Monday, November 02, 2009

Return to Rome by Francis J. Beckwith - A Protestant response: part 3

In the previous two parts of this review series I gave attention to the key issues that led to Beckwith deciding to return to the Roman Catholic Church, namely sola scriptura (here) and justification by faith alone (here). In this final post I will reflect on whether its is meaningful, given his rejection of key Evangelical teachings for Beckwith to designate himself an 'Evangelical Catholic'. Of course, in a sense, the writer is free to call himself what he wishes. My only concern is whether his self-designation is meaningful.
Evangelical and Catholic?
It is in the last chapter of the book that Beckwith addresses the issue of his identity as an 'Evangelical Catholic'. Quite rightly he points out that 'Evangelical' has its origins in the biblical word, Evangel meaning 'Gospel' or 'Good News' (p. 128). But does Beckwith as a Roman Catholic still hold to the biblical Gospel? Now, there is a huge amount of common ground between Evangelical Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church. Both groups hold to the doctrine of the Trinity as set out in the historic creeds, we agree that Jesus is a divine person with a human nature in accordance with the definition of Chalcedon, we confess together that Jesus was born of a virgin, died for our sins, and rose again from the dead and so on. But there are important differences between Evangelical Protestants and their Roman Catholic counterparts.
The crucial difference is over the issue of whether we are saved through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. For all that Roman Catholics may say about the good works of the saints being grace-enabled, any talk of human "merit" tends to undermine the gracious character of salvation. According to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, "no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification...". However, the Catechism goes on to say that, "Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life (see here)." Note, "we can merit for ourselves and for others...the attainment of eternal life". Should the faithful fail to merit the attainment of eternal life, then after death they will have to spend time in purgatory, where they will purified from remaining sin before entering heaven. Time in purgatory can be shortened through the meritorious works of others such as prayers for the dead, penance, and the Eucharistic sacrifice (see here).
The Roman Catholic doctrine of "merit" suggests Christ's obedience and blood are not sufficient to save his people from sin. While salvation is initiated by grace, the full reward of everlasting life is dependent on the meritorious good works of the believer. Any such idea is contradicted by countless Scriptures, Ephesians 2:8-10, 2 Timothy 1:8-10, Hebrews 9:13-15. The Gospel is good news because God justifies the ungodly freely by his grace, Romans 1:16-17, 3:24-26, 4:5. Good works are the believer's grace-enabled response to the transforming power of grace. They do not help to "merit" everlasting life. We are saved by grace alone in Christ alone. Christians will certainly be judged by Christ according to their works (2 Corinthians 5:10). The Lord will hold his people to account for their actions. But the believer will stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Romans 8:31-34). It is because they are justified by faith in Christ alone that they will be welcomed into the eternal inheritance of the saints.
I submit that because official Roman Catholic teaching undermines the Gospel of salvation revealed in Holy Scripture that it is not meaningful for Beckwith and other Roman Catholics to label themselves "Evangelical Catholics". In the words of Paul, the gospel of Roman Catholicism is a "different gospel" (Galatians 1:6-7). Indeed the Council of Trent explicitly anathematises justification by faith alone, a doctrine that lies at the heart of Evangelical theology (see here). In terms of church history the designation "Evangelical Catholic" is hard to swallow. Evangelicalism as a movement has its roots in the Protestant Reformation. In church-historical terms, Beckwith may as well call himself a "Protestant Catholic".
Beckwith left the Roman Catholic Church in his teenage years and became an Evangelical Christian because Rome could not satisfy his spiritual longings at that time. Despite his being elevated to the position of President of the Evangelical Theological Society, he returned to Rome for basically the same reason. It is pretty sad that Evangelicalism apparently failed to offer sufficient theological vision and spiritual depth to feed his soul. I submit that the wider Evangelical world needs to return to the deep riches of the historic Reformed faith. Perhaps there are some encouraging signs of this happening in the States (see Colin Hansen's Young, Restless, Reformed here and also have a look at Hansen's piece on Evangelical and Catholics in Christianity Today here). I am grateful to Francis Beckwith for entering into a friendly dialogue with me (here, here and here) as he picked up on my reviews.

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