James Swan Foolishly Attacks Catholic Conversion Stories

James Swan Foolishly Attacks Catholic Conversion Stories November 25, 2019

James Swan is a Reformed Protestant anti-Catholic polemicist, who specializes in defenses of Martin Luther. I have dealt with his arguments off and on since 2002. He wrote an article, “The Protestant’s Dilemma: A Review (Part One)” (1-15-15), on Bishop James White’s blog. It was a partial review of Devin Rose’s book, The Protestant’s Dilemma: How the Reformation’s Shocking Consequences Point to the Truth of Catholicism (San Diego: Catholic Answers Press, 2014). I’d like to concentrate on one portion where he gets really ridiculous. Swan’s words will be in blue.

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This is typical of these conversion stories.  They do not point to Christ—they point to a triumphal entry into the Roman Church from one’s own intellectual abilities. Their conversion stories are about what they did. They are about what wisdom and glory they achieved. They are not conversion stories of the broken sinner bowing his knee to the merciful God, given by the Father to Christ and irresistibly drawn (like Paul’s recounting in Galatians 1; cf. Acts 9); rather, these are accounts of people accepting the alleged Roman Catholic “fullness of truth”, and a rejection of Protestant essentials like sola fide and sola scriptura. In other words, the emphasis is not on spiritual rebirth, but rather the acceptance and realization of a “higher knowledge.” The conversion is not to Christ, but to an infallible church.

I’d like to pick this apart a bit: using as an example, my own conversion story (the longest, 75-page version of it, that was part of my 2013 book, Catholic Converts and Conversion). I’m the world’s biggest expert on my own conversion, so I can speak “authoritatively” about it, whereas I can’t do that with regard to the stories of Devin Rose or anyone else (though I will quote some of their personal accounts). Swan insists on judgmental broad-brushing (note the persistent use of “they” above). Therefore, I am included in his critiques, since I am a member of the class — converts to Catholicism — that he unjustly attacks.

This is typical of these conversion stories.  They do not point to Christ . . . 

This is an absurd and condescending charge, as I shall now explain. It so happens that almost all Catholic conversions that take place today (i.e., those which become known via the person sharing their story with others via writing or You Tube: sometimes a great number of others), are from the position of an existing Protestantism: generally a robust and confident Protestantism. Hence, many of the converts (or reverts) that we know about were former pastors (e.g., Tim Staples, Scott Hahn, Al Kresta, Marcus Grodi); others were apologists and/or evangelists / missionaries of some sort in the Protestant world (e.g., Steve Ray and myself).

Therefore, our conversions to Catholicism were (by nature) not conversions to Christ per se. That had already happened, as we were zealous Protestants. In other words, the yielding of oneself to Jesus Christ as a committed disciple is present in the person’s total story, but it’s just that it came earlier on, before the process of becoming convinced of Catholicism.

Thus, it’s most unfair for Swan to imply that we had no particular devotion to our Lord and Savior; as if all we were concerned about is “Rome” (to the supposed exclusion of Jesus). It’s an old and tired and dumb criticism. We had found Jesus long since. We were seeking to find His One True Church: if indeed there was such a thing (the Bible seems to teach that there is, and certainly does not teach denominationalism).

My conversion to Christ was in 1977, after going through a terrible clinical depression (that I have never experienced since). I wrote about it in Part 3 of my story:

It was (on the human level; not to neglect grace) the combination of my depression and new found knowledge of Christianity that caused me to decide to follow Jesus as my Lord and Savior in a much more serious fashion, in July 1977: what I would still regard as a “conversion to Christ,” and what evangelicals regard as the “born-again” experience or getting “saved.” Others might view it as being filled with the Spirit. I continue to look at this as a valid and indispensable spiritual step, even though, as a Catholic, I would, of course, interpret it (theologically) in a somewhat different way than I did formerly. It was a profound event for me, and transformed and changed my life. I’ve never been the same since.

I even wrote a poem about it (to this day, the only one I’ve ever written about myself; I usually do only Christmas poems or love poems to my wife, Judy). Here’s part of it:

I made my way up the hill as night began to fall
I was lost and confused when I heard someone call

This man knew my name and my thoughts, which was odd
And before long we started talking about God

I was astounded by how much he knew
He spoke with a wisdom possessed by very few

We arrived at his house and I said goodbye
He embraced me and looked directly into my eyes
Deep down in my soul I knew the reason why

I awoke with Heaven’s rays shining down on my face
Full of joy and peace and an indescribable grace

Anyone can figure out that this was about Jesus (very loosely inspired by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, mixed in with “nature mystic” themes: since music and nature had been virtually my religion prior to that time, just as mythology was for C. S. Lewis). This sort of story of commitment to Jesus is not at all uncommon. For example, my friend Al Kresta, whose story was in the book, Surprised by Truth, along with mine and those of nine others, devoted eight pages out a total of 17 to his early years, culminating in his conversion to Christ in 1974. T. L. Frazier, in the same book, described his conversion to Christ as follows:

I made a solemn covenant to forever be his friend and follower. I accepted his claims upon me and looked to him alone for my salvation. (p. 185)

Later, he explained the nature of his further Catholic conversion:

Scripture states the Church is the mystical Body of Christ and Christ is its head (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18). One can’t have a personal relationship with the Head as Lord and Savior in its fullness if one doesn’t embrace the Body as well. (p. 209)

Now, there may be all kinds of honest Protestant objections to that statement, but one thing it is clearly not is any sort of denigration or demotion of Christ. He felt (as most of us converts do) that what he came to believe was the one Church is the appropriate place to worship Jesus all the more. It’s not about “Church vs. Jesus” or sola ecclesia. It’s about (as we now believe in faith) the Church that Jesus Himself established (Matthew 16). The Church isn’t schizophrenic (opposed to Jesus its Head).

My friend Steve Ray, wrote in his 1997 book, Crossing the Tiber:

Janet and I, independently of each other and before we met, became ardent followers of Jesus Christ in the Evangelical tradition . . . (p. 18)

Steve had a particular admiration for Martin Luther (as I also did, and still do, in a much more limited sense). One time Al Kresta (who would shortly return to the Church) and myself (who had just converted), visited Steve Ray at his house.  When I made some critical remarks about Martin Luther, I thought he was actually gonna punch me.

Scott Hahn (the most well-known recent convert), in his book, Rome Sweet Home (1993), wrote about his initial “commitment to Christ”:

I . . . prayed, “Lord Jesus, I am a sinner. I believe you died to save me. I want to give my life to you right now. Amen.” . . . the next morning, . . . I knew something was different. (p. 4)

they point to a triumphal entry into the Roman Church from one’s own intellectual abilities. Their conversion stories are about what they did. They are about what wisdom and glory they achieved.

I just don’t see it. This is simply judgmental condemnation and the attempted reading of another’s heart. Swan, being an anti-Catholic, simply can’t imagine a legitimate, spiritual reason for any Protestant to ever become a Catholic, and so he pulls out of thin air this cynical interpretation that we only did it for “glory” and self-worship of our own intellect. It’s sheer nonsense. And he can’t prove this, in any event (which is why he doesn’t attempt to; he simply makes the bald assertion). This is sinful calumny.

I know how often he has brought this up, because he has often directed it towards me. But I think the false charge reveals a lot more about him than it does anything about us. At one point, Swan was even claiming that it was prideful and self-centered for someone to have a Facebook page (!). That’s how ridiculous he got.

Yet, after all his anti-Catholic cronies got on Facebook, one-by-one, sure enough, he did so himself. Swan wrote about me on 4-14-09: “Mr. Armstrong is a theologian of glory. It’s all about the glory of DA.” On 4-15-10, he again called me the same name, which is contrary to being “a theologian of the cross.” It’s just a bunch of hot air.

They are not conversion stories of the broken sinner bowing his knee to the merciful God, given by the Father to Christ and irresistibly drawn (like Paul’s recounting in Galatians 1; cf. Acts 9);

Again, those aspects of our stories came earlier, when we decided to wholeheartedly follow Christ into our hearts and became committed Protestant Christians. I gave five examples above. In his article, “Roman Catholic Conversion Stories” (originally,  2-5-07 on White’s blog and then re-posted on 2-20-09 on his own), Swan digs in all the more:

These glorious tales of “former theological step-children” are nothing more than aspects of what Martin Luther called the “theology of glory”. The late medieval Roman church Luther was confronted with was a church filled with “glory.” By “glory,” Luther meant that the emphasis was not on the achievements of Christ, but on the achievement of the Roman Church, and those achievements were accomplished by the churches’ own power. Luther rejected the “glory of the church” and said the church is a suffering church, rather than a church of beauty and splendor. The church is not supposed to be a “glory” of political power and luxury. Conversion stories repeatedly put forth by Catholics are just that: examples of achievement and glory. They point to the abilities of a person and the supposed wisdom gained by crossing the Tiber. They do not point to Christ—they point to a triumphal entry into a magnificent human institution: the Roman Catholic Church. Their conversion stories are about what they did. They are about what wisdom and glory they achieved.

In an article on 12-25-05, Swan classified all Catholic apologists as “theologians of glory” and stated:

The Theology of Glory is founded on man’s wisdom and works. It is a worldview that seems “sensible and right” by worldly standards. Glory theologians have to understand by the use of reason, and they have to “do” by their own moral energy to be right with God.

Again, on 7-24-10, he pontificated:

There is of course still the Romanist glory of works. But wait, they say those works they do are prompted by Christ, or done with the help of the Holy Spirit. Hogwash. They are a denial of the perfect work of Christ. . . . 

Rome’s apologists and defenders are still theologians of glory. They stand opposed to the foolishness of the cross, and actively work against God’s kingdom. However well-meaning, they are ultimately deniers of the perfect work of Christ. All their websites, blogs, discussion boards, seminars, books, tracts, etc., are examples of the theology of glory.

This is outrageous and amounts to classifying us as Pelagian heretics and scarcely followers of Christ at all: a false view that the Catholic Church roundly condemned in the time of St. Augustine: more than a thousand years before Luther was a twinkle in his father’s eye.

rather, these are accounts of people accepting the alleged Roman Catholic “fullness of truth”, and a rejection of Protestant essentials like sola fide and sola scriptura. In other words, the emphasis is not on spiritual rebirth, but rather the acceptance and realization of a “higher knowledge.” The conversion is not to Christ, but to an infallible church.

It is rather hypocritical for a Calvinist to carp on and on about someone accepting what they believe is a “fullness of truth”: seeing that they often talk about having converted from Arminian Protestantism (often disparaging it in many unfair ways, and caricaturing what its beliefs are). They make the same sort of arguments that Catholic converts make (but with a condescension that we usually don’t exhibit towards our former beliefs).

At some point they grasped the “fuller truth” of Calvinism and God predestining people to hell from all eternity (wholly apart from the damned persons’ free will: this is unconditional election and irresistible grace). They accept the “glory” of Calvinism in all its ugly colors.

It turns out that Swan doesn’t care for any conversion or “testimony” stories at all: even among Protestants. It’s an odd quirk that he has. But this doesn’t stop him from hypocritically telling quite a bit of his own personal story prior to the astonishing and wonderful revelation of Calvinism, which was his own “pearl of great price”:

I was not brought up Presbyterian, but similar to this CTC author, I was raised on the “magic moment conversion” paradigm.  I sat through years of altar calls and heard many versions of “with every eye closed and every head bowed, slip up your hand if you want to accept Christ… yes I see you…. yes I see you…” etc. I was raised with this sort of paradigm. It was a normal part of the church experience for me. If you were a Christian, you were expected to be able to point to the year, day, and hour in which you accepted Christ into your heart. Anything less than this was a bit suspicious. You had to have a magic moment in which you were born again.

Here’s the ironic part. Despite at least three decades of opportunities, I never once lifted my hand when every head was bowed and every eye was closed (and by the way, every head and eye didn’t obey this liturgical rule). Nor did I ever leave my seat, walk the isle, head towards the front to be prayed with. This at times was met with consternation by those presenting the salvation offer. I recall really giving the counselors at the Word of Life Bible camp in New York state quite a challenge. They had these invitations every night that never made any sort of dent on me. In fact, I enjoyed not providing them with any sort of certainty of my spiritual state.

It wasn’t just the altar calls. By the time I got into my twenties, the idea of standing up and committing to something had grown. I recall going out to the big Intervarsity Urbana conference and one of the speakers got the entire stadium on their feet to commit to some form of Christian behavior. I was one of the only persons that didn’t stand up (God bless my friend Bob who likewise sat there with me). The last church I went to previous to my paradigm shift to a Reformed perspective was a rocking Church of the Nazarene (what a band!). Each service ended with a 10 to 15 minute altar call. . . . 

One of the helpful aspects of going “Reformed” was that it made sense of my own conversion “experience.” Reformed theology understands that not every one hears a voice from heaven and falls to the ground like the the apostle Paul. The idea of a dramatic “once I was blind, but now I see” magic moment isn’t the rule. In fact, some people can’t locate a specific date in which they realized their own sin, need of savior, and desired to live a life of gratitude to God for salvation. It just happens. . . . 

Now I certainly realize the author of the CTC article in question has a different intent with his article than what I’m talking about. He does though claim a Reformed heritage. I can’t help but be very suspicious as to whether or not he really was raised… Reformed or as any sort of a Calvinist.  He concludes with the following: “As a very young child, I believed that salvation came through recitation of a mantra: the sinner’s prayer.” This certainly isn’t taught in my Reformed church, nor do I think this prayer finds its way into to Westminster Small Catechism. It is though taught in the tradition I was raised in: garden-variety-evangelical-fundamentalism. It appears to me that the Presbyterian church the CTC author was raised in  had been infected by “magic moment” theology. (Magic Moment Conversions and Called to Communion: 3-18-12)

So this is at least some semblance of Swan’s own “conversion story” from “fundamentalism” to the sublime and glorious heights of Calvinism. Whaddya know: another former fundamentalist (something I never was). I have debated many atheists who have the same background. Swan is blessed that he managed to survive it. He told his “story” despite the fact that less than three months later he decried this very thing:

Some people hold that at baptism, it’s good for the person to tell their “story”- I disagree. Perhaps it’s because I’m embarrassed at the sins I’ve committed against Christ. . . . 

On a positive note, I have no problem with getting to know someone and hearing their “story”. This is fine over a cup of coffee. But please, keep your “story” out of the spotlight. If you want to tell a “story”- tell Christ’s story.

Yet Swan posted his own (and quite in-depth at that), on his website, where potentially many thousands could read it. Is that being a “theologian of glory”? Go figure . . .

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