Of Catholics, Evangelicals, and 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 Arminians are living in a sort of halfway house between what he regarded as genuinely evangelical, Protestant, and Rome.

It seems that evangelicalism (if the “ism” even exists any longer; D. G. Hart raises serious doubts about that) is becoming more like Mr. Gray by the moment. Many evangelicals substantively agree with Rome on several issues that used to be the dividing line between evangelicals and Rome. Most importantly, many so-called evangelicals agree with Rome that we are justified because of and to the degree to which 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 organization 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? Halfway houses are meant to be places of temporary refuge.

That said, I am 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 that 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, and Constantinople. 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 do not like (e.g. the Reformation) and modernist foundationalism? If that is the case, and it seems as if that is what is happening, they should reconsider. 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 recently read about a post-conservative fellow who called 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 man has not ever read Van Til or Lints (was there ever a more consistent critic of Descartes than CVT?), or if he has he has misunderstood them completely—but, it is also a sign that evangelicals are becoming increasingly 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 am one of them too. Of course, that is just silly talk. It is one thing for a creature to begin with “I am” and quite another for a creature to begin with “God is.”

I have 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 was not 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 have said, “I am 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. The Confessional Reformed are both catholic and evangelical, properly understood. Henceforth I will not concede the adjective “catholic” to Rome, or the adjective “evangelical” to Cane Ridge/Northampton. The Reformed are, properly understood, catholic and evangelical. We are not Roman and we are 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 eighteenth 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 nineteenth century, the evangelical movement included even more diversity than it had in the previous century. 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 twentieth 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 1970s, however, the neo-evangelical movement had fragmented, as the baby boomers began to take places of leadership, and the nineteenth-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 and other Orthodox evangelicals, Anabaptist evangelicals (who, historically categorically rejected the Reformation solas), 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 a body.

It is the ambiguity of the last thirty years that has led some of us to simply abandon the adjective “evangelical.” As I have mentioned before, 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, because it requires us to say that there are “evangelicals” who are not 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 is like saying, “I am 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 to render the state superfluous. In that case, we have 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, however, 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. The Roman communion did not come into full existence until session six of the Council of Trent in 1547, that was the breaking point. Since session six, she has been every bit as novel and fragmented as the Protestants. She has had 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 are not modern “evangelicals,” just as we are not “Roman” catholics. We have ambiguous and complicated relations to both traditions. That is as it should be.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

This is a revision of an essay first published in 2007, which was occasioned by the announcement of the conversion of the now-former president of ETS, Francis Beckwith, to Rome.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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11 comments

  1. I would disagree that American Evangelicals are “becoming like Mr. Gray (the Arminian)”. I was born and raised in the United Methodist Church, well versed in Wesleyan Arminianism from an early age. At the age of 25 I began a 12 year sojourn amongst the Southern Baptists, then a 10 year sojourn amongst the independent Bible Churches. I was appalled to find the rampant semi-pelagianism in those churches, preached from the pulpit. In 2003 I joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Since then I’ve encountered numerous Reformed folks who seem to be very confused about what’s going on in the Evangelical World. American Evangelicals are mostly semi-pelagian, a heresy condemned by both Rome and Arminians.

    • Yes, but I have also found that most American “evangelicals” are very pietisitic. They can’t get past the “victorious Christian life” paradigm. And this creates a loose hierarchy within congregations where the established members look down at everyone else with skepticism.

    • Wesley,

      I’m having trouble following your reply/argument. I think we might be assuming different things. Can you elaborate? E.g., are you assuming that Wesleyan Arminians are not semi-Pelagian? Are you assuming that the Remonstrants weren’t Pelagian?

      As to my understanding of American evangelicals, I’ve been one and I’ve been studying them and writing on them professionally for a number of years. I’m happy to be corrected but I’m not just making up things over here.

  2. Actually it’s pretty hard to pin down what Roman Catholics believe these days.

    For example, the current Pope write in Laudato Si (an encyclical–authoritatively speaking with the church’s magisterium but not infallible) that air conditioning is sinful. Is this now dogma? Are lots of Catholics in hot climates not abandoning air conditioning?

    Also–granted this was off the cuff in an impromptu answer to a question from a 5-year-old boy, but the Pope did say that atheists can go to heaven.

    So what do they believe? As the nuns in my 1950s Catholic grade school were fond of saying, “It’s a mystery.”

    • Tom,

      It’s not that hard. Popes come and go and emphases shift but concillar canons and decrees, unless revoked, are binding. The Catechism of the (Roman) Catholic Church is binding dogma. Those things are widely available.

  3. Apologies, I tried to reply to my original post, but could not. As a former Wesleyan Arminian I found that there was a big difference between the Arminians, both the Remonstrants and Wesleyans, and modern American Evangelicals. If you listen to any Calvary Chapel sermons or even Southern Baptist sermons, you will quickly hear that you can come to Christ without the intervention of the Holy Spirit. The Remonstrants adopted the doctrine of Prevenient Grace from Rome to avoid this. While Prevenient Grace is non-biblical, it still allows Rome and the Arminians to avoid any form of pelagianism. Not all Evangelicals are semi-pelagian, I ran into a few “Calvinists”, i.e., those who liked the “five points” but were not Reformed in their theology, but I would argue from experience that the majority of American Evangelicals are semi-pelagian. Compare, for example, Arminian theology with the Southern Baptist Traditionalist Statement and you will readily see the difference.

    • Wesley,

      We might disagree about what the Remonstrants were doing. We might also disagree about the nature of Wesleyan Arminianism. I think the Remonstrant definition of grace was arguably worse than Rome’s. There is a reason that the Synod called them Pelagians: they were. Some of their leaders quickly became Socinians. See my commentary on Dort.

      As for Wesley, reading him was one of the most spiritually depressing episodes in my life. That was 27 years ago and I would never want to do it again.

  4. Scott, let me help you out. You asked “why don’t more evangelicals become Roman Catholic?” and I would have thought it was obvious!

    RCs don’t have ‘rockin’ praise bands’ now do they? I am truly disappointed that you missed this 🤣

    I remember back when Frank Beckwith returned to Rome. Greg Koukl talked about it and even had his friend & co-author (“Relativism”) on Stand to Reason to discuss it. There was some tension noticeable to me in Greg during that interview, and I couldn’t seem to grasp Dr Beckwith’s rationale, and I think Greg struggles with it as well.

    Reading Scott Hahn, I don’t think he ever had a clue what the Gospel is, but Frank’s defection, especially while he was Pres of ETS, made no sense at all.

    No praise bands, I tell you!

    • I’m not sure you couldn’t find praise bands in some parts of the Roman Catholic charismatic renewal movement. Or perhaps the comment that they can’t be found was intended to be sarcastic.

      I have a much greater respect for the worship of a traditional Roman Catholic Mass, which at least tries to be reverent to what Roman Catholics regard as the presence of Christ on the altar, than I do for much of evangelical worship which lacks any reverence at all. That’s not defending the Mass, but rather saying much of evangelical worship is worse because it is deliberately man-centered by design.

      When I show some of my conservative Roman Catholic friends Reformed worship services that can fairly be regarded as ultra-conservative — Dr. Joel Beeke’s Heritage Reformed Congregation, for example, and I use the term “ultra-conservative” as a compliment, not a criticism — my friends who watch those videos not uncommonly say three things:

      1. They recognize the Reformed worship they see in those online videos is deeply reverent and God-centered.
      2. They can respect what they see in those Reformed services more than some of what passes for a modern Roman Catholic Mass. Pretty much every seriously committed Roman Catholic has a nightmare story of visiting some parish somewhere and seeing stuff that should never happen, but is being tolerated for one reason or another.
      3. They weren’t aware of any Protestants outside the Lutheran and Anglican traditions who actually cared about or practiced reverence in worship, and are surprised to see reverent worship being practiced by Protestants outside the historic “liturgical traditions.”

      Machen was correct when he said a century ago that conservative Protestants may have more in common with Roman Catholicism than with liberals in their own denominations. I’m not prepared (at least not yet) to say that about having more in common with traditional Roman Catholicism than we do with modern evangelicalism. I am a Protestant for a reason, I am Reformed for a reason, and while it would be much easier for me in some ways to be a traditional Roman Catholic, I have fundamental disagreements with Roman Catholic doctrine that can’t be papered over. However, as bad as things can be in Roman Catholicism, it still clearly condemns Pelagianism even if it tolerates semi-Pelagianism. I do think the outright Pelagianism that we see in too many evangelical churches has produced a form of worship that is just as man-centered as the theology coming from the pulpit, and does that from a deliberate desire to be “seeker sensitive,” to “reach the lost,” and otherwise downplay human depravity out of a mistaken methodology of seeking to win converts by downplaying the Cross.

      A big part of the Roman Catholic appeal to evangelicals is the seriousness with which traditional Roman Catholicism takes worship, in contrast to man-centered methods of evangelicalism. The Catholics have a point, and since Reformed worship is all but unknown in much of the modern evangelical world, too many frustrated evangelicals think their options are Canterbury, Constantinople, Rome or (maybe) a local confessional Lutheran church that actually takes its worship seriously. When Geneva is unknown, people who want reverent and God-centered worship can’t be blamed too badly for seeking God-honoring worship in other places.

  5. Darrell,
    The scarcity of reverent worship in the Protestant landscape is an important point. We joined our local conservative (low) Anglican church because of my Reformed theological convictions (all the historically P/R confessional churches here are now liberal). But it is the reverence in worship that has probably had the most impact on my wife. She said she doesn’t know how she could ever go back (to the nondenom casual blandness). A close Protestant friend is drawn to convert to her husband’s Roman Catholicism in large part because of the reverence and beauty of the mass. I know of others who have converted to Romanism (maintaining personal doctrinal exceptions) because the liberalism and Arminianism in their local “Protestant” congregations was complete, and at least with the Roman Catholics they had a chance to worship reverently.

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