"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, May 14, 2007

Why Beckwith matters

The religion blogosphere has been abuzz for a few weeks now about the reversion of a prominent evangelical intellectual, Dr. Francis J. Beckwith, to the Catholicism of his childhood. That event is particularly gratifying to me as a fellow philosopher. Beckwith's publication record puts me to shame; I wish I had written many of his pieces myself. And there has been more for me in all this: the long, passionate discussion thread on the linked post was by turns amusing and sad. It wasn't that, mixed with the messages offering congratulation and empathy, one found many expressing disappointment and outrage; that was only to be expected. The funny thing was the bitter debates that the negative comments ended up sparking between some commenters themselves. At one point, there was even intra-Orthodox fighting. Such singular lack of perspective, characteristic of Internet comboxes, is the stuff of which humor is made. It's easy to make fun of such people. But there is a more serious and instructive kind of criticism to consider.

Cynthia R. Nielsen, a Protestant academic blogger whom I much respect, and Fr. Al Kimel have drawn my attention to the "thoughts" on Beckwith's "return to Rome" posted by Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. That Trueman's tone is unfailingly respectful and generous is what enabled me to attend to the questions he raises. Tracking Beckwith's brief explanation, those concerned:

First, the role of patristic writings. Second, the issue of justification. Third, the common theological ground of Catholicism and Protestantism as having been originally determined by the church. Fourth, the weight of all this evidence pointing to the `safer bet’ option of backing the Catholic Church.

Trueman's remarks are revealing indeed. About the first two, the divergence is about interpretation, primarily Scripture and secondarily the Fathers themselves. In my view, the details of such debates are unimportant; apparently, that is Trueman's view too. Thus he says, re the patristic record: "
the real issue of how to read the early church fathers is, for Beckwith as for Newman, a matter of church authority" (emphasis added). And the same re justification:

Doctrine develops even for Catholics, as Newman made clear, and could have developed into Luther (as the work of, say, Heiko Oberman on late medieval nominalism has shown). That it did not do so points us again not so much to specific problems in the history of dogma per se, but to the issue of church authority.

The phrase "could have developed" is instructive. From the standpoint of Church history alone, it is indeed a matter of opinion whether the Catholic understanding of justification could have ended up as Luther's. I happen to believe it could not have, because I believe that Luther's account of justification was unprecedented when developed. It is not found in any of the Fathers and, to my mind, constitutes an innovative way of interpreting Scripture. That is why Luther had to say that the Letter of James is "an epistle of straw." But again, this is all a matter of opinion: Beckwith himself even holds that both the Tridentine and the Reformed conceptions of justification are "defensible" on the basis of the scriptural and patristic record. So the real question, as is so often the case, is by what authority, if any, one is to choose between them.

For a Protestant such as Trueman, that does not at first appear to be the question. Thus, regarding the third issue he raises, he says:

I do indeed rejoice in the common creedal heritage of Catholicism and Protestantism. But I do not believe the creeds because the church approved them. Now, let me nuance that. I find myself in basic agreement with Heiko Oberman on the nature of the Reformation struggle over authority. He argued that the clash between Rome and Protestants was not a clash between tradition and Scripture alone, but a struggle over the nature of tradition. Protestants (and, indeed, some Catholics at that point) held to the notion that there was one source of revelation from which the church’s tradition flowed, namely, Scripture; and that this tradition (which Oberman calls T1) was thus always in principle corrigible by Scripture. There were others in the Catholic Church, however, who argued for a two-source theory of tradition, Scripture and extra-scriptural revelation as recognized or defined by the church (T2). This distinction is important as it allows me, as a Protestant, to acknowledge my debt to tradition in an honest and realistic manner without being required to submit to the church as ultimate authority. My approach to creeds, therefore, is decidedly that of a T1 adherent: I take them very seriously because they are the work of the church at a corporate level, but I only believe them because they seem to have done the job of making sense of Scripture for at least 1500 years and continue so to do. Thus, they command my adherence but no longer and no further than they continue to be a credible and consistent synthesis of what Scripture says.

On Trueman's view, which is hardly uncommon, the historic creeds are authoritative not in virtue of the ecclesiastical authority with which they were promulgated, but because they conform to Scripture interpreted independently of such authority. Now, I believe that such a conception of creedal authority entails that creeds have no authority at all. For the interpretation of Scripture apart from the teaching authority of the Church is always a matter of opinion—unless one holds the insupportable view that extra-scriptural tradition, apart from the authority of the Church which preserves it, is clear and cogent enough to be authoritative in itself. Hence, the question of the extent to which the creeds conform with Scripture, if considered apart from church authority, is itself and only a matter of opinion; and that in turn means that creeds cannot command the assent of faith as distinct from opinion. One can, by means of one's religious opinions, hold what happens to be of faith; but as Thomas Aquinas argued, one does not thereby hold it by faith. Indeed, one cannot do so. Hence, creeds can function well as expressions of consensual opinion when they were promulgated; but they cannot command the assent of faith, and hence have no authority other their de facto historical weight. That weight can and does vary, as we see in Protestantism—some of whose branches dispense with creeds altogether.

The account of tradition briefly adumbrated by Trueman, by which he supposedly explains why he continues to hold a Protestant view of the creeds, is singularly unpersuasive. Its confessional content contrasts with what he as a Church historian must surely know: that whatever else it may be, such as the inspired word of God, the NT itself is a product of a tradition predating it, and thus of the Church to which that tradition had been entrusted. Therefore, neither the T1 nor the T2 way of relating Scripture and tradition is historically accurate.

A more accurate picture would be what I'll call, for convenience, T3: Tradition is expressed both scripturally and extra-scripturally, but Scripture is the most normative written record of Tradition. T3 has the added advantage of according Scripture a place on which all the major branches of Christianity can and do agree: it is the norma normans, not the norma normata, for our reception of what was "handed on" by the Apostles—i.e., Tradition. But the idea that Scripture has always functioned as such a norm, which is entailed by both T1 and T2, just isn't historically accurate. The NT aside, even to this day Protestantism does not agree with the older, apostolic traditions about whether the so-called "Apocrypha" belong in the OT. The latter were to be found in the Septuagint, used by the Apostles themselves in the composition of the NT; but Luther decided that the rabbis were right to eventually exclude them in favor of only those works originally written in Hebrew. Now if we can't even agree on how the canon of Scripture is to be determined, how are we going to agree on the authority of Scripture relative to extra-scriptural tradition? And if we can't agree on the latter, then how is it even helpful to say that the credibility of the historic creeds is to be determined by their conformity with Scripture? Once again, the issue boils down to authority: by what authority, other than private interpretation, is the normative role of Scripture to be understood?

Given the evidently un-Protestant way in which Beckwith has learned to approach that and related questions, his re-poping was inevitable, and Trueman recognizes as much without denouncing it. What I don't understand is why Trueman thinks that Beckwith, despite an integrity that Trueman praises, has a problem here nonetheless. This concerns the latter's remarks on the fourth point enumerated above:
"...the weight of all this evidence pointing to the `safer bet’ option of backing the Catholic Church."

About that, Trueman writes:

I would fire one shot across the bows at this point: while the issue of authority is too complicated to engage in a satisfactory way here, it is important to say that, for all of the crowing over the chaos in Protestantism by various Catholic ex-Protestants, I know of no more practically flexible and ultimately meaningless notion of authority than that which has historically been practiced by the papacy. Protestantism’s chaos may be more evident at an institutional level; but maybe that just makes it more honest about its condition. I do not say that in order to be rude (though it may well not seem too polite!!) but simply to point to what is for many Protestants the obvious elephant in the Catholic room.

From a certain point of view, that's fair enough. The question of what is a "safer bet" given the historical and textual evidence is certainly one of opinion, and opinions such as Trueman's are defensible as such, even as Beckwith's is defensible. And it would be unfair to object that Trueman doesn't explain, in his relatively brief post, what he means by claiming that papal authority as "historically" exercised is "ultimately meaningless." I suspect he's done so elsewhere, and I wouldn't be surprised if Beckwith knows where. But by the same token, the disagreement is fundamentally conceptual: what would it mean to say that the papacy has "meaningful" authority? And does the Catholic doctrine of the papacy mean that? I have often found that what the Church's opponents are complaining about is a caricature of their own devising, not the actual teaching of the Church. And I'm sure that's what Beckwith would say to Trueman—otherwise he could not in conscience become a Catholic.

Beckwith's reversion matters because it shows people once again that one can be sympathetic with Protestant concerns, even to the point of having become a Protestant, while freely deciding to submit to the authority of the Catholic Church. That is the greatest challenge that Protestant academics such as Trueman—or Cynthia Nielsen or Ben Myers, for that matter—face in dialogue with Catholics.
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