A couple weeks back I mentioned that I wrote a book with Hauna Ondrey called Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy, and I have asked a few folks to “respond” to specific chapters. (These are not “reviews” but responses.) Today’s response is to chp 4, “Leaving Wheaton, Finding Rome: The Improbable Conversion of Evangelicals to Roman Catholicism.” There are lots of these conversions today. In fact, Michael Spencer, known to some of you as iMonk, has been through a difficult experience lately: his wife, Denise, is converting to Catholicism. Why is this difficult? He’s a credentialed Baptist.I’m grateful he opens up here about some of the issues.
In chapter 4 of Finding Faith, Losing Faith, Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey explore the conversion of evangelicals to Roman Catholicism.
Because my wife is in the process of conversion to the RCC, and it?s been my lot on the internet to have received over 142 (yes, I keep and count them) invitations to convert to Catholicism from various already converted/reverted former Protestants, I?ve become somewhat of an unlikely and unwilling commentator on the phenomenon. And from that stand point, I say the authors have hit a bulls eye with this chapter.
Most evangelicals are not likely to convert or see the possibility of conversion as anything less than absurd. A significant and growing minority of evangelicals, however, find their way to Rome and then, as evangelicals tend to do, begin giving their testimonies about the experience. And yes, as the chapter details, there is a common quest for a kind of transcendence in many of these stories. These are evangelicals who long, quest, thirst and occasionally obsess over certainty in matters religious, historical and ecclesiastical pedigrees, the lamentable lack of unity in protestantism and the crisis of authority in Christianity in general.
There are many things about which evangelicals are passionate about which these converts are generally not passionate. For example, a discussion of subjects like evangelism, missions and church planting will reveal that once the ?big four? are answered, then evangelism, missions and kingdom church planting movements are subsets of those already answered questions. Persons who are prepared to accept the Marian dogmas and hierarchical authority that extends to whether one can accept the Eucharist while seated have made decisions about authority that most evangelicals find impossible to understand. Looking at the state of preaching and lay Bible study in Roman Catholicism (which is improving) it?s clear that those who convert have shifted drastically in what they are seeking from scripture in the context of church and worship.
When Catholic apologists begin their inevitable questioning of sola scriptura, I?m used to noting that their understanding is remarkably unnuanced. Many evangelicals are quite ready to give some place to tradition, but those same evangelicals aren?t ready to buy a version of doctrinal development that comfortable finds dogmas that must be believed to get to the Eucharist completely in ?tradition? and that mysterious process of development that Cardinal Newman gave to the RCC.
It is always clear to me that these discussions are generally between people who have entirely different worldviews on questions like ?Can I study the Bible and discover my church is wrong?? or ?Can you know with assurance that you are going to heaven?? The idea that God has installed an infallible Pope who did not dogmatically assert his infallibilty till after the Reformation is a fact that will divide any group into opposing teams. In fact, the entire vote on ?Was the Reformation a tragic necessity?? will reveal the divide.
Assuming the RCC stays on course without revolutionary deviation, conversions to Catholicism will never be common among evangelicals. With all the post-Scott Hahn attention to evangelical conversions, it remains a predictable matter.
Did I know my wife was going to convert? No. Given the factors that unfolded and knowing her for more than three decades, am I surprised at all? Not a bit. Catholicism?s entire spirituality and presentation suits her and her evangelical experience perfectly.
And it?s at this point I must say the other thing: Evangelicalism is in terrible shape, and compared to what is going on among us right now, no one should be surprised at a steady stream of Tiber swimmers.
I am not an evangelical optimist. As my blog advertises, I am one of thousands of evangelicals who feel a great attraction to the catholic tradition, but no attraction to the idealization of Rome common among converts. I am Lutheran in temperament and Baptist in practice. I prefer 120,000 erring preachers to one supposedly unerring pope.
But I am embarrassed that it has come to Joel Osteen and Todd Bentley. I lament evangelicalism, and I am not alone. I do some of that lamenting in Catholic churches with RC friends, because their churches have, in addition to accoutrements I cannot believe, also kept and preserved much of value that evangelicalism has thrown away.
Louis Bouyer, the great critic of Protestantism, said that the inevitable drift of Protestantism was toward every man with a Bible, starting his own church, propagating his own doctrine to individuals who all may do the very same thing tomorrow. It is the direction of Quakerism, with no sacraments and nothing but individualism and experience.
Bouyer didn?t understand all that is evangelicalism, especially as it pertains to missions, evangelism and the extension of the Kingdom, but he was more right than wrong. Evangelicalism today is chaos. Doctrinal chaos. Worship chaos. Ecclesiastical chaos. Prosperity Gospel chaos. Christian media multiplies the options and amplifies the heretics. We are more removed from our common catholic, apostolic roots than ever. We are diseased and we need a St. Francis and a Luther combined.
In such a landscape, is it a wonder that hundreds of thousands, perhaps eventually millions, look at Benedict and JPII with wonder? Look at Catholic worship with envy? Look at Catholic spirituality with embarrassment over our own? I could go on.
The chapter is truthful in its description of conversion. Few of us will do it, but those who do are seeking and finding answers to important questions that matter to them. For the rest of us, we look longingly at the best of Rome, and can only pray that a future version of unity can heal all of us.