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Professor Beckwith Repents and Returns to Rome

May 6, 2007

The president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) Francis J. Beckwith, after “much prayer, counsel and consideration” has has decided to seek full communion again with the Catholic Church. Even though much of his work has been sympathetic to the Catholic Church, his conversion is quite a surprise and has caused much response from both Protestants and Catholics. His blog opens up with this paragraph:

During the last week of March 2007, after much prayer, counsel and consideration, my wife and I decided to seek full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. My wife, a baptized Presbyterian, is going through the process of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). This will culminate with her receiving the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation. For me, because I had received the sacraments of Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation all before the age of 14, I need only go to confession, request forgiveness for my sins, ask to be received back into the Church, and receive absolution.

You can read this entire post for his explanation of his return, but I thought this statement was very telling:

I began reading the Early Church Fathers as well as some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors. I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible. Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries.

It is obvious that there was little conviction in his previous view of justification and there looks to be little conviction in his now Catholic view. In fact, Prof. Bechwith, feels safe “to err on the side of the Church with historical and theological continuity with the first generations of Christians that followed Christ’s Apostles.”

While I certainly question Dr. Beckwith’s conviction, I do not question his integrity and even his courage. It took both courage and integrity to announce his conversion despite his high profile position. I will, however, join many bloggers comment on the fact that it is a bizarre fact that Beckwith can say as a converted Catholic, “Because I can in good conscience, as a Catholic, affirm the ETS doctrinal statement, I do not intend to resign as a member of ETS.” The Evangelical Theological Society should see this as its most recent and maybe biggest reproof. Much work and thought should be done in forming distinctions between Catholicism and Openness Theology within the society.

Here are a few responses that are good and helped me think through this:

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2007 2:32 pm

    John
    I see that we both posted comments over at Denny Burk’s blog so I do not need to repeat myself here except to say that we are witnessing what David Wells rightly called the free-falling of Evangelicalism. This most recent example should serve to awaken people to that fact.

  2. May 6, 2007 2:45 pm

    One other thing- when Beckwith says he is required to confess his sins and do pentance-does this mean that he admits that his ‘Evangelical’ beliefs and pilgrimage was ‘sin’? In other words, will he now. like Trent, anathematize the Reformation’s doctrine of Sola Fide?

  3. jbstarke permalink*
    May 6, 2007 5:27 pm

    Dr. Johnson, thanks for the post. I think Beckwith is purposely ambiguous about what he aligns with when it comes to the Council of Trent, even on justification he seems really unclear other than he wants err on the side history. However, the implications seem clear and I don’t think the lines between his former protestantism and his conversion are quite as blurry as he would like them to be.

  4. May 7, 2007 2:24 am

    As a Catholic watching this I too think he can sign and affirm the ETS statement that I have read. There is nothing there that as written that conflicts wit the Catholic faith.

    THe problem is if that was the purpose, to keep Catholics and Orthodox out for instance, the problem is not the good doctor. The problem is that when it was formulated the people who wrote it did not have enough knowledge of Catholics belief as to make that statement one that could keep them out. That should be more troublesome

    JH
    Louisiana

  5. May 7, 2007 2:43 am

    Oops I hit the submit button before adding this. I see the Council of Trent mentioned on a couple of comments here. I think it is important that people remember the World Federation of Lutherans and the Catholic Church signed off on an agreements as to Justification. The Current Pope was very much involved in that.

    That might be helpful in seeing where are various traditions are at. Especially since the Canons of Trent were mentioned and interacted with as they must be. Also I might mention the Worldwide Methodist group signed off on this too.

    This is the link to the document
    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html

    I hope this is helpful so people know exactly what the Doctor is rejecting and what he is not.

    JH Louisiana

  6. jbstarke permalink*
    May 7, 2007 2:45 am

    I don’t want to say the ETS is a secluded club that forces Catholics to stay out. It is an academic society looking to further evangelical scholarship. It is not that we are not including Catholics into the Kingdom of God, just not the society labeled “Evangelical.” The problem with ETS is that the language in the confession is too ambiguous and brief. ETS has expelled individuals (evangelicals like Robert Gundry) and yet does not expel confessional Catholics and Openness Theologians. It is not as if we cannot fellowship with Catholics, however, furthering evangelical scholarship is important to most of the members and would certainly not be important to Catholic Theologians to further evangelical scholarship. Beckwith no longer calls himself evangelical, so my question is why stay? The word “evangelical” has little or no meaning to him and others like him, while that word has deep meaning to some – which is the problem some of the other articles I listed have, as well, with ETS.

  7. May 7, 2007 12:36 pm

    Hmmm. The ETS founders, Roger Nicole chief among them, did not know Catholic beliefs? As most of you know Roger is Swiss, and among his many degrees is a masters degree from the Sorbonne in Paris where he majored in Catholic theology and philosophic thought. Not only that, but as anyone can tell you who ever had a class with him ,his knowledge of the entire history of Christian thought is without peer. For example , in the area of the doctrine of Scripture (one of Nicole’s specialities) he demonstrated not only that he had mastered the subject from the perspective of the Protestant side, but had combed extensively though all that was written on the Catholic side. When the debate over inerrancy was front and center a few decades ago, Roger pointed to the Encyclicals of Pope Leo Xlll, ‘Providentissmus Deus’, Benedictus XV, ‘Spiritus Paraclitus’, Pius XLL, ‘Divino Afflante Spiritu’, as well as the documents of Vatican ll as evidence of the official Catholic position. It is surely misguided to say that the founders of the ETS were in the dark over Catholic beliefs. A better solution is to be found in regard to the times in which ETS was formed. There was a Evangelical consensus that was well understood by rank and file Evangelicals of the day. Nobody back then would have thought ,for instance, that the omniscience of God would ever to construed the way the Open theists would later do-all the while claiming that they could in good conscience sign off on the ETS doctrinal statement. Likewise, the thought never entered their minds that down the road Roman Catholics would claim they too could become members in good standing in the ETS.If they are to be blamed for anything it’s the old-fashioned belief and willingness to expect people to be honest and up front in dealings with them.

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