Like all accounts of God’s faithfulness, mine begins with a genealogy. In the late seventeenth century, my mother’s Congregationalist ancestors journeyed to the New World to escape what they saw as England’s deadly compromise with Romanism. Centuries later, American Presbyterians converted my father’s great-grandmother from Coptic Orthodoxy to Protestantism. Her son became a Presbyterian minister in the Evangelical Coptic Church. By the time my parents were living in twenty-first-century Illinois, their families’ historic Reformed commitments had been replaced by non-denominational, Baptistic evangelicalism.
This form of Christianity dominated my Midwestern hometown. My parents taught me to love God, revere the Scriptures, and seek truth through reason. In middle school, my father introduced me to theology, and as a present for my sixteenth birthday he arranged a meeting between me and a Catholic philosopher, Dr. B—. From high school into college, Dr. B— introduced me to Catholic thought and graciously helped me work through my doubts about Christianity. How could a just and loving God not reveal himself equally to everyone? What are we to make of the Bible’s creation stories and flood narrative? Did Calvinism make God the author of evil? My acquaintance with Dr. B— set my intellectual trajectory for several years.
The causes of any conversion (or near conversion) are many and confused. Should I foreground psychological and social factors or my theological reasoning? Certain elements of my attraction to Catholicism were adolescent, like a sixties radical’s attraction to Marx or a contemporary activist’s to intersectionality: I aimed to preserve the core beliefs of my upbringing while fleeing their bourgeois expressions. When I arrived at the University of Chicago, I knew just enough about Calvinism to hold it in contempt—which is to say, I knew very little. Reacting against the middle-aged leaders of the inaptly named “Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement,” I sought refuge in that other great Western theological tradition: Roman Catholicism.
During my first year of college, I became involved in campus Catholic life. Through the influence of the Catholic student group and the Lumen Christi Institute, which hosts lectures by Catholic intellectuals, my theologically inclined college friends began converting to Catholicism, one after another. These friends were devout, intelligent, and schooled in Christian history. I met faithful and holy Catholic priests—one of whom has valiantly defended the faith for years, drawing punitive opposition from his own religious superiors, as well as the ire of Chicago’s archbishop. This priest was and is to me the very model of a holy, righteous, and courageous man.
I loved Catholicism because Catholics taught me to love the Church. At Lumen Christi events, I heard about saints and mystics, stylites and monastics, desert fathers and late-antique theologians. I was captivated by the holy martyrs, relics, Mary, and the Mass. I found in the Church a spiritual mother and the mother of all the faithful. Through Catholicism, I came into an inheritance: a past of saints and redeemed sinners from all corners of the earth, theologians who illuminated the deep things of God, music and art that summon men to worship God “in the beauty of holiness,” and a tradition to ground me in a world of flux.
Catholicism, which I took to be the Christianity of history, was a world waiting to be discovered. I set about exploring, and I tried to bring others along. I debated tradition with my mother, sola Scriptura with my then fiancée (now wife), and the meaning of the Eucharist with my father. On one occasion, a Reformed professor dispensed with my arguments for transubstantiation in a matter of minutes.
Not long after this, I began to notice discrepancies between Catholic apologists’ map of the tradition and the terrain I encountered in the tradition itself. St. Ambrose’s doctrine of justification sounded a great deal more like Luther’s sola fide than like Trent. St. John Chrysostom’s teaching on repentance and absolution—“Mourn and you annul the sin”—would have been more at home in Geneva than Paris. St. Thomas’s doctrine of predestination, much to my horror, was nearly identical to the Synod of Dordt’s. The Anglican divine Richard Hooker quoted Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Pope Leo I as he rejected doctrines and practices because they were not grounded in Scripture. He cited Pope Gregory the Great on the “ungodly” title of universal bishop. The Council of Nicaea assumed that Alexandria was on a par with Rome, and Chalcedon declared that the Roman patriarchate was privileged only “because [Rome] was the royal city.” In short, I began to wonder whether the Reformers had a legitimate claim to the Fathers. The Church of Rome could not be straightforwardly identified as catholic.
John Henry Newman became my crucial interlocutor: More than in Ratzinger, Wojtyła, or Congar, in Newman I found a kindred spirit. Here was a man obsessed with the same questions that ate at me, questions of tradition and authority. With Newman, I agonized over conversion. I devoured his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and his Apologia pro Vita Sua. Two of his ideas were pivotal for me: his theory of doctrinal development and his articulation of the problem of private judgment. On these two ideas hung all the claims of Rome.
In retrospect, I see that Newman’s need to construct a theory of doctrinal development tells against Rome’s claims of continuity with the ancient Church. And at the time, though I wished to accept Newman’s proposal that “the early condition, and the evidence, of each doctrine . . . ought consistently to be interpreted by means of that development which was ultimately attained,” I could not. One could only justify such assumptions if one were already committed to Roman Catholic doctrine and Rome’s meaningful continuity with what came before. Without either of these commitments, I simply could not find a plausible reason to speak of “development” rather than “disjuncture,” especially because what came before so often contradicted what followed.
The issue of ecclesiastical authority was trickier for me. I recognized the absurdity of a twenty-year-old presuming to adjudicate claims about the Scriptures and two thousand years of history. Newman’s arguments against private judgment therefore had a prima facie plausibility for me. In his Apologia, Newman argues that man’s rebellion against God introduced an “anarchical condition of things,” leading human thought toward “suicidal excesses.” Hence, the fittingness of a divinely established living voice infallibly proclaiming supernatural truths. In his discourse on “Faith and Private Judgment,” Newman castigates Protestants for refusing to “surrender” reason in matters religious. The implication is that reason is unreliable in matters of revelation. Faith is assent to the incontestable, self-evident truth of God’s revelation, and reasoning becomes an excuse to refuse to bend the knee.
The more I internalized Newman’s claims about private judgment, however, the more I descended into skepticism. I could not reliably interpret the Scriptures, history, or God’s Word preached and given in the sacraments. But if I could not do these things, if my reason was unfit in matters religious, how was I to assess Newman’s arguments for Roman Catholicism? Newman himself had once recognized this dilemma, writing in a pre-conversion letter, “We have too great a horror of the principle of private judgment to trust it in so immense a matter as that of changing from one communion to another.” Did he expect me to forfeit the faculty by which I adjudicate truth claims, because that faculty is fallible? My conversion would have to be rooted in my private judgment—but, because of Rome’s claim of infallibility, conversion would forbid me from exercising that faculty ever again on doctrinal questions.
Finally, the infighting among traditionalist, conservative, and liberal Catholics made plain that Catholics did not gain by their magisterium a clear, living voice of divine authority. They received from the past a set of magisterial documents that had to be weighed and interpreted, often over against living prelates. The magisterium of prior ages only multiplied the texts one had to interpret for oneself, for living bishops, it turns out, are as bad at reading as the rest of us.
But I did not remain a Protestant merely because I could not become a Catholic. While I was discovering that Roman Catholicism could not be straightforwardly identified with the catholicism of the first six centuries (nor, in certain respects, with that of the seventh century through the twelfth), and as I was wrestling with Newman, I finally began reading the Reformers. What I found shocked me. Catholicism had, by this time, reoriented my theological concerns around the concerns of the Church catholic. My assumptions, and the issues that animated me, were those of the Church of history. My evangelical upbringing had led me to believe that Protestantism entailed the rejection of these concerns. But this notion exploded upon contact with the Protestantism of history.
Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, Herman Bavinck, Karl Barth—they wrestled with the concerns of the Church catholic and provided answers to the questions Catholicism had taught me to pose. Richard Hooker interpreted the Church’s traditions; Calvin followed Luther’s Augustinianism, proclaimed the visible Church the mother of the faithful, and claimed for the Reformation the Church’s exegetical tradition; Barth convinced me that God’s Word could speak, certainly and surely, from beyond all created realities, to me.
Catholicism had taught me to think like a Protestant, because, as it turned out, the Reformers had thought like catholics. Like their pope-aligned opponents, they had asked questions about justification, the authority of tradition, the mode of Christ’s self-gift in the Eucharist, the nature of apostolic succession, and the Church’s wielding of the keys. Like their opponents, Protestants had appealed to Scripture and tradition. In time, I came to find their answers not only plausible, but more faithful to Scripture than the Catholic answers, and at least as well-represented in the traditions of the Church.
The Protestants did more than out-catholic the Catholics. They also spoke to the deepest needs of sinful souls. I will never forget the moment when, like Luther five hundred years earlier, I discovered justification by faith alone through union with Christ. I was sitting in my dorm room by myself. I had been assigned Luther’s Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, and I expected to find it facile. A year or two prior, I had decided that Trent was right about justification: It was entirely a gift of grace consisting of the gradual perfecting of the soul by faith and works—God instigating and me cooperating. For years, I had attempted to live out this model of justification. I had gone to Mass regularly, prayed the rosary with friends, fasted frequently, read the Scriptures daily, prayed earnestly, and sought advice from spiritual directors. I had begun this arduous cooperation with God’s grace full of hope; by the time I sat in that dorm room alone, I was distraught and demoralized. I had learned just how wretched a sinner I was: No good work was unsullied by pride, no repentance unaccompanied by expectations of future sin, no love free from selfishness.
In this state, I picked up my copy of that arch-heretic Luther and read his explanation of Thesis 37: “Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.” With these words, Luther transformed my understanding of justification: Every Christian possesses Christ, and to possess Christ is to possess all of Christ’s righteousness, life, and merits. Christ had joined me to himself.
I had “put on Christ” in baptism and, by faith through the work of the Spirit, all things were mine, and I was Christ’s, and Christ was God’s (Gal. 3:27; 1 Cor. 3:21–23). His was not an uncertain mercy; his was not a grace of parts, which one hoped would become a whole; his was not a salvation to be attained, as though it were not already also a present possession. At that moment, the joy of my salvation poured into my soul. I wept and showed forth God’s praise. I had finally discovered the true ground and power of Protestantism: “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (Song 2:16).
Rome had brought me to Reformation.
Onsi A. Kamel is editor in chief of the Davenant Press.