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.