Frank Beckwith's Journey Back to Roman Catholicism
In 2007, Francis Beckwith, the president of the Evangelical Theological Society, announced that he was stepping down from his post after having converted back to the Catholic Church of his childhood. Beckwith’s announcement sent shock waves through the evangelical world. Even some of Beckwith’s closest friends did not see his conversion coming.
Why did Frank Beckwith, a well-respected evangelical scholar and author, return to the church of his childhood? Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (2008, Brazos Press) is a personal memoir that tells the story of Beckwith’s decision to rejoin the Roman Catholic Church.
Return to Rome is primarily a narrative, although it is laced with Catholic apologetics, evangelical appreciation and criticism, as well as theological reflection. Speaking of his book, Beckwith states:
“It is not meant to be an apologetic for Catholicism or an autobiography in the strict sense.” (16)
Despite Beckwith’s stated intentions in writing this memoir, it is hard to see this book as something less than a Catholic apologetic, since he devotes a considerable amount of space to delineating the theological reasons for his movement back toward the Roman Catholic Church.
Beckwith begins his story with his departure from Roman Catholicism. Raised in the atmosphere of post-Vatican II Catholicism, Beckwith received little conservative and traditional teaching.
“My religion teachers often spoke of Catholicism as ‘our tradition’ rather than as a cluster of beliefs that were true. This relativizing of the faith did not engender confidence in the young students under their tutelage. Moreover, basic Catholic doctrine was often presented inadequately.” (36)
He writes honestly about the weaknesses of the Catholic environment of his childhood:
“I believe that the Catholic Church’s weakness was presenting the renewal movements like the charismatic movement as something new and not part of the Church’s theological traditions. For someone like me, 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.” (38)
Reading over the reasons for Beckwith’s departure from the Roman Catholic Church, I could not help but wonder if perhaps evangelicals are making the same mistakes he observed in the post-Vatican II era. What if evangelicals are watering down biblical truth in an effort to be “cool” and appeal to certain segments of our society? What if evangelicals are repeating the mistakes the Roman Catholics were making 30 years ago? Might such a development lead more people to Rome?
Beckwith recognizes that the Catholic Church’s intellectual tradition was also very attractive. He writes:
“My experience has been that most very intelligent Christians who had come to a deeper walk with Christ in independent Evangelical and/or non-liturgical churches often gravitate toward a theological and/or ecclesiastical tradition that has strong historical roots, such as Calvinism, Lutheranism, Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.” (44)
Beckwith does not sugarcoat his experience as a young child in Catholicism. He asks tough questions of Catholicism:
“…The American Catholic Church has to ask itself a serious and painful question: is there anything that we did that helped facilitate the departure of these talented and devoted people from our communion?” (45)
Beckwith recounts the passion of his early years as an evangelical. He speaks fondly of Francis Schaeffer. He relates his enthusaism upon becoming convinced that certain creeds are authoritative renderings of Christian doctrine. He outlines the major steps in his education and his rise to prominence in evangelical scholarship.
Readers might be surprised to discover some charismatic tendencies in Beckwith’s memoir. He describes a vision of Jesus that his wife had. He interprets events in his life as signs of God’s approval of his departure from the evangelical faith back to Roman Catholicism.
Beckwith devotes considerable space to the doctrine of justification by faith, which is, of course, the defining difference between Protestants and Catholics. I found his exposition of the Protestant view to be somewhat reductionistic. For example, he writes:
“The grace one receives is legal or forensic. This means that grace is not real stuff that changes nature, but merely the name given to God’s graciousness by legally accounting to us Christ’s righteousness.” (85)
I do not know of any Protestant who argues that God’s grace is not transformative. Protestants take care to note that the basis of our justification is faith alone in Jesus Christ. But that does not exclude the transforming power of God’s grace. We simply do not call the moral transformation “justification.” Protestants are careful to avoid making our own righteousness the basis for our salvation.
The end of the book forcefully argues for inclusion of Catholics in the Evangelical Theological Society.
“I still believe that the ETS doctrinal statement is broad enough to allow Catholic members.” (119)
I actually agree with Beckwith on this issue. I do not classify Catholics as evangelicals in the classic sense, but if Beckwith is making a case for Catholic membership in ETS based solely upon the society’s doctrinal statement, then he is correct. There is nothing in this document that would explicitly exclude Catholic members.
Beckwith bolsters his case by bringing good evidence:
“Pastors and theologians like Boyd, Pinnock, and Sanders are constrained only by ‘inerrancy’ and ‘the Trinity,’ which means (at least theoretically) that they could embrace any one of a variety of heresies condemned by the ancient Church and yet still remain an ETS member in good standing: Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or the denial of Christ’s eternal sonship. Yet oddly, Catholics who embrace the Church that claimed to have the ecclesiastical authority to condemn these heresies, and which provided to its separated progeny, including Evangelicals, the resources and creeds that provide the grounds for excluding these heresies, apparently have no place in ETS.” (126)
I find Beckwith’s case to be very persuasive. He goes on to write:
“Put in terms of specific traditions, if the term ‘Evangelical’ is broad enough to include high-church Anglicans, low-church anti-creedal Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, the Evangelical Free Church, Arminians, Calvinists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventist, open theists, atemporal theists, social Trinitarians, substantial Trinitarians, nominalists, realists, eternal security supporters and opponents, temporal theists, dispensationalists, theonnmists, church-state separationists, church-state accomodationists, cessationists, non-cessationists, kenotic theorists, covenant theologians, paedo-Baptists, Anabaptists, and Dooyeweerdians, then there should be room for an Evangelical Catholic.” (128)
I agree with Beckwith that ETS should allow Catholics in its membership as long as it stands by its current doctrinal formulation. If ETS decides that Catholics should be excluded, then the official doctrinal statement needs to be adjusted in order to reflect what the society agrees is “true evangelical identity.” It might be time for a more robust confession of faith, and not the minimalist document that guides ETS today.
At the end of the book, Beckwith admits:
“…My return to the Catholic Church has as much to do with a yearning for a deeper spiritual life as it did with theological reasoning.” (128)
In the end, Beckwith confesses that a deep spiritual yearning ultimately led him back to Rome, not theological reasoning. Return to Rome would have been better had Beckwith given us more insight into Rome’s satisfaction of his spiritual yearnings instead of the doctrinal issues that he admits were not the primary factor in his decision to return to Rome.