Musings of a Catholic Convert
Musings of a Catholic Convert – Andy McNutt
Editor’s Note: Below is a copy of one of the larger fragments of my conversion story. From 2005 to 2010 I maintained a blog, Musings of a Catholic Convert. The blogs I used to maintain were ended years ago as part of my attempt to destroy the vanity that was hurting my life. As I read through and make edits this page will change.
When my protestant friends learn that I am a Catholic layperson and no longer a Baptist pastor, the first question they ask is, “What turned you against the Baptist Church?” First of all there is no such thing as THE Baptist Church. Any Baptist theologian worth his salt knows that each local congregation is autonomous (self governed) and part of the invisible, universal Church. Baptists are united through commonly held beliefs and financial support of missions, but those ties are not considered binding. But autonomy didn’t turn me against Baptists. I haven’t been turned against Christian Protestants. I’m not bitter toward my past at all (a charge normally leveled at converts from ANY group, religious or otherwise).
My journey into the Catholic Church is all about being led to the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is as much a part of my Christian testimony as when I first committed my life to Jesus Christ. Over the next few days I want to share some of the ways in which God led me to Catholicism. I do this for 2 reasons:
1.) To provide seekers one more example of someone who was (and is) on a similar journey.
2.) To make myself available to help those considering the Catholic Church, or who would like help in understanding why Protestants do/say the things they do.
Almost all of my life I have been a Southern Baptist. My family attended a Methodist church until I was 7, then we went Baptist and never looked back. I never really had reason to doubt the validity of baptist doctrine. After all, it was through the preaching of a baptist evangelist that God drew me to a relationship with Jesus Christ. My life revolved around church (and still does). I knew that when the doors were opened, I was probably supposed to be there for something. Choir, youth, worship, missions, outreach, prayer, and the list goes on and on and on. Add school athletics, clubs, and friends (study fits in there somewhere, right?) and you have 1 very busy teen. And I was surrounded by awesome Christian examples. They taught me to put my relationship with Jesus Christ above anything else. What a great foundation! After HS, I took my faith and my zeal to college at one of the nation’s premier private universities. Even getting there was a miracle. God gave me a full ride when even the ones closest to me told me that attending that school would never happen.
In college my faith grew to a new level because 1.) God was providing for my every need just like He said He would, and 2). I had three great roomies who GRILLED me on every point of doctrine to which I held, not because they disagreed (although sometimes we did) but because they wanted me to know WHAT & WHY I believe. Often I had no defense for my beliefs. I had just assumed things to be true because i trusted those who had taught me. [buzzer – sorry, thanks for playing] When you are in college, especially as a x-er (or am I supposed to type X-0r to be kewl?), you learn that “just because” is never the right answer. So I started to study everything to make sure that I could defend my beliefs. I promised myself that I must be the one to conform myself to truth and not the other way around. There could only be one TRUTH. Everyone can’t be right at the same time. Somebody had to be wrong and it can’t be me (at least not for long). SO I settled on a Christian studies major, a history minor, and a Greek minor. God’s Providence: these three disciplines would prove to be my undoing as a protestant.
Being a Christian Studies major was a blast. It exposed me to so much truth and made me hungry not only to know truth, but also to teach it. College gave me a desire to teach others. It also prepared me to formulate and defend my opinions. I soon learned that the hot debate on campus was over Calvinism, and that one of my room mates was the leader of the Calvinist front. If you’re not familiar with the debate, email me and I’ll explain it to you. Therefore I was enrolled in the debate as well, and I loved every minute of it. I poured so much time and effort into Scripture study, history, theology, and loads of prayer because I was determined that I would not be proven wrong by ANYONE. I started in the con position, which pleased both of us, and allowed us to sharpen our rhetorical skills. However, as I studied to prove Calvinists wrong in their soteriology, I began to see that my arguments did not hold water.
My shallow theology was being broadened by my studies and I began to see the richness of God’s grace. After about 1.5 yrs I came to the conclusion that the Reformed argument was more in line with the early church than was the Arminian position. I realized that most baptists I knew were non-reformed, and as if that weren’t enough, few had any clue as to what Baptists have historically believed (the Baptist founders were mostly Calvinists). This problem could not be allowed to stand. I had a new goal in life: make all Baptists “go back” to historical Baptist/Reformed theology. For the remainder of my college career I fought hard to correct the “historical myopia” of my classmates, ministry friends, professors, and family. My methods were not always “seasoned with salt” and often fueled by pride rather than love. I made a lot of people mad, and gained the respect of a few others. Through the controversy, however, I gained a sense of identity and purpose. “If I could only get people to see that they are missing 500 years of Protestant Christian history/theology,” I would think to myself, “churches would be transformed and the world would see God’s grace for the depth and wonder it posesses.” Indeed.
In the middle of all this Calvinism (actually in the middle of my investigation of it) I met my wife. My senior year in HS I told myself I was not going to spend my college life looking for a woman. I would be friends with lots of women and treat them as sisters, but I would busy myself with the task to which God had called me. When He was ready for me to have somebody, He would bring her to me and open my eyes just like He did for Adam in the garden. Well, guess what? That’s exactly what happened. My freshman year was filled with late nights at coffee houses and movies (I must have studied during the day), and I met tons of people. I even met this girl who liked to slap her playing cards on the table when she played Nertz. I can only remember a couple of “dates” with girls but it was more just treating a good friend to dinner and a movie. My eyes were closed.
That summer, while working as a youth-camp dorm manager, it happened. Knock, Knock, Knock. I opened the door and there she was, the card slapper! She was a camp nurse needing to give a student his insulin. My eyes were opened and it was as if God were saying, “Here she is. Can I make it any more obvious?” I don’t even remember if I showed her the guy’s dorm, but I do remember inviting her over for an elegant dinner of hamburger helper (cheeseburger macaroni!) and creamed corn that my co-worker and I had made. Maybe it was the onions, or maybe it was romance, but we became fast friends and I knew she was the one. Listen, when a girl will watch The Godfather and Monty Python: Search for the Holy Grail in 1 night, hang on to her! After much prayer, I told her how I felt, and we began a ministry of praying for each other so we would know what to do.
I remember the first time I met her father. His first question for me was literally, “Are you a Calvinist?” I didn’t even fully understand the term at that time, so I admitted that to him. I think he said something about seeking truth (which was and is my goal) and we engaged in small talk. So, fast forward to Nov. 1995. I proposed to her in the library because it was so windy outside (and we had papers to finish. I think I got a B+). Don’t laugh. She thought it was sweet. We were married in December 1996, just 1 month after her parents came into the Church (my attempt at forshadowing), and she has been with me on this journey 100%. She is the greatest support and friend I’ve ever had, not to mention a great mother to our daughters. I thank God every day for this card-slapping woman (then a baptist as I was) who had such an important role in my conversion. p>I’ve never been adept at learning foreign languages, but for some reason Greek came fairly easy to me. I became so fond of Greek that I minored in it and took as many classes as I could. Studying the language opened my eyes to the depths of Scripture. It showed me how easily tools like interlinear texts and language concordances (like Strong’s) can be misused, leading to egregious theological error. Without a proper understanding of Greek language, writer/audience culture, and the historical context in which something was written you can really get into trouble. By the way, if you haven’t studied Koine or Classical Greek, you’re missing out. Not only is this a great apologetics tool, but also a wonderful aid to understanding of God’s Word (In addition to most of the NT being written in Greek, the OT of Christ’s time was a greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Septuagint or LXX). It’s also a way to see what Aesop’s Fables REALLY say.
Studying Greek helped me to learn and apply sound hermeneutical principles so that I was not trying to interpret Scripture according to my own presuppositions (or at least admitting them up front). In fact, our professor would pick difficult passages in order to challenge our thinking, and then he would play devil’s advocate. This solidified good thinking, logical presentation/defense, and sound interpretation skills.
As a side note here, dispensational eschatology fell like a brick, and I realized that I had made critical errors in my assumptions about the end times. What a scary thing to be sitting in a pew and hear a minister (not just Baptists) telling you what “this word in the Greek” means, and then to hear him apply a meaning you know is nowhere near the word’s meaning or context. It didn’t happen often, but often enough to make me want to ALWAYS be sure I understood the passage in its context before I taught it. I took (and still take) the stricter judgement on teachers, as explained in the Bible, very seriously. As a result I read and studied everything as if my life depended on it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t make mistakes, but I knew what was required of me.
Greek did something else for me. In the advanced classes, we translated extra-biblical literature. We were sharpened in our language skills because nobody could fudge a translation simply because he/she had an english scripture memorized (and that is soooooooo easy to notice, and a bad practice to adopt). We translated Aesop, the Didache (teaching of the 12 Apostles), and even some of the Church Fathers. It was this step in my growth that made me want to know what the ancient Church REALLY looked like, especially after learning that the LXX contained the deuterocanonical books Protestants call “apocrypha”, and also after reading the practices and theology of the Church in writings like 1 Clement, and the Didache. They didn’t sound very Baptist to me and that made me uncomfortable. AND I found my hero, St. Polycarp (who is now my patron saint, along with St. Clement). What an awesome testimony to Jesus Christ! If you haven’t read about these guys, shame on you.
I told a friend last night that there would be times when my conversion story would have flashbacks. Today is such a day. I can’t pass over how I got to college because it contains a principle that has sustained me for years. God provides for the needs of His children. If God intends for you to do something, He will provide the means for you to accomplish it. Learning that principle as a 6th grader in a comfortable blue-collar family is one thing, but applying it when the odds are stacked up is another. As a HS junior, I knew that God wanted me for lifetime service to Him as some type of minister (at that time i only knew of 4 possibilities: pastor, youth pastor, missionary, and music leader), so I needed to find a Christian college to prepare me. My parents explained to me that they could not afford to send me there, even though I knew they wanted to with all their heart, but I insisted on visiting the school.
The minute I stepped foot on campus I knew this was where God wanted me. I toured the place and started making plans to attend by filling out an application. My parents reminded me on the way home that this was out of their price range, but I was convinced of the aforementioned principle. I told them in no uncertain terms that if God wanted me to go, he would provide every penny to get me there (even if His plan included me doing menial labor for minimum pay). I remembered my hero, George Mueller (read the bio of this protestant saint and be encouraged), who trusted God with his orphanages so much that he sat his children at the table, knowing that somehow food would be provided (and they had just run out of both food and funds the night prior). God provided a bakery that made too much bread and a milk truck that lost a wheel and needed to unload milk before it spoiled, AND a check from an unknown source. And George never told a soul of his need, no one but God. Everyone told me that examples like his were rare and that God was under no obligation to provide like that. This is true, but I also believed that it was rare because so few people trust in Him enough to see His hand move like that. So I trusted God to provide my way, convinced that this was where He wanted me, and still nobody believed me.
I applied for every scholarship and grant that I might qualify for, and they all refused me. My admissions counselor advised me to apply for the presidential scholarship which paid full tuition for 4 years. “Yeah, right” I could hear people think. I barely qualifed to fill out the application with my 3.58 GPA and 28 ACT. I just kept praying, “God if you want me there, I know you’ll provide.” Friends and family reminded me that time was running out to apply for the University of Tennessee or a community college, but I held on. Weeks later I got a call asking me to come for an interview. I was a finalist!
To make this story shorter: I interviewed and later received a scholarship that nobody thought I could get (tuition paid), I found a job as an RA working for the kindest, most generous man I’ve ever met (utilities, books, food, misc. paid), and my parents offered to pay my housing (are you getting this?). God had provided every penny and so much more and my faith was greatly strengthened. My freshman year, the scholarship requirements were increased to a level for which I wouldn’t have qualified (talk about God’s perfect timing!). I could tell you all kinds of stories about how God has provided for me (and I probably will). He is the greatest! Trust Him with your circumstances. Seek and fulfill His plan for your life. He will not abandon you.
I said earlier that there were 3 things that would be my undoing. The 3rd of the three was my History minor. I had bar-none, the absolute best history professors in the world. Not only were they intelligent, but they were also dynamic in their presentations. To top all that, they were approachable and ere genuinely interested in making an investment in my life. Their example made me want to become a teacher. So I picked up the double so I could minor in Greek AND History. The course load was difficult, but it was worth the effort. I especially liked studying the history surrounding the Church, and we spent plenty of time there. I was amazed that my professors were good about pointing out the events of history but not trying to reinterpret it. I learned to look as objectively as possible. And there was the Church: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I knew there had been some scoundrels in Church leadership before, but I had no idea how severe some of their errors went. But what was more amazing is what I DIDN’T see. The myths I had learned from certain fundamentalist tracts were obliterated from my mind as I saw the real Church dealing with real issues. I saw that the Church took its time in speaking and did so mostly when a long-held belief was challenged. So where were all these man-made additions? If the Church was responding to a disagreement, then the Church must have already had an established belief. This begged the question which would pursue me for 8 years: What did they believe?
Of course, being at a Baptist school, we didn’t spend all our time talking about Catholic history. We did spend a large amount of time dealing with Protestant history, especially in the Americas. This fueled my desire to “Calvinize” the University. If they could just see that modern baptists have it all wrong. If they could just go back to the beliefs of the baptist founders – back to the beliefs of the reformation, then they would be changed. Then all the silly church issues would be put to rest. Almost every chance I had, in pulpit or on paper, I spoke about “going back” to the way things were supposed to be. My problem was that I didn’t go back far enough (back to 33 AD when Christ started it all), but that will come later. At this time I was making two critical presuppositions re: history and ecclesiology.
1.) The Church was universal and invisible.
2.) The Catholic Church left the teachings of the Apostles during the middle ages (I came to find out later that most people claim the Church fell away prior to Nicea. Hmmmm [he grins]. I wonder why they say that?).
Now I had an unsatiable appetite for history. This passion would fuel my desire to teach and to study history in graduate school.
Grace. I used to define it simply as “God’s unmerited favor.” And it is definately that, but it is so much more than a concept. Defining grace was a huge part of my conversion. In fact, as I read Calvin’s Institutes I found that grace was “stuff”, an agent of transformation in our lives. I realized that there were means of God’s grace that He had established so that we could receive Him and be restored, strengthened, and transformed. I did not yet believe in 7 sacraments, but my working definition of grace included them as means of communing with God and growing closer to Him. My wife and I described marriage as a sacrament in our wedding invitations. There was so much more than ritual observance (sorry Ulrich Z.) and the deeper I searched for the truth, the further into the ancient Church I was drawn.
My newfound convictions drew some heavy fire from some of my more fundamentalist friends, but they really had little to say for their side. I found a great help in Wayne Grudem (evangelical scholar) because he seemed to be on the same page with me. What’s more, his theology textbook gave a decent number of source documents for differing theological opinions at the end of each chapter. Now I had means of comparison. Rather than trust one source’s description of all dissenting opinions, I knew it was best to let each side speak for itself.
At that point in life (college Senior) I had come to the conclusion that God was in the process of conforming me to the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. This process of purification was brought about by the Holy Spirit via God’s grace. I also knew that if I was to understand anyone, I must let them speak for themselves (so when it would come to Catholics later, I would not waste my time with the Bill Websters or Jack Chicks). I was also falling in love with the ancient Church as I continued to translate early documents such as Didache, Martyrdom of Polycarp, and 1 Clement. What ideals were these people willing to die for? The only logical source was the writing of the early Church. What I found would be the agent of grace that brought me to Rome 4 years later.
Today’s Gospel reading reminds me of another breaking point in my quest for truth. Mary, the blessed mother. Encountering this scripture in Greek class (Luke 1:26-38) shattered my misconceptions about the Church. Historically and theologically I had learned the reasons for Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer). There was no time in Christ’s life when He was not God, even in the womb of this young virgin. I also knew that Catholics did not WORSHIP Mary or any other saint, because worship is due to God alone. But they are true champions and leaders of the Faith, and receive the respect they deserve for their leadership roles and examples. I’ve never understood why people get so upset about that. They will pay hundreds of dollars to watch their favorite college football team play, name their children after their sports heroes, and skip Church to be with their team. And they say Catholics are idol worshippers? But I digress.
After hearing sermon after sermon around Christmas time, seeing it as their chance to keep everybody protestant I guess, explaining that Mary was “just an ordinary woman” and “nothing special” I almost went crazy. Even before I believed in the immaculate conception and assumption, I knew that Mary was special. Unless my protestant friends can show me another virgin who gave birth to God-incarnate, raised Him according to the law of Moses, helped initiate His ministry @ a wedding feast, never left Him during His ministry, stood by weeping as she watched Him die, rejoice after His resurrection, remain with and encourage His disciples after His ascension, etc. Doesn’t sound too ordinary to me.
Oh, I almost forgot. Our salvation hinged on her answer in the passage above. Verse 37 says with God nothing (no word) WILL BE impossible. To that point, everytime God spoke a word, it became. There was no IF. Now God and all creation wait for the answer. His prophets have fortold of this event. It comes down to the answer of this young girl. She said “yes”, the incarnation was manifest, and Heaven rejoiced. She was indeed special and specially chosen for this task. No wonder the angel greeted her by saying literally “Greetings, she who HAS BEEN FILLED with grace, the Lord is with you.” Mary’s actions point us to salvation in Christ alone and give honor to God alone. It’s all so very scriptural, and that’s why it was so hard to escape God’s call to me toward His Church.
26And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth,
27To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
28And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
29Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.
30And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.
31Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.
32He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever.
33And of his kingdom there shall be no end.
34And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?
35And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
36And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren:
37Because no word shall be impossible with God.
38And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
I loved seminary. Our time in Louisville afforded me so many chances to grow, learn and serve. Now I was amongst the “big dogs” so to speak, and I could once and for all put away those tinges of doubt concerning the Catholic Church. But every class I attended, being taught by the brightest and best protestant scholars in the nation, I was more and more drawn to Rome. Why?
The more I studied Church history, Scripture, and theology, the more I saw an ecclesiological structure found only in the Catholic Church. The Church Fathers constantly spoke of fidelity to bishops and to THE Church (not local congregations or cliques or anything else). It didn’t take long for me to see that a structure was logically demanded of the Church, and therefore was provided by Christ when he appointed Peter as its first pastor. Now there was one who could speak for God, being led by the spirit along with the Apostles, in order to settle disputes and declare what is and what is not truth. Why didn’t everyone else see this? Because they were blinded by their presuppositions that congregational democratic government is correct, that the Church fell away from the truth, and that the Reformation was a legitimate cause for schism. But I could find no evidence to support these assumptions in history or sacred Scripture.
What I found as I read, was a Bible that explained God’s covenant love for us, and a promise that is fulfilled in Christ. I saw a sanctification that is continuous and real and that was not merely a legal declaration. I saw in the writings of the Scriptures, the Fathers, and even the secular historians, that the Church believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and that for this and many other beliefs protestants consider invalid or optional the early Christians were willing to die. The Church I saw in history was the same Church I was reading about in my Catechism, both doctrinally and structurally.
I should explain that I did a lot of reading and study outside of class, and that may partially explain why my classmates were not having the same revelations as myself. But I still think that if somebody is honestly seeking truth, and is willing to conform themself to it and not the other way around, will eventually find the fulness of salvation in Jesus Christ as taught by His Church. Even reading anti-Catholic writers during this period could not sway me. Their arguments were mostly ad hominem, laced with circular reasoning and poor source documentation (including a glaring lack of source documentation). To have truly studied the Scriptures and History and to remain Protestant would be essentially saying, “I know that the early Church believed the things that the Catholic Church today teaches, and that the Church has been consistant in its teaching for 2000 years, BUT I, with my 4-8 years of study, am willing to fly in the face of 2000 years of succession and disagree because my presuppositions do not match those of the Church.” In a word, pride, seems to be one of the largest vices that threaten to keep Protestants from discovering the Church.
I don’t mean to paint such a negative picture. Most all protestants I know are godly people who love and serve Jesus Christ the best they know how. They want nothing more than to please Christ with their lives, but Catholicism is something truly foreign to them. They have only vague knowledge and assumptions on Church teaching and practice based on what they see in the media (and we all know how accurately the media portrays the Church). Catholicism makes them uncomfortable because of the unfamiliarity. I encourage you to invite a protestant friend to Mass. They will be surprised by what they see and their faulty assumptions will begin to fall.