Joshua Lim’s Story: A Westminster Seminary California Student becomes CatholicMay 27th, 2012 | By Joshua Lim | Category: Featured Articles
This a guest post by Joshua Lim. Joshua graduated this Spring from Westminster Seminary California, where he earned his MA in historical theology. He was born and raised in the PCUSA. He spent a few years in college as a Baptist before moving back to a confessional Reformed denomination (URCNA) prior to entering seminary. He was received into full communion with the Catholic Church this year on April 21st, the feast day of St. Anselm. He plans on continuing his studies in systematic theology.
It is hard to pinpoint any single factor that led to my conversion. Before coming to an actual decision point, I had never considered Catholicism to be an option for anyone in search of truth; even when I was most open to it, I would have sooner turned to agnosticism than to Rome. And yet, here I am, a Roman Catholic — and a happy one, at that.
In order to understand why I converted to Catholicism, it is perhaps best to begin with my move from broad evangelicalism to a more traditional expression of Protestantism. I was born and raised in the Presbyterian church. During high school, thanks to one devoted pastor, I began to study the Bible seriously and ended up leaving the Presbyterianism of my youth and becoming a Baptist. The Baptist church I subsequently joined was generally Calvinist and was composed of college students and young adults who were very fervent in their devotion to the Lord. The pastor and elders highly emphasized sola scriptura, community, holy living, revival, and missions. Doctrinally, there was no commitment to any traditional symbol of the Protestant faith, simply a brief ‘statement of faith’ as found on most conservative evangelical church websites. While theology was prized, there was, in my opinion, an anti-intellectual ethos, and the study of too much theology, which was often held in contrast to the Bible, was sometimes frowned upon. This stemmed, in part, from an identification between one’s interpretation of scripture (in this case, the pastor’s) with scripture’s ‘plain meaning.’ The sacraments, which were called ‘ordinances’ — the former term being far too Catholic — were celebrated three times a year and most of the sermons were typically centered around individual piety. Despite the relatively small size of the church, or perhaps because of it, there was a sense that, in many ways, we were the only truly biblical church. Every other church erred in some way or another, and even those who were seemingly close in terms of doctrine and practice were never fully embraced — and this unspoken suspicion tended to be mutual.
Over time, I began to grow uncomfortable with the arbitrariness of such a small and isolated church structure (the pastor seemed to have as much authority as the pope); this, combined with my own Luther-like angst caused by the almost solely sanctification-driven sermons (as well as a youthful zeal on my part) ultimately pushed me toward the more traditional Reformed expression of Protestantism. By the end of my junior year in college, I had read through books like Calvin’s Institutes, Zacharius Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, and even Herman Bavinck’s four-volume Reformed Dogmatics; I was also beginning to delve more deeply into Reformed covenant theology. Eventually, through the writings of Geerhardus Vos and Meredith Kline, I ended up rejecting Dispensationalism; further study led me to the writings of Michael Horton, who emphasized the centrality of the preached Word as well as the regular administration of the Sacraments (which were, in good Protestant form, two: baptism and communion). I came to greatly appreciate the sacraments as well as the liturgical form of worship in contrast to the often inconsistent and subjectivistic tendencies of the majority of evangelicalism. Moreover, my law-induced angst was alleviated by the gospel of free justification sola gratia et sola fide. Rather than being moved from fear of the law (proving that I truly was ‘truly elect,’ as it were), I was, at least conceptually, moved by gratitude out of my free justification to obey the Law with joy and freedom; I found a greater sense of the objectivity of Christ’s historical accomplishment on my behalf–something that I had not appreciated until I encountered the doctrine of justification in the Reformed confessions.
Yet, it was not very long until my Nietzschean drive for truth was left desiring something more. During my senior year of college, I somehow decided to read through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I was aware of Van Til’s severe criticisms of the innovative Swiss theologian, yet I found myself drawn to him as he was and in many ways continues to be the Reformed theologian of modernity. Barth’s version of Reformed Protestantism differed substantially from what I was accustomed to in the Reformed symbols. Though Barth vehemently denounced Catholicism, I still found a certain Catholic tendency, an ecumenical spirit, if you will, throughout his work. It was his writing that gradually opened me up to actually listen to opposing views; not in such a way that made me invulnerable to criticism–reading opposing views through my own lenses–but rather attempting to understand each view according to its own perspective and presuppositions. I also began to read the Bible in this way; rather than interpret the text in such a way so as to accommodate a certain notion of justification sola fide, I tried to understand how other traditions understood Scripture; and I often found these competing interpretations to be, in their own right, very compelling.
This, no doubt, left me highly dissatisfied with the Reformed confessionalism that I had come to love. The appeal to Protestant ‘tradition’ on the one hand, against the broad evangelicals, and to sola scriptura on the other, against Catholics, seemed to place confessional Reformed theology in a highly precarious position. In seminary, I would often hear invectives against the anabaptist impulse in much of Evangelicalism–what the anabaptists allegedly lacked was the tradition that Calvin and Luther as well as the many other Protestant Scholastics had never intended to let go of; what’s more, almost every problem with contemporary evangelicalism as well as modernity was genealogically traced back, never to the magisterial reformers, but those all-too-easy-to-blame, anabaptists. While I initially believed these narratives to be true, it became harder for me to see such distinctions as anything but an arbitrary defense mechanism. It seems almost impossible to deny that certain impulses within anabaptism sprang up from ideas latent in Luther’s own magisterial reformation.
Against this anabaptist problem, the proposed ‘Reformed’ solution was quite simple: the Reformed confessions had to be restored to their proper place. Yet, it was unclear how such a recovery could not immediately devolve into the in-fighting typical of Reformed denominations (indeed, it seems impossible to even get to the point where such a devolution could occur). At least on this point, it seems that Charles Finney had a degree of truth on his side: the confessions do seem to function, at least in practice, as something like a ‘paper pope.’ It is either this, or the confessions hold no authority at all. The via media, that Reformed churches and their confessions only have a ‘ministerial’ authority does not solve anything since it is unclear what this even means, as is only more evident in controversies in P&R denominations that ceaselessly result in more and more denomination splits. If the confessions do not have, at least in practice, the same authority as the Magisterium, it does not seem that they have any authority at all. The moment someone disagrees with the confession or a given interpretation of the confession on biblical grounds, they no longer need to submit themselves to that governing body. In other words, one can consistently use Luther’s “Here I stand” speech in order to avoid church discipline–and it would be hypocritical for any Protestant denomination to condemn one who appeals to his own conscience and Scripture. And that this has actually happened throughout history is not difficult to substantiate.
These irresolvable doubts led me to the slough of despond. On the one hand, I could not return to broad Evangelicalism because of its naive biblicism (condemned both by confessional Protestants as much as by Rome), but on the other hand, I could not remain a confessional Reformed Christian. Barth was of little help here. His constant criticism of all human knowledge, a consistent overflow of the Protestant notion of total depravity mixed with Kantian skepticism, led to a point where no one church or person could be trusted–for God is ever the Subject and can never be made into an ‘object’ that is controlled by man. Though Barth was undoubtedly reacting to the Protestant Liberalism of his time, his own christocentric solution only held things in abeyance without giving a permanent solution. Ultimately, by insisting so heavily on the event character of revelation, the focus on the actual content of revelation itself could only be blurred. As one Catholic theologian put it, Barth’s “insistent cry of ‘Not I! Rather God!’ actually directs all eyes on itself instead of on God. Its cry for distance gives no room for distance.”1
Rather than turn to that dreaded Catholicism, the epitome, it seemed to me, of all that I had grown tired of in Protestantism, I was gradually led down a deeper path of agnosticism. Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of religion, that it was simply man speaking in a loud voice seemed unavoidably true. It is not simply that Reformed Christianity is wrong and some other denomination is right, or even that all denominations are right; rather, if one small group of Christians could claim to have the truth to the exclusion of some or many others, and if this boiled down to an arbitrary construct of a man’s or a group of men’s imaginings (i.e., their interpretation of Scripture), then I could no longer believe that any Christian denomination had the truth. Moreover, I could only believe that this sort of arbitrary selection of dogma could only be what has occurred throughout the history of Christianity. In other words, the truth of Christ’s deity, of the Triune nature of God, the two natures of Christ, etc. were all only a matter of human debate (all of which were ultimately determined by different men vying for political and social power). In other words, the Liberal protestants were at least right about something, ‘orthodoxy’ has been and will forever be hopelessly arbitrary. To disagree with this and remain a ‘confessional’ Protestant is the greatest hypocrisy.
Needless to say, by the time I entered seminary, I was somewhat disillusioned by Protestantism as well as Christianity. I was hanging on by a thread and found myself constantly searching for reasons to pray or even believe that this version of Christianity was the version of Christianity. Though I was initially convinced that the Protestant Scholastics held the answer to modern Protestantism’s ails, I gradually realized that even with the revered Protestant Scholastics, a sense of arbitrary human invention, as much as it was despised, was still conspicuously present–simply saying that one holds God’s word over and against human invention doesn’t get rid of the very human aspect of asserting such a human belief and statement. Martin Luther and John Calvin went from looking like heroic men of God to men who were victims of their own delusion; though they believed themselves to be sent by God, it seemed that they were just two more men who were ‘reforming’ a church according to their own interpretations of Scripture formed by the philosophies and culture of their time. If all men are, as Luther and Calvin interpret Scripture to say, helplessly corrupt and depraved, how can I trust anyone? Why should I trust what Martin Luther says that the Bible teaches, or what John Calvin says the Bible teaches or any of the Reformed confessions, for that matter? Is it not the height of naiveté, even hypocrisy, to believe that everyone is totally depraved and yet continue to trust that any human interpretation of Scripture is somehow guaranteed by the Holy Spirit? Is it not more honest to say, with Nietzsche and Foucault, that all men are simply driven by a will to power? And if this is true, no human institution including the allegedly ‘ministerial’ denominations of Protestantism can be trusted because they are simply structures through which those having power can manipulate and control those who do not–indeed, this remains one of Protestantism’s perennial assaults on Rome.
The feeling of regret that many claim accompany those who decide to enter the Catholic Church (how Newman allegedly felt) is what I experienced after I had become Reformed. What is somewhat ironic is that with the disappointment following one’s journey into any Protestant denomination, one encounters those who appeal to the fact that the church is always in via, on the way, and therefore no matter what disappointments one encounters, one should remain faithful to Christ’s church. Yet, along with this admonition there is also the Protestant conviction that one should not remain in any church that does not have the marks of the true church: the preaching of the gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments. It was during this time, while I sought to remain faithful to my local Reformed church, that I encountered a measure of difficulty attempting to convince some close friends, who did not feel that they were receiving what they should have from this particular church, to remain in it. My Reformed belief in the relative importance of the visible church was in conflict with the Reformed emphasis on the importance of one’s individual conscience. Thus, while I wholeheartedly agree with the sense of importance attached to remaining accountable to a visible body, to feel this way as a Protestant seems to be entirely contradictory. Luther felt that it was necessary to separate from the Catholic Church, Zwingli from Luther, the Anabaptists from the Magisterial Reformed, the Calvinists from Arminians, and on and on–all on the conviction that I have the correct interpretation of Scripture: “Here I stand, so help me God.” In other words, I am able to understand and deal with imperfect Christians and an imperfect local body only from a Catholic perspective–where the objectivity of the Church is not dependent on the pastor’s ability to preach a sermon, but on the real presence of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Any sort of corruption one finds in the Catholic Church is found outside the Catholic Church as well. The question is whether the Church remains who she is no matter how those who constitute her visible body fail and err.
It is impossible to live in any sane manner with such suspicions and doubt as I had; and, admittedly, I have found few, save perhaps Luther, who suffered from such intense suspicion as I did. Yet, I did not have either Luther or Calvin’s confidence to trust my own interpretation of Scripture above that of the myriad of opposing interpretations. I knew as a matter of fact that if I had somehow encountered Methodism or Pentecostalism in a notable way prior to being ‘convinced’ of Reformed theology, I would have read the biblical text in a significantly different way, and would most certainly have been convinced of the veracity of that interpretation over the Reformed one. Simply attributing my ‘correct’ view to God’s grace seemed far too simple and easy, not to mention the fact that most groups, Calvinist or not, make this same appeal – “Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like them.”
So what could I do? My foot had almost slipped, I was on the brink of giving up on Christianity altogether. Even though I wanted to believe that it was all true, I simply could not bring myself to do so. Every time I attempted to pray to God, I could not help but feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed for thinking that I would be heard. I tried to appreciate the gospel of justification; the fact that my salvation was not based on any of my own effort or works, but over time it became harder and harder to delineate between God declaring me righteous through the ministry of the Word each Sunday, versus me simply trying to convince myself psychologically that things were OK. When my professors or the minister would point to the benefit of the Lord’s Supper, it was hard to convince myself that it had any value since it was the visible Word, but nothing more or less than that. Yes, one is strengthened in faith by partaking of the Lord’s Supper–but it is not literally Christ’s body and blood, only sacramentally so, which is only further explained through vague terms such as ‘sacramental union,’ which no one actually seems to know the meaning of, only that it is neither Catholic nor Zwinglian. Issues such as this caused me to question the notion that confessional Reformed Protestantism was somehow more ‘traditional’ than broader evangelicals. If there was historical continuity with the early Church, for instance, it seemed to be purely superficial. Yes, the sacraments were celebrated, baptism was administered to children, but the reasons why they were celebrated or administered differed substantially from that of the early Church. In other words, even if there was seeming continuity with tradition, the reasons behind such a continuity were just as innovative and arbitrary as the rest of evangelicalism.
It was during this time of doubt that I came across a few Catholic theologians at a conference on Protestant and Catholic theology. These were not the first Catholics that I had met; prior to this encounter, I had dialogued with a rather intelligent Catholic (though he knew very little about Reformed Protestantism–which, at the time, enabled me to ignore his arguments) at a nearby coffee shop over a span of about two years. Moreover, there were constant online debates with Catholics on different blogs that I participated in. Yet, perhaps because of my realization of the shortcomings of Reformed theology, it was at this point that I tried to really understand Catholic theology from a Catholic perspective — as much as this was possible for someone who was raised to distrust Catholicism. Through something of a providential meeting, I was able to sit down and talk to Dominican friars; I posed questions regarding nature and grace, the ascension, the Creator-creature distinction, as well as historical questions (e.g., the Avignon papacy)–I basically brought up the key problems with Catholicism that I had learned about in seminary; much to my surprise, the Dominican friars answered my questions in a more than satisfactory manner and, as it became evident through the duration of the conference, presented a very compelling understanding of nature and grace and, concomitantly, theology and philosophy.
During the several months following this conversation, I kept in touch with these theologians and they provided answers to my numerous questions. For the next five months or so, I buried myself in books, Catholic and Protestant. I carefully read Peter Martyr Vermigli’s work on predestination and justification; Vermigli was an Augustinian friar prior to his conversion to the Protestant movement, and so his book represented something of a final vestige of hope. To my surprise, I came away from the book even more convinced of the truth of Catholicism. I read Heiko Oberman’s work on the medieval nominalism of Gabriel Biel and its immense influence on Luther’s theology. Through my study, I realized that much of my doubt and skepticism stemmed from certain philosophical assumptions that I had unwittingly adopted regarding knowledge of God and reality through Luther’s theologia crucis–and much of the philosophical issues that I had stemmed from my understanding of theology’s relation to philosophy. The inextricable link between philosophy and theology became evident to me. One cannot have a ‘pure theology,’ just as one cannot simply believe the Bible without simultaneously interpreting it; philosophy will always be there whether one acknowledges it or not–and those who claim to have no philosophy in distinction from their theology must necessarily elicit a certain sense of suspicion, much like the suspicion aroused by fundamentalists who claim simply to be reading the Bible.
It was during this time that I found a source of intellectual solace in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. I had already been introduced to him a year before and had taken a class on him in seminary; at this point, I had already read through a quarter of his Summa Theologiae (through which I was disabused of the notion that Aquinas was doing ontotheology), but I was still somewhat suspicious of his view of grace and the Law. Nevertheless, I decided to give it another go and read the Summa Theologiae straight through. In St. Thomas I discovered a much more compelling reason to believe in God, and the Angelic Doctor’s careful delineation between what could be known by nature (e.g., God’s existence) and what could only be known through grace helped me to re-assess my now receding skepticism (which, going farther back than Kant, was ultimately grounded in Luther’s allergy to the deus nudus that all the Scholastics were allegedly trying to get an illicit glimpse of via philosophy). Along with Luther’s distinction between a theologia gloriae and a theologia crucis, went the notion of justification sola fide as well as the doctrine of sola scriptura. Only through nominalist philosophical lenses, it seemed to me, could justification be conceived of as something purely extrinsic (resulting in a view that the Christian was simul iustus et peccator). In other words, in the same way that Reformed theologians typically accuse the Church Fathers of being unduly influenced by Greek philosophy, I found that the Reformers were guilty of adopting, in an even more uncritical fashion, the philosophy of their time without any sense of open acknowledgement; on the contrary, they ignored their assumptions and identified their interpretation of the Bible with the Bible–against the ‘speculations’ of the medieval theologians.
Moreover, I realized that many of the positive impulses that I had discovered in Reformed theology were found in exceeding measure in the Catholic Church. Contrary to the claim that the Catholic Church (or Eastern Orthodoxy) represents something of an extreme to which people merely seeking unwarranted certainty go to (painting the Reformed church as something of a via media– a claim made by Anglicans and Methodists as well), I found that the Catholic Church tended to provide a much more balanced and consistent approach to Scripture as well as Tradition. Moreover, the problem of individualism pervasive in evangelical theology, or the vague community-centered ecclesiology of more emergent churches, there seemed to be the proper balance, not in Reformed theology which only seemed to combine the two resulting in a conglomeration of people who each considered themselves to be experts in theology in contrast to ‘broad evangelicals,’ but in the Catholic Church: plurality in unity. Far from the One sublimating the many, I found that the confession of One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church entailed a true sense of unity as well as a true sense of distinction between each member of the Church.
Moreover, I was surprised to find very little, if any, signal of that pride stemming from works-righteousness that Luther and the Reformers had warned against. Yes, these people believed that they had to cooperate with God’s grace, but this did not mean that Christ was somehow less necessary or that their works were somehow the cause of God’s grace. These were Christians who confessed at every celebration of the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Any sign of that Judaizing tendency of boasting before God was absent.
After spending several months meeting privately with a Norbertine Father, I was recently received into the Catholic Church. Throughout this journey I have come to appreciate and love the Catholic Church. As many Protestants warn, there are certain difficulties that the Catholic convert must necessarily face. The contemporary Catholic Church in America is far from perfect. Liturgically, there are, at least in Southern California, very few parishes that celebrate Mass the way Catholics should; there are numerous liberal Catholics who don’t submit to the Magisterium (to the delight of Protestants), the list seems endless. But none of this is actually new for the Church; things have always been so. These issues have not moved me from the conviction that the Catholic Church is the true Church; on the contrary, they have only increased my faith that this must be the true Church. If Christ could continue to work to build his Church with such a history of failings on the part of the laity, various priests, bishops, and even popes, surely this Church must be sustained by God himself; despite the passage of over two millennia, the Church continues to hold and to teach in substance what it has always held and taught. Unlike much of Protestantism which no longer believes what even the magisterial Reformers once held to be fundamental tenets of the faith (Trinity, inerrancy, etc.), the Catholic Church remains unmoved, not by virtue of her own strength, but by virtue of the grace of the Holy Spirit preserving the Church. Though I was initially turned off by the fact that most Catholics don’t know as much as I would like them to (ultimately, due to my own pride), yet I am constantly humbled by the devotion of seemingly simple Catholics whose love for the Lord and faith in his presence in the Eucharist manifest true child-like faith. On more than one occasion I have been moved by the idea that were Christ here today, these would be the people who would follow him without food or drink in order to hear his teaching and receive his flesh and blood without question or doubt. Though I once criticized these foolish sheep from a distance, I am glad finally to be considered one of them.
- Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, p. 84. [↩]