Lessons from Acton


This week I am at Acton University in Grand Rapids. Thanks to the generosity of the Kern Foundation, I am here as a fellow, which means that I am eating and drinking really well. It is like no other conference I’ve ever seen. For starters, the diversity of Christian tradition is broader. Orthodox priests with formidable beards, crosses and cassocks, a wide range of Protestants, and, of course, plenty of Catholics are among the 1000 or so people in attendance.

Let me say, first, that Catholics are far better at conferences than evangelicals. We attend a lecture, then we break for coffee and pastry with 45 minutes to make friends and visit the book table. We learn some more, then we break for wine and cheese (for those who are inclined to enjoy the fruit of the vine, whoever they might be) with an hour to make friends and visit the book table. A plenary session over an exquisite dinner and then we convene for “hospitality” (read more fermented beverages and socializing). This differs from the typical evangelical approach, which consists of lecture, 10 minute break, another lecture, 10 minute break (if you’re fortunate, you may find a small bag of pretzels somewhere), another lecture and go to sleep before starting again early the next morning.

There are numerous lessons that I can tell you about, the importance of the prefontal cortex for public discourse (fascinating), the role of conscience development for personhood, communities, and markets, and the reason(s) why Bono and Toms Shoes tend to do more harm for the poor than good. A useless point, but interesting to me, Fr. Rober Sirico, President of Acton, is the brother to Tony Sirico (of the Soproanos). Wouldn’t you have liked to be a fly on the wall in their home growing up?

Okay, here is something meaningful. Two things, in fact. First, I have heard three Catholic lecturers use the phrase “Scripture scholars” (a typical Catholic phrase describing those who study the Bible) before qualifying it in apposition with the phrase “that is, Protestants.” Of course, they all said it tongue-in-cheek; but it’s interesting to see the widespread recognition that if Protestants are anything, we are people of the book.

I learned the second lesson yesterday morning. Dr. Samuel Gregg delivered a incisive lecture on Christian Anthropology, explaining how we are embodied, reasonable, willful, creative, fallen, social creatures. Brilliant. Then, in the Q&A, an articulate evangelical professor stood up and asked, “Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall hearing anything about Jesus and the gospel.” D’oh! Dr. Gregg responded by explaining that his intention was to explain the philosophical dimensions of the issue as they relate to dialogue with non Christians. Fair enough. But even so, is it appropriate to talk about Christian Anthropology without explicating the gospel? One’s answer, of course, is influenced, if not determined, by whether one is a Thomist (truth can be developed and established on the basis of natural revelation alone) or an Augustinian (truth requires the illumination of the Spirit, due to the darkness of our fallen minds, and is ultimately established in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Truth). This, for instance, is why the gospel message is so often “assumed” by our Catholic friends, to the utter bewilderment and frustration of evangelical Protestants who expect to hear Christ at the center of our reflection and discourse.

I am an Augustinian, just for the record.

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. Hi Chris,

    I’m very jealous that you were at that conference. I’m a little confused by the distinction between Augustine and Thomas here. I haven’t studied Augustine in depth (I’m hoping to take an Augustine course next spring), but have read the City of God, and even there I seem to remember him pointing to all kinds of things that were known to the ancients through philosophy/reason. As I recall, this even included the existence and unity of God. I’d certainly accept that Thomas’s thought is more developed in some ways, and diverges in some ways, from Augustine with respect to natural and revealed truth, but it seems like they are on the same page on the essential point you raise. And Thomas quotes Augustine frequently in his discussion on natural law/eternal law/divine law. Thomas thought many true things did require the enlightenment of the Gospel in order to be known, like the Trinity or the gospel, but that some things can be known by natural revelation alone, such as the existence of God, the moral law, etc, even though for many people divine revelation is also, practically speaking, required in order for them to have knowledge of the truth even in these areas. Does St. Augustine ever explicitly deny that natural revelation can theoretically provide knowledge of things that St. Thomas says it can?

    1. Thanks, Kevin. You are right to point out that there is a great deal in common. When Augustine describes the understanding of intellectus, it is always a gift from above, a grace that is in some way connected to Christ and redemption. We might summarize this Augustinian (and biblical) principle with the Latin phrase, nullus intellectus sine cruce—“there is no understanding without the cross.” For Thomas, reason exists as a natural human quality. It’s a subtle difference, but one with profound implications.

      Thanks also to you, Devin. I can picture the scene.

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