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I was born on November 24, 1989 and quickly swept into the loving arms of Crestview Baptist Church in Midland, Texas — the buckle of the Bible Belt and the beating heart of the Oil Patch. I was proudly presented and dedicated to God by my parents.

We were devout Baptists. My parents had been leading Sunday school since before my older sister was born. They were often in choir and always brought a casserole to Wednesday night fellowship. More importantly, they were real believers and thoughtful in their belief. I do not remember family devotionals, but I distinctly remember interrupting my mother’s prayer time, praying before meals, and learning about the faith.

Predictably, the Bible was at the center of our faith. That is, after all, the Baptist tradition: that God is principally revealed to the church in Scripture, which is interpreted by individual Christians under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I have not attended a Baptist service in nearly twenty years, and yet I still find that Scripture principally comes to my mind in the language of the New King James version. We were not aware of having any tradition of interpretation of Scripture which was, itself, unscriptural.

At the age of six, I asked to be baptized. What I remember most clearly is the seriousness with which my parents took my request, calling me into their bedroom in the evening to speak about it. I remember my mother asking me, “Do you know what baptism is?” And I answered, with a profound sacramentality that I did not understand, “It’s being saved.”

My parents went on to explain the Baptist view of baptism, that it is a symbol and public declaration of the salvation which has already occurred through the believer’s acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior. They led me, completely abashed, in the Sinner’s Prayer, and I was baptized soon afterwards. This is just one of many providential encounters which God put in my path with sacramental theology and the Catholic tradition during my childhood.

I demonstrated a love for the Bible at eight years old, when I told my parents that I wanted to be a Bible translator. I read the Bible voraciously, especially the narrative books. My first memory of reading St. Paul and being confounded comes from that same time period. I experienced the same thing with the Psalms. Genesis and Matthew were straightforward narratives, and if there were a few events in them that I did not quite grasp, I understood the progression and most of the events. But these other texts were impossible. St. Paul had causal clauses whose connection with what preceded seemed tenuous at best, and I could not understand his use of the Old Testament. The Psalms likewise twisted inexplicably. These texts were beyond me. The Bible required explanation.

An Encounter with Moses

In 2002, when I was eleven, my family became frustrated with the way our church divided adults and children up for Sunday school, and sometimes even for worship, and we began having family church services at home instead. It did not take long before we were drawn into the Hebrew Roots Movement by some old acquaintances. It is difficult to summarize the movement briefly because it is diverse — something which will become significant as this history proceeds. The one characteristic which the entire movement has in common is an attempt to frame New Testament Christianity in the Jewish setting of Jesus and the Apostles, and its members have concluded that that involves, in some way, observing the Law of Moses — the Torah. Beyond that, there are few universal doctrines. For many of us in western Texas who joined the movement, our radical libertarianism, our rejection of authority and tradition, was a central motivating factor. To some extent, it was an appeal to the Law of Moses, because nobody but God Himself could tell a free citizen what to do.

My first real awareness of what was going on came when our friend loaned us a DVD about the biblical feasts. It was a video of a man in a full beard and long grey hair, wearing a tunic and something like a poncho over it, with a round cap on his head, explaining the feasts and fasts of Leviticus 23. The man was Michael Rood, and the essential premise of the video was that Jesus, whom he called by his Aramaic name, Yeshua, had fulfilled the Spring feasts — Passover, Firstfruits, and Pentecost — in his first coming, and therefore He would fulfill the Fall cycle — the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles — on his return. The implication was that Christians should observe all these feasts, the former as a remembrance of Christ’s coming and the latter as an anticipation of his return.

Rood’s argument was interesting, but what it implied for us took some time to work out. It was not immediately obvious that the argument was relevant to anything other than the holy days. At the same time, Rood also made a negative case against traditional Christian celebrations and practices, claiming that they were of pagan origin, and therefore illicit. It was the very front edge of a distinction, which would loom large over the years that followed, between “Hebrew thinking” and “Greek thinking.” Once we had accepted this basic premise, things began to move quickly.

We took our china plates out to the dumpster and shattered them because, according to Leviticus 11:33, earthenware that has come into contact with unclean food needs to be shattered. At Passover we ate lamb, and though we did not do the slaughtering, we saved some of the blood from the leg of lamb and used a paintbrush to put it on the door frame. We aligned ourselves with a medieval Jewish sect called the Karaites, who claimed descent from the Sadducees, and rejected the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in favor of a Scripture alone principle very similar to the later Protestant view.

Eventually, we began attending a local Hebrew Roots or “Messianic” congregation. Unlike the Messianic movement in some places, this was not an essentially Evangelical congregation of Jewish converts who want to preserve their heritage. It was a community made up almost entirely of Gentiles who wanted to restore an original Jewish or Torah-observant Christianity. The congregation itself was divided into two camps and would split formally some years later. One camp, like my family, wanted to observe the Law of Moses by Scripture alone, while the other was immersed in the Jewish interpretive and legal tradition, the Oral Torah.

An Encounter with Tradition

Until this time, around 2006, I had been committed to the idea that interpretive traditions were simply the “traditions of men” and unnecessary additions to God’s revelation in Scripture. I had even begun work on my own, entirely biblical, liturgy, derived primarily from the Psalms. This was the beginning of a lasting love of the Psalms and an abiding interest in their role in liturgical prayer.

But the traditional camp at the synagogue had a strong argument. Not only did they point to Scripture itself, where at least some Jewish traditions seem to be vindicated in texts like Matthew 23:2, 23 and John 10:22, they also noted that the Torah seems to develop in the Hebrew Bible itself! They gave several examples, like Numbers 27, in which the daughters of a man named Zelophehad approach Moses because their father had no sons, providing no one to receive his inheritance. Moses had to discern that those daughters, contrary to the normal rule, could inherit the man’s property.

But there was a much more practical argument, as well. On subjects ranging from the calendar to ritual purity, it became clear that the books of Moses did not give sufficient details, and with no authority or means for reaching consensus, the congregation was effectively divided into two or three different communities. Because it had a bearing on what food we ate, when we celebrated holy days, and even who could have physical contact, these competing standards made fellowship difficult.

The only sensible solution seemed to be in the Traditional camp, because the other camp fragmented within itself. As a result, I was introduced to a wealth of Jewish traditions, and I began to appreciate the fourfold method of traditional Judaism, which interpreted Scripture as Peshat (the plain, literal meaning), Remez (the hidden or allegorical meaning), Drash (the comparative meaning or reference to other texts of Scripture), and Sod (the mystical, esoteric meaning about the nature of God and encountering Him).

This continued to be my spiritual life through high school and into college: A Jewish-Christian religion harkening back to the Nazarene and Ebionite sects from the first centuries AD, mentioned by the church historian Eusebius in the fourth century. We tried to be faithful to the interpretive Tradition of Judaism, while also making it uniquely Messianic, adding the Lord’s Prayer to the Jewish liturgy and celebrating the Incarnation at the Feast of Tabernacles. I learned Hebrew and Aramaic and made two pilgrimages to the Holy Land, in 2006 and 2008, exclusively visiting Jewish sites.

Unlike my earlier forays into both making my own liturgy and into Karaite liturgies, the traditional Jewish liturgy of the Siddur, the prayerbook, made sparse use of the Psalms. They were in the Jewish tradition of prayer, but only sparingly. I had an intense longing for praying the Psalms, but I felt constrained by the Tradition.

As I approached college, problems began to arise. Jewish tradition was supposed to be normative for our belief and practice, and it claimed absolute interpretive authority over Scripture. But the New Testament did not always agree with the consensus positions in Judaism. Yeshua took a distinctly minority position on marriage and divorce, and he seemed to have a strange combination of respect for Jewish tradition and a desire to transform it. His teachings on the Sabbath and the Temple were so revolutionary that they were difficult to reconcile with the tradition. More importantly, Jewish tradition maintained clearly and adamantly that the Torah was only a requirement for the descendants of Jacob, whereas the Messiah’s entire ministry seemed to say that the prophecy of Isaiah 66 about the inclusion of the Gentiles had been fulfilled. We had various competing explanations for these facts, but none of them was particularly satisfactory.

I continued to wrestle with these when I left for Baylor University in the fall of 2009, where I majored in linguistics with a minor in religion. In the course of my studies, I began to learn things no one had ever told me before. The “pagan” origins of Christmas and Easter were mostly fictional, and Christians had a better grasp of the Jewish roots of their religion than I had been led to believe. The books I read by NT Wright and Joseph Ratzinger displayed even more familiarity with Jewish tradition than I had. In fact, Christian claims to antiquity were much better founded than I had ever imagined and accounted for the Jewish origins of Christianity. Doctrines and practices which I had questioned, like the Trinity and the practice of Communion, were described by Christians like Justin Martyr in the second century! And they claimed an unbroken succession of authority which came from the Messiah himself, while we claimed ours from rabbinical sources who did not even recognize our legitimacy.

While I remained dissatisfied with explanations about the legitimacy of our connection to Judaism and how we, as Gentiles, related to Israel, I made a new friend, who would be an enormous influence on me. Lance was a student at Truett Seminary, and while he had been a Baptist, he was in the process of transferring to the Anglican Church in North America. He visited the synagogue with me one week, and in return I came to hear him be the guest preacher at the tiny Anglican congregation.

An Encounter with The Book of Common Prayer

Lance introduced me to Fr. Michael, who excused himself and returned a moment later in a long white robe unlike anything I had seen a Christian wearing before. I was taken aback, because I recognized it in spirit. He was dressed as a priest. As much as I knew that Christianity had a long history, it was to me essentially something modern and unconnected to the world of ancient Israel. I was accustomed to pastors dressed in modern clothes, singing songs written from the eighteenth century onward, in services without a hint of antiquity. But here was a priest, dressed as a priest. The liturgy was a stripped-down affair, with traditional hymns which were accompanied on guitar. It was simple but beautiful, clear as light and suffused with the text of Scripture. I was deeply uncomfortable, but also deeply impressed.

This experience was the first sign of what I would later call my “torrid love affair” with the Book of Common Prayer. It was a scripturally rich, apparently traditional form of Christian prayer, a kind of Christian Siddur, and it made more use of the Psalms.

I began, on occasion, to attend services at the Anglican mission. Once my guard had come down and I saw that this was neither the irreverent Evangelical worship I knew, nor what I still assumed would be idolatrous Catholic worship, my reticence about attending a church, at least occasionally, evaporated. Then I went home for the summer and dove into EP Sanders’ magisterial Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders extensively records the traditions and theologies of the Jewish groups who lived at the time of Yeshua and Paul in order to put Paul in his first century context. I was tormented by these problems of our relationship to the Jewish people and Jewish tradition, and I did not see a systematic way forward, so I hoped to gain clarity from Sanders’ research.

At the end of the summer of 2012, some time in August, two of the Messianic Movement’s best scholars came to our synagogue to present their thesis on this very subject. I went with my hopes high but strained. Their view was that the Torah of Moses and Jewish tradition were binding on Jewish believers, but not on Gentile converts, who were only given an “invitation” to participate. I could not square this with St. Paul’s stance in Ephesians 2, that there was no longer a division between Jewish and Gentile believers, because the commandments that stood between them were removed by Christ.

My last hope for the Messianic movement was dashed in that moment. I went home with this conviction: a Tradition was necessary for understanding the Bible, and we did not have one. The only other one that I could see was in the Apostolic Churches. The next morning, I rose early, drove to the local Catholic bookstore, which I had never entered before, and bought a Catholic prayerbook.

I returned to Baylor for my final semester, thinking that I would probably become Eastern Orthodox, because that church had the most eastern and ancient air about it. But I found the Orthodox community in Waco alienating, and as I was already connected to the Anglican community, I quickly changed my mind. I regularly attended an early morning spoken Anglican liturgy. When I arrived, the day was still young and the streets were quiet. I would slip in quietly in the gray pre-dawn and kneel in the quiet and listen to the silent voice of God. The priest, a retired army officer, would enter and in a solemn voice intone, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Communion was received kneeling at the altar rail in holy meditation. The people were blessed and dismissed. Some remained to pray, while the rest filed out in holy silence. I did not know how lucky I was, or how rare the reverential care of that service is. It remains to me the sacred womb from which I was birthed back into Christendom.

Of course, my main concern was for Apostolic Tradition. I had already become convinced that the Bible was not self-interpreting and that Christ Himself endorsed Jewish tradition in many ways. So, I took a very Anglo-Catholic approach, and it was the work of John Henry Newman in the Tracts for the Times, which he wrote as an Anglican, that convinced me that I could join this tradition. I did not understand at the time that Tract 90, which was so important to me, because it reconciled the Church of England’s foundational 39 Articles of Religion with the Catholic tradition, was censured by the bishops at the time and began Newman’s own journey into the Catholic Church.

The year after I officially joined the Anglican Church, I moved to North Carolina in order to pursue an MA in religious studies at Duke. At the local Anglican parish there, I had a rude awakening. The parish was very Evangelical, in sharp contrast to the overwhelmingly Anglo-Catholic diocese of Fort Worth, where I had been. The cracks in the Anglican Communion were also becoming more apparent, as I learned about its ongoing fight over homosexuality. The Communion was at war with itself, and that raised all kinds of questions for me, reminding me of my early days in the Messianic synagogue. What was the use of this Apostolic Tradition if nobody could even agree on how much authority it had, or what it required of us? Many of my fellow parishioners put almost no stock in the Tradition at all! If part of the reason for being in an Apostolic Church was for the sake of unity, why was our church falling apart?

An Encounter with St. John Henry Newman

More than one good thing came of my time at that parish, though. The first was that I met my wife, Carrie. We were married in January of 2015, in St. Mary’s Chapel, according to the rites of the Book of Common Prayer. At the same time, I had begun reading John Henry Newman’s seminal work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which presents his reasons for leaving Anglicanism and becoming Catholic. He speaks to the heart of my difficulty in this passage:

It is in point to notice also the structure and style of Scripture, a structure so unsystematic and various, and a style so figurative and indirect, that no one would presume at first sight to say what is in it and what is not. It cannot, as it were, be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and to the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and left of our path and close about us, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures. (I.II.I.14)

And his solution is one which I was not ready to hear:

There can be no combination on the basis of truth without an organ of truth. As cultivation brings out the colours of flowers, and domestication changes the character of animals, so does education of necessity develop differences of opinion; and while it is impossible to lay down first principles in which all will unite, it is utterly unreasonable to expect that this man should yield to that, or all to one.… The only general persuasive in matters of conduct is authority; that is, (when truth is in question,) a judgment which we feel to be superior to our own. If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties. (I.II.II.13)

Without some recognized authority, unity is impossible, because on what grounds do you recognize one view, developed by a reasonable person out of reasonable (though inherently incomplete) information, over another that was formulated in the same way? And how can you ask the holder of one opinion to submit to the other? If Christ meant what he prayed at the Last Supper, “that they all may be one,” why would He then leave a Church hopelessly incapable of achieving that unity, without the essential implements of it?

At the same time, I became frustrated with all of the 17th century and the distinctively Anglican parts of the Book of Common Prayer. I could not escape the sense that, after praying the Psalms and canticles, Cranmer’s Reformed theological collects were unbearably dead and dry. But I began to discover the ancient tradition of daily prayer, through the historical Cathedral Office. It was an office of prayer made (almost) entirely of Scripture, especially the Psalms. My heart reveled in it, but I felt guilty of some kind of betrayal of my Church when I would skip Morning Prayer and instead pray the ancient Lauds.

But I was not quite ready to convert yet. I was holding out hope that some Anglican solution would present itself. I did not take the Apostolic Succession of our bishops lightly. The last time I ever attended our Anglican parish, the priest who had married us used a different liturgy than usual, one not authorized by ACNA. It was mostly unobjectionable, except when it came to the Eucharistic Prayer itself. Like the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but unlike those with which I was familiar (the 1928 and the 1979), it contained no appeal to the Holy Spirit to bless the Elements. In contrast with the East, the Western version of this prayer is traditionally very short, and only obvious in the Catholic Eucharistic Rite II which reads, “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Anglican priest’s change, to me, implied a radically different doctrine of Communion and of what was happening at the altar, which departed from the Church’s traditional interpretation of John chapter 6. If we did not need the Holy Spirit to change the elements, then they were a mere memorial, and why were we bothering? I refused to take Communion, and I never went back. I went directly to the nearest Catholic parish and inquired about RCIA.

My wife was not yet ready to convert, and a series of scheduling problems made RCIA difficult. In the end, we both joined the Church almost two full years after I had stormed out of our Anglican parish, by which time we had moved to Scotland so that I could pursue a PhD in Old Testament at the University of St. Andrews. In the interim, I read the Rule of St. Benedict for the first time, and the heavens opened. I compared it to the Mishnah, the earliest record of the Jewish legal tradition, and it had a rule of prayer that was based on praying the Psalms — praying them all, day in and day out. I devoured the Rule in an afternoon and felt I had found what I had been looking for since the age of 14.

We were received into full communion with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church at Easter Vigil in April of 2017 in the parish church of St.-James-by-the-Sea. I chose Saint Jerome as my patron, and Carrie chose Saint Therese of Lisieux. I cannot say that I had the oft-heard converts’ story of the heavens opening upon their first reception of the true Eucharist. Instead, it felt like a fulfillment of this idea of tradition and unity which drove my journey.

I have since finished my doctorate, and we are now living in northern Kentucky, with two little boys and a baby girl.

I am working with some friends and colleagues from graduate school to establish an education initiative called The Littlemore Institute, named after the community founded by St. John Henry Newman. Our goal is to supplement education at all levels by establishing a homeschool resource library, providing tutoring, college-level courses, and public lectures. Our motto is borrowed from the great Scottish missionary monk, St. Columbanus: Christi Simus, Non Nostri: “We are Christ’s, not our own.”

Dr. Matthew David Wiseman

Matthew David Wiseman is a native of Midland, Texas, where he grew up first in a Baptist church and later in the Hebrew Roots Movement. He studied linguistics at Baylor University and received a PhD in Hebrew Bible from the University of St. Andrews. He has an abiding love for the English Catholic Tradition, especially JRR Tolkien, St. John Henry Newman, and the legends of King Arthur. His primary expertise is in biblical poetry, and he has a special devotion to the Psalms. He, his wife Carrie, and their three children — Wendell, Bennett, and Lucy — live in northern Kentucky. You can read a fuller version of Dr. Wiseman’s conversion story here.

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