The Bible Made Impossible or the Church Made Implausible? A Review of Journeys of Faith

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A year or so back I was berated by one of the hotter sort of web-Protestants for failing to mention in a Ref21 article that sinful apostasy is the only significant reason why anyone would leave evangelicalism for Roman Catholicism.   Those satisfied that such an approach is adequate will presumably be happy that a simple knowledge of the laws of mechanics exhaustively explains why the Allies won the Second World War.  For the rest of us, the question of denominational affiliation is always a complex one.  The heart hath its reasons, after all, and Christian commitment is never simply a matter of intellectual assent.   Personal autobiography is much richer than simply the life of the mind.   Maybe I am a Presbyterian in part because on my first visit to Bon Accord Free Church of Scotland as a lonely student in a new city, I was invited for lunch by one Effie Morrison, the kind lady who happened to sit beside me that morning.   Who knows?

The question of the reasons for commitment pervades the pages of Journeys of Faith.  Any book edited by Robert Plummer and prefaced by Scot McKnight has to be worth reading just out of sheer curiosity, but this book would be fascinating anyway, recounting as it does the movement of four men from one religious affiliation to another.  Three of them (Wilbur Ellsworth, Francis Beckwith and Lyle Dorsett) have moved from evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism respectively; and the fourth, Chris Castaldo, has turned from Roman Catholicism to evangelicalism.  Each testimony is followed by a response from an evangelical (except for Castaldo's, which has a response from Roman Catholic, Brad Gregory).

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this book is the passion with which the authors write.   Those whose idea of theological conversation is simply to assert the relative nature of all truth, or at least all of your truth, will find themselves irritated on almost every page.  The contributors to this book believe in truth and, refreshingly, believe it so strongly that they think they have each moved to positions that are better - more true - than those they once held.  

There is not much point in giving a synopsis of the whole: the book is relatively short and an easy, though not superficial, read.  The most intellectually substantial engagement is that of Francis Beckwith and his evangelical interlocutor, Greg Allison.   The tone throughout is respectful though perhaps a little strained in the book's equivalent of the Hagler-Leonard bout: Castaldo versus Gregory.  As with Hagler-Leonard, I suspect the winner will be decided by the reader's own prior disposition (it was definitely Hagler, by the way, pace the ignorant ramblings of Paul Levy).   The fight that does not happen but which surely should have done is Beckwith versus Castaldo, the former evangelical engaging the former Roman Catholic. My only hesitation is that they both seem such delightful and respectful men that it might not have been much of a spectator sport.

I will not give a blow by blow account of the exchanges.  Suffice it to say that all sides land some good punches; and the testimonies were at times very moving: Ellsworth's strange sense that evangelicalism lacked something necessary; Beckwith's frustration with the lack of intellectual resources in evangelicalism for his work as an ethicist; Castaldo's evident affection for the priests who nurtured him as a young Catholic; and Dorsett's struggle with alcoholism.  These are human stories of spiritual change.  I came away liking all of the principal players in this drama.

There are things which are of importance here as well.   Foremost is the failure of evangelicalism to provide its former sons with historical roots.   That is inevitable, given the trans-denominational and even anti-ecclesiastical aspects of the movement.   Increasingly, conservative American evangelicalism looks like one of those rotten boroughs in Victorian England: essentially it is run by those who have the charisma, the connections and the media savvy to decide who gets to represent the movement, and what and who gets shunted into the outer darkness.  This is often combined with an eclectic and historically eccentric set of interests and priorities (Sacraments?  Who cares?  Complementarianism?  You better believe it!).   No wonder those who want to connect to historic Christianity find it frustrating.

Of the three former evangelicals, Ellsworth perhaps raises this point most perceptively with reference to the sloppy separation of form and content in much evangelical thinking.   He tells the story of implementing an outreach and discipleship course at his Baptist church.  One of the lacunae in this, he comments, was the failure to link such to any particular form of worship.  Thus, outreach and discipleship were in practice divorced from the life of the church.   If ever a man put his finger on the problem that exists with the latest mantra of uniting on central doctrines while agreeing to differ on method, Ellsworth does so here.  This is an obvious weakness in the current evangelical consensus, feeding straight into debacles like the Elephant Room.

Beckwith's conversion account is the most intellectually driven.  He makes a good case for the need of theology to be in dialogue with philosophy and also points to the nonsense of anti-creedal Christianity.  He recounts an incident at Boston College in 2006 where he made this case and was then challenged by Laura Garcia, former evangelical and a professor of philosophy at BC as to why he did not concede the need for a magisterium in the early church.  These are deep waters and, as a Presbyterian, I would certainly be in agreement that the early church needed - and had - an authority structure.  It is, however, quite a leap to see Rome (or, as with Ellsworth, the ecumenical councils) as the appropriate answers here.  Not only did the Roman primacy emerge over an extended period of time, it is also increasingly clear to patristic scholars that the notion of an ecumenical, authoritative council was something which developed after the fact.  Athanasius, for example, only starts to push Nicaea as having some kind of universal significance akin to that underlying the Orthodox idea of an ecumenical council, in the 340s and 350s.  It does not appear that the members of the council thought that that is what they were when they met in 325.

On the issue of authority - arguably the key issue for Ellsworth, Beckwith and Castaldo - Brad Gregory is the most strident.   Both he and Beckwith identify the perspicuity of scripture as Protestantism's Achilles' heel.  Beckwith focuses his attack on the connection between perspicuity and justification by faith: one can have one or the other, he says, not both.  This point, which he makes on page 131, is powerful and one to which we Protestants will need to respond.

Gregory is more savage: for him (as for his Notre Dame colleague, Christian Smith), the diversity of Protestant interpretations of the Bible puts the lie to any notion of perspicuity.  This is very much at the heart of his book, The Unintended Reformation, and I hope to address his case in more detail in my review of that work next month.   Yet as I read his response to Castaldo, I could not help but feel considerable irritation, especially when Gregory argues that perspicuity depends upon a circular argument.  Roman Catholicism can scarcely stand in judgment on circularity when it comes to issues of authority.  The papacy in its modern form emerges over time; it is, if you like, a result of historical process.  How do we know the results of this process are the right ones?   Well, there is a sense in which Roman Catholics just do.  This was not, of course, quite so clear at the start of the fifteenth century, but we can brush that aside as a momentary aberration....  If Gregory can claim that Protestants exclude those with whom they disagree on interpretation in order to manufacture a consensus, then it seems to us Protestants that Roman Catholics do much the same with the historical process: the theological significance of late medieval conciliarism is routinely minimized; the flip-flop on doctrinal issues over the years is simply side-stepped; the ecclesiastical use of things as disparate as the Turin Shroud and the Donation of Constantine is ignored, excused or spun; and the pro-active fostering of the cult of charlatans like Padre Pio is simply weird and deeply unChristian to Protestant eyes.  If Roman Catholics are free to argue that the history of Protestantism has made the Bible impossible, I submit that for Protestants like myself, the history of Roman Catholicism has made the Church implausible.

This brings me to my last thoughts on the book: Chicago and Waco are a long way from where the respective churches of Wilbur Ellsworth and Francis Beckwith have their power bases.  There is a sense in which the thoughtful conversion of learned and gracious men in the North American context is understandable: here their chosen churches represent a certain liturgical gravitas and intellectual sophistication, particularly when compared to the loud and in-your-face antics of the rising evangelical swaggerati.   I have stopped calling myself an evangelical in the American context for similar reasons.  Yet this geographical distance makes it very easy for American intellectuals to ignore the church-fostered activities in other parts of the world which are not so impressive.

In Greece and Italy, where Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have the upper-hand in the culture, the picture is far more complicated than the view from Illinois, Indiana or Texas might imply.   That Ellsworth can in his response to Craig Blaising offer a kind of moral equivalence between the tales of church/state persecution of evangelicals in Orthodox countries and the frosty reception a priest might receive on an evangelical college campus is revealing of a certain naivete.  And, while Brad Gregory may raise some good points in his attack on perspicuity, I cannot help but remember my week spent in Italy where one day I was in the library of the Gregorian and the next day staring at the vocal chords of Saint Anthony of Padua.  Of course, the response is likely to be: Rome is a broad church, for saints and sinners.  I trust my own little Protestant sect is the same; no church claiming to be Christian could not be so; but the difference here is crucial - in my church we would see obeisance paid to a set of pickled medieval vocal chords to be an intolerable problem that must be addressed.

In conclusion, this is an excellent volume.  I trust my pushback against Ellsworth, Beckwith and Gregory will be read in the spirit in which it is intended, not as a spiteful attack but as a respectful, if spirited, response to their sincere and spirited criticisms of evangelicalism. I know they love their ecclesiastical homes as I love mine.  Indeed, this book has helped me to love mine more while understanding in a deeper way why others think the way they do.  

Posted March 10, 2012 @ 1:58 PM by Carl Trueman

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