From Calvin to the Barque of Peter: A Reformed Seminarian becomes CatholicNov 21st, 2011 | By Jason Kettinger | Category: Blog Posts
This is a guest post by Jason Kettinger. For the past ten years Jason Kettinger was a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. He received baptism in 2001, and spent his college days as a fruitful member of Reformed University Fellowship, before graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in political science in 2005, and beginning studies at Covenant Theological Seminary. On the vigil of Easter 2011 he was received into full communion with the Catholic Church by Archbishop Carlson at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. He subsequently discontinued his seminary studies, and is presently pursuing a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) through the Institute for Pastoral Theology of Ave Maria University. He also enjoys impersonating a freelance writer, and lives with his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew in Saint Louis, Missouri.
As we survey the interesting “space” that is the internet, we find intellectual pursuits and human interactions of varying quality. This is no less so in the field of religion, where the Lord Jesus Christ is often obscured behind a veil of ignorance and even needless hostility. It is my sincere hope that this meager contribution be a step toward affirmative dialogue and reconciliation.
With my purpose stated, the humble reader turns to ask the question he wants to know: Why? What makes a Reformed future pastor toss it all aside, and become Catholic? That is of course complicated, but I’ll try to explain. The story is really one of the harmony and convergence of truth, and the place where that convergence led was the Catholic Church.
The story begins with God, as it always does. What do we do when we offend God, who has graciously given us all things? Even in light of Christ’s sacrifice for us this turns out to be a deeper question than it seems. A friend once remarked that the sacrament of Reconciliation “does do justice to the existential reality of sin.” Every Christian I know, and every Christian community of which I have been a part, understands and attempts to take account of the individual and personal dimension of sin. The individual and corporate experience of union with Christ tells us that we cannot be cavalier about sin. Our relationship with Christ is bilateral, real, and demanding. We all have done business with God; I’m not surprising anyone here, I trust.
The church family from whom I’ve learned the most taught me that what we did mattered; we had a liturgy that reflected the reality of what I’ve just written. Before we enjoy the benefits of sonship, we have to acknowledge our sins, and allow God to restore us. Then we are exhorted to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel. Then we shared the meal which proclaimed our restoration: the Eucharist. We didn’t fear to call it that, because if Eugene Peterson can do it, so can we. We were intentionally liturgical; we were intentionally ecumenical; we were doggedly Eucharistic. We believed that our life in prayer with God would lead us to ask new questions, and that the answers could lead us to revise aspects of our Reformed tradition. At the same time, if the Reformers or others gave us anything, it was that “faith once delivered to all the saints.” Truth doesn’t change; truth stands the test of time; the Church of Jesus Christ is old; His truth is both old and new. We were creedal, because the gospel was given to us, and we will give it in turn. There is a Great Tradition, we said, and we’re only a part of it. We read not only Calvin and Edwards but also O’Connor and Chesterton. I might have heard it a thousand times: “The Church did not start in 1520.” Continuity. Love. Simplicity. Jesus. There are so many stories I could tell. Just know that when I left for seminary in 2005, the unity of all Christians wasn’t some pie-in-the-sky dream; it was how we lived, and what we worked toward. Need I say more about that?
So I had an instinct for unity, and a tendency to express my theology in liturgical action. I was political, which is another way of saying I wanted my faith to make a difference in the world. We chalked up theological disagreements as historical anachronisms that awaited the clarity of God’s grace, which would show a truer, deeper unity in the times to come. I didn’t yet see the tensions which were coming to the fore.
I admit, I always enjoyed being branded as “dangerous.” But what struck me as I read more about liturgy and covenant theology was how warmly these theologians spoke of Jesus, how liturgical action was the way they not only experienced God’s love, but declared it. It was missional. If on some gut level they spoke with such resonance about the Christian life I understand, how bad could they be? If one reflects on what we’re saying here, it’s that liturgy has an ability to speak a language that bridges traditional hostilities.
If we begin theology with the simplicities of liturgy, and work outward, it is highly possible that we will face tensions with traditional formulations. The question we ask is what we will do about it. I’m not a systematic theologian; in the truest sense, I am an evangelist. The life of prayer, the liturgical life, needs settled truth to ground it as we reach out in faithfulness to God. I have never been averse to correction. What I began to experience and to attempt to describe was the inability to reconcile a contradiction, between righteousness imputed and righteousness shared. Essentially, something had to give. Either the righteousness of Christ was imputed to me by faith and fully completed, leaving the life of the church and repentance a good, but not necessary step by us, or Chapter 15 of the Westminster Confession of Faith was more correct: repentance and perseverance are an absolute requirement of the Christian life. It absolutely could not be both, despite how much we may insist on it. The buzzword “union with Christ” only makes it worse. Imputation either puts God in union with manifestly unholy people, or the participation suggested by the life of sanctification undercuts the truth of imputation extra nos. You have to choose.
What I do dare to say is that these sympathies in the direction of continual necessary repentance do undercut the principled basis for the Reformed separation in the 16th century. Why? Because we had insisted that true participation (as it was articulated in medieval Catholic theology) denigrated the work of Christ and the reality of our victory in Him. We had no cause to pretend otherwise, nor to smuggle in that which we opposed in the vanity of having a “fully-orbed” theology. Does this protest still have merit? What should we do if the battle-cries we raised once have no correspondence to our Christian lives? It is a life grounded in experience; we would not dare say that our liturgy, sustained by the interplay of repentance and forgiveness, of humility and exaltation, was a formality. In fact, this was both its liveliness, and its danger. Now on the table as never before are issues of apostasy and sacramental objectivity that never would have been asked among the Reformed. In one sense, there has always been a variety of perspectives within Reformed theology, and tensions therein. But never before have the tensions demanded an answer. Against the backdrop of my basic view of church history — continuity — the tensions or contradictions became such that questions like, “Why do we seek forgiveness for sins we say have already been forgiven?” are brushed aside at one’s peril.1 What I’m illustrating here is a tension between historic and systematic theology, and lived experience in the pews.
If we might criticize some people with a certain lack of precision, a riposte with no good reply is that we don’t need answers to questions that no one is asking. What we were fighting about is the sacramental life versus an historic faith, with due respect, that is at its core anti-sacramental. If any of the sacraments have an objective character, the Church which gives them must also. Our communities were forged in the white-hot fire of theological disputation; our fathers in Protestant and Reformed faith would not share this new tolerance. If we have been led here because the law of prayer is the law of faith, I reasoned, it is a cause for serious discussion. I need only allude to those Reformed congregations who have opened their Lord’s Supper to Catholics and Orthodox to show that we have arrived at such a moment.2 Even if the occasion only served to sober the hasty when such people refrained in obedience to their communities, the discussion will occur by necessity. In any case, we can see that the questions of the 16th century are giving way to the questions of the 21st. At the least, I assert that the issue isn’t on the front-burner. If so, maybe it’s time to lay down arms. For me, I could not stand apart on the strength of a slogan that meant nothing. Not even out of loyalty.
But what of the basic claim of the Reformers, that they had better captured the spirit and intent of the Church Fathers? It’s true that they were not ignorant of them. As for me, I knew nothing of the Fathers on their own terms. It had to be an open question, if I were to be intellectually honest. After all, any group can read history in such a way as to vindicate themselves. And this leads directly to the question of history, and because salvation history is at issue primarily, we are asking, “What is the Church?” This was a question like a shard of glass in my heart starting in 2006. The magnitude of the social and political issues we are facing absolutely demands that we reject most forms of “co-belligerence” as insufficient, because the answer to all of them is Christ; it is our love, it is our striving together in Christ and for Christ that can answer these problems. And they stem from existential questions surrounding the identity and purpose of man. If Christians do not answer these in the same way, how will people know that it is Christ who meets them? Moreover, if we do not accept one another as brothers, which Christ shall they follow? But do we dare force one another to adopt differing paradigms of the Church and salvation? How could that be anything but a failure? We may rightly say there is much that unites us. But if those things do not impel us toward one another, they are folly at best, and a violation of our consciences at worst, if we pretend the differences aren’t real. On both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide, we conceive of the Church and of history in very different ways. Which view of history and Church does justice to the ancients?
Confessionalism may indeed preserve those ancient elements of truth which predate the schisms, but it does a terrible job of indicating how we are to pursue unity practically. This was the second thing I realized: being confessionally Reformed is in contradiction with the very definition of the Church found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter XXV.3 An invisible Church cannot define itself, or what it believes. But the certainty of Reformed distinctives depends on the authority of a visible Church. There is a quotation attributed to one John L. Girardeau within the essay “The Discretionary Power of the Church” that took my breath away every time I read it. It reads in part:
The delivery of Christ’s doctrines and commandments by men does not make them the doctrines and commandments of men. … Their dogmas are not man’s, they are God’s dogmas.
I’ve got to drop the guard a bit, take leave of that measured tone for which this site is known, and I beg your pardon if it sounds rude, but does that sound like an invisible church to you? Take your pick: Either the Westminster divines re-constituted the visible community that Christ established (which was obviously contrary to what I had been taught, not least the promise of Christ in Matthew 16:18) or we cannot be reasonably certain that our conclusions are more than opinion; that is, there could be also more fundamental truth possessed by those who are not us. In fact, our very definition presupposes that that is the case. In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the first article tells us that the catholic church is invisible. The second article, by contrast, strongly asserts the visibility of that church. Moreover, the fifth article in this same chapter discusses the purity and truth of various “Churches” on Earth. First, which of the first two articles actually controls here, so that we might find out where we ought to reside, and what we are to believe? Second, what authority did this assembly have to make such a determination? The fifth article utterly depends on the invisible church asserted in Article I, but the comfort of being in the supposed household of God comes from Article II. Which is it? And who are they?
“Ah,” says the alert reader, “but Scripture is our guide.” We’ll get to that. For now, the guest post by Fred Noltie will be my answer. All this is to say that one question would not leave me alone, and it is the question that people of my generation are asking: “What is the Church?” The traditional definition for the Reformed is fine to a point, and that point is where our distinctives meet their doom against the presumption of historical continuity. If our communities as Protestants existed and subsisted on the unstated premise of ecclesial deism, then the concrete action taken in regard to history to explain it is what I call “ecclesial plagiarism.” The ancients may be dead, but we owe them at least the right to tell us what living for Christ was actually like before we retroactively re-write them into a history more amenable to the community we inhabit. I have already said that my fundamental approach to history was and had to be continuity. This is often claimed to refute the charge of schism. I had warmly sung “The Church’s One Foundation” for years as a prayer for unity, unaware that my own ecclesial commitments prevented me directly from ever realizing my hope. That may seem unfair, but I do believe the creeds themselves help explain it.
In that wonderful but critically unexamined tutelage of sympathy and continuity with history, the creeds figure prominently. In even the popular mind, we recite the creeds in solidarity with our ancestors in the faith, and even with those Christians who are separated from us. This is largely a lovely expression of catholicity, and would pass without a mention if not for the minor inconvenience of Sola Scriptura. As a principle, it does not admit any external authority for the creeds. The final authority is presumably Scripture, and the creeds would function as a norm only after they had been tested by it.
But as I heard one elder speak about the creed (the Apostles’, in this case) I came to realize — as though I had been hit by a brick in the face — the truth of this assertion that welled deep within me, first, after I read Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura, and now loudest in Sunday School just days before I entered the Catholic Church: “Derivative authority is a sham.”4 The elder said in effect that if we wanted to edit the creeds (to delete the word “catholic” as I recall) we could, because the Creed wasn’t Scripture. I saw then that Mr. Cross’s claim contra Mathison was true. There is no real, principled distinction between the “Solo Scriptura” that Mathison abhors, and the Sola Scriptura that he commends. If there is a difference in practice or in result, it has to do with the person’s own piety, and God’s grace lovingly keeping him from a more severe individualism. In fact, the chapter in Mathison’s book on the error of Solo Scriptura almost made me Catholic by itself. Why would I pay as much attention to the text, context, place in the canon, authorial intent, and myriad other things in order to rightly handle the word of truth, and completely ignore the same with respect to the creeds? This is the ecclesial plagiarism I mentioned. If I edit the creed, it no longer functions as an authority over me, but I over it. In this sense, we cannot say we are in solidarity with anyone, either today or long ago, in the recitation of the creeds as Protestants. Why would the ecclesiology which gave it birth and the battles therein be incidental to its meaning? Can I think that St. Augustine is with me when I spurn the Church to which he submitted?5 Thanks be to God for various creeds and their use in Protestant communities. But it is not altogether clear that a principled creedalism actually exists apart from the Catholic Church and the individualism of “me and my Bible.”
I have made two perhaps frustrating assumptions: that the Church of Christ is visible, and that the Catholic Church today is that Church. I can only say that Petrine primacy was rather easily established from the Fathers,6 and that patristic authors on the Eucharist and apostolic succession cast more than a reasonable doubt on both the authority of my community to believe otherwise (and still be the Church) and the antiquity of those particular beliefs. Some might say that I have been a rebel from day one, and there is some truth in that. However, even as I actively investigated Catholic claims, and explored Catholic life, I never lost sight of Christ Jesus. I found Him there as I went; I pleaded with Him to guide me. I gave Jesus every question.
Even as I entered RCIA last August, I was uncommitted. Yes, I had dared to walk on the dangerous ground of uncertainty of all but Jesus. Yes, I put my career on hold, and then ended what it would have been. Yes, I struggled, and hurt, and cried, and prayed. You bet, I was afraid. It wasn’t as bad as what Francis Schaeffer went through, and though he took a different path, I thank God that I never doubted Jesus as he did. I knew Him, and He knows me. But the heart of it all is that Jesus asked me to surrender everything to follow Him, even to Rome, and the vicar who sits on Peter’s chair. The intellectual and historical collided with the personal; I had to do it in the peace of conscience. In that peace, and for that peace.
The most damaging chimera, the most serious error of the Reformation, is Sola Scriptura. It caused me to kidnap our ancient brethren in the faith, to claim them as my own against their wills. I had to ask my own heritage boldly, “Who asked us?” and be willing to live with the reality that no one did. I could not live with a hermeneutic that couldn’t silence the Baptist down the street (and bring us into harmony) much less the heretic. I had to face the reality of Christian division, and the reality that these divisions were caused by false principles I’d inherited from a movement I’d thought necessary. Its animating principle conspires to make invisible and without doctrine the Church we’d rightly claimed as our mother, outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. The old saw that, “If I’m wrong, I’ll be on me knees tomorrow morning outside the Vatican doing penance” is just a toothless phrase if one’s hermeneutic of Scripture, history, and Church disallows the very consideration that one is wrong.
My beloved brethren in Christ Jesus scattered in many places, let us prayerfully consider whether the convergence of truth now leads us to begin again, to return home in peace.
Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mother
- See “Reformed Imputation and the Lord’s Prayer.” [↩]
- For example, see Trinity Kirk’s “On Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Reformed Catholicity.” [↩]
- See WCF XXV. [↩]
- See, for example, “C. The Delusion of Derivative Authority.” [↩]
- Think of his statement to the Donatists, “You know what the Catholic Church is, and what that is cut off from the Vine; if there are any among you cautious, let them come; let them find life in the Root. Come, brethren, if you wish to be engrafted in the Vine: a grief it is when we see you lying thus cut off. Number the Bishops even from the very seat of Peter: and see every succession in that line of Fathers: that is the Rock against which the proud Gates of Hell prevail not.” (PL 43.30.) See also his statement against the epistle of Manichaeus quoted in The Chair of Peter: D. Fifth Century. [↩]
- See, for example, Steven Ray’s book Upon This Rock. Other relevant works can be found in “The Papacy” section of Suggested Reading.” [↩]