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Don’t Underestimate Protestant Theology

A surprisingly large number of conservative intellectuals in the United States are Roman Catholic. Consider, for example, that six of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are Catholics. Many of these public intellectuals are converts from Protestant Christianity. This leaves some with the sense that the Protestant tradition is somehow deficient.

Both the Catholic and Orthodox churches make weighty claims by purporting to be the true church established, continued, and kept by Jesus Christ himself. In Why Do Protestants Convert?, Brad Littlejohn and Chris Castaldo consider nine motivations for Protestant conversions. Despite these claims, the authors argue that the conversion of Protestants often says less about the strength of the Catholic or Orthodox churches that it does about perceived weaknesses in modern Protestant practice.

Intellectual Concerns

Many more people convert to Roman Catholicism than Orthodoxy, so that move is the focus of the book and this review. The Protestant to Catholic pipeline is a topic of ongoing cultural discussion. However, according to a 2015 Pew study on the U. S. religious landscape, Roman Catholicism is losing more members than it is gaining from any source. Still, the conversion trend is significant.

Littlejohn, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Castaldo, lead pastor at New Covenant Church, note that Catholic converts are oftentimes intellectuals who carry a certain public credibility. Historically, converts like John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Richard Neuhaus, and Peter Kreeft have written a great deal about their conversion narratives. Thus, Roman Catholicism, compellingly perceived and portrayed, makes some Protestants wonder whether we left some of the best intellectual resources behind during the Reformation.

In reality, Protestants have at least equal intellectual resources to other Christian traditions. However, “until we teach them effectively to our pastors, parishioners, and children, we should hardly be surprised when they go in search of greener pastures” (10). The apparent contrast between Roman Catholic and Protestant intellectualism is “in large part the natural result of the self-inflicted wounds of the late 20th century scandal of the evangelical mind, which will take generations to undo” (9–10).

At the same time, the Protestant intellectual tradition has largely been overlooked by many contemporary believers. And, doctrines like the belief in “total depravity” have caused some to believe that Protestants disregard the value of human reason, or philosophy. In contrast, the Roman Catholic view appears more positive toward reason, is more openly reliant on philosophy, and thus to some appears better equipped to deal with the social challenges of the day. As Castaldo and Littlejohn admit, “Roman Catholicism still boasts a rich and robust intellectual tradition that can sustain both orthodox faith and evangelical politics” (10). But that isn’t to say that such resources are unavailable to Protestants.

Social and Political Factors

Protestantism is plagued by social and political confusion. Mainline Protestants have largely abandoned biblical sexual ethics and have adopted progressive ethics contrary to the historical Christian faith. Simultaneously, some non-Christians have adopted the label “evangelical” for political reasons. Even some who self-identify as evangelical Christian demonstrate little knowledge of Christian orthodoxy. An underlying question for many potential converts is what it means to be Protestant.

One could certainly be forgiven for supposing Protestantism to be a flimsy, fragmented Christian tradition based on popular perception. Protestants struggle to unite institutionally. Although Protestants participate in “the holy catholic Church”, as the Apostles’ Creed claims, denominational divides can hide the “catholicity” that truly binds the best of the Protestant faith together in Christ. As Castaldo and Littlejohn acknowledge, Protestant “pluralism creates an environment where biblically rooted faith sometimes falls into [an] acrimonious and bitter division that offends the Spirit of peace.” This can make the apparent unity of Roman Catholicism tempting. And yet this unity ignores “Rome’s policy nowadays of turning a blind eye to heretics or sectarians within her own ranks” (56). In other words, the Roman Catholic Church’s institutional unity can sometimes eclipse its internal theological division.

Christian history reveals that Protestants have and can have a robust social ethic while affirming a biblical understanding of personal salvation by faith.

For some, the attraction of Roman Catholicism is its emphasis on social ethics. The perception for some—especially those converting from forms of fundamentalism—is that Protestants have become hyper-focused on individual salvation while the Catholics have been busy building and sustaining hospitals, schools, orphanages, nursing homes. And yet, Christian history reveals that Protestants have and can have a robust social ethic while affirming a biblical understanding of personal salvation by faith.

Protestant Sufficiency

Littlejohn and Castaldo offer a compelling case that Protestantism has better social and intellectual resources than Roman Catholicism. This is because the Reformers saw themselves as inheriting the Catholic tradition. For example, John Calvin confidently asserted, “Augustine is totally ours.” We did not lose our heritage in remaining faithful to Scripture over authoritative tradition.

We did not lose our heritage in remaining faithful to Scripture over authoritative tradition.

Therefore, the answer to an apparent Protestant intellectual void is not to become either Roman Catholic or Orthodox. Rather, Littlejohn and Castaldo call for a rediscovery, retrieval, and renewal of the ways in which “Luther, Calvin and other Magisterial Reformers” call us to organize our religious life to best worship God and serve our neighbor (86). This book celebrates the merits of Protestantism, rightly arguing that its particulars are worth promoting over other ways of practicing Christianity.

The general approach of the book is positive and evenhanded. However, there are occasions where the authors don’t adequately connect their proposed causes to the results. For example, at one point they state that “behind many of the defections from Christian orthodoxy or evangelical Protestantism is a basic psychological deficit: friendlessness and fatherlessness” (72). While this observation might be true in certain cases, the statement seems to presume knowledge about an inner spiritual landscape of converts that can’t be known apart from personal interaction. Yet the book’s deeper argument is that hooking into the authority of the magisterium of Roman Catholicism can bring a deep sense of belonging, which is helpful.

Why Do Protestants Convert? offers a timely analysis of a cultural trend. Castaldo and Littlejohn show both the embodied weaknesses and potential strengths of the Protestant tradition. Littlejohn closes the book with a theological plea to remain Protestant. He argues that conversion away from biblical, Protestant Christianity “is spiritually dangerous. . . . The issues at stake during the Reformation were not trivial ones” (95). According to the Reformers, the very nature of the gospel was in dispute. The positive case for Protestant Christianity makes this a helpful resource for pastors and ministry leaders trying to disciple church members who are questioning their Protestant roots.


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