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Delving Deep Into History

Jim Anderson
January 11, 2011 One Comment

The Spirit of God first entered my life on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, when, at the age of three months, I was baptized at the Evangelical United Brethren Church in Union Furnace, Ohio.

Reared in Ohio, in a nominally Evangelical United Brethren (later United Methodist) family, I grew up in an environment where neither parent attended church. I was one of those kids who would be dropped off for Sunday school. Afterwards, a neighbor usually would bring me home. The greatest influence on my early faith development was my Grandmother Anderson, one of the few churchgoers in the immediate family.

Since I grew up Protestant, Catholicism was not a factor in my life. We did have one neighbor family that was Catholic. The husband would brag about going to Confession before a party to confess any sins he might later commit while having a good time.

“You never know,” he would say, “what the traffic might be like on the way home.”

Our neighbor might have been joking, but how were we to know? We certainly knew he was telling the truth about the parties! I was repulsed by the (mistaken) conclusion that “pre-sin confession” was an accepted Catholic practice.

These warped notions of Catholic doctrine were reinforced when I attended catechism classes in preparation for confirmation in the E.U.B. Church. The pastor’s wife, while teaching us about different Christian denominations, gave the following definition: “Catholics are Christianized pagans who worship statues of Mary.”

A basic exposure to the Holy Scriptures at Sunday school enabled my faith in Christ to begin to mature, but only to a point. I understood Jesus as my heavenly best friend. What it really meant for Christ to be my Savior and Lord was obscure.

I wanted to be close to God, but I didn’t know how. Every time I watched a Billy Graham crusade on television, I would accept Jesus into my heart again. I knew that the journey began with accepting Jesus, but where was I to go from there?

In the fall of 1973, I enrolled as a freshman at Ohio University in Athens. While taking a course in Western civilization that autumn, an uneasy realization began to grow: The denomination of my childhood lacked any real historic roots.

Christian history, I learned, reached back almost two thousand years. My Methodist heritage was barely two hundred years old. In our Sunday school classes, we discussed only what God had done in the first century. Sometimes there was a comment about His actions in our own church in the last couple of centuries, but even that was rare.

Could it be that the Lord had taken a vacation for sixteen centuries? Of course, such a belief was never voiced by the people. It was just a living, working assumption that we had never questioned — but now I was!

I didn’t like the uneasy, precarious feelings these questions produced in me. I was uneasy because I could think of no answer that satisfactorily answered my inquiries. At this time, it was only a faint uncertainty, forming a crack in the wall of my Protestant worldview. Yet little did I know that this uncomfortable feeling would be the beginning of eight years of growing questions and surprising answers.

Sojourn Among the Lutherans

The next major step in my spiritual journey was a sojourn among the Lutherans. My introduction to Lutheranism came through my best friend, Brian, who invited me to his church on Easter Sunday, 1974. It was here that I first experienced the majesty of the Lord in liturgical worship.

Since up to that time I had attended only Methodist Sunday school, the beauty of liturgical worship came as a very pleasant and unexpected surprise. Sitting in the back pew, I began to wonder whether the pastor had failed to show up. The music had begun, the people were standing and singing, but there was no one up front in the sanctuary. “Where could he be?” I thought.

Then I heard singing coming from behind me, and in processed the crucifer, the junior choir, and the senior choir, followed by the pastor. So that’s where he was! The Easter liturgy that followed awed me.

Methodist Sunday school had taught me that Jesus is my Savior and best friend. This Lutheran liturgy was teaching me the beauty and majesty of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is not only Savior and Friend, but also the Lord and King of the universe! The Lutheran liturgy began my training in what it means to worship.

While receiving instruction from Pastor Lueck in Luther’s Small Catechism, I remember telling him that I wanted to belong to a church with a heritage and roots deep in history. I told him that my only other option was Catholicism, but because of their idolatry they could not even be considered. So the Lutherans were my only choice. I became a member of St. Matthew Lutheran Church (a member of the former American Lutheran Church), in Logan, Ohio, on the first Sunday of Advent, December 1, 1974, which was also Communion Sunday.

As a Lutheran, I was learning much about God, Jesus, and the Bible. The Lord, however, had still more in store for me. Upon returning to Ohio University in the autumn of 1975, I saw a course on “Basic Christianity” advertised in OU’s student newspaper. This course turned out to be a watershed event in my life.

I discovered that there existed on campus a dynamic ecumenical student faith community called River of Life Ministries, which accepted me with open arms. River of Life had risen from the ashes of a closed chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The student leaders were an interesting ecumenical combination of Methodists, a Messianic Jew, an Episcopalian, a Lutheran, and a Baptist.

Even though River of Life was sponsored by Central Avenue United Methodist Church, the group met in the basement of Christ Lutheran Church every Friday night for prayer, teaching, and fellowship. I figured that if they met in the Lutheran church, they must not be too far off base. It was at Friday night fellowship that I was able to deepen my understanding of prayer, Bible study, and fellowship with other Christians.

Having been branded a geek in high school, I had never experienced unconditional acceptance and love from people my own age. I was taken aback at being immediately welcomed as a brother in the Lord by the people of this fellowship group. I basked in the love Jesus was giving me through my newfound friends. All my lasting relationships from college have been with people who attended this fellowship.

Getting to Know Catholics

I must confess that I did have a problem with a few of the students who attended Friday night fellowship. Several of them were Catholics. How could that be? My misconceptions of Catholics had not altered greatly over the years.

Some of these Catholic students invited me to a prayer group that met at Christ the King Catholic Student Center. There I was amazed to find a large number of Catholic Christians, and the only statue of Mary was kept in the back corner of the church.

“Maybe they don’t worship her after all,” I thought. At least these Catholics didn’t. I soon learned that theirs was a faith based squarely upon Jesus Christ and the apostolic teaching of His Church, enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

At the end of fall quarter, I was invited to attend my first Catholic Mass. I was aghast! The liturgy was very familiar to me, but there was a major problem.

I could not shake the Elizabethan English of the Lutheran liturgy of that time. The Mass was in contemporary English. I had thought I was the one who belonged to the reformed and up-to-date church. Now, the Catholic Church seemed more reformed than my own Lutheran church!

Thanks to a well-stocked book table at Friday night fellowship, I began to be exposed to many Christian authors. The one who would have the most lasting effect on my spiritual life was C. S. Lewis. His books were influential in the maturing process of my theology, giving it a solid basis in logic as well as Scripture.

My very first book by Lewis was The Screwtape Letters. I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I sat up all night, finishing it in one sitting!

Next on my reading list came Mere Christianity. I discovered that a reasoned defense of the Faith could be made with lucidity. Christianity was true, and truth could be demonstrated through logic. Yes, we need to have faith, but our leap of faith need not be a leap into the dark.

Lewis answered for me the controversy of faith and works. His analogy of faith and works acting in a person’s life as two blades of a pair of scissors made sense to me.

The Great Divorce, another work by C. S. Lewis, was instrumental in clarifying another Catholic teaching, purgatory. In this wonderful little book, I discovered that the concept of purgatory made perfect sense in light of the just mercy of God.

Of course, Lewis’ representation of purgatory in the book does not correspond to what the Catholic Church teaches on the subject. He warns that it is only a story, not systematic theology. Yet it still opened me to the possibility of the truth of the doctrine.

Meeting the Church FathersSaint Dominic Fra Angelico

In the winter of 1977, a course was offered at the university on the history of early Christianity. Thanks to this course, I was introduced to the early Church Fathers. The class sparked a deep desire to learn everything I could about early Church history and patristic theology.

Going to a local Christian bookstore, I asked if they had any copies of the Fathers. The clerk there didn’t know what I was talking about. After some searching in publishers’ catalogs, I found I could order copies of texts by the Ante-Nicene Fathers.  Thanks to the early Christian writers of the first and second centuries, such as St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr, and St. Irenaeus, I learned that many of the doctrines I had always discounted as Catholic, and thus rejected, were in fact taught by the Church of that age.

For example, I had always accepted without question the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), which claims that the Bible is the only source of authority and revelation in the Church. When I read the early Fathers, however, I discovered they taught that the Church was based not on the Bible alone but on Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the apostolic teaching authority of the bishops (the Magisterium). I discovered statements such as this one written around A.D. 185 by St. Irenaeus, a student of St. Polycarp, who in turn was a pupil of the Apostle John as well as a friend of St. Ignatius of Antioch:

The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the Tradition is one and the same. …

The true gnosis [knowledge] is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of bishops, by which successions the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere; and the very complete Tradition of the Scriptures, which have come down to us by being guarded against falsification … . (Against Heresies, 1, 10, 2, 4, 33, 8 )

I also discovered that nowhere does the Bible teach that the Scriptures are the sole rule of faith for the Christian. I deduced that if such a teaching was not in the Bible and the Church Fathers taught otherwise, then sola Scriptura must be a tradition of man and not a doctrine of God.

The Need for Apostolic Authority

As a Lutheran, I had been taught that the priesthood of all believers negated any need for a ministerial priesthood. But I found that, while not denying St. Peter’s teaching that all Christians are members of a “royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2:9), the Fathers also insisted on the necessity of apostolic authority in the Church.

For example, St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome, wrote to the Corinthian church about the year A.D. 80: “Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (1 Clement 44:1–2).

Clement was teaching the doctrine of apostolic succession! St. Ignatius of Antioch also wrote on this subject:

You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery [that is, the council of priests] as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (Smyrneans 8:1–2)

Again, St. Irenaeus wrote:

It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times. … But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions 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. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition. (Against Heresies, 3, 3, 1–2)

The Eucharist

Concerning the Eucharist, St. Ignatius’ letter to the church in Smyrna recorded: “They [the heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again” (Smyrneans 7:1).

This letter, written in the summer of A.D. 107, was penned by a man who had been ordained by St. Peter and was an acquaintance and student of St. John. And it teaches that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ — not that it merely symbolizes Him (as the Methodists teach) or contains Him (as the Lutherans teach).

St. Justin Martyr, writing about A.D. 150, confirmed this reality:

For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus. (First Apology, 66)

How could these early Fathers have written such things? These writings were so very Catholic! After all, the Protestant faith was supposed to be a restoration of the pure, uncorrupted Christianity of the first centuries.

I could not ignore the fact that Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit to His Church and to protect it: “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you to all the truth” (Jn 16:13). “I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).

I figured, then, that I was forced to one of two conclusions. On the one hand, I could conclude that Jesus didn’t or couldn’t live up to His promises, and that the Church was corrupted almost immediately after the last Apostle died.

On the other hand, I could conclude that the Catholic teaching I was discovering, in the writings of the Fathers, was a valid development of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit exactly as Jesus had promised. If these teachings were true, they demanded my acceptance in submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

I was discovering, then, that if the Protestant position is true, Jesus must have failed to fulfill His promises. An impossibility!

Loss of Faith Among Protestant Leaders

During the time I was coming to terms with the Church Fathers, I was also becoming increasingly alarmed at an accelerated abandonment of Christian truth by Protestant leaders I knew. The local Episcopal priest, for example, denied both Christ’s deity and resurrection.

I heard a sermon by a philosophy professor in my Lutheran parish who declared that belief in the resurrection is only pious insurance. He stated that the concept of the resurrection was an accretion from the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, adopted by the Jews during the Babylonian captivity. It is not, he insisted, an essential element of the Christian faith. During the sermon, the pastor sat beaming his approval.

My friend John, who was attending a Methodist seminary at that time, had encountered a similar lack of faith in church leaders he knew. He complained to me that of his theology professors, only a third accepted the deity of Christ, only a quarter believed in His bodily resurrection, and only one, a Catholic priest, subscribed to Jesus’ virgin birth.

I felt extremely anxious being under the authority of a Protestant bishop who didn’t believe. Although I knew there were many faithful Protestants in the pews, I found that their leaders were rapidly abandoning Christianity. In the Catholic Church, however, I saw the hierarchy holding firm to the truth of the faith of Christ and the Apostles.

I was painfully aware, of course, that there are many flaky Catholics who hold to a lot of off-the-wall ideas. But I knew that if I became a Catholic, I would be submitting to the authority of the pope and bishops, whom I saw as powerfully faithful — not to the trendy priests, nuns, and laity.

While reading Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue, the official documents of the Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical dialogues, I became even more disenchanted with Lutheranism. I kept finding myself on the Catholic side in the conversations. Often the Lutherans would say that they agreed with the Catholic teaching but were uncomfortable with the terminology because they believed it had been misused five hundred years ago.

All in all, I was having increasing discomfort in remaining a Lutheran.

New Convictions Developing

By December 8, 1978, my convictions had developed to the point that I could write in my journal:

In the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist Christ, true God and true man, is present wholly and entirely, in His Body and Blood, under the signs of bread and wine. The presence of Christ does not come about through the faith of the believers, nor through human power, but the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word. … The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of the Church. In it, the Church makes its sacrifice of praise to the Father. At the Eucharist, Christ is re-presented to His Church, and the act of the Cross is brought to the present. … Since the Roman Catholic Church has the longest history, with its roots in the Apostles, and all other Christian denominations have their final origin in it, total unity will not come until all are in full communion with it.

Clearly, the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist had by this time become my own.

The last doctrinal difficulty for me to overcome was Mary. I had no problem accepting her perpetual virginity; I could see how that truth could be deduced from the Gospels. Nor did I have any problem with asking her to pray for us.

My problem was centered on the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. I just couldn’t understand the need for these doctrines.

Then it dawned on me: I was being inconsistent. Long before, I had come to believe that the Holy Spirit had given the Church the gift of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. I accepted the infallibility of the teaching authority of the pope.

If I accepted the Church’s authority, I also must trust God’s guidance in all that she teaches. St. Augustine said that faith comes first and then understanding. So I submitted my prideful intellect, and in time God did grant me the gift of understanding.

In July, 1979, I was privileged to spend a month in Europe. I was overjoyed at the possibility of visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the church of the newly elected Pope John Paul II, the white knight of orthodoxy. When I knelt to pray in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, I felt that this was home.

I was in the presence of my Lord in the Church of His vicar on earth! I belonged here. But why did I remain outside my Father’s house?

I considered myself Catholic, but I had not yet built up the courage actually to convert because I knew my family would be scandalized. I also was hesitant to approach a priest to tell him I wanted to become a Catholic. The priests I had met had an extremely distant aura about them. They seemed unapproachable to me. So I put off what I knew I had to do if I was to be faithful to the will of God for my life.

Home at Last

I entered Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio, in the fall of 1980. My reason for picking Ashland Seminary was that, though it was run by an evangelical Anabaptist denomination, the Brethren Church, it was actually the most ecumenical seminary in Ohio. More than fifty-five denominations were represented in the student body, every group from Quakers to Greek Orthodox.

I was interested in being involved in ecumenical dialogue to further Church unity. The Christian cross-section at Ashland would be good preparation for me.

At seminary, I at last came to the conclusion that I had no choice but to join the Catholic Church. Looking at my many and varied fellow students, I realized that Protestantism was like so many boats adrift on the sea without oars or rudders, each claiming theirs to be the only vessel on the proper course.

When I returned to Ashland for the summer, I finally told my Catholic friends Andy and Karen that I had to talk to the priest about joining the Church. I met with the pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church during June and July. The big day finally came on July 25, 1981, the Feast of St. James.

I made my profession of faith in Jesus Christ and His Catholic Church. Then I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. Immediately after my confirmation, I received the body, blood, soul, and divinity of my Lord Jesus Christ for the very first time as a full member of His Mystical Body, the Catholic Church.

I had arrived home in the Church, but the journey of grace continued. The Lord Jesus had more surprises in store. I continued my studies in Church history at Ashland Seminary. During my senior year, I met Lynn, a Baptist girl from West Virginia, who would soon be my lovely wife. Within a year, she would become the second Protestant student to become Catholic while attending Ashland Theological Seminary … but that’s another story.

Jim Anderson

Jim Anderson is Director of Pastoral Care for The Coming Home Network International, with the primary responsibility of assisting non-Catholic clergy on their journeys home to the Catholic Church. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

This story appears in the book Journeys Home, edited by Marcus Grodi (CHResources, rev. ed., 2011). To order the book, click here.

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