|St. Peter’s, Rome|
In 2007, Dr. Francis Beckwith, the president of the Evangelical Theological Society — the nation’s largest Evangelical coalition of scholars, with over 4,000 members — announced that he was converting (technically, reverting) to Roman Catholicism.
Last week, I had the opportunity of meeting Dr. Beckwith, and hearing his reversion story in person (I’d already read about it in his book, Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic). Two particular turning points that he described struck me as instructive for anyone honestly considering the Catholic-Protestant question today. Every conversion is unique, but the things that worked for him might be helpful for you, too.
The first of these points was his realization that Catholicism should be treated as normative, the starting place for any serious consideration about which Church or denomination to call home. This point was made, perhaps ironically, by the Evangelical Carl Trueman, in a book review he wrote for the reformation21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. The review was of Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s 2005 book Is the Reformation Over?: Noll and Nystrom argue in the affirmative; Trueman agrees, sort of. The entire review is worth reading, but it’s the conclusion that packs the most powerful punch:
When I finished reading the book, I have to confess that I agreed with the authors, in that it does indeed seem that the Reformation is over for large tracts of evangelicalism; yet the authors themselves do not draw the obvious conclusion from their own arguments. Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part. For such, the Reformation is over; for me, the fat lady has yet to sing; in fact, I am not sure at this time that she has even left her dressing room.
What Trueman shows is that we need a Copernican shift in our thinking on Catholic-Protestant issues. Rather than starting with the presumption that Evangelicalism is right on every issue, and forcing Catholicism to prove otherwise, the presumptions should work just the other way around.
Many a Protestant delays becoming Catholic because he doesn’t understand, or isn’t entirely convinced of, every doctrine of the Catholic Church. A better standard would be to ask yourself: if you were already Catholic, would these questions, doubts, or objections be strong enough to justify leaving the Catholic Church? For some of you, as for Trueman, the answer is undoubtedly yes. But for many, that’s not the case at all. In that case, by your own self-assessment, you lack a sufficient reason to not be Catholic. You might not fully understand why the Catholic position is true, you might see good arguments both for and against a certain teaching, but you don’t have a positive reason to leave the Catholic Church, which is to say that you lack a positive reason for remaining Protestant.
Of course, this analysis risks overlooking the very real difference between those who are considering leaving the Catholic Church, and those who are considering (re)joining. In the case of the latter, there’s a good deal of inertia that can hold you back. Not least of these considerations is that you might well already have a denomination or a local church that feels like home. Sometimes, it’s even more than that: for example, the Protestant pastors who convert to Catholicism knowing that it’ll cut them off from the only livelihood that they’ve ever known.
It can be an enormous personal sacrifice to put all of that on the line. But if we’re going to be faithful to the Christ who prayed that we would all be one (John 17:20-23), and who called us to give up everything (including domestic tranquility, Matthew 10:34-38) to follow Him, it’s a risk that we need to be willing to take. Anything less than that is a statement that we’ll follow Christ, but only so long as He doesn’t ask us to do anything hard, like leaving the comfort of our local church community.
If the burden of proof in the Reformation debates lies on the side of those who reject the Catholic Church, this entails the need to take the Catholic position more seriously than it tends to be taken. If you’re Evangelical because on such-and-such important doctrine, you’ve read only Evangelical authors, and know only the Evangelical position, you’re not meeting that burden. If the only things you’ve read on the Catholic position on this doctrine are from authors arguing against Catholicism, you’re not meeting that burden. Instead, you’re declaring Catholicism guilty without permitting her a word in her own defense.
Beckwith took a different approach: he actually investigated what the early Church believed. Was it the case that the early Christians believed in sola fide, or in forensic justification? He started by reading Protestant authors who talked about the Church Fathers. But then he went to the Church Fathers collection over on New Advent, and read the Fathers for himself. He quickly discovered that while a particular passage, in isolation, might sound Protestant, the Fathers themselves sounded awfully Catholic (both on the issue of justification, and more broadly). It was through this honest exploration that he came to see the strength of the Catholic position, which helped to send him back home.
The ins-and-outs of that investigation will necessarily differ from believer to believer: different people struggle with different aspects of Catholicism. But whether your issue is the Eucharist, or the papacy, or Mary, or purgatory, or justification (or all of the above!), I want to propose a simple standard: you should be able to describe the Catholic position in a way that an orthodox, informed Catholic would recognize and agree with. That doesn’t mean that you will necessarily agree with the Catholic position, but that you should at least understand the position well enough to disagree with it. If you can’t do this, it may well be that your Protestantism is built upon protesting a strawman.
Of course, accepting these two principles won’t immediately end the debate on Catholic-Protestant issues. But hopefully, it’ll help to begin it afresh, framing the debates in a more accurate and reasonable way.