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).
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.
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.
The Holy Spirit set the pattern for what church would be like at the day of Pentecost. And it looked like this: Massive confusion. So much confusion that when onlookers tried to describe it, they called it a drunken party (Acts 2:13). When Peter interprets what was happening, he says this:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:1718)
Before that moment, old men (and perhaps the rare but gifted young man) would teach in measured cadences, in liturgical settings (synagogue or temple) about God. Peter says that from this point on, expect these old men to start acting like young men—they'll start dreaming big. And even more alarming, women will preach. And more alarming still, mere servants, both male and female, will proclaim the Word of the Lord. As the history of the church unfolds, it becomes clear that the categories and classes of people only expand—even to Gentiles (which becomes clear only after a fair amount of rancorous debate; see Acts 15).
Reading through Acts and the New Testament letters, we see a radical leveling in the early church; all manner of people were speaking in the name of God. We find arguments about whose baptism counted, what Jewish laws needed to be obeyed, whether the Second Coming was still coming, whether to participate in civil religion, and so on. Paul and Peter and John used their authority as apostles to try to settle disputes, though they mostly argued from Scripture or the teachings of Jesus. But even after they spoke or wrote, the church had to go through a period of discernment to determine what the Holy Spirit was, in fact, teaching the church.
Many matters took decades, if not generations, to settle out—including the matter of which writings were to be included in the canon to help settle these matters! In other words, there was no magisterium in the early church, but only Christians who lived and argued together at the prodding of the Holy Spirit. Yes, there were bishops and councils who attempted to settle disputes that arose, but many of those bishops were simply wrong on key points, and many of the councils had to be reversed by another council. The full sweep of church history suggests that the Holy Spirit has, in fact, led us into all truth through no other way than men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile wrestling with one another about whatever issue is at hand until, in the Spirit's good time, a consensus emerges.
We mustn't forget that for a couple of hundred years, most Christians were not Trinitarians in the way we understand the Trinity today, but the Holy Spirit slowly led the church into a fully Trinitarian faith. At one time, Arianism was the majority option in the church, and yet the Holy Spirit led the church to reject that heresy and reaffirm the full divinity of Christ. At another time, huge segments of the church were bound to the chains of works righteousness before the Holy Spirit ignited the Reformation. And on it goes.
Today we are wrestling over homosexuality, the nature of the atonement, the prosperity gospel, the place of women in church leadership, the historicity of Adam, and new perspectives on this, that, and the other thing. We live in interesting times, to say the least. But no more or less interesting than many other moments in church history—when so much is on the line, when the future health of the church seems to hang in the balance, when there is so much to be said and so few who seem to be listening to us!
This is the church the Holy Spirit birthed at Pentecost, and this is the church in which the Holy Spirit raises up all manner of people to say one thing or another we all need to hear. One way we adjudicate these issues is by listening to one another today. Just as important is to listen to the church historic, our great tradition of creeds and confessions and great theologians of the past. And yes, more than anything, we continue to mine the Scriptures to discover the truth the Holy Spirit is leading us into, which is always an old truth we've not been able to hear until today.
When we're in the middle of one of these intractable issues, the church will seem like it is going to collapse under the weight of confusion and disagreement. But it hasn't so far, and we're assured it never will. The common critique of evangelicalism is that "the center will not hold." Bah. Humbug. Of course the center will hold, because at the center is not a doctrine, nor some human authority figure, nor a complete and inerrant statement of faith. There is only the Center, Jesus Christ. We don't need a magisterium. We already have a Lord, who told us that not even the gates of Hades (whose landlord loves to sows confusion in the church!) will prevail against the church.
In short, we don't need premature closure as much as we need persevering confidence that the Spirit will lead us into all the truth we need, when we need it.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker, 2011). He occasionally blogs at markgalli.com.
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See also Timothy George's 1998 article, "What I'd Like to Tell the Pope About the Church."
Previous SoulWork columns include:
Good News: Jesus Is Not Nice | The chaos of grace and the grace of chaos. (September 29, 2011)
Why Doubters and Non-Doubters Share a Common Faith | And why it's really not about "their" faith anyway. (September 1, 2011)
Trusting God with the Ones You Love | Few things are harder or scarier than trusting God to do what is just and right and good. (August 18, 2011)
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