I am a Catholic catechist, speaker, and writer living in Birmingham, Alabama. I also host the EWTN Radio Program Called to Communion. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church (PCA) and attended a Protestant college and seminary. During my Ph.D. studies in Reformation History, I became persuaded of the truth of the Catholic Faith. (Read about it here.) I entered the Church in 2003, along with my wonderful wife, Jill, and my (now) five children. I speak at conferences, parishes, debates, and other venues.
I can be reached at calvin2catholic@gmail.com
A Protestant Historian Discovers the Catholic Faith

I was raised as an evangelical Protestant, in Birmingham, Alabama. My parents were loving and dedicated, sincere in their faith, and deeply involved in our church. They instilled in me a respect for the Bible as the Word of God, and a desire and a living faith in Christ. Missionaries attended our home and brought their enthusiasm for their work. The shelves in our house were full of theology and apologetics books. Early on, I absorbed the notion that my highest calling was to teach the Christian faith. I suppose it’s no surprise that I have become a historian of the Church, but to become a Catholic was the last thing I expected.

The church of my family was nominally Presbyterian, but the denominational differences meant very little to us. I often heard that disagreements about baptism, supper, or the government of the Lord’s church were not important, since I believe in the Gospel. So we wanted to say that one must be “born again”, that salvation is by faith, and the Bible is the sole authority for the Christian faith. Our church supported the ministries of many different Protestant denominations, but the group certainly was in opposition to the Catholic Church.

The myth of a “recovery” Protestant Gospel was strong in our church. I learned very early to idolize the Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, because they had supposedly rescued Christianity from the darkness of medieval Catholicism. Catholics were those who trusted in “good works” to get them to heaven, who surrendered to tradition instead of Scripture, and who worshiped Mary and the saints instead of God. His obsession with the sacraments also created a huge obstacle to the true faith and a personal relationship with Jesus. There was no doubt. Catholics were not true Christians.

Our church was characterized by a sort of confident intellectualism. Presbyterians tend to be quite theologically or intellectual, and seminary professors, advocates, scientists and philosophers were frequent speakers at our conferences. It was this intellectual atmosphere that attracted my father to the church, and his shelves were filled with the works of the reformer John Calvin and the Puritan Jonathan Edwards, as well as more recent authors such as BB Warfield, AA Hodge, CS Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. As part of the academic culture, we took it for granted that the honest investigation would lead one to our version of the Christian faith.

All these influences have left permanent impressions on me as a child. I started to find Christianity a bit like Newtonian physics. The Christian faith consisted of certain eminently reasonable and immutable laws, and you were guaranteed eternal life as long as you have built your life according to these principles. I also thought that this was the message clearly stated in the official book of Christian theology, the Bible. Only the irrational confidence in human tradition or depraved indifference could explain the failure of someone to cling to these simple truths.

There was a strange irony in this highly religious and theological environment. He made it clear that was the faith and not works that were saving. Also confessed the classical Protestant belief that all people are “totally depraved”, which means that even their best moral efforts are intrinsically odious to God and nothing can deserve. By the time I got to school, I put these pieces and concludes that religious practice and moral effort were more or less irrelevant to my life. Not that I have lost my faith. On the contrary, I absorbed completely. I had accepted Christ as my Savior and was “reborn”. I believed that the Bible was the word of God. I also believed that none of my religious or moral work had any value. So I stopped doing them.

Fortunately, my indifference lasted only a few years, and I had a real conversion to faith in college. I found that my need for God was deeper than a simple “fire insurance”. I also met a beautiful girl I started going to Protestant services. Jill had been raised nominally Catholic, but could not keep up the practice of their faith after confirmation. Together, we found ourselves growing deeper into the Protestant faith, and after a few months, both become disillusioned with worldly atmosphere of our University of New Orleans. We conclude that the American Midwest and the evangelical school Wheaton College would provide us with a more spiritual environment, and the two transfer in the middle of our second year (in January 1991).

Wheaton College is a beacon for sincere evangelical Christians from various backgrounds. Protestants of various denominations are represented, united in their commitment to Christ and the Bible. My childhood taught me that theology, apologetics and evangelism were the largest Christian vocation, and I found them all in plentiful supply at Wheaton College. That’s when I first thought to commit my life to the study of theology. It was also at Wheaton College that Jill and I became engaged.

After graduation, Jill and I were married, and finally made our way to the Evangelical University Divine Trinity in Chicago. My goal was to have a seminary education, and possibly completing my Ph.D. degree I wanted to become one of those professors of theology who admired both in the church during my youth.

I threw myself at the seminar abandoning everything. I loved my theology courses, Scripture and Church history, and I thrived on faith, trust and sense of mission that permeated the school. I also embraced his anti-Catholic atmosphere. I was there in 1994 when the document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” was first published and the college was almost uniformly hostile to him. They saw any compromise with Catholics as a betrayal of the Reformation. Catholics were not just brothers in the Lord. They were apostates.

I accepted the anti-Catholic attitudes of my seminary professors, so when it came time to move on in my studies, I decided to focus myself on a historical study of the Reformation. I thought there could not be a better preparation to attack the Catholic Church and win converts, than deeply know the minds of the great leaders of our faith – Martin Luther and John Calvin. I also wanted to understand the whole story of Christianity so that he could put the reform in context. I wanted to be able to show how the medieval church had abandoned the true faith and how the reformers had recovered it. To this end, I started Ph.D. studies in historical theology at the University of Iowa. I never imagined that the history of the Church of the Reformation would take me to the Catholic Church.

Before I began my studies in Iowa, Jill and I witnessed the birth of our first child, a boy. His little brother was born less than two years later, and sister arrived before we left Iowa (and now we have five children). My wife was too busy taking care of the kids while I committed myself almost entirely to my studies. I see today that I spent a lot of time in the library and not enough time with my wife, my children and my daughter. I think that justifies this confidence negligence on my sense of mission. I had a vocation – to witness the faith through theological study – and an intellectual vision of the Christian faith of my Christian duty. For evangelical Christians, which is believed to be most important is that the person lives. I was learning to defend and promote these beliefs. What could be more important?

I started my doctoral studies in September 1995. I took courses at the beginning of medieval history and the Church of the Reformation. I read the Church Fathers, the Scholastic theologians, and the Protestant Reformers. At each step, I tried to relate later theologians to earlier ones, all of them with Scripture. I had a goal to justify the Reformation and that meant, above all, to investigate the doctrine of “justification by faith.” For Protestants, this is the most important doctrine “recovered” by the Reformation.

Reformers insisted that they were following the old church to teach “Sola Fide,” and as evidence pointed to the writings of the Church Father, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). My seminary professors also pointed to Augustine as the original source of Protestant theology. The reason for this was Augustine’s interest in the doctrines of original sin, grace and justification. He was the first of the Fathers to attempt a systematic explanation of these Pauline themes. He also put a sharp contrast between “works” and “faith” (see his work “On the Spirit and the Letter,” 412 AD). Ironically, it was my research and this doctrine of St. Augustine, which began my journey to the Catholic Church.

My first problem came when I began to understand what really Augustine taught about salvation. In a nutshell, Augustine rejected the “Sola Fide”. It is true that he had a great respect for the faith and grace, but via these primarily as the source of our good works. Augustine taught that we literally “deserve” eternal life, when our lives are transformed by grace. This is completely different from the Protestant point of view.

The implications of my discovery were profound. I did not know enough of my college days and seminar to understand that Augustine taught nothing less than the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. I decided to go to the Church’s most ancient Fathers in my quest for “pure faith” of Christian antiquity. Unfortunately, the most ancient Fathers of the Church were even less help than Augustine.

Augustine came from the north of Latin language speaking Africa. Others came from Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, Rome, Gaul, and Egypt. They represented different cultures, speaking different languages, and have been associated with different apostles. I thought it would be possible that some of them could have misunderstood the Gospel, but it seemed unlikely that everyone would be confused. True faith had to be represented somewhere in the ancient world. The only problem was that I could not find it. No matter where I looked, on any continent, in any century, the Fathers agreed: salvation comes through the transformation of the moral life and not by faith only. They also taught that this transformation begins and is nourished in the sacraments, and not by any individual conversion experience.

At this stage of my journey I was looking forward to continuing to be a Protestant. All my life, marriage, family and career were linked to Protestantism. My findings in Church history were a huge threat to my identity, so I turned to the Bible studies looking for comfort and help. I thought that if I could be absolutely confident in the use of reformers to the Scriptures, so I could basically lay off 1500 years of Christian history. I avoided the Catholic academy, or books that I thought were intended to undermine my faith, and I preferred to concentrate on what I thought were the most objective Protestant works, historical and also of biblical scholarship. I was looking for a solid proof that the reformers were right in their understanding of Paul. What I did not know was that the best of the Protestant Academy of the twentieth century had already rejected the reading of Luther’s Bible.

Luther based his whole rejection of the Church on Paul’s words: “A person is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Romans 3: 28). Luther took this contrast between “faith” and “works” meant that there was no role for morality in the salvation process (according to the Protestant traditional view, moral behavior is a response to salvation, but not a contributing factor) . I learned that the early Church Fathers rejected this view. Now I had found a whole series of Protestant scholars also willing to testify that this is not what Paul meant.

The Fathers of the second century Church believed that Paul had rejected the only relevance of Jewish law for salvation ( “the law” = Mosaic law). They saw faith as the entrance to the Church’s life, sacraments, and the Spirit. Faith allows us the means of grace, but is not in itself a sufficient reason for salvation. What I saw in the most recent and highly respected Protestant scholars is the same point of view. From the last third of the twentieth century, scholars such as EP Sanders, Krister Stendhal, James Dunn and NT Wright, have argued that the traditional Protestantism played deeply hurt Paul. According to Stendhal and others, justification by faith is primarily on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and not on the role of morality as a condition of eternal life. Together, their work has been referred to as “A New Perspective on Paul.”

My discovery of this “New Perspective” was a watershed in my understanding of the Scriptures. I saw, to begin with, that the “New Perspective,” was actually the “Old Perspective” of the early Church Fathers. I started to test it against my own reading of Paul and found that she had felt. It also solved the longstanding tension I always felt between Paul and the rest of the Bible. Even Luther had had difficulty in reconciling his reading of Paul with the Sermon on the Mount, the Epistle of St. James, and the Old Testament. Once I tried the “New Perspective” this difficulty disappeared. Reluctantly, I had to accept that the reformers were wrong about justification.

These findings in my academic work were parallel to some extent the findings in my personal life. Protestant theology strongly distinguishes belief behavior, and I began to see how it affected me. Since childhood, I always had identified theology, apologetics and evangelism as the highest vocation in the Christian life, while the virtues should be mere fruits of correct belief. Unfortunately, I found that the fruits were not only missing in my life, but my theology had really contributed to my vices. She made me censorship, proud and argumentative. I also realized I had done the same thing for my heroes.

The more I learned about the Protestant Reformers, less personally I liked them. I recognized that my own founder, John Calvin, was an arrogant and self-important man, who was brutal to his enemies, never accepted personal responsibility, and condemned anyone who did not agree with him. He called himself a prophet and attributed divine authority to their own teaching. This contrasts starkly with enough of what I was learning about the Catholic theologians. Many of them were saints, meaning they had lived lives of heroic self-sacrifice and charity. Even the largest of them – men like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas – also recognized that they had no personal authority to define the dogma of the Church.

Outwardly, I remained firmly anti-Catholic. I continued to attack the Church and defend the Reformation, but inwardly I was in a psychological and spiritual agony. I found that my theology and all the work of my life were based on a lie, and that my own ethical, moral and spiritual life was deeply lacking. I was rapidly losing my motivation to challenge Catholicism, and instead I simply wanted to know the truth. The Protestant Reformers had justified his revolt by an appeal to “Sola Scriptura.” My studies of the doctrine of justification had shown me that Scripture was not so clear guide as claimed reformers. And if all its call for “Sola Scriptura” was wrong? Why, after all, I would treat the “Sola Scriptura” as the final authority?

When I raised this question to me, I realized I did not have a good answer. The real reason called for “Sola Scriptura” was that this is what I had been taught. By studying the subject, I found that no Protestant has given a satisfactory answer to this question. Reformers do not really defended the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura.” They just said it. Even worse, I learned that the modern Protestant theologians who tried to defend the “Sola Scriptura” did so with an appeal to tradition. It seemed illogical. Eventually, I realized that the “Sola Scriptura” is not even in Scripture. The doctrine is self-defeating. I saw that the early Christians did not know most of “Sola Scriptura”, than they had known of “faith.” On the issues of how we are saved and how we define faith, the earliest Christian found its center in the church. The Church was so much authority over the Christian doctrine and the means of salvation.

The Church was the question to which I kept coming back to me. Evangelicals tend to see the Church as simply an association of the faithful united mentally. Even the reformers, Luther and Calvin, had a much stronger vision of the Church than that, but the early Christians had the highest teaching of all. I used to see its emphasis on the Church as unbiblical, as opposed to “faith,” but I began to realize it was my evangelical tradition that was unbiblical.

Scripture teaches that the Church is the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4, 12). Evangelicals tend to dismiss it as mere metaphor, but the early Christians thought of it as, literally, but mystically, the truth. St. Gregory of Nyssa said: “He who contemplates the Church really contemplate Christ.” As I thought about it, I realized that he said a deep truth about the biblical meaning of salvation. St. Paul teaches that the baptized are united to Christ in his death, so also they were together in the resurrection (Romans 6: 3-6). This union literally makes the Christian a partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1: 4). St. Athanasius could even say, “He became man so that we could be raised to God” (De Incarnatione, 54.3). The ancient doctrine of the Church was now sense to me, because I saw that their salvation is nothing but union with Christ and continued growth in nature. The Church is not a mere association of people with similar interests. It is a supernatural reality because it shares the life and ministry of Christ.

This perception was also felt in the sacramental doctrine of the Church. When the Church baptizes, absolves sins, or above all, offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is really Christ who baptizes, absolves and offers his own body and blood. The sacraments do not diminish Christ. They make this.

The Scriptures are quite simple on the sacraments. If you take them literally, you must conclude that baptism is the “rebirth bath and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3: 5). What Jesus meant when he said, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6, 55). He was not lying when he promised “If you forgive the sins will be forgiven them” (John 20, 23). This is exactly how the early Christians understood the sacraments. I could no longer accuse the early Christians to be unbiblical. Why should I reject them at all?

The ancient Church of Christian doctrine also made sense on the issue of the veneration of saints and martyrs. I learned that the Catholic doctrine on the Saints is only a development of this biblical doctrine of the Body of Christ. Catholics do not worship saints. They worship Christ in his members. By invoking her intercession, Catholics only confess that Christ is present and active in his church in heaven. Protestants often object that the veneration of Catholic saints somehow diminishes the ministry of Christ. I began to understand now that the reverse is the truth. Protestants are limiting the scope of the saving work of Christ, denying its implications for the doctrine of the Church.

My studies have shown that theology embodied in the devotion of the ancient Church. As I continued my St. Augustine research, I learned that this “Protestant hero” completely embraced the veneration of saints. Peter Brown (born 1935), a Saint Augustine scholar, also taught me that the saints were not related to early Christianity. He argued that one can not separate the ancient Christianity of devotion to the saints, and he put St. Augustine directly in this tradition. Brown showed that this was not a mere pagan import in Christianity, but was closely linked to the Christian notion of salvation (See “The Cult of Saints: His Origin and Function in Latin Christianity”).

When did the Catholic position on salvation, the Church and the saints, the Marian dogmas also seemed to fit. If the heart of the Christian faith is the union of God with our human nature, the Mother of this human nature has an extremely important and unique role in history. So the Fathers of the Church has always celebrated Mary as the second Eve. Her “yes” to God at the Annunciation undid the “no” Eve in the garden. Whether it was appropriate to venerate the saints and martyrs of the Church, the more appropriate it would not give honor and reverence to it that made possible our redemption?

By the time I finished my Ph.D., I had completely revised my understanding of the Catholic Church. I saw that his sacramental doctrine, his view of salvation, his veneration of Mary and the saints, and their claims of authority were all grounded in the Scriptures, in the most ancient traditions, and the clear teaching of Christ and the apostles. I also realized that Protestantism was a confused mass of inconsistencies and tortured logic. It was not only false Protestant doctrine, but created restraint, and could not even remain unchanged. The more I studied, the more I realized that my evangelical heritage had moved me away not only from ancient Christianity, but even from the teaching of their own Protestant founders.

Modern American evangelicals teach that the Christian life begins when you “invite Jesus into your heart.” The personal conversion (what they call “born again”) is seen as the essence and the beginning of the Christian identity. I knew from my reading of the Fathers that this was not the teaching of the early Church. I learned studying the reformers that was not even the teaching of the early Protestants. Calvin and Luther both unequivocally identified baptism as the beginning of the Christian life. I searched in vain in their works by any exhortation to “new birth.” I also learned that not dismissed the Eucharist as unimportant as I did. While they rejected the Catholic theology of the sacraments, both continued to insist that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. Calvin even taught in 1541 that a proper understanding of this Eucharist is “necessary for salvation”. He knew nothing of individualistic Christianity of the “new birth” in which I had grown up.

I finished my degree in December 2002. The last years of my studies were actually very obscure. More and more, it seemed to me that my plans were getting out of balance, and my future in the darkness. My confidence was very upset and I really doubted that I could believe anything. Catholicism began to seem like the most reasonable interpretation of the Christian faith, but the loss of faith of my childhood was devastating. I prayed for guidance. In the end, I believe it was the grace that saved me. I had a wife and four children, and God finally showed me that I needed more than the books in my life. Truthfully, I also needed more than “faith alone”. I needed real help to live my life and battle my sins. I found this in the Church’s sacraments. Instead of “Sola Scriptura”: I needed the true guidance of a teacher with authority. I found that the Magisterium of the Church. actually I found that all my company were the saints in heaven – not just your books on earth. In short, I discovered that the Catholic Church was ideally formed to meet my real spiritual needs. Besides fact, I found Jesus in his Church, through his mother, and the whole company of his saints. I entered the Catholic Church on 16 November 2003. My wife also had his own aversion to the depths of the Church and today my family is a happy and enthusiastically Catholic family. I thank my parents for pointing me Christ and the Scriptures. I thank St. Augustine for me to point the Church.