Why Do Protestants Convert?

When I served for some years as a pastor with a congregation composed of both blue- and white- collar workers, many members of my church–perhaps around a third–were converts to Protestantism from the Roman Catholicism into which they had been born and baptized. All of them told similar stories: they had ended up as Protestants because they wanted to go to a church where the Bible was taken seriously and expounded to them week by week. They were, to use the old cliché, “people of the Book” and desired a church whose life and worship placed God’s Word at the center. And for most of them, their experience of Roman Catholicism had been that it was a matter of rote performance, of occasional attendance at a service, of making confession every now and then, and something that was important for the key moments in life: births, confirmations, marriages, and funerals. It was not for them a living, dynamic force. And it had not helped them understand the Bible or the gospel it contained.

Yet even while pastoring I also lived in a different world, and one that I continue to inhabit even now that my years of shepherding a congregation lie long in the past. And that is the academic world, one inhabited by professors and students and marked at its best by the pursuit of knowledge and the desire to find deep answers to life’s most profound questions. In that world, admittedly smaller and more self-selecting, the tide seems to flow the other way, with students and colleagues over the years finding the call of Rome to be powerful and persuasive. While I suspect the numbers flowing from Rome to Protestantism among the general Christian population far outweigh those going in the other direction, among young intellectuals that seems to be reversed.

The Davenant Institute’s new (and concise) book, Why Do Protestants Convert? explores this phenomenon and offers thoughtful answers to anyone perplexed by the attractions of Rome to a generation of Protestant intellectuals. Questions that press in on the church today–matters of authority, of history, and of tradition, for example–are not matters that Protestantism, at least in its more biblicist forms, has historically taken with particular seriousness. For example, simply quoting scriptural texts to justify the great doctrines of the Christian faith that Protestants wish to maintain is now somewhat more challenging than it was before modern literary theory made interpretation more complicated. And the multitude of novel moral and ethical challenges the church faces at ground level in the ordinary life of any congregation, from matters of sexual ethics to issues such as IVF and surrogacy, has exposed Protestantism’s lack of a strong tradition of social teaching. Then there is worship; the idiom of the rock concert with added TED talk is scarcely adequate to convey the holiness of God, the beauty of worship, and the seriousness of the Christian faith.

In each of these areas, Rome might be said to have answers. Authority, history, tradition, liturgy, social teaching, beauty–these are all strong suits for Catholicism, especially when compared to those forms of Protestantism that have ignored them.

And yet, many of us remain Protestant. Why? Because we believe that there need be no ultimate either-or choice in these matters. Classic, orthodox Protestantism has the resources to rise to these challenges while not abandoning its historic commitment to the centrality of the Bible and preached Word. And this book, in highlighting why Rome is so attractive, also points to why acknowledging this should challenge us to be better Protestants, not to swim the Tiber.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

This post serves as the foreward to one of Davenant Press’ new books: Why Do Protestants Convert? Pre-order the book today and pay a discounted price of just $9.95