NOTE: This article is a summary of a chapter in my book Evangelical Exodus (Ignatius Press, 2016).
The Tiber River in Italy is often used as an indirect reference to the city of Rome and, by extension, Roman Catholicism. Converts to Catholicism, then, are often said to have “swum the Tiber.” After several years of disillusionment with Evangelicalism, I found myself eyeing the Tiber’s far shores, occasionally splashing around in it, and eventually found myself neck deep in the middle. Treading can only keep one from drowning for only so long though – and so it was that with fear and trembling I finally decided it was time to swim for one side or the other.
On Evangelical Shores
Although I (nearly) always eschewed the goofier parts of its culture, I was immersed in Evangelicalism for over 20 years before I began seriously looking outside its confines. During these years I ranged from being a Calvary Chapel guy to a Southern Baptist, but as close as “Evangelical” came to a serious agreed-upon definition, I pretty much met it (cf. Philippians 3:4-7):
- Saved in an Evangelical Ministry.
- Baptized in an Evangelical Church.
- Served in an Evangelical College Group.
- Taught by an Evangelical Church.
- Created an Evangelical Apologetics Website (with an entire section on the errors of Catholicism!).
- Educated in an Evangelical Seminary.
- Ordained by an Evangelical Church.
- Researched, edited, and contributed to an Evangelical Systematic Theology.
- Spoke internationally at Evangelical Churches, Conferences, and Ministries.
- Taught at Evangelical Colleges and Seminary.
- Published by Evangelical Publishers.
By the time I reached this point in my Evangelical life, I thought I had pretty much “arrived.” I was quite happy, but the winds of change soon began to blow.
My journey away from Evangelicalism did not begin with me giving up my beliefs; rather, with it was with my trying to make better sense of them. I became more and more dissatisfied with the answers given to fundamental questions such as “How was the canon (the books in our Bible) decided?” and “What makes one doctrine essential to Christianity, but not another?” Although many other factors would eventually enter in, it was primarily these two issues that drove me on.
It seemed that the Bible-alone approach I was taught was an attempt to ground Christian unity in a way that generated disunity. Further, I realized that holding to an authoritative and infallible Bible only made sense if we had an authoritative and infallible list of which books belonged in it, and that it did little good to agree on the Bible’s contents if Christians could legitimately disagree about practically everything it taught. As to settling orthodoxy, the logical or hermeneutical methods I had been taught simply failed (even when it came to salvation). How could we claim to have “unity in the essentials” if we disagreed on what the essentials were?
My long-held assumptions were being challenged not only by skeptics like Bart Ehrman or Sam Harris, but by Evangelical scholars like D. H. Williams, Craig Allert, Mark Noll, and Os Guinness. According to some Protestant scholars, the Reformation is misunderstood by many Protestants as well. So I dug in to see what I might discover. After studying more about Church history, I saw no better answers to my questions on the horizon. The biblical canon was basically accepted from the early Church – but why? Skeptics argued that the biblical canon was just the “books that won” out in history, and Protestants seemed to agree (saying the Bible was just a “fallible collection of infallible books“).
As to the question of orthodoxy, Protestant denominations generally understood the Bible through some official confessions, but in the end they could grant these no more binding authority than Evangelical “doctrinal statements.” It seemed to me that if one was going to trust some official statement, why choose these late additions to the faith as authoritative?
At this point I was convinced of the following:
- The Church Jesus founded was authoritative, apostolic, unified, and visible (Mt. 16:18-19; Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 12:-30; Jn. 17:20-21).
- This Church was built on authoritative apostolic teaching – both written and verbal (2 Thess. 2:25; 3:6; 2 Tim. 2:2).
- This Church cannot have been, and never can be, overcome (Mt. 16:18).
- This Church was guided by God to accurately determine the biblical canon and orthodox creeds (1 Tim. 3:15).
Crossing the Channel
So I turned from continental Protestantism to the English Reformation (the Church of England / Anglicanism / Episcopalianism). For about three years I attended two great Anglican churches – conservative groups who had broken away from the liberal Episcopal Church in America. The problem was that the very existence of these break-off groups was made possible by the same principles that led to the existence of tens of thousands of other Protestant denominations.
I also had difficulty defending Anglicanism’s causes (i.e., Henry the VIII’s desire to divorce his wife and English politics) as well as its effects (e.g., divorce, contraception, homosexual marriage / ordination, heretical bishops, etc.). Thus, although these particular Anglicans were solid, I could not ultimately commit to Anglicanism.
The Headwaters of the Ancient Church
In the New Testament I found a Church that was not always what it should have been – but rather than proving that the Church could not be trusted, this merely showed that it was not always trustworthy (just like the authors of the Bible!). More importantly, I found that this Church had authoritative means of correcting itself – that, at times, it acted with God’s supervision and oversight (e.g., Acts 15), and so could be trusted (again, just like the authors of the Bible!). This ability was never considered lost by the Church: authoritative councils continued to be enacted, and authoritative creeds continued to be written. Much of this occurred well before the New Testament canon was settled (much less readily available).
I finally had to admit that the Church which produced the creeds of orthodoxy and the canon of Scripture was neither Evangelical nor Protestant. The problem with this ancient Church was that seemed to be a thing of the past. Toward the end of the first millennium, a great schism broke the ancient Church into “Eastern Orthodoxy” and “Roman Catholicism.”
The Orthodox Branch
Once I turned toward the ancient Church, new questions had to be asked. Catholics and Orthodox both had a legitimate historical claim to its identity, but I found Eastern Orthodoxy too culturally divided both internally and externally. I feared what would happen if I ever moved away from the good local Orthodox church we had. Finally, while I sensed occasional animosity from both sides toward the other, the western Church seemed more accepting of the East (what it calls the “second lung” of the Body), and I was not interested in fighting that battle.
In the end, I had to agree with Thomas Howard’s assessment: I didn’t start the schism, I probably can’t resolve it, and for better or worse, I am western. That left only one viable option – one I never thought I’d even consider. The dreaded “C” word.
Toes in the Tiber
Theoretically narrowing the choices down to Catholicism was not enough for me to make the Tiber swim. I always thought Catholicism had serious doctrinal problems. In fact, my website used to include an entire section on its errors! Unfortunately most of my information was secondhand summaries from what I read in anti-Catholic literature. I would never accept such a practice from anyone criticizing my beliefs, so I started reading primary sources.
When I did, I found Catholicism to be quite different than I had envisioned. I found that I was, in fact, already in agreement with much more of Catholicism than I would have guessed. Teachings on Transubstantiation, Purgatory, the Rosary, Mary, the saints and meriting salvation (what Evangelicals thought of as “legalism“) made quite a bit more sense than I would have imagined. Once the above misconceptions were cleared away, I saw that many of the things I initially found objectionable were based on principles that I already held, but had simply never extrapolated.
I spent the next couple of years diving in to anything I could read on Evangelical conversion. I blogged, debated, taught, and discussed these issues as much as possible. In the process I made many Catholic friends and, unfortunately, lost some Evangelical friends. I also had several Evangelical friends convert to Catholicism (and some to Orthodoxy) for largely the same reasons I was looking into it. Although there were some serious obstacles remaining, I could not tread forever.
After five years of study and discussion, I began attending RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – classes for those interested in joining, or just learning more about, the Catholic Church) at the parish where most of my Catholic friends went. My issues began to be settled, questions answered, and mistaken notions clarified. Catholicism filled in so many of the holes I always had to step around in Evangelicalism.
I eventually asked myself this: “If every Christian that had ever lived came back to life next Sunday and went to their respective churches, where would I want to attend?” The church of Ignatius, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Dante, J. R. R.Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Mother Teresa, Flannery O’Connor, Francis Beckwith, and Peter Kreeft sounded pretty good! How could all these great Christians throughout history – many who formed, expounded, lived, and defended so much of the Christian faith as we know it today – get it as horribly wrong as Protestants believed they had?
Dog Paddling To Shore
Somewhere along the line I came across this quote from Thomas Aquinas that really convicted me of my theological autonomy:
Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith. . . . Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. (Summa Theologiae II.II.5.3)
Becoming Catholic would mean choosing to trust the Church instead of myself, and sometimes the two did not sync well. To be honest, I never really reached a point of total comfort with the idea of becoming Catholic, but I came to think that perhaps God wanted me to make a true faith decision – not just another move from one form of Christianity to another according to my personal preference.
I resonated with Peter’s words recorded in John 6:68 – “To whom [else] shall I go?”
And so it was that during the Easter Vigil of 2014, I dragged myself, exhausted, onto the Tiber’s banks and was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. While I was not (to riff off of C. S. Lewis) “the most dejected and reluctant Catholic in all America,” I cannot say I was completely euphoric. But I was finally on solid ground.
“To those of you with whom I have traveled in the past, know that we travel together still. In the mystery of Christ and his Church nothing is lost, and the broken will be mended. If, as I am persuaded, my communion with Christ’s Church is now the fuller, then it follows that my unity with all who are in Christ is now the stronger. We travel together still.” – Richard John Neuhaus