Friday, August 10, 2012
On a recent trip to Durham, North Carolina, I was asked, "What do you make of all the evangelicals converting to Roman Catholicism?" What immediately came to mind was two recent and well-known conversions of evangelical scholars: Christian Smith, sociologist at Notre Dame, and Francis Beckwith, who at one time was president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Other well-known conversions to Catholicism in my generation—by men whose writings have been important in my intellectual growth—include the late Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wilken (not from evangelicalism as such, but from Lutheranism).But his argument about why Evangelicalism will win out in the end seems to be a but evangelical:
These are not minds to trifle with! We're talking about men who were and are at the top of their intellectual games, in sociology, theology, and church history. And none of their motives are to be questioned. When it comes to momentous conversions, we usually don't know our own deepest motives. These are often discovered only long after the fact, or maybe never (at least not until we find ourselves in the presence of our Lord—Ah, so that's what I was doing!).
What I can comment on is the tug of Catholicism on the evangelical heart. Because it is a tug that I must admit has pulled at me and many close friends. But there are tugs and there are tugs. Some tugs come from the Holy Spirit, and these naturally are not to be criticized! But other tugs deserve a little scrutiny.
Like the longing for authority. One of the most frustrating things about being Protestant, and especially evangelical, is that there is really no place to turn when you are ready to end a conversation on a controversial point. There is no authority figure or institution that can silence heterodoxy. No one has your back—well, except the Holy Spirit (we'll come back to this in a moment). The more Protestants there are, the more churches and theologies are birthed. As soon as we say, "The Christian church believes …" we hear someone say, "Well, I'm a Christian, and I don't believe that!" To be an evangelical used to mean one stood for certain theological convictions—penal substitution, inerrancy, and so forth—but now many evangelicals take delight in defining themselves over and against one of these formerly cardinal doctrines, while insisting on the right to be called evangelicals.Note that by this premise he assume that the "tug" is for personal certainty and to win arguments. That sort of self-centered view pretty well defines Evangelicalism, and is largely the problem.
So, we understand the pull of the Catholic magisterium. We'd love to be able to say, "The church believes X," and then back it up with a papal encyclical. We want "evangelical" to have clear and firm boundaries, so that when someone says they believe something outside of those boundaries, we can tell them definitively and assuredly that they are no longer evangelicals. We're tired of arguing, of having to prove our point through the careful examination of Scripture and patient deliberation. Frankly, we've given up depending on prayer to change hearts and minds. We want to be able to say, "The church teaches …" or "The Holy Father says …" or "All biblical scholars believe …" in a way that separates the sheep from the goats.
Christian maturity moves us past self in to selflessness. Evangelicalism sorely lacks in such selflessness. Evangelicalism is a fine introduction to faith, but then what? That's the attraction to Catholicism - there is a "then what."
Galli is not entirely wrong though, there are problems in Catholicism too, but they are not devoid of the Spirit where we are not - that's just a bit harsh. It is even harsh to assume institutions squelch the Spirit - people do that an they can accomplish it with or without institutions.
There is good reason to look beyond Evangelicalism - very good reason. There is also good reason to look past Catholicism. So maybe instead of choosing and arguing about who is better, we should learn from each other.