Perhaps you are unaware, but The Wall Street Journal, in its Jan 8-9 weekend edition, had a story about Prof Joshua Hochschild, a philosophy professor at Wheaton who converted to Roman Catholicism and then was released by Wheaton because his theology was considered no longer sufficiently evangelical — in spite of his willingness to sign the doctrinal statement. What do you think? [I can’t find it online; Rob Merola got me the link.]
There are at least two issues: Is his conversion to Catholicism consistent with Wheaton’s evangelical doctrinal statement? And, do we think Wheaton ought to delineate within the household of faith like this? (By the way, there is something slightly askew to think there is such a thing as “evangelical Catholics.” I know a few Catholic converts who cringe when they are called “evangelicals,” and some evangelicals who don’t want it to be broadcast that they are mostly “Catholic.” The two are, in my assessment, alternative theological systems with enough overlap on central ideas to make the issue difficult.)
First, some of you may know that I made a special study of why it is that Evangelicals become Roman Catholics, and I studied it and wrote an article called “From Wheaton to Rome,” which generated more letters and e-mails than all my other articles and chapter studies and dictionary articles combined. There are, if you aren’t aware of this, lots of former evangelicals sitting in pews in churches with names like St Mary the Virgin Catholic Church. Here’s the article. At the top of the page, click on volume 45 and Number 3 – September 2002.
Evangelicals “cross the Tiber” for four reasons: to find certainty, to establish a connection with history, to discover unity in the Church, and to land upon a final authority. One can find in each of these themes (certainty, history, unity, and authority) an inherent weakness to the evangelical movement, which does not provide for some enough certainty, history, unity or authority.
I don’t know Hochschild’s story well enough to comment on why he converted.
The Wheaton President stated that Wheaton may need to clarify in the future that its doctrinal statement is non-Catholic — but this will lead to its need to be non-Orthodox, and this may raise the ever present issue at Wheaton, since the early days of Robert Webber, of being non-Anglican too? My read of the current situation is that more and more Evangelicals are searching out the roots of the Christian faith, and are finding resting places in Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and in the Anglican communion.
Second, schools have the right, and always have had the right, to frame a doctrinal statement and expect its teachers to abide by that statement. I’ve rarely seen one that embraces all sorts of Christians, though North Park is about as close as one can get without falling into simplistic pluralism. So, it is unfair to criticize Wheaton for framing a doctrinal statement that excludes some Christians. Wheaton isn’t defining “who is Christian?” but “who fits our understanding of evangelicalism?” So, for the second issue above, I think Wheaton stands within reason.
Third, for me the issue is this: is it possible to maintain an evangelical faith (and we’ll let Wheaton’s doctrinal statement define “evangelical” in this case) and be Roman Catholic? Here’s the crucial issue: can Roman Catholics affirm the authority of Scripture? Here is Wheaton’s statement:
WE BELIEVE that God has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ; and that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.
Is the Roman Catholic commitment to the authority of the Church tradition inconsistent with this statement? I think not.
Here’s what many of us would also say: what Wheaton is actually doing is not claiming the authority of Scripture over against the dual authority of Scripture and Tradition, but affirming one tradition’s interpretation of Scripture over against another (the RC one). In other words, it is saying “evangelicals are not Roman Catholics.” It wants to define evangelical in such a way that it affirms the five hundred year-old debate that has separated them: evangelicals are not Catholics.
There is no reason here to get into protracted debates that have occupied theologians for five hundred years. Wheaton has the right to do what it did; I doubt myself that it is as clear-cut as the newspaper article’s representation makes it. My understanding is that the Tradition of Roman Catholicism is not an equal authority but the divinely-blessed carrying on of that biblical authority. The difference here is not small.
Perhaps there were many other debates between Wheaton’s leaders and Professor Hochschild — sacraments, and ecclesiology, and the like. I don’t know — but this is what I read and this is how I respond, and I’m keen to hear what you think, too.
Can a Catholic affirm the “supreme and final authority” of the Bible?