Thomas Howard passed away in October of last year. He was an evangelical who caused a stir by converting, thereby becoming more evangelical.
Younger evangelicals feel that they’ve benefited from Thomas Howard’s spiritual journey. Howard was reared in a prominent evangelical family. His parents were missionaries. His sister Elisabeth Elliot was a missionary (her husband Jim Elliot was martyred trying to evangelize the Waorani people). His brother David headed the World Evangelical Alliance.
But Howard’s faith was unsettled when he went to Wheaton College. He was met by what he saw as the chaos of the varieties of evangelicalism. He came to doubt that these varying takes on the gospel and discipleship could unite the church. Only an orthodoxy steeped in ancient traditions could. Howard joined the Episcopal church in his mid-20s.
And he became an expert in British literature. Howard wrote his doctoral dissertation on the novels of Charles Williams (Williams was part of The Inklings). He became one of the early experts on C. S. Lewis and a specialist in T. S. Eliot’s religious poetry, taking a position teaching English at Gordon College where he attracted a loyal retinue of students.
But in 1985, Howard wrote a surprising book, Evangelical Is Not Enough. It was a defense of liturgy and church traditions, including written prayers, the church calendar, the sacramental understanding of Communion. A few months later, Howard converted to Roman Catholicism. Many of his students followed him, also converting to Catholicism.
I was a student in an evangelical seminary in 1985. I was unsettled by Howard’s conversion. So were most of the students and faculty. It was assumed that Catholics became evangelicals but evangelicals didn’t convert to Catholicism. They do, said Howard. He felt he was more evangelical because of his conversion, not less. “I will never be anything but an evangelical. As a Catholic, I can lay claim to the ancient connotation of the word ‘evangelical’—namely, a man of the gospel, referring to the gospel, the evangelical councils, and so on.”
Put another way, Howard converted from being a modern evangelical to an ancient one. The ancient meaning of evangelical refers to the apostles’ teaching, the councils. Howard was reared in the modern form, 18th– and 19th-century evangelicals who anchor their faith mostly in the New Testament. No authoritative councils. No traditions.
That’s why Howard felt he never ceased to be evangelical, but came to see the Catholic tradition as the fullest form of evangelical, the embodiment of “the Word became flesh,” not another denomination or just an expression for a preference for a particular worship style.
Now in sharing Howard’s spiritual journey, you might assume I’m an apologist for the Roman Church. I’m not. Two-thirds of the worldwide Christian communion operates in the ancient understanding of evangelical (Catholic, Orthodox, and others.). In converting from modern evangelicalism, Howard became more evangelical, not less.
And Howard himself never became an apologist for the Roman Church. He wrote graciously about the “earnestness” of the faith in which he was raised. He simply came to see the presence of Christ is most powerfully and immediately known in the sacraments. His humility, and sense of history, proved attractive to younger evangelicals. Especially in settling two issues that trouble modern evangelicalism: authority and thickness.
For ancient evangelicals, the final authority (i.e. magisterium) is found in scripture as well as councils, creeds, church doctors, and so on. Howard told friends that he felt modern evangelicals do not run to “creeds, fathers, doctors, tradition, or catholic orthodoxy.” Each church’s leadership is its own final authority. “There is no magisterium,” as Howard told the editors of Christianity Today after his conversion. He found one in Catholicism.
As for thickness, David Mills notes that Howard “found in the [Roman] church something thicker than he found in Anglicanism, as in Anglicanism he’d found something thicker than he’d found in evangelicalism.”
I don’t know how “thick” a faith you desire, but if you seek a thicker one, you might consider Thomas Howard’s spiritual journey. Many evangelicals have, converting to faith traditions predating the Enlightenment. They discovered a faith making them more evangelical, not less.