Why I Will Not Follow Mark Galli Across The Tiber

The phrase “swimming the Tiber” is a metaphor for converting from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. I have not been able to determine its origins but the online Dictionary of Christianese traces the expression to 1963, which, if true, would mean that it arose during Vatican II (1962–65). I would be surprised if the expression is that modern but perhaps it is.

Swimming the Tiber is before us again because, Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today magazine, has announced that he is converting to Romanism. He is only one of a string of notable conversions, some of which have been observed in this space over the years. Why do evangelicals become Romanists?

Leaving Charles Finney And Bob Jones For The Vatican

In a word: burnout. Evangelicalism (whether in the mainline churches or the megachurch) is exhausting and so is fundamentalism. The former is dominated by the endless quest for the next exquisite religious experience (QIRE) and the latter is dominated by the quest to know what God knows, the way he knows it (QIRC). Neither is a sustainable model for the Christian faith or the Christian life. In contrast, at its best, when we are being true to the theology, piety, and practice that we confess, Reformation Christianity (and most especially the Reformed confession), is a pilgrim theology. It is content with the divinely instituted means of grace and to submit to divine revelation as confessed by the churches and, where the Scriptures do not speak explicitly or implicitly, to live in Christian freedom.

For many evangelicals, especially those with roots in fundamentalism (as distinct from evangelicals), converting to Rome used to be unthinkable. Now, of course, it is thinkable and especially for those who are looking for a connection to a theology, piety, and practice that pre-dates “How He Loves” or “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and the like. Many evangelicals and even some fundamentalists assume that what they know of Christianity and what they have experienced in the church is Reformation Christianity. They conclude that when they reject their fundamentalist or evangelical theology, piety, and practice that they are rejecting the Reformation. The truth is that a tiny percentage of American evangelicals and an even smaller percentage of fundamentalists live and worship in genuine Reformation churches.

Genuine Reformation Christianity Is Already Ancient

In truth, Reformation Christianity is another thing altogether from most American evangelical and fundamentalist churches. It is neither revivalist (evangelical, in the modern sense of the word) nor fundamentalist. Reformation Christianity does not have to manufacture a genuine connection to historic Christianity since it is an expression of it. We began recovering Patristic theology, piety, and practice in the early 16th century. The tragedy of evangelical and fundamentalist conversions to Rome is only compounded when then, in search of connection to ancient Christianity, they convert to Romanism because Romanism is not ancient Christianity. One is either a catholic, i.e., he holds the rule of faith (regula fidei) summarized in the Apostles’ Creed (symbolum apostolorum), the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 325, 381), the Definition of Chalcedon (451), and the Athanasian Creed (5th century) or he is a Romanist. He cannot be both. Like the word ecumenical, the word catholic is Greek for universal. Romanism is not the ancient, universal faith of the Church. The Protestant Reformers realized that the church had become seriously deformed and they sought to reform the church, to call her back to the Word of God as the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life (sola scriptura). They sought to revise the church’s worship by removing centuries of practices which were not authorized by God in Scripture and had no precedent in the apostolic church or in the 2nd or 3rd century practice of the church.

Ecumenical Christianity Has No Pope

One of the markers of Romanism is their submission to the Bishop of Rome, whom they regard (and who holds himself out as) the universal vicar of Christ on the earth. We agree with Gregory I, that any bishop who pretends to that title is the antichrist, not a bishop in the church of Christ. There is no evidence in the New Testament that Christ intended to establish the papacy. The Romanist defense of the papacy rests on a specious and tendentious inference from Matthew 16. If Jesus intended there to be a single, monarchical bishop in Rome and that said bishop should be the universal vicar of Christ on the earth, one would think that it would rest on a surer footing but it does not. Further, there is no evidence that the second-century church knew anything about a papacy. The Apostle Peter himself left us two epistles before his death and said nothing about being a pope. We do not even know with certainty that there was a monarchical bishop in Rome in the first or second centuries or even what the succession of bishops, if they existed, actually was. This is beyond odd, if Christ established the papacy. In fact the papacy developed gradually. We might look at Gregory I at the turn of the seventh century, or Leo I in the ninth century. We are some distance from the apostolic church or even the early post-apostolic church.

Two Sacraments

The Roman communion claims that she is carrying on the apostolic tradition in the sacramental ministry of the church. One great difficulty of this claim is that Jesus instituted only two sacraments, which Rome concedes (by calling them “dominical” as distinct from “apostolic”) and then claims improbably that she has authority to institute five additional sacraments. As late as the 9th century, however, no one knew anything of these five alleged sacraments. They were not formally recognized until the late 13th century. When the Protestant churches rejected Rome’s additional sacraments, she was not rejecting an ancient practice but a 300 year old corruption.

Scripture Is The Apostolic Tradition

Rome claims authority to do as she does on the basis that she was granted authority in unwritten apostolic tradition. Again, this is a fiction. There is simply no evidence for this claim. The first unambiguous claim for such a thing did not occur until the late 4th century (see the resources). When the second-century fathers spoke of apostolic tradition they were typically referring either to a practice received from the apostles, which is reflected in Scripture, or to Scripture itself (e.g., as in the Ep. to Diognetus). All this has been documented. See the Resources linked below. Rome’s appeal to an unwritten apostolic tradition is not only a convenient fiction, it is a wax nose. It says whatever the magisterium needs it to say at the moment. I reject Rome’s appeal to authority and continuing revelation for the same reason I reject the claims of the Muslims, the Mormons, and the Pentecostals: Scripture is sufficient. Everything I need to know for salvation and the Christian life is sufficiently and clearly revealed in the Scriptures, the inerrant, infallible Word of God.

Grace Is Not A Medicine

By the late Patristic period and through the course of the Middle Ages, the church came to think of grace as a sort of medicinal substance with which we are infused and with which we must cooperate for eventual justification. In the Scriptures and in the earliest expressions of post-apostolic Christianity, grace was not regarded as a substance with which we are infused but rather as God’s free favor toward us sinners. The good news is not that Christ died to make salvation possible for those who cooperate sufficiently with grace (as Rome confesses) but that God has favor upon dead, helpless sinners, that in unconditional favor, he raises us to new life (regeneration) and grants us true faith, through which alone we receive Christ and all his benefits (e.g., justification, union, adoption, sanctification).

Faith Is The Sole Instrument

Rome says that we are justified by grace (favor and medicine) and faithfulness. With Scripture and the earliest post-apostolic Christians we say that faith, i.e., knowledge, assent, and trust is the sole instrument of our salvation. Faith is enough because its object, Christ is enough. Jesus did not obey, die, and rise so that we could do our part. He did it all for us. All that he did is imputed or credited to all who believe. This is why we say that justification and sanctification (salvation) are free gifts from God. Rome says that we are justified because we are sanctified. We say that we are sanctified progressively because we are justified by free divine favor alone, through faith alone. In our view Romanism is a kind of slavery because the sinner is never truly justified. According to Rome, one may one day be justified but for a Romanist to say that he is justified now is considered presumption. Paul, however, says that we are justified now (Rom 5:1; 8:1).

Jesus Is Our Pontiff

Gradually, through the Middle Ages, ministers came to be regarded less as servants (ministers) of God’s Word and more as priests offering sacrifices in the eucharistic sacrifice of the mass. Never mind the fact that the first writer to propose the doctrine of transubstantiation lived in the ninth century, the Scriptures and the ancient church are completely ignorant of the Roman doctrine of the eucharistic sacrifice or the notion that a man (other than Jesus) might stand between the church and God to propitiate God, i.e., to make him favorable toward us sinners.

The epistle to the Hebrews is devoted to debunking the idea that we still need earthly priests. We do not because we have the God-Man, Jesus, God the Son incarnate, as our only high priest (pontiff) before the Father. He is standing in the holy of holies (sanctus sanctorumfor us. He hears our prayers. He intercedes. He is kindly disposed toward us. The Roman doctrine of the priesthood is without foundation in the Word of God or the earliest ancient church.

Jesus Is Our Mediator

One of the grossest corruptions introduced into Christianity by Romanism is the proliferation of mediators, whether it be unknowing saints (who can neither hear prayers nor answer them), priests and popes, or the blessed virgin. To be sure, all men do call her blessed for, by the grace and providence of God, in her womb was the God-Man. She was theotokos. Rome, however, unsatisfied with the rather meager revelation of her life and service to our Lord, has elevated her since the 1950s to the office of mediatrix. This is nothing less than a blasphemy against our Savior, who died once for all, for all his people sufficiently. The wounds on his hands are enough. The wounds on his feet are enough. As blessed as she is, the Virgin Mary is entirely incapable of hearing prayers and answering them. It was not she who became incarnate, died, and was raised for us. She has not been assumed into heaven but Jesus has.


We love our Romanist friends and neighbors and we recognize that we have a family tie. We both claim a lineage in the ancient and medieval church but there are, as this brief sketch outlines, grave differences between us. We do not agree on fundamental matters of the faith. We do not agree on the nature of Scripture, on the nature of salvation, and on the nature of sufficiency of Christ’s person and work. These are not small matters. They go to the heart of the faith and to the most ancient “rule of faith.” On these things we cannot both be right.

Mark Galli says that he has not left evangelicalism. Perhaps not but he has left the evangelical faith as it was understood in the Reformation and as it is confessed by the Reformed Churches. He has not joined the ancient catholic Church but a corrupt, sixteenth-century Tridentine sect. Neither should the reader be confused about Galli’s former Presbyterian connections. He was a part of the latitudinarian, mainline, liberal Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), which long ago turned its back on the historic Reformed faith. Typically the PCUSA will not even tolerate those who affirm the historic Reformed faith especially where it conflicts with Modernism and she began almost a century ago expelling those who hold the historic Reformed faith.

Galli’s friends in evangelicalism should not think that he has made some hitherto unknown discovery of some exotic truth or experience that they need to try for themselves. Those friends he has left behind will do much better to investigate authentic Christianity as it was recovered in the Reformation.


Thanks to Cheryl Molin for her editorial help with this essay. All remaining errors are the responsibility of the author.

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  1. Well said, Dr. Clark. The claims of Romanism simply do not stand up under careful investigation, either by the magisterial standard of Holy Scripture or by the ministerial, subordinate standard of reason.

  2. Seems like there must be something else going on here…or at least in addition to what he says, especially if he announced that he’s not leaving evangelicalism, whatever “that” means nowadays (and I’m thinking of Hart’s book, Deconstructing Evangelicalism). If it’s because he thinks mainstream evangelicals have gone off the rails with their over-the-top contemporary worship, focus on felt needs, a shift toward social and cultural activities, etc., he’d be correct. But it’s not like much of RC hasn’t done those same things, especially considering the nature and attitude of it’s current pontiff (and the archbishop of the diocese in which Galli lives). Then again, maybe he thinks it all fits together more neatly in RC than it does in the wide variety of similar movements and practices among the evangelicals.

    Interesting. Wonder what his former employer thinks about this action.

  3. Prof. Clark—

    This post is a really excellent indictment of Romanism—in brief. Understandably, much effort has been devoted in this space to intramural problems in Reformed confessionalism—such as the FV, or the new “Reformed” within Baptist circles, or whatever else. For we who live in geographical areas heavily suffused with a Roman Catholic sensibility (read, Irish Boston), it is not difficult to encounter a thoroughgoing dismissal of all “Protestants” as “Johnny Come Lately’s”. Those Catholics who are studious/devout will often appeal to the likes of Marcus Grodi, Karl Keating, Scott Hahn, Robert Sungenis, et. al—as apologetics/dogmatics heroes. To the extent that former Presbyterians are numbered among those doesn’t have a good look. You now have Bishop Barron (who seems quite congenial) leading a sort of new Catholic popular apologetics. In Boston, I have met all varieties—Modernists, Old Catholics, and Traditional Catholics—of both the sedevecantist and non-sedevecantist forms. What’s ironic (in talking to well-read Catholic friends) is that Romanism’s best defenders are often converts—from P&R churches. There is also the ever present Jewish community(ies) in particular urban areas—-among some of whom are new apologetics/proselytizing outreaches. I watched a documentary film just weeks ago on a certain Brooklyn Jew leading proselytizing efforts in the State of Montana. I think where I’m going with this is that, while many evangelicals have spent enormous time dealing with issues surrounding Pentecostalism/Charasmatics (ex., John MacArthur), and the Reformed have spent much time dealing with issues of everything from apologetic method to paedocommunion, there still looms very large the “world religions” of Romanism, Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Islam—to say nothing of the cults…which still persist (JW’s, Mormons, etc.). They all have their apologists/dogmaticians, and they are relentless. We all know the story of Hank Hanegraaf. Are you familiar with the name of Fr. Josiah Trenham? He’s a very articulate Orthodox priest with impeccable Reformed academic bona fides. I believe he was a former student of R.C. Sproul, and perhaps John Gerstner, as well. I’ve watched some of his videos on YouTube, and he minces no words in his assessment of Reformed theology and practice—especially as regards core issues of justification and sacramentalism. All of these larger traditions do not rest—so continued posts on all of them are very much needed and appreciated. By the way, are you familiar with William Webster’s book on Romanism —published by Banner of Truth? If so, do you recommend it as a resource to people? Thanks again for a great post—

    • Pastor,

      Some of what I would say would be the same, though the history would be different. The EO apologetic/polemic/boast about being the manifestation of apostolic Christianity is simply untrue. Through the course of her history she accumulated layers of corruption analogous to Rome’s. Obviously, the EO churches do not look at the pope as Romanists do nor do they look at the Patriarchs as the Romanists look at their pope. Yet, they have added to the dominical sacraments. They don’t have the same devotion to the BVM nor the same doctrine in re the BVM. They have an equally bad soteriology—possibly worse—that has more to do with Origen and Plato than with Paul and Augustine. I think they make the same kinds of spurious appeals to unwritten apostolic tradition, which are equally problematic. I don’t think they talk about grace in the same way. I am agnostic still about exactly what they mean by theosis. In some cases it seems to be divinization in the way that Thomas speaks of divinization but, in some cases, it seems to mean sanctification. I think the ambiguity may be the result of their commitment to a Platonic ontological ladder (which they share with Rome). Their debt to Origen makes them functionally Pelagian, even though that’s an anachronism. Thus, the critique re soteriology would be similar in the EO traditions don’t confess salvation sola gratia, sola fide.

      These resources might be useful.

      The Lure of Eastern Orthodoxy

      Classis SWUS Report On Eastern Orthodoxy

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Not only evangelicals, but many in the Reformed community are also swimming across the Tiber. I know two families from the OPC who have recently left to join the Roman communion. Could you comment on why this is happening among the Reformed who should know better?

    Thank you.

    • Venkatesh,

      I have heard reports and am aware of a few Reformed folk who have left confessional congregations to convert to Rome. I don’t have any information that it has happened widely.

      Why? I think it happens for a variety of reasons:

      1. To the degree that our congregations are not actually Reformed—this is why I wrote Recovering the Reformed Confession, we are susceptible to the QIRE and the QIRC and thus susceptible to Roman apologists or to the aesthetic appeal or to the appeal to antiquity. E.g., see the article, “Sometimes the QIRC Leads To Rome,” in the resources.

      A significant percentage of folks in confessional Reformed congregations come from revivalist/evangelical backgrounds or from fundamentalist backgrounds and they are simply passing through the Reformed world on their way to Rome.

      Sometimes people find personal connections in a Roman communion. Sometimes relationships trump theology or confession.

      It is hard to be a part of a small religious minority. The two great Christian groups in the USA are evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The latter are socially accepted and much more culturally influential than the small, sometimes rather impoverished Reformed congregations. For those who want to “make a difference in the world” culturally or politically, Rome can be very attractive especially as compared to a marginal, obscure minority group like the OPC, which is about 30K members.

      • In terms of why some in confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches swim the Tiber or convert to other sacerdotalist communions (such as Eastern Orthodoxy), no doubt a variety of factors (such as doctrinal, cultural, aesthetic, family, personal, and psychological reasons) may contribute to any individual conversion.

        My suspicion is that inadequate (and, in some cases, practically non-existent) catechesis on the part of some local churches is a contributing factor.

        I think another major factor is that some from broadly evangelical and fundamentalist backgrounds are attracted to the Reformed Faith because certain strains of Reformed theology can be co-opted for a “culture warrior” agenda (for example, theonomy, transformationalism, etc.) or for other political and theological “hobby horses.” Once they become involved in a local R or P church and realize over time that confessional R & P churches have little prospects in our current context of exerting cultural & political influence in the broader society (since such churches are, to all intents and purposes, culturally and ecclesiastically marginalized), the cultural influence and power of an enormous communion like Rome begins to draw them into its tentacles.

  5. Robert Sungenis, in his book “Not By Faith Alone,” reveals a captivation in his reasoning to a set of prior conclusions that begs for psychological explanation. There is this strange combination of desire to convince, and irrationality: his first argument against the sola fide (remember this is coming from a book that has been endorsed as nihil obstat and imprimatur by some of Rome’s authorities) is that Paul used the Greek behind sola (monon) and the Greek behind fide (pisteos) many times, but the Holy Spirit prevented him from using the two words together.

    Of course it is easy-to-accuse anybody of anything, but in particular, of beholdedness to prior conclusions. But when the reasoning is so specious, combined with so much effort (measured in pages), we have to ask “what happened?”

    Or do we. Is it that unusual that departings from the love of truth exist? Isn’t it more unusual for love of truth to appear? So one of the best explanations for so-called swimmers of the Tiber is that they didn’t move very far within the mass of those whose love for the truth is small. This is a universal human condition, the pursuit of an irrational advantage in preference to where the truth leads.

  6. So odd.. have heard him on White Horse Inn in years past. But I also remember one of the WHI panelists saying, ‘never underestimate the allure of Roman Catholicism’. Could’ve been Mike, not sure.

    PS The above QIRC and QIRE discussion reminds me that I was listening to one of your podcasts when I was standing in line to vote in 2012 Presidential Election! And here we are…

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