What I Owe to Protestantism

For the 500th anniversary commemoration of the Protestant Reformation, my debt to my Protestant heritage

The author at the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland, with reliefs of John Calvin, William Farel, Theodore Beza and John Knox (2009)
The author at the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland, with reliefs of John Calvin, William Farel, Theodore Beza and John Knox (2009) (photo: Screenshot)

There’s an old joke that all Americans are Protestants, even the Catholics, Jews and atheists. Even as a joke that’s a half-truth, but it’s an important half-truth.

For over a quarter of a century I have wholeheartedly embraced the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith. As a permanent deacon, I have committed my life to serving this Church and proclaiming this faith.

Nevertheless, my debt to my Protestant background is beyond reckoning, and I am more than happy to acknowledge it with gratitude.

I come from a long line of Dutch Reformed Calvinists. The first Greydanus, born in 1630, was Dutch Reformed, as were his parents. For all I know, I might be the first Catholic Greydanus, or perhaps there have been other black sheep I don’t know about.

My youth was more pan-Evangelical than exclusively Calvinist. My father was a Reformed pastor, but he left fulltime ministry when I was young, and we began attending an Episcopal church, Saint Michael’s in Wayne, New Jersey, where my brother and I served for many years as an acolyte or altar server. With our sister, we also sang in the youth choir. (I was confirmed there by the notoriously unbelieving Bishop John Shelby Spong.)

My siblings and I also attended a midweek youth group at an Assemblies of God church. My sister and I participated in competitive Bible Quiz there (we were two-time state champions). A little later I went to an Anabaptist Bible church for a while and was rebaptized.

For a few years I was deeply involved in a very small Jesus Movement–type fellowship. In college I formed and led a nondenominational Christian fellowship. Finally, Suzanne and I were married in a Presbyterian church where we participated in a Bible-study small group and other activities. Suz had been raised American Baptist.

From my Protestant parents and mentors I learned to know and to love the Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Trinity, and the holy scriptures.

Protestants taught me about the passion, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of the Lord. Protestants taught me about creation ex nihilo, the creation of mankind in God’s image, the fall, the general resurrection, and the new heavens and the earth.

Nicene and Chalcedonian theology were embraced in the traditions of my early youth. I regularly recited the Apostles’ Creed (in the Reformed church) and the Nicene Creed (in the Episcopal church). We recognized Mary’s title of Theotokos or Mother of God to be a necessary corollary of Christ being fully divine and fully human.

Especially as a Calvinist, I was deeply impressed with fallen mankind’s complete inability to save ourselves apart from the redemptive work of Christ and the grace of regeneration — doctrines I still believe as a Catholic.

Besides assiduously reading the Bible, as a young Protestant I devoured, above all, the writings of C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, the Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces, and his many, many essays — all of these profoundly shaped my mental landscape and conceptual toolbox in ways that affect me deeply to this day. I also read A.W. Tozer, J.I. Packer, Madeline L’Engle, Josh McDowell, Richard Foster, and many others.

It was in the Protestant tradition, as an Episcopalian, that I learned to love worship in liturgy and sacrament. Reverence, solemnity and symbolism became important conduits of the sacred to me.

As a young acolyte, I understood that in lighting the altar candles, bearing the crucifix or the torches, and assisting the priest with preparation for the Eucharist, not only what I did but how I did it could be an aid to worship for our parishioners. By doing these things with devotion, I understood that I was offering service to God. These early experiences continue to touch my diaconal ministry today.

I don’t think I ever thought of the bread and wine of communion as anything but symbolic. Still, like a crucifix or a wedding ring, they were symbols invested with enormous meaning and power. Every Sunday, when Fr. G went down on one knee at the consecration, solemnly intoning “My Lord and my God” while the bell tolled, I felt a thrill of awe. We received communion kneeling, and I never felt closer to Christ than on my knees after receiving communion.

Protestants taught me the centrality of prayer to the Christian life. Beyond the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer (and, in the Episcopal Church, the Book of Common Prayer), my experience of verbal prayer was overwhelmingly extemporaneous. I had no experience of methods like the rosary, novenas, prayers to saints, the Divine Office, or even the Jesus Prayer.

But silent contemplative prayer was an important part of my experience. It was from a Catholic, Brother Lawrence, that I learned the phrase “the practice of the presence of God,” but the idea was fundamental to the spirituality of my Protestant youth.

The Anglican hymnbook was and remains of incomparable importance to me. “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus”; “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”; “Praise to the Lord”; “Abide with Me”; “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones”; “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”; “The Church’s One Foundation”…the list goes on and on. My Catholic experience today would be immeasurably impoverished without the great roster of Anglican hymns. Anglicanism touches my Catholic experience probably every week of my life.

I also listened to a lot of contemporary Christian music or CCM. The most important of these to me included Petra, Michael Card, Resurrection Band, Glad, Terry Scott Taylor / Daniel Amos, Kerry Livgren / AD, Steve Taylor, Crumbächer and the Altar Boys. The best of this music helped me to grow in my faith and commitment.  

I went to concerts and attended a couple of Creation Fests. Cornerstone magazine, published by Jesus People USA, was an important institution in my teenaged years and young adulthood.

My first experiences of service to others were in the Protestant world. I volunteered regularly at an Episcopal soup kitchen and waited on tables for homeless patrons. Protestant charitable organizations like Compassion International were a prominent part of my cultural world, and impressed on me from my youth the importance of helping the less fortunate. From the first days of our marriage Suz and I have always supported particular charitable organizations, and while the groups we give to are Catholic, our impetus to give was formed as Protestants.

All of this and more is my debt to Protestantism. On this day commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I am happy to acknowledge it.

Why, then, am I a Catholic, not a Protestant?

I’ve written about this here and there. 14 years ago I appeared on EWTN’s “The Journey Home” with Marcus Grodi and offered a brief account of what led me to the Catholic Church. I’ve embedded that episode below.

But this is only a summary. I have more to say about it, and over the remainder of this 500th anniversary year, God willing, I will explore the issues in greater depth right here. Watch this space.