Tuesday, May 08, 2007

President of ETS returns to Rome

Francis Beckwith was President of the Evangelical Theological Society until he resigned from his position on 5th May (here). The reason for his resignation is that on April 29th he was received back into the Roman Catholic Church (here). He gives two main reasons for his conversion: First, he became convinced that the Roman view of justification by faith is more faithful to the teaching of Scripture and the early church than the Protestant view. Second, he wished to identify himself with the church's creeds that Protestants and Catholics alike regard as statements of Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy. I cannot discuss these points in detail just now and I certainly do not wish to speculate on Dr. Beckwith's motives. But here are some thoughts by way of response.
The Roman teaching on justification is that we are justified by grace at baptism. But this initial justification must be improved by our works. Does this understanding of justification really have greater 'explanatory power' than the Protestant view? Where in the New Testament is justification related to baptism? In the teaching of Paul, we are justified by faith apart from works. God's declaration that we are right with him in Christ cannot be improved upon. The Roman Catholic teaching is not straightforward justification by works, because it is held that we are graciously justified at baptism. But the notion that our justification by grace must be supplemented by works is at best semi-Pelagian. The Catholic teaching downplays the seriousness of sin and calls into question the the freeness of God's grace. Perhaps the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement (here) has had the effect of blurring the dividing lines between Rome and the Reformation over justification? The new perspective on Paul has had a similar effect.
As far as the creedal orthodoxy of Rome is concerned, it is anachronistic to suggest that Nicaea and Chalcedon were conducted under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. Those key ecumenical councils occurred prior to the East/West schism in 1054 and the Reformation. The ancient creeds belong to the whole Church, not just to Rome. Roman Catholicism as a distinct entity with its own defining doctrines did not come into being until the counter Reformation caused Rome to define herself against Protestant teaching. Dogmas such as the immaculate conception of Mary and the infallibility of the Pope are relatively recent innovations. The present-day Roman Catholic Church is much different from the Catholic Church that drew up the orthodox creedal statements.
It is sad that an eminent Evangelical leader like Dr Beckwith has decided to return to the church of his youth. His conversion represents a challenge to Evangelical world. Are we teaching justification by faith alone with sufficient Biblical clarity? Have we become so obsessed with present day issues that we have lost touch with the theological riches of the past?
See here for Carl Trueman's helpful response.
See here for Roman Catholic reaction to this post at Pontifications.


Strider said...

Trackback Pontifications

Guy Davies said...

I have posted a response in your blog comments.