Sunday, May 06, 2007

Francis Beckwith's Reversion To Roman Catholicism

Francis Beckwith has done a lot of good work. Though his reversion to Roman Catholicism is a mistake, I'm grateful for the good work he did as an Evangelical, and I'm glad that he did the right thing by resigning from the Evangelical Theological Society. Much of what needs to be said about Beckwith's reversion has already been said by people like James White, at his blog, and Douglas Groothuis and Jeff Downs, at Beckwith's blog. I would add the following. Francis Beckwith probably would agree with some of what I'm going to say, but it's sometimes worthwhile to state something that people have been assuming without stating. Making these things explicit might be helpful to some people who are looking on.

1. There can be a large degree of agreement with Roman Catholic theology among the church fathers without the conclusion following that we ought to consider the fathers Roman Catholic or that we ought to consider Catholicism true. On some issues, such as the veneration of images or some Marian doctrines, what Catholicism teaches was widely absent or contradicted among the earliest patristic sources. I would argue that the earliest Christians, including the earliest church fathers, held views on a large number of issues that are far from what Roman Catholicism believes (church government, prayer, the veneration of images, the afterlife, Mary, etc.). The earliest post-apostolic Christians repeatedly put forward a view of the afterlife that didn't include Purgatory, they didn't pray to the deceased and angels, infant baptism was initially absent and only gradually became popular, etc. It's true that justification through works is more prominent in patristic sources than justification through faith alone, for example, but such a vague similarity to Roman Catholicism doesn't make the fathers Catholic or Catholicism true. Similarly, it could be said that the fathers generally held a higher view of Mary than Evangelicals do, but a higher view of Mary isn't equivalent to a Roman Catholic view, and patristic views of Mary are closer to that of Evangelicalism the earlier we go.

2. Justification through works can be defined in more than one way, and there were many views of justification among the church fathers. See, for example, Tertullian's treatise On Baptism and Augustine's description of the large variety of views of justification in his day in The City Of God 21:17-27. It could be said that Mormonism and Roman Catholicism both believe in some form of justification through works, but it doesn't therefore follow that they hold the same view of justification. There are significant differences. Similarly, the patristic sources who advocate some form of justification through works disagree among themselves widely as to which works are required and which sins allegedly cause the loss of justification, for example. One of the earliest fathers, Hermas of Rome (note the significance of his location), for instance, believed in the concept of limited forgiveness (The Shepherd, 1:2:2). Roman bishops living shortly after the time of Hermas would oppose the concept, illustrating the diversity of views that could exist even in one city within a relatively short period of time. The patristic sources who advocate some form of justification through works differ widely in how they define the concept.

3. The Biblical evidence pertaining to justification is more significant than many people suggest. The Biblical documents were written over a span of more than a thousand years, and they address thousands of years of human history. The fact that the last book of the Bible was written in the first century A.D. doesn't mean that the Bible is just one first century source written by one author, which people might easily misunderstand. It's not as if we can go to somebody like Justin Martyr or Irenaeus and get the clarification we need regarding what the entire Bible meant when it was written several decades earlier. The church fathers were far removed from the original context of the Old Testament, and some of them were far removed from the original context of the New Testament. And if we think that we need clarification on something in Paul, for example, why wouldn't we go to somebody like Luke or John for that clarification before going to somebody like Hermas or Augustine? The concept of having the fathers clarify Biblical teaching on justification for us requires not only that one source needs clarification, but also that a long series of other sources needs clarification as well (the other Biblical authors). If you can read dozens of Biblical authors, yet still think that you need later sources to clarify major elements of the doctrine of justification for you (not minor details scripture doesn't address much), then the problem might be more with you than with an alleged lack of clarity in the Biblical documents.

4. Justification through faith alone is Biblical. It's doubtful that Paul would have placed so much emphasis on Genesis 15:6 if he meant to argue for some form of justification through works. All that Abraham does in that passage is believe (sola fide). That's not the sort of passage one chooses to illustrate justification through baptism, giving to the poor, or any other work. Jesus repeatedly forgives people as soon as they believe, prior to baptism or any other work (Mark 2:5, Luke 7:50, 17:19, 18:10-14), and that sort of justification at the time of faith is treated as normative elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 15:7-11, 19:2, Galatians 3:2-9, Ephesians 1:13-14). Paul's question in Acts 19:2 assumes that it's normative to receive the Spirit at the time of faith, not at the time of baptism or at the time of anything else other than faith. Paul repeats that theme elsewhere, such as in Galatians 3:2-9. It would be implausible to dismiss all of these Biblical examples of sola fide as exceptions to a rule, especially given that some of the passages in question are explicitly in a normative context. Much more can be said for the Biblical case for a Protestant understanding of justification. In addition to the passages I've just cited, a Protestant view of justification makes more sense of other Biblical themes, such as the substitutionary nature of Christ's righteousness and atonement, the concept of looking to Christ and His work alone (1 Corinthians 2:2, Galatians 6:14), the freeness of eternal life, etc.

5. As some patristic scholars have noted, justification through faith alone is found in some sources during the patristic era. Protestants in general have noted this fact from the time of the reformers onward. Some, such as Philip Schaff, have thought that the concept is only rarely found in the fathers, while others, such as Thomas Oden, have argued that it's widespread. I think it's more common than Schaff suggests, but not as common as Oden has suggested. As with other issues, some of the patristic sources in question seem to have been inconsistent on the matter. But the concept of justification through faith alone is found in the patristic era. For some examples of where various Protestants see sola fide in the patristic sources, see D.H. Williams, Evangelicals And Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005) and Bruce McCormack, Justification In Perspective (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006). The common Roman Catholic claim that nobody advocated justification through faith alone between the time of the apostles and the Reformation is false. The concept is found in some church fathers and in some other sources who lived during the patristic era.

6. In his article linked at the beginning of this post, Beckwith tells us that he began his reading of the church fathers and other sources relevant to his reversion this past January. And this is May. He seems to have made too quick a judgment.

7. His appeals to "the church" have to be reconciled with the fact that there have been disagreements about how to define that term since patristic times. And even some sources who advocated a view of the church significantly different from what a Protestant would be willing to accept also differed from a Roman Catholic definition in some ways. Similarly, the concept of apostolic succession can be defined in multiple ways and has some significant problems as it's commonly used in modern Roman Catholic circles.


  1. When you look at the universalism which has crept into the Roman Church (seen in the Catechism), there is no plausible way one can remain Roman Catholic, at least with the claims that the Roman Church being infallible or the true church.

    Muslims and Easter Orthodox can get into heaven now. So "Unam Sanctum" is thrown out. That can't be reconciled with the Bible (the non-Christians).

    What would the early church fathers think of this?

  2. Jason, thanks for your comments.

    It's also interesting that the Catholic Church has moved from a more-or-less Calvinistic view of man's depravity at the time of Augustine to one that's mostly semi-Pelagian. So even if you accept a high view of the Early Church Fathers, it seems to me a hard sell to make the modern Catholic Church their direct offspring and continuing legacy.

  3. GeoffRobinson wrote:

    "Muslims and Easter Orthodox can get into heaven now. So 'Unam Sanctum' is thrown out. That can't be reconciled with the Bible (the non-Christians). What would the early church fathers think of this?"

    The fathers held a variety of views, sometimes even suggesting the possibility of or arguing for universalism. But for the most part, the earliest fathers were far from Roman Catholicism's modern ecumenism, both with regard to salvation and with regard to other issues.

    Here are some examples of the modern ecumenism of Roman Catholicism:

    "On Friday, the pope prayed with members of the Jewish community and Marek Edelman, the sole surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, at Warsaw's Umschlagplatz, the ghetto site from which 300,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka and Auschwitz." (The Jerusalem Post, "Poland's chief rabbi asks 'Mr. Pope' to remove Auschwitz cross" June 13, 1999)

    "Catholics around the world are also being urged to pray for peace, and some local churches have planned services with other faiths....The call by John Paul II for a day of prayer has brought a positive response from the leaders of the world's religions." (BBC News, "Worried Pope prays for peace", January 23, 2002)

    "Pope John Paul and religious leaders including Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, committed themselves on Thursday to work for peace and shun violence. Christian monks in brown woolen habits, saffron-robed Buddhists, black-cloaked Muslims, Sikhs wearing turbans, white-bearded Orthodox patriarchs and rabbis traveled together on a peace train to pray near the tomb of St. Francis. 'Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life. Love,' the Pope said....Wearing his traditional white robe, the Roman Catholic leader sat on a red stage flanked by religious figures as they each addressed a crowd of 3,000 people in a white tent....The Pope...lit peace lamps with other participants...Assisi, a medieval city accustomed to Western choirs and Gregorian chants, was treated to something different as religious pluralism ruled. Geshe Tashi Tsering, wearing a crimson and saffron robe, began his time on the center stage with a Buddhist chant....It was the third such day of peace led by the Pope...After a morning session, the religious groups went off to pray in various rooms before sharing a vegetarian lunch and returning to the tent for the final pledges....But outside Assisi, not everyone was happy with the events. 'To pray with heretics, schismatics, rabbis, mullahs, witch doctors and various idolaters creates confusion among Catholic believers,' Federico Bricolo and Massimo Polledri, members of an Italian government coalition party, said in a statement." ("World Religious Leaders Join Pope in Peace Bid", Reuters, January 24, 2002)

    "It was Sunday, and Cardinal Bernard F. Law had come to pray. So, wearing a gold crucifix and a flowing black robe with red trim, Law removed his shoes. Then, as the imam chanted the sunset prayers, the bishop knelt with his forehead just inches from the carpet and offered praise to Allah. No doubt, Law looked out of place at the Islamic Center of Boston last night - but he didn't feel that way. Law, who participated in the Wayland mosque's Ramadan observance as a gesture of good will, said he felt right at home among the Muslim worshipers....After the prayers, Law shared the iftar, the meal breaking the daily sunrise-to-sunset Ramadan fast." (The Boston Globe, "Law shares prayers, feast, hope with Muslims", November 25, 2002)

    Contrast the above with what's below from various patristic sources. Though Roman Catholics would agree with some elements of what's below, they would also disagree with some. And the general thrust goes in a different direction than the tendencies of modern Roman Catholicism:

    "I give you these instructions, beloved, assured that ye also hold the same opinions as I do. But I guard you beforehand from those beasts in the shape of men, whom you must not only not receive, but, if it be possible, not even meet with...I have not, however, thought good to write the names of such persons, inasmuch as they are unbelievers. Yea, far be it from me to make any mention of them, until they repent and return to a true belief in Christ's passion, which is our resurrection. Let no man deceive himself. Both the things which are in heaven, and the glorious angels, and rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation....It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion of Christ has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved." (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle To The Smyrnaeans, 4-7)

    "Let us be zealous in the pursuit of that which is good, keeping ourselves from causes of offence, from false brethren, and from those who in hypocrisy bear the name of the Lord, and draw away vain men into error. 'For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;' and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning" (Polycarp, Epistle To The Philippians, 6-7)

    "And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion [a heretic], who met him on one occasion, and said, 'Dost thou know me?' 'I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.' Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:3:4)

    "He says, 'If any come unto you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed; for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.' [2 John 10] He forbids us to salute such, and to receive them to our hospitality. For this is not harsh in the case of a man of this sort. But he admonishes them neither to confer nor dispute with such as are not able to handle divine things with intelligence, lest through them they be seduced from the doctrine of truth, influenced by plausible reasons. Now, I think that we are not even to pray with such, because in the prayer which is made at home, after rising from prayer, the salutation of joy is also the token of peace." (Clement of Alexandria, Fragments, 1:4)

    "But some one will say that this supreme Being, who made all things, and those also who conferred on men particular benefits, are entitled to their respective worship. First of all, it has never happened that the worshipper of these has also been a worshipper of God. Nor can this possibly happen. For if the honour paid to Him is shared by others, He altogether ceases to be worshipped, since His religion requires us to believe that He is the one and only God....For He [Jesus] gained life for us by overcoming death. No hope, therefore, of gaining immortality is given to man, unless he shall believe on Him, and shall take up that cross to be borne and endured....Truly religion is the cultivation of the truth, but superstition of that which is false. And it makes the entire difference what you worship, not how you worship, or what prayer you offer. But because the worshippers of the gods imagine themselves to be religious, though they are superstitious, they are neither able to distinguish religion from superstition...The first head of this law is, to know God Himself, to obey Him alone, to worship Him alone. For he cannot maintain the character of a man who is ignorant of God, the parent of his soul: which is the greatest impiety. For this ignorance causes him to serve other gods, and no greater crime than this can be committed. Hence there is now so easy a step to wickedness through ignorance of the truth and of the chief good; since God, from the knowledge of whom he shrinks, is Himself the fountain of goodness. Or if he shall wish to follow the justice of God, yet, being ignorant of the divine law, he embraces the laws of his own country as true justice, though they were clearly devised not by justice, but by utility....Civil law is one thing, which varies everywhere according to customs; but justice is another thing, which God has set forth to all as uniform and simple: and he who is ignorant of God must also be ignorant of justice. But let us suppose it possible that any one, by natural and innate goodness, should gain true virtues, such a man as we have heard that Cimon was at Athens, who both gave alms to the needy, and entertained the poor, and clothed the naked; yet, when that one thing which is of the greatest importance is wanting-the acknowledgment of God-then all those good things are superfluous and empty, so that in pursuing them he has laboured in vain. For all his justice will resemble a human body which has no head, in which, although all the limbs are in their proper position, and figure, and proportion, yet, since that is wanting which is the chief thing of all, it is destitute both of life and of all sensation. Therefore those limbs have only the shape of limbs, but admit of no use, as much so as a head without a body; and he resembles this who is not without the knowledge of God, but yet lives unjustly. For he has that only which is of the greatest importance; but he has it to no purpose, since he is destitute of the virtues, as it were, of limbs.Therefore, that the body may be alive, and capable of sensation, both the knowledge of God is necessary, as it were the head, and all the virtues, as it were the body. Thus there will exist a perfect and living man; but, however, the whole substance is in the head; and although this cannot exist in the absence of all, it may exist in the absence of some. And it will be an imperfect and faulty animal, but yet it will be alive, as he who knows God and yet sins in some respect. For God pardons sins. And thus it is possible to live without some of the limbs, but it is by no means possible to live without a head. This is the reason why the philosophers, though they may be naturally good, yet have no knowledge and no intelligence. All their learning and virtue is without a head, because they are ignorant of God, who is the Head of virtue and knowledge; and he who is ignorant of Him, though he may see, is blind; though he may hear, is deaf; though he may speak, is dumb. But when he shall know the Creator and Parent of all things, then he will both see, and hear, and speak. For he begins to have a head, in which all the senses are placed, that is, the eyes, and ears, and tongue. For assuredly he sees who has beheld with the eyes of his mind the truth in which God is, or God in whom the truth is; he hears, who imprints on his heart the divine words and life-giving precepts; he speaks, who, in discussing heavenly things, relates the virtue and majesty of the surpassing God. Therefore he is undoubtedly impious who does not acknowledge God; and all his virtues, which he thinks that he has or possesses, are found in that deadly road which belongs altogether to darkness." (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, 1:19, 4:19, 4:28, 6:9)

    "It is not permitted to heretics to enter the house of God while they continue in heresy....The members of the Church are not allowed to meet in the cemeteries, nor attend the so-called martyries of any of the heretics, for prayer or service; but such as so do, if they be communicants, shall be excommunicated for a time; but if they repent and confess that they have sinned they shall be received....It is unlawful to receive the eulogiae of heretics, for they are rather a0logi/ai [i.e., fol-lies], than eulogiae [i.e., blessings]. No one shall join in prayers with heretics or schismatics....It is not lawful to receive portions sent from the feasts of Jews or heretics, nor to feast together with them." (Council of Laodicea, 6, 9, 32-33, 37)

    "If any one, either of the clergy or laity, enters into a synagogue of the Jews or heretics to pray, let him be deprived and suspended....If any Christian carries oil into an heathen temple, or into a synagogue of the Jews, or lights up lamps in their festivals, let him be suspended." (Apostolic Constitutions, 8:47:65, 8:47:71)

    "Before, however, all this had been accomplished, before the actual preaching of the gospel reaches the ends of all the earth-because there are some remote nations still (although it is said they are very few) to whom the preached gospel has not found its way,-what must human nature do, or what has it done-for it had either not heard that all this was to take place, or has not yet learnt that it was accomplished-but believe in God who made heaven and earth, by whom also it perceived by nature that it had been itself created, and lead a right life, and thus accomplish His will, uninstructed with any faith in the death and resurrection of Christ? Well, if this could have been done, or can still be done, then for my part I have to say what the apostle said in regard to the law: 'Then Christ died in vain.' For if he said this about the law, which only the nation of the Jews received, how much more justly may it be said of the law of nature, which the whole human race has received, 'If righteousness come by nature, then Christ died in vain.' If, however, Christ did not die in vain, then human nature cannot by any means be justified and redeemed from God's most righteous wrath-in a word, from punishment-except by faith and the sacrament of the blood of Christ....Whence they, who are not liberated through grace, either because they are not yet able to hear, or because they are unwilling to obey; or again because they did not receive, at the time when they were unable on account of youth to hear, that bath of regeneration, which they might have received and through which they might have been saved, are indeed justly condemned; because they are not without sin, either that which they have derived from their birth, or that which they have added from their own misconduct. 'For all have sinned'-whether in Adam or in themselves-'and come short of the glory of God.'" (Augustine, On Nature And Grace, Against Pelagius, 2, 4)

    "no one is delivered from the condemnation which was incurred through Adam except through the faith of Jesus Christ, and yet from this condemnation they shall not deliver themselves who shall be able to say that they have not heard the gospel of Christ" (Augustine, On Rebuke And Grace, 11)

  4. >Jesus repeatedly forgives people as soon as they
    >believe, prior to baptism or any other work

    Which doesn't mean they weren't further in the future found righteous by their works too. Do a study of righteousness in the gospels and see if it means forensic.

  5. Orthodox writes:

    "Which doesn't mean they weren't further in the future found righteous by their works too."

    You're only responding to a portion of what I said. The other Biblical concepts I referred to, such as the substitutionary nature of Christ's work and the freeness of eternal life, would be inconsistent with the view you're suggesting above. And since you don't believe that it's normative for people to be justified as soon as they believe, prior to baptism, the view you're suggesting above would only be partially consistent with your view.

  6. Hello:

    The conversation about Dr. Beckwith has led me to re-examine some texts, particularly John 6. Can you help me understand how this is lived out in your tradition today?

    I am also confused about where the Bible came from, period. Can you explain to me how Christians were Christians before they had the whole New Testament? I have a hard time understanding that if the Bible alone is the source of our faith, how Christians managed this before the New Testament existed.



    “Hello: The conversation about Dr. Beckwith has led me to re-examine some texts, particularly John 6. Can you help me understand how this is lived out in your tradition today?”

    Speaking for myself, the fourth gospel is, among other things, a book of signs. It has a number of theological metaphors. Jn 6 uses the theological metaphors of manna/bread, flesh/blood to signify the atonement. So I would live this out the same way I’d live out any other theological metaphor in Scripture. You begin why asking what it signifies, and then you think and/or act accordingly.

    “I am also confused about where the Bible came from, period. Can you explain to me how Christians were Christians before they had the whole New Testament?”

    The Apostolic preaching of the gospel consisted of showing how OT messianic prophecies were fulfilled in the Christ-Event. So, before the NT was all written down and collated, Christians depended on the OT along with the preaching of the apostles and their deputies.

    “I have a hard time understanding that if the Bible alone is the source of our faith, how Christians managed this before the New Testament existed.”

    The Apostolic age is a transitional era. The spoken word of an Apostle was fine during the Apostolic age. But the Apostles and other inspired spokesmen of the era committed their theology to writing before they died. So we go by the written word rather than the spoken word, since we don’t have the spoken word, and the written word is what they left for posterity.

  8. Here's a post I wrote on John 6 last year:

  9. >The spoken word of an Apostle was fine during the
    >Apostolic age. But the Apostles and other inspired
    >spokesmen of the era committed their theology to
    >writing before they died. So we go by the written
    >word rather than the spoken word, since we don’t
    >have the spoken word, and the written word is what
    >they left for posterity.

    What verse says they only left written instructions for posterity, Mr sola scriptura?

    1. Why would you disagree with that, orthodox?

    2. Process of elimination. Sola scriptura doesn't mean Scripture is the only source of knowledge.

  10. "In his article linked at the beginning of this post, Beckwith tells us that he began his reading of the church fathers and other sources relevant to his reversion this past January. And this is May. He seems to have made too quick a judgment."

    That was one of my first thoughts. How long was Beckwith an evangelical? Decades? And he converts to Roman Catholicism in under five months? Seems to me that he may have had a rather shallow knowledge of what the bible and protestants teach just as he probably has a rather shallow view of what the Roman church teaches now.

  11. If you've been a buddhist for 10 years, how long do you suggest to wait before converting to Christianity?

  12. Orthodox, I don't 'suggest' any waiting period (I'm not a Christian), but it seems to me that whenever someone has held such-and-such a set of beliefs for a number of years, indeed, decades, and then switches to a different set in a matter of months, it is a sign that the understanding of one or both sets of beliefs was shallow. I would feel the same way if it were a political or philosophical issue.

  13. I guess a lot of shallow people joined the church at Pentacost.

  14. This is nauseating. Frank Schaeffer converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, Francis Beckwith returns to his mother church. The significance of their high-profile intellectuality cannot be dismissed. Their rationalizations have confused them.

    "The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." Blind guides have led them astray, and they, in turn, will do the same. The RCC's sound posture on abortion and marriage have created the illusion of shared beliefs.

    But you will find good, decent teachings in all false cults. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, almost every group will be found to promote worthy family-based values. But that does not mean we need to embrace them, and pretend their abominable false doctrines do not exist!

    The Roman Catholic church must be seen in the light of its unscriptural dogmas, and its dark history of denying and persecuting the truth of the Word of God. When the pope came to Brazil last week, he made a statement by his chosen destination: the city of Aparecida, in the state of Sao Paulo. The mariolatry in that city is on a par with the worship of the heathen goddess Diana in the city of Ephesus.

    If the Roman Catholic Church and its infallible representative, Pope Benedictus XVI, wanted to dissuade its followers from worshipping Mary, and teach justification by faith in Christ alone, a wonderful opportunity was thrown out the window. But this is exactly what the Catholics do NOT intend to teach. Only naive intellectuals, self-infatuated thinkers, imagine they can reconcile the truth of the Scriptures with the lies and deception of the pompous cult called the Roman Catholic church.

    As a church-planting missionary in Brazil, with its rich Catholic tradition, I know first-hand the cultural and religious implications of this wonderful "mother church." If it is preaching the truth, I should pack up and go home -- but not until they stop worshipping idols, trusting Mary, praying to men, confessing to men, and leading the simple-minded astray. When they've turned to God FROM THE IDOLS of the Catholic church, we will be truly grateful to God.

    But please do not nauseate me with your kind and sympathetic words for imbeciles and traitors who rationalize, condone, and join the rank unbelief of the RCC while trampling martyrs who, even though dead, yet speak (Heb. 11).