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Bend It Like Beckwith?

by Timothy George

     This past spring the evangelical world was rocked when Francis J. Beckwith, Associate Professor of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, decided to “revert” to the faith of his childhood. He was publicly received back into full communion with the Catholic Church on April 29 at the 11:00 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Waco, Texas. In addition to being a prominent public intellectual, Beckwith also served as the sitting president of the Evangelical Theological Society, a large association of some 5,000 evangelical academics. The religious blogs were abuzz for days with the news. Many Catholics rejoiced that a straying sheep had at last seen the light and come back home. Many evangelicals lamented the lapse of a once steady brother and one called for Beckwith’s (former) local congregation in Waco to place him under church discipline at once for his apostasy. 

            When one of my friends heard the news of Beckwith’s decision, he commented, “Well, I guess First Things has won another one!” Such a comment is understandable but misdirected. While no one can claim that Catholic perspectives are underrepresented in First Things, the journal itself is an interreligious, nonpartisian publication aimed, as we say, at promoting “a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” The former editor is a Lutheran, and there are evangelicals as well as Jews on the editorial board. First Things should neither be praised nor blamed for Beckwith’s conversion, though it is true that he has identified himself with “First Things evangelicals,” that is, evangelicals who collaborate and seek common ground with Catholics as opposed to others who regard such activities as useless if not downright dangerous. 

            But Beckwith’s decision to return to the Church of Rome is best seen in the context of his own spiritual journey. As he describes it, he sort of drifted into the Protestant faith through the witness of charismatic Christians and evangelical pastors who helped him to own a living personal faith in Jesus Christ. This happened in the era of post-Vatican II Catholicism and Beckwith, a young Christian seeking solid intellectual moorings for his faith, reacted negatively to the innovations the church was pushing at the time. “I didn’t need the ‘folk Mass’ with cute nuns and hip priests playing ‘Kumbayah’ with guitars, tambourines, and harmonicas,” he said. “After all, we listened to the Byrds, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and we knew the church just couldn’t compete with them.” Evidently, Beckwith has now found sturdier stuff in the church of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Not surprisingly, he cites the quest for a fuller liturgical life as one of the main reasons for his recent decisions. 

            Eventually, Beckwith went on to earn a Ph.D in philosophy from Fordham University, picking up a law degree along the way. His prolific writings on abortion, homosexuality, bioethics, intelligent design, and many other issues of applied ethics have brought him national acclaim and most likely contributed to his election last year as president of the Evangelical Theological Society. No doubt, they also contributed to Beckwith’s bruising battle for tenure at Baylor, a struggle he eventually won, despite the machinations of a well-orchestrated ideological parti pris. At the time he was elected to lead the ETS, Francis Beckwith had emerged as a kind of evangelical Robert George – brilliant, battle-scarred and savvy but also winsome, gracious, convincing. His conversion leaves a lacuna not easily filled in the evangelical academy. 

            Beckwith has repeatedly said that in becoming a Roman Catholic, he does not cease to be an evangelical. Indeed, he originally intended to remain as a member of the Evangelical Theological Society after his conversion but decided to withdraw his membership in order to forestall a predictable contentious debate. But can a faithful Catholic be a member of ETS? For many years, ETS had a doctrinal statement with only one article: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” Several years ago, a second article affirming the Trinity was added, primarily to keep out theologically deviant groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. All Catholics, of course, affirm the Trinity. A number of Catholic thinkers have also indicated that the article on Scripture, as stated, can also be affirmed by Catholics in good conscience, whatever the original intention of the framers of the statement. However, many are asking whether ETS should revisit the adequacy of its doctrinal basis. The statement suffers from reductionism, like the fundamentalism from which the evangelical movement itself emerged historically. Would not the Nicene Creed, together with the Lausanne Covenant (an evangelical statement of faith drafted by John Stott in 1974) be a more robust confessional basis for reflecting a more fully orbed Christian orthodoxy – the many-colored wisdom of God – the Holy Spirit is disclosing today to the whole Body of Christ? 

            Beckwith has said that he hopes that his decision will prompt a serious discussion about the Great Tradition among evangelicals, and the current leaders of ETS have indicated that this issue will be placed on its agenda. As this conversation takes place, it will be well to remember that when ETS was established in 1947 the nascent evangelical movement was confronted by countervailing forces on two fronts: an entrenched Vatican I Catholicism on the one hand, and a hegemonic liberal Protestantism on the other. Today the landscape looks quite different. The liberal Protestant project, which seemed so impressive at mid-century, is vacuous, if not quite vanished, today. And the renewal within the Catholic Church, stemming from Vatican II, may be the most important religious story of the last 50 years. If apologists on both sides of the Reformation divide remain oblivious to these changes, we will miss an historic opportunity to bear a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a fractured world.  The hoped for conversation will become, or remain, a dialogue of the deaf. This should be remembered both by Catholics who are tempted to be gleeful about Beckwith’s reversion, and also by evangelicals who are all too ready to the trigger with recrimination and disdain.  

            A year or so before his decision, Beckwith remarked to one of his friends that he wished he had time to delve deeply into the writings of Luther and Calvin. I too wish he had found time for such an encounter, together perhaps with a long sojourn with Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Herman Bavinck, and Karl Barth, among others.  He might have found therein deeper resources and a sturdier faith than that on offer in much of pop evangelical culture of today. He would certainly have found there a much more resonant way of thinking and a pattern of Christian life with the apostolic witness and the orthodox faith he so clearly loves. 

Conversions of high profile intellectuals like Francis Beckwith naturally garner lots of attention from the press, but one should remember that there is two-way traffic across this bridge. Thousands of Catholics join evangelical and Pentecostal churches every year. An authentic commitment to religious liberty, together with a genuine respect for the truth, requires that we invite and challenge one another to a deeper discipleship to Christ across the historic divides that have separated us into different communions and denominations, even as we renounce un-Christlike attitudes and techniques of proselytism. As we work and pray for Christian unity, we sometimes face ecclesial choices that are difficult to make and even harder to explain to others. While I cannot follow the path Beckwith has taken, I respect the intellectual honesty that has led him to this point, and I bid him Godspeed for the journey ahead.

C.S. Lewis once wrote to a woman who had converted to Catholicism. What Lewis wrote to her, I would like to say to Francis Beckwith: “It is a little difficult to explain how I feel that though you have taken which is not for me, I nevertheless can congratulate you – I suppose because of your faith and joy which are so obvious increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you – but there is no need for us to start a controversial correspondence! I believe we are very dear to one another but not because I am at all on the Rome-ward frontier of my own communion. I believe that in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes.” Vale, frater.

 Timothy George, a First Things editorial board member, is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a senior editor of Christianity TodayYou may contact him at tfgeorge@samford.edu.

 This article originally appeared in the July 2007 edition of First Things.