As some of you may have heard, Frank Beckwith, President of the Evangelical Theological Society, has resigned his post. His reason is quite shocking: He is returning to the Catholic Church. However, if I understand correctly, he is to remain a member of the ETS.
The biggest question is, as far as the Society is concerned, is the question of whether or not Beckwith remains an evangelical. I’ll get to that in a second. Here, in his own words, is why he went back to the Catholic Church:
“he past four months have moved quickly for me and my wife. As you probably know, my work in philosophy, ethics, and theology has always been Catholic friendly, but I would have never predicted that I would return to the Church, for there seemed to me too many theological and ecclesiastical issues that appeared insurmountable. However, in January, at the suggestion of a dear friend, I began reading the Early Church Fathers as well as some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors. I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible. Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries. Moreover, much of what I have taken for granted as a Protestant—e.g., the catholic creeds, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the Christian understanding of man, and the canon of Scripture—is the result of a Church that made judgments about these matters and on which non-Catholics, including Evangelicals, have declared and grounded their Christian orthodoxy in a world hostile to it. Given these considerations, I thought it wise for me to err on the side of the Church with historical and theological continuity with the first generations of Christians that followed Christ’s Apostles.”
I want to pick at this a little. I mean, that’s what I do, isn’t it? 🙂 First of all, he says, “…there seemed to me too many theological and ecclesiastical issues that appeared insurmountable.” That has to be the theological understatement of 2007. What has tended to separate the Catholic Church from Protestants, essentially and at the core, is the disagreement of the doctrine of justification by faith. Reformers say that we are justified by grace through faith alone. Catholics leave out the “alone,” insisting that a person is also justified by works, ala the Epistle of James. However, there is much more to Catholic faith than a simple disagreement on justification by faith. For instance, what about the teachings of Marian divinity?
He also said, “I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible. ”
Really? I still do not get how one can read any of Paul’s epistles and get the Catholic version of theology. He goes on, “Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible [now really, can both be biblically and historically defensible?], I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries.”
Okay, one cannot have this both ways. Either the Pauline passages on justification by faith work with each other, or they work against each other. It is much easier for Protestants to explain James in its proper context with the Pauline passages than it is to squeeze multiple Pauline epistles into a warped interpretation of James, even with historical understanding. What Catholics fail to understand is the justification by grace through faith alone is the historical understanding of justification. The necessity of displayed works was a must historically because of the persecution and the subsequent diaspora that the Epistle of James mentions in his very first verses and was seen only as confirmation that one truly had met the Christ.
I am saddened by this news. Not because I think that a brother has slipped from the faith. I have always had a bit of sympathy for Catholics. After all, they want to hold on to the unity of the universal church and they have to do it with all the baggage of the Church. Catholic Church history is filled with blemishes and excesses. Some of these were the very reasons Protestants came into existence; the protested the excesses of the Catholic Church. Hey, we all want unity. But I won’t do it for the sake of essential doctrines.
There are essential doctrines. And I do believe that you have to hold to these in order to be considered a Christian. It is hard to say whether or not Beckwith has crossed a line, but I will say that he should not be considered an evangelical. According the Oxford Pocket Dictionary that I found online, the term “evangelical” as an adjective means “of or according to the teaching of the gospel or the Christian religion [in other words, is a certain doctrine considered evangelical?] or denoting a tradition within Protestant Christianity emphasizing the authority of the Bible, personal conversion, and the doctrine of salvation by faith in the Atonement” (italics added). If this definition is correct, and I believe that it is, then Beckwith is no more an evangelical than Mickey Mouse.
James White makes an interesting note on his blog:
“[The] ETS has already shown that it is unable to expel from its ranks those who are Open Theists, and this due to the maddening brevity of the statement of faith. And, I have learned today as well, this entire discussion may be irrelevant, since there are already Roman Catholic members of ETS. But while Open Theism, at least in the form promoted by such men as Boyd, Sanders, and Pinnock today, was not even in the minds of the founders of ETS when they formed the organization, Roman Catholicism…was. And while membership is one thing, can anyone seriously argue that the election would have gone the way it did with a confessing Roman Catholic running for the Presidency?”
It seems that the ETS has become a bit of a joke, don’t you think? White also tells an interesting story:
“In 1998 I attended the national meeting of the ETS in Orlando, Florida. At one of the sessions some of the founding members were being asked questions about why they did certain things, why they wrote the statement of faith as they did, etc. A woman asked a question of the panel. ‘Why did you write ‘the Bible alone’ in the statement of faith?’ The ETS statement of faith is very, very short. It reads:
‘The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.’
Roger Nicole rose, slowly, and made his way to the podium. He looked out at the lady and said, ‘Because we didn’t want any Roman Catholics in the group.’ He then turned around and went back to his seat. While most sat in stunned silence, I and a friend with me broke into wild applause. The brevity of the response, and Nicole’s dead-pan look, was classic. Most looked at us like we were nuts, but we appreciated what he said. Here, one of the founding members made it clear that the ETS was founded as a Protestant organization and that primary to their own self-understanding was a belief in sola scriptura.”
As much sympathy as I have for a good Catholic trying to maintain the unity of the universal church despite numerous Catholic atrocities, it is their own fault when they depart from the Scriptures. And when they depart, they should not be considered evangelical. An Evangelical Catholic is an oxymoron.
While I admire Beckwith’s courage, however misguided, lets not fool ourselves. He is not an evangelical and he needs to resign from the ETS. Either he’s got it wrong or they have it wrong. There is one other option.
Perhaps they both have it wrong.