Deeper in Christ
Featuring Chris Birkbeck/
December 12, 2011
On March 22, 2008, just two months shy of my thirty-sixth birthday I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. I stood before the altar and, in front of the full parish congregation, testified and professed that I believed all of the doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church and would in my best efforts support and defend those beliefs till the end of my days.
I would like to explain as simply as possible why I decided to move away from thirty-five years of Protestantism; a decision which put me at risk of alienating myself from Protestant friends and family in order to adopt the Holy Roman Catholic Church as my own.
My journey began a few years ago when I rediscovered Christ. I had been raised and baptized a Baptist, but for a dozen or more years had not seriously practiced my faith, nor allowed Christ to influence my behavior. I was Christian only by my own description. My return to Christianity was not difficult or painful, but rather like coming home. I knew this is where I needed to be, and I knew my marriage and my ability to be a good father depended on it. I was not ignorant to the values and beliefs of Christianity, but I was by good measure ignorant of why I believed those things. Fortunately, I have a wonderful family support system that provided me with many hours of conversation, direction, criticism, love, and education as to the roots of Christian values and doctrine.
Of considerable importance to me was to obtain an ability to defend my faith when faced with non-believers. I knew what I believed in, but could not prove any of it. My defense was targeted against atheists, agnostics, and Islam. In all honesty, I had never considered nor recognized Catholicism in my studies. Catholics were simply not on my religious map. My upbringing never addressed who Catholics were, what they believed, or the differences in doctrine. I had a sense that Catholics were wrong, and ranked among Mormons and Scientologists in my personal categorization of religions. My attentions were so engrossed in proving my Protestant faith that, up until the moment when I was confronted with the need to address Catholicism in order to properly justify my faith, I completely ignored its existence.
Placing the Bible within History
Verifying the Bible as valid and not just a bunch of stories or contrivances of human imagination was paramount to my cause. I sank myself into book after book discussing shreds of papyrus, translation techniques of the Vulgate and Septuagint books, chronology of biblical events and the authors of Scripture. I participated in Internet based college classes on Hermeneutics, Soteriology, Christology, Trinitarianism, Ecclesiology, and Post-modernistic Theology. I bought biblical concordances, dictionaries, cross-reference albums, and multiple translation Bibles. Without being even slightly conservative in my estimate, I can state that I spent hundreds of hours researching the justification of my faith and reading the Bible. Over time I felt I had become reasonably competent of biblical history and fairly astute in being able to competently evangelize to those who questioned my beliefs.
During the course of my studies, I eventually had to begrudgingly recognize that credit was due to the Catholic Church for largely developing the biblical canon as we now know it. They were the only game in town then ⎯ it is a fact one cannot ignore. So, on to my next cause, justifying Protestantism and the 66 book Bible. Hence the queries: Why did we leave the Catholic Church? Why does our Bible have 66 books instead of 73? What are the doctrinal differences? To whom do I owe a debt of gratitude for so deftly correcting hundreds of years of church abuse and evils?
Logical Problems Arise
My library began to include literature from Wycliffe, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others. I compared doctrine, examined timelines, and searched for the reasons behind the “big-split.” Here is where my first problems arose.
If the purpose of the Protestant Reformation was to recreate the true Church, eliminate abuses, solidify doctrine, and bring the power of Scripture to the people, then in my opinion it utterly failed in every aspect. We certainly did not create anything resembling unity, as there are thousands of Protestant denominations today, each with its “truth.” The printing press may have put a Bible in everyone’s hands, but it did not appear as if many had taken the time to learn how to read it! I have been told on many an occasion that the Holy Spirit will help guide me and lead me toward the correct meaning of Scripture. If this is correct, why doesn’t every heart-felt Christian seeking the truth come to the same conclusion? Does it even remotely fit within the parameters of Old Testament Scripture for God to have His people develop countless religions, many of them clearly fallen away from sound Christian doctrine? I struggled with these new tidbits of angst, but eventually accepted that it only proved Protestants were just as susceptible as Catholics to being lowly sinners, no one better than the other. While one could claim the Catholic Jesuit order was guilty of burning witches, the same claim could be made of the Puritan Protestants at Salem. While one could argue Catholics killed Muslims, it could follow that Baptists killed Mormons.
Of greater concern to me were matters of doctrinal practices. As I read more about the formation of the early Christian Church, I began to delve into an area I relatively ignored before (in the spirit of sola Scriptura), the writings and practices of the early Church Fathers. What is immediately clear is a distinct difference in the doctrinal beliefs and practices of those early Church leaders and of those I presently held. The more I read about the early practices of the Church (pre-Constantine) the more I found they seem to have held in close accord to some of the simplest readings of the Bible. The Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, the organization the Church, Baptism, and the Christian community’s interaction with the local pagans and governments all seemed to “jive” with how those early Christians lived. When I observed how Christ’s teachings (i.e., Nicodemus, Bread of Life, the Great Commission) corresponded to early Church practice, which in turn corresponds to modern day Catholic beliefs, the consistency earns a degree of merit.
Although I have been repeatedly told that the Church went to “hell in a hand basket” quite soon after the Ascension of Christ, a statement that belies unanimous treachery and uniform deceit by the early Church leaders to gain power and fortune, not to mention detract from the power of Christ’s ability to establish — in His infinite power — the very Church he promised Satan could not put asunder; I could not perceive a logical reason for the early Church leaders to assume such a radical doctrine. It certainly was not to gather power over the people, as they themselves were hunted and killed with keen delight by anyone who was not a Christian. Nor could it have been to promote pagan or Gnostic influences in the Church, for the very same men who practiced the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist (and summarily died defending them) also spent considerable time decrying other Gnostic practices and vehemently absconding those who tried to corrupt Christianity. It makes no sense to me why any one man, let alone hundreds, would defend one supposed Gnostic belief to the death while shunning others. The simple answer is that there was and is no grand scheme to deceive the masses for personal gain. These rites are genuinely what they were taught and believed. One of the more popular modern day writers, Charles Colson (the former White House Chief Counsel under the Nixon administration), wholly admits that three of the most powerful men in the world could not keep a single secret for three weeks (referring to the Watergate scandal). Yet, I asked myself, would the Apostles be able to keep an alleged conspiracy concerning the non-resurrection of Christ secret for 40 years under the pain of death? Simply impossible. Using this same train of logic, I can see the same circumstances applying to the early Church fathers, just one generation removed from Christ. It would be simply impossible for a select membership of Church elders, spread over thousands of miles in three different languages, to uniformly manipulate Christ’s message to their own advantage.
The real nail in the coffin toward my acceptance of the Reformation is the practice of sola Scriptura. Using Scripture alone, I could not decide one way or another whether the Protestants or Catholics were correct concerning the Eucharist. One could interpret the word either way. Troublesome now to the hairs on the back of my neck was the realization that many of the Protestant reformers never completely rejected Catholic doctrine concerning the Eucharist. The prevalent Protestant rejection of communion being of Christ’s flesh and blood appears to have evolved long after Luther was dead, perhaps as late as the latter part of the 17th century. It is well documented by both Christian and pagan writers that early Christians partook in the feast of bread and wine with unwavering conviction that it was indeed the flesh and blood of Christ. The Romans took particular note of this, calling them cannibals.
Christ’s teaching in John 6:25-59 as well as Last Supper attestations in each of the three synoptic Gospels all point to an actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist. When one looks at the Scriptures with a perspective that we are now living in the era of Christ’s Kingdom, instead of waiting for His Kingdom yet to come, the promise for the Sacrament of the Eucharist fits within Christ’s plan for the Church and His holy covenant with the world. Plus, let’s face it ⎯ the primary reason Protestants rejected the fleshly Eucharist for a watered down memorial is because they had to remove priestly authority from the equation. Since Protestants obviously did not believe in the authority of the Catholic Church, no longer could one logically believe in Christ being truly present in the Eucharist since it required the authority of the Church to invoke His presence in the consecration of the offering.
There are other Reformation inconsistencies as well: Luther rejected the book of James, along with Tobit, Maccabees I and II, Sirach, Baruch, and Judith ⎯ yet James still remains. Why would we accept some of our founding Protestant father’s recommendations and not others? Was his guidance by the Holy Spirit not good enough? Luther also fervently defended the veneration of Mary, yet today such practice is considered by Protestants to be idolatry. All of these inconsistencies fluster my belief in the Reformation, because it seems to have dissolved rather than reformed!
Help from the Doctor
Now, two events happened within a day of each other that I can only explain as the Holy Spirit slapping me in the face. Several weeks later, I was aimlessly flipping through channels and by happenstance stopped on a program with someone who is obviously a religious speaker talking to a relatively small group of people in a church. I had no idea who he was, but something he said must have caught my attention long enough to arrest my trigger finger. The person was Dr. Ray Guarendi. I watched and in short order realized he was quite the Catholic apologist; one with wit and humor similar to my own. I was captivated as I watched this man argue points for Catholicism with the same degree of pragmatism as I had done myself for my own faith. Except…he was making a lot of practical sense. He not only made so much sense that made my jaw drop, but in one split instant my whole Christian paradigm shifted. Now, I wasn’t struck Catholic by magic TV lightning, but indeed my perspective on the whole issue of the Church would certainly never be the same again.
The very next day I was in a bookstore with the intention of looking up Dr. Guarendi, but I never made it that far. As is my habit, I first went to my trusty bunch of bookshelves containing the apologists on my side of the playing court. I perused the titles and pulled out a slim brown book titled By What Authority? by Mark Shea, assuming it was a challenge to the papacy or something along those lines. What I found instead could have been my own story. I was floored by this man’s experience. I felt as if I were to write a book and publish it, he could certainly sue me for plagiarism! But here is the twist: he was an Evangelical Protestant who converted to Catholicism.
I was sold.
Sola Scriptura Reconsidered
I could not find all my answers in Scripture, for Scripture was not written, nor ever was meant, to be the sole source of reference for our faith. The Apostle John did not finish the last paragraph of Revelation in 95A.D., set down his quill, wipe his brow and say “Whew ⎯ now we can stop passing along all of this other information pertaining to the wondrous life of Christ, we have a Bible now!” No, the more simple, more obvious, and sound explanation is that the oral tradition was the primary method used by the Apostles and the early Church to teach the masses for over twenty years before Paul ever thought to start writing letters to his many congregations. God breathed and inspired the writing of the Bible for us to use in the practice of our faith. Paul states the Scriptures are useful for teaching, for rebuking, correcting, and training (2 Tim 3:16), but he does not say they are the only resource we have to draw upon. He says, “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Tit 2:1), but does not say we can only use his epistles.
No, in direct contrast to the modern perception of Scripture alone, Paul repeatedly tells his disciples to remember all that he has taught them. John states that if all of Christ’s teachings were written down, the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (Jn 21:25). I am certain those who were close to Christ, felt His passion, and touched His wounds did their best to convey all that they heard, not just what a half-dozen men transcribed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Catholic Misconceptions Melt Away
I came to a realization: If I continue to subscribe to sola Scriptura, then I would feel limited in my ability to follow Christ. It is not impossible, but clearly a more difficult path (as our many denominations have foretold). I believe Christ did not leave us empty-handed and with only the direction of the Scriptures to guide us. His plan is greater than solitary worship. In this, I trust He did pass the keys to the Kingdom to Peter who then gave them to his successor. Christ’s bride, the Church, is made up of fallible men and women in a perfect vessel. Further, Christ was quite specific about the purpose of Baptism, the Eucharist, and His Kingdom. All this is attested to in Scripture.
I understand now that honor and veneration do not constitute idolatry. The prolific use of symbolism in Catholicism focuses the mind on Christ, a reverent tribute to His holiness. There is a respect for Christ present in the conduct of the Mass that I have never felt in any Protestant service I attended.
Contrary to my previous perceptions of Catholicism, I do not spend my days wrought with guilt, fidget over venial sins, condemn everyone who is not like-minded, or mumble rosaries incessantly. My time is spent loving Christ, the gifts He has bestowed on me, the grace He afforded me, and the Church He built for me. I live for Sunday and the opportunity to participate in what I can only describe as the most incredible of sacraments: the Eucharist.
This is not the whole of my argument for my conversion, not in the least. It is merely the brightest highlights. Indeed the mystery of Christ is far deeper than I dare attempt to document. I will continue to learn and study as diligently as I can, never forgetting we are all just humans trying to find the truth, some of us on different paths, but well intentioned nonetheless. I do not reject my past, nor those in it. I do not judge, for it is not my purpose. The joy I have found in my recognition of the Catholic Church as the bride of Christ is unparalleled.
Christopher Birkbeck was born and raised in Southern California. He served several years in the United States Navy nuclear field onboard submarines. After finishing college and earning his degree in Business Management, he went on to a career in Electrical Engineering, primarily in the steel manufacturing industry. He currently lives in Indiana with his wife of 19 years, Dawn, and three children Ashleigh, Daniel, Elizabeth. Chris has previously worked for many years as a foster parent and currently teaches RCIA classes at his parish. Christopher was an Evangelical Baptist who was received into the Catholic Church in 2008.