Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Did Francis J. Beckwith Ever Leave the Tiber? (Part 1)
08/16/2010 - James WhiteWhen I was first contacted about the reversion of Frank Beckwith, the then president of the Evangelical Theological Society, I immediately discussed the topic on my webcast, The Dividing Line. I held open the possibility that the report was premature, or in error, but, failing that, I immediately called for Dr. Beckwith’s resignation as the president of the Evangelical Theological Society if, in fact, he had reverted to Roman Catholicism. I did so because the entire reason for the existence of ETS, as I had heard it so bluntly stated by Roger Nicole, was to have a distinctly non-Roman Catholic society for the study of the Bible. Though Beckwith attempts to argue that he did not, really, have to leave the ETS in Return to Rome, I believe the reality is clear to everyone who has an accurate understanding of the authority concept of Rome. At the same time I predicted that Beckwith’s reversion, due to his position, would be touted by Roman Catholic apologists as yet another example of “Rome Sweet Home.” At that time I raised the question of the relevance of the president of ETS returning to Rome simply due to his position. Logically, the relevance of a conversion or reversion would be directly proportional to the person’s direct knowledge of the issues relevant to the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism. And though I had not read a lot of Beckwith’s work, I could not think of any time when I had heard Beckwith address specific issues relating to the gospel, nor had I ever heard him speak of the gospel of grace in antithesis to the gospel of Rome.
A fair and full reading of Return to Rome not only substantiates my original predictions (the cover includes these words, “Why the President of the Evangelical Theological Society Left His Post and Returned to the Catholic Church”), but it gives plentiful evidence of one fact: Frank Beckwith may have taken a dip in the Tiber River for a number of years, but he never actually got out on the far side. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, the Tiber River forms the westernmost boundary of the ancient city of Rome. To swim the Tiber, then, normally refers to someone who converts to, or in this case reverts to, Roman Catholicism. But to extend the analogy, it has become plain to me over the years that it really is not just a matter of being on one side of the Tiber or the other. There are many who do not current identify themselves as Roman Catholics who, nevertheless, surely do not have their feet planted on the soil on the far side of the riverbank. Instead, they are paddling around in the river, sometimes closer to the Roman side, sometimes the far side. In their theology, their worldview, their understanding of grace, man, authority---any number of things, they are a mixture, often a very confused mixture. Most often they are ignorant of the great issues that define the boundaries, and as a result hold to self-contradictory positions. But in any case, it seems clear, from reading Frank Beckwith’s own words, that he never chose to cross the Tiber, climb out of the water, and take a firm stand on the far side. He never said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” He never said, “This is the gospel, and that is not the gospel over there.” Instead, by his own confession, he paddled about in the Tiber River until just recently, when he re-docked his boat on the Roman side.
The importance of this issue should be obvious to all. First, it is highly relevant to the value placed upon Beckwith’s reversion by those who seek to promote Rome’s claims and gospel. It is one thing when a convinced and knowledgeable Protestant, who has given consistent testimony to the gospel of grace, justification by faith, the sufficiency and perfection of the atonement, in the context of contrast with Rome’s teachings, embraces Rome. The number of these is very, very small, as any review of the writings of the current crop of celebrity converts will prove.
Second, Frank Beckwith was not alone out in the Tiber. Sadly, a very, very large number of non-Catholic philosophers, teachers, ministers, and laypeople, are paddling around out there even today. They are non-Catholics, but they are so not out of conviction, but out of convenience, taste, tradition, and a thousand other reasons. They are “more comfortable” with their current set of beliefs, but they are not self-consciously committed to a form of the gospel that differs in its fundamentals from that of Rome. As such, they tend to see Roman Catholicism as “different” but yet “the same,” just another expression of the vague concept of “Christianity.” As such, these non-Catholics are not, historically speaking, truly “Protestant,” for that term surely implied that those “protesting” had some idea of what Rome believed, what they believed, and that the two were not merely different shades of the same color, the same faith.
Beckwith’s situation illuminates another important reality. While he professed justification by grace through faith alone, he did so first not knowing Rome’s arguments against that belief, and he did so holding a view of man and a view of grace that is fundamentally antithetical to the biblical gospel which was proclaimed so forcefully at the Reformation. There are many teaching in non-Catholic schools today who truly have no internal commitment to the Reformation because they truly do not find the issues of that great upheaval to be relevant any longer to them. In other words, the gospel is not at stake as far as they can see when it comes to the great conflict with Rome. And if a person refuses to bow the knee to the Pontiff for any other reason than a whole-hearted commitment to the gospel, and a firm conviction that to be faithful to the gospel is to reject Rome’s claims, that person is not standing in the Reformation tradition. It is very clear that Frank Beckwith never stood in that tradition. He never saw Rome’s gospel as a false gospel, her views of man and grace as sub-biblical and dangerous. While that put him in the majority today, it likewise means he never landed on the far side of the Tiber.
What evidence do I have for this conclusion? There are numerous lines that we can follow. In August of 2007 Beckwith was interviewed by his long-time friend Greg Koukl, of Stand to Reason, an evangelical apologetics organization with which Beckwith had often worked. Koukl was obviously very concerned to get to the heart of the issue, that being the gospel. About halfway through the program, as Koukl pressed the incoherence of the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory and indulgences, Beckwith complained that none of these questions had anything to do with why he became a Catholic, a very telling statement indeed. Koukl backed off, but a little while later asked this question:
It occurred to me since your change to Catholicism is based on the fact that you think that Roman Catholicism represents the true church, why wouldn’t you be a Roman Catholic apologist? And I think you mentioned before, well, you’re kind of ‘Mere Christianity’…wouldn’t mere Christianity now be Roman Catholicism, and therefore it would be appropriate to promote that?Beckwith’s response is very telling:
No. I was never really a Protestant apologist. I mean, if you think about the works that I published in the areas concerning questions like the existence of God and the resurrection,...abortion, all those would apply to both sides.
His response exemplifies his “Catholicism is just part of the spectrum of Christian beliefs” viewpoint, but it likewise sheds light upon where he saw himself even as a “Protestant.” He did not defend the unique elements of Protestant theology but instead partitioned Christian theology in such a way as to allow for a “Mere Christianity” viewpoint. Of course, this means that from his viewpoint the gospel itself, at least outside of a very general summary thereof, is not definitional of the Christian faith, since evidently the gospel of Roman Catholicism and the gospel of the Reformation are similar enough to both fall into the general category of “merely Christian.”
Earlier in the interview Beckwith had spoken of his coming to “discover” that the Council of Trent actually anathematizes those who would say one can be saved apart from grace. Here are his words:
If you read the Council of Trent—which by the way really shocked me. I expected to read this sort of horrible document requiring people to stick pins in their eyes….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… this is—I thought to myself, “I have not been told.” I had been misinformed.
Shortly after this interview aired Dr. Beckwith and I crossed swords on the Stand to Reason web board over this statement. I took his words at face value, and to this day, I have no idea how they can be interpreted in any other way. If words have meaning, then what he said to Greg Koukl indicates a fundamental ignorance of the substance and teaching of the Council of Trent, an ignorance that led him to assert that he “had not been told” and that he had been “misinformed.” His comments indicate the standard ignorance of the modern evangelical regarding Trent. Had he read, carefully and with conviction, the documents of Trent? He claims he did. If so, then his comments to Koukl are facetious or meaningless. But I have no interest in revisiting that controversy: the fact is that these comments indicate that Frank Beckwith, during his time as an “evangelical,” did not have an accurate knowledge of the issues of the Reformation, let alone the counter-Reformation as exemplified in the documents of the Council of Trent. This speaks to the fact that even when he was attending non-Roman Catholic churches (such as charismatic churches, Episcopalian churches, Foursquare churches, all of which Beckwith mentions in Return To Rome), his reasons for being non-Roman Catholic were not borne out of a conviction that Rome was, essentially, denying anything essential in the gospel.
Shortly after doing the interview with Greg Koukl, Dr. Beckwith appeared on Catholic Answers Live, September 5, 2007. This exchange was not nearly as interesting. Greg Koukl asked insightful questions that go to the real differences between Rome and the Reformation. Nothing like that happened in the Catholic Answers interview. However, at one point Beckwith shed some light on our current inquiry. He was narrating his journey, and he said,
As I got older, I began to sort of hang out at Christian bookstores, and began reading more and more from Protestant theologians, some of whom I still keep in contact with, who I’ve gotten to know as I’ve gotten older. Many of them began to influence me in terms of my views of justification and salvation, and I became more and more protestant in my thinking. And when I went off to college, I went to the University of Nevada. I became a philosophy major, and then went on for a master’s degree in Christian apologetics at Simon Greenleaf University where I studied under several Lutheran theologians, including John Warwick Montgomery, and then went on to get my Ph.D. at Fordham, where I studied with a number of Jesuits, and catholic scholars who convinced me to be a Thomist, and I became a Thomist, at the time, and was a Protestant Thomist. And at that point, I had assimilated much of the philosophical tradition of Catholicism, but really didn’t understand the implications for that in terms of my own personal faith. And it was only years later as I began studying more and more of Catholic theology, especially the works of John Paul II, as well as Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict the 16th, did I begin to really much more appreciate what I’d learned at Fordham.
I think it is very telling that Dr. Beckwith, a philosopher, admits that he had never worked through the inconsistencies that clearly exist between holding to Rome’s view of man, Rome’s view of grace, and a non-Roman view of justification. This, together with the wide spectrum of inconsistency exemplified in Beckwith’s ecclesiastical associations during his trip through evangelicalism indicates a significantly less than well-rounded theological understanding. At the very least it should cause any thinking and convinced Protestant to wonder about those who have no problems studying under Jesuits. Such a person must not believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ impacts all of life, all of knowledge, all of one’s worldview. And sadly, there are many non-Catholics just like that who, while identifying themselves as “evangelicals” in essence hold to Roman views on key issues, such as grace and faith.
The most compelling evidence comes from Return to Rome itself. One will search in vain for a record of Beckwith’s conversion in the book. Though various spiritual experiences are narrated, nowhere does one have a clear, concise statement of conversion by the gospel of grace. Instead, we are told about a radio shifting from rock music to a Christian station when Beckwith was praying, which he interprets as a “gentle tap” on his shoulder from the Lord. He then reports,
I wasn’t sure what to do. So the next day I called the man who had taken me to Maranatha House when I was in seventh grade. He suggested I talk with an Evangelical Protestant public school teacher who lived nearby.
I visited with Russell. We talked for about thirty minutes. He then offered to pray with me so that I could ask the Lord back into my life. After we prayed, Russell hooked me up with a weekly Bible study, in which I participated for the next three years. I soon became a regular Sunday attendee of Neighborhood Foursquare Church in Henderson, Nevada, as well as its youth offshoot called Fish City, that met for song, teaching, fellowship, and prayer on Monday nights. (RTR 41)
This, evidently, is Beckwith’s conversion story. There is nothing about discovering God’s grace, the sufficiency of Christ, nor anything about finding Rome’s gospel to be false or antithetical to the teaching of the Scriptures. The fact that the churches with which Beckwith was associated likewise present a diverse spectrum of beliefs on the gospel itself speaks to the point as well. It is hard to plot any kind of meaningful graph of theological consistency between Foursquare churches, charismatic churches, Vineyard churches, and Episcopalian churches, other than, in the majority of cases, a lack of focus upon the very issues that were in the forefront of the Reformation.
Beckwith notes at one point, “Because I also had faculty status in the university’s seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I thought it was appropriate that I become an ordained minister….So I became an ordained minister of the United Evangelical Churches.” (RTR 63) Ironically, this comes after serving as an elder (evidently, an unordained one) in a charismatic church, the Christian Life Community. (RTR 61) There is much that could be said about self-ordination, or self-calling, to ministry, and its rampant abuse in evangelicalism today, but for our purposes, it is relevant to note that the “Tenets of Faith” of the United Evangelical Churches while maintaining a broadly evangelical outlook are likewise far too general to address the key issues relating to Roman Catholicism, justification, etc. Even its first tenet is vague enough to avoid any controversy relating to sola scriptura, for it reads, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, ultimately authoritative Word of God in all matters of faith and practice.”
Dr. Beckwith’s wide-ranging ecclesiastical experience, however, is not the most direct evidence to be found of his having never actually left the Tiber River. Two other pieces of information, culled from Return to Rome, make the case complete. The first is found in Beckwith’s comments in answer to his own question, “Can I give a convincing account as to why I should permanently abandon the Church of my baptism?” (RTR 75) and the second is in his frank admission that he never held a consistently non-Catholic view of Scriptural sufficiency.
(Continued in Part II)