Due to my elite status as the 359th most popular Catholic blog*, I was given a review copy** of the book Journeys of Faith, where four different intra-Christian conversions are explained and then responded to. I plan to review the book in four parts, chronicling each story and response.
What’s the Point of the Book?
The book seeks to help Evangelicals understand why so many in their number are converting to liturgical traditions: Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Catholicism. Three of the stories are of Evangelicals joining one of those three traditions. The other is of a Catholic becoming an Evangelical and serves to help Catholics understand why so many people have left and are leaving the Catholic Church for Protestantism. (I am acquainted via the blogosphere with Francis Beckwith, the Catholic convert, and Chris Castaldo, the Evangelical convert.)
Part I: An Evangelical Becomes Eastern Orthodox
Wilbur Ellsworth recounts his journey from Evangelicalism as a Baptist pastor to Eastern Orthodoxy. His story is irenic and demonstrates great respect for Evangelical Protestantism.
He grew skeptical of the “seeker-sensitive” church model that sought to draw in non-believers through the Sunday service. The innovations seemed to have no limits or constraints, so long as people justified it by trying to “bring people to Christ.” In May of 2000, he left his pastor role in the church and was soon asked to lead a group of other uncertain Protestants, which he did.
While pastoring this church, he began to question his Calvinist formation and chose to dig deeper into the worship and beliefs of the early Church. In particular he was disturbed by a lack of reverence in the Evangelical Protestant service and wondered if there were a deeper way to worship God. Around this time he discovered some old friends of his had become Eastern Orthodox, much to his surprise and curiosity. This was a precedent of sorts for him and led him to start exploring these Churches himself.
In his study, he became convinced that the Catholic and Orthodox beliefs on baptism and the Lord’s Supper were true, while the symbolic-only beliefs of Evangelical Protestantism fell short of the reality. He sought to help his congregation see these truths as well. While they largely came to believe in the real presence, baptismal regeneration threatened to split the congregation in twain, and it was at this time that Ellsworth had a key insight of humility:
No one knew more than I that I was not an appropriate final word on how people should worship….A reality began to dawn on us that created great sadness. For all our exploration of the foundations of the worship life of the Church, we were just one more group trying to “do it right” on our own, according to what we thought was good and appropriate.
Though I was never a pastor, I also realized this during my time as a Baptist. By what authority does a pastor get up there and assert that this is what divine revelation is, that this is what these Bible passages mean, that this is how we should worship?
Ellsworth began to study Eastern Orthodoxy in earnest, doing distance courses and eventually visiting an EO church. Some time later, he and a portion of his congregation became Orthodox, while the rest remained Protestant.
One thing not included in his story was whether he considered the Catholic Church. He does mention that anti-Catholic prejudices were strong with those in his congregation, so it is possible that it was not ever thought of as a viable option, while Eastern Orthodoxy was.
A Sharp Response
Dr. Craig Blaising, representing Evangelical Protestantism, provided the response to Ellsworth conversion. Blaising’s response was sharp, much sharper than Ellsworth’s conversion account, and for this I was glad. Take the gloves off, come at the arguments with whatever you’ve got.
Blaising makes a good attempt at countering Ellsworth’s points, focusing on what he sees as the wrong elevation of Tradition over the Scriptures and of the (Eastern Orthodox) Church over both of them. His critique could just as well be against Catholicism in this regard.
Blaising offers a different interpretation of the historical data–the Fathers and early Christian writings, as well as the Councils–attempting to show that the early Church held the Scriptures above Tradition and the Church and refuted heretics through Scripture alone. If I were an Evangelical unfamiliar with the data, I would probably find his interpretation convincing, but it amounts to reading Protestant principles back onto the early Church. It doesn’t work. He carefully downplays the role of ecumenical councils and sacred Tradition, as well as Apostolic Succession, in the refutation of the heretics (and the determination of what was orthodox vs. heterodox), but this picture doesn’t fit the historical reality as well as Orthodoxy and Catholicism do.
Blaising then argues that the veneration of icons done in EO churches is contrary to the Bible and leads people into idolatry. This is well-trodden ground so I won’t say more on it. Next he moves to the Eucharist and baptism and claims that the early Church became corrupted on these doctrines as well, heresies that unfortunately were not corrected until the (Zwinglian and Anabaptist) movements of the Protestant Reformation.
Ellsworth makes a brief response and generally does well at it, clarifying the EO understanding of Scripture and Tradition in the Church, responding about veneration of icons, etc.
The rest of the conversion stories follow the same pattern: author’s story, response from a critic, author’s rejoinder. It’s a great structure, and this first section demonstrates the quality and depth of the interlocutors. No straw-men or fundamentalist shallowness on any side, but calm, thoughtful, studied arguments.
In Ellsworth story, he could just as well have been describing how he became Catholic, and Blaising could just as well have been trying to rebut the reasons. But this book isn’t why one should become Catholic vs. EO or vice-versa, but why Protestants are becoming Catholic or Orthodox, so I didn’t expect a detailed account of why someone became EO vs. Catholic in this story.
This book is a brave one to publish for Zondervan, a Protestant press. The Catholic and EO arguments are really strong (I would say, of course, compelling). But the phenomenon of Protestants becoming one or the other is widespread and well-known enough now, especially due to the internet, that it cannot be ignored. So this is a timely book where Evangelicals can at least see an intelligent response to these conversions.
Look forward to the rest of my reviews in the coming weeks!
* I have no idea if this number is accurate
** Actually I begged for a review copy and the book’s team was gracious enough to send me one.