My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In early May of 2007 I found out that Frank Beckwith, then president of the Evangelical Theological Society, had converted to Catholicism. I knew of Frank’s name primarily from Greg Koukl, his co-author of Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. I followed the story with interest for a month and it is just now that I’m getting around to reading Frank’s book about the reconversion.
I want to focus on the theology more than the background Frank provides so I’m going to skip ahead to the fifth of seven chapters and dive right in. Here is his list of the main theological issues that originally prevented him from becoming Catholic: (1) the doctrine of justification, (2) the Real Presence in the Eucharist, (3) the teaching authority of the Church (including apostolic succession and primacy of the Pope), and (4) Penance (79).
He writes, “One may wonder where the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura factored into all this. To be blunt, it didn’t. Primarily because over the years I could not find an understanding or definition of sola scriptura I found convincing enough that did not have to be so qualified that it seemed to be more a slogan than a standard” (79). He then quotes D.H. Williams that the “Magisterial Reformers such as Luther and Calvin did not think sola scriptura as something that could be properly understood apart from the church or the foundational tradition of the church, even while they were opposing some of the institutions of the church” (79-80). This seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about the sola in sola scriptura. The entire idea is that authority comes from the Scripture alone so why should we think that Luther would think that the authority of Scripture alone is only understandable with assistance from the church? That’s what he was fighting against, and when being examined by Johann Eck he spoke in German - so the people could understand him - that a peasant armed with one verse of Scripture has more authority than a Pope or a church council who do not rest their doctrine on the Scripture.
Frank goes on to say, “I had for some time accepted a weak form of sola scriptura: any doctrine or practice inconsistent with Scripture must be rejected, though it does not follow that any doctrine or practice not explicitly stated in Scripture must suffer the same fate, for the doctrine or practice may be essential to Christian orthodoxy” (81). I would love to know what doctrine or practice that is essential to orthodoxy is not found in sacred Scripture. Once again the dividing line of Scripture and tradition is at the forefront.
“Luther and Calvin had unfortunately assimilated philosophical ideas that were deleterious to the Reformers’ noble intent for the proper restoration of the Church. For this reason, the task of proper restoration fell to thoughtful Catholic reformers that led to the Council of Trent and its successors” (77). However, the 4th session of the Council of Trent opens with a statement that the council “clearly perceives that these truths [of the Gospel] are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions…” and it originally read “these truths are contained partly in the written books and partly in the unwritten traditions.” Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church has binding authority on the conscience and the magisterial has the right to interpret Scripture. This lengthy passage from that same council makes that point abundantly clear:
“Furthermore, to check unbridled spirits, it [the Catholic Church] decrees that no one relying on his own judgment shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian Doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conception, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds, or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published. Those who act contrary to this shall be made known by the ordinaries and punished in accordance with the penalties prescribed by the law.”Luther wanted tradition judged by Scripture but this passage shows the ultimate authority residing in the Church, where tradition would judge Scripture. On his web site, Frank approvingly quotes Peter Kreeft, "The Protestant Reformation began when a Catholic monk rediscovered a Catholic doctrine in a Catholic book. The monk, of course, was Luther; the doctrine was justification by faith; and the book was the Bible." The problem with this, of course, is that it is a Christian doctrine in the Christian Bible. Frank ends up rejecting the Reformation and instead finding solace in the Church Fathers, who were closest in their thinking to Roman Catholic teachings. He found in that tradition the backdrop to embrace Catholic teachings and never does more than touch on Penance or the Eucharist, and completely ignores the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary and baptismal regeneration.
But earlier he did say that, “The other issues that most Protestants find to be stumbling blocks - the Marian doctrines and Purgatory - were not a big deal to me…because I reasoned that if Catholic view on Church authority, justification, the communion of the saints, and the sacraments were defensible, then these other so-called “stumbling blocks” withered away, since the Catholic Church would in fact be God’s authoritative instrument in the development of Christian doctrine” (79).
I could have spent as much time as I have so far on the discussion of justification but I will come to a close here with something I call Beckwith’s wager and it goes like this: “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...But if the church is right about itself and the Sacraments, I acquire graces I would have not otherwise received” (115-16). However Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, writes that there is but one Gospel and plenty to lose if you get this wrong: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9 ESV).