Why Protestants Convert, Pt. 5: A Way Forward


Andy Montgomery, The Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica over the Tiber River, Rome.

by Brad Littlejohn and Chris Castaldo

Introduction

Why have significant numbers of evangelical graduates of top colleges, as well as some high-profile Protestant intellectuals, crossed the Tiber in recent years? 

People have more than one reason (whether they know it or not) for changing their religious commitments. Conversion is usually a multilayered process. In this series, we have examined the (1) psychological, (2) theological, and (3) sociological dimensions of conversion. As the famous Catholic convert from Protestantism John Henry Newman observed, “When men change their religious opinions really and truly, it is not merely their opinions that they change, but their hearts; and this evidently is not done in a moment—it is slow work.”

In an attempt to address this challenge, therefore, we will look at areas that address these three dimensions of “conversionitis”: (1) our identity, (2) our vision of Christ, and (3) our understanding of the church’s mission. These will trace the beginnings of a way forward and enable us to provide those inside and outside our churches with a true, compelling, and satisfying alternative to Roman religion.

I. An Identity Rooted in History

Behind many of the defections from Christian orthodoxy or evangelical Protestantism is a basic psychological deficit: friendlessness and fatherlessness. Most of us lack the dense web of relationships that sustained our Christian forebears, whether the peers with whom to share our triumphs and our doubts, or the fathers and mothers in the faith to anchor us and mentor us in the midst of confusion. If we are to respond with truth to this crisis, we must also respond with love.  The emotional needs of people living in a world adrift are no less important than their intellectual needs.

We live in an age in which the most urgent question on our minds and on our lips is the most fundamental question of all: “Who am I?” In our era, this question of identity has been pushed to the forefront and has provoked seemingly insoluble crises for both our politics and the church.

This should not surprise us. Identity, after all, lies at the unstable intersection of belonging and uniqueness. Who I am is shaped by the family I belong to, the place I belong to, the nation I belong to, the vocations that I occupy. And yet it cannot be reduced to these things; each of us is also unique. This is equally true if we trade a sociological lens for a theological one. Who am I? A child of God, adopted in Christ Jesus, a brother or sister in the family of the Church. I belong to a group, and yet God calls me by my own name. Likewise, although each church may belong to a certain denomination, and each denomination to the larger body of Christ, each also has its own history and its own God-given calling.

In recent decades both society and the church have sought to emphasize the uniqueness of the individual, the “I” in contrast to the “we.” The resulting loss of meaning, the sense of being “hurled into a vacuum,” in the words of Oliver O’Donovan, has triggered a violent lurch back toward the “we,” the language of solidarity and “identity groups.”

The church is suffering right alongside the broader culture, unsure how to honor the claims of individual conscience to which we have become so accustomed, while also recovering a sense of belonging to a real community, and to a theological tradition that wasn’t born yesterday. For many rootless evangelicals, Rome’s claim of catholicity, or perhaps Orthodoxy’s claims of tradition, offer a way out of this tension and a sense of rootedness.

These temptations are not as new as we might imagine, though. The Protestant Reformers also wrestled with what it meant to be faithful to the church’s past—to identify with it—while also answering the Spirit’s reforming call in the present. While many are fond of quoting Luther’s “Here I stand!” as a heroic defense of individual conscience, we are less likely to quote—or even remember—the Reformers’ voluminous appeals to the Fathers, to philology, to philosophy, and to the rightful role of human authorities in church and state in anchoring individual conscience during a time of change and upheaval. The Reformation offered no simplistic solo Scriptura of religious individualism, but a rich and nuanced vision of how to orient ourselves in deference to both the authority of the Word and our authorities in the world, how to grow into the freedom of a Christian man or woman who is also the dutiful servant of all.

“The Reformation offered no simplistic solo Scriptura of religious individualism, but a rich and nuanced vision of how to orient ourselves in deference to both the authority of the Word and our authorities in the world.”

Foremost among the exponents of such a vision was surely Richard Hooker, who saw clearly what a rampant embrace of private judgment would do to the church: 

“Thus far we see it has already made thousands so headstrong in blatant errors that a man who can scarcely utter five words in a rational manner is not ashamed to think that, in matters of Scripture, his own private opinion trumps all the wise and sober judgments within the whole world. Such insolence must be restrained or it will be the bane of the Christian religion!” (Laws II.7.6)

Notice what Hooker opposes to “private opinion.” It is not the fiat decrees of the papal magisterium or even some halo-tinged ideal of church tradition, but rather “all the wise and sober judgments within the whole world.” Hooker makes an appeal, in other words, to what we might call the corporate exercise of reason. This is not quite either the “reason” or the “tradition” that are often extolled in the misleading so-called “Anglican tripod”: it is rather both together, “reason” being the name for what we do when we reason together in the present (guided by those most skilled and learned), and “tradition” the name for the deposit of this reasoning over generations and centuries. We respect this reasoned tradition chiefly for the same reason that we should respect the time-tested wisdom and carefully considered judgments of the learned in any field.

Hooker never pretends that such human authorities are above error, nodding his head in the direction of Luther’s Worms speech: 

“even if ten thousand church councils offered the same judgment on any point of religion whatsoever, still a single irrefutable proof from reason, or a single unambiguous testimony from Scripture, would outweigh them all. It is possible for councils to err, but it is quite impossible for demonstrative reason or divine testimony to err” (Laws II.7.5)

But we do not often find ourselves in the presence of such certainties, least of all when they are urged upon us by those claiming to have a new word from the Lord or revelation of the Spirit that contradicts the history of Scriptural interpretation. And, says Hooker, “when we lack an infallible proof, the mind prefers to follow probable arguments rather than to embrace claims for no good reason at all.” The best of these probable arguments are those provided by sound scholarship, historical consensus, established practice, and the commands of the authorities God has placed directly in our lives. The recovery of evangelical doctrine in the early years of the Reformation was not to be taken as the new normal—as if we were to seek a new theological framework every generation, much as Jefferson wanted a new constitutional convention every nineteen years—but as a special time of spiritual awakening and “return to the sources” such as God sends only rarely in the church’s life.

Hooker reminds his readers that the Reformation was never intended as a clean break with the past, but it was rather an attempt to prune off the worst corruptions that had grown up and entangled the late medieval church, so that the light of the gospel might shine through again and renew the historic life of the church: “We can certainly hope that those of us who reform ourselves where we have gone astray do not thereby cut ourselves off from the Church of prior ages. We were in the Church then and so we are still” (Laws III.1.10). 

We must likewise steer a faithful course within the new identity conflicts of our day. We must not flee to the past and abandon the Lord’s unique call to faithfulness in our current moment. Nor must we flee from our past in our eagerness to prove our solidarity with those who do not share it, as the prophets of “wokeness” proclaim today. We must affirm our vocation as individuals, attentive to the Spirit’s summons, without falling back into the individualism that ate away the foundations of our churches and our politics. We will accomplish this balance not by focusing on ourselves and our histories, but by looking to the One who reigns over all of history and who one day will bring it to conclusion.

“We must steer a faithful course within the new identity conflicts of our day. We must not flee to the past and abandon the Lord’s unique call to faithfulness in our current moment. Nor must we flee from our past in our eagerness to prove our solidarity with those who do not share it.”

II. A Vision of Christ

Like today, the sixteenth-century Roman Church understood one’s forgiven status to be fully and finally realized in the culmination of a religious process, a sanctified state that emphasized meritorious works as necessary for divine acceptance. The Reformers, however, insisted that this belief supplanted the person and work of Christ from the Christian’s faith, replacing it with a spiritually harmful introspection. Late-Medieval Roman Catholicism often communicated this works-centered approach to justification by portraying Jesus as sitting upon a rainbow-bedecked judgment seat. The Lord as Judge was flanked by his mother, Mary, and John the Baptist, who were positioned as intercessors against His terrible wrath. This Jesus, in the Reformers’ view, cannot help us, but instead sends us fleeing for refuge elsewhere (to Mary and the other saints). Such misunderstanding of God’s good news caused many of them to flee from communion with Rome.

Michelangelo, The Last Judgement

Salvation, the Reformers believed, had become a commodity to be bargained for, purchased, and trafficked. It had been morphed into a product of magisterial innovation and no longer was the good news of apostolic Christianity. Of course, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al. recognized that the nominalist formula facere quod in se est (do what lies within you) had been developed in a pastoral context, an attempt to bring the marginalized into more active communion. However, they argued that the notion that sinners can merit justification through their religious behavior produced not salvation but a scrupulous legalism and, ultimately, personal despair. In Vermigli’s words:

Certainly no one understands except those who have experienced how difficult it is for a bruised heart, dejected and weary with the burden of sins to find comfort … If we, like the Sophists, commanded a person to have regard for his own works [before God], then he would never find comfort, would always be tormented, always in doubt of his salvation and finally, be swallowed up with desperation.

In this crucible of anxiety, Reformers addressed themselves to the central question: Why does God Almighty—the Holy One who abides in unapproachable light—embrace sinful men and women as his children? 

Over against Rome’s understanding of justification, the Reformers recognized humanity’s inability to secure the smallest measure of divine merit. The persistence of sin in the life of a believer prevents it. Even the purest and most heroic examples of human virtue remain tainted by the fall. All of us fall short of the divine standard. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said (Matt. 5:20). 

And even the most scrupulous religionist, who may somehow feel optimistic looking at the Pharisees’ bar, would have to admit defeat after Jesus’ next stipulation: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). The atoning blood of God’s Son is the only true solvent for human guilt, for through it alone are we “adopted as his children and made heirs of eternal life.”

But this vision of Christ, which highlights the gospel of grace, must not lead to spiritual apathy. The Reformers taught that even though one’s best works are tainted with sin and fall short of God’s glory, they nevertheless matter to God and give him pleasure. Therefore good works are to be pursued with the utmost earnestness. Opposing an understanding of good works as the ground of our salvation, the Reformers sought to avoid an error at the other extreme—denigrating good works on account of their imperfection, thereby undermining the Christian’s incentive for holy living. 

“For we dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them,” said Calvin. Precisely because we approach God as adopted children in Christ without reliance on our merit, we find God’s fatherly grace embracing our works with a smile in the same way a dad cherishes the crayon drawing of his daughter. In Calvin’s words, we “remarkably cheer and comfort the hearts of believers by our teaching, when we tell them that they please God in their works and are without doubt acceptable to him.”  

It wasn’t long before this new vision of Christ began to reshape the church’s understanding of gathered worship. Over against the approach of Rome which focused on the altar and a Latin-speaking priest who faced away from the congregation to propitiate God on their behalf, the Reformation enacted liturgical reforms that joined the whole people of God to the Word of God. They turned the minister to the congregation: Christ was no longer the sacrificial propitiation offered by the priest to the Father, but the gift of God for the people of God. Luther and the other Protestants even Reformed singing, rousing a formerly silent laity to praise God in His holiness.  As Luther put it, “Next to theology I give to music the highest place and honor.”

Unfortunately, in many quarters of Protestantism, a fever of Romaphobia began to undermine the marvelous but methodical work of liturgical reform that men such as Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer had undertaken. As Richard Hooker was to lament at the end of the sixteenth century, “Every new Reformed church that came along aspired to remove itself even further from any hint of the Church of Rome than the churches before it. Thus they drifted further and further apart from one another in practice, and as a result there came to be much strife, jealousy, discord, and bad blood between them.”

Particularly in America, initially populated with liturgical dissenters who were willing to drift an ocean apart to pursue their “pure” worship, we are the heirs of this bad blood and the resulting liturgical chaos. The Reformers labored to re-establish a delicate balance of Word and Sacrament in worship, bringing together mind and heart, soul and body, individual and community. Few Protestant churches today preserve this balance; indeed, many of our churches are more concerned with trying to find the right balance of Coffee Hour and Praise Band Hour. 

If we are to recover Reformational Protestantism in our day, we must recover right worship. “That which inwardly each man should be,” writes Hooker, “the Church outwardly ought to testify…Signs must resemble the things they signify….Thus the public exercise of religion is best ordered when the Church militant visibly and sensibly resembles, as much as it may, the hidden dignity and glory with which the Church triumphant in heaven is beautified.” Through worship, we proclaim our identity as the church, the bride of Christ, ascending into heaven for the marriage supper of the Lamb.

We come, to be sure, mindful of our need for grace and forgiveness. But, our sins confessed, we ascend confidently together to the Holy of Holies, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, ready to join the choirs of praises before His throne, stirring one another to greater love and deeper gratitude.

Magisterial Protestants, for all the diversity of their historical liturgies, have sought to preserve this communal, confident, Christ-centered posture of worship. Where we have lost it, we must work to recover it anew and offer it to the hungry souls of our day.

III.A Vision of the Church’s Mission

Though some of us are specifically called to be pastors and missionaries, the Reformation reminds us that we are all called to minister God’s word, always ready to give an answer to those who ask, using the gifts that the Lord has given us, for the Spirit sanctifies our most humble tasks.

When the Reformation stressed that ordinary Christians (individuals without priestly ordination or academic degrees) could read and understand the Bible’s message of salvation without the teaching office of the Roman Church, it renewed the church’s vision of Christian mission. In reading the text, Christians perceived that the priesthood of Christ extended to every believer, endowing such temporal vocations as farming and smithery with new dignity and purpose. In time, this “priesthood of believers” would become a defining characteristic of Protestant identity. 

Lutherbibel

The Reformers did not seek to do away with an ordained clergy. They recognized how the New Testament established particular forms and functions of church leadership. Clearly Luther, Calvin, and other Magisterial Reformers held pastoral and theological positions of authority and believed these positions to be indispensable to the life of the Church. But they did dispense with the Roman doctrine that the ordained priest has a mediatorial role between God and the Christian. For as 1 Timothy 2:5 affirms, “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Nor did the Reformers seek to do away with the tools of worldly wisdom. As Richard Hooker memorably wrote in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, “Wisdom teaches men every good way, but she does not teach every good way in the same way. Whatever men or angels know is a mere drop of her inexhaustible fountain, and she has scattered her treasures throughout the whole world in various ways. And as her ways are manifold, so are the different ways she teaches. Some things she reveals to us by the sacred books of Scripture and others by the glorious works of nature. She teaches some things by a spiritual influence from above, and others only through experience and practice in the world. We must not so admire one of her ways of working that we disgrace her in another, but let us rather adore all her ways as best fits their place and degree.”

The Reformers were dedicated to Scripture above all else, but not to the exclusion of all else. They were (or at least, aspired to be) versed in science and philosophy, in art and literature, in logic and rhetoric, in law and politics. They were avid students of human history and human nature. In a word, they were humanists.

“The Reformers were dedicated to Scripture above all else, but not to the exclusion of all else…They were avid students of human history and human nature. In a word, they were humanists.”

Today that word has fallen into disrepute among some believers. But even while Christians continue to sound the alarm about “secular humanism,” the world has moved on, and is more likely to be “posthumanist” or “transhumanist.” Christians ought to appreciate anyone committed to studying human nature, for humanity is the crowning glory of God’s creation. We will only grasp human sin and divine grace if we understand the human nature that sin mars and grace restores and perfects. 

Basic catechesis and care of souls, once fundamental elements of the church’s ministry, have fallen on hard times. Pastors are no longer trained in the holistic wisdom and insight that could bridge the realms of natural and special revelation, biblical principles and individual soulcraft. And who can blame them, when our seminaries are left to pick up the pieces of a broken higher education system, offering a three-year spiritual finishing school to ordinands who have never been given the tools of learning? 

Christian catechesis, where it does happen, rarely breaks out of the mold of the pietistic Bible study or the“contemporary issues” seminar. Today, we are training more Ph.D-level theologians than ever before, but, it would seem, fewer teachers in the church capable of patiently guiding parishioners through the manifold layers of biblical narrative and the rich inheritance of church history. Meanwhile, our laypeople, increasingly conditioned to regard church as a one-hour Sunday morning commitment to be squeezed into their busy lifestyles, can rarely make time for catechesis, even when it is on offer.

Ours is a time of educational upheaval and reform. The classical Christian education movement of the recent past has made great strides in recovering glimpses of what an older Christian humanism once offered. The time has come to take this reform to the next level—which is to say, back into the churches.

The church’s ministry, the Reformers recognized, is a teaching ministry, and thus it must be a learned ministry. Throughout the sixteenth century, one encounters long laments about the ignorance of parish priests and dedicated efforts at educational renewal. These efforts bore rich fruit in the century that followed, so that by the 1620s, for instance, it was said, Clerus Anglicani stupor mundi—“the clergy of England are the wonder of the world,” on account of the depth and breadth of their learning. Most of the Enlightenment was not the result of the intellectual rebellion of atheistic philosophes; it was the intellectual fruition of Protestant universities and seminaries, which created a culture of learning and discovery, law, and liberty. This is our heritage; it is time that we reclaim it.

As well, in view of the current identity crisis in which many are tempted by the historical claims of Rome, our churches must be strongly anchored in the soil of our catholic past without forgetting the call to constant reform. This means, first of all, that we remind and patiently teach our people that the true church did not spring whole yesterday, and certainly not five centuries ago. Though we thank God for what He did during the Reformation, we remember that our ecclesiastical heritage began at Pentecost, continued after the fall of Rome, grew and was refined through many councils and controversies, and expresses itself through many forms and cultures. The Reformers were not launching a revolution, as if theological concepts such as faith and grace were strange additions to the church’s life. They were radicals in the true sense of the word, going back to the roots of the historic Christian faith as promulgated by the apostles and the greatest Church Fathers. 

So we would do well to emphasize our connection, whenever possible, with what came before us. People are looking for a sense of rooted belonging, and it is right both historically and pastorally for us to respond by sharing this truth. Why not, as appropriate, mention some of the great believers of the past—Calvin, yes, but also Chrysostom, Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas—in our services and in our sermons? While there is nothing wrong with emphasizing our denominational distinctives—indeed, it would be impossible not to—we owe a giant debt of gratitude to those who came before us. It is time we began paying it.

Conclusion 

We began this series by quoting evangelical scholar Mark Noll, who provocatively admitted, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”  That was more than two decades ago, but his point (with many worthy exceptions scattered across the North American landscape) still stands. Indeed, this scandal has gone on long enough that many have been willing to turn a blind eye to Rome’s own scandals and seek refuge in the intellectual depth, historical breadth, and comforting authority of Mother Church.  

We can and indeed must sympathize with the desire to reconnect with the past in the midst of a rootless postmodernity. But as heirs of the Reformation, we must maintain a biblical balance of respect for the traditions and events of the past with an openness to reform in the present and in the future. If the Reformation tells us anything, it is that even good ships—such as the catholic church—can go badly off course when piloted by the hands of sinful men. 

In our own day, the legacy of the Reformation has itself gone far astray, at least among many who claim to march under its banners. The materialism and worldliness, the self-centered piety and  individualistic worship, the subjectivism and superstition, the unaccountable church leadership and loss of basic biblical literacy that the Reformers deplored are now rampant within the churches of evangelical Protestantism. If many of our best and brightest seem to be fleeing our churches in search of greener spiritual pastures, we can hardly be surprised. But the solution, as we have seen in this series, is to dig deeper into the Reformation, not to run from it. 

Converts protest that the church today needs to get back in touch with its past. We agree. But this recovery of the past cannot be a selective one, skating lightly over the gross corruptions of the medieval church and the abuses of papal power, and ignoring the great work of reformation and renewal in the sixteenth century. The legacy of the catholic church is ours to cherish and feed upon; but so is the legacy of reform that cleansed and refined this legacy—and above all, behind both, the ever-old and ever-new illumination of the living Word of God, through which the church takes form in every age.


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