How Not to Become a Catholic–Part 2

Meanwhile the abuses that shocked and enraged Luther also shocked and enraged many good and godly clerics who remained in the Church. And while it’s true to say that the Reformation forced the issues, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) corrected most of the abuses and launched the Catholic Church into a new era of spiritual, intellectual, and missionary vigor. Meanwhile the shattered chunks of Protestantism did as they were told.

Rail against my wrong-headed reading of the history if you wish, but keep it to ad hominem attacks. If you start reading more broadly from Catholic as well as Protestant sources it will only cause you to get “deep in history.” When that happens, don’t say that Blessed John Henry didn’t warn you.


Rule #4: Do Not Read the Church Fathers

Our small group began meeting just before Advent. “Why don’t we read St. Athanasius’s book On the Incarnation?” I suggested.

“Athanasius?” said one of the group members, “Wasn’t he Catholic?”

How exactly do you answer that question? Yes, of course, Athanasius is a Catholic. But what my friend meant was Catholic as opposed to Protestant. That distinction 1,100 years before the Reformation is more than anachronistic, it’s absurd. Athanasius belongs to all Christians. He was, after all, in the front lines of the battle defending the deity of Christ from the Arians. The Arian belief that Jesus was not God, but a sort of super-duper angel was taking over the Church one city at a time and if it had prevailed, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Athanasius is one of Christianity’s greatest heroes. He belongs to us all.

And Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Anthony, Augustine of Hippo, and the rest of the Church Fathers stretching from the early second century into about the seventh century belong to us all as well. They laid the foundation for all genuinely Christian theology and many were involved in writing the creeds that we still recite—or at least, that some of us still recite.

That makes reading the Fathers sound mighty attractive, but consider: most of them were bishops and some, Clement of Rome for example, were popes. Resist the temptation since they will demand that you think seriously about many things including Church government and why yours is probably not biblical.

There are three church polity “options”: government by bishops or episcopal (from the Greek word episcopos meaning overseer or bishop), government by elders or presbyterian (from the Greek word presbyteros meaning elder), and congregational (who don’t get a Greek word).

Like many, I left seminary believing that church government didn’t even make it to the level of a tertiary concern. The New Testament talks about bishops and elders in ways that I saw as interchangeable. It seemed clear to me that the New Testament congregations were run locally with elders/overseers or whatever they wanted to call themselves aided by deacons. Apostles, being the authoritative conduits for Christian truth, could and did have special input, but then they died. Did I mention that I was a licensed Congregational minister at the time?

Reading the early Church Fathers makes clear that a matter of a few decades after the apostles and all across the Church there was a hierarchy of bishops, priests (presbyters), and deacons.

There are only two ways to explain this.

Explanation #1: The apostles had no strong opinions about church polity and the New Testament is intentionally ambiguous so that congregations could pick what worked best for them. (Alternative Explanation #1 reflecting my Presbyterian years: The apostles writing the New Testament intended Presbyterian polity, Acts 15 being the minutes of the first General Assembly.) Then as soon as the last apostle went to his reward, the Church from Jerusalem to Antioch, from Ephesus to Corinth, across North Africa to Rome underwent a massive reorg that instituted episcopal polity everywhere complete with the doctrine of apostolic succession. And, unlike every other reorg in history and unlike every other change in the early Church, no one complained.

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  • Mstarfish

    Is there something funny in the water at Gordon Conwell? They put out the lion’s share of Evangelical pastors – turned Catholic apologists – ‘just saying…?


    Its a wonderful service you do for us presenting views from our newly received brothers. .For many years I have watched The Journey Home and have been so enriched in hearing different perspectives and learning what attracted people to lead them to enter the Church.  It has constantlyappeared to me that the deposit of faith mostly, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium have been real stumbling blocks. May God bless Jim for sharing his story and may he grow in holiness as he journeys on.  We are the recipients of his sharing his experience as a former Protestant minister.  He is in my prayers.
    After all we are all one in Christ. Let all divisions cease. He is ,as St. James speaks of it in Chapter 1:22, 27, a doer of the Word. . Thank you for this article.  i will follow Jim in his work   .  

  • Cbalducc

    You referred to “Henry XIII” sacking English monasteries.  I think you meant “Henry VIII”.
    God bless.

  • Richard A

    Yes. Well, not in the water, in the stones. The location in South Hamilton, Massachusetts was first a Carmelite Monastery.

  • ObamaEatsBuckwheat

    Surely the author means Henry VIII not Henry XIII

  • ObamaEatsBuckwheat

    (Oops, sorry Cbalducc, didn’t see your reply before I posted.)

  • Harold Fickett

    Henry VIII, corrected.  

  • David Bates

    Great stuff. What’s you’re reference for the AD 300 prayer to the Theotokos?

  • hillbilly

    I have a friend questioning just who decided the Early Church Fathers were Early Church Fathers. He has no sense of honoring anything other than the Bible. What can be said to help him see Truth.

  • Mike

    I have read some of your articles and am wondering if you have an imprimatur and authorization from the Pope, Cardinals, and Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church?

  • Cleangreenwow

    I have wondered that too.

  • It sounds like they might not be ready to accept the authority of the Fathers, and that’s OK – these things happen one step at a time. If the Bible is his ‘cup of tea’, it might be worth asking him who decided what books go in the Bible. Get him “deep into history” with the timeline of the Bible – which books were written when (if memory serves, the oldest one we have in the NT was written about 20 years after Pentecost – the first generation of Christians had no Bible!) to the Council of Carthage which codified (i.e. canonized) both Old and New Testaments. Don’t shove it down his throat, though; rather, draw him out from behind his defensive “I’ll only honour the Bible” ramparts – asking questions rather than making statements is good for this. That will let him have a look round the wider landscape – apostles, Church councils, and Fathers, without all of which, none of us would have a Bible at all.

  • JohnRH

     Ask him how he knows which books belong in the
    Bible.  Here, I suggest focusing on the canon of the New Testament. 
    Or else, it is possible he will get bogged down with our differences on the Deuterocanonical
    books and miss the point.  Even if we concede that the New T has 27 books,
    How does he know we have the right ones?  For example, the Title
    “Matthews Gospel” is not part of the inspired text. How does he know
    it comes from Matthew the Apostle ?  The earliest list for  our 27
    books of the NT does not exist until St. Athanasius about 367 AD.  The
    books of the Bible were not compiled into one collection until the end of the
    fourth century.  The shear bulkiness of the scrolls did not facilitate
    putting the whole Bible onto one scroll.

  • hillbilly

     I’ve been down the Bible origins gamut and basically get no response. Just thought there may be a line of easy to understand, logical, thinking about the Early Church Fathers someone could direct me toward. 

  • Holly

    The imprimatur is generally only required (and sometimes, only offered) for catechetical materials. Blog posts and magazine articles rarely have them.

    Lay people do not need authorization from their Bishop, much less the Pope, to write about God, their conversion, or any other religious topic. If they write something contrary to the Faith and are corrected by their Bishop, then they should, in obedience, correct themselves or stop writing.

  • JohnRH


    Doesn’t your friend’s pastor offer explanations about what
    the Bible means?

    There are over 32,000 different Protestant denominations who
    all contradict each other and all of whom claim to be following the Bible

    Why all the more should he not consider what the disciples
    of the 12 Apostles had to say about how the Apostles claimed the Bible was to
    be interpreted.  How does your friend
    know that he, or his Pastor – read his Pope – knows that his interpretation is
    the correct one?  Martin Luther, the
    champion of “Bible Alone” , told Prince Phillip of Hess that Polygamy
    was biblically acceptable because the Bible did not prohibit it.

    Here is a good list of additional questions to ask your


  • supertradmum

    Great article and humorous as well as dead serious. You sound like Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman….

  • andHarry

    Cease waffling and just let us have an answer for hillbilly’s friend who asked ‘..just who decided the Early Church Fathers were Early Church Fathers.’ When were they first called ‘Church Fathers’?  

  • Editor

    The practice of referring to great teachers of the faith as “Fathers” is as old as the Church–even in the oldest documents you find the term. They are simply those who exhibited great knowledge and wisdom in matters of church teaching–as time has gone by they’ve been assigned to particular categories, such as the “Apostolic Fathers” (like Pope St. Clement, d. 97), or the “Latin Fathers” (such as Augustine, d.430). The bottom line here is that there is no specific age when someone suddenly decided that there would be a category called “Church Fathers,” which would be filled with various venerable thinkers to whose wisdom we would begin deferring. It has simply always been a part of the living Church.

  • JohnRH


    Saint Paul
    refers to himself as a Father of the local churches that he builds in Christ
    and through Christ, that is, the One True Father works through him to minister
    to God’s people. See

    Paul appoints others who are in turn fathers to others, as
    seen in the above article. When we read that a father of the church is  “of … (such and such city)”   that
    means he is the bishop of that city, at least in each case that i am aware of.  This Apostolic appointment of successors was
    of extremely great importance to the early church.  For example see the second citation for Irenaeus

    Now, in the early Church we have the great Christian writers
    who were called fathers and then there were the heretics.  The early heretics would deny that Christ was
    fully man or deny that he was fully God, or they would deny the Trinity.  This left them with a theology which was
    fundamentally flawed. See section  “The
    God-Man and the Anti-Christ”    at

    I didn’t think of myself as waffling, but if you come to my
    house I will make you some dandy hotcakes.

  • JohnRH


    BTW. None of the early Church heretics would have fit into
    the category of Bible Alone and Faith Alone theology of Protestantism.  And none of them denied that the bread and
    wine was really changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ at their church
    services for at least the first six hundred years.

  • andHarry

    So you can’t give a date. Hmmm?

  • andHarry

    I’m afraid it’s just more of the same – waffle. Just cite a document where I can see it writ large for the first time. 

  • Editor

    A date to what? Since, as JohnRH already pointed out, Paul was already referring to himself as a “father” in the mid-first century, then you can see that the practice is, as I said, as old as Christianity. For another example, I suppose, I could randomly pick this passage from the documents of the Council of Chalcedon (471), the council that defined the divine and human natures of Christ: “By unanimous vote we have driven away the teachings of error, and we have renewed the inerrant faith of the Fathers…the Fathers who accepted that covenant of true religion…that primary authority shall belong to the exposition of the correct and blameless faith composed by the three hundred and eighteen holy and blessed fathers who gathered in Nicea when Constantine…was emperor…” The “fathers” they are referring to from Nicea are all bishops, though of course it isn’t necessary for a “father of the Church” to be a bishop. There are a lot of documents from multiple dates–these aren’t “secret” documents, either, they are part of the historical record. 

  • JohnRH


    Ohhh, The first time. 
    Why didn’t you say so?  Here it

    Click on the words “father   – paterav”,
    and “begotten –   egennhsa.”  in  1 Corinthians 4:15-17  in the link below.



    Actually, I was not yet finished explaining why the Early
    Church Fathers are so important.  And
    especially why they should be so important to Protestants.  Protestants seek to preserve their fidelity
    to the Gospel by splintering into every smaller groups.  Each of the 36,000  (denominations + brand new so called
    Non-Denominations)  claim to be just as
    the early church was.  Each claims to
    follow the Bible, but say that they have the correct interpretation of the Bible.  So, How does one find out who is correct in
    what the early church was like ?  Especially before the list of which 27 books
    of the New Testament was first proposed which matches our current canon of  the New Testament,  in 367 AD. Instead of reading what some group
    (Protestant or Catholic) says the early church was like, we need to read the
    writings of the early church leaders, called fathers of the church.


    Listen to the following MP3 talks by former Baptist Rod

  • andHarry

    Just more waffle. Sorry; but I want an ancient document cited which goes ”…the Church Fathers….” . And it must be uppercase.

  • JohnRH


    Great Idea !  I will
    send you such an ancient document as soon as you send me an ancient document
    that supports your canon  – list of books
    that belong – for the New Testament that is not based directly or indirectly on
    either the testimony of the Early Church Fathers or the Authority of the
    Catholic Church.  The problem is you
    can’t do that and never will be able to do that.   Or how
    about giving me a quote from the Bible that says I should believe in the
    “Trinity”, using that word and lower case will be considered.  The problem is you can’t.  God reveals truth according to His designs
    not ours.


    Now consider the warnings that the Bible gives for people
    who say, “I refuse to believe until i get 
    (such and such) as my proof.


    Luke 16:24-31

    ”  ‘send
    Lazarus ….  send him to my father’s
    house … so that he may warn them’  But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and
    the prophets; let them hear them.’  And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if
    some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If
    they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some
    one should rise from the dead.’ ”

    Matthew 27:40-43  

    “ …  save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the
    cross.”   So also the chief priests, with the scribes and
    elders, mocked him, saying,   “He saved others; he cannot save
    himself. He is the King of Israel;
    let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.’”

    The problem with your reasoning ( no offense intended, I’m just trying to
    help) is that you are not God.  It is not
    up to you, or me, to determine the criteria or proof that is needed for belief.

    What does 32,000 contradicting “Bible” denominations prove?  That if our goal is to satisfy our conscious
    and to live and believe in a way that is comfortable to us we will succeed in
    deceiving ourselves.  Matthew 7:22-23.  If our ultimate goal is to save our earthly
    life, we are lost.  We must be so
    committed to Jesus Christ that we are willing to sacrifice everything.  We need to ask Him for the grace to See, to Believe,
    and to Hope in His Truth.  We are not
    strong enough to have a saving faith on our own.

    John 6:65

    “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by
    the Father.”

    I suggest you go back and closely study the links and arguments that were
    previously sent to you, and humbly ask God to rid your life of all sin and the
    grace to believe and follow Truth, Beauty, and Charity.  And please pray for me too!  And I Thank You sincerely!

    BTW.  The ancient documents you were
    given from middle of first century- Corinthians- and
    the one from 471 AD have sufficient strength if you want to see it, and have to
    grace to do so.  I am sure there are others,
    but why send them if you don’t want to see it.

  • James Stagg

    Good point, Holly. Thank you.

  • James Stagg

    Simply outstanding!  I was involved in RCIA for nearly twenty years, and I would highly  recommend the use of these articles as candidate and catechumen material for discussion.

    Great writing, and the humor is MUCH appreciated!  I can hardly wait for the third installment!

  • mario cagalawan

    Am in the process of depending the Church. However,deep my understanding… i need also some views of others to solidify my response of our separated brothers. My conviction is quite certain,but such solid view from others such as this is quite forceful and well meaning…especially of evangelization of well grounded people of protestant leaning……we need some kind of this conversion stories to shed the light of the truth….

  • JohnRH

  • noelfitz

    This is a brilliant article, and the discussion is enlightening.

    We are advised to stay clear of Catholic intellectuals.  Who are these, living today, that we should avoid if we want to wander from the Church?

    The Peace of Augsburg with its  Cuius regio, eius religio was supported by the saintly Catholic Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, even thought this was not holy, Roman or and empire.

    I am interested in the Apostolic Fathers, this is an arbitrary collection of early writings, but useful.

    Protestants and Catholics do not agree on which books are in the Bible.

  • artkraftii

    I’ve been catholic for 4 years and have attacked constantly been reading stories like yours and find it the most accurate when describing interactions with protestants during the process.
    So GREAT job more Catholic evangelists need to understand what you are saying. It is the best way to get them headed toward the truth. I have found that the farther they are from the truth the more they fight, like little kids screaming and kicking. but if they start listening……
    I have some ELCU ministers that I have been friends for years (before and after my conversion) they really do not even want to talk about the church fathers and only one read the Didache. Boy do not mention the sacrements.
    any how Great article

  • Dharrisn

    This is simple. Jesus declared Peter the cornerstone of the Church. What more do you want?

  • Mouse

    I really like your wit. You should make this series into a pamphlet/booklet that can be handed out to protestants!

  • scragsma
  • scragsma

    You are correct. Protestants and Catholics do not agree on which books are in the Bible. However, that’s a result of Protestant Reformation leaders rejecting books that had been accepted as Scripture for 1100 years. Even the first editions of the King James Bible contained all the books currently accepted by Catholics.

  • Dboylesjr

    I just converted to Catholicism last April of 2011 after being a lifelong Protestant.  I always was searching for some form of Orthodoxy within Protestantism, but never really found it.  I agree with everything that you say, however, the Catholic Church is big, but so spiritually anemic due to so many clergy being as you say “…leftover hippy priests and nuns,’ and so many of the laity are very poorly catechised.  During my RCIA class I was always clashing with the RCIA instructor who was also a Deacon in the local parish church as he presented his view of theology, which really didn’t differ from the more liberal Protestant churches that I had been involved with.  If the Catholic Church can consider Martin Luther and John Calvin heretics and ex-communicate them, then why can’t they also ex-communicate many of the clergy and laity who have theological beliefs that are contrary to not just the Catholic Catechism, but also to very basic Christian doctrine?  A more lean strong Catholic church would be much more effective at reaching the world for our Lord than this anemic giant that exists today.

  • andHarry

    The Council of Chalcedon is post-Constantine – when assignment to ‘particular categories’ was a mark of the development of a controlling organisation led by the Pope. The revisionism which becomes the truth of totalitarianism had begun.

  • It is so true that Protestant Christians don’t know their history but there are ways to present Church History to a Protestant Christian without turning them off by emphasizing the martyrs, the Bible, The Trinity, which are all things both Catholics and Protestants agree upon.  Church Fathers that Protestant Christians often times do respect is Augustine and quoting him has some validity to them even though they know he was a Catholic.