Former Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) president Francis Beckwith's reversion to Rome in 2007 reignited perennial questions of how evangelicals should relate to Catholics. Namely, can a Roman Catholic credibly claim the evangelical label? Beckwith thinks so, and he has an ally in Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George. Nevertheless, during their charitable dialogue George and Beckwith reiterated key differences on authority and how Christians are counted righteous before God. The Penner Foundation and Center for Applied Christian Ethics hosted the discussion at Wheaton College on September 3.
Familiar with speaking before evangelical audiences, Beckwith testified to an upbringing in a Catholic parish where he did not learn much about who Jesus claimed to be or what he came to do. His desire to follow Jesus led him to a Protestant church. After years of nurture and study among evangelicals, the philosopher ascended to the ETS presidency in 2006. Even after returning to his Roman Catholic roots, Beckwith contends he could sign the ETS doctrinal basis, which reads: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory." He noted that someone could maintain ETS membership in good standing while holding any number of heresies, such as denying original sin. But as he learned during the controversy surrounding his reversion, Catholics are excluded.
"Apparently you can be a semi-Pelagian Nestorian in ETS," Beckwith said. "But Saints Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, and Thomas à Kempis are not welcome."
George responded by noting significant cultural changes since ETS formed in 1949. Evangelicals at the time positioned themselves against Protestant liberals and Roman Catholics. But liberal churches have since withered. And George maintains that statements such as "The Gift of Salvation," signed in 1994 by 20 prominent theologians with Evangelicals and Catholics Together, indicate growing consensus. Ten evangelicals and ten Protestants each agreed that "justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God's gift, conferred through the Father's sheer graciousness, out of the love that he bears us in his Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification." They even went so far as to write, "We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide)." George likened changes in the Roman Catholic Church to Martin Luther's gradual awakening as he studied God's Word.
"I want to challenge the fallacy of binary delineation," George said. "Evangelicals and Catholics are not polar opposites but are both within the spectrum of Christian faith and commitment."
Beckwith frequently appealed to experience when navigating the more treacherous terrain still separating Catholics from Protestants. He described a renewed spiritual life since he resumed practicing Catholic disciplines. Despite evident gifting and training in apologetics, Beckwith said he no longer worries so much about winning every argument. Now he is more willing to live with mystery. Speaking in a warm, personal tone, Beckwith worked to avoid antagonizing the mostly Protestant crowd that filled Wheaton's Edman Chapel.
"God's grace is meant not only to save me but transform me from the inside out," Beckwith said. "Protestants describe something similar as sanctification."