To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.
SAINT JOHN HENRY NEWMAN
Once upon a time, I was an atheist. It seems like ages ago that I was an atheist. But I am only eight years removed from that error. When I was an atheist, I was not halfway about it. I had embraced the militant form of the foolishness espoused by the New Atheists which made me vocal, loud, and proud about being an unbeliever. This provoked a great deal of prayers for my conversion from various Protestant Christians in my workplace. Those prayers were sincere, and they worked. I would flee atheism to become Roman Catholic. When that happened, those Protestants wished I had remained an atheist.
Before I was an atheist, I was a Protestant. This was not a halfway thing with me either. I was raised in the faith of the Southern Baptist denomination and would be baptized in the Baptist church as an adult. I grew up with Billy Graham, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and Campus Crusade for Christ. I subscribed to Christianity Today magazine and embraced the “born again” label. I experienced a lot of bliss in those days of ignorance, but ignorance does not last forever.
I grew dissatisfied with my faith. I would read the Bible and just come away more perplexed. I struggled with sins that I just could not overcome. And I could not tell you who started my denomination or where it came from. I had some vague notions about Martin Luther who I liked and John Calvin who I considered scary and wrong. But I had an older Christian friend who seemed to know more about religion than I did. He was a Calvinist, and he introduced me to the writings and theology of John Calvin. I read Calvin’s Institutes. I found the arguments persuasive, and I embraced the hard to swallow doctrine of predestination. It changed my life. Unfortunately, it was not for the good.
I read everything I could about Reformed theology. My favorite theologian was RC Sproul. I thought that guy had all the answers. As I drank it all in, I moved from the Southern Baptist denomination to the Presbyterian church because it more closely conformed to my Calvinist beliefs. I also felt called to become a Presbyterian minister like my Calvinist friend and followed him to the seminary where RC Sproul taught. By the time I arrived there, Sproul had already had his falling out with fellow Reformed faculty and had left. I never took a single class from the man. But this was OK as the rest of the seminary had drunk deeply of that same poison.
I became more rabidly Calvinist while at seminary. I recognized in evangelical Christianity the subtle return to papist sensibilities about things. The notion of free will was the most obvious. The errors that Luther and Calvin had expunged from Christianity were coming back. I embraced the notion that the Reformed church must always be reforming. I would switch from reading Christianity Today to Modern Reformation magazine and would listen to hours of tapes of a show called The White Horse Inn. They would have a Lutheran on the show who Reformed people disagreed with on particulars but could join on the one issue of common agreement. The Church of Rome was the Whore of Babylon.
Now, my knowledge of church history and Catholicism was scant and distorted. I knew nothing of church history as an evangelical, so I was happy to work my way back to the roots of the Reformation. Calvinism gave me something I was lacking as an evangelical–a sense of history and tradition. Unfortunately, I had not gone back far enough. My view of things was that the Christian religion had been delivered pure to the Apostles in the first century and had been corrupted by Greek and Roman paganism by the third century. The only bright light in those dark times was Augustine of Hippo. Luther and Calvin were fond of him, so I considered Augustine one of the good guys who sort of got it in those pre-Reformation days. Otherwise, it was all rot and corruption.
To be Protestant, you have to believe that Jesus fumbled the ball for 1500 years of church history. But as a Calvinist, this did not concern me because of predestination. I believed people had faith, and their ignorance on matters of faith and morals was inconsequential to their salvation., So, it was OK that those pre-Reformation Christians worshipped Mary and statues. The elect could never be lost. By the same token, the elect contributed nothing to their salvation including their own free will choices. Free will was a heretical myth.
I thought Calvin, Sproul, Michael Horton, and all my seminary instructors had the answers. The problem came when I would read the Bible and still be perplexed at various passages in the New Testament. I was also struggling to overcome my sins except I felt powerless to make progress. To assuage my guilt on things, I had embraced the Lutheran distinction between the Law and the Gospel. The hard passages demanding my holiness were Law passages meant to drive me to the Gospel passages. I would befriend another seminarian who struggled much as I did. I had no idea of the enormity of his struggles in comparison to my own. But we both embraced the Law and Gospel thing. We would drink beer and whiskey and console each other that we were black hearted sinners saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.
When you can’t advance in holiness and sanctification, a good substitute is to advance in academics. We never expected to put “saint” in front of our names, but we could put some letters after our names. For us, our heroes were the ones who knew the most about theology, philosophy, church history, Greek, and Hebrew. I revered guys like B.B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, and John Gresham Machen. Needless to say, I read many books which left me more adrift than before. This is because the repetition of a lie can never turn a falsehood into a truth.
My deep reading on all things Reformed came to a screeching halt when I found my black hearted sinner friend dead by his own hand in his room. I could not understand this tragedy. Why would someone so well read in systematic theology with top marks in Hebrew kill himself? It put me into a tailspin. I began digging and badgering my seminary instructors until one admitted to me that my housemate was a closeted homosexual who had tried to kill himself twice before because of the guilt he felt over his sins. He had even written a paper on the subject of suicide and how a Christian could still expect to go to Heaven after killing himself because of the sola fide doctrine and the doctrine of election. At the memorial service for him, his minister agreed that my friend was in Heaven despite killing himself.
Needless to say, I was shocked, horrified, traumatized, and disgusted. I tried to do what my seminary instructors told me to do and just get over it. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know any better, but my gut told me that my friend’s religion had killed him. And it would kill me, too. I had to get the hell out of that place, and I did. I left seminary and never looked back.
I was not an atheist at that moment. That would take a few more years before I would come to that. But I stopped praying at that moment. I stopped going to church. I stopped reading the Bible. I closed my theology books. I saw it as taking a break for awhile until I could figure things out. The reality is that Protestantism leads inexorably to atheism. The tragedy had taken me there by the express lane instead of the long years it takes with others who finally either become openly atheist or hide it because they still need to make a living from their false religion.
Catholicism was never an option for me. I didn’t even consider Catholics to be Christians. I remember being incensed when Chuck Colson started playing footsie with the papists. There was a rumor floating around about one of our own who had apostasized to become Catholic. I would find out later that this was Scott Hahn. Others had made the same journey, but we blotted out their names from our memory banks. It was as if they never lived. The elect could never lose their salvation except by becoming Catholic.
As I slid into atheism, it all became a moot point to me. Catholicism was on the same footing as Protestantism, Hinduism, and voodoo as far as I was concerned. It was all ignorance and superstition to me. The irony is that move was what allowed me to consider Catholicism without my Protestant prejudices. When I met and married my Catholic wife, I studied the Catholic religion as an academic matter just to understand her better. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Peter and Paul were Catholic. The New Testament was Catholic. The gaps in my knowledge got filled in to the point where I realized that Luther and Calvin were a couple of liars who deluded a lot of people on things. Roman Catholicism was the truest form of the Christian religion. But it didn’t change the fact that I was an atheist. As I said, it was an academic thing for me.
My conversion came as I sat in my chair one day and thought about the whole matter and the new knowledge that I had. I still did not believe in God, but I wanted to believe in God. That was all I had. But it was all I needed. I moved exactly one inch in God’s direction. He did all the rest. That mustard seed of faith was turned into my conversion to Roman Catholicism. I felt that I had been stumbling around in a dark room for years and had accidentally turned on the light switch. But there are no accidents with God.
I believe God allowed me to be both deeply Protestant and deeply atheist before becoming deeply Catholic because those experiences help me to do apologetics with those two groups that I encounter with great frequency today. The effect in my own life is that I have been able to overcome sins that crippled me as a Protestant. This is the result of the grace I now receive in the sacraments. Grace works. And I also understand the Bible now and recognize the brilliant foolishness of my seminary professors. They had it wrong. They don’t even have the basic knowledge we teach our kids in CCD. And it was not pure religion that pushed my friend to his tragic death but heresy.
I am not Protestant because I have been there and done that. Precious few Protestants know anything about the history of the Christian faith and the Roman Catholic Church. Like John Henry Newman, I read the rest of the story. Luther and Calvin were no different than Arius or Pelagius before them. They beguiled people by telling them things that suited their itching ears. The result is the mutilated Christianity of Protestantism.
I have to laugh when some Baptist without even a high school diploma quotes his King James Bible and spouts out some distorted crap he heard from the pulpit of his church. Somehow, his knowledge and authority trumps the popes, bishops, apostles, church fathers, and saints of generations. That fool will claim the Holy Spirit as his inspiration and authority as if two thousand years of saints and believers were somehow deprived of the Holy Spirit. Then, in a week or so, that guy will leave his church for another one more to his liking. Whatever. . .
I have found that the best argument I can make against Protestants is with my life. I am sincere about my Catholic faith, and I practice that faith. I love the Lord and our Lady. I make the sign of the Cross and say the blessing before every meal. I attend Mass every Sunday. I read the Bible daily and pray my rosary. In short, I live the life of devotion that I believed Catholics were incapable of having when I was a Protestant. I am not perfect, but I am sincere. I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This flummoxes evangelicals who deny that Catholics have supernatural faith and confounds Lutherans and Calvinists frustrated in their own pursuit of sanctification. The simple fact is that Catholicism is true, and it works. This is why all my Protestant friends talk about the “old Charlie” and the “new Charlie.”
My advice to Protestants is this. Read the history of the Church. Find out what happened after the Acts of the Apostles. Find out what happened after Saint John stroked the last letter of Revelation. Find out what happened to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Find out about the ones who came after that time. In short, get deep in history. Once you find out the whole story, it all makes much more sense.