3 Protestants Who Helped Me Become Catholic

Frank O. Salisbury, “John Wesley” (c. 1932)
Frank O. Salisbury, “John Wesley” (c. 1932) (photo: Public Domain)

“I would be a Papist if I could.”
Samuel Johnson

There’s no single path into the Church, that’s clear. We all come with our individual appetites and baggage, hang-ups and history, and yet somehow the Holy Spirit manages to jumble all of it into our individualized itineraries leading home.

That includes elements you’d think would work counter to Catholic conversion – like the atheism of Richard Smythe in Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair. Smythe is a foil for the spiritual longings of Sarah Miles, who is desperate not to believe in God. Amid wartime romantic triangulations, Sarah struggles against belief, and Smythe does his best to bolster her inclinations. In the end, however, the atheist’s arguments are simply inadequate, and Sarah abandons herself to the ravenous charms of Holy Mother Church.

Greene’s is a fictional account, but there are plenty of real converts who point to dalliances with atheism as fodder for eventual Easter capitulations. Usually, though, Rome-ward influences are much less dramatic, especially for those of us raised in the evangelical Protestant tradition. Sometimes, in fact, the ecclesial landmines were laid at our very feet – by trusted church leaders on occasion, even our parents! We grow up reading our Bibles aplenty, but at some point, the perilous moment arrives, and a well-meaning co-religionist hands over a C.S. Lewis book – and the fuss and fun begins!

Lewis was an adult convert to Protestant Christianity of the Anglican variety – so far, so good. His ever popular Mere Christianity is a brilliant presentation of non-sectarian orthodoxy, and his fiction, including works like The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, are literary masterpieces that deftly incorporate biblical images and sound spiritual insight – again, seemingly safe enough. Yet there’s something about Lewis’s writing that invariably points the evangelical reader beyond his Protestant heritage – beyond a narrow understanding of sola scriptura toward a richer sacramental worldview. It’s no wonder Lewis is widely referred to as a Catholic gateway drug, for he so often greases the mental and emotional rails of would-be converts long before they get their hands on the writings of Catholic convert pillars like G.K. Chesterton and Scott Hahn.

So, “stay away from Lewis” is a decent bit of advice to give evangelicals who prefer their Christianity free of Romish trappings and temptations. Even so, there are other Protestant figures lurking in the wings that should be similarly eschewed, and I can think of three right off the bat. Since I grew up reading Lewis, you might say the Tiber pump was already primed when I fell in with these other decidedly non-Catholic writers. Even so, they nudged me in the direction of full communion with the Church in ways that Aslan and Wormwood couldn’t accomplish on their own.

The first is Brevard S. Childs, an enormously influential Old Testament scholar who taught at Yale the latter half of the 20th-century. Most academic Scripture study back then was dominated by various forms of “higher criticism” which cast doubt on traditional understandings of the Bible’s authorship and interpretation. This led to the unraveling (from an evangelical point of view) of the written Word’s vaunted role as a sure guide for faith, and so higher criticism was at best viewed with suspicion, if not outright loathing.

Enter Childs, the innovative force behind a school of “canonical criticism” that resisted higher criticism’s demythologizing currents. In his landmark Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979), Childs advocated treating the Bible on its own terms as “canon” – that is, a collection of religious texts that a people of faith, trusting in divine guidance, embraced as authoritative for themselves. Unlike the piecemeal, dissecting tendencies of traditional biblical scholarship, Childs practiced and promoted a respect for Scripture as a living canonical unity. “The divine and human dimensions of Scripture can never be separated as if there were a kernel and a husk,” Childs said of his approach, “but the heart of the Bible lies in the mystery of how a fully time-conditioned writing, written by fragile human authors, can continually become the means of hearing the very Word of God.”

Childs himself disliked the “canon criticism” label, but it inevitably became associated with those who adopted his methodology, including most of the Bible faculty at my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University. The more my professors defended and demonstrated the Childs approach, the more it made sense to me, and I was able to recover a joy in reading Scripture as God’s Word that had waned since my youthful born-again enthusiasm.

Imagine my dismay, then, at finding out that this treatment of Scripture as an inspired canonical whole was already the authoritative practice of the Catholic Church – and always had been. “Since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written,” is how the Vatican II document Dei Verbum puts it, “serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out.” And if the canon must be treated as a whole, it stands to reason that attention must be paid to the divinely animated community that put it together – a connection that Dei Verbum spells out:

The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith…. All of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God (DV 12).

Childs and canon criticism weren’t the only revelatory encounters I had at Seattle Pacific, for it’s also where I first came to know the 18th-century English founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Like C.S. Lewis, Wesley was a devout Anglican, although an ordained one employed as a clergyman. His missionary sojourns brought him in contact with various forms of heartfelt faith that he found wanting in his own background, and Wesley became convinced that authentic Christianity required personal conversion – something he himself experienced in 1738 when his heart was “strangely warmed.” Following that watershed moment, John and his followers began promulgating an evangelical version of Anglicanism that included a particular “method” of personal sanctification – hence the nickname, “Methodism.”

As a young evangelical, I was fascinated by Wesley’s adamant cherishing of Anglican liturgy and tradition – he never really intended to start a breakaway Methodist Church – but what really floored me were his teachings on free will and grace. Through his sermons and writings – like his Plain Account of Christian Perfection – Wesley insisted that divine grace not only saved us from hell, but also helped us become saints. Real saints – all of us! As if becoming a saint wasn’t optional – what an idea!

Plus, it was a grace open to all people without exception – an assertion in contrast to the Calvinistic predestination I’d grown up with in the Presbyterian Church. “Prevenient grace” is the term that Wesley coined for the divine spark that all humanity retained despite the Fall, and he was convinced it was enough to tug everyone toward God. This was a revolutionary construct for a would-be missionary like me, and it radically altered my understanding of the evangelistic enterprise.

What I found disconcerting later on was the discovery that these revolutionary Wesleyan ideas – his commitment to Tradition as well as Scripture, his upholding of man’s free will alongside God’s absolute sovereignty, his liberal notions regarding the universality of a grace that both saved and sanctified – were essentially the teaching of the Catholic Church. Moreover, I was also disturbed that Wesley apparently deemed Catholics his brothers and sisters in the Lord. “I hope to see you in heaven,” he wrote in a 1749 letter that enumerated points of contact between Catholicism and Protestantism. “And if I practise the religion above described, you dare not say I shall go to hell.”

So, for Wesley, Catholics could be…Christians?

Right around the time I was tussling with Childs and Wesley, I came across the writings of Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and gifted storyteller. I started with his four-part Book of Bebb, featuring a defective protagonist whom God nonetheless tapped as an instrument of grace, and then moved on to his hagiographic novels: Brendan, about the Irish-sailor saint, and the particularly memorable Godriclike Bebb, a fabulously flawed agent of the Almighty. All of these stories are filled with memorable images of a sacramental universe, which Buechner characterized this way:

A sacrament is when something holy happens [and] sacramental moments can occur at any moment, at any place, and to anybody…. If we weren't blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.

It was the last straw. As if Childs’s disruption of my perspective on Scripture and Wesley’s shuffling of the economy of grace weren’t enough, Buechner comes along with his unsettling vision of things being vehicles of the divine.

Could the Eucharist be far behind?