>The Forum at Dallas Theological Seminary hosted a Q&A with Dr. D. Jeffrey Bingham on the topic of evangelicals converting to Catholicism on Wednesday, October 17th. The informal session was attended by over 30 DTS students and the discussion lasted almost two hours. After some brief but penetrating opening remarks, Dr. Bingham fielded questions from the students. I was on-hand to do some live-blogging from the event tonight.
This is the first semester for the new Academic Ministries Forum of DTS. Their webpage states: “Whether you plan on being a pastor, lay Bible teacher, or professional academician, your academic work at and beyond seminary is a vital ministry. The purpose of our student group is to serve students who are in the academic ministry track, and those who are excited about the ministry of their academic work.” I remember my conversations last year with current and founding Forum President Mark Howell when the student group was still in the brainstorming stages and its great to see it take off.
Dr. Bingham is a student favorite at DTS. I have had him as a professor for two church history courses and both courses were very impactful. D. Jeffrey Bingham, Th.M., Ph.D. is Department Chair and Professor of Theological Studies at DTS. His faculty page reads, “Dr. Bingham specializes in the study of early Christianity. He has written extensively on the early Christian church and his articles and essays have appeared in leading literary journals. Before joining the faculty of Dallas Seminary he pastored a church in West Texas and taught at several Christian colleges. He also has served as assistant dean for theological studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.”
Dr. Bingham opened the event with remarks concerning the phenomenon of evangelicals converting to Roman Catholicism. Why is this so attractive to some evangelicals?Bingham explained seven characteristics that evangelicals are seeking when they convert to Roman Catholicism that they cannot find in the free church tradition.
The first thing the RCC offers that the free church cannot is a connection to church history. The RCC enjoys a connectedness to the very 1st century of Christianity. On the other hand, there is no history of the free church. There are histories of individual free churches but no unified history of all free churches. There is no connection to the history of Christianity. Our individual free churches probably appeared sometime in the 1970’s but that’s about as far back as we can go.
Secondly, the RCC gives the appearance of unity. Free churches are characterized by diversity and disconnection. It is hard to find elements of unity among independent free churches while the RCC appears to give the promise of unity. It has always been the RCC and it has a line of popes traceable back to Peter.
Thirdly, the RCC offers universal representation while the free church has no universal representation that binds us all together. For example, if you go to Rome for the general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesdays you would see a representative read from the Bible in all major languages. You can hear the word of God in your own language no matter where you are. The Pope gives a longer homily in Latin followed by shorter versions in other languages. The RCC ministers in the people’s own language rather than having the people conform to the language of the church.
Next, the RCC provides continuity of worship. Free churches do not have this. Each church will have a different sermon, different songs, different overheads, etc. We don’t know what each other is doing in other churches and we don’t care. We don’t even care what other services are doing within the same church. There is no continuity of worship and some evangelicals find this disconcerting. The RCC has a sacred calendar. The same text is preached in every RCC church worldwide. Same liturgy. Same mass. The same words are said. So, the RCC provides the appearance of continuity in worship.
Fifth, you can always depend on the RCC believing certain things. The RCC confesses Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. They have an orthodox view of Christ and the Trinity. With the free churches, we don’t know what they believe and sometimes nothing is even written down in order to find out what the church believes. For example, one evangelical church’s motto is “we have no tradition but change.” At least we know the RCC is orthodox on these issues.
Sixth, the RCC provides anthropological and cosmological unity. In the free church you find a dualism between the material and the immaterial. The interior, non-physical is emphasized while the bodily component is undervalued. The RCC brings the material and the immaterial into unity. During the mass, thanks is given for the bread and wine and then a miracle takes place. God transforms the bread into the body of Christ and the wine into the blood of Christ. The wine and bread (visible, physical) is a central component in worship. They are key elements of spirituality. God’s grace is working through what is material. Free churches separate this.
Lastly, the RCC provides a sense of the sacred and holy. What you do not sense in their service is informality. There is formality of the sacred and holy. You sense that God is “other.” The sensation you experience is that this is someplace sacred. Evangelical churches feel like an informal cafe, for example. Its laid back. Many evangelicals are getting sick of this and are looking for the sacred and holy.
All of these characteristics contribute to the evangelical hunger for conversion to the RCC. These characteristics have been expressed as someone who is seeking these things would express them. These characteristics are attractive but we don’t want to go to the RCC. Rather, we want to bring them into present-day evangelicalism. We can claim these characteristics as Christian rather than distinctively Roman.
This concludes Bingham’s opening remarks. Part Two will delve into the question and answer period which followed.