Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Dr. Beckwith Replies
08/08/2007 - James WhiteI provide the full text of Dr. Beckwith's response:
I just couldn't help myself. Below is my reply to Mr. White's questions. Each question is preceded by a number. My answer follows the question.
I really don't think these are serious questions, since they are not the sorts of questions that one asks if one is reading another charitably. That is, when reading another person's claims and arguments, one should always think to oneself--if I were so-and-so how would I reply to my inquiries? What this exercise does for the mind and soul is deeply virtuous. For it nurtures empathy--a moral virtue--but it also results in sharpening one's own arguments and reasons. After all, if you can come up with a plausible account of another's case, then it is that plausible account and not the original take that one must confront and assess. This helps one to avoid the straw man fallacy, which we are all prone to commit now and again.
Nevertheless, I respond to these questions because it will give STR readers an opportunity to see what happens when one artificially detaches analytic disputation from the virtues of the soul. It harms oneself--and in this case, Mr. White's moral development--and it teaches others--his readers--to be uncharitable and mean under the mantle of biblical authority.
1) How can a person be shocked by re-reading something they read twenty years ago. Is it your claim that you had completely forgotten everything you had read then?
The same way one feels when one runs into an old girlfriend and then wonders what one saw in her in the first place. Before you run into her, you "remember" her in one way. When you see her again, you realize that that was puppy love and not real love. And sometimes one quivers at the thought that one could have married that person.
It is safe to say that Paul re-read the Old Testament differently after his conversion and was shocked at what he found. After all, if he had read the OT correctly to begin with he would not have persecuted the church. A good friend of mine from graduate school shared with me how much more persuasive Christian apologetics works seemed to him after he had become a Christian. He told me, "These arguments that I dismissed prior to my conversion seem so convincing now." This is a common phenomenon among reflective souls.
2) Or is it your claim that you were so completely prejudiced in your twenties that you could not even read the document in a meaningful fashion?
My reading was both prejudiced and meaningful. It was shaped by my Lutheran professors and my lack of philosophical sophistication. For this reason, I read Trent more like a prosecutor looking to convict a defendant rather than a student seeking to learn. I loved my Lutheran professors, but I have since come to the conclusion that they were wrong.
3) How can someone speak of "expecting to read" something in a document that they have already read?
See answers to 1 and 2. As an aside, it is common for scholars to see things differently and more clearly (or more ambiguously, as the case may be) over time as one begins to get a fuller picture of a particular subject matter and its primary texts. Because I am an academic with different obligations and responsibilities than those involved in popular polemics, I am blessed with a lifestyle that allows me the time and resources (and brilliant graduate students and colleagues) to ruminate about and think through many texts and issues.
4) Are you claiming that your prejudices were do deep that you had actually made up in your mind things like "sticking pins in your eyes" and "flagellation"?
I was making a humorous allusion to the Opus Dei loon from the DaVinci Code. It's typical Beckwith humor. "How many Gnostic Aesthetics does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
5) How can you find "amazing" things in a document you read twenty years ago? Did you simply not read it well enough to understand it then?
I read it well, but not well enough. See answers 1, 2, and 3.
6) If you read this document, how is it relevant to claim that you had not been "told" the truth about it?
I not only read Trent. I read about it. Those commentators read the document uncharitably. That shaped my reading. Happens all the time. See answers 1, 2, 3, and 7
7) If you read the document, how could you be misinformed about its contents?
The same way that a Mormon can read the Bible a hundred times and still get Mormon theology out of it. A text is not like a box with things in it, "contents." It is something to be approached with humility and teachability. For example, at one time I fully accepted the notion of the imputation of Christ's alien righteousness as unambiguously biblical. And, in fact, one will always get that out of the text if one approaches it with entrenched Reformed assumptions (informed by late medieval nominalism, a philosophy implicitly hostile to Christian philosophical anthropology, IMHO). However, if one begins to reflect on the entirety of Christian history and the numerous exegetes who have seen different "contents," equally at home with the same text, one begins to have a fuller picture of the sorts of philosophical and anthropological issues that were at stake during the Reformation.
That's enough for now. (I know I've said that before. But this time I'm serious!).
Thank you for indulging me (pardon the pun).
Now, my comments, which, in the eyes of the Catholics currently posting on the comments thread at STR, are, by nature, ridiculous and uncharitable. No, it doesn't matter what I will say, or how I will say it. The fact that I will open my mouth (move my fingers on a keyboard) is all they need to go ad-hominem.
Let's say I said the following on a radio program. I am talking about a reading marathon I did in January of this year, and I say the following:
And let me say, if you read the Book of Mormon...which, by the way, really shocked me. I expected to read this sort of horrible book, you know, requiring people to marry multiple wives and go through temple ceremonies, and it turns out that there are things in there that are quite amazing. It talks about Jesus Christ and salvation by grace! I mean, I thought to myself, I had not been told...I had been misinformed!
Now, would any rational, indeed, charitable person, read that to mean, "I had read the Book of Mormon before. But I was so completely unfair in my reading of it originally, so completely bigoted in my opposition to Mormonism, that I was completely blind to it, and in fact, I was so biased, that I pretty much forgot every single thing it actually said, warped it so much in my mind that I inserted all sorts of things that were not in fact in it at all, and was so completely self-deceived that I could claim to have been misinformed!"? I would never have concluded that that was what Dr. Beckwith meant which is the only possible way to hear what he said on STR Sunday night. In fact...would it be "charitable" of me to read those words in such an insulting fashion? But evidently, unless you do read it that way, you are being uncharitable. (Well, let's face it: for Rome's followers, unless you smile and applaud every convert while ignoring the realities of their claims you are uncharitable).
Next, if I read his words in the most logical sense in which they can be taken, Beckwith now insists this is impacting my "moral development." May I suggest that the problem in moral development here is Dr. Beckwith's? You see, he has succumbed to the "Pauline Convert Syndrome." He is getting a tremendous amount of attention as a freshly minted convert to Rome (just as Matatics, Hahn, Sungenis, etc., have experienced in the past). As such, it is natural for him to embellish his conversion, or, to use his words, his "journey." Now, what he said on STR, and what he has said in other contexts, regarding Trent, was meant to allow him to emphasize how wonderful Trent's actual words are. The words he used on STR were misleading, and any semi-unbiased person who reads them knows this is the case. Instead of admitting this, and saying, "OK, well, I embellished my comments on Trent, sorry about that," Beckwith has chosen to make this an issue about me instead. Only the most hardened followers of Rome can possibly be impressed by this kind of smoke and mirrors.
Dr. Beckwith has, for many years, insisted that words have meaning. Words are related to other words, creating a context. Now, while I truly sit utterly amazed that Beckwith is even arguing these points, as his words seem so obvious and clear, since he has done so, I need to point out where his replies fail the simplest tests of logical coherence. Let's remember his actual words:
"If you read the Council of Trent...which, by the way, really shocked me. I expected to read this sort of horrible document, you know, requiring people to stick pins in their eyes, you know, and flagellate themselves, you know, and it turns out that there are things in there that are quite amazing, that the initial grace is given to us by God, in fact, there's a condemnation in there for anyone who says that our works, apart from grace...I mean, I thought to myself, I had not been told...I had been misinformed!"
Now, I asked how he could be "shocked" by a document he has already read. Clearly, in the above words, what shocked Beckwith was what the document itself contained. His own words prove this, as he says, "it turns out that there are things in there that are quite amazing..." If he read those words before, how could they be amazing? His response leaves me staring in disbelief: "The same way one feels when one runs into an old girlfriend and then wonders what one saw in her in the first place. Before you run into her, you 'remember' her in one way." The only way this would work would be to say, "I had created a complete fantasy in my mind about Trent...I had warped it and turned it into something that had people sticking pins in their eyes and engaging in self-flagellation, but when I read it again, I discovered that I was utterly self-deceived." I suppose, if I were to stretch things as far as I possibly could, that if Beckwith had a long history of Jack Chick-style anti-Catholicism, that one might be able to think that someone could be so bigoted, so self-deluded, as to twist things that far. But where is the evidence that he exhibited such a mind-set? Given that he himself says that he had maintained the Roman Catholic view of the human person, natural law, etc., there is no grounds upon which to believe he possessed such as self-deluding prejudice that could cause him to so grossly misread and warp the text of the Council of Trent. I read the work as a staunch conservative Baptist, but I somehow managed to read it in its historical context, and I found no self-flagellation or sticking of pins in eyes.
My reading was both prejudiced and meaningful. It was shaped by my Lutheran professors and my lack of philosophical sophistication. For this reason, I read Trent more like a prosecutor looking to convict a defendant rather than a student seeking to learn. I loved my Lutheran professors, but I have since come to the conclusion that they were wrong.The only way I can read these words would require me to believe that Beckwith's "lack of philosophical sophistication" turned Trent's condemnation of Pelagianism into "flagellation." It also seems that here Beckwith throws his professors under the bus as well, claiming they were "wrong." Wrong about what? Did they teach Beckwith that Trent contained passages recommending flagellation and sticking pins in your eyes? What, specifically, were they wrong about? Where did they misrepresent Trent so badly that this somehow forced Beckwith to read the text in such a grossly prejudiced manner that he didn't even see the words on the page any longer? Can he document these things? I'm sorry, but I studied under a number of professors at Fuller Seminary that I believe very strongly were "wrong" in what they said, but never did that result in my warping the words of a text I was assigned to read into the opposite of their original meaning.
Beckwith then avoids the weight of his own words by referring to the preceding two explanations when I ask him about how he could be "expecting to read" about sticking pins in your eyes when he read Trent. I stand firmly on this simple statement: if you have read a major work in the past, and only two decades or so later read it again, you will not be "expecting to read" about things completely opposite of what is in the text. No person boasting Beckwith's academic accomplishments could be so utterly daft, let alone so grossly prejudiced, as to read Trent and then warp it so completely into its opposite that only upon later reflection (and in a period of "charitable" reading) see that he had completely corrupted the text in his own mind. The only logical meaning communicated by saying "I expected it to say X" is "I have not yet read the work, but have some concept of what I have been told it is about." This would fit perfectly, in his original context, with his assertions that he had "not been told" and had been "misinformed." Words have meaning.
Beckwith then says he was simply being humorous as to what he expected Trent to say...though, of course, he had already read Trent. I think we all recognized the attempt at humor, but the only thing that makes it humorous, of course, is that he is saying that Trent was not what he expected it to be. That in fact, he had been "misinformed." If he had been simply informed (via his professors) about Trent, this would make sense. It would still require him to document the charge of falsehood he is laying at the feet of his teachers, but it would still make sense. But it makes no sense if what he is saying is, "I read it for myself. But I was so naive, so utterly under the spell of my professors, that I didn't actually understand it at all. I accepted their totally false ideas about it---in fact, they had me so hoodwinked that even though my eyes saw the condemnation of Pelagianism, for example, my mind refused to believe it!" Does Dr. Beckwith really want to tell us that he has experienced this level of self-deception in the past, so that he was unable to even understand the plain words on a page but instead transmuted their meaning into their opposite?
Next, Beckwith seemingly admits to a very deep lack of discernment at a younger age when he says, "I not only read Trent. I read about it. Those commentators read the document uncharitably. That shaped my reading. Happens all the time." He said on STR he had not been "told." Why would he need to be told if he had read it and understood it? As I noted above, I was not "told" lots of things in seminary because I was in a context where many (not all, thankfully) of my seminary professors were operating on sub-biblical principles and a sub-biblical worldview. But that did not keep me from reading original source materials accurately. In fact, it was often in the process of reading those very materials that I detected the biases of my professors. Evidently, Beckwith did not possess, or use, the same kind of faculties of discernment in his reading of original source materials when in seminary. Is this truly what he wishes us to believe, or wouldn't it have been a whole lot simpler, and more honest, to just say, "Oh, hey, wait...I had glanced at Trent, but I really didn't find it overly relevant, and I just took what my professors said at face value. But now that I'm a convert, I'm spinning things a bit, and yes, when I was on STR, I made it sound to any fair listener that I was saying I had never read it, but that when I did, the lights came on and it looked great to me! Sorry about exaggerating a bit there, but hey, this celebrity convert thing is new to me!"
Finally, Beckwith answers the question about how he could be "misinformed" about a work he has read (we are "misinformed" about issues second-hand. I have never, ever seen anyone use the term "misinformed" about first-hand reading of a document. "I read that book, but I was misinformed of its contents by my very own eyes!") with these words, "The same way that a Mormon can read the Bible a hundred times and still get Mormon theology out of it." That's not an answer. Are you saying that the Mormon is "misinformed" about the contents of the Bible, so that he actually believes the Bible contains passages about Kolob and exaltation to godhood? That though this Mormon has actually read the Bible, he has come to the conclusion that the Bible contains all sorts of statements and assertions that it actually doesn't? Is this the normative meaning of "misinformed"?
Let me be blunt. I think Dr. Beckwith misspoke in his excitement as a high-profile revert to Catholicism. He was unclear, and in fact, he "spun" his own experience to make it more Paul-like. "I read Trent, and wow, had I been misinformed!" That's a lot more exciting than "I had read and studied Trent before, but now I read it again, and I decided to adopt a different reading of it, one informed by the more liberal wing of interpretation of the Roman Catholic church." Yeah, that's a yawner, so he went with a more exciting, if less accurate, rendition. I believe he is being tremendously uncharitable in refusing to admit his error and admit that many people, not just James White, heard his words (and now read his words) and come to the same conclusion. At the very least the basic charity he is demanding for himself would force him to say, "OK, you are right, that claim on my part could easily be understood the way you understood it, and I acknowledge that." Just think how many bytes of storage space, and photons of light, could have been spared if he had just been willing to make this basic, charitable acknowledgment.
I further consider it most "uncharitable" of Dr. Beckwith to invest all this time on a basic non-issue while ignoring the elephant sitting upon his desk, the elephant made up of 1) the overwhelming sincerity and depth of Greg Koukl's questions and critique of his arguments, which he simply refused to acknowledge, and 2) the dozen or so clear, compelling points that I raised in the STR blog combox that he has ignored (Canon 13, viaticum, patristic citations, etc.). I believe Dr. Beckwith was uncharitable to Greg Koukl in the way he responded to his challenges. And the term "uncharitable" is being given dictionary-style definition by the many on the STR blog (David Waltz especially, but others, Ann, and the ever-present, and ever dishonest, PR) and in other venues (Jimmy Akin's blog, as noted earlier) who could no more read a word I say in a fair or "charitable" fashion as...stick pins in their eyes. The hypocrisy of those who have circled the wagons and started the "burn James White in effigy bonfire" act would be shocking if I had not observed it so many times in the past. Anything goes in the service of Mother Church.
One other comment. STR is known for seeking to train people to think with clarity, to recognize category errors, and to get to the heart of important issues like abortion or homosexuality. I have appreciated Greg Koukl's work in this area immensely. But is it not fascinating, in a sad sort of way, that when it comes to Rome and its claims, the clarity of thought, the laser-like precision of thinking, that is supposed to mark Frank Beckwith...collapses? The leaps and bounds of utter illogic being demonstrated by the Roman Catholic combox militants at STR right now is simply amazing, and their penchant for ignoring my clear arguments and attacking me personally is so clear, so obvious, that you would think that everyone would see it. Sure does make you wonder just a bit about just how far Roman Catholics are willing to take "co-belligerence" when you are talking about a committed, consistent Reformed Baptist like myself.
I will continue my review of Beckwith's comments tomorrow on the Dividing Line. He is, of course, welcome to call in. So are all the other folks who are so very brave behind their keyboards, but who find actually facing me and producing the same kind of invective...difficult.