That Sola Scriptura Thing

The most eye-opening portion of Return to Rome for me was Beckwith’s self-admission that he had never held to a serious, confessional, historically and biblically grounded doctrine of sola scriptura. As one who has defended this divine truth against leading Roman Catholic apologists for most of my adult life, I found the ease with which Frank Beckwith dismissed the formal principle of the Reformation shocking, but, given the context of the book, not at all surprising. I am thankful he included this section, for it is vital in evaluating his reversion to the church of his childhood. And in reference to determining whether Beckwith ever stood firmly on the far shore of the Tiber, his statements about sola scriptura provide final and convincing proof of the matter.

Beckwith narrates a conversation he had with J. Budziszewski:

Our questions focused on several theological issues that prevented us from becoming Catholic and seemed insurmountable: the doctrine of justification, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the teaching authority of the Church (including apostolic succession and the primacy of the Pope), and Penance. The other issues that most Protestants find to be stumbling blocks—the Marian doctrines and Purgatory—were not a big deal to me. That was because I reasoned that if the Catholic views on Church authority, justification, the communion of saints, and the sacraments were defensible, them these other so-called “stumbling blocks” withered away, since the Catholic Church would in fact be God’s authoritative instrument in the development of Christian doctrine. (RTR 79)

I did not find any mention in Return to Rome of Dr. Beckwith sitting down with any knowledgeable Reformed theologian and asking the same questions. In fact, the time frame during which Beckwith did all of his intensive study is so short that he would hardly have had time to examine carefully “the other side.” Of course, the assumption is that he already “knew” the “other side,” but that is simply not the case. One will scan his notes in vain for any reference to any classical works on, say, sola scriptura, such as William Whitaker’s late 16th century classic, Disputations on Holy Scripture, or William Goode’s mid 19th century work, Divine Rule of Faith and Practice. You will not find him interacting with George Salmon’s The Infallibility of the Church, or the modern three-volume work of William Webster and David King, Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith. Instead, we find only a passing reference to the heavily compromised work by Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. More evidence that Frank Beckwith was very far from having landed his boat on the far side of the Tiber.

As to Beckwith’s reasoning that such dogmatic assertions as the Marian dogmas can be simply piggy-backed upon a conclusion that Rome is “God’s authoritative instrument in the development of Christian doctrine,” we find a striking similarity to his reasoning in the words of the founder of Catholic Answers, Karl Keating:

True, scriptural proofs for this are lacking. Theologians refer to a mystical interpretation of John 19:26 (“Woman behold thy son, son behold thy mother”), an interpretation that sees John as the representative of the human race, Mary thus becoming the spiritual mother. They not the doctrine is reasonable because it is fitting.
This is little consolation to fundamentalists, of course, who see little fitting about it and who put little stock in speculative theology and even less in mystical theology. As a practical matter, this kind of doctrine is one of the last accepted by someone approaching the Church, particularly someone coming to the Church from fundamentalism, and it is accepted, ultimately, on the authority of the Church rather than on the authority of clear scriptural references. (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, 279)

The reader needs to see the full scope of this thinking, for it is relevant to the ecumenical attitude expressed by many Roman Catholics who seek to bring non-Catholics under Roman claims of authority. What is being said here is that once you accept Rome’s authority claims, the scope of the apostolic preaching contained in the inspired Scriptures becomes irrelevant. Consider the last and greatest of the dogmatically defined Marian dogmas, the Bodily Assumption of Mary, defined barely half a century ago. As a dogma, it is definitional of the Christian faith, and one cannot knowingly deny such a belief and remain in the fold of the faithful. This belief has no basis, whatsoever, in any kind of meaningful exegesis of the biblical text. The apostles did not preach it. They did not define the gospel in light of it. The early church lived, preached, taught, and suffered, for generation after generation before anyone even thought of the concept, and even then, once it begins to appear, as with the other Marian dogmas, it is first found outside the sphere of orthodoxy, amongst the heretics. Yet, over centuries and centuries of “development” (which would be far more accurately identified as decline, departure, and apostasy) the complex of beliefs called the Marian doctrines arose, and, as a result, the Bodily Assumption became popular in Roman Catholic piety. Finally this belief, which is not apostolic in any fashion whatsoever, was defined by the authority of the Church of Rome as dogma, a belief definitional of the Christian faith. This is the opposite of sola scriptura, a belief I call sola ecclesia. Here Rome is the final authority in all things. She defines the extent of Scripture (the canon). She defines the meaning of Scripture (infallible interpretation, though, of course, it is next to impossible to find any two Roman Catholics who can tell you what the infallible interpretation of any particular passage of Scripture actually is). She defines the extent of tradition (what is, and what is not, “tradition” or merely the opinions of individual ancient writers), and what tradition means (she infallibly interprets tradition). So for all the protestations to the contrary, it is logically impossible for Rome to be “under” the authority of Scripture and tradition when she defines the extent and meaning of both, and that without correction or recourse! The result is what we see here, so innocuously presented by Beckwith as the natural result of accepting Rome’s ultimate authority claims. But right here we see why Roman Catholicism and biblical Christianity are so far removed from one another. Rome is her own final authority, while the Christian Church listens to the voice of Her Lord in His unchanging Word. The ease with which Beckwith imbibed this fundamentally false paradigm is reflective of his own statement, “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.”

Beckwith continued,

One may wonder where the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (or “scriptura alone”) factored in all of this. To be blunt, it didn’t, primarily because over the years I could not find an understanding or definition of sola scriptura convincing enough that did not have to be so qualified that it seemed to be more a slogan than a standard. (RTR 79)

The full extent of the lack of truly Protestant foundation in Beckwith’s theology, exemplified in these words, is spelled out clearly just a little later,

But as I slowly and unconsciously moved toward Catholicism in the early 2000s, I began to even find the sola scriptura of the Magisterial Reformation not entirely satisfactory. It seemed to me to subtly and unconsciously incorporate into its theological framework all the doctrines that sola scriptura, without a settled canon or authoritative creedal tradition, could never have produced out of whole cloth without the benefit of a Holy Spirit-directed ecclesiastical infrastructure. (Ibid)

This followed his assertion that later creedal definitions of sola scriptura differed fundamentally from the more “historically oriented” view of the Reformers (an assertion he supports by only one citation, again showing little familiarity with the actual writings of Calvin or Luther themselves). It is not that these issues are not important, as they are. But serious Protestant theologians have been addressing them for centuries, and Beckwith shows no familiarity with their discussions. Once again, I would admit that the most compelling replies have come from Reformed theologians, and Beckwith was surely not Reformed, but that does not change the fact that these words document a theologically/philosophically schizophrenic “non-Catholic.” His personal theology is unformed and self-contradictory. He is a Roman Catholic gone AWOL. He continues to hold to fundamentally Roman Catholic beliefs that form, by definition, part of the foundation of his views, but he has attempted to build Protestant structures on that foundation. As he said a little later, “I did share with Mark that I was very much attracted to the Catholic views on faith and reason, moral theology, and the nature of the human person…” (RTR 82). And it simply doesn’t work. Justification by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone to God’s glory alone does not make a bit of sense when you start with Roman presuppositions about authority, nature, revelation, man, and grace. That is why so many non-Catholics today, who like Beckwith are paddling about in the Tiber, react so violently when you expose their inconsistencies. They sense the problem, but are unwilling to do anything about it. Traditions die hard. Finally, Dr. Beckwith provides the final evidence for our inquiry by stating,

In any event, I had for some time accepted a weak form of sola scriptura: any doctrine or practice inconsistent with scripture must be rejected, though it does not follow that any doctrine or practice not explicitly stated in scripture must suffer the same fate, for the doctrine or practice may be essential to Christian orthodoxy. This seemed to me to be the only defensible understanding of sola scriptura, though it certainly left much to be desired. (RTR 81)

Dr. Beckwith will forgive us if in light of such a statement we say, “Well, it is hardly surprising you ended up over there, my friend, since you clearly did not have a sound reason to be over here.” Beckwith seems completely unaware of how central sola scriptura is to the most devastating critiques of Roman Catholic theology penned over the centuries since the Reformation. Then again, he is not alone in that ignorance, to be sure. But that does not change the fact that a philosopher who begins where he begins will not only produce very different answers to the key questions that face us today, but will likewise find the answers given by those who start with the priority of God’s Word very different than his own. The non-Catholics who, like Beckwith, embrace Rome’s views on nature and grace (Geisler and Craig come to mind quickly, but there are legions of others), likewise produce apologetic and philosophical responses quite unlike what one will read from those who embrace sola scriptura with a heart-felt zeal and love.

(Concluded in Part IV)

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