Beckwith and George: Can You Be Catholic and Evangelical?Sep 11th, 2009 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
On September 3, Wheaton College hosted a friendly discussion between professors Timothy George and Francis Beckwith focused primarily on the following question: Can you be Catholic and Evangelical?
Timothy George is a Southern Baptist and dean of Beeson Divinity School, and a co-signer of The Gift of Salvation. Francis Beckwith was the president of the Evangelical Theological Society when he reverted to the Catholic Church in 2006; he is now Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies at Baylor University. The video of the discussion and the following Q&A can be found here.
Such a discussion, and the way it was conducted, are very encouraging signs with respect to the goal of seeking the reunion of all Christians, especially Protestants and Catholics. In my opinion this event is exactly the sort of conversation Protestants and Catholics should be having. The discussion often just touched on various points of disagreement, without going into significant depth. But the purpose of the discussion was not to go into depth on these issues, only to sketch out the overall picture and develop a better mutual understanding of the common ground and the differences between Evangelicals and Catholics in relation to the question that titled the event.
My comments below focus only on Professor George’s statements. My purpose is to advance the discussion of our disagreements, by pointing to the deeper reasons underlying our disagreements.
Toward the beginning of the discussion Professor George said:
Evangelicals are gospel-people, and Bible-people … Evangelicals understand those terms and live out those commitments in continuity with the Protestant Reformation, and in particular with the doctrines of justification by faith alone, and the authority of holy Scripture.
Those are undoubtedly the two most important areas of disagreement, and those are precisely where we need to be digging deeper. We are doing just that here at Called to Communion. See the recent post titled “Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide,” and especially the discussion in the comments following it. Our most recent article is titled “Hermeneutics and The Authority of Scripture,” and our next article will examine the relationship between the authority of Scripture and the magisterial authority of the Church.1
Professor George continued:
The Reformation itself was a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church; this is how I think the Reformers understood what they were doing. … They wanted to go back through the tradition of the Church, the history of the Church, to recover what they understood to be the purer, not totally incorrupt, but purer and pristine foundations of Christian faith which they found, in the early Church Fathers to some extent, but preeminently in the apostolic witness of the holy Scriptures.
There are two doctrinal issues that lie behind what he says here. The first has to do with the nature of the visibility of the Church. We maintain that hierarchical unity is necessary for visible unity; Protestant deny that. We agree that the Reformers intended to reform the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, not leave it. But their intentions and self-description of what they were doing are not sufficient to demonstrate that they did not leave the Church or form a schism from the Church. From the Catholic point of view, the Reformers re-defined the nature of the Church in such a way that someone such as Luther, who was excommunicated by the Church, could conceive of himself as remaining in it and in fact being, in some sense, its continuation. The Reformers did this by redefining the marks of the Church, according to their own interpretation of Scripture. So this pushes us back to “What are the marks of the Church, and who gets to determine what are the marks of the Church?”
Catholics believe that the Magisterium authoritatively determines the marks of the Church. Protestants believe that the individual has the highest interpretive authority to determine the marks for himself, based on his own interpretation of Scripture. So we see here a fundamental difference in what is included within our epistemic ‘starting material,’ so to speak. And that difference is related to the affirmation or denial of apostolic succession, respectively.2
The second assumption behind what George says here is an implicit ecclesial deism. A Catholic can fully embrace the sort of return to the sources that does not presuppose ecclesial deism. A faithful way of recollecting and reflecting upon the Church’s history and sources does not presume that the Spirit allowed the Church to fall universally into error in matters of doctrine or morals. The early Protestants, however, returned to the sources in such a way that implicitly conceded to ecclesial deism, calling into question the Church’s tradition and first fifteen hundred years of theological development. Everything was subjected to the following test: Does it conform to [our interpretation] of Scripture? If it did not, it was rejected.
Professor George refers in passing to one ecclesial disagreement between Catholics and Evangelicals:
“But to understand the incarnation in a way that, not only the Roman Catholic Church, but to some extent the Orthodox Church, also sees [as the Church being the Body of Christ continuing on earth], is one that presents a great difficulty that seems to challenge to us the historical particularity of the incarnation.”
This is an interesting statement, because Professor George seems to think that a conception of the Church as the Body of Christ is somehow in tension with the incarnation of Christ, as though we must choose between the Church being the Body of Christ and the doctrine of the incarnation. But this seems to be a misunderstanding of the ontology of the Mystical Body of Christ, as though it were believed by us to be the physical body of Christ. The Mystical Body differs from Christ’s physical body, because the latter is individual and the former is communal, i.e. a social body. The Mystical Body of Christ does not compete with Christ’s physical body. Rather, His physical body makes possible His Mystical Body, and His Mystical Body is a familial and social extension of His physical body. This is something I think we can clear up without too much difficulty.
Professor George then is asked about the novelty of the Protestant conception of imputation, and he says:
“If it were true that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness, as Luther taught it, was only brought to light in the sixteenth century, and had never been heard of, from the time of Paul to Luther, that wouldn’t particularly bother me. … I’m a Southern Baptist, and we know that baptism by believers was not the majority view in the Church by any means during that period of time, at least from the third or fourth century up to the sixteenth, and even now today continuing in both Catholic and Protestant. So, this was something that people came to see as they read the Bible, and new light dawned upon them, and wow, this is how they baptized in the early Church it seems like in the book of Acts. And so the fact that a doctrine may, you might say, sort of exist like a geyser under the ground and then it suddenly explodes, like Old Faith in Yellowstone, you can’t see it but its always there under the ground bubbling along, that’s the way I sort of think the history of doctrine is sometimes best read. So it wouldn’t particularly bother me if it were the case that nobody ever found out about imputation until Martin Luther in the sixteenth century.
Professor George states that it wouldn’t particularly bother him if nobody knew about sola fide from the time of St. Paul to until Luther. That’s quite a startling claim. For many Protestants sola fide is the heart of the gospel; it is that over which, if nothing else, separation from the Catholic Church was (and remains) warranted. For the very heart of the Church’s gospel to lie quite entirely hidden from the Church for 1,500 years, should function as a modus tollens to whatever position entails it, because it is again an implicit concession to ecclesial deism.3 But Professor George appeals to the Southern Baptist view of baptism to show that having a position not held by the early Church Fathers is not a theological defeater. From a Catholic point of view, however, appealing to the Southern Baptist theology of believer’s baptism, as support for the acceptability of fifteen hundred years of official Church ignorance concerning the essence of the gospel, begs the question.
Concerning his doctrine of imputation Professor George then says:
As a matter of fact I don’t think that is the most accurate way to read the history of that particular doctrine. … If you look at Augustine in particular, and his commentary on Psalm 51, you see these statements about the imputation of Christ, often in very, you might say, different ways of putting it, not exactly in the lingo of the sixteenth century. But the substance of the teaching was there. Not admittedly universally, not admittedly ever pronounced on by a council; in fact that doctrine was never pronounced on by a council, justification, until the Council of Trent. And yet it seems to me that the Protestants Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, all of them understood that they were recovering a true New Testament teaching that was also found at surprising moments in the tradition of the Church.”
He seems here to be suggesting a Protestant version of the [delayed] development of Christian doctrine. But the type of development Professor George’s position implies is not organic; it hardly seems distinguishable from the form of ecclesial deism which allows universal and long-term theological error to be corrected only a millennium and a half later by some “new light dawning, not on the Church as a whole, but on one man (Martin Luther), and on those whom he subsequently persuaded. What is needed here are objective criteria distinguishing genuine development from deviating novelty. Otherwise anything that is even seemingly hinted at in Scripture or in the Tradition could be used to justify the introduction of a novelty.
Prof. George continues:
“Imputation is really based on the text, several texts of the New Testament, and one in particular, where Paul is referring to Abraham, this is in Romans chapter 4, and he talks about his faith being counted to him as righteousness, or being imputed to him as righteousness. And it has to do with the fact that this imputation is not based on what Abraham did, his good works, but rather on God’s gracious favor to him, and the counting to him of the grace of God. Now he’s talking about an Old Testament figure there, Abraham, but it becomes a kind of paradigm for the Christian understanding of conversion and the way of faith. Infusion is a term that really comes from the Middle Ages, and going back to Augustine, gratia infusa, infused grace, was understood to be something that was imparted to the individual sinner through primarily the sacraments of the Church. It was the grace of God which enabled that individual to become a Christ-like individual over a long-period of time, extending beyond this life even perhaps, into purgatory in the next life. And so infusion vs. imputation is, as Frank has said, rightly one of the key paradigm differences between Catholic and Evangelical ways of thinking about it.”
One fundamental difference here concerns our respective conceptions of grace. For Aquinas, for example, grace is not merely divine favor; grace was something within Adam and Eve prior to their act of disobedience. Aquinas would have treated the notion that grace is either something ontological or merely divine favor, as a false dilemma. He teaches in Summa Theologica I-II Q.110 a.1 that grace has three senses. In one sense it refers to divine favor. In another sense it refers to the divine gift of participation in the divine nature, a gift given as an expression of divine favor. And in the third sense it refers to the gratitude one has for the reception of a gratuitous gift. So we do not have to choose between grace as divine favor, and grace as divine gift. The Catholic can agree with the Protestant that grace is divine favor. But from the Catholic point of view, insofar as Protestantism restricts grace only to divine favor, Protestantism omits the supernatural gift of participation in the divine nature.
And that sets up a second point of difference here, which is the nominalistic vs. realist conception of imputation; I discussed that recently here and here. Because of that difference, we understand Abraham to have had grace not just as something outside of him, but as a participation in his soul in the divine nature. Through that participation in his very being in the internal life of the Trinity, Abraham’s being counted righteous was not a legal fiction; Abraham had truly been made righteous in his soul and particularly in his will, wherein were located the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. the faith by which Abraham was credited was not a natural faith; it was a supernatural faith, a supernatural gift. And this supernatural gift was the result of grace already at work within him. Not only that, but the faith by which Abraham was justified was a faith informed by charity, by love for God. His trust in God included within it love for God; it was not a loveless trust in the One who promised these blessings to him.
In speaking of the Joint Declaration on Justification, Professor George then says:
[T]here was still added to this statement [the Joint Declaration] what’s called an annex, a little appendix, about the question of simul justus et peccator, the same time just and sinful. This was a famous slogan of Luther and the Reformers. And Catholics have a very difficult time affirming that, in fact can’t, according to this statement, and they expressed a reservation. For Protestants it expresses a very important thing about this question of imputation and infusion. … We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It is accompanied by works; works flow out of it. And so we differ, to put it in Protestant language, on the way we distinguish justification and sanctification.”
There are at least two underlying differences here, between Catholics and Protestants. One is the role of agape in justification, as I discussed here. The second, which is based on the first, is the role agape plays in differentiating mortal from venial sin, as I explained here. From a Protestant point of view, even the slightest sin demands eternal damnation. Hence, from the Protestant point of view, since obviously we sin daily, either all of us are damned, or some form of simul iustus et peccator must be true. But the Catholic understanding of the distinction between mortal and venial sin allows for there to be a true sense in which we are simul iustus et peccator, i.e. if the sort of sin in question is venial sin, while at the same time denying simul iustus et peccator if the sin in question is mortal sin. So the ecumenical effort needs to investigate the basis for our different conceptions of grace, agape, and sin, so as to understand the underlying reason why and how we have arrived at these different conceptions.
Professor George continues:
You have orthodoxy with a surcharge. You’re adding too much to it. And so why do I remain an Evangelical Protestant? Because in conviction it seems to me this is the best way to be a Catholic. This is the best way to be faithful to the Catholic Church, understood not as the Roman Catholic Church, but as the Church of the Apostles, the Church of the New Testament, and because, as much as I revere, I will not use a lesser word, the holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, having written glowing words about him and his predecessor John Paul II, I think the two greatest popes since the Reformation, as much as I revere them and thank God for their witness, so clear on so many issues, I do not believe that the pope is the vicar of Christ on earth. I do not believe that he is the successor of St. Peter in the chair that gives him the kind of magisterial authority over the Church. And so there is a fundamental ecclesiological difference, a bridge I have not been able so far in my thinking to advance.
What we need here is a principled way of distinguishing between leaving the Church (i.e. schism from), and remaining in the Church. Every heretical sect in history could (and did) claim to be a continuation of the Church, or at least a branch within the Church. Without going deeper, and examining the principled basis for being in or out of the Church, and why we disagree on that point, we cannot mutually evaluate a claim to be a continuation of the Catholic Church. And this again takes us back to the question of the marks of the Church, and who has the authority to define the marks of the Church. Professor George should find it troubling that the signs outside Southern Baptist meeting places do not say “Catholic Church.” That is because St. Cyril wrote:
But since the word Ecclesia is applied to different things (as also it is written of the multitude in the theatre of the Ephesians, And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the Assembly (Acts 19:14), and since one might properly and truly say that there is a Church of evil doers, I mean the meetings of the heretics, the Marcionists and Manichees, and the rest, for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to you now the Article, And in one Holy Catholic Church; that you may avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which you were regenerated. And if ever you are sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord’s House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God (for it is written, As Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25), and all the rest,) and is a figure and copy of Jerusalem which is above, which is free, and the mother of us all (Galatians 4:26); which before was barren, but now has many children.4
And St. Augustine wrote:
“In the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep (Jn 21:15-19), down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the very name of “Catholic”, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.”5
In addition, it is not clear whether Professor George denies that Pope Benedict XVI is the successor of St. Peter, or whether Professor George denies that the successor of St. Peter has magisterial authority. If it is the former, then this pushes us back to the question of apostolic succession, and why Professor George denies it when for 1,500 years the Church universally affirmed it. Or, if Professor George believes that apostolic succession is a second century corruption that spread throughout the whole Church, without an uproar of protest, then he needs to explain how such a thesis avoids ecclesial deism.
So in order to determine whether Evangelical Protestantism is a continuation of the Catholic Church, or whether the Catholic Church presently headed by Pope Benedict XVI is the continuation of the Catholic Church, we need a principled way of distinguishing between separating from (i.e. schism from) the Church while claiming to be continuing in the Church, on the one hand, and truly remaining in the Church on the other. Again, we find that a fundamental point upon which ecumenical dialogue must focus is this: Who has the authority to define the marks of the Church?
Later in the discussion, when discussing the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, Professor George says:
This raises that question I debated with Fr. Neuhaus, orthodoxy on the cheap, or orthodoxy with a surcharge, because the way in which the development of doctrine is understood [by the Catholic Church], is again its part of the magisterial teaching, its part of the ecclesiological differences between us, and Mary and Marian dogma is central to that. For example, the dogma we were talking about a moment ago, of the Immaculate Conception, which was declared to be dogma in 1854, and therefore must be believed de fide by Catholics; its a part of that infallible, irreversible dogmatic tradition of the Church. Now, this was not at all the doctrine of the Church, the doctrine of Mary, that was held by many many other theologians in the Catholic Church, including St. Thomas Aquinas. And so I, as a Protestant, would like to say to my Catholic brothers and sisters, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go back and reinvestigate Thomas’s view of the Immaculate Conception. Maybe there is something there we could learn from, that would lead us in a different path than the one that ended in 1854.”
Underlying the disagreement here is a disagreement about whether or not the Church can definitively and infallibly settle a matter of doctrine or morals. Catholics believe that the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception is settled infallibly and irrevocably by the operation of the Holy Spirit guiding the Magisterium in the exercise of its divinely-given teaching authority. So the Protestant-Catholic disagreement about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception rests on a more fundamental disagreement concerning the existence of the Magisterium, its teaching authority derived by apostolic succession, and whether or not the Magisterium is protected from error when proclaiming definitively something to be believed by all the faithful in the area of faith or morals. These are the things we need to investigate together in order to resolve the Protestant-Catholic schism. The discussion between Professors George and Beckwith is one step toward resolving a schism that has separated Protestants and Catholics for almost five hundred years. May God bring us to reunion in full communion.
- Recently I wrote here and here about the theological presuppositions implicit in the lexical methodology used to support the Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone. [↩]
- We will discuss this in our forthcoming article on Sola Scriptura. [↩]
- It is also worth pointing out that Professor George’s claim detracts from Protestant arguments against the last two Marian dogmas on account of their having been defined as dogmas only in the last two hundred years. [↩]
- Catechetical Lecture 18.26 [↩]
- Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, 4 [↩]