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The Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism, The Move Back to Rome, Francis Beckwith’s Return to Rome, and Biblical Philosophy

Evangelicals are moving “back” to Rome, that is, the Roman Catholic Church.  Perhaps the most jolting incident of a person to do so was Francis Beckwith, who was President of the Evangelical Theological Society at the time of his move.  While there is a lot of discussion about the issues, few speakers seem to understand, possibly because of their lack of theology and philosophy.  Beckwith is himself a philosopher.  His move only shows that even philosophers fail to follow the basic tenets of their own discipline.  And, many Protestants are guilty of this, as we will see.

The Issues Have to Be Isolated; First, Regeneration

For sure, there are many issues here.  Let me begin with the issue of who are and who are not Christians.  These discussions are not about “true” Christians vs. “false” Christians.  Neither are they about who is and is not going to heaven, that is, the saved vs. the unsaved.  Only God knows who falls into each category.  And, this matter brings us to the first principle.

“Regeneration by itself is no enlightening.”  This statement is one of Abraham Kuyper in his encyclopedic development, Principles of Sacred Theology (page 266, 580).   I have not read any mention of regeneration in these discussion between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  In fact, regeneration is not often discussed in any theological issues today.  One reason may be that it has no chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith and may be overlooked.  While “Effectual Calling” includes the definition of regeneration, the word itself is not used there.  (It is used elsewhere in the WCF.)  Regeneration is the change wrought in a person by the Holy Spirit to turn him from believing that his own way is trustworthy to believing that God’s way of the Scriptures is ultimately trustworthy.  Central to this change is that person's recognition that Jesus Christ died for his sins and the idea of the Trinity.

Regeneration is more complex than the simple statements that I am making about it here, as I have discussed elsewhere.  But this definition will suffice here, as our concern is that regeneration conveys no knowledge.  It conveys a disposition towards God, His plan for history, and what he requires of man—as presented in the Bible.  Regeneration is primarily an orientation to the Bible as truth.  The fact that no knowledge is communicated is both the strength and weakness of Christendom.  Its strength is that salvation is not dependent upon a fixed set of truths or propositions.  The thief on the cross did not have to study the Bible or be catechized to be immediately with Jesus in Paradise (Luke 23:43).  The thief illustrates that there is one “baptism” (Ephesians 4:5), that of the washing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), that determines the eternal destiny of those regenerated.  (See discussion of unity, below.)

It is interesting that Gordon Clark in his book, Faith and Saving Faith, approaches, but never gives a particular set of propositions that a person must believe to be saved.  And, this omission occurs in probably the best book ever written on the topic!  In fact, if one begins to list necessary doctrines to guarantee one’s salvation, where does one stop other than finally just encompassing the whole Bible?[1] One could even make the case that the Christian's knowledge (as central to faith) must be perfect; that is, equal to God's knowledge ... which is omniscience ... which is both heretical and impossible.

The “disposition” named above, then, does have one inescapable object of belief: the Holy Scriptures.  The Holy Spirit who causes regeneration, also wrote the Scriptures through men.  He is not going to deny Himself, and He is not going to teach by any other means (John 17:17).  Many readers may be offended and even consider me heretical that I did not say that the object of belief if Jesus Christ.  My answer is that the truths about Jesus Christ are only found in the Scriptures.  There is no explicit knowledge of Him or His salvation outside of the Scriptures.[2]

The weakness of the lack of knowledge that comes with regeneration is the diversity that is found among Bible-believing Christians.  We should quickly dispense with any truth-claim of a person who calls himself a Christian and who does not believe that the Bible is God’s Word, infallible, inerrant, and ultimately authoritative..  That person has no claim to be a Christian either by definition or by established orthodoxy.  Simply, a Christian is a “Christ-one” (Acts 11:26), one who at least believes certain basics about Jesus Christ as Lord, God, and Savior.  How can the Holy Spirit who regenerates and who also wrote the Scriptures, deny Himself? 

“What,” you say, “I thought you said that there is no necessary beliefs for the Christian!”  No, I said there was no “fixed set of truth or propositions,” but a person’s beliefs must include many, if not most, of those that Scripture and orthodoxy have stated.  Perhaps the simplest belief system is that of The Apostles’ Creed.  A person who could not state with considerable certainty of, and affection for, the truth of those propositions should not claim nor be allowed to claim the name “Christian.”[3]

In my opinion, and I think logically necessary, is that the most basic belief from regeneration is also the most comprehensive: that the Bible is indeed the very Word of God written, infallible, and sufficient for all that a Christian needs (II Timothy 3:16-17).  This belief in the Bible is logically necessary because all truth-claims must ultimately arrive at a first principle that is the authority and explanation of all that is derived later, especially ethics.  This first principle must be comprehensive from which these derivations come or else it is insufficient.

I posit that there are only two choices for a first principle:  (1) self and (2) an objective authority outside of oneself.  If self, then one may freely choose whatever he wishes from any source that he chooses, including the Bible.  (2)  Interestingly, there are few religions and no human philosophies that have an objective authority sufficiently comprehensive and practical for all issues of life.  For time and simplicity, I cannot flesh out that statement.  But when one compares the sufficiency of Scripture to any other claims to one’s life principle, the others pale in both their “demeanor of authority” and their comprehensiveness. 

I am aware that no one thinks perfectly consistently with (2).  To an extent, as much as we would abhor eisegesis, we are all guilty of it.  But “self” must give considerable attention to hermeneutics, creeds, statements of councils, and recognized scholars.  Every regenerated Christian has been forced by his own reason to agree with truth that he did not at first believe, either of doctrine or practice.  This “change of mind” (a form of repentance) comes about by the Scriptures as the authority of God.   There is an impassable gulf between the “self” as authority and the Scriptures as authority.  It is a difference in disposition and the governance of one’s life.  It is the gulf between being regenerate and unregenerate

All this discussion is both preliminary and foundational.  It is preliminary in that no distinction is attempted between who is and is not “saved.”  Challenges between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are not about who is truly a Christian (regenerate) and who is not (the unregenerate).  This judgment is to be made by the individual himself and by churches who have doctrinal standards for memberships.  Ultimately, God will separate the sheep and the goats and the wheat and the chaff.

 

This discussion is about logical necessity.  The Scriptures, as God speaking “Thus says the Lord,” will not allow any other authority other than itself.  As we have seen, in reality the only other authority is the self.  The law of non-contradiction forces a choice between any truth-claim of Scripture, and one that is different.  I doubt that either the regenerate or the unregenerate appreciate this sufficiently.  When two regenerate people disagree, there can be only one truth.  Either one is right or the other wrong, or there is a third choice that neither sees.  One cannot simply say that “we agree to disagree.”  That statement is too facile.  Their attitude should be more serious.  “We disagree about eternal truths.  May the Holy Spirit and more study show us the truth that we are seeking.”  While on a practical level, they cannot argue endlessly (and thus the need for individual churches and denominations), they should be aware of the seriousness of their disagreement.

 

Further, persons who disagree should be sure that they have some basic teaching in hermeneutics and logical reasoning.  This education would include the importance of precise definitions, syllogisms, logical fallacies, tests of truth, and systematization (consistency).  All Christians should be thus educated.  For sure, churches are failing in this endeavor.  I know of no church that defines a curriculum for its members, when everywhere else in society a definitive education is required.  Even on-the-job training is given after one has completed an extensive and lengthy formal education.

 

Agreement between one who is regenerate and one who is unregenerate will ever occur at more than a superficial level.  Kuyper has shown this better than anyone else (of whom I am aware) in his Principles of Sacred Theology.  Cornelius van Til and Greg Bahnsen have repeatedly stated that the unregenerate must begin with theistic premises just to have an argument to present against theism!  Then, the unbelievers argue against it!  That is just an amazing self-contradiction.

 

Application of This First Principle: The Holy Scriptures

 

Any attempt at reconciliation between Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrine is impossible for logical reasons.  To think otherwise is profoundly simplistic and naïve.  The definitions of justification, regeneration, the sacraments, the Scriptures, authority, confession, forgiveness, sanctification, and images in worship are a few of the major differences.  Even the two sacraments upon which both agree, Holy Communion and Baptism, their interpretation (definition) of each is different. 

 

1.  Reconciliation is possible only if central definitions of either are changed to those of the other belief system

2.  A change of definitions by either position would invalidate itself.  That is, the position itself would become that of the other or a third possibility.

3.  Thus, reconciliation is impossible.  One or more definitions may be accepted by the other, but this is a change of position, not reconciliation.

4.  These differences have existed for 500 years for just these reasons discussed here.  What common sense, must less careful reasoning, could believe realistically that either side is going to change?

 

These are not exact syllogisms, but they identify the problem better than “warm fuzzies” that “the Church ought to be one.”  (See the following section.) While the problem of emotions cannot be addressed here, any consideration of reconciliation of Rome with Protestants is nothing but sentimental emotion.  Theological and philosophical precision will not allow even the first step of reconciliation.

 

Actually, The Church Is One

 

While churches has not been able to have definitions and propositions that all Christians can agree upon, the Holy Spirit has in Ephesians 4:4-6.  There are five “ones” in this passage: the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), hope, baptism, faith, and body.  The Trinity (named individually) is part of the definition of Christianity without which it does not exist.  All Christians have the one hope of heaven.  There is one body: all those who have been regenerated (sometimes called the invisible church).  There is one baptism: regeneration.  And, there is one faith or what is spoken of in the Bible as “the faith” (Jude 3).   While there are likely other passages that unify all Christians, certainly this one does. 

 

By this delineation, one is forced to reconcile this Biblical reality with one’s theological understanding.  Baptism cannot be the mode itself or whether regeneration and baptism coincide (baptismal regeneration), as it differs among all denominations, while all Christian denominations believe that at least the Bible (“the faith”) is one authority for Christians.  All would agree that there is only one body (often named “the invisible church,” although of whom that body consists would differ.  One hope would have to be heaven, even if Roman Catholics posit purgatory as an intermediate step.

 

Perhaps, this passage is discussed here too briefly.  But, for me, it describes a profound unity and spiritual reality of koinonea (fellowship) that can be found when two or more Christians find that indeed God has transformed their lives with a unity of doctrine at a most basic level whether they are Roman Catholic or Protestant.

 

Philosophers Ought to Know Better.  They Deny Their Own Discipline

 

Francis Beckwith writes about a sentimental journey in his Return to Rome.  But this sentimentality obscures eternal issues of great importance.  And, he is not the only one making great errors over his movement.  There are both Protestants and Roman Catholics making similar great errors.  Beckwith begins with a sentimental offer.

 

This book is a narrative intertwined with encounters, arguments, criticisms, and reflections.  It is not meant to be an apologetic for (Roman) Catholicism or an autobiography in the strict sense. (p. 16)

 

OK, it is not a formal “apologetic,” but it is inescapably an apologetic.  Why else would anyone read it?  Who cares about the movement of a person from one church to another, even a high profile person, unless they are interested in his reasons for movement?  Oh, this attempt is so naïve and deceiving.

 

The disagreements between the emerging Protestants and the Roman Catholics were crystallized at the Council of Trent on the latter side.  Various confessions and creeds, such as the Westminster, Belgic, Helvetic, Heidelberg, and Canons of Dordt, formulated the Protestants.  Beckwith and others refers to positive changes in the Roman Catholic Church over the past 40 years.  But, make no mistake about it, the Roman Church has not moved one iota on what was stated to be “anathema” at the Council of Trent.  The divide on central issues has not changed since that time.  While the overt antipathy may have cooled and even become at times reversed because of Vatican II, the doctrinal antithesis has not changed.  Again, I say that any statement to the contrary is naïve and sentimental.

 

In history, much blood has been shed over these issues.  In Geneva while Calvin was there, one man, Servetus was executed.  The Spanish Inquisition tortured, killed, and confiscated property for hundreds of years.  The Spanish Armada sailed as a Roman Catholic navy to crush Protestant England.  The English, Scotch, and Irish tortured, killed, and fought wars over the ideas of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Arminianism, and Calvinism.  The French Roman Catholics lured and massacred tens of thousands of Hugenots on Bartholomew’s Day.  Let us not pretend that the thin veneer of a “gentler and kinder” day can hide these heinous events of history.  And, I will let the reader decide who is the greater torturer and murderer in these events.

 

The formal statement of the Evangelical Theological Society discerns the issues more clearly.

 

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.” 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.

 

This focus is appropriately narrow.  It only concerns sola Scriptura which along with the Trinity defines the ETS.  But where is the response of Protestant denominations?  Where is the response of Baylor, a Southern Baptist University, where Beckwith is a faculty member?  Indeed, many Protestants offered sentimental praise of Beckwith’s journey as endorsements for his book.  Brothers and sisters, these issues are serious and of eternal consequences.

 

Relative to the abortion movement, one has often heard, “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.”  The history of Roman Catholicism has many positives, but it has also been murderous.  While Protestantism is not without its warts and wars, it has been the vanguard of personal freedoms all over the world, for example, Great Britain and the United States. 

 

Protestants Are Heavy with the Warm Fuzzies, Also

 

Among Protestants emotions and experience have almost replaced doctrine.  This change has allowed attempts at reconciliation with Rome and muted any outcries about the “return” of Beckwith and other high profile Protestants.  It is well documented that the large majority, perhaps as high as 90 percent of the colonists at the time of the American Revolution, were not only Christians, they were Calvinists.  However, they differed in church government and mode of baptism, as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and others.  And, they had a high level of education and erudition that Neil Postman calls “typographic America.”[4]

 

Calvinism has at its core, definitive creeds and confessions.  While its members are not required to adhere to its doctrines, its officers are.  And, seminary education is required of its preachers and pastors.  These particulars tend to be a tether to prevent severe drift unless they are denied outright.  But Calvinism has been influenced by emotionalism, as well.

 

Ian Murray’s Revival and Revivalism traces modern emotionalism back to the changes that occurred from The Great Awakening to the revivalism of the mid-19th century.  While not perfect, that awakening was centered in Calvinism.  It was primarily a work of the Holy Spirit in the regeneration of souls.  Is not this effect where this paper started, with regeneration? 

 

Trying to get “decisions” made conversion a work of man, rather than a work of God.  It has brought many tares into the church who were not interested in serious Bible study.  Then, Sunday School was begun for unchurched children which led to its teaching being primarily for children of church members, making teaching no longer the responsibility of parents.  Since teaching is the best way to learn, parents lost both knowledge and ability to reason.  And, with a general anti-intellectualism in the culture, Christianity became centered on the emotions.  This focus on emotions is seen in all denominations: the antics of Pentecostals, evangelistic messages every week without breadth of Bible teaching, seeking “decisions” and counting the numbers, accepting virtually any testimony for entry into a local church, “winsomeness” over doctrinal purity, “no creed but Christ,” and “contemporary” worship services, to name a few. 

 

But, the worst influence has been those who ought to have had sound reasoning: the philosophers and the theologians.  Beckwith’s journey is full of emotionalism.  Certainly, he examines the issues, but at places fails in his reasoning at critical points.  For example, he sees no problem with his being Roman Catholic and still be a member of the ETS.  Where is his application of the law of noncontradiction that there can be only one authority, as stated by the ETS committee above?

 

Again, Protestants are no better.  J. P. Moreland, in spite of his excellent work in many areas as a Christian philosopher, writes disparagingly of Protestants who are “over-committed to the Bible” to the extent that something “must be done about it.”  He too is unable to apply the law of non-contradiction to a first principle.  John Frame counters this kind of thinking with his “Defense of Something Close to Biblicism.”[5] 

 

Of course, C. S. Lewis has been a popular writer and apologist among Christians for decades.  But the popular appeal in his writings fails standard tests of orthodoxy[6] and standard rules of philosophy.[7]  As an example of that inconsistent reasoning, Lewis’ own answers for The Problem of Pain were insufficient for his own trials.[8]

 

Dorothy Sayers was more on target when she said that “The Drama Is in the Dogma,” the title of one of her essays.  The drama is not in experience in conversion, in worship services, or in “feeling good” about one’s faith.  It is about doctrine, systematic docrtrine.  It is about doctrine that is both consistently and thoroughly Biblical, as well as meeting the tests of truth and logic.  It is The Apostles and Nicene Creeds, as well as many others more detailed in breadth and precision.

 

(The “tests of truth and logic” are standards that are ultimately derived from Scripture itself.  They are not a separate standard outside the Bible that can judge it.  But interestingly, many if not most, of these standards have been widely accepted as philosophical standards for centuries!)

 

A Return to Biblical Authority and Logical Necessity

 

For all their bravado and exuberance as Bible believers, evangelical scholars still show great weakness in their Biblicism (see Frame above) and understanding of philosophy.  The WCF set a pattern which has not been followed.  Its first chapter is on its first principle, “The Holy Scriptures.”  Thus, it is both theologically and philosophically sound.  Within that first chapter, it states:

 

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (Section 6)

Again, we see philosophical and theological consistency, as one proceeds by “deduction.”  Today, induction, empiricism, evidentialism, and experience are more often the sources of authority, as exemplified by Beckwith and Moreland. 

 

Perhaps the clearest example of Biblical neglect is the fact that in the United States, where estimates of 50 million Christians or more exist, the extent and rapidity of cultural descent into moral depravity would more have been expected of a nation where the Marquis de Sade rules.  Yet, Christians still major on the minors of “peace and prosperity” that Francis Schaeffer wrote about more than 30 years ago.  Even in this decline, those same “Christ-ones” demean and deplore the theonomists who are almost the only ones addressing the issues of this decline.  I do not endorse all that theonomists say, even as they disagree among themselves.  But they do use the Bible to address political and other worldview problems!

 

For the most part, evangelical laymen are clueless.  Some ignorance is not their fault.  Their shepherds are not faithful from the pulpits to preach the “whole counsel of God.”  They initially profess to a superficial understanding of the Gospel and never get more than that.  But they do not read or “study” their Bibles.  Even those who have a consistent “quiet time,” are getting only the emotional messages of their devotional literature that could possibly qualify as skim milk (Hebrews 5:12-14).  They need to learn hermeneutics, read commentaries, and scour the web for some great sites that are Calvinist, Reformed, or Presbyterian.  They need to study the WCF.  And, finally, they need to study the tools of philosophy and logic.  All this study may take 10, 20, or more years, but I never said that it was easy.  By comparison, a college degree takes 16 years.  Professional degrees take longer.  Is not the study of God’s Word more important?

 

Oh, I will let you in on a little secret.  The rules for understanding the Bible, hermeneutics, are no more or less than the tools of philosophy: logic, definitions, propositions, language, history, etc.  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one!”  There is no contradiction of right thinking in either His general revelation (nature and the cosmos) or His Special Revelation.  Perhaps I should have said this in the beginning and saved you all this reading.


Endnotes

 

[1] The “Gospel” today has been truncated into a simple message of salvation.  The true Gospel is the entire Bible from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.

[2] The Westminster Confession of Faith is both theological and philosophical in its first chapter and therefore first principle being the Holy Scriptures.  Unless there is a body of truth, what we know of God can be easily falsified.  God must be truth before He can be believed and understood.

[3] While one must give credit to Alvin Plantinga as having started virtually a revolution in academic philosophy by his challenges to secular philosophers, the acceptance of  “anyone who calls himself a Christian” to the Society of Christian philosophers (which he started) is “without warrant.”  A self-designated Christian who does not accept the major tenets of Christian orthodoxy or the inerrancy of the Scriptures does not affirm “Christian” as its most basic core.

[4] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985).  The fact that Postman is not a Christian makes his comments all the more emphatic.

[5] http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/Biblicism.htm

[6] “Did C. S. Lewis God to Heaven,” at http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=103.   To some extent, this tirade is unfortunate, but it has theological clarity that is often lacking.

[7] John Beversluis, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).

[8] Beversluis, page 162.

 


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