Kingdom People

June 24, 2009

Frank Beckwith’s Journey Back to Roman Catholicism

Filed under: Book Reviews,Roman Catholicism — Trevin Wax @ 3:04 am

Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical CatholicIn 2007, Francis Beckwith, the president of the Evangelical Theological Society, announced that he was stepping down from his post after having converted back to the Catholic Church of his childhood. Beckwith’s announcement sent shock waves through the evangelical world. Even some of Beckwith’s closest friends did not see his conversion coming.

Why did Frank Beckwith, a well-respected evangelical scholar and author, return to the church of his childhood? Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (2008, Brazos Press) is a personal memoir that tells the story of Beckwith’s decision to rejoin the Roman Catholic Church.

Return to Rome is primarily a narrative, although it is laced with Catholic apologetics, evangelical appreciation and criticism, as well as theological reflection. Speaking of his book, Beckwith states:

“It is not meant to be an apologetic for Catholicism or an autobiography in the strict sense.” (16)

Despite Beckwith’s stated intentions in writing this memoir, it is hard to see this book as something less than a Catholic apologetic, since he devotes a considerable amount of space to delineating the theological reasons for his movement back toward the Roman Catholic Church.

Beckwith begins his story with his departure from Roman Catholicism. Raised in the atmosphere of post-Vatican II Catholicism, Beckwith received little conservative and traditional teaching.

“My religion teachers often spoke of Catholicism as ‘our tradition’ rather than as a cluster of beliefs that were true. This relativizing of the faith did not engender confidence in the young students under their tutelage. Moreover, basic Catholic doctrine was often presented inadequately.” (36)

He writes honestly about the weaknesses of the Catholic environment of his childhood:

“I believe that the Catholic Church’s weakness was presenting the renewal movements like the charismatic movement as something new and not part of the Church’s theological traditions. For someone like me, interested in both the spiritual and intellectual grounding of the Christian faith, I didn’t need the ‘folk Mass’ with cute nuns and hip priests playing ‘Kumbaya’ with guitars, tambourines, and harmonicas.” (38)

Reading over the reasons for Beckwith’s departure from the Roman Catholic Church, I could not help but wonder if perhaps evangelicals are making the same mistakes he observed in the post-Vatican II era. What if evangelicals are watering down biblical truth in an effort to be “cool” and appeal to certain segments of our society? What if evangelicals are repeating the mistakes the Roman Catholics were making 30 years ago? Might such a development lead more people to Rome?

Beckwith recognizes that the Catholic Church’s intellectual tradition was also very attractive. He writes:

“My experience has been that most very intelligent Christians who had come to a deeper walk with Christ in independent Evangelical and/or non-liturgical churches often gravitate toward a theological and/or ecclesiastical tradition that has strong historical roots, such as Calvinism, Lutheranism, Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.” (44)

Beckwith does not sugarcoat his experience as a young child in Catholicism. He asks tough questions of Catholicism:

“…The American Catholic Church has to ask itself a serious and painful question: is there anything that we did that helped facilitate the departure of these talented and devoted people from our communion?” (45)

Beckwith recounts the passion of his early years as an evangelical. He speaks fondly of Francis Schaeffer. He relates his enthusaism upon becoming convinced that certain creeds are authoritative renderings of Christian doctrine. He outlines the major steps in his education and his rise to prominence in evangelical scholarship.

Readers might be surprised to discover some charismatic tendencies in Beckwith’s memoir. He describes a vision of Jesus that his wife had. He interprets events in his life as signs of God’s approval of his departure from the evangelical faith back to Roman Catholicism.

Beckwith devotes considerable space to the doctrine of justification by faith, which is, of course, the defining difference between Protestants and Catholics. I found his exposition of the Protestant view to be somewhat reductionistic. For example, he writes:

“The grace one receives is legal or forensic. This means that grace is not real stuff that changes nature, but merely the name given to God’s graciousness by legally accounting to us Christ’s righteousness.” (85)

I do not know of any Protestant who argues that God’s grace is not transformative. Protestants take care to note that the basis of our justification is faith alone in Jesus Christ. But that does not exclude the transforming power of God’s grace. We simply do not call the moral transformation “justification.” Protestants are careful to avoid making our own righteousness the basis for our salvation.

The end of the book forcefully argues for inclusion of Catholics in the Evangelical Theological Society.

“I still believe that the ETS doctrinal statement is broad enough to allow Catholic members.” (119)

I actually agree with Beckwith on this issue. I do not classify Catholics as evangelicals in the classic sense, but if Beckwith is making a case for Catholic membership in ETS based solely upon the society’s doctrinal statement, then he is correct. There is nothing in this document that would explicitly exclude Catholic members.

Beckwith bolsters his case by bringing good evidence:

“Pastors and theologians like Boyd, Pinnock, and Sanders are constrained only by ‘inerrancy’ and ‘the Trinity,’ which means (at least theoretically) that they could embrace any one of a variety of heresies condemned by the ancient Church and yet still remain an ETS member in good standing: Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or the denial of Christ’s eternal sonship. Yet oddly, Catholics who embrace the Church that claimed to have the ecclesiastical authority to condemn these heresies, and which provided to its separated progeny, including Evangelicals, the resources and creeds that provide the grounds for excluding these heresies, apparently have no place in ETS.” (126)

I find Beckwith’s case to be very persuasive. He goes on to write:

“Put in terms of specific traditions, if the term ‘Evangelical’ is broad enough to include high-church Anglicans, low-church anti-creedal Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, the Evangelical Free Church, Arminians, Calvinists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventist, open theists, atemporal theists, social Trinitarians, substantial Trinitarians, nominalists, realists, eternal security supporters and opponents, temporal theists, dispensationalists, theonnmists, church-state separationists, church-state accomodationists, cessationists, non-cessationists, kenotic theorists, covenant theologians, paedo-Baptists, Anabaptists, and Dooyeweerdians, then there should be room for an Evangelical Catholic.” (128)

I agree with Beckwith that ETS should allow Catholics in its membership as long as it stands by its current doctrinal formulation. If ETS decides that Catholics should be excluded, then the official doctrinal statement needs to be adjusted in order to reflect what the society agrees is “true evangelical identity.” It might be time for a more robust confession of faith, and not the minimalist document that guides ETS today.

At the end of the book, Beckwith admits:

“…My return to the Catholic Church has as much to do with a yearning for a deeper spiritual life as it did with theological reasoning.” (128)

In the end, Beckwith confesses that a deep spiritual yearning ultimately led him back to Rome, not theological reasoning.  Return to Rome would have been better had Beckwith given us more insight into Rome’s satisfaction of his spiritual yearnings instead of the doctrinal issues that he admits were not the primary factor in his decision to return to Rome.

11 Comments »

  1. Trevin,

    I heard recently from a prof that Beckwith once interviewed for a job at SBTS, but was turned down at the final (Mohler) stage! Imagine the reaction on campus if his conversion to Catholicism came while he was teaching there.

    Comment by Josh — June 24, 2009 @ 6:00 am

  2. His departure is proof that many church leaders have never experienced the new birth, and are just professors of something not real in their lives.
    ”They went out from us because they were not of us.”
    Salvation is not a profession, nor is it a decision, it is having Christ revealed to your heart as your absolute Lord and all-sufficient Saviour, and then walking with Him every day.

    Comment by Dr Paul W. Foltz — June 24, 2009 @ 6:44 am

  3. Trevin,

    What really disturbs me is the protestants who endorsed this book as if this was just a denominational move. It was much more. He has apostatized, IMO.

    I know you can’t tackle too many issues in a book review. There are much greater problems such as the reasoning he gives for going back to Rome. Some folks on other blogs have given very thorough refutations of his reasoning. For a philosopher, it would seem that he’d be much more careful with his words.

    Thanks.

    Comment by Mark | hereiblog — June 24, 2009 @ 7:02 am

  4. “What if evangelicals are watering down biblical truth in an effort to be “cool” and appeal to certain segments of our society? What if evangelicals are repeating the mistakes the Roman Catholics were making 30 years ago? Might such a development lead more people to Rome?”

    I already see this happening in my neck of the woods (New York state). My only evidence is anecdotal, but I am friends with several white American evangelicals who are “flirting” with Catholicism (attending Mass a few times a month along with their evangelical church) or have gone over to Catholicism altogether. Why we might ask? Here’s what I’ve identified:

    1) White American evangelicals seen as too much like the mainstream culture: church looks like a pep rally at the suburban white-bred high school.

    2) Catholicism seen as reverent toward God: the antidote to evangelical “God is my buddy and Jesus is my boyfriend”-type worship and preaching.

    3) Catholicism seen as having a rich historical tradition which is lacking in evangelical traditions. This is a bit complicated and requires some explanation. Why is this important? Because there is a concern among younger evangelicals I know that the church has failed to stay true to historic faith. Or if it has stayed true, it doesn’t project the historicity of evangelical faith through its worship and preaching, therefore failing to demonstrate how the evangelical way of doiong things is biblical and consensual with the historic faith. There aren’t roots to hold people firm aside from faith in Christ (which they believe they can still have in Catholicism). And when your faith doesn’t have historical roots, and you are taught watered-down theology, eventually your roots can wither because you don’t know if what you have been taught is true (e.g. historical) and you don’t have the tools or the framework (e.g. the theology) to evaluate it.

    4) The need for ritual. Ritual, when done properly, can attune the mind and statisfy the imagination. I know of evangelical churches up here that haven’t done communion in months. For all the evangelical raging against ritualism as an end in itself (which is important), perhaps we have created a vacuous space in our worship.

    Beckwith is uncommon in the sense that his stumbling block (it seems) was primarily theological. Those I know who have moved toward Catholicsm I don’t think have considered the theological underpinnings of their move because they don’t have the tools (mentioned above) to know what the theological differences are between the evangelical faith they left and the Catholic faith they embrace. Their criteria are mostly ecclesiological.

    I know I’ve taken up a lot of real estate here but this is something I’ve thought about a lot recently.

    Comment by Devin — June 24, 2009 @ 7:37 am

  5. Thanks for addressing this issue. It is an important one and you do it well. I wrote a review of the book months ago and have not found many others. My book Holy Ground, which is essentially the inverse of Frank’s is due out this September > ChrisCastaldo.com blessings!

    Comment by Chris Castaldo — June 24, 2009 @ 10:27 am

  6. Good review, Trevin, and an important one. Just one complaint: at the end of your review, you quote Beckwith saying that “spiritual yearning” had as much to do with his return to Catholicism as “theological reasoning”, and then you immediately conclude that Beckwith “confesses” that it was spiritual yearning and NOT theological yearning that led him back. I disagree with his rationale, but that last conclusion of yours doesn’t fairly represent his stated motives in leaving Protestantism.

    Comment by Nick — June 24, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

  7. I didn’t need the ‘folk Mass’ with cute nuns and hip priests playing ‘Kumbaya’ with guitars, tambourines, and harmonicas.

    The Catholic Church has “Life Teen Mass” which is kinda like this. A local parish priest calls it “Teens for Life” because he says middle aged folks who want to be hip and cool are the ones most involved. I’ve heard teens say that they are constantly bombarded and stimulated in all aspects of their lives, so when they go to Mass they prefer the reverence of a conventional Mass over Life Teen. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for all faith traditions.

    As for Beckwith on apologetics, I’ve listened to interviews with him and wasn’t strong in that area. However, others I know who leave Protestantism for Catholicism fully understand how puzzled, hurt, or scandalized others are by their move. Hence, they feel compelled to put their thought processes into words. I don’t think it’s done in order to affect conversion of others, but rather so that others may hopefully say something along the lines of, “I don’t agree with what he did, but I can see he’s given it alot of thought, and I see the appeal of some of what he says.” … or something like that. Catholics spend a great deal of time debating the characterization of what the Church teaches, rather than what the Church actually teaches. Someone in Beckwith’s orbit is practically obliged to put his journey into words.

    Lastly, as an “evangelical Catholic” I’m all for inclusion into the ETS and other interdenominational bodies. Our culture is in serious moral decay and we’ve all got to come together and be as unified as possible. Abortion, illigitimacy rates, adultry, gang violence, etc. necessitates that we all share Christ with others. We must be a light to the world.

    Comment by brian — June 24, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

  8. You wrote: “It might be time for a more robust confession of faith, and not the minimalist document that guides ETS today.”

    Although, I think a minimalist document is healthy in the big-tent discussions of “evangelicalism.” As long as we keep the document, and fundamentals of the faith, to the “bare essentials,” we can have much more healthy and robust theological dialogue.

    We have to balance (A) the New Testament command to teaching and defending sound doctrine, and (B) keeping an open mind to the fact that we are the “church re-formed, always re-forming“. We can’t re-form without freedom and flexibility to challenge our old presuppositions!

    God wins, in the end ;-).

    Comment by Aaron Rathburn — June 29, 2009 @ 12:02 am

  9. Brian is spot on.

    Comment by Francis Beckwith — June 29, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  10. […] Hier ein Blogbeitrag dazu von Trevin Wax: trevinwax.com. […]

    Pingback by Zur Semantik des Begriffs ›evangelikal‹ | TheoBlog — June 29, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  11. Would Frank be willing to debarte Roman Catholocism with a worthy opponent in front of an audience? Thank You, God Bless, Joe

    Comment by Joe Rinaldi — August 12, 2009 @ 7:03 pm


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