On pulling evangelicals back from the brink of Catholicism – Mark Galli’s wise words

Holy Spirit

Image by Barking Tigs via Flickr

Mark Galli, I love you as a brother in Christ. As managing editor in the flagship evangelical Protestant publication, Christianity Today, you have presented an impassioned and powerful case for why evangelical Protestants tempted to cross the Tiber and join with the Roman Catholic Church should think twice . . . and then remain in the evangelical fold. While I balk at some of your historical characterizations, I affirm your central point.

A word on those historical characterizations. Mark assert confidently: “Huge segments of the church were bound to the chains of works righteousness before the Holy Spirit ignited the Reformation.”

Really? “Huge segments”? While at Duke University (fountain of all wisdom, funded by tobacco money . . . and surprisingly loyal, in at least many parts of the Divinity School, to the Great Tradition), I learned different from David Steinmetz, the (Protestant) historian of the Reformation at Duke . . . unless, David, I interpreted your lectures wrongly:

The “theologia moderna” of those supposed Augustinians who taught that all you had to do was “do the best that is in you” and God would honor that and bring you into His Kingdom (clearly a Pelagian and, yes, works-righteous, teaching) was just one option among theological options floating around late-medieval Western Christianity.

The local, sporadic abuses of the sacrament of penance were just that: local and sporadic.

The preaching of the Franciscans was gospel preaching.

Augustinian theology (including Augustinian monergism) remained “on the books” of the Western church. And so forth . . .

BUT. But. Mark,  you’ve gotten, I think, to the nub of the matter: do we trust in a human magisterium to pronounce definitively on doctrinal matters? Or do we trust the Holy Spirit, working in all the messiness of history?

As for me, I choose the Holy Spirit of the Living God.

I choose the Holy Spirit NOT just as a young adult convert into a charismatic wing of the notoriously fissiparous Protestant movement.

NOT just as one who came of age in the 1970s, inclined, as Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor argues, to look for meaning in my own experiences and preferences (imaginatively attributed to the Holy Spirit after the manner of John Wesley and other such notorious Protestant “enthusiasts”–at least according to their rationalist critics), after the manner of 19th-century “romantic expressivists.”

NOT just as a reader of such 20th-century British imaginative authors–deeply influenced by 19th-century romanticism themselves–as Lewis and Tolkien.

NOT (at all) as a blogger who thinks–as I am convinced most bloggers do–that blathering on about my own preference of books, movies, and toothpaste I can make meaning for my life.

BUT rather, as a sinner who was once dead in his sins, but who met the Living God one day in 1985 after a long and exhausting pursuit (oh yes, His pursuit of me–certainly not vice versa!) and owes his sanity and very life to that same Holy Spirit, pointing to that same Jesus Christ, bringing to bear on my being the gospel of that same Father God, whom Mark Galli and over a billion others serve.

THAT is why I think Mark is on the right track here (and yes, yes, I know the problem with talking about the Holy Spirit as authority–in what form does his pronouncements come to us? Are we each our own interpreter of what the Holy Spirit is supposedly saying? I hope the following indicates some of my, and Mark’s, answers to this conundrum).

What did Mark say?

On a recent trip to Durham, North Carolina, I was asked, “What do you make of all the evangelicals converting to Roman Catholicism?” What immediately came to mind was two recent and well-known conversions of evangelical scholars: Christian Smith, sociologist at Notre Dame, and Francis Beckwith, who at one time was president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Other well-known conversions to Catholicism in my generation—by men whose writings have been important in my intellectual growth—include the late Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wilken (not from evangelicalism as such, but from Lutheranism).

These are not minds to trifle with! We’re talking about men who were and are at the top of their intellectual games, in sociology, theology, and church history. And none of their motives are to be questioned. When it comes to momentous conversions, we usually don’t know our own deepest motives. These are often discovered only long after the fact, or maybe never (at least not until we find ourselves in the presence of our Lord—Ah, so that’s what I was doing!).

What I can comment on is the tug of Catholicism on the evangelical heart. Because it is a tug that I must admit has pulled at me and many close friends. But there are tugs and there are tugs. Some tugs come from the Holy Spirit, and these naturally are not to be criticized! But other tugs deserve a little scrutiny.

Like the longing for authority. One of the most frustrating things about being Protestant, and especially evangelical, is that there is really no place to turn when you are ready to end a conversation on a controversial point. There is no authority figure or institution that can silence heterodoxy. No one has your back—well, except the Holy Spirit (we’ll come back to this in a moment). The more Protestants there are, the more churches and theologies are birthed. As soon as we say, “The Christian church believes …” we hear someone say, “Well, I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe that!” To be an evangelical used to mean one stood for certain theological convictions—penal substitution, inerrancy, and so forth—but now many evangelicals take delight in defining themselves over and against one of these formerly cardinal doctrines, while insisting on the right to be called evangelicals.

So, we understand the pull of the Catholic magisterium. We’d love to be able to say, “The church believes X,” and then back it up with a papal encyclical. We want “evangelical” to have clear and firm boundaries, so that when someone says they believe something outside of those boundaries, we can tell them definitively and assuredly that they are no longer evangelicals. We’re tired of arguing, of having to prove our point through the careful examination of Scripture and patient deliberation. Frankly, we’ve given up depending on prayer to change hearts and minds. We want to be able to say, “The church teaches …” or “The Holy Father says …” or “All biblical scholars believe …” in a way that separates the sheep from the goats.

* * *

The Holy Spirit set the pattern for what church would be like at the day of Pentecost. And it looked like this: Massive confusion. So much confusion that when onlookers tried to describe it, they called it a drunken party (Acts 2:13). . . .

“This is the church the Holy Spirit birthed at Pentecost, and this is the church in which the Holy Spirit raises up all manner of people to say one thing or another we all need to hear. One way we adjudicate these issues is by listening to one another today. Just as important is to listen to the church historic, our great tradition of creeds and confessions and great theologians of the past. And yes, more than anything, we continue to mine the Scriptures to discover the truth the Holy Spirit is leading us into, which is always an old truth we’ve not been able to hear until today.”

Mark’s conclusion?

This is the church the Holy Spirit birthed at Pentecost, and this is the church in which the Holy Spirit raises up all manner of people to say one thing or another we all need to hear. One way we adjudicate these issues is by listening to one another today. Just as important is to listen to the church historic, our great tradition of creeds and confessions and great theologians of the past. And yes, more than anything, we continue to mine the Scriptures to discover the truth the Holy Spirit is leading us into, which is always an old truth we’ve not been able to hear until today.

This is an important, no, momentous, reflection. Hear it well:

When we’re in the middle of one of these intractable issues, the church will seem like it is going to collapse under the weight of confusion and disagreement. But it hasn’t so far, and we’re assured it never will. The common critique of evangelicalism is that “the center will not hold.” Bah. Humbug. Of course the center will hold, because at the center is not a doctrine, nor some human authority figure, nor a complete and inerrant statement of faith. There is only the Center, Jesus Christ. We don’t need a magisterium. We already have a Lord, who told us that not even the gates of Hades (whose landlord loves to sows confusion in the church!) will prevail against the church.

In short, we don’t need premature closure as much as we need persevering confidence that the Spirit will lead us into all the truth we need, when we need it.

“We don’t need a magisterium”? We do need an organized and authoritative record of the church’s best thinking. And that, after all, is what the creeds of the ecumenical councils (for example) provide–councils that Mark recognizes in his article as important and authoritative instances of the Spirit’s guidance. We need to get over our American individualism and submit ourselves to the best thought of past generations.

But as to ultimate authority in the church? I’m with Mark. We turn, as did the bishops at Nicea, Chalcedon, and the other councils, to the Holy Spirit of God. The Third Person of the everlasting, omnipotent, omniscient Trinity. That is the source of our confidence–not the halting human attempts to institutionalize that authority and to impose its conclusions authoritatively–even coercively. No institutional form can truly, life-givingly bring that Holy Spirit authority to us. As Jaroslav Pelikan taught us, although Tradition is “the living faith of the dead,” it never seems to come to us without the alloy of Traditionalism, “the dead faith of the living.”

We must therefore both value and submit ourselves to the Great Tradition, and leave open the possibility that the keepers of that Tradition today have become swayed by “philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Against such error, the Holy Spirit of the Living God still prevails.

Aside from evangelical historian Richard Lovelace’s reflections on the evangelical spirit in Christian history in that long out-of-print product of the 1977 Chicago Call, The Orthodox Evangelicals, Mark’s is the most cogent reflection I’ve yet seen on why an evangelical Protestant Christianity is a coherent, powerful, and faithful Christianity, despite and even because of all the dissension in the ranks and the lack of a centralized authority. The Authority is indeed here, among diverse, argumentative, ludicrously democratic evangelical Protestants. The Holy Spirit is not, as Gordon Fee once charged modern Christians tend to think of Him, a “grey oblong blur.” Rather, he is the Living God, ready, willing, and able, to “guide us into all truth.”

And many in evangelical ranks understand this intuitively, because they met and were converted by Christ through his Spirit.

Thank you Mark, for making the case for evangelical faith in a world that so often makes only the case against it. And for all my students and friends who either have been tempted to, or have actually, jumped to Rome or Constantinople . . . once you have recognized and become disillusioned by the sin that still remains in the church–including the Magisterium–and you yearn once again for the “soul liberty” (thank you, Baptists) that comes from a reliance in the first instance on the Holy Spirit, please come back and . . . if not join us evangelicals again, at least sit at table with us in Christian fellowship. For that fellowship takes place not in our own flesh only, but also in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

For Mark’s whole article, see here.

This was written, by the way, at the 2012 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, in San Francisco, California. The ETS may be an oddball bunch of conservative white dudes (in large part). But God loves them and has sent his Holy Spirit to them (among others). And may He forgive me for my, I’m afraid, acerbic dismissiveness of this group in the past.

No, the Answers are not all to be found here, among the staunch defenders of biblical inerrancy and substitutionary atonement. But the intuition that the Living God still speaks to us, through tradition, experience, and reason, all within the “norming norm” of Scripture, is still a powerful, unifying, and true intution.

Yes, it feels messy. Yes, some evangelicals may arrogantly assume they speak with “The One True Biblical Voice,” and foolishly ignore the testimony of 2,000 years of wise Christians–the hermeneutical guide graciously provided by that same Spirit as we struggle toward Truth. But nonetheless, God the Trinity–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–continues to put up with our foolishness and to meet us and nourish us, as we submit ourselves to Him.

Thank God for his forbearance for us, his tender love for us in our foolishness–a foolishness so abject and ludicrous in the face of His Wisdom.

And thank you, Mark, for speaking to (among others) my bright, anxious students who, straining toward the elusive light of certainty, are finding that the God they serve is not a God of certainty, but a God who demands to be met in the uncertainty of faith. Yes, we will see that elusive light. But not in this life. For now, we see through a glass, darkly. And compared to the surpassing light of the beatific vision, yes, even the Magisterium is as darkness.

18 responses to “On pulling evangelicals back from the brink of Catholicism – Mark Galli’s wise words

  1. Theodore A. Jones

    Your actual problem is the assumption of RCism being better than Protestism or vis a vis. However neither system is in any way superior to the other. They are both branches of the bad tree which is identifed by the bad fruit both systems produce as Jesus has ascribed to them. In Aron’s post he closed with this question. “What sort of certianity do you think is apporiate for theological truth, and how is it it to be arrived at?”
    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    The fact both systems have failed to grasp is that the law has been changed after Jesus’ crucifixion by adding a word to it. Neither system teaches what this law is nor how it must be obeyed to save yourself from the penalty of eternal death. Therefore the products produced by both systems cannot have been born again of God.

  2. The protestant problem with the magisterium is that it replaces their own personal opinion. I know some fundamentalists that are more intolerant than the magisterium has ever thought of being. I would take a magisterium over a rabid fundamentalist any day and twice on the weekend.

  3. The idea that there is some kind of absolute certainty within the Roman Catholic Church is pure myth. No one can be any more sure of the claim of the Roman Church to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ than he/she can be of the divine institution of the Papal office and the arguents for that face insurmuntable exegetical and historical prolems.

    • @Du Wayne Lee- interesting point, and I would agree with you, I think, that absolute certainty is not possible regarding any claims by the RCC to be coterminous with the Body of Christ or the divine institution of the Papal office. However, it occurs to me that arguments for foundational truths of the Christian faith might face similar difficulties. What sort of certainty do you think is appropriate for theological truth, and how is it to be arrived at?

  4. Pingback: Stuff | anti-itch meditation

  5. The problem with a magisterium is that if it if its rulings are in accord with the Bible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then it is unnecessary, If they aren’t, then they should not be followed.
    Furthermore, I’m not so certain that their decisions necessarily do lead to certainty since it is still possible for a Catholic to question them even if such questioning eventually leads to a split between the individual and the RCC. Otherwise, there would have been no Protestantism.

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