Former Reformed Protestants Embrace Rome
for all the Wrong Reasons
A Review of the Conversion Stories of Robert Sungenis and Julie Swenson as found in Surprised by Truth, edited by Patrick Madrid
- “We believe that modern evangelicalism has little to say to Roman Catholicism, since it agrees with Rome on some of the most basic issues of the Gospel!
So I wrote in my first book, The Fatal Flaw (p. 22), and so I believe. But what is more, it seems that Roman Catholic apologists have recognized the same fact. Reformed writers and apologists are their greatest foes, and hence it seems they wish to focus their attention upon making as many converts of Reformed churches as they possibly can.
I was not surprised, then, upon receiving a copy of Surprised by Truth, a new work edited by the former Vice President of Catholic Answers, now director of publisher of Envoy Magazine, Patrick Madrid (subtitled “11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic”), to see that a number of these converts claimed to have once been “Reformed” in one way or another. Steve Wood I knew—I had listened to him give his “testimony” at a church in El Cajon right after debating Dr. Mitchell Pacwa in January of 1991. And James Akin claimed to have some “Reformed” background, having been a member of a Presbyterian Church.1 These two individuals aside, I was immediately drawn to the stories of Robert Sungenis and Julie Swenson, which are found back-to-back on pages 101-160. I had encountered Mr. Sungenis just a few days before in the religion forum of America Online, a national computer service. He had identified himself as a Catholic apologist, and very quickly raised the possibility of debating me on various topics. Mrs. Swenson’s story follows immediately after Mr. Sungenis’, and it caught my attention due to the prevalence of the term “Calvinist” in its text.
Over the past few years I have corresponded with, or met, or debated, numerous “converts” to Catholicism. Gerry Matatics was the first. He, too, claimed to have been staunchly Reformed at one point. I have met Scott Hahn, who makes the same claim. Steve Wood was a Presbyterian, as was James Akin. And now I was reading the stories of Sungenis and Swenson. Is there something to what they have to say? There certainly are consistencies, but I should start by giving the reader some idea of what these folks say about their own reasons for conversion.
Bob Sungenis was a church-hopper. His own words make this very, very plain:
Being true to the name “Protestant,” I eventually left one denomination after another, due to disagreements in doctrine (p. 109).
. . . which forced me to leave the institution after only one year (p. 110).
Not being totally convinced that the militant Calvinistic theology espoused at Westminster was correct, I continued to find myself in theological debates with professors and fellow students (p. 111).
After two years of enjoyable and challenging work at Family Radio, something happened that shattered my life-long dream of being a Bible teacher: another doctrinal controversy (p. 112).
We were in and out of five different Presbyterian churches within the next five years, each move being due to disagreements on the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible (p. 113).
Still searching for truth, we entered a small, vibrant denomination, the Boston Crossroads Movement of the Church of Christ (p. 114).
Once again I found myself having to leave another church over doctrinal controversy (p. 115).
Brigitte and I were members of his church for only two months (p. 115).
It’s hard to keep track of how many different churches Bob Sungenis was a member of, but this is certain: he wasn’t a member of any one particular church for very long. Why is this important? Church-hopping is a very clear sign of spiritual immaturity, as any pastor knows. Those who cannot overlook even the slightest differences of opinion within the fellowship will not be long for any one church. It takes maturity and experience to be able to recognize that pastors are people, too, and they may well have some quirks or beliefs you don’t share. There’s something in the Bible about love covering a multitude of sins.
The reason for Mr. Sungenis’ constant movement may be revealed in his story as well. Immediately after concluding that “there was absolutely no Scriptural warrant for the Protestant claim that the Bible is the sole infallible guide for Christian doctrine and practice,” he says,
In many Protestant circles I was known – to my great private satisfaction – as “Bible Bob.” When someone had a doctrinal question or wanted to find something in the Bible, I usually had the answer (p. 104).
He speaks of making the Scripture his “expertise” (p. 104), speaks of his “self-guided study of the Bible” making him a “something of a scriptural know-it-all” resulting in “smugness” on his part (p. 109). Each of his doctrinal disagreements, it seems, stemmed from his belief that he was an expert on the Bible, the final authority, one might say. One looks in vain for any mention of a “teachable spirit,” or any willingness to consider that differing viewpoints on non-essential beliefs can co-exist in peace.
Mr. Sungenis graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary, a true “bastion” of Reformed thought. Yet, we are told that he not only joined, but was being “groomed for leadership,” in the Boston Church of Christ, a movement identified by most as a cult! How one can jump from one end of the theological spectrum (Reformed) into the Boston Movement in one fell swoop is difficult to understand. Such actions, however, demonstrate that Mr. Sungenis, far from being a grounded, well-instructed Reformed believer, was, in fact, ripe for the call of an authoritarian system like Rome.
“I Was an Anti-Catholic!”
Many of those who convert to Rome wish to be viewed in a “Pauline” way. That is, they wish to project a Damascus-road type experience, and they foster this image by insisting that they were once ardent “anti-Catholics” before their “enlightenment” to the truth. Right before Gerry Matatics parted company with Catholic Answers (eventually becoming a Traditionalist) he was featured on the inside front cover of an issue of This Rock magazine under at banner that said, “I’m the guy who lured your family and friends out of the Church.” Of course, a tape entitled “From Anti-Catholic to Catholic: One Protestant Minister’s Pilgrimage” was then offered for a small donation. I asked Mr. Matatics about what books he had written against Catholicism. He hadn’t. I asked him what tracts he had written. He hadn’t. I asked him what debates he had engaged in. He hadn’t. One would think there are thousands of “anti-Catholic” Protestant apologists swarming over the face of the United States, given how many have “converted.” Bob Sungenis is no exception. He describes himself as a “militantly anti-Catholic Evangelical” (p. 103), one who “developed a robust hatred for Catholicism” (p. 108). He writes of himself,
I abandoned the Catholic Church, and for the next seventeen years, as a staunch Evangelical Protestant, I fancied myself (as so many Protestants do) a David, courageously defying the towering Catholic Goliath (p. 108).
No offense to Mr. Sungenis, but one has to wonder about such statements. I certainly do know of some people who think of themselves as David in the fight against Goliath, but such folks are normally not educated, and are rarely even aware of the issues surrounding the Protestant/Catholic debate. But Mr. Sungenis is a graduate of Westminster Seminary, no mean institution. And he thought of himself in this way? Despite two published books on the topic, over a dozen scholarly debates, and a growing list of “shots” to be found in Catholic magazines and books, I do not view myself as a David fighting Goliath. One does not last long in the ministry if one does not have a realistic view of things. God places people in positions to minister to others, and He keeps them there as long as He wishes. Nobody is irreplaceable. If Mr. Sungenis thought himself a David, he should certainly have known the issues a whole lot better than he did. David well knew Goliath’s strengths, but Mr. Sungenis gives no evidence of ever having made an even cursory study of the apologetic works of Rome. Indeed, this is another common element of these “converts” — all admit to having been ignorant both of Catholic doctrine and of Protestant responses to Roman claims. If they were “anti-Catholic,” it was out of ignorance, both positively of their own faith, and negatively of the Roman system.
Nothing New Under the Sun
At times it is difficult to remember that one is reading Mr. Sungenis’ words rather than those of the editor, Patrick Madrid. The arguments are, at times, almost verbatim from the pages of This Rock magazine. For example, when I debated Madrid in San Diego on the doctrine of sola scriptura he said to the audience at one point,
Folks, Mr. White, Mr. White, Mr. White is a thief. Mr. White, in the context of this debate tonight, he has stolen a tradition from the Church, from the Catholic Church, which many Councils, Rome, Hippo, Carthage, Carthage again, the Pope, Pope Damasus, these were in the late 4th century, the Church officially defined what the canon of Scripture was.
And we read from Mr. Sungenis,
The truth is, Protestants are living off the borrowed capital of the Catholic Church, for it was the Catholic Church that infallibly recognized, under the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit, the canon of Scripture.2
There are many comments in Mr. Sungenis’ article that cry out for comment, but I will limit myself to the following:
Although still firmly entrenched in the smugness of my Protestant anti-Catholicism, I was dejected and frustrated by the experience of “church hopping” for so many years. Evangelicalism had turned out to be merely a mirage of the shining theological Camelot I had envisioned it to be all those years ago when I became “born again” (p. 117).
I note that we are being led to believe that “church hopping” is normal, and is, in fact, part and parcel of Protestant theology. Yet, is it? Surely there are many “church-hoppers.” Yet, there are also literally millions of “nominal Catholics” who are utterly unaware of the most basic elements of Roman doctrine as well, and who darken the door of a Roman Catholic Church but once or twice a year. Does that mean that this kind of surface-level Catholicism is part and parcel of the system, or is it an aberration of the system, something that the system decries, and yet it still exists? Mr. Sungenis may well be confusing his own inability to “settle down” and be patient with God’s providence with some kind of problem in not embracing an extra-Scriptural ultimate authority, specifically, the authority of Rome.
Next, we note Mr. Sungenis’ words,
Since only an entity with the ability to observe and correctly interpret information can act as an authority, I saw that the Bible, though it contains God-breathed revelation, cannot act as a final “authority,” since it is dependent on thinking personalities to observe what it says and, more importantly, interpret what it means (p. 118).
This is an important argument which is used with great frequency by Roman apologists. We first note that it is self-defeating, however. What does Rome offer us in place of the Scripture as the final authority? Scripture plus their tradition. And yet, once the Teaching Magisterium of the Roman Church speaks, what happens next? Are we not left to interpret what has been said? And do we not see Roman Catholics bitterly fighting with each other over the interpretation of those very traditions? I have observed the most heated debates over the meaning of such things as Humanae Vitae or this section or that from Vatican II. All Rome has done is move the question back one step: you still have fallible human beings interpreting allegedly infallible pronouncements, whether those are to be found in Scripture, or in the added Roman documents. Nothing has been accomplished by the addition of this next level of authority.
But beyond this we note that Rome has to attack the nature of Scripture to maintain her claims. Is God so restricted that what He speaks is limited in relevance and ability to a particular time and place? The writer to the Hebrews said that the Word of God is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12, NASB). The Scriptures say they are “able”3 to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Perhaps the Scriptures are more than Mr. Sungenis has been lead to believe?
Finally, we read these words:
My seventeen-year experience with Protestant biblical scholars had made one thing very clear to me: Sola scriptura is a euphemism for “sola ego.” What I mean is that every Protestant has his own interpretation of what Scripture says and, of course, he believes that his interpretation is superior to everyone else’s (p. 119).
What makes this statement so ironic is that it seems Mr. Sungenis does not realize that he is describing himself in these words. A self-professed “church-hopper” who could not find a way to settle down and take instruction from the pastor of his church, and who confesses the fact that he viewed himself as a “Scriptural know-it-all,” is hardly in a position to define, and then reject, the entire doctrine of sola scriptura on the basis of his own experience! Obviously the twisted version of sola scriptura4 that Mr. Sungenis rejected was based more upon his own unwillingness to submit to proper Scriptural authority and show an ability to live in peace with all men than it is upon the historic statements of the doctrine itself.
The Calvinist’s Calvinist
Julie Swenson describes herself in a number of ways in her essay in Surprised by Truth. Unfortunately, nearly all of them demonstrate that again we do not have here an example of a rooted, grounded Calvinist becoming a Roman Catholic. Instead, we again find a sad lack of accuracy in describing the doctrines of the system that has been abandoned in favor of the ultimate authority of Rome. Mrs. Swenson describes herself as “a complacent, staunchly anti-Catholic, reformed Calvinist” (p. 135); she asserts that when she became Reformed she “embraced John Calvin’s system of theology with gusto and thought of myself Reformed with a capital ‘R’ ” (p. 137). Unlike Gerry Matatics and Bob Sungenis, Mrs. Swenson was not a “church-hopper,” at least not until she began her journey to Rome (which involved a brief stop at Canterbury). But did she have a solid grasp of the theology she claims to have embraced with “gusto”? Does she accurately represent her former beliefs in her essay?
The Pillar and Foundation
Mrs. Swenson describes an incident that may well help us to understand her journey to Rome right at the beginning of her essay. She speaks of encountering the words of 1 Timothy 3:15, which describes the Church as the “pillar and foundation of the truth,” and how this verse “threatened my secure, independent spirit.” She says that “I was my own authority and determined truth using Scripture as my sole guide” (p. 138). Yet, if she was such the child of Calvin, why, we must ask, would this passage be unknown to her? Was her study of the New Testament so shallow as to have missed this vital passage? And if, as she claims, she had embraced with “gusto” the teachings of John Calvin, how had she managed to avoid reading his main work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which comments on this passage a number of times? We read in Book IV, Chapter 8, section 12,
The other passages, as we have elsewhere seen, has an entirely different meaning from what they pretend. For when Paul has instructed Timothy and trained him for the true office of bishop, he says that he has done so that he may know how to behave in the church. And, that he may with greater piety and zeal bend to this task, Paul adds that the church itself is “the pillar and foundation of truth” [1 Timothy 3:15]. But what else do these words mean than that God’s truth is preserved in the church, that is, by the ministry of preaching? Or, as he elsewhere teaches, “Christ gave… apostles, pastors, and teachers” [Ephesians 4:11], “that . . . we may no longer . . . be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, or be deluded by men” [v. 14 p.]. Rather, illumined “by the true knowledge of the Son of God, we should meet together in oneness of faith” [ v. 13 p.]. Truth, therefore, is not extinguished in the world, but remains safe, because it has the church as its faithful custodian, by whose work and ministry it is sustained. And if this custody rests in the prophetic and apostolic ministry, it follows that this safekeeping of the truth wholly depends on whether the Word of the Lord is faithfully kept and preserved in its purity.
And from whence did Mrs. Swenson derive this idea that the Church is not used of God to teach, instruct, admonish, and correct? This is a common straw man argument, one that a Reformed person with a capital “R” would never embrace.
This helps us to understand the many other amazing statements that we encounter in this article. The fullness of the Reformed understanding of justification and sanctification is passed over in favor of the “legal fiction” (pp. 140, 156) perspective, ignoring the fact that it is part and parcel of Reformed theology to insist that those who are justified will be sanctified, and that there is no means of separating the two, while it is vital to differentiate between them. Mrs. Swenson relates a personal instance where, due to physical suffering and depression, “for the first time in my life, reading Scripture was insufficient to get out of this spiritual desert” (p. 141). While all believers have experienced times when the Lord, it seemed, had hidden His face, it is instructive to note that she relates this experience after saying, “I had been raised to believe that the written Word of God alone was my sure guide to salvation.” How does her experience of not finding solace in her depression relate to the Bible being an insufficient guide to salvation? Obviously this is important in her thinking, but surely we can see that this is hardly how one is to determine issues of eternal importance.
There are many other items that should be addressed but space precludes a full review. We simply note in passing her statement that a “fundamentalist scheme of holiness” leads one to avoid cultivating the gifts of God in one’s life (rather, it leads one to cultivate said gifts to the glory of God); her statement that her idea of worship, as a Protestant, amounted to reading about him in Scripture (hearing the living Word preached is an encounter with God), singing about him in church (what happened to singing to Him in church?), and listening to others preach about him.5 And most amazingly, this one who claims to have been Reformed with a capital “R” can write,
This realization of the profound role of suffering in the life of a Christian was something about which I knew little. As a secure, “don’t worry, I have it all worked out” Calvinist, I never felt the need to embrace suffering. Sure, I would put up with it as best I could when it happened to come my way, but that was mere toleration of suffering, a sort of Christian stoicism. I never felt I had to do anything to persevere toward final salvation (p. 143).
I can only assume, then, that Mrs. Swenson never read John Calvin, who spoke much of sufferings, trials, and tribulations (he was a living example of experiencing such things), nor any of the Puritans who dwelt upon such topics in fullness. Nor, I can only surmise, did she ever bother to note Calvin’s denial of the charge of “stoicism,” (Institutes, Book II, Chapter 8, sections 8-9) and the many and constant calls in nearly all Reformed writings to perseverance in salvation. As many Roman Catholics say they cannot recognize some of the representations made of Rome by former Roman Catholics, this Reformed person has to wonder where Mrs. Swenson got her unique, though sadly inaccurate, view of Reformed beliefs.
The Common Denominator
One might suggest many commonalities between the stories of Bob Sungenis and Julie Swenson. But the one that strikes me most is this: aside from the constant repetition of the same tired arguments for Roman supremacy (i.e., a denial of the sufficiency of Scripture, the “fractured” nature of Protestantism in light of the alleged unity of Rome, etc.), we do not hear our converts to Rome speaking of how they managed to abandon the life-changing realization of their utter sinfulness and their dependence en toto upon Christ for all of salvation. I am speaking of that self-shattering moment when we realize we are undone before God, helpless to save ourselves, in need of a perfect Substitute, a perfect Savior. Those who were once truly Reformed know of what I speak. Those who were not cannot understand what I am referring to. One does not easily deny justification by faith and embrace concepts such as purgatory, indulgences, the treasury of merit, and the sacrifice of the Mass, when one has truly dwelt upon what it means to be have peace with God because of the work of another, the work of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-2). Those who have knelt at the foot of the cross in utter despair of self, works, and merit, and have seen, by God’s grace, the perfection of the work of the Savior in their behalf, cannot quickly or easily embrace a system that makes salvation a joint venture between God and man.
Mr. Sungenis and Mrs. Swenson have made their homes in Rome. But one thing is certain: they had never built a home upon a firm foundation in Geneva. Anyone with title to a home there knows that at the top one reads, Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Soli Deo Gloria.
1. I did not realize, in Mr. Akin’s case, that he had gone directly from being a devotee of Gene Scott, the wacko tele-evangelist, to joining the Presbyterian Church! 2. It hardly seems a coincidence that this statement comes on the page immediately following a footnote that is nothing less than an advertisement for the tapes of my debate with Madrid, introduced by, “A glaring example of the utter absence of biblical evidence for sola scriptura and of the inability of Protestant apologists to deal with the epistemological problem of the canon as it relates to sola scriptura, is seen in a debate on sola scriptura between Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid and Fundamentalist apologist James White.” Mr. Sungenis (if he even wrote the blurb—remember, the book is edited by Patrick Madrid) fails to note that the topic of the canon did not come up until a point in the debate that did not allow for even a cursory discussion of the topic. I have invited Roman Catholic apologists to debate the idea that “oral tradition” is in fact inspired. So far, none have taken up that challenge, including Mr. Madrid. He has publicly said that he does not feel oral tradition is theopneustos (qeovpneustoj). Interestingly, Mr. Sungenis directs his readers to The Catholic Controversy€ which gives the arguments of St. Francis de Sales. This work, however, plainly asserts the inspiration of the oral traditions. The inconsistency is striking. 3. The Greek is striking. The term is kritikos (kritikovj), an adjective which means “able to discern or judge.” It is the term from which we derive our word, “critic.” 4. Mr. Sungenis and Mr. Madrid both continue to attack a misrepresentation of the doctrine of sola scriptura rather than the actual doctrine. I have engaged both on the topic on America Online and have demonstrated this fact over and over again. See the documentation provided elsewhere on this site. 5. I note with sad irony that Roman Catholics speak often of Christ’s presence with them in the Mass through transubstantiation, yet Paul said that the Lord Jesus came to believers, not through the Mass, but through the person of the Kerux, the preacher, who speaks the words of Christ to the people of Christ (Ephesians 2:17). And what is the one thing that has been minimized in Roman worship so as to make room for the Mass? The preaching of the Word.