Q&A: Francis Beckwith
Francis Beckwith resigned on May 5 as president of the Evangelical Theological Society. One week earlier the Baylor University philosophy professor rejoined the Roman Catholic Church, his home until age 14. He spoke with Christianity Today editor David Neff about the reaction to his decision, theological misconceptions, and evangelical strengths and weaknesses.
What good things from the evangelical community will you take back with you to Roman Catholicism?
A number of things. First, I think of the evangelical emphasis on the importance of Scripture. Much of what I see in the Catholic Church is formed by my evangelical experience. When I recite, for instance, the Apostles' Creed, I think it's more of a cognitive experience for me than with people who have been Catholic for some time. Emphasis on the written word comes from my evangelical backgroundthat is, when I read these things, I'm really interested in what the text is saying, not just the mystical part, which is certainly also appropriate. For instance, after reading the Apostles' Creed, I turned to my wife and I said, "You know, there are only two proper names in the creedPontius Pilate and Virgin Mary. I don't know if anyone's ever noticed that."
I still consider myself an evangelical, but no longer a Protestant. I do think I have a better understanding of what sometimes the Catholic Church is trying to convey. Protestants often misunderstand. The issue of justification was key for me. The Catholic Church frames the Christian life as one in which you must exercise virtuenot because virtue saves you, but because that's the way God's grace gets manifested. As an evangelical, even when I talked about sanctification and wanted to practice it, it seemed as if I didn't have a good enough incentive to do so. Now there's a kind of theological framework, and it doesn't say my salvation depends on me, but it says my virtue counts for something. It's important to allow the grace of God to be exercised through your actions. The evangelical emphasis on the moral life forms my Catholic practice with an added incentive. That was liberating to me.
Some of the people who have been critical say, "You've gone into the oppressive works system of Catholicism." That's not the way I look at it at all. I look at it as a chance to do good. My own work apart from God's grace doesn't matter for my salvation; what matters is the sort of person I become by allowing God's grace to work through my obeying his commandments and taking the sacraments. Unfortunately, the view of justification is sometimes presented clumsily by some Catholic laypeople.
What can an evangelical learn from the great tradition without giving up the genius of evangelicalism?
Much of Christian theology that we assume to be true, key doctrines such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ, were thought out quite a while ago through rigorous arguments and analysis and debate. Evangelicals kid themselves when they believe that they can re-invent the wheel with every generation, that you have to produce another spate of systematic theology textbooks to teach people the stuff that has already been articulated for generations. Not to say those things aren't important. They are, and obviously you have to write these things depending upon the historical context. However, I do think we have to admit that the way that we read Scripture is through the ideas and concepts that have been passed down to us by a great tradition.
Look, you're not going to come up with the Nicene Creed by just picking up the Bible. Does the Bible contribute to our understanding? Absolutely it does; the Nicene Creed is consistent with Scripture. But you needed a church that had a self-understanding in order to articulate that in any clear way. I am not saying that necessarily means that you have to be a Catholic. But we have to understand that the Reformation only makes sense against the backdrop of a tradition that was already there. Calvin and Luther did not go back and re-write Nicea. They took it for granted. There's nothing wrong with conceding that and celebrating it and reading those authors.