Book Write-Up: Evangelicals Adrift, by Matthew E. Ferris

Matthew E. Ferris.  Evangelicals Adrift: Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism.  Great Writing, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

A number of evangelicals are converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, seeking in these faith traditions what they believe is lacking in the evangelical tradition.  In Evangelicals Adrift, Matthew E. Ferris contends that such a trend is misguided, and that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions do not actually provide what evangelical converts are seeking. Ferris focuses mostly on Roman Catholicism, but he does occasionally interact with Eastern Orthodoxy.

Ferris is not opposed to Christians reading the church fathers and regarding them as fellow pilgrims in the faith, but he does maintain that embracing Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions can compromise a Christian’s adherence to the Gospel.  Ferris supports looking to Scripture alone, read with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as the authority for Christian faith and practice.  For him, this contrasts with looking to the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church as the authority for faith, practice, and Scriptural interpretation.  In terms of his soteriology, Ferris apparently holds that faith in Christ’s finished work brings a person forgiveness of sins (past, present, and future) and makes a person an adopted child of God, and that this status cannot be lost through fluctuations in the quality of one’s spiritual life.  For Ferris, this view differs from the Roman Catholic church’s emphasis on merit (either one’s own merit or merit that is transferred from the saints), performing acts of penance to receive forgiveness, belief that justification is infused rather than imputed righteousness, belief that Christ is sacrificed at the mass, and belief that one can enter the church as an infant at baptism, when one cannot yet make a faith commitment.  Ferris also holds that Mariology and prayers to saints detract from the focus that believers should place on God the Father and Jesus Christ.

There are at least three assets to this book, though, in noting them, critiques can be made.  First of all, Ferris consults primary sources and secondary scholarship (including Roman Catholic scholars) to argue that church history is messier than many Roman Catholics and evangelical converts to Roman Catholicism may believe.  According to Ferris, many traditions that Roman Catholics embrace do not go back to the apostles and were not even universally embraced by the church fathers, who had differences of opinion among themselves.  Moreover, Ferris argues, church councils and papal pronouncements have contradicted each other, so how can they be an expression of the will of God?  Ferris’ point is that the certainty that evangelicals seek in Roman Catholicism, as they are disappointed by the myriads of denominations and beliefs in Protestantism, is not present in the Roman Catholic church.  In terms of sources, there was at least one time when I wished that Ferris provided a reference for a point that he was making: Ferris stated that Origen dismissed the historicity of the Old Testament story of Lot and his daughters, without citing a source.  Overall, however, Ferris referred to primary and secondary sources to back up what he was saying.

Second, Ferris wrestled with Scriptures that Roman Catholics have cited in support of their positions, or that, at least on the surface, appear to contradict his own religious beliefs.  Does the baptism of households in the Book of Acts support infant baptism (which Ferris opposes)?  Do Acts 2:38 and I Peter 3:21 mean that water baptism saves a person from sins?  What did Jesus mean in John 20:23 when he said that those the disciples forgive are forgiven, whereas those the disciples do not forgive are not forgiven?  Was Jesus investing in the apostles and their successors the authority to forgive sins?  What did Paul mean when he said in Colossians 1:24 that, in suffering for the church, he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?  Does that deny the adequacy of Christ’s sufferings for atonement?  Ferris did well to wrestle with these Scriptures, and, overall, he did so well, although some of his interpretations were better than others.  Ferris also raised additional considerations: in arguing against the view that water baptism is salvific, for example, he referred to I Corinthians 1:17, in which Paul appears to distinguish preaching the Gospel from baptizing people in water.  There were Scriptural passages, however, that Ferris would have done well to address but did not (as far as I can recall): I think particularly of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 about apostolic authority to bind and to loose (which, in Matthew 18, relates to church discipline).

Third, while Ferris’ portrayal of the Roman Catholic church may appear contradictory in significant areas, that is because Ferris is acknowledging diversity and nuance within Roman Catholicism, and Ferris does well to highlight that.  Does Roman Catholicism view the church itself as authoritative, or does it believe that the church should justify its positions through appeal to other authorities (i.e., Scripture, tradition)?  Does Roman Catholicism believe that its traditions go back to the time of the apostles, or rather that doctrines, faith, and tradition developed over time?  Does Roman Catholicism insist that all Catholics believe and behave the same way, or does it tolerate “cafeteria Catholics”?  Ferris concludes the book by saying that evangelicals who become Roman Catholics will have to accept what the Roman Catholic church says, even if it goes against Scripture or their own conscience.  I wonder why that would be the case, since Ferris showed that there are Catholics who do not accept everything that the Roman Catholic church says!

A question that Ferris should have addressed in more depth is this: is there a sense in which the church (however one defines that) is authoritative and, if so, how?  I can appreciate Ferris’ view that the church cannot legitimately justify what it is saying solely through appeal to its own authority.  But does it have the authority to make rulings that are somehow binding on its members, which is different from a scenario in which each believer does what is right in his or her own eyes, according to his or her  own private interpretation of the Bible?  Acts 15 comes to mind: the church did not arbitrarily arrive at its decision or justify its decision solely through appeal to its own authority, but rather it consulted Scripture and experiences of what the Holy Spirit was doing.  Still, the church did make a binding decision, ruling that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised but had to follow specific rules.  There were arguably other ways to interpret Scripture than what the Jerusalem Conference decided: the Judaizers could have appealed to Genesis 17 to argue that those who joined God’s covenant people (Gentiles included) needed to be circumcised.  Still, the Jerusalem conference made a decision on faith and practice, and the church needed to follow it.  Is there room for this sort of scenario, in Ferris’ Protestant view?

In addition, Ferris is critical of the Alexandrian methods of interpreting Scripture, for they are allegorical and allow the Scripture to be interpreted in all sorts of ways that differ from their original or literal meaning.  Ferris should have wrestled, however, with the times that the New Testament itself does not appear to be faithful to the original meaning of passages in the Old Testament.  I think of Matthew’s interpretation of the Old Testament, or Paul’s apparent allegorization in I Corinthians 9:9 of a law from the Torah.  Ferris is rather critical of those who reject biblical inerrancy, but perhaps they do so because they are actually being faithful to the original or literal meaning of Scripture!  Maybe Scripture itself is messy, as Ferris portrays church history as being!

Ferris’ portrayal of Eastern Orthodoxy also intrigued me.  Ferris portrayed it as rather rigid and dogmatic.  This is interesting to me, since, so often, recovering fundamentalists see Eastern Orthodoxy as a refreshing contrast to the dogmatism that they are escaping.  Frank Schaeffer became Eastern Orthodox, after all!  Many recovering fundamentalists (who are still Christian, on some level) also prefer Eastern Orthodox views on hell and the atonement to the views that are in Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism.  Ferris said that the Eastern Orthodox church tends to be rigid on the question of whether people outside of its church are saved, leaning in the “no” (or at least the “I don’t know”) perspective.  I knew an Eastern Orthodox person who attended Intervarsity, however, and he did not seem to me to be that rigid.  Ferris’ points deserve consideration, though.

I myself do not care if evangelicals convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, for I respect those religions as paths on which people can find God.  At the same time, Ferris does well to warn about the possible spiritual effects of certain Roman Catholic beliefs and practices.  His historical discussions were also informative.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through Cross Focused Reviews, in exchange for an honest review.

 

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Book Write-Up: Evangelicals Adrift, by Matthew E. Ferris

  1. Esther says:

    Very interesting. As a former evangelical who is now Catholic, I have a few thoughts:

    “A number of evangelicals are converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy,” — That is interesting. I recently read a book by Sherry Weddell (Forming Intentional Disciples) that described how many individuals raised Catholic became evangelicals, and how sad it is that the reason given for the conversion/re-affiliation is some variation on “I never met Jesus in a living way as a Catholic.”) I would say that I knew Jesus in a living way as a Protestant, but I have come to know and love the Church (including, imo, evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox) as a Catholic.

    “First of all, Ferris consults primary sources and secondary scholarship (including Roman Catholic scholars) to argue that church history is messier than many Roman Catholics and evangelical converts to Roman Catholicism may believe.” — Yes! And you didn’t even mention the popes of antiquity through the Renaissance. 😉 As you later allude, however, I think this messiness is inherent to the people of God in human history. You can find it in the stories of the patriarchs and in the history of Israel, as well as in the history of the church (RC and EO as well as Protestant!).

    “But does it have the authority to make rulings that are somehow binding on its members, which is different from a scenario in which each believer does what is right in his or her own eyes, according to his or her own private interpretation of the Bible? Acts 15 comes to mind: the church did not arbitrarily arrive at its decision or justify its decision solely through appeal to its own authority, but rather it consulted Scripture and experiences of what the Holy Spirit was doing. Still, the church did make a binding decision, ruling that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised but had to follow specific rules. There were arguably other ways to interpret Scripture than what the Jerusalem Conference decided: the Judaizers could have appealed to Genesis 17 to argue that those who joined God’s covenant people (Gentiles included) needed to be circumcised. Still, the Jerusalem conference made a decision on faith and practice, and the church needed to follow it. Is there room for this sort of scenario, in Ferris’ Protestant view?” — Good example. I hadn’t thought of that!

    “Does Roman Catholicism insist that all Catholics believe and behave the same way, or does it tolerate “cafeteria Catholics”?” — Perhaps I am exposing myself as somewhat of a “cafeteria Catholic” by saying this, but if I had to accept everything the Roman Catholic Church officially says, I could/would not be a Catholic. And if I had a friend who wanted to follow Jesus, I would not necessarily try to convince him or her to do so as a Catholic. I think it was Rachel Held Evans who said in an interview that conversions/re-affiliations within Christianity are more about finding a home than about finding a denomination whose statement of beliefs you 100% agree with. I resonate with that, even though my head is not 100% sure that is the best way to “pick” a church!

    “For Ferris, this view differs from the Roman Catholic church’s emphasis on merit (either one’s own merit or merit that is transferred from the saints), performing acts of penance to receive forgiveness,” — This may be my Protestant talking ;-), but I don’t think of acts of penance as requirements for receiving forgiveness, nor do I think that sins can only be forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation through the authority of a priest. But I do think there is great value in confessing one’s sins, receiving forgiveness, and doing something concrete to move your back towards God. I think that even though evangelicals approve in principle of “confessing your sins to one another,” it rarely happens because there is no structure in place, and how can you trust the average churchgoer to not go blabbing your sins to everyone else? (I can think of two (?) instances when I actually confessed sins to someone else when I was an evangelical, and one time it was to the person I had sinned against, so that barely even counts! 🙂 ) But in the sacrament of confession, I trust that whatever I say will not be repeated, and I can develop a relationship of spiritual direction with a priest.

    I suppose I view the sacrament of reconciliation in a similar fashion to how I view the requirement for priestly celibacy. Neither is in my view necessitated by Scripture, and I think that confession/forgiveness and effective pastoral ministry can and do often happen in other contexts and forms. But the sacrament facilitates and encourages regular repentance, just as priestly celibacy allows for ministers to be un-distracted and unentangled by the everyday concerns of marriage and raising a family. (Personally, I like that I – as a member of his flock – am my priest’s number one priority, and not his wife and kids! 🙂 Of course, one could also argue that a priest would be more effective in ministering to parents and married people if he himself experienced those dimensions of life.

    Hopefully I don’t get kicked out of the Catholic Church now for posting this! 🙂

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  2. New wine in old, old wineskins? They took away the sacred calendar, they merged church and state, they have made the Eucharist a frequent event, they disrespect other religions, meddle in world politics (Christians are no part of this world)! Compromised worship by spiritual fornication via Saturnalia and invincible sun. Sort of like an old rusty VW Bug. Remove the rust and it will fall apart. Avoid.

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  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    The author of the book also used the new wine in old wineskins analogy. He was relating it, though, to trying to pour Christian meaning into the Old Testament system, which, according to him, the Roman Catholic church does.

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