Evangelical Exodus: The Protestant Seminary That Produced Dozens Of Catholic Converts

A new book tells the story of how numerous faculty members and students of a North Carolina Evangelical seminary found their way to the Catholic Church.

I’d say the fact of authoritative Church councils weighed heavily on me. They essentially were the answer to the above issues of canon and orthodoxy, and they also pointed to what the historic Church was—if the Catholic Church was behind the councils that determined the biblical canon and its orthodox interpretation, was it God-guided or not? If not, then why trust the Bible or the creeds? And if so, when did the Church lose that guidance? There seemed to be no non-question-begging answer.

 

A peculiar thing has been happening at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. This is an institution that values the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and many other thinkers one would not expect to find on the shelves of an evangelical seminary. While producing a number of successful and popular Protestant pastors, SES has also been the site of a mass exodus across the Tiber.

In the decade from 2004 to 2014, more than two dozen faculty members, students, and alumni of SES have entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Keeping in mind that only around two dozen students graduate from SES each year, this is rather a significant percentage. The obvious question is: “How can a school co-founded by an Evangelical theologian-apologist known to be critical of Catholicism produce so many Catholics?” In an effort to answer this very question, Douglas M. Beaumont has collected the accounts of nine conversions from SES, including his own, in a new book, Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome, published by Ignatius Press. Beaumont responded to questions from Catholic World Report via email.

CWR: Can you briefly recount your own conversion story?

Douglas M. Beaumont: I became a Christian believer in 1989, and from then to 2009 I was a dedicated Evangelical Christian student, minister, professor, author, and speaker. In 2009 I engaged in a serious, heart-wrenching process of discernment over whether I would remain in Evangelicalism. As I pondered some of the problems I encountered in the movement, I began to consider the historic Church and increasingly found it difficult to defend my anti-Catholic beliefs. At the end of this process, I came to believe that I was not in full communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. So, in 2014, I was received into the Catholic Church.

What I came to realize is that little progress will be made on the major issues (or many secondary issues) of theology until one settles the issue of religious authority. That single concern is related to numerous key facets of the Christian faith, the most impactful of which were the canon of Scripture and its orthodox interpretation.

The canon of Scripture (the books included in the Bible) is a huge issue for anyone who considers the Bible to be the Word of God and the authority for one’s faith. If one thinks the early Church went astray somehow, it becomes a very difficult problem because the biblical collection itself was not settled until centuries after the apostles died. If the Church was in error by then, how can the “Bible-Only Christian” be sure he really has the inspired Word of God? And if the Church was kept from error while it determined the canon, why was it not likewise kept from error during the councils and creeds it produced at the same time? As I looked at the major alternate theories of canonization, I discovered the historical truth that the Church is ultimately the standard.

This was also the case with doctrine. It is well known that there is rampant disagreement among the various sects, denominations, and cults of Christianity—but where is the line drawn? Christians often speak of “orthodoxy,” “heresy,” “essentials,” and “fundamentals”—but by what authority are these words defined, and doctrines labelled? For the Christian who denies that the Church is the standard, there seemed to be no non-circular means of doing so. For the Bible to function as an authoritative standard (i.e., sola Scriptura), it must first be understood—yet there seemed to be insurmountable problems with attaining such an understanding. Regardless of one’s theoretical method, the fact remained that very few Christian traditions agreed—even at the scholarly level.

So if what the Bible was, and how it was to be understood, were not grounded in a God-guided, infallible process—then what else was there to trust?

Although I would eventually come to deal with other issues such as Mary, Purgatory, justification, etc., I saw early on that they all ultimately revolve around one’s positions on the issues above. From there it was just a matter of following the history. And, as Blessed J.H. Newman wrote, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

CWR: Were there particular figures or events in the history of Christianity that significantly influenced your journey to the Catholic Church?

Beaumont: Event-wise, I’d say the fact of authoritative Church councils weighed heavily on me. They essentially were the answer to the above issues of canon and orthodoxy, and they also pointed to what the historic Church was—if the Catholic Church was behind the councils that determined the biblical canon and its orthodox interpretation, was it God-guided or not? If not, then why trust the Bible or the creeds? And if so, when did the Church lose that guidance? There seemed to be no non-question-begging answer.

As to persons, St. Thomas Aquinas was an enormous influence on me. Not only was his theology built on the most solid philosophical and biblical foundations, but his application of those truths to how people are to live settled a lot of my disparate theological and moral intuitions. I remember one occasion very vividly; I was reading his section of the Summa on the faith of heretics (ST II-II, 5, 3) and I was surprised to find that Thomas believed that even a heretic’s faith in true things was false. I read his explanation—that faith is, by definition, trust in an authority, and therefore denial of any authoritative teaching is proof that one’s “faith” is really just an accidentally true opinion—and I was stunned. I remember staring at that section and slowly realizing that it perfectly described my faith as it had been taught to me—and as I had taught it to others. By teaching people that faith was one’s personal conviction based on personal study, I was literally helping people to not be faithful! It was an awful moment of clarity, but I truly loved learning it. I knew then I could not remain Protestant.

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