Francis Row Your Boat Ashore
So I think the answer to our question has been answered fully, and fairly. It has never surprised me that Frank Beckwith returned to Rome. He had never left it in key and fundamental ways. Surely he had moved from non-Catholic church to non-Catholic church, and had embraced a non-Catholic view of justification. But even here his view was inconsistent, for the only solid foundation of justification by faith is that of sovereign grace. And given that he had never jettisoned Rome’s views of nature, man, and grace, he truly never left the Tiber River. He may well have put a foot on the far side, but he never saw Rome’s gospel as a false gospel, Rome’s views of Scripture and grace as antithetical to the truth. Every time I see someone who, like him, has never staked out a knowledgeable, knowing spot on the high ground of the western shore of the Tiber, rowing back into the arms of Rome, I am not at all surprised. The fact is, it’s a lot prettier over there in Rome. Lots more to see. You have to really believe you have done the right thing to stay over here.
Ironically, Beckwith provides a lengthy quote that says substantially that in Return to Rome. It comes from Carl R. Trueman of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Trueman wrote a review of the book, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.* Beckwith says that the following citation “rocked” him “to the core.” I can see why. If you think about what Trueman is saying (and you really do have to listen carefully), it throws a bright spotlight on the large crowd of non-Catholics paddling around in the Tiber, whose only reason for being non-Catholic is a matter of taste, not a matter of knowledgeable conviction. Here is the citation from Trueman:
When I finished reading the book, I have to confess that I agreed with the authors, in that it does indeed seem that the Reformation is over for large tracts of evangelicalism; yet the authors themselves do not draw the obvious conclusion from their own arguments. Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being Catholic should, in other words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part. For such, the Reformation is over; for me, the fat lady has yet to sing; in fact, I am not sure at this time that she has even left her dressing room. (RTR 83)
I would multiply the reasons why I, too, cannot “go down that path,” and would be so politically incorrect as to state it bluntly, “I cannot go down that path because there is no gospel at the end of that path.” So while I would put it differently at a number of points, I am saying the same thing as Trueman: a non-Catholic who is so without the conviction that the gospel matters and that Rome is fundamentally in error on these matters truly has no foundation for his or her position. Beckwith realized the truth of Trueman’s statement, and it “rocked” him for a simple reason: Frank Beckwith had never made that commitment, that act of will, to get out of the boat on the far shore.
*While it is outside the scope of this work, I will only point out that this work was terribly unbalanced and a true betrayal of the Reformation itself. It only documents the decline of “evangelicalism” as a whole. It surely does not show a meaningful understanding of the heart of the Reformation.