I. A Surprise Conversion or Two
Frank Beckwith, head of the Evangelical Theological Society, reverted* to Catholicism in 2007, a wonderful gift from God. This sent shocks throughout Evangelical circles. After all, there’s a negative stereotype that Evangelicals have faith detached from reason, and they’re often portrayed as backwoodsy bumpkins, or at the least, anti-intellectual; that any argument can be ended with “Well, the Bible says,” even if the other party is non-Christian. ETS is an attempt by a number of intelligent, scholarly Evangelicals to couple the passion and faith of Evangelicalism with scholarly rigor and reason. That the head of ETS discovered, through this very process, that Evangelicalism is incomplete and that the old foe Catholicism is the answer was a huge blow.
In response to Beckwith’s leaving, Norman Geisler and Joshua Betancourt teamed up to pen Is Rome the True Church?: A Consideration of the Roman Catholic Claim. Geisler, a Calvinist who got his Ph.D. from Loyola, is respected by a lot of Catholics (I’ve never read him, but I’ve heard good things), and the question being tackled is one of obvious interest to Catholics, since if we’re right on it, the Great Schism and Reformation are over (or ought to be). Unfortunately, the reviews of the book have been almost solely disappointing. Apparently, it was dashed off too quickly, and is repetitive, poorly edited, and repetitive.** These sort of “fire and forget” books are often third-rate: an attempt to respond to current events rapidly. I can certainly see how a hastily-written book might fail in its attempt to disprove the solidly-based, well-attested Catholic view on Matthew 16:17-19.
What I’m shocked at, however, is that one of the co-authors just converted to Catholicism. If nothing else, I think it sort of settles any debate over how persuasive the arguments in Is Rome the True Church? are. Here’s hoping that Betancourt will take the opportunity to (slowly and carefully) write again on this topic, from his new perspective on this side of the Tiber. The resulting book would almost certainly be of interest to the Evangelicals and could hopefully bring a number of Evangelicals more fully into the Church.
II. Where Do We Go From Here?
Until then, here’s Doug Beaumont breaking the news of Betancourt’s conversion, and pondering the question of the Catholic Church from an Evangelical perspective. It’s certainly a perspective worth reading and the comments are great, too. One comment struck me in particular as absolutely correct:
Much of these concerns were mine too. And I couldn’t agree more that the central issue here is one of authority. But as any non-Catholic attempts to tackle the enormous issue of authority within the historic Church, I would focus more on the idea of apostolic succession, than on the pope in particular. I mean the issue of the pope cannot be sidestepped, but that is a more particularized issue of the broader matter regarding whether God would have instituted safeguards for His revelation-people who would guard and protect it, who could pronounce finally what is orthodox and in other cases what is heretical.
IOW, Whether there could be one bishop among bishops who held special primacy is interesting, but only after, I think, you have settled for yourself the issue of whether bishops really exist in the historic Church, as Catholics and Orthodox understand bishops. After all, how do we give such credence to the Niceno-Constantinoplan Creed without bishops to promulgate it? Outside that paradigm, I think you’re really just saying that you agree with that Nicene Creed (and someone else could disagree).
I think this is absolutely right. There are two possible reasons to accept the Nicene Creed, as far as I can tell. The first is that it happens to be right, in your particular judgment – that your reading of the Bible derives at these same conclusions. But why should that stop your fellow Protestant from concluding something contrary to the Creed? It’s a foundation upon sand. Perhaps with a bit more Bible study, you’ll feel called to reject the Creed — it isn’t as though church-hopping is unknown within Protestantism. We happen to like the US Constitution, but leave open the possibility of amending it.
The second reason is that these bishops spoke with authority, protected by the Holy Spirit. Here, the Creed possesses real authority. If, in your studies or your prayers, you start to think the Creed is wrong, it’s a big clue that you’re headed in the wrong direction.
Creedal Protestants have attempted for centuries now to base their theology off the Bible and the Creeds, while rejecting the men who crafted the Creeds as papists: or, at the very least, rejecting the authority which these men believed that they had to craft the Creed in the first place. It seems to me that this reliance on the Creeds is a house of cards which warrants examination, and I think that the commenter above does a great job of pointing this out. The authority to examine isn’t the authority of the pope, but the authority of the bishops who devised the Nicene Creed (and the other Creeds).
The papacy will perhaps be the ultimate litmus test for whether someone is Catholic or not, but an individual disposed to believe that the Church in the post-Apostolic age can possess actual authority to make binding declarations on the Faith is in a far superior position to analyze and accept this notion. Milk first, then meat.
*Beckwith, like most reverts, left Catholicism while confused about what the Church taught and surrounded by a lot of lukewarm and/or dissident Catholics. He returned with a solid grasp on the Bible and a growing mastery of the Early Chuch Fathers. Calling this a “reversion” seems sort of bizarre to me, like calling the Prodigal Son’s return a “reversion.” It’s simply a journey which ends where it began.
**My terrible attempt at humor, thank you.