From Calvinist Prosecutor to Catholic Apologist

Convert Jason Stellman’s new old-fashioned apologetic shows how humans are “hard-wired for heaven”

Sunday, June 21, marked the 90th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial decision. The questions surrounding evolution—meaning, in particular, the origins of humans—still raise large and important questions for how we understand human nature and the doctrine of original sin. But Jason Stellman thinks that the obsession with our physical origins, though understandable, is perhaps theologically off-kilter. Where we’ve come from biologically is not as important as where we’re heading. It’s not the beginning of the journey, man—it’s the destination. Stellman’s The Destiny of the Species (Wipf and Stock, 2013) is a brief, rollicking, and readable apologetic, notable not just for turning the question of origins on its head, but also for pioneering a slightly different route from the path taken by many Catholic converts in their first books.

From Prosecutor to Papist

Stellman’s own personal story is compelling. Born and raised in Orange County, California, Stellman came to serious faith in the context of the Evangelicalism of the California preacher Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel ministries. He served as a Protestant missionary in both Hungary and Uganda before turning to a more theologically rigorous form of Protestantism: Calvinism. Stellman attended Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California and began ministering in the Presbyterian Church in America, the largest conservative Presbyterian denomination in the U.S., planting Exile Presbyterian Church in Woodinville, WA in 2004. Stellman’s name came into the limelight when he was chosen to serve as the chief prosecutor in the 2011 heresy trial of fellow Presbyterian minister Peter Leithart, a Calvinist writer and scholar known to readers of journals including First Things and Touchstone. Leithart’s views were accused of being in line with a school of Presbyterian thought known as the “Federal Vision,” and he was tried for, among other charges, allegedly failing to distinguish justification and sanctification, divine law and divine grace, and teaching that baptism confers grace and divine adoption. In short, Leithart was on trial for being too Catholic.

Although Stellman’s work as prosecutor was acknowledged as solid at the time, Leithart was acquitted by the Northwest Presbytery. In the time after this trial, however, Stellman himself began to question certain historic Protestant beliefs like sola scriptura and sola fide. Through a number of contacts, including the group of formerly Calvinist Catholic apologists centered around the “Called to Communion” ( website, which was founded to foster dialogue with and provide apologetics precisely for Calvinists who suspected the Catholic Church of being right or at least having something to say, Stellman began the journey that ended with his own entrance into the Church on September 23, 2012. Over the last year Stellman has been doing catechesis in a Seattle-area parish, and he now works at Logos Bible Software, developing resource material that will provide an easy way to look at the Scriptures in the light of Patristic and Medieval sources as well as the teachings of the Magisterium.

Apologetics for Everyone

Much of Catholic apologetics in English-speaking countries, and increasingly in Latin America, has focused on the differences between Catholics and Protestants. This is not surprising given that large swaths of Evangelical Protestants were baptized as Catholics and left the Church due to the catechetical and spiritual failures of post-conciliar American Catholicism. Sherry Wedell of the Catherine of Siena Institute has written extensively of this phenomenon, which continues to this day—many Catholics who hunger for solid biblical teaching and help in living a life of Christian discipleship seek out elsewhere what they should find in Catholic faith. They find it in the Protestant world where large parts of the Catholic faith have been conserved, especially devotion to Scripture, a serious search for divine intimacy, and the main outlines of Christian morality. Thus Catholic apologetics has been naturally geared toward showing lapsed Catholics and the Protestants they have joined that Catholic faith actually fulfills what they are looking for in a more coherent and comprehensive way. This is an important task—and the importance of it has born great fruit over the last thirty years, not only bringing many serious Protestant pastors, academics, and laity into full communion, but changing the dynamic of Catholic-Protestant relations. During the last two papal conclaves, I have been asked a number of times by Evangelical Protestants about the candidates and what they have to offer. In 2005 one Evangelical Presbyterian friend asked me, “Are we going to get a really good Pope?” I was tempted to answer after the fashion of Tonto when the Lone Ranger asked what chance there was of the duo escaping a wrathful Indian tribe: “Who is this ‘we,’ white man?” But I didn’t, because such a recognition shows how much anti-Catholicism has been tamed in the age of John Paul II, Catholic Answers, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and all the other efforts of apologetics and dialogue.

Stellman certainly has done his part in explaining his own move, writing an essay titled “I Fought the Church, and the Church Won” and giving an in-depth interview on “Called to Communion” as well as engaging in various interesting questions about the real differences between Catholics and Calvinists on his personal blog, “Creed Code Cult”. But refreshingly, Stellman’s Destiny of the Species is actually not geared toward Protestants interested in or annoyed by Mary, the Pope, Purgatory, and Indulgences. It is an apologetic for Christianity as a whole after the fashion of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy or Lewis’s Mere Christianity, geared toward those who might be “spiritual but not religious,” “nones,” lapsed Catholics who have left Christian faith behind altogether or are already practicing some other sort of faith, and Christians of all sorts, whether Catholic or not. What he has produced is an old-fashioned apologetic for everyone.

Back to the Future

Stellman’s book, written around the time of the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, arrived not only in time for the 90th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial, but also Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, with which it bears some striking similarities. Destiny of the Species begins with the premise that while our biological origins are of interest to us, Darwin ultimately “doesn’t scratch where we truly itch.” We certainly eat, drink, defecate, breathe, and move in ways that remind us we are animals. But unlike other animals, whose existence is instinctual, man “is not pushed but pulled, not driven but drawn.” Your dog may appreciate a good nap, a beef, and a burgundy, but we have desires for glory, love, and life that has no end. We are, says Stellman, “hard-wired for heaven.” All of the frantic search for someplace else and something new that Tocqueville found in so pure a form in America (and that more recent writers like David Brooks and Wendell Berry have wryly observed or excoriated) is the sign not simply of biological urge, but spiritual need. Stellman uses Chesterton’s fine phrase to describe it: divine discontent. We all hunger for a future that is more than we can experience now.

Like Lumen Fidei, Stellman is proposing that human discontent and restlessness should be answered not by quelling them, but by seeking answers to them. Francis answers Nietzsche’s dictum that “if you want peace of soul and happiness, then believe, but if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek,” noting that “autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future”. Stellman observes that for the vast bulk of people, the way to apparent peace and happiness is not belief, but “worldliness”—simply following our biological needs and various emotional passions for things, fame, revenge, and pharmacologically-induced good feelings. The way of belief, according to Stellman, is actually the path to truth and the only way to real peace and happiness. The rest of his book is dedicated to illuminating the truth that, as Pope Francis puts it, “the light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence.” It is “a light coming from the future and opening before us vast horizons which guide us beyond our isolated selves towards the breadth of communion.”

The seeker with a pure heart will not choose between belief and truth, but between competing beliefs. Again, like Pope Francis, Stellman emphasizes that our choice is really between true belief and idolatry. Stellman’s middle chapters survey the various false gods that humans encounter, offering treatments of the five vanities surveyed in the book of Ecclesiastes, the temptations of a technologically advanced and affluent society, and how the universal acknowledgment of sin’s reality usually issues in our identification of it in someone else’s life. We all love to confess others’ sins while staying silent about our own. Stellman’s treatment is generally good in this section, though it must be said that his treatment of the dangers of life in a consumer society tend toward a sort of stereotyped vision of business and markets that might have been better left out or at least balanced by a recognition of the dangers of modern do-gooderism present in non-profit and government work, too. Stellman, whose views are probably left-of-center, occasionally seems as if he’s making a brief against politically conservative Christians and not a brief for Christianity. Jibes at those who watch FOX News or take different views on political issues detract from what is solid and permanent in his exposition. This leads to a second difficulty in the book. Stellman uses a variety of pop-culture references to make his points. Many of them, such as his use of The Matrix to illuminate the choice we have to make between simply distracting ourselves and offering ourselves to seek the truth, hit home. Not all of them do. Rock music fans, especially U2 fans, sometimes need to be reminded that song lyrics seldom stand well on their own.

Stellman really excels when he is bringing out the great riches present in Scripture. Again, mirroring Lumen Fidei, Stellman shows how the Decalogue is meant not simply as a veto on naughty human actions, but as a liberation of humans from the passions and idolatries he’s been describing and toward a life of spiritual abundance. (I would complain that he describes the Commandments using the Protestant rather than the Catholic numbering, but my own contribution to ecumenical outreach is to say let’s do it the way Protestants and Jews do.) Using Job, Stellman shows how the real objection to God’s existence, the problem of evil, is met by God’s presence, ultimately in the form of Jesus Christ, whose Resurrection and Ascension show us, in a limited way, what we will be. Stellman’s final pop-culture flourish is to use the movie Memento, which tells its story alternating between scenes starting in the beginning and moving forward and the end moving backward, as an analogy to the way in which the light of faith works. We know the destiny of the species is assured, but the light of faith, while illuminating all of life, doesn’t usually show us more than we need for our own personal immediate steps ahead. “One step enough for me,” in Newman’s famous words. Stellman’s vision of Christianity answers exactly to the two primary aspects of Chesterton’s personal philosophy in Orthodoxy. In the light of the future prepared for us, life is both familiar and unfamiliar, marvelous and unsatisfactory. It is not merely a biological process, but a high adventure.

The Destiny of the Species: Man and the Future that Pulls Him
by Jason J. Stellman
Wipf & Stock, 2013 
128 pages

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About David Paul Deavel 27 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. His book Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, co-edited and introduced with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available from Notre Dame Press.