Two Things to Keep in Mind When Evangelicals Turn Catholic
As you may have heard, a few days ago Jason Stellman, a PCA pastor in Seattle area, announced on his blog that he was leaving the PCA because of questions surrounding sola Scriptura and sola fide. By all appearances Stellman, a graduate of Westminster Seminary (Escondido) and the author of a 2009 book arguing for a Two Kingdoms theology, is leaving Protestantism for Rome. This move has generated even more interest because Stellman recently pressed charges against Peter Leithart in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery for deviating from the Westminster Standards with the latter’s Federal Vision theology. Not surprisingly, Leithart has weighed in on Stellman’s announcement, with Stellman explaining his actions in the Leithart prosecution here and saying more about his decision to leave the PCA here. If you’re interested, Doug Wilson and Carl Trueman have also had something to say about the whole mess.
What should be said about such an ordeal? I’ll leave it to others to dissect the ins and outs of Leithart’s trial and Stellman’s prosecution. I’m not qualified to do so. I’ll also leave it to others, for the time being at least, to mount a defense of sola Scriptura and sola fide. Without knowing Jason, I’m not going to judge his motives or how he’s handled the process. It looks to me as if Jason kept his ordination vows by making his reservations known to the presbytery and resigning his position. He appears to be a man of honesty and integrity, even with mistaken theological conclusions.
Instead of weighing in on any of that, I simply want to remind of us two points that we can easily forget when a somewhat high profile evangelical converts (or seems about to convert) to Rome.
1. Let’s remember that the traffic across the Tiber is not one way, not by a long shot. Because we live on the Protestant side of the river many people notice when one of our guys becomes Catholic. That’s natural when we may know the person’s books or have heard him at a conference or recognize him from the academy. But when a prominent Catholic becomes Protestant, we are unlikely to know about. How many evangelicals can name one prominent Catholic writer, speaker, or theologian alive and popular at the moment? I bet most evangelicals can’t think of more than two or three, like Scott Hahn and the Pope Benedict XVI, but Scott Hahn we know only because he used to be Protestant and the Pope is rather an unlikely convert. If there are Jason Stellman’s or Christian Smiths making the pilgrimage to Colorado Springs (or Grand Rapids, or Dallas, or Orland), few of us would know anything about it.
More importantly, we should remember that almost any Protestant church of any size in this country will be well populated with ex-Catholics. I know we have many in our congregation. They often come because their Catholicism was an empty tradition or they never knew the gospel or they never really heard the Bible taught. I’m not indicting every Catholic or claiming to explain every Catholic conversion to evangelicalism, I’m simply reminding us that the flow across the Tiber has benefited evangelicals more than it has Catholics.
Chris Castaldo, a former Catholic himself, understands the reality well:
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey Changes in Americans’ Religious Affiliation there are currently 15 million former Catholics in America attending Protestant Churches, two-thirds of whom do so as evangelicals. Inactive or “lapsed” Catholics are 27.5 million strong in the US according to the Pew Forum. They constitute roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population, making them the second-largest religious demographic in America behind Roman Catholics at 77.7 million and ahead of the Southern Baptist Convention (at 16 million plus).
All that to say, let’s not think the Catholic church is emptying our evangelical churches. Quite the contrary.
2. Let’s be cautious about tracing a straight line of historical determinism which can explain someone’s change of mind. Why steps occurred and what thinking got in place which led Jason Stellman to reject sola Scriptura and sola fide? Only Jason and the Lord know for sure, and maybe only the Lord. Was Two Kingdoms theology the gateway drug? Confessionalism? A high view of sacraments? An appreciation for history and liturgy? It could be all or none of the above. And even it were all of the above that would not necessarily indict anything on that list. Granted, there are some common themes that surface among converts to Rome (e.g., tradition, beauty, authority), but it’s best to stick with the stated reasons for jumping the good ship Protestant and refrain from the temptation to psychoanalyze.
The human head and heart are complex. Even when patterns and missteps are noted in hindsight, we should be wary of creating tidy sequences of first this, then this, then that. As David Powlison points out in his masterful essay “The Ambiguously Cured Soul,” this historical determinism is what mars so much of today’s counseling. We think Judy hates women because her mom was mean, but the same mean mother could have just as likely “produced” a Judy that craves the approval of women, or becomes addicted to bad men, or dedicates her life to making sure women have the affection she never knew. In the same way, it’s tempting to think we know which doctrinal emphases might lead someone to Rome (or worse). But as a general rule such warnings are worth little. Someone might first get attracted to Rome because of a robust view of church tradition, or because he read G.K. Chesterton, or because he saw A Man for All Seasons, or because he loves the music from The Mission, or because he once went on a tour of Italy out of his deep love for lasagna.
If our theology is unbiblical or imbalanced let’s talk about that. But if our theological interests overlap with those typically associated with Catholicism, don’t send out the doctrinal fire trucks just yet. There is no straight line from Wheaton to Rome, no one wrong turn at Orland Park that gets you on the fast track to the Vatican. I’m not sure what else Stellman might have gotten wrong on his way to leaving Protestantism, but I do know that he’s sadly getting sola Scriptura and sola fide wrong. And that’s what should concern evangelicals.