Of Catholics, Evangelicals, and Rome

(revised and re-posted from 7 May ’07. This post was occasioned by the announcement of the conversion of the now former president of ETS, Francis Beckwith, to Rome).


Mr White, Mr Black, and Mr Gray

Cornelius Van Til used to write about Mr White (the confessionally Reformed fellow), Mr Black (the Roman Catholic fellow) and Mr Gray (or Grey; the Arminian fellow). His point was that, on some issues, the Arminian is living in a sort of half-way house between what he regarded as genuinely evangelical and Protestant theology and Rome.

It seems that evangelicalism (if the “ism” even exists any longer; Hart raises serious doubts about that) is becoming more gray by the moment. Many evangelicals substantively agree with Rome on a number of issues that used to the dividing line between “evangelicals” and Rome. Most importantly, many so-called evangelicals agree with Rome that we are justified because and to the degree we are sanctified. They agree with Rome that faith justifies because it is formed (made a reality) by love (Spirit-wrought sanctity).

If “evangelical” is defined solely by “a personal encounter with the risen Christ” then why not become Roman? The Roman communion has always embraced this idea. Roman Christians routinely invite Jesus into their heart. Many Roman Christians also want to take back America for Christ. They want to transform the culture. They read their bibles privately and pray. Indeed, they invented the “still, small voice” and the quiet time (they call it “spiritual discipline”). Most evangelicals are pragmatists when it comes to church polity. Well, Rome is, as they say, “already there.” Rome invented the hierarchical/episcopal organizational structure that many evangelicals think of as efficient and effective. The real question may not be, “Oh my, why did Francis Beckwith become Roman Catholic?” but rather, “Why don’t more evangelicals become Roman Catholic?” For what good reasons do they resist? Half-way houses are meant to be places of temporary refuge.

That said, I’m not anxious to see a wave of conversions to Rome. I genuinely hope and pray that evangelicals will wake up and smell the Wittenberg beer. I hope they will realize that modern evangelicalism has only the most tenuous relations to the Reformation. I hope they will stop assuming that what they are being taught and teaching has anything to do with the faith of Luther, Calvin, and Francis Turretin and that such a realization will make them hungry to investigate the Reformation and Protestant orthodoxy for themselves.

There are viable alternatives to Wheaton, Rome, Constantinople, and the Emergent Village. Have these peripatetic evangelicals ever really visited Heidelberg, Geneva, or Edinburgh or do they simply assume an identity between the Reformation and their fundamentalist past? Do they simply assume an identity between whatever they don’t like (e.g. the Reformation) and modernist foundationalism? If that’s the case, and it seems as if that’s what’s happening, they should re-consider. Despite the repeated and self-serving claims by post-conservative types, the Reformation was not “modernist” or “foundationalist” or anything of the like. The Reformers began with divine revelation not human experience or autonomous rationality. I just saw where one post-conservative fellow is calling virtually everyone who ever believed that Christians can have certainty “Cartesians,” including Rick Lints and Cornelius Van Til. Now this is not only a sure sign that this learned cat has not ever read Van Til (was there ever a more consistent critic of Descartes than CVT) or Lints, of if he has he has misunderstood them completely) but also a sign that evangelicals that knew not Henry are becoming incredibly facile and superficial in their assessment of the Christian tradition. If beginning with divine revelation makes one a foundationalist then the entire Christian has been foundationalist and I’m one of ’em too. Of course that’s just silly talk. It’s one thing for a creature to begin with “I am” and quite another for a creature to begin with “God is.”

One other note concerning the rhetoric in the discussion that will surely ensue. Please, however oxymoronic, let us speak of Roman Catholics. The confessional Reformed Churches do not cede the term “catholic” to Rome. We have always insisted that the great sin of the Council of Trent was that it wasn’t truly catholic (universal) at all. Indeed, many of the decisions taken at Trent were sectarian. Chief among those sectarian decisions was their condemnation of the gospel of justification sola gratia, sola fide.

In the past I’ve said, “I’m not an evangelical.” Students have rightly challenged me about this. How can I contend for the adjective “catholic” and give up the adjective “evangelical”? Fair enough. Confessional Reformed folk are both catholic and evangelical properly understood. Henceforth I won’t concede the adjective “catholic” to Rome or the adjective “evangelical” to Cane Ridge/Northampton. Reformed folk are, properly understood, catholic and evangelical. We’re not Roman and we’re not “evangelicals” in the modern (post 1720s) sense, but we are catholic and evangelical.

What Is An Evangelical?

The conversion of the president of the Evangelical Theological Society to Rome raises the questions: what is an evangelical? and when is evangelicalism not evangelical?

First, if the origins of a word have any role in determining its proper meaning, the word “evangelical” describes the magisterial Protestants. The Protestants used it of themselves and their theology to distinguish their theology, piety, and practice from Rome’s. It continued to signal the “magisterial Protestant theology, piety, and practice” until the 18th century when revivalism began to change the substance of Protestantism and the evangelical theology, piety, and practice.

During the first great awakening, the word still denoted “the Protestant doctrine of justification” (i.e., the definitive declaration of justification on the ground of Christ’s righteousness alone imputed and received through faith receiving and resting alone), even if some of Edwards’ formulations of the doctrine of justification raised serious problems. There were other ambiguities. The most charitable reading of John Wesley’s articulation of the doctrine of justification would find it ambiguous at best.

By the 19th century the evangelical movement included even more diversity than it had in the century previous. By the middle of the Second Great Awakening the evangelical movement included those who essentially rejected the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation. Through the first half of the 20th century there arose a neo-evangelical movement, led by Carl Henry and others largely led by those who identified with the Reformation doctrine of justification (if not the Reformation doctrines of the church and sacraments).

By the 1970’s, however, the neo-evangelical movement had fragmented as the baby-boomers began to take places of leadership and the 19th century Wesleyan strains re-asserted themselves in the movement and marginalized the older Reformation-oriented leadership.

Since the 1970s there has been virtually no consensus over the meaning of the word “evangelical.” Today there are “evangelical” Romanists, Greek/Russian/Finnish/Eastern etc Orthodox evangelicals, Anabaptist (who, historically categorically rejected the Reformation solas) evangelicals, as well as Free Church evangelicals, Reformation-rooted evangelicals ad infin. Today, among late modern evangelicals, there is no universal theology, soteriology, ecclesiology, or sacramentology. The only universal seems to be something like this, “I have had an immediate experience of the risen Christ.” An evangelical today may affirm the passibility (suffering) of God or the impassibility of God; he may affirm an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity or social Trinitarianism (the doctrine that the divine unity is really a unity of relationship rather than being), he may affirm the inerrancy of Scripture or deny it; he can affirm justification sola gratia et sola fide or he may deny it. Clark Pinnock has even suggested that the Mormons might have a point and that God, considered apart from the incarnation, may have have a body.

It is with the ambiguity of the last 30 years that has led some of us to simply abandon the adjective “evangelical.” As I mentioned in the previous post, Darryl Hart has argued forcefully that there really isn’t any such thing as “evangelical-ism” any longer. The only universal is so slender as to become almost meaningless. What hath Geneva and Wittenberg to do with Billy Sunday, Sister Aimee, Bill Hybels, or the Emergent Village?

We should distinguish between “evangelical” in the traditional sense as denoting the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation and “the evangelicals” as a modern sociological and theologically pluralist entity. Even this distinction raises problems, however. It requires us to say that there are “evangelicals” who aren’t evangelical!

We can make this distinction by analogy with our continued confession of the word “catholic.” After all, the confessional Reformed churches are insistent that the Roman communion is not really “catholic” at all. The qualifier Roman makes the expression “Roman Catholic” an oxymoron by definition. It’s like saying, “I’m Californian, San Diego Californian and those are the true Californians.” What? No, anyone who lives within the borders of the state of California is Californian. To suggest that one city is the state is the render the state superfluous. In that case we’ve gone down the rabbit hole after Alice.

At Trent, the Roman communion condemned not Luther and Calvin (although she certainly hit those marks) but she also condemned a good bit of the patristic and medieval church. In contrast, the confessional Protestant critique of the fathers and medievals has been much more targeted and surgical. Yes, we have our problems with the fathers and the medievals, but as my students find every year, we have a great deal in common. Those are “our” people (onze folk) as much or more, in many respects, than they are “Roman” catholics.

There is an important way in which the Roman communion is a sect. As we know and experience it, the Roman communion didn’t come into full existence until session six of the Council of Trent, 1547. That was the breaking point. Since session six she has been every bit as novel and fragmented as the Protestants. She has just as ambiguous a relation to the past as we do. The difference is she has a very large institutional skirt and she can hide a lot of the dust. For those of us, however, who study the family history, the picture is a lot more complicated than the evangelical converts to Rome often like to think.

Confessional Protestants are “evangelical” just as we are “catholic” but we’re aren’t modern “evangelicals” just as we are not “Roman” catholics. We have ambiguous and complicated relations to both traditions. That is as it should be.

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  1. Great Stuff.

    Reminds me of the “Evangelical Trinity” of America, Abortion, and Gays. As long as you agree with “me” on these three issues everything else is happenstance. Forget JBFA or “doctrine” in general as long as the social issues click you are in the right. No pun intended.

  2. A J. I. Packer quote to bolster and confirm your observations Dr Clark:

    “Seeing in this Puritan ideal, and in individual Puritan lives that I have studied, the most complete, profound, and magnificent realization of biblical religion that the world has yet known, and viewing German Lutheran pietism and the English-speaking evangelical movements of the eighteenth century and nineteenth centuries as they viewed themselves–namely as partial though incomplete realizations of the Puritan vision of godliness–I have only been able to give two cheers for those many latter-day explorations of the evangelical heritage that treat evangelical religion as beginning in the eighteenth century. The truth is that evangelicalism, so-called, yesterday and today, […] produces pygmies rather than giants. […] The fact that today’s evangelicals are so largely out of touch with their own history, and so cannot discern how small and dry and lightweight and superficial and childish they are compared with those from whom they take their name, is one of the more glaring of our current shortcomings, all the more so for going constantly unnoticed.”

  3. Sorry forgot the source if anyone was interested:

    J. I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), pp. 81-82.

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