In 1985, Thomas Howard left behind the evangelical upbringing of his youth and converted to Roman Catholicism. His defection likely means that some evangelicals will not read this book. And that will be a tragedy.
Evangelical is Not Enough (Ignatius Press, 1985) was published almost 30 years ago now, but it’s new to me. I discovered it in the footnotes of another good book. And I feel robbed. I feel cheated. All along, Howard has been seeing the same things I’ve been seeing. He is discontent with the same things I’ve been discontent with. He is a kindred spirit in both his affection for evangelicalism and his concern for some of its blind spots. He solved the problem for himself by becoming Roman Catholic, which I think is unfortunate. Swapping a tighter ecclesiology for a flawed and anachronistic theology is a trade that I (and most other evangelicals) find untenable. And yet, despite his own bias, Howard is a charitable and gracious interlocutor. He’s like a friend who loves you enough to tell you that there’s something stuck in your teeth or that your zipper is down. With a kind and earnest tone, he judges evangelical Christianity to be correct but incomplete. And it is incomplete, in many of the ways Howard suggests. Admitting this – and changing things – might be a first step toward a renewed and more robust evangelicalism that can capture the imagination and loyalty of people like Thomas Howard. There are hints that just such a renewal is underway in evangelicalism. For that we should be grateful.
Some readers of this review will still be skeptical. So let me quote directly from the book to give you a sense of Howard’s disposition toward evangelicalism:
- At bottom, one cannot distinguish evangelical teaching from traditional Christian orthodoxy. [Evangelicals] embrace wholeheartedly all that is spelled out in the ancient creeds of the Church. There is perhaps nowhere in the world where ancient Christian belief is professed more candidly and vividly than in evangelicalism… Evangelical doctrine is correct.
- It was evangelicalism that taught me to love Christ and to defend the doctrine of the Incarnation.
- I owe a great debt to evangelicalism for having taught me to pray. I learned in that school that any man may pray, in any words, at any time, with anything that is on his heart. Prayer was not trapped inside of missals or precast forms. I learned something of the immediacy of prayer. I imbibed a keen sense of God’s moment-by-moment presence with me.
- I have offered my undying homage to evangelicalism in this book. Insofar as evangelicalism wants to open the Scriptures to all people and to be faithful to the gospel and to love Jesus Christ the Lord, I am forever evangelical.
Howard now locates himself within the “Catholic evangelical” movement – a strain within the Roman Catholic church “eager to see the ancient Church roused and animated, speaking with a vigorous witness faithful to the gospel and teaching a spirituality vibrant with gospel life.” There is indeed such a stream within the Roman Catholic tradition; a thoughtful historian might even locate Luther and Calvin within it (in their original intentions). This stream should bring hope to evangelicals who long to see gospel renewal far and wide. I have many personal friends who consider themselves “Catholic evangelicals” – and I am thankful for them. I’m also troubled by them. Because to the man, every one of them started out as an evangelical. In other words: they “get” the gospel precisely because they got it from evangelical Christianity. I have yet to meet a Catholic who “got” the gospel in a converting, life-transforming fashion from within the Roman Catholic Church. This is the elephant in the room that Howard and others seem reticent to acknowledge. Certainly, once someone is converted to vibrant personal faith in Christ, it’s easy to “see” with new eyes all the rich gospel beauty in a Roman Catholic worship service. Unfortunately, most Roman Catholics spend their whole lives never “seeing” it. Which is why the Reformation happened in the first place. There is a gospel problem in the Roman Catholic church, and it would behoove Howard and others to face it squarely.
Let us lead, then, by facing our own problems squarely. And let us invite Thomas Howard to help us see them. He locates the essence of the problem, theologically, in a flimsy understanding of the Incarnation.
The evangelicalism of my childhood church taught me true doctrine about the Incarnation. It taught me about Creation and about Eden and about the Fall. But somehow it never, at least in its piety, put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. For evangelicals, there seemed to be “the world,” which meant almost everything that makes up human life, and there was “the spiritual life” … The responsibilities and routines that make up most of life, as well as the music and the colors that gild life, were legitimate certainly, but somehow we were left with tensions and uncertainties … The net effect was to plant in our imaginations the notion that spirituality was more a matter of excision than transfiguration.
This lack of robust thinking about the Incarnation manifests itself in myriad practical ways:
- In a sacred/secular split that tells us “when we are praying, we are closer to the center of things than when we are washing dishes, changing diapers, driving in a traffic jam, or sitting in a committee meeting.”
- In our “distrust of beauty” that leads us to build “bare, spare churches, devoid of most Christian symbolism.”
- In our odd separatism that “suggests to a musician that to play his violin or his trumpet in a church service is somehow more Christian than to play it in Carnegie Hall.”
- In our emphasis on spontaneity and fervor in prayer, over against form and discipline. “I have wondered whether… evangelicalism has not to some extent overestimated most of us. Men like George Mueller, Hudson Taylor, and Praying Hyde were held up to us as models of prayer. But this was like holding Sylvester Stallone up to a young boy and telling him to look like that. What is he to do next? Long years of discipline lie ahead. This part of the matter is not always made clear in evangelical piety.”
- In our skepticism toward ritual and ceremony. “Those who suppose that ceremony is simply something extra, like frosting on the cake that has little to do with the substance of things, may be asked to ponder the odd fact that every time we resort to ceremony, we do so not to escape the stark reality of the event… but to give shape to the full reality and significance of what has happened… Take birth, for example. It is a merely obstetric event and has been going on in all tribes and civilizations since the beginning. Nothing could be more routine; yet … Cigars are passed out … champagne is uncorked … we ceremonialize the event.”
Astute observers will note that evangelicalism has made great strides in some of these areas in the past thirty years. A rediscovery of the biblical gospel has unleashed a robust awakening that is reframing evangelicalism around a common center (the gospel) rather than around secondary issues of conscience and morality. This gospel renewal has been led by churches in the Reformation tradition, which is the one tradition notably absent in Howard’s own autobiography. One wonders: had Howard encountered a community of Christians who were both gospel-centered and historically Reformed, would he still have become a Roman Catholic?
The Reformers, after all, were champions of church history. They were not “no creed but the Bible” Fundamentalists. Howard, like all shrewd Roman Catholic apologists, claims the first 15 centuries of Christian history as his own. The great Reformers – and thoughtful Christians who stand in their heritage – would beg to differ. For Calvin, Luther, and the other magisterial Reformers, it was the Roman bishopric that had strayed from historic Christian orthodoxy. One cannot read The Institutes of the Christian Religion without being impressed with Calvin’s masterful grasp of the Church Fathers. The Reformation was an argument about history, not merely about theology or authority.
The brand of evangelicalism that Thomas Howard critiques is (thankfully) dying. Naïve, biblicist fundamentalism is giving way to a gospel centered, theologically rich, historically rooted, liturgically informed evangelicalism. I dare say that Howard himself would see this as a step in the right direction. All of us who are part of this evangelical renewal – and especially those called to lead it – will benefit from reading Howard’s appraisal. There is plenty to disagree with in this book, including Howard’s subtle arguments in defense of the Mass, the veneration of Mary, and praying for the dead. Timid souls who fear a good debate might better avoid this book. But thoughtful evangelical leaders should be discerning enough to take in its argument, and honest enough to admit that we do indeed have something stuck in our teeth.