I’m sure I am not the first person to note that “the overwhelming historical weight of the dogmas defined by Rome on the basis of tradition, such as Papal Infallibility, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and the Bodily Assumption of Mary, compelled me to bow to the authority of Rome” has not been at the top of Dr. Beckwith’s reasons for returning to Catholicism. In fact, I haven’t see a word about Mary as yet, and I, for one, would very much like to hear how Dr. Beckwith, who so far has relied very heavily upon nebulous uses of the term “tradition,” can pledge his fealty to Rome while at the same time embracing these very a-historical dogmas as if they are definitional of the Christian faith.
I likewise believe I sense a certain amount of hesitancy on the part of some in the RC apologetics community regarding Beckwith’s conversion. Note this paragraph from The National Catholic Register:
Because of the magisterium, contemporary leaders, in some ways, are constrained by the precedents of the past. That is more sure of a foundation than one would find in the evangelical world, where a congregation can vote, by fiat, things in or out. I accept the authority of the Church for very good reasons, just as I would accept what my doctor says because he went to medical school.
I don’t know about you, but that does not exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of Papal primacy and infallibility. I’m sure Rome’s apologists have noted the lack of such an enthusiastic endorsement of their central authority claims as well, and may be hanging back, waiting to see if Beckwith will be just another of the legion of “sorta-Catholic” scholars that currently fill their educational institutions.
In any case, slowly the arguments are coming forward, and one is left wondering just how much study went into this decision on Dr. Beckwith’s part. He continually speaks of being “amazed” at reading patristic sources. This is a common element of what you hear from converts to Catholicism. But, you never get much in the way of critical thought as to what is so amazing about what they have read. You don’t hear them being amazed at the things you find in patristic sources that Rome discards. You don’t find any recognition of the fact that in every generation there are those who are insightful and sound in their writings, and those who are not; some strong in one area, weak in others. The impact of persecution, whether a writer knew Greek or Hebrew, the state of the recognition of the canon in his day and in his area, access to the entirety of the Scriptures, etc.–all things that are obviously relevant to the weight to be given to any particular writer or any particular writing–are all missing from the vocabulary of the convert to Rome.
One statement by Beckwith in particular amazed me:
But what it will do is help the Protestant to appreciate that the very same Christians that deliberated over the content of the Biblical canon also believed in the Real Presence, purgatory, intercession of the saints and indulgences.
Beckwith has a strong attachment to the idea that Rome fixed the canon of Scripture (it didn’t). But I am truly left wondering what the preceding statement actually means. I suppose he could be admitting that the first dogmatic, infallible definition of the canon (from the modern Roman perspective) is that of Trent in 1546, but that would not fit his “primitive” Christianity motif, nor the idea that the early Christians were “closer” to the Apostles than we are. No, I think he is truly speaking of the primitive centuries here, at least as far as the canon is concerned. But that is where the wheels fall off, for any serious student of history who is not a dogged apologist for modern Rome knows the concept of purgatory took centuries to develop and did not in fact arrive at its modern form until the fifteenth century; even the input of Gregory the Great, vital to its development, did not bring it to the current place it has in Roman theology, and surely Gregory is long after the canon issue is, for all intents and purposes, settled. And given that, it is likewise unquestionable that the concept of indulgences, which is grounded in the same merit-theology as purgatory, and which requires the further development of the concept of the thesaurus meritorum (“treasury of merit”), is later than purgatory. So, is Beckwith seriously attempting to argue that these two doctrines were believed by the church of the first four centuries? Did his study leading to his conversion consist solely of Roman Catholic works and defective Protestant ones?
We are also left wondering at what he means by “Real Presence”. Does he recognize the difference between the spiritual presence of Christ with His people and the later scholastic development of transubstantiation, or has he bought into the same kind of historical anachronism that plagues almost all of modern Roman Catholic apologetics writings? Is he prepared to argue that the primitive church, say, up to the end of the fourth century, actually believed what Rome teaches today on such issues as purgatory, indulgences, and transubstantiation? His words here would seem to say yes, but, there is always the Newmanian Wiggle Argument:
Even in the cases where these doctrines were not articulated in their contemporary formulations, their primitive versions were surely there.
This is the final bastion of the Roman Catholic apologist who attempts to make a coherent argument for his faith.
“We are the one true church, going back to Jesus and the Apostles.”
“So, you teach what the Apostles taught?”
“Yes, of course.”
“So the Apostles taught about purgatory and indulgences and transubstantiation and Papal Infallibility and the Marian dogmas?”
“Yes. Like an acorn is to a tree….” [ Zen music helps at this point ]
“Oh, so, they taught something that developed, over time, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, into what you believe today.”
“Exactly! Living tradition! Magisterium!”
“So as long as I believe in your tradition and your Magisterium, I will believe anything you have to say, whether I can find the Apostles teaching it or not, right? So you can teach, as dogma, whatever your tradition and magisterium say, even if you cannot find a Christian who believed those teachings who can in any logical sense be connected to the apostles; and, you can teach things in the names of the Apostles that have no connection at all to their writings, but, you claim apostolic authority for it anyway, correct?”
And so on. I wonder if Beckwith read Salmon’s Infallibility of the Church during his studies? Whitaker? Goode? I’d be quite interested in seeing his reading list for “the other side,” for surely he did, in fact, do that kind of study, did he not?
Ironically, one book he does mention, is that by Geisler and MacKenzie. His words speak for themselves:
While consulting these sources, I read portions of a book by my friends Norm Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. It is a fair-minded book.
But some of the points that Norm and Ralph made really shook me up and were instrumental in facilitating my return to the Church.
We shouldn’t be too hard on Norm and Ralph: both Geisler and Beckwith graduated from Jesuit schools to begin with, and Geisler ran his book by Jimmy Akin for editing purposes, so there is little reason for feigning too much shock here. But if you have been thinking of using the Geisler/MacKenzie book as a resource, well, here is an endorsement for it that should get your attention.
Another statement that caught my eye is this: “In terms of expository preaching, as well as teaching the laity, Protestant evangelicals are without peers in the Christian world.” I agree. But why is this? How can it be the “true” church bores its people into a coma while the “rebels” are able to engage in “expository preaching” in the way they do? Can it be because we honor the Bible as the Word of God in a way utterly outside the capacity of any religion that places itself above the Scriptures as Rome most assuredly does? Is it not very clear that the reason we produce Spurgeons and Edwards and Bunyans and the like is because we have a fundamentally different view of Scripture? Is this not the difference between a heart-felt conviction of sola scriptura vs. the functional attitude of Rome, sola ecclesia? I would think so.