Thursday, August 9, 2012

Led by the Good Shepherd to the Catholic Church

      In June of 2012 my wife and I were confirmed and received into the Catholic Church. Many friends and family would probably be shocked to hear of this, and I am surprised myself. But throughout my adult life, there have been hints and signs pointing to this, and a yearning in my heart that I now believe is being fulfilled in union with the church of the ancient fathers.
      I was raised in a small-town Southern Baptist church in Virginia where I, along with my sister, my two brothers, and our parents, attended Sunday School and Church nearly every Sunday that I can remember. In my early teen years I responded to a preacher's invitation to accept Christ as my Lord and savior and I was baptized. The experience of the waters of baptism seemed to be one of re-birth. I felt as though my sins were washed away, and there was a new beginning and opportunity for me ahead. However, I did not find much growth in grace during my later high school years, and I went away to college in 1970 very disappointed with my hometown and the Christians that I knew.
      I was a religiously-interested skeptic at that time. But a time of soul-searching and contacts with evangelical friends at college led me back to faith. I begin to seriously pray and study scripture. Within a couple of years I began to consider theological seminary and preparation for ministry.
      During these college years I was involved with a campus ministry (The Navigators) that sought to make disciples of the Lord Jesus through a process of disciple making they saw outlined in II Timothy 2:2, “...and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” This campus ministry taught me a deep respect for the Scriptures, but now I think I learned some rather dubious interpretations of the Scripture. Surely Paul’s words to Timothy are in the context of establishing apostolic leadership for the church. Timothy was a bishop, ordained by Paul to have oversight over the Christians in Ephesus and perhaps others cities. Timothy was to ordain elders and deacons, root out heresy, and preserve the faith. The context was nothing like what we were attempting to do with young college men and women.
      We tended to miss the corporate dimension of the New Testament faith—discipleship for us was a very personal, individual thing. During the last year or two of college, some of us began to see the inadequacy of the model we had been taught, and our campus fellowship began to have more the atmosphere of a house church, including celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
      I had come to see that the New Testament had much to say about the Body of Christ—the Church—a divinely appointed organization with structure, discipline, and offices. I finally joined a small Presbyterian church, though I was not yet fully “reformed” or Presbyterian in my theology. The doctrine of the Church along with worship and sacraments would become a major area of interest in my future studies.
      Following graduation I was married; a year later we were blessed with a child. Then in the summer of 1976 we moved to Jackson, MS where I began studies at Reformed Seminary. Our move several hundred miles away from family was a significant step of faith. The Lord provided our needs.
      We lived in an apartment a few miles from campus in downtown Jackson, just a few blocks from the state capitol building. Also downtown was a Catholic church. One Saturday I rode out on my bike for a time of prayer, and passed this church. I stopped, went in, and noticed the inscription over the doorway, taken from John 10:16: “there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” I entered the sanctuary, impressed with its beauty. I prayed. Something stirred within me. I went away with a small glimmer of Catholicism traced on my consciousness.
      In the first year of seminary we studied church history, one of my favorite fields of study. I went beyond the required readings and explored the writings of the early fathers. I found there a world very different from that of the evangelical and reformed Christianity of my experience.
      During this time we began to worship with a house church that was called “New Covenant Catholic Church.” This was a group of young people, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, who were led by a group of men formerly in leadership positions with the evangelical ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Mildly charismatic, much of the teaching of this group was concerned with recovering the teaching of the early church. There was also a heavy emphasis of “shepherding,” which was found in many new house churches in that era. We left this fellowship, mostly because of this “shepherding” approach to community that we found heavy handed and suspicious. A few years later, this group became part of the Evangelical Orthodox Church, which was later received by the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
      I was seeking a more ancient, catholic expression of the faith, which these folks also were seeking, though at the time we were there, they had not yet quite figured out where they were going. The rest of our years in Jackson we worshiped with a non-denominational church that was heavily involved in social outreach and community development. I never felt really at home there theologically, but I admired and supported the mission work of this community, and it was a place of good fellowship and support. This was a church that transcended racial and cultural lines—a thing not often seen in the Deep South in those days, at least in my experience. But it was like the kingdom of God should be. I later found this concern for racial inclusiveness and social justice very effectively realized in the Catholic Church.
      My seminary experience was an enjoyable one. I studied hard; it was intellectually fulfilling; I made good grades. I grew more Calvinistic in my thinking, but was slow to embrace a consistently “reformed” way of thinking. To my shame, however, it seems I absorbed an anti-Catholic bias during my time there, or perhaps the bias was already there, and the seminary only reinforced it. The reality was that I knew hardly any Catholics, and never seriously studied what the Catholic Church taught.
      I did come to embrace, however, a deep respect for the ancient creeds, and therefore for the teaching of the early church. It was my understanding that the reformers also were going back to the fathers, and reforming the church to what it was before the corruption of the Middle Ages. I have since learned that reformation era scholarship knew comparatively little of the writings of the earliest centuries beyond the New Testament. While Lutherans retained much of Catholic tradition and liturgy, the reformed, and especially the Presbyterians, generally threw out anything that could not be found in the Bible.
      The principle of “sola scriptura” was the touchstone of orthodoxy at my seminary. It was a given, an axiom, not debatable. To question this principle was practically to question the faith itself. One might as well object to the deity of Christ as to question that the Bible alone is the final authority for faith and practice. I don’t think I ever asked, “but does the Bible itself teach that the Bible is the only authority?” Now I have come to see that the Bible does not teach that the Bible is the only authority. And I now see that the Bible does teach that Christians are to observe the traditions, and the teachings, as well as the writings of the apostles.
      I will credit my seminary professors for clarifying for me the shaping of the New Testament canon. I did learn there that it was the church that determined the canon. I don’t think the implications of this were drawn out for me then, as I see them now, of course. Nevertheless, the historical reality is that the church did form a canon. It was not left up to the interpretation of individuals.
      By the time of my seminary graduation, I had come to embrace most of the reformed faith as taught in the Westminster Standards (the doctrinal standards of historic Presbyterianism), though I could not see the teaching of a “limited atonement” in the scriptures. This made me what we called a “four-point” as opposed to a “five-point” Calvinist. I struggled with the doctrine of infant baptism until my senior year. Writing a research paper attempting to prove the opposite, I became convinced that infant baptism was proper.
      After graduation, I was called to a small Presbyterian Church near Chattanooga, where I was ordained and served as a pastor. A few years later my family, now with two daughters and two sons, moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where I was pastor of another Presbyterian church for several years. In Shreveport I first had the opportunity to come to know several Catholics, both clergy and laity. In knowing these dear Christians, many of my prejudices against Catholicism were demolished.
      In Shreveport, I was active in the right to life movement, eventually heading up and helping reestablish the local chapter of the National Right to Life committee. Of course, many of the most dedicated advocates for the life of the unborn are Catholic. As I got to know them, I found them to be devout, sincere, men and women who loved Christ. I was able to spend time with several priests, and once had a visit with the local Catholic bishop. I was always warmly received, and my position as a protestant pastor acknowledged with respect. During this time my wife taught at the local Catholic high school, which gave us both more opportunity to see the world of Catholic life and faith. One of our Catholic friends from Shreveport has prayed for me over the years, and has gently urged me towards considering the Catholic Church, with gifts of tapes and books now and then. I now believe her faithfulness in prayer and giving were divinely instrumental in our coming into communion with the Catholic Church.
      I returned to Virginia a few years later, as pastor of another Presbyterian church. But I had become increasingly restless in pastoral ministry, and resigned from the pastorate to open a bookshop in downtown Lynchburg. At this same time, my wife and I became involved in the work of a classical, Christian School, associated with the Reformed Episcopal Church. The small parish affiliated with the school was without a minister, and I was asked to preach for them on a few occasions. This became a regular, part-time job, and as I learned the prayer book liturgy and studied the Episcopal tradition, I found it increasingly appealing. In January of 1997 I was received into that denomination and became rector of that parish.
      Over nearly fifteen years of using the prayer book and studying Anglicanism, I moved farther away from my Calvinistic perspective, though for most of my time in that church I would have thought of myself as an evangelical catholic. That is, I had a high regard for the ancient church, particularly the creeds and the liturgy (in a fairly low-church expression). Yet I came to believe in a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacramental efficacy of baptism. I once would have seen these as primarily symbolic, now I regard these as vehicles of grace, and among the ordinary appointed means for salvation. I came to believe that “outside the church there is no salvation,” that the Church is the Ark of God, but I still thought of that “one, holy, Catholic church” as the “invisible” church, as it was obviously broken into too many pieces to think of it as having a visible unity.
      But, if the church is one, as Paul declares, “there is one body and one spirit,... one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4.5) how is that unity to be known today? If our Lord prays for the unity of the church, what is our responsibility to seek and affect that unity?
      Protestants seem to love the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.” But how can we sing this line in good conscience: “We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity?” I am not aware of anything in current hymnody that seems so profoundly false as this statement. The disunity of the church is a dreadful scandal, and it seems to me that any serious Christian should do all in his or her power to remedy the disunity of the church. It now seems to be highly ironic that Biblical literalists interpret a concept such as the “body of Christ” in primarily spiritual terms. Isn’t a “body” a material thing? Shouldn’t we be able to see a body? Yet over and over, Protestants interpret the body of Christ, the Church, as primarily an invisible, spiritual entity.
     When I was still a Presbyterian, the many divisions among the heirs of Calvin often distressed me. In the Anglican world it is no better, or perhaps it is worse. Dozens of small “Anglican” groups can be found on the Internet. Apparently it is fairly easy to find a bishop who is willing to lay hands of “consecration” on another, making another bishop and another Anglican jurisdiction.
      Throughout the protestant world, it is the same. For any reason a person may start a church, and a new schism, a new denomination, is born. This seems to be the inevitable result of the doctrine of sola scriptura and the lack of a teaching authority or magesterium. In the protestant world, the final arbiter of doctrine is not the Bible, nor the tradition, nor a council, but the sovereign individual. It is one man’s interpretation of the Bible over against another’s. When a man says, “the Bible alone is my authority,” what he really means is “only my interpretation of the Bible is my authority,” or else he cedes that role to some pastor or teacher that he, for whatever reason, has come to trust. Protestants complain the Catholics have a Pope, yet they don’t see that Protestants also have popes: indeed there may be as many popes as there are Protestants.
      Of course, my reformed friends would see the problem, and deny it is this bad. For this reason we have the confessions, they would say—the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg catechism, etc. Many of my reformed friends seem to think the Calvinism as articulated by the Westminster standards is the full-flowering of Christianity. But why should anyone regard the assembly of pastors and theologians at Westminster as more likely to have the right interpretation of the Scripture than the councils that produced the Lutheran statements of faith, or, for that matter, the Council of Trent? But even when we have confessions of faith, we must interpret those confessions. Whose interpretation shall be regarded as most accurate and reliable? We go from disputes about the meaning of scripture, to disputes about the meaning of the confessions. And so in recent years we have seen the sad phenomenon of pastors of one Presbyterian denomination pronouncing anathemas upon ministers of other Presbyterian denominations for not holding the same interpretation of the Westminster standards on the doctrine of justification as held by themselves.
      Another largely unexamined presupposition of the whole protestant project as it stands today is this: using the tools of modern Biblical exegesis, we can discern the true meaning of Scripture. I don’t know why I never saw this before, but in recent months it seems an absurd notion that a modern exegete can jump back over 2,000 years and have a better understanding of the New Testament and the teaching of the apostles than did those men we call the early church fathers. If a modern scholar interprets the New Testament in a way not in accord with the Didache, or Clement, or Ignatius, or Irenaeus, or Cyprian, who is more likely to be right? Until recently, I tended to read the fathers and found affirmation for what I already believed. If they contradicted my confessional stance (first Westminster, then The Thirty-Nine articles) I would set the earlier teaching aside, or perhaps intend to come back to it later. But some of these questions concern the very core of the Christian faith. One may put off deciding for a time, but one can’t do that forever. One must take a stand eventually. If I must decide, who is more likely to have the correct interpretation? I think a safer bet, or a more logical, reasonable decision, would be to side with the early church fathers.
      Another significant change in my perception of spiritual reality has to do with the doctrine of the communion of saints. In the creed I have confessed to believe in the communion of the saints, but what is this really? A few years ago I discovered the Charles Wesley hymn, “Let saints on earth in concert sing, with those whose work is done; for all the servants of our king in heaven and earth are one…E’en now we join our hands with those who went before, and greet the ever-living bands, on the eternal shore.” Hearing this for the first time moved me deeply, and the vision it unfolds is a wonderful one. Those who have crossed the stream of death are still living; they sing with us. If they may sing with us, why may they not pray for us? If we are in communion with them, why may we not seek their intercessions for us?
      As I was drawn to the doctrine of the communion of saints, I happened to watch a video on the life of Edith Stein. She was a remarkable woman: a Jewish university teacher of philosophy in Germany between the wars; as a young adult, she became an atheist, then later was converted to Christ and became a Carmelite nun. She died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She was later canonized as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. I was moved by her story, and found myself invoking her prayers for my son. I no longer find it a strange thing to think of asking for the prayers of the Blessed Virgin, or other saints. There is an inscription from around AD 250 that says, “Pray for your parents Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days.” What a beautiful vision this brings to mind: an infant alive in the presence of God and the holy angels and interceding for her parents.
      I have always been intrigued by the parables of the kingdom. The theme of the kingdom of God is so crucial to understanding the teaching of our Lord. How closely related are the church and kingdom? Are they the same? Is the church the gate of the kingdom, or something like the visible expression in time of the timeless, transcendent kingdom? That they are very closely related seems clear in such passages as Matthew 16:18-20. Jesus speaks of the building of the church on the Rock (Petros) and the keys of the kingdom are given to Peter.
      Surely the kingdom of God is not a democracy. A flock of sheep is not a democracy. Families are not democracies. Kingdoms have a top-down government. Several of the kingdom parables speak of a ruler, or landowner, going away and leaving a trusted servant in charge. Peter and the apostles are the trusted servants. The New Testament clearly puts Peter in a position of some prestige or respect above the rest of the twelve. It would seem reasonable, even necessary, that upon Peter’s death, another would take his place. A precedent for filling the place of a departed apostle is set in Acts 1, with the appointment of Matthias to take the place of Judas.
      Therefore, it is surely not unreasonable to expect that the rule of the Church, or Kingdom of God on earth, should be under a visible head or regent in place of the Lord and King, Jesus. If anyone fills that role in the church between AD 30 and 60, then it is surely Peter. And it would then seem most reasonable that upon his demise, someone would be recognized to take his place. Of course, the records from the second century on indicate that this is indeed what happened--the fathers are careful to trace the succession of the bishops of Rome back to Peter (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, chapters 2-4).
      Irenaeus’ Against Heresies seems especially appropriate for modern times when heresy and schism abound. Irenaeus counsels: “What if there should be a dispute about some matter of moderate importance? Should we not run to the oldest churches, where the apostles themselves were known, and find from them the clear and certain answer to the problem now being raised?”(Book 3, Chapter 4.1). Ireaneus counsels that to settle disputes we need both scripture and tradition. For this tradition we look ad fontes, to the source in the oldest churches.
      Cardinal Newman famously observed: “to be deep in history is to cease to be protestant.” I found this to be true in my case. As I read more church history, especially the early fathers, and reformation history from Catholic writers, my protestant viewpoint was slowly eroded. It became clear to me that if there is one church which Jesus established, the Catholic church under the bishop of Rome has the most clear and convincing claim to be that church.
      It became to me then a matter of conscience. I was convinced that the denominations to which I had belonged are in schism from the one church which our Lord established. I came to believe that to continue in separation from that church would be to sin against my conscience and my Lord. My wife and I enrolled in our local parish's RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and after several months of study, we were received into the Church on June 24, 2012.
      Though I am deeply sorry for the schism of protestantism, and my part in perpetuating that schism, I rejoice in the ministry I have received from the churches and teachers of my former denominations. In my childhood church I became aware of the reality of God, was first awakened to faith and was baptized. In the college ministry of the Navigators I was taught to be zealous for Scripture and learned a concern for evangelism and mission. In my seminary I was instructed by good and godly men who taught me to think and helped me learn to write. In my sojourn among Presbyterians I saw a zeal for social concern and among the Anglicans I learned to love beautiful liturgy. Along the way many Catholic ministries such as Catholic Answers, as well as local parishes and friends have been been very helpful. And finally, through the Coming Home Network's ministry, especially through the Deep in History conference, we were enabled to see the intellectual integrity, spiritual depth and amazing beauty of Catholic faith. Along the way our gracious good Shepherd has patiently led us, and we now rejoice to be at home in his flock. Thanks be to God.

The Feast of St. Dominic, 2012

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