I’m going assume that you either know, or can find on the net, the basic story of who is Francis Beckwith and why he is a person of interest in the current evangelical-Roman Catholic encounter. Let’s just say that when one of the leading academic ethicists in evangelicalism and the President of the Evangelical Theological Society reverts to Roman Catholicism, it’s a story worth reading.
I want to get to the heart of my reaction to this book.
It’s a very good book. Short. Well-written. Quite personable. No axes to grind at all. Gracious to everyone. No name calling. No apologies or triumphalism. Lots of good questions, insight and humility. If you want to spend an couple of hours with a very intelligent, articulate Catholic revert from the heart of evangelicalism, this is a great book.
Beckwith is not out to convert you or even to make much of a defense of his own reversion. I can see some evangelicals writing a 400 page pot-boiler, but Beckwith gives us 130 pages, plus endnotes. As I said, this isn’t some comprehensive, crying tell-all meant to portray Rome as the savior and Protestants as be-nighted ignoramuses.
No, if anything Beckwith leaves you with plenty of questions. This is not a man who wants to debate anyone. This is a description of his own journey as a theologian and as a Christian. The chapters where he does engage in some defenses of the Catholic position will hardly qualify as knock-out punches. Beckwith isn’t an exegete, and most of what he has to say can be summed up as “I learned to read the Bible like a Catholic.” As my boss says, “Big whoop.”
Beckwith’s involvement in ethics kept him in the world of Catholic ethical theology, not the polemical world of defending the assumption of Mary. What he saw and heard in Catholic ethics impressed him. He kept looking and was more impressed. The Catholics he meant encouraged him to read Catholic thinkers and theologians. He was impressed. He read the Church Fathers. They seemed to be Catholics to Beckwith. He read John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He read Hahn and other apologists.
Over time, with his wife’s encouragement and developments in his own life, it all came together. It seemed right and it seemed to be God’s will, so they returned to the church. (Beckwith had grown up Catholic.)
No bells, explosions or visions. No mission to convert Protestants. Just a journey, a process and a conclusion. I’m happy for him.
Do I see other things? Sure. I see an evangelicalism that looked increasingly thin in comparison to the depth of the Catholic thinkers and writers Beckwith was reading. Should he have read more widely and more critically? Sure, but he read what he read and we are what we are right now. Admit it: we ain’t so impressive much of the time.
Does the fact that Baylor initially refused him tenure fit into what I see? Oh yeah. In a big way. An unfortunate and no doubt painful rejection. Even when repaired, it had to make an impression. It would make me think about where I wanted to spend my life as a Christian.
Did Beckwith’s experience of the evangelical churches he was part of leave him feeling there was more? Had to be more? Absolutely and no doubt. Let’s form a line to “amen” that experience.
Does Beckwith’s experience of Reformed theology and Reformed exegesis show some of the problems that bring so many through Calvinism into a journey to Rome? Yes, I think so. Something about Calvinism’s self-confidence winds up making a lot of people ask authority questions. Some of them decide that authority question can only be answered rightly by people who aren’t embarassed to say “Here’s our pope and magisterium.”
Does Beckwith’s Catholic reading of Romans really prove that Protestants are reading Paul through reformation glasses? Does he prove that forensic justification can’t be sustained in an honest reading of the New Testament? No in both cases. His reading of Romans is, frankly, relatively lightweight (compared to other scholars) and his confessed adjustment of what he sees the Bible saying about justification is hardly a reason to return to Rome. See N.T. Wright for details.
Did Beckwith need a deeper look at the Roman Catholic claim that modern Catholic doctrine is taught in the Fathers? What do you think?
Does Beckwith’s two page summary of how he made it through the other difficult areas for him- papal infallibility, purgatory, etc.- do much more than just tell us that once he got to the authority of the church, he was ready to sign on? No.
All in all, it’s a typical conversion these days. Beckwith isn’t Steve Ray or Bryan Cross. He doesn’t tangle with James White or the Triabloggers. He tells his story, and anyone who is a pilgrim on their own journey will respect and appreciate it, even if they don’t agree with it.
I like Beckwith. He’s where he ought to be. He won’t persuade many evangelicals to follow him to Rome, but he might help many understand why others do so.
NOTE: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, but no food. That’s why I was pretty tough.