An OPC Pastor Enters the Catholic ChurchFeb 7th, 2012 | By Deacon Jason Stewart | Category: Featured Articles
Please welcome our first of two newly added authors at Called To Communion, Jason Stewart. Jason was an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) before he and his wife Cindy entered into full communion with the Catholic Church in January of 2011. He earned his Master of Divinity from Mid-America Reformed Seminary (Dyer, IN) in 2005, and subsequently served for 5 1/2 years as pastor of Trinity OPC in eastern Pennsylvania. Jason and Cindy live in Rockford, IL, and have four children. He is currently completing a two year course of study with the Diocese of Rockford’s Diaconal Program. Jason wrote the following narrative about his conversion. We are blessed to have him aboard. (Our other new addition, Fred Noltie, will be properly introduced shortly!) Update: Jason tells his story on The Journey Home here. -Eds.
I hope to tell my story simply, because it is genuinely uncomplicated. Complex, yes. Multi-layered, sure. Who’s journey in the Christian faith isn’t? But I do promise to keep the telling of it simple by concentrating on the main catalysts that gave my wife Cindy and me the courage to approach the doors of the Catholic Church and with confidence begin to knock.
With that said, let me start this introduction by beginning at the ending. Cindy and I became Catholic because we came to see that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Jesus Christ. That is the reason. In truth, this reason should be the basic motivation for anyone seeking full communion with or remaining within the Catholic Church. All the thousands of otherwise good and important reasons for being Catholic pale in comparison with this fundamental truth of her divine origin. You see, if she is that City whose founder and builder is God, then we must live within her walls. Now I realize what I’ve written to this point does not satisfy the many, many questions — and objections — Protestant Christians may have in reading a story like mine. Most certainly not. But staying true to my promise not to complicate things, I’ve begun with the ending so as to make plain the reason from the beginning.
Because this is a “conversion” piece you have the advantage of knowing that we didn’t always accept this profound claim about the divine origin of the Catholic Church. And therein lies the curiosity of our story. I was a Presbyterian minister and pastor in a conservative denomination. My theology was solidly Reformed, having been educated at a reputable Reformed institution known both for its orthodoxy and pastoral emphasis. As a pastor I was committed in my ministry to classical Reformed belief and practice. Even now I remain grateful for the Reformed faith, as you’ll see. So the question naturally is, what happened? What instigated our study of Catholicism? What moved us to have a change of heart about the Catholic faith?
Our decision to leave Presbyterianism for the Catholic Church surprised many. We can sympathize given that in the past we’d have been incredulous if told we’d be Catholic one day. And yet looking back now from our vantage point we can trace the trajectory that led us to full communion with the Catholic Church, and it’s a trajectory that progressed naturally and imperceptibly over time – a growing appreciation for the necessity and role of the visible Church; a deepening understanding of the sacramental nature of the Christian faith; the apostolic quality intrinsic to Church authority; the unique function of the Minister of the Gospel in the liturgy and life of the Church; the inescapable dynamic of tradition within the Christian Faith; and an increasing awareness of the implications of the adjectives “one” and “catholic” as used by the Nicene Creed to identify the Church of Jesus Christ. Each of these areas of faith track back from where we are now as Catholics to where we were when Reformed. They prepared the way for us to give serious consideration to the Catholic faith when the time came.
It would be helpful here for me to begin listing the main catalysts that prompted us to engage the claims of the Catholic Church. After noting them, I’ll present each one on its own in order to explain how it contributed to effect our change of heart concerning Catholicism.
1. The positive principles of the Protestant Reformation.
2. The writings of the Church Fathers.
3. The nature of Church authority.
Having these three areas of study laid out before us, let me emphasize here the importance of the present website in prompting our journey toward the Catholic Church. Called To Communion was at first merely a pebble in my apparently well-tied Presbyterian church shoes. For the life of me I could not fathom how these men (most seminary trained) could leave the Reformed faith for Rome. A blend of curiosity, skepticism and concern (I knew one of the men personally) inclined me to try to understand what turned them Catholic. Over time CTC became for me a mountain that permitted no clearly designated detour around it to Geneva. Facing and answering these issues on a personal level were important to me as a pastor. I had to admit that the well-reasoned arguments from the contributors of the site were substantial enough that they could not be brushed off and ignored. So I began to investigate, assured that there were biblically, theologically, philosophically, historically satisfying Reformed answers to the challenges presented by CTC.
1. The positive principles of the Protestant Reformation.
Perhaps you’ve heard it said that the Protestant Reformation was a tragic necessity, something that needed to happen, painful as the consequences may have been. This was my view. My understanding was that the fundamental spirit of the solas of the Reformation were incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church. This incompatibility is what I believed compelled the Protestant reformers to dedicate all their energies to unburdening the Church of Jesus Christ from what they believed to be the weight of man-made, extra- or un-Scriptural traditions that had sapped the strength of apostolic Christianity to the point of near collapse. God’s glory and the true way of salvation had been effectively smothered in the Church by the theological inventions of Catholicism, so my thinking went.
As I began to dig down to the most foundational differences dividing Protestants and Catholic, the book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer was recommended to me. Bouyer was a Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism mid-last century. I was already familiar with him and appreciated his work and insights on Christian liturgy but had paid little attention to his discussions on Catholicism. What piqued my interest now was the peculiar thesis of this one book. Bouyer claimed that the Catholic Church is necessary for the full flowering of the principles of the Reformation. Put differently – Protestantism needs Catholicism in order to become all it aspires to be, which, of course, if true means the Protestant Reformation was completely unnecessary. Worse, it means that the Reformation was impossible from the outset because the reformers had unwittingly cut themselves off from the only source that could make their vision fruitful. To my Reformed and Presbyterian ears this sounded more than strange. Given my understanding of Catholic teaching, Bouyer’s idea was akin to saying a terminal illness is integral to the full flowering of bodily health. Or a fire is best fueled by depriving it of oxygen. Or the growth of a plant is impossible without rooting it in infertile soil. In my mind, Bouyer’s absurdity had to be explained, so I picked up the book and read.
What I discovered in reading the work was that the author’s claim was well founded. He demonstrates this repeatedly chapter by chapter. He enthusiastically affirms the positive principles of the Reformation showing the reader that, understood properly, each principle has its natural home in the Catholic faith. He then proceeds to critique the more negative aspects of Reformation doctrine (e.g. sola scriptura) contending that these negatives in the course of time undermined Protestantism’s positive principles, eventually giving birth to the reality known as Protestant Liberalism. Without question, I cannot do justice to the potency of Bouyer’s work in just a paragraph or two. A reflex for Reformed Christians reading this would be merely to dismiss the argument of Bouyer’s work as absurd. Recall that such was my initial reaction too, which is why I encourage you to read the book for yourself and take seriously the thesis present in its pages. Suffice it to say, he is persuasive in arguing that the positive principles of the Protestant Reformation are not antithetical to the Catholic Church but rather draw their strength and vitality from her existence.
The material found in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism suggested a possibility I had never explored. What if the beauty of my Reformed faith was in fact the reflection of an original beauty? Could it be that I as a Protestant was seeing the Christian faith through a glass darkly? I had to find out.
2. The writings of the Church Fathers.
Another subject for study in engaging Catholicism was the Church Fathers. Catholics regularly make the claim that these leaders of the early Church are Catholic. I had a renewed interest to test this claim. My sense was that it would be easily disproved. After all, the reformers themselves had been avid students of the Fathers, quoting them in their theological works with ease and without contradiction over against Catholic teaching, right?
Going into this I had to admit that my familiarity with the actual works of the Fathers was limited. Thumbing curiously through a random volume from Schaff’s Patristics collection or culling a quote from Ignatius or Augustine or reading a history of early doctrine text for seminary coursework exhausted my contact with these ancient Christian authors. I had known for a long time that the Church Fathers did not share my Reformed theological vocabulary. But such was to be expected, I guessed. The Protestant Reformation with its precise theological formulations was many centuries away when these men wrote. So what (my thinking went) if Irenaeus or Justin or Augustine didn’t sound exactly like our Reformed creeds and catechisms? Yet now in examining their writings I began to sense that indeed there was something more profound at work than a mere difference in expression or emphasis. Was the Catholic claim right? Continued reading suggested that the actual theological substance of the Fathers was different. Certainly the Fathers didn’t seem at odds with the positive elements of the Reformation. But I noticed in my reading that they thought differently than did the reformers. Their approach to the Christian faith took another route. They seemed to cut an early theological path that when traced did not exactly connect to the one blazed by the reformers in the 16th century. I began to consider whether a person would naturally pick up the distinctive trail of the Protestant Reformation if one started with the writings of the early Church? The answer increasingly seemed to be no.
I knew the reformers had explicitly rejected much of what I was finding in the Church Fathers.
Page after page revealed a common faith during that early period in which bishops succeeded Apostles, baptismal waters regenerated, bread and wine transformed, penance was necessary and salutary, purgatorial fire cleansed, the Blessed Virgin was an active Mother to the faithful, departed saints prayed, Peter held the Keys, and the Eucharist was a sacrifice for the living and the dead. There appeared in their minds no awareness of or concern for the cardinal doctrines of the Reformation so painstakingly spelled out as essential to the gospel. Actually…the Fathers sounded Catholic.
This was unexpectedly unsettling for me because no external argument(s) in favor of a Catholic reading of the Fathers had been made in conjunction with my reading of them. The writings themselves served to give voice to the arguments. The words on the page became the witness or opponent (depending on one’s perspective). I began to ponder whether a person would naturally pick up the trail of the Catholic Church if one started with the writings of the early Church? The answer increasingly seemed to be yes.
At this point someone could object that the Church Fathers were not Catholic. My question would be, what then were they? Most certainly they did not share the peculiar faith of the Protestant Reformation. While it is possible to place a non-Catholic interpretation upon carefully selected sentences and paragraphs from the Fathers, a sustained reading makes such an interpretation impossible to maintain. In reading them one discovers that they appear to be natives of the Catholic Church. Wrenching them out of their natural Catholic context is detrimental to both the power of their witness and the proper understanding of the inquiring reader.
My suggestion here is to take up and read the Church Fathers. Read them in context. Read all of them. Allow them to define their terms. Take them at their word. Yes, this is a time investment. And it requires an open mind. But if you devote yourself to reading them, your perspective on the early Church will be forever changed and enriched. At the very least I’m hopeful you’ll come to acknowledge that these churchmen were Catholic. Better yet, you may become convinced that these Fathers are authentic witnesses to apostolic Christianity.
3. The question of Church authority.
As a Presbyterian I believed that Jesus personally appointed twelve men to the office of Apostle and sent them to proclaim the gospel (Mark 3:13-19). In giving them this office he endowed it with his own divine authority to guarantee that they would faithfully transmit his words and works to others (Matt. 28:18-20). The character of their authority is seen in any number of statements Jesus made concerning them:
“And he said to them….’The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me'” (Lk. 10:16).
“‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld'” (John 20:21-22).
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:17-18).
“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).
Clearly such a position runs contrary to the way so many Christians believe today: Men have no divine authority, right? And yet, Jesus tells them that he is received or rejected in direct proportion to whether his Apostles are received or rejected. No man can forgive sins, right? And yet, Jesus gives them his authority to forgive sins. No man’s decisions are binding on believers, right? And yet, Jesus tells them that their Apostolic decisions will accomplish God’s will and obligate believers in faith and practice.
With this divinely bestowed authority, the Apostles were called and equipped by God to be the leaders of Jesus’ Church. They were chosen by him to head up an identifiable, organized assembly/community of his followers. Given the character of their unique role in the Church, it was necessary to be in communion with the Apostles of Christ in order to be a Christian — submitting to them, worshiping under their governance, receiving their teaching, etc. (Acts 2:42; 1 John 1:1-3). Faith involved submitting to a living authority — the Apostles. These Apostles had received and submitted themselves to Jesus Christ and his teachings, and those who heard these Apostles received and submitted themselves to them and to their teachings. By receiving and submitting to the Apostles and their message the early believers were receiving and submitting to Christ and his message. To be in the Church one had to accept the living, teaching voice of the Apostles because they alone were the unique bearers of Jesus’ authority and message. An individual or group could not abandon this Church headed by the Apostles and establish its own a few blocks over. This was the nature of Church authority in the earliest period of apostolic Christianity.
So I believed, and still believe.
In light of my burgeoning study of Catholicism, I began to ponder with renewed interest this biblical portrait of Church authority and how it related to my present experience as a Presbyterian — What was the nature of Church authority today? How did it relate to the Apostles? What happened then when the Apostles died? Did the Church abruptly cease to have a living authority to guide her? Was there no longer a living teaching voice to which believers must listen? Revisiting these basic questions in light of the Catholic Church proved enlightening.
My answer to such things in the past had been that the Apostles committed and transmitted their authority in written form through the inspired documents of the New Testament. Everything necessary for salvation and the Christian life had been captured in their surviving letters and writings. Submission to the Apostles and their teachings was then measured by submission to the Bible and its teachings. Yes, as a Presbyterian I recognized there were leaders in the Church to whom obedience was due (Heb. 13:17) — being a pastor, I was one of them — but obedience to such leaders was dependent on whether or not they themselves were obeying the voice of the Apostles in the writings of the New Testament. Like the noble Bereans, each believer was to evaluate their leaders and their teachings by the Bible. To use the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” This is known as the principle of sola scriptura.
Putting this doctrine through the theological, philosophical and historical paces in the hope it would bear up under close scrutiny was uncomfortable for me. My assumption had always been that it was unquestionably true. I had believed it since a child. Now I was going to give my best effort to examine the familiar teaching from an outside perspective in order to ask its basis.
Coming at the doctrine from a different point of view, I had to admit certain weaknesses in it that ultimately changed my thinking. Here’s what I saw. First, the Bible doesn’t teach the principle of sola scriptura. The Scriptures are an incomparable guide for the moral life of the Christian, but they nowhere claim to be a comprehensive source for doctrine, worship, and the government of the Church. Second, the Church Fathers don’t teach sola scriptura. The Fathers did not promote anything resembling a “Scripture alone” position but instead recognized the necessity and authority of the traditions handed down from the Apostles. Third, the “Bible-based” fragmentation of Protestantism argues against the soundness of sola scriptura. All claim to be following the Bible. All arrive at different understandings of what it teaches. With such variety what standard shall we use to determine who is correct? The Bible? Fourth, the fact that the individual Protestant’s private judgment remains the final authority in evaluating faith claims undermines the principle of sola scriptura. Each person chooses the church group that agrees with his interpretation of the Bible. If disagreements arise within the group, a person then stays or leaves based on whether his interpretation is embraced or rejected. If rejected, the individual searches for a new church group that is in agreement with his interpretation of the Bible. Thus the individual remains the final arbiter of what the Bible teaches. Fifth, the fact that the Apostolic letters and writings give no divinely inspired indication what books are to be included in the canon of the New Testament makes impossible the principle of sola scriptura. How can the Bible be the ultimate authority when its very content is uncertain? Catholics believe the divinely guided Church was necessary to define what books belong to the New Testament.
Now I haven’t walked you through the details of the arguments for these five conclusions, but I hope you follow the links to the articles on CTC that provide clear reasons for what I’ve suggested above.
In contrast to this “Scripture alone” position, the Catholic Church teaches that the Church, not the Bible, is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). That by divine design it is the Church that upholds and protects the truth of the gospel throughout the centuries. The doctrine of Apostolic succession means that Bishops as successors of the Apostles are enabled by the Holy Spirit in their sacred office to preserve the Apostolic deposit of faith against every kind of error, distortion and corruption. Jesus promised to guide and instruct the ordained leaders of the Church (Jn 14:25; 16:13). The Holy Spirit’s guidance is Christ’s guarantee that the shepherds of his Church will never tamper with, pervert, or misunderstand the gospel. This is known formally as the Catholic doctrine of magisterial infallibility — the pope alone or the pope and the bishops in union with him are divinely protected from teaching error when they define matters pertaining to faith and morals.
As I studied this subject of Church authority, I began to see that the Catholic doctrine of Apostolic succession naturally connected to the biblical portrait of Church authority as it existed in the days of the Apostles. The Church wasn’t bereft of a living teaching authority when the Apostles died because these Apostles appointed qualified men to succeed them in the office of bishop, transmitting by succession a full share in the Apostolic authority so essential to the preservation and proclamation of the Apostolic deposit of faith. It became clear to me that the Bible and Church history confirm and corroborate this important teaching of the Catholic Church. Jesus gave us a Church with a book, not a book with a Church.
Let me begin this conclusion by ending at the beginning: My wife Cindy and I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church because we came to see that this Church is the Church established by Jesus Christ. We came to this realization in large measure by spending time in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, reading other positive presentations of Catholic teaching, and speaking with flesh and blood Catholics in all walks of life and vocations. The many misconceptions we had about what Catholics believed were cleared away as we dug deeply into the teaching resources of the Catholic Church and talked with actual Catholics. We began to recognize that all the Church taught and claimed was verified and confirmed in the Bible, by history, and in the lives of the saints. Over time we came to understand that the Catholic Church represents the fullness of what Christ wanted to reveal to his people; that it possesses all the gifts that our Lord wanted us to have; and that the Church in its liturgy, its apostolic teaching, the Eucharist, the sacraments, and its saints, serves as the definitive place where God’s grace is on full offer. The reason being — it is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Yes, unquestionably a profound claim. But it is the one made by the Catholic Church in all ages, and it is the claim we have come to accept.
This is your invitation to test and see. I assure you that there is no lack of evidences for her divine origin. Such are openly verifiable and abundant. One need only the willingness to discern them. Whatever my personal story may be, the proof of the Catholic Church’s divine origin resides in the realm of history. The evidences are public, out there for you to examine. You are not at the mercy of my personal judgments concerning this claim about the Catholic Church. Instead you are free to investigate the facts of the Church’s perduring existence, her miraculous life, her divine teachings, the abiding fruit of her mission in the world from the time of Christ even down to our present day. The clues are all there; they await you. You need only begin to pursue them.