I began working through the reasons offered by Frank Beckwith for his reversion to Rome contained in a recent National Catholic Register article, found here. Of course, such an article cannot provide an exhaustive accounting, but so far we have seen indications that the foundations of this move were rather hastily constructed, or, more accurately, the actual foundations went back a long way (i.e., his non-Catholic standing had long been less than informed), and this reversion seems to have more to do with that long-standing consistency of theological and philosophical viewpoint than it does a brief four-month run through selected works of certain early Christian writers. What has become quite clear is that Dr. Beckwith was representative of a very large portion of what was once called evangelicalism: he was a non-Catholic who did not know why he was a non-Catholic, though, in his case, he was a former Catholic as well. His confusion in answering the question “Why are you not a Catholic” reveals a major problem with many “evangelical leaders” today who likewise can only give an answer to that question that is surface level at best.
Then I read the Council of Trent, which some Protestant friends had suggested I do. What I found was shocking. I found a document that had been nearly universally misrepresented by many Protestants, including some friends.
Again, any “Protestant” leader who has never even bothered to read the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent should be ashamed of themselves. Seriously! I would invite Dr. Beckwith to substantiate his “nearly universally misrepresented” statement on the basis of my own published works. And what is more, I would challenge him to do so not on the basis of some 21st century, Americanized, a-historical reading of Trent in light of post-Vatican II theology, but on the basis of the historical context of Trent and in light of the commentary on its meanings provided by those who were actually at the Council, and on the basis of the catechism produced to support it.
I do not believe, however, that the misrepresentation is the result of purposeful deception. But rather, it is the result of reading Trent with Protestant assumptions and without a charitable disposition.
One should surely read Trent with Catholic assumptions, i.e., in the context of the kind of Roman Catholicism that produced it (and may I suggest Post Vatican II Roman Catholicism is vastly different in tone and outlook?), but once again, what kind of “charitable” disposition is required to accurately interpret historical documents? Does “charitable” mean “willing to allow modern Roman Catholicism to redefine historical documents so as to maintain a facade of consistency and unity over time”?
For example, Trent talks about the four causes of justification, which correspond somewhat to Aristotle’s four causes. None of these causes is the work of the individual Christian. For, according to Trent, Gods grace does all the work. However, Trent does condemn faith alone, but what it means is mere intellectual assent without allowing Gods grace to be manifested in ones actions and communion with the Church. This is why Trent also condemns justification by works.
So, since Rome condemns Pelagianism, all is well? Did Beckwith actually think that was the issue all along during his time outside of Rome? How could anyone who has read even a smattering of Calvin or Luther or any of the relevant Reformation literature think that saying “none of these causes is the work of the individual Christian” is even slightly relevant? Once again, no one was arguing the necessity of grace. They were arguing the sufficiency of grace. As far as numbers go, Rome has won, since, obviously, the majority of “Protestants,” in ignorance, agree with Rome on the matter. Not that there are too many left in Rome to care, given her own internal collapse, but that is another subject. Man’s religions are quite happy to confess the need for God’s grace. Man’s religions cannot possibly confess the sufficiency of that grace. Once you do so, you cut out the necessity of the “middle man,” in this case, the Roman sacramental system, which, of course, is the lifeblood of the Roman Curia. Sufficient grace replaces the centrality of Rome’s sacraments. And hence the battle.
What do these words mean? “…without allowing Gods grace to be manifested in ones actions and communion with the Church.” I join in condemning mere intellectual assent as being saving faith (Hodges/Wilkinism). But are we to truly believe that this was Trent’s context? If so, were they simply ignorant of what the Reformers were teaching? If they were not, then why use their language while condemning an error no one was promoting? This is what I mean when I say we cannot interpret Trent in a 21st century context but must allow the original context to stand. And what does it mean to have God’s grace manifested by communion with the Church? Is this a reference to the sacraments? It would seem so, but unfortunately, the article is too brief to allow for a full examination of these tantalizingly brief statements.
I am convinced that the typical Council of Trent rant found on anti-Catholic websites is the Protestant equivalent of the secular urban legend that everyone prior to Columbus believed in a flat earth.
Does it follow, I wonder, if the typical type of “faith alone is only found in James 2:24” “rant” found on anti-Protestant websites (if Beckwith is going to start with the anti-Catholic rhetoric, let’s at least keep it consistent) is the Catholic equivalent to a secular urban legend as well?
But what was shocking to me is that one never finds in the Fathers claims that these doctrines are unbiblical or apostate or not Christian, as one finds in contemporary anti-Catholic fundamentalist literature. So, at worst, I thought, the Catholic doctrines were considered legitimate options early on in Church history by the men who were discipled by the apostles and/or the apostles disciples.
I wonder why Beckwith, as a scholar, chooses to focus upon “anti-Catholic fundamentalist literature” rather than serious historical and theological works reflecting a Reformed critique of Roman Catholicism? Is it because all he is familiar with is, in fact, “fundamentalist” literature of the Jack Chick variety? I would truly like to ask Beckwith if he has seriously read and studied Calvin’s Institutes, and if so, when?
But more to the point, if this reasoning is what brought Beckwith back to Rome, why didn’t the absence of so much of unique Roman teaching keep him away? Sure, you can always do the Newman thing, but if you do that, why bother with history at all? Why say, “Well, I can find part of these teachings in early writers, and for the rest, I can do the acorn/tree thing ala Newman”? How is this kind of argumentation compelling?
At best, the Catholic doctrines are part of the deposit of faith passed on to the successors of the apostles and preserved by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.
At worst, they are a perversion of the gospel, without historical foundation, some even being completely unknown for great expanses of the early centuries, forced upon men and women by the false authority of Rome.
At this point, I thought, if I reject the Catholic Church, there is good reason for one to believe I am rejecting the Church that Christ himself established.
Thats not a risk I was willing to take.
Now there is a leap that leaves the rest of us standing there wondering what just happened. How he got from “I found some doctrines in the early writings I didn’t expect to find” to “well, that means it is best to bow to the Pope’s authority” may have been included in the interview material but didn’t make it into the published account, but that’s unlikely. Let me see if I can take another stab at it. “At this point, though I had only been spending a matter of weeks looking at this material, and had not, in fact, taken the time to read the ‘other side,’ and though I found no evidence of the unique Roman Catholic dogmas relating to Mary, or Papal power, in the early sources, I had found enough things to make me believe it would be best to submit to Rome anyway.” And this is not taking a “risk”? Obviously, something is missing here, something very important, something that has yet to be revealed or discussed publicly.
After all, if I return to the Church and participate in the sacraments, I lose nothing, since I would still be a follower of Jesus and believe everything that the catholic creeds teach, as I have always believed. But if the Church is right about itself and the sacraments, I acquire graces I would have not otherwise received.
Think this one through for a moment, and you might see why even conservative Roman Catholics might find this reasoning a tad bit less than compelling, or even helpful. But more to the point, consider this in light of Paul’s warnings to the Galatians. Beckwith sees that Rome’s sacraments are the “added” feature. So I wonder how he views these words:
Galatians 5:1-4 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Christ will be of no benefit to whom? To the one who adds a single thing to the gospel, a single action that “controls” the grace of God. I continue to stand amazed at men who can read this, and, knowing Rome’s sacramental system, knowing her penances and the like, can squint so hard as to say, “No, no, I don’t see Rome adding anything to the message of faith in Christ alone.” I do not know if Beckwith has considered these things, as so far, I have not heard of him actually sitting down with anyone but Roman Catholics during his “study.” I have found this a commonality with RC converts, sadly.
Evangelicals can learn from Catholics that Christianity is a historical faith that did not vanish from the earth between the second and 16th centuries.
This again makes one wonder, very strongly, just what Beckwith’s views were about church history as a “non-Catholic.” Comments like these do not cause us to think his was a very deep-seated study of the Reformation and the literature produced therein.
Much of what evangelicals think of as the odd beliefs of Catholics have their roots deep in Christian history.
Yes indeed. For example, the Gnostic Gospels beat modern Roman Catholicism to many of the Marian dogmas by many centuries. Is this the kind of “roots” he is looking for? Possibly not, but, is he even aware of this? Has he looked into it? We cannot tell.
More information will probably come out, slowly, over time. But so far, I, for one, am left wondering just how “non-Catholic” this Catholic revert ever was, and I am once again forced to recognize how many post-evangelicals are non-Catholic only by tradition or taste, not by conviction.