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Baylor prof Beckwith becomes Catholic, resigns as head of evangelical society

Tuesday, 8 May 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Associated Baptist Press

Baylor prof Beckwith becomes Catholic, resigns as head of evangelical society

WACO, Texas (ABP) — Renowned evangelical philosopher Francis Beckwith has become a Roman Catholic and, as a result, has resigned as president — and also as a member — of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Beckwith, associate professor of church-state studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, said the decision he made to seek “full communion” with the Roman Catholic Church grew from his desire to find “historical and theological continuity” with the early Christian church.

Beckwith, famous for his arguments against abortion and for intelligent design, has been a leading figure in the ETS, the prominent academic society for conservative Protestants.

But his views on the church and society, which he acknowledged are “Catholic-friendly,” have drawn criticism from some Baptists. He served as associate director of Baylor’s J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies from 2003 to early 2007, despite protests from descendents of the institute’s namesake, who said Beckwith’s views denied church-state separation. His application for tenure at Baylor was first denied but granted on appeal.

Because Beckwith was a Catholic in his youth, he needed only to go to confession and receive absolution to become Catholic again, he said. Even after returning to his Roman Catholic faith, he planned to remain a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, he said, “because I can in good conscience, as a Catholic, affirm the ETS doctrinal statement.”

The statement, signed by ETS’s 4,100 members, affirms the doctrine of the Trinity and that “the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”

Beckwith said on his blog May 5 that he was planning to wait until after his presidential term was over in November to make the move because “I wanted to make sure that my return to the Church brought as little attention to ETS as possible.” But then, he continued, “my 16-year-old nephew, Dean Beckwith, called me and asked if I would be his sponsor when he receives the sacrament of Confirmation on May 13” — a role that requires good standing in the Catholic Church.

Rather than tell his “dear nephew” no, Beckwith said, he decided to return to Catholicism April 29, when he had his wife, Frankie, presented themselves at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Waco. “My wife, a baptized Presbyterian, is going through the process of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults,” Beckwith wrote.

As word of his conversion spread, however, attracting some negative attention from evangelical bloggers, he decided to resign his ETS presidency and membership immediately.

“Although I firmly believe that I can sign the ETS doctrinal statement in good conscience, my high-profile presence in ETS will likely result in … public conflict…,” he said May 7 on his blog.

“Because, as I noted in my prior posting on this matter, that I deeply desire a public conversation among Christians about the relationship between Evangelicalism and the Great Tradition, a public debate about my membership status, with all the rancor and stress that typically goes with such disputes, would preempt and poison that important conversation,” he wrote. “For this reason, I am resigning as a member of ETS.”

The ETS executive committee issued a response May 8 praising Beckwith but calling his resignation “appropriate” in light of the differing belief systems of evangelicals and Catholics.

“The work of the Evangelical Theological Society as a scholarly forum proceeds on the basis that ‘the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs,'” the statement said. “This affirmation, together with the statement on the Trinity, forms the basis for membership in the ETS to which all members annually subscribe in writing. Confessional Catholicism, as defined by the Roman Catholic Church’s declarations from the Council of Trent to Vatican II, sets forth a more expansive view of verbal, infallible revelation.”

The Catholic Church accepts writings of the Apocrypha as authoritative scripture, ETS said, and “extends the quality of infallibility” to certain doctrines and pronouncements of the pope and the church hierarchy.

The ETS leaders said they expect dialogue and cooperation between evangelicals and Catholics to continue. “Certainly, the two traditions share many common Christian doctrines,” the statement added. “However there are important theological differences as well. We expect that the events of these days will bring a renewed discussion of these matters. We welcome and encourage this as well.”

“We are grateful for Dr. Beckwith’s past association with ETS, and we pray that God will continue to use his considerable gifts,” the leaders concluded, noting Hassell Bullock of Wheaton College, ETS president-elect, will serve as acting president until new officers are elected.

Beckwith has been a member of the Evangelical Theological Society since 1984. He said his return to Catholicism was unexpected.

“[M]y work in philosophy, ethics, and theology has always been Catholic-friendly, but I would have never predicted that I would return to the Church, for there seemed to me too many theological and ecclesiastical issues that appeared insurmountable,” he said in his blog. “However, in January, at the suggestion of a dear friend, I began reading the Early Church Fathers as well as some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors.

“I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible. Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries.

Beckwith is author of more than a dozen books, including To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview and Law, Darwinism and Public Education, as well as the forthcoming Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case against Abortion Choice.

He holds a doctorate and master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University, as well as a law degree from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. Before going to Baylor, he taught philosophy at Princeton University. He is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, chief advocate for teaching intelligent design in public schools.

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