by David E. Rockett
From So-Baptist Jock & Happy Reformed-Calvinst To Finding The Orthodox Church
So David, what made you come forward with your Journey story now?
It was said more than once while I was becoming Orthdox that many converts “tell their story too soon.” For this reason, I’ve hesitated, cherishing the time to better understand who I was as a Protestant, and who I am becoming as an Orthodox Christian. After almost 4-yrs as an inquirer and catechumen, and five years as an Orthodox Christian, I am taking your admonition, Fr. John, to tell my story. I pray you’re right to assure me that many I’ll never know or meet will be encouraged and inspired by my story in the same manner I was when reading other convert journey stories of those who came before me.
How did your journey start? What was the immediate cause of it?
Well, my kids all but forced me to get on Facebook in order to keep up with family happenings and my grandkids pics and plans. I too often felt “out-of-the-loop.” I have eight kids: 5-girls, 3-Sons (all grown and out of the house), and soon to be 16 grandchildren. So, my oldest daughter set me up a FB account, and I started reconnecting with old high school friends. I also stumbled over and reconnected with an old Navigator buddy who had married an Orthodox girl. And I picked up a few stray Orthodox FB-friends liking or challenging their posts – many who came from my own Reformed background. After gigging them playfully every now and then for months, they finally said, “Okay Rockett, you need to read some good Orthodox stuff, or shut up!” Seriously, I agreed with the intent to only learn their quirks and errors. I was a very happy, well-read, confident, Reformed Calvinist who was twice elected as a Ruling Elder. I was content, assured…more than a tad cocky! 😉 I’d also taught Weldon Hardenbrooks’ book Missing From Action to high school boys thirty years ago, and knew a little about the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. Also, my pastor and other pastor friends loved Fr. Alexander Schmemenn’s book For The Life Of The World. They often quoted it publicly with enthusiasm at the Lord’s Table on Sundays.
What about your family, your wife and children…what did they think?
It was natural for me to include my wonderful highschool sweetheart and wife of 44-yrs, and our eight children as much as possible. We had lived joyfully in vibrant Reformed Churches that were central to our lives for several decades. Much of the following was written first as “email-updates” to my wife and kids as I pondered the discovery of Orthodoxy…like these three paras here:
“Half way through my 57th year (late Nov. 2010) it seemed strange to be reviewing my theological biography. Most would think I should have settled long ago on who I am and where I belong as a Christian. Indeed, a young man in his early thirties recently told me that he was, “no longer searching for Truth” implying, of course, he had settled on what Truth is. At his age I would have (as a new PCA Elder) said the same thing, perhaps even more emphatically. God does not always have us in a search-and-question mode. Rather, He sometimes gives us long periods of settled contentment right where we are. From my late twenties, I saw myself as settled and content in Reformed Calvinism – with some modest but telling refinements over the prior 10-years.
A strong argument could be made that my life has been one of overwhelming joy and contentment. I was content as a kid and teen growing up a jock in the Deep South a Southern Baptist (baptised @ 7/ revival). I was a happy, serious Christian as president of the Youth Choir, quarterback and president of the Fellowship of Christian athletes – maybe happier as a hard-core Navigator-Disciple in the Air Force and thru College!
It’s really never occurred to me to resent, much less hate, my parents, pastors, coaches or bosses just because they were imperfect or made mistakes. Of course, I’m not immune to sinful anger for a season. Thankfully, God has graced me not to stay angry – or seek reasons to become sinfully embittered. Indeed, I have been blessed beyond measure with great friends, teachers and churches most people only have occasion to visit. In my mind, I lived in the cream of the Reformed Community with great preachers, fine men, wonderful churches, good books (often read in community), the amazing joy of great singing and worship. One might say I’d spent the last 34+ years in the lap of the New Jerusalem of the Reformation! I have certainly seen more than a tad of Triumphalism…not always gracious or pretty. I’ve known the joy of a wonderful marriage to my high school sweetheart and mother of our eight children, an amazing woman. In all, I still can’t comprehend it. I know of no man more blessed, privileged and happy than I have been.”
That’s a wonderful testimony to God’s grace and mercy, but can you tell me more about you Reformed denomination? Pastors were actually reading Orthodox theologians like Father Alexander Schumeman?
Yes. The new CREC denomination our church had joined after leaving the PCA was a pioneer in rediscovering liturgical and sacramental worship. My assumption: we’re just re-learning the liturgical and sacramental theology of the early (Magisterial) Reformers that was lost over the years due to English Puritans, New England Yankees and maybe a few Scott rationalists. It was odd, but my respect for my pastor, pastor friends, the early reformers and history, assured me we were just moving back to the historic Reformed Church. In the process, we were leaving off recent modern innovations. For the most part, I was right about that.
Honestly, it never crossed my mind that much of this was the fruit of the top CREC gurus reading Orthodoxy over the past 20-30 years. Then I started my own reading, and things became clearer to me. But it really didn’t put me off when it became obvious that many of their insights (unattributed)…clearly came from Orthodoxy (the centrality of worship, sacraments, liturgies, Church calendar, worship (body included), maximalism rather than minimalism, among others…). What struck me early on was re-discovering my own presuppositions. In our circle, the presuppositionalism of Cornelius van Til was sacred. Indeed, in the late 1970s “presuppositionalism & epistemological self-consciousness” were leading buzz words. Vigilance about “what your presuppositions are, and from whence they come” was our mantra!
So you began seriously reading Orthodoxy in August of 2010…how did that go?
Two online Orthodox buddies formerly connected to the CREC directed my reading since they understood my back-gound. So I read, and I argued with them for months which turned into several years. Secretly, I began to question my presuppositions about the early Patristic Church – the Church that existed in the 2nd, 3rd & 4th centuries throughout the Mediterranean on terra firma after the Apostles died. In light of Pentecost, and the Old and New Testament promises of the Holy Spirit, what should I assume about the Patristic Church? This became a consistent question in my mind.
What, or whom were you reading early on?
Oh, normal stuff most would read like Father Peter Gilquist’s books Coming Home and Becoming Orthodox, along with Met. Kallistos Ware’s books The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. I also started reading Jaraslov Pelikan’s Vol II on the history of the Church, which was very good and very arresting. Matthew Galatin’s Thirsty Christian In A Land of Shallow Wells was very good for me, and John Zizioulus, Being As Communion had a profound impact.
Honestly, my assumption about the early Patristic Church was not carefully considered. It was in part contradictory. I assumed this early Church had quickly gone to hell in a handbasket by embracing Roman Catholic superstitions – smothering True (Reformed) Christianity for centuries. I assumed God must have had Protestant remnant-cells in hiding for 1400 years. All until Jon Huss, John Wycliffe and finally Luther and Calvin came along to Reform a corrupt, immoral and superstitious Church. I suspect this is the default Protestant history and theological presupposition about the early Church. It’s what one theologian calls the Blink-On/Blink-Off theory of the Holy Spirit. (https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxbridge/pentecost-promise-god-fulfilled-2/)
Serious Protestant readers, like I believe I was for over 30-yrs, by and large rarely include reading the Patristic Fathers. Neither had I, and in all fairness, more do today due to being challenged by friends who are now Orthodox converts. I had audited a course 30-yrs prior taught by Dr. Douglas Kelly [a fine Southern gentleman] at Reformed Seminary in Jackson, MS. To my shame I don’t remember learning much. It was the late 1970s and didn’t take the reading seriously. I was in my late 20s and if I assumed anything, I assumed the early Church was a weak Church, like Corinth. They were the pathetic example of “the early Church” held up for ridicule. Also in our circle, there is a hint of theological progressivism beneath our presuppositions about the early Church. New is better – old is childish. Thankfully, the Southern Agrarians and their heirs had largely cured me of this Modernism years ago. New is not always good. Indeed, it is often heretical.
Bottom line, my presupposition began to bother me. I began to face the fact that despite Christ’s promise to His disciple-Apostles to be with them, and the promise of the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth (Jn 14:26), they had failed miserably. Though the Acts of the Apostles implies they turned the world upside down, stood before kings and planted churches throughout the known world, the Apostles were yet grand failures. They did not leave sound churches, or faithful men, who would be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2) after they were gone. How did their disciples go wrong so quickly?
That the Apostles were failures in passing on the Faith they had received does seem at odds with the promises of Christ, and the enduring significance of Pentecost. How did it go from there?
Exactly! What did my assumptions imply about Pentecost? Was the Holy Spirit present in the first 2,3,5 centuries of the early Patristic Church? After all, most everyone believes the Apostles, uniquely gifted by the Holy Spirit, were inspired to write the NT Scriptures 20-30 yrs later. What happened? Pastors often taught me the early Church, “conquered the Roman Empire in 300 yrs” with no word about what that Church actually believed, or how it worshiped and practice The Faith once for all delivered to the saints. Yet with little thought, we accept the bible they gave us…with most of their Christology and Trinitarianism.
Then, I ran head first into very different Orthodox presuppositions. In sharp contrast, they supposed the Apostles were an extraordinary success! They quoted Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (direct disciple of the Apostle John) along with Ireneaus. I tried to question my assumptions – put myself back in the second century. How did the Church know how to live and what to believe? There was no clearly identified and agreed upon Testament for many decades if not centuries (all printed by hand). Various gospels and letters floated around for centuries. Who did have the Truth then? What if Orthodox presuppositions were right? Apostolic-Success does flow easily from promises given in Scripture. I assume their failure – Why?
Yes, the fact of Pentecost, and early success for the Church in the Roman world the first 3-5 Centuries, IS a big problem for those who believe the Apostles were mostly failures. Where did rethinking your presuppositions lead you?
Well, I think it lead toward two issues: 1) the formation of the Canon of Holy Scripture, and 2) the right place and understanding of Holy Tradition. When I first confronted the way Orthodox understand Holy Tradition, I thought oh no here comes Roman Catholic Phariseeism. But I was mistaken. Orthodox pointed out two kinds of tradition spoken of in Holy Scripture. The tradition of the Pharisees (of men) is to be rejected. But, the oral Tradition of the Apostles was to be loved and embraced. I was wary of this. But I learned it’s much like Moses writing down the “Holy oral Tradition” handed down by Adam and the Patriarchs. This was new to me. Apostolic oral tradition? But then a shocker – the Apostles spoke of it right there in my Bible (II Thes. 2:15 and 3:6, II Cor. 11:2) How had I gloss over these verses for decades? But there they were. (BTW: Translators of NIV Bible have a protestant presuppositional bias. They translate the same Greek word [“paradosis”] tradition when the connotation is negative, but the same word teaching when the connotation is positive. Wonder why?
So I continued doing the unthinkable. I read many books and parts of others written by Orthodox priests and theologians. I listened to dozens of podcasts (Deacon Michael Hyatt’s SS lessons) and talked a good bit with several priests online and by phone to protestant-to-Orthodox converts. Nevertheless, regardless of my interests, I was not about to leave the Reformed faith that I’ve loved for 34+ years without very good/clear reasons. Interestingly, really it shocked me…the priests and friends ALL encouraged me to take it slow and not rush things. I found this refreshing. Frankly, the Orthodox were so patient, almost indifferent, to proselytize me.
So, did Orthodox presuppositions cause a difference in your thinking?
Yes! If you dare to start with different assumptions, it makes all the difference. For example, what IF the Apostles were an overwhelming success in committing their doctrine to men like Timothy? Is it possible that men like the Apostle Paul’s disciple Timothy, and Saint Ignatius of Antioch (Apostle John’s disciple) actually did pass the true gospel on to “faithful men who were able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2)? What if the Church established by the Apostles did not Blink-Off for 1,400 years?
After reading Orthodoxy for just over six months, I began to be amazed (embarrassed?) at how I accepted the ‘apostolic-failure/quick-corruption’ presupposition with hardly a question. Honestly, as I read Orthodoxy, I started to fear it was true. I had seen “fear-of-the-truth” in others concerning the Old South, the Puritans, and governmental actions. But now I saw it very clearly in me. I was afraid it was true. Why be afraid of historic truth? There is a good reason. Because embracing newly discovered truth can upset your peaceful society – be it family, Church, social — sometimes all three.
You’ve mentioned several books, Deacon Michael Hyatt’s SS classes and Journey stories…are there other books or early influences you want to mention as helpful?
Yes. There were a couple I’d like to mention. But Apostolic success made a tremendous difference in how I understood and approached Church history. It’s the difference between reading the often martyred early Church Fathers with a teachable-humility in order to learn, in contrast to a superior, condescending attitude. Dr. Jaraslav Pelikan’s Vol II and his life also was a shocker to me. I was especially taken by him being so heavily rooted in intellectual Lutheranism, as the premier Patristic scholar, and then converting late in life to Orthodoxy. His scholarly history, writings and example had a big impact on me. Fr Seraphim Rose through his biography also had similar impact on me. Both brilliant, exceptional men who, after years of study and prayer, had the courage to leave their former affiliations, to become Orthodox Christians. [https://www.amazon.com/Christian-Tradition-Development-Doctrine-Christendom/dp/0226653730/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Jaraslov+Pelikan+Vol.+II&qid=1567271728&s=gateway&sr=8-1-spell]
It was hard to challenge my presuppositions, or set them aside in neutral for a season. It made a great deal of difference in how I intellectually processed and reasoned, in context, with the early Patristic Church. The Reformed view of icon was a big issue for me, and Dr. Robert Arakaki’s article on icons really shocked me. The notion that John Calvin’s view on icons in his Institutes, and elsewhere, could be carefully, but graciously and logically refuted stunned me. His article is excellent, and soon thereafter, we talked and became friends. His gentle and patient influence over time made a big impact on me. Then, almost as much, I was shocked to discover the Virgin Mary was highly venerated (not worshiped) from the very beginning. Deacon Michael Hyatt’s SS class series on Mary and then Scripture and Holy Tradition were both excellent.
The reply by the OrthodoxInfo men (Fr John Whitford, Patrick Barnes) to an issue of Credenda Agenda (Moscow, ID/CREC men) on Orthodoxy, also shocked me. To see my tribe might not have all the answers, the best answers, nor really understand Orthodoxy was arresting. Patrick and Fr. John (both protestant converts to Orthodoxy) masterfully answered Credenda Agenda. Following, there was a wonderfully humble apology letter from one of the Credenda writers, Wes Callihan that I loved as well (Yrs later now, Wes is an Orthodox convert friend!) http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/credenda_response.aspx.
Finally, the fine Southern scholar, Prof. of Philosophy Clarke Carlton’s Journey Story on this same website hit me hard and is well worth reading. Prof Carlton fleshes out the implications of the Church receiving Holy Tradition for us. His work was dependent upon his reading of Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Vindication of Tradition which I had just worked through myself. In it, Dr. Pelikan drew a distinction between the intellectual rediscovery of tradition and the existential recovery of tradition. “In other words, there is a great difference between simply recognizing what has gone before…and genuinely claiming it for oneself. I had discovered the Church of history, the wisdom of the Fathers, and the liturgy, but I had yet to come to grips with all that such a discovery entails.” “There is also a great difference between claiming tradition for oneself and being claimed by tradition. I…was perfectly willing to claim the historic Church and the liturgy for my own understanding of Christianity. Yet, I was still in control! I, in true Protestant fashion, was judge and jury of what would and would not fit into my kind of Christianity. I was willing to claim the historic Church, but I had yet to recognize Her claim on me.” http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/tca_carltonfirstbaptist.aspx
Like Robert’s article on Icons, this hit home in a very personal way.
So it looks like there was no ONE thing, no bolt of lightening that made you suddenly become Orthodox?
No, it was more like a boxer taking too many body blows. The three or four body shots he takes in the first round seem insignificant, but at some point the hidden effects over many rounds take a cumulative toll. By round 8-10 the boxer is weakened and falls. I’ve also thought of it much like a fortified wall of a medieval castle. A catapult hurls big rocks against the thick walls that seem to bounce off with little effect. But like the boxer, the wall reaps the cumulative effect of the pounding rocks. The first 10 or so rocks bounce off with only a slight shaking the wall. But the eye can’t see the cracks inside the wall. As the pounding continues, the cracks get bigger. At some point, only a few more well-placed rocks crumbles the once impenetrable wall.
For what it’s worth, these examples illustrate how Orthodox Christianity gradually crumbled what I believed and was an impenetrable wall of my Reformed Calvinistic Faith. There was no one single Orthodox thing – no single silver bullet argument alone that crumbled my wall.
So, you became Orthodox and were Chrismated when? How did that set with your family, friends, and Church?
It was Holy Saturday 2014, and it was one of the most wonderful days of my life. I could hardly sleep the night before I was so excited…humbled that I would be added to the Orthodox Church and live in Her communion. It was thrilling. Let me give you another illustration. Looking back I thought becoming a Navigator Disciple in the Air Force and at FSU was like being poured by God from my S-Baptist Olympic swimming pool into Lake Superior…seeing the faith far bigger and deeper to fathom and swim in. But becoming Orthodox was like being poured from Lake Superior into the Pacific Ocean – the deep and fullness of the one true Faith! It was scary. But here was that great cloud of witnesses, the hosts of Saints, Apostles, and Fathers of the faith who swam along with me to help me along. It was thrilling then and it still is today. Often the Sunday Divine Liturgy and hymns of the Faith overwhelm me again, to glimpse at what a precious gift it is to be organically connected to, and part of the Orthodox Church. God be praised.
As for family and friends, it was touchy for a while. None of them followed me to Orthodoxy. My dear sweet wife and my four kids that live in town with their children still go to the CREC church here. They did all come to my Chrismation for which I’m thankful. We’ve had some bumps, but we worked them out to live happily and peacefully with each other. My leaving the Church was a bit more scandalous since we’d been so active there for so long. At first it was pretty smooth, but then an officer thought the Elders should do more. So, they sent a letter to the congregation denouncing my becoming Orthodox and they specifically asked the members to pray that I’d be kept from idolatry. Most of them were friends I’d known for 20-30 yrs. and I was upset with distortions at several points. Others had left the church quietly without such a letter being distributed to the members. In short, I replied to my wife and kids, but let it end there. I didn’t make a scene in the church. Now, thank God, I’ve learned to let it go completely and see it better light. In all fairness, the Elders only did what I might have done 5-10 yrs earlier. They didn’t understand Orthodoxy or know better, saw me as a threat, and acted as those given the charge to protect their sheep from supposed danger.
That is interesting and it’s good to put it behind you. But wasn’t your Pastor himself reading Fr. Alexander Schemamann to the congregation during the Sacrament of the Holy Eurcharist?
Yes, there was a difference and inconsistent response to me becoming Orthodox, rather than Baptist, Methodist, or Anglican. I understand and chose to let it go. I am now on friendly and cordial terms with the folks there. I return for my grandkids baptisms, weddings and other receptions from time to time. But like my family, we don’t talk about Orthodoxy! It’s that mostly unmentionable elephant in the room, the most precious gem in my life we rarely speak of. But we are happy together and God is sovereign over all things. I pray a day will come when we can speak more openly about Orthodoxy.
So David, wrapping up here, what are the biggest changes you believe becoming Orthordox has made in your life?
Well I pray more than ever. The daily Scripture readings and a prayer rule have helped discipline me due to the Church calendar. And I love that it connects me to the Saints, that great cloud of witnesses surrounding and praying for us. Also, the conception of the Orthodox Church as a hospital for sinners, has helped cultivate a softer, more empathetic heart in me. I’m less critical and hard on my fellow humans who have weaknesses and struggles common to us all, including me.
Lord have mercy.