Many of you have heard the news that Francis Beckwith, President of ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) stepped down from his post last week on account of “returning home to the Roman Catholic Church.” As you might imagine, news of his decision has created more than a little discussion. In fact, the brouhaha is so great that just two days after his blog post announcing it, there were 190 pages worth of responses (more than 500 posts by the fourth day). I printed out all 190 pages, brought them home, and discussed them all evening with my wife. You are probably thinking that our lives are terribly boring and one dimensional, and of course you are right. The other reason for our interest is the research and writing I have been doing on the topic. My writing, which is intended to become a book, asserts that Catholics and Protestants must consciously relate to one another with grace and truth. Our calling to be Christ’s Body doesn’t give us the option of expressing one virtue over the other. Grace and truth must be held together in dynamic tension, for this is the example of Jesus himself (cf. John 1:14). Accordingly, we mustn’t be so open-minded that our brains fall out of our heads; nor can we justify an irritable, cranky attitude.
The extended responses to Dr. Beckwith present the wide spectrum of attitudes among Protestants and Catholics toward one another and thus are a contemporary example of the good the bad and the ugly (mostly bad and ugly). Following is an example:
“I embrace the Gospel message with gratefulness for what Christ has done for me on the Cross. It would be like a slap to His face if I would return to the Roman system. I love Christ too much to do that to Him. Beckwith, I hope and pray that you’ll come to trust in Christ alone for your salvation. Now as a Catholic you have embraced a false and deceptive doctrinal belief on salvation.”
On the grace/truth continuum, this fellow is less than balanced. Some would recommend Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends…, I would recommend reading 1 Cor 13.
One of my students gave me your news this afternoon and pointed me to your website. I so appreciate your wrestling with all the ethical issues involved, as your blog recounts, though I wouldn’t have expected any less, knowing you as I do. What an array of responses you’ve received, which doesn’t surprise me either but still saddens me how folks can express their concern or disagreement with such vitriol. I’ve known enough folks over the years representing a huge diversity of experiences with Catholicism both inside and outside the church to have no doubt about your genuine hope to find an evangelical wing or parish or fellowship in which you can thrive, even while they may remain a minority within the worldwide Catholic communion. I hope you can do great things for the movement from within, though I don’t underestimate the struggles you may have. I suspect, though, that it will be at least a little more courteous than all the incredible [stress] you had to put with from Baylor and certain Southern Baptists! You’re still my friend with lots of admiration even if I don’t anticipate following your pilgrimage. –Craig Blomberg”
Of all the posts which I read, I appreciated Dr. Blomberg’s the most (Craig Blomberg teaches New Testament at Denver Seminary). Some of you may not agree. You may feel as though Blomberg was weak or remise to not confront Beckwith. However, I ask you, what can realistically be accomplished in a blog response beyond venting one’s doctrinal spleen? And while this kind of offloading of theological frustration may feel good, the affect upon our Christian witness is disastrous. The blog responses make us Protestants look like a bunch of uptight scholastics carrying stakes and torches.
As I reflect upon Francis Beckwith’s blog, it underscores the importance of addressing Catholics according to the grace/truth paradigm. To be sure, there are occasions when we must give an answer for the hope within us and not be reticent about differentiating our understanding of salvation from the sacramental system of Rome. But we must use wisdom in knowing what these occasions are and in every situation, regardless of our audience, be careful to speak with the loving character of Christ. God help us.