167. Why Do They Cross the Tiber? Stories of Evangelical Conversions to Rome

Leonardo De Chirico’s note: I am thankful to my friend and colleague Clay Kannard for contributing with this fine article to the series of Vatican Files. Clay is a pastor sent to Rome to be a resource for the Italian evangelical church. He serves as a deacon of the church Breccia di Roma, Communications Director of the Reformanda Initiative and is a co-host of the upcoming Reformanda Initiative podcast.

The following post comes from a paper that was delivered at the 2019 Rome Scholars & Leaders Network in Rome, Italy.

MIND, HEART, & SOUL: INTELLECTUALS AND THE PATH TO ROME: A BOOK REVIEW

Mind, Heart, & Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome by R.J. Snell and Robert P. George is a collection of sixteen stories of individuals who have converted to Roman Catholicism. The interviews are conducted by intellectuals who are Roman Catholic converts, and as the title of the book suggests, each convert interviewed is a public intellectual and notable expert and/or leader in his or her field of study. Each interview recorded in this book provides insight into the converts’ religious backgrounds, personal experiences that led to conversion, the intellectual hurdles or obstacles faced in the journey towards embracing the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, life after conversion and post-conversion struggles, and suggestions of resources for other intellectuals who might be considering the next step on their own path towards Rome.

There is no doubt that the individuals selected to provide a testimony in this book are to be considered brilliant minds, members of the elite intellectual class within Western culture. Each chapter begins with a biography of both the interviewer and interviewee. Immediately the reader is met with impressive resumes of the people offering their personal stories of conversion to Roman Catholicism. These are the conversion stories of leading theologians, a former megachurch pastor, philosophers, ethicists, a novelist and syndicated journalists for major news outlets, political analysts and theorists, historians, legal scholars, constitutional lawyers and policy creators, and even an accomplished astronomer. The majority hold post-graduate level degrees from the most prestigious universities in the West, such as Harvard, Oxford, Princeton and Cambridge where many serve as faculty members and leaders of various university programs. They are no doubt scholars of the highest caliber and undoubtedly influential intellectuals who have demonstrated a commitment to life-long learning and engaging culture in the public square.

Mind, Heart and Soul is an apologetic work. The testimonies within this book demonstrate that faith is not an enemy of reason, intellectual fervor or a threat to scientific innovation, but they do so, for the most part, without diving deeply into the details of the theological, philosophical and intellectual arguments these converts wrestled with. Regardless, these stories demonstrate that faith involves the rational mind in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.[1] What is also evident in every testimony is that these intellectuals were not left alone in their quests for spiritual truth, but were aided through the contributions of those who had come before them. The works of other intellectual Catholics served as powerful resources in capturing these converts minds, hearts and souls for the Roman Catholic faith.

Intellectuals mentioned within these testimonies have successfully convinced countless others to embrace the Roman Catholic worldview. For example, the work of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the once Anglican priest who became a Roman Catholic priest and who will soon be canonized as a saint in the RCC, is mentioned time and time again in these conversion stories as one of the major influencers on decisions to cross the Tiber.[2] Other intellectual influencers mentioned throughout these conversion stories include the theological and philosophical works of Joseph Ratzinger and Peter Kreeft, the literary works of Flannery O’Connor and Oxford inklings such as G.K. Chesterton, Tolkien, and while not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis. A reading of the Church Fathers and the intellectual tradition of Thomas Aquinas played a significant role in convincing many of the converts that the Roman Catholic Church is correct in claiming to be the one true, historic and Apostolic Church.

The richness and influence of the Roman Catholic intellectual world is undeniable in these stories, thus providing a useful list of resources for those on similar journeys. But it was not only the brilliant minds throughout history that are seen to have influenced conversions. There is also the influence of community and a sense of belonging. Many of these testimonies describe a positive experience within a community of like-minded, intellectual Roman Catholics who lived a lively faith, or participation as students in Roman Catholic university clubs. But perhaps the most attractive sense of community came from belonging to a church that claims a doctrinal unity visible under the authority of the Pope, the head of a single, historic, and seemingly unified church.

The religious backgrounds vary among the converts. The majority of the testimonies come from individuals whose religious background was a form of nominal Protestantism. Of particular interest are the testimonies given by those who either grew up in a family with an evangelical religious background, or whose initial experience in the Christian faith took place within an evangelical context. Therefore, this book serves as a useful read for evangelical leaders, scholars, and pastors in seeking to understand common themes or potential weak points that might help to understand what influenced an evangelical intellectual to cross the Tiber and embrace the Roman Catholic Church.

EXAMPLES OF EVANGELICAL CONVERSIONS TO ROME

Ulf Ekman[3]
Former evangelical Megachurch pastor, Ulf Ekman, helpfully summarizes his attraction to Rome using four words: historicity, apostolic continuity, authority, and sacramentality. Ekman admits that in his camp there was a general lack of knowledge regarding church history and at times even an “open scorn for the long history of the church” (50). Ecclesiology was defined, not through a noted historical connection to a global and universal church sharing a common confession of faith, but through isolated independent congregational churches that held a “pragmatic look at the present and a futuristic eschatology” (Ibid).

As Ekman studied church history, he discovered a church with a much higher ecclesiology claiming apostolic continuity and unity under the Petrine authority of the pope. In the midst of liberal protestant developments, Ekman was attracted to a historical tradition of Rome that held an unwavering commitment to her traditional dogmas. He began to realize that his Protestant prejudices towards Rome stemmed from a lack of knowledge regarding the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and he ultimately rejected the Reformation doctrines stating that,

I used to believe the four “sola” tenets of the Reformation…more or less out of Protestant habit or tradition. Step-by-step I started to see how the Protestant mindset has an overriding attitude of “either-or” while the Catholic mindset, as well as the Hebrew, is more of “both-and” (56).

Yet of the aspects of Rome that attracted Ekman the most, it was the sacramental element of the Catholic Church that began to draw him into the Tiber.

Matthew Schmitz[4]
Matthew Schmitz grew up as an evangelical, believing that Catholics were probably not Christians and that the Church of Rome’s teaching was at odds with Christianity. As a child he participated in the Gothard Seminar, a program designed by evangelical Bill Gothard in which biblical morality is taught and encouraged. What Schmitz encountered was a very legalistic form of American Christianity that did not seem to demonstrate grace.

By the age of seventeen, Schmitz had rebelled against this legalistic program but not against the evangelical faith. While on a summer work assignment in Washington, DC, he began attending Capitol Hill Baptist Church. The pastor, Mark Dever, introduced Schmitz to Calvinism by gifting him a book written by J.I. Packer. Soon the young Matthew considered himself among the young, restless and Reformed, although he confesses never making it past page 70 of Calvin’s Institutes. Regardless, this newfound identity led Schmitz to begin reading anything that would be considered “both solidly “Christian” and undeniably great” (122). He began reading both post-Reformation authors as well as some older “Catholic things”, such as Augustine’s Confessions.

Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of Scripture was very appealing to Schmitz, helping him to overcome one of his biggest intellectual problems regarding the Christian faith, evolutionary theory. The literal interpretation of Scripture Schmitz had been taught did not allow for evolution, unlike the allegorical reading of Scripture used by Augustine. He began to embrace a Roman Catholic hermeneutical approach to Scripture.  Schmitz was,

…ceasing to be a Protestant, at least to be a pure kind of Protestant. I was becoming a more complicated kind of Protestant, or a more Catholic kind of Christian. I was looking for ways of reading Scripture, which, though I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, were more traditional and ecclesial (122).

Then while studying at Princeton, Schmitz was faced with the emergence of the gay rights movement. In seeking to defend a traditional Christian understanding of sexuality, he read Roman Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay titled, “Contraception and Chastity”. What Schmitz discovered was a powerful defense for the Christian worldview on sexuality within the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. This surprised Schmitz because he had always considered the Church of Rome as having erred in so many things. The discovery of a certain truth within Catholicism led him to begin looking more seriously at the Roman Catholic faith. Schmitz states that eventually his reason was well disposed towards the Roman Catholic Church and he ultimately became Catholic, “just by beginning to view things in the way Catholics viewed them. All I had to do was relinquish my opposition” (126).

Joshua Charles[5]
Charles crossing of the Tiber began with his doubting the doctrine of sola scriptura, which he ultimately rejecting it 2015. While studying Scripture, Charles came to view the recorded words of the living authorities captured in Scripture as problematic for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. He reasoned that the words of God spoken by men in the Bible (e.g. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Peter, Paul), words that were later written down as Scripture, had to have been authoritative when spoken and therefore indicated a living authority outside of the Scriptures. Charles then found himself trying to identify which living authority should be trusted, and therefore which biblical canon was correct. Was it the Protestant canon, or the Roman Catholic canon? He asked himself, 

Who do I trust to get that canon correct? Who is the divinely ordained authority by which we may be certain that we have the correct canon? Myself? Scholars at universities? The Jesus Seminar? I concluded that my appeal must be to nothing more and nothing less than the authority we see exhibited throughout the Scripture, but particularly in Acts 15, and that is the Living, Authoritative Church that began at Pentecost (102).

It was at this point that Charles set out on a quest to read the Church Fathers. In doing so, he was “absolutely slapped across the face” by church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. According to Charles, these early leaders of the faith seemed to have a more Roman Catholic understanding of theology and practice than did the evangelical tradition in which he grew up—an American Evangelical/Protestant Christianity he claims seemed to be in chaos (102).

Upon reading the Church Fathers, Charles claims to have discovered strictly Roman Catholic teachings such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Eucharist as sacrifice, the authority of the bishops, and apostolic succession (104). Charles even states that in reading the Church Fathers, there was an absence “of any distinctively Protestant doctrines among their writings, and the presence of a great deal of distinctively Catholic Doctrines” (106).[6]

Charles claimed to have found continuity. Namely, that while Roman Catholic doctrine has developed and been refined over time, it is fundamentally still the same, something that Charles states cannot be the said for the thousands of Protestant denominations (111). And yet, while he had recognized various problems within the Protestant tradition, Charles had never previously considered Catholicism because he never properly understood it. He states,

In short, what I thought I knew about Catholicism just wasn’t true. I realized that the Catholic intellectual tradition is extremely powerful, and I studied what the Church actually said about herself and her own dogmas rather than seeing them through an oftentimes erroneous and misunderstanding Protestant lens (117).[7]

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP and Douglas M. Beaumont[8]
In his first years of college, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP began to explore metaphysical frameworks offered by different religious traditions. While reading Flannery O’Connor’s Letters to A, White encountered the name of Karl Barth. He then went to the library, located and read Barth’s Introduction to Evangelical Theology in one sitting. On that day White claims to have received the gift of faith and was soon after baptized as a Protestant, even though he had not yet determined to which church he would belong.[9] Realizing that there were many expressions of Christianity, White set out on a journey to understand his new faith by studying its history.

White enrolled in a Church History course at his university and begin reading the writings of Origen and Augustine. He then read Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, whose emphasizing the combination of philosophy and theology was very appealing to White. He began reading more modern Roman Catholic theologians such as Balthasar, Rahner, de Lubac and John Paul II, in whose writings he found a deep continuity with the Church Fathers. Then during his senior of college, White read John Henry Newman, came to view the Roman Catholic Church as the historic faith and converted to Roman Catholicism.

White began pursuing his MPhil in patristic theology at Oxford where he discovered Aquinas and was trained in Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. White describes Aquinas as a “deeply grounded philosophical realist, a deeply grounded theological realist, and a mystic; it’s a very powerful combination” (70). For White, Aquinas offered a unified system for understanding all of reality within the context of the Roman Catholic Church. According to White,

St. Thomas’s philosophy of nature, metaphysics, understanding of the human person, epistemology, logic, and ethics make sense even independently of divine revelation while being deeply compatible with it. He also articulates an understanding of revelation which assimilates his realistic philosophical approach to the world (71).

In other words, for Fr. White, Aquinas’ philosophical and theological framework offers a unified system for understanding all of reality and that can be fully experienced within the sacramental economy of the Roman Catholic Church. A complete package rooted in an ancient intellectual tradition is very attractive to intellectuals on a quest for spiritual truth.[10]

This was especially true for Douglas M. Beaumont. Beaumont did not grow up in a religious environment, and although he had attended vacation Bible schools as child, it was not until college that he began his “faith life” (233). He admits to having strong sentiments against the Roman Catholic Church prior to his conversion, but without truly understanding it. The more he began to study Catholicism though, the more he began to view shared foundations with Protestantism that had really only diverged in application.[11] While studying apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Beaumont was introduced to the writings of Thomas Aquinas through Professor Geisler, who often assigned the reading of Aquinas to his students. Aquinas’ natural theology was influential in professor Norman Geisler’s classical approach to apologetics. Beaumont immediately came to appreciate Aquinas’ philosophical, careful and systemic thinking.

Beaumont continued to study Church History as part of his role as research assistant to Norman Geisler, who at the time was working on his Systematic Theology series. Beaumont was tasked with finding quotes from Church Fathers that would support Geisler’s beliefs, but he found it very difficult to identify continuity with the early Church Fathers when it came to an Evangelical ecclesiology and eschatology. The longer Beaumont studied Church History, the more he began to agree with John Newman, that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. Ultimately, Beaumont embraced the long intellectual tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, her claim to apostolic unity and continuity with the ancient Church, and a sacramental system structured around a Thomistic intellectual tradition and metaphysical understanding of nature and grace.[12] Dozens of other seminarians from Southern Evangelical Seminary have since followed in his footsteps.

COMMON THEMES AND WEAK POINTS NOTED IN EVANGELICAL CONVERSIONS TO ROME

Each of these converts above was attracted to one or more of the four words mentioned by Ulf Ekman: the historicity, apostolic continuity, authority, and sacramentality of the Roman Catholic Church. There is only one word missing that must be noted, intellectuality. The previous conversion stories are not isolated. Many other examples can be found elsewhere, e.g. Beaumont’s book, Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome. A very helpful analysis on evangelical conversions to Rome has also been provided by Kenneth J. Stewart in his book, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis.[13]

What repeating themes do these evangelical conversion stories reveal that should be noted by evangelical pastors, leaders and scholars? This section does not attempt to provide an in-depth theological analysis of the arguments given by evangelical converts for their crossing of the Tiber. For an excellent psychological, theological, and sociological analysis on what has been labeled, “Convertitis”, check out the new series by the Davenant Institute titled, “Why Protestants Convert“. What we are addressing below are common themes and weak-points identified in testimonies of those who have had a case of convertitis. Our desire is to continue a conversation as to why Roman Catholicism becomes so attractive to some evangelicals and what can we do about it.

1. Weak ecclesiology with no or little historical formation or depth
Every single testimony seems to indicate a weak ecclesiological background. Converts describe evangelicalism in terms of isolated evangelical church expressions with no connection to a historic and global Christian faith. There was no mention of intentional discipleship and theological formation taking place within the context of the local church. In these testimonies, a study of Church history usually took place independently or through Evangelical Bible Schools and Seminaries. In Beaumont’s case, his seminary did not even offer a Church history course for graduate level students, not even as an elective! How is this possible? Our own research has found that many seminaries lack courses on Roman Catholicism. The result is a generation of evangelical leaders who, like majority of the converts in this book, did not really understand Roman Catholicism.

What needs to be done in our institutions to help raise awareness of church history and the evangelical connection to the historic Christian faith? More importantly though, what needs to be done in our churches? Helping evangelicals to grasp and identify with a historic and biblical faith should not be left to Bible schools and seminaries alone. Perhaps there could be a regular recitation during times of worship that include not only Scripture but historic creeds and confessions stretching from the Apostles Creed, to the reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Confession of Faith, etc., to even more modern global evangelical confessions such as those created by the Lausanne Movement.

2. Superficial and individualist expressions of faith
We cannot ignore the American consumeristic and individualistic cultural influence on those who attend our churches or seminaries. Unfortunately, this cultural influence can also be seen within many Evangelical church models today. Many churches have been designed to deliver an experience, having created attractional means in which the attendee can experience their faith, be entertained and consume religious content without being a contributing member or participating in the life of the church. This allows for the development of a shallow, individualistic and consumeristic expression of faith.

When one becomes aware of the superficiality of the experiential expression of faith found in many evangelical churches, a Christianity that provides a way to have an experiential faith through a mystical sacramental system rooted in an ancient, historic and global tradition that claims to be united becomes very appealing. Additionally, when one sees an apparent lack of unity resulting from isolated inwardly focused congregations, the global, ancient and seemingly unified nature of Rome becomes very attractive.

3. A Gospel-less Evangelical/Protestant church experience
Looking back to the testimony of Matthew Schmitz, it appears that his experience within a very legalistic (fundamental) evangelical context played a factor in his journey towards Rome. Others experienced a liberal form of Protestantism which also indicates a lack of the biblical Gospel.

Those growing up in a more legalistic context, like Matthew Schmitz, seem to be attracted to the Church of Rome’s commitment to its historic doctrines maintained under the authority of the Pope and the teachings of the Magisterium. This was in contrast to an apparent Protestant pick-and-choose or “have it your way” menu of churches. These converts found solace in a unified, non-democratic and traditional dogmatic system defined by the Church.

Something that is important to note in these conversion stories is that while there was much positivity regarding the unity of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted to a divided Protestantism and Evangelicalism, there was very little discussion about the divergent theological expressions within Roman Catholicism, both historically and currently at odds with one another. Some of the conservative converts who were put off by the liberalization of many Protestant denominations, often leading to splits and the creation of new denominations, seemed to lack any previous conversion knowledge of the various movements within Roman Catholicism that are at odds with one another. This is also true for the more progressive-leaning converts. For example, in chapter 6, Kirsten Powers openly shared about her post-conversion crisis of faith when she discovered a conservative/progressive divide within Catholicism that is marked with infighting (94-95).

4. Attraction to Roman Catholic intellectual tradition and a lack of biblical discernment when reading the Church Fathers, Church History, and Catholic intellectual giants
There is always a need to recognize our presuppositions on the quest for truth. For evangelicals who hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, we understand that the Bible is the starting point through which truth claims are to be examined. This equally applies when reading, or leading others through a reading of the Church Fathers, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, Chesterton, etc. It is not sufficient to take a merely philosophical approach or a realist approach, evangelicals must take a biblical approach. When it comes to reading these ancient intellectual giants and Church Fathers, is there is a need for greater evangelical scholarly assessment of church history carried out with a greater discernment and theological alertness?

What scholarly work is still left for evangelicals to do in order to address this weak point? What scholarly and literary works have already been done using a heightened theological alertness based on the authority of Scripture to evaluate the writings of the Church Fathers, Church councils and growingly popular intellectual traditions? Has there truly been enough work to study, recognize and indicate where our earliest brothers deviate from Scripture? This kind of work always carries the risk of being labeled historical revisionists, but evangelical scholars must be willing to take that risk and boldly identify where Church Fathers influenced a decision, made a decision or wrote a statement that set a trajectory towards what would ultimately result in unbiblical theology and practice.

Another question we must ask is: How does the local church address this weak point? In Schmitz’ testimony, it is not even clear whether or not he returned from his Summer stent in Washington DC to a local church that could have or would have helped him practice discernment. Was he left to himself as he began reading Augustine and embracing a Roman Catholic hermeneutical approach to Scripture? There is no mention of anyone helping him in this process.

5. Atomistic or no understanding of Roman Catholicism
Every evangelical testimony in this book claimed to have known very little about Roman Catholicism prior to their conversions. There were at times atomistic approaches to understanding Catholicism, only seeing Rome’s teachings as isolated doctrines having minor or isolated disagreements with Protestantism. However, there seemed to be a complete lack of understanding Roman Catholicism as a complete theological system prior to conversion. It is only after crossing the Tiber that some of the intellectuals recognized the systemic nature of Catholicism, and by then they had already rejected the Reformation doctrines that would undermine such a system.

It would be interesting to conduct a poll to see how many of our Evangelical Bible schools, seminaries, and missionary training centers actually offer courses on understanding Roman Catholicism as a theological system, and if any of them do, if they would be required courses in the training of evangelical scholars, leaders, and pastors. I am afraid we already know how the results would look.

What is evident through a reading of these testimonies is that there is much work to be done. It can be unsettling for evangelicals when considering that this book is one among many. However, the crossing of the Tiber is not only unidirectional. We at the Reformanda Initiative have been encouraged time and time again by stories of Roman Catholics who convert to the evangelical/biblical faith of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in the work of Jesus Christ alone. Most recently, we were encouraged by the testimony of Onsi A. Kamel, Catholicism Made Me Protestant, recently published by First Things. Read it and be encouraged.

Our prayer is that God may provide the resources and people who would dedicate their lives to humbly work together in identifying, uniting, equipping, and resourcing evangelical leaders to understand Roman Catholic theology and practice, to educate the evangelical church, and to communicate the biblical Gospel of salvation over and against attractive yet deviating narratives. Will you pray with us?

 Bibliography

George, Robert P., and R. J. Snell. Mind, Heart and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome. TAN Books, 2018.


[1] Kristen Powers, states in chapter six that, “One of my struggles with Christianity was that I thought it was anti-intellectual…I really thought all intellectuals were skeptics too…”, 89.

[2] Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and The Grammar of Ascent are mentioned throughout this book as one of the most influential works that helped converts overcome intellectual challenges towards the Christian faith, and to embrace the Roman Catholic Church as the one true church.

[3] Ulf Ekman was born in Sweden where he was ordained as a Lutheran minister. In 1983 Ekman founded the charismatic evangelical church, Word of Life, which eventually grew into a Megachurch having an expansive outreach and global influence. In his thirty-plus years of ministry, Ekman founded several Bible schools and a seminary, organized and led conferences around the world, and authored over 40 books that have been translated into over thirty languages. Ekman valued the evangelical emphasis on reading and teaching the Bible, having a personal relationship with Jesus and the charismatic experience of faith.

[4] Matthew Schmitz is a senior editor of First Things and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Spectator and more. He holds an AB in English from Princeton.

[5] Joshua Charles is a historian, writer, and speaker. He holds an MA in government and a law degree. As a writer, he has written many articles for publications such as Fox News, The Federalist, and the Jerusalem Post and has authored and co-authored bestselling books on America’s Founders, Israel and the Bible. His testimony provides very little insight into the specifics of his previous religious experience, other than it was within a non-denominational Protestant Christian upbringing.

[6] Then on page 108, Charles gives an example, stating that “every single Church Father believed in baptismal regeneration…”.

[7] As Evangelicals, even the works of the earliest Church Fathers must be read in light of God’s Word as our ultimate authority—Sola Scriptura. In Charles’ case, he had already denied the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

[8] Fr. Thomas Joseph White is the director of the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum in Rome, professor of theology and a convert himself. Douglas M. Beaumont holds a Ph.D. in theology from North-West University and an MA in apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary. At Sothern Evangelical Seminary Beaumont served as assistant to President Norman Geisler and taught Bible and religion for many years. He is also the author of several books, including Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome.

[9] More details are needed, but how is one baptized by a church without yet having decided to what church one would belong to? What was the understanding of baptism by the church who administered this ordinance? Was there any evaluation of White’s claim of faith or any attempt to catechize him?

[10] It is important to note that while Fr. White would present a Thomistic understanding of the Roman Catholic faith, as a comprehensive theological system where everything is interconnected, most of the converts never had this understanding of Roman Catholicism prior to conversion. Rather, Roman Catholicism was approached or thought of through the typical atomistic approach—e.g. doctrine by doctrine. For more on this read Dr. Leonardo De Chirico’s dissertation, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Vatican II and Gregg Allison’s book, Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment.

[11] Beaumont provides examples stating, “immoral popes were no more of a problem than was St. Peter. The evil of Israel no more made it cease to be the people of God than evils committed by those in the Church made it cease to be the Church. These discoveries made me realize that often it was my inconsistent application of shared principles that made Catholicism seem as far off as I had been led to believe it was.” (226). Beaumont states that during his time at SES, Church History was not even taught for any of their graduate-level degrees, even as an elective (227).

[12] Beaumont understands very well the difference between Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, from the systemic nature of Catholicism to recognizing that while we often use the same words (e.g. evangelize, works, grace), we have completely different understandings of them. See his concluding remarks on page 237.

[13] See chapter fifteen of his Stewart’s book, titled “Why Are Younger Evangelicals Turning to Catholicism and Orthodoxy?”, specifically the section titled “Reasons Behind the Drift”.

166. Pope Francis Fears for the Planet, But Where Is the Gospel?

Europe, sovereignism (the “us first” type of politics), migrants, glaciers, the Amazon … these are the topics covered in a recent interview given by Pope Francis to the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa (8th August 2019). It is a fairly long conversation that mirrors the concerns the Pope has in looking at today’s global world: he begins with Europe and stretches to the Amazon, touching on social, political, environmental, and ecclesiastical issues. Some of the topics are politically controversial and divisive even among the Roman Catholic constituency. Beyond confirming stances on which the Pope is strongly convinced, however, what is striking in the interview are his silences.

The Biggest Fear for the Planet
None of the things that Francis said were really new. There have been multiple occasions at all levels in which the Pope has expressed his views on sovereignist ideology (“it leads to war”), the populist tendency in the public opinion (“It leads to sovereignism”), the migrant issue (the four imperatives are to “receive”, “accompany”, “promote”, and “integrate”), the exploitation of natural resources (“the Overshoot Day: On July 29th, we used up all the regenerative resources of 2019… It’s a global emergency”); the challenges that the Amazon region is facing (“deforestation means killing humanity”, “the issue of open-cast mines which are poisoning water and causing so many diseases”, “the issue of fertilizers”, “the economic and political interests of society’s dominant sectors”).

These are all serious points, most of which the Pope touched on in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ on “care for our common home”. They have to be thought through and acted upon. They are real emergencies. However, something is missing in the answers of the Pope. Reaching the climax of the interview, the question comes up: “Your Holiness, what do you fear most for our planet?”. The Pope’s answer is striking. Here it is: “The disappearance of biodiversity. New lethal diseases. A drift and devastation of nature that can lead to the death of humanity”.

The disappearance of biodiversity, new lethal diseases, a devastation of nature. These are the things that the Pope fears the most for the world. Again, these are real and scary threats. But isn’t there something missing from a Christian point of view? If Jesus were asked such a question, what would His response be? If Paul, John, Peter, and James were asked such a question, what would their response be? In the Pope’s answer, there is no mention of Christ, sin, the cross, repentance, conversion, God’s judgement, grace, the gospel. And yet he claims to be the “vicar of Christ”!

The question opened up wonderful opportunities to reply in such a way that those fears could be approached and framed in terms of the gospel, rather than in terms of a merely humanistic worldview. In what he said and what he didn’t say, Pope Francis acted as if he were the spokesperson of a secular NGO focused on humanitarian and environmental issues, rather than a Christian who is passionate to tell the whole world the biblical message of God’s creation, human sin, and redemption in Christ alone and to work out its implication for the church and the world.

Where is Christ in all this?
Actually, Christ is not only missing in this answer – He is never mentioned in the whole interview. Greta Thunberg, the young ecologist activist, is referred to by name, but Jesus isn’t. One might say: but the Pope wasn’t asked direct questions about Christ. That’s true; but it was a long interview with lots of questions, full of entry points for the gospel to be announced. These opportunities were all missed by the Pope. In reading the interview the reader is not at all challenged by the gospel. He or she is instead alerted to some pressing environmental and political issues that an informed and cunning politician could have raised. Does his silence say tell something about the kind of “gospel” the Pope has in mind?

Expressing concerns for the Amazon region, the interviewer talked about the upcoming Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon that is going to take place at the end of October 2019. At this point the Pope shared what is going to be the highlight of the Synod: “The important thing will be the ministries of evangelisation and the different ways of evangelising”.

Evangelisation and evangelising. One is left wondering what evangelisation even means to Francis. In the long interview the Pope does not spell it out. The only hint he gives is to “dialogue”:

This is crucial: starting from our own identity we must open to dialogue in order to receive something greater from the identity of others. Never forget that ‘the whole is greater than the parts.’ Globalisation, unity, should not be conceived as a sphere, but as a polyhedron: each people retains its identity in unity with others.

This is what the Pope says: we open up dialogue in order to form a polycentric unity with the people we dialogue with. Again, there is no reference to the biblical content of the “good news” (i.e. the message of salvation in Jesus Christ), nor the biblical expectation that conversions to Christ will result out of dialogue. For the Pope, the outcome of dialogue is an expanded, polymorphic unity among people. In the Bible, however, evangelisation entails dialogue, but also proclamation, preaching, persuading, etc. (e.g. Acts 17:16-31 ). These elements are totally missing in the Pope’s view of evangelisation. Moreover, the Bible is also soberly aware that when and where evangelisation takes place some refuse the gospel, and some believe it (e.g. Acts 17:32-34). No greater unity within humanity is expected, but the conversion of the lost is the goal of evangelism. This should be the greatest concern for all Christians: taking the gospel to the ends of the world so that those who believe in Jesus Christ will have eternal life. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the Pope’s vision, although he claims to be the highest representative of Christ on earth.

165. What is the Essence of Roman Catholicism?

What defines Roman Catholicism? Is there something that qualifies not only parts of it, but the whole of what Roman Catholicism stands for? Is there a core element that shapes all components in a distinct way? On this question, scores of heavyweight theologians have written masterful analyses over the centuries and up to this day. From John Henry Newman to Romano Guardini, from Adam Möhler to Karl Adam, from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Henri de Lubac, from Avery Dulles to Walter Kasper, dozens of books have tried to identify what makes Roman Catholicism what it is. Despite the different suggestions provided, the common assumption is that Roman Catholicism is an interconnected whole and that its identity is pervasively present – though with different intensities – in all its expressions.

The latest attempt to identify the theological DNA of Catholicism comes from the pen of Karl-Henzi Menke, professor of theology at the University of Bonn and one of the most authoritative voices of present-day Roman Catholic theology in Germany. His book Sakramentalität. Wesen und Wunde des Katholizismus (2015) (English: Sacramentality: The Essence and the Wounds of Catholicism) exactly tackles this issue and is a useful new contribution to the whole discussion.[1] A full review of the book is beyond the scope of this short article, but at least two points are worth exploring.

Looking at Roman Catholicism as a Whole
Menke speaks of the essence of Roman Catholicism in terms of its “thought form” and “life form”. Quoting Greshake,[2] he agrees with his approach:

The Christian faith is not a jumble of single truths: here a dogma, there a dogma, here an exegetical point, there a moral norm, etc. Faith is rather a structured and coherent whole. This has important consequences for the inter-confessional theological dialogue: in the end it is of little use to talk from time to time (only) about individual topics and to seek consensus about them, rather one must ask: what is the ultimate reason for the different view about this or of that single theme? If we proceed in this way, we will come across an ultimate diversity in the overall conception of revelation, a diversity that is concretized in the various individual categorical differences. This means that among the individual confessions, in the final analysis there are no differences but there is a fundamental difference which then unfolds in a series of differences. (p. 12)

Since the context of this argument deals with the differences between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant faith (although he has primarily in mind liberal Protestantism), there are several points to be highlighted here: 1. Faith is a “structured and coherent whole”; 2. The dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics must seek to identify the ultimate motif of the respective faiths and conduct it accordingly; 3. This ultimate motif is apparent in all expressions of theology and practice; 4. The difference between confessions (i.e. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) is traceable to a “fundamental difference” that unfolds in a “series of differences”.

It is important that Roman Catholic theologians of this caliber suggest such a clear view of what is at stake. Often times, people who are involved in ecumenical dialogue show little awareness of the “systemic” (my word, not Menke’s) nature of one’s own faith and the other’s. The popular version of this superficial approach is when it is argued that as far as Evangelicals and Catholics are concerned, “we agree on Christology, we disagree on soteriology and ecclesiology”, or “we agree on the Trinity, we disagree on Mary”, as if theology were made of a bunch of isolated pieces. If we follow Menke and Greshake, it is not theologically feasible to hold such an “atomistic” approach (again, my term, not Menke’s), as if doctrines were disconnected bits and pieces. On the contrary, the Roman Catholic views of salvation, the church, and Mary are shaped around Roman Catholic accounts of the Trinity and Christ. Doctrines and practices cannot be disjoined as if they were independent silos, but must be seen as mutually influencing one another. In other words, Roman Catholicism is a coherent and unified whole, and therefore must be seen as stemming from the “overall conception of revelation” that leads to an “ultimate diversity” with regards to the Evangelical faith.

Sacramentality as the Essence of Catholicism
Given the theologically unified and coherent nature of Roman Catholicism, what is its essence then? According to the Bonner theologian, the essence lies in the “thought form” (Denkform) that is shaped by sacramentality: “the Catholic thought form and life form is essentially sacramental” (p. 14). Again, “the sacramental thought form of Catholicism is the difference that contributes to explain all the rest” (p. 27).

There are three sides to his understanding of sacramentality:

  1. The sacramental representation of the church of Jesus Christ in space and time.
  2. The sacramental actualization of the humanity of Jesus Christ through the liturgy, ministry and dogma of the church as institution visibly united in the successors of the apostles.
  3. The sacramental presence of the absolute in the story of Jesus (original sacrament) and his church (fundamental sacrament) (p. 40).

There is a whole theological universe here that would need a lot of unpacking. Simply put, the essence of Roman Catholicism is its view of the relationship between Christ and church in terms of sacramental representation; the relationship between the humanity of Christ and the institutional and hierarchical church in terms of sacramental actualization of the former in the latter; and the relationship between Christ and whatever the church is and does in terms of sacramental presence. The sacramentality of the church is the mode of Christ’s presence in the world in and through the Roman Catholic church.

The point is that Roman Catholicism has its core in the interconnection between Christ and the Church, between Christology and ecclesiology. Everything else stems from this “essence” that makes Christ and the church co-inherent and their relationship sacramental. The sacramentality of the Roman Church does not entail the seven sacraments only, but the whole of the Church in its self-understanding, life, and practices.

There are far-reaching consequences for an Evangelical assessment of Roman Catholicism. Among other things, this means that the “essence” of Roman Catholicism is its account of Christology, and therefore the Trinity, and the way in which it shapes the broad reality of the Church. This is not a secondary issue. It lies at the heart of the faith: the Roman Catholic account of the person, the work, and the doctrine of Christ. The problem of Roman Catholicism does not primarily lie in its Mariology, its unbiblical folk devotions, or in papal infallibility. These, and many others, are all variations that arise from the ultimate difference that has to do with the account of Jesus Christ himself and his relationship with the Church.

According to Menke, Protestantism is a “wound” of the faith. In his view, the Evangelical insistence on Scripture alone, Faith alone, and glory to God alone are ways in which the Roman sacramental link is severed. There is an element of truth in this analysis. According to the Evangelical account of the gospel, Christ stands above the church through Scripture exercising His authority over his people; Christ stands above the church in having accomplished the work of salvation and granting its benefits to the believers; Christ stands above the church by leading the church to the worship of the Triune God away from idolatry. The essence of Roman Catholicism is ultimately different from the essence of the Evangelical faith. Menke argues it. I agree.


[1] I had access to the Italian translation: Karl-Heinze Menke, Sacramentalità. Essenza e ferite del cattolicesimo (Brescia: Queriniana, 2015). Quotations will be taken and referenced from this translation.

[2]Gisbert Greshake, Was trennt? Überlegungen zur konfessionellen Grunddifferenz, “Theologie der Gegenwart” 49 (2006) 162-174, quotation from p. 162s.

164. From the Mary of the Bible to the Mary of Manifold Devotions

This review of Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven, CT; London, UK: Yale University Press, 2016) pp. 289, was published in “Credo Magazine”, Volume 9, Issue 2 (June 10, 2019).

At the end of September 2018, in the midst of the Annus Horribilis of the Roman Catholic Church (with the explosion of sexual abuse cases and the growing spiral of inner conflicts within the curia), Pope Francis called his people to devote themselves to praying to Mary to ask for her protection.[1] He asked the faithful to conclude the Rosary with the ancient invocation Sub tuum praesidium (“We fly to thy patronage”). The full Marian invocation is recited as follows:

We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God. Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

The prayer contains references to attributes and prerogatives that in the Bible are clearly and exclusively relegated to God, e.g. His protection, His acceptance of our petitions, His ability to deliver, and Him being both glorious and blessed. And yet, this Marian prayer ascribes all of these functions to Mary and her protective mantle. Where does this prayer come from? And why is it part of the liturgical and devotional life of the Roman Catholic Church now? 

The Growth of Mariology
A well-documented and scholarly answer comes from the book Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (Yale University Press) by Stephen J. Shoemaker. Shoemaker traces the complex historical process that saw the Mary of the Bible become the Mary of manifold devotions in the first five centuries of the Christian era. The book maps out the growth of Mariology well beyond the “laconic” (62) portrait of Mary that is presented in the New Testament. Even stretching the focus to the second century, Mary certainly becomes the “new Eve” for Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, thus seeing her role expanded to a useful corroboration of the Pauline parallel between Adam and Christ (the new Adam). However, there is no indication of any devotions attached to her. For these Fathers, “Mary seems to be a figure primarily of dogmatic rather than devotional concern” (47). Moreover, Shoemaker helpfully makes reference to a later Father like Tertullian who has a “lower esteem” for the mother of Jesus than other contemporary orthodox writers (65).

While “there is practically no evidence of any Christian devotion to Mary prior to 150 CE” (3), a first boost to the process came from the Protoevangelium of James, a late second century biography of Mary. Here she becomes “the epitome of sacred purity, as perfect holiness embodied in a human being” (60). Particular stress is put on her virginity that is “an emblem of her own sacred purity” (62) rather than a sign of the divine origin of the Son. Mary’s holiness becomes a dominating feature that attracts devotional attention on herself as an exceptional person. In a telling comment, Shoemaker argues that the Protoevangelium – therefore an apocryphal gospel – laid “crucial foundations for future devotions to the Virgin Mary” (53). For evangelicals wanting to ground spirituality on the canonical Scriptures, this in an important point to underline. Historically speaking, Marian devotions were fueled by writings that were never considered to be inspired, and yet have played a formidable role in generating the Marian cult. 

A Heterodox Backdrop
This is the background out of which the Sub tuum presidium prayer comes from. According to Shoemaker, this 3rd century Egyptian papyrus suggests, “Marian piety initially emerged within a more popular and less culturally elite context” (70). Moreover, the fact that the prayer does not mention the Father or the Son may indicate that it may have been linked with “heterodox groups within early Christianity” (72). The spurious lex orandi negatively influenced the subsequent development of the lex credendi. The fact that the highest Roman Catholic authority still uses this prayer shows how deep the impact has been.

The central chapters of the book are dedicated to a fascinating analysis of an important source such as The Book of Mary’s Repose, which opens the tradition of the Dormition narratives. Here, Mary is revered for “her knowledge of the cosmic mysteries and her influence with her son” (128) and capable of receiving intercessions, performing wonders, and making apparitions. The heterodox backdrop of the tradition depicts Jesus as the Great Cherub of Light, a typically gnostic title. The Six Books Dormition Apocryphon reinforce this insurgent tendency of making Mary the center of a proper cult.

Shoemaker also sheds light on the additions of roles given to Mary (e.g. the “ascetic model” strongly supported by Ambrose) and the liturgical evidence for the cult of the Virgin in terms of feast days, festivals, and hymnography. Here again, the lex orandi of ancient Christianity was “a bit ahead of its lex credendi” (194).

The lex credendi did arrive with the dogmatic pronouncement of Mary as the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus, a “major turning point” in the history of Marian piety (205). The final chapter contains a fascinating examination of the Mariological elements undergirding the historical context, the theological debates, and the ecclesiastical outcomes of the Council of Ephesus. The point convincingly made by Shoemaker is that Marian piety was already present and strong before the Council and was one of the principal reasons why Nestorius was rejected by the party lead by Cyril on the theological side and by Pulcheria on the devotional side. The series of sermons by Cyril that followed the conclusion of the Council “went well beyond mere Christological concerns in its exalted praises to Mary” (225). Nestorius’ Christology was certainly in need of further refinement, but he was at least right in foreseeing the explosion of devotion to the Virgin that would follow the proclamation of her as the Mother of God.

Mariology: An Evangelical Analysis
The historical and literary evidence persuasively presented by Shoemaker shows that Mariological devotions originated in heterodox (read: gnostic) milieux and were later theologized and integrated into the corpus of the Mariological doctrine of the Church (6). The book stops at a careful historical analysis, but the evangelical theologian wants to go further in saying something more that is backed up by historical evidence. Contrary to the idealized Roman Catholic view of the development of doctrine as an organic unfolding of the truth (from J.H. Newman onward), Mariological ideas and practices were added from the outside and allowed to penetrate the faith of the people. While Church Fathers like Irenaeus were painstakingly fighting against the heresies of Gnosticism in order to protect the integrity of the Christian faith, other sectors of the church were being infiltrated by gnostic deviations through Marian devotions. Gnostic influences that were thrown out of the door of theology re-entered through the window of devotions, without the church as a whole exercising enough biblical discernment to understand what was happening. Unfortunately, the lex orandi (in this case soaked in Gnosticism) eventually affected the lex credendi (which did not have enough biblical antibodies to reject them).

Back to Pope Francis. When he called his people to pray the Sub tuum praesidium Marian invocation, he referred to an ancient tradition that the Roman Catholic Church has assimilated and made its own. As has been the case from the late second century onward, “Marian devotion and doctrine continue to be driven largely by popular piety, to which the hierarchs and theologians largely respond” (239).


[1] Holy See Press Office Communiqué, 29.09.2018

163. Five Principles for Interpreting the Church Fathers

June 1st, 2019

This article is an excerpt from my Letture patristiche (II-III secolo), “Studi di teologia” N. 54 (2015), pp. 139-141.

Recent decades have seen Evangelical theology express a renewed interest in the Church Fathers. This is all well and good. Rooted in the Bible, Evangelicalism at its best has always thought of itself in continuity with the apostolic gospel as it was proclaimed and taught in the early church, the medieval period, the Protestant Reformation, and Evangelical revivals up to the present day. In this positive retrieval, there is also the danger of an idealization of the Fathers (as if they were always right and always working with pure motives) and a wholesale and unwarranted appreciation of “tradition” (as if it was a monolithic body that is organically related to Scripture). In order to both affirm the Evangelical interest in the Fathers and suggest some caveats in practising it, here are five principles that can be useful to bear in mind.

1)  In reading the Church Fathers, practice the Sola Scriptura principle (the Bible alone is the inspired written Word of God and the ultimate authority), the tota Scriptura principle (the whole Bible is inspired and needs to be received as a whole), and the Scriptura sui ipsius interpres principle (the Bible is its own interpreter). As Protestant theologians, always remember that Scripture is the norma normans non normata (i.e. the norm of norms which cannot be normed). The Fathers are important, but not decisive; the Fathers are useful, but not definitive; the Fathers can be enriching, but to the extent that they are faithful to Scripture. In the words of John Calvin, “we hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment, and that Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is meet for them to hold, under Christ”.[1]

2) Cherish a theologically sober and realistic view of tradition. The Fathers are the cornerstone of church tradition. As the Protestant Reformation taught us, one can and must hold the Word of God over every theological elaboration of the past while, at the same time, treasuring the inheritance that generations of believers have consigned to subsequent ones. In J.I. Packer’s words, “Tradition, after all, is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it”.[2] The 17th century Huguenot pastor Jean Daillé (1594-1670) wrote in his work Du vrai emploi des Pères (On the Right Use of the Fathers, 1631): “Who does not know that a dwarf, mounting on the shoulders of a giant, sees higher and further away of the giant himself? We stand on the shoulders of this great and sublime Antiquity: we owe this position of advantage to it”.[3]

3) Deconstruct the rhetoric of the consensum patrum, the idea that says there is a unanimity of the Fathers and that the patristic body of writings is a homogeneous monolith. This reading of the Fathers is short-sighted and ideological. The Fathers must be evaluated one by one, work by work, section by section, thought by thought, always relating their specific writings to the whole of their work and the general context in which they wrote. It is not legitimate to assign to the Fathers a dogmatic consensus and a simplistic doctrinal continuity with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Take note of what the Puritan theologian John Owen (1611-1683) wrote:  “The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest to do so. No man of ingenuity, who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretence. For it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others, who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely, in the latter they really differ, and that frequently”.[4]

4) Exercise theological discernment in assessing the historical dynamics in which the Fathers wrote. In general, their Christological and Trinitarian reflection is reliable in the ante-Nicene, post-Nicene, and Chalcedonian phases, although it is subject to a progressive infiltration of the devotional practices that eventually undermined it. After the “Constantinian shift” at the beginning of the 4th century, which transformed the self-understanding of the church into that of a religious and hierarchical empire, the ecclesiological, sacramental, and Mariological reflection of many patristic writings is vitiated by “imperial”, sacramental, and matriarchal categories. These areas are abundantly polluted by pagan parameters that have taken over from biblical teaching. The study of the Fathers therefore urges us to have a theologically responsible view of the “development” and “progress” of dogma (i.e. doctrinal elaboration after the closing of the biblical canon), away from naively simplistic accounts of it.[5]

5) Develop an awareness of systemic issues with important repercussions on the contemporary Christian identity. The Fathers are a field of study much sought after by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant theologies. In studying them, an exegetical and historical expertise is required, but it is not sufficient. There must be a systematic and ecumenical awareness of the issues involved because the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches both claim the Fathers as “theirs”, just as the Reformers felt they had inherited from the Fathers the rediscovery of the biblical gospel. In dealing with present-day readings of the Fathers, we have to deal with the Catholic and Eastern rhetoric of the “undivided church of the first millennium”, as if the way forward towards unity is a “return to the Fathers”. Behind these widespread expressions, there are hidden assumptions that are in danger of abusing the Fathers. The Evangelical study of the Fathers cannot be theologically naive or superficial with respect to the “ecumenical” game that is played on this field. The way forward to unity is a return to the biblical gospel.

In conclusion, John Calvin’s wisdom well summarizes the above mentioned five principles:

“While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in somethings it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin, Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves”.[6]

We must be neither “patrophobic” (i.e. fearing the study of the Fathers) nor “patrolaters” (i.e. elevating them as absolutes). Evangelical theology needs to pursue a realistic reading of the Fathers under the supreme authority of Scripture and at the service of the cause of the gospel.


[1] John Calvin’s Letter to Sadoleto (1539). Notice the reversed Roman Catholic argument presented by John H. Newman (1801-1890): talking about the Fathers he argues that “They do not say, ‘This is true, because we see it in Scripture’—about which there might be differences of judgment—but, ‘this is true, because in matter of fact it is held, and has ever been held, by all the Churches, down to our times, without interruption, ever since the Apostles’”:Discussions and Arguments, II.1 (London: Longmans, 1891) p.46.

[2]J.I. Packer, Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society” 25 (1992) p. 414.

[3] Quoted by G. Peters, I Padri della Chiesa, vol. 1 (Roma: Borla, 20073) p. 20.

[4]John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein (1678) in Works, vol. 4, ch. 9.2, ed. W.H. Goold, 1850-1853 (reprint: Carlisle, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967) pp. 117-234.

[5]See R.A. Finlayson, The Story of Theology(Cambridge, UK: The Tyndale House, 1967): “By saying ‘development of doctrine’ we mean that the doctrine of the New Testament was gradually discovered and formulated as the human mind approached the material provided by divine revelation”. See also J. Orr, The Progress of Dogma (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901).

[6] John Calvin “Prefatory Address to His Most Christian Majesty, the Most Mighty and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French”, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536).