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.
Thanks Mike…we are in Southern France replenishing our minds with Gods grace and mercy.
The Evangelical churches of today seem focused more on opposition to masks, vaccines, and CRT and less on the Gospel. It’s hard to think of a church more in need of reformation.
Great read, and, from my perspective, relatable. I grew up Catholic. My wife, Greek Orthodox. Both evangelicals, although we married in the Greek Orthodox church she grew up in, are members of a PCA church.
That said, there’s a longing in my heart for liturgy. That longing is more than going to funeral masses.
I adopted an Episcopal flock and then a more conservative ACNA (Anglican Church in North America) flock in Nags Head where we worship on vacation. I toy around with returning to the Catholic church. My wife won’t hear of it, so…
We believe any flock adhering to the first and second great commissions are indeed evangelical, but more? I may need occasional visits to a local Catholic flock to find out.
Bummer. We just returned from family vacation in OBX. As usual, we loved it. Perhaps next year we’ll be there the same week of vacation as your family. Could connect. Mike
Mike – Great story. My own spiritual journey to the Catholic faith was inspired, in part, by the witness of the Evangelicals I encountered at our children’s school. Claire and I are starting a multi-week program on the “Evangelical Catholic” this week. The journey continues…
I think what’s godly of Thomas Howard (I’m choosing that word over evangelical) is that he chose his communion/community. In fact he chose it two or three times. In Bob Putnam’s book American Grace he said that America is not only the most religious country on earth but the country where its citizens change their religion more than any other sets of citizens. Although that might mean that I could say that TH is a true American, it’s more accurate to say he followed The Lord – but I’d say that about a lot of non-c or non-Catholics. A larger concern should be for those in the c/C tradition who have never chosen it and only exist in it – without ever embracing Jesus. Tradition does not make the man – good men make the tradition.
While I appreciate the reference to Putnam (it is true that the average American switches religion quite frequently), I never read that Thomas Howard felt he “chose” a faith tradition as much as a certain tradition, Episcopal, then Roman Catholic, drew him. In fact, Howard recognized how “choosing” is an Enlightenment notion.
As for tradition, yes indeed, good people make good tradition. But Augustine also held that tradition makes the man. This Augustinian idea towers over Western life, literature, and culture, casting a long shadow over subsequent Christian thought. As much as this tradition of meaning-making traditions has sprung from Augustinian roots, so was Augustine a product of and interlocutor with traditions that preceded and ran contemporary to his life.
Chesterton put it this way: tradition is the living faith of dead saints. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living saints. I think your comments are more related to traditionalism than tradition.
Thanks Mike for a stimulating post. I find modern evangelical churches try to recreate “thickness” through theater. What I mean by theater is they love orchestrated music, little skits, multimedia presentations, etc. The people sit in the seats and watch a few people lead the worship and they sing and clap along. I find this to be less fulfilling, especially as our problems in society and our degeneration of culture increase.
I am more intrigued with following the desert hermits who sought God in the wilderness. Although I will continue to worship in regular evangelical churches for the fellowship, I am more drawn to the worship times alone with God.
Enjoyed and resonated with these thoughts. I once heard someone say about the same issue “many people are looking for a message that is more than ‘love Jesus and try harder’ and that phrase rings in my ears often in the presence of contemporary evangelical content- especially from the pulpit. Authority and thickness- two things I was looking for and didn’t know it. Well done.
My journey of faith was from Roman Catholic to contemporary Bible based community churches, to the depth of faith I found in Reformed Theology with its three forms of unity, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession.