An Evangelical Disproves Evangelicalism

Yesterday, I talked about Scot McKnight’s essay From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals become Roman Catholic, in which he explores reasons people leave Evangelicalism for Catholicism.  It’s written from the perspective of a Protestant (McKnight’s an Anabaptist), but one more interested in finding out the real reasons people become Catholic, than on belittling those reasons.  Because he’s more interested in honesty than persuading people out of becoming Catholic, he says some pretty shocking things, things most Evangelicals would never admit.  Let me point to two.  First,

Most evangelicals know almost nothing about the early Fathers, and what they do know (they think) supports what they already believe, so why bother studying them. When it comes to realities, however, few have read even a page of the Fathers. However, very few evangelicals are drawn to either the Fathers or the Medieval theologians to strengthen their faith and interpretation. The only theologian from this era most of them bother reading is St. Augustine (whom they hesitantly call “saint” out of courtesy). Some know of Anselm, but few have read his Cur Deus Homo, even though Anselmian soteriology lies at the foundation of the normal, evangelical theory of the atonement (penal satisfaction and substitution of the Divine-Man). Where was the Church for all those years? Was it in hiding? How could God keep his end of the promise to Peter (Matt 16:17-19) if most of the time there was no true Church?

What’s surprising is that he’s hit right at the core of one of Evangelicalism’s largest weakness: if we proclaim that Christ has never abandoned the Church, then we have to take Christian history seriously. There’s no room for “Everyone between the Apostles and Luther was a heathen,” because Christ’s made clear that’s not the right answer.  Evangelicalism has largely answered this problem by either (1) ignoring the Fathers completely, (2) misrepresenting what they say, or (3) trying to steer people away from reading them. Those aren’t healthy responses.

McKnight then describes how Evangelicals who study the Church Fathers often become Catholic, and that many of these converts wonder if they’re not steered away from the Fathers for precisely this reason.  I’m reminded of this episode of “the Berean Call” with Dave Hunt and Tom McMahon, in which they simultaneously claim that the Church Fathers weren’t Catholic, and warn Evangelicals not to read them, and instruct Evangelicals to follow (their own interpretation of) the Bible instead of the writings of the early Christians. It comes off, frankly, as dishonest — if there really is nothing to worry about from reading the Fathers, why are they so insistent that no one check out the facts for themselves?

McKnight’s second admission is no less epic:

I might as well say this up front: in evangelicalism (and Protestantism in general), the authority of the Church resides in two spheres—the Bible and the specific interpretation of the Bible by the interpreter himself or herself. 

No one can deny this. There is no such thing as a “Bible alone” idea; that Bible must be “articulated,” unless we are only reading it, and that articulation is itself an interpretation. The RCC admits this openly and says that the final arbiter of interpretation is the Magisterium. The evangelical movement hides this openly and says, ever so discreetly, that the individual is the final arbiter. Such a bald claim, to be sure, must be given its pragmatic reality: most evangelicals and Protestants think of orthodoxy in terms of the historic faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and this orthodoxy governs what should and what should not be believed. To be sure, Protestant denominations have a functional, if somewhat fuzzy, “teaching magisterium” within their ranks, but that magisterium can be denied at any time by most pastors and certainly by all individuals with no more powerful punishment than banishment from the local church so the person can join a church of his own choosing. I add, however, that most evangelical churches, pastors, family members, and friends can make one feel that their specific church is that sacrament, but they will not confess that aloud—and many do not confess anything aloud.

This democratization of Scriptural interpretation, leading inevitably to the authority of the individual conscience, is intolerable for some evangelicals, because everyone gets to believe whatever he or she wants. This is a principle only; it does not actually work out this way, because most learn to read the Bible within an interpretive tradition. So, a crisis is found for many in a crisis of interpretive diversity that they resolve by affirming the authority of the RCC and its teaching Magisterium. That is, the issues are now settled: the Church can tell us what to believe. And it does so infallibly.

The description of Catholic converts is slightly inaccurate (they aren’t looking for just anyone to tell them what to do, or taking the easy way out)., but the description of Evangelicalism is right on:

  • If the Church has binding authority over the individual, then Catholicism is true. She’s the Church that the Reformers disobeyed.  
  • If the Church doesn’t have binding authority over the individual, then it’s theological anarchy.
Put another way, Martin Luther was the first Rob Bell.  And once you accept that Luther need not listen to the Church because he was really convinced his interpretation of Scripture is right, you lose the right to complain when anyone else ignores the Church because they are really convinced of their own arguments.
The only reason that Protestantism doesn’t usually find itself at the extreme of theological anarchy is because it’s hypocritical about Church authority. There’s no coherent basis on which to say that Bell is wrong for denying “historic Christianity,” while Luther’s brazen rejections of historic Christianity are totally okay, but the fact that Protestants go ahead and do so stops the Reformation from getting worse.
That’s sort of a criticism, but not really.  Frankly, I’d rather Protestants be hypocritical (and preserve most of historic Christianity in the process) than take their self-proclaimed beliefs seriously, in which case the individual who denies the Trinity is a higher authority than the church which tries to stop him.  It’s turning the flock over to the sheep.
So McKnight’s points are of immense important, because it’s a low-church Evangelical acknowledging that:
  1. There’s no such thing as “the Bible alone,” since the Bible requires interpretation;
  2. Within Evangelicalism, authority rests with the Bible and the individual.
  3. Nevertheless, virtually everyone implicitly recognizes the need for a Magisterium to stop heretical interpretations of Scripture from taking control.  Within Evangelicalism this “fuzzy magisterium” is often the local church.
  4. Evangelicalism’s “fuzzy magisterium” is failing, unable to stop pastors and individuals from flaunting its beliefs.
And as with the top example, we see the same thing. What saves Evangelicals from becoming more disorganized, more vulnerable to heresy, and the like, is that (while they won’t admit it) they act as if the Catholic Church’s structures of authority are not only right, but necessary.  Once more, Catholics are just doing openly and honestly what Evangelicals are denying they’re doing.
That’s not to accuse the bulk of Evangelicals of dishonesty: I think they’re oblivious to this reality.  But when sit down and think it out, as McKnight has here, the irreparable contradictions within Evangelicalism become clear.  It’s a system torn between a desire for historic Christianity (which is a desire for Catholicism, whether they know it or not), and a desire for the primacy of the individual’s conscience (which is a recipe for disaster, whether they know it or not). It remains to be seen how long Evangelicalism can stand in the middle of these incompatible ideas before she’s tugged in one direction or the other.


  1. I’ve avoided commenting because I simply have too much to say, but I do on point like this thread.

    However, I think you need to better define your terms. McKnight does this often, and you may not have read them all. It would help to better establish your argument.

    I tend to disagree with McKnight here, but he does establish that 1) evangelicalism is protestant, 2) protestant is not necessarily evangelical, and 3) the RCC is (obviously) neither.

    David Bebbington has some wonderful thoughts on what is and isn’t evangelical. I’m also a fan of Robert Webber’s work on “Ancient Future” evangelical catholicity.

    Lastly, I think you need to consider the theological construct of the “invisible church” more in your analysis of evangelical thought processes. It is what holds the evangelical protestant logic together (as well as it can be), and not the hypocrisy on authority which you address (which I think is really more about authority of revelation, isn’t it?…and not authority in terms of leadership…)

    BTW…you continue to inspire. Good work.


  2. Dan,

    I’m not 100% sure I understand what you’re saying. Which terms do you think need to be better defined? And which are the things you disagree with McKnight on?

    I do agree that the “Invisible Church” plays a role here, particularly in response to McKnight’s question, “Where was the Church for all those years?” But even if you play the Invisible Church card (that there was a disorganized body of true Christians which transcended visible ecclesial/ecclesiastical bounds), you should still be able to point to some of the individuals in the pre-Reformation Church who allegedly were also in the Invisible Church. Otherwise, it’s less “Invisible Church” and more “plugging your ears and imagining history didn’t happen.”

    Glad to see you commenting as always — your brother in Christ,


    P.S. I saw your e-mail again yesterday, and have been kicking myself over not responding yet.

  3. Yes. Have you seen John Piper–one of the most famous evangelicals alive–comments on this?

    “One surprising fact that I did not expect to find was that the heretics protested most loudly over the non-scriptural language of the orthodox creed. They pointed out that the phrases, ‘of one essence with the Father,’ and ‘one substance with the Father’ were not in the Bible. The heretics demanded ‘no creed but the Bible’ precisely so that they could use biblical language to evade biblical truth. For example, they would happily call Christ ‘Son of God,’ and then argue that, like all sons, he must have had a beginning. So to my surprise one form of the doctrine of the ‘sufficiency of Scripture’ was used to undermine Scripture’s truth.


    “There are many today who would demand ‘no creed but the Bible’ the same way the Arians did. But we should learn from history that biblical language is not enough when it comes to defending the meaning of biblical language. R.P.C. Hanson explained the process like this: ‘Theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself’”

    I guess he never stopped to consider what is necessary, if that is not enough.

  4. Thank you for these interesting posts about Dr. McKnight’s work. I read them with great interest as I am both a Catholic convert from evangelicalism and a just-graduated student of Dr. McKnight.

    As you point out, Dr. McKnight is not a very good evangelical, if I may be so bold. What I mean is that he resolutely denies several important aspects (dogmas?) of evangelicalism. He says he is an Anabaptist, which is slightly hard to believe given that he is a member at Willow Creek Community ‘Church.’

    He sees these contradictions inherent to evangelicalism rather well; he just does not seem to know what to conclude of them. He is an admirer of the Holy Father’s academic work, especially his two volume Jesus of Nazereth, and he refers to the CCC regularly. What holds him back I think is what you talk about in yesterday’s post, the rampant nominalism and watered-down catechesis in the Church at least in America. His rationale is that a Sacramental ‘method’ of disseminating the faith inherently leaves open the possibility of the non-conversion of the heart. In truth, of course, these are all supposed to go together. Too much of the Church’s witness to the world, though, is “Catholics” who go to Church to get baptized, married, and buried, and not much else.

    He has a forthcoming book on the Gospel from Zondervan, based upon the topic of the Senior Seminar class I took from him. He talks a lot about St. Paul’s outline of the Gospel in I Cor 15, and he openly insisted, to curious Protestant students, that there was a Church and an Apostolic Tradition before the N.T.

    I agree with you, and I think Dr. McKnight is starting to see this too, that evangelicalism’s future looks perilous.

  5. I think Matt hits a chord of truth, “Too much of the Church’s witness to the world, though, is “Catholics”……. Dr. McKnight’s article basically concluded by saying that smart, sincere Christians can convert to RCC but so what, it doesn’t really change anything.

    Why can he say that? Because, we have Catholic Bishops that ignore the “Catholic” politicians unless they die and then they publicly celebrate their lives. We have “Catholic” schools and hospitals that are liberal, social cesspools. We have a SERIOUS marriage problem even among the faithful in marrying non Catholics. The “Catholics” simply live together. People profane the Eucharist every single day. How can a priest even think to give the Host to someone with so little concern to approach in a tank top and shorts? I’d like to show up at their wedding feast in a skimpy tank top and cut offs.

    The fact is that becoming Catholic changes EVERYTHING. It changes every single cell in our body and every single moment of our lives. The truth of the Catholic Church, the Mysteries of the faith, are infinitely knowable! May the Holy Spirit enable Dr. McKnight to see beyond “Catholics” to the One, Holy, Perfect Bride and by God’s grace may I not inhibit any from seeing Her either.

  6. Put another way, Martin Luther was the first Rob Bell.

    This gave me a good chuckle.

    I was discussing with a Ph.D. friend of mine about how Protestantism has reached its terminus. The average protestant isn’t even protestant, but rather a completely novel invention of Bible + me + local pastor= something completely indiscernable from a historical perspective. Yet, there is a tension for any believer since Christianity is fundamentally historical not only in the unfolding of the age of the Church but in the very means of salvation–the spatiotemporality of the Incarnation.

    Thusly, we should expect those reflective and sincere believers who so investigate the historical narrative to become Catholic. The converse movement is to posit a kind of ecclesial docetism–which is really assumed in any non-Catholic “macro”-ecclesiology. McKnight it appears, like so many I read during my conversion, doesn’t have the courage to follow his own conclusions. At least he is making them…

  7. Sorry. I’ll chalk it up to poor punctuation and a bit of bad potato.






    P.S. You truly are gifted. Great thinker. Good writer. Capable of self-kicking….LOL.

  8. we should be careful here not to be too harsh or to appear too harsh on evangelicals, as many of their issues are also within the RCC, ie:
    “The average protestant isn’t even protestant”
    yes well the average Catholic is not even aware of what Catholicism is…

  9. Cary,

    The difference is precisely in the fact that the Catholic doesn’t know their faith or they know they posses a faith that is not orthodox. The Evangelical protestant knows their faith well and has no intention of protesting Protestantism or catholicism per se…thus my point. One is ignorance or malice, the other a positive position–albeit divorced from history. This is not something alien, as I am a former evangelical pentecostal do I am speaking for myself.


  10. @DJ | AMDG very good comment… this idea of an invisible CHURCH.. was CHRIST invisible too? How can His Bride be too? Is so lame an idea and thrown overwater when you just read the 1st century fathers… under persecution.. it’s a good excuse for denominationalism…is what it is…


  11. DJ|AMDG,

    I agree with you that terms like “Evangelical” are more than a little vague. Frankly, I think that fact alone is quite telling. Evangelicalism is incapable of keeping its own borders, of determining who is in and who is out: that’s, in fact, one of McKnight’s criticisms, noting that the “fuzzy magisterium” of Evangelical churches “can be denied at any time by most pastors and certainly by all individuals” without any real consequences.

    There have, of course, been attempts to fix this, with groups like the Evangelical Theological Society trying to construct a mission statement that will distinguish Evangelicals from everyone else. But as the controversy with Frank Beckwith shows, it’s largely impossible: Beckwith declared himself perfectly willing to be an orthodox Catholic and a signatory to the ETS statement, since he said it didn’t contradict Catholicism (although it was apparently meant to).

    Without trying to create an across-the-board definition of “authority,” in the context I used it in the post, I meant something like this: when you read a passage of Scripture and walk away from it with a conclusion quite opposed to your church’s view of that same passage, who ultimately wins?
    Presuming that neither of you changes your mind, do you (a) assent out of deference to the Church qua Church, or (b) seek out another church more suited to your views?


  12. [Hi Joe. Check this out. It’s something that came my way on the net.]

    Catholics Did NOT Invent the Rapture !

    Many assert that the “rapture” promoted by evangelicals was first taught, at least seminally, by a Jesuit Catholic priest named Francisco Ribera in his 16th century commentary on the book of Revelation.
    To see what is claimed, Google “Francisco Ribera taught a rapture 45 days before the end of Antichrist’s future reign.”
    After seeing this claim repeated endlessly on the internet without even one sentence from Ribera offered as proof, one widely known church historian decided to go over every page in Ribera’s 640-page work published in Latin in 1593.
    After laboriously searching for the Latin equivalent of “45 days” (“quadraginta quinque dies”), “rapture” (“raptu,” “raptio,” “rapiemur,” etc.) and other related expressions, the same scholar revealed that he found absolutely nothing in Ribera’s commentary to support the oft-repeated claim that Ribera taught a prior (45-day) rapture! (Since the same scholar plans to publish his complete findings, I am not at liberty to disclose his name.)
    Are you curious about the real beginnings of this evangelical belief (a.k.a. the “pre-tribulation rapture”) merchandised by Darby, Scofield, Lindsey, Falwell, LaHaye, Ice, Van Impe, Hagee and many others?
    Google “The Unoriginal John Darby,” “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” “X-Raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Walvoord Melts Ice,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “Wily Jeffrey,” “Deceiving and Being Deceived” by D.M., “The Real Manuel Lacunza,” “Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism,” “Pretrib Rapture Politics,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Famous Rapture Watchers,” and “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty” – most of these by the author of the 300-page nonfiction book “The Rapture Plot,” the highly endorsed and most accurate documentation on the long hidden historical facts of the 182-year-old pre-tribulation rapture theory imported from Britain during the late 19th century.

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