In less than two weeks I will be delivering a paper in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS). It is a group in which I have held membership since 1988. It meets every year with the much larger academic alliance, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). I was the 57th President of ETS before I resigned both my presidency and membership in May 2007, a week after I had been received back into the Catholic Church of my youth.
Since November 2007 I have participated in five EPS/ETS meetings. Some Catholic friends have expressed amazement (and dismay) that I still identify (with the appropriate caveats) as an Evangelical of a sort, even though I have, in many venues, offered critical assessments of aspects of the dominant streams of Evangelical theology that part ways with what the Catholic Church teaches.
So, for example, I have argued against the Reformers’ understanding of justification, for apostolic succession, the sacrament of penance, and transubstantiation, and for the permissibility of accepting theistic evolution (though, of course, rejecting philosophical naturalism). I explained in 2010 and 2011 how my own internal deliberations on the nature of the Reformation were instrumental in my return to the Catholic Church. And yet, I find myself back again at EPS/ETS among scholars, writers, and teachers who, with few exceptions, disagree with me on these matters. Why do I do it? There are two reasons.
First, as a Catholic I have much to learn from my Protestant friends. Although I spent nearly three decades in the Evangelical world, it was largely in a narrow corridor of American Protestantism. Ironically, when I began to think anew about the Catholic Church about a decade ago, my studies led me to the wide variety of traditions within the Protestant world, some of which were instrumental in illuminating my understanding of Catholic doctrine.
This should not be surprising. For as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “’[M]any elements of sanctification and of truth’ are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: `the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.’ Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to `Catholic unity.’”
Our Evangelical friends are, as the Church teaches, our brothers and sisters in Christ. To be sure, we are separated brethren; something no Catholic or Protestant should ever celebrate. (As I noted on this page several years ago, to celebrate the great schism in Latin Christianity is like celebrating one’s divorce, even if you believe the divorce were justified.) However, the schism of the Reformation not only resulted in a loss of corporate unity, but also in a fragmentation of talents, pieties, gifts, and cultures.
Think, for example, of how the presence of a non-schismatic Anglo-Catholicism would have affected the development and spirituality of Latin Christianity. Because of the English Reformation, the Catholic Church not only lost the Anglicans, it lost all of the groups that sprang from the post-Reformation English Communion, including the Baptists, the Puritans, and the Wesleyans. If each, with its own array of practices and disciplines, had been allowed to flourish within the confines of the universal church, there would have been a mutual enrichment as well as an organic limit to the growth of heresy.
My second reason for continuing to identify with Evangelicals is visceral. I just like these people. They are serious about their faith in ways that annoy unsympathetic Catholics. You can actually discuss orthodoxy, heresy, and apostasy with them without first issuing a trigger warning. And contrary to the conventional wisecracking, “hate” never arises. In fact, what you experience is the kind of affection and brotherhood that emerges when serious people who respect each other purposely engage in an old-fashioned, knock down, drag out argument.
Last year, for example, ETS’ president, Thomas R. Schreiner, in his banquet address at the annual meeting, singled out for critique my defense of the Catholic view of justification. (In fact, his new book includes a chapter based on the address, “Frank Beckwith’s Return to Rome”). Two days before the meeting, he emailed me and told me that he was going to do this. His note was kind, generous, and respectful. Was I offended, or tempted to write my friends to help orchestrate a campaign to stop the conversation? Are you kidding me? I was honored.
Tom, like me, loves Christ. But he thinks I am wrong about justification. He cared enough to critique me in public in front of a room full of men and women I deeply respect. For an academic who wants to be taken seriously, I do not think it can get much better than that.
In addition, we’ve entered a time when all of us – of whatever faith commitments – who takes Scripture and theological argument seriously are engaged in a common task that sets us apart from the culture at large and those currents in our own churches that value the Zeitgeist above Christian tradition. In our current struggles, Catholics have much to teach. But we also can learn a lot from our fellows who have labored mightily in the vineyard against some of the same challenges, the Evangelicals.
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