Sunday, November 16, 2008

Momma's Boy

Francis Beckwith just published his alibi for his reversion to Roman Catholicism: Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Brazos 2009).

This is one those books that’s important, not for what it says, but for who says it. It’s a celebrity endorsement for Roman Catholicism, like an ad Paris Hilton’s favorite lip-gloss.

It’s not that I’m comparing Beckwith and Hilton; rather, I’m comparing one consumer with another—the type of consumer who rushes out to buy a product because her favorite pop star uses the same product.

And, in the context of Catholicism, there’s something fitting about this, for Catholicism has always centered on the cult of celebrity: the pope, the saints.

In general, Beckwith is a useful writer, so there’s no need to demonize him or shun him. In the pecking order of Christian thinkers, he operates at a lower level than Alvin Plantinga, but at higher level than Dan Story. He’s a semipopular writer and thinker. That’s a useful niche. But he’s not a great scholar or philosopher or theologian.

The first half of the book is autobiographical. It’s only when we get to chap. 5 that he begins to make a case for Catholicism.

One thing that struck me in reading his book is how ignorant he seems to be regarding both Catholic and Protestant theology. The only systematic theologian he refers to is Norman Geisler. He also references a book which Geisler coauthored with Thomas Howe: When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. There’s a reference to yet another book coauthored by Geisler: Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. There’s a reference to a book by Arthur Pink, and another reference to a book by R. C. Sproul. Stuff like that.

To judge by this material, he operates at the reading level of the ordinary layman. He relies on popularizers. And his library of Protestant theology would seem to occupy all of one bookshelf.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that if you are the ordinary layman. But Beckwith is an academic by profession.

Moreover, he also relies on popularizers for his knowledge of Catholic theology. So he lacks a scholarly grasp of either side.

Now, he did study some great theologians like Aquinas. But that’s scarcely germane to the situation of modern Catholicism, or the Protestant Reformation.

And there’s more at issue than who he’s read. Unlike the ordinary layman, Beckwith could simply pick up the phone and speak to just any about evangelical philosopher or Bible scholar or theologian. He has access.

Yet, to judge by this book, there’s no evidence that he ran his doubts and questions by any number of qualified people he was free to consult. Same thing with Catholicism.

Let’s now evaluate his case for Catholicism. The first thing I note is that he merely recycles the stock arguments for Catholicism, as if no Protestant had ever heard of these before, much less answered them. Likewise, he recycles the hackneyed objections to Protestantism, as if this would leave us speechless. It’s all rather childish.

“In a nutshell, I argued that Protestants who don’t believe creeds are necessary—those who says things like ‘no creed but Christ’—do in fact accept creeds in the sense that they embrace fundamental doctrines that they believer are unassailable” (76).

Beckwith states this trite little truism as if he’d discovered some hitherto unknown and irrefutable objection to the Protestant faith. But, course, many Protestants are confessional Protestants of one kind or another, viz. Calvinists, Lutherans, &c.

Perhaps there’s some storefront church in Chicago where his objection would trigger an epiphany on the part of the listener, but for the rest of us, it’s rather like a Tibetan tourist in America who just discovered McDonald’s. This may be something new and amazing to him, but it’s no revelation to the natives.

What makes Beckwith think he came up with an explosive objection to the Protestant faith when he unfurls this utterly commonplace observation? My best guess is that this simply reflects the superficiality of his own evangelical dossier.

“Moreover, much of what these anti-creedal Protestants believe about Christ, the Trinity, the nature of scripture, and so forth are not easily derived form a reading of the Bible or mere appeal to the words of Christ” (76).

That’s another stock objection to the Protestant faith. At one level it’s difficult to respond to, not because it’s inherently difficult to respond to, but because it’s difficult to know who he has in mind. Who has he been reading all these years? More to the point, who has he not been reading all these years? It seems to be an expression of his own provincial ignorance. The evangelical literature on these topics is abundant. It’s hard to know where to start with someone like Beckwith, because I don’t know when he came on board. How much remedial education does he need?

“The idea, that the Reformation’s view of forensic justification as a virtual theological innovation, is put forth even more strongly by none other than the great theologian and Oxford professor, Alister McGrath” (84).

There are two problems with this objection,

i) McGrath is not a great theologian. He’s mainly a student of the history of ideas. He’s useful on historical theology, but that doesn’t make him a great theologian.

ii) More to the point, Beckwith’s objection represents a throwback to the way in which apologetics was done in the days of Bellarmine and Stapleton.

But this is very anachronistic since it overlooks the paradigm shift from tradition to the doctrine of development. If a “theological novum” is an objection to Protestant theology, then the same objection applies with equal force to the theological innovations of Rome.

This is a really obvious objection to his own position. Why is Beckwith so blind to the obvious? Probably another example of his hasty scholarship.

“Of course, some Church Fathers disagreed with each other one a variety of mattes, and some of them in fact defended positions that were later declared heretical by Church Councils. But it is interesting to note that on the question of the correctness of the doctrines and practices over which contemporary Evangelical Protestants and Catholics generally divide—the Real presence of the Eucharist, apostolic succession, prayers for and to the death, penance, infusion of grace, etc.—one does not find in the Fathers warring camps with one risking an ecumenical council’s judgment of heresy, as in the Arian and Pelagian controversies. In fact, for the Fathers the correctness of the ‘Catholic’ doctrines and practices seem conspicuously uncontroversial” (92).

For someone with a doctorate in philosophy, his lack of elementary logical acumen is often startling.

i) To begin with, he might stop to ask himself what makes a “Church Father” a “Church Father.” That title involves ecclesiastical recognition. Hence, there’s something viciously circular about appealing to the authority of the church fathers to validate the church. For, really, it’s the other way around—don’t you think? The church validates the authority of the church fathers. The church decides who is or is not a church father.

Appealing to the church fathers to validate the church is just like appealing to the chairman of General Motors to validate General Motors. Apart from General Motors, the chairman would have no institutional standing to begin with.

ii) Apropos (i), the church fathers represent a select subset of opinion. It’s because they tend to think alike that they are grouped together as church fathers in the first place. Broadly speaking, they represent a common “catholic” outlook, as over against the “heretics” or “schismatics.”

You might as well say that for Hegelians, the correctness of Hegelian philosophy is conspicuously uncontroversial. Well, what would you expect?

“When I ceased reading the Fathers anachronistically, what I began to notice was the far more important fact that Church Fathers X and Y agree that without apostolic succession there is no Church, and that no Father implies or affirms that apostolic succession is a non-Christian view.”

But this would only be an “important fact” on the prior assumption that the opinion of the church fathers qua church fathers is important. And that only follows if you presume a Catholic view of patristic authority to begin with. So, once again, Beckwith is reasoning in a vicious little circle.

Why would we attach any unique importance to what a church father says unless we attach a unique importance to the church which confers on him the status of a church father?

By the way, I don’t object to considering the testimony of the church fathers. I do object to considering their testimony because they’re church fathers—as if they official position is what makes them worth a respectful hearing. That begs the question in favor of Catholic (or Orthodox) ecclesiology.

iii) Apropos (ii), it’s not as if the Roman Catholic church has an exclusive contract with the church fathers. What about the Eastern Orthodox or the Oriental Orthodox? What makes Beckwith think that patristic testimony singles out the Roman Catholic communion?

iv) Apropos (iii), the church fathers weren’t talking about the 21C church of Rome. That lay far beyond their historical horizon. There’s a difference between testimony and prophecy. The church fathers weren’t a bunch of prophets who spoke with a view to the distant future. They were referring to the church they knew, in their own time and place. You can’t simply transfer their testimony from the church they knew to a church they never knew, or could ever know. If Benedict I is my contemporary, and I vouch for Benedict I, this doesn’t mean you can reapply my endorsement to Benedict XVI.

At best that would only be valid if you assume a fundamental continuity over time. But, for that, you need a separate argument—with an enormous amount of supporting evidence to document fundamental continuity throughout the centuries.

“Once I ceased approaching the biblical text with methodological Protestantism, it was nearly impossible for me to get forensic justification from the teaching of Jesus” (97).

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is true, so what? The explicit doctrine of sola fide arose in a specific historical context. In the apostolic church, mission to the gentiles raised the issue of how Jews and gentiles were related to a common faith. The Judaizers gave one answer. That’s the setting in which Paul has to give a different answer. It’s not terribly relevant to the ministry of Jesus, which was directed to the Jews—and only incidentally skirted the gentile question.

Beckwith goes on to discuss Paul, as well as James. But there are some obvious problems with his treatment:

i) It’s not as if Protestant scholars have never dealt with the question of James. Beckwith doesn’t interact with this literature. Indeed, he shows no awareness of this literature.

ii) Same thing with Paul. Due to the challenge posed by the new perspective on Paul, there’s been a renaissance of evangelical scholarship on sola fide—much of it upholding the traditional position. Once again, Beckwith doesn’t interact with this literature. Once again, he shows no awareness of this literature.

And, as I said before, the problem is not merely that he’s so illiterate when it comes to standard Evangelical scholarship in the issues at hand. He is in a position to speak directly with experts in the field. He could phone them or email them or make an appointment to see them. He has far more access than the ordinary layman.

There’s no evidence in this book that he made any serious use of his many opportunities to inform himself on the questions at hand.

iii) Finally, not only is he ignorant of standard Evangelical scholarship, but there’s also no interaction with modern Catholic scholarship. Has he ever read Fitzmyer’s commentary on Romans, or Johnson’s commentary on James?

It’s all so amateurish. Now it’s no sin to be amateurish if you happen to be an amateur. But Beckwith doesn’t have that excuse. To whom much is given, much is required.

And I also know some amateurs who exhibit a far more professional command of the relevant literature on both sides of the issue than he does. Busy laymen with a fulltime job who manage to do so much better than he. It’s a shameful performance. The basic problem is that Beckwith is a man in a hurry.

“This means that for the Protestant view of justification, good works are a necessary condition for true justification” (109).

i) Of course, you could say that being a human being is a necessary condition for justification. That hardly adjudicates the dispute between Catholic and Protestant.

ii) More to the point, good works are not a causal condition of justification.

iii) Even more to the point, Beckwith fails to appreciate why justification and sanctification differ. Ironically, it’s Catholicism, and not Calvinism, which treats justification as a legal fiction.

For Catholicism, God treats us as if we were righteous partly on account of our good deeds. But, of course, we are not actually righteous. We are still sinners. Due to regeneration and sanctification, we’re not wholly evil. We can do good works. But we remain fallen creatures. To treat sinners as if they were righteous partly on account of their good deeds is a legal fiction. Worse: it’s a lie. A sinner merits condemnation. That’s simple justice.

This is why justification is a state rather than a process. A complete, once-for-all-time act of God. Because we are sinners, we can’t stand before God in our own rectitude. To be partly righteous doesn’t count. Many wicked men have remnants of goodness in them. But we don’t consider them righteous on that account.

To be morally acceptable to God, we need to be better than we are. God isn’t going to pretend that we’re better than we actually are. That would buy into a lie. At that point, God would cease to be righteous. God would cease to be just.

It poses a dilemma. On the one hand, it’s a terrible thing to be guilty, to stand before a righteous judge, a hanging judge.

On the other hand, it’s a terrible thing when corrupt judges rule the land. And heathen mythology is full of evil gods and goddess. Imagine if the cosmic judge of the universe were a corrupt judge? It would be like one of those Latin American countries where drug lord run the show. Mutilated bodies turn up by the roadside.

The dilemma is resolved at the cross, where justice and mercy meet.

“The Catholic view of justification requires a faith, wholly the work of God’s grace” (109).

That’s not true. Catholic grace is synergistic. Resistible.

“The Protestant can’ repeat the sinners’ pray and answer the altar call until the cows come home” (110).

But this represents a decadent modern tradition. It doesn’t represent Protestant theology at its best, but at its worst.

Referring to a Calvinist, Beckwith goes on to say: “his error, it seems to me, rests in his understanding of grace, that it has no ontological status, that it is not a divine quality that can change nature over time in the would of the believer who cooperates with God’s free gift of grace” (110).

Assuming that this is a sincere statement of how Beckwith understands Reformed theology, and not polemical rhetoric, it betrays his pig-ignorance of the position he’s attacking.

Sinners have a twofold problem: we are guilty and corrupt. Guilt is an objective condition while corruption is a subjective condition.

As a result, saving grace remedies both conditions, but in ways appropriate to each. The grace of justification is objective because our guilt is objective. The grace of renewal (regeneration, sanctification, and glorification) is subjective because our corruption is subjective.

There’s a sense in which we cooperate in sanctification, by using the means of grace. But we don’t cooperate in regeneration, for the unregenerate are dead in sin—just as a heart attack victim is in no position to cooperate with the paramedic in his resuscitation.

“The view that my friend holds, the Reformed doctrine of imputation, and its attendant understanding of grace, has its roots in a late medieval school of thought called nominalism…nominalists were also voluntarists when it comes to God’s moral law. Because God himself does not have a nature (for, they reasoned, to have a nature would limit God), then his moral law must be based exclusively on his will, and not constrained by any intrinsically good nature. So, God could be capricious and arbitrary…This is why Reformed thinking fully embraces the forensic view of justification” (110-111).

Several problems here:

i) Nominalism, per se, was not heretical. Gabriel Biel was a nominalist. He was also a Catholic theologian in good standing with his religious superiors:

Likewise, Luther was a Catholic theologian.

If Beckwith thinks that nominalism is such a grave error, then the Catholic church is culpable for allowing Biel to teach. Then the Catholic church is culpable for educating Luther in nominalism. Then the Catholic church is culpable for making Luther a theology prof.

ii) Beckwith is trying to attack sola fide on philosophical grounds so that he can sidestep the exegetical argument for sola fide.

iii) Whether or not Luther was a nominalist, Calvin was not. Calvin rejected voluntarism. It’s symptomatic of his shallow scholarship that Beckwith utters these demonstrably false claims. Cf. P. Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas, chap. 11.

“Because the Early Church was committed to the deep mystery of Chalcedonian Christology—Jesus of Nazareth was both fully God and fully man—it saw no need to divide faith and works, as if they were hostile forces…After all, if works diminish faith’s significance because our cooperation apparently limits God’s sovereignty, then why believer that Jesus really took on a human nature…” (112).

This is so egregiously sloppy that it’s hard to credit Beckwith with even being honest at this point.

i) To begin with, Jesus was sinless and impeccable. To compare his good works with the works of a sinner is overlooks a glaring disanalogy.

ii) In historical theology, “works” is a term of art. A specialized term. Reformed theology doesn’t have a problem with “works.” Rather, it has a problem with “works” when defined in a particular way, in a particular relation to saving grace.

Reformed theology is opposed to the idea that sinners can perform meritorious works, or supererogatory works (in relation to God). It is also opposed to the idea that there’s something good in us which elicits saving grace. That’s the point at issue.

“Justification is about our being part of a communion of saints, the body of Christ” (113).

Of course, many different things are about our being part of the church, viz. election and redemption and regeneration and sanctification and adoption. Beckwith isn’t even attempting to present a careful statement of justification, of what distinguishes justification from other graces.

“Thus, there is a heavy burden on the part of Reformed writers to show that the ascendancy in the sixteenth century of a Reformation thinking that had no ecclesiastical predecessors may be attributed to a return to the true understanding of Christianity” (113).

i) Even if that were true, which it’s not, it cuts both ways. Catholicism has a number of theological innovations which it can’t begin to trace all the way back to the early church fathers—much less the NT. That’s why Newman, who was very well versed in the church fathers, finally gave up doing Catholic theology the old fashioned way.

ii) The only burden on Reformed theology is to show that Reformed theology is scriptural.

iii) There’s no presumption that something is probably true just because it’s a popular and venerable belief. Muslims and Hindus and Buddhist have believed the same thing for centuries on end. So what?

The Catholic church is a hierarchical institution. Therefore, it’s predicated on groupthink. And an upper crust of elite clergymen who dictate dogma to the laity. Theological dissent was suppressed. Dissidents were persecuted.

So we wouldn’t expect much public disagreement with the party line. Certain interpretations were locked in at an early stage, and became the unquestioned premise for further elaboration.

There’s an ideological entropy and ideological inertia which quickly sets in with any institution. That’s what makes them institutions. Standardization. Resistance to change.

“I found that the Church Fathers affirmed, very early on, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, infant baptism, penance and confession, an ordained priesthood, and an episcopal ecclesiology and apostolic succession (as well as other ‘Catholic’ doctrines including prayers for the dead and purgatory…And this by men who were discipled by the Apostles and/or the apostles’ disciples and/or their successors” (114).

Several problems:

i) Of course, some of the false teachers in NT times were discipled by apostles (e.g. Hymenaeus and Philetus).

ii) If antiquity is a mark of orthodoxy or apostolicity, then what about various heretics and schismatics who were contemporaneous with the church fathers?

iii) At the risk of stating the obvious, over time an organization can radically depart from the vision of its founder. Take the Jesuits. This is headed by the Superior General. That’s a regular office with a continuous series of successors.

Does Beckwith imagine that the contemporary Society of Jesus has stayed true to the Counter-Reformation zeal and ultramontane vision of Ignatius Loyola? What would Ignatius think of his old order if he returned from the grave?

To take another example, please don’t tell me that John-Paul’s syncretistic Day of Prayer at Assisi represents a logical development of Unam Sanctam.

“I could not justifiably accept the Early Church’s recognition and fixation of the canon of scripture—and its correct determination and promulgation of the central doctrines of God and Christ (at Nicea and Chalcedon)—while rejecting the Church’s sacramental life as well as its findings about its own apostolic nature and authority” (115).

i) Which canon did the early church canonize? The Roman Catholic canon? The Eastern Orthodox canon? The Ethiopian canon? Does the Eastern Orthodox church even have an official canon of Scripture?

ii) Roman Catholicism didn’t formally define the canon until Trent. And even then the Tridentine Fathers couldn’t agree on the scope of the canon. It came down to a vote. 24-15 with 16 abstentions. Doesn’t sound like it was settled by the early church.

i) In addition, the Council of Trent cited the Vulgate as its canonical frame of reference. But which edition of the Vulgate represents the canonical edition?

It’s clear that Beckwith hasn’t done any in-depth research on the history of the canon.

“At this point, I though, if I reject the Catholic Church, there is good reason for me to believe I am rejecting the Church that Christ himself established. That’s not a risk I was willing to take” (115-116).

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Catholic church is the true church, wherein lies the risk of rejecting it? In the ecumenism of Vatican II, you don’t have to be Catholic to be saved. You don’t even have to be Christian to be saved.

“After all, if I return to the Church and participate in the Sacraments, I lose nothing, since I would still be a follower of Jesus and believe everything that the Catholic creeds teach, as I have always believed” (116).

Actually, he would be a follower of the pope. Moreover, contemporary Catholic theology has evolved and devolved far beyond the Apostles’ creed or the Nicene creed.

“Moreover, my parents had baptized me a Catholic, and made sure I was confirmed while I was in the seventh grade. For the first time, the commandment ‘Honor thy father and mother’ carried with it an authority I had never entertained” (116).

This is what passes for a serious argument by a man with a doctorate in philosophy? What about the parents of Lutherans or Presbyterians or Baptists or Mormons or Muslims or Hindus or Nazis?

Why did the Apostles preach the gospel to the heathen? Wouldn’t a pagan convert to Christianity be dishonoring his parents by breaking with his ancestral faith?

“Because the Catholicism that Professor Nicole had in mind was not the Catholicism that is actually embraced by the Catholic Church” (123).

This is a remarkably arrogant statement. Nicole is an exceptionally erudite theologian. He has a tremendous command of historical theology. He knows far more about Catholic theology than a whirlwind revert like Beckwith. Here’s an example, in his own words, of Beckwith’s research into Catholic theology:

“I then purchased and read Called to Communion (1996) by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Rome Sweet Home (1993), Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s narrative of their journey to the Catholic Church. I also consulted the works of Catholic writers Jimmy Akin, Mark Brumley, and Carl Olson, which I discovered while surfing the internet” (114).

Who is Beckwith to take issue with Nicole’s mastery of Catholic tradition?

“In the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Catholic church affirms, just as the ETS affirms, tha the Bible is God’s inerrant word written” (124).

Once again, this illustrates his clueless ignorance of the deliberations leading up to that statement, where Cardinal König successfully dissuaded the bishops from reaffirming the plenary inspiration of Scripture.

“Because the list of canonical books is itself not found in scripture—as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s Apostles—any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-biblical knowledge…The belief that the Bible consists only of 66 books is not a claim of scripture—since one cannot find the list in it—but a claim about scripture as a whole…If the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot find that belief in any of the books, then the belief that scripture consists of 66 particular books is an extra-biblical belief” (123-124).

“Because there can be no scriptural test for canonicity unless one first knows what constitutes scripture, one must rely on extra-scriptural tests in order to know the scriptura to which sola scriptura refers. But then one is not actually relying on ‘scripture alone’ to determine the most fundamental standard for the Christian, the Bible” (135n10).

“Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul seems to concede as much: ‘Roman Catholics view the canon as an infallible collection of infallible books. Protestants view it as a fallible collection of infallible books’” (142n11).

Beckwith seems to think he has backed the Protestant into an inextricable dilemma. But there are several problems with his argument:

i) Beckwith seizes on the word “sola”—as if you can derive the meaning of a doctrine from looking up a word in a Latin lexicon. By that logic, you can master the theory of relativity by looking up the word “relativity” in Webster’s.

“Sola scriptura” is just a slogan. You can’t derive the meaning of the doctrine from a popular catchphrase.

ii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Sproul’s statement is correct, isn’t Catholicism in the same boat? How is a fallible list of fallible teachings superior to a fallible list of fallible books? The Vatican has never issued an infallible list of infallible teachings.

iii) Yes, the identification of Scripture is contingent on some extrascriptural conditions. For example, the knowledge of scripture depends on sense knowledge. A blind man can’t read the Bible. A comatose patient can’t read the Bible.

Likewise, the knowledge of Scripture depends on a certain degree of cognitive development. A one-year-old baby can’t grasp the teaching of Scripture.

None of this is germane to the authority of Scripture.

iv) Why would you need a list of books? One book can refer to another book without listing another book. For example, in the footnotes of his own book, Beckwith mentions a number of other books and articles he’s written. He doesn’t list them. But you could generate a list from his references.

Likewise, there’s an enormous amount of intertextuality in Scripture, where one book of the Bible quotes or alludes to another book of the Bible. That isn’t the same thing as a list, but you can generate a list from those quotes and allusions.

v) Moreover, it’s not as if one book has to refer to another book. Books of the Bible can be considered separately as well as collectively.

Suppose we applied Beckwith’s reasoning to Catholicism. Must one church father list every other church father? Must one papal bull list every other bull? Must one church council list every other council?

Does Beckwith only accept the authority of a papal bull if it appears on a master list of papal publications?

vi) Or is his point that we lack a complete list? Well, suppose, for the sake of argument, that you can’t generate a complete list of Scripture from Scripture.

What about Catholicism? Does Beckwith have a complete list of Catholic teachings? Would he chuck Catholicism if he only had a partial list of Catholic teachings?

Suppose he took the position that only Catholic teachings are authoritative. But he doesn’t have a complete Catholic listing of Catholic teachings. Would this omission justify the inclusion of other, extra-Catholic teachings, like Hindu or Buddhist teachings?

No, it would mean that whatever teaching is Catholic is authoritative, and whatever teaching is not Catholic is not authoritative. He could still say, with perfect consistency, that only Catholic teaching is authoritative, even if he didn’t have a complete Catholic listing of Catholic teachings.

Likewise, even if, ex hypothesi, we didn’t have a complete Scriptural listing of Scripture, this wouldn’t mean that extra-Scriptural teaching was equally authoritative, or authoritative at all.

vii) In principle, you could also use some listed books to assess the inclusion of some unlisted books.

Say we had 10 authentic plays by Shakespeare. We could employ this core canon to evaluate the authenticity of other putatively Shakespearean plays. We would be using Shakespeare to evaluate Shakespeare. We wouldn’t be using something other than Shakespeare to evaluate Shakespeare. It would be a part/whole relation.

Suppose Luke is on my list, but Acts is unlisted. Still, I could use Luke to add Acts to the list.

viii) Did Intertestamental Jews have no inkling of what constituted scripture until they had the NT to supplement and complete the OT? Were they in the dark regarding the identity of any scripture unless they knew the identity of every scripture?

Because revelation is progressive, the canon is cumulative. As such, recognition of the canon is cumulative.

Wouldn’t Beckwith have to say the same thing about church councils? Does he think the age of the councils must come to an end before you’re in any position to say that Nicea or Trent or Vatican I or Vatican II was an ecumenical council?

Or is it possible, anywhere along the chronological process, to identify a council as ecumenical?

Perhaps he’d say you need papal confirmation. But that only pushes the “test” back a step. For you need a papal conclave to elect a pope. And a conclave is a church council. A council of cardinals. So who confirms whom?

Does Beckwith have an infallible list of the College of Cardinals? Must he fall back on some extra-Catholic test to know the number the cardinals? To know who’s a cardinal and who is not? Does he need an infallible adding machine to determine its composition? Is this a Catholic adding machine, or an extra-Catholic adding machine?

Ironically, the net-effect of his book is to undermine the claims of Rome. He makes his best case for Catholicism. But when the best case of a bright, sophisticated, and well-educated guy like Beckwith is so appallingly bad, it simply reinforces the fact that there are no good arguments for Catholicism. It comes down to which bad argument, or set of bad arguments, you find more appealing.

There’s been a lot of anticipation for this book. But it’s like a Christmas present with a very big box and a very small gift inside. Mostly foam stuffing. And a plastic toy.


  1. If anybody is interested, I wrote a response to Beckwith, primarily on the doctrine of justification, last year. You can read it here. In that article, I gave some examples of Roman Catholic doctrines that were widely contradicted by the patristic Christians, including some of the doctrines Beckwith refers to as "conspicuously uncontroversial" in one of Steve's quotes above.

    Beckwith makes reference to a lack of "warring camps with one risking an ecumenical council’s judgment of heresy, as in the Arian and Pelagian controversies". But if the earliest patristic Christians didn't believe in the papacy or praying to the deceased, for example, as the evidence suggests, why would we expect "warring camps"? There might be disputes when an opposing position arises, as we see with the papacy after that doctrine arose, but the absence of earlier disputes wouldn't suggest that the doctrine was accepted in earlier times. The lack of earlier disputes about the papacy could be explained by widespread agreement about a non-papal view of church government. And just as there wasn't "risk of an ecumenical council’s judgment of heresy" each time a patristic source advocated a Roman Catholic concept that Protestants reject, there also wasn't "risk of an ecumenical council’s judgment of heresy" each time a patristic source advocated a Protestant concept that Roman Catholics reject. There are many subjects the ecumenical councils didn't address, and different people have different priorities, often influenced by their historical context. A patristic source who opposed the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, for example, may not have considered the issue significant enough to warrant a call for "an ecumenical council’s judgment of heresy". He may not have even thought the issue significant enough to argue over it with others, particularly if more important issues needed to be tended to at the time. Etc.

    Regarding apostolic succession, see here.

    I have a summary of the historical roots of the Reformation and Evangelicalism, including links to many articles documenting patristic disagreements with Catholicism and agreements with Evangelicalism, here.

    Here's a page listing all of our archived posts on the topic of justification. Not all of our posts are archived yet, but many of them are.

    It should be noted that although Beckwith refers to "forensic justification" in the teaching of Jesus, a more important issue is whether Jesus taught the concept of justification through faith alone, even if He didn't specify imputed righteousness. As I discussed in some posts earlier this year, the concept of justification through faith alone is found in many places in the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. See here.

    And there were many views of justification in pre-Reformation church history. It's not as though Trent and Protestantism represent the only views that existed. Some people who lived during the Reformation era accepted doctrines like the papacy and transubstantiation while accepting justification through faith alone at the same time. If Trent's decisions represented an established pre-Reformation tradition, then why were those decisions so controversial even in Roman Catholic circles (as we see in Steve's example of disagreements over the Old Testament canon at Trent)?

  2. When Catholics cite church history in opposition to Evangelicals, take note of which doctrines they mention. Beckwith mentions doctrines like "the Real presence of the Eucharist" and "apostolic succession".

    But such concepts aren't unique to Roman Catholicism. And some of the patristic sources either define those concepts in a way that Roman Catholicism rejects or consider the beliefs non-essential. For example, the fact that a patristic source advocates some form of apostolic succession (a concept defined in different ways by different sources) doesn't prove that he considered it necessary for an individual or church to adhere to apostolic succession in order to be orthodox or worthy of fellowship. The fact that a source advocates some form of apostolic succession doesn't prove that the source defined the concept the same way Catholics do or assigned the same level of significance to that concept that Catholics assign to it.

    Why doesn't Beckwith cite patristic support for transubstantiation and a Roman Catholic notion of apostolic succession rather than "the Real presence of the Eucharist" and "apostolic succession"? Just how broadly is he defining "the Real presence of the Eucharist"? Patristic scholars such as Philip Schaff and J.N.D. Kelly have argued that some of the fathers believed in a symbolic or spiritual presence view of the eucharist. I've reached the same conclusion in my reading of the fathers. If Beckwith's "Real presence of the Eucharist" is so broad as to include such views, then what significance does it have when cited against Evangelicalism? Or if he's only referring to the fathers who believed in some type of physical presence, then what about the others who didn't? And how do we get from physical presence to transubstantiation?

    If Beckwith can choose to focus on concepts like "the Real presence of the Eucharist" and "apostolic succession", why can't somebody else focus on other issues? Why not focus, instead, on the rejection of the papacy or the acceptance of premillennialism among the early patristic Christians, for example? As I mentioned above, Beckwith seems to be wrong about some of the doctrines he does cite. The evidence suggests that the earliest patristic Christians didn't believe in infant baptism or prayers to the deceased, for example. But even if they did agree with Beckwith on such issues, what about the other issues? A justification needs to be given for which issues Catholics decide to focus on. The Catholics I've interacted with over the years haven't provided that justification.

  3. I'm a former student of Beckwith's. I've not followed him to Rome, but I do take issue with the way you've characterized Beckwith as a scholar. You don't publish with Cambridge University Press as a some kind of semi-popularizer. He is one of the best Christian philosophers. He just happens to also do quite a bit of popular work along the way.

  4. Gene and Jason,

    Thanks for the reviews. I see the that ETS meeting is coming up. There is a push to amend the doctrinal statement. I think the amendment proposals should include something concerning sola fide and sola gratia.



  5. hunter,

    The problem, as I understand Steve, is not that Beckwith is a popularizer; the problem is that he's consulting popularizers for his theological education, even though he's an academic. On this point, Steve is certainly correct. Someone with a serious grappling of the issues would simply not make the sort of statements Beckwith has made in interviews and now in this book.

  6. Exactly, which is why in the post above this one, I referenced an internet source - James Swan's blog. Beckwith is citing the works of men like Jimmy Akin as his sources. He says he went to the internet. Now, I have no problem with internet sources - but Beckwith doesn't show any evidence of interacting with the opposing positions - the refutations of men like Akin, the exposure of the misuses of sources like McGrath by these same persons. That's why I told him he needs to interact with Steve's critique, not react to it.

    It’s clear that Beckwith hasn’t done any in-depth research on the history of the canon.

    Actually, that's not what strikes me. Beckwith wrote a standard reference that we cite ourselves, with respect to the canon of the OT in the NT church.

    To me the situation here is reversed. Remember...the Apocrypha is generally referred to as part of the OT canon, not the NT canon, by our Romanist epologist/popular apologist friends. Rome's NT canon doesn't vary with ours - its the additional books in the OT canon. Beckwith seems to be denying his past work - reversing his own studied position by repeating the claims of Holy Mother Church and her popular apologists, in lieu of presenting a scholarly discussion of the issues. That strikes me as far worse than doing no research at all. At the very least, he should simply admit he changed his mind. I'd respect that. I respect him here even more if he would provide a scholarly discussion.

  7. Thanks for that review Steve.
    Thanks also for those links Jason.

    I was impacted by the words of Beckwith as I read John 6 to my kids last night, "it was nearly impossible for me to get forensic justification from the teaching of Jesus” (97)". Really?

    Keep praying for Momma's Boy,

  8. Steve,

    Thanks for the review.

    Sorry, Gene. I didn't mean to thank you. :)

    Jason, appreciate the follow-ups!

    Needed more coffee...



  10. While, as a Catholic, I don't like your comments about Catholicism being a "celebrity" religion, I do agree with your estimation of Beckwith and he's not doing Catholics any favors with this book, either.

    His reading of Catholicism is superficial and shallow. What he seems to want to be is a tertium quid - both Catholic and evangelical. I know people in this day want to keep all their options open, but when it comes to differences such as those between evangelicalism and Catholicism, one really must make an (informed) choice. Beckwith has not done this. Instead, he is asking Catholics to accept syncretism, on the basis that his (Beckwith's) faith, as a Catholic, is only sustained by his continuing immersion in evangelical Protestantism. In the course of his argument, he has tendentiously misinterpreted both Unitatis redintegratio and Lumen gentium, both of which have been re-articulated and clarified by Communionis notio, Dominus Iesus, and the CDF Response of July 2007.

    Whatever all of you think of Catholicism and its tenets, please understand that we, too, require stringent exegesis as well as a modicum of acquaintance with standard Catholic sources, both primary and secondary. And we don't like the trend toward syncretism on the part of some of those who have "converted." It's an insult to the members of both groups.

  11. Correction: Roger Beckwith wrote the book (thanks, Jason...that's what I get for posting so late at night)...but the criticism still stands. Beckwith is in a position to know (or at least act) like he knows more than what he does.

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