My Early Life
I grew up in an Evangelical household. We were not tied to any particular denomination. Due to my father’s work, we moved around the country a lot, and we were members of several different types of churches — Baptist, Evangelical Free, Independent — but all basically “evangelical” in nature.
I had no particular interest in Christianity as a child. When I was in third grade, my parents took me to a Lowell Lundstrom crusade (an evangelistic ministry), where they encouraged me to see if I was ready to “ask Jesus into my heart.” I remember that I enjoyed the crusade (unusual for me at that age), and I decided to go ahead and say the sinner’s prayer and be pronounced a Christian. Soon, however, life returned to its former state.
It wasn’t until my seventh grade year (1990– 1991) that I again began to experience any interest in religion. Around that time I read the Chronicles of Narnia, which impressed me. I also got a computer game for my birthday, Conquests of Camelot. It featured the player as King Arthur, as he looks for the Holy Grail. I had already developed an interest in Arthurian stories and the Middle Ages in general. In that game, King Arthur travels to the Middle East and eventually to Jerusalem to seek the Grail. The game is set in AD 800, so the Middle East is Muslim-dominated. Thus I encountered, for the first time, Middle Eastern culture. At that time, the Gulf War broke out in Iraq and Kuwait, and it dawned on me that this was the same region of the world that my game was dealing with. I began to read everything I could find on the Middle East. Just a few months later, at Easter time, The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston, played on television, and I realized that the setting of the stories in the Bible was also the Middle East. This got me interested in reading about the Bible.
Around this time, I began to have some concern for my spiritual well-being. I remember, for instance, praying the “Sinner’s Prayer” repeatedly. Obviously, God was working in my mind, my heart, and my circumstances in some very interesting, if disparate, ways during this time period, moving me into a more conscious awareness and practice of Christianity and a relationship with God. But I felt self-conscious about it all, so I didn’t mention it to anybody.
I determined to live consciously as a Christian. My Christianity was idiosyncratic at first, while I was forming a concept of orthodoxy. In the eighth grade, I decided to read through the Bible. I started in Genesis and read through the whole thing like a novel. Without my knowing it, the Bible version I used was Catholic, the Jerusalem Bible. I chose it because my father had a copy of it lying around. I was still very self-conscious about my new “religiosity,” so I used to hide religious books under my bed. (Just what every parent of a teenage boy is worried about, right?)
Eventually, I told my father that I was reading through the Bible. He asked me what book I was in, and I said, “1 Maccabees,” which surprised him. I had no idea of the differences between Catholic and Protestant Bibles. When I got to Paul’s letters, I didn’t like him very much; I considered him arrogant.
Then Judaism captured my fancy, and I began to go regularly to a local Reformed Jewish synagogue. The congregation consisted of a small number of mostly elderly men and women, and they were delighted to have a young, non-Jewish teenage boy so interested in what they were doing. In tenth grade, I began to study Hebrew with the pastor of our church. With that, the Jewish congregation, which was too small to have its own rabbi, allowed me to join the circle of those who led the services each week. So I began leading services once every month or so.
When I was in eighth grade, I began reading the works of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer; the latter was a popular Evangelical philosopher and evangelist in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Both of these authors have a strong intellectual and philosophical bent, and they had the effect of introducing me to theology, philosophy, and apologetics, as well as grounding me more solidly in orthodox Christianity. From this point on, my theology was less all-over-the-map and became aligned with historic Christian orthodoxy. C.S. Lewis also influenced the form my Christianity took. His emphasis on the unified vision of all Christians, in what he called “mere Christianity,” gave me a strong interest in historic, orthodox, creedal faith, as it was manifested in all orthodox denominations (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox). I developed an intense dislike of “denominationalism.” If anyone asked me what denomination I was a part of, I would indignantly reply that I was a Christian! I remember once, when we were visiting a mosque, my grandmother introduced us all as Protestants, I told her later that I didn’t like that identification, since I wasn’t protesting anything.
It was during this time that I had my first real contact with Catholicism. I encountered the music of Catholic musician John Michael Talbot and got into it. I also started reading a bit of Catholic literature. My best friend’s mother married a Catholic around this time, and my friend himself went through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program to become Catholic.
I thought I might do the same. I went with my friend to one of the classes, but only one. I wasn’t interested in the Catholic Church at that time because I was convinced of the particular doctrines or positions of Catholicism, but more because I saw that, historically, the Protestant churches had come out of the Catholic Church. My interest in Church unity led me to want to undo those divisions. I stayed Protestant because I was already a member of the Christian Church — I considered the Church of Christ to be the collection of all “mere Christians” throughout the world, whatever denominations they were in — and I saw no point in switching from one church to another within the broader Christian Church.
During these years, I also developed an interest in St. Francis of Assisi and read a lot about him. I had picked up a booklet from the Knights of Columbus at the local state fair. It had a famous prayer attributed to St. Francis in it (“Make me an instrument of your peace,” etc.), which I liked.
In those days, I would defend Catholics when people challenged whether they were truly Christians. In the summer of 1995, my parents moved to Utah. Since I was in the high school and youth group where we were in Columbia, Missouri, they gave me the option of either moving with them or staying where I was. They were going to rent the house out to some friends who were moving to Columbia. I decided to stay, so my parents moved to Utah and I stayed in Missouri. The father of the family that rented the house was a conservative Protestant, and he didn’t like Catholicism. I would defend Catholicism to him, and at one point he wrote a letter to my parents, expressing his concern that I was getting too close to Catholicism. I think my parents were more amused than anything.
The Calvinist Days
In 1996, I went to Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, which is a well-known Evangelical liberal arts school. My big theological transition during this time was that I became a Calvinist. I’m using “Calvinist” here in the Evangelical sense of the word, referring to a person who has come to be convinced of what Calvinists call the “doctrines of grace” — which basically amount to a strong insistence on the absolute sovereignty of God over all things, including over salvation and damnation, as well as on the utter graciousness of salvation. If Bob ends up saved and Sally ends up damned, such a difference cannot fall outside the oversight of God’s providence, who fulfills His plans in every aspect of history. And why did Bob choose Christ while Sally didn’t? Surely not because Bob was a naturally better person. It must be because God led him to salvation by His grace. God made the difference between Bob and Sally ultimately. I very much hated Calvinism when I first encountered it. I was leaning rather towards a universalism in which everyone would be saved. Calvinism, though, kept nagging at me. Eventually, during Christmas break of my freshman year (January of 1997), I accepted the Calvinist point of view. I started dating my future wife, Dez, shortly after this time, and I eventually helped convert her to Calvinism as well. We were married in December of 1998.
Becoming Calvinists gave us a natural impulse towards the Reformed tradition, and so when we graduated from college and moved out to Salt Lake City, Utah, in the summer of 2000, we became members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), a small, conservative Reformed denomination. We continued as members there for the next fourteen years. Six of our nine children were baptized there. Over our time there, we became more and more Reformed in our thought and practice. In 2005, I became a ruling elder in the church, and I continued in that role for seven years. In addition to helping to govern the church, I preached sermons on many occasions, usually when our pastor was out of town.
Over those years, my idea of the church as nothing more than an amorphous collection of “mere Christians” was shaped into a view that took seriously the formal dimensions of the visible church as well: the authority of elders, formal membership, the importance of the sacraments, etc. I gained a greater sense of the seriousness of worshiping God according to His will and an appreciation for the importance of church tradition in addition to Scripture. Of course, I believed in the classic Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura during this time — that the Bible is the only infallible guide to doctrine and life, and there is no infallible tradition or infallible church to interpret Scripture — but I also came to see how Christian theology and life need to be embodied in a visible church and a visible tradition, with formal creeds and catechisms, rules of order, a sense of its own history, etc. I highly prized the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as immensely helpful summaries and systematizations of biblical teaching.
During this time, there were curious aspects of my thinking that were very “Catholic” or at least “Catholic-friendly,” the significance of which I would only later fully realize. One of the greatest examples of this was my doctrine of justification. In the year 2001, early in our OPC days, I came to the conclusion that I disagreed with the Protestant doctrine of justification. I decided I agreed with what I called the “Augustinian” doctrine of justification instead, which is basically the Catholic point of view. I had no interest in Catholicism during this time; I remained a strong and proud Calvinist. But I felt that the Protestants had gone astray on this point, and that the earlier Catholic Augustinian tradition had gotten it right. A couple of years later, I discovered I was able to interpret the Protestant position in such a way as to avoid conflict with the Augustinian view, so that resolved my dilemma, but I never did give up the Augustinian view.
The year 2012 was very important in my spiritual journey. During that year, my theological focus shifted to church unity and church government. I became very interested in tracing out the logical implications of a Presbyterian view of church government. Presbyterianism, like Catholicism, has a strong view of the unity and authority of the visible church. Each congregation is ruled by a body of elders (the “Session”), and these elders are parts of larger bodies of elders up to, in theory, a body of elders comprising all the elders on earth. Nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge put it this way: “The Presbyterian doctrine on this subject is, that the Church is one in such a sense that a smaller part is subject to a larger, and the larger to the whole.” In this system, there cannot exist more than one legitimate denomination, for the very idea of multiple denominations involves elders who don’t submit to other elders in larger governing bodies. When churches professing Presbyterianism are divided, therefore, the implication is that they reject each others’ de jure legitimacy. However, Presbyterianism is also very divided. There are many Presbyterian denominations. Presbyterians, therefore, have come to settle for a practice that does not live up to theory.
When I realized this inconsistency, I decided that, to be a consistent Presbyterian, I had an obligation to sort through the tangled mess of denominational divisions to figure out which denomination had legitimacy. I decided, for various reasons I need not go into here, that I ought to join the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (FPCS). But there is only one FPCS church in the US, and that one is in Texas. We were living in Utah. I decided, given the less-than-ideal circumstances, that I could remain with the OPC for the time being, until it was possible to join the FPCS. But since I was still a ruling elder in the OPC, I decided I needed to communicate what I was thinking to the rest of the Session. This resulted in conflict. The conflict came in stages, finally ending in the fall of 2014.
At the end of it all, the Session made its position clear. By talking and writing publicly about my views about Presbyterian church government and the FPCS (I had written several blog posts, for example), I was committing slander against the OPC by denying their de jure legitimacy. They ordered me to cease talking to anyone about these views. They also told me that if we left membership in the OPC and joined up with the FPCS in Texas, we would be removing ourselves from membership in the visible church altogether (since the church in Texas was too far away to have effective oversight over us) and would therefore have, in effect, relinquished “all rights to be considered Christians.” They said that if I didn’t agree to stop talking about these matters, I would be banned from even attending worship with them.
I didn’t feel that in good conscience I could agree to stop talking about a matter I considered important and biblical. I hadn’t spoken with anyone in our OPC congregation about my views, except for some close friends, in order to avoid any conflict. I had only written blog articles and talked mostly with people in Scotland. But I didn’t feel that I could agree not to discuss the subject at all. I also felt that we ought to continue to seek to be members of the FPCS.
So, after fourteen years, we found ourselves banned from our former church. We began going to a local PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) church, a slightly less-conservative Presbyterian denomination, in our area. We went there for six months and were received very warmly by the pastor and the members. (Also, during this time, I became very interested in reading Church history. Dez and I had begun reading through the Church Fathers. Some former members of our OPC church had become Catholic, and they were sending us Catholic literature, which I was reading.)
Into the Catholic Church
In March of 2015, our eighth child was born. We wanted to have him baptized, so I asked the elders in the Texas FPCS what steps needed to be taken to make that possible. Now, I knew that the FPCS was a very conservative denomination, but I was surprised at their response. The main elder we’d been interacting with told me that he had some problems with some of my behavior. One of those things was that I was into reading fiction, and particularly, fantasy. He suggested that this would likely be an obstacle to our ability to have our new baby baptized. This led to a crisis, because we felt that reading fiction is not a sin. On the contrary, we felt that fiction, as an expression of our creativity as human beings made in the image of God, is an important aspect of our humanity. We felt it would be not only unnecessary, but even wrong to systematically cut this out of our lives and the lives of our children. We had already come to the conclusion that the FPCS was the only right denomination to join. So what if we couldn’t even join that denomination? Would we have to start our own?If sola Scriptura is the way God intends for us to learn His will, then why has it resulted in a situation where agreement and unity in the truth ... seems to be impossible? Click To Tweet
At that point, we began to reconsider sola Scriptura. We had been trying to follow that path, but it seemed to have led to a dead end. In fact, it seemed to have led to a dead end, not just for us, but for the whole Protestant world. If sola Scriptura is the way God intends for us to learn His will, then why has it resulted in a situation where agreement and unity in the truth — which is so important, according to the Bible — seems to be impossible? I felt like a hiker trying to follow a path in the woods. The path keeps getting more and more obscure, until it finally disappears altogether. At that point, the hiker begins to wonder if he took a wrong turn at some point. That’s where we were.
We began to look at sola Scriptura very closely. Very shortly after that point, I came across a flaw in my earlier reasoning. I had been looking at things without a proper regard for history. I had taken Scripture, Church Tradition, and the Magisterium as if they were separate, independent elements that needed to be independently confirmed. I knew that the entire Christian tradition throughout history had affirmed the central importance of Scripture as a locus for knowing the will of God, so I felt sure on that point. But I didn’t feel that the idea of an infallible Tradition or an infallible Magisterium could be justified, since it seemed that Scripture could function on its own without them.The earlier Fathers did not hold to sola Scriptura. That position was embraced fully and formally by no group prior to the Reformation. Click To Tweet
But it then occurred to me that I was simply assuming, without argument, that Scripture could function independently in that way. How did I know that it could function independently? How did I know that it didn’t need to be interpreted within the context of an infallible Tradition and an infallible Magisterium? In fact, I discovered, it seems to have been the consistent position of Christians throughout Church history up until the Reformation that the three are interdependent. The earlier Fathers did not hold to sola Scriptura. That position was embraced fully and formally by no group prior to the Reformation. Certainly, it was not the view of the historical Catholic Church, from which the Protestants emerged. When I realized this, I saw that I had put the default in the wrong place. The burden of proof was not on Catholics to prove that we needed to add Tradition and Magisterium to Scripture. The burden of proof was on the Protestants to show why they were justified in wresting Scripture out of its original context, together with Tradition and the Magisterium, to be interpreted independently on its own. Once I saw that the question needed to be reframed in this way, I saw that it had no good answer. Protestants could not prove from Scripture, reason, or Church history that Scripture ought to be so torn out of its original context. The Protestant Reformation, then, was groundless. It was a needless church split, violating without cause the unity, authority, and continuity of the historic Church. My wife came to similar conclusions in her own way as we worked through all of this together.The burden of proof was on the Protestants to show why they were justified in wresting Scripture out of its original context, together with Tradition and the Magisterium, to be interpreted independently on its own. Click To Tweet
We decided to enter into a time of investigation, in which we would study Catholic teaching in depth and deal with any concerns or objections as we encountered them. This period lasted for about five-and-a-half months. Dez was able to do a lot of studying during this time, especially earlier on, since she had just had a baby and was consigned to nursing for large portions of the day. By God’s providence, I ended up having a good bit of time for research the following summer as well, so we were able to do a lot of studying and thinking. We studied issues like salvation, justification, predestination, the saints, Mary, the Eucharist, confession, penance, purgatory, indulgences, and alleged papal contradictions. In all of these things, once the question-begging sola Scriptura glasses had been removed, we could not find any solid objection to the Catholic Church.
In August of 2015, we decided to join RCIA. We had already started attending St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Orem, UT, back in March. The people of St. Francis gave us a very warm welcome and were immensely helpful and encouraging to us as we made our transition into the Church. It was not just my wife and I, but several children, who were old enough to require their own personal process of transition.
We greatly enjoyed our RCIA class. At the Easter Vigil in March of 2016, the family was received into the Catholic Church. Our eighth child, Timothy, was baptized that same night. Since then, we’ve moved a couple of times, and now live in Columbia, MO, where we are parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Church. Our children go to Catholic school. I help out with the RCIA and also sing with one of our Mass choirs. My wife is in the process of becoming a member of the Order of Secular Franciscans, (a worldwide community founded by Saint Francis of Assisi made up of women and men, married or single, who feel called to incorporate into their lives elements of Franciscan practice and spirituality).
Most of my intellectual difficulties with Catholicism were rooted in sola Scriptura. Once that bastion fell, the difficulties fell with it. For example, I used to object to talking to the saints in heaven and honoring them, because I couldn’t find reference to it in the Bible. But once I realized that it was not my job to personally derive all practices from my own individual interpretation of Scripture, this objection lost its force. It is the task of the Magisterium to derive doctrine and practice from the explicit words of Scripture as well as from what is implicit in its principles and ideas, in the context of the Tradition of the Church, the authority of Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I have no authority or competence to correct the God-guided interpretation of the Church. My greatest practical (as opposed to intellectual) difficulty has been accepting the teachings and practices of the Church related to Mary. Catholic devotion to Mary still sometimes feels like “too much” to my Protestant-trained sensibilities. I’m like a person raised in a republic, suddenly finding myself having to live in the world of a traditional monarchy, with all the ceremonies and high-sounding reverential titles that typically go along with that. I am still not entirely over the culture shock. But I recognize that those feelings reflect the natural difficulties human beings have when they cross cultures, rather than objective difficulties with Catholic practice. Despite the continuing cultural adjustments, and despite all the imperfections in the Church (a matter of human limitations), and despite the fact that becoming Catholic has not ended all the difficulties that go along with living life, I am immensely grateful to God for bringing me and my family into full communion with His people, giving us the great riches of His Church. We have the Eucharist. We have the God-guided Magisterium and Tradition. We have the visible Church, that Christ Himself founded. We have the saints and Mary. And, most importantly, we have God Himself, and His fellowship and grace. What more can one ask for?