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Answering The Call To Full Communion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith | Carl E. Olson | June 5, 2007 |
Part 1 | Part 2
You've mentioned, in past interviews, that Dr. Mark Noll's book, Is The
Reformation Over? (Baker,
2005), was a helpful work for you to read. Do you agree with Noll's assessment
that "the central difference that continues to separate evangelicals and
Catholics is not Scripture, justification by faith, the pope, Mary, the
sacraments, or clerical celibacy ... but the nature of the church"? How
significant is the issue of ecclesiology in current and ongoing
Dr. Beckwith: I partly agree with Noll.
I think he is right that logically that once the authority question is
answered, the other issues that he mentions fall into place. However,
practically, the process is more organic, as it was in my case. Once I saw that
the Catholic view of justification could be defended biblically and historically,
and that the sacraments, including a non-symbolic understanding of the
Eucharist, have their roots deep in Christian history prior to the fixation of
the biblical canon, the authority issue fell into place.
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 hope to write a book about my journey in the next year. There are a lot of
people who are clamoring for my reasons and what went into my decision. This is
why I have consented to several of these interviews, since they give me a
chance to provide, however superficially, the reasons for my decision.
given my status in the Evangelical world, I think a more detailed memoir of my
pilgrimage is needed. It will not be a polemical work. What it will be is a
narrative of my own reflections and what led my wife and me to first consider
and then choose to seek full communion with the Catholic Church.
of the points that I want to make clear in the book is that my reception into
the Catholic Church has not changed my vocation as a Christian philosopher. I
will continue to work on projects that offer to the Christian and secular
worlds reasons for the Christian faith and the moral and social implications
that follow from it. In that sense, there has always been a catholicity about
my work. I do not anticipate that changing.
Have you read the various documents produced by the "Evangelicals and
Catholic Together" (ECT) initiative? If so, what did you think of them?
Beckwith: 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. However, there were some thoughtful critics who
brought out important points, such as on forensic justification, that the
"Gift of Salvation" did not address.
Not long after you made your announcement, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Dr. Bruce Ware, vice president of
Evangelical Theological Society, spoke about your decision on Dr. Mohler's
radio show. In the course of that program, Dr. Mohler made a rather surprising
statement: "Scripture alone doesn't protect Evangelicalism from error.
That's why we have to have constant correction." Granting that he was
speaking off the cuff, as it were, is that an accurate summary of what many
Evangelicals believe? If so, who might provide the "constant
correction" referred to?
Beckwith: Before I answer your
question I do want to commend Al Mohler and Bruce Ware for the gracious manner
in which they talked about both my return to the Catholic Church as well as my
contributions to the Evangelical Theological Society.
for your question, I am not quite sure what Dr. Mohler means, but if I had to
speculate I would guess he means that one can come to Scripture with bad
philosophical assumptions that distort the text and meaning of the Bible and
that results in flawed doctrine. If that's what he means, then Dr. Mohler is
largely in agreement with John Paul II's views in his encyclical Fides et
Ratio in which the late pontiff
argues that biblical theology cannot get off the ground unless one has the
proper philosophical framework when one approaches Scripture. 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.
Some Evangelical theologians point out that although the Catholic Church seems
to present a unified or monolithic whole when it comes to doctrine and belief,
there are actually all sorts of competing and even contradictory Catholic
schools of philosophy and theology. How is that similar or different from the
many different philosophical/theological movements within Evangelicalism,
including controversial issues such as "open theism" and the
"emergent church" movement?
Beckwith: Within Catholicism there
are different approaches to questions that the Church has not claimed are
settled. That is why Molinism and Thomism, the Catholic equivalents of
Ariminianism and Calvinism, are live options within the Church. There are, of
course, Catholics who hold views contrary to Church teaching and, in rare
cases, are excommunicated from the Church because of that. But in those few
cases the person is not considered non-Catholic or non-Christian. Such a
person, if excommunicated, is not allowed to receive the Eucharist because the
Church seeks repentance and reconciliation with the brother or sister who has
gone astray. Because Catholics have the benefit of a well-defined and
articulated Catechism, these
sorts of issues can be adjudicated in accordance with a rule of law and are
thus not that easy to reduce to matters of ecclesiastical fiat.
Evangelical movements you mention--open theism and the emergent church--are
instructive in this regard, since they both claim to be purely scriptural and
sometimes charge their more conservative critics of incorporating
"non-biblical" ideas. In that sense, these projects are thoroughly Evangelical
in their insistence on being committed to sola scriptura.
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. Having said that, I should say that
there are many Evangelicals, such as my Baylor colleagues Dan Williams, Ralph
Wood, Steve Evans, and David Lyle Jeffrey, Biola's J. P. Moreland and John Mark
Reynolds, and Samford's Timothy George, who take approaches to Scripture and
the Great Tradition that are bearing fruit in both their scholarship and their
presentations of the Gospel.
Some books by Joseph Ratzinger, including Truth and Tolerance and
Introduction to Christianity, played a role in your journey to Rome. What do
you think of him as a philosopher? In what ways is he providing a blueprint for
addressing contemporary philosophical, theological, and cultural challenges?
Beckwith: Although Joseph Ratzinger
is a trained theologian, he is a very good philosopher. Because of his
long-time pastoral role as bishop, his philosophical work in theology is
directed toward advancing the cause of Christ both in and outside the Church.
Take for example his emphasis on the need for the West to return to a view of
faith and reason that sees theology as knowledge rather than merely subjective
belief. It has the virtue of calling us back to an understanding of reason that
accounts for the successes of modernism in the sciences, the arts, and
government while showing that it was the ideas of Christian civilization that
provided modernism with the philosophical scaffolding for these successes and
not modernism's inherent skepticism on matters of human nature and transcendent
ethics. The Enlightenment opened a door, but it was the Church that built the
You mentioned in your National Catholic Register interview that some reactions to your return to
the Catholic Church surprised you. Did any of them disappoint you?
Yes. For example, one friend, a scholar I
deeply respect, commented on my blog that my move to the church was likely the
result of my not being sufficiently well grounded in Reformation theology. His
conclusion, of course, is that my return to the Church was the result of
ignorance. I understand why he has to believe that. For if I am knowledgeable
of Reformation theology and I still seek full communion with the Catholic
Church, this would mean that I am either wicked or that it is not unreasonable
for a faithful Christian to believe that the Reformation answers on salvation,
scripture, and authority are contested answers and not axiomatic deductions or
undeniable inferences from the Bible. 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.
But the truth is that the supportive comments far
outweighed the negative ones. My wife and I received many kind and encouraging
messages from Protestant Evangelicals as well as Catholics. In fact, several
notable Evangelical scholars and teachers privately told me that they
understood why we sought reception into the Catholic Church, but for a variety
of reasons, including serious theological ones, they could not follow us. Two
Evangelical ministries with which I am associated told me that my status with
them would not change. One of them will retain me on its editorial board,
refusing to accept my resignation, which I procured several months ago for
their protection. I was deeply touched by their generous spirit. And the other
ministry will keep me as a lecturer for the seminars it offers. Because this
ministry just requires its staff to affirm the Apostles' Creed, there was no
problem with me remaining on its faculty.
You've been involved in apologetics--high level, sophisticated apologetics--for
many years, having written articles and books about miracles, moral relativism,
applied ethics, Mormon theology, and other issues. It seems to me that,
generally speaking, Evangelical apologists are doing a better job addressing
skepticism and relativism than are Catholics. Is that a fair assessment? What
can Catholic apologists learn from Evangelical apologists such as J.P.
Moreland, William Lane Craig, and others?
Beckwith: I think that is generally
a fair assessment, though there are outstanding Catholic thinkers doing good
work in these areas as well, such as Peter Kreeft, Ron Tacelli, and J.
Budziszewski. Having said that, I do think that Evangelical apologists are
producing an important body of work that Catholics should access and master.
Because philosophers like Moreland and Craig make a case for those beliefs
shared by Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox--such as God's existence, resurrection
of Jesus, reliability of Scripture, existence of the soul, moral realism,
etc.--Catholics would clearly profit from their works.
will hopefully lead to collaborations between Christian apologists from
Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. A good sign of things to come is Geisler
and Hoffman's book, Why I Am A Christian?, (Baker, 2006; 2nd ed.), which includes essays by Kreeft,
Budziszewski, and me. I think with all the talent out there the opportunities
for collaboration are limitless.
terms of Christian approaches to social issues that are accessible to popular
audiences, I do not think anyone can match the works of Greg Koukl and Scott
Klusendorf, both of whom have penned some of the best training manuals and
books for prolife ministry. Catholics would do well to read the works of these
two men. (I should say that Greg has written a few essays critical of Catholic
theology, but they are penned with respect and a charitable spirit. Also, a
serious Catholic should feel honored to be challenged by such a thoughtful and
winsome representative of Protestantism.).
This fall Cambridge University Press will be publishing your book,
Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, which is described as "the most comprehensive
defense of the prolife position on abortion ever published." Would you
like to give it a shameless plug and tell readers what is unique about the book
and what you hope to accomplish with it?
Beckwith: You gotta love publishers!
Now to the shameless plug. Some of your readers may know of my 1993 book, Politically
Correct Death: Answering the Argument for Abortion Rights (Baker Book House). Defending Life was originally going to be a revised edition of that
book. But since so much has been written over the past decade on abortion, and
because Politically Correct Death
did not cover some issues and was a bit outdated, I decided to just write a
whole new book. Defending Life covers
not only the popular arguments for abortion, but also some of the most
sophisticated cases offered by abortion-choice advocates in the academy. I deal
extensively with the arguments of thinkers like David Boonin (author of A
Defense of Abortion [Cambridge
University Press, 2002]) and Judith Jarvis Thomson on issues of fetal
personhood and the mother's obligation to her unborn child. But I also deal
with the paucity of the legal case for Roe v. Wade, the cloning and stem-cell research debate, and
whether prolife religious citizens have the right to shape laws in a liberal
democracy, none of which I addressed in Politically Correct Death. Although Defending Life covers sophisticated arguments offered by
professional philosophers and bioethicists, the publisher believes that because
it is clearly written and includes sections on popular arguments, it will be
marketing the book to an audience broader than academics and scholars. In fact,
the publisher asked me to place the book's footnotes as endnotes in order to
make the text attractive to non-scholars. I, of course, said yes.
I hope to accomplish with the book is this: I want to offer my colleagues as
well as the general public an intelligent, clearly articulated, and
non-polemical defense of the prolife position on abortion that does not rely on
theological or religious arguments. I also want to help college students and my
friends in the prolife movement so that they are better equipped to deal with
the best arguments offered by our fellow citizens who do not share our point of
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