Editor’s note: this article first appeared in the Journal of Ministry & Theology, Fall 2008. Some of the content and footnotes are a bit dated now, but the state of confusion in evangelicalism has changed little and the article still speaks well to the issue today in 2010.
Part 1: the issue explored
One of the greatest shocks in the history of the Evangelical Theological Society occurred in May 2007 when the president of the organization, the respected Francis Beckwith, resigned his position and membership because he had become a Roman Catholic.1 Beckwith, currently Associate Professor of Philosophy and Church-Studies at Baylor University (traditionally a Baptist school), had left the Catholic church when he was fourteen years old and was now returning to his roots after many years in evangelical churches.
The official response from the ETS Executive Committee was cordial, thanking Beckwith for his past work for the society, but highlighting the necessity of a parting of the ways largely because “we wholeheartedly affirm the distinctive contribution and convictional necessity of the work of the Evangelical Theological Society on the basis of the ‘Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety’ as ‘the Word of God written and…inerrant.’”2 The response goes on to highlight that this distinction involves the use of a different Bible, the Catholic Bible which “posits a larger canon of Scripture than that recognized by evangelical Protestants.” Beckwith apparently affirmed that he could sign the ETS statement since it does not enumerate the particular books of its Bible (although its tradition does), but he decided not to pursue continuance with the society because it would have produced a major debate that could possibly hurt the organization.3
The return of Beckwith to the Roman Catholic tradition mirrors the earlier conversion of evangelical Franky Schaeffer, son of famous apologist Francis Schaeffer, to the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1990. Other examples would be the 1985 conversion of Thomas Howard of Wheaton College to Rome as well as singer and former evangelical John Michael Talbot who joined a Franciscan order in 1978.4 These examples stress in the minds of some an understanding that overall Roman Catholicism is making headway against evangelicalism, especially in America, or that a coming together is taking place.
One is reminded of ECT1 and ECT2.5 In 1994 the document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” was produced by a group of evangelicals and Roman Catholics headed up by Charles Colson and Richard Neuhaus. This was an attempt to find some common convictions affecting faith and the mission of the church. Of more import perhaps was ECT2, the document entitled “The Gift of Salvation” (1998), issued by essentially the same group of evangelicals and Catholics. In this document they affirm agreement on the following doctrines:
- Justification is central and crucial to the Bible account of the doctrine of salvation.
- Justification is not earned by good works or merits on our part.
- Justification is a gift from God based on “sheer” graciousness out of love.
- The gospel (death and resurrection of Christ) forms the basis for our justification.
- Justification is basically forensic—we are “declared” no longer rebellious enemies.
- This declaration is on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone.
- Justification is received through faith (even quotes Ephesians 2:8).
- Justification is by faith alone (sola fide) in keeping with the Reformation tradition.
Such a list was quite surprising at the time since the same document left the following doctrines and issues as open questions to be discussed later:
- the meaning of baptismal regeneration
- the Eucharist
- sacramental grace
- the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness the normative status of justification in relation to all Christian doctrine
- the assertion that while justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation is never alone (mentioned in the Westminster Confession of Faith)
- diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences
- devotion to Mary and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation
- the possibility of salvation for those who have not been evangelized
The thoughtful evangelical was left wondering how one could agree to both lists at the same time. For example, how could someone affirm sola fide while saying at the same time that baptismal regeneration is an open question that needs further exploration?
There appears, however, to be a growing sentiment that the difference between evangelicals and Catholics is not that big a deal. Notice Beckwith’s personal statement:
I still consider myself an evangelical, but no longer a Protestant. I do think I have a better understanding of what sometimes the Catholic Church is trying to convey. Protestants often misunderstand. The issue of justification was key for me. The Catholic Church frames the Christian life as one in which you must exercise virtue—not because virtue saves you, but because that’s the way God’s grace gets manifested. As an evangelical, even when I talked about sanctification and wanted to practice it, it seemed as if I didn’t have a good enough incentive to do so. Now there’s a kind of theological framework, and it doesn’t say my salvation depends on me, but it says my virtue counts for something. It’s important to allow the grace of God to be exercised through your actions. The evangelical emphasis on the moral life forms my Catholic practice with an added incentive. That was liberating to me.6
Notice that Beckwith argues that the Roman Catholic view of sanctification with its pro-virtue mentality has more to offer the believer as an incentive to right living than does the evangelical way of thinking about the issues of justification and sanctification. What may be quite a surprise to many evangelicals is his belief that the Catholic framework does not constitute a salvation based upon the individual and what he does. Furthermore, he seems to believe that it is quite natural to be an evangelical Roman Catholic.
Beyond these doctrinal assessments is the reality that many evangelicals today are adopting various practices from the Catholic Church within their own lives and in their evangelical churches. For example, some evangelical churches are embracing some form of reflection and cleansing during the season of Lent. Others are offering confession and weekly communion while still others are following Ash Wednesday and light Advent candles during the Christmas season.7 Such developments in the minds of some experts indicate disillusionment “with the contemporary, shopping center feel of the megachurches embraced by baby boomers, with their casually dressed ministers and rock-band praise music.”8 Within this trend, variously labeled as worship renewal or ancient-future worship, appears to be a genuine desire, even if misguided, to add richness, depth, and beauty to the experience of worship.9 One could add to these observations the outright claim that there is a revival of Roman Catholicism in America. The television show The Journey Home (shown on Monday nights at 8:00 pm EST) on The Global Catholic Network EWTN states its purpose on its website in this way: “This exciting call-in program examines why so many people, including fallen away Catholics and individuals from other denominations, are being drawn home to the Catholic Church.”10
Support for a revival of Roman Catholicism comes from some analyses of the Emerging Church. Gendron sees a clear tie between the Emerging Church’s focus on tradition and a stream back to the Catholic Church:
One of the major influences that is paving the road back to Roman Catholicism is the Emerging Church movement. Proponents say its time for Christianity to be reinvented for a new generation. It must become more relevant to a postmodern generation. They say the best way to reinvent Christianity for the present generation is to reintroduce ideas and experiences from the past. Emergent leaders say God’s Word no longer holds the answers to life’s questions. Experience must become the key factor to encounter spiritual reality. The experiential attractions which are being promoted by the Emerging Church include: statues, prayer stations, incense, liturgy, candles, icons, the sacraments and calling communion the Eucharist. It is easy to see how this movement complements and encourages the Vatican’s “new evangelization program” to win the “separated brethren” back to the “true church.”11
Such an analysis is certainly correct relative to some forms of the Emerging Church, making Gendron’s conclusions relevant.
Beyond the issue of the Emerging Church, however, there is within evangelicalism a current focus on tradition on many fronts. Bible-believing Protestants have usually criticized the Roman Catholic penchant to endorse tradition as somewhat authoritative. However, this should never be taken as a complete disdain for church history or contempt for the church fathers. Such mammoth projects as the current multi-volume series edited by the evangelical Thomas Oden entitled Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture demonstrate a lively and healthy interest in the words of those who have gone before us.12 No evangelical needs to be afraid of such a trail since the historical evidence shows that the Roman Catholic presentation of a monolithic beginning centered in Rome can never be substantiated. Furthermore, as Oden notes, the current interest in the church fathers draws Protestants back to Luther, Calvin, and Wesley who knew the church fathers well and can be seen more as an unfettering from Enlightenment and higher critical thinking than a movement back to Roman Catholic faith.13
It remains to be seen, however, if the suggestion that there is a large movement of evangelicals back to Catholicism can be validated. It is the contention of this present writer that there is a better explanation for what is happening, especially in North America. The postmodern impulse, with its intensified stirring of the theological pot, has led many to seek an authentic religious experience that goes beyond what is actually occurring in church life. In virtually every confessional group there are those who are dissatisfied with the level of their experience. It seems that the religious heart of many is searching for something different because different may be better—at least it is worth a try. So those disenchanted souls within evangelicalism, for example, seek for a deeper beauty to express the meaning of their experience and some “find” it in the path to Rome.
On the other side, there are the disillusioned Catholics for whom the ritualistic ardor of their upbringing rings empty and hollow with no substance. Notice the following statistics and comments from a 2005 National Review article:
In 1965 there were 58,000 priests in the U.S.; in 2002 there were 45,000, of whom 16% come from other countries. In 1965 there were 1,575 ordinations to the priesthood; in 2002 there were 450. In 1965 there were 49,000 seminarians; in 2002 there were 4,700. In 1965 there were 180,000 sisters; in 2002 there were 75,000, with an average age of 68. In 1965 there were 1,556 Catholic high schools; in 2002 there were 786. In 1965 there were 10,503 Catholic grade schools; in 2002 there were 6,623. In 1958 weekly Mass attendance was 74%; in 2000 it was 25%. In 1968 there were 338 annulments; in 2002 there were 50,000. And now 53% of Catholics believe you can have an abortion and still be considered a good Catholic. And the above does not include all the parish closings, or the outrageous clerical sex scandals and episcopal cover-ups. It’s time to stop pretending that Vatican II has “renewed” the Church. Amid the ruins, orthodox Catholics have been rolling up their sleeves in order to save the Church in America.14
These facts do not match the optimistic spirit of EWTN and the current portrait of large numbers of evangelicals marching home to Rome. Perhaps a few evangelicals have taken the places of Catholics who have fled toward secularism or other religious affiliations. The testimony of many evangelistic Bible-believing churches in highly Catholic areas is that there is an increase of conversions from Roman Catholicism to evangelical faith or a large number of Catholics who are open to a new and different religious experience of authenticity.15 Such Catholics want more than a vacant mystery that has not moved them closer to God. Thus, the claim that there is a large return to Rome is overstated. The road may not be busy but the traffic on it seems to be going in both directions. The most traveled road and bigger North American flow may be toward hedonism. That is the spirit of the age. High profile conversions and good marketing should not be extrapolated to a different conclusion. Both Catholics and evangelicals must be honest about the current reality.
In Part 2: areas where RCC and evangelicals do agree
1 The definition of the term evangelical is up for grabs like many of the terms in the present cultural mix. Here and in the writings of this present writer it is generally assumed to stand for a high view of Scripture (inspiration and factual inerrancy), belief in a conversion experience for justification and salvation (born-again Christianity), an understanding that missions and evangelism is a high priority (attempt to persuade others to become born-again Christians), and a belief in basic Bible doctrine (such as the Trinity, incarnation, etc.). For a discussion of the nature of evangelicalism, see Robert P. Lightner, Evangelical Theology: A Survey and Review (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1986). Unfortunately, there are many who use the label evangelical for themselves when they have broader beliefs. The term has become somewhat of a moving target in the last one hundred years and especially in the last few decades.
2 I could not find this response posted any longer on the ETS website (etsjets.org). It is still posted at Collin Hansen, “ETS on Beckwith,” Christianity Today, 8 May 2007, http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2007/05/ets_on_bec… (accessed 24 March 2008).
3 See David M. Howard, “Rome-ward Bound: An Evangelical Concerts to Catholicism, and Everyone Remains Friendly,” Wall Street Journal, 18 May 2007, http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110010093 (accessed 24 March 2008). I first saw this response through a link provided on the blog of Darrell Bock.
5 For a more thorough analysis of these issues, especially examining ECT2, see Mike Stallard, “Justification by Faith or Justification by Faith Alone?” Conservative Theological Journal 3 (April 1999): 53-73.
6 “Q & A: Francis Beckwith,” interview by David Neff, Christianity Today, 9 May 2007, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/mayweb-only/119-33.0.html (accessed 24 March 2008).
7 Jacqueline L. Salmon, “Feeling Renewed by Ancient Traditions,” Washington Post, 8 March 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/03/07/ST20080307… (accessed 25 March 2008).
9 Ibid. According to this source, “First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D. C. follows the liturgical calendar observed by Catholic churches. It lights candles at Advent, and observes Epiphany Sunday and the remainder of the traditional cycle of liturgical celebrations.” The same article quotes the pastor of that church as saying, “We find that following the seasons of the Christian year adds a lot of richness to our experience of worship…. We wouldn’t want the Catholics to get all the good stuff.”
10 The Journey Home, EWTN Prime, http://www.ewtn.com/journeyhome/index.asp (accessed 25 March 2008). The acronym EWTN stands for Eternal Word Television Network which claims to be the largest religious media network in the world.
11 Mike Gendron, “Emerging Church: Leading Protestants Back to Rome,” Proclaiming the Gospel Ministries, http://pro-gospel.org/x2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=16&It… (accessed 25 March 2008).
12 Thomas Oden, gen. ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 25 vols. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001-2008). Twenty- eight volumes are intended in the final collection.
13 Thomas Oden, general introduction to Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, gen. ed. Thomas Oden; Volume I: Old Testament I – Genesis 1-11, ed. Andrew Louth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), xx
14 “The Calamitous Decline of the Catholic Church in the U.S.,” National Review, 31 January 2005, BNET, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1282/is_1_57/ai_n13610441 (accessed 25 March 2008).
15 This is the current situation in the region of Northeast Pennsylvania in general and the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in particular. Consolidation of Catholic schools and churches is occurring frequently. New Life Baptist Church, a church plant associated with Project Jerusalem, the church planting educational arm of Baptist Bible Seminary, as well as other Bible-believing churches in the area could attest to a growing number of Roman Catholics who have converted to a Protestant faith or who are coming to evangelical congregations looking for hope.
Dr. Michael Stallard is Dean at Baptist Bible Seminary. He also teaches dispensational premillennialism, ecclesiology, Baptist distinctives, and theological method. He has authored several articles for publications such as The Journal of Ministry and Theology, The Baptist Bulletin, The Conservative Theological Journal, Bibliotheca Sacra, and The Dictionary of Premillennial Theology. He has also written a commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians published by AMG Publishers. Dr. Stallard is a frequent speaker at the Conservative Theological Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and Pre-Trib study group. He has several years of experience as a senior pastor, including involvement in inner-city church planting. He is the founder and director of Mission Scranton and the founding pastor at New Life Baptist Church in Scranton, PA.