Saturday, June 09, 2007

Mother knows best

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)

The reasons for Francis Beckwith’s reversion to Rome continue to dribble out:

Let’s examine a few of his reasons in a recent interview.
Having said that, I do think that there is something about philosophy and the natural law tradition that makes a transition to Catholicism easier for an Evangelical trained in philosophy and open to natural law. The latter goes hand-in-hand with natural theology, which claims that one can discover some truths about God and ultimate reality apart from special revelation. So, for example, when I read the Nicene Creed and come across the line that the Lord Jesus Christ is "not made, being of one substance with the Father," I understand that this scripturally supported truth is made coherent by a philosophical notion of substance that the Council of Nicea brought to the text of Scripture in order to illuminate its content and to make sense of the phenomena of God found there. After all, if one denies the realist view of substance assumed by Nicea, then it becomes difficult to make sense of what it means for God the Son to be of one substance with God the Father. Although Nicea is saying that Jesus and the Father are different persons, it is also saying that they share both the same nature as well as the same being or substance. These distinctions, though subtle, are philosophically profound, and for that reason, they were instrumental in helping the council to properly fix the historical trajectory of the Church and its theology. That is why it is plain to me that these carefully crafted, well-reasoned creeds could not have arisen from a church that had an understanding of theological knowledge that isolated sola scriptura from the authority of a visible ecclesiastical body. Those who think it is possible to do this are like a son spending his rich father's inheritance but calling it salary.

I say all this because the Council of Nicea spoke authoritatively for the church universal, and did so in order to publicly and visibly resolve a theological controversy. And in the end, it offered to us a creed that is a model of clarity and economy, one that resulted from weaving together an elegant tapestry of scriptural, historical, and philosophical arguments. As someone trained in philosophy, it is a marvel to behold, for it is a testimony to the undeniable fact that the church derives its doctrine from a reading of Scripture through the inherited eyes and practices of its theological predecessors and with the assistance of philosophical reflection. And once an issue like this is settled, future generations of believers, including Protestants, are provided a bequest that assists their reading of Scripture that makes it unlikely that the Church will stray from sound doctrine.
This statement is odd in several respects:

i) He appeals to natural theology to underwrite the Nicene Creed. Let’s assume that this is correct.

He then appeals to ecclesiastic authority to underwrite the Nicene Creed.

But these two arguments are obviously inconsistent. An appeal to natural theology is an appeal to reason rather than authority. If it’s natural theology that underwrites the Nicene Creed, then ecclesiastical authority is superfluous.

ii) Another problem is that he acts as if the Roman Catholic church holds the copyright to the Nicene Creed. How is the Nicene Creed an argument for Roman Catholicism? It wasn’t produced by the Church of Rome.

iii) In what sense did the councils speak authoritatively for the universal church? At the councils, there were winners and losers. And dissent was criminalized. It was illegal to be on the losing side.

Is this the kind of authority that Beckwith has in mind? Coercive authority? Not persuasion, but the force of law?
The issues on which many Evangelicals and Catholics are united, such as the sanctity of life and the institution of marriage, have helped forge alliances that would not have seemed possible three decades ago.
It’s true that Evangelicals can form political alliances with conservative Catholics on certain social issues. But even in this respect, our views intersect rather than coincide.

i) On the one hand, Catholicism denies any Scriptural grounds for divorce. On the other hand, Catholicism has a very lax policy on granting of annulments.

By contrast, conservative evangelicals generally admit at least two Scriptural grounds for divorce (infidelity and desertion).

ii) In contemporary Catholicism, the sanctity of life has come to include opposition to the death penalty as well as practical pacifism.

By contrast, conservative evangelicals generally support capital punishment and the right of self-defense.

iii) Catholic opposition to abortion also includes opposition to artificial birth control, whereas evangelicals generally support contraception.
Something else concerning authority factored into my internal deliberations as well. But I do not think I can conjure up the words to properly express it. So, I will just rely on an elegant insight offered in First Things by a recent Catholic convert, R. R. Reno, which perfectly echoes my own sentiments: "In the end, my decision to leave the Episcopal Church did not happen because I had changed my mind about any particular point of theology or ecclesiology. Nor did it represent a sudden realization that the arguments for staying put are specious. What changed was the way in which I had come to hold my ideas and use my arguments. In order to escape the insanity of my slide into self-guidance, I put myself up for reception into the Catholic Church as one might put oneself up for adoption. A man can no more guide his spiritual life by his own ideas than a child can raise himself on the strength of his native potential."
i) That’s a telling comparison. On this view, the layman plays the child, while the bishop plays the grown-up. The layman can’t be left unsupervised. He’s a life-long minor. He never outgrows curfew. He must be chaperoned by the episcopate whenever he leaves the house.

For their own part, the bishops do not require adult supervision. The laity is answerable to the hierarchy, but not vice versa.

ii) Some of us have seen what this sort of thinking leads to. It leads to the Renaissance papacy. It leads to a subculture of clerical pederasty.

iii) What is also lacking here is an adequate doctrine of providence. For Beckwith, the only form of spiritual guidance is institutional guidance. Otherwise, we’re thrown back on our own individual resources.

This is the same thinking that underwrites fortunetelling and witchcraft. Fear of the future. So we must either know the future or control the future.

But it’s because a Biblically grounded Christian believes in providence and prayer that he has no use for divination or witchcraft. He doesn’t need to discover God’s will. Between Scripture, providence, and prayer, he has all the resources he needs to do God’s will.
I've not read all of them. I did read the first one published in 1994 as well as "The Gift of Salvation." The latter was particularly important to me, since it said things about salvation in a way that were inconsistent with what I had read by Protestant authors on Roman Catholicism. I also read some of the Protestant criticisms of the document. But some of these critics, though certainly not all, seemed bent on not allowing the Catholics to speak for themselves. It was almost as if these critics were jealously guarding the Catholicism that even the Catholics didn't believe.
This raises more questions than answers.

i) Who is speaking for Catholicism? The Vatican? Or did this document express the private opinion of a few catholic theologians and Bible scholars?

Needless to say, this document hardly enjoys the same dogmatic authority as Trent.

ii) And which Catholicism are they speaking for? Tridentine Catholicism? Pre-Reformation Catholicism? Counter-Reformation Catholicism? Vatican II Catholicism? Post-Vatican II Catholicism?

Once wonders how deeply he’s bothered to work through either the exegetical permutations of this debate or the church historical permutations. For example:

But embracing such a view means that Dr. Mohler has to qualify sola scriptura to include certain interpretative requirements that cannot themselves be derived from Scripture since they are necessary conditions for the reading of Scripture. In fact, it was just such reasoning that pushed me toward Catholicism. I thought to myself that if sola scriptura can result in everything from the philosophical theology of Calvinism to the Open View of God, from Nicean Trinitarianism to social trinitarianism to Oneness Pentecostalism's rehabilitation of Sabellianism to 19th-century Unitarianism, then sola scriptura is not a sufficient bulwark for sustaining Christian orthodoxy.
i) Is he saying that each of these positions is equally scriptural? Is he a postmodern relativist who believes that one interpretation is just as good as another?

ii) If he thinks that Christian orthodoxy is underdetermined by Scripture, then does he believe in continuing revelation? An open canon?

How does Sacred Tradition function in his mind? Is it revelatory? If not, then how does it supplement the witness of Scripture?

iii) Does he think that sola scriptura commits an evangelical to the belief that Scripture is the only source of knowledge? Even if some of our beliefs are underdetermined by Scripture, this doesn’t negate sola scriptura. Rather, it simply means that some of our beliefs are more or less authoritative than others.

vi) Why does Beckwith suppose that if sola Scriptura cannot immunize the reader from error, then this means that certain interpretative requirements that cannot themselves be derived from Scripture since they are necessary conditions for the reading of Scripture?

Does a belief in Sacred Tradition immunize Beckwith from error when he reads the Bible or the Nicene Creed or the church fathers or the Council of Trent or Vatican II or Unam Sanctam?

vii) One can have all of the right hermeneutical principles in place and still misinterpret Scripture—or any other document. For one thing, human beings are fallible.

For another thing, there is more to error than ignorance. There can be an element of willfulness in the way a document is understood. Just consider the way in which some Supreme Court justices discover hidden rights in the text of the Constitution. Rights which even the Founding Fathers were unable to perceive.
For example, the open theists claim that classical theism is just Greek philosophy Christianized and all that they are doing is getting us back to the pure, non-corrupted, view of God in Scripture. The emergent church charges traditional Evangelicals with corruption as well, but in this case the corruption is Enlightenment rationalism and an overemphasis on American culture war issues such as abortion and homosexuality. But both groups are simply taking the Protestant Principle to its logical conclusion. For this reason, unless Evangelical critics of these movements are willing take a more modest view of sola scriptura and a more charitable posture toward tradition, they do not have the resources to respond to these movements in an effective way.
Other issues aside, cults and heresies take the status quo as their point of reference. In a Protestant nation, cults and heresies will tend to be a parody of Protestant ecclesiology. You will have Protestant heresies. Quasi-Protestant cults.

But in Catholic countries, the cults and heresies will tend to be a parody of Catholic ecclesiology. Indeed, religious cults ordinarily mimic a high-church rather than a low-church polity. Religious cults are generally authoritarian personality-cults, with a hierarchical command-structure. Cult-members are accountable to the cult-leader, while the leader is answerable to no one. The same is usually true with various breakaway sects and splinter groups.

Beckwith can point to Evangelical excesses because he’s an American. And America is traditionally Protestant, but allows for freedom of dissent.

If, however, the whole world were Catholic, then there would be parallel developments of a Catholic cast. Even now, consider the sedevacantist organizations. Or consider the Old Believers in Russia.

The difference is that back when Catholicism was strong, it suppressed dissent; and after it weakened, there was a public backlash in the form of anti-clericalism—which afforded more radical alternatives to Catholicism.
But this means that "the gospel" is not reducible to one theory of justification, one theory of ecclesiology, or one theory of scripture's sufficiency. For someone like my friend, who equates the gospel with the doctrines that arise in 16th century Christianity as a unified and interdependent set of beliefs for the first time in the church's history, the thought that one may have the gospel without the Reformation is conceptually unfathomable. But unlike my friend, I do not believe one is saved by embracing one particular cluster of contested theories on justification, authority, and scripture. One is saved by Jesus Christ and his grace alone, which is exactly what the Catholic Catechism, the Council of Trent, and the Bible all teach.
Two problems:

i) His disclaimer is quite disingenuous. By rejoining the church of Rome, Beckwith has committed himself to one particular theory of ecclesiology. And that, in turn, commits him to whatever theories of justification or other dogmas that Rome has chosen to formally define as de fide articles of the faith.

ii) No one is claiming that you need to be doctrinally inerrant in order to be saved. But that’s no excuse to trivialize sound doctrine.

St. Paul, in writing to the Galatians, didn’t regard every theory of justification as equally valid. Indeed, he regarded the theory of the Judaizers as downright damnable. For St. Paul, the integrity of the true Gospel was very much bound with which “theory” of justification you espoused.


  1. What is the deal with the blue font?

  2. Blue dye was spilled on the RSS feed...