Francis Beckwith has given an interview on his reversion to Roman Catholicism:
HT: Patrick Chan.
I’ll just comment on a few statements:
“The issue of justification was key for me. The Catholic Church frames the Christian life as one in which you must exercise virtue—not 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.”
Notice what is missing from this statement. He doesn’t say: “I went back and reexamined Paul’s teaching on justification. I came to the conclusion that Trent has the better of the exegetical argument.”
Instead, he offers a subjective, impressionist, existential argument—if you can even call it an argument.
“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.”
Given the number of years that Beckwith has been an evangelical, a well-connected evangelical, moving in a variety of evangelical circles, does he really think evangelicals believe that they need to reinvent the wheel each generation? Is that the issue?
No, the issue is that Christianity may be 2000 years old, but it’s new to each new generation, and it’s incumbent upon each new generation to double-check “the stuff that has already been articulated for generations.”
“Look, you're not going to come up with the Nicene Creed by just picking up the Bible.”
Why not? How did the Nicene fathers come up with the Nicene Creed, if not by 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.”
And how did the church come to its self-understanding? From Scripture, or apart from Scripture? Is the church’s self-understanding consonant with the way the Bible understands the church?
“But we have to understand that the Reformation only makes sense against the backdrop of a tradition that was already there.”
No one denies this. But let’s also remember that it’s not as if there was a monolithic, pre-Reformation tradition. There was a lot of diversity. Trent narrowed and hardened tradition in reaction to the Reformation.
“Calvin and Luther did not go back and re-write Nicea. They took it for granted.”
To my knowledge, that’s inaccurate. Calvin rejected Nicene subordinationism in favor of the autotheos of each Person.
“Looking at tradition would also help evangelicals learn about Christian liturgical traditions, like Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, that evangelicals reject because they say liturgy is unbiblical.”
Do evangelicals reject liturgy per se as unbiblical? Or do they reject certain liturgical innovations as unbiblical? Or believe there’s a measure of freedom in our liturgical practice?
“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.”
Two or three obvious problems with this argument:
i) Apostolic practice is not automatically normative for the subapostolic church. For example, the apostles continued to attend the Temple services. Is that normative for Christians?
ii) Certain NT letters are already combating heresy in the NT church(es). Heresies were afoot during the apostolic era. So there’s no correlation between antiquity and orthodoxy.
iii) What about discontinuities between early church practice and the practice of the 21C Catholic church? Doesn’t the appeal to primitive tradition cut both ways? Does it undercut discontinuities between past and present?
“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.”
It’s true that elites tend to think alike. For example, the Episcopalian hierarchy is far more likely to agree with the secular elite on social issues than with the laity. Is that a good thing?
“Non-denominational Bible church folks are still reading stuff about Catholicism published in the 1950s.”
What is his evidence for this claim? No doubt it’s true in some cases, but does he have any statistical data to back up his sweeping generalization?
And why is it always that evangelicals don’t understand Catholics, but not vice versa? We live in the same country, you know.
“That's what led me to read the Joint Declaration on Justification.”
Were the Catholic participants official representatives of the Vatican? Do they speak for Rome? Were they papal delegates? Did the Vatican codify this Declaration?
“Then I began reading some Catholic authors who did a very nice job with explaining the Catholic views of grace and faith.”
Which Catholic authors?
“I thought to myself, ‘How come every evangelical book that I've read on Catholicism didn't get this right’?”
Which evangelical books?
“They both accept the same premise that the Enlightenment view of reason is the correct view of reason.”
This gets to be tedious. It’s the sort of thing we’re used to hearing from Bishop Wright. But we make allowance for the fact that he’s a NT scholar rather than a philosopher. Yet Beckwith is a philosopher.
So what evangelical theologians operate with an Enlightenment view of reason? Does that include pre-Enlightenment theologians like Calvin and Beza?
And what about the role of reason in Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Suarez, Arnauld, Maréchal, Maritain, Rahner, and so on?
“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.”
i) Did Luther, a Catholic professor theology, not understand the Catholic view? Did Vermingli, by turns an abbot and prior, not understand the Catholic view?
ii) And assuming, for the sake of argument, that sola Scriptura precludes a proper understanding of the Catholic view, how does that validate the Catholic view?
iii) Conversely, does the Catholic view make it almost impossible to understand sola Scriptura?
"And I think it's a kind of axiomatic rationalism that doesn't really capture why people convert, and why people believe things."
Even if that were true, how does the psychology of conversion validate the process of conversion? After all, an individual can convert to anything.
"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."
Can he quote any Reformed creed or major Reformed theologian who takes that position?