Francis Beckwith resigned on May 5 as president of the Evangelical Theological Society. One week earlier the Baylor University philosophy professor rejoined the Roman Catholic Church, his home until age 14. He spoke with Christianity Today editor David Neff about the reaction to his decision, theological misconceptions, and evangelical strengths and weaknesses.
What good things from the evangelical community will you take back with you to Roman Catholicism?
A number of things. First, I think of the evangelical emphasis on the importance of Scripture. Much of what I see in the Catholic Church is formed by my evangelical experience. When I recite, for instance, the Apostles' Creed, I think it's more of a cognitive experience for me than with people who have been Catholic for some time. Emphasis on the written word comes from my evangelical backgroundthat is, when I read these things, I'm really interested in what the text is saying, not just the mystical part, which is certainly also appropriate. For instance, after reading the Apostles' Creed, I turned to my wife and I said, "You know, there are only two proper names in the creedPontius Pilate and Virgin Mary. I don't know if anyone's ever noticed that."
I still consider myself an evangelical, but no longer a Protestant. I do think I have a better understanding of what sometimes the Catholic Church is trying to convey. Protestants often misunderstand. The issue of justification was key for me. The Catholic Church frames the Christian life as one in which you must exercise virtuenot because virtue saves you, but because that's the way God's grace gets manifested. As an evangelical, even when I talked about sanctification and wanted to practice it, it seemed as if I didn't have a good enough incentive to do so. Now there's a kind of theological framework, and it doesn't say my salvation depends on me, but it says my virtue counts for something. It's important to allow the grace of God to be exercised through your actions. The evangelical emphasis on the moral life forms my Catholic practice with an added incentive. That was liberating to me.
Some of the people who have been critical say, "You've gone into the oppressive works system of Catholicism." That's not the way I look at it at all. I look at it as a chance to do good. My own work apart from God's grace doesn't matter for my salvation; what matters is the sort of person I become by allowing God's grace to work through my obeying his commandments and taking the sacraments. Unfortunately, the view of justification is sometimes presented clumsily by some Catholic laypeople.
What can an evangelical learn from the great tradition without giving up the genius of evangelicalism?
Much of Christian theology that we assume to be true, key doctrines such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ, were thought out quite a while ago through rigorous arguments and analysis and debate. Evangelicals kid themselves when they believe that they can re-invent the wheel with every generation, that you have to produce another spate of systematic theology textbooks to teach people the stuff that has already been articulated for generations. Not to say those things aren't important. They are, and obviously you have to write these things depending upon the historical context. However, I do think we have to admit that the way that we read Scripture is through the ideas and concepts that have been passed down to us by a great tradition.
Look, you're not going to come up with the Nicene Creed by just picking up the Bible. Does the Bible contribute to our understanding? Absolutely it does; the Nicene Creed is consistent with Scripture. But you needed a church that had a self-understanding in order to articulate that in any clear way. I am not saying that necessarily means that you have to be a Catholic. But we have to understand that the Reformation only makes sense against the backdrop of a tradition that was already there. Calvin and Luther did not go back and re-write Nicea. They took it for granted. There's nothing wrong with conceding that and celebrating it and reading those authors.
Looking at tradition would also help evangelicals learn about Christian liturgical traditions, like Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, that many evangelicals reject because they say liturgy is unbiblical. When did these practices come to be? It turns out many of them came to be very early on in church history when people were close historically to the apostles themselves. There must be something to these practices that the early Christians thought was perfectly consistent with what they had received from the apostles.
And I think that would do a couple of things. It would turn down the volume of the rhetoric from evangelicals, at least free-church Protestants. They would understand this goes back a long way. That may not convince them that it is right, but at least it would show them that it was widely held and that Christians who were right there on top of the early church practiced them. That was quite liberating for me, when I became aware of the writings of some of the church fathers and especially the liturgical aspects. Some of the folks who have read my blog post on my return to the church have misunderstood my reading of the church fathers. They think I went back and tried to find theology, and that really wasn't it for me. It was the practices of the church that were more important. I did some research years ago on the relationship of Greek philosophy and the Christian doctrine of God, and that was very helpful. But that's when I first began reading the fathers. One finds the practice of penance very early on during the times in which Christians were being persecuted. Some of the Christians who had denied their faith had to publicly repent for their sins and suffer penance. This was considered to be perfectly consistent with a doctrine of faith.
Were you surprised by the number and strength of the reactions you received?
Yes, I'm shocked. What it did to me, though, was create a sense of humility that I don't think I ever had before in my entire life. I felt a sense of responsibility that had been placed on me by God to conduct myself in a way that was neither scandalous to the Catholic Church nor the evangelical world. This is a unique opportunity, and I don't know where it is going to go from here. But it is a unique opportunity to be able to engage both my Catholic friends and my Protestant friends in a way that we can have mutual understanding and maybe move toward some sort of Christian unity, even if it's not ecclesiastical.
The number of e-mails that I have received and the number of comments on websitesI would have never predicted it. I think I underestimated the deep divisions that were still there, at least among lay evangelicals and Catholics more so than the academics who interact with each other more often. Non-denominational Bible church folks are still reading stuff about Catholicism published in the 1950s. Evangelicals have a responsibility to educate their people on this. And I think Catholics, as well, have an obligation to set the record straight about evangelicalism.
Evangelicals and Catholics Together made a helpful statement on justification some years ago and received lots of criticism.
Yeah, that was something else. The book that was very helpful to me was Mark Noll's Is the Reformation Over? That's what led me to read the Joint Declaration on Justification. Then I began reading some Catholic authors who did a very nice job with explaining the Catholic views of grace and faith. I thought to myself, How come every evangelical book that I've read on Catholicism didn't get this right? Part of it is a paradigm problem. I don't think it's duplicity. I just think if you hold to a highly cognitive, almost legal model of justification, there is no component for God's grace working out salvation within you.
You're best known for your skill at thinking and argumentation. How do you see the less-rational instincts functioning in the Christian life?
That's a great question. I think there are two extremes in the evangelical world, both of which are based on the same premise. They both accept the same premise that the Enlightenment view of reason is the correct view of reason. And the problem is that the Emergent people say, "We reject the Enlightenment view of reason; therefore we reject reason." And then the other guys say, "Well, that is the right view of reason."
I think that they're both wrong. Rationality or reason is much more expansive than that. There's an intuitive element of reason, and it's not simply the rationalistic calculation that one gets out of philosophers like Descartes.
For example, let me ask you, why do you love your wife? If you said, "She's beautiful," a typical rationalistic Christian would say, "But that's not enough!"
You say, "Well, she's smart."
"That's not enough!"
"But she loves me."
"That's not enough! Your mother loves you; you're not going to marry her!"
Wait a second! It's an organic thing. It's no one of these things. It's not that I take each one separately and add them up. But it's part of a mosaic or a tapestry where all these things are tied together.
The debate over Sola Scriptura is big between Protestants and Catholics. A Catholic thinker will say, typically, "Sola Scriptura is not mentioned in the Bible." And the Protestant will say, "It's not mentioned in the Bible, but it's implied there." But even if it's implied there, why should I accept it? Believers in the Qur'an believe Sola Scriptura. At some point, there has to be some connection between the church and its role and the phenomenon of Scripture. There are a lot of evangelicals who believe that and aren't Catholic. But if you accept that particularly narrow view of Sola Scriptura, then it becomes almost impossible to understand the Catholic view. And I think it's a kind of axiomatic rationalism that doesn't really capture why people convert, and why people believe things.
In terms of Scripture and the church, there is both a triumphalist version (We're the ones who canonized Scripture!) and there's a humbler version, which says the church recognized the voice of the Spirit in Scripture and submitted itself to it.
Both could be true at the same time. To say that somehow the church decreed it is to take a voluntarist model of authority. That is what you often find in real strong Calvinist views of God's moral nature, that things ought to be obeyed because God says so, not because he's good. In a weird way, there's an assumption that all authority is authoritarian. I deny that assumption. I think that the church was given the authority to make these judgments, and that the Holy Spirit allowed them to make those judgments and humbly accept it. So they're not inconsistent with each other.
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"ETS Resignation Triggers Tradition Discussion" focused on the ETS's reaction to Beckwith's resignation.
Other recent news articles include:
Prominent evangelical returns to Catholic roots | Baylor professor resigns as head of conservative intellectual group. (The Dallas Morning News)
Baylor prof Beckwith becomes Catholic, resigns as head of evangelical society | Renowned evangelical philosopher Francis Beckwith has become a Roman Catholic and, as a result, has resigned as president -- and also as a member -- of the Evangelical Theological Society. (Associated Baptist Press)