The recent reversion of Francis Beckwith to Roman Catholicism brings to mind some practical issues regarding theology in Evangelicalism. Since Beckwith’s Christianity Today interview was basically subjective, I’ll likewise start with some subjective points.
First, I’ve been meeting off and on with a group of friends on Sundays (I say “off and on” because due to my work schedule and the lack of free-time during the week, I’ve had to use my Sundays to catch up a bit on other things and haven’t gone for a while). This group is composed of my brother and myself on the Reformed front, an Eastern Orthodox man in training for the priesthood, several Roman Catholics (indeed, the Catholics are recruiting everyone at the moment so there are more Catholics than anyone else), and several people who are disaffected with the modern state of Evangelicalism but who would still be considered Evangelicals. The result is a semi-ecumenical forum where we abide by certain rules to keep discussions civil and we discuss various issues, especially from Church history.
Speaking broadly, then, it is not at all surprising to me that Beckwith has abandoned Evangelicalism. There is very little appeal to Evangelicalism in its modern form. Indeed, the reason the group I am in formed in the first place was because one of my friends was so frustrated with the lack of thinking that goes on in Evangelical churches these days that he knew there must be something more out there.
Thankfully, I go to a good church that teaches Biblical doctrine every Sunday. It is intellectually satisfying. But there are many churches in America that have gone to the opposite extreme: pure emotionalism, and indeed a hostile spirit toward intellectual pursuits. As such, modern Evangelicalism can largely be defined today as anti-intellectual. Instead of teaching the Bible, we teach Rick Warren books. Instead of referring to Bible passages in our sermons, we quote 24 or Lost. Instead of focusing on God, we are anthropocentric.
In many ways, the Evangelical church is simply mirroring the anti-intellectual state of our culture as a whole. Thinking—true thinking—is not an easy thing. Wrestling with ideas, trying to defend a position logically, even reading up on opposing viewpoints—all these things take mental energy and stamina. It’s easier to watch American Idol and make fun of talentless singers than it is to think about what the doctrine of Justification means. And even if we pay lip service to doctrines such as this in our church services, how many people can think of an application of this doctrine on Sunday night or Monday morning?
Obviously, Beckwith was one person who could not find an application from the modern version of Evangelicalism. In many ways, though, Beckwith’s movement was not that much different from the movement of many of the apostates over at Debunking Christianity. Both were unsatisfied with the modern Evangelical church, and each picked a substitute philosophy to answer the questions they found problematic in Evangelicalism. While the Debunkers became atheists (thus “solving” the problem by pretending it was an artificial problem in the first place), Beckwith became a Catholic (thus “solving” the problem by substituting group-thought—the papacy—for the anti-intellectualism of modern Evangelicalism).
So the question for Evangelicals is a stark one. The question isn’t “Is there anything wrong with modern Evangelicalism?” The question is: “Since there is a problem with modern Evangelicalism, what is the solution?”
Hosea 4:6a says: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Knowledge is vital for the Christian walk. When pastors speak to the Lowest Common Denominator in the audience, assuming that it is a pagan who has just walked in off the street, there can be no growth in the body. When a church is seeker-friendly (read: seeker-centered), those who believe and are not “seeking” will simply starve to death. Right now in Evangelicalism, there is no place for the flock to go to get fed.
The author of Hebrews chastises those who live on “milk” alone, saying: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child” (Hebrews 5:12-13). He then implores the church to move on, saying: “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1-2).
Ironically, in the above passages, the author of Hebrews called the very reason Beckwith left Evangelicalism to return to Rome, part of the “elementary doctrine of Christ.” Yet our modern Evangelical churches do not even teach this elementary, foundational doctrine of “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.”
This is not taught because we live in an anti-intellectual age where teaching anything is considered pointless. But Hosea made it clear that without knowledge, the people of God are destroyed. Indeed, he was even more to the point for our modern church because he continues: “[B]ecause you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” (Hosea 4:6b). It wasn’t just that people had no knowledge, it was that they rejected knowledge, exactly as the modern Evangelical church has done today.
If the rejection of knowledge is the cause of the problem, the cure is simple: gaining that knowledge. And while groups of laymen can gather and do things to promote the knowledge of God (such as occurs on Triablogue), what we really need is for the church as a whole to move on to the solid food. While our culture may be largely anti-intellectual, people cannot live anti-intellectually for very long. It is against our natures, and we will become dissatisfied with our lack of growth. Therefore, when a layman realizes he could preach all the sermons that a pastor who supposedly went through years of seminary can do, what is left for him in that church? Where will he go to be fed?
False religions that promise knowledge are tempting for that reason. If a starving man is offered rotten meat, he will eat it. The Evangelical church should be giving people steak so that they would never feel that starved in the first place. If Evangelicalism wishes to avoid more “embarrassments” like having the president of the Evangelical Theological Society reject Evangelicalism, it needs to start feeding the sheep in every church, abandoning the “seeker-centered” approaches that only serve to inoculate members against Christianity and instead focusing on the weighty theological issues of Scripture. If, instead of mimicking the anti-intellectualism or our culture, the church shone as the beacon of reason and rationality that it was for so long, the church would actually transform the culture instead of being transformed by the culture.
Unfortunately, I do not see much hope that Evangelicalism as a whole will change. Thankfully, these things are ultimately in God’s hands instead of mine.