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dianoigo blog

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Journeys from Christadelphia to orthodoxy: My story

This is an account of my spiritual journey. Since my religious affiliation has changed twice over the course of my journey, and since these changes occurred mainly for theological reasons, my story necessarily entails criticizing some of my former religious beliefs. However, I hope to do so in a fair and respectful way. This testimony is not intended as an apologia (a defense of my faith): I will include some intellectual aspects of my journey but also experiential aspects. My hope is simply to bear witness to God’s grace in my life.

Background on Christadelphians

I was raised in the Christadelphian religious community. For readers unfamiliar with Christadelphians, I will provide some background, as my story may be difficult to understand otherwise. In 1847, a British medical doctor named John Thomas broke away from the Stone-Campbell movement (the parent movement of such contemporary denominations as the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ) due to theological differences and formed a new sect that eventually took the name Christadelphians. There are roughly 50 000 Christadelphians in the world today (no precise figures are available), mainly concentrated in the British Commonwealth and the USA.

Christadelphians are a restorationist movement: they seek to restore the beliefs and practices of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers, which they believe were corrupted in a “Great Apostasy” soon after the apostles died. Christadelphians use the 66-book Protestant biblical canon. They uphold biblical inerrancy and a strong sola Scriptura (or, perhaps more precisely, solo Scriptura) position, granting almost no authority to extra-biblical Christian tradition.

Christadelphians sometimes refer to their distinctive doctrinal belief system as “the Truth.” They believe anyone who correctly interprets the Bible through diligent personal study will arrive at their doctrines. The most widely used Christadelphian Statement of Faith sets out the belief system in 30 brief propositions. Several fundamental differences from traditional Christian theology are readily apparent from a supplement to their Statement of Faith entitled “Doctrines to be Rejected.” These include:
  • “We reject the doctrine - that God is three persons.”
  • “We reject the doctrine - that man has an immortal soul.”
  • “We reject the doctrine - that the wicked will suffer eternal torture in hell.”
  • “We reject the doctrine - that the devil is a supernatural being.”
  • “We reject the doctrine - that the Kingdom of God is "the church."”
Christadelphians have traditionally regarded the papacy as the Antichrist, the Roman Catholic Church as the “mother of harlots” (Rev. 17:5) and the various Protestant denominations as the implied daughters. There is, however, a spectrum among contemporary Christadelphians from this strong antipathy toward “Christendom” to those who regard their movement as part of the big Christian denominational family.

Christadelphian local congregations are referred to as “ecclesias” and are fully autonomous: the movement has no centralised authority, representative body, synods, etc. There are several Christadelphian subgroups called “Fellowships” that are the result of past schisms within the movement. The largest subgroup is called the Central Fellowship; I grew up in the smaller Unamended Fellowship. Christadelphians are a very close-knit community. Through inter-ecclesial gatherings and conferences, Christadelphians who live hundreds of kilometres apart or even on different continents develop strong fraternal bonds.

Christadelphians believe in baptismal regeneration and only practice believers’ baptism. Most of those raised in the movement who decide to make a faith commitment undergo baptism between their middle teens and early twenties. Candidates for baptism must first undergo an “interview” or “examination” that in some cases is very theologically rigorous. Converts from other Christian denominations or movements usually undergo re-baptism because baptism is not considered valid unless one understands “the Truth” at the time of baptism.

Christadelphians do not have clergy or paid ministers. Ecclesias are governed congregationally, while the responsibility of preaching at Sunday services is divided among baptized male members—females too in some ecclesias—according to a weekly roster. Christadelphians do not have seminaries; instead Bible knowledge is acquired by self-study at one’s own initiative and attendance at Bible study meetings and conferences. Biblical literacy is a core value within the movement, so many Christadelphians engage in rigorous daily Bible study, achieving a level of familiarity with the Bible that would put many “mainstream Christian” clergy to shame.

Christadelphian worship services generally follow a fixed order of service but not a fixed form of words. They open with hymns or songs, Scripture readings and prayer, usually followed by a sermon or homily (referred to as an “exhortation”) and then the “breaking of bread” or “memorial service” (terms preferred over “communion”), which is practiced every Sunday.

My early life in the Christadelphian community

I was born in 1983 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and grew up in nearby Grimsby, the fourth of five children in a middle class family. Our parents provided us with a loving home and a great example. My father worked hard to provide for the family and my mother was a stay-at-home mom and I remain forever grateful for their sacrifices on our behalf. I had a happy, peaceful childhood (apart from the occasional scrap with my older brothers).

I have Christadelphians on both sides of my family going back five or six generations. All my grandparents were, and both my parents are, strongly committed Christadelphians. I can only remember one Sunday before age twenty when I did not attend a Christadelphian service. Usually it was two services per Sunday. We attended various other Christadelphian functions and held Bible classes almost daily at home. The Bible and the Christadelphian religion played a central role in my upbringing.

It was in my early teens, however, that my religious consciousness really began to awaken. My father and then my uncle were my Sunday School teachers during this period, and their lessons were intellectually stimulating, helping me to grasp the big picture of God’s message in the Bible and purpose in history, as well as the key battlegrounds of apologetics. Christadelphians spend a relatively large proportion of their time and resources (relative to other Christian denominations and movements) on apologetics, waging a two-front ideological war against secularism and “mainstream” Christianity respectively. In my mid-teens I resolved to undertake a thorough investigation of biblical doctrine in order to determine whether the Christadelphian belief system was really “the Truth” as I had been raised to believe. Soon after I turned 17, I became convinced that my studies had vindicated Christadelphian doctrine and was baptized. In retrospect, this investigation was sorely lacking in objectivity—for my information about “mainstream” or “orthodox” Christianity I relied largely on Christadelphian sources!

My teenage years coincided with the explosive growth of the World Wide Web. Even before I was baptized I had started a website devoted to Christadelphian apologetics. It was hosted at www.biblebeliefs.net (the site is long defunct, but a snapshot from 2003 can still be viewed thanks to web archiving). I also became active in theological debates on web forums. These tended to be testy, hubris-filled exchanges that soon degenerated into the intellectual equivalent of trench warfare. Most everyone logged off more convinced than before that his/her (more often his) position was unassailable and his opponent’s indefensible.

A crisis of conviction

The first time I really put my own belief system “in the dock” was roughly a year after my baptism, when I was 18. I was doing some work for my grandfather in his garden, and when I’d finished he paid me generously (as he always did) and then called me into his study for a chat (I still cherish the conversations I had with him). On this occasion he handed me an article entitled Satan, the Personal Devil by Sir Anthony F. Buzzard. Sir Anthony is a prominent theologian in the Church of God General Conference, which shares much in common with Christadelphians historically and theologically but maintains a traditional view of the Devil as a supernatural personal being. This article was a direct rebuttal of the Christadelphians’ figurative interpretation of the biblical Devil. It grabbed my attention since few theologians outside the Christadelphian community bother to interact with Christadelphian theology in any depth. Knowing my zeal for apologetics, my grandfather suggested that I write a rebuttal to Sir Anthony’s article. I was not yet out of high school, but I had no doubt that I was up for the challenge!

After reading and rereading the article, I realized I was up against something more than the proof-texting ping pong to which I was accustomed from online discussions. Buzzard had actually taken the time to understand the Christadelphian view of the Devil and had penned a brief but careful critique. He made straightforward grammatical observations that, it was immediately apparent to me, classic Christadelphian treatments of the Devil (in, e.g., Dr. John Thomas’s Elpis Israel, Robert Roberts’s Christendom Astray and Thomas Williams’s The Devil: His Origin and End) had overlooked. I did my best to research Buzzard’s points with my usual battery of Bible study methods: cross-referencing, consulting Christadelphian literature, mining the various English Bible versions for a favourable translation or footnote, and consulting some dated reference works such as Strong’s Concordance. I began working on a response, full of my usual strong rhetoric. The problem was, for the first time, I couldn’t convince myself that I was right. A feeling of doubt gnawed at the pit of my stomach and eventually became so strong that I shelved the project to suppress it.

Now, within my worldview, salvation was predicated upon achieving an accurate doctrinal understanding through personal Bible study. Hence, to doubt any aspect of “the Truth” as defined in the Statement of Faith was to doubt one’s eternal salvation. The theological uncertainties sparked by Sir Anthony’s article sapped my zeal for apologetics. I eventually stopped updating my website and put my energies into other pursuits—mainly frivolous or sinful ones that could temporarily fill the emptiness in my soul. Although I went through the motions of being a committed Christadelphian, attending religious services as faithfully as ever and delivering “exhortations” when it was my turn (beginning at age 19), my private reading of the Bible declined and my faith waned.

An awakening from spiritual slumber

This period of spiritual darkness and misery lasted for two or three years. My enthusiasm for Christ began to return as a result of some non-Christadelphian Christian literature that I read. Initially this was mainly popular-level literature that reawakened within me the joy of the basic Christian message about God’s love and grace. This literature delivered an epiphany that—although perhaps obvious in retrospect, including to Christadelphians—had hitherto been lost on me: Jesus Christ was not only a doctrine but a real, living person! Gradually I began reading more books on theology and biblical interpretation of a more academic sort. I had always thought that “mainstream” Christians were largely ignorant of Scripture, driven instead by either emotions (e.g., Evangelicals and Pentecostals) or wooden ritualism (e.g., Anglicans and Catholics). I was surprised to find that biblical scholars from all of these ecclesiastical traditions interacted with the biblical text with an attention to detail (linguistic, historical, literary, etc.) seldom seen in Christadelphian writings.

As I reflected on the edification I had received from this “mainstream” Christian literature, I was compelled to question my assumption that the authors, however sincere, were not real Christians but equivalent in God's sight to “atheists” (atheoi, Eph. 2:12) since they were ignorant of “the Truth.” I reflected on the possibility that God was interested in our hearts and that relationship was more important than doctrine. One night I prayed to Jesus Christ, asking him to be my Lord and Saviour and forgive my sins. I had what Evangelicals call a born-again experience. (This Evangelical notion of “accepting Jesus as your personal Saviour” is severely criticized by many Christadelphians, who regard such a decision as vacuous in the absence of a sound understanding of biblical doctrine.) I experienced God’s presence in a new way that night, and this convinced me that—whatever my doctrinal shortcomings—God had not abandoned me. He had come to me, not when I was a zealous student of the Scriptures but when I was a hypocrite. I was ashamed of my past as a self-assured teen-aged apologist and my present as a hedonist who masqueraded as a Christian on Sundays. I asked God to make himself known to me on his terms.

My second quest for theological truth

While this turning point in my spiritual journey brought me more into touch with the experiential side of Christianity, it did not diminish my interest in the intellectual, doctrinal side. My former zeal for Bible study and theology returned, but with a crucial difference. I no longer felt duty-bound to defend and uphold the Christadelphian belief system as “the Truth.” I simply wanted to better understand this Lord who had revealed himself to me. I felt a greater openness to follow God’s Word wherever it might lead me. I dared to trust the Holy Spirit to guide me along the way. I undertook a new, sustained investigation of the Bible with great optimism that, with God’s help, I would be able to arrive at a pristine system of theology—whether this system agreed with Christadelphian dogma or not.

I soon came to the conclusion that Christadelphians were mistaken about the biblical Devil—that the biblical writers had understood the Devil or Satan to be a supernatural personal being. (Perhaps because of its role in my theological development, this topic has remained one of my main interests in biblical research up to the present.) Similarly, I soon came to the conclusion that the Bible witnesses to the personal pre-existence and deity of Jesus Christ. Since these positions were in line with traditional Christian orthodoxy over against Christadelphian teachings, they caused me to reconsider my relationship to “mainstream” Christianity—and to Christadelphia. If Christ was pre-existent and divine, could the doctrine of the Trinity—the epitome of pseudo-Christian apostasy, according to many Christadelphians—actually be true? I was not so sure. While much more sympathetic to Trinitarianism than I had been before, I could not understand why most Christian denominations viewed it as dogma. How could a doctrine be the cornerstone of the Christian faith when it was not explicitly defined in Scripture? The Trinity seemed to be a man-made model for understanding what the Bible reveals about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. My studies in statistics had acquainted me with a famous statistical aphorism: “All models are wrong, but some are useful” (George E. P. Box). What was the Trinity, then, but a useful and yet—at some level—wrong model for understanding God?

My investigation led me into a kind of theological No Man’s Land between Christadelphianism and Evangelicalism. I had become persuaded of some doctrines that were named as “Doctrines to be Rejected” in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith. On the other hand, I was very reluctant to leave the Christadelphian community. This was the religious community that had been the fabric of my existence for my whole life and that housed most of my family and friends. Besides, no obvious alternative presented itself. I was not prepared to embrace the doctrines of the Trinity, eternal hellfire, the immortality of the soul or others held dogmatically by most Evangelicals. While still wrestling with this dilemma, my life underwent a big change.

Relocation to Africa

I had long been fascinated with Africa (albeit, as it turns out, largely due to na├»ve misconceptions about what it is like!) When I learned of a vibrant outreach programme being undertaken by Christadelphians in southern Africa—including robust social development and poverty alleviation programmes—it was too much to resist. What is theology, after all, if it is not put into practice through deeds of love and compassion?

A few days after completing my university programme, I left Canada for a four-month stint in South Africa that included side trips to Zambia and Mozambique. The Christadelphians I met in Durban, South Africa were very inspiring. Here, in a nation where Apartheid had reigned in my own lifetime, a predominantly white ecclesia were rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in community projects in the black townships. Although they were of course propagating the Christadelphian belief system within their outreach activities, I got the impression that they regarded themselves as Christians first and Christadelphians second. This made it easier for me to fellowship with them despite my nonconformist doctrinal views.

Just a few months after returning home from my first trip to Africa I relocated there on a long-term basis, this time to work with an HIV/AIDS programme called WhizzKids United, which had been founded by a Christadelphian named Marcus McGilvray, a free spirit with a tireless passion for helping others. What was initially intended as a two-year stay turned into four years. Working with Marcus at WhizzKids United was a hugely rewarding experience. It was also through this work that I met my future wife, a beautiful Zulu girl named Ayanda who worked with another HIV/AIDS organisation. We formed a bond soon after we met and were married three years later. Through my marriage I also became an “instant dad,” first to Ayanda’s son Sphe and later also to her nephew Smiso. These boys keep me on my toes!

During this time, I was initially worshipping only with the Lamontville Christadelphian ecclesia at the site of one of the outreach projects in the township. The median age among attendees on a typical Sunday was about five, so the handful of adults who attended were focused on ministering to the children through song and Sunday School lessons. The theological fault lines separating Christadelphians from “mainstream” Christianity seldom came up, so I was under no pressure to quickly resolve my theological dilemma.

After a couple of years in Durban, I started volunteering with an ecumenical prison ministry called Kairos. This was very spiritually rewarding and through Kairos I met a pastoral couple, Simon and Rosemary Gambo, who ran a small charismatic Evangelical church called House of Prayer Ministries in Kwamakhutha, another township in Durban. The Gambos were a strong positive influence on my then girlfriend and future wife Ayanda and on me and on our relationship. We started dividing our Sundays between Lamontville and Kwamakhutha. Services at House of Prayer Ministries were conducted mostly in Zulu and I was almost always the only white person in attendance but was never made to feel out of place. I learned a lot from the African approach to worship. Services went on for hours but one was rarely conscious of the passage of time because we were engrossed in God’s presence.

Another relocation and formal theological studies

As my wedding approached I realized I needed a job that could support a family. I had always intended to get back into academia at some point and a university lecturing post in Statistics provided the opportunity. A few months after we were married we relocated to Cape Town, 1600 km west of Durban, far from the heartbeat of the Zulu Nation.

At the time of the move I was attending the Lamontville ecclesia—which was already at a great remove from my conservative, traditional Christadelphian upbringing—perhaps one or two Sundays a month. I couldn’t bring myself to stop going completely because I loved the people there. Our move to Cape Town thus proved to be the final step in my gradual departure from the Christadelphian community. As my outlook became increasingly ecumenical, appreciating Christians of different ecclesiastical backgrounds (albeit mainly within the Evangelical tradition), it became increasingly difficult to see a future in the Christadelphian community, which for the most part denounces ecumenism and defines itself against, rather than within, wider Christianity. There is much that I admire about the Christadelphian community, and there are many people that I admire in the Christadelphian community. However, I have come to believe that the way of the Holy Spirit leads away from the Christadelphian religious system. (Christadelphians themselves have traditionally taught that the Holy Spirit is no longer actively working, which I regard as a startling admission in view of passages like Acts 2:38-39, Rom. 8:9 and 1 Cor. 12:3).

Around the time of the move to Cape Town I began a theology degree programme by distance learning at King’s Evangelical Divinity School (KEDS) in the U.K. I didn’t undertake these studies due to sensing a calling to become a pastor. One of my main motives was to take my quest for theological truth to the next level. I remained optimistic that I as an independent person could, by diligent, prayerful effort, extract the correct theological system from the Bible. However, my engagement with scholarly theological literature had convinced me that I needed to sharpen my skills as an interpreter of Scripture. I needed technical tools such as knowledge of the biblical languages and greater familiarity with the Bible’s historical context in order to “rightly divide the word of truth.” My ultimate aim was to figure out which Christian denomination had achieved pristine theological truth or, if none had, to start my own!

When we relocated to Cape Town, we joined Bellville Baptist Church. The congregation was very warm as well as ethnically diverse, which suited our family well. Theologically, I saw the Baptist denomination as a kind of working hypothesis. It was squarely within the Evangelical tradition and yet relatively close to Christadelphians in theology and especially church government and worship practice. I certainly didn’t want my family and I to be unchurched while I continued my theological quest. We developed strong bonds with many brothers and sisters in this church and were inspired by their love and zeal for the Lord.

My quest for theological truth fails

When I began my studies at KEDS, I thought the theological task that lay ahead would be arduous but straightforward. As my decision to study at an Evangelical institution suggests, my presupposition was that the ideal theological system lay somewhere within Evangelicalism. It was just a matter of working my way through the various in-house Evangelical doctrinal debates. I had never given much consideration to the ecclesiastical traditions beyond the Evangelical horizon, as they seemed quite obviously to have contaminated their theology with extra-biblical tradition.

The theological essay assignments I undertook for my studies provided something of a rude awakening. KEDS rightly emphasised the need to read widely and correctly understand all scholarly perspectives on a biblical passage or doctrine before reaching one’s own position. However, as I did this, I had to admit to myself that deciding between the alternative viewpoints was often very difficult. It was not a simple matter of separating wheat from chaff. Often there were strong arguments for and against both sides of an issue. The positions I took in my essays were often arrived at on a balance of probabilities. I was arriving at defensible opinions but not a definitive theological system that I could espouse with anything resembling certainty. It became increasingly obvious that my quest for definitive theological truth through private study was not going to succeed. So what then?

Maybe, as I had considered many years earlier, theology was a waste of time, a pie-in-the-sky pursuit. Yet a revelation as rich and complex as the Bible seemed to point to a God who delights in theological treasures. Another alternative was postmodernism. Maybe theological truth was in the eye of the beholder and I just needed to find “mine.” Or maybe theological truth was more of a journey than a destination, as the Emerging Church would have us believe. Yet this didn’t seem to square with the Jesus of the gospels or the Paul of the epistles, who had a polemical edge to their teachings and sharply distinguished between truth and error. It still appeared to me that “the Truth” was out there; I was just no longer convinced that I could work it out for myself from the Bible.

Revisiting epistemological presuppositions

Epistemology is a word one doesn’t hear every day. I wish it were otherwise, for it is a very important word. Every human being and every interpreter of Scripture has an epistemology, whether one realizes it or not. My epistemology is my theory of knowledge: my strategy for acquiring knowledge, my criteria for evaluating different possible sources of knowledge, my means of separating fact from opinion and truth from falsehood. In theology, epistemology provides the rules of the game (I use that word metaphorically, not to be flippant). Which putative sources of theological knowledge do I admit into evidence? How much weight do I assign to each of these authorities? What are the underlying assumptions on which these judgments of mine are based?

I gradually came to realize that I had been playing this game for a long time without ever really taking the time to ponder the rules. Sure, I had reflected on principles of sound biblical interpretation. However, there are epistemological principles more fundamental than these. What is the Bible? Which books belong in the biblical canon and how can I be sure of this? Is the process of deriving doctrine from the Bible one of sheer human interpretive effort, or is the Holy Spirit involved? If it is genuinely difficult to decide between two competing interpretations, how does one resolve this? Whose responsibility is it to interpret the Bible, anyway? Does the duty of constructing doctrine fall on every Christian individually and privately, or on the Church collectively, or on certain gifted individuals within the Church? These were some of the questions that I now began to ask earnestly.

My encounter with church tradition

While I was wrestling with the difficulties of biblical interpretation, my theological studies also brought me into close contact with the writings of the Church Fathers for the first time. Christadelphians have traditionally regarded virtually all of the Church Fathers as apostate from the second century on. To the extent that they examine their writings at all it is usually to show how badly astray they were, or perhaps to show that certain elements of “the Truth” survived for awhile in certain quarters after the onset of the Great Apostasy. Evangelicals view the Church Fathers with greater esteem but don’t seem to distinguish between their collective authority and that of the Reformers, for instance. Even among some Evangelicals the patristic church is viewed with suspicion, as an intermediate step toward the later excesses of Roman Catholicism.

I took a keen interest in the earliest Church Fathers, such as the Apostolic Fathers and the second-century Apologists, as a potential source of evidence to use in my theological quest. I reasoned that, being the earliest known interpreters of the New Testament, they must have been very close to the original meaning of the text. However, a number of things surprised me about the second century Fathers. First and foremost was the very limited use of the New Testament writings in the Apostolic Fathers (late first to mid-second century). Unquestionably, there was a period lasting at least a couple of generations during which the church had neither living apostles nor anything resembling a complete, canonised New Testament. How did the church get by, theologically speaking, during this interval? Of course the church had the Jewish Scriptures—later to be called the Old Testament—but interpreting its laws, types and prophecies in light of the Christ-event was no simple task. If we accept the testimony of late second century Christian writers like Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, what got the church by was what they called “the rule of faith” or “the canon of truth”—the core content of Christian truth that had been handed down from the apostles. While the rule of faith was certainly not unrelated to Scripture—indeed, Irenaeus thought it was the key to sound interpretation of Scripture—it was external to Scripture, falling into the category of oral tradition. This was of great epistemological significance, because if the faith had been preserved by tradition in the interval between the apostles and the completion of the New Testament canon, tradition must have a positive, divinely ordained role in the Church alongside that of Scripture. (For positive uses of the word “tradition” in the New Testament, see 1 Cor. 11:2 and 2 Thess. 2:15; cf. 2 Tim. 1:12-14 for the similar concept of the “deposit” of the faith, handed down from Jesus Christ to Paul and from Paul to Timothy).

In fact, I soon realized that the biblical canon itself falls into the category of tradition and not Scripture. The Bible has no divinely inspired table of contents and the distinction between canonical and non-canonical books is not self-evident. The 27-book New Testament canon that is accepted without question by denominations and publishers worldwide is not something that can be proven from Scripture. It is an extra-biblical, traditional consensus that was only formalized in the late fourth century A.D. (after extensive debate that continued in some quarters thereafter). Moreover, a pivotal criterion for judging the canonicity of a book was tradition—specifically, whether or not it had a traditional pedigree of being read in the churches. Many historians believe that liturgical use was a primary means by which the biblical canon coalesced in the first place. (The criterion of "apostolicity" also rests heavily on tradition, since some New Testament books make no claim within the text to have been written by an apostle or an apostolic associate, and of those books that do, the authorship of most is disputed in modern scholarship.)

The patristic church thus had two canons or rules (the Greek cognate of the word “canon” means “rule”): the canon/rule of faith and the canon/rule of Scripture. The two canons were interdependent. The content of both rested not only on Scripture but also on oral tradition believed to have been handed down from the apostles and safeguarded by the Holy Spirit. This made me realize that I had to make room in my epistemology for the role of tradition alongside that of Scripture. For, if one discounts tradition, one has no clear grounds for dogmatically asserting a particular canon of Scripture. The biblical canon, like every other doctrine, becomes another disputable question of biblical interpretation. Its disputable nature may be disguised to most Christians today since there has been little disagreement within the church concerning the canon—at least of the New Testament—for over a millennium, and a beautifully bound leather Bible provides a false sense of security about the completeness and correctness of the contents. In fact, many scholars of early Christianity regard "New Testament" as an arbitrary and anachronistic way of classifying Christian literature of the first and early second centuries C.E.

Something else that I noticed about the second-century Church Fathers is that some of their theological views seemed markedly different from those of Evangelicals in areas such as baptism, the Eucharist, ecclesiology (the doctrine about the Church) and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). In fact, some of their statements and emphases in these areas sounded much more in line with Catholic and Orthodox theology.

My encounter with Roman Catholic epistemology

When I was a committed Christadelphian my attitude toward Roman Catholicism bordered on contempt. Like most traditionally minded Christadelphians I viewed it as the epicentre of apostate Christianity. After adopting a more ecumenical outlook, my antipathy toward Catholicism moderated, but I still viewed many of its beliefs and practices as strange, unbiblical and unworthy of serious attention. However, my engagement with epistemological questions and my new appreciation for the role of tradition in Christian doctrine gradually compelled me to take a more serious interest in this ancient and much-maligned version of Christianity.

However strange I thought such ideas as purgatory, veneration of Mary or a ban on contraception, I had to admit that Roman Catholicism offered uniquely clear answers to my epistemological questions (see the document Dei Verbum from the Second Vatican Council). Like the Orthodox churches but unlike Protestants, the Catholic Church gives full weight to what she calls “sacred tradition.” Moreover, she does so without at all compromising the authority of Scripture—indeed, as already mentioned her notion of tradition provides an epistemological basis for trusting the canon of Scripture. She also offers an explanation for why neither I nor any other private individual had been able to uncover the definitive theological system of the Bible: constructing dogmatic theology through biblical interpretation is a prerogative given to the Church, not the private reader. And this gift of interpretive authority, she maintains, is not diffused democratically throughout the Church but transmitted historically and hierarchically via apostolic succession. This is not to say that the layperson has no business reading or interpreting Scripture—far from it. Rather, it means that the layperson, and every other private individual, must defer to the Church in matters of dogma—with the authority to speak for “the Church” ultimately vested in the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter.

Thus I had to contend anew with one of the most controversial—according to some, blasphemous—aspects of Roman Catholicism: the papacy. The Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, although widely misrepresented by its critics at the popular level, represents a radically bold claim. However, its epistemological advantages are undeniable. If an inscrutable doctrinal problem should arise, there is a living, visible authority that can rule definitively on the matter. This enables unambiguous definitions of truth, heresy and even “the Church.” To promote a doctrinal position that is at odds with the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church, ultimately concentrated in the papacy) is to be in error. “Heresy” is no longer merely a matter of perspective, defined as a doctrine fundamentally at odds with my personal interpretation of the Bible; it can be defined objectively. Similarly, if the Church is torn by a schism, which side retains the status of the One Body of Christ? It is that which remains in communion with the Pope. “The Church” is a visible, verifiable, flesh-and-blood entity rather than an intangible abstraction.

Most Protestants regard the Pope as a usurper of Christ’s prerogatives to rule the Church and define her doctrines. However, I came to realize that every Christian has an extra-biblical, visible human authority who is the final court of appeal for matters of interpretation of divine revelation, submitting to which is tantamount to submitting to Christ’s rule and authority. For a Catholic, this visible actor is the Pope; for most Protestants, it is oneself. So the question is not whether divine revelation ought to be mediated through a human interpretive authority—this is simply inevitable. The question is whether one defers to a human interpretive authority beyond oneself—trusting that Christ has ordained such an authority and endowed it with gifts that preserve its judgments from error—or whether trusts one’s own private judgment as the final human interpretive authority. In the latter case, one effectively functions as one’s own Pope. While one may not necessarily regard one’s own opinions as infallible, one does regard them as more reliable than anyone else’s. Seen in this light, the Catholic institution of the papacy seemed a little less audacious!

Doctrinal Development or Doctrinal Corruption?

I mentioned above my observation that the early Church Fathers, from the second century on, made numerous statements that seemed more Catholic than Evangelical. They appeared to assume baptismal regeneration. They made lofty statements about the Eucharist that seem inconsistent with anything less than the Real Presence of Jesus. They cited books as Scripture that the Reformers would later eject from the canon. They assumed the authority of bishops and, already in the late second century, Irenaeus asserted that all churches must be in agreement with the Roman church. Several patristic writers referred to the bishop of Rome as occupying the chair of Peter. They wrestled with the possibility and means of forgiveness for post-baptismal sin. And so on. All of this suggested that the patristic church understood Scripture and apostolic tradition in ways more Catholic than Protestant. This is unquestionably true of the fourth-century Church that gave us the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, Trinitarian orthodoxy, and a formalized New Testament canon (all of which most Evangelicals can heartily say “Amen” to).

At the same time, it seemed clear that the theology and practice of the patristic Church was not the full-blown Roman Catholicism of, say, the Council of Trent (sixteenth century). The open exercise of papal authority took centuries to develop, and it is debatable whether the church at Rome even had a single, monarchical bishop before the late second century. What should one make of this? It was here that John Henry Cardinal Newman’s classic Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine proved helpful. Newman, a high-profile nineteenth-century convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, acknowledged that Church doctrine evolved over time. However, he argued that doctrinal development was both positive and necessary if the Church were to survive and grow. A butterfly and a caterpillar are very different, yet one is the legitimate development of the other. Newman argued that change can be a legitimate development or a corruption of the original, and offered criteria for discerning between the two. Historic theological developments often occurred in response to a heresy or crisis that required the Church to define its teachings more explicitly—much as governments often introduce detailed and stringent safety regulations to prevent disasters only after a disaster has occurred that highlighted the need for them (this last analogy is mine, not Newman's).

Newman appealed to the doctrine of the Trinity as an example of a doctrinal development that his Protestant readers would concede was legitimate (Christadelphians, of course, would not concede this, but the New Testament canon can serve as a similar example that applies to them). For, while raw materials of the doctrine of the Trinity (such as trine formulas and high Christology) are present already in Scripture, it is difficult to dispute that the finer metaphysical details of this dogma were worked out much later—forged in the fires of the Arian controversy. (Incidentally, it is precisely because my theological paradigm could not account for doctrinal development that I had previously been reluctant to accept the Trinity as dogma rather than an interesting, manmade hypothesis.)

With Newman’s theory of doctrinal development in hand, I gradually came to the conclusion that both the Christadelphian and Evangelical belief systems suffered from serious epistemological shortcomings that the Catholic belief system did not. The shortcomings in the Christadelphian system were more serious than those in Evangelicalism, but the differences were of degree and not of kind. Both had the catholic church going off the rails at some point in history; the only difference was when. Both uphold sola Scriptura (an epistemology that cannot account for the canon of Scripture itself), but most Protestants are willing to recognize some tradition (e.g., the Creed) as authoritative in a subordinate sense, whereas Christadelphians are generally unwilling to defer to tradition at all.

My encounter with the actual Roman Catholic Church

Early in 2015 I began to sense a persistent prompting in my spirit telling me to go and see a Catholic priest. I do not remember how far along I was in the epistemological thought process described above. I know I was still quite ignorant of, and averse to, some of the finer details of Catholic theology. However, this prompting that I felt was not a rational deduction. I didn’t experience it as a curiosity or something that seemed like a good idea. I experienced it as something I must do, almost as a command. I initially resisted it. I was happy in the Baptist church our family had joined. I had never spoken with a Catholic priest in my life. What was I supposed to say to this priest?

However, this inward call to see a Catholic priest did not go away and I became convinced that it could be from the Holy Spirit, for I had experienced this kind of inward call twice before in my life. On both previous occasions, I was prodded toward a major life decision that went against my own intuition. In the first case, I had returned from a four-month stint in Africa to enter a fully-funded PhD program in Statistics at one of Canada’s top universities. A great career path was laid out before me. Yet something kept telling me to return to Africa and volunteer with an HIV/AIDS charity I’d encountered on my trip. It was easy to rationalise to myself why that would be a rash and foolish decision. However, these unshakeable promptings intensified and after about three months I acquiesced. I resigned from the PhD program, sold my car and booked a flight to South Africa.

The second occasion occurred some years later. I met a beautiful young South African lady named Ayanda and we started dating. Things went well for about eighteen months, despite the challenges associated with an interracial, inter-cultural relationship. After that, we went through some major problems that convinced me it was best that we break up and go our separate ways. I really felt like moving back home to Canada and picking up where I had left off. However, when I prayed about the situation I received an unmistakable prompting not to give up on this relationship, because Ayanda was the woman God wanted me to marry. I heeded this message. Things did not get better in our relationship right away, but they did eventually and after almost five years of marriage we are still going strong by God’s grace.

With these two experiences in my life’s rear-view mirror, I recognized the persistent prompting to meet with a Catholic priest as another such occurrence and realized it wasn’t going to go away until I heeded it. I called the office of the Bellville parish here in Cape Town and asked for an appointment to speak with the priest. I don’t remember exactly what I said when I first came into the priest’s office, but it was something like, “I am a Protestant with a strongly anti-Catholic background but I now feel called to engage with the Catholic Church on some level.” I had anticipated that the priest might say something very profound in response, but he merely told me that there was a class on Thursday evenings for people wanting to know more about Catholicism, and I was welcome to attend if I wished. I thanked the priest for his time and walked out of his office feeling rather underwhelmed. That was it? That mundane, two-minute conversation? Nevertheless, I thought I may as well give the class a try. After all, Elisha’s mundane instructions to Naaman the Syrian had proven in the end to be very wise (2 Kings 5).

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) is a catechetical process, normally lasting a year, that non-Catholic adults—Christian or not—must go through before becoming Catholic. In the Cape Town Archdiocese the annual cycle finishes at Easter, which is the only time adults can enter the Catholic Church. I entered RCIA early in the 2015-16 cycle. Each week we looked at a different aspect of the Catholic faith, with an initial presentation followed by Q&A. It was very helpful for introducing me to the basics of Catholicism and correcting a lot of my Protestant misconceptions about Catholicism. However, since by this time I was over halfway through a degree in theology, I wanted to understand these theological issues at a deeper level, so I did a lot of self-study. I incorporated relevant literature and topics into my theology assignments so that I could engage at an academic level. I also engaged with Catholic apologetics content online (among the most helpful of which, for me, were the articles at Called to Communion and the videos of the Word on Fire ministry run by Bishop Robert Barron).

Also during the period of the RCIA classes, I began working through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Three positive characteristics of the Catechism really jumped out at me. These were, namely, its clarity, comprehensiveness and compatibility. First, clarity. I had been led to believe that Catholic theology involved a lot of vague jargon designed to prevent people from asking too many questions. It was all one big appeal to mystery that no one could really make sense of, I thought. Yet to my surprise, the Catechism presented the faith in a remarkably forthright and logical way. Obviously further reading was required to get the nuance of some of the more complex ideas, but the core content of Catholic theology is laid bare for all to see. No one could read the Catechism and justifiably complain that Catholic doctrine is vague or indeterminate. 

Second, comprehensiveness. Although the Catechism is obviously not a quick read—it consists of 2865 propositions that took me several months to get through, reading a little each night before bed—its attention to detail is second to none among confessional documents I’ve encountered. Moreover, it has an intuitive structure built around the Apostles’ Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. I was particularly impressed at how the whole belief system, despite the vastness of its content, fit together in a coherent, internally consistent whole. 

Third, compatibility. I was surprised at how much of the content in the Catechism not only the Evangelical in me but even the Christadelphian in me could already say “Amen” to. Of course the major differences are well known, but the common ground in areas of both faith and morals is highly significant and too often forgotten in the heat of polemic. (Incidentally, I’m of the opinion that the Catechism of the Catholic Church should be required reading for every lay critic of Catholicism, as this would help avoid misrepresentation of Catholic doctrine.)

As Easter 2016 approached and the rest of the RCIA class prepared to enter the Church, I felt conflicted. Eventually I informed the catechist and the priest that I was not ready to enter the Church at Easter, and they were very gracious about this. For one thing, my wife and family were not in the same place as I was in their spiritual journey, and I wanted to give them time to adjust to this change in my own spirituality. For another, I was up to this time still active in the Baptist Church and I didn’t want to back out of my responsibilities there without proper notice. Most importantly, I was still coming to terms with Catholicism and, knowing the magnitude of the decision to become Catholic, I wanted to make sure I’d thought it through completely.

My encounter with Catholic Liturgy

It was only during Lent 2016 that I started attending Sunday Mass regularly (usually in the evening, while still attending morning Baptist services with my family). I consistently found Mass to be a wonderful experience of God’s presence, even though I could not yet participate in the focal point of the Mass—the Holy Eucharist. The reverent atmosphere in the sanctuary, the beautiful words of the liturgy, the opportunity to kneel during prayer, the recitation of the Creed, joining hands to sing the Lord’s Prayer—all of this was new to me. Other aspects of the Mass reminded me of what I liked best about Christadelphian services growing up: Scripture readings from both Testaments, and grand hymns sung to organ music.

The best analogy I can give for my encounter with Catholicism—especially the Catechism and the Liturgy—is that of falling in love. It was an experience full of awe, wonderment and anticipation. Not awe toward the Catholic Church per se; awe toward God for the way I encountered Him there unexpectedly.

The Catholic Church receives me

By the end of 2016, I was sure that I was ready to enter the Catholic Church at Easter 2017. Accordingly, I informed my pastor at the Baptist Church along with one of the elders. I had dialogued with them several times during my journey, and while they had serious reservations about my decision, they handled the matter with much grace and love. I am thankful that I remain close to my brothers and sisters in the Baptist Church. (My journey has made me ever more passionate about the ecumenical movement.)

I was received into the Catholic Church on Saturday 15 April 2017 at the Easter Vigil. I was finally able to go to my first confession that morning. I had 33 years of mortal sin to unload, and this brought an indescribable sense of liberation. The sacraments themselves filled me with an unforgettable feeling of joy and peace. Although my entry into the Catholic Church was in one sense a new beginning, and I still have much to learn, in another sense it felt like the end of a long journey: arriving at a welcome and much-anticipated destination. My theological quest was complete—not because I had discovered something by my diligence or intellectual prowess, but because God had shifted my gaze away from my own paltry efforts at “D.I.Y. Christianity” and toward the edifice founded by his Son that has stood the test of time. By God’s grace, I have found “the Truth” that Christadelphians seek, and the full ecclesiological context of the inward, spiritual renewal for which Evangelicals call. All of this has been there all along, in the Catholic Church. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’” (Rev. 22:17).

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention your Paltalk debate with Matt Slick.

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, you could debate him again. I see he has debated Catholics.

Tom said...

These are quite specific comments to leave anonymously. Would you mind identifying yourself?

With regards to the suggestion, I have been a Catholic for barely two months. If Matt Slick has debated other Catholics, I'm sure they did a better job than I could.