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ETS pres. resigns, returns to Catholicism

WACO, Texas (BP)–Francis (Frank) Beckwith, a prominent professor of church-state studies and philosophy at Baylor University, has resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, citing his return to the Roman Catholic Church.

Beckwith, who was raised Catholic but drifted into Reformed Protestantism in his youth, disclosed on a May 5 weblog that he had received the sacrament of confession April 28 and had been received into the communion of the church during a Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Waco, Texas, the following day.

In a subsequent blog, Beckwith announced he had resigned as president of the theological society to “avoid bringing scandal to either ETS or the Church.”

Beckwith initially said he would remain an ETS member because he could “in good conscience, as a Catholic, affirm the ETS doctrinal statement.” But a statement released by the ETS executive committee May 8 said that “after further prayer and reflection, Dr. Beckwith has voluntarily withdrawn his membership from the Society as well.”

The executive committee said Beckwith’s resignation and subsequent withdrawal from membership were “appropriate in light of the purposed and doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society” and in light of Beckwith’s “wholehearted confessional agreement with the Roman Catholic Church.” ETS is comprised of some 4,100 theologians, philosophers and ministers, but few -– if any -– are Catholic.

The executive committee also stated that the ETS, as a scholarly society, holds to the belief that “the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” Similar language and other statements supporting scriptural authority are contained within the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, the document on biblical inspiration and authority adopted by the society’s membership in 2006. The committee said that the Catholic Church’s statements “from the Council of Trent to Vatican II set forth a more expansive view of verbal, infallible revelation.”

“Specifically, it posits a larger canon of Scripture than that recognized by evangelical Protestants, including in its canon several writings from the Apocrypha,” the statement from the ETS executive committee said. “It also extends the quality of infallibility to certain expressions of church dogma issued by the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church), as well as certain pronouncements of the pope, which are delivered ex cathedra, such as doctrines about the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary.”

On those doctrines, evangelicals will not agree with Catholics, but Beckwith’s departure from Protestantism may facilitate other opportunities to discuss Catholic theology. The statement from the ETS executive board said it encourages and welcomes dialogue on the matter in the future.

Beckwith said on his blog May 8 after the publication of the ETS statement that he had only one “quibble” with it. He did not feel, he said, that the statement offers “a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the Catholic doctrines of Scripture, revelation, and the Church, an understanding that I believe permits me to assent to the ETS doctrinal statement without mental reservation.

“But that is another discussion for another day,” Beckwith wrote.

Beckwith said on a blog May 5 that his departure from Protestantism was prompted by his study of the early church fathers. His wife, whom he described as “a baptized Presbyterian,” also has begun the initiatory rites for adults who wish to enter the Catholic Church.

“I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible,” Beckwith wrote on the blog. “Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries.

“Moreover, much of what I have taken for granted as a Protestant — e.g., the catholic creeds, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the Christian understanding of man, and the canon of Scripture — is the result of a Church that made judgments about these matters and on which non-Catholics, including Evangelicals, have declared and grounded their Christian orthodoxy in a world hostile to it. Given these considerations, I thought it wise for me to err on the side of the Church with historical and theological continuity with the first generations of Christians that followed Christ’s Apostles.”

Several scholars critical of Beckwith’s decision responded to his statements on the blog. Doug Groothuis, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, said Beckwith’s return to the Catholic Church was a “sad day for all true sons and daughters of the Protestant Reformation, for all who lived and died for its truths.”

Groothuis said Beckwith was “embracing serious theological error” and by joining Rome he was putting an institution and men ahead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, he commended the decision to resign from ETS. Groothuis was contacted by Baptist Press but said in an e-mail that he did not wish to add to the comments posted on his own blog or the blog where Beckwith announced his decision.

Malcolm Yarnell III, assistant dean for theological studies and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said while Beckwith is “a sensitive Christian scholar who deserves our sincere prayers on his behalf,” his arguments regarding his return to the Catholic Church warrant “careful analysis and rebuke.”

Yarnell told Baptist Press in an e-mail that he recently warned during a chapel service at Southwestern Seminary that there is a tendency among some Baptists to “compromise the sufficiency of Scripture, become enamored with the church fathers, and finally to cross the Tiber into Rome.” New movements known as “Baptist Catholicity” and “Evangelical Ecumenism,” he said, are “serious temptations for the younger generation of Southern Baptists, many of whom I fear do not have a deep grounding in doctrinal Bible teaching.”

Yarnell said the best way for Southern Baptists to respond to “the debacle of a Baylor professor and president of ETS converting to Rome is threefold: our pastors must return to preaching the Bible alone, our people must renew their appreciation for their Baptist heritage, and our theologians must maintain a healthy distance between biblically-based Baptist beliefs and the unbiblical traditions and philosophies of other evangelicals, especially those that pervert our Lord’s commands by baptizing babies.”

Beckwith’s return to the Catholic Church was reported by the Catholic News Agency and EWTN, also known as the Global Catholic Network.

Father Timothy Vaverek, now Beckwith’s pastor at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Waco, told Baptist Press that, while he could not make comments “specific to Dr. Beckwith’s return to the Church,” he believes Beckwith’s decision will prompt dialogue among evangelicals and Catholics.

“Any time you have the movement of any Christian, especially a prominent one, to another denomination, it raises questions. It also gives us the opportunity to look at the denominations and see what the differences are in relationship to Jesus Christ,” Vaverek said.

Vaverek, who compared Roman Catholics with Southern Baptists during his doctoral studies, said differences between Catholics and evangelicals seem so vast that many people assume there can never be agreement between the two groups. But he said he believes there can be agreement on some basic Christian doctrines.

“We can have a conversation about what it means to form a community around Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God,” Vaverek said. “He is the Gospel. He is the saving Word. The church is a means for sharing His message; it is not the mediator because there is only one Mediator between God and man, and that is Jesus Christ.”

Still, Vaverek said, “There are certainly ways Catholics can speak about the church that seem idolatrous. There are also ways evangelicals speak about the Bible that seem idolatrous. But neither the church nor the Bible are the mediator.”

Yarnell, however, said that while Catholics and Protestants agree that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, there are many doctrinal issues that will always separate Catholics and evangelicals, and especially Baptists.

“The Catholic belief that Scripture must be supplemented by extra-biblical tradition is a direct contradiction of the Baptist belief that Scripture is the inerrant and sufficient Word of God,” Yarnell told Baptist Press. “The Catholic belief that justification is mingled with sanctification and occurs through the sacraments ministered by the Roman priesthood is a direct contradiction of the Baptist belief that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The Catholic belief that Scripture requires an authoritative interpreter in the Roman Magisterium is a direct contradiction of the Baptist belief that the authoritative interpreter is God Himself who illuminates the Word by His Spirit as it is faithfully proclaimed in the churches. The Catholic belief that the church is a universal, visible fellowship headed by the supreme pontiff of Rome is a direct contradiction of the Baptist belief that the churches have only one head, Jesus Christ. Ultimately, Baptists believe what they do because of what the Bible teaches; Roman Catholics believe what they do because of what their church teaches. We must stay with Scripture.”

Beckwith, formerly the associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor, was denied tenure at the moderate Baptist university because of his involvement with the Discovery Institute, a group of scientists and philosophers who advocate the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools. Critics at the university charged that the teaching of Intelligent Design inserted theistic views into the classroom, violating the separation of church and state in public schools.

Beckwith eventually was granted tenure in 2006, but no longer serves as the associate director of the Dawson Institute. He is the author, coauthor or editor of more than 15 books, including the forthcoming “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice” from Cambridge University Press and “Is Statecraft Soulcraft? Politics and Christianity” from InterVarsity Press.

Beckwith earned a master of arts in philosophy and a Ph.D. from Fordham University, a Jesuit Catholic school in New York, and also graduated from Washington University’s School of Law in St. Louis with a master’s degree in juridicial studies. He also earned a master of arts degree in apologetics from Simon Greenleaf University in Anaheim, Calif.

Hassell Bullock, the Franklin S. Dyrness Chair of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College in Illinois and president-elect of ETS, will serve as acting president of the Evangelical Theological Society until the group’s annual meeting, at which time new elections for officers for 2008 will take place.

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  • Gregory Tomlin