A phone call last week from a pastor friend brought this strange report: One of the leading figures of American Evangelicalism had described me to him (apparently with considerable passion) in terms that made me sound like the most dangerous man in Christendom. My crimes are apparently numerous, but the two most egregious are that I write for First Things, a predominantly Roman Catholic organ, and that I am a high sacramentalist who denies the importance of Christian conversion. As I have never discussed either my sacramentalism or Christian conversion with the gentleman concerned, nor reflected on either at any great length in print, I can only assume that he made latter criticism as an inference from the first.
That I would deny the importance of Christian conversion would seem most unlikely, being as I am a Christian convert from an atheist household. Indeed, I regularly preach the need for those who are not Christians to turn to Christ in faith and repentance. The criticism is therefore misplaced. But it highlights a point I have made before: that the relationship between American Evangelicalism, especially its leadership, and the Reformation, which is being commemorated this year, is a complicated one. And conversion is one of the most vexed issues.
Did Luther, for example, undergo a conversion in the Evangelical sense? The famous “Tower experience” is often regarded as such by Evangelicals—but was it? Luther presents it rather as an exegetical breakthrough with existential implications. Now, whether the experience occurred as he described it, particularly in terms of its chronology, has proved an interesting discussion for scholars ever since. But whether it functioned as crisis conversion narratives function in modern Evangelical Protestantism is not a matter for debate. It simply did not. When tempted by the Devil to doubt of his salvation, Luther pointed not to the Tower but to the baptismal font. “I have been baptized!” was his consistent defense against Satan’s temptations.
This is not to advocate for Luther’s sacramental theology. As a Presbyterian, I agree with his practice of baptizing infants but not with his rationale for doing so. It is rather to point out that Luther—the very founding father of Reformation Protestantism—was by American Evangelical standards a high sacramentalist. His understanding of justification, indeed of the Reformation itself, arose within a sacramental context. To sideline this fact, to ignore it, or to damn it as anti-Evangelical is to reveal a great deal about the connection of Evangelicalism’s leadership to the historic Reformation Protestantism it claims to celebrate.
The Reformed (at least the Genevans and their progeny) were also high sacramentalists compared with many Evangelical leaders today. And conversion in the Reformed Reformation is also a murky topic. Calvin’s conversion was subita, which could mean “sudden,” implying perhaps a crisis experience—or perhaps simply “unexpected.” Either way, it did not become a major principle of Calvin’s understanding of the Christian life.
To be sure, some people come to faith in dramatic ways. Others come through slow study. Still others, like my sons, grew up in Christian homes and cannot recall a day when they did not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Neither the Bible, nor church history, nor Christian experience indicates that a one-size-fits-all crisis conversion is necessary. And the Reformers pressed for a view of Christian discipleship as typically rooted in the catechetical nurture of the baptized community, rather than in radical conversions. The preaching of the Word, sacraments, and prayer are the three ordinary means of grace, as Presbyterians call them. And good Evangelicals know that this is how disciples grow in their faith, regardless of whether they have been Christians all their lives or have come to faith by a crisis experience. Few believe that the Christian life is just one crisis experience after another. Rather, like Luther, they believe that “[w]hen our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Thus, to claim the Reformers as heroes and at the same time deride those who hold to their beliefs on Christian discipleship is at best misleading. And when Evangelical leaders regard an emphasis on the ordinary means of grace as jeopardizing the Christian faith while going easy on, for example, serious deviations from Nicene teaching on the Trinity, they have traveled a long way from the concerns of the Reformers.
I fear that this problem is deeply embedded within the leadership of American Evangelicalism. When was the last time anyone gave a plenary address at a big Evangelical conference on the importance of infant baptism for the well-being of the church? That lacuna points to the default revivalist/baptistic setting of the movement. Lutherans and Presbyterians can buy into that movement only if they are prepared to leave at the stadium turnstile all that actually makes them Lutherans and Presbyterians—in other words, almost all that their Reformer ancestors held dear.
This is one major reason why I believe the most potentially fruitful ecumenical engagement for Presbyterians should be with Lutherans. With them we share a catholic and creedal Trinitarian heritage, a commitment to confessionalism, a direct Reformation genealogy, and a common concern for sacraments, always connected to the preached Word. Yet it seems we look with longing always towards the fervent excitement of the tent meeting altar call—and never towards the dignified beauty of a Wittenberg worship service.
I am relatively confident that I am not the most dangerous man in Christendom. Would that I were so important! But the most dangerous question for the leadership of Evangelical Christendom might well be, “What exactly is the relationship between your theology and discipleship practices and that Lutheran Reformation which you are currently commemorating?” The year 2017 will have been a wasted opportunity for Evangelical Christians if their leaders use it as a mirror in which to admire their own reflections.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.