Answering The Call To Full Communion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith | Carl E. Olson | June 5, 2007
In early May, Dr. Francis Beckwith (personal website), Associate Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, publicly announced, on the Right Reason blog, that he had returned to the Catholic Church in late April after spending over thirty years in Evangelical Protestantism. The news was met with a wide range of reactions and, in some cases, with strong rhetoric. Beckwith's decision garnered substantial attention, in large part because he had been the recently elected president of the Evangelical Theological Society, a position he resigned from in order to spare the ETS and its members the burden of asking him to step down. In interviews with Christianity Today and National Catholic Register, Beckwith outlined some of the major reasons for his decision to return to full communion with the Catholic Church.
Recently, Beckwith graciously agreed to a detailed and wide-ranging interview with Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. In addition to discussing his journey away from and then back to the Catholic Church, Beckwith sets the record straight about his educational background and how it informs his understanding of both Evangelical and Catholic theology. He also reflects on the influence that philosophy and natural law have in attracting scholars to the Catholic Church, assesses the current and ongoing state of Catholic-Evangelical dialogue, discusses his plan to write a book about his journey back to Rome, and comments on his many years of apologetic and scholarly endeavors, including his soon-to-be published book about abortion.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Since announcing your return to the Catholic Church you've given several interviews and have talked at length about your reasons for returning. Especially striking, I think, were your comments (in a June 3rd interview with National Catholic Register) about the "innovations" you experienced as a boy in the Catholic Church, including "'folk Mass' with cute nuns and hip priests playing 'Kumbaya' with guitars, tambourines and harmonicas." Isn't it ironic that the very things meant to be "hip" and "contemporary" were part of what paved the way for you to leave the Catholic Church? What does it say about the dangers of trying to be relevant without being grounded solidly in theological and historical truth?
Dr. Francis Beckwith: I think it says that form itself cannot substitute for substance, that at the end of the day, theology is either a knowledge-tradition or it isn't. If it is, then our forms of worship must conform to that knowledge and properly express it and convey it to the church and to the wider world. Of course, there are different ways that Christians and Catholic Christians worship God, and I am not saying that the folk mass is necessarily bad. What I am suggesting is that such cosmetic changes by themselves, without adequate theological training or understanding, teaches precisely the wrong lesson: it's all just song and dance signifying nothing.
What is ironic, for me, is that the Evangelical churches that I attended for most, though not all, of my adult life did in fact have contemporary music. But those churches did it better than the Catholic church of my youth, for the songs and the way they were delivered pointed toward theological truths firmly embraced by the church's pastoral leadership and congregation. So, it is not contemporary music per se that's bad--in fact, some of it is quite good if done well in the appropriate context--but rather, what is bad is the attempt to paper-over and ignore serious theological issues with feel-good poorly-executed campfire jingles performed below ugly felt banners dangling from the rafters. That is an abomination.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Can you tell us more about your younger years when you left the Catholic Church and became an Evangelical?
Dr. Beckwith: I still considered myself Catholic when I was fourteen, though I was attending both Protestant and Catholic services intermittently as I explained in my National Catholic Register interview. But as I grew into my teens and the charismatic movement at my parents' church began to wane, I sought theological insight at the Catholic high school I attended. But the religion teachers did not seem to have a serious interest in theology. They were more interested in exploring our feelings with contrived moral dilemmas, reading Jonathan Living Seagull and watching contemporary films. These activities are certainly not in-themselves bad. But they were no way to introduce young people to the study of Catholic theology and the foundations of the Christian faith. Remember, this was the mid-1970s and the American church was still trying to find itself after Vatican II. So, I don't blame my religion teachers. They were doing the best they could under a confused and directionless American leadership. (I understand that things have changed at my alma mater, that the school's religion curriculum is much more intentionally Catholic and theological.)
IgnatiusInsight.com: So, is that when you migrated to Evangelicalism?
Dr. Beckwith: Yes. I began spending time at several Evangelical bookstores in Las Vegas, where I grew up. There I obtained materials from a variety of Evangelical scholars and popular writers. These authors exposed me to the thought of the Reformation as well as to the study of Christian apologetics. This was intellectually exhilarating for me. Here I had discovered serious people who believed that their faith is reasonable and defensible. I began attending Evangelical churches, mostly non-denominational ones that had outstanding Bible teachers. It was at that time that I began to learn the solas of the Reformation. Once I became fully convinced of them, I felt comfortable saying that I was no longer a Catholic.
In 1980, a good friend of mine, Dan Green, to whom I dedicated my 1997 book, See the Gods Fall: Four Rivals to Christianity (College Press), introduced me to the works of Francis Schaeffer. Along with the works of Norm Geisler, John Warwick Montgomery (with whom I would later study), Ron Nash, R. C. Sproul, and Alvin Plantinga, Schaeffer's writings contributed to my theological and philosophical formation. In fact, in 1986, two years after Schaeffer's death, I had an incredible encounter with his widow, Edith Schaeffer, in a Christian bookstore in Manhattan. Edith was there signing copies of her books. I bought one of her books and asked her to sign it. I told her my name and also shared with her my appreciation of her husband's work and how it influenced my decision to pursue a PhD in philosophy. She looked at me with affection in her eyes, then pulled out a black marker and proceeded to draw in the inside cover of the book a picture of a mountain scene with trees and birds. At the bottom she wrote, "Dear Francis: May your life be as significant in history as another Francis I once knew. Love, Edith Schaeffer."
IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you have any formal training in Evangelical theology?
Dr. Beckwith: Yes. I earned my first master's degree (M.A. in Christian Apologetics) under the direction of two Lutheran theologians, Charles Manske and John Warwick Montgomery. It was at the old Simon Greenleaf University that has since merged with Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. In any event, at SGU I studied Evangelical theology, apologetics, comparative religion, and church history under Montgomery, Manske, and Michael Smythe. Among the several works that Smythe had us read for his church history course was Progress of Dogma by James Orr, the great Scottish Presbyterian scholar. This is when I first came in contact with the Council of Trent. Orr's interpretation, as well as the interpretations of others I would read over the years, would shape my understanding of Trent when I finally got around to reading it for the first time a few years later. However, as I pointed out in my NCR interview, when I read Trent again with fresh eyes several months ago at the suggestion of several friends, I was shocked at how much I had missed the first time, largely because I did not read it then with a teachable spirit. I had read it more like a prosecutor trying to entrap a hostile witness rather than as a dispassionate judge seeking to issue a just verdict based on all the evidence.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What was your attitude toward Catholicism during those years?
Dr. Beckwith: Even though I thought the Catholic Church had missed the boat on the Reformation and had incorporated some non-biblical ideas into its theology, I never engaged in anti-Catholic polemics. I knew too many serious Catholic believers who loved Jesus to believe that one could not be a practicing Catholic and a true Christian at the same time, which is what some Protestant Christians actually believe. My early experience in the Catholic Charismatic movement probably immunized me from aligning myself with rabid anti-Catholicism.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You earned your PhD and MA in philosophy from Fordham University, a Jesuit institution. How did those years at Fordham shape you?
Dr. Beckwith: During those years, 1984 to 1987, I lived with my Italian grandmother, Frances Guido, a devout Catholic who was delighted that I was attending Fordham. Although she knew that I was Protestant, she seemed confident that some of my professor-priests would help steer me back to the Church. I left Fordham in June 1987 and finished my doctoral dissertation in Nevada in November 1988.
My experience at Fordham was terrific. I took memorable classes from some great philosophers. I took "Thomas Aquinas" and "Metaphysics" with W. Norris Clarke, "Medieval Humanism" with Gerald McCool, and "Plato," "Nietzsche," and "Hegel" with Quentin Lauer. In McCool's class we read Augustine's Confessions and in Clarke's Aquinas class we covered important sections of the Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles.
Although it would be wrong to say that my experience at Fordham led me back to the Church, it is fair to say that because I studied under some of the finest philosophical minds American Catholicism had to offer, I acquired a deeper appreciation of the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic theology and its relationship to the histories of philosophy and Christian thought. This understanding helped form and shape my views on God's nature, the human person, and the natural moral law. But none of these philosophical views were inconsistent with Protestant theology, as the works of some Thomistic and Thomas-friendly Evangelical philosophers--such as Geisler, Paul Copan, and J. P. Moreland--clearly show.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Some noted Protestant philosophers have entered the Church recently, including you, Dr. Robert Koons (University of Texas), and J. Budziszewski (University of Texas in Austin). Is there something in the water in Texas? More seriously, is there something about philosophy in general and the natural law tradition in particular that helps point a person toward the Catholic Church?
Dr. Beckwith: Both questions are difficult to answer, but I'll pass on the one on water unless you can somehow turn that water into wine. So, let me try to answer the second question. First, both these men are good friends for whom I have the deepest respect. They are both very good philosophers and would have remained such even if they had not been received into the Catholic Church. Second, there are many outstanding Protestant Evangelical philosophers, such as Moreland, William Lane Craig, and C. Stephen Evans, who I do not anticipate becoming Catholics anytime soon. Nevertheless these philosophers have caught the attention of Catholic scholars, such as Avery Cardinal Dulles, who see such philosophers as part of a rebirth of Christian apologetics and a true gift to both Protestants and Catholics.
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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How have attitudes toward it changed over the past 20 or 30 years among both Evangelicals and Catholics? What basis does it provide for ecumenical dialogue and common endeavors in fighting the culture of death?
Dr. Beckwith: 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. These alliances, which have been manifested both in national leadership and local churches, have provided opportunities for Evangelicals and Catholics to understand each other better. Once we begin to understand that both groups embrace a common philosophy that informs our understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful--one derived from the Biblical tradition--this will lead to more fruitful discussions on contested theological questions.
Things have really changed. In fact, I briefly document the degree to which things have changed in the opening paragraph of an article I published in Touchstone Magazine two years ago: "When my father attended St. John's University in the late 1950s, his apologetics professor (a Catholic priest) told his class that the two greatest evils of the age were Communism and Protestantism. In the early days of Fuller Theological Seminary, Professor Harold Lindsell (later the editor of Christianity Today) offered a course on cults that included a section on Roman Catholicism."
Part 1 | Part 2
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