Head of the Evangelical Theological Society Swims the Tiber

   About a month ago I followed a link to Frank Beckwith’s blog. The article (found here) is a response to John MacArthur on the topic of Lent. As I read through the article I could not help but feeling a very odd feeling about what I was reading. The language, the sources cited, all sounded so very familiar…as if I was reading the opinions of a newly minted follower of Rome, anyway, over at The Journey Home or some other RC apologetics blog or website. But Frank Beckwith? Current President of the Evangelical Theological Society? It struck me as very odd. I even opened up my blogging software to write a response, but, as is so often the case, was over-run with other duties, and had to give up on it.
   The ending of Beckwith’s article was particularly troubling:

   Pastor MacArthur and Ms. Litz would have also discovered that some of the same Church Fathers the pastor cites to dispute the perpetuity of spiritual gifts celebrated Lent. So, one finds an ancient church, celebrating Lent according to beliefs, events, and practices found in Scripture, that is able to produce the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, establish the canon, and make correct judgments (according to MacArthur) on the matter of spiritual gifts.
   Not too shabby for a “pagan” church.

   As my regular readers know, the “establish the canon” claim would be more than enough to get my attention. Now, I personally have little interest in the Lenten argument (outside of noting the gross abuse of such an idea inherent in Mardi Gras and the insight that provides into the thinking of many in the Roman communion), but when I saw repeated references to Roman Catholic sources, the New Advent website, etc., I could not help but think for a moment of how many have splashed their way across the Tiber due to the combination of 1) an out-of-balance view of philosophy’s authority in comparison with that of divine revelation, and 2) the influence of direct and regular cooperation in moral/cultural conflicts with members of the Roman communion (i.e., pro-life, pro-family groups). I have chronicled my own journey in struggling with cultural cooperation in reference to the matter of the gospel in the past, and will not repeat it here. Suffice it to say that there have been many who, upon forging friendships based upon common moral stands (against abortion, against homosexuality, etc.), have found their commitment to the centrality of justification by faith, or sola scriptura, sliding down the list of “most important life-defining beliefs.” Of course, it works both ways. Many of those on the other side of the Tiber who are involved in the same activities tend to become quite “ecumenical” and are willing to set aside dogmatic definitions, often leading to a functional inclusivism or even universalism. Of course, many in the pro-life movement are radically Marian in their devotion, but both sides can testify to seeing the theological imperatives of their respective beliefs turned upside down by the “ecumenical attraction” syndrome.
   In any case, I received information today that Dr. Beckwith has, in fact, returned to the Roman Catholic communion (I saw “returned” only because it appears, from his biographical information, that he was raised in the Roman communion). Now, I have searched the web, including Dr. Beckwith’s websites/blogs, and have not found any confirmation of this information. However, I have now received multiple, independent attestation to this fact. I would imagine we will, in time, be provided a fairly full apologia of his decision. At that time it would be highly appropriate to once again provide a biblical response. For the moment, there is another matter I wish to consider.
   Let’s ponder the hypothetical situation of a President of the Evangelical Theological Society converting to Roman Catholicism in the midst of his tenure. In 1998 I attended the national meeting of the ETS in Orlando, Florida. At one of the sessions some of the founding members were being asked questions about why they did certain things, why they wrote the statement of faith as they did, etc. A woman asked a question of the panel. “Why did you write ‘the Bible alone’ in the statement of faith?” The ETS statement of faith is very, very short. It 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.”

   Roger Nicole rose, slowly, and made his way to the podium. He looked out at the lady and said, “Because we didn’t want any Roman Catholics in the group.” He then turned around and went back to his seat. While most sat in stunned silence, I and a friend with me broke into wild applause. The brevity of the response, and Nicole’s dead-pan look, was classic. Most looked at us like we were nuts, but we appreciated what he said. Here, one of the founding members made it clear that the ETS was founded as a Protestant organization and that primary to their own self-understanding was a belief in sola scriptura.
   I would like to very seriously propose that any person who, while in the leadership of such an organization, choses to abandon the faith he professed when elected, and embrace a faith substantially different (which clearly the founders of the ETS intended to exclude the views of Roman Catholicism), should by any meaningful ethical standard step down from his position. The very fact that he was elected as one standing in a particular theological spectrum who, then, abandons that position in a substantive, directly relevant way, would be enough to bring a moral imperative to bear upon him. I do not believe such a person has the right to overthrow the intentions of the founders of the organization just to make a point or promote his new religious ideologies. There are, of course, many Catholic biblical societies such a person could join.
   Of course, ETS has already shown that it is unable to expel from its ranks those who are Open Theists, and this due to the maddening brevity of the statement of faith. And, I have learned today as well, this entire discussion may be irrelevant, since there are already Roman Catholic members of ETS. But while Open Theism, at least in the form promoted by such men as Boyd, Sanders, and Pinnock today, was not even in the minds of the founders of ETS when they formed the organization, Roman Catholicism, as Nicole’s comment shows, was. And while membership is one thing, can anyone seriously argue that the election would have gone the way it did with a confessing Roman Catholic running for the Presidency?
   Now that just such a high-profile conversion has taken place, prepare yourself for the flood of substance-less “Come Home to Rome” articles. Let me make a prediction: as is so often the case, the very act of conversion, not the reasons for so doing, will be the primary focus. “He’s so brilliant, if he converts, he must have a brilliant reason!” There are very few “new” reasons for conversion that have not been fully addressed in the past, and Rome’s modern apologists have learned that it is never to their advantage to give air to the replies offered by the most careful of their critics. As any review of the current body of Roman Catholic “conversion stories” will bear out, fair, balanced, insightful representation of the facts related to sola scriptura, Papal primacy, the Mass, the Marian dogmas, purgatory, etc., is utterly lacking. Emotional appeals to “the ancient church,” mythical references to the “unity” of Rome (those actually inside the communion and familiar with its rancorous disputes cannot help but chuckle at those blissfully naive, breathless commentaries), and the warm feeling of “coming home” to the Church (almost never anything about conversion to Christ) are the keys to successful conversioneering.
   Of course, folks like yours truly will ask all the boring questions, like, “How do you escape the circularity of the Roman claims regarding papal infallibility?” or “How can Rome’s claims, built as they were historically, upon such a wide variety of fraudulent documents, stand today in light of her own history?” And more to the point, “Do you really believe you can approach the Mass 20,000 times in your life and still die impure, and that this re-presentation is the same sacrifice as the perfect work you once professed to embrace?” Of course, those are the tough questions, which lead folks back to the inspired Scriptures, and that is the last place The Coming Home Network wants to go.
   In any case, as sad as it always is to read of someone abandoning the gospel for the false pretenses of Rome, it really does not surprise me when it happens. Why? Because we live in a day when the faithful are being tested as they were in Elijah’s day. If you do not passionately love the truth, God is under no obligation to continue to allow you to possess it. And how many do we see in the post-evangelical world who are truly passionate about the truth of the gospel? Oh, folks may be very passionate about their particular cause, but there is a vast difference between being cause-passionate and being gospel-passionate. There is little difference between the zeal that consumes basketball fans this time of year and that which is created by a particular cultural “cause.” But the gospel is different. It speaks of attributes of God’s character that the natural man does not have the capacity to truly love. It strikes at the heart of man’s arrogance, it removes, by its emphasis upon powerful, effective, sovereign grace, any ground of boasting in the man. But over time, if one is apathetic about the truth of the gospel, God may well bring judgment to bear in causing one to love a lie. And surely, anyone who has gazed in awe at the grandeur of the finished work of Christ in the light of the eternal decree of a holy and just God, who can then “trade that in” for the endless treadmill of Rome’s sacramental system, the unfinished work of the Mass, and the specter of satispassio in purgatory, is one far beyond my comprehension and understanding. I truly pray for Dr. Beckwith’s restoration, but more so, I pray God will once again cause His people to recognize the centrality of the truths of the gospel so that others may not fall into the same temptations to trade in the reality of peace with God for the empty facade of Roman piety.