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3 Reasons Evangelicals Shouldnt Become Roman Catholic

The much-publicized “reversion” of formerChristianity Today editor Mark Galli (he’d been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church as a child) quite naturally leads thoughtful sons and daughters of the Reformation to evaluate the biblical and theological support beams of their faith. After all, if someone who’d ascended to the summit of an evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham finally decided the Protestant faith is somehow lacking, then what makes us think we stand on solid theological ground?

As Carl Trueman has put it, [We] need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in other words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day.

In what follows, then, well consider three concerns that often instigate movement toward or away from the Roman Catholic Church, reasons that seem to be part of Gallis journey: disenchantment, the quest for clarity, and a desire for church unity. My recent Davenant series with Brad Littlejohn, Conversionitis: Why Protestants Convert, provides a fuller treatment of these topics.

1. Disenchantment

A Religion News Service (RNS) article on Gallis journey quoted him as expressing dissatisfaction with his own prayers while serving as a Presbyterian pastorbefore discovering the Book of Common Prayer. I was tired of the trite phrases I used all the time, he said. The Book of Common Prayer had these magnificent prayers of praise and confession and thanksgiving, and I thought, Thats what I want to say!

Such dissatisfaction is common. We live in a world of technological contrivance, which increasingly buffers us from the genuinely human. The superficial confines of our aggregated newsfeeds and therapeutic spirituality effectively cocoon us in a world of our own making, a world that reduces Christian faith to a commodity that’s marketed and then consumed.

Add to this the eagerness of many Protestant churches to make God seeker-friendly, and we are left with congregations of people wondering what exactly it was they were seekingnothing, it seems, that they couldnt have found in an inspiring Ted Talk or pop concert. As such souls crave divine encounter that rises above the mundane, materialistic, and digitally depleting mode of secular life, they are instead treated to light shows, projectors, and interactive tweet-the-pastor sermons.

Souls crave divine encounter that rises above the mundane, materialistic, and digitally depleting mode of secular life.

Those who convert often come from this disenchanted group. Hungry for a grandeur and authority from above, they wander into a Catholic Mass and hear for the first time the singing of a Sanctus, observe the reverential breaking of the bread, and are struck by the humility of bowing in the presence of God. Its the via pulchritudinis about which Bishop Robert Barron often speaksthe way of beautyfound in the consecrated host, cathedrals, holy water, incense, candles, and various sacramentals that bespeak the mysterious presence of Christ.

The hunger for the beauty of Christian ritual is nothing new. Just read the conversion stories of Newman, Muggeridge, and Merton. The issue was of no little importance in the 16th-century Reformation. Amid the breathtaking chapels, paintings, and frescoes of the period, the Reformers contended for something deeper. Brad Littlejohn puts his finger on it:

Again, it was the contention of the Reformers that the beauty of holiness in which Rome gloried even then was but a painted faade, a simulacrum of the real thing. Rather than revealing the supernatural in the natural, the extraordinary in the ordinary, their transubstantiation could only replace bread and wine with heavenly substances. Rather than granting the faithful believer access into the Holy of Holies to feast before the Lord, they left him to gawk from the outer courts while the priestly class interceded on his behalf and brought some morsels of grace out to sustain him on his weary pilgrimage. Rather than inviting the believer to blink dazedly in the blinding light of Gods presence, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, they encouraged him to rest content with a mediated access, dressed up in the hand-me-downs of the saints and apostles.

Rather than inviting the believer to blink dazedly in the blinding light of Gods presence, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, Roman Catholicism encourages him to rest content with a mediated access, dressed up in the hand-me-downs of the saints and apostles.

There is valuable insight here. As Grant Macaskill stresses in his bookLiving in Union with Christ, Christians are not individuals trying to apprehend Godthough it may feel that way in our secular routines. We have, rather, become the very sacred spaces in whom God now dwells on account of Christs finished work. From within, the Spirit redeems every dimension of our being.In addition to our rationality, God takes captive our kardia and splagchna (inner parts) from which holy affections arise (Col. 3:12; Philem. 1:7).

Such a full and robust redemption enlivens us to worship through our vocation, music, poetry, confession, preaching, sacraments, and prayersforms that constitute the rich birthright of our catholic Christian heritage. Its an inheritance we dare not allow to be sold for a lentil stew of fog machines, hypnotic choruses, and biblically feeble sermons.

2. Quest for Clarity

Many can relate to the experience of sitting in a Bible study in which everyone has an opinion, and we return home feeling as if theres nothing clear and objective to hang our hats on. Galli confesses he experienced a certain weariness with the constant theological polemics and splinters in the evangelical world. He is quoted as saying, I want to submit myself to something bigger than myself.

Over the centuries, Roman Catholics have described this phenomenon as biblicism. In his sermonUnreal Words (1840), John Henry Newman conveyed his frustration with the ever-growing number of Protestant interpretations: Let us avoid talking, of whatever kind, whether mere empty talking, or censorious talking, or idle profession, or descanting upon gospel doctrines, or the affectation of philosophy, or the pretense of eloquence. Over against such private interpretation, Newman was drawn to a thick magisterial authority that promised doctrinal and ethical certainty.

Confronted by such interpretive ambiguity and rancor, converts look to Rome to resolve the struggle, one that some believe is an outworking of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the doctrine of sola scriptura. For example, Peter Kreeft writes, Protestantism shows a massive and natural slide toward modernism and liberalism and relativism and historicism concerning scripture. Against this slide, Kreeft presents the Roman Catholic magisterium as the bulwark never failing, the rock of Peter that stands up against the floods of history. Again, That rock does not exist outside of Rome. It is the only dike against the ocean of relativism that never springs leaks. Never has, never will.

But Kreefts account is too neat. A friend who had borrowed my copy of Kreefts book scribbled in the margins: Pope Francis? A bit cheeky, but it makes the point. If theres one thing the pontificate of Francis has demonstrated, its the non-perspicuous nature of the Roman Catholic magisterium. As Onsi Kamel explains in his recent First Things article, Catholicism Made Me Protestant, the infighting among traditionalist, conservative, and liberal Catholics highlights the sizable dent in Romes claim to speak with the living voice of divine authority. Complete interpretive certainty cannot be realized in the sola magisterium position of Rome any more than in ones private interpretation.

Complete interpretive certainty cannot be realized in the sola magisterium position of Rome any more than in ones private interpretation.

Until Christ returns, we will continue to see through a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). In the meantime, thankfully, we have the illuminating grace of the Spirit, who imparts divine faith, hope, and love.

3. Church Unity

Gallis concern about ecclesial division, according to the RNS article, left him exhausted. He found attractive the Roman churchs claim to be the one true church. True unity requires not just a mental and emotional assent,” he said, “but actually an agreement to live under a structure, an ethos, a way of doing things together. This reason, it seems to me, is a factor in virtually every conversion to Rome.

Division has been a grievousand at times embarrassingdimension of our Protestant heritage, a failure we must recognize and own. Sure, we understand the theological reasons why Luther recoiled from Zwingli at Marburg when Luther asserted, Your spirit and our spirit cannot go together. Indeed, it is quite obvious that we do not have the same spirit. But its still troubling. And it should be, for the Bible has more than a little to say about preserving Christian unity (Ps. 133; John 17:2021; Rom. 15:56; 1 Cor. 1:1013; Eph. 4:13).

According to Rome, ones experience of church unity is upheld by priests who serve as spiritual mediators and bishops who represent the apostles. In this vision, ordained clergy dont simply minister in the name of Christ; they operate in offices imbued with his sacred authority, a continuation of his incarnate presence. The infallibility of this church is understood to be upheld by Christ governing through Peter and the other apostles who are present in their successors, the pope and the college of bishops. The boundaries of Christ’s church are therefore identified in some sense with those of the Roman Catholic Church.

When the Reformers split from or were excommunicated by Rome, they rejected this Roman structure. Instead, they emphasized the churchs identity and calling as a communion of saints, the congregation of the faithful who receive Gods redemptive word, variously administered and confessed in preaching, instruction, confession, sacrament, and life.

Concerning the relationship of divine authority to this identity, Michael Horton helpfully reminds us, The church is always on the receiving end in its relationship to Christ; it is never the redeemer, but always the redeemed; never the head, but always the body. The coherence of this church may appear deficient to those who compare it with the institutional organs and offices of Rome. But true unity is diverse men and women who define themselves by the gospel, an adherence shared by Christian traditions from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

The Reformation has more than enough historical and theological underpinnings to keep us upright and walking confidently with our Savior.

While Mark Gallis familiar reasons for swimming the Tibersoftening his choice by claiming to be an evangelical Catholiccontinue to have a certain force among some wavering Protestants, they don’t need to carry the day. Whether the issue is disenchantment with todays church scene, the quest for theological clarity, or the desire for ecclesial unity, the biblical faith championed and rediscovered during the Reformation has more than enough historical and theological underpinning to keep us upright and walking confidently with our Savior.

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