizes this inability of man to reach out to God, thus stressing the need for Christ’s crucifixion and the grace of justification that flows freely from it.

Throughout its pages, Catholic and Christian addressed a number of other Catholic beliefs (for example, prayer to the dead, baptismal regeneration, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist) that I found difficult to accept, believing them to be superstitions introduced relatively late in the life of the Church. The author, however, provided copious citations from the Church Fathers to show how these doctrines were celebrated among early Christians. Now, being a Reformed Baptist, I had an immense respect for the opinions of the early Fathers. Their proximity to the apostles and their zealous devotion to Christ, even to the point of martyrdom, gave them a certain credence and authority in my mind. After all, in my thinking, they lived in an age of pristine Christianity, an age when the words of the apostles were still ringing in their ears. I had been indoctrinated to believe that the Church had remained relatively untarnished until the fourth century, when Constantine corrupted it with the mass baptism of his pagan army. But the ante-Nicene Fathers lived before that time — my reasoning continued — so their beliefs could be viewed as a faithful reflection of the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.

Knowing how easy it is to quote someone out of context (especially someone who has been dead for almost two thousand years), I suspected that Professor Schreck might be playing fast and loose with the words of the early Fathers. So I decided to do some fact checking: I purchased the 10-volume set Ante-Nicene Fathers and began to peruse it zealously, beginning with page one. For the next six months, I spent practically every spare moment reading or ruminating on the words of the early Fathers. By the time I finished, my view of the early Church had changed considerably.

As a Protestant, I had believed that the sacraments (“ordinances” as they are generally called in Baptist circles) are mere symbols with no objective efficacy. Baptism, I believed, was simply an outward sign of an inward reality: death to sin and a new life in Christ. The Lord’s Supper was likewise just a symbol to me, a memorial of Christ’s broken Body — nothing more, nothing less. While reading the Fathers, however, I was confronted with a radically different perception of the so-called ordinances — a sacramental one, a very sacramental one.

I can remember the first time I read St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans. The hair on my neck stood at attention as I heard him say, “They [the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins” (7:1). Here, after all, was a man who was bishop of one of the largest and most prestigious sees in the primitive Church and who, according to early tradition, was a disciple of St. John the Apostle. And this man was in no uncertain terms professing faith in the corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Another text that caught me off guard is in the First Apology of Justin. Describing the baptismal liturgy at the Church of Rome, St. Justin Martyr (ca. 150 A.D.) remarks:

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. They are then brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. (LXI)

I had been taught that baptismal regeneration was heresy, “works salvation.” Yet, here in the writings of St. Justin was unmistakable evidence that the doctrine existed at least as far back as the mid second century, scarcely over fifty years after St. John the Apostle had died. Could heresy of this magnitude have crept into the Church undetected in such a short period of time? I had a hard time believing so. False doctrines have competed with the gospel from the very beginning. But from the very beginning the Church has combated them indefatigably, one after another. Gnosticism, Arianism, Sabellianism — these and other heresies were combated routinely by leaders of the primitive Church. Nowhere, however, is there any record of the Church denouncing the ideas of baptismal regeneration and the real Presence. The most reasonable conclusion I could draw was that the Church did not attack these ideas because she believed them herself and propagated them in her life and liturgy.

Like Saul of Tarsus, however, I was still kicking against the goads, and was resolved not to go down without a fight. Even though by this time I was under enormous conviction from the Holy Spirit, there were still a number of doctrinal issues and liturgical practices in the Catholic Church that rubbed me the wrong way. Twelve years of Protestant indoctrination does not wane easily, and my stubbornness only compounded matters, making it all the more difficult for me to embrace the Catholic Faith. The veneration of Mary, the use of images in worship, and the infallibility of the pope were a few of the doctrines that proved to be major stumbling blocks to me.

I knew I could not in good conscience remain in my current denomination—my study of the early Fathers had convinced me of that — yet I did not want to become Catholic. So I began exploring alternatives. I started visiting Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches in an effort to unite myself to a body of believers that was sacramental and that, most importantly, could trace its origins to the apostles.

After attending an Anglican mass one Sunday, I spoke to the priest and explained my dilemma to him, saying that I was thinking about becoming Anglican. His words were not very encouraging, for he confided in me that he himself was feeling disillusioned with the direction his church was moving regarding the ordination of women and gay bishops; and he told me bluntly how he admired the Catholics and the Orthodox for standing firm on these issues. That was the last time I visited an Anglican church.

My options had become narrower. Indeed, I really had only two options — Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Moreover, as I weighed these choices, I realized that the deciding factor would boil down to a single issue: papal authority. Both churches shared the same rich liturgical and sacramental life; both professed faith in the ancient creeds; both, I was convinced, possessed valid holy orders; but only one could possess the fullness of truth.

I revisited the Fathers more closely to determine their take on the issue. Although the tragic rift of 1054 had not yet occurred, the early Church did experience more than a few controversies and schisms that required intervention, and more often than not it was the bishop of Rome to whom the universal Church looked to resolve such matters.

The first recorded instance in which the bishop of Rome was invoked to resolve a controversy occurred in approximately 90 A.D. (perhaps earlier), when St. Clement wrote to the Church of Corinth, warning a group of trouble-makers there with these stern words:

Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves, we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us [emphasis mine]; and especially to that shameful and detestable sedition, utterly abhorrent to the elect of God, which a few rash and self-confident persons have kindled to such a pitch of frenzy, that your venerable and illustrious name, worthy to be universally loved, has suffered grievous injury….Receive our counsel, and you shall be without repentance….If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger….”

Clement is obviously exercising authority here, but why? Some authors, attempting to deny any papal jurisdiction outside of Rome, maintain that Clement was merely sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. The text, however, makes clear that he had been consulted about the matter, that the Church at Corinth had sought his counsel. Others maintain that Clement’s counsel was merely that of a fellow bishop doing his part to mediate a crisis in a neighboring see. Again, though, the tenor of the passage makes such an interpretation unlikely. Clement speaks with confident authority that he is declaring the will of God to the Corinthians. He does not speak with the voice of one merely trying to mediate a neighborly dispute.

The annals of history repeatedly show similar events: a heresy or a schism arises, and the Church looks to the bishop of Rome to resolve the matter, imploring him to convene an ecumenical council if necessary. It became apparent to me that even before the papacy evolved to its later form, the bishop of Rome possessed a unique charism as the successor of Peter. Furthermore, if all this were not enough, one could not ask for a clearer affirmation of papal authority than the one St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, provides in his oft-cited Against Heresies:

But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree [emphasis mine], that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition. (3:3:2)

Needless to say, I knew by now what I needed to do. Yet, I continued to drag my feet, praying that God would provide me with light or a sign or something to help me make my decision. That “something,” I believe, came one day as I was eating dinner.

There was in my neighborhood a fast-food restaurant I used to frequent named Popeyes, which served Cajun-style chicken and biscuits. I had eaten there many times, but on this one occasion as I ate my meal from the privacy of my dining room, my eyes caught glimpse of the bag from which I had taken the food, and there shouting clearly at me in capital, red letters was not one word — POPEYES — which I had seen countless times, but two: POPE•YES! Blinking hard and shaking my head in bewilderment, I looked at the bag a second time, which now read POPEYES again. I sat there in a state of paralysis for several minutes as I asked myself what had just happened. To this day, I don’t know whether it was the Holy Spirit who was giving me a sign, or whether it was my own subconscious mind trying to impose order on randomness. What I do know is that the event shook me out of my complacency.

Within a month I was attending weekly catechetical meetings with a local parish priest to learn as much as I could about the Catholic Faith. Although this was not the typical means by which a convert is initiated into the Church, the priest made an exception for me since I already had theological training and since the next RCIA class was not scheduled to begin for six months. Finally, on Pentecost Sunday, 1996, the moment arrived that I had been eagerly awaiting for the past several months: my first communion. I had eaten crackers and sipped grape juice from church pews many times before under the pretense that I was celebrating the Lord’s Supper. This time, however, I wasn’t just eating Saltines. I was receiving the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. I had joined together mystically not only to Christ, but to His body as well—to the see of Peter and to all the saints who have communed with God throughout the ages. It felt good.

As St. Augustine did over sixteen centuries ago, I have embarked on a journey toward the City of God, a celestial city where, in Augustine’s words, God “shall be the end of our desires who shall be seen without end, loved without cloy, praised without weariness.” (City of God book 22, chapter 30) And although I see many roads pointing to that celestial city, the only one I trust to lead me home is the one that takes me first to Rome.

  • Nuttyb

    A Catholic convert of two years, I sympathize with your realization that Scripture alone turns out to be a perpetually-dissolving foundation.  It needed the external authority of religious leaders to determine its very existence, and it needs the external authority of the Church today to define its doctrine.  After several years in higher education, I found I was no longer able to depend on any religious position except the solid rock of the Church—I had no other way to combat the deconstructionist theories at work in academia.  My brother, who is not (yet) Catholic, but is doing translation work for Wycliffe, stumbled upon this same dilemma. 

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