Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Frank Beckwith comes home to Rome

Dr. Beckwith was originally a Catholic but for reasons I can't even remember incorrectly became an evangelical. You can learn more about him personally at his web site, so I won't belabor his biography here.

Well, he recently announced that he is returning to the Catholic faith. There's much talk of this decision in the combox of his blog, linked in the title of this post. The Catholics who chimed in are, naturally, quite happy, and the Protestants who chimed in are, understandably, quite disappointed. Something caught my eye, though, about the arguments used by some of the Protestant posters to convince Dr. Beckwith to reconsider. Some merely expressed their feelings, which I'm not really in a position to argue with, but the others, in their attempt to use Scripture (albeit very pithily--not much room in a combox) to give a thumbnail sketch for their opinion that Rome is apostate or the whore of Babylon or just a little too pagan, I think provided a good case study of the fruitlessness of sola Scriptura.

You can read the comments yourselves, if you want to take the time; I'll just summarize a few points here.

The usual "Rome went off the rails" theory posits that the apostasy happened, or at least began, when it ceased being persecuted by the Roman Empire in the fourth century. The problem there is that there's no evidence of an underground Biblical literalist movement between then and the Reformation; the few people who would still hold to the "Trial of Blood" theory would either have to invoke an oral tradition of literal Biblical interpretation for twelve centuries, or admit that there was a significant historical discontinuity and accept that the Church effectively ceased to exist for that time, which doesn't sit well with the New Testament's words about a safeguarded and enduring institution (corporately visible or not).

One person solved this dilemma by tying the Roman apostasy to the troubles Paul cited in I Corinthians and his references to "another gospel." If you look at historical records, this "other gospel" is most likely a reference to the Gnostics, for the proto-Catholics weren't teaching a "gospel" that was incompatible, let alone in competition, with the four books that are in everyone's Bible. What does the evidence tell us? The very students of the Apostles, sometimes writing while the Twelve were still alive and kicking, wrote stuff that not only meshes with Scripture but is also distinctly Catholic.

You can dismiss "uninspired' documents and whatnot if you like, but the only reason for doing so is an insistence on a narrow reading of Scripture that simply doesn't fit everything else we see about the early Church. Does it make more sense to read the Bible in a way that agrees with things we can independently demonstrate, or to reject those things and a reading that would be compatible with them, for reasons that aren't that strongly put forth in Scripture--that are themselves extrabiblical?

Sure there's a whore of Babylon in Revelation. Saying it's the Church of Rome, though? Scripture doesn't make that identification; it hardly even suggests it, and my feeling is the only similarity is through Satan's attempts to mock the Church and confuse the poor souls living in the end times. A non-Catholic can believe the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon, but he'll have to argue from extrabiblical material and thinking, or from his gut, to make the point; not from the plainness of Scripture itself. Maybe when the Eschaton draws near things will be clearer, or misinformation will be more concrete, but looking at the pope's miter or someone kissing a bishop's ring and saying "How silly! It must be evil!" is pretty facile, in the same vein as "I call my male parent by his first name because Jesus said to call no man father. Never mind what I call my female parent." Some people do make that argument, but it's egregiously legalistic; I doubt most evangelicals would go that far.

Several others used the "another gospel" verse, and one from Galatians about how we are not perfected by the flesh, in order to write off the sacraments and the Magisterium or something. Those verses by themselves do sound like they might condemn such things, but you'd either have to assume from elsewhere that "Romanism" is what Paul meant, or you'd have to read it from the context, but the context doesn't make an implication of Tradition that's even remotely clear.

Where they don't leave well enough alone, as if those two verses were self-evident, they try to explain their positions with a little more detail. The "another gospel" arguments usually add up to "I believe that these extra things that Rome teaches, like the books they added to the Bible or the extra five sacraments, are infusions of paganism," which I won't take the time to refute here; suffice it to say Jesus quoted from the Septuagint and there are at least two references to the Deuterocanon in the Gospels, and that when Jesus says "This is My Body" we do take Him literally. The flesh verse from Galatians at times gets an exegesis that flirts with Gnostic dualism itself, which should be a red flag to anyone familiar with early Church history.

If you're not going to invoke an explicit Magisterium in your reading of Sciprture, you're only going to end up invoking an implicit one.

Specific citations aside, I really had to scratch my head when people implored Dr. Beckwith to read the cited passages, or just to study Scripture in general more carefully. I've seen this argument before--"I was taught to love Jesus/read Scripture"/"If only you had learned to do so!"--and while on the one hand I can understand how it seems self-evident to the person making that argument, it's a little condescendingly pat, and really suspicious when you bother to look at the context of one's spiritual journey.

I mean, look at Dr. Beckwith. Ph.D in philosophy, professor of Church-State Studies at Baylor, and (since neither of these things clinch his Biblical pedigree) president of the Evangelical Theological Society. He's well known, obviously is no slouch, and was highly respected, at least throughout American Christendom (today, perhaps less so by non-Catholics). Do you really think he forgot to read the Bible, or at least didn't look at the Evangelical prooftexts cited in tracts and by preachers everywhere? Do you think he'd get selected for the presidency of the ETS without his peers having a reasonable estimation of scholarly work and devotion to Christ? Do you think that, now that his studies have taken him across the Tiber, another glib advisement to do more of what got him started down this path is magically going to undo it all?

Reading the Bible is what led him to the teaching authority that Christ left with us alongside His teachings. Reading it more isn't going to make him rediscover the passages that show the Bible to be entirely sufficient or the Church to be invisible and anarchic. They aren't in there.

1 comment:

Ed Pie said...

Ooh, that first paragraph is supposed to mean something more like "I can't even incorrectly recall the reasons Beckwith became an evangelical." As a Catholic, I'm never going to say that leaving the institutional Church is a good or proper thing to do, but I meant to underscore the spottiness of my memory, not disparage the good doctor's faith journey, which obviously was earnest and fruitful in some real ways.