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From the July/August, 2012 issue of Touchstone


Changing Churches by Louis Markos

Changing Churches

Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism
edited by Robert L. Plummer
Zondervan, 2012
(256 pages, $18.99, paperback)

reviewed by Louis Markos

I spent most of the 1980s as a college student and as an active member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Though IVCF was, and is, a non-denominational, para-church organization whose members hail from all branches of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church," it was almost a given that those students who were most committed to Christ, most serious about sharing their faith, and most earnest about studying the Scriptures were either Evangelical Protestants or (like myself) in the process of becoming one. Again and again, I met students who had grown up as nominal Catholics or Orthodox or liturgical ("high-church") Protestants, but who now felt convicted and called by the Spirit to convert to Evangelicalism.

That was then. Today, as a professor at an Evangelical university, I have witnessed among the current generation of students an unexpected shift in the other direction. Increasingly, young (and not-so-young) people who yearn for an intimate relationship with Christ in the midst of a superficial society, who desire a fuller spiritual vision that will counter the hedonism, scientism, and utilitarianism of our modern campuses, and who hunger for a revival of the sacred in the midst of an often militantly secular culture are eagerly crossing the Tiber, the Bosporus, or the English Channel. It is to Rome (Catholicism), Constantinople (Orthodoxy), or Canterbury (Anglicanism) that they are looking for an answer, for a champion, and for a home.

To help Christians, particularly Evangelicals, navigate these crisscrossing journeys, Robert Plummer, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has compiled testimonies from three former Evangelicals who have traversed one of the three liturgical bodies of water listed above. To balance out these journeys, he also includes a fourth testimony from a cradle Catholic who, in the manner of the young men I attended university with in the 1980s, found that he could not come alive spiritually and work out his divine calling until he swam downstream into the harbor of low-church Protestantism. In addition, to provide a genial format for irenic debate between the various branches of the Church, Plummer follows each testimony with a response from a fellow believer who chose to remain in the denomination from which the testifier chose to depart. The testifier is then given the opportunity to respond to the responder.

Through this simple but effective format—one that balances heart-felt confession with rational critique, spiritual discernment with theological discourse, and a love for sacred tradition with a passion for doctrinal purity—Plummer succeeds in moderating a much-needed dialogue. In the spirit of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the eight writers who contribute their testimonies and responses remain consistently conscious of the fact that true, orthodox believers in each denomination have more in common with each other than they do with theological liberals in their own denominations who deny key teachings of the Bible and the Creeds.

Still, within that framework, they feel free to debate, vigorously and unapologetically, the real differences that exist and persist between the branches. These differences tend to revolve around four general areas: the relationship between the Bible and Tradition, church hierarchy and the nature of apostolic succession, the exact means by which a believer is justified before God, and the role of the seven Sacraments and of Mary in the life of the Church and of the believer.

Sailing the Bosporus

Plummer wisely begins with a journey to a faith tradition that will seem the most exotic and least familiar to most of his Evangelical readers: Eastern Orthodoxy. Wilbur Ellsworth, president of the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, shares a moving testimony of his multi-stage pilgrimage from pastor of First Baptist Church in Wheaton, Illinois, to priest at the Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church in nearby Warrenville. Along the way, Ellsworth served as a pastor for an experimental, start-up church whose members were hungry for greater reverence—a hunger that led them "to explore the ancient worship practices of the Church" and to yearn for "the beauty of holiness." Together with Ellsworth, a number of his parishioners found themselves drawn to the liturgy, theology, ecclesiology, and spiritual disciplines of Orthodoxy. In the end, the congregation agreed to split into two groups, with Ellsworth's group being received, by chrismation, into the Orthodox Church.

Though Ellsworth discusses a number of factors that led to his decision to embrace Orthodoxy, the one that resonates most powerfully concerns his frustration with Evangelical worship. Too often, Ellsworth argues, Evangelical churches scramble to keep up with the latest fads in music, choosing songs and styles that will attract unchurched people rather than ones that will honor God's holiness and promote a sense of reverence in the congregation. Though Ellsworth (who serves on the board of the publisher of Touchstone) expresses deep concern for the lost, he reminds his Evangelical readers that the Church's first duty is to praise God and edify the believers who make up the Body of Christ. Whereas Evangelicals have changed their forms of worship again and again over the centuries (even hymn singing, seen today as highly traditional, was once viewed as a new-fangled innovation), Orthodoxy has preserved the same liturgy for well over 1,500 years. And yet, despite its static, unchanging nature, that liturgy embodies a type of awe, wonder, and mystery that is sorely lacking in the high-concept, ever-evolving worship of seeker-sensitive mega-churches.

Ellsworth's testimony is followed by a well-researched response from Craig Blaising, provost and professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. While conceding that all denominations have their traditions, Blaising argues that the Orthodox Church has allowed extra-biblical elements to seep into its worship; he highlights the veneration of icons, Mariology, and the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist and baptism. "Developing Tradition," writes Blaising, "is not a problem in itself unless it is found to act as a hindrance to a fully formed biblical faith and wholehearted obedience to God's Word." In response, Ellsworth not only defends these elements of Orthodoxy but also appeals to a strong sense among many Evangelicals that something is missing from their own worship and practice. That "something more," Ellsworth confesses, is what drove him to Orthodoxy.

Fording the Tiber

In many ways, the heart of Journeys of Faith lies in the contrasting testimonies of Evangelical-turned-Catholic Francis Beckwith (professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University) and Catholic-turned-Evangelical Chris Castaldo (director of the Ministry for Gospel Renewal at the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College). Both Beckwith and Castaldo take particular care not to demonize the tradition out of which they came. Indeed, both devote much space to finding common ground and to expressing their gratitude for what they took with them from Evangelicalism (a passion for the Word of God and the spread of the gospel) and Catholicism (a strong sense of community and of the sacred calendar).

Without dismissing the Evangelical understanding of justification, the Lord's Supper, penance, and apostolic succession, Beckwith winsomely demonstrates that the Bible (apart from sacred Tradition) can also be read to support the Catholic understanding of these four key elements of the faith. In addition to grounding his arguments in Scripture, Beckwith quotes numerous early church fathers (Ignatius, Clement, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Augustine) to support his claim that distinctly Catholic doctrines are not medieval in origin, but firmly rooted in the first four centuries of the Christian era.

Castaldo, while conceding that Catholic theology does teach that salvation comes by grace, argues that the on-the-ground reality for most practicing Catholics is a perpetual sense of guilt and uncertainty as to their eternal security. Castaldo further mounts a strong defense of sola scriptura (not to be confused, he writes, with nuda scriptura) and takes the Catholic Church somewhat to task for teaching "that if you want to see the presence of Jesus in the world, look to the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, because it is the embodiment of Jesus on earth."

In contrast to the strongly ecumenical tone of Beckwith and Castaldo, the two writers who respond to them are highly polemical (though thankfully civil). Greg Allison, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former missionary to Italy, mounts an aggressive defense of sola scriptura that asserts not only the sufficiency of the Bible as the source of all doctrinal truth but also its clarity and accessibility to all believers. He further defends the key Reformation teaching that salvation is "by God's grace alone without human cooperation."

In sharp contrast, Brad Gregory, associate professor of Early Modern European history at Notre Dame, forcefully critiques (if not explodes!) the efficacy of sola scriptura. By means of a brief but pointed look at the writings and actions of the early Reformers, Gregory shows that Luther's belief that all doctrine could and should be grounded in a clear reading of Scripture was immediately shattered by a plethora of competing interpretations that reflected the tastes of the Reformer in question rather than the clear meaning of the Bible. The Protestant "commitment to 'the Bible only,'" Gregory concludes, "does not and—based on the historical evidence of nearly five hundred years—cannot establish a foundation for shared Christian truth. Rather it is itself the cause of an apparently insuperable exegetical, doctrinal, ecclesial and social fissiparity." Though Castaldo offers some well-chosen New Testament passages that attest to the clarity of the Bible (it is not the obscurity of the Bible but the hardness of our hearts that prevents understanding), and though he holds up the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization (held in Cape Town, South Africa, in October 2010) as a model of Evangelical unity, Gregory's critique of Evangelicalism remains the strongest and most troubling in the book.

Crossing the Channel

After the forthright but fair-minded polemical responses of Allison and Gregory, the dialogue between Anglican convert Lyle Dorsett (Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at Beeson Divinity School) and Robert Peterson (professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri) seems almost too filled with sweetness and light.

Dorsett is the ideal person to close off Journeys of Faith, for he spent many years as the curator of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, which houses the largest collection of C. S. Lewis material in the world. Lewis was not only an influence on Dorsett's pilgrimage to Canterbury, but he has also been rightly regarded as one of the spiritual fathers of a distinctly orthodox ecumenism: one grounded in the Creeds (rather than in watered-down doctrine) and dedicated to preserving and celebrating those non-negotiable elements of the faith that all true believers share.

Dorsett's testimony also provides an effective close to the book, for it traces a spiritual walk that combines significant elements of the past four decades: the born-again, Jesus-movement, tent revivals of the 1970s; the explosive growth of Evangelicalism in the 1980s; the church-shopping of the 1990s; and the shift toward liturgical forms of worship and away from the naked, autonomous self that has increasingly come to characterize the new millennium. Dorsett powerfully sums up his meandering road to Anglicanism by voicing a sentiment I have heard expressed by a growing number of young believers: "For my part, as an ordained Anglican priest, I welcome the oversight of a godly bishop. As a child of America's individualistic culture, for too long I eschewed boundaries."

It is significant that Dorsett found in Anglicanism an antidote to individualism, but it is equally significant (and sad) that he could only do so by forsaking the Episcopal Church in the United States and joining the Anglican Mission in America—a move that placed him under an orthodox Rwandan bishop. (Interestingly, Peterson likewise had to seek orthodox cover in the Presbyterian Church of America.) Though Dorsett, like Ellsworth and Beckwith, found a new home in his more liturgical church, it appears that he will have to fight harder to preserve the integrity of his home than will his fellow pilgrims.  

Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include From Achilles to Christ (IVP), Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), and Literature: A Student's Guide (Crossway). His On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis was released by Moody in October 2012.

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“Changing Churches” first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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