Jay Richards is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and the director of the Institute’s Center on Wealth, Poverty, and Morality.
In addition to editing the award-winning God & Evolution: Protestants, Catholics and Jews Explore Darwin’s Challenge to Faith, Richards has authored several books, including the best-selling Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family and Freedom Before It’s Too Late.
Richards holds a master of Divinity degree, a master of theology degree and a Ph.D. in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. A convert to the faith, Richards and his family entered the Church three years ago at the Easter Vigil. The experience has been, he said, “an enormous blessing” for his family.
While you were a student at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., you made an unsettling discovery. What was it?
I came to the conclusion that the Reformed and Lutheran understanding of justification was imbalanced. It simply failed to take account of the full biblical witness.
Later, I encountered real Catholics with plausible explanations for their beliefs. Through these encounters, I came to realize that the Protestant and Reformed descriptions of Catholic beliefs were invariably different from actual Catholic beliefs.
Were these experiences the impetus behind your conversion?
No. Actually, as recently as five years ago, I never could have imagined becoming Catholic. But my wife, Ginny, had been drawn to Catholicism for years. She read books and talked to intelligent Catholics and was able to find satisfactory answers. Ginny reminds me now that she once asked me why we weren’t considering the Catholic Church, and I dismissed it without giving much of an answer. Looking back, it’s clear that I had more intellectual impediments and misconceptions than she did.
How did you overcome these impediments?
A few years ago, I decided to work my way through the issues, simply so I would understand the real disputes. This would require that I read actual Catholic explanations of Catholic doctrines, as well as the best Protestant critiques I could find. So I made a list of doctrines/practices, called “Impediments to Becoming Catholic,” and put the big issues at the top: canonization/source of authority, Real Presence, claim to papal authority, and so on. I put the Marian dogmas at the bottom and figured I’d never get to them. I already suspected the Catholic view of contraceptives —which until the 1930s was simply the Christian view — was correct.
What there a particular issue that troubled you?
The coherence of sola scriptura (Bible alone) had worried me for years, since it seemed that the most thoughtful evangelicals had a sort of de facto magisterium that they relied on. For instance, no passage of Scripture says what books are supposed to be in the New Testament, so there’s an implicit trust in the judgment of the early Church. There’s also an implicit trust in the judgment of the early councils that established the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, and so on. Moreover, the fact that the New Testament wasn’t even canonized until the end of the fourth century meant that there must have been some deposit of faith given to the Church that it preserved for centuries without a fully established canon.
This led to the question of the Protestant justification for not recognizing the Deuterocanonical books in the Old Testament [Judith, Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Baruch and Ecclesiasticus]. These had been treated as authoritative until the Reformation, but Luther demoted/removed them. (He also wanted to remove James, Hebrews and Revelation, but the other Reformers disagreed).
So I read the best Protestant and Catholic articles on the subject and concluded (to my dismay at the time) that the Protestant arguments didn’t hold up. Essentially, Luther demoted the books that contained kernels of doctrines that he disagreed with — which is not an especially promising procedure.
I recall one argument by a prominent Protestant theologian whom I respect. His presumably knock-down-drag-out argument against these books was that they contained unbiblical doctrines. But since the question was: “What books should be in the Bible?” his reasoning was obviously circular.
You mentioned that the doctrine of the Real Presence played a large part in your conversion.
The Real Presence was a huge deal. Even a cursory glance at the early Christian writings establishes that everyone understood that, in some mysterious way, the bread and wine, while remaining under the appearance of bread and wine, really become the body and blood of the glorified Jesus.
As early as 110, Ignatius of Antioch taught this, and it was treated as one of the touchstones of orthodoxy until 1517. I also studied the central biblical texts at issue, such as the Last Supper narratives and John 6. Although I had seminary degrees, I had never really done that. I found that the typical Protestant ways of explaining these texts away didn’t hold up to scrutiny.
I went through a few more doctrinal issues, such as the papal claims to authority, and the pattern started falling into place. Although I had been treating the issues as independent, it began to become clear that many of them actually hang together and mutually illumine and reinforce on another.
In fact, things I believed as an evangelical made more sense in the wider Catholic context. I found myself thinking inside a Catholic context and anticipating answers to questions that had before eluded me.
What was happening in your personal life at this time?
Alongside this intellectual journey were a number of powerful spiritual experiences of the healing power of the Holy Spirit, made available by the graces the Church has. In fact, Ginny and I credit God’s work through the Catholic Church with healing our marriage. But that’s another long story.
In your book Indivisible, you mention that you make a long drive over a bridge to get your family to church. Imagine that drive as your journey of faith. How was your trip?
The journey from evangelical to Catholic has been less “inconvenient” than I had imagined it would be, although there is no doubt that evangelicals and Catholics tend to occupy mostly separate subcultures. If I’ve had an easier time, I think it’s because I had tried to write and speak as a “mere Christian” for years, that is, in a way that would resonate with Christians in different traditions. And since becoming Catholic, I’ve become even more passionate about bringing Christians together on those issues we share. That is one of the main purposes of my book.
Register correspondent Celeste Behe writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Her husband, Michael, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.