To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
Until a few weeks ago, Francis Beckwith was president of the Evangelical Theological Society, an association of 4,300 Protestant theologians. Now he has returned to the Church of his baptism.
BY Tim Drake
Until a few weeks ago, Francis
Beckwith served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society,
an association of 4,300 Protestant theologians.
was until he made the announcement on the Right Reason blog of his return to
the Catholic faith of his youth. Beckwith returned to the Church after 32 years
as an evangelical. The online “storm” that followed led Beckwith to resign as
president of the prestigious society.
He serves as associate professor of
church-state studies at Baylor University. He spoke recently to Register senior
writer Tim Drake from his home in Waco, Texas.
It’s been a while now since your announcement. Can you
believe your reversion is still generating so much online discussion?
No, it’s beyond remarkable. Prior to
my announcement, our blog averaged 1,500 hits per day. The weekend after my
announcement, it hit 20,000. We’re still getting between 5,000 and 7,000 per
You were born into a Catholic family. When did you
leave the Catholic Church?
I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in
1960. My mother, Elizabeth, also born in Brooklyn, is Italian-American. My
father, Harold Beckwith, was born in Connecticut. I’m the eldest of their four
children. In the mid-1960s we moved to Las Vegas, Nev., where my father worked
as an accountant and internal auditor at a number of hotels. In the late 1970s,
both he and mother founded Sweets of Las Vegas, a candy business that had two
retail stores in the area.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but
I was part of the first generation of Catholics who would have no memory of the
Church prior to Vatican II. This also meant that I grew up, and attended
Catholic schools, during a time in which well-meaning Catholic leaders were
testing all sorts of innovations in the Church, many of which were deleterious
to the proper formation of young people.
the other hand, there were some very important renewal movements in the Church
at the time.
Catholic Charismatic Movement had a profound impact on me.
my middle school years, while attending Maranatha House, a Jesus People church
in downtown Vegas, I also frequented a Catholic Charismatic Bible study. Some
of the folks at that Bible study were instrumental in bringing to my parents’
parish three Dominican priests who offered a week-long evening seminar on the
Bible and the Christian life. I attended that seminar and was very much taken
by the Dominicans’ erudition and deep spirituality, and the love of Jesus that
was evident in the way they conducted themselves.
I was also impressed with the personal warmth and commitment to Scripture that
I found among charismatic Protestants with whom I had interacted at Maranatha
back, and knowing what I know now, I believe that the Church’s weakness was
presenting the renewal movements as something new and not part of the Church’s
someone like me, who was interested in both the spiritual and intellectual
grounding of the Christian faith, I didn’t need the “folk Mass” with cute nuns
and hip priests playing “Kumbaya” with guitars, tambourines and harmonicas. And
it was all badly done.
all, we listened to the Byrds, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and we knew the Church
just couldn’t compete with them.
that’s what the Church offered to the young people of my day: lousy pop music
and a gutted Mass. If they were trying to make Catholicism unattractive to
young and inquisitive Catholics, they were succeeding.
I needed, and what many of us desired, were intelligent and winsome ambassadors
for Christ who knew the intellectual basis for the Catholic faith, respected
and understood the solemnity and theological truths behind the liturgy, and
could explain the renewal movements in light of these.
You spent 32 years in
the evangelical world. What could Catholics learn from evangelicals?
learned plenty, and for that reason I do not believe I ceased to be an
evangelical when I returned to the Church. What I ceased to be was a
Protestant. For I believe, as Pope Benedict has preached, that the Church
itself needs to nurture within it an evangelical spirit. There are, as we know,
too many Catholics whose faith needs to be renewed and emboldened.
is much that I learned as a Protestant evangelical that has left an indelible
mark on me and formed the person I am today. For that reason, it accompanies me
back to the Church.
instance, because Protestant evangelicals accept much of the Great Tradition
that Catholics take for granted — such as the Catholic creeds and the
inspiration of Scripture — but without recourse to the Church’s authority, they
have produced important and significant works in systematic theology and
would do well to plumb these works, since in them Protestant evangelicals often
provide the biblical and philosophical scaffolding that influenced the Church
Fathers that developed the catholic creeds as well as the Church’s
understanding of the Bible as God’s Word.
these evangelicals do so by using contemporary language and addressing
contemporary concerns. This will help Catholics understand the reasoning behind
the classical doctrines.
terms of expository preaching, as well as teaching the laity, Protestant
evangelicals are without peers in the Christian world.
instance, it is not unusual for evangelical churches to host major conferences
on theological issues in which leading scholars address lay audiences in order
to equip them to share their faith with their neighbors, friends, etc. Works by
evangelical philosophers and theologians such as [J.P.] Moreland, [Paul] Copan,
and William Lane Craig, should be in the library of any serious Catholic who
wants to be equipped to respond to contemporary challenges to the Christian
Have you been
surprised by the hostility of some of the reactions to your reversion?
of the hostility was not surprising, for some of it came from well-meaning
Protestants who simply do not have a good grounding in Christian history or the
Catholic Catechism. Many of these well-meaning folks, unfortunately, have sat
under the teachings of less-than-careful Bible-church preachers and pastors who
approach Catholicism with a cluster of flawed categories that make even a
charitable reading of the Catechism almost impossible.
actually think there are different circles of evangelicals that overlap each
other. There are those who interact with Catholics, and those who don’t. I have
been with the group that has interacted for quite a while because of my
discipline of philosophy and because the cultural issues that I write on are
the ones around which evangelicals and Catholics have been aligned.
knew there were differences and that they were important ones, and that there
would be those who would not be entirely happy with my becoming Catholic, but I
didn’t think there would be those who thought I was becoming apostate as some
of my commentators have indicated online.
“First Things” evangelicals — those who interact with Catholics — don’t think
that serious Catholics are not Christians. Even in their own denominations,
there are those who are not serious believers. Because I ran in these
overlapping circles, I underestimated people who didn’t do that. There are
people who just attended ETS meetings and did their own education and teaching
in evangelical schools. In a way, I underestimated that there was that much
distance between evangelicals and Catholics in certain enclaves.
What led you back to the Church?
isn’t just one reason. One reason alone isn’t enough. That’s like someone
asking, “Why do you love your wife?” There are 15 different reasons. It’s the
nephew asking me to be his sponsor for his May 13 confirmation merely sped up
what I had intended to do in November after my term as ETS president had ended.
didn’t fully realize it until the beginning of 2007 that I had assimilated much
of a Catholic understanding of faith and reason, the nature of the human
person, as well as the progress of dogma.
back, the beginning of my return to the Church, though I didn’t realize it at
the time, probably occurred at a conference on John Paul II and Philosophy at
Boston College in February 2006.
months earlier I had published a small essay in the magazine Touchstone:
“Vatican Bible School: What John Paul II Can Teach Evangelicals.” I
incorporated portions of that essay in my BC paper in which I made a case for
why anti-creedal Protestants hold to an incoherent point of view on faith,
reason, and the nature of the Christian university.
first question from the audience came from Laura Garcia, a BC philosophy
professor, who is a Catholic and former evangelical Protestant.
asked, “Why aren’t you a Catholic?”
question took me by surprise.
gave her an answer — if I remember correctly — that appealed to the doctrines
of the Reformation as making all the difference to me. I also tried to account
for the church’s continuity as being connected to the reformers and their
progeny as well as their predecessors in the Catholic Church. In this way, I
could defend the creeds as Spirit-directed without conceding the present
authority of Rome on these matters.
episode at Boston College, nevertheless, got me thinking.
I read Truth and Tolerance by Ratzinger and portions of his Introduction to Christianity. Out of curiosity, I picked up a book I saw while
browsing the stacks at a local bookstore: David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born-Again Catholic.
was not entirely convinced by all his arguments, but he did raise some issues
about the Church Fathers and the Catholic doctrines of the Eucharist and infant
baptism that led me to more scholarly sources.
mid-November I was elected president of ETS while still embracing Reformation
theology on the four key issues I just mentioned.
In early January 2007, I began
reading the Early Church Fathers and the Catechism, focusing on the doctrines
that I thought were key.
also read Mark Noll’s book, Is the Reformation
led me to read the “Joint Declaration on Justification” by Lutheran and
Catholic scholars. 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.
some of the points that Norm and Ralph made really shook me up and were
instrumental in facilitating my return to the Church.
What was their take on
the issue you had just read about, justification?
example, in their section on salvation, they write: “Although the forensic
aspect of justification stressed by Reformation theology is scarcely found
prior to the Reformation, there is continuity between medieval Catholicism and
the Reformers” (103).
when I read the Fathers, those closest to the Apostles, the Reformation
doctrine was just not there.
be sure, salvation by grace was there. To be sure, the necessity of faith was
there. And to be sure, our works apart from God’s grace was decried. But what
was present was a profound understanding of how saving faith was not a singular
event that took place “on a Wednesday,” to quote a famous Gospel song, but that
it was the grace of God working through me as I acquiesced to God’s spirit to
allow his grace to shape and mold my character so that I may be conformed to the
image of Christ. I also found it in the Catechism.
was an aesthetic aspect to this well: The Catholic view of justification
elegantly tied together James and Paul and the teachings of Jesus that put a
premium on a believer’s faithful practice of Christian charity.
does not teach “works righteousness.” It teaches faith in action as a
manifestation of God’s grace in one’s life. That’s why Abraham’s faith results
in righteousness only when he attempts to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to
I read the Council of Trent, which some Protestant friends had suggested I do.
What I found was shocking. I found a document that had been nearly universally
misrepresented by many Protestants, including some friends.
do not believe, however, that the misrepresentation is the result of purposeful
deception. But rather, it is the result of reading Trent with Protestant
assumptions and without a charitable disposition.
example, Trent talks about the four causes of justification, which correspond
somewhat to Aristotle’s four causes. None of these causes is the work of the
individual Christian. For, according to Trent, God’s grace does all the work.
However, Trent does condemn “faith alone,” but what it means is mere
intellectual assent without allowing God’s grace to be manifested in one’s
actions and communion with the Church. This is why Trent also condemns
justification by works.
am convinced that the typical “Council of Trent” rant found on anti-Catholic
websites is the Protestant equivalent of the secular urban legend that everyone
prior to Columbus believed in a flat earth.
You dug even further
back than Trent, though.
returned again to the Fathers and found in them, very early on, [confirming]
the Real Presence, infant baptism and apostolic succession, as well as other
in the cases where these doctrines were not articulated in their contemporary
formulations, their primitive versions were surely there.
what was shocking to me is that one never finds in the Fathers’ claims that
these doctrines are “unbiblical” or “apostate” or “not Christian,” as one finds
in contemporary anti-Catholic fundamentalist literature. So, at worst, I
thought, the Catholic doctrines were considered legitimate options early on in
Church history by the men who were discipled by the apostles and/or the
best, the Catholic doctrines are part of the deposit of faith passed on to the
successors of the apostles and preserved by the teaching authority of the
this point, I thought, if I reject the Catholic Church, there is good reason
for one to believe I am rejecting the Church that Christ himself established.
not a risk I was willing to take.
all, 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, as I have always believed. But if the Church is
right about itself and the sacraments, I acquire graces I would have not
on March 23, 2007, my wife and I met with a local priest and told him of our
intent to seek full communion with the Church. We decided that I would go
through RCIA with my wife and that we would both be received into the Church at
the end of my ETS presidency in November.
week later, I attended a special executive meeting of the ETS in Fort Worth. I
was torn up about telling my friends on the committee. But since the meeting
was for the exclusive purpose of charting for the future the group’s
administrative structure, I knew that if I told my colleagues of what I had
planned to do in November after my presidency that we would never address the
important business at hand.
the meeting went as planned.
after that meeting, I sought counsel with numerous friends, both Protestants
and Catholics, about what I should do about my ETS presidency and membership. I
shared those deliberations on a May 5 entry on the blog to which I contribute,
Some commentators have
raised questions about your faith in the Church’s authority. How would you
accept the Catechism. I wouldn’t have become Catholic if I didn’t. Obviously,
because the Church has a teaching authority that doesn’t mean that there aren’t
issues on which you can debate and discuss.
do think that one of the difficulties that some Protestants have is that they
have an authoritarian model of Catholicism — that there are guys sitting in
Rome making these things up — and that’s unfair to Catholicism.
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.
What can evangelicals
and Catholics learn from one another?
I have already noted, I believe that Catholics can learn from evangelical
Protestants how to preach, teach and offer support for doctrines and beliefs
that Catholics often just leave to authority.
can learn from Catholics that Christianity is a historical faith that did not
vanish from the earth between the second and 16th centuries. That is what I
mean by “learning from the Great Tradition.”
of what evangelicals think of as the odd beliefs of Catholics have their roots
deep in Christian history. This, of course, may not convince a Protestant that
these views are correct. 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.
these Christians, who knew the Bible far better than us, did not think these
practices and beliefs “unbiblical,” one should not be so quick to dismiss these
practices and beliefs simply because they are outside of one’s Protestant experience.
the other hand, the fact that many Catholic parishes do not offer the
expository preaching and theological teaching to their members found in the
best Protestant churches should force Catholics to critically reflect on
whether they are adequately evangelizing and equipping their own people to
enter a world hostile to the Christian worldview.
have much to learn from each other.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.