Growing up in a conservative Baptist church I was not intentionally exposed much to other faith traditions (though I am sure this is true for most Evangelicals). I say intentionally because there is a sense in which I was “protected” from them and their seemingly unbiblical doctrines. These other faith traditions, unlike my own of course (wink, wink), were fraught with extra-biblical beliefs that were shrouded in sheep’s clothing in order to cover the wolf of false man-made doctrine underneath.
As I grew up and went to college I began to learn more about these other faith traditions. To be honest, I struggled with the salvation of Catholics, had no idea what Eastern Orthodoxy was and Anglicans were just wrong Protestants because they weren’t evangelical Baptists like myself. I was woefully ignorant of much of their beliefs and, though I am still not convinced of them, I was utterly negative in my attitude towards them. Needless to say, I could have used a dose of gospel humility, even if I still disagreed with them in the end (and they with me for that matter).
Structure of the Book
In an effort to break down hollow walls of characterization of other faith traditions and to build new solid walls of respectful and informed understanding, Robert Plummer has assembled a number of top-notch representatives of various faith traditions (Catholic, Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox and Anglicanism) who have changed from one faith tradition to another in his newly edited book Journeys of Faith. The four major contributors are as follows:
- Wilbur Ellsworth turned Evangelical Southern Baptist to Eastern Orthodox.
- Francis J. Beckwith turned mildly Catholic to Evangelical to strong Catholic again.
- Chris Castaldo turned Catholic to Evangelical.
- Lyle W. Dorsett walked among the Evangelical spectrum where he eventually landed in Anglicanism.
Though this book gives the reasons for why each contributor changed from one faith tradition to another this is not a typical counter point book. The point is not to necessarily critique the reasons each person holds for changing, but as Plummer states:
It is my hope that persons reading this book will listen carefully to the persons who have converted to new faith traditions and will truly seek to understand the motivation behind such spiritual journeys. (p. 16)
Following each major chapter is a response by one person (three of them being Evangelical and one being Catholic), who is not a major contributor, in regards to both the positive they see in the contributors essays as well as the things that give pause or concern. Following the critiques the contributors are allowed a short response. What readers will see in this book is summed up well by Plummer:
The contributors to this volume recognize genuine differences among Christian faith traditions and see the value in making biblical, logical, historical, and experiential cases for what they believe are the most compelling expressions of Christian community. (p. 17)
Though differences are clearly evident and expressed, this book is not an exercise in public theological bashing. On the other hand, this is not an attempt to gloss over the differences between various faith traditions in an effort to flatten them all out so they can be presented as a unified front.
Summary of Major Contributors Changes
Wilbur Ellsworth grew up Southern Baptist, was trained as such and pastored as such. He sums up his long journey to Eastern Orthodoxy in the following initial words, “There was always a sense that we needed to discover and grow into something more, something greater, richer, and more compelling” (p. 24). The issue that sparked what would later land him in Eastern Orthodoxy was his inadequate experience in his first Baptist church in regards to its worship life. It was evident that there was “a lack of any theological basis” for what they as a church were doing (p. 26). This led to a series of theological and practical reexaminations of a number of major beliefs Ellsworth had learned. His desire for a deeper understanding and experience of communion and church worship played a major role. The lack of uniformity within Evangelical churches in regards to worship and theology led him to desire a more unified view of Scripture, tradition and church authority which he found in the Orthodox church. Much of this change in faith traditions centers around, what Ellsworth considers to be a turn back to the historic roots of the Christian church.
Francis Beckwith was born into the Catholic Church but after high school he spent much of his life within Evangelical circles, churches and schools. The initial spark for his change from Evangelicalism to Catholicism began while he taught at UNLV. As he taught classes on ethical theory, applied ethics and politics he found that he “was drawn more to Catholic authors who seemed to have a better grasp of the underlying philosophical issues that percolated beneath many contemporary moral debates” (p. 84). Their biblical and theological arguments had more elegance and intellectual richness (p. 84). The great dividing line came when he wrote a paper addressing anticreedal Protestantism. A member of the listening audience made the comment that the necessity of creeds in the first six centuries of the church necessitated a magisterium that had the authority to make them and declare them normative for the church (p. 87). It is here that Beckwith felt the need to entertain returning to the Catholicism of his youth. As is characteristic for many Catholics, the four major issues he had to struggle with overcoming were the doctrine of justification, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacrament of penance and apostolic succession (p. 88). Beckwith concludes his findings on these four major doctrines to be
Defensible Christian beliefs and practices that not only could be supported scripturally but were also uncontroversially believed and practiced by the church universal during the times in which the most important early creeds and canons were penned and promulgated…..I could not legitimately isolate and insulate my Protestant reading of the New Testament from the practices of the church that fixed the canon of the New Testament without suggesting the counterintuitive notion that the church had enough of the Holy Spirit to know what books belong in Scripture but not enough of the Holy Spirit to know what practices and ecclesiology are consistent with, or legitimate derivations from, the Scripture. (p. 112).
All in all, one can see that Beckwith has turned to Catholicism for the very reasons that divide Catholics and Evangelicals, which Gregg Allison ably brings out in his response. He delves deeply into the early history of the church quoting numerous early church fathers in an effort to support the Catholic tradition. For Beckwith, Protestantism was let go because he felt it had isolated itself “from the practices of the church that fixed the canon of that New Testament without suggesting the counterintuitive notion that the church had enough of the Holy Spirit to know what books belong in Scripture but not enough of the Holy Spirit to know what practices and ecclesiology are consistent with, or legitimate derivation from, that Scripture.” (p. 112)
Chris Castaldo grew up Catholic but the tipping point for his turn to Protestantism was the issue of assurance
At the end of the day, I found Catholic faith to be frustrating because it never produced confidence that I was fully and finally accepted by God. Even when I successfully observed the Church’s precepts – regulation such as attending Mass weekly, observing holy days of obligation, or abstaining from eating mean on Lenten Fridays – I knew it was only a matter of time before I violated another religious stipulation and thus removed myself from God’s favor. (p. 139)
After tasting the teachings of some other religions it was the message the preacher preached at his father’s funeral that drove Chris to resting wholly in Jesus for his salvation – he had assurance (p. 143). “In retrospect, I believe this was the day I ceased to be a Catholic.” (p. 144) In contrast to Beckwith, Castaldo could no longer see the Catholic church as the hub of church authority for all belief and practice – it was the Bible. Along with the concerns of many other former Catholics in leaving, it was a “weariness with the vast array of religious rules, regulations, and traditions which seemed to have little or nothing to do with the gospel.” (p. 145) Though Catholics and Protestants begin with the same Bible and confess much the same creeds, it is where they go after there that the difference(s) begin to emerge
This divergence is based upon a different understanding of how the infallible revelation and authority of Jesus applies to his Church, and by extension to the world. In other words, when Catholics identify the tangible presence of Christ in the world, they normally point to the institution of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Evangelicals, on the other hand, while acknowledging a union between Christ and his Church, are nonetheless more inclined to see the infallible manifestation of Christ’s revelation and authority in the text of Scripture. (p. 148).
This issue of the location of authority for Christians has been the watershed issue between Evangelical and Catholics and will by all accounts continue to be so. Throughout his discussion Castaldo takes on the major points of teaching on Catholic authority while conversely clarifying the Evangelical position.
Returning to his original struggle with the lack of assurance of salvation he felt within the Catholic tradition, Castaldo finishes out by addressing the issue of guilt. For Chris, it was the “oppressive imposition of unhealthy religious guilt” that perpetuated the lack of assurance of salvation (p. 160). Castaldo clears up the false notion held by many Evangelicals concerning Catholic Mass that the Eucharist is a repetition of the cross. Rather, “he is ‘immolated,’ which means that he is presented in a state of victimhood…..Because the death of Christ is ongoing, there is never a sense that justification ((being made right with God) has been finished in this life.” (p. 162) For Castaldo, if positional justification has not been accomplished by Christ for the believer then there is no assurance of salvation this side of the grave.
Lyle Dorsett began as a moderate Lutheran and turned Anglican. Though feeling a call to ministry at the age of thirteen, Dorsett did not act on this “calling” until much later in life. In the meantime he pursued studies and teaching in history. After several years of not walking with the Lord, the prayers of his wife and the influence of others, Dorsett finally came to a place in his life in which he called on the Lord. Here his call for ministry was rekindled and he began to pursue theological education and ordination. Dorsett wove in and out of a few different denominations because, as he puts in, he and his wife were “looking for something more” than what they found where they were at presently. He finally found his home in the Anglican tradition because
Historically it has been the via media that emerged from the English Reformation. It is the middle way between the austerity of some radical Puritans who determined to cleanse the Church from all “vestiges of popery,” going so far as to call for the abolition of everything not expressly required in the Bible, and the Catholics on the other hand who placed Tradition and the Church above Scripture to an extreme where they promulgated some doctrines that stand in contradistinction to Holy Writ. (p. 208)
For Dorsett, Anglicanism has a variety of Evangelical beliefs in which he believes represent the best of Evangelical theology and practice.
There are a few observations I made while reading these various journeys of changing faith traditions.
- Worship Through Liturgy – The predominate theme that ran throughout these four accounts is the desire for a liturgy and worship that accurately expresses the theological beliefs of ones tradition in regards to Scripture. For Ellsworth and Beckwith liturgy is driven by the authority and tradition of the churches interpretation of Scripture. For Castaldo Scripture is the center of authority which governs ones worship (though this is expressed through tradition(s)). And for Dorsett, there is a mix of traditional interpretation and Scripture to guide the liturgy.
- Honesty, Forthrightness and Charitable About Disagreements – One of the nice things about each contributors chapter was that they did not pretend for a minute that there was little to no difference between each faith traditions beliefs. Each person was clear on why they believe their tradition has it right and the others don’t. One can see the no-mincing-of-words about our differences in the responses to each main contribution. However, this dialogue of disagreement was done very charitably.
- Genuine Desire for Truth – If there is one thing I learned by reading this book is that these kinds of changes do not usually happen overnight (at least not the lasting reflective ones). Each contributor’s journey took many years of hard thoughtful reflection and inner struggle. Even though we may disagree on where one lands down the road, we must respect the fact that the decision was not made in haste or in overnight reaction to something.
- Theology Matters – Because the contributors were very clear about their differences one cannot help but see that the differences can be watershed issues. For instance, the age old disagreement between Catholics and evangelicals on justification is still in existence – and it matters what you believe. Along the same lines, the issue of the location of continued authority is still an issue – is it the church or Christ through Scripture?
- Respect for Tradition – There was a great sense of desire to be rooted in the history and tradition of the church over the last 2,000 years. Beckwith had the most discussion on tradition as it was most relevant for him. Ellsworth was a close second with Dorsett coming in at third. Castaldo had the least but not to his detriment. For the first three, they are naturally more tradition based because of their view of the authority of the church and Scripture. Castaldo is responding to this misplaced view and thus focuses on the Authority of Scripture with the authority of tradition/church in second place.
Journeys of Faith is a raw and clarifying look at what drives people to move from one faith tradition to another. The arguments are clear, the personal journeys are genuine, the spirit of disagreement is charitable and there is much to learn for the wiling mind without having to feel threatened. This is a good book in which to gain a greater appreciation for different faith traditions and your own as well.
NOTE: I received a copy of this book from Zondervan in exchange for a review. I was not paid and the views expressed here are my own.