As I was running errands this past Saturday I listened to a podcast in the Ricochet network hosted by Mark Bauerlein, himself a convert to Rome from atheism, in which he interviewed a convert to Rome (from evangelicalism) about the impending canonization of John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801–90), who was a moderately evangelical Anglican who helped to found and foster the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. Newman eventually became dissatisfied even with that movement (which sought to reconnect the Church of England with the ancient and medieval church while simultaneously disconnecting it from its Reformation heritage) and converted to Rome. For his trouble he was made a Cardinal (member of the papal electoral college). In recent years there has been renewed interest in Newman and some Romanists have invoked him in prayer and they are claiming that he has performed miracles sufficient to warrant his elevation to the status of saint. There is even a Wikipedia page devoted to the campaign. He was declared “venerable” in 1991. He was “beatified” in 2010 and is scheduled to be canonized this autumn by Pope Francis. As the two discussed Newman and the process of his canonization I was struck by the similarities between that process and that of an American Presidential nomination and election.
I was also impressed by reality of implicit faith (fides implicita or the implicit trust that we place in authorities outside ourselves). No one can know everything. We all must trust someone else’s testimony about things we have not experienced. No one reading this article knows with ontological certainty that Henry VIII ruled England in the 16th century. No one reading this was alive then. No one has seen him or hear him. We all trust the historical record that he succeeded Henry VII. That is a reasonable thing to do but it does require a degree of implicit faith in that record and in the record keepers.
Roman Catholics place implicit trust in the Roman communion, in its synods, its councils, its popes, and in an alleged unwritten Apostolic tradition to get things exactly right. Newman claimed that it was his study of church history that drove him to Rome. As a church historian, I doubt his conclusions and his methods. After all, there is not a scintilla of evidence for the Roman papacy in the 1st or 2nd or even 3rd centuries. The five sacraments added by the Roman church were unknown as late as the 9th century. Indeed, the doctrine of transubstantiation was not formulated until the 9th century. Much of what we know today as Roman Catholicism did was not formalized until the 13th century. In other words, the Roman communion is a medieval church and what is not medieval is Tridentine, i.e., rooted in the sixteent-century anti-Reformation Council of Trent (1545–63).
Newman tacitly acknowledged this rather significant problem by arguing that whatever Rome concluded later (e.g., at Trent) must have been present seminally in the earlier periods. It takes a fair bit of implicit faith, however, to see the Roman dogma of the alleged assumption of the Blessed Virgin (a Roman dogma promulgated in 1950 on the authority of Pius XII) in the early church. Indeed, the status of the Blessed Virgin was disputed for centuries, well into the Middle Ages.
We Protestants have implicit faith too, but we place it in God’s Word written, Holy Scripture. Calvin wrote:
We certainly admit that so long as we dwell as strangers in the world there is such a thing as implicit faith; not only because many things are as yet hidden from us, but because surrounded by many clouds of errors we do not comprehend everything. The height of wisdom for the most perfect is to go forward and, quietly and humbly, to strive still further. Therefore Paul exhorts believers that, if some disagree with others in any matter, they should wait for revelation [Phil. 3:15]. Experience obviously teaches that until we put off the flesh we attain less than we should like. And in our daily reading of Scripture we come upon many obscure passages that convict us of ignorance. With this bridle God keeps us within bounds, assigning to each his “measure of faith” [Rom. 12:3] so that even the best teacher may be ready to learn.
Implicit faith is unavoidable but it is not a blind faith. We have good reason for trusting holy Scripture. It shows itself to be what it claims to be. Through it God the Holy Spirit regularly brings people to new life and to true faith. From it we know the gospel of the righteous obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord. In it we have the testimony of the prophets and apostles.
By contrast, there is no evidence for an unwritten apostolic tradition. None of the fathers ever mentioned the existence of such a thing until the late 4th century and even then the claim was made in the midst of controversy. The Scriptures commend nor command any such thing and the Protestant churches quite rightly reject it. When the second-century fathers speak of the “tradition of the apostles” they are referring to the New Testament itself.
So, in the absence of any real evidence in Scripture or church history for many of the distinctive claims of the Roman communion, why do evangelicals and others convert to Romanism? A big part of the answer lies in the acronym QIRC or the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty. When I first coined this expression in 2007 I was thinking about the desire for a kind certainty found among Protestant fundamentalist groups and the influence they too often have among the Reformed but it also helps to explain by evangelicals convert to Romanism. It is this sort of certainty is illegitimate because it is a certainty about things about which Scripture and thus the churches do not speak explicitly or by inference. Rome is a veritable cornucopia of QIRC, whether it is the cult of saints, the doctrine of purgatory, plenary indulgences, the alleged immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin, her alleged Assumption or the alleged infallibility of the papacy when the pope speaks ex cathedra. The list of QIRCy Roman dogmas and practices is extensive.
Why do evangelicals find Rome attractive? Sometimes they are looking for a deeper connection to the ancient church. Many evangelicals live in an ecclesiastical and theological world that is largely cut off from the church prior to the 19th century. A typical American evangelical might hear a word or two in passing about the Reformation and a little more about nineteenth-century missionary heroes but that is about as deep into church history as their journey might take them. It is easy to feel disconnected, like an orphan without a home.
When evangelicals become aware that there was a church prior to the Reformation they often assume that it necessary to become Roman Catholic to connect with that church. Because they are not really connected with the Reformation, they are unaware of the deep roots of the Reformation in the medieval and Patristic church. They are also unaware of the degree to which the Roman communion is not actually grounded in the fathers. They take the claims of the Roman communion and of Roman apologists at face value. We could not similar problems with the various branches of Eastern Orthodox tradition, which also lays claim to being the representative of the unbroken tradition of the ancient church. Again, like the Romanist claims, the claims of the various EO traditions are fraught with problems.
As I noted in Recovering the Reformed Confession, we live in what some scholars have called an age of liquidity, in which things that used to be accepted as settled are no longer so accepted. Indeed, the world has only become more unsettled since then. In 2007 gay marriage was not yet a reality. Businesses were not yet being fined for refusing the cater gay weddings. Twitter was just a glimmer. Social media mobs did not yet exist. The T and Q in LGBTQ were less prominent and no one was talking about “social justice warriors.”
Sometimes, however, evangelicals are looking for shelter against the storm of late-modern uncertainty. If one does not look too closely, if one simply wants a place to lay one’s head, as it were, Rome might seem like an old, comfy couch. Then, of course, under those conditions, many things might be attractive places to park one’s implicit faith. Anything object of faith, however, that is worth that faith—Christ and his Word are the only worthy objects of such faith!—must be able to stand under scrutiny. God’s Word stands under pressure. Christ stands that test.
Rome offers what some scholars call “cognitive rest,” relief from the uncertainties of this life. As evangelicals see the culture decaying an institution, whether Rome or one of the Eastern churches, that seems to transcend our time, that seems to offer fixed, reliable moral norms, whose doctrine seems to be grounded in antiquity seems like an attractive alternative to trendy, thoughtless, culturally normed contemporary evangelical theology, piety, and practice.
The Roman communion, of course, cannot be the shelter against the uncertainty of the age. She is just as liable to deconstruction as any other purely human construct. Whether it is apparently widespread sexual immorality (9 Roman priests in my home town alone have been admitted by the bishop to be sexual abusers), the sordid history of the papacy, or the patent lies (e.g., Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals) on which its claims have often rested, there are many reasons for thoughtful Christians to doubt the claims made by the Roman church and many reasons why thoughtful Christians should not place their implicit trust in that institution.
There is an alternative. The Reformation sought to ground the theology, piety, and practice of the church in God’s Word, which transcends all cultures, as understood by the ancient church. Indeed, in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed, the Reformed churches confess the holy catholic (ecumenical) faith held in all places and all times. We share the theology, the worship, and the ethos of the ancient church but we do not ask believers to put their implicit trust in the Reformed churches but in Christ and in his Word. We seek only to be faithful ministers (servants) of that Word rather than creators (as Rome says she is) of that Word.
There are some things in this life about which we will not have absolute certainty but we can know and be confident in the things about which we must know for the Christian faith, for salvation, and for the Christian life. God’s Word is sufficient for these things. We leave to God questions beyond the certainty granted to us by the Word (either explicitly or by good and necessary inference). We trust Christ implicitly. He is enough. His Word is enough.
—R. Scott Clark