This article first appeared in the From the Editor column of the Christian Research Journal, volume30, number6 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
In the past few decades there has been a trend of evangelical Protestants converting to the Roman Catholic Church. This migration has included such prominent Christian thinkers and authors as Peter Kreeft, Richard John Neuhaus, Thomas Howard, J. Budziszewski, and Francis J. Beckwith. The recent conversion of Beckwith, in particular, hits home, as he was not only the president of the Evangelical Theological Society when he announced his conversion but he is also a leading defender of Christianity who has been a highly valued contributor to this magazine for the past two decades, serving also for a time as our ethics editor.
For every action there is a reaction, and when someone as prominent as Beckwith adds his name to the growing list of Protestant defectors to Roman Catholicism, confusion and controversy are sure to follow. It is appropriate for those who have collaborated with Beckwith to clarify their stance on the matter of evangelicals converting to Catholicism, and so to state our position we offer H. Wayne House’s feature article on p. 22, as well as what follows in this column.
I have deliberately chosen an incendiary title for this editorial. In 1 John 2:19 the apostle writes, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.”1 In context, John is speaking here of antichrists who were denying that Jesus is the Christ. When he said that “they were not really of us” he meant that, although they had been a part of the visible Christian community, they were never truly regenerate believers and therefore were never part of the invisible, true church.
Let me be clear: by drawing from this verse for my title I am not suggesting that the above-named Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism are antichrists or heretics; that they were never truly saved; that they are now outside of historic, orthodox Christianity; that they should be shunned from Christian fellowship; nor even that in every respect they are now beyond collaboration with evangelical Protestants in the common cause of Christ. For example, Frank Beckwith will continue to contribute to the Christian Research Journal on subjects about which both Protestants and Catholics can agree. I do believe, however, that although admittedly out of context, John’s words can be used quite effectively to state the point of this editorial, and I believe the matter is serious enough that I don’t have qualms about employing a little shock value to get your attention.
It is shocking indeed when evangelicals defect from Protestantism to join the Catholic Church if one assumes, as I tend to do, that these Christians would not have been Protestants in the first place if they hadn’t valued the foundational principles of the Protestant Reformation. It becomes clear that such appreciation is lacking, however, when evangelicals convert to Catholicism. In this sense, then, “they went out from us, but they were never truly of us.” If the men named above or any other Protestants converted to Catholicism merely because they were attracted to its liturgy, its antiquity, its clear-cut authority structure, or any other reason besides a specific loss of faith in the foundational principles of Protestantism, then, in my opinion, they never truly were Protestants in the most fundamental sense of the term. I would say the same thing about current evangelicals who see no greater problem in Protestants becoming Catholics than they see in Protestants moving from one Protestant denomination to another (e.g., from Presbyterianism to Methodism or from the Baptist church to the Assemblies of God).
It is the position of CRI that, while there are significant differences between the various theologically orthodox Protestant denominations, those differences pale in comparison to the gaping theological differences between historic Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation was about affirming the primacy of the following doctrinal positions: (1) Scripture alone is our infallible, absolute authority (sola scriptura) and the church’s authority, being fallible, is valid only relative to its faithfulness to Scripture; (2) salvation is provided by Christ alone (solus Christus) without any necessary mediation by the church, let alone by departed saints, including Jesus’ mother Mary; this salvation is appropriated (3) by grace alone (sola gratia), (4) through faith alone (sola fidé), and therefore one’s own works play no part in it, or grace, by definition, would no longer be grace (Rom. 11:6; cf. 4: 4–5, 16).
The Reformers believed that the accumulation of Catholic traditions over fifteen centuries exalted the role of the church beyond its proper biblical place at the expense of biblical authority, and they further believed that Catholic teaching regarding salvation obscured the glorious gospel of grace. As a result of these excesses, many millions of souls were hindered from perceiving and therefore receiving God’s free gift of salvation; many more who managed despite these obstacles to believe unto salvation were further hindered from growing in grace through a relationship with Jesus Christ as their only mediator and with the Word of God as their immediately accessible divine revelation; and the church itself was hindered from fulfilling its calling as a priesthood of believers.
The Reformers saw this obscuring of God’s manifold gracious provision for His people as serious enough to justify fracturing the organizational unity of the visible (Western2) church and to subject themselves to the persecutions that would follow from a medieval church that wielded political as well as ecclesiastical power. The result of their having taken this bold stand has been the conversion and growth in grace of many millions of souls, including me (who was raised Catholic but only came to know Christ as personal Savior through the ministry of lay Protestants), and, more likely than not, you as well.
What has occurred since the Reformation that would make Protestants think differently about these issues? Does the Roman Catholic Church now officially embrace sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, and sola fidé? No, despite a more conciliatory attitude toward Protestants (and people of other faiths as well) since Vatican II, some progress in dialogue with Protestants on issues such as justification, and the emergence of a distinct minority of Roman Catholics, particularly in America, who walk and talk more like evangelicals than once would have been thought possible, the Roman Catholic Church has not officially reversed the anathemas enshrined in the decrees and canons of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent on those who believe the Protestant distinctives.
Catholicism does not outright deny the biblical doctrines of God, Christ, and the cross, and so it should not be viewed as a non-Christian religion or cult, and people who confess Christ as their personal Lord and Savior within its midst should be accepted as brothers and sisters in Christ. But, despite the cleaning up of many corrupt teachings and practices during Catholicism’s sixteenth-century Counter Reformation, the core dogmas that gave rise to the Reformation are still alive and well in the Catholic Church.
The good news that God has bought for us a salvation that we could never merit or improve on through the cross of Christ as a free gift to be gratefully received by faith, with assurance of salvation to follow, is not being clearly communicated to millions of people worldwide under the sway of Roman Catholicism.
The relevant question we face today therefore is, “Are the truths to which the Reformers devoted their lives, and for which they sometimes gave them, no longer worth preserving?” Do we now conclude that the Reformers got it wrong, blowing out of proportion their differences with Rome and unnecessarily dividing the church? With the salvation and subsequent growth in Christ of many millions of people at issue, the answer should be obvious.
— Elliot Miller
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1. Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
2. Eastern Orthodoxy already had been divided from Rome since the eleventh century and had never accepted the primacy of the Pope.