Contours of my Conversion

Jun 27th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Disclaimer: This brief account of the process that led to my conversion to the Roman Catholic Church is designed to offer a very general overview of my journey and not a detailed academic apology. While I may write such an apology at some point, this account is only meant to introduce the readers of Called to Communion to my story and the basic rationale for my conversion. For those who would like to hear a somewhat fuller account of my conversion and the theological basis for it, please check out the most recent podcast (number five).

Although it is impossible to discount the importance of one’s childhood and adolescent years in their formation, for the sake of both brevity and clarity I will begin the narrative of my journey with my return to the Christian faith at age nineteen.  After this conversion which occurred in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, the entire trajectory of my life changed quite dramatically.  Although I remained a baseball player at the University of Delaware, my life had a new consuming passion, and that was to seek to grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.  Due to being raised Protestant, upon returning to the Christian faith it was quite natural for me to pursue my life as a Christian in a Protestant ecclesial context.  However, due to being raised in a broadly evangelical home with no particular denominational affiliation, what it meant for me to be a Protestant in both my doctrine and my ecclesiastical identification was an open question at that time. While at the University of Delaware, my involvement with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship provided the context for me to begin my lifelong pursuit of theological truth.

Due to various experiences within the evangelical ecclesial context as a teenager, it was an ardent, albeit implicit, desire of mine to seek an expression of the Protestant faith that offered the most robust tradition of theological inquiry. After more than a year of asking questions and pursuing the answers offered by various Protestant theological traditions, by the midway point of my second-year at Delaware, I had come to embrace the reformed Presbyterianism of John Calvin as my own.  At the same it became clear that God was calling me to leave behind my life as a baseball player, and to begin a theological vocation.

In light of this call to a theological vocation, I decided to transfer to Geneva College and to begin formal theological studies in the Calvinist tradition.  During my time at Geneva, among the many various things that I learned at both the speculative and practical levels, two things stand out above the rest in their abiding importance in my journey.  First, my formation at Geneva permanently shaped me to embrace the primary importance of the Sacred Scriptures in the enterprise of Sacred Doctrine.  Second, while fully affirming the importance of exegesis for the science of theology, my time at Geneva also began to illuminate the problems that are caused when one school of exegesis and dogmatic theology serves to establish the basis for ecclesiastical communion among the baptized. In other words, in order for there to be any visible ecclesiastical unity, all who claim the name of Christ must submit to only one theological school of exegesis and dogmatics as the official teaching of the church, in this case, the Calvinist tradition. In short, this confuses what can be held with what must be held, and makes the full ecclesiastical unity mandated by Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition impossible. While it took many years to be able to state the problem as I did above, I knew even then that the polyphonic nature of theology and the transnational nature of the Church could not be reduced to simply one strand of Calvinist theology. In order for me to see this problem more acutely, it required five years of theological inquiry at the masters’ level at two different schools, beginning with my time at Covenant Theological Seminary.

Even more than my time at Geneva, I am very appreciative for the theological education I received at Covenant Seminary. From Covenant’s relentless pedagogical focus on the primacy of Scripture, grace through union with Christ, expository preaching centered on the cross of Christ, and winsome evangelization in today’s world, the education I received at Covenant was absolutely essential in my process of coming into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. For the uniting element in these various strands of Covenant’s theological vision is the covenantal life and mission of the Kingdom of God as expressed in the life of the Church. Yet as one raised broadly evangelical and not Presbyterian, this inevitably led me to ask two interrelated questions: where is this Kingdom located and where is the Church? In light of the Council of Nicaea’s clear declaration that there is only “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”, which the Fathers understood from Scripture to be both visible and indefectible, my studies at Covenant and Geneva fostered in my soul a great desire to find this Church. For all of the glorious things that I learned at Covenant, the Calvinist traditions’ inability to answer these questions in a convincing fashion from both Scripture and Tradition led me to pursue a more comprehensive theological education through which I could access the wider world of theological inquiry, both past and present. While this process began even at Covenant, reading the likes of Joseph Ratzinger, Servais Pinckaers, and Hans Urs von Balthasar to name a few, it was when I left Covenant to pursue a second master’s degree at Duke Divinity School that the answers to the aforementioned questions came, and all the answers led to the Roman Catholic Church.

While I could point to many formative aspects of the education I received at Duke, there is no question that the most important for my journey was sitting under the teaching of Dr. Reinhard Hutter. As an apprentice of Dr. Hutter, I benefited from a thoroughly (albeit preliminary) Thomistic training in Catholic theology, through which the answers to my overarching questions became clear, and by God’s grace, I was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. While there is so much more that I could say, I would like to focus the remainder of this short biography on the key theological discoveries that led to my conversion, which will also serve to highlight the nature and rationale of my commitment to the Roman Catholic Church.

In my nearly ten year search for the fullness of theological truth, for all the various areas that I investigated with all due diligence, it turns out that all along I was a follower of Jesus in search of His Church. Under the direction of Dr. Hutter, Saint Thomas, and a whole host of other doctors and saints, through the grace of God I discovered that all of the wonderful aspects of the Kingdom of God that I learned at Covenant are found in their fullness in the Roman Catholic Church. For not only are her divine prerogatives not limited to one theological tradition over and against the others, it is in the Catholic Church that the Sacred Scriptures are authoritatively interpreted through the successors of the Apostles led the divine person of the Holy Spirit of God.  This process allows for both a plurality of orthodox theological schools to flourish and contribute to the overall health of the Church, while also maintaining the unity that is mandated by Scripture as essential for both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Furthermore, this unity is actualized through the sacramental order of the Church, wherein our redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ is applied. It is here that my intellectual journey comes to its climax, for it is in the sacrament of sacraments, the Eucharist, which our redemption is applied and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is most fully present.

During my time at both Geneva and Covenant, it was quite apparent that the proclamation of the Cross of Christ as the basis of the world’s salvation was absolutely essential to both schools’ life and mission. Yet for all of the wonderful emphasis on this evangelical proclamation, I always felt like something was missing, something quite significant, that would bridge the gap between proclamation and reality. While it is true that the entire sacramental order serves to bridge this gap, the greatest and most formative discovery in my intellectual journey was how the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass makes present and sacramentally applies to the Church the redemption won by Jesus Christ. While in no way meaning to diminish the importance of verbal proclamation of the gospel, the Eucharist is far more than words, it is the reality of Christ Crucified in our midst, drawing His people to union with Him. For in the Eucharist, which is the Cup of the New Covenant and the Meal of the Kingdom (Luke 22:14-30), Jesus makes the eschatological covenant people of God into His Mystical Body (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). In receiving the body and blood of the Jesus, we participate in the Crucified One, and as Augustine teaches, we become what we eat and receive the grace to become crucified members of the crucified Lord, which is an essential condition for our final justification (Matthew 10:38-39, 16:24-27, Romans 8:17, Philippians 3:9-15, and 2 Timothy 2:8-13). For all of these interlocking reasons, I came to see through both Sacred Scripture and the patristic and scholastic consensus on the faith of the Church that forms the core of the Sacred Tradition, that it is in and through the life of the Church that the Kingdom of God is both present and advances throughout the world as the promised eschatological and international New Israel of the Davidic Messiah (Isaiah 11:10, Romans 15:12). Furthermore, as the visible instantiation of eschatological Davidic Kingdom, the Church is led by the Bishop of Rome, who as the successor of Saint Peter, holds the Keys of the Kingdom which belong to the Prime Minister of the Davidic Kingdom (Matthew 16:13-25, Isaiah 22:15-22), and as Saint Irenaeus notes, due to the superior origin of this Church, all particular Churches must agree with her (Against Heresies, 3:3:2). Therefore it is the one divinely established apostolic institution of the Catholic Church that proclaims Christ through her faith, in her sacramental order, and in the various apostolates of her members, inviting all nations and peoples to salvation. In short, through the presence and life of the Roman Catholic Church, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ advances and in the process brings redemption to all of creation through spreading the peace and justice of Christ in word and deed.

In conclusion, it is this Church, the Roman Catholic Church, that I was searching for during my time at Geneva and Covenant, and it is this Church to which I desire to give my life in service. All of the glorious things that I learned about at Geneva and Covenant, and began to experience in part through the life of the Protestant ecclesial communions to which I belonged, in coming into the Catholic Church I have found the reality that I so desperately longed for at both the speculative and practical levels. While constantly having to personally adjudicate between rival exegetical and dogmatic traditions, in coming into the Church I now receive from her as a gift the deposit of faith which proclaims the truth of the faith in its fullness. Therefore, as one who has discovered in the person of the Church the “pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), my vocation as a theologian will always be an ecclesial one, in service of the faith of the Church. In short, my vocation in the life and mission of the Church, which advances the Kingdom of Jesus Christ over the entire creation by inviting all nations to the Holy Eucharist, will be to think with the Church, out of her heart, for the life of the world.

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  1. To all,

    I want to apologize in advance to all who may post a comment on my conversion account, for I may not be able to respond due to being swamped with work for school. I need to turn in a paper by Tuesday afternoon, and then another two weeks later, so I am under the gun, and will not be able to give any response (positive or negative) the time and attention it deserves. So, please don’t take my potential silence as a rejection of your commen, and thanks to all for reading it in the first place.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I love learning how others have come into the Church, and how similar we all really are in doing so.

  3. John,

    I’m glad you were able to share this. Do well on your papers!

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  4. Congratulations. God bless you. Keep strong.

    — A fellow convert

  5. Gloria Dei! Your story reminds me of Cardinal Newman. May you be a good instrument for Jesus. And I hope my comparing you to Newman dose not inflate you with pride. My apologies if it dose!

  6. Will you be contributing to the blog?

  7. Hi John,

    I briefly served with you in youth ministry at Grace and Peace in St. Louis before leaving to enter the Church in 2007 (I was Fiona Grooms then). Unbeknownst to you, some of our conversations actually confirmed me in my suspicions that the Reformed tradition isn’t tenable. Thanks! I’m thrilled to see that you’ve entered the Church and I wish you and your family all the best!

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