Evangelical AND Catholic?

Over the last 50 years many notable evangelical thinkers have converted to the Roman Catholic Church (or to some independent Catholic church of which there are many; here I’m concerned mainly with those who have converted to the RC Church).  Think of Tom Howard, evangelical professor at Wheaton (and I think Gordon), who converted to RCC and wrote a book about his conversion called Evangelical Is Not Enough (1988).  Think of Peter Kreeft and, most recently, my own colleague Francis Beckwith.  But there are many more than never get noticed. 

Last evening I attended the first session of a conference on Catholic-Evangelical dialogue.  I renewed acquaintance with a former colleague (from the university where I used to teach) who has converted from being Baptist to RCC.  (He now teaches at a Catholic university.)

Over the years I’ve had several students convert to RCC.  I wouldn’t call it an avalanche yet.  But it is a noticeable movement–very bright, studious, even scholarly evangelicals turning to the RCC and often attempting to maintain their evangelical identities.

I’ve participated in many Protestant-Catholic dialogues over the years.  (Often the word used for “Protestant” in these events is “Evangelical”–a historical term for Protestant and especially Lutheran.  It may or may not mean evangelical as in our postfundamentalist evangelical movement.)  I attended and participated in ecumenical dialogues between Catholic and Protestant students and faculty at the University of Munich when I studied there in the early 1980s.  I attended and participated in dialogues between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox in Minnesota (hosted by Carl Braaten’s and Robert Jenson’s Center for Evangelical and Catholic Theology). 

Somehow I was not informed of the Catholic-Evangelical dialogue taking place at my current university even though I teach theology in it’s seminary.  The event is being hosted by the Honors College.  I happened to learn about it from a poster in Starbuck’s! 

So the dialogue event/conference is called the Wilkins Lecture (at least this year; there is hope to make it into an annual event).  The premier speaker was renowned pastristics and Reformation scholar Robert Wilkins who has taught theology at Notre Dame and the University of Virginia and has authored several scholarly books on theology.  He is a convert to RCC from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The lecture was about Augustine’s interpretation of Romans 5:5 and whether “God’s love” there means God’s love for us or our love for God.  Augustine argued, and Trent agreed, that it is our love for God.  Most Protestants (at least Lutherans) have argued it is God’s love for us.  Therein lies a fundamental difference between traditional Catholic and traditional Protestant theology.  Wilkins masterfully argued that the passage is referring to our love for God.

The hour long discussion afterwards was bracing but civil and respectful.  Evangelical doyen Richard Mouw spoke and asked a very good question about the salvation of the thief on the cross.  (Viz., that he did not have time to express love for God and seems to have been saved solely by God’s love for him.)  Hans Boersma  of Regent College also spoke up as did several others including yours truly who simply pointed out that Wesley seems to provide a middle ground on this issue.  For Wesley, and for many evangelical in the Wesleyan tradition, God’s love for us and our love for God cannot be separated and our salvation is based on both.  (Of course, it would take an entire book to unpack that as Wesley also believed, with Luther, that salvation is by grace through faith alone.  It’s just that he argued that faith that saves is never “alone” but always accompanied by love for God and neighbor.)

One reaction I have to most of the so-called evangelical-Catholic dialogues I have attended is that “evangelical” often means Luther (and possibly Calvin).  Movement evangelicals tend to get overlooked.  Yes, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together dialogues and documents did include many movement evangelicals.  That seemed to be the exception.  My hope is that this current series of Evangelical-Catholic dialogues will include and even highlight a broad spectrum of movement evangelicals.

Present at this current conference are quite a few movement evangelicals-turned-RCC.  I’m not aware of any RCC-turned-evangelicals present.  (Although I don’t know all the participants or attenders personally.)  This is another notable feature of many such Protestant-Catholic dialogues I’ve attended.  These seem often to center around issues of what evangelicals (or just Protestants) can learn from Roman Catholics.  But real dialogue would evidence genuine openness on the parts of Catholics about what the RCC church and its adherents can learn from Protestants and evangelicals.  That I seldom hear discussed by Catholic participants in such dialogues.

On a very practical level, all this evangelical-Catholic dialogue raises this question: Can a person be genuinely both evangelical and Catholic?  Of course, some evangelicals have weighed in on that very firmly saying “No!”  Examples are R. C. Sproul and Michael Horton.  I don’t know any Wesleyans who express that negative so strongly, but I’m sure there are some.

Here again is where my distinction between evangelicalism as an ethos and evangelicalism as a movement should be helpful.  Of course a RCC person can be evangelical in the ethos sense.  I think there are bound to be tensions, but I don’t see any reason in principle why a RCC person cannot be evangelical in ethos.  The RCC allows much more latitude than many people understand.  Such an RCC person would, in my opinion, have to believe the Bible trumps tradition when there’s a conflict (most of them will deny there is any conflict) and that the fullness of salvation requires a personal conversion to Jesus Christ and cannot be merely sacramental.  I have met RCCs who seem to be evangelical through and through.  I’m thinking, for example, of Brennan Manning (among many others).

Whether a RCC person can be evangelical in the sense of belonging to the postfundamentalist, post-WW2 evangelical movement is something else.  Of course, no one can stop one from claiming to belong to it; there’s no magisterium of all evangelicals and there’s no such thing as a membership card.  Historically and sociologically (if not theologically), the postfundamentalist evangelical movement has been thoroughly Protestant even as it is also multi-and transdenominational.  I have met some charismatic Catholics, however, who hang around evangelical parachurch organizations and attend Protestant charismatic meetings and seem to consider themselves somehow attached to this evangelical movement.  Evangelical leaders, however, have been reluctant to recognize them as authentically evangelical.  Very often, when a movement evangelical joins the RCC he or she is released from his or her position in an evangelical organization.

I have no final word to say about whether an RCC person can be evangelical; I think it’s a question open for discussion.  Sometimes I wonder why one would want to be evangelical, other than to infiltrate the movement and convert evangelicals to Catholic beliefs and practices, but I don’t conclude that his or her motives must be sinister.

I do think that a person can probably only be authentically evangelical in spite of and not because of his or her RCC identity.  By that I mean insofar as RCC identity normally includes belief in papal infallibility, the Marian dogmas, sacramental salvation, etc., a person who is RCC and wants also to be evangelical (in the movement sense) would have to live with significant cognitive dissonance.  So would those evangelicals who accept him or her as both Catholic and evangelical.

One thing I object to most strenously is any attempt to forbid proselytizing between RCC persons and evangelicals.  The two traditions seem different enough to me that both sides will inevitably feel called to evangelize the other.  That doesn’t mean they have to think of all evangelicals or all RCC persons as unsaved.  It means that the differences are deep and wide enough that passionate believers on both sides must feel it would be better for persons to “come over” to their side–that their Christianity will be more full and correct if they do.

A word to those organizing these evangelical-Catholic dialogue events: Please invite former RCC persons who have converted to evangelical faith to speak.  There always seem to be former evangelicals (or just Protestants) speaking but seldom (in my experience, never) former Roman Catholics.

Finally, one thing I find ironic is that we hear in scholarly circles of theologians and biblical scholars much about Protestants converting to Roman Catholicism and I sense a bit of triumphalism among RCCers about that.  But what about the millions of RCC adherents in Latin America converting to evangelicalism?  And the thousands (if not millions) of Hispanic persons converting to Pentecostalism and other forms of evangelical Christianity right here in the U.S.?  I often get the feeling from BOTH Catholics and Protestants that this is not a good thing.  (Many Protestants, for example, think the forms of evangelical life Latin American and Hispanic Catholics are converting to is not very sound.)

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  • Christopher

    I agree with your assessment of the dialogue between RCC and Protestants. It does always seem to be from a position of what can the Catholics teach the Protestants. I am very pro-dialogue and very interested in the Catholic faith, but not to convert and not to compromise my evangelical beliefs. I am a ‘Big Tent Evangelical,’ and I believe that includes Catholics in that tent, folks like Beckwith especially; I think that the evangelical movement should be recognized for teaching so many Catholics more Bible. Many Catholics are studying their Bibles for the first time in a serious manner, many are beginning to read them for the first time as a result of being challenged by Protestant, and in particular evangelical America. Where I live I’ve always encountered numerous converts from the Catholic faith to the evangelical faith, yet no one really seems to talk about it. It always seemed to me to be like ‘red rover,’ with evangelicals and RCC-raised folks switching sides constantly, for every Protestant going to the Catholic Church, I knew many Catholics leaving for some form of non-denominational so-called ‘low-church- evangelicalism.
    I also agree with you that we are different enough that there will inevitably be some forms of conversion-oriented approaches as we are too different not to believe that ‘our side of the fence is a bit greener.’ The same could be said of all the evangelicals going over to the Orthodox Church(es). There needs to be true dialogue, but not just former-evangelicals trying to ‘teach our lesser brethren’ attitude that so pervades amongst that crowd.
    I don’t of course take the position of the Calvinists who seem to becoming so anti-Catholic that one would figure we were living in the 1960’s and JFK was running for President. With them, you’re just a Jack Chick track away from calling Roman Catholics ‘papists,’ and it would be humorous if it were not so hurtful both to Roman Catholics and their friends, but also to evangelicals who wish to be in dialogue to find common ground and to work together in the issues of the day, and most importantly in issues involving our local communities.
    In the end, the Roman Catholic Church should be applauded for many things, including the fact that they are the main group that faithfully fights for life at all levels and who seek to be engaged with the world around them. The Evangelicals should seek to be true to what we are as well, a group of people without a ruling authority who have a plethora of views on everything and anything who seek to live totally engaged in our world with the Good News being our guide for life and with Jesus being our Source of love for all people. It may be difficult in the years to come, as the RCC appears to be moving in a more ‘traditionalist’ direction that could in ten or twenty years look like pre-Vatican II Catholicism and the Evangelical Movement (sociologically-speaking) could very well find itself being taken over or at least dispersed by neo-fundamentalists or fundamentalists in evangelical attire (especially in the Calvinist camp which as of now appears to be claiming itself as the only authentic Christian church). As a multi-ethnic Pentecostal I do delight in the fact that there are more and more of us in the world, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, although many do not like this (from what I have heard lamented by everyone from Baptists to Catholics and in-between), and yet it would be I feel in the Evangelical world’s best interest to help us as we are in great need of opportunities for higher learning and scholarship so that we may be completely faithful to the Bible and to Christ’s Gospel for all peoples and thus prevent us from being totally cut off from the world around us as occured in the early part of the last century.

  • http://www.thethirstygargoyle.blogspot.com Thirsty Gargoyle

    I’m not sure about this. A common refrain among Evangelicals who become Catholics is that they become Catholic so that they can be better Evangelicals: they feel their Evangelical identity is more fully expressed as Catholics rather than otherwise. You’ll find this attitude expressed by the likes of Kreeft, Beckwith, and Mark Shea, say, all of whom clearly refrain a deep fondness for the road that led them to Rome.

    Half a century or so back, the Lutheran Louis Bouyer expressed this attitude very well in his The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, saying:
    ‘This book is a personal witness, a plain account of the way in which a Protestant came to feel himself obliged in conscience to give his adherence to the Catholic Church. No sentiment of revulsion turned him from the religion fostered in him by a Protestant upbringing followed by several years in the ministry. The fact is, he has never rejected it. It was his desire to explore its depths, its full scope, that led him, step by step, to a genuinely spiritual movement stemming from the teachings of the Gospel, and Protestantism as an institution, or rather complexus of institutions, hostile to one another as well as to the Catholic Church. The study of this conflict brought him to detect the fatal error which drove the spiritual movement of Protestantism out of the one Church. He saw the necessity of returning to that Church, not in order to reject any of the positive Christian elements of his religious life, but to enable them, at last, to develop without hindrance.’

    For the rest of his life Bouyer maintained that Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fides were all — rightly understood and expressed — ancient and consistently held Catholic doctrines, and that the only real way to make the Reformation principles work was within the Catholic Church.

    The question of why a Catholic would want to be evangelical is a good one, but Peter Kreeft, to take a named example, is certainly of the view that the Catholic Church needs to be evangelical.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      I read Bouyer’s book years ago with real benefit. What does Kreeft mean?

      • http://www.thethirstygargoyle.blogspot.com Thirsty Gargoyle

        Sorry for the delayed response — there’s a time lag, of course, me being in England, and I’ve been busy.

        Well, I’ve read this in a few places, but just looking online at a transcribed lecture — http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/03_ecumenism/ecumenism_transcription.htm — he gave on Ecumenism, he talks a lot about the need for Christian unity, saying that any reunion between Catholics and Protestants must simultaneously be on Catholic on Protestant grounds, and that we ‘we can say, without trickery, that the whole reason for being a Catholic is to be the best possible evangelical Protestant [… because …] that the essence of evangelical Protestantism is to be one with Christ, to meet Christ, and that’s the best reason to be a Catholic.’

        He’s said it much better elsewhere, though I can’t find where — it may be in a book I have at home in Dublin — but makes a fair stab at it in that talk. He certainly seems to have clearly explained it on this occasion, at least acording to the report, which summarises what he said in a fairly methodical way: http://www.layman.org/news.aspx?article=26558

  • http://www.ginadanaher.com Gina M. Danaher

    “I do think that a person can probably only be authentically evangelical in spite of and not because of his or her RCC identity. By that I mean insofar as RCC identity normally includes belief in papal infallibility, the Marian dogmas, sacramental salvation, etc., a person who is RCC and wants also to be evangelical (in the movement sense) would have to live with significant cognitive dissonance. So would those evangelicals who accept him or her as both Catholic and evangelical.”

    Great post. The above paragraph would sum up the thoughts I have on the entire subject. Having been raised Catholic and having become an Evangelical 30 yrs. ago, I have been following this migratory trend back to Catholicism. I do miss the Catholic church for many reasons, but these things you have mentioned as causing cognative dissonance are what prevent me from making a return to my roots for mostly cultural and nostalgic reasons.
    On the other hand, the dialogue has been good and has broken down walls that I have always resented as an Evangelical. I never felt that I did not have anything in common with my Catholic family and friends and I refused to regard them as unbelievers as some in Evangelicalism have advocated. For those that are committed Catholics, I take them at their word and then work toward an understanding of faith as taught by the reformers vs. faith as it is taught in Catholicism. Always I find that we are closer than we all thought.

    Finally, one of my first postitive experiences with a Catholic Christian, soon after my born again experience, was at two gatherings featuring the very compelling Brennan Manning.

  • http://www.forestlakebiblechurch.org Chris Phillips

    Hi Roger. Thanks for your article. I have three questions: (1) Do you think Anglicans operate a middle ground between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics? (2) Are you familiar with Frank Matera? (3) If so, what are your thoughts on his books (NT Theology, Romans, Galatians, etc…). I listened to one of his lectures online that he delivered at Villanova. It was great. His topic was Paul’s ethical teaching. By the way, thank you for providing me with balance concerning Bell’s new book. I read the first chapter online last night. I was thoroughly engaged and wanted to read more. Also, I appreciate what Eugene Peterson said about Bell and his critics. Not sure if you have read what he said.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      No, I haven’t read what Peterson said. So many are weighing in on this, I can’t keep up! Soon I hope to receive my own copy of Love Wins and decide for myself what it says. I’ll report on that here. No, I don’t know Matera or his work. Yes, I think Anglicanism is a middle way, but I also think it tends to be an unstable compound with consistency pushing Anglicans either toward RCC or Protestantism.

  • http://donnierossparker.blogspot.com Ross Parker

    Dr. Olson,

    I’m philosophy PhD student at Baylor, and was unable to attend the lecture/discussion last night. Thanks for the interesting post. I’m Baptist and have good friends who are Catholic, so I appreciate these dialogues.

    I have a question for you. Toward the end of your post, you have the following request:

    ** A word to those organizing these evangelical-Catholic dialogue events: Please invite former RCC persons who have converted to evangelical faith to speak. There always seem to be former evangelicals (or just Protestants) speaking but seldom (in my experience, never) former Roman Catholics. **

    What I’m curious about is this – who fits this request? These are scholarly events, so organizers are looking for professors/scholars. I can think of a good number of philosophers who have converted from Protestantism to Catholicism (some you named in your post, others that come to mind off hand are Trent Dougherty, Rob Koons, Jay Budziszewski, and Jay Richards). Do you know of any Catholic professors/scholars who have converted from RCC to evangelicalism? It seems to me that former RCC/current evangelicals aren’t invited because there aren’t many folks who fit the bill.

    [Please note that I’m not saying that unless a person has a PhD, he can’t be a good dialogue partner. But like I said, these dialogues are usually scholarly affairs.]

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Well, that’s a good question. I’ll have to give it some thought. Perhaps not as many have gone that direction as from Protestant to Catholic. But I still think even in scholarly meetings it would be good to discuss why so many lay people are switching from Catholic to Protestant. But my main point was that, in these kinds of meetings, I have noticed a tendency for the Protestants present to be very open to Catholic faith and practice while the opposite is not very true. The meetings I’ve attended have been mostly Catholics lecturing to Protestants about what’s wrong with their theology and Protestants agreeing.

      • Glenn Sunshine

        If you’ll take a historian (department chair at Central Connecticut State U.), I’m a roaming Catholic turned Evangelical, and I suspect I could probably find some more like me.

        • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

          Thanks for stepping up! If I hear of another such Catholic-Evangelical dialogue event I’ll certainly suggest you as s speaker!

      • Scott Arnold

        I suspect the primacy of tradition, i.e., what the Church says Scripture teaches, rather than Scripture itself, foundational in the RCC would tend to “prune” potential converts to Evangelicalism from the ranks of RCC university professors. By that point, one is likely entrenched in RCC dogma and less likely to convert away from it. Just as I suspect you are not likely to see many converts to RCC that are professors from Moody or other bastions of fundamentalism (small “f”).

  • Paul Davis


    Thank you for all you do, my wife and I spent 20 years in the Baptist faith (of the Southern variety). We finally left when we ran into the KJV-Only mentality and started really asking hard questions, which no answers where offered. After a heart-rending year of searching, finding and rejecting both Calvin and Luther. We ended up in the very last place we ever expected to be, the RC Church (and honestly the Roman part is considered almost an insult by some Catholics).

    This Easter we will finally be full members, able to partake of the Eucharist. We have found a deep history and Orthopraxy, in the teachings of the church that to be very blunt, is missing in many ways from the protestant faiths. At one church when I inquired about a class to teach, the “fundamentals”, I was scoffed at for the question.

    But I am still evangelical, I find that the CCC is largely used as a guide and not a true strict set of rules. We both struggle with saintly intercession, and the Marian doctrines gave us a great deal of pause. But unless we hit the wrong Catholic Church, we have not found many Catholics that fit the mold that is so often implied to them. That’s not to say there have not been challenges with some of the teaching, but Papal Infallibility only applies to matters of dogma which there have been few actual changes, everything else is considered secondary (certainly Papal Cyclicals). The single biggest issue to be honest, is Catholic Apologist. I have had more stumbling blocks on this path, because and apologist applied a fundamental reading of something like not going to Mass being a mortal sin. But I could not find any Catholic here, that would actually say that missing mass was a direct line to hell, not one.

    When I finally asked what must I actually do to be a Catholic, the answer was believe in the Apostles creed. That alone is the litmus for actually being Catholic, everything is secondary as the creed contains all the hallmarks of the Great Tradition. I wanted to express that to say we have not had to twist our belief, or reshape our theology. The Catholic Church like *any* church has people who are all over the place in their beliefs, I’ve even found fundamentals in the church. But here is the biggest change I have seen, bar none:

    Catholics openly welcome protestants, they do all they can to make them feel welcome.

    Evangelicals and especially reformers *cannot* say the same, since starting this journey we have been treated like lepers by some. If you think Rob Bell is taking an unwarranted beating, try being a Catholic around any reformer!!!

    We certainly have issues with some of what the Church teaches, but to be honest, it’s had an incredible impact on our walk with God. And will so for years to come.



    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Thank you for that testimony. However, I suspect one would have to accept much more of Catholic doctrine to be a priest or a theologian in the RCC.

  • Yvette

    Dr. Olson, do you think the belief of the conversion of Hispanic Catholics being not very sound is because so much of Hispanic Pentecostalism lacks and almost rejects the life of the mind? (Just so you know, I ask this as a Hispanic Pentecostal.)

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      True, but I wonder to what extent these converts were any more intellectual as Catholics? Yes, Catholics have more intellectuals than Pentecostals do, but how much does that filter down to the average Hispanic Catholic person?

  • http://craigbenno1.wordpress.com Craig Bennett

    I would venture to say the reason why they present Evangelical converts to Rome – is because the RCC see all other denominations as family prodigals who need to come home… That some convert away from them is a source of embarrassment within the ‘ethos’ of RCC.

  • JohnM

    “These seem often to center around issues of what evangelicals (or just Protestants) can learn from Roman Catholics. But real dialogue would evidence genuine openness on the parts of Catholics about what the RCC church and its adherents can learn from Protestants and evangelicals. That I seldom hear discussed by Catholic participants in such dialogues.” – Unless/until that changes I’d question why Evangelical (or other Protestant) universities should continue to have any interest in hosting “dialogue” events in the first place, never mind who’s invited to speak.

    I don’t know about at a scholarly level but I’ve made plenty of RC-turned-Evangelical aquaintances sitting in the the pews. I’d imagine the RCC is well aware of the numbers and I suspect it’s one of the reasons they showcase their prominent scholarly converts, as much for the benefit of of their own adherents as anything else.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      I’m all in favor of dialogue, but I urge those organizing them to seek true balance so that they don’t turn into “what Protestants need to learn from Catholics” events.

  • Vance

    The triumphalism seems to be coming from some of the RCC apologists but not from the hierarchy itself. It seems that a good many (but by not means the majority) who have moved from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy have done so for reasons based on theology, philosophy, and history. But, unless I’m missing something, I don’t see this when I look at the traffic coming from the other direction. It appears that comparatively few Catholics who leave their churches to join other groups do so following a lengthy study of the church fathers, the historic councils, philosophy, and theology. Usually, it seems, such conversions are due to emotional factors, not theological matters.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      What you call “emotional factors” might be a desire for a more direct, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. :)

      • Vance

        That may be true. But, after listening to some of my Charismatic/Pentecostal friends tell of the overwhelming feelings they experience in worship, I couldn’t help but think that they were confusing worked-up emotions with the power of the Holy Spirit. I am convinced that some of them are addicted to the feelings they work up, and that they confuse their addiction with love for God. I have seen the same thing with Catholic friends who are involved in the Charismatic Renewal movement within Catholicism. Such emotions have a drug-like effect. They can be deceptive because getting a “fix” can become more important than truth.

        • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

          I wonder, though, whether feelings should be totally discounted in religion? A cold, dry, emotionless theology and worship would seem to leave out an entire aspect of human personality. There can, of course, be too much of a good thing.

          • James Petticrew

            Wesley and Jonathan Edwards from different ends of the evangelical spectrum both so a vital role for experience and emotion in Christian faith

  • Yvette

    Excellent point!

  • Paul Davis

    And sometimes that ‘personal’ relationship can leave you stranded, having to figure it out on your own. When all you can offer is sola scriptura, it’s sometimes not enough. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but point out that history, and the deposit of faith should not be overlooked.


    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      To be sure, they should not be overlooked. But when someone converts to a church so that they have someone to figure it out for them, in my opinion, that is just another way of figuring it out for yourself.

  • Dick Wire

    You may want to correct your spelling of “Wilkins.” His full name, correctly spelled, is Robert Louis Wilken.

    Thanks for the substance of your article (and your books and many other articles).


  • Dick Wire

    The lecturer’s full name (correctly spelled) is Robert Louis Wilken rather than Robert Wilkins.

    Thank you for the substance of your article (and for your books and other articles).


  • Greg Milford


    Thanks for writing on this. It would be great to see Frank Beckwith make an appearance here.

    With regards to your desire to have the Catholic Apologist show more parity on the subject of receiving criticism, I think the requirements of the magisterium would leave them unable to acknowledge deficits on matters of Theology and Dogma if the magisterium had commented on the subject in question. They are not in a position to agree that their theology is lacking.

    But as an Evangelical who is moving toward the RCC, I would think any honest RCC apologist would acknowledge that Rome has much to learn from Evangelicals in the areas of preaching, teaching, discipleship, evangelism, and the development of active faith lives in its members.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Thanks for your helpful comments. You illustrate a major problem I have with the RCC–it’s settled approach to doctrine. How can any human organization claim to be infallible or its doctrines incorrigible? I just don’t get that. Yes, I know some Protestants do that as well. I just couldn’t belong to a church that isn’t open to reconsidering its doctrines if shown by fresh and faithful biblical research that they might be wrong.

      • Greg Milford

        I believe the Catholic would answer that the Church isn’t just a human organization, being guided by the Holy Spirit when it defines essential aspects of Theology and Morality.

        I too feared the lack of freedom you indicate (being a life long Arminian), but what I found is that the magisterium mainly teaches on the essentials of theology and still leaves plenty of room for reflection. It is just that Catholic-Evangelical dialogs will almost inevitably fall back to the core issues that divide us (authority, soteriology) on which there is less or no room (for both sides really) for compromise. Organizers would do well to anticipate this dynamic.

        • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

          Yes, it seemed to me (in all the Catholic-Protestant dialogues I’ve participated in and attended) that the same issues get hashed and rehashed repeatedly. Little real progress is made in spite of some interesting mutual agreement declarations that have come out of some of those documents. I guess the lifting of the anathemas against Luther and his followers was a good thing. I question how much room there really is within Catholic theology for real theological reconstruction and debate over dogmas? I am not yet convinced, for example, that Leonardo Boff deserved his discipline by the Vatican. And what would happen if a Catholic theologian said “I don’t agree with the doctrine of papal infallibility?” Oh, that’s right, we found out…in the case of Hans Kueng (who I drove around Houston for two days some years ago). But, the, some versions of Protestantism don’t fare much better when it comes to freedom of thought.

          • Greg Milford

            If theological reconstruction means stating that the Church was in error then the whole house falls. This grants a ton of stability to what the Church teaches when it comes to the essentials. I think this would be similar to an Evangelical throwing out passages of the bible. Why one would stay Catholic and not believe in the authority of the Church is perplexing to me. Why one would want to claim being an Evangelical and throw out bible passages has the same effect. The former has an identifiable structure for discipline while the latter does not.

            I found the amount of doctrines falling into the ‘settled’ category to be less than I feared and (mostly) their content reassuring as to ensure stability in the Church Doctrine over the long haul.

      • Brian

        Mark Noll puts it this way in his book “Is the Reformation Over?”:

        “If Christ and his church are one, then a great deal of Catholic doctrine simply follows naturally.”

        In short, the CC wouldn’t say it is reducible to being a mere “human organization.”

        • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

          And that is precisely on of my greatest problems with it. Any organization that claims to be more than human is risking idolatry (IMHO). The only non-human organization I expect every to see is eschatological.

  • Brian

    Hi Ross Parker,

    Mark Noll was asked the same question over at the Ignatius Scoop blog:

    IgnatiusInsight.com: Is The Reformation Over? contains a section about former notable Evangelicals (Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, etc.) who have become Catholic in recent years. Although they offer criticisms, they have a very ecumenical attitude toward Evangelicalism. Are there counterparts, so to speak, within Evangelicalism–former Catholics who became Evangelical because of serious theological reflection and who now engage in ecumenical dialogue with Catholics, either formally or informally?

    Noll: I’m sure there must be, but most of the ex-Catholics I know or know about tend to be pretty severe on their Catholic past. Most ex-Catholic evangelicals of my acquaintance were not well catechized, and often their Catholic experience was nominal, mechanical, or (in some instances) abusive; by contrast, many ex-evangelical Catholics reasoned themselves into Catholicism from articulate evangelical positions. That difference helps explain the contrast in “ex”s (if, in fact, my experience speaks to a general situation).


  • Bruce Newman

    I am 55 years old and next month will mark my first year as a Catholic convert after being a Protestant for 31 years. It would take too much space to tell about my road to the RCC but suffice it to say that I would have thought anyone crazy who told me I’d be in the RCC just a couple of years ago. My wife of 32 years remains Protestant and we get along fine, though at first she wasn’t happy about it. And I must say I was unprepared for the sheer nastiness of reactions from Protestant “friends”, some of whom suggested my wife might need to leave me. Over half of my RCIA class were Evangelical converts. I had stopped attending church for several years before coming to the RCC. I experience my new faith as a more consistent, fuller, technicolor version of what I had before. Yes, I have had to take time to digest some doctrines but find that it generally turns out to be palatable and even joyful. I still have much to learn. One does not develop a Catholic mindset overnight or in a year. I have no interest in displaying a triumphal attitude toward Protestants, especially since my wife and many relatives remain Protestant. I need to get along with them and, since they’ve all gotten over the initial shock, it hasn’t been a problem. I’m not smart enough to know why each person leaves one fold and goes to another. I only desire that, in whatever time I have left in this life, Jesus Christ can be perceived in me significantly enough to identify the Berlin Wall between Catholicism and Protestantism as a partition already broken down by Christ.

  • Michael Peterson

    First: Frank is right.. the book Evangelical is not Enough is such a great book!
    Second: While not a great source of news… anyone see this article about the Pope wanting to use less ‘Jesus talk.” Not in keeping with the Evangelical ethos! <a href="http://www.theonion.com/articles/pope-to-ease-up-on-jesus-talk,19727/&quot; title="The Onion=Pope To Ease Up On Jesus Talk Pontiff Trying To Be Not So In-Your-Face With That Stuff"

  • Michael Peterson
    • Greg Milford


      I am not sure you if I am missing your sarcasm, but just want to point out that The Onion is a satirical site.


  • Rob

    I noticed there was some mention of Anglicanism as a middle ground between RCC and Evangelical Protestantism. Roger correctly points out that there is a danger of instability here. I know several Anglicans that recently became Catholic and I know of others who have become Reformed or even non-denominational charismatic. However, I do not think that it is inevitable that one feel irresistibly pulled towards either Rome or Billy Graham. The degree to which Anglicanism is an unstable no-man’s-land between Evangelical Protestantism and RCC probably depends upon one’s reasons for becoming/remaining Anglican.
    If one has moved to become Anglican due to changing views on church authority where concern for the nature of church authority is central to the person’s Christian identity, then I suspect Anglicanism is highly unstable. Once such a person figures out what he or she believes, I doubt he or she will see much of a point in occupying the middle ground.
    Suppose one determines that the faithful thing to do is to come under the authority of Rome, in which case the authority of the church should overcome any lingering concern about strange dogmas. Or perhaps one thinks that authority ultimately comes scripture without the mediation of priests or councils. It is doubtful that such a person will see any further need for bishops or the historical councils and will just become Evangelical.
    Anglicanism is not a halfway house for me because it is a place where I can wholeheartedly embrace the teaching of the church. I think we safeguard the essentials by recognizing the truth of the Nicene Creed and acknowledging the witness of the church throughout history, but that our distinctive approach to Christian faith in the 39 articles is inclusive enough that people have freedom to explore Christian faith in different directions.
    People in heavily reformed churches or the RCC do not have such freedom and are compelled to believe things that cannot plausibly be regarded as essential for salvation. Evangelicals do not have enough of the historical witness of the church to structure their own odysseys into theology nor are they typically encouraged to draw upon many of the church’s deepest and most profound thinkers during their private theological reflection. As an Anglican, I could have Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, and Rick Warren all on the same bookshelf and no one would protest.

  • Matt W

    I remember hearing Leonard Sweet say that seekers and and some evangelicals are looking to be tied to something that is greater than themselves. And the Tradition (capital T) of Catholicism certainly offers that.

    My mom was involved in a Charismatic movement within Catholicism when I was growing up and I believe that the evangelical emphasis of that group (emphasizing the Bible and a personal relationship with Jesus) eventually led our family to become United Methodists (a denomination not considered Evangelical per se). From my experience growing up Catholic (then becoming Methodist, then going to Presbyterian seminary (where I learned about TULIP but gravitated almost exclusively to Barth), and now pastoring a United Methodist Church) – it seems that the Evangelicals who are turning to Catholicism and also Emergent liturgical worship are finding meaning in the ritual.

    In spite of being a part of renewal movements in Catholicism my family found that much of rank-and-file Catholicism is basically only ritual and is void of a lot of discipleship. I speculate that Evangelicals who grew up reading the Bible and hearing sermons every Sunday don’t mind a 10 minute homily that is really just the preface to celebrating the Eucharist (not in all churches but in my experience this is overwhelmingly the case). But the Catholics in my family and Catholics who are now joining my church are hungry for the Bible. We like liturgy but we love good preaching, we still acknowledge Advent and Lent but we would rather see people come to know Jesus.

    I still have a lot of respect for Catholicism (I still read Catholic writers) – but I felt that something was lacking. Interestingly, the time that I identified most with the Catholic church was when my family lived oversess (my dad worked for an oil company that moved us to the Middle East for three years during the 1990’s to country where Christianity is very restriced). Meeting in a house church and watching my Priest minister to the migrant workers from the Philippines had a real impact on me about what Christianity was all about.

    I think theologians who have a good balance of Evangelical and Catholic tradition (lowercase ‘t’ on purpose) are Tom Oden and Stanley Hauerwas. Oden, an evangelical Methodist who is heading up ecumenical projects to connect Christians to the early church. Hauerwas has gravitated from Methodism to the high liturgy of Episcopalianism and a strong emphasis on the Eucharist. I did not realize that Wilkens was Catholic, but I like a lot of what he writes.

  • Robin

    Is it that hard to type out the words “Catholic Church?” RCC, RC, Romanists, all are (in my opinion) derogatory terms. The Catholic Church is made up of several Rites, with the Latin Rite being the largest. The Byzantines, Melkites, Maronites, etc. would not at all appreciate being called Roman. We’re the Catholic Church – one Church in union with Peter.

    And Bruce, I wish you the best. I converted from Evangelicalism to Catholicism in 2007. My husband is passionately Evangelical, and anti-Catholic. It is a nightmare. We cannot discuss anything faith-related unless in the most watered down, milk toast fashion. God is good, what’s for dinner?

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      The problem is there are several independent Catholic churches in the U.S. If I write just “Catholic Church” how do I distinguish it from them?

      • Robin

        Any “independent” churches calling themselves “Catholic” but not in union with Peter are in schism. These would include the SSPX and the Polish National Church, for example. To call all Catholics “Roman” leaves out all of the Eastern Catholic Churches, who share the same doctrine but have different liturgies and traditions. It would also leave out the new ordinariate created for Anglican converts. That’s why “Catholic Church” best describes all of us.

        • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

          That’s like a Baptist arguing that only Southern Baptists are really “Baptists” and so people shouldn’t write “Southern Baptist” when referring to it but only “Baptist.” Here in the U.S. we have religious pluralism; any group is free to call itself “Catholic” that wants to. So, to be fair to all, I have to be specific. In my opinion, all those who look to the bishop of Rome as the supreme pontiff of the Catholic church are Roman Catholics in distinction from those who do not but who stand somehow historically and doctrinally in the Catholic tradition. To give in to demands that I adapt to the Roman Catholic practice of referring only to it as Catholic and to it as only Catholic would be to slight others who, at least in our social context, have a right to consider themselves and be considered Catholic.

          • http://keyboardtheologians.blogspot.com Dan Lower

            Even Roman Catholics will acknowledge members of a group as Catholic. We say Roman Catholic to acknowledge when a group is in communion with Rome. I’d even go so far as to acknowledge many if not most Protestant groups as being catholic insofar as they are in continuity with the Church, and holding to its doctrines. Also, saying “the RCC”…I guess I have a hard time, as a convert, thinking of that as derogatory. Pretty sure I still use it sometimes. The Roman qualifier is necessary here, and I think we can take it safely as indicating “Catholic and in communion with the Bishop of Rome,” even though in modern parlance and possibly even in technicality it often means the Latin rite. I’m not sure, I don’t care. But I thought I’d jump in to say I think Olson’s phrasing is, in any case, better than simply saying “Catholic.”

  • http://homepage.mac.com/francis.beckwith/JJT.pdf Francis J. Beckwith

    Greg writes: “It would be great to see Frank Beckwith make an appearance here.”

    Given the nature of a combox venue, there is really not much of substance I can say. I do agree with you, Greg, that Catholics have much to learn from Evangelicals, and I have said as much in my post-conversion writings and lectures. Two years ago, I published an article in the Josephinum Journal of Theology, “Evangelical and Catholic,” which consists of excerpts of my book Return to Rome (Brazos Press, 2009). In that article I address some of the issues raised here, including Roger’s concern that Catholicism’s commitment to the magisterium limits theological innovation. Just click my name and you will arrive at the article

    • Scott Arnold

      Thank you for your excellent article, Mr. Beckwith. I welcome virtually any and all attempts that participate with the Spirit’s move to bring unity to the Body of Christ. It is sad that so often organizations are founded with an emphasis on what makes the particular group of Christians distinct from other groups, rather than working together from our common foundation in Christ. It is not only that we have an opportunity to learn from each other, I believe it is part of the biblical mandate for community that we MUST learn from one another so that the Church is edified. A unified body of Christians in the world – now THAT is a force to be reckoned with!

  • NK

    As an almost-former Protestant (and seminary student) about to come into the Catholic Church, I have a couple of observations:
    First of all, in my experience of hearing priests talk about the Protestant church, they are always very quick to point out how the Catholic Church has fallen short and how they can improve (in Bible knowledge, evangelization, etc.) so I don’t think it’s quite fair to take what has been heard at a Catholic/Evangelical dialogue as the “sole” Catholic party line. I realize the context was probably different since what you’re referring to is a scholarly diaglogue, but I think it’s imporant to be aware that attitudes may be different at the ground level.
    Regarding the crossover of Protestants to the RCC, I do find it interesting that you don’t see a lot of “hardcore” Catholics crossing over. On the same token, I have never heard of a “lukewarm” Protestant going Catholic. (Basically summing up what someone else said a couple of comments prior, but I couldn’t help but say it again.)

  • Irene

    Hi Roger, interesting post! The topic of infallibility came up in the discussion. I’ve found that the first 2 minutes of this link by Scott Hahn to be very helpful: http://tinyurl.com/4g2nvb5

  • John I.

    The biggest problem with the RCC is its divisiveness. Most protestant churches would not refuse to give communion to an RCC person who confesses Jesus Christ (except for reasons of separation, or because the RCC is somehow the beast). However, the RCC will neither give communion to, nor permit its members to receive communion from, a protestant church. I could never belong to a church that creates such a division in the body of Christ.

    As I see it, the multiple denominations in communion with each other is closer to the model of the church of Christ than a single bureaucratic structure. Furthermore, neither Jesus nor any of the apostles sets up any type of magesterium to control doctrine. Rather, each church is told to investigate the scriptures.


    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      I completely agree. Most churches I have belonged to (probably all, in fact) would offer communion to any believer in attendance. Closed communion is not unique to the RCC, however. Lutheran Churches of the Missouri Synod also practice it as do many Baptists in the South especially.

  • Steven Kaminski

    You may already know this, but intercommunion policies in the Catholic Church differ from those in evangelical congregations largely due to innate differences in what each believes is happening there. Catholicism understands the Eucharist to actually BE the body and blood of Christ, substantially present and offering to prepared recipients bountiful Grace. Many evangelicals see communion as a symbolic action that points TOWARDS Christ being the bread of life, but do not believe in a physical presence the way catholics do (I’m told the leftovers and those little plastic juice cups get thrown out in the trash, for example!).

    The Catholic stance on (non) intercommunion is not condescending. It is a reaffirmation that Communion is meant to be a physical manifestation of a real unity of the Church in Christ that already exists, not a tool to be employed to try to make it so. It should be noted that Catholicism does not barr members from the Eastern Orthodox Churches (those churches which retain unbroken apostolic succession in the episcopacy and Eucharistic theology) from receiving the Eucharist in catholic churches (though there are few takers -another long story). Hopefully you can see this as evidence of the policy coming from the need to be consistant in belief rather than any sort of snobbishness.

    Though a cradle catholic, I spent 4 years in college learning from the Navigators ministry (taking not a few lumps in the process, mind you). Let me re-affirm that catholics can and need to learn an awful lot from evangelicals: committment to personal Scripture study, the sense of urgency of carrying on the Great Commission, the need for small group fellowship and faith sharing and (certainly not least) how to SING for crying out loud… As for deeper theological lessons, I’m not on the level of most of you, but I suspect there is something in catholic theology that makes it more likely for sincere believers to fall into the trap of scrupulosity than into ‘cheap grace’ and vice versa for evangelicalism. Probably a lesson there for us both somewhere.

    Thanks for the great thoughts.