Since the sixteenth century, conversions and counter-conversions between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have been the stuff of controversy, polemic, and recrimination. The Lutheran-Catholic concord on the formula cuius regio, eius religio virtually guaranteed the escalation of political strife as parties competed for sovereignty. With the emancipation of church from state in the post-Reformation era, churches in North America have inherited a rather different set of implications for the conversion of political figures. When Newt Gingrich announced earlier this year that he had converted to Roman Catholicism, and when news broke in 2002 that Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas had done the same, relatively few outside of the Beltway took more than passing notice.
High-profile conversions of public intellectuals, theologians, and academics have been the cause of some consternation, however, at least in ecclesiastical circles. The steady stream of recognizable Protestants heading to Rome (or perhaps somewhat less often to the East) since the 1960s has mirrored the decline of the mainline Protestant churches, as documented by First Things editor Joseph Bottum. But it is not just the mainline churches that are losing noteworthy adherents.
In 2005 the noted historian of American religion Mark A. Noll and journalist Carolyn Nystrom could seriously ask of evangelicals whether or not the Reformation was over. And in 2007 then-president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) Francis Beckwith announced he had returned to the Roman Catholic Church. (Subsequently Beckwith resigned his position amidst questions over the compatibility of Roman Catholicism and the ETS. Beckwith’s memoir had the rather provocative subtitle, Why the President of the Evangelical Theological Society Left His Post and Returned to the Catholic Church.)
Similar conversion accounts could be multiplied. But as a Protestant and evangelical theologian myself, I am more concerned to address some of the responses to such conversions by those left behind. Among these is the book, Is Rome the True Church? A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim, by Norman L. Geisler, formerly president and dean of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, and Joshua M. Betancourt, an Anglican minister. This book is undoubtedly one that as Betancourt says in an interview, “no thinking Protestant—or Catholic—should be without,” and whose whole argument ought to be considered with close attention. But here I want to focus on just one of the reasons Geisler and Betancourt cite for the conversion of evangelicals to Roman Catholicism: antiquity.
As Betancourt says, “converts appeal to the Catholic Church’s antiquity,” reasoning that “since the Protestant tradition is only as old as the sixteenth-century Reformation, then it cannot be the true expression of the early apostolic faith and tradition.” The strategy of Betancourt and Geisler to answer this reason is to contend that “truth is not determined by age. To say so is to commit the fallacy of 'chronological snobbery.’”
The problem with this kind of answer is that the Reformers themselves could be accused of just such chronological snobbery. The Zurich reformer Heinrich Bullinger published a treatise in 1539 titled Der alt gloub (translated into English by Miles Coverdale as The Old Faith in 1541). In his treatment of the topic De nova doctrina (“On new doctrine”), the Bernese reformer Wolfgang Musculus writes, “For it is so ordered by God in all cases of all things, that the truth is more ancient than the falsehood, even like as God is more ancient than the Devil.” Perhaps not surprisingly, theologians in the British Isles in particular seemed quite concerned to defend the antiquity and catholicity of the Reformed faith, as evidenced by such treatises as William Perkins’ A Reformed Catholic (1597) and the Huguenot Isaac Casaubon’s reply in 1612 to Cardinal Perron, published later as Anglican Catholicity Vindicated against Roman Innovations. In 1565 John Jewel, bishop of Salisbury, would assail “the weak, and unstable grounds of the Roman religion, which of late hath been accompted Catholic.”
But given that today is his 500th birthday, pride of place must be given to John Calvin and his emphasis on the provenance of the Reformed faith. His reply to a letter from Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto in 1539 was not only a propounding cause for his later return to Geneva from exile in Strasbourg, but as the late Calvin College professor Lester DeKoster writes, “a kind of charter for the Reformed branch of the Reformation.” Sadoleto had written to Geneva imploring it to come home to the Roman church, “to return to concord with us.” Calvin’s response was taken up at the instigation of the Genevan authorities, and answers Sadoleto’s claims in comprehensive fashion. Calvin’s text runs nearly double the length of Sadoleto’s original missive.
In the course of his reply Calvin contends to Sadoleto, “You are mistaken in supposing that we desire to lead away the people from that method of worshipping God which the Catholic Church always observed.” Calvin’s rhetorical turn here is crucial to understanding his argument. Against Sadoleto’s claims to the contrary, Calvin writes that “all we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the Church” as evidenced in the writings of Chrysostom, Basil, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine. Here we see the constant refrain from the Protestant reformers: The evangelical doctrine is not innovation, but is itself the ancient faith of the Church.
In the prefatory letter to his 1536 Institutes addressed to King Francis I of France, Calvin defends the Reformation doctrine against charges of novelty. He does so not by granting its newness and dismissing the point as unimportant, but rather by claiming that the evangelical teaching “has lain long unknown and buried,” and using a legal analogy, that “when it is restored to us by God’s goodness, its claim to antiquity ought to be admitted at least by right of recovery [postliminii iure].”
All of this is not to say that Geisler and Betancourt are wrong to claim that “age does not determine truth.” As Musculus also writes, “It is not then true because it is old.” But at the same time any response to the conversion of Protestants to Roman Catholicism cannot simply abandon or ignore the Reformation’s claims to antiquity, because to do so would be also to undermine its claims to catholicity and to authenticity.
For some these claims may not be convincing. But ultimately they must be accounted for by both Protestant and Roman Catholic alike.
Jordan J. Ballor is a doctoral student in Reformation history at the University of Zurich and moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. He also serves as associate editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality.