Answering The Call To Full Communion | An Interview with Dr. Francis Beckwith | Carl E. Olson | June 5, 2007 | Part 1 | Part 2
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 Catholic-Evangelical dialogue?
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.
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 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.
But 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.
One 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Have you read the various documents produced by the "Evangelicals and Catholic Together" (ECT) initiative? If so, what did you think of them?
Dr. 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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?
Dr. 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.
As 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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?
Dr. 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.
The 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.
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. 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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?
Dr. 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 house.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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?
Dr. 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.
This 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.
In 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.).
IgnatiusInsight.com: This fall Cambridge University Press will be publishing your book, Defending 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?
Dr. 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.
What 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 view.
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