Beckwith grew up Catholic but with a large dose of Protestant influence, so much so that he began considering himself an Evangelical after high school. His career in academia, however, included study of St. Thomas Aquinas’ work under Catholic professors. Slowly he grew more and more impressed with the cogency and strength of the Catholic philosophical and political science tradition. He was “slouching toward the Tiber” as he humorously quipped.
Along the way, Beckwith studied Church history and in particular realized that the early Church resolved disputes, not through appeal to the Bible alone, but through the leaders of the Church meeting in ecumenical councils that utilized philosophical reasoning in interaction with the Scriptures.
Beckwith at this time had become president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), and he confronted the four doctrinal issues central in his mind to the Protestant-Catholic question: justification, the Eucharist, Confession, and Apostolic Succession.
He spends the most time on justification and does an excellent job in a brief space explaining the similarities and differences between the Catholic and Protestant understandings of justification. Any Protestant or Catholic would benefit from reading it, and I was quite glad that he tackled the subject so lucidly. The other three issues are handled similarly well, with various quotes from the Fathers supporting them and references to the historical unanimity of the Church both East and West to these teachings.
A Sharp Evangelical Response
Dr. Gregg Allison wrote the Protestant response to Beckwith’s story, and I was again pleased that he pulled no punches. He writes that his goal is to:
present a critical assessment of Catholicism so that, if any readers are contemplating a journey toward the Catholic Church, they will be persuaded that they are moving…from greater faithfulness to lesser faithfulness, a journey they must reconsider and abandon.
The gloves are off! This is as it should be. If Evangelical Protestantism is true, then its proponents like Allison should be unabashedly promoting it and decrying the stories of those who become Catholic.
Allison claims that the Catholic Church embraces “unchastened” tradition and so goes off the rails regarding Mary, the saints, purgatory, etc. Chastened tradition, we are to understand, is what Evangelicals follow by submitting all tradition to [their interpretation of] the Bible.
Next he argues against the Catholic canon of Scripture. I was very pleased to see this (and even more pleased later to see that Beckwith laser-focuses on it in his rejoinder), because the canon is the supporting pillar of sola Scriptura. Allison points out that the Protestant OT aligns with the Hebrew OT, while Catholicism’s follows the Greek OT, and makes the assertion that Jesus and the Apostles used the Hebrew canon. He claims that St. Augustine single-handedly reversed the Church’s beliefs on the canon and got it to accept the deuterocanonical books. Then he says that the Protestants “sided with Jerome’s principle” on the canon.
He makes a slight but important error at this point when he says “the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century was the first general council to proclaim the Old Testament including the Apocrypha…” But in fact the Council of Florence over a century prior–long before the Reformation began–had also affirmed the deuterocanonical books.
Allison then lays out the Protestant position that the Scriptures are clear enough that “ordinary human beings who possess the normal acquired ability to understand written and oral communication can read Scripture with understanding…” He says they should follow “sound interpretive principles” under the tutelage of “divinely ordained elders”–their church’s pastors presumably–so they interpret the Bible correctly.
I’d interject briefly that it is immediately problematic for a Protestant to present the principle by which one knows who these “divinely ordained elders” are. Allison does not even make the attempt to do so. The truth is that a Protestant identifies these elders by seeing which ones agree with his own interpretation of Scripture–solo Scriptura, which sola Scriptura reduces to in this respect.
Allison argues against the sacraments, Mary, and the Catholic doctrines on justification and sanctification and concludes by claiming that Evangelicalism offers the certainty and authority that is most in line with the Bible, so Evangelicals should not become Catholic for these reasons.
Beckwith Fights Back
Beckwith gets a brief space to respond and does a great job, pointing out the inconsistency of Protestantism by accepting some doctrines the early Church discerned while rejecting others. He makes a powerful point on the Scripture’s perspicuity:
It seems difficult for Allison to account for why the Protestant view of justification is not front and center in the Church’s first fifteen hundred years. For if that view were the obvious and clear reading of Scripture, one that literate Christians of ordinary wit should find in the Bible with ease, then its absence from deliberations of every church council as well as the Church’s sacramental life and writings of its leading theologians means that either the Protestant view of justification is right and Scripture’s perspicuity is wrong or Scripture’s perspicuity is right and the Protestant view of justification is wrong.
Beckwith then zeroes in on the canon and goes right to the root of Protestantism’s inability to answer the canon question without being ad hoc. He does a masterful job here, and you should read it yourself when you get the book. There is no Protestant rebuttal to his arguments. I’ve looked for one for eleven years and now no longer expect to find one.
This section was really good–sharp arguments on both sides getting to the root of the Catholic-Protestant differences. I look forward to part three of the book now!